Sunday, February 17, 2008


When I was a wee Christian child, mildly traumatized at the thought of lost sinners plunging towards a burning hell and saying grace over my Chef Boyardee pizza, I was told (and therefore I believed) that this was an age of unbelief. We Christians were the light, however feeble, in a godless world.

But already this was not true.

Perhaps an age of unbelief had existed a hundred years earlier, when Darwinism and higher criticism in biblical scholarship opened a chasm of doubt and skepticism that good Victorians tried to pave over with stoical duty and reserve. Perhaps the century of Nietzsche, Arnold, Hardy, James, London, Crane, Twain, and Dreiser had been an age of unbelief, but not now.

Today unbelief is such an alien concept that, according to popular perception, even atheism is a belief system. (In a recent paper, a student argued that the "a" in "atheism" should be capitalized, as with the "names of other faiths.")

What restored belief in the twentieth century, after it flagged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

One. The electronic mass media were significant tools in conditioning (or reconditioning) the public's Pavlovian response-patterns. Advertising taught us to trust brand names, to respond optimistically to logos (I mean the totem-like symbols, not of course the Greek word for logic), and, in a radical redefinition of "seeing is believing," to value image over substance.

Two. Collectivist and totalitarian forms of social management also revived the age of faith--as the herd mentality was cultivated via the assembly line of factories, team spirit in public schools, boot camp in the military, and teamwork in corporate culture, we came to define ourselves statistically, on the bell curve of highly publicized polls and opinion surveys, to believe in the morality of consensus and "fitting in," and to regard criticism, dissent, and classical argument with suspicion.

American culture, rowdy with an independent spirit in the nineteenth century, was brought into line by the Great Depression and two World Wars, followed by phenomenal economic growth in a business environment modeled on military chain of command.

Three. Sentimentality, the stale leftover of Romanticism which the Victorians repackaged for God, country, and hearth, became, in the twentieth century, a cheap, vulgar substitute for philosophy. Bumper-sticker platitudes and daily affirmations came to replace analytical thought and personal responsibility. Happy Consciousness (see Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man) convinced us that "whatever is" is rational and the system works in our best interests.

Entertainment and amusement (deftly satirized by Aldous Huxley as the "feelies" in Brave New World) consume greater and greater shares of our attention, money, and passion.

This year, of course, Democrats and Republicans are looking for candidates to believe in.

Obama's website urges, "I want you to believe," and the would-be inspirational-speaker-in-chief conducts gospel tours to reach out to the black folk of South Carolina.

Clinton weeps before primaries, causing flurries of concerned attention like those surrounding tears of blood on a statue of the BVM.

McCain stands behind and next to George W. Bush, impervious to reason but the kind of guy people (reportedly) would like to have a beer with, and asks us to trust that, with his medals and hawklike physique, he can protect us from terrorism ... and perhaps also from hurricanes, stock market crashes, and the nagging sense that everything is bullshit nowadays.

Huckabee, more than the rest, comes from a place of belief--the former Baptist minister still believes that God created the universe in six days and that the devil is a real, living being. His amiable schtick (even political opponents praise his "likable" personality) is to pretend to argue for what people already want to believe, including their prejudices--that homosexuality is like bestiality (only with, um, humans) and immigrants are stealing jobs right out of the hands of hardworking white people.

America has become a con artist's paradise because we Americans have let ourselves become gullible. Who can count the times America has "lost its innocence"? We are easy prey to flattery (even self-flattery is not beyond us) and smooth talk.

As a nation we believe in God more than any other Western nation does--the closest point of comparison would have to be Islamic theocracies. We believe in ourselves. We constantly search for things and people to believe in, often with a sad sort of desperation--from Santa to astrology, from diets to sports teams. We seek our role models--we, in fact, usually wear them out with our cloying attentiveness.

We believe in the power of belief itself. And yet, most bizarrely, we believe that we still live in a culture of disbelief.

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