12 January 2010

Tragedy, Farce and Vegetarians

Politics and Religion, if ever there were two greater topics certain to spark up a healthy banter* with random strangers** in a pub, taxi, queue for the ATM or website comments section then they surely must have existed outside the English language, for I have yet to find them.

I've just finished Slavoj Žižek's "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce", his clarion call for a resurgent Left in the wake of the post 9/11 surge in neo-liberalism and the resultant global economic collapse, and have progressed on to Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell", his argument for the scientific examination of Religion as a purely natural phenomenon.

Both are best described as 'light reads', in that Žižek's reads more like an extended lecture based around a few talking points rather than fixed notes, and Dennett, writing for an overly-religious American audience is apologetic in the extreme for the offense he is about to cause them by ripping their belief-system to shreds before their very eyes, he is become death, the destroyer of spiritual worlds, but will offer you a nice cup of tea and a biscuit while he does so***. Žižek makes no such offering of a light tiffin, and is all the more enjoyable for his rambling and deliberately provocative style, sounding at times like nothing so much as the Jeremy Clarkson of the radical Left.

What unites them both in my mind despite the gulf of their philosophical and writing styles is the fervour they both display for specific political belief systems. For Žižek a return to the Communism of Marx is the only salvation for the Left. He rejects both liberal socialism and the current inheritors of the Marxist mantel that have evolved from extant Communist traditions and calls for a return to first principles and a new progression from there, quoting Beckett when he says "Try again. Fail again. Fail better". Despite all the evolution of leftist thought over the 160 years since the birth of Communism he sees nothing better suited to the ills of mankind than a return to this nineteenth century ideology in its purist form.

For Dennett it is Democracy, placing it on the same pillars of inalienable absolutes that he labels his 'sacred values' as justice, life, love and truth, and he goes so far as to lay the groundwork for his demolition of religious beliefs in terms his target audience will understand by comparing it to the "obscenely costly mistake" that was the adoption of Communism by otherwise well-meaning people as the answer to their woes.

For two avowed skeptics the dogmatic manner with which they approach a specific political system is at times indistinguishable from religious belief. If religion is the opium of the people then perhaps politics is the opium of the atheist. Indeed it could be argued that politics is a stronger belief than religion as it attracts both the religious and irreligious with equal ferocity, yet rarely is true religious belief entirely apolitical.

Or perhaps religion is the ultimate expression of politics, as politics exists to define one's superiority over the Other with rational argument, and when rational argument can no longer be used one turns to the existence of elements outside the rational that cannot be proved or disproved to justify one's superiority. Thus politics may indeed be the last resort of a scoundrel but religion is then the last resort for a political scoundrel.

In either event organised political and religious beliefs may just be scratching the same mental itch we all carry around inside our heads, the need to feel smugly superior to those around us.

And this is why I refuse to define myself in terms of adherence to any specific ethical, religious or political affiliations. I'm a vegetarian, but not just for the traditional 'meat is murder' reasons, I'm trying to overcome my base programing. I don't believe in god or gods, but it is a lazy, couldn't-really-be-bothered, Dawkins-really-just-tries-too-hard, form of agnosticism as opposed to any card-carrying militant atheism. I believe in social justice, but am not a socialist, communist, anarchist, communalist, progressive or liberal, I do not subscribe to any one narrow set of political beliefs****.

This does not mean that I do not have any passionately held beliefs, quite the opposite in fact. Rather it simply means that while the writings of Dawkins, Žižek, Dennet and Badiou all strongly resonate with me, I have no desire to reject one rigid organised belief system and replace it with another, regardless of its nomenclature.

All of which leads nicely into Žižek's short prognosis on vegetarianism.

* if by 'healthy banter' one means 'rabidly offensive and bile filled diatribe'

** if by 'random strangers' one means 'illiterate trolls'

*** He'd make a perfect Anglican

**** The more astute of you will no doubt be pointing out that I used to be a card carrying member of the Green Party. This is true, but I viewed the Greens as a loose collection of activists banded together in an attempt to use collective strength to drive forward their own disparate environmental and social justice agendas, like the Shell to Sea campaign, the Tara bypass, opposition to Shannon Rendition flights and the Poolbeg incinerator. I was wrong. The Greens are in fact a loose collection of folks banded together for the sake of banding together. Social justice and activism seem nowhere on the agenda, the party's sole drive is to stay in existence, an apolitical Oroborus endlessly devouring itself in an orgy of self-preservation through self-consumption. My mistake, I've moved on, and to reference Žižek quoting Beckett, I must fail better next time.

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