Monday, August 20, 2007

Playing Dirty with Semantics

I was reading one of conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza's posts on AOL's "News Blogs" recently (I'm not sure why, except that I do pointless things sometimes when I have a few minutes to do so, and I find it occasionally entertaining; my ideal, more aloof self wouldn't even bother). Anyway, the post, "God is Dead, But Only in Manhattan" is in response to a long and interesting, if typically (of stodgy academic types) presuming, essay in New York Times Magazine by Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla, entitled "The Politics of God." D'Souza takes Lilla to task as one of the "secular liberals" for being that surprised at the continued presence of religious sentiment in the public sphere when, as Lilla declares, we Enlightened Westerners all know better by now.

Sure, there are obvious signs of intellectual hegemony in Mark Lilla's writing: he makes gross simplifications and sweeping generalizations, especially when he seems to speak rhetorically for groups of people for whom he may not actually be able to speak (i.e., the entire Western world), and more than a little arrogance comes out in his de facto assumption that most of what he writes is so obvious and above nuance that it can be accepted without rumination or afterthought. Add to that the fact that he's so covertly dismissive of the perspectives of entire schools of philosophy and contemplative traditions that you almost forget there might be other minds on the matter. In any case, he's preaching to his own choir and embellishing the size of that choir just a little bit to make us think it already includes you and me and anyone with a little sense. Welcome to the world of academia!

That said, however, isn't it interesting that Dinesh D'Souza makes much the same mistake in taking Lilla as wholly representative of those he disagrees with politically (liberals; by the way I'm not so sure Lilla is), and even seems to use the terms "liberal" and "anti-religious" interchangeably, as if there are no religious liberals/progressives? (MLK anyone? Ghandi? Paul Tillich? Michael Lerner?) And what about polemical miscontstrual of the word "secular," which actually refers to a pluralist and tolerant society, to mean anti-religious? When someone takes over the framing of a debate in a way that suits his or her agenda, it is easily recognizable as sleight-of-hand: if the entire left can be painted as a spiritual Wasteland, people can be repelled from it for something that has nothing to do with its values and principles, and besides that is inaccurate. Of course, Dinesh D'Souza always does that, like many, many others of his ilk, because, as it seems, they would rather not participate in a real discussion. It's probably not what they get paid for anyway.

Then again, who could blame an opportunistic pundit: Mark Lilla's words are just uncomfortably presumptuous enough to create a bad feeling in many people for whatever broad group with which those words can be associated--making it seem representative of out-of-touch social technocracy. But if grouping must be done, let's at least lump him where he probably belongs, with the Hobbesians. Then he's really the secular conservatives' problem.