Thursday, January 14, 2010

The American Vodou of Pat Robertson

By now we've all heard Pat Robertson's comments on Haiti:
"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you get us free from the prince'. True story. And so the devil said, 'OK, it’s a deal.' They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free."

Something I've been thinking about these comments is how they might fit into our other social narratives about "terrible things", especially as Pat Robertson is a conservative, and how his perspective draws upon a broader trend in conservative thinking.

One critique of religion is that it arises from a human need for creating meaning out of the unknown. Thus you had early humans basically creating stories for phenomena that they had no system of knowledge to rationally comprehend. By creating reason where there was none, these stories would have been emotionally satisfying.

In the modern world, science has provided a rational structure for natural disasters. We have come to believe in a generally rational world, dependent on natural, not supernatural laws. So mudslides, earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters are the effect of geological forces. There is no need to appeal to any God for a rational explanation of events.

Although in human affairs, the need for rational clarity still seems to be found wanting. People still wonder why men do such terrible things. Even as science has been able to pinpoint neural mechanisms that are responsible for much of brain function and behavior, we still seem wary to apply the same sort of mechanistic understanding to human action as we do to the rest of the world. When a tidal wave strikes an island, or a mountain lion attacks, we do not call them "evil". Yet this somewhat magical word is invoked frequently whenever an action is committed which we find ourselves asking "how could someone do such a thing?!"

In truth, we have no where near the theoretical sophistication in our conceptual framework of the mind that we do of natural events. So it is understandable that we still appeal to metaphysics for a rational explanation. But how rational is the term "evil"? There is a certain logic to explaining a flood by describing the anger of the Gods. Angry people do mean things. Yet to the modern mind this explanation is preposterous, in that, aside from the fact that it ignores material laws of nature, it assumes the possibility that there are magical creatures in the heavens with powers over the natural world. To the extent that we do not know precisely all the mechanism at work behind a flood - the exact way clouds form, or maybe the saturation of certain rock layers, the function of gravity, etc., we certainly know enough to be reasonably satisfied that a scientific explanation is sufficient. And when such events have devastating consequences, it this rational understanding that gives us comfort. Where in the past comfort was had in the form of appeals to magical stories for rational satisfaction, we now take comfort in the rationality of scientific laws. The story may be different, but the emotional effect is the same.

And now let's return to Pat Robertson. I would argue that his quest for a religious narrative is hindering his ability to to find solace. If a tree fell in a rainstorm and crushed your house, you would certainly be upset, but because of your modern rational understanding of science, you are able to take comfort in knowing that the world operates according to certain laws. And you just happened to be unlucky. You would experience loss, yet it would likely not occur to you to become angry and resentful of the tree that fell (it was not, of course, the tree, it was the wind, which came from the storm, which came from the heat and the cold and the water, etc.).

Yet if your house was burned down by a man with a can of gasoline, you would experience not only loss but profound anger toward the man who did it. You would likely want revenge - at least in form of justice, to see the man locked up in prison. Who would do such a thing?! There would be no clear chain of causality. You would be filled with unresolved questions - and then the sense of hopelessness at your inability to find answers. There is a good chance that asking the arsonist himself may not provide relief - as he may not even know (how many of us truly know why we do what we do?

A more simplistic illustration of this difference in emotional response is well illustrated by the sensation one has had in accidentally stubbing a toe on a piece of furniture. The anger and pain one immediately feels is only matched by the sense embarrassment after taking "revenge" on the thoughtless table leg by kicking it. The human mind can be truly idiotic.

Pat Robertson, instead of chalking up the tragedy of the Haitian earthquake to the rationality of perfectly knowable geological forces, is rationally compelled by his own fundamentalist Christian narrative to invoke the magical powers of the devil to explain the events. One must wonder whether he is introducing an added level of personal anguish. Remember, in the context of his comments, he was highlighting the historical nature of Haitian poverty - something much less explainable than fault-line earthquakes. While there are certainly many broadly agreed-upon narratives as to why Haiti has suffered such tremendous poverty, the specifics begin to become less clear as you delve in the the assorted political perspectives. At the most basic level, there will have been individuals who through their actions were responsible for events leading to the present economic conditions. There is a lot of human failure at work. And attached to this human failure is a sense of incomprehension. By invoking the devil, Robertson was seeking a rational answer not only to the earthquake, but also to Haiti's troubled past.

A principle belief of conservatism is in the free will of man, and therefore a high tolerance for both social inequality and retributive justice. If man is perfectly free to make his own choices, then he should suffer the consequences of his actions. Yet implicit in this philosophical assumption is the problem of causality. If man is perfectly free to act, then discovering why he does what he does becomes impossible: causality ends at his moment of action. Whereas in nature you can follow a clear line backwards through the infinite chain of causal connections, man is thought of as somehow arriving at his actions a blank slate. If man is successful it is because he and he alone achieved it. Social inequality is a simple matter of action versus inaction. If man does wrong it is because he and he alone did it. Retribution is a simple matter of following through on deterrence.

Yet because this philosophical narrative is implicitly uncertain, if man is "free" to act and thus the originator of causality, why he did what he did is unknowable - except through asking him, by nature an unreliable witness. Thus we have born the concept of "evil". What better way to define the difference between why a man does ill and why a tree does ill? The man is the magical originator of action, while the tree is simply the last domino to fall. And so while we can stand before the ruins of our tree-crushed house and feel no anger towards it, we feel compelled to lash out at the criminal.

Our level of emotional pain is in direct correlation to the uncertainty of causal clarity. And yet the philosophical assumption of free agency, a core assumption of conservatism, has this capacity for emotional anguish built in. As a liberal, while I may feel the impulse to react violently toward one who has done me wrong, I know that there - somewhere - is a perfectly good reason for why they did what they did. In a biological and cultural sense, they are no different than a tree in a rainstorm.

Maybe I am fooling myself. Maybe “evil” does exist, perhaps in some intra-dimensional plane accessible only to the powers of human cognition. But then again – would that not imply some manifestation of causality? Alas, scientific materialism is a tautological construct, in that truth must be truth. In the meantime I’m always thankful when I am able to console myself with the reminder, in the worst of times, that there is indeed a “reason for everything”. A scientific one, mind you, and one that includes my fellow man.

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