I realize that I've been focused of late exclusively on the idiocy springing forward from the RFRA law passed in Indiana but I won't be apologizing for it. Not in the least.
Oddly, people across the country are reacting as though Indiana did something utterly unprecedented and unspeakable. Instead of calling it a “religious freedom law,” it is being described as an “anti-gay bill,” even though the words “gay,” “homosexual,” and “marriage” never show up anywhere in the law.
This is troubling—and not just for the reasons you might guess. It’s not because I think everyone should agree with this law. On its substance and wisdom, I think honest people can disagree. What’s troubling is the emotional virulence with which people are reacting to this particular law, when it is identical to protections offered in thirty other states and in the federal government. Indiana is just playing “catch up” here, legally speaking. We usually want states to offer legal protections roughly equivalent to those offered by the federal government. So why the uproar in this case?
Again, it’s fine for people to express disagreement with the law—if they know what’s in it. What I’m worried about is the single-minded, narrow, largely uninformed, self-righteous prejudice of those who are furious with the “bigots” that are assumed to live in Indiana and the glee with which they are welcoming the hysterical reactions against the state. “I’ve never been so ashamed to be from Indiana,” wrote a friend of mine on Facebook. Really? Nothing else was more shameful? Not the Indian massacres, not the popularity of the KKK right up through the 1920s, not the lynching of black men? The mayor of Seattle has banned all official travel to the state of Indiana. How about to any of the other thirty states that have nearly identical religious freedom protections?
This reaction is clearly being driven by one-sided media presentations of what’s happened in Indiana. What’s especially disturbing—and dangerous—is the degree to which Americans are showing themselves to be susceptible to the panderings of the crassest forms of political propaganda. A stable, vibrant democracy depends crucially upon its people’s ability to recognize and resist the allure of political propaganda.
Our Unexamined Metanarratives
French post-modern theorist Francois Lyotard is perhaps most famous for defining the postmodern age as one involving “incredulity toward metanarratives.” If only that were true.
Quite the contrary, it seems that we all have our own small group of metanarratives by means of which we interpret all news events. “White cops mistreating black men.” “Anti-gay homophobia.” “Male oppression of women.” “Threats against American security.” “Murderous Muslim fanaticism endangering the West.” These are just a few of the “grand narratives” into which we “fit” all big news stories: they are the “lenses” through which we interpret events. Lyotard would have been more accurate if he had said: “The postmodern condition can be characterized as a near-absolute domination by a series of largely unexamined metanarratives.”
One of the most dangerous aspects of being dominated by unexamined metanarratives is that political propagandists can use them to pull our strings. They pipe the tune, and we dance. They rejoice in pitting us against one another, because that is the way they consolidate their power. As the founders well understood, mob hysteria is one of the quickest ways of undermining a democracy. Mobs are characterized by undisciplined outbursts of emotion. People will do things as part of a mob that they would never consider doing as individuals.
And in the midst of the anarchy and disorder that usually accompany such hysteria, what often enough follows is some sort of tyranny. The mob gives itself over to some person or group that portrays itself as embodying what Rousseau used to call “the will of the People.” It doesn’t really matter what the people think; no one takes a vote. The mob just knows: it has a mind of its own. And what it “knows” is that it somehow represents “the Spirit of the Age.” You don’t want to be on the “wrong side of history, do you?” people ask. Or more menacingly: “Those people can’t be tolerated any longer; they’re getting in the way of the progressive march of history.”
To be honest, when I look back at many of the “grand movements” of history—the ever-increasing glory of the Roman Empire, the divine right of kings, “Manifest Destiny,” nationalism, eugenics, etc.—personally, I think I would have preferred to have been “left behind.”
Think a moment about what happened to the family owned Memories Pizza business in Indiana and then think about what it is that Mr. Smith is getting at.
John Zmirak sums things up for those of you still missing the point:
We should not let the possibility or even the likelihood of “failure” make us timid. Witness is utterly different from propaganda, more fragile but far more enduring.
For centuries, the early Christians endured far worse than we might face, dying in the Colosseum to the taunts of jeering crowds — whose grandchildren would flee the moral chaos of collapsing Rome and flock to the underground churches. All the persecution that a government like China can deal its native Christians has not stopped the church from exploding there, and striking fear at the highest levels of a totalitarian government. The battered church in Poland led the movement that brought down the Iron Curtain, through sober, persistent resistance.
Perhaps the future we face is the one that Cardinal George envisioned. Speaking of a future bishop who would someday die a martyr, George predicted, “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” If we stand for eternity, then history is on our side.
We have reached the point in history when we either choose a side or a side will be chosen for us.
What are you going to do dear reader?