“Everything Is Propaganda”?: Some Ongoing Conversation

If you don’t listen to the Theology Nerd Throwdown from Homebrewed Christianity, you’re missing out on a fun podcast.  The main Homebrewed Christianity podcast, an interview program, remains the flagship show for Bo Sanders and Tripp Fuller, but when I’ve got a choice of which one to play first, when I commute to work, TNT is my first choice.  That show usually features Bo and Tripp (and sometimes some guests as well), and rather than focusing on the guest’s recent publication, the conversation goes wherever those on board want to go.  One recent and rowdy exchange happened in a recent episode, and it’s going to be the starting point for my own essay here:

Gendered God, Kind Conservatism, and Intelligent Design

I’ll go ahead and recommend that you listen to it either before you read further or after you read here–what I’m writing started out as a long comment for their blog, but then I figured that taking my time, revising, and such might serve our readers better than a dashed-off response would serve theirs.  I’ll summarize some of their main points here, but because I’d prefer for readers to evaluate the fairness of my summaries, I’ll ask folks to hear them rather than relying on my memory.

Yes, I Suppose I Am Conservative, if You Say So

Because the term is so central to the TNT episode, I suppose I should write a few words her at the outset about the term “conservative.”  In the episode above, “conservative” is largely a way to name one’s enemy or at least an enemy ideology, but my sense and my hope are that it’s not always the case.  Tripp refers several times to his “conservative friends,” and before this episode Bo had noted on the podcast that I’m a Homebrewed listener who’s “more conservative” than the two main hosts are.  Hearing that in 2013, I had no problem with it, but there was a time when I would have balked at anyone’s calling me conservative.  After all, that word belongs to AM radio, if you know what I mean, and that’s not something with which I wanted to associate.  (My recent post on Friedrich Nietzsche explains some of the reasons why.)  I identified with the label “post-liberal” back then, because I thought that Lindbeck and MacIntyre and Hauerwas were cool (I still do), but I was quite certain that I had little or nothing to do with the world that the word “conservative” named.

Then I discovered, when I left the largely-conservative (in the AM radio sense) world of my undergraduate institution and entered the more-liberal (in the moveon.org sense) world of the English department at the University of Georgia, that, like most labels, “conservative” was not one that depended entirely on my preferences.  The fact stood that, as someone who taught and loved Plato (as did Jacques Derrida, I would protest, but nobody listened), and as someone who found older books good conversation partners (sometimes even better than books published last year) as well as objects for study, and as someone who wanted to give my students a full-bodied encounter with our intellectual ancestors’ modes of thought rather than dismissing them as “outdated,” I just sort of became “conservative” before I had a choice whether to be one or not.  (These were also the years when I discovered, much to my displeasure, that I had become an “evangelical” without anybody’s asking my leave.)

In more recent years (since 2007 or so) I’ve discovered (and re-discovered) writers like Richard Weaver and Neil Postman and Edmund Burke, and although I differ from each in significant ways, I’ve found them once more to be good friends as I explored the possibilities inherent in teaching young evangelicals.  And as an added bonus, I find their critique of the progressive narratives of their moments good medicine when I interact with self-righteous New Left partisans the way that Foucault was good medicine when I interacted with self-righteous Neoconservative partisans a decade ago.  In other words, since I seemed to be a conservative anyway by default, I decided to be the best sort of conservative that I could figure out I could be.

I also continue to teach old books, and as I noted in another recent post, old-timers like Dante and Augustine and Erasmus (and, of course, Plato) have become fixtures in my classes not because they’re carriers of some “unchanging” truth but precisely because their alien-ness gives students chances to see more clearly the things that they assume as given, intellectually speaking.  But, since the age of Internet partisanship needs its conservatives, and since the demographics already fit me so nicely, a conservative I suppose I’ll be.

The Narrative of Forced Evolution

I note my own conservative tendencies because, if I am a conservative, I get to indulge my sympathies with long-running, traditioned communities rather than with the so-called “forces of history” (I tend to be more of a personalist when it comes to history–I blame people rather than impersonal forces for bad things that happen).  So I resonated with a narrative that often occupies the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, and which got spelled out explicitly in the episode at hand, which goes something like this:

  • Once there was a group of people whose way of life stood as the assumed “good” form of life in certain parts of North America.
  • At a certain point in history, another group of people, whose military technology was better than the formerly-dominant group, arrived and defeated that group in a series of violent encounters.
  • Because they won those violent encounters, the new dominant group, partly through violent coercion but even more significantly through the seductive powers of capitalism and the indoctrination of the young, set about (maliciously or not) dismantling the old ways, seeing them as “backwards”* and distasteful within the newly-dominant culture.
  • Thus the formerly dominant group was “forced to evolve”* but found that process itself offensive.  Their response, in part, was to start insisting on the best parts of what came before the invaders arrived in the ways they talked about themselves.
  • The formerly dominant group thus started to frame their religious consciousness about their “inherited wound”* and began to blame the encroaching dominant culture, especially its most visibly different members, for their own cultural decline.

* denotes a phrase from the most recent TNT episode

If you, O reader, suspect that I’m playing a bit of a rhetorical game here (more on rhetorical games later), you’re right: the five bullets above, framed without naming groups of people, could be the narrative of the post-Civil-War Southern Baptists as told in one episode of the podcast or the narrative of the post-Civil-War Apache in another.  Structually, both are tales of intelligible human cultures whose ways of life eventually gave way to new ways, imposed at first from Washington, D.C., then more systemically from education systems and networks of consumer-capitalist cultural influence, so that when latter-day legal measures come along, depending on who’s telling the story, those groups’ resistance to further imposition of the dominant culture can be read as “backwards” or as preserving something nearly-lost but salvageable.  Whether or not particular points of each culture’s existence are good or bad depend on who’s telling the story, and my own tendency, as I noted above, is to side with the “older ways” against a consumerist capitalism that tends to forge a monoculture.  After all, what fun is it to root for the team with the overwhelming advantage?  Anyone who has read any Lord of the Rings or has watched much Chicago Cubs baseball knows there’s something undeniably appealing about rooting for the underdog, even when it’s in the face of “historical forces.”

What I don’t get is why someone would root for one group of underdogs and not another, but then again, I’ve always been more suspicious of “science” and “progress,” when they appear as ultimate terms in rhetorical networks, than most folks are.  I suppose that’s why I still get called “conservative.”  I tend to regard evolution not as Brian McLaren does, as a “laboratory for innovations,” so much as a sign that the tragedies of sin and death, where power wins out over the weak, are built right into the biological order as well as the ways that human beings treat one another.  I regard Isaiah’s eschatological oracle, where the lion and the lamb aren’t predator and prey and the asp is no danger to the human child, as part of the good news, and therefore I don’t celebrate evolution so much as mourn it and pray for better ways and better days.

Now I realize that the folks who prefer Herbert-Spencer-flavored social evolution tend to be the supporters of alternate theories’ being taught in public schools, and folks who most insist on the teaching of biological evolution tend to be most concerned about expressions of Social Darwinism in politics, but once again, perhaps because I’ve a simple mind, I sometimes yearn for that old William Jennings Bryan consistency.  But that’s not ultimately what shook me up most about the episode.

Who Are the Enemies Here?

What took me aback, I have to admit, was the brief aside that led to Tripp’s saying, “Everything is propaganda.”  On one hand, I have to applaud what seems, at first, a forthcoming statement.  After all, it’s easy enough to attribute the devil-term “propaganda” to the other guy and to insist on maintaining one’s own image as the upholder of truth.  Tripp didn’t do that; he self-identified as postmodern and acknowledged that the game of intellectual authority in the computer age was one in which stated difference, not implied consensus, is the coin of the realm.

Moreover, in his allegory of the “pre-meeting” strategy session, he acknowledged that, as Aristotle said before, that dialectic (rigorous intellectual and empirical investigation) and rhetoric (presenting the fruits of dialectic to an audience who does not share the experience of the rigorous investigation) are always dancing-partners.  That’s what people do, whether they’re ID proponents or liberal/progressive/hyper-theist/process advocates or neo-Socratics, and we should enter into encounters with those who differ knowing that those are the rules of the game.

But then I got to wondering: if everyone does it, then what’s the big problem with the “smiling conservatives” in Bo’s story or with the podcast guest who advocated for Intelligent Design?  If “Everything is propaganda,” then why the moral outrage when other folks engage in the same?  Is the moral outrage yet another display, one that pretends deep conviction while tactically playing on the weight that folks in the 21st century lend to “sincerity” and “passion,” or is this a bit of inconsistency on their parts?  And if one suspects a “hidden agenda” on the part of one’s interlocutor, why not ask on the spot whether he’s a Creationist secret agent rather than speculating about the same later?  And if one holds that there are “true and beautiful” fruits to be harvested from ideas, old or new, why not take a quick moment to spell those out rather than leaving that part of the investigation to the befuddled English professor listening?

So the ambivalence about postmodernism confuses me a bit more than the inconsistent postmodernism of the “forced evolution” narrative.  But even that wasn’t the bit that concerned me the most.

Ultimately what troubled me about this episode of TNT, and frankly what troubles me most about the Emergent movement and other folks who self-identify simply as liberal/progressive Christians or as post-evangelical in other ways, is the pressing question of how one relates to “those people.”  I know that both Bo and Tripp referred several times in the episode at hand to “conservative friends” and other such entities, but the phrases that came out to describe folks were such devil-terms (characteristic of progressive metanarratives) as “backwards,” “ignoramus,” and other such H.L.-Mencken-flavored gems.  To my ear, those sorts of phrases are not names that one assigns to friends when those friends aren’t in the room.  But I could be wrong there.

To turn towards the autobiographical for a moment, I too once distanced myself, rhetorically if not in church attendance, from “conservatives.”  But as time wore on, and my friendships with self-named conservatives deepened, I came to realize that declaring myself not-of-THAT-camp didn’t really tell the truth about my friendships.  Trying to say more honestly what my life actually looked like, I tended to be the fringe character whether I was in a room full of self-identifying liberals or a room full of self-identifying conservatives.  I’ve learned to joke about such things, saying that my politics are Socratic rather than partisan, that I have a calling from the Oracle at Delphi to find the biggest idea in the room (whether that be a Sunday school classroom or an Internet chat room) and poke it with a stick.

But there’s some truth to that, both in terms of personality defects and in terms of a sense that I have work to do.  I know well enough that, if I wanted to, I have the vocabulary and the sense of self-branding that I could turn to this or that camp–and there are more than two options here, of course–and burn bridges behind me.  But I’d be lying to myself if I did so.  The fact of the matter is that, like Socrates (at least as Plato presents him), I do find myself learning from the ultra-conservative Calvinists on Christ the Center even as I learned, mere hours before, from Bo and Tripp on Homebrewed Christianity.  Most times I don’t walk away asserting the same answers that either crew does, but I always get out of my car (I listen to podcasts when I commute to and from work) asking questions that wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise.  Both “camps” (and they’re not the only two) serve as my conversation partners, and I appreciate what I’ve learned talking back to my car’s stereo during each of their shows.

And ultimately, I’m arrogant enough to think that I might provide that same service for others.  My Socratic tendencies aren’t just a personality defect, though I won’t deny that they’re personality defects as well.  Whether it’s the Delphic Oracle or something else, I’ve still got a sense that my challenging people’s ideas, in the spirit of mutual inquiry, is still a good thing.  Whether those folks are my students or my colleagues or my fellow-podcasters, I retain a sense that the best ideas are ideas that have emerged out of contradictions, the process of assertion and negation that lies at the heart of dialectic from the days of Socrates to the seminar rooms of graduate school and on into the church board-meeting and faculty-councils.  So while I’m not innocent of some tactical thinking when I go into such meetings, I’d also like to maintain that, on my best days, I also go in ready to have my mind changed.  In other words, I’m not convinced that what Plato and Aristotle call dialectic is over quite as soon as other folks seem to: I’d like to go a few more rounds, and do some more learning, before I start playing the games where there are winners and losers.  How long, you might ask, until I’m ready?  Heck if I know.  I just know it’s not yet.

So ultimately my refusal to treat everything as propaganda, my insistence that both the Westminster crew and the Claremont crew probably mean most of what they say, my preference to keep to the dialectic a spell longer before we get into the rhetoric (or the “propaganda,” if you must) is selfish at its root.  There’s still truth to be had, and I’m hungry for it.  My sense is that, if “everything is propaganda,” if the time for dialectic is already over and all that’s left is the win-at-all-costs season of rhetoric, life just won’t be as fun.  And I’m not ready for that.

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