Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Do It Yourself Reification

I spent some time a few years back talking about my postmodernist worldview, and within that discussion talked a bit about reification: the creation of human items (physical, psychological, philosophical) and then the subsequent 'forgetting' that those items were made by humans. It's a weird game, but it's played almost constantly in our culture, though it's hard sometimes to tell whether or not the people doing the reification are actually forgetting the human-derived nature of their sacred cows, or they're simply ignoring it in the hopes that their ideas will seem more powerful if they're thought to be eternal verities handed down by the ages.

One interesting thing to note, though: people on the American political right wing tend to be either really bad (or really good, depending on how you define it) at reifying their belief systems.

Case in point: small-government conservatives and the 'intent of the Founders'. It's a little bit of a stretch to put folks as relatively disparate as Ron Paul, Grover Norquist, and Bill O'Reilly into a bucket as 'small government conservatives', though they do seem to share that general belief. They also seem to share a belief that such an opinion is not only Constitutional (Paul in particular is very keen on arguing that many government programs of the 20th and 21st centuries are unconstitutional, based on little more than his understanding of the Founding Fathers), but opposed to the very spirit of the men who banded together to craft that founding document. The Constitution, to their minds, is a small-government manifesto.

Except that, if you actually look at early American history following the Revolutionary War, you find that this isn't strictly true. Yes, the men who gathered in Philadelphia for the so-called Constitutional Convention were leery of unbridled executive power, having just fought a war to free themselves from the perceived oppression of the British crown, but the former colonies at the time were operating under an organizing document called the Articles of Confederation, in which ultimate power was vested in the governments of the various colonies-turned-states, and the whole reason the gathering was taking place was because of the realization that a confederation of states simply wasn't working as a system of interstate governance.

Granted, not everyone at the Convention was as gung-ho about federalism as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the two men who were the primary authors of the Federalist Papers that both helped define and promote the Constitution during its ratification period, but the people who showed up in Philadelphia recognized that the Articles of Confederation weren't working, became convinced that something else was needed to balance powers between the states, and realized that the best tool to balance states against one another was a plenary federal power.

Those who disagreed? They stayed away. The state of Rhode Island, afraid that the Constitutional Convention would abrogate their powers, boycotted both the convention and refused to ratify the subsequent Constiution. One could make a joke about the size and stature of Rhode Island as an independent state, but...

One notable absentee was Patrick Henry, he of the famous 'if this be treason, make the most of it' line (though ironically, at the time that comment was made, Henry apologized for it). Henry was one of the most well-known anti-federalists (only fellow Virginian anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson would likely be considered more famous at the time); he both agitated against the ratification of the Constitution and then, once it became obvious that the Constitution would pass, lobbied to add the Bill of Rights as the original Constitutional amendments. However, by the end of the 18th century, Henry's anti-federalist opinions had changed (it is said primarily due to the excesses of the French Revolution), and he even spoke out against Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions which specifically sought to limit the scope of federal Congressional power as defined by the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson is likely the most famous anti-federalist in the early American political landscape, writing both the Declaration of Independence from England and the aforementioned Kentucky Resolutions. His absence from the Constitutional Convention, though, was not so much a philosophical difference with the aims of the convention (he was good friends with Madison, who would keep Jefferson updated of the proceedings by post) as because he was actually in France serving as American ambassador. While Jefferson continued to write and argue against what he considered to be liberties taken on behalf of federal power (even going so far as to repeal federal taxes once elected President in 1801), he also exercised significant federal power himself, working with Congress to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France and passing the Embargo Act of 1807 in the hopes of convincing Britain to respect American naval power. From this, one could argue that all anti-federalists are actually federalists when the chips are down.

In short, very few men involved in the drafting of the Constitution were interested in creating a crippled federal government, and the few who fought against the expanded federal role at the time either recanted or made use of those powers when convenient. Hardly the shining example of small government heroics I'd have expected given the right's reification of the Founders in general, and Jefferson in particular.

Another somewhat bizarre example of the right's seeming need to invent things and forget that they invented them can be seen at the somewhat awkwardly named wiki site Conservapedia: The Conservative Bible Project. Everything you really need to know about the project can be summed up in its first sentence:

Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations.

To which I reply: huh?

The project seems to be deriving its impetus as an alternate translation to the King James Version of the Bible, one of the most oft-printed texts in human history. Their ideas on what needs to be changed, though, seem a bit off.

Let's begin with their first beef with the 'liberal translations' of the Bible (by which I infer that they're talking about texts like the New American Standard edition and the New International Version; to avoid these problems, I'll use the online Skeptic's Annotated Bible where I don't have access to someone's direct translation): that 'liberals' have added words to or mistranslated words in the Bible to support their political agenda. The specific example they give is Luke 23:34, where Jesus says, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," as the soldiers crucifying him throw dice to determine who got to keep his discarded clothing. Conservapedia suggests that the 'liberal' modification of this line to 'they don't know what they are doing' is a corruption of the original. Oddly, in his book "Misquoting Jesus", Bart D. Ehrman, graduate of the Moody Bible College and Wheaton College (the latter being the alma mater of Billy Graham) and head of the department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, translates the original text of the Gospel of Luke exactly in this way: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." (p.143) Perhaps the chair of religious studies at Chapel Hill is too liberal even for Conservapedia?

Ironically, Conservapedia glosses over some much more historically and litergically significant differences in Luke. One of them is in Luke 24:12, where after Mary Magdalene and other women have gone to Jesus's tomb to pay their respects and have been frightened by the presence of an angel, it is Peter who discovers that Jesus is no longer physically in the grave: "But Peter, rising up, ran to the tomb, and stooping down he saw the linen cloths alone, and he returned home marvelling at what had happened." Ehrman notes that this text is stylistically different from the rest of Luke's Gospel, and thus there is reason to believe that the verse is not Luke's but that of an orthodox scribe added to Luke's Gospel in order to do two things:

  1. To emphasize that Jesus had a physical body (necessary in order to fight the early Marcionite heresy that said that Jesus did not suffer, because he was not made of physical flesh), and
  2. To put the glory of the discovery of Jesus's resurrection into a man's (Peter's) rather than a woman's (Mary Magdalene's) hand.

Of course, the Conservative Bible Project has no doctrinal or political issue with either of these motives, so the truly suspect verse in Luke may be allowed to remain, while a perfectly valid translation of a different verse is recommended to be modified to support a specific political viewpoint. It's going to get truly interesting when the volunteer Conservapedia translators get to places where the Gospels actually contradict one another: the Passion according to Mark is very different from the Passion according to John, for example, particularly in their willingness to show Jesus as human (Mark has numerous examples of Jesus angry or frightened, where John's Gospel has Jesus as an almost cosmically detached emotional figure, becoming anguished only at the very end).

I could go on, but anyone reading this who hadn't already made up his mind to support these two conservative examples of making shit up and then pretending that they totally didn't make that shit up has probably already gotten the point by now. Further bulletins as events warrant.

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