Wednesday, June 25, 2008

p39, p30, p27, Three topics

Postmodernism, Equality and Reform




 A postmodern religion?

 Monbiot: Why are the prisons bursting?

 Comenius's Insight into Removal of Inequality



A postmodern religion?


Here is a question that has goaded me lately: "Is the Baha'i Faith Postmodern?" According to this definition, it most definitively is not postmodern, in fact it is diametrically opposed:


"[Post Modernism] the belief that direction, evolution and progression have ended in social history, and society is based instead upon the decline of absolute truths, and the rise of relativity..."


According to this "post-modern" is another word for an anarchist, since it is a basic premise of philosophic truth that there has to be something absolute to act as a standard in order for there to be anything relative. Yet the last part of this, about the "rise of relativity," is pretty much the distinguishing mark of the Baha'i understanding of religion. The Guardian in his definitive précis of Baha'i belief:


"The fundamental principle enunciated by Baha'u'llah, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative..."


But then he goes on to exclude postmodernism, and indeed any other religious system I can think of, when he says,


"that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the non-essential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society."





Monbiot: Why are the prisons bursting?


I keep tabs on the British justice campaigner George Monbiot, who in his latest column for the Guardian talks about the strange fact that in Britain and the U.S., while crime rates are declining their prisons are filling up in record numbers. Having examined the statistics, he writes,


"Why, as this country becomes more peacable, does it become more punitive? I do not know. Nor, it seems, does anyone else. But one thing I have noticed is that many of the states with the highest number of convicts are also those with the greatest differential between rich and poor. Within the OECD nations, the US has the second highest rate of inequality. Mexico, which is the most unequal, has the third-highest rate of imprisonment. In the EU, four of the five most unequal nations also rank among the top five jailers. The correlation, though by no means exact, seems to apply across many of the rich countries." (Mind-Forged Manacles, June 24, 2008


Baha'u'llah said that this earth is one country and all men and women and children are equally its citizens under God. Yet the world today is an oligarchy, a world ruled by a tiny number of super-rich, super-influential people. Ultimately, the only way to maintain this gross inequity is to make liberal use of prisons to keep the underclass down. Monbiot continues, raising the not unexpected spectre of racism, which is at the root of much of the inequality in England and the U.S.


"This does not demonstrate a causal relationship. But there are three likely connections. The first is that inequality causes crime. This is what Anatole France referred to, when he claimed to admire the majestic egalitarianism of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. But, while this has proved true at most times and in most places, crime is falling in England and Wales while inequality is rising.


"The second possible link is that prison causes inequality. The sociologist Bruce Western has shown that jail in the United States is a huge and hidden cause of deprivation. When people are locked up, they cannot acquire the skills and social contacts they need to get on outside. Employers are reluctant to take them on when they have been released, and they tend to be hired by the day or to get stuck in the casual economy, which is one of the reasons why so many return to crime. Among whites and Hispanics, wages for ex-cons are severely depressed. Among black people the effect is less marked: the stigma of imprisonment, Western suggests, appears to have stuck to the entire black underclass."


Finally Monbiot, in my opinion, hits the nail on the head. The existence of extremes of wealth and poverty directly causes the atmosphere of brutal punishment that pumps the prisons full of convicts,


"The third possible reason for a link between the two factors is that inequality causes imprisonment. I cannot prove this, and it is hard to see how anyone could do so. But my untested hypothesis runs as follows: the greater the wealth the top echelons accrue, the more ferociously they demand protection from the rest of society.


"They have more to lose from crime and less to lose from punishment, which is less likely to strike the richer you become. The people who help to generate the public demand for long prison terms (newspaper proprietors and editors) and the people who mete it out (judges and magistrates) are drawn overwhelmingly from the property-owning classes. Those who have built large fortunes, Max Hastings, who was once the editor of the Daily Telegraph, wrote of his former employer Conrad Black, seldom lose their nervousness that some ill-wisher will find means to take their money away from them. Money breeds paranoia, and paranoia keeps people in prison.




Comenius's Insight into Reforming Inequality


When there is overall equality in a society (I am thinking of the Nordic lands, and a few other places) it is far easier to think of all, including the poorest, as members of one family. Once that happens, reform follows from that premise. One family. Imagine a member of a happy family clamoring for death penalties, torture or the use of prisons and other cruel punishments to keep an unruly child in line! Such a thing could never happen. That is why the Master suggested a universal cure to this problem when He advised us to think of everybody as members of your family.


"Beware lest ye offend any heart, lest ye speak against anyone in his absence, lest ye estrange yourselves from the servants of God. You must consider all His servants as your own family and relations. Direct your whole effort toward the happiness of those who are despondent, bestow food upon the hungry, clothe the needy, and glorify the humble. Be a helper to every helpless one, and manifest kindness to your fellow creatures in order that ye may attain the good pleasure of God. This is conducive to the illumination of the world of humanity and eternal felicity for yourselves. I seek from God everlasting glory in your behalf; therefore, this is my prayer and exhortation." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 469)


There is no rational reason for the rich to act as they do. They suffer from an inner, spiritual illness that makes them love possessions more than the human family. If we could see them with our inward eye, we would see as ugly a sight as any hovel, slum or favela can display. What we need to do is try to reform not a part of the world, or a section of humanity, but all. If we fail to treat all equally, it will all fall down. This universality was central to the reform program of my latest hero, Jan Amos Comenius, who wrote in the mid-16th Century. He said,


"We wish ALL MEN to be made perfect IN ALL THINGS that form them into the full image of God, including their dealings with things, with their fellow-men, and with God, who is the fountain of their blessedness. Also, we wish to reform men IN ALL WAYS, and we therefore require a system of universal wisdom, universal religion, and universal politics, embracing the whole of mankind." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 1, para 10-11, p. 49)


The greatness of Comenius's vision of reform was that he saw what remains obscure to the world even today; I think only a Baha'i can appreciate his penetrating wisdom when he writes,


"`OF ALL PEOPLE' includes men of all classes, not the reform of one or two to the exclusion of others, but altogether, churchmen, scholars and politicians, not only in one place or nation but all over the world, not limited to any one group small or large but affecting all mankind so that they move towards the perfect fulfillment of human nature." (Comenius, ib., para 9)


Anonymous said...

Re: Postmodernism, see Ann Boyles' piece: "Choosing How to See the World: an Alternative to the Postmodern Perspective"

Susan Maneck said...

I'm not sure you can say that the Guardian excluded post-modernism when the ideology didn't yet exist as such. For that reason it would be inaccurate to describe the Baha'i Faith as "post-modern" but it certainly shares some of the same concerns, most especially the concern for diversity. Also, the acknowledgment that God is ultimately unknowable. One article you might look at in connection with this question can be found here:

Anonymous said...

What the source for:
"[Post Modernism] the belief that direction, evolution and progression have ended in social history, and society is based instead upon the decline of absolute truths, and the rise of relativity..."

It is true this definition doesn't match with the word of Shoghi Effendi you quote. But then, your own "basic premise of philosophic truth that there has to be something absolute to act as a standard in order for there to be anything relative" also does not fit with the words of Shoghi Effendi you quote. Try finding the one absolute standard in all of the great religions of the world.

It is also a rather odd premise. If satisfactions are relative to expectations, and vice versa, where is the absolute? I can't believe that philosophers would support your "basic premise"

Sen McGlinn