Tyranny of the benign

I don’t know why I keep dignifying Robert Wright’s work with responses. I guess my reasoning is that, if he’s popular enough to get published in the Times, there must be some people out there who actually think his driveling qualifies as analysis, and my heart goes out to them.

Wright’s latest gush of twaddle, provocatively (if somewhat unoriginally) titled “Islamophobia and Homophobia,” asserts that we need to get over our phobia about Muslims, just as we have gotten over our phobia about gays, because if we don’t we are going to keep alienating Muslims, and alienating Muslims raises the risk of homegrown terrorism. Which, Allah help us, “could carry America into the abyss.” [Collective gasp.]

We have a constructive resource, however, in the progress we’ve made overcoming homophobia: “maybe the underlying dynamic is transplantable to the realm of inter-ethnic prejudice.”

Which, by the by, leaves me standing in uffish thought, for I can’t make head or tail of how concern about Muslims (adherents to a particular religion) equates to inter-ethnic prejudice (prejudice against those of a certain race). But be that as it may . . . .

When we explore the roots of our progress against homophobia, we discover that we’ve been able to “build bonds across social divides” just insofar as we’ve been delivered from “the power of intolerant scripture” and begun simply “getting to know people.” This getting-to-know-you thing is so potent – it has such power to move us to accept people, and in accepting them, to accept everything about them (gayness, Islamic beliefs, Christian fundamentalism [oops, strike that], or what have you) – that it can actually change the way we read our “intolerant scripture.” It helps us go back and read with fresh eyes: “if this broader tolerance requires ignoring or reinterpreting certain scriptures, so be it; the meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations.”

Well, hold on now. Let’s all settle down and breathe deeply before asking the question: “Could getting to know Muslims have the healing effect that knowing gay people has had?” The good news, says Wright, “is that bridging does seem to work across religious divides.” [Praise be!] It’s all a matter, he avers, “of bringing people into contact with the ‘other’ in a benign context. And it’s a matter of doing it fast, before the vicious circle takes hold, spawning appreciable homegrown terrorism and making fear of Muslims less irrational.”

‘kay. There you have it. Utopia on the other side of a group hug.

Yes, first question, there in the back. “Has this guy ever talked to a homegrown terrorist?” Don’t know; it seems unlikely. Next question. “Does he seriously think homegrown terrorists regard us as the enemy because they weren’t treated nicely on the playground?” Any other questions?

I have a few, actually. Does Wright realize that his group hug requires religious adherents to give up everything he regards as offensive before they get to be included in the hug? I assume, for instance, that no matter how much Wright gets to know a Christian fundamentalist or an Islamic militant – be the context never so benign – the warm fuzzies won’t permit him to accept such a person’s defining beliefs. It would be different, of course, if their defining thing were gayness.

Which leads to the question that vexes me every time I read Wright: Does he have any idea how boorish he sounds when he sneers at people who don’t happen to hold his insipid philosophical views? There are people in the cosmos – mirabile dictu – who don’t think they are competent to decide for themselves what is good or evil, and then to impose their gaseous emissions on the rest of humankind. They actually believe in the universal moral rule of a transcendent God, and regard departures from His truth and will, by anyone include themselves, as wickedness. (Not all, I might add, are prepared to blow up buildings over it.) One can say they’re all fools – dangerous ones, at that – who should be excluded from group hugs, but one should offer a more substantive reason than, “Well, those just aren’t people I can accept.” Otherwise, we have simply replaced the “power of intolerant scripture” with the tyranny of the benign.

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