Volume Fourteen, Number One............February 1990

Heretics and Malignants

To ye aged and beloved Mr. John Higgenson:

There be now at sea a ship called Welcome, which has on board 100 or more the heretics and malignants called Quakers, with W. Penn, who is the chief scamp, at the head of them. The General Court has accordingly given sacred orders to Master Malachi Huscott, of the brig Porpoise, to waylay the said Welcome slyly as near the Cape of Cod as may be, and make captive the said Penn and his ungodly crew, so that the Lord may be glorified and not mocked on the soil of this new country with the heathen worship of these people. Much spoil can be made of selling the whole lot to Barbadoes, where slaves fetch good prices in rum and sugar and we shall not only do the Lord great good by punishing the wicked, but we shall make great good for His minister and people.

Yours in the bowels of Christ, Cotton Mather

THERE is no doubt that Gorbachev was the most visible and effective benefactor of mankind in 1989. He will surely win, and should win, the Nobel Peace Prize along with other awards and recognitions. His wife, furthermore, is adorable. He has our best and warmest regards and wishes.

He is not, however our own Man of the Year for 1989. For that honor, and for the First Faltering Footsteps Prize for 1989, we have chosen a man who has been called, by no less an authority than Jerry Falwell, speaking no doubt from those very same bowels, "the No. 1 enemy of the American family in our generation." He is, furthermore, a man who calls himself a "civil libertarian," in a well-known phrase which seems to derive from a popular belief that the idea in the word "liberty" really ought to be sanitized with some adjective, lest naughty folk get "the wrong idea" about liberty. And he is also a man who has surely provided Americans with much that they didn't need in the form of cute and inane entertainment.

As to all that, we say, all the better. It makes his breakthrough all the bigger. Some of you will probably have heard of him. He is Norman Lear, who is quite well known in the world of television as the producer of some comedy shows whose occasional and socially useful didacticism was impenetrable only to the likes of Jerry Falwell.

In November of 1989, Lear spoke to a gathering of members of the American Academy of Religion. His unshaken commitment to the separation of church and state notwithstanding, he told the assembled scholars that it was time for the public schools "to nurture the sense of the sacred that underlies all religions."

"While we civil libertarians have been triumphant in most of our legal and constitutional battles," he said, "I am troubled that so many of us remain blocked or blind to the spiritual emptiness in our culture which the televangelists exploited so successfully."

Lear did not drop his opposition to organized prayer in schools, and neither did he espouse such nonsense as adding alternative creation myths to satisfy the true believers of this or that persuasion, but he did say, in effect, that the purging from textbooks of anything that might offend anybody was a dumb idea. Pathological thinning of the skin is one of the inescapable side-effects of spiritual emptiness, and we wish he had made that point, if only to himself. He might then have noticed some degree of spirituality less than fullness in some of the religious scholars.

From them, he won that sort of praise that Israelis measure out to the possible unification of the Germans. They were not, apparently, about to take the risk of letting anyone suggest that religions could be "reduced to a common denominator," lest ardent parents complain about the "relativizing" of religion. And a certain Mrs. Haynes "stressed the need to teach about religious differences and how society could learn to live with them," believing apparently--probably her stock in trade--that it will take only a few lessons to reconcile Islam with Shamir and to bring such as the warring tribes of the Irish to detect some naughtiness in blowing up each other's Sunday school buses. (Of course, on this point we could be very wrong. By "live with them," she might have meant that such as the Christians and Moslems of Beirut could come to a socially acceptable appreciation of diversity, and liberally grant each other the right to lob shells across the city, just so long as that's what they truly believe in.)

Against such views, apparently, Lear could only suggest that he would like to make some distinction between "religious" and "spiritual," which seems to us a very intriguing thought, but the newspaper account of the event reports no further consideration of it. We guess that it is not a distinction that Scholars of Religion even want mentioned, never mind made. And, not surprisingly, all Lear could imagine that the schools might actually do to nurture the sense of the sacred was to teach about "the role of religion in history."

Well, that's a good place to start. The role of religion in history. Quite a role. So we have provided the first lesson above, in the form of a letter from Cotton Mather. We'd like to see it in the textbooks. We'd like the seventh graders to relate to it, and rap a bit. We'd like to listen to the schoolteachers telling the kiddies all about the appreciation of diversity, and the need to be tolerant of alternative life styles. And we'd like to hear from the parents too, those who have bitched about the lack of attention paid in the schools to our great Christian heritage, and who now must bitch about the paying of attention. We'd like to hear from the organized atheist parents, whose delicate children are injured and insulted by the mention of a Christian pirate, and from the Moslem parents, whose delicate children are injured and insulted by the inclusion of only a Christian pirate.

As to "the role of religion in history," Cotton Mather is every bit as relevant and informative as Mother Theresa. In that role, and in every religion in that role, you can find everything, all that is fair and all that is foul, the best of us and the worst, the edifying and the horrid.

Children should certainly know a lot about it, but the school people are in no position to handle it. They serve too many masters, and they are themselves but little informed in those matters. But we will not leave Lear out on a limb. He is, after all, right, however confused he may be about the meaning of his rightness. And his confusion has been built into him, and into millions more, by the very people to whom he spoke.

As we think back through the last few years of this sheet, we see something that we never intended. More and more we see ourselves talking about an emptiness, a soullessness, that seems, to us of course, to be a condition regularly and deliberately induced by the government schools. It masquerades as tolerance and liberality, but its real name is the Loss of the Good of Intellect, as you may recall from that discussion of Dante in "The Curriculum from Hell." It is a condition not the same as stupidity, not even the same as deliberate stupidity, but a highly specific disorder in which the mind can contemplate no convincing way in which to distinguish between the better and the worse, so that it abandons the task as futile, and is indeed pleased to do so, for the habit of such distinguishing is certain to bring, probably ten times a day, bad news in the form of self-knowledge. Notice, for instance, that the on-going craziness about self-esteem in the schools seems never to contemplate the obvious and unsettling question: What would we have to say of self-esteem in one who has little or no self-knowledge, and who knows no principle but emotion out of which to distinguish what is estimable from what is not? And, in any case, the school people don't even like to hear such words as "estimable." They just don't sound democratic.

It is out of something akin to the loss of the good of intellect that we are not able to think of some important distinction that can be made between religion and the religions. Strangely enough, this sort of mind work would be easier to come by and do if only we saw to it that all children in school studied some foreign language, and the schoolers' distaste for such study has, therefore, an interesting, nasty smell. Anyone who studies another language comes to grasp a strange fact, the fact that there is some fascinating difference between the languages and language itself. And language itself can be contemplated.

Likewise with religion. Here again we now see the tendency of an earlier piece, "The Great Divide," where it was said that while religions need the Tao, which term was used there in a special narrow sense, the Tao needs no religion. People, especially people who call themselves tolerant, are fond of pointing out that "there is good in every religion." To say that makes you sound big of heart, because you are not required to say what must follow, that is, that there is also that bad from which you have chosen out the good. We can also say, and with more justice and completeness, that what is good in every religion is just about the same in all of them. No religion, whatever subterfuges its adherents may devise, preaches treachery or cowardice or even piracy. All of the religions, like all of the seers, say the same things: Love each other; share things; take care of each other; try to stop wanting so much; know yourself.

There's more, of course, but not much more. Not an encyclopedia full. Not even a prayer-book full. Now this is puzzling. If you encountered in the forest twelve different animals which, for all their differences, shared nevertheless one remarkably prominent and beneficial attribute, would you not think to have detected some kinship? Would you not think to have detected also some common ancestor, or at least something that was prior to all those beasts? And if all that is good in all these religions did not turn out to precede them, but had to be accounted coincidence, would you not be much surprised? And can you imagine that, after the inevitable disappearance of all the religions that we now know, that there will arise new ones in which there is no trace of that to which we point when we say that there is some good in all religions?

Mrs. Haynes did not at all like Lear's attempted distinction between "spiritual" and "religious." The reason is clear. There was religion long before any of these religions were dreamed of, and there will be religion long after they are gone, but the adherents of the religions don't like that thought. If it's religious, dammit, it's ours, and we're not going to let some entertainer get away with the spiritual either. That's also ours.

The religions are always local and temporary. They are institutions. They are outside, out there in the world, not in us, and at time's mercy. That's why they're so feisty. They fear death. And diminution smells of death. So they recruit. If you join one today, you'll hear all sorts of fascinating assertions, and you'll hear what good it has to offer, which is the same in the religions that you don't join today, but just about the only hard fact you'll get is your own copy of the Enemies List. Now you'll know who to spit at in the street, who to despise as an evil-doer, who to recruit, and where to lob your shells.

Lear is right, but he is wrong. There is indeed an emptiness, but it is not the religions that will fill it. It is Religion.

In the root of the word "religion" is the idea of tying back together. It's too bad we don't have the word as a verb, for it becomes most useful when seen not as an abstraction or the name of this or that club of believers, but as something that you can do. Strictly speaking, the religious view is the one that sees the connections, and, seeing them, tries to see others, and even suspects that all things my be connected in some way.

Lear stumbled on this understanding when he said that we seemed unlikely to be able to solve environmental problems without "a fresh examination of what we regard as sacred in the universe." He is right. But it won't fly. We are not allowed to use that word; the people in the God business have convinced the people in the school business that "sacred" belongs to them, and such is the nature of the people in the God business that even teachers are embarrassed to be associated with them. It's not really the church and state business that keeps spiritual concerns out of the classroom; it's a perfectly respectable disgust at the thought of standing forth in an ostensibly intellectual enterprise and sounding like one of them. And so it is that not even the liberalest of activists can say that Earth is the Holy Mother of us all, who gave us life and nourished us, and to whom all honor and respect are due. It is precisely his "liberalism" that puts him "above" such ancient "superstition," so he has to make vile appeals to those who suppose that the longer empty life is more to be prized than the shorter. The people we call ignorant savages, however, can say that, and can even seek to live by it.

This is the great achievement of the religions in our time: they have at once pre-empted and besmirched what was once understood to be the proper business of all people: the consideration of our meaning and the contemplation of the good life. So it is that the schools are playing it safe by sticking to the consideration of our employability and the contemplation of successfully competing with the Japanese. And if that is life, then emptiness is meet and right.

But you do not have to be a member of any of the religions to live as though your deeds and your destiny were tied together, and that, not even through belief but through choice, by distinguishing between the life that is led as though it were meaningful, and that which is led as though it were not. You need no membership to ask whether the children may be right when they say that life is a bitch and then you die, and to consider accordingly how to live. For yourself, without benefit of clergy, you can consider whether there would be any virtue in holding instead that life is a ball and then you die.

Young people, however, do not truly believe such propositions. They say such things because they need to prove that they are cool. But, like all the rest of us, they do not know what life is, but they do suspect, because it is in us to suspect, that there may be more to life than its bitchery, which they can see all around them, and more, even, than the "success" of competing with the Japanese, which seems to have brought neither happiness nor peace to their elders, and at which, by the way, their teachers have failed most dismally.

T. S. Eliot, who remained a religious man in spite of his membership in the Anglican communion (it can be done, of course, but it's harder) has put the whole religion business in a way that Norman Lear would find useful. "For us," he said, "there is only the asking. The rest is none of our business."

As to whether we should turn in the money to the lost and found, choose to go without something that we want, take pleasure or profit from the manipulation of a friend, and as to whether life is a bitch and then you die, there is only the asking. As to whether the burden of our misdeeds is intolerable or not, there is only the asking, and likewise as to whether or not it should be intolerable. The asking is the religious part of life. It is the failure to ask that is emptiness.

But where Religion does its work by provoking questions, the religions do theirs by pronouncing answers, which is bad enough, and then, which is much worse, insisting on assent to its answers, relegating dissenters to a place "outside of the faith." If young people, or any people, find something less than satisfying in this arrangement, it is much to their credit. But the resulting judgment that they must make of the pronouncements of the religions leads them into cynicism also about those few remnants of truth that the religions have taken from Religion, which are--and this is most important--not based on faith, but on something that seems to be permanent and universal to human beings. It's a kind of suspicion.

We will tell you a secret, but, when you hear it, you will know that it is no secret, that you have always known it. It is just something that nobody wants to say. Here it is: No one believes in God. Lots of people say they do, but the Bishop of Rome gnaws his knuckles in the still watches of the night. And so too--let's give him some credit, does Falwell.

Here's another secret: No one disbelieves in God. Again, lots say they do. And here's one more: No one knows how to choose. The Bible has it one-half right when it tells us that "the fool has said in his heart, there is no God." It does take a fool to have it either way. Wittgenstein had it right. Whereof we can not speak, let us have the good sense to keep our mouths shut.

A belief in God is of crucial importance to the religions. They have a big investment, and a lot to lose. Not so for Religion. It is the God question that is part of Religion, not the answer. It is a very interesting question. If you ask it, you live one way. If you don't ask it, you live another way--the empty way.

It is the master question which governs all the others. Is life indeed a bitch, out of which you die? Is there anything else it could be? Does it really matter a damn if we throw all our filthy refuse into the ocean, or if we take all we can get of comfort and pleasure, or if all we worry about is not getting caught? If we rule the world in loving wisdom, or just get drunk alone, does it make the tiniest bit of difference?

That last question, some of our readers will have noticed, is, roughly, from Sartre, or, more accurately, from one of his characters. It gives us a clue that we'd like to pass along to Norman Lear, just for the unlikely possibility that he will be asked once more to suggest what the schools might do to fill the emptiness of spirit in the young. It's easy. He should have thought of it.

Have the children read books, dammit! Throw away all that silly and inspirited social conditioning pap. Books are the questions. Sartre asks, Sophocles asks, Swift asks--they all ask. And they try out this and that answer, always saying, in effect, something very much like what Socrates says in Phaedo: "Well, either this, or something else like it, must be so." And some of the children won't like one answer, and some won't like another, and some will like them all, and some won't like any, and that's exactly the way it should be. For now. And then let them live and reconsider, having given them exactly what you are now withholding from them--the raw material of wondering.

But that too has been pre-empted, this time by the educationists, the religionists' most valuable but quite unwitting confederates. The children can not read books. Even the brightest can do little more than receive some scrap of communication here and there, and in them the act of reading is not in any important way different from that act in which they can identify a stop sign as a stop sign. They are ill at ease in metaphor, and often simply blind to it; and the "answers" of books are, and must be, metaphors. Our books tell us that this life is a great, walled city whose king loses sight of justice, or a war in which some may choose to run and some to fight and die, or a dark forest in which we are abandoned by our parents and left to make our own ways in the world. Such are the assertions of all the arts, and, since they are easily construed as patently "untrue" by the literal mind they can not be read with the reading of the communication receivers.

This strange relationship between Religion and certain disorders of "reading" was remarkably well explained by Joseph Campbell in some television interview. The atheists are those who can not read in metaphor anything more than a "lie," however fine or beautiful. The theists want to make of metaphor "the truth," but all that they can think of as the truth is historical fact, so they are required to insist that myth is to be read as fact, and so led into much nonsense. Had Dante been around to hear Campbell, he would have used this perfect, symmetrical coupling of the atheist and the theist in one of his elegantly balanced metaphors of the hellish life. But he is gone, and we must do it for ourselves; but we can not do it without the power to read metaphor, which, has nothing to do with the letters. Epictetus could not read, but he could read.

Nor can the children read the other kind of metaphor. Those "silent forms that tease us out of thought" do not say anything at all to those who have been consistently deprived of the beautiful all their little lives. In the standard curriculum of the schools, there is no more provision for the beautiful than there is for the good and the true. The cathedral tells us more about Religion than the canons, but we suspect that the contemplation of a cathedral would no more be permitted in the schools than the elucidation of the canons.

Nothing can be used in the schools simply because it is beautiful, or wise, or good; it must first be socially appropriate. And what is socially appropriate will be used no matter how ugly, foolish, or bad. But this doesn't matter to the school operators, who hold that such ideas as beauty and ugliness are merely matters of nurtural necessity and individual whim. If Lear was once a vigorous defender of the ideology which imagines that the consideration of a cathedral in a government school is contrary both to the Constitution and to the self-esteem of the students, as he may well have been, he now has his reward.

Just as there is an environment of birds and beasts, there is an environment of ideas, in which it is also impossible do one thing. There is certainly a relationship between those triumphs in civil rights of which he speaks, and which often involved the mysterious power of symbols and metaphors whose mere visibility was supposed to offend someone, and that spiritual emptiness that he now laments. If you say long and loud enough, and especially if you say it to the little children, that nothing is really worthy in itself but only to some people in some estates and conditions, and that one sort of life is just as good as any other, sooner or later you will live in the world that you have helped to make. If you find it a smelly mess, where something even more important than the wildlife is dying, you should add to your discomfort a nasty dose of guilt.

Well, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Lear now wants to clean up another environment. Where once he was a heretic and malignant to the Self-righteous Right, he will become the same to the Loose-thinking Left. Good. We welcome him to No-man's Land. It beats joining the ignorant armies, but it does not mean beating them. That can't be done. The future is theirs.

Here, of course, we are not reformers. The best we hope is to paddle our little boat and maybe take some friends along for the ride. But a man like Lear has a very big boat. And he obviously knows how to paddle. We'd like to hear more from him, and, if we can find him, we'll send him this issue, which is, alas, all that there is to the First Feeble Footsteps Prize. We eagerly await that day in which Jerry Falwell's equivalent in the other ignorant army calls Lear the No. 1 enemy of something--anything. When that happens we'll come up with an even better prize, the Heretical Malignant Medal, maybe. Till then, all we can do is cheer. Vogue la galère, Norman.


Brief Notes

HERE we begin the fourteenth volume of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN. While you are surely astonished when your copy gets to you in the month whose name appears in the masthead, we are astonished when any issue gets out at all. Every one seems to us the last, and this has been true since the first. Nevertheless, experience suggests that there will be another issue, and even that we may be back on schedule by September. But maybe not. We are easily distracted.

CENTRAL CONTROL is thinking of having a picnic in Delaware in August, and inviting to it all readers who find themselves within a hundred miles or so. The site she has chosen is splendid, and well worth a couple of hours of driving. More of this later.

NEITHER can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre; nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

MANY have told us that they were unable to find George Steele, who puts out an interesting sheet, Individualist Journal. We may well have been at fault, for we called it the Individualist Newsletter, thus presenting the postal people with a problem beyond their solving. The address is: 4512 47th SW, Seattle, Washington 98116.

The Individualist Journal for March 89, contains, among other intriguing pieces, an account of the virtues of hemp both as a cash crop and as a generally beneficial vegetable with many uses. We had never heard any of that, and, somehow, we felt a little better.

The Underground

R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028

Four issues a year. Subscription: Persons in USA or Canada, $15US;
Persons elsewhere, $20. No more libraries! Other non-personal entities, $25.

Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre;
nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

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