Friday, September 02, 2011

HT Andrew at City of God: Wedgewords--Partisan Anxiety, Extremism & Fight Club
I excerpt at some length here:

This definitely applies to certain personalities that are attracted to religious extremism. It really isn’t even correct to call it religious extremism, because, as we saw in the case of Breivik, they can routinely admit to not being very religious at all. So let’s call it cultural extremism. Cultural extremists are on a quest, and they are trying to solve a deep problem in their lives. They are disaffected with modernity and long for another era where the men were men and the living was authentic. Whether it be some notion of medieval Europe, the golden age of Islam, or even the American founding, a nearly utopian world is created in which the cultural extremist can find his new identity. He may or may not cease to be active out in the “real world” (his local community and the public square), but he certainly devotes the majority of his interests to the alternative world.

This isn’t just a sampling of silly hobbies that accompany religious ideologies. This is actually part of wider condition throughout modernity which transcends the various ideologies under discussion, and we do have a relatively recent portrayal of this disposition in popular American culture: Fight Club.


First a book and then a popular movie (though as a cult classic, which is more appropriate for the topic at hand), Fight Club is a portrait of a man jilted by modernity and in search of something more authentic and primal in his life. He begins a secret club where men can regain their true identities by fighting. This eventually becomes a terrorist organization with the goal of bringing down modern corporate America. Sound familiar? There’s no religion in Fight Club because the phenomenon is its own issue. We could say that it is its own religion. And what I’d like to propose is that radical Islam and right-wing nationalism have more in common with each other than they do with their own purported cultural and religious histories. They are Fight Club.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not willing to say that there’s nothing to worry about with Islam. But I am insisting that what there is to worry about with Islam is totally different than what the majority of the media and mainstream press get worked up over. What they’re always on about is either something worth considering (the idea that religion and culture might actually impact each other) or it’s just the Fight Club phenomenon. And when dealing with this latter issue, we don’t need to be fooled into thinking that it’s primarily a political or theological issue. It’s a personal issue. People attracted to real-life RPGs in the form of partisan hostility do not need so much to be combated on the intellectual level, but on the existential one. They are having trouble with “reentry” and need to come back to reality.

A few things for consideration.

The part I didn't excerpt is still pertinent. Baptists who become Presbyterians, as the jocular observation goes, go watch Braveheart and get bagpipe music and if they live below the Mason-Dixon line affect an affection for the antebellum South (except for Douglas Wilson and his ilk, who are pretty affectionate toward the antebellum South despite being pretty far north of the Mason-Dixon line).

Now I cannot resist some sideways comments. Earlier this year I wrote about a certain pastor who made the sweeping declaration that video games are stupid and are the pursuit of vicarious victories that don't matter. I said at the time that one flaw in this categorical declaration is that baseball is also obviously a time-wasting pursuit in victories that don't matter. This is even more true for people who waste hours and days and years of their lives following the game but not playing it. At least the athletes get physical conditioning out of it, I grant that. Still, since I own every episode of Powerpuff Girls far be it from me to just say something someone else likes is plain old dumb. Everything we love is stupid in the eyes of at least one other person on earth. That's just part of being human.

But what holds true is that whatever movement you choose to join or choose to start, even the movements you leave behind, they are all in their own ways providing vicarious victories. Hitch your wagon to a star and all that. Join the cool kids and you will be cool if they'll take you. Join the free thinkers and you will think freely. Everyone promises a salvation they can't attain for themselves but you surely will never obtain it yourself.

Wedgeworth points out that Breivik was into dress up. He was into role playing games. Lest people look down on this as a sign that gamers are weird proto-fascist murderers in the making Wedgeworth points out that the what of the role playing game constitutes an emotional script, an alternate world in which young men who are otherwise rootless and lacking vocation and influence can find an outlet and a catalyst for creativity. Partisan conflict confers upon a person an identity and vocation that may be missing somewhere else. To the most salient and potentially awkward point Wedgeworth points out that a Christian right wing culture warrior gunning for men to be manly men is not that different from the Muslim who believes that if sharia gets put in place things will improve. These partisan enterprises are real life role-playing games that have defined the lives of young men.

All of Wedgeworth's observations dovetail with themes I have been considering here as an unemployed man in his later 30s. I'm stuck. I've got no job. I'm not sure what I can do that is also sufficiently useful enough to other people that they will pay me to do that. I am on food stamps and have failed to reintegrate back into "normal" working society. I am unmarried and have become aware of just how disposable unmarried men are in any given society. Even married men are in many respects disposable and Roy Baumeister's observation that the importance of men as creators of and contributors to culture is in their inherent disposability. The existential crisis Wedgeworth points out for a young man radicalized into Islamic extremism or Christian right-wing reconstructionism perhaps is that a young man with no prospects and seemingly few options embraces a narrative and a group that provide identity.

Let me be particular, I met a lot of guys in their 20s like me ten years ago. Mars Hill promised a place where we could have a legacy, where we could develop social capital. We could network for work and network in the quest for a spouse. That not only was encouraged but was often explicitly lined out as the reason the Church exists. My friend J. S. Bangs has a banner quote from Eve Tushnet that says that "realism" for people whose worldviews are accepted as realistic; the rest of us must make do with genre.

This is to say, in this context, that the people who look down on people who are into role playing games or other games as the pursuit of victories that don't matter tend to be those who have figured out their role in the role-playing game called life. They are certain of their role, the rules, and their objective. They see a game as a victory that doesn't matter because they have decided which victories matter and because of this they also decide that those victories that don't matter can't even be victories.

But it's not as though one church were unique in this. There is an accepted script, often alluded to but not examined, which holds that men become useful when they produce more than they consume and produce enough to support new lives they have preferrably spawned in settings where those new lives do not henceforth become wards of the state.

As I wrote earlier this year men who get into their 30s and have not paired off into a marriage or some semi-steady sexual partnership are ripe for transforming into ideologues. I have written extensively on how single guys discover their moment of disposability as an existential crisis. It is often in the midst of this crisis a man may either more desperately seek salvation in the form of a sexual bond or, perhaps more often now, denounce marriage as a rite and social bond. In its place? Partisan politics of any and every kind of the embrace of either a religious or secular fanaticism. Or, as we have begun to see, the immersive alternate universe of games.

To suggest that one of these options is inherently more or less consumeristic than the other is to entirely miss the reality of the emotional and existential function of the vocation, for vocation is what these things sare. A man who immerses himself in World of Warcraft is not so different from a man who spends his spare time contemplating baseball scores and leadership principles to be gleaned from watching one of the most tedious activities created by fallen man.

Partisan anxiety and aggression define humanity. This may seem like a grim, relentless and unnecessary way of looking at the human condition but it is as true as it is to say that humans display great capacity for empathy, depth of thought and reason. But it is this capacity, when once committed to the quest for both the self and community, that permits precisely those things to be broken. We are paradoxically slain by the things we devote ourselves to. Whoever loves money never has money enough, the eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear of hearing, and better what the eye sees than the desires in the heart.

Particularly having observed fellow single guys if we don't manage to "settle down" we become defined by what we choose to fight for or, as is too often the case with a great many men (and women, I might add) what we choose to fight against. Negation becomes necessary to define who is not with us and who is with us. So, at the risk of rambling and repeating myself, those young, restless Reformed Calvinist Baptist types are not really different from the old cranky Calvinists who disapprove of them. MacArthur fans and Driscoll fans may look upon each other with suspicion or a tempered admiration but the roles the fans play are exactly the same, and the roles the men play are not quite so far removed from each other. The ideal is to give young men something to fight for, the ideal is to "get the young men" because if you get them you get "everything".

It's easy to see this with a guy like Mark Driscoll who states it up front. Credit him for his bluntness. MacArthur and Piper and various others want the same thing but are not quite so forward in their ambitions. It has stuck with me for some time that Drew G. I. Hart pointed out that the Piper/Bell fracas is basically two white guys having a disagreement over who will win the hearts of the 20-something white guys who are supposed to guide the future of American white Christianity. Fortunately global Christianity is ultimately not so white that this battle matters! Thanks be to God. Even as a guy who's pretty white I can be grateful for that.

It's good to realize that the Fight Club is its own religion. We can dress it up and comb its hair and give it a fancy suit and say it is in the service of this or that cause and for authentic masculinity but it is, ultimately, its own religion with its own goals. To the extent that the story of Fight Club matters it's that it shows how a man deludes himself into becoming a terrorist on the basis of feeling like he's not the right kind of man. There's the axiom that if God is a father and our fathers left us what does that say about God? Well, that would say a great deal in its way but we know some people don't believe in any gods and not all gods are seen as fathers. Furthermore, as the eventual revelation of Jack's delusion arrives we can see that the substitute provided is not a significant improvement. Even among Christians there's room for error. Are men following the man Jesus or the Jesus who makes them feel like men? Only one of these Jesus is actually savior. The others are Jesus that we can enlist as banners for which to fight for cultural enterprises and to give us victories that ultimiately don't matter.

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