The Laughter of Voltaire

During the 15-plus years I worked for the US military as a civilian contractor, I traveled to all the NATO countries, visiting each of them at least 4 times over the years, most more often than that. Such a travel schedule would kill me now, at age 66. But I was a much younger man then, younger by almost 40 years, and so thrived on the hectic travel, the nature of the work, the brilliant and fascinating people I routinely met, and even the sense of being "in the know" about various defense and policy matters, many of which were -- at that time -- classified above top-secret.

In the process, I fell in love, passionate love, with three great cities where I spent much of my time: London, Paris, and Brussels. (Brussels was, and is, NATO headquarters.) I have vivid memories of dallying over bread and wine al fresco at Cafe a Deux Magot ... Jean-Paul Sartre's old hangout, back in "the day" ... lunch at Cafe Laurent, 41 Avenue Gabriel in Paris. (Are they still there? I don't know. I hope so, but even if they are not physically there, they remain immortal in my memory.) Spending morning to late afternoon wandering through the Louvre on weekends ... before they ruined the courtyard with that jarring glass pyramid. Hearing Big Ben chime the hours as I walked across Westminster Bridge to catch the Tube to Soho and see a play. High tea at the Strand Hotel. Walking from the National Gallery down Piccadilly Street, past the Church of St. Martin in the Fields, to wander around Hatchard's Bookshop for a few hours. (I was gratified to revive my memories of the geography of London, on a couple of trips there recently with my wife. Trust me:  it's like riding a bicycle!) The war that raged in the streets of Paris last night brought back memories, so lovely they were painful, of much more peaceful and idyllic times.

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So when I heard about the Tube attacks in London several years ago, when I heard about the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January of this year, and when I heard tonight about the attacks in Paris (both the latter in an area of Paris I know, or knew at one time, rather well) ... my rational mind temporarily abdicated. For a time I wanted, I fantasized about, I lusted for, blood, the blood of the people who did all this to what I still consider “my” cities. I'm over that now. But tonight's attacks were, for me, one more data point -- as if I needed one -- confirming that, with any monotheism -- Judaism, Islam, Christianity ... you name it -- the only thing that saves the religion, any religion, from itself is a generous adulteration of secularity ... yea verily! ... even "godless, atheistic secular humanism" ... which serves the same purpose psychologically and culturally as the control rods in a nuclear reactor serve physically: they prevent a "China syndrome" meltdown of the entire system. Monotheism is a singularly humorless affair. What saves it from itself is the sardonic laughter of Voltaire.

But the monotheism in question need not be any deity, any god, in the strict and narrow “lexical” sense. The monotheism can be any One, Single, Great Bodacious Idea that is presumed to require total dedication of its proponents and that consequently, acting as spiritual Novocaine, anaesthetizes adherents to all other considerations, all other priorities, and demands that all other values be subordinated to that one Idea. So we obediently "destroy the village in order to save it". It makes not the slightest difference what you call that one Sovereign Idea: Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, the Materialist Dialectic of History, Manifest Destiny, Freedom, Democracy, Capitalism ... dare I say even ... climate change? … once human beings abdicate their capacity for critical analysis to that one Great Idea, the chthonic gods of religious enthusiasm take command of history and blood will run -- not “may run”, but “will run” – in the streets. What rescued Europe from that fate, by breaking up the monopoly of monotheistic monomania and creating an alternative, was the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, which had the effect of (a) rendering religious faith an affair confined within the skulls of individuals, or, at most, confined within the skulls of one's fellow adherents; (b) eventuating in the growth of religion-neutral civil government; and (c) creating guarantees in the civil law of the right of all religious individuals and groups to practice their faith as they saw fit.

The problem with the Muslim world is that -- at least so far -- there has either never been an Islamic analog of the Enlightenment, or there was such a time during the great Caliphates when even Jews and Christians were allowed to practice their faiths, but which the subsequent history of Islamic civilizations has led Muslims, for whatever reason, to renounce.  (The latter possibility -- the renunciation of liberal, libertarian culture -- is also an object lesson for the West:  the struggle is never won, once for all.  As a retired law-school professor friend of mine always told his First Amendment class on the first session:  "The First Amendment is always under attack.") Yes, there are individual exceptions -- Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ramadan, Reza Aslan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Professor (of Islamic Studies) Omid Safi of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Asra Nomaniet al. -- but note that all those individual examples live in Europe or North America in a condition of de facto exile. Also, in following accounts of the aftermath of the Paris attacks in the foreign press, I do seem to notice more vocal protests against the attacks among Muslims, though I am uncertain as to whether the protests are genuinely new, or whether similar levels of protest against past attacks were simply under-reported in the media -- or, indeed, whether the appearance of increased anti-ISIS protests in the Muslim world is just an artifact of confirmation bias on my part. The recent joint statement in repudiation of the Paris attacks by 120 Muslim scholars is encouraging, but it is important to note that the statement was issued from the safety of Washington, DC -- a sign, not of cowardice, but of simple and admirable prudence, given that in the governments of Muslim states, the dark gods of religious monomania still have unrestricted access to the instrumentalities of state power, as was the case in Europe roughly 400 years ago. And as it was in Europe then, so it is with the Muslim world now:  if the latter is to be saved -- given nuclear weapons, if the world is to be saved -- it must be saved, now as then, by the laughter of Voltaire.

I fervently hope that someday the final verdict of History about all such untrammeled religious passion, that of the Christian right no less than that of militantly jihadist Islam, will be a paraphrase of Jesus Christ:  Go thy way, thy cynicism hath made thee whole.

Vive La Belle France

James R. Cowles

 

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