Monday, June 21

When the Going Gets Tough, the Masochists Get Going

skepticI read Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? shortly after its initial publication back in 2007. Frank’s book uses the State of Kansas as an example of a puzzling phenomenon: the tendency in some States of the Nation for the electorate to vote into office people who are avowedly, professedly, and explicitly committed to policies that damage the interests, especially the economic interests, of the very people who vote them into office. Frank’s simple but powerful question: Why? Why does the electorate, in certain States, vote against themselves by cooperating with their elected officials in undermining their (the electorates’) own manifest interest? Frank himself offers only muddled hypotheses (at least in the original edition of his book ... I have not read subsequent versions). I say that entirely without rancor, because for a long time, I could do no better. But I think I have finally discovered at least the outlines of an answer.

I think I know What’s the Matter with Kansas.


Don't ask me what kicked off the following sequence of cogitations. All I know for sure is that the answer came from the confluence of three lines of thought: two personal and one historical. One of the two personal lines of thought comprises the awful time I had as an early teenager with dental health and tooth decay – or rather, my parents’ reaction to this problem. When I was around 13, plus or minus, it was discovered that, due to a very subtle birth defect, my teeth had formed no hard enamel surface: they were basically very soft chalk. (The technical term for this condition is amelogenesis imperfecta, and can result from a variety of genetic abnormalities.) So in the process of chewing, the tooth material gradually wore away down to the bare nerve. Result: at any given time in my early teens, at least one, usually two or three, teeth were hurting. My doctor prescribed the strongest narcotics the law allowed to subdue the pain to a dull roar. On one such occasion, the one most revelatory, I remember lying on the sofa, pretty much “happied out” by my narcotics du jour, with the tooth pain a distant rumble, and hearing my father, looking on, say “I don’t know why the hell anybody has to hurt that way.” My mother’s reply “It’s so we can suffer!” A half-century later, we would describe dad as "spiritual but not religious".  Fair enough.  So am I! But in the bizarrely surrealistic universe of my mother’s hyper-fundamentalist-Baptist imagination, my mother was cheering on my agony because, in the perverse Christian-fundamentalist universe, suffering was good for its own sake. Not suffering for the sake of another. Not redemptive suffering. Not the self-emptying suffering of kenosis a la Philippians 2:6ff. Just suffering, period. Why? Because suffering – pure suffering, gratuitous suffering, suffering per se – would cause righteousness. In the New Testament, Jesus says that the righteous will suffer. My mother reversed this maxim: sufferers will become righteousness.


The second personal motif pertains to the culture of that early fundamentalist tradition in which I was raised. Once I began to reflect on the fundamentalist penchant for gratuitous suffering, it became evident that such an attitude was not peculiar to my mother, but rather was shared by the fundamentalist Christian – in fact, the non-fundamentalist but conservative evangelical Christian – subculture as a whole. The fundamentalist Baptist church of my early teens was no exception. But at the level of the overall conservative evangelical / fundamentalist Christian church, this celebration of suffering per se took the form, not of personal suffering due to persistent toothaches or any individual misfortune, but of conservative Christians styling themselves as a persecuted and embattled minority pitted against an implacably hostile, godless, and militantly secular ambient culture. I remember very well that this is the kind of rhetoric the late Rev. Jerry Falwell employed to describe the Moral Majority:  as an embattled remnant of True Believers – even as the Moral Majority was in the process of accruing formidable political clout. Exquisite irony: the Moral Majority was energized by its depiction of itself as a minority. And Falwell did all this with -- at least publicly -- a straight face! That such a minority suffers oppression at the hands of an ostensibly oppressive and oppressing majority assures fundamentalists, not only that their cause and theology are just, but that they themselves are just.  Why?  One more time:  because they suffer.

The historical precedents for this attitude go at least as far back as the flagellants of medieval times.  While whole cities were dying of the bubonic plague / Black Death in the 14th and 15th centuries, communities of people, usually men, would wander the countryside and into the depopulated villages whipping their backs bloody with cat-o'-nine-tails in order to inflict a level of suffering that would render them righteous, thereby purifying the ambient society and -- so it was hoped -- moving God to revoke the Plague. The literal use of a whip -- flagrum -- to scourge oneself pretty much died out with the passing of the Plague, though St. John Vianney reportedly used it as a means of penance, and he lived over halfway through the 19th century. The use of a cilice (same Latin root word as cicatrix:  scar or scar-inducing) -- a kind of spiked bracelet or thigh-band -- is still permitted by the arch-conservative Catholic fraternity Opus Dei, though with severe restrictions. But as it was with my mother's attitude toward my toothache and with the fundamentalists' preference for ostensible minority status, so it is with Roman Catholic agonal practices:  the whole point is the attainment of righteousness through the deliberate infliction of gratuitous suffering.


With me so far?  OK ... back to Kansas!  The same psychology that was at work in my mother's reaction to my toothache and in fundamentalists' connoisseurship of being a minority and in the Catholic agonists of medieval times and today is at work when, e.g., people in Kansas vote for Sam Brownback and grant him permission to finance tax cuts for the plutocrats by raiding the pensions of retired State workers, cutting through the muscle of school funding and into the marrow of the bone (in explicit violation of the State constitution!), and threatening retaliatory reductions in State funding for the Kansas judiciary if State judges display the least recalcitrance about Brownback's plans, etc., etc. Brownback is merely doing what (not all, but an electorally decisive proportion of) the voters of Kansas elected him to do:  stroke the moral vanity of the conservative evangelical / fundamentalist sectors of the Kansas electorate -- whose name is "Legion," for they are many -- by making them suffer, which, in their down-the-Rabbit-Hole universe, means making them happy. Nor are Kansas and Brownback alone in this perverted symbiosis.  A close friend with roots in Wisconsin as deep as my own roots in Kansas tells me that one of the reasons Gov. Scott Walker was popular enough to survive a recall is because Walker is to Wisconsin what Brownback is to Kansas:  the whip with which (a politically decisive portion of) the electorate lacerates its own back in pursuit of an essentially religious moral vision of purity-through-pain.  (Incidentally, Brownback- / Walker-as-whip illustrates the primary difference between direct democracy and republican government, flagellant style.  In a direct democracy, the people inflict suffering directly on themselves; in a republic, suffering is inflicted on the people by their elected representatives. But in both cases, the whole point is to become righteous and happy by earning God's favor through suffering.)  Only the victims differ:  teachers in the case of Brownback; union members in the case of Walker. In both cases, the essential belief is the same:  if our kids grow up ignorant and if the corporations pay us a pittance, then, like slaves in a contemporary version of the antebellum South, we have at least the consolation of being righteous.  God is love and thank y'Jesus!

In conclusion, note two salient points:

o The righteousness-through-gratuitous-suffering paradigm flourishes most luxuriantly in States dominated by conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity and where levels of education are mediocre, at best

It would be difficult -- practically impossible, I should think -- to jump-start the ideology of righteousness through gratuitous self-inflicted suffering in States like Massachusetts or Vermont or California or -- thank Great Cthulhu and the Old Ones! -- Washington state. Ditto Oregon. Ditto the District of Columbia. But Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas ... that's a different story! The antibody against the "happy suffering" virus is not only the aggregate educational level, but also the absence of conservative Christianity -- and, to the degree that people are "churched" at all, the counterweight of left-leaning liberal religious institutions, e.g., liberal Episcopalians and Presbyterians, liberal Catholics (not an oxymoron!), Unitarian-Universalists, plus representatives of non-theocentric traditions like Buddhists. "Godless secular humanism" faithfully continues performing its thankless task of being the immune system for the American body politic -- some parts more than others.

o Righteousness-through-suffering ideologies tend to flourish during times of chaos and rapid change when people are apprehensive about the future because they fear they are losing control

The result is always a nostalgia for a supposedly simpler and more idyllic past and a lust for control in order to -- in both a literal and a generic sense -- "take our country back". There was my mother during my epic dental problems, the fundamentalist subculture that thrives on the mere perception of persecution, the apocalyptic devastation of Europe during the Plague years, the US during an age of terrorism and maldistributed incomes and ostensible gender confusion and global warming and perceived national decline. So what, specifically, do contemporary flagellants aspire to control?


On the flagellants' own terms, the answer is blasphemous. All the above -- valorizing pain, wallowing in being a minority, whipping one's back to bloody ribbons, giving part of one's State pension to the Koch brothers, etc. -- all these are attempts to control God.  And thereby to control history. One is attempting to use suffering to "operate" God the way I operate my i-Phone6:  if I do A, B, and C, then X, Y, and Z will happen. If I touch the Facebook icon, Facebook will come up. If I vote for Brownback and against gays, Jesus will love me more. So What's the Matter with Kansas (and, so I hear second-hand, Wisconsin) is that the voters, desperate to exert some control over their lives and their communities, have turned to a form of witchcraft. Witchcraft (as carefully distinguished from the utterly harmless earth-religion of Wicca), sorcery, necromancy, black magic ... all are attempts to use conspicuous and self-inflicted suffering to control the Deity(ies) -- in other words, to be God to (the)  God(s) -- all courtesy of the same folks who never tire of insisting that "God is in control". According to the Christian myth, this always-already-abortive project of controlling God started with the Fall of Lucifer:  Him the Almighty Power hurl'd headlong, flaming from the ethereal Sky with hideous Ruin and Combustion down to bottomless Perdition, there to dwell in adamantine Chains and penal Fire, who durst defy th'Omnipotent to arms! (John Milton, Paradise Lost)

So why don't people eventually conclude that the tactic never works? I dunno ... beats the Devil outta me!

James R. Cowles



Leave a Reply