I am getting a lot of personal intellectual mileage out of this post by Bryan Rasmussen over on thickculture. It is part of the Contexts.org stable of ‘blogs that includes one of my favourites, Sociological Images. Contexts.org is like Gawker Media for those who don’t really need to feel guilty about slobbering over Android phones, but do anyway. The post by Bryan brings to mind one of the foundational myths of this modern life: that the religious is always and in every place in contradistinction to the civil. Those who seek to retain this proposition have not really moved on from the 4th century when Constantine thought it might be a good idea to extend religious toleration throughout the Roman empire.
We are not living in a Roman empire but there are places where knowledge of public ideas other than those prescribed by a theocratic or other state formation are the only ideas. In a connecting article from The Chronicle (which I’ll probably discover is run by friends of L. Ron) Charles Kurzman writes about the development of the social sciences in Iran since their revolution in 1979. Quite apart from the poorly-expressed growth in numbers of people taking the social sciences since the late 1970s, Kurzman makes a number of assertions that makes me wonder if a Habermas-ian public sphere is possible when the state merely has to send in the tanks. After Tiananmen in 1989, you can have your internet chat rooms and develop a civil society as long as you only talk about the ‘right’ ideas. You can rush to a middle ground but not too quickly and only ‘our’ middle ground. In short, will (symbolic and actual) power always trump the rush to this middle ground? Kurzman writes:
The expansion of civic life spooks the Iranian government, and this past summer’s sweeping election protests deepened its anxiety. The authorities have constructed a paranoid conspiracy theory that links Iranian social scientists to international civil-society activists, whom the Iranian government accuses of trying to foment a “velvet revolution” in Iran […]
The Iranian government’s goal, it seems, is to undermine not only the institutions of civil society, but the very idea of it.
If we can separate the religious from the civil, why then are there people being killed in the name of the ‘big idea’ in Iran, in Burma and in Zimbabwe? Habermas and others might argue that the development of civil society separately from the state is a necessary condition for the spread of democratic principles that take various forms in their realisation. So Bryan writes, if this is possible:
Can we instead read the Iranian interest in social science as a reaction against religious fundamentalism? In other words, might the turn to social science in the context of Iran be understood as a polemic, an expression of discontent, rather than a de facto affirmation of Western secular values? If so, we might preserve the possibility that science and religion, far from having exclusive claims to a positive reality, are the languages by which we have come to understand the contest for the center of public life.
The contest for the “centre of public life” is grand and all but when a state, theocratic or otherwise, can just crack bones and force ‘confessions’ from dissidents to crush dissent, how can one be a meek advocate for others’ rights? Are we forced to the margins in debates, because there are ‘big ideas’ to be put forward. The appeal for the separation of Church (as in Catholic) and state in Ireland is perhaps then polemical in, these are Bryan’s words:
its tendency to force people and their passions into rigidly defined domains that disallow vital experience and expression.
Put the Bishop up against Hitchens and we all get a chance to take a side. Put the public state worker caring for three children up against the heartless economist and we can take a side. In Iran, you speak out against the government and you end up in gaol. Have we become lazy with our own civil society? As a visual illustration, I offer you just over three minutes of NSFW Spike Lee. Watch it all, your life’s not that busy.