Noam Chomsky thinks the U.S. is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” René Girard replies.Friday, February 12th, 2016
The Académie Française memorial service for René Girard in Saint-Germain-des-Prés will take place this weekend. The Book Haven has written much about the French theorist, who died on November 4 (see here). I will not be in Paris, alas, except in spirit. So René was much in my mind when I read the latest headline from Noam Chomsky. According to The Wire, the controversial public intellectual thinks America is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” Really? He’s including Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia in the competition? I wondered.
In fairness, his comment is much is much more nuanced than that … well, not much more. According to the article: “There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. ‘And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.’” Guess I haven’t been hanging out in the right circles. How quick we are, however, to distance ourselves from those people. That should be a tip-off.
I returned to what René had to say on the subject in a short (about 100 page), very readable Q&A book, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer, translated by Trevor Cribben-Merrill and published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. An excerpt:
MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?
RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.
MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?
RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.
MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.
RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.
MT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?
RG: Mankind has never done anything else.
MT: That’s no reason to continue.
RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents. I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.
What can I say? He will be missed. No one like him. And I wish I were in Paris this weekend.