Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Religion of democracy

Something kinda wondrous happened in class today. It was "Theorizing Religion," and for most of class we acted as if this were any other Tuesday - but I'd set aside time at the end to discuss "voting as ritual," we knew reality would flood in while we were still together. Since I'd missed the last class we had a lot to discuss: "Ritual and the Subjunctive" from Ritual and its Consequences (by a team including Michael Puett, co-author of The Path), and the first two chapters of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, including the one on sacred time. But it turned out alright.

We started with the subjunctive - what is it? I told them about the exclamation of a Spaniard in a Latin class I took once, as the teacher explained that English largely did without the subjunctive: "that's how we say everything important!" The many native Spanish speakers in the class concurred, lamenting the flatness of contemporary English compared to Spanish's (admittedly prolix) acknowledgment of the penumbra of wishes, regrets, fears and hopes which are so important a part of subjectivity. A native Arabic speaker thought the omission of the subjunctive might be the reason English-speakers too quickly turned to sarcasm.

This discussion helped us get into what the authors of Ritual and its Consequences meant by arguing that ritual, contrary to most of its modern interpreters, should be understood as operating in the subjunctive - as if the world were not "fractured," as if unruly human passions might be harmonized, as if the ancestors had all been paragons of virtue, as if suffering could be redeemed, etc. People engage in ritual not in denial of this wishfulness but with a "tragic" sense that the ordered world of ritual will never transform or replace the messy world we live in. But in ritual we do experience moments of harmony, and can become different people and communities through our shared and repeated participation in these "not true yet not deceptive" practices.

I won't tire you with our extended discussion of a student's imagined ritual of buying the same bagel at the same shop each morning, or the abbreviated account of Eliade's view that since "history is suffering," ritual is needed to erase time and allow us to transcend the relativity of historical contingency, and cut right to the final ten minutes. "How many of you have voted?" I asked, Most of the class, many by absentee ballot. (The picture above's one of the murals at the school where I voted at 7:45 this morning.)

Then: "What if I told you your vote didn't matter?" "That's not the point," one student protested, before excoriating all those who might not have voted because they thought their votes didn't matter. "Even if everyone voted," I persisted, "indeed even more so then, your vote wouldn't matter. But you're right: that's not the point. I vote as if mine were the deciding vote, knowing full well it isn't." I didn't have to add that I voted as if this were an election like any other, not a toxic brawl between the two least popular presidential candidates in history.

Connection made! But then somehow we got to how we also vote as if the system were fair, when we're all too aware of the ways in which both sides (we're more aware of one side) try to put their fingers on the scales, and suddenly I was waxing eloquent about Al Gore's acceptance of the Supreme Court's verdict in "Bush vs. Gore," even though he thought it was mistaken - and said so. In saying so, he acknowledged the register of the subjunctive, I exclaimed! By explicitly acting as if the Court made no mistakes, he invited us to enter and strengthen the space in which it might make fewer. Indeed, democracy demands a lot of as if, and ours even has a motto acknowledging our failure to live up to it: a more perfect union.

I'd planned the voting-as-ritual stuff, but the Gore cameo caught even me by surprise. I think it was an expression of my own agitated apprehension at all that might yet go wrong this time, but also a profession of faith of sorts in American democracy, not because it always works but because the only way it will work is if we act as if it could. The polls are still open, let's do what we can to put the candidate in office who believes the system can work. 

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