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June 27, 2006

Razib Interviews Adam Webb

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I enjoyed Razib's 10 Questions with traditionalist Adam Webb, whose take on modern liberalism reminds me some of John Gray's and Stephen Toulmin's. (Word of caution: "modern liberalism" in these discussions doesn't mean "America's current Democrats." It means the modern world in a more general sense, as in "post-Enlightenment Western society.") GNXP commenters applaud and cavil; Webb responds. Here's Webb's book.



posted by Michael at June 27, 2006


It is a truism that where you start from determines where you get to. If you start with the question: "What is the ideal person?" and "What is the ideal society?" the context is entirely ignored. I think we commonly make a stumble when we use the phrase "survival of the fittest." I think it would be much better to speak of the "survival of the FITTINGEST." Fitting into the context, fitting into the lives of others.

For instance, when I was in high school and even in college, I assumed that an English teacher with high standards, knowing the "canon" and well-spoken, was someone who didn't just fit into the American educational system but a person who made an active contribution to the world as a whole. Thinking that an Indian reservation could use and would appreciate such a person, I came here to Browning, Montana. I fit the prescription pretty well.

In a few years the definition of a "good" (i.e. virtuous and effective) English teacher completely shifted. Suddenly I was a villain, an oppressor, a honky, a colonialist, etc. and I was unable to keep order in the classroom by imposing punishments of any kind, not even low grades. I could not say anything that offended a student, I could not say which books to read or that some were better than others. I was constantly threatened with violence even though I offered none. This was not just true on the reservation -- it was also true in the small adjacent white communities.

I came to agree with this latter point of view. I got the kids to write their own novels. I tolerated backtalk, even encouraged getting it out into the open so it could be analyzed. We watched forbidden movies and analyzed them, too. I became a bit of an expert on Native American books. NOW I'm so out of synch with the administrators and school boards, who want test results and absolute obedience to their every command. I cannot teach.

What I'm trying to say is that life is an ecology, not whether I'm tough and strong or independent, but whether I fit into the system. Right now, I have enough social security and a little paid-for house so I can write. But the publishing industry has disintegrated. Where in this new ecology do I fit? Blogs?

This town is also trying to understand where I fit in their ecology. Some feel that I will usurp their niche. (Choteau told me they didn't need another writer in town -- they already had Peter Bowen.) Will I try to take over the town council? Will I bake pies for Homesteader Days? Will I second guess the Methodist minister? Will I make a play for the wealthier widowed rancher? (No to all.) A few more years and they will be used to me. They'll invent some kind of niche to put me in. (Village eccentric.)

This is not a traditional/liberal or virtue/wicked split. (Though I deplore their overuse of poisons and resistance to the idea of global warming.) It's just a complex of relationships that has grown up over centuries and continues to evolve, while we all struggle to stay "fitting." The economy is throwing all of us around. I'm not sending a son to war. They don't read my kind of books. The dust that comes in on the Jet Stream from China falls on all of us.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 27, 2006 9:10 PM

I haven't read Mr. Webb's book, but at least from what I see in the interview, he appears to suggest that (1) modern liberal society is spiritually unsatisfying and (2) the only alternative to modern liberalism is to revivify the older, pre-modern, traditional forms of "wisdom". (He seems to be referring to the world's various religious traditions.)

I'm not trying to be a smart-aleck, but I wonder if he's not jumping to a conclusion here without sufficient examination of the possibilities.

He seems to see tradition as having been displaced by modern liberalism, like an honest street vendor terrorized by teenage hoodlums. The cure is obvious; tradition needs to defend itself, to take back the street.

But what if modern liberalism is not the cause of the great religious crisis of our era, but a response to it? In Hegelian terms, what if the "unfolding of the spirit" means that religion in the modern era has to assume new forms? And if a religion for the current era is still struggling to be born, maybe modern liberalism is a sort of stop-gap, temporary measure.

I'm probably being pointlessly contrarian, but this seems like a reasonable question to ask. Is looking in the rear-view mirror the only way for us to navigate into the future?

Also, it's easy to stress the underlying unity of all religious traditions if you're flying high enough in the clouds. But if you get down a bit closer to the earth, you have to ask if all forms of pre-modern religion are really worth reviving. I wonder if Mr. Webb wants to see Aztec human sacrifice restored in Mexico City, to take merely one example.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 27, 2006 10:42 PM

P.Mary -- "Fittingest" is good! Let's see if we can sell the term to our friends at GNXP.

FvB -- My prob with political discussions generally is that, while I agree with maybe 99% of the critiques (whether of left or right, up or down), I have *such* a hard time getting behind any of the constructive proposals ... And Webb's positive suggestions strike me as a little daffy too. Still, I'm always glad to run across a stimulating critique.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 28, 2006 2:25 AM

Fvb's idea that " if a religion for the current era is still struggling to be born, maybe modern liberalism is a sort of stop-gap, temporary measure" is an excellent suggestion. The trouble with the "old" religious "traditions" is that they are based on places and obvious evidence that is now gone. Instruments have so extended and elaborated what is "self-evident," that many of the old rules (consider conception) are simply irrelevant.

But some things may merely be displaced or transformed in strange ways: consider modern heart-bypass surgery as a displacement of Aztec ripping hearts out of bodies. (Okay, so it's a great idea for a short story and not for religion -- but aren't we trying to displace "eternal life" from heaven to the operating room? Replacing God -- or at least Jesus -- with an expensive surgeon?)

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 28, 2006 6:44 AM

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