Salon talks to Richard Rodriguez about his new book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography:
Let me read a line to you from late in the book, and if you could explain it a little bit. You say, “After September 11, critical division in America feels and sounds like religious division.” Where are you going with that?
Well, it seems to me that there are two aspects of that. One of them is that I think that increasingly the left has conceded organized religion to the political right. This has been a catastrophe on the left.
I’m old enough to remember the black Civil Rights movement, which was as I understood it a movement of the left and insofar as it was challenging the orthodoxy of conservatives in the American South. White conservatism. And here was a group of protestant ministers leading processions, which were really religious processions through the small towns and the suburbs of the South. We shall overcome. Well, we have forgotten just how disruptive religion can be to the status quo. How challenging it is to the status quo. I also talk about Cesar Chavez, who is, who was embraced by the political left in his time but he was obviously a challenge to organized labor, the teamsters and to large farmers in the central valley.
So somehow we had decided on the left that religion belongs to Fox Television, or it belongs to some kind of right-wing fanaticism in the Middle East and we have given it up, and it has made us a really empty — that is, it has made the left really empty. I’ll point to one easy instance. Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. And what America heard was really a sermon. It was as though slavery and Jim Crow could not be described as a simple political narrative; racism was a moral offense, not simply an illegality. And with his vision of a time “when all of God’s children” in America would be free, he described the nation within a religious parable of redemption.
Fifty years later, our technocratic, secular president gave a speech at the Lincoln memorial, honoring the memory of the speech Dr. King had given. And nothing President Obama said can we remember these few weeks later; his words were dwarfed by our memory of the soaring religious oratory of fifty years ago. And what’s happened to us — and I would include myself in the cultural left — what has happened to us is we have almost no language to talk about the dream life of America, to talk about the soul of America, to talk about the mystery of being alive at this point in our lives, this point in our national history. That’s what we’ve lost in giving it to Fox Television.
So here’s the flip side of that. You write about the “New Atheism” emerging from England, catching on here. How is it new and why does it seem like a dead end to you?
It seems to me that the New Atheism — particularly its recent gaudy English manifestations — has a distinctly neo-colonial aspect. (As Cary Grant remarked: Americans are suckers for the accent!) On the one hand, the New Atheist, with his plummy Oxbridge tones, tries to convince Americans that God is dead at a time when London is alive with Hinduism and Islam. (The empiric nightmare: The colonials have turned on their masters and transformed the imperial city with their prayers and their growing families, even while Europe disappears into materialistic sterility.) Christopher Hitchens, most notably, before his death titled his atheist handbook as a deliberate affront to Islam: “God Is Not Great.” At the same time, he traveled the airwaves of America urging us to war in Iraq — and to maintain borders that the Foreign Office had drawn in the sand. With his atheism, he became a darling of the left. With his advocacy of the Iraq misadventure, he became a darling of the right. [Continue reading...]
As an Englishman in America who is frequently reminded that Americans are indeed suckers for the accent I retain, let me add a cultural footnote whose validity I can’t document but about which I am nevertheless convinced.
It’s on the origin of American crassness: it comes from England. Bad taste — we invented it.
From the English perspective, civilization has always been something that came from somewhere else.