Carlos Eire, eminent professor of history and religious studies at Yale helpfully explains the mythical spell of Fidel Castro:
Oddly enough, some will mourn his passing, and many an obituary will praise him… Because deceit was one of Fidel Castro’s greatest talents, and gullibility is one of the world’s greatest frailties. A genius at myth-making, Castro relied on the human thirst for myths and heroes. His lies were beautiful, and so appealing. According to Castro and to his propagandists, the so-called revolution was not about creating a repressive totalitarian state and securing his rule as an absolute monarch, but rather about eliminating illiteracy, poverty, racism, class differences and every other ill known to humankind. This bold lie became believable, thanks largely to Castro’s incessant boasting about free schools and medical care, which made his myth of the benevolent utopian revolution irresistible to many of the world’s poor.
Many intellectuals, journalists and educated people in the First World fell for this myth, too — though they would have been among the first to be jailed or killed by Castro in his own realm — and their assumptions acquired an intensity similar to that of religious convictions. Pointing out to such believers that Castro imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands more of his own people than any other Latin American dictator was usually futile. His well-documented cruelty made little difference, even when acknowledged, for he was judged according to some aberrant ethical code that defied logic.
The great suburban build-out is over….We shall have to live with its consequences for a long time. The chief consequence is that the living arrangement most Americans think of as “normal” is bankrupting us both personally and at every level of government…A further consequence is that two generations have grown up and matured in America without experiencing what it is like to live in a human habitat of quality. We have lost so much culture in the sense of how to build things well. Bodies of knowledge and sets of skills that took centuries to develop were tossed into the garbage, and we will not get them back easily. The culture of architecture was lost to Modernism and its dogmas. The culture of town planning was handed over to lawyers and bureaucrats, with pockets of resistance mopped up by the automobile, highway, and real estate interests.
You might say the overall consequence is that we have lost our sense of consequence. Living in places where nothing is connected properly, we have forgotten that connections are important.
Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 245-46.
I say “more accessible” because this is hardly A Secular Age for Dummies. Charles Taylor’s massive and dense book is tough sledding. I have not read much of it, but am certainly familiar with the work of Taylor.In How (Not) to Be Secular, Jamie Smith brings the intellectual cookies to a lower shelf, but don’t be fooled, serious thinking is still required. Smith respects his readers by providing an accessible, yet thoughtful distillation of one of the most consequential books of our day.
Instead of doing a typical book review, let me briefly mention six things I appreciated about this book:
*The writing style is elegant and engaging. Let me give one example from page 11: “Ardor and devotion cannot undo the shift in plausibility structures that characterizes our age.” This is wonderfully conceived, but it is also pregnant with implications.
*There is a judicious use of illustrations from literature, music, and movies.
*Since I am not a dispassionate reader on the subject of doubt (I know the struggle to believe firsthand), I am grateful for the insights on living in this unusual climate of secularism.
*The author is careful to understand his subject matter. A good example is the compassionate assessment of the troubled genius, David Foster Wallace. Smith does not offer a glib critique of Wallace’s writings. Wallace is looked at seriously, even one could say, sympathetically. To be sure, Smith does not agree with Wallace’s overall philosophy, but Smith does a good job of showing how others have missed salient features of Wallace’s approach.
*Smith clearly appreciates Charles Taylor’s overall project in A Secular Age. However, that does not impede Smith from offering important pushbacks and critiques.
*Both Smith and Taylor understand that a silly, sentimental, and Sunday School-ish type of faith is hardly enough to stave off the onslaughts of secularism. Smith does a good job of showing how foolish it is to abandon the Christian faith for the “mature” position of materialism. Rather, we ought to abandon the trivial or superficial beliefs of American Christianity.