‘Rebooting Civil Society’

Glenn Beck – Are We Becoming An Uncivil Society? – TIME

While we must always stand up to protect those rights, we should also realize that only a civil society could maintain this balance as well as this nation has for over 200 years.

Reading Beck’s opposition of civil and uncivil societies reminded me of the Pro-Lisbon ‘civil society’ venture spearheaded by Pat Cox during the last Lisbon campaign. Maybe part of traction came from people who thought ‘civil society’ was groups composed of ‘civil’ people, as upposed to ‘uncivil’, …i.e. not nice, blackguards in the No campaign.

Another conception of ‘civil society’ swung into view this morning when I stumbled into John Waters’s mind. This conception sees civil society as a sort of computer operating system that needs desire to function.

What this society needs is a rebirth of hope and desire – The Irish Times – Fri, Jan 14, 2011

Starting to desire again in a healthy way is the essential starting point of the rebooting of civil society. It should be obvious that this will not result from a reinvigoration of material appetites, markets or other elements of the economic system. What is required is not a new government or banking system or a stricter form of regulation. What is required is the generation of a new kind of humanity in both public and private realms.

Let me slip into my Paddy O’Blog tracksuit momentarily so that I might consider the matter of John Waters, as it is some time since I have given the matter of Waters any attention. As far mere mortals can grasp the point of such unearthly prose, it seems Waters is concerned with an absence of God from how society thinks about itself. However, he doesn’t mention the word ‘God’. I would have a lot more respect for anyone who thinks that a godless society is a dazed, confused and ultimately doomed one, and says it plainly, rather than someone who beats about the burning bush ad infinitum.

What, then, is the point of all this mystifying bullshit? Why can’t he just come out and say that if people don’t believe in God they are doomed to hell? Is it some residual concern with being down with the kids, in the manner of a music journalist? The personal motives don’t matter too much. I think we have to look beyond Waters’s own idiosyncrasies here, to the matter of why the would-be paper of record in Ireland sees fit to present this stuff as serious social commentary.

For all his railing against society’s failings, Waters presents a religion conceived in private: the return of God (or ‘the rebooting of civil society’) is something that takes place entirely separate from whatever political and economic regime holds sway. This is not a religious practice that confronts earthly institutions, or one likely to get its practitioners crucified by the authorities. Waters’s religion is entirely accommodated to the existing order, in that it sees ‘new kinds of humanity’ as arising entirely separately of material questions. For Waters, It doesn’t really matter if, in Ireland alone, there is gross material inequality, half a million unemployed, families depending on food parcels, a health system in collapse: the urgent problem to be addressed, for people suffering as a result, is the re-definition of ‘human desire’ within ‘an absolute framework’.

This sort of view, while not the sort of thing Jesus would approve of if the Gospels are anything to go by, is not rare at all but it is one entirely complicit with the existing order. The thing is, you are not going to find someone writing for the Irish Times who says openly “As a believer in God, I believe we should ignore how capitalism affects human flourishing and questions of justice and concentrate instead on our private spiritual development, because that is where we will find true meaning”, since religious preaching is not very popular nowadays, and to have a religious preacher claim that we should ignore capitalism could end up contaminating people’s ideas about capitalism. But mystic waffle from a journalist that presents the pretty much the same point of view and fulfils the same end, on the other hand, is just fine.

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