Eugene McCarraher

Historians Have All the Fun

I did a history major in undergrad and loved it. There is something about focusing on the past that gives one such a spectacular view of the present. This clear view of the present leads to insightful criticism. I love it. And so, when I saw a link for this interview with Eugene McCarraher, I got all kinds of excited. Go check it out, not only is it long but also witty – the kind of interview I really like. The following quotes are only part of what is said:

EM: … First, I think that Christians should stop yakking about “consumerism.” “Consumerism” is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I’ve come to think that that’s the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It’s just too easy a target. There’s a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don’t, by the way, believe that we inhabit a “post-industrial” society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they’re materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome, because it clearly doesn’t work, and wrong-headed, because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.

EM: … All that said, I’ve come to dissent somewhat from William Cavanaugh and Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank and others who see almost nothing but perniciousness in the liberal tradition. Look, let’s be honest: the heroes of the antislavery movement, of the movements for womens’ rights and for civil rights for non-whites, all employed the language of liberalism in addition to the language of Christianity. Why? In large measure, because Christian tradition had legitimated a language of hierarchy and duty and subordination that even Cavanaugh and Hauerwas and Milbank can’t stomach anymore. Perhaps because I’m a mere historian, I have to respect the indisputable evidence that Christians certainly weren’t citing the Church Fathers when they demanded that the slaves’ shackles be loosened, or that women get the right to vote and be educated. For all that it’s perverted the Christian account of personhood, the liberal account of freedom and “rights” has preserved and yes even enhanced vestiges of the Christian tradition. So enough liberal-bashing; it’s gotten boring, and it’s not entirely accurate historically, anyway.

EM: … What should also trouble us about the Gates-Buffett initiatives is the idea that the poor—or the rest of us, for that matter—should have to depend on the benefactions of the super-rich rather than on the ministrations of government or of religious institutions. These acts of bourgeois-oblige, so to speak, exemplify the utter privatization of public services, among which should be the provision of medical care. Indeed, Gates and Buffett are idols of the corporate-benevolence complex: these are people who exploit workers and extract resources and then shower benefits on the world’s wretched, soaking up praise for their charitable endeavors. Thank you, thank you, oh nabobs of wealth, for deigning to notice our plight. So while Gates and Buffett’s actions are certainly better than nothing, they shouldn’t warm our hearts for too long.

EM: From a legion of disgrace, the two best-known examples of Christian fealty to empire have been Jean Elshtain and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Elshtain’s work had been heading in this direction for over a decade. Disturbed by some trends on the left, and especially among feminists, she appointed herself something of a Lady Bracknell to preside over cultural and political discourse. In the course of becoming an ideological cop she morphed into one of these virtue- and civility-meisters, wagging her finger at everyone to mind their intellectual and polemical manners. She started seeming a lot like William Bennett, adopting this schoolmarmish, moralizing tone. Then along came 9/11 and Iraq, and she went over to the dark side, pontificating on “just war” and spouting all sorts of Augustinian tautologies. Along with Michael Novak, she got to be one of the media’s go-to people for a quick exposition of why God wants us to go to war. You don’t hear much from her now that everything’s gone down the crapper.

… Against the embedded Christians, I’ve been immensely encouraged by the emergence of a motley and diverse group of Christians unwilling to enlist their talents in the service of Caesar. When I read and talk to people like Bill Cavanaugh, Mike Budde, Shane Claiborne, Kelly Johnson, Charles Marsh, Lauren Winner, Richard Hays, or Steve Long—all of whom are indebted to Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder—I know there’s hope, enormous hope.


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