Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 1-18.
(By way of introduction to the book, see also my brief interview of Curtis White.)
Curtis White, writer and Distinguished Professor of English at Illinois State University, begins this provocative work of criticism with a couple of questions about “purportedly secular liberalism, confidently established in the powers of Reason.” He asks: “Is [secular liberalism] really so free of the religious prejudices and superstition it has always claimed to despise? Has it no need for the spiritual?” (2). White seems to be writing primarily for a “liberal” — that is to say, progressive — audience, but he quickly challenges common liberal assumptions regarding the role of Reason in creating a better society. Reason, he suggests, boils down to a tool through which society extorts obedience from its members (9). Reason has become a cult, or an idol, that stifles not only thought but also creativity and justice. He thus offers this book as a reflection on the “spirit of disobedience” — a spirit that he sees in early Christianity, among other places.
White is not the first of the authors we’ve read in this course to question the conventions of allegedly rational (or scientific) discourse. In the “Will to Believe,” for instance, William James argued that the practice of science rested in part on faith, including the faith that science is worth pursuing because it yields a certain kind of truth. Likewise, Reinhold Niebuhr contended in “Truth in Myths” that secularists often smuggle faith into their worldviews in the form of an unwarranted belief in progress. Notably, neither James nor Niebuhr meant that science was illegitimate because of its reliance on these faiths. Instead, they meant to defend the right of religious and ethical thinkers (and believers) to likewise rest upon first principles that could not be empirically proven to be true.
White, I think, fits into this tradition of challenging those who would claim that science and rationality yield the only legitimate form of knowledge. He does so, as I mentioned above, by denying that Reason is a neutral tool for obtaining objective truth. There is also a pragmatic element of his rejoinder to Reason. He calls disobedience a form of “world making.” In defining “the spirit of disobedience,” he writes of “reclaiming” the world “in the name of that most exasperated human quality, creativity” (18). And what are the sources of this creativity? White refers to “an intuitive understanding of the good,” which he sees as ultimately spiritual in nature (17). Here, he sounds like an heir not only of William James but also of the Transcendentalists, about whom he writes favorably in this book.
By situating White’s book within these larger discussions of science, rationality, religion, and ethics, I do not at all mean to suggest that he is simply a latter-day James or Thoreau. On the contrary, I think that White takes us into relatively new territory when he suggests that “the Golden Rule is for complex reasons no longer functional or available in our society” (17). As we move ahead in the book, we will have an opportunity to assess that claim and to see what White proposes that we do about it.
— D. Voelker