Introduction to Curtis White’s The Spirit of Disobedience

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

4 thoughts on “Introduction to Curtis White’s The Spirit of Disobedience”

  1. I find White’s book very interesting so far. He book goes great with what I am learning in other classes about the Mcdonaldization of the world in how we are taught to obey what every our teachers, bosses and the mass media tell us to. White expresses that as a society the enlightenment has hurt us. That the thought processes of the enlightenment has made us reason that we must obey in order to become or get anywhere in life. As my mind has been opened to many things over the years, I see this happening to our society in a fast and quick manner. We must regain our independence and creativity, to over come and redefine the enlightenment to pursue our own goals.

  2. I disagree with the fact that we have been taught to obey societies rules. It seems the more society tries to rule us, the more we rebel, hence the reason why our prison rates are so high and why they are prejudice towards minorities. For example, if we truly obeyed everything our teachers asked of us, everyone would have an A in every class–and there would be no attendance sheets because our teachers would have complete faith in knowing we would come to class because we have learned to obey them.

  3. I do not believe that we are thought to obey. I grew up in Germany when teacher still had the right to beat students who did not conform. Where 14-15 year old hang themselves in barns, or jump in front of a train because they received two D’s, in there finals. Their chances of getting a good job just went out the window! The News media had 10 minutes of world news, 15 min. national, and 5 min. sports. When I moved to my Dad in the U.S. I did another year of High School, I was shocked how relax everyone was. The news media talked for 15 about sports, 2 min world news, 3 min weather, and 10 min. how much milk farmers Joe’s cow gave. I visited East Germany (I grew up in the West) after the wall came down. I received a special tour of Kahla, form a Professor at the Jena University. We walked into a store, which at that time had hardly any food on the shelf, but the beer and hard liquor filled up three shelves. I ask him why they had so much alcohol, he said “you give the people what they want, and they will be happy”. If you want to see what it is like for the media feeding us information you should watch “1984” or visit North Korea. We get what we want, this is why we have Democrats who complain about what the Republicans are doing, and vise versa. No one does what is most important for this country because we can not get together on anything. If all the students would unite, and go on strike, we would pay less for tuition.

  4. I disagree, I think that we are taught to conform to society. I have been searching for a new station which would actually tell me what is going on in the world. All I have been able to find is cute stories about children who pretend to be a news caster or kids who can sing opera. I wish that we had the kinds of news that other nations have, where you actually get the facts.

    Our teachers may not be able to beat their students anymore, but there are other ways of punishing students. The one rule my high school had which kept me conforming to their rules was if you got a detention you had to serve it during lunch time, this was the worst sort of punishment since I did not have a lot of classes with my friends so lunch time was the one time that I had to see all of them, if I had gotten a detention I would not get to see them. It was like being grounded by the school. Hardly anyone disobeyed for fear of not seeing their friends that day.

    We are definitly being taught to conform, even if it is only with subtle hints.

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