Richard Rodriguez: "New Atheism has a distinctly neo-colonial aspect"

Provocative thinker Richard Rodriguez challenges orthodoxy on religion, liberals and class, Pope Francis and more

Published December 15, 2013 4:00PM (EST)

Richard Dawkins, Richard Rodriguez        (Reuters/Chris Keane/Penguin/Timothy Archibald)
Richard Dawkins, Richard Rodriguez (Reuters/Chris Keane/Penguin/Timothy Archibald)

When W.B. Yeats wrote, almost a century ago, that “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry,” he would not likely have guessed that the phrase would someday apply to a gay, deeply Catholic Latino living in California. Richard Rodriguez is more than just a string of contradictory signifiers; he’s an exemplar of the old-school literary essay at its most poetic, and the wrestling match with the tensions in his own background gives his work its incredible energy. It seems appropriate that he was born in Sacramento, also the birthplace of that other California essayist Joan Didion; Rodriguez writes about a different California than the landscape of despair she chronicled in the ’60s and ’70s, but his work belongs on the same shelf.

Rodriguez has also, in the past, been a reasonably controversial figure for his political positions, such as his opposition to affirmative action and bilingual education. A writer with less integrity could have easily parlayed this into a slot as a minority-conservative at a Washington think tank or a Dinesh D’Souza-like hack. Rodriguez is a more nuanced writer and more genuinely individualistic figure. (And his book is less long-winded than the autobiography of that other great gay literary Catholic, Morrissey.)

Rodriguez’s new book, "Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography," looks at the state of religion after 9/11 – the hatred of Islam, the revival of atheism, the disorientation of secularism. The 2001 attacks sent Rodriguez, literally and intellectually, to the Middle Eastern desert as a way of making sense of the three great monotheistic faiths -- Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- by experiencing their origins. It’s his first book in more than a decade, since the 2002 publication of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America." The new book also muses on Cesar Chavez, California’s tradition of disappointment and the death of newspapers. “When a newspaper dies in America,” he writes, “it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed.”

Lyrical and rigorous, "Darling" is essentially travel literature -- a kind of journey.

We spoke to Rodriguez from his longtime home in San Francisco.

So let’s start talking about "Darling" and we’ll get into some other things from there.  You open and close this book with trips to the Middle Eastern desert taken after September 11. The social and physical aspects of the desert seem very important to you, for the origins of the three monotheistic religions. So I wonder if human history would have been different if the God of the Axial age had emerged not from theses parched deserts, but say, from a dark German forest or something.

Well, I think obviously we would have a different experience of nature. And maybe a different notion of what God expects from us; this is said as a believer, I should stress. It seems to me that a God who would reveal himself to Abraham in a place of such desolation is at least reminding us that our place on this Earth is temporary, and this is a place – a landscape – that reminds us of just how empty it is. The word desert comes from the notion of deserted; something was here and now it’s gone. What’s gone, of course, is the ocean; this was the bottom of the ocean. And this is a place of such rigor and difficulty that one stands in nature with an adversarial relationship.

So a softer, more sentimental God would have revealed himself on a lakeshore or in a forest. That would have been a very different experience. One of the things I’m asking of people, believers and unbelievers, is that we come to terms with place. The Semitic god has always been acknowledged to have broken through time. The eternal breakthrough of time at a specific moment. But we don’t talk about places much, partially because it is such a difficult thing to imagine that we are being called, by God, in a place of death.

Well, place is abstract so it’s hard, in some ways, to wrap our heads around. And second of all you mention that this God is not soft or sentimental. The God of the Old Testament was a true hardass, a really unforgiving character. But He doesn’t remain unforgiving: I mean, forgiveness is built into Christianity when it arrives.

It’s also God who brings the promise of life. The joke that God tells Abraham is that he is a dry old man and that he will be fruitful, and Sarah his wife listens to that from the other room – they become desert figures at that moment – and He’s promising them fecundity. In the middle of this emptiness he promises descendants as numerous as the stars. In the middle of all that death there is this promise of life. It is at least paradoxical.

Let’s talk about another paradox. Pope Francis, when he came into his role, was taken as a cultural reactionary by some, maybe as a homophobe. He was the first pope from the Americas, but had a controversial relationship to Argentine wars. Now he’s denouncing the excesses of capitalism and sounding a lot like the original Francis. What do you make of Pope Francis?

Well, I think he’s a complicated man. And I wrote at the time of his ascension, because I knew something about his passion/compassion for the poor, that he should not simply be judged on where he stands on gay marriage or abortion, but that we evaluate him also and think about him and the fact that he lives a life of such humility. He wants to feel connected to those at the bottom.

My qualm, right now, with the political left is that it is so taken over by sexual issues, sexual questions, that we have forgotten the traditional concern of the left was always social class and those at the bottom. And now we’re faced with a pope who is compassionate towards the poor and we want to know his position on abortion. It seems to me that at one point when Pope Francis said, "You know the church has been too preoccupied with those issues, gay marriage and abortion…" at some level the secular left has been too preoccupied with those issues.

You’re saying that the church -- it's not exactly Catholics, it's the church itself, the Vatican -- has been obsessed with these questions at the same time the Anglo-American cultural left has been obsessed with these as well. To the exclusion of other important issues?

Yes, particularly the very poor.  And it seems to me what the pope doesn't say when he says we've been too preoccupied with these issues is: why? And that is what really interests me in my description of the relationship of heterosexual women in my life. I think that the problem with women controlling their reproduction and gay men getting married is that we're not generative, as the Vatican would judge us. And that's a deep violation of the desert. It's the whole point of the desert religions, to give birth, you know. And when women are not doing that, or women are choosing to control the process, or men are marrying each other outside the process of birth, then that's the problem.

So you have Jerry Falwell after September 11 saying that this wrath has come down upon New York and the Pentagon and in part he says it is because God is displeased with America. And who is God displeased with? Among those that He's displeased with are feminists, abortionists and homosexuals. And there it is again, that link, you know, and that's a really interesting pairing. One of the things I wanted to do with this book was not merely to insist on my rights as a gay man within a religious institution, but I got more interested in the question of women and these desert religions, and the rebellion that I'm sensing now with women from Catholic nuns to feminist friends of mine who have left the church, left various churches actually and synagogues, to the takeover of clerical positions in Judaism, Protestantism, women becoming priests, women becoming even bishops, women becoming rabbis. This is something really new in the world, and it seems to me a deep challenge to the traditional male control of the desert.

And it all, at least a lot of this, comes back to your premise that Christianity and these other religions would be very different if they hadn't originated in the desert --

That's right.

Where “fruitfulness” takes on a different meaning – flowering – very different than it would have in a rich oasis or green forest or something like that.

That's right.

Let me read a line to you from late in the book, and if you could explain it a little bit. You say, "After September 11, critical division in America feels and sounds like religious division."  Where are you going with that?

Well, it seems to me that there are two aspects of that. One of them is that I think that increasingly the left has conceded organized religion to the political right. This has been a catastrophe on the left.

I'm old enough to remember the black Civil Rights movement, which was as I understood it a movement of the left and insofar as it was challenging the orthodoxy of conservatives in the American South. White conservatism. And here was a group of protestant ministers leading processions, which were really religious processions through the small towns and the suburbs of the South. We shall overcome. Well, we have forgotten just how disruptive religion can be to the status quo. How challenging it is to the status quo. I also talk about Cesar Chavez, who is, who was embraced by the political left in his time but he was obviously a challenge to organized labor, the teamsters and to large farmers in the central valley.

So somehow we had decided on the left that religion belongs to Fox Television, or it belongs to some kind of right-wing fanaticism in the Middle East and we have given it up, and it has made us a really empty -- that is, it has made the left really empty. I'll point to one easy instance. Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. And what America heard was really a sermon. It was as though slavery and Jim Crow could not be described as a simple political narrative; racism was a moral offense, not simply an illegality. And with his vision of a time "when all of God's children" in America would be free, he described the nation within a religious parable of redemption.

Fifty years later, our technocratic, secular president gave a speech at the Lincoln memorial, honoring the memory of the speech Dr. King had given. And nothing President Obama said can we remember these few weeks later; his words were dwarfed by our memory of the soaring religious oratory of fifty years ago. And what's happened to us -- and I would include myself in the cultural left -- what has happened to us is we have almost no language to talk about the dream life of America, to talk about the soul of America, to talk about the mystery of being alive at this point in our lives, this point in our national history. That's what we've lost in giving it to Fox Television.

So here's the flip side of that. You write about the “New Atheism” emerging from England, catching on here.  How is it new and why does it seem like a dead end to you?

It seems to me that the New Atheism -- particularly its recent gaudy English manifestations -- has a distinctly neo-colonial aspect. (As Cary Grant remarked: Americans are suckers for the accent!) On the one hand, the New Atheist, with his plummy Oxbridge tones, tries to convince Americans that God is dead at a time when London is alive with Hinduism and Islam. (The empiric nightmare:  The colonials have turned on their masters and transformed the imperial city with their prayers and their growing families, even while Europe disappears into materialistic sterility.) Christopher Hitchens, most notably, before his death titled his atheist handbook as a deliberate affront to Islam: "God Is Not Great." At the same time, he traveled the airwaves of America urging us to war in Iraq -- and to maintain borders that the Foreign Office had drawn in the sand. With his atheism, he became a darling of the left. With his advocacy of the Iraq misadventure, he became a darling of the right.

In the past you've been described as a conservative, and you've expressed frustration with some liberal positions, with the left press, and so on. In the age of Obama, Google, the Tea Party and so on, do you see yourself as a conservative, or having a relationship to the tradition of Edmund Burke?

I see myself increasingly as, if you're agnostic, then I'm politically agnostic. I find on some positions a deep sympathy with the right wing, but I also find myself temperamentally, at least, left wing. I think Barack Obama, his romance early in his ascendancy -- this is when he was running for Senate in Illinois and he came upon this scene at the national convention -- he was kind of arguing for a post-politics. Well, of course, he got trampled. The right wing was not willing to play with him and the left wing got more and more anxious with the fact that he wasn't willing to fight, and in some way to be both is to be neither. I guess what I would like to say is that on some issues -- and I go issue by issue -- I'm very conservative, and on other issues I'm very liberal.

Where do you find yourself very conservative these days?

I would say even on an issue like affirmative action, for example, I haven't changed. I think that the hijacking of the integrationists' dream as it announced itself in the North, where racism was not legalized but it was de facto, the hijacking of that movement to integrate Northern institutions by the middle class and to make middle class ascendancy somehow an advance for the entire population -- I think was grotesque. And so you ended up with a black and brown bourgeoisie and you did nothing with those at the bottom, and you also managed to ignore white poverty. What the left has forgotten or ignored is that it is possible to be white and poor in America. The solution to de facto segregation in the late 1960s, as the black Civil Rights movement turned north, was an affirmative action that ignored white poverty altogether. And to make matters worse, Hispanics were named with blacks as the other principal excluded society in America. Conveniently ignored by the liberal agenda was the fact that Hispanics are not a racial group and therefore cannot suffer "racism" as Hispanics. And to turn misunderstanding into a kind of cartoon revolution, it became possible for, say, a white Cuban to be accepted to Yale as a "minority," but a white kid from Appalachia would never be a minority because, after all, whites were numerically represented in societies of power.

Even if that Cuban came from a very wealthy family that owned half the town and the Appalachian was very poor.

That's right. Is that a question?

No, I was just trying to elaborate. That's part of the paradox here. Overlooking class.

And totally ignores the reality or the fantastic contradictions of the word or concept of Hispanic/Latino. We are posing ourselves as a racial group when in fact we are an ethnic group. The left has no idea. The left says nothing about the obliviousness of our political process to poor whites. The fact that the Civil Rights movement managed to ignore white poverty was the beginning of the end of the Democratic party in the old South. The white poor began to turn to the Republican party, which is where it is now.

Well, that turn has certainly shaped American politics in profound ways.


You have similarly been an early opponent of bilingual education. I expect your position is mostly unchanged.

It is mostly unchanged, but here's the leftist in me: I think this issue of whether or not Spanish is becoming co-equal or the unofficial second language of the United States, that issue has been decided by corporate America. By the Ford Motor Company, by PepsiCo. They decide to advertise on Univision, a network which is committed not to the actual experience of language most Latinos have in this country, which is a kind of Spanglish, but absolute commitment to Spanish on their airwaves. So you end up with a debate moderated by political hacks from Univision in Miami to a group of wealthy Cubans whose wives all have orange hair, and this passes for a kind of social advance. This is in fact the triumph of capitalism, under the guise of being Hispanic. Can I say what Madeleine Albright said a few years ago on another subject? If we had more cojones we would be able to point out some of these ironies, but of course the left seems to be asleep.

Let's stay on politics for a minute.  It feels like American politics is caught up with the argument of your last book, "Brown," that Latinos would shape our political future increasingly. These days we have not just Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio but both parties chasing Latino voters. How do you think this will shake out?

Well I'm not sure, what you haven't noticed in your question is that there are two prominent Latinos who are both Cuban, are both white, are both Republicans. Isn't it interesting that the Republican Party has become the affirmative action party for the brown politician. Where is the left on this? Where are the great brown hopes among the left? I think what hasn't happened yet in the official language of our political life is that we really don't know how to speak brown-ly about each other and about ourselves. And Barack Obama is still officially designated our first black president. Well, he's our first brown president, which is a much more interesting thing to be because it unites these two races, but in some way what we are not able to deal with is the reality that brown is all around us. That kids have been born, Cambodian/Mexican/German kids who don't look like anyone who has ever lived before. And we're still in a kind of rhetorical swamp where we're still using the vocabulary of the 1950s: white and black America.

For admirers of your writing it has been a tough dozen years or so. This is your first book since 2002, I think. Besides writing for Harper’s and recovering from cancer, what else have you been up to?

Well, partly I've been brooding and partly I've been angry. I stopped writing for the L.A. Times because the L.A. Times stopped asking me to write for them; I stopped writing for the "News Hour" because the "News Hour" decided to have a web page at the end of their program instead of having essays. Nothing happened to me; the world changed. Steve Jobs became the controlling figure of our time. And in some way, you know, what I'm more and more of the opinion of is that the kind of writing that I want to do is really going to be able to be read by fewer and fewer people now. And I'm reconciled to that.

I'm very lucky that I'm still able to publish books. But you know I know what it's like to publish a book, and go to a book reading and there are five people there and three of those people are friends of yours that you've asked to come. So I don't think people are reading anymore. I think they're using language a great deal, but not in any kind of deep or meditative sense. It's all of this chatter of communication. I don't know what this neurosis is that has taken over our societies, particularly the United States, but not only the United States. These kids walking down streets checking their messages every few minutes. What that neurosis is, what it is going to mean for serious communication I cannot guess.

Until you went on that jag a minute ago, I was wondering why you had a chapter in a book about religion, to call it a spiritual autobiography, about the fading of newspapers; now I have a sense of why that piece fits in there.

You know one of the things about that piece that I think readers might ignore, it ends with a discussion about the death of American cemeteries. Fewer and fewer people are being buried. More and more of my friends now are being cremated and their ashes, I don't know where their ashes are anymore. They're somewhere in Idaho, they're somewhere on Muir Woods in someplace. That revolution, which I think is related to the fact that we don't want to live on the earth anymore that there is an anxiety about being here, about being in this place at the same time that the cultural left has come up with this idea of green nature. We all have to become green. Well, nature is primarily brown in the world, you know, and the lessons of nature lead to nature, they don't lead to this perennial spring.

Or to say it another way, you cannot have spring without winter. That this sentimentality about our lives where people are not buried. So a good friend of mine died; he asked two women friends of his to take his ashes, we know not where. And another friend of mine calls up and says, “I'd love to go see. I'd love to pay my respects, I couldn't come to the funeral, could I go to the cemetery?” I say, well I have no idea where he is. The death of the newspaper is being told in the cemetery, in the fact that we are not writing obituaries, many of my friends have died without obituaries, because it's no longer a civic event to die -- it's a private event. You understand? And so, you know, that fact that the newspaper was the receptacle not simply of news of our birth, but of our death, that fact is really the reason why an obituary for a newspaper becomes in the last several pages an obituary for a cemetery.

In the simplest way, the failure of the newspaper marks the end of a sense of place. Newspapers and cities, newspapers and a sense of place have been tied up quite intimately for a long time. They're both fading at about the same time too.

That's right. We're living in the America of placeless-ness and increasingly I think of, that's why you have people walking down the street quite unconcerned with where they are, or who's walking towards them or who is behind them. They are in their own place, and they have their own sound, their own entertainment, and they have their own text messages and they're quite content to live in their own little cocoon.

Right. And there are a lot of elements to this. The scene you just described they're probably walking through a cityscape that could be almost any city in at least the Western world. So we have kind of electronic communication coming together with maybe cultural narcissism with kind of chain store Wal-Marting process, right? The bookstore has been blown out by the web or by Amazon.

And the little coffee shop has become a Starbucks. And everything is institutionalized. That's true. But, you see, I think it's more possible to learn in an institutionalized world if you are disconnected, if you're not breathing, if you're walking down the street without putting your eyes on the landscape. I think that that's what so troubles me.

That people are not, it's not so much that they're not experiencing the city they're living in, but they're not even experiencing their bodies. I go to an Animal Gym in San Francisco and it’s a gay gym, all these guys, these steroid-ed wonders, wander about. And you would think that between sets they would flirt with each other visually, or they would admire each other, but in fact what they do is they pull out their cell phones and look at their messages. I don't understand what's going on; I don't understand how you could be there developing that body and then turn yourself into a text message, you know?

It's that sort of movement away from body that is really, really troubling. I understand why and I credit some way, you pull out a cell phone and watch a few old episodes of "The Simpsons" because you don't want to smell the guy sitting next to you. But I also don't understand it. If you're in a subway that's crowded there's always somebody to look at, there's always something to see. There's always something to smell and that's what we're not experiencing anymore; we're not living in our bodies. That's why we're not dying in cemeteries, that's why were not reading the newspaper. That's why we think that nature is green.

These evasions of place, that theme runs through these chapters. And in some sense what I'm arguing is that the dream in the desert, which was always for the time before the fall, green Eden before Adam and Eve were sent out to the desert, or for the time after our death where we will be in a heaven that is green. That dream is still very much alive in the secular imagination, and when Oprah Winfrey and Bono go on TV to tell us all about the green and they get on their private jets and go on to another location, to tell those people to be green. What we're watching is a secular dream of Eden. So many of my friends tell me they're not religious. I'm like, Of course you're religious. You watch Oprah Winfrey, don't you?

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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