Friday, May 09, 2008

The Estates

In Medieval France, the realm was divided into three estates: the first was the clergy, the second was the nobility, and the third was the common people, represented by the burghers. Later, Edmund Burke referred to the press as the fourth estate. In modern times, the nobility have more or less become obsolete, while the third estate has come to dominate the government. Another estate has risen to prominence as well; business has its own needs and agendas, particularly in the form of corporations who act as legal entities rather like people under the law. In the modern West, the estates would be better ordered as government (representing the people), business, religion, and media.

Various attempts have been made to name a fifth estate, often as segment of the press that dissents from the majority (fourth estate) view, but this simply emphasizes temporary public arguments. A better candidate would be academia, particularly the sciences, as the humanities might be considered an aspect of the fourth estate. While the fourth estate collects and dispenses data (news), the fifth estate is concerned with collating this data and identifying trends and general principles. This fifth estate would be different from the fourth particularly in the accuracy expected in its judgments, and in the time and effort required to render these judgements as well as their durability.

This leaves us with five estates: government, business, religion, media, and the sciences. One thing that strikes me about these estates is that a mixing of any two is a regarded, quite rightly, as a corrupting influence on both. A government official with a business interest in a particular matter has a conflict of interests, and is expected to recuse himself from any government dealing with that industry. Ministers who amass fortunes or use their churches as political springboards are also disparaged, and the separation of Church and State is now a near universal principle in the West. Media which serves the interests of business, government, or a particular church is considered biased and unreliable--even Fox news claims to be "fair and balanced". And scientific judgments which serve an interest other than science itself are also highly suspect--nor can a scientist be expected to deliver rapid fire results suitable to a media timeline without making serious and irresponsible errors.

It is precisely the mixing of all these estates in the Muslim world which brings it to its sorry state. Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, there is still a nobility, who own most of the businesses, run the government, and control the media, all according to religious principles, while science is barely pursued at all. The rest of the Muslim world is not much better, lacking only the nobility, but still permitting all The result is a riot of corruption without the rule of law--indeed, the closest thing they have to a justice system is a dubiously qualified assortment of clerics issuing idiosyncratic judgments which seem to relate more to their blood sugar levels than to any remote objective standard of justice. The result is brutality, waste, greed, ignorance, poverty, and injustice on an epic scale.

Dinesh D'Souza recently congratulated Christianity for being so much better than Islam, because Christian extremists are nowhere near as vicious as Islamic extremists. He is, of course, comparing present day Christianity to present day Islam. But for a proper comparison to be made, one would have to go back to a time when the estates were allowed to bleed together as they do in the Muslim world, when governments were governed and motivated by the dictates of Christian faiths. One would have to go back nearly five hundred years, to the wars of the Reformation.

With the rise of Protestantism, Europe split and took sides, Protestant vs Catholic. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the pages of European history are awash in blood spilled in the name of Christ. We have the Spanish Inquisition--orignally directed against Jews, it now turned on Protestants--the Witch Burnings, the execution of heretics, Henry VIII's persecution of Catholics, Mary Tudor's persecution of Protestants, Wolsingham's police state under Elizabeth, and innumerable wars, assassinations, and intrigues between all the great powers of Europe. This continued through the Stuarts, leading to the death of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell's bloody tyranny. Charles II calmed this somewhat by being almost completely secular throughout his reign, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. His brother James was quickly deposed by William of Orange, who gained tolerance for Protestant non-conformists, but also sought tolerance for Catholics. The Act of Tolerance and the Bill of Rights strengthened the boundaries between the estates, and lead eventually to the end of the fighting between Catholics and Protestants, at least in England. In Northern Ireland, the wars of the Reformation have only just ended; the Protestants call themselves Orange (after William) and the Catholics are the Green.

One might argue that the kings and nobles exploited Christianity for their own ends--and you would be right. One might equally argue that the likes of William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King also directed Christianity in novel directions--and again, you would be right. The problem lies in the fact that any religion lends itself to the irrational and superstitious, which can be exploited to any purpose. And indeed, it was exploited for the justification of slavery, which was why Wilberforce and King were forced to couch their arguments in religious language; the language of their strongest opposition. D'Souza loves to cite Wilberforce and King, but never mentions Edgar Ray Killen, responsible for the murders depicted in the movie "Mississipi Burning"--Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, as he was known, because he spewed his racist venom from the pulpit of a baptist church. And Killen was only one representative of a breed that encompassed hundreds, if not thousands, of preachers who did likewise throughout the period of slavery and up to the present day. Yet Wilberforce and King carried the day because the majority of the population objected to slavery on grounds which had little to do with religion and much to do with simple human empathy, an emotion which, happily, required no religious sentiments to support it.

What D'Souza would like us to forget is that the Christianity we see today is heavily shackled and sedated, tamed through long effort, often at great risk, by generations of great men and women who understood the danger of giving religion too much power. Charlie Manson hasn't killed in almost forty years, but that doesn't mean he's reformed, just restrained. We have lived so long with a religion tamed by secularism that we have forgotten why it had to be tamed in the first place, and why the estates had to be separated.