“Values are as Real as Grain Prices”: Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire’s identity as a scholar, writer, and American is tied to his dramatic background: In 1962 he was eleven when he was airlifted to the U.S. to escape Castro’s Cuba. He was eventually reunited with his mother in Chicago but his father never got out of Cuba, and Eire never saw him again. Today Eire is Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale. His books include War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin (1986) and A Very Brief History of Eternity (2010). His memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003) won the National Book Award. A second memoir is Learning to Die in Miami (2010). Reflections interviewed him last month.

REFLECTIONS: “American values” – what words come to mind to you?

CARLOS EIRE: My understanding is very different from that of many who were born here. I came from a totalitarian state where you can land in jail just for saying what you’re thinking. To me, American values mean specific things: freedom of thought, of speech, of assembly.

REFLECTIONS: Do we neglect those freedoms here?

EIRE: The meaning of freedom here gets more complicated, tangled. Take the freedom of speech. I think of the recent case of the Chick-fil-A owner who stated his opinion on marriage. There were boycotts launched against his company. And attempts were made to shut him down, just for voicing his opinion. Is this a climate for genuine freedom of expression? There seems to be less room for genuine dialogue in the public sphere than there used to be.

REFLECTIONS: What would that look like?

EIRE: We need to stop demonizing each other. We have to remain committed to civil discourse. Watching the 2008 campaign and now the 2012 election, it’s not encouraging. I hear no intellectual arguments, just emotional ones.  I see a lot of identity politics: You define yourself or are defined by others as liberal, conservative, blue-collar, or whatever, and you are stuck with the package that comes with each of those definitions, and nothing can be added, substituted, or taken out.  For instance, if one is pro-life, one can very easily be pegged by those who buy the liberal package as being a misogynist. I’m pro-life, and I have had discussions with pro-choice people who could only see the issue on emotional terms, or strictly from  the perspective of women’s rights and were surprised by intellectual arguments about the sanctity of life. They had no idea there could be any rational position other than theirs, or that anyone could be pro-life and still favor equal rights for women. So, after conversing, we come to understand each other a little better. We aren’t demonizing each other.

REFLECTIONS: Can we have values without religion?

EIRE: Judaeo-Christian values used to be the core of Western civilization, and that’s no longer the case. Pragmatism or other values are argued now – the greatest social good for the greatest number of people, for instance. As a Christian I’d rather see Judaeo-Christian values at the center of issues of life and death. But in a pluralistic society, it’s impossible to make appeals to special revelation. I think believers are going to have to get better at making rationalistic arguments in order to defend their values in secular society. It can be done. Kant tried to do this by simply boiling down ethics to the Golden Rule, but that no longer works in our age.  We have to try harder, and we need to keep trying.

REFLECTIONS: You teach the Reformation period. Are there lessons to learn from 500 years ago?

EIRE: Two points come to mind. The first is: the necessity of avoiding violence when we disagree. We must keep in mind the importance of civil discourse and tolerance. The chief lesson the West learned from the violence of the Reformation era was that of tolerance. Another lesson was the need to maintain equilibrium when there are differences of opinion. We are fortunate to have checks and balances that ensure that no one side or group dominates with its opinion. But such freedoms are a fragile thing. If there were a catastrophe, some sort of economic collapse, or a plague or a war, then I worry that those freedoms could easily disappear, as they did in Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

Second: the importance of acknowledging that beliefs and values actually do define societies, cultures, and civilizations. I say this because intellectual history as an academic discipline is nearly dead. What has taken its place is a crypto-Marxist notion that material factors and issues of class, race, and gender are the only “real” dimension in history. According to this dominant point of view, beliefs are just symptoms of deeper, purely material concerns, not causal factors. This makes religion as inconsequential as a hiccup. But certainly societies are moved by beliefs and ideals, even if these are in constant interplay with material factors. I believe ideals and values are as real as grain prices, and make even more of a difference in the way people live.  I also believe that some beliefs and ideals are infinitely better than others.  Moral relativism is undoubtedly as great a threat to the human race today as intolerance and nuclear and biological warfare.  And, paradoxically, the toughest question we face in the West is whether or not we can afford to tolerate those who espouse intolerance at one extreme and moral relativism at the other.