Sunday, May 22, 2016
It is always surprising to see how both Republican and Democratic elites are befuddled by Donald Trump. Both have spent decades developing, curating, polishing, and promoting their brands.
Republicans have been the party of small government, low taxes, enterprise, and a strong military; and in recent years have embraced family values, religion, and patriotism to complement the image of strength, rectitude, and exceptionalism.
Democrats have been the party of big government, progressive rates of taxation, transfers of wealth from the rich to the poor, negotiation and compromise, and a culture of mutually-respectful diversity.
This year (2016), however, both parties have been flummoxed by Donald Trump, a man who confounds liberal and conservative policies, talks like a libertarian, and plays fast and loose with ideas and convictions. Nobody inside the Beltway knows exactly who he is or what he stands for. But the 10 million people who have voted for him in the primaries, who pack arenas and stadiums to get a glimpse of him, and who see him as the political savior of the nation certainly do. The insider crowd doesn’t get him, but everyone else does.
The irony is that these liberal and conservative observers have correctly characterized Trump as a vaudevillian, clown, carny barker, and magician; but in their disparagement have missed the point that when people go to a circus, they don’t want the facts or the truth or reality.
The Great Gandolfo was the greatest magician of the early 19th century. Because of a somewhat shady and questionable past, the big circuses like Barnum & Bailey never engaged him. On the small tent, county fair, 4H and watermelon circuit he was a big draw. He performed all the classic magic tricks – sawing a woman in half, wriggling out of a buccaneer’s chains, and making pigeons and rabbits appear and disappear – but his real talent was legerdemain. What his audience saw – a hand of cards, a live toad, a glass of water, or a furled flag – was nothing of the sort. He made everything change in appearance, change places, colors, dimensions, and posture. By the end of his show no one was sure exactly what they had seen or what had become of what they did.
Gandolfo was brilliant, exotic, and absolutely compelling. He wore a traditional magician’s outfit – top hat, white tie, and tails – before every audience no matter how humble. It was a showman’s outfit, what everyone expected; and his hat woven of fine silk, his studs of 14 karat diamonds, and his tuxedo tailored in Bond Street, showed his respect and gratitude for his followers. He never thought of them as gullible or naïve, and prided himself on giving them what they wanted in glamorous style.
Everyone knew that rabbits didn’t really disappear, that no one could possibly read minds or dismember and reassemble women’s bodies; but they willingly suspended disbelief. It was the circus after all, and one didn’t pay good money to see railroad tracks being laid or cows being milked.
In fact the good people of rural America suspended their disbelief all the time; and the circus was just the most theatrical display of it. They were sure that Armageddon was coming within their lifetimes, that the End of Days was coming, and that Jesus would receive them on their entrance to heaven. It was unconscionable to think that man – the most intelligent of animals, gifted with a soul by an all-powerful and –knowing God – could have been descended from the apes. No matter how much paleontological evidence was presented; no matter how many prehistoric fossils were discovered; and no matter how disciplined and rigorous the logical line of inference might have been, they knew absolutely, unequivocally, and with all their hearts that God created Man in his image.
Thomas Jefferson was as wrong as could be when he prevailed over the skeptical Alexander Hamilton in their debates about the sanctity of the will of the people. Jefferson believed in the innate wisdom of the masses while Hamilton dismissed the idea out of hand. The farmers, yeoman, watermen, and tradesmen that he observed might be good people able to tote a column of figures, make a profit, and call forward inventory; but they surely had no enlightenment. They could fall just as easily for a shaman as a parlor trick. The electorate couldn’t be trusted because they lived in a world of distorted ignorance. Not only did they not know a thing; but they invented stories of its origin, nature, and influence.
An apocryphal story made the rounds in Hamilton’s time which was said to influence his decisions about the constitution of the new Republic. It concerned a circus, but this time a big tent – one of those extravaganzas that were common even at the end of the 18th century. John Bill Ricketts was the first to bring his big tent from England to America, and although it was tame by comparison to later circuses, it combined animal acts, the exotic, and the magical. George Washington was reported to have taken in one of Ricketts' shows in Philadelphia.
Hamilton apparently saw an offshoot of Ricketts’ events. A group of Boston entrepreneurs saw money in circuses and opened their own show in Bucks County. They were the first to open the circus to the scandalous and deformed, and their side show was nonpareil. Not only were their bearded ladies but dwarf, bearded, bare-breasted ladies on display. Not only did horses do unique equestrian feats, but they copulated with smaller animals and, if reports are to be believed, with young women from Delaware.
The lines for the side show were hours long, and the Boston brothers, the geniuses who anticipated this demand, were delighted. Ticket prices doubled overnight and larger and larger venues were sought for what they called the ‘freak show’ but labeled it ‘Exotica’ for Pennsylvania audiences.
Hamilton reportedly was very impressed by both the Ricketts’s circus and the Boston Brothers’ side show. In fact his attendance on a Saturday evening show was apocryphal. He knew then and there when he saw his fellow citizens fall hook, line, and sinker for transparent legerdemain and a collection of human deformities, that there was no way in hell that he would ever support his colleague, Jefferson’s misguided populist views.
Hucksterism, snake-oil salesmanship, and ‘a-sucker-is-born-every-minute’ marketing has not only persisted in America but grown. The more complex society becomes the harder it is to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the imagined from the real, and truth from fiction. In other words a field day for the canny politician.
Americans, with their long tradition of falling for clever tricks, absolute belief in a religion that is in reality as relative and speculative as any, a weakness for circuses and magic tricks, and an education which has not progressed much past that of the one-room schoolhouse, will believe anything as long as it is wrapped up in ribbons, decorated with tinsel, and accompanied by music.
Along comes Donald Trump, a genius for understanding this, the most fundamental and elemental characteristic of American culture. Thanks to his intelligence, arrogant confidence, absolute ambition, and vaudevillian sense of timing and audience appeal, he has run the perfect electoral campaign. The circus is the message, not the issues.
The members of the Washington Establishment are like hundreds of Chicken Little’s who cluck, peck, and scurry because the sky is falling; and like Chicken Little have no intelligence, insight, or reason to figure out what is going on. They attack Trump, vilify him, threaten to move to Canada if he wins, shake their heads in dismay, and commiserate with like-minded, serious observers of the political scene, but completely miss the boat.
No matter what he says and in fact because of it, he gains in popularity. He calls Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’ because of her venal and ridiculous claim to Native American ancestry. He calls interviewer Megyn Kelly a bimbo and Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary’ and his ratings go up. Protests of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are not only dismissed but used by Trump and his supporters as examples of outrageous and unacceptably politically correct attempts to cloture free speech.
By trying to fit Donald Trump into an acceptable ‘presidential’ box, both liberal and conservative critics miss the boat entirely. Trump is not a presidential candidate. He is a circus performer playing the role of presidential candidate. Moreover this is exactly what people want.
This 2016 presidential campaign is like no other. It is not because a very right wing candidate is running for president. Such ultra-conservative movements are now common throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in reaction to the threat of ethnic separatism, misplaced ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’. It is not because of eight years of a weak, accommodating, and impotent American presidency.
It is because for decades, a very American spirit has been muzzled, wrapped, and stifled. We are not jaded Europeans who have seen it all for a thousand years; nor Middle Eastern Muslims who finally have had enough accommodation to secularism; nor North Asians and Eastern Europeans who want, finally, to succumb to the siren song of Empire and past glory. We are frontier Americans who built the Republic on faith, ambition, enterprise, and practical good sense and logic be damned. We know what we know and resent government telling us otherwise.
Donald Trump is a man of Hollywood, Las Vegas, vaudeville, and Barnum & Bailey. He is the first candidate to understand – and embody – our deliberately illogical preferences, our passionate anti-intellectual populism, and our anti-establishment moral rectitude.
Issues don’t matter for either him or for us. Not even Ronald Reagan stirred so many legitimately nativist aspirations. Fuck logic, issues, and moderations. The way forward is visceral, and absolute. There is no on-the-one-hand-on-the-other dispassionate consideration here. Hillary and poor Bernie don’t have a clue.
Saturday, May 21, 2016
Many years ago, I was a counselor at a camp on Cape Cod. I always liked scary stories, was a good storyteller, and liked children. Every night after lights out, the campers in my cabin begged me to tell them about Three Fingered Willy, a ghoulish character who preyed on children. Every night I told the same story – Three Fingered Willy coming through the woods in the dark. I told of the cracking branches, the pouring rain, and the flashes of lightning that lit up his deformed, ghastly face. In my telling Willy was a zombie who needed fresh human blood for survival – particularly warm, new children’s blood.
The woods were quiet. Occasionally a chipmunk stirring in his sleep chirped and snuffled in the old leaves. An owl hooted. A deer looking for shoots stepping lightly over the moss snapped a twig, looked up, then quietly walked towards the brook.There was not a sound in the cabin as I told the story. Not a cough or rustle, not a creak from the old cots, no movement of the bedclothes.
Suddenly, all sounds in the forest stopped. Chipmunks stirred, poked their heads up out of their nests and remain frozen. The owls didn’t hoot. The snakes didn’t slither. The worms stopped wriggling through the mud and dead leaves.
Then, slowly but deliberately, a heavy footfall was heard from the deepest part of the woods. This was no deer or elk, not even a bear which walked quietly. The steps became louder and louder and came closer to the cabin in which the boys were sleeping.
One boy woke up and whispered, “It’s Willy”, but before he could finish, they all heard a scratching on the cabin walls….
At first I wondered whether or not the boys could get to sleep after that; but if after the routine of teeth, pajamas, and lanterns out, I started to leave without a story, they stopped me. They couldn’t get to sleep without Three Fingered Willy.
Although I set the action of each installment in a different place - Willy in the high Sierras; Willy in the Louisiana swamps; Willy in the Canadian forests – the story and the character of Willy remained the same. As the summer went on, Willy became even more hideous and ghoulish. At first his face was simply misshapen, grotesquely arranged, scarred and pocked; but later on his face disappeared, and headless he appeared at the door of the cabin, silhouetted by the one light that shone from the main house. He became a ghost, a werewolf that howled in the forest and came dripping and bloody into the cabin. He was ten feet tall with arms that could reach the tops of trees. His nails were like sabers. His eyes glowed yellow.
This of course could never happen today in an age when even the most tame fairy tales are edited, made safe and non-threatening. There are many versions of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, two of the Brothers Grimm’s most popular fairy tales. In one Hansel and Gretel do not push the wicked witch into the oven and cook her, but simply escape and make their way back home. In other the wicked wolf does not eat Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother nor is he slaughtered by the woodsman. Little Red Riding Hood, her grandmother, and the wolf all escape with their lives.
The world according to these new versions is not a perilous, sinister, and dangerous place, but one of accommodation, respect, and harmony.
Children like adults like scary stories. Grimm’s tales are no different than Stephen King’s and horror movies are still a staple of Hollywood. For adults scary stories are entertainments, easy and simple ways to get an adrenaline rush in otherwise sedate and predictable lives. For children, on the other hand, such stories are far more important than those which portray the world as innocent and harm free. Soon enough they will realize just the opposite.
The tendency to protect children from the inevitable is seen everywhere. Schools make sure to identify, cull, and dismiss bullies. The world is full of bullies – bad bosses, adolescent girls, catty women, and macho-men – and the sooner children learn how to deal with them, the better. Some may confront and challenge them, forcing them to back down. Others may stay clear, while others may make deals and compromises. Bullies are important for children.
Children do not believe in witches, ghosts, or ghouls. Wolves do not talk or dress up in disguises. Old women do not eat children. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies do not exist. Yet they could; and the fantasy world of children – a unique, special place soon lost – is populated by things that could be, fears that could be realized, horrors that could occur. It is also a place where children can fly, change into flowers, and jump across oceans.
The best stories combine both fear, magic, and happy resolution. The Five Chinese Brothers is a good example.
Long ago in China lived a family with five brothers who resembled each other very closely. They each possessed a special talent. One can swallow the sea; one has an iron neck; one can stretch his legs; one can survive fire; and the last can hold his breath forever. When one of the brothers, a somehow very successful fisherman, agrees to let a young boy accompany him on his fishing trip, trouble results. This brother holds the entire sea in his mouth so that the boy can retrieve fish and treasures. When the man can no longer hold in the sea, he frantically signals to the boy, but the boy ignores him and drowns when the man releases the water.
The man is accused of murder and sentenced to death. However, one by one, his four brothers assume his place when subjected to execution, and each uses his own superhuman ability to survive (one cannot be beheaded, one cannot be drowned, one cannot be burned, and one cannot be smothered). At the end of the story, a judge decides that the brother accused of murder must have been innocent, since he could not be executed, and the five brothers return home (Wikipedia).
Perhaps most importantly children learn very early on that if a book is too scary, they can put it down. They can suspend the horror, put it in its place, and retrieve it when they once again want to be frightened. It is this manipulation of the real and the unreal which characterizes adult perceptions.
Scary stories deal with torture, murder, death and unspeakable acts; but are clearly circumscribed within fantasy. They are true tales but only allegories. We soon learn that the book cannot be closed on real mayhem, but at least we have learned about it beforehand.
Nick Falk, children’s book author and child psychologist observes:
''When you're reading a book and it's scary, you could choose to turn that book over and put it down,'' Falk says. ''It's the same with a thought. You don't have to, when that thought comes into your head, stop everything and pay attention to it and try and get rid of it. You can actually carry on with whatever you were doing and just let that image or thought stay there. It's about giving them the coping skills to be able to do that, so they no longer have to get rid of the thought or image. They don't have to like it, but they also know it's not going to do them any harm” (Sydney Morning Herald 3.13.13)Scary stories are also important in configuring a realistic worldview – a philosophical universe in which the most outrageous events occur. It is hard to place holocausts, serial killings, mass slaughter, and barbarity within a completely rational framework. There is – or should be – an element of fantasy horror within it.
Titus Andronicus is a play about greed, ambition, power, jealousy, and vengeance; but it is also a grotesque horror story. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, encourages her sons to rape the daughter of Titus, then has them cut out her tongue and chop off her hands so that she will never be able to identify her assailants. When Titus finds out, he exacts the most satisfying revenge possible. he kills Tamora’s sons, chops them up and bakes them in a pie which he serves her for dinner.
Titus Andronicus is an adult fairy tale. Tamora is as wicked as the witch in Hansel and Gretel; and Titus her cannibalistic alter ego. Fantasy becomes allegory in this Shakespeare play; and it is no different from the stories of the Brothers Grimm.
Some fairy tales with no witches, demons, or ghouls are far more scary for children than those with. Pinocchio, for example, has one of the most emotionally disturbing scenes of all children’s stories. When Pinocchio is taken away from his father and driven away on a rainy, dark night in a cart, he is disconsolate. The receding image of Geppetto, the creaking wheels of the cart, and the flashing lightning of the storm is frightening and permanent.
Children are more upset by this story than any fantasy that the Grimms could concoct. It is too close to reality. A child could easily be separated from his father and be totally lost. The story of Pinocchio could be his.
Fear is a part of everyone’s lives, and most learn to deal with it. Phobias are so common and so serious that volumes of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment have been written about them. Although many phobias – claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and acrophobia – are well known, many others are not. People have a morbid fear of cats, dogs, dentists, and even marks on a fence.
The world is an increasingly dangerous place, and travellers are rightly afraid of hijackings, kidnappings, terrorism, and brutal assault.
Does this mean that scary stories really prepare children for the gruesome future that awaits them? Perhaps not, but since fear is primordial, inescapable, and universal, tales of horror set within a clear context of fantasy may indeed be as important as any other early childhood education.
It is discouraging to see how childhood has become a protected species. The goal of parents and educators seems to be to deny children of any brush with the real world; to eliminate risk; to shelter them not only from harm but from the image of it. They encourage a world without sharp edges, pitfalls, unpleasantness, or disappointment. All children are equal, progressive educators insist, only different in their type of intelligence, character, or abilities. Playgrounds are not for challenge, but for risk-free, undemanding, innocuous play. Books are vetted for insensitivity. Nothing disparaging of race, gender, ethnicity, physical ability, or intellectual performance can be on the shelves.
More than anything else, children love scary stories. It was not a coincidence that my young charges at Camp First Arrow wanted to hear about Three Fingered Willy again and again – to be frightened silly each and every night, hanging on every gory word, every horrendous description.
Willy was real for twenty minutes, then he disappeared into thin air; but by magic he was recalled again and again. Campers who were too young to be frightened by anything real, too privileged to have real worries and concerns, were scared witless by fantasy. Fear was innate and needed only to be called up. Better in a cabin on Cape Cod than anywhere else.
Friday, May 20, 2016
The Bible is clear about prayer and why we should pray – not, in a predestined and predetermined universe, to ease our way to heaven; nor to gain divine favors which are bestowed by God alone; nor to assure secular outcomes over which only God has authority.
The purpose of prayer is to glorify God and most importantly to put us the right frame of mind to accept his grace.
In other words, according to classical Lutheran theology, Jesus Christ alone will decide who is saved and who is not, and no manner or means of supplication will enhance our chances of salvation. Prayer is the means of facilitating our appreciation of our absolute submission to God’s will and to his bestowal of grace and redemption. We do not ask for divine favors, nor beseech Our Lord for petty favors. We only wish to be more worthy in his eyes; and if he chooses to overlook us, then that is his prerogative, our fate, and human destiny.
Catholics hold a very different interpretation of the Bible, finding enough in James to support the argument that good works are indeed the path to heaven and salvation. The Protestant-Catholic faith vs works debate has gone on for centuries. Whichever theology appeals, the nature and purpose of prayer is clear. God does not grant individual benediction nor sky boxes in the race for heavenly rewards.
Why, then, do so many preachers ask God Almighty for special favors? Why should God favor Americans, Africans, progressives, or pious Southerners? What ignorant faith leads sports teams to bow their heads in prayer for victory? Why should God, in his infinitude, care one way or another about cancerous Aunt Margaret or even the slaughter of thousands in civil war?
Yet prayers for divine intervention are heard from every pulpit, mosque, and temple for such interventions. With a little noodging God will see that Western liberal democracy holds all the cards; that traditional, heterosexual family values reflect his Word; that venality, greed, and capitalist predation flaunt the words and spirit of his son, Jesus Christ.
Children pray for Barbies, I-Phones, hot Mika in the Fourth Form. Adults pray for partner, that their sexual indiscretions will not be discovered, that their baggage will arrive in Kinshasa.
What on earth for? Nowhere in the Bible, except for a few oblique reference in the letters of Paul, is found any explicit reference to the power and efficacy of prayer. Verse after verse exhort the importance of prayer, but none ascribe to it efficacy.
Yet ‘Please, God…” is part of popular Christian lexicon. However, Muslims have understood the relationship between man and God much more accurately. Insha'Allah is a much more accurate and textually correct expression of faith in a supreme being. No human action is initiated or completed without the will of God; and any prayer for divine intervention for a particular secular, personal cause or reason is apostasy.
Yet, Insha’Allah has of course been appropriated and distorted for very secular political ends. ISIS believes that God has willed the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, one which will finally and permanently establish a government of God and a citizenry of the faithful. ISIS assumes and believes that such a theocracy will be a final statement of absolute obedience to God’s will. Democracy and the febrile aspirations of the West have no relevance or salience. Praying for a New Age Muslim hegemony is only right and expected.
Prayer is all over the Internet. The current American presidential campaign is not simply a predictable debate between conservative and political opinion, but a struggle between right and wrong. Conservatives pray for Republican victory not only to defeat the tax-and-spend, internationalist policies of the Left, but to assure the continued influence and predominance of fundamental Christian principles. Abortion, same-sex marriage, and neutralizing Christianity in schools and public places is not only politically wrong but morally wrong.
Liberals do not pray. Progressives have arrogated to themselves a secular power – an assumption of right that no one who believes in the Word of the Bible can accept. This arrogant dismissal of Biblical authority is as indemnifying as any current political analysis.
Conservatives pray and liberals do not; and this is perhaps the fulcrum around which the current (2016) presidential election debate revolves. America is either a country conceived in religious liberty, animated by the logical theology of the Enlightenment (itself a successor to Augustine and Aquinas, supreme intellectual theologians of the early Church) or a socialist, pragmatist, and materialist society consumed only by venal self-interest.
Conservatives pray and liberals do not. Both are deceived. Conservatives have never appreciated the Biblical exhortations to prayer; and have attributed to it a secular, temporal power. Liberals have never granted divine authority and have arrogated to themselves authority over moral and ethical decisions which no text or religious tradition has ever granted.
The twain will never meet; and assumptions about absolute, immanent authority will always exist.
A colleague related his experience in Poland shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Polish Parliament was debating their Bill of Rights. The Right to Work was to be inscribed in the Constitution. My friend asked, “On whose authority?”, and his Polish contributors were for a moment flummoxed. Never far from the Communist philosophy of only a few years previous, they assumed a ‘given’ right without questioning its origin.
“From God”, explained my American colleague, citing our own Bill of Rights and its origin in the philosophy of Locke and Rousseau. “Where do yours come from?”
Conservatives in America continue to believe in God-given rights, and thus have a strict constructionist view of the Constitution. Our nation was not founded only on the secular, ethical principles of the French Revolution, but on the absolute authority of the Bible.
It is not surprising, therefore, that conservative Americans pray for the Republic.
And what about all the faithful who fill country churches throughout the South or those who cram store-front churches in the cities? Pastors invoke the spirit of Jesus Christ and invoke the power of prayer. “Jesus can be your personal Savior”, they preach, “If only you accept him, pray to him, ask his forgiveness, beseech his favor.”
Thousands of faithful hoping for salvation– even those in strict Protestant congregations which scorn any arrogant prayer for forgiveness and heavenly reward- walk up the aisle for Jesus. “Hallelujah. Praise be to God”.
On the same Sundays the Eastern faithful of the United Church of Christ whose faith is rooted in principles of secular justice, righteousness, and worldly redemption, pray without praying. They do not pray to God but to an idea of God – a universal goodness which will always prevail.
Prayer, therefore, is as common and universal as it always has been – perhaps more so in an increasingly complex world with few if any secular answers. People everywhere – from Syria to Columbus, Mississippi – pray for peace, harmony, and good will among nations; but the violence, killing, and depredation continue.
Their prayers will never be answered either because there is no God or more likely because he wants no hand in the Creation he has enabled. Soul, free will, spiritual independence is what has been bestowed; and how humanity chooses to use them is their own business.
It is always touching – for lack of a better word – to see college athletes grouped in prayer before a game. Such innocence, such naïveté, such young and beautiful but sorely misplaced faith. Prayer ain’t worth a hill of beans unless – and only maybe – if it is completely selfless and said in obeisance and dutiful respect.
I pray that Aunt Tillie recovers from iliac surgery. That Uncle Bob is not sent to prison. That Billy Ray give up his drug dependency. That second cousin Halley makes partner. I believe with all my soul and Christian belief that God will listen to my prayers.
But in my heart of hearts I know that he will not. Why on earth should he?