"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 28, 2014

Visual Eavesdropping

Aural eavesdropping is fun – bits and pieces from random lives put together and completed like a puzzle.  Guessing national origin takes familiarity with language but also an eye for distinctive coloring, hair, and facial features, and a good sense of comportment.  Europeans walk and sit differently than Americans, speak quietly, and don’t bark when they laugh. A tawny-to-dark-skinned man with tight, curly hair speaking Arabic is likely to come from Algeria, but possibly from the Sudan. West Africans are characteristically large and big-boned and speak with a lilting, musical, tonal accent.  Rwandans have a certain guttural breathlessness; and Tutsis are thinner and taller.   It is easy to distinguish Malays from Thais.  Malays are much darker, and their language is atonal.  It is all but impossible to distinguish Malays from an Indonesians with whom they share a close ethnic heritage.  At first glance many aborigines resemble Africans except for their straight hair.

Australian and New Zealand accents are very similar, and it is often hard to tell the difference, but there is no mistaking the white Afrikaner. A joke made the rounds in the PGA a few years ago about a well-known South African golfer who, when asked what he liked best about August National, said. “No blicks”.

High-class Japanese often have very white skin – not the ruddy white of Americans, but a powdered or paper white – while Chinese are darker and often to have a yellowish tint. Chinese is a complex tonal language while Japanese is not, and their accents in English are completely different from one another.

There are some nationalities I can guess by process of elimination – Finns and Turks, for example have languages like no others.  Finns speaking English have a slushy lisp, and Turks have classically Caucasian features but with especially dark hair and eyes.

Over the years I have gotten very good at pinpointing American accents, and I eavesdrop all the time to try to guess where people are from.  Once I have put an accent through the first broad-mesh sieve – New England, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, South, etc., I then refine by sub-region. The accents of Mississippi and the Low Country of South Carolina have very little in common because of their unique histories of settlement, slavery, and foreign influence.  Louisiana, as close as it is to Mississippi and Arkansas, has a distinct accent very different from the drawl of the Deep South – once again because of its particular historical roots and settlement patterns.

Once I overheard someone whom I knew was from the Midwest, but had trouble pinpointing where. I situated her somewhere in the eastern part of the region, heard the broad accents of Ohio but also edges of a Southern drawl. The speaker had to be very close to the Ohio-Kentucky border, probably in Kentucky.  I guessed Covington and was right. 

Deciphering family relationships from only fragments of speech, physical appearances, and behavior can be challenging.  Siblings don’t always look alike, but there is usually and uncanny similarity in ‘attitude’ – the way they sit, speak, move, tilt their heads, smile, or gesture. Distinguishing between friends and lovers is easy.  Lovers hold their gaze longer and smiles seem more genuine. Mothers and fathers are always parents to older children, so patterns of speech, tone, and regard never change.

Visual eavesdropping is a completely different category altogether.  It is done less to figure out where people come from or what their relationships might be, and more to observe whole scenes or movie clips from their lives.

My aunt and uncle used to live on a large manmade lake in a suburb outside of Washington.  Large homes were built on the lakefront, and all had floor-to-ceiling windows to take advantage of the view.  The houses were built for inhabitants to look out, and no designer gave a thought to anyone looking in.  But look in I did.  On dark summer nights I would paddle the canoe along the shoreline, close enough to see through the windows but far enough out so that lamplight did not reach me.

All houses on the lake were at least three-stories, and I could watch family scenes unfold on each floor and then follow each member from room to room and from floor to floor.  I watched fights between teenage daughters and their parents, then followed them as they ran up the stairs, rushed into their rooms, slammed the door, and threw themselves on the bed. 

I saw wives say no to husbands, and watched the husbands kick the dog.  I watched people sneak a pull from the vodka bottle, shove whole slices of cake into their mouths, fall asleep in front of the TV, and cry on the telephone.

Every house was different.  Every night provided a different episode.  I was hooked, and went out every evening. The lake was big, and by the end of the summer I needed a good hour of paddling to get back. Some nights I returned to a particular house, one in which a drama had begun but not resolved. If I saw family members in separate rooms, I knew that nothing had changed.  People were still pissed.  If everyone was laughing in the kitchen, I knew I could move on.

The thing of it was that no one ever expected anyone to be looking in.  Everything in the lake community was about looking out – at the Fourth of July swim meets, the visiting Canada geese, fishermen, or a rare snowstorm.  No one would ever look in.  My eavesdropping was anonymous.  I knew no one and was only an occasional visitor to the lake.  I watched random people do familiar things.  I never knew who they were or ever saw them again.  I never asked who lived in the houses I watched and always deflected any conversation that veered towards identity; but I always remembered the soap operas, the three-tiered stages, the anger, intimacy, and separateness.

My visual eavesdropping took another direction during my babysitting co-op days.  Here was another chance to observe not what went on within families, but to piece together what might have happened.  Like listening to and watching people on a train, I tried to figure out what the bits and pieces left on tables, sofas, and beds meant.  Was there any order in a disordered house? Were there any corners of precision, neatness, and predictability?  Did slovenly women marry disheveled men and did they always have pigpen children?

I observed strict rules.  Never touch anything, never rummage through drawers, open medicine chests, snoop into closets or cabinets.  I never needed to.  I already knew that closets in an orderly home were racked and perfectly aligned. Careless families left bent tubes of ointments and lubricants, open medicine bottles, extra mouthwash, foot powder, and anti-dandruff shampoo for anyone to see. I could see what was on bedside tables, whether the exercise equipment was ever used, and whether books were high-brow or romances.  I could smell disinfectant, deodorant, laundry soap, dryer fluff, and perfume.  There were either real plants, plastic flowers, or nothing but furniture and dishes.

I loved this privileged excursion into my neighbors’ homes so much that I racked up more babysitting chits than I could ever use.  Because of my habit, my wife and I never went out on weekends, and were too knackered during the week to head downtown.   I never kept a diary, nor even tried to remember which family went with which home. I never talked about my interloping and never shared confidences.  It was like canoeing on Lake B_____.  It was the drama that mattered – the random collection of interactions that make up a family.  The bits and pieces that said someone lives here.

Margaret Hawkins, writing in the New York Times (2.28.14) talks about her eavesdropping and captures a bit of the excitement of anonymity, the challenge of puzzles, and the strange sense of perspective I felt:

These conversations lent a kind of Cubist sense to my world, flattening out perspective, showing multiple angles at once. We were here but at the same time they — it could be anyone — were, too, not parallel or even intersecting but simultaneous.

I have always found people I don’t know more fascinating than those I do. I travelled alone for most of my life as an international consultant, and nothing excited me more than sitting at a bar with fifty random, unknown travellers.  The possibilities were endless.  I sat for hours in restaurants, coffee shops, and at poolside bars.  I went to operas, concerts, and movies alone. 

I now wonder who lives in the trailers across the street from my temporary marshland home in rural South Carolina, whether they are black or white; whether choice of residence is of little significance if the price is right and the weather good. 

It has never mattered to me whether or not I ever met any of the people I observed.  It might have been interesting to see if I had guessed right – whether they were indeed from Covington, KY – but I would much rather conjecture and move on.

Hawkins at times has wondered what to do with the bits and pieces of overheard lives:

Do I put these bits and pieces of other lives in my writing, curate them into stories? The answer: Occasionally, though I think of these bits less as material and more as finished found art, like the perfect postcard or anonymous snapshot or canned food label you come across — beautiful until you frame it and after that, dead. Or maybe it’s just a matter of living in the moment. Do you photograph every beautiful sunset? Or do you savor the ephemeral moment, then let it slip away and accept the dark that follows?

She’s on to something, and senses that there is really no point in following up on these ephemeral glimpses.  It is enough to witness the surmised drama.  Filling in the blanks or teasing out the next mishaps or good fortunes is not necessary.  I once described myself as an eye-painter, less interest in knowing why people do what they do, but only how they do it – what it looks like, smells like, feels like.  I took mind snapshots, made imaginary pastiches and collages; made video clips, recorded sound bites, assembled puzzle pieces.

The more I am convinced of randomness and perpetual, predictable motion, the less interested I am in deciphering cause and effect.  Shakespeare said it best when he wrote his Histories and described the same, predictable, unchanging course of wars, pretension, accession, and consolidation of power from King John to Henry VIII.  Nothing new here, he said, except the endlessly fascinating ways that we express our ineluctable human nature. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Boredom


“I’m bored, Mr. P”, said Scott Simmons, one of the boys in a local play group.

“Well, let’s just find something interesting for you to do”, Mrs. Rence said, looking out over the garden where five other 7-year olds were climbing trees, kicking balls, wrestling and racing cars.
“Too boring”, said Scott.  She kept trying.  She trotted out the He-Man figures, spaceman gear, books on jungles and raptors; hammers, nails, and boards.  “Too boring”, he repeated.

“Let’s play hangman”, Mrs. Rence finally said, and got an old doll from my daughter’s closet. “Let’s string her up to the cherry tree.  When I count to three, you pull away the step ladder, and she’ll drop like a stone”.
“Too boring”, said Scott; but by this time the other boys had heard what Mrs. Rence had said and were chanting, “Hang her high! Hang her high”. 



Parents always wondered what Scott’s parents did to keep him occupied, what bag of tricks they had in the basement, or whether they plopped him down in front of the television and settle for some electronic babysitting.

I belonged to a babysitting cooperative and got a privileged look into the lives of my neighbors.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune and spent as many Saturday nights as I could taking care of their kids.  Within a few months I had racked up more chits than anyone else. 
I saw houses that were obsessively clean and others that had never been picked up. Both were impressive in their own way.  The Harter kitchen for example had not a drop of water in the sink, not one streak on any wine glass.  The rugs were all squared with the furniture, the curtains hung with a plumb line.  There was not a mote of dust anywhere, not on the mantle piece, dining room table, or even in the hard-to-reach corners of the bookshelf.  The books were all arrayed like a pipe organ – ascending, then descending.  The leaves on all the plants had been polished, and the flowers were all fresh and perky.
The Pulham house had never been touched.  The foyer was cluttered with old shoes, tattered backpacks, broken umbrellas, and odd galoshes.  The living room was piled high with magazines and newspapers, littered with dirty dishes, scummy water glasses, and cat litter.  The lampshades were scorched, off-kilter and ripped.  There was so little room in the kitchen that the refrigerator door opened only enough for access to the milk cartons and a peek at the green mold on the shelves, meat that lay stinking and rotten, and brown, mushy pears collapsed and squished into brown blobs.  It was disgusting.
Most other homes were somewhere in the middle – lived in, picked up, and comfortable. I had my own rules – look but don’t touch.  I checked out the medicine cabinets to see who was taking what.  I opened bottom drawers but never rummaged through them.  In other words, I wanted to respect privacy and leave plenty of room for conjecture.
The Barons had one child, and from the looks of the playroom they wanted to be sure that she would never be bored.

The playroom was the biggest room in the house.  Whole shelves of Toys ‘R’ Us had been emptied to fill it.  There were dolls and doll houses, balls, dress-up and make-up kits, strollers and ding-dong playthings. Nothing was left to chance.  Any whim, any slight lag in attention span would be accommodated.  It was impressive.
I never got to visit Scott Simmons’ house despite the direct offers I made to his parents.  I lied through my teeth about their boy, saying how he was a most unusual and talented child, and how we loved to have him over.  “We’ve made other arrangements”, the Simmons would always reply. 
I have known many children who were happy just with pots, pans, spoons, and a bucket of water.  There is no end to children’s inventiveness and curiosity.  Pots were banged, filled, and worn on the head. Houses were built out of plastic forks, spoons, and knives.  Channels could be dug in the yard and filled with water; and cardboard bridges could be built over them.  There was no reason for a child ever to be bored.
Chekhov wrote extensively about boredom.  He saw it as a symbol of the dislocation felt by Russian families that were caught between periods of history.  Aristocrats of the old Russia who were unable to deal with the coming socialist order.  Petty bourgeois who had risen out of the peasantry but were still uncomfortable around the wealth of others.  Muscovites floundering in small provincial ponds, academics and intellectuals unsure how to square their visions with reality.  Chekhovian characters said, “I’m bored” as often as Scott Simmons.

Chekhov was sympathetic to the plight of the dislocated and felt that their inaction was tragic.  Human beings are not so flexible after all, he concluded; and all the imagination and ingenuity in the world cannot overcome the ponderous weight of family, tradition. social mores, and personal inertia.
Thornton Wilder in Our Town wrote about the tragedy of routine.  Before you know it your life is over, and you go to your grave remembering only the letters you sorted at the post office or the joints of meat you cut for Mrs.Thompson. Few of us, said Wilder, ever look around us let alone glimpse the eternal.  His characters are not bored, but they are living boring lives.  If only they could look up from their newspapers, peonies, and stews, they could slow time, filling space with all the out-of-the-ordinary perceptions that give texture and diversity to life.
Chekhov’s characters reflect on time, waste, and work.  Many of them feel that they have missed opportunity, been taken in by others’ promises, or misread signals of partnership or love.  Others see the corruption and decay produced by idleness and ascribe boredom – a bourgeois term to be sure – to the indolent lifestyles of the wealthy and privileged.  Some of Chekhov’s characters are proud to be idle, to have never done a lick of work in their lives.  Others condemn a life without work as one without meaning.  Time passes equally quickly for all, and few are happy.  The idle rich see their privileged lives coming to an end.  The peasants and workers are in a brutal limbo between serfdom and revolution; and while intellectuals debate whether work has innate or only relative value, they are frustrated because of their increasing alienation from a society which has less and less need for them.
Boredom is a function of age as well as social and economic circumstance.  The older one gets, the less a life of leisure seems appealing.  What is the fascination of endless waves lapping on the shore, or days in a chaise longue on the beach when there is still so much to learn? “Too soon old, too late schmart”, says the old Yiddish expression, and there is a challenge to proving the adage wrong.

Boredom is not a word in the lexicon of the faithful.  A reflection on the immensity of the universe, on God’s supreme reign, and on the eternity of blissful companionship with Him is more than enough in one’s later years.  Or younger years, for that matter.  If the good people of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners all had religion, then  routine would be turned into devotion, work into penance.  There would be no such thing as boredom.
A woman who works two jobs, cooks, cleans, and takes care of the kids in a trailer in Seagrove, South Carolina is bored silly with her life, but she has been dealt a bad hand, and sitting in front of the TV watching sitcoms and reality shows every night is as good as it gets.  She doesn’t deserve her boredom, but she is not wasting her time.

Chekhov, ever the proto-Socialist, was convinced that universal manual labor was not only the great social equalizer which joined individuals into a classless and ideal community; it prevented boredom – the most corrosive and degrading human sentiment.

Voluntary boredom – i.e. the curse of the unimaginative and the inept – is endemic today.  No matter how diverse one’s social networks may be, or how challenging one’s work or intimate relationships, individuals in society without religion or a secular system which regards work as an intrinsic value, are bored. Even a Vineyard-Palm Springs-Gstaad cycle becomes boring after a time. Activities that are random with no purposeful context become irrelevant and discouraging.
I have an old Jewish friend who has taken the ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’ warning to heart.  He is up at 3am to work on his many projects.  He is not content just to read, but to write about new insights and ideas – to formulate his own conclusions that have been suggested by others.  He has no practical end in mind – no book, no monetized blog, no adjunct professorship.  Nor is he out to populate his intellectual world with new ideas.  He wants only to frame what he learns within the context of his own shortening life.
“What for?”, I tease him.
“What for?”, he says. “To figure out what’s what, you dummy; and if I were you, I’d get started”.
So much for adult boredom.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Just The Fiction, Ma'am

I was a big fan of Dragnet when it was first aired and never missed an episode.  Millions of  Americans loved that clipped deadpan delivery and Joe Friday’s signature line, “Just the facts, Ma’am”.  We loved Friday’s frying pan face, fedora,  trim little suits, humorless sidekick, Frank Smith.  There were plenty of shoot-em-ups in the Fifties, but Dragnet gave the audience a feel for the boredom and drudgery, as well as the cops-and-robbers action of police work. Its ominous four-note opening to the brass and tympani theme music, and the intonation of the lines, “"Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent" set the stage for the half-hour to come.  Dragnet was part of the TV glue which held families together on Thursday nights.  We all chimed in on whodunit and cheered when our guy got cuffed.

The announcer would describe the premise of each Dragnet episode. "Big Saint" (April 26, 1951) for example, begins with "You're a Detective Sergeant. You're assigned to auto theft detail. A well organized ring of car thieves begins operations in your city. It's one of the most puzzling cases you've ever encountered. Your job: break it."

After the first commercial, the announcer would officially introduce the program: "Dragnet, the documented drama of an actual crime. For the next thirty minutes, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department, you will travel step-by-step on the side of the law through an actual case history, transcribed from official police files. From beginning to end—from crime to punishment—Dragnet is the story of your police force in action." (Wikipedia)

I am currently teaching a course on Shakespeare at the University of South Carolina, and in my introduction I trace my trajectory from English major to a professional career as a management consultant whose job was to identify those social, economic, and cultural factors that determined a country’s development and to design investment programs within the context of those constraints.  I tell my students that for forty years I parsed the facts.  I investigated the many particular historical antecedents that determined the present.  I studied colonialism, tribalism, religion, kinship patterns, ecology, wars, territorial expansion, kingship and empire.  There must be some particular, unique historical configuration that determined a country’s future.

I also tell them that after years slogging through the bush, holding endless interviews, and mining libraries from Alexandria to Timbuktu, I always ended up with the same conclusion – that there is nothing unique about any country’s history.  Human societies regardless of their wealth or geographical privilege all seem to act in the same self-interested, self-protective ways.  African empires (Gao, Ghana,Songhai) were as determined to expand, consolidate, and rule their territories as Roman emperors, Genghis Khan, Persian Shahs, or English kings.

Twentieth Century wars were no different.  Nazi Germany wanted European conquest and hegemony.  Stalin wanted a Russian empire that extended from Vladivostok to Germany.  Mao was only content after he had extended Communist rule from the Mongolian steppes to the jungles of Hainan.  American adventurism and the Islamic wars of the Twenty-first Century have resulted from the same desire for conquest.

Accounts from the earliest European travelers to Africa (Mungo Park, Rene du Chaillu) reported predatory tribal behavior that was no different from that of kingdoms and empires.  They launched raids, took slaves, robbed, pillaged, attacked and defended their territory.

Mungo Park

No period of history was any different.  Athens and Sparta fought debilitating wars.  The principalities of pre-Garibaldi Italy built fortresses, waged wars, and accessed all economic, political, and military resources to defeat the enemy, retain hard-won territories, and reign supreme. The story is the same in pre-British India, Mandarin China, or shogun Japan.

My reading of social anthropology and the works of Freud, Adler, and Jung suggested that things were no different at the nuclear level.  Husbands and wives, siblings, and relatives all vie for power, legitimacy, and the biggest shares of the family pie whether they are Yorks and Lancasters or Georgia crackers.

History, sociology, and anthropology all seemed to point in the same direction.  Human beings were all propelled by the same self-interested drives.  Family dynamics were the microcosm of range wars, tribal disputes, regional conflicts, and international wars.  The grabbing, temper-tantrum throwing, volcanic two-year old was at the heart of it all.  We had socialized our anti-social instincts just so far.  Human nature – hardwired and permanent – could never be denied.

If this was all true, I reasoned, then there was little point in pursuing the facts. It was only the particular and peculiar expressions of human nature that were compelling.  Of course everyone acted in their own self-interest, but individual stories of greed, duplicity, deception, and cruelty would be endlessly fascinating.  Fiction would give insistent demand a face.  It would give desire form and flesh. It would make plotting laughable, turn family drama into melodrama and grand guignol.  In other words, it would give humanity and human substance to the most irremediable compulsions. Reading fiction – or watching theatre and dance; or looking at art – would relieve us from the unrewarding search for answers and allow us to enjoy the ride. 

Caring less about why people do things but enjoying watching them was definitely a better way to spend one’s time.  It was not exactly fun to witness the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was a treat to watch George W. Bush strut down the runway of an aircraft carrier and pronounce, “Mission accomplished”.  Viktor Yanukovych was as ignorant a politician and as obtuse a leader as they come; but his personal pirate ship-themed restaurant, private golf course, and luxurious palatial appointments were ridiculously familiar. The revolutionaries that stormed the palaces of Saddam Hussein, Moamar Qaddafi, and Nicolai Ceausescu found exactly the same excess and bourgeois luxury.  Each dictator’s personal taste was of course a bit different – more chintz here, a few more chandeliers there – but basically the absurd greed and indifference was exactly the same.

The dereliction of duty of American politicians is lamentable, but the smarmy sexual episodes, lying cover-ups, and insincere apologies are the stuff of Hollywood.  It wasn’t that Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, or Anthony Weiner were diverging from the normal trajectory of powerful men, it was the way they did it which was entertaining.

I told my Beaufort class that I wanted to see what Shakespeare had to say about the human tragedy.  If anyone should be able to illuminate the seemingly perpetual repetition of human events, then he should. 

I was not disappointed, for in his Histories, Tragedies, Comedies, and Romances, he exposed every curiosity, every twist, every absurd notion, every outrageous expression of desire, lust for power and authority possible.

Reading the Histories one after the other in chronological order, one notes both the historical progression and the uncanny similarity of events.  Kings, queens, princes, pretenders, and common men all strive for power, legitimacy, wealth, and respect.  All fought with no holds barred. War was to win, spoils to be enjoyed.  These titanic struggles were amoral episodes of territorial acquisition and self-protection. No one escaped Shakespeare’s pen.  Jack Cade, the ignoramus but ambitious commoner who tries to mount a rebellion against Henry VI is no different.  Kill all lawyers he says, burn books, cleanse society of leeches and parasites. Only Jack Cade should rule.

Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and
ink-horn about his neck. (Henry VI..2.2)

The Tragedies are stories about power and legitimacy as well.  Julius Caesar has not yet committed any crimes against the state, but he just might; so Cassius and his cohorts conspire to murder him.  Coriolanus has a yenta for a mother, and she does him in and assumes the power she had groomed him for. Cymbeline, Leontes, and Othello are consumed by jealousy and their paths to social status, admiration, and reverence are undone by their very human passions.  Cleopatra doesn’t give a fig for the besotted Antony, and both go to their ends unhappily.  Rosalind, Viola, and Beatrice run rings around their suitors, but marry beneath them in order to secure wealth and position.

In other words, reading Shakespeare is far more entertaining and rewarding than any volume of history, biography, or political exegesis.

The same is true for Chekhov who explored how people behave when the world they know is changing forever.  His stories are not about the coming Russian Revolution but about ordinary people burdened by the weight of the past and frustrated by their inability to adapt to it.

Ibsen wrote about willful, dominant women who were, in Nietzsche’s terminology ‘beyond good and evil’.  They were relentless in their pursuit of personal power and exercised it as a validation – the only validation – of their humanity.  Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel are superheroes who react to stifling social constraints through action and determination.

Every important playwright – O’Neill, Miller, Williams, and Albee – displayed human need, greed, and venality in relief.  They understood that the indomitable drive of a common human nature would lead everyone to the same ends; but were fascinated by the unusual and always unique ways that individuals would act.

Absalom, Absalom is a story of American history, but more a tale of the tragedy of personal rise and fall, overreaching, risk, and the unquenchable desire for wealth, status, and respect.  History – the facts of slavery, the South, territorial expansion, and the polyglot culture of New Orleans – are important but only as backdrop and context for the heroic struggles of Thomas Sutpen.

The hysterics over global warming, the One Percent, the glass ceiling, LGBT rights, the death penalty, and vouchers are familiar and endlessly amusing. There is no right or wrong; and given the perspective of history, all ‘momentous’ decisions blur and blend, and become less important and more insignificant over time.  The critic Jan Kott applied the term The Grand Mechanism to the Histories of Shakespeare – princes and paupers alike were caught on the gears of historical engines which revolved perpetually.  Individual actions were nothing more than energy impulses which turned the wheels.

There is a certain stillness to this remove. To have come to a point where things don’t matter so much as they are enjoyed.  I have always been a card-carrying individualist, and still believe in the value of personal enterprise and the expression of individual will; but I cannot help realizing that despite myself, I have finally joined the human circus.

I read only fiction, and enjoy stories about the lion tamer, the clowns, the performing seals, the elephants, the trapeze, and the high-wire act.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Billy Graham, Elmer Gantry, And The Dalai Lama

A few years ago Billy Graham was everywhere – on television, kneeling alongside Presidents (his account of praying with a tearful Richard Nixon made headlines), lecturing, and preaching at tent revivals.  He was America’s evangelist, the public face of our deep Christian spirituality.  We looked to him for moral and ethical guidance.

Or not.  To many he was a charlatan, one more publicity-seeking, Bible-thumping huckster in the long tradition of American revivalists, snake-oil salesman, and get-rich-quick carny con men. Burt Lancaster played a perfect Billy Graham in Elmer Gantry, the Sinclair Lewis itinerant preacher out to make a buck, get in Sister Ruth’s pants, and take every rural rube in the country for a ride. Lancaster could have been portraying Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, or a hundred other evangelists who have barnstormed the country since the wagons went west.

Protestants, however, did not have a lock on evangelism. I was forced to watch Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen give his weekly homilies on television.  He looked great – simple cassock, rosary beads, and red skull cap. 

He was folksy and non-threatening.  He gave homilies rather than terrifying visions of hell and damnation. “Hearing nuns' confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn”, he said, and was kind, gentle, and understanding.  He was the nation’s good cop to the rabid, possessed ones that hammered Catholics every Sunday.

Father Brophy, one of the priests at my local parish, always started off like Archbishop Sheen, all homily and references to heaven and the angels, the forgiving nature of Jesus Christ, and the sanctity and goodness of the Catholic Church and the Holy Father. As he warmed up, he got more animated, and left hope and salvation behind.  Sin was what got his juices flowing.  He honed in on us children, staring at us with his beady eyes, and calling us godless reprobates.  “Honor your fathers and mothers?”, he snarled sarcastically. “Why, you don’t know what the words mean.”  He stopped to wipe his brow. “You are insolent, ungrateful spawn of the devil.  You have been given life and you repudiate those who, in God’s embrace, brought you forth into the world. You are not innocent ingĂ©nues, but first sinners, doomed to perdition and life everlasting in the pits of sulfur and intolerable fire.”

A number of parents met with Father Brophy and asked him to tone down his sermons addressed to children.  He was scaring them, and they didn’t want to come to church. “I mean to scare them”, he said.  “I want to scare them so badly that they will never, ever stray from the path of Our Lord and Savior.”

This was nothing compared to what he had in store for adults, especially when he got to Adultery and Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Wife.  When he started in on fornication, masturbation, untoward, and undisciplined demonic desire, he was unstoppable.  His eyes rolled in his head.  His face became red and apoplectic. Spittle flew from his mouth.  He waved his arms like a dervish, yelling about the flesh, the pleasures of the flesh, the soft, rounded contours of the flesh, the hard penetrating flesh.  He was transported to another world.  When he finally returned, and when whatever spirits that possessed him had flown, he again mopped his brow, adjusted his cassock, and folded his hands. “Let us pray”, he said.

There was no escaping Billy Graham for almost fifty years. He was everywhere and with everyone. He was America’s go-to good person. Being seen with Billy Graham had no downside whatsoever.  

Those few who thought him a sanctimonious publicity hound were too few to matter. Politicians and political wannabees trotted him out even when he was doddering and not sure who they were.

It was a win-win game.  Politicos used Graham to pander to their fundamentalist voters, to show the Christian flag, and to stand publically for morality and righteousness.  And Graham basked in the reflected glory of public figures.  He didn’t seem to care who they were or what they stood for.  He was uninterested in the straightness of their moral spine, the cut of their ethical jib, or the purpose in their hearts.  He would stand, kneel, and sing with anybody.

The poor bastard just smiled at the cameras, embraced whomever was with him on the stage, waved his arms at the audience, then slipped into something comfortable and nodded off to sleep.

The Dalai Lama is the Billy Graham of today.  He is as sanctimonious, as hungry for the spotlight, and as self-serving and ambitious as the old Bible-thumper himself.  There isn’t a politician in America who doesn’t want a photo op with him.  Here is His Holiness with President Bush before their golf game.

He loves to shmooze with rock stars and Hollywood greats. He and Russell Brand, below, enjoy audience applause after some shtick.

Now admittedly I have a very different image of Tibetan monks.  I have always thought of them as reclusive, solitary, and meditative, not much different from monks of any other denomination who choose to renounce life, to contemplate God, and to honor, worship, and devote themselves to Him in a strictly personal way. 

They symbolize spiritual purity and are reminders of the profane and illusory nature of our world.  They are an example of spiritual certainty.  Their lives are led only for God.  They are often criticized for their reclusiveness.  They are fleeing the real world, say some critics, and abrogating their God-ordained responsibilities to help others.

On the contrary, they are are providing an even more important service by living a life of faith alone and demonstrating its primacy and its sole place in the spiritual center of human life.

It is hard for me to stomach images of the so-called ‘spiritual leader’ of the Tibetan people schmoozing with the swells of the world.  Here is a photo of His Holiness out for a golf game with former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

I am aware of the argument for such political engagement and visibility on the part of the Dalai Lama – the plight of the Tibetan people.  Yet, no matter how many Richard Gere’s he recruits to his cause, or how many rounds of golf he plays with world leaders, nothing but Kissinger-style realpolitik is going to get China to budge on the issue of Tibet.  They haven’t moved a whisker in nearly seventy years, and there is nothing that is likely to change their minds now. Tibet in Chinese eyes is a renegade province – an insolent upstart forgetting its benefactors and protectors. China is growing richer and more powerful by the day, increasingly a master of its own fate, and impervious to foreign blandishments and sabre-rattling.  The independence of Tibet has zero geo-political interest for the United States, and further rattling China’s cage will pay no dividends.

Which brings me to the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama.  Another great photo op for the President now that Billy Graham is close to pushing up daisies.  China routinely complains and retorts, but the Chinese are too smart and politically savvy to worry that this Tibetan publicity hound can do them any harm. 

The Dalai Lama knows this, but also knows that he has a large groupie following.  Young people put stickers with his aphorisms up on cubicle walls and send each other Dalai Lama greeting cards.

Whenever I hear these treacly aphorisms, I think of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who was a master at saying nothing and making people feel good.  He, like the Dalai Lama, was a kindly old gent who never threatened, always smiled, and was good magazine material. Both men do no harm, and I suppose that if the words of the Dalai Lama inspire even a few people to reassess their lives, he has done some good.  Yet for me there will always be something smarmy and smug about the man – just like Billy Graham and his televangelist colleagues.  I can’t take any of them seriously.  Especially the Dalai Lama.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Decline Of Religion In America

It is easy to see that the hold that both traditional and evangelical religions have had on Americans is weakening.  A famous Pew study recorded the rise of the ‘Nones’; pastors everywhere lament that their congregations are dwindling; and there is a general increase in secularism throughout the country.  Religion is paling as a panacea, opiate, and  social support in an age of virtual reality, genetic modification, Prozac, and pleasure without guilt.  Who listens to those sweaty Bible-thumpers anyway? The Catholic Church has become a refuge of liars, thieves, and child-abusers.  Christmas has been for sale for years; and the story of Christianity, when deconstructed, is less an inspirational tale of suffering, resurrection, and redemption than a fabulous mythical tale little different from that of Gilgamesh, the epic battles of Siva and Ravanna, or the Enlightenment of the Buddha under the banyan tree.

 

However, it may only seem like everyone is giving religion a pass; and what has become superficially evident is actually a fact - there are far fewer true believers than ever before.  There are far fewer true believers than ever before. Peter Foster, writing in The Telegraph (2.21.14) has found that even among white evangelicals, the bedrock of fundamental Christian belief in America, religious faith is slipping:

Using data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, Chaves discovers that among White Evangelicals born in the decade 1981-90, some 22 per cent now say they have no religion, a figure is close to the 24 per cent of mainstream Protestants born in the same decade who say the same.

What is interesting, is that if you go back a decade and look at White Christians born 1971-80, just 12 per cent of Evangelicals say they have no religious affiliation, compared with 19 per cent of mainstream Protestants: the secularization trends are clearly converging.

That is, not only have mainstream Protestants given religion a bye, but those who have always been counted on to pay their spiritual dues every month, are slacking off.  Worse yet, these statistics reflect the trend among young evangelicals.  If these declines continue even at the same rate, then mega-churches and store-fronts will be closing up like five-and-dimes.

But is this pessimistic scenario likely?

Analysis of European secularization might provide us some pointers for the US going forward. There, according to analysis by David Voas, a sociologist at Essex University, it is clear that the rise of so-called "fuzzy fidelity" – i.e. those with no explicit religious affiliation, but who still believe in some kind of higher power and go to church on Christmas – has proved to be a "staging post on the road from religious to secular hegemony.

Which means that even among those who check off some religious affiliation on census forms may be only marginal believers.  They are about ready to jump off the lifeboat.  After years of attending mass only twice a year on Easter and Christmas, even the pageantry and choral music isn’t enough to keep them in the pews, so might as well ditch the routine altogether.

"Indifference," Voas writes in his 2008 paper The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe, "is ultimately as damaging for religion as skepticism”.

The US Census form is far too exclusive, for there is no box for “Don’t care”.

“No religion” is far too demanding a category for most non-believers.  Atheists are a proud and determined group for whom denial of the divine is as much a religion as evangelical Christianity.  They check the “No religion” box with a black Magic Marker, a thick, dark blot to indicate their rejection of obscurantism and blind faith.

“Don’t care” is the box for most others who never think about religion one way or another.  They don’t struggle with belief, agonize over the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus Christ.  They have no anxiety about being faithless and religiously unattached.  They don’t keep a prayer book on the bedside table just in case Jesus comes a-calling or rosary beads in their pocket.  They simply aren’t interested.  They are not tempted when they hear choir practice at the local church, nor wonder about God and eternity when they pass a churchyard.  They are indifferent.  A Sunday sermon is no different from an lecture on life insurance.  Religion doesn’t matter. 

Foster points out that despite the decline in religious faith in the country, there is no openly non-believing or secularist member of Congress which might suggest that the roots of religion have not been completely pulled up.  Regardless of what Americans believe or do, their self-image as God-fearing citizens is hardwired.  Religion and patriotism have been so long intertwined that disengaging them will take decades if not more.  Long after most people have stopped going to church, they still tear up at the Pledge of Allegiance’s ‘One nation under God’. 

In other words, even if half of our elected representatives are indifferent to religion, it makes no political sense to stick that pin in their lapels.

Eventually it will happen.  Congressmen and the governed alike will embrace secularism at the expense of religion.  No more prayer breakfasts, invocations of the Creator, or references to Jesus as a personal savior.  No more Billy Grahams kneeling with Presidents, no more invitations by kingmaker and mega-pastor Rick Warren to the Saddleback Church. 

After all is said and done, it is hard to believe that something so persistent in human society will disappear.  Religion has been a part of life since the first thunderbolt. People worship mountains, trees, and rocks.  They sacrifice lambs and virgins to appease angry gods. The treasuries of the world’s great religions are full to the brim, and religion is nothing if not a giant, multi-national corporate empire. Not only that, but Muslims are on the rampage, demanding the heads of devil-worshipping American apostates. Far from considering the demise of religion, they are intent on forming a world Caliphate, a spiritual empire enforced by militant defenders. What power do Unitarians in Bethesda, Maryland have against the might of the holy scimitar?

Despite what exceptionalists think, America is not the center of the world.  Secularism may be the new religion here, but not everywhere.  In fact, there is a resurgence of a religious fervor are more fundamental and passionate than the United States has ever seen.

Not to worry.  Josef Stalin, when asked about the moral authority of the Catholic Church, famously replied, “How many divisions does the Pope have?”  We will always have military might, and secularism is good for business, and business creates wealth and might, so while radical Muslims may rant, rave, and sabre-rattle, we have many, many godless divisions on our borders.