Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
– Matthew 7:15
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
– Matthew 7:18
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
– Matthew 22:39
(For Thompson Bradley)
Over this past Christmas holiday, I did what I enjoy most about that time of year, I got together with family and friends to share camaraderie, food and drink. It even included a well-attended memorial for a dear deceased friend, an atheist and a socialist, who, as one speaker testified, was a profoundly spiritual man who devoted his life to fighting for the dignity of his fellow human beings. During all the cheer, though, there always comes a moment when the absurdity of the season settles upon me and I have to force myself to laugh just a little harder. This year was a doozy.
It wasn’t the usual deluge of cloying commercial nonsense that got me; long ago I’d accepted Stan Freiberg’s definition of Christmas as the time we celebrate the birth of the gross national product. What was so farcical this year was the insidious political context in which we were celebrating the birth of Christ. Of course, the Prince of Peace wasn’t actually born on December 25th. Some savvy person in ancient times decided not to rock the boat and chose to celebrate his birthday on the Winter Solstice, because that’s when pagans and pre-Christians naturally celebrated. The harvest was in and the community’s storage sheds were full of fresh food, so everyone was inclined to co-mingle with family and friends before they hunkered down to face the harsh winter ahead.
There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s smart change-oriented politics. For example, if George W. Bush had understood this realpolitik dynamic and had not swept away and totally replaced Saddam Hussein’s power structure his invasion/occupation might not have been one of the worst foreign policy debacles in modern times. As that beloved absurdist Kurt Vonnegut might say: So it goes.
A central folly of this Christmas season was evangelical Christian Franklin Graham, following an editorial in Christianity Today supporting the impeachment of Donald Trump, telling us how much he revered President Trump because he was strongman protecting the Christian religion from liberal assault. Graham conceded the man came up morally short and couldn’t pass muster under the scrutiny of Jesus Christ. But that didn’t matter. He also conceded Christianity Today had been founded by his father, Rev. Billy Graham. Nor did it seem to matter to Graham, the son, that Christ was a spiritual leader famous for exhibiting fury toward the Trumpian plutocrats of his time by entering a temple and physically flipping over their tables devoted to emolumenta (Latin for profits), and exclaiming:
It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
– Matthew 21:13
In a book titled Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America, Randall Balmer tells a story from early in father Billy Graham’s career how he “turned aside a friend’s challenge to attend Princeton Theological Seminary and become conversant with intellectual and theological issues.” Graham was not interested, Balmer writes, because “Populist evangelical theology in America, like populist politics, operates on pragmatism more often than it does on principle.”
“‘I don’t have the time, the inclination, or the set of mind to pursue them,’ Graham protested. ‘I have found that if I say, “The Bible says,” I get results. I have decided I am not going to wrestle with these questions any longer.’ ”
There it is. Don’t confuse me with knowledge and the deep thinking of great minds. Keep it simple and popular in stories my plain-talkin’ flock can understand; cite The Bible as a source of political power. (The story Balmer tells comes from William Martin’s biography of Graham titled A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.)
It’s hard to fathom anyone on the religious, political right believing Donald Trump subscribes to any of the New Testament words attributed to Christ in the King James Version of The Holy Bible — though they assure us that book is the foundational text handed down by God directly from Heaven. They seem to have made a devil’s bargain and handed over protection of their church to the den of thieves. The hypocrisy and delusion is simply awe-inspiring.
I’m a spiritual atheist who subscribes as much as one can to Christ’s teachings on compassion and forgiveness. What most gets my attention, in this case, is that by supporting an obviously un-Christian Donald Trump as a strongman protecting his religion, Rev. Graham is focusing his wrath and power at people like me. Torquemada was also a powerful strongman who protected Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition by murdering and torturing those who threatened his reign — all in the name of the Prince of Peace.
In Italy, the Inquisition was condemning people to death until the end of the eighteenth century, and inquisitional torture was not abolished in the Catholic Church until 1816.
– Carl Sagan
Franklin Graham and similar fundamentalist Christians are advancing what Chris Hedges wrote about in a 2006 book titled American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I agree, the term fascist is a loaded word one should use cautiously. And Hedges makes it very clear America is not becoming Hitler Germany or Mussolini Italy. What he had the courage to say was, yes, it can happen here — in the same way that proverbial frog remains in the slowly heating water til’ he finds himself boiled to death. Again, I’m concerned because it’s people like me and people I respect who will be hurt.
The idea of slowly encroaching fascism was vividly revealed to my mind when on Christmas Eve I read in the New York Times a story about a state legislator in Washington associated with far-right fringe elements who disseminated among his band of armed zealots a document called “A Biblical Basis for War.” According to the Times, it called for the “surrender” of those advocating abortion rights, same-sex marriage and socialism. “[I]f they do not yield,” it urged armed patriots to “kill all males.” Shea defended the document, saying it was referring to Old Testament war tactics. That didn’t make anyone feel better.
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him. But all the women children that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
– Numbers 31:17,18
My reading of The Holy Bible comes from an excellent class in “The Bible as Literature” I took at Florida State University many years ago on the GI Bill. It’s a great poetic work full of novelistic history and character and charged with mythic and metaphoric power. But if you believe it literally, you’re looking for trouble. What’s different about the New Testament is, of course, its emphasis on Jesus Christ as a “prince of peace.” There’s not a lot of smoting, killing and carrying off of your enemy’s young daughters; that’s to be found in the Old Testament. Militant Christians like Matt Shea and his well-armed comrades have assumed Jesus Christ as their savior, while they’ve ditched all the peaceful and forgiving ideas he proselytized about to his flock; then, they’ve borrowed the most violent, tribal passages from the Old Testament to gird their loins for cultural battle in the 21st Century.
Crazy? I’d say so. But, then, what’s crazy and what’s political violence circa 2020 is not so clear-cut when facts, science, truth and the law are so widely disrespected that the mad find protection for their madness in the padded rooms of wealth and power. Consider this: In today’s loopy, internet-saturated world, is it hard to imagine a lonely, AR15-packing, Second Amendment-worshiping rightwing-fringe nutcase listening to Matt Shea’s Old Testament message getting into his big truck with a duffel bag of weapons and extra magazines and tearing off to rid us of some liberal fiend damned on a website called Stormfront.com? Son of Sam took his orders from a dog. Matt Shea’s grasp of history and crisis is much more articulate and clear than a dog’s. Plus, we should not forget this poor fellow’s reading list, which no doubt includes publications like Recoil magazine, a 180-page, slick AR15-wet-dream fantasy that proselytizes this stuff for the gun industry with a fat, glossy new issue each month.
The lynch pin of all this is metaphor. Life with no mental mediation for establishing meaning out of universal chaos would be so confusing that the human mind would blow a gasket. Thus, we rely on metaphoric thinking to simplify things and make them familiar so we can go on with our lives. Creating metaphors is, of course, an art. When I taught writing in a city prison, one of my greatest challenges was breaking inmates of the metaphor, “He was fast as shit” or “He was slow as shit.” You can do better, I’d preach. Narrative and story are metaphors for living, pleasing patterns that represent in our poor, limited minds larger, more overwhelming things we can’t fully understand. Life is like a bowl of cherries. We know that’s nonsense, but we like cherries and we want life to be good, so it comforts us and allows us to think we have things under control. The problem comes when people take their metaphors literally; sometimes people are so sure their metaphors are the real thing they take up arms and threaten to harm or even kill those who don’t share their certainty. Again, in the case of the Matt Sheas of this world, that could be me and my friends.
Add all this up. Factor in climate change, a more and more dysfunctional education system, and things like a pharmaceutical industry in which much-needed antibiotic research is not being done because under capitalist logic there’s no profit incentive. Throw in what Harry Frankfurt told us about a marketing-based society drowning in bullshit. Don’t forget the wasted resources and lingering legacy of failure from too many imperial military debacles. Add some computer algorithms for spice. Then jam it all into an electric blender, turn it on high and what do you get? A nation headed toward an uncertain rendezvous with destiny.
But it’s not that simple. While everyone these days seems to agree on this metaphor — that our imperial republic is a runaway train heading for some rendezvous with destiny — everyone still argues exactly what the hell that destiny may be or should be. Much of the rest of the world is biting their fingernails watching our national agony, at the same they seem to be enjoying the United States’ loss of self-confidence in a worldwide outpouring of schadenfreude, that darkly human impulse that finds joy in another’s misfortune. It’s not quite sadism, but it shares something with that impulse.
When Things Get Crazy, Go to the Movies
When I was in Baghdad in January 2004 as the cameraman on a documentary film, the director and I had dinner with a cinema professor from a major university in Baghdad. He hoped to lure the director to come later and lecture at his university. The professor was accompanied by a man who had been a general in some technical area of Saddam Hussein’s army; he showed me the clearance document given to him after a period of interrogation by the invading US military. He said, in the chaotic and frightening state of affairs in Iraq at that moment, he mostly stayed home and watched movies.
These days, I sometimes feel like that man. Last night, for example, I indulged in my love of westerns. In a thrift shop I’d found a DVD of The Quick and the Dead, a 1987 film version of a Louis L’Amour novel starring Sam Elliot as a loner in buckskin with a horse, a huge bowie knife, a Colt .45 and a lever-action, repeating rifle. The plot was classic: A man, his wife and young son are in a wagon full of furniture being pulled by a team of four mules, with two fine horses tethered at the rear; they’re coming from Philadelphia on their way to Bighorn, Montana, where with their money her brother has built them a house. The brother is in Custer’s 7th Cavalry. Click here for a clip from the film.
They roll into a sad, barren town in Wyoming and are confronted by a menacing gang of smelly, grinning predators. Then Sam Elliot rides into town. The Easterners are ripe for picking, and Elliot takes a less-than-discreet fancy to the man’s beautiful wife, as does a fat, greasy member of the vermin gang who lusts for a “good-smelling woman.” Over an hour-and-a-half, Elliot’s character saves the family and educates the tenderfoot husband; per the popular western code, he evolves into a true gentleman vis-à-vis the wife, the husband is revealed as a Civil War veteran who has seen too much killing and by the end of the picture the gang of threatening lowlifes have been eliminated, one by one. The ending is right out of Shane, as Elliot’s wild-West character rides off into the sunset, alone, with the boy and the wife waving farewell, our gun-shy Civil War vet Easterner now a rugged Western killer able to secure his family.
I couldn’t help it: I metaphorically projected the dangerous, smelly gang of vermin in the narrative onto the likes of Matt Shea and his militant bunch of western white men hostile toward immigrants. The decent Philadelphia family represented law-abiding, compassionate liberal people focused on open-mindedness and cooperative living. Matt Shea and his ilk would, of course, lean toward another version of such a plot, with the outsiders more sinister and threatening their liberty and way of life.
In Far Country: Scenes From American Culture, Franco Moretti quotes Robert Warshaw answering the question why the Western has such a hold on our imaginations:
“It offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence such as can be found almost nowhere else in our culture. One of the well-known peculiarities of modern civilized opinion is its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence. This refusal is a virtue, but like many virtues it involves a certain willful blindness and it encourages hypocrisy.”
Moretti sees in the Western “a political founding myth: the genesis of the state.” He quotes a line from Owen Wister’s famous 1902 western novel of Wyoming, The Virginian: “Where you [the Virginian] come from they have policemen and courts and jails to enforce the law. Here, we got nothing.” This metaphoric and mythic time/place is fundamental to who we are as Americans. Moretti concludes: “The Western needs heroes, because it has no stable mechanism to enforce the law. The hero fills the void of the absent state — he is the state.”
In my thinking, there’s just as much mythic mind-work going on vis-à-vis Western movies as there is vis-à-vis stories in The Holy Bible. Of course, this is a big reason people like me are deemed so frightening by some people. The solution to such polarization is in the recognition that absolutely nothing is solid in this life and everything is vulnerable to change. As Epictitus put it thousands of years ago in Greece: “You can never step in the same river twice.” Humility, dialogue and cooperation is the only way.
What stories one pays fealty to ends up mattering. Donald Trump’s tragic flaw is he only listens to the stories he generates in his own head; there is no respectful dialogue with the world surrounding him. So he’s right: The world is out to get him. The US Constitution is a long, complex story with ups and downs and evil switchbacks, complete with a cast of colorful characters and a European backstory called the Enlightenment. The so-called Deep State is also a character, one day the bad-guy for the left, the next day the bad-guy for the right. It’s actually a helluva drama, now being played out as Reality TV. Nothing can be taken for granted. We aren’t in Kansas anymore.
Politically, I’m done with Identity Politics. It’s the wrong metaphor for this fraught moment because it divides more than it unites; because, whoever we are, however we might have been abused in the past, we’re all in the same boat now facing the same bad weather. Personally, I do my best to eat right and exercise to keep my aging body healthy and strong. I try to have integrity, use my talents wisely, not take myself all that seriously and present the best image I can to the people I engage with by choice or fate. Of course, I come up short in some way every day. Finally, I constantly work to adjust my inner metaphoric and mythic life, keeping it fresh and on time, so I can cope as effectively as possible with a maddening, ever-changing but always interesting world.
As the learned old preacher tells us in the Old Testament:
Vanity of vanities: all is vanity. . . . For in much wisdom is much grief: he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
– Ecclesiastes 1:2,18