Lizard Lords

In the aftermath of last week’s attempted coup by the alt-right crowd, NBC ran a story about conspiracy theories.  Specifically the lizard people (actually aliens) who secretly run the world.  If you hang out in weird places, like I do, you already know the story behind this: fueled by David Icke, some conspiracy theorists believe a race of shape-shifting alien lizard people control the government.  They’re deadly serious.  (You can fairly easily find videos purporting to show lizard people caught transforming at government events.)  The NBC story, by Lynn Stuart Parramore, traces the belief to an old anti-Semitic trope.  I haven’t studied this enough to have any opinions on the idea, but what caught my attention is that this particular conspiracy grew out of objections to Darwin.

While teaching I’d planned to write a book on Darwin and Genesis—I researched it for years.  I would add to Parramore’s story the fact that most of our political troubles today can be traced back to that same unwillingness to accept evolution.  Over the centuries in western culture, the Bible (while not necessarily read) had grown into such an object of veneration that anything which challenged it had to be rejected.  Charles Darwin was well aware that anyone following the dictates of science would be pilloried by a “Bible believing” culture, and this was in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Elitist intellectuals assumed this literalism would just go away but it never has.  When it appears (which it frequently does) they laugh at it and insist that if we ignore it it’ll just go away.  Then an armed mob takes over the U. S. Capitol.

The concern shouldn’t be that people believe in lizard people, but that they can’t let go of a threadbare literalism toward a book.  Biblical scholars are routinely ignored by those who believe their way of reading the Good Book is the only possible way to do so.  All other ways are “interpretations,” and these interpretations don’t reflect what God has told them personally, so they’re clearly wrong.  This view, simply dismissed by most of the educated, is extremely widespread.  It must be addressed in some way, rather than being treated as some passing fad.  There may be no lizard-people taking over, but this view of the Bible has been politically active for going on two centuries.  Instead of studying it and trying to understand it, we cut departments and positions that might help to solve the problem.  Maybe the lizards are controlling us after all.


Nazi Religion

CatholicismRootsAs a lifelong pacifist, I’ve never been a fan of war books. Indeed, war seems to be to an utterly useless waste of life and a source of herculean suffering. The fact that wars happen, and books about them depress me, causes me to avoid them. Still, Derek Hastings’ Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism is less about war and more about, as the subtitle phrases it, Religious Identity and National Socialism. As I read through this history of the early Nazi movement, it occurred to me that this was probably the first actual book I’ve ever read about it. My knowledge of the Nazis had previously come from articles, movies, and documentaries. And Hogan’s Heroes. Being largely of germanic pedigree, I suppose I bear some residual guilt. I have to remind myself that my ancestors had left Europe before Germany had even existed as a unified state. I like to think they would’ve left during the rise of the Nazis, if they hadn’t already left generations before.

In any case, I had no idea of how the Third Reich dealt with organized religion. I have heard anecdotal opinions from time to time that the Catholic Church should have been stronger in its condemnation of the atrocities that wartime Germany perpetrated, but I had no sense of their official outlook toward each other. Hastings makes clear that although Catholicism and Nazism came to distrust each other implicitly, at the beginning of the Nazi movement they were considerably more chummy. In fact, anti-Semitism was something they had in common. Many of the early member of the party were Catholics—some of them priests—who felt an accord with the developing ideology. As Hitler’s rise to power increased, his personal antipathy to Christianity widened the growing gap between his own outlook and that of the early Catholic Nazis.

The book has no schadenfreude for the church, however. This is academic history. As Hastings notes, few studies have focused on the early developments of Nazism. In today’s political climate, that struck a chord with me. It seems vitally important to be aware of how such movements start so that we can recognize them as they attempt to rise again. I have little confidence, reading the news, that we are any better in the 2010s than people were in the 1920s when political instability, economic distress, and hatred of those who were different led to a reactionary, fascist regime. Could it happen again? I look around at a culture in love with guns and endless, selfish gain, and distrust of those of different ethnic origins and I wonder. The early stages are, I think, the most crucial to recognize. Surely no German Catholics could’ve anticipated just what Nazism would become.


Comic Culture

KrakowKryptonPerhaps the most obvious deviancy in my otherwise conservative childhood was MAD Magazine. I honestly suspect my parents didn’t know that it wasn’t just another comic book. I read it—like I read everything—religiously, and I was fluent enough in the lingo to discuss it intelligently with my sixth-grade teacher, a fellow fan. Having made that admission, my reading of comic books was muted since we lived in a town with no literary aspirations or conveniences. There was no book store, or even magazine shop, let alone a public library. We were one of the towns Carnegie left behind. Still, I was draw to MAD contributor Arie Kaplan’s From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. Over the past few years I’ve been reading academic treatments of comics as, with my beloved monsters, the high-brow academy has come to view low-brow as “culture.” (I learned the term “high-brow” from MAD, by the way.) As I grew into an Episcopalian, I tended to leave these markers of my shameful past behind, but now I’ve come once again to embrace them.

One of the odd things I’ve noticed about Jewish (and other “outsider”) analyses is just how deeply felt the anti-semitism of our culture is. This always strikes me as odd as, although it is hard to believe, I was raised to be non-prejudicial toward anyone else. (Poor folk are often that way; we know our place, beneath others.) I never felt superior to Jews, African Americans, or women. I was in awe of them. Maybe MAD helped. As Kaplan points out in his treatment, much of the comic industry was Jewish in origin because so many Jews were kept out of other businesses in New York. (Well, there is Diamond District, but let’s stick to publishing.) With few options, poor immigrant kids turned to cartoons. As a child in a humble household I often took out my frustrations by making my own comic books. I can understand the catharsis.

With the current glut of superhero movies, it may be hard to imagine a time when comic books and their denizens were considered utter foolishness. Now they’re big money. It’s not so much that the mighty have fallen than it is the humble have been exalted. I haven’t really read comic books since I was maybe fourteen. Up to that point, however, they got me through many a difficult time with the belief that there was someone out there watching over me. No superheroes ever delivered me from my troubles, but belief was sometimes all I needed. I can understand why those who are discriminated against would turn to this medium for release. Faith and fantasy share more than an opening syllable, for those with eyes to see.