Weaponized Ignorance

Blissful ignorance. Yesterday I knew nothing of the Parkland school shooting until I went out to get the paper for my wife, just as I was leaving for the bus. My peace has been shattered ever since glancing at the headlines. How any rational being can’t see the horror we’ve created by allowing gun lobbyists to buy the Republican Party I simply don’t know. Yes, I’m afraid. Yes, I’ve thought that maybe buying a gun would make me feel safer. Then I realize the insanity fear breeds. We could, as a society, address this fear. We don’t, however, because there’s far too much money to be made by it. We become weak-kneed whenever we think of that money flowing any direction rather than into our personal coffers. Insanity? A small price to pay.

The priorities of this nation are so messed up that Bedlam looks downright civilized in comparison. Even as we’re trying to come to terms with this 18th mass shooting of 2018, Republicans are attempting to balloon an already obscenely bloated military budget. Where do these weapons of personal destruction come from, if not the military technology? We want so badly to kill the enemy, and the castoffs end up in the hands of a troubled public. A traditional firearm to protect one’s home may not be unreasonable, but an assault rifle is. It crosses the line between fear and hatred. With a White House incumbent who ran on a ticket of hate, we’re reaping the whirlwind which we’ve sown.

Fear, many don’t realize, is a gift. It preserves us from danger in many circumstances. When it rules our lives, however, it becomes a neurosis. A psychosis even. Politicians may act stupid, but they know well that fear-mongering wins elections. Study after study has shown it to be true. This is a science they don’t doubt. The ease with which guns are available to what is clearly a deeply divided and very frightened public is like a piñata full of hand grenades. This is a scenario with no winners except those who accept the power the fearful eagerly give them. This is the danger of a thoughtless government driven only by personal gain and lucre. Those faithful to the call of destruction are, ironically, often evangelicals awaiting the end times. Agents of chaos bring those giant hands ever closer to midnight. The sweep of the clock moves ever forward, and if they’re anticipating Armageddon there’s no need to wait. It’s already here.

Tweeting Treason

Partisan politics can be very depressing. Religion seldom helps. Good ol’ boys hepped up on Jesus and lynchings creep me out a bit, especially when they’ve got political ambitions. Florida’s continual struggle with reality reawakened this fear when I read, in a Huffington Post story about Joshua Black’s recent tweet. A Republican candidate for the state house, Black is a former street evangelist who allegedly tweeted that a hanging is the way to solve, in his not-so-humble opinion, ills in the White House. To be fair, Black suggests that a trial for war crimes should precede the stout rope, but I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in due process. Anyone who’s tangled with the evangelical version of justice knows that there’s just no way to win. And yet, despite the many compromises on the political front, the religious right takes any excuse to make ever more outlandish claims.

Looking back over the history of Christianity, I wonder where hatred entered the mix. Jesus, according to the Gospels, had a temper but he never suggested the death penalty for his political enemies. Even standing before Pilate and Herod, he didn’t trump their human political ambitions with the divine trump card to win earthly power, hands down. As I recall, the early evangelists spent quite a bit of time huddled in dark corners for fear of the rule of government. They didn’t suggest hanging Tiberius, although one has to wonder what even the Romans made of Caligula. There were, no doubt, multiple Christianities as play in those early centuries, but the biblical picture, the one that evangelicals claim as their own, shows the true believers frightened and utterly subservient to the dictates of empire.

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

Constantine may be the most important figure in western history. The religions we recognize as Christianity today may have largely been crafted by Paul of Tarsus, but they would never have become the foundation of empire without Constantine’s conversion. The Christianization of the Roman Empire grew into the immense power of the Vatican in the Middle Ages, and fueled the political ambitions of colonists to this land that they claimed theirs by manifest destiny. And our presidents, no matter their personal predilections, have become more and more Christian ever since. Thomas Jefferson could not be elected in today’s political climate. Even Jefferson repented of having held slaves. There was a time when accusing a law-abiding president of war crimes would itself have been considered treason. A lot of water has passed under the Watergate since then, and partisan politics now holds hands with an uncompromising Christianity that suggests the death penalty is more to be desired than health care for all.

Seems Reasonable

Florida is a state of contrasts. A news story from the Associated Press highlights that divergence. On the lawn of the Bradford County courthouse is a monument to the Ten Commandments that American Atheists sued, unsuccessfully, to have removed. In response to their legal defeat, they have placed their own monument to atheism alongside it. Well, what’ fair’s fair. Local reaction, according to the story, has been anything but positive. Nevertheless, I wonder what a monument to atheism must look like. The partial photographs reveal the atomic symbol-based American Atheists logo on top, and words on the sides. The monument, the story indicates, bears quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the last of whom was gruesomely murdered as an early martyr to the atheist cause. There are those who suggest that the atomism of Democritus in the fifth century BCE already tolled the death knell of the gods. Deities and very small particles, however, have continued to get along for the past 2500 years.

Ephesians_2,12_-_Greek_atheos

David Silverman, the current president of American Atheists, is quoted as saying the monument is an attack on Christian privilege, not Christianity. This may seem a fine point, but it is valid. Most reasonable atheists have no difficulty granting freedom of religious belief to anyone (only the more radical members of the atheist camp suggest religion ought to be stamped out). Does that mean governments should not display monuments to Moses’s magnum opus but not to, say, that of Lao Tzu? Or, perhaps in this instance, Lucretius? It might appear to be over-protesting, but what would a Hindu’s thoughts be, should s/he be ushered past the statutes of a foreign god on the way to court?

One of the most difficult things for a person to do is envision their normal as another person’s weird. Religions that seem perfectly logical to those raised within them have a way of seeming unbelievable to those who encounter them as a part of an exotic culture. To me it is difficult to suppose anyone would see American culture as “exotic.” I mean, we’re talking Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s here. It seems pretty ordinary to me. When I take a mental step back a little further, however, I begin to see a nation of widely varying traditions. Little pockets of true culture punch through the plastic here and there, and the light that shines through can be brilliant at times. And if you happen to run afoul of the law while visiting, you might end up in a courthouse that not only advertises the Ten Commandments, but also has a monument to humanistic spirit as well.

Deadly Morass

Swamplandia! is a novel ensconced in the reality of death. It is one of those books that I knew I would need to read as soon as I heard about it.  Alligator wrestlers, ghosts, and even a biblical-sounding Leviathan theme park based on hellish imagery create an eerie, almost supernatural feel to the narrative.  At the same time, it is a very human story of loss, assimilation, growing up, and more loss that might be gain.  I’ve read many novels where the characters and events faded relatively rapidly after I closed the back cover.  The cast of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has stayed with me, wraith-like, for several days.  As I’ve tried to work out why the story sticks so close at hand, and I think it may be because so many of the characters—the entire protagonistic family—are outsiders.  The loss of the mother spirals a carefree, largely off-the-grid family in a Floridian swamp into a forced confrontation with the mainland.  In these times of economic hardship, the loss of a dream is something too many people can understand.  I certainly can.
 
Death, in whatever form it may appear, is a religious issue because it deals with ultimates.  Paul Tillich, a theologian of the last century, famously declared that God was that on which a person staked their ultimate concern.  For many people today, by this rough definition, death has become a kind of god.  In the ancient world s/he was literally so. Of course, death is entirely natural.  Consciousness is the factor that makes it seem foreboding and dreary.  Swamplandia! deftly ties death and love, hope, and a kind of diminished redemption together in a tale where a young girl travels through an unlikely underworld to rescue a sister who saved her own life by her doubt.  It may not be the most profound novel, but it is certainly a moody one.
 
On my campus visits I’m increasingly hearing that novels are favored by some instructors to get at deep truths that textbooks miss.  Indeed, the analytical urge is strong, but not omnipotent.  Sometimes the truth can best be experienced by letting yourself go and just feeling what is happening rather than thinking it through.  Swamplandia! does a bit of that. Thinking back over my own long, academic tenure, I realize that the teachers I enjoyed most were those who had me read what were, at the time, unexpected things. In a world where education has become nothing but job training to produce satisfied cogs in the corporate machine, death as a character in our own stories can’t be far from the truth. Sometimes even alligators and ghosts aren’t the scariest features of our non-fictional landscape.

Three Degrees Below Zero

Rick Santorum has turned his attack on intelligence against American universities, according to a story in the Huffington Post. He claims the left uses colleges for indoctrination to keep themselves in power. Sounds like somebody’s been sipping a little too much communion wine. I know many people who might have a right to make such claims, but Santorum isn’t one of them. Santorum earned a Bachelor of Arts, with honors, from the wicked, indoctrinating Pennsylvania State University. He then succumbed again to the indoctrination when he, apparently accidentally, earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of Pittsburgh. Somehow he stumbled onto a J.D. with honors from Dickinson School of Law. A man this indoctrinated, I say, has no business being president.

During these senior moments (not to offend any seniors who might actually make that claim) Santorum seems to have missed that universities are among the most under-funded, crisis-ridden institutions on American soil. With rare exceptions, universities are cutting programs, canceling positions, and slashing budgets. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve vented a fair amount of criticism on our universities and I know, firsthand, that they aren’t perfect. I rage because I love. It seems that some children of privilege like to rage because it’s in fashion. If you’re going to take on those smarter than you, at least try to get the facts straight. Higher education is such a small segment of the American employment force that the only reason you’d go after them is that, well, you’re in a church. Baptist Catholic Santorum made his remarks while at a church in Florida, a state which, despite insidious power-mongering, boasts some of the finest universities in the country.

Taking stabs at Obama, Santorum claims the president wants all kids to go to college, and that’s a bad thing. You don’t want an educated electorate. It is harder to get educated people to march in goose-step with everybody else. Talk about indoctrination! Vote for me, because I will keep you safe from the horrors of an education of which I couldn’t stop my self from taking advantage. Don’t send your kids to law school. There can be real danger even in sending them to grammar school, for there they learn to spell. I wonder, if in the course of earning his three degrees, Mr. Santorum ever learned to spell the word “hypocrite.”

Just an average guy, hanging with his buds.