Here’s how messed up “America first” is.  As we’re forced to try to protect ourselves from a drunken, sexually abusive Supreme Court nominee, Indonesia is trying to recover from an earthquake and tsunami that have killed at least 1,400 people.  Of course, it’s “America first.”  The powers that be want us to buy their narrative that we only are important, the chosen ones.  You don’t even have to be non-American to be excluded.  Just ask the people of Puerto Rico.  No, it is far more important to railroad through an anti-abortion judge so we can cause misery to countless numbers of people in America first.  Natural disasters strike even here (Florence), and we can only glance away a moment from the constant drama being roiled in that ever bubbling swamp.  I thought it was supposed to be drained by now.  They did find some slimy choices for high offices, in any case.

This new form of Manifest Destiny is as bad as the old one was.  People are suffering from a terrible tragedy and our lips are chapped from calling our senators to try to get them not to vote for someone a vast majority of normal citizens find highly objectionable.  The Republican abuse of power is only overshadowed by its abuse of women.  When even Kellyanne Conway speaks out stating that we need to listen to the victims, it’s clear something is amiss.  How slowly they awaken, these creatures of the swamp.  “America first” looked like a party game for a while, but now that its true and ugly agenda is being shown those who climbed aboard that bus aren’t quite sure how to signal that they want off.

What of Indonesia?  What of a president who can’t even point to it on a map?  It’s not here, so it’s not our problem.  Nice drunken frat boys who feel up women are the best we can offer for the highest court in the land.  Elsewhere in the world they’re trying to address the global warming that is causing more and more extreme weather.  We can charge tariffs and still call ourselves Republican.  If we can’t start actual wars we’ll start trade wars.  You can’t be great until others bow before you, even if they’re bowed in grief for a natural disaster that claimed hundreds of lives.  We’ll make America first even if we have to fall into last place to do it.

The Open Sea

498px-Christopher_Columbus“In 1492,” they tell me, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” As a feat of science in the age of discovery, there is no doubt that this was an event worth celebrating. Over time, however, the luster has diminished somewhat. Although I can speak only for myself, I often feel that being a male caucasian is a decided liability. It certainly has been in my professional life. Although my ancestors were probably busy grubbing an existence from the soil as Columbus nobly stood on the forecastle, spyglass in hand and India in his heart, we are classed together. Attitudes toward divine destiny were much different then. The European powers that had made the world they discovered in their image could only see this as the will of the Almighty. That’s the liability of omnipotence. What happens is, by definition, God’s will. As technology led from success to success, Columbus set off to shrink his world. And get rich in the process. What’s so wrong with that?

The view among the displaced may be very different. People, if pagan, happened to be living in Canaan before Moses arrived, according to Holy Writ. They were, however, an annoying inconvenience to a God who had it all planned out. And since that torch had been passed to the Christian leaders of Europe, although contested by the Muslim leaders elsewhere, they had to follow their destiny to these sacred shores. Oh, I’m sorry! Were you sitting here? And those who march in the parades do it a bit more self-consciously while the majority of us continue to work in New Amsterdam as if nothing extraordinary had happened. As if a genocide hadn’t led to prosperity. As if, although God has disappeared, this wasn’t manifest destiny after all.

Humans can’t be blamed for being curious. It is part of our nature. I do wonder what will happen when we finally stop fighting one another and land ourselves on another inhabited planet. One where they haven’t achieved the technology that we have. Will we have learned anything from the St. Columbus Day massacre or will we still be guided by our confidence in lenses that can see billions of years into the past, see the havoc we’ve visited upon our own planet and still say, “it is good”? Even on the bridge of the Enterprise there is only one alien standing, and he is wearing earth clothes. Can we be disinterested observers when potential wealth lies below the feet of those we meet? We respect your culture, but hey, what’s that you’re standing on? Mind if we take it? You’re not using it. And once their voices have been silenced, we’ll seek other oceans blue to sail.

Who Are the Wolves?

Last week I finished reading The Wolf at Twilight by Kent Nerburn. To be transparent here, I’d picked up the book at a Borders’ closing sale based largely on the subtitle: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. It sounded like a good book for autumnal reading. The first chill breezes of fall swept through Manhattan last week, and I curled up with the book on the bus. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I found was nothing short of epiphanic. Those of us who’ve spent long years in religious studies, no matter what specific branch, know of the deeply spiritual writings of Native Americans. Black Elk Speaks is a classic often required in Religion 101 and it is still as potent today as it was back when first penned. The danger, which Nerburn clearly states, is in assuming a mystical kind of stereotype for a very real people who have continually been—and still are—hidden away as an embarrassment of the United States’ melting pot image.

The Wolf at Twilight is a follow-up to Nerburn’s Neither Wolf nor Dog, a book that I have not read. In that original narrative, Nerburn describes his encounters with “Dan,” a Native American, Lakota elder. The Wolf at Twilight is the story of how Dan finds closure in locating the resting place of his sister, from whom he was separated at childhood. The journey, spiritual though it may be, is a wrenching one. Speaking from my experience, many children grow up in America learning only cursory pieces of the large and tragic mosaic of how the Native Americans were treated by own government. The story of Dan is one of clashing worldviews where any system that stands against the ideal of private ownership—sadly embodied in the Christian settlers of this nation—is inevitably shredded, and, if embarrassing enough, hidden from future generations. Our ancestors did a great disservice to our fellow human beings, in the name of religion. Manifest destiny had an overly healthy dose of the divine right of Christians in it. An idea poisonous to anyone who might challenge the concept of personal gain.

As a neophyte in this field of reading, I was sickened by much of what I read here. It will take more than a single post to outline some of the more poignant inconsistencies between Christian practice and preaching perpetrated upon those who were here before us. A people forcefully converted to a religion that was openly oppressive to them reveals the dark underbelly of missionary zeal and the truth of the evils religion can hide. Or even justify. Often Dan decries the religion that believes all the answers are in a black book. What was done to his own family in the name of Christianity led to several restless nights for this reader. Kent Nerburn writes with the conviction of a man haunted by an experience of rough reconciliation. From the title, I had expected maybe werewolves or specters to roam this book, but instead what I found was much more terrifying. It was the naked lust for personal gain—a monster that no crucifix or prayer ribbon can ever banish or dispel.

The Chosen Peoples

My thanks go to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy of Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz’s new book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (2010). Briefly, the book traces the origins of the concept of being a chosen people in both Israel and the United States. This concept is then shown in relief with those who are “unchosen.” The authors conclude by highlighting the national sense of mutual goodwill between Israel and the United States. The full text of this review is on the Full Essays page of this blog.

I read this book wearing multiple hats. Since the first chapter traces Israel’s sense of chosenness from Biblical times to the present, I began by wearing my Biblical Scholar hat. Many of the questions asked and raised about the Bible reveal a naivety about traditional claims of biblical authorship. Although certainty cannot be achieved, biblical scholars have applied textual and literary techniques to the text for well over a century now, and many of the claims simply accepted by Gitlin and Leibovitz simply do not stand up. This may seem a minor flaw, but since Abraham is foundational to this outlook, it is essential to at least consider his lack of historical attestation. Gitlin and Leibovitz assume that Genesis, with its stories of Abraham, predates the books that follow. This is not a safe assumption to make, and using this background as a foundation for further analysis might well lead to structural problems with the argument later on.

Wearing the hat of an historian, I noticed how much of the force of the argument of the book is interwoven with the idea that God has actually chosen Israel. I have told my students for many years now that historians do not make claims on God or God’s alleged activities. Texts that narrate God’s actions tend to be classified as myths rather than history. The concept of chosenness, which Gitlin and Leibovitz are reluctant to relinquish, is based on the premise that God has indeed done the choosing. An historian would be extremely reticent to make such a claim. Having noted this concern, the authors do a fine job of providing a brief, readable history of the founding of modern Israel without recourse to what God was doing in the twentieth century. When the authority of the Bible is needed, it is quoted here in King James English, hardly the most accurate translation available.

Gitlin and Leibovitz suggest that chosenness is more a curse, at times, than a blessing. The reasoning seems to be that the concept of chosenness leads inexorably to Zionism. The ideas interact on a much more subtle level than that, although certainly the Zionist movement has owed and continues to owe quite a heavy debt to the concept. The generalizations here are a bit broad – political motivations may not receive their full due. Toward the end of the chapter the ideology of messianism is engaged and brought into the discussion. It is not clear that messianism is the same as chosenness; the two ideas both emerge in Judaism, but do not always overlap. When the authors state that Zionism has always been messianic at heart (p. 57), that may be correct, but it does not necessarily reflect chosenness. Gitlin and Leibovitz are very good at pointing out the inconsistent application of the idea of messianism in the formative stages of the modern state of Israel.

Please see the Full Essays page for the remainder of this review.