O Brother

o_brother_where_art_thou_ver1When teaching mythology at Montclair State University, I had students watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? Based on Homer’s Odyssey, the movie follows a trio of convicts during a election campaign through depression-ridden Mississippi. The populist candidate, Homer Stokes, runs his campaign with a little person (but as a true Republican, he can call him a derogatory name and nobody blinks). Both Stokes and “the little man” are members of the Ku Klux Klan and even Mississippi of the 1930s won’t have that. How things have changed!

The movie comes to mind because of Friday’s march on Washington of women in favor of anti-abortion legislation. Look for the numbers to grow as the White House inaugurates comments about it. A few thousands gathered after last weekend’s 1.2 million—yes, a million more than expected—Women’s March on Washington. I respect these folks’ right to protest, of course. They might’ve done well to watch O Brother before heading out the door, however. The incumbent in Mississippi is Pappy O’Daniel. His clueless campaign managers have no ideas how to counter the populist Stokes. Junior O’Daniel suggests they could get an even shorter “midget.” Pappy, as if speaking to Friday’s marchers says, “Wouldn’t we look like a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies, bragging on our own midget, doesn’t matter how stumpy.” With apologies for the insensitive terms, size does matter. The First March had world participation of nearly 5 million. And that’s just those who were free that day.

I’ve been drawing quite a bit of wisdom from cinema lately. Maybe because it is often in harmony with vox populi. If it weren’t the industry wouldn’t be thriving. I think of O Brother and how the south in the 1930s makes us look regressive today. The good, Christian folks of Mississippi wouldn’t have a racist for their governor. When they saw what he really stood for, they voted for the lesser of two evils. Today we have a president that would’ve had a hard time being elected in that past. The tide has shifted to a more selfish and shortsighted instant gratification without benefit of education. “And our women, let’s not forget those ladies, y’all. Looking to us for protection! From darkies, from Jews, from papists, and from all those smart-ass folks say we come descended from monkeys!” Homer Stokes preaches in the light of a burning cross. Instead of booing him out of the town hall, we’ve asked him to lead the free world.

Illini Wisdom

Running through the Midwest like a massive, erosive serpent, the Mississippi River has an unrivalled place in the American imagination. In many locations the relentless river has carved impressive bluffs over the millennia, providing impressive views out over the valley that has been carved in nature’s time. Down near the town of Alton, Illinois, along the eastern bluffs left by the sculpting waters, is a reproduction of the Piasa Bird. Years ago, while living in the Midwest, some relatives took me to see the replica, a local tourist attraction and not a bad place to watch for bald eagles. It was then that I first heard the myth of the Piasa Bird. “Bird” is a bit of understatement, or perhaps a misnomer. The creature was really a monster, by any description. According to the lore presented by the tourist literature, the Piasa was a flying, human-eating beast that terrorized the local Illini tribe. Unsure of what to do, the tribe was at a loss until Ouatoga, their leader, had a dream that revealed an ambush as the means of defeating the monster.

The ambush involved, as is often the case in folkloristic accounts, a victim. Someone had to be bait to draw the Piasa into the ambush of poisoned arrows that had been arranged. Ouatoga, aware of the obligations of leadership, volunteered for the role of the victim and stood in the open to lure the Piasa into the trap. As the monster swooped down on him, the warriors released their arrows, killing the beast and saving their leader. The story bears much in common with myths throughout the world: a frightful beast, a sacrifice, and ultimate deliverance. This framework also appears in many religions, outlining the human condition. It also reflects, in an abstract way, the ideal of pre-modern society; we are all in this together. Banding together against an outside evil, human society might banish the monster and everyone’s chances would be improved. It is the world of mythology.

In our enlightened society the emphasis seems to have changed completely. Our leaders are often our Piasa, snatching from the populace at will and maintaining uneasy control. Ouatoga, in the myth, understood the role of leadership as being willing to sacrifice everything for the good of those who were under his watch. The idea also occurs in the Bible where Ezekiel charges the ungodly kings of Judah with being shepherds who eat the sheep. I still believe in the power of mythology. Stories are preserved because of a truth that resonates with the hearers. Monsters are in no short supply, and a society that is subject to the whims of an oligarchy perhaps has the most to learn from our mythological past. When is the last time a public leader offered to give up anything in order to serve the populace who grants him (sometimes her) his power? Old Man River, he must know somethin’. Looking up at the Piasa, I think I might be able to guess what it is.

In the Name of Hate

Saint Valentine’s Day: a minor holiday that no one gets off work or school, but which has both naughty and nice aspects to it. A day with long pre-Christian associations (sorry St. Valentine), the celebration has become an icon of love in the Hallmarkian holiday world. It is a welcome change to the weariness of winter that drags on around the northern hemisphere, reminding lovers and curmudgeons alike spring is on its way. A holiday of hope.

At the same time, an editorial in Saturday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger raises the ghosts of less pleasant times. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans is attempting to sponsor state license plates honoring General Nathan Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. While pointing out that Forrest eventually distanced himself from the movement, state officials want to acknowledge his contribution to their state’s history. License plates advertise to the nation as a whole what states uphold as their most attractive traits. In a world where the Klan is still seething under the surface, with active groups in nearly all states, it is not hard to see that hate can not lead us forward. It has failed in the past and it has no hope of success in the future.

Among the most distressing, if not revealing, features of various hate groups is their outspoken adherence to “old time” Christianity. Religion is but one tool in their arsenal, but what makes it so deadly is that even “peaceful” religions such as Christianity have a violent heritage. The Bible can be used to justify genocide as well as rescuing the widow and orphan. Christianity has a long history of being used for political, often hateful, ends in America. It is a trend that is dressed up in its Sunday best for glib talk-show hosts and windbag politicians who claim that “old time” values (read “white privilege”) are what America needs. Do we really need more hate? It’s Valentine’s Day. Let’s give it a break on the rhetoric of hate for at least a day. Who knows? It may become a habit.