Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.

Mostly Clear

“Chiasm” is a literary technique based on the name of the Greek letter chi, shaped like a latinate X.  The idea is fairly simple and generally resembles a sideways V more often than an actual X.  It goes like this: a poem, or story, begin at a large, or wide premise, narrows down in steps to a center, and then, by corresponding steps, again out toward a larger, or wider resolution.  Another way to think of it is a set of Matryoshka dolls; first you take them apart, and then you put them back together.  David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a chiastic story.  Starting on a cross-ocean voyage at an indeterminate time in the recent past centuries, it moves on to a Briton on the continent in about the turn of the last century, then a mid-twentieth-century American investigative journalist, a late twentieth-century or present-day rogue publisher in Britain, a clone in future Korea, and finally, to a planet of the apes-like Hawaii of the distant future.  Not really finally, though, since after the center of the X, it moves back outward through the nesting stories to bring us back to the beginning.

I’m not going to attempt to retell the story here, so don’t worry—it doesn’t get any more complicated.  There are, however, a couple of remarkable things about the tale.  In the brutish, nasty, post-collapse future that marks the center of the narrative, religion is central.  Some of the Hawaiians have come to believe the protagonist of the nesting story, the clone mentioned above, was a god.  To find her story, however, you’ll need to read the book.  Suffice it to say, that origin myth is part of the overall complex structure.  The second of the remarkable features, and one that makes this book very salient, is that in all the ages the issue of accepting those who are different is central.

In the outside framing story, the initial and terminal points of the chi, one of the characters is a missionary.  He’s trying to “improve” he life of Polynesians by making them into slaves, whereby they benefit from the largess of Christianity.  Quite a bit of the narrative draws its energy from the eventually faltering sense of superiority of the AngloSaxon “race.”  In that sense it’s definitely a parable for our time.  A story that deserves to be read.  Defying easy genre identification, Cloud Atlas is a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t fear religion and its larger implications.  A couple of the nesting stories have exquisite twist endings worthy of the Twilight Zone.  This book will make some demands on your time, but its message makes it a sound investment in a world rapidly heading toward a future that reveals just how troubled our species is.

Xenophobia’s Children

There are consequences, it seems, for not paying attention in school.  I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect most of us are taught that basic fairness is the social ideal.  Xenophobia is deeply embedded in the primate psyche, but to those who claim we haven’t evolved, there seems to be no way to convince them that “racial” differences are merely a matter of differing collectives separated by natural borders.  Over time traits favorable to the region predominate, and humans therefore have what seems to be a very wide array of potential appearances.  There should be nothing in all of this that suggests one group is superior to another.  Primate evolution, however, helps to explain but not to excuse.  Xenophobia is something from which we can evolve.

Fear is at the heart of any phobia.  In a society that measures the worth of individuals by their wealth, fear that another will take it is constant.  Perhaps, in a part of our souls we’d rather not acknowledge, we know it’s wrong to have too much while others don’t have enough.  It’s very cold this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  In Manhattan on Saturday I saw many people on the street, those who’d met the wrong end of capitalism.  I’ve seen human beings shivering in Dickensian conditions in the twenty-first century.  I’ve known capable adults who couldn’t find work, even when they’ve tried.  We fear the street person.  We know that, but for slight shifts in capitalism, that could be us.

Xenophobia has come under threat with globalization.  We’ve made travel to remote locations affordable in order to spread capitalism to regions ready to be exploited.  And we see nothing wrong with taking from those who can’t prevent us from doing so.  Then we wonder why people just like us turn out to march in the cold.  Civil rights marches took place half a century ago.  Crowds thronged the nation’s capital seeking basic human treatment.  Fifty years later over a million women and supporters had to show up to make the same point again.  Fair treatment should not be a commodity.  Those who have fear the stranger.  Those who have don’t wish to share.  They claim the name of “Christian” and mock the very tenets upon which that belief system was founded.  It’s cold outside today.  As we huddle inside, we should have time to think.  It is a waste of a national holiday if we don’t at least ponder for a few moments what it is we celebrate.  And the real costs of xenophobia.

Homo Labelmaker

It’s okay to hate the white man. Mitch McConnell has become the icon of what “the white man” really is. Hatred can be just. Even the Good Book says, “I have hated them with a perfect hatred.” I am not a white man. A few months ago I took a community course on racism. The only male participant in the class, as it turned out. The teacher at one point, asked me my race. I answered that I don’t see myself as having a race, nor do I see other people as having races. We are people. I am not white. He is not black. Being “white” seems a choice to me, a mindset. To me, it is a marker of privilege. If you grew up in poverty, you’re only white if you choose to be. We must get beyond our simple labels.

Believe me, I know the counter-arguments. Our shameful history allows no one to forget. As someone “not of color”—who wants to be colorless?—I am automatically privileged. I’m treated differently by others simply because of the way I look. I don’t like that, because I believe in fairness. It’s part of evolution. The point is that since race is a human construct, we should be able to deconstruct it. Privilege thrives on feeling special, better than others. The white man is the GOP, even the female members of the party. The white man is one who gloats that checks and balances can be destroyed so that he always and forevermore will win. The white man is a slaveholder. I choose not to be a white man. I choose to join the entirety of humanity. Personhood over race.

Christianity, ironically, has been dragged into this distorted outlook. It is seen as the white man’s religion. Women, in this view, are explicitly subordinate. While the New Testament says little about race—one of the earliest converts was an Ethiopian eunuch—it was written and lived out in a Jewish milieu. White men like to select verses from the Good Book to take out of context to support their own wishes. It’s very convenient to have God on your side. If we decide to deconstruct this view we have to insist on refusing to be labeled. That’s not to condone the sins of racism past. The white man doesn’t believe in evolution because that makes race random rather than a deliberate act of God at the appropriately named tower of Babel. Besides, the thinking goes, any creature not human is here for exploitation. God, according to the Bible, is so colorless as to be spirit only. To be god-like is to reject labels, for spirit cannot be seen.

Ezekiel’s Nightmare

I’m still thinking about Ruby Ridge. It’s not unusual for me to be a bit late catching up on yesteryear’s news, but being alive during Trumpocalypse has made me think of the 1990s as the good old days. Jess Walter’s book on the topic, on which I posted a few days ago (just scroll down), ends with a kind of optimism that seemed possible even when George W. Bush was president—the number of white supremacist groups was shrinking radically. Americans didn’t put up with that kind of backward thinking any more. The future was ahead. Now, just about a decade-and-a-half after the book was reissued, we’ve got not only a racist commandant-in-chief, but a Republican congress who goes along with everything he says. Strangely enough, I just read a newspaper article with a Jewish Republican saying “diversity is crap” (his words). No question we’re going backwards.

It’s easy enough to dismiss extremists unless you know some. I attended a conservative Christian college in the early 1980s. There were survivalists on the faculty. These are evangelical Christians who hoard guns and supplies, generally because they believe the end of the world is coming. Ironically, their belief in the rapture doesn’t seem to assure them that they’ll be “taken up” before the trouble starts. Or maybe they just want to hang around for a piece of the action—shooting infidels must earn points with the big white guy upstairs. Most of my classmates were as appalled as I was. We agreed that if these were the kind of people who were going to be around after the smoke cleared, we didn’t want to be.

The most disturbing development since November 2016 is the move of the GOP to follow a blind leader. History will bear me out on this. It doesn’t take a prophet to see it. 45 had no plan for winning the race. Once he did, however, he knew that sheep will follow any shepherd, no matter how incompetent. All you need to do is spout racist rhetoric and the fringe will become the center. But the GOP? They are among the most sheepish of all ungulates. A “leader of the free world” who has nothing but praise for dictators and autocrats around the world? The Republican has proven to be the perfect unquestioning follower. The wool is in their heads rather than on their backs. Less than two decades ago Timothy McVeigh was executed. Today there’s no doubt he’d be under consideration for a cabinet post. I think my watch just stopped.

Plain Speaking

When the president of the United States utters words too vulgar to print here, I think of the old They Might Be Giants’ song “Your Racist Friend.” The song is all about the indefensibleness of racism. We knew that back in the 1980s. What has made it acceptable now, in the highest office in the land? The fact that Trump is a racist was known to most of us well before he was “elected.” And, of course, the Republicans stand beside him. I feel sorry for the GOP, I really do. Those who simply wanted a fiscally conservative leader (wrongheaded in my view, but understandable) decided to go with a man who would want to revisit 1776, if he knew the meaning of the date, to ensure that this would always be white-man’s land. Hear this Republicans—by standing by Trump now you’re declaring, “He’s only saying what I’m thinking.” There’s no way to defend what he’s said about Africa, along with several nations elsewhere.

As we watch this bizarre space opera of an administration do its best pratfalls we don’t even have to go back all the way to the 1770s to wonder what went wrong. Bill Clinton was impeached for having an extramarital affair in the 1990s. Less than 30 years later we have a misogynistic, racist bully who’s on his third wife running this country like a casino. And the “Party of Lincoln” laps it up. They refuse to censure anything this bumbling excuse for a leader does. They’d be embarrassed, of course, but they haven’t considered, and refuse to consider, the consequences. I’m wondering what the musical 2016 will be like, but I have a guess.

As the Russia probe gets closer, the GOP tries to shut it down. That’s how we handle facts we don’t like now. Who would’ve thought that three decades on we’d be saying “mere adultery” was grounds for impeachment? Perhaps there were good people on both sides of that affair too. Science has demonstrated that “race” is a fiction, a human construct. But science no longer matters. Anything we disagree with we call “fake news” and FOX will be there to slurp it up and spew it wide. As Friday unfolded after 45’s statement about the status of an entire continent, his verbal incontinence still dribbling, his party rushed to defend “what he really meant.” What he really meant, he said. And what he said, if you don’t denounce him, is what you’re thinking too.

Uncomfortable Truth

Ugly. That’s not a word I use lightly. The phenomenon of racism is ugly. More than that, it’s insidious. I recently attended a community course on racism sponsored by the Central Jersey Community Coalition. Since our government won’t condemn racism our communities must. This five-hour course was an eye-opener for me. I had known that race was a social construct with no basis in biology or any kind of science. What I hadn’t realized is that race was invented as a means of maintaining “white” power. And it was done so deliberately. The course leaders outlined the history of the modern concept of race and showed how it is primarily an American phenomenon (not exclusively, but it was intentionally orchestrated here). The idea was to keep property in the hands of wealthy whites.

During the discussion many topics came to mind. The primary two, for me, were capitalism and the Bible. These strange bedfellows are far too comfortable with one another. Both can be made to participate in the racism narrative. Capitalism appeals to the basest and most vulgar aspects of being human. Greed and selfishness. Wanting more for me and less for you. As one participant put it, it’s a zero-sum game. Your loss is my gain. We support this system every time we buy into the myth that life is about consuming. Buying more. Contributing to the economy. That which is lost is mere humanity. This is the narrative our government has adopted. The election of one of the uber-wealthy has demonstrated that with a nuclear missile shot heard round the world.

And what of the Bible? As the story of the flood unfolds in the book of Genesis, Noah develops a drinking problem. Naked in his tent, his shame is seen by his son Ham. Hungover the next morning, the only righteous man alive curses his son’s progeny. Then after the tower of Babel story, those cursed races, in biblical geography, end up in Africa. Christian preachers long used this myth as the justification of slavery. Races, after all, were decreed by God at that very tower. The tower shows us for who we truly are. Human hubris led to divine folly. And now we have a nation of liberty built on the basic premise of inequality. Racism is beyond ugly. It’s evil. The Bible may be complicit, but we need to take over the narrative. Race does not exist. Scientifically there is no such thing. Although race doesn’t exist, racism most assuredly does. Like all evils we must bring it to the light to make it disappear.