A passing thought that helps us keep our lives in order

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A couple thousand of my closest friends. (Photo: Harold Knight, Feb. 18, 2017)

It’s 7:43 AM, and I’ve been up since 3:38 AM. I haven’t accomplished much. Played on Facebook, read a couple of heavy articles about – oh, about politics and other stuff I’ve promised myself to stop reading. You are thinking, I’m sure, that anyone who gets up at 3:38 AM is probably too tired to accomplish much. You’d be wrong. It has nothing to do with being tired. It has to do with being unable to focus. No, not because it’s 3:38 AM. Because. I’m wired.

A few minutes ago, I was unable to find my iPhone. Eventually I realized it was in the pocket of the jeans I wore when I walked to Kroger yesterday at about 3:38 PM (not exactly, but close enough for the sake of symmetry). At any rate, I have had no contact with my phone now for about 16 hours. I was asleep for only 5 of those hours, so the rest of the time I was plainly not interested in my phone. I retrieved it from my jeans pocket in the bedroom.

As I write at this moment, I have had no contact with another person since I was at Kroger, and that was light-hearted and, in the great scheme of things, insignificant. I was standing in front of the egg cooler with a door open, and a young man stepped beside me and opened another of the doors.

I turned his way in time to see the writing on the back of his T-shirt and inwardly chuckled. I found my extra-large eggs and went on to the yogurt counter. I quickly gave up trying to choose among the excessive variety – I didn’t absolutely need yogurt – so I turned away and there was the young man in his T-shirt. I could not resist.

“Excuse me, but may I ask you a ridiculous favor? May I take a picture of the back of your T-shirt?” He laughed and gamely turned around. I pulled my phone from my pocket and took the picture.

4:14 PM, my phone read (I don’t know why I remember that). Sixteen hours ago. The last time I spoke to another individual.

I wonder if Donald Trump ponders with the same amazement I do our individual lives as Homo sapiens. I’m not sure why I choose him to wonder about. Almost anyone 70 or older would do for my curiosity, but he looms so large in the consciousness of Americans, both those who love him and those who, shall I say nicely? don’t love him, that he is an easy sample demographic for my inquiry. Like Camelot’s simple folks, “I wonder what the king is doing tonight.”

The main reason I walked to Kroger when I did yesterday was I knew if I didn’t do something – anything that felt constructive – to get myself out of my apartment, I would be in deep trouble. In the morning I had participated in a demonstration by a couple thousand people in downtown Dallas protesting Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies. It was rowdy and fun, and I had a couple of interesting conversations with strangers. I amazed myself by having a good time and feeling energized about the possibility that the American people are going to refuse to be bamboozled into rejecting the message of the Statue of Liberty. (There, that’s all of the politics for now.)

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Me and a few of my friends, close-up. (Photo: Harold Knight, Feb. 18, 2017)

After I got home and had spent three or four hours alone, I was pondering not with amazement but with terror my life as an individual of the species Homo sapiens. One of the more terrifying aspects of my life is the possibility – no, the almost absolute likelihood – that my brain will plunge from the height of positive delight to the depth of the negative contemplation of killing itself, plunge seemingly in an instant.

I assume that Donald Trump has never experienced that plunge, as most people, I understand, have not. Or, perhaps, such an experience explains his seemingly narcissistic approach to getting through the flash-in-the-pan moment that each of us exists. He seems to be a person who should have no reason for that kind of precipitous experience.

When I arrived at home at about noon yesterday from the exhilarating protest, from feeling at one with 2,000 or so people (according to the lying Dallas Morning News), as I stepped off the elevator, the thought unbidden and untraceable came into my mind, “Did that really happen, or did you imagine it?”

Don’t get me wrong. I assume that’s the kind of bizarre notion that can pop into the mind of most any Homo sapiens  – a passing thought that makes us buckle down and  put our minds in order and helps us categorize the realities of our lives so we can call up memories and fit them into patterns that make sense.  Anyone my age whose mind never manufactures such notions, it seems to me, may be Homo (i.e. human), but they’re not sapiens (i.e. wise). Those thoughts are simply part of being a conscious human being, and the longer you hang around here, the more persistent they become. The trick is to hold them at bay well enough to keep the flash going in the pan as long as you need to in the natural order of things.

So I walked to Kroger because I have finally learned when those normal, natural, unstoppable realities of thinking seem likely to turn in my brain to something much more dangerous, to do something about them. I got to Kroger, not quite in tears, but almost. What, I was wondering, was the point of buying food to sustain myself when it was obvious that my life was not real and I was probably going to die before the day was over?

And then I saw the young man’s T-shirt. The negativity simply evaporated. Gone. I knew that he knew it was a joke, and when I asked him if I could take a picture, he knew I knew it was a joke, and we shared a moment of “reality” or something that I cannot explain, to which he probably did not give another thought. Or perhaps right now this morning he is telling his girlfriend about the funny old geezer at Kroger who asked to take a picture of his T-shirt. I’ll bet he told someone. And he and I together – who will most likely never see each other again – are pondering with the same amazement our individual lives as Homo sapiens, and he, without knowing it, got me through another one of those terrifying moments. Which is probably the only way any of us ever gets through one.

That’s why I was looking for my phone. To show you his picture.img_6280

“. . . reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss . . .” (Robert Neimeyer)

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Case – Austin Organ, Op. 108R, 1904. First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska.

Everyone has heard the old saw, “Nothing is permanent except change,” or a variation on it. Some guru said it in the last century and attributed it to Heraclitus (wanting to seem authoritative), perhaps reworking it from Plato’s quotation from Heraclitus (544-483 BCE), “Everything changes and nothing stands still” (Plato, Cratylus).

The meaning is so obvious that no one, I suppose, would want to take credit for the quotation, so they*** attributed it to an ancient Greek philosopher. Perhaps they simply wanted to point out that the idea is a bit of wisdom that all thinking people have understood since before the flowering of Greek thought.

Another side of that idea is that change is simply something we all note, and those of us who are at peace with the world (or living in “mindfulness,” or some such state) accept change and go with the flow (or some nonsense). That’s a cop-out, a “feel-good” observation, feel-good because change is often, perhaps most often, associated with loss.

Change is, or is experienced as, loss simply because we human beings . . .

. . .  are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. With the many unwelcome losses of life—of people, places, projects, and possessions in seemingly endless succession—we are called on to reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss, at every level from the simple habit structures of our daily lives, through our identities in a social world, to our personal and collective cosmologies, whether secular or spiritual.  (Neimeyer, Robert A., Dennis Klass, and Michael Robert Dennis. “A Social Constructionist Account of Grief: Loss and the Narration of Meaning.” Death Studies 38.8 [2014]: 485-498.)

Anyone of any age can understand the cliché that nothing is permanent except change, but we must, I think, reach the age when we face impermanence directly to understand the difficulty of “reconstructing a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss.”

The losses which have challenged my world of meaning are myriad. I list them here not for exhibitionist catharsis, but to remind any reader near my age of their own myriad losses, which are probably similar in number and scope.

In the decade between my 57th and 67th birthdays, my ex-wife, my partner, my brother-in-law, my best friend, my mother, and my father died. My partner’s death forced me to move to a smaller and much simpler apartment than we had lived in. At the very end of the decade, my church closed, and suddenly I was bereft of an important community and forced to retire from the work as church organist that I had done for 50 years. During the decade, my sister survived the horrifying surgery for breast cancer. I had repair surgery on my shoulder, which I had damaged during that decade of change. I began drawing Social Security although I did not actually retire for two more years. Twice our nation elected a new President, and we tragically went to war because of the cataclysm of 9-11, which happened about 6 months before my decade began. I suffered a couple more major traumas, which I will not list here. All of these losses engendered difficult, almost debilitating, changes in my life.

“Human beings . . .  are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence.”

The depression for which I spent two weeks in the hospital ten years ago has been my constant companion nearly my entire life. I know well I’m not alone in that reality, and I’m not feeling sorry for myself, simply stating the facts. I have only recently begun to try to sort out the difference between, and the entanglement of, my depression and my grief for loss and change.

The struggle to deal with grief affects both our inner self and our relationships with others. The most difficult change to deal with is the loss of a loved one in part because it is irreversible and, “Far from being a private and dispassionate cognitive process, contending with the meaning of the loss and the meaning of our lives in the wake of it is typically deeply emotional, intricately social, and inevitably constructed and sometimes contested in broader linguistic and cultural contexts” (Neimeyer et al.). When a loved one dies, the lives of everyone whose lives were entwined with theirs are changed. Everyone who had an attachment to the deceased contends with the meaning of loss. It is a personal loss and a social loss.

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Console – Austin Organ, Op. 108R, 1904, First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska

We grieve, I grieve, because we are, I am, “wired for attachment in a world of impermanence.” A few months ago my sister and I were in the city where I went to high school, and we drove past the church we attended at that time, where I took my first organ lessons. It was Sunday evening, and a group of people happened to be there. We went in. The building was intact, but the ambience, the character was, of course, changed. Surprisingly, a woman I knew 50 years ago was there. We knew each other instantly. We talked, and she told me about many of my high school friends, where they were, what had happened to them. I rejoiced and grieved at the same time. Grieved the loss of all of those people who had once been so important to me.

I went to the organ loft of the church to see the organ. The organ appeared the same, but the pipe organ inside the case has been replaced. It looked like the organ I loved, but everything except the outer shell has changed. I am grieving that loss. I grieve the loss of the belief, perhaps faith, that surrounded me and sustained me there 50 years ago.

That organ has become something of a metaphor for me. Change and loss. I remember. I remember my mother baking Swedish rye bread.  My parents’ joy together. My brother-in-law. The choir of my church that closed. My desk at the university where I taught. My friends in the department. I remember the feel of my partner’s body beside me. I have no doubt about his look, his touch. My loss.

I have friends who are talking of retiring and moving away in four years. I grieve every time I hear them speak of their plan.

We are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. Each attachment that is broken, each change, whether as seemingly insignificant as the pipes of an organ or as profound as the death of a parent is a loss that our “wiring” can scarcely sustain.

We have no way to comprehend our own impermanence.

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But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me. . . Matthew 19:14. First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska

 

***Apropos of nothing here except the ubiquity of change: I have decided that I’m tired of using the awkward and ridiculous “he or she” for neutral, non-gendered pronouns. I forthwith will use the epicene pronouns “they,” “them,” “their,” etc. I invite you to join me in this little rebellion against grammar nonsense. You may read about the historical and perfectly legitimate use of the epicene here  or  here.

  • Example from Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”
  • Example from Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: “To be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”
  • Example from C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn-Treader: “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”

Please don’t think this has degenerated into a political blog. PLEASE!

dangers-cure-of-msg-sideeffects-001What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Normalizing’

Each day since my last posting I have spent three or four (or more) hours writing.
___I have been writing more carefully and painstakingly than I usually do, crafting essays that are stylistically clean and conceptually logical. This instead of my usual throwing words and ideas onto the screen hoping they make sense. I know how to write “correctly.” I am something of an academic, after all, with a 367-page PhD dissertation and many other writings under my belt. “Something of.” I try not, as St. Paul admonished in his letter to the Romans, to “think of [my]self more highly than [I] ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.”
___I’ve been trying to write without “nominalization” (that is to say, I have been trying not to make words that should be verbs into nouns – e.g. I have been “correcting” my writing as I go rather than “making corrections”). In all kinds of writing I have two rules ― no passive verbs and no grammatical expletives ― so I do not need to watch out for those weakeners of prose. And here I give up those attempts to write effectively.
___I have a streak of Social Darwinism in my thinking. I’ve read a few articles about Social Darwinism, so I can (in the good American fashion) claim to be “something of” an authority on the subject. Well, no. I simply like the idea that we are pulling the best ideas out of our collective hat and putting them to use so mankind is improving generation after generation, if not day after day. I (almost desperately) want that to be true. I know it’s mushy, unfounded, and even dangerous thinking. I know.
___In case you had any doubt that this blog really is about “me” senescent, note that the 3 preceding paragraphs begin with “I.” I trust that is not an indication of thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think; rather, this is about my own personal growing-old reaction to the political situation in the United States at this time.
___When I was a child, I believed that it would be miraculous if I lived into the 21st century because I would then be 55 years old. Now I have bettered that by 17 years. Besides assuming that I would be decrepit and useless at that old age, I don’t remember much of what I thought I would experience if I reached the 21st century.
___As I wrote a few days ago, I began thinking that the “Great Society” would inspire us, and we all would go bumbling on together, making a little progress here and there as we got over racism and injustice and income inequality and all of those other things that prevent a society from moving “from perfection to perfection.”
___In the recesses of my mind from about 50 years ago when I had a momentary flirtation with seminary (what was I thinking?), I can half recall that phrase in the context of John Wesley’s theology (it was a Methodist seminary). I can also recall the great glee with which some of the seminary faculty debunked any theology that assumed mankind, in toto or individually, could possibly reach some sort of spiritual perfection. If I had paid closer attention to those professors, I might have saved myself the disillusionment of discovering on my own that “the world and they that dwell therein” (I have a Bible verse for every occasion) are not getting better and better day by any day.
___So here I am, older by at least 17 years than I thought as a child it was possible to be, and neither the world nor I have moved from perfection to perfection.
___This is not the time or place for me to make confession of the ways in which I have not been perfected in the last 50/60/70 years. Life-long lack of discipline, addictive thinking, ego bordering on narcissism, unkindness – the tip of the iceberg. Those unaltered states of my consciousness are enough in themselves to debunk any thought that I am moving from perfection to perfection.
___For the last 8 years I have beheld with dismay – no, with grief, thorough and almost debilitating grief – the unconscionable unfounded and vicious daily attacks on President Obama, the most libelous and sickening of them being the fabricated and scurrilous “birther” movement perpetuated by one Donald J. Trump.
___I have vehemently disagreed with and still have serious questions about some of President Obama’s policies – What does “too big to fail” mean? Why have U.S. “drone strikes” continued around the world? Why is Israel still the largest recipient in the world of American largess? Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership good for the United States or not?
___While I disagree with (or have questions about) many of President Obama’s policies, I do not hate him because his father was from Africa.
___I have grave fear – debilitating fear – at the moment that my opinion of the Trump administration is based on ideas or perceptions as unfounded as those of people who believe that President Obama is a secret Muslim because his middle name is Hussein (and that, if it were true, would make him the enemy of our state).
___I want to believe that, while neither you nor I nor all of us together have moved from perfection to perfection, at least we have made enough progress that we do not need to hate each other and base our political opinions on alternate truths, or on fake news – wherever it comes from.
___My fear, my greatest fear at this juncture, is that my narcissistic tendencies will allow me to believe that my sources of ideas and facts are “correct,” that they are not “fake news” or “alternative facts,” or even biased opinion.
___I don’t think they are. At the very least, none of the articles listed below is based on a bald-faced lie or a conspiracy theory or pure speculation.  And my use of them in formulating my opinions is not like my use of Google to prove to a friend the deleterious effects of MSG on the brain. I may not be moving from perfection to perfection, but in my old age, I hope I am at least moving away from the assumption that my intuition and prior knowledge are enough to lead me to sound judgment of ideas.

Now Trump and his minions are in the driver’s seat, attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German. Now is the time for a much closer inspection of the tactics and strategy that brought off this spectacular distortion of American values.
___What I want to suggest is an actual comparison with Hitler that deserves thought. It’s what you might call the secret technique, a kind of rhetorical control that both Hitler and Trump used on their opponents, especially the media. And they’re not joking. If you’d received the threatening words and pictures I did during the campaign (one Tweet simply read “I gas Jews”), as did so many Jewish reporters and people of color, the sick bloodthirsty lust to terrify is unmistakably sincere. The playbook is Mein Kampf.

“Against Normalization: The Lesson of the ‘Munich Post’.”  Ron Rosenbaum. Los Angeles Review of Books.

“We have at most a year to defend American democracy, perhaps less.” Matthias Kolb. Süddeutsche Zeitung.
“The Dangerous Fantasy Behind Trump’s Normalization.”  Zoe Williams. CommonDreams.
“How to Build an Autocracy.” David Frum. The Atlantic.

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The Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, 09.11.1923. Armed SA men during the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich.

“. . . a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. . .” (Walter Benjamin)

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The pantheon of Samothrace (Photo: Wikipedia)

In 1968 I voted for the first time. Humphrey for President. Naturally. I am not to blame for Nixon. I went so far as to exercise my public duty and work as a tiny cog in the big wheel of the campaign at the county Democratic party headquarters in a ramshackle house on Euclid Avenue in Upland, CA. In that year and in 1972 I still thought politics ―democracy― worked in this country. I headed up the 1972 McGovern campaign in our town. I am not to blame for Watergate. That was the last time I worked in a political campaign.

I was determined to keep this blog free from my amateurish political ramblings, but I find it almost impossible to insulate myself from political machinations these days. Our presidential cabal (a cabal is a group of plotters against the government, but these are governmental plotters against the people) has one facility above all others, i.e., to catch us off-guard with some (ultimately) meaningless but (deliberately) bewitching bit of chicanery every day. Steve Bannon is the master-mind of these dangerous distractions. We are living in the era of the “shock event.”

If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal (Heather Richardson, Facebook, January 29, 2017; Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College).

When I was young(er), I accepted many assumptions that were probably naively dangerous. Having come of age in the era of the anti-Vietnam War protests, I thought the American democratic process would eventually right the course of the ship of state. After all, Lyndon Johnson was unceremoniously convinced not to run for reelection. We got Nixon/Kissinger in his place, but they did withdraw from Viet Nam in 1975.

We (I, at any rate) were too naïve to realize that the correction of course would be so drastic it would begin the slide ever more to the right until we are being coerced (not led) by Steve Bannon, Chief White House Strategist and former investment banker at Goldman Sachs, who says he doesn’t

. . . believe there is a functional conservative party in this country and [I] certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that. It’s going to be an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment, and it’s going to continue to hammer this city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party. (Conor Friedersdorf. “The Radical Anti-Conservatism of Stephen Bannon.” The Atlantic. Aug 25, 2016.)

“. . . an insurgent movement . . . that is virulently anti-establishment . . .” except for one central component of the establishment. The

. . . big banks were never the focus of his [Bannon’s] animus. “Goldman Sachs isn’t the firm it once was when I worked for it,” he explained in a gentle 2010 critique, but “it is still one of the building blocks of our capitalist society” (Friedersdorf).

The purpose of “trick[ing us into] accepting their real goal” is to destroy government function and finally to invest private corporations with all power and autonomy, that is, to give the final victory to the capitalistic oligarchy. His (and Trump’s) belief in the capitalist iron fist is religious in its fervor.

One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion. The proof of capitalism’s religious structure―as not only a religiously conditioned construction . . . but as an essentially religious phenomenon―still today misleads one to a boundless, universal polemic . . . .
___Three characteristics of the religious structure of capitalism are, however, recognizable at present. First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult . . .  This concretization of the cult connects with a second characteristic of capitalism: the permanent duration of the cult . . .  Third, this is a cult that engenders blame. Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than a repenting cult. Herein stands this religious system in the fall of a tremendous movement. An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult . . . (Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913–1926, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Belknap, 1996.)

Trump has an overarching reason for neither releasing his tax records nor divesting himself of his properties. It’s quite simple. Everything he (they) have done so far in the official life of the cabal is designed to prepare the way for the final and complete establishment of what they believe is the American religion―capitalism―and the subordination of the democratic order to their religious one.

Besides Bannon, Trump’s nominees for high government positions include:

  • Chairman Council of Economic Advisors― Gary Cohn, President and COO of Goldman Sachs;
  • Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission― Jay Clayton, partner at Manhattan law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, whose clients include Goldman Sachs;
  • Secretary of State―Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil for the last decade;
  • Secretary of the Treasury― Steven Munuchin,  a former senior executive at Goldman Sachs;
  • Secretary of Labor― Andrew Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants Holdings;
  • Secretary of Education― Betsy Devos, billionaire Republican donor whose wealth is from Amway;
  • Secretary of Commerce― Wilbur Ross, another billionaire, for 25 years, CEO of Rothschild Inc.

Am I even wackier than I was in the ‘70s when I was traipsing from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Iowa City, and points between participating in the movement to end the Viet Nam War? Does my analysis of Trump’s refusal to divest himself of his capitalist holdings in order to fulfill his oath to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” seem over-the-top, conspiratorial, without evidence? I’m sure it is all of those things.

I am an agnostic. My agnosticism applies to all religions, including capitalism.  I stand with Diagoras the Atheist of Melos, the fifth century Greek poet, who was the original atheist and free thinker.

He mocked the Eleusinian mysteries . . . and was outlawed from Athens for hurling the wooden statue of a god into a fire and sarcastically urging it to perform a miracle to save itself . . .  [He visited] a votive temple on the Aegean island of Samothrace. Those who escaped from shipwrecks or were saved from drowning at sea would display portraits of themselves here in thanks to the great sea god Neptune. “Surely,” Diagoras was challenged by a believer, “these portraits are proof that the gods really do intervene in human affairs?” Diagoras [replied], “Yea, but . . . where are they painted that are drowned?” (Petticrew, Mark. “Diagoras of Melos (500 BC): An Early Analyst of Publication Bias.” Lancet 352.9139. 1998: 1558.)

Where are the paintings of those whom capitalism has not saved?

Love me, love my dog

img_6155-001I’m basically a small-town corn-fed bumpkin from Western Nebraska who found out he was gay and probably above-average in intelligence at about the same time in 2nd or 3rd grade. Even though I didn’t have names for either situation, I began acting as if they were true (I wonder what happened to the 8mm films my uncle used to have of his nieces and nephews taken in the ‘50s that show me definitely acting like a little gay-boy in the midst of my butch cousins and brother).

Some of my friends will be horrified if they read this because one is not supposed to put oneself down by saying such things as, “I am a bumpkin.” That’s because they are more committed to putting on airs than I am. I’m pretty much content to let things be as they are and to try call a spade a spade. It does not bother me to admit I’m a bumpkin. And to know and embrace the fact, for example, that the last thing I usually spend money on is nice clothes. I forget to worry about how I look, even in public.

I don’t own a suit.

I haven’t bought a new shirt in about a year. My standard wardrobe is t-shirts, some with pictures and words that no 72-year-old ex-professor should wear. Yesterday’s was “Love me, love my cat.” That came in handy for a lesson in American idioms in the GED class I teach at the Aberg Center for Literacy. What does a person say when someone happens to mention the general dishevelment of his life? “Love me, love my dog cat.”

That’s how bumpkins are raised. Love me, love my dog, or cat, if that’s what you have. And since I love you, I’ll love your dog, too. Live and let live. And “share one another’s burdens.” True bumpkins are brought up that way wherever they live.

Of course, there were exceptions that even a gay-boy smart kid noticed. Carl Norton comes to mind. He tried to ruin my dad. But he was very much the exception.

Yesterday’s big Texas news (among the city folk, at any rate) was that Jess Herbst, the mayor of the tiny (pop. 640) town of New Hope, TX, came out as transgendered. I happened to see the news on TV. The reporter interviewed a Texas good-ole-boy from New Hope about it. If you have a stereotype of a Texas good-ole-boy in your mind, he probably looks and talks exactly like this guy. The guy didn’t want to talk about transgender issues―that’s her business―but about the gravel trucks parked illegally by the town hall.

Love the mayor, love her dog. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor and speaker of the state legislature (who has a lot more power than the governor) must be shocked! His biggest priority this legislative session is to pass a law forbidding transgender school kids from using the bathroom of their trans selves. He probably wants the mayor to use the men’s bathroom at the town hall.

But that’s another story.

Here’s my guess. Those bumpkins all over the country don’t really in their heart-of-hearts give a damn if you are from Mexico or Syria or China. Live and let live. Love me, love my dog. And they sure don’t hate Muslims.

In the Western Nebraska town where I grew up, there was a large community of Japanese Americans. They had been there since long before Pearl Harbor. You know what? When FDR rounded up all the California Japanese-Americans and sent them off to prison camps, the Western Nebraska Nisei were not included. They stayed right there farming their farms and throwing big Japanese church dinners for the non-Japanese Americans who were their neighbors and members of the same churches (and their grandchildren are still there).

Now we’ve got this strange thing going on in our country. We don’t have many (or enough, at any rate) politicians who talk about the old bumpkin values like “Love me, love my dog, and I’ll love you and your dog, too.” They get into power by convincing people that their neighbors’ dogs are not lovable. Especially if they happen to Hispanic or Muslim, or just about anyone who is not WASP-ish.

Instead we have this class of rich city-folks who want power (and, boy, do they have it now), so they convince us bumpkins that Hispanics are after our jobs and Muslims want to kill us. You know, they make up lies such as seeing Muslims dancing for joy when 3,000 Americans were killed in 2001. The truth these liars ignore is that the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church fired its New York Bishop for participating in a prayer service with Muslim clergy.

That’s how our “leaders” are distorting the truth to get us bumpkins to be afraid and vote for them so they will have the power to take the country for all it’s worth. What do you suppose would happen if Trump said today, “Hey, folks. I lied about those New Jersey Muslims dancing on 9-11. Oh, yes, and I also lied about Syrian refugees being a security threat. And, oh, yes, I lied about the damage immigrants―legal or illegal―are doing to our economy.”

First we bumpkins would throw him (and Steve Bannon who tells him what to say) out. Then we’d look around for some leaders who would go back to telling us that we’re better off if we live and let live and work together to make this a better place.

Sorry to sound like an optimist when everyone knows I’m depressive old grouch.

“Normally, of course, semblance is not misleading; a thing is what it seems . . .” (Susanne K. Langer)

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The Red Shawl, Claude Monet, c. 1870.

Yesterday I saw the exhibition, Monet: The Early Years, at the Renzo Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX. The exhibition included “The Red Scarf,” which I do not remember ever seeing even in art history books. The painting’s affect is so great that I’m sure I would remember it although it is an early work and does not have a lily pad anywhere near. In fact, the scene is a snow scene.

The painting has all of the formal composition elements we expect of a Monet: the frame (an actual window frame), the light (no direct sun, but the contrast of indoor shadow with the pure white snow outside), and the focal point (Camille’s red scarf surrounding her face).

Early this morning I wanted to see the painting again (I had refrained from buying the exhibition catalogue because I am getting rid of books, not accumulating more) and could not find a satisfactory online image.

Because I want to see Camille’s face.

All of the formal and painterly aspects of the painting are here, in my view, for the purpose of giving context to Camille’s face. The haunting reality of the painting is that her face has almost no details – lovely oval shape, eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth. If the face were isolated and reproduced at its actual size and shown close-up, a viewer might not recognize it as a face. I don’t know enough about the techniques of painting to determine if Monet used more than about half a dozen brush strokes to create the face, but it looks almost that simple.

And yet I am haunted by the face 18 hours later.

My thinking about art (the arts) is guided by ideas that I suppose are academically passé these days. I read, think about, and quote the writings of Susanne K. Langer from the 1960s and ‘70s. I’ve read Wittgenstein and Baudrillard and Lyotard and Butler and Irigaray, and I keep going back to Langer, probably because I think I understand her writing.

In this literal sense a picture is an illusion; we see a face . . . and know that if we stretched out our hand to it we would touch a surface smeared with paint. . . . To present things to sight which are known to be illusion is a ready (though by no means necessary) way to abstract visible forms from their usual context. Normally, of course, semblance is not misleading; a thing is what it seems.  But even where there is no deception . . . . [an object may arrest] one sense so exclusively that it seems to be given to that sense alone. . . there is such a concentration on appearance that one has a sense of seeing sheer appearance—that is, a sense of illusion. . .  The semblance of a thing, thus thrown into relief, is its direct aesthetic quality. . .   [It is] a rarefied element that serves, in its turn, for the making of something else—the imaginal artwork itself.  And this form is the non-discursive but articulate symbol of feeling.
Langer, Susanne K. “The Principles of Creation in Art.” The Hudson Review (II. 4). Winter 1950, 515-534.    Source.

Our world is so saturated with images that it is virtually impossible to remove ourselves from them. You did not find the link to this posting on “Ideabook” but on “Facebook.” We are apt to share our thoughts about politics in “Memes” rather than in essays.  If a person need an explanation for this icon,men_582-e1430362472737-001
or this icon, just-do-it-nike
or this icon, starbucks
or this icon, thinkdifferent
they most likely do not have TV or internet connection whether or not they live in the United States.

The image of Camille’s face – on the surface – is wistful, almost sad. She appears to be longing, perhaps simply hoping to be inside where it is warm, perhaps feeling some momentary sadness, perhaps a general existential weariness. It is not possible to say, and Monet gives no clue by the title, “The Red Scarf.” Camille’s face, even with such sparse detail, expresses a kind of longing that we all know, and perhaps know too well.

But the riddle of the painting lies neither in deciding what Camille’s facial expression means nor in interpreting why the viewer is certain that those few brush strokes mean anything at all, least of all something emotional. Langer says the artist has “. . . present[ed] things to sight which are known to be illusion . . .”   What Monet presents us with becomes more than simply a “picture” of Camille. It becomes “something else—the imaginal artwork itself.”

The artwork is “non-discursive but articulate symbol of feeling.” It’s almost as if the art tricks us into thinking we are having one experience whereas we are experiencing something else. We do not feel melancholy at Camille’s melancholy. We do not feel longing at Camille’s longing. We do not feel loneliness at Camille’s loneliness. We may decide we are having one or all of those emotions, but we cannot feel a specific feeling because Monet has not told us which of those feelings Camille is experiencing. Even if Monet had written a description to say how Camille is feeling, there is no guarantee that is what we will feel.

I think, and this is my peculiar understanding of Langer, we are not feeling those feelings directly, but the work of art – any work of art in any medium – is a symbol, an almost palpable symbol, for how it feels to have those emotions. We do not respond empathetically  to Camille’s look of longing, but the entire painting prompts us to have the experience of feeling.

That is the difference between Monet and the Marlboro Man. Monet informs our inner life, exposes our inner life to ourselves, gives us insight into what it means to be a sentient and conscious being. The Marlboro Man plays on our feelings, manipulates our feelings in order to trap us, overpower us, take from us what he wants.

When I stand in front of “The Red Scarf,” I expect to understand more fully for a moment how being human feels, perhaps even more fully how it feels to be myself. I’m not going to get bizarre and mystical here, so I will be very circumspect in saying simply I expect to feel a connection with that other human being, Claude Monet.

When I see an image designed for advertising I expect to have a moment of my humanity taken from me through manipulation. There is no riddle. There is nothing to feel or understand or contemplate. If I have my wits about me, I will turn away.trump-ad-jamiel-facebookjumbo-001

 

“. . . the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation . . . “ (Walter Rauschenbusch, 1920)

union-pacific-railroad-station-kearney-nebraska-1910s-preview

The Union Pacific Railroad Station, Kearney, NE (Photo: FamilyOldPhotos.com)

The Union Pacific Railway station in Kearney, Nebraska, was familiar to my family in about 1951. We went to the station regularly for a full school semester to take my father to the train and to pick him up. He went (perhaps weekly) to Denver to study at Iliff Theological Seminary. Several years before he had finished most of the work for his degree at Central Baptist Theological School in Kansas City, but he had not completed the final work, writing his thesis.

Why he chose to go to Iliff instead of Central Baptist I do not know. It was theologically a much more progressive school. Kearney is a college town, and my guess is he was influenced by the well-educated members of the Baptist Church of which he was pastor. That is pure speculation.

My father’s thesis was a study of the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew chapters 5-7) interpreted in light of the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, a leader of the “Social Gospel” movement. Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was a theologian from Rochester Theological Seminary and a Baptist pastor. He was the great-grandfather of Paul Raushenbush whom many know from his years as Religion Editor for the Huffington Post.

Much of my father’s preaching on the Sermon on the Mount over the years is clear in my mind. I think his study of Rauschenbusch was an academic pursuit and did not overtly influence his preaching. Its basic tenet that the Christian gospel demands a morally responsible and compassionate approach to social problems, however, was at the heart of my father’s life and teaching. He and I often disagreed on how that was to be achieved, but the goal of a benevolent society and government was never in question. My father was often surprised when my understanding of some issue obviously came directly from what he had taught me but with widely divergent conclusions.

I have been trying to imagine what my father would think of Trump. My father, who worked closely with the Mexican Baptist Church in Scottsbluff, NE, which is still in a joint ministry with the First Baptist Church 60 years later. My father, who supported his friend Emily Wilks, member of the school board in Scottsbluff, as she worked to enhance and improve the public schools of the city. My father, who considered Edwin T. Dahlberg, pacifist and President of the National Council of Churches, a friend and teacher. My father, the Baptist preacher, who never once in my life admonished me or rejected me because I am gay, and who traveled across the country to spend time with my partner and me.

My father was not a saint. I was disappointed, particularly in his later life, with some of his intolerance, with his support of the Iraq War (simply because President Bush was a Republican), with a few of his other attitudes and beliefs. However, at age 90, he read Bishop Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die when I gave him a copy, and we had lively discussions about it. A couple of years before that we had the same interaction with Oliver Sacks’ A Leg to Stand on.

This writing did not begin as a remembrance of my father. I would be foolish to attempt that because my memories are my memories. They bear a strong resemblance to the truth, but they obviously come from my perceptions of events from 50 or 60 or even 70 years ago. They are also, as all childhood memories are, shaped by my relationship with my father – over the years at times good, at times strained.

This writing began as an attempt to explain to myself the ground reasons that I am so repelled by Trump and so appalled that he is President of the United State. One of my professors of rhetoric in graduate school said, “We write to know what we think.” I am trying to ascertain what I think.

This began with my father because I am trying to understand where my ideas about government and politics came from. He was a conservative Republican. But his understanding of that mindset was far different from what I hear today. He was not interested in making anyone wealthy. He was interested in justice and equality, and he thought “big government” gets in the way of those ideals. I would have to have long conversations with my siblings and the few friends I have left who knew him in order to sort out all of those political ideas.

But I am absolutely certain that my father would have been heartbroken if he knew that his President purposefully and with ulterior motives made up and spoke “alternative facts.” He assumed that much of what passed as political discourse was alternate interpretation of facts, and he assumed that those alternatives were used as propaganda to change people’s minds to win elections. However, it would have shocked and angered him to hear the President lie – purposefully and blatantly – about the size of a crowd, for example.

I believe that my father and the vast majority of his generation expected political discourse to be grounded in truth – with strong disagreements, but with the integrity of the truth. He, for example, told me many times that he hated the atomic bombing of Japan and President Truman’s justification of it, but he understood why Truman had made the decision. I am most likely being Pollyanna about this. Politicians lie. They always have lied. They always will lie.

Lying to win a political conflict, however, is different from making up a wholesale alternative reality in order to get and keep power. Where is the line between the two? I don’t know. I only know that we have crossed it. The problem(s) or situation(s) Trump’s alternative realities are meant to fix or change will pale in significance in comparison to the destruction of the fabric of our society that will be the result of the triumph of “alternative facts.”

(Note: My own attachment to the religious texts Rauschenbusch quotes is so tenuous that I hesitate to copy his writing here. I do not mean to imply that our nation needs to be in a relationship with a particular God or concept of God. I simply mean to offer Rauschenbusch’s words on the moral responsibility of a nation.)

from Christianity and the Social Crisis
By Walter Rauschenbusch
London: Macmillan 1920

The prophets were public men and their interest was in public affairs. . . . Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic views of an organic national life . . . We usually conceive of the community as a loose sand-heap of individuals, and this difference in the fundamental point of view distorts the utterances of the prophets . . . [The prophet] ridicules the attempts to appease the national God by redoubled sacrifices; he urges instead the abolition of social oppression and injustice as the only way of regaining God’s favor for the nation. If they would vindicate the cause of the helpless and oppressed . . . then their scarlet and crimson guilt would be washed away. . . Of course the text is nobly true when it is made to express God’s willingness to pardon the repentant individual, but that was not the thought in the mind of the writer. He offered a new start to his nation on condition that it righted social wrongs. We offer free pardon to individuals and rarely mention social wrongs.

We have seen that the prophets demanded right moral conduct as the sole test and fruit of religion, and that the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation.

Rauschenbusch’s book is available here.