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


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)


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.


“. . . You’re alone with the whirling cosmos. . .” (Edward Hirsch)


Paradise Point, Oregon (Photo: Harold Knight, Oct. 3, 2011)

My father was the son of two New Deal Democrats who never voted for a Republican. My grandmother explained to me that the Republicans were responsible for the Great Depression, calamitous event that came close to destroying her life as it had so many others; she could never vote for a Republican for any office. She died in 1972 having kept her vow (at least until 1969, the last time I talked with her).

In the midst of the Depression, around the time of FDR’s first reelection, my grandmother was determined that her sons would go to college. She discovered the Leopold Schepp Foundation that gave scholarships to students who could not afford college. She applied, and my father and uncle graduated from William Jewell College in Liberty, MO, then, as now, a top-tier liberal arts institution. The faculty were for the most part conservative intellectuals, and my father became a Republican who never voted for a Democrat.

By the time I was in college, the son of Dr. H. I. Hester, one of the foremost professors at William Jewell, was a professor in the religion department of the University of Redlands. I took the required introduction to religions course under him, and his liberal (not his father’s conservative) views of religion helped shape my (one might say) liberal views of religion and other disciplines.

I misspoke myself. My father did vote for one Democrat for President, Barack Obama in 2008. Dad was 94 at the time. The last time he voted. Perhaps by the time I’m 94 I will vote for one Republican.

“You’re sitting at a small by window
In an empty café by the sea . . .”

begins Edward Hirsh’s poem, “What the last evening will be like.” My favorite place to be ― I can say with only a hint of hyperbole ― is alone by the sea. On the beach, not in a café. Preferably a cold and not very inviting beach where few people want to be. Alone, at Paradise Point on the Southern Oregon coast, for example.

When I am on the DART train headed somewhere in Dallas, I often have to hum through a tune that is stuck in my mind. Music cannot be in the background, whether in my mind or playing ubiquitously on someone’s device. Yes, I hum sitting on the train. I hum as quietly as possible because I don’t want people to think I’m the daft old man who shouldn’t be on the train alone. I have to hum because I sit on the train and observe, thinking about nothing.

The other day traveling alone I had to put to rest the tune Jam Lucis, a plain chant associated with the monastic Daily Office of Prime, the prayers at sunrise. It’s an 11th century tune best known as an evening hymn, in modern hymnals the tune for the 7th century evening hymn, “To thee before the close of day.” I was riding the train humming an 11th-century tune that goes with words written in the 7th century and translated from Latin to English in the 19th century.

I know that tune imprinted in my mind because when I was in college I sang the Office of Compline with a group of music students as a sort of public “meditation” in the University of Redlands chapel on Sunday evenings. An ageless tune in my head nearly my whole life. In a deeper sense I know it because my grandmother was a New Deal Democrat. Her determination that her sons would have college educations shaped my life. My parents assumed my brother and I would graduate from college. My brother graduated from our father’s alma mater.

From there both the course of my life and the development of my thinking are too obvious to need explanation. I am not a first-generation college graduate.  Learning, reading, trying to think are the center of my life as inherited from my father. And from his parents. My grandfather had only a fourth-grade education, but he was a voracious reader. My grandparents were unmovable in their determination that my father and his brother would have more fulfilling lives than they had had.

The line of my thinking, acting ― my very being ― from my grandparents to my parents to my own small life is a line of memory. I remember my grandmother’s telling me of her unshakable determination that her children and their children would live in a kind of expansiveness she could not.

I need to insert a word here about her daughters and my sister and women cousins. They were not forgotten. My father’s two sisters followed the way to an expansive life in the way readily available to women of their generation, by marrying men whose line of memory could give them satisfaction. One succeeded much better than the other. Most of my grandmother’s granddaughters have college degrees. My sister married a brilliant man with whom she has had an expansive life.

You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours. (Edward Hirsch)

The line of my thinking, acting, being has brought me to a place alone. Surely physically alone, unmarried, in an apartment with two cats, no longer college professor or church music director. That is perhaps by my own choice or perhaps by circumstance or perhaps the result of a personality I might be able to change but have not had the inner strength to do so. This place is common among men of my age, especially gay men.
zdsc01542(This photo was taken by the only other person on Paradise Point beach, who agreed to use my camera to record the moment, Oct. 3, 2011)

However, my aloneness arises at least in part from my perception of the world as perception. I remember, in Joy Harjo’s words, “you are this universe and this universe is you.” I am alone because I am alone. Because I “remember you are all people and all people are you. / Remember you are this universe and this universe is you” (Harjo). From my grandmother’s memory of the people of her universe to my father’s memory of the people of his universe, to my memory of the people of my universe.

I’ve lived in tight spaces, the walls around me closing in so that substance becomes smaller, is only memory. My grandmother and my father are only memories now, as perhaps they only ever were, and I am “alone in the whirling cosmos.”

What the Last Evening Will Be Like, Edward Hirsch, b. 1950

You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.
―From The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems by Edward Hirsch.
Copyright © 2010 by Edward Hirsch.

To thee before the close of day

To thee before the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray
that, with thy wonted favor, thou
wouldst be our guard and keeper now.

From all ill dreams defend our sight,
from fears and terrors of the night;
withhold from us our ghostly foe,
that spot of sin we may not know.

O Father, that we ask be done,
through Jesus Christ, thine only Son,
who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
doth live and reign eternally.

Words: Latin, seventh century; trans. John Mason Neale, 1851
Music: Jam lucis, 11th century Benedictine
(Harold Knight playing on Steuart Goodwin Organ, op. 1)

“Remember the wind. . . She knows the origin of this universe.” (Joy Harjo)


“REMEMBER THE WIND.” Palestine. The Sea of Galilee. (Photo by Harold Knight, Nov. 9, 2015)

My first memory of thinking, “What if I don’t exist at all but am a figment of someone’s imagination,” was in second grade (Mrs. Hall’s class, Longfellow School, Scottsbluff, NE, 1952). I would hardly have had the vocabulary to think that sentence at that time. I was perhaps a tad precocious, but “figment” was not likely my word then. “Exist” and “imagination” were probably a little beyond me, too. I did not have the words, but I knew the concept without question

The first time I remember saying the exact words was when I was in high school. I was lying on a hill in Chadron State Park in Western Nebraska one summer night when I was participating in Far West Baptist Camp. My father established the camp when he was Minister of Christian Education of the Nebraska Baptist Convention. I was lying on the hillside with a friend, one of the first boys I was in love with. I didn’t have the vocabulary for that, either, although I had no doubt about the feeling.

The sky was absolutely clear, and there were no city lights to obscure the stars. The Milky Way on a summer’s night in Nebraska appears as a band of light virtually across the entire sky. City boys never see it. I was lying on the hillside being in love and wondering about infinity – surely there was an end to the universe I was seeing, but I knew from science classes that what I was looking into was apparently infinite. As I stared into space, the thought occurred to me that what I was seeing was simply a figment of my imagination. And then I told myself that the universe was not a figment of my imagination, but I was a figment of another person’s imagination and did not exist at all. ***

That seems an innocuous enough thought for a 16-year-old kid to have. We all think weird stuff at that age. But my thought was directly related to that day in second grade. I was experiencing derealization or depersonalization or both. Much later when I was about 37 years old, I was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Tegretol. My friend for the last 35 years. But for the 35 or so years before that, my friend was silence about my frequent experience of the world.

I don’t remember when I first read Joy Harjo’s poem, “Remember.” The lines “Remember you are this universe and this / universe is you” at moments come into my consciousness (or what I accept as consciousness), and I can’t remember where they are from. Thank goodness for Google.  Now I have them posted online forever, so I won’t lose them again.

How do I get from a childhood experience – it was a childhood-long experience that lasted well into my adulthood, yesterday while square dancing being the most recent manifestation – to the universe as myself and myself as the universe? You might think the derealization experience would mean the opposite. The universe as removed from myself and myself removed from the universe. But in those moments, the entire universe is in my mind. My mind is the universe and the universe is in my mind. None of the men I was square dancing with yesterday were in the room. More concerning was that my feet were not part of the world, only part of the universe.

I do not know if this experience is the result of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or of childhood traumas. I do not need to enumerate here, but they are real.

Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps it is a fortunate gift of seeing the world as it actually is. Perhaps it is a philosophical experience and not a physiological reality at all.

How would a second-grade boy come by such a gift? How could he possibly understand that what we all, what we each in our own mind, consider to be “real” is so amorphous and incomprehensible that the only way to endure is to build structures, to adopt ways of acting and doing, to invent strategies of thinking that preclude facing the “nothingness” of our human enterprise, to use Sartre’s convenient word. Not because I understand the existentialist strategy, but because it fits what I am trying to say.

I love the term “gaslighting.” From Wikipedia [horrors!]: “Gaslighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize . . . to sow seeds of doubt . . . hoping to make [someone] question their own memory, perception, and sanity.” On an afternoon like yesterday I have the sense that we have all been gaslighted to believe that our physical, mental, social, political, etc. structures have some kind of substance they do not have.

When I was in college (about 1965), I first talked to a doctor about my derealization experiences. His solution to the problem was simple. If I would stop being a homosexual, the problem would fix itself. You see, simply change my strategy of thinking to fit the norm, and I would be able to function clearly, (and I suppose he would have said) sanely, happily. At the very least without the persistent idea that I could, because I do not exist, walk through walls. Probably not a doctor in America, with the possible exception of Dr. Tom Price, would give me that advice today.

I wonder what my neurologist would say about all of this.

Joy Harjo admonishes us to remember the sky, sun, moon, sundown, our birth, our mother, our father, the earth, plants, animals, wind, all people. The wind. The universe.

Remember the motion growing in you . . . the dance language is, that life is. Perhaps our structures, the language of the dance, is life. I remember, though I’m not certain I ever knew the things I remember.

“Remember,” by Joy Harjo, b. 1951

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is

–“Remember.” Copyright ©1983 by Joy Harjo from She Had Some Horses.

***  “It may happen when you first wake up, or while flying on an airplane or driving in your car. Suddenly, inexplicably, something changes. Common objects and familiar situations seem strange, foreign. Like you’ve just arrived on the planet, but don’t know from where. It may pass quickly, or it may linger. You close your eyes and turn inward, but the very thoughts running through your head seem different. The act of thinking itself, the stream of invisible words running through the hollow chamber of your mind, seems strange and unreal. It’s as if you have no self, no ego, no remnant of that inner strength which quietly and automatically enabled you to deal with the world around you, and the world inside you. It may settle over time, into a feeling of “nothingness”, as if you were without emotions, dead. Or the fear of it may blossom into a full-blown panic attack. But when it hits for the first time, you’re convinced that you’re going insane, and wait in a cold sweat to see when and if you finally do go over the edge.”


The American Dream: “the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.” (Walter Lippmann, 1914)


William Jennings Bryan

(Note: this is half again as long as my regular posts here. In all likelihood it comes across as being elitist and even a little unkind. I’m not an elitist, and I try to be a kind person.)

Talk about senescent! My first vote in a Presidential election was for Hubert Humphrey in 1968! I missed getting to vote against Barry Goldwater (1964) by a bit more than a year. The voting age then was 21, and I reached majority in January of 1966. I made up for not being allowed to vote for Lyndon Johnson by working long and hard as a volunteer for Humphrey in the Ontario-Upland (CA) office (a dilapidated house on Euclid Avenue) of the Democratic Party.
___I could not then, and still cannot, imagine Richard Nixon as President of the United States. Four years later I was the chairman of the McGovern Campaign against Nixon’s reelection in Ontario, CA. I got to be great friends with our allies, including the president (a woman!) of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) ―the flatiron production plant of General Electric plant was in Ontario until 1981 (a couple thousand jobs lost when it closed and that had nothing to do with the TPP). I guided Sen. John Tunney around the area on a campaign trip (what an arrogant, mean-spirited horse’s ass he was). The highlight of the campaign for me was being one of the co-hosts for a county-wide campaign bus trip for Eunice Shriver (a woman of elegance, graciousness, and intelligence).
___A few years later I met James Earl Carter at a home precinct meeting in Iowa City when he was still “Jimmy Who?” Jimmy quoted Rheinhold Neibur ― and not the “Serenity Prayer” ― at that meeting in Iowa City! I remember it still.
___Since then I have had no “volunteer” involvement in any election campaign. Because I know too well what “all politics is local” entails. The cream of the crop of ordinary citizens gather together to work their butts off for people who are almost without exception people you would not want seated at your dining table at home. Eunice and Jimmy were the exceptions.
___Part of my preparation for involvement in politics was seeing the movie Inherit the Wind (1960) which was released when I was in high school. You may recall it’s the story of the trial of a high school teacher in Tennessee charged with breaking the state’s law against teaching evolution.
___The controversy over evolution was not new to me, the Baptist preacher’s kid from western Nebraska. Not long before, I had heard Mary Kalen, a friend from childhood, ask my father if he believed in evolution. He got that wonderful droll almost-laughing twinkle in his eye and said something to the effect, “The Bible says God created the heavens and the earth. It’s not very specific on just how he did it.” That was enough for Mary Kalen and me. She went on to use her interest in biology to become a college professor in Florida and serve on a commission of the State of Florida that went around the world explaining United States space exploration from Cape Canaveral (Kennedy).
___I concluded after Inherit the Wind that ignorance/stupidity should not be rewarded with the privilege of law-making, and that my political involvement would be necessary.
___Not too long ago a good friend told me that the physicist Michio Kaku “. . . believes that global warming is manmade and . . .  [he, my friend, is] willing to get off the fence in some areas when someone [he] really respect[s] holds a certain position.” I agree that it’s a good thing for Kaku to appear on FOX now and then to explain scientific news.   Kaku’s self-identification as one of the founders of String Theory notwithstanding (work in the theory began before he was born), he is an important popularizer of scientific information. However, his relationship with FOX in no way makes his opinions about global warming more believable than, say, the scientific investigation and experimentation of Michael E. Mann who has spent his entire career studying climate.
___I find it comforting that in 1757 Pope Benedict XIV announced that textbooks saying the earth revolves around the sun would no longer be banned in Catholic schools so poor mother earth could finally get on with what she’d been wanting to do for billions of years.
___In another (seemingly unrelated) realm, I cannot even pretend to get inside the mental process of an educated friend who, because she is a literalist Christian, told a mutual friend that she believes absolutely that God created the heavens and the earth in six factual actual days. She believes (knows?) carbon dating of Lucy the Australopithecus at 3.2 million years old is woefully misguided pseudo-science pretending to be God. Educated. In public schools. In Germany.


Lucy of Ethiopia

___Often when I begin writing a piece like this, I have only the vaguest idea where I expect my thought processes to conclude. If one does not know, I used to tell my college rhetoric students, what the substance of a piece of writing is, one cannot figure out and present a logical thesis. I think I may have worked around to a thesis. I should go back to the beginning, find a way to introduce the thesis and get it at the beginning so my reader would know all along what I am arguing. On the other hand, it is possible to make an argument and reveal only at the end what the argument is.
___And so, I now state my thesis. Much has been written lately about the influence of “fake news” on our recent Presidential election and, indeed, on the regular communal discourse in this country. It’s scary, hair-raising, to contemplate that state of affairs. However, I think the fake news is not the problem but a symptom of the problem. The problem is willful ignorance. Fake information can only fill a void. Too many Americans have chosen to live in a la-la-land bereft of ideas and information on which to make sound judgments.
___I have no proof of that. I’m not a social scientist. I have taught critical thinking in a prestigious university for 15 years and am acquainted with the abysmal state of ignorance about almost everything that the elite students of such a school bring with them to be trained to be money-makers and trend-setters.
___But it’s not simply lack of knowledge that shapes this ignorance. It’s a way of denying the truth in order to cling to a mystical idea of how our society has functioned in the past, and how it ought to function in the future. It’s a mystical idea attached to a dream, “The American Dream.” And if the science of climate change does not fit our mystical dream idea, then we choose not to “believe” it. And if the age of Lucy of Ethiopia does not fit our religious interpretation of the mystical dream idea, then we choose not to “believe” it can be true.
___In his article “‘From The People, By The People, To The People’: The American Dream(S) Debut,” Journal Of American Culture 37.2 (2014), Demitri Lallas traces the origin of the term “the American Dream” to Walter Lippmann’s book, Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. Without trying to force Lippmann to support my finally-exposed thesis, I will simply offer a passage quoted by Lallas and admit that all of this writing is an attempt to say that I find Lippmann’s ides compelling, that the “American Dream” is not something we are hoping for but a dreamy unwillingness to face reality:

The past which men create for themselves is a place where thought is unnecessary and happiness inevitable. The American temperament leans generally to a kind of mystical anarchism, in which the “natural” humanity in each man is adored as the savior of society. . . .  “If only you let men alone, they’ll be good,” a typical American reformer said to me the other day. He believed, as most Americans do, in the unsophisticated man, in his basic kindliness and his instinctive practical sense. A critical outlook seemed to the reformer an inhuman one; he distrusted, as [the prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial, the basis of Inherit the Wind, William Jennings] Bryan does, the appearance of the expert; he believed that whatever faults the common man might show were due to some kind of Machiavellian corruption. He had the American dream, which may be summed up, I think, in the statement that the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.

(Lippmann, Walter. Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1914, pages 177–78. )

Oh no, not politics!


Professor Nuno Themudo Wins 2016 Best Book Award, for his book Nonprofits in Crisis: Economic Development, Risk and the Philanthropic Kuznets Curve (Photo: YouTube)

“. . . if he complies with the habitual expectations of a leader’s role, then he is not a charismatic leader . . .”

This is not really politics, but I apologize for turning from thoughts of eternity and the open prairie to the hyper-mundane. I can’t help myself this morning.

I’m in a dither today. I suppose my writing (and whatever passes as my thinking) has nothing to do with getting old(er). Well, yes it does. It has to do with my perception of the steady erosion of freedom in America over my lifetime ― and the terrifying acceleration it has taken in the last few months.
___I was trying to research something else entirely (that’s how researchers find the best stuff ― going where the train of evidence takes them, not where they meant to go) and I came across a study of corruption in the “developing” world, in nations where the World Bank has identified corruption as a social and political problem.   The article was listed as a footnote in another scholarly article I was reading. (Please note it was written in 2013 and is not directed at Trump per se.)

[Opening paragraph] How does civil society [the organizations and informal networks “located between the family, the state and the market in which people associate voluntarily to advance common interests”] impact corruption?  . . .  According to the World Bank, corruption is “the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development.” Corruption undermines public trust in government and other institutions, wastes public resources, and obstructs the responsive management of vital public goals, such as poverty alleviation, health care, and public safety . . .  corruption “constitutes a challenge to the very foundations of development cooperation. . . .
(Themudo, Nuno S. “Reassessing the Impact of Civil Society: Nonprofit Sector, Press Freedom, and Corruption.” Governance 26.1 (2013): 63-89.)

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook shared this article.

The debts of President-elect Donald Trump and his businesses are scattered across Wall Street banks, mutual funds and other financial institutions, broadening the tangle of interests that pose potential conflicts for the incoming president’s administration.
___Hundreds of millions of dollars of debt attached to Mr. Trump’s properties, some of them backed by Mr. Trump’s personal guarantee, were packaged into securities and sold to investors over the past five years, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of legal and property documents.
___Mr. Trump has previously disclosed that his businesses owe at least $315 million to 10 companies. According to the Journal’s analysis, Trump businesses’ debts are held by more than 150 institutions. They bought the debt after it was sliced up and repackaged into bonds—a process known as securitization, which has been used for more than $1 billion of debt connected to Mr. Trump’s companies.
___As a result, a broader array of financial institutions now are in a potentially powerful position over the incoming president. If the Trump businesses were to default on their debts, the giant financial institutions that serve as so-called special servicers of these loan pools would have the power to foreclose on some of Mr. Trump’s marquee properties or seek the tens of millions of dollars that Mr. Trump personally guaranteed on the loans.
[. . . .] Wells Fargo & Co., for example, runs at least five mutual funds that own portions of Trump businesses’ securitized debt, according to an analysis of mutual-fund data conducted by Morningstar Inc. for the Journal.
___The bank also is a trustee or administrator for pools of securitized loans that include $282 million of loans to Mr. Trump. And Wells acts as a special servicer for $950 million of loans to a property that one of Mr. Trump’s companies partly owns, according to securities and property filings.
___Wells Fargo is currently facing scrutiny from federal regulators surrounding its fraudulent sales practices and other issues. Once he takes office, Mr. Trump will appoint the heads of many of the regulators that police the bank.
(Eaglesham, Jean and Lisa Schwartz. “Trump’s Debts Are Widely Held on Wall Street, Creating New Potential Conflicts.” The Wall Street Journal. Wsj.com. Jan. 5, 2017.  Web.)

Shortly after I read that article, I happened upon another article footnoted in something else I was reading. (Please note it was written in 2006 and is not about Trump per se.)

Max Weber defines charisma as ‘an extraordinary quality of a person, because of which he is perceived as the leader’. Charisma is therefore based on a social relationship between a person possessing such a quality and those who believe in it. Weber’s perspective is not directed at an analysis of the charismatic leader’s personality, but at the structure of charismatic social relationships. This he defines through a number of properties.
___The first involves ‘very personal devotion’ and ‘duty’: the leader claims ultimate authority; the followers accept obedience as their duty. The leader must have the will to demand ultimate authority, and the follower must submit himself completely to the leader. This is not just a question of subjective will, but of the structural possibilities for charismatic behaviour. Both leader and followers must be in a situation, or create a situation, in which this is possible, for it is not only charisma that is an extraordinary quality: charismatic relationships are also extraordinary.
[. . . .] Charisma is thus not just another word for prestige, esteem, popularity, or personal excellence. A charismatic relationship fundamentally restructures a given social situation. Charisma is, according to Weber, a ‘revolutionary force’, that may result in ‘a radical alteration of the central attitudes and directions of actions with a completely new orientation of all attitudes toward all forms of life and to the world’. A charismatic leader is not only a person who gains trust, and towards whom great expectations are directed, or to whom special qualifications are attributed. Charismatic leaders create new positions of leadership for themselves, a new pattern of social relations, and a new cognitive definition of the situation in general. No matter how prestigious, talented or idolised he is, if he does not change the social system, or if he complies with the habitual expectations of a leader’s role, then he is not a charismatic leader.    
(Lepsius, M. Rainer. “The Model of Charismatic Leadership and Its Applicability to the Rule of Adolf Hitler.” Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions 7.2 (2006): 175-190.)

As I was reading the above, I recalled the few seconds of Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention that I could bear to listen to. I had to find it because it was eerily reminiscent of Weber’s understanding of “charisma.”

In 2016, Donald J. Trump mounted the stage, and told America that the nation is in crisis. That attacks on police and terrorism threaten the American way of life. That the United States suffers from domestic disaster, and international humiliation. That it is full of shuttered factories and crushed communities. That it is beset by “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.”
___And he offered them a solution.
___I am your voice,” said Trump. “I ALONE CAN FIX IT. I will restore law and order.” He did not appeal to prayer, or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.
(Appelbaum, Yoni. “I Alone Can Fix It.” The Atlantic. Jul 21, 2016. theatlantic.com. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.  Source. 

So here’s my dither. Am I simply a worried old man of 72 years, beginning to be afraid of even his shadow? Or do all of these articles add up to something that I should, by rights, fear? I hope you, good reader, can tell an old man what to think.


Max Weber (1864―1920), German sociologist and political economist (Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica Online)

“. . . While the deepening shadows fall . . .” (W. F. Sherwin ― 1877)


Man made structures huddling on the earth as seen from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 21, 2016)

On August 24, 2016, my sister Bonnie Sato and I were in our childhood home, Scottsbluff, NE. We wanted to see a Nebraska sunset from “the bluff,” that is, Scotts Bluff National Monument. We drove to a small observation point we knew at the west base of the bluff. The sunset did not disappoint us. A cloud cover broke just above the horizon, and we were able to see the sun set under the clouds ― a common Nebraska event. I took about a hundred pictures.
___During the sunset I had in mind one of the first hymns I learned to play on the organ (I began lessons 62 years ago when I was 9 ― in Scottsbluff). In our hymnal, the tune was in the key of A-flat. The fifth note of the melody is D-natural, the raised 4th in the key of A-flat, creating a tritone, the “Devil’s interval.” It’s not harmonically important in this tune, simply an embellishment. But I heard it as a harmony tone and would often elongate the rhythm at that beat when I was alone. I did not know the name of that interval, midway between a 4th and a 5th, and, according to the Medieval theorists, difficult to sing and of the devil. I simply thrilled to the sound.
___The next time the Devil’s Interval impressed itself on me was when I was in high school (by this time in Omaha), and I learned to play the entire piano version of the songs from West Side Story. Tony sings the Devil’s Interval as the second note of “Maria.” Make of that what you may. My ultra-conservative Mennonite organ teacher would not countenance the worldly music of Broadway, of course, but he did explain the Devil’s Interval to me.
___Yesterday I was looking through my sunset pictures for a new “cover photo” for my Facebook page. I found one similar to (they are all similar to) the one below. As I was looking through my photos, I was taken back to August 24, even to the point of singing “Day Is Dying in the West” ― aloud here in the my apartment where I am alone.
___I thought of recording it on my Steuart Goodwin pipe organ (yes, if you don’t know, it’s in my living room) to put on my YouTube page, but I wanted the words, so I found the YouTube page of Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA, by googling the hymn. It is here. Listen for the Devil on the word “the.”


Scottsbluff National Monument in shadow seen from the Wildcat Hills, 20 miles to the south. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 25, 2016)

___The hymn is musically too sentimental to be in sophisticated hymnals like those of the Episcopal and Lutheran churches (that’s not an elitist or sarcastic statement; they are the most musically sophisticated hymnals in common use). That begs the question, however, why the Episcopalians have not found a more sophisticated tune for those words. The hymn does not mention Jesus or “salvation.” Many fundamentalist Christians would think the almost “deistic” words would appeal to the Episcopalians, who, they suppose, are only marginally Christian. And yet I learned the hymn from a Baptist hymnal. Go figure.
___Perhaps because I learned the hymn when I was so young, even in my educated (presumably sophisticated) musical taste I still love both the tune and the words (mea culpa).
___Or perhaps my love of the hymn and tune is situated in my present age and understanding.

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night. . .

This week I celebrated my 72nd birthday. Last night from the National Geographic TV channel, I watched an installment of the series Earth: The Making of a Planet (2015). Through the entire program showing the gathering together of space “debris” through millions of years to form the earth, I sat thinking (and several times saying aloud here in my apartment where I am alone), “How do they know that?” Is our science so advanced that we can state with (apparent) certainty what rocks, what elements, what minerals formed the earth, and how water managed to “cover the face of the deep?”
___Of course, the implicit question for me was, “If we know how it came together, do we know how it will end?” It will end. Our sun, a mature star, will become a red giant, and a red dwarf, and a supernova, and a black hole eventually (10 billion years? who knows?) and will take our solar system with it. More than “day” is dying in the west.


Sunset over Wyoming as seen from the western base of Scottsbluff National Monument. (Photo: August 24, 2016, Harold Knight)

___I no longer use the language of that hymn, “Lord God of hosts.” I find it difficult to understand any more the concept of God ― at least of a god who controls what our eyes will see (the sub-text of the hymn, of course, is that the dying day is really the image of our dying selves) when we die or any time later or sooner.
___On the other hand, watching from Nebraska as the sun sets over Wyoming I cannot help but find in the core of my self the hope, perhaps even the belief, that

“While the deepening shadows fall,
[a] heart of love [enfolds us] all,
And through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil [its] face,
Our hearts ascend.”

I don’t believe that in any religious sense ― or even in the ever-popular “spiritual not religious” sense. Here’s what I think: some force that we, homo sapiens, cannot control, did not put in motion, and cannot stop ― whether by building walls around ourselves, or by allowing the overwhelming forces of the material world to dictate our social structures, or by refusing to care at the basic physical level for all the people in our sphere of influence, or by deeming ourselves to have the only correct understanding of “God” ― is responsible for all of this, from my heart to the two black holes astronomers recently saw merge in space.
___It is as convenient to call that force a “heart of love” as anything else. Or express it as the Devil’s Interval. But I’ll bet anyone standing where they can see the openness of our “prairie,” even with its plethora of man made structures huddled on the ground, for long enough will know that in the

“pass[ing of] the stars, the day, the night . . .
eternal morning [will] rise
And shadows end.”

Neither National Geographic, nor Donald Trump, nor the National Council of Churches, nor I can have any concept of how that process began or how it will end. We can’t even know our place in it.

Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Ron Bechtel, Organist
Words: Mary A Lathbury, 1877
Tune: W F Sherwin – Chautaugua, 1877

Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest;
Wait and worship while the night
Sets the evening lamps alight
Through all the sky.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of Thee!
Heaven and earth are praising Thee,
O Lord most high!

While the deepening shadows fall,
Heart of love enfolding all
Through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil Thy face,
Our hearts ascend.

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
Let eternal morning rise
And shadows end.

“. . . give up this life of mine and am not troubled about this. . .” (Johann Georg Albinus, 1652)


Looking into Wyoming from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebaska (Photo: Harold Knight, August 2016)

I was born 72 years ago today, January 3, 1945, in Douglas, Wyoming.

It’s cold in Wyoming in January, as in next-door Nebraska where I did most of my physical growing up and graduated from high school in 1963. In 1976 I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, one state over from Nebraska and just as cold in January (I had been in California for eleven years in the interim). That year my friend Pat French from Muscatine gave me a copy of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death for my birthday. Based on our frequent late-night interminable discussions vis a vis “the meaning of life,” lubricated by much Scotch whiskey, she thought I should read Becker’s book which won the Pulitzer Prize the year before. I was 31, and she was about 50. I thought she was the smartest person I knew ―and, in fact, that was likely true then and likely never changed. She was also crass and irreverent, and self-identified as “black Irish.”

I lost contact with Pat about 20 years ago, and I often wonder how her life went on. Some time back I Googled Pat and discovered she died in 2012. When she died, no one thought to tell me since I was living first in Massachusetts (also cold in January) and then (as now) in Dallas (strange but not so cold in January) ―and no one remembered we were friends.

Note to self: Someday think about the many people who have been important to your growth and self-awareness who have simply disappeared from your life. Don’t think about it today, someday.

I have never met Ton Koopman, but in a strange way, I consider him an old friend. He was born October 2, 1944, three months before I was born. He is a Dutch organist and professor at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. In April 2003 he was knighted, receiving the Order of the Netherlands Lion. Whenever I want to hear an organ work of J.S. Bach’s played, I go to YouTube and look up Ton Koopman’s performance.


Birthday number 2 – Worland, Wyoming, January 3, 1947.

A few days ago I was preparing for my annual birthday video (a small organ work recorded on my birthday for my own amusement) and was undecided between the Bach chorale prelude on Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (“The old year is passed away”) and the Bach chorale prelude on Alle Menschen müßen sterben (“Everyone must die”). I found Koopman’s YouTube of each of them. It was no contest. However I played or wherever I recorded it, I could not come close to the glory of Koopman’s “Everyone must die.  And that meant I would record “The old year is passed away.”   That’s OK because it is in a style more suited to my abilities.

The lovely melancholy of “The old year is passed away” is suitable to my ability and to our time.  “. . . Thou hast kept us through the year/ When danger and distress were near.” It’s not clear to me that God has kept us (the idea of God drifts farther and farther away from me as time goes on), but obviously something is keeping us in this time of danger and distress. But, as they say, I digress.

For many years I kept as my private motto, my personal inner explanation of “the meaning of life,” Ernest Becker’s assertion that, “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”

My ideas regarding Becker’s statement were concentrated for many years on the “towering majesty” of being human. I thought the “blindly and dumbly rotting” was a great ironic statement of the obvious counter-balance to the towering majesty of our existence, our accomplishments. But then one day I realized my ex-wife, my brother-in-law, my life-partner, and many friends had died, and I began to understand the reality of disappearing forever. And then my parents died.

I took many years to understand the reality ―not the irony― of the completion of the circle of Becker’s understanding. He died of cancer during the year between his book’s publication and my reading it.

I would like to talk to Ton Koopman, about Bach, of course, but more about what it means to play music composed by a genius who lived a shorter life than either of us has already lived. Especially music based on hymns about the passage of time and the absolute certainty of death.

My guess is that anyone not close to my age―or older than I―who might happen to be reading this little meditation written on the anniversary of my birth considers this line of thinking sad or tragic or grievous or fatalistic. Well, it is fatalistic. Everything we do is headed toward fatality. We don’t need Ernest Becker or Aristotle or Socrates or St. Paul or Martin Heidegger or Johann Georg Albinus to tell us that.

I am weak and timid, a shy person. I am not a preacher or teacher (except for the instruction in the correct use of commas and verb tenses). I am not a moralist or a philosopher. I am certainly not a thinker or an intellectual. Or an artist. If I met Ton Koopman, I would be tongue-tied and feel amazed in the presence of his musicianship. His ability to recreate the “towering genius” of the music of Bach almost stupefies me.

What on earth, anyone reading this with the ability to think logically, whether my age or younger or older might well ask, are you trying to say? What’s your point? Where is your thesis? (I hope you’re asking, because it is not clear.)

Only this. Pat, and Ernest, and Sebastian Bach, and Johann Georg Albinus are all disappeared forever. Ton and I and you are not. And we’re all the same.  We tower, some of us much higher in human terms than others, and we go back into the ground. That is neither good nor bad, comforting or frightening, difficult or easy to understand and accept. It simply is.  “The old year now hath passed away,” and “Everybody must die, all flesh passes like grass.”

From January 3, 1945, until January 3, 2017, I have been in that process, and right now, today, I “am not troubled about this.”