“. . . illumine the world with your image . . .” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

The Transfiguration of Christ, Lorenzo Lotto, 1511

The Transfiguration of Christ, Lorenzo Lotto, 1511

You like to think about synergy and coincidence and “a god thing” and other spookinesses. That is, you like the logical fallacy of Post hoc ergo propter hoc, assuming that if ‘A’ occurred after ‘B’ then ‘B’ must have caused ‘A.’

In 1456, the Ottomans laid siege to Belgrade in Serbia. They were repelled, and the Christian world of Europe rejoiced. News reached Pope Callixtus III on August 6, and he declared the date The Feast of the Transfiguration, the liturgical remembrance of Jesus’ appearing in light to the disciples (Protestant liturgical churches recently moved the Transfiguration to the Last Sunday in Epiphany).

In 1945, the United States and Japan were locked in the last stages of WW II. President Truman ordered the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities to end the war and “save lives.” Hiroshima was bombed on August 6.

Synergy, coincidence, a “god thing.” The Feast of the Transfiguration celebrating the end of the siege of Belgrade and the bombing of Hiroshima come together on the same day. Does this convergence mean anything?

This convergence was pointed out to me by the widow of Admiral Robert A. Theobald, a commander in the Pacific fleet who accused the Roosevelt administration of knowing the attack on Pearl Harbor was immanent and doing nothing about it in order to bring the U.S. into WWII. Betty Theobald, a cellist of some renown and a member of the altar guild of my (Episcopal) church in Salem, MA, gave me a history lesson from personal experience, her understanding of many coincidences and ironies of WWII.

On August 6, 1787, the U.S. constitutional convention began. On August 6, 1806, Francis II renounced the title “Holy Roman Emperor” ending the empire. On August 6, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and Serbia beginning WWI. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Unrelated (or are they?) events on August 6, starting with the defeat of the Ottomans who were besieging Belgrade, giving the Christians of Europe reason to rejoice and proclaim a Feast of the Church to mark the day.

This year on August 6 the world was in turmoil: Putin getting ready to invade Ukrainia. Landslides at Mt. Baldy. Ted Cruz running the House of Representatives. Fugitive children massed on the southern border of the US. A lull in the murderous siege of Gaza by Israel. And so on.

We need a victory as decisive as the end of the Siege of Belgrade or the bombing of Hiroshima to lead us out of this morass of bad news, of gruesome events over which we apparently have no control.

We need to figure out how to change the bizarre and dangerous coincidences of our lives, both personal and national.

We need a victory we can mark with a national or religious holiday and move on in the assurance that God’s in her heaven, and all’s right in the world.

We need to learn to accept all of the “coincidences” of our lives or to change the horrendous situations we can change. We need to begin to understand the difference between accepting and changing.

For several days I have been immobilized by a thought I’ve not been able to write.

It’s a simple thought. In our admirable attempt to be “charitable” and “diplomatic” and “equitable” we (all of us, but especially “educated” and “liberal-minded” folks) work hard at trying to “understand” in order to find “fair” solutions to any and all problems. We know every conflict has two sides. Accept or change?

The brightest man made light

The brightest man made light

However, the simple act of saying “there are two sides” means almost certainly we have accepted one side of the argument. Should LGBTQ folks marry or not? Was “Hobby Lobby” the right Supreme Court ruling? Has Edward Snowden helped or hurt Americans? There are two sides to all of these arguments.

I’ll bet everyone has an opinion about each of them. Does anyone really think there are two equally correct sides to those questions?

Is Israel justified in bombing Gaza to rubble?

Of course you have an opinion. If you think Israel has a “right” to bomb Gaza, you a priori think the Gazans have no “right” to fight back against the blockade that has kept their children hungry and their society imprisoned for seven years.

I can hear the most liberal, the most thoughtful, the most fair-minded folks saying, “Well, yes, it’s horrible, it’s gruesome, it’s disastrous, but Israel has a right.” I wish those people—particularly those who make some claim to having a sense of morality—would play that back in their minds. If it’s horrible, if it’s gruesome, if it’s disastrous, then Israel has no right. Period. Whatever the attempt at justification, it is not “right.” Period.

We love synergy, coincidence, strange concurrences. We love the heavenly light of the Transfiguration of Jesus juxtaposed with the brightest light ever created by mankind in the bombing of Hiroshima.

We—especially we liberals and wanna-be intellectuals—love to think we can be reasonable and hold murder and destruction in our minds along with righteousness and light.

I’m not that clever. I think bombing innocent civilians of Hiroshima was an act of violence that haunts our nation 69 years later. And bombing innocent civilians of Gaza will haunt not only Israel but also the United States—which provides the munitions of destruction—for at least 69 years.

gaza bombThe prayer Lutherans read on the Feast of the Transfiguration says,

Almighty God, the resplendent light of your truth shines from the mountaintop into our hearts. Transfigure us by your beloved Son, and illumine the world with your image, through Jesus Christ, our Savior, and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Whether one is a Lutheran or not, or a Christian or not, or an atheist or not, “The resplendent light of truth” is not the light from bombs exploding. Some synergies simply aren’t.

I need seven singers – or a conspiracy theory, whichever comes first (Singers, sign up below!)

It takes a conspirator to know a conspirator?

It takes a conspirator to know a conspirator?

December 7th, “the date that will live in INFAMY!”

That sentence is one that I use regularly to demonstrate to students how the careful use of one word can change not only the meaning but the import of a sentence.

FDR’s first draft of his speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor began with the sentence (he wrote it himself, by the way), “. . . a date that will live in history.” Big deal.

Don’t all days live in history?

We don’t have a record of FDR’s thought process—my guess is there wasn’t one, that he knew it had to change because he had studied communications at the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU, and they teach people how to be effective—in changing “history” to “infamy,” thereby making the speech one that lives in history.

Teach people to be effective? Baloney. People with degrees in communications know how to follow trends, how to use tools, how to make money selling stuff, but no one—let me repeat—NO ONE can teach a person that “infamy” is more memorable than “history.” You’re thinking, anyone can see that. We have 72 years of saying the sentence over and over again to know that single word made the speech. FDR could have stopped right there, and Congress would have declared war (even Robert A. Taft voted in favor).

How do you start a conspiracy theory, anyway? As I’ve said in a post here before, you make people believe your explanation for an event is the evidence that it happened.

Dallas has been awash in conspiracy theories all this year. The 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination here in our fair city. The one person I know personally who is an authority—that is, he has been studying the matter and having his students research and write about it for 20 years or so—thinks there was a conspiracy to murder the President. I’ve told him I want to talk to him about it. Perhaps we will and perhaps we won’t.

It was revealed recently that Robert F. Kennedy did not believe the Warren Commission. So that is somehow evidence that there was a conspiracy.

Robert F. Kennedy got his start in government law in 1952 when his father, Joseph Kennedy, persuaded Senator Joseph McCarthy to hire Bobby as assistant counsel to McCarthy’s conspiracy-searching and character-assassinating committee in the Senate. Robert Kennedy got his start in government “service” sniffing out conspiracies. Does Bobby Kennedy’s explanation of his brother’s death count as evidence? No. Explanations and conjectures are not evidence.

The first great conspiracy theory?

The first great conspiracy theory?

So my colleague tells me there IS, in fact, evidence. I have not bothered to read any of it because—well, because what difference does it make? Will absolute proof that there were two killers change anything? No. The American people have already chosen their lot—let conspiracy theories make our decisions. To wit, September 11, 2001.

We have laid down our freedom at the feet of the federal government on the theory that there is a vast world-wide conspiracy of “terrorists” who will destroy society as we know it if we don’t kill them with drones and let our own government go sniffing in our private affairs just as Bobby Kennedy did for Joe McCarthy.

Rhetoric is the art of using all available means to make an argument (not to “argue” but to make an “argument”—there is a difference). That’s what Aristotle said, at any rate.

I have no idea what rhetorical strategy to use to get from Bobby and Joe sniffing around and the CIA and the DHS sniffing around to “infamy” and “history” and then to my need for some singers.

So I’ll just say it. What difference does it make whether or not my students understand the rhetorical power of one word over another? Conspiracies demand acquiescence. Young people have been so brainwashed by our concessions of our liberties that they have no concept of our rights under the First Amendment. There is little point in trying to help them have an “ah-ha” moment about writing, about the choice of words, when the only amendment to the Constitution they care anything about is the Second. (No, I don’t know what process of “logic” I used to get from one idea to the next here. Deal with it.)

And the power of language—of anything beautiful or expressive—has one purpose now. To make money. Or to wield military (or corporate) power. After all, according to one of the first great conspiracy theories, FDR’s choice of words was important because he was involved in bringing about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I know, I know. I’m not making any sense, and I’m becoming one of those grouchy and irrational old men my mother warned me about. I want to draw myself into a cocoon and forget all of the nonsense of the world. You all can go ahead with your conspiracy theories, and with your forfeiture of your right of freedom of conscience if you want. Or any other freedom—like the freedom to get on an airplane without a stranger looking at your privates.

But all I want is to make some music. I can’t do it even as well as I used to (which was never brilliant, my degrees notwithstanding). So I want simple. And I’d love to have a group of singers to direct so the physical act of producing the music didn’t fall on my shoulders alone.

Singers. Send me a comment here—I’m not kidding!!!—and let’s withdraw from conspiracies together.

Here I am playing the notes without the words for Thomas Ravenscroft’s little anthem (1611). I need singers! I can play the notes for a work like this, but that cries out for the original (which has more stanzas than I have here).

Remember, O thou Man,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember, O thou Man,
Thy time is spent.
Remember, O thou Man,
How thou camest to me then,
And I did what I can.
Therefore repent.

Remember Adam’s fall,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember Adam’s fall
From Heaven to Hell.
Remember Adam’s fall,
How we were condemned all
To Hell perpetual,
There for to dwell.

Remember God’s goodness,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember God’s goodness
And promise made.
Remember God’s goodness,
How his only Son he sent
Our sins for to redress.
Be not afraid.

“Splintered, diffuse, and eruptive. . . ”

“They’re taking us over, cell by cell!”

“They’re taking us over, cell by cell!”

This morning’s little task (quoting, I fear, rather than writing) is to be sure I’m ready to begin my classes’ discussion of the 1956 version of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

What does this old black-and-white film have to do with anything? And why use it as one of the literary works to study in classes in which the students are “Writing About the Grotesque?”

You might find the answer in the horror story below.

Note: I’ve changed “1950s” to “2000s” and “Communist” to “Islamist.” As you read, think about the laws passed or proposed to prevent “Sharia” from taking over our legal system. And think about the almost universal terror of “terrorism” in this country. I’ve also changed “Soviet Union” to “AL-Qaeda.”

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, Leader of the Evil Empire

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, Leader of the Evil Empire

THE HORROR STORY, from:  MacDougall, Robert. “Red, Brown And Yellow Perils: Images Of The American Enemy In The 1940S And 1950S.” Journal of Popular Culture 32.4 (1999): 59-75.

Another genre that tied American fears of [Islamism] into a broader web of postwar anxieties was science fiction. Films like . . . .  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) expressed fears of ideological infection and [Islamist] takeover in none-too-subtle allegories. For audiences in the [2000s], the most frightening aspects of these films may not have been the rubber-suited Martians who poured out of the skies like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, but the insidious and nearly invisible ways in which the alien enemy might contaminate their all-American targets. . . .

Historian Geoffrey Smith** identifies a quasi-medical metaphor used in [2000s] America to describe the “contagion” of [Islamist] subversion. “Foreign ideology would endanger the integrity of the ‘Free World,’” Smith writes, “in ways more sinister than armies or advanced weaponry.” Rarely is this metaphor more obvious than in the monstrous invasion films of the 1950s. “It’s a malignant disease spreading through the whole country!” cries a character in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “They’re taking us over, cell by cell!”

What did domestic matters like disease and sexuality have to do with [Islamism]? For some Americans, the connections seemed very real. Beneath the nation’s apparent anti-[Islamist] consensus existed two fundamentally different strains of anti-[Islamism]. The first sought to defend the United States against a clearly defined international enemy: [AL-Qaeda], its satellite countries, and its spies. The second strain was a more populist, domestic-oriented anti-[Islamism] concerned less with national defense than with the perceived decay of American moral standards and institutions. “Splintered, diffuse, and eruptive,” historian Robert Dalleck***  writes, “this was the truly popular anti-[Islamism].”

**Smith, Geoffrey S. “National Security and Personal Isolation: Sex, Gender and Disease in Cold War America.” International  History Review (May 1992): 307-37.
***Dalleck, Robert. “Modernizing the Republic: 1920 to the Present.” The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Ed. Bernard Bailyn. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992. 327-655.

God save us!

God save us!

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We were certainly right—weren’t we?—in our terror of the Soviet Union and Godless Communism. That turned out to be a colossal (almost totally self-destructing) waste of time, energy, money, and sanity, didn’t it?

Yes, the terrorists have snatched our bodies. They have taken us over (or are in the process of doing so) in order to implant evil and anti-American values in our poor, defenseless minds. Christianity will fall before Godless AL-Qaeda just as America fell before the Soviet Union. Where is Joseph McCarthy when we need him?

Where is MR. REPUBLICAN when we need him?

“I remember the day he died,” I told my students recently, speaking of Robert A. Taft.

It’s too late, of course to listen to Robert A. Taft, Republican Senator from Ohio, 1939-1953. And some would argue that his anti-union, anti-big government, anti-New Deal politics are not appropriate for today (although the Tea-Baggers and Mitch McConnell would say they are).

Imacon Color ScannerBut I wish he had been around to give George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld a piece of his mind in 2002, and I wish Barak Obama would read a few of his speeches now.

No one has ever suggested before that a single nation should range over the world, like a knight-errant, protecting democracy and ideals of good faith, and tilting, like Don Quixote, against the windmills of Fascism [read “terrorism”](1).

Senator Taft had good reason to be wary of this Knight-Errant. Even his understanding of the world sounds eerily modern.

But now it is suggested that the whole world is different. It is said that distances are so short we cannot possibly avoid being involved in a general war. I don’t believe it. I think if we are sufficiently determined not be become involved, we can stay out. We learned our lesson in 1917. We learned that modern war defeats its own purposes. A war to preserve democracy resulted in the destruction of more democracies that it preserved (2).

And he had a clear understanding of the effects of war on democracy.

Not only that, a war whether to preserve democracy or otherwise would almost certainly destroy democracy in the United States. We have moved far towards totalitarian government already. The additional powers sought by the President in case of war, the nationalization of all industry and all capital and all labor, already propose in bill before the Congress, would create a socialist dictatorship which it would be impossible to dissolve when the war ended (3).

I think Mr. Republican, as Taft was known, would have been equally distressed to discover the “[move] far towards totalitarian government [that has] already” taken place today; that is, the move toward a government that is but a shadow government beholden to the incredible domination of every aspect of all of our lives by corporations responsible to no one but the power of making money. We live in a totalitarian state controlled not by politicians, but by the ridiculously anti-human abstraction global capitalism. Mr. Republican would be aghast at the non-democratic state into which we have allowed ourselves to fall in order to “preserve democracy.”
____

(1), (2), (3) Taft, Robert A. “Let Us Stay Out Of War.” Vital Speeches of the Day 5.8 (1939): 254.

Ah, sweet mysteries (read certainties) of life

My dad used to say that Democratic presidents start wars. In his experience that was (at least marginally) true. Woodrow Wilson presided over the US entry into WWI, FDR presided over the US response to Pearl Harbor, and Harry Truman was responsible for the still-ongoing hostilities in Korea. JFK and LBJ got us into the quagmire of Viet Nam from which Nixon took so long to extract us.

Infamy

Infamy

I’m sure I’m forgetting some US wars/invasions/”police actions” in my lifetime, but “Operation Urgent Fury” (Grenada), “Operation Just Cause” (Panama), and “Operation Desert Storm” (Iraq I) were the brainchildren of Republican presidents. And the current quagmire of Afghanistan, with its collateral damage in Iraq, was Dick Cheney’s idea (oh, he wasn’t president, was he?).

My guess is that until he was 90 or so (2004)—and this seems to be some sort of insult to or criticism of him, but it certainly is not—my dad would have said, if asked, that Democratic presidents start wars and Republican Presidents are men of peace. I don’t mean to say that as any negative reflection on my dad’s beliefs or intellectual abilities. This was one of very few over-simplified ideas he ever expressed.

In two weeks the SMU campus will host Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama as the most honored guests at the opening of the “shrine” (yes, that’s how WFAA TV referred to it the other day) to George W. Bush, his Presidential Library on the SMU campus. Five Presidents at one occasion. Funny thing, that. Of the five only two presided over wars/invasions/police actions, and both of them are named Bush.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some military action Carter and/or Clinton trumped up, and Obama has yet to extract the US from the Afghanistan swamp, so my characterization is probably not true.

The first-year writing course I teach is titled “Discovery & Discourse.”  I’m supposed to try to get students to discover interesting ideas and write comprehensible discourse about those ideas. My assumption is that’s an impossible goal. Discovering ideas may be possible. Teaching a student to write coherently about them is not.

The reason is simple. They already know too much that may or may not be correct. Like my dad’s certainty that Democratic presidents start wars.

I have a favorite example. Students are taught (and I use passive voice purposefully here—note it’s the only passive verb in this piece) to begin an essay with a general idea and move to the specific (with some sort of “hook” for the reader at the point of the specific). I can’t remember if that’s inductive or deductive reasoning, but whichever, it makes for ridiculous student writing:  “In the history of the world. . . “

My students write in one semester about the rhetorical means used in three presidential speeches. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Conceived in Liberty

Conceived in Liberty

begins, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That seems pretty specific to me.

Ronald Reagan’s Challenger Address (written mostly by Peggy Noonan) begins, “Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger.” That one’s pretty specific, too.

And Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech asking Congress to declare that, because the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a state of war existed between the US and Japan (note, he did not ask Congress to declare war) begins with one of the most famously specific sentences in all of political discourse, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Shock and awe

Shock and awe

As an example of writing, the last is my favorite, not because it’s the best writing, but because the most famous word in the speech was a revision (oh, to get students to understand that good writing is re-writing). Roosevelt’s first draft was, “a date which will live in world history.” If he had not changed “world history” to “infamy,” how famous would the speech be?

I’m not saying high school instruction in writing is wrong, but that it’s inadequate just as simplistic ideas about politics and history are not necessarily wrong although they often are—Democrats are not more likely to start wars than Republicans.

The gathering of Presidents in Dallas in two weeks, it seems to me, is designed to enshrine a simplistic idea that a friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday. The entire presidency of George W. Bush is legitimized in many Americans’ minds by saying, “I learned all I need to know about Islam on September 11, 2001.”

Who remembers Senator Taft?

The Las Vegas I knew

The Baptist Las Vegas I knew

After my posting here two days ago about George Frederick Handel and Stuart Hamblen, my sister remarked, “You remember too much.”

That’s a fine way to speak to your brother! Someone else reminded me yesterday that I saw Jersey Boys (the musical) last year. I vaguely remember seeing it, but I can’t remember the plot. The songs include “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You.” Those I remember. But not from the show. I remember too much?

But I remember July 31, 1953.

I seem to be surrounded by people who remember details of stuff of which I barely remember the broadest outlines. Movies, plays, novels, operas, paintings in museums. I’m intimidated when someone I love quotes a line from a movie he saw twenty-five years ago.  And my sister says I remember too much!!

Las Vegas, Nevada, July 31, 1953.

Of course, there are good reasons for my memory lapses. I didn’t have that good a memory to begin with. And my psychiatrist says depression (and taking meds to fight it) generates memory loss. Seizures (and taking meds to fight them) cause memory loss. I once asked my neurologist if anyone had done a long-term study of the effects of Carbamezapine, and his reply was, “You’re it” (32 years). So I shouldn’t beat myself up over memory loss.

July 31, 1953. Our family was vacationing in Las Vegas. No, not at a casino. The pastor of the First Baptist Church there and my dad traded preaching duties for a couple of Sundays, and both families got a little bit of vacation – we lived in each other’s parsonages, so we could afford the trip. We got the much better end of that deal! Las Vegas v. Scottsbluff?

My students are in the nascent stages of the semester’s research project.  They will invent (inventio, the first step in Aristotle’s process of rhetoric) their topics from an array of speeches about events leading to Pearl Harbor and FDR’s “date that shall live in infamy” speech.  No papers on the Sino-Japanese War or the conspiracy theories  in regard to FDR’s foreknowledge of and failure to prevent Pearl Harbor. Only the speeches.

Robert A. Taft (September 8, 1889 – July 31, 1953)

Robert A. Taft
(September 8, 1889 – July 31, 1953)

I was giving them historical background today.  One of the speeches is an “isolationist” speech, a speech against American involvement in war across either the Atlantic or the Pacific. The speech is by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, leader of the Senate Republicans in the days leading up to World War II. A student asked a question about Taft, and as I answered, out it slipped. “I remember the day he died.”

Omigod! It’s true. I do remember. Standing in the living room of the Baptist parsonage in Las Vegas. The news report of Taft’s death had come over the radio. And I asked my dad, “Does that mean if he had been elected President, the President would be dead?”

My parents had wanted Taft to be The Republican nominee in the 1952 election instead of Eisenhower. Of course, Eisenhower was preferable to Adlai Stevenson, but they had wanted Taft.

With sixty years of hindsight, my question seems pretty silly. Obviously, if he were President and he died, the President would be dead.

But it’s not quite that simple. An eight-year-old boy aware somehow for the first time (perhaps) of both death and presidential politics—together, in the same moment.

Of course I remember July 31, 1953. I can’t remember the name of the actress who played Reno Sweeney in the production of Anything Goes we saw last night. Fantastic!—her every song (literally) a show stopper. But I remember the day Senator Robert A. Taft died.

Post script:

About memory. A student from last semester stopped me on campus last week to thank me for the research work last semester. He had been to Hawaii during semester break, and he wanted me to know how much seeing Pearl Harbor meant to him—how much more it meant to him than to his friends. I guess memory gets played forward sometimes.
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