The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 8, 2017

Lessons from God — American politics and regional experiences

Imagine for a moment that all Americans believed in some kind of divine, at least in Jefferson’s “nature and nature’s god” from the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine now that all of us here also really believed what we say unkindly to those in trouble: everything happens for a reason.  How might such a set of universally held beliefs affect our regional politics?

I believe that when disaster strikes, especially when that disaster defies explanation, the rational mind shuts down and looks for paranormal interventions, whether we mean it to or not.  As a Christian, I have no trouble believing in the divine, but I also know that I have an irrational side that does not square with my theology, that believes that when a tornado warning goes off and a funnel cloud appears in the distance, no mater how much I know about meteorology, that the rotating winds are there as God’s thumb to squash me like a bug. No amount of schooling, no amount of storm-tracking by satellite, can prevent me from holding this view. There is part of me that cannot reconcile my immediate anxiety to a clear-headed rational thought.

During the Middle Ages, people made no pretense of rational thought in such circumstances, however resigned they were to meeting their Maker. In Palermo, during a horrible outbreak of plague, people wrote of seeing the plague appear in the form of a large black dog dressed as a bishop, cutting people down with a broadsword.  In Sweden, the plague was sighted as  beautiful maiden who waved a deadly saffron-colored scarf into one window or another in a village, causing all inside to die. In the absence of any germ theory or immunology, people did what they could in their terror to understand the emotionally incomprehensible.

plague

During the Middle Ages, people frightened by the plague hallucinated phenomena that could allow them to understand how one person could die while another lived.

Let’s be honest. For all our Doppler 4000 and our antibiotics, we’re no better. We respond to disaster viscerally, and because individually we are largely unable to control events larger than ourselves, we look to God.  It has often enough been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Allow me to submit to you that in America, whatever our pretense of intellectualism or agnostic yogic meditative practices, there are no atheists in America when a disaster hits us, and consequently, we form ideas about the theodicy — the “how could God let this happen here” — of such events. As some events are more likely to happen in the North than in the South, in the East than in the West, regional concepts of the divine, not the church divine, the scriptural divine, but the irrational-brain-invented notions of god and that idolatrously constructed god’s mysterious ways, that influence how we understand commonweal and political responsibilities in the face of catastrophe.

yellow fever

In industrialized cities, wealthier people understood that letting the poor die of yellow fever without care endangered their own health.

In Philadelphia and in Chicago, it became clear that a system of government that could prevent and extinguish fires would be useful. It was clear that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern in a shed, the whole town would suffer. In New York and Boston, it became clear that some form of sanitation and public health system would be better than not having one.  While the pilgrims believed in an Abrahamic covanential sort of responsibility toward one’s neighbor, particularly towards one’s pious and hard-working neighbor who fell ill, in New York, the motives for this were different.  There, it became clear to the very wealthy that sometimes even when one leaves town during an outbreak of yellow fever, one might catch it anyway from one’s butler or one’s laundress. Hence, having health clinics for the poor might secure the health of the wealthy and powerful. Either way, in major American cities, we are all our brothers’ keepers even today. We understand that an attack from unseen forces on one of us is likely a harbinger of trouble for us. We show up to liberate people from airport jail during a fascist Muslim ban.  We dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center. We make condoms free during the AIDS epidemic. We make sure every building has a fire escape on it, and if need be, a water tank as well, so that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can’t harm anyone but itself.

This is not what disaster teaches the irrational mind of Americans outside of sardine-packed cities, particularly not in the South, where tornadoes and hurricanes are the most common mass tragedies.

storm

A storm hits one place and misses another — are we spared catastrophe by our innate virtue?

Take last night.  My husband and I hunkered down in New Orleans with our two dogs and more starchy food and alcohol in the house than we commonly have, cases of bottled water, and flashlights. We removed outdoor hanging plants from hooks and packed up lawn furniture. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was headed for us. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was supposed to land on us as a category two disaster. The mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely told us to stay indoors after seven pm.  He told people repeatedly not to go surfing on Lake Catherine — apparently a hurricane jackass dare. He called for a mandatory evacuation of three neighborhoods on the far-eastern side of town. We were battened-down.  We were prepared.

And then, at the last possible minute, the storm turned Eastward, away from us. We were spared from all disaster. I saw a rainbow in the sky. I knew we were fine.

Here is the insidious lesson that might be learned from the irrational-brain-god about this event, one that might serve to explain a lack of general compassion on the part of some for the problems of others, particularly those poorer than we are: We might learn that this god spared us because we are somehow better than our neighbors in his eyes.

We hear the occasional crack-pot preacher claiming Houston got flooded because it elected a lesbian mayor, that New Orleans has too much decadence in it, and that caused Katrina. I’m not really talking about those losers who say this. I think that the frightened human mind cannot quite help momentarily thinking that the disaster that narrowly missed us and hit another is a confirmation that we are just in the hands of a proactive and highly insightful deity who knew that the person whose house got clobbered by a tornado either had fantastic insurance and would get a much better house or was sinful in ways that we weren’t, and that’s why our house was spared. The lesson here is the opposite of the lesson learned in the industrial city.  In a rural community, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern in a shed, and the shed burns down, maybe her cows get loose, and her son gets scolded for sleeping in the shed drunk with a lantern that could catch the hay on fire. The person who got sick from yellow fever whose nearest neighbor lived five miles away probably didn’t spread the disease.  They won’t even know he’s dead until he’s half decomposed. The irrational brain divine tells us to believe in ourselves, in our own virtues, in such circumstances.  While this is not scriptural — Jesus says to us that rain falls on both the wicked and the just — it is an almost inescapable human reflex, one that is destructive to our Republic.

There are cynical politicians in Washington bought up by a few wealthy and greedy megalomaniacs who are willing to demand help for Katrina and withhold it for Sandy because it won’t directly benefit their districts and will cost their patrons more in taxes. They are what we call down here common trash scalawags, and I am not worried about them because I believe (despite recent political rallies) they are few in number. I worry, though, about people who refuse to learn either from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or rational and secular humanism that they ARE their brothers’ keeper, that if one of us burns down, we all do, that a flood in Biloxi, is a flood in New Orleans, is a flood in Houston, is a flood in Miami, is a flood in San Juan. How many of us are willing, relieved that we were spared, to share the burdens of others at a distance?

I am sitting writing this now in my un-flooded living room, my pit bull asleep on the love seat, one of the hands typing this intermittently reaching into a bag of starchy snack food that was supposed to sustain me in the event of disaster that never arrived. I feel comfortable. Two hundred miles away, there are sixty thousand people without power. That’s where the storm hit. Even as I send disaster relief, there is a small, barely conscious part of myself that wants to congratulate me for my moral hygiene and clever foresight that I was not the victim here. I need to smash that idol — right after I eat this bag of puffy starch sticks.

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February 27, 2011

Quoth the Raven No More Taxes — fake quotes and their liberating quality in political fraud

My friend Victoria, for reasons unbeknownst and doubtless incomprehensible to me, just listed a fake quote on her Facebook status from Oscar Wilde — she did not pretend it was not fake, only that it was attributable to a fake Oscar Wilde, something of which the really ironic Mr. Wilde would have doubtlessly approved.

For some reason — and I think it has to do with my dread of reading T.S. Eliot at this hour, an assignment looming above my head right now — this strikes me as a much more  interesting post-modern exercise than the work I really ought to be doing for my Long Poem class at Ole  Miss.

What if we all just decided what we WISH famous dead authors said and started quoting them with the authority of scholars, as if their fake comments were just as important as what they really said?

Here’s my list of quotes that I would like to bandy about at cocktail parties as if they were gospel —

  • “Methinks her hair doth bear the bleach of shame.” — Fake William Shakespeare
  • “The little black dress is my dance partner to the little brown shirt.” — Fake Coco Chanel
  • “I might have forced myself upon Sally, but only because liberty makes one lonely.” — Fake Thomas Jefferson
  • “A butler pushed a button a hundred times, grinding mint into mojito for his guests.” — F. (for Fake) Scott Fitzgerald (from his novel The Fake Gatsby)
  • “The Women’s Movement would be a lot more fun if we drank more.” — Fake Betty Friedan
  • “I never really went to the Galapagos. I only wanted to be left alone by all those other scientists.” — Fake Charles Darwin

This is the most wonderful thing I have ever seen!  It makes every conversation have a potential punch line of which I am the undisputed expert at repartee!  How brilliant I suddenly seem!

Where have I seen this before?

Oh — I know.  Republicans do this all the time with Ronald Reagan.

Read this book with real, not fake, quotes in it

A new book has recently come out about this sort of political gerrymandering of the real boundaries of what Ronald Reagan did and did not do.  Will Bunch wrote a book called Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy (2009, Simon & Schuster), where he starts off with two real quotes from two real presidents:

“Facts are stubborn things; and  whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” — John Adams, 1770

“Facts are stupid things — stubborn things, I should say.” — Ronald Reagan, 1988

Right now in Washington, the Republicans are having a field day revising the record of Reagan, claiming for reasons that have never been clear to me that his presidency was a golden age in America, when in fact he presided over a stock market crash and a recession, raised taxes, and acted toward women and minorities with the sensitivity of a sledge hammer, showed total indifference to the plight of people suffering from AIDS because it was a disease that preachers around him characterized as a punishment from God on gay men, funded the people who would become the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and supported apartheid in South Africa, deregulated the banking industry and thereby causing a myriad of problems that haunt us to this very day in our economy — and that’s just off the top of my head.

Why make him into a hero he wasn’t?  Why make him a genius when he seemed more addled than able?  Why make him a champion of any philosophy at all when he can at best be characterized as a spokesmodel for the powerful?

I mean the Republicans cannot seriously think that they were elected to shut down the government — nobody in their right mind seriously wants that.  If they said everything that they say Ronald Reagan said about spending the way that I just did — with the word “Fake” in front of it, we could all have a good laugh.  Sure — Fake Ronald Reagan cut spending.  Fake Ronald Reagan championed the common man.  Fake Ronald Reagan was a real fundamentalist Christian — he didn’t ever consult an astrologer with his wife Nancy (real Ronald and Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer for minute details regarding their inauguration arrangements, per the much annotated Kitty Kelly biography, and that should offend any believers in Christianity that would, say, think that astrology is a form of witchcraft — just sayin’).

Why not admit, as one does if implying that a fake historical figure has said something, that it is of one’s own invention?  Why not say, Republicans, we hate America, or at least its government, and we would feel totally comfortable dismantling the government of the country whose constitution we swore to uphold?  That would be honest, and we could all agree that it was funny that your fake Jesus hates the poor and your fake Reagan was a great president.  Maybe we can carve both of their heads on a fake Rushmore and call it a night.

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