Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Era of Know-Nothings

Yesterday's "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, staged by Glenn Beck, made page 8 of my Sunday newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel, which wisely used the headline, "Two rallies, two visions for America," giving attention also to the African-Americans who were there to honor Dr. King on the anniversary of his historic speech. This is responsible journalism.

Beck is quoted saying of his revival meeting, "It has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with God."

Excuse me, but it has everything to do with politics--and with Glenn Beck, who seems to think he is God.

Every issue is a political issue, viewed broadly, as George Orwell wrote in a famous essay in 1946, meaning that every public airing of an idea is political. But in the usual partisan sense of the word, how could any event not be political when it is staged on the national mall for a throng of mostly white Tea Partyers with a political (anti-Obama) agenda? Everything that Beck does is political, even though he claims to run an entertainment company.

Beck, with his limited education (he graduated from high school) and unlimited ego, is one of the Know-Nothings of the present age who claims to speak for God, one of those right-wing types who never let a lack of information or logical thinking or historical accuracy or consistency get in the way of asserting opinions as facts, who toss around "socialism" as an anti-Obama slur without really knowing much about what it means.

His rally yesterday, using religion (a watered-down evangelical Christianity) to justify political views led one Orlando woman in the crowd to exclaim that Jesus would never have agreed with the "re-distribution of wealth" in the Obama stimulus package or any form of welfare. Of course, the Obama administration was not named since this was not a political rally.

I wonder what Gospel this woman reads. It is the gospel of self-interest and extreme individualism that is the very opposite of the "love thy neighbor" Gospel values that demand social justice for the needy.

I have just read an in-depth profile of the somewhat shadowy billionaire philanthropists Charles and David Koch in the current New Yorker (Aug. 30). Jane Mayer's article is essential reading: she shows in great detail how the various Koch foundations have funded the Tea Party movement and anything that stands in the way of progressive environmental policy that would negatively impact their many businesses. Look under anything that is anti-Obama, it seems, and Koch money is at work.

I wonder if Glenn Beck, one of the conservative hacks who have become rich and famous by stating or implying extreme positions on social and political policy, has benefitted from this largesse. I see such people as "sowers of discord," whom Dante (all too familiar with political conniving) condemned to the lower reaches of Hell.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Solitude and the Desert

I have just completed a long article on the role of the desert in Thomas Merton's spirituality, and in the process of reading happened to find this aphorism by the 17th century French writer La Bruyere: "All of our unhappiness comes from our inability to be alone."

Like so many aphorisms, this one must be taken with a few grains of salt. Nor is La Bruyere especially original: he is no doubt borrowing from Pascal the notion that man's unhappiness is due to his inability to stay in his room: "man" is always planning a future that does not exist, Pascal famously wrote, or is thinking of an equally unreal past instead of being fully present in the now.

It is a struggle to be a contemplative in a busy life; and, as social creatures, it is a challenge to be physically alone, without human company, in any kind of desert. Yet the desert within, when we are alone with our thoughts, can be a fruitful place, and it is not hard to retreat there, in wordless silence, even when people are around. It gives us access to much needed peace.

There can also be fear in the desert and pain and emptiness. To live in the desert, Merton wrote from his hermitage, is to "wage war against despair unceasingly." But the desert, with its long biblical tradition, can also be a site of transformation.

I began to think about the metaphor of the desert, and to explore its implications, thanks to my friend John, who, loving the geographical desert of the American west, found by accident a remarkable memoir, "The Bread of Angels," by Stephanie Saldana, which he gave me. The result was not only my review of this book (recently published in America July 19-26) but a new understanding of the power of desert places.

Although it will embarrass him for me to say so publicly, my friend John is uniquely talented, a sort of Renaissance man who is both artist and craftsman, a builder who supervises the construction of residences as well as a sculptor and painter and skillful reader; he is also a writer and, in his spare time, is a baseball coach for his son's Little League team and a generous neighbor, among many other things. He is one of those many remarkable and talented people who know a lot and do a lot of wonderful things but don't know how remarkable they are.

Anyway, as he would say to end one of his typically interesting and revealing digressions, I can see why he would be attracted to Saldana's book, being as he is deeply spiritual and able to express many of the depths of the inner life.

He understands that the desert can bloom after we confront the pain and the struggle. It did so for Ms. Saldana. It did so for Thomas Merton. It will do so for my unique friend John.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fear and Loathing

The increase in Islamophobia and in the related phenomenon of what I call Obamaphobia is alarming.

In reading about the furor over the so-called ground-zero mosque, and about the lies so readily accepted by so many Americans about the president, I am reminded of what I learned some years ago in teaching my course on evil.

Since we focused so much on hatred and its origins in that course, I saw over and over that fear (of the foreigner or outsider, in this case) not only produces anger and hatred (and often violence as the end result) but that the hater is ultimately hurt by his or her own hatred. The person who hates with the irrational hatred that leads to violence diminishes himself.

I also recall Plato's assertion that the greatest evil is ignorance, not something my students agreed with even though it's similar to the Buddhist belief. Today, however, with the growing no-nothing movement engineered by the right-wing media,the idea is worth re-considering.

When I read that 31 percent of GOP voters (up considerably from 2009, according to a Pew research survey) willingly assent to the lie that President Obama is a Muslim (meaning,not one of us), they resemble the fools who want to believe that he was not born in the U.S. So he's unAmerican, part of the "enemy" we are supposedly fighting, and therefore, presumably, to be eliminated. Dangerous stuff.

Although any child who reads can sort out the facts about Obama's biography, including his baptism in a certain Chicago church and his birth in Hawaii, followers of Rush Limbaugh, et al. are willing to remain ignorant. It's easier than doing any of your own reading or thinking; and to hate gives you a temporary sense of power.

To make the president into a "foreigner" (the outsider who represents a threat to our safety and order) reminds me of what the Nazis did in Germany by claiming that European Jews were dangerous because they were "foreign." We know where that led.

The media, seemingly afraid to separate truth from falsehood, have failed to correct the record adequately, and the Obama people have not been assertive enough in demonstrating the truth. This tragic ignorance, a type of evil, persists.

As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts." Far too many people--18% of Americans, according to the Pew survey--prefer opinion, and hatred, over facts. This is the sad reality produced ultimately by fear.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Looking out of Windows

Scenes of boys looking out of windows in a film I recently saw continue to haunt me days after seeing it. The film was The Italian, a Russian movie about an orphan soon to be adopted by an Italian couple. Little Vanya, or "the Italian," as he is called in the orphanage where he lives, is determined to find his real mother before he is relocated. It suffices to say there is a happy ending in this unusual story of fierce love.

Like many people who are alone, Vanya spends time gazing out the window with a mixture of sadness and wistful longing. There are no words for such longing. Nor are there limits to the numbers of people who are no doubt looking out of windows on trains and planes, in houses and schoolrooms at this very moment. Perhaps much of what they are thinking can be expressed in words, but most of it is, I suspect, silent gazing, seemingly pointless.

I wonder if there could be enough silence in the world to drown out the noise, even for a minute.

I can't help but reflect on how many things in our universe operate silently yet how much of our time is spent in the midst of noise, both external and internal. The truth of the Word cannot be heard, T. S. Eliot wrote, because "there is not enough silence." Contemplative stillness, which is much more than the absence of sound, is desperately missing in our world.

So when we see someone in a reverie, looking at the light as it comes through a pane of glass, we must be grateful. We must be grateful for the paintings, like Vermeer's, where someone is caught off guard for a moment looking toward an open window. Or for the chance to catch a stranger silently looking beyond his or her surroundings and to know that it is not pointless.

We are arrested by such scenes perhaps because we recall those rare, savored moments of real silence in our own lives when we were fortunate enough to be able to pause in the rush of the day's events to gaze out of a window.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A New British Invasion

The latest British invasion of our shores, seemingly ignored by the major media, is an interesting reversal of the usual linguistic pattern whereby Americanisms are spread around the world by our pop culture, raising eyebrows in London and sighs in Paris.

I refer to the appearance in our printed media of words and expressions that I think of as characteristically British. When Jay Leno recently made a joke about $8.7 billion of our money "gone missing in Iraq," he was using an idiom rarely heard on this side of the pond until about five years ago. We used to say that the money or the person or whatever is missing, but because of TV shows and films from England, presumably, we are now comfortable with "gone missing." What was unidiomatic in American English has become idiomatic.

So, too, with "queue," used by Netflix and certain theaters (or is it theatres?). I suppose we are enriching our linguistic options by having another way of saying "line," but I have not heard anyone in the U.S. say "queue up here, mate."

I can't be the only one to notice all this and confess to having done very little research on British-American usage. But I listen and read attentively.

I've noticed being "sacked" used by the New York Times, which assumes its readers know that this is UK slang for fired, laid off. I don't find "get the chop" making its way over to these shores as yet, however. More and more Americans have been "booking" (rather than simply making) reservations in recent years and feel comfortable using, at least in print, such trans-Atlantic words as "randy," "smarmy," and "bespoke" (for tailor-made suits, as by the chaps in Savile Row).

The whole topic of slang is a bit dodgy, as the Brits would say, and endlessly changing, especially in the global village made possible by new technology. So, among the 1.5 billion speakers of English around the world, there's always a good chance of being misunderstood by someone using the English language.

Chances are we will always be two countries divided by a common language, in the words of G. B. Shaw (or was it Winston Churchill?). The Brits are likely to agree with Oscar Wilde's witty proclamation: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."