Apologia pro vita mea

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Scipio’s Last Hurrah

She loved Dostoevsky, and all things Russian, and Leonard Cohen’s early songs, the good ones.  She learned to love sushi and the dregs of a margarita glass.  Like a famous Glen Close character, she would not be ignored. She fought for what she understood, which was not enough, and what she loved, which she only partially understood; she fought for her idea of love as timeless and exclusive,  highly sexual and starchily moral. She did (to her discredit) what she said she was going to do, a creature unburdened by conscience but immersed in feeling, the smell of justice . And when she finally convinced me that she loved someone else, I tried to kill myself.

She did it in stages, advancing and retreating with the stealth of a hyena, and like a floundering antelope I lay riven in the sun and  at night by the hope of death.

A chat. You whore. Shall I call him?He will be here in thirty minutes–he is here now, in my apartment.(Later). I cannot talk to you now. I have been up all night.

In the long run, this is not about tricks and lovers. It is about how an aging academic unprotected by common sense and prudence reacts to being set up.  In my case, I was beginning a new job in Hangzhou. It was not a job I especially wanted. The job I wanted was near to her, but in a prior twist, she made that one impossible for me.  I fled a small Central Asian republic accused of rape.

Weeks later she was desperate to find me, in Sudan, New York, London, everywhere.  But I could not be found for if I were I could be tricked again, like any of love’s weak and cowardly fools. Sonnets have been written and wars fought over such love.

In Hangzhou, after the saga of the the phantom lover, I swallowed rat poison. Not enough to douse my spirit, but enough to rupture my esophagus and be fed on a tube for a week. Days– days– before we had spoken by phone.  We would see each other.  She would come, She would forgive and forgo jealousy. Love would reign, and I would be happy at last. But then the phantom lover–the perfect lover–crept into bed and I countered with untrue tales and inciting details of trysts I had never had with people I hardly knew.

When you swallow arsenic pellets laced with barium and thallium, you become nauseated.  And hungry at the same time.  The experience is so intensely conscious and physical that you  don’t know that one or two more will kill you. When you realize you are dying, or in serious trouble, you don’t know whether to throw up or finish your ice cream.  In my case, both happened, followed by spurts of blood.

If love has died, suicide will not revive it.  By the time self-pity becomes weaponized, the hope of evoking compassion in another is already dead. Scipio survives, and what has died in him is not love but the hope that love will conquer death.

Donald Trump’s Imaginary Band

Post-convention repeat

The New Oxonian

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When Professor Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, to start a marching band he encounters a group of stubborn locals who don’t cotton to strangers but do like music. They have a barbershop quartet, a music teacher, a library whose benefactor mysteriously left the books to the librarian and the building to the city council, and  a long tradition of prescribed charity, marked by being willing to help, without really loving, one’s neighbour.

Harold Hill is a flim-flam man, a character in American  letters that goes back to folklore and the tall tales of frontier humour and reaches its apex in the story of the Duke and Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. (Even the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz is a  moral version of the species) They are frauds and hucksters pitting their wits against the dull denizens of  the flat, dull central and prairie states, and they are riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen…

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The Death of the Curé of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray

 

“All our religion is but a false religion, and all our virtues are mere illusions and we ourselves are only hypocrites in the sight of God, if we have not that universal charity for everyone – for the good, and for the bad, for the poor and for the rich, and for all those who do us harm.”  St Jean-Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars.

Father Jacques Hamel, an auxiliary priest appointed to the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, was celebrating morning mass on Tuesday when two men barged into the church, seized the old man, forced him to his knees and slit his throat. They then said prayers in Arabic while circumambulating the altar, in a charade of Catholic liturgy, and one preached a short sermon from the ambo.

It is another episode in the ongoing attempt by ISIS to produce ever-more grotesque warnings to unbelievers that their brand of Islam still believes in seventh-century forms of sacrifice and talion as the price of unbelief. Beheadings, mass execution, dismemberment, burning, and vivisepulture are all on their menu. Human sacrifice is an innovation—so new that French authorities who have provided security to mosques and synagogues had not thought to do the same for the ancestral faith.  After all, who would kill a country priest at the altar?

Following spasms of violence by self-radicalized IS  “soldiers” in Nice, Munich and Orlando, this latest episode seems to differ only in the mechanism of death.  If IS measures its success in body counts and damage done, this appears to be a relatively modest example of its outreach.

But that is the wrong way to see this event.

Like many European countries, France prides itself on being “post-Christian”: secular and pluralistic.  Its indifference to religion is more pro-active than its neighbours’–extending to rules against the wearing of hijab and other displays considered offensive to the spirit of the Republic.  To Rome, France is the “eldest daughter of the Church.”  But its ecclesiastical privilege has to be shared with a tradition of hostility towards religion exemplified in the writings of Voltaire, Diderot, and above all Paul-Henrl Thiry, (Baron d’Holbach) who wrote in 1769,

“Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.”

The secular and revolutionary spirit that was directed against French religion in general, Catholicism especially and the Jesuits in particular, was mitigated by the Reign of Terror (1791-1793), a chapter in French cultural history that proved that excess and passion are not the sole property of religion, and that revolutionary zeal is subject to the disconfirming experience of ordinary citizens who crave peace, calm, reassurance—the things religion had traditionally offered.  This tension in French culture has been a constant from the early nineteenth century until today: A country committed to the secular, actively indifferent to religion (in a way Americans and even the British and Germans are not), but aware that French intellectual culture is shot through with the ancient remains of the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Derrida’s deconstruction of apophatic theology is only original if one ignores the whole history of French philosophy from the time of Irenaeus of Lyons, prompting some of his contemporaries to comment that French intellectualism is immersed in religion as a fish is in water. One can flop around on dry land for a bit, but not survive there.

In the last  century and a half,  as Rome has increasingly lost its political hold on Europe and the difference between Catholics and skeptics has become a matter of inflection, Christianity (at a domestic level) has become a benign and pastoral thing. Unlike England, occasions of state in France are secular affairs.  Unlike America, the political process (until recently anyway) was largely unaffected by religion.

But that is changing, even in the political sphere. Religious commentary and Biblical references are on the rise; during the 2007 presidential campaign two of the candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, both raised as Roman Catholics, made a number of positive references to their faith.  The French media is increasingly open to asking candidates about how their religious faith affects their decision making or enriches their life.  Even on the left, anti-globalisation activist José Bové cites his indebtedness to Catholic values, and Marie-Georges Buffet, the head of the French Communist Party strongly opposes any anti-religious interpretations of French secularism.  The attitudes are broadly in harmony with the views of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, which while not advocating return to the privileged status of the Catholic church pre-1905 call for France and Europe generally to remember where it came from: that the values of peace, fraternity, and compassion are rooted in the Gospel and are part of the historical legacy of the Church.   In France, more than other places, this legacy also includes philosophy, music, the arts and distinctively French literary movements, including postmodernism and hermeneutics.

The parishioners of Saint Etienne de Rouvray probably do not care much about history or Emmanuel Levinas.  They had gathered in a safe and familiar space to celebrate a familiar rite with a trusted priest.  Mercea Eliade envisages such familiarity when he defines what is meant by a “sacred space.” An obvious example for us, he writes in The Sacred and the Profane,  is the church, whose door is a threshold between the profane on the outside and the sacred inside.  An equivalent to the church in archaic cultures was the sacred enclosure, which opened upwards towards the sky, the world of the gods.  Believers going into a church leave the world of chaos outside.  Their purposes are not practical, but to make contact with something that transcends a world where bills have to be paid, children have to be collected from school, and wages have to be earned.  For all the secularizing that has gone on in the last two centuries, many people still find the door of a church an access to an enclosure that protects them from the grim realities of everyday life.  In a word, it is where God speaks to them, consoles them, and protects them.

The IS “soldiers” who invaded this enclosure with knives drawn and who slit the throat of an 85 year old priest in the name of Allah, the greatest, the merciful, achieved something they had not yet managed to achieve:  Sacrilege. It doesn’t matter that French atheists in a Normandy village or in the city of Rouen with its magical cathedral, immortalized by Monet, don’t believe the doctrine of the Catholic church, don’t take communion, and don’t ask their children to say the rosary as their grandparents might have done. They will still understand and react to the violation of what Eliade called “the holy.”  Catholics everywhere will react viscerally to this ritual slaughter because they will remember the Church’s teaching that the priest, in a special and sacramental way, represents Christ.  And they will make the distinction between a priest sitting on a park bench reading le Figaro or zig zagging to avoid a weaponized truck in Nice who “happens” to get caught up in an act of absurd violence, and a priest exercising his office, celebrating the Eucharist while standing at the altar.

Once upon a time, we called men like Father Jacques “martyrs.”  The word simply means witnesses. We won’t do it this time, because to do so would dignify the role of his assassins as legitimate combatants rather than as violent criminals.  It would also put the Church at war with an insidious form of Islamic fundamentalism. The Pope has called the sacrifice of Father Jacques “senseless” and “absurd.”  Looked at as an act of simple violence, perhaps that’s the best way to frame it. Yet violence is never simple and never totally absurd.  For the people of France, evaluating day by day their relationship with a religiously chaotic world, the desecration of the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, has significance far beyond the door of the church.

 

 

The Confraternity of Saint Charles: Random Thoughts on Darwin Devotion

In celebration of Pope Francis’s declaration to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last month that evolution is true, this tribute to Darwin.

The New Oxonian

Darwin

What does it mean to “believe” in Darwin’s theory of evolution? What would the sage himself have thought about his cult? It’s a bit like asking what Jesus would have thought about a high Mass or a Pentecostal healing service.
We are treated every year to new polls—Harris, Gallup, Pew—giving us new and conflicting statistics about how many people (read: Americans) believe in evolution. And the “correlation” between that poll and other tedious statistics—American religiosity, for example—is impossible to ignore.

So let’s just bottom line it. Many more Americans than people in other marginally civilized countries do not believe in evolution. Coming from a country that has a larger number of Nobel Laureates than some countries have tall buildings, this is shocking. Coming from a country where little Johnny can’t find America on a flat map of the world but can recite the books of the Old Testament backwards, not…

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The Myth of Christian Fundamentalism

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The word “evangelical” has been used to include so many Christian groups over the last century that it has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Evangelical Christians need not be “fundamentalists”—a term that in its heyday (around the time of the First World War) was used in America to distinguish between a belief in the inerrancy and moral supremacy of the Bible and another philosophy called, in the media of the day, “modernism.” In that quarrel, the famous Scopes trial was the manufactured darling. Most Christians who consider themselves Evangelical aren’t Pentecostal, a term that refers to a belief in the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through everyday life—especially in preaching, healing and moral decision-making. A close cousin of the Pentecostal movement is Charismatic Christianity, which has occasionally bridged the divide between robust protestant varieties of “Holy Ghost religion” (“pigeon religion”) and American Catholicism.

Evangelicals tend to be social conservatives. They like their bible strong but not 100-proof. Many are open to discussion about LGBT issues and contraception, but less open to gay marriage and abortion. There are things they have in common with Pentecostals and the more strident forms of biblical fundamentalism, but age, privilege, and education tend to divide them from these other strata. Most Evangelicals are patriotic; most are God Bless America Republicans; almost all tend to be what the press has christened social conservatives and defenders of family “values.” In modern parlance, an Evangelical is a negotiator: some are accommodationists, and some are reformers. The idea that an Evangelical is a fundamentalist who was successful at business and moved to the suburbs isn’t all that far-fetched.

Jerry Falwell (d 2007), Pat Robertson and James Hagee are fundamentalists. Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts (d 2009) and Kenneth Hagin (d 2003) Are Pentecostals. A subset of Pentecostals are Charismatic preachers like Benny Hinn (b 1953) and prosperity-gospel ministers like the Rev. T D Jakes. After a while, it’s merely tedious to chart the doctrinal and stylistic differences that separate these groups and subsets, which is why the term Evangelical—the broadest possible and most inclusive term to describe conservative Jesus- believers, becomes a convenient way of glossing over differences that outsiders don’t really care about anyway.

I am a soft-shell, no-sell (non-proselytizing) atheist. I don’t like conservatives of any description very much—social, political or religious. But in the interest of fair play and clarifying a thing or two, I have to say this. Christian conservatives, even that subset of Christian fundamentalists, aren’t very dangerous. They will not start shooting at you from the rooftops because you don’t believe in the thousand year reign of Christ, or blow themselves up in a mall because you think the Atonement is a metaphor. In fact, it was partly in the interest of protecting the forerunners of these minority groups and their quasi-pacifist and isolationist tendencies that Thomas Jefferson (who deemed them annoying but harmless) wrote in a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptists (1802):

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience.”

The principle was firmly rooted before the 19th century (largely a result of 100 years of religious struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and aristocrats, commoners and clergy (in France, the “estates”) on the social side, but first enshrined in the American Constitution. It wasn’t there to keep religion in its place. It was there to say that religion as religion has nothing to do with the decisions of the state and should not be used to inform or govern the decisions of the state.

We have come a long way since then. Most of it has been a journey to ignorance about the historical origins of the First Amendment, and away from the foundational sentiments that gave us the “establishment” and “free exercise” provisions. When we read about religious groups asking for Bible reading in schools or regional school boards complaining about evolution being taught as “fact” in science classes, we are really witnessing a country out of touch with the secular foundations of the Republic. We see this at work in the courts, in Congress, and in the public arena too much. We hear and read that America was founded as a Christian country (it wasn’t) or that its founding principles were biblical (they weren’t).

Socially conservative religious groups have been overreaching since the early days of the Republic; but they are louder and more consequential now because as media has improved, ideas that were once limited to the intellectual backwater of the Bible-belt have spread throughout the country in widening circles. Televangelism was the successor of the TV-Crusade era of early rock star evangelists like Billy Graham. The internet and social media is now the successor to broadcast evangelism. Zealotry of various sorts is better served by media than the platitudinous religion of mainstream and liberal religion—a fact we need to bear in mind when assessing the power and influence of relatively small groups of adepts as in ISIS and Revd Terry Jones’s anti-Islamic Dove Church World Outreach center.

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All this being true, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept my next point: Christian evangelicalism is not an especially dangerous philosophy and at least in the United States never has been. True, certain political agendas like westward expansion, slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Redeemer Nation image that gave us the dogma of American Exceptionalism, and even the response to the creeping Mormonism of the Midwest and Plains in the nineteenth century were sometime fueled by biblical tropes and flourishes. But so were abolition and the fight for women’s equality and civil rights and economic justice. The idea of America as the New Jerusalem (the city on the hill-platitude that endangered politicians like to invoke) come ultimately from Christianity and the Bible. But in general the civil body politick of the first settlers has withstood the temptation to impose the Christian equivalent of sharia law on the American state.

This is not because Americans are especially savvy or far-sighted; they aren’t. A majority I suspect could not coherently explain the differences and functions of the branches of government or how the electoral process that sends representatives to Congress works. It is arguable that the First Amendment provisions concerning religion would not garner enough votes in enough states to be ratified as an amendment today. And it isn’t because our instruments of government are rock solid either. Listening to the campaign rhetoric of 2016 should alert us to the fact that, as Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “You have a Republic if you can keep it.”

It is a wearying fact that the people who scream their love for America at the highest pitch probably have no clear idea of what it takes to keep it, apart from their customary equation of freedom and liberty with gun ownership and freedom of speech. The close association in the minds of some American religious conservatives between guns and religion is a matter of historical record. But the sorts of murderous activities we associate with a David Koresh, a Jim Jones or an Eric Robert Rudolph are remarkably rare–and in the first two cases examples of cultic father than exoteric aggression. The instances are memorable because of their comparative rarity, thus different from the barrage of suicide bombings and attacks launched by extremists and radicalized Muslims in the Middle East and, through surrogates, abroad.
Conservative Christianity can be annoying, noxious, distracting and sometimes—take the message of the Westboro Baptist Church for example—hateful. I take it for granted that all religions can be, even Zen and Hindu Shaivism. After all, religions are based essentially on differences of opinion. And despite fifty years of interfaith dialogue and attempts at cross cultural understanding, what divides belief is what explains belief.
That brings me to the end point of this little screed. Just as it is true that all religions have the capacity for violence, not all religions have the same capacity for violence.

 

The reasons for this are cultural and historical: the current state of any living faith cannot be located in its foundational documents, however highly revered and programmatic for the faithful. It is one of the reasons why atheist critiques of religion, and Christian conservatism in particular, come up short, based as they usually are on literal readings of the most obnoxious and outmoded passages of scripture. Just as the violence of the Crusades and Inquisition are not explained by the teaching of Jesus, neither are Abolition, the Civil Rights movement, or programs supporting economic justice and the rights of minorities organic extensions of the New Testament.

 

Religion, as H. Richard Niebuhr and Peter Berger have explained, is a process of negotiation that often begins with rejection and opposition to the cultural norms that environ it at its beginning (think first century Palestinian Judaism or seventh century Meccan society) and ends up through a series of accommodations a different thing from what it was in the beginning.
There is no promise that the “thing” will be peaceful and benign. –Or even that it will emerge intact as one thing. Christianity has not survived intact but through a process of fissipiration that we call “denominationalism”—the most dramatic example of which was the protestant reformation of the sixteenth century. And though many believing Muslims will reject this as an article opposed to a central axiom of their religion, Islam itself has not survived intact either. Indeed splinters of its own form of denominationalism appeared before the death of the Prophet and continued unabated throughout the entirety of its existence. The fountainhead of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, began its process of accommodation so early—from the time of the encounter with the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE–through the destruction of the Temple, the diaspora, and the formation of an ethically-based rabbinical Judaism–that it is difficult to trace its evolution historically.

 

There is no necessity that any religion will be as relevant in the same way in the twenty-first century as it was in the fifteenth or fifth–in fact, given that the conditions of its origin are unrepeatable it is probably impossible to talk strictly about the religion of the first Christians or the religion of Mahammad’s first followers. Although almost every religious reformation begins with the belief that it is a “purifying” movement or a return to the basics of the faith, what such movements have normally produced is not a facsimile of the original but a violent clash between a living and evolved belief system and a caricature of what zealots believe to have been true millennia ago. The most strident Christian Bible-based groups epitomize this pattern, but normally in a non-violent way. The most ardent Islamic radicals believe the same thing, but see violence, in the form of jihad, as an instrument in the purifying process.
Theoretically the God of the Bible may be changeless and in equal proportion righteous, just, and merciful. And it may be important, in the interest of civil conversation, to pretend that all religions proclaim peace, love, mercy and compassion. But our eyes tell us that in the twenty-first century it is not the Christian sort of “fundamentalism” that normally results in mass death, homicide bombings, the murder of school children, the harassment, rape and forced conversion of girls, socially sanctioned honour killings and sectarian purges of sectarian rivals, and attacks on unbelievers.

 

Evangelical Protestantism, including its fundamentalist variety, is a last -gasp defense of the fourfold gospel in its more or less literal and unexamined form. It is broadly non-theological. Islamic fundamentalism likewise is a much larger and more regressive position in relation to the normativity of the Qur’an, but its “fundamentals” are different, have not been negotiated in the same way, nor evolved at anything like the same pace or under the same conditions.
For that reason, the use of the term “fundamentalism” to describe matching trends or patterns in the history of religion is not only inexact and unhelpful, but inevitably leads to wrong conclusions.

The BBC-Birmingham “Qur’an” Facts Fiasco

The New Oxonian

It is one of the cardinal tenets of Islam that the Qur’an was essentially “complete” in the Prophet’s lifetime and written down very soon after in the time of  Uthman before the end of the seventh century  It is a further tenet that the exact wording of the text has remained unchanged from the time of its revelation until today. A standard web-based information site offers the following standard orthodox appraisal:

“The Qur’an is a record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. It was memorized by Muhammad and then dictated to his Companions, and written down by scribes, who cross-checked it during his lifetime. Not one word of its 114 chapters, Suras, has been changed over the centuries, so that the Qur’an is in every detail the unique and miraculous text which was revealed to Muhammad fourteen centuries ago.” (www.islamicity.com, search…

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Revisiting the Birmingham Qur’an Debacle

A year on, the story has fallen from the headlines–largely because it is a glaring example of the central problem in Islamic historiography: Wishful thinking

The New Oxonian

“In December 2015 Professor François Déroche of the Collège de France confirmed the identification of the two Birmingham leaves with those of the Paris Qur’an BnF Arabe 328(c), as had been proposed by Dr Alba Fedeli. Prof. Deroche, however, expressed reservations about the reliability of the radiocarbon dates proposed for the Birmingham leaves, noting instances elsewhere in which radiocarbon dating had proved inaccurate in testing Qur’ans with an explicit endowment date; and also that none of the counterpart Paris leaves had yet been carbon-dated.”

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The case for the antiquity of the Birmingham Qur’an fragments grows weaker by the day.

As with all orchestrated media splashes,  the original story having done its work, not many people will pay attention to the unraveling of the growing mythology surrounding the discovery.

1.  It has been suggested that the two-leaf parchment fragment uncovered in Birmingham “belongs with another sixteen in Paris (BnF Arabe 328(c); as indeed they sit neatly in a lacuna in that text.”  However…

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Donald Trump’s Imaginary Band

 

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When Professor Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, to start a marching band he encounters a group of stubborn locals who don’t cotton to strangers but do like music. They have a barbershop quartet, a music teacher, a library whose benefactor mysteriously left the books to the librarian and the building to the city council, and  a long tradition of prescribed charity, marked by being willing to help, without really loving, one’s neighbour.

Harold Hill is a flim-flam man, a character in American  letters that goes back to folklore and the tall tales of frontier humour and reaches its apex in the story of the Duke and Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. (Even the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz is a  moral version of the species) They are frauds and hucksters pitting their wits against the dull denizens of  the flat, dull central and prairie states, and they are riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen and out and out thieves who drive wagons through dead-end protestant towns promising the gullible a cure for what ails them.  Their clientele are the people H L Mencken described as oblivious to facts and uninterested in detail–

No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

He continues, 

The mistake that is made always runs [this way]:. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.

In the case of Harold Hill, he promises the people a band of festooned drummers and trombone players marching proudly through the flat streets of River City for the Fourth of July.  The problem is, the professor can’t read music, play an instrument, direct a band or deliver on any of the promises he’s made.  It’s all flim flam–as he confesses when confronted with his crooked dealing:

Oh this is a refined operation son, and I’ve got it timed down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand on the last train outta town.

The hypocrisy of the Music Man is that it finds redemption in the idea that even if you’re hoodwinked by a total fraud and no-gooder–shucks–people deserve to dream and the fake professor at least delivers on that: The musical’s big production number turns his lie into a reality and encourages the belief that flim flam is as good as the truth, and that if you are dull-witted and gullible you still have the right to your illusions. Maybe (we are encouraged to think, as Dickens encourages us to think Scrooge will be improved by his nightmares) Harold Hill will end up on the straight and narrow, or at least not be tarred and feathered, which is the fate of Mark Twain’s characters. In anti-intellectual America everybody deserves a shot; education and training get in the way of “common sense” decision- making, and there’s not much difference between someone who talks a good game and someone who knows how to play one.

The travelling salesman and medicine man era is over.  Now we have shopping channels and internet marketing in their place. But the plain people are still pretty bloody plain and the temptation to flim-flam them out of their money or loyalty is just as great as it was in Twain’s and Mencken’s day.

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Along comes a blast from the past: the true heir of every fraudster who had ever decorated the pages of a frontier humour magazine.  Like Professor Harold Hill, he sings his successes and promises his audiences a fantastic future where everything will be Fabulous.  Wars will be fought and won, not in the namby pamby, cautious, inconclusive way that American leaders have for the last eight or twenty …or who’s counting…or who knows where? Veterans will be taken care of. Women who have abortions will maybe be punished.  We’ll see (what do you want to hear–I’ll say it).  You want a big band? I’ll get you a big band. What kind of band do you want. It will be fabulous.  You want a wall to keep illegals out, I’ll build you the biggest damn wall you will ever see and it won’t cost you a nickel  Do you want gold T’s on it?  Fabulous.

Donald Trump belongs to a species of American humour that many people considered defunct until he reignited our passion to be hornswoggled, lied to, and persuaded that the world is reducible to the sum total of our competing prejudices and desires.

Curbside the nation is greedy for his snake oil, or seems to be.  Large sections of the country have become his Gary, Indiana or River City, Iowa.  He talks to the folks that politicians like to call folks even though many people hate the implicit dumbness of the word (I do)–the ones Mencken called the plain peoople. The ones who, because they can read and write and vote, we assume have ideas in their head, and don’t.

It is those empty heads that Trump is now cramming with his inconsistent and unworkable solutions to real time problems: the card shark who the plain folk imagine has the real story about global warming; the Las Vegas riverboat mogul who, it’s assumed, can handle foreign policy in the Middle East and strut with real leaders on the world stage. An insult comedian who knows plain people think diplomacy is bunk, that America is Number One and by God needs to stay that way.

How can an atavism like the flim flam man survive the glare of the media, of the searching eye of investigative journalism and public opinion? Easy.  The nabob media of the United States, whether conservative or liberal, is grossly ignorant because they have to sell their wares to the same people.  No one can look to them for the truth because the media have never been interested in the truth.  Mencken knew in the 1920’s that it was all about selling newspapers, and thus about stories.   Donald Trump, as a flim flam man, knows that.  The American media was made for him, not for real reporting about complex problems. Every day he strives to be a good story. And he is.

In most stories about flim flam men, the huckster gets his just deserts.   He has to because of a totally fallacious Lincolnesaque notion that a liar will lose if he tries to fool all of the people all of the time.  Put on a train, driven out of town on a rail, sent to jail, or ridiculed in the public square by the same people who, a day before, regarded him as their hero, their saviour from the grim sameness of life in River City.

But here’s the reality in Main Street America:  The citizens of this trembling democracy have elected average men, dishonest men, stupid men, cruel men and unworthy men to the office of president. The Jeffersons and Lincolns, Roosevelts and JFKs have been few and far between.  But that in iself is no surprise.  Most nations of the world can count their greats on the fingers of one hand.

The horrible thing about this event in American political history is that if this cardboard clown of a politician wins the election, it will be the first time that a known liar and fraud will be rewarded for lying his lies in such an open and consequential way and getting away with it. It is the public saying to the snake oil salesman, We know your potions are worthless, to the card shark, we know you’re cheating, to the used car salesman, we know the car you sold us was junk–but we don’t care. If he is elected, Donald Trump will reign as the pre-forgiven leader whose lies and callous indifference to truth have been wiped away by gullible and forgiving Christian yokels just as surely as Jesus wiped away their sins.

Flim Flam Donald doesn’t believe anything he is saying.   Like his literary ancestors, his feat has been to sell a bill of goods–a Brooklyn bridge, prime waterfront real estate in Florida, a $5.99 cure for angina, arthritis and obesity–to people who are ready to accept lies because the truth of politics and American democracy eludes them. Plain people like simple answers even if they are the wrong answers, and Trump’s answers are very, very simple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Ingersoll: God and Man in Peoria

The New Oxonian

‘The public’ is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and ofttimes perverse.” P. T. Barnum

Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, the son of a liberal Congregational (Presbyterian) father who had a knack of offending his godfearing parishioners with his unparishionable views.

Ingersoll’s father, when his son was nine years old, had succeeded in calling himself to the attention of the presbytery and landing himself and his family in Ohio, then in Wisconsin, and then in Illinois where he died with a cloudy charge of “unministerial conduct” hanging over his head. Such charges were not uncommon in the hypersensitive religious climate of the nineteenth century and the polity of  the Congregational protestant system encouraged them.

It’s hard to determine whether Ingersoll’s dismal view of Calvinist Christianity…

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Transactional Implications of the God-Concept in Islam

 

“‘Allah’ and its Discontents: Transactional Implications of the God Concept in Islam” is a three part article available at CrethiPlethi.com  In it the correlation between the historical development of Islamic doctrine, especially the doctrine of God, and behavioral patterns in islamic violence and radical Islam are scrutinized.

farkhunda

….The cause of religious violence therefore must be recognized as specifically intrinsic to Islam and not to the persecution of Islam, the defamation of Islam by its detractors and critics,[12] or grand designs against the faith of Muslims by the western powers. The inability of the extremists to decide who the enemy is or, for that matter, what the enemy wants from them is their greatest tactical and metaphysical liability. Even the Manichean dualism which used to define good and evil in the region fails to provide an explanation when Allah’s warriors start to execute their own mothers for the crowd.

This call for the violence in Islam to be called Islamic violence, or my claim that this violence is not peripheral to “authentic” Islam — thus not dismissible as “Unislamic” — but something that is inexplicable apart from Islam may seem unpeaceable or unhelpful. The injunction since the attacks of September 11, 2001 has been Do not blame the whole of Islam for the actions of a small minority.

But unless we prefer fantasy to fact, there is simply no getting around the fact that the reasons for themorbidity we see in Islam universally, but chiefly in Islamic extremism, is only comprehensible if we look for guidance to the morphology of what Islam teaches and practices. That means its theology must be scrutinized for clues as to why certain Muslims may be doing what they believe, not based on a misunderstanding of the mandates of their religion but on a faithful respect for core, if archaic, elements of Islamic theology.

As Graeme Wood has written in The Atlantic, “We are misled … by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.”[13] Yet it is simply impossible to provide a meaningful “secular” analysis or to offer political solutions to a crisis the roots of which are embedded in the religious ideology of a foreign time and place. If these doctrines are not understood for what they are, in their strict historical context, the West runs the risk of mis-explaining the crisis to itself, while its leaders offer vacuous reassurances that all religious people are (like modern liberal Christians?) men and women of good will, that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the jihadists fighting the battle are an unrepresentative minority who are doing a disservice to the core doctrines of the faith.

Here I will focus on two core elements: Islam’s radical emphasis on the immutability of a God whose apocalyptic judgement and wrath remain live and defining features, and Islam’s lack of any doctrine of corporate contrition or moral responsibility for the ummat al-Islamiyah as a whole….

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