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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Cherry Pie

I might not literally have sprayed my coffee over my keyboard, but my reaction was as near as doing so. The 2016 American presidential election campaign was still in full swing, and I was listening to a reporter on the BBC World Service gather public opinions on the candidates. A woman in Colorado Springs was quizzed about her reaction to Donald Trump’s now-notorious ‘locker room’ tape in which he allegedly bragged about his sexual groping activities. An ardent Trump supporter, she breezily admitted with a laugh that she “tended to quickly forget about such things”.

Now Colorado Springs, I know, is regarded as a bastion of good Christian values, but here was someone who in a moment was entirely prepared to betray both her own gender and what she presumably regarded as her God-given sense of moral worth. This woman simply turned a blind eye to what by any yardstick were gloatingly smutty and demeaning sexual remarks made by her favoured candidate. Since the woman already had declared both her political and her religious allegiance to the reporter, I was left scratching my head. How could she possibly reconcile her political stance with her religious one? Clearly she did not form her political opinion on what was morally right, but on what was expedient. And if this was so, then by extension this presumably also applied to her religious beliefs. And then the penny dropped.

‘Cherry picking’ is a term used, usually in the context of a debate, to describe the glossing-over or outright omission of facts which you know would weaken the case that you are presenting. It is a form of deliberate self-censorship designed to bolster your beliefs or world view, and its effect is one of self-deceit. [1]Cherry picking keeps you in your comfort zone, and although the practice can apply generally, it is often found in the sphere of religious beliefs. I would even suggest that a religious belief might not actually survive were it not subjected to cherry picking, however overtly or subtly the practice is deployed.

If we need to hear that God is love, then we prefer not to be reminded that this same God intends to force us to suffer terrible and agonizing torments without hope of reprieve forever merely for [2]blaspheming against Him. The two concepts are directly contradictory, for love – and certainly the magnanimity of deific love – can surely have nothing to do with the eternal torturing of the souls which are its own creation? Such an act, or even just the stipulation of it, would make God, not a god of love, but a god who would take all the prizes for sheer unbridled sadism: a god whom anyone with even a stroke of moral decency would reject out-of-hand.

We are rescued from this impasse by cherry picking. We might gloss over this darker side of God (and it is a very dark side indeed) to instead concentrate our thoughts upon the love and redemption aspects of our beliefs, and thus reassured, move swiftly on. We might even attempt to excuse it by claiming that this simply proves that God is a ‘just’ god, which is the apologist’s stance. But if this is justice, then it is the ruthless justice of the lynch mob, of the kangaroo court – or of the Inquisition. It is justice devoid of compassion. It is as if religion, by its very nature, contains paradoxes which overwhelm us. And perhaps they do.

The paradoxes in scripture are indeed overwhelming. I have read many passages which give every indication of positively reveling in the slaughter of ‘God’s enemies’, and demand the grimmest of [3]punishments, such as the stoning to death of your own son for mere wayward disobedience. How about making a human sacrifice of your daughter? Absolutely, if you have vowed to God to do just that. Since this is Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age tribalism, such rough justice need not surprise us. What should rightly appall us is that we still regard such writings as ‘holy scripture’ right here in our own 21st-century.

Ah, but that’s the problem with scripture: it’s all in, or all out. If you want love and redemption, you also have to have stoning to death, slavery, forcing a rape victim to marry her rapist, and other horrors sanctioned by its assorted texts. Redaction of these texts already has taken place, so if you want to change something to which you might object then you’re already too late. Which is what makes cherry picking a near-indispensable activity. If you cannot discretely edit out the less palatable passages, then just brush over them, because no man of the cloth is going to mount his pulpit to deliver an uplifting sermon on how Moses ordered the massacre of the women and children who already had surrendered to his soldiery.

And this, as I finally understood, is what presumably prompted my good Christian citizen of Colorado Springs to react as she did to [4]Donald Trump’s unsavory and uncouth remarks. Her religious beliefs already had put her in cherry picking mode. It must have been an easy switch to apply that same activity to her political affiliations. Moral or not, cherry picking is an entrenched and much-used practice, and when it comes to religious beliefs, cherries, apparently, are always in season.

[1] The term apparently derives from the idea that if someone sees a basket of freshly-picked and delicious-looking cherries, they might assume that all the cherries still on the tree are just as good, whereas the fruit that is left on the tree might actually be too inferior to harvest.

[2] This is specifically stated in Mark 3:29 – “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” Good luck to anyone who has ever muttered “Jesus Christ!” as an expletive.

[3] It is usual for me to give chapter-and-verse citations in any post where they apply, but as the citations for the various scriptural incidents mentioned in this post already are given in full on previous posts, I’ll link to those posts here. For misdeeds by Moses, and ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments in scripture, please see my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land. For the full story of the sacrifice of his daughter to God, please see my post Jephthar's Daughter: Darkness in Gilead. For the God of scripture’s own dubious morality, please see my post Profiling a Psychopath. For scriptural approval of the wholesale massacre of ‘God’s enemies’, please see my post The Butcher of Canaan.

[4] Making America great again? It is interesting that, in addition to his cavalier dismissal of the importance of climate change issues during his campaign (as witnessed by his ‘climate is just weather’ remark: apparently he does not even understand the vital difference between the two), Donald Trump chose for his campaign slogan the phrase: “Make America great again!” which itself is an example of presupposition. Presupposition, like cherry picking, is a debating ploy in which a statement ‘pre-supposes’ that something is true without providing further evidence to support that statement. To say ‘make America great again’ is to presuppose that America is not great now. You can agree or disagree that it might not be great anymore, but such sleight-of-hand word trickery can so easily go unnoticed and unchallenged.

What is neo-Fascism? The 'Make America great again' slogan expresses core neo-Fascist sentiments: that of a preoccupation with the perceived or actual regeneration of a nation, the running of a country as if it were a business venture, repression by bullying or intimidation in some form of any opposing voices, the encouragement of a personality cult towards the leader, and the promotion of go-it-alone xenophobic isolationism.

Attacking the person: A third debating ploy was self-evident during the campaign: that of ad hominem attacks. That is: you attack the person, rather than the issues or principles for which that person stands.

Pro-life? I will not sit on my hands on the issue supported by born-again Christian Mike Pence, soon to be the new vice president, when it comes to ‘pro-life’, or as it is less coyly and more realistically called: anti-abortion. Outlawing abortion does little to wholly prevent the practice (as we know from the example of Ireland). All it really does is drive women either over a border to a country with different legislation, or into back alleys where other women are waiting for them with one hand outstretched for cash and with a metal knitting needle clutched in the other. In practice, outlawing abortion at best makes having an abortion a medically unsupervised and traumatic experience, and at worst can endanger young women's lives. Taking this stance does not make me a rabid pro-abortion liberal; it just makes me a realist, and I for one would question whether faith-driven pro-life protesters who voice their righteous indignation have even seriously thought through such practical considerations.

A recent actual Russian billboard.
Are Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin really such strange bedfellows? I have written these notes in the time before Donald Trump is sworn in as president, and the following year inevitably will bring more clarity as to which way the wind is really blowing. 'Fascist' is a term that tends to be loosely slung around in a pejorative sense, which is why I tend to be careful about using it. But I do find that in considering whether Donald Trump's views really are 'Fascist' that it's possible to tick all the boxes. It's worth repeating here that one of the central tenets of Fascism is the perceived regeneration of a nation. The slogan 'Make America great again' fits this tenet like a glove.

A kindred spirit? The man himself, I am sure, does not see himself in this way, but calling a duck an eagle doesn't mean that it stops being a duck. Trump's views are essentially Fascist, and the ultra-right wing stance of Fascism (witness the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, both of whom firmly endorsed Trump's candidacy) have previously in history made bedfellows of the ultra-left wing ideology of communism. Hence Trump's apparent perception of Vladimir Putin as a kindred spirit.

The chink in America's armour? My own view is that in reality Putin, the ex-KGB master of manipulation, is already playing Trump like a violin. Trump's Achilles' heel is his vast vanity, so that is what Putin plays on, and it's working. Trump's political world stage naivety and inexperience has him thinking that Putin is, after all, a pretty okay guy, but history might well record that Trump was the chink in America's armour through which Putin managed to wriggle, and America will be left anything but 'great again'.

Living in hope? As someone who can remember all the presidents (and their election campaigns) as far back as Eisenhower, I can never recall feeling so apprehensive about a coming presidency, both for my friends in America and on the global stage. All we can really do now is hope and trust that 'President Trump' will turn out to be a more civilized person than the uncouth, obnoxious, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, disability-mocking bully so shockingly visible on the campaign trail.

Stop press: Make China great again! Today, 22 November, carries the news that on his first day in office Donald Trump will pull America out of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). Since the partnership of Pacific nations allowed America to have an influence in the region at the expense of China, it doesn't take rocket science to predict that China will now rush in to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. and expand its influence in the region. My own comfortable prediction based on this one myopic decision is that the coming Trump presidency will see a considerable weakening and even a reduction in America's power as a player on the world stage.

All photos have been adapted from uncredited sources. The vision of Hell is adapted from a painting by Hans Memling. The sacrifice of Jephthar’s daughter is adapted from a painting by Edwin Longsden Long.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Moby Dick: When a Man Shakes his Fist at God

When my tenth birthday arrived a favourite aunt presented me with a book. It was an abridged version for young readers of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The thrills and adventures and the parade of vivid characters which I encountered among its pages were what then impressed themselves upon me. The more profound themes omitted from this young readers’ edition I would encounter much later.

When as an adult I read Melville’s massive unabridged narrative it swiftly became clear just how much had been left out of the slim children’s version which had introduced me to the story. The actual plot line – the vengeance-driven pursuit of the white whale known as Moby Dick by Ahab, the captain of the whaling vessel Pequod, takes up only about half of the six hundred-odd pages. The rest are devoted to any and every conceivable aspect of whaling, life at sea in the 19th-century, and discourses and musings on any number of subjects both spiritual, practical and philosophical, including an entire chapter which struggles to define the exact nature of ‘the whiteness of the whale’.

Melville even devotes a chapter to discussing his own concerns about the sustainability of whale populations faced with such slaughter, concluding from his 19th-century perspective that it always will be kept within reasonable limits – and ironically though understandably unable to predict the later horrors of an explosive-tipped harpoon fired from the safety of a ship’s deck. In Melville’s age whaling was still an extraordinarily dangerous business which could – and did – take the lives and limbs of many who pursued it.

What qualifies Melville’s story to become a post on this blog is not so much the pursuit of the white whale, but the narrative’s preoccupation with what we might call the Christian-heathen interface. Is it really by chance that Melville’s three harpooners, upon whose skills and daring the entire economic fortunes of the [1]voyage rests, are in turn the African Dagoo, the Native American Tashtego, and the South Pacific islander Queeqweg, who is himself the son of a chief? Can it be simple coincidence that the names of several of the other characters, including Ishmael, Ahab and the prophet Elijah have such a stirring Biblical ring to them?

The straight-laced Nantucket puritanism of the time is self-evident, but what gives the story such an edge is that Melville wilfully sets up this God-fearing righteousness against the bravery of Dagoo and Tashtego, and the clear moral dignity of Queeqweg, who more than once in the story puts himself in harm’s way for the common good – once, indeed, to save the life of a young ferry passenger who had fallen overboard. This selfless act of risking his own life to save a complete stranger is done without a moment’s hesitation while others only look on in anguish. For Melville there is no doubt here who carries the moral high ground, and the heathen-hearted and radically tattooed Queeqweg emerges as one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire narrative.

Why does Ahab pursue the whale? Revenge, plain and simple. Having years before lost a leg to the white whale, Ahab is now looking to even the score. And this is where things get several shades darker. The entreaties to his captain by the first mate [2]Starbuck, who is the lone voice of reason among the crew and the book’s moral compass, fall on deaf ears. The ego-driven Ahab is entirely prepared to abandon the economic reasons for the long voyage, and thus risk ruin for the ship’s owners who have placed their trust in his captaincy, to throw all of his available resources – his crew and the ship itself – into following his own self-serving agenda.

The stage-by-chilling-stage of winning over the Pequod’s crew to abandon both their commissions and their own hard-working good natures to follow him in his egocentric desires is something which Ahab accomplishes in the way of all demagogues: with charismatic displays of dramatic gesture and gung-ho speeches full of ringing soundbites which offer simplistic solutions to what in fact are complex and irresolvable issues. At various times Ishmael the narrator actually refers to his captain as a megalomaniac, even though he finds himself as swept along by the force of his captain’s will as his fellows.

Ahab, outwardly a Christian, masks a heart darker than any heathen in the narrative. He is certainly blasphemous, and on several occasions voices his defiance both of the natural world and of God. His stance at times actually has him going toe-to-toe with the Deity – a face-off which he clearly both relishes and welcomes. For Ahab, God is not his superior but his equal, even his rival. In contemporary psychological terms Ahab is a true narcissist: he thinks that everything is about him, and interprets the events which happen around him in that light. And in typical narcissistic fashion those events become a self-fulfilling prophesy: he is the master of his world – in this case, that world is his ship and crew – because he has ordered things to be that way.

As much as any revenge narrative can, Melville’s story describes, not the indulgent fantasy revenge of so many [3]film plot lines, but the real emotional consequences of the way in which the desire for revenge eats away at the soul. Revenge, like black magic, is ultimately destructive in a way that eventually consumes the one who practices it. And so it is in Moby Dick, with Ahab’s senseless ego-driven vengeance spelling the doom both of the whale, himself, and his ship and crew. [4]All are dragged to the same watery destruction, and it is not the unreasoning white whale, but the ship’s master, who ultimately seals the fate of this doom-laden voyage.

In the end, and in spite of his rounding on the Pequod, we must conclude that the whale is no more a conscious agent of destruction than the sea itself. Moby Dick, like the sea in which he swims, simply exists: a force of nature neither good nor bad, but merely indifferent. It is Ahab, and the [5]Ahabs of this world, who we need to worry about.

[1] A whaling voyage of that time could last as long as two years, and for all the hardships and dangers was essentially viewed as an economic enterprise. For a whaler to return to its home port without its quota of whale oil to light the lamps of America and Europe would have meant financial loss and even possible ruin for the whaler’s owners.

[2] In case you were wondering: yes, the coffee house franchise did purloin the name of the character in Melville’s narrative.

[3] A revenge-themed film such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill can entertain us, but it is to Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Sicario that we must look for a realistic – and chilling – treatment of a revenge which leaves its character bereft of his own humanity.

[4] Not quite all, as Ishmael becomes the lone survivor who is rescued by another whaler to live on and relate the terrible events of the last voyage of the Pequod.

[5] I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I didn’t have Donald Trump’s recent election to office in mind when I wrote these lines. And neither am I going to pretend that I don’t have Ahab in mind when I watch Donald Trump in action. The Pequod can be both a 19th-century whaler and an entire nation, and Trump’s “charismatic displays of dramatic gesture and gung-ho speeches full of ringing soundbites which offer simplistic solutions to what in fact are complex and irresolvable issues” are wholly Ahab’s. Time will tell whether such Machiavellian demagoguery will indeed drag the States – and even the world at large – into danger, but I must hope for my friends in America that it might not be so.

What is a demagogue? A demagogue can be anyone who in the field of politics appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the public, rather than presenting reasoned and consistent argument. So rather than seeking the common ground, a demagogue will feed the flames of any racial, religious, xenophobic or other divisive prejudices. The social and political landscape created by a demagogue will therefore be one of schism, of sharpened divisions within a community, rather than one which binds a community together. To a demagogue, divisiveness is more useful than unity because this broadens the possibilities for manipulation.

When does a demagogue become Machiavellian? The term Machiavellian comes from Niccolo Machiavelli, the 15th-century author who portrayed such a character in his book The Prince. A demagogue becomes Machiavellian when that person places political expediency above moral values. Ironically, Donald Trump's election campaign supplies us with a textbook example of Machiavellianism, in that he remained silent while white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups across America declared their allegiance to him. For Trump, votes - any votes - apparently were more important than asserting correct moral values and 'doing the right thing'.

Note added 23 November 2016: President-elect Trump has now disavowed the support given to him by extreme far-right groups, but this is of course after they already had given him their vote. To have disavowed them at the time they announced their support for him would have claimed the moral high ground big-time. To do so after the election is truly Machiavellian.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or The Whale, was first published in 1851. Sales were modest, and it was out of print for the last four years of Melville’s life. During his lifetime it earned the author little more than a total of $1,200. It was republished a year after Melville’s death, and interest and literary acclaim gradually increased. Many editions are now available.

The top image is an untraced source. The other images are from John Huston’s 1956 film version of Moby Dick, from the 1998 TV mini-series Moby Dick, and from Ron Howard’s 2016 film In the Heart of the Sea, which relates the true story of the sinking of the whaler Essex by a whale, and which tragic incident in part inspired Melville to write his own narrative. The last image is the 1889 painting The Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky, in the Russian Museum, Leningrad.