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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 2016, 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.

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