Fishing for Renewal



So I’ve also been thinking a lot about civilizations. The idea is that we form a society in order to protect ourselves – from enemies and barbarians without, from famine, from disorder and violence as realized in nature. City States, the advent of Western civilization as first realized in Assyria and across the Fertile Crescent, all had one common feature: walls. And let’s face it: Nature, as well as its products, is violent – dog eat dog, as it were (or lion eat zebra, or bee rape flower, if you like). Nature cares not for the individual, only the continuance of life. In our societies, it was not so long ago that parents could expect half or more of their children to die, either immediately or by age five, from the various deadly agents that infect our bodies. (They too want to live and reproduce.) Women giving birth died too, in great numbers. Go back farther, and whole populations would regularly die from starvation during times of famine. Whole populations would be wiped out by diseases borne by unseen critters we knew nothing about. There is evidence that the great plague of Europe in the 14th Century arrived after wiping out practically the entire population of China. This is still conjecture, but it makes sense. Nearly half of Europe was wiped out, after all. In total, perhaps 100 million people were killed. By bugs.

Most of these bugs are still around, thankfully reaping souls on a smaller scale. Back then, we chalked it up to Provenance. God’s will. Today, we know it’s simply the uncanny ability of the world’s smallest creatures to continuously mutate into newer, more slippery forms – at a rate much faster than we can evolve our science to nab them.

Now, we have conquered so many of these nemeses – hunger is rampant, but starvation (in America at least) is pretty much unheard of. America can grow enough to feed the world, and we do when we can (logistics remain a challenge). Science has made great strides in conquering our most pestilent friends, who in past times would visit us with grim regularity, decimating unwitting populations in a repeating pattern defined by opportunity (mainly folks huddled together for warmth in the colder months).

One conspicuous outlier is war, the penchant for men to kill one another over their squabbles for power and territory. A sort of smallish “club” of willing warriors – fighting for honor, man to man – in the past, modern war claims many, many more civilian lives than military ones. World War 1? World War 2? They were not “wars” – they were massacres, killing millions with violence and even more (in the case of WW1) with disease. They are the shame of the 20th century and the shame of modern “civilization.”

Amid all of this “progress,” though, Western society has maintained a curious fascination with the concept of its own fragility and impermanence. Our myths and legends – the most enduring ones – can be collectively characterized as “destructive/regenerative.” As the pioneering social anthropologist Sir James Frazer demonstrated in his landmark work, “The Golden Bough”, we have been fascinated with the connection between the fitness of our leaders and the health of our societies since we began forming societies.

One of the earliest and most widespread of such legends that Frazer discovered involves the Vegetable King. Early societies were, of course, agrarian. They depended on regular rains – but not too much – to drench their fields. They required predictable seasons, temperatures, winds, etc. And for the most part these elements could be counted on to be friendly. But when they weren’t? When the massive floods or the arid drought years came? Whole cities could perish from starvation within weeks. The idea evolved that when such calamities happened, it was because the gods of the earth responsible for bringing regular rains, moderate temperatures, etc., were not pleased. Not at all. (If you are thinking of Noah and his ark right now, you follow me.) And since tribal leaders of these times (and some in modern times) are thought to be a direct link to the deities, it followed that it was some deficiency in the leader – some weakness, or often simply the infirmities and weakness of age – that displeased them. From a more mystical point of view, villagers could see the weakening of the leader as a direct corollary – a cause/effect result – corresponding to the weakening and death of their crops. The deific king and his realm were entwined in a mystical, symbiotic relationship of mutual good health – or mutual death.

What to do? An infirm king might hang on for months, years. But the land needs healing NOW.

The solution would seem pretty straightforward to one who is steeped in this agrarian/deific tradition of the king as intrinsically linked to the fate of the land he rules, and vice versa. We must have a new king, one strong and vital enough to renew the land through his symbiosis with the environment-controlling deities and therefore the environment – the world – itself. But new king can’t just walk up and take the job, of course. Kings like being king. And there can’t be two kings. Thus the tradition became one of renewal through the death – and rebirth – of the king and, gods willing, the land.

It wasn’t necessary to the theology that the king be “murdered” by his successor. It was simply necessary for him to either heal or die so that renewal of the land might accompany renewal of the king. But events – especially catastrophic ones – can move quickly, so it’s not hard to see why the ambitious successor might be encouraged by the populace to “hurry things along.”

The story might sound familiar if you’re a scholar of the Arthurian legends. Among the connected quests of Chretian de Troyes’ “Morte d’Arthur” (as also told by Malory) is the quest of Percival (aka Parsifal for you Wagner fans). In some versions Percival travels to the “waste land”, where the infirm Fisher King – keeper of the Holy Grail – lay incapable of movement in his castle as his realm steadily declines into an infertile waste. He can do nothing but “fish” from his castle walls, waiting for someone to come and heal him – and his land. There are many tellings of the tale, but in the earliest  Percival “heals” the king of a wound in his “thigh” or “groin” – probably euphemistic for his genitals, symbolizing fertility. The waste land is renewed by Percival’s gesture.

The most famous manifestation of the legend of the Fisher King is, of course, the story of Jesus Christ. The barbarism and inhumanity of the Roman world, so painfully felt among the occupied populations of Palestine/Israel, was due to a rejection of the God of the Talmud. To these conquered Jews, the world itself was a dying place, a barren “wasteland” in terms of obeisance to God’s will, a world run by pagans. These conditions, as the recently discovered scriptures contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us, gave rise to a plethora of “messiahs”, or messengers bringing word of God’s displeasure with this world along with a message of guidance to the next – guidance that must be heeded lest one perish and spend eternity in “hell” – which was then often understood to be to dwell forever in “the absence of God’s presence”.

As an aside, the Christian use of the “fish” symbol can be traced back to centuries before Christ, and could very likely have its origins in these early theologies of fertility. (A fish symbol, or Ichthys, also symbolizes fecundity or plenty. In pagan beliefs, Ichthys was the offspring of the ancient sea goddess Atargatis). Among early, non-dogmatic Christians, the Ichthys could have served as a powerful hearkening to their earlier theologies (much in the way that Easter was originally a pagan goddess of fertility, hence the occasion of Easter in the springtime). Practicing Christians will recall a host of fish symbolism throughout the New Testament.

But of course among all those messiahs, Jesus is the messiah we remember, for reasons I won’t try to divine here. Yet the one aspect of the New Testament Jesus that separates him from the messianic crowd, that hits the legendary Vegetable King nail right on the head (as it were), is his bloody crucifixion and death.  His death was “necessary” for the redemption of Man. For the rebirth of grace. For the restoration of men’s souls. His “restoration” – which created a schism in the early church among those who would deify Jesus and those who refused to “require” his resurrection and deification in order to follow his teachings (the latter group lost) –  symbolizes the restoration of man through Jesus’ suffering and death.

So what am I getting at?

Full circle, I am getting at the idea – as old as humanity – that when we feel our society, our world, has been corrupted and becomes a land of “waste” – our society offensive in its detachment from the land or the spirit of the land or the ‘original purpose’ of society – we seem to get the idea that we need to destroy it in order to “renew” it. Lately, we see so much apocalyptic cultural touchstones – the zombie craze, the “end of times” Christian books, the Bush “holy wars”, endless movies about the destruction of the earth from space objects or space aliens, etc. – but it’s not new. It happens at regular intervals, and always has. Just as in the year 2000, the year 1000 (such a tidy number) saw hordes of people putting bags over their heads to await the apocalypse. The very idea of the apocalypse was invented well after the death of Jesus, by an obscure cloistered Greek monk who had a “vision” of the Second Coming and wrote the story of “Revelations” (by far the most popular of the Bible’s New Testament stories, or perhaps second after Christmas). Why is Revelations in the New Testament at all? It has nothing to do with Jesus’ life. (It does provide a tidy ending to the whole thing.) Other sects “decide” arbitrarily that the world is “ending” from time to time – such as when a large comet arrives or the planets align a particular way. On a more concrete level, many during World War 2 thought the overwhelming amount of death and destruction happening around them must surely harken the end of everything – especially the Jews in Europe, who were in fact on a path to eradication.

So I guess that’s why all this has come to mind. Journalists, pundits, pollsters – none of them foresaw  our Nov. 9 disaster – our American political “Ground Zero,” our unprecedented act of self-destruction via the voting booth. We put the nuclear codes in the hands of a reactionary, thin-skinned narcissist when we could have chosen “business as usual”. Why? The press says now (should we believe them?) that they “missed it”, and that “it” was a subterranean desire for “change” at any cost. Because society is “ruined” by the current regime’s “corruption” and faithlessness.

Change they did want – and possibly, also renewal.

Hate is for Haters

I don’t hate anyone. I’ll leave that to Trump supporters screaming “BUILD THAT WALL!” and “LOCK HER UP!” Notice I didn’t say Trump, but Trump supporters. As they are now learning (perhaps – it’s not a habit for them), none of that is going to happen. They were conned, in one of the most elaborate yet also one of the most simplistic cons in history. According to Trump himself and his closest aides:

  • There will be no wall.
  • Trump: “The Clintons are good people.” So no, she won’t be locked up. I mean, on what charge?
  • “Criminal” (felonious) aliens MAY be deported. But that’s already standing policy. We’ll see if they dedicate the resources.
  • Trump: “Marriage equality is the law of the land, we can’t change that.”
  • Trump’s transition team is chock full of Washington insiders, GOP establishment figures, lobbyists, and other assorted “elites”. Call it revenge of the swamp creatures.

And so on. Sometimes, though, it takes a simpleton to know a simpleton. Trump may be ignorant (he has said himself that he has never read history), but he’s smart in a way that your standard con man is smart – he “knows people”, he says, and he really does. He knows what motivates the least thoughtful of people – hatred and a desire for revenge against those who have “kept them down.” It’s the populist answer to the problems of the poor since the advent of populism: Someone is grabbing all the money you deserve. There can be no other (complex) answer.

As Trump himself famously said, channeling P.T. Barnum: “I love the poorly educated.”

I saw it early on, but the press seems to have missed it. Trump’s campaign was a WWE match writ large, a massive long-term pre-bout trash talk. Say anything! Say you’re going to kill your opponent, mash them into dust! Because The Undertaker is evil, folks, he’s evil! He wants to eat your puppies, I tell you, I know this! And so on. So used to getting riled up about Steve Austin or Dandy Dan or whoever, these same crowds were ripe to explode in a mushroom cloud of hate for….for who? Who do we hate, Donald? Who’s doing this to us?

Donald had two answers, both deftly crafted to lay his path to victory: 1 – Hate the elites. They’re keeping you down. They’re stealing all the money, they rig all the elections – they are making fools of you. To this end, he made a tool of the press corps by “caging” them at his events, then directing the crowd to spew their hatred at these fancy-pants elitists with their nice clothes and expensive haircuts. And 2 – who is the most elite of the elites? Hillary Clinton, of course. She can commit crimes at will – she murdered Vince Foster after all! – and she walks away Scott free. Just like Bill and his serial sexual assaults (note: none proven). She sold out the brave Americans at Benghazi – it’s in the emails! – but you won’t see her prosecuted, because the whole system is rigged.

Donald could not have been more surprised – and elated – when FBI director James Comey swept in during the last week of the election and raised the specter of “treasonous emails” once again, mere days before the election, in violation of Justice Department policy not to tilt the election with hearsay or conjecture (and possibly in violation of the Hatch Act – but law is relative now, as the Senate showed us by ignoring its duty under the Constitution to hold hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee).  But the real clincher came on election eve, when Comey again violated the protocols of his office and said that – whoops – those emails are OK, they don’t implicate Clinton after all. Never mind.

Could Trump have asked for a more spot-on indictment of the “rigged” system and the untouchable elites? Trump was quick to exploit this news, asking his now-rabid crowds (who were anticipating “the steal”) “how could they have possibly gone through 650,000 emails in a few days? Rigged, folks, all rigged.”

Of course, modern computing resources can search 650,000 emails for numerous sets of keywords (such as “Hillary Clinton”) in minutes, even seconds. But of course Trump supporters in Appalachia (and Western Nebraska) don’t know that, don’t understand that. But Trump knew all too well what these people don’t understand.

I’ll leave a smaller but significant portion of the hatred to anarchists and extremist faux liberals, who also got caught up in the baseless anti-Hillary, anti “rigged establishment” hysteria, people like Susan Sarandon and assorted Bernie Sanders fanatics dripping with white privilege – some of these being former Facebook “friends” of mine. They at least should have the critical thinking skills necessary to put 2 and 2 together to get 4. To wit: if the system was rigged by the “crooked” Bernie-hating DNC, why didn’t Hillary win?

I did not unfriend the haters  because I hate them, or even dislike them. As I said, I’m unfamiliar with hate as an emotion. I’m like Spock on that one. I understand myself, and therefore I know that to hate them is to hate something in me, not in them – motivations of baseless hate are due to some deficiency of empathy, a kind of personality disorder – an inability to see the world through the eyes of those fellow humans considered “others” – not “one of us” (and probably born in Kenya – that birth certificate is phony).

I unfriended them  for the simple reason that I am no friend to haters, and it’s better to be honest about that. I have nothing in common with these people. I don’t base judgments on hate, and I’m not a fanatic blind to facts that don’t fit my preconceived, hate-based agenda. I have to believe they would not want me as a friend either, because I won’t – I will never – just “accept” the fact that the voters of this country put a self-avowed sexual predator in the White House.  A man who cheated on each wife with the next one, who has said it’s time to “trade up” when a wife hits age 35. A man who defrauded the ignorant at “Trump University”,  who cheats his business partners, who stiffs his contractors, and who brags about all of it. A man who mocks the disabled, who got angry at a baby, who is obsessed with demeaning women while simultaneously horrified at their bodily fluids (or their “whatever”).

They elected to lead them a man with no honor, no compassion, no empathy – a man who is no man at all.

I’ve been thinking of my father. He was not from privilege, he was a child of immigrants’ children, one of nine.  His parents had accents. Like all of us, my dad had his faults. But he also had honor, and grit, and perseverance. There was no money for college, so he worked hard and got an appointment to West Point. He graduated (most drop out) and was soon serving two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he watched his classmates die in a war he had no stake in. But it wasn’t about him. It was about something higher, a higher honor he had dedicated his life to preserving. It was about the motto of West Point – “Duty. Honor. Country.”

My father did not teach me that much – I’m sure he figured I’d be tougher after sorting  life out on my own, making my mistakes. And I’ve made plenty. But I remember one thing he taught me: that honor is worth preserving. That a man with no honor is not a man at all. That the only ones less deserving of consideration than a dishonorable man are those who would blindly follow him.

So I know I’m a Facebook nobody (now even more so) and I like it fine that way. I have no brand to build, and ironically, perhaps, some of my best friends want nothing to do with Facebook for reasons I’m understanding more each day. I don’t “count” friends, I count “on” them. Would I ever count on someone who based their most precious instrument in this democracy – their vote – on hatred or a desire for witless anarchy? No. Do I want anything to do with them? No. I do not wish them ill – I do not want to think of them at all.

Don Draper for President

Probably, a last-gasp vote for the storied patriarchy, for white hegemony, for quiet women and minorities doing tasks in the background of a tidy Don Draper Westchester County picket fence world – that probably sounds like the right thing to do to confused people pining for the myths of the ultra-white 1950s (or afraid of the colorful 2000s and beyond).

This, and 25+ years of anti-Clinton propaganda,  allow some to simply “not see” the one they will be voting for – he does not really exist – because in their minds, they are only voting “against”: against “corrupt” Clintons, against science that instructs us to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, against minorities gaining status and equal standing under the law, against tolerance for differing belief systems (or lack thereof) and different cultures, against women empowering themselves to make their own decisions about their bodies and their futures.

I’ve tried to ask anti-Clinton zealots why they want an authoritarian megalomaniac Putin-stooge misogynist pussy-grabbing fool to be president, and I’ve finally come to realize they don’t. They don’t want him, they won’t even talk about the deeply pathetic man they will vote for, or worse, they claim with great lameness and audacious ignorance that “it doesn’t matter” because “they’re both the same.” They simply are so irrationally fearful of the Clintons, minorities, gay people, and empowered women they would vote for a bag of dicks rather than permit the inevitably diverse future to  unfold.

And that is what they will do.