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Election 2016: Image World (1)

A. D. Coleman, January 2015. Photo by Anna Lung.And Then We Begin …

It may seem early to start my coverage of the coming “race for the White House.” After all, I didn’t inaugurate my critical reportage on Election 2012 until shortly after the Republic Party’s convention in August 2012.

However, in reviewing that series I realized that I’d come out of the gate late. With my commentary based primarily on issues relating to visual imagery, I have to acknowledge that the construction and planting of such imagery in the minds of the electorate commences way before the conventions. Indeed, it kicks off when the first hats get tossed into the rings of the respective parties, if not before, so I need to begin not long after.

… All Over Again

Socrates, famous European homosexual and first theorist of Republicanism.

Socrates, famous European homosexual and first theorist of Republicanism.

We would do well to remember that in Plato’s Republic, from which the Republic Party proudly takes its name, the citizens, considered unfit to govern themselves, had to be ruled by “philosopher-kings.” So much for the faux-populism of the stupid party’s leadership. Socrates — at least as represented to us by his amanuensis Plato — despised democracy, the system under which Athens ran. Instinctively, like many politicians, he distrusted the underclass that Karl Marx (in the 1852 tract The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) would dub the lumpenproletariat, which Marxists to come would shorten to the “lumpen.” Marx himself described them thus:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.

La bohème, eh? Sounds like my kind of people, but never mind that. Socrates didn’t really hold with voting rights for informed solid citizens either, save for those who aligned themselves with the “philosopher-kings” he revered. Whereas the supporters of Athenian democracy disdained all those who, though entitled to vote, took no interest in politics and either sold their votes or failed to cast them, for whom they coined the word idiot. Worth remembering as we watch the parties named for those two ancient polarities slug it out.

The Stupid Party … They’re Baaaaaack!

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), official portrait.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), official portrait.

The official announcement by Ted Cruz on March 23rd of his candidacy for the presidency of these United States signalled that we had something like 20 months ahead of listening to the wit and wisdom of Michelle Bachmann, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Sarah Palin, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Reince Priebus, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, and Scott Walker, not to mention Cruz himself. There you have the short list of the “philosopher-kings” the Republic Party has to offer in the second decade of the 21st century. Clowns to the left of you, jokers to the right. Socrates got some ‘splainin’ to do.

In watching the game of musical chairs that the Republic Party’s selection process of its presidential candidate has become, we will suffer through the inevitable “birther” controversy over Canadian-born wannabe Cruz, the cornucopia of Fox News trash-talk, the relentless jingoist claims of American exceptionalism, the smarmy religiosity, the scantily clad racism mixed with endless grievances of those with white-skin privilege, the xenophobia and homophobia and gynophobia and anti-intellectualism … and it will feel, I promise you, like our brains getting eaten, slowly, by the living dead. No one can spare us this fate, to which some mix of democracy and republicanism has brought us.

I don’t plan to provide daily, weekly, or even monthly analyses between now and the conventions in summer ’16. However, rather than playing catch-up then by discussing past developments, I thought I’d offer periodic musings as the plot thickens. I decided to start now because two image-heavy controversies have already reared their heads, sending shockwaves through Republic Party ranks from the yokel base right on up to the baker’s dozen contenders for the presidential nomination.

I speak, of course, of the Duggar family sex scandal resulting from their long-term cover-up of son Josh’s incestuous abuse of his siblings, as well as of the Confederate flag uproar consequent to the terrorist slaughter in a historic Charleston church of nine African American worshippers by a proudly racist white-supremacist native son of South Carolina, who posted photographs of himself waving that flag shortly before the unprovoked massacre.

Sex and the Country

19 Kids and Counting TLC logoThe Republic Party’s obsession with sex manifests itself in many ways. The meltdown of the Duggar family dynasty — all those children! every one of them not just born but born-again! all that smarmy 19-is-enough cozy familial reality TV! — over young Josh Duggar’s adolescent incest represents only the latest manifestation of this aspect of the wingnut psyche. Return of the repressed, indeed.

My favorite part (aside from the prominent presence of a patriarch actually named Jim Bob): the fact that, upon discovering that Josh had fingered his female siblings, they sent him for “counseling” to Bill Gothard — who, in 2014, “resigned from the Institute in Basic Life Principles following allegations of sexual harassment, molestation and failing to report child abuse,” the Washington Post reports. Then, to make sure Josh understood the severity of his misdeeds, they had him lectured sternly by a corporal in the Arkansas State Police, one Joseph Truman Hutchens, currently doing 56 years in an Arkansas Department of Correction facility for child pornography offenses. It was the Christian thing to do.

Baby Palin, ultrasound portrait, June 2015

Baby Palin, ultrasound portrait, June 2015

This doesn’t look good for the “values” party. Especially when combined with “abstinence ambassador” and unwed mother Bristol Palin’s blog announcement that she has a new bun in the oven by an unnamed sperm donor. And topped with the Republic Party outrage over the June 26 SCOTUS decision supporting gay marriage, best exemplified by the aw-shucks-golly-gosh pandering of Mike Huckabee, who had the gall to evoke Martin Luther King, Jr. in urging resistance to the Supreme Court ruling.

Song of the South

Dylann Storm Roof, selfie with Confederate flag, 2015

Dylann Storm Roof, selfie with Confederate flag, 2015

The long-overdue public debate about the continued presence of the Confederacy’s “Stars and Bars” on local and state government property began with the revelation that radicalized, murderous teenage racist Dylann Storm Roof considered himself a defender of that treasonous pennant, posing with it worshipfully at assorted monuments to the South’s role in the Civil War. Predictably, Republic Party candidate Ted Cruz immediately adopted the hoary “states’ rights” vs. “outside agitators” posture, announcing on Fox News that “It’s wrong for a bunch of people who aren’t from the given state to parachute into South Carolina and dictate what they should do.”

Except that nobody did any parachuting into the state whose slogan reads “Smiling Faces. Beautiful Places.” That’s not to say that people from all over the world — yes, even furriners — didn’t voice their opinions about the ongoing presence on public property of this disgraced symbol of the disgusting culture of human slavery. Of course they did; however we may have degraded it, this remains nominally a democracy, where people feel relatively free to speak their minds. In any case, none of them had any power to “dictate” what South Carolinians should do. To their credit, on July 9 they did it all by themselves.

South Carolina license plate with Confederate flgNot everyone agreed, of course. Dan Coleman (no relation, I assure you), spokesman for the Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told Doug Richards of WXIA-TV, Atlanta on June 23 that the flag is an honorable symbol for descendants of Confederate soldiers. “What we want to do is honor our ancestors,” Coleman pronounced.

Here’s a sample of the seditious, mendacious nonsense they promulgate (from their website):

“The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution. The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built. Today, the Sons of Confederate Veterans is preserving the history and legacy of these heroes so that future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.”

Richards continues, “… Although [Coleman] said he has pondered the question of disavowing the symbol adopted by white racists, he said that’s not an option for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. ‘If you accept something other than our actual ancestors’ flag, it’s like saying our ancestors were wrong and we know it,’ Coleman said.”

Diagram of the arrangement of new slaves in the 18th-century British slave ship The Brooks

Diagram of the arrangement of new slaves in the 18th-century British slave ship The Brooks

Newsflash for this shameless mouthpiece for the SCV and its members: No matter how valiantly they fought and how bravely they died, your ancestors went to war in support of a fundamentally racist, immoral, yet financially lucrative commitment to the enslavement of other human beings. They at least had the balls to state that unequivocally; the cowardice with which you attempt to mask their forthright purpose disgraces you and shames them. Your ancestors were wrong, and if you don’t know it by now then not only they but you, and all the Caucasian generations between, will have lived and died on the wrong side of history.

It’s not a grand old flag. Old times there are not forgotten. The South built its economy on human trafficking, now almost universally condemned as a fundamental violation of human rights. So whenever you hear anyone claiming that the Confederate flag can somehow exist as a symbol of Southern history separate from the willful infliction of human misery that underpinned it, I remind you of Richard Kirstel’s useful distinction, the motto of this blog: Ignorance is a condition; dumbness is a commitment.

And any way you look at it, what began as “the party of Lincoln” devolved into the party of people who wave the Stars and Bars at the country’s first black president. That’s the face of the Republic Party right now, the visual image its base projects.

POTUS at the Bully Pulpit

If there was a moment for which those of us who voted for him elected Barack Obama, that came with his delivery of the June 26 eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and, by extension, the other eight victims of this terrorist thug. On that level, I have never felt more proud of a president for whom I cast my ballot.

Pres. Barack Obama, Charleston eulogy, 6-26-15, screenshot

Pres. Barack Obama, Charleston eulogy, 6-26-15, screenshot

Try, if you can, to imagine any single current or recently past Republic Party contender stepping up to offer an appropriate tribute on that occasion. Picture them, in turn, breaking into “Amazing Grace.” See it in your mind’s eye: George Bush. Jeb Bush. Herman Cain. Ben Carson. Chris Christie. Ted Cruz. Carly Fiorino. Bobby Jindal. Rand Paul. Rick Perry. Mitt Romney. Donald Trump. Scott Walker. Each more dreadful than the next. This exercise in visualization reveals how truly small in moral stature, how mean-spirited, these people are, how none of them belong on the national (not to mention the world) stage, most of them unworthy even of the lesser offices they now hold.

Obama, by contrast, was born for this moment, and rose to it majestically. Only someone deeply steeped in the locutions, cadences, history, and spirit of the black church could have brought to that occasion the resonance it deserved, and evoked from it such grandeur and grace. Everything in Obama’s life story coalesced on that stage, and he gave a pitch-perfect, note-perfect performance — one for the history books, one for the ages, one that people will study as a masterpiece of artful theater combined with rhetorical suasion, weaving together so many disparate cultural threads, making of them a tapestry that both maps where we are and shows where we need to go.

Mahalia Jackson at the May 17, 1957, Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom in Washington, D.C. Library of Congress  Collection.

Mahalia Jackson at the May 17, 1957, Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom in Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Collection.

If on August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. had Mahalia Jackson seated beside him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, instructing him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” her spirit surely hovered around Obama, whispering the same advice into his ear from his re-drafting of that eulogy in the Oval Office to his final words that day in Charleston. Who could resist the lure, as diegesis, of the potent symbolism of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” written by the repentant former captain of a slave ship, the English poet and clergyman John Newton?

Yet I cannot but note that this cultural moment, including Obama’s preacherly role therein and his assurance that all of this fits into God’s inscrutable plan, will reinforce the faith-based mentality of Christian true believers of all races. Because it was, in good part, a sermon, aimed at the amen corner and received there as such, visibly evidenced in the responses of the AME church dignitaries surrounding him on that stage.

John Newton and William Cowper, "Olney Hymns" (1779), "Amazing_Grace," p. 53.

John Newton and William Cowper, “Olney Hymns” (1779), “Amazing_Grace,” p. 53.

I don’t claim insight into whether or not Obama actually believes in God, believes in the Bible, believes in its contents as literal truth or takes that as metaphorical guidance. I see him as a pragmatist who, whatever he may hold in his heart of hearts, knows full well that you can’t get elected dogcatcher in most parts of this country — and certainly not to high office — without professing to believe in Judeo-Christian mythology, and manifesting that by closing any formal public appearance with the line “God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.”

If Obama was merely paying lip service to faith-based culture that day, I couldn’t blame him for doing so. The context made it virtually unavoidable. I would like to think he knows better. But it doesn’t really matter. Because I have no respect for the belief system on which he called for his rationalization of Dylann Roof’s murderous rage and its outcome: “God works in mysterious ways.” I fail to see any consolation therein, and I think less of others for buying into this balderdash, just as they think less of me for disbelieving it (though doubtless some of them “forgive” me for that sin).

Sam Harris, "The End of Faith" (2004), cover

Sam Harris, “The End of Faith” (2004), cover

In a post earlier this year I wrote, “As an equal-opportunity infidel, I find all religious belief systems ridiculous and benighted, making no exception for Islam.” And no exception for Judeo-Christianity either. On this I’m with Sam Harris (author of the brilliant critique The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason) and Ta-Nehisi Coates: Faith is not the solution, faith is the problem. The short-term “healing” effected by Obama’s sermonizing will only have the long-term consequence of reinforcing faith-based irrationality throughout Christendom, and I consider that a bad thing.

As Philip Rieff argues in The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis famously disowned such disciples as Jung and Reich on the grounds that they perverted the discipline’s analytic premise in order to provide therapy — “healing” — in place of understanding and awareness. Thereby they transmuted what Freud intended as an antidote to religion into a secular variant of the toxin. (Rieff intended the title of his book ironically; a Freudian himself, he despised those who subverted the true goal of their profession.)

As Goya wrote, the sleep of reason produces monsters. Religion, by definition, anesthetizes reason. That way leads back to the caves, or at least to embrace of the accumulated wisdom of ancient goatherds and subsistence farmers. Imagine no religion …

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