Mocking Your Neighbors: the New American Pasttime

Remember back in 7thgrade how much fun it was to tape a sign on someone’s back without them knowing it, a sign that said something like “kick me” or “kiss me”? Remember how it would make everyone laugh? Well, everyone except the poor guy who was being made to look like a fool.   Those were the days! Well, we now have a taste of what the adult version of this looks like.  In one of the most depressing articles ever to appear in print, the Washington Post reports that a guy in Maine named Christopher Blair has recreated himself as a variety of outspoken, online conservatives in order to dupe other conservatives into believing the most outrageous lies about liberals.  Why would he do this?  So that he can elicit nasty comments from the unwitting conservatives so that a posse of his liberal followers can then swoop in and laugh at the dupes, mocking them, calling them names, telling them they’ve fallen for fake news and that they are, in short, idiots.

For example, when he posted the “news” that Michelle Obama would be selling her book at George Bush’s funeral, someone with a longstanding dislike of Michelle fell for it, and wrote in the comments, “Like I said, no class what so ever [sic]” which elicited a torrent of abuse from Blair’s gang, telling her how stupid she was for not realizing it was satire, telling her she shouldn’t be allowed to vote—and those were the nicest comments.

This is nothing new.  Steve Colbert played this kind of role on Comedy Central for years, Samantha Bee’s crew does it regularly, and Borat has made a lot of money tricking people into taking his various personae at face value so that we can laugh at them and feel superior.

But, what do we think will be the result of these kinds of shenanigans?  Do we think everyone will have a hearty laugh and then repair to the nearest cyber-pub for a convivial online drink?   Humiliating your opponents is going to do nothing but create more anger, more digging in of heels, more vituperation, and eventually violence.  As it turns out, Blair is also adding to the problems of fake news and trust, since so many who receive these messages don’t realize it’s satire.   Mr. Blair would be doing the world a favor by ending his crusade to make conservatives look stupid and think of a healthier way to get the ideas he favors across.

One such healthier way is a project called “Hands Across the Hills.”  In 2017 Paula Green, a progressive in Western Massachusetts, was trying to figure out how anyone could have voted for a guy like Donald Trump, so she came up with the idea of contacting a community in Western Kentucky that went solidly Republican.   They were total strangers, but a group from Massachusetts eventually met a group from Kentucky twice, once in each others’ communities, and something amazing happened.  They bonded. They became friends.  They found that they understood each other better. They did not change their political beliefs, but they could see each other as real people, as human beings, not someone to try to humiliate, excoriate, or eviscerate, but someone who was pleasant and fun to be with, someone you could get along with despite the differences.

This illustrates the most important part of the Sacrament of the Group: of course we all need to feel like we belong to a family, a community.  But ever since we moved into multi-cultural cities we’ve needed a Good Neighbor ethic to survive—treat all of your neighbors, not just your in-group, like you’d like to be treated, and today “all of your neighbors” includes the entire world.   To make it your mission to trick people in order to humiliate them will not only destroy trust, it will invite retaliation, the prelude to full-blown war.

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How are Trump and Rachel Maddow alike?

It’s all heating up again as the election season comes to a climax.   Trump is on the move, shoring up Republican candidates by holding rallies around the country where he viciously mocks his opponents to the appreciative laughter of his supporters. They get what they’ve come for: a nice big dose of self-satisfaction and a glowing sense of belonging–the Sacrament of the Group.  They’ve found their tribe and their Big Chief.  Now after their war dance, they can go home, wrapped in the comfort of knowing they are not alone and together they can fight the circle of enemies threatening them.

But what about the other side?  It had been a while since I watched MSNBC, but last month I tuned in Rachel Maddow and had my fill in a matter of minutes.  She was talking about Michael Cohen’s fall from grace, and of course this is stuff we need to know.   But what turned me off was her presentation.  There it was: the same smugness, the same curl of the lip, the same preaching to her supporters in TV-land who were lapping up every snide comment, every insinuation.  Under the guise of informing themselves, they were using Rachel as a way to feel good about their positions.  She was offering them gold-plated justifications for their stances, but the danger was that she was doing it in such a way that poisoned the atmosphere, poisoned their minds, made them crazy.

It’s not that anything she was saying was unreasonable or false, the problem was the way she said it, the arrogance, the sarcasm. It’s what Samantha Bee does so well, and Steve Colbert.  It turns the discussion into an entertainment, then into what the Germans call an Aufhetzung: stirring up hatred, making us see those who think differently as idiots, sleazebags, and monsters instead of promoting an exchange of ideas with fellow-citizens.

Trump’s rallies are noted for their carnival-like character and you get the feeling that the people there will not be happy until he brings back pillories and public hangings.  Failling that, you can just feel those fingers inching that much closer to the triggers.

MSNBC’s audience may not have as many triggers to finger, nevertheless the atmosphere they create is one of spoiling for a fight. We’re sitting on a powder keg, as each team rallies around its standard bearers, waiting for their call for a match to light the fuse.    It’s an atmosphere where the hotheads get hotter and the voices of Reason are drowned out by the mockery and name-calling.

It’s in this atmosphere that the Sacrament of the Group falls victim to the Dark Side.  We forget it’s not just about our tribe, but about living in a country composed of many tribes that have to get along.

E pluribus unum!

The Bible is Israel’s Deed? The Death of Oslo

Never doubt the power of the group experience!   This is the Fourth Sacrament, that amazing energy that galvanizes a crowd at a football game, a victory march, or a rock concert.    At certain moments we are gripped by a feeling of Oneness with our fellow mortals, a tremendous euphoria can burst forth, transcendent, transformational.

But, as with all the Sacraments there is a dark side, and this week HBO’s Oslo Diaries gave us that in depressing detail.  25 years ago Israeli President Rabin and PLO leader Arafat finally found some common ground for a peace plan, but amid so much hope and good will generated by these Oslo agreements there was also so much anger and bad feeling,

Nothing was more disturbing than to see Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, answering Rabin’s statement that Israel had no mandate to rule the West Bank, with “the Bible is our mandate, the Bible is our deed!” What can you say to someone who believes that God has given them the right to live in a certain place based on something written thousands of years ago?   It harkens back to the Manifest Destiny claims of our misguided ancestors who believed the Creator of the Universe interested Himself in our political affairs and favored our conquest of the Southwest from the benighted natives and Mexicans.

Actually there was something more disturbing in the Oslo Diaries: the rallies that year, where opponents of the peace accords packed the streets–fired-up, banner-waving zealots chanting “Death to Rabin!”, carrying coffins and nooses, burning Rabin’s picture while a smug Netanyahu looked on in approval.   This was the Dark Side in earnest, calling to mind the crowds at a Mussolini tirade or a Hitler harangue or—let’s say it– a Trump rally with people chanting “Lock her up!” or mocking reporters in a cage, led by a self-aggrandizing, self-satisfied hate-monger.

Could we all agree that we don’t want to live in a world where people chant “Death” to anyone?   Or make a hero of an assassin?  But of course, in their view Rabin’s killer was doing God’s work.  Rabin wanted to give the West Bank back to the Palestinians and remember:  “The Bible is our deed” to the West Bank.    So the question is,  how would you convince someone the Bible is not a deed?

Reason: I find it impossible to believe God told someone what to write word-for-word.

Zealot: You don’t have to believe it.  I believe it.

Reason: But you want me to support your claim that you own this land where someone else is now living.

Zealot: You don’t have to support me. I have a gun.  I will defend what God has given me.

This is the definition of madness.

 

Unbelief on the Move, thank the good Lord!

News worth noting: the number of American who claim no religious affiliation (the Nones) has passed the number of white evangelical Christians, according to an ABC/Washington Post Poll.

Year                              2003         2017

White evangelicals     21%         13%

No religion                   12%          21%

This is a trend that’s been building for quite some time and will continue to build because the percentage of under 30s who count themselves among the Nones is 35%.   It’s noteworthy because it begs the question that is the subject of Seven Sacraments for Everyone: if you’ve given up on religion, where does your moral code come from? God or the gods deliver the faithful their marching orders through Holy Writ and its interpreters, those priests, pastors, imams, rabbis, and gurus who instruct the average Joe, Yusuf, or Rajeev on what is right and what is wrong. But if you’ve given up on all that, where do you go for some idea of a moral code? Do you look into your heart? But hearts are different. They’re influenced by culture and temperament. Is it possible that there can be a range of moral codes out there in the world, that what’s wrong for me can be right for you? Some say yes.

But on the big moral questions, the answer must be a resounding “no.” We have to find a universal moral code, applicable to everyone, especially as the world grows smaller through our technological innovations. When people on different continents are connected ever more closely via the media and transportation, we’ve got to make sure we’re tuning into the same moral wavelength or the connections become collisions —fatal collisions.   If we care anything about peace, we have to have some solid common ground to stand on.

Philosophical common ground is what is lacking so much in the Middle East, as the fight over the physical ground continues. Who has the right to own the land where Abraham and Jesus walked? If you look at the Holy Scriptures or listen to the religious leaders, you’ll find support for whichever side you’re on, and this method of determining what’s right will dig us deeper and deeper into the quagmire that is the Middle East.  Netanyahu is getting his support from those Jews who believe that narrative of divine real estate and also from evangelical Christians who point not just to Genesis, but to the book of Revelation as guidance for their stance on things like making Jerusalem the capital of Israel and the Palestinians be damned… literally, they would say.

With the Nones on the move in America and even stronger in much of Europe there is hope that eventually we will be able to synchronize our moral codes, focusing on those joyous experiences that we all share by virtue of our membership in the human race.   Among the most important is belonging to a group, but not just a localized group, a family, a clan, a gang, or Us, the Chosen People, but the entire neighborhood, community, country–the world.  At that point we may be able to override the momentum that has brought the Middle East to the brink of blowing itself up and the whole world with it.

But all this will take time.

The Guru and the Evangelist

If you want to get the wheels of your mind a-whirling, try watching Wild, Wild Country and Come Sunday back-to-back on Netflix.   The first is the story of Osha (Baghwan Sri Rajneesh), the guru who wanted to create a paradise on earth in Oregon in the 1980s and the second the story of Carlton Pearson, the Pentecostal preacher from Tulsa who came to the realization that there was no Hell and was booted out of his church as a result of his revealing that….um… secret.

Both these stories are fascinating, and what ties them together are the images of the congregations gathered around their main men by the thousands, listening raptly as they sermonize, philosophize, theologize, and mesmerize. Each of the two flocks is looking for a leader, someone to trust, to tell them what to do, what to believe, and they are convinced they have found them in the person of this hirsute, sanpaku-eyed oracle, and the urbane, telegenic preacherman.   These well-meaning men and women, these votaries of divine love have unburdened themselves of Reason, and filled that spot in their brains with a blind trust in the Master/Minister.   The images of both groups of disciples rapturously chanting, singing, dancing and carrying on in general around their leaders is enough to make a Humanist shake his head in wonder. They are, as the ancient Greeks used to say, ecstatic- ex statis—out of themselves. They’ve arrived at a different place through the power of the group and of their faith in the Beloved Leader. Those same Greeks called it being en-theos (enthusiastic)—having the god within you, and Dionysus never had it as good in ancient Athens as Osho and Bishop Pearson did at the height of their careers.

What is it in Homo sapiens that craves this super-powered mentor-figure? Is it that our self-awareness has revealed the dark places of the universe so clearly that without some strongman to support us, we would drift into a kind of madness? Over and over again we see it: masses of people seeking the answers and finding it in the latest charismatic man-of-words.

But the story of Carlton Pearson shows how far mentor-worship will go: only as far as it doesn’t butt up against a sacred text or two. So when Pearson concludes that a merciful God would never send the victims of Rwandan genocide to hell simply because they had never been “saved” in the Pentecostal sense of the word, he loses his congregation, or a large part of it. The Bible says “Only through Christ” can you avoid the flames of Hell, and that’s the end of it for many people—no asterisks for genocide victims who never hard of Jesus or for little children who can’t talk yet. They too must burn.

Bishop Pearson has opted out of that group.  He’s now editing the Bible and has come up with something called the Gospel of Inclusion.  I’m not sure what that entails, but it’s perhaps what I would call “universalism”—the idea that there is no single path to the Divine, and that divinity can be approached by paying attention to the seven universal sacraments—the peak experiences that are part of being human–no sacred text needed.

Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho) and the Sacrament of the Group

Drop everything and watch Wild, Wild Country on Netflix, the incredible tale of guru Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho), his attempt to create a paradise on earth in Oregon, and how it all went wrong. This should be required viewing at any university’s humanities program.   How could people of good will so bent on creating a world of love and peace end up hated and feared and persecuted by an entire state? It’s a clash of cultures with so many missteps on both sides.

First of all, comes arrogance.   You can’t roll into a place with a chip on your shoulder, claiming you’ve got all the answers, that you’re going to wave your magic wand and presto! all the local yokels will see the light, leave their former ignorant lives and join you in your ecstatic dance around the guru.   It’s not like the Spanish coming to the New World and the natives witnessing the impressive technological marvels this new culture had to offer. No, the Oregonians who lived nearby just saw a bunch of weird people all dressed in red who looked like they were stoned half the time.   It didn’t help when the front-woman for the Rajneeshees was Sheela, who seems to never have spoken about the locals without her lip curling into a sneer.

On the other hand, the county clerk in Oregon seems to have clearly violated election law and gotten away with it scot free.   The law in Oregon said that you only had to be a resident in Oregon for 21 days before an election in order to register to vote.   The Rajneeshees idea to win the election was to bus in street people from all over the country and give them a home in their commune–food and shelter in exchange for work.   They would then be eligible to vote and presumably vote for the representatives that Sheela wanted.   This is a scary strategy—one that any wealthy group could exploit to tip an election, but the law is the law. It was appalling to watch the county clerk with the backing of law enforcement refuse to register the newcomers, calling to mind the denial of voting rights in the South in the 60s.

But the main thing you get out of this 6-part series is just how powerful the Sacrament of the Group is. This need to belong is so strong within us—we want to be part of something, anything that will give our lives meaning.   All these people flocking to gurus in India, and later to be part of a commune in Oregon, agreeing to wear the same color clothing as a badge of honor that now you truly belong to “the master”—wow, to an outsider you look like nothing but automatons who have checked your reason at the door, giving your minds over fully to a con man who has hypnotized you into accepting his will as law.   There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the denizens of the commune as they tell us how happy they were in those days back in the 80s under the guidance of Osho and Sheela, but what it looks like is they were lobotomized by their desire to belong, as so many gang members are today, so many cult members, so many teenagers anxious to conform to the in-crowd at their schools.

There is also a Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. Every human being needs teachers and friends who will guide them and support them as they go through the twists and turns life presents them. It’s not exactly clear what Osho was all about—he certainly had charisma, but in the end was he on some kind of power trip, basking in the adulation his votaries were only too willing to offer?   The moral seems only too clear: never abandon Reason and Humility as you navigate the rough waters of existence.

 

Thomas Carlyle, the Church and the Sacred

An op-ed piece in the New York Times today reminds us of the power of the Church to satisfy the longing to be part of a group–the Sacrament of the Group as I call it in my book.  Writer Margaret Renkl explains that she has periodically given up on the Catholic Church for various reasons I have mentioned in this space in the past, but she is nevertheless still drawn to it.  She misses the congregation, the babies, the prayers for peace, the feeling that you’re on the same track with like-minded people.

She writes:

“I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.”

The sacred can be found all around us, of course.  It doesn’t have to start with the idea of a God, or gods, it’s inevitably part of who we are as human beings.    Divinity is simply in us, in our thoughts and actions and connections to the world.   For example, Renkl notes that she often feels that God is more present when she’s taking a walk in the woods than when she is in the church building itself (the Sacrament of Nature).   She also misses the singing at Sunday mass (the Sacrament of the Arts).  Our connections with nature and with the arts are essential parts of our humanity and bring us closer to a sense of the Divine, as do the other sacramental aspects of our human existence.

Renkl’s observations are an echo of the so-called “Clothes Philosophy” of Thomas Carlyle.  It goes like this: clothes determine the appearance of men and women, yet underneath those clothes is a body–a body much more real than coats and dresses.  In the same way  our institutions like the Church are merely “visible emblems” of the spiritual forces they represent.   Even in his day (early 1800s) Carlyle found the Church was worn out and almost worthless, but the Spirit beneath the Church’s “clothes” was still there and needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Where can we go with these kinds of sacred longings if we’re not happy with the churches we grew up with?  How can we keep the Spirit alive?  There are a few alternatives, and they are growing. Places like the Humanist Hub in Boston offer a regular meeting to the non-theists, the “Nones” out there who want to find like-minded people ready to acknowledge the need for the Sacrament of the Group. To the theists I would say, that a humanist’s conception of the Divine is not far removed from yours–it’s two sides of the same coin, or as  Carlyle put it:  “the name of the Infinite is GOOD, is GOD,” .

Roy Moore and the Sacrament of the Group

The big news was that Roy Moore lost the Senate race in Alabama, but the amazing story that goes along with it was that two-thirds of white women in that state voted for him. Even though it seems pretty obvious to an objective viewer that his accusers were telling the truth and Moore was lying about his escapades of the past, these ladies, who you would think would be up in arms against him, still gave him their vote. Why would they do that?

Well, one reason could be the way they prioritize their values : the danger to society from abortion, same-sex marriage, and all the rest of that kind of baggage outweighs their distaste for a man who was preying on teenage girls years ago. Another reason could be that they simply think the accusers were lying.   But a third important explanation was floated this week by the The Cut (one of New York Magazine’s online sites).   In an interview with neuroscientist Jonas Kaplan they raise the possibility that “motivated reasoning” is at work here. This is the phenomenon where once we buy into something psychologically, it’s not so easy to shake it off.   We’re “motivated” to stay with our initial choices.   This can be seen in many different types of thinking, but political thought is certainly an excellent example.

The fact is that we need to belong to something. Whether it’s a family, a community, a church, a party, a country, it’s in our DNA to establish ties to others, and once we’ve created those bonds, we will defend them. We don’t want to hear any criticisms, in fact the criticisms just trigger a defensiveness to the point of unreason: you must be wrong, because I know I’m right.   This is what got Trump elected and kept those Alabama women on board with Moore.

It’s all part of the Sacrament of the Group. Bonding with others can be exhilarating. In a stadium when your team wins in the final seconds or at a political rally when victory is declared, emotions rise to the level of euphoria. We’re part of something– What a great feeling!   It’s a way to transcend the mundane and get closer to something truly glorious.   The groups we choose mean so much to us.

But the danger of course is that it blinds us to considerations that are important.   As Hamlet reminded himself, the Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.  How do we keep from backing the wrong horse or the wrong idea?    Given that this impulse to defend is programed into us, rooted in our DNA, the only answer is an education that includes a check on this aspect of our behavior, a moral education, like the lessons we learn that curb other evolutionary impulses, like stealing what we want, or assaulting women at will.   These impulses were valuable to our primate ancestors, but vices for  men and women.

Every school curriculum should include an acknowledgement of motivated reasoning, and practice in how to step away from it.   Beginning with young children, we should emphasize that whenever you enter into a discussion with anyone, you should say to yourself , “I know what I think, but maybe I’ll learn something from this other person and change my thinking.”   Really listening, weighing evidence…it’s called keeping an open mind. It’s not something many of us currently practice.

A frontal attack on people’s beliefs and values makes them circle the wagons and fight back, tooth and nail.   A softer approach has a better chance of getting somewhere, and those chances would increase if our educators would instill a respect for the viewpoints of others.   It’s in the state’s interest to foster this kind of thinking, to combat  tribalism.  This is one reason why public schools are so important.

Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland

 

More senseless killings, this time in Portland Oregon.  A mentally-disturbed man was verbally abusing two Muslim teen-aged girls on a train and ended up killing two men trying to intervene.   The killer had a troubled past, to say the least, and most recently came to police attention for his angry rants at a Free Speech Rally. In case you’ve missed them, these rallies are being held around the country by the alt-right following the dust-up on college campuses over uninviting conservative speakers, and in case you missed that, these were right-wing individuals whose views are unpalatable to some students on the left.  When there were complaints and protests about these speakers, their bookings were cancelled. “What happened to Freedom of Speech?” the conservatives ask, with good reason.

The Free Speech Rallies have been steeped in anger as the alt-right organizers and masked Anti-Fascist protesters on the left taunt each other and generally act like they would like nothing better than to get physical. The police have kept them apart mostly, but a lot of the people are young, and, as in the 60s, they are a volatile group.   It doesn’t take much for one person to do something stupid and the next thing you know “dying for a fight” is literally where we are.  Rallies can be powerful, transcendent moments, part of the Sacrament of the Group, but in the wrong hands they become the antithesis: angry mobs out of control, with the energy of the group reinforcing unthinking acts of violence.  Here’s a description from someone who was at the Boston rally—there was no violence there, but depressing doesn’t begin to cover it.

And now the promise of real violence has been met. Two good men are dead and one wounded because a guy with a tricky grip on reality was stirred up by all the acrimony in the air. He took his rant into a train and pointed it at these poor girls.  How many of us would have the courage to stand up to him as these men did?

With a president who seems indifferent to the unrest he’s already caused and the mayhem that is waiting in the wings, don’t expect any improvement in the rhetoric from the leadership anytime soon, no Lincolnian appeals to our better angels.  But in the name of sanity, folks, please, calm down!  Don’t waste your time taunting people you don’t agree with. Talk to them if you feel you must– the chances of changing anyone’s mind may be slim–but it’s more likely to happen in a respectful atmosphere than in a super-charged anger zone.   What good does it do to toss around words like Fascist or carry an insulting placard? It’s just more fuel for the overheated atmosphere we live in.   Save your energy and organize for the next election, whatever side you’re on.  Let each side have their rallies, and if you must, quietly protest ideas you find reprehensible, but when you mock, jeer, or threaten the other side, especially to their face, it does nothing to advance whatever cause you’re fighting for.  It’s undignified and unworthy.

 

Christians Awake! Quit the Cult

The death of Tony Alamo in federal prison this week brought to mind all the damage done in the name of Jesus Christ by charlatans disguised as men of God. Here’s a guy who managed to convince hundreds if not thousands of people that he had a direct line to the Lord and if they would only turn over all their money and assets to the Church he created, they would be able to listen in and salvation would be theirs.

Presto! a cult is founded.

He had a TV ministry back in the late 70s and made a fortune selling, of all things, designer rhinestone jackets to pop stars, jackets that are still being sold online for a hefty sum. Shouldn’t that be a tip-off that all is not right in the New Jerusalem when your spiritual leader is selling both salvation and sequins?

Salvation: it’s what so many are looking for–a way out of the morass that their lives have become, or, perhaps they are just spiritual seekers, looking for a creed, a guru, floating around like chemical ions, waiting for that attraction, that pull that will create a bond to make their lives complete in a blinding flash, and I do mean blinding.

Alamo did a lot of sleazy things, but the worst was using salvation as a threat to get women and girls as young as 15 to sleep with him. He was on the run from the FBI for years and when they finally caught up with him, he ended up with a jail term of 175 years. At the sentencing Alamo is reported to have said “I’m glad I’m me and not the deceived people in the world.”

And there you have it. There are the Tony Alamos and there are the deceived.   But there are also the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, who (we can only hope) will eventually outnumber both groups and combat hubris and ignorance with Humanism.

You don’t need a guru, you need to recognize that the sacred is all around us and does not involve complete surrender to a charismatic leader.   We all feel the need to belong to something—that’s the Sacrament of the Group. We also need people to guide us through life. That’s the Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. But the Tony Alamos of the world represent the dark side of both of those sacraments, when greed, lust, and ego masquerade as Goodness.

It all boils down to this: don’t abandon reason in your search for the Spirit.