Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Devils We Know

It gets to the point of cliché to observe this, but through every new election cycle I've tried to stay awake for, it's that much more obvious that we're meant to judge our candidates by some kind of cultural shorthand more than by their positions and views, or the historical evidence they present for pursuing them. [Would we have a beer with this guy is the dumb shorthand, but it's not like I'm a special flower, above all this. For me, I found that George Bush's dumbfuck fake cowboy routine made my teeth grind, but I was occasionally susceptible to more mature poses, such as Al Gore's or Barack Obama's ability to patiently speak in complete sentences containing polysyllabic words. It's not less an act, it's just one that is meant to appeal to knowledge-worker tools such as myself.] Expectations are justifiably low. The human concerns that most desperately require collective action (such as looming environmental crises, resource management plans, egregious class inequality, and the well-being of the non-elect) require a serious disruption of the existing power structure to achieve, and I have a cynic's faith that that it won't be achieved using that structure. Which isn't to say that any of these guys, when elected, won't turn that machine toward making things actively worse for the species. That cynic in me expects new and expanded wars as a matter of course, but the boundaries of the in-group, who is included and who isn't, is given as a sort of wildcard, and that's the place where our votes may actually help. I don't think the dominant ideologies will push any other big issue forward much, but if some of our would-be leaders really believe in turning back the clock on equality, then that's all too feasible.

Which brings us to Rick Santorum. There is much about that vindictive cracker that seriously bugs me, but I can't tell if he's only offering cues to a tribe that's not mine, or if he does in fact contain an extra level of evil in his tortured soul. It's not like he lacks for insincerity, and the anti-intellectualism isn't exactly unusual from what you get from team Republican, but when it comes to religious types with a taste for power, it can be hard to tell where the scam ends and the conviction begins. In the puckered little sphincter of Rick Santorum's mind, any belief is automatically justified because he sees himself as a godly sort. Last week's soundbite about the theology of radical environmentalism ("not real theology" says Rick) gets me to the core, as if any kind of theology should dictate environmental policy. Mixing religion and politics buys a super-secret mystical threat to underline every statement and action he may pursue: if you don't support this guy, if you believe anything other than what he says, then you don't just disagree with him, you sin. When it comes to Santorum, the froth doesn't even stop at vague righteousness. He's doubled down on the usual evangelical language, named names, called out God and the Adversary to perch on his shoulders and look down at you. Maybe it's the natural progression of all this "under god" shuck and jive, the crumbling wall between church and state has let through a refutation-proof justification for anything and everything when someone professes loudly enough that they have the big bearded dude on their side. Scary to consider Santorum a would-be theocrat.

Here's Rick back in 2008 (via, which got it from the Drudge report, of all places, which I ain't gonna link). Tremble in holy fear:

“While we all see all this as a great political conflict in warfare between the Obama camp and the McCain camp and culture wars, what Bishop Aquila put his finger on and what I think, I suspect those of you who are here understand, this is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war. This is a spiritual war.”

“And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age? There is no one else to go after other than the United States and that has been the case now for almost 200 years, once America’s preeminence was sown by our great Founding Fathers.”
The thing is, I know this schtick. And I am a little resentful for the experience. I'm a little surprised to find it rendered as a Catholic thing: Guilt? The (negotiable) threat of hell? Those as Catholic menaces I know of, but Satan walking among us, tricking the naïve out of their souls, that's a lot more like the televangelist grift I grew up with. It was the early eighties, okay? And there was an active hysteria about corruption of young minds through rock music,* which took some purchase among the minds of worried church parents, and those lessons filtered down to us kids, about how Satan might be invited into our lives unknowingly: how participating in innocent-seeming secular rituals might be a subversive form of witchcraft; how the wrong music might subconsciously turn us to the dark side, through overt irreverence or secret backwards messages; how we might mutter the wrong figure of speech and actually end up selling our precious soul for a donut.

And y'know, it's funny. Although you'd routinely pray for sick people and so on, the best that the personal relationship with Jesus was really supposed to afford you was a sort of meditative serenity, a knowing of some kind. It was implied that Satan, meanwhile, if you gave up enough, could actually accomplish stuff in the material world. It was an insidious superstition to a little ambivalent type like me,** considering that (a) I had none of the private epiphanies that were supposed to be the route to Christian salvation, and (b) I did occasionally, more or less, accomplish stuff--did every step forward in my life come at the expense of some portion of my soul? Neither of these conditionals coule be disproven. There was no promise of miracles if I did believe, and no way was I going to take the gamble of dealing with the big red feller on purpose (although an attempt would have no doubt been instructively futile). Effects to my invisible soul from these purported bargains were ineffable by definition, and I could always fail any test with insufficient faith, which for me, was inevitable.

The most insightful thinking on obsessive-compulsive disorders that I've read (or heard about--I think it was an NPR segment actually) is that they are essentially a bodily expression of mental anxiety, and not centered on beliefs that compulsive actions will influence things. That seems like a correct understanding to me. It makes sense that concern about your kids' rebellion could get you obsessively overturning rocks to find a reinvented Satan living under them. And it made sense that an 11- or 12-year-old could find mortality such a cosmic affront that he'd resort to superstition, especially when the nicer adults I knew had bought in and sold it to me as pure truth.

As things scale up, I am undecided on whether puissant pissants such as the guiding stars of the Christian Coalition, or Rick Santorum, are merely in the business of transferring their doubt and superstition to the public because they're in a position to do so, like parents worried about their kids' music habits or if they are exploiting the religious fears of the little peaople. Are they cynically assuaging the legions of OCD-style moralists out in the world to make them follow, or are they simply speaking the language of shared anxieties? Maybe paternalism is just a viable route to power, and god knows it's been tried. I am not sure those things are exclusive, or whether the reasons matter. It'll be hell on those of us who have grown up.

*I actually must have been around 14 or 15 for this anecdote (my daughter's age!), which tells me that the desire for belief went on longer than I prefer to think. I can place it because my brother had a Guns n Roses T-shirt on, skulls on a cross, which puts him at about 13 and the year about 1987. The poor kid ended up being the perfect person from the crowd to draw out and shame. The lecture was in a church basement somewhere, and we were brought there out of a very sincere concern that some kids from the youth group didn't quite bring themselves to renounce Led Zeppelin, etc., who were, we were told, indeed proselytizing on behalf of Satan himself. Until this point, the faithful people that I'd encountered had been very honest and well-meaning, good examples, and this con artist might have been the first person in my consciousness to finally cross the streams of Selling Something and Good People, and it was a big turning point. To this day, the motivations puzzle me, but most likely, it was a paid seminar, and this fuckhead was the spiritual equivalent of the unaccountable consultant uselessly instructing corporate drones to think outside the box or some other such happy horseshit.

I remember that the course opened with a quote (from Nietzsche?), that I've since been unable to find. Something about how if you wish to control a people, you first must control their music. It's an aphorism that I'd in fact prefer to locate, because like much that's used to mislead, there's an element of truth to it. Revolutions and movements have all had their theme songs, as do nations, and the twentieth century tapped some of that stuff intentionally. It's an interesting theme to riff on, but there was, to the point of the talk, no devil that was whispering in the ears of rock and roll musicians to further his nefarious ends. This guy played us kids on a great big false syllogism.

Not to say there wasn't explicitly anti-Christian music out there at the time, not that I'd expect any promoter putting himself on the side of Jesus H. Christ to address very honestly the various reason that it was written or would sell. The thing is, he drew that kind of iconography down so far as to include anyone who'd ponder spirituality at all, lumping in any reasonably honest disagreement or question or disillusionment, and, because no countervailing discourse could be tolerated, everything not on the overt God list got lumped in with Slayer. (Seriously, Hall and fucking Oates was one of the bands he tried to make us worry about.) Call it guilt by association maybe. Even the most negative stuff, my adult self realizes, was probably only ever meant ironically, or as sincere criticism. And what wasn't those things was most likely a marketing gimmick, those bands manipulating their audience's irreverence just as cynically as this guy who was peddling Christian angst. I love me a heartfelt dissent, but I tend to remain unimpressed with rebellion that's done without honesty or humor or artistry. Those fuckers are making a different buck, but they're grifters too.

At the end of the seminar, we were all asked to close our eyes. Everyone who's accepted Christ raise your hands. I wonder, as he counted, what he thought. Probably it was just gauging success of the lecture, how long could he keep up the racket. Maybe there was some personal satisfaction at conversion, thinking he had worked the audience, maybe turning them to what he saw as the good. My own eyes were shut tight, and I was trying hard, but not succeeding, to accept this line of crackpottery, almost certainly for the last time. I wonder how many of my peers kept 'em open. I wonder what they thought as they did, if they were wise enough to realize the crowd was getting played. I wonder who raised their hands.

**Even today, I tend to view the world with a great deal of ambivalence, coming to conclusions only after a very lengthy devil's advocacy (so to speak). Eventually, it gave way to a naturalist perspective, and I hope I've become the right sort of skeptic as a result. I had an ear for profundity as a kid too, a need to find deep meaning in existence, and I really wanted to believe in a higher order of things. In those days, Middle Earth was even more compelling than Christian salvation, and it's maybe a good thing no one was telling me that was real. I am fortunate that I had some good anti-authoritarian influences, but there was no one at that age to really show me how beauty and depth is compatible with empiricism, and I think it's kind of a shame that I didn't find any of that reading until much later.


Schmutzie said...

I recall the time I heard the phrase "Sold his soul to the Devil" to describe Robert Johnson. I thought, well shit....what's the lesson? If you make a deal with Satan you get to be the greatest blues guitarist of all time? Where did that phrase originate I wonder. And why do we never hear "he's in cahoots with Jesus?" I certainly don't think that when I listen to Santorum. Whatever one's view of the various Christian faiths may be, I can say from some experience that he's not preaching anything close to mainstream ideology.

The thing that bugs me most about Santorum is what you pointed out up there. It's that "you're either in agreement with me, or there's something Biblically evil about you. Maybe you have Satan in your soul." smirking judgmental attitude. It's not a disagreement on how to handle Iran when Santorum speaks about Tehran's nuclear program. It's a disagreement about the One True God Almighty. It's the evil Mooslims, and their fundamentalist hatred of Christianity that you're siding with.

As I said to someone in another post, the really terrifying thing about Rick Santorum isn't just his bizarre Satan nonsense, it's that a stunning number of people are willing to have that crackpottery be a strong element in a person they'd like to see elected president. A guy with that sort of apocalyptic view of the world should not be trusted with the launch codes.

Keifus said...

Yeah, I had left a common on another blog to exactly that effect. Santorum has enough of the morally expedient zealot in him that I wouldn't want the dude anywhere near the button if he's in the middle of a righteousness binge. I get that about Newt too, although in his case it's more a secular and comical megalomania.

I hate to fall in the trap of "those guys look presidential," but no, I certainly don't get those scary vibes from Romney or Obama.

It's not common that I'd get this from the religious right types either, who've rarely struck me as even remotely sincere. I probably shouldn't take Santorum as such either, probaby shouldn't try to make judgments about politicians based on the idea they might really believe anything they say, but then again, theocracies happen. As senator, Santorum's other claim to fame, other than being a moral scold, was his heavy involvement in the K Street project, which was sort of a sleazy tornado of partisan positioning and money corruption. He may well just be a garden-variety whore (if the motivation matters).

And you're right, Santorum should be an embarrassment to honest Christians. But they're used to getting nothing but poses and empty promises too, and he's at least nice enough to pander their way. (Finally, white Christian men are getting some attention in this country.)

Brian said...

It's funny that I don't really remember that whole Guns n Roses t-shirt thing. It doesn't surprise me that it would've happened, as those shirts (I had a few, for sure) were meant to shock the "good people" like the tool leading this group.
Also, I love how you have Homer as the "forbidden donut" - perfect tie-in!