Is it November 9th yet? (If it is, what’s it like? What happened? Have all of our collective chests un-constricted yet? Please say “yes.”)
Like many of you, we imagine, we’ve had a hard time reading much lately that isn’t about the election (even when we try, it’s always still about the election, right?). So, here’s a round-up of the best of what we’ve been reading. And some of it really and truly isn’t at all about politics (if that can be said of anything, ever).
Today screeds are composed on smart phones and computers instead of on vellum and parchment, and the details of who exactly are the dejected and spurned may have altered, but that there are the dejected and spurned is a constant. There is a direct genealogy between the marginalization of groups then and now; between the accusations of Luther and Bosch, and the black legends which impugns the immigrant; between the libels of Kramer and Sprenger and the diminishment of sexual violence and the legislation against women’s reproductive freedom. We are not so far from the electric potency and that corrupt trick which sees the Devil everywhere but in our own reflections. Projecting that accusation of devilry onto your enemy, so as to acquire a bit of that profane power offered to Christ in the desert, remains a venerable tradition among those that seek that supremacy that is the domain of the prince of this world. For, what else could embolden someone to stand in public, say, in Missouri (that most wholesome and middle-American of places), and with an accusatory and unironic point of the short finger declare, yet once again, that a woman is “the Devil?”
And Jessa Crispin had a whole lot of very smart fun in her take, “Madam Prescient: Raising the spirit of American radicalism” for The Baffler.
Nor, for that matter, is Clinton all that similar to Victoria Woodhull, despite sharing with her the good fortune of having run for high office while female. But wouldn’t it be so much more interesting if she were? What if she ripped off the roof, called down the ghost of Emma Goldman, and achieved a truly liberal platform of economic justice, universal health care, strict environmental protections, and widespread education reform? In March, Clinton made extraterrestrial transparency a promise of her campaign; she told Jimmy Kimmel that as soon as she takes office, she will open the government’s top-secret files on Area 51. It’s a start. But what if she also pledged to open an investigation into our government’s drone warfare, which is an unexplained aerial phenomenon of an entirely different kind?
Well, let’s be honest: none of that is likely to happen. Perhaps, then, we should be wondering not how long it will be before we have our first female president, but how long it will be before we have our first witch candidate.
The dominant religions of our time, including atheism, seem unable to adequately inspire and sustain the revolutionary change that is needed to address racist policing, mass murder by semi-automatic weapon, and other everyday occurrences in America.
Alas, witch or not, “Hillary Clinton has an unfortunate way of talking about American Muslims” contends Ismat Sarah Mangla for Quartz.
On the face of it, Clinton’s rhetoric doesn’t seem blatantly problematic. But her framing of Muslims solely in terms of national security has an insidious effect in continuing to stigmatize them as something less than fully American.
American Muslims don’t possess some special knowledge of terror attacks. They are simply trying to live unsensational lives, serving as doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, artists and journalists. Their citizenship shouldn’t come with conditions—it’s not contingent on how “useful” they are in the war on terror.
Racial and religious minorities have been living through the consequences of Trump’s hate speech for more than a year now. We have been calling on our fellow Americans to stop viewing Trump’s campaign as an amusing sideshow and to start treating him as a serious threat to our nation’s stability and security. On behalf of all minorities who have been waiting anxiously for this moment, I want to welcome you all and assure you that we are glad that so many of you are finally onboard
Because, seriously, just read this: “Trolls for Trump: Meet Mike Cernovich, the meme mastermind of the alt-right” by Andrew Marantz for The New Yorker.
On his blog, Cernovich developed a theory of white-male identity politics: men were oppressed by feminism, and political correctness prevented the discussion of obvious truths, such as the criminal proclivities of certain ethnic groups. His opponents were beta males, losers, or “cucks”—alt-right slang for “cuckolds.” “To beat a person, you lower his or her social status,” he wrote on Danger and Play. “Logic is pointless.”
Candace E. West has a great take on a preposterous situation in “Confession is not Conversion: Giuliani’s Bizarre Comparison of Trump to St. Augustine” for Religion Dispatches.
In the Confessions, considered one of the earliest works of western autobiography, Augustine tells a complicated story of a man driven by lust, vanity and pride. At the book’s end, Augustine has repented his misdeeds, recanted his heresies, and dedicated his life to the love of God.
Looking closely at Confessions, it becomes difficult to see where the parallel is.
Trump starts off with what looks like a confession (“I said it”), and a bit of contrition (“I was wrong, and I apologize”). But is it genuine? We can’t know what’s in his heart, but he was quick to downplay the severity of his transgression (for lack of a better word), and could barely complete his apology before changing the subject. Predictably, some found this approach uncompelling, and wondered if he could truly show remorse in the time leading up to the debate.
And Caroline T. Schroeder argues the point beautifully in “On Not Ignoring Augustine” for Early Christian Monasticism in the Digital Age.
In our impulse to distance the Republican candidate from a Christian saint, we also cannot overlook the reasons Giuliani could so easily identify them. Does Augustine, a fifth century North African bishop and theologian, have anything to do with the candidate’s morality after all? Was this real estate magnate able to cultivate his position of power over decades without being held accountable for sex crimes in part because of Augustine’s influence on our cultural values?
To create a world in which sexual assault and harassment are not normative, we must askwhy they are normative now. Which means interrogating Augustine, perhaps the most influential Christian author in post-Biblical history.
Giuliani could reach to Augustine for at least two reasons: his paradigmatic views on sin and grace, and his troubling views on women’s sexual autonomy.
Just can’t get enough of this stuff? The Immanent Frame has your back with its “The Politics of National Identity” forum.
Religion is increasingly recognized as a defining feature of political life and as a constitutive element of individual and collective identities. The question is no longer whether religion matters, but how. The contributors to this discussion—which began as a session at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, co-sponsored by the sections on the Sociology of Religion and Culture—explore this question through the lens of political contestation over national identity.
These essays show how groups in Western Europe and the United States draw on religious and secular symbols when determining belonging.
At this point, let’s just open all of the tabs, shall we? Because each of these profiles is fascinating on its own, but read together, each is even more so.
Kalefa Sanneh wrote about “The New Evangelical Moral Minority: If the Southern Baptist church can’t be bigger, Russell Moore wants it to be better” for the New Yorker.
In 2016, it is clearer than ever that American evangelical Christianity is a counterculture, which may mean that the church is freer to espouse ideas at odds with the egalitarianism that the secular mainstream preaches (and sometimes practices). This, then, is part of what Moore has in mind when he urges believers to rediscover “the strangeness of Christianity”: a roomful of servant-leader men, sitting around eating steak fajitas.
And Penelope Green about “The Power Pastor: How A.R. Bernard Built a New York Megachurch“ for The New York Times.
Once a Nation of Islam follower and teenage civil rights activist who read Alan Watts and Krishnamurti before he read the Bible, Mr. Bernard presents more like a professor than a bible thumper. That he is a motorcycle-riding family man and father of seven sons as well as a martial arts devotee — inked into Mr. Bernard’s forearm is a Chinese character that translates as “the unfettered mind” — adds to his allure.
Jean-Thomas Tremblay writes beautifully about”Being Black and Breathing: On ‘Blackpentecostal Breath” for The Los Angeles Review of Books.
Blackpentecostal Breath compellingly extends this tradition that occupies breathing as a site of racial politics. Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” Crawley suggests, refuses the conditions from which it conveys physical strain. The statement at once points to an injury inflected by a racism that is ambient-but-not-only and speculates a breathable otherwise. Crawley’s project in Blackpentecostal Breath is, in a sense, modeled after Garner’s statement. Both document, and enact a break from, experiences of violence. And as the book’s subtitle, The Aesthetics of Possibility, makes evident, Crawley is adamantly optimistic about the ethical and political potential afforded by this break.
I rejected religion at 18 not because I fell out of love with Jesus, but because I, like Wordsworth, found the trees and the air and my senses more reliable than the sentiments of the religious folk I ran from. Also: Wordsworth, and my 18-year-old self, were privileged fools. Fools who confused “faith” with the grave pronouncements of rich white men. Fools who confused the undeserved power of the church with the very real power of hope. I remember: in my next phase as an 18-year-old–when I was 31 and newly out of the closet and a new single father in a new city in a new job with no friends in town and no family anywhere–I decided that hope was a ruse; that if you had hope things would get better and then they didn’t that you would end up bitter. Better not to hope at all. Better to just play Sisyphus. Keep the ball rolling. I still think there’s truth there. Things don’t “get” better. Keep the ball rolling.
And yet, in the last two years roaming the underworld as a photojournalist I have found real faith, real hope, real “religion.” I realize now: Wordsworth was an idiot. Had he ever been a “Pagan suckled,” or stood before Proteus or Triton, Wordsworth would have died, almost immediately, crushed by his own privilege, which, in that moment, would have completely failed him. A defenseless human facing the wild world? Such a thing dies, and much sooner than later.
This isn’t beautiful at all, but man is it important. The Southern Poverty Law Center published a Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.
Sadly, a shocking number of these extremists are seen regularly on television news programs and quoted in the pages of our leading newspapers. There, they routinely espouse a wide range of utter falsehoods, all designed to make Muslims appear as bloodthirsty terrorists or people intent on undermining American constitutional freedoms. More often than not, these claims go uncontested.
What follows are profiles of 15 anti-Muslim extremists who are frequently cited in public discourse. These spokespeople were selected on the basis of their presence in national and local media and for the pernicious brand of extremism and hate they espouse against Muslim communities and the Islamic faith. While not intended to be an all-encompassing list, this group of propagandists are at the center of what is a large and evolving network of Islam-bashing activists, elected officials and their surrogates. Groups currently designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) are marked in headlines and text with an asterisk (*). Three groups that the SPLC will list as hate groups in 2017 are marked with a cross (+). This field guide can be viewed online and monitored for additional updates.
Samuel Moyn makes many excellent points in “Freud’s Discontents: Why did one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers fade from significance?” for The Nation.
This skepticism toward the overarching theories of the 19th and 20th centuries has come to incarnate something of the spirit of our age and it is another reason why the prominence of psychoanalysis has declined. Today, we have acquired a preference for indubitable findings and cautious and often minimalist forms of theory and politics. It may be true that gargantuan structures like the one Freud erected proved to rest on shaky foundations; the trouble is that only small hideouts are left among the rubble.
The price of this growing skepticism toward general theories has been very high to pay. This is true for psychology and more generally the social sciences but also for the richest possible versions of liberalism and leftism, both of which intersected fruitfully with psychoanalysis at midcentury. The grand theories of an earlier age offered us an ability to look at the intersections between the self, society, and history; in comparison, their replacements look not just intellectually meek but politically unpromising.
Colin Dickey tells a very important story in “The Suburban Horror of the Indian Burial Ground: In the 1970s and 1980s, homeowners were terrified by the idea that they didn’t own the land they’d just bought” by for The New Republic.
The narrative of the haunted Indian burial ground hides a certain anxiety about the land on which Americans—specifically white, middle-class Americans—live. Embedded deep in the idea of home ownership—the Holy Grail of American middle-class life—is the idea that we don’t, in fact, own the land we’ve just bought. Time and time again in these stories, perfectly average, innocent American families are confronted by ghosts who have persevered for centuries, who remain vengeful for the damage done. Facing these ghosts and expelling them, in many of these horror stories, becomes a means of re-fighting the Indian Wars of past centuries.
Maybe worth reading alongside the incredible #StandingRockSyllabus.
This syllabus project contributes to the already substantial work of the Sacred Stones Camp, Red Warrior Camp, and the Oceti Sakowin Camp to resist the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens traditional and treaty-guaranteed Great Sioux Nation territory. The Pipeline violates the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and 1851 signed by the United States, as well as recent United States environmental regulations. The potentially 1,200-mile pipeline presents the same environmental and human dangers as the Keystone XL pipeline, and would transport hydraulically fractured (fracked) crude oil from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota to connect with existing pipelines in Illinois. While the pipeline was originally planned upriver from the predominantly white border town of Bismarck, North Dakota, the new route passes immediately above the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, crossing Lake Oahe, tributaries of Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River twice, and the Mississippi River once. Now is the time to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock against catastrophic environmental damage.
The different sections and articles place what is happening now in a broader historical, political, economic, and social context going back over 500 years to the first expeditions of Columbus, the founding of the United States on institutionalized slavery, private property, and dispossession, and the rise of global carbon supply and demand. Indigenous peoples around the world have been on the frontlines of conflicts like Standing Rock for centuries. This syllabus brings together the work of Indigenous and allied activists and scholars: anthropologists, historians, environmental scientists, and legal scholars, all of whom contribute important insights into the conflicts between Indigenous sovereignty and resource extraction. While our primary goal is to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, we recognize that Standing Rock is one frontline of many around the world. This syllabus can be a tool to access research usually kept behind paywalls, or a resource package for those unfamiliar with Indigenous histories and politics. Share, add, and discuss using the hashtag #StandingRockSyllabus on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Like those on frontlines, we are here for as long as it takes.
The NYC Stands for Standing Rock committee is a group of Indigenous scholars and activists, and settler/ PoC supporters. We belong and are responsible to a range of Indigenous peoples and nations, including Tlingit, Haudenosaunee, Secwepemc, St’at’imc, Creek (Muscogee), Anishinaabe, Peoria, Diné, Maya Kaqchikel, and Quechua. We have joined forces to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their continued assertion of sovereignty over their traditional territories. We welcome the support and participation of Indigenous peoples and allied environmental/ community/ social justice organizations in the New York area. If you can offer your organization’s support, please email NYCnoDAPL@@NYCnoDAPL and our Facebook page NYC Stands with Standing Rock.to let us know how you would like to be involved. Connect with us on Twitter
The answers may not be blowing in the wind, but Bob Dylan can still teach us a lot, too, argues Rob Horning in “No Man Righteous: Bob Dylan’s ‘Make America Great Again’ phase” for The New Inquiry.
Troubled by the sectarian, paranoid place America has become—and probably always has been—I sometimes yearn for a moment of negative capability that would allow me to understand where birthers, Tea Partyers, evangelical Christians, and all those who smell apocalypse in every current event could possibly be coming from. At such times I take solace in the album that inaugurated Bob Dylan’s notoriously baffling born-again-Christian phase, Slow Train Coming, which offers as complete a picture of the mind of a newly minted reactionary as one could hope for.
While we’re on the topic of singer/songwriter sages, “Leonard Cohen Makes it Darker” by David Remnick for The New Yorker.
Since his days davening next to his uncles in his grandfather’s synagogue, Cohen has been a spiritual seeker. “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works,” he once said. In the late sixties, when he was living in New York, he studied briefly at a Scientology center and emerged with a certificate that declared him “Grade IV Release.” In recent years, he spent many Shabbat mornings and Monday evenings at Ohr HaTorah, a synagogue on Venice Boulevard, talking about Kabbalistic texts with the rabbi there, Mordecai Finley. Sometimes, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Finley, who says that he considers Cohen “a great liturgical writer,” read from the pulpit passages from “Book of Mercy,” a 1984 collection of Cohen’s that is steeped in the Psalms. “I participated in all these investigations that engaged the imagination of my generation at that time,” Cohen has said. “I even danced and sang with the Hare Krishnas—no robe, I didn’t join them, but I was trying everything.”
To this day, Cohen reads deeply in a multivolume edition of the Zohar, the principal text of Jewish mysticism; the Hebrew Bible; and Buddhist texts. In our conversations, he mentioned the Gnostic Gospels, Lurianic Kabbalah, books of Hindu philosophy, Carl Jung’s “Answer to Job,” and Gershom Scholem’s biography of Sabbatai Sevi, a self-proclaimed Messiah of the seventeenth century. Cohen is also very much at home in the spiritual reaches of the Internet, and he listens to the lectures of Yakov Leib HaKohain, a Kabbalist who has converted, serially, to Islam, Catholicism, and Hinduism, and lives in the San Bernardino mountains with two pit bulls and four cats.
A little more surprisingly, “How the Berenstain Bears Found Salvation” by Saul Austerlitz for The New York Times Magazine.
I could practically hear a needle scratch when I opened up some newer editions my son had received as a gift, and I discovered that the Berenstains’ concerns had turned from the mundane to the theological. The new volumes, “The Berenstain Bears: Do Not Fear, God Is Near” and “The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School,” had a markedly different cast than my son’s old favorites. Even those without explicitly religious titles are still larded with Bible thumping. In my son’s new favorite volume, “The Berenstain Bears Show Some Respect,” the bears get snappish with one another during a search for the ideal picnic spot, as the cubs talk back to Mama and Papa, and Papa Bear, in turn, speaks disrespectfully to his father. Gramps grows frustrated and, in an impassioned monologue, makes reference to scripture: “You know, us old folks know a thing or two. As the Bible says, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’”
We’re happy to think of Peter Manseau curating which of these things is museum-worthy. Here, he and S. Brent Plate discuss the “State of the art: A Q&A with the Smithsonian’s new religion curator” for the Religion News Service.
Religion can be seen in a number of museum settings. What can museums do for the public understanding of religion in ways that other institutions cannot?
Museums strike me as a rare public space where we enter with the expectation of learning. And very often we expect to learn through direct contact. That expectation of learning through standing in the presence of something from another time and place makes museums powerful places.
And S. Brent Plate‘s By the Way: Dispatches, Devotions, and Deliriums from the Camino de Santiago is now available as an e-book published by Killing the Buddha.
A moving, funny and fascinating account of a religion scholar’s 5-week pilgrimage down the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Is the journey is more important than the destination? Are some pilgrimages more “authentic” than others? Can agnostics have as deep a spiritual experience as true believer? Find out what happens when a scholar puts down his books and takes up his walking stick.
David Novack and Val Vinokur discuss Isaac Babel in “A New Documentary on Isaac Babel Highlights his Continued Relevance” for Literary Hub. (Editor’s note/boast: I was lucky enough to read Isaac Babel with Professor Vinokur at the New School when I was an undergraduate there.)
I think that the culture at large still thinks in rather stupid ways about identity, too schematically—either in a dualistic way, or else in a kind of naïve, hybridized fashion, as if we can all just kind of blend and be funky. Babel addresses both of those positions and makes both of these positions much more complicated and fluid. I think that’s why each fresh wave of students that’s introduced to Babel is shocked by it. They’ve never read anything like it in their lives. They’re thrown off balance, and then eventually they become obsessed with Babel—just like I did when I first read him in a windowless mailroom of a Downtown Miami law firm where I worked summers as a 16-year-old clerk.
We love despite incomplete access — and we very often project our own ideas and hopes onto those we love, in part, I think, because we can’t really know what occupies them, but also because we want to complete the story in our own minds of the love we supposedly share. This may sound somewhat cynical, but in fact I find this a hopeful position where love and relationships and perhaps even our democracy are concerned. Love, at its best, is an incomplete answer to the beloved’s call to be fully seen — a friend, a wife, a child, a stranger — it’s an enactment of sympathy.
If you need a break, we suggest checking out this piece: “Photographing the Incredible Costumes of Japan’s Supernatural Festivals: Bringing folklore to life with capes and masks” by Anika Burgess for Atlas Obscura.
And that’s it. We’ll sign off for now and hope to see you on the other side.
-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer
You can find previous “In the News” round-ups here.