This month we’re pretty focused on U.S. politics, race, racism, white supremacy and Christianity, but we promise, there are other stories here and even some art and jokes for those who stick it out to the end.
First, this isn’t just the best thing we’ve read this month, it’s the best article we’ve read in a long time. This essay is spellbinding, excruciating, and so necessary; An occasion to be really grateful for a superb writer doing the hardest work.
A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah for GQ
Roof is what happens when we prefer vast historical erasures to real education about race. The rise of groups like Trump’s Republican Party, with its overtures to the alt-right, has emboldened men like Dylann Roof to come out of their slumber and loudly, violently out themselves. But in South Carolina, those men never disappeared, were there always, waiting. It is possible that Dylann Roof is not an outlier at all, then, but rather emblematic of an approaching storm.
Followed, just yesterday, by the other best thing we’ve read this month/ in a long time:
The First White President by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic
To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.
Coates also wrote recently about the new show “Confederate” being made by HBO:
The Lost Cause Rides Again by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic
The problem of Confederate can’t be redeemed by production values, crisp writing, or even complicated characters. That is not because its conceivers are personally racist, or seek to create a show that endorses slavery. Far from it, I suspect. Indeed, the creators have said that their hope is to use science fiction to “show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could.” And that really is the problem. African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that that “history is still with us.” It’s right outside our door. It’s in our politics. It’s on our networks. And Confederate is not immune. The show’s very operating premise, the fact that it roots itself in a long white tradition of imagining away emancipation, leaves one wondering how “lost” the Lost Cause really was.
Coates’ critique is well aided by the always superb Wesley Morris who wrote In Movies and on TV, Racism Made Plain for The New York Times
Whatever white supremacy was and is — the murderousness of the K.K.K., the centuries-old institutional bias toward white people, the self-pitying narcissism of the so-called alt-right — it’s older than what happened in Charlottesville, older than this presidency. It’s wedged in the bedrock of American popular culture. Even when you aren’t looking, it manages to find you.
For some religious studies context, we can’t imagine anyone better than Judith Weisenfeld and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. who recorded a conversation on The Formation of ‘Religio-Racial’ Identity for the AAS 21 Podcast
In this episode, Professor Glaude and Professor Judith Weisenfeld discuss the development of ‘religio–racial’ identity during the Great Migration. Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Her latest book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration is a historiography of twentieth-century black religious groups, including the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and Ethiopian Hebrews. The two discuss the racial claims of these groups, the impact they had on the development of African American identity, and their interactions with government entities, other religious groups, and African American communities. Weisenfeld also sheds light on her research process, which pulls from marriage and divorce certificates, immigration and naturalization records, and FBI files in order to create a multifaceted view of the practitioners.
Also contributing a very helpful religionist angle on current news, Spencer Drew published Public Shrines to Treason: Charlottesville and the Cult of Confederate Memorialization at Religion Dispatches
“Unite the Right” called attention to this, that dueling visions of America—American history and expectations for and patterns of an American future—are more than just differences of opinion, they are radically divergent worldviews, with separate systems of values, conceptions of humanity, and even understandings of the good. The problem of the proliferation of Confederate civil religion has always been what to do with a citizen who glorified secession, how to reconstruct these United States, to warring visions into one America. Dismantling shrines is far easier than squelching a robust faith. Secession and treason, on the other side, is far easier than conversion.
And our friend of the very necessary middle initial, religion scholar Christopher D. Cantwell, wrote about his experience sharing a name with a now very notorious white supremacist in The Digitally Entangled Lives of Two Christopher Cantwells for The Atlantic
While much of the world met Cantwell for the first time last weekend, this self-proclaimed fascist has tormented my digital existence for years. I share a name with the young man, and our lives have collided online for half a decade. The rush to register usernames on social media first led our paths to cross, while the algorithmic coincidences of simple Google searches have given me a front row seat to Cantwell’s public life. The view not only introduced me to his bigotry, but also made me something of a witness to his radicalization. Though many watching the events in Charlottesville may have been shocked to see white nationalists marching down the street so brazenly, my experience highlights the mechanisms hiding in plain sight online that brought at least one of the marchers to Virginia. And the process by which my namesake came to embrace fascism may shed light on how many of the other faces in Vice’s documentary became radicalized, as well.
Also offering some religion background on the events in Charlottesville, Katherine Kelaidis wrote White Supremacy and Orthodox Christianity: A Dangerous Connection Rears Its Head in Charlottesville for Religion Dispatches
While the Neo-Nazis and Neo-Confederates may be relatively few in number, there is increasing evidence that Orthodoxy has become an integral part of the ideological and recruitment apparatus within some segments of the white supremacist movement. Importantly, these ideas and the converts to them are being tolerated, and frequently exploited, by much more powerful voices. This growing attachment to Eastern Orthodox Christianity among a segment of white nationalists has serious implications for more mainstream currents in contemporary Orthodox life.
And Anthea Butler makes some brilliant necessary points in her piece for The Washington Post, The U.S. Catholic Church’s last major effort on racism was in 1979. Charlottesville woke it up
The last major statement on racism in the church and America was “Brothers and Sisters Among Us,” a pastoral letter from 1979, 38 years ago. Black Catholic bishops answered that letter in 1984 with a response: “What We Have Seen and Heard.” Since then, while various groups within the church have dealt with issues of race, the establishment of the new committee, and the promise of a pastoral letter on racism from the bishops in 2018 are important first steps for the Catholic Church in America. The bigger question is how will that translate into practical steps to counter racism?
(She also had some choice words on The Cheap Prosperity Gospel of Trump and Osteen at The New York Times)
Though it’s less obviously about religion, we were very interested in these two pieces on how white supremacists are using their attire to stand out and to blend in.
First, The New Uniform of White Supremacy by Cam Wolf for GQ
For years, white supremacists dressed to set themselves apart, to hide and to scare. Charlottesville showed us that the most sinister evolution of their uniform, and the hate it symbolizes, isn’t about fear and ghosts and standing apart. It’s meant to achieve inclusiveness and assimilation. It means that hate doesn’t need to live underground when it can blend in right next door.
And secondly, A Charlottesville White Supremacists Stripped Down to Escape Protesters and We Got It on Video by CJ Hunt for GQ
In case you were wondering: The Creator of Godwin’s Law explains why some Nazi comparisons don’t break his famous Internet Rule by Abby Ohlheiser for The Washington Post
Which makes this a pretty good time for this advice: Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide from the Southern Poverty Law Center
And this poem: Hymn: A New Poem by Sherman Alexie at Early Bird Books
To love somebody who resembles you.
If you want an ode then join the endless queue
Of people who are good to their next of kin—
Who somehow love people with the same chin
And skin and religion and accent and eyes.
So you love your sibling? Big fucking surprise.
Lastly, before we move on, please read these two pieces on antifa.
First: Who are the antifa? by Mark Bray for The Washington Post
Antifascists argue that after the horrors of chattel slavery and the Holocaust, physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective. We should not, they argue, abstractly assess the ethical status of violence in the absence of the values and context behind it. Instead, they put forth an ethically consistent, historically informed argument for fighting Nazis before it’s too late. As Cornel West explained after surviving neo-Nazi attacks in Charlottesville, “If it hadn’t been for the antifascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”
And second: Why the Media Refuses to Understand Antifa by Malcolm Harris for Pacific Standard
I’m sure the people who want to let the Nazis fizzle out on their own have good intentions. I don’t believe my argument, or any argument, will change their minds. And I’m sure they won’t have any trouble finding microphones to amplify their concerns. But even if the antifascist ranks never grow beyond groups like Black Lives Matter, progressive communities of faith, and people to the left of Bernie Sanders, that will be more than enough to win. If winning this fight means those groups can build trust, solidarity, and interdependence, they can set themselves up to do a lot more than that—and it will be the fascists who are sorry they ever showed up.
Speaking of the media, let’s go Down the Breitbart Hole with Wil S. Hylton at The New York Times Magazine
In the short annals of journalism, there’s no real precursor for Breitbart. I don’t mean to suggest that this is because of the site’s political agenda — the history of journalism is a cacophony of strident writing as far back as you want to look. You can pore through the earliest examples of what we’d consider a newspaper, The Tatler and The Spectator of the early 1700s, and you’ll find yourself in a familiar landscape of hit pieces and hot takes; continue into the middle 1800s, and you encounter the unalloyed activism of Horace Greeley, whose New York Tribune campaigned with equal fervor against slavery and against women’s rights. What makes Breitbart distinct, then, has nothing to do with accuracy or bias; it’s the convergence of scale and time. It’s the way the site appeared to materialize overnight, from the outermost periphery of the media, and to dominate the political conversation in a pivotal election.
And in case you’re not angry enough yet, may we suggest reading William Finnegan‘s 2009 New Yorker profile Sheriff Joe: Joe Arpaio is tough on prisoners and undocumented immigrants. What about crime?
The Guadalupe raid did have a chilling effect. It began the day before a Catholic-church confirmation ceremony—a big deal in Guadalupe—was scheduled to take place in the village plaza, and although the children had prepared for months, a number of them were afraid to come out, and missed their own confirmations.
America’s toughest sheriff is, as ever, unapologetic. Over lunch in New York, he told me that he doesn’t mind the effect he has. “If they’re afraid to go to church, that’s good.”
And we know this round-up has been very U.S. centered so far, so please check out Kathryn Joyce‘s incredible reporting on The New War on Birth Control for Pacific Standard
Fosu had long insisted that his campaign was about protecting African women, not an attempt to open up new fronts in the culture wars. The day we met, he told me he’d carefully trained his African student protesters to avoid mentioning abortion, and vehemently refuted the notion that his partners at C-Fam had an ideological or religious agenda. But by the summer of 2015, Fosu seemed to have dropped the pretense, as the Rebecca Project embraced a series of anti-abortion “sting” videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood engaged in selling fetal tissue.
Okay, it’s time for a dance break, yeah?
How about Mashrou’ Leila and the Night Club’s Political Power by Elias Muhanna for The New Yorker
Mashrou’ Leila is known for its erudite, often enigmatic, lyrics, and “Ibn El Leil” is the band’s most allusive effort yet, with copious references to Greek mythology, ancient poetry, and pagan ritual. When I asked the band members whether I’d correctly identified a quote from Walt Whitman, they peppered me with other literary inspirations that appear on the album: Abu Nuwas, Sappho, Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare. Unsure of what to make of a reference to mushrooms and the Bible in the chorus of “Tayf” (“Ghost”)—a song about a gay club in Lebanon that was shut down by the authorities—Sinno explained, “It’s from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mushrooms,’ one of the most incredible feminist texts I’ve ever read. It’s really beautiful.” Abou Fakher, the band’s guitarist, speculated that for much of its fan base, especially outside of Lebanon, the band’s appeal has to do with the energy and spectacle of the show rather than with the lyrics. “But if someone really wants to get what you’re talking about, they just Google it,” Sinno added.
And their video for the song “Roman” is very cool:
Here’s the video summary on their official YouTube post:
Equality. Solidarity. Intersectionality. #charge مساوة. تضامن. تقاطعية. #عليهم The video self-consciously toys with the intersection of gender with race by celebrating and championing a coalition of Arab and Muslim women, styled to over-articulate their ethnic background, in a manner more typically employed by Western media to victimise them. This seeks to disturb the dominant global narrative of hyper-secularised (white) feminism, which increasingly positions itself as incompatible with Islam and the Arab world, celebrating the various modalities of middle-eastern feminism. The video purposefully attempts to revert the position of the (male) musicians as the heroes of the narrative, not only by subjecting them to the (female) gaze of the director, but also by representing them as individuals who (literally) take the backseat as the coalition moves forward. So while the lyrics of the verses discuss betrayal, struggle, and conflict, the video revolves around the lyrical pivot in the chorus: ‘aleihum (charge!) treating oppression, not as a source of victimhood, but as the fertile ground from which resistance can be weaponised.
Kendrick’s lyrics often delve into spiritual territory, but the Old Testament fire and brimstone is a new theme for him. Perhaps disillusioned by what many see as a dark turn in the country’s history, he is searching for roots by referencing the teachings of the Hebrew Israelites, a black religious movement that has thrived on the margins of the country’s spiritual landscape for over a century.
He also got the answers to a question we, frankly, had not yet even thought of asking: Your ‘Blessed’ Emoji? Rabbi Brands It Idol Worship published over at The Forward
Done dancing, watching time, with Jedediah Purdy‘s Fiery Heaven, Bastard Earth: The Cosmology of “Game of Thrones” for the Los Angeles Review of Books
But in one respect, the world of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is just as traditionally fantastical as the worlds of Grandfather Tolkien, Pious Uncle C. S. Lewis, and Skeptical Cousins Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin. The books’ pleasures are not just narrative and political, but cosmological. All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense: they are interested in the organizing principles of their imagined universes, and the moral and historical meanings of their elements and landscapes. Magic works as more than a deus ex machina or literary CGI effect in their stories because it bodies forth these principles: it is part of the physical and moral laws of a somewhat different world. Fantasy is partly interested in other ways of imagining ice and fire — and earth and sea, rock and wood, summer and the coming of winter. Both the books and the show have, so far, put cosmology at the center while leaving it mysterious, with many open questions about what sort of world this is. Now it falls to the show to give one answer.
And S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate asking When do moviegoers become pilgrims? for The Conversation
Among the millions of travelers heading out for the summer holidays, some are choosing an unlikely destination: a rusted bus on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness.
Fairbanks Bus 142 (aka the “magic bus”) is where the 24-year old Chris McCandless died in 1992. Well-educated and economically secure, McCandless rejected the materialism he saw in contemporary U.S. society. He set out to explore with only what he could carry, and ended up living off the Alaskan land for a few months before dying of starvation. His story was first told by writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer in the book “Into the Wild,” and later made into a film directed by Sean Penn.
Since then, dozens of people every year seek to follow in McCandless’ footsteps. Finding inspiration in his mode of self-sufficiency, many head out to Alaska like secular pilgrims seeking to imitate a great saint from long ago, and to live more simply.
Staying closer to home? We’re still only part way through Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Struggle, but we appreciated reading about Knausgaard’s Secular Confession by Martin Hägglund for boundary 2
To understand the philosophical poetics of My Struggle, then, we must attend to what happens in the narrative alongside the many and often contradictory statements of intent. The view that our secular lives are soulless and banal—that we need to be saved from our time bound existence—belongs to the tendency to disown his life. While this tendency persists throughout My Struggle, the very writing of the book goes in the opposite direction. Far from regarding his life as soulless or banal, the writer of My Struggle depends on the faith that there is enormous significance and depth in the experiences of a finite life, one worthy of being explored down to the most subtle nuances and emotional reverberations. The aim is to attach himself more deeply to his life, rather than transcend it. From this perspective, it is Augustine’s mystical ecstasies that are soulless and banal, since they seek to leave the world behind in favor of an eternal presence where nothing happens. What is profound in Augustine is not the ascent to heaven but the descent into time and memory. It is the latter, descending movement that Knausgaard follows in his practice as a writer.
Lastly, some photography and writing by and about two of our favorite people:
In the gorgeous Telemetry Jeff Sharlet shares photographs and writing about photographs, hearts, family, writing, and much more at Virginia Quarterly Review
The third night I went to the hospital, I woke in the dark in the cardiac wing and looked past my toes to the light of the door, open like a book. In the hall a nurse’s face glowed blue with the light of the telemetry monitor on which she watched our hearts. I took a picture. I posted it with a note about the smells and shapes and sounds of the hospital, my neighbor gently snoring. He was a dishwasher who loved his job; he liked to tell the nurses about his coworkers, “old hens” who would, he said, cluck over him when he returned. He had been washing dishes for sixteen years, ever since he’d stopped driving, because of depression, because, he said, “you don’t ever know what you might do.” He said he was happier just walking.
The next morning, two police officers came to my room. A report of picture-taking; not allowed. I apologized and deleted it. It’s pretty scary, this world. The trees, the whispers, the pictures.
And photographer Tanya Habjouqa‘s work was featured in The Revealer this past June. Here, she gets some well-earned attention in Photographers edit photographers: Tanya Habjouqa’s provocative and mysterious images by Karly Domb Sadof for The Washington Post
I’m drawn to Tanya’s work because she never looks straight ahead, she’s always poking around in little corners and private places, trying to reveal confounding secrets and mysteries and layers of meaning. And she does it with an aesthetic that doesn’t slam you over the head. Which is quite a trick, to be subtle in the aesthetic but to have the pictures be so filled with provocation and mystery.
In the Unholy-Holy Land edit, I tried to connect images of lone individuals confronting or submerged in a landscape, to more domestic scenes where the ideas of play, performance and identity are still there, but more subdued.
I also chose images where one element confused me, where I kept looking and could never quite pin the picture down. That’s what I love about her work. I look at an image and it seems almost blasé and then it whips you around and I’m not sure what to think. I love that.
Lastly, this is just too fascinating not to share: A Controversial Restoration That Wipes Away the Past by Benjamin Ramm for The New York Times
The restoration seeks to reconstitute a temple of light, to challenge the popular perception of Gothic dejection. But in doing so, it raises an intriguing question: What happens when our inherited assumptions about the past come into contact with layers of accumulated myth?
Okay, now some funny stuff and then we’ll leave you to your reading, watching, shouting, protesting, praying, dancing, etc.
How Medieval Chefs Tackled Meat-Free Days by Natasha Frost for Atlas Obscura
All of these restrictions led to some flagrant misinterpretations of what was or was not a fish. The Benedictine abbey of Le Tréport, in northern France, came under fire from the local archbishop, in Rouen, when it was discovered they were regularly noshing on puffins. These, they argued, were mostly found in and around water and must therefore be fish.
And God Created Millennial Earth by Sara K. Runnels for McSweeney’s
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. #CreationGoals #EarthIsBae
2 Now the earth was formless and basic, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was lowkey hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and it was lit AF.
4 God saw that the light was so extra, so He separated the light from the darkness (for aesthetic), then bragged it was hashtag no filter.
5 God called the light “day,” then threw some shade and called it “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first truly #blessed day.
Unholy Piñatas Modeled After Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights” by Sarah Rose Sharp for Hyperallergic
Here, in the United States, piñatas are most commonly considered a fun, slightly violent activity at children’s birthday parties. A hollow papier-mâché form is filled with candy and small toys and then playfully bashed by partygoers with a stick or baseball bat, until it spews forth the contents to cheers and a mad scramble for treats.
But wait! Get behind me, Satan! It turns out that the playful piñata — which has a long and culturally diverse history that includes roots in China, by way of Italy (perhaps disseminated by Marco Polo) — is an object lesson in beating down sin and temptation. The traditional seven-point star piñata is a Mexican Catholic interpretation, with each point representing one of the seven deadly sins. Fun at parties!
How appropriate, then, that Los Angeles-based artist Roberto Benavidez has made wild, larger-than-life representations from the Hieronymus Bosch painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” in piñata form.
Incredible Pagan-Themed Photoshoot By Polish Photographer Reveals Stunning Beauty of Slavic Culture by Dominyka Jurkstaite about Marcin Nagraba’s work for Bored Panda — more on his Instagram
And that’s all for this month. Best wishes for your Septembers.
-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer
You can find previous “In the News” round-ups here.