If You Build It, They Will Come?

ARK5

The Promise by Tom DuBois

One of my favorite pieces of classical music is the one-act opera Noye’s Fludde, created by the British composer Benjamin Britten. The opera is based on the fifteenth-century Chester “mystery” or “miracle” play that recounts the biblical story of Noah, the flood, and the Ark. Featured in the opera is a large chorus consisting of children of all ages and sizes who represent the pairs of animals who march into and out of the Ark, and the numerous unconventional and exotic instruments that provide particular musical effects: bugle fanfares for the animals; handbell chimes for the rainbow; various improvisations to replicate musically the sounds of the storm; and “Slung Mugs,”(cups and mugs of various size and thickness that are slung on string by their handles in order to form a rough scale and in the opera were hit with wooden spoons to produce the sound of the first raindrops hitting the roof of the Ark.) The music is inspirational, the design is brilliant, and the entire production is charming.

But it is not for the charm, or for the design, or even for the inspiration of Noye’s Fludde that I write this article. No. The reason for my writing is because a Bible-themed park, featuring a full-size version of Noah’s Ark will shortly be nestled in the rolling, green hills of tiny Williamstown, Kentucky, arguably one of the more unlikely places on the face of the Earth for such a bizarre project to exist.

Ark Encounter, as the attraction is called, will open 7 July. According to Ken Ham, whose project this is, the Ark is two football fields in length, eighty-five feet in width and eight stories in height. Ark Encounter is just forty-five minutes from Creation Museum, another venture by Ken Ham, which attracts nearly half a million visitors a year and teaches a young-Earth theory of creation. Ham calls his ministry, Answers in Genesis. The Ark is part of an 800-acre property, a portion of which is dedicated to a theme park that will feature a zoo, camel rides, multiple restaurants, and thousands of feet of high-speed zip lines. Ark Encounter is Ham’s Shangri-La, an extravagant vanity project born out of his boundless narcissism and ambition. And that should not surprise anyone familiar with his shtick. Ham, an Australian-born entrepreneur, is as much a showman as he is an evangelist; a preacher who proclaims a twisted gospel, born out of what only can be called biblical ignorance. Ham wants the public to view Ark Encounter as a delightful amusement park doubling as a religious experience.

Families will be able to frolic in Ark Encounter’s other offerings – an ambitious collection of “historically authentic” attractions. (Please note the quotation marks.) These attractions will include a replica of the Tower of Babel, described in the Book of Genesis as a project designed to be so tall that humans could talk face to face with God.  That depiction, of course, assumes that God lives above the sky in a three-tiered universe, an idea that breathed its last breath with the work of Galileo Galilei in the seventeenth century. Visitors will also be able to take a ride through the plagues of Egypt; a first century village; and a pre-flood village. In addition, there will be drama theaters and an amphitheater. Budding zoologists will be able to visit a petting zoo and a walk-through aviary.

But it will not be all fun and games at Ark Encounter. For Ham, the Ark is a symbol of the end times – that so-called period of divine punishment that humans face when they challenge God’s authority. The Ark, Ham claims on the Answers in Genesis website, “was also a vivid warning that, according to the Bible, God sent a flood in Noah’s time to wipe out a depraved people, and God will deliver a fiery end to those who reject the Bible and accept modern-day evils such as abortion, atheism and same-sex marriage. We’re becoming more like the days of Noah in that we see increasing secularization in the culture,” Ham says.

But I have a few concerns about what is behind all of this fun and games. My first concern is that the State of Kentucky is forcing taxpayers – whatever their religious beliefs – to partially fund Ham’s Ark Encounter project.

Yes, tax incentives and free land are provided by the State of Kentucky and Grant County, where Ark Encounter is located, to operate his “evangelical tool,” all in exchange for the hope that the Ark will attract millions of tourism dollars and jobs to the state.

“It’s definitely an evangelical tool,” says Ken Ham. “I mean, it’s not like a Disney or Universal, just for anyone to go and have fun. It’s a religious purpose. It’s because we’re Christians and we want to get the Christian message out.”

Ken Ham is founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis, whose mission is to spread Creationism. (I’ll address that in a minute.) Ham is also the founder and CEO of Ark Encounter. He has been able to fund the Ark through private donations, municipal bond investors and state sales tax incentives.

Ark Encounter is a $100 million, for-profit enterprise, owned by two non-profit organizations, Answers in Genesis, and Crosswater Canyon. To shed some light on how Answers in Genesis is able to siphon money from every direction, I looked at a few of the confusing legal gymnastics taking place here. Crosswater Canyon, controlled by Answers in Genesis, is a non-profit that owns and operates two for-profit companies – Creation Museum, LLC and Ark Encounter, LLC. All donations for the project come in through the non-profit Crosswater Canyon, but all the tax incentives are applied to the for-profit Ark Encounter, LLC.

The literal Ark itself is the only non-profit portion of the attraction. So all the tax deductible donations people make are applied to the construction of the Ark, which qualifies as non-profit because it is an “educational tool.”

And what about the land surrounding the Ark? The land is not technically part of the non-profit part of the park, so donations do not apply there, but that is why visitors will have to pay to park their cars (800 acres of land, and Ken Ham wants to charge people to park!) and then buy an admission ticket to satisfy the business portion of the attraction.

Many people are as outraged as I am. Why? Because Ham’s fundraising methods are a violation of the First Amendment and laws that require separation of church and state. These tax incentives are intended to be neutral and not to support one view or another. It is clear to me that Ark Encounter is not a neutral enterprise.

To this criticism, Ham says that such condemnation is pure nonsense. He adds: “The government offers this tax incentive to the Bourbon Museum [Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History], Kentucky Kingdom [and] the Speedway [Kentucky Speedway]. We have every right to partake in it, too, if it’s a performance-based rebate.”

That may have some validity, but I am certain that the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History does not exclude employment to those who refuse to sign a Statement of Faith and that raises my second concern.

Ham insists that the Statement of Faith is a “basic” Christian credo, much like one would find in a local church. Except, of course, Ark Encounter is not a local church; it is a business. To work at Ark Encounter, job applicants must sign a contract, professing a belief in the creation story as recorded in the Bible. For instance, they agree that the “great flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide in its extent and effect.” Ham says that this declaration is necessary because “we are a Christian organization and we have a Christian message.”

But Ham’s Statement of Faith is far more than that. The statement also requires employees to disavow homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and pre-marital sex. Employees must also believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and in Jesus Christ. So, no Jewish or Islamic employees are permitted. Only Christians are hired – and then, only certain Christians. For instance, I would not be eligible because I embrace evolutionary science. Even Pope Francis would not be qualified since he made the following remark at an assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: “When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

The State of Kentucky tried to revoke the tax rebates after learning that Ham required employees to sign his statement of faith that excludes people who were gay or who do not accept his particular Christian creed, but Ham and Answers in Genesis won a legal battle against the State of Kentucky to retain an $18 million state tax credit. Judge Greg Van Tatenhove of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, writing in his judicial decision, declared that tourist attractions – even those that advance religion – meet the neutral criteria for the tax incentives! Huh?

As if such maneuverings were not bad enough, Ken Ham leads a Christian ministry dedicated to the spreading of Creationism. I am not a creationist by any stretch of the imagination and this is a free country. One can practice whatever kind of Christianity, or any other religion, or no religion at all that one chooses, but that leads me to my third concern.

Ham’s interpretation of what he calls “the Christian message” is intellectually dishonest. His literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is derided by most Christians who consider such a position as indefensible and even embarrassing. Most scientists and educators also disagree with his findings. The theme of this park is to demonstrate the literal accuracy of the biblical book of Genesis.  That is a point of view that no recognized biblical scholar in the world would support.  That seems not to matter to Ham and other self-styled defenders of the literal truth of the Bible.

When people raise questions about the historicity of Ham’s “facts,” they are dismissed as “secular scientists” or “secular historians,” who are not true believers and therefore whose points of view have no validity.  Truth to be truth, it seems, must support Ham’s convictions.

While I do not profess to be either a “secular scientist” or a “secular historian,” I am a practicing Christian who has been educated in a highly regarded college and a reputable seminary and I find that the theories offered by Ham to be profoundly ignorant, and more importantly, to be insulting to the Christian faith itself.  The kind of biblical literalism that Ham and his organization espouse has been relegated to the dustbins of history for at least the last two hundred years.  I am neither opposed to an individual’s private ignorance nor would I deny anyone’s right to interpret his religion in any way he wished, but I do object to those who seek public funds in order to peddle their biblical ignorance to the world in a money-making scheme.  Even more, I resent their ignorance that reduces the Christian faith to a caricature of itself and subjects it to constant ridicule by the usual suspects who know a good source of comedy when they see it. While Ham and his organization assert that the “literal Bible cannot be wrong” those who study the Bible know that it is wrong in thousands of places. To wit: Epilepsy and mental illness are not the result of demon possession, as the Bible states.  Slavery is not a legitimate social institution, as the Bible asserts.  Women are not created inferior to men and cannot be regarded as male property, as the Bible maintains.  Since homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientation they should not be put to death for “their sin,” as the Bible declares. Yet if one applies a literal interpretation of the Bible, one can validate each of those biblical assumptions. The literal Bible is demonstrably wrong in thousands of places in its understanding of reality.

“Young-earthers,” such as Ham believe that God created the universe in six 24-hour solar days, and since all of history is only six thousand years, dinosaurs, along with tigers and camels and other animals roamed the Earth alongside Adam and Eve. Ham completely rejects scientific evidence that the Earth is 4.5 billion years-old and that fossilized dinosaur bones date back roughly sixty-five million years. An exhibit at Ham’s Creation Museum, however, shows two smiling children playing in a lush garden next to two petite Tyrannosaurus rexes! Ham rejects mainstream science institutions as evolutionary sophists. He says: “Museums like the Natural History Museum [sic] in Washington, D.C., Smithsonian [Institution] or Chicago Field Museum [sic], mostly they teach that we supposedly evolved [from] apelike creatures. Why shouldn’t we be able to use the same technology and really challenge people to consider the Bible as the true history of the world?” I think the answer to that question is obvious. At least it is to me.

Young-earth creationism gained popularity only about sixty years ago, and has remained a marginal creed within Christianity. Even many Bible-believers and evangelicals accept the science showing that the universe is billions of years old – some reasoning that each of the six “days” of creation in Genesis may have lasted millions of years, not twenty-four hours. And of course, many Christians accept evolution.

One of Ham’s biggest critics, Bill Nye, best known as “the science guy” on television and in books, has said, “Humans and ancient dinosaurs did not live at the same time. It’s completely unreasonable. Science has established that the earth is billions of years old, and no worldwide flood occurred in the last six thousand years.” Nye dismisses Ham’s creationist exhibits as biblical propaganda and says that dinosaurs died out long before human beings ever came along. Says Nye: “I can prove that beyond any reasonable doubt. That is what’s very troubling. Allosauruses and humans did not live at the same time. Teaching the earth is six thousand years old is completely wrong and inappropriate. We’re going to raise a generation of kids who are scientifically illiterate,” says Nye, who debated with Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in 2014.

For now, the young-earthers are having a heyday, thanks largely to Ham and his supporters. Their ministry, Answers in Genesis, produces books, magazines, videos and curriculums used by thousands of churches and home-schoolers. The Creation Museum – which sells these materials in its gift shops – claims 2.7 million visitors have come through its doors in the nine years since it opened. But about half of those visitors came to the Creation Museum in the first three years, suggesting that interest may have dropped off. The Ark could change that. Ham projects that the Ark will attract 1.4 to 2.2 million visitors in the first year, and will double the attendance at the Creation Museum.

When it opens in July, admission to Ark Encounter will be $40 for adults and $28 for children, (plus parking) and Ham says that he expects the fascination with Noah and his Ark will result in one million to two million visitors in the first year. “We really do believe that if we build it, they will come. And they’re going to come,” Ham said.

And the unsettling truth is that he is probably right. There will be people who will come to this biblical theme park. Showman extraordinaire, Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum reminded us all of how often such people are born. But does the State of Kentucky really want to announce to the world the lack of knowledge that must reside in that state to cause it to offer tax incentives that encourage this degree of religious ignorance? I hope not, but then again, stranger things have happened.

 

 

 

When Religion Makes Me Want to Barf!

no hate

No Hate Campaign Logo

“Those who want to push and promulgate the politics and language of hate need to shut up. And those who know the politics and power of love need to speak up and stand up.”                            – The Reverend William Barber, architect of the Moral Movement.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, the massacre in Orlando, Florida – the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in United States history; the deadliest incident of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of the United States (surpassing the 24 June 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack); and the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 11 September 2001 – was a gut-wrenching tragedy.

But for some Christian pastors, instead of responding with compassion and grace as one would expect from Christian leaders, this attack was seen as a blessing to be cheered and an opportunity to spew hatred. Such rhetoric is enough to make one sick. As an Episcopal priest, I know that such a response is not the norm among Christian pastors, but the extremists in every field are the ones who garner the headlines. This unfortunate fact, of course, does not make their radicalism any less offensive.

A case in point is Pastor Roger Jimenez from Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento, California who told his congregation that Christians “shouldn’t be mourning the death of fifty sodomites.” I should put quotation marks around the word pastor because I have real problems seeing this man as a representative of Jesus. I know that is a judgement call on my part, but listen to the man himself and you decide. (Warning: The following remarks contain offensive and hateful language. Reader discretion advised.)

From the pulpit at Verity Baptist Church, Jimenez called the massacre “great.” He further said: “People say, like: ‘Well, aren’t you sad that fifty sodomites died? (Actually, 49 victims, plus the gunman) Here’s the problem with that. It’s like the equivalent of asking me – what if you asked me: ‘Hey, are you sad that fifty pedophiles were killed today?’

“Um, no, I think that’s great. I think that helps society. You know, I think Orlando, Florida is a little safer tonight. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is – I’m kind of upset that he didn’t finish the job! As Christians, we should not be taking a sympathetic approach to these types of news and saying: ‘This was a tragedy, this is something that we’re sad about, we should be mourning these people.’ The Bible teaches that they’re all predators. That’s all the Bible says about them: They’re wicked, they’re vile, they’re predators. And God says that they deserve the death penalty for what they do. I’m not saying that we should be doing that. But in God’s government, where God set up the laws and God set up the rules and God set up the people in charge, God said: When you find a sodomite, put them to death.”

Jimenez continued: “Let me say this: As Christians, we shouldn’t be advocating the killing of sodomites. I’m not standing up here tonight and saying: Let’s go get some guns, and let’s go get ’em. That’s not what I’m saying at all. People will sometimes hear people like me preach, or other pastors, and say: You guys are advocating violence. We’re not advocating violence. We’re not saying we should go do this. But we’re just saying this: If we lived in a righteous nation, with a righteous government, then the government should be taking them. There’s no tragedy. I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.

“If we lived in a righteous government that loved God and loved children and wanted to protect them, that’s what we’d do. I’m not saying we should do it. I’m not saying we should go, you know, blow up Planned Parenthood. I’m not saying that at all. All I’m saying is this: If God has his way, that’s what he’d do. And by the way, in the millennium, that’s what will be done. God’s laws will be reestablished.”

Throughout his sermon Sunday, Jimenez preached about what he said was God’s view on homosexuality. He referenced Paul’s Letter to the Romans and “natural” and “unnatural” sexual relations and the “recompense for their error.” Jimenez said, “If you don’t mind writing in your Bible, right there next to Romans 1:27, you ought to write this word: AIDS. The recompense for their error, you know what that was? AIDS.” Romans 1:27 states: “And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”

“These people are predators. They are abusers,” Jimenez told his congregation. “They take advantage of people. And look, as Christians, we need to take these stands that it is not our job to sit there and say, oh, this is a tragedy, or oh, this is something we mourn. Look, the Bible paints the picture that these are wicked people. These are evil people.”

He said that Christians must “fight a spiritual battle. We shouldn’t be advocating what happened today,” he said, “but we shouldn’t be sad about it, either.”

And this kind of offensive muck, including grammatical errors, is from a Christian pastor no less!

Verity Baptist Church is not affiliated with any branch of the Baptist faith. That lack of affiliation means that Jimenez can say whatever he wishes without any accountability to a larger religious community. A pastor who is not accountable is a pastor who can actually facilitate an atmosphere of spiritual corruption. A lack of oversight serves as fodder for theologically erroneous teaching.

Members of the LGBT community are not allowed to join Verity Baptist or to attend its services, according to the church’s  “What We Believe” page. It states the church believes “sodomy” – referring to homosexuality – is “a sin and an abomination before God which God punishes with the death penalty.”

In an interview after his sermon went viral on the Internet, Jimenez said “we’ve received a lot of threats.” “But,” he added, “there are many people out there who agree with what I’m saying. In America, you’re no longer allowed to have an opinion that goes against mainstream society. The whole point that I was making is that if people who God puts the death penalty on die anyway, that’s not something that we necessarily need to be mourning. When people die who deserve to die, it’s not a tragedy. In fact, the gunman that went in there, he deserved to die because he killed those people; we shouldn’t be mourning his death either.”

If those comments by Jimenez do not make you want to retch, then here is another example for your digestion or indigestion, as the case may be.

An Arizona pastor who is listed as an anti-gay hate group leader by the Southern Poverty Law Center posted his response to the Orlando killings that was similar to Jimenez’s. Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona celebrated the shooting rampage by Omar Mateen, the American-born Muslim  who allegedly claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.

“The good news is that at least fifty of these pedophiles are not going to be harming children anymore,” Anderson said. “The bad news is that a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive, so they’re going to continue to molest children and recruit people into their filthy homosexual lifestyle. The other bad news is that this is going to now be used as propaganda not only against Muslims, but also against Christians.” (Here is another example of confusing and equating homosexuality with pedophilia.)

“I’m not sad about it; I’m not going to cry about it,” Anderson said of the massacre, adding that the victims “were going to die of AIDS and syphilis and whatever else; they were going to die early anyway.”

Anderson, it should be remembered, gained notoriety in 2009 when he told his congregation that he hates President Obama and would “pray that he dies and goes to hell.” A member of Anderson’s congregation then showed up at an Obama appearance armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Anderson said he has never advocated for violence. “I don’t believe in taking the law into our own hands. I would never go in and shoot up a gay bar, so called. I don’t believe it’s right for us to just be a vigilante. We’re supposed to obey the law of the land and obey the powers that be. I would never take things into my own hands.”

He added: “But I will say this: You know, the Bible says that homosexuals should be put to death in Leviticus 20:13. Obviously, it’s not right for somebody to just, you know, shoot up the place, because that’s not going through the proper channels. But these people all should have been killed anyway, but they should have been killed through the proper channels. As in, they should have been executed by a righteous government that would have tried them, convicted them and saw them executed.”

How is that for Christian compassion!

Pastor Jimenez said we “shouldn’t be mourning the death of fifty sodomites.” Well, I want to say to Pastor Jimenez, Pastor Anderson and any others like them, that I do mourn. I do mourn those forty-nine deaths. I grieve deeply over these attacks. I mourn even more when Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, seeks to use this tragedy to score political points. I am amazed to hear not only innuendo from Trump, but also actual hints that the President of the United States is either so weak and so inept as to be helpless in the face of this threat, or is actually in collusion with these terrorists. Such comments border on accusing President Obama of aiding and abetting the enemy – a treasonable offence! Trump said: “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it.” Trump said during an interview on Fox & Friends: “People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable.” Trump, it is worth remembering, is largely responsible for the “birther conspiracy” in which he accused President Obama of being born in Kenya and therefore not a United States citizen, and that he is really a Muslim. As lawyer Joseph Welsh famously said to Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin when he was on his witch hunt for Communists: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Those words are once again appropriate at this time in our national life.

I also mourn the fact that terrorism is now linked with homophobia, which makes one of America’s most oppressed minorities newly vulnerable. Recent articles in the press have reported that Omar Mateen not only had been to the Pulse gay nightclub on a number of occasions, but also had contacted some of his victims previously through a gay dating app, presumably seeking to line up sexual encounters. If repressed homosexuality turns out to be a factor in this horrific tragedy, which I am worried may be the case here, then I fear that the floodgates of hostility toward the LGBT community will once again be opened. Such hostility makes me want to march in the next Gay Pride Parade as an act of solidarity with my LGBT friends and associates.

This nation’s rising consciousness about homosexuality will not be suppressed or turned around, but mentally sick people will still make others their victims, before this prejudice joins other such shameful moments in our nation’s history as the witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts or the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans in internment camps in the United States during World War Two. One should never underestimate the power in human beings to do evil to their fellow human beings.

We can indeed honor the victims of the Orlando killings by building a nation based on the hope for a better tomorrow for all Americans, not by yielding to the politics of hate, or of vengeance, or of exclusiveness, or of the fear of those who are “not like us.”

If I believed in Hell, I would say that there are special places reserved in that eternal dark pit for the likes of Roger Jimenez, Steven Anderson, and all others like them when they die. Like many others, I am absolutely disgusted by their message of hatred – a message that just makes me want to puke – and I will neither be sad nor mournful that they and their hateful message are no longer with us.

UPDATE!

1. At least 1,000 people protested Pastor Roger Jimenez at his Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento on Sunday, 19 June, many of them waving pro-LGBT signs and rainbow flags as parishioners struggled to maneuver through.

2. The property management company and owner of the building in which Verity Baptist Church and its Pastor Roger Jimenez preside have decided not to renew the church’s lease, and have asked church officials to consider moving.

While Harsch Investment Properties, owner of the Northgate Business Park where the church is located, cannot legally evict the church under the terms of the lease, representatives of the property management company say they cannot tolerate “tenants who advocate hatred and the taking of innocent lives.”

Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oratory Can Lead To Tyrany

CHAPLIN

Charlie Chaplin as “Adenoid Hynkel” in the film The Great Dictator

“… of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

So wrote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. He could just as easily have written those words today.

Last Sunday night, the Broadway production, Hamilton, a retelling of the Founding Father’s life, loves, and losses entirely in rap and song, won eleven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Leslie Odom Jr. won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Alexander Hamilton’s fatal “frenemy,” Aaron Burr. Odom said recently that what playing Burr has taught him is to ask the question: “What is the future going to say about us now, what are our kids going to look at us and say, ‘how could you not stop that person from getting into power’?”

Hamilton is probably as close as we Americans can get to an original work by William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon – and not just because the story of Hamilton’s rise and fall is in many respects Shakespearian in its scope and tragedy, as well as in its discourse on power, but also because the language of song – and rap in particular – is like Shakespeare’s language in his plays, relying as they both do on mastery of the many, many figures of speech.

And that makes sense since rhetoric and the figures of speech were themselves derived from the memory tricks used by the great poets, such as Homer, to remember their long epic poems and to make those poems memorable and emotionally compelling to the audience

Not coincidentally, we might never have heard of Alexander Hamilton were it not for his mastery of rhetoric.

Alexander Hamilton was born in and spent part of his childhood in Charlestown, the capital of the island of  Nevis, in the Leeward Islands. Early in his childhood, his mother moved with the young Hamilton to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. When he was only seventeen-years-old, Hamilton described a storm that devastated St. Croix on the evening of 31 August 1772. Hamilton wrote a letter to his father that masterfully combined the literal and the figurative: “The roaring of the sea and wind – fiery meteors flying about in the air – the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning – the crash of the falling houses – and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.” Hamilton personified the storm as Death itself: “Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke.” And he extended the metaphor, “On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds.”

Hamilton’s hurricane letter generated such a sensation that a subscription fund was taken up by local businessmen to send him to North America to be educated. Such was the power of rhetoric and the figures of speech to alter the course of Hamilton’s life that in turn altered the course of the United States.

The greatest speech-makers of all time have all used rhetoric and have fully understood its power. At the same time, the masters of rhetoric have understood how easily oratory can be misused to manipulate an audience. Such an approach is often associated with dictators and sleazy politicians who appeal to the worst nature in people – something that we have seen Donald Trump do on countless occasions.

In 1939, Wystan Hugh Auden blessed us with these thoughts in his poem entitled Epitaph on a Tyrant:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Auden may have had Adolf Hitler in mind when he wrote those words, but they do sound like he could be writing about someone in today’s headlines

The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in Rhetoric, his treatise on the art of persuasion, and the first in-depth study of the subject, wrote: “An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.” And Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, warned that a rhetorician could persuade any audience, no matter how intelligent, that he was more of a doctor than a real doctor.

Sound like anyone we know today?

It is interesting to note that in the opening paragraph of his 1897 essay on the kind of person who abuses the power of rhetoric, Winston Churchill thought “the day of oratory is passing.” I wonder what he would think in 2016! But in 1897 – and indeed for his entire political career – it was unthinkable to Churchill, and to many other statesmen, that anyone but they would write their speeches. Churchill wrote: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable. Many have watched its effects. A meeting of grave citizens, protected by all the cynicism of these prosaic days, is unable to resist its influence. From unresponsive silence they advance to grudging approval and thence to complete agreement with the speaker. The cheers become louder and more frequent; the enthusiasm momentarily increases; until they are convulsed by emotions they are unable to control and shaken by passions of which they have resigned the direction.”

Sound familiar?

This abuse of power is a key reason Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton feared men “commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants,” as he wrote in the “The Federalist #1,” the first of the eighty-five Federalist Papers that promoted ratification of the United States Constitution. The Papers were Hamilton’s idea, and he wrote most of them. He recruited John Jay who wrote a handful, and James Madison who wrote the rest (a few jointly with Hamilton). Madison, writing in “The Federalist #10,” penned these words: “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”

A man “of factious temper” – in other words, Donald Trump – who betrays the interests of the people poses a considerably graver risk today than two centuries ago because the threats we face today, including nuclear war and human-caused climate change, are more related to human existence than many other threats.

I do not need to remind you that the demagogue named Donald Trump has declared that if elected President, he would use all the powers of the Office to block both national  and global action on climate change – including EPA’s Clean Power Plan, all domestic climate-related regulations, and the Paris climate agreement.

I also do not need to remind you that such a devastating action would be the end of America as we have come to know it, an end of the America that the Founding Fathers strove to create and protect. So what will the future say – and what will we say to our children when they ask: How could you not stop that person from getting into power and preventing this disaster from happening?

The answer is in our hands.

Revenge and a Donald Trump Presidency

trump rallyIt was John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (Lord Acton) who wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” I am beginning to come to that same conclusion with regards to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Increasingly, I am coming to the realization that Donald Trump is running for president because he believes the power and fame of the White House will allow him to settle some scores in his ever-expanding list of petty grievances.

I suspect that there are other motivating factors that Trump must like about being president, such as the attention that he will receive, thus feeding his enormous ego, and the opportunity to slap the word “Trump” in gold lettering across the front of the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, again feeding his massive ego. But for those who have been following the campaign closely, it is hard to ignore the fact that rather than address the myriad of problems facing this country, “The Donald” spends most of his time honing an enemies’ list of people that he imagines have personally slighted him and then fantasizing out loud about putting them and anyone he associates with them in their place.

To illustrate my point, a recent New York Times article detailed a major grudge that Trump holds against a group of Chinese investors that helped save him from a financial crisis in the 1990s. In 1994, Trump’s Riverside South project on Manhattan’s West Side ran into financial difficulty and Donald Trump was rescued by Henry Cheng of the New World Development group and other investors from Hong Kong, who acquired a $300 million mortgage on the property for $82 million. The Hong Kong investors sold the bulk of the project in 2005 for $1.8 billion in the largest residential real estate transaction in New York City’s history. Trump was entitled to a portion of the profits, but Trump was furious, and contends to this day that had his partners consulted with him first, the group could have made more money. Trump sued the Hong Kong investors, and  though he lost the lawsuit, he eventually ended up with minority stakes in a pair of office buildings on the site, now worth $640 million. He mentions this deal during his many campaign tirades portraying China as some kind of economic predator who will stop at nothing to destroy the American economy, saying, “we are being ripped so badly by China” and that China is out to “rape our country” and that our trade deficit with China is “the greatest theft in the history of the world.”

It is a bizarre obsession, but The New York Times story suggests that Trump’s paranoia about China could be the direct result of his personal vendetta against this group of Hong Kong billionaires that he sued because he was not asked to sit in on their sales meetings.

It may sound like a real stretch to say that a man would attack an entire country of people because he felt like a handful of businessmen snubbed him, but this is hardly the first story that has come out linking Trump’s bizarre political conspiracy theories to the personal grudges he holds.

Another example of Trump’s thinking involves a business deal in Mexico. The three-tower, twenty-five story luxury Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico condo-hotel project by the Trump Organization and the Los Angeles-based real estate development company, Irongate Wilshire LLC, was originally announced in 2006. Two years later, the project ran into financial trouble, and Trump removed his name from it. By 2009, the project was effectively suspended, and angry investors sued.

Trump said that he had merely licensed his name to the project, and had not been involved in building it. In November 2013, after more than four years of litigation, Trump – who often says, “I never settle lawsuits” – did indeed settle the lawsuit with about one hundred would-be condo buyers.

It is not the only time that Trump has engaged in this unsavory practice of licensing his name to other developers to trick people into thinking that they are investing with him instead of with someone whose name they do not recognize. But what is interesting about this incident is that Trump’s bitterness over having to settle this lawsuit seems to have spilled over into his opinions about Mexico itself, causing him to demonize the entire country and everyone who lives in it. In his announcement of his candidacy, Trump said this of Mexicans crossing the Mexican border to come to the United States: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

And that kind of rhetoric includes not only people who were born in Mexico, but also those who have a “Mexican heritage.” I am referring to, of course, Trump’s recent attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over lawsuits against Trump University. But it is important to distinguish between what is merely obnoxious and the truly odious in his remarks.

Trump has repeatedly attacked Judge Curiel as “unfair” and “a hater of Donald Trump.” (I find it rather curious the way Trump speaks of himself in the third person. Trump talking about himself in this way reflects his perception of himself as being a larger-than-life character on the world stage.) He has also threatened a civil case against the judge if he (Trump) becomes President, adding that because Judge Curiel is “of Mexican heritage” he has “an inherent conflict of interest.” The media have offered Trump opportunities to retreat, but he keeps insisting that ethnicity disqualifies the judge from ruling fairly because Trump favors building a wall at the United States-Mexican border. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump said: “Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK? I’m building a wall. I am going to do very well with the Hispanics, the Mexicans.” Well, that explains the matter. Right? Wrong!

Trump is attacking Judge Curiel in a personal business case, not a political one, and as a candidate for President he should be above this kind of pettiness. His implied threat against the judge if he becomes president is certainly obnoxious, but what elevates Trump’s remarks from the obnoxious to the odious is his equation of ethnicity with bias. That line of thinking truly is an attack on the independence of the judiciary because it means that a judge can be disqualified from a case merely for his personal background, rather than for any material conflict of interest.

The suit against Trump University is a classic civil fraud case that has nothing to do with ethnicity. Judge Curiel is an American – born in East Chicago, Indiana to Mexican immigrant parents – but that is of no legal import. He should not be judged by the ancestry of his parents any more than Chief Justice John Roberts should be barred from ruling on religious liberty cases such as the Little Sisters of the Poor (Zubik v. Burwell) because he is a Roman Catholic.

Even for an egotistical buffoon such as Donald Trump, there are easier ways of striking back at others for petty grievances and perceived slights than by running for President of the United States. Score-settling may be one of Trump’s motivations, but I suspect that impetus is just for starters. One thing we know about Donald Trump is that he never actually goes away, at least not voluntarily. He will have a long-term plan for keeping what he has gained, even if it is completely insane.

We should not underestimate the depths of Trump’s pathology. For instance, we know that he has studied totalitarian figures and that much of what he is doing and saying is straight out of their playbooks. In a 1990 interview with Vanity Fair, for instance, Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana related that “from time to time her husband reads a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which he keeps in a cabinet by his bed.” Trump has confirmed that the former Mrs. Trump’s 1990 assertion is true. My New Order contains twenty-three years’ worth of Hitler’s speeches and is profusely indexed and filled with details about the speeches’ impact on the media and the political establishment.

The way Trump rages like a madman, responds aggressively in public, and retorts forcefully, closely follows the instructions in My New Order.  Trump has successfully learned how to target an audience’s lowest common denominator, how to use scare-propaganda successfully, and how to structure an emotional speech for effect and to incite rage. Trump is as proficient at hateful demagoguery as was any twentieth century brute.

It should be noted that Trump uses his audience’s racial animosity and rage to attack Hispanics, African Americans and Middle Eastern Americans, and mocks women and disabled people with impunity. He also threatens to obliterate whatever enemies he names or decides are his enemies without regard for facts or inconsistency in his statements because he plays to his supporters’ fears and prejudices.

The reason that Trump is leading the Republican Party is due to the hate, the lack of intelligence, and the sheer terror of any and everything among his followers. According to a profile of Trump supporters, one half of his voters have a high school education or less, which is why Trump appeals to that special breed of southern Republican; with a particularly special appeal to Texans. Apparently, Trump took the highest proportion of Texas support from Ted Cruz, which speaks volumes because Cruz, the Cuban-Canadian immigrant, is a proponent of a very special breed of southern evangelical Christian fascism called Dominionism.

As The New York Times reported, Trump’s words are carefully crafted to appeal to angry, frightened, and ignorant racists. The New York Times analyzed the content and style of all of Trump’s speeches between July and November, and they did note several Americans he emulates, saying:Trump’s pattern of elevating emotional appeals over rational ones is a rhetorical style that historians, psychologists and political scientists placed in the tradition of Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long, and Pat Buchanan.”  I should mention here that the men cited have all been notorious American hate-mongers who have used vile language, propaganda, and fear to win favor with scared Americans.

It is fair to say that Donald Trump’s candidacy would have gone nowhere had it not been for his terrified, older, white, and hateful base of support; a base who will remain fully intact after he is gone. And, they will be extraordinarily angry because the man that best represents their “ugly American” ideal will no longer represent their deep-seated hatred of everything. He also will not be the leader they, the Republican base, want as president and America will not be the Utopia after which they lust.

It is likely that winning the nomination is the ultimate act of revenge against the Republican Establishment that has up to this moment considered Trump a celebrity joke and has refused to allow him to control anything related to the Republican Party.

It is that sense of obtaining revenge against twenty-first century American society and culture that drives Trump’s angry white Christian base. It is the same base that Sarah Palin and others among the GOP represent who want to have their own “payback” against an increasingly nonwhite, non-Christian, and non-bigoted population. It is the “take our country back” mindset that Trump promises to see to realization.

The kind of people who love Donald Trump most are angry because they are neither the center of, nor the controlling force in all American life and culture. It is this anger that drives the current “make America great again” movement that began when Americans elected Barack Obama, an African-American man, as President. These so-called Americans see the nation with a Black President and a more diverse population as an abomination to their white Christian America and it drives their heartfelt embrace of Trump’s mantra that now is payback time.

Trump’s supporters in particular, and the conservative movement in general, include the kind of people who believe that they have been assaulted by the civil rights movement, by minorities, by the women’s movement, and by the LGBT community, which they are convinced have robbed them of their America. They also firmly believe that the rest of the population owes them due deference for being the only real Americans, instead of being mocked for what they really are: bible-thumping, xenophobic, racist, knuckle-draggers, stuck in pre-Civil War America.

What Americans should be most concerned about is not a Donald Trump presidency. I continue to believe that his particular brand of hatred is not main-stream enough to see him winning the White House. But then, I confess that I am a cock-eyed optimist. No, what Americans should be concerned about is that after Trump is gone, his angry racist base will remain and they will be angrier than ever before. Those who scold the GOP Establishment for creating Donald Trump have it all wrong. The GOP did not create Donald Trump; he has always been a pathological liar, a thinly-skinned narcissist, an unapologetic racist, a blatant misogynist, a blowhard megalomaniac, an unashamed bully, a whining man-baby, and an all-around bigot. And he could become the next President of the United States!

Having said that, I do believe that it is reasonable to say that the GOP has spent the past eight years putting all of its energy into creating and cultivating Trump’s angry racist base of support. If the GOP were not aligned behind Donald Trump, it would be for Ted Cruz or whichever Republican promised convincingly enough to give the white Christian base what it and its hero du jour (presently, Donald Trump) desperately want – revenge and a serious dose of payback for not being able to control America.

 

The Donald Trump Phenomenon: It May Take a Deceased Frenchman to Explain It

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What is the attraction of Donald Trump? What is the reason for his popularity, even though he is viewed unfavorably by fifty-eight per cent of voters nationally? Why has he dominated the polls since last August and defeated at least sixteen other Republican contenders? The answers to these questions have so far stumped the political pundits.

One person who could possibly have understood Trump’s popularity and staying power was Roland Barthes. Never heard of Roland Barthes? I am not surprised. He is not exactly a household word by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Barthes has been dead since 1980, but even so, I find his words to be utterly relevant to an understanding of the political phenomenon known as Donald Trump.

Roland Gérard Barthes was a French philosopher, literary theorist, linguist, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology  and post-structuralism. In 1980, in what French Existentialists would call an “absurd” event, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris and one month later succumbed to the chest injuries sustained in that accident. Barthes was just sixty-five years old.

Barthes most famous essay, published in his 1957 anthology, Mythologies, focused on professional wrestling of all things. Barthes was not writing about Donald Trump, of course, but when Barthes wrote about professional wrestling as a “spectacle of justice,” I believe he may have been onto something worth considering in understanding the Trump phenomenon. It is worth noting here that before he was a presidential candidate, Donald Trump was an active participant in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and in 2013 was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

I find it more than mere coincidence that Barthes essay, “The World of Wrestling,” focuses on a “sport” that is heir to none other than boxing. Barthes refers here, not to the modern day collegiate sport of wrestling, which appropriately maintains many of the same rules as its Greek origins, but to the much more lucrative version that most of us would recognize as WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment – with the emphasis on the word, “entertainment.”

Barthes does not make a value judgment about either boxing or wrestling. He simply broadcasts the fact that, like a Broadway show, a wrestling-match is about smoke and mirrors, whereas a boxing-match is about the precision of science. In fact, the draw for many boxing aficionados are those rare moments when a contestant, seemingly dominated by his competitor physically, somehow manages to endure the physical punishment long enough to weaken his oppressor merely by absorbing his energy. Muhammad Ali, for instance, was famous for this style of fighting late in his career when he came to terms with the fact that he had grown slow and heavy compared to his earlier career. He would taunt his opponents, inviting them to hit him and actually allow them to do so in many instances. The idea was to have his opponents use up as much energy as possible and then in the third or fourth round unleash his own reserve of energy at the very moment that his seemingly superior opponent had grown weak. This was also a game of psychology, of course. It must have been somewhat mentally debilitating for Ali’s opponents to hit him as hard as they possible could just to see him smile and say something like: “Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right – when he knocks you down, you’ll sleep for the night; and when you lie on the floor and the ref counts to ten, hope and pray that you never meet me again.

To bring all of this back to the current state of affairs of politics in the United States, and in particular, to Donald Trump, I must say plainly that I find the Trump phenomenon to be nothing more than a wrestling-match and that Donald Trump is not playing politics; he is presenting spectacle. Trump is a wrestler, and perhaps better than any presidential candidate in history, he knows how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of justice as though it were the very concept itself.

When I was exposed to Barthes essay on wrestling in Mythologies for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the obvious connection I saw between the way Trump is running his campaign and the way a successful wrestler draws the audience into his camp from inside the ring. In the current campaign, Trump has behaved like a professional wrestler while his opponents have conducted the race like a boxing match. Figuratively speaking, as the rest of the field measured up for their next jab, Trump decked them all by hitting them with a metal chair. Democrats should take note of things to come. This will be a bruising, bashing fight to the finish with only one person standing when it is over. In Trump’s mind, that person will be Donald Trump, of course.

Others in the Republican field have been concerned with the rules and constructing a strategy that, under those rules, would lead to the nomination. But Trump has not concerned with such things as rules. Instead, Trump has focused on each moment and eliciting the maximum amount of passion in that moment – and his supporters have loved it and still do.

Trump knows how to define his opponent – whether that opponent is China, or Mexico, or illegal immigrants, or hedge fund managers, or “Crooked” Hillary, or “Goofy” Elizabeth Warren – and pledges to go after them with unbridled aggression. If, in making his case, he crosses over a line or two, so what! It is all in the game and all for the better as far as Trump and his followers are concerned.

For a pro wrestler, energy is everything. A wrestling fan is less interested in what is happening – or the coherence of how one event leads to the next – than the fact that something is happening. On that score, Trump delivers as well. Along those lines, Trump’s favorite insult – which he employed repeatedly against Jeb Bush and then against Ben Carson – was that his opponents were “low energy.”

He is omnipresent on TV. When he cannot make it in front of the cameras, he simply calls into the morning TV shows. When he is not on TV, he is tweeting boasts, insults, and non-sequiturs. When he runs out of things to tweet, he retweets random comments from his supporters. He is, above all, a master at manipulating the media.

Uncontrolled action is suicidal for a boxer, or for a traditional politician. But Trump is not a traditional politician and therefore is not bound by those limitations. The crazier things become, the more Trump’s supporters love the chaos.

Some of the most successful fights are crowned by a decisive unrestrained finale where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring, and the limitations of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder that overflows into the hall and carries off wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators. With the Trump phenomenon, Americans have been swept away by a triumphant disorder, and some believe that it needs to be brought to an end by reinstating the rules and regulations of the ring.

So why can’t voters see that what Trump offers is just an act, just a spectacle? It is obvious that it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. Perhaps this is why the attacks on Trump have been so ineffective. When Rand Paul and others took to calling out Trump as an “entertainer” and a “con artist” rather than as a legitimate candidate, this approach was about as effective as me running into the middle of the ring during a WrestleMania event and yelling: “This is all fake!” I would be correct in my accusation, of course, but I am equally correct that no one would really care.

One of Barthes’ central points is that boxing, represented by traditional rules and decorum, is not morally superior to pro wrestling. In fact, for all its deceit and phoniness, one could argue that pro wrestling today is a more noble pursuit than boxing, which is hopelessly corrupt and fraudulent. Similarly, Trump is able to take advantage of the obvious dysfunction of the traditional political system. Compared to this system, the things that Trump is offering – passion, energy, and a sense of justice – may not seem so bad to many.

Does this mean that Donald Trump will be the next Republican president of the United States? At this point in time, no one really knows – and I, for one, sincerely hope not and will not vote for him under any conceivable circumstance – but what we do know is that traditional punditry has thus far been incapable of understanding his appeal. Roland Barthes has been dead now for some thirty-six years, but I believe that what he wrote in 1957 about the world of professional wrestling and boxing has considerable application today in understanding the political phenomenon known as Donald Trump. A little Barthes might be very helpful right now.