Trumpification

Religions have become Trumpified. Actually, Trumpification has been happening throughout society for my whole life. I first noticed it in Red Cross Lifesaving classes at the Boy’s Club in the late 1960s. A large part of the class was spent learning about the legal repercussions from any attempt to save a life. Along with actually learning the techniques for saving a life we were learning how to make deep philosophical choices about whether to bother trying at all given the legal consequences! Through this, the moral choice that had always seemed blatantly obvious – wasn’t.

Knowing how to save a drowning person does not obligate you to attempt the rescue. Morality obligates you and common decency obligates you, training guides you, but if the person you save breaks a rib as you salvage their ability to breath air again, you can be sued. (Good Samaritan laws since that time have made it better, but not removed the threat.) The most basic moral choice – to save a life – is so full of legal ramifications that morality is squeezed out of the choice. This very same thing is happening in religion.

I’ve written in the past about the inverted pyramid of structure that ignores the wholesome reasons for its genesis. The church begins with good intention, but as it decides new moral concerns, its laws expand. The more rigid the rules, the more a specialist is needed to manage it. Theologians have to become lawyers just to do their job. The structure is so vast and complicated that the specialists transform themselves from deep thinking scholars contemplating lofty thoughts, into code translators – lawyers of the codified dogma. A massive set of rules with subsections and related scholarship, clauses, codicils and analysis must fit into cells in the spread sheet to be managed. Or, at least computerized data starts out as the tool that is used by the manager of the vast religion’s leadership. Eventually, the computerized data-set earns enough trust to proclaim the “truth” of the organization on its own, not the humans. The humanity of compassion and morality and intuition can’t be factored into the equation as before, so even religion, a supposedly human-based entity, becomes machine-like. I have used the Pope’s recent Exhortation on Love as a prime example of heartless databased legality dressed up in pretty words; the rules for ‘exclusion,’ if you will.

Success in this world comes to those most willing to pay the lawyers to fight and prolong the battles. Trump does what he wants then says: “see you in court.” The church says: “see you in court, meanwhile, we’ll pray for your child’s torn rectum and mental well-being.” The drowning girl’s father sues you for cracking her rib after you risk your own life to save her’s. The precision of definition that either allows or prevents human variance is immensely detailed.

The lawyer’s job is to clarify the rules by removing emotion and precisely defining the edges of the rules. This makes sense when creating a will, but lawyering emotion out of religion is contraindicated. Religions rely on emotion for rituals and hymns, its architecture and art. Ceremonies, holidays, societal events all use the emotional appeals to deities. Rationality is not the prayer’s function.

This universal reliance on codes, not humanity is altering the nature of morality itself. The interface between humans is lined with implied contracts and legal obligations, with varieties of social, racial and religious rules. Back in the days of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin (old TV shows from the 50s) even the dogs could tell right from wrong. Now, some rich guy with enough lawyers and no moral conscience can run the world. There’s no legal way to stop him except for the slow laborious process of bureaucracy. One of the wealthiest religions in the world, the Catholic Church, hides behind a wall of lawyers. Just like Trump, their “monied morality” – the judgment of the secular database, will be decided in court; one long-delayed case after another. The trained lifesaver who takes no action as the little girl drowns faces no legal challenge, but the pain of moral responsibility should be unbearable.

Or should it? Our churches hide behind lawyers because of their own behaviors and in spite of their own rhetoric. They know their sin. They did it again and again. Yet they slowly clutter up the courts with legal gamesmanship. The president doesn’t represent moral standards of any sort, yet he is not punished. Why shouldn’t the trained saver-of-lives believe it’s morally correct simply to walk away? His moral choice has become: whether he can afford enough lawyers to face the legal ramifications of saving her. The sanctity of her life has little bearing. The moral question of saving the little girl, is no different from the church’s choice to hide abusive pedophiles rather than turning them in to the police, or deceitful business practices protected by a wall of lawyers.

My Humanism expects that the honorable trained life-saver will do his human duty in spite of the consequence of our Trumpified lives.  Let’s follow that example not Trump or the Church.

Ho Ho’s Role in Polytheistic Monotheism

Today while I was out doing battle with the string trimmer a brilliant thought occur to me. I was mauling the grass into submission due to the recent volume of rain here in the rain forest, I conceived of something I deemed to be of monumental importance. Previous to that, I had been lamenting the lack of HO HOs on the island of St. Croix. There I was, swinging the string trimmer back and forth – burrrrrump one direction and burrrrrrrump the other, when I caught sight of a glorious truth over by the banana trees. Inspiration struck fully formed then, as usual, it was gone. I suspected it had something to do with the 3rd or 4th centuries. But, why would I even think about stuff from way back then, and why now, I mean 2017? I had become dehydrated of course, this is a tropical island and I am retired so I required a fan and a bottle of water to restore my salinity, sanity, and dissipate my entropy. Then back to the chore at hand.

I did remember the HO HOs lament, so I had something to help reconstruct my train of thought. Wait a minute, “HOs” “polytheism” of course that’s what it’s about; how polytheism influenced Christianity, which presumably related to the TV show Mad Men, burrrrrrrump. You know, that TV show about, burrrrrrrump, the advertising business in the 1960s. Wait, this makes no sense! I doubt the women back then (third century-ish, maybe fourth), burrrrrrrump wore those pointy bras or heels, or even worked in ad agencies, burrrrrrrump, but it’s quite likely there were three (or more) wise-women hanging-out with their camels looking for a bright star in the East, burrrrrrrump, and a slew of female sheep herders hanging around the stalls awaiting the phenomena of a, burrrrrrrump, virgin birth. After all, it had happened before. A new thought occurred that brought a conclusion to this whole lawn trimming thing: If he is a shepherd wouldn’t she be a hepherd? I’m just asking. Time for another bottle of water and a nap.

 

Lets reconnoiter, Jesus is to HO HOs as polytheism is to the third century. That should make things clear. It may never be an analogy on the MCAT but it works for me. Let me explain in my own words: (That is what I have been doing so far and look where it’s gotten us!)

The original marketing plan in the early days of Christianity was great, remember: “Jesus actually exists, He’s not myth (like those other gods), he’s real”. This was the perfect marketing angle for its time. It was fresh, new, and exciting. It worked like gangbusters too, but after a century it started to lose its bang, the pizazz was gone. This is where the Mad Men ad agency would come in handy. What if Christians had those guys working for them way back then? How would a 1960’s ad firm sell that particular box-o-soap?

Well, assessing the situation, it looks like monotheistic Jews and a variety of polytheistic religions were the main competition. Christians would need to choose an ad campaign to counteract those problems. So, this is where the HO HO’s come in – “Three flavorful treats in one package!” TA-Da! Welcome to the age of the Trinity.  Reformatting that monotheistic God into three parts is shear genius. It’s monotheistic polytheism for the masses.

God the father could be the superhero, an all-powerful father figure with muscles like superman and a beard like well, Rembrandt’s version was just fine. His “real-life” blood soaked action-figure son, Jesus as second in command all Rambo-like with a sword in one hand and a massive wooden cross in the other sitting on God’s right hand. That leaves the
holy ghost – well we’ll just assume that back then they knew what a ghost actually does, or even looks like, cause I can’t imagine the purpose of having a ghost except to scare people. Maybe that’s what they mean by god-fearing Christians – they’re afraid of ghosts. Well, the new pitch includes, a progenitor fertility myth, a salvation/action hero, and a scary guy in a sheet. Put that in a HO HO wrapper and you can sell it in any gas station across the country.

So, what exactly would you be eating anyway? I mean you’ve got two men and a genderless spirit that are all supposed to be the same thing. What do you see when you open that package? Short stubby black tubes filled with a white creamy substance that squirts out its sugary goodness when you bite into it. You could try sucking on it but that usually makes a gooey mess. The point is, each snack is identical to all the other HO HOs.

Open up a package of Trinity and what do you see? Well, an old fuzzy-faced guy with big muscles holding a younger guy who’s got his hands full of big heavy chunks of timber and a sword. And then that ghost is hard to visualize. Is he like Casper? All friendly and such? I Googled it and found lots of bird pictures, some were on fire, some were dripping blood, one was a fish, and one included a bar tender pouring “holy spirits” into a shot glass, so who knows.

Back in the day, this Trinity thing was a great solution to competition from polytheism. Nowadays, the religious folks need help from the Mad Men again. They need to take the one armed Trinity (face it: God better be left handed because Jesus has both of his arms full and is sitting on God’s right hand. The ghost is a fire-y, bleeding, fishy, bird liquor). Any kid’ll tell you that ain’t a great image.

What if they devise a reformulated trinity of just three school friends? Two guys and a girl who spend part of their lives living as everyday normal kids and part of it living in the Dreamworld. Many events occur while in the Dreamworld that are parables of real life existence. What if it became very popular to read the stories and watch cinematic versions of the parables. I have been saying for some time now that art serves as a better conduit to the Dreamworld than ancient religions, frozen in time. Harry Potter with its trinity of protagonists rearranges the Dreamworld of theological entities with a consistent, valid, moral formula for existence in this world.

Harry Potter novels teach the importance of love and loyalty. It says: if you need help ask for it. It hates bureaucracies, but sees them as part of life that works as well as the people operating them. It speaks to every individual’s validity in the world and that all people have value. It speaks to the authenticity of an individual’s own thoughts and the “reality” of those thoughts. The school diagnoses and sorts into houses individuals according to personality traits that are sometimes unknown to the individual themselves. Each house has its own defining motto such as: “Do what is right” for the brave-hearted and those willing to stand up for others; “Do what is wise” for the deliberative thinkers; “Do what is nice” for the hard working and fair; and “Do what is necessary” for the prideful, cunning, ambitious. These assigned “families” help reinforce the students where they already have strength and potential.

Evil seems more prevalent in the ‘do what is necessary’ house while the others have a moral sense built into their philosophy. ‘Necessary’ overrides questions of right or wrong.  But, those who consider ‘doing the right thing’ to be necessary can also be part of that group. Just as in the final battle when good people used the techniques of evil to protect and defend themselves.

Some moral lessons of the series include:

1. Love ultimately wins. (all kinds: family, friends, society, as well as romantic)

2. Evil requires desire: “You’ve got to really want it” in order for evil ‘magic’ to work.

3. Bureaucratic structures don’t work well, but aren’t inherently good or bad. Treat them with caution. Don’t automatically trust the system, including its rules. Think for your self.

4. Strategic vulnerability can be a defense or used offensively too: face your fears.

5. Treat all people with the same respect irrespective of their status in society.

6. There is light and darkness in everyone.

7. Anything is possible.

8. There is often a cost to doing the right thing.

9. Loyalty is earned.

10.Morality requires no church or religion or ritual.

11.Expect trustworthiness in others until it is proven otherwise.

My point is that even though HO HOs would melt instantly on this island they still have relevance here. Drink plenty of fluids when cutting grass. The Dreamworld exists everywhere, and can be accessed through many portals. You should read, or re-read the Harry Potter Books. It won’t solve your problems but it puts you in the Dreamworld where you too might spy a glorious truth by the banana trees.

Finding Morality Through Art

Two artistic expressions of melancholy, both alike in sincerity, if not stature or quality, will be the subject of this blog. One you will recognize from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the other one you will not recognize at all because I created it and it has been shown to very few people. The two are paired together because they are expressions of young men and their efforts to address the pains of existence within their personal circumstance. This is a continuation of the discussion of the last two posts regarding art.

Hamlet is probably twenty years old although some say he is thirty, but that makes no sense, he is written with behaviors of a student questioning life, not a full grown adult. Let’s not delve too deeply into the details of his anxiety; he is a Prince who’s father, the King was murdered while some hanky-panky was going on in the castle between his Mom and the king’s brother, his Uncle who conveniently became the new King. A ghost, his dead father, comes back and suggests avenging his death. This stress adds to Hamlet’s basic not-yet-an-adult angst. He is already a pensive lad and depressed when he gives the following monologue to his two friends:

I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

The second piece is a watercolor painting that’s been modified in Photoshop. I painted this the night in 1978 when I struck up enough courage to walk into my first gay bar. I got my self all dressed up and ready for action and walked straight through the door and sat down at the bar. The place was empty. It was only eight PM. Nobody was likely to show up until at least eleven. The bartender took pity on me and explained how things work in the gay bar scene. I went home, cried, got stoned and painted this self-portrait.BMA cover art

The original painting was less colorful. I jazzed it up on the computer so it can be used on the cover of my book. Years of stress, anxiety, frustration and soul-searching culminated in that brazen trip to the bar only to end in embarrassment and disappointment. This moment was the apex of my struggle. At least I got a painting out of it, such as it is. The title is “I Was Angry” in case you wouldn’t get that from the red eyes. The brows aren’t furrowed the way they would be if looking at some other person angrily. This is an internal, reflective anger focused on no one else. All the energy, conflict and determination through years of effort is churning inside. There is still a peaceful resoluteness in the face that shows a firm determination to succeed. The staunch pursed lips say, “I’ll win this battle”. Coming out of the closet will happen despite this set-back. Period.

So, in my last two posts “art” is assigned a moral and edifying quality. Can we see it in these two examples? Well, the most obvious lesson is that they both exult humanity. Perseverance, the human quality of getting up and doing it again after facing adversity is a major element in storytelling. When do people need that lesson? When they are depressed from having faced adversity themselves. The picture illuminates both anger and peace. The monologue illuminates both the strengths of mankind (is it sarcastic?) along with the harshness of foul and pestilent vapors, summing it as “a quintessence of dust.”  The terms of the discussion have been defined. The monologue could be taken out of context of the play and used to describe any person’s circumstance and so could the painting, making them universal expressions of mankind’s existential struggles.

The moral insight comes from observing humanity exalted through art. There may be no specific moral point of view stated in the piece, so we, the observers, are going to assign a moral value to make our encounter meaningful. Will it be the intended opinion of the artist? Who knows and who cares? The ways in which we interact with art are personal. It is designed to provoke questions and thereby provide an observer the opportunity to draw conclusions. The artist has certain questions in mind while creating the work but the audience always forms new questions and seeks to answer them all. That is a good thing.

Moral solutions are derived through the process of deliberation, which is a crucial element of having integrity. If one can say they honestly examined a choice from all sides, that it results in an opinion/conclusion, and are willing to back up that choice publicly with reasons, then they have integrity. Moral decisions require contemplation and time. Hamlet is deliberating his own moral dilemma when he speaks this monologue. He puts forward universal thoughts in an effort to solve his specific problem. By watching him experience this process we can discover something useful to help us with our problem.

A young adult or anyone for that matter may see something of value in the portrait or not. It may be found in the monologue, or not. A song on the radio, a book, a movie, a TV show, an opera, any and all modes of art have the potential to provide the insight required.

Suppose you choose to seek guidance from a priest or another dogma-based source, you are still culpable for your own actions. Following advice from a bible or religion doesn’t absolve you from your own actions. If you choose to do so, you should truly understand the reasoning behind the instruction from that authority. When you reason out a decision for yourself, you know why you have made the choice you have made. Following predetermined dogma because you ‘believe in it’ doesn’t give you the same insight or understanding. Following another person’s rule does not convey moral integrity.

Art is not a straight line toward understanding. It is a strange and wavering path that exposes vulnerability and encourages confusion. It asks you to think, deliberate and debate so you can form your own considered conclusions. Art is a catalyst which assists its audience with the option of making personal choices. If all art directed people toward forming the same conclusion, then it would be propaganda. Art does not do that, it has no dogma. Art removes the crudeness of reality and the inanity of dogma and frees your mind to explore all options.

Art, Morality, Religion

“We need Religion for religion’s sake, Art for art’s sake and, Morality for morality’s sake.” Victor Cousin

I describe religion’s sake as being ‘know thy god,’ art’s sake is ‘know thyself,’ and morality’s sake as ‘know one another.’ In high school, I volunteered at three different organizations; each one represented one of these ideas. Those experiences brought tremendous growth to my humanist outlook.

Religion, know thy god. Church, for me, was a place to socialize and manage facades. Basically, it was my sanctuary from the bullies of the world. The idea of ‘knowing’ my god was a stretch. I couldn’t get a solid grip on the three-in-one trinity thing because no one could sufficiently explain it to me. (Seriously, God is not like a pack of Hostess Ho Hos just because you get three tasty treats in one package.) So, knowing God was neither reasonable nor possible. I went with knowing about god instead. At church I hung out with friends, made poignant, wry observations, and tried to learn a better way to live life through facade management and religious dogma.

Morality, knowing one another, is what I learned working with the mentally challenged. When you strip away all the facades people apply to themselves you are left with the basics of their humanity. The intellectually disabled are, without the burden of higher thought, the most fundamental human beings on the planet. They exist and they love. Every moral choice is put into its simplest context without artifice. Those who care for them gain a perspective that is unique, so these children are to be regarded with a form of respect that is not patronizing and is accepting of whatever circumstance they inhabit. This was my insight from four years of volunteering. It molded my approach to all people from that point on. Because of this, my philosophy of moral behavior included respect and acceptance of individuals as they are. Once you understand the individuals who exist at this fundamental level of being, you learn to discover those fundamental elements in others. This allows you to see through the artifice of a facade, making the facade useless in those who wear one, even a bully.

My art, or knowing oneself, is theater. It’s collaborative, intelligent and full of emotion. But more than anything it’s instructive; it teaches life-lessons with every play. It is secular, in that each play carries a different philosophy and point of view. It tells stories of social interaction to elaborate on morality. It makes philosophic and theologic arguments from all doctrines exploring many possibilities. It challenges those who participate to be excellent. It challenges those who observe it to think excellent thoughts. In order to tell a story, one must first understand the story, so research and discovery and reading and discussion are essential from the beginning. Each play has a time, a place, a point of view and a message. As each production ends a new play takes its place. It comes with a new time, place and message to first understand, then convey. The cycle of beginning and ending, death and rebirth are constant. When you exist in an emotional and intellectual environment like this you come to know yourself very well.

Seek Moral Guidance in Art

The human moral decision-making process seems mostly random: Our laws are enforced differently depending upon race. Religions put out a conditional morality through allegiance to their exclusive society. Our President merely pretends to have a moral center. Corporations rape the land, sea and air. Our schools cower to politics resulting in clipart substitutes for the power of moral art. Hate groups hire lawyers trained in religious colleges to sneak hateful bigotry into law. New York Times columnists have to chastise other journalists for food-related arrogance. And the christian school where I endured my freshman year is regularly noted for being the most anti-LGBT campus in the US.college_photo_53ff7860a94a99.75957266washington postgcc

I’m not a philosopher. As a matter of fact, I almost failed Intro to Philosophy as a freshman at Grove City College, an extreme, alt-right school, well, at least in terms of LGBT issues. I was not afraid to ask the kind of questions that caused the whole class to turn and gape at me. I challenged the concept of god no matter what the topic of the day. My questions were genuine, but didn’t always match the syllabus, so the minister/professor who obviously preferred grad students to freshmen was quite frustrated with me. He failed me on a paper I had put a lot of time into. I challenged him point by point on what I had written and it became obvious to both of us that he hadn’t bothered to read it. He had judged me on my non-christian attitude in class not the paper itself, so, I passed the course. The ethical merit of his actions was typical at the school – repent if and when you get caught, otherwise keep up the pretense. It was a place to learn moral pretense and hypocrisy.

Old furniture has a moral value to some people. People who value functionality would rather sit comfortably in a chair while having enough room to eat dinner at the table. For others, the expression of status is inherent in the furnishings of their abode. The list of criteria necessary to make value judgments on a chair or a table is daunting. I’m more proud of the fact that I inherited the dough box from Aunt Charlotte than its dollar value, which I have never bothered to discover. I give the object, the thing, the dough box – sentimental value which comes from my heart. Its place in my family history and its aesthetic qualities evoke joy within me. The antique crowd gives it a dollar value.

If the box were to be broken in an accident, would the person who breaks it be guilty of an immoral act? Well, I know how upset I’d be, but I wouldn’t make too big a fuss about it. Damaging another person’s property is a violation of the moral code we live by. I can forgive an accident but once the judgment of the antique crowd places a dollar value on it, the issue gets complicated. A different kind of sentiment becomes important by the introduction monetary value.  In that mind-set, my feelings about the object become irrelevant. Objects with dollar signs attached are morally superior to things of mere sentiment. The person who broke it would feel much more guilt if she knows the dollar value of the piece. Her sense of guilt would go up accordingly with the dollar value. That list of criteria that assigns a price tag to an object is devoid of feeling. The result is we become confused with what we truly value: the emotions derived from the object itself or emotions derived from the money it represents.

Who can we turn to when deciding the morality of a situation? Not philosophers who are still asking that question themselves. Not lawyers, duh, nor the cops. Not the spiritual leaders – they hire lawyers to pick on gays. Not teachers. Not Presidents. And not corporations. We must look at all these resources while taking them with a boulder of salt, not just a grain.

The answer comes from inside us.

Find art.
IMG_1488

Seriously, art helps make things clear to us. It could be a poem, a play, a novel or a song. It may not have any words at all like a painting or a sculpture or ballet. It may be grand and bombastic or calm and lyrical. Let the art transport you into the world it creates to experience its message and emotion, then come back changed because of the journey.

It won’t be like googling, “how to be moral” on the internet. You can’t go to art with a question expecting THE answer, but it will move you to another place and perspective. Perhaps you already know this new place and can revisit it as an old friend. Perhaps you will totally disagree with the premise. Perhaps it will disturb or shock you. It may make you cry. Art as a whole has no agenda, individual pieces have different meanings but there’s no dogma in art. There are no rules or formulas to follow, and yet it instructs you emotionally and intellectually. Art is, by its nature, altruistic.

TommyalbumcoveroliverORIGINAL_CAST_RECORDING_FIDDLER+ON+THE+ROOF-527191

The moral lesson intended by the artist may not even be the one you carry away after experiencing the work. I was able to endure my freshman year by repeatedly listening to scratchy records of the musicals Oliver and Fiddler on The Roof, along with the Who’s rock opera Tommy. They all had the theme of an individual struggling against and surviving an unjust society. People take journeys away from their homes to find a new life where they can be the person they are. None of them mentioned being gay but they taught me much of what got me through my internal coming out process. Even a show like Grease with its questionable lesson of getting-the-guy by lowering personal standards and conforming to marginal behaviors has value for the discerning observer.

As with anything, art should be used with discretion and determination. Art helps make clear the questions alive in the world, however, it is up to the consumer of art to find the answers. Art is an excellent starting point for the discovery and resolution of moral concerns. If you seek answers from those who repeat dogma such as priests, mullahs or rabbis, you get a cookie-cutter answer – they think, so you don’t have to think. Their cookies may not have the ingredients you require. The thing is that you already have all the ingredients necessary within yourself. Art will help you find yourself so you can answer the questions for yourself. Make your own cookies.