Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Part 4: The Theofascist Narrative, aka, The Culture Wars™

This post is part four of my series on Theofascism. As I post future installments, I will list them here:


Part 1: Everybody Does It - Politics and Philosophy

Part 2: Speaking a Common Language

Part 3: Theofascism, Bigotry, and Sincere Religious Belief


Earlier this year, I wrote a post about Trumpism, and why it is classic Fascism. In that post, I gave a summary of what I call the “Fascist Narrative.” This is the story that Fascists tell themselves to justify actions of violence and oppression against those they hate. (The violence and oppression come first - but people prefer to feel good about themselves, and thus create narratives that allow them to feel that orgasmic self-righteousness as they indulge their hate and selfishness.) Here it is:


Once upon a time, there was a great nation. That great nation was strong, and powerful, and healthy, and full of goodness. Men were manly, women were feminine and knew their place in the home, and racial and religious minorities knew their place on the margins of society. 

But then, the true people of the nation were undermined by enemies within and without. This rot happened because the true people of the nation were diluted by other people, who were not the true people. Even the true people became soft, abandoning their traditional values and hierarchies. The soft liberals undermined the manliness of the men, encouraged the women to leave the home, and invited in all sorts of “those people.” 

As a result, the nation lost its greatness. 

In order to restore national greatness, traditional values must be restored, men must be men again, women must return to the home, and the true people of the nation need to wrest control of the levers of power back from “those people” who are not the true people. And “those people” must be prevented from diluting the true people. They must be kept out, and evicted if necessary, so that the nation will once again belong to the true people.


Theofascism too has a narrative, and it is strikingly similar to the one for garden-variety fascism. 


Once upon a time, there was a great nation. That great nation was strong, and powerful, and healthy, and full of goodness. Men were manly, women were feminine and knew their place in the home, and racial and religious minorities knew their place on the margins of society. The nation was great because its people made God happy, and he blessed them.

But then, the true people of the nation were undermined by enemies within and without. This rot happened because the true people of the nation were diluted by other people, who were not the true people. Even the true people became soft, abandoning their traditional values and hierarchies. They lost their belief in the One True Theology. The soft liberals undermined the manliness of the men, encouraged the women to leave the home, and invited in all sorts of “those people” - people who had different theology, or were “savages” - people from those countries we sent missionaries to. LGBTQ people and unwed mothers were allowed to exist without persecution, and this made God furious at the true people. 

As a result, the nation lost its greatness. 

In order to restore national greatness, traditional values must be restored, men must be men again, women must return to the home, and the true people of the nation need to wrest control of the levers of power back from “those people” who are not the true people. And “those people” must be prevented from diluting the true people. They must be kept out, and evicted if necessary, so that the nation will once again belong to the true people. Everyone must return to the One True Theology, and return to persecution of those who violate the True Rules so that God will love the true people again. 


See, I didn’t have to make many changes. 


You might recognize this narrative if you, like me, grew up in Evangelicalism. 


That is literally the narrative of the Culture Wars™


As I pointed out above, the narrative was created afterward. It did not come first. In the case of the Culture Wars™, the reason they exist is because the Religious Right - and all that grew from that - was founded in order to preserve racial segregation. We should never, ever, ever forget that. Along with the racial segregation came opposition to feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment, which should not even have been controversial, but somehow became so. (For the simple reason that a shocking number of people still are opposed to the political, social, and economic equality of women.) 


From this desire to use cultural and government force to relegate racial minorities and women to subservient roles in society came the Culture Wars™, and it is easy to see in the narrative that it was there to justify the use of power to oppress those who were different. Different in religious beliefs (or non-religious beliefs), different in religious practice (particularly when it came to sexual taboos), and different in socio-economic status. 


My point in writing this particular post is to point out the obvious: whenever you hear the theofascist narrative, you should understand that you will also be seeing theofascist policies and the use (or at least attempted use) of political and social power to harm others. 


That’s a significant reason we left organized religion. We didn’t want to fight the culture wars and thought that they were fundamentally immoral and antichristian. Unfortunately, this refusal to fight the culture wars severed family relationships as well. 


The power of the narrative is great. 


It has been said that sex sells. And it does. But FEAR sells far better than sex. (Fear of sex may sell best of all…) And it is very much FEAR that theofascists are selling, just like regular fascists. Fear of the other. Fear of cultural change. And, in the case of theofascism, fear that God will smite anyone who doesn’t join the theofascist movement. I have discussed this before, but it bears repeating: the hatred against LGBTQ people is fanned by the teaching that if the good “christian” people of the world do not actively persecute LGBTQ people, God is going to destroy them - and maybe even send them to hell. This may be even more powerful than the Nazi claim that Jews were going to destroy Germany. I mean, not just national destruction, but maybe hell too? 


Unsurprisingly, given the common narrative, there is a LOT of overlap between theofascists and racist fascists here in the US. The attempted coup back in January brought together the Proud Boys (who prayed for success before they stormed the Capitol - it’s literally on video), people wearing Camp Auschwitz gear, and thousands of white Evangelicals convinced (and still convinced!) that the election was stolen from Trump. This is why the core of Trumpism is Evangelicalism - the theofascist Cultural Warrior subculture, terrified that God will hate them if they let the “liberals” win. This is also why white Evangelicals, more than any other group, are viciously anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-voting rights. The narratives overlap, and they do so intentionally. 


And that brings us back to the beginning. The narrative exists to justify the violence and oppression. White conservative christians have enjoyed significant cultural and political dominance for a long time, but that dominance is crumbling as whites become a smaller percentage of the population, and as younger people, disgusted by the organized church, continue to flee. The only way to maintain dominance, if you lose the numbers game, is to engage in increasing violence and oppression of others - maintaining power by force against others. At some level, our consciences know that is wrong. So we invent the narrative to justify our evil behavior. 


As I will show in the next post, theofascism is currently being expressed in a number of specific actions taken against vulnerable groups - all justified in the name of God. 




For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (II Timothy 1:7)


You want to know how to recognize that a movement is not from God, but from...the opposite side? 


It is selling fear. 


The Culture Wars™ are selling fear. Specifically, fear of other people different from you. Fear of LGBTQ people. Fear of people who are not Republicans. Fear of people with different theology. And, if we are honest, fear of people with different skin color too. (Hence the “rock, jazz, and other “African” music is from the devil.) 


Without this constant stoking of fear, the Culture Wars™ would not exist. 


Instead, if we operated out of love, out of a place of security in our own beliefs, and out of rationality, we would be able to listen to those outside the tribe, and find our commonalities. That would be an actually Christian way to approach cultural - and demographic - change.




One more thought on why theofascism has arisen:


Conservative Christians have given up on making converts.


Seriously. Think about it. If you actually think you can convert people, you do not need the power of government. If you can convert people, you don’t need to fear them. If you can convert people, there is no reason for anxiety about change. 


But it has been a LONG time since conservative Christians have been able to convert much of anyone. And they know it. It’s not hard to understand why, of course. Why would anyone want to buy what they are selling? It’s shit. It’s based on lies and hate and whiteness and misogyny. It is social darwinist economic policy, xenophobia, denial of science and reality. As others have noted:


You can’t fake light.

You can’t fake fruit.

You can’t fake love.


They have no light to shed on reality, because they don’t believe in it. They have rotten, festering fruit that nobody wants to eat. And they have no love - only fear and hate. 


So, having failed to make converts, they shifted during my childhood to “if you can make converts, make more babies,” and then sheltered us from reality, used various control techniques to make it hard to leave, and retreated into insular communities. And, predictably, that hasn’t worked either, as many of us left and are fighting back against what was done to us. 


So what’s left? Theofascism. Use the power of government violence to harm those who disagree. 


Monday, April 19, 2021

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

 Source of book: I own this.


While not officially my selection for Women’s History Month, I did choose to read this book as an adjacent selection. I previously read The House of Mirth a couple years ago. 



The Age of Innocence was written 15 years after The House of Mirth, and it has a very different feel. The earlier book had a razor-sharp, nasty edge to the humor, and a really bitter view of old New York society. Time seemed to have mellowed Wharton a bit, as the humor in this book is gentler, and the social critique tinged with sadness, not anger. 


One reason for this may have been that, in 1905, the old class-based New York society that Wharton grew up in was still hanging on, after a fashion. By 1920, World War One had dramatically changed everything - something The Age of Innocence notes in its epilogue. During Wharton’s lifetime, The Age of Innocence won the most accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize, and indeed, the novel has aged fairly well, despite being intentionally about a very specific time and place. 


I also felt that the characters were more nuanced in this book than the other. Wharton’s skills grew with time and experience. Plus, she put a lot of herself into this book - her actual personality, not just her frustration with social hypocrisy and sexism. The result is a cast of characters that feel more human and complex than in the earlier book. There are no villains, in the true sense, except for the Count, and he never actually appears in the story; really society itself is the villain, but it is too impersonal and too inertial to be called a usual villain. Indeed, while society is the stage on which the story plays out, and social mores affect the characters, the heart of the story is about regret and missed chances, and the question of how fantasy compares to reality. Which is why the ending is devastating, even though nothing really happens. 


The protagonist of the story is, interestingly, a man. Newland Archer is a scion of a wealthy and high-class New York family. He works as a lawyer, but doesn’t need the money, which is kind of amusing to us 21st Century lawyer sorts - no billable hours, little work to do most days, a steady paycheck - it’s like a fantasy island. Newland has just become engaged to May Welland, a very eligible young woman of a similarly prestigious family. She’s also pretty, docile, incurious, and socially perfect. This is what Newland thinks he wants. At least until May’s cousin Ellen shows up. 


Ellen is now the Countess Olenksa, having married a Polish aristocrat. The problem is, he is an abusive and philandering asshole - and it is strongly implied he swings both ways - and she has left him to return to the United States. This is, of course, a huge social disgrace. Although not as much of one as it would be if she were to follow through with her threats and divorce him. (Shudders and pearl clutching.) Ellen is everything May is not: sophisticated in a European way, striking rather than pretty, intelligent, and shockingly unconcerned with New York social niceties. 


It is, of course, socially impossible for Newland to marry Ellen, so, when he falls in love with her, he has exactly zero good options. He can keep her as a mistress, or he could run off with her to Europe, or...well, those are the options. So, of course, he marries May, mostly regrets it, and feels his life has become horrifyingly conventional and boring. But (spoiler) many years later, when he and Ellen are both free, he declines the change to see her again, feeling that his fantasy of her would leave him disappointed with the reality. And he is probably right. 


The general consensus about the characters seems to be that the stand-in for Wharton is not Ellen, but rather Newland. The ennui, the disappointment, the desire for something more that can never truly be satisfied - these are her. As is the life with a spouse who was unable or unwilling to travel - that was Wharton’s husband, who she eventually divorced. And that makes sense, because Newland is the most developed character, and his psyche is the true subject of the book, not Ellen’s difficult reality. For that matter, Ellen herself seems to accept the limitations of her life far better than Newland. She takes the one action she must, which is to secure a way to exist without having to reconcile with her husband. But she chooses to support the marriage of May and Newland, even though, in a different world, she would have preferred to marry Newland. 


The way the internal (and external) drama plays out over the course of the book is superbly written. Wharton’s pacing is good anyway, but the slow tightening of the strings that control society happens one micrometer at a time as the story progresses. I already mentioned that the characters are good in this one. Newland and Ellen, of course, as the central ones. But also May, who, despite her insipid public persona is willing to fight for her own. That she and Newland are never able to connect as friends is also one of the tragedies of the book. Had she been able to let the mask slip for a bit, she might have become more. Had she been willing to actually live, rather than exist within convention, they might have traveled and talked and connected. With that, she and Newland may have been happy. But, that didn’t happen. 


The social system is portrayed with a confidence and accuracy that only a true insider like Wharton could have pulled off. Indeed, at the time it was published, those who, like her, had grown up in New York society praised it as accurate down to the last detail. Speaking of details, the interior decor is lovingly depicted: no surprise since Wharton also worked as an interior designer - and indeed set many of the fashions of the day. 


There are so many great lines in the book too. I have always loved this sort of writing and this sort of book - I’m a bit old fashioned in some ways - so there was a lot of visceral pleasure in the well-turned phrases for me. Anyway, here are some of them. 


Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to…


The book is plotted such that the beginning and the end have a lot of mirrored images, from the opera and singer being the same to many of the same ideas being shown again, but in a different light. Thus, the book mentions “new people” at the beginning and end. After the Beauforts’ failure, the society guardians worry that the vacuum will be filled by the “wrong” people. 


“It will never do, my dear Louisa, to let people like Mrs. Lemuel Struthers think they can step into Regina’s shoes. It is just at such times that new people push in and get a footing.”


And there is this zinger, on the fashion to leave the opera before the end, to “avoid the traffic”:


It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.


Ah, the old “leave Dodger Stadium before the crowds” thing is apparently neither modern nor limited to the West Coast. 


Or, how about this description of May and Ellen’s grandmother, the matriarch of the socially powerful Mingott family?


The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost un-wrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.


Because of her size, she defies convention by having her bedroom on the first floor of the house. 


Her visitors were startled and fascinated by the foreignness of this arrangement, which recalled scenes in French fiction, and architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of. This was how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies, in apartments with all the rooms on one floor, and all the indecent propinquities that their novels described. It amused Newland Archer (who had secretly situated the love-scenes of “Monsieur de Camors” in Mrs. Mingott’s bedroom) to picture her blameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery; but he said to himself, with considerable admiration, that if a lover had been what she wanted, the intrepid woman could have had him too.


Later, as Newland realizes he is having second thoughts about marrying May, Wharton writes this remarkable line. 


With a new sense of awe, he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes, and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul’s custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland’s familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas. 


Isn’t that the truth. Now, you may be down for an adventure, of course. But you will want to have the sort of someone that you like to adventure with come along, not someone anchored to a rigid social system. Fortunately for me, I picked well. In retrospect, my family would have preferred I had ended up with someone who would, like May, rigidly uphold the structures of the social system, not of New York society, but of the white fundamentalist subculture. But I have no regrets about my choice. Throughout the book, Wharton expands on Newland’s feeling of entrapment. 


Packed in the family landau they rolled from one tribal doorstep to another, and Archer, when the afternoon’s round was over, parted from his betrothed with the feeling that he had been shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped. 


Ellen too feels somewhat trapped by society. Her family does their best to help her acclimatize to New York - she has lived overseas most of her life. Newland explains that they are trying to help, but she also needs to pay attention to their guidance through the treacherous waters of society. 


She shook her head and sighed. “Oh, I know - I know! But on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant. Aunt Welland put it in those very words when I tried….Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”


Yes indeed. It is very lonely being around people who just want you to pretend, to avoid the unpleasant reality. 


Wharton also gets some cutting digs in at society, this one in an inadvertently amusing an damning statement by Mr. van der Luyden, the official guardian of social distinctions, in complaining about these foreign sorts - Ellen included - who just mix with everyone as if they were equal. 


“You know what these English grandees are. They’re all alike. Louisa and I are very fond of our cousin - but it’s hopeless to expect people who are accustomed to the European courts to trouble themselves about our little republican distinctions.” 


As Newland’s view of the social system that he grew up in starts to crack, he notices that there is a kind of intentional “innocence” that chooses to wilfully ignore the harsh realities caused by their “morality.” The society matriarchs are opposed to Ellen getting a divorce, but all the while they look the other way at what she appears to have to do to survive - become the mistress of someone wealthy. Newland sees through this, and comes to loathe this kind of “innocence.”


Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!


But of course, that is exactly what happens. May, even more than her mother, never is able to give up her “innocence.” Later, after they are married, Newland has this observation. 


As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting: the function was exhausted because the need was past.


Ouch. One wonders if Wharton’s experience is on display here. One suspects that it is a mercy that May dies before she can see her son marry the daughter of the disgraced British banker, Beaufort, whose largesse Ellen depends on. 


Beaufort’s financial failure in the Panic of 1973 is the event that brings things to a crisis. With money no longer forthcoming from her family, her husband, or Beaufort, Ellen is placed in a bind. She eventually finds a solution, but the veiled gossip about her and Beaufort (the book is never clear if they are actually lovers, or if this is just the assumption - just like they all assume Newland and Ellen are having an affair, even though they never consummate it) places her in a ever more precarious social position. Here too, Wharton gets a scathing line in. 


New York was inexorable in its condemnation of business irregularities. So far there had been no exception to its tacit rule that those who broke the law of probity must pay; and every one was aware that even Beaufort and Beaufort’s wife would be offered up unflinchingly to this principle. But to be obliged to offer them up would be not only painful but inconvenient. The disappearance of the Beauforts would leave a considerable void in their compact little circle; and those who were too ignorant or too careless to shudder at the moral catastrophe bewailed in advance the loss of the best ball-room in New York.


Here is another zinger, about the way that New York society looked down on men who played around. Less so than women who did the same, interestingly. For sexist reasons, but still. 


It was easier, and less dastardly on the whole, for a wife to play such a part toward her husband. A woman’s standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be lower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved. Then she could always plead moods and nerves, and the right not to be held too strictly to account; and even in the most strait-laced societies the laugh was always against the husband. 

But in Archer’s little world no one laughed at a wife deceived, and a certain measure of contempt was attached to men who continued their philandering after marriage. In the rotation of crops there was a recognized season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once.


And so, Newland is trapped, by society, by his wife, and by his own lack of judgment. The ending is fascinating. As I said, to read it is to be devastated. But the thing is, I think Newland is ultimately right. His love for Ellen has never been entirely based on reality. It is his fantasy. His attraction to her is as much about his wish to break the bounds of society as anything else. But we know he will not, and indeed cannot, because his own personality fits best with that society. We may feel bad for him that he never really gets to “live.” But we are also convinced that eloping with Ellen would have led to even greater unhappiness for him. And for her, of course. 


This is where the nuance of the book really shows. The world changes, society changes, circumstances change. But what has happened has happened. It cannot be changed. And, one suspects, nothing would have been gained anyway. 


The saving grace is the close relationship Newland develops with his son, and there is the promise that, since the next generation will marry for love, Newland can look forward to his daughter-in-law becoming part of that friendship. 


The Age of Innocence is an enjoyable read, with a psychological depth I appreciate from my favorite authors, like Anthony Trollope and Henry James. It was a lot less of a blow to the head than The House of Mirth, because of its subtlety and more perceptive humor. I own a few other Wharton novels, so it will be interesting to compare them to the two I have read. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Theofascism Part 3: Theofascism, Bigotry, and Sincere Religious Belief

This post is part three of my series on Theofascism. As I post future installments, I will list them here:


Part 1: Everybody Does It - Politics and Philosophy

Part 2: Speaking a Common Language




This installment is one I actually considered writing on its own a few years back, and never got around to it. I have been thinking about this a lot since leaving the Gothard cult, and it makes sense of so many of the unnecessary battles with my own family. 


In order to understand this installment, you really need to read Part 2, because this one builds on that. In essence, all three categories I discuss here are in the realm of “religious beliefs.” These are not the things you can discuss using a common - and secular - language. These are not issues of “how do we treat other people” or “how do we balance competing needs within a society.” Beliefs that resonate across religious and non-religious lines can be discussed like any other issue. I’m talking about matters of religion and religious practice, and the cultural preferences that go along with them. 


Here are the categories as I see them:

1.         Sincere Religious Beliefs

2.         Religious Bigotry

3.         Theofascism


These are analogous to other beliefs that tip into bigotry or fascism as well. Racism and misogyny, for example, can be bigotry without becoming fascist. One might even argue that, say, a belief that God wants you personally to only marry within your own race could be sincere, albeit still racist, as long as it applied only to you. It is when you think that others are bound that it becomes racist bigotry. And when you want the law to enforce it, it becomes fascist. 


Let’s look at these one at a time, with some examples. 

1.         Sincere Religious Beliefs


Whether or not you are religious, most of us in this era are fine with people believing stuff we don’t, and partaking in practices that we find weird or silly. These beliefs are religious (or superstitious if you prefer), but they are not necessarily bigoted. 


For example, one might believe that God forbids you to eat food sacrificed to idols (see: Romans). Or pork. Or Twinkies. One might believe God forbids caffeine. Or God wants you to wear a particular style of clothing. Or only have sex with someone of the opposite biological sex and gender identity and only after a certain civil or religious ceremony. Or you might believe that because you are a vagina person, not a penis person, that you should not work for a living, but spend your full time caring for home and children. You may believe a UFO will come for you when a comet arrives. You may believe that holy water protects against vampires. You believe that God doesn’t want you to have an abortion or use birth control? Fine, don’t. (But be upfront with your partner about that, please.) 


Whatever your beliefs, if you sincerely believe God is calling on YOU to do something that does not harm others, but only affects YOU, then this is a sincere belief. And in our society, those of us more or less on the Left support your right to believe these things and parake in these practices. As long as you don’t insist we believe or practice. That’s the very definition of “freedom of religion.”

2.         Religious Bigotry


Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance 


Religious bigotry is when you decide that not only has God called YOU to do something, God has called OTHER PEOPLE to do it as well. Just like, say, racial bigotry, it is a belief that people who hold to your opinions and prejudices are better than other people, and thus you can treat others with hatred, contempt, or intolerance. 


Big difference. 


If God has called you to abstain from pork, fine. But when you start carping at me because I love bacon, you have crossed the line into bigotry. If you choose to wear old fashioned clothing, fine. It’s your body, dress how you prefer. (Within the basic social constraints - no shoes, no service, right? And wear your damn mask to protect others from Covid.)  But when you decide that God wants other people to dress a certain way, you have crossed the line into bigotry. If you believe a soul is created when egg meets sperm, that’s fine for you. But that belief is younger than I am, not supported by science, and a lot of people do not believe the same way as you. Ditto for the split of breadwinning, childcare, and housework. How I do that is none of your business. You want to wait for the UFO? Go for it. But don’t ask me to wait up with you. 


The reason that this is bigotry is this: you believe that God speaks to you more than to other people.


You literally believe that God told you instructions about how I should live my life. And that I didn’t receive my own (contradictory) instructions from God myself. You know better than I do about my own life. God likes you better, which is why he told you what to tell me. And you disdain me and feel entitled to correct me for not believing the same way you do. 


That’s straight up bigotry. 


It may be sincere bigotry. But it’s still bigotry. And it is breathtakingly arrogant. 

3.         Theofascism


From bigotry, it is a very small step to the embrace of theofascism. After all, if your disapproval of others doesn’t force them to change, then it is easy to consider using government violence to enforce the rule. Those damn women won’t cover up? Make them wear a hijab! Women won’t stay home? Make them have a male guardian with them to leave the house. 


Oh, you think Wahabbist Islam is different? You sure about that? Those LGBTQ people make God hate our country? Make sure they don’t get jobs or housing or goods or services or healthcare. Women use birth control and think they can have sex without being owned by a man? Outlaw it! Outlaw porn! Keep books out of libraries if they have LGBTQ people in them. Or if they talk about police brutality. But don’t dare stop publishing books with racial stereotypes. 


Not too long ago - during my parents’ lifetime - religious bigots were railing against interracial marriage, and furious that it was legalized. Heck, the Religious Right was literally founded to perpetuate segregation. Bigotry tends to lead to theofascism. All it takes is bigotry added to political power. 


Which is why a primary goal of those of us who believe in religious freedom is to prevent bigots from getting political power. They tend to be all too fond of the Inquisition. 




As I have noted in every post so far, this applies beyond the political. While political power is necessary for theofascism, its roots go much deeper, into society, churches, and families. The white Evangelical church has been a breeding ground for theofascism (and white supremacist fascism too) for decades. Many families, including mine, were sucked into the Culture Wars™ in some way or another during the 1980s and 90s, whether from Bill Gothard or James Dobson. My generation (and the Millennials too) had our childhood and teen years defined by this sense of cultural grievance and militant bigotry. And when some of us chose a different path as adults, we have found sustained pressure on us from our families - we are the black sheep who betrayed the cause. 



Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Atlantic by Simon Winchester

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I actually checked this book out for kid #4, who is currently on a binge of all things seafaring. He got hooked reading my Patrick O’Brian books, then moved on to my Time Life books on the Age of Sail, Two Years Before the Mast, the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy, and last week finishing Moby Dick. He’s age 12. Oh, and he’s been using legos to build the various two-masted ships and boats. If he gets a few more pieces, he should be able to build a frigate. He’s an interesting kid, to be sure. So, I figured that since he already loves Simon Winchester, one about the Atlantic Ocean would be a good read. And, since I had it out from the library already, I read it myself. 


I too have enjoyed the Simon Winchester books I have read. I have previously blogged about The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World. 


Atlantic is in many ways typical Winchester. It is from a (mostly) British perspective, with a delightfully understated style. Winchester thoroughly researches all of his books, and fills in a wonderful amount of detail, without ever making his tales dry or boring. I thoroughly enjoyed this one as well. 


One area in which this book is different, however, is in its scope. In fact, because of that scope, this book felt a bit like one written by another Simon, Simon Garfield. That is because, as one might imagine, the Atlantic Ocean is a big place, and its history is measured more in geological than human time scales. In order to, I suppose, “tame” this potentially vast topic, Winchester chooses a fun framing device: Jaques’ speech from As You Like It. 


JAQUES: All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like a snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


Winchester takes these “seven ages” and applies them to the history of human interaction with the Atlantic Ocean, from the very first explorations by the Vikings to our present age of exploitation of our oceans. He also includes a prologue and epilogue to explain the geological history of the ocean, and it’s probable future, long after humans have ceased to exist in their present form, hundreds of millions of years in the future. 


I would never have thought of that particular framing, but Winchester makes it work. In addition, he travels to a number of fascinating places to research the stories he tells. I am not going to even attempt to recount the substance of this book. There is a lot - the book is 460 pages long, although they go by all too fast - and Winchester is a better storyteller than I am anyway. Just get the book and enjoy. 


There are a few things I thought I might mention, though. First is an often overlooked fact: the theory of plate tectonics - the fact that the continents are moving around the earth - is a lot younger than people my age realize. As in, 1965, a mere 11 years before I was born. Simply put, humans did not have the ability to measure the movements of the tectonic plates, and had no idea of the true nature of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge - where two plates are moving apart and the gap filled by new rock. Now, with better technology, including satellites, no respectable geologist disputes the truth of plate tectonics. But it is still a very young understanding of our world, younger than my parents. 


Because of the broad scope of Winchester’s writing, there are subchapters on all kinds of stuff. For example, he writes about the changing artistic portrayals of the ocean, culminating in the phenomenal works of Winslow Homer and J. M. W. Turner. (I very much agree that those two portrayed the Atlantic in arguably the most memorable ways ever. I’ve seen a number of their works in person over the years.) It is always fun to see a new name, however. Winchester mentions a Latvian-American artist, Vija Celmins, who I had never heard of. But take a look: these are not photographs - these are pencil drawings. 


Untitled (Ocean with Cross #1) by Vija Celmins



Another fun historical bit about the foundation of democracy. Specifically, parliamentary democracy, where appointed (elected) representatives get together and make laws. The earliest known instance of this appeared in Iceland in 930 CE. It then spread rapidly around the north Atlantic. On the Isle of Man, the first appearance was in 970 CE, and it has met every year since - making it the oldest continuously meeting parliamentary body still in existence. 


Winchester opens the book with a description of his first Atlantic crossing as a teen - he did it on one of the last ocean liners. In fact, he had to fly back, because ship service ended during his visit. While Winchester clearly misses boats as a form of passenger service, he writes so well about flight. I just had to quote this passage:


At the international operations center of British Airways, which takes up the entire third floor of a highly secure and discreetly marked building on an empty moor some five miles west of London’s Heathrow Airport, the staff takes care to refer to every transoceanic flight as a “mission.” They do so in part out of tradition; but they do so also as a reminder that, just as with today’s explorations of space and with nineteenth-century ventures into godless interiors, there is never anything inherently routine or safe about their allotted task: in this case the lifting against the natural force of gravity of two-hundred-odd tons of airplane and three-hundred-odd human beings to an entirely unsustainable altitude of seven or so miles, and then propelling all without interruption for many long hours, suspended by nothing more than a lately realized principle of physics, high above a cold and highly dangerous expanse of ocean.


I just love that. Particularly “suspended by nothing more than a lately realized principle of physics.” (On a related note, I highly recommend Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker as one of the finest and most poetic things ever written on flight.) 


One more thing occurs in light of current events. Modern container ships, as Winchester notes, are both giant, and really ugly. And, apparently, current infrastructure gives little margin for error when you are carrying 18,000 containers. Also, giant ships, while much more efficient than other forms of transport, still leave lines of pollution which are visible from space. Yeesh. 


Speaking of man-made issues, the most harrowing section of the book for me was the one on the collapse of the Newfoundland Banks fishery. Reading Captains Courageous is an interesting experience in light of that fact. It is also sobering when it comes to our current environmental degradation. Scientists warned about the risk to the fishery, government did way too little, too late. And Mother Nature didn’t give a fuck about the politics or the denialists. That’s how science works. But these days, an entire political party is based on a denial of reality. Winchester isn’t particularly political in his books, including this one. But because reality itself is not a political issue, the books end up being, in a way, political. There is no non-political way to talk about environmental degradation, after all. Because one side is fully in favor of extracting as much economic value out now, before things collapse completely, rather than accepting limits to profits now, so that the resources will exist for generations to come. That’s not just a political difference, it is a moral difference. 


My son and I both greatly enjoyed this book, and talking about it after we had each read it. I continue to recommend Simon Winchester as a great non-fiction writer, about any and all topics.