Four Long Years, or It’s the End of the World as We Know it, and I Feel Fine.

Back before the global pandemic, a group of us used to get together on Tuesdays (why Tuesdays? That’s a story in itself…) and four years ago we convened, per usual, in order to watch the election results come in from that country to the south of us.

I admit, I’d been complacent enough to believe that the result of the 2016 election was going to be straight-forward. I couldn’t imagine any circumstances that would give the leadership of the US to an accused sex-offender with a history of dubious business dealings, who most of us knew – almost exclusively – from his appearance on a reality TV show.

Suffice to say, things didn’t turn out as expected.

As we headed out into the streets of Toronto for the short walk home – a few hours into the counting and projections – I was stunned by the quiet apprehension that seemed to be hanging over the quiet streets.

I was numb. I was astonished. It might have been projection, but I don’t really think so. That night marked a shift – and I wasn’t confident that we’d survive it.

I’m an historian, but, other than a general awareness of the history of the US that comes with proximity and the fact that historians gonna history, I could not, then, understand how that result could possibly be a thing. A real thing. Something that was going to affect the world – in ways we couldn’t even imagine at that point.

Before trying to sleep that night I had a text exchange with a friend in which I expressed a growing sense of complete and utter dread. That the US – even with their ingrained mythos of exceptionality and holier-than-thou-ness – could slip into the darkness that would follow the election (I knew, even then) was beyond my comprehension, and, if I’m honest, beyond my naive belief in the desire of people to support their communities and the betterment of other human beings over the selfish needs of individuals.

In the last 4 years I’ve had the opportunity – and have accepted the necessity – to delve into the reasons why such a thing came to pass. It has involved a great deal of reading – and a new understanding of the history of the US in the years since WW2. Particularly the decades which saw the rise of the religious right and their usurping of the American political process.

That’s my wheelhouse, you see. Religion, and its effects on society and governance and the systems that support the ways in which we live together. A big part of that has to do with the rhetoric that religious movements create in order to assure dominance and social controls. It doesn’t matter – much – that the religious movements I spent most of my adulthood studying are centuries/millennia removed from the 21st century. The patterns and the manipulations of the discourse remain the same. Plus ca change, and etc.

It is facile to try to distill such things into a blog post – at least one of reasonable length and that’s all I’m up for tonight (I anticipate that tomorrow will be a late one) – but the overarching message I’ve been seeing, as Trump and his enablers persist in regressive actions and re-actions, is that we are, truly, at a point in history that is witness to the deconstruction of social realities that a minority of people have claimed – along with the benefits and privileges that accompany that societal structure.

What we are witnessing is an ending – and, with hope and hard work – the potential for a new beginning.

Historians don’t write history, they interpret history. Human beings – for all their strengths – are not great eye-witnesses. Any forensic specialist can tell you that – and lawyers count on our inattention to detail when presenting arguments for the innocence of their clients. Our books of history – such as they are – generally rely on data that is removed from the first-hand. Even those who write about personal experiences of history do so through a lens of context. Their own reality shapes those things they see – and the perspective that that brings is unreliable – best efforts notwithstanding.

All history is story – and (I know this will get me comments) all history is fiction. Even the advent of on-the-spot reporting and cameras represent a particular perspective. News is reported by people. And people have agendas. Even if agendas aren’t de facto slanted to present misinformation (fake news) the voice of the author finds its way into every story told.

Think about it (and this may shock some of you): the historical mentions of Jesus of Nazareth can be counted on one hand, if we don’t include those accounts written in the generations that followed, by men who had never met the guy. Does that mean he didn’t exist? That his message wasn’t important? Not in the least. But it does demonstrate my point – that much-used tautology that history is written by the victors – and that it is interpretive and interpreted by those who will use its lessons to advance an agenda of power and submission.

The truth – and we are seeing it now, here at what is likely the end of things – is that ‘history’ isn’t worth more than the paper it is written upon. That other tautology – that those who do not know it are doomed to repeat it – misses a key element: that history is nothing more than story – and that it is in those stories that we need discover what to do and what to avoid. STORY, not history, is the key to understanding humanity – and ensuring its continuance. 

Nostalgia is treacherous – since it is rarely based in real history. The ‘good old days’ may have been good for the few – but the many would legit beg to differ. ’Fake news’ is a thing. I don’t discount that. I would add a caveat though – that most of that which is ‘fake’ is being created and spread by men who are out of time. 

And what does that mean, you ask? I mean those men who know that their time is ending. The stories they’ve been telling – that have allowed and secured their ascendancy in this world – are being challenged by other experiences of history – stories that speak against things like exceptionalism, and manifest destiny, and superiority based on human-constructed lines designating us vs. them.

THEY are out of time. And they are scared. Terrified. And grasping at whatever they can to ensure survival in a world that knows they are all but extinct.

Unfortunately – for all of the rest of us – though they may be next on that same universal hit-list that took out the dinosaurs, they are the ones who control most things (unlike the dinosaurs, who had few concepts of social order and hierarchy).

They have their followers – as has always been the case – and will not release that control willingly. Out of time, they will try to take the rest of us down with them if they cannot preserve their self-created carved-out place in the social order.

Fear is the father of hatred. Hatred comes from nothing other than fear. That’s another tautology for you. These men (and the women who stand by them) have been made deathly afraid by the reality that they are out of time. And deathly fear is always deadly. Always.

If I were to self-describe that place where my passion and my interests most lie I have to acknowledge that I’m a student of apocalypses. Gnostic apocalypses, to get really specific. No longer a ‘practising’ historian, I remain a gatherer. And the stories that I’ve been gathering over the past four years are stories of apocalypse and endings.

But. The studies I’ve done in the years I’ve had at my privileged disposal have made me understand that the stories that bring us to the end times also, when well-constructed, (and this is key) describe what could come after.

We are in the end times now. We can work together, and I will participate, where I can, to help shape what comes after. 

The present is no longer tenable. Genies won’t be stuffed back into darkened bottles. We are in an age in which all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun are seeing the light of day.

“Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.” 

Stands up, that does. And we’re here, at the end, because of that disconnect between expectation and reality. Qoheleth knew what he was seeing. And what we witnessing now, at a distance of 2500 years (or thereabouts).

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What do people gain from all the toil

    at which they toil under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes,

    but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun goes down,

    and hurries to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south,

    and goes around to the north;

round and round goes the wind,

    and on its circuits the wind returns.

All streams run to the sea,

    but the sea is not full;

to the place where the streams flow,

    there they continue to flow.

All things are wearisome;

    more than one can express;

the eye is not satisfied with seeing,

    or the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be,

    and what has been done is what will be done;

    there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,

    “See, this is new”?

It has already been,

    in the ages before us.

The people of long ago are not remembered,

    nor will there be any remembrance

of people yet to come

    by those who come after them. 

Over the weekend I had backyard visits with a couple of friends. Interestingly, both spoke about interpretations of where we are and where we might be headed. One cited the Book of Revelation (It’s a cool story and all, but I remain much more partial to Ecclesiastes, as indicated by the descent into bible study up above) – and the ways in which we might be moving toward an apocalypse of biblical proportions (and now I’m quoting Ghostbusters. Can’t say I’m not diverse in my interests and textual recall…).

I’m staying far away from commenting on the application of Revelation to contemporary realities. There are far greater voices – with lived experience and scholarly-specifications – that can speak to the beliefs of the American Evangelicals who are driving so much of the reactionary politics at this point in history (I’ll include some people to follow, below, in case you’re interested in hearing some of those voices*).

I have my own contextual interpretations of the stuff that John of Patmos came up with – and they are all about how they are sourced in and in response to, the social issues of HIS day. But I get that people are going there. There are too many people whispering in the ears of those who hold power in this world to deny the legitimacy of such connections.

The other conversation I had centred around that ever-timely and somehow ageless tune by REM. It IS the end of the world as we know it. And, depending on how it all plays out south of our border tomorrow, I MIGHT, for the first time in 4 years, feel fine.

It’s remarkable, really, the way the lyrics still resonate. Or is it? Is the fact that the song is as impactful now as it was when it was written representative of the stuff I’ve been talking about? That we have been on a trajectory toward this end since they wrote the song in 1987.

World serves its own needs
Don’t mis-serve your own needs
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no, strength
The ladder starts to clatter
With a fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, representing seven games
And a government for hire and a combat site

Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light

It’s been coming for a long time, now.

We can stop those who seek to hold up their interpretation of history, and plot a path for a better, more equitable and inclusive future. I’ll be watching, tomorrow. And not just because of concern for my American friends. Parts of Canada – people in Canada – have been falling for the rhetoric that enables the illusion that outdated social constructs and social constructors aren’t out of time, but that a ‘return’ to something fictive is the way to be heading.

Six o’clock, T.V. hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, bloodletting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a motive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crush, uh oh
This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline

And then, once progressive order is asserted, we can address the systemic overhauls that are required to collectively create the new solutions and alternative that our stories tell us we can move toward.

*If you’re interested, these two Twitter accounts are a great place to start:

@C_Stroop

@mpgPhD

‘Oh Life…’

I’ve written about loss before.  The sudden death of a loved one, and the slow, painful withdrawal of the personality that was the beloved long before the inevitable loss of life.

You’d think it would get easier with years and experience.  It doesn’t.  Losing someone rips a hole in the fabric of the universe that never completely closes.

The clichés and platitudes notwithstanding (man, am I ever against the platitudes this week), it doesn’t always get easier, and letting go can feel like betrayal and lead to guilt that is even harder to shake.

Loss. Decisions.  The human condition.  These are the foundations of all the religions of the world.  Once upon a long ago time, with the development of self-awareness, and given our nature as social animals, when those we love left us, we humans created hope that we will meet them again- or that they are, at least, in place where the suffering has ceased and there is peace and happiness.

People often make the hard decisions- CAN make the hard decisions- with this as an underlying hope or belief.

But what happens when one of the things that gets lost is the religion that we create in an effort to moderate our sadness and help justify the pain and its eventual lessening?  And lessoning?

The song is 22 years old. Where has the time gone?

(More losses- of both the time that has passed and the place with which I most associate the tune)

Losing my Religion’ is really a Southern US colloquialism for losing one’s temper, flying off the handle, behaving in a manner that is less than civilized (gotta love the Southern equation of ‘religion’ and ‘civilized behaviour’.  Ack!).

Subject-wise, the song is more about unrequited love and obsession (Michael Stipe has actually compared its theme to Every Breath You Take– that exemplar of obsessive songs about stalking restraining orders love from the Police’s 1983 wonder of an album, Synchronicity) than about the loss of religious faith.

But it’s a good song.  And it fits my mood and the paths down which my slightly disordered and sleep-deprived mind is traveling right now, faced as I am with another potential loss.

I was, nominally, raised in a religious tradition.  Attended services, participated in the community, was taught the mythology.

Frustration with the blatant abuse of power in the Institution and, especially, my absolute lack of comprehension about how, in any way, the theodicy behind the myth system can be justified, marked the finality of the decision to ‘lose’ it.

Millennia ago a man wrote a treatise that encompassed all kinds of aspects of the realities of life.  It became part of the collected wisdom tradition of the people behind one of the most influential mythological systems in history and spoke to the realities of life and the nature of the godhead.  The questions he expressed- alongside a recounting of his own experiences- were answered by the theodicy of the day- ‘because the god wants it that way.’

It could have been written yesterday.  Plus ça change

Abuse of power: Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed- with no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power- with no one to comfort them.  And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive, but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. (4.1-3).

The ever-repetitious cycle of life: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.  The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind and on its circuits the wind returns. (1.4-6)

Death: ‘For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity.  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (3.19-20).  (N.B. the lack of anything approaching the idea of heaven/hell in that little statement.  He finished that thought: ‘Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of of animals goes downward to the earth?’ 3.21)

That Qohelet guy found the faith in the plan of his deity to make the terror, the repetition, the inequity, the futility and the rest of the realities of morality manageable.  He, like Job and the Prophets and the authors of the Psalms, trusted the justice of the god in spite of infinite examples of injustice and pain in the world.

Me?  Can’t do it.

My faith is based in this world and in my fellow humans.  Which means that I have to do my best to act against those inequities that can be changed and roll with the punches dealt by those that can’t.  Including the deaths of cherished loved ones.

It’s a different kind of faith, and one that offers no easy answers or comforting visions of angelic choirs and waiting La-Z-Boys at the right hand of an Elder of Days.  It requires reliance on others who share our lot in this here world, and the strength to endure and to ask for help from those others when our own reserves run low.  The cultural and social realities of today, combined with our collective experiential learning, have rendered the created, absent, inscrutable, unjust godhead obsolete.

My religion may be long lost, but my civility is intact and as ready as it can be to face coming inevitabilities.

But I can still find comfort in Qohelet’s musings +/- 2500 years after they were first written down.  Not for his conviction about his god, but because of the beauty and humanity of his questioning and honest examination of the world as it was still is.

‘For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.’  (1.18)

Truer words…