I’m an academic. And my guess is that you wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t told you, so I thought it best to get it out in the open first thing. When I approach matters of faith and religion, I tend to do so with my academic hat on. I detach from whatever vestiges of ingrained and indoctrinated belief remain within me, and I become instantly able to discuss and question anything and everything faith-related with my fellow academics. When I’m in that space, I forget I ever had skin in the game; it slips my mind that religion was ever personal to me and it becomes something that exists purely for the sake of study.
Lately, it’s begun to occur to me that maybe I forgot to turn off the academic the last time I was using her, because I can’t remember when I was last able to treat religion as a thing being practiced instead of a thing being studied. Today, I was thinking that it would perhaps be a benefit to my sanity if I could treat politics the same way. If I could find a way to stop the blood going to it — if I could shut off all the sadness and disgust and anger and defensiveness surrounding it — then I’m betting I could at least temporarily find a happier place to occupy.
I’ve been reading a lot lately, and like this guy, it’s been a purely escapist venture, perhaps more so than at any time since I was 12 and not having a very good life. Then, I wanted to be somewhere else; now, it’s somewhen else that catches my fancy, though the change in location wouldn’t bother me either. Right now, for example, I’d love to be sitting with Heidi, Peter, and the goats on the Swiss hillside, devouring endless slices of fresh bread and cheese and talking of nothing. How heavenly would it be to have only the cares of childhood again?
So, I’ve been thinking about reading (and rereading) the classics. It sounds like a fine idea, at least in theory. There’s a definite appeal to escaping so far into the past; at least with the older texts, the claim could be made that folks simply didn’t know any better than to possess their ridiculous ideas and do horrible things to one another. (There’s slavery and murder and rape in Christianity’s most holy texts, darn it — some things we just have to read past as we acknowledge that they belong to another time.) Obviously, the same cannot be said of those same ideas in our time. For me at least, such hatefulness — whether I hear it from the mouths of my neighbors or read about it in the Times — seems anachronistic. It doesn’t belong here, and yet here it is.
I wonder if my turn toward classic literature is a longing for a simpler time, and the irony of that idea makes me cringe. Post-election polling data tells me that our current president was elected by an large contingent of people with this very desire: small town, rural, poor white people. My family ticks all but one of those boxes, but maybe that one box is a game changer, particularly when it is coupled with a lack of education or geographic mobility. When you’re stuck in one place your whole life, surrounded always by the same people spouting the same ideas, there has to be a certain degree of stagnation. You fix on one thing, get it in your teeth, and refuse to let go. I think there are a lot of people in this country who are still convinced that the American Dream is not only possible but also somehow owed to them…like an end-of-the-week paycheck for work that’s already been done. This is the idea with which large swaths of our population is obsessed. This is the white whale they can’t stop hunting, not even when everyone else on the boat recognizes the folly and the risk of continuing the expedition.
Of course, the fact is that the American Dream was never achievable for most people, not even in that “simpler time.” Where did they get the idea that it was? A former professor of mine dances around the edges of this idea in one of his books: in this country, there’s a belief that the good prosper…that prosperity is a gift from God. A large segment of our country’s population believes that there’s a payout in class and status for a [Christian] life well lived. The opposite seems also to be true, at least to an extent: when bad things happen to apparently good people, their peers begin to think that they’re evidently not so good after all.
I wonder where Donald Trump fits into the equation, and I can’t help but remember his appalling “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody…[and not] lose any voters” before the election. He was so right. And I think the fact that he was right can only be seen as further evidence of my professor’s theory: large portions of our population voted for a rich man. That was the only “qualification” with which they were concerned, because somewhere down deep, they believed that the affluent have the favor of God.
Oh…it feels good to make this academic.
But lately as I read, I’ve also been trying to make my peace with the stupid and pseudo-intellectual. Truth be told, I’ve only really managed to look at the line of classical novels on my bookshelf; in practice, my beach reading has continued long past my actual beach trip, and it is now apparently the only “genre” I can consistently turn to when I want to escape. (When don’t I want to escape?)
Last night, I finished a book that (I have no doubt) will one day be made into a low-rated RomCom starring Renee Zellweger (at least it would have been in the 2000s). Bookish girl drops everything to move to the Scotch Highlands and fall in love with a couple of hot guys while she sells perfect books out of the back of her ridiculous van. Oh yeah. That’s the stuff. You can’t wallow in your fear and disgust about Donny John and his regime if you’ve already turned your brain off, folks. Just sayin’.
But…yeah. I’m an academic, and I know I can’t stop the thinking for too long. I want there to be things to learn, even from this horrible time and this horrible man. I want to look at how we got here, and I want the path to make some kind of logical sense. What I’m afraid of is that what’s happened is more akin to religion than politics. Certainly, that’s how it feels out here in the small-town Midwest.
I wish more than anything that we could extricate the two, but Americans have long (sooo long) had a need to talk and act as though their every venture is looked upon and blessed by God. God is patriotism is America is God…it’s unbelievable hubris, and our commander-in-chief may well be its natural offspring.