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“Pagan Symbolism, As Ancient As Imperialism”: Religious Symbols, The Original Cultural Appropriation

I have a theory about Donald Trump’s success. I think that one reason he manages to survive the terrible things he says and does is that he gives liberals too much material. With so much insensitivity, racism, and misogyny pouring out of his campaign, it’s hard to focus on one thing. Complimenting Saddam Hussein? Racist slurs about Mexicans? Misogyny? It’s like being at Ikea—I feel overstimulated and exhausted.

The notorious Star of David Hillary graphic, however, seems to be holding people’s attention. After tweeting the image of Clinton accompanied by a six-pointed star over a pile of money with the words “most corrupt candidate ever,” Trump denied that he intended to imply anything anti-Semitic. It was, he says, a simple sheriff’s star; he never meant to invoke anti-Semitic tropes that link Jews to corruption and money. The country western explanation was rejected not only by media commentators but also by David Duke, former Grand High Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan—and he should know anti-Semitism when he sees it.

While this particular invocation of the Star of David invokes dangerous anti-Semitic caricatures, Trump is hardly the first person to appropriate the religious symbols of another group. Religious appropriation has a longer history and is more prevalent than you might think.

Syncretism, appropriation, cultural mingling—call it what you want, religious appropriation is as ancient as imperialism. The Romans, in a magnanimous display of noblesse oblige, allowed conquered subject peoples to continue to worship their own deities and imported those religions to Rome. The cult of the Persian god Mithras proved exceptionally popular among soldiers, as did the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis. In the cafeteria of ancient paganism, people enjoyed sampling the full length of the buffet.

The first Christians, too, appropriated the religious imagery of their predecessors. In the catacombs of Rome, some of the earliest visual images of Jesus portray him as a shepherd with a sheep slung over his shoulders. The idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is well known to any readers of the New Testament, but the image was based almost entirely on depictions of the Greek god Hermes. Other images show him in the guise of Orpheus, the romantic poet of Greek mythology, who descended into the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, or as Helios, the sun God.

The reason for this adaptation is two-fold: in the first decades of the Christian Era artisans were skilled in carving Orpheus and Helios. Assimilating Jesus to mythological figures was pragmatic. At the same time, the assimilation was communicative: both Jesus and Orpheus were believed to have descended into the underworld. Both Jesus and Helios were believed to be deities with power over the order of the universe. Appropriating pagan symbolism allowed the fledgling religious movement to communicate something about their beliefs in a way that would be broadly intelligible to their contemporary audience.

But today and in recent history religious appropriation has a different kind of history. The most blindingly horrific example of appropriation must be the lifting of the Hindu symbol of auspiciousness or good fortune—the svastika—to make the Nazi swastika. But Nazi fondness for the symbol didn’t emerge out of vacuum: as Steven Heller showed in his book The Swastika: Beyond Redemption?, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a huge fad in which everyone from Coca-Cola to the Girl Scouts to the British and American military adopted the symbol.

Children of the 80s will remember the sacrilegious imagery of Madonna videos and the frequent juxtaposition of the rosary in her attire. The trend of ironically wearing Catholic “jewelry” as an act of subversion or mockery is prevalent to this day. Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols are also favorite accessories for Westerners, but there’s something a little less sacrilegious in their application. In the case of the latter there is usually aesthetic appreciation that accompanies the blissful ignorance about a symbol’s origins. As many have pointed out, there’s no merit to be had in appreciating the beauty of a culture if you don’t also want to understand its history and suffering.

In many cases religious appropriation is well-intentioned and shrouded in blissful ignorance. There is a fierce debate over whether or not the Western practice of yoga and meditation is inherently colonialist. Full disclosure: I am exactly the kind of Lululemon-wearing yoga practitioner you might accuse of this. I have none of the knowledge of my sensitive and well-informed yoga teacher Lauren Harris, and it’s convenient for me to follow this argument about why yoga isn’t cultural appropriation. But colonialist or not, good intentions don’t obscure the fact that very few of us aspiring yogis could name the elephant-headed god in the room. (Wikipedia tells me that it’s Ganesh.)

Interestingly, religious appropriation is generally more accepted than other aspects of cultural appropriation. The pushback against appropriating Native American dress receives less attention than the appropriation of Native American spirituality at sweat lodges or on Oprah. This is in part because of the commodification of religion in general and in part because of our cultural commitment to the process of conversion. Sometimes the line between cavalier accessorizing and sincere religious practice is hard to discern.

What’s the difference between adaptation and appropriation? Two things: knowledge and power. The ill-informed appropriation of a marginalized and/or oppressed religious group’s heritage by members of the dominant group is more problematic than the ironic critique of mainstream religious power. Madonna’s use of Catholic religious imagery in her music videos may have been in poor taste, but it was better informed than her appropriation of “vogue-ing” from Latino and African-American dancers.

At the end of day, whether or not it’s your body or your propaganda, accessorizing with religious symbols matters, especially when those symbols belong to someone else.

 

By: Candida Moss, The Daily Beast, July 10, 2016

July 11, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Religious Symbols | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Enough With The ‘Optics’ And The ‘Narrative'”: There’s No Reason Journalists Should Have Any Shortage Of Questions To Ask

When an important news story breaks, Americans turn to journalists for answers. Answers to questions like: Does this story “play into a narrative”? And what are the “optics” of the story? Because that’s what really matters, right?

Or so you might have thought if you had been reading or watching the news for the past few days. Journalists and pundits were all in a tizzy because when Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch crossed paths recently at an Arizona airport tarmac, Clinton jumped on Lynch’s plane to chat with her for a half hour, about such shocking topics as Clinton’s grandchildren and their mutual friend Janet Reno.

The ensuing controversy looks like a prime example of the “Clinton Rules,” under which the media treat even the most ludicrous allegations against Bill or Hillary Clinton as reasonable and worthy of extended examination, assuming all the while that their actions can be motivated only by the most sinister of intentions. And if the underlying substance of a story is indeed ludicrous—like the idea that Clinton hopped over to talk to Lynch because he wanted to urge her to put the kibosh on any possible indictment of his wife (in a semi-public setting with a bunch of other people standing around), and not because he’s Bill Clinton and he loves chatting with important people—then you can just fall back on judging the “optics” and noting sagely that the story “plays into a narrative.” Whatever you do, don’t mention that the “narrative” is one you yourself are in the process of creating and sustaining, and when you say that the “optics” are bad, what you’re really saying is, “It was a mistake because here I am on TV saying it was a mistake.”

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: The more people you see in the media talking about “narratives” and “optics,” the less substantively meaningful the controversy they’re talking about actually is. So: Is there a reason to condemn Clinton or Lynch for their tarmac chitchat that doesn’t rely on the idea that one or the other should have known how it would look? The closest thing you can argue is that if there’s an active FBI investigation of a matter that involves the wife of a former president, that former president should have no contact, private or public, with the attorney general. Even if that’s an informal rule more intended to safeguard against the appearance of impropriety than actual impropriety, it’s still a perfectly good idea. On the other hand, the fact that their talk took place with other people around makes any kind of undue influence vanishingly unlikely; you’d have far more reason to be concerned about something like a private phone call.

Here’s what was going to happen if Clinton and Lynch had never spoken: The FBI would complete its investigation, the career prosecutors at the Justice Department would or wouldn’t recommend an indictment, and Lynch, as the department’s chief, would or wouldn’t accept that recommendation. I doubt any serious person thinks the outcome of that process would be affected by the conversation Clinton and Lynch had. Yes, there are Republicans, including Donald Trump, who will say otherwise. But there are also lots of Republicans who think that the Clintons killed Vince Foster and that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; that doesn’t mean you have to treat those ideas as anything other than the lunacy they are. But in the end, Lynch recused herself from the final decision on an indictment anyway. Why? Optics, of course.

Although this kind of thing happens with particular frequency to Bill and Hillary Clinton, that isn’t to say that that faux controversies don’t get whipped up about Republicans, too. For instance, over the weekend, Donald Trump retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton superimposed over a pile of money, with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” contained within a Star of David. Anthony Smith of mic.com tracked down the source of the image: a particularly rancid online forum of racists and white supremacists. I won’t link to it, but when I visited the forum Sunday afternoon, the top post was a story about Elie Wiesel under the headline, “DING DONG THE KIKE IS DEAD,” followed by lengthy discussions on the criminality of non-white people, the dangers of race-mixing, and the superiority of the white race. And it isn’t like this was an isolated incident. As David Weigel of The Washington Post noted, “For at least the fifth time, Trump’s Twitter account had shared a meme from the racist ‘alt-right’ and offered no explanation why.”

When the tweet started getting attention, the Trump campaign deleted it and replaced it with an altered image, this time with the Star of David replaced with a circle. My guess is that Trump got the image from one of his followers and retweeted it without giving it much thought. So is it a big deal, one worthy of multiple days of coverage? In and of itself, no. It doesn’t prove anything new about Trump. But it’s another demonstration of something that is troubling: Trump’s words and policy goals have garnered enthusiastic support from racists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis.

Jews are pretty far down on the list of groups Donald Trump is trying to get voters to hate and fear, so to be honest, I’m not much more concerned about his tweet than I am about Bill Clinton telling Loretta Lynch how cute his grandkids are. In both cases, the last question we should care about is what the optics or the narrative are. Either Hillary Clinton did or didn’t do something wrong by using private email while at the State Department (she did), and either it will or won’t be determined to be a crime (it almost certainly won’t). In Trump’s case, it isn’t whether voters will react negatively to his extended game of Twitter footsie with white supremacists (much as one hopes they would). There’s something real and meaningful underneath the tweets: the fact that Trump is running the most nakedly racist presidential campaign, in both rhetoric and substance, since George Wallace in 1968, or maybe Strom Thurmond in 1948.

I have no idea what lies within Trump’s heart, and there’s no way to know for sure. But when members of the KKK are endorsing you, neo-Nazis are praising you, and every steroid-addled racist frat boy rage-monster is totally pumped about your campaign, there’s something much more important than the details of your retweeting habits at work. There’s no reason journalists should have any shortage of questions about that to discuss.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, July 3, 2016

July 7, 2016 Posted by | Bill and Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Journalists, Loretta Lynch | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Every Republican’s Stench”: Trump’s White Supremacist Tweets Aren’t The Problem. They’re A Symptom Of The Problem

We get worked up about a lot of silly stuff in presidential campaigns, micro-controversies driven by faux outrage that are inevitably forgotten in a couple of days once the next micro-controversy comes along. On first glance, that’s what the kerfuffle over Donald Trump’s latest Twitter hijinks — once again, passing on something from white supremacists — looks like. After all, should we really care what’s in Trump’s Twitter feed, when we’re talking about our country’s future? The answer is that we should care, but it’s not about the tweet. The tweet isn’t the problem, the tweet is the result of the problem.

In case you haven’t heard, here’s what we’re talking about, from The Post’s David Weigel:

It was so close to the message that Republicans say they want from Donald Trump: a tweet describing Hillary Clinton as “crooked” and the “most corrupt candidate ever,” on the morning that the likely Democratic presidential nominee met with the FBI.

But the image that Trump chose to illustrate his point, which portrayed a red Star of David shape slapped onto a bed of $100 bills, had origins in the online white-supremacist movement. For at least the fifth time, Trump’s Twitter account had shared a meme from the racist “alt-right” and offered no explanation why.

Trump’s campaign later did some quick photoshopping, replacing the Star of David with a circle. But as Anthony Smith of mic.com discovered, the image originated on an online forum where unapologetic racists and white supremacists gather to bathe in each other’s vomitous hate. I assume that, as with the other times Trump has retweeted something from the alt-right, he was unaware of its origin; one of his followers tweeted it to him, he liked what he saw, and he passed it on.

It’s just a tweet, and in and of itself it doesn’t make Trump a racist or an anti-Semite. To be honest, it doesn’t even make the top 20 most bigoted things Trump has said or done in this campaign. But it should leave Republicans with even more questions about how to square the ideals they claim to hold with the man their party has chosen to lead the United States of America.

We have to understand that this is about both rhetoric and substance. There’s a stylistic element, the way Trump gives people permission to let their ugliest feelings and beliefs out for display under the guise of not being “politically correct.” But there are also meaningful consequences for the course we would take in the future. Trump tells voters to hate and fear people who don’t look like them, but he also tells them to take action. Just the other day he told a crowd that “We are going to be so tough, we are going to be so smart and so vigilant, and we’re going to get it so that people turn in people when they know there’s something going on,” complaining that too many people are worried about being accused of racial profiling to turn in their neighbors. So if you spot a Muslim, go ahead and dial 911. When a woman at one of his events suggested that we “Get rid of all these heebeejabis they wear at TSA, I’ve seen them myself,” Trump responded, “We are looking at that. We’re looking at a lot of things.” I’ll bet.

By this time we’ve all become accustomed to this pas de deux of hate between Trump and his supporters. When he says that a Latino judge from Indiana can’t do his job because “he’s a Mexican,” we shake our heads. When he tells an apocryphal story about a general executing Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig’s blood as a lesson in how America ought to act, our shock doesn’t last more than a day. When he laments the fact that the Islamic State can behead people while we’re restrained by our laws and morality, saying “They probably think we’re weak” and “You have to fight fire with fire,” we barely take notice. When he weds his support of bigoted policies like bans on Muslims to a fetishization of violence and brutality, promising to use torture and telling his supporters how he’d love to beat up the protesters who come to his rallies (“I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya”), we predict that any day now he’ll “pivot” and start acting “presidential.”

And we forget that not long ago the man now leading the GOP made himself into America’s most prominent birther, going on every TV show he could to claim that President Obama might be the beneficiary of a decades-long conspiracy to conceal the fact that he was actually born in Kenya. If you’re wondering whether that’s just stupid and crazy, or if it’s inherently racist, let me clear it up for you: Yes, it’s racist.

In my analysis of American politics I try as often as possible to put myself in the shoes of people I disagree with, to take their arguments seriously and understand where they’re coming from even when I’m convinced they’re wrong. And I’ve argued that there are perfectly rational reasons a committed Republican would grit their teeth and support Trump even if they found him to be an ignoramus and a buffoon. But there comes a point at which one would have to say: Even if a Trump presidency would deliver much more of what I would want out of government policy, from the Supreme Court to domestic policy to foreign policy, I simply cannot be a part of this. Donald Trump’s appeal to Americans is so rancid, so toxic, so foul that my conscience will not allow me to stand behind him, even with the occasional protest that I don’t agree with the latest vile thing he said, or the insistence that my fellow Republicans and I will do our best to restrain his ugliest impulses.

You might respond: Easy for you to say. Would I be saying that if I had something to lose, if we were talking about some liberal version of Trump who had secured the Democratic nomination? If it meant handing the Supreme Court over to conservatives, and repealing the Affordable Care Act for real, and privatizing Medicare, and dismantling environmental and worker protections, and so many other things that would pain me?

To be honest, I can’t say for sure, partly because I cannot fathom who a liberal version of Trump would be or what that person’s equally noxious campaign would look like. The closest analogy in my lifetime to this situation is the Lewinsky scandal, where Democrats argued that although Bill Clinton’s behavior in having an affair with a 22-year-old White House staffer was repugnant, it wasn’t an impeachable offense and could be separated from his performance as president.

But the difference then was that it could be separated from his performance as president. Clinton wasn’t trying to persuade the country to embrace adultery, or counting on fellow adulterers to put him in office, or promising to institute a government program of adultery.

Donald Trump isn’t hoping that he can keep his bigotry a secret; he’s running on it and promising to enshrine it in federal government policy. He may not be responsible for all the things his fans say, and you might even excuse him for passing on some of their hate by mistake. What he is responsible for is all the reasons those people became his fans in the first place. It isn’t because of economic anxiety, or because he’s an outsider, or because he tells it like it is. It’s because Donald Trump appeals directly to the worst in us, and the worst of us.

And every Republican who stands with him, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them or how much they wish he would change, will have that stench on them for a long time to come.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, July 4, 2016

July 4, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Racism, Republicans, White Supremacists | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Utterly Uncouth And Unqualified”: Donald Trump Is A Middle Finger To The Entire Political System

Is the key to Donald Trump’s success just old-fashioned racism? He surely stokes race hatred among his followers and even more-or-less openly panders to anti-Semitism. Yet he also seems to feed on economic desperation. He has won running against trade, his support tracks inversely with educational attainment, and he’s posted his biggest margins in some of the most desperate counties in America; surely economic anxiety has something to do with his rise.

This has led to various attempts to untangle race from economic factors in predicting Trump’s support. An effort from The Washington Post found some of both, with racial resentment something like twice as important in predicting Trump support. Yet one should not end the analysis there: Trump also represents bitter hatred of the political system, driven by the shredding of the American social contract over the last 40 years.

The thing about Trump is that not only is he the most openly bigoted presidential candidate since 1968 (or perhaps even 1948), he’s also utterly uncouth and unqualified. Unlike William F. Buckley, his racism is not genteel or hidden behind polite words, and unlike George Wallace or Strom Thurmond, he has precisely zero political experience. Even against his Republican primary opponents, he was a boorish jerk, insulting their wives and boasting about the size of his penis.

In other words, Trump doesn’t just express bigoted views, he also has utter contempt for the traditional norms of political decorum, and in previous times would have been considered a completely laughable choice for president. But his followers revel in it.

The rise of Trump is worth examining in the context of this brilliant article by Matthew Stoller, detailing the change in the American social contract from the postwar generation to today. In brief, for 30 years after World War II, there was a strong political-economic consensus around a high rate of unionization, shared productivity growth, strict financial regulation, and low unemployment — all centered around homeownership as the bedrock of middle-class status and wealth.

Starting in the mid-’70s, this social contract was slowly ripped apart. First unions were deliberately crushed in the Volcker recession, and low unemployment was gradually discarded as a political goal. This severed the link between productivity growth and wage growth. Meanwhile, Wall Street was slowly unchained, resulting in repeated financial bubbles, each one larger than the last (and each with concomitant sprees of fraud).

Yet growing consumer spending was still needed for economic growth. Thus American women went to work, and American families levered up. They took out credit cards, and drew down their savings. “Finally, they liquidated their financial assets, including their home equity,” Stoller writes. A new, much less egalitarian social contract emerged, where wages were replaced with credit.

But this contained the seeds of its own destruction. Eventually Americans had reached the absolute limit of how much debt they could take on, while simultaneously Wall Street blew up the biggest bubble yet, and this time around the key asset for ordinary families. When home prices collapsed, middle-class America got it right on the chin, and tens of millions were ruined outright.

As David Dayen’s new book details, the Obama administration rescued Wall Street from its self-induced problems but basically ignored foreclosures, figuring that eventually the system would unclog and normal operation of the mortgage and homebuilding sectors would return. They didn’t, because the administration fundamentally misunderstood what was happening. Home equity collapsed for years, and while it has since recovered to some extent, drastically fewer are represented: The homeownership rate has steadily fallen to levels not seen since the mid-’60s.

The Reagan-era social contract has collapsed, and nothing is on the horizon to replace it — indeed, it’s hard to imagine a “social contract” whereby a largely parasitic financial and executive class makes off with virtually all income gains, a rapidly vanishing middle class is increasingly locked out of wealth creation, and the political class is all but owned outright by Wall Street. Such a society would be more about coercing consent from the restless masses through surveillance, mass incarceration, and highly militarized police than it would be about obtaining it by social spending and quality services.

A white backlash to the first black president is a very important part of Trump’s rise. But the fact that he represents a raised middle finger to the entire American political system is, I submit, about equal in importance.

Now, it’s worth noting that the old postwar days were by no means perfect. Homeownership is a highly problematic bedrock for middle-class wealth, particularly in the dispersed, suburban style typical of America. Worse, a great many demographics were left out of the good times — minorities and women especially.

Yet it is unquestionably true that those days had much more enthusiastic buy-in from the broad mass of the population than today. Trust in the federal government has fallen from 77 percent in 1964 to about 20 percent today. The approval ratings of the Supreme Court and especially Congress have also plummeted.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, minority activism to get a piece of what the white middle and working class had was a sensible goal. Now it seems inadequate, as more and more white folks are careening down to meet their black brethren at the bottom of the social ladder.

What is needed is a new social contract that restores some fairness and decency to American society. Without it, the politics of rage and contempt will only grow.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, May 24, 2016

May 26, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Middle Class, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reveling In Their Bigotry”: Hillary Clinton Supporters Should Get Ready For An Onslaught Of Insane Bigotry

In the Democratic presidential primary, a great many pixels were spilled over the “Bernie Bros.” This is Bernie Sanders’ supposed army of young white male misogynists, patrolling the internet for any sign of women supporting Hillary Clinton, who they then harassed without mercy or quarter. But if Clinton voters thought the bros were bad, wait till they meet the Trumpists.

Of course, it’s hard to say anything about one online community or another with ironclad certainty, given the lack of reliable statistics. The only actual survey I’ve seen about online abuse by 2016 candidates is from a consulting firm that put together a survey of 1,007 people over 18. It’s not peer-reviewed or published anywhere except online, but it’s as good as we’re likely to get for the time being. Fifty-seven percent of respondents found Donald Trump supporters to be “very aggressive,” as compared to 30 percent for Clinton and 16 percent for Sanders.

If that’s not enough, just look around. Many liberals don’t have that much experience with Trumpists, since so far they have mostly focused their fire on Trump’s most immediate opponents: other conservatives.

So take a peek into the Twitter mentions of Red State‘s Ben Howe, who declared for Clinton now that Trump has secured the nomination — or the signature Trumpist hashtag, which is a more-or-less explicitly white nationalist slogan. You’ll find a sewer of outright bigotry, genocide jokes, misogyny, oh and David Duke.

Better yet, look at Jewish conservatives like Ben Shapiro or Bill Kristol, who are under a constant deluge of bigoted abuse — and not just on social media, but from major pro-Trump writers and publications. (Breitbart, which has been pro-Trump to the point of siding with him against one of their own writers who was allegedly attacked by Trump’s then-campaign manager, recently published an article about how Kristol is a “renegade Jew.”) Some are already constructing a new Dolchstoss Legende blaming American Jews for Trump’s possible election defeat in November.

In this Trumpists take their cue from Trump himself, who has campaigned on open bigotry, repeatedly incited violence against anti-Trump protesters, and otherwise followed the incipient fascist playbook almost to the letter. Most recently, he refused to condemn his supporters’ anti-Semitic harassment of reporter Julia Ioffe, who wrote a profile of his wife (or as the white supremacist site Daily Stormer calls her, “Empress Melania”).

To my mind this is the worst aspect of Trump’s rise. Republicans playing footsie with racist white people to get votes is sadly nothing new. But running a major party campaign about as prejudiced as that of Strom Thurmond in 1948 is something new — particularly when the overall trend had been in the opposite direction. Anti-Semitism used to be political poison, but Trump is bringing it back at least adjacent to the mainstream. It’s no coincidence white supremacists are besides themselves with glee over Trump.

All this is not to say that there is no trace of prejudice on the American left (from liberals to leftists), or that it’s not important to address that when it does crop up. But Trump and his supporters are a fundamental threat to the basic norms that have underpinned American politics for the past half-century. Unlike the leftists backing Sanders, the alt-right crowd supporting Trump does not care a whit for people calling them bigoted. On the contrary, they revel in it.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, May 17, 2016

May 18, 2016 Posted by | Bigotry, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Trump Supporters | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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