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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

“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

   

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