“That’s Why I Love Mankind”

As the New York Times has reported about the insurrection of January 6, the far-right Proud Boys, before they joined the fray, “stopped to kneel in the street and prayed in the name of Jesus.” And then, “they invoked the divine protection for what was to come.”

Christian symbols could be seen everywhere in the seditious mob because “the most extreme corners of support for Mr. Trump have become inextricable from some parts of white evangelical power in America.”

Over the years, I’ve noted—initially with amusement, now with real alarm— that many of his supporters refer to him as their “God Emperor.”

And yet, “The people Trump despises most love him the most,” according to Howard Stern. Trump would not want them in his hotels or golf properties. “He’d be disgusted by them,” Stern said.

Stern’s words have been echoed by Olivia Troye, who was once a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She has revealed that, during one meeting, Trump said the pandemic had at least one benefit: now he had an excuse to physically distance himself from his followers: “I don’t have to shake hands with these disgusting people.”

No surprise, then, that last week while Trump gleefully watched on television the destruction being wreaked in the Capitol Building, the only downside, in his opinion, was that so many of his followers looked “low class.”

All of which reminds me of one of Randy Newman’s most cynical, excoriating compositions, “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” It’s the final song (what could possibly follow it?) from his third album, 1972’s Sail Away.

Newman begins the song’s lament with his barrel-house piano slowed to a painful, piquant blues, as the Biblical figure of Seth asks God why humans must die, and receives this divine reply:

“Man means nothing, he means less to me
than the lowliest cactus flower
on the humblest yucca tree
he chases round this desert
cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
that’s why I love mankind.

“I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
from the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind.”

By the end of the song, as the world begins to spiral out of control from several crises, religious leaders band together on “satellite TV” to beg God for help. This section of the lyrics, written in the 1970s, seems uncannily prescient about today’s ills. They could easily refer to the unchecked Covid pandemic, the rising seas of global warming, the burning cities of protest and counter-protest in America this summer, and children being forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexican border, all glaring examples of Trump’s current incompetence, inaction, malevolence or failure:

The religious leaders plead:

“Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Are tumbling to the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”

And the Lord said

“I burn down your cities—how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say, How blessed are we
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind”

Now when I listen to these last lines that Newman attributes to God, I see in my mind the image of Trump standing before the White House in that video he released in the middle of the attack on the Capitol, saying to those “low class” fervent supporters, “We love you, you’re very special.” How they must have basked in his false affection.

The blindness that God relentlessly, even gleefully celebrates in Newman’s song is clearly echoed today by Trump’s followers. No matter what Trump does, no matter what principles he shatters that they previously espoused, no matter what lies they willingly believe, no matter what contempt he shows for them, they blindly follow. Because, with all their grievances, real and imagined, with all their inner wounds, they really need him.

Even though their “God Emperor” won’t take care of us, and he won’t let us be.

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January 12th, 2021 by admin

In Praise of Darkness

Language matters, especially language we use without truly thinking about the implications, even the invisible hurt, of our word choices. This is far from an original observation, but these past months of our country’s election saga have reminded me of a particular misuse of the word “dark.”

After five days of vote counting, when Joe Biden was finally declared the winner of the 2020 election on November 7, many commentators across the media platforms of CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and elsewhere said or wrote that light had finally broken through the darkness of recent years.

This week Joe Biden gave a speech saying that the insurrection at the Capitol building was a “dark day for America.”

Yesterday, I received a mass email of thanks that Senator-Elect Raphael Warnock sent to his supporters, in which he (of all people!) said, “It’s dark in this country right now.”

I respectfully disagree. January 6, a day that will live in infamy, was not a dark day—instead, it was a blindingly white day, a day of white supremacist ignorance, arrogance, and violence.

However, the day before, January 5, was indeed a dark day: a day of nurturing darkness, when the off-the-charts voting of people of color in Georgia—spurred by the herculean organizational efforts of Stacey Abrams—proved the decisive factor in returning control of the Senate to the Democrats (as they had also been in delivering Georgia’s sixteen electoral votes to Joe Biden in November).

I think it is well past the time to use the word “dark” as a stand-in metaphor for all that is threatening, disturbing and evil.

For over thirty years, I used a short excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to illustrate to my Introduction to Fiction students how seemingly simple words are actually charged with meaning, if only you look closely enough:

“And talking about dark! You think dark is just one color, but it ain’t. There’re five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don’t stay still, it moves and changes from one kind of black to another. Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce, or green like the sky is just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.”

I was reminded of this passage recently as I read Jennifer Ackerman’s Birds by the Shore, where she describes (in detail that is clearly the result of years of observant experience) her evening wanderings along a cove near her home in Delaware:

The darkness of the marsh is not the close darkness of woods, where blackness pours up from between the trees, but a thin, liquid, open, far-reaching darkness that descends onto the grass.

Other cultures have their own take on what “dark” connotes. In one of my favorite books, In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki discusses how darkness—shadows—came to be valued in Japanese architecture:

The fact that we do not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we all call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover the beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

My home office has three lights: a ceiling light; a lamp set on the corner of a small, glass-door book cabinet beside my desk; and a floor lamp, which has three settings, standing beside my reading chair. Throughout the day and evening, I turn the various lights on and off: sometimes for maximum brightness, but other times to create a particular mood of light and shadow. I often keep the lamp by my reading chair at the medium setting at night, with all other lights off: I enjoy the soft penumbra of light above me and the chair, while the rest of the room is cast in a comforting darkness. In writing this, I realize that in other rooms of the house, and without really thinking about it, I do much the same, guiding “shadows towards beauty’s ends.”

The complexities of darkness in the physical world, however, are nothing compared to those in one’s interior world:

and in the underworld of sleep
you can visit
all the shadows
of your different selves

–Miriam Sagan

Exhausted from the events of the day, we seek out the dark as we settle into bed and sleep. In that darkness our dream-life awakes, when deeper truths about who we are reveal themselves. Our imaginations exercise in the dark. And when day arrives we reap the benefits, if we choose to listen.

Every day we welcome the dark. The night gives us most of the parties we’ve ever been to, most of the concerts we’ve ever attended, and no movie or play can begin in a theater unless the lights are dimmed.

Using “dark” as a stand-in for anything negative perpetuates yet another insinuating connotation that people of color have to live with. It’s a linguistic monument waiting to be pulled down. Think of this past, tumultuous week. “Dark” people—people of color—were the driving force in helping perpetuate our democracy, while violent white people tried to stage a coup in the Capitol building. This contrast reminds me of a moment in Red Dust, a novel by the Cuban science-fiction writer Yoss. The narrator, a well-meaning, law-enforcement robot who tries his best to understand the ways of humans, watches his ally, Vasily, engage in a battle of forcefields with a dangerous criminal named Makrow:

It looked to me like Vasily’s field was navy blue, almost black, while Makrow’s was pinkish white—which for some reason I found almost shocking. Wasn’t the purest color supposed to be for the good guy? It’s hard to put any credit in archetypes after a surprise like that.

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Poem by Miriam Sagan can be found here.

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January 9th, 2021 by admin