Specters haunt us. There are gigantic shadows that cut off light. Shadows like freedom, slavery, race, religion, politics. They’re real things, but assume meanings frightening and personal to us that make inner and outer world dark and menacing places. Do we meet them gracefully, or do we meet them with fear? Many of us react with fear, striking out at perceived threats. Sometimes with violence too.
Homosexuality is one such threat. In Minnesota, in the very district that Michele Bachman represents, some nine teenagers committed suicide because of bullying within two years or less. They were bullied because they were perceived as gay, whether they were or not. The parents of the bullies didn’t stop them. Perhaps they even approved. Why, exactly?
Homosexuality is something that has been condemned in many human cultures, but not in all. When I was entering my teens I hardly knew what sexuality was, let alone the variety of mani-festations it took. But I saw even then that the very word was sinister with connotation, even if I didn’t understand what those connotations were. I felt some fear of it then, and that fear never entirely went away, but I was able to reason through it, and experience taught me that it was no particular threat to me. It seems to remain a threat to many, though. People organize against it, write and speak diatribes against it, and sometimes even kill those they suspect or know to practice it. But homosexuality isn’t alone among spectral threats.
Communism has been a similar word, and the reality of Communism, as practiced in a number of nations around the world has justified the fear. But not entirely. The image of Communism also absorbs other fears. Therefore civil rights get denounced as being Communist-inspired, notwithstanding that our forefathers rebelled against Great Britain in the name of civil rights, though that wasn’t the name they used.
Labor unions have also been been denounced as Communist, as if working-class people ought to have no rights. Socialized medicine is another, and never mind that it provides healthcare to all citizens and, in countries of comparable development to ours, frequently provides services more cheaply and efficiently than here. To call it socialism is to call it evil, since socialism and communism are related. Never mind, again, that the National Football League practices a form of socialism, in that each team receives equal revenues, which most use to be more competitive, something supposed to be prohibited by socialism.
As there are evil specters, so are there specters that we’re supposed to unquestioningly accept as good. Christianity is supposed to be unqualifiedly good, and many still grieve for the end of public prayer in schools. Of course these same people would never stand for Islamic public prayer in our schools, since Islam is supposed to be an evil religion. The two specters are opposed, though they grew from the same root. Both have done good, both have committed horrible crimes. We expect God to see us as good, and anyone we consider our enemies to be evil. But God, if the concept of him (or her) means anything, has a wider and deeper perspective than we do. OUR personal God (our concept of him) is not the same as the reality, which few of us ever experience. In some people’s concepts of God, I’m probably going to Hell. In my concept, God considers us all his children, even (and perhaps especially) those who have gone grievously wrong.
Capitalism is another specter, which many wish us to believe is unqualifiedly good. Communism arose as the opponent of Capitalism, its devil-figure, as Capitalism is the devil-figure of Communism. Capitalism is usually conflated with Democracy, to promise equality. So does Communism. Neither deliver. Power is always the property of an elite class, whether it’s the leadership cadre of the Communist party or the relatively closed society of the very rich. But where Capitalism rules, it’s treason to question it; the opposite true in last century’s Communism.
Recently there was a supposed Million Man Muslim march here in the USA. I don’t know what it was supposed to be about, but very few showed up for it. I happened on a page where people were writing about it, and found a letter, passed on by someone other than the writer, supposedly by an ex-Marine, who said Obama’s reelection had destroyed the America of Norman Rockwell, and it would require fanaticism to get it back.
That’s the voice of fear, the voice that believes the propaganda about “subversives” who seek to destroy America and all the good it’s done. Who HATE America even. It’s the voice of someone who identifies with a particular picture of America, and is unwilling to look at the whole picture.
What is wrong with the picture Norman Rockwell drew? I don’t think it’s a BAD picture. It’s illustrations of human nature, done by someone who loves people, and loves to laugh at both their harmless foolishness and their amusing pretensions. Is there anything wrong with that? Well, I don’t remember him portraying anyone but white people, and America takes in a lot more than just them. Rockwell chose not to paint horrifyingly serious subjects (at least that I’ve seen), in favor of a world that is secure and confident. He had a right to his choice, but it’s an incomplete picture, and the rest of that picture haunts us.
Will we be able to recover the world his pictures showed through fanaticism? This past century should be enough to answer that question: No, fanaticism only succeeds through conquest, and Rockwell’s pictures are of people living ordinary lives in a world where the most serious fears are of embarrass-ment, as when a boy summons up the courage to ask a girl out. Rockwell doesn’t depict the foundations of the world he portrays: the struggles by radicals for political liberty, the struggles of slaves to be free, the killing and deportation of Indians so we Europeans could have their land. His pictures aren’t even triumphant, because they show no consciousness of the struggle for conquest and control.
Rockwell’s pictures look like heaven, and we know we’re not living there. How ironic to think that the time he lived through was at least as tumultuous as our present time: two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement.
After reading the above, I took a moment to look Rockwell up in Wikipedia, and found that my picture of him wasn’t entirely correct. One of his pictures shows a tiny black girl surrounded by four big white men on her way to integrate an elementary school. They are seen from the view of the audience, and the wall behind them has NIGGER written on it, and a tomato lies on the sidewalk beside them, evidently thrown by someone. Interestingly enough, Rockwell ended his long association with the Saturday Evening Post because they wouldn’t allow him to address political subjects. That was in 1959, and he lived almost twenty more years.
And suppose Rockwell had painted the audience who watched the black girl going to school. What would they have looked like? I suspect much like a painting by one of the Dutch masters (perhaps Breughel) who painted a view of the crowd surrounding Jesus’ crucifiction, angry and hysterical. An explosion of violence indicting those who exploded, for cruelty and abuse towards even the least of these.
That doesn’t seem to be within the purview of the man yearning for Norman Rockwell’s America. Something must be missing in his life, something he can’t seem to find in the present, that he seeks in the idealized past.
Irony again: Rockwell was treated for awhile by the famous psychiatrist Eric Ericsson, who reportedly told him that he didn’t live in the world he painted. Apparently something was missing in his life too.
Maybe many, even most of us do the same. Look for some ideal in the imagined past or imagined future, strive for that, and sometimes denounce anyone who doesn’t share our vision.
The man has already picked out the villains who, in his view, are destroying the country, and all the things that white Christian men have done here. Having closed his mind and called for no cooperation with the forces he thinks evil, he wouldn’t be able to understand that the world Rockwell painted had at least part of its foundation in genocide, robbery and slavery. This country was never only about white people. They were the ones who had the power, and some the things they did were good, with hopeful implications for all. But they also chose who to include and who to exclude. The American Dream was always a powerful one, but many wanted to reserve it for themselves, believing that somehow they’d be the losers if it applied to everybody.
There’s always been fear in this country, as you can tell by the crimes committed in its name. Wars against the Indians, between the states, slavery, segregation, all had their roots in fear. Later on Communism and Islam became specters too, useful for political control.
And the fear only seemed to grow after World War II, when wealth was more evenly shared in this country than ever before, while American secretly became an international predator, to preserve our unprecedented lifestyle, and make America fat. Fat people have more to lose than people genuinely hungry, and more unreal fers living in a usually comfortable world that sometimes seems surrounded by absolutely evil barbarians.
They have plenty of people telling them who to hate, and they obey. The world they can touch is much smaller than the world they hear about on the news, which is much further removed, and which can exercise blind power over their lives. The fight they’re told about is about which elite will have control. Each elite idealistic and good, in its own eyes, and darkest evil in the eyes of those who disagree.
It comes down to whose propaganda you believe.
There are certainly things to fear, in a rational way, but a lot of leaders don’t want their followers rational. Those too rational will make their own decisions, and won’t be stampeded.
I think many of us, perhaps most, know this subliminally, but it’s too threatening to admit. We fear fanatics, but fear not to be fanatics ourselves. We fear to cooperate with what we consider evil, and then fear to cooperate at all with anyone different from us. If all men are brothers, would you want them to marry your sister? Brotherhood then becomes sinister, though we ARE all brothers and sisters: not only all human beings, but all living things, connected by the web we now call the biosphere, which determines that if we don’t all cooperate according to nature’s law, we will not survive.
That leaves us some latitude, but not a lot of time to become wise, if we would avoid the consequences of breaking nature’s laws. Hatred may best be seen as a luxury we can no longer afford, if we intend to survive.


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