Archive for April 27th, 2005

Or Take Venezuela as Your Paradigm of Hope

April 27, 2005

This past Saturday evening, Juvenal and another friend and I travelled to Memphis to watch the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA Cardinal team. They’re horrible, by the way. I know nothing about how scouting works, but they can’t hit or pitch or field, to speak of, so I’m thinking that’s not a good sign. They are short though–they’ve got that going for them. Wee-little men. Kind of like a bunch of Owen Meanys. I kept wanting them to just stand there and take pitches, as there is no pitcher accurate enough to throw three strikes against these players. [And just as an interesting side note–it is actually cheaper to buy a glass of Johnny Walker Black than it is to buy a Coke at Autozone (?) Park. I mean, I’m just saying…]

So the game itself has nothing to do with books, except only insomuch as we are such big nerds that we left the game early in order to make it to a bookstore before closing time. On the way home, and here I’d like to assert that I had no control over the radio, someone in the car stumbled upon a BBC news broadcast. Interesting to hear a newscast from a different country, even if I’m not exactly happy about what it perhaps might just possibly say about me that I spent midnight until 1:30 in the a.m. on a Saturday night listening to said newscast (again, I had no control over the radio). The reason it was interesting wasn’t the political perspective. It wasn’t that they had a different version of events taking place. It was that there were actually events taking place in the world that have nothing to do with America. And they covered them. Show of hands on how many people know the name of the world’s most respected sailor? I don’t either, but I do remember she was a she. Something happened in the Turkey slash Armenia region. There was even a disputed democratic election somewhere in the world, with which America had nothing to do, and that was probably important to the people of that country. [Sorry for lack of specifics–my job is neither politics nor world news, and did I mention the price of beverages at the ballpark?]

Okay, but then, somewhere in the BBC newscast was a hidden jewel for a nerd such as me. Venezuela, I think, decided to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first printing of Don Quixote by printing 1,000,000 copies of the book and handing it out to their citizens. They’re even ponying up to buy copies for other countries. I was dumbfounded. Cervantes wasn’t Venezuelan, so why did the government decide to do this? Apparently, they think that Quixote is in some way a role model for people, or can make them think about their actions in a different way, or maybe they just think it’s entertaining. There wasn’t a clear reason for the printing and handing out of the book (I mean, when you cover news from around the world, how much time can you give each country?). But, I liked the idea. I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen Don Quixote, but I thought it was kind of a hoping-against-hope action by the government to get people to read and think and what have you.

I wouldn’t want our government to spend money on printing costs for a book, but it did get me thinking about what kind of book might be chosen in America. I actually don’t have any good suggestions for fiction, although I haven’t put just tons of time into thinking about it. Some non-fiction books have jumped to mind. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for instance. For those who haven’t read it, it’s a great book. Malcolm has a wonderful way of talking about his wild early years and his time in prison without glorifying it or whining about it or using it as a way to say, look at me, I’m a good person for overcoming this. He speaks passionately about his time in the Nation of Islam, where he worked his way up from a mere speaker to the number two man. And he then has a way of explaining his disillusionment with the Nation and how he came to his own ideas and conclusions about race and how people should live their lives rather than what he saw (but didn’t exactly call it, I don’t think) as a brainwashing effect that some ministers can have on their followers. Although I think Malcolm is most remembered for his by-any-means-necessary approach to equality, if you haven’t read it, you also see a man with some regrets, a man with a vision, and a man with a lot of love.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas also popped into my head. In a country that prides itself of the idea of the self-made person, Douglas was the ultimate Horatio Alger. Born into slavery, self-educated, and then became a very influential man when Black men weren’t allowed to be influential. Or if we want to stay in the 19th century, something by Thoreau (please, no) or Emerson, since they had such grand visions for what America could be.

Or would it be a work of fiction that actually changed things in America, like Sinclair’s The Jungle. Obviously, this one wouldn’t work since Sinclair was a Communist, but the novel’s impact on the meat-packing industry in general and food safety in general was immediate.

Venezuela, though, didn’t choose a novel because it necessarily represented their country. They chose it because there was something in it that they wanted their citizens to aspire to. I think that this is where my America-centric perspective blinds me. I immediately started trying to think of books that might make Americans think about the way they view the world, or what it means to be an American. By doing so, I think I’m missing the point, and even the bravery, of the Venezuelan government. I’m sure there are some great Venezuelan writers, both past and present (although, sadly, most books not written in English never get translated, so we never get to read them). But there choice of books wasn’t to promote a nationalistic view of the world. They weren’t promoting patriotism. They were simply (if printing 1,000,000+ copies of a book can be described as simply) honoring a writer with a vision, a character that was hopelessly and foolishly kindhearted, blinded to reality by trying to help people at all personal costs, be it physical pain or embarrassment.

I don’t think this plan is all that practical, but I like it none the less for it’s impracticality. I don’t think every Venezuelan will read Don Quixote. I don’t think that matters. I like it that the government chose to honor an artist who has had a great influence on the world. That’s a pretty good idea, I think. I would love to see some sort of governmental recognition of the contributions that artists make to the way we think and see the world (I know they do a little, but nothing along the lines of the Venezuelan model). And I think it would be nice if we did so by possibly honoring writers from other countries even, maybe even writers that none of us have heard of before, that are from a different time and place — not so they would bash America, but so that we can see something written without an American perspective. I know I have an unwavering faith in the ability of writers to shape the world at least a little bit, so I trust you’ll forgive my romantic view of things. It must be the Don Quixote in me.

If anyone runs across one of these copies of Don Quixote, by the way, I’d love to have one. I’d even pay for it and everything.

I’m currently reading: The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert. History of the Surrealist Movement, by Gerard Durozoi. Le Morte D’Arthur, by Malory. Lucky, by Alice Sebold.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

April 27, 2005

The good news about “Justice Sunday” is that it signals the beginning of the end.

Those of us who have watched the development of the Religious Right from its beginnings in the 1970s have seen its rhetoric grow exponentially more strident, and its demands to have its way — both in government and in churches — grow louder and more expansive in recent years. It’s been an interesting study. If you graphed its rhetoric and claims to power over the course of the years, you wouldn’t have a bell curve. You’d have something that starts very small, builds very slowly but steadily, then, near the right edge of the chart, suddenly spikes and then bottoms out.

The spike is today. The plunge is tomorrow. To paraphrase an old sermon line, it’s Sunday, but Friday’s coming.

The Religious Right has finally said in plain and public terms, thank God, what it has always argued for in more roundabout ways. Now that the truth is out, I think we’ll see its influence rapidly decline. Nobody wants to hear upper-middle class white people whine about not getting their way. Nobody in a democracy wants to hear the voting majority, in full-blown paranoia, roar that everyone is out to get it, that its power is too limited, or that it has too little influence (control) over people’s lives.

If anyone in the Religious Right seriously doubts that that’s what they are — the upper-middle class white voting majority — it indicates just how completely they’ve lost touch with reality. People, this is a democracy. You, as both the voting majority and the segment of the population that holds the most wealth, the most education, and the overwhelming majority of public offices, already have more power than anyone else. The fact that you can’t do absolutely everything you want — that you can’t, through the power of the state, completely remake the country in your image — doesn’t make you the besieged and downtrodden. In Jesus’ parable, you’re the powerful religious officials, not the battered and looked-down-upon Samaritan.

If you’re just now discovering that in America, even the majority can’t do everything it wants, we’re sorry that you’re so disappointed, but, seriously, you should’ve paid more attention in 9th grade Civics. (You should also give the occasional thought to how Jesus lived his life.) Being the majority doesn’t entitle you to have every court case come out the way you want. It doesn’t entitle you to have the laws reflect your religious beliefs. It doesn’t entitle you to claim the founding principles of this country as belonging exclusively to you, historical realities be damned. It doesn’t entitle you to claim the Constitution as an expression of Christian doctrine, or its authors as Evangelicals.

I hear Christian conservatives complain a lot about entitlements, but is there anyone in this country that’s carrying around a bigger sense of entitlement than Christians? Compared to what they seem to think they’re entitled to — complete control of the entire nation — all the welfare programs in the country are subatomic in scale.

The good news about “Justice Sunday” is that, I think, it signals the beginning of the end for the Religious Right. The bad news about “Justice Sunday” is that it reveals just how utterly the church has lost its way; how little its definition of “justice” and Christ’s definition of “justice” have in common, and how little it notices that fact or even cares.

The good news is good news for the country. The bad news is bad news for the church.