The Last Man

Last Man

In 1818, Mary Shelly simultaneously set the stage for both horror and science fiction with her debut novel, Frankenstein. Then, not content to kill off a mere handful of people with a monster, in 1826 Shelley killed of EVERYBODY in The Last Man, the grim story of a global pandemic. I didn’t deliberately read it with COVID-19 in mind—Shelley’s book has been on my “to read” list for a while—but reading it now certainly makes the experience a bit creepier.

To set the stage:

In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president. Founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died that year. Charles X was King of France. Beethoven was still composing. And according to Wikipedia, “Cayetano Ripoll became the last person to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition at its last auto-da-fé, held in Valencia.” The Spanish Inquisition! Sounds like ancient history. The action of The Last Man takes place near the end of the 21st Century. In other words, not long from now.

Mary Shelly’s mother was philosopher/feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her husband was poet Percy Shelley, and their companion was Lord Byron. To read her is to plunge yourself into a Romantic world of overwrought passions, where no one speaks—not even in the throes of death—without delivering a flowery oration. And why write “The sky cleared,” when instead you could write, “As Sampson with tug and strain stirred from their bases the columns that supported the Philistine temple, so did the gale shake the dense vapours propped on the horizon while the massy dome of clouds fell to the south, disclosing though the scattered web the clear empyrean, and the little stars, which were set at an immeasurable distance in the crystalline fields, showered their small rays on the glittering snow.”

If I had read this book even just a year ago, I probably would have viewed it as a quaint oddity. After all, the world Shelly paints, even though it is set more or less in our own time, is very much the world of the early 19th Century. The result is a weird sense of past, present, and future all coming together to witness the end of humankind. Here in 2020, that sounds less far-fetched than it would have in 1920 or even 2019.

Yet someone reading a newspaper today could be forgiven for not knowing that we too, like Shelley’s doomed characters, are in the midst of a global pandemic. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, coming on the heels of two already tense months of economic shutdown and ongoing leadership problems in DC, has touched off a firestorm big enough to sweep COVID-19 from the front pages. The incident brought decades of police brutality and centuries of racism to a head, and set off a powder keg of protests, some of them violent, across the country.

But the pandemic has not gone away. Many fear that the wave of large-scale protests may in fact be providing fertile ground for spreading the virus even faster and further.

Oh yeah, and there’s still the problem of climate change.

Strange days, indeed.

 

 

So We Beat On

To call 2020 a dumpster fire feels like a drastic understatement. It’s hard not to feel disgusted with…well, just about everybody these days. I’m disgusted with bad cops abusing their power, but I’m also disgusted with demonstrations that turn into property-destroying riots. I’m disgusted with racist politicians and the racist constituencies that keep reelecting them, but I’m also disgusted with calls for anarchy because that’s no solution at all. I’m disgusted with “open the economy now” protesters who gather in large COVID-19 spreading groups, and I’m disgusted with “justice for George Floyd” protesters who gather in large COVID-19 spreading groups. I’m disgusted with a president who is more interested in protecting his own ego than with the well-being of Americans, but I’m also disgusted with “clicktivists” who Like a few select FB posts and pretend they’re done with their civic duty.

No doubt I will wind up disgusted with myself for posting this, as I historically have been every time I post anything remotely political online and find myself embroiled in an ugly comment battle. I wish I had solutions. I wish I knew how to stay informed without going absolutely f***ing bonkers. (“I wish a lot of things!” – Cinderella. Sorry for inserting a music theatre reference in the midst of all this.)

I do know something that won’t work: Doing nothing. It has become commonplace to blame God for the situation (“It’s God’s will,” “God is punishing us for [insert pet prejudice here]”) and then dump the whole mess onto God’s lap to solve (“It’s all part of God’s plan,” “God will provide”). I don’t think it’s God’s plan for us to be lazy or to abdicate our responsibility to take care of each other and the planet we live on.

So what’s the right thing to do? We make ethical calls all the time; we have to. Failure to make an informed ethical decision is just a bad decision. (“I know what my decision is, which is not to decide!” – Cinderella again.) Sometimes we’ll get it right, others times not. I’d like to end with the famous final line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” But I don’t think that’s the right message either. We’ll beat on, boats against the current, all right, but let’s not try to recreate an imagined perfect past. Let’s go forward.

(NOTE: I intended this to be a relatively short Facebook post, but it somehow expanded. Thanks for sticking with me.)

What Should We Do With This Problematic Book?

I read The Christian Century, which carries the tagline “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully.” In the current issue (June 3, 2020), in an article with which I largely agree, Dorothy Sanders Wells writes, “[T]here’s a difference between the Bible describing something and condoning it.” She is talking about slavery and ideas of racial purity. Her claim is that using the Bible to justify slavery and racism is a misuse of the text.

But it’s pretty clear that the Bible does condone slavery. It does condone racism. When you read opposing arguments leading up to the Civil War, both slaveholders and abolitionists tried to use the Bible to support their cause, and it’s clear that the slaveholders were on much more solid ground Biblically than the abolitionists. All the way through the Old and New Testaments, slavery is an accepted part of life, with considerable rules as to how it is to be conducted and no allowance for its abolition. Likewise with racism. The overwhelming sentiment throughout the Bible is “Judah first!” Even those passages that urge the Israelites to treat foreigners fairly do not go so far as to treat them equally.

Progressive Christians use this “describe, not condone” mentality with regards to other problematic Biblical texts as well. I have read gay and trans Christians dancing around the so-called “clobber passages”—those verses used against them—in an effort to soften the message, but to borrow an unhappy phrase from the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church, it really does seem in the Bible that “God hates fags.” No matter how we try to read our progressive viewpoint into it, the Bible remains a misgynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, racist text.

So what are we to do with this? Do we throw the whole thing out? I happen to think the Bible is an endlessly fascinating book, both in and of itself and because of the oversized roles it has played in history. I do not advocate throwing it out. But I do advocate acknowledging its shortcomings.

 

Trump

I confess; I once wrote a fan letter to Donald Trump. It was 1987-88. I had a First Edition copy of The Art of the Deal, and was just starting back to college after being out of school for four years. I was a Finance major at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. I subscribed to Money and Fortune magazines. Donald Trump fascinated me. Even at the time, he was famous primarily for being an egotistical blowhard with little skill, business or otherwise, but a great deal of chutzpah—enough to make him an interesting character and to make himself a lot of money. I regarded him as a modern day P. T. Barnum.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote about his plans to develop a large spot of land on the west side of Manhattan, the site of a former New York Central Railroad yard, into something called Television City. It was typical Trump: an audacious idea with an equally outrageous name. In my fan latter, I told Mr. Trump that I hoped to be one of the development’s first residents. Television City never happened. The project eventually morphed into Riverside South on a much smaller scale than the original plan, and was sold to various investors including some from Hong Kong and China. I do not live there.

I followed Trump for years, buying his other books as they came out, and reading about him in financial magazines and newspapers. I enjoyed watching him in interviews. He was larger than life, the embodiment of so many of the traits Americans highly prize even if we don’t want to admit it: abundant self-confidence, an unapologetic hunger for money and power, and an overwhelming sense of American exceptionalism. The late 1980s was the era of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street, and the hero worship of financial wizards like Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, and Peter Lynch. Okay, so some of them landed in jail, but the main thing was they made a lot of money!

When Trump threw out the idea of running for president in 2000, I initially thought he would be a strong contender. His stated views at the time were relatively moderate. Then when he made another short trial run in 2012, an online “Which candidate do I agree with most” survey told me Trump should be one of my top picks. Again, he seemed reasonably moderate…for a while.

Then he stated on the birther thing, insisting that Obama was not a natural born citizen. I started having second thoughts about Trump. By the campaign leading up to 2016, Trump had clearly decided to court the extreme right, including white supremacists. He ran a shock campaign, employing all the spotlight grabbing tricks he had learned over the years. His successful “reality TV” career had taught him that outlandish behavior and inflammatory pronouncements garnered impressive viewership ratings. The Donald Trump who had amused and entertained me was gone, and in place of that over-the-top but still likable character there was this repulsive bully spouting hatred and playing to the lowest common denominator.

I hoped the other Donald Trump was still in there somewhere, and that this new guy was just playing a game to get attention. I was wrong. His Republican rivals underestimated him, but the Democrats made a much bigger mistake. They assumed that since Trump had basically been laughed out of the election process early in the game in both 2000 and 2012 he was easily beatable. They were horribly wrong.

The letters I have been sending my Senators (Grassley and Ernst) and the White House lately have not been fan letters.