What distinguishes humanity from other life forms might be our ability (and necessity) to create what we call "culture". Then again, study of group dynamics (or world history) supports an idea that all kinds of "cults" constantly emerge, grow, transform, fracture, or dissipate. Though they may undergo many changes, some cults may have served human interests sufficiently enough to have persisted (in name at least) for several millennia. What can we say then about the cult currently surrounding our current *president? This is the challenge addressed by Why We Resist by Shmuel Pernicone.
In a recent movie featuring the uncanny, the pivotal young character eats spaghetti while Nichole Kidman watches entranced. The Killing a Sacred Deer is not as funny (intentionally so) as The Lobster nor (perhaps) as interesting as Dogtooth. Colin Farrell and Alicia Silverstein are also featured so who knows what beset its core concept in the process of enlisting such Hollywood star power. What’s most significant here is that this character is achingly young. So painfully young he can proclaim with wide-eyed earnestness that EVERYONE eats the stuff the very same way — as dripping red pasta dangles from his maw leaving striped traces on his chin and shirt. Like a vast swath of young humanity, he is awkward, lost, yearning, and obtuse in an imperviously innocent way. Innocent in that same impervious way so many adults, including those fast approaching their dotage, might be perceived or earnestly feel themselves to be. As impervious innocent as so many who voted for trimp, or as so many who voted against him while still perpetuating a ghastly dynamic that somehow feeds us and which threatens to continue to feed on whoever come after us. The boy in this flick is as imperviously innocent as the thousands of spinsters, shopkeepers, grandmamas, mechanics, accountants, postal clerks, students, secretaries, farmers, hausfraus, and pensioners who voted for Hitler‘s party before — and after — Kristallnacht. As impervious innocent as many of our most frivolous, stolid, dour, or wistful neighbors.
Tens of millions of American citizens voted for trimp who only lost the popular vote by nearly six million (always to be questioned) ballots. Over five million votes might seem a solid popular victory, immune to rational processes of recount and beyond any reasonable evidenced based claims of voter fraud. But anybody who claims THIS election wasn’t too close is only whistling in the graveyard. A graveyard where something uncanny is already happening because the uncanny has always been here lurking, and has always reared into history from time to time in different places such as the genocide in Rwanda or the witch trials in early modern Europe. Innocent people who whistle in graveyards don’t literally believe some putrid arm covered with moldy gore is ACTUALLY likely to lurch from the churning mud to drag them down to hell. It’s just that they can’t shake such images from their minds, and perhaps even enjoy the sensations such specters generate in their viscera — especially once they are safe and sound outside the iron gates under the comforting glow of civilized streetlights where they can see shadows dance behind the closed shades of familiar neighbors.
Unless one investigates its title, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is likely to be written off as an autistic horror movie, a quirky take on an undead genre by a director known for his deliberately off-kilter stylistic moves. Long ago I saw a production of The Trojan Women done Kabuki style where the movements and utterances of the performers were as exaggerated as they were stilted. Once you accept its premise, nothing is exaggerated in this movie; everything is stilted. The effect is the same. Strange forms of destiny are inscrutable and irresistible. Whether imperceptibly or compulsively, it works through us despite our will, our wiles, our bargaining, or our most base or most elevated conceptions of justice.
The movie’s title references the impetuous killing of a deer sacred to the goddess Artemis by Agamemnon who is prevented, so sayeth the seer, from launching his thousand ships of war unless he “atones” by sacrificing his own flesh and blood. So, pressured by teeming hordes of bloodthirsty troops, daughter Iphigenia is slaughtered. Ten years later so is Agamemnon, quickly followed by his avenging wife with all those murders (and war dead) leaving their offspring to be eternally pursued by vengeful Furies. (Or something.)
I’m pretty sure the young man in the movie is not meant to represent evil. To be an oracle is to be condemned to struggle on under any one of a special variety of curses. (Ask Cassandra). In this particular movie the injured young man is a victim who is grotesquely re-victimized by becoming the unwitting portal of some ancient calculus meant to approximate a particularly savage form of justice. (For those of you over 18 living under amenable laws, it now occurs to me to suggest the movie which is probably a few nachos above your standard stoner flick might just be a tit more enjoyable when viewed under the effects of a moderate to tingling high of the sort cannabis can be cultivated to provide.)
This FINALLY brings us to Why We Resist by Schmuel Pernicone who is for now young (“just a kid” he reminds us and himself) but nothing like the unformed Sacred Deer protagonist EXCEPT that he might also be condemned to suffer under some version of something like the curse of prophecy. I believe “prophecy” to be a Greek term frequently used to refer to what went on amidst some dwellers in Canaan especially during the stretched decades before and after what they referred to as the “Exiles” when they permitted a particular form of this process to exert an enduring impact on the early process of becoming transformed from what might be called ‘Israelites” to what we might still called “Jews.”
There are so many kinds of curses and so many types of prophet. Now and then, at least since the seventies, Bob Dylan likes to joke(?) about being one. The epithet has also been hurled at (or invited by) Noam Chomsky. The first mostly explores and draws power from the mythopoetic currents that roil whatever is “America” which like other legendary entities is always undergoing strange transformations. America is always (at the same dreamtime) much more, and always so much less, than the “United States” continuously crafted by laws and constitution. The other prophetic exemplar is exactly the same as the first. It’s just that he tries to channel it all with the focus sometimes provided by precisely tilted and carefully polished mirrors of reason. Of course, those reflecting, distorting, shiny surfaces are partially constructed on and in the shifting fields we call language. Language is something both struggle with according to their own genius. Language and reason form an uncomfortable double helix, but these are the two guiding angels of Why We Resist which in December of 2020 focuses on the challenge provided to America and the United States by its current *president.
One thing that Why We Resist tirelessly documents is that whatever else is represented by trimp and trimpism, they embody a potentially devastating attack on what might ever pass for reason, sanity, human decency, or hope. And it’s just as clear that its young author is determined to assert the value of reason and to defend it in every way possible that might not betray what he is so ardent to protect and, if possible, advance. He has the wit and the courage to early on in his book set forth his own guiding principles which he valiantly invites the “fellowship of the sane “to affirm, build upon, or even to question (if the probes are intended constructively so that they can provide a firmer foundation). A direct quote:
That objective reality exists.
That we all live at various overlapping points within it, and can map the whole more truthfully or less truthfully.
That we are all surely wrong about something.
That Life can be made better and it can be made worse.
That errors of belief blot our maps and hinder our hopes to navigate a better Life, and so we all ought to diligently discover and correct these errors, as best we can.
My only quibble here is that our maps are not simply blotted by distorted ideas and beliefs. Nor are they incomplete merely because of our failures to piece together various perspectives in ways that don’t leave holes. I think there are limits to our powers of perception and discovery and that the very fabric of our reasoning (based as it is on language, mathematics, logic, and intuition) has gaps that can only be depicted vaguely by our rude maps. But this is simply a quibble because I do believe that what we can map, we can represent more or less truthfully.
Now, the subtitle of this book proclaims it to be a letter, and Shmuel Pernicone strives mightily to cleave to that form, often directly appealing to trimp supporters who might be willing to consider changing their minds, who might be willing to consider the truism that “thinking” is nothing BUT “changing one’s mind.” The preceding quotes are meant to mark the fact that I just mutilated one of a multitude of quotations and references included in this volume. The book is a letter, but Shmuel also calls it a “scrapbook”. If he’s entitled to reference it in that way, I’m entitled to try to characterize it less uncharitably. Yes, it is a repository of sorts: one filled with all manner of dark shards and glittering nuggets, booby traps and treasures, black holes and the beckoning twinkles of far-off mighty stars. In my first read-through I was momentarily dismayed by false indications it might be nothing more than a heavy compendium of the myriad assaults on reason and decency inflicted by trimp and his minions. But soon I paid more attention to the quotes, so many of them, and not just the ones that headline every chapter (the first of which feature Edmund Burke and Hunter S. Thompson). If the burden of reading this book is to bear witness to so many crimes, insults, and celebrations of viciousness, then Shmuel Pernicone recognizes his responsibility to guide us safely through such an ordeal while also providing interludes of respite and inspiration.
The kind of mixture provided by this book is necessary because young patriots coming of age in the age of trimp are indeed experiencing something of a miserable initiation. If anyone reading this is tempted to minimize this by pointing to the succession of conditions that initiated so many previous generations into an awareness of their adult responsibilities as citizens and members of the human family, perhaps they should consider how climate change may prove to be more inexorable than nuclear weapons as agents of our destruction if we don’t get our act together soon. But Why We Resist centers on trimp and trimpulism.
Let’s try to be clear. To face up to the “meaning” of trimp is to stare deep down into human viciousness where, as Adam Serwer put it “the cruelty is the point”. I said “let’s” try to be clear, so let me affirm this idea about viciousness is simply my bitter conviction. trimp supporters will have a variety of reactions to that. So would Shmuel Pernicone. But what about other young people, still early in the process of forming their understanding of politics, history, myth, and the prospects for humanity? How will they confront the meaning of this presidency which promises to haunt, perhaps possess, so much of America in how many presidential terms to come? trimpism might, as do some varieties of devilment, become even more potent in future incarnations. How will young people resist when their well-funded counterparts are so skilled in the deployment of intoxicating smoke and intentionally disorienting mirrors designed to subvert and distort? How will any of us cope with the unceasing shitstorm of proclamations destined to be continuously issued from the “Real White House” in Mara Lago for the next few years? How will we accommodate ourselves to the knowledge that some people are actually profiting handsomely from sowing chaos, undermining institutions, and inverting values?
Then, despite all the wooze (sometimes stupefying, sometimes infuriating) let’s continue trying to be clear. The bulk of those people who now idolize and uplift trimp are our neighbors. They’ll say things like, “Something has to be done.” Yes, they will. They’ll say that something has to be done about “those people burning down our cities” and those who are “allowing it.” They’ll say something has to be done to defend or restore “our Constitution” and even “the rule of law”. They’re primed to get way ahead of you to talk about “the rule of law” and those who are undermining it. They’ll talk about God’s law too, often knowledgeably about their Old Testament. And if the conversation hasn’t yet gone off the rails, they’d be the first to admit that “we are all wrong about something” and “life can be made better and it can be made worse”. If you bring up fascism or Nazism, they’ll agree that those are bad, but “communism” is worse” and maybe share their fear that Joe Biden is under communist influence. They’re bedeviled in their way. I am in mine. But they love their dogs and they love mine. They really care about unborn babies. They’ll help to make sure elders are shoveled out in winter and that everyone deserving gets what they really need. The overwhelming majority would never trudge out to a trimp rally, never mind dox someone, or (armed or not) stand vigil outside a public official’s home. “Don’t judge us by our bad apples,” they might say. There’s plenty of ways to commune with them, work with them, and admire them if you can mostly stay away from politics. But sometimes they’ll initiate. They like to be open minded, and they’d love to help me see the errors in my thinking.
The people who support trimp are driven to find facts from the best sources they can find and to develop more capacious understandings in the environments and circumstances most amenable to such processes. They’ve already invested a great deal of time and effort to such quests, and they’re determined to pursue it further. They are as afraid of human viciousness as I am. They have ideas about the “human heart” and those ideas are pretty bleak. Talking about “the human heart” will tend to devolve into incantations regarding myth and religion, and as much as I remain deluded to believe it might be better to try to talk about population dynamics and how such might be affected by education and institutions and the organs of culture, I should know by now that that’s where I’m most likely to blow it all up. (I’m always so fascinated by myth and religion — and cults.) They’re plenty experienced with education and institutions with all their annoying functionaries of corruption, incompetence, overreaching, and insulting condescension. They don’t need me to tell them about the distortions of the media or the malign influences emanating from Hollywood and Madison Avenue. And sometimes discussions don’t blow up. We can agree to disagree just like we might about the Yankees v The J Cups and each walk away puzzling whether the other’s obduracy is the result of too much over-tense complexity or the convoluted tragedy of simply being a simpleton. trimp’s believers know the difference between facts and stories and are perfectly equipped to stick to their facts with all the tools they have been provided.
“Come now, and let us reason together”
Nonetheless, Why We Resist is, from alpha to omega, an assertive apology for reason. The power and fragility of ALL this is never so evident than in the penultimate sections in a chapter entitled The Specter of Revolt. The juxtaposed “conflict” between reason and violence explored here is older than Camus and surely older than even Isaiah who, by the way, just a few lines after his invitation, also threatened those not amenable to be devoured by a (figurative?) “sword” and to then (figuratively?) “burn in an unquenchable fire.” If the Abrahamic Lord of Hosts could not avoid the linguistic snares of metaphoric(?) violence when he spaketh through Isaiah or all grown up Baby Jesus (“I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”) then how can we not applaud and admire Shmuel Pernicone’s valiant strivings here? This is where I invite and challenge all readers to peruse, analyze, criticize, and meditate — and then exert yourselves to try and do better. Come! Let us reason!
Eschewing violence is a choice. Perhaps it is an extremely taxing and difficult one, but it is one that could be supported by practice, habit, and discipline. Sustained commitment to nonviolence must also be supported by an appropriate form of “community” which implies a degree of trust and or loyalty even though all communities known so far seem to involve at least some level of coercion (or at least the threat of it). Minimizing violence requires building trust and loyalty, and trust and loyalty are perhaps two keys for alleviating the effects of shame, one of which can be violence. There is evidence that nonviolent resistance is rational. There is evidence that nonviolent resistance (involving community) may also be joyful And, as always, there are cautions: one of which is that some forms of nonviolent resistance (including those advocated by another prophet, MLK) are vulnerable to the accusation that they are designed to provoke a violent response.
(Whatever you do, be more like Shmuel and less like me. The next time some trimper starts waxing conspiratorially at me, I’m gonna throw The Beatles at ‘em. As it is written, those four sinners had songs about octopi (I know) piggies, bulldogs, raccoons, ponies, and blue jays, but never anything about honey badgers. What’s THAT all about? What’s the glimmering significance of THAT lacuna? But still, even if they justify pandemic indifference or caging children by invoking a vaulting stock market, I wilst NOT lunge at them to open their throat so that I may chew on their larynx. I do forswear it — along with most of the rest of Satan’s snares.)
Part of the appeal of horror movies and other forms of the macabre is the justified sense that there is indeed a thin veil separating us from the irrational or what might be worse, from powers that may be malevolent, or from devastatingly sublime forces as blind and indifferent to our most elevated (or most base) schemes as they are overwhelming. I don’t always like the “veil” metaphor, but it’s better than any bridge of swords (a bridge over “what”?), and I can’t quite encapsulate the image of jumping from stone to stone across a raging river or leaping forward from meteor to meter as they hurl toward us, always threatening to bash us backward in what must be the wrong direction. I hate the word “evil” too, but which is more chilling: malevolence or indifference? The word “evil” is ever so likely to pop into our mind or cross between our lips and teeth. Maybe that word should forever be fiercely eschewed. Maybe not. One thing is clear, we cannot find evil in the followers of trimp without also delving deep into whatever it is as it writhes inside us. Come. Let us reason together or avoid such reasoning all together as long as we work or play together in peace.
“Make America Great Again” cannot be evil in its heart. It might be an invocation of a certain timeless and placeless sense of “ordinary” that can never be fully absorbed or appreciated in our own little Grover's Corners whether that exists in New Hampshire near Massachusetts in the decades before the Great War and the Last Pandemic, or if it’s in an L.A. barrio today, or a Calcutta slum some thirty-five years from now. Poor Emily Webb died in childbirth too young to grasp how to hold, let go, or appreciate what one Dublin born contemporary callowly called the everyday little “epiphanies” or a long-ago dead Charleville born reprobate even more callowly called “Illuminations.” We can have good moments together.
We CAN have good moments together, but history is also rushing at us at an accelerating rate. Even so, we can also count our blessings in THIS trimpy incarnation of King (fenzey zinger boy) David, or Nebuchadnezzar, or Cyrus, or Rufus T. Firefly (Hail Freedonia). After all, this moldy cantaloupe of a Cincinnatus, as devoid of honor as he might be, luckily lacked the wit to take advantage of the only major crisis of his administration that he did not instigate himself. Surely, any other megalomaniac with half a brain would have known what to do with Covid 19. If he really wanted to be president for life, he could have jumped all over the Defense Production Act in March and by April would have crates of personal protective equipment being paratroopered into Central Park. Then he’d have bullied Andrew Cuomo to have those crates opened and their contents distributed to hospitals and nursing homes by relatable lard bellies and gum chewers in MAGA hats. He’d have assiduously followed the scientific advice of Doctor Fauci et al while continuously trumpeting that he and only he really understood viruses and was the only one who cared enough about the average American to do what was right. Tell me that then he couldn’t have gotten the Constitution amended before the end of his second term to allow him a third, or failing that get Malania (I don’t care how to spell her name rite) elected in his place (with Ivanka or Rudi Giuliani as Veep).
Before trimp was ever elected, I took it upon myself with the aid of a Classics professor fluent in the language to make up a very old Italian folk saying. It went “Gli stunadi voglion Cesare”, which roughly translated from the contemporary Anglo-Saxon means “The fuktards want Caesar.” Like many authentic traditional folk sayings, this one encapsulates a hard and uncomfortable truth fatalistically expressed in a sardonically grim manner. That means it was a particularly mean and petty thing I did when I fabricated it. Today it looks like trimp’s post-election “coup” is (for now) just a combination mail fraud scheme and connect-the-dots step-by-step masterplan for whatever more bold and competent Bonaparte lurks watching and waiting.
I suspect we’ll never fully understand ourselves or our universe, but I’m sure we can always learn more. I think somewhere careful work has been done and continues to be developed about how cults are formed and how they persist. Maybe there is worthwhile investigation into how cults (like Nazism) can be sustained by an inversion of the most common values of humanity. It must have something to do with long lasting forms of oppression such as slavery, anti-Semitism, class, and the gender related types of violence that might be as old as human culture - or older. It probably also has something to do with the complexities of having to deal with too many rivalries, misunderstandings, insults, and threatening situations over long periods without any reassuring prospects for relief or relatively effective mechanisms to periodically release pressures. (A sadistic simplification of such predicaments is when they are lumped into the nonsensically genocidal concept of “overpopulation”.)
Whenever there are sustained sensations of injustice, guilt and shame must also come into the mix. Shame, I think, might be what mostly drives those cults that thrive on negation. Guilt and fear also come into it when one is or has been a victimizer - even when one merely has learned as a self-protective measure to identify with the victimizers. Fear is always there for anyone who has seen scapegoating and the strange, sometimes almost random, ways human groups tend to select their “goats” whether those victims are individuals or any number of those who fit some particular set of criteria. But shame might be the most important factor because shame is when one has learned to blame oneself for one’s own victimization. And shame can possess the victimizer too, not only if he or she has participated in wonton cruelty, but if he or she has ever felt the slightest glimmer of identification with a victim — and then kicks in more guilt or fear. Shame can easily turn to vengeful fury — especially when people feel themselves to have been serially violated, mocked, tricked, and brutalized, or even when they have reason to fear this might happen to them. Cult formation is certainly one of the engines of forming new nations out of the schisms of the old. Some cults have persisted for years, sustaining their members more than limiting them. Cult formation has also been the means of reinvigorating and transforming exhausted cultures and civilizations. Then, some types of cult formation have led only to destruction and holocaust.
In the meantime, some people ARE profiting from our current circumstances of miasma and chaos. Many others are scrambling to fortify our culture and institutions against this and future infections. So many people, like Shmuel Pernicone, struggle responsibly to be responsible. We all have our bit to do if it’s only to cheer on those who are investing in competence, hard work, seriousness, and honor whether they strive to distribute vaccines or reset the incentives that drive the social media markets where our fevered attention is the product up for sale. Pro tips: laugh in the face of anybody who gushes or blusters about “free markets''. There never was, could, or will be any such thing. Markets are as defined by regulations as grassy lawns are by mowers. Study the successes and failures of The New Deal, the Great Society, and the system of regimented capitalism they were able to gingerly sustain. Imagine how we might all work together without the compulsions of need or violence. Investigate those who promote hope, joy, and faith. They may be imperfect, but they are not all mountebanks and necromancers. Contemplate the structures of reason. Consider what might fill in its gaps. If “belief'' seems too specific a word, then try maybe “hope”, “joy” or “faith”. Remember that we are not simply the stories we tell ourselves we are, though we may always need to be told and to tell ourselves stories. Seek out stories that open rather than enclose your understanding.
The beautifully written final chapter of Why We Resist ends with Lincoln’s conclusion to his first inaugural address; the one that reminds us we must not be enemies, that invokes mystic chords of memory, and them better angels of our nature. I suppose it’s much better to invoke the Emancipator’s first rather than choose his second; the one that muses darkly about the ominous and overwhelming (merely spiritual?) debt incurred by US for slavery and for every drop of blood drawn by the lash. In the first, Lincoln was essentially begging for a peaceful resolution to a sectional crisis, one that would almost certainly have preserved slavery for many more generations. In the second he was imploring for mercy on behalf of his fractured nation. In my warped worldview, the man who wrote and delivered those speeches was also a prophet whose words channel the ineffable as much as do the words of Isaiah or Jesus. And in my crabbed and blinkered understanding of why we resist, why we cooperate, why we work, why we knowingly breathe, why we strive to learn, why we read, why we write, why we sing, why we make songs, why we follow the law, why we try to change it, why we put up with each other, and why we sometimes hope, we can never be so awestruck by the powerful language of any prophecy that we don’t try to retranslate it so that it might ring again as new in our present circumstances. Because even by falling short we still might help each other find courage by going back to some particular source, some nearly wholesome one — even while our neighbors find other sources and some never give up questing for one they might credibly imagine as either primary, pure, or ultimate. If reading Why We Resist does not do some of that for you, the failure might well be yours.