American Echo and Narcissus

During the course of this election season much has been written about Narcissus, the self-absorbed figure of the classical myth of Narcissus. Less attention has been paid to the larger context in the myth itself and its application to the American political scene: the figure of Echo and the Pond which reflect back Narcissus’s claims for himself.

Without Echo, the scorned, talkative nymph who loses her voice except to echo Narcissus’s words, and without the Pond which reflects back the beautiful image Narcissus lives and dies to see, there would be no Narcissus.

narcissus-caravaggio-300x363

Narcissus painting by Caravaggio

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts . . . .”

The Mayo Clinic summarizes DSM-5’s symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as follows:

• Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
• Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
• Exaggerating your achievements and talents
• Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
• Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
• Requiring constant admiration
• Having a sense of entitlement
• Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
• Taking advantage of others to get what you want
• Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
• Being envious of others and believing others envy youBehaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.

If Donald Trump is elected President, it will be because he successfully channeled long-festering sources of anger—“Make America Great Again” as in a former age when Mexican immigrants, blacks, and non-Christians knew their place in a white, Christian nation with a manifest destiny—or because he echoed the American public’s deep frustration with political gridlock and partisan posturing.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Trump is refused the Oval Office, Echo will continue to be obsessed with his voice. Though not as alarming as a Narcissist with a nuclear arsenal at his command, there is little comfort in a disentitled Narcissus manipulating global media as his mirror.

The socio-psychic health of Echo and the Pond (the social mirror) will determine the extent to which the dynamics of the Narcissus myth become the permanent disorder of American political life.

It may help to remember that, according to Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, Narcissus will “live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself.

How long Narcissism prevails in American society depends on the American Echo and the mirror into which Narcissus looks—whether the American electorate will choose to see Narcissus and ourselves as we really are —a sad man with a public echo without self-knowledge.

In the ancient myth, Narcissus grows increasingly thirsty, but his reflection in the water is more important than slaking his thirst. Enamored with his own reflection but dying of thirst, he refuses to drink because he loses the reflected image whenever he gets close enough to sustain his life. Narcissus dies of thirst, and, according to the Greek myth, at that moment, a lovely flower – a Narcissus (daffodil or joncus) – blooms next to the pond.

narcissus-flower

Narcissus (daffodil)

In the wake of this electoral flirtation of Echo and Narcissus, the story won’t be over no matter who occupies the Oval Office. Yet there remains the hope that something more beautiful and natural than a personality disorder will rise next to the pond of what remains of the American democratic republic, and that Echo will get back her own voice.

• Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Oct. 25, 2016

Rep. Allen West: Joseph McCarthy Reincarnated?

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Rep. Allen West

I didn’t until I read this story of FL Rep. Allen West (22nd District, FL), pictured here, acting like Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose search for closet Communists dominated the era of American politics now remembered for “McCarthyism”.  Click Rep. Allen West says 81 House Members are Communists” – ABC News to read  the story and see the video.

Rep. Keith EllisonClick Rep. Keith Ellison (5th District, MN) for information on the Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. I know Keith, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. When Keith left the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, I succeeded him as its Executive Director. Keith is always breaking new ground, but becoming the first Muslim member of Congress who is also a hidden member of the Communist Party isn’t part of his ground-breaking. It’s a lie. He is profoundly religious. If being one’s brother’s or sister’s keeper, caring for the poor, makes him a Communist, as Senator Joe McCarthy, once thought…well..McCarthy’s and West’s claims say more about them than about those they fear and love to hate.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

Rep. West’s allegation that 81 members of the U.S. Congress are Communists, leads me to re-post this social commentary previously published by Minnesota Public Radio in September ’09, a year after the crash on Wall Street.

SORROW FLOATS

 Gordon C. Stewart, 9.10 09

“Sorrow floats.”  Perhaps the line from a John Irving novel in which “Sorrow,” the stuffed family dog preserved by a taxidermist, floats to the surface of the lake after a plane crash, helps explain what is happening in America.

Erin McClam’s “5 weeks on the brink: Reliving meltdown of ’08,” (September 5, 2009) recounts the series of chilling events that almost led to a national crash just one year ago.

Something dear to the American family died last year.  Most of us lived in the illusion of economic and financial health until the day it was rushed to the emergency room for a government rescue.

Since then our memories of the pre-September ‘08 world have taken the turn that families often take at funerals where the eulogies bear little resemblance to the reality of the deceased. We’re quarreling over what was real and what is mythical re-construction.

Following the plane wreck that takes the lives of the Berry family parents in The Hotel New Hampshire, the stuffed family pet bobs to the surface of the lake, floating among the wreckage.  Sorrow floats.  So does the thing we lost in September-October 2008.

What died was the assumption that an unregulated free market system was the best way to organize an economy, the natural partner of democracy.  The market almost crashed.  It didn’t because the government intervened before a reoccurrence of the crash of 1929.  Sometime between mid-September and October 7, when Congress passed its bill to stabilize the financial markets, the myth of the virtue of deregulated capitalism died.  It was stuffed by the taxidermy of government intervention, but it still floats.

When a conviction or a myth dies, it doesn’t go away.  It continues to bob to the surface.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Berry family, Sorrow is much easier to love after it is dead.  Sorrow – obese, lethargic, and persistently flatulent in its old age – no longer waddles through the dining room to foul the air.  The real life Sorrow gives way to the stuffed Sorrow, a thing of nostalgia that lives on…even after it’s dead, and long after the plane has crashed.

Sorrow floats every time fear sounds the alarm of “socialism.”  Sorrow floats every time we shout each other down in town hall meetings.  Sorrow floats every time nostalgia forgets that it was only by government intervention that Sorrow is still around.  The stuffed Sorrow floats every time we forget the greedy obesity that led to the deaths of Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Bear Stearns, not to mention insurance giant AIG and all the banks that had taken the plunge into a market of deregulated derivatives and mortgages that led to the epidemic of home foreclosures, bankruptcies, pension fund disappearances, and job losses.  Sorrow floats a year after the crash when the mind forgets and nostalgically remembers a system we thought was working in our interest.

Old convictions die hard. The economic forces that grew fat over the years when government was viewed as the people’s enemy will stoke the fires of anxiety and anger, taking advantage of the Sorrow that still floats to remind us of something that we love more in retrospect than we did when the day it died of its own obesity.

The Sin of “American Exceptionalism”

Last night I watched Mitt Romney at a campaign rally in my home town, Broomall, Pennsylvania. What I saw sent chills down my spine. Demagoguery was on display. The people from my home town applauded the scolding of American President for apologizing. No apology for the tragedy of an American soldier(s) walking into the homes of families in Afghanistan to kill. No apology for … well…for ANYTHING. America is the greatest country in the history of the world. We should make no apology, said Mr. Romney.

In light of that speech, I am reposting this piece first published in February. It’s Holy Saturday for me. The one who lay dead on this day was killed, without apology, by The Myth of Roman Exceptionalism. The Roman Empire is long gone. But the myth never goes away. Only the name of the nation changes. Here’s the piece:

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“The stairway smelled of piss….This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world,  for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri.

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.

Sorrow Floats: the Healthy Deregulated Capitalism Myth Just Keeps Re-surfacing

Gordon C. Stewart | Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009MinnPost.com

“Sorrow floats.” Perhaps the line from a John Irving novel — in which “Sorrow,” the stuffed family dog preserved by a taxidermist, floats to the surface of the lake after a plane crash — helps explain what is happening in America.

Something dear to the American family died one year ago last September-October. Prior to the series of chilling events of that period, most of us had lived with the illusion of relative economic and financial health. Then Sorrow was rushed to the emergency room for government resuscitation.

Since then our memories of that pre-September 2008 world have taken a turn that families often take at funerals when the eulogies bear little resemblance to the reality of the deceased. We’re quarreling over what was real and what is mythical reconstruction.

Following the plane wreck that takes the lives of the Berry family parents in Irving’s “The Hotel New Hampshire,” the stuffed family pet bobs to the surface of the lake, floating among the wreckage. Sorrow floats. So does the thing we lost last fall.

What died? A ruling assumption

What died last year was the ruling assumption that an unregulated free-market system was the best way to organize an economy and that laissez-faire capitalism is democracy’s natural ally. The market almost crashed. It didn’t crash only because the federal government intervened to prevent a repeat of the crash of 1929. Sometime between mid-September and Oct. 7, when Congress passed its bill to stabilize the financial markets, the myth of the virtue of deregulated capitalism died. It was stuffed by the taxidermy of government intervention, but it still floats.

When a conviction or a myth dies, it doesn’t go away. It continues to bob to the surface. Sometimes, as in the case of the Berry family, the old dog is much easier to love after it is dead. Sorrow — obese, lethargic, and persistently flatulent in its old age — no longer waddles through the dining room to foul the air and ruin everyone’s dinner. In the public psyche, the unpleasant memories of the real life Sorrow give way to the stuffed Sorrow, a thing of nostalgia that lives on … even after it’s dead, and long after the plane has crashed.

Over and over, we forget

Sorrow and its old illusions float every time the reconstructed memory, forgetting the real Sorrow, barks about “socialism.” Sorrow floats every time we shout each other down in town-hall meetings. Sorrow floats every time nostalgia forgets that it was only by government intervention that Sorrow is still around. Sorrow floats every time we forget the voracious appetite, unscrupulous predatory practices, insatiable greed, and the obesity that led to the deaths of Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns, not to mention insurance giant AIG and all the banks that had taken the plunge into a market of deregulated derivatives and mortgages that led to the epidemic of home foreclosures, bankruptcies, pension-fund collapses and job losses. Sorrow, the old dog that failed us, still floats and still barks a year after the crash when the mind forgets and nostalgically remembers a system we thought was working in our interest.

Old ideas and convictions die hard. The powerful economic forces that grew fat during the years when government was viewed as the people’s enemy will stoke the fires of public anxiety and anger, taking advantage of the floating Sorrow that reminds us of something that we love more in retrospect than we did the day it died of its own obesity.

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He is the moderator of Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues and former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of anyone else.