Thursday, November 16, 2017

Fragile Idols: Flesh and Blood

Yes, these guys, too.

Three thousand years ago, the founders of Judaism had a breakthrough. It concerned a common practice in Bronze Age religion: the use of an item--a carving, sculpture, painting, found object, it didn't really matter what it was, just as long as it was visible and touchable--to enhance the religious experience, granting the worshipper some kind of tangible connection with the deity. The spiritually enlightened understood that these items were simply tools, aids in deepening the believers' experience of the ineffable. Unfortunately, trapped as they were in their tangible bodies, taking in information through the tangible senses that were all they had, humans quickly came to mistake idols for gods.

But idols are not gods. Made, as they were, of impermanent materials--wood, clay, stone, forgeable metal, canvas, paint--idols wore out. Drop the idol and it might dent or shatter; bring it too close to a sacrificial flame and it might be consumed; leave it out in the rain and it might rust. What kind of god is as subject to the elements as its puny worshippers? One that can be manipulated, coerced, bent to the will of the priests.

So these religious thinkers made a theological leap: to prevent the faithful from believing God was anything other than eternal, there would be no more idols, whether in the temple or the home. The God of Israel was invisible, untouchable, yet omniscient and omnipresent. There was no hiding from a God who was not limited to a physical location, who was, at the same time, a God who could be turned to at any time, any place, for support.

Humans being humans, though, the prohibition on idolatry had to be revisited every generation. This became true, as well, for Judaism's offshoots, Christianity and Islam, both of which reaffirmed the ban on images, yet found their own ways to fixate on tangible objects of one kind or another. The East-West schism that divided Rome from the Eastern Orthodox Church was in large part over iconography; the Puritan English strand of the Protestant Reformation was also iconoclastic. More recently, the Taliban movement in Afghanistan made a point of destroying Buddhist artwork, some of it national treasures hundreds of years old, considered idolatrous by fundamentalist imams.

And still we humans crave the tangible, no matter how angrily our prophets rail against confusing it with the holy. Earlier today, I wrote about how Americans have located their faith in cloth banners and holy books. The remainder of this essay will be about another form of idolatry, one that almost always ends in disappointment: our devotion for persons of great talent and accomplishment. Most specifically, I'm writing about two icons of American comedy, one a United States Senator, the other the leading voice in the confessional approach to stand up. Both of been leading voices for women's rights, and the importance of men acting and speaking in behalf of those rights. And both, we are learning, have feet of clay.

You know their names: Al Franken and Louis CK. The boorish behavior they committed in the past has come to light as part of a great house-cleaning kicked off with the revelation that Hollywood producer and Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein had been committing acts of sexual harassment and assault for decades. The avalanche of harassment revelations began with the Bill Cosby scandal, picked up speed with Fox News luminaries Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly, and with the inclusion of Weinstein, CK, and Franken, not to mention former President George H.W. Bush, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and--lest we forget--the Predator in Chief, Donald J. Trump, spans the political and entertainment spectrum.

The tide really began to turn with the Women's March last January. Furious that this nation could elect an admitted harasser President (although, it could be argued, that had already happened in the person of Bill Clinton), women and supportive men flooded the streets of America on the day after the inauguration. I was part of the Portland march, and while it was about many things--I saw signs protesting Trumpist attitudes toward climate change, health care, immigration, and more--it was clear from the prevalence of "pussy hats" and explicit representations of the female anatomy that what had us most riled up was this country's embrace of molestation. The revelations of Weinstein's abuses kicked off a hashtag campaign--"#metoo"--as women from every walk of life came forward announcing that they, too, had experienced unwanted kisses, gropes, innuendo, propositions, and much more, often from men they did not even know but who were looking at proximity to them as an opportunity to harass. 

I can't begin to understand what this is like. I'm a relatively tall man with broad shoulders. While I know there have been a time or two when I was made nervous by a threatening stranger, by and large I feel comfortable walking through downtown Portland in the middle of the night without fear of molestation. And except for a pass made by a waiter at a gay restaurant, I have never felt sexually objectified by a stranger.

That's not the case for the women in my life. Whenever they go out, they are subject to unwanted sexual attention. It may be subtle, even invisible, but it's always someone.

I knew about this, but until the revelations about bad behavior by prominent American men, I had no idea how ubiquitous it was. It makes the loss of the election by a woman, to a sexual abuser, that much more tragic, especially in light of the behavior Hillary Clinton has had to tolerate in her own home, by her own husband.

It's bad enough knowing the President is, like so many before him, a sexual opportunist who, thus far at least, has gone unpunished for his abuses. Learning that men on the other side, not (apparently) monsters like Weinstein or Cosby, but spokesmen for progressivism and enlightened masculinity, have themselves exploited power imbalances with women to take advantage of them sexually is the sick icing on the revolting cake. It's just too much.

Which brings me back to my opening thoughts on idolatry: to some extent, both Louis CK and Al Franken have been idols to many of us of the left. CK's comedy often made me squirm, but I heard truth in what he said about the male psyche, and how important it was to control those feelings and keep the impulses in check. Learning that he was not practicing what he preached, that he had cornered so many women and acted on his perverse impulses without anything like consent from them, was as much a gutpunch as when I learned that Bill Cosby had been drugging and raping women for decades. Compared to CK's excesses, the incident Al Franken was implicated in--and has already admitted to--seems relatively minor, but it's still a blow to my respect for him. I can't imagine ever listening to another CK routine without feeling nauseated, and Franken's wry smile will never again trigger the same satisfaction I've had in having such a smart, funny man in Congress, speaking in behalf of progressivism.

I'm saddened by the fall of these idols, but far more depressing is the sense that I've been here before. And I'm not just talking about Cosby: as I said earlier, Bill Clinton is just as guilty of inappropriate sexual advances as any of the other clay-footed idols coming down around us now. I heard the stories, but voted for him twice, anyway. Then came the Lewinsky scandal. I believed him when he denied having sexual relations with her--words I now know were technically correct if one includes only intercourse in the definition of "relations," but in spirit as lawyerly a lie as one can make--and then shattered when the truth came out. As complicated as my feelings toward Hillary Clinton were, I gave her a lot of credit for emerging from the hell their marriage must have been to build her own successful political career in its aftermath, while reaffirming that marriage. She's a stronger person than I could have been in the face of such betrayal.

But Bill Clinton was not the first idol to break my heart. That distinction belongs to a beloved United Methodist minister, a mentor to many, who kept his double life of victimizing young boys--including many who I know who only realized what had been behind their discomfort with something he did long after the fact--a secret until his death from AIDS, a disease he gave to his wife who preceded him in death by a year. He passed away in 1992, just as the vote on an anti-gay-rights ballot measure was about to take place, and the Bishop debated keeping it a secret for fear of giving ammunition to the Oregon Citizens Alliance. In the end, he elected to call a special session of clergy, where he read a statement about what had just been revealed. I was in tears before he finished the first sentence of the statement.

That is the way of all idols: eventually, they let us down. Nothing tangible is eternal. In time, every person or object in which we place our faith will come to an end, and chances are good that, before they meet that end, they will disappoint. When they do, we will do the human thing, and seek out something or someone else to take their place: a new sports hero, a more trustworthy politician, a more sincerely holy spiritual leader, a less flawed mentor. Provided we've learned our lesson, that quest for another idol need not be a bad thing. No matter how pure and praiseworthy the new idol may be, he/she/it, too, will pass. Perhaps next time, we won't be as shattered. We'll be able to tell ourselves it's the way of all flesh, that to believe otherwise is vanity and a longing after wind.

Or we'll just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and idolize all over again.

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