“Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Here I am….”
—Gerry Rafferty / Joe Egan (Stealer’s Wheel)
Dedicated to the life and work of Bertrand Russell (1892-1970)
And dedicated to that day of infamy in 2021 when democracy dodged the bullet, barely.
Introduction: As I “go to press”, this post is literally being written for me. Apart from the lyrics from Stealer’s Wheel quoted here, which I chose to frame my thoughts several months ago, the prevalence of the word “clowns” in news sources to describe the perpetrators of the current congressional impasse (14 of whom were involved in the insurrection) tells me that perhaps I am on the right track.
You have only to view the voluminous footage of the shameful attack on the Capitol two years ago to realize how close democracy came to collapse. Like watching a train wreck, I am drawn to them again and again when they appear on the screen. These pictures do not lie, though many will lie about them. As you will read later, this was not the only such attempt—others have preceded it but they did not get this far. There is a root cause behind this—the death of reason. We have made a sad decline from the intellectual and moral ideals of civilized society. To help understand this departure I have chosen to turn to Bertrand Russell.
During his incredibly long life, British philosopher Bertrand Russell was an original thinker, a fearless leader, and a champion of many causes. His “broad viewpoint” was one of the reasons that the Swedish Academy awarded him the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature”: “In recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” Among his qualities which will be sorely missed is an approach to rationalism (which he calls empiricism) as a governing principle. Its loss is acutely felt more at some times than at others, especially now. Despite the wealth of information resources within our reach. we have fallen away from the progress, the scientific and logical values of an age not so long ago. The irrational challenges of hate, ignorance, and bigotry have always existed. but are making a resurgence and overwhelm the dialog. It has become, as the song says, “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”. Where did reasoned political discourse go and why did it go away? The reasons are many and varied and a solution, at least in the short run, is not in sight. A time of rationality will come, just not now. We must persevere through these times, as did those in previous unenlightened ages.
I should mention if you don’t know that Bertrand Russell was no fan of religion. He was, however, a fan of truth and honesty. To him, religion was an alien force both illogical and prejudicial, imparting more harm than good. Current trends in Christianity tend to prove his point. More about this later.
Do you remember 8th grade science class? I do, and it made its mark on me. We were instructed to use the scientific method to test any hypothesis (or a number of them) for validity before accepting it as true. It is the rule that scientific minds and logical thinkers live by. Simple enough, it seems. But truth is under attack. It is the victim. “Alternate truths” are now spoken of. Conspiracy theories inflame masses of people with excitement. How can this be? This is a road to insanity, and is leading to widespread dysfunction. Civility is an endangered species. Enter the clowns and jokers and the central core of respectful agreement and disagreement degenerates into warring factions.
What were you told in science class about Louis Pasteur, “The Father of Microbiology”, who pioneered vaccination? Why have the deniers turned this into an issue of “freedom”? Vaccines, and containment policies during the pandemic such as mask wearing and social distancing, were viewed as an assault. Public gatherings and the shunning of control measures delayed its control, and killed needless thousands, many of them children. Diseases once thought extinct such as Polio are making a resurgence—no wonder. Under these circumstances, we should all be very nervous.
Now Bertrand Russell would not put it exactly this way, but I will: the scientific method=empiricism=rationalism is sacred. Truth must prevail. Facts—all available facts—must be gathered and soberly considered. But in order to do this, we must discard our insane fixation on the latest social media fantasies and the conspiracy theories which inflame them and draw us far afield from that which is real. I long for the return of the life of reason and its calm introspection. How long must I wait?
In preparing this post, I asked myself what I could bring to the discussion that you have not already read or of what you are already aware? I am sorry to say that the best I can do is to give you a model. Have you ever seen a lava lamp? In the lamp you have two liquids which are:
- Very close in density
- Insoluble in one another
Oil and water are insoluble because they have very different densities (a volume of water weighs a lot more than the same volume of oil). This won’t work, so you search to find two insoluble liquids that are very close in density. Once the liquids are combined, heat is applied to the bottom of the mixture. In a lava lamp, this comes from a light bulb. The heavier liquid absorbs the heat, and as it heats up, it expands. As it expands it becomes less dense. As the liquids have very similar densities, the formerly heavier liquid is suddenly lighter than the other liquid, so it rises. As it rises, it cools, making it denser and therefore heavier, so it sinks.
Resembling social and historical forces, the shapes in our lamp move in ever-shifting, fragmentary shapes. Stability is an illusion and can never be permanently achieved. The social forces, like the forms in our lamp, ever rearrange themselves. An orderly process exists for only so long. Sooner or later the crazies come in from the wings. The book of Ephesians (4:14) warned us of such: “…tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive”. The system breaks down, and raises the question of when it will recover. We are here now, but we have been here before.
The clowns and jokers do not need to be called out—their words and actions make them self-evident. Where have they taken us? Global warming has reached critical proportions due to decades of denial. The hard-won fabric of international cooperation is frayed due to the resurgence of nationalism. Civil rights enforcement has taken a step backward: Congress can’t bring itself to ratify a voting rights act in honor of its late, great civil rights hero John Lewis and the court-directed gutting of its 1965 counterpart. Voter suppression in the name of voter protection is the order of the day. No more lynching, tear gas, police dogs, and literacy tests—it is now more subtle: the memory of these things must be erased so that children do not learn of them. “Jim Crow 2.0” is a nuanced attempt to make voting more inconvenient, if not impossible. Voting rolls are purged for frequently questionable reasons. Gerrymandering is in full sway and the Supreme Court refuses to intervene. Legislation which could benefit our society remains untouched because legislators are off the fight the culture wars. Hate is in. Documented attacks on religious and ethnic groups is at a high, and increasing. We hear “go back where you came from” shouted even to those with U.S, Citizenship. Attacks against Asians and Jews are on the rise. Black motorists drive at their own risk. The political climate has given bigots and bullies permission to do this. Suspicious deaths of citizens (and not all at the hands of police) continue to make the news. Immigration reform in this land of immigrants remains a distant goal. Field workers on which we depend to plant and harvest crops continue to be exploited, with many living on the margins of society. DACA recipients who have known no country but our own, many of whom do not speak the language of their parents, are threatened with deportation. Legislation has become a political “hot potato”. Never mind that immigrants have historically fulfilled the promise of America with their contributions that many have made, despite the they have overcome. Repeated attacks in congress—an incredible 75+ anti-immigration amendments—were attempted during recent legislation. Armed militiamen were posted at ballot boxes and election workers were confronted and harassed, despite an election system run in a conscientious, efficient, and non-partisan manner with scant evidence of abuse. Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, witnesses in the recent Congressional investigation, continue to be the objects of bullying and claim that “there is nowhere they feel safe.” This is not an isolated instance. Election workers have resigned in record numbers reaching 30 percent. Threats against members of Congress have increased 144%. “Originalist” judges uphold the right of 18-year-olds to possess AR-15s under the koo-koo notion that some militiamen of the Revolutionary War were their age. Never mind that they fought with muskets and ball ammunition. Numerous candidates, several of them elected to public office, maintain their denial of the 2020 election results, citing a variety of conspiracy theories. To make matters the response of many now serving stand in mute silence. As Detective Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Is this the America we want? I don’t think so.
Did any of us really think even a few years back that Social Security and Medicare (opposed initially by the American Medical Association) would ever be on the chopping block? The libertarian dream of privatization has always been around, but was not considered a serious proposal. Now I am not so sure. The proponents of the new Social Security funding say the system must undergo an annual vote. Did you have a vote to continue your monthly contributions? It is as illogical as it is unfair, but what can you expect from House members who voted at least 70 times to overturn the Affordable Health Care Act while the 1.5 trillion dollar 2019 tax cut helped billionaires pay a lower rate than the working class for the first time in history? Forget that what is demonized as “socialized medicine” works well elsewhere in the developed nations and that American health care is the most expensive and the poorest of them. The recent overturn of Roe vs. Wade—whatever your position—was the camel’s nose in the tent. Attempts have come or are coming to further restrict same sex marriage, birth control, and possibly interracial marriage—all under the judicial theory that since these issues were not envisioned by the Founding Fathers, they should not be addressed now.
Must we really do all this again? Yes, we must. History, we have painfully learned, is cyclical. Any assumption of permanence (including democracy itself) is an illusion. Each generation must fight for what the previous generation(s) thought were secured. The clowns and jokers are nothing new—they appear and reappear. We are living an eerie repeat of the rise of totalitarianism and its supporters in in the late 1930s and early 40s. Shockingly, it has increased in strength and violence from its earlier versions. Current events pulled me to read Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America . Roth’s story pulls its characters from real life, including the experiences of his own family: Charles Lindberg (decorated by Hitler and allied with rabid anti-semites such as Henry Ford and Father Coughlin), was transformed from popular hero into a political contender. He did not achieve this alone, but was aided and abetted by senators who wanted him to run against Roosevelt and were all too willing to concede to the Third Reich’s goal of world domination. Only the attack on Pearl Harbor and a massive shift in public opinion succeeded in turning the tide.
The recent movie Amsterdam draws upon similar historical events. Contained in its fictional story line is an account of the real-life actions of General Smedley Butler. General Dill Dillenbeck, played by Robert DeNiro, is based on Butler. In 1933, Butler became involved in a controversy known as the Business Plot, when he told a congressional committee that a group of wealthy industrialists (including Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of two presidents) were planning a military coup to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to The Washington Post, “there was no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.” However, no one was arrested, and no other investigations resulted from the Committee. Why are we not surprised at the complicity of the rich to rescind the programs of the New Deal? Their aim was to harness the anger of the World War I bonus marchers by offering a large sum of money to General Smedley Butler to deliver a speech advocating for veterans to forcibly remove President Franklin D. Roosevelt—another Capitol riot. Butler was selected to lead a march of veterans to become dictator, similar to fascist regimes at that time. Only by his courageous refusal to announce this intention was the coup foiled. Newsreel footage of Butler speaking against the plot runs on a split screen at the end of the movie, using a recording of Butler’s actual words.. All of the perpetrators denied the existence of a plot, and the media ridiculed the allegations, but a final report by a House of Representatives Committee confirmed some of Butler’s testimony. Could we count on today’s general officers to do the same if persuaded to do so? Some, but certainly not all.
Finally, Rachel Maddow’s current podcast Ultra provides covers all the prevalent themes: Nazi sympathizers, 1930s radio star Father Coughlin, pro-German sentiments and alliances, armed militias, anti-Semitism, America First, the Christian Front. Yes indeed, we have been here before. Like the 1930s threat to world peace, the Ukraine invasion seems not to raise any concern among those who would wash their hands of the “problem” by ceding it to Russia. What is most shocking is their lack of historical perspective. Just substitute Putin for Hitler and it all makes sense. History repeats itself because of our unwillingness to learn from it.
You may ask why this is not common knowledge. The question was answered by Rachel Maddow in a recent interview. The perpetrators were largely erased from history because their radical sympathies were exposed. They were voted from office and died in obscurity, a footnote to history.
The clowns and jokers don’t come at us with reasoned arguments; they prefer slogans, which are a substitute for serious thought. “America First” is the same old isolationism which seeks to tear down our hard-won international alliances. We would do well to remember John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech in which he said, “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
The term “parental rights” has been greatly expanded from what you may think. It has been converted into a shorthand for opposition to everything from school masking and vaccine requirements to elimination of coursework perceived to promote “critical race theory” by dealing with matters of race or diversity, from teaching on sexuality, and extending to the banning of books which are deemed to offend. For Florida residents, it is connected with what has been called “don’t say gay” legislation. Its true goal is to impose their beliefs on a public school system. And worse, it’s backed by political action committees. Its effect on a teacher shortage already at an estimated 300,00 is significant. Teachers don’t want to be threatened or bullied—their jobs are hard enough. Some districts have set up “snitch lines” to inform on a teacher. This is why school board elections and policies important. Many aspiring leaders (or tyrants) begin their rise by winning election to these positions. The Salinas Valley, where I taught for many years, had had several of them. I’ve seen my share.
Back to the resurgence of Jim Crow. White fear and anger is stoked by the “Great Replacement Theory” where immigrants of different races become the voting majority. A well-known commentator actually went so far as to say that our democracy is not functioning because so many nonwhites have the right to vote. Insurgents are called “patriots” (not to mention “heroes”—don’t forget “Capitol tourists”. Memorials to the Confederacy (most of which were twentieth century creations following the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan) must be preserved as “national heritage”. “Conservative” now describes nihilist reactionaries, even those who support totalitarian. Of all these code words, “freedom is the most abused. the abuse of freedom to spread lies, distortions, and hatred is an insult. It must, and does, have its consequences.
The myth of whites as a persecuted class drives racial tension and violence. Here is some humor in the midst of a tragic reflection: I recall Jimmy “J.J.” Walker’s 1970s comedy routine when he mentions whitenize: it means “to adapt to the cultural norms of white people”. White people, myself included, can laugh at ourselves, but in the current context the word has darker (no pun intended) motives. The norm becomes the only norm. Eliminate the teaching of the more unsavory aspects of black history—the justification is that it might make white children feel uncomfortable. And, of course, ban books if necessary. The rumor that To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned is untrue, but attempts to do so have been made.in the past.
Have you been shocked and amazed at some of the rhetoric coming out of candidates and elected public officials? This should come as no surprise. In a totalitarian culture, as Hannah Arendt has written, loyalty, not competency, is rewarded. Just fall in line. Never mind the foolishness, the falsehood. This includes some who were once esteemed public servants but have “drunk the kool aid” to retain their power. Their motives are clear.
What is a post called “Clowns, Jokers” doing on a site called Divine Personhood? Sad to say, the influence of clowns and jokers is not isolated to politics alone. They have existed throughout the history of the church and have obscured and corrupted its mission. A broad swath of today’s Christianity is overly politicized. It is sexually polarized and fixated. It is historically distorted. It is tolerant of bigotry and violence. Worst of all, it is often hateful. There is an opposite extreme as well. It has become a plaything skeptics and agnostics who are dismissive of the Divine Personhood of Christ. I love the biting criticism in the book Jesus Under Fire directed at their efforts, a take on Schweitzer, “the search for the irrelevant Jesus”. This is nothing new. Almost from its inception, Christianity departed from its “primitive” belief structure into a dizzying array of sects. The trends we are seeing are dismaying, but not surprising.
Here is what I remember of the church of my childhood: I learned in Sunday School about Albert Schweitzer’s medical mission work in Africa. I learned about the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau to aid the newly freed slaves. We worshipped and shared pulpits with a black congregation and were updated with news of the civil rights struggle. I learned of work to improve the miserable living and working conditions of migrant farm workers in the central valley of California in the wake of Edward R. Murrow’s documentary “Harvest of Shame”. We were made aware of the Japanese, U.S. citizens included, who were stripped of their property and civil rights during World War II. Compassion for other religions and nationalism was taught, especially for Jews with whom Christians share a common heritage. What are the children of Christian nationalists learning now? We’re hearing that conservative Christians should “impose their views” on the society at large. Jews must convert. Homosexuals must change their orientation, often through questionable conversion therapies. The rhetoric of anger has replaced compassion. Some even carry their weapons to church. Jeremiah prophesied long ago: “My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains: they have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgotten their restingplace.” (50:6). And a warning: “Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD.” (23:1).
In my view, a prevalent problem of Christianity (and all major religions) has been the tendency to add all manner of beliefs to its original core. Almost immediately, a multitude of sects and their competing theologies obscured essential truths. What did the very first Christians believe? From what I can gather, they were focused on a real and powerful relationship with the living Lord, believing that he was and is the Son of God, that he rose from the dead.. In those days so close to his time on earth, many thought that his return as the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:39-43) would occur in their own lifetimes. The unity of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) was a core belief. Stripped down to its essentials, the early Christian belief in Jesus as Lord was as simple as it was powerful. Here is what Dr. Sydney Cave, in The Doctrine of the Person of Christ, writes: “St. Paul’s Christology is coloured [British spelling] by his mystic experiences…but the gospel of a risen Lord he preached was no new gospel….Of the history of the Church before St. Paul we have scanty knowledge. Yet we do not seem entirely without the means of forming some estimate of the primitive faith in Jesus. [the early chapters of Acts] express a period, not of theological reflection, but of intense religious enthusiasm. Jesus was risen from the dead. This to these early disciples was the amazing message which meant the reversal of old judgements, and the transformation of their Jewish religion. …Now Jesus was risen. God, by that act, had made Him indubitably the Christ, the Messiah. Their Master had ascended up to heaven, and from Him had come the Holy Spirit, whose power and wonder they daily experienced…..It was a confidence which brought to these men [and women] a joy which not even persecution could destroy.” [pp. 31-32]. What more do we need? We need to strip Christianity back, way back, to its vibrant, vital, unadulterated core. Here lies the source of its power and of God’s grace in our life here and hereafter with our risen Savior. I hope that you derive as much encouragement from this as I do. All else pales by comparison. The clowns and jokers on the religious front have distracted us, and will continue to distract us, from the Principle, the Goal. Their ravings are no less than those of their political counterparts, and in many instances they cross. This requires intellectual and spiritual vigilance. Our lamps (not lava) must be kept “trimmed and burning” lest we be diverted from that which is true and real.
Again, I call upon Bertrand Russell to guide our thinking. Perhaps the fact that Russell has no dog in the religious fight makes his observations more credible. The following excerpts are from his brief but powerful essay “Philosophy and Politics”, contained in the book Unpopular Essays (1951):
Russell writes, “The only philosophy that affords a theoretical justification of democracy and that accords with democracy in its temper of mind, is empiricism. Locke…the founder of empiricism, makes it clear how closely this is connected with his views on liberty and toleration, and with his opposition to both the ‘enthusiasm’ of the religious and political sects as well as the dogma of the divine right of kings; as in today’s social turmoil, both were characterized by ‘a piecemeal and patchwork political doctrine’….Accordingly, ‘The empiricist’s theory of knowledge…is halfway between dogma and skepticism. Almost all knowledge is in some degree doubtful, though the doubt, if any, is negligible as regards pure mathematics and facts of present sense-perception. The doubtfulness of what passes for knowledge is a matter of degree…’.”
Returning to the importance of the scientific method (and to the dismal results achieved by those who disregard it), he makes this observation: “Fanatics have failed, over and over again, or because, even when what they aimed at was possible, they were too unscientific to adopt the right means; they have failed also because they roused the hostility of those whom they wished to coerce…. democracy and empiricism (which are intimately connected) do not demand a distortion of facts in the interest of theory. Russia and Canada, which have somewhat similar climatic conditions, are both interested in obtaining better breeds of wheat; in Canada this aim is pursued experimentally, in Russia by interpreting the Marxist Scriptures.”
Finally, the summation to Russell’s essay shines a light on the present turmoil: “Our confused and difficult world needs various things if it is to escape disaster, and among these one of the most necessary is that, in the nations which still uphold Liberal beliefs, these beliefs should be wholehearted and profound, not apologetic toward the dogmatisms of the right and the left, but deeply persuaded of the value of liberty, scientific freedom, and mutual forbearance. For without these beliefs life on our politically divided but technically unified planet will hardly continue to be possible.”
When truth dies, people die. The list goes on and on: the killing fields of Cambodia, the Jonestown massacre, and the pandemic where thousands perished needlessly for their refusal to believe in established scientific fact that vaccines are effective against disease (or because they were infected by those who didn’t). What should have been common knowledge was forgotten while (back to religion) some Christians were prayin’ and sprayin’ in the name of some bogus “freedom”. It is tragic enough that adults die, but children have died as well. The high body count was as preventable as it was lamentable. Polio and other infectious diseases are making a resurgence due to this defective thinking. Democracy dodged a bullet in the January 6, 2021 insurrection, but is by no means safe. The siren call of the electronic media has created a number of alternate universes, but truth cannot be so casually invented. It all dies when exposed to the harsh light of reason. And eventually it will.
Along with the cyclic nature of history, I believe in karma. Actions have consequences. The government we get and those who represent us are what we deserve. I also believe in what Martin Luther King called the long arc of history: truth and justice will prevail. Our society will once again coalesce into a more cohesive form. It is inevitable. Truth, like history, has a long arc. Empiricism—rationalism–the scientific method—will win. Look at the lamp. Its shape contained in the lamp will change, and I can’t wait for it to happen.