As you surely have noticed if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, I’m not exactly a person who craves the limelight. And since I already get more of it than I ever bargained for in real life, I’m certainly not hankering for more on these pages. I blog anonymously because (a) I want to keep these efforts separated from my day job, and (b) I want the focus to be on the topics I’m discussing instead of on me. Nonetheless, after nearly a decade of doing this, it has occurred to me that some readers actually might have a benign curiosity about my background, and what motivated me to do what I’m doing. So I’ve decided to go out on a bit of a tangent here to satisfy that curiosity. My apologies if you find this boring or irrelevant. I’ll try to make it as brief and painless as possible.
By profession, I am what one might call a folklorist. Chances are when you hear folklore, you think of witches and dragons and glass slippers and red hoods and talking animals. That’s certainly part of it, but more broadly, folklore encompasses any personal expression of unknown authorship. This could include stories, poems, songs, music, sayings, artwork, customs, or even (and especially significantly for our purposes) beliefs. Folklore ranges from ancient tales that get reworked (and sometimes butchered) by Disney et al, to urban legends to that Internet rumor you saw on Facebook this morning.
I also spent several years as a film critic. And while films are not strictly folklore, they perform a function in modern culture comparable to the role of folklore in traditional culture; and they do have a chicken-and-egg relationship with the pulse of the times and the milieu. Analyzing them is excellent practice for assessing the society in which they are created, and the techniques used to get messages across to the public.
I’ve been fascinated by folklore and storytelling virtually my entire life. I was exposed to a great deal of it growing up in the rural South in an era before the Internet — especially since I had a great-grandmother (part Native American) who loved to regale us with yarns about the old days, which she embellished lavishly. Her twin sons, my great-uncles, did likewise in recounting their own supposed experiences. Maybe there’s a gollywhopper gene or something. Listening to them was a useful exercise in learning to distinguish entertaining stories from factual stories — a skill that a great many people evidently have not mastered.
It was a time when classrooms and courtrooms were segregated, school prayer was compulsory, students could be beaten with a board, gays lived in a closet within a closet, and red agents of the Evil Empire supposedly lurked around every corner. In the third grade, we were issued military-style dog tags so our bodies could be identified in the rubble left by a Soviet bomb. Television was just coming into its own, and I witnessed the first time the medium played a pivotal role in an American president’s election — and then in covering his assassination.
In high school I was an outstanding math student, largely because I had an outstanding — indeed, absolutely phenomenal — math teacher. He showed us, or at least me, that math was fun and fascinating, and that mathematical reasoning could be applied to all kinds of everyday situations — which is something I still find myself doing. Constructing a geometric proof correctly has much more in common with dissecting a bullshit argument than many people realize. It isn’t an accident that the godfather of analytical geometry, Rene Descartes, was also one of the world’s greatest philosophers. I highly recommend the study of math, and geometry in particular, to anyone interested in honing their reasoning skills. (Don’t be freaked by a phobia of numbers — you can solve some rather complicated geometry problems without using any numbers at all.)
Another very crucial factor in my upbringing is that it was very strictly religious. I grew up in a fundamentalist, fire and brimstone, Bible thumping, evangelical family and community. (I’m the kid picking his nose, appropriately enough, in the church group photo below.) We shunned alcohol and tobacco and makeup and jewelry and fancy clothes. We believed in all work and no play, denounced the evils of rock and roll, and practiced ritual foot-washing, speaking in tongues, and shouting fits of delirium during religious services.
I remember hearing one preacher flatly declare from the pulpit that bowling was a sin (as was just about everything that was enjoyable), and later, after my parents talked it over, they took our set of checkers and threw it into the fire. Interestingly, however, they did not touch our toy bowling set — the actual thing the preacher had railed against. It was just one of many odd and disjointed things about religious practice that caught my attention and prompted some reflection and analysis which, by the age of ten or so, had persuaded me to reject religion altogether.
When I began college, studying English and anthropology (and indulging in theatre on the side), I took it upon myself to read the sacred texts of as many of the world’s religions as I could get my hands on. This included the Quran, the Sutras, the Book Of Mormon, and the Zend Avesta, as well as the Bible. For the latter, I studied the heavily annotated Cambridge Bible, after which I knew much more about “scripture” than most religious people.
At this time I was also involved in protests against the draft and the Vietnam imbroglio– and I was able to talk to several guys who’d been victims of both. While politicians were declaring that protesters hated America and her brave soldiers, the brave soldiers themselves were moving directly from the front lines of battle to the front lines of protest. I was on the tail-end of the hippie generation, which was addicted not only to pot and patchouli, but also to questioning authority and rejecting convention at every turn. The love beads and peace symbols are long gone, and my hair and beard are much grayer and much shorter these days, but my constant questioning of the status quo is still very much with me.
Later, I landed in San Francisco, where several occurrences during the first few months were to have a profound impact on me, and strongly nudge me in my present direction. The first thing that happened — and I do mean the first thing, right after I stepped off the bus — was that I was targeted for recruitment by “Reverend” Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, better known as The Moonies.
In those days, the Moonies had a strong presence in San Francisco, operating out of a big fancy house in Pacific Heights — perhaps the ritziest part of town. They would regularly dispatch recruiters (in my case a young female who turned on the charm) to the Market Street hub downtown to seek out new arrivals, like me, to “befriend” them and invite them to dinner at the house. After dinner and entertainment, these newcomers would be pressured to attend a weekend seminar in the country, from which they’d never return — at least not as the same persons they’d been before.
Of course, they didn’t realize that they were being proselytized by the Moonies — nor did I, because neither Moon’s name nor the name of the organization ever came up. It was not until months later that I learned the truth when I met and attended a presentation by a former Moonie who had been “deprogrammed”; she later co-authored a book about her experiences. As you might imagine, seeing what a close call I’d had inspired me to delve more deeply into cult mentality and brainwashing, and to realize that even intelligent people can be led astray by manipulators who pander to their emotional needs.
Sun Myung Moon and his “church”, by the way, have had a long and productive involvement with American politics and media, and it’s still going on today, several years after his death. That’s a topic we’ll cover at a later date.
At about the same time, another cult with local ties made headlines in a most horrific fashion. A cult leader organized what appeared to be a benevolent church congregation in Indiana, then relocated it to San Francisco, where it really picked up steam, and even garnered praise from several politicians. But then he began really going off the deep end, after which he moved the group to a commune in Guyana. When word leaked out that cultists were being subjected to abuse, California congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate. After he’d visited the compound and interviewed members of the flock, he was preparing to board a plane back home when he and his party were met at the airstrip by the cult’s armed henchmen, who opened fire — killing Ryan, and killing and wounding several others. (Among those seriously wounded was a young Ryan aide named Jackie Speier, who is now carrying on his work as a member of Congress herself.)
That night, apparently dreading repercussions, the cult leader and his armed thugs herded members together and coerced them into drinking a fruit beverage loaded with cyanide — after which they themselves followed suit. In all, more than 900 lives were lost that day. From that tragedy, we get the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”; and it made me more alert than ever to instances of people doing just that.
Also at about the same time, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated as they sat at their desks in City Hall. The gunman was a former supervisor who had resigned, and was angry when he was unable to get his job back. (The President of the Board of Supervisors, Dianne Feinstein, stepped in as mayor, a big stepping stone toward her perennial career as a U.S. senator.) He had entered City Hall, climbing through a window to bypass a metal detector, for the express purpose of killing not only Moscone and Milk but two other supervisors as well. He shot both men several times, finishing them off with point blank shots to the head. Yet instead of murder, he was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to a mere 7 years — a sentence that outraged the city and sparked a riot. He was paroled after 5 years and eventually returned to San Francisco to live in his old neighborhood, despite the protests of Feinstein and other officials; a few months later, he committed suicide.
At his trial, his attorney had argued that he just hadn’t been himself when he turned murderer, in part because he’d been bingeing on junk food instead of his customary healthy regimen. This tactic came to be known as the “Twinkie defense”. What caught my attention more than his food diet, however, was his mental diet. He also had binged on right-wing extremism — indeed, part of his platform was to save the good bigots of San Francisco from the encroachment of gays like Harvey Milk. If Fox “News” had been around then, it’s a good bet that he would have had it on 24/7.
And then not long after this, a former California governor and B-movie actor was elected president of the United States. He had taken vapid sloganeering and slick packaging to a whole new level, making them the prime criteria for lionization. Until that time, I’d never really paid any attention to politics — indeed, I’d made a conscious effort to avoid paying attention to politics. But with the cult-like ascension of The Gipper, I became acutely aware that politics will intrude into our lives whether we notice it or not. And I also became acutely aware that the nation was being rapidly subsumed by a mentality that I did not care for at all. The political right wing in the U.S. was becoming increasingly powerful, increasingly deranged, and increasingly malicious.
Reagan’s ascension coincided, not so coincidentally, with the rise of toxic talk radio. All of which signaled the beginning of the end of the America we knew, to be replaced by a surreal landscape in which right-wing politicians collude with right-wing media figures to create a fantasy world that coddles their bigotry and delusions — and to drag everyone else into that world. The idiocracy that the nation presently has become blindsided a great many people, but I saw it coming decades ago. (I even made the outlandish and laughable prediction that the NRA would start its own TV network — about 30 years before it became a reality.) I never imagined that the current White House Occupant would be who he is, but I had no doubt that somebody like him would get there eventually. It’s just the inevitable conclusion of trends that have been long in the making.
Twenty years after Reagan, the right-wing political/media complex achieved a quantum leap in its gaslighting with the apotheosis of an even dimmer bulb than Reagan. It was after this that I began writing essays with my observations about current events and distributing them to everyone I could via email lists. And then along came WordPress, and here we are.
And now back to discussing the things that really matter.