FROM THE BOUNDARY
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 12:00am
In praise of green carnations
I wonder whether you, like me, have wondered quite why Donald Trump has been able to attract and retain a core of Republican voters who give the impression they will stick no matter what he does or says. We’ve heard a lot about anger with the Washington ‘establishment’, but I suspect that it goes a little deeper than that. In particular, I think the reason is, in part, that Trump makes them feel validated – that they believe he feels and thinks and speaks as they do. He’s a comfort zone. He’s a caricature of John Wayne – “Never apologise Mister. It’s a sign of weakness”, the Duke says repeatedly in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Yet, unlike Trump, Wayne the cowboy or cavalry man was a loner, his own man, an individualist. He didn’t court popularity. He was not an egoist, a narcissist. He was genuinely tough, but with a very soft centre which he tried to hide. And again, unlike Trump, he wasn’t interested in being the mouth of a crowd. No: for the crowd speaks the language of the port or market place and its mobster boss loudmouth seeks to rouse the rabble in them. “Who’s going to pay for the wall? ... Mexico! Mexico!” It was the rabble which cried, “Crucify! Crucify!” Whatever else, their language is not the language of the learned society. It’s never ‘polite’ or structured. It’s uncouth and abrasive. It speaks in broken sentences, in slogans. It is its own strata, has its own hallmark, as discourse.
So yes, there are different strata of language. Eau de cologne is not water from the Rhine. And to bowl a ‘chinaman’ in cricket is not... well, you know. In other words, the concepts of our language are true, meaningful and verifiable in different senses and, as Wittgenstein said, the limits of our language are the limits of our world. How we communicate is who we are – for now. It’s our grip on reality. Like the different strata of language, words don’t just mean one thing. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between words and things. Think, for example, of the word ‘love’ or ‘marriage’. Nor do they mean anything we want them to mean, as Alice’s Humpty Dumpty would have us believe. It all depends on the particular ‘strata’ of language in which we’re speaking, the ‘game’ we’re playing, how words are appropriately ‘used’.
Now, a moment ago I said that John Wayne, unlike Trump, was an individualist and I very deliberately said he was not Donald Trump. In the ‘game’ of psychology, for example, individualism – hence ‘individualist’ – is used as a concept which expresses the importance and worth of you and me in all our beauty and wonder.
What I find shocking is that in recent times senior Anglican clerics have labelled ‘individualists’ as Donald Trump’s rather than John Wayne’s. In other words, they’ve labelled people who go their own way, in the sense I’ll describe, as selfish people who have little or no regard for values or sense of community. When they say this, maybe they’re using the language of the market place, of slang. Maybe they’ve simply not understood.
Rather, I want to say that selfish people are just that – selfish people, who don’t care about anyone very much except ‘me’. At root, they’re just thoughtless, sleeping people with an under-developed pre-frontal lobe. We meet them every day on our roads. They are even to be found in the Church. However, that’s not the ‘individualism’ of philosophy or psychology or even, and this is the critical point, of the Gospels. So who is this ‘individualist’ in those senses?
The ‘individualist’ is the man who’s not afraid to say ‘no’ – no to humbug, no to hypocrisy. He’s naturally a rebel who regards the profanities and prejudices of the crowd as the untruth. He understands that though religion may be a starting point, in the name of respectability and security, it’s still only an outer dimension. The individualist doesn’t say he’s your moral superior though he might claim to have more courage. He doesn’t seek to control you. He knows that ultimately only you can save yourself.
He’s not afraid of being alone and accepts the challenge of the unknown. He’s creative and understands that the claims of truth vary with the times. Yet he sees all things as a unity, that you can’t have flowers without bees, nor bees without flowers. He might even have a penchant for green carnations.
He understands that institutions like the Church operate at a low level of human understanding and moral responsibility because, as institutions, they’re restricted to simple forms of thought and communication, and because they simply can’t handle variables. For him, it’s not religion but religiousness which is the flowering, a religiousness which is not a creed but a quality – which at root is a loving heart.
Oh yes, he goes his own way. He doesn’t feel strapped by the past or stale, blinkered conventions. Yet he will not harm his neighbour, and will do all he can to secure his good. He has no time for ‘traditional values’ and may well argue for a godless morality.
And for all this an individualist has the most perfect pattern and exemplar – the man Jesus of Nazareth, the supreme individualist, whom the community, the crowd, the sepulchers of respectability and ‘values’, in their ignorance mocked and murdered. Does his spirit move in our country, in our churches? I’ll leave that one to you.
Prayer from the boundary: “I pray to God to rid me of God.” (Meister Eckhart).