by Abigail Hastings
Maybe it’s the extra week we were gifted with this summer—what with Memorial Day falling on the first possible Monday and Labor Day on the latest possible one, giving us 15 weeks of “cultural summer” instead of 14 (also noting that extra “leap second” we got to the world clock in June). Or maybe there was something in the contaminated water or fire-scorched air. The summer of 2015 is one for the history books, especially if you’re a fan of upside down world.
I’m talking about things not being as they seem and how that leaves us feeling a bit unmoored, sending us to reevaluate what we thought was solid and trustworthy. Of course I’m not talking about politicians—they long ago took us on circuitous paths of duplicity (setting the scene for the “anti-politician” candidates of this summer’s dog days). Few should be very surprised at embezzling FIFA officials, stock market vagaries, or that prisoners can escape maximum security prisons once in a blue moon (another rare event we had this summer). We can’t even feel very betrayed by the tumultuous weather—firestorms, floods, mudslides. That’s what Mother Nature does and if anything, she should feel betrayed by us in what shaped up to be the warmest year-to-date (well, just in the past 4,000 years, to be fair).
We lost two newsmen this summer—(officially) in June of NBC’s Brian Williams and then in August, of Jon Stewart, named “the most trusted newsman” according to one poll. Williams, who garnered a dozen Emmys and a Peabody award while anchoring the most-watched evening news program, was described by Walter Cronkite as a "‘fastidious newsman’ who brought credit to the television news reporting profession.” I mean, if you can’t trust Uncle Walter’s opinion, who can you trust?
And there’s the rub… who can you trust? It’s a gut buster and here’s why: it’s primal. Someone comes into your ancient fire circle and you’ve got to size them up pretty fast. Friend or foe? Your life may depend upon it. In the beginning, you’ve only got to go on what they say… and then hold tight for what they do.
That’s what became so confusing about Bill Cosby—not only an upright citizen with a doctorate in and passion for education, but the guy who made us laugh and gave us a critically historic sitcom. When he called young African Americans “knuckleheads” for the way they talked and slung their pants, no one would have suspected that his moral compass had been off-course for decades.
That may be in part because we suffer from “normal guy” profiling, fodder of TV reporters with a “perp’s” neighbor in what is the all-too familiar “in-cue” (first four words of the on-air interview): “He seemed so normal…”
We make assumptions about people who seem to be leading “normal” lives, or even stellar lives. Or someone who seems so benign—like Jared Fogle, the smiling, slenderized Subway sandwich pitchman who is headed for prison for statutory rape and harboring child pornography.
Far from normal, unless you count birthing your own township as normal, the eldest boy in what seemed to be the squeakiest clean family compound on the block—Josh Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting—admitted to inappropriate sexual tendencies that led to molestation of his sisters, addiction to pornography, and accounts on the now-famously-hacked infidelity website, Ashley Madison. (There’s something well-scripted about Ashley Madison’s betrayers getting betrayed—kind of a heaping dose of double cross karma for them and that shadowy company.)
Fundamentalism didn’t save the Duggar boy—although finding Jesus has been credited with saving the 4 times married, “who’s-marriageable” expert, Kim Davis, country clerk in Kentucky who knows every Adam needs an Eve, created alongside her or fashioned from his rib, depending on which part of the Genesis you want to be literally true.
Speaking of the Bible, you’d be hard pressed to find many stories in there that don’t involve betrayal of some sort—but it seems that David went out of his way to keep it regularly in the storyline. The House of David (prominently featured in Judeo-Christian lineage) was also pretty much a House of Cards. Did people feel betrayed when their wunderkind succumbed to sexual desire that resulted in adultery and murder? Did people say, “geez, he was such a good smiter. I thought he was such a good guy.” Did they notice how David arranged for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed simply by having Uriah’s men betray him by retreating in battle, leaving him high and dry (and dead)?
Sex trips a lot of people up—actually most people if statistics on infidelity are accurate. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of Doctor Zhivago, the movie that set aside a good portion of the Russian revolution to focus on the (Egyptian-Lebanese playing a Russian) actor Omar Sharif’s two loves in the film, one his wife, one not so much. Love triumphs in various ways amid the frozen beeswax ice castles of the film—yes, beeswax. They had to shoot the movie in Spain where snow is scarce, so bee’s labor to the rescue. But we expect a certain amount of illusion in movies—what we don’t expect is for movies themselves to be a dangerous place.
Maybe we thought there might be something related to people being murdered at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, linking a violent act to this fairly violent take on the Batman story. But for two people to be shot and killed during the screening of Trainwreck—a comedy for chrissake—it seeped into boundaries we thought we had negotiated in a civil society. Not a comparison by a long shot, but for some reason, I thought if my purse was going to be stolen in a record store, as it was many years ago, it would be in the Rock and Roll section, not the Classical. But that’s how we devise our boundaries—this route should be ok, that one isn’t. This side of town is, never go to the other one.
Our minds click with that referent, often implying racial divides, literal and societal, and the deep woundedness that continues to characterize us. And here’s where two betrayals converged in the most horrific way this summer: in prayer, in church, in accepting the other, only to be betrayed by the other. No place is safe, no people are safe when hate is incarnate and weapons within easy reach. But it was just one more tragic addition to what is becoming our reckoning on racial bias. With the outward signs of bigotry eroding over the past 50 years, we are left to come to terms with the covert ones. Like the tide going out to sea, we’re confronted with all that has been underneath there all along—police betrayals (how many black lives were lost unjustly in pre-camera days?); incarceration of people who were framed, or evidence tampered with; or the stark reminder with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina that black lives and the poor didn’t matter any more in that epic disaster than they do any other day.
We are wading into deeper waters here than we have before. Note our confusion about how to even talk about race—the summer started with the buzz about Rachel Dolezal electing to be black, as if that were as easy as changing one’s hair color (yeah, she did that too). It makes you think of this exchange from the groundbreaking 1960s sitcom, “Julia,” in which Diahann Carroll applies to be a nurse with Lloyd Nolan over the phone:
Julia Baker: Did they tell you I'm colored?
Dr. Chegley: What color are you?
Julia Baker: Wh-hy, I'm Negro.
Dr. Chegley: Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?
If there are blurred lines anywhere, it’s a lot more on race than in other places—but we’re not really ready to talk about that. A lot of people would be surprised to know whose blood is really flowing in their veins and in their past. But that suggests an honest conversation about how we got to the divisions we’ve inherited—on whose backs, and on whose sexual betrayals (particularly abhorrent given the Bible-thumping pietism of those serial slave master rapists).
When I had my son, my young niece asked my sister what color he was. “You mean his hair?” She pointed to her arm and said, “no, I mean, what color?” What an interesting world that would be, where skin color was just another thing to note, like eye or hair color. But of course we’re talking so much more than surface things, even if Martin Luther King did urge us toward character and not skin tone. With race in America today, we’re into the complexities of culture, tradition, social status and finally, some kind of accounting for what happened and what could happen to turn round right (or at least, righter). And some in the African American community, understandably, do not care about conversations. Why do they have to instruct us on how to be simply humane and fair? (Has something to do with ears to hear, eyes to see, with our white brethren — but maybe we could just start with prison reform and level the playing field a bit while dreaming up the next thing to rectify.)
As unthinkable as the Emanuel AME Church shooting was, I can’t help but think that it opens a kairotic moment that we dare not miss. I didn’t know what the tipping point would be for the Confederate flag’s demise (at least in government usage)—I assumed a few more white folks would have to go to Judgment Day before there was hope of getting these insults out of view. And speaking of insults, how cruel of the flag defenders to betray the intent of the flag’s designer, who was quite clear about what he hoped it would be remembered for: “As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.” (William T. Thompson, May 4, 1863). Ok, sure, call it about heritage if you want to—just be clear about what heritage that is.
I didn’t really intend to overwhelm you with summer betrayals—I haven’t even mentioned the dangers of falling balconies or stadium plunges, other places you thought were safe. Or someone you thought of as a guy’s guy, Olympian athlete and all, who’s now sporting Versace couture dresses and pearls. Or Atticus Finch support groups. Or the fact that gun violence might show up not just in the news but on the news as it’s being reported, live, right there along with your breakfast cereal.
A long time ago (at the beginning of this post), I wrote “a roundup of things best forgotten.” Let me be clear: I’m referring to something very specific here. We should never forget the lives lost or (crucially) the way they were lost. And we should keep a little questioning voice inside us when we buy an image whole cloth, forgetting that people are always more complex than we think they are. But we are called upon to be resilient, even upon betrayal. What could be more poignant than the shortest of questions, et tu? or as Malcolm X put it, “To me, the thing that is worse than death is betrayal. You see, I could conceive death, but I could not conceive betrayal.”
We can’t conceive of things not being, to some extent, what we think they are. I’m still a little flummoxed that bacteria grows on bars of soap (and not the good kind of bacteria). I mean, c’mon, on soap?
It’s paralyzing not to trust that this elevator will go where it’s supposed to, that this person will deal honestly with my money, that my friend has got my back instead of planning the best place for the knife. So what I’m suggesting is that while we forge resilience about the inevitable betrayals ahead of us, try to forget that sinking feeling when you first heard the lies, misrepresentations, or tragedies of 2015. Don’t stay in that ground-quake of your being, that sense that you don’t know what’s real. Resist the notion that that’s all the world is—a series of awakenings to harsh truths. Notice instead that for every disappointment or cataclysm, there was an opening for a reaction that surprises. The forgiveness of the Charleston church families, the Germans holding signs saying “Welcome” in Arabic to war-torn refugees. Live in that place even while we swap stories of betrayals that we didn’t see coming, yet will survive together.
Take a page from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
The Summer of 2015 may have asked us to abandon many things we thought we knew—but that is little more than a summer awakening, for there is much work to do, and if you like a little prayer with your politics, you will be well suited for it.
©Abigail Hastings @ prayerandpolitiks.org