“I Had No Idea…”

macklemore2There’s a back story to this post.  I was asked to write it yesterday by Seattle’s alternative paper The Stranger.  Specifically, they asked for some “historical perspective” to singer Macklemore’s perverse twist on wardrobe malfunction onstage last Friday night, when he decided it’d be cool to perform in what’s sold in variety stores as a “Sheik/Fagin mask,” huge hook nose and all.

When the shit hit the fan, the Seattle-born Macklemore said his get-up was merely a “witch mask” and there was nothing anti-Semitic about it.  This morning, Tuesday, he finally issued an apology: “I had no idea,” he said.  And later this morning, despite huge numbers of comments on its coverage, The Stranger decided that “this story is over.”

I disagree, so am posting what I wrote right here:


For years I thought of myself as a wandering Jew. I moved not just between cities but between continents — London to Jerusalem to New York to Seattle. It was as though I fit the stereotype of the “rootless cosmopolitan.” Yet while I now seem to have become rooted after all, or at least as rooted as anyone whose houseboat floats on forty feet of water can be, I still can’t help thinking of rootless cosmopolitanism – anti-Semitic code for shiftless, untrustworthy, disloyal Jewishness — as a rather attractive existential state of being. And I still romanticize the idea of the wandering Jew, even though I know it began as an anti-Semitic legend in Christian Rome.

The story goes that a Jewish cobbler wouldn’t allow Christ to rest on his stoop during the trek to Golgotha, for which Christ condemned him to wander the world for eternity, with no rest. The Crusaders brought the legend back to England in the 12th century, where it was embroidered and expanded, and where this particular wandering Jew was born several centuries later. I’d be the only Jew in a Catholic convent school whose nuns referred to me as “the Hebrew girl” — with a certain pause before the word Hebrew, as though to emphasize that they were using a delicate euphemism. At least they refrained from telling me that I’d killed Christ (or given him no rest). Instead, they told me I was going to limbo, which seemed to be a kind of mezzanine between heaven and hell. To their horror, I kind of liked the idea of limbo.

This was only a few years after the end of World War Two. No, I’m not going to bring the six million in here; I have no desire to contribute to the obscenity of invoking their memory in support of current argument. My point is that despite its anti-Nazi stance, England was still deeply anti-Semitic. Which is not surprising given that it was where the “blood libel” first burst into murderous flame.

The blood libel was a medieval urban legend about Jews ritually slaughtering Christian boys and draining their blood to mix into Passover matzos (I kid you not). It spread like wildfire. Thousands of Jews were burned alive and otherwise massacred (and several boys declared saints) until Jews were expelled completely from British shores in 1290, to be allowed back only in 1655. In the light of which, Queen Isabella of Spain’s much better-known expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492, followed by that of all Spain’s Muslims thirty years later, seems pretty par for the course.

The two most infamous Jews in all of literature were created by Englishmen strong and true: Shylock in the 16th century and Fagin in the 19th. Both were portrayed as hunch-backed, lecherous-lipped, greedy-eyed, and of course, flamboyantly hook-nosed (a word that is inherently prejudicial — in Arab countries, it’s known as an eagle’s nose, and has traditionally been considered a sign of nobility). But neither Fagin nor Shylock were new creations. They were personifications of cartoon stereotypes that had become widespread with printing. The Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer didn’t invent the style, but it did help propagate it so widely that it still features on hysterically anti-Semitic websites from the USA to Poland to Yemen. It appeared in Egyptian schoolbooks and newspapers for years. And it turned up with an ironic twist in Denmark in 2006 with the publication of cartoons caricaturing Muhammad and all Muslims as terrorists, all with the “Sheik/Fagin nose” sold so amusingly as a mask at party stores. One Semite apparently looks pretty much like another.

Mild-mannered Seattle might seem a sweet respite from all this. Yet it was in Seattle that I first heard someone say “he Jewed me down” — quite blithely, with no self-consciousness, as though it were perfectly normal. Here that someone tried to make me her token Jew (“Wow, I’ve never had a Jewish friend before,” she said, and she didn’t after either). Here that a former Catholic schoolboy who didn’t realize I was Jewish (“that’s Jewish, you don’t look funny” went the old music-hall joke) assumed that I’d join him in changing the words of the carol “Joy to the world” to “Fuck all the Jews.” Here that I get a finger-pointing “you people” or “you Jews” as I’m held responsible for the actions of an Israeli government I criticize far more bitterly than those to whom the accusatory fingers belong. And it’s here, in the comments on The Stranger’s coverage of the Macklemore affair, that I find all the usual anti-Semitic code words: “touchy,” “thin-skinned,” and that old standby “pushy.”

Seattle is a young city, almost an ahistorical one compared to Jerusalem, and this ahistorical sense has allowed me to find calm writerly perspective on what happened halfway round the world in the Middle East of fifteen hundred, two thousand, even three thousand years ago. I’m immensely grateful for that. But could an absence of historical awareness just be another way of saying innocence? Or should that be ignorance?

When the subject of literary fraud came up in conversation not long ago, for instance, I mentioned the most infamous example of all – “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And was stunned to realize that nobody had heard of this screed, which first surfaced in Russia in 1903. Purportedly the record of a meeting of leading Jews plotting to take over the world, it’s a classic demonstration of the ornate convolutions performed by the paranoid-conspiratorial mind, and has thus proved remarkably resilient to all evidence that it’s a fiction. Hitler made much use of it, of course, and America’s own tainted automotive titan Henry Ford had half a million copies printed and distributed in the 1920s. You can still find the full text on anti-Semitic websites, while print versions, complete with the usual hook-nosed illustrations, continue to sell steadily in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

macklemorePerhaps Seattle is a bit less innocent after Macklemore’s now infamous twist on the idea of wardrobe malfunction. Or perhaps not. I opt to believe him when he says that he had no idea of the anti-Semitic stereotype, and can understand his initial defensiveness — nobody likes to have their unconscious biases paraded in public. But as he now acknowledges, it’s precisely this no-idea-ness that’s the problem. And that may be true for Seattle as well as for him.

We pride ourselves here on being progressive and tolerant. That’s part of our civic image. But tolerance is an ambiguous ideal. You only need to tolerate what – or whom — you don’t really accept. Stereotypes are inherent in the idea of tolerance, and until we can get beyond them, our proud progressiveness runs the risk of being… well,  just another mask.

Colonizing Everest

The use of “native guides” might seem a peculiarly nineteenth-century mode of exploration. Not so. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary would never have been the first to climb Everest if he hadn’t in fact been the second — hard on the heels of Sherpa Tenzing, without whom he’d never have made it. And so it still goes. Some 600 people now summit Everest each year, but most are not westerners paying up to $100,000 for the privilege. They’re Nepalese sherpas, “at least” thirteen of whom were killed in an avalanche last week. And those huge sums don’t go to them, but to the mountaineering outfits that hire them at minimal wage to do the dirty dangerous stuff and ease the way for their wealthy clients.

That’s two underpaid, heavily-laden sherpas per overpaid, lightly-laden westerner. Sound familiar? Since I’m more of a desert rat than an icepick-and-piton type, I think instantly of another climb much boasted of, as in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, which includes his account of an 1867 trip to Egypt:



and this photo from 1870:



Heave ho, my hearties.  Anyone for a spot of post-colonialism?

Getting High

Remember George Lakoff and his wonderful book Metaphors We Live By? He and co-writer Mark Johnson argued that metaphors are not “merely” symbolic;  instead, they shape and determine how we think. That’s why I’ve been playing with the metaphor of height, which appears with remarkable frequency in the increasingly tiresome theist-atheist debate.

sky godThe assumption is that what’s high is good and what’s low is bad. Thus evangelical Christians tend to raise their eyes skyward as they talk about (or to) God or heaven. This is a cultural remnant of the ancient sky god (Baal, Zeus, or Yahweh, depending on where you lived), shown in statuettes wielding a lightning bolt. It also happens to be a clear negation of the assumed monotheistic principle of God as universal and omnipresent, but as Lakoff showed, metaphors trump principle.

We have a long history of altars built on high places, presumably on the basis of “nearer my God to thee,” whatever god or gods were involved. We have steeples and spires, needles and minarets soaring skyward, from the Tower of Babel to Dubai’s Burj al-Khalifa. (And if you happen to live in a valley, or worse, in a canyon, whether concrete or natural, you may find yourself “at the bottom of the heap.”)

The heavenly counterpart is of course hell as the underworld, stoked by fires of molten lava deep beneath the earth’s surface – the hadopelagic, from Hades, the deepest depths. But you don’t have to believe in heaven or hell to be mesmerized by height.

Some evolutionary biologists talk of humans as the “pinnacles” of creation (though I would have thought life as a pinnacle would be an alarmingly lonely business). Others see humans as a “higher order” of evolution (some of them even described as high-functioning).

We have upper and lower classes (both socioeconomic and biological), and upper and lower cases (of course God gets an upper case). We have high and low IQ, high times and low times, high achievement and low, hi-def, hi-fi, hi-res.

Phrases such as “a higher consciousness,” “higher math,” and a “higher power” come tripping off our tongues. As well as “beneath contempt,” and “above reproach.” Our spirits can sink, or soar. We get high, and feel low. And above all, as it were, we occasionally engage in high-level negotiations, rise above our emotions, and give each other a resounding high-five.

None of this would seem to bode well for any consideration in depth, but I intend to keep puzzling at it nonetheless. Maybe I need to climb to a mountaintop…

Pure Zen



My copy of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard bears the marks of a well-used life, much like the photo of him in today’s New York Times. The cover is torn and tattered, the linen boards worn and faded, the pages yellowing at the edges. The end pages are full of scribbled notes to myself, the text scored and marked in the margins. This is a much-read book.

I’ve placed it high on the reading list of every writing course I’ve ever taught, tracing the intertwining of its parallel journeys: on the one hand, into the hidden inner sanctum of Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, in search of the elusive snow leopard; on the other, into the mystical and equally elusive peacefulness of Zen Buddhism.

There were far more than two hands, of course, which is why I read the book so many times and never tired of it, entranced by the intense lyricism of its descriptions of landscape, and the sharp contrast with the pared-down writing about Zen practice.

I have most of Matthiessen’s other books too, both fiction and nonfiction, but this is the one I keep coming back to (in a way I suspect would have deeply disappointed him — no writer cares to be defined by one book above all the others).

I didn’t know much ‘about’ him other than what he revealed in his writing, which was carefully calibrated. I had no idea he worked a naively youthful two years for the CIA, for example, using the Paris Review as a cover, though I did know he’d become a Zen priest, that he was fiercely involved with environmental issues, and that he was… well, not exactly good-husband material. No matter: the writer was more important to me than the man.

Yet much as I love and admire his writing, I haven’t ordered my own copy of his last book, a novel called In Paradise. Instead, it’s waiting for me at the library as I write.  And has been waiting a few days. I delay picking it up because even though it’s Matthiessen, something in me doesn’t want to read it. It’s set at a meditation retreat at the concentration camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz, and the very idea of such a retreat seems, at least to me, a horribly ironic oxymoron. Which may indeed turn out to be his point. I’ll find out soon enough.

Matthiessen died yesterday, at age 86. “I don’t want to cling too hard to life,” he’d said, and by not doing so, I suspect he arrived again at the place he described in this quote from The Tree Where Man Was Born, which serves as the ending of the extraordinarily timed piece on him in today’s NYT magazine. Here it is:

“Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content. The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without having discovered what it was.”

What is this if not pure Zen?


Where Do You Comment?

I guess you’d call this a meta post.

Whenever I write something here on The Accidental Theologist, I click the Facebook button at the bottom and — voilà! — it appears as a linked post on my Facebook page. And thus on the walls of Facebook friends.

This is kind of magical, but here’s what’s puzzling me:  Over the past year or two, the Facebook link has been getting far more comments than the blog itself.  Often, the conversation I’m hoping for happens ‘there’ rather than where I’m writing right now, which is ‘here’ (all use of ‘here’ and ‘there’ being absurd, of course, in cyberspace).

This is fine by me.  Any way it happens is good.  But in my tech-dumb kind of way, I’m trying to figure out the why of it — the dynamics of it, both tech and human.  Here’s six possibilities, which may or may not make sense.  But I’m sure there’s lots that haven’t occurred to me, and would love your input (on whichever platform):

1. — Could it be that Facebook encourages off-the-cuff responses more than a blog? That it’s a more spontaneous platform?

2. — Or could it be a feeling that the blog is “Lesley’s space” rather than a shared one? (Of course the Facebook page is also “mine,” yet somehow more open.)

3. — Could it be that there’s a Facebook app for mobile devices but not an Accidental Theologist one, so that checking in on Facebook is easy and fast, while checking in here takes more deliberation? (Please, no, don’t ask me to develop an app!!!)

4. — Or could it be that the clear identification of the commenter on Facebook is preferable to the relative anonymity of commenting directly on the blog? (On the one hand, relative anonymity would seem to encourage comment, but since we are two-handed creatures, the other hand is the ability to claim what one thinks.)

5. — Could the Facebook use of tagging, by which further comments get copied to your email if your name is tagged, form a stronger invitation to carry on the conversation?  (I haven’t checked if there’s a way to do that on WordPress. I suspect not. But even if there is, is that desirable? The last thing I want is to snow your inboxes.)

6. — Or could all this puzzling be nothing more than an unintended tribute to the power of Mark Zuckerberg?

None of this means that I have any intention of stopping this blog.  The AT is coming up on its fourth birthday, and it feels like I’ve barely begun — like I’m just beginning to grow into it.  What started as an experiment quickly became something I love doing, even if I’m doing it somewhat less often right now (sign of a new book in the making, preoccupying my mind).   But even a newbie’s fourth birthday is time to assess, so whether on The AT or on Facebook or on any other platform, feel free to fire away with feedback and suggestions.  Thanks — Lesley

Flashback (Speed and Transgression)

I’ve just experienced a strange sense of time travel — seeing myself twenty-odd years ago and finding her familiar and yet unfamiliar.

A reader found this video online and sent me the link.  I had no idea it even existed.  I only vaguely remember doing the interview, so had no idea what I was going to say next.  Sometimes I laughed as I watched, sometimes I cringed, but for the most part, I looked at this self-possessed 1992 self in amazement, as though asking, Who is this woman?

So for the record, and because it is part of my past, of the decade I spent writing about matters automotive (and earning far more money doing it that I ever have by writing about politics or religion), here it is:

A footnote, also for the record:  it took a few years, but I drove all the speed out of me, and now take an almost perverse delight in slowness.

And, um, I no longer wear leopard print shirts.

An Extraordinary Submergence

Submergence-356x535I don’t remember ordering J.M.Ledgard’s novel Submergence from the library.  I do remember getting the email that it had arrived, and wondering what it was. Then picking it up a couple of days later, looking at the cover — “huh?” — and asking myself if I even wanted to read it.

I still know nothing about Ledgard aside from the capsule bio on  the back cover:  Born in Scotland, lives in Africa, political and war correspondent for The Economist.  Nothing, that is, but the fact that he’s written an astonishingly ambitious, beautiful, and haunting novel.  So much so that the moment I finished it — and I mean the precise moment, with no hesitation — I turned back to the first page and began reading it again, with even greater admiration.

The ‘plot’ is simple enough:  a man and a woman meet in a French hotel, have a brief affair, and continue thinking of each other as they go on with their separate lives.  He is an intelligence agent gathering information on militant extremists in Somalia.  She is a deep-ocean scientist obsessed with the strange life forms in the deep-water fissures of the earth’s mantle.  He is captured by jihadist fighters, badly beaten, held hostage.  She dives in a submersible 3,000 meters under the north Atlantic.  Separate lives indeed, yet somehow, and with extraordinary grace, Ledgard pulls them together into a magnificent evocation of the complexity of life on earth, human and otherwise.  And of its intense fragility.

Life in the deep turns out to be extraordinarily stable.  Life on the surface, terrifyingly unstable.  The hardship of Somalia comes as alive here as the shimmering life forms (I had to look up ‘salp’ on Wikipedia) in the hadopelagic — ‘hado’ from Hades, the deepest depths.  The jihadist captors are drawn with rare understanding even as there’s no stinting on their cruelty (including an all-too-vivid scene in which a young teenage girl who has been raped is stoned to death for adultery).

Here’s an extract from toward the end:

We cannot talk with definition about our souls, but it is certain that we will decompose… What is likely is that sooner or later, carried in the wind and in rivers, or your graveyard engulfed in the sea, a portion of each of us will be given new life in the cracks, vents, or pools of molten sulphur on which the tonguefish skate.

You will be in Hades, the staying place of the spirits of the dead.  You will be drowned in obliviion, the River Lethe, swallowing water to erase all memory.  It will not be the nourishing womb you began your life in.  It will be a submergence.  You will take your place in the boiling-hot fissures, among the teeming hordes of nameless microorganisms that mimic no forms because they are the foundation of all forms.  In your reanimation you will be aware only that you are a fragment of what once was, and are no longer dead.  Sometimes this will be an electric feeling, sometimes a sensation of the acid you eat, or the furnace under you.  You will burgle and rape other cells in the dark for a seeming eternity, but nothing will come of it.  Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity.  It is stable.  Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.

And as an eerie footnote to this, here’s Ledgard in an interview last year on the blog of The New Yorker.  The novel “juxtaposes land with ocean and enlightenment with fanaticism,” he acknowledged. “I felt impelled to write it in this way, but it is odd, I can see that. But sometimes life is even odder. It was the strangest moment for me when Osama bin Laden was killed and buried at sea. Everything came together in the abyss. I have often thought about it since, not just bin Laden’s weighted corpse sinking down to the sea floor, but also the processes done on his body, the creatures, the crushing dark, and that’s what I am talking about — there is another world in our world.”


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