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Columns

The American God

Saturday 26 September 2015


It was one hell of a week: it started out sombrously with Yom Kippur which was photobombed by the Pope’s shock-and-awe visit to New York which pretty much threw the rest of the week into disarray. Pope Francis’s presence relegated everything and everyone else to the shadows, including the entire world’s leaders—Russia’s Putin amongst them—who met in New York for the UN Summit where they sulked in obscurity, overshadowed even in the UN by Mark Zuckerberg’s impassioned plea to help him and Facebook provide internet access to the entire globe, especially the underprivileged.

Apparently though, this week of atonement, humility, prayer, generosity, brotherhood created different sentiments: it propelled the people producing faux “Frozen” dolls to make a year’s worth of sales of Pope dolls in just three days; it turned crowds of tweens, teens, mature women into maenads, as if Beyonce, Bieber, and a resurrected Kurt Kobain had joined forces for one single concert, with Hamilton as guest dj); it turned newscasters into philosophers, and ignited spiritual dimensions unusual for little children (“He was so much more than nice; he behaved like he was a normal person even though he is so famous…He even asked us to pray for him. Us for him! Imagine what kind of a person he is…”) in those young ones who met with the honored guest.

However the whole brouhaha was too much for one John A. Boehner, Republican Majority Leader, Speaker of the House. Only hours after bursting into tears (not an altogether unusual occurence for him) while listening to the Pope’s moving speech to Congress, Speaker Boehner announced his resignation and retirement. The precipitousness and apparently existentially-instigated nature of Boehner’s decision surprised everyone, including President Obama, who, in turn gave a moving, heartfelt speech about the Republican Speaker. For a moment there it seemed we were all about to break into a big American hug.
If all this schmalz seems inexplicable to most people who are not Americans, it is understandable. Faith and family are the two basic tenets of American life, as anyone born in the US, or who has become American later on in life, soon discovers. Yet American faith and family come in many shapes and sizes, iterations and meanings—and all are acceptable as “American”, a way of life that encompasses and transcends every dimension of diversity.
The divine resonance of the American dream and way of life can be empirically proven: We don’t really like other people, we don’t really like ourselves much either, especially here in New York (as the staggering number of psych-specialists of every kind is any kind of indication) but we all love this city, this country. At times we rail at NYC, we weep, why are you doing this to me? we ask. The question is always multi-factored but inevitably involves rent. We decide to abandon it, or our life, for death or New Jersey, or maybe it’s the same, and then we don’t know what to do. And then the following day comes, bringing us one of those small and larger New York miracles. Mystical moments of transcendence that seem to indeed hint at something wider out there. Call them higher power or algorithm, they ignite our lives with meaning. So we look at THAT skyline, and the skylines of Seattle, and Silicon Valley, the prairies of cultural and political gamechanger Iowa, the different worlds of Texas, the mid-West, the mildness and warmth of body and spirit that Florida, as well as other sun-kissed states, deliver to the East Coast demi-gods of success. We look at how America lives in the imagination and daily life of every person around the world, through Mickey and Minnie, iPhones, English, Google, Facebook, medicine, the New York Times, Barack Obama, I will survive, Sex and the City, Sleepless in Seattle, Catcher in the Rye, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Casablanca, Gershwin, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Coke, kale, freedom, bubble-gum, bagels, Wall street trading, tech start-ups, Harvard, Stanford, Woody Allen, power, love, money, the moon and Mars, Oliver Sacks, a place where the masters of the universe (Google, FB, Twitter, Apple etc) are precocious kids who want to save the world, a bunch of 70+ year olds (median age of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton; now, according to rumors, Mike Bloomberg) are vying for President, and the fastest growing population contingent is +85 years old. We see inter-inter faith, racial and sex families making it work every day, with the naturalness and warmth that only a conviction based on more than just data, incomes, and blueprints for life written by self-help gurus.

Only through this perspective can two outwardly conflicting social trends be explained as coexisting harmoniously: the decrease in religious faith; with the steadfast mainstream social view (as expressed by a recent Pew survey) that Americans have no problem with their children marrying people of (any) other faiths, as long as they do not altogether lack a faith.
However this seeming demonization of atheism (which sends the likes of the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins into orgasms of frenzied outrage) is not so much a position, as a wariness toward a person who claims to be devoid of any kind of spirituality—and is therefore (or so goes the rationale) even more attached to the material world than even a NYC real estate broker.
Yet even for those who defiantly lay claim to materialism as their guiding light, or who seek spirituality in theosophism (a neo-Aristotelian movement based on the belief that “God is dead”, whose famous proponents include the philosophers Hegel and Nietszche), there is a higher power that transcends them and connects them to their compatriots. America.
There is no American, native or naturalized, who does not feel seminal, liminal emotion upon catching suddenly (it’s nearly always unexpected, overglammed as it is by the New York skyline!) sight of the Statue of Liberty. Who does not place hand over heart to mirror the visceral tug at the heartstrings that the hymn of “Amazing Grace” evokes.
America is THE God for its people, whether they be immigrants, refugees, demi-gods, mere, mild mortals, or even (currently, orange-haired) monsters. New York is the American God’s Olympus. Why even the Pope (now proud possessor of a New York City id!) spoke of being moved upon sighting the Statue of Liberty.
So we keep on walking. Two images I saw in the same day, capture our long walk, our limitless will to go on. One of them, a pair of sneakers hanging nonchalantly, from the top of a very high streetlight on 74th and Central Park West. “Just to prove this can be done” they seemed to state in perfect understated simpicity.
The other, a pair of brand-new sneakers, tidily resting on the corner of the street, on 57th street and Madison, on the corner of a bank and a jewelery store outside which a homeless older blonde woman was sleeping wearing tattered finery.
We make the impossible, possible. Until we don’t.
This is the existential paradox at the heart and mind of America, even at its most hardened and pragmatic: our effort to turn the mysterious ways God and/or the universe works into a narrative that gives our life meaning.
 


 
My beloved terrorist
Published by: LIVANIS
First printing: 2001
Pages: 403
Hellenists: Greece does not wound them
Published by: LIVANIS
First printing: 1999
Pages: 314
 
 

 

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