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Tag: Satire

Hot Damn! Vietnam!

Here is something that offended LBJ: The Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) insisted on using his image—presented upside down—on its promotional materials in the days leading up to their attempted march on the Oakland Army Terminal in 1965. These materials clearly intended to mock Johnson by displaying his portrait in a topsy-turvy manner, but what may be less obvious is that turning the president upside down can also be understood as casting a hex on him. The practice of symbolically turning someone upside down as part of a curse can be traced at least as far back as late-antiquity. For example, Christopher A. Faraone and Amina Cropp have shown evidence of Romans using an incantation against their enemies that included an inscription meaning, “turn upside-down!” Similar language is evident in the fourth-century curse that states, in part, “turn him, turn him upside-down!” In this way, VDC activists engaged in the sort of satirical practice outlined in Robert C. Elliott’s foundational study The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art and exemplified most hilariously in Ishmael Reed’s “D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful,” which is anthologized in the aptly titled 19 Necromancers from Now, and Philip Roth’s Our Gang, two texts that satirically hex Richard Nixon.

The story of how the VDC came to deploy this particular strategy is interesting, especially insofar as it reveals something about the influence of postwar American writers on the symbols that the Anti-War Movement adopted during the mid- to late-Sixties. It is also very funny. Here is what happened . . .

Over a two-day period in May of 1965, the VDC hosted one of the nation’s first and largest teach-ins at the University of California, Berkeley. The event was organized by Jerry Rubin, Barbara Gullahorn, and Stephen Smale, and it featured a range of speakers and entertainers, including Norman Mailer, I. F. Stone, Benjamin Spock, Mario Savio, Robert Moses, Dick Gregory, Paul Krassner, Kenneth Rexroth, Phil Ochs, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Attendance at the event is estimated to have ranged between ten and thirty thousand people, depending on which source you consult, but the one thing that is certain is that the gathering ultimately proved to be a defining moment in the Vietnam-era Anti-War Movement.

Mailer’s speech—which he punctuated with the refrain, “Hot damn! Vietnam!”—was an irreverent attack on the president and his advisors. It was full of derision and mockery, but it also included a stark warning:

Listen, Lyndon Johnson, you’ve gone too far this time. You are a bully with an Air Force, and since you will not call off your Air Force, there are young people who will persecute you back. It is a little thing, but it will hound you into nightmares and endless corridors of night without sleep. It will hound you. For listen, this is only one of the thousand things they will do. They will go on marches and they will make demonstrations, and they will begin a war of public protest against you which will never cease. It will go on and on and it will get stronger and stronger.

Prophetic as Mailer may have been, his remarks were, up to this point, relatively mundane. Threatening marches and demonstrations was hardly a novel proposition, after all. But as Mailer’s speech develops, it takes an altogether more creative, zany, and downright funny turn:

But listen to just one of the thousand things that they could do. Just listen to this little thing, which is one. These young people are, I think, going to print up little picture of you, Lyndon Johnson, the size of post-cards, the size of stamps. And some of them will glue these pictures to walls and posters and telephone booths and bill-boards. I don’t advise it. I would tell these students not to do it to you, but they will. They will find places to put these pictures. They will want to paste your picture, Lyndon Johnson, on a post-card and send it to you. Some will send it to your advisors. Some will send these pictures to men and women in other schools. These pictures will be sent everywhere. These pictures will be pasted up everywhere—upside down! Silently, without a word, Lyndon Johnson, that photograph of you is going to start appearing everywhere. Your head will speak out, even to the peasant in Asia. It will say that not all Americans are unaware of your monstrous vanity, overweening piety and doubtful motive. It will tell them that we trust our President so little and think so little of him that we send his picture everywhere upside down. Vietnam! Hot Damn! You, Lyndon Johnson will see those pictures up everywhere—upside down. Four inches high and forty feet high. You, Lyndon Baines Johnson, are going to be coming up for air, everywhere, upside down. Everywhere, upside down! Upside down!

Tongue-in-cheek disclaimers about not advising students to engage in this sort of tactic aside, Mailer was clearly planting a subversive idea in his audience’s mind. He was showing the tens of thousands of young people at Berkeley that day how to use a form of symbolic violence to degrade and humiliate a national leader who was rapidly losing credibility among the American Left.

The young activists listened, and they would not disappoint.

Over the coming weeks, the VDC produced and distributed flyers, buttons, and other materials that prominently featured LBJ’s topsy-turvy face. The button pictured below is one such item. It is a striking example of how the Anti-War Movement appropriated LBJ’s image and presented it in a visually arresting manner to mock and discredit his authority as president and commander in chief. But it is also evidence of the direct influence Mailer had on the movement. Not only does the button turn LBJ upside down, as Mailer had warned that activists would do, but it incorporates his famous refrain—“Hot Damn Viet Namn!” The button is, in this regard, an iconic symbol of the relationship between Mailer and the radical activist base of the Anti-War Movement. Perhaps only Allen Ginsberg had a more direct influence on the Sixties protest movement.

But what is perhaps most remarkable about this satirical hexing is that news of the tactic made its way to the Oval Office. In his excellent history of the radical student movement in Berkeley, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Seth Rosenfeld recounts how the FBI attempted to interrupt the VDC’s distribution of LBJ’s upside down portrait. This involved federal agents harassing the small business owner who had agreed to produce thousands of buttons like the one pictured above. Rosenfeld writes, “The buttons were of particular interest, according to an agent’s report, because ‘President Johnson has now become aware that his picture has been displayed in VDC demonstrations in an upside down manner. He is provoked about this'” (273). Amazingly, Mailer and the VDC had succeeded in vexing, if not hexing, the president.

There can be little question that irritating LBJ, even to the point of causing him to suffer “endless corridors of night without sleep,” was one desired aim of symbolically turning him upside down. Another would be to materially damage his reputation. There is ample evidence of Vietnam-era satirists—literary and extra-literary alike—targeting political figures, including sitting presidents, with vicious representations that often approached the legal definitions of slander and libel. The aim of these satirists was to make fun of powerful men and thus galvanizing energy against them, but they also sought to damage their targets with symbolic violence. By using ironic, derogatory language and visual representations to symbolically damage their enemies, postwar American satirists drew on the deep connection between satire and ritual magic to affect social change. They vexed and they hexed, and in so doing they helped develop radical sentiment against the war.

Mailer is a problematic figure in all sorts of ways, but I admire the principled stand he took against the Vietnam War. He was a steadfast anti-war activist and a leader among writers in organizing resistance to the reckless foreign policy that led to this most unpopular war. Mailer is also responsible for two books that masterfully capture the mentality of America during the Vietnam War. The first is his extraordinary journalistic account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, for which he was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The second is his satirical novel Why Are We in Vietnam?, which captures something of the insanity of the war without even mentioning it until the last page of the book. Both are excellent and remain powerful reads even today.

You can hear Mailer’s speech on the 1966 Folkways Records recording of the teach-in, Berkeley Teach-In: Vietnam, which is available for streaming here. In addition to Mailer, the recording includes speeches by Robert Scheer, Paul Krassner, Benjamin Spock, I. F. Stone, Mario Savio, Dick Gregory, and others. It’s a wonderful bit of history that gives voice to the event that inspired a hex on LBJ. Hot damn!

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Good Morning, Sunshine, It’s Minority Rule! (DNI Edition)

February 20, 2020

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The Last Chapter of Genesis

Christian theology is at odds with itself when it comes to the natural world. On the one hand, it promotes a deep-seated aversion to nature, which is said to be corrupted by sin. Joseph Campbell makes this point clear in The Power of Myth, his famed series of interviews with Bill Moyers, noting that “it’s in the biblical tradition, all the way, in Christianity and Islam as well. This business of not being with nature, and we speak with a sort of derogation of the ‘nature religions.’ You see, with that fall in the garden, nature was regarded as corrupt. There’s a myth for you that corrupts the whole world for us. And every spontaneous act is sinful, because nature is corrupt and has to be corrected, must not be yielded to.” The contempt for nature, including the natural functions of the human body, permeates the cannon of Christian myth and has done much to condition western attitudes toward the environment.

On the other hand, Christianity teaches that human beings have a responsibility to care for the earth. The bounty of nature is figured as a trust, with humanity acting as both trustee and beneficiary. The theology of environmental stewardship has received renewed attention following Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato si, a document that urges environmental protection as a Christian duty. Francis summarized the Christian position vis-à-vis environmental stewardship in his 2014 address to the European Parliament: “Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for creation, this precious gift which God has entrusted to us. This means, on the one hand, that nature is at our disposal, to enjoy and use properly. Yet it also means that we are not its masters. Stewards, but not masters. We need to love and respect nature, but instead we are often guided by the pride of dominating, possessing, manipulating, exploiting.”

The contradictions between these two positions seem intractable. How are we meant to reconcile the idea of nature as a gift with the belief that nature is “fallen” and corrupt? It’s worth remembering that the myth of the fall imagines Eden as containing within itself the source of sin, and thus also our own deaths, just as it shames the natural condition of the human body. Much loathing of ourselves and our environment grows from this root. And yet there is indeed a Christian imperative to care for what Pope Francis, quoting his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, identifies as “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”

I was reminded of this imperative by two short articles I recently came across in The Spectator, an underground newspaper published by students at Indiana University from 1966–1970. Both articles draw on biblical language to make the point that we have abdicated our responsibilities toward the environment. For example, in his article “On Population,” Bruce Williams uses familiar phrases from Genesis to argue that both environmental degradation and human want are the consequences of our irresponsibility and ignorance: “We are fruitful and multiply so that overpopulation and starvation are commonplace, subdue our planet by destroying it, exercise dominion with poison and killing.” By echoing language taken directly from the first book of Genesis, this sentence makes the point that modern humanity’s mistreatment of the earth stands in opposition to the doctrine of environmental stewardship.1

More striking still is the second article, which recasts the seven days of creation as a perverse undoing of ecological balance and planetary health. Ironically titled “Last Chapter of Genesis,” the article reads:

In the end, there was earth, and it was with form and beauty; and man dwelt upon the lands of the earth, and meadows, and trees — and said, “Let us build our dwellings in this place of beauty.” And he built cities and covered the earth with concrete and steel. And the meadows were gone, and man said, “It is good.”

On the 2nd day, man looked upon the waters of the earth. And man said, “Let us put our wastes in the waters that the dirt will be washed away.” And man did and the waters became polluted and foul in their smell. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 3rd day, man looked upon the forests of the earth and saw they were beautiful. And man said, “Let us cut the timber and grind the wood for our use.” And man did and the lands became barren and the trees were gone. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 4th day, man saw that animals were in abundance and ran in the fields and played in the sun. And man said, “Let us cage these animals for our amusement and kill them for our sport.” And man did. And there were no more animals on the face of the earth. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 5th day, man breathed the air of the earth. And man said, “Let us dispose of our wastes in the air for the winds shall blow them away.” And man did. And the air became heavy with dust and choked and burned. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 6th day, man saw himself and, seeing the many languages and tongues, he feared and hated. And man said, “Let us build great machines and destroy, lest others destroy us.” And man built great machines and the earth was fired with rage. And man said, “It is good.”

On the 7th day, man rested from his labors and the earth was still, for man no longer dwelt upon the earth. And it was good…

It is difficult to read “Last Chapter of Genesis” without sharing in its misanthropic attitude, especially when the current ecological crisis is considered alongside the myth of Eden. Not that its misanthropy is out of step with mainstream environmental consciousness. Even Laudato si is misanthropic, especially in its salutation, which bemoans the fact that the earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Francis leaves little doubt that the responsibility for environmental degradation rests squarely with humanity.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut (one of America’s great misanthropes) was correct when he suggested that the only hope for a peaceful, verdant future is the possibility that human beings may still evolve out of their highly-destructive hyper intelligence. In his view, this means regressing (or is it progressing?) into a species of comparatively unintelligent seal-like creatures, as his novel Galápagos so brilliantly suggests. But even this participates in the Christian aversion to nature that Campbell identifies, for Vonnegut’s story exploits an antagonism between humanity and nature that can only be resolved when one or the other is purged from existence. Rather than deepening this antagonism, we need to develop a synthesis between culture and nature. It will only be when we move beyond the sort of dualistic thinking that Zen philosopher Daisetz Suzuki, whom Campbell quotes in The Power of Myth, characterized as “God against man, man against God, man against nature, nature against man, nature against God, God against nature” that we will begin to come to terms with how thoroughly we are invested in the natural world.

It’s unfortunate that western attitudes toward nature continues to be shaped so powerfully by Christian myth. So long as people think of nature as a “gift” from God that is now “at our disposal” (and here Francis seems to fall into the ideological trap of “ownership” that he criticizes in so many of his other writings), we are unlikely to experience the behavioral revolution that our ecological crisis demands. In the meantime, we should seize ground wherever we can. If Christian thinking insists upon dominion over nature, let’s commit to a wise and noble dominion. We can then hope that the sort of responsible stewardship urged by The Spectator so many decades ago will serve as a catalyst toward the deeper work that remains to be done.

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