Wednesday, May 11, 2005

True believers

The Green Knight blog has some interesting remarks on right wing politics and sex with animals. Worth reading. He has hit upon a couple of important and closely linked aspects of fundamentalism (whether political or religious) which are its externalized morality and its Manichean worldview.

His post is about the widely publicized spectacle of some right wing political figure, Neal Horsley, who claimed, on national TV, to have had sex with farm animals. Liberals have jumped on the story as verifying everything they had ever suspected about the depravity and the simultaneous hypocrisy of right wing extremists. I think dueling banjos is the relevant sound track here.

GK noticed that the story in all likelihood plays entirely differently with right wingers. In their eyes, in fact, it verifies the depravity of liberals! In other words, the point Horsley was trying to make was that he _was_ depraved, till he became a true believer. In his depraved (read, if you will, secular, or by extension, liberal) state, he was capable of anything. If anything was allowed, everything was allowed. So he had sex with farm animals. Now that he is a true believer, he no longer does. Or so let us hope.

One of the ancient traits of fundamentalism is that it is often accompanied by a conversion, with a conversion narrative, a cautionary tale told afterwards. The most famous is St. Paul's probably psychotic episode on the road to Damascus. Before the conversion, we have a sinner. Afterwards, a true believer.

What interests me is why some people are susceptible or predisposed to such conversion episodes. At first glance you would think that the externalized, authoritarian right wing moral code does not provide its adherents with anything like an internal morality to limit their behavior. I think this is an oversimplification.

First of all, I think it is most likely that the sex with animals story was a lie, precisely to dramatize the sinner to saint pilgrim's progress story. And even if it wasn't, the conversion represents the result of a hidden tension in the head of a person brought up with conventional norms, but does unconventional things. At some point (maybe in the barnyard) you are brought up short (as in, "my God, what am I doing?"), and either have to revert to the ideology of your childhood or forge some other way out of this internal tension. The easiest way out is back to the ideology of childhood. Hence, the conversion narrative.

To illustrate, in a much less bizarre way:

Years ago, in El Paso, during the time of the hippies, I knew this woman, I think her name was Linda, who taught yoga classes at the YWCA or somewhere. When I first met her she was married to an accountant or something who had bought her a new car right before she left him. She ditched him because he was so square. She would come over to the house my future wife Kay and I lived in then on Awbrey Street, down toward the lower valley, and demonstrate yoga exercises for us, and tell us how these asanas could improve your life. Her face was heavy and plain and she had dark hair. I felt a certain lust when she did her yoga poses in her leotard, as I gazed at the soft flesh of her thighs as she put her legs behind her head and stood on her hands and chattered about how this enabled you to get in touch with your body and improve your digestion. She had a nice body, womanly, a little heavy, maybe, but very pleasant to look at, as she performed her spiritual contortions.

She introduced us to an eccentric Buddhist who would go on meditation-marches under the full moon along the high barren ridge of the Franklin Mountains with a youthful friend, a philosophy student at UTEP. These spiritual forced-marches were pretty arduous. Alternatively, they would do a nightlong walk down in the sand and yuccas of the desert floor. They would carry prayer flags and a drum. They would chant mantras as they banged the drum and barged through the yuccas under the all-night moon. Linda went along on one of their walks. For this trek they were going to walk from El Paso through the desert night all the way to Hueco Tanks 25 miles away, a place sacred to the Indians. She asked us to meet them there at dawn, so we agreed to bring coffee and doughnuts. Kay and I drove out there as the sun came up. They hadn't arrived yet. The moon was setting in the west. I got up on the rocks of the cliffs facing El Paso and watched, and about 9:00 o'clock I saw a couple of walkers coming in from the desert, trudging in the sand between yuccas and creosote bushes. It was the Buddhist and his sidekick.

"Hallloooo" we waved and shouted. After a while they waved back.

"Have you got anything to eat?" they shouted when they got close enough." They were famished, and gobbled up the doughnuts we offered them, without talking much. They seemed exhausted. They had not achieved enlightenment.

Linda had dropped out along the way and had said she would wait for a rescue party to come get her. After breakfast I took the UTEP student in our old Volkswagon and drove out into the desert, along a jeep track in the general direction they had come from, and back 7 or 8 miles there she was, sleeping contentedly in the warm morning sand. We took her back in the overloaded car, and a rock ripped off the muffler on the way back, so Kay, and the Buddhist who was gloomily seated in a full lotus position contemplating one of the horned gods of the Indians painted on the rocks, could hear us coming a long way off. "I wasn't afraid," Linda said, "I hummed mantras while I waited," before falling to sleep.

Eventually she decided to go live in Taos, because it was a very spiritual place.

We did not see her or hear from her for a couple of years. Then she reappeared in El Paso, and Kay invited her over for supper, and after some chitchat I asked if she was still doing yoga.

"Uh, no." Long pause. "I don't do yoga anymore."

"How come?"

"Well.." she hesitated. "It was, kind of, not what God intended me to do. If you have Jesus, you don't need yoga."

"Far out" I said, in the spirit of 70's hippie ecumenicism. So she told us about her conversion to Christianity. She had lapsed from her original goal of spiritual advancement when she got to Taos, she said, but it was all part of God's larger plan for her.

"I had gotten very, uh social, y'know man, very sexual, in fact I was havin' a hell of a good time..a heck of a good time. I was the Boogie Queen of Taos. People called me that."

A moment of regret, or possibly nostalgia, crossed her face as she said this. The Boogie Queen of Taos.

"I came home one night and turned on the light, and all of a sudden I fell on the floor and couldn't move. I couldn't speak or anything. [shades of St. Paul!] My boyfriend found me. He got completely weirded out, man. He thought I was dead. I was still breathing, but I was paralyzed. The doctors thought it was some kind of stroke or somethin'. I could blink, that was the only way I could, like, respond to questions. But nobody knew I was conscious, y'know, I mean they knew, sort of, but they would forget. I could hear everything everybody said, and people talked like I wasn't there. But I knew I was gonna get well." She said she was totally serene in her paralyzed state. Unaccountably so.

She said she remained in this condition for a month, listening to the nurses who acted as if she was brain-dead as well as paralyzed, who would talk about her as they turned her in her sheets. Then a silent bearded man, whom she later realized was Jesus, came to her in a vision, three days in a row.

"The last time he came, he touched the back of my head and I suddenly knew I wasn't paralyzed any more. I moved my arms and hands to make sure I really could. I just waved 'em around. I looked for the man but he was was gone. So I called for the nurse."

She said all the medical people were amazed. She said her muscles had atrophied some, but she progressed rapidly, and in two or three weeks she was totally back to normal. She was completely blissful and confident.

Except for the long dress she was wearing and a new moral code she appeared to be her old self.

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