Dangerous doves, problematic preachers and four-dollar words

Quick hits on a Tuesday with lots of other things on its agenda:

Mourning the doves: It might seem eccentric verging on preposterous here in proudly liberal Portland, where a John McCain lawn sign is as rare as a cup of coffee out of a Maxwell House can, but dovishness is not a universally admired trait. I haven’t read Louise Erdrich‘s new novel “The Plague of Doves,” but I love the title. A plague of doves? Sounds like it could be the title of a neocon screed, something by William Kristol, say: If only those end-the-war-now wimps had a streak of realpolitik in their heads, they’d realize you don’t win world peace by singing Kumbaya. You gotta be tough, you gotta be mean, you gotta fight fire with fire, even if it takes 100 years. A plague on the doves!

Ever since that ancestral white bird spotted land and an olive branch on the side of Mt. Ararat, we’ve been soft on the species. But it turns out there really is such a thing as a plague of doves, especially if you’re a farmer and they’re eating all your freshly planted seeds. That’s the kind of bird Erdrich is aiming at in her new novel, which takes place in the fading hamlet of Pluto, on the edge of Ojibwe reservation land in North Dakota. Reviews of this multigenerational (and multiply cultural) book have been enthusiastic. I’m putting it on my get-to-soon list. No matter what Ann Coulter thinks.

Them’s fisticuffarian words: This morning’s New York Times contains a front page story by Alessandra Stanley about The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.‘s recent television appearances to expand upon his theories of patriotism and the God-damning of America, and if I could get past the four-dollar words I might have a sense of what Stanley thinks of the whole spectacle. In her second paragraph, Stanley describes Wright’s performance as “a rich, stem-winding brew of black history, Scripture, hallelujahs and hermeneutics.”

Pretty good journalistic writing up to the “and.” But, “hermeneutics”? Why am I stumbling across a word like that near the top of a front-page column on a subject that actually interests me, and that theoretically the author and her editors want me to read? It’s not like I haven’t run across the word before. But it’s not like I’ve found it convenient, let alone necessary, to stuff its meaning into my quick-recall memory bank, either. So I dragged out the dictionary (a pre-cyberspace, alphabetical compendium of accepted definitions) and discovered this: “the science of interpretation; esp. the study of the principal of Biblical exegesis.” Exegesis, in turn, yields “explanation, critical analysis, or interpretation of a word, literary passage, etc., esp. of the Bible.” So: Why not just “Biblical interpretation,” which seems pretty straightforward and easy to understand? I doubt, by the way, that in any of his television appearances or pulpit sermons the Rev. Wright, Sen. Barak Obama’s suddenly arm’s-length former pastor, has ever used the word “hermeneutics.” If he had, he’d be more of an elitist than Obama’s detractors are painting the presidential candidate to be — not that a little elitist achievement is a bad thing in a person charged with leading the most powerful nation on Earth. I don’t need to drink a beer with my president. I need to trust that he or she knows what he or she is doing.

A few sentences later, Stanley refers to “Mr. Wright’s monomaniacism” — not the most elegant of coinages, perhaps, but at least one that’s easily decipherable. And, OK: It’s true, we here at Artscatter are hardly above throwing in a platinum-coated word now and again, sometimes just because we think it looks pretty. But we also like E.B. White‘s admonition that the simplest way to say a thing is usually the best. And unless you’re writing an academic treatise, a word like “hermeneutics” is, shall we say, deleterious to comprehension. Not to mention readership.

Praise the Lord and pass the American flag lapel pins: It shouldn’t be surprising that someone like The Rev. Wright, a good old-fashioned religious orator, should enter the current presidential campaign, if only in a minor spoiler’s role. As the always fascinating Garry Wills points out in his ambitious study of American religion, “Head and Heart: American Christianities,” a political campaign is a lot like a revival meeting. Here, he quotes historian Daniel Walker Howe:

“The hullabaloo surrounding the political campaigns of (the 19th century) — the torchlight parades, the tent pitched outside town, the urgent call for a commitment — was borrowed by political campaigners from the revival preachers. Far from being irrelevant distractions or mere recreation, the evangelical techniques of mass persuasion that we associate with the campaigns of 1840 and after actually provide a clue to the moral meaning of antebellum politics. Even the practice of holding national conventions was borrowed by the parties from the cause-oriented benevolent associations. Anti-Masonry, which held the first presidential nominating convention in 1831, was both an evangelical reform movement (a “blessed spirit” to its supporters) and a political party.”

Nor, when we see the mud-slinging and overheated irrelevancies of the current campaign (was Hillary really under fire at the airport? Why is that elitist Barack such a lousy bowler? How can you vote for a guy whose middle name is Hussein?) should we be at all surprised. As Wills suggests, it’s amateur night compared to what candidates have gone through in the past. From Michael Williams’ 1932 book “The Shadow of the Pope” he unearths this doggerel aimed at 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith, who had the bad taste to be a Catholic in a largely Protestant (and teeteringly prohibitionist) nation:

“Alcohol Al for President,

I stand for whiskey and bad government.

My platform is wet, and I am too,

And I get my votes from Catholic and Jew.

The ignorant wop and the gangster too,

Are the trash I expect to carry me through.”

Wills, one of our most consistently provocative public thinkers, argues in “Head and Heart” that the Enlightenment saved the future United States from the tyranny of state-established religion. Its effect on the Declaration and the Constitution at the same time provided legal protection in the public sphere from the rule of religiosity and, by freeing religion from state sponsorship, made it stronger, more various and more potent in its ability to shape the culture.

Wills traces the history of religious thought in America through its poles, the intellectual and the emotional, and argues that it works best when the two work together: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez. A little well-reasoned emotion doesn’t seem a bad way to approach politics, either.

Wills’ optimism is a particular curative after reading “American Colonies,” Alan Taylor‘s gloomy and finely researched popular history of the various American colonizations, from Spanish to Portuguese to Dutch and French and English and even Russian. In virtually all cases religion marched hand in hand with the conquerors, and in virtually every case, that (plus the mostly accidental genocidal effect of previously unencountered bacterial diseases) spelled disaster for the native peoples and cultures that had inconveniently settled here first. The savagery toward Indians of devout New England Puritans hardly differed in effect from the savagery of the Conquistadors — and in both cases was on a scale beyond anything the aboriginal peoples had ever imagined.

It’s an ugly harvest, but it’s ours. Which leads us back to Erdrich’s “The Plague of Doves,” a book that begins with a lynching by white settlers of a group of Indians and considers its effects down the generations in ways that, according to the reviews, are sometimes merciful and redemptive and even consoling.

At 3 a.m. in the dark nightmare of our political campaign, we could use a little consoling, too.