Happy New Year and the Importance of Symbols and Myth
January 13, 2006
Richard J. Garfunkel
Like all thinking creatures that abound and inhabit this vast floating blue orb on its endless journey through time and space I am also a victim of the New Year’s myth of hope and renewal. As a part of this vast whole I do not remove myself from the symbols that abound around us, or our greater regional or worldwide community. We are brought up with an abundance of symbolism and myth. Whether it is the universal myths of religion, that most often is bolstered by faith, or the powerful symbols that we see every day that remind of us of greater forces beyond our control or even understanding. The symbols of the flag, the White House, the crucifix, the Christmas tree, the Menorah, the Star of David, the crescent, the sun, the Capitol, and endless others remind us always of the myth of power, justice, redemption and hope.
There is a story that I love to cite, that I learned, from a great mentor of mind many years ago. As a young fellow this lion of Irish-Catholic manhood told me of the Catholic priest and the rabbi who went to the fights. Right before the two pugilists went to shake hands and get instructions from the referee, one fighter genuflexed (crossed himself). The rabbi leaned over to his friend the priest, and asked, “Father what does that mean?” The priest looked squarely in the rabbi’s eye and said, ”Not a thing if he can’t fight!” I have always thought about that symbolic little story throughout the past 40+ years. Each time I have a tendency to indulge myself in the myth of symbolic hope, I whisper to myself, “Not a thing if he can’t fight!” In other words, all of the symbolism we drape ourselves in constantly is just a rationalization that begs the issue of reality. I am not sure whether it also begs the issue of truth. In one of the few interesting moments of a philosophy course in college that kept me awake, I do remember the professor, who was trying to make a point about a chair not being a chair; by the way I never thought it was not a chair, saying that there were no universal truths.
Of course that has always been a debatable subject amongst mostly the ecclesiastical folk who like to project the struggle of “good versus evil” as symbolic of what universal truths are all about. In the Jewish tradition it was articulated more as the “bitter and the sweet.” I assume there is also a “devil” personage in Judaism. According to our earliest “myth” in our western culture, the “devil” was in the body of the snake that tempted Eve and eventually drove those first humans from the fabled “Garden of Eden.” Today even some of our “flat-earth” minded contemporaries seem to want to force us to accept “creation science” through the guise of the new term “intelligent design.” Maybe that “design” would include the offering of that fabled “apple” from the “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden. For me, it is easier to understand the juxtaposition of the “bitter and the sweet” and how those two feelings constantly play off each other. It is hard to appreciate one’s feeling or the other, without experiencing both extremes at one time or another. And of course, all of life lived, is a combination of both of those dynamics. Eventually the “bitter” catches up to everyone, in one form or another.
So here it is another New Year’s Day come and gone. But where was the Rose Parade or even the Rose Bowl? Times and the demands of sponsors have changed dramatically. Where in we used to wake up after a long night of reveling to the wondrous sights and sounds of the floral festooned floats of glorious Pasadena, this New Year’s reality is somewhat different. Not only is it not warm and sunny in Pasadena, but also the parade has been displaced from New Year’s Day and even the Rose Bowl has been moved and is days away on a Wednesday night.
Of course this is tradition and not myth or symbolism. But, all in all, one could wax emotionally about the lost world of our father’s fathers, and in a sense that pining is emotion misplaced. We all should live in the here and now, and do for ourselves what we feel is right and productive. In other words, doing right for “me” and those immediately around our tiny personal universe. As Hillel said, in the period before the Common Era, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Therefore, when the constant reminder of “symbols” from the media and the advertising world bombards me, I wonder what is the real message. Is this message that I should remember the story of Christmas, or more remotely what really happened on Chanukah? Or is this message, a re-enforcement regarding the obligation to be just to our fellow man/woman? So like all symbols that we live with, whether they are important or not important, they serve to remind us of the myths that abound and dominant our lives.
Is the myth of “good fellowship” and “goodwill to all men” just a cliché of the season to sell holiday cards with banal messages that no one really reads? Should we not practice what we preach year round? Should we escape personally from the cycle of endless platitudes, which we toss around without any consideration of how empty they really are? My sense is that with all our trappings of “political correctness,” and faux concerns of fairness, that we have become truly a more crass society that is less tolerant, on an every day basis, to all that comes in our way. It is nothing new and quite obvious that we are in the midst of an era that is suffering from an epidemic of crudeness, bad manners, horrible speech and jealousy. The engine of Madison Avenue feeds this mindless worship of celebrity and material, and it will as long as that engine can churn out sales and thus revenue. .
I was taken by the recently completed United States Senate’s Judiciary Committees hearings on the appointment of Judge Samuel Alito to the highest court in the land. There were some remarkable juxtapositions to note. Here is one Samuel Alito, a not so obvious stealth candidate of the radical right. He comes across as a hard working conscientious judge, right out of “Andy Hardy Makes Good.” He comes from urban New Jersey, of middle class ethnic folk who certainly voted for FDR. He does well in school and makes his way twelve miles down the road to that bastion of F. Scott Fitzgerald privilege, Old Nassau, or better known as Princeton University. Of course Princeton was the most southern of all the old Ivies and it had a reputation of being rather snooty to foreigners of the Hebraic persuasion amongst a long list of others that included, Italians, Blacks, other non-WASPs. But of course, as it liberalized, more women and minorities were admitted in greater numbers. Ironically Mr. Judge Alito felt more comfortable with the “old school tie” types who were really representing the vestiges of the past. Since he got to the campus in the midst of the cultural rebellion that swept America in the mid 1970’s, he found himself uncomfortable with that new crop of the “rich and privileged” who ironically had some real social concerns, like the War in Vietnam, voting and civil rights for African-Americans, the poverty that infested the cities, and lastly, equality of opportunity for women. Of course young Mr. Alito reacted perfectly, he, unlike the old Tarryton cigarette commercial, switched rather then fought and joined the side that had excluded his ancestors from day one. What a paradox. But he knew where his “bread was buttered.”
So here we are today, and what have we found, Judge Alito comports himself with judicial aplomb and dignity, has made the right connections, gets friendly with everyone and comes across as a harmless, dedicated honest broker of the law. In fact he gets all sorts of his colleagues on the bench to support him. Some are old-timers and Democrats, some are Black, some are Jewish, and some are women. In fact, some are Jewish women Democrats. How neat! Isn’t it perfect symbolism that youngish, but rumpled Judge Alioto, with his weeping wife, and his understated demeanor, has been able to have his handlers parade down to Washington all of these diverse folk to defend this paragon of a small town boy makes good. Do they really know or care what he really represents? Do they understand what change his elevation will wrought? Obviously they do not, or do not really care. Maybe it is better to know the new Justice of the Supreme Court and really not worry what he change he will bring. He’s on for life! These good folk may have later regrets about their actions. But for now he’s the access to fame and the history books. “I knew Judge Alito when he was just a mere boy!”
Again, it’s a new year, and symbolism and myth are on display front and center. Here is the symbolism, that Judge Alito is really a good guy rebelling against the limousine liberals of Palmer Square. Here is the myth that Judge Alito is for the little guy! There is no greater myth. When the opposition started to really look at his record, what did his words and actions really state? Case after case, position after position; reflect that Judge Alioto never really supports the average “Joe.” If anything his words and actions belie that myth to the nth degree. The Judge supports the corporation almost every time over the poor slob, he believes and fights for Presidential primacy over the other branches of government. He, on the other hand, is for state’s rights and against the reforms of the previous High Court. He blurs the meaning of the “Establishment Clause.” He is against a women’s right of “choice.” When one analyses his votes regarding the “right of appeal” against the rulings of lower courts it is inevitable that he is a “hanging” Judge. So on the core issues of 21st Century America; re-apportionment, or one-person, one vote, state’s rights, the “Establishment Clause,” women’s rights, the Imperial Presidency, and the right of the individual against the state or the corporation Judge Alito is the next Judge Scalia or Judge Thomas.
It is really funny that many of the supporters of the women’s right’s struggle and the surviving lawyers of the Civil Rights era are at the hearings warning us about Judge Alito, but it seems few are listening. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina are part of the new generation of Republican Southern “statesmen” who ooze with charm as they praise these old veterans from the struggles of the past. Why not? The rightwing has finally got us right back where they had us all in 1937. It took 70 years, and we are right at the threshold of the great “clock re-wind.” How hilarious is it to hear these heirs of Stennis, Eastland, Talmadge, Russell, and Bilbo praise the recently departed Rosa Parks. How amazing is it to witness this modern “kabuki” dance play itself out.
It is a New Year and its only real meaning, for most, is the need to sort last year’s income tax receipts, and the symbolism of the same old “passion play” of the season. Though this year we were caught up with who could out “Merry Christmas” each other. It seems that the “inclusiveness” of “Happy Holidays” is just another blow against the fragile psyche of the evangelicals who fear that Christianity is on the wane. It seems too many folk are golfing, or taking junkets to Atlantic City or Las Vegas, or are living together, or swearing or are divorcing or cheating. It seems that Hollywood, and all of its vulgarity, represent the “Devil Incarnate” and the poor “family value” folk are left wandering in the desert. Maybe it will take Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan or Judge Alito and his new court coalition to get us back believing in the myth so we really understand the symbolism.