In memoriam: Cohen, democracy and decency

Who would have thought there would be a week in which the death of Leonard Cohen was not the saddest thing to have happened to the world.

But round about the same time that Cohen was presenting his broken body and broken hallelujah to the Lord of Song, a hate-spewing sexual assaulter was being shown into his new office in the White House.

The world had lost a man of the beauty, depth, grace and spirituality of Cohen and gained a President-Elect Trump.

Two things are particularly distressing about this revolving-door twist of timing.

The first is the realisation that liberal democracy itself is more under threat than any of us had realised.

A thin black ribbon now links the ballot boxes of the US, UK, the Philippines, Hungary and Russia.

Voters around the world are casting off the shackles of doing the right, decent, thing, and are voting for rabid right-wing ranters.   Call them posher words like populists or demagogues if you prefer, but essentially Trump, Farage, Duterte, Orban and Putin are rabid right-wing ranters.  The spirit of the times is that people are listening to them and voting for them.

Liberal democracy normally relies on self-limiting features like party structures and public decency to weed out the demagogues.  Only that’s not happening any more.  Two Greek words have met in a deadly mash-up, and demagogue-ocracy is born.

This isn’t the first time demagogue-ocracy (OK, mobocracy is shorter) has flourished, and it doesn’t usually end well.  Check out 1930s German electoral history for clarification of this point.

The danger of the appeal of the strongman must never be forgotten.  Neither, as the great Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal pointed out, can we ever allow ourselves to believe that the evil of the Holocaust could not be repeated.  Armistice Day is not just a poignant reminder of past horrors and sacrifice, but a challenge to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The second distressing fact to emerge from Trump’s victory is that he was carried to the White House partly on the shoulders of right-wing evangelical Christians.

In a disturbing logic which seems to place the rights of unborn children above all other considerations, which crosses a line into idolatry of their party (“my party right or wrong”), they seem blind to the hypocricy of choosing a corrupt leader whose campaign was fuelled by hatred, lies and fears, on the single basis that he said he was opposed to abortion.

They’ve strained a gnat, swallowed a camel and elected a monster.   It’s enough to make a Pharisee blush.  It’s good to know that many other courageous Christians are speaking out against this school of thinking – from a theological perspective or a purely personal one.

But it’s extraordinary that the Jewish-born, Zen-Buddhist-leaning Cohen seems to have captured the spirit of Christ more than US Republican Christianity – which merely seems to have captured the spirit of the times.

In one his best-known songs, “Suzanne”, Cohen writes of Jesus as a lonely, broken deity visible only to drowning men.  Other works reverently reference the Sermon on the Mount, the turning of water into wine (always a good miracle in my book), the crucifixion and so on.  I feel he speaks about the Jesus I recognise.

Republican Christians have meanwhile seem to have reverted to an “Old Covenant”, pre-Christ mindset, where God is an avenging, angry, smiting figure, rather than the broken, suffering servant, the God of grace and gentleness we see celebrated by Cohen and of course by the New Testament.

I’m not saying that Cohen would have seen himself as a follower of Christ, but he seems to have had deep love, respect and fascination for him, which seems to be more honouring than the strident, mercy-free message we hear from the evangelical right.

So here’s a hard question.

Is it time to recognise that the Christian Church has its own problem with radicalisation?  No, it’s not usually expressed with weapons and terror.  But the ballot box can do its own damage to the weak, the minorities, the refugees, the vulnerable, gay people and women.  We expect the Muslim community to call out radicalisation, and so should we.

The paradox of the overlap of thinking between extremist Christians and extremist Muslims has been noted before, but shouldn’t be forgotten.  The extremist Muslims have given us jihad and the extremist Christians have helped deliver President Trump.  Heaven help us all.

If they won’t listen to the still small voice of calm, or to Christ’s Beatitudes, maybe they could at least listen to Cohen.  “Democracy is coming to the USA”, he wrote with his usual wry wit, describing himself as “neither left nor right” but pleading for social justice.

“Sail on, sail on,
Oh mighty ship of State.
To the shores of need,
Past the reefs of greed,
Through the Squalls of hate.”

Democracy is sick and demagogue-ocracy is thriving.   The timing of Cohen’s departure was hailed by some as the ultimate comment on Trump’s election victory.  I hope he’s putting in a word for us all with the Lord of Song.  And I hope that if the bad guys are joining forces across national borders, the good guys will do the same.









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