Right off the bat, attack blog Michelle Malkin whacked Barack Obama and Joe Biden as they emerged for their first joint appearance. "It’s Smarmy and Smirky ’08," she spit, though her attack was kind of mild for her; there wasn’t much acid in the spittle.
Malkin’s smarmy and smirky accusation of smarm and smirk made me think of novelist Matt Ruff’s newest tale, Bad Monkeys. It’s the story of murderer Jane Charlotte, who narrates her recruitment into and adventures with a shadowy, evil-fighting org called "Bad Monkeys," which in turn is just a division of an even more shadowy organization called "the organization."
Charlotte’s tasked with helping rid the world of evildoers, or bad monkeys. Of course, the real bad monkeys are usually the very ones who tell us they are just out to rid the world of bad monkeys. See, Michelle, that’s the irony.
Ruff took his title from an episode of South Park in which delinquent Eric Cartman beats a tiny squirrel monkey over the head with a stick, shouting, "Bad monkey, bad monkey." The scene takes place in the "Rainforest Schmainforest" episode, in which the boys are forced to join a field trip to Costa Rica. Introduced to endangered squirrel monkeys, Eric brains one, explaining, "I’m asserting myself."
Back in 2004, U.S. Second Lady Lynne Cheney took to the greasepaint and footlights for her version of little Cartman, attempting a kind of media-braining of Sen. John Kerry by screaming into the TV cameras, "This is a bad man."
Bad monkeys, bad men, bad manners. All this badness to be attacked. This week, as Obama formally accepts the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, we’d be smart to brace ourselves for a new level of campaign viciousness.
I blame Charlemagne. Here’s why.
Charlemagne just might be the original Bad Monkey. As detailed in a remarkable new book from theologians and historians Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Charlemagne’s 8th Century Christian jihad against the stubbornly pagan Saxons led to a new Western obsession with death and a deep belief in redemption through violence.
Expressing their grief at Charlemagne’s decades of terror and the oppressions of the Holy Roman Empire, the 10th Century Saxons carved what is one of the first known crucifixes exaggerating the suffering Christ. Many believe it was carved from a tree sacred to their pagan ancestors. It was a powerful counter-attack on Bad Monkey Charlemagne’s heirs – twisting their oppressor’s sacred image to reflect their own suffering at their oppressor’s hands.
This is a level of artistic negative campaigning today’s media consultants could but envy if they could understand it.
The consequences, as told by Brock and Parker, have been devastating. Lost in the Carolinian Shuffle was the original Christian celebration of life and the belief that paradise was of this earth – not some distant, heavenly abode above the clouds.
The empty cross, a symbol of life and victory over death, became a symbol of suffering and redemption through death.
In other words, we save the bad monkeys by killing them. Sound familiar?
The verbal and imagistic violence that marks American campaigns – and has marked it since at least the Jefferson/Adams campaign of 1800 – is, in part, at outgrowth of the belief that violence is redemptive. At the very least, it allows righteous warriors to attack their foes in the belief that their god wants them to do it.
Through the centuries the victims of imperial empire have felt their oppressor’s obsession with death and violence in their bones. And all along these victims were called the bad monkeys. By the real bad monkeys.
This year, the candidate of empire and oppression is John McCain. He has very little going for him; his lack of campaign skills and his growing mental frailty make him hard to sell to America. He’s out of touch with middle class economic suffering, and is even more militaristic than George W. Bush.
So, if the right wing can’t get us to voluntarily genuflect, they’ll resort to the tactics of destruction. They’ll cut down our sacred trees. They’ll label their opponents bad monkeys and justify their violent head-whacking with a vicious righteousness that might even wake Charlemagne from his slumbers.
There are, of course, many other historical events and forces that have shaped our contemporary political practices and the context of the 2008 campaign. Brutality and violence have always been part of drives to power. Charlemagne didn’t invent that. But the story of the West did take a new direction in that era. And in our puny political recapitulations of that story we still cling to ideas of violent redemption.
It’s fun to toss a bit of history into a discussion of the irksome practices of contemporary politics, but it’s also helpful. Cultural habits good and bad are carried like viruses in our stories. So we see the same narrative trajectories in Malkin’s silly attacks, brilliantly entertaining contemporary novels like Bad Monkeys, the twisted fantasies of Lynne Cheney, and the TV show, South Park. To name a few.
The question is, can we counter our opponent’s attacks with the resourcefulness and creativity the Saxons showed when they turned the sacred symbol of their oppressors into a symbol of suffering? And this time, can we make it about hope, life, and the possibilities of paradise right here on the salty earth?