The Genesis:3 Project
He urged them mightily, and they turned toward him and came to his house, and he made them a feast, and he baked unleavened bread (matzos), and they ate. Genesis 19:3
If you are looking for full-time work, think about trying to figure out the current senior advisor to the President, Steve Bannon. There are more versions of this man than there are of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” on an all-Christmas music radio station. He’s been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and, seemingly now, a king.
If you want to begin your research, there are any number of profiles of him from a variety of sources, some more reliable than others. But his recent affirmation that the main goal of the current Cabinet is the “deconstruction” of government caught my attention.
If I wanted to be suspicious, I would compare deconstruction to reconstruction, the efforts of the victorious United States government under Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant to put the South back together again after the Civil War. Mostly, the Reconstruction fell short of its goals; it was successful in some areas and less successful in others, but it certainly did less than the minimum for the freed slaves of the defeated Confederacy.
Still, when I hear “deconstruction,” especially from an educated and sophisticated man like Mr. Bannon, I hear a distant banjo playing “Dixie” and smell the magnolias in bloom.
I have written before about the “again” in “make America great again.” So much of what the President intends by that phrase is sheer nonsense. For example, manufacturing jobs will not be coming back, not because of globalization, but because of automation. Three guys and a smart phone can build a car in a robotic factory that used to employ thousands.
But the part of “again” that appeals to many Americans – white, Christian, living in the heartland – is from that time when certain presumptions the ways things were supposed to be went unchallenged. People had manners. They spoke English. They went to church. They knew their place. I wish I was in that America – old times there were not forgotten. Those days before rebellion and that hopey-changey thing were comfortable. No person of color or immigrant would get a leg up to take what was presumably mine.
It sounds like I am calling an entire swath of America racist. Forgive me. I leave it to others to use that word if it is even appropriate. I would suggest that they have been seduced by a false nostalgia that is selective in its presentation. Mr. Bannon and his ilk suggest that they are hearkening back to better times when things were the way they were (here’s the important word) originally supposed to be.
This notion that the way I remember the good things in my life is the way they were meant to be is natural for human beings, but it isn’t accurate. Unlike the academics and legal scholars who try to figure out the original intention of a document or law (which in and of itself is only part of any consideration), the purveyors of false nostalgia are inherently dishonest. There is no identifiable starting point for society or culture, and values and practices have always been in flux. When President Eisenhower was a little white Christian boy in the heartland, he never heard the term “military industrial complex,” and if he were alive today (at 126) he wouldn’t recognize the phenomenon he named. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson did not grow up with Ozzie and Harriet as parents, and their son Rick wound up disillusioned and addicted in spite of actually having Ozzie and Harriet as parents.
But, boy, is that false nostalgia seductive.
Which brings us to the verse of the week. Lot (the “he” in the verse) baked for the visitors (“them”) unleavened cakes of bread, commonly known as maztot or matzos. Some of the commentators suggest that he did not wish to keep them waiting for bread to rise, so he provided this sort of crispy flatbread to his reluctant guests. But there is one commentator who reaches a different conclusion. His name is Rabbeinu Asher and he is a deeply honored scholar from 13th-century Spain. In fact, he compiled the code of Jewish law still considered foundational eight centuries later.
Why did Lot serve his visitors matzos? Because, says Rabbeinu Asher, it was Passover.
Rabbeinu Asher did not have a screw loose; he believed that the holidays he loved and celebrated in Toledo in 1237 were the same ones our people had always celebrated, and in the same way. You don’t have to be an historian of religion to know he is wrong; the Bible itself tells us that Passover commemorates events that happened hundreds of years after Lot was dead. Reading current practice back into history validates who and what you believe about the world.
Deconstruction – clearing away all of those pesky agencies and regulations and appointees who are obscuring the original greatness of America – comes from the same place that presumes Lot conducted a seder in Sodom or Gomorrah. It’s a lovely fantasy, but a fantasy none the less.
So when Mr. Bannon suggests that we want to return to the old times that should not be forgotten, pay no attention. Look away. Look away.