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The Republican Convention of 1880

In ages past, national political conventions lay at the heart of how American political parties selected candidates.  This made for strange and fascinating stories, such as the tale of the Republican convention of 1880 when the delegates met in gilded age Chicago and cast their ballots 36 times before finally settling on a presidential candidate, James Garfield, who wasn’t even running for the presidency!  Yet, during the progressive era, the right to select candidates was wrestled out of the hands of shadowy party grandees and handed over to rank-and-file party voters.  In turn, the political conventions stopped being real political contests and became vast kabuki-style infomercials (albeit meaningful ones, where the parties try out new messages and launch the careers of aspirant national leaders).  For viewers at home, the net result of all of this was dreadful tv!  All of the political conventions I watched during the eighties, nineties, aughts, and teens were turgid set-pieces with lots of talking heads shouting soundbites to enormous halls filled with screaming followers.  It makes my head hurt to just think about these things, and I am sure if you start reminiscing about Joe Paterno, “swiftboating,” Gary Hart, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, the Astros being thrown out of their own stadium (snicker),  Governor Ann Richards, etc…etc…ad nauseum, you too will start to be overcome by despair at the benighted human condition.

This year, however, the Covid-19 global pandemic has forced some much needed changes on America’s worn-out political conventions!  What I have seen so far from the Republican convention has not been encouraging (unless you are a cannibal lizard person or a devout believer in the same), but last week’s Democratic convention had a wholesome charm which was a tonic in this fragmented and frightened era.  Structural differences in the two parties generally do not favor the Democratic convention.  Because of their big tent , it is easy for endless smaller issues to drag the event in too many directions to easily comprehend a larger theme. This year though, all individual grievances were subsumed into an overarching theme of grief and of how the nation can overcome and allay the disasters and follies of the past few years.  This involved hearing from more actual workaday Americans than in any convention I can recall.   There were small farmers talking about losing their livelihoods, children mourning their plague-stricken parents, and victims of gun violence. George Floyd’s brother spoke with steady eloquence about his dead brother’s gentle spirit.

There were also pointless celebrities like the annoying Julia Louis-Dreyfus Hall, but there is no need to dwell on them.  Celebrities have ruined enough things in America.  If we can drive them away from politics, it will be a huge relief (although I doubt it will happen).

The best part of the convention, unexpectedly, was the role call of delegates pledging their votes to the candidates.  This involved little clips of lots of local figures and local, um, locations, and it was a delight to see so much of the country and its inhabitants for a change (as opposed to the red, white, & blue bunting, confetti, makeup and lies which are the fabric of most conventions).

Among the 2020 delegates, Khizr Khan was back–older and with one drooping eye–but with the same fierce pride in the United States of America, and radiating the same righteous anger at those who would threaten or abuse our beloved Constitution.

kz

Also compelling was the Rhode Island delegation.  There was a standard leader of some sort pledging his support to Biden, but next to him was a masked calamari chef!  The culinary ninja just stood there silently with a huge glistening tray of fried squid. His physical presence radiated power, and his golden brown seafood banquet certainly won my heart (did you know Rhode island was famous for squid?) Ferrebeekeeper has fantasized about mollusks being the highlight of a political convention, but I never thought it would really happen…

rhode-island-dnc-roll-call-DNC

I am not sure if the convention was satisfying to hardcore political junkies. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and the Obamas all made fine presentations (Bernie talked to us from the woodshed where he maybe wants to take some obtuse Americans), however none of these speeches were really about the granular details of policy or political competition.  That is fine with me.  I think the Democrats were wise to try to make emotional inroads into the unsettled hearts of Americans who are seeking a better life for themselves and their family.  We already know that Biden and his allies have ample experience of public policy and legislating.  We need to see that they care about the whole nation (as opposed to one particular group).

At the end of the event, Joe Biden gave his best speech so far: a homespun but competent and compelling oration which made him seem like what he is: a lifelong public servant who cares about Americans of all sorts.  He said he was willing to work with opponents to get things done for the nation as a whole. I believed him.  There was no balloon drop, but even the awkward final moment of the convention had a certain earnest charm: Biden and Harris clearly wanted to hug each other, but were constrained by social distancing guidelines. Instead of embracing and mingling with their families, they put on masks and stood there awkwardly before heading out into the parking lot to watch some fireworks.   We all know exactly how they feel.

All of which is to say, I liked the Democratic Convention more than any convention I have seen so far.  Although it did not address lots of points of policy with exacting detail, it did not need to.  There is time for such things during the campaign, and anyway, let’s face it, the fact that Joe Biden will not flout the law or sell out our national interest to Vladimir Putin or some murderous Saudi Prince has already won my vote (although I believe there are many actual policy choices which Biden pursues which will be beneficial to all Americans). Plus he will actually show up and do the job!  Although there were plenty of less-than-polished moments in terms of the new format, the convention radiated decency, competence, and compassion.  Obviously we will talk more about the election this autumn, but the Democratic Convention has already surpassed my expectations. It made me feel better.  When was the last time you could say that about a political event?

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Today is world snake day: maybe you should run out and do something nice for our scaly limbless friends (though don’t hug them—they don’t like that)! Sadly though, many people do not appreciate snakes. Not only are serpents taboo in the Abrahamic faiths (since, according to the creation myth, a snake convinced the original people to disobey the creator deity for the first time), humankind also seems to have an instinctual inbred panic reaction to them. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leftover from when our just-out-of-the-trees ancestors shared East Africa with a bevy of aggressive venomous snakes like the formidable black mamba (or whatever the mamba’s just-out-of-the-trees ancestor was). This human antipathy towards the Ophidia is a shame. Not only are snakes inimical to the rodents and bugs which spell true problems for modern agricultural humans, they are critical to most non-pelagic, non-Arctic ecosystems in numerous ways. Additionally, snakes are very beautiful. They are more colorful than most other creatures and they have a hypnotic sculptural beauty all their own. Just look at the lovely art photo by  Guido Mocafico at the top of the page.

 

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Other ancient religions were not as opposed to snakes as the Canaanites and Israelites (who, were, after all, herding people who lived in a dust colored-desert filled with poisonous dust-colored reptiles). Hindus respect the powerful nagas and worship Vasuki, the cobra-king of all snakes. Buddha was sheltered by a hooded cobra. The Chinese creation myth centers on Nüwa, the serpent-goddess who first gave life to animals and humans. In ancient Greece, snakes represented the secrets of the underworld, the healing power of medicine, and the foresight of divine augury. The pre-Greek Cretan culture worshiped a sinuous bare-breasted snake goddess who held a serpent in each hand as she danced. Sadly we know little about this compelling deity other than what is revealed by sculpture.

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Going back even farther, the oldest written story humankind currently possesses features a snake as a villain: after all of his trials, Gilgamesh loses the herb of immortality when it is stolen by a water snake. People from the Fertile Crescent really seem to dislike snakes…although that presumes that the Biblical serpent actually was the villain. Maybe the snake was the real hero of Genesis (after all, it is never demonstrated that the tree of knowledge does not perform as advertised). Don’t we long to become as Gods? Isn’t wisdom our greatest collective treasure? What is so great about obedience? After all, did we really want to live forever as naked childlike near-beasts? Perhaps the snake is a pivotal figure in imagining our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural folk–which is to say from nature to civilization.

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

If the snake does represent our coming of age it is ironic: the majority of city-dwelling modern humans probably never see wild snakes in our monstrous concrete cities. This strikes me as a shame. For good or for ill, there really is something sacred about the snake.

Honduran Milksnake

Honduran Milksnake

Although everyone is familiar with the dragon and the phoenix, there are many other fantastical creatures in the Chinese mythological bestiary.  The Quilin or Ch’i-lin (AKA the “Chinese unicorn”) was believed to be indigenous to the realms of heaven.  Seldom seen on earth because of its goodness, purity and nobility, the appearance of a quilin before mortal eyes heralded prodigious good fortune.  Quilins reputedly only visit earth to presage the birth of the greatest sages and rulers or to signal the advent of a prodigious leap forward.

Like many other mythical animals, the quilin is a wild hybridization of other creatures: it traditionally has a wolf’s head with a single horn (although sometimes it is portrayed with antlers), a multicolored deer’s body covered with fish scales, the hooves of a horse, and the tail of an ox.  Its voice sounds like lovely bells.  The quilin is most notable for its gentleness and kindness.  It refuses to harm any living thing and it does not even bend the grass when it walks.  Nevertheless, the quilin could be ferocious in its defense of the righteous or innocent and it is sometimes shown covered in magical flames.  Genghis Khan is said to have witnessed a quilin just as he was about to conquer India.  Although the creature bowed politely to the great conqueror, its message was clear and Genghis Khan cancelled his plans for subjugating the subcontinent.

It’s a bit unclear how auspicious Genghis Khan was for the world (although he certainly had a magnificent run of good fortune after seeing the quilin). Some other supposed quilin sightings make more sense.  A quilin is said to have appeared to the yellow emperor, a legendary wizard-monarch who unified China under one throne in 2697 (that we have an exact date for a fictional person is a fun eccentricity of Chinese history).  The quilin emerged from the water of the yellow river bearing a pictogram of China which the yellow emperor used to fashion Chinese writing.

Buddhists call it the dragon horse and revere it for the belief that it carries Buddha’s book of law on its back.  Confucianists believe a quilin appeared to the sage’s mother just before he was born and spoke a line of holy prophecy to her.  Under the command of the eunuch Zheng He, the treasure fleet of the Yongle Emperor visited the east coast of Africa and was presented with a giraffe.  The animal fit the description of a quilin fairly closely and was brought before the Yongle Emperor as such.  He dismissed the possibility by wryly saying he was no sage–however he treasured the giraffe and kept the creature in his bestiary.

The Giraffe as painted by artists of the Ming Court

I’m afraid there haven’t been many quilin sightings reported recently.  Some religiously-minded Chinese devout believe that this is because the world has become entirely debased (although even for fictional creatures, quilins have always been rare).  Perhaps a quilin is ready to appear again in some unlikely place to some wise soul and the world will lurch forward into a new golden era.  At any rate, here is a good picture of the creature.  Hopefully just looking at the likeness of the quilin will bring you the greatest of good fortune!

The Quilin

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