Reading Homer in Manhattan

So, let’s stroll through the classics. The wiliest of men, the heroic if somewhat sneaky great warrior Odysseus, who has every symbolic great adventure that a man can have, is on his way home from that war in Troy over that Helen woman or whatever, and having a rough time of it. At home, on Ithaca, his still gorgeous wife has been putting off a large assembly of suitors for years – each wants her and wants the land and goods, and Odysseus had been gone for so many years he must be dead, so they’re hardly worried about him. Odysseus’ son, Telemachus – an infant when Odysseus went off to war – is now in his late teens and in no position to deal with the rude and crude suitors. And Odysseus is worried about all this. And he keeps getting stuck in one place or another – heck, that Cyclops fellow tries to eat him and his men, and Circe turns his men in pigs and almost does the same to our hero, there are the Sirens singing on the rocks and so on and so forth. It’s just one thing after another. It hardly seems fair, even if it is exciting, and Odysseus does wonder what it all means.

And he visits the underworld to talk to the ghosts of the dead about that. It seems like a good idea at the time. So he asks what will happen to him. He’s always done the right thing, even the heroic thing, and yes, he has offended the gods by being a bit too uppity, but he fought the good fight and had amazing adventures – and he’s working on that thing with the gods, as a man has to do what a man has to do and maybe he can smooth things out with them. So what will happen to him?

They’re not much help. It seems death is rather boring. His own mother doesn’t recommend it. They are all shades there, after all. They have nothing but time and vague memories. And the dead tell him not to get his hopes up about that business with the Elysian Fields, where honored warriors end up. It’s not that great. They all tell him to work on his life – decide what matters and do the honest and honorable thing and enjoy it while you can. It’ll be over soon enough.

But the curious message about what matters and what will happen comes from the ghost of Teiresias. It is that advice to Odysseus about the winnowing fan that Homer recounts in The Odyssey, Book XI, 134-156 –

But once you have killed those suitors in your halls – by stealth or in open fight with slashing bronze – go forth once more, you must… carry your well-planed oar until you come to a race of people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign – unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grains, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon – a ram, a bull, and a ramping wild boar – then journey home and render noble offerings up to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies, to all the gods in order. And at last your own death will steal upon you… a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all your people there in blessed peace around you. All that I have told you will come true.

Okay, a winnowing fan is what you use to toss your harvest in the air – the breeze will separate the wheat from the chaff. Keep tossing and all afternoon the fat and ripe grain will fall at your feet and the breeze will carry off the straw to nowhere in particular. It’s a symbol here of course – sooner or later Odysseus will realize the tool of his trade, that fancy oar over his shoulder, like the bronze sword and the fast ship, is not a useful tool for life. Someone will finally point out that an oar makes a bad winnowing fan, and he really has to be kidding. You want to separate the wheat from the chaff – what matters from what doesn’t matter, sense from nonsense – with that thing? In short, the tools of conflict and its resolution, of justice and revenge and righteousness and heroism and all that stuff, don’t resolve anything or bring you peace. Give it up and all will be well. Teiresias tells him that’s how it works. Someone will laugh at his oar.

It’s a kind of cool tale, but perhaps Homer, in whatever translation, is too obscure. High school isn’t what it used to be. And agriculture has changed – giant machines mow the plains and the wheat kernels shoot out into the hopper and the straw is compacted into neat bales that drop out the back in rows. There are no more winnowing fans. The symbol is dead.

But the principle isn’t dead. Intense conflict and high adventure is no way to separate what matters from what doesn’t matter, to separate sense from nonsense. It’s just exciting. And sooner or later someone will look at that oar on your shoulder and tell you it looks pretty damned useless. Or maybe it’s that chip on your shoulder.

And this is the summer America decided the issue of all issues is the Ground Zero Mosque, which isn’t a mosque and isn’t at Ground Zero. It’s just exciting.

But someone is asking about that oar on the shoulder. Jonathan Bernstein says here that the whole controversy doesn’t matter – it won’t affect any elections this year and certainly won’t affect the presidential election in 2012 and will be rapidly forgotten – nothing substantive or even symbolic will come of it:

I hate to say things are simply just plain not important, but it’s a stretch to find anything whatsoever of any importance on this one. Sure, some people are saying bigoted things… that’s too bad, and yeah, they should be called on it I suppose, but that doesn’t make this specific controversy news.

Passage and implementation of health care reform is important. Unemployment is important. Climate and energy is important. Iraq and Afghanistan are important. Torture, detention, secrecy, and the rule of law are important. Supreme Court Justices are important. The Fed is important. Keep going, and you get things like the small business bill, and higher education loans, and Somalia, and the nuclear arms treaty, and the military reforms Gates is working on, and lower court appointments, and whether Obama is administering federal agencies very well, and eventually you get down to really minor stuff such as (in my opinion at least) the campaign finance bill that the Dems are pushing, then tunnel deeper and deeper and you’re still not going to get to this one. …

I’m sorry to be a stick in the mud about it, but it just isn’t actually a big story no matter how much it gets hyped. Okay?

As a tool to separate what matters from what doesn’t matter – to separate sense from nonsense – it kind of sucks. And the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is agrees:

… at this point, we’re only partially talking about the mosque, or the community center, or whatever it is that’s going to be built in downtown New York. Rather the two parties are really just talking about each other, and how much they don’t like one another.

This is what it is:

As it happened, a few opportunists went after it, which brought it to the attention of a few sensationalistic media outlets, and then some opportunistic politicians jumped on board, and then their colleagues felt compelled to comment, and then more legitimate media outlets had something to cover, and on and on. The story is a story because of the incentives of the people making it a story, not because there’s something about an Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero that just screams out for national attention.

Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself why you’ve never heard anyone complain about the halal food carts parked outside the Ground Zero construction site. This didn’t need to become a polarizing national issue. It was made into a polarizing national issue. And now the only thing to do is to wait for it to pass.

Andrew Sprung doesn’t buy it:

I think the Republicans completely repudiating Bush’s efforts to differentiate Islam from Islamism is significant. I think Palin’s success in bringing another poisonous meme to the eruption point is significant. I think that waves of hysterical demagoguery that hit fever pitch are significant. And I think that, as with torture, when it comes to defense of civil liberties leaders have to be better than the rest of us, because majorities will sell those liberties without a twitch for a modicum of relief from rage or fear. When one of our two major parties goes all out, demonizing an entire religion and works assiduously to interfere with a local government’s approval of a religious institution to be built on private property, that’s dangerous.

Bernstein responds to that:

I’m not saying that anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t important; I absolutely think it is. I guess I don’t see this particular kerfuffle as nearly as much of a turning point, or whatever, as some of you do. I don’t know… Yes, George W. Bush said some good things about tolerance and all in 2001-2002, but I think that there was quite a bit of bigoted stuff coming from the usual suspects even back then, and certainly by mid-decade. Muslims became a solid Dem voting block by 2006, maybe by 2004 (but not in 2000), in large part because one party (Bush notwithstanding) was far more likely to use conflate Islam and terrorism a whole lot more than the other was. Someone can check my memory on that, but at any rate, I just don’t see this event as looming very large within the general story of civil rights and civil liberties. I mean, we’ve basically had conservatives saying for the last couple of years that all Muslims should be tortured and that American Muslims shouldn’t have any Constitutional protections within the criminal justice system; is this really a significant step after that?

This is why those of us who used to be teachers, making those fifteen-year-olds plow through the Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey way back when, think of the winnowing fan. This controversy is an oar, not a winnowing fan.

But the Bush thing is interesting, and Peter Beinart discusses that here:

So almost nine years after September 11, we need to confront a few painful truths. First, while the military and counterintelligence aspects of the struggle against al Qaeda will likely last long into the future, the “war of ideas” is over. America has thrown in the towel.

That’s the contention, and here’s the argument:

Remember when George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies used to say that the “war on terror” was a struggle on behalf of Muslims, decent folks who wanted nothing more than to live free like you and me? Remember when Karen Hughes paid millions to produce glitzy videos of Muslim Americans testifying about how free they were to practice their religion in the USA? Remember Bush’s second inaugural, when he said “America’s ideal of freedom” is “sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran?”

Once upon a time, Republicans were so confident that the vast majority of Muslims preferred freedom to jihad that they believed the U.S. could install democracy in Iraq within months. Now, confronted with a group of Muslim Americans who want to build a cultural center that includes Jews and Christians on the board (how many churches and synagogues do that?), GOP leaders call them terrorists because they don’t share Benjamin Netanyahu’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Once upon a time, the “war on terror” was supposed to bring American values to Saudi Arabia. Now Newt Gingrich says we shouldn’t build a mosque in Lower Manhattan until the Saudis build churches and synagogues in Mecca – which is to say, we’re bringing Saudi values to the United States. I wonder how David Petraeus feels about all this. There he is, slogging away in the Hindu Kush, desperately trying to be culturally sensitive, watching GIs get killed because Afghans believe the U.S. is waging a war on Islam, and back home, the super-patriots on Fox News have… declared war on Islam.

So some wheat has been separated from some sort of chaff. We just kept the chaff, the straw, and that puts Beinart in an odd spot, writing words he never thought he’d ever write:

I pine for George W. Bush. Whatever his flaws, the man respected religion, all religion. Maybe it was because he had been an addict himself, and knew from hanging around prisons that Allah had saved as many broken souls as Jesus Christ. Until a month or so ago, I genuinely believed that the American right had become a religiously ecumenical place. Right-wing Baptists loved right-wing Catholics and they both loved right-wing Orthodox Jews. All you had to do to join the big tent was denounce feminists, Hollywood, and gays. But when push came to shove, Sarah Palin didn’t care about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s position on gay marriage. In today’s GOP, even bigotry doesn’t spare you from bigotry. I wonder what Mitt Romney was thinking, as he added his voice to the anti-Muslim chorus. He surely knows that absent the religious right’s hostility to Mormons, he’d likely have been the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee. I look forward to his paeans to religious freedom when anti-Mormonism rears its head again in 2012.

Yep, we kept the straw, and Beinart adds this:

And oh yes, my fellow Jews, who are so thrilled to be locked arm in arm with the heirs of Pat Robertson and Father Coughlin against the Islamic threat. Evidently, it’s never crossed your mind that the religious hatred you have helped unleash could turn once again against us. Of course not, we’re insiders in this society now: Our synagogues grace the toniest of suburbs; our rabbis speak flawless English; we Jews are now effortlessly white. Barely anyone even remembers that folks in Lower Manhattan once considered us alien and dangerous, too.

Ouch. Note – the controversy is an oar, not a winnowing fan, and use the wrong tool and you end up with a face-full of straw.

In fact, Brad Reed argues that reigniting the Crusades is probably a bad idea and cites Christopher Preble at the Cato Institute suggesting that starting a war against all Muslims might not be in our national interest:

This strategy, exploiting still-raw emotion and implicitly demonizing Muslims, threatens to trade short-term political gain for medium-term political harm to the party. And it most certainly will translate into long-term harm for the country at large.

Opposing the construction of a mosque near the Ground Zero site plays into al Qaeda’s narrative that the United States is engaged in a war with Islam, that bin Laden and his tiny band of followers represent something more than a pitiful group of murderers and thugs, and that all American Muslims are an incipient Fifth Column that must be either converted to Christianity or driven out of the country, else they will undermine American society from within.

Well, there is that, and Reed adds this:

Indeed, from a sane person’s point of view the desire to declare more than a billion people around the world to be your sworn enemies seems to be somewhat unwise. There is a perfectly rational counterpoint to this, however: If we let the Muslims build their mosques, they will giggle at the size of our pathetic white penises.

And he notes Sam Harris logically outlines this view:

The erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory – and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.


Y’hear that, America? They’re gonna erect something big and long right in the middle of your bosom. Are you gonna stand fer that?

Yes, that is absurdly sexual – but it kind of fits. Use the wrong tool to separate what is important from what is not and all sorts of odd things happen. Or maybe you get to some underlying truth.

But there is Newt Gingrich:

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

Submission? Reed adds this:

That’s right! Newt’s sick and tired of submissively bending over for the Muslims! He at least demands that the Saudis give us a reach around first!

And then Reed slows down:

If millions of Muslims around the world are actually anticipating a mosque being built in the same neighborhood as a Lower Manhattan strip club so that they can laugh and call us girly-men, then they really need to get lives. I mean guys, seriously. I don’t sit fixated to my television waiting to see a report of a new McDonald’s getting built near Mecca. There are better uses of my time.

Of course there’s the Tweet of the Week – “In fairness, we’ve been building Ground Zeros near Iraqi mosques since 2003.”

Reed ends with this:

Some folks need to relax about this stuff. The construction of a single building does not mean the nationwide implementation of Sharia Law. History teaches us that bad things tend to happen when one ethnic group or nationality decides that another ethnic group or nationality is a monolithic, insidious horde hell-bent on weakening its traditions and national character from within through both overt and covert means.

And there is this:

Last night’s segment on Park51 on “The Daily Show” featured some pretty brilliant insights, most notably Glenn Beck trashing Feisal Abdul Rauf for making nearly identical remarks to Glenn Beck’s own on-air commentary. But of particular interest was the discussion between Jon Stewart and John Oliver about the conservative drive to conflate terrorists with all Muslims, even Muslim Americans.

Oliver offered a tongue-in-cheek summary of the right-wing line: “What Newt Gingrich is trying to say is that Islam, like every religion, has to be responsible for its biggest assholes.”

When Stewart asked why faith traditions have to “bend to people’s worst suspicions about them,” Oliver replied: “Because there is a difference between what you can do, and what you should do. For instance, you can build a Catholic Church next to a playground. Should you? Or am I alone in thinking it’s a little too soon for that?”

When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grains, and an odd one at that, stop, shove it in the ground and give up your foolishness. And there was Odysseus’ visit with the dead and the chats about what really mattered. It wasn’t heroic fame in the afterlife. It was living in the here and now, as best you could, and separating the sense from the nonsense. Heroics are nice and all, but so is fresh-baked bread. The rest is just straw.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in American Xenophobia, Ground Zero Mosque, Political Manipulation of National Anxiety, Political Posturing, Religion and Politics, Religious Intolerance and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Reading Homer in Manhattan

  1. Joyce says:

    I thought I’d already read enough about the Mosque that isn’t a Mosque, which is not really being built at Ground Zero, but, I am so glad you wrote this essay today! Yes, the story of Odysseus and the winnowing fan is absolutely apt (and brought back memories of my college years, reading Homer in Greek, reading the Fitzgerald and Richmond Lattimore translations to see how badly I had translated the same passages), and yes, the Jon Stewart segment was brilliant. I am sharing this essay with my e-mail list – thank you, yet again, for stating it so well.

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