According to an article on Salon.com, Roy Moore still hasn’t conceded the race and is angrily pumping his base for contributions. He has now raised another bogus issue: voter fraud, and is insisting on a recount. If this truly infantile behavior is worth noting, it’s because what’s happening in Alabama is similar to what is happening in the USA: Lies, distortions and conspiracy rhetoric are wasting people’s time and energy, and the tax payer’s money, casting a shadow on serious and real issues, and generally degrading democracy and its processes.
There is nothing surprising here. Moore was sure he could win, even with the strong allegations (from nine different women) of impropriety towards young girls: Deep red Alabama was willing to overlook this “minor” stuff – no pun intended – and go with their evangelical blusterer. And business being business, Moore is now trying to make the best of it. The number of absentee ballots can never make up for the missing votes, so the least he can do is see that the dollars and cents stack up in his favor. What caught my eye in this story is the following paragraph:
“The Confederate-sympathizing Republican claimed that he was “in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization and our religion.”
“Today, we no longer recognize the universal truth that God is the author of our life and liberty,” Moore said. “Abortion, sodomy and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
There’s a great deal to deconstruct in these Moorish quotes, trite as they may sound, notably all those lofty words like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
First and foremost, as a run-of-the-mill conspiracist, Moore reframes what is a simple case of losing an election in ever greater contexts. It used to be about Moore and his bizarre and graphic concerns about gay sex (why he thinks about it so much is a mystery, but it would square with his leaning towards the young and inexperienced). Then it was Alabama. Now it’s about civilization itself. Soon, I guess, the galaxy will be somehow threatened.
That people still fall for this stuff is remarkable. I’m all for the simple life, but that does not mean one has to give up thinking altogether. Doesn’t the USA have a very good system of public libraries? Even the Internet, if searched properly, can reveal a few good nuggets of information buried in the alluvium of tripe and nonsense.
Second: There appears to be a glaring contradiction between Moore’s blustery talk of “liberty” and his storming against materialism and sodomy. Abortion is essentially a health issue, any moral aspects are simply too complex to debate here, but they, too, are personal, like the other two targets of Moore-ish ire. All of these issues are essentially personal and require benevolent protection.
Finally, there is this: The one Moore bugaboo that really stands out is materialism. We have to assume that for him, materialism simply means the adoration of material things, like money and consumer goods, instead of some unilateral focus on divine revelations and the collected wisdoms of Roy Moore. But is the acquisition of worldly goods not an integral part of the American experience? Do US citizens strive to live under a bridge, sleep on cardboard, and heal their raspberries with rancid bacon fat from the McDonald’s dumpster? What is Merry Christmas without a rush to spend, or Thanksgiving without a Black Friday and Cyber-Monday? Buying stuff is part and parcel of the American experience, it is the ultimate proof of some manifest destiny. I buy, therefore God smiled upon me. The entire tax bill, which Roy Moore supports, no doubt, is based on the idea of putting money in people’s pockets, allegedly.
Going a little farther down this road, let us remember that materialism is in reality a philosophy with ancient roots. Basically, it states that life and all existence we perceive is material, which, to simplify, could mean three dimensional. This simplistic reduction becomes far more complex if we account for quantum mechanics, perhaps. But for the purpose of Mr. Moore and his base, it probably suffices. And according to him, focus on the material is sinful. Because it is not “spiritual,” one can only guess.
Here’s the problem. Moore is a fundamentalist, in that he demands that his flock take every word of the Bible to be true as written, no interpretation allowed, no doubt either. You believe it, because it’s there. The word of God needs no salt and pepper, just a lot of rhetorical tabasco, needs no unpacking and preparation. This means two things. First, he and his flock have to seriously cherry-pick the holy book in order to explain his visceral (or profit-oriented) antagonism to anyone and anything that fails to pass the bar of his many prejudices. Secondly, in rejecting any interpretation of the Bible, he and his apostles are in fact performing a highly materialistic act. They are treating words and concepts as reality. And they do this, I suspect, because any form of interpretation or questioning of the Good Book would, in fact, bring their latent doubt about their faith to boiling point and collapse their belief system. So they tend to double down and stay in a small, musty bubble.
When New York Journal illustrator Frederick Remington contacted his boss, William Randolph Hearst, from Cuba in 1897, it was to inform him, that the insurrection against the Spanish colonial overlords was simply nothing to write home about. “You furnish the pictures,” Hearst telegrammed back, famously, I should add, “I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst, who made his fortune with what used to be called “yellow journalism,” went on to hype up a non-conflict, inflaming public opinion with reports on an American citizen imprisoned by the Spanish authorities and of a female rebel being strip-searched. He went on to lay blame for the sinking of the Maine at the doorstep of the Spaniards, and thereby got what he really wanted: yuuuuge circulation numbers plus the bloody Spanish-American war that further pumped his newspaper’s revenues. Wars are money makers.
Hearst hadn’t spread entirely fake news, but it wasn’t real, either.
Things haven’t changed much since then, it seems. The medium can massage the public into believing some patently absurd stuff. Case in point: A “war” that has been raging for some time now, one made up almost entirely of whole cloth. The conflict in question is just one large and noisy front in a mostly bogus “culture war” that became especially heated as soon as Barack Obama became president in 2008. If you are wondering why, really: It was a skin-deep issue.
I’m talking, of course, of the “War on Christmas.” It is one of those ridiculous non-issues that a cohort of flimflammers on Fox News and points right on the media map ramble on about to the derision of late-night hosts and to the amazement of the millions who say merry Christmas and decorate Christmas trees without being hauled off to some atheistic torture chamber to be beaten to a pulp with tomes by Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, with a few volumes of Nietzsche thrown in for good measure.
President Trump of late has been making a great deal of hay out of this fake war, tweeting, notoriously this on Christmas Eve:
Great. So he won a non-existent war. And he is proud of it. And his base jumps up and down and hollers “We won,” and starts throwing insults at non-existent enemies of their Merry Christmas wishes. Booster Mike Huckabee, a leading officer in the cult of fatuous ignorance, went so far as to compare Trump to Churchill, I guess for his verbal gesticulations during this non-conflict. Winston Churchill, why not Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Patton, or even Erwin Rommel…. It’s all for The Base (Al Qaeda in Arabic), and it tends to swallow this kind of agitprop hook, line, and sinker: Obama is taking their guns, was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, millions of illegal voters, microwave ovens spying, child porn rings run out of the basement of a cellar-less pizza parlor, and so on. Let us not dwell too long on this utter bilge coming from this ersatz president.
More seriously, we are truly in an Orwellian mind warp, since the alleged war is in fact non-existent, but focuses the attention of so many people, apparently. On December 25, 2017, the Washington Postreported on Linden, TN, where saying Merry Christmas and writing it on any free surface has been elevated to a deeply religious and revolutionary act. Is this for real? Poor Tennessee. 93 years after the embarrassment of the Scopes trial, it is still wallowing in some self-aggrandizing self-stigmatization, a deeply satisfying feeling of finally being recognized for having always accepted the dirty end of the stick, a notion that is spread mostly by their own chosen and much-hailed leaders.
Trump hopped aboard the War on Xmas boat for political gain, of course. Most people realize that the man’s interest in spiritual issues or religion itself is near zero, though I would be loath to judge from a distance. His entire career smells oddly of materialism, of gain by stealth, of master bamboozler, though he might at heart be very pious. That, at any rate, is what some evangelicals are willing to believe, in order to be able to support him. But New Yorkers know him well, so he turned his
attention to nice people in rural USA (and I mean “nice” without ANY irony, believe me). If Trump has any religious/spiritual impulse, it is probably more Borgia than Cotton Mather. As the Washington Post put it: “During the general election, about 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, even though he rarely attends church and is a cursing, thrice-married former reality television star from Manhattan who has been publicly accused by 13 women of kissing or groping them without their consent.”
Let it be said loud and clear and once and for all: There is no war on Christmas in the USA. In countries that are not under Christian sway, there are restrictions, or prohibitions (Brunei and Somalia come to mind). But in our thriving consumer-democracies, the answer is a clear NO. If people have been saying happy holidays, or season’s greetings, or something other than Merry Christmas, it has been mostly to be more inclusive of those who do not have Christmas in their cultural baggage, and that might even include themselves. Moreover, Happy Holidays is, after all, just a euphemism of sorts, a little like calling the toilet a bathroom, or powder room. Whichever way one looks, Christmas is always there in word and deed, in the form of Christmas trees, or houses decorated with angels and reindeers and (mostly white) Santa Clauses, bumper stickers, shop windows… all patriotically burning up electrical power.
But the fake warriors in this fake war have managed to blow this fake issue out of proportion by repeatedly screaming it into the ether, and as manure will do when thrown at a wall, some will stick. They are doing this for one reason only: To keep up the outrage ratings, which translate into advertising dollars. If you haven’t picked up on this yet, it’s time to get real.
The down side is that they are trying to reframe the separation of church and state as some kind of punishment for religious groups. In the process, these hollering heads have also made religion a highly political issue, when in fact it should be very private, especially in these multicultural days. This, in turn, has leavened the outrage already fermenting in the minds of their captive audience, people who feel permanently threatened by the shifting mores of a world that has exploded many old-fashioned notions of what makes up a society. In the above-mentioned Post article, one man is quoted as saying the following bit of styrofoam wisdom: “The government, I think, is trying to oppress Christianity with some of the policies that they come up with. They’re trying to oppress it, force people out of what they believe in.”
This is simply astounding stuff. And the most astounding is that these same people, who, I am sure are really nice, family folk, with jobs and good intentions, are also willing to believe Trump, who is virtually the caricature of a typical city slicker and con-man, a man who’d have been run out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, by the grandparents of today’s vociferous evangelicals..
The War on Christmas commandos, from that painfully obnoxious and oafish Hannity, to the latest bobbing dashboard Barbie, la Lahren, have, to an extent, been ululating against the political correctness extremists, whose tendency towards ornery linguistic fastidiousness can quickly become irritating to anyone trying to speak plainly – as a former radio announcer, yes, I managed to offend some to my left … I think that language has power and we should watch what we say occasionally, it can genuinely offend people. But two wrongs do not make a right, on the contrary, they reinforce each other in a very negative manner. This however is another discussion altogether.
Let me just make note of a few things here. First of all: the real attack on Christmas, in particular as we celebrate it, with massive consumerism, rowdiness and very vocal blessings of everyone, even those who are not interested, is not new. In my recent blogpost about the cardoon here in Geneva, I mentioned in passing the fact that the theocratic government of the city under Calvin – one of the founders of evangelical faith, one could say, and a granddaddy of the Puritans who came to those there United States – prohibited Christmas in the city. It was considered idolatry and far to Roman (Catholic), as it indeed was. Calvin and his successors were not the funnest folk anyway, their view of God was that He (definitely male, definitely white) was a rigid, unforgiving sourpuss, who smites and smote anyone of His creations that were not in His good books.
At any rate, the American Puritans in Massachusetts maintained that tradition during the 17th century. They found Christmas celebrations were too rowdy and fun (there we go again), which interfered with their need for gravity and serious reflection on infant damnation. Furthermore they found no real biblical basis for it. And if anyone knew the Bible, it was those Puritans.
As for the South, with all its intense and very extroverted evangelicalism, it continued to be opposed to the celebration of Christmas for ages. Writing about the Presbyterians (Trump’s alleged spiritual home) after the Civil War in the South, historian Ernest Trice Thompson noted that there was “no recognition of either Christmas or Easter in any of the Protestant churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran. For a full generation after the Civil War the religious journals of the South mentioned Christmas only to observe that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25; it was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church.”
This opposition continues to this day, as theologian and author Kevin Reed points out in his long and fascinating slog through the history of Christmas and the opposition to it. Part of the reason is the fact that the feast is based on “pagan celebrations held in conjunction with the winter solstice,” Reed writes. “Unable to eradicate the heathen celebration of Saturnalia, the Church of Rome, sometime before 336 A.D., designated a Feast of the Nativity to be observed.” So let us join the Vikings in celebrating Yul!
So allow me to quote his conclusion:
“The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation [my emphasis]. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy. A consistent application of Reformed and Presbyterian principles of worship requires the repudiation of Christmas. Answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism forbids “any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself.”
Fe que no duda es fe muerta
All of this should give food for thought. What is religion? What is spirituality? What does Christmas really mean? Why did the Puritans, Evangelicals, revivalists, in short most Protestant denominations, actually speak out against celebrating Christmas, but today they pretend to love it and want to celebrate it. What’s this with the vapid political boasting à la Trump? Do people think that yelling Merry Christmas will deliver brownie points for a trip to heaven? Does it make a real difference? Is this what faith is all about? Or is it just a bit of publicity hounding?
Those who came to the New World over the centuries came for religious freedom among other things. In Europe, many were genuinely persecuted for their beliefs. French Protestants suffered heavily at the hands of the Catholic League, the Thirty Years War left a trail of devastation in Central Europe akin to that left by World War Two. So the founding fathers instituted the separation of Church and State as a means to protect that freedom. Governments do not get in the way of religion, and religions can keep out of sinful political business. There is no “erosion of religious freedoms,” that’s a total myth. In fact, in the USA, anyone, apparently, can get behind a pulpit and, abandoning self-respect and given a few improv lessons, can seduce people into sending them money for spiritual perks, including a right to rapture. That’s just the business, and the old saying caveat emptor applies. And it applies to any spiritual direction. Just look at men like Pat Robertson, Young Falwell, Osteen, Hagee, Paula White… the list goes on and on, people who earn some really tall paper praising the Lord and passing around the collection bucket.
Alas, freedom of speech does permit anyone else to get behind a microphone or keyboard, or in front of a camera, and point out the contradictions in your thinking about religion, or politics, or even your choice of jeans and Christmas decoration. It’s a fact of life in a democracy. And I agree: It should be done politely, and the snarkiness of our debates these days has become extremely irritating. But as the Unamuno quote I used as a subhead suggests, doubt is sometimes a good way to keep faith alive. If your faith is threatened by someone saying Happy Holidays, or Season’s Greetings, then I’d revise the faith, not start hurling insults at “Democrats” or “Liberals” or “Communists” or “Muslims.” With a little questioning, the USA might have avoided falling into the hands of an extremely transparent con man.
Over the years I have avoided wading into politics too deeply. History, my favorite topic, is long and painstaking, but it is a patient art in many ways. Looking back on events gives some perspectives on the present, it tends to relativize things, and it also, ironically, takes time. Daily events may seem new and exciting when pundits are rudely and crudely hollering at each other on-screen, but given a different f-stop, they often lose their edge or even relevance. Hence, one of my favorite quotes has always been “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” uttered by French diplomat and temporary Napoleon adviser Talleyrand.
Seeing events as part of a continuum is also curiously satisfying. For years now, I have been writing down my thoughts about politics in a kind of running private political diary. Occasionally, I uploaded (what a word!) a piece or two to a blog platform that no longer exists, so I will have to put them back up on Journos-Blotter… At any rate, whenever a clip or quote or article seemed particularly relevant, I took note. For instance, as the Trump campaign gathered steam last year, I jotted down thoughts that appeared pertinent, like his continuous attacks on the press, on the judiciary, on rivals, and his strange rhetorical assemblies, which are reminiscent of preachers in terms of content and syntax, with unfinished, suggestive sentences, extreme imagery (shooting someone on 5th Avenue), rawness and, most notably, trading of substance for a lot of conspiratorial nonsense. These notes, by the way, are a continuation of notes from earlier election campaigns…
What made the Trump run and makes his subsequent presidency special is the dizzying level and frequency of windy swagger, fake news stories, and pure baloney. In fact, the bullshit (please forgive the rude term: I am using the Harry Frankfurt definition, in short: indifference to truth) came and comes at such a rate that there was and is simply no real time to debunk the stuff, before the next wave starts cresting, leaving the nation as a whole exhausted but deeply unsatisfied, much in the way binge-watching series can leave one titillated, but with the sense of having learned strictly nothing of any importance for your life or the future of the planet.
Some are happy. The MSM always has stuff to report, especially since the White House seems to be very leaky, perhaps by design. Furthermore, these days full-grown adults associated with the administration either as members or surrogates are earning huge salaries to go on television and brazenly lie, obfuscate and invent stuff, and to defend the president’s own lies… It gets very confusing up top. At the other end of the social ladder, during the campaign, you had Trump supporters who were either on the extreme right of the political spectrum (including many Holocaust deniers), dyed-in-the-wool racists, religious extremists, or card-carrying members of the lunatic fringe. I cannot say how many were bots, as I was not that savvy at the time. But one thing is sure: Those people who were “really suffering,” as some condescending journalists like to say, are not feeling any upwind these days, whether they voted for Trump, or not.
Society has a deep neophile streak, of course, and so the general consensus from the talking heads was, and still is, that Trump is something new. And that is what his supporters like. New stuff, disruptive stuff, different stuff. Amazing for people who can go to one Hollywood movie after another and still believe each one is new. Trump is new at the presidential level, true. But as a political and societal phenomenon, he is a standard-issue American wind machine, a blusterous snake-oil salesman, freely mixing Babbitt with Elmer Gantry, some Coughlin with McCarthy. The GOP could have, should have, probably stopped him, but preferred expedience and party first. A wing of the party already tried the lunatic playbook in 2008 with Sarah Palin, who can only be described as a light, female version of Trump. At least she was a genuine provincial, and not such an obvious city-slicker conman. He’s a New Yorker, for crying out loud. In letting Trump through, the GOP played a risky game. The election could have been lost, which would have lt the party dodge a very dangerous bullet. With Trump’s electoral college victory in 2016, the GOP backed itself into a corner they seemed to be trying to escape.
And then came Roy Moore.
What is forcing me in some ways to come out of my opinion closet is the Alabama election. The victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore has been touted as a major upset for Trump and the GOP and especially for Steve Bannon, a swamp creature in his own right. Much of the GOP started moping because of their loss of a Senate seat, but I’d guess a good number of them are breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Having saddled the country with Donald J. Trump (I’ll get to him in a few weeks), they would have had to contend with another loose cannon and publicity hound extraordinaire, this time in the Senate.
Nothing about Roy Moore qualified him for being a senator, really, for almost the same reasons Trump has little business being in the White House. It’s not even his creepy sexual obsessions. “Senator” etymologically suggests age and wisdom combined. Moore is more Disney than Tacitus, a typical fraud who, after years of building up and polishing an image as a kind of latter day Billy Sunday, now actually seems to believe his mind’s eye. He mixes 19th-century Wild West iconography – the horse, the pistol, that corny cowboy hat– and ideas that are fundamentally anti-Enlightenment irrationalism of pre-Revolutionary times. Those are the physical and intellectual (can one use that word here?) props. And they definitely resonate with people for reasons that would require a lot of copy to explain.
Suffice to say, his catechumens have been convinced by radio and TV barkers that they are victims, poor, stigmatized members of a class reviled and mocked by a nasty elite. And there is some truth to that. Comedians from Jon Stewart to Bill Maher have enthusiastically strip-mined what Mencken once called the “Sahara of the Bozart” for material. Ridicule is fun, when you’re not the butt of the joke, but it’s not the best way to engage in a dialog, since the victims will prefer to double down on their core beliefs rather than question and revise them when someone outside their bubble points out the absurdity of their world view (we all know that feeling, I suspect).
Assisting them in that doubling down effort has been the bizarre idea that the Moore-Trump-Bannon-Pence crowd are their liberators from what amounts to a self-imposed plight. The GOP and media outlets like Fox, Breitbart and Co. have been playing to this crowd, feeding it an enormous amount of fake rage and outrage, like the fictitious “War on Christmas.” We’ve all watched that nonsense become mainstream, and suddenly the talking heads (this, by the way is really on both sides of the divide) are saying: “People think,” or “People say…” Naturally, then, when Trump starts ranting about “voter fraud,” or his mouthpiece Conway launches a collective hallucination about microwaves spying on you, a huge group of people is willing to simply disconnect their grey cells and start nodding. The most recent excuse for Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama is that Doug Jones was aided by “Muslims and Marxists.” Moore, at the time of writing, is still fundraising. I.e.: the marks still have some juice in them….
Read that again: Moore is still campaigning. For funds.
The reason why people let themselves be bamboozled like this is complicated. One thread can be found in Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland, an excerpt of which was published in The Atlantic. The ability to think outside the box, to dream stuff up and then live it, is a quality that many associate with the USA. It’s why one occasionally finds people mocking gloom-and-doom Europeans, whose dialectical thinking tends to put a damper on American hyper-enthusiasm … But when imagination becomes fantasy, it can turn into a weakness. The idea that you can be whatever you want is what drives a lot of genuine innovation, but there is a delicate and permeable border between imagination and illusion or delusion.
John F. Kennedy fostered a positive imagination, it was forward-looking, exciting for the huge baby-boomer youth, and let young and old dream of great things. In spite of all his foibles, his uncontrolled gonads, his bellicosity, he made people want to go out, get an education and do great things. His dialectical opposite is Donald J. Trump and men like Roy Moore, who are, alas, increasingly becoming mainstream. They revile education, science, rationalism. They generate that exhausting energy of hatred in people. They divide and try to conquer at least enough rhetorical territory to make some difference, and bring nothing to the communities they rule over, except some feeling of belonging. They lead to ruin.
The Moore candidacy revealed again a society torn apart between the future and the past, between urban progressivism and rural regressivism – what else can one call it? – between multiculturalism and aggressive and proud know-nothingism. America is, let’s face it, fighting the civil war again by other means, with other issues, and the media have their role to play as contributors to the dysfunctional dialogue and perpetrators of the hysteria. Whataboutism and its equally evil twin, false equivalencies, have led to some strange fallacies: Apparently, you have to equivocate the conviction that the earth is flat with the hard work of explorers, astronomers and other scientists since the days of Ptolemy and before. Of course, with the Trump presidency, there are some serious threats to democracy in the USA. Let us not kid ourselves, the man and his tribe, including Moore and the like, are not interested in having a viable and corrective opposition around.
The Democratic victory in Alabama did boost the morale of what is called “the left” in the USA. The hope from the broad swath of Americans who’ve joined the #Resistance is that it might signal a return to a more mainstream and less risky track by providing another necessary opposition voice in the Senate to counter some of the egregious economic goals of the GOP under Trump – let’s leave it at that for the moment. There is also some hope that the Trumpian rhetoric can be toned down, that US foreign policy can be once again.
There is a big caveat, however. First: Jones won by a very narrow margin and thanks to the investigative work of the Washington Post. Moore, in any “normal” or healthy society, should have lost by a massive landslide even without the uncovering of his liking for very young girls*. Norms these days are not what they used to be. This leads to the second point: expectations management. By positioning themselves as more reasonable versions of Trump and downplaying the real impact of the president, GOP candidates still have a good chance going into 2018, which is why they don’t appear terribly worried. The Democrats should note as well, that the GOP has no scruples when it comes to political fights, they will risk the security of the nation if it has to to win. The Democrats must avoid complacency.
Third, the tax bill is being demonized as a gift to the superrich. And it is. But the real scandal there is how it was passed, the process, the fact that the Democrats were shut out. This could become a lose-lose either party, but the Republicans, together with Fox and radio agitprop, have shown they are willing to take serious risks. They’re good at the game and bank heavily on the electorate’s notorious fickleness and inability to remember stuff that happened just a few weeks ago. They are already playing the song “They didn’t want it,” leaving the Democrats very vulnerable to any positive effects from the bill. Moral of the story: Never underestimate an opponent without scruples.
*I’d like to add at this point, that I teach kids in the age range that Moore seems to like them. I try to imagine some thirty-plus religious flake trying to seduce them, and it makes me simply furious. They are CHILDREN, no matter what nature has given them in terms of physical maturity. The idea that one go after them sexually is absolutely shocking and the sign that the man is deeply disturbed and extremely immature. This is corroborated by the fantasies about himself he exhibits publicly.
… a trace of Calvinistic resistance to easy pleasures remains, and it is found on the festive tables amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines. There you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.
A look at a specialty on Geneva’s Yuletide tables.
One cannot help but think that if the Latin influence were not so strong in Geneva, Christmas might not be such a jolly affair in the city. Indeed, when dour and sour Calvin turned the place into a theocracy from about 1541 onward, with his rigid laws and set punishments running all the way to death by burning or drowning, he set a course still felt to this day. Among other things, he made fun and games anathema, and so Genevans had had to find ways to make merry without irritating already naturally irritable ghosts and deities. And his staunch hatred of bling meant that the local jewelers had to find a new way to practice their art: clock-making… But that is not the subject of this post…
Calvin prohibited anything and everything that could be remotely fun. Carnival is not celebrated in Geneva, for example. Calvin even went as far as prohibiting Christmas as a feast of idolatry and for a few hundred years after, the Genevans did not celebrate the Birth of Christ, Prince of Peace…Tell that to the wind machines ranting on about the fake “War-On-Christmas. What the city does have is the somewhat extreme and boisterous annual celebration called “Escalade,” the commemoration of a skirmish between the (Catholic) troops of the Duke of Savoy and the (Protestant) Genevans came right before Christmas 1602 on the Gregorian calendar. It comes along with fancy dress parties and general rejoicing and chocolate cauldron consumption. I have described this otherwise insignificant event outside Geneva in an earlier post.
All this to say: the influence of Calvin is still felt in Geneva. Ultimately, however, the Genevans did goback to celebrating Christmas. The city gears up in November already with wonderful lighting arrangements in the leafless trees, and shopping becomes more frenetic. But on Christmas Eve or Day, on the festive tables, amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines, you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards, like Calvinistic grace, are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.
The item in question is the cardon, in English cardoon, in Latin Cynara cardunculus, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke found occasionally in the wild in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere.
Cardoon character At first glance, it looks like some irksome and resilient weed requiring immediate annihilation. So, as with the olive and several other labor-intensive foods, one must marvel at the first people who figured out that the cardoon is edible and that it has a wonderful artichoke-like flavor with just a hint of bitterness and a fine texture.
It also has history. The Mediterranean people already cultivated it in antiquity. According to lore, it was Protestants from the south of France who brought it to Geneva following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that deprived France’s Huguenots of their religious and civil rights. These families settled in the so-called Plaine de Palais (where the Bastions and National Theater is today) and continued cultivating their cardon, refining over the centuries to make it – guess what – even more thorny (épineux). Today, the “Cardon genevois épineux” is actually the only Swiss vegetable with a protected designation of origin.
The slothful – Catholics, perhaps… no offense – will buy the vegetable already prepared, cut into short segments, and packed into large jars or in vacuum packed bags for up to CHF 15 the kilo. The self-respecting Genevan will purchase it fresh for about CHF 5 per kilo from one of the famed local market-gardeners (maraîchers) at any outdoor market.
You can’t miss it there: imagine a pale yellowish, oversized celery with a thick root. Occasionally they come stuffed in a plastic bag, not very ecological, but it will protect your hands from the thorns.
Taming the wild cardoon From seed to table, the cardoon is all about the sweat on your brow.
A few years ago, Pierre Gallay, a gardener, explained the cultivation procedure to me. It’s sown in May and grows quickly in summer. In autumn, the leaves on each plant are folded up to promote natural bleaching. In November each cardon is then uprooted by hand along with some earth and put into cool cellars where it continues to grow and bleach out without risking frosts.
Geneva produces about 130 tons of cardons per year, according to the Association of Plainpalais Interests. These Genevan heritage enthusiasts also point out in traditional Calvinist style, that with its fibers and low calories, it is the perfect counterpart to the prandial “abuses” of year’s end.
To prepare it, shave off the thorny edges. Then peal the stalks as you would rhubarb or celery, pulling off the stringy ridges and skin. Cut up into inch-size pieces and tenderise overnight in a milk-water mixture. Then boil in salty water (about 30 minutes) with a dash of milk. Dress with cream (yes, but double cream from Gruyère) and pepper, or use the liquid for a béchamel to cover the cardons, sprinkle with Parmesan or Gruyère and bake till the cheese is a little crispy. You are now a step closer to being Genevan.