Listening to Leonard Cohen in the Time of Trump
David A. Sylvester
Volume 32, Number 3, Summer 2017
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
This era of Donald Trump and Trumpism has unleashed a wave of physical and emotional violence so venomous that by now, it's clear that this is more a form of spiritual assault than an aberrant political ideology. It contains a lust that won't be satisfied by attacking any particular group of victims because it really seeks to destroy values. Donald Trump himself and those around him seem to delight in smashing the ethical norms and traditions that have historically provided the spiritual foundations for the healthy functioning of civil society. Peter Wehner, a conservative commentator, has accurately summed up this new zeitgeist: "Donald Trump is a transgressive personality. He thrives on creating disorder, in violating rules, in provoking outrage. He is a shock jock."1
For those of us who consider ourselves both spiritual and progressive, or perhaps simply people of good will: How do we respond? What do we do about this transgressive spirit that inspires hate crimes, attacks on mosques and immigrants, and denigrates women?
Certainly, it's essential to take direct political action, such as the Women's March last January and the spontaneous demonstrations at airports to protect the rights of immigrants threatened with an ill-conceived travel ban. And it's also clear that staying spiritually centered is equally important through prayer, meditation, and community spiritual practices at a time of fake news, lies, and the mockery of sacred values.
However, I think there's a more fundamental challenge: How do we combine outer action with inner peace? How do we confront the poisonous spirit of the counter-demonstrators in the streets without becoming poisoned ourselves? How do we respond to haters without hating or to the rageful without becoming enraged? How do we lead by exampleship, by being an example of our values of cooperation, dignity, and respect for all people in our behavior, not just our words? And do we sincerely mean to include the Trumpistas in that phrase, "all people"?
In reflecting on this, I had a surprising insight shortly after the presidential election last November. I went back in a reverie to the 1960s and remembered how the horrors of the Vietnam War made the appearance of everyday normalcy seem ghastly and surreal. How did we maintain our sanity then? What came to me was this: Our musicians saved us—and specifically, our folksingers. Ever since the Depression and civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, the demonstrations, protests, and marches had been accompanied by the songs of Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, the Freedom Singers in the south, Phil Ochs, Mahalia Jackson, the early Bob Dylan and later, in the 1970s, Holly Near. The music maintained a connection to people's spiritual core during the turbulence of protest. In 1963, when Joan Baez led the people at the Civil Rights March in Washington DC in singing "We Shall Overcome," she was not only strengthening their faith and hope but also making a public assertion of victory. Baez, and the tradition of spiritual and socially conscious music, helped us find prayer-in-the-midst-of-action.
This unexpected revelation emerged from my musings when I heard that, as fate would have it, the great prophetic and mystical Leonard Cohen had passed away at the age of 82 during the night before the presidential election. It seems too harsh to say Cohen died, because his mournful, meditative incantations seemed to presage his passing for years. Compared to the depth and beauty of his sensibility, his end seemed incongruously mundane. Apparently, he fell during the night of Monday, Nov. 7, went back to bed and drifted off into what his manager called a "sudden, unexpected and peaceful" death.2
Compared to the more political folksingers, Cohen was different. There was no mistaking the message of songs like Phil Ochs's "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'." Instead, Cohen sang from a quieter angst. He sounded as if he knew what it felt like to stop marching entirely and to struggle against old patterns of living in...