Posted by <Logan Marrow> on 2021-06-21
I feel like I could’ve started this essay a million ways, and that choosing any one particular string to pick up and follow to the center would only serve to further bewilder the reader when they realize how many threads there are in the tangle. The religious Left... the gradual distancing between the modern conception of Rastafari from its revolutionary origins... the semi-ironic memes that encapsulate religious moods pervading mostly materialist online political spaces... I could start it like this:
For the past few months, a friend of mine has been sending me memes of Breaking Bad characters wearing Rasta hats and talking about the all-pervasive lies of Babylon.
Or I could start like this:
At least for young angry leftists who are more inclined towards folk art than fine art, it’s an understandable impulse to want to reject the aesthetics of the divine.
America desperately needs a revitalization of the Christian Left, whether or not that Left is actually Christian.
And so on. Threads come together and fall apart, the middle is a jumble, the opening is insipid and overwritten. That’s religious writing for you.
Rastafari began in the Carribean, though with large groups of adherents in the United States, in the late 1920s. It is difficult to put a hard distinction between the radical Black separatist movements which were also nominally Christian, and the movements that would develop into what we would recognize as Rastafari today, as anti-western imperialist thought and a “back-to-Africa” ethos were common across a variety of denominations in this particular place and time. The coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 is often seen as being the most important single event in the development of Rastafari as a movement, as many more radical Black American churches had different interpretations of this event with varying degrees of theological significance, with one of the more popular beliefs being that Selassie himself was the incarnation of God and the second coming of Christ. The Rastas here show an inclination not towards anti-imperialism in general, but rather against a specifically Western control of foreign peoples. This was still a radical enough position to land the movement a particular place within American pop consciousness in the mid twentieth century, particularly of the Twelve Tribes “Mansion” which was founded in 1968. Along with their unique vernacular, dress codes, and drug use, The Rasta movement is mostly mocked in the American pop consciousness, or portrayed in a ridiculous light, for being so far removed from modern religious norms, and believing that their God will deliver them from what is an astute, if sometimes poorly described, caricature of Western imperialist (and occasionally capitalist) motives in “Babylon”.
The ironic appropriation of Rasta (and more popularly, Islamic, though I am not as well informed on that subject) aesthetics and terminology in memes centered on overwhelmingly white narratives such as Breaking Bad is meant to be humorous in its juxtaposition, but the main appeal comes from a sort of genuine righteousness that is felt in the references to a religion that is so alien to so many of those who consume these memes. It calls back to a less politically educated state of mind that carries every teenager, looking to be genuinely informed, over into real Leftist ideology. A state of mind that roots for the "little guy," the ethnically other, so long as the current state of Western imperial control is brought into question. It is important to emphasize, then, that niether Rastafarianism nor Islam are especially left sympathetic in their basic scriptures and traditions, nor are they especially socially progressive as baseline ideologies, and many Rasta communities have been criticized for presenting as too patriarchal and too dismissive of the plights of the non-black working class. It is true that no spiritual ideology, as a historically enacted movement, can ever be fully “woke,” or up to the standards of its virtual counterpart. Instead, the recent surge of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist Rasta memes are more in the same vein as politigrammers half-sincerely defending the DPRK as the foremost party in the global struggle against American imperial interests. I sincerely don’t think that the recent Rasta meme movement goes much deeper than that in terms of the intention of their creators, but the overused and very spiritually charged terms like “Babylon” and “Jah” add a religious dimension which is carried over into, and almost perfectly typifies the attitudes held by the terminally online left in a way that I jokingly refer to as “Necrofuturist Post-Christian Rasta Socialism”. The e-delogy is of course nearly incoherent bullshit, but there is certainly a strange pattern of a kind of materialist eschatology that flourishes in leftist online spaces which is only fueled by the continued sharing of such memes. The ironic invocation of Jah is at the center of this pattern, and the strange contradiction in “Jah”’s characterization, in these memes as well as in more serious artistic efforts by Rastas, is one of the more compelling elements of this mindset.
If you flip through a bible at random you will notice that the Christian God is referred to, outside of a few standalone instances, as either “Lord” or simply “God”. Every instance of “God” is a translation of the Hebrew “Elohim”, or occasionally “El”, and every instance of “Lord” is a translation of the shortened Hebrew tetragrammaton- Yodh-He, written as “Yah” and anglicized as “Jah” from the Latinized Iehouah or Jehovah. The fact that the name “Jah” is referred to with a sort of exotic and mysterious reverence seems only to be an intentional mystification of what is the most commonly used name for God in the Bible. Were I more educated on the shifting American perspective on Rastafari, I would accuse the CIA of causing this mystification, in some kind of effort to delegitimize what would’ve been the first popular anti-imperialist Christian movements seen in America in decades, but then again, crying “CIA INTERFERENCE!!!” is what I always do when when the answer to a particular problem alludes me after more than two pages of google search results. More likely, this is just another example of nobody in America having actually read the Bible.
Of all the hallmarks that the pop-understanding of Rastafarianism has, the veneration of Jah seems to be one of the most consistently represented, and it’s easy to see why. From an outside perspective, it can seem almost pathetic. A god with a name, even to those without religious inclinations, seems a poor substitute for the apolitical transcendent experience offered by more mainstream branches of Christianity. To hear someone call upon “Jah”, as if they were a close friend, asking them to smite their political rivals, can even be seen as laughable to someone who could easily mistake Rastafari as some kind of doomsday cult. The fact that the name Jah relates back to the ineffability of divinity escapes this imaginary critic, but it presents a strange new issue with God’s nature- how can a fully transcendent being, by all means an agent and personification of history’s indifference, possibly care about politics?
It seems to be the attitude of most liberal Americans that your religion should not inform your political views. This seems to be the social nicety that this newer strand of Rasta memes seeks to brush up against. To have your politics, as well as your spirituality disembodied from your everyday activities (posting on social media, for instance), is the norm, but a full integration of these elements show a true devotion to your chosen cause. The ability to proudly claim Jah’s approval of your thoughts on the American Babylon is a strange and roundabout way to prove that your beliefs aren’t a hobby.
It should be noted that this integration is for the most part only taboo for the non-conservative American youth, with the older but equally terminally online right-wing Americans failing to see their views as being political at all. I have spoken to enough angry middle aged men who love Trump, and hate the gay communist liberal BLM masker agenda, and somehow fail to see what politics have to do with any of that. Why this is, I’m sure I couldn’t figure out if I had a million years, but I do know that what they fail to see as political views, they will readily admit as “moral values”, as though one’s politics weren’t ultimately an extension of what they consider right and wrong. Whereas politics and religion do not seem to mix, American Christians will admit that their spirituality plays a heavy role in deciding their day-to-day ethical conduct, with one of the most popular Christian arguments for the existence of God being that it’s only possible for morality to exist if there were a God to guide us toward an objective goodness and away from evil. All of this is a long winded setup to point to the fact that, at least in terms of popular interpretations of Jah/Yahweh’s name, it makes no sense for divinity to have any real interest in morality to begin with.
There seems to be an inherent contradiction between the way in which God is to be revered as self-existing and incapable of being concerned with Earthly matters, and the God who is supposed to promote righteousness among humanity. This contradiction is perfectly encapsulated in the very name “Jah”, being part of the tetragrammaton “I am what I am”, implying an existence which is not in accordance with “becoming” in a metaphysical sense, with interfering in the world at all. Yet, Jah first reveals his name to mankind in a chapter of Exodus, a narrative of special importance to the Rastafari movement along with Israel’s captivity at the hands of the historical Babylon (which was likely of some importance to the original codifiers of Exodus), when God calls upon Moses to become a great political agitator towards the most oppressive empire of his day. In this framework, indifference calls out to the oppressed and asks them to act as though the universe were on their side. In effect, when you cry out that your political situation is hopeless, you are meant to take silence as the affirmation that you will be saved.
It is easy to see this attitude reflected almost perfectly in the modern terminally-online Left. As my good buddypal Abbey keeps putting it, it’s important to have “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. It’s the basic question of why anybody should bother to fight the good fight when they know that they won’t live to see their struggle bear fruit, but even if we don’t realize that we’re doing it, the atheist and (mostly) secular left will adopt a religious attitude towards their own hopelessness. The same mass indifference that gives power to oppressive institutions will also be the same indifference that ensures that they will one day fall. This is Jah, asking of history to perform its second function and bring an end to the time in which we live, it is a necrofuturism that rejoices in the coming political catastrophe because, for once, indifference might be on our side, things can’t stay this bad for this long.
The oxymoronic superlative-objective-personal experience embodied in the name of a God who has fingers in every pie but whose supremacy is attested to only by the lowest of the low. There is such an odd strength to be felt in the adoption of narratives in which this personified indifference, a being of perfect objectivity, has an invested interest in making sure that your cause will survive, and I believe that these meme makers are able to unconsciously tap into this impulse when Walt and Jesse are sitting in a diner and one of them declares to the other that “Babylon will fall”. The religious imagery of the utopia after the fall of Babylon is at the same time reactionary and forward-thinking, as it is often pastoral images that accompany scriptural descriptions of the genuinely novel. This is not a reaffirmation of this mindset, but a diagnosis, yet somehow it seems overwhelmingly appropriate that we should adopt it because frankly I can’t of a way in which the alternative is any more helpful. As leftists, there is the necessary belief that the apathy of reality, of the chaotic chance of material conditions, will eventually give way to the patient and righteous, and we should not be afraid of putting ourselves in the lofty narrative position of the meek who will one day inherit the Earth. There is a personal bent to the way in which we discuss inhuman material forces. The rent *can’t* get too high. Things *can’t* possibly stay like this forever. Babylon will fall because it *has* to.