Monday, February 12, 2018

Musical Monday - Simon Zealotes by Larry Marshall

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those works that has so many threads running though it, it is almost impossible to keep them straight. Over top of them all is the idea of treating the adulation of Christ as another manifestation of the adulation showered upon celebrities, which seems particularly relevant in an era in which a celebrity rode that adulation into political power. There's a lot of other themes in the story - the ideological conflict between the pragmatic idealist Judas, the visionary idealist Jesus, and the fantastical idealist Simon Zealotes, the actual conflict between Jesus and what he represents and the Pharisees and Rome, and the dangers of relying upon fickle "the mob" for one's power.

This song is about fanaticism, and how it blinds one to reality. Almost every claim Simon makes in this song is false - there is no way Jesus' followers have enough strength to overthrow the Roman occupiers, there are almost certainly not "more than 50,000" followers, and, as later events reveal, they would not do anything Jesus asked them to - but Simon fervently believes that they are all true. The fact that they would all lead inevitably to more misery for the people Simon claims to lead is not a consideration that Simon would be willing to even consider, because that would conflict with his belief in the Messiah he believes he has found.

The key here is that at no point in the story (either the actual story from the New Testament or the truncated version told in the play) does Jesus give Simon an indication that the vision Zealotes has for the future is a vision that he shares, although in this version he also does nothing to deny it in front of the crowd. Zealotes has taken any ambiguity in Jesus' statements and filled in what he wanted Jesus to say and then attributed it to him.

This is how fanaticism works. This is also how someone like Trump appeals to people (not to compare Trump to Jesus in anything but how their zealous followers interpret their ambiguity). If one listens to Trump speak (I know, for most sane humans this is a difficult thing to do), one is struck by how often he speaks in incomplete thoughts, starting a statement, and then trailing off apparently without reaching a conclusion. This may or may not be intentional on Trump's part - he may simply be unable to finish a coherent sentence - but what it does is let those who hear him and who want to believe to fill in whatever conclusion they prefer. That's how so many people say that Trump "says it like it is" when he has actually said almost nothing. To a certain extent, what Trump does is basically sales patter, offering a bunch of openings for the listener to fill in what they want whatever he is selling. This is a method of delivery that trump probably picked up very early, and he probably has been using it to sell his worthless wares ever since.

One of the running themes of Jesus Christ Superstar is that the mob will turn on Jesus if they believe he has lied to them. We have seen the feeling of betrayal from some Trump supporters when he has advanced some policy that they didn't expect him to, but that's because they projected what they wanted onto what he didn't say. In effect, he lied to them by omission. The only real difference is that many of Trump's supporters disappointment in his failure to make their dreams come true has not caused them to turn against him, because he's also being propped up by a dishonest propaganda machine that lies about pretty much everything.

I don't have any real solutions here. There is power in fanaticism, and it is a dangerous power because it is unconstrained by reality.

Previous Musical Monday: Magnetic by Earth, Wind, and Fire
Subsequent Musical Monday: Just One Person by Kevin Clash, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, and Steve Whitmire

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