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Finding symbolism in the current economic crisis

May 07, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

Crucifixion has a stigma-filled history both as a form of physical punishment and as imagery for humiliation and shame. As a central feature of a major religion, the cross represents a tragic but redemptive act that has been memorialized in prose, poetry, song and theological dispute.

At the moment, our interest is in the transference of the religious symbolism of a cross to a political context -- remembering that it was first used as a punishment for crimes. With the presidential election of 1896 approaching, the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago to determine who would represent that party. One of the contenders was a firebrand, stump speaker named William Jennings Bryan, who had earned the reputation as the "Boy Orator of the Platte." On that sultry summer day, Bryan did not disappoint the huge gathering which offered him the nomination.

As a firm believer that silver as well as gold should back up the nation's currency, Bryan was at his oratorical best. As if sending a bolt of electricity through the crowd, Bryan delivered what is now simply known as his "Cross of Gold" speech. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." The gold standard supporters now had a worthy opponent.

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With allowance for the hyperbole ("crucify" mankind) of Bryan, the idea of a sacrificial lamb was now expanded to apply to the abuse of a segment of the population. In this case, it was the laboring class. By inflating the currency with the influx of silver, the great number of laborers would benefit. On the other hand, a rigid adherence to the gold standard would, according to Bryan, be tantamount to "crucifying" American workers.

Bryan did not win that election -- or two more future attempts. He did serve as secretary of state and later became famous for his role in the notorious Scopes "Monkey Trial."

Once again, though, an altered usage of "crucify" might apply to the current economic crisis. This time, if Bryan were resurrected, he might say that many were "crucified" on a "cross of paper." Silver and gold metal have been replaced by massive piles of sub-prime mortgages and hedge funds manipulated by the managers of the nation's assets. When the collapse came, it pulled down the jobs and the savings of many middle and working class people who had no reserves.

But the hurt did not stop there. After these bankers were saved from ruin by the influx of public funds, they behaved essentially as they did before the crash. Bonuses were granted in record proportions and the stimulus funds did not reach the intended targets. The public was indeed "crucified" on a "cross of paper." Moreover, those who "crucify" do not take kindly to "reform." Wall Street bankers have spent unbelievable sums of money to thwart rational and necessary legislation to merely throttle their propensity to gamble recklessly with other people's money.

Taking a larger view, creative dramatists have tried to script a message to project the idea that a deep need exists in the human psyche to punish someone or group so that others may be cleansed from their sins. In ancient times, it was customary to ritually transfer the sins of the tribe onto the back of a scapegoat and send it into the desert where it would literally die for their sins.

In the modern era, a novelist has an account in "The Lottery" of an annual stoning of one person each year as a means of cleansing all members of the group. The person selected for sacrifice was chosen by a lottery. It is, remember, a novel with a message.

What is of importance from this brush with history is that keeping our financial institutions sound requires alert supervision with appropriate remediation for social changes. We are beyond the old battles over bi-metalism and are faced with esoteric paper shuffling which skirts around regulatory agencies to precipitate unforeseen crises. Who knows, we might next hear a financial reformer complaining that we are being "crucified" on a cross of plastic.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College.

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