Sinner Swaggart & Our Smugness
June 1988By Robert Coles
When my wife and I read of preacher Jimmy Swaggarts abrupt decline into the role of a public sinner, we remembered the hold he has had on so many people we have known, not only in our countrys South, but the South that stretches from the Rio Grande Valley way down to the Strait of Magellan. So many families we have met over the years have found Swaggarts performing skills irresistible. He has a way of collaring his listeners and viewers, insinuating his hyped-up alarm and foreboding into their nervous systems. He has a way of hitting a home run with his hysteria, evoking it in others, proving what Freud learned in the Vienna of 1900 that passions denied at home or in the workplace can suddenly burst forth, inexplicably or in response to something or someone. It is all too easy for someone like me to pursue the above line of psychoanalytic thinking, to render a discourse on the contagious power of religious emotionality on certain kinds of psychologically vulnerable people. Its rather easy, as well, to join the ranks of those who prefer a more sociological or economic or cultural mode of analysis the ignorance and impotence, the near desperation, the edge of despair in so many men and women who can take little, indeed, for granted, who live in constant debt or with no hope of any real security, any sense of achievement. To pursue such inquiry is to risk the cool, confident self-importance of the quite privileged intellectual one more them to comprehend, maybe pity, maybe keep at a distance as a negative drag on the kind of enlightened politics my kind proudly tries to favor and practice.
As I tried to discuss the foregoing with a few friends up here (in New England) as opposed to down there (in Louisiana) ah, the occasional symmetry of language and egotism I was met with a barrage of skepticism, if not scorn. Swaggart is a phony, a manipulative fraud, an exploiter of sorts. He rakes in millions, lives high off the hog, exudes contrived bombast, offers hurt and ailing people well, the list is familiar an opiate; false consciousness; illusions; a crutch; or as a friend of mine, a decent, hardworking psychoanalyst whose liberal politics and sane rationality I admire, put it in his quiet, understated Jamesian way, some dubious satisfactions, indeed. Yes, yes, I want to say, and do say but. I stop with that small qualifying word, have trouble spelling out what but is meant to announce.
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