The Noose on the Liberty Tree

The catalogue of Mr Trump’s offenses against moral decency, truth, history, international order, and law is now so massive that attention has to turn to another question.  What sort of tree produces fruit like this?

My friends remind me that we are superior to the bloated, gun-toting troglodytes who belong to his cult because we did not vote for this mephitic creep to be president. Fair enough. A vote is (or can be) a moral judgement, and there are plenty of people who used the word “unfit” to describe Mr Trump long before he erased any doubt in that respect.  Hillary Clinton, to name one.  In the last year especially, the kindest word that has been mainstreamed in the media to describe him,  after some early hesitation, is “Liar.”

Yet Donald J.Trump, with his loose lips and looser suits  fell from the same Liberty Tree that gives us freedom of speech and press, and also gives us the right to bear arms–apparently even to carry assault weapons–and to say terrible and ugly things about people and groups we don’t like. Once you unchain Lady Liberty, she goes wheresoever she wants.

Yet even if the words beneath her feet are welcoming, she has had a less sanguine look on many occasions. She was dedicated (1886) only four years after the China Exclusion Act (1882) barred any immigrants from that country entering the United States–this reward after decades of Chinese labour was exploited to build the transcontinental railroad. The Act was not repealed until after the Second World War.  She turned away ships full of Jewish refugees towards South America, and back to Europe; stared blankly with passive acquiescence while Japanese at the other side of the continent were thrown into detention camps.  And this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the denial of civil rights to the children and grandchildren of slaves, or the disenfranchisement of women for a quarter century after she was dedicated.

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While things are bad  again, with Muslim bans and the detention of children, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this Lady has showered liberty and justice on all at all times.  That process has been intermittent and at times painful. What strikes our liberal crowd between the eyes is our idea that liberty moves slowly and only forward–the idea we thought was incipient in the belief in “a more perfect union.”  The advent of Donald Trump, for the fist time in my life, makes her direction uncertain, even reversible. The last time I can remember experiencing such dislocation was the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the first time (though I was a kid)  I realized that the people who disagreed with me could also be armed and dangerous.

Liberty was already nascent in the Revolution, in its challenge to monarchical authority and “freedom” from taxation.  A man who owned property, including slaves, had a right to defend it. Land ownership had been a problem from the time of King Philip’s (Pokunoket chief Metacom’s) War (1675-1676) and the slaughter of tribes allied to the Narraganset Indians, who saw land as land and private property as an English idea. The conceptual shift from seeing “Indians” as rightful possessors of land to being squatters and interlopers on land belonging to the United States was abetted by the fact that the native Americans themselves had a more dynamic understanding of the ground they lived on.  It made these insiders, in later centuries, the first “outsider” problem confronted by the federal government.

There would be many others:  To read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States  or a little of Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror is to understand that although we are a nation of immigrants, our pot did not melt all the ingredients equally or successfully.  The white protestant Boston lawyers and Virginia planters who founded the Republic established it on principles of property ownership being a requirement of the right to vote. The Civil War did not solve a problem or repair injury: it froze it in its time to come unstuck later.  We are still experiencing the effects of that cataclysm, with every pulling down of a Confederate general’s memorial or banning of the Stars and Bars being declaimed by a vocal minority as an affront against their liberty.  Speeches like the one Trump made at Charlottesville encourage this kind of “equivalency thinking.”

Yet to the extent history is juridical, there should be no equivalence between right and wrong. The defeat of the south included the defeat of an inhuman and detestable institution, slavery.  No American president since the Civil War has given moral equivalence to the side that defended it, until now.

Discussions of free speech, private property, the acquisition of wealth and the right to defend it with armed force have been with us from the beginning–long before America was the United States after 1789. Every ardent Trump supporter could move easily from a good-citizen-position of being in favor of increased military spending to joining a regional militia if that army was instructed by a president to disarm them.  An Oklahoma farm-worker can shift from being an aggrieved white man to a states-rights Klan member with just a little provocation and tough talk from six locked and loaded buddies. The racialist, anti-education, rural poor outcasts of Reconstruction did not simply die away  or get reborn in the twentieth century under the heavy foot of progressive liberalism. They have been here all along.  Mr Trump, to these people, is the voice of Liberty.  It’s why even his most noxious acts–like hugging an American flag–and his oiliest jingoism–America First– light fires of patriotic fervor in the hearts of the “oppressed.” They are the living relics of the failure of Reconstruction and one hundred fifty years of segregation.

To the sons of liberty who populate Trump’s rallies with their underachieving kids,  this right to armed protection is enshrined in the Second Amendment. And we need to be clear about this: The Second Amendment isn’t just about guns. That it is is the assumption of those of us, including me, who don’t like guns or the kind of people they’re often attached to.  The Second Amendment is about defending a worldview, a particular vision of America as being right in the world only when it is white.  This principle is as central to its  defenders as the First Amendment is to the rest of us.  Perhaps this is just a reflection of the fact that there are two ways to win an argument–by speech or by force.

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In 1776 and 1863 the cry of the oppressed was liberty:  the colonists from foreign sovereignty; the slaves from their owners; the rebels from fealty to a national experiment which was still being tested.  Franklin frets over its experimental nature in his “alleged” response to Mrs Powel.  Lincoln refers to its provisional nature in his address at Gettysburg. To be fair, Liberty was a popular battle cry in Europe as well.    But those are faraway dates, and for most Americans–so great is our ignorance of American history and the context of modern discussion– there  is nothing in reality or modern experience to pin them to.

For the founders and for Lincoln, the opposite of liberty was not slavery but unity.  How can you have a state, the French writer Rousseau wondered throughout our formative century, when every man’s liberty must be regarded equally but the state must pull together as one, through the willing cession of some “natural rights” needed for the harmonious function of the whole, according to what he called the “General Will.”   For Rousseau and the founders, the General Will was never meant to be equated with the democratically ascertained opinion of the people. It is not the will of the majority. It is definitely not popular opinion. It is rather what most reasonable people, over time, would want under the best of circumstances.  And while the founders got that point (Rousseau died in 1782, before the French Revolution), later generations did not.

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But this is where comparisons to the past must end.  Because we have never had a president less in touch with the history of the Republic and the function of liberty in its construction than this one.  To be blunt, we have never had to confront, as our recent ancestors did, the threat of the dissolution of the union.  We are the imperfect product of our founding crisis, our civil war and Reconstruction, our booms and busts, world wars, social equality movements, and especially our becoming an equal ally of other nations.  Each of these had something to do with the nature of liberty–in the old language, the rights of free “men.”  But liberty is not a disposition. Ask a Chinese citizen what she considers the indispensable condition for a well-ordered state and she will say social harmony, not liberty. Ask a fascist and he will say obedience or loyalty to the state and its rulers.  Jefferson once said that he didn’t mind having agnostics as worthy citizens of the Republic because what they believed neither “picked his pocket nor broke his bones.”  Can we reform that to say,  a Muslim woman wearing a veil does not restrict my liberty to believe as I choose?   What can be so offensive about the outward expression of a belief I am not required to share?  What is offensive is that laws and bans should be enacted to prevent such expressions.  That is the real threat to liberty. We believe that social harmony comes from conscience exercised through the rule of law, not simply the supremacy of the state.  We believe that justice comes from the belief that no one is above the law, not from obedience to the ruler.

The greater danger–and this notion has been virtually catechetical since the eighteenth century in America–is to curtail liberty based on what people believe,  how they look, or where they come from,  how much they earn, who they love, or how healthy they are. Every political decision of my lifetime that amounted to progress has been based on an enlargement of liberty and freedom for all groups and classes.  Every failed project and embarrassing moment has come from attempts to limit it.

To put it starkly: Liberty is normative in America.  It is organic.  But anything that is injurious to liberty–intolerance, racism, sexual bigotry, religious hate–is an affront to freedom.  We are, to quote the axiom, “always free but not always free to do what we want.”  An act of absolute liberty that offends, limits, excludes, humiliates or harms is not an exercise of executive privilege or personal rights but an offense against human values.

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We are now being tested not by ordinary events, which are organic to the nature of democracy,  but by the election of a leader who does not know where he stands in relation to any of the crises and tests the republic has endured.  He is not the Voice of Liberty. His mawkish patriotism is for sale to regimes who prefer totalitarianism to freedom. He has declared the press the enemy of the people.  He has manipulated religious opinion with the glaring hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  He cannot make decisions based on historical knowledge, nor geographical and cultural context, because he is ignorant of both. He cannot tell the truth, in any domain, but relies on hysterical approval of falsehood and exaggeration.  He regards America as wealth-accumulating entity driven by greed, supported by a war industry, and in a state of perpetual economic war with foes and allies.

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So we could ask: since Trump is actually a page, or at least a paragraph, in  this checkered story, why single him out for special blame.  America, after all, is still (charitably)  a Great Experiment.  Though he looks like bad fruit this son of an unskilled Scottish chambermaid, grandson of a draft-dodging, brothel-owning refugee from Germany, via the great Northwest and Canada, husband of two east European buccaneer wives,  and friend to beauty pageant, porn star and Playboy models everywhere,  is now a part of the American story.  To some people in the Heartland, he is the prince of liberty and the exemplification of a certain kind of “freedom.” To most Americans, he is Mammon.

I’m going to end this screed with a series of questions–for which I thank not Rousseau but his nineteenth century protege John Stuart Mill who also wrote a famous essay On Liberty.

For Rousseau, liberty, is the “immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority; political independence.” natural liberty being the freedom to pursue one’s own desires and civil liberty being the freedom to pursue the General Will.  Only when he gets to chapter four of his massive “essay” does Mill take up the question of whether the state has the right to exercise control over liberty.  “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  But as we ponder the implications of that assertion, each in her or his way, let me pose the daunting questions raised by Mill’s and Rousseau’s inquiry into the nature of liberty:

  1.  Does the state have the right to regulate gun ownership, as a predicate of its obligation to minimize harm?
  2. Is it the right of parents to deny education to a child to preserve their freedom of decision?
  3. As a laborer owns his body and his labour, is it not the case that the pregnant woman owns her own body and should be granted total freedom in deciding matters pertaining solely to her?
  4. Can the state restrict the lawful entry of people into a given territory when there is no evidence harm will come of their entry but certain that harm will come to them if they are denied entry?
  5.  Does a rich state have an obligation to provide for the health and well-being of all of its citizens?
  6. Obversely, if it is illegal for a parent to withhold medical treatment to a sick child, from where does the state derive the right to withhold medical care to its general population?
  7. Does an individual have the right to defy the state in cases where his participation in its activities would cause harm to others?

I venture to say that the President of the United States has not thought about any of these questions, nor read Mill, Rousseau or Jefferson, or the United States Constitution, let alone the massive debates contained in The Federalist Papers–the first recorded debates in the history of a fledgling democracy about the philosophical  grounds of its Constitution. He might say to this, “So what. Why should I read when I can rely on my very good brain for the answers.”  This question has already been answered.

Many early depictions of the Liberty Tree show a noose dangling from one of its branches.  The message was unmistakable.  The true sons and daughters of liberty will punish traitors and tyrants.  Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper.





Sudan: The Reckoning

The Reckoning: Sudan 12 July 2017




Tomorrow, July 12, 2017, is the date set in Washington for a decision regarding the lifting of sanctions on the Republic of Sudan.
In Khartoum, hopes are running high. But the Sudanese are an ancient, hopeful people and they have endured twenty five years of United States-sponsored infamy with only hope to sustain them. Before that, more than a hundred years of subjugation as a province of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan that ended in a (locally) famous uprising by a messiah (Mahdi) whose tomb in Omdurman is a fading reminder of British colonial hegemony in the area.
In the recent period, the United States has almost singlehandedly wrecked the economy of the country in the name of democratic values that ordinary Sudanese can do nothing to secure for themselves. The Sudanese are not natural allies of non-western governments, though they are courted heavily and persistently by the Chinese.

But after your friend’s advances are rejected by indifference or rudeness, who can blame the partner for looking for succour elsewhere?

Sudan is a friendly country that has done literally nothing to deserve the fate imposed on it by the United States. That fate includes shortages of food, medicine (especially prescription drugs), energy, basic necessities, as well as educational stagnation, and social unrest.
Opinion is unanimous within Government: “The time is right for permanently lifting the sanctions on Sudan …We are counting on President Trump to take this courageous decision that will make not just the people of Sudan, but all of Africa, happy. ”  Thus Abdelghani Elnaim, of the group promoting the Obama five-step plan.
The sanctions extend back to 1997 when the Clinton administration accused the government of Omar al- Bashir of backing Islamist militant groups. (Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a US commando raid in Pakistan in 2011, was based in Khartoum from 1992 to 1996.)
In fact however, it was Sudan alone that detected and expelled bin Laden in 1996 and had nothing to do with the more ambitious Saudi-financed plans that led finally to the attacks on New York in 2001.

The United States has never said thank you or well done for turning him out or publicly blamed Pakistan for taking him in. Instead, indifference and more recently malign neglect and incompetence has reigned.
The continuation of sanctions after the Clinton era were justified as reprisal for “scorched-earth tactics” by Khartoum against ethnic minority rebels in Darfur. In recent years, however, the fog of war has cleared and sober analysis of the conflict in the Darfur and (now) South Sudan has shown that while Bashir’s tactics were indeed heavy handed, the rebels in both areas of the country were not as docile as some human rights organizations had painted them.1907411_402533613251076_6963424305596373875_n

The ongoing struggle in South Sudan, now a fully-fledged war in its own right, continues unabated but punctuated by Sudan’s willingness to provide refugee and humanitarian relief to those displaced from their homes.
As to terrorism, Sudan has never served as a launching pad for terrorist activity and has a long history of discouraging pro-Islamist groups. As an Islamic Republic, it has a typical suspicion of Christian groups proselytizing the local and complex Muslim sectarian population, but this position is typical of Muslim-majority countries in general. It is not unique to Sudan, and does not justify Sudan being labeled a state sponsor of terrorism.

Sudanese officials have regularly highlighted how Khartoum has supported US intelligence agencies in fighting extremism in the region, and also how it is aiding hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who have arrived fleeing a brutal civil war in their new country.

These facts were plain to President Obama when he recommended in January 2017 a measured and accountable process for lifting trade and currency restrictions on the Republic over a six month review period. It is that period that’s set to expire on Wednesday, 12 July, 2017.

The compliance programme – known as “five tracks” – include improved access for aid groups in conflict areas, an end to support for rebels in neighbouring South Sudan, an end to hostilities in the conflict zones of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and counter-terrorism cooperation with US intelligence agencies.

By all accounts, Sudan has done its assignment brilliantly and in the best of times, the country could look forward to passing the six month review with flying colors.
“It will open new opportunities for us that never existed for 20 years, like accessing easy loans or technical expertise,” Finance Minister Mohamed Al-Rikabi said in an interview to a local newspaper.

But these are not normal times. The country Sudan looks to for relief is in the throes of a Constitutional crisis and unable to see beyond its borders to its international challenges and responsibilities.
Trump can lift the sanctions permanently, extend the review period or fully re-impose the embargo.
Unfortunately, the man in charge of the process is not a predictable player. He doesn’t know the game, the rules, or the field. Hence he cannot be trusted to do the right thing, let alone a courageous thing.
There are five reasons to be unhopeful.
1. The President has no context to work from: he does not know why the sanctions were imposed much less is he in a position to question the justice of the actions or make a decision regarding their status.
2. Mr Trump is not aware of the physical or cultural location of Sudan. It is entirely possible he could not locate it on a map. To him, it is a “problem” country that must first be treated as a problem, not in terms of its own vision for the future.
3. Even though president Obama sought and received Mr Trump’s agreement to lift sanctions on Sudan subject to the five-track plan, it is not clear that Mr trump was aware of the magnitude or details of that agreement. He has shown in ghis short time in office that he is willing to abrogate treaties and agreements on a whim, without much concern for the consequences of his decisions on allies and partners. Sudan is not a country he would be afraid to alienate. In addition, the very fact the plan was initiated by Obama might be seen as an appealing reason to cancel it.
4. Just as Mr Trump lacks historical context for why the sanctions were imposed in 1997, he lacks any information as to why they should now be lifted. There are Christian missionary and rights groups—perhaps the loudest—who see sanctions as a way of bringing the government of Bashir to heel, even though the embargo has not worked and the degree of human misery has increased in every decade. Mr Trump is unlikely to succumb to a humanitarian argument for the repeal of sanctions.
5. And fifth, Mr Trump followed the inept lead of his novice adviser Stephen Miller in January in including Sudan in his Travel Ban directed against six (at first, seven) Muslim majority countries, none of them significantly implicated in terrorist activity against the United States. The list itself is an embarrassing piece of pre-2001 memorabilia based on the movements of terrorist groups twenty years ago and never updated. Having censured Sudan, however, Trump may be unwilling to remove a country from the proscribed list thereby calling his own (or his advisers’) judgement into question.

All in all, the chances for relief from sanctions, so courageously begun in January 2017, are remote. The best that can be hoped for is that Trump will impose a longer waiting period. The worst, that he will terminate the process altogether as a slap in the face to his predecessor and a face-saving maneuver to shore up his militant posture towards the Islamic world. We hope for the Unexpected, and expect the Irrational.


Moral Outrage


It’s about five months into the fake presidency of Donald Trump and we are all looking for a new topic.  Anything will do—a new flavour of Ben and Jerry’s, a cyclone in the East Indies,  Prince George’s new playschool.    The problem is, he’s the only show in town—for news (always Breaking), comedy, political analysis—and of course, things that touch us more directly–like death and taxes.

The spasmodic lurching from faux pas to lie, insult, glaring contradiction, historical wowser,  and back to lie, has made it impossible to muster real shock or outrage at anything emerging from his sphinctoral lips, and given the notoriously spotty attention band of Americans (who also tend to forget when voting day is until the Wednesday morning following), real interest.  Americans like outcomes and results, not puzzles. America hates surprises. (That’s why, unlike Britain, we wrote our Constitution down on paper, without anticipating that some 240 years later it would be surprisingly unequipped to deal with an electoral crisis.) They are getting used to the old man’s excesses and they are bored with the complexities of Trumpgate.

I was reminded of this recently when trying to discuss Watergate with some millennials who know the events of 1972-1973 only as twentieth century history.  The vocabulary of those days—cover-up, obstruction of justice, stonewalling, special prosecutor, Saturday Night Massacre, executive privilege, enemies-list, abuse of power, articles of impeachment—has all been taken out of the trunk and dusted off for recycling.  But clearly the terms have lost their valence, their power to shock or even to rile.  Donald Trump is such a thoroughly bad person that he has made moral outrage impossible.  Nixon had to be caught in a lie.  Trump’s pimple-faced, self-contradicting, sixth-grade-caliber lying is so constant that even his critics are saying he can’t be held morally accountable for what he says.  Did he obstruct justice?  What’s justice? Whose justice? Did he intend to commit a crime?  Depends on how you define crime—and intention. Big words.  Grown-up words. Probably not words he knows. The defense of his badness veers dangerously close to an insanity plea or diminished responsibility claim in a meticulously investigated murder trial.

Our national loss of moral certainty isn’t the effect of what Trump is doing now.  He is the effect of our lack of moral certainty: Our age created him as completely as the fourth century BCE created Alexander the Great, the 18th century a Hanoverian George and a Washington, and the 1920’s Adolph Hitler.

The media, of course, makes noise about the restrictions placed on the press –fewer briefings, confrontation between the White House and reporters, propagandistic chitlings instead of information–which is nothing less than a war against the freedom of information.  But Donald Trump, who is not very smart, is smart enough to know that his average follower doesn’t care about the First Amendment.  The campaign against liberal media, the “lame-stream,” “libtard” media, has been going on since Nixon’s day, but with greater fury and defensiveness since the nasty 90’s and the death of civil discourse in the internet age.  Trump and his advisers have apparently abandoned the old distinction between true and false to raise the “Pontius Pilate question” that postmodern man is always fingering:  What is truth? (John 18.38). Is it what the New York Times says, or Breitbart, or Fox?  Or maybe it isn’t anywhere, really, or maybe in cable-land it’s as big as your menu: Find your hole, pull up a stool, and shut out the other squirrels.  And if all truth is local, and facts are negotiable, if not downright suspicious, if that’s the case, then a tubby Press Secretary who talks mud and proclaims “The president has been very clear about this” or “The President’s statement (tweet/remark/clarification) speaks for itself” can be trusted on the basis of repeated assertion.

Which brings me to the topic of moral outrage.  Aristotle, whom I’m fond of quoting, wrote in so many words in the Ethics that to be angry at the right man for the right reason at the right  time is a part of what it means to be virtuous.  He was saying that there should be no civic appetite for indulging immorality or vice.  Indulgence is encouragement, approval–consent, and there have to be consequences for bad actions like willful deception and vicious behaviour, especially when the agent is “a leader of men” [sic]  because the leader, as a “great man”, affects the lives of others either directly or by emulation. He can pass unjust laws, oppress the poor, and exploit the weak.  A great man is responsible for the moral condition of his followers, and truth and honesty is the bond between them.

Donald Trump is not a “great man” by anyone’s standards but in the Greek scheme of things history (in one of its more unfortunate vomitous heaves) has thrust greatness upon him.  The shoes are too big, the crown too heavy, and the burden of office, especially military office, more than he can handle.  But his absurdity in the role doesn’t mean he should not be judged by how he fills it.  Even if the civil body politic bears the responsibility for thrusting an undeserving pillock into the office, the outrage has to be directed at the dealer, not at the gulls.  

American political discourse is full of slogans that are not only ridiculous but completely erroneous.  One of them is that we must respect the “office” of the presidency even if the occupant of the office is a total reprobate and fool.  

The framers of the Constitution did set a fairly high standard for removal from office through the impeachment process (Article 2, section 4), but the very fact that it’s there at all suggests that the founders contemplated the election of scoundrels to office was within the realm of possibility. At the Philadelphia Convention, Benjamin Franklin noted that, historically, the removal of obnoxious chief executives had been accomplished by assassination. Franklin suggested that a proceduralized mechanism for removal—impeachment—would be preferable.  But no one recommended a presidency construed as the “power” of the throne, a bifurcation of the man (or woman) and the office.  That sort of metaphysical thinking is left over from the days of monarchy, the divine right of kings, and the infallibility of popes.

In the American system, it is totally gratuitous.  The American presidency is an elective office, not a hereditary status.  It expresses the fickle and fallible will of the people at a point in history.  We choose citizens  to fill it.  There is no vacant chair, no sede vacantes when a president dies.  No unclaimed scepter, no interregnum.  There is no point in respecting the “office of president” if the holder of the office doesn’t merit respect, and those who fail have not disgraced the office but themselves in it.  In short, being elected president doesn’t entitle anyone to more than a chance to prove himself fit for the office through the judicious and respectable use of power granted to him.   It does not invest him with good judgment, grant him the benefit of a doubt, or enlarge his intelligence.

It is clear after five months that Donald Trump deserves only contempt, not just for his ideas, which are irrational, cruel, and wrong, for the most part, but also for the sort of man he is.  To invoke the fact that people voted for him, or that, after all, he is the president, is not enough to make him deserving.  He cannot demand that his election victory, which is still a matter of surprise to him, is an entitlement not to be criticized, second-guessed, and ridiculed.

And this is why Congress must be worried.  Our European and Asian cousins aren’t persuaded that a clear line can be drawn between Trump and American values.  His greed, petulance, and ignorance are simply a compilation of things that many people in other parts of the world have thought America was becoming (or has been) for a very long time.  Donald Trump is the confirmation of their opinion.  They see a worrying amateur with a short attention span and an impetuous nature, a man who thinks no more is expected of him in negotiating the byways of foreign policy than a contestant at the Miss Universe pageant answering a question about world peace, and no more is needed in building an administration than surrounding himself with family, cronies, billionaires (the successful), and generals (tough guys, decision-making “experts”) and being willing to play a chief executive who fires people who dissatisfy him.  The President rewards people who share his dwarfish sense of reality and complexity and, unlike most previous presidents, he is jealous of everyone because he is personally but contemptuously aware that most people are smarter than he is.

And this is also why a country that expresses outrage all the time–in a traffic jam along the highway, in a long line at the DMV, over an increase in property tax or a school bond levy, or a decrease in Medicare payouts, over their neighbor’s pet crapping in their flower bed, even at the least suggestion someone will take away a firearm—these same Americans who are angry much of the time about little things need to save some of that rage for what really matters.  

And what should that be?  Why should Trump-Americans be outraged?  Because they are being lied to.  Their chosen President of the United States does not care about them.  He does not want them in his golf club.  They cannot afford a weekend at his resorts.  He does not care about their health and wellbeing, or their children’s education, or the family’s debt or mortgage or foreclosure, or the disappearance of jobs from the mines. As a post-moral man, he will say what he needs to say to push his incoherent agenda and hold on to power. To take credit and shower blame.  He will live on to lie another day. And nothing will change until the gulls no longer swoop to feed out of his hand.


I am fighting back the feeling, but it comes to the surface every now and again.  The feeling that Donald Trump, like any good tragic character, deserves pity.  

Remember your freshman humanities course where you read at least one Greek play—it doesn’t matter which one—Agamemnon, Oedipus Rex—and maybe a Shakespeare tragedy—Lear comes to mind.

Vain old men, some soldiers, some kings, or both, who come to defeat at the hands of an unforgiving Fate.  Agamemnon: leader of the Achaeans (Greeks) in the war against Troy, complacent, egotistical and shallow, killed by a wife who has simmered since his departure for Troy. (He did, after all, kill their younger daughter as a sacrifice to the gods to obtain favorable winds for the journey.)  Oedipus, a tortured soul  with a secret who can’t figure out why the gods don’t love him–finally blind, crippled, supported by his daughters. An outcast from the city he saved. And Lear a swellheaded father who can’t figure out why his daughters don’t love him enough and wants to be respected for his fortune and lands.  So much daughter-love, so much vanity.  Isn’t Trump like one of those or all of them?

When we see these old men on stage they are hardly heroic at all.  They are fools waiting for their comeuppance—to be taught a lesson.    The aftermath of their folly in plays like the Antigone or the Eumenides is horrific, but not really moralistic.  The Greeks were not interested in moral lessons in the way Dickens or the Victorians were—bad buggers turned into good and wiser buggers through a trick of fate.  And that’s the problem for us post-twentieth century types, now looking back at the long history of characters in drama and fiction.  Isn’t there some way to connect the chronological dots between an Agamemnon, a Lear, a Scrooge and a Trump?  The answer is, No.

True, a tragic hero, Greek-style, has a tragic flaw, but the difference between him and your daddy’s tragic flaw is that your daddy is nobody so the larger consequences are relatively small.  No cities will burn, no empires tumble and no governments fall because your daddy is imperfect.  But the Greek hero is to be pitied because (according to Aristotle) he has magnitude–greatness.  Heroes are greater than other men but not greater than their sins. Not greater than Fate. They suffer and are miserable despite having virtue.  Accordingly we have no choice but to feel sorry for them.

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I am not going to say what you think I am going to say.  I am not going to say that Donald Trump is a tragic hero, a man more sinned against than sinning.

Oedipus was a legendary ruler before Sophocles got onto his story, famous for his wisdom and justice and the prosperity of Thebes.  He had been a good king.  As every sophomore knows, what happened to him through no fault of his own shouldn’t happen to a dog.  (And by the way you very mal-educated English teachers who think the play is a mystery and that he has some hidden sin, No.  That isn’t the point of the drama.)  Agamemnon was a representative of kingly authority.”  As commander-in-chief, he brought feuding Greek princes together in the first successful military coalition in history and personally led them in battle. His chief fault was conceit, the belief he could do no wrong.  He survives glorious battle to be defeated at the hands of a jealous wife. He was flawed, not consummately incompetent and ineffective.  Lear (Leir) is a legendary king of the Britons mentioned in a twelfth century chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth.  His feat seems to have been to unite the warring Britannic tribes and then lose it all in a game of chance when he asks for professions of loyalty (fealty–love is Shakespeare’s affectation) from his three daughters. In the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Lear dies because tragic heroes have to.  In the prototype, he recovers his kingdom with Cordelia’s help (and that of the French king) and reigns for three years. In all three plays, notably, the daughters fare morally better than their fathers.  And, Trigger Warning, at no point ahead in this little screed will I attempt an analogy between Antigone and Ivanka Trump.

The stories of great men and women memorialized in myth and drama (and religion) are not the stories of great men gone wrong but men who like Achilles (his real flaw was wrath, not just the heel) who fall short.  Superficially they have some of the American president’s worst traits:  arrogance, petulance, the need for adulation–but they have these traits because their leadership has been tested and they excel in heroism and virtue.  They can unite tribes and conquer riddle-posing sphinxes, rule nations and win wars.   If only they could escape their own stories, they would be gods.  But unlike gods, they die. Watching rulers being taught lessons in humility is one of the reasons Greeks liked seeing these plays.

In describing what a tragic hero is, Aristotle says “A man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.”  The Greeks called it anagnorisis, the moment in a play where the hero knows he is failing, where he moves from ignorance to knowledge with catastrophic effect.  He is not Superman—in fact Superman cannot be a hero under the Greek rubrics because he violates the requirement that a hero, in his human nature, can be morally neither better nor worse than ordinary people.  This more than anything allows the audience to identify with them.

And this is also where pity comes in, which is crucial to the idea of tragedy:  If the hero is perfect, or invincible, or made of steel, we will not care about his fate.  Movie superheroes excite us, but at the level of tragedy we do not really care about them—superiority defines them, and human life is not lived at the level of superiority.  

If the hero is too imperfect, or actually evil, then the audience will feel he gets what he deserves.  We can feel sympathy, sort of,  for anyone in that position, but not really think that their life or downfall  is tragic.  Tragedy is almost getting to the top of Everest, almost getting a patent for a cancer cure in a race with another team, losing the love of your life to another for no obvious reason.  It roils us a bit to think that to be a tragic hero you have to be certain kind of person—essentially good, basically human, fully rational in your decision-making ability, aware of risk, and preferably royal.  But the Greeks felt that royalty, or true aristocratic leadership, put a mortal in direct competition with the gods and marked him out by fate.  He would be tested.  He would almost win, but because of one small deficiency, the dreaded hamartia,  he would fail.  The word came from archery and meant a missing of the mark.  It meant not missing the target but missing the mark—the bull’s eye. You cannot feel sorry for a man who is utterly unable to pull a bowstring and come near the goal.  You can only feel sorry for than man who means well, does well, and fails.  No wonder Christian theology commandeered this word to mean “sin.”  That is what entitled the observer to feel pity for the fallen hero.  That is what brought tears to the eye.  The failure of the accomplished and mainly virtuous man.

The Greek and renaissance audience did not have (or need) media to explain and analyze the behavior of the characters to them.  The people, limited though they were with regard to the written word, knew the stories.  And what good was the written word anyway?  Stories are oral. So is drama. So was the Mass. There is a certain comfort in things always coming out the same way, even if that way is catastrophic.  It teaches lessons, it tells us a thing or two about human nature and the way the world works.  It may not make us virtuous but it makes us humble.   And if a dramatist went too far astray by explaining, for example, why Agamemnon deserved to die, or how Lear lived happily ever after, the audience would be outraged.  That wasn’t the point.  The point was that we could see ourselves dimly reflected in the character, her nature, and his fate, even though his station, achievement—his glory—was greater than ours by far. You may well expect success, but learn to expect the unexpected.


I cannot see myself even dimly reflected in the character of Donald Trump.  I suspect most of us cant.  He is the antitype of what we think a good, truthful, and honourable man is supposed to be.  He has no skills in leadership. No consistency in policy. No charity is speech, and no vision of his country or its destiny apart from empty clichés strung together like so make shells on a string cord.  He has never won a war or secured a peace.  He has no knowledge of the world. He has never served his country as a soldier or as a volunteer, worked for civil rights, human rights, women’s rights or any other kind of rights.  He is not interested in poetry, philosophy, literature, or history.  He probably cannot quote a line from Shakespeare and may well have never seen a Greek play.  If he has attended an opera, it would have been unwillingly, as a fund raiser.  He does not seem to be accomplished in music or in the arts, besides the chintz he buys for his hotels and resorts. He is, apparently, completely unread in the sciences.  He is not handsome or courtly or gracious, and he has no gift for eloquence or speech, no interest in piety, reverence, or virtue.  In short he is not a man of whom the gods would be jealous.  They would not notice him at all. Arrogant yes: but so trivial as to pose no threat and evoke no attention–phthonos they called it, divine envy.

That’s important because in the analysis of tragedy emulation is what makes empathy and catharsis possible.  Feeling sorry for a poor bastard who doesn’t know any better is not what the Greeks meant by pathos and empathy (εμπάθειαa, suffering with a victim).  And as we know, Mr Trump is not affected by the charge of hubris; he revels in it and explains it away—always—as the jealousy of hoi polloi who envy him and wish they were like him.  

Donald Trump is nothing like me and nothing like the vast majority of people in the democratic nations of the world.  He is a glitch, snag, bug, gremlin and fly in the ointment of democratic and social progress.  And because there is nothing there worth emulating there is nothing there worth pitying.  

We need to remember this as we listen to the analysts searching for his defining moment, his transformative burst into being a “real president”–journalistic whims based on their preoccupations with adolescent fantasies like Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast.

But such a transformation, knowing what we know, would be even stranger than science fiction and the most saccharine melodrama.  The word I used above, anagnorisis, means that a true tragic hero will recognize when it is too late because he will recognize something about himself and his inability to change the situation.  That can never happen here. A character, even a real live human character, is the sum total of what experience makes him.  It is type, not anti-type, and even in anti-type there in no there in Trump.  We cannot pity him because we cannot emulate him.  But we can feel very happy that we cannot.

Are new Prezident

Essay Two

Are New Prezident Donald Trump

Full Gospel Christian School, Plano Grade 8

Larry Lawlor, Jr.

Are  new prezident is named Donald Trump.  prezident Trump was born in New York America and he is an old man of 70. Are new prezident is a very rich man.  They say he is worth trilyuns of dollars in real estate alone. Well my father is also in real estate he sells houses and sez he doesn’t have jack which means he isn’t selling any houses in Plano.  

My mother works two jobs as a recepsinist and as a subsidute teacher here at Full Gospel.  When I ask them why we don’t have jack my dad sez ask the muslan  He means the fake prezident who ruled over us for eight years while Christians suffered gratefully sez Mrs. Grundy our teacher.

The teacher sez we shuld organize this essay careful and think before we rite. Okay so how do I feel about the new prezident, just great. He looks fat on TV but my dad sez it isn’t beer if a man is rich he is a little fat.  Well we don’t have jack but my dad weighs about 340 so I am not so sure. My dad was a Plano High School football player Mvp and fought muslans in Irack Won in those pitchers he looks poor. prezident Trump sez we should never have been in Irack  Too but wants us to bomb other places like I-Ran and North Career. The sooner the better sez my dad he sez it all the time.

My dad sez he is sick of people treeting our prezident like chicken shit especially the news. He can’t sit through news anymore he just goes in the kitchen and drinks beer and sez I wish your mother would get her ass home because I done want pizza again.  Mrs Grundy sez the same thing not about my mom but about the news treating out prezident like shit. Sorry teacher like crap.

Yesterdy we read a gospel story about Jesus feeding 5000 people with 2 fishs and a loafs of bread.  Mrs Grundy said to us What is the problem and we all laugh and say isn’t no way to feed that many people with 2 fish.  Thats right she sez and she sez well just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean ther wasn’t 5000 people does it and we all said No Mrs Grundy, and we laft.  You done need to see everthing to believe it she sez and did you see when you was born no or when the world was made but here you are and here it is, So we all say Yes  Mrs Grundy we are and I laft till I peed my pants.  So she sez the Bible sez that onst Jesus appeared to 500 people when he died.  No one sez different or he didn’t or that there was just 5 people do they? Maybe Juice and sexshual pervurts.  It means that when the prezident sees milyunss there really are milyuns not just five she sez because he is the prezident and he has the ability to see things normal people don’t see just like God.  My dad just sez theres no lying muslan to hurt us anymore and that we’re safe and what prezident trump says Goes.  Dad never tells is where it goes, but he talks that way.

My daddy never gets sick but my mama had to sign up for Medicade because there are six of us and no medizin.  Now that Trump is prezident we can have our doctors and medizin comes free free dad says. Three of us are here at Full Gospel my little sister in sekund grade and my little bruther in grade four.  We bring lunch which is usilly  baloney with spread and hard egg plus peenuts and candybar.  Mrs Grundy sez this is much better than letting tacksplayers pay for us and we don’t need there money but that now a good christian woman named Betsy like the womin who  sowed our first flag will take care of us. Me and my friends will get tickets or somethings which is better than cash and best of all we will still have bible reading and gospel singing. Sometimes Mrs Grundy gets mad like when this one girl Doris said her mom thinks we are killing urselves by burning crap for fuel and that the ice is melting at the north pole.  Teacher told her to stand outside for an hour and then she sez Doris do you still think the ice is melting and Doris sez No maam. So she sez good because there aint nothing about no ice melting anywhere in the Bible is there. Bible done talk about ice melting.  We know how the world will end it will end when it explodes in fire and then you will see Jesus and you need to be ready for that. So Doris sat down and looked sad. I laft so hard I peed my pants.

Daddy says now he can keep his guns which he means that the black muslan prezzident was going to take away so we are happy. Me and my brothers all has one gun except Jake who is four and just has an air rifle but daddy has 62 guns because when they come for us we’re ready. Mrs Grundy sez theer are difernt ways to be ready but the best reason is to meet the Lord. But daddy sez tell that teacher she sure as hell better have a gun before that big day and he sez our prezident is catching milyuns of muslans before they can kill us so we also need to burn there churches and make them go home. I guess they are catching them in steel traps. I ask him why are they coming to Plano and he said for our freedom and medizin.

In my school we don’t need to learn about other places outside America except Isreal where the Lord will come in the last daze. Juice live their now and we hate Juice but they are important because that’s where the armed-guarden will start so I askt daddy will you fight in that war but he just went for another beer.

It is hard to rite an essay but the thing is I am very happy that we have a real prezident who will give me school tickets and can feed so many people and also medizin for free.  Daddy sez everybody will have a job now and we won’t have to wear seat belts no more and not pee in the stream we can pee anywhere we damn well please even on the sidewalk in front of the Juice church in town. The paper factory here in Plano is already going to dump its wash into the red river even though a few years ago some people at the River of Glory Mobile Park got sick.

My mama got home real late last night and daddy sez theer was a time he could of beat her for that but now the police will come but he said that’s changing.  And this is why I love our new prezident.

The ‘Catholic’ Thing and the Allegory of the Leggy Brunette

From 2011, but not worth pitching out in the DeVos era

The New Oxonian

Two articles on the “value” of Catholic education got me thinking about my own recently.

Both pieces are nostalgic and mainly wrong.  One, from former LA mayor Richard Riordan spearheads a drive for $100,000,000 for Catholic schools in his region, thrumping the well-known fact that inner city public schools have failed, that charter schools are expensive and aren’t much better, while Catholic schools send most of their graduates on to college and provide “beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives. They provide a safe learning environment for those from high-crime neighborhoods as well as structure and a faith-based education.”  Does anyone see a stop sign here?

What Riordan doesn’t want to stress is that in the last forty years, and in Los Angeles like everywhere else, Catholic schools lost all of their nuns (who, by the way, were indentured teachers), most of the curriculum that made…

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