Donald Trump and the End of Virtue



The election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States in November 2016 has evoked a flurry of commentary in print media and over the internet.  Much of this commentary, especially on the progressive side, has centered on whether Mr Trump is “temperamentally suited”—fit–to be president.  This question touches on a variety of subordinate issues—his decision-making ability (prudence), trustworthiness, veracity and sense of fair play as well as his sense of proportion and ability to avoid harm to others. Beneath layers of satire and apologetics the question of temperament still nags citizens of the United States as well as observers in other countries.

The question of temperament belongs properly to two important discussions with a long history in philosophy and theology.  Primarily it concerns the question of “human nature,” a question which is now of interest not just to philosophers but to social science, psychology, and cognitive studies.  At the same time, the subject of temperament raises a particular question about character and propensities to do harm, or produce benefit, to oneself and others.  The latter topic is situated historically in discussions of virtue, a word which has a long lease in philosophical discourse but today seems almost absent in political discussion and social commentary.

The following essay attempts to deal with the matter of virtue in a way that respects formative ideas in ancient philosophy, in religion, and in contemporary ethical theory.  Because so much attention is paid to Mr Trump’s colorful rhetoric and so much time is spent defending and critiquing particular pronouncements, the focus here in not on a specific range of “sayings” or actions but on the way in which his characteristic and habitual performance illuminates the current discussion of virtue theory.

The argument here is straightforward.  It is that with Trump we reach a point in modern political life where virtue is not only absent but actively resisted and considered a political liability.  This situation mirrors a society in which the understanding of virtue has become associated with impractical, religious, or metaphysical concerns, and to the extent it is discussed at all is considered a situational rather than a habitual matter, in which action is assessed largely in terms of effects beneficial (or harmful) on an agent or on a class of people affected by his actions.

The title of this essay is intentionally ambiguous.  In ethics it has been common since the time of the classical writers to talk about ends as “outcomes” related to the intention and performance of an action, its τέλος (goal or purpose) to use Aristotle’s language.  But it also means in everyday English the final point or terminus of a process, something which for better or worse is finished.  In fact the original Greek word is the root of the word toll, a price to be paid at the end of a road. It is the contention here that with Trump we reach a kind of end-point in a particular  version of government, statecraft, and politics and that the events of his rise to power illustrate a formal division between politics as a virtuous profession (the ancient ideal), in which a contract is struck between the leader and the people on the basis of goals and aspirations for the good life, and politics as a strictly mundane business concerned chiefly with the amassing of wealth and power. The final embrace of oligarchic and plutocratic (power- and wealth- driven) forms of governance is, in practical terms, the end of virtue, since those forms of governments are formed with different ends (purposes) in view. (Piketty, Thomas (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press, p. 514)

The reader is forewarned that the discussion of Mr Trump as a test case in ethics is offered only after a rather long discussion of the idea of virtue in philosophy and religion. I hope that forbearance will reward the argument: It seems to me that this discussion is crucial if we are to anchor comments about the 45th president of the United States in specific traditions rather than in disaggregated commentary on his mystifying habits and unexplainable behavior.  Philosophy, especially ethics, has already begun the deconstruction of Trump as sui generis occurrence  but it is better, I would argue, to see him not as an anomaly but as a case the long history of discussions of leadership and virtue.

The Classical Background

Anyone who has read a little of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics knows that it’s basically about two things: happiness (which we all desire) and virtue (which we pursue more or less successfully)–a sort of “proficiency in goodness,” which the Greeks described as excellence or arête.  We still see this usage in words like “virtuoso,” a master performer—a flutist or singer.  A virtuoso is someone who does something well. ( James Stedman,  “Aristotle’s Cardinal Virtues,” Practical Philosophy 10:1, 2010)

But when we take discussion to a slightly higher level and ask, What is virtue in general?, or more specifically, What does it mean to call a person virtuous? the question becomes slippery, because not everyone can be an accomplished artist, scientist, or athlete and many people are not especially good at anything.

For Aristotle this created a puzzle:  Are there individual or particular “excellences” that point us in the right direction or touch on what it means to be virtuous in a more comprehensive way–since it would seem that no single excellence, or even some combination of them, would constitute happiness for everyone.  A virtuous person, to bring the language into our time, would be someone who excels at being human. And being human for Aristotle depends on using what we uniquely have to the best degree possible.

And what is this unique thing?  He arrives at the answer through differentiation.  Aristotle says that we possess a lot in common with plants and animals:  we need nutrition, so we have (like plants) a “nutritive spirit”; we feel and have instinct–motion and emotion–which gives us (with animals) a “sensitive” soul.  But above all we have reason, which no other creature has.  So reason, he says, is our defining difference; and to act in accordance with reason is what constitutes excellence for us.  Consequently, no one who acts against reason—that is, irrationally or unreasonably, can be said to be virtuous.  In another passage, he will say that only someone who exercises virtue in accordance with reason can be “humanly” happy–happy above a vegetative, transitory, or sensate state which satisfies the needs of the soul at those levels, but not at the rational level.

Aristotle’s definition of moral virtue is not very different from the way in which we describe actions today as being “reasonable” or “rational”— things that are done in moderation, within a range of choices, avoiding extremes of excess or deficiency: With sufficient habit and practice (as with any other kind of virtuosity) we develop a disposition to behave in the right manner, pursue what is temperate, and avoid the vices.   The analogy to musical performance is the most tempting: through practice the musician knows how to fine-tune her violin, and the tuned instrument is necessary before it functions in the desired way.  In the pursuit of virtue, the fine tuning of the soul disposes us to act in certain ways that would not be possible without consistent application of particular knowledge and skills, activated by the desire for excellence.

While reason and instruction play a role in this process, a virtuous person will assimilate the essentials of virtuous action in such a way that it becomes “habitual,” that is, embedded in character and routine.  For centuries schools all over Europe considered a student’s habituation in virtue (moral education) at least as important as the book learning that taught him skills in mathematics, rhetoric, the sciences and languages—and in fact it was the connection between being educated in these subjects and their ability to influence character that made schools incubators of moral purpose, not just knowledge-dispensaries.

 Taxonomy of Virtue

At its core virtue is a matter of having the appropriate attitude toward pain and pleasure. For example, a coward will suffer undue fear in the face of danger, whereas a rash person will not suffer sufficient fear. In the area of “honor and dishonor” a virtuous person prefers honour by being properly ambitious, but one who chooses winning at any cost—for example, through deceit, insult, bribery, or injury to another–is acting dishonorably.

Aristotle holds that this same graph applies to every virtue: all are located on a map that places the virtues between states of “too much” and “too little.” He is careful to add, however, that the mean (the via media) must be determined in a way that takes into account the particular circumstances of the individual (1106a 36-37). “The arithmetic mean between 10 and 2 is 6, and this is so invariably, whatever is being counted. But the intermediate point that is chosen by an expert in any of the crafts will vary from one situation to another.”   Aristotle breaks decisively with Plato on this point:  Virtue is a hexis (“state”), a tendency or “disposition” induced by our habits to “have appropriate feelings” (1105b25–6). Defective states of character are hexeis as well: they are tendencies to have inappropriate feelings.  For Plato, virtue was a kind of knowledge, and vice a lack of knowledge.  But for Aristotle virtue can only be achieved through habitual action.

In the Ethics (VII.1–10) Aristotle investigates “character traits.”  These characteristics are not as blameworthy as the vices but not as praiseworthy as the virtues.  The Greek terms are akrasia (“incontinence”– literally: “lack of mastery”) and enkrateia (“continence” or “mastery”). An akratic person goes against reason as a result of some pathos (“emotion,” “feeling”). Like the akratic, an enkratic person experiences a feeling that is contrary to reason; but unlike the akratic, he acts in accordance with reason. His defect in virtue consists in the fact that, more than most people, he experiences passions that conflict with his rational choice. The akratic person has a further flaw: he habitually gives in to feeling rather than reason more often than the average person.

All in all Aristotle gives us a description rather than a rule book for virtue.  At around the same time in history, the Chinese teacher Confucius (孔丘, Kǒng Qiū, 6th century BCE) and his disciples, like Mencius (Mengzi: 孟子, 4th-3rd BCE ),  were speculating on similar questions—whether, for example, we are born good or evil, and what it means to speak of “human nature.”  But it is chiefly from Aristotle and his elaborators in the Christian West and Islamic Near East, especially ibn Rushd, that we get a systematic discussion of virtue as action habitually performed in accordance with reason, avoiding extremes, and pursuing the middle way.  A man or woman without self-control, who habitually tends towards excess, and expresses in his actions the deficiency of character that comes from not cultivating virtue is akratic–morally deficient and chaotic, as Richard Kraut suggests:

It is important to bear in mind that when Aristotle talks about impetuosity and weakness, he is discussing chronic conditions. The impetuous person is someone who acts emotionally and fails to deliberate not just once or twice but with some frequency; he makes this error more than most people do. Because of this pattern in his actions, we would be justified in saying of the impetuous person that had his passions not prevented him from doing so, he would have deliberated and chosen an action different from the one he did perform. (Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Spring 2016 Edition], Edward N. Zalta, ed.)

Virtue in Religion and Theology

Christian theology, especially Catholic theology in the thirteenth century, drew heavily on Aristotle’s Ethics in its development of moral theory.  The Ethics was one of the few works of Aristotle considered safe for debate and elaboration in the European Middle Ages since his Metaphysics, not rediscovered until the twelfth century, was thought to be erroneous  on the topic of a created universe.  In his Rhetoric Aristotle suggests that “the forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, and wisdom.” (1366b1) Yet the menu of virtues we inherit from the ancient world comes not from this extended list but from Plato’s Republic (IV, 426-435).  They were expanded by writers such as Cicero in the Latin West, and later by Ss. Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas.

Prudence (φρόνησις), Justice (δικαιοσύνη), Temperance (σωφροσύνη), and Courage (ἀνδρεία), the so-called cardinal virtues, were supplemented by three theological virtues, faith, hope and love, taken from Paul’s  first letter to the Corinthian Christians  (1 Cor. 13.13).

Catholicism’s non-biblical, Aristotelian emphasis on virtue was one of the casualties of the protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, with its emphasis on salvation by grace through faith and its motivationally crippling insistence, in Calvinism anyway, on the bondage of the will.  The Catholic Church continued to hold that grace, while undeserved, could still be earned (actual grace, gratia gratis data) through the pursuit of good habits and actions, while a supernatural grace (sanctifying grace, gratia gratum faciens), was imparted by God directly, as part of Christ’s design for the Church, through its sacraments.  Aquinas in fact calls sanctifying grace “habitual” and “actual grace “punctual,” meaning individual and occasional actions that help to sustain a state of the soul which is “pleasing to God.” The ability to act virtuously comes through grace, but not without effort.  Aristotle might well have substituted the phrase “through reason” but the end was roughly the same: to encourage an adherent to act in conformity with the well-being of the soul.

Protestantism did not reject the idea of virtue but saw it as an effect or expression of a covenant between Christ and the believer: grace could not be earned through virtuous action but only through faith.  In his theoretical study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism the sociologist and historian of religion Max Weber saw this, .important distinction as a dividing line between Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Certain branches of Protestantism, especially Calvinism and various forms of Pietism (for example, the Anabaptists) had supported worldly activities dedicated to economic gain, seeing them as endowed with moral and spiritual significance.  The protestant belief in salvation through grace, combined with its characteristic belief in election (that God had predestined some to heaven, others to damnation) had profound psychological effects on masses of people: starkly said it meant that believers needed to appear to enjoy the visible signs of God’s approval and grace in their everyday life—“everyone from the cobbler to the wealthy merchant ”—so that hard work, gain,  and a healthy sense of self-sufficiency became pillars of the protestant ethic.  An old joke runs, the Quakers came to Philadelphia to do good, and they did very well indeed. Weber explains,

According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation (German: Beruf) with as much zeal as possible. A person living according to this world view was more likely to accumulate money.

The new religions (in particular, Calvinism and other more austere Protestant sects) effectively forbade wastefully using hard- earned money and identified the purchase of luxuries as a sin. Donations to an individual’s church or congregation were limited due to the rejection by certain Protestant sects of icons. Finally, donation of money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God.

In Reformation Europe but especially in Protestant America, this “work ethic” led to a suspicion of Catholic-style charity and the Roman Catholic catechesis about the corporal works of mercy.   Even now, a persistent suspicion of social welfare remains vestigially present in periodic Congressional proposals to cut “entitlement programs” like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and government subsidized health insurance.  Benjamin Franklin, who had plenty to say on the topic of thrift and money wrote “God helps those who help themselves.”  But the policy was already present even in the New England Divinity’s emphasis on “self-reliance.”  Whereas Catholicism could teach that the poor and suffering were as they were through original sin and its effects on the “propensities” of the soul, through no fault of their own, Calvinism taught a different doctrine, focusing on conspicuous rewards to the elect and conspicuous disfavor for the wicked as a result of God’s predestining judgement.  In the most extreme form of predestinationist social theory, it was possible to argue that the saved had no social or moral responsibility towards the reprobate.


It is oversimplification to say that the political tensions that define the modern political situation in America in the second decade of the twentieth century can be traced to early twentieth century diagnoses of protestant and Catholic approaches to social action.  Weber himself might have acknowledged that the real reason to see a disparate Catholic and Protestant emphasis in the analysis of social groups is that religion, rather than philosophy, reached people in greater numbers–where they lived, worked, and prayed.  Universities from the time of Duns Scotus in the Middle Ages to the time of Kant in the eighteenth developed theological and philosophical approaches to moral theory.  But these teachings affected very few outside the lecture halls of Europe and fledgling New England.  The priest or pastor in his pulpit reached hundreds of souls each week, in every city, parish, and village church. Theology shaped European civilization in direct ways:  battles were fought, wars were won and lost, immigration burgeoned, borders shifted and cultural attitudes were shaped by competing religious ideologies. (Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, New Haven: Yale, 1981)

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Catholic social teaching, a derivative of earlier, scholastic forms of moral theology, had arisen to address the demands of the industrial era.  Workers in Italy, France, Spain, Ireland and immigrant groups in America labored under such extreme hardship that in 1891 Pope Leo XIII was compelled to write what is now considered a foundational document in the history of progressive Catholic social teaching.   After the Communist Manifesto (1848), Rerum Novarum is the most significant plea for the rights of workers in its day, a time when industry and factories were overwhelmingly dedicated to the pursuit of wealth and capital gain at the expense of the working poor.  Leo wrote,

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman  accept  harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he has been made the victim of force and injustice. ( Rerum novarum, 45)

Leo’s dedication to the virtue of “mercy” (a biblical term understood to be latent in the classical idea of Justice) would be reiterated and expanded by later popes, notably Pius XI, John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Their common theme is that the virtues of love, mercy and justice (which the Thomistic Church regarded as rational and rooted in human nature) (Summa Th.  58.3) make certain demands on all people irrespective of creed or culture:  human dignity, the common good, social justice, care for the poor and the vulnerable (the homeless, the trafficked, the refugee), and responsibility towards the planet.  Every pope since the time of Leo has had something to say on these topics, most recently Pope Francis in his 2016 encyclical Laudate Si.


Protestant theology, especially in America, and especially in cities with their burgeoning immigrant populations, developed a strong tradition of social teaching to parallel the Catholic strand.  The social gospel movement, closely identified with the teaching of Walter Rauschenbusch, shared with protestant theology an emphasis on biblical tradition, but revolutionized preaching with a new interpretation of the text that eschewed the literal in favour of “ethical” interpretation, thus he rejected the idea that mainline protestant and Catholic theology held inviolable that the death of Jesus was a substitutionary atonement for the individual sins of humankind:

Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.

And again,

Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies [his] faith.

Rauschenbusch construed evil as corporate,  identifying six “social sins” that affect American society directly:  religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit (“the social group gone mad”) and mob action, militarism, and class contempt– “every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil.”  Jesus, in Rauschenbusch’s social theology, is the exemplar of how these sins affect personal life but can be overcome.  While evil has a suprapersonal origin–in militarism, individualism, capitalism and nationalism–it has a remedy in “institutional embodiments of good”– pacifism, collectivism, socialism and internationalism. If there is a crimson thread working its way through this taxonomy of virtue and evil, it is the belief that the spirit of humanity has been enslaved by greed and the dehumanizing power of the state to encourage selfishness.

Whereas both Roman Catholic and traditional Protestant theology maintained an emphasis on the individual’s responsibility before a righteous but merciful God, the social teaching of Catholicism and the social Gospel of the liberal preachers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century assumed the state’s direct complicity in enabling and perpetuating conditions that conduce to sin.

Taken to the limit, this thinking might lead to an abdication of personal moral responsibility and “free will.”  In the teaching of popes from Leo XIII to Francis it is greed and uncharitableness that thwart the “kingdom of God”; yet socialism and collectivism are not seen to be the cure (private property is seen as part of God’s plan) and so the Church maintained a healthy skepticism towards revolutionary activity–precipitated on behalf of the people by “charismatic  leaders” (Weber), only to replace one form of tyranny with the ruling “party.”  For the Catholics, an evil society is the sum total of the selfishness and sin of individuals, each of whom exercises free choice at a personal level.

For the social gospeliers the chain of causality runs from soulless institutions sustained by the need to satisfy our material needs to individuals who become spiritually empty and finally unresponsive to any form of satisfaction other than what money can buy.  In short, in a society like that envisaged by Leo XIII and Rauschenbusch, the practice of virtue has become unrewarding and almost irrelevant since it does not pay the material dividends demanded by people who have been brutalized by the desire for material gain.

The Centrality of Justice

Through Rauschenbusch (who was closely in touch with German thinking on the subject) the theme of social responsibility directly affected the activities of Reinhold Niebuhr, first-wave feminism, the civil rights movement associated with Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and the anti-War and pacifist movements of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  The practical theology of churches and seminaries across America, blended at times with new voices and themes in Christian and Jewish thought.  Secularism and various strands of humanist thought were outgrowths of the social gospel in the Unitarian, Congregational, American Baptist, German-American Freethought, and Ethical Culture Movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. With these themes, a critique of biblical tropes and images, patriarchy, and social oppression emerged: Catholic liberation theology, death of God theology, feminist, post-feminist and Post-Christian theology and ethics, and dozens of smaller trajectories flowed from these new models of ethical reflection.

While it is impossible to generalize about movements that gradually developed different agendas, it is safe to say that a lively concern for justice was the bedrock of the protest and liberation movements.  Metaphysical ideas of sin and evil were replaced by a view largely compatible with that of Rerum Novarum and the social gospel, though Rauschenbusch, unfettered by the constraints of scholastic logic and hierarchical thinking (Leo, for example, defended Roman primacy and private property as much as he scolded the ruling classes) took the message much further.

The endurance of evil was regarded as the effect of what ancient theologians had seen as a flaw in human nature—original sin in the Catholic tradition; bondage of the will in Protestantism—instantiating itself in political life and institutions, inimical to virtue, fatal to charity and reason.  Sin was, in theological terms, a deficiency which, left unchecked, made the soul unworthy of salvation.  This focus on justice as the μητέρα του αρετή–mother of virtues–was so much taken for granted in modern theology that by the twentieth century everything from Nazi-style Christian socialism to atheistic Marxist-Leninist ideology, especially Stalinism and Maoism, could be evaluated as enculturated “sins” against justice, with the state, in the person of desouled, morally destitute and unvirtuous leaders, playing the role formerly ascribed to Satan.   At the fringes of liberal theology, Evangelical Christians and some traditional Catholic groups not only opposed the thinking behind the virtue-based social justice movements but challenged the whole theological program which, it seemed to them, was not biblically-based but grounded in revolutionary and socialist doctrine.

From Justice to Virtue Ethics

In his discussion of virtue, Aquinas in the Summa asks the question whether justice is a “general virtue.”  He refers to Aristotle (Ethics 5.1) for his answer:  “The Philosopher says that ‘justice is every virtue’.”

Justice, as stated above (Article 2) directs man in his relations with other men. Now this may happen in two ways: first as regards his relation with individuals, secondly as regards his relations with others in general, in so far as a man who serves a community, serves all those who are included in that community…. It follows therefore that the good of any virtue, whether such virtue direct man in relation to himself, or in relation to certain other individual persons, is referable to the common good, to which justice directs: so that all acts of virtue can pertain to justice, in so far as it directs man to the common good. (2:2.58.5)

Aquinas sees the essentially relational aspect of justice emphasized by Aristotle in his view of “man” as a political animal, that is, as a creature in society:

A human virtue is one “which renders a human act and man himself good” [Ethic. ii, 6], and this can be applied to justice. For a man’s act is made good through attaining the rule of reason, which is the rule whereby human acts are regulated. Hence, since justice regulates human operations, it is evident that it renders man’s operations good, and, as Tully declares (De Officiis i, 7), good men are so called chiefly from their justice, wherefore, as he says again (De Officiis i, 7) “the luster of virtue appears above all in justice.

The rediscovery of the core principle of justice (which for Aristotle means balance and harmony in the soul, as well as more specifically interpersonal expressions of justice in society) is the basis for most modern discourse about virtue, especially in the study of so-called virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics is usually considered to be one of the types of so-called normative ethics, along with rule ethics (deontology) and consequentialism.  Its modern prominence is traced to a 1958 essay by the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe (“Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 33: 1–19).  “Whereas consequentialists will define virtues as traits that yield good consequences and deontologists will define them as traits possessed by those who reliably fulfil their duties, virtue ethicists will resist the attempt to define virtues in terms of some other concept that is taken to be more fundamental.”  In this respect, virtue ethics still takes seriously the tradition of practical wisdom or phronesis, which emphasizes themes that have always been central to the study of virtue:  motives and moral character, moral education, “moral wisdom” or discernment, friendship and family relationships, a deep concept of happiness, the role of the emotions in our moral life and the fundamentally important questions of what sorts of persons we should be and how we should live.

It is key to the modern discussion that individual acts of goodness do not satisfy the conditions that a consistent theory of virtue requires:  The occasional good deed, done in order to repay a debt, for example, or refraining from doing harm for fear of reprisal or punishment, or being generous in order to garner praise (to “look good”),  do not add up to virtuous action or to a virtuous state of  being.  This is why virtue ethicists tend to take seriously the question of motive, disposition and character when discussing ethical conduct.  As Rosalind Hursthouse says,

The concept of a virtue is the concept of something that makes its possessor good: a virtuous person is a morally good, excellent or admirable person who acts and feels as she should. These are commonly accepted truisms. But it is equally common, in relation to particular (putative) examples of virtues to give these truisms up. We may say of someone that he is generous or honest ‘to a fault’. It is commonly asserted that someone’s compassion might lead them to act wrongly, to tell a lie they should not have told, for example, in their desire to prevent someone else’s hurt feelings. It is also said that courage, in a desperado, enables him to do far more wicked things than he would have been able to do if he were timid. So it would appear that generosity, honesty, compassion and courage despite being virtues, are sometimes faults.

Intent, disposition, and character are all that distinguish a brave outlaw from a brave soldier: the desire to do good apart from all other considerations.

Another aspect of modern virtue ethics is its emphasis on the complex nature of deficiency or what Aristotle called vice—a  fault, flaw, or moral weakness (ἁμαρτία).  This begins with the idea that while there are comparatively few words in any language for “good” action, the number of words describing wrong action or vice are considerably greater. As Glen Pettigrove has suggested:  “We think of acts as being just, generous, merciful, truthful or courageous, but we associate virtue with “avoiding courses of action that would be irresponsible, feckless, lazy, inconsiderate, uncooperative, harsh, intolerant, selfish, mercenary, indiscreet, tactless, arrogant, unsympathetic, cold, incautious, unenterprising, pusillanimous, feeble, presumptuous, rude, hypocritical, self-indulgent, materialistic, grasping, short-sighted, vindictive, calculating, ungrateful, grudging, brutal, profligate, disloyal, and on and on.”

As in Aristotle’s time, the idea of virtue is programmatically concerned with habit and character: with acting in a good way not because one is bound to do so, or because one would be penalized for not acting in a good way but because one is “a certain kind of person”.

The ethicist Gopal Sreenivasan says that an honest person’s reasons and choices with respect to honest and dishonest actions reflect her views about honesty, truth, and deception— “Valuing honesty as she does, she chooses, where possible to work with honest people, to have honest friends, to bring up her children to be honest. She disapproves of, dislikes, deplores dishonesty, is not amused by certain tales of chicanery, despises or pities those who succeed through deception rather than thinking they have been clever, is unsurprised, or pleased (as appropriate) when honesty triumphs, is shocked or distressed when those near and dear to her do what is dishonest and so on.”  (Sreenivasan, Gopal, Mind, 111 [January]: 47–68) This means that in the field of honest action, a person cannot be judged honest on the basis of one or even a complex of honest acts, but only by the total disposition to act honestly and the agent’s reasons (motives) for acting as she does.

Donald J. Trump as a Test Case in Virtue Ethics

The current discussion of the 45th president of the United States is heavily focused on the question of character.

In dealing with Mr. Trump, the words that have become familiar are lying, deceit, self-interest, arrogance, bullying, cowardice, ignorance, and injustice.  This partial list is enough to show the principle that from a comparatively narrow range of virtue-terms, a much broader range of vices or deficiencies can be educed.   Of course sociologists, psychologists, and linguists have their own methods for exploring the behavioral aspects of Mr Trump’s performance.  There is a growing sense that the President’s  actions are “abnormal”  and out of the range of simple political analysis. In an article for New York Magazine (10 February 2017) the journalist Andrew Sullivan writes, “There is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health.  I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him?”

But if in fact Mr Trump’s behaviour is explained as a psychological condition involving delusion, then an analysis based on virtue ethics would be moot since the discussion of virtue is closely connected to the idea of rational choice. A liar is someone who knows the truth, accepts reality as it is, and for various purposes chooses to distort it.  A deluded person simply does not know the truth and what he says is not false representation but wrong representation.  Because Mr Trump’s rhetoric suggests a desire to misrepresent and alter facts, his language and actions will be regarded as deliberate and rational rather than as signs of an underlying pathology.

A virtue ethical- analysis of these activities is thus defensible for the following reasons:

A.  Typicality. Virtue analysis requires more than a snapshot of action. It demands  patterns established over time; the longer the period of time the more informative the analysis is likely to be.  A typically virtuous woman or man may respond atypically given the presence of overwhelming coercion or mental and physical-emotive states that affect decisions and outcomes.  As in the case of mental imbalance, in such exigencies the element of free choice is impaired.  The “Sophie’s Choice”-dilemma is often used in philosophy classes to illustrate this problem, whereby a mother is compelled by Nazi guards to choose one of her children to live, the other to be exterminated (William Styron, Sophie’s Choice, NY: Vintage International Edition, 1992).  Impairment of free choice is tantamount to impairment of mental processes with respect to virtuous action. In ordinary life however, we assume that certain basic conditions will obtain “in most cases,” so that the conduct of the agent can be regarded as habitual.

The virtue-ethics analysis also requires the agent to be of a certain age and level of maturity so that choices can be rationally and consciously made.  Virtue ethicists normally pay attention for example to whether a decision to act in a certain way is being made by an adolescent or an adult, on the premise that children and adolescents are at an exploratory level and as such inclined to “mess things up” (Hursthouse) as to get things right. Aristotle makes the same distinction in talking about the relationship between age and reason, marking off the ages of 7 through puberty as subrational.  A child cannot be morally responsible because a child is not rational and depends on adults for guidance (III.12.1119b13-15).


In the case of Donald Trump, his actions can be judged over a decades-long period, have been consistent in nature, observed and evaluated, and thus can be used to assess that behaviour on the spectrum of deficiency-moderation-excess.  When for example the president demeans his critics with names like “Pocahontas,” or “Crooked Hillary,” when he deliberately misstates statistics concerning crime rates, election fraud, threats from foreign nations, crowd size, or or the veracity of news coverage, these actions express tendencies which exhibit not merely a desire to misstate facts but habituation to dishonesty and a contempt for moderation.  In Aristotelian terms, Trump is an example of the akratic man who, through constant disregard for moderation, exhibits an emotional rather than a rational approach to decision-making . Moreover, as Amelie Rorty says,  akrasis is not merely a lack of judgement by an agent but a lack of mastery which is embedded in character—technically the vice of incontinence.

B.  Affect. From the time of Aristotle the question of the sociality of virtue has been significant.  This means that an agent acting in isolation (if that condition can be imagined; perhaps Hayy ibn Yaqẓān on his desert island) rather than interactively with other persons or groups, is not a good exemplar for virtue.  Indeed in some ethical systems the absence of affect would be enough to disqualify such an agent from any role in an ethical analysis.  While self-harm is always possible, suicide being the most extravagant example, it stretches the valence of the concept to call such behaviour unvirtuous.

By the same token, men and women since ancient times who are placed in positions of great responsibility—Pericles in Athens, Caesar in Gaul, Lincoln in a divided America—are in a special position with respect to virtue because their actions and choices cannot be merely private and self-referring.   A leader’s actions will affect the lives of others; those actions will say something both about the character of the leader and the character of the state.  Indeed, Plato’s discussion of virtue hinges on the idea that the state (the good city) will exhibit the virtues:  “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate [literally: healthy-minded], and just.” (427e; see also 435b); and in his declaration that we are fundamentally political animals (ζον πολιτικόν) as well as rational actors (λόγον χον)  Aristotle sees a syzygy, a yoking together, of the individually virtuous person and the harmonious state rather than a cause-effect  relationship.

The relationship between acting rationally for the common good so as to create good in the city has been fundamental not just to political theory but also to public discourse:  the art of expression (rhetoric) and of persuasion (argument, oratory, and exhortation) traditionally have  been seen as the way in which the leader “activates” his own virtue on behalf of the common good, an outward expression of his nature.  This means that appeals to passion, fear, hatred, and self-interest–which depend on exciting the crowd and encouraging emotive states or irrational behavior –are contrary to the  larger good, and hence unvirtuous.

C.  Fear-Baiting the Populace

It is a matter of record going back over decades that Mr Trump relies on appeal to passion and emotion, and especially to fear, in his public utterances.  The most famous instance was his tenacious campaign between 2009 and 2012 to encourage American citizens to believe the then-president of the United States was constitutionally unqualified to hold the office because he was born in Kenya. (D. Remnick, “Trump, Birtherism, and Race-Baiting,”  April 27, 2011.)  A related effort sought to convince Americans that Barack Obama was a Muslim (despite there being no religious test for the presidency), and his more aggressive policies toward the Muslim world since taking office, especially his executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim nations from entering the United States on the basis of the alleged danger they posed to the nation.

Trump is also known to appeal to the interests of the so-called CPAC and “Second Amendment Patriots” and the hierarchy of the National Rifle Association by inducing fear that gun-control advocates are privately plotting to seize their guns, going so far as to suggest that the Paris attacks of November 2015 could have been prevented by less stringent controls on firearms in France.  And, finally, his speeches have targeted laws protecting various minorities and vulnerable groups: gay and lesbian activists, women seeking to retain reproductive freedom, and African American, Latino and Hispanic Americans.  The effect of any one of these public antipathies would not say much about the character of an agent.  Cumulatively however, a pattern emerges that suggests deficiency in what virtue-ethics would term “honor.”  Virtue defined as the impact of the public utterances of a leader, judged from the standpoint of the effects of his rhetoric on the general population, especially upon its harmony and cohesion as a people attentive to the values of a just society.

D.  Unvirtuous Behaviour and Counter-Evidentiary Thinking.

(a) Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on November 8, 2016 in one of the most acrimonious contests in American history.  Analysts were quick to point out that he did this through employing unconventional tools and that his language during the campaign, and even after he was sworn into office on January 20, 2017, was “not the kind of thing” the American people were used to hearing from politicians. This unbridled and raw directness was seen by many of his followers to be a new kind of honesty or “straight talk” that did not obey the conventions of politics (Lakoff).  His most ardent supporters were not especially bothered by rudeness,  exaggeration, and (to use the term that came to be used mockingly of his falsehoods) his “alternate facts.”

(b) Incivility and exaggeration had two purposes: to incapacitate opposing speakers and their viewpoints and to “catastrophize” or “glamourize” information irrespective of its grounding in fact and evidence.  Among these techniques, Mr Trump liberally used ad hominem attacks–insult, impugnment, and ridicule–to discredit opponents. Thus, his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton  became  “Crooked Hilary,” a key spokesman for the opposition party, Senator Elizabeth Warren,  was christened  Pocahontas; a variety of other opponents and critics were labeled, little, weak, dull,  wishy-washy and ineffective.  Outsiders likewise were labeled dangerous, criminals, rapists, murderers, terrorists,  social freeloaders and welfare thieves.  Sometimes all of these things were enveloped in the term “loser,” in distinction to Trump’s portrayal of himself as a successful businessman, a “winner” in the wealth-conscious American context.

Conversely, no attention was given to the views of his opponents or to the contribution made to business, industry, agriculture, and education by ethnic and linguistic minorities. The technique used by Trump in relation to the latter has been labeled “race baiting,” a deliberate attempt to pit social and economic groups against each other in order to promote disharmony and crisis. The political purpose, openly espoused by his advisor Steven Bannon,  to sow discord  in order to make the prospect of “strong government” and demagogic solutions more appealing.

(c)   Trump conveyed the notion in the campaign and in his sepulchral Inauguration speech that the nation too, was beginning to take on the worst traits of his individual and social enemies, especially the alleged weaknesses of the then current administration: The United States was becoming a “loser” nation. No one respected America any longer.  Its streets were rife with death and crime.  Subject to excessive oversight and restraint, police forces had lost respect.  War could not be fought and won because the country had become soft; consequently safety lay in strong-arm solutions to the puny and overcautious measures of the administration of Barack Obama. Generals could be trusted because they knew about winning; politicians only when they agreed with him;  intellectuals, especially scientists,  never.

Similarly, the news media, often suspected of left- leaning sympathies, were seen as not only unreliable but actively engaged in producing “fake news” to undermine his administration.  Trump labeled the press the “enemy of the American people” in a Twitter feed of 19 February 2017. Evidence-based thinking–the kind of thinking typical of the intelligence community– was considered weak, slow, and inferior to the successful intuitive thinking that Trump claimed to be capable of in his “very good brain”    though it later emerged that Trump had lied about his educational achievements and academic standing as an undergraduate

The fallacy-laden approach to problem-solving and problem assessment, seen primarily in gross oversimplification of complex issues and a trivializing of risks, opposition, and counter-arguments, was implicitly an appeal to wishful-thinking, which was based on a belief that his followers relied on shortcutting rather than formal reasoning in making decisions.  Mr Trump made no effort to educate himself or his constituents on the complexity of the issues he had made his agenda: before his tenure as president began he resisted intelligence briefings, sidelined key advisors, routinely shrugged off warnings and criticism, and continued to maintain that his own powers of analysis were enough to see him through even the most complex military decisions and operations.

(d)   Trump’s race-baiting was one part of a more general pattern of conspiratorial and evidence-free thinking designed to create anxiety across the country.  Thus, in his rhetorical framing, the war against “radical Islamic extremism” had failed, despite evidence it was making steady progress.  Despite the evidence of statistics, “thousands of terrorists were flooding across the borders every day.”  The country was in “terrible economic shape” the “worst economy ever” because there had been a war on wealth and small business.  Violent crime was out of control, but he would soon “liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities”

Promising a restoration of obsolete or diminishing industries like mining and petroleum, Trump blamed “illegal aliens” and job-outsourcing for America’s economic woes, promised to build a wall to keep Mexican and other Latino and Hispanic workers out; to deport millions of undocumented workers; and to bring overtaxed industries back to the United States.  In exchange for returning manufacturing to America, industries would be offered tax breaks and an array of incentives–capped with deregulation of big business and corporations.  Companies that insisted on investing or relocating abroad would be punished with high tariffs on the import of their goods.  Certain countries like China would be called out as currency manipulators and their goods slapped with import duties. Banks would lend more freely.  The middle class would receive tax cuts, the economic top-tier bigger ones.  It would again be the free choice of a family or a corporation to go bankrupt, not overseers in Washington and New York limiting credit and restricting lending.

Despite the fact that economists savaged the incoherence of his proposals, Trump was unmoved by evidence, argument and history in repeating these tropes to his supporters.  Having accepted his word as president, not merely a candidate, listeners were asked to choose between the authority of the leader and well researched and documented sources that often showed his pronouncements to be exaggerated or false.  This ad auctoritatem approach created a dissonance especially among non-elite or less educated listeners, who found it difficult to accommodate ambiguity and disagreement in favor of the moral and practical simplicity of the leader’s descriptions and solutions. In addition, the president had an advantage the evidence- and research- based media did not, the ability to offer policy solutions to the problems he described.

(e)  As with the economy and society, Trump was dismissive of headways in education and science, especially with respect to the environment and school reform.  Proponents of the theory of global warming were derided as alarmists if not outright liars, though it was never clear what the advantage to scientists in creating the clamor might have been. Calling global warming a hoax, Trump promised to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and to renegotiate environmental treaties signed during previous administrations.  In one  famous screed, he accused China of “inventing” the science behind green house gas emissions and global warming and spreading the fear to other nations.  Trump’s non-evidentiary thinking turned towards the denial of fact and the further claim that only his facts could be relied on: the intelligentsia were in the habit of misleading ordinary people and inventing crises that simple common sense could avert.

(f)  In education, Trump favoured competition between religious schools and public schools, with vouchers being given to parents who wished to opt out of public school.  His initial solution was to appoint a dramatically unqualified woman to head the Department of Education, with the specific task of offering parents more choice in the kind of education they wanted for their children.

In matters of medical science and health, he opposed abortion rights and with the help of organized conservative religious groups championed the cause of the anti-choice cartels, mostly religiously-based and financed, and called for an end to government funding for Planned Parenthood.   Famously, he stood on the side of the conservative members of his party to defund the so-called Affordable Care Act which by the time of the campaign had provided health insurance to (2016) 30,000,000 citizens. Over 50 attempts to repeal the law had been attempted between 2010 and 2016.

(g)  Finally in the field of national security, Trump insisted on “naming” the problem “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” rather than religious extremism.  Although there had been no large scale attack on the United States since 11 September 2011, and none specifically involving recent Muslim immigrants nesting among the population, Trump convinced his supporters that the United States was being careless; that the intelligence services were not doing enough; and that the only way to deal with potential risk was to ban Muslims from entering the United States until “extreme” vetting could be carried out.  In February 2017, he issued a travel ban on Muslims from seven so-called state sponsors of terrorism, based on an outdated list from 1996, scarcely reviewed or revised since, identifying a number of countries that stood accused of terrorist or terror-related sponsorship in the Clinton administration.

The ban was reviewed and stayed in district and appellate courts and at the time of this writing is still enmeshed in judicial challenges.  The appellate courts’ fundamental objection was that Trump and his advisors had provided no evidence that citizens of the proscribed countries had any relation to terror activities inside the United States.

The terms weakness and strength are especially relevant to the catastrophizing that Trump used to persuade his supporters that “aliens” (foreign “others”) must be walled out or outlawed at the ports and airports.

Fear as Unvirtue

In classical virtue theory, fear is at the opposite end of the scale to courage, “a deficiency of bravery.”  Hence to inculcate fear in the polis is incrementally non-virtuous, even if the leader professes to be courageous himself. Anyone who reads the speeches of Pericles, Demosthenes, Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great at Opis, or the process against Cataline can see the significant rhetorical connection between bravery, honesty and honour and their role in developing the character of the polis.

In modern times, Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Barack Obama have used exhortation to encourage and inspire the polis in times of distress as have political and social leader like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.   The basic premise of their rhetoric is that to instill courage in the population is to regenerate the virtuous nature of a country.  Fear is not only a lack of courage but an incentive to do the wrong thing in time of peril.  Plato had said, “So the unwise person has a faulty conception of what is good for him. A person is courageous just in case his spirited attitudes do not change in the face of pains and pleasures but stay in agreement with what is rationally recognized as fearsome and not” (442bc).

Trump is exceptional in using fear to create insecurity along racial and personal lines;  the blanket excoriation of Islam as violent, or certain categories of foreigners as “criminals” and “rapists,” or the arbitrary demarcation of insiders and outsiders—that is, foreigners who have achieved a certain status as guests and workers and those who have no such privilege, the latter being regarded as dangerous trespassers.  The appeal itself is designed to lessen cohesion and to encourage disharmony – the key mark of an unvirtuous city.  Peace of mind and happiness (unity and harmony) according to Plato are the marks of the good polis, just as they are of the just person (Republic 369 a-b).

The End of Virtue:  Donald Trump as an Ethics-Subversive Leader

Based on actions and words going back several decades, but with special reference to his political activities in the last fifteen years and recent performance, I suggest that Donald Trump can be profitably used as an adverse example in discussions of virtue theory.   This can be done specifically with respect to particular actions he has undertaken as president and as a presidential candidate and,  by analogy, with reference to the language and public actions of past American presidents.

The main features of Trump’s subversion of virtue through political practice can be summarized as follows.  Please note, this subversion is being laid out in terms of deficiency or “vice,” in keeping with the traditional language of virtue theory:

  1. Trump lacks a deep sense of justice. Trump has followed a profit-model that values wealthy and especially white Americans while marginalizing black and brown Americans, poorer Americans, sexual minorities, women, and those with physical or mental disability.  The policies he has so far put into place reinforce his commitment to privilege, whilst garnering support through appeals to lower income and low information voters, white supremacists, and a variety of populist, nativist,  “hard-right,” and fringe groups (his “base”).
  2. Trump lacks a deep concept of happiness. Trump is the first president in American history to pay no attention to human values and virtue-formation as a higher level of satisfaction than the accumulation of profit.  To be clear, past presidents have worried about the state of economy, the level of employment, downticks in trade or manufacturing and fluctuations in wages and purchasing power. In every case the appeal has been to improving the lot of the neediest. Trump however is the first president to equate human satisfaction with wealth.  In addition to constant references to his personal wealth, he has surrounded himself with plutocrats in almost every department of government, has failed to divest control of his companies, and also failed to disclosed his income tax returns.  By analogy, if one looks at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 Inaugural address, we find this:

Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.

  1. Trump is deficient in honesty. In his actions and public utterances Trump condones the irrational, the fantastic, the exaggerated and the improbable in ways that approach adolescent thinking.  He has shown contempt for science, intellectual pursuits, traditions of religious wisdom, the arts, and literature.  His intellectual diet of fringe news, newspapers, stock market reports and conspiracy-theories (and those who share his passion for the fantastic) suggests an addiction to non-evidentiary thinking.  At a personal level this deficiency shows itself in unfairness and often contempt towards factual research, correction, and vital information.  Moreover, he often does not regard his statements as falsifiable, a feature of a cognitive disorder described by Robert Lahy as the “inability to disconfirm.”   Trump has been slanderous towards political enemies, the press, the judiciary system, the American intelligence community, and “hard evidence” concerning failed policies and executive decisions.
  2. Trump is deficient in compassion: “Mercy” in the classical system was an adjunct of justice and often was exhibited in how character displayed itself as “valour” after military victory.  Often it was seen as an undeserved act of generosity towards an opponent, or a willingness to forego certain rights that fell to a victor following a conquest, consonant with the lex talionis.  The paradigm in classical times was the “Clemency of Scipio,” an episode recounted by Livy of the Roman general Scipio Africanus who, following a victory in Spain, refused a generous ransom for a young female prisoner, returning her to her fiance Allucius.  However in its Christianized form, mercy has less to do with displays of generosity than with the belief that (on the pretext that God forgives those who forgive others: Matthew 6.12) mercy itself symbolizes our commitment to “suffering humanity,” a principle that can also be traced back to Confucius and the primum non nocere (above all,  do no harm) axiom of ancient Greece.  Trump has consistently shown a lack of charity to immigrants, the economically disadvantaged, refugees and domestic minorities.  His appeals to fear have essentially pitted group against group and majorities against minorities, creating a kind of tribalism in which those who have achieved success have no moral or fiscal responsibility for those who cannot help themselves.  Trump is the first United States President to enshrine callousness into policy though it has roots in the austere Calvinist theology of Election of the seventeenth century
  3. Trump is deficient in Bravery. In what we called above “fear-mongering” Trump has displayed a weakness that has been the subject of philosophical discussion since the time of Socrates, but flourishes especially in the language of Aristotle: “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”  In his usage Aristotle sees courage or bravery not in military terms (that is, he does not identify it with military strength or power, which in itself is morally neutral) but is terms of individual willingness to show bravery in the face of “hardship, agony, despair” and adverse circumstances.  A strong military may provide security, but not courage, and a country that would use its military power or technology rashly might do so for unvirtuous reasons.   Trump’s junta-like approach to security, surrounded by generals as decision-makers, shows a deficiency of courage and a marked tendency to encourage fear in the population, confuting the defensive role of the polis with bravery.  The classical models of the dilemma between heroism and strength was epitomized in the Odyssey by the characters of Hector and Achilles:  Hector leads with a mature sense that gives his men reason to respect him, illustrating the unity of the virtues of honour and bravery. Achilles fights out of rage, because he is rash, and inspires fear (VI.21-24). Achilles is thus the paradigm of risk, impetuousness, and revenge in classical thought.
  4. Trump is deficient in moderation. Rosalind Hursthouse observes that

    A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not just a tendency to do what is honest or generous, nor is it to be helpfully specified as a “desirable” or “morally valuable” character trait. It is, indeed a character trait—that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor, something that, as we say  “goes all the way down,” unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—but the disposition in question, far from being a single track disposition to do honest actions, or even honest actions for certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. Hence the extreme recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis of a single action.

Judged strictly on the basis of habitual performance, Trump is the model of Aristotle’s akratic man, deficient in self-control, moderation, justice,  honor, courage and temperance with  an inability to control impulse–arrogant in victory, dishonorable and and petulant when thwarted or defeated.

Zhejiang, Hangzhou, 2017

The Sudan Imperative

by R.  Joseph Hoffmann



In 1993, the United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism – a distinction currently shared by just six other countries, including Iran and Syria.

With Sudan still in his sights, President Clinton on 20 August 1998, ordered a Cruise missile attack on the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Khartoum.  The pretext for the strikes launched by the United States military was retaliation for the truck bomb attacks on its embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya on 7 August, 1998.  Specifically, the Clinton administration alleged that the al-Shifa plant was involved with processing the deadly nerve agent VX and had ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network–believed to be behind the embassy bombings and a larger terrorist plot labeled “Bojinka.”

Also on 20 August, missiles hit al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, where bin Laden and his closest advisors had migrated. By the time Clinton ordered the attack, bin Laden had been expelled from Sudan by President Omar al-Bashir’s order: Sudan, which had previously and unsuccessfully sued for normal relations with the United States, became the only Middle Eastern country to deport him. When eventually he was discovered and killed, he had been given refuge in Pakistan for a period of at least eight years, without serious consequence to US-Pakistani relations.


Why was the United States Administration fixated on the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical plant while the CIA was focused on possible links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, links that proved illusory and did not involve the production of deadly chemical weapons?  Timothy Noah writing in Slate   said, “The best guess … is set forth in an October 1998 piece by the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl suggested that a man named Mubarak Fadl Al Mahdi put the word out that Al-Shifa was mixed up with chemical weapons in order to hurt the plant’s owner, Salah Idris, who was a political enemy of Mahdi’s. Mahdi admitted to Pearl that he’d made it his business to collect information about the plant after Idris bought it. Pearl further reported that after the bombing, Mahdi issued a communiqué that said Al-Shifa had harbored ‘Iraqi scientists and technicians’ and that most pharmaceutical plants in Sudan weren’t ‘manned by foreign experts.’ (Mahdi denied having said anything about this before the bombing, and U.S. intelligence officials denied that they’d relied on anyone with a motive to hurt Idris.)”

In the fraught anti-terrorist environment of the period between August 1998 and 11 September 2001, Iraq and al- Qaeda were often linked in the intelligence imagination of the United States.  This remained true even after the attacks of 9-11, when the dubious but repeated assertion of Iraq’s involvement in making “weapons of mass destruction,” including VX and other nerve agents, served as a pretext for the invasion of that country and the overthrow of its military leader Saddam Hussein.  After 9/11, Noam Chomsky equated  the Al-Shifa bombing with the toppling of the World Trade Center towers, an act of wanton, premeditated violence against a soft target costing hundreds of lives. The comparison was lost in the emotionally volatile period after the destruction of the World Trade centre, but the irony of the events was not missed in parts of the Middle East.

Yet the failure of investigators to discover any evidence of CW production during any of the period of US involvement in Iraq through 2011 did not cause the United States government under presidents Bush or Obama to revisit the stated reason for the destruction of the al-Shifa medical facility or rethink alleged, and by all accounts strained, connections between the government of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and that of  Sudan under Omar al-Bashir, both of whom opposed (and had reason to fear) the Islamic extremism represented by Osama bin Laden’s cartels.    While there is every reason to suppose bin Laden was behind the attacks on the African embassies, it is equally clear that Sudan had no role to play and remained docile in its relations to other African nations and also in relation to “rogue” countries like Libya, a traditional ally and benefactor of Sudan.  As late as November of 2001, four years after the al Shifa attack,  John Bolton, then U.S. Undersecretary of State, announced at the BTWC in Geneva that the United States was ”concerned about Sudan’s growing interest” in biological weapons, and suggested Sudan was among five nations believed to be pursuing  germ warfare.


In 1997, former US President Bill Clinton had issued an executive order that imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on Sudan and froze its assets in the US. In 2006, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, issued another executive order targeting those involved in the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. The sanctions have continued unabated and were renewed for a further year in November 2015 under the Obama administration.

There is little likelihood that they will be lifted in the lifespan of a Donald Trump presidency, given his inattentiveness, his lack of perspective on the region, and his malice for Muslims in general. Trump’s tendency so far has been to personalize Islamic violence:  He has, variously, suggested imposing a ban on Muslims travelling to America, advocated ethnic and religious profiling, and registration of Muslims living in the United States. Mr. Trump calls this “hyper-vetting” but by any other name it creates a religious test for lawful immigration and a blockade against legal residency and citizenship that it clearly a violation of the United Sates Constitution.  Given Trump’s almost complete ignorance of Islam as a religion, his dismal sense of geography, history, politics, and culture, and his overreliance on military advisors, it is too much to expect that he would listen to a case for lifting sanctions when it has not been high on the agenda of any president since Clinton imposed them in 1997


Was There Ever a Case for Sanctions

According to an article in Huffington Post by Esther Sprague of a pro-sanction religious organization called “Sudan Unlimited,”entitled Understanding Sudan and US sanctions, the penalties were created to bring Sudan president Omar al Bashir’s regime to heel for its oppressive policies towards his citizens and his use of the militias to quell disturbances and maintain order:  “Bashir’s objectives are three-fold,” she writes, “to maintain control of Sudan at all costs; to steal the resources of the country for his benefit and for the benefit of his narrow base of supporters and allies; and to change the multicultural identity of Sudan into a single Arab Islamic identity. Bashir has partially accomplished his objectives since seizing power in 1989 by instituting a policy of divide and rule among Sudan’s diverse population that has allowed him to use the people of Sudan to kill and displace each other, freeing up resources for exploitation and land for occupation by Arab allies; by marginalizing and disempowering indigenous populations; and through massive corruption that has destroyed the state while enriching the foreign bank accounts of a select few.”  According to Sprague, even though she styles sanctions an “imperfect weapon,”  “financial and economic pressure are the only language Bashir is likely to understand.”  Curiously, she thinks the majority of Sudanese recognize this and despite economic grievances (felt in all quarters—from banking to corner markets and medical supplies)—she feels continued pressure is the best and only way: “In order for Bashir to maintain a grip on the country, he must keep his supporters happy or at least well compensated, which is proving harder to do as Sudan’s economy continues to constrict as a result of the implementation of sanctions, largely led by the United States. This continued pressure is welcome news for the majority of Sudanese people, who have asked for these economic measures to be taken in order to help create change that ultimately may provide more of an opportunity for the Sudanese people and future generations to enjoy justice, peace and prosperity.”  Sprague’s risible suggestion–that the cure for hardship  is a longer period of hardship–is belied by the fact, verified in a series of United Nations reports and anecdotal observations from visitors to Sudan,  that the longer the sanctions last the more tenacious the suffering faced by ordinary Sudanese becomes.

A more measured approach is taken by Ahmed Saeed in Al Jazeera. Sayeed properly notes that the sanctions were originally imposed to stop Sudan sponsoring terrorism. He cites the visit of the United Nations Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy who concluded that the measures are failing to accomplish their objectives: “The reality on the ground has proved that these measures do not have a negative impact on officials or on any elite group,” Jazairy wrote after his visit, following US extension of sanctions on 3rd November 2015.”Their full impact is on innocent citizens and on a deepening of the gap in income distribution within the Sudanese society and between provinces.”  Rabie Abd Alaatie, a member of the NCP’s leadership office, said the sanctions have also affected Sudan’s imports. “The foreign currency reserve is very scarce due to the sanctions. This affects the importation of goods, sometimes vital commodities such as wheat…The comprehensive trade embargo is the set of measures which are affecting the lives of the Sudanese citizens. They have so far not been able to serve the purpose of modifying the policies of the government of Sudan, but have for sure affected many regular people’s ability to conduct business, transfer money, and go about regular everyday life activities.”

The Evidence is Against Sanctions

It is simple logic and history, where sanctions are concerned, that misery trickles downward to ordinary people while wealth stays at the top. Leadership groups and elites, and the clients who protect them, weather the storm of economic hardship better than ordinary citizens.  Unlike warfare, where civilian populations are targets of last resort, sanctions are aimed at governments in order to cause as little collateral damage as possible.  But the idea that sanctions work, given a long enough time to bite, is folly—whether we look at the case of Cuba, North Korea, Syria, or Iran.  Governments control economies, distribute both goods and services, and control banks and trade.  The use of the phrase “well-targeted sanctions” does little to change the fact that sanctions will end up hurting economic “civilians” while financial elites and leaders will find ways (and can find ways) to avoid the most difficult aspects of embargoes and currency restrictions.

This being so, there is both a pragmatic and a humanitarian argument for ending the embargo of Sudanese goods and the currency and trade restrictions now in place against the Republic of Sudan. As Doug Bandow has written in his Forbes magazine article on the subject, the sanctions, like the dog in the Conan Doyle story, doesn’t bark.  The pragmatic reason is ineffectiveness.  The humanist reason consists in consequences to the people of the Sudan, where in some areas the poverty rate runs to 50 percent.

Moreover, if counter-terrorism is measured in statistics, then Washington can claim the sanctions have done their job and lift them: Since 9/11 the administration’s latest terrorism reports have consistently stated: “During the past year, the government of Sudan continued to support counterterrorism operations to counter threats to U.S. interests and personnel in Sudan.”  And Sudan has been moving closer to America’s alliance partners in the Middle East—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States. In Libya, Khartoum has shifted its support from Islamist to Western-backed forces. Sudan has historically been friendly to the United States, while the United States has adopted a much more proprietary stance towards Sudan since the accession of Omar al-Bashir in 1989.

The rationale for sanctions as a penalty for the government’s ethnic wars has also largely disappeared: If Darfur to the west is still occasionally restive, a peace agreement with southern Sudanese ultimately was reached, leading to the formation of the Republic of South Sudan, which has recently been in the news for its own civil war.  The trouble in South Sudan casts a backward light on Sudan’s attempts to quell disturbances prior to the partitioning of the country. Yet South Sudan enjoyed the immediate favour of the United States while Sudan itself was given no credit in the process and left out in the economic cold.


The separate insurgency in Sudan’s west, around Darfur, starting in 2003 led to the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court. But the Darfur conflict is slowly subsiding. Moreover, as Colum Lynch has written in Foreign Policy, the sanctions proved totally worthless, and some would say counterproductive, as a mechanism to discipline the government during the worst days of the crisis in 2011.  The charges of corruption, and the indictment of Bashir by the ICC,  are very weak grounds for the continuation of sanctions, especially as the court’s decision is opposed by the African Union, League of Arab States, Non-Aligned Movement, and the governments of Russia and China.  Moreover, Bashir’s popularity in the country actually swelled following the ICC judgement,  in a classic Us versus Them scenario– the result of the isolation and self-protective reflexivity that sanctions have aroused in the population.

Hurting Minorities as Well as the Majority

Sudan has been labeled a “Country of Particular Concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, yet religious discrimination and repression is far more pronounced in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which the United States counts as allies. American Christians are among the loudest advocates of a continued sanctions regime in Sudan whilst Sudanese Christians are almost unanimous in their dislike of them:  Says Rev. Filotheos Farag of Khartoum’s El Shahidein Coptic Church, “we want to cancel all the sanctions.” Uninformed about the comparatively small Coptic, orthodox, protestant,  Roman Catholic-Christian presences in the country (about 3,000,000, now mainly in South Sudan) the Christians on the other side of the world are largely of an evangelical-missionary type and unaware of the complexity of the religious dynamics in the country. While all non-elite Sudanese are disadvantaged by the embargo, the small Christian community is affected disproportionately and Sudanese Christians complain that they are among those most hurt by sanctions. This is because many churches depend on donations which cannot be transferred easily in hard currency: supplies are hard to buy, replacement costs, furnishing and basic necessities for churches are difficult to locate and to purchase.

A consistent message from Christian  clerics like Hafiz Fassha, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor at the Evangelical Church of Khartoum North, is that the pain is felt among “marginal populations, especially in medical services and education.”  He prays for the lifting of controls, which “are like putting oil on a fire.”  Isaiah Kanani of the Presbyterian Nile Theological College reported that “sanctions are affecting everyone in the community in every corner of the country.” Unfortunately, “the grassroots feel it very harshly.” He points to lost jobs and people relocating for work. Moreover, while people believe the government is not responsible for these problems, their “eyes fix on the government to find a solution.”  And to the north in Port Sudan, Father Antonio Manganhe Meej observed that “Poor people feel it more…While the U.S. might believe it is punishing the government…it is only punishing the people.”  Meej concluded glumly that when parents aren’t able to pay their school fees “it is becoming impossible to run our schools.”

Lifting Sanctions is a Moral Imperative for the United States Government

U.S. sanctions have lost any purpose they once may have had. And it is not clear that the sequence of events leading to Sudan’s being classified with Iran, Syria and North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism” was justified when the tag was first applied in 1993.

Three times in the past two decades Sudan has appeased the United States and gotten nothing in return but a prolongation of economic hardship.

When the CIA demanded the expulsion of Osama bin Laden after the embassy bombings in East Africa,   Sudan complied.  The United States countered that what it had really wanted was his extradition.  When the United States demanded stricter anti-terrorist measures within the borders of Sudan, Sudan increased surveillance and counter-terrorism operations to become, virtually,  the only terror-free zone in the immediate region—which includes Somalia,  Eritrea, Kenya, and Djibouti.  When the United States complained about excessively harsh and in some cases lethal measures against ethnic minorities in Darfur and minority religious and ethnic groups in the South, Sudan negotiated to partition the south and accept its existence as a separate state, South Sudan. Since these measures were taken, Darfur has become less restive and South Sudan has emerged as Africa’s newest country, though one beset by the same turbulence that characterized it before the partitioning.  The government in Khartoum, as most observers now recognize   is hardly responsible for the tribalist, ethnic and religious fractures in that society.

The United States since the Indian Wars has developed an ugly reputation for breaking treaties and backtracking on contacts and promises. But Sudan is a particularly ugly case of American deal-breaking. Ugly because it is difficult to know what now the country must do in order to appease Washington and restore economic ties.  A million voices are saying that the world has changed since sanctions were first imposed. Washington’s policy toward Sudan should change as well. As  Doug Bandow has argued in a variety of op-ed and analytical essays, “Politics today in Sudan is authoritarian, but that has never bothered Washington”—in Egypt, in Pakistan, and perhaps above all in Saudi Arabia—ironically a nation that has never been indicted as a state sponsor of terrorism. Meanwhile, it has gone to war in chaotic countries like Afghanistan and (now, due to its interventions) Iraq and Syria without being able to impose or solicit the kind of cohesion and relative tranquility that Sudan currently enjoys–without its assistance.

There will be a further consequence to United States’ indifference and callousness in Sudan:  Among the more perverse effects of sanctions has been to encourage Khartoum to look for friends elsewhere. State Minister Yahia Hussein Babiker has said that we are “starting to get most of our heavy equipment through China.” Chinese guests, businessmen, dealers, and workers are a common sight in Khartoum and hotel restaurants offering Chinese dishes (like the “Panda Restaurant” ) are expanding in all parts of the capital.  China is in Africa to stay—just as, sitting in my University study in Hangzhou, Africa, in the form of exchange students and guests, is in China.

The United States should not expect Sudan to hold its breath as the sanctions-regime unravels pointlessly and as Sudan becomes yet another in China’s long and growing list of bilateral trading partners and new best friends.  An enlightened Washington would have seen it coming.  But the real-world Washington is a very poor beacon of commonsense and a poor guardian of its own economic self-interest.


Paradigmatic Unsuitability: An Indictment of Donald J. Trump


READERS of this page will know that I don’t do editorials.   I do essays, sometimes long and turgid essays, on things that interest me, matter to me, worry me.

That is why I am playing against type and writing a short op-ed on Donald Trump.

I am deeply worried about something that everyone has said, and most have believed, but now  in the wake of media “normalization” activity and legitimation maneuvers we are in danger of forgetting.  After all, just as the media got simply everything wrong about the election, including the outcome, they persist in persisting to think that they can create a new narrative and a new frame for a man who by any normal measure comes up small and short. That “something” is that Mr Trump is unfit for office.

Some additional thoughts are printed at Ophelia Benson’s lovely site, Butterflies and Wheels, concerning Trump’s boneheadedness about China and what makes a country “great.” Despite Trump’s victory chat to Presidents Xi and Putin (within minutes of his election) China in the person of its environment minister Liu Zhen Min had the good sense to remind Trump that his claim that China “made up” global warming and thus could disappear it (while the US went on its merry coal-burning, carbon spewing way) was a gross fiction.  Not an encouraging start to being being best buddies down the road,where deal-making handshakes and back-slaps aren’t a substitute for real policies that affect real people in a non-virtual world.

This little screed is short and painful. It rests on a simple premise. Just as no one on the Democratic side managed to say that Trump’s definition of greatness was an absurdity because it was nothing more than a crabbed and nostalgic vision of little America, they also never managed to come up with a coherent list of reasons supporting the unfit-to-govern meme they tried to sell, preferring instead to itemize his daily wowsers, tweets and untruths as though the American people are smart enough to judge for themselves and can make the distinction between moral reprobacy and an email server. But as we know from the outcome,  they can’t.

The coalition of supremacists, gun-lovers and their wives, Hillary-haters and their husbands, low intelligence (it isn’t really only information they lack, is it?) voters who really think the future is with dirty coal and more oil, and Evangelical hicks who love reprobates because Jesus loves to forgive them–that coalition took the gold.  They took it to be sure by 1,000,000+ votes short of a majority.  But in America, in our inviolable constitutional system, that is close enough to call a win a win.  It is why for the second time in less than twenty years the winner has lost the general election.

But that, as Parson Thwackum might say, is crumbs.

I don’t know what unfit for office really means.  In a matter of weeks, the president -designate may well be indicted and convicted of a crime.  That would indeed be a crisis because the Constitution doesn’t have a successor-role for an uninaugurated vice president-elect. I savour the possibility of that crisis, but I think the just deserts will come after a year.

Instead, let me push for the phrase  “paradigmatically unsuitable” to describe Mr Trump. By that I mean not someone who is temperamentaly unfit to govern or have nuclear codes in his corset, but someone who epitomizes in his words, and deeds, and person the antithesis of those qualities that women and men since the founding of the Republic have identified with being suitable for high office . Not virtue.  Not even intelligence, really. Quality.

Donald J. Trump is paradigmatically unsuitable for the Presidency –

  • Because our children will be learning, in the normal course of their secondary and college education, science facts that he rejects–global warming and evolution being only the most conspicuous of these facts
  • Because minorities and the vulnerable  will be subjected to policies based on white paranoia
  • Because he does not know the world at even a sophomore  level–befriending China and Russia and quarantining Iran, whose doors are open to business with Iran and investment in Iran
  • Because he supports tyrants like Assad and Erdogan and cannot take a principled stance about terror-exporting nations like Saudi Arabia
  • Because he thinks a repeated or undetected lie is  a truth
  • Because he is carnal and disgusting in his view of women
  • Because he claims to be smart and isn’t, religious and isn’t, compassionate and isn’t; because it is impossible to know the difference between what he believes and what he  speaks
  • Because he has no coherent  view of American priorities in space, medical research, technology, trade, social progress, or national direction
  • Because he does understand the Constitution and regards the Supreme Court as tool of ideological advantage
  • Because he will not defend the arts and humanities and regards them as superfluous and merely decorative
  • Because he does not think health-care is a right
  • Because he considers federal assistance to the needy an extravagance, while the rich pay no taxes
  • Because he is probably guilty of crimes and certainly guilty of moral lapses.

No leader can be a perfect model for citizens to follow. But no leader should be elected because a mob in an iconoclastic frenzy choose change at any cost, and in that frenzy choose the man that most resembles their unworthy, reprehensible, paradigmatically unsuitable selves.

Donald Trump’s Imaginary Band

Post-convention repeat

The New Oxonian


When Professor Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, to start a marching band he encounters a group of stubborn locals who don’t cotton to strangers but do like music. They have a barbershop quartet, a music teacher, a library whose benefactor mysteriously left the books to the librarian and the building to the city council, and  a long tradition of prescribed charity, marked by being willing to help, without really loving, one’s neighbour.

Harold Hill is a flim-flam man, a character in American  letters that goes back to folklore and the tall tales of frontier humour and reaches its apex in the story of the Duke and Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. (Even the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz is a  moral version of the species) They are frauds and hucksters pitting their wits against the dull denizens of  the flat, dull central and prairie states, and they are riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen…

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The Death of the Curé of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray


“All our religion is but a false religion, and all our virtues are mere illusions and we ourselves are only hypocrites in the sight of God, if we have not that universal charity for everyone – for the good, and for the bad, for the poor and for the rich, and for all those who do us harm.”  St Jean-Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars.

Father Jacques Hamel, an auxiliary priest appointed to the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, was celebrating morning mass on Tuesday when two men barged into the church, seized the old man, forced him to his knees and slit his throat. They then said prayers in Arabic while circumambulating the altar, in a charade of Catholic liturgy, and one preached a short sermon from the ambo.

It is another episode in the ongoing attempt by ISIS to produce ever-more grotesque warnings to unbelievers that their brand of Islam still believes in seventh-century forms of sacrifice and talion as the price of unbelief. Beheadings, mass execution, dismemberment, burning, and vivisepulture are all on their menu. Human sacrifice is an innovation—so new that French authorities who have provided security to mosques and synagogues had not thought to do the same for the ancestral faith.  After all, who would kill a country priest at the altar?

Following spasms of violence by self-radicalized IS  “soldiers” in Nice, Munich and Orlando, this latest episode seems to differ only in the mechanism of death.  If IS measures its success in body counts and damage done, this appears to be a relatively modest example of its outreach.

But that is the wrong way to see this event.

Like many European countries, France prides itself on being “post-Christian”: secular and pluralistic.  Its indifference to religion is more pro-active than its neighbours’–extending to rules against the wearing of hijab and other displays considered offensive to the spirit of the Republic.  To Rome, France is the “eldest daughter of the Church.”  But its ecclesiastical privilege has to be shared with a tradition of hostility towards religion exemplified in the writings of Voltaire, Diderot, and above all Paul-Henrl Thiry, (Baron d’Holbach) who wrote in 1769,

“Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.”

The secular and revolutionary spirit that was directed against French religion in general, Catholicism especially and the Jesuits in particular, was mitigated by the Reign of Terror (1791-1793), a chapter in French cultural history that proved that excess and passion are not the sole property of religion, and that revolutionary zeal is subject to the disconfirming experience of ordinary citizens who crave peace, calm, reassurance—the things religion had traditionally offered.  This tension in French culture has been a constant from the early nineteenth century until today: A country committed to the secular, actively indifferent to religion (in a way Americans and even the British and Germans are not), but aware that French intellectual culture is shot through with the ancient remains of the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Derrida’s deconstruction of apophatic theology is only original if one ignores the whole history of French philosophy from the time of Irenaeus of Lyons, prompting some of his contemporaries to comment that French intellectualism is immersed in religion as a fish is in water. One can flop around on dry land for a bit, but not survive there.

In the last  century and a half,  as Rome has increasingly lost its political hold on Europe and the difference between Catholics and skeptics has become a matter of inflection, Christianity (at a domestic level) has become a benign and pastoral thing. Unlike England, occasions of state in France are secular affairs.  Unlike America, the political process (until recently anyway) was largely unaffected by religion.

But that is changing, even in the political sphere. Religious commentary and Biblical references are on the rise; during the 2007 presidential campaign two of the candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, both raised as Roman Catholics, made a number of positive references to their faith.  The French media is increasingly open to asking candidates about how their religious faith affects their decision making or enriches their life.  Even on the left, anti-globalisation activist José Bové cites his indebtedness to Catholic values, and Marie-Georges Buffet, the head of the French Communist Party strongly opposes any anti-religious interpretations of French secularism.  The attitudes are broadly in harmony with the views of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, which while not advocating return to the privileged status of the Catholic church pre-1905 call for France and Europe generally to remember where it came from: that the values of peace, fraternity, and compassion are rooted in the Gospel and are part of the historical legacy of the Church.   In France, more than other places, this legacy also includes philosophy, music, the arts and distinctively French literary movements, including postmodernism and hermeneutics.

The parishioners of Saint Etienne de Rouvray probably do not care much about history or Emmanuel Levinas.  They had gathered in a safe and familiar space to celebrate a familiar rite with a trusted priest.  Mercea Eliade envisages such familiarity when he defines what is meant by a “sacred space.” An obvious example for us, he writes in The Sacred and the Profane,  is the church, whose door is a threshold between the profane on the outside and the sacred inside.  An equivalent to the church in archaic cultures was the sacred enclosure, which opened upwards towards the sky, the world of the gods.  Believers going into a church leave the world of chaos outside.  Their purposes are not practical, but to make contact with something that transcends a world where bills have to be paid, children have to be collected from school, and wages have to be earned.  For all the secularizing that has gone on in the last two centuries, many people still find the door of a church an access to an enclosure that protects them from the grim realities of everyday life.  In a word, it is where God speaks to them, consoles them, and protects them.

The IS “soldiers” who invaded this enclosure with knives drawn and who slit the throat of an 85 year old priest in the name of Allah, the greatest, the merciful, achieved something they had not yet managed to achieve:  Sacrilege. It doesn’t matter that French atheists in a Normandy village or in the city of Rouen with its magical cathedral, immortalized by Monet, don’t believe the doctrine of the Catholic church, don’t take communion, and don’t ask their children to say the rosary as their grandparents might have done. They will still understand and react to the violation of what Eliade called “the holy.”  Catholics everywhere will react viscerally to this ritual slaughter because they will remember the Church’s teaching that the priest, in a special and sacramental way, represents Christ.  And they will make the distinction between a priest sitting on a park bench reading le Figaro or zig zagging to avoid a weaponized truck in Nice who “happens” to get caught up in an act of absurd violence, and a priest exercising his office, celebrating the Eucharist while standing at the altar.

Once upon a time, we called men like Father Jacques “martyrs.”  The word simply means witnesses. We won’t do it this time, because to do so would dignify the role of his assassins as legitimate combatants rather than as violent criminals.  It would also put the Church at war with an insidious form of Islamic fundamentalism. The Pope has called the sacrifice of Father Jacques “senseless” and “absurd.”  Looked at as an act of simple violence, perhaps that’s the best way to frame it. Yet violence is never simple and never totally absurd.  For the people of France, evaluating day by day their relationship with a religiously chaotic world, the desecration of the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, has significance far beyond the door of the church.



The Confraternity of Saint Charles: Random Thoughts on Darwin Devotion

In celebration of Pope Francis’s declaration to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last month that evolution is true, this tribute to Darwin.

The New Oxonian


What does it mean to “believe” in Darwin’s theory of evolution? What would the sage himself have thought about his cult? It’s a bit like asking what Jesus would have thought about a high Mass or a Pentecostal healing service.
We are treated every year to new polls—Harris, Gallup, Pew—giving us new and conflicting statistics about how many people (read: Americans) believe in evolution. And the “correlation” between that poll and other tedious statistics—American religiosity, for example—is impossible to ignore.

So let’s just bottom line it. Many more Americans than people in other marginally civilized countries do not believe in evolution. Coming from a country that has a larger number of Nobel Laureates than some countries have tall buildings, this is shocking. Coming from a country where little Johnny can’t find America on a flat map of the world but can recite the books of the Old Testament backwards, not…

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The Myth of Christian Fundamentalism


The word “evangelical” has been used to include so many Christian groups over the last century that it has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Evangelical Christians need not be “fundamentalists”—a term that in its heyday (around the time of the First World War) was used in America to distinguish between a belief in the inerrancy and moral supremacy of the Bible and another philosophy called, in the media of the day, “modernism.” In that quarrel, the famous Scopes trial was the manufactured darling. Most Christians who consider themselves Evangelical aren’t Pentecostal, a term that refers to a belief in the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through everyday life—especially in preaching, healing and moral decision-making. A close cousin of the Pentecostal movement is Charismatic Christianity, which has occasionally bridged the divide between robust protestant varieties of “Holy Ghost religion” (“pigeon religion”) and American Catholicism.

Evangelicals tend to be social conservatives. They like their bible strong but not 100-proof. Many are open to discussion about LGBT issues and contraception, but less open to gay marriage and abortion. There are things they have in common with Pentecostals and the more strident forms of biblical fundamentalism, but age, privilege, and education tend to divide them from these other strata. Most Evangelicals are patriotic; most are God Bless America Republicans; almost all tend to be what the press has christened social conservatives and defenders of family “values.” In modern parlance, an Evangelical is a negotiator: some are accommodationists, and some are reformers. The idea that an Evangelical is a fundamentalist who was successful at business and moved to the suburbs isn’t all that far-fetched.

Jerry Falwell (d 2007), Pat Robertson and James Hagee are fundamentalists. Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts (d 2009) and Kenneth Hagin (d 2003) Are Pentecostals. A subset of Pentecostals are Charismatic preachers like Benny Hinn (b 1953) and prosperity-gospel ministers like the Rev. T D Jakes. After a while, it’s merely tedious to chart the doctrinal and stylistic differences that separate these groups and subsets, which is why the term Evangelical—the broadest possible and most inclusive term to describe conservative Jesus- believers, becomes a convenient way of glossing over differences that outsiders don’t really care about anyway.

I am a soft-shell, no-sell (non-proselytizing) atheist. I don’t like conservatives of any description very much—social, political or religious. But in the interest of fair play and clarifying a thing or two, I have to say this. Christian conservatives, even that subset of Christian fundamentalists, aren’t very dangerous. They will not start shooting at you from the rooftops because you don’t believe in the thousand year reign of Christ, or blow themselves up in a mall because you think the Atonement is a metaphor. In fact, it was partly in the interest of protecting the forerunners of these minority groups and their quasi-pacifist and isolationist tendencies that Thomas Jefferson (who deemed them annoying but harmless) wrote in a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptists (1802):

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience.”

The principle was firmly rooted before the 19th century (largely a result of 100 years of religious struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and aristocrats, commoners and clergy (in France, the “estates”) on the social side, but first enshrined in the American Constitution. It wasn’t there to keep religion in its place. It was there to say that religion as religion has nothing to do with the decisions of the state and should not be used to inform or govern the decisions of the state.

We have come a long way since then. Most of it has been a journey to ignorance about the historical origins of the First Amendment, and away from the foundational sentiments that gave us the “establishment” and “free exercise” provisions. When we read about religious groups asking for Bible reading in schools or regional school boards complaining about evolution being taught as “fact” in science classes, we are really witnessing a country out of touch with the secular foundations of the Republic. We see this at work in the courts, in Congress, and in the public arena too much. We hear and read that America was founded as a Christian country (it wasn’t) or that its founding principles were biblical (they weren’t).

Socially conservative religious groups have been overreaching since the early days of the Republic; but they are louder and more consequential now because as media has improved, ideas that were once limited to the intellectual backwater of the Bible-belt have spread throughout the country in widening circles. Televangelism was the successor of the TV-Crusade era of early rock star evangelists like Billy Graham. The internet and social media is now the successor to broadcast evangelism. Zealotry of various sorts is better served by media than the platitudinous religion of mainstream and liberal religion—a fact we need to bear in mind when assessing the power and influence of relatively small groups of adepts as in ISIS and Revd Terry Jones’s anti-Islamic Dove Church World Outreach center.


All this being true, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept my next point: Christian evangelicalism is not an especially dangerous philosophy and at least in the United States never has been. True, certain political agendas like westward expansion, slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Redeemer Nation image that gave us the dogma of American Exceptionalism, and even the response to the creeping Mormonism of the Midwest and Plains in the nineteenth century were sometime fueled by biblical tropes and flourishes. But so were abolition and the fight for women’s equality and civil rights and economic justice. The idea of America as the New Jerusalem (the city on the hill-platitude that endangered politicians like to invoke) come ultimately from Christianity and the Bible. But in general the civil body politick of the first settlers has withstood the temptation to impose the Christian equivalent of sharia law on the American state.

This is not because Americans are especially savvy or far-sighted; they aren’t. A majority I suspect could not coherently explain the differences and functions of the branches of government or how the electoral process that sends representatives to Congress works. It is arguable that the First Amendment provisions concerning religion would not garner enough votes in enough states to be ratified as an amendment today. And it isn’t because our instruments of government are rock solid either. Listening to the campaign rhetoric of 2016 should alert us to the fact that, as Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “You have a Republic if you can keep it.”

It is a wearying fact that the people who scream their love for America at the highest pitch probably have no clear idea of what it takes to keep it, apart from their customary equation of freedom and liberty with gun ownership and freedom of speech. The close association in the minds of some American religious conservatives between guns and religion is a matter of historical record. But the sorts of murderous activities we associate with a David Koresh, a Jim Jones or an Eric Robert Rudolph are remarkably rare–and in the first two cases examples of cultic father than exoteric aggression. The instances are memorable because of their comparative rarity, thus different from the barrage of suicide bombings and attacks launched by extremists and radicalized Muslims in the Middle East and, through surrogates, abroad.
Conservative Christianity can be annoying, noxious, distracting and sometimes—take the message of the Westboro Baptist Church for example—hateful. I take it for granted that all religions can be, even Zen and Hindu Shaivism. After all, religions are based essentially on differences of opinion. And despite fifty years of interfaith dialogue and attempts at cross cultural understanding, what divides belief is what explains belief.
That brings me to the end point of this little screed. Just as it is true that all religions have the capacity for violence, not all religions have the same capacity for violence.


The reasons for this are cultural and historical: the current state of any living faith cannot be located in its foundational documents, however highly revered and programmatic for the faithful. It is one of the reasons why atheist critiques of religion, and Christian conservatism in particular, come up short, based as they usually are on literal readings of the most obnoxious and outmoded passages of scripture. Just as the violence of the Crusades and Inquisition are not explained by the teaching of Jesus, neither are Abolition, the Civil Rights movement, or programs supporting economic justice and the rights of minorities organic extensions of the New Testament.


Religion, as H. Richard Niebuhr and Peter Berger have explained, is a process of negotiation that often begins with rejection and opposition to the cultural norms that environ it at its beginning (think first century Palestinian Judaism or seventh century Meccan society) and ends up through a series of accommodations a different thing from what it was in the beginning.
There is no promise that the “thing” will be peaceful and benign. –Or even that it will emerge intact as one thing. Christianity has not survived intact but through a process of fissipiration that we call “denominationalism”—the most dramatic example of which was the protestant reformation of the sixteenth century. And though many believing Muslims will reject this as an article opposed to a central axiom of their religion, Islam itself has not survived intact either. Indeed splinters of its own form of denominationalism appeared before the death of the Prophet and continued unabated throughout the entirety of its existence. The fountainhead of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, began its process of accommodation so early—from the time of the encounter with the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE–through the destruction of the Temple, the diaspora, and the formation of an ethically-based rabbinical Judaism–that it is difficult to trace its evolution historically.


There is no necessity that any religion will be as relevant in the same way in the twenty-first century as it was in the fifteenth or fifth–in fact, given that the conditions of its origin are unrepeatable it is probably impossible to talk strictly about the religion of the first Christians or the religion of Mahammad’s first followers. Although almost every religious reformation begins with the belief that it is a “purifying” movement or a return to the basics of the faith, what such movements have normally produced is not a facsimile of the original but a violent clash between a living and evolved belief system and a caricature of what zealots believe to have been true millennia ago. The most strident Christian Bible-based groups epitomize this pattern, but normally in a non-violent way. The most ardent Islamic radicals believe the same thing, but see violence, in the form of jihad, as an instrument in the purifying process.
Theoretically the God of the Bible may be changeless and in equal proportion righteous, just, and merciful. And it may be important, in the interest of civil conversation, to pretend that all religions proclaim peace, love, mercy and compassion. But our eyes tell us that in the twenty-first century it is not the Christian sort of “fundamentalism” that normally results in mass death, homicide bombings, the murder of school children, the harassment, rape and forced conversion of girls, socially sanctioned honour killings and sectarian purges of sectarian rivals, and attacks on unbelievers.


Evangelical Protestantism, including its fundamentalist variety, is a last -gasp defense of the fourfold gospel in its more or less literal and unexamined form. It is broadly non-theological. Islamic fundamentalism likewise is a much larger and more regressive position in relation to the normativity of the Qur’an, but its “fundamentals” are different, have not been negotiated in the same way, nor evolved at anything like the same pace or under the same conditions.
For that reason, the use of the term “fundamentalism” to describe matching trends or patterns in the history of religion is not only inexact and unhelpful, but inevitably leads to wrong conclusions.

The BBC-Birmingham “Qur’an” Facts Fiasco

The New Oxonian

It is one of the cardinal tenets of Islam that the Qur’an was essentially “complete” in the Prophet’s lifetime and written down very soon after in the time of  Uthman before the end of the seventh century  It is a further tenet that the exact wording of the text has remained unchanged from the time of its revelation until today. A standard web-based information site offers the following standard orthodox appraisal:

“The Qur’an is a record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. It was memorized by Muhammad and then dictated to his Companions, and written down by scribes, who cross-checked it during his lifetime. Not one word of its 114 chapters, Suras, has been changed over the centuries, so that the Qur’an is in every detail the unique and miraculous text which was revealed to Muhammad fourteen centuries ago.” (, search…

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Revisiting the Birmingham Qur’an Debacle

A year on, the story has fallen from the headlines–largely because it is a glaring example of the central problem in Islamic historiography: Wishful thinking

The New Oxonian

“In December 2015 Professor François Déroche of the Collège de France confirmed the identification of the two Birmingham leaves with those of the Paris Qur’an BnF Arabe 328(c), as had been proposed by Dr Alba Fedeli. Prof. Deroche, however, expressed reservations about the reliability of the radiocarbon dates proposed for the Birmingham leaves, noting instances elsewhere in which radiocarbon dating had proved inaccurate in testing Qur’ans with an explicit endowment date; and also that none of the counterpart Paris leaves had yet been carbon-dated.”


The case for the antiquity of the Birmingham Qur’an fragments grows weaker by the day.

As with all orchestrated media splashes,  the original story having done its work, not many people will pay attention to the unraveling of the growing mythology surrounding the discovery.

1.  It has been suggested that the two-leaf parchment fragment uncovered in Birmingham “belongs with another sixteen in Paris (BnF Arabe 328(c); as indeed they sit neatly in a lacuna in that text.”  However…

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Donald Trump’s Imaginary Band



When Professor Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, to start a marching band he encounters a group of stubborn locals who don’t cotton to strangers but do like music. They have a barbershop quartet, a music teacher, a library whose benefactor mysteriously left the books to the librarian and the building to the city council, and  a long tradition of prescribed charity, marked by being willing to help, without really loving, one’s neighbour.

Harold Hill is a flim-flam man, a character in American  letters that goes back to folklore and the tall tales of frontier humour and reaches its apex in the story of the Duke and Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. (Even the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz is a  moral version of the species) They are frauds and hucksters pitting their wits against the dull denizens of  the flat, dull central and prairie states, and they are riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen and out and out thieves who drive wagons through dead-end protestant towns promising the gullible a cure for what ails them.  Their clientele are the people H L Mencken described as oblivious to facts and uninterested in detail–

No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

He continues, 

The mistake that is made always runs [this way]:. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.

In the case of Harold Hill, he promises the people a band of festooned drummers and trombone players marching proudly through the flat streets of River City for the Fourth of July.  The problem is, the professor can’t read music, play an instrument, direct a band or deliver on any of the promises he’s made.  It’s all flim flam–as he confesses when confronted with his crooked dealing:

Oh this is a refined operation son, and I’ve got it timed down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand on the last train outta town.

The hypocrisy of the Music Man is that it finds redemption in the idea that even if you’re hoodwinked by a total fraud and no-gooder–shucks–people deserve to dream and the fake professor at least delivers on that: The musical’s big production number turns his lie into a reality and encourages the belief that flim flam is as good as the truth, and that if you are dull-witted and gullible you still have the right to your illusions. Maybe (we are encouraged to think, as Dickens encourages us to think Scrooge will be improved by his nightmares) Harold Hill will end up on the straight and narrow, or at least not be tarred and feathered, which is the fate of Mark Twain’s characters. In anti-intellectual America everybody deserves a shot; education and training get in the way of “common sense” decision- making, and there’s not much difference between someone who talks a good game and someone who knows how to play one.

The travelling salesman and medicine man era is over.  Now we have shopping channels and internet marketing in their place. But the plain people are still pretty bloody plain and the temptation to flim-flam them out of their money or loyalty is just as great as it was in Twain’s and Mencken’s day.


Along comes a blast from the past: the true heir of every fraudster who had ever decorated the pages of a frontier humour magazine.  Like Professor Harold Hill, he sings his successes and promises his audiences a fantastic future where everything will be Fabulous.  Wars will be fought and won, not in the namby pamby, cautious, inconclusive way that American leaders have for the last eight or twenty …or who’s counting…or who knows where? Veterans will be taken care of. Women who have abortions will maybe be punished.  We’ll see (what do you want to hear–I’ll say it).  You want a big band? I’ll get you a big band. What kind of band do you want. It will be fabulous.  You want a wall to keep illegals out, I’ll build you the biggest damn wall you will ever see and it won’t cost you a nickel  Do you want gold T’s on it?  Fabulous.

Donald Trump belongs to a species of American humour that many people considered defunct until he reignited our passion to be hornswoggled, lied to, and persuaded that the world is reducible to the sum total of our competing prejudices and desires.

Curbside the nation is greedy for his snake oil, or seems to be.  Large sections of the country have become his Gary, Indiana or River City, Iowa.  He talks to the folks that politicians like to call folks even though many people hate the implicit dumbness of the word (I do)–the ones Mencken called the plain peoople. The ones who, because they can read and write and vote, we assume have ideas in their head, and don’t.

It is those empty heads that Trump is now cramming with his inconsistent and unworkable solutions to real time problems: the card shark who the plain folk imagine has the real story about global warming; the Las Vegas riverboat mogul who, it’s assumed, can handle foreign policy in the Middle East and strut with real leaders on the world stage. An insult comedian who knows plain people think diplomacy is bunk, that America is Number One and by God needs to stay that way.

How can an atavism like the flim flam man survive the glare of the media, of the searching eye of investigative journalism and public opinion? Easy.  The nabob media of the United States, whether conservative or liberal, is grossly ignorant because they have to sell their wares to the same people.  No one can look to them for the truth because the media have never been interested in the truth.  Mencken knew in the 1920’s that it was all about selling newspapers, and thus about stories.   Donald Trump, as a flim flam man, knows that.  The American media was made for him, not for real reporting about complex problems. Every day he strives to be a good story. And he is.

In most stories about flim flam men, the huckster gets his just deserts.   He has to because of a totally fallacious Lincolnesaque notion that a liar will lose if he tries to fool all of the people all of the time.  Put on a train, driven out of town on a rail, sent to jail, or ridiculed in the public square by the same people who, a day before, regarded him as their hero, their saviour from the grim sameness of life in River City.

But here’s the reality in Main Street America:  The citizens of this trembling democracy have elected average men, dishonest men, stupid men, cruel men and unworthy men to the office of president. The Jeffersons and Lincolns, Roosevelts and JFKs have been few and far between.  But that in iself is no surprise.  Most nations of the world can count their greats on the fingers of one hand.

The horrible thing about this event in American political history is that if this cardboard clown of a politician wins the election, it will be the first time that a known liar and fraud will be rewarded for lying his lies in such an open and consequential way and getting away with it. It is the public saying to the snake oil salesman, We know your potions are worthless, to the card shark, we know you’re cheating, to the used car salesman, we know the car you sold us was junk–but we don’t care. If he is elected, Donald Trump will reign as the pre-forgiven leader whose lies and callous indifference to truth have been wiped away by gullible and forgiving Christian yokels just as surely as Jesus wiped away their sins.

Flim Flam Donald doesn’t believe anything he is saying.   Like his literary ancestors, his feat has been to sell a bill of goods–a Brooklyn bridge, prime waterfront real estate in Florida, a $5.99 cure for angina, arthritis and obesity–to people who are ready to accept lies because the truth of politics and American democracy eludes them. Plain people like simple answers even if they are the wrong answers, and Trump’s answers are very, very simple.