What About the Alt-Left?

war council 2

Bannon, Trump, and Miller hold Council in Virginia (after Mort Küntsler)

Reflections on Charlottesville

In his impromptu remarks in the Trump Tower lobby on August 15, Donald Trump spoke with passion about the violence that engulfed the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA.

press conference

At a press conference in Trump Tower, the president points, insincerely, to the right.

He declined to fix blame solely the alt-right, who had sponsored the rally, apparently hoping that  violence would ensue.  He insisted instead that there was blame “on both sides.”

 

What about the alt-left that came charging at, what you say, the alt-right?” Mr. Trump asked. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they were charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.”

Sometime during the 2016 presidential campaign the term alt-right broke into the political discourse.  At first it was a descriptor for a confederation of websites where such as 4chan and 8chan, where anonymous internet trolls could gather to air their views of white supremacy, antisemitism, antifeminism, homophobia, and xenophobia of every stripe. 

cuckservative

Alt-right fodder

It grew into a meme that encompasses much of the extreme right of American politics: the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazism, InfoWars, and Breitbart News.  Its internet tools have become a widespread part of the meme: triple parentheses to call out (((Jews))) online, the avatar Pepe the Frog, and the phrase “dindu nuffin” to ridicule the deaths of black men, such as Eric Garner and Michael Brown, at the hands of white police.

The alt-right seems to be what Hillary Clinton referred to as the “basket of deplorables.”  Steve Bannon, the deplorable advisor to Trump, seems to be proud of the label, calling Breitbart News, the internet site he once ran, as “the platform for the alt-right”

It there an alt-left, though, and did they come charging out with clubs at the participants of the rally, peacefully assembled but girded for war?  The answer to that question is more complex that a sound byte can convey.  It is really three questions:  Is there an alt-left?  Is it somehow equivalent to the alt right?  Did it, swinging clubs, charge peaceful demonstrators in Charlottesville?

 

Is there an alt-left?

The short answer is no.

blood & soil

Blood & Soil: “In the peaseantry lies the innocent source of our power.” –Adolph Hitler

While it has no central organizing body, the alt-right is a loose confederation of ideologies defined by its use of internet trolling and public assembly to promulgate a jumble of conservative ideas (economic nationalism, isolationism, Trump support, et. al.).  Some of these ideas are bristle with hate (racism, misogyny, antisemitism, etc.).  They distribute them with a dissonant casualness that often bears a structural resemblance humor, but is seldom funny.  They use terms that intentionally hurtful or shocking (“cuckservative”, or simply “cuck”, to conflate traditional conservatives and cuckolds, and the chant “blood and soil!” to combine their ideas of racial purity and  geographic identity, as the Nazi’s did during the Weimar Republic.)  They use these devices to foment violence, even war, against a government they have declared invalid, with the goal of replacing it with a racially “pure”, all white, cis-gender male dominated “ethno-state”.

There is no remotely comparable entity on the left.

There is, however, a long history in America of political violence on the left, beginning with the American Revolution itself.  In the 18th century here, much violence and death occurred before the conservatives, British sympathizers and Tories, were subdued or driven into Canada.  The revolutionaries fully realized that this action against the government was treason.  “We must all hang together,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”

thoreauIn 1849, Thoreau published Civil Disobedience, which urged people not to let governments to overrule their consciences, or allow their moral sense to atrophy; he advocated passive resistance, but stopped short of condoning violence.  In 1859, abolitionist John Brown attempted to incite a slave rebellion by attacking a US arsenal and distributing its weapons among blacks.  During the Civil War itself, the liberal ideas of abolitionism and union overcame the more conservative aims of slavery, feudalism and states’ rights.  The treason of the Confederate rebels was granted formal amnesty by President Johnson for the sake of national unity

railroad strike

The Great Railroad Strike, 1877

In the late 19th and early 20th century the anarchist and socialist ideas that convulsed Europe, coalesced with workers’ movements here to produce a national zeitgeist that rained violence and destruction down on labor disputes across the nation, from the Great

patty hearst

Patty Hearst, aka “Tanya”, markets the SLA, 1974

Railroad Strike of 1877 to the Herrin Massacre of 1922.  Temperance and radical feminism, too, had their violent sides, personified by Carrie Nation, Emma Goldman, and others.  The 1970s, protest against Jim Crow and the Vietnam War brought a resurgence of violent demonstrations, with groups like the Weather Underground, the Jewish Defense League and the Symbionese Liberation Army taking to the streets.

 

occupy

An unfocused message sank Occupy.  No violence was necessary.

Today the left is quite different.  The active left has faded since its heyday in the 70s, when powerful personalities like Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Gloria Steinem, and many others led a left wing that, though jumbled, was always powerful, and sometimes violent.  Without such leadership today there is no sense of unity, and the radical left has foundered.  Though the violence has abated, the principles of civil rights, equal justice and economic fairness still prevail in such groups as the Occupy movement, and the followers of independent Senator Bernie Sanders.

mlkThe ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King began to permeate the left in the ‘60s,  Currents of non-violence run through the crowd now whereever the left congregate.   Not all on the left have adopeted non-violent tactics, however.  The organized antifascist group Antifa, for instance, see its role as resisting the message of the alt-right.  They come to right wing rallies armed, some of them (the Black Bloc) in black hoods and riot gear.  They defend against violence at right-wing gatherings with violence of their own, often pre-emptive, arguing that in the threatening horrors of chattel slavery, the Holocaust, and the subjugation of women, are real and immediate.  Physical violence to forestall these ideas is not only ethically justifiable, but also morally required.

gandhi

 

Is Violence on the Left Somehow Equivalent to Alt-Right Violence?

antifa

If you have to hide your identity when you act, are you sure you are doing the right thing? Just askin’.

Trump has denied claiming ‘moral equivalence’ between the left and right factions as he sees them, yet he seems to have invented the ‘alt-left’ as a rhetorical device with the sole purpose of implying such equivalence.  It provided him with a place to shift the blame, from his supporters on the right to a proxy for his avowed enemies, the progressive Democrats and the liberal press.  He created Crooked Hillary and the Fake News in the same spirit, as rhetorical vessels for emotion unencumbered by fact.

In fact, the sides were not equivalent at all. 

First, there is the matter of numbers.  While there were tens of thousands of right-wing demonstrators that day, and a similar number of counter demonstrators, there were only a few Antifa, and far fewer of the Black Bloc.  The president is correct in asserting, “there were good people on both sides,” but purely in terms of tactical advantage, the violent left was outnumbered ten to one.

torch parade

Tiki torchlight in Charlottesville, 2017

nazi torch parade

Torchlight in Berlin, 1933

Then there is the matter of motive.  The spectacle of a column of people, all white, carrying torches reminiscent of the KKK, shouting slogans recycled from the Third Reich, wearing homegrown riot gear emblazoned with Nazi iconography, and openly intimidating dark-skinned people they encountered on their way with slogans and gestures invoking Jim Crow and Hitler, was disturbing to many Americans everywhere regardless of their

seig heil

In case you thought the resemblance was coincidental…

ethnicities.  To incite violence in support of the creation of a supposedly racially pure ethno-state threatens many patriotic Americans, including most whites, and is offensive beyond words to the many Americans who themselves, or whose fathers and brothers, fought and died to free Europe from this very horror.  To the Europeans who remember the cruel oppression of Hitler’s vermin, watching the U.S. convulse in this way must be excruciating.

 

defensive posture

Antifa assumes a defensive posture against a much larger force.  Notice the high concentration of press, and the complete absence of police. Is this just a photo op?

The left, by contrast, justifies its violence in the name of defense.  Sometimes, they argue, the evil of violence is required to avoid a greater evil.  The hydra of white supremacy, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and gun worship must be slain at all costs.  If that means fighting back, the violent on the left argue, then bring it on.

I have no doubt that it is the violence itself that attracts many into the fray, yet in terms of the assertion of moral equivalency that Trump has implied and then tried to deny, there is no fair comparison been the alt-right and those who stand up against them.

 

Did the Left Attack the Alt-Right in Charlottesville?

street fight-1Did these self-appointed guardians of the left attack the right-wing demonstrators without provocation, as the president had charged?  The abundance of whirling, garbled cell phone video from the scene, showing only mutual, chaotic affray, does little to answer this question; clips can be isolated to accommodate almost any spin.   Ironically, though this aspect of the events at Charlottesville are the best documented, it may remain the least understood.street fight-2

Witness accounts conflict.  The many slants applied by so many activists with so many agendas who were there obscure the facts themselves.  The political leaning of the corporate news media do not help.  It may not be “fake news,” as the President insists, but neither is it neutral.

Jason Kessler, who organized the “Unite the Right” march, complained about the policing. “Police stood down and refused to separate the counter-demonstrators, and now people are dead,” Kessler said in video Saturday. “They were not prepared. Their No. 1 priority was shutting down the alt-right.”   Alt-right leader Richard Spencer also faulted the police. “We came here as a demonstration of our movement,” he said. “And we were effectively thrown to the wolves.”

clergy

Some of the clergy at Charlottesville

Theologian Cornel West, Harvard professor and activist, also faulted the police, saying that he had survived only through the intervention of militant leftists. “The police didn’t do anything in terms of protecting the people of the community, the clergy,” he told The Washington Post. “If it hadn’t been for the anti-fascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”

Charlottesville’s synagogue received threats of destruction and death before the march, prompting them to request extra police protection on rally day.  They were denied, and had to hire private security instead.

Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel, describes what happened on Unite the Right day:

“For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.

Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.”

No act of vandalism or personal violence occurred at the synagogue that day, though less than 200 feet away a man of professed Neo-Nazi beliefs plowed his Dodge Charger into crowd of counter demonstrators on a narrow street where they were lawfully assembled, killing one and injuring many more.  The most serious injuries of the day, and the only fatality due to crowd violence, were intentionally inflicted, without specific provocation, by a member of the alt-right.

We may never know the details, but this much is apparent:  most of the violence originated on the right, motivated by the most heinous ideas.  Much of the violence on the left was in defense of self, others, or the Union itself.

There is no equivalency there at all.

statue

…and here are some riot police.

The Robert E. Lee Statue

Since the rally was ostensibly about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park, Trump reinforced his equivalency rant with an assault on other statues. “I wonder,” he said, “is it George Washington next week?  Is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?  You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

It is true that both men owned slaves.  Washington, by all accounts, treated his slaves with a severity bordering on cruelty, even by the standard of his times.  His ambivalence showed in his will though, which directed that those slaves which he had the authority to emancipate should be free, and those who were too young or frail to work should be supported by his estate. Some Washington slaves were encumbered by liens, primarily to Martha’s estate, preventing their emancipation.  The rules of chattel slavery seem bizarre to us today, but such was the tenor of those times.

Thomas Jefferson was a more complicated man.  He owned slaves, yet was troubled by the moral implications of slavery.  He brought slaves to serve him in the White House, where he signed a law prohibiting the importation of negro slaves into the US.  When his wife Martha died, he took into his bed her fair, mixed race half-sister, Sally Hemings, who is said to have borne an uncanny resemblance to Martha.  Sally bore him six children, two of whom he allowed to ‘walk away’ from his plantation without formally freeing them; they were all emancipated in his will.  Slave life at Monticello was apparently easier than at Mount Vernon, though it was still slave life.

Lee’s views on slavery were stern and paternalistic.  He believed that slavery existed because god willed it to, and that God had made the Negro the white man’s burden in order to prepare him for emancipation in some uncertain future, when he was ready.

“… In this enlightened age”, Lee wrote his wife in 1856, “there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

Both Washington and Jefferson were American patriots and men of the Enlightenment, whose vision saw far into the future.  They believed that all men are created equal.  They were aware that this was not true of the society in which they lived, but the principles, which they enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and which they fought fiercely to defend, created a new society where such things were possible.  And they succeeded.

Black slaves were freed by the Civil War, and then enfranchised by the Constitution, in law at least, if not in practice.  Society takes much longer to change than law, but even that was happening under the rules the Founding Fathers established.  From Reconstruction in the 1860s to the civil rights legislation a century later, with painful slowness, many mistakes, and much violent resistance, all men were becoming equal.  Women were enfranchised by law in the early the 20th century, and not until the 21st century did they begin to make their influence felt in the halls of government, corporate boardrooms, and professional roles. Full ethnic and gender equality has yet to be achieved in America, but, with the guidance of men like Washington and Jefferson, we are moving in the right direction.

Lee, too, was a brilliant and complicated manm though his vision peered not into the furture, but deeply into a disintegrating past. He was a political and military genius who fought to preserve a society and an economy that relied on chattel slavery and the subjugation of women, even if that meant making war against his homeland.  Our homeland. 

That is the very definition of treason.

After the War Between the States, Lee would not support the dedication of any CSA memorials, including statues of himself.  Today his descendants, and those of Gen. Stonewall Jackson, favor the removal of their ancestors statues, if doing so will prevent a national schism.  As president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) Lee forbade the display of Confederate iconography on College grounds.  Even then he felt that such memorials were too divisive, too likely to reignite passions that ought to have been settled by the war.

We have fought this fight as long and as well as we know how,” he wrote.  “We have been defeated. For us as a Christian people, there is now but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation.”

Amen.

Presidential Trifecta: Honesty, Decency, Integrity

stan & ollie 2

Most presidents, when they have won an election, stop campaigning and start governing.  Donald Trump, however, has grown addicted to the adulation of his hand-picked crowds.  As a result, he has never left the campaign trail, although now he travels in Air Force One, and taxpayers foot the bill.

Sometimes they say ‘he doesn’t act presidential,” he said to a crowd in Youngstown, Ohio in July, “And I say, ‘look, great schools, smart guy, it is so easy to act presidential.’ But that’s not going to get it done. In fact, I said – it is much easier, by the way, to act presidential than what we are doing here tonight, believe me.

“[W]ith the exception of the late great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that has ever held this office, that I can tell you,” he proclaimed.

So what does it take to be presidential.  It takes experience, of course, and judgment, and high-level connections.  It takes a lot of energy, too.  Being presidential, tough, begins with character, and most of all depends on three qualities where Trump, alas, falls short:  Intellect, dignity, and integrity.

Intellect:

I love the poorly educated!” crowed Donald Trump during his primary election campaign.  His own education tends to back him in this.

As an unruly teen, he was sent to New York Military Academy.  “I did very well under the military system,” Trump said in an interview. “I became one of the top guys at the whole school.”  Even then, he was The Donald.  At NYMA he seems to have learned command, if not discipline.

Trump-in-Military-school

After NYMA he attended Fordham University in the Bronx, so he could remain close to the family real estate business. There he languished for two years before his father plucked him out and packed him off to Philadelphia and the Ivy league.

Despite his claim to have graduated first in his class from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Trump appears to have been an undistinguished scholar there.

Donald agreed to attend Wharton for his father’s sake,” wrote biographer Jerome Tuccille in 1985.  “He showed up for classes and did what was required of him, but he was clearly bored and spent a lot of time on outside business activities.”  Donald himself wrote in 1989’s The Art of the Deal, “I decided that as long as I had to be in college, I might as well test myself against the best.

wharton alumnusTrump graduated from Wharton’s undergraduate degree program in 1968.  He never attended the prestigious Graduate School of Business there, nor ever earned an MBA (or any other advanced degree).

The 1968 commencement program does not list Trump as having received graduating honors of any kind.  Numerous profiles have since asserted that he was first in his class, though Donald has denied ever having made this claim.  He boasted, in a 2011 interview on CNN, “Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country.

On education, Trump’s message and his substance (if such a word can be applied to him) are a bit out of joint.

Decency:

Decency is a seriously overburdened word.  It involves adherence to standards of propriety, but carries a burden of fairness (a decent wage), generosity (very decent of you), modesty (are you decent?), and suitablity (I haven’t got a decent pair of shoes).

At the heart of the concept is empathy.  Decent people know and respect the needs and feelings of others.  Empathy is not Trump’s strong suit, leaving him decency-impaired.

young trumpIn 1980, while clearing the historic Bonwit Teller building from the site where Trump Tower was to rise, he hired a company that used undocumented Polish window washers to clear away demolition debris.  They worked off the books; no income taxes or FICA taxes were withheld, no pension provided, no records kept at all.  Their worksite was so dangerous that Trump himself would not go there.  “You have to be very brave to be in a building under demolition.  I’m not sure I’m that brave.”  Yet they were issued no hard hats or other protective equipment.  For grueling 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, they were paid sub-minimal  wages only sporadically, if they were paid at all.  They were threatened with deportation if they complained.  Is this the behavior of a decent man?

Consider his infamous pussy tape:  In an interview with Billy Bush for Access Hollywood, with tape rolling, Trump bantered about soap star Arianne Zucker, with whom he was preparing to appear on Days of Our Lives.  “I better use some Tic Tacs” says Trump,  “just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.  Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”   There may be a glimmer of empathy here, since he seemed to want to spare Ms. Zucker from his halitosis; more likely he wanted to save himself from a reputation for bad breath.  Would a decent man have said these things?

Perhaps Trump’s lack of decency is most apparent in his reaction the his party’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  Since its inception in 2010, the number of Americans without healthcare coverage has plummeted, the denial of coverage to people with ‘pre-existing’ conditions has gone away, and the utilization of preventive services (screening, vaccination and the like) has soared.  Lives have been extended, and the quality of life for many has improved.  A pall of fear has been lifted.

The “skinny repeal” bill, which would have ended most of this while offering nothing to the children and the poor who would be cast out on their own.  When it failed in a Senate skittish about screwing its own constituents, Trump immediately took up his phone to tweet: “As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal.  Watch!” 

coverage graph

Those who are watching have noticed that he has not stood passively by to let ObamaCare implode.  He has taken action to ensure that it happens, using taxpayer dollars intended to educate users of their options under the legislation to lobby against it instead, and threatening to end the subsidies (he calls them “bailouts”) make coverage affordable to the poor, and the disadvantaged middle class, at a time when they need reinforcement instead.

(“As I said from the beginning” is a lie, by the way.  In the beginning he promised to repeal and replace on the same day, the same hour even.  “We are nor going to let people die in squalor, because we are Republicans“, he told NBC’s Chuck Todd)

percent without coverage by race graph

For Trump to say “Let ObamaCare implode” so he can gain advantage in a deal reveals a shocking disregard for the millions whose very lives depend on it, and the tens of millions more whose financial security depends on it.  Many of these are children or elderly, and some are disabled.  Some will be turned out of nursing homes. The burden will be borne disproportionately by minorities.

Is this how a decent man puts America first?

Horsey Cartoon

Integrity:

Long before he became our 16th president, while still an attorney practicing in Springfield, Illinois, Honest Abe Lincoln would advise the young clerks who aspired to be lawyers: “Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”

The first thing schoolchildren learn about Lincoln it is often the tale of how, as a clerk, when he discovered he had shortchanged a customer a few pennies, he had closed up shop and trudged for miles to set things right.   The first they hear of George Washington is the story of the cherry tree, and how he could never tell a lie.  In their presidents, patriotic Americans esteem integrity above all else.

pinnochioHow, then, did we elect a president for whom deceit, and persistence in a manifest lie, is a high art and a source of pride?  Who plays fast and loose with the rules of ethics and the bounds of nepotism.  Who rants against the very separation of powers, and the checks and balances, that the founders so carefully designed to keep our government safe from the despot he aspires to be?  Who dismisses his sketchy past with a ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ shrug?

Trump did not invent the political lie.  Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook!” comes to mind, and Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  But Trump brings to the game a disregard for what we previously regarded as truth that is so profound as to suggest he sees no practical distinction between the lies that serve him and the facts in the world at large—his ‘alternative facts’ are founded in expediency rather than verifiability.

liar

Trump’s flaunting of ethics standards, both traditional and black-letter law, is legendary after only six months I office.  His eagerness to leverage his presidency for personal profit, scoffing at the emoluments clause; his packing of his inner advisory circle with members of his family, generals and plutocrats; and the satisfaction he seems to derive from sowing disharmony among friend and foe alike, do not reflect a man of integrity.  His constant flouting of the wisdom and sage experience of his advisors in favor of his own boisterous id, with its fits and snits and wee-hour tweets, is the sign of a spoiled child.  A nine-year-old boy could be forgiven for such behaviors.  A seventy-year-old man, who commands the most powerful military the world has ever known while he faces an uncertain world, can not.

 

Donald believes that when he does not appear presidential, it is not his fault.  It is a shortcoming of appearance, not substance, and the fault lies in the beholder.  Such ideas are promulgated by a press held captive by a world hostile to him, and the Democratic Party, which is still reeling from their epic and humiliating loss at his hands.  It is fake news.

Now here’s what I do. I’d ask whether or not you someday think I will be on Mount Rushmore,” Trump said. “But here’s the problem, if I did it joking, totally joking, having fun, the fake news media will say ‘he believes he should be on Mount Rushmore.’

“So, I won’t say it. Okay? I won’t say it.”

“. . . They’ll say it anyway, you watch: ‘Trump thinks he should be on Mount Rushmore. Isn’t that terrible?'”

I’ll tell you what’s terrible, Don.  Your Freudian slip is showing.

Play Ball!

field gate layer

game logoThere was still a chill in the early morning air when the team gathered at Eugene Simpson Park for batting practice, and for whatever camaraderie this contentious group could muster.  These were Republican congressmen, and they were about to do something good, out in the open before a friendly crowd.  The game they were preparing for would benefit children and literacy, while costing the taxpayers nothing.

2016 game

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La) greets fans before the 2016 game.

hodgkinson mugshotPractically unnoticed, a slightly unkempt, doughy middle-aged white man with close-cropped sandy hair and a scraggly, salt and pepper beard, emerged from his home in a white van parked on the edge of the field.  Gesturing at the gathering players, he asked a passerby, “Are they Republicans or Democrats?”  In Alexandria, Virginia, home to powerful politicos of every stripe, this was not a strange thing to ask.

“Republicans,” the stranger reported.  “They are practicing for a charity game with the Democrats tomorrow.”

The man nodded, and the stranger moved on.  The man returned to his van to retrieve an assault rifle, and for good measure, he pocketed a sidearm.  Calmly he carried his weapons to the edge of the third-base dugout, where he began to fire on the weekend Republican athletes.

practice screenshotHe was an astonishingly poor marksman.  Of the over fifty rounds he got off before he was felled by return fire from a congressman’s bodyguards, most sprayed buildings and vehicles flanking the field. Only five hit people; only two inflicted life-threatening wounds.  The first was Majority Whip Stephen Scalise, whose leadership rank had brought a protective squad capitol police at the scene.  The other two were members of the bodyguard unit itself, whose were return fire probably averted a bloodbath

 

scalise

Rep Scalise takes a late throw during the 2015 Congressional Charity Game.

 

Rep. Scalise was grievously wounded in the pelvis and lower abdomen.  Matt Mika, a former congressional staffer and now an agricultural lobbyist, was hit multiple times, including life-threatening wounds to the chest. The others with injuries, less serious though still significant, included staffer Zachary Barth and two members of the bodyguard detail, David Bailey and Crystal Griner.  The gunman, James T. (“Tom”) Hutchinson of Belleville, Illinois, died of wounds sustained in the gunfight.  His was the only fatality that morning.

 

victims

hodgkinson picketsAlmost immediately, the press discovered, in Hutchinson’s social media, his strong left-leaning political passion, and his fierce opposition to President Trump.  “Trump is a Traitor,” he posted on March 22. “Trump Has Destroyed our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”  Democrats, too, came under his rhetorical fire.  He was a fierce critic of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, branding her with the worst epithet he could muster: “Republican Lite.”  His cover photo depicted the Democratic Socialist candidate Bernie Sanders.  His profile picture was of the American flag, with the caption “Democratic Socialism explained in three words: We the People.”

hodgkinson tweets

bernieSen. Sanders immediately took to the airwaves and Twitter to distance himself from this heinous act.  In a statement, he said he “was sickened by this despicable act.  …Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” he said. “Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.”

RyanSpeaker Paul Ryan tried raising the issue above the fractious tribalism of Congress.  “We are united in our shock and anguish.” He intoned from the floor of the House.  “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

For once, I find wisdom in the Speaker’s words.  I wish I could be confident he meant them as I took them.  It was indeed an attack on all of them, not because they were Republicans, but because they were Washington politicians.  Now it is time, not to pretend that this was not a political act.

“You know” Rep. Ryan said”every day, we come here to test and challenge each other. We feel so deeply about the things we fight for and believe in. At times, our emotions can get the best of us. We are all imperfect. But we do not shed our humanity when we enter this chamber.”

I would suggest that Mr. Hutchinson’s heinous action was was crazy, but it also an act of political desperation brought on at least in part because it felt to him that the people who enter the House of Representatives, and the Senate and Statehouse as well, do in fact leave their humanity in the cloakroom. 

 

issa missing

Rep Darrell Issa scheduled a meeting with his constituents, but never showed up.  Where was he?

Repealing the Affordable Care Act, which is funded with a sharply progressive tax that costs the wealthy the most though they directly benefit the least, satisfies the plutocrats but feeds the seething anger of the middle class and the poor.  Replacing it with legislation that will result in tens of millions of people, mostly disabled, elderly, or poor, losing the ability to

issa roof

Across the street on the roof of his office, Issa photographed the crowd on his smartphone.  He did not speak to it.

pay for the care that is keeping them alive today, adds injury to insult.  To do so in such a rush that even the lawmakers do not know the true costs of the legislation (perhaps because they fear that knowledge of the real cost might spark a conflagration of opposition) lays bare the contempt the officeholders hold for the voters who elected them. These are not acts of compassionate men.

 

 

issa crowd

This the picture he got of the crowd he invited and ignored..

Images of politicians locking their doors to their constituents, or hiding on rooftops to avoid crowds, only reinforce the schism that their inhumanity has created, and amplify the anger that issues from the rift. The president is the very exemplar of contempt, for the courts, the congress, and the mob at his political base.  For openness.  For truth.

 

 I am not condoning political violence, but I think I can see whence it arises.

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Inhumanity is not the exclusive province of Republicans.  Mrs. Clinton ran as a populist but was funded primarily by the corporate and financial sectors, and liked to talk about her foreign policy experience and her gender rather than domestic economic policies where her hypocrasy was more likely to show.  Many wondered whether she might be more beholden to the plutocracy than to the people. After all, she had amassed millions in personal wealth while working in the public sphere, and made more money addressing Goldman Sachs behind closed doors for half an hour than they made from half a decade of hard work.   In the general election, both candidates ran less on issues than on disparaging each other:  “crooked Hillary” and “basket of deplorables.”

As a blow against American democracy, the DNC’s rigging of the primary system to stop the surge of their most popular candidate from upsetting their dynastic system was on par with the Republicans’ gerrymandering of the South to cement their hegemony there. The Democrats’ ramming through the ACA without a single Republican vote lost, and their abolition of the filibuster in executive nominations before the Senate, led to voter disillusionment that lost them their majority in the Senate.  The Republicans doubled down when they banished the filibuster from Supreme Court nominations, which the Democrats had spared.

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How much proof do you need that voters feel abandoned?

The president, a seeming stranger to transparency and truth, promised to return a strong America to its middle-class roots, and instead delivered a government larded with billionaires, generals, and disestablishmentarians.

 In all of this, the Little Guy, like Tom Hutchinson, was left out, not only of the negotiation, but also seemingly of any consideration at all.  On social media, and on sidewalks in front of federal buildings in Illinois, while he writhed and moaned in frustration, but nobody seemed to notice.

 If his anger surprises you, you have not been paying attention.

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Arizona Senator Jeff Flake

Political violence, rhetorical and real, is becoming the norm in America today.  The violent rhetoric promulgated on the internet spills over into violence on the streets.  Riots triggered by racial incidence have occurred in Maryland, Missouri, and California.  Mobs shouting support for free speech have shut down appearances by controversial speakers in California and Vermont, where a professor was assaulted for simply moderating the event.  Candidates have been compelled to withdraw from elections because of death threats.  Mass shootings have been used to praise Allah, to punish gay lifestyles, to push back at police violence, and now to protest Republican policy making in Congress.

freedom of speechTo deny or ignore the political nature of this violence is to bury our heads in the sand.  Worse yet is to use the violence to double-down on the political tribalism that is driving it.  Our whole government has given itself over to a gooey mixture of partisanship and military-industrial complexity, which has oozed into the machinery of government and hardened there, like cement.

Our two political parties become drunk with power when they hold it, and overpowered with lust for it when they do not. In pursuit and defense of power, unholy alliances are forged with wealth, both domestic and foreign.   In their relentless pursuit of power for its own sake, they have lost sight of this principle, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

slot machineThe government in Washington today is the results of a raggedy patchwork of elections that were subject to a host of perverse pressures.  They have been gerrymandered, procedurally overwrought, steered by huge billows of cash from God knows where, distorted by slick Madison Avenue techniques and online social media corrals, and digital putinperhaps even hacked by foreign and corporate interests with nefarious intents.  Many potential voters have lost faith in the system.  They avoid the polls altogether. Many who do come vote not for what they believe in, but to stem an evil, if ill defined, tide they feel is swamping them. 

Governments thus constituted do not have the consent of the governed.  Their powers are not just.  The populace feels this, and a lumbering discontent roams the land.  Violence breaks out here and there.

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Outlines of Gerrymandered Congressional Districts in the 1990s

There is an old joke that goes something like this:  A traveler has a flat while driving past an insane asylum.  As he tries to change tires, the lug nuts keep rolling into the ditch.  A lunatic watches the man’s frustration as he fetches them from the mud. The lunatic has a suggestion: “Why don’t you put the lug nuts in the hub cap so they won’t roll away?”  The traveler tries this, and it works.  He says to the lunatic, “That was a good idea.  I thought you were supposed to be crazy.”  The lunatic, drawing himself up indignantly, replies, “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid!”

i have a dreamWhat Tom Hutchinson did was evil, yes, and it was crazy, but it was not irrational.  Why are Republicans and Democrats alike getting death threats when they run for office?  Why are the legislative and the executive branches mired to their axles in mud?  Because politics has lost its humanity.  The checks and balances that were the genius of the founding fathers, their loving and respectful gift to us, have been spurned because they are were awkward and inconvenient, not realizing that that very inconvenience was the tool that men like Calhoun used to build the compromises that made America great.  They encourage majorities to respect the interests of minorities.  We need them back.

“For all the noise and fury, we are a family,” says Paul Ryan, ironically if imperfectly quoting Macbeth’s reflection on life.  (A more complete tweet would be:  “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” An interesting reference, considering the state of Congress and the White House today.  But I digress…) 

Ryan went on to say (and this is the soul of his massage):

“These were our brothers and sisters in the line of fire. These were our brothers and sisters who ran into danger and saved countless lives.

“So before this House returns to its business, I want us to slow down and reflect, to think about how we are being tested right now. Because we are.  

I ask each of you to join me in resolving to come together…to lift each other up…and to show the country—show the world—that we are one House. The people’s House—united in our humanity. 

I really believe that, Mr. Speaker.  Do you?  Because if you do, slow down and reflect.  Think of the common people who are every day exposed to gunfire because of firearms in the hands of felons and lunatics, with no bodyguard to protect them.  Think of unarmed black men who fear for their lives when they are stopped for a failed tail light.  Think of the police officers who fear for their lives because they don’t know the black man is unarmed.  Think of those lying wounded in the street, who may become homeless if they get medical care they now suddenly need but cannot afford.

Continue to think about government being too big, about business being over-regulated, about taxes being too high and ill-distributed.  You are right about those things, and the Left needs to accept them into the deliberations.

Think about the powerless, and how they can be empowered. Think about how power corrupts, and what to do about it.

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Think about how, and why, you are being tested right now.  Because you are.  You have some serious soul-searching to do. So does the RNC.  So does the President.  So does each Democrat, and the DNC. So do all of the nameless bureaucrats who toil in the offices of the Capitol, the West Wing, The Pentagon, Langley, and Foggy Bottom.

The republic is broken, much as Madison predicted (in Federalist #10) that it would be if partisanship prevailed over public interest.  You, Mr. Speaker, are among the few with the power set it right.

Power and leadership are not the same thing.  Winning is more than just slyly passing your whole program intact. Leading is accepting (even embracing, if you can) the ideas of those with whom you disagree, while zealously promoting your own.  Winning is adopting policy that serves the people over the party. Instead of fighting the checks and balances, embrace them as a source of your strength.

Be a leader instead of a power broker, and you will begin to quell the fires that are starting to consume us.  You will become a hero, not just of the conservative caucus, but of all America.  Do not do it for this reason, though; do it because it is the right thing to do. One of the lives you save may be your own.

I believe you when you say, “It is that humanity which will win the day.  It always will.”  Yes!  You are my man.  Let’s play ball!

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Walls

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Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

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Well-Mended Wall

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

–Robert Frost (1914)

 

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Good Neighbors: A West German family enjoys the Berlin Wall –Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1962

 

Kremlins

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Kremlin is a word that really has no English equivalent.  Perhaps ‘castle’ or ‘citadel’ comes closest. but even the largest castle is dwarfed by a small kremlin.  These words miss something grander, more essentially Russian, about kremlins.

Old Russian cities formed around their kremlins and walled monasteries; in medieval times the line that divided the church from the rich and powerful was indistinct at best, and kremlins girded both the secular and sacred. 

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The kremlin at Tobolsk

In the countryside around these central structures the serfs tilled the land for the noblemen who dwelt within.  Near the gates merchants, tradesmen, artisans and ladies of the night gathered to ply their goods and services.  Inside the wall princes and priests plotted their intrigues and their wars.  Novgorod, Moscow, Smolensk, Pskov and many other cities had kremlins.  There is even a small kremlin in Tobolsk, deep in Siberia, 1500 miles east of Moscow.

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Between the Carpathian Mountains to the southwest and the Urals to the northeast lies a vast expanse of gently rolling lands known as the Russian Plain, through which meander many long and mighty rivers.  Because of the bland topography, these rivers criss-cross the plain in all directions.  Their names are rife with history and romance: the Rhine, the Danube, the Dnieper and Dniester, the Volga, the Don.  Owing to the relatively flat terrain, these waterways are easily navigable, with gentle currents and few shallows, shoals or rapids.  In a pre-industrial world, they provided a watery network, connecting the Baltic, Mediterranean, Black and landlocked Caspian Seas, that facilitated the movement of goods, troops, and culture throughout Eastern Europe.

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Control of this area endowed its owner with substantial strategic and economic advantage, but maintaining control was difficult. War-like peoples surrounded it on all sides.  To the north were the Norse, renowned for their berserk ferocity.  To the south was Byzantium, heir to the efficient Roman war machine.  To the west were the barbarous Slavs, and to the east lay the Mongol horde.  In the middle lay a loose-knit, polyglot cluster of kingdoms centered in Kiev, known as the lands of the Rus’.

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The kremlin at Smolensk

Control of this politically roiling landscape required at least two things:  An all-powerful commander of a formidable military force (eventually, the tsars), and a series of impregnable fortresses in which to consolidate control (the kremlins). 

A succession of strongmen built fortifications at strategic points along river.  The walls of these fortresses were initially made of wood, but were eventually replaced by stone, to become the kremlins we know today.

In the 9th century, the Kievan Rus’ built a citadel on the Dnieper to defend against aggression from the south.  This kremlin gave rise to Kiev, which became the the first iteration of what would eventually become Russia.  It stood until the Mongols sacked Kiev in 1240; very little remains.  The Rus’ then moved their capital to Novgorod, where they constructed another oaken kremlin on the Volkhov River.  Stone walls replaced the wooden ones there, beginning in 1302.

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The kremlin of Pskov

To the north, in Pleskow (now Pskov), which was allied with the Novgorod Rus’, a kremlin arose where the little Pskov River flows into the larger Velikaya near its mouth on Lake Peipus, the source of the River Neva.  Here, in 1240, Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod turned back an invasion of Teutonic Knights in an epic battle on the ice, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film masterpiece.  (Historians disagree on the reliability of the accounts of this event.)  The site controls access by the landlocked lands of Rus’ to the Gulf of Finland, and thus the Baltic Sea.  Peter the Great, who dreamed of building a navy and was wont to make his dreams come true, later made his capital near there to give Russia’s interior access to the ocean.

The Grand Principality of Moscow, soon to be Muscovy and then Russia, annexed Novgorod in 1478.  This was part of “the gathering of the Rus’ lands by  Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan the III, known as Ivan the Great.  It was then that the history of modern Russia began, although the word “Russia’ was first used by his grandson Ivan IV, the ‘Terrible’.

 At the site of today’s Moscow Kremlin a succession of walls went up and came down.  Slavs built an oaken palisade in in the 11th century, known as the Moscow Grad.  In the 14th century, a sturdy stronghold of white limestone replaced it.

 

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Ivan the Great

Ivan III replaced the limestone, between 1485 and 1495, with the walls we know today.  They are 5 to 19 meters high, 3.5 to 6.5 meters thick, built of stone faced with red brick.  Along the top, for its entire perimeter, runs a walkway, 2 to 4.5 meters wide, for is full perimeter, flanked by a 2.5-meters-tall crenelated wall facing outwards, and topped in a swallow-tailed style.  The walls contain interior passageways leading to  lightless rooms where the tsars’ most dangerous prisoners lived in solitary confinement while they slowly went mad.  Twenty defensive towers loom above the walkway, each with a different height and style.  Four heavy gates pierce the wall, flanked by gate towers.  These are now crowned by illuminated Soviet red stars, which replaced the gilded double-headed eagles of the Romanovs.

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The Moscow Kremlin. The tower on the left, called the Secret Tower, holds a secret escape route.  The other two towers are the only nameless of the twenty.  Within the wall, on the right, is the tall Bell Tower of Ivan the Great. Behind it, to the left, the four golden domes of the Assumption Cathedral peek over the trees.  Between the nameless towers the single golden dome of the Archangel’s Cathedral is surrounded by four gray metal domes. and next to it the much smaller Annunciation Cathedral.  Behind that is the baroque yellow Grand Palace.

Within the 68 acre triangle enclosed by the Kremlin Wall lie many large buildings, both sacred and secular.

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Coronation of Alexander II in the Palace of Facets

The oldest secular building is the Palace of Facets, constructed between 1487 and 1492 to serve the tsars for state ceremonies and official entertainments. Next oldest is the Terem Palace, first residence of the tsars.  The Grand Kremlin Palace, commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I and built between 1837 and 1849 in a Baroque style, joins these structures together into one vast government complex. 

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The Communist Party convenes in the Hall of Congresses in 1966.

The newest building inside the Kremlin is a Soviet-era glass and concrete monstrosity built in Khrushchev’s time as a home for the Congresses of the Communist Party.  Because of its large 6000-seat capacity and superb acoustics, today it hosts popular concerts.

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Cathedral of the Annunciation

There are several churches within the Kremlin; in a more secular Russia, some of them now serve as museums.  The oldest is the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great, which is contemporaneous with the present wall.  The most important is the Cathedral of the Assumption, which before the 1917 revolution was a symbol of Russia’s claim of dominance in the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

The Cathedral of the Annunciation was once reserved as a private place for princes and tsars to worship, and the Cathedral of the Archangel was the final resting place medieval Russian autocrats.  The Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles contained the lavish Patriarch’s Palace, and the Church of the Deposition of the Robe was a private chapel for the Patriarchate. 

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st basils sunset

The church most often associated with the Kremlin by Americans is the Cathedral of Basil the Great, with its colorful bouquet of onion domes.  It actually lies outside the Kremlin.   It was built from 1555-1561 on orders of Ivan IV, known as ‘the Formidible’ (more literal), or more commonly today, ‘the Terrible’, (which is a more apt description of the man).  To commemorate his conquests of Kazan and Astrakahn, and to praise the glory of God, it was built in the shape of flames leaping skyward.  It was consecrated in 1561 and secularized by the Soviets in 1928, today it is owned by the Russian Federation and serves as a museum.

Today the Kremlin is the capitol of the Russian Federation.  Its hegemony, under the firm hand of Vladimir Putin, reaches across the vast expanse of Russia, and who knows how far beyond.

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Saint Basil the Great

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In the year 359 the Goths were a loosely- knit horde of warrior kingdoms nipping at the heels of a stumbling Roman Empire.  The age of Christian persecution was waning, with the Emperor Constantius II himself professing Christian beliefs.  A controversy within the Church, which began at the Council of Seleucia, was troubling the Emperor:  did the gospel’s assertion that “the Son was like the Father” mean that they were built of the same substance, rather than that they were alike in some other way.  He called a Council in Constantinople in 359 to settle the question.

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St. Basil the Great

Among those who attended was a thirty-year old priest from Ancyra, Galatia, in what is now Turkey.  Dark-skinned, ascetic, and mystical, Basil first took the side of same substance, but at the conference changed his stance.  He took the more mystical view that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were a single entity, more unified in His essential nature than simply being three separate things made of the same substance would imply.  This central mystery today lies at the heart of many Christian faiths.

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Ruins of the ancient citadel of Caesura, where Basil built the first hospital

Basil went on to work among the sinners and the poor.  He preached to a large polyglot congregation every morning and evening, at other times working among thieves and prostitutes.  He spoke truth to power, not fearing to chastise public officials who failed their public duty to administer justice.  Outside the city of Caesarea, he built a huge humanitarian complex called the Basiliad, which included a hospital, a hospice, a poorhouse, and a soup kitchen, which his contemporaries compared with the Seven Wonders of the World.

Like many of the righteous who came before or followed him, it was probably difficult to get along with Basil face-to-face.  He was firm in his faith, and he could be both imperious and hot-blooded in its defense.  His orthodoxy, though, did not blind him to both the good and evil in those around him.  If it did not compromise the truth, he could shift from liturgical language and converse in the common dialect of the street or the imperious language of the Roman court.

what is your ownBasil was drawn to an ascetic, communal monasticism.  By 358, a band of like-minded monks had gathered around him.  He settled them into his family’s Galatian estate along with his brother, sister and widowed mother, to live with him in a life of piety, prayer, and devotion to charitable works.

During the Soviet Era, it was fitting that the Cathedral of Saint Basil stood at the head of Red Square, a symbol of the communistic ideal that was espoused, if not practiced, by the politburo in the Kremlin next door.  It descended into irony as the oligarchic kleptocracy of Putin rose to power.

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Red Square today.  On the left is St. Basil’s Cathedral, colorful and inviting.  On the right is the citadel of Moscow, the Kremlin, stern and forbidding.

Basil’s writings, and the example of his life, have had profound influence on Christian Orthodox thought in both the East and the West.  Nearly two millennia after his death, it is difficult to be sure how much of the text in the many liturgies and prayers which bear his name were actually written by his hand, and how much came later, inspired by his example.  Either way, his influence is vast.

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Julian the Apostate

When the Emperor Julian ascended to the Roman throne, he blamed Christianity for the flagging of the Empire.  He renounced his father’s faith in Christ, and tried to restore the pagan, neoplatonist polytheism that had seen Rome through its days of glory.  Entangled in the persecution of Julian the Apostate, an uncompromising Basil was arrested and tortured by Roman soldiers.  On June 29, 362, he was executed, a martyr to his Christian faith.  Julian himself died in battle a year later, and Rome returned, at least nominally, to Christian rule during its final days.

St. Basil is canonized by both the Western and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.  The Basiliad is gone, but his thought continues to guide the Judeo-Christian world nearly two millenia after his death.  He continues to make the world a better place.

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Fat Cat in a Hat

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I have used the laws of this country just like the greatest people that you read about every day in business have used the laws of this country, the chapter laws, to do a great job for my company, for myself, for my employees, for my family, et cetera….

…I have made the tough decisions, always with an eye toward the bottom line. Perhaps it’s time America was run like a business.”

–Donald Trump, who filed for bankruptcy four times

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That makes sense. Big Businesses, like Trump’s, exploit multitudes of common people for their labor, and vacuum up their cash for the private benefit of a few large stockholders and elite executives.  That is Capitalism, and it is good.

Business which run more like government should, where the executive suite serves to benefit its employees and the common people, reek of Socialism, which is bad.

Everyone knows that.

$$$$$$

We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes

–Leona Helmsley, NYC Real Estate & Hotel Mogul, who was jailed in 1992 for tax evasion and business fraud.

It makes me smart.”

–Donald Trump, on not paying any taxes.  He was elected President of the United States in 2016.

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Leona Helmsley, “The Queen of Mean”, was successfully prosecuted by then U.S. Attorney (and now Trump sycophant) Rudy Giuliani for income tax evasion and fraudulent business practices.  She reported to prison on April 15, 1992, the day personal taxes fall due.  Prisoner No.15113-054, estimated net worth over five billion dollars, served nineteen months in federal prison.  Upon release she had to sell all her NY hotels, most of which sold drinks, because New York law does not allow convicted felons to hold liquor licenses.

At the same time Donald Trump was building his real estate and hotel empire in New York and beyond, allegedly committing many of the same heinous acts that sent Helmsley to jail.  Now he is the leader of the free world.

What a difference twenty five years can make.

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Drummed Out!

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Marching to a Different Drummer 

Short of dying in office, there are three ways an American president can cease to be one before his or her term is up:  1) Article I, Section 2-Impeachment, 2)  Amendment 25, Section 4-Declaration of Incapacity, and  3) Common Law-Resignation.  Only one of these—resignation—has ever actually occurred.  Each has grave consequences for the republic, but they are different.

1) ARTICLE I:   Impeachment

The most frequently discussed means of removing a president is impeachment.  The constitution provides for impeachment only in the case of “Treason, Bribery, of other high Crimes or Misdemeanors.”  Only the House of Representatives can bring an impeachment resolution, which requires a simple majority to pass.  Any member of the House can introduce an impeachment resolution, which is then referred to an ad hoc committee to work out the details.  More often in modern times the House Judiciary Committee itself initiates an impeachment resolution, and drafts recommendations for the floor of the House.  Until recently, the Attorney General could appoint an independent Special Prosecutor with the power to recommend impeachment directly to the House, but the legislation that empowered that was allowed to expire after the Clinton impeachment,  out of concern for the political effect of imbuing an individual who was not elected with such signal power.  If the House passes an impeachment resolution, then the Judiciary Committee recommends a slate of “managers” to prosecute the accused in the trial that follows.  Only upon conviction at this trial is the impeached person stripped of his office.

Impeachments are tried before the Senate.  When the defendant is the President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides and serves as judge.  A panel of “managers” appointed by the House on the recommendation of its Judiciary Committee prosecutes the case against the accused, and the entire Senate serves as a jury.  A two-thirds majority of senators present is necessary to convict. 

Once convicted, the offender is immediately removed from office.  In the case of the president, the vice president assumes the higher office, and the vice presidency remains vacant.  Ouster from office is the only sentence the Senate can confer.  Article I provides that “Judgement in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgement and Punishment, according to Law.”

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The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

The provision for impeachment is intentionally Byzantine.  Over time it has become even more so, growing into equal parts constitutional law, politics, and pageantry. The framers did not intend for impeachment to be easy or routine.  In all of U.S. history only two presidents have been impeached by the House—Andrew Johnson (1861) and Bill Clinton (1988)—and neither was convicted in the Senate.  A bill of impeachment was introduced in the House against John Tyler in 1841, but it did not pass.  Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974 with impeachment resolutions pending; his resignation rendered them moot.

During America’s first two centuries, the constitutional provision for impeaching a president was invoked only once—against Andrew Johnson–in the turbulent, polarized circumstances immediately following the Civil War.  In modern times, the country has seriously considered it three times in fewer than fifty rears—against Nixon, Clinton, and Trump.  It has never succeeded in removing a president from office.  Are we in danger of reducing impeachment to a routine political tool?

25th AMENDMENT:  Incapacity

Article II Section 1 of the Constitution provides for the succession of presidential power in the event of the death, resignation, or incapacity of the President:

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.

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The wording of this clause, particularly as it relates to incapacity, introduced ambiguities that the founders did not foresee.  When William Henry Harrison died in office, his powers and duties devolved onto Vice President John Tyler.  Tyler took more, though.  He declared that not only the powers and duties, but also the office itself, was now his.  At the suggestion of Daniel Webster, he took the Presidential Oath of Office as prescribed by the Constitution.  Since then every vice president who has succeeded a fallen president has taken the oath, following the Tyler Precedent.

Despite criticism at the time, he claimed to be President, rather than merely Acting President.  This was an important distinction, because the constitution provided for only one president, who had to be elected.  If a Vice President succeeded a President with a temporary disability, the he became President and finished out the term.  The previous president was gone, even if he recovered from his incapacity.  The vice presidency remained vacant.

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Garfield’s deathbed

When President Garfield lingered after being shot, Vice President Arthur declined to assume the presidency while Garfield lived.  Similarly Vice President Marshall demurred when Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated, but not killed, by a stroke.  Neither wanted to bear the mantle of the Tyler Precedent while a president lived who might recover.

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In 1945, Franklin Roosevelt’s health began to rapidly decline, and Vice President Truman feared he might have to face a similar decision involving one of the nation’s most revered presidents.  A cerebral hemorrhage ended FDR’s life before Truman faced such a crisis.  He never forgot, though, and unsuccessfully pushed for a constitutional amendment on succession.  Eisenhower had two heart attacks while in office, but did not die.

In 1965, following the assassination of John Kennedy, Congress finally adopted the text of the 25th Amendment.  By May of 1967, it was ratified by 47 state legislatures.

Section 4 of the Amendment deals with the involuntary removal of a president who has become incapacitated in the judgement of his colleagues.  It reads:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

A simple majority of the Cabinet, or “such other body as Congress may by law provide” (although it never has), can empower the President pro tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, acting together, to relieve the President of his powers.  The President can resume the power simply by declaring himself fit to do so.  The Congress, by a two-thirds vote of both houses taken within 21 days, can take them way again.  It is not specified how often this cycle can be repeated.

This process does not remove the president from office.  Rather it transfers the powers and responsibilities of the office to the Vice President, who becomes Acting President, an office not defined in the constitution.  The door is left open for the President to reassume his duties if circumstances change.  Since he is still President, presumably his term limits clock continues to run.

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Was Reagan impaired in Office?

The Section 4 process has never been invoked. The Framers of the Amendment apparently had in mind a physical incapacity like Garfield’s wound or Wilson’s stroke, where it would be a useful tool.  Invoked against a vigorous but allegedly demented president, the results might be unpredictable.  It could conceivably paralyze the executive and legislative branches for the remainder of that president’s term in office.  The potential constitutional precedents of using this clause for alleged mental defects are terrifying,

3: EXTRACONSTITUTIONAL:  Resignation

The Constitution refers to the resignation of a president, but only one, Richard Nixon, has actually done it.  How that was engineered is instructive.

tricky dickNixon was a flawed human being, ambitious and bullying, with questionable ethics, but he had greatness in him  His first run for national office, as Eisenhower’s running mate, was tainted with allegations of corruption that dogged him throughout his subsequent career.  Along the way, he acquired the sobriquet “Tricky Dick”.

nixon chinaNixon’s achievements on the national level were real, however, and substantial, especially in foreign affairs.  As Vice President, his “Kitchen Debate” with Nikita Khrushchev is remembered more than half a century later. As President, he signed two substantial arms control treaties, and opened the era of “peaceful coexistence” with the USSR.  He supported Israel through the Yom Kippur War.  He opened trade and cultural exchanges with China and the Middle East, and weakened Soviet hegemony there.  He signed the Paris Accords that ended US involvement in the Viet Nam War and led to the suspension of the draft.

During his campaign for election to a second term, though, Nixon’s ethics came again to haunt him.  Agents of his campaign organization (which he called CRP but reporters named CREEP-the Committee to RE-Elect the President) was allegedly caught breaking into the opposing party’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel to steal data and plant surveillance devices.  Nixon denied any knowledge of that activity, and it was never established whether he knew of the burglary beforehand.

Subsequent evidence clearly showed, though, that he had led a frantic effort to prevent any knowledge of the break-in from reaching the public.  Surreptitious recordings Nixon had made of his White House conversations, laced with obscenity (“[expletive deleted]”), showed a clearly unravelling president, bullying his aides into ethically questionable acts to protect his crumbling reputation.

Archibald Cox was appointed as Special Prosecutor to investigate the matter, only to be fired by Nixon when he got too close.  Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, then resigned out of conscience.  The event came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Sat Nite Massacre

A new Special Prosecutor was named.  Congressional  committees took up the cudgel and held a series of hearings, some televised and some closed.  Popular demonstrations erupted across the nation, where the word impeachment became increasingly common in chants and on placards.  The pressure on the president was immense.  “I have reason to suspect,” wrote Senator Barry Goldwater, “that all might not be well mentally in the White House.”

Nixon’s defense strategy was to act presidential, preferably on TV.  In one unfortunate effort, a haggard Nixon assured Americans that “I am not a crook!”  He was at his most presidential when seen in his role as a statesman.  He therefore embarked on a series of overseas trips, with a posse of reporters and photographers, to the Middle East and the USSR.  One result of all this jet travel was a case of phlebitis that sidelined him for weeks.

impeachment demonstratoMeanwhile, the investigation ground on.  Televised hearings and the publication of transcripts of the White House tapes whipped the public to frenzy.  Eventually the Judiciary Committee voted to send three articles of impeachment to the House floor, for 1) obstruction of justice, 2) abuse of power, and 3) contempt of Congress.  All were based on the cover-up.  Nixon’s direct involvement in the Watergate burglary has never been established.

resignation letterWith the votes in both the House and Senate trending strongly against him, Nixon knew the jig was up.  If he was impeached he would very likely be convicted, and his place in history would be to be the only president ever convicted after impeachment.  If he cut his losses by leaving office before impeachment, he might still preserve some of the positive legacy he had worked a lifetime to achieve.  It was a Corleonean offer that he could not refuse.  Nixon resigned.

nixon quit quoteA big advantage of the engineered resignation is that it does not directly set any constitutional precedents.  A disadvantage is that it is clumsy, has to be tailored to each situation, and is very susceptible to politics.  Finding that Godfather deal may be difficult, and a bold, principled office-holder may be resistant to the approach.

The Situation We Are In Now

Impeachment has been tried but never worked.  Declaring incapacity has never been attempted, and a vigorous, feisty executive does not seem like the person on which to try out this process for he first time.  Inducing a resignation seems like the path most likely to succeed and least likely to result in harmful precedent. 

Consider President Trump.  He has not dedicated his life to statesmanship or politics, and his sense of legacy is not invested in his public works.  He can walk away without feeling diminished, blaming others for obstructing his attempts.

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He has dedicated his life to wealth and power, and to Trump as a brand.  Threatening that would surely give him pause. 

Suppose the emoluments clause were invoked to require him to actually divest all interest in, and knowledge of the operations of, the Trump Organization; to require it to change its name to something that does not exploit the presidential connection; and to cease all contact with the principals of the Organization, whether family or not.  Rather than submit to such rigorous ethics and constitutional constraints, would he resign? Perhaps.

Keep Eyes on the Prize

The biggest risk in all this talk of impeachment is that it will distract us from the real task at hand.  Our country went astray before Trump was elected.  In fact, he was elected in large part because voters saw his lack of political experience as an asset, in sharp contrast to pro politicians who opposed him in the primaries, and his dynastic opponent in the general election, whom many voters felt belonged to a professional political elite that was responsible for the morass that Washington has become.  We overlooked his obvious shortcomings and underestimated the hucksterism that he, to his credit, made no effort to conceal, because we wanted to change Washington and correct the social inequities that plutocracy was producing.  We believed him when he said he was going to “drain the swamp.”  We voted for something new, and we got it, but it turned out to be something very different from what we longed for.

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“This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” –Donald Trump

Freeing the White House from its current occupant will not free the country from the coalition of ideologues, starry-eyes hopefuls, foreign operatives, and nincompoops who put him there.  Replacement of the president is only a tool in the central task of rebuilding America as a nation of principle, vision and hope.  To do this we must begin respecting one another again, listening and compromising for the benefit of majority and minority alike, and forsaking the tyranny of a narrow but iron-willed majority.  We must learn not just to tolerate, not just to respect, but to revere our diversity for the richness and strength it bestows on us.  We must wrest power from the plutocrats and restore it to an inclusive electorate. We must build bridges that bring us together, not walls that keep us apart.  We must embrace and reinvigorate Lincoln’s ideal, that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Compared to that real task lying before us, simply removing a president from office seems like a walk in the park.

Rock ’em, Sock ’em Politics

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When a politicians dons the strait jacket of ideology, or takes the opiate of corporate dark money, he sacrifices free will and independent thought.  When a majority does this, government becomes robotic, mechanically serving its unseen owners.

To manage this it misrepresents its intentions to voters, using industrial-strength informatic techniques pioneered in 20th century Moscow and Berlin in the service of politics, and perfected on Madison Avenue to serve commerce. With such tools are the freedoms of common men and women neutralized as well, and the cogs of clockwork government are lubricated.

Robotic government stops functioning in the interest of the people whose consent once empowered it, just as a factory full of robots fails the workers who used to ‘man’ it.  As the capitalist no longer has to share the profits of his factory, so the plutocrat no longer has to extend the benefits of his government.  In both cases, the benefits of the efficiencies achieved inure to management, bypassing the rank-and-file.

 The main function of humans (what science fiction likes to call the ‘organic component’, or the ‘wetware’) in such a government is mutual obstructionism. The passion of such government dedicates itself to stopping the other side from getting away with something very bad, but ill-defined.  Both sides become mired in this important function, so that the robots may proceed with their dark work unnoticed, unencumbered by empathy or ardor.

But not without intelligence. Heuristics and artificial intelligence have made robot smarts quite intimidating, however soulless they might be. Perhaps it is time for a little artificial intelligence in Washington, if there is to be any intelligence there at all. Are you ready for President Watson?

Is this how government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall perish from the Earth? Not with a bang but a whimper?

Tweet & Tower: Epigram in the Age of Trump

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Donald Trump did not invent the tweet, nor the political tweet.  Not even the presidential tweet.  The art of the epigram, or tweet, has been around for centuries, and many masters have come and gone.  Consider this gem, tweeted fully half a millenium ago, which practically defines the genre:

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The history of the tweet goes way farther back than that.  Over a millennium earlier, another gifted twittermeister had a nearly identical thought:

ciceroNor is this the oldest surviving tweet.  This one comes from two centuries earlier:

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The turn of the 18th century was a fruitful time for the tweet.  Alexander Pope’s long poems barely survive, but the tweets he set like jewels within them continue to gleam .  I know you’ve heard this one:

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and this one, which might have been a DM to President Trump:

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Trump may have passed on the inspirational tweets of Pope, preferring the acerbic wit of Pope’s contemporary, Jonathan Swift.  If this tweet had been written in he first person singular, it might have come from Trump himself:

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Although all of Swift’s wisdom might not be welcome:

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These tweets ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, which may have brought us the greatest tweeter of all time:

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Franklin may not have invented the political tweet, but he certainly perfected it.  His advice to American patriots is remembered long after the war ended.

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He could be a lot more pointed, too.  This one foreshadows John C. Calhoun’s warnings, fifty years later, about the tyranny of the majority.

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The presidential tweet was a natural follower of the political tweet.  It first reached full flower in the hands of a master—President Abraham Lincoln.

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Both Roosevelts had the knack, too.  Theodore Roosevelt, who actually made his living as a best-selling author both before and after his presidency, had this advice to the common man:

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This advice, intended for presidents but widely applicable, is perhaps TRs most successful tweet:

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The mid 20th century brought a virtual golden age of the political tweet, including the presidential tweet:

will rogersFranklin Roosevelt was a Democrat, and his tweets sometimes seem to address the 21st century GOP, enhancing his status as a political clairvoyant:

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And there is this DM to Paul Ryan from both Roosevelts:

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Other memorable 20th century presidential tweets include Truman’s about where the buck stops, Eisenhower’s to beware the military-industrial complex, and Kennedy’s plea to ask not what your country can do…etc.  Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, was a master of the presidential tweet.

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Even into the twenty first century, the presidential tweet flourished.  The homespun, self-deprecating humor that sometimes bubbled up in presidential tweets from Lincoln to Reagan became a dominant theme in the opening decades.

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In 2016 the nature of the presidential tweet changed.  Previous presidents used Tweets to communicate directly with their constituents, humanizing their images.  The humor let us see brief glimpses into the hearts of the men who occupied the Oval Office.  Policy and fact did not enter into most of these tweets; this would have not been consistent with their intimate purpose.

Donald Trump has changed all that.  He seems oddly unwilling, or unable, to relate to people on a human level.  His tweets seem aimed at manipulation rather than revelation.  They are seldom humorous, except for a ubiquitous, smarmy sarcasm, and they never self-deprecating.  They are chockablock full of “alternative facts” unencumbered by even a hint of proof.  This made up data is often used to defend nasty attacks on people and institutions that without them would have no foundation at all.

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They are sometimes laced with a creepy paranoia which feels particularly out of place in a President of the United States and Commander in Chief.

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Perhaps saddest of all, the literary quality of these neo-epigrams vanished when their purpose became propaganda.  I know that this has no significance in the grand political scheme of things.  The epigram—the tweet—has been an art form for millennia; I hate to see it go.  In the end, cultures are remembered by the art they leave behind, often in the remains of practical objects: shards of pottery, battered cutlery, bits of personal adornment.  If artificial intelligence ever scans the autistic, ADD-riven snippets of our government today, they will surely conclude that there were virtual Visigoths at our cybergate.