Archangel Raphael

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“Archangel Raphael and Tobit and the dog” by David Ghirlandaio, circa 1484-1486. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Jorge Luis Borges in his History of Angels (1926), “primitive angels were stars.” In the Book of Job (Borges continues), the Lord speaks out from the whirlwind about the genesis of creation: “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (KJV, Job 38:7). The “German speculative theologian” Richard Rothe (1799-1867) affirms that angels have the attributes of intellectual force and free will. They are also capable of “working wonders, but not miracles. They cannot create from nothing or raise the dead.”[1] (more…)

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A Democratic Alternative to the Devil’s Theology

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Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in his study.(Credit: The Merton Center)

Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, social critic, and political activist—was alert to how people tend to exaggerate differences between themselves and others in order to separate right from wrong and good from evil.  He called such exaggeration a trait of “the devil’s moral theology,” in which “the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong,” which “does not exactly make for peace and unity among men” because to be absolutely right, we must “punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”[i]

Who among us has never succumbed to moralism?  It is habit forming, contagious, and toxic.  It is today’s norm.  Hyperbole is the trope of choice.  Moderation in language, respect for the complexities of life, and deliberation of differences are rarely manifest in public discourse.  (more…)

‘The People’ in Trumpspeak

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(DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Mr. Trump’s widely criticized UN address contains an easily overlooked version of “the people” that should give a democratic citizenry cause for concern.  The speech was coarse, boorish, brassy, combative, and self-contradictory.  That was readily apparent.  It groped for power, which is Trump’s style.  But it was also a three-card monte con that deceptively proclaimed presidential sovereignty in the name of the people.  The rhetorical kitsch was a distraction that diminished and deposed the public it pretended to glorify.

The perverse subtlety of Trump’s brash rhetoric is hidden in plain sight, if we pause to look for it amid the clutter of cliché and misdirection of diatribe.  Placed in perspective, the diversion implies (points away from) a deft filching of popular sovereignty.  (more…)

Touch of Evil (Part 2 of 2)

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaking at a campaign rally with Governor Mike Pence at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, 2 August 2016. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Joe Arpaio was detested in Arizona for the very same reasons for which he was idolized. This explains both his electoral victories (Arpaio was re-elected five times) and the vehemence with which opposing segments of the public—especially minorities—viewed his tenure as sheriff.

He delighted in punishing and humiliating inmates in his infamous “Tent City” jail, where temperatures could rise over 100 degrees in the summer: “I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant.” Prisoners’ meals were cut down: “it costs more to feed the dogs than it does the inmates.” Successful lawsuits against the sheriff’s office for mistreatment of prisoners and wrongful deaths of inmates have been awarded dozens of millions of dollars. (more…)

Touch of Evil (Part 1 of 2)

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a rally for Donald Trump at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona, 18 June 2016. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

There is no more representative picture of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio than the portrait of border sheriff Hank Quinlan created by Orson Welles in his prophetic Touch of Evil (1958). At the end of Welles’ film noir masterpiece, in which “Justice, for once, is represented by a Mexican” (even though the protagonist, Miguel Vargas, is played by Charlton Heston in dark make-up), Quinlan is “defeated by technology, by the truth, by justice…. The powerful end up as victims of their abuse of power.”[1] (more…)

Imperialitis

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A UH-60 Black Hawk flies over the Bamyan River Valley, 24 June 2012. (Credit: U.S. Army)

“It’s the same forever war.”

Doug Ollivant, Senior National Security Studies Fellow, New America Foundation

Mr. Trump’s hedge in his August 21, 2017 speech on Afghanistan was to sustain an interminable war, choosing neither to quit the war nor win it in the foreseeable future.  He did say, “in the end, we will win,” but he offered no timetable.  His definition of victory was rendered in the verb form of the gerund—“attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”—which expresses a continuous, uncompleted action.  His generals advised him there were no feasible options other than holding the line by sending a few thousand more troops to sustain the stalemated war until the Taliban eventually decide they have more to gain from negotiation than armed struggle.  Even that, Mr. Trump allowed, might not happen:  “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows when or if that will ever happen.”  Mr. Trump’s new strategy is not “time based.”  It is timeless.

In short, there is no foreseeable military solution; the war cannot be won in any meaningful sense of the word; the immediate choice is between losing and not losing.  So, Mr. Trump opts to sustain the stalemate, or as one anonymous US military official puts it, “to chart a way forward well into the 2020s.”  A way forward does not mean a path to victory.  It means more of the same.

(more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse (Epilogue): A Wedding in the Countryside (Part 2 of 2)

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Santeria Centro Habana, 3 November 2014. (Credit: Bernardo Capellini)

Soul of the Drum

On September 29, 1947, Dizzy Gillespie and legendary Cuban drummer Chano Pozo unveiled Afro-Cuban jazz at Carnegie Hall by premiering George Russell’s Cubana Be, Cubana Bop. On that date, Chano’s conga drums and Abakuá chants were first combined with Gillespie’s griot trumpet and his band’s bebop sounds. The integration of jazz and Afro-Cuban music demanded virtuoso accommodations from all performers. But in a shining corner of the universe, the ancient sounds of Africa—heretofore fragmented in diaspora—were reunited again. Chano and Dizzy had bridged two separate and distinct ontologies.[1] (more…)

Fire and Fury: The Pitfall of Self-Righteous Absolutes

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“Atomic War!” #2, Page 1, December, 1952. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . . . for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1, 4. NRSV)

Mr. Trump’s bellicose “fire and fury” rhetoric of August 8, 2017 (which he escalated two days later) promised to visit upon North Korea a “power the likes of which this world has never seen before” if Kim Jong Un should make “any more threats to the United States.” Trump’s “apocalyptic” imagery rendered the prospect of nuclear conflagration in familiar, biblical terms—Revelation’s depiction of the complete and final destruction of the world. He framed the crisis publicly, in language he had uttered privately to aides, as the ultimate confrontation of good and evil.

It is possible, of course, that Mr. Trump at some point will abandon his apocalyptic language. It wouldn’t be the first time he distanced himself from previous threats and promises. But a pledge of fire and fury is an especially dangerous ploy, if ploy it is. It exacerbates an already fraught situation and undermines our ability to imagine a plausible alternative to confrontation. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse (Epilogue): A Wedding in the Countryside (Part 1 of 2)

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“The Capitulation of Granada” by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz, oil on canvas, 1882. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For 800 years, the Spanish fought the Moors in the legendary Reconquista (8th to 15th cent.). Sacred relics from that holy war survive today in the region of Andalucía in Spain: in the cities of Sevilla and Córdoba, and most gloriously, in the magnificent Alhambra of Granada.

That centuries-old conflict was won as such wars against foreign empires are usually won: people inspired by religious beliefs and fighting for their homeland—as Ernest Hemingway reminds us—can be destroyed, but never defeated.[1] The invader faces an endless struggle, reflected in the simple statement of the Confederate soldier who explained to Union soldiers why he fought in the US Civil War: “I fight because you’re here.”

In the countryside of New Jersey, I have seen the end of the Trump Apocalypse and a vision of the future of America after it gives up its imperial aspirations. (more…)

The Monster That Goes Thump in the Night

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Painting Pesadilla (nightmare) by Mauricio García Vega. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mark Hertsgaard, writing in The Nation, directly confronts in the light of day the monster that many, probably most of us encounter in nightmares. We would rather ignore and repress than acknowledge and face the real possibility of nuclear extermination. It is a possibility that has haunted us since 1945, one we wanted to think was put to rest with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But the menace remained. Nuclear weapons proliferated. The war on terrorism metastasized. The infamous Doomsday Clock moved up to two and a half minutes to midnight.

Hertsgaard renders the abstraction of nuclear annihilation tangible in the person of Donald Trump. President Trump is the monster that goes thump in the night. He is as frightening as our childhood fear of the dark. Yet, personifying the threat of nuclear annihilation with the palpable image of Trump’s impulsive finger on the nuclear button focuses attention on the immediate danger at the risk of distracting attention from the systemic militarism of US imperialism. (more…)