The Tyranny of Civic Ignorance

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“Tyranny,” by Henry Lyman Saÿen; located in Room H-143 of the US Capitol. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to the results of this year’s national civics survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (University of Pennsylvania) only 26% of US citizens can name all three branches of the government; as many as 37% cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment; 39% think the press should have government approval to report on any issue of national security.

This is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. “These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education,” observes the Center’s director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Why should we be concerned about chronic and systemic civic ignorance? Because it erodes the foundation of democracy on which we rely for our security and prosperity short of submitting to tyranny. That is Josiah Ober’s answer, which he explains by way of a thought experiment. (more…)

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The Devil’s Dictionary No. 2: Moron

 

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“The Hell” by Coppo di Marcovaldo, mosaic, circa 1301. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Recently our Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, described our current President as a “moron.” I had not heard the word for some time; I certainly had not pondered on its meaning lately. The incident brought back memories of other cabinet members who held their presidents in similar esteem. Henry Kissinger, for example, was believed to have had a low opinion of Richard Nixon:

Though mitigated by admiration for certain elements of the Nixon character, Kissinger’s basic attitude toward the President was one of loathing and contempt.

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The One, the Few, and the Many

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Mr. Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency as a right-wing populist, and with the mindset of a demolitionist,[i] raises a question about the viability of democracy. While it is a mistake to conflate Trump’s demagoguery with democracy, his election to office reveals ambiguities over the meaning of popular governance in US political culture.

Trump has said of the government, “I alone can fix it,” which exhibits a preference for rule by The One. He has appointed a cabinet and undertaken a series of executive orders that reflect the interests and reinforce the power of the economic elite, which demonstrates the rule of The Few. Both tendencies are authoritarian. (more…)

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…)

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.

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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…)