The nuclear football. (Credit: Jamie Chung / Smithsonian Institute Magazine)
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said on the second day of this new year that the US is closer to a “full-on war” with North Korea than at any time before in his four-decade career. The chance of war, he thinks, is about 20%, which means there is still a 70-80% chance that diplomacy can work out the nuclear crisis.
“Mercury, Argos and Io” by Abraham Bloemaert, circa 1592. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, is invoked by Josiah Ober to warn a slumbering citizenry of the danger of tyranny. “Vigilance and readiness to respond,” Ober warns, are the duties of a participating citizenry if they wish to preserve their democracy from the ever-present risk of elite capture. Argos “was bewitched into slumber and then killed in his sleep by the trickster-god Hermes at the behest of tyrannical Zeus.” A vigilant citizenry, Ober cautions, “must not be lulled into sleepy inattention by rhetorical incantations.”[i]
In times of crisis, paternalistic demagogues promise salvation in the name of the people. Mercury—Rome’s patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, and trickery—stands in for Hermes in many depictions of Argos’ slumber and demise.
What happens when the delegated authority of elected representatives—delegation being a necessity of a large and complex modern state—is captured by elites to legislate in their own interests and against the common interests of the people? What happens when the sovereignty of the people is co-opted and democracy is corrupted? (more…)
The decline of western democracy shown in the domino theory. (Credit: Paraney / Wikimedia Commons)
“In imaginary Demopolis the citizens are capable of governing . . . . But the stunted civic education offered by real modern states may be unequal to the task of producing a capable demos. In the absence of adequate civic education, citizens lack the motivation and the skills necessary to govern themselves . . . . [That lack] fosters unstable perversions of democracy, as opportunistic politicians channel antityrannical sentiment into paranoia and warped nostalgia for a mythic age of national unity and civic virtue.”
Josiah Ober, Demopolis (2017, p. 161)
The illiberal populism of right-wing demagoguery by the likes of Donald Trump is just such a perversion of democracy. It is, as Ober observes (pp. 178-179), an outburst of political polarization that feeds on racial strife and exclusionary nationalism and projects a fierce hostility toward liberalism and liberal values such as tolerance. It is marked by a rhetoric of demonization. Populist despots, Ober insists, “can take power only when citizen self-government is reduced to a simple form of majoritarian tyranny” (p. 180), which can happen in the absence of adequate civic education.
Ober’s formulation of basic democracy is a thought experiment that helps us to envision the minimum conditions for a healthy polity of limited self-governance that provides sufficient security and prosperity without succumbing to tyranny. In addition to adequate security and sufficient welfare, basic democracy promotes political liberty, political equality, and civic dignity, which in turn reinforce and depend on the exercise of interrelated human capacities for sociability, rationality, and communication. (more…)
“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…)
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…)
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…)
(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…)
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.
“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…)
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…)