Evil-Doers

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…)

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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…)

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…)

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…)

Trump’s Imperial Angst

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Portrait of Romulus Augustus on extremely rare currency, a golden tremissis (1.5g) struck in Rome between October 475 and September 476. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump’s July 6th speech in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square is a rhetorical hodgepodge of imperial angst. I won’t summarize the speech. I suggest instead either reading or watching it in full. It gets mixed reviews, largely split in the US along partisan lines.

The speech expresses an anxious mindset. It is a flailing gesture of resentment. Whether or not the gesture represents Trump’s mindset is hard to know. He has his own agenda. He may or may not believe all or part of what he says, but what he says now is consistent with what he said on the campaign trail, and what he said on the campaign trail channeled the anxieties of enough voters to get him elected. (more…)

Abraham and the Three Angels

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“Abraham Serving the Three Angels” by Rembrandt, oil on canvas, 1646. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Abram went forth with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, following his Lord’s command, into the land of Canaan. He was 75 years old. Abram’s wife was barren, therefore Lot was to Abraham as if he were the son of the old chieftain. There was a famine on the land, and for a time Abram dwelt in Egypt and became rich. Returning from Egypt, Abram and Lot separated: Abram raised his tent in the plain of Mamre in Hebron; Lot went to dwell on the plain of Jordan, next to the city of Sodom.

When Abram was 99 years old the Lord appeared to him and ratified their covenant, changing Abram’s name to Abraham, and that of his wife to Sarah.

In the desert, during the worst time of the day, heat seeps through your pores, dries up the organs of the body and distempers the rational mind creating a blur of vision, which gives way to mirages. (more…)

Militant Peace

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Pyongyang, North Korea, 2015. (Credit: Uwe Brodrecht)

Cup of coffee in hand, reading my morning newspaper, I feel a sudden jolt. No, not a jolt from the caffeine. It is the story that brings me up short. The story is about a current revival of fear over the possibility of World War III. That topic draws my attention to the story, but it is not the cause for my surprise or the reason to stop what I am doing. I’ve been worrying about war for as long as I can remember. What brings me up short is a bolt-from-the-blue reminder that for some people, maybe most of my fellow citizens, US militarism is a force for peace, which is not too far removed from the mythic sensibility of war as an angel of redemption.

Sometimes it takes an actual example, a singular statement in ordinary circumstances, to recognize an unspoken assumption and make a disembodied abstraction abruptly palpable. It is one thing to think abstractly that we live and die by the myths that constitute us and shape our sense of reality. It is quite different to feel the force of that truism. That difference is what Rick Hampson’s story in USA TODAY brought home to me. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Aylan Viu!!!

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The dead Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi. Wall painting by Justus Becker and Oguz Sen at the Frankfurt East Harbor. (Credit: Frank C. Müller)

The waves of the sea lap gently around him, belying the horror of his small body face down, immobile on the beach. The boy looks frighteningly like one of my grandsons, and he wears an outfit that I remember my son used to wear—down to the sneakers—when he was small. He could have been any of our children, and he could have been a boy flying to Egypt to escape the Massacre of the Innocents.

His name was Alan Kurdi. His family was leaving Turkey in the hopes of eventually reaching Canada. Their small boat capsized on the Mediterranean Sea. Alan was only peripherally a casualty of war, not one of those swept up in the chilling term “collateral damage.” He was rather a casualty of the refugee crisis created by war, and by our shameful inclination to weep crocodile tears for dead children, even as we refuse to allay their suffering when alive. (more…)

Populist Hatred?

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Caricature of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Credit: DonkeyHotey)

Trumpism is not uncommonly associated with populism as a politics of hate.

Question: How despicable is Donald Trump the presidential candidate?

Answer: He’s a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, an authoritarian . . . and a populist. (more…)

The Chair of Abraham Lincoln

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Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 9 February 1864, by Anthony Berger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Assume for a moment that the present status of undocumented immigrants in the US is exactly what we want it to be: except for the criminals, we want them working in the country (in spite of our self-righteous talk about walls and mass deportations); but we don’t want to legalize their status—no amnesty and no path to US citizenship. In these times of deplorable political rhetoric, one does well to find guidance in the bosom of Abraham Lincoln, who was once branded “Abraham Africanus I” by a Copperhead political pamphlet.

Lincoln understood the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court as a cog (“piece of machinery so to speak”) in an effort by the Southern states to “declare the perfect freedom of the people, to be just no freedom at all.”

Here is Lincoln’s analysis of the decision: (more…)