Tricksters

The Eyes of Argos

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“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…)

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A Capable Demos

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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…)

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…)

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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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…)

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: Wisdom from Two Masters

How’s the Apocalypse working for you? My only surprise is the celerity with which it has unfolded; with such speed, the waters must have risen around Noah’s Ark during the Deluge. But I am taken aback by the surprised alarums of our clown dynasty and eminent members of the media who are shocked—shocked!—at the avalanche of lies emanating from the White House.

What did we expect? Anyone who has dealt with a used car salesman or with a drummer selling swamp land in Florida knows Trump. Any woman who has had to fend off unwanted advances from a leering “gentleman crook” who mutters “Now don’t get scared, lady, I ain’t gonna crack you on the bean!” recognizes the type.[1]

To admirers of Dashiell Hammett, the Trump Apocalypse is not a surprise. As an operative for Pinkerton’s detective agency, Hammett came in contact with the Underworld of North American society. His novels portray crooks, thieves, murderers, pick-pockets, swindlers, forgers and assorted criminals with all the precision of a chronicler who has experienced what he writes about. (more…)

Trump’s Prophetic Trope

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Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Death, Famine, War, and Conquest, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We have used the symbol of apocalypse at Hunt the Devil to frame the political ascendency of Donald Trump in mythic terms. It is a rich and resonant symbol, a metaphor with multiple entailments, both religious and secular, each entangled with the others. Its mythos is relevant to interpreting the crisis of US empire that is reflected in Trump’s rise to the presidency.

The imperial presidency itself is a metaphorical precursor of the Trump phenomenon, a term for excessive executive power, which gained popularity in the 1960s and found voice in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1973 book by that title. The power of the presidency exceeded its constitutional limits consistent with the transformation of the republic into an empire. With empire came war culture and the normalization of continuous warfare. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

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“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When Jacob was journeying to the land of his father and kinsmen, he met the “angels of god” in a place called Mahanaim. When he was informed that this brother Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed,” for there was past enmity between Jacob and his brother. He sent his people and their retinue ahead. On the night when he passed over the ford Jabbok, he sent his wife, his servants and his eleven sons to cross over the brook and remained alone (KJ Gen., 32:2 and 7).

Then Jacob “wrestled” with a man until the “breaking of the day.” The man did not prevail against him, but touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and caused it to come out of joint. Still Jacob persisted, until at the first sight of dawn, the man asked to be released from their struggle. And Jacob said: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” (KJ Gen., 32:24-26).

The man replied: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Jacob received the blessing from the strange man, for “he blessed him there.” Only then did he realize he had wrestled with an angel: “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” He called the place Penuel, and as he passed from it “the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh” (KJ Gen., 32: 28-31).

What lessons can be learned from the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel? (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Joseph the Dreamer

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“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1880. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Catholic pantheon, the cult of Saint Joseph has three aspects: head of family, worker, and dreamer. In the gospel of Matthew, during the days of the birth of Christ, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph three, perhaps four times (KJ Matthew, chs. 1-2): (more…)