The Presidential Choice in America – Fear or Faith

I want to suggest a very different factor that is rarely discussed and that I did not include in Wednesday’s blog. The choice of the American president will be driven more by fear than faith. However, faith should be the determining factor.

Rabbi Splansky in her Yom Kippur sermon spoke about the nature of a crisis, when things break apart, when there is a break down of spirit, a breach in trust, when the dispirited get discouraged. This American election is about which side can uplift, can comfort the spirit. Barack Obama won on a campaign of hope. Trump ran and won in 2016 on a campaign of division, depression and repression. This is an election when the faith in a rogue and a con man, the faith in evangelical revelation and the protection of the unborn, the faith in individual initiative rather than government protection and guidance, comes face to face with Blacks with an even deeper faith born out of adversity, but allied with Whites who by and large lack that depth of faith of their Black brothers and sisters as much as they believe in democracy, the rule of law and the acceptance of diversity. It is a watershed election.

Such an election is a chance to break open old obstacles and break through to a new age. And one need not have the most inspiring leader. After all, Moses became dispirited and broke the tablets of the law that he had received from God. Will the Democrats have enough strength and energy to embrace a renewed vision for America out of the depths of despair? For that is what the pessimism is about. Not simply the details of voting patterns. Not simply which promises turn people on and which exposure of lies and cons motivate them to combat a source of deep evil. America is at a breaking point. Will the mother of the new child have enough strength to breathe and push, to breathe and push as she sits on the birthing stool aptly named as a rupture stool? Will new life emerge from the dark womb or will the world sink back into an even darker cave?

Bob Rae gave a virtual talk on Yom Kippur afternoon at Holy Blossom Temple. (He did it from New York where he is now posted as Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.) He talked about the three questions Hillel posed. If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? Self-interest is not enough. We need humanity and humility. We need energy and empathy. And we need it now. The faults of the world are not in our stars but in ourselves. In a tempest-tossed world in which COVID-19 kills and also destroys wealth and jobs, in a world where the life jacket of remittances to poor countries are significantly higher than all the government aid taken together, in a world in which 100 million are displaced, we need buoyance.

His answer to the three questions was the Stockdale Paradox, named after James Stockdale the U.S. Admiral who had survived over seven years of repeated torture in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. (See Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great.) Confronting reality, not evading it with misleading optimism or burying one’s head in the sand in deep pessimism, was the vital key to survival.  Realism plus idealism.  Realism plus optimism. The experience of bitterness and the expression of resilience. Brokenness and repair. Embrace the harshness of your situation with faith, hope and the balancing weight of optimism. Not an optimism built on lies but one that infuses the truth of the moment with inspiration rather than despair.

Stockdale was a good example because this icon took us back fifty years to the period in which Americans began to lose their fundamental trust in government. The Vietnam War had been built on a mountain of lies. We who are old enough remember General Westmoreland telling Americans when the Tet offensive began on the 31st of January 1968, the real beginning of the end of the Vietnam War, that the Viet Kong only had 500 guerillas. (They had 10,000) Lies, lies and more lies. General Westmoreland was replaced. President Johnson had the decency to withdraw from the campaign for the presidency. A rupture in Vietnam through the centre of the country cutting through Hue became a hinge in American history. The same propensity to lie only grew and grew and Obama was not able to stem that tide. The huge wave rose into a mighty mountain from the very beginning of the Trump presidency. Six samples will do.

Newspapers of record and assiduous reporters get exhausted on pointing out and tabulating Trump’s thousands of lies that have swelled like the number of victims of COVID-19. But let us merely go back to the beginning of his presidency when he told the following whoppers:

  1. Jay Sekulow, Trump’s attorney, had stated unequivocally (16 July 2017) that Donald Trump had not been involved in writing the phony account that the president had not been involved in Donald Trump Jr.’s rationale for the meeting with the Russians. Donald Trump subsequently and unabashedly admitted he was. Sarah Huckabee acknowledged that Trump Sr. had made the invention of adoption even more misleading.
  2. “Pardons are not being discussed and are not on the table. Leaks constitute fake news and treason.” Except pardons have always been discussed since Day 1.
  3. Trump had only fired FBI Director James B. Comey because of the advice of Deputy Attorney General, Rod J. Rosenstein, except Trump boasted a few days later that he intended to fire Comey even before he met with Rosenstein. “I was going to fire Comey … Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.” Trump subsequently said that, “I decided to just do it.”
  4. “The Russia issue is a made-up story.” Enough said. Russia had compromising information on Donald Trump. Even though Kellyanne Conway initially denied it, Trump subsequently admitted that they (the Russians) had used it. “Yeah, I think so.”
  5. Michael Flynn had not discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Except he had.
  6. President Trump had not shared classified information with the Russian ambassador, except, only a few days later, the administration gave a very different account: “It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people. That’s what he did.” (16 May 2017) “As President, I wanted to share with Russia which I have the absolute right to do.”

But isn’t widespread pessimism justified? How many times over the last four years have we read a headline like this past week’s – An earthquake: Donald Trump paid no or very little federal income taxes. There is a greater risk perhaps that many Americans will envy and admire Trump’s practice of tax avoidance. The battle will not be won just by defending the truth against lies and fraud. It will take large-scale preparation matched by legal skills to expose skullduggery. As the Vietnam guerillas showed, the war for (or against) the hearts and minds of America will be won on the ground.

But vision is necessary. On Yom Kippur afternoon, Bob Rae read out the Emma Lazarus Petrarchan sonnet on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus”.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Push and breathe. Push and breathe. Give birth to a world that will welcome those gasping for air. Not an ancient symbol of grandeur and empire like the Greek Colossus of Rhodes at the entrance to the harbour. But a mighty woman with a torch who will release her imprisoned lightning that will allow the enormous schism to finally be severed in two so that the parts can be reunited in a renewed spirit of America. With faithful courage, Trump too shall pass, and new life emerge.



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