The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump Part VIB: Darkness

How can truth stand up to power? How can morality stand up to power which is thoroughly and utterly immoral? How can the creative imagination that has a unique responsibility for beauty stand up to a power, power which lacks a scintilla of sensitivity and, instead, indulges in nostalgia, kitsch and clichés, and face down its goddess of death? The most important goddess of death currently expresses her power through denial – denial of the existence of a climate change crisis.

Scientists recently announced that they had found an explanation for the Little Ice Age of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was caused by a decrease of CO2 in the atmosphere thereby creating a more frigid earth where rivers in Europe froze over. The explanation? In the imperial conquest of the Americas, so many of the native population had died, largely from the diseases brought by the conquistadores, that large tracts of cleared and cultivated land returned to their natural habitat with an abundance of trees that drew CO2 out of the atmosphere, thereby allowing heat to escape more easily from the earth.

There have been four other eras than the present when life on this planet has been threatened by an excess of carbon dioxide that trapped heat and raised the temperatures on the planet to bring about a massive extinction. Of all the thousands of lies Donald Trump has told, this is the most heinous: climate change, he said, is a “total and very expensive hoax.” It is not a hoax about the present crisis. It certainly was not a hoax about the past, in particular the geological history of earth.

At the end of the Permian Age, the lava, from an enormous number of volcanic eruptions burned through coal deposits sixty million years ago killing dinosaurs that ruled the planet for much of the 500 million years of animal life on this planet. But, as Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker (26 November 2018), the rate of temperature increase and the corresponding rate of kill off took place at one-tenth the rate of increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over the past two centuries, let alone the past five decades. The current climate change crisis is far worse than the previous four in terms of the rate at which it has developed.

1800   concentration of CO2 75 parts per million

2017  concentration of CO2 400 parts per million

2000-2018 – nine of the ten deadliest heat waves in human history

1987-2017 – twenty of the hottest years ever recorded

June 2018 – temperatures in cities in Pakistan and Iran reach 129 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperatures ever recorded

July 2018 – a heat wave in Montreal killed 70

In addition, glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate. So is the ice cap. As the permafrost that covers the land areas north of the tree line melts, methane gas is released which adds to the CO2 to help warm the planet.

It is not as if we have not been warned. Scientists have done their job. In 2015, the U. N. Conference on Climate Change reported that the earth warmed one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change warned of a further likely increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2052 and 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2200.

In a recent blog, I wrote about the abandonment of the Zapotec sacred space in Mexico from 800 BC to 900 AD several times over the centuries. The cause: drought. However, the imminent cycles of drought and floods from extreme weather will far exceed the natural cycle of rain and drought that brought about past disasters and massive refugee flows.

My grandchildren and great-grandchildren now alive will have to contend with a world of repeated disasters – floods, storms, firestorms. I have lived through a golden age and will have bequeathed them a planet with robots – Kuri, CHIP, Lynx, Ooobo and their successors taking over a large percentage of drudgery jobs, a planet with artificial intelligence taking over 40% of decision-making, a planet with prosthetic devices that can be controlled directly by the brain. However, it will be a planet which will become increasingly uninhabitable as low shore lines and areas of increasing drought expand and reduce the habitable areas on earth. Unless, of course, worldwide concerted action is taken immediately.

My family is relatively lucky. Most of my children and grandchildren live in temperate zones that are not at sea level. We will still experience more and more extreme weather. But nothing compared to those tropical areas where extreme heat, that struck one day a year on average, will be the norm, taking place 40% of the time. So why do we not change? Why does a passion not seize most people on earth to save this planet from the current climate crisis already underway?

One answer concerns our aspirations. First, unlike the image of romantic love, aspirations are implanted in us slowly. In myth, propelled by the mother of Eros, Aphrodite, Psyche may have fallen in love with Eros instantly, but that is not how our passions are usually developed. They are implanted slowly and almost surreptitiously. We often even deny they are within us at first. As Agnes Callard wrote (Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming), as in the biblical story of creation, darkness lies over the face of the deep. An aspiration may be there, but it is indiscernible at first, both because we lack the terminology to depict it and because the aspiration still lacks any nobility of purpose. On the one hand, we cannot pronounce it as “good” until it emerges with much greater clarity so, of necessity, it must be less than it will become. On the other hand, when the aspiration finally appears and is grasped, we will not initially recognize its downside.

Thus, the characteristics of both our psychological makeup as well as the nature of any new phenomenon as it first appears incline us to caution rather than an epiphany. The slow emergence of our articulateness about the climate change crisis is not unreasonable. It says nothing about our incapacity to eventually and gradually describe what an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can bring about. In that case, another developing aspiration has been emerging over the last five decades. Education is precisely the effort to describe what appears before us and to alter the ideas that we have inherited and have been planted deeply within us. Education is necessarily a struggle between the new and the old, not only because the new is initially murky, but because the new may be a chimera, an illusion, a misguided idea. Our old ideas may sometimes be a trap, but they also offer cautionary tales.

Further, aspirations are not mere matters of fact and truth, but of values of what we deem good and evil. They offer us a choice. One cannot both choose to save the planet and increase the use of fossil fuel – unless, of course, scientists come up with a better system than photosynthesis for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. In that case, one vaguer aspiration may act to subvert one that is both more proximate and much clearer. The subversive aspiration appears, not as a darkness that covers the face of the deep, but as a darkness on a distant shore. That is the real location of the hell of the Greek mythological world.

Hell is an aspiration that we seize upon and hold, but one which can condemn us to remain as white lab rats on a treadmill going nowhere. This takes place whether we are Sisyphus who rolls the boulder up the hill and no sooner approach the pinnacle than the huge heavy rock gives in to a gravitational pull to roll down the hill again. This takes place whether we are Tantalus who, as soon as he bends over to scoop up some water, the pool of water disappears in which he is standing as he screams out in Coleridge’s words, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” for it is all polluted. Our aspirations may be a path to hell rather than to probing the deep and raising it heavenward. The problem is that frustration characterizes both the effort to probe the face of the deep and the effort to approach the darkness of a distant shore so we are often unsure of whether we are reaching for heaven or trying fruitlessly to get to hell, for hell is precisely an aspiration that proves itself to be infertile and fruitless. That is why fertility is iconic and characterizes the central symbolic value of an aspiration.

In Judaism, Gehenna is where children are sacrificed by fire, an act that Abraham was saved from committing. Abraham went on to become the founder of a civilization while many a Jewish leader went to the place of darkness, Sheol, characterized by hopelessness rather than hope.

“She’ol (/ˈʃiːoʊl/ SHEE-ohl/-əl/; Hebrew שְׁאוֹל ʃeʾôl), in the Hebrew Bible, is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God. The inhabitants of Sheol are the “shades” (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they are thought to be able to be contacted by the living…but such practices are forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:10).” Wikipedia

Circumcision is the symbol of the covenant the Israelites made with their God to remind the children that even their fathers who loved them might sacrifice them in the fruitless effort to reach a distant dark attraction rather than spending their time probing and unveiling the face of the deep and pushing back the darkness. Hell is inherently an infertile aspiration. Heaven is a fertile one. The dilemma is the difficulty of knowing when to persist in a pursuit and when to give up because we have come to believe that it is a route to Hades. Aspirations are doubly confounding.

Fortunately, there is an aesthetic dimension as well as ethical and epistemological ones. The latter two focus on values and truth respectively but leave us in a conundrum. Aesthetics may help us sort out an aspiration headed towards hell through Dante’s “forest dark,” and one headed towards heaven. Which aspiration paints a picture of our suffering by being buried alive in the earth, or gasping for oxygen as poisonous gases force us to gasp for air only to make us swallow even more of a poisoned atmosphere? Which aspiration paints a picture of humans consumed in a river of fire or drowning in water that creeps up to our navels, then our mouths and then our hair? In which vision are we consumed by the ancient four basic elements of earth, air, fire and water? Which portrait opens wide to devour you and which releases you from the chains that bind?

[The following was written while I was in Oaxaca but unable to access my internet.]

Yesterday I went to see two absolutely marvellous art exhibits in a former cotton factory about 10 km. from the centre of Oaxaca in the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín in a mountain village appropriately called San Agustín Etla. On the first floor of a building, that from the exterior looked like a huge institutional edifice with a wide and long set of steps leading to the front entrance, was the most exhilarating and inspiring exhibition of graphic art I have ever seen. Oaxaca has emerged as perhaps the world’s centre for creative graphic expression.

The range of visions of hell ranged from political realism to revolutionary didactic murals of monstrous bloated white capitalists in top hats sitting at the same table as a black struggling to get free of the chains that bind him alongside women ready to heave lighted Molotov cocktails as their faces and noses were covered with kerchiefs, presumably to provide some protection from the tear gas. The futuristic depiction of a huge bird of prey with its mechanical inner workings exposed as soldiers cringe in fear at its feet seemed a throwback to the fears of the ruination of industrial capitalism.

One graphic portrait of three monsters resting on their haunches was mesmerizing. On the right sat one with his left huge hand and long fingers resting on his knee as his helmet-like head stared with interest at the central figure. The one on the viewer’s left had a very elongated bearded face with circles around his large, tired and forlorn eyes and his tongue protruding slightly; he looked disdainful. The central figure had huge sharpened teeth in a gaping mouth and wide eyes ringed with black, ready to grab any passing animated entity in its powerful jaws.

Grotesqueness in the marriage of organic, mechanical and monstrous forms provided the dominant motif. One alligator was simply a compilation of diamond shapes making up the skin of a fearful beast. The power often came from the fluidity of the mostly black and white etchings. Some of these anticipatory visions adumbrating future blockbuster fantasy action movies involving  terror and death go back to the sixties and seventies. Others, such as a 1985 portrait by Edith Chávez called “Plato Fuerte” of a woman who melded and matched her background, seemed to be a great iconographic vision of the women of Oaxaca.

Another macabre figure was a curled but upright snake with small figures drawn on its skin of men in sombreros and sun umbrellas protruding above the scales. The detailing and variety were captivating. Another 1965 graphic by Abraham Torres, called “Sin Fecha,” portrayed a native runner who looked like an immense chimpanzee carrying an enormous fish, presumably a symbolic portrait of the relay runners who brought fresh fish to the ritual shamans and rulers of the people.

Of the perhaps two hundred artistic works on display, one in particular mesmerized me. It was not an impressionistic or cubist piece or one with overlays of images, but was a simple one painted in a pop art format of a little boy with gorgeous big black but very sad eyes looking despondent and downwards as his hands grasped a barbed wire fence. It is an iconic vision made more acute as one walks through the large and vital market squares filled with music and people dancing in the evening as the beautiful and clearly loved and cherished children play. The children of Oaxaca are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

I think of the children of Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador fleeing from violence north with their parent or parents only to end up separated from their families and incarcerated in child-detention centres in the U.S. As Vinson Cunningham ended his review article in The New Yorker, “The Bad Place: How the idea of Hell has shaped the way we think,” “here, as almost nowhere else in the visible world, the lines of cause and effect, neglect and decay, sin and punishment, are plain. You sow the coal and reap the whirlwind. Heat the air and let the icebergs roll on righteously, like a mighty stream. First comes the flood, then comes the fire. It matters, very much, what you do.”

There was a second exhibit we viewed on the second floor, William Kentridge’s lateral spectrum 15-minute video installation on a succession of wide screens on which we watched a macabre parade of silhouetted figures pass before us, first a large and stout man is a diaphanous dress whirling and dancing from one end of the series of screens to the other. This was followed by scenes of drudgery as a woman tugged a flat wheeled vehicle with a dancing skeleton again from one side to the other. In one scene, a South African Band, that shared a direct kinship with New Orleans bands, played a dirge. In other scenes, men waved huge flags presumably of revolutionary resistance.

Against the various scenes of walking and trudging, superimposed were three cartoon figures carrying skulls and two dancers at different times passed before and behind the march of death, of despair, of dread. One wore a diaphanous ballet costume while the other walked in the rhythm of a black archetypal dancer. The installation called “More Sweetly Played the Dance” was shown on 8 screens 6 m. high and 45 m. wide.

In spite of the terrible vision, this shadow theatre installation against a background of a world map and a preface of moving waves offered a glimmer of hope that the dance of death could be avoided by the lightness of becoming. I watched a video of the artist as he drew the waves, walked away to click the camera twice and returned to make small changes, repeating the exercise for scene after scene to create the movement in the video installation. As Kentridge said, the very act of walking back and forth was critical to the creative process and allowed him to create as he walked to and fro.

This blog focused on the internal inhibitions to overcoming the perils that we face. In the next blog I will attend to the external impediments. For although we have been conditioned to believe that the major impediments to salvation, to pursuing aspirations that bring light and enlightenment, is the threat that comes from within, I suggest that the far greater danger are the blockages thrown up to frustrate our desire to reach heaven. The hell of our inability to reach the distant and dark shore is our saving grace. As damaged and desperate as we are, and are encouraged to be, as depraved as we become immersed in idolatrous love that is totally unfulfilling, hope does really spring eternal. But only if we use our skills at analysis, the values of justice and mercy we have developed, and our determination to avoid the ugliness of glitter and gold.

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The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump Part VIA: Darkness

Darkness is not a mere absence of light. Darkness is not blackness. A black hole in the universe may emit no light because it draws all energy around into itself. But there is energy. There is too much energy. A superabundance of energy! But it is all inwardly directed. That is blackness. Darkness may be a state in which all cows are black. But blackness is not darkness. Darkness is much more than blackness. With blackness, cows can be distinguished from their surroundings by feeling them. By tracing our hands over their bodies, we would be able to identify a species. But in darkness, there are no species. No genera. No families. Just darkness. Darkness hovers. Blackness penetrates.

In the beginning of any creativity, there is darkness. One does not know what will appear or when it will appear. It is darkness that is exciting with promise. Darkness, unlike blackness, is a temporal rather than spatial phenomenon. Though temporal, it has two sides or two faces. In the beginning of becoming, of coming to be, the face of darkness is the face of the deep. Darkness hovers over itself. The other face of darkness appears near the end rather than at the beginning. In the beginning, when there is darkness, there is no light. However, just before the end, there is full light. The face of darkness at the beginning is scintillating with what is to be. The face of darkness before the end is the face of dread.

Arthur Koestler recognized the difference between blackness and darkness. For in darkness before the end, there is full light. Yet one cannot see. The blackness has become bleakness. In Darkness at Noon, Koestler relayed his experience as a member of the Communist Party in the thirties. There could be full sunlight, the most sunlight in the entire day. And there can still be darkness. Darkness is not an absence of light, but an inability to see. Before the end, it is an inability to see what should be apparent to anyone. Although there is more than enough light to see, if we look on, if we stand aside and gaze, no one can be differentiated. Everyone was a prop in service to the self-absorption of Stalin.

In the early part of this month, in a stunt to reverse his ratings decline due to his border closure, Donald Trump went to visit the American border with Mexico near McAllen, Texas. Senator John Cornyn, Senator Ted Cruz sporting his new beard, Sean Hannity, Trump’s echo chamber on Fox News, Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, Lieutenant Todd Semonite, Head of the Army Corps of Engineers, all tramped after Trump as he walked along the Rio Grande. They were either stone-faced or nodded in agreement at his many utterances claiming to prove a need for a wall – or a barrier, or a steel fence. Watching the whole entourage on television offered a direct experience of darkness, darkness at noon when the sun shone right overhead and there were no shadows, when differences are readily apparent. But there were no differences. Though Ted Cruz wore a bomber jacket and the jackets of others could be differentiated, these were all men, even the one woman, these were all men in grey flannel suits.

It was a day in which all cows and all politicians and all members of the senior administration were black. Not Black, but black. Like black holes, light was sucked inward to prevent enlightenment. Blackness was the inverted world of light, of the Enlightenment. Trump asserted that building his wall was “common sense” as he redefined common sense as non-sense. Like all tyrants before him, Trump declared that he had an “absolute right to declare a national emergency.” A national emergency did not have to exist. If he declared it, then it did exist. Trump’s word was the law.

What happens if there is no such national emergency, but Trump declares that one exists? What happens if the President determines that a national emergency exists because he did not get what he wanted? That is the emergency. The 1976 National Emergencies Act grants Trump no such absolute right. However, it does not deny it. It relies on other constitutional provisions – the power of the House to determine where and when money can be spent. When there is day and when there is night and when night can be turned into day and the brightness of day can be turned into night, then we know that darkness is hovering over the face of the deep once again. However, we recognize that the deep has become shallow under the cover of darkness.

From the inside, everything is black and lacks colour and nuance. But to experience the blackness from the outside is to experience darkness, is to discover that that we are hovering above that blackness and it is we who are cast into darkness, not because we cannot make distinctions, but because what we see is indistinguishable. But if we look harder, if we search our own minds and memories for contrast, we will know that what we see is simply dull and drab, that we are viewing everything under a black cloud, that if we look closely, if we look with our hearts as well as our eyes, we will see eyes of the Other that are really slits of pain and brows that are wrinkled in agony. Instead of triumphalism, we will see desperation. We will see the slits turn into dots as they move closer together on the face of the deep. We will see only self-loathing.

DT would have us believe that people can and should only be seen on a screen, online or on television. Otherwise, there is no reality. Modern technology allows directors to populate the picture before us with tens, with hundreds, with even thousands of men, all in camouflage with nothing essential that distinguishes one from the other. They look like they are ready for battle, for combat, but they are like the cardboard artillery pieces the Brits mounted on their shores in 1939-40 to fool the Nazi enemy into believing that they were prepared for war.

Everything DT reveals shows that all that glitters is not gold. The glitter hides the total absence of underlying value. It glistens but does not gleam. DT serves a Macdonald’s hamburger to a wealthy guest with impeccable taste when he invites him to break bread at his home. Instead of the details revealing what is true and real, they unveil a fraud.

To be able to see in the darkness, it is necessary to prepare. We must get in shape to be able to overcome numbness in order to confront dumbness and deflate it. We do not do so by participating in the overblown, by making the blackness lurid, but by muted understatement. Our minds and eyes must become alert even when we cannot see the danger before us. We must rely on our noses to sniff the threat. The trick will be to read when we can only see and to see what we are actually reading. That takes preparation. That takes practice. At least, if we want to see and understand the great weight holding down the flimsiness and fragility and apparent weightlessness that confront us daily. When all that appears is a blur, look for clear lines. When we view a few and seemingly simple lines and a very muted and small-ranged palette, look for depth.

How do we express what we see? With economy. A shallow and ignorant man incapable of articulation requires only a few quick flicks, flashes of economy, a verbal austerity, like a character in a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala short story. What requires revelation is not DT’s dreary and unrefined raw character, but his danger, his threat to society and to civilization. It requires probing into the shallowness to discover the depth beneath, that the sense of entitlement has been built on a sand dune easily washed out to sea in a storm. For beneath it all, it is important to recognize that Donald Trump is a refugee from Queens who has sought refuge, first in Manhattan and then in the rest of the world, but despises refugees because they remind him of where he came from, a world of material wealth but spiritual impoverishment, a world which he, unlike most refugees who come with richer backgrounds, was unable to leave behind.

How do you portray a man with no knowledge of syntax or coherence or consistency or validity with one with syntax, with explication, with logic and with a fluency that captures rather than hides the waves of reality? If the observer becomes obsessed with ignorance of a profound order, he or she becomes mesmerized when that ignorance is married to power. On the one hand, the hypnotized can only see what they are told to see. On the other hand, that hypnotic quality is also a vital danger to one who values distance. Precaution is then necessary, the same precaution Agamemnon needed when passing between Scylla and Charybdis, between a rock and a hard place, between two apparently equal hazards. As Aeschylus wrote, “When all is dark, shall we unwisely; Rush blindfold on an unconsulted deed?” What does an observer do if he or she lacks the acerbic wit that provides the sharp spears to prevent madness from colonizing one’s mind?

By remembering that if we are to survive the high noon of darkness, it cannot be done by looking back nostalgically to the morning when it was far easier to see and one was not blinded by the glitter and the glum. We must be prepared to see, or, if not to actually see, to anticipate that youthful seers will be around the corner who have no memory and no nostalgic longing for what has been lost. As such, they may be somewhat immune to the grifter, to the lecher, to the manipulator who claims the future is a return to an eternal never-never land of greatness. For the poseur always has reincarnation on offer. When fixated on being reborn, whether here on earth or in the afterlife, one becomes a sucker for false promises, and, much more seriously, blind to the pain and poverty in one’s surroundings. Let me illustrate with an ancient reference.

Yesterday, we drove out with a guide to Monte Albán, a magnificent architectural site only 10 kilometres south-east of Oaxaca. As we rose into the mountains to a level of about 6,000 feet, I felt we were in Israel visiting an architectural site there since the topography seemed so similar though the elevation was much higher. I personally felt it in my breathing as I very quickly became breathless. It did not help that I was hosting a bad cough. But this site was vast, far larger than it first appeared or that I had ever experienced. And that was only the part of the site that had been excavated. We went through the museum first to become oriented.

The biblical narrative stretches back about 1,500 years A.D. preceded by a cosmological narrative that dates the world less than 6,000 years ago. Genesis provides the metaphysical foundation for the central narrative of Exodus, the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and their entry into the Promised Land. The Zapotecs founded what the Spaniards later called Monte Albán, because of the white flowers of a specific tree that blanketed the mountain, in approximately 700 B.C., only a few centuries after the Israelite exodus. As the guide said, Zapotec stories told of their own Moses.

In many ways, the tales were similar – one of successful occupation then abandonment and then re-occupation. Further, each successive ruler put his mark on the site by either expanding an existing temple or building a new temple nearby and contracting the size of another temple. But unlike Jerusalem where the temple is in the centre of the city, in the Zapotec site, the people lived on the farmland in the valley at the foot of the mountain and this was a religious site where the people gathered to worship their gods, each temple celebrating one of the different major gods.

The site differed from Jerusalem, not only because it was not a place of habitation but of worship only, not only because there were multiple temples to various gods rather than a single temple mount, but also because it was not a fortress. This does not mean the Zapotecs were not strategic in where they located their city. The city lay to the west, but the enemies lived to the south, the Mayans, the north and the west – the Olmecs, Teotihuacános and the Mexicas.  The safe land of the Zapotecs was protected by the mountains and the Pacific Ocean 230 km. to the east. More importantly, the strategy of conflict differed radically. It was centred on the very meaning of the word, Zapotec, a place of reconciliation. Oaxaca was on a trading route where the different peoples of the area – 26 linguistic groups of Zapotecs alone – and in the region, Mayan traders from the south, other groups from the north and from the west, came together to barter and trade in the currency of the time, cocoa beans. Several repeated periods of development and abandonment went on for 1600 years until its final abandonment in the 9th century, 400 years before the Aztec Empire was established and 700 years before Cortés the region on behalf of Spain.

There is another difference between this religious centre and Jerusalem. It had a ball court that has been excavated and preserved. Evidently the sport was played with three to a side using a rubber ball. Prior to the Spanish conquest, Europeans used balls made of leather, but after the conquest, rubber was incorporated into ball sports in Europe. The game was played evidently by bouncing the ball off the walls at each end of a very large court, much longer than a tennis court, so the players would have been required to have enormous stamina to play the game. We were told a story about hoops – a story that is disputed in terms of archeology – were there or were there not hoops? – and history. Re the latter, the story is told that it was extremely rare and difficult to get the ball through the hoop because of its height. But if successful, the player who achieved such a feat was sacrificed so that he could enjoy an afterlife living among the gods.

We were told by the guide that the grounds of the entire plateau surrounded by these monumental structures – erroneously referred to as pyramids for they were simply layers of foundations that were extended upward and outward – could hold 6,000 people. I estimated that the grounds could easily hold ten times that number. Other than the escape and magical tunnels running through them, the structures were solid: The Grand Playa, the System II, the Dancers (named after carvings which turned out not to represent dancers at all), a Southern Platform, The Palace and a number of central buildings. There may have been others. The fact is that the expanse was vast and was clearly one of the greatest Mesopotamian metropolises.

Two particular rituals described to us stood out. A shaman/king – I was not sure whether the religious and political leader was united into one person or not – appeared on a platform with his masks and baubles dangling from him, but he would announce to the multitude the forecast of the rains to come and the proof, a shaft of light that would strike and be reflected from a cistern below. The Zapotecs had been so advanced in their mathematics and astronomical calculations that they built the structure so that at the equinox, or some other predefined time, the light from the sun would penetrate a slot in the structure and be reflected back on the cistern as a beam of light.

Evidently, the ruler had a small cluster of intellectuals attached to the monarchy who kept, developed and passed on the mysteries of that knowledge, knowledge withheld from the people to enhance the mystery and power of the king. Instead of knowledge existing to challenge power, power was used to create a monopoly over knowledge. The magic extended to outright trickery, for the king in all his royal regalia would dance, give his speech and then suddenly disappear, reappearing on the platform of another structure to put on a repeat performance. But if the tunnels were as narrow as the guide described – as a boy he used to go into the tunnels for the archeologists because they did not easily fit, earning usually a quarter for the effort – how did the shaman in his regalia and headdress do it? That was the real magic.

If knowledge is power, if knowledge controlled and monopolized by power reinforces authoritarian rule, in a system, such as ours, where knowledge is said to be the counterweight to correct and limit power, how did the country with the greatest university system in the world elect such an ignorant president? How did the promise of resurrection unite with mass naiveté to choose a trickster and fraud for its president?

 

To be continued.

ON INTERPRETATION AND TREATMENT OF THE STRANGER Mishpatim Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

How do you decide to treat strangers who arrive at your border, either to cross illegally or to make a claim for refugee status at an official entry point? This is clearly a central issue of our day, not only because Donald Trump insisted and continues to insist on building a wall to deter the arrival of migrants and refugees, but because refugees have become a central political issue of our time. It has been blamed as the main reason why a majority of British voted in a referendum for BREXIT, the decision to opt out of the European Union. It is likely to be a major issue in the coming election campaign in Canada.

Do you decide based on psychology (empathy), ethics, national law or the rule of law (the two are different) or a combination of all of them? If the foundation is based on one or other of the latter two or one or both, then it will be necessary to interpret that law. Instead of beginning with the foundation or foundations for any decision, I first want to deal with the issue of interpretation, first as applied to empathy and ethical norms using the discussion of Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 (Mishpatim) as a starting point which begins, “And these are the rules you shall set before them.” (21:1)

Those rules can be divided into:

  1. Interpersonal laws, including the exhibition of kindness to strangers;
  2. Cultic laws such as prohibiting boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (23:19);
  3. The reference to and reinforcement by the source of the laws (24:1-18).
Here, I am clearly interested in 1 & 3, though I will illustrate a point about the reference language using cultic law. If there is a concern with 3, then there must be a concern with how the whole portion begins, for in Plaut’s commentary, the vav at the beginning, the letter which is translated as “and,” is omitted from the English translation.

ולֹ֥א תַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט אֶבְיֹֽנְךָ֖ בְּרִיבֽוֹ:

The portion in Hebrew begins with “vav.” Plaut translates the first sentence without the “vav.” “These are the rules…” This is clear incidence of interpretation in the translation from Hebrew into English. The rules of translation from Hebrew to English permit translating vav as “and” or as “but” or omitting any translation altogether. Tradition held that this portion was a continuation and elaboration of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20) and included the translation of the vav, If you want to conjoin law that is handed down by God and man-made cultic laws, for example the dietary laws re eating meat separate from dairy that is derived from the passage in this Parashat about not cooking or boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (23:10-19), then you will likely include the translation of “vav” as “And.”

However, if you want to separate man-made cultic laws from ethical laws derived from God, then you are likely to drop the “And.” Thus, dropping it altogether depends on context and on a general interpretation. By inclusion, the implication is that these laws are but specifications of the general principles set forth by the Ten Commandments. (Rabbi Reuven Greenvald) Dropping the translation of the “vav” implies a fundamental distinction between the basic law as handed down at Mt. Sinai and cultic and possibly interpersonal laws.

My concern here is not with cultic laws, but with the law enunciated as, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) On the other hand, I want to argue that the laws re treatment of strangers are elaborations and specifications of constitutional laws. I would stress continuity in this case rather than discontinuity, for, as you have read in prior blogs, I consider the issue of whom a society permits to become members (immigration and refugee law) as a central defining moment for any society.

There is another issue in interpreting the meaning of the text. What language are you using as a base – Hebrew or English, Hebrew or Greek as in the Septuagint texts? How do you interpret the difference in liability when a pregnant woman in the wrong place at the wrong time is injured in a fight such that she loses her “baby”? (Exodus 21:22-25) Does the text distinguish between the miscarriage and the death of the foetus versus injury to the woman herself, or is the depiction one between a woman with a deformed foetus versus a woman with a properly formed one? The former interpretation directly from the Hebrew explains why Jews, who do not use the Septuagint version as a basic reference, are much more liberal in their approach to an issue such as abortion.

Early Christian commentators, who relied on the Septuagint version, interpreted the ruling re penalties in the second sense (injury to a woman with an imperfect versus a perfect foetus resulting in a miscarriage). They found abortion to be an abomination. In contrast, Jewish commentators generally focused on injuring the foetus versus injury to the woman in their translation. Ancient Christian commentators insisted the comparison was between an imperfect foetus with a perfect one capable of becoming a living human. (See the commentary by Beth Kalisch.)

Interpretation not only depends on how you interpret words, even conjunctions, not only depends on the language that is your basic reference (Hebrew or Greek), but also depends on whether the text is read: 1) just as a story or a narrative, or 2) whether it is read primarily as a narrative in which legal prohibitions are set in a particular time and place – halacha is embedded in aggadah, or 3) whether it is read as a narrative that is primarily about setting basic laws and norms for a society – aggadah serves halacha, or 4) whether it is read as a combination of narrative, aggadah, and legal precepts, halacha. Depending on which of the four approaches to text is used, the interpretation will generally differ.

Interpretation of law itself is a different matter. And it requires interpretation as a fascinating essay by my former colleague, Rabbi Martin Lockshin, makes clear. See “Does the Torah Differentiate between Unpaid and Paid Bailee?” Marty sketches the dialectic between traditional interpretations and innovation in making sense of law. However, this is a discussion for another day. I do deal with the dangers of innovation uprooted from tradition.

David Frum, in his book Trumpocracy, claims that there is a positive side to Donald Trump’s malignant lying, even as it has “warped the minds of his core supporters.” (223) (Warped further, perhaps, for were their minds not already somewhat deformed to have voted into office an impetuous, incompetent and unscrupulous kleptocrat and braggart?) Since the election of Trump, Frum contends that a growing majority of Americans have rallied behind a belief in truth. They crave, seek and vindicate truth. In doing so, they have undermined the thesis of largely leftist postmodernists who contend that a belief in truth and falsity is both outdated and a front for powerful self-serving ideologies. This “glamorous new system of thought,” (223) insisted that all we can know for certain are narratives, different for different nations, classes and genders.

The emphasis should be on “all we can know.” I believe it is the case that the liberal narrative upholds the values of truth and objectivity, while proto-fascists and some leftists both rail against the powers that have “done them in.” Liberals and genuine conservatives insist that we can only really know because we can distinguish between the fraud and the person of integrity, between falsity and truth. I believe that the latter is how the biblical narrative is constructed, but not so much to define the basis of truth as much as it is to define the nature of justice and virtue on the assumption that truth and falsity can be established, in effect, in a court of law.

How do you interpret the original language, how do you translate from that language, how do you use that language to construct a narrative, in the biblical case, not in defence of power, but in the use of that power to construct a better world? These are all important to interpreting the meaning of an imperative. The first explicit injunction of 36 in the Bible not to oppress the stranger reads, “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) The second version of this injunction is more explicit and reads: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). In this one, the reason is clearer, for it is not simply that you were a stranger in Egypt, but that you know what it feels like to be a stranger. In other words, what backs up the injunction is not only a narrative, but that it was your narrative which your people experienced and which you annually engage in rituals in order to re-enact that experience.

In the United States, there have been six contentious issues over the last decade concerning strangers. Three (the A category of those already within the U.S.) concern strangers who live amongst Americans. The first and most important of these is whether or not to grant citizenship to the “Dreamers, the estimated 800,000 individuals under the age of thirty (roughly .2% of the population) who entered the U.S. as minors, that is, before they turned sixteen. Should they be put on the path to citizenship or, at least, be protected from deportation on condition that they had never been convicted of a felony? The second focused on the parents of Dreamers which enlarged the population of concern to four million (1.1% of the American population). The third concerned all other illegal immigrants living as strangers among Americans which then enlarged the population of concern to ten or even twelve million (up to 3.3% of the total American population).

President Obama, frustrated at the refusal of the inaction of a Republicans dominated Congress to negotiate a deal on the question, issued an unprecedented Presidential Executive Order in June of 2012 that did not go as far as Dreamer citizenship, but did protect them from deportation. In November 2014, Obama did the same for the 3.2 additional family members of Dreamers. He took no initiatives with respect to the other 6-8 million illegals in the U.S., although there was an open debate about whether deportation was being pursued zealously or even seriously.

The other B category of those outside the U.S. was also divided into three groups. There were those: 1) who attempted to cross the border illegally, 2) those who presented themselves at legal border crossings and claimed to be Convention Refugees, but did not qualify according to American adjudicators, and 3) those that presented themselves and did qualify. There was no question that the third group had a right in accordance with both American and international law to enter the U.S. and be protected by the U.S. government.

However, in order to deter the second group (and perhaps the third), actions were initiated by President Donald Trump that made it very onerous for the third group to make a claim. Further, the first group of those outside the country, those who attempted to cross illegally, were used to sweep up all those living and working in the United States, as well as those outside the country seeking entry, such as Convention refugee claimants, whether successful or not, all into a category of undesirable migrants. This was the case even though a number of illegals living in the U.S. were employed at Mar-a-Lago and other clubs and golf courses owned by the Trump organization.

Facts, however, do matter. Truth matters. The number of illegals trying to cross the southern border of the United States in the year 2000 was just under 1.7 million. With a few small blips since, that number has been steadily dropping. In 2017, the number was just over 300,000. In 2000, 90% were Mexicans. In 2017, the vast majority were Central Americans. The chain migration of Mexicans had died off. Further, Central Americans were largely fleeing violence and persecution. Mexicans had been primarily economic migrants.

In spite of these and numerous other facts, Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, claimed that in 2018, there had been,a “325 percent increase in Unaccompanied Alien children and a 435 percent increase in family units entering the country illegally.” However, this was definitely not the long-term trend, but a percentage increase based on the fact that there had been a deep dip in inadmissible arrivals in early 2017, certainly compared to the previous four years. Was Kirstjen’s statement simply misleading or possibly, for some, an outright lie because of her highly selective use of statistics to reinforce a fear agenda? The longer-term trend was clear – May 2014, 10,578 children taken into custody compared to 6,405 in May 2018, 12,722 family units apprehended in May 2014 compared to 9,485 in 2018.

Quite aside from the lack of reason to be fearful, the trend line should be reducing rather than enhancing any fear of numbers, quite aside from the fact that the absolute numbers are underwhelming. The biggest change has been in the number of “legal” arrivals, those who arrive at an official border post to claim asylum. The increase has been enormous as the situation in Central America, that is in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, has deteriorated. As Nielsen noted, “Over the last 10 years, there has been a 1,700 percent increase in asylum claims, resulting in an asylum backlog” to 90,000 in 2016, up from 5,000 ten years earlier.

These are the push factors. They emphasize why some seek to become strangers in a land where the government no longer welcomes them. The push back factors are unjustified: manipulated fears and a political calculation that the Republican Party, instead of advancing an agenda to show the party is more favourable to minorities, fell back on a restrictive platform to satisfy a large core base of Trumpists who resent the changing face of America, are nationalists and even racists. That cohort includes, but is not dominated by, white Christians.

Yet the biblical narrative and its injunctions should prey on their consciences, at least on Christian consciences. They might argue that those injunctions are about interpersonal behaviour, not state policy. But in the Bible, duties regarding interpersonal relations were to be the basis of state policies and laws. However, the Bible also tells us why they are not so inclined. Those receiving the strangers have not themselves experienced being strangers in Egypt, certainly not directly, but neither vicariously either. In fact, their history is replete with patterns of discrimination against blacks, First Nations people and other minorities.

The difference is obvious. If Christian groups have indeed experienced what it was like to be mistreated as strangers – such as the Mennonites and the members of the Dutch Reformed Church in America who experienced the horror at not being able to offer help to persecuted Jews under the Nazi regime – then they stand in the vanguard of those who reach out to help strangers who are refugees. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Conjunctions are important. Do you sweep all strangers, both those within America and those outside into a single general category and then characterize them as mostly rapists and criminals? Or do you distinguish between basic categories and among sub-groups in each category to make policy? Do you misuse language or make an effort at clarity and consistency? Do you simply use language to create a narrative in which the strangers who live among you and those who try to enter are rapists and killers, though some may be good people, or do you construct a different narrative that far more closely corresponds to facts and the truth, namely that the vast majority of strangers who live as illegals amongst the general population are law-abiding tax payers, though a very few, less than the proportion of citizens, may be bad hombres? Does the narrative depict those trying to get in as primarily asylum seekers wanting refugee status or as illegals attempting to cross the border at non-official entry points, and, misleadingly, that even these, are mostly crossing for bad purposes?

America has failed in its civic re-education of narrow nationalists to root an ethics of responsibility towards strangers in rituals which identify with others who are strangers. On the other hand, the effort to root positive law, the actual laws of the nation, not only in ethics, not only in an ethic with psychic depth, but in the rule of law itself, has failed, for in desperation to assist those strangers living in peril amongst Americans, the rule of law was set aside in favour of executive orders on high, thereby setting a terrible precedent for the succeeding top executive officer who had ignoble reather thanrrather than noble motives.

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump Part V: Mexican and Central American Locusts

We landed in Oaxaca Mexico last evening and checked into our hotel, the Hotel Boutique de la Parra. It was 9:00 pm. The shops were closing. The town seemed very quiet. Especially when going to a hotel in a part of a foreign country where we had not been before, we entered our accommodation with a small degree of fear and trepidation. Located in what was clearly an old part of town, the entrance was totally non-descript. So was the lobby for that matter – more a wide hall with an old very large wood desk-table at one end with large round unadorned legs above which were intricately carved side bracing boards. The desk had a full glass top.

Underneath the glass was what must have been an old colonial door with about 40 (4×10) recessed panels. Each panel was bordered with a line of brass semi-circles, some broken off. The panels were surrounded on each raised side with a brass knob, about the size of a loonie, with a raised centre backed by a serrated brass washer. Given my obsession with counting, I estimated there were 206 of them.

A very modest and quiet desk clerk checked us in and we were led by a young, indigenous porter through a very wide corridor passing beside a large central courtyard with tables and chairs. The very end of the hall veered to the left. When we came down for a late bite to eat, and checked out the rest of the corridor, it opened into another even larger courtyard, this time with an expansive swimming pool surrounded by lounge chairs.

At the time, though, instead of continuing along the corridor, we went up a very broad semi-circular stone staircase with an iron guardrail topped by a darkened wooden handrail. We turned back along another very wide hall with a Mexican tile floor, at least 14” high ceilings braced by rows of wooden beams. At the end of the hall, which I estimated to be above the check-in desk, were large wooden double doors ahead of us and an equally large single wood door on our right. The latter led to our room. The hotel was laterally expansive as were the halls and staircase. But so too was the room. It was divided into two sections, one with two large ornate wooden beds and the second section, a quasi-sitting area with a desk and free standing large wooden wardrobe and a buffet table. To the left was a very large bathroom with a huge tub-shower with the grouting around the tub obviously redone a number of times.

Though old, the place was absolutely charming. And spotlessly clean. We washed up a bit and went out for an evening walk. When we landed, the pilot announced that the temperature was 78 degrees Fahrenheit (we flew in on United Airlines), but the temperature had dropped considerably and the air was fresh and cool. A restaurant had been recommended by our driver, Origen, just around the back of the hotel. We went all around the large block and could not find it. We asked a policeman and several waiters in restaurants off the main piazza behind the hotel. No one seemed to have heard of it and we did not think any of the waiters were lying so that we would eat at their place.

We settled for a large restaurant with an outdoor patio facing the square. There were plenty of street vendors and too many beggars who came up to our table so that, after we gave change to the first two, one a very old woman, we were polite but cold to the rest and simply said “Gracias, no.” Not untypically, we did not want to be pestered when we were tired and were just looking for bite to eat in a quiet spot. Not wanting to be pestered, regarding others as pests, is in itself a derogatory approach rationalized by our own self-absorption.

The food was disappointing, but we were not surprised as everywhere we go when we eat in a large tourist restaurant, the meals are rarely good. But what made it worse, on our way back to our hotel, we passed a darkened open doorway and noticed a small sign, Origen. The dark corridor off this small unnoticed restaurant would, we were sure, have led us to a place with excellent food. C’est la vie.   

As we have come to expect over the last few years, the Mexicans we met were always polite and courteous, some very upbeat and others quiet and modest. They are extremely pleasant and attentive hosts. And I could not help but recall what Donald Trump said of Mexicans when he announced his presidency in the atrium of Trump Tower in June of 2016.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

“In my opinion, the new China, believe it or not, in terms of trade, is Mexico.”

“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

So goes the fevered and incoherent and unsubstantiated ravings of The Donald. One of my readers is obsessed by my obsession with Donald Trump. Let me explain that obsession by the title of this blog. Kinyarwanda is the language of Rwanda and Burundi. When I and a Norwegian co-investigator were asked by an international consortium of states and international organizations to investigate the non-action by other states and their failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, one of the first terms in Kinyarwanda we learned was inyenzi, meaning cockroach. This was the term used by the Hutu extremists in Rwanda to depict the Tutsi who were their targets when they slaughtered 800,000 in a matter of ten weeks in what was the fastest genocide in history. Insect terms are used to depict the Other who are imagined as rising up in huge numbers and threatening your society.

In my studies of genocide, I determined that there were four different levels of regarding the Other before reaching the stage where one group tried to exterminate them. First, they had to be regarded as Other, that is, as a group totally distinct from one’s own. Second, they then had to be relegated to an Inferior Other. Third, they became classified as a threatening Other. Fourth, they had to be classified as a group that threatened you so much that you had to push them away from where you lived, in what came to be known as ethnic cleansing.

Only when a group decided that the last option was not feasible or that such a decision would only come back to haunt them later, did they decide on extermination of the Other. This was the process that the Akazu, Hutu Power, the small group of 400 Hutu who led the genocide, went through in deciding on a plan of genocidal action against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda. The issue for me is not simply racism, but the early warning of possible genocide. That may seem extreme, but I only ask that you hear me out.

In a rambling incoherent speech describing America as a victim – of China and of Japan for example – he said the following: “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.” Look at the language – “beating us,” “killing us.” Look at the order of the remarks. They are beating and killing us at the border and then, also, economically.

To repeat: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Mexicans are Other. Mexicans are inferior Others. Mexicans are threatening Others – rapists, criminals. “Some, I assume, may be good.” But the rest, the overwhelming rest, particularly those who arrive at American borders, are a threat and their entry must be prevented. Ethnic exclusion should be an American policy when it comes to Mexicans trying to cross the border. Not quite genocide. But only a stage or two less.

After numerous lies, misrepresentations and gross distortions, Trump said, “Now, our country needs— our country needs a truly great leader, and we need a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal,” which, of course he never wrote. It was written by a ghost writer, Tony Schwartz.

One of the most important reasons Americans needed a great leader was the threat of the inyenzi. They could have called a Tutsi utu-akamonya (flying winged red ant) or imi-umuswa or aukinga (locust) or ama-ijeri (grasshopper), but Hutu extremists wanted to associate Tutsi with filth as well as danger. On 16 May 2018, when Trump once again renewed harsh rhetoric to refer to the danger of irregular migration from the south, more specifically that time, Central Americans, he called the undocumented immigrants from south of the U.S. “animals.” Since Trump’s vocabulary is very limited, locusts might be a better term. Though it lacks an association with dirt and beastliness, “locust” has biblical overtones. A locust is defined as a specific species migratoria in the genus locusta of insect within the kingdom of animalia.

But it is not only their migratory characteristic that make Locusta Migratoria (Linnaeus 1758) the term appropriate to the way Trump characterizes these irregular migrants from the south, but the migratory locust is polyphenic. When the locusts stay home as solitary individuals, there is no evidence Trump fears them. Some of them may even be good. But when they leave their solitary phase, when they transition to a new polyphenic phase, they become gregarious, multiply rapidly and swarm. A gregarious adult locust is brownish.

They are highly mobile and fit Trump’s construction in his imagination, for rather than a caravan travelling from 15-20 km in a day, a flying locust covers than distance in an hour. More significant, compared to lice or flies, an adult locust consumes its own weight in fresh food each day and, for every million locusts, a ton of food is consumed per day. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” Trump said on 16 May 2016. These are, Trump said, “some of the most vicious and violent offenders on Earth, like MS-13 gang members putting innocent men, women, and children at the mercy of these sadistic criminals.”  Anyone who helps them (like Hutu moderates) is guilty of “obstruction of justice.”  Trump went on, “We have to break up families…It’s a horrible thing we have to break up families.”

Trump’s fears and fevered imagination grew by leaps and bounds, nano-times faster than the growth of the supposedly giant “horde” in the caravan of Central Americans accompanied by 32 UNHCR officials. Any journalist who went down to visit the caravans and saw mostly women and children simply did not know, according to Trump, that there were many criminals and even “unknown” Middle Easterners among them (read terrorists). Of course, border guards would not be able to tell the difference because the members of the swarm were all brown.

“Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy. [sic!] Must change laws!” (22 October 2018) Since the House of Representatives would not change the law to allow him to reach his goal of building a 2,000 mile wall, or even to fund 220 miles of unnecessary wall, Trump was willing to allow 800,000 American citizens suffer as most were furloughed or were not being paid. In addition, the president in mid-November ordered a massive military deployment to the Mexican border to stop the horde which had already diminished to less than 4,000.

It is important that the lies Trump tells be exposed. It is important that the nature of those lies rooted in a fearful imagination of the Other be exposed. It is important that his depiction of the Other be exposed. It is important that the danger of that depiction as it grows and develops be exposed. Trump must be exposed, not only as possibly guilty of collusion with the Russians, not only as guilty of obstruction of justice, not only as guilty of breaking the law, but also as a clear and present danger.”

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump: Part IV –The Fight is Engaged

As Noah Feldman pointed out, had Donald Trump not fired James Comey as FBI Director on 9 May 2017, the FBI would have continued to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Department of Justice would have indicted the Russians involved in the troll farm that manipulated U.S. social media, the scandal of Cambridge Analytica-Facebook would have been revealed and Mark Zuckerberg would have been required to testify before Congress about it, but the FBI investigation would have most likely been restricted to Russian manipulation and interference rather than collusion let alone obstruction of justice. Trump’s pleas to Comey to go easy on Flynn culminating in his firing him, initially clumsily claiming the firing was because of Comey’s mishandling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email, and then publicly admitting on NBC to Lester Holt that it was because he wanted “the Russian thing” to go away, immediately brought to the fore the possibility that Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Trump had called the Russia probe a “cloud” over his administration. The cloud was not Russian interference in the election, but the series of stories of connections between the Trump team and Russians. Trump asked what Comey “could do to lift the cloud.” Firing Comey brought about the swarms flying around his head. Trump had fired the FBI Director for investigating him. Comey, as it turned out, was not a tiny lice that Trump could pick off his scalp, but the lead fly that, when swatted, would be followed by swarms.

“Without the firing of Comey, there would have been no appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. If Comey had remained in office, he would have had every incentive to limit the investigation to whether Russia interfered in the election and whether Trump’s campaign had coordinated with that effort. Comey would not have had any reason to go after Trump personally, especially as regards to Cohen…By firing Comey, then attempting to assassinate his character, Trump made it blatantly clear that he considered any investigation a personal matter, and would treat any investigator as his enemy. As a result, when Mueller stepped into his role [on 17 May 2017], he had to be aware from Day One that Trump would see him as the enemy, would try to pressure him and might well fire him.” Trump had ensured then that he would not just be bothered by the itching of one lice, or the buzzing of one fly, but would be attacked by swarms.

Mueller had every reason to insulate himself against the possibility of being fired. He had every reason to build up whatever leverage he could to stop that from happening. That meant genuinely investigating, not only possible coordination with Russia, but also all crimes that might be discovered during that investigation. Mueller’s appointment letter specifically gave him that very broad mandate. And the evidence soon led Mueller down the path to a full-scale investigation of Michael Cohen’s payment to Stormy Daniels.

What about Paul Manafort and Rick Gates? As I wrote above, the Donald told Lester Holt of NBC that he was motivated to fire Comey, in part, “because of this Russian thing.” Could Trump have provided any better indication that there had been cooperation by Trump team members that required probing as well as investigating the role of Russia in the 2016 American election? Further, just think about it; Trump said Comey better not forget that it was possible that he had taped the whole event. Tricky Dick’s tapes immediately came to mind.  As it turned out, there was no tape, but thank goodness that Comey had enough smarts to write up a memo on the firing and then send it to a friend who was a professor of law.  Presence of head, on the one hand, was in direct contrast with the head of the U.S. government covered by swarms of flies.

On the day between firing Comey (9 May) and his NBC interview with Lester Holt, where he admitted that the firing of Comey had, at least in part, been motivated by his desire to have the “Russian thing” go away (11 May), Trump met with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in the Oval Office (10 May). Trump explicitly told them that he had fired Comey over the “Russian thing.” The Russians knew the reason for the firing before the American public did. DT also told the Russians that Comey was “crazy” and “a real nut job.”

But that was not all that Trump told the Russians. The Israelis, he said, had discovered from sources in Syria that ISIS was developing a laptop computer bomb that could not be detected in security screenings. This was highly classified information passed onto American intelligence by a U.S. close ally that was then relayed to a foreign government which had for decades been an enemy of the U.S. Further, by disclosing the Israeli source of the intelligence, DT had endangered the Mossad’s sources. Is it possible that obstruction of justice and collusion were intertwined because the highest office in the land was now occupied by a Russian “asset”?

Military intelligence and Israeli intelligence had been alerted to the real possibility that the most important mole in the history of the world may, unthinkably, possibly be the president of the U.S., either because the Russians had something on him or because he wanted to be favoured by the Russians, perhaps for some transactional motives.  However, the reasons may have been more mundane. DT was indiscreet. DT did not recognize the potential disastrous consequences to an ally’s intelligence sources. But stupidity was only slightly less dangerous than an intentional operative when the person supplying the information has not only access to all intelligence but can himself decide what is or is not highly secret.

If the flies swarming around The Donald were so bothersome that he was caught on camera with two Middle East authoritarian leaders touching a glowing orb as if it was a magic talisman, if he was being pursued so much that he pushed the Montenegrin Prime Minister aside to get up front for a photo op, and if he had become so wound up that he sent out his infamous covfefe tweet – “Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” it began to universal bewilderment – by the beginning of the next month, even worse followed. In a speech from the Rose Garden, Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing America from the Paris climate deal.

The earth-bound plagues of lice and flies were now followed by fire and boils and rain. The plagues of locusts, darkness and death of the first born will follow in the next blog. DT had ignored what 99% of environmental science said; he had become the loudest spokesperson for the members of the flat earth society. Immediately after the announcement in June, the U.S. was hit with the most intense heat wave ever; cattle and livestock were dying from drought and high temperatures. People were burnt alive. Intense windstorms with hurricane rains followed.

In August, Hurricane Harvey struck southeast Texas with 60” of rain on Nederland, a record. Houston was flooded with 35” of rain and 70% of Harris County was flooded in at least 1.5 feet of water, swamping 136,000 structures. At the end of August and in early September, Puerto Rico was devastated before Hurricane Irma crashed across Florida. Though initially reported as perhaps about 100 dead, including 14 in a nursing home in Hollywood, Florida, the death toll from the two hurricanes actually exceeded 3,000 when official figures were finally forthcoming from Puerto Rico that included the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria that arrived a week later. But it was unclear whether the Donald even regarded Puerto Rico as part of the U.S.

As an appetizer to the most devastating fire in the history of the U.S. at the end of the year, a dozen wildfires ravaged Northern California destroying more than 1,500 commercial and residential buildings and killing 11. By the end of October, the death toll from wildfires, including the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, had risen to 43. Then came the massive Thomas wildfire in Southern California in December scorching 440 square miles and destroying over 1,000 structures. By 2018, each of three wildfires burning at the same time were even worse. The Camp Fire alone killed 87 and destroyed 18,000 structures.

God was screaming, but Donald had his ears plugged and his eyes covered. Climate change had already affected ocean temperatures, altered weather patterns, produced drought that increased the fuel supply, “compounded by atmospheric conditions linked to global warming.” This past week, the California Pacific, Gas and Electric (PG&E) that had over 700 suits filed against it for its negligence with respect to those fires, with claims totalling more than $30 billion, filed for bankruptcy protection. Fire investigators determined PG&E had been the precipitating cause of at least 17 of 21 major Northern California fires in 2017.

Back to the flies. The fires and hurricanes would eliminate them from the news, but never for very long. In July of 2017, Donald Trump personally dictated a statement for Donald Trump Jr. in which the latter claimed that a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer was about adoption. To make the story even more absurd, the meeting was actually held because Donald Jr. had been told the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. Talk about collusion! The Mueller Investigation was certainly needed to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but the avalanche of evidence connecting the Trumps with the Russians was just beginning. The fight was now on to provide evidence that those links amounted to collusion, obstruction of justice and perhaps outright felonies.

It can’t get worse, we say, as each day we turn on the TV news. But it does get worse, much worse. As a hint, in August 2017 we were assaulted by a double whammy. On the one hand, in response to North Korea testing missiles that could carry a nuclear payload to the U.S., Trump threatened that such initiatives “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A week later, after the horror of neo-Nazis, racists and antisemites with tiki torches marched in Charlottesville Virginia to “affirm the right of Southerners and white people to organize for their interests,” and chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” Donald Trump told Americans that there were “good people on both sides.” The next day, he fired Steve Bannon. Another acolyte was sacrificed and served as a distraction fro Trump’s stupidity, insensitivity and, most likely racism.

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump: Part III – The Beginning of the Slide

Some people remember great events vividly – where they were when they heard the news, how they heard it, what they did immediately afterwards. The assassination of Jack Kennedy was one such event. My propensity has been to remember when I first encountered an intellectual presentation that shook me up – the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn lecturing in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto when he presented his study of five different cultures in Texas who organized their conception of change and the passage of events into five distinct time frameworks. I was in my first year of medical school at the University of Toronto sitting in a balcony seat in a packed auditorium holding 1,600 in 1956. I raced home and wrote an essay on the “Carnie Sense of Time” based on my experiences as a summer carnival worker and my experiences with old time carnies. They were not so much lying to me as operating within a totally different time frame for organizing their experiences in life. Using Margaret Mead’s methods, I wrote the essay for my anthropology class and earned my first A+.

I also remember when I first read Elisabeth Kűbler-Ross’ 1969 book on Death and Dying. I was living on Highland Avenue in Toronto, dealing with American draft dodgers and deserters in addition to my teaching. I had also gone through the death of someone close. I was mesmerized by the book. Whether her theory did or did not stand up to theoretical verification, I have used it since to understand a number of experiences which go through different phases.

Based on her work in Chicago counselling patients diagnosed with a terminal illness, she presented the five stages of death that these individuals normally go through – 1: Denial; 2: Anger; 3: Depression; 4: Bargaining; and 5: Acceptance. The characterization of each stage was not intended to tuck each response into a small, neatly packaged emotion. Nor were the stages depicted as necessarily following one after the other. They did not depict a linear and predictable progression. Rather, the work identified the fact that many dying patients go through different states when they learn they are about to die and that, more often than not, they seem to experience those emotions in the order she depicted. Later, she would expand her research in collaboration with David Kessler to identify parallel stages of people in grief dealing with a dying loved one.

No matter how often the authors indicated that not everyone goes through any or all of these stages or does so in the prescribed order, many took up the taxonomy of dying and grief as a cookie cutter to depict stages of dying or grief for everyone. I want to repeat their warning. I have discerned what I believe are the ten stages of self-destruction that tyrants go through before they implode. There are ten stages, not five. They were outlined in this blog in the depiction of the self-destruction of Pharaoh when he tried to hold onto his Hebrew slaves before they got their freedom, a freedom which they developed in phases and first experienced very equivocally because the troubles encountered were at first overwhelming and bleak and the taste of freedom itself so bitter that they questioned the original decision.

In moving from slavery to freedom, the Israelites likely went through many stages and those stages may typify the experiences of other peoples. But my concern here is with tyrants who bring self-destruction upon themselves in the exercise of their tyranny. Like Ross and Kessler, I do not want to make any claim that tyrants such as King Charles I or King George III or any other tyrant went through the stages I propose and did so in the order I offer as if that order were prescriptive. Rather, this is simply a manner of depicting the process by which the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in dealing with the Israelites and how, I believe. Trump has been behaving since he was elected President of the U.S.A.

I am convinced that Trump did not expect to become president when he threw his hat into the ring with other Republicans seeking the nomination and even when he was running against Hillary Clinton in the general election. He sought the post because of the transactional benefits it brought and might continue to bring to the Trump brand. Then, even though he did not expect to win, he wanted the post because he likes being a winner. But the election results were as much of a surprise to him as it was for most of the rest of us. It is very easy to see how his narcissism, his unswerving dedication to advertisements for himself, turned into a divine complex where he was not only the chosen one, but the one who did the choosing.

When elected president and confronted by others who challenged his assumptions of divine power, Trump, like Pharaoh, adopted a dismissive stance towards his critics. His attitude clearly revealed his indifference towards both facts and the law in dealing with the asylum seekers requesting the protection of the U.S. government.

The first two stages that I have already outlined might be considered the two faces of denial in the first stage of death and dying. Stage I, as I depicted it for both Pharaoh and for Donald Trump, emerged in DT’s effort to control who entered America. For that policy and practice was the most critical one in determining the character of a society. Most interesting, in the opening days of his presidency, his initial exclusionist propensities targeted Muslims at the same time as he expressed his indifference to the principle of equality for all citizens, especially women. He had openly labeled women as pussies when it was he who was in the process of revealing how much of a pussy he was in dealing with Putin and Russia. Ignorance of the law and indifference to those unfairly treated by his application of his power characterized the first stage of his self-destruction.

The second stage was characterized by unequivocal denials. The denial shifted in shape and colour through each successive stage as it became a constituent part of the next stage. “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.” That was February of 2017. The qualification “to the best of my knowledge” would be dropped subsequently as the denial evolved and shifted until it came back to, “I never said that no one in my administration colluded with the Russians. Only I did not.” Co-terminous with the denial stage that succeeded the dismissive stage with its characteristic indifference to others and the law, was Trump’s differentiation in the third phase into “us” and “them”. The differentiation was at a more general level than the earlier one aimed specifically at women and Muslims. Evidence of Trump’s ignorance and ignoring of reality piled up.

The shift in his posture from indifference to overt denial turned passivity into outright aggression.

This was not the denial in the Kűbler-Ross sense of dropping into a survival mode by denying what is happening, but a denial, outright and absolute, of what we later learned had actually happened. Rather than the world becoming meaningless and overwhelming, as in the first stage of death or grieving, denial entailed laying the foundations for an alternate reality that was meaningless to anyone who looked on with any degree of objectivity. That alternate reality was necessary to give the would-be tyrant a mental framework from which he could operate. Trump was not numb, just dumb. Rather than a postponement in facing the end, the end was denied in a process that itself brought that end closer. Instead of denial being part of healing, it was part of a process of self-inflicted violence that detached the pain from himself and projected it onto others.

On 2 March 2017, Jeff Sessions recused himself from supervising any inquiry into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russians. Trump never forgave him and repeatedly regarded the act as a betrayal. It was anger that never dissipated but simply went deep under the skin. It grew over time to the point where it became embarrassing. Sessions was one of the best cabinet members he had – if the measure was delivery on the promises The Donald had made. Sessions vigorously pursued and implemented Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

The anger was not driven by reason, but by the deep pain of what Trump took to be betrayals. It was not like his initial indifference to and disconnect from others. Instead, and, ironically, it was the way he connected, ensuring that Sessions remained the puppet at his side ready at any and all times to take a verbal beating. In the meanwhile, Trump experienced the anger as an expression of strength and ruthlessness to the first Senator who had pledged his loyalty to him. For Trump, and as it would turn out in reality, Sessions’ act of recusing himself was a betrayal, even though the action was one obviously called for under the rule of law. The anger covered the sense of loss and absence Trump felt within his own chest.

But Trump also gave the game away. Somehow, he knew that the FBI was after him, for he accused Obama of ordering a tap on his phone. Though he did not feel secure enough to fire Sessions, he allowed his National Security Adviser, LT. General H.R. McMaster who replaced Mike Flynn, to remove the chief strategist and architect of his election victory, Steve Bannon, from his position on the National Security Committee. Displacement was the order of the day, displacement from himself onto others and then displacement of others closest to him who had been critical to his victory. Trump, the super magician, turned loyalists into lice whom he felt he had to pick off himself and flick away

However, lice are not swarms of flies or scarabs that seemingly come from nowhere to attack you. Lice cannot fly. They are wingless insects with barbed legs that live on your scalp. Sessions and Bannon were parasites living on the monarch’s head and proved very difficult to kill as Trump tried to wash them out of his hair. Sessions and Bannon gradually became itches that Trump raged against but it took a great deal of time for him to remove them. But remove them he eventually did. However, the swarms of agents that really began to assault him had not begun. And they were turned into a swarm by his own actions.

 

To be continued

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump: Part IIC – The Beginning of the Slippery Slope

In Donald Trump’s first press conference of his presidency, the first question, as expected, was about the firing of Mike Flynn. This was his answer: “Mike Flynn is a fine person…I asked for his resignation…I was not happy with the way that information was given [to Mike Pence]. He didn’t have to do that, because what he did wasn’t wrong. [my italics]…What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves in this room, were given that information, because that was classified information that was given illegally.”

Mike Flynn’s talking to Ambassador Kislyak about relaxing sanctions was classified, according to Trump, but lying to the FBI, communicating with a foreign power that had intervened in democratic elections, perhaps making the promise of relaxing sanctions in return for that interference, was what had been really hidden. Trump continued: “That’s the real problem. And, you know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all a, you know, fake news, fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it. In fact, I saw a couple of the people that were supposedly involved with all of this — that they know nothing about it; they weren’t in Russia; they never made a phone call to Russia; they never received a phone call. It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news.” We now know for certain that these were all lies, but we still had to learn whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians or even actually colluded.

Later in the press conference, Trump was asked, “Can you tell us in determining what Lieutenant General Flynn did — whether there was no wrongdoing in your mind, what evidence was weighed? Did you ask for transcripts of these telephone intercepts with Russian officials, particularly the Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who he was communicating with? What– what evidence did you weigh to determine that there was no wrongdoing? Further to that, Sir, you said on a couple of locations this morning, you are going to aggressively pursue the source of these leaks.” Trump affirmed the latter question and ignored the much longer and entire list of questions that led to it.

In another follow-up question about whether anyone on the Trump team had talked to Russian officials, Trump replied that Mr. Manafort “said he never spoke to Russia; never received a call. Look at his phone records, et cetera, et cetera… people knew that he represented various countries, but I don’t think he represented Russia, but knew that he represented various countries. That’s what he does. I mean, people know that.” Most of the press conference was spent on Trump speaking about fake news and insulting the press as well as on Flynn and the Russia issue. Trump repeatedly claimed, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.”

In my estimation, not in quantity but in insight, the most important part of the Q&A had nothing to do with Flynn and Russia, but with a statement Trump made about “others.” “You do agree there are bad people out there, right? That not everybody that’s like you. You have some bad people out there.” He could not have meant that the people out there are “not good” like you since he had just spent an enormous amount of time telling reporters and the public how deceitful the press was. The meaning of “not everybody’s like you” came near the end of the press conference soon after this remark when the discussion turned to antisemitism and racism.

When Trump, near the end of the Q&A, was asked about his administration’s policies for inner cities and whether he would include members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the discussions, Trump replied: “Do you want to set up the meeting?” And he repeated the question. The female reporter who asked the question was black. When she was startled and said, “no,” Trump asked a follow-up. “Are they friends of yours?’ The reply: “I’m just a reporter.” Trump: “Well, then, set up the meeting.”

Is it racist to tell a black reporter to set up a meeting with the Black Caucus? Was it demeaning that he was so condescending to a female reporter? I leave it for the readers to decide. However, repeatedly Donald Trump differentiates between those who are “like us” and those who are not.

Because of Mueller, we have been conditioned to believe that the most important issues about the Trump presidency concern his possible collusion with the Russian intervention in the American election and Trump’s corruption – a record of lying and of giving priority to his own transactional agenda. These are certainly the most sensational and are more than likely to be the issues that bring the Trump regime to an ignominious end. But the most substantive issues are still about who to include and exclude, how to do it and the internal, almost unconscious, propensity to treat different communities of America differently – blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and women.

As President Trump began his path of self-destruction with his first step onto the slippery slope, as he ignored what was really happening in the production world, the shift of routine automobile assembly to Mexico with the benefit that the jobs created eased the pressure on the southern border, and as American-based production focused on leading edge self-driving and electric-powered vehicles that entailed a much greater stress on weaving artificial intelligence as well as robotics into transportation, meaning an increased need for highly trained workers who could manage robots and cope with the reality that artificial intelligence could often make much more rational decisions than humans. Trump time and time again proved that he was not only living in a fantasy world of lies of his own making, but that it was a topsy-turvy world of the Mad Hatter and Alice in Wonderland, but without its colour, joy and sheer pleasure in outrageousness.

The clock could not be turned back. History was not about eternal return but about dramatic shifts – from slavery to a system of free individuals, from a rural agricultural society to an industrial one and, more recently, into an electronic communications culture of which the internet is just a part. The movement of peoples and of external governments into domestic politics now had to be managed in radically different ways that did not involve placing one’s total reliance on mediaeval methods such as walls. Trump wanted to preserve the magic world of yesteryear when his magicians proved repeatedly to be losing control and ceding the space of the miraculous to a whole new way of life.

Trump in his head and in his pronouncements wanted to turn defeat into victory, revive the obsolete and dying past so that America once again could become the central force of human history, but Trump increasingly revealed he was living in a land of make believe. The first step onto the slippery slope of the Trump administration began with denial, denial and denial – of that which was true and proved to be increasingly validated. But Donald Trump had shown that he could be untouched by either reality or human suffering at the same time as he was condescending and demeaning to persons he saw as “other.”

David Frum offered a very different picture of nostalgia based on the resurrection of conservatives who can govern responsibly while being “culturally modern, economically inclusive and environmentally responsible.” Though equally unrealistic, Frum’s vision is at least based on truth rather than fabrication, on goodwill to all rather than bad will towards some. But it is nostalgia nevertheless, for a lost world rather than an imagined one.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman