Thursday, February 22, 2018

Narses, 6th-century eunuch general

Born about 480 CE in the eastern part of Armenia that Rome had given to Persia, Narses lived to the age of about 90, his major accomplishments all coming after the age of 70 as General-in-Chief of the Roman army. Corippus (In Laudem Iustini Augusti Minoris [In Praise of Justin II], Book III, Lines 218-230, translated by Averil Cameron) described Narses in Justin’s procession:

"In the meantime came Narses, the emperor’s sword-bearer, Narses, following on in the steps of his master, towering a head over all the lines, and made the imperial hall shine with his beauty, his hair well arranged, handsome in form and face. He was in gold all over, yet modest in dress and appearance, and pleasing for his upright ways, venerable for his virtue, brilliant, careful, watchful night and day for the rulers of the world, shining with glorious light: as the morning star, glittering in the clear sky, outdoes the silvery constellations with its golden rays and announces the coming of day with its clear flame."

David Potter explained:

"'Respectable' women were those who lived in overtly sex-free environments. The first thing Thecla had done upon becoming a Christian was to break off the marriage her mother had arranged for her. And the exceptionally powerful Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II mentioned earlier, had publicly declared her virginity: furthermore, many of her most powerful servants were eunuchs, lacking the basic male equipment – similarly, many of the men on whom Theodora would depend in later life had been castrated when they were boys. People were willing to castrate their young sons in the hope that the operation would enable them to obtain positions in the imperial service, thereby becoming far more powerful than they otherwise might. Indeed, this often happened, for, as far as we know, most of the powerful palace eunuchs came from humble backgrounds, and almost all from rural areas on the empire's frontiers, since castration was technically illegal in the empire proper. We have to assume that the parents of these boys were able to deal with the notion that, in effect, being prepared to sell their child's body was the key to his future. In the ideological world of sixth century Byzantium, respectability required chastity, and power required respectability." (Potter, pp. 40-41)

The 60-year-old Anastasius became emperor in 491 when he was named by the Empress Ariadne after her husband Emperor Zeno's death, the palace's chief chamberlain having suggested that she should choose the new emperor. Ariadne married Anastasius.

On July 9, 518, the silentiaries "informed the magister officiorum, in charge of the palace secretariat, and the count of the excubitores (a branch of the palace guard) that the emperor was dead, and they should hold a meeting in the palace forthwith." Justin, commander of the excubitores, announced the emperor's death at the meeting. Meanwhile, "the excubitores in the Hippodrome proclaimed a man called John, only to be shouted down by the Blues. Inside the palace, another guard unit, the scholarii, tried to proclaim Anastasius' nephew, Patricius. But the excubitores, who disliked Patricius, were threatening to kill him." Also, "the palace eunuchs, who controlled the imperial regalia, were refusing to release it." They released it to Justin when the crowd declared him emperor. Soon,

"a group of palace eunuchs was charged with trying to assassinate Justin. This story appears to have been invented after a pro-Chalcedonian demonstration at Hagia Sophia named them as heretics who should be eliminated. Another story, which emerged later, was that the chief eunuch, Amantius, wanted to have his bodyguard, Theocritus, made emperor, and that he had given Justin money to have the crowd acclaim his man. In another version, Justin is said to have stolen the money to bribe his own way to the throne; and,in yet another, to have handed the money over and then had himself proclaimed. All of this looks like more nasty gossip concocted well after the event in order to both explain why Amantius, who would have been in control of the imperial regalia on the morning after Anastasius died, was executed, and to denigrate Justin, whom some of the aristocracy regarded as an accidental emperor..." (Potter, pp. 70-71)

The eunuch Misael was "exiled for complicity in Amantius' alleged plot against Justin in 518," but later became a personal servant to Theodora and "one of his jobs seems to have been to keep track of books that were sent to her." Severus wrote a letter to Misael discussing Theodora's reading habits. (Potter, p. 124)

At the Nika rebellion in 532, Justinian "sent the eunuch Narses to bribe some members of the Blue faction to begin acclaiming him and Theodora" in the Hippodrome. The Blues did so, but nevertheless Justinian's army slaughtered 30,000 people in the Hippodrome. (Potter, p. 154)

In 535, Theodora ordered Narses to bring forces from Constantinople to restore Theodosius to his position in Alexandria. (Potter, p. 174)

Under Justinian, who ruled until 565, Narses fought for the sovereignty of Orthodox Catholicism over the eunuch god Osiris and the goddess Isis, and he destroyed their Alexandrian sanctuaries. Narses believed that pleasure bred effeminacy and demanded traditional Roman ascetic discipline from his troops. He became a grand chamberlain in 540. He built a church and monastery in Cappadocia where he meant to retire, but was then appointed to overthrow King Totila and the Ostragothic Kingdom in Italy, which he did in the battle of Taginae in 552. He went on to siege the Goths at Hadrian’s Mausoleum, at Mons Lactarius, and at Lucca, where he faked the beheading of hostages and “resurrected” them as a condition of the Goths’ surrender. In 554, he became administrator of the Italy he conquered, and quarried classical buildings to build and restore churches.

Justinian’s successor, Justin II, chose not to support Narses, and the old general retreated to Naples. The Empress Sophia sent him a golden distaff with an invitation to return to the palace to oversee the women’s spinning, to which Narses replied that he would spin a thread of which neither she nor her husband would be able to find the end. Pope John III personally traveled to bring Narses back to Rome, where he returned to live on the Palatine Hill, the original site of the gallae’s shrine to Attis and Cybele. (The gallae had been banished from Rome when Narses was a young man.) Towards the end of his life, he built the eunuch monastery of the Katharoi.

David Potter. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Zheng He, early 15th century explorer

Eunuchs were also generals in China. The Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle (ruled 1402-1424) relied on eunuchs, especially in the military, because they had helped him usurp the throne from a government that had limited their power and they continued to support him after he claimed the throne.

The hundreds of Mongol and Muslim prisoners of war taken by the Chinese in 1381 under the first Ming Dynasty emperor (Yongle's father) may have included the future Zheng He (Cheng Ho), then ten years old. When Yongle was on the throne, he honored this Muslim eunuch with a Chinese surname for his ingenuity in digging around a reservoir to mount a defense in a civil war. Zheng He led seven naval exploration expeditions, invested the kings of Sumatra and Japan, and was nicknamed the “eunuch of the three gems” because China received tributes from other nations as a result of his expeditions. He was responsible for the appearance of an African beast which the emperor took to be a good-omened, sacred, magical ki’rin (we would call it a giraffe).

Prof. Liu Yingsheng said: “In today’s Chinese history, Zheng He is seen as epitomising peaceful internationalism. That is the image of China that current leaders wish to present to the world."

Monday, February 19, 2018

How to end violent motives, according to 'Virtuous Violence'

Answer: Convince people to update their cultural norms and relationship models. Here's why.

Only a small proportion of all violence is an instrumental effort to get something, like someone else’s wallet, Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai maintain in their 2014 book Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. Most violence, they say, springs from motivations within the perpetrator’s moral worldview, meaning that the perpetrator resorts to violence to constitute or regulate an important relationship “with a fully moral partner” especially as a kind of punishment or revenge. The perpetrator (and those around them) perceive it as a moral obligation to carry out the violence even if doing so triggers “guilt, shame, remorse, sadness, nausea, or horror” due to competing motives; overall, to the group, the violence “makes local sociocultural sense.”

Commonly, people understand their “setbacks, failures, illnesses, injuries, and deaths” to have been inflicted upon them by angry “deceased ancestors, spirits, or deities". This is just a supernaturally illustrated instance of the same principle. They believe the gods use violence to manage relationships, too.

Steven Pinker wrote the foreword, in which he claimed that his own prior book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, included a similar claim that violent people believe they are acting for a higher good. He praised “Fiske’s theory of relational models [as] the best — indeed the only — overarching theory of social psychology.” This refers to an identification of four types of relationships — Fiske calls them "communal sharing" (CS), "authority ranking" (AR), "equality matching" (EM), and "market pricing" (MP) — any or all of which can be transgressed and thus lead to violence.

In particular, violence is used to uphold expected relationships based on who one is, such as establishing power dynamics based on race and gender (CS, AR), as well as on what one has done to earn one's treatment by others (EM, MP).

A 1996 paper by Bandura et al. in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology proposed a scale to measure moral disengagement based on one's willingness to use violence and lies to protect one's in-group. Fiske and Rai, however, say that behavior sure looks like moral engagement to them. Even if your personal or cultural norms hold that “moral motives must be peaceful,” it doesn’t mean that people with violent motives aren’t engaging in moral reasoning of their own. Once you accept that the violence is morally motivated, it “makes no sense” to understand violence as dehumanizing its victim, since the perpetrator must assume the victim is human enough to bear guilt and to feel pain “in order for his punishment to have any moral meaning.” Perpetrators “fully appreciate that they are hurting fully human beings, and judge that it is right to hurt them.” The prefixes of dis-engagement and de-humanization are also confusing here because they imply "an original state of social relatedness…[and] moral engagement” that has been abandoned in the act of violence.

Violence is usually treated as “the essence of evil,” but this is a mistaken understanding. “Morality is about regulating social relationships, and violence is one way to regulate relationships.” Ordinary people “feel that it is morally right or even obligatory to be violent.” They do it “to create, conduct, protect, redress, terminate, or mourn social relationships with the victim or with others....to create, sustain, modulate, and repair the relationships that matter to them, to terminate relationships that become intolerable, or to mourn the loss of a partner.”

That is not to say that violence is (objectively) moral. It is only to say that real people perceive and reason it to be moral within whatever cultural view binds them. To argue that violence is truly immoral (as seen from some outside perspective) or that the violent person somehow misunderstands their own cultural norms is not the project of Fiske and Rai's book.

The authors present a recipe for "the only way to reduce morally motivated violence": Bolster relationship norms that support nonviolence and prohibit violence, grow networks of relationships that uphold these norms with complete clarity, and build awareness and consensus about these norms and relationship networks so that everyone knows that everyone else agrees on them. This is "what cultural change consists of: consensual transformation of preos and metarelational models." "Preos" and "metarelational models" are their funny words for cultural norms and complex relationships between multiple people. It just might work.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Sound, Color, Melody, Harmony: Ernst Cassirer on Benedetto Croce's theory of aesthetics

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), in his papers kept at Yale that were published several decades posthumously, argued against the opinion of Benedetto Croce that all language is lyrical and aesthetic, and that we are all, therefore, in a sense, artists.

"Every man who succeeds in expressing his thoughts or feelings is, according to Croce, a sort of poet; we are all lyricists in our measure." (Cassirer, p. 158) Cassirer argues that "Croce is wrong when thinking that lyricism (liricità) is the proper and essential root of language." Language's sense of the lyric is "always counterbalanced by another element, by its inherent logicism." (Cassirer, p. 190) Cassirer believed it important to be able to "speak of different kinds of expression," that which is aesthetic and that which is not. On Croce's interpretation, in which all expression is lyrical: "A letter, for instance, in which I succeed in expressing my thoughts or my feelings, is, therefore, just as much a work of art as a painting or a drama." (Cassirer, p. 207)

Emotion alone does not make language artistic, Cassirer insists:

"But to my mind this theory fails in a double respect. The mere fact of expression cannot be regarded as an artistic fact. If I write a letter destined for a practical purpose, I am, in this act of writing, by no means an artist. But a man may even write a most passionate love letter in which he may succeed in giving a true and sincere expression to his deepest feelings without, by this fact alone, becoming an artist. Without doubt the great artists are capable of the deepest emotions. They possess a rarity and intensity, a scale of feeling that we do not find in the average man.

But this strength and multiformity of feeling is in itself no proof of a great artistic capacity and it is not the decisive feature of the work of art. The artist is not the man who indulges in the display of his emotions and who has the greatest facility in the expression of these emotions. To be swayed by emotions means sentimentalism, not art. (Cassirer, pp. 207-208)

Rather, what makes something lyric is a special quality of the word choice. He objected that "verbal expression, expression by linguistic symbols, is not the same as lyrical expression. What impresses us in lyric is not only the meaning, the abstract significance of the words; it is also the sound, the color, the melody, the harmony, the concord and consonance of the words." (Cassirer, p. 158)

L'art pour l'art

Cassirer also wrote:

"I do not wish to defend here the device l’art pour l’art — art for art’s sake. Art is not a display and an enjoyment of empty forms. What we intuit in the medium of art and artistic forms is a double reality, the reality of nature and of human life. And every great work of art gives us a new approach to and a new interpretation of nature and life.

* * *

Every sort of aestheticism, every variant of the theme l’art pour l’art, is unsound and dangerous. To speak of a purposeless art, or of an art that has its end in itself, is a mere juggling with words. Art has a very definite purpose; the purpose not only to describe or express, but to improve our feelings. If it forgets this purpose it forgets itself; it becomes as futile and meaningless play." (Cassirer, pp. 157, 200)

Donald Phillip Verene, ed. Ernst Cassirer. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945. (1979) New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.


Croce's name was also mentioned by Merold Westphal:

"A second model which may be helpful is the notion that aesthetic perception is essentially ‘disinterested.’ This idea takes its rise in eighteenth-century England with Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Burke, and Alison; it is central to the aesthetic theories of Kant and Schopenhauer, and in our own century no less so to Croce’s famous Encyclopedia Britannica article, ‘Aesthetics,’ Edward Bullough’s influential concept of ‘psychical distance,’ and C. S. Lewis’s gem, An Experiment in Criticism, where the idea is ever so succinctly summarized: ‘the many use art and the few receive it.’ Shaftesbury, who stands at the fountainhead of this tradition, uses four examples to make his point... The desire to touch sexually, to eat, to own, and to command — each of these is an instance of what Shaftesbury means by interest. ... a genuine appreciation of the beauty at hand must be disinterested, free from the dominance of those desires or interests." (Westphal, p. 131)

Shaftesbury "seeks to refute the Hobbesian claim that ‘interest rules the world,’ that we are machines fueled solely by self-interest. Hobbes’ is a general theory of human behavior, not an aesthetics, and Shaftesbury is especially eager to dispute it in relation to moral and religious behavior, to show that self-interest is ‘an obstacle to piety, as well as to virtue’ and that there is more to be found in them than just another ‘bargain of interest.’" (Westphal, p. 135)

Merold Westphal. God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion. (1984) Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

'A River in Darkness': Masaji Ishikawa's escape from North Korea

A River in Darkness, a memoir to be released Jan. 1, 2018, is a harrowing account of a man's immigration to North Korea in 1960 and his escape back to Japan in 1996.

Korean-Japanese immigration to North Korea, 1959-1984

Masaji Ishikawa grew up in Japan with a Korean father and a Japanese mother. In Japan, Koreans "were at the bottom of the pile" socioeconomically and were discriminated against. They were originally brought to Imperial Japan "to serve as slave laborers and, later, cannon fodder," and by the mid-twentieth century Japan feared that this group "might become a source of social unrest".

When North Korea's leader, Kim Il-sung, who presented himself as the liberator of North Korea from South Korea and the United States, said he would welcome expatriate Koreans into the socialist country he was building, many people took the offer. Ishikawa called it "a mass repatriation campaign in the guise of humanitarianism" which, from Japan's perspective, "was a solution to a problem. Nothing more." North Korea, for its part, needed laborers to rebuild following the Korean War. In 1959, the Red Cross Societies of Japan and Korea negotiated the details, and soon after, people began emigrating from Japan to North Korea by boat. About a hundred thousand people made this journey until 1984. They were promised a better quality of life than they could reasonably expect in Japan.

Arriving at North Korea's immigration hub in 1960, the six-member Ishikawa family was given a single cold room and was not permitted to leave the center. Ishikawa, then a teenager, immediately noticed that the residents "were infinitely poorer than we’d ever been during our tough life in Japan." The promised "year's supply of rice" given to his father was mostly inferior grain. In general, the Koreans from Japan were not welcomed warmly as immigrants. The usual term for them was "Japanese bastards."

Work and ideology

In North Korea, adults were expected to work in conformity with the motto: "No work, no dinner." Officially, able-bodied people were to be given 700 grams of food each day, and the elderly and sick were to be given less than half that, but in actuality people who didn't work were given nothing. The state distributed food to people who had officially recognized jobs. Ishikawa's mother never had an official job because she only spoke Japanese, not Korean. She assisted childbirths and gathered mushrooms and firewood. For many others, the most likely alternative to an official job was becoming a thief or vagrant. "So old people had to work until they died. They truly did."

Children were also expected to work. For example, the school expected the children to produce two rabbit pelts each year. Rabbits were difficult to catch, and each pelt was worth about two weeks' of an average worker's income at the market. Ishikawa performed physically strenuous farm work as a teenager.

Ishikawa was a member of the Youth League. They were required to pledge allegiance to Kim Il-sung and socialism and were given membership cards. His birthday on April 15 was the biggest national holiday and in the 1960s resulted in a ration of pork, fruit and dessert for each family. When Kim Il-sung committed an atrocity, people rationalized it with whataboutist comparisons: "'Remember the time of Japanese colonial rule!' 'Never forget the cruelty of American imperialism!'" A stray comment against North Korea's leadership or principles could result in hard labor, a concentration camp, or execution. (He said: "I never witnessed a public execution myself, but it wouldn’t surprise me.") The ideological way of doing things was always called Juche, which could be translated as "self-reliance, autonomy, independence, or responsibility — all the things we weren’t allowed to have....that’s always the way with totalitarian regimes. Language gets turned on its head. Serfdom is freedom. Repression is liberation. A police state is a democratic republic. And we were 'the masters of our destiny.' And if we begged to differ, we were dead." Everyone was told that the US occupied South Korea. US intervention in Korean national boundaries was blamed for North Korea's starvation. The North Koreans were told that the solution was to unite with South Korea, but they were given inconsistent information about whether South Korea was also starving. To him, this made no sense: If both nations were starving, unity could not save them, and if only one nation was starving, it wasn't obvious how only the U.S. and not North Korea itself was to blame.

Standard of living

None of the houses had bathtubs, and he resented that he couldn't bathe daily. His family installed their own makeshift bathtub and changed their clothes daily. The neighbors, "native" North Koreans, perceived these hygiene habits as "Japanese decadence." The neighbors also resented that the Ishikawa house had a tile roof. Conditions worsened over time. Three-and-a-half decades later he noted that "Turning the light on at night in North Korea was tantamount to high treason."

Once, after hosting a party and inviting officials, the Ishikawa family's house burned down. The same officials responded to the family's request for aid the next day: “we will grant you special dispensation to cut down some trees so that you can build a new house for your family. That is the party’s pronouncement." They also gathered their own stones, mud, and straw. They were left with two outfits each and no underwear.

Among the initial promises by North Korea to Japanese immigrants were free healthcare and free education. Neither of these were realities. Doctors demanded bribes of money or cigarettes. University education was only made available to those to whom the party wanted to give it. Toward the end of high school, Ishikawa was told that he'd been assigned to the lowest of three castes — presumably because he was Japanese, and having nothing to do with his academic effort — and so would not be able to attend university. Instead, he was asked what trade he would like to pursue. He said he'd like to work in a factory, but he was assigned to work on a farm. Farming was frustrating to him. Farmers were required by party ideology to plant rice very close together, ostensibly for efficiency, even though most farmers knew that rice needed more space to thrive. Crops failed year after year. Also, regardless of what farmers produced, the party took the entire crop and gave farmers a fixed ration of food. (In the early 1990s, the last few years of Kim Il-sung's life, this was less than was given to party officials, and less in actuality than was officially promised.) This meant that workers had no incentive to do their jobs well and indeed were often punished severely for attempting innovations. They could be fired for making comments or suggestions, and loss of a job could mean starvation. Workers had to attend twice-weekly ideology meetings, sometimes until ten o'clock at night. Anyone who missed a meeting was "put under surveillance by the secret police."

Famine and escape in 1996

In one moment when he decided he could not bear to be around people anymore, he asked to be transferred from his farm job to a more isolated job as a charcoal burner far away. While few people would have wanted such a job, it gave him more freedom: "The party didn’t seem to care whether I was alive or dead. To them, I ceased to exist altogether."

His family stories are at the extremes of survival: Selling blood to buy rice, childbirth without medical assistance, burying an infant whose mother had been too weak to feed it and for whom it had been difficult to afford a little cornstarch and rice to make a weak formula, stealing work pants off a clothesline to replace the work pants on a corpse to give it more dignity in burial, an old man beaten to death after being tricked by a thug and a cop, a man being cut down from a noose while trying to hang himself. In the famine of the early 1990s, children stopped going to school to help search for food. They boiled plant substances found in the woods that were fatally toxic if not prepared correctly, tasted terrible, and caused painful constipation. Corpses lay unclaimed in the road. Ishikawa says he believed rumors of cannibalism. In 1995 people were given no grain ration at all, and his family collected acorns to survive the winter. From eating weeds,

"our faces grew swollen, and our urine turned red or even blue. We all suffered from chronic diarrhea. We couldn’t even walk in that condition. No one thought or talked about anything except food....When you’re starving to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose. Once your lips disappear, your teeth are bared all the time, like a snarling dog. Your nose is reduced to a pair of nostrils. I wish desperately that I didn’t know these things, but I do."

In 1996, he made a successful break across the border into China. Getting caught on either side of the border would have meant execution. He identified himself as "the first" to have escaped North Korea (he is indeed one of only a few) and managed to convince Japan to take him home, although he had partly forgotten how to speak Japanese. The Japanese government asked him not to admit that he was helped. "The Japanese government still hasn’t officially admitted that I ever returned to Japan at all," he said. He has been able to send a little money back to surviving relatives in North Korea but has not been able to rescue them.

What got him through

He said "I didn’t really believe in God" but, in the worst of times, would — and still does — pray for a better outcome. What really helped, though, was a general will to survive despite occasional flashes of hopelessness. Being the recipient of a single act of human generosity in dire circumstances "reminded me what it was to be a human being. And I came to recognize that, no matter how difficult the reality, you mustn’t let yourself be beaten. You must have a strong will. You have to summon what you know is right from your innermost depths and follow it."

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Will organized religion 'take ownership' of the President?

Thoughts on this book:

The main learning I took away from Stephen Mansfield's Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him (Baker Books, 2017) was the personal influence of Norman Vincent Peale over Donald Trump as a young man. Apart from this biographical detail, I struggled with complex reactions to this book. It didn't hit the nail on the head but neither did it have fatal flaws.

Mansfield appears to tread a fine line between heavily criticizing President Trump for transparently ridiculous behavior that cannot but be criticized and yet grasping for biographical details — if only, perhaps, in the interest of fairness or charity — that make Trump seem like a heavyweight who can coherently assume, if not deserve, the mantle of the President of the United States. Most readers will probably feel that the author goes too far in one direction or the other in its opposition or support for the President. Mansfield acknowledges says the book he's written is "dangerous" (at least for its publisher) because it "critiques a sitting president" yet also "takes [the president] seriously" when he is deeply unpopular. This nebulous idea of taking the president seriously makes the book a little maddening or bewildering. What exactly does it mean to take Trump seriously? He is a wealthy celebrity who has made high-stakes business transactions throughout his life and got elected president. He has a biography similar to others who grew up in a wealthy family. He has psychology and motivations that, like any other human's, can be examined, analyzed, and interpreted. In that regard, the book takes him seriously. But I am not certain that the book — which doesn't mention global climate change or the North Korean nuclear tensions — fully and directly engages the extent of the influence the president has on others and the lasting damage he can do to the nation and the world.

On a related point, the author does not directly reveal his own religious and political beliefs. (At his most explicitly theological, he writes of "the good that courageous voices of faith can do. If they will set themselves to tell the truth, if they will remember that they are emissaries from another land, they can remind leaders — who are too often mired in the temporal — of higher purposes and surer boundaries. They have the power to fix vision upon the eternal.") What peeks through occasionally is a form of political moderateness that rings either a bit insincere or underinformed. For example, on “the all-important issue of race,” he says that the president has delivered “at least racially inappropriate if not outright racist statements on many an occasion.” If one really believes the issue is all-important, the president's well-documented outright racism should be easy to call out. "Inappropriate" is far too mild a word, unless one believes that racial justice and race relations are mostly about being well-mannered (and thus not genuinely all-important). For another example, the author describes the record of Barack Obama on LGBT rights and the position of Hillary Clinton on abortion rights as “extreme.” It is hard to tell if that is his personal view or if he is reflecting how he thinks many religious people perceive them. But, again, if you really believe in LGBT rights and abortion rights, defending them is not "extreme." Trying to toe some kind of moderate line in these contexts doesn't work very well, especially if you don't attempt to explain what your view is and exactly why you believe it to be fair and good despite its avoidance of the "extremes" of nondiscrimination and liberation movements. Mushing around the topic results in a kind of diplomacy that, while trying to be polite and reassuring, achieves the opposite. This undefined moderate stance, perhaps attempting to represent neutrality, does not help the reader understand the author's view and therefore it muddies his moral portrait of the president because it is hard to understand exactly where his points of disagreement are.

The analysis ends at events that happened shortly after the January 2017 inauguration, but the book was not released until Oct. 3. The details of Trump's tumultuous first year in office could not have been anticipated, so Mansfield does not address how bad the presidency really is, and therefore the book will strike many readers as a little tone-deaf. For example, the problem of the president's persistent falsehoods is ever more serious and means something different as he approaches a year in office. The Washington Post counted "1,628 false or misleading claims" through mid-November. We are no longer mainly interested in evaluating his character to know whether to vote for him or to predict how he will govern; we are (or should be) interested in how the government is now being run and how foreign relations are being conducted. We have passed the point where his character flaws are impacting people's lives and causing lasting damage.

True, the purpose of the book is only incidentally, and not primarily, to do the three things discussed in the previous paragraphs — respectfully and seriously assess the president as a full human being who has lived over 70 years on Earth, project one's own moral beliefs to judge how he handles his current role, or concretely assess from a historian's viewpoint what he has accomplished since his inauguration — but rather to explain, as its subtitle announces, "why Christian conservatives supported him" in the election. This it does in a general sense. The answer provided is: Because they were angry and Trump's personality appealed to them. The book is far more about Trump than it is about the Christians who supported him. For a sociological study of those Christians, I recommend The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones, released four months before the 2016 election, a book that Mansfield unfortunately doesn't reference.

Trump's Character

First, this is a man who "has lived the life of a celebrated hedonist."

He developed a "juvenile" obsession with the size of the crowds who came to see him. "When he spoke at Liberty University in 2016, his first words had to do with breaking an attendance record. He was in a church service at the time."

He avoids taking expert advice. As a result, his wife Melania's inaugural speech was plagiarized from Michelle Obama's eight years earlier. Melania's interesting life story was "worthy of a great speech" and there was no reason for her to "borrow from the one person on the planet from whom she most needed to distinguish herself". Mansfield believes this was an accident due to incompetence, and he attributes it to Donald Trump's reliance on advice and assistance from a disordered family team where "[n]o one was put in charge." A professional speechwriter would never have made such a sophomoric error.

He also likes to fight. At school, he threw things and needed constant attention. He has asserted that his own "temperament" hasn't changed much since first grade. In second grade, he disagreed with a lesson and gave his teacher a black eye. In business, he said that "most people aren’t worthy of respect” and in Think Big he wrote, "You need to screw them back fifteen times harder...go for the jugular, attack them in spades!" At his campaign rallies, he incited violence.

Americans note his "almost complete lack of the character that is usually the fruit of sincere religion." Americans expect that a president's character is fixed by the time he or she is elected, unlike the Pope whose ordination transforms him, and, when considering Trump, a "deeply imperfect man" with apparent "deformities" and "oddities," the thought of him remaining the same "can be a disturbing experience."

Influence of Norman Vincent Peale

The famous religious leader Norman Vincent Peale was Trump's greatest personal mentor during formative years, and in return Peale called Trump his "greatest student of all time." Even though this faith "largely failed him [Trump] as both a public and a private man," he returned to these roots in the 2016 campaign, revealing "a softening in religious matters". The nature of this softening is not clearly identified.

Peale was one of the earliest promoters of "the power of positive thinking" as demonstrated in his book of the same title. "Peale believed, for example, that 'attitudes are more important than facts,'” Mansfield writes. If "true religion" is defined as the "ultimate concern" that passionately animates a person's thoughts, words, and actions (as Paul Tillich proposed), then Trump's true religion is “self,” “winning,” “being rich,” and “being the best.” This is inspired by Peale, who showed him "a religion of empowerment, not of transformation." Mansfield sees limitation in this approach. As he explains it, adding what seems to be his own theological commentary: "Trump took from this that it is God’s will to carry him further in the direction he was already going. He did not understand from his time under Peale’s ministry that God empowers a man only after he remakes him."

(For a similar take on Peale's influence, see this short video featuring Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps.)

Ignorance of religion

Speaking to pollster Frank Luntz, Trump was unable to name anyone in the Bible he admired, and, when asked for his personal beliefs about God, "he spoke at length about buying a golf course." Asked by a radio host to name a favorite Bible verse or story, he babbled and the only thing he could come up with was "an eye for an eye." He said he'd never asked God for forgiveness and was unable to say whether he preferred the Old or New Testament. To Fox News, he identified himself as "Presbyterian" but "also busy." In church, where he said he went mainly for Christmas and Easter, he seemed not to recognize a communion plate. Addressing Liberty University, he showed off his baptism photo and certificate but had no personal conversion story. Moreover, Mansfield believes, the students saw that Trump's vengeful attitude in business and past marital difficulties did not align with their idea of Christianity and they had hoped to see "'fruit,' evidence of a life changed by conversion and modeled on the message of Jesus Christ." "It was, in short, the worst presentation of religion by a presidential candidate in recent memory," Mansfield opined.

Yet Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, in 2012 called Trump “the greatest visionary of our time.” This seems key to understand. Why was he elevating Trump, if Trump was so ignorant of religion? What did he hope to get? Mansfield addresses this.

Why religious conservatives wanted Trump

First, they

"were traumatized by the Obama years and fearful a second Clinton presidency would mean more of the same. They would back anyone who could win. They would take a nonbeliever. They would accept a candidate of doubtful morality. They were even willing to risk racial and gender offense on the part of their candidate. They could not endure more years of bombardment from a religious left intent upon remaking the nation."

Exactly how they thought liberals in power would "remake the nation," and why that was more exhausting or existentially more threatening to them than ordinary policy disagreements, is not made clear in this book.

They were angry — that much is made clear. They had a sense of being

"sidelined by history and feared their country as they knew it was slipping away. They wanted change, at nearly any cost, and they looked beyond more experienced candidates to set their hopes upon the sharp-tongued, hard-hitting, angry-as-they-were billionaire from New York. He won them by promising to give their country back to them and to win a future for their children. They believed him, largely because he spoke of faith like a crusader, like one who understood religion as a perpetual call to arms."

In 2016, voters wanted the angry candidate. They asked themselves: "Who best gave voice to our political rage? Who best channeled the anger that kept us up at night? Who was the standard-bearer of our wrath?" When they saw Trump, they felt "they would take him, flaws and all, if he would help them take their nation back."

Donald Trump publicly announced early on in the campaign that he felt he could do better with religious people than Hillary Clinton could. Mansfield wonders why Clinton did not pay closer attention to this and act on it. After all, she "possessed a deeper religious history and wider religious knowledge, and was more articulate in expressing her faith than her opponent" yet she managed to "neglect" those voters. Her choice to give her first speech after receiving the Democratic nomination at a Planned Parenthood event may have been principled, but it wasn't savvy.

Religious people were attracted to how Trump "speaks publicly in the same way that millions of Americans do around kitchen tables, at bars, and among their closest friends. Crass, insulting, bullying, sometimes ill-informed, always opinionated, usually prejudiced, Donald Trump is very much the private voice of millions of Americans." Mansfield continued: "When Trump declared at the 2016 GOP convention, 'I am your voice,' he meant it mainly in an economic sense. Yet he may have inadvertently stated a broader truth. He is a supercharged version of what America has become." This is well put, but it's not obvious what it has to do with religion. Plenty of people are ill-informed and have reason to be angry. Religion, in its most noble self-declared intentions, is supposed to do battle with the ego and replace it with humility and patience. Are white Christians angrier than everyone else? Why? And why do they think, more than anyone else, that Trump is the answer?

(One possible answer I found: Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, wrote in May 2017 that today's American Protestant evangelical "religious fervor...is not born of traditional, innocent faith" but is rather "intellectualized" and "highly politicized". They are suffering from "an alienating hyper-commercial culture" that breeds "emotional insecurity." Evangelical support for Trump is transactional; what they seek is "community and identity".)

Moreover, Mansfield omits the early sexual harassment accusations against Trump and other politicians. The most he says is that Trump's "treatment of women was sometimes obscene" including occasional "disparaging" or "raunchy terms" for them. It seems he is mincing words out of a sense of propriety. The president has said worse things about women than Mansfield is willing to print. This is a book about voters, so everyone is over 18, and we need to address our adult issues head-on. If we can't call out big issues like this, then it is hard to figure out why people voted the way they did in the past; if we can't say what should be done differently in the future, then it is hard to know why we care why anyone voted the way they did in the past. Sexual morality used to be a matter of concern for religious voters. Now something has changed. Sexual harassment and the changing response to it has become part of the zeitgeist, such that the many women who reported harassment were named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2017. We need to understand the religious conservative response — or, more accurately, the lack thereof — to abusive behavior by men in the Republican Party. Why is it tolerated? Why don't such accusations hurt candidates at all today? (Marie Griffith recently called it an "extreme politicization of Christianity" and said that evangelicalism "has become so focused on power.")

Trump does like being gently challenged by people he trusts, and so the "reticence to urge him toward a broader faith and deeper character was unfortunate...The religious leaders who surrounded him in the 2016 campaign might have been just such teammates, had they been willing to take the risk of calling him to a more vibrant Christian faith."

Ed Simon wrote on Dec. 31, 2017 of the large majority of white evangelicals who voted for Trump and Moore that it is human nature to resist or abandon the demanding ”countercultural” commitment of Christianity and to betray the faith "for thirty pieces of silver." The irony he sees is that, since the evangelicalism of Reagan’s time, "many apocalyptic minded conservative Christians made a sort of prophetic parlor game out of conjecturing who the potential anti-Christ could be. Figures from Hal Lindsey, to Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, and Jerry Falwell often fingered world leaders or liberal politicians as being in league with Satan. An irony since if the anti-Christ is supposed to be a manipulative, powerful, smooth-talking demagogue with the ability to sever people from their most deeply held beliefs who would be a better candidate than the seemingly indestructible Trump?" Simon does not wish to identify a "literal ant-Christ" but worries that so many Christians "seem to lack the self-awareness to identify something so anti-Christian in Trump himself. Or worse yet, they certainly recognize it, but don’t care."

How much of our differences are due to religion and how much to race?

Words like “white,” “black,” “African-American,” “Hispanic,” and “race/racial” — used in their racial sense and not in other senses like “race for the White House” — occur, in total, about 75 times throughout the book. That is to say that the subject of race is addressed substantially but isn’t the main focus. The term "white supremacy" doesn't appear at all. Many people have come up with the answer that white people voted for Trump because they are white but this is not quite the same answer Mansfield finds. He recognizes that Trump supporters are mostly white, but he wants to focus on religion. It's fine if he has a different conclusion or passionate interest. The question for me is how well he makes his case. For an entire book focusing on how Christians vote, the words “Protestant” (6), “Catholic” (7), and “evangelical” (20), alongside “Jew” (8) and “Muslim” (8), seem relatively underused. And I am including the bibliography. (These demographics are critical to understand because, as Pew Research found, three-fifths of white Catholics and four-fifths of white evangelicals voted Trump over Clinton, but for Hispanic Catholics it was the other way around, and black Protestants preferred Clinton almost nine-to-one. The vote looks more predictable along color lines than along theological lines.) When I find myself searching an ebook I’ve just finished for keywords so I can retroactively piece together the themes, it underscores for me that something was a little off from my experience as a reader.

Johnson Amendment

As someone who likes to fight, Trump could not understand why clergy did not pick political fights from the pulpit even when they felt themselves "under attack in nearly every arena of American culture." Some clergymembers explained to Trump that they could not make political statements or endorse candidates due to an IRS restriction called the Johnson Amendment. Trump "saw an opportunity both to right what he considered a moral wrong and to unchain a vast army of influential supporters. The Johnson Amendment had to go." He announced this on stage in Dallas on Feb. 26, 2016. The crowd was elated to see an atypically secular candidate nevertheless recognizing their needs and rising to meet them. In so doing, "Trump could win support from some of the nation’s most powerful religious leaders." After his election, he told his evangelical advisory council: "The only way I’m going to get to heaven is by repealing the Johnson Amendment." (One of the members corrected him on that theological point.)

Joy-Ann Reid didn't mention the Johnson Amendment in Fracture in which she traces the current manifestation of racial/political polarization to Johnson's election to the presidency, ten years after the Johnson Amendment was passed. Johnson's rival, Barry Goldwater, was a racially polarizing figure. By the time of the election, religious leaders had been ten years' silenced about political campaigns, thanks to the previous work of Johnson, who was a Democrat, and the last Democratic presidential candidate ever to win a majority of white voters. He got 59 percent of the white vote, but his popularity declined while he was in office, and, in the next election, the Democrat got only 38 percent of the white vote. The man behind the Johnson Amendment may explain why, to this day, it is white evangelical leaders who object most vocally to this rule.

Neither did Robert P. Jones mention the Johnson Amendment in The End of White Christian America. He spoke instead about the broader issue of so-called "religious liberty," emblematized by the example of Christian bakers who are asked to provide wedding cakes for same-sex couples. This would allow the freedom to refrain from speaking or acting in the way ordinarily required by antidiscrimination law, whereas the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would allow the freedom to actively speak or act. These are different problems. The complete absence of the Johnson Amendment from Jones' book, plus the self-undermining assertion by Mansfield that most Americans, including the religious, "not only do not understand what the Johnson Amendment is but may not wish it abolished once they do understand it," makes me curious to confirm the importance of the Johnson Amendment in the minds of evangelicals today. If they don't know what it is, they can't be angry about it, much less be willing to negotiate its repeal in exchange for willfully discarding their fervently held beliefs about, say, sexual harassment and assault and public morality and piety for politicians. My sense is that Mansfield meant that it is mainly the religious leaders who are aware of and concerned about the restriction.

Christianity Today reported in December 2017:

"...overall, most evangelical leaders — and most people in the pews — did not want to see pastors endorsing politicians. Among the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), 90 percent of its board of directors, including the leaders of major denominations and ministries, said they opposed pulpit endorsements in a survey conducted earlier this year.

A LifeWay Research survey conducted during the 2016 campaign found that 73 percent of Americans with evangelical beliefs said pastors should abstain from endorsing candidates, and about 65 percent said churches overall should abstain."

Repealing the Johnson Amendment is not the only way religious people can feel powerful. Mansfield praises, by contrast, "the art of prophetic distance" through which a religious leader delivers a message and models right action to political candidates without endorsing any candidate over another.

Furthermore, Mansfield observes that, if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, then liberal as well as conservative clergy can become politically active. Indeed, most of them, Mansfield believes, "are more left-leaning and will become champions for the other side. Trump may be dealing both himself — if and when he runs for a second term — and other conservatives a difficult hand to play."

What does it mean to take ownership?

Mansfield believes that "the religious voices Trump allows a hearing" may be able to hold sway "between the better angels of human nature and the lesser spirits that lurk in the dark". He warns that for clergy "[t]o support Donald Trump without caveat, to extol him as chosen by God without identifying what is morally objectionable in his politics and behavior, is much the same as extolling American culture without expressing any moral reservation." If religious leaders are not "courageous" and "true," then "they may pay a great price and draw the ire of later generations for being cowardly and unprincipled — all while owning Donald Trump."

But what does it mean to "own" him? The word suggests to me that they already have a particular level of influence over him as well as the future ability to take credit and blame for his deeds. It also suggests to me that Trump has somehow insinuated himself into the religion so that the ownership is mutual. Mansfield does not pinpoint the level or scope of influence nor does he anticipate exactly who might need to apologize for what in the future or, more pressingly, who might be able to fix it. If there is a catastrophe and the best we can hope for is a public apology, then "owning Donald Trump" isn't a very high stakes wager for the faithful to take. This is what we really need to know: not only why white Christians voted for Trump, but what everyone is going to do right now as 2018 rolls in about the terrible mess we are in and how we are going to avoid a similar outcome in the 2020 election.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Roy Moore's movement to promote the Ten Commandments in American civic life

For years, there has been a movement to place large monuments representing the Ten Commandments outside U.S. courthouses. An activist in this movement is Roy Moore, who is currently running to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate in tomorrow's election (Dec. 12, 2017).

Roy Moore's monument

In August 2003, Alabama's Judicial Inquiry Commission suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore because he refused to obey a federal court order to remove a 2.6-ton granite Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama state judicial building. Moore claimed that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of U.S. law. "Moore installed the privately funded monument in the early hours of August 1, 2001, without consulting any of the other justices on the Alabama Supreme Court," according to CNN. He personally supervised the installation. Three Alabama attorneys claimed offense and sued in October 2001. In 2002, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in favor of the attorneys and, upon Moore's appeal, in July 2003 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of the attorneys. Moore was given a deadline of August 20, 2003 to remove the monument. A week in advance of that deadline, he argued: "It is not a question of whether I will disobey or obey a court order. The real question is whether or not I will deny the God that created us." Responding to a last-minute appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to involve itself in the case.

Moore did not comply with the order to remove the monument and he was suspended with pay. The monument was moved out of public view on Aug. 27 and, the next day, about a thousand supporters of Moore rallied at the building. Rev. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, addressed the crowd: "The separation of church and state is not in the Constitution." Dobson also complained about rulings against prayer in public schools, abortion rights, and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, attributed these rulings to "activist judge[s]" and said: "The symbolism as well as the substance of this moment cannot escape us. One federal judge has placed the Ten Commandments in a closet. That came after the United States Supreme Court recently welcomed everything else out of the closet." Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove offered to display the monument at the Mississippi capitol building for a week "to show support for our common Judeo-Christian heritage."

It was not Moore's first time doing this:

"Moore was a circuit judge in Etowah County, northeast of Birmingham, in the late 1990s when he fought a lawsuit seeking to remove a wooden plaque depicting the commandments from his courtroom.

The legal battle propelled him to statewide office in 2000, when the Republican jurist was elected chief justice after campaigning as the 'Ten Commandments Judge.'" [CNN, 8/28/2003]

Choosing a version of the Ten Commandments to display, Bob Minor wrote in 2003, “is to take sides in centuries-old battles between Protestants and Catholics as well as in the history of anti-Semitism” and, furthermore, to accept the final commandment in its entirety is to accept a definition of property that includes a man’s “slaves, his animals, his land, and also his wife.“

As a result of Moore's 2003 protest, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed him from office in November 2003.

He returned to the bench when he was elected Alabama's Chief Justice in 2012. The previous year, he had expressed interest in running for President, but his early campaign in 2011 did not succeed.

Influence throughout the nation

In 2003, the city of Casper, Wyoming voted to move a Ten Commandments monument out of a public park where it had been since 1965 and into a separate plaza to be dedicated to showcasing history. The city had been threatened with two lawsuits: one from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and one from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. The latter wanted to install their own monument in the park to announce that a gay victim of a hate crime was burning in hell.

In 2006, the Christian ministry Faith and Action built a large granite monument outside its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The headquarters are located behind the U.S. Supreme Court, and "the group's president said the tablets were angled so that justices arriving at the high court would see them." It was vandalized in 2013.

In 2011, in Ohio, Judge James DeWeese, upon being challenged by the ACLU, removed a poster of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and replaced it with a poster called “Philosophies of Law in Conflict” [see it here] that contrasted the Ten Commandments with the “humanist precept” of "moral relativism." The poster asserted that there are “only two views: either God is the final authority, and we acknowledge His unchanging standards of behavior. Or man is the final authority, and standards of behavior change at the whim of individuals or societies.” The 6th Circuit ruled against DeWeese, who was represented by Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. (The ACLU had previously sued DeWeese in 2000 and 2008 for similar displays.)

In 2012, two state representatives in Tennessee, Mike Bell and Matthew Hill, "introduced a bill authorizing counties and cities to set up displays of 'historical documents and monuments and writings' that have been 'recognized to commemorate freedom and the rich history of Tennessee and the United States.'" Bell said that "the Ten Commandments would be one of them." [read the bill] Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said that the other documents mentioned in the bill were already legal to display, so the bill was only aimed at permitting the display of the Ten Commandments. Lynn pointed out that Protestants, Catholics and Jews recognize separate versions of the Commandments; half of the commandments are not reflected in current laws; and it is "absolutely false" that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of the nation's law.

In 2012, Oklahoma City placed a 6-foot-tall granite Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol in late 2012. (Two years later, a man who claimed to be mentally ill and off his meds and on a mission from Satan pissed on it and drove his car into it, and then walked into the federal building and threatened President Obama and the federal government.)

In 2013, American Atheists designed a 1,500-pound granite monument for the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Fla. in response to a Ten Commandments monument that had been placed there the previous year by an organization called Community Men's Fellowship. Bradford County agreed to allow the atheist monument following court-ordered mediation. (The county's attorney said: "What the atheists agreed to is something they could have originally been approved for without a year of money and litigation.") The atheist monument was funded by Stiefel Freethought Foundation and was to have "quotes related to secularism from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair" and the Treaty of Tripoli. American Atheists director of regional operations Ken Loukinen said: "We'd rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the Ten Commandments, we will have our own." Community Men’s Fellowship posted a statement on Facebook acknowledging that “this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don't be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It's their right.” In 2014, Florida's Levy County, which already had a Ten Commandments monument outside its courthouse, denied a request by the local group Williston Atheists to build a monument similar to the one in Bradford County. The Levy County Commissioners said that the proposed atheist monument did not meet county guidelines because the quotations in the intended design were incomplete.

In 2017, a new Ten Commandments monument outside the Arkansas state capitol was intentionally destroyed by a man who drove his car into it. It was the same man who had driven his car into the Oklahoma monument several years earlier.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

'Invasion of the Body Snatchers': Vulnerability and American Identity

Originally posted 27 August 2007 to the JVoices blog which will be taken offline soon.

In Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, alien seed pods fall to earth, grow next to sleeping people, produce emotionless clones of their bodies, and finally destroy the original humans. It is impossible to distinguish a cloned body from the original body, except that something is behaviorally amiss: they show no facial expressions and take no interest in anything other than their assigned tasks. The clones seem to have no purpose except to cultivate more seed pods to grow more of their kind. To this end, they communicate with each other swiftly and ruthlessly, through unseen channels. Their goal is world domination. Occasionally they attempt to justify this to humans by explaining that they are relieving humanity of its suffering. Finney’s novel was quickly made into a sci-fi film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and spawned a color remake in 1978.

Many interpreted the story as a social or political commentary, particularly in the wake of McCarthyism, when neighbors suspected each other of being secret Communists. In his essay published in Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, Robert Eberwein points to the different zeitgeists of the original film and the ’78 remake, and suggests a meaningful distinction between the symbolism of the “pod people” in the first film–with their implication of being swept up by some diabolical mass movement and losing free moral agency–and those in the second film, which “concentrated on conformity and surrendering the capacity to feel”.

This year, 2007, brings us the special effects remake. Without even seeing The Invasion, the first thing we notice is that “Body Snatchers” has been dropped from the title. That’s because there are no pods or “pod people” anymore. The alien pandemic now strikes in the form of an illness that renders its victim unconscious to his or her former self, and yet walking, talking, and ruthlessly coordinating the infection of more humans.

The film has also been updated to reflect the current world security situation and the violence reported via television and radio news every day. We are reminded, at the beginning of the movie, that suicide bombs exploding in the Middle East are causing massive casualties, and there are diplomatic standoffs in North Korea. We also see a Russian and Czech diplomat sniping at each other at a dinner party. These sorts of concerns contrast with the relatively peaceful, domestic lives of the well-to-do, white American protagonists.

After the alien sickness descends and turns people into mindless automatons, the world situation flips upside down. The U.S. city portrayed in the film becomes the scene of riots and general lawlessness because of the infected pursuing the uninfected. The police are the first to cross over, and when they show up it is only to drag someone off to forcibly infect them, so no one is able to call for help. But everywhere else on Earth (if the television reports are to be trusted), infected people have installed an instantaneous and permanent peace with each other.

The difference could be explained with some midrashic effort. Perhaps the infected journalists deliberately painted a rosy picture of other countries, or perhaps it is possible for peace to be waged when only the highest government officials are infected with a virus that takes the form of mutual cooperation. But the film does not offer such explanations. What we actually see is a violent West and a peaceful East. And this is portrayed as an unacceptable, unnatural flip.

There are layers of “otherness” depicted in the film. One sort is nationality. We (Americans) eat breakfast with our families in nice clean kitchens; they (foreigners in the Eastern hemisphere) blow each other up. The other sort is the infection. We (humans) are unique, special, emotive; they (infected half-aliens) are uncanny and doll-like. These two sorts of otherness are interwoven in the following way: Normal humans are vulnerable and must endure daily life with a measure of fear. The infected humans lack this fear. Ironically, the humans fear losing their fear. Their vulnerability defines them; because of it, they exist and have identity. What they are ultimately most vulnerable to is the loss of their vulnerability. This vulnerability is also a peculiarly American theme, where, in the expected order of things, people from other countries are expected to actually be vulnerable and occasionally blow each other up, while Americans are only expected to feel vulnerable as part of their civic duty.

If McCarthyism was an interpretation for the 1950s, and social conformism was an interpretation for the 1970s, then a cultivated xenophobia in the name of self-preservation is an interpretation for 2007. Ever since the US suffered a terrorist attack, many have felt that the government and the media have tried to flash-freeze and cultivate fear in us. Six years later, the same enduring fear has started to become part of our culture and our very identity as Americans. Look how different regions respond to the alien invasion in the movie: the Middle East becomes quiet, Asia has peace treaties, but a continuous riot is launched in the name of catching the last remaining uninfected humans in the metropolitan United States and forcing them to be peaceful like everyone else on the planet. The horror! Run, don’t walk!

The aliens invaded. They came to bring peace. Peace stole our American identity. What is the identity and what is the mission we are trying to save?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Why the American president is a 'Despot's Apprentice'

According to Brian Klaas, who has studied despots and their victims in many countries, Donald Trump isn’t a despot — yet. He was democratically elected and is bound to the institutions of U.S. democracy. Yet much of what protects democracy are people’s expectations, not law. In “careening through the soft guardrails of American democracy,” the president “is corrupting political norms, as Americans gradually come to accept previously unacceptable behavior.” Ultimately the Constitution is “ink on a piece of parchment.” People must be responsible for upholding democracy.

How can we understand what Trump is doing and where he is leading the country? Klaas explains it in his excellent new book, The Despot's Apprentice, a lively and enjoyable read despite its grim diagnosis.

Distinguishing himself through unusually harmful deeds, hateful words, and useless noise

He does things that most other U.S. politicians of any party would never do. During the campaign, his staff tweeted an anti-Semitic meme of the Star of David, stacks of money, and the word “corrupt.” Trump never apologized; his Jewish son-in-law covered publicly for him. Trump attempted to prevent Muslims from entering the US, refused to release tax returns, criticizes Democratic opponents more severely than foreign leaders, and has refused to clearly condemn domestic hate groups. He has tweeted approximately 1,000 times about “ratings,” “crowds,” and “Fox and Friends” (a television show that “offer[s] only overwhelmingly positive coverage of his administration, even in the midst of its most egregious scandals”) but only 40 times about Afghanistan, 12 times about poverty, and about “human rights only once—to mock them”.

Sowing distrust of the press

Trump deliberately turns public opinion against journalists. As Klaas puts it, for a despot, “[w]hen you can’t bend the press to your will, the next best thing is to bend public opinion against the press itself.” In one poll, only 9 percent of Republican voters said they trust the press generally, and a large majority of Republican voters said they would trust information from Trump above information from longstanding respected news outlets (whether liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning).

In March 2017, Trump tweeted “Change libel laws?”, meaning he wanted to make it easier to prosecute the press for unflattering coverage, given that the New York Times has “gotten me wrong for two solid years.” Klaas pointed out that the complaint was about “’wrong’ analysis or interpretations of him” and not malicious or deceptive reporting. Prosecuting the press ought to be difficult to avoid a chilling effect; this is part of longstanding First Amendment interpretation. In June, Trump tweeted a threat against Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, to inflict sales tax on Amazon because he doesn’t like the coverage in the Washington Post. Another despot might think to threaten “something other than,” Klaas quipped, “a tax they already pay.”

The New York Times reported that a senior administration official discussed using the potential merger as “leverage” against CNN. “In other words,” Klaas said, “they are openly acknowledging a terrible conflict of interest—even embracing it, contemplating an egregious abuse of power—in order to threaten CNN into submission.” More childishly, Trump retweeted a video showing a person with “CNN” over his face being punched. The Internet user who modified the video had the word “Asshole” in his username and had also posted numerous comments “using the N-word and joking about killing African-Americans.” Trump thereby “amplified the voice of a racist who joked about murder while endorsing a culture permissive of violence against media representatives”.

Legitimizing outlets that lie

Years ago, Joseph Farah claimed that Democrats intended to open concentration camps, soybeans turn people gay, and Obama was born outside the US. Trump connected with Farah and promoted the so-called “birther” conspiracy theory about Obama. Trump also appeared on InfoWars which has claimed “that the parents of twenty young schoolchildren who were murdered [at Sandy Hook] made the entire thing up as part of a government conspiracy” and he has retweeted “people who peddle bogus conspiracy theories like the now infamous Pizzagate hoax, which falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC pizzeria.”

“It goes without saying that the president should never be even remotely tainted by such people,” Klaas said, much less encourage them.

More subtly, after a press conference in Riyadh featuring Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, American journalists had to rely on “a transcript from Saudi state television. In this absurdist twist, the world’s most powerful democracy had to rely on journalists from one of the world’s most brutal autocracies—one that lacks a free press—in order to report on a press conference featuring a US secretary of state.”

Telling his own lies

"In modern American history, no president has ever told so many easily debunked lies in such a short period of time," Klaas asserts. In this book he spends a lot of time explaining different types of lies and different motivations for them.

In the 2016 election, the popular vote went to Hillary Clinton. These votes were cast legitimately by American citizens, according to everyone who has looked into it, including Trump’s lawyers. It is Trump himself who insists, without evidence, that immigrants voted fraudulently. (Of course, “40% of American adults didn’t vote at all,” and therefore “[a]pathy beat Trump by 10 points”.) His electoral college win was fairly narrow yet he asserts otherwise. Lest we mistakenly believe that Trump cares in general about the validity of democratic elections, we must note how quick he was to congratulate the Turkish president Erdogan on his 2017 “win” of a rigged election and accept Trump’s own explanation of his “conflict of interest” in matters concerning the Turkish president due to owning property in Istanbul.

Six months into his presidency, when Trump claimed that he’d signed more legislation than any president since Harry Truman, he had in fact “signed fewer bills than Presidents Clinton, Carter, Truman, and FDR,” and none of them were the ten pieces of legislation that, as candidate, he’d promised to implement within his first 100 days as president “as part of his ‘Contract with the American Voter.’” Twelve of the 38 bills he'd signed simply “renamed buildings or memorials, made low-level appointments, or were procedural tweaks.”

In July, after giving a speech to the Boy Scouts of America “in which he thanked the children attending for voting for him (they can’t vote)” and then telling them about an orgy on a yacht, he said that “the head of the Boy Scouts had called him to say that ‘it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.’ This was untrue," Klaas writes. "The Trump administration later acknowledged that no such call had happened.”

Trump continues to insist on the guilt of the Central Park Five in a crime that occurred in 1989, “ignoring clear and acknowledged evidence that he was wrong about a clear-cut racist miscarriage of justice,” after DNA evidence and a confession pointed to someone else and the Central Park Five have been released.

The consequence of so much lying is to normalize it and make it a joke. Sean Spicer, Trump's former spokesperson, appeared on the Emmy awards in September, joking, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period...’” It was a reference to the first and perhaps most famous lie Spicer was instructed to tell: that more people had turned out for Trump’s inauguration in Washington than for anyone else’s inauguration, even though aerial photography, police records, and subway records indicated otherwise. The fact that Spicer could transform his lie into a public joke alarms Klaas. “When you live under the cloud of an incompetent government that routinely lies, jokes are a common coping mechanism,” Klaas explained, noting that he’s seen it “firsthand while living in authoritarian states.”

Sowing distrust of courts, intelligence agencies, science agencies, and the Congressional Budget Office

As a candidate, Trump said that a judge should recuse himself because of his “Mexican heritage,” which Paul Ryan called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Trump was “encouraging the public to believe that the courts and their representatives are not independent arbiters of law, but biased by their own race and therefore untrustworthy.”

Intelligence agencies determined that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Trump ordered them to find Iranian noncompliance within three months so that he would have a reason to back out of the deal. It is dangerous, Klaas notes, when intelligence agencies are asked to give "politically motivated findings rather than dispassionate, objective ones.” The information is already distrusted based on partisan identity. A poll in June found a Republican/Democratic split among the American public: Democrats accepted “the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community” that Russia interfered in the US 2016 election, while Republicans rejected this information.

Under the Trump administration, an EPA climate scientist was reassigned as an accountant. In August, “a group of scientists leaked their latest climate change report to The New York Times before it could be buried by the Trump administration. That’s a truly shocking canary in the coal mine—when researchers from thirteen government agencies, including NASA feel the need to leak the latest findings of a clear scientific consensus for fear that their government would refuse to publish it.” In September, Trump picked Rep. Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a climate change denier with degrees in business and psychology, to lead NASA.

He casts doubt on the “independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office” (“fake news” according to the White House, “deep state” according to Newt Gingrich), even though Trump’s own Health and Human Services secretary hired a Republican to lead it, so “it’s hard to see how it would be biased against the Trump administration.” Reports like the CBO’s “serve a crucial function in a democracy: they are the legislative scorekeepers that everyone can trust.” Today, however, “undercutting the gravitas and authority of independent institutions is crucial to eroding democracy and amassing greater power.”

Shrugging off other countries’ violations of human rights and democracy

As candidate, Trump publicly “mocked the international condemnations” of the 1988 chemical attack that killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja. He also endorses torture, which is “a crime under both international and American law” and “despite just about every military official in the United States disagreeing” that torture yields usable, accurate information.

Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016 as president of the Philippines, promised that he would assassinate journalists and give police impunity to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office. Under him, police have indeed been killing people in the street, and some people have been tortured. The European Union has condemned Duterte, but Trump gave Duterte a personal phone call to compliment his approach to crime.

Before Trump took office, he swore he would not allow Putin to invade Ukraine, something Putin had already done years previously. When a talk show host pointed out to him that Putin kills journalists, Trump responded on air, ”I think our country does plenty of killing also,” adding of the assassinations, “I haven’t seen any evidence,” and that Putin “hasn’t been convicted of anything.” (Most authoritarian despots are not convicted of their crimes, Klaas helpfully notes.)

While the European Union tried to push Poland toward better democratic principles, Trump chose to “endorse Poland as a model for the West” because, according to Klaas, he preferred Poland’s “good optics with rapturous crowds chanting, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’...he sold out democracy in a friendlier major European nation, in exchange for a good photo opportunity.”

Nepotism and conflicts of interest

Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner know about “jewelry design, how to run a fashion business, or New York real estate development,” yet are leading the way on “counterterrorism, trade deals, and how to cope with the threat of a nuclear North Korea.” Ivanka did not even register to vote in time to vote for her father in the presidential primary. Between the election and inauguration, she tried to sell access to herself for a coffee date for tens of thousands of dollars (before being forced to call it off as it violates political ethics). She was given the formal title “Special Assistant to the President” despite the Trump Transition Team having said she would not get a title. Klaas compares Ivanka Trump’s role to that of Gulnara Karimova and talks about Trump’s nepotism having reached a level

“unfathomable in other functioning democracies. It’s hard to imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel or British Prime Minister Theresa May surrounded by a cadre of men in uniform, jockeying for influence against a daughter and son-in-law. This is banana republic stuff. If this staffing pattern existed in some other country, with generals being hailed as saviors rescuing the people from the civilian leader, alarm bells would be going off for every pro-democracy monitoring group in the world.”

Klaas also discusses “a core tenet of democracy: that public service should be dissociated from private interest.” These conflicts of interest play out in numerous ways. “But at least Americans never had to wonder,” Klaas said, “whether Clinton failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide because he was worried about Clinton Tower Kigali, or whether Obama failed to stand up to Assad in Syria because his daughter Malia had a clothing line pending in Damascus.” In April, Trump’s family hosted China’s President Xi for dinner at their private resort. Ivanka Trump’s brand sells shoes that are manufactured in China, and, during that dinner, China approved the sale of new Ivanka products. In July, Trump praised Xi “hours after prominent human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobao died in China while in state detention for his outspoken pro-democracy, pro-human rights views”.

Anything else?

In addition to all the despot-in-training approaches above, Trump exploits the fact that “[p]artisanship has become more about tribal identity than about disagreements on how to govern American society,” and he wearies people with the sheer number of onslaughts “because you can’t fight 100 battles all at once. Citizens are forced to pick and choose.”

The conclusion by the author, an expert in despots, is that Trump is uncomfortably similar to one and can swiftly lead the country down the path to authoritarianism if ordinary citizens are not careful and do not make a greater effort.

Published in the US on Nov. 14, 2017, this book is a timely accompaniment to the neverending cascade of scandals besetting the president. If there is a book of similar quality challenging this argument or its conclusions, I am not aware of it. No need to "Buy Ivanka's Stuff," but I will give you a "free commercial" (as Kellyanne Conway might put it) and suggest buying The Despot's Apprentice.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

On tolerating intolerance: Thoughts from 'The Atheist Muslim'

Ali Rizvi begins The Atheist Muslim with his memoir of his formative years growing up Muslim and then proceeds to general atheist arguments. He is concerned about human rights and also about logical arguments for the existence of God. He identifies “when I let go of religion completely” as the moment when he learned that the Big Bang created time itself and therefore eliminated the necessary frame for the idea of creation.

The most valuable chapter for me is the sixth one, “Islamophobia-Phobia and the ‘Regressive Left,’” where he ties together modern identities and arguments for Islam and atheism. In this chapter, he begins by identifying as a “free speech absolutist” because individuals, not governments, should decide what constitutes “hate speech.” For one thing: “Criminalizing hate speech like France does infantilizes people. It doesn’t just take away someone’s right to speak; it takes away your right to form your own opinions and response to them.” Furthermore, “The uncomfortable truth is this: if you really wanted to ban all hate speech, the Bible and Quran would be the first to go. Next would be the preachers who read from them and quote them in their sermons.” (p. 132)

He goes on:


“In their well-intentioned effort to protect what they see as a targeted minority [people with Muslim identity], Western liberals unwittingly find themselves fighting to guard and protect the same backward values [of the Muslim religion] that their counterparts in Muslim-majority countries are fighting against.” (p. 133) He asks us to “Consider the case of my friend Raif Badawi, the liberal Saudi blogger who is currently serving a ten-year prison term with a sentence of one thousand lashes; or all the Bangladeshi bloggers who have been hacked to death for writing critically about Islam.” (p. 134)


It is more important now than ever to challenge and criticize the doctrine of Islam. And it is more important now than ever to protect and defend the rights of Muslims. Both of these must go together. … The only rational position between Islamic apologism and anti-Muslim bigotry is one espousing secular and liberal values. This is the only position that allows both the right to criticize bad ideas and the right to believe in them — both of which must be protected in order to set the stage for meaningful dialogue. (p. 135)


"Again, it’s crucial to emphasize the difference between criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. The first targets an ideology. The second targets human beings. This is an obvious, significant distinction, yet both are frequently lumped together under the unfortunate, reductive umbrella term ‘Islamophobia.’ Again, human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. Ideas, beliefs, and books don’t and aren’t. The right to believe what one wants to believe is sacred. The belies themselves aren’t. Challenging ideas moves societies forward. Demonizing people rips societies apart. If anything, it’s precisely because of how I’d seen ordinary Muslims suffer under theocratic policies and Sharia law that I wanted to start a dialogue to help shatter the taboo of criticizing religion." (p. 137)

Some nuance is missing here. Much of the modern debate over tolerance of sexual orientation has centered on the question of whether same-sex desire is something that one chooses or something that is an immutable feature of one's being, and therefore whether same-sex behaviors (and the tolerance thereof) can be said to be ideologically motivated. My point in bringing this up is not to shift the topic from tolerance of Muslims to tolerance of gays, but rather to suggest that a similar dynamic might be at play in assumptions about how much of religious belief is ingrained in someone's personality from an early age and can't easily be unwound upon mere instruction from others.


“Criticizing, satirizing, and even mocking any belief system is never bigoted or racist.” (p. 143)


“When legitimately criticizing illiberal elements of Islam — as we might do any other religion or political ideology — elicits accusation of bigotry and racism, it abruptly ends an important conversation that needs to be had. Calling someone a bigot, racist, or Islamophobe isn’t a counterargument. It’s a lazy substitute for one. Yet we all fall for it.” (p. 146)


He quotes Reza Aslan: “People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion...Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text.” Rizvi challenges Aslan’s overstatement that religious texts have “nothing” to do with values. “So, every time a jihadist yells ‘Allah Akbar!’ and severs an infidel’s head from his body with a knife, citing verses like 47:4 and 8:12-13 from the Quran,” Rizvi asks, “you would blame every possible factor for his actions except the one that literally contains the words, ‘Smite the disbelievers upon their necks’?” (pp. 148-149) He also observes that blaming the people (identified, for example, by their culture that supposedly determines their values) does tend toward bigotry.


“Our criticisms of religion aren’t an attack on people, but a challenge to what we consider bad ideas that drive bad behavior, and the sacred status afforded to them. Our opposition to religion isn’t a demonstration of bigotry; it is a demonstration against it.

Bigotry against bigotry isn’t bigotry, and tolerance of intolerance isn’t tolerance.

...

Liberalism isn’t just about tolerance of dissent. It is also about an intolerance of those that don’t tolerate dissent.” (pp. 159-160)


Page numbers from:

Ali A. Rizvi. The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.