Category Archives: ethics

The Politics of National Destruction 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I’m on my way back home from Houston today, a very early flight so I wrote this last night in my hotel room. Yesterday I wrote about how many people since the beginnings of totalitarian mass movements in the 20th Century are easily led by demagogues and manipulated by propaganda, so much so that they will deny objective truth and facts to believe the lie, and defend the lies. 

We are at a dangerous point in history. Much of the western world is in the midst of a political crisis the likes have not been seen with the collapse of the old order after the First World War. It is a time made for demagogues, right and left wing ideologues, and others intent on overthrowing the existing order. President Trump’s advisor Steven Bannon is typical in his view. Far from being a traditional conservative, or populist, Brannon told Ronald Radosh in 2013 that he was a Leninist. Radish was shocked and asked him what he meant, to which Bannon replied: “Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”  When Radosh questioned Bannon about the criticism of Tea Party tactics of government shutdown by conservative commentator Thomas Sowell in National Review Online, Bannon told Radosh, “National Review and The Weekly Standard are both left-wing magazines, and I want to destroy them also.” 

President Trump has announced his intentions to destroy what he calls “the administrative state” while at the same time increasing police powers at all levels of government by reducing judicial and administrative oversight of police agencies. If one looks at history this is very similar to policies used in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, where in both cases police organizations became the most powerful agencies in their respective states. The result was that the state was able to use police power as an instrument of terror against their own citizens as well as in nations that they occupied. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism: 

“To Stalin constant growth and development of police cadres were incomparably more important than the oil in Baku, the coal and ore in the Urals, the granaries in the Ukraine, or the potential treasures of Siberia—in short the development of Russia’s full power arsenal. The same mentality led Hitler to sacrifice all Germany to the cadres of the SS; he did not consider the war lost when German cities lay in rubble and industrial capacity was destroyed, but only when he learned that the SS troops were no longer reliable.” 

While Trump does not, at least yet, to enjoy the power of a State controlled by a single party with unlimited power to control the police and to fully limit the judiciary; his words and the actions of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to this point indicate that that is the end state that they desire. This is only possible by destroying the power of the institutions of the constitutional state, and then by co-opting the structure of the state to fulfill the will of their ideological ends. 

At present this is not yet fully possible, but the potential of a Reichstag Fire incident to use to take over the full powers of the state through emergency decrees cannot be discounted when the stated goal is to destroy the state. One cannot give short shrift to President Trump’s statements on the campaign trail, nor his unending stream of tweet storms when estimating what he is capable of doing if given the chance. For my friends who doubt Trump’s competence to govern, it is not about competence, but rather the ruthlessness that he would be willing to employ to achieve his ends. Those who simply excuse his more extreme statements, his deliberate untruths, as hyperbole and his lack of loyalty to trusted advisers, and his willingness to shred the leaders of the party when he leads them to legislative defeat as normal political actions are sadly mistaken. If there is a crisis, one actually committed by an external enemy, or a false flag incident, this President will use his power to take control. Our President has routinely praised the actions anti-democratic dictators As Timothy Snyder wrote: “For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions.”

For those people who I talked about yesterday who are willing to excuse the outright falsehoods of the President, this is not an issue. The fact is that for many of them they have been waiting for the chance to take vengeance on those who they perceive as their enemies, both real and imagined. That is why the Christian Right overwhelmingly supported Trump more than they have any previous Republican candidate for President. 

These are dangerous times. Our constitutional system is not nearly as resilient as we assume that it is in such a crisis. We cannot forget that shortly after Franklin Roosevelt became President that some on the political Right attempted to get retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler to lead a coup against the President. Butler would have nothing of it and revealed their plot. But how many others would be willing to defend the institutions of a State that they wish to destroy? The Generals of the German Reichswehr rolled over to support Hitler to overthrow the hated Weimar Republic, just as conservative French politicians, industrialists, and military leaders were willing to allow Hitler to defeat France in 1940 in order to destroy the Third Republic. 

The words and actions of the President and his advisers concerning the American political system be discounted when estimating what they are capable of doing. Their apparent collusion with Putin’s a Russia before and after the campaign is being revealed more and more each day. If they did in fact collude with the Russians that is called treason. There is no other word for it, and no matter how wide and deep this is it seams to be of no importance to Trump’s followers, especially those of the supposedly Christian Right. They are willing to excuse it so long as it serves their political need for revenge against those they believe to be their political, ideological, and religious enemies. As Snyder wrote: 

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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The Power of the Lie: Propaganda and Undying Belief in the Leader


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

After a long day of travel and some intitial meetings at my denominational chaplain training symposium I settled back into my hotel, contemplating some of the events of the past week and reflected on Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism which I finished reading this week. It is a very hard read because each sentence, each paragraph, and each page requires one to think about history, philosophy, ethics, religion, and politics. In fact, if a reader is lacking in these disciplines they will not fully appreciate both the message and the timeliness of this book, which was published over sixty years ago. Sadly, the state of our educational system means that even many college educated people, whose education has prepared them for the workplace but unable to think critically would have trouble appreciating Arendt’s words. 

With us now at President Trump’s 100 day point, in which he has failed to accomplish any for his promises and according to his own words did not realize hard difficult being the President would be, it is important to reflect on the present and the past, to compare, contrast, and learn lessons. There are many to learn, but I think the most important is the power of lies and propaganda in the minds of the President’s most loyal supporters, Evangelical Christians. He won over 80% of the Evangelical vote, and in the most recent opinion polls Evangelicals remain the President’s most loyal followers, and are more likely to believe his most demonstrably verifiable falsehoods than anyone, despite the fact that the President in his actions and words mocks the heart of the Christian faith on a daily basis even while chumming the water with new promises designed to keep Evangelicals in his camp. Trump has successfully co-opted Evangelicals using the same “us against them” language that the preachers of the supposedly Christian Right and their political allies in the GOP have been using for forty years. 

Arendt repeatedly addressed the subject of followers who support leaders that do not have their interests at heart. She noted:

“The obvious contradiction between a mass organization and an exclusive society, which alone can be trusted to keep a secret, is of no importance compared with the fact that the very structure of secret and conspiratory societies could translate the totalitarian ideological dichotomy—the blind hostility of the masses against the existing world regardless of its divergences and differences—into an organizational principle. From the viewpoint of an organization which functions according to the principle that whoever is not included is excluded, whoever is not with me is against me, the world at large loses all the nuances, differentiations, and pluralistic aspects which had in any event become confusing and unbearable to the masses who had lost their place and their orientation in it.” 

The apocalyptic worldview of Evangelicals, shaped by decades of propaganda claiming that Christians were being persecuted, and the mythology promoted by Tim LaHaye’s thirteen best selling novels of the Left Behind series have created a base that is willing to believe every conspiracy theory imaginable. As Arendt wrote: 

“The claim inherent in totalitarian organization is that everything outside the movement is “dying,” a claim which is drastically realized under the murderous conditions of totalitarian rule, but which even in the prepower stage appears plausible to the masses who escape from disintegration and disorientation into the fictitious home of the movement. Totalitarian movements have proved time and again that they can command the same total loyalty in life and death which had been the prerogative of secret and conspiratory societies.” 

Many Americans, and not just Conservatives and Evangelicals, but people on the Left as well have become both gullible and cynical, the way some on the Left threw Hillary Clinton under the bus based on now discredited conspiracy theories, and who were in large part to blame for her defeat is prima facia evidence. But this trait is particularly strong in Evangelicals and in Evangelical culture. I know this because I grew up in it and worked for a televangelist in seminary some 25 years ago who later jumped in big on the Trump train. 


It is easy to be taken in by such propaganda. William Shirer, an American newspaper and radio correspondent who spent eight years in Nazi Germany wrote: 

“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda.” 

I lived that in Evangelicalism as well as in conservative Anglicanism but escaped it. But the fact is, that for decades the Conservative movement and in particular conservative Evangelicalism have lived in the cloud-cuckoo-world of propaganda and conspiracy theories promoted by unsavory radio and television commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, and Bill O’Reilly and hundreds more like them, as well as their own politically oriented preachers like Mike Huckabee, Franklin Graham, James Robison and thousands of others. 

Arendt wrote: 

“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

That my friends is what those who stand aghast at the deliberate falsifications of the Trump administration are fighting against. So anyway. Enough for now. I hope that I have time to follow this up tomorrow as I head home. Until then. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Fragile and Unpredictable: Auschwitz and Human Behavior in the Crisis

Auschwitz Staff at Play 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Laurence Rees noted something that is important about how human beings act in crisis. After interviewing many of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders who were at Auschwitz and other parts of the Nazi death machine he wrote this:

“…human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.”

I think that it is a comment worth reflection. One of the things that Rees explored was how people who in one situation can be the best of neighbors, the most conscientious and ethical of businessmen, the most dedicated civil servants can seemingly become something totally different when placed in situations that test who they are.

Selecting those to Die 

This is one of the scary things about human nature itself, while there were many people who were sadistic and enjoyed the evil that they did, there were many more who could not decide to be good or evil, instead they went with the flow and took the path of least resistance. Hannah Arendt wrote of Adolf Eichmann, who was the instrument of destruction for much the Jewish population of Europe:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” 

In times of great change, in times of crisis, in times of uncertainty demagogues manipulate people through fear, particularly fear of the other, both the other within their society, and those far away. When they do this they dehumanize people who seem different from us, be it in their race, color, religion, politics, gender, or sexual identity. When they succeed in doing this, it is the ordinary people who turn the other way, or collaborate in the persecution of the victims.

We are in a precarious situation and it would not take much for our nation to slide into a totalitarian dictatorship, and if the circumstance were right, if the crisis large enough, most people would probably surrender their freedom for the supposed security offered by a dictator. As Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

That is why we must not only understand history, but at the same time we must be determined to recognize how it informs us today, and how we can prevent such things from ever happening again.

That’s all for today,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Slipping into Totalitarianism?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I did my taxes yesterday as across the nation tens of thousands of people protested President Trump’s refusal to release any of his tax returns as he prepares to make wide ranging changes to the U.S. Federal Tax Code which according to most analysts would benefit him. In response the President derided them on Twitter. Likewise, in response to lawsuits about his encouragement of violence at his campaign rallies, Trump stated that since he won the election that he is immune from any actions that any court might find him responsible. Even so many people seem not to care. Despite the fact that the administration lives in a “fact free” world where the President and his advisors can make up things with impunity and accuse anyone who disagrees with promoting “fake news” he is allowed by those who have the power to remove him to get away with it. But this is the normal path to power for any totalitarian.

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt wrote:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Those are not the words of a man interested in maintaining our Republic, its Constitution, or its laws; they are the words of an autocrat and a would be dictator. Sadly, despite the resistance of many people, I don’t think that anything will stop him from gaining that power. Our society is too atomized to come together in any meaningful way to stop him, and he and his closest supporters understand that fact. Despite his frequent mistakes, foul ups, and failures, he is given a pass by his supporters, as well as some in the media who think that firing a few missiles makes one presidential. His anemic approval rating doesn’t seem to concern him probably because his opposition, liberals and conservatives are so divided and distrustful of each other that they cannot come together to oppose him.

Yesterday, the people of Turkey voted to change their constitution to give President Erdrogen and his party nearly unlimited power, paving the way to a one party dictatorship. Even a few years ago most experts said that such an outcome was impossible. No one should assume that the American experiment of a democratic constitutional republic cannot be destroyed. All it takes is a significant part of the populace that is willing to give up its rights for promises of security and prosperity, which is also willing to grant the government extraordinary powers for it to happen. As Timothy Snyder wrote: “People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.” So with each new crisis, domestic and foreign, many engineered by the Trump administration itself and its media enablers unsettles us, further divides us, and frightens us, know that we are sliding more steadily into a totalitarian world with very passing day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Preciousness of Trust and Integrity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today, like so many days lately I’m just going to share a few short thoughts about the importance of truth and the importance of trust and integrity in public life.

My first class in seminary was an ethics class, of all things called Moral Problems. The course went into depth on various aspects of morality in public and private life. One of our texts was Sisella Bok’s book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. When I took the class I had no idea just how much it would influence me throughout seminary and in professional life. Bok wrote:

“The role that one assigns to truthfulness will always remain central in considering what kind of person one wants to be—how one wishes to treat, not only other people, but oneself.” 

It is essential to our wellbeing as individuals, in our relationships, and in public life. When I look at the words and actions of the Trump administration, as well as past administrations of both political parties I do get concerned when falsehood is openly promoted and called truth. Mistakes are one thing, but deliberate lies by leaders, and public institution, government or otherwise destroy public trust. As Bok noted: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.” 

That is why when in a democracy there are scandals involving deliberate lies and cover ups that have or are being perpetrated by government officials, business, military, or religious leaders, they are so destructive in terms of the trust of the public. Of course the leaders of totalitarian regimes have no need for truth as their propaganda is paraded as truth, even when it denies reality, even before they take complete power. Hannah Arendt wrote that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

To keep that from happening we as individuals must assign the highest importance to truthfulness even above expediency and the desire to win. It is to borrow the words of Sir Patrick Steward playing Captain Jean Luc Picard in Stat Trek the Next Generation, “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…”

And with that I will close for the day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Lying and the Loss of Moral Authority

Friends of Padre Steve’s world,

The careless abandon with which the Trump administration, not to mention others of various political or ideological persuasions treat truth is having a corrosive effect on our society. The danger is that the moral corrosion will seep into every institution and every individual before anyone really figures out what is going on, and thereby depriving us of the ability to differentiate between truth and falsehood, right and wrong; in effect to deprive us of the means by which we take our moral bearings. Hannah Arendt described this phenomena well:

“the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.”

We have to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood is essential to our humanity and to the functioning of a political system that is based on individuals who act rationally. That is one of the brilliant aspects of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is that the founders, being products of the Enlightenment understood human nature far better than many of us do today. They certainly were not perfect and they were often contradictory in the application of their ideals to the world that they lived in, but they believed that humanity should progress, and that government should be a part of that progress.

Within that was the understanding that the ideal government should be about the virtue of governing truthfully. Thomas Jefferson probably said it best: “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” This is certainly something that has not been practiced much in our history, and the foibles of people in power, be they in government, business, or religion, demonstrate that honesty, to quote Billy Joel, “is such a lonely word.”

However, our founders and many others before us understood the poisonous effects of continual lies on the body politic. They understood that government based on lies cannot survive, nor can societies where people erase the line between truth and falsehood. One only has to study the disastrous history of totalitarian regimes, where truth is suppressed, and lies so rampant that they can are believed. William Shirer wrote of his years reporting in Nazi Germany:

“It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda…”  

I am disturbed by the blatant use of lies, half-truths, distortions, “alternative facts” and “alternative truths” by the Trump administration. Likewise I am disturbed by the actions of some Trump opponents who deliberately spread lies to further their opposition. Stooping to the methods of your opponent is never a good means of a movement to achieve its end, for if it does succeed in overcoming or overthrowing the regime that it opposes, it will end the end be no better. Likewise, it will have squandered its integrity, and lost the trust of people, and with it, its moral authority.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The High Cost of Lies and Broken Trust: The Trump Administration and a Lesson from 1938

Friends of Padre Steve’s Word,

Thomas Paine wrote: “Character is much easier kept than recovered.” Those words apply to nations and government as much as they do to individuals.

As you might have noticed I have been spending much time writing about the corrosive effect of what the Trump administration’s strategy of willful deceit, the denial of factual truth, and the creation of so-called alternate facts, truth, and reality, on our life as a nation. I am going to return to that again because it appears that the strategy is continuing to be used, and that the administration is now scrambling to hide inconvenient facts from the FBI and Congressional committees investigating the possibility of the collusion of Russian officials with Trump campaign and administration officials. This effort appears to have possibly spread to Representative Devin Nunes who is the committee chairman of the House committee investigating the allegations.

Admittedly at this point none of us know what transpired, if anything between the Russians, the President, and his closest advisors. That being said there are so many people in the administration that appear to be connected to Russian officials, those like former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and others may have received large amounts of money from Russia sources to influence United States policy on the behalf of the Russian government and business oligarchy, particularly in regard to the Ukraine which Russia invaded and seized the Crimean Peninsula. Manafort appears to possibly be connected to Russian actions that led to the death of Ukrainians.

Such actions are quite dangerous, and one only has to look to the example of France in 1938 during the Czech crisis where conservative politicians, military officers, and the French right wing media allowed themselves to fall under the spell of Hitler, abandon Czechoslovakia, and with it their only chance of stopping the Nazi advance in Europe. But to them it did not matter. William Shirer recounts those days in his book The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France 1940:

“Nor did the public realize how it was being poisoned and misled, not only by Fascist-minded leaders and newspapers, small in number but growing in influence, who on ideological grounds wished to accommodate Hitler and Mussolini, but also by Frenchmen who were being manipulated by German agents and money. It was at this time that Otto Abertz, the genial “Francophile” Nazi agent in Paris, became most effective. Easily penetrating political, business, social and cultural circles he worked tirelessly at winning their sympathies for Nazi Germany. He engineered trips with all expenses paid, for numerous politicians, intellectuals, industrialists, and leaders of the war veterans’ groups to Germany, where they were wined, dined, and otherwise feted, and fed with Nazi propaganda. He obtained lucrative contracts for French writers to have their books translated and published in Germany. He arranged interviews for French journalists with Hitler so that the Fuehrer could reiterate that he wished only peace and friendly relations with France. He was believed by the French secret police, which constantly shadowed him, to be the chief source of Nazi funds for buying French journals, journalists, and others of influence. Doriot’s openly Fascist daily, La Liberte, was almost entirely subsidized by Berlin. This was probably an exception. As Pierre Comert., chief of the Press Service at the Quai d’Orsay, testified to the Parliamentary Investigating Committee later: “The German agents at the time didn’t buy newspapers. They bought journalists. It was cheaper. And it was more effective.

Aside from the cheapening of moral values which followed inevitably from the abandoning of Czechoslovakia, the Munich settlement further deepened and complicated the already calamitous divisions among the French…”

When a nation abandons its allies. When its leaders give every impression of siding with an age old hostile power while insulting and demeaning its closest allies. When it reneges on deals made in good faith with other countries on issues that are important to the whole world, such as global warming, when it abandons economic pacts that worked to balance power and maintain peace, it harms more than its physical, military, and economic power: it damages its credibility. As one newspaper wrote of France after the Munich agreement that destroyed Czechoslovakia:

“Who will again believe the word of France? Who will remain her ally? Why would the French government, which has just annulled “of her own accord” her pact with Czechoslovakia, respect the Franco-Soviet Pact?”

What will be said of the United States if its leaders betray its ideals, and its promises? That trust, if lost, will take a generation or more to regain, but the cost of that loss of trust will harm us all in ways that we cannot even begin to fathom.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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