Category Archives: History

“The Grave Dangers in Meeting Fanaticism with Ignorance…”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Earlier in the week I discussed the moral implications of the President’s budget and talked about President Eisenhower’s Chance for Peace Speech of 1953. As I thought about it I began to ponder other things that President Eisenhower discussed that are still with us. One of those is the constant need for some people in government, in the media, and in the pulpit to find a scapegoat for the nation’s problems, both real, and imagined.

This is nothing new so as I watch the actions of some in the Trump Administration, and in the media today behaving in such a manner, it causes me pause and think. I am concerned with the way that American Muslims, and Americans of Arabic descent, even Christians, are being treated in response to real terrorist threats that are being perpetrated by some Islamic terrorist groups. Frankly, the heavy handed treatment of American citizens of the Islamic faith, or those who happen to be from, or who descent from Arab immigrants. I believe that the climate of suspicion and fear being promoted by people in the administration, members of Congress, and the media, especially the Right Wing media is something that hearkens back to a time not that long ago when other Americans were persecuted under a flood of allegations, many untrue and unfounded, by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter on intellectual freedom to the President of the American Library Association in June of 1953. It was barely five months after he entered office, the Cold War was heating up, and anti-Communist politicians were advocating policies which were in effect anti-American. Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting hearings which were akin to witch hunts to ferret out alleged Communist infiltrators and sympathizers in government, while the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) conducted investigations of media, entertainment, and academia blacklisting hundreds of people. McCarthy labeled many Democrats as well as the incoming Eisenhower administration as traitors for allegedly being soft on Communism, or even worse actively supporting the Communists.

Throughout his Presidency, Eisenhower never tired of speaking out for freedom of thought and expression. One of his first actions was in writing his letter on intellectual freedom. In the letter he opposed the kind of thinking that would meet real dangers with ignorance. He noted:

Our librarians serve the precious liberties of our nation: freedom of inquiry, freedom of the spoken and the written word, freedom of exchange of ideas.

Upon these clear principles, democracy depends for its very life, for they are the great sources of knowledge and enlightenment. And knowledge–full, unfettered knowledge of its own heritage, of freedom’s enemies, of the whole world of men and ideas–this knowledge is a free people’s surest strength.

The converse is just as surely true. A democracy smugly disdainful of new ideas would be a sick democracy. A democracy chronically fearful of new ideas would be a dying democracy.

For all these reasons, we must in these times be intelligently alert not only to the fanatic cunning of Communist conspiracy– but also to the grave dangers in meeting fanaticism with ignorance. For, in order to fight totalitarians who exploit the ways of freedom to serve their own ends, there are some zealots who-with more wrath than wisdom–would adopt a strangely unintelligent course. They would try to defend freedom by denying freedom’s friends the opportunity of studying Communism in its entirety–its plausibilities, its falsities, its weaknesses…

In the letter also noted something that I believe that we are in danger of today as the administration and Congress debate and implement measures that seem to target people because of their race or religion. Those are methods of totalitarians past and present. We have seen the results. President Eisenhower had just led the Allied forces in Europe against a regime that employed those methods, methods which brought about the deliberate, premeditates slaughter of millions of Jews, and others deemed to be either less than human, different, or potentially dangerous. Eisenhower wrote:

“But we know that freedom cannot be served by the devices of the tyrant. As it is an ancient truth that freedom cannot be legislated into existence, so it is no less obvious that freedom cannot be censored into existence. And any who act as if freedoms defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.”

It is something to think about any time that anyone, be they a political leader, a religious leader, an academic, a journalist, or entertainer suggests adopting the methods of totalitarians against real or imagined threats. Policies and actions born of ignorance, and implemented through arrogance which promotes suspicion, suppression and fear will destroy the United States more certainly than any external enemy. As Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” 

It is something to think about.

Have a great Day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Trumpcare Train Wreck: Incompetence + Hubris = Disaster

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Mark Twain once wrote, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” That being said is amazing to watch a political party with a majority in the House and Senate, combined with their party’s President, drive the train of government over a cliff in pursuit of legislation that was at best ill-conceived and misbegotten, and at worst an abortion wrapped in a train wreck driven by haughty hubris, and guided by the unparalleled incompetence of the Trump administration and the House leadership. Despite warnings that he did not have the votes to get the bill through the House, the President pushed on, insisting on a vote that brought an end to the bill. It reminded me of Barbara Tuchman’s immortal words:

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

I watched in morbid fascination this week as the House GOP led by Paul Ryan attempted to ram through this hopelessly flawed bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, only to pull it minutes before the vote. Ryan had to run to the White House to tell the President that they didn’t have the votes as Trump’s display of intra-party brinksmanship crashed and burned in the face of House realists who recognized that the bill would doom them with their constituents and Freedom Caucus extremists who could have cared less about theirs.

The bill would have caused as many as 26 million people to lose their insurance, not reduced the deficit by much, and raised the cost of insurance for those who still were able to have it. The effort exposed both the incompetence of the GOP as well as the lie that they actually care about the people that put them in power, with the worst effects of the bill being felt in the counties and states that most heavily voted for President Trump and the GOP majority. It exposed the basic immorality of this party which regards the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake as more important as people, or the best interest of the country, in the best tradition of Thomas Hobbes, and Paul Ryan’s inspiration, Ayn Rand.

I have never seen anything like it in my life, and never want to see anything like it again. It is a a disaster for the President equal to the failure of James Buchannan to pass the Lecompton Constitution which would of admitted Kansas as a Slave State, over the desire of much of the Democratic Party of 1857 and 1858. To see this happening even as more and more facts come out about the possibility of members of the Trump administration, and campaign team being paid and influenced by Vladimir Putin’s Russia made the week even more surreal.

Watching the reactions of the House leadership and the President afterward was even more fascinating, and disturbing. It looked to me that the President is willing to destroy Paul Ryan and the House leadership, while blaming the the Democrats for not helping. Likewise there were times that it looked like Ryan was trying to undercut Trump even as the Freedom Caucus tried to undermine both Trump and Ryan. Sadly, the GOP did nothing to bring any Democrats over to their side as to vote for Trumpcare would have been a poison pill.

What will happen next is still to be determined, but the first major attempt by Trump and the GOP Congressional majority to pass what was supposed to be their signature and defining legislation demonstrated that they are incapable of governing. Say what you want about the polices of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, one cannot accuse either of incompetence when it came to passing difficult legislation and even winning Democrats to their cause.

As a person who was a Republican from 1976 until 2008 are a disgrace to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. They are incompetent ideologues and demagogues who will destroy each other if they don’t succeed in destroying the country first, and I hope that we all can keep them from doing the latter.

Have a great weekend.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Perpetrators and Bystanders

Jewish Men being Rounded Up in Baden with Citizens looking on  

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer wrote: “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”  These words from his book Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 serve as a warning to members of a society where various minority groups are being labeled as enemies of the state and often less than human.

I the past couple of days I have written about the need to try to understand people who in the past have committed genocide, mass murder, starvation, and other crimes against humanity. I did this not to give any basis whatsoever to justify their actions, but so that we might not think ourselves so different that we make the mistake of believing that we are not capable of such crimes, or looking on and allowing them to happen.

It is all too easy for it to happen. All that is needed is a population that has been conditioned by propaganda, based on historical myth, untruth, a prevailing climate of fear, and in which the threat of crisis, real or imagined, can delude even good, able, and even extraordinary people to commit crimes that if they were not real, would be incomprehensible to the mind. In such times decisions have to be made, difficult decisions, the decision to stand for what is right, even if the country’s leaders, and their most vocal followers threaten violence and the use of government force against those who dissent.

Being a perpetrator is one thing, but being a bystander is worse. As Hannah Arendt noted: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

Until Tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Humanizing Inhuman Humanity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg, Spencer Tracy’s character makes tis comment:

“If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe…”

This is true, and why I am continuing what I wrote yesterday today.

Yesterday I wrote about the dangers of ignoring what evils that people are capable of committing or standing by and let happen. For me it was a painful article to write as a historian and ethicist who knows history and can see the same kinds of attitudes that allowed the commission of vast and heinous crimes that beggar the imagination, being posted on social media, on blogs, and by political and religious leaders on a daily basis.

But I am sure that many if not most people seldom give what is happening a second look. Even people who read about the crimes of the Nazis, Stalin, or other genocidal regimes find the perpetrators to be beyond understanding, as if they were monsters, or had no human character. In a way that is comforting, because if they were somehow not like us, then we could never become like them.

But if we are to understand what happened Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or any other place where mass murder and genocide were a daily occurrence, where dissenters, political opponents, and minorities were whisked off to prison, concentration camps, and gulags in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again; we must understand the perpetrators as well as the bystanders who allowed things to happen.

If we fail to do this, if we yield to the temptation to deny the humanity of the perpetrators, to deny that they were human and had access to ethics and morality as we do is to as Timothy Snyder says, “is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.”

Snyder argues that “To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them…” They had a faith in their leaders or their ideology, they were devoted to their cause. In the case of the Germans, their “devotion and faith did not make them good…, but they do make them human, Like everyone else, they had access to ethical thinking, even if their own was dreadfully misguided.”

The danger that we face today is that when people in our country speak in the language of the Nazis or other totalitarians, when we see the acts committed against religious, ethnic and other minorities, when we hear the language of genocide being used, we tend to treat those doing such things as barbarians or animals, and not human beings like us, and we rob them of their humanity. If we do this we help set the conditions for what happened under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and in so many other places to happen again.

Holocaust Historian Yehuda Bauer noted:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.” 

Until Tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

“No More Dangerous Thing for a Democracy…”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are some times when my education and experience as a historian and ethicist. Last week was one of those times as I watched Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump raise the specter of preventive war on the Korean peninsula. Combined with the evisceration of the State Department and other levers of “soft power” in the Trump budget proposal and the President’s near total commitment to military force as the preferred option in foreign policy it makes me believe that we will be in a substantial and potentially devastating war in terms of lives, treasure, and moral standing, if not in Korea, somewhere else in the world within the next couple of years.

I do seriously hope that I am wrong, but I do not see patience, prudence, or wisdom as strengths of the Trump Presidency in either domestic or foreign policy. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: “There is no more dangerous thing for a democracy than a foreign policy based on presidential preventive war,” but it appears that this is the foreign policy of the Trump administration.

Preventive war is also something called aggressive war, because the target of it has not committed an act of war before it is attacked. This was the policy of Nazi Germany for which its leaders were convicted at Nuremberg. Former Senator Ron Paul noted, “Another term for preventive war is aggressive war – starting wars because someday somebody might do something to us. That is not part of the American tradition.” As such most people have no understanding how the crime of preventive or wars of aggression poison and ultimately kill a democracy.

People also forget that once the Pandora’s Box of war is opened that nothing is certain but death, destruction, and the seeds of more war. Winston Churchill noted, “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

In terms of the destructiveness of such a war, including as Churchill noted the unforeseen effects of it President Dwight D. Eisenhower said:

A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today. How could you have one if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins, several cities where many, many thousands of people would be dead and injured and mangled, the transportation systems destroyed, sanitation implements and systems all gone? That isn’t preventive war; that is war.

I’ll leave it at that.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Korean Conflicts, News and current events, Political Commentary

A Son of Erin

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Like any American whose family on both the paternal and maternal sides has been in this country since well before the American Revolution, I am kind of a genetic mutt. However, it seems that most of my DNA is Irish, the rest being from Scotland, England, Wales, and the Iberian Peninsula, so basically, I’m Celtic. Most of my Irish seems to come from my mom’s side of the family with Travis’s who came from the Old Country and eventually settled in Illinois. My favorite uncle when I was a kid was my uncle Ted. He was as Irish as they come, and according to my mom uncle Ted help begin my great love of beer when I was just a babe.

I have come rather belatedly to the conclusion that I am a son of Erin. In addition to my love of a good beer, when I look at my temperament I see the Irish come through in my readiness to fight, my love of laughter, and my occasional melancholy. I love Irish songs like The Minstrel Boy and Garryowen as well as songs that were made famous by Irish soldiers like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.

 

On my dad’s side I descend from Scottish nobility, not that it matters in this country. But when I was younger I found it a source of pride, especially the military tradition that came with it, and for that matter I still am, but I have become more cognizant of my Irish heritage. This is a heritage that I plan on doing research on in the near future.

As much as the Irish are a part of the rich tapestry that make up America, and the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day has become a fest that most Americans revel in, the Irish were not welcomed with open arms. They were poor, Roman Catholic immigrants, fleeing persecution and famine in the Old Country. The tradition Irish song, The Wearing of the Green includes this verse:

I’ve heard a whisper of a country
That lies beyond the sea,
Where rich and poor stand equal
In the light of freedom’s day.

When they arrived in the United States the found themselves at the bottom of the white man’s world, despised and often violently persecuted by Americans of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” movement. They were accused of being agents of the Pope, and wanting to overthrow Protestant America. As such they had to work hard, and they also stayed together in predominant Irish neighborhoods, and in time they became a political constituency that even non-Irish politicians could not ignore. In a time when other groups of immigrants are discriminated against and demonized, often for their religious beliefs I think that we cannot forget the Irish immigrants, and those who are of Irish descent, those whose ancestors were persecuted in the Old Country as well in this country need to think twice before doing the same to people who are fleeing political and religious persecution as well as war and famine. My Irish heritage has made me feel a closer bond with immigrants than almost anything.

As a historian I want to do that because I wonder if any of my Irish-American ancestors fought with any of the Civil War Irish regiments. I have always been particularly fond of the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac and many times I fly the flag of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as the 1st Regiment of the Irish Brigade alongside my 34 Star Circle Union Flag outside my house, especially this time of year. The motto of the regiment,  Faugh A Ballagh  (pronounced “Fah-g Ahn BAY-Lick”) means “Clear the way!”

Approximately 150,000 Irish immigrants fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, many hoping that their display of loyalty would put a stop to anti-Irish discrimination, but despite their gallantry and sacrifice on the battlefield it did not. With casualties mounting and the institution of the draft which hit poor people and immigrants the hardest, many Irish staged draft riots in 1863. Eventually the Irish would be accepted, but what happened to them has happened to almost every other group ethnic and religious immigrants who have come to America to be free.

Whenever I go to Gettysburg I stop at the Irish Brigade memorial near the edge of the bloody Wheat Field and speak of its service during the war and the absolution granted to it by its chaplain, Father Corby before it went into battle that hot summer afternoon of July 2nd 1863. Likewise I tell the story of the young Colonel Paddy O’Rorke, the first Irish Catholic to graduate from West Point who died leading his regiment at Little Round Top, not far from where his kinsmen were fighting at the Wheat Field.

So I wish you a Happy Saint Patrick’s Day even as I reflect more on my Irish heritage and raise a pint or two; after all a bird never flew on one wing. Sláinte.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Christian Choice: The Idolatrous Worship of Power or Stand in Favor of the Weak

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the most frightening things to me as a historian who happens of claim to be a Christian is the propensity for the Church and its leaders to be attracted to the worship of power and all of its folly. This has been the case since Constantine made Christianity the State religion of the Roman Empire. Leaders of the church in every place and clime as well as almost every denomination have cozied up to rulers in the pursuit of power almost always to the detriment the Church and sometimes their nation. The hierarchies of different churches were in the forefront of the extermination of supposed “heretics,” the persecution of non-state favored religions, the slave trade, the conquest, subjugation, and extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, parts of Asia; they were often the supporters of disastrous wars, and at home used their place of power to wealthy beyond all measure.

Conversely, on the occasions where the Church and its leaders have advocated for the poor, the marginalized, and others who had no earthly power it lead to advances in human rights and liberty. The abolition of slavery in Great Britain was led by William Wilberforce against heated opposition in Parliament and even the Church of England that spanned decades. During the period of the Industrial Revolution, some churches and Christians made a determined effort to end child labor, support workers’ rights, and advocate for the poor, but many others feasted upon the wealth that their rich benefactors lavished upon them and remained silent. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American church leaders helped lead the Civil Rights movement and were joined by some white religious leaders, but many others, including men who were early leaders of the Christian Right opposed the Civil rights movement and used their pulpits to advocate for segregation. Many other just remained silent, just as their forbears had from Constantine one. Silence and the acquiescence to injustice has been a hallmark of the Christian church.

The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the disastrous effects of the German church’s subservience to the Nazi regime and before that to the Kaiser. He wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

Sophie Scholl (Center)

Bonhoeffer spoke those words in a 1934 sermon, just a bit over a year following the Nazi takeover as Hitler was still consolidating his power and before he and his regime began their war of conquest and extermination. Some German Christians did take the chance to stand up for those oppressed by the Nazis, both in Germany in in the areas the Nazis conquered. Many of those who did would pay for their opposition with either their freedom or their lives, but most of the church was silent. One of the young Christians who opposed the Nazis was Sophie Scholl, a 22 year old student at the University of Munich. She and a number of fellow students formed a group called the White Rose to distribute anti-Nazi materials and to speak out against the crimes of the regime. She wanted those Christians of her day that silence was not an option. She wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

The same is true today in the United States. The vast majority of Evangelical Christians who support the policies of the Trump presidency in order to be at the table of temporal power have cast the church into the pigsty of lies and polices that crush the lives of people who have no power and mock the words of Jesus.

There is a choice to be made by anyone who claims the mantle of Jesus the Christ or claims to follow him. Will we do better than our ancestors or will we to silently slide down the road to perdition?

With that I will end for the day. Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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