Category Archives: philosophy

“Once you start down the dark path…” Longing for Honesty from the President

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thomas Jefferson once noted “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.” It is a lesson that the President, his spokespeople, and his flacks should learn. However after observing them on the campaign trail for nearly two years, and in the nearly five months since the election I doubt if the President  or his advisors have the capacity for this. With every day there is a new revelation of untruthfulness. On Monday FBI Director James Comey basically said that the President and his spokespeople were lying about their connections to Russia, and their allegations that the Obama administration had been spying on them. To way the President respond on Twitter and to be shot down in real time was discouraging for anyone that esteems the office of the Presidency.

The web of untruths concocted by the President and his advisors is stunning. I did not think that it was possible and I really hoped that once they had won the election that a modicum of sanity would take root and grow as the President and his administration dealt with the reality of the office. But that is not happening and it seems to me that they keep adding to the fire and with every new statement, with every new botched riposte to damning allegations, with every new  tweet and twitter storm, it looks like they are covering things that might be worse than any of us had imagined just a few months ago. Sadly for the nation and for the esteem of the office of the Presidency, the untruths, the shifting of blame, the deflections, and misdirection are destroying any credibility that President Trump might have had. Abraham Lincoln said that “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.”

That confidence that citizens give a new President is rapidly evaporating as the web of deceit grows on a daily basis. I wish that the President and his advisors could just admit the times when they were wrong, admit the times when the facts are not on their side rather than making up alternative facts, alternative truths, and alternative history. I long for the day when they will heed the words of Sophocles in Antigone, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” 

All of us can learn from our mistakes, even the mistake of being factually inaccurate once in a while. But when one continues to be untrue, when one compounds a lie with another lie, and another and another, it no longer is a simple mistake, it becomes the web from which escape is impossible.

For a leader, especially the President, this behavior is not only destructive to them as people, but to the esteem of the office that they hold, and detrimental to the people that they serve.

I long for honesty from this administration. I wanted this President to be successful and to be all of our President. I would hope that maybe something will happen to make him change his course and speak truth, admit error, and apologize for those that he has used his power to demean, destroy, and harm. But I fear that the President’s journey down the dark path of life has gone so far that it has consumed anything that might have been human in him. As Yoda said, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” 

So have a great day,

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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The Deadly Illusion: Ignorance, Myth, and Alternative Reality

ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

My longtime readers know that I write about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany a lot. Likewise I also write about other historical events and periods where the worst of humanity is on display. This is not because I am negative or due to some morbid fascination with such events, but because as a historian I see them as a warning because the one constant in history is humanity. While history may not repeat itself, it does as Mark Twain noted, often rhyme, the fact is that human nature and human beings have tended to act similarly to their ancestors more often than not during times of social, economic, or political upheaval distress and crisis.

Timothy Snyder notes that “The European history of the twentieth century shows that societies can break, democracies fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…”

I tell my students this all the time whether I am teaching ethics or history. Economic theories, technology, and so many other ways in which we do life change, but ultimately human nature remains pretty constant. So when I write about these topics it is with that in mind. Historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote:

“It’s very, very important for people to get a sense of what the potentialities of people really are, what the dangers of ignorance can be. It is in this context, that a supposedly advanced society risks descending into the sewer, that the Holocaust is a warning to people who think of themselves as an advanced, modern society.”

Ignorance of history, ignorance of reality, and denial of facts are deadly to the individual and fatal to the society that allows itself to become ignorant and to believe in an illusion of knowledge based on myth and unreality. This deadly illusion based on ignorance and knowledge that is not knowledge allows people and societies to embrace deadly ideologies without thinking. When that happens ordinary people, law abiding people, people who go to church, can commit great atrocities or stand by in silent agreement.

When I hear people who support some of most inhuman of President Trump’s policies makes statements about “I can’t wait for the liberal genocide to begin,” or tell Jews and Muslims to leave the country, who talk of racial and ethnic minorities as if they were less than human than I do in fact worry that it can happen here. When I see Mosques burned, synagogues defaced with Nazi graffiti, Jewish centers targeted by callers making bomb threats, churches of ethnic and minority congregations vandalized, LGBTQ people being discriminated against and sometimes physically attacked, I know it can happen here.

When I see these things happening I am reminded of Spencer Tracy’s monologue at the end of the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The words are chilling because they are so true. Despots and dictators, and authoritarian leaders, cannot commit great acts of violence without a part of the population that is willing to carry out their orders and the majority who for whatever reason acquiesce and stand by silently.

“Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: 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.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination…”

We cannot allow ourselves to live in ignorance and pretend that these things cannot happen here. To do this we have to have to go to a dark place. We have to decide to understand what brings people to commit such actions. We have to understand what allows people to stand by and say nothing. We have to understand what goes through the mind or those who make the conscious choice to know nothing when the evidence stares them in the face, and those who feign ignorance to attempt to keep a clean conscience. Burt Lancaster’s character in Judgment at Nuremberg remarked:

“My counsel says we were not aware of the extermination of the millions. He would give you the excuse: We were only aware of the extermination of the hundreds. Does that make us any the less guilty? Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.”

It is one thing to empathize with the victims of past genocides and crimes against humanity. It is easy to say never again; but it is not possible to prevent them without going to the dark place of trying to understand the perpetrators and bystanders. As Timothy Snyder notes:

“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.” 

I will continue this tomorrow, until then,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Character: “The Decisive Factor in the Life of an Individual and of Nations Alike.”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I teach ethics, and as I observe the words and actions of President Trump and his closest advisors I see a massive attack on facts, truth, reason, intellectualism, and with them, more importantly, on integrity and character. It is actually very disconcerting to see those in power attempting to re-write facts, history, and even their own statements and promises before our eyes, denying truth, subverting facts, and pretending that with the exception of what they say today, there is no truth.

When Sean Spicer praised the February jobs report, a report that he and the President used refer to as “phony” he was asked if President Trump thought that this report was accurate. He grinned and said “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”

But then what can be expected from an administration that when contradicted calls the contractions lies, and those who insist on facts to be liars? It has insisted that alone of Federal Government employees that White House staffers don’t need to follow government ethics rules, and removes them from required ethics training. This goes to the heart of the problem with this administration, it does not care for truth and has long given up, if it ever had it. President Trump’s long history of not being an honest businessman, his numerous adulterous affairs during his marriages, and a list of people that he has cheated that runs into the hundreds with thousands of lawsuits against his business practices should have warned us that he would be the same man that he has always has been, and now he is in a position not only to continue to destroy any hint of his own integrity, but that nations as well, and many of his followers do not seem to give a damn.

Ethics do matter and facts do matter. Steven Covey wrote that “Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, treating people with respect.” This is sadly lacking in the current administration, and it will be the death of the Republic. When the American President cannot be trusted to tell the truth and when his administration works to shield themselves from the law there will be reverberations. The moral authority of the American nation is at stake, and that matters more than the power of our economy or the military might of the nation. Once that trust, once that moral authority is eroded, the very foundations of the country are undermined, and quite possibly fatally undermined. As Thomas Paine noted: “Character is much easier kept than recovered.”

A nation founded as ours on the proposition that “all men are created equal” which depends on its leaders and citizens caring about their fidelity to the Constitution must understand that its character is linked to how we live up to those great secular scriptures. Character as Theodore Roosevelt noted is “in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Totalitarian Contempt for Facts

A Short thought to begin the week that kind of follows my posts of the last several days. Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism this poignant fact and warning:

“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.” 

In my life which now spans almost 57 years I have never seen an American political leader attempt to present a full-blown counter-factual narrative to support their desire for power; but that was before the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. This not only comes from watching the campaigns of various presidential candidates and the actions of those men who have gained the Presidency, but from my study of history. Yes, I have seen Presidents lie with varying degrees of success. I have seen politicians twist facts and numbers for specific ends, but I have never seen one do so on such a scale and magnitude as our current President; nor have I seen any President so boldly attack and attempt to discredit the institutions established as checks and balances in the Constitution.

Hannah Arendt’s words describe in terribly precise detail the kind of propaganda campaign that has been waged by the President and his chief advisor, Steve Bannon since last summer, which is reinforced by his spokespeople on a daily basis. Arendt wrote: “The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality.” Arendt’s statement is very descriptive of this administration. I am going to leave things here for now.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Abandon Facts and Abandon Freedom: Contending Against Alternative Truth, Facts, and History

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century on Tuesday and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work. Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods came so fast that they were overwhelming. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing. They are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.” To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state. The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Reflections on a Sanity Day


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am just going to share some reflections of a restful day off regarding friendship, family, and being deliberate rather than reactive in the way I get information. 

I was able to take a comp day for my trip to Gettysburg yesterday. I am coming to enjoy taking a day once in a while to do little but hang out with Judy, each on of us with at least one dog on our lap while I take time to read and reflect. There is nothing more relaxing, comforting, and therapeutic than having a content and happy dog on my lap as I read or write, or just think and muse about various topics. Doing this helps me put priorities back in order and keep me from obsessing about the craziness of the world. 

I spent some time with an old friend Tuesday night. He and I attended the Army ROTC program and were commissioned together at UCLA in 1983. His path took him into academia well before mine, he is a history professor and published author who like me enjoys good craft beer. Though we hadn’t seen each other since my wedding, where he was a part of the wedding party, we have stayed in contact and we picked up where we left off talking about friends, our families, careers, and interests, not to mention our political and social views which are quite similar. Maybe part of that’s because we are both Californians who have lived most of our adult lives outside the state and long for the day when we retire and go back to the Golden State. 

I think days like yesterday and visits like the one with my friend are necessary to keep ones balance and sanity. I know for me that is the case, especially when it comes to disconnecting a bit from social media.  I find that the vast amount of information of all kinds on social media can seam almost overwhelming at times, and attempting to sort truth from fiction can be more than a full time job. The fact is we are not designed to be continually bombarded by information, especially that which is presented as urgent but which is designed by those who put it out to manipulate us and our emotional response to it. It was nice yesterday morning to wake up and not immediately reach for my iPhone, iPad, or e-mail, but simply to enjoy the quiet, laying in bed with Judy and three adorably sweet Papillons. 

When I did get up I first read the comics, then I read through the online editions of major U.S. And European newspapers and periodicals. I leisurely took my time to read articles on a number of different topics from news, politics, sports, arts and literature, and even food. It was a deliberate yet relaxing effort because the news wasn’t cascading against my screen faster than I could digest it. I did share some of those articles on my social media feeds, but I was very deliberate and careful in what I shared. When I finally went to my Facebook page I was taking the time to see what was happening in the lives of my friends. That too was rewarding. 

So anyway, I wish you a good day, tomorrow I’ll be posting an article which is kind of a follow up to my review of Timothy Snyder’s new book On Tyranny that I posted yesterday. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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