Category Archives: philosophy

Best of Times – Worst of Times, but the Only One We Got

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

it is amazing how many truly frightening things are going on in the world. In fact as I went through the rush signing out of the Staff College, transferring to Little Creek, and getting signed in everywhere I needed to, as well as visiting my friend John in hospital where he is being treated for cancer, I have only caught tidbits of what is going on, but even that gave me pause.

So since I am tired and haven’t had a chance to write anything too complicated, I’ll share this short thought from the late great Art Buchwald.

“I don’t know whether this is the best of times or the worst of times, but I assure you it’s the only time you’ve got.”

Kind of says it all huh?

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 Misunderstanding of the Present and the Ignorance of the Past

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Since things are going to be busy I am going to post this short little article. I am amazed at the intellectual laziness of President Trump and much of his administration. As I have noted before I have never seen an administration more ignorant of history than this one. That stems from the top. Our President is not an intellectual by any means, but this could be excused if he was not intellectually lazy and apparently not interested in learning anything new that does not already fit into his rather limited world view. It is obvious based on his Twitter feed that he spends hours a day watching Fox News rather than consulting with key advisers, studying policy, and attempting to understand foreign affairs, or anything else related to the being the President. His quip during the run up to the healthcare debacle “Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated,” sums up the man.

Besides his deep unrelenting narcissism, his paranoid and conspiracy filled worldview, his propensity to be untruthful even in small things, his lack of intellectual curiosity, his lack of interest in day to day policy, and his unwillingness to learn either from his mistakes or the mistakes of others is dangerous and unforgivable. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” Sadly our President has not shown a wiliness to learn.

French historian Marc Bloch, who died fighting for the resistance in Nazi occupied France noted that: “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past…

This is nothing new, Isaac Asimov noted that “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Despite the high bar set by our Founders, who were men of the Enlightenment who believed in reason and seeking truth for truth’s sake, we have a terrible record in our practice, and we are observing the dreadful results every day.

The understanding of the past and the ability to relate it to the present, or have advisors who can, is sine qua non, or an indispensable and essential part of being the President. History does not suffer fools gladly, and for nations, the price of willful ignorance by their leaders is always high, and often fatal.

With that I wish you a good day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Battling Holocaust Deniers one Day at a Time

Babi Yar

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have a policy on Holocaust denial on my site. If someone denies the Holocaust or tries to minimize it I delete their post. That might sound somewhat restrictive, but I will not give them the space on my site to posit their race hatred and justification of genocide in any way shape or form. It used to be that I would spar with them, but I realized that by doing so I gave them a sense of acceptability, and when some proceeded to make physical threats against me for opposing their ideas I realized that I couldn’t go down that road anymore.

That being said, every so often I get comments from Holocaust deniers, as well as Japanese deniers of the Rape of Nanking and other Japanese atrocities in Asia during the 1930s and World War II. The Japanese Nanking deniers are almost always Right Wing revisionists and hyper-nationalists who subscribe to the racial theory that the Chinese and other non-Japanese are less than human. But I’ve never had an American take issue with Nanking while almost all of my holocaust deniers are Americans who not only deny the Holocaust, but who subscribe to the most base and repulsive theories of anti-Semitism, and White Supremacy.

I had yet another one of those last week who ripped into me on the Nazi massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar, in which over 33,771 Jews were marched out of Kiev and shot on the 29th and 30th of September 1941. There were 29 survivors who managed to escape the death pits by feigning and climbing out after dark. Massacres of more than 100,000 other people, mostly non-Jews continued until November. The number of Jews killed was documented by the Commander of the Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C which conducted the massacre. The Einsatzgruppe men were assisted by troops from two Police Battalions and Waffen SS troops with support from the Wehrmacht.  Both the records of the Einsatzgruppe and the testimony of SS men who took part is damning enough, yet my denier critic had the nerve to say “There was no such massacre – it is just another example of war time atrocity propaganda.”

I since he decided to leave his email address and website I decided to do a little investigation and found that he is full of these zingers and an avid supporter of President Trump. He plays fast and loose with the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust and claims that “It is currently illegal in many European nations to question the official or generally accepted account of the holocaust of European Jewry during the Second World War.” Of course that is not true, in fact in most of Europe the archives are open, the documents assessable, and the evidence undeniable. The problem is that the evidence is so great that any to deny it or attempt to revise it deserves both public ridicule and academic scorn. There are laws against Holocaust denial in many European countries precisely because it was such a horrific chapter in human history that it cannot be minimized or defended.

James Morcan in his book Debunking Holocaust Denial Theories wrote something very true that I am all too aware of: “Unfortunately, the historicity of the Holocaust has been undermined and chipped away at by the exact same sinister forces that created the genocide in the first place: racists, religious bigots and the most paranoid type of conspiracy theorists who, together, are uniting – often unwittingly – to form a new wave of anti-Semitism that will not willingly accept the obvious facts of the past. This chipping away (at the truth) began slowly and insidiously – much like the Holocaust itself – but sadly, and worryingly, it is gathering pace.” 

It is interesting to read through the man’s blog and see that his issue is not about anti-Semitism, as he is exceptionally anti-Semitic, nor is it about the killing of the Jews, just the number. It seems that he, like the other deniers can lessen the number that somehow it becomes more acceptable and over time forgettable. I will not open this site up to Holocaust deniers, but to its affirmers either.

The sad thing for us as a nation is that quite a few Holocaust deniers and affirmers have the ear of the President and people in his administration. This makes the topic all too relevant. As Marc Bloch wrote “we can truly understand the past only if we read it in light of the present.”

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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Ideological Opinion: The Enemy of Knowledge

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Salman Rushdie one wrote: “The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

We seem to be at another crossroads in Western civilization, a crossroads where the classic liberalism that was the basis for democratic societies is being stampeded by zealots of various persuasions who guided by the supposed infallibility of their ideological belief systems, deliberately and without remorse seek to destroy the institutions that are the guardians of liberty.

We have seen the results of such movements in history before and each time they succeed in gaining power they have brought disaster to nations, and sometimes the world.

Proponents of ideological purity assume that their ideological bias is equivalent to sacred truth, be it a religious or secular truth. The promoters of such systems promote something more than their opinion, as Hannah Arendt noted: “For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man.”  As such, ideology is not based on knowledge, but is distinct from it and the enemy of knowledge for it binds the mind in a straitjacket in which all thought must be submitted to the truth of the ideology. As Arendt noted such ideologies must be handled with caution as theypretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.”  An ideology protects the believer from having to think for himself, it allows the insecure to grasp at the protection that it allegedly provides, and allows the believer to deny reality, and to by definition declare everything that contradicts the ideology to be heretical, and opponents to be aligned with the devil himself, allowing the believer to hate the opponent. As Eric Hoffer noted, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” 

My favorite television character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader in The Blacklist once said “I know so many zealots, men and women, who chose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and to do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” The fact is, no matter how stridently they espouse their beliefs, ideologues are by definition not courageous, because courage takes critical thinking, something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing.

It takes no courage to be an ideologue, and once a person surrenders to an ideology as his or her reason for existence, they sacrifice the ability to reason, the ability to think critically, and the capacity to acquire knowledge. That is the danger of the blind ideologies that are consuming our world today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

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