Tag Archives: democracy

The Psychology Of Dictatorship: Why Don’t We Learn From History?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another weekend, another attack on a synagogue, and another crazed rally in which the President again made wild swings directed at his opponents and admitted it was his “sick idea” to try to send detainees from the border to Sanctuary Cities. His words, his sick idea, even as his Attorney General hints that he will not submit to testifying to Congress on the Muller Report.

Normal American Presidents and their officials do not carry on this way. Dictators do, but not American Presidents, however it is part and parcel of everything that the President and his administration says or does. So tonight I am reposting something that I wrote a while back after reading British Military Historian Sir Basil Liddell-Hart’s little, but important book, “Why Don’t We Learn From History.”

NPG x25404; Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart by Howard Coster

B.H. Liddell-Hart

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have Read the short but poignant little but by the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart entitled Why Don’t We Learn from History, several times. The book was written in not long before his death in 1970 and it is good quite good. It deals with a number of issues, including the conflict between history and propaganda; or when faith, especially religious faith as treated as historic or scientific fact; and when propaganda or faith is preached as if it were history, if it were truth. In doing this he also contrasted democracy and lure of totalitarianism.

Liddell-Hart was a realist, especially about democracy and totalitarianism. He served on the Western Front in the First World War and was wounded in a German gas attack. Between the wars he was one of the theorists of armored warfare and the use of tanks in a combined arms force, and he was also quite observant of the trends toward totalitarianism in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Hart, like many others admitted the inefficiencies of democracy, however, he realized that it was far less dangerous than the “stupidity” of totalitarianism. In fact it was important for him to note just how this inefficient system was for freedom. He wrote:

“What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.”

There is much to ponder in his book and I will be posting some more of my thoughts on it, but when I looked at it again I was struck by just how much Liddell-Hart in his description of a despot described President Donald Trump through the his campaign and after his election and inauguration.

“We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern. In gaining power: They exploit, consciously or unconsciously, a state of popular dissatisfaction with the existing regime or of hostility between different sections of the people. They attack the existing regime violently and combine their appeal to discontent with unlimited promises (which, if successful, they fulfil only to a limited extent). They claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but “find” subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes). They excite popular sympathy by presenting the picture of a conspiracy against them and use this as a lever to gain a firmer hold at some crucial stage.” 

Once authoritarian, despotic, or dictatorial leaders gain power through the democratic process they seldom deviate from how they behave when seeking power. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“We learn from history that time does little to alter the psychology of dictatorship. The effect of power on the mind of the man who possesses it, especially when he has gained it by successful aggression, tends to be remarkably similar in every age and in every country.”

So please, take a breathe for a second and think about this in terms of President Trump and his actions during his first two weeks in office. Liddell-Hart noted that once a despot achieves power that their reign is marked by the following types of events:

“On gaining power:  They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it. 

They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy. They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends. 

They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public. 

They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality. 

They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward. 

They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people. 

They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created. 

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.”

Now pause for a moment. This is happening all over the world. It began again in Vladimir Putin’s Russia around 2010 and under a veneer of democratic “voting” Putin has become for all intents and purposes the dictator of Russia for as long as he desires. In Turkey Recip Erdogan has done the same thing, and it has also started in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In China President Xi managed to abrogate the Chinese Communist Constitution to become ruler for life.

In the United States Donald Trump has been in office for about 27 months. Look at how he is behaving. Read his words, examine his actions, and not just during his presidency but throughout his business career and his campaign for the presidency. Then look at how his followers take it all in.

Then, take the time to let Liddell-Hart’s words sink in.

This is something to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary

Just Gods and a Good Life: Marcus Aurelius and St. Paul for today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight, just a short thought from the great Roman Statesman, Emperor, and Philosopher, Marcus Aurelius:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

I try to live my life in that manner as. Christian. St. Paul himself said “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” So by some chance if we as Christians are wrong, we should always look back to the words of Marcus Aurelius.

I’m not going anywhere else with this tonight,

So Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, History, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion

We Could Use a Man (or Woman) Like Franklin Roosevelt Again

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If I had to place myself on the political spectrum it would be in the area occupied by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I am definitely a liberal, I can no longer claim to be a conservative by any means of the imagination, but as a historian I am very careful in embracing the extremes of left, or right wing populism, the very things which are driving much of the political division in our country. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was wise enough to state:

“Say that civilization is a tree which, as it grows, continually produces rot and dead wood. The radical says: “Cut it down.” The conservative says: “Don’t touch it.” The liberal compromises: “Let’s prune, so that we lose neither the old trunk nor the new branches.” This campaign is waged to teach the country to march upon its appointed course, the way of change, in an orderly march, avoiding alike the revolution of radicalism and the revolution of conservatism.”

Of course there were quite a few conservatives and progressives of his time who loathes and attempted to obstruct, hamper, or defeat Roosevelt’s New Deal. But what many didn’t understand was that Roosevelt was willing to risk failure so long as he learned from it and succeeded in the end.

As Historian John Meacham wrote:

“Disappointed liberals lobbied the president to move more quickly on social and economic issues. “You’ll never be a good politician,” FDR once told Eleanor, who frequently presented such pleas to her husband. “You are too impatient.” At a White House meeting, Roosevelt parried a questioner with a lesson in practical politics. Lincoln, Roosevelt said, “was a sad man because he couldn’t get it all at once. And nobody can. Maybe you would make a much better President than I have. Maybe you will, someday. If you ever sit here, you will learn that you cannot, just by shouting from the housetops, get what you want all the time.” He sometimes turned to sports to make his point. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” Roosevelt remarked. “What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”

Likewise, Meacham noted:

“He argued that leadership, even his own, was imperfect. A wise public, Roosevelt believed, would give a well-meaning, forward-leaning president the benefit of the doubt. “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something…. We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely.”

The situation confronting Roosevelt is little different than we face today. There are political forces on the extreme left and right that have little regard for what has been accomplished in the American experiment, and who as Roosevelt noted either want to cut it down completely, or change nothing, as if two and a half-centuries have not passed. As Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Meacham noted of Roosevelt:

Sustained by this view of progress, Roosevelt urged the nation onward. “We shall strive for perfection,” Roosevelt said. “We shall not achieve it immediately—but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes—but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle…. Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy.”

Abraham Lincoln understood this when in the Gettysburg Address he noted:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Roosevelt understood, just as Lincoln did that our system, form, and institutions were under attack from many sides, thus we all must take increased devotion… that this nation, under, God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from thee earth.”

I am going to stop for now. I am about two-thirds of the way through Meacham’s book and about 1/3 of the way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times, which looks at the lives, failures, and ultimate successes of the leadership styles of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

It seams that now regardless of what party or ideology we espouse, we want absolute doctrinal purity. Certainly that was not what our founders thought, nor men like Franklin Roosevelt. Our Republic can be destroyed by the radicalism of the Right and Left, but also the complacency of the Center, which by ignoring the the crisis engulfing the country only make the crisis worse. Hannah Arendt noted:

“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.”

I am a liberal, a progressive, and a Democrat, but I am as much as of a realist as Franklin Roosevelt. Our Union is imperfect, but just because it is so it should not be cut down and destroyed, nor ignored and uncultivated by progress. The grafting of new branches onto the old stock is not a travesty, or a threat. It is the ideal that motivated the Founders was not that they were achieving perfection in the moment, but that they were planting ideals that would ultimately be universal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Such thoughts are now part of the Constitutions of other countries and the United Nations. If we want to look into the imaginary future they are included as part of the Constitution of the United Federation of Planets.

We live in a nation whose past is far from perfect, a nation that has deviated from its foundational principles all too many times, that being said, Franklin Roosevelt, understood this as fact. He did not try to mythologize our past. He sought the best from that ancient trunk and grafted on, as Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt before him, as well as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson did after him, ideas that expanded liberty for all, without which the radicals of the right or left fail to appreciate.

Roosevelt spoke during his nomination speech at the 1932 Democratic Party Convention:

“Wild radicalism has made few converts, and the greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of the millions of our people who have suffered so much,” Roosevelt said. “To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience.

The forces of progress, Roosevelt believed, were not to cower or to lash out, but to engage. “To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster,” he said. “Reaction is no barrier to the radical. It is a challenge, a provocation. The way to meet that danger is to offer a workable program of reconstruction, and the party to offer it is the party with clean hands.

He then introduced a crucial phrase: “I pledge you, I pledge myself,” FDR said, “to a New Deal for the American people.” The crisis was existential. “His impulse,” Winston Churchill wrote of FDR in the mid-1930s, “is one which makes toward the fuller life of the masses of the people in every land, and which, as it glows the brighter, may well eclipse both the lurid flames of German Nordic self-assertion and the baleful unnatural lights which are diffused from Soviet Russia.”

That is how I view the situation today. As far as it goes, those who consider themselves to be Democratic Socialists are little more than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F Kennedy, or Lyndon Baines Johnson Democrats. They believe in the New Deal, Civil Rights, and the Great Society. They also believe in the realities of science and Climate Change and seek answers that work with our economic and scientific realities, like their predecessors they believe in the instruments of the future. In the past it was fossile fuels and nuclear power; now it is wind power, and solar energy, combined with the cleanest and most efficient forms of past energy. None of those ideas are radical, they are progressive, economically sound, job producing, and environmentally friendly policies that could help reverse the scourge of global warming, sea rise, and climate change.

Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt realized the dangers of Stalinist Communism and Hitlerian Fascism, which he saw as a threat to the United States in the 1930s, but in the short term he realized that the Nazi threat was the greatest threat, and allied with Britain, the Soviet Union, Free France, and China to defeat Germany first, Japan next, and then deal with the Soviet Union using the full power of the nation; Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic to achieve the overthrow of the Soviet Union. That did not happen until 1990, but when it did a plethora of Soviet dominated regimes fell in Eastern Europe. Since that time the Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have surrendered many of those gains and allowed a New expansionist, Soviet Union, albeit without the Soviet Name to be reestablished in Russia under Vladimir Putin.

I won’t go into the other overseas threats, but he would recognize the danger of President Trump’s “America First” policy which is little different from the America Firsters of his era. He looked forward, they looked back. He looked at a world that might overwhelm the United States, the threats of Naziism, Fascism, and Stalinist Communism, and in spite of resistance from his own party and the Republican isolationists who adopted the America First ideology of men like Charles Lindberg which would have surrendered all of Europe, including Great Britain to the Nazis because it was nothing more than an intra-racial struggle and not one against inferior races. Even after Hitler overran Poland and Western Europe Lindberg argued:

“for leaving the Old World to its own devices. “Now that war has broken out again, we in America have a decision to make on which the destiny of our nation depends,” Lindbergh said, adding: “In making our decision, this point should be clear: these wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder. There is no Genghis Khan or Xerxes marching against our Western nations. This is not a question of banding together to defend the White race against foreign invasion. This is simply one more of those age-old quarrels within our own family of nations.”

Roosevelt knew that was nonsense. He worked patiently with congress on both sides of the aisle, building his case in spite of resistance until Hitler attacked Poland, and overran most of Western Europe, Roosevelt’s policy ideas were ratified into policy. When Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States he was able to act.

Roosevelt brought the country together. He helped to maintain at disparate alliance between Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. It was courageous, as Meacham noted:

” A man of courage, Churchill appreciated it when he detected courage in others, and he had seen it, intimately, in Franklin Roosevelt. “It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm,” Churchill said of FDR’s paralysis. “Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.”

We need a leader like Franklin Roosevelt now. Personally, I am not sure if any of the challengers to Donald Trump has the gravitas, courage, or determination to go where Roosevelt went. He was willing to risk failure, admit it and try again. I don’t know if our political culture, at least the political culture of the Democratic Party would allow it. The Republicans don’t seem to care as is obvious by their continued support of Donald Trump, and his policies which are nothing short of Lindberg’s America First campaign, Hitler’s racial politics, and American Jim Crow laws.

Roosevelt began the domestic and international policies that Donald Trump fights against on a daily basis. I don’t know what Democratic candidate that will be, but it has to someone has to fully embrace the Roosevelt legacy and push it to the future. As Roosevelt showed this has to me more than about sound bites; it has to be about truth, integrity, and the willingness to engage with and even at times compromise with domestic political rivals in order to preserve the Republic against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But none of the Democratic Party candidates have yet to show me that they have the moral, or physical courage of Roosevelt who battled polio which deprived him of much of his mobility and physical abilities when he was 39 years old. Maybe if Senator Tammy Duckworth would enter the race I might see a candidate with that kind of courage. If she would enter the race, win the nomination, and the presidency, she would be the first female, combat vet and wounded warrior to serve as president.

I would like that very much.

But, until tomorrow we have what we have.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, national security, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

“We do not Foolishly Suppose that Victory on the Battlefield will Gaurentee Democracy at Home: Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn’s Sermon at the Dedication of the Cemetery on Iwo Jima

39GittelsonIwoJima2

Rabbi Roland Gittelson, Chaplain Corps U.S. Navy

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been serving in the military for almost 38 years between the Army and the Navy, and I have been a chaplain for almost 27 of those years. Over six of those years as a Navy Chaplain were spent serving with the Marine Corps. During that time I have gotten to know, respect, and become with Jewish Rabbis serving in the Chaplan Corps. There are not many of them currently serving, and like so much of American religion, they are divided into different denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. Like all current military personnel they are volunteers. The Rabbis I have served with are primarily Reformed or Conservative, and all have done what they could to care for the spiritual needs of all who come to them. They serve in the highest tradition of the Chaplain Corps, and fight for and preserve the religious freedoms of  all personnel.

Like them, Rabbi Roland Gittelson volunteered to serve as a Navy Chaplain in the Second World War and like many Navy Chaplains he was assigned to serve with the Marines. He was the first Rabbi to serve with the Marines.

He went ashore with the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima. The battle was one of the most brutal ever fought by the Marines. In the month long battle for the 8.1 square mile island the Marines and Navy suffered nearly 7,000 men killed and 19,000 wounded. Over 18,000 of the island’s Japanese defenders died. On March 21st 1945 the Rabbi was one of the Chaplains to dedicate the cemetery for the fallen. The prejudice was such that many of his Christian colleagues wanted nothing to do with him and nothing to do with any service that he conducted. Though the division Chaplain had wanted him to conduct the main service to commemorate all of the fallen: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, White, Black, and Mexican because no one else would conduct an ecumenical service, but both realized that the push back would be too much, so Gittelsohn conducted the Jewish service, expecting little to come of it except for the spiritual impact that it might have on his Jewish Marines, but unbeknownst to him a few Protestant Chaplains watched the service and then distributed it throughout the division and back to home.

Rabbi Gittelsohn’s message is one of the most remarkable that I have heard or read by any Chaplain and is very similar to the message of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is a message that needs to be heard today. That is why I am posting it here.

Have a great weekend,

Peace

Padre Steve+

This is perhaps the grimmest and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now a man who was destined to be a great prophet—to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.

It is not easy to do so. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because men who lie here beneath us had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.”

No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our division who are not here have already done. All that we can even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that, by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it is the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.

We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago, helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor—together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Any man among us the living who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, them, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.

To one thing more do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America’s fighting men, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation’s struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here; we will not do that! We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia—in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died.

When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those whose eyes are turned backward not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this, too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man! We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers, will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.

When the final cross has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen! We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again men seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

This do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain! Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come—we promise—the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.

Amen.

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Filed under faith, History, Military, Religion, US Marine Corps, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Defending “The New Birth of Freedom” The Gettysburg Address in the Age of Trump

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19th November 1863: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom (Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The weekend before Donald Trump was elected President I was at Gettysburg with my students from the Staff College. We finished our staff ride at the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. My practice as always was to close the staff ride by reading his address. I always get a bit choked up when I read it because I realize just how important what he said was then, and still is today. That Sunday it was as if I saw the Confederate hordes advancing upon Cemetery Ridge and the fate of the country hanging in the balance.

I had already seen the assaults on our Republic and Constitution by Donald Trump and his supporters, and that particular day I was full of dread. I knew that if Trump won, and his supporters on the Alt-Right have their way, our system of government will be destroyed, the civil liberties that the men who died at Gettysburg to establish, would be curtailed or even rolled back. I feared, and it turns out quite rightly, that if Trump won, that civil rights would be threatened or rolled back, that White Nationalists would be emboldened, and racist violence and anti-Semitic attacks would increase exponentially. I would have preferred to be wrong, but I was right.

In November of 1863 Abraham Lincoln was sick when when he traveled by train from Washington DC to Gettysburg. When Lincoln delivered the address, he was suffering from what was mostly likely a mild form of Smallpox. Thus the tenor, simplicity and philosophical depth of his address are even more remarkable. It is a speech given in the manner of Winston Churchill’s “Blood sweat toil and tears” address to Parliament upon his appointment as Prime Minister in May, 1940. Likewise it echoes the Transcendentalist understanding of the Declaration of Independence as a “test for all other things.”

Many people in the United States and Europe did not agree with Lincoln’s restatement of the founding premise of the Declaration of Independence. Opponents argued that no nation found on such principles could long survive. The more reactionary European subscribers of Romanticism ridiculed the “idea that a nation could be founded on a proposition….and they were not reluctant to point to the Civil War as proof that attempting to build a government around something as bloodless and logical as a proposition was futile.” [1]

As late as 1848, the absolute monarchies of Europe had fought against and put down with force revolutionary movements attempting to imitate the American experiment. Many of the revolutionaries from Germany, Poland, and other nations fled to the United States, where 15 years later, clad in the Blue of the United States Army fought to preserve that experiment on the battlefields of the American Civil War, including Gettysburg.

But Lincoln disagreed with the conservative reactionaries of Europe, or the American Slave owning aristocracy. He believed that Americans would fight to defend that proposition. He believed that the “sacrifices of Gettysburg, Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chancellorsville, and a hundred other places demonstrated otherwise, that men would die rather than to lose hold of that proposition. Reflecting on that dedication, the living should themselves experience a new birth of freedom, a determination- and he drove his point home with a deliberate evocation of the great Whig orator Daniel Webster- “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” [2]

The Unitarian pastor, abolitionist, and leading Transcendentalist thinker, Theodore Parker wrote:

“Our national ideal out-travels our experience, and all experience. We began our national career by setting all history at defiance – for that said, “A republic on a large scale cannot exist.” Our progress since that has shown that we were right in refusing to be limited by the past. The practical ideas of the nation are transcendent, not empirical. Human history could not justify the Declaration of Independence and its large statements of the new idea: the nation went beyond human history and appealed to human nature.” [3]

Lincoln’s address echoes the thought of historian George Bancroft, who wrote of the Declaration:

“The bill of rights which it promulgates is of rights that are older than human institutions, and spring from the eternal justice…. The heart of Jefferson in writing the Declaration, and of Congress in adopting it, beat for all humanity; the assertion of right was made for the entire world of mankind and all coming generations, without any exceptions whatsoever.” [4]

Theodore Parker’s words also prefigured an idea that Lincoln used in his address. Parker, like Lincoln believed that: “the American Revolution, with American history since, is an attempt to prove by experience this transcendental proposition, to organize the transcendental idea of politics. The ideal demands for its organization a democracy- a government of all, for all, and by all…” [5]

Following a train trip to Gettysburg and an overnight stay, Lincoln delivered these immortal words on that November afternoon:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[6]

In a time where many are wearied by the foibles and follies of our politicians, especially a man as singularity ill-equipped and ill-tempered as Donald Trump, Lincoln’s words still matter. Since Trump’s election he, and his supporters, many of whom are White Nationalists, and authoritarians have moved on many fronts to curtail civil rights and re-establish White rule in a way unseen since secession, and Jim Crow. So far our institutions have held, but there is no guarantee that they will. In such an environment, one has to wonder if our very form of government can survive.

But it is important that they do, and despite our weariness, we need to continue to fight for those ideals, even when the world seems to be closing in around us as it must have seemed following Lee’s initial success on the first day of battle at Gettysburg.

Dr. Allen Guelzo, Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College wrote in the New York Times:

“The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.” [7]

Dr. Guelzo is quite correct. Many people in this country and around the world are having grave doubts about our democracy. I wonder myself, but I am an optimist, and despite my doubts, I have to believe that we will eventually recover.

Admittedly, that is an act of faith based on our historical resiliency, and ability to overcome the stupidity of politicians, pundits and preacher, including the hate filled message of Donald Trump and his White Supremacist supporters, especially supposedly “conservative ” Christians. That doesn’t mean that I am not afraid for our future, or that despite my belief that our institutions will hold. Historian, Timothy Snyder correctly noted:

“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.”

The amazing thing during the Civil War was that in spite of everything, the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that. His steady leadership and unfailing resolve help see the Republic through manifold disasters.

But, it was the men who left lives of comfort and security to defend the sacred principles of the Declaration, like Joshua Chamberlain, and many others who brought about that victory. Throughout the war, even to the end Southern political leaders failed to understand that Union men would fight and die for an ideal, something greater than themselves, the preservation of the Union and the freedom of an enslaved race. For those men that volunteered to serve, the war was not about personal gain, loot or land, it was about something greater. It was about freedom, and when we finally realize this fact, and take up the cause that they fought and died for, then maybe, just maybe, we can contemplate the real meaning of “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.d. [8]

Now, I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln on that day at Gettysburg. I can understand the cynicism disillusionment of Americans, as well as those around the world who have for over 200 years looked to us and our system as a “city set on a hill.” That being said, when I read these words and walk the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, I am again a believer. I believe that we can realize the ideal, even in our lifetime should we decide to again believe in that proposition and be willing to fight, or even die for it. Of course, it is quite possible that we will not measure up to the example set by Lincoln and the men who fought for the Union at Gettysburg. If we don’t, The blame will be upon all of us.

So, have a great day and please stop to think about how important Lincoln’s words remain as we wait to see what the next day of Trump’s America brings.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening p.409

[2] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening p.408

[3] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.110

[4] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.105

[5] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.105

[6] Lincoln, Abraham The Gettysburg Address the Bliss Copy retrieved from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

[7] Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Sound Bite: Have Faith in DemocracyNew York Time Opinionator, November 17th 2013 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/lincolns-sound-bite-have-faith-in-democracy/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 July 18th 2014

[8] Ibid. McPherson This Hallowed Ground p.138

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Trump’s Freedom

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As I have thought about the actions of President Trump of the last day and a half I remembered the words of historian Timothy Snyder. He wrote in his book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America:

“Authoritarianism begins when we can no longer tell the difference between the true and the appealing. At the same time, the cynic who decides that there is no truth at all is the citizen who welcomes the tyrant.”

Sadly it seems that there are many Americans, a vocal minority who can no longer tell the difference between truth and what they find appealing. Much of this cannot be ascribed to any other motive than racism, admitted or not. Likewise, there is probably a larger number of Americans who have become so cynical that they have made the decision that there is no truth. They are the people who make authoritarian regimes possible.

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 a big part of the danger that we face today. Such people become the willing functionaries who drive the machine of the criminal state.

Primo Levi wrote:

 “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” 

Be whether they are true believers of lies, or the cynics who have stopped believing in truth make possible the existence and functionality of the criminal authoritarian state. Both the true believers and the cynics refuse any personal responsibility and commit themselves to a system that knows no bounds of cruelty or lawlessness. Hoffer wrote:

“There is also this: when we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”

So anyway, Judy is getting her first knee replacement surgery tomorrow so I will sign off for tonight.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Limit of Soldierly Obedience: Ludwig Beck and a Lesson for Officials in Authoritarian States

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

While we were in Berlin I visited the German Resistance Memorial Center. The museum is located in what was the headquarters of the German Army in World War One, the Weimar Republic, and during the Nazi Era. On July 20th 1944, German Army officers attempted to kill Adolf Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, and end the war. Sadly, they failed in their attempt and most of those involved were tried and executed for what their criminal government considered treason.

Of course by the law of their times their act was treasonous, but morally it was all that men and women committed to the rule of law and human rights could do. The officers involved had all sworn a personal oath of obedience to Adolf Hitler as the Führer and Reichskanzler of Germany in 1934. At the time most of the men who swore that oath did not anticipate what would come. Many of the older officers had served in the Imperial Army and sworn an oath to the Kaiser and their dynasties of the lands where they entered service. That changed in 1918 when the Weimar Republic came into existence and military officers as well as civil servants swore an oath to the constitution rather than a person.

A year after Hitler came to power as Reichskanzler, President Hindenburg died. Hitler, seized the opportunity used the occasion to swear the military, as well as the civil service to a new oath. This oath was not to the Constitution, or to Office of thePresidency or Chancellor, but to him personally as the Führer and Reichskanzler.

Most officers and civil servants, even those uncomfortable with Hitler’s policies obeyed their oaths and simply stayed in their lanes and did their jobs, even when they had incontrovertible evidence of Nazi atrocities.

Yet there were others who for a number of reasons, in some cases noble, and in others pragmatic, or even base, decided to break the oath they had sworn to Hitler in 1934. Among these men was General Ludwig Beck. Beck noted:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

With the rise of legally elected authoritarian rulers in Europe and the Americas should concern men and women who have sworn to uphold the constitutions of their countries. These leaders campaigning against democratic institutions, and upon gaining power purge those institutions of opponents and use them to solidify their own power. The veneer of democracy is maintained while the soul of it is crushed. Too often those charged with guarding it are willing participants in its death, soldiers, civil servants, judges, and legislators.

That is what Beck understood. He resigned his office as Chief of Staff of the German Army in 1938 over Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia, became a member of the anti-Hitler resistance and died in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th 1944. He was a career Army officer and a conservative, but he realized that there are limits to obedience in the face of evil.

I fear that there are many men and women in nations whose democratic institutions are being subordinated to authoritarian rulers who will not rise to the occasion and allow those institutions and eventually their nations to perish. Sadly, that also includes those in the United States.

I will leave you with that thought for the evening.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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