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If Liberty Dies in Our Hearts, no Constitution Law or Court Can Save It: A Meditation on Independence Day in the Trump Era

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been contemplating the ideas of liberty and freedom this week. I intentionally did not watch the President’s speech at Mount Rushmore for after what he did at Lafayette Park and in front of St. John’s Church on June 2nd showed me that when he speaks of freedom, he speaks of his own, and when he speaks of liberty it is for the few, and servitude for the masses, and yes those masses include the bulk of the men and women that blindly follow him. So instead I read the official transcript today and look at images and videos as well.

Nothing I read in it surprised me. It was as scripted as Leni Reifenstahl’s Film of the Nuremberg rallies, right to Trump making a flyover in Air Force One. After a series of platitudes invoking the President’s whose images are carved on that mountain, and a brief mention of American greatness, which he promised would “soon be greater.”  He made a perfunctory reference to the Declaration’s words that “all men are created equal,” words that only serve to camouflage a life and presidency that denies them, the protections of the Bill of Rights, and the guardrails of the Constitution and our institutions that curb the ability of one man to violate the Constitution and our laws, and surrender our nation into the hands of an avowed enemy, Russia, in word, thought, and deed.

He then went into a diatribe against attacking statues and memorials around the country, without mentioning that the primary memorials were those to Confederates, Slave Owners, traders, as well as those that helped exterminate the vast majority of indigenous, or native peoples of this land including the ancestors of the people who protested outside the park, for the land had been ceded to their ancestors in the Treaty of Laramie of 1868, and was considered sacred to the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Sioux, and Arapahoe tribes that agreed to that treaty with the United States. .I will come back to that later.

Interestingly, he mentioned the Battle of Gettysburg and other Civil War battles without mentioning why they were fought, at was as if the rebellion of the Confederacy a nation founded “upon the cornerstone of slavery,”  In Trump’s speech it was was if the cause of the Confederate rebellion never existed, and the lives shed to preserve the Union and in turn emancipate Black slaves didn’t matter. Like everything else in  his speech it was designed to camouflage and obscure his actions to disenfranchise Blacks, and to treat them as less than citizens, because for him the understanding is that Black Rights do not matter, and the rallying cry of many “Black Lives Matter” is uniquely anti-American and anti-freedom, that is his understanding that it is his freedom, and the liberty of the few that matter. No one else.

Of course  slavery, its continued existence where it was already legal as well is expansion by whatever means into new territories, reintroducing it to the Free States, and invading Cuba, and Central American nations to expand it, was the first reason cited in every Confederate State’s ordinance of Secession, and in Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’  Cornerstone Speech. 

In his speech, Trump never mentioned slavery, emancipation, of for that matter the evils committed in the name of racism against newly freed Blacks, Jim Crow, the thousands of Lynchings, the massacre of whole towns, or sections of cities by the terrorist paramilitaries of the White Leagues, Red Shirts, White Liners, and of course the Ku Klux Klan, of which Trump’s father was a member of, even being arrested at a Klan demonstration in New York in the 1920s.

He made no distinctions, but lumped anyone who disagreed with him into people who hated the United States and it’s history and were determined to overthrow America. It was a speech as vilifying as any made by Senator Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s. This should not be surprising, because Trump’s mentor was none other than McCarthy’s counsel when he was shot down in his crusade to accuse Army leaders of being communists, or supporting communism, Roy Cohn, in 1954.

In effect Trump declared over 60% of Americans were revolutionaries and traitors, with the implication that only he could stop them. It was about his authoritarian vision of Law and Order. It was Orwellian in structure. Based on his actions at Lafayette Park, I know what he will do if he feels threatened. His speech at Mount Rushmore was a prelude to what he will do if he gets the chance, and if the military follows his orders. As a historian I wanted to throw up.

But, back to that mountain and the land around it. As I mentioned, that land was ceded by treaty to the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Sioux, and the Arapaho in 1868. The treaty was to be observed by all parties. Instead in less than years, the treaty was revoked with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills  in 1877, though incidents of U.S. citizens violating the treaty went unpunished by the U.S. Government which also hamstrung and prevented the Sioux from punishing offenders. For Americans guided by Manifest Destiny it was only the latest action in a century of American crimes against humanity in the continued genocide of the indigenous tribes that began when Europeans colonized the Americas beginning in the 1500s, but in the British colonies beginning beginning at Jamestown in 1607, and the Plymouth Bay, later the Massachusetts Bay Colony a Little over a decade later.

Judge Learned Hand 

I will finish this article with an excerpt of Judge Learned Hand, of the 2nd Appeals Court, considered by many to be the greatest American jurist never appointed to the Supreme Court. In his I am an American Speech of May 21st 1944 in New York’s Central Park he addressed nearly a million and a half people, in a speech given at a naturalization ceremony for new immigrant citizens. In it he stressed that all Americans were immigrants who had come to America in search of liberty. Liberty, he said, was not located in America’s constitutions, laws, and courts, but in the hearts of the people.

In the most frequently cited section of the speech he said:

What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it… What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

The interesting thing is that while Hand referenced Jesus in the speech, is that he had abandoned the Christian Faith while at Harvard, and became an agnostic and skeptic, that he at least hoped for some kind of cosmic justice where the least would be equal to the greatest. Likewise, his words as to what freedom really is stand in stark contrast to everything Trump and his loyal supporters who consider everyone else an enemy and traitor, as Hand so rightly predicted:

What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.

Sadly, we have seen that happen before our very eyes and it will continue for as long as Trump is in power or people who follow his  totalitarian beliefs, and perversions of history, overt racism, and denial of civil, voting, economic and religious rights of his opponents is practiced, be it at the Federal, state, or local level. Trump and his most committed followers are savage, with no understanding, appreciation, or respect of the culture, laws, and freedoms, they presume to defend.

Tonight, I watched the film Gettysburg. It is one of my favorites, even though it can cut though its errors, and somewhat mythologized depiction of some of the leaders portrayed in the movie. But in it there is an exchange between Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and an old Irish former Regular Army soldier named Buster Kilrain, who is more of a composite character than an actual historical character, but it is worth mentioning, because it contradicts everything that Trump shows in thought, word and deed on a daily basis. I can identify with Kilrain. As someone who is roughly 43% Irish by my DNA, and the son of a Navy Chief, educated in desegregated public schools and universities, I could not be considered a part of Trump’s sheltered rich, white elite. Likewise, as a Priest, career military officer and seminary graduate, there is much I can identify with in Chamberlain. The dialogue between the men is fascinating because it reveals my own inner struggle as a human being.

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: Tell me something, Buster. What do you think of Negroes?

Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Well, if you mean the race, I don’t really know. This is not a thing to be ashamed of. The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time.

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: To me, there was never any difference.

Pvt. Buster Kilrain: None at all?

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: None at all. Of course, I haven’t known that many freed men, but those I knew in Bangor, Portland, you look in the eye, there was a man. There was a “divine spark,” as my mother used to call it. That is all there is to it. Races are men. “What a piece of work is man. How infinite in faculties, in form and moving. How express and admirable. In action, how like an angel.”

Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Well, if he’s an angel, all right then. But he damn well must be a killer angel. Colonel, darling, you’re a lovely man. I see a great vast difference between us, yet I admire you, lad. You’re an idealist, praise be. The truth is, Colonel, there is no “divine spark.” There’s many a man alive no more of value than a dead dog. Believe me. When you’ve seen them hang each other the way I have back in the Old Country. Equality? What I’m fighting for is the right to prove I’m a better man than many of them. Where have you seen this “divine spark” in operation, Colonel? Where have you noted this magnificent equality? No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance. Not a leaf, not a tree. There’s many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters, Colonel, is  justice. Which is why I’m here. I’ll be treated as I deserve. Not as my father deserved. I’m Kilrain, and I damn all gentlemen. There is only one aristocracy, and that is right here. [taps his temple]And that’s why we’ve got to win this war.

Today, I find myself agreeing with them and Judge Learned Hand. President Trump has declared war on a majority of American citizens, including me. On June 2nd for the first time in my life I felt like a President of the United States was threatening me, as a Priest, a citizen, and Naval Officer. I felt that again in his Mount Rushmore speech. I will respect his office and obey lawful orders, but my oath is to the Constitution of the United States, and not political leader or party. I will not remain silent when he attacks the very foundations of the United States to protect the racist monuments of the Confederacy and the other sordid actions of Americans, and other people who enslaved and committed genocide in the name of race and religion.

Donald Trump is an existential threat to every American who values liberty and freedom, and a man who would destroy his country in order to enrich and save himself, although I wonder if there can be salvation for anyone like him.

So, don’t forget why Independence Day matters, what our history really teaches, and that those who oppose Trump do not want to overthrow the United States, but seek to uphold and advance its highest ideals while being absolutely honest as to where we have failed as individuals and a nation to do so. That is patriotism. What Trump proclaims is a toxic nationalism. Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote in his book On Tyranny:

The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,” wrote Orwell, tends to be “uninterested in what happens in the real world.” Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, nationalism “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.” A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.

Trump is a nationalist in the tradition of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Putin, the Kims of North Korea, Erdogan, and so many other nationalists only concerned about their power over a state that can make their wishes come true.

So until tomorrow, with thoughts of true freedom, independence and the protections of basic human rights for all,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Incapable of Feeling Shame” The Moral Bankruptcy of the Trump Administration

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight I have just a short thought for us to ponder. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error.”

This statement is undeniably true. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, the Ayatollahs, and Pol Pot are just some examples. More troubling is that such personalities are not absent today, Vladimir Putin, Marianne LePen, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orbán our own President Trump display this tendency, and their most devoted followers embrace it as well.

In the case of President Trump, presidential power means never having to say your sorry, or made a mistake. Failures are blamed on others, Congressional leaders, former President’s Obama and Bush, journalists, and even advisors who have outlasted their usefulness, case in point, Michael Flynn, James Comey, Steve Bannon, H. R. McMaster, Reince Priebus, Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, Tom Price, Sebastian Gorka, and so many more. Conservative columnist and former Bush Administration staffer Michael Gerson wrote in July of 2017: “The president and his men are incapable of feeling shame about shameful things.”

The inability to admit error is dangerous, but it also points to other potentially severe psychological issues. It is one of the characteristics of a paranoid personality, as well as a narcissistic personality. Richard Hofstadter wrote:

“The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Likewise, even if those characteristics do not reach the point of becoming an actual psychological disorder, they can be severe enough to impair sound judgment as a leader, and lead to potentially terrible decisions including criminal acts so vast that they beggar the imagination. History shows us this all too often. These kinds of leaders see the world as a threatening place, full of enemies, real and imagined. Ethics and law are irrelevant to them so long as they win. The destruction of their enemies is of the first importance to such leaders, even when it is detrimental to the nations that they lead, even Hitler turned on Germany at the end of the Second World War because he lost the war and then blamed it on his people.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Trump’s America: Saving the Form but Not the Soul

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In light of how President Trump and many of his advisors and defenders treat the Constitution, the principles, and norms of the American Experiment I went back to re-read British military historian Sir Basil Liddell-Hart’s small but significant work Why Don’t We Learn from History?

In it he makes some observations that are very pertinent to today, in fact very chilling words. He noted:

“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.”

The President is an admirer of dictators and presumes himself to be above the Constitution and the laws that he swore to uphold. He uses the language and tactics of every aspiring despot labeling his critics as “enemies of the state” and uses his position for personal gain even initiates trade wars, alienates allies, praises dictators, and threatens nuclear war.

But his defenders and supporters don’t care. This includes those who are otherwise privately decent and law abiding people with supposedly Christian values tolerate and live their public lives by the code of social Darwinism.

“One can understand the point of view of the man who goes in for unabashed “piracy” and seeks his own profit regardless of others. He may draw his profit, although unconsciously his loss far exceeds it, because he is deadening his own soul.

But one cannot see sense, even of so shortsighted a kind, in those who maintain any standards of decency in private life yet advocate, or at least countenance, the law of the jungle in public and international affairs. More illogical still are those who talk of patriotic self-sacrifice and of its spiritual sublimity while preaching pure selfishness in world affairs.

What is the use of anyone sacrificing himself to preserve the country unless in the hope, and with the idea, of providing a chance to continue its spiritual progress toward becoming a better country? Otherwise he is merely helping to preserve the husk, saving the form but not the soul. Only a perverse patriotism is capable of such hopeless folly.

What is the value of patriotism if it means no more than a cat’s devotion to its own fireside rather than to human beings? And, like the cat, such a “patriot” is apt to get burned when the house catches fire.”

When I observe Trump, his administration, the Republican Congressional leaders, Evangelical Christians, and the Fox Propaganda Network I cannot but think of Liddell-Hart’s words and how relevant they are today.

When I swore my oath as a new Army Second Lieutenant in 1983 I swore that “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…” Since then I have served under six Presidents, four Republicans and two Democrats. I have found admirable characteristics in five of them even if I did disagree with all of them on matters of policy or ethics at one point or another. That being said until now never did I believe that a President of the United States posed an imminent threat to the Republic, or that he would be aided and abetted by men that at one time I admired. They are the kind of men that Liddell-Hart described, and they are dangerous.

At the same time I am one of those believe in telling the truth and will continue to speak because my oath to the Constitution still matters.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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When Despots Gain Power


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have returned home from my vacation in time to spend some time relaxing over the Labor Day weekend while hopefully dodging the worst of what will be Tropical Storm Hermine. I am going to be writing a number of articles as well as pictures from our time in Huntington, West Virginia this weekend, articles that will deal with history, art and culture, as well as social and political commentary. 

Yesterday I posted a short article about how despots come to power referencing the words of British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart in his book Why Don’t We Learn from History?  Since I gave a brief introduction to that work yesterday I will not repeat the introduction. Instead I will go to the second part of how he described despots, or what we commonly call dictators today. 

Yesterday I briefly discussed Liddell-Hart’s understanding of the important differences between democracy and dictatorship and why despite all the inefficiency of the former that it is infinitely preferable to the latter or for that matter any other form of government. 

Since I left off and let you my friends and readers meditate on how despots come to power, I will now finish with what Liddell-Hart said about what happens after a despot takes power. He is right of course. Since the French Revolution we can look to Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, three generations of North Korean Kims, Mussolini, Ceausescu, Pol Pot, the Castros, Pinocet, Mugabe, not to mention the multitude of other despots of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, but I digress. 

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.

Yesterday I asked you my readers to compare what Liddell-Hart said about how despots come to power and think about how what he said is evidenced in the campaign of Donald Trump. So that being said, 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. Donald Trump has not been elected to anything, but compare his business career and current political campaign rhetoric to Liddell-Hart’s words about despots in power. And since I am tired I will leave you to contemplate Liddell-Hart’s words from a half-century ago and imagine a Trump presidency. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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