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Meme Wars: The Death of Facts, Reason, American Political Discourse and Democracy

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been thinking about a political meme that I saw posted on Facebook last week and I have been thinking about the words of the most erudite thinkers and reading about how it reflects the death of American political discourse. The meme embodied the worst of what is happening in American politics and thought. While it was a “pro-Trump” meme I hate to admit that I have seen mirror images of it from the political left.

Memes are an incredible form of propaganda. They often use powerfully emotional images and combine them with a one sided barrage of half-truths and lies about their side and their political opponent. In this particular meme Republicans were contrasted with Democrats.

It listed what Republicans are supposedly for on one side with the Democratic response on the other. Republicans in this meme were to “Protect America” “Fight Terrorism” “Reduce Tax Burdens” “Reduce Regulations” “Drain the Swamp” and “Make America Great Again.” The Democrats only response was “Hate Trump.” Such propaganda noted American philosopher Eric Hoffer “does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.” It bypasses the cognitive, intellectual, moral, and ethical components that make us responsible citizens who care about our country, its people and the world in favor of a desert of alternative truths or as they are better known, lies.
The Republican beliefs in this meme were simply age GOP talking points that bear little resemblance to what the GOP does when it has Senate and House majorities as well as the White House, now so more than ever. If actions speak louder than words these were farcical, a half-truth, wrapped in a lie, ensconced in myth. To say that what Democrats believe can be reduced to “Hate Trump” misses the whole point of the American political system and it is a statement that mimics totalitarian propaganda which is then reinforced daily by White House spokesmen, Cabinet members, legislators, Fox News hosts and the Right Wing media machine, thousands of supposedly Bible believing Christian pastors, and quite often from the President himself.

But it is possible dissent from the policies and actions of a President and still to be a patriot. It is patriotic to stand for the rule of law, human rights, the Constitution, to fight terrorism of all kinds (not just Islamic), to defend the country and not depart from the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the protections of the Constitution (including the separation of powers). What has happened in the modern GOP is that personal loyalty to a President who demands it is considered the standard by which patriotism is judged even as he tramples the Constitution and defies the ideals, norms and traditions that made the American system of government that people around the world admired and brought so many persecuted people to our shores. Honestly that includes most of our ancestors.

But in the meme world facts do not matter so long as they support the system of those that promote the propaganda contained in them. Hannah Arendt wrote that the “True goal of totalitarian propaganda is not persuasion, but organization of the polity. … What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”

That is why memes are so important to propaganda. Adolf Hitler was a master of understanding that art of manipulation through propaganda. He wrote in Mein Kampf:

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”

That is why these talking points have been harped on for decades by the GOP, its media, and religious allies. In the GOP’s meme propaganda the Democrats as well as independent liberals or progressives are not fellow Americans who simply disagree on policy but an enemy to be destroyed. Admittedly there are left-wing memes that are no better intellectually or morally than those on the right that make me cringe. Regardless of their political bias, political memes are quite truthfully described as propaganda and unless they are truly political satire, I refuse to post them on any of my social media accounts.

To want our nation to live up to its ideals is patriotic. To want our leaders to embody those ideals and to expand them is likewise patriotic. To speak out when they are trampled and decide to resist or dissent within the bounds of the Constitution and reason is also in the end patriotic. It is American. For a side, in this case a conservative activist group to use propaganda to demonize its opponents shows that they have become as intellectually and morally bankrupt as the German conservatives who allied themselves with Hitler as Germany slid into totalitarianism.

The meme culture is a spin-off of social media which in large part is dependent on what is shown on television since many people have forgotten how to read and are susceptible to belief anything lie and reject inconvenient facts if they do not line up with the consistency of the system and its political propaganda . On has to pull themselves out of the digital culture and withdraw from the endless barrage of propaganda being sold as news on television and read. We must rediscover truth and facts written with the eloquence of the great authors and orators, otherwise we will see our Republic die, and it won’t be because of a foreign enemy. It will be our own damned fault.

It is absolutely essential that we return to reading the classics, reading history, as well the great writings of the great statesmen and philosophers and throw the memes in the digital garbage can because the meme political culture is based on anything but facts and anything but truth. Those who propagate memes cultivate a culture of unreason, and a political culture in which truth does not matter. Timothy Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

The political meme culture is a big part of the problem.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Trump’s True Believers: Why Removing Trump Will be Harder than it Seems

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For those rejoicing in the continued revelations of President Trump’s malfeasance and incompetence hoping that this will soon trigger his removal either by impeachment or the use of the 25th Amendment be assured that unless something totally unexpected occurs that this will not end soon, nor well.

Dona;d Trump is a unique creature in American politics, he has succeeded in establishing himself as the center of a political cult that has taken over the Republican Party. Despite his overall approval ratings consistently being below 40% with terrible numbers pertaining to his basic character and trustworthiness, well over 80% of Republicans in every poll continue to support him. They reject any fact that is contrary to what they believe about their leader, and they tend to support the most unconstitutional aspects of his ill-defined political ideology, which more resembles the Nazi Fuhrerprinzip than anything from the American political tradition. They abhor those who raise objections of any kind based on fact so much that they have gone resorted to repeating what they sometimes refer to as alternative facts or alternative truths.

Guided by an uncompromising propaganda network of talk radio and television hosts as well as internet based organizations they have little loyalty to anyone but the President. This mass movement supported by such propaganda is well described by the great American philosopher Eric Hoffer who wrote:

“All mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ.”

This is the world of alternative facts, and the prelude to dictatorship if the trend is allowed to continue. Likewise the true believers, those who follow the President as if he were some sort of Messiah intent on destroying the old order and establishing a new will not stand easily aside. Their support for the President is much deeper than normal political attachment, he is an extension of them who gives voice to their innermost fears, passions, and insecurity. They are defiant in their stand against those that he is against. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote of how the language of their leader and his propaganda works in the minds of the followers:

“Victor Klemperer, a literary scholar of Jewish origin, turned his philological training against Nazi propaganda. He noticed how Hitler’s language rejected legitimate opposition: The people always meant some people and not others (the president uses the word in this way), encounters were always struggles (the president says winning), and any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader (or, as the president puts it, libel).”  

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Thus they cannot be convinced by normal argument or fact. Hoffer noted:

“The leader personifies the certitude of the creed and the defiance and grandeur of power. He articulates and justifies the resentment damned up in the souls of the frustrated. He kindles the vision of a breath-taking future so as to justify the sacrifice of a transitory present. He stages a world of make-believe so indispensable for the realization of self-sacrifice and united action.”

Even when everything comes apart around them and their leader collapses they cannot admit that he was deceiving them. At the end of the war a German soldier told Victor Klemperer that “Hitler has never lied, I believe the Fuhrer.” Snyder writes: “The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims the president made when he said that “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.” When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience. What terrified Klemperer was the way that this transition seemed permanent. Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant.”

With that kind of following in the GOP it will take a while before this is finished as most GOP leaders, even those who distrust or oppose Trump on some issues are too afraid of the Trump supporters who now control their party to attempt to remove him unless those supporters turn on him. This is unlikely at least in the near future, and there is always the possibility that early some morning Trump will tweet them into committing acts of violence to crush dissent, even against Republican leaders who have the courage to jump ship and turn on the President.

The man is not normal, he is not stable, and he knows nothing but conflict. His followers believe in him almost as a Messiah figure who cannot be wrong and must be defended to the last and experience has shown us that some of would resort to violence to silence his critics. 

Like Hitler and his most loyal followers, he sees this as a fight to the finish which Trump which he must win or be defeated. It is a zero sum conflict, and I do not expect it to end well, even if Trump is eventually removed by impeachment or the 25th Amendment.

So 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

padre Steve+

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The New Freedom of the Mass Movement: “freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was startled when I read the latest Quinnipac poll numbers regarding the views of Republican supporters of President Trump. According to the poll 81% agree with the President that “the media is the enemy of the American people” while 86% believe trust the President to tell the truth rather than the media. In a world where during the election campaign the President’s statements were proven factually incorrect about 87% of the time this is stunning. Facts no longer seem to matter to most of the Republican Party loyalists, who once prided themselves on their individualism but now take their pride in the mob mentality of the mass movement that is built around the personality of the President.

I began to think about this and my mind was drawn back to the words of American philosopher Eric Hoffer who wrote about mass movements. Hoffer wrote of the people who become subsumed in mass movements:

“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.

President Trump has unleashed a new kind of freedom for his followers, a freedom from personal responsibility for their words and actions. This is a dangerous moment, for if our democracy does break, and the President and his supporters establish the authoritarian state that their words and actions seem to show that they aspire to, there will be little to restrain the base passion of those who have embraced the mass movement. This was shown true in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s as democracies flirted with, or in some cases embraced authoritarian rule with dreadful results. Timothy Snyder notes that “The European history of the twentieth century shows that societies can break, democracies fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…”

This is not an over exaggeration or hyperbole, the signs of a coming authoritarian regime are everywhere, in the statements and actions of the administration, the acquiescence of the GOP majority in Congress, the actions of GOP dominated statehouse and legislatures, and in the words and actions of Trump supporters, from the most powerful to the most humble. Some of Trump’s supporters had a rally last week where Muslims, Jews, and immigrants were threatened and told to leave the country because it is a “Christian country,” called Senator John McCain a “Communist,” while an “Oath Keeper” told a reporter “I just want to let them know that I can’t wait for the liberal genocide to begin.” Other speakers, included a Congressman Anthony Kern added to the din. In a separate incident Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King called for a “purge” of leftists from government in a tweet so authoritarian sounding that it came right out of the Third Reich.

Obviously the people who are speaking in this manner are the more extreme proponents of Trump’s movement, but more concerning are the majority who are not saying anything in criticizing them, or him. In the face of evil, silence is tacit agreement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted: “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people…”

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Resistance to Authoritianism: Part Two 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I began an article about resistance to authoritarian movements or leaders. The underlying premise of the first part was to set the stage by talking about freedom, truth, critical thinking and the all too often fact that most people do not like facing unpleasant truths. I ended that section with a quote by Hannah Arendt that: 

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 thought can be applied to any country where the evil of authoritarian rule threatens. The British military historian and theorist, B.H. Liddell-Hart wrote:

All of us do foolish things, but the wiser realize what they do. The most dangerous error is failure to recognize our own tendency to error. That failure is a common affliction of authority. 

Based on the performance of the Trump administration during the transition and over its first two weeks in office one wonders if most of its members have any capacity for reflection or ability to admit when they are wrong. Right now I see little proof that this tendency will change anytime soon. Thus it is imperative that all citizens, including those who serve in the institutions of government be the conscience of the nation. This is the most important part of successfully resisting the implementation of authoritarian government. All too often that does not happen. One can look at the histories of numerous nations where the citizenry, and those who executed the day to day functions of government did not do this, usually with very dire results for their nations. 

The reason for most, is usually nothing inherently evil on their part, they simply want to get along without asking too many questions, and turning their eyes from the unpleasantries, and evil. Resistance is dangerous. Liddell-Hart noted:

We learn from history that the critics of authority have always been rebuked in self-righteous tones, if no worse fate has befallen them, yet have repeatedly been justified by history. To be “agin the Government” may be a more philosophic attitude than it appears. For the tendency of all “governments” is to infringe the standards of decency and truth; this is inherent in their nature and hardly avoidable in their practice.

Hence the duty of the good citizen who is free from the responsibility of Government is to be a watchdog upon it, lest Government impair the fundamental objects which it exists to serve. It is a necessary evil, thus requiring constant watchfulness and check.

Authoritarian leaders who are able to gain control of an unquestioning populace and powerful bureaucracy are able to do much damage to liberty. Thus it it important that citizens constantly question it, and when it is failing to abide by the ideals, laws, and norms of the nation, to resist; using lawful means, and maintaining to moral high ground. However, that too is hard to do, many who resist do so in a highly emotional manner which sometimes leads them to tactics that are not helpful, even in the near term. 

That being said it is important that resistance be based on telling the truth in spite of opposition, and this means calling out the untruths and outright lies of the authoritarian leader and his sycophants. These are not hard to spot, but too many people are afraid to call a lie a lie. But the lies are the basis for the declarations of faith that authoritarian leaders uses to gain the support of both true believers, as well as the angry and disaffected people who recognize the lie, but due to their cynicism about government and disappointment in the democratic process support the authoritarian leader. The authoritarian leader takes advantage of the primal fears and hatreds of both in order to cement his bond with them which makes resisting more dangerous, because those who do resist are demonized. As Eric Hoffer wrote in his classic The True Believer:

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil. When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered: “No…. We should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.” 

Those who resist or those who are different prove to be ideal devils for the authoritarian leader and his followers. Liddell-Hart understood this and noted that those who believe in freedom must resist authoritarian rule because it does not respect the power of thought and the intellect, so I am going to close for today with his words: 

It is man’s power of thought which has generated the current of human progress through the ages. Thus the thinking man must be against authoritarianism in any form, because it shows its fear of thoughts which do not suit momentary authority.

Any sincere writer must be against it, because it believes in censorship. Any true historian must be against it, because he can see that it leads to the repetition of old follies, as well as to the deliberate adulteration of history. Anyone who tries to solve problems scientifically must be against it, since it refuses to recognize that criticism is the life blood of science. In sum, any seeker of truth must be against it, because it subordinates truth to state expediency. This spells stagnation.

Those who resist cannot do so simply because they are against the authoritarian leader, but they must stand for something positive and far reaching in order to expand freedom for others. Liddell-Hart wrote:

But “anti-Fascism” or “anti-Communism” is not enough. Nor is even the defence of freedom. What has been gained may not be maintained, against invasion without and erosion within, if we are content to stand still. The peoples who are partially free as a result of what their forebears achieved in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries must continue to spread the gospel of freedom and work for the extension of the conditions, social and economic as well as political, which are essential to make men free.

Have a great day, and enjoy the Super Bowl, and remember God couldn’t care less who wins it; the Deity is a baseball fan. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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Groundhog Day and Nazi Comparisons

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was Groundhog day and Punxsutawney Phil has promised us another six weeks of winter. Since is was sixty degrees today with partly cloudy skies and light winds, I say let it continue. But that’s not really really what I’m writing about today, though historically it seems that we are in an era that seems like the movie Groundhog Day, except we aren’t repeating yesterday every day, but we are seeing history unfold in a similar way to an era that we would rather consign to to musty history books about the Third Reich.

Today, two friends shared an article of a blogger condemning those who are comparing the actions of President Trump to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. He started his article “I’m no expert but…” and then went on to minimize what people are saying about Trump, comparing them to others on the right and left who have made comparisons of their political opponents with Hitler. I agree that there are people, plenty of them on the right and left who have compared their political opponents to Hitler, and if Donald Trump was a normal president I would say that such comparisons would be unfounded, but in my humble opinion, they are not.

I am a historian, as one of my colleagues told me yesterday, a “historian masquerading as a chaplain, and that’s not a bad thing.” My chief area of study in my undergraduate days was in German history, particularly the period of the end of Imperial Germany, the German civil war, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi era. The same was true with my second master’s degree in Military History, and much of my church history studies in seminary. I have written on a number of aspects of the subject, it is included in the Military Ethics class that I teach, and I would dare say that I am an expert in the subject and that I do not make comparisons to the Nazi era, or its leaders, to American political leaders lightly.

In fact, until the rise of Donald Trump, I have never had cause to compare the words, methods, or actions of any American President or serious presidential candidate to the Nazis. Any such comparisons, even to Richard Nixon, would be to unfounded hyperbole and ludicrous. I do know that there are people on the political left and right who have compared their political opponents to the Nazis or even Adolf Hitler himself, and as a serious historian I find their accusations to demean the historical importance of the period, especially in view of the great evil of the Nazis, especially in regard to the Holocaust.

Likewise when I see someone write a lengthy blog about these comparisons and begin it with “I’m not an expert but…” I am offended because it demeans the work of serious people, real experts, and equates them with ignorance. The man cited many of the differences between Germany of 1933 and the United States of 2016. There are differences, significant differences, but they do not disqualify comparisons between the periods, or between Herr Hitler and Mr. Trump. Those comparisons are in matters of substance, psychology, language, sociological, and political trends.

In 2001 the United States, which had just gone a divisive election which was decided in the Supreme Court was attacked. The shock to the country was immense, the attack was followed by prolonged wars and a massive economic crisis followed by the election of a President who was African American, an event which brought out some of the worst and most open racism I have ever seen in my life. In 1918, Germany lost a war, had its system of government fall, and was enveloped in a civil war punctuated with being saddled with the full blame for the war that they lost, and were ruled not by the Kaiser, not by conservatives, or nationalists, but by Socialists, something that many could not abide. As such, the Socialists were saddled with the blame for a war started by nationalists, and the myth of the Stab in the Back was used to explain the defeat of the German armies.

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The Stab in the Back

In both situations, the politics of the countries became exceptionally divisive, and over time the political center began to dissolve. In both instances, populist movements of the right and left stamped out the center, compromise was off the table. In both 1933 and 2016, the politician who took power represented a minority of the electorate, and neither had ever held any elected office. They were both demagogues who found convenient internal racial and religious scapegoats, and foreign powers to blame for the woes of the country. Neither Trump, nor Hitler was ever given a chance of gaining power, until they achieved it.

Both took advantage of the struggles of people who had not done well during the economic downturns, played on longstanding prejudices, exploited the weakness of the major political parties, coopted the fears of religious people who felt that they were not being considered. They were also supported by people of means, who were quite well off and willing to take their chances with a leader who could deliver people who would otherwise reject them. The similarities, while not exact go on and on.

But even more, when it comes down to the person of President Trump, honestly he cannot be compared to Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler was much more subtle and much more clever, although both were narcissists, both had no real friends and treated people as commodities, both demonstrated a need to be loved, and fear of rejection, as well as a compulsive need to demean, degrade, and bully any opponents, but Trump is but a cheap copy of Hitler.

It is interesting that the President’s first wife, who by the way supported his run for president, said that Trump kept copies of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s speeches by his bedside. During his campaign he frequently praised dictators and even quoted Mussolini in a tweet. His repeated use of the term “America First” is a throwback to an American movement that supported Hitler and his aggression in Europe up until Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States a few days later. If you look at the structure of his speeches during the campaign, they are laden with phrases used by the German dictator, and their structure is similar, albeit without Hitler’s mesmerizing prose. I have seen him speak in person, and watched the anger that he incites in his followers. I watched his inauguration speech several times, and read it again and again and I was struck by the similarity in tenor to many of Hitler’s speeches. If I was not so well acquainted with Hitler’s speeches, and his books, I would never dare to make the comparisons, it would not only be unwise, but also terribly wrong to make such a comparison based on a personal or ideological dislike, based on raw emotion and ignorance of the subject.

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He has surrounded himself with advisors who openly support fascist methods, and use propaganda techniques which mimic Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. Like Hitler, once in power President Trump has used his office to demonize his opponents and rule by executive decree, effectively marginalizing the legislature and to defy and eviscerate the courts. In one important difference since Trump took power of a superpower, he did not have to wait years like Hitler in order to build up a military to threaten his neighbors and defy international institutions.

I could go on and on, but if there was any other historical comparison that I could use instead of the Nazi comparison, I would. But let me qualify that statement. Trump is not Hitler and he has not at least yet, acted on his most radical statements concerning deportations of millions of people, discrimination based on race or religion, banning all opposition, and curtailing freedom of speech, although he and his advisors constantly threaten the press and anyone who voices the slightest opposition to them, including simply pointing out their repeated lies. Nor has he embarked on any new wars, though his words and the words of Steve Bannon, his closest advisor, threaten war with China, Iran, Mexico, and are destroying the bonds that we have with our longest and closest allies.  On the National Security Council the President has sidelined his military chiefs and replaced them with the ideologue Bannon. The sad thing about the last part was this was exactly how Hitler treated his military chiefs. They were called in to carry out orders, not to give sane advice, and he undercut them whenever he needed. In both cases many of their followers tolerated no criticism of their leader, often resorting to threats of violence or actual physical violence to suppress their opponents. In both cases their leaders not only tolerated such behavior, but encouraged it.

Hitler is dead, his Reich defeated, but his ideas are still around and can be seen in the current right-wing nationalist movements masquerading as populists in Europe and the United States. What happened in Germany in the 1930s  can happen again. Thus it is better to sound an early warning using facts and reason to hopefully ensure that it doesn’t happen. Such warnings should not be taken for granted, too many people and political leaders, not only in Germany, but around the world, took Hitler for granted believing that he could be controlled and that his radical ideas were hyperbole and would never be acted on. They were wrong. As a result the world, and Germany itself paid a massive price in human life for ignoring the danger until it was too late.

Again I don’t make such comparisons lightly, and in a relatively short article like this I cannot go into the detail with all the citations, though I have the material at hand to do so, I haven’t the time to write a book about it, though I’m sure that I could. I have three books that I am currently working on, all dealing with the American Civil War, one of which is getting to the point that I am trying hard to complete it and get it to a publisher in the next month or two, so I really don’t want to start another book. But I think that this weekend I will provide my readers a list of references on the Third Reich as well as totalitarianism, that if read critically, and thoughtfully, would be of great help to understanding our own time.

If you want you can look at some of my articles on this site dealing with mass movements, and totalitarianism, especially those that are based on the writings of Eric Hoffer or Hannah Arendt. They are helpful to understanding the political, ideological, and emotional aspects of how people like Hitler and Trump gain power, and why people are willing to through out reason, logic, ethics, and even faith, to support them.

So anyway, until the weekend, have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. I did watch the movie Groundhog Day last night. It is one of my traditions.

 

 

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Neither Safe, nor Politic, nor Popular: The Call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

On a weekend where we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we saw our President-Elect stoop to a Twitter tirade against Representative John Lewis, a true hero of the Civil Rights movement because Lewis dared to question his legitimacy. A true statesman would have either ignored it or simply making the comment that Lewis is entitled to his opinion. But our President-Elect has incapable of such behavior. When he was at Liberty University last year on Martin Luther King Day, he only mentioned Dr. King in regard to the fact that he had set a record for attendance at Liberty.

Even longstanding conservatives bastions in Congress who have worked with Mr. Lewis, and conservative media titans were  shocked by President-Trump’s action and many rightly commented that the only person that Donald Trump has not attacked is Vladimir Putin.

Like a lot of people it seems it seems that our soon to be President seeks to marginalize Dr. King’s life and work by simply relegating him to the pages of history. The attitude of such people seems to be that maybe Dr. King may important in his day, but that we have advanced to the point that we don’t need to see beyond the King of history, but the President-Elect seems not even to care about that. It is a sad spectacle where the man who was elected to be all of our President dismisses such an important man in our history.

So now more than ever it is important for all Americans remember and act upon the legacy of Dr. King.

Dr. King was a man of tremendous personal courage. Nearly every day of his public ministry and advocacy for the rights of African Americans and the poor his life was in danger. Of course he, like so many other men who throughout history understood that those that champion the cause of justice and peace must ask hard questions. They must engage in hard thinking. They must challenge their own beliefs as well as those that they come in contact, and they must do so from the least safe place to do so, the place of conscience which commands us to do what is right.

In 1968 Dr. King said something that should make us all look in the mirror and ask who we really are and what we represent. He noted how cowardice, expediency and vanity all vie with conscience. He said:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” 

If you look closely at what Dr. King said one can almost see every political, business or religious leader make decisions about things which matter to people, but without facing the demands of conscience.

It would be easy just to say this of many of our leaders, especially the President-Elect, however, it is also true of most of us as well. I hate to admit it is regardless of our protestations most of us follow the demands of cowardice, expediency or vanity rather than conscience. We do it not because we are bad people, but because we fear the potential negative consequences of doing the right thing, we count the cost and decide we cannot pay it.

Every time we make these decisions not to do the right thing, but to shrink in cowardice, and appeal to the cold calculations of being politic, or choosing to go with what is popular, something in us dies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr wrote about the results of such equivocation from prison:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

But to follow the demands of conscience requires us to think, and think critically. Too often we simply do things or support causes because we are comfortable with the ideas, and because we do not want to face inconvenient or uncomfortable ideas. We do not like to be challenged. I think that is why there is such a great appeal to often ignorant loud mouthed politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity, to do our thinking for us. The pundits, preachers and politicians often appeal to the must base human instincts to turn citizens against each other, or to drive up support for their ideology. Such ideas are made more destructive when they appear as “memes” on social media, attached to pictures which are designed to invoke an emotional response of anger, hatred and resentment at person or group being demonized. In following them we can become unthinking fanatics, convinced of our rightness without ever examining what we believe to see if it really true.

This is not thinking when we follow the lead of such people, regardless of their ideology. In doing so we give up our right and responsibility to think for ourselves and ask the hard questions. Eric Hoffer noted how ideology blinds us:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Dr. King’s words spoken in 1963 are equally true today:

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

I hope that in 2017 we may we find in Dr. King’s words inspiration to be people of character and conscience. But to do so we must start doing the hard thinking that allows us to follow the demands of conscience and not cowardice. We must do the hard thinking that places justice over popularity and the hard thinking which exposes the emptiness of brazen political calculation embodied in the easy answers and half-baked solutions of the Unholy Trinity.

Sadly, I don’t think that most people want to do this type of thinking, our materialistic culture does not value it. As a result I fully expect we give up our rights as a people to a few oligarchs who throw a few small breaks our way while they expand their control, power and wealth. It’s a bad formula and we all suffer for it.

In spite of that it is time to stop asking if things are safe, politic, popular, or expedient and do the hard work and thinking that conscience demands. If we don’t we deserve what we get. I’m sure that Dr. King would agree.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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