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Courage is Not the the Province of Ideologues, Right or Left: The Attack of the Ideological and Religious Zealots

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Salman Rushdie once 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 they “pretend 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, and even a willingness to admit we are wrong, or somebody else has a better idea, or knows more than we do. This is something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing.

As for me I consider myself to be a left-leaning progressive. I am pro LGBTQ rights because I believe that they too, like everyone else are created by and loved by God, and as the preamble of the Declaration of Independence states, that we are all “created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I have to believe that Thomas Jefferson and the others who collaborated on that document would be run out of the country on a rail by today’s ideologues, especially those of the Christian Right.

Likewise, despite being against abortion in principle,  I believe that Roe v. Wade and the right of a woman to have an abortion must be upheld. I believe in equality for women, even in the Church, and believe that women are held to a much higher standard than men, especially in politics, religion, and business. I know from experience that women face far greater discrimination in the workplace, academia, and the military than do men.

I believe that racial prejudice, especially against blacks is still a major problem, but it is not certainly not confined to blacks, but Hispanics, Arabs, and Asians. Once again these prejudices are mostly the provence of the political Right, but not confined to it, there are examples of liberal and progressive Whites who intentionally segregate themselves and their families from darker skinned people, especially the less well off ones.

Likewise, there is classic Anti-Semitism, a very specific prejudice and hatred of Jews, and it spans the political and ideological spectrum. I can say that as a historian of the Holocaust and as a gentile Christian.

That being said, to offer criticism of the Government of Israel in its dealings with its Arab and Druse minorities that happen to be Israeli citizens, and to Palestinians who have been the victims of the Pan Arab nationalism of the 1950-1970s is mostly the province far left, who blame all Jews for the actions of the State of Israel, and Neo-Nazis who just hate Jews and would collaborate with anyone to destroy them and Israel.  The sad thing that to state the truth that  most of these Arabs, regardless of their religion find themselves abandoned by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Gulf States is not anti-Semitic, but rather an observation of the victimization of people caught in the middle of a far greater political, military, religious, and ideological struggle.

In 2007 I came across a Palestinian refugee camp at the border of Iraq ans Syria at Al Waleed. Thousands of Palestinian Arabs were marooned there, dependent on th U.N. for food and shelter, and the good graces of Americans and Iraqis for security as they had no place left to go. The new Iraqi government didn’t want people who were allies of Saddam Hussein in their country and drove them to their farthest reaches. Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States didn’t want them either. Likewise, the government that should accept them, the Palestinian Authority didn’t want them and they were not welcome anywhere else in the Arab world. Of course, the Israeli government didn’t want them either. This is an irefruable fact. They were abandoned by all.

As far as Anti-Semitism goes, you don’t have to look hard to find it. Neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers have cottage industries that attemp to disprove or minimize the Holocaust. Most reside on the political Right, such as in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and in some parts of the German political spectrum. But some too make their home of the Left, the Labour Party in Britain has come under the spell of Jeremy Corbin, a Left Wing anti-Semitic leader if one existed at all. Much of the current anti-Jewish and and Israel propaganda from both the Right and Left is often lifted straight out the same source documents, such as The Protoclals Of the Elders Of Zion. Of course the polcies of the Netanyahu government are helping anyone, including most Jews outside of Israel.

I happen to be a liberal and progressive realist, but I cannot be an ideologue. That being said I think that the Presdency and policies of the Trump administration exemplify the worst of American racism and exceptualism. Barely educated racist demagogues hold power over a President whose supporters would support him even if he murdered someone on 5th Avenue. Likewise, I think that there are some progressives who are just as incapable of seeing both sides of an argument and who are as historically as blind, deprived, and ignorant as the most myth bound Christian Conservatives, or other Right Wing anti-Semites. The irony is both sad and rich. I truly must be a progressive realist in wonderland.

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. As the late great Manager of the Baltimore Orioles once remarked: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  Ideologues never learn that lesson.

Quite obviously, a lot of ideologues from across the spectrum will disagree.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under anti-semitism, authoritarian government, civil rights, culture, ethics, faith, History, holocaust, laws and legislation, leadership, LGBT issues, middle east, News and current events, Political Commentary, racism, Tour in Iraq

Look Who’s Back: A Film Far too Pertinent in Europe and the USA “At Their Core they are Just Like Me” The Trump and Hitler Cults

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A bit earlier we watched, and I re-watched the German film Look Who’s Back (Er ist Wieder Da) which is about Hitler rising from his bunker in 2014. It is a very dark comedy where the actors mingle with regular people, and the actor playing Hitler mingles with them, but no-one really believes that he is really Hitler, but many are willing to make public support of Hitler’s policies. Finally, the amateur filmmaker who discovered Hitler realizes that the man he thought was an actor is really Hitler, and the following conversation ensues:

Hitler: I was wondering when you would show up.

Sawatski: It’s you. You’re him.

Hitler: I never claimed to be anything else. History repeats itself. I guess it’s my fate to have to part with my dearest companions.

Sawatski: That way. Yes, history repeats itself. You’re fooling people with your propaganda.

Hitler: Oh, Sawatski. You don’t understand. In 1933, people were not fooled by propaganda. They elected a leader, one who openly disclosed his plans with great clarity. The Germans elected me.[At gunpoint, Hitler takes the elevator to the top of the building and walks out on the rooftop, standing close to the edge.]

Sawatski: You’re a monster.

Hitler: Am I? Then you have to condemn those who elected this monster. Were they all monsters? No. They were ordinary people, who chose to elect an extraordinary man, and entrust the fate of the country to him. What do you want to do, Sawatski? Ban elections?

Sawatski: No. But I’m going to stop you.

Hitler: Have you never asked yourself… why people follow me? Because at their core, they are just like me. They have the same values. And that’s why you won’t shoot.

[Sawatski shoots, and Hitler falls backward off the rooftop. Sawatski looks over the edge and sees no body.]

Hitler: You can’t get rid of me. I’m a part of you. A part of all of you. And look; it wasn’t all bad.

The film should be required viewing, not just in Germany but in Trump’s America.

Being an ideologue of any kind is easy, you adopt an ideology and then use it to interpret the world. That is why there are so many of them of so many different varieties: right wing, left wing, religious and so many more. In fact if you take a look at the most strident supporters of any ideology, politician, or religious leader you can see that they are little different from one another. But in terms of the ideologies they espouse the most enduring of them, and the only to have ever been the foundation of state power or those dealing with economics such as the Soviet Union; or race such as Nazi Germany or the American Southern Confederacy. Hannah Arendt wrote:

“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. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. The appeal of both to large masses was so strong that they were able to enlist state support and establish themselves as official national doctrines. But far beyond the boundaries within which race-thinking and class-thinking have developed into obligatory patterns of thought, free public opinion has adopted them to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views.” 

The fact is that there is a difference between people who lean a certain way politically or religiously, and the people Eric Hoffer called, the “true believers,” the people who chose a side and never wrestle with the hard choices of life. They simply declare all who oppose their ideology or theology to be unworthy of life. If one is honest one has to admit that all kinds of ideologues of various persuasions, right wing, left wing, religious, atheistic, or racist have committed crimes which are incomprehensible and abhorrent. History shows that this is truth, but then when a regime decides to censor the past, as the Trump Administration is currently doing, and many other regimes have done, all bets are off. Likewise, when a government decides to admit to what its predecessors have done, as has Germany has done with World War II and the Holocaust, there will always be people who wish for a fictional better time, and either deny the truth, or seek to bring back the horrors of the past.

I am a liberal and a progressive, but I often find left-wing ideologues to be as off putting as militant right wingers. I guess that is because despite everything I am a realist. I wake up every day to try to do the hard thing of deciding what is right and what to believe.

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. I see examples of this every day, especially in my Twitter feed and on Facebook.

While I’m sure that many, if not most of these people are good and well meaning people, they seldom display any originality of thought or true character. A while back I had one left wing Twitter follower attack repeatedly me because to her I was supposedly a sellout. I have had right wing religious friends and followers on social media do the same, as well as making actual death threats.

While they attack me and each other from different ends of the political spectrum, the intellectual commonality they share is the fact that they are ideologues and zealots; and while they espouse different beliefs they are almost indistinguishable from each other in their inability to think critically and that wears me out, but I refuse to stand down.

I guess that is one of the things that bothers me the most about so much of what I see going on in the United States today. Too many ideologues, not enough critical thinkers. Too many people who value absolute consistently of thought without asking if what they preach is still true today, or if it might be tomorrow, and far too many more who are unwilling to by more than apathetic bystanders waiting to see which way the wind blows before deciding on a position.

Of course there are also the people who would be the victims of ideologues of any type, and the ideologues will be the perpetrators. At this time, after the Senate voted to acquit Trump, the President has mounted a campaign of revenge against his opponents. My money is on the Trump ideologues to take the first shot.

From the beginning of his campaign he never hid what he believed or who or what he is. In the process he has built a cult following around himself, taken over the Republican Party, used all media, but especially that of the Right Wing media to propagate his hateful ideology. He has bulldozed the Constitution, the law, and the institutional guardrails that protected our Republic for over two centuries; and must of his cult like supporters, just like Hitler’s won’t abandon him, but will become more violent in their actions toward his opponents. Likewise, he will use the organs of the State to implement his policies, as he is doing with the Border Patrol, INS, and every other part of the executive branch that his Cult controls. Against this I don’t think that left wing ideologues, who often are a mirror image of their right wing cousins have a chance; but men and women of conscience must make a stand.

One thing that I have learned over the past decade or so is that I have to ask what is right today, and make a choice of when to stand up, or to stand down. Sometimes, I don’t like those choices, but I make them. As Sophie Scholl said:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

I guess that is why I like reading about the lives of complicated and often conflicted people; men like T.E. Lawrence, William Tecumseh Sherman, Henning Von Tresckow, Ludwig Beck, and the fictional Raymond Reddington so fascinating. I find much to admire and to criticize in all of them even as I empathize and understand each one of them. Interestingly, each of my heroes all have feet of clay. As Reddington said, “We become who we are. We can’t judge a book by its cover… But you can by its first few chapters, and most certainly by its last.” 

But in such a perilous time, how can we not see what Trump has openly proclaimed he would do when he became a presidential candidate, and since his election. However, we cannot blame it all on Trump. He was clear in what he would do as President, and as the fictional Hitler asked “Have you never asked yourself… why people follow me? Because at their core, they are just like me. They have the same values.” 

Have a great day, until tomorrow.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, film, germany, History, leadership, movies, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

Wannsee: The Men, Their Mission, and the Implications Today

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Reinhard Heydrich

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer once wrote, “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.”

Hatred is an amazing emotion. In the final scene of the movie Conspiracy which is about the Wansee Conference, at which fifteen officials of the Nazi government met to coordinate what became the Holocaust, the “Final Solution” of what the Nazis called, “the Jewish problem.” The movie is troubling because the men in the room were well-educated, high to mid-level officials from a variety of agencies who were called together to ensure that their respective agencies worked together.

At beginning of the movie, Kenneth Branagh who plays SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich describes the “problem to be solved”

“To begin, we have a storage problem in Germany with these Jews…. The laws enacted at Nuremberg, and we should drink a toast to Dr. Stuckart for devising them….They established the fundamental legality for the creation of a Jew-free society, a Jew-free economy for the world to see. And we, indeed, have eliminated the Jew from our national life. Now, more than that, the Jew himself must be physically eradicated from our living space…

Then, in acquiring Poland, we acquired two and a half million more. By last July, we were met with a new situation, we would, in very short order, be acquiring some five million Jews as we conquered Russia. The dimensions of this problem have magnified astoundingly. Five million…

At that time, last July, confronting this new situation, Reichsmarshal Goering prepared a directive, you have a copy. The operative words, if you’ll permit me to read:

“I hereby charge you with making all preparations.in regard to organizational and financial matters for bringing about a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.”

Now, for that, I read the cleansing of the entire continent of Europe.…in the second paragraph: “Wherever other governmental agencies

are involved these are to cooperate with you.” I hope. So on, so on… “as necessary for the accomplishment of the desired solution of the Jewish question.” This is our mandate, all of us.

Donald Trump has talked about expelling and deporting over 11 million Mexicans and other South or Central Americans from this country. True, many are here illegally, but at the same time most are working and paying taxes, doing the things that many Americans consider themselves too good to do. He has mentioned similar things in regard to Muslims, as well as banning any Muslim from coming to the country. He has talked about going along with the desire of the Christian Right to roll back the hard earned rights of Homosexuals, and he has no regard for African Americans and their rights, with the possible exception of Ben Carson, but I digress…

At the close of the meeting the decision to exterminate the Jews was agreed to by the assembled officials who pledged to work with each other, once they had been told of how the logistics of the operation would take place. Not all were happy, some were shocked, but all rolled over and agreed to cooperate with Heydrich.

At the end of the movie Heydrich is asked to share an allegorical story that one of the less enthusiastic conference participants, Reich Chancellery State Secretary, Dr. Wilhelm Kritzinger, told him about hatred of the Jews. Heydrich recalled the story to SS Major General Heinrich Müller and SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann.ueller and SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann:

“Yes, he told me a story about a man he’d known all his life, a boyhood friend. This man hated his father. Loved his mother fiercely. The mother was devoted to him……but the father beat him, demeaned him, disinherited him. Anyway, this boy grew to manhood and was still in his 30s when the mother died…this mother who had nurtured and protected him.She died. The man stood as they lowered her casket and tried to cry…but no tears came. The man’s father lived to old age, died when the son was in his 50s. At the father’s funeral, much to his son’s surprise…he could not control his tears. He was wailing, sobbing. He was apparently inconsolable. Lost, even. That was the story Kritzinger told me.

Eichmann said, “I don’t understand.”

Heydrich answered: “No? The man had been driven his whole life by hatred of his father. When the mother died, that was a loss. When the father died…when the hate had lost its object…then the man’s life was empty. Over.

Eichmann replied: “Interesting. That was Kritzinger’s warning. What? That we should not hate the Israelites?”

To which Heydrich said, “No, that it should not so fill our lives…that when they are gone, we have nothing left to live for. So says the story. I will not miss them”

I used to show the film as the final class in the ethics elective that I taught at the Joint Forces Staff College. After the film was over it never failed that at least one of the students would bring up pertinent comments about hate in our current political climate. Again I cannot go into details, but I can assure you that the conversation was always subdued and sobering. I think that all of us left better for it, for such men and women know that there is a Rubicon that cannot be crossed. In the troubling times that we live, that gives me some comfort.

The story is pertinent when one looks at what Donald Trump is doing right now. I really have to wonder how deep hatred such as his runs in this country, because unlike love, hatred is easy to conjure up. It is kind of like what you need to build a fire; fuel, oxygen and heat. To generate hatred on a massive scale all you need is a disaffected populace, a convenient target, and an agent to ignite the mixture.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. Donald Trump is showing himself to be a master of this. He, and others like him, and not just American politicians, pundits or preachers, mind you, demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow.

Leaders who are consumed with hate need a disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. For Trump it is Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, liberals, and sometimes, even Jews.

Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

Snyder is quite correct, demonizing a people and making them some kind of “other”, “they”, or “them”, is a wonderful way to blame a group of people for the ills of society. It is also a good way to deflect the blame for the corporate failures of societies and governments onto a convenient scapegoat; and to blame others for the personal failures and petty jealousies of the people doing the demonizing. It also allows people to abandon ethics and the simple notion of the Golden Rule an engage in genocide.

Mass movements and their leaders; of which Trump is such a leader, are masters of hatred and demonizing any opponents. The technique Trump is using is not at all new, it has been used from antiquity but has become much more dangerous in the modern era with the spread of instant communications technology. History shows us all too clearly how it has happened and how easily it can happen again. Witch hunts, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of the Native Americans which inspired Hitler in his campaign of genocide and the Holocaust; the Soviet gulags and ethnic cleansings, the Rape of Nanking, the Chinese Communist “Cultural Revolution” the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and the current crimes against humanity of the so called Islamic State. Sadly, the list can go on and on.

All of these events simply required the elements of a disaffected population, a devil or scapegoat to blame, and a leader or leaders to ignite the volatile mixture; fuel, oxygen and heat. Hoffer was quite correct that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” The really successful leaders of such movements understand this. For Hitler it was the Jews and other untermenschen; for American Southerners after the Civil it was the Blacks and their white supporters. For the American “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s it was immigrants, especially Irish and Germans who were Catholic; for Stalin it was non-Russian ethnic minorities. For the leaders of the Islamic State, it is Jews, Shi’ite Moslems, less than “faithful” Sunnis, Christians and well for that matter anyone who does not line up one hundred percent with them on every issue. The examples are so plentiful to support this fact that it is almost overwhelming.

The problem is that when any society, or government begins to label or stigmatize a race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, or political ideology, and then in the process demonize those people to the point that they become less than human we have reached a tipping point. We reach the point where we are just one crisis away from all of those crimes against humanity that we believe that we are no longer capable of doing. But sadly, we human beings are not nearly as evolved as we think and I think that the tipping point in the United States may be far closer than we could ever imagine.

I really do not think that we are too far from some tipping point where the politicians, pundits and preachers; especially those of the political right and the media whores who are more concerned about market share than truth, decide that their “devils” must be exterminated. Of course when they will do they will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose; or perhaps use the language of Manifest Destiny, the Lost Cause, or the Stab in the Back or some other historical myth that suffices to justify their actions.

In response to Trump and those who stoke the same kind of fear and hatred, I wonder just how many men that there are like Heydrich, who would execute the orders of someone like Trump that there are in our country this very minute. I shudder to think of it, and when I do, I am reminded of the closing words of Spencer Tracy when he pronounces judgement on the Nazi judges in the film Judgment at Nuremberg:

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

I do hope that we follow a saner and less horrifying path, despite the election and past three years of the Trump Administration. I cannot abandon hope, nor can I be one that turns his eyes away from actions that range from separating immigrant and refugee families and placing children in cages on our southern border; assassinating members of nations that we are not at war with, regardless of how bad they are, while pardoning members of our military who were judged to be war criminals under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Of course that does not even mention how the President has undermined the institutions and laws of our country.

But I cannot lose hope or give up. In the words of Major General Henning von Tresckow, who died following multiple attempts to rid Germany of Hitler:

“We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

For me I am not comparing Trump to Hitler, but I believe he will be just as deadly to the United States as Hitler was to Germany. It all comes down to character, and as different as our President or the former Nazi Fuhrer are, neither had, or in the case of President Trump, have any character, nor did or do their enablers, and supporters; they are the perpetrators. Of course we know the victims, but then there are those  who decide to look the other way, the bystanders who prefer survival to freedom. As Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under germany, History, holocaust, nazi germany

“Anyone Could Do It; It Required No Brains at All. It Merely Required No Character” Trump’s Evangelical Allies

Catch-22 (1970) Alan Arkin Mike Nichols 24

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

When I see the political-religious leaders of the Christian Right defend the indefensible actions of President Trump I am reminded of the words of Joseph Heller in his classic novel Catch 22  who wrote about the Chaplain:

“The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” 

As much as I doubt I am still a Christian, even if I wasn’t already a Christian I couldn’t think of a single reason to follow the false God of men like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, or any of the host of big name Evangelical Christian preachers who excuse the behaviors of President Trump and his decadently despicable defenders, including people that I once thought that I knew.

I used to think that most people like to believe that religion is a benign or positive influence in the world. As much as I want to believe the positive aspects I have to admit based on the historical and sociological evidence that this is not so, especially during unsettled times of great change. We live in such an era and when it comes to identity, God is the ultimate trump card.

If one wonders why the most fanatical individuals and groups on earth are tied to religions, whether it is the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Orthodox Jews, radical Hindus and Buddhists as well as militant Christians. Of course all of these groups have different goals, but their thought and philosophy are quite similar.

Robert Heinlein wrote:

“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”

Heinlein, the author of the classic Starship Troopers was absolutely correct. Just look at any place in any time where any religion, sect or cult has gained control of a government. They are not loving, they are not forgiving and they use the police power of the state to persecute any individual or group that is judged to be in error, or even worse has the gall to question their authority.

Since the Christian groups tend to thrive in the West, they only speak in terms of violence, most, with the exception of Russian Orthodox Christians, do not have a government to translation of those words into action. Many, especially conservative Catholics and some Evangelical and Charismatic Protestants seem for a long for the day when they can assume control of a theocratic government.

Samuel Huntington wrote in his book The Clash of Civilizations:

“People do not live by reason alone. They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interest until they define their self. Interest politics presupposes identity. In times of rapid social change established identities dissolve, the self must be redefined, and new identities created. For people facing the need to determine Who am I? Where do I belong? Religion provides compelling answers….In this process people rediscover or create new historical identities. Whatever universalist goals they may have, religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and non-believers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.”

Huntington was right, you see the true believers, those who follow their religion without question and believe that it is superior to all others also believe that their religion entitles them to be atop the food chain, others who don’t believe like them be damned, if not in this life, the next. That is the certitude of the true believer, especially the religious one. Secular or atheistic fanatics could care less about the next life, for this life is all that they have. But the religious “true believers” are not only interested in destroying someone in this life, but ensuring that in the next that they suffer for eternity, unless they believe in the annihilation of the soul after death, which really spoils the whole Dante’s Inferno perspective of the damned in the afterlife.

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer wrote:

“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”

That is why they, the religious true believers of any faith are capable of such great evil, and why such people can murder innocents in the most brutal manner simply because they do not believe correctly. In fact today when I see the words and actions of these supposed Conservative Christians.

Please do not get me wrong. I am a Christian, a priest, a historian and a theologian, but I also know just how insidious those who hold their religion over those of others can be. While I hold faith dear, I know that it can be abused for the claim of some to have God as their final authority is a sort of trump card with which they are able to justify the most obscene and evil acts against others.

Likewise I struggle with faith every day. If you have read this blog from the beginning you will see chronicle my struggles with faith and its practice, especially in life and politics.

I guess that is why I am even more frightened of religious true believers than non-religious true believers. While the non-religious true believer may sacrifice everything for the sake of power and control in this life, and may in fact commit the most heinous crimes against humanity, their hatred is bounded in space and time to this earth. The religious true believer is not content with that; their enemies must be damned and punished in this life, but for eternity, without hope of salvation.

When they look at people like me or Yossarian they believe as Heller wrote:

“Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” 

With that I wish you a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“You Went Along With it All…” A Warning to Those Who Claim “Gott Mit Uns” in Terms of Nationalism and Criminal Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more sobering war movies that I have ever watched is the film Stalingrad. Released in 1993 it is the story of four soldiers of a platoon of soldiers of the 336th Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were the equivalent of American Combat Engineers. It is a sobering film to watch. In a way it is much like the film Platoon. Director Joseph Vilsmaier made the battle and the human suffering come alive with realism. There is no happy ending and there are few if any heroes. The men see, protest, are punished, and then are ordered to participate in war crimes.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of the Second World War, over a million Russian, German, Romanian, and Italian Soldiers died in the battle. Of the 260,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army which led the attack in Stalingrad and then were surrounded by the Soviet counter-offensive, very few survived. Some escaped because they were evacuated by transport planes, but most perished. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers that surrendered only about 6,000 returned home.

I’ll write about that battle again around Christmas and on the anniversary of its surrender at the end of January, but there are two sequences of dialogue that stood out to me. The first is at the beginning of the battle where a German Chaplain exhorts the soldier to fight against the “Godless Bolsheviks” because the Germans believed in God and the officially Atheistic Soviet Union and its people did not. In his exhortation the Chaplain calls attentional the belt buckles worn by every soldier in the Wehrmacht, which were embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us.

In light of President Trump first pardoning and then appearing with convicted war criminals at a campaign dinner, I have a hard time believing that God can be with a nation which with each passing day becomes less and less free, and where the Church by and large has fallen in line with a lawless and Godless President, a man who sincerely believes that as President he is above the law and that his words trump the law, even the laws of God.

Likewise, in the reports released today, American Administrations, not just Trump’s, but the Bush and Obama administrations as well as the Defense Department have been lying about the Afghanistan campaign for years; claiming success while the reality on the ground was far different. If we had a public that actually cared about the truth, as well as the troops, this scandal would burn as bright as the release of the Pentagon Papers during Vietnam.

I am a a military Chaplain. I have been one since 1992, and the older I get the more distrustful I am of men who place a veneer of region over the most ungodly and unjust wars. For me that was frightening because I do know from experience that the temptation to do such things when in uniform is all too great, but how can anyone exhort people to acts of criminality in the name of God? I know that it is done far too often and I hate to admit I personally know, or know of American military chaplains who would say the same thing as the German Chaplain depicted in the film. Back in the Cold War while serving as an officer before I became a Chaplain I used to talk about the Godless Communists.

The second question is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-seven plus years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the second most senior and the oldest sailor on my base. I have served during the Cold War as a company commander, was mobilized as a chaplain to support the Bosnia operation in 1996, I have served in the Korean DMZ, at sea during Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch, and with American advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police, and Border troops in Al Anbar Province. I have seen too much of war but even though I could retire from the military today I still believe that I am called to serve and care for the men and women who will go into harm’s way.

That being said those who have read my writings on this site for years know just how anti-war I have become and why this dialogue hits so hard. Some of the members of the platoon are accused of cowardice and sent to a penal company in order to redeem themselves. The commander of the unit, a Captain who hold the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross is confronted by one of the men.

Otto: You know we don’t stand a chance. Why not surrender?

Captain Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Captain Hermann Musk: Otto, I’m not a Nazi.

Otto: No, you’re worse. Lousy officers. You went along with it all, even though you knew who was in charge.

That is something that bothers me even today. I wonder about the men who go along with wars which cannot be classified as anything other than war crimes based on the precedents set by Americans at Nuremberg, and I am not without my own guilt. In 2003 I had my own misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, but I wholeheartedly supported it and volunteered to go there.

I was all too much like the German Captain. I went along with it despite my doubts. As a voter I could have cast my vote for John Kerry in 2004, but I didn’t. Instead I supported a President who launched a war of aggression that by every definition fits the charges leveled against the leaders of the Nazi state at Nuremberg. When I was in Iraq I saw things that changed me and I have written in much detail about them on this site, but I supported that initial invasion.

Now as a nation we are in a place where a man who openly advocates breaking the Geneva and Hague Conventions, supports the use of torture, and who both beats the drums of war, to the extent of appointing one of the most strident proponents of the invasion of Iraq as his National Security Advisor, before firing him a year later.

Likewise, the President holds the professional military, and State Department in contempt appears to be angling for war in the Middle East against Iran even as he excuses the criminal actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and against American residents, as was demonstrated in his wholehearted defense of Saudis after one of their officers killed three American military personnel at Pensacola Naval Air Station on Friday.

I have no doubt that unless something changes that a terrible war is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it. But for the next eight and a half months before I retire, I will remain in the military to care for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen who will have to go to war and perhaps fight and die.

The thought haunts me and makes it hard for me to sleep at night and I do my best to speak up and be truthful in fulfillment of my priestly vows and my oath of office. Today, unlike my younger years; one thing for me is true: I will never tell any military member that God is with us in the sense that all too many Christian nationalists have done in the past.

I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in regards to advocating war in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that way when I was younger, especially in the traumatic days after September 11th, 2001.

Likewise, I did go along with the war in Iraq even though I understood what it meant! and what the men and women who engineered it wanted when they took us to war. Sadly, I trusted my leaders too much, especially when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke before the United Nations to prove the case against Iraq just before the invasion.

Supreme Justice Robert Jackson, who served as the Chief American Prosecutor at Nuremberg stated in the London Agreement:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Now we live in a world where nationalism, ethnic, racial, and religious hatred are rising, and our own President seems to be abandoning the democratic and pluralistic ideas of or founders, while praising and tacitly supporting authoritarian and Fascist rulers around the world. Honestly, I dread what may befall us if he remains in power, or if someone worse follows him, backed of course by those who believe that God is with them. They of course are the true believers and as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is the surrendering and humbling of the self bred pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”

Most of the German troops at Stalingrad marched into that battle believing a similar creed. I would dare say that many, if not most of the Trump followers, inside and outside the military believe the same. A recent poll conducted of the military indicated that the military is divided in terms of Trump. Younger white and more junior officers, as well as enlisted personnel support Trump, while Well educated and experienced senior officers, women, and minorities Of both officer and enlisted ranks do not. That is not a good situation, years of right wing propaganda have had a huge effect on many in the military. It took my experience in Iraq to cure me of nearly two decades of exposure to it.

The question today, is will we do the same. I cannot. I have to echo the words of German General Henning von Tresckow, one of the men who died in the conspiracy to kill Hitler wrote a number of observations of his time that are quite applicable to our own:

“I cannot understand how people can still call themselves Christians and not be furious adversaries of Hitler’s regime.” And “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

Personally, I cannot abide this being forever regarded as Trump’s America. So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“Functionaries Ready to Believe and Act Without Asking Questions” Trump’s Orwellian Administration

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As I have thought about the actions of President Trump of the last week or so that 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 really 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.

The late and great Auschwitz survivor, 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.” 

Last night I quoted from the book The Participants: the Men of the Wannsee Conference in the chapter dealing with Friedrich Kritzinger, State Secretary for the Reich Chancellery, whose job it was to make the bureaucracy of the Third Reich run as smoothly as possible. The writers of that chapter noted:

“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?” (St. Augustine). This might not be a quote from Kritzinger, but it serves as a reminder that, by working as a lawyer for a regime, which he has known from the start to be criminal, he made himself a stooge.” (The Participants p.217”) 

I wonder how many like Kritzinger are currently serving in the Trump Administration, or in Congress defending his every misdeed. From my perspective I could name more than a dozen without blinking an eyelash, men an women who purposely subvert the law and Constitution in the name of Trump, as if loyalty to him is more important than their oath, or if his word “trumps” the law and Constitution. In the Third Reich it was said by many leading Nazis that Hitler’s word was above the law and that it was the law.

Be it whether they are true believers of lies, or cynics who have stopped believing in truth, they 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, I am tired. It has been a long day.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Fear, Paranoia, Trump, Evil, and the Absence Of Empathy

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every day that I see a tweet or hear President Donald Trump go into incoherent

streams of banal blathering I am reminded that the man has no ability to empathize with any other human being, even his family. It does not matter whether it is people suffering in a hurricane, people who have seen mass numbers of family and friends murdered by domestic terrorists, labeling racial and religious minorities as terrorists, criminals, animals, or vermin; or encouraging violence against political opponents and the press at his rallies, he always makes things about him, and plays to the fears of his base.

His lies are often whoppers and those he has been proven by many organizations to have lied or distorted the truth well over 10,000 times during his presidency, often to the detriment of his policies and programs, and which subvert the alliances and treaties that help to keep America great.

I cannot imagine any other American President with such an absence of empathy. He displays all the traits of a narcissistic sociopath, devoid of empathy or the capacity to love anyone other than himself. Everything else is fungible to him. He has no real friends, only temporary partners, and that includes his multiple wives and paramours.

Yet for some reason the bulk of the Republican establishment and its conservative Christian base not only supports him but make up theological jibber-jabber to justify their support on the thinnest Biblical support, usually biblical verses or stories taken completely out of context. But he appeals to their fears, and I doubt that they will abandon him unless the economy completely collapses leaving them destitute, in which case they will likely blame whoever he blames and still support him, just like so many religious people who in other nations have tied their religion to despots.

Believe me, religious people of any faith can live to the highest and most commendable humanitarian deeds as a result of their faith, while others can sink to depravity which only true believers can sink.

The distinguished British Mathematician and Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

“Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” 

Whitehead was right, and the latter will follow the President into the abyss. The American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote:

“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.”

Sadly, such people are capable of anything. Historian Timothy Snyder reminded us shortly after President Trump’s Election reminded us in his book On Tyranny: 

“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.”

Last night I wrote about the uncomfortable necessity of trying to understand evil, its causes and those who perpetuate and encourage it, including the current American President, a man incapable of feeling for others, or taking responsibility for his words and actions. The same is true of many of his supporters. Gustave Gilbert who served as a psychologist to the major war crimes defendants at Nuremberg noted:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

The President has a dark Charisma which his devout followers find irresistible, and since he is not a fringe character, but the leader of one of the most powerful countries on the planet, this is not something that we can easily dismiss. Nor can we dismiss the ever increasing power of the Executive branch of the government,  the specialization and distancing of bureaucrats from the policies they implement, and the pressure of pastors, employers, family, church members, and party officials on people who would normally not harm a fly. However, as 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.”

While President Trump is a catalyst for many of the things happening in the country and the world, he is not the cause. The seeds have been planted for decades by preachers, pundits, and politicians that specialize in promoting fear and paranoia in their followers.

The late American historian, 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.”

This is important at a time of increasing economic uncertainly, a world where the old stable democratic orders are under attack, the paranoia increases, along with it fear, racism, and war across the spectrum. A leader who encourages violence and turns every issue into a personal animus only emboldens his followers.

Historian Christopher Browning wrote of this in his book Ordinary Men:

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.”

Holocaust survivor and philosopher Primo Levi warned us of them, “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.” 

Whether President Trump wins re-election or doesn’t the danger will not decrease. Many of his followers, and many Trump himself may refuse to stand aside if he loses. some threatening civil war if he loses. But, if he wins he has the power to further dismantle the Constitutional guardrails that have been the protectors of our political system, as well as turn all the instruments of power into his personal weapons. He is already doing so. This is the practice of tyrants throughout history.

Anyway, I’m done for the night as we wait for Hurricane Dorian to reach us sometime overnight. Having been through quite a number of hurricanes in North Carolina and Virginia I know how dangerous they are. My heart is with all of Dorian’s victims in Bermuda and in the Southeastern United States. I have many friends in harm’s way. I cannot ignore their suffering, unlike the President, and many of his minion.

So until tomorrow, as long as we weather the storm without major power outages, flooding, or storm damage, I will write again.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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