Tag Archives: thomas jefferson

Are we All His Accomplices? Acquiescence in the Age of Trump

Edward R. Murrow

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American journalist and pioneering radio and television broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” His words are profound. He, along with William Shirer covered the rise of the Nazis and then lived through the height of the Red Scare and the McCarthy era inquisition. Of course he was right, the fact is that it does not matter which party controls the reigns of government or who the President is that principled opposition is not disloyal.

This is an important fact to remember even as the current President of the United States, his accomplices in the world of Fox News and Breitbart, and his fanatical supporters in what is called the Christian Right dare to say. The fact is that for our government to function as the founders intended it is absolutely necessary for the minority party, as well as other minorities be allowed to dissent. When that Constitutional right is abridged in any way it endangers our society and our way of life. In an age where opinions can be picked up cheap on the internet, television, or radio, and where things like courage, fortitude, and real faith are in short supply, we have to acknowledge as Murrow did “that we are living in an age of confusion – a lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria.”

We have a President who has spent the year after his election victory demonizing his opponents, be they members of the press, the Democratic Party, or even members of his own Republican Party for infractions that had they happened under any previous American President of any party would have never happened.

Some politicians, pundits, and medical professionals have suggested that the President is either insane or perhaps suffering from the early stages of dementia. Others disagree and believe that he is neither insane or suffering from dementia but that he is a master manipulator who knows exactly what he is doing. His list of actions that would have certainly damned the candidacy of any previous Presidential candidate, or the term of of office of any other President grows with every passing hour. Despite that whatever opposition there is seems to be ineffectual and shunted aside. In normal times the suggestion that the President might be suffering from a type of mental illness or a medical condition that impaired their cognitive ability would be a cause for bi-partisan concern, and to think that the President might be a manipulative prospective tyrant would as it did during Watergate turn his own party against him. Honestly, the thought of an either insane or cognitively impaired President trying to demonize his opposition or one that is bent on crushing them are both bad scenarios. I think that the latter is worse if his own party has surrendered its soul to their ideological goals so much that they are willing to go along with actions and statements that just over a year ago many of them said should disqualify someone from the presidency.

My problem is that I am a historian and that I have studied totalitarian states and the history of how they became such. What I am seeing going on now frightens me. We are moving closer to a totalitarian system of government than I could have ever thought could have happened in this country. I believed that our system of checks and balances coupled with a free press would keep anyone from overthrowing our system of government and establishing a totalitarian state, but we seem to be moving rapidly in that direction.

Historian Timothy Snyder noted in an interview with Sean Illing: “We think that because we’re America, everything will work itself out. This is exactly what the founders refused to believe. They thought human nature is such that you have to constrain it by institutions. They preferred rule of law and checks and balances.”

The rule of law, the Constitutional system of checks and balances, and the underlying premise of the Declaration of Independence cannot be sacrificed for political expediency. The question one has to begin to ask in light of all of the President’s actions and words is: is the President insane, is he impaired, or is he evil and intent on establishing himself as a tyrant? None of those options are good, but if the President’s supporters were principled as was the Republican Party in 1973-74 during Watergate then such actions can be stopped. However, if they are not, and if the leaders of the President’s Party knows or suspects that he is insane, impaired, or evil and acting against the Constitution, but take no action in order to get their agenda passed then they are no better that the non-Nazi German conservatives of 1932-1935 who abandoned all principle because Hitler gave them some of what they wanted.

The same is true of the ruling class of French conservatives who for decades undermined the Third Republic until the German invasion of 1940 left France defeated. William Shier wrote:

“And more and more, as the last years of the Third Republic ticked off, the wealthy found it difficult to put the interest of the nation above that of their class. Faced with specific obligations to the country if the state were not to flounder in a financial morass, they shrank from meeting them. The Republic might go under but their valuables would be preserved. In the meantime they would not help keep it afloat by paying a fair share of the taxes. The tax burden was for others to shoulder. If that were understood by the politicians, the Republic could continue. If not… were there not other forms of government possible which promised more security for entrenched wealth? The thoughts of some of the biggest entrepreneurs began to turn to the Fascist “experiment” in Italy and to the growing success of the Nazi Party in Germany.”

I’m going to stop for now, but remember the questions about the President posed by many other than me that must be answered: is he insane, is he impaired, or is he evil?

Honestly I don’t know. I can speculate, but the questions have to be asked by people in elected or appointed offices established by the Constitution, as well,as the press, and the citizenry if we are to retain our republican system of government. Dissent is not disloyalty. Asking such questions is not treason. Our founders wrestled with this. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

The fact that the President’s overtly unconstitutional views of government, his frequent attacks on all opponents, his destruction of longstanding alliances and embrace of tyrants has been normalized by much of the press, media, and populace one cannot hope that things will change for the better anytime soon.

Based on the President’s words and actions I do believe that he will engineer a Reichstag Fire moment in order to gain absolute power in the United States under the pretense of National security. His administration is already physically doing that to immigrants, while using terribly hostile and discriminatory terms against racial or religious minorities, women, gays, the press and political opponents. Sadly, too few people speak up, and fewer take action.

Murrow noted: “No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

Read, Observe, or Pee on the Electric Fence

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American humorist Will Rogers once said, “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

I wish that more people would take time to read and reflect than to allow themselves to be force fed by their televisions. Timothy Snyder in his book On Tyranny:

“More than half a century ago, the classic novels of totalitarianism warned of the domination of screens, the suppression of books, the narrowing of vocabularies, and the associated difficulties of thought. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, firemen find and burn books while most citizens watch interactive television. In George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, books are banned and television is two-way, allowing the government to observe citizens at all times. In 1984, the language of visual media is highly constrained, to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future. One of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official dictionary.”

I am slowing down my writing for the next few days to spend more time thinking, reflecting, reading and observing. I have been writing a lot on the Civil War, Civil Rights and Reconstruction, as well as the Nazi era, totalitarianism and their importance today. I will continue to do that but I am going to slow down a bit, and for the next week or so the articles here will be slightly edited posts from the archives so I can catch up on some reading and do some reflecting. Of course if something really notable happens I will probably at least comment on it, but for now I want to pull back a bit and read.

I do this because as a historian I known that for all of our great advances, especially in the form of technology that the character of people, the nature of humanity remains fairly constant. Technology may change the way we look the world, how we gather information, how and what we produce, how we fight wars, and even how we relate to each other, but humanity remains the same. Our forms of government and even religious faith may evolve, but the character of humanity is the one constant.

There has been a lot going on in this country and around the world and the one thing that I notice is that few seem to be taking the time to observe and seem to be more interested in immediately framing the events of the day into their particular ideology. This tendency is not limited to any one segment the population and goes across ideological divides.  We live in a time of great political and social upheaval and drastic change and if we are to ride out the storm we must continue to learn and not be satisfied with the banal and insipid sound bites that the Unholy Trinity of pundits, politicians and preachers spew out as wisdom.  The pundits, politicians and preachers who cite history usually do so completely out of context and do so in the form of bad analogies rather than by using any semblance of deductive or inductive reasoning.

Our culture has for the most part abandoned any serious attempt at learning. Schools teach to standardized tests, state school boards ensure that textbooks include nothing too controversial; universities sacrifice faculty and academic programs to prop up bloated administration and non-academic programs. We are consumers of corporate owned news networks that consider their programing entertainment and value market share more than truth. American philosopher Eric Hoffer quite rightly said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” But sadly many people, including learned people who should know better and who have great responsibility in political, economic and even education, are content to live in a world that no longer exists.  

Over the past few months I have plowed through a number of books including David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust,  Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968, and Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939.  All are very substantial volumes. Additionally I am almost finished reading German historian Paul Carrel’s Unternehem Barbarossa im Bild (Operation Barbarossa in Pictures) in which the text is in German. I am also about sixty percent of the way through Max Boot’s The Toad Not Taken: Edward Lansdale an the American Tragedy in Vietnam.  My goal over the next week or so is to finish reading the last two books and to take on Ron Chernow’s massive biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. 

Learning comes from reading, observation and experience. Otto Von Bismarck, one of the most remarkable statesmen that ever lived said, “only a fool learns from his own mistakes, a wise man from the mistakes of others,” while Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington and victor of Waterloo wrote, “Wise people learn when they can; fools learn when they must.”

I for one would rather not be one of those that learn by the last named method.  Learning from my mistakes has never been enjoyable and has usually been quite painful, but then as the late Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

While I know I will make mistakes and hope to learn from them when I do I would much rather learn from the mistakes of others. Let’s hope that our leaders decide to actually pay attention and learn instead of making us pay for their mistakes. Sadly, I think that most people, especially those who claim to be leaders would rather pee on the electric fence themselves.

Anyway, it is time to do some reading and reflecting.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy

“The First Duty of Every Officer is to the Truth”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and have taught both ethics and Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I taught will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I stay in contact with a number of my former students, including two from South Korea. Now I still write even as I lead the staff at one of the Navy’s largest and most active Chapel programs.

Since I figure that this will be my last duty station before I retire my goal is to help guide those who work with me to success in the military and set them up for success when they leave the military. They are a great group, I could not ask for better and when I have a bad day or seem to be off in some way I have given them permission to ask how I am doing and to ask me hard questions. I give them permission to tell me the truth. A lot of leaders won’t do that, but I try to be transparent and honest with them because I know that they have my back and we do a pretty good job at caring for people and doing the right thing.

As such my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth. In fact I quoted Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” I am not a Starfleet Officer but as an officer nonetheless I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out. But the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military.

I have been writing a lot over the past few months about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out. Now I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of what so much of society, especially the conservative Christian movement that I spent much of my life in expects. Truthfully, upholding tradition, and for that matter defending myth, is much easier when backed by the certitude of an unbending theology and political is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with myth than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” 

So why do I write? I write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, just to name a few.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant. But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“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.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, film, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

“The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age” Stephen Decatur and the Defeat of the Barbary Pirates

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Anyone who has followed my writings on this site knows that I love Naval history, especially that of the United States Navy. It was one of those subjects that I began reading about in grade school. Since I grew up as a Navy brat it is unsurprising that even after a detour of seventeen and a half years in the Army that I ended up in the Navy.

In 1803 the still very young United States Navy was two years into its campaign against the Barbary Pirates who sailed from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco.  The Navy, which had been disestablished after the Revolution was reestablished by Congress to protect American merchant sailors who were constantly being accosted by British, French, and Barbary ships, on March 27th 1793.

For years the United States like other nations had paid tribute to the rulers of the Rulers of the Barbary states for free passage of its ships in the Mediterranean, as well as hefty ransoms to free the sailors that were enslaved following the capture of their ships.  By 1800 tens of millions of dollars had been paid and in that year the amount of tribute paid was 20% of the government’s total revenue.

In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli demanded the payment of $225,000 tribute from the new President of the United States President Thomas Jefferson. In years past Jefferson had advised against payment of tribute believing that such payment only encouraged the Barbary States to continue their actions as he had when the French demanded similar tribute in 1797.  The anti-naval partisans and even his Republican allies had blocked his recommendations even though Secretary of State John Jay and President John Adams agreed with him.

These partisans insisted that tribute be paid irregardless of the effect on European trade or the fate of American seamen because they believed that the Atlantic trade and involvement in the “Old World” detracted from the westward expansion by diverting money and energy away from the west.  When Jefferson refused to pay tribute, Karmanli declared war on the United States by cutting down the flag at the US Consulate in Tripoli.

Jefferson sent a Naval small force to defend protect American ships and sailors and asked Congress to authorize him to do more as he did not believe that he had the Constitutional power to do more without Congressional approval. Despite the fact that Tripoli had declared war on the United States, Congress did not issue a declaration of war, but instead authorized Jefferson to “employ such of the armed vessels of the United States as may be judged requisite… for protecting effectually the commerce and seamen thereof on the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and adjoining seas.”

Jefferson sent the best of the United States Navy to deal with the situation and US Navy ships soon began to take a toll on the pirate vessels.  The squadron was composed of ships and commanded by officers that would become legend in the history of the Navy. Commanded by Commodore Edward Preble and included the Brig USS Argus, the Frigates USS Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, EnterprisePhiladelphia, Schooner Enterprise and Brig Syren.  Numerous young officers who would distinguish themselves in the following years served aboard the ships of the squadron.

One of the young officers was the 24 year old Captain of the 12 Gun Schooner USS Enterprise Stephen Decatur the son of a Navy Captain who had entered the Naval service as a Midshipman in 1798 and who had risen rapidly through the ranks due to his abilities and leadership. He was among the few officers selected to remain in service following the end of the Quasi-War with France.  By the time that he took command of Enterprise Decatur had already served as the First Lieutenant of the Frigates USS Essex and USS New York.  After an altercation with British officer while wintering in Malta he was sent home to command the new Brig of War USS Argus. He was ordered to bring her to Europe where he handed over command to Lieutenant Isaac Hull who would achieve fame in the War of 1812 as Commanding Officer of the USS Constitution.  Decatur was given command of Enterprise on when he detached from the Argus.

On December 23rd 1803 while operating with the Constitution Decatur and the Enterprise captured the small Tripolitan ketch Mastico which was sailing under Turkish colors.  The small ship was taken to Syracuse where Commodore Edward Preble condemned her as a prize of war, renamed her Intrepid and placed Decatur in command.

Normally such a transfer would be considered a demotion for an officer of Decatur’s caliber; but events at Tripoli had forced Preble to make a bold strike at the heart of the enemy.  On October 31st 1803 the Frigate USS Philadelphia one of the most powerful ships in the squadron, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge was lured into shoal water and ran aground on an uncharted shoal and was captured.  Her crew was taken prisoner an imprisoned while the ship was floated off the reef by the Tripolitans. The ship was partially repaired and moored as a battery in the harbor. For the moment the powerful frigate was out of action until her foremast which had been cut down by Bainbridge in his unsuccessful  attempt to float the ship off the shoal could be replaced.

Burning the Philadelphia

The threat posed by such a powerful ship in the hands of the enemy was too great to ignore. Preble ordered Decatur to man the Intrepid with volunteers and make a plan to destroy the Philadelphia while the ship was at anchor and unable to put to sea.  Decatur took 80 men from the Enterprise and was joined by eight more volunteers  from USS Syren including Lieutenant Thomas McDonough who had recently served aboard Philadelphia and knew the ship well. The Intrepid was re-rigged with the

Under the cover of night of February 16th 1804 Decatur took the former Tripolitan ship into the harbor beneath the dim light of the new moon.  The ship was able to slip past the guns of the forts overlooking the harbor using an Arabic speaking Sicilian sailor to request permission to enter the harbor under the ruse that she was a merchant ship that had lost her anchors in a storm.

The request was granted the and Decatur sailed the Intrepid to bring her alongside the Philadelphia without Securing permission from the Tripitolan watch standers aboard Philadelphia to tie up alongside the frigate. When he drew alongside the massive ship Decatur ordered his crew to board the Frigate. After a brief skirmish with the small contingent of sailors aboard he took control, and after ensuring that the ship was unseaworthy, he and his sailors set the frigate ablaze. When he was sure that the fire could not be extinguished he ordered his men back aboard Intrepid and sailed out of the harbor under the fire of Tripolitan shore batteries and gunboats.

The mission complete Decatur sailed Intrepid back to Syracuse where he was greeted as a hero and became one of the Navy’s legends.  Pope Pius VII publicly proclaimed that “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast, than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of the most heroic sailors that ever lived and no stranger to daring, said that Decatur’s accomplishment was “the most bold and daring act of the Age.

Decatur leading American Sailors in hand to hand combat against Barbary Pirates at Tripoli 1804 his younger brother Lieutenant James Decatur was killed aboard another gunboat in the action

Decatur would return to command the Enterprise in 1804 and would prove himself again against the forces of Tripoli. He distinguished himself  in the years to come against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812 and later in the Second Barbary War.

In that final Barbary war, Decatur’s squadron decisively defeated the Algerian fleet capturing the Frigate Mashouda and killing the highly successful and chivalrous commander of the Algerian raiding squadron, Rais Hamidu.

Following the defeat of the Algerian fleet, the  Pashas of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli all made peace and reimbursed the Americans for the financial damage that they had done.  His victory ended the terror that the Barbary States had inflicted on Europeans for centuries and helped bring peace to the Mediterranean.  More than any one man Stephen Decatur was responsible for the end their reign of piracy and terror in the Mediterranean.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, Navy Ships, US Navy

Insane, Impaired, or Evil? Questions the Loyal Opposition Must Ask

Edward R. Murrow

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American journalist and pioneering radio and television broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” His words are profound. He, along with William Shirer covered the rise of the Nazis and then lived through the height of the Red Scare and the McCarthy era inquisition. Of course he was right, the fact is that it does not matter which party controls the reigns of government or who the President is that principled opposition is not disloyal.

This is an important fact to remember even as the current President of the United States, his accomplices in the world of Fox News and Breitbart, and his fanatical supporters in what is called the Christian Right dare to say. The fact is that for our government to function as the founders intended it is absolutely necessary for the minority party, as well as other minorities be allowed to dissent. When that Constitutional right is abridged in any way it endangers our society and our way of life. In an age where opinions can be picked up cheap on the internet, television, or radio, and where things like courage, fortitude, and real faith are in short supply, we have to acknowledge as Murrow did “that we are living in an age of confusion – a lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria.”

We have a President who has spent the year after his election victory demonizing his opponents, be they members of the press, the Democratic Party, or even members of his own Republican Party for infractions that had they happened under any previous American President of any party would have never happened.

Some politicians, pundits, and medical professionals have suggested that the President is either insane or perhaps suffering from the early stages of dementia. Others disagree and believe that he is neither insane or suffering from dementia but that he is a master manipulator who knows exactly what he is doing. His list of actions that would have certainly damned the candidacy of any previous Presidential candidate, or the term of of office of any other President grows with every passing hour. Despite that whatever opposition there is seems to be ineffectual and shunted aside. In normal times the suggestion that the President might be suffering from a type of mental illness or a medical condition that impaired their cognitive ability would be a cause for bi-partisan concern, and to think that the President might be a manipulative prospective tyrant would as it did during Watergate turn his own party against him. Honestly, the thought of an either insane or cognitively impaired President trying to demonize his opposition or one that is bent on crushing them are both bad scenarios. I think that the latter is worse if his own party has surrendered its soul to their ideological goals so much that they are willing to go along with actions and statements that just over a year ago many of them said should disqualify someone from the presidency.

My problem is that I am a historian and that I have studied totalitarian states and the history of how they became such. What I am seeing going on now frightens me. We are moving closer to a totalitarian system of government than I could have ever thought could have happened in this country. I believed that our system of checks and balances coupled with a free press would keep anyone from overthrowing our system of government and establishing a totalitarian state, but we seem to be moving rapidly in that direction.

Historian Timothy Snyder noted in an interview with Sean Illing: “We think that because we’re America, everything will work itself out. This is exactly what the founders refused to believe. They thought human nature is such that you have to constrain it by institutions. They preferred rule of law and checks and balances.”

The rule of law, the Constitutional system of checks and balances, and the underlying premise of the Declaration of Independence cannot be sacrificed for political expediency. The question one has to begin to ask in light of all of the President’s actions and words is: is the President insane, is he impaired, or is he evil and intent on establishing himself as a tyrant? None of those options are good, but if the President’s supporters were principled as was the Republican Party in 1973-74 during Watergate then such actions can be stopped. However, if they are not, and if the leaders of the President’s Party knows or suspects that he is insane, impaired, or evil and acting against the Constitution, but take no action in order to get their agenda passed then they are no better that the non-Nazi German conservatives of 1932-1935 who abandoned all principle because Hitler gave them some of what they wanted.

I’m going to stop for now, but remember the questions about the President posed by many other than me that must be answered: is he insane, is he impaired, or is he evil?

Honestly I don’t know. I can speculate, but the questions have to be asked by people in elected or appointed offices established by the Constitution, as well,as the press, and the citizenry if we are to retain our republican system of government. Dissent is not disloyalty. Asking such questions is not treason. Our founders wrestled with this. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

Murrow noted: “No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, News and current events, Political Commentary

Our Liberty Depends on Freedom of the Press

Franklin-Press

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Benjamin Franklin wrote: Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” This is true in any nation, but especially so in a democracy like ours. Our founders understood the vital importance of a free press to the health of the nation, and they understood that people had to be educated so that they might be able to discern truth from lies. Thomas Jefferson underscored this fact when he wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

There is a terrible threat to the freedom of the press today. One comes from the government. Well before he took office President Trump began to openly threaten the freedom of the press. Since he took office he has increased his attacks on the press as a whole and against individual journalists. Likewise his surrogates do the same and twist the very meaning of the Constitution in order to justify their attacks on it.

The fact is that such actions are the key to dictatorship. It is evident that the attacks are meant to discredit the press and to make the people suspicious of the one non-governmental source of information that our founders insisted as being absolutely vital to our freedom as Americans. Jefferson said so when he wrote: Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

But the other threat to the freedom of the press comes from a populace that is unable to understand the basic workings of our form of government and who will not accept or tolerate opinions different from their own. Such is grist in the hands of leaders who despise the constitutional liberties granted to all Americans, not just their interest groups or supporters, as well the very proposition that our nation was founded upon; the proposition in the Declaration that “all men are created equal…”

But despots of all types despise a free press, and fear it. Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked that “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” This is why tyrants fear the press. A Southern critic of slavery, Hinton Helper wrote “Slavery tolerates no freedom of the press, no freedom of speech, no freedom of opinion.”

In our history there have been times when free speech and a free press were banned. One of the most notable times was during the debates about slavery during the 1830s and 1840s as the abolitionist movement began to be more vocal. They attempted to silence dissent in Congress, and beginning in 1836 the House of Representatives, led by Southern members of Congress passed a “gag rule” for its members. The “Gag Rule” “banned all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers related in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery.”

Likewise they attempted to quash any opposition to slavery in the press at the federal and state level. In response to the proliferation of abolitionist literature in the South which was being sent through the mail, Senator John C. Calhoun proposed that Congress pass a law to prosecute “any postmaster who would “knowingly receive or put into the mail any pamphlet, newspaper, handbill, or any printed, written, or pictorial representation touching the subject of slavery.” Calhoun was not alone as other members of Congress as well as state legislatures worked to restrict the import of what they considered subversive and dangerous literature.

Critics of a free press often point to times where the press has failed its duty and there are times that it has. There have been partisans who have used the press to inflame opinion rather than to inform. That being said, people need to be able to discern truth from error, they need to understand their form of government and its checks and balances. The press has the responsibility of reporting and educating. The press can bear legitimate criticism when it is wrong or acts in bad faith, but the answer is not to suppress the opinions of any government critic, especially the press whose duty it is to keep the government and its leaders honest. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote: Freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society.”

But even with the flaws of the press our founders understood it to be absolutely vital to the American experiment and to humanity. James Madison wrote: To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”

Likewise, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics…derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.”

To silence the press, to restrict its access, to ban negative reporting about the government, or to attempt to delegitimize and demonize press opponents destroys a necessary pillar of a free government. Once a free press is silenced that which remains serves only as a propaganda organ for the government, incapable of telling the truth. This is why it is so important; a free press is not about the freedoms of journalists to speak, but of a people to be informed. During the height of the controversy of the publication of the Pentagon Papers which exposed the years of lies the government had been telling about the American involvement in Vietnam which the government tried to suppress, the late executive editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee told Dick Cavett that freedom of the press was “not the right, exclusively, of a few people who have chosen journalism as a career. That isn’t what the hell it’s about… “It’s about your right to read, your right to be informed.”

Freedom of the press must be guarded and cherished, and it is under some of the most malicious attacks today that it has ever experienced in our nation. It is something that must be defended despite its shortfalls and the various biases of different news organizations, and it is up to citizens to know their form of government and to be smart enough to recognize when news is, to use the current word, fake.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a few days we as Americans will be celebrating the 241st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As the day approaches I’ll be writing more reflections on what it means even as I intersperse some articles on the Battle of Gettysburg, a victory that helped ensure that the Union would survive and that helped to pave the way for the understanding that the Declaration must be understood in its universal sense. In a day like ours where many localities, states, and even the Federal government appear to be working to limit those rights, often based on the religious beliefs of a powerful, well-funded and militant minority of conservative Christians, this all the more important.

For me it is the truth both of a concept of Liberty which must continuously be advanced or expanded, and the still imperfect embodiment of that concept in the land that it was born. The authors of the declaration wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”  Eighty-seven years later while dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg noted that the new nation was “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Lincoln understood from the reality of war, and the statements of European leaders that the whole concept of a country being founded on a proposition like this, not race, not class, not religion, not station in life, was bound to be opposed, and was incredibly fragile. He confronted a rebellion which based itself on the belief that African Americans were less than equal, in fact subhuman and deserving of being enslaved by a superior race. Likewise, there were those in Europe who cheered the rebellion and believed that it proved that such experiments were doomed to failure, a belief that is still widely held, but more often by American elites than others.

But like it or not, the proposition that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights; a concept so imperfectly practiced by the very men who drafted it and those who followed them, still is right. That proposition was universalized as a political philosophy by Abraham Lincoln, is the basis of all hope for humanity. Tyrants, despots, dictators, terrorists, religious zealots of every sect filled with messianic visions, as well as madmen all desire to trample this proposition. Some desire to believe that those rights can simply be maintained by the power of a Constitution, but unless the people who swear to uphold that Constitution are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal that very Constitution can be perverted and used to enslave people, as it was by the men who drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Laws, and the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases ruled that African Americans were less than equal as human beings, and therefore not entitled to the same rights and liberties as were white people. It is the same constitution and laws that were used to deny citizenship and rights to Chinese immigrants until 1942, that were used by the government to interment native born Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the Second World War, which drove Native Americans off their ancestral homelands, massacred them by the tens of millions, and placed them on reservations without any rights of American citizens until 1924; and which denied suffrage to women until 1919, and denied basic civil rights to LGBTQ people until recently; rights that in many states are still denied by state legislatures. But without equality, freedom is an illusion.

Judge Learned Hand, perhaps the best qualified man ever to not serve on the Supreme Court wrote,

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of othe men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

That is why the proposition in the Declaration which was universalized by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address is still of the utmost importance. It is why it must be fought for, especially when politicians like Donald Trump and others threaten its very existence, and whose followers see it as only as Liberty for themselves and their interests. That proposition is under duress today, there are millions of followers of Trump and the demagogues who would deny Liberty to others based on race, religion, ethnicity, economic status, gender, or by them being LGBTQ. But, Liberty is a perilous thing, but once that proposition of Liberty dies in our hearts, there is nothing that can save it, no constitution, no law, no court; and those who place their trust in it the demagogues will find that they will eventually lose their Liberty as well.

In 1858 Lincoln spoke in Chicago, and in that speech he linked the common connection of all Americans share, even recent immigrants, through the Declaration. It was an era of intense anti-immigrant passions, the American Party, which sprang from the Know Nothing movement which founded upon extreme hatred of immigrants, and Roman Catholics, and violence against them, had run former President Millard Fillmore for election as at their candidate in 1856 following the collapse of the Whig Party.

In opposition to this party and movement  Lincoln proclaimed that immigrants, “cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel a part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find those old men say that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,… That is the father of all moral principle to them, and they have a right to claim it as if they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and Liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” 

Lincoln was absolutely correct, it is that love of freedom, liberty, and equality that echoes in the Declaration, and it is still a revolutionary idea. We hold these truths to be self evident…

As a historian I cannot get away from this. Whether it is in my study of European history, particularly the Weimar Republic and the Nazi takeover, or the American Civil War, especially the times I visit the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg and talk about the Gettysburg Address with my students. The breadth of my experience, having visited Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, having watched the unadulterated adulation of crowds of Germans chanting Sieg Heil!,  having grown up in this country at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and having walked so many battlegrounds where American men have died fighting such tyranny makes me all too sensitive to why this proposition is so important.

That is why the quest for the fulfillment of that proposition is something that cannot be given up, it is in the words of Lincoln, “it is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought for have thus far so nobly advanced. That it is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead should not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

For me it is this proposition, the proposition mocked by the elites of Europe, the proposition that any republic founded on such a proposition was doomed to fail, this proposition that says “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” is what Independence Day is about. That is why in my remaining service to this country I will rededicate myself to seeing that “new birth of freedom” is fulfilled for every American.

That may seem a pipe dream to some people, and even impossible to others; but it is what far too many of the men and women who served before me gave the last full measure of devotion to duty to bring to fulfillment. Learned Hand was right, if Liberty dies in our hearts, no law, no constitution, no court, can save us.

Have a great Independence Day and please remember it is not about the day off, the picnics, or displays of military might, it is about that proposition; the one that is so easy to forget, the proposition that all men are created equal.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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