Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Remembering Stalin in Ukraine, and Other Atrocities to Keep in Mind while Doing Very Careful Business with the Latest Russian Empire (and the Iranians)

"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

                  — Attributed plausibly to Adolph Hitler,
                      preparing to annihilate, most immediately, Poles         

I'm listening again to Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin (1st published 2012), and I've gotten to Stalin's program of collectivization and against the peasants and nationalisms (sic: plural) inside that "prison-house of nations" the Russian Empire was under the czars and remained under Stalin.

            The United States will have to cooperate with the Russians (and the Iranians) for immediate needs like a reduction of slaughter in Syria and vicinity, and for continuing necessities like nuclear-arms reduction so the number of warheads gets to and stays below any number likely to destroy human civilization. The history of Russian rule in Ukraine and in the Balkans, the history of Russia in the various attempts to destroy Poland — another big topic for Snyder — is crucial to know and keep in mind during any rapprochement with the Russian Federation: It must be done in ways that won't really upset people with grievances against the Russian Empire in its Stalinist forms and decent memories. In American time, the 1930s were a long time ago; not so for people with better memories, especially when the memories include Ukrainians in huge numbers intentionally starved to death by Stalin and his willing executioners.

            I just finished listening again to Destiny Disrupted: A History Of The World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary (2010), which makes the point that Islam, like aspects of Judaism and in the history of Christendom, is in part a political project. (Year 1 in the Muslim calendar is not the birth of Mohammed nor the year of the first revelation, but the year of the move to Medina and the birth of the Muslim community.) This is a point insisted on by Donald Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. It is also a point that must be kept in mind *and* handled with great delicacy.

            Here are two areas where the Trump people have legitimate points to make and could suggest some useful policies, but may end up with greater or lesser disasters because they don't "do nuance" and seem to consider delicacy (and what George Orwell called decency) unmanly.

            We need to cooperate with the Russians without undermining NATO and putting large parts of Europe in doubt of our willingness to prevent Russia from again doing horrible things on their territory. We need to cooperate with Russia and Iran against very much political aspects of "Jihad" in senses that definitely included military struggle. And we need to do all this very carefully.

            Another US administration that's into swagger over substance and some subtlety could make the US Iraq misadventures look relatively minor.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Trump, Truth, and Temptation — for Kazantzakis's Christ and Us in 2016/17

On Monday, 19 December 2016, Donald J. Trump is scheduled to be elected 45th President of the United States; less than a week later, Christians will be celebrating Christmas and then, come spring, commemorating the Passion and celebrating Easter. Right about now would be well, I think, to consider the moment in the trial of Jesus where Pontius Pilot, the story goes, asked "What is truth?" That question has become more important lately, and a bit out of season I'm going to throw in a quotation on the subject from my study guide on Eric Hoffer's The True Believer (1951).

"'What is truth?' said jesting Pilot,
and would not stay for an answer." —  Francis Bacon


From Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ
Trans. from the Greek by P. A. Bien (New York: Bantam, 1968)

{Excerpt from the vision of Jesus of Nazareth, accepted by Christians as Christ, the Messiah, as he hung from the cross, in the instant between uttering Eli, Eli ("My God, my God") and lama sabachtani ("why have You forsaken me?" [see opening of Ps. 22]). The excerpt is from a vision of a scene between Paul the Apostle and the disguised Jesus ("Master Lazarus"—alluding to Lazarus, raised from the dead by Jesus). In this vision, Jesus had been saved from crucifixion and had returned to the world to take up a domestic life married to Mary and Martha. This desire to lead a normal life as husband and father was, in Kazantzakis's opinion, the last and most dangerous temptation for the Man-God Jesus Christ.}

                      "Why are you rolling your eyes?" cried Jesus. Why do you stare at my hands and feet? Those marks [i.e., the stigmata] were stamped on me by God during my sleep. By God, or by the Tempter; I still can't understand which. I dreamed I was on the cross and in pain, but I cried out, awoke, and my pain disappeared. What I should have suffered while awake, I suffered while asleep—and escaped!" […] "I escaped; I came to this tiny village under another name and with another body, . Here I lead the life of a man: I eat, drink, work[,] and have children. […] I am the son of man, I tell you, not the son of God. […] And don't go around the whole world to publish lies. I shall stand up and proclaim the truth!"

            Now it was Paul's turn to explode. "Shut your shameless mouth!" he shouted, rushing at him. "Be quiet, or men will hear you and die of fright. In the rottenness, the injustice, and poverty of this world, the Crucified and resurrected Jesus has been the one precious consolation for the honest man, the wronged man. True or false—what do I care? It's enough if the world is saved!" "It's better the world perish with the truth than be saved with lies. At the core of such a salvation sits the great worm Satan."
            "What is 'truth'? What is 'falsehood'? Whatever gives wings to men, whatever produces great works and great souls and lifts us a man's height above the earth—that is true. Whatever clips off man's wings—that is false." […]
            "You won't keep quiet, will you, son of Satan! The wings you talk about are just like the wings of Lucifer."
            "No, I won't keep quiet. I don't give a hoot about what's true and what's false, or whether I saw him or didn't see him, or whether he was crucified or wasn't crucified. I create the truth, create it out of obstinacy and longing and faith. I don't struggle to find it—I build it. I build it taller than man and thus I make man grow. If the world is to be saved, it is necessary—do you hear—absolutely necessary for you to be crucified, and I shall crucify, like it or not; it is necessary for you to be resurrected, and I shall resurrect you, like it or not. For all I care you can sit here in your miserable village and manufacture cradles, troughs[,] and children. If you want to know, I shall compel the air to take your shape. Body, crown of thorns, nails, blood […]. The whole works is now part of the machinery of salvation—everything is indispensable. And in every corner of the earth, innumerable eyes will look up and see you in the air—crucified. They will weep, and the tears will cleanse their souls of their sins. But on the third day I shall raise you from the dead, because there is no salvation without a resurrection. The final, the most horrible enemy is death. I shall abolish death. How? By resurrecting you as Jesus, son of God—the Messiah!"
            "It's not true. I'll stand up and shout that I wasn't crucified, didn't rise from the dead, am not God! […] Why do you laugh?"
            "Shout all you want. I'm not afraid of you. I don't even need you any more. The wheel you set in motion has gathered momentum: who can control it now? To tell you the truth, while you were talking there I felt for a minute like falling upon you and strangling you just you case you might accidentally reveal your identify and show poor mankind that you weren't crucified. But I calmed down immediately. Why shouldn't he shout? I asked myself. The faithful will seize you, will throw you on a pyre for a blasphemer and burn you!"
            "I said only one word, brought only one message: Love. Love—nothing else."
            "By saying 'Love' you let loose all the angels and demons that were asleep within the bowels of mankind. 'Love' is not, as you think, a simple, tranquil word. Within it lie armies massacred, burning cities and much blood. Rivers of blood, rivers of tears: the face of the earth has changed. You can cry now as much as you like; you can make yourself hoarse by yelling, 'I didn't want to say that—that is not love. Do not kill each other! We're al brothers! Stop!' […] But how, poor wretch, can they stop? What's done is done!"
            "You laugh like a devil."
            "No, like an apostle. I shall become your apostle whether you like it or not. I shall construct you and your life and your teachings and your crucifixion and resurrection just as I wish. Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth did not beget you; I begot you—I, Paul, the scribe from Tarsus in Cilicia."
            "No! No!"
            "Who asked you? I have no need of your permission. Why do you stick your nose in my affairs?" […] "How can the world be saved by you, Master Lazarus? With you, will it surpass its own nature, will its soul sprout wings? if the world wants to be saved, it will listen to me—me!" […] "Brothers lift up your eyes. Look! On one side Master Lazarus; on the other, Paul, the servant of Christ. Choose! If you go with him, with Master Lazarus, you will lead a life of poverty bound to the treadmill; you will live and die as sheep live and die—they leave behind them a little wool, a few bleats[,] and a great deal of dung. If you come with me: love, struggle, war—we shall conquer the world! Choose! On one side, Christ, the son of God, the salvation of the world; on the other, Master Lazarus!"

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Good Reason to Vote for Donald Trump

         A fellow member of our local Democratic Club said that he'd yet to hear an intelligent argument for voting for Donald Trump. Well, I heard one, from an older woman of, apparently, working-class or lower-middle-class background. It went like this: "I'm a conservative. I vote for the conservative party — and if that jackass is leading this mule-train, well I'm on for the ride."

         Now, people pushing radical changes shouldn't call themselves conservatives, but I get her point, and it looks more and more like she made an intelligent choice in voting for Trump. Instead of the usual bait-and-switch of Republican politics that Thomas Frank talked about in What's the Matter with Kansas (2004), Trump may've offered her some solid chum. She will get economic "conservatism" of the rampant capitalist variety, plus, eventually, with any luck for her, a Supreme Court that will chip away at abortion rights — and maybe overturn Roe v. Wade. Etc., depending on the Supreme Court's calendar and opportunities. She won't get a wall on the Mexican border nor truly massive roundups of Mexican nationals on US territory — but she may not care much about such issues: obviously she displayed a healthy skepticism about "that jackass" running for President.

         She will get cutbacks in socialistic programs like the "social safety net" and a comfortable jingoism in domestic politics. Abroad, she may get that jingoism combined with old-fashioned right-wing isolationism, in uneasy balance with movement toward cooperation and perhaps alliance with such reactionary regimes as those of the latest version of the Russian Empire and, of all places, the Philippines.

         Plus, possibly, she will see a rapprochement with the Nationalist Chinese that would delight old China Hands, and striking out against obstreperous Muslims and such remaining godless Communists as those in Cuba.

         Her support of Trump helped bring about a regime that will screw over a lot of Americans, greatly harm the environment, and help destabilize a fragile world order — but in terms of choosing effective means to achieve her ends, her choice makes sense and, in amoral terms, was almost brilliant.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Donald J. Trump and King Richard II: The Politician as Actor

CAUTION: Long, academic (hence, arguably elitist, starting with my using the word "hence") post.

I'm a bit less apprehensive than many about the almost inevitable upcoming election of Donald Trump (19 Dec. 2016, 6 Jan. 2017) in part because I see in him not only the standard historical precedents — Italy supplies two useful ones — but with England's King Richard II. As a youngster, the historical Richard rather heroically met with leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt and lied his royal ass off promising freedom and redress of grievances. He soon suppressed the revolt and sent the serf contingent back to serfdom, promising them they'd be oppressed even more than before. 

Shakespeare deals with Richard later in Richard's life, as Richard moves to his fall. Not with disinterest (I'll note with a double negative), Shakespeare acknowledges and even stresses that kings must be actors. Richard, however, comes to live the part and starts to believe what had become by Shakespeare's time the standard royalist propaganda on the Divine Right of Kings. King Richard is into his own beautiful words — and he's good at language, unlike Mr. Trump — and gets lost in them. He loses out to a man of few words and a relatively early member of "the reality-based community": that man of facts and opportunist action, Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV.

As king, Henry IV gives good but pretty standard Machiavellian advice to his son, who goes on to become Henry V and outdo his dad in more sophisticated Machiavellian kingship. Henry IV isn't into straightforward speech, but here's his analysis of Richard for his son's benefit, and I think ours.

My expectation is that Trump will undermine himself as a, ahem, bad actor with delusions of total power, and will be displaced by hard-facts people who can use Machiavelli et al. to ethical ends. 

Enjoy! (Or just delete; I did give that trigger caution above.)

The hope and expectation of thy time
Is ruin'd, and the soul of every man
Prophetically doth forethink thy fall.
Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder'd at;
That men would tell their children 'This is he;'
Others would say 'Where, which is Bolingbroke?'
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress'd myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new;
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wonder'd at: and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast
And won by rareness such solemnity.
The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative,
Grew a companion to the common streets,
Enfeoff'd himself to popularity;
That, being daily swallow'd by men's eyes,
They surfeited with honey and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little
More than a little is by much too much.
So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes;
But rather drowzed and hung their eyelids down,
Slept in his face and render'd such aspect
As cloudy men use to their adversaries,
Being with his presence glutted, gorged and full.
(_1 Henry IV_, from MIT Shakspeare on line)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Donald J. Trump: Postmodern President

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite
exempt from any intellectual influence,
are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.
Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air,
are distilling their frenzy from some academic
scribbler of a few years back.  John Maynard Keynes

What can be thought must certainly be a fiction. — F. Nietzsche,
The Will to Power (1901) , quoted in 
Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending  (1965)

David Lehman paraphrases [Jacques Derrida, 1966 f. …]  with,
"Nothing exists ahead of language or outside it;
there are no things or ideas except in words."
Alternatively put, "Il n'y a rien hors du texte,"
which Andreas Huyssen renders [possibly maliciously]
"there is nothing outside the text."Richard D. Erlich

 “But it is very difficult,” Shan said, “to live without the notion
that there is, somewhere, if one could just find it, a fact.”
 “Only fiction,” said Forest, unrelenting. “Fact is one of our finest fictions.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin,  “Dancing to Ganam” (1993),
collected A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, 1994.

         Until the late 1990's and Coyote's Song, my book on the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, my one serious foray into the epistemological part of the culture wars — "What is truth?" issues — was published in a very minor and very local anthology, Ambergris 1.2 (1987), a poem called "Andersen (post)Modernized": Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" (1837) tweaked to bring it up to date. My poem was written thirty years ago. Andersen published nearly 180 years ago — and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared some sixty-eight years ago and was celebrated in the real-world year 1984, over thirty years ago.
         The thematic core of Nineteen Eighty-Four includes "the Grand Inquisitor" sequence — the re-education of Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love — and the core of that re-education program is converting Winston Smith to the doctrine, the deep knowledge and conviction, that reality is created in the human mind and therefore controlled by those who control people's minds.
         Add to these the blatant untruths of much advertising and marketing — "Every kiss begins with Kay®" (really?) — our unthinking acceptance of everyday bullshit, and it should be no surprise that we have shambled into a "post-truth" world of hucksterism, epitomized in the candidacy for US President of Donald J. Trump and more so by his Electoral College election.
         I immodestly reprint my poem below, / And mutter with my betters, "Told you so …"

"The Emperor's naked!"
The little boy yelled, 
"Bare-assed, buck, stark, unclothed!
"So they grabbed him up (the earplugged men, silver-eyed)
And threw him into the Official Car,
For quick trip to the Ministry.
Sat him down to discourse philosophical—and prudential.
Let him know
Reality is made between our ears
(While beating him and shocking him
Raping him and breaking him).
Until the Minister came in
To tell him,
"You've done sacrilege
Finding your view privileged"
And stuck a large pistol (a 45) into his little ear
And asked him what now was real,
"Relative to Emperors, sartiorialwise."
And found all monarchs fully clothed
In all Reality that is (or can be)
Inside the head of a little boy
Who's learned how worlds
Get made by human brains and
How guns dress emperors.