Friday, November 30, 2018

"Nation" v. "Republic," Russians, Trump, and "Smoking Guns"

On whether (or not) there's a "smoking gun" in Donald Trump's involvement with the Russians as candidate and/or President—and whether Americans should care:

The US "Pledge of Allegiance" to the flag lumps together the US as "one Nation under God" and "the Republic" symbolized by the flag. Usually conflated in colloquial usage, Nation and Republic are different things (with "the American State" aside for a moment).

If we are essentially a Nation, and especially if that's a White, Christian Nation — possibly in the sense of "I used to be Catholic but now I'm a Christian" (actual quote) — then President Trump is going an impressive job as Leader of the Nation, channeling the will of the *real* American people and resisting corruption by foreigners generally but also by internal elements on the Nation's territory who are not White and/or properly Christian. Or for more inclusive Nationalists, putting a larger Nation first and over all.

For the Nation, going further a Capitalist Nation, Trump's doing business with the Russians is no big deal, and Russian help for his election would be a neutral or good thing since it helped give the Leader authority over much of the apparatus of the State, returning it to the service of the Nation.

If the US is essentially a Republic with a "mixed Constitution" with democratic elements — even liberal-democratic elements — then messing with elections is a very big deal. Also a big deal would be Trump's trying to use agents and agencies of the State to protect his position as Leader. And a really big deal would be the Leader of the Nation asserting himself over the laws of the Republic and State.

Since most Americans are as double-minded on such matters as the Pledge to the Flag is, this division can get murky. At the extremes, though, it's clear enough, and the resolution (if any) may very well start there if and when small "r" republicans try to remove by impeachment or the 2020 elections the Leader of the Nation.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

HAIL TO THE VICTORS ... VALIANT? — Trump, Tribalism, Emperors, and Aristocratic Thugs

"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." 
— College football coach Red Saunders 
(often attributed to Vince Lombardi), 20th century

What is wisdom?
What gift of the gods is held in honor like this;
 to hold your hand victorious
over the heads of those you hate?
Glory is precious forever.
— Lines by the Chorus of god-intoxicated 
women in Euripides's The Bacchae
(405 BCE, around line 877)

It's too loaded to quote by itself, but the purest form of the ideal I wish to discuss — and “ideal” isn’t necessarily a compliment with me — is the Nazis' "Sieg Heil!", "Hail Victory!" Anyway, what I’ll be getting to here is the form of the Warrior Ethic where what counts is winning, with how one wins is of some importance — honor code and all, chivalry — but secondary to just winning. This is one theory to explain a lot of violence, especially the premeditated and highly-organized kind. 

There are also Transcendent-Value theories where any means is justified by a goal of great value: sometimes something godly, but sometimes the Nation or the Revolution or ... whatever. And/or one can oppose a really great evil. E.g., if you believe abortion is murder and a large number of abortions mass murder moving toward genocide, then all sorts of means might be justified to end abortion, and just throwing some acid in a child’s or woman’s face — that example comes from Nineteen Eighty-Four and recent history— might be seen as moderate. If slowing the Hitlerian Holocaust would have justified bombing the death camps (and I’ll accept that argument), bombing a probably unoccupied abortion clinic would definitely — arguably — be justified: if, but only if, abortion is murder and one accepts the Machiavellian statement of faith, “The End justifies the means.” (“End” means “final outcome” as well as “goal,” and one can never be sure what even the major immediate results of an act will be, let alone results far down a history of causes and effects.) 

But, as I often do, I digress. 

Let’s start again.

For my dissertation, I was strongly influenced by William Arrowsmith (Tulane Drama Review 3.3 [March 1959]) and his “One final point (pp. 73 f.; III) that the great Greek tragedies each defined, so to speak, a central term that was contested — argued over — during the time the tragedy was written and produced. For a highly relevant example, The Bacchae is explicit on defining, sophia “wisdom” and its opposites. Now my 1971 dissertation was, “Wise Men and Fools: Values and Competing Theories of Wisdom in a Selection of Tragedies …” by Shakespeare and some playwrights chronologically on either side of his theatre career. So I was really interested in applying Arrowsmith’s idea (or stealing it), and I was eventually greatly concerned with one of the offered answers to the question, “What is wisdom?” The one by the Chorus in The Bacchae quoted in my headnote of wisdom as winning, gaining glory: glorying in humiliating an opponent. 

Flash forward to this year and my listening and re-listening to audiobooks of Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence(2014) plus relistening to Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Ancient World From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome (2007), primarily reviewing those really early “Earliest Accounts” and getting an over-view without the thesis of Armstrong on the beginning and development of “agrarian civilization” and its cooperation and conflicts with herders and raiders seeming to come from the hills and plains like the tides against (very early on) the walls of the City.

Euripides’s Bacchae state articulately and explicitly a key value of aristocrats from before the time of Gilgamesh at Uruk ca. 2600 BCE to the wannabe nobles of the Master Race (Herrenvolk) of the 20thcentury into our own time: Sieg heil!, “Hail, Victory!” Period.

Except there is more, and not just among the “Aria” — Aryans, speakers of (proto)Indo-European — who didn’t enter the historical record until long after King Gilgamesh and his archetypal Heldenleben (Heroic Life). Among the aristocrats of truly ancient Uruk and the military branch of their descendants; among the Aria military aristocrats and their literal and cultural descendants; and basically among military aristocracies in agrarian civilizations around the world: i.e. among almost all civilizations, there were a few basic rules.

         First, the essence of nobility and later gentility is that members of the elite don’t work for a living. Work is for peasants. In the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Christian peasants cheered on Lollard Christian priest John Ball and his subversive rime, “When Adam delved” — dug, like a farmer — “and Eva span” — Eve spun, like a good working wife — "Who was then the gentleman?” But the rime was subversive, reminding those revolting peasants — villainous villein serfs — of one official creation myth that suggested the natural state for people was equality. 
         However respectable the source of the Adam/Eve bit in the Book of Genesis — Hebrew authors in the Jewish tradition of opposing agrarian civilization — that wasn’t the theory popular with The Powers That Be in civilizations dependent upon inequality and a small elite’s relieving the peasants of a big hunk of their harvests and also setting them to perform useful public works: like irrigation ditches and temple storehouses for grain and pyramids and tombs and monuments. In such cultures the ruling myth was that the gods had set up a hierarchy among themselves that was reflected on Earth. With the Code of Hammurabi, the hierarchy was pretty simple, “made up of three different classes, the [...] Upper class, the [...] free man class, and the [...] slave class.” In India, you got a complex caste system, and to get back to an England a historical period after John Ball and 1381 and all that, you get the Renaissance Anglican sermons teaching Early-Modern English Christians that “Almighty God has created and appointed all things in heaven and on earth [...] in a most excellent and perfect order. In heaven, he has appointed distinct and several orders and states of Archangels and Angels. In earth he has assigned and appointed Kings, Princes, with other governors under them, in all good and necessary order” — and for religious obligation people were required to know their places, stay in those places, and practice “Good Order and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates.”
         And if they didn’t, as back in 1381 and the later peasant revolts, well-armed and dangerous knights and lords and their retainers were thrilled and delighted to slaughter them. And in good conscience.

         Second, there was the necessity of the better sort’s not working to find some other means of support. By the time of sermonizing in England under the Tudors and Stuarts, a gentleman inherited wealth and land and rents. But before that? Well, Karen Armstrong notes that King Gilgamesh’s story has him taking what he wants, including a quest for precious cedar logs involving killing the forest’s god-appointed guardian. 
         Outside the City walls things were simpler but similar. From the old Aryans’ cattle rustling — all cattle rightfully belonged to the Masters — to the Germanic tribes complexly descended from them, real men were warriors, and warriors were Heroes, and the Heroic Life was organized theft and extortion, later, with luck, evolving into taxation and rents. 
         “In that day of this life,” the best of men would still be a man of violence, but he would direct that violence against the monsters that threatened human communities: over a few millennia Gilgamesh gets cleaned up into Beowulf and then seriously Christianized into a non-raping, non-plundering virginal knight like Sir Galahad. 

But don’t count on your local warrior bands including many Beowulfs, let alone Galahads — and chivalric Galahads were sworn to protect the Church and ladies — not farms nor shops, and not peasant women nor peasant men.

What you could hope for back in the Agrarian-Civ. day was a kind of Darwinian selection with a strong dose of Thomas Hobbes: i.e., getting the warriors held in check by war lords and then the war lords restrained by a king, and then, maybe, the warring kings kicked into line by an Emperor — and the lords and their inferiors might have a time of peace (except, of course, for the structural violence of the lords’ exploiting “their” peasants).
With luck … depending on the Emperor. And not getting too concerned with the crucifixions, mutilations, breaking on the wheel, and such emperors and their imitators used upon rebels, criminals, or just the seriously annoying: "As may be both due vengeance to themselves / And wholesome terror to posterity" (Gorboduc 5.1.96-97 [1561]). 

         Because that is the next problem, that imperial or royal "wholesome terror." 

         Susan Wise Bauer tells a story that I hadn’t heard from the early days of China as a more or less united empire with a ruler who wasn’t much into the Sage King bit or Daoist inaction or Confucian restraint. Significantly, the Emperor obviously believed (or felt), and enough of his court agreed or acquiesced that he got away with it — he felt that arbitrary action, often uncontrolled or cruel, was a good thing. Arbitrariness and cruelty — and presumably downright weirdness — demonstrated that this Son of Heaven was indeed special and that his power was literally absolute: constrained by no one and nothing.

I could increase examples, but I’ve rambled on enough. The point is that there’s a kind of “Perennial Ideology” that celebrates winners for winning, elites for taking what they want, and rulers for a kind of untethered arbitrariness. This ideology runs deep indeed and in many people may only be thinly overlain by a veneer of Christian or other religious restrictions on the powerful, and/or Enlightenment ideas and attitudes, and/or official republican and liberal-democratic ideas in countries like the United States. 
         If this is the case, we can understand better a fair number of supporters of Donald J. Trump and other actual or wannabe “Strongmen” — and those trying to rehabilitate Stalin and celebrate Genghis Khan.
         If this is the case, Trump et al.’s self-absorption, selfishness, lying, laziness, arbitrariness, mockery of losers, and petty (and not-so-petty) cruelty aren’t bugs but features. This antithesis of the strong, quiet, well-disciplined warrior is in a tradition of rapacious warrior thugs and mildly-mad emperors. And, among part of the US population, supported for such faults. This helps him win, so long as he continues to win. And if he continues to win, this increasingly inarticulate and ignorant man will be accounted, in some quarters, wise.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Trump, Sessions, Timing — and Climax of Epic Film, THE LUBYANKAN CANDIDATE!!!

Production Notes

FROM: Natasha F., Executive Producer
TO: Boris, nobody in particular (and associate producer)
DATE; 7 November 2018
Subject: Re-re-rewrite: Climax

Boris —

Get semiliterate hacks you call writers chained to desks again. Fearless Leader and fearful oligarch money-people want turning-point/climax with great instinctive move by insomniac Trump-puppet pushing story into Tent-Pole-epic heights, but maybe with tragic fall for end, if FL in that kind mood.

Is day after 2018 Mid-Term Election, and political apparatchiki of Deep State hung over and thinkingThanksgiving and Christmas when thinking at all: visions of sugar-plums, lobbying jobs, and maybe getting night’s sleep. And BANK-BANG!! Trump-puppet (not so puppety here) snaps off TV, fires Jeff Sessions, and appoints consigliere new Attorney General.

Do in S.-M.-Eisenstein heroic montage, cutting back-forth, and quick shot Sessions as snake slithering off — plus appropriate music: snatches “God Save the Czar.” (Americans play for 4thJuly “1812 Overture” and not get irony, so this work.) Also on sound-track, bits pieces great Karl Rove on fake-news and other Enemies of People “’in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' [...] 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' […]. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality […] —we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, […]. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Maybe Trump-puppet get away with it; maybe not. Win-win-win-win for Fearless Leader and Motherland. Also big profit on movie.

So: get writers writing. A little enhanced motivation okay, but no knout … yet.


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Politics and Teaching: Writing the English Language

Once upon a time, in the last third or so of the 20th c., I had a conference with a student who had started an informal essay, "Since the beginning of time, Man ...." Now, a line like that had been used in TV deodorant commercials a bit earlier, so I found the line funny — but the student wouldn't know that.

I asked the student "Do you count 'the beginning of time' from the Big Bang, or the Biblical Creation, or, locally, for the rise of human consciousness? And does 'Man' include Woman and our entire species?"

A couple questions later, the student clarified that what his topic involved was, "Me and my friends back in high school." So I asked, "Then why not begin, 'Me and my friends back in high school,' if that would be decorous — appropriate for Speaker, target audience, and subject matter — or, 'Back when we were in high school, my friends and I ...'?" He asked, "You mean it's okay to write about *that*?" And I responded, "Well, if that's what you want to write about, and you can fulfill the assignment, and you can make it interesting and maybe useful to a likely audience — yeah."
And then I put more delicately than this, "'Cause otherwise you're just bullshitting. (When I said it can be a good idea to start with a general introduction and get more specific, I didn't mean *cosmic*, and in a short essay, skip the Intro. and just spit out your thesis or its equivalent. Anyway, skip the pretentious horse-pucky)."

He had been trained to write like that.
He had been invited to bullshit.

And such training, along with huckster hyperbole, misplaced tolerance for b.s., fashionable relativism on — let's call it — the nakedness of emperors, and failure to listen closely not just to others but to ourselves: *that* is part of the reason English in 2018 is contributing to bad politics as much as it did in 1946, when George Orwell complained about "Politics and the English Language."