Sunday, November 11, 2018

Making America Grate Again

Donald Trump is making America grate again - that is, grate on the nerves of our longstanding friends and allies. He did this recently when he declined to attend a solemn Armistice Day memorial ceremony because of rain, and shortly thereafter sat grimly while France’s President Macron attempted to educate him on the stupidity and bigotry embodied in the concept of “nationalism.”

Here’s what Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, tweeted after Trump called off his participation in the ceremony: “They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen #hesnotfittorepresenthisgreatcountry

But let’s not dwell on the crudeness, stupidity and selfishness of the orange and white nationalist now occupying the Oval Office. I’d rather talk about World War I, which ended 100 years ago today and so brought about the birth of Armistice Day.

In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman quoted a conversation between two Germans about how the war started: “How did it all happen?” one asked. “Ah,” the other replied, “if only one knew.”

How it all started was through an understanding of national interests among the dominant European powers that took for granted the idea that each country was in the game for its own interest and nobody else’s. A kind of suspicious, trigger-happy nationalism was the order of the day, where power politics were seen as a zero-sum game. If Germany grew strong, France would be weak. Slavic independence was a threat to Austria’s influence, and so on. In this Hobbesian “every country for itself” environment, all that was needed to launch a general conflagration was the assassination of a prominent figure. On July 28, 1914, a Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, provided just such a catalyst for war when he murdered Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

Princip had reason to be angry at Austria-Hungary which had been pursuing its own nationalistic interests by bullying the Balkan Slavs. Princip’s desire to curtail Austria’s domination of the southern Slavs was justified; his methods were not. Once he had committed his bloody deed, Austria mobilized against Serbia, Russia against Austria, Germany against Russia and then Britain and France against Germany. There you have it: nationalism in the raw. Seventeen million deaths later, on November 11, 1918, an exhausted Germany signed an armistice with the western allies bringing the carnage to an end.

The Hobbesian idea that we are programmed to engage in a “war of all against all” is, I believe, a misleading simplification of human nature. But it was one of the ideological foundations of European nationalism in 1914. It was perhaps more characteristic of Europe’s leaders than of its ordinary citizens. Kaiser Wilhelm may have resented the rising power of Czar Nicholas’s Russia, and France’s President PoincarĂ© may have feared Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, but the attitudes of the men who were drafted and sent to war were more complex than these nationalist hostilities imply.

This was evident in December 1914 during the Christmas truce. Peace emerged spontaneously on the western front during this truce as the men on the front lines – who by then had been killing each other relentlessly for four months – began to hear the familiar tunes of Christmas Carols being sung by their “enemies” in neighboring trenches. Different units began to serenade each other across no man’s land and before long, men were getting out of their trenches and walking over to meet with their adversaries to chat and exchange cigarettes and other trifling gifts. Eventually soccer matches were organized and German, British, and French soldiers threw themselves into harmless competitive scrimmages against each other. One has to wonder (at least I do) if, during that Christmas week of 1914, the men at the front had been offered the opportunity to vote on whether to continue the war or not, they might have overwhelmingly voted to put away their weapons and go home. This was not to be, of course, since the Kaisers, presidents, and prime ministers of the warring powers would not have it.

What the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1914 says to me is that philosopher Hobbes’ idea that a general war of all against all is a primary driving force underlying our very beings is mistaken, or, at the very least, an oversimplification. Violent confrontation can, at times, be presented by national leaders as an appealing program of action, but more often it is in our natures to interact in less destructive and more empathetic ways. So why don’t we act on these more positive impulses all the time? Well, obviously, one reason is that unscrupulous or ignorant political leaders succeed in pumping up selfish hatreds in the form of nationalism.

British and German troops mingle and chat during the 1914 Christmas Truce (Photo from Wikipedia)

Monday, October 8, 2018

Tribalism and the Defense of Sexual Predators

I don’t really like the word tribalism. For one thing, it is implicitly insulting to actual tribes like the Cheyenne and the Cherokee.

But, that aside, we all know what we mean when we say that American politics has become distressingly tribal. Politicians are fighting for their tribe, i.e., their party, even when such fights are bad for the country.

Democrats are guilty of this, but Republicans are way guiltier.

Okay, that sounds like a tribal defense of the Democrats, but here’s why it is not. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Whip in the House of Representatives, first got the tribal blood sport going in the early 1990s when he promoted war at all costs against the Democrats. Gingrich, by the way, later became Speaker of the House (his war-to-the-death worked!), but was then forced out of office for being a sleaze. This ouster had nothing to do with his partisan tribalism, however.

The Magna Carta of GOP tribalism was the Gingrich memo of 1990 in which he instructed fellow Republicans to use a specific list of 63 insulting words whenever they talked about the Democrats. Here, as reported in the New York Times, are some of Gingrich’s words for Democrats: “decay, sick, unionized bureaucracy, greed, corruption, radical, permissive, [and] bizarre.”

Gingrich’s fellow Republicans were instructed to memorize the words on his list and to use them whenever they talked about Democrats or any particular Democrat.

When discussing the GOP, Republicans were told to choose words from a flattering list which included “opportunity, challenge, courage, pristine, principle(d), care, caring, common sense, peace, [and] pioneer.”

Now politics ain’t bean-bag, as the philosophical Mr. Dooley once observed, but isn’t routinely and automatically referring to your political opponents as greedy, corrupt, bizarre, etc., going too far? Yes, it is, and doing so was the beginning of the tribalism we see in our politics today. Note that the Democrats, to this day, have not conjured up a list of evil words to throw at the Republicans.

One symptom of the Gingrich-inspired partisan breakdown is the failure of Democrats and Republicans to socialize together in DC. Before Gingrich, it was customary for members of Congress and other officials to get together at local watering holes where bipartisan friendships blossomed. But now our nation’s capital is divided into gathering places that are associated with one party to the exclusion of the other. Bipartisan hanging out is largely a thing of the past.

So, Washington is broken and ruthless tribalism is what broke it. 

Adding to the collapse of cooperative politics was Mitch McConnell’s grossly partisan decision in 2016 to block Merrick Garland's appointment to the Supreme Court. McConnell's excuse was that February 2016, when Justice Scalia’s death gave Obama the opportunity to name Garland, was too close to the election.


See what I mean? The Democrats, whatever partisan fighting they have engaged in, have done nothing like this. Yes, they’ve done other things, but nothing so crass and so grossly un-American as what Gingrich and McConnell have done.

When Senator Al Franken was found to have behaved badly toward women in the past, he was asked by his fellow Democrats to step down from his Senate seat and he did so. Some have argued that his crude behavior toward women was not so unforgivable as to require a resignation. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t as crude or aggressive as the behavior of Justice Brett Kavanaugh as described by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and other women who say he victimized them.

But still, Senator Franken resigned. Democrats did not step forward and demand that Franken fight like hell, accuse the women of lying, portray himself as a victim, etc. But that, of course, is exactly what Brett Kavanaugh and his GOP supporters did – despite the numerous women offering credible descriptions of his predatory behavior. And, I might add, his well-documented tendency to be a frequent and belligerent drunkard in his youth.

So, the Democrats said, “Yes, Al Franken has to go, even though he is an intelligent and effective senator,” while the Republicans are now saying, “We don’t care what those women are saying about Brett Kavanaugh’s assaults, we support him!”

I ask you, who is being more tribal?

Naturally, you can point to past politicians, Democrat and Republican, whose sexual misbehavior is well-known – most notably Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. But the #MeToo Movement is creating an entirely New World - a better world, one in which sexual predators are no longer protected by their “tribe” and are not rewarded with high public office.

Well, Im getting ahead of myself here. Kavanaugh’s appointment shows that we have not built that New World yet. But maybe, after next month’s election? Let’s see. And let's hope.

                                   (Picture from BBC) 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Kavanaugh-Related Letter to Senators

Below is a letter I wrote yesterday referencing a relative of mine who now lives in another city, but with whom I remain very close. I post this with her permission.

October 1, 2018

The Honorable Susan Collins

United States Senate

413 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Collins,

I am writing about a family member who is very near and dear to me. On the evening when President Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 presidential election, she cried. We were both disappointed that Mr. Trump won, but I was surprised at her emotional reaction. She explained to me that it had to do with her having been a victim of rape some 35 years ago. She felt that Mr. Trump’s electoral victory amounted to the whole world telling her that her victimization didn’t matter. Mr. Trump’s inclination to act aggressively toward women even when they resisted him, his “grabbing” of them in a sexually aggressive manner, my relative felt, should have ruled him out as a viable president. But it did not, and she took it very personally and emotionally.

Now a similar situation appears about to occur with Judge Kavanaugh. Certainly Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony last Thursday was utterly convincing and included no evasiveness. The same cannot be said for Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony.

I fear we, the American people, are going to a very dark and troubling place should he gain a seat on the Supreme Court, a place in which the Court itself will suffer a severe blow to its reputation – but also a place in which millions of Americans, victimized women and those who care about them, will feel very personally disenfranchised. The vulnerability this engenders will breed resentment and rage which will do our country (not to mention the Republican Party) no good. Please use the power of your vote to prevent this from happening. Please say no to Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.


Robert L. Moore

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology

Winter Park, Florida 32792