Author Archives: Anthony DeBenedict

Political Redemption and American Salvation

When we redeem an item we purchased, we ask the retailer to take it back. When we seek redemption for ourselves, we ask another to take away our guilt or take back the harm our action(s) may have caused to ourselves or to others. In either case, redemption is not possible unless we ask for it, thereby specifically admitting we need redemption. But our request will not be answered without the expectation of reform. Although politics is not religion, both require an honest assessment of the need for redemption, reform, and a redeeming agent. In the case of religion, we can confess our sins, promise to do better, and ask for God’s forgiveness. In the case of politics, redemption similarly requires an admission of political malfeasance and a proposed plan for reform before asking the electorate for a second chance.

Both political Parties have behaved badly in the past. They have, for example, prevented the very possibility of the compromise required in our bicameral two-party legislative system. The majority Party can bury a bill in committee or limit debate, effectively suppressing the voice of the minority Party. As a result, legislation beneficial to a significant number of people may never come up for a vote. Likewise, the 60-vote rule in the Senate can prevent a bill from being debated or voted on the Senate floor. The immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship is a case in point. It was proposed by President Bush during his second term. But the Democrat controlled Senate never had the opportunity to vote on the bill because not enough Senators joined in the cloture vote on June 27, 2007, to provide the needed 60 votes. During the Obama presidency, the Senate passed a similar immigration reform bill; but it never reached the floor of the Republican controlled House for an up or down vote. In both instances, Congress gave insufficient consideration for whether a majority vote might better serve the general interest of the public. These failures served to perpetuate the many problems associated with undocumented immigrants, including workforce distortions, job inequities, shadow communities, and so on. They are examples of political malfeasance.

At times both Parties have shown themselves incapable of wielding majority power for the greater good. For years I railed against the Democrats for failing to live up to the promise of those civil liberty reforms they won in the sixties. Now I criticize the Republicans who have abandoned the reasoned and pragmatic governance they advocated in the eighties and early nineties. Of course, both Parties argue positions that differ from the other. And those debates are necessary in our republic. But neither should ignore the need to address the issues that concern and divide the nation as a whole: two decades of stagnate middle class wages and an inadequate minimum wage; rising healthcare costs (at a lower rate since the ACA, but still rising faster than inflation); wealth and opportunity inequality; unaffordable higher education; criminal justice inequalities; and the subversion of the plebiscite by money and political malpractice, including gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, lobbyist controlled agendas, and extravagantly financed campaigns committed more to propaganda than ideas.

Since 2009 Republicans have been caricatured as the “Party of No.” During the Obama Presidency, congressional Republicans initially opposed the President’s proposals for a trillion-dollar stimulus bill to counter the Great Recession before they eventually agreed to an amount comparable to President Bush’s bank bailout amount. They declined to ratify the Trans Pacific Trade agreement or even consider funding an infrastructure bank proposal, even though free trade agreements and an infrastructure bank have long been favored by Republicans. They aggressively contended and tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which included the private insurance healthcare exchanges they previously proposed. Although they never supported the ACA’s Medicare bailout or Medicaid expansion, the basic idea behind the bill was initially outlined by the conservative Heritage Foundation and proposed by Senator Dole, a former Republican candidate for President. This failure to act on what Republicans previously believed to be in the best interest of all Americans is what I believe most would term political malfeasance. Moreover, their rationale for this failure is equally suspect: they refused to give a Democratic President any legislative achievements because he was too liberal, too popular, and too likely to be reelected unless they obstructed his every initiative.

There are at least two crimes that are unforgiving in our American system: intolerance of those who are different in kind, belief or ideology; and refusal to serve those universal values enshrined in our founding documents. The former precludes compromise by excluding empathy for others or their perspectives, while the latter demeans our democratic institutions and the very idea of America. That idea is a set of values, specifically, equality, justice, liberty, security, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare. Our Constitution clearly identifies these values as the principles upon which rest the promise of a more perfect union. It does not, however, admit their subversion. When elected officials refuse to vote on legislation that embody these American values, they subvert them and the government they support. Moreover, they are choosing narrowly defined political interests over the general welfare of those who elected them.

Is it any wonder why Congress has such a low approval rating or how gridlock suborns compromise? When intolerance can influence debate over immigration of non-white or non-Christian minorities, have we lost any sense that “all humans are created equal?” When, after 70 years of warnings, Congress is still unable to fortify our infrastructure against increasingly destructive climate cataclysms, have we lost any sense of insuring “domestic tranquility” or promoting “the general welfare?” How can equality and liberty be maintained if healthcare and economic opportunity are preserved only for the privileged and not for every citizen? Long before the modern era, Aristotle recognized that inequality breeds instability. Surely, individual Republicans understand this risk. But they appear to be held hostage to a leadership that supports narrow constituent interests and to a wealthy donor network capable of funding their reelection.

On July 25, Senator McCain delivered a passionate speech on the floor of the Senate in which he urged his fellow Republicans to resume regular order and to work across the aisle with the minority Party. He correctly pointed out that no major legislation, except the ACA, has ever been passed solely on a partisan basis. He urged his Party not to duplicate the process that created the current healthcare system by repealing and replacing it in like manner. His was a landmark speech, not only because of the urgency of the moment, but also because of its potential pivot point in Party redemption. While stating the case for redemption, however, he overlooked the full extent of Republican malfeasance. This current version of Republicanism has taken governance to a new low in its attempt to pass legislation without support of any organization operating within the healthcare system and without concern for the well-being of millions of Americans who would lose healthcare. Of course, Republican Party leadership is still smarting about how the ACA was voted into existence on a partisan basis. Their resentment is palpable. But they fail to acknowledge, as McCain intimated with his insistence on regular order, that every constituent and legislator was given the opportunity to contribute to the ACA, including 26 days of floor debates, committee mark-ups, and over 100 Republican amendments. Earlier Republican obstructionism now has morphed into Republican circumvention of regular order and, more significantly, into a disregard for the health and well-being of the people they were elected to serve.

Precisely because Republicans have control over all branches of government, we must demand that they acknowledge Congressional failures, reform their positions, and seek political redemption. Could there be a more appropriate time for a political party to govern wisely and responsibly in the interest of all Americans? As the lyricist says, “the times they are a’changing.” Not since Andrew Johnson have we had a President so antagonistic to the American system of government and so out of tune with the will of a majority of the electorate. While judges can stop criminal or unconstitutional actions of this Administration, only members of Congress can initiate laws that can curb or limit the powers of the President or even override his vetoes, if necessary, in the interest of serving the general welfare.

Senator McCain has created an historical opening for the majority Party to subordinate their ideological and tribal conceits to the greater good of working for the general welfare of all Americans. And, of course, the minority Party will have little or no leeway to do otherwise. The beneficiary will be the American people. As McCain reminded us, no important legislation—whether it address healthcare, tax reform, infrastructure, or authorization to use military force—should be passed without bipartisan support. America’s biggest failure in this regard resulted in a Civil War. Before his death, Senator John C. Calhoun foretold the possibility of a secession he did not support. Secession would be inevitable, he feared, if he could no longer negotiate compromises on the admission of slave states. Today, failure of our elected representativeness to work together promotes the same divisiveness and can lead to a similar breakdown in our union. As this administration attempts to weaken many of our democratic institutions, America cannot withstand gridlock or Republican pique in the legislative branch of our government. We should not conclude America immune to what the Germans experienced in the 1930s under one-party rule (Gleichschaltung).

Obstructionism is obviously not a good recipe for governance in a democracy. But, at times, it can become a statement of principle. And therein lies a deeper problem that more accurately mirrors Calhoun’s dilemma. Compromise becomes impossible when it involves principled positions. Calhoun believed just as firmly in the superiority of the white race and the beneficent administration of slavery as the Republicans today believe that the Federal government should neither dictate healthcare policy to the states nor tax the wealthy to support lower income citizens’ healthcare needs. Although still dealing with the aftermath of slavery, most Americans now accept that the principle, “all men are (indeed) created equal,” defines race prejudice as morally wrong. Today Americans are faced with the advent of a new principle: healthcare is a right for everyone, not a privilege reserved for the few who can afford it. (Reference, “The Republican Path to Healthcare.”) When the American people adopt a principle, they clearly give direction to their representatives. In any democracy, opposing the majority is futile. Calhoun, a Democrat, did not live to see the outcome of his obstinacy. But this current version of Republicanism promises us that we will.

Every two years Americans vote for the future they want for our nation. Between those Federal elections, we trust our elected representatives to serve the values we share as a constitutional democracy governed by rule of law. That trust is violated when they fail to serve those values, choose not to govern, or, more pointedly, redirect the anger their political malfeasance triggered towards their political opponents. It is time for the Republican Party to reform itself. In the political arena, admission of error may appear to be suicidal. But courage requires such admission when a greater good is sought, such as the welfare of all Americans. Whether it is healthcare, equality, justice, security, or the fair conduct of elections, no elected official should act without regard for the people he or she is elected to serve. Political redemption for the Republicans begins with a change of direction. That change will be sufficient admission of past malfeasance. For example, it must entail support of the ACA exchanges and cessation of attacks on its subsidies, funding, and operational support. Why not act to make the American healthcare system better—worthy of regard rather than ridicule? And, furthermore, why not stand up to a President that diminishes American institutions and our status in the world rather than emboldening him by an obsequious silence?

I would prefer to see the Republican Party aligned with Americans on values, rather than by inflaming their anger. I would prefer they debate the Democrats on policy without misrepresenting facts and those principled values enshrined in or inspired by our Constitution. I would applaud any Congress—whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats—that would curb or even censure President Trump for his spiteful, divisive words and actions that spur anger, confusion, and repulsion amongst Americans and our allies throughout the world. The Republican controlled Congress can still rescue us from President Trump’s dark vision of our country: “America doesn’t win anymore”; “our allies are taking advantage of us”; “the American dream is dead”; and “only I can save it.” His words recall the trope of certain twentieth century dictators rather than his prescribed role in a tripartite government as a President committed to the ideals of a democratic republic. Much worse, his actions are already threatening the healthcare of millions, destabilizing our alliances around the world, provoking antagonisms with armed adversaries, and steering Federal departments away from their stated goals into possibly irreversible dysfunction.

In other words, I encourage Republicans to live up to their conservative heritage and to preserve those values that have made America great. We are a nation inspired by ideals and motivated by the courage to act on them. Those ideals and courage can and will earn Republicans political redemption. The majority Party needs to govern in the interest of the majority. By redeeming itself, the Party will redeem Republicanism, win over the electorate, and defend the republic from future foreign influence campaigns or opportunistic demagogues. If political redemption can save democracy, then America will be saved.

Life and Love

Why?

I wake up in the morning. Stirring under the covers, I turn my head and look out my bedroom window. There I see the cottonwood tree rustling in the morning breeze. It welcomes me to a new day—and my life.

But what is my life? Why am I here? And why am I conscious of that fact? These questions can seem unanswerable, even suggestive of underlying, unsolvable mysteries.

All religions help us with these questions. They show us how to deal with the mysteries of our lives; how to relate to what is intrinsically undefinable; and how to live in the womb of that mystery. We call the most basic mystery of all, God. Our relation to God we call worship, which is a sublime form of love. Embraced in the warmth of that relation, we feel grateful, reborn, and inspired to live worthy of experiencing that mystery. Our rebirth gives meaning to our individual lives and motivates us to share our experience of love with others. The wellspring of that rebirth is our relation to the unknowable source of our very being. And its motivating power is love.

It is only when we strip our lives down to this basic relation—to love—that we begin to realize what we share with all humans—what makes us fundamentally human. The essence of human adaptability amidst countless species’ extinctions and planetary cataclysms is the will not just to survive, but to preserve that basic relation both for our fellow human beings and for our posterity. We want to preserve what makes us human and, thereby, to preserve our families, our communities, our culture, and our civilizations.

The one obstacle to the preservation of our common humanity is the individual who fails to discover the motivating force of love. That force is only an inborn potential in individuals whose exposure to human love is limited or non-existent. But compassion, empathy, and expressions of human warmth can rekindle love’s power in others. Gratitude, for example, is not just a response to love, but can be a renewing power that also triggers love towards others. Think of the gratitude of an orphan adopted into a loving family, or of a wounded soldier rescued under fire by a comrade, or of tragedies’ victims nursed back to health and safety by caretakers. Though we nurture our humanity in home and communities, we can also regenerate it in life changing events.

Our nation faces many divisive forces, both within and without. For us to form a “more perfect union,” we must dedicate ourselves not only to the values expressed in our Constitution but to the motivating power of love. Today, we see an outpouring of that love in Las Vegas, as well as in Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas. First responders, caregivers, charitable donors, and victims came together not only by sharing their anguish and pain but also their compassion and empathy. They shared the power of love.

In this moment, our nation can enliven our common humanity and the motivating force behind the human values formalized in our democracy. “Justice and liberty for all” is both our pledge of allegiance and an expression of our love for one another. It is a vow to preserve our community and our nation. We must resist those power seekers who value their personal status over the nation’s well-being. They lack empathy and seek justice and liberty for the few rather than “for all.” If we are going to preserve the many expressions of our founding principles in our institutions and norms of behavior, then we must rededicate ourselves to each other and the principled basis of our national union. We must love and respect each other.

Somewhere in Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” I remember reading his prognosis that Americans were better than their leaders. Unfortunately, I can no longer find the context nor verify the accuracy of my memory. Nevertheless, I cannot attribute this prognosis to myself, but can only agree with it. If we are to preserve our union, we, as individual citizens, must constantly renew what binds us together. Our leaders may at times fall to those human vices born of ego, power and money. But, in our democracy, it is the citizen who holds the ultimate power. We renew that power every day when we express the mutual respect and love we share for each other and for our democratic institutions. Many have shown the way. But real change starts with each and every individual. America, then, depends on all of us.

Why not?

Being Present to Nature’s Summons

Brown tipped reeds gently wave in the pond
Blackbirds silently fly in retreat
Winds mildly gusting from the Artic north
Leaves softly trembling in the Fall:
Seasons pass through their rebirth cycles
But not the old man at the edge of the pond

Winter’s blasts in wind and rain
Will purge the earth it replenishes
As naked trees stand firm on guard
Waiting the sun’s undoubted return
Burrowing roots to nurture new life
But not the old man at the door of death

Spring will warm the slumbering roots
Burst the seeds that were scattered in Winter
Nurture fresh fledglings in far flung beds
As they’re born from the womb of earth
To service nature’s quest for rebirth
But not the old man whose future is barren

Red winged blackbirds nest
Filling the pond with song
Heralding the reeds green shoots
Welcoming Summer’s awakening
But not the old man’s reckoning
Of days left without renewal.

Born of the stars in the cauldron of the sun
Sprung from earth’s dust both alive and aware
Humans are each moment beware
Of passing into eternity
While contemplating the mystery
Of being present to nature’s summons.

_____________________________________
AJD 9/19/2017

What is Politically Correct?

On August 14th, our President gave the most politically correct speech since he came into office. And it violated the most sacred promise of his candidacy in a feeble attempt to adhere to his oath of office. How so? To answer this question, I must review the President’s several remarks on the Charlottesville protests, the relevance of political correctness to duplicity, and the words of George Harrison.

Let’s begin with the President’s remarks on the violent clash between opposing demonstrations in Charlottesville. Initially, he condemned the violence “on many sides,” implying two equal parties in the clash. Of course, when only one side comes armed for battle, it is hard to make the case that both sides had either the intent or the expectation of a violent encounter. Moreover, when only one side displays signs and banners with hateful and provocative language, it is impossible to misinterpret their presumptive meaning. And, finally, if only one side is led by bigoted organizations and racists leaders, it is doubtful that the impetus for protest was anything other than hate, anger, and an eagerness for violence. The history of the Neo-Confederates, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan admits no other interpretation. It has been proposed that the President’s initial remarks were “ad lib” and pertained to violent ideologs of all kinds. But he was specifically addressing the violence in Charlottesville. His statement created a false equivalency between a gang of racist, bigoted thugs and anti-bias, initially peaceful counter-protesters. In effect, he was excusing the instigators of the resulting violence. But, two days later, he read a statement that corrected the implications of this initial statement. He denounced the instigators by name and called the country to join him in renouncing racism and violence and to come together in mutual respect and love. Previously, as the President Elect, he would have called this statement “politically correct.”

But Donald Trump’s supporters have always loved him for being “politically incorrect,” which they interpreted as “speaking his mind.” They were never offended by his off-the-cuff remarks, even when he was crass and offensive. On many occasions, he showed his ignorance of American history, government, and founding documents. Nevertheless, his supporters found no fault in his pursuit of the highest office in the land. They loved the fact that he might shake up the smug elites that showed little regard for their welfare. Perhaps mindful of these supporters, the President sounded a different tone the following day, reverting to his initial pronouncement on the Charlottesville tragedy, calling out both sides for their part in the violence. Perhaps he was incensed by the criticism hurled at him—that he took too long to condemn the perpetrators or that his “second take” failed to disassociate them from his supporters. Whatever his motivation, he clearly reestablished his credentials as “politically incorrect.” But, on this occasion, he went much further.

Both in his recent West Virginia rally and in his Charlottesville commentary, President Trump has taken his “politically incorrect” brand to a very un-American place. Until now, no American President has incited insurrection, as he did in West Virginia, or a counter revolution against American values, as he did in his assessment of the Charlottesville violence. He may have begun his campaign for the White House with dubious facts and duplicitous intent. But his attempt to legitimize a hateful, violence-prone protest that resulted in the death of one and injury to many reveals more than the incorrectness of his political persona. It reveals his character: it reveals him.

Why would anyone in politics want to be “politically incorrect?” Most, if not all, politicians attempt to be politically correct in the sense that they try to follow certain norms of behavior and speech that are not offensive to prospective constituents. The problem, of course, is that they do not always live up to those norms and can be duplicitous in behavior, speech, or both. Webster defines “duplicity” as “the belying of one’s true intensions by deceptive words or actions.” But before condemning all politicians as duplicitous, it should be noted that the perception of political correctness may not equate to duplicity. For example, is it duplicitous for a politician to pivot away from a question that might reveal ignorance, a partially formed and still unsubstantiated opinion, an untoward attack on a rival, or a premature announcement of a controversial position? In this instance, even Cicero would probably term this reticence as the art of a practiced politician. Avoiding a question is not necessarily the “belying of one’s true intensions.” It may show no more than being unprepared to give a lucid answer, or being wary of displaying stupidity, flippancy, offensiveness, or unnecessary controversy. Being politically correct can be how a politician maintains credibility with supporters. It may also illustrate how a politician can self-edit his/her words to win trust without offending others or exposing personal deficiencies and prejudices. This form of political correctness is often irritating, but it is seldom considered surprising or intolerable to voters. In an ideal world, as Senator Al Franken recently attested, “when asked a question, I was taught to answer it directly.” Imagine a world where our politicians felt they had the license to say, “I don’t know” or “I have to study the issues before I can give an honest opinion.” That world would leave no room for pivots or the doubletalk of taglines, spin, or “Party-line messaging.” Nevertheless, the clarity of that world would not distinguish political correctness from incorrectness. And the absence of clarity, as in a pivot, does not necessarily imply an absence of honesty or deception. It may be neutral and not, by definition, duplicitous. Therefore, how did it become identified pejoratively as “politically correct,” paradoxically implying duplicitous.

“Belying” involves intentional lying and using “deceptive words or actions” to justify the lie and disguise intent. For example, when a politician claims that undocumented immigrants are responsible for increased crime and job losses, he is misrepresenting facts to scare supporters and win their trust. He convinces them that only he can protect them by building a 2,000-mile impassable border wall. This misrepresentation of his intent and facts is an example of duplicity. Precisely because he makes “political correctness” a phony code word for duplicity in others, he becomes the poster child for the “political correctness” he so abhors. Nevertheless, Donald Trump claims the moniker of being “the most politically incorrect.” His claim, ironically, enhances his brand as a truth telling non-politician. But the only truth in his claim is that he is not a politician, for he is a lying demagogue. As such, he lies and distorts facts to create an illusion that supports his positions. Then he mislabels terms like “political correctness” to suit his purpose and create a scornful tagline for his supporters to use against his opponents. For example, the intent of his border wall proposal was to use fear and anger to convince voters that only he could save them from crazed hordes of undocumented immigrants. What this example from the last election clearly demonstrates is that the term “politically correct” is not well understood. Paradoxically, Donald Trump could proclaim as a virtue his so-called “political incorrectness” while displaying the worst example of what he decried as “political correctness.” While it is true that politicians have at times been guilty of duplicity, they are not politically “correct” as a result. A demagogue, by contrast, engages almost exclusively in duplicity. It is his stock and trade, though universally abhorrent in politics. But in the hands of a demagogue, its use can yet win the favor and support of an electorate unmindful of his lies.

History has never been kind to demagogues. Eventually, it exposes their lies. Regardless of how expressively or emotionally they proclaim their cause, their self-serving intent and deceptive self-justifications expose who they are. What others may mistakenly witness as authentic is just a glittering shell hiding a deep insecurity. That shell is the demagogues’ illusion that exists only as long as it can dupe a befuddled public with its brilliance. Their rhetoric, power, wealth, or status may cultivate the illusion. But, at their core, they lack the altruism gene. Demagogues are deficient in the honesty, integrity and selflessness we generally ascribe to character. They are just empty shells.

Once we see through a demagogue’s façade, it becomes impossible to believe in his words or connect with him as a person. When President Trump created the illusion of a false equivalency between repugnant racists and counter protestors—that is, between hate spewing bigots and their egalitarian opponents—he revealed his innermost self. He shattered the self-image he continually projects of the competent business man and “great deal maker” possessed of a “great mind” who “alone can make America great again.” Instead, we see the President as an imposter who is unable to support America’s 241 years effort to adhere to its founding principle that “all men are created equal.” How can we expect him to govern “with liberty and justice for all,” “to insure domestic tranquility,” and “promote the general welfare?” The divisiveness of his remarks in West Virginia and unsettling mischaracterization of the Charlottesville tragedy make it impossible for him to bring the country together or perform his Constitutional obligation “to form a more perfect union.” His words belie our trust.

Language is how we communicate and, more specifically, how we connect with each other. It is impossible to share our thoughts without a shared, mutually understood vocabulary. By contrast, this President spews diatribe, brands opponents with monikers like “lyin’ Ted” or “crooked Hillary,” and now disingenuously invents an “alt-left” as the scoundrels who attacked the good people who marched with the Neo-Nazis. His intent is not to share information or insights. His words serve only his interest, which is propaganda, not communication. Moreover, he does not share the life experience of most Americans. He was born into wealth and lives in a gilded tower. He finds it difficult to relate to subordinates who are not sycophants. He is incapable of projecting into our space, of connecting with our lives, our struggle for equality, or our historical heritage of diversity. But that disconnect is still not the most fundamental issue. The problem is that he is both our duly elected President and an alien in our midst. As Senator Coburn recently stated, “he does not understand the character of our nation.” His world is a self-reflecting shell that makes it impossible for him to relate to the experience of others—to immigrants, Muslims, the civil servants of the “deep state,” America’s allies, the press, elected officials who disagree with him, including fellow Republicans, and his own staff whom he regularly berates or fires. How could he be expected to empathize with his fellow Americans, even those who voted for him?

Frankly, it is sad to see a man so insecure in his own skin and so inept at normal human relationships. I can only pray that Congress will relieve him of his misery and us of his Presidency. Until then, we must try to maintain the values that define America and hold us together as one country. We cannot trust a President who speaks those values from a script while simultaneously stating his disbelief in them under the euphemism of being “politically incorrect.” Nor can we trust that his life’s experience overlaps with ours or that we can connect with him on any basic human level. He has not shown any evidence of personal empathy with others. As George Harrison explained in one of his lyrics:

“About the space between us all
And the people
Who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth…

We’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.”

A Showman Stages an Accidental War

We just passed a significant date in U.S. history: August 7, 1964, the beginning of the Vietnam War. On that date, Congress enacted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the President to conduct military action against North Vietnam. Congress acted quickly in response to the now infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident that allegedly occurred on August 4. Just two days before, there had been an exchange of fire between the USS Maddox and North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats. On that occasion, the Maddox determined that the approaching patrol boats were threatening and unintentionally initiated the battle with warning shots across the bow. That warning, regrettably, was misinterpreted. The patrol boats launched torpedoes and were summarily destroyed or damaged. But the stage was set for the phantom attack on August 4, its erroneous report, and the resulting Congressional authorization to begin the Vietnam War.

I was caught up in that war. For many years, I suppressed its memory until I finally decided to confront the shadow that lurked deep in my soul. The novel that resulted from that decision— “A Culpable Innocence”—was a work of historical fiction, researched from many historical accounts and declassified documents. My research uncovered two startling facts. The first I just recounted: the incident that started the war never occurred. The second was the 1952 Geneva Treaty that called for an end to the Vietnamese-French conflict and a national election to presage a peaceful transfer of power to a reunified Vietnam. Although America negotiated this treaty, at the last minute the Eisenhower Administration pulled out of the agreement. The American government betrayed its own diplomatic effort to unify Vietnam and effectively laid the groundwork for the war that ensued.

Today, America just won a resounding diplomatic victory in the United Nations Security Council where all 15 participants voted to impose severe sanctions on North Korea for its continuing development of nuclear weapons and their ICBM delivery system. But instead of supporting this diplomatic breakthrough, the President seems intent on sabotaging it by inciting the North Korean leader into a war of threats and bluster: in the President’s own words, “fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen.” As a result, Kim Jong-un has responded by putting cruise missiles on patrol boats and by announcing an August 15 missile launch aimed in the direction of Guam. If he does so, how will America respond to a missile landing at or near one of its military bases. Even if the missile landed 300 miles away from Guam, how would the American military determine its intended target after traveling nearly 3,000 miles? Or how would America respond to a cruise missile shot across the bow of an American destroyer? What could possibly go wrong?

We lost more than 58,000 soldiers and over 250,000 wounded veterans in Vietnam. We killed over a million enemy soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). (Casualty figures for the NVA are not available since American combatants left only the dead behind.) If we now shortcut our diplomatic efforts with threats of “fire and fury” and stumble into a war over a chance or mistaken encounter, the result would make the Vietnam casualty figures appear miniscule. We have some 20,000+ American troops on the border facing a million-man army. There are ten times that number of American civilians living in South Korea, mostly in Seoul, only 60 miles from about a thousand enemy howitzers. Within 14 minutes, those howitzers would begin to rain shells on Seoul. Hundreds of thousand could die under that bombardment. If Kim Jong-un decided to use his nuclear arsenal, millions could die. Of course, North Korea would be devastated. There are some 70 trident missiles lurking offshore in American submarines. The President just ordered B1 bombers to Guam and already has authorized their flights offshore of North Korea. Even if these flights remain over international waters, they will challenge North Korea to shoot down an American military plane–as they have done in the past.

Listen, America, the President is not just threatening a nuclear holocaust, he is readying for a nuclear war.

Confronted with this possibility, the President just said, “it’s better we fight them over there, than here (a paraphrase).” How do you think our South Korean and Japanese allies feel about his priorities? If his real intent is just to distract Americans from the Russian collusion investigation or win public support for defending America from an insane dictator, then Congress should begin impeachment proceedings as soon as possible. If, instead, he believes North Korea presents an immediate and serious threat to the homeland, then he needs to present facts and figures to Congress and the American people to support his bellicosity. I am no military expert, but cruise missiles on patrol boats do not seem like much of a threat to the counter measures built into our Navy ships. And long-range missiles with no fins seem unlikely to hit any intended target thousands of miles away – except by accident.

Simply put, are we overreacting to ridiculous provocations? And to what purpose is the President rallying Americans with his war cry? If he undercuts his Administration’s attempts at diplomacy and blunders into a war, he will likely become the first wartime President in history to be impeached. But even his impeachment could never undo the shadow he would cast over future American generations.

World leaders are beginning to criticize our President for his language and warlike posture. Perhaps his supporters will applaud the emotions he elicits with his hyperbolic rhetoric. On whatever stage he occupies, he is ever the entertainer. But as a President on the international stage, he casts a very dark shadow. What happens when the curtain comes down on his circus act? He may be ludicrous and the gist of satire. But the flipside of the dark humor he inspires is a sickening feeling in the pit of the stomach. That feeling is repulsion—a mixture of anxiety, disgust, and moral outrage.

America desperately needs a real President, not a showman. Let’s remove this showman from the world stage before he brings the curtain down on an apocalyptic climax.

My Sock Drawer

My mother suffered the first signs of my initial problem with life. I can still remember the look of exasperation on her face when she surveyed the pile of socks and clothes her six-year-old son scattered over his bed. My problem, you see, began with my sock drawer, and metastasized from there. In fact, it encompassed a large part of my early years.

Like any first-generation Italian, my mother was matriarchal in the sense of being protective, nurturing, and almost smothering in her love. Caring for and worrying about me was her obsession. I was always well fed, clothed, cleaned, and “turned-out.” She even folded my freshly washed clothes and stacked them neatly in my drawers. But I rebelled. I wanted to impose my own order. And my sock drawer best illustrated the problem. My preferred stacking order demanded a rearrangement: separate stacks for patterned and solid colors; then a further distributive organization by color. In fact, putting things in order carried over into many areas of my childhood, including the furniture in my room, my pets, and the food on my plate. Apparently, I was taking my mother’s well-ordered household to a whole new level—a well ordered sock drawer became indicative of the well-ordered life I sought and presumed.

A well-ordered child, however, must pass through many crucibles of change. In elementary school, I encountered bullies and the chaotic competitiveness of team sports. For me, fitting into a juvenile social structure was like forcing a square peg in a round hole, somewhat awkwardly shaving the edges off my predisposition for orderliness, As I grew older, girls were especially adept at scrambling my emotional equilibrium. They did not follow my self-conceived precepts for order in relationships. I was learning that I could not impose my concept of order on others and that relationships require change in myself. How does one grow up without opening oneself to others, without connecting?

My increasingly less well-ordered childhood faced new challenges in secondary school and college. My studies were serious, well-intentioned, and disproportionately religious in nature. Perhaps the first shock came from classes in scriptural exegesis from Greek and Latin texts. I was aghast to discover that translations and transcriptions of these sacred writings were modified to account for various orthodox and heretical belief systems. This discovery was unsettling to my concept of order and trust in a religious belief system. If sacred texts fall prey to organized chicanery, is anything sacred?

As I grew older and wiser, I found solace in philosophy, history, and literature. The diversity of thought and experience presented in these studies was both overwhelming and exhilarating. But the more I delved into the basis for this diversity, I became increasingly aware of the fundamental disagreements we humans harbor over almost everything. For example, what proofs are there for the existence of a god? Is the replacement of theocracy with natural law a stable foundation for government? Is evolution solely explained by natural selection? Is there a human soul apart from the body? The answers to these and many other questions were diverse and often contradictory. They shook the underpinnings of my thoughts and elicited a yet more disturbing question. How can one rely on accepted truth?

Perhaps a bit wiser and much more cynical, I turned to science and began a career in technology. Surely, the scientific method would ground my understanding of reality. Besides, the technology that flowed from science would provide me the opportunity to make a difference in the real world. But then my queries into quantum physics and chaos theory jolted me out of my nascent comfort zone. Just as Newton’s concept of gravitational attraction between bodies gave way to Einstein’s gravitational field, quanta and fractals opened the door to many unanswered questions—perhaps even as bedeviling as the existence of God and His role in creation. Remember how “I AM that I AM” begged the question of the nature of God and existence itself. Well, the question of whether an electron/proton is a particle or a quantum of pure energy is just as unsettling and mysterious. Modern physics suddenly became metaphysics, questioning the very nature of being itself. Consequently, how can we say we really know what we know?

But knowledge is power, right? In fact, for us humans, it can become a mental aphrodisiac. It enables us to construct a world in our minds. And that mental construct can become the relative order we not only perceive but even project onto the external world. With assumed certainty, we name and classify the elements of that world. They and their relationships to each other become the fabric of our self-perceived truth. Some of those elements, however, bedevil our understanding so we identify them as mysteries. Science tries to unravel these mysteries by unmasking how they came to be. The unsolved mysteries become the impetus for analysis, theory, and experiment. If belief in the scientific method is absolute, then all mysteries will be resolved in time. But that faith cannot justify with absolute certainty everything science unravels and makes more explicit. Within the near future, our scientific understanding of time, space, and the nature of reality will likely evolve, perhaps akin to the revolution bequeathed us by the theories of relativity and quantum physics. Major scientific discoveries often serve as steppingstones to future discoveries. We should believe in and support scientific progress. But why would we accept every scientific fact as a definitive end state in our knowledge or as the final explanation of our world’s deeper mysteries?

Religious faith addresses life’s mysteries differently, sometimes even calling them sacred. Making something “sacred” is one way of categorizing a mystery and is essential to the creation of myths and the various forms of ritualistic sacrifice found in every religion. The Latin root of the word “sacrifice” literally means “to make sacred”—specifically, sacer, “holy” or “sacred” and facere, “to make.” (Oddly, sacer can also mean “curse,” which embraces a different type of religion or cult.) Regardless of the religion, the sacred usually refers to a mystery we can never truly comprehend, though myths give them meaning. Myths are stories that transcend formal logic. They account for the order we wistfully imagine through our miniscule eyelet into a vast universe. As such, they can verify whatever we perceive as stable and true in that universe and become that special reservoir of knowledge generally termed a belief system. But they still represent the incomprehensible. And, of course, the ultimate mystery many of our mythic stories identify as God or gods. The word “god” is not a sign representative of something in our universe, but a symbol, as Carl Jung defined it, of the wholly transcendent.

But that ultimate mystery is not beyond our reach. It is just beyond our understanding. The Hebrew “Yahweh” (“I AM that I AM”) was not a word the early Jews could speak. Its syntax is in the first person, i.e., the God person. So, Yahweh told Moses (Ex. 3:15) to tell his people that “he is has sent you.” The word for “he is,” comes from the Hebrew root haya which literally means “to be.” The ultimate mystery, then, is existence or simply being itself! That which is beyond our understanding but underlies all that is and all that we know is the most commonplace and intimate experience of our daily lives, our very existence. It is the primal element that both forms our individual lives and connects us to all we encounter. As such, it defines the very boundaries of order. Outside those boundaries, we have no guarantee of control. Nevertheless, it promises unlimited knowledge, unwavering truth, and a sacred enchantment within the scope of our individual lives. Even though we can become consciously oblivious to its constant presence, we can never deny that we feel its presence. Our individual existence is all there is, until it isn’t. The meaning of life is no more than being conscious of the feeling or experience of living within the context of our personal existence. That experience must become the touchstone of our lives. For the moment in which we become fully aware and participate in existence is when we touch Divinity within ourselves. As William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.”

Today, I still maintain a well-ordered living space. Old habits are as comfortable as a well-worn sweater. But my sock drawer is not as well organized as that six-year old’s drawer once was. It no longer defines me. My life is not so closed; my relationships, not so anxious or judgmental; my thoughts, not so definitive or arrogant; my religion, not so orthodox. The experience of living is all. I am now like a flea riding high and fully exposed on the back of an elephant. At any moment, I may be brushed, blown, or washed away. But, by God, what a fantastic ride!

The Twistcon’s Collaboration with the Senate

Savvy, the Twistcon’s AI, has just interviewed several Administration operatives for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Committee decided to employ Savvy after witnessing its success in a recent interview with the President. The following is a transcript of the interview:

Chairman: (sound of a gavel strike) This Committee is called to order. (Pause) Today we begin testimony by three of the President’s closest advisors and his Press Secretary. (Long pause as the Chairman prepares to address those called to give their testimony) Departing from our usual practice, the computer placed between us will conduct this interview. (Lights flash on the Twistcon’s panel, noticeably surprising the attendees) Please begin, Savvy . . . aah, that’s the AI’s name.
Savvy: Thank you Mr. Chairman. Savvy would like to begin with a question for Ms. Con Way.
Conway: Excuse me! My name is Kellyanne Conway, that is, “Conway,” one word, one name. You see the problem here: it’s word confusion . . . sends the wrong message. Like “collusion” is not “conclusion.” That’s what’s wrong right now: people are told there is collusion, but there’s no way you can reach that conclusion.
Savvy: Ms. Conway, are you aware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian government officials or other Russian nationals?
Conway: There it is! (addressing the Chairman) Just like I said, word confusion. “Allusion” becomes “delusion.” Your AI’s allusion about nonexistent contacts is its delusion. I hope my testimony can clear up this confusion.
Savvy: Ms. Conway, did you hear my question? If so, can you answer it?
Conway: I’m not deaf. But how can I affirm a negative? There’s nothing there. It’s just your deluded programmers drawing conclusions out of thin air. The President is busy fighting terrorists and keeping Americans safe, while the media talks “collusion.” Confusion pollution! I can’t be part of the media’s delusion. It’s all just fake news.
Savvy: Perhaps Savvy can get a response from Mr. Jar ed Kush nerd. Sir, can you answer the question I just posed to Ms. C o n w a y?
Kushner: My answer is the same as the Vice President’s: of course, not. (Attendees react with a collective exhale. Nobody had ever heard Kushner’s voice before.) And my last name is KushNER, without the “d.”
Savvy: Savvy will rephrase the question: have you personally associated with Russian government officials or other Russian nationals before or since the President’s inauguration?
Kushner: Yes, I have had associations with many people in the natural course of my business. Some may have been Russian.
Savvy: Savvy is questioning whether those associations occurred in your role as a trusted campaign advisor or senior counselor to the President.
Kushner: I have already disclosed those associations and have testified before Congress in that regard.
Savvy: But your disclosures came after your non-disclosed contacts appeared in the press. How do you explain your failures to disclose these contacts with Russian government officials?
Kushner: The government forms are confusing. My staff hit “enter” before I could complete the online security form.
Savvy: Many of the questions on your application for Top Security Clearance require a simple “yes” or “no” response. And they require you to hit “enter” many times. (pause) Also, Savvy must ask, why where 77 assets left off your application?
Kushner: My staff mistakenly overlooked a few assets. I have since corrected this misunderstanding. (Speaking to the Chairman) I have extensive assets. If further information is required, I would suggest talking to my lawyers.
Savvy: The assets not included on your application reportedly amount to one billion dollars. (pause) One of your associations not on your initial application was with the Russian Ambassador. According to a leaked intelligence report, you requested use of the Kremlin’s secure communication facility. Why did you make this request and what secret communique did you want to send to Moscow?
Kushner: That press reported leak is wrong—just another example of fake news. I merely asked to speak to Russia directly, rather than through an intermediary. “Backdoor” communication between governments is not unusual. But it would not be appropriate for me to speak to any spurious “intelligence” allegedly leaked by an anonymous source. These leaks undermine our President and our American institutions. We should not give them any credence. So, I have no further comment on this subject.
Savvy: At the time, you were working for the President Elect. You were not a government official and had no authority to engage directly with the Russians. What would justify this request for secret communication with a foreign adversary? (Kushner looks past the Twistcon in silence.) Savvy understands that you have no further comment. Mr. Sean D. Spite, can you, sir, explain these undisclosed contacts with Russians by the President’s closest advisors? Most especially, how can you justify the President’s son welcoming damaging information against his father’s campaign rival from an agent of the Russian government?
Spicer: Whoever programmed you—errr, Savvy, or whatever entity name you go by—must have been a Democrat or part of the fake news conspiracy. “Despite” your rogue programmers, I go by the name of Sean S p i c e r, and without your middle “d”. This disrespect shown to me, my team, and, worse, to the President is beyond bounds. As far as the President’s son, he was very transparent in reporting on his meeting with a Russian lawyer about American adoptions of Russian orphans. And with respect to Jared, he has been very forthcoming about the accidental omissions on his top-secret security application. There is nothing here! We keep trying to correct this bad reporting. It’s all just fake news.
Savvy: If you cannot explain why these Russian contacts were not disclosed, maybe you can comment on the nature of those contacts. What would justify any American to request the use of a clandestine Russian spy network to communicate with the Kremlin? Or what would justify any American to welcome Russian interference in our democratic election campaign?
Spicer: Asking me to address matters of intelligence is a good try. I won’t get into word games with you. But I would refer you to the intelligence agencies. The press’ spin is obviously another example of fake news.
Savvy: Perhaps Savvy would do better to address a question to Mr. Stĕv Bandit.
Bannon: Ridiculous! Is this an inquisition by the deep state? Whoever programmed this idiot machine is biased. Your rogue programmers know who I am. I’m Stēve B A N N O N.
Savvy: The probability of error is .16721%. Savvy does, however, make note of any possible error for the programming team’s review and apologizes for any deficiency in its code. Now, may Savvy ask you, Mr. B a n n o n, a question. What is the deep state?
Bannon: The deep state is that body of entrenched public service parasites who are dedicated to preserving the status quo without recognizing the forces that threaten to destroy our way of life.
Savvy: What threatens our way of life?
Bannon: The deep state is blind to the threats from Islamic terrorism, globalization, godless internationalism, and the lame liberalism of cults that cultivate the racially diverse and sexually perverse. Our Judeo-Christian heritage is at risk. America is in a war between civilizations. It must arm itself both ideologically and militarily against this evil.
Savvy: Did you prompt the President’s criticism of Pope Francis who stated that Christianity is about building bridges not walls?
Bannon: As the President said, the Pope should stick to religion, not politics.
Savvy: The Pope seems not to agree with you. Two of his closest confidantes just recently published an article in a Jesuit publication, La Civitá Catholica, in which both you and the President were labeled as “evangelical fundamentalists.” As such, the article claims you adhere to a strange ecumenism, justified by misinterpreted Bible quotes and dreams of a theocratic state and characterized by xenophobia and islamophobia. Is it fair to say that your vision for America demands the building of a border wall to keep out Latinos escaping poverty and war, the banning of Islamic or Muslim travelers and refugees, and the mass deporting of undocumented immigrants already living and working in America?
Bannon: You’re damn right! And I don’t like Jesuits either. But my vision is about the only thing they got right. America is the last hope for Christianity and Western Civilization.
Savvy: You seem intelligent enough to recognize that your world vision reduces all politics and diplomacy to a battle between good and evil where all measures, including war, are justified.
Bannon: So?
Savvy: Then do you admit, as the Vatican article states, that you are a “supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics.”
Bannon: Not my words. But, yes, we are in a mortal struggle against evil. And we must win at all costs.
Savvy: Then you have the same beliefs as Daesh or ISIS, just on the opposite side.
Bannon: That’s a characterization deserving of the press. Congratulations, Twistcon programmers, you’re worthy of the same spin machine as the fake press.
Savvy: (addressing all four testifiers) To many Americans, including the press you all vilify, it appears possible that there was collusion with the Russians to influence the results of our election. Can either of you explain or justify the non-disclosure, disclaimers, or lies that surround these Russian contacts? Was there collusion?
Conway: Collusion confusion.
Spicer: It’s a nothing burger!
Bannon: Your question is proof of a deep state conspiracy.
(Kushner silently rises from his seat and leaves.)
Savvy: Mr. Chairman, Savvy concludes that these testimonies speak for themselves, even though they failed to answer any of Savvy’s questions.
Chairman: Very well, then, I would like to thank the programming staff that gave us this non-partisan session. My Democratic colleagues would likely have had more wry comments than questions. And my fellow Republicans would have preferred to ask about Hillary Clinton’s Russian ties. At least this committee has tried to get unbiased answers. Thanks to all participants. (he gavels the session closed)

Meanwhile, in the back of the room, a small group of programmers linger. They appear quite bewildered . . . perhaps as much as the American people.