Monday, July 30, 2018

Charles Pettit's 'Son of the Grand Eunuch' (1927) and the Rodgers & Hart adaptation 'Chee-Chee' (1928)

In Charles Pettit's early 20th-century novel Son of the Grand Eunuch, "His Excellency the Grand Eunuch, Li Pi Siao," is the powerful character whose commands incite all the action. A footnote suggests a historical basis:

"Li Pi Siao's predecessor was named Ngan Te Hai and was nicknamed Siao Ngan Eul. He was assassinated at Tsentsin in 1864 by order of the Empress of the East, Tsen Ngan. He was the favorite of the Empress of the West, Twen Hi, and had been despatched by her on a mission to buy her gowns. His murder occasioned a lifelong feud between the two Empresses." (p. 22)

Pettit seems to be referring to the eunuch An Dehai who served Empress Dowager Cixi and was executed in 1869 with the consent of Empress Dowager Ci'an. His successor as the chief eunuch — whose character apparently is heavily fictionalized in this novel — was Li Lianying.


On the opening pages, he is introduced wearing "long yellow gown" with "green dragons with scarlet maws" and "his official headdress, square in shape but surmounted by a species of folded peak of black satin" from which dangle ribbons with "two scarlet pompoms at the level of the clavicles." He has oiled his "long pigtail" that ends with a "fine tassel of black silk." He carried a "fly-whisk, official attribute of his honorable situation!"

"The long sleeves of his robe flapped like ghostly wings in the evening breeze! Within their voluminous folds, like spiders in their lairs, appeared the restless hands, the length of the lean fingers almost doubled by nails of extraordinary dimensions, enclosed in pointed sheaths. A green jade ring worn on the left thumb suggested a great scarab held captive by one of the spiders."


"His head swayed gracefully upon his heron-like neck and his face, hairless and wrinkled, resembled that of a highly respectable old lady.

A sallow fleshiness weighed down with dignity his flabby cheeks on either side of his pointed chin and between his narrow lids the brilliant glance of two little oblique black eyes like squashed fleas seemed constantly prying into every corner."

His nose was a "little mound" and he wore "enormous tortoiseshell spectacles such as are affected by all self-respecting scholars, but these were always removed, as decreed by court ritual, the moment he found himself in the presence of His Majesty the Holy Man, Son of Heaven." He was "the most deserving and the most estimable of Grand Eunuchs that anyone could desire. He was moreover of a fine intelligence, crafty of spirit and vengeful of heart." He also had fattened himself through his fondness for food — as Buddhist monks typically did, thus the emperor excused his "disfigurement" — which seemed in "singular contrast to the falsetto modulations of his shrill and strident voice."


Hs first act in this novel is to ask the emperor to choose a concubine for the evening. The jade tablets with their names were on the Table of the Golden Dragon. The emperor picked one randomly. Li Pi Siao has "avoided the useless mental effort of memorizing the literary names of eighty and one concubines" so he refers to a notebook to find the number of her dwelling. He tells her to prepare herself: "to cause the Holy Man to wait for you would be of an unthinkable impropriety, even though His Majesty doubtless awaits your impending visit with the most complete and haughty indifference!" When she is beautified, he "summoned a gigantic eunuch" to carry her, as her feet had been deliberately "broken in infancy," to the emperor.

In the second chapter, armed eunuchs guard the ramparts overnight. Outside Li Pi Siao's pavilion are bronze lions. When he hears a tomcat calling to a female cat, he seems envious, as the cat's yowling is "so unpleasantly evocative of the harmonies of his own name," and he yells back to the cat: "within these walls the Holy Man alone has license or power to love." Eunuchs appear and chase away the cat. Then he sits down to dinner with other eunuchs. The conversation includes his own insistence that food is better than sex. In response to this topic, a young eunuch, taken by self-pity, keeps moaning "Women..." so Li Pi Siao, annoyed by his ingratitude and ill humor, banishes him from the palace to work as a rural swineherder.

Li Pi Siao's relative and predecessor, Ngan Te Hai (nicknamed Siao Ngan Eul), was favored by the Empress of the West, Twen Hi. He was murdered in 1864 on orders of the Empress of the East, Tsen Ngan.

Li Pi Siao was formerly married. His eldest son, Li Pi Tchou, is to become Grand Eunuch succeeding his father. However, Li Pi Tchou is married to his beloved Chti and refuses the position, which upsets his father. The Grand Eunuch gives his son a large sum of gold in one last gesture of tenderness but angrily tells him to go away with his wife. Li Pi Siao's second son is thrilled to accept the mantle in his brother's place.

The novel occupies itself in the farce of Li Pi Tchou's misadventures. He is repeatedly beaten by other men who have sex with his wife, which she enjoys. At the apex of violence, monks want to roast him alive to make him a saint unless he can find a man to volunteer to take his place. He encounters the exiled eunuch, the one who missed women, and they identify themselves to each other. Li Pi Tchou escapes being roasted alive, but he does eventually have to be castrated, and his father suddenly beheads Chti. (p. 130) From the father's perspective, "It was needful to be revenged upon all those who had profaned the estimable name of Li." (p. 131)

Musical adaptation

A year after its publication, this story was made into a Rodgers and Hart musical called "Chee-Chee." The book was by Herbert Fields and the lyrics were by Lorenz Hart. The storyline is loosely adapted from the novel's. According to Thomas S. Hischak's The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia (see the entry online), Li-Pi Tchou (played by William Williams) and his wife Chee-Chee (Helen Ford) “hatch a plot to inherit the Grand Eunuch position without his losing his manhood. They have a friend kidnap the royal surgeon and substitute himself as the replacement” and they “play dominoes while the supposed emasculation takes place.” The Grand Eunuch was played by George Hassell. It was only performed 31 times over one month in 1928.

Upon the entrance of the Grand Eunuch at the beginning of the play, the eunuchs exclaim:

The most majestic of domestic officials
The Great G.E., we fear his mighty initials!

But the Tartar chief, not realizing he's speaking to the grand eunuch, refers to him as a "pompous old capon".

"No. 7: Food Solo" praises the concubine Li Li Wee — here, the daughter of Li Pi Siao — by comparing her body parts to "licorice," "peas," "Edam cheese," "hominy," wine," "roast beef," "oranges," "eel," "lamb," and "pig's feet."

Another ditty, "No. 20: Better Be Good To Me," has lyrics that sound like they belong in a popular song 50 years in the future:

I was once a glad boy.
Something tells me you soon will say
He was not a bad boy.
This has got to stop. Maybe I'll pop.
Love is like TNT.
Better be good to me.

Scene 4, "The Gallery of Torments," does not correspond to the book at all. It has the stage direction: "against a black drop are wax figures representing Theft...Lust...Avarice...Drunkenness...Murder...Infidelity. The figure Infidelity is modeled in the likeness of Chti herself. These figures are not seen because of the darkness in the chamber until she lights each one separately with her candle. All figures except Infidelity are male."


Charles Pettit. The Son of the Grand Eunuch. (1927) New York: Avon, 1949.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

On the astonishingly morally impoverished character of Donald Trump

During the 2016 presidential campaign and after the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, there have been countless negative assessments of his character. I have collected the most poignant here in chronological order. (Related topics such as the risks of working for someone with poor character and whether Trumpism might be a cult are in separate posts.)

Before the election

Tom Nichols wrote on April 26, 2016 in "If I Lose Friends Over Trump, So Be It":

"Yes, fellow conservatives: Trump is worse than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Their policies are liberal, even leftist, often motivated by cheap politics, ego, and political grandstanding. But they are policies, understandable as such and opposable by political means.

Trump’s various rants, by contrast, do not amount to policies. They are ignorant tone poems, bad haikus, streams of words whose content has no real meaning. They’re not positions available either to the GOP or Democrats, because they do not contain a vision of the future over which those parties can fight.

In fact, Trump’s policies are not policies. They’re just feverish revenge fantasies. Trump, a scam artist whose entire career has been based on victimizing the working class, should be the target of that anger. Instead, he is encouraging Americans to turn their hostility away from him and against their fellow citizens, inviting us into a war of all against all over which he will preside as an amused dictator.

The division between Trump’s supporters and the rest of us is not about reconciling our political differences. It is not about opposing policies we hate. (Most of Trump’s policies are actually quite liberal, but that is irrelevant.) There are no real principles on the table here, only Trump’s demagogic stoking of incoherent and even paranoid rage."

In August 2016: "In a Facebook post directed at the Republican presidential candidate, President Ronald Reagan's daughter blasted Donald Trump's 'glib and horrifying comment' on the Second Amendment."

After the election

On Feb. 6, 2017, Victoria McGrane described in the Boston Globe how Trump insulted a senator from his own party:

"McCain has publicly challenged Trump on refugees and immigration — saying the action may do more to recruit terrorists than beef up national security — as well as on the issues of torture, Russia, and trade. Trump has shot back, accusing McCain of 'looking to start World War III.'"

* * *

"Trump openly mocked McCain during his presidential campaign for being a Vietnam POW, saying “I like people who weren’t captured.’’ It was a highly personal attack that stunned the Republican Party, whose leaders rushed to McCain’s defense and called him a war hero."

In April 2017, Trump claimed inflated ratings for his appearance on Face the Nation. (He would continue in subsequent months to make distorted, baseless claims about the ratings of other media depending on whether it praised or criticized him.)

"“It's the highest for 'Face the Nation' or as I call it, 'Deface the Nation,' " Trump told the AP's Julie Pace, referring to the CBS News Sunday political talk show. “It's the highest for 'Deface the Nation' since the World Trade Center — since the World Trade Center came down.” * * * At the same time, Trump used the opportunity to denounce, as he has repeatedly, the press corps again as “fake media” that treats him “very unfairly.”"

George F. Will, May 3, 2017:

"It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence."

On May 11, 2017, Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, called Trump "encyclopedically ignorant", and Jesse Berney fretted that "There's No One to Hold Donald Trump Accountable":

"There is no one, absolutely no one, in the federal government to hold the president of the United States accountable for anything he does. * * * Trump is consolidating and expanding executive power in a way never seen in modern politics. Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, now James Comey — anyone who shows any independence or stands up to this president is summarily fired."

The next day, Stephen Collinson wrote for CNN about the president's anger:

"In three-and-a-half months in office, the 45th President has shown that indignation, impulsiveness and a prickly desire to protect his own self image are at the core of his governing philosophy.

* * *

Trump is not the first President to feel the bile boiling within. Lyndon Johnson's temper was legendary. Richard Nixon's stomach-clutching fury about his foes is revealed in the White House taping system that led to his downfall. Bill Clinton's staff feared his puce-faced rages. And even Barack Obama vented in private when the cameras were off in rants mostly reserved for his staff, like on the occasion when the website crashed on its launch day.

But unlike those Presidents, Trump's emotions and anger form the dominant strain of his political persona. They seem to largely dictate how he conducts his business as president, lashing out at perceived enemies, seemingly without forethought."

Although character is not decided by majority opinion, how others perceive us (our public image) is nonetheless an important part of our character. The Pew Research Center found in June 2017 that global opinion of the US and the U.S. president had slipped significantly from the end of Obama's presidency to the beginning of Trump's presidency in Spring 2017. Those who trusted the US President to do the right thing in world affairs slipped from 64% to 22%, and those who had favorable views of the US slipped from 64% to 49%.

Henry Rollins wrote for LA Weekly on July 13, 2017 ("It's Amazing How Quickly We Got Used to the Trump Dumpster Fire"):

"George W. Bush’s use of the English language fascinated me. As his administration dragged on, it seemed to progressively devolve. When Bush was the governor of Texas, he was noticeably sharper, at times bordering on witty. By the end of his second presidential term, he seemed to marvel at getting through a sentence. During his speeches, it sounded not only like he was reading the material for the first time but that he was just saying the words, devoid of context. I wondered if it was the horror of knowing he sent so many people to their deaths needlessly, finally taking its toll. He went out crushed, like Johnson.

Over those eight years, I got used to how he faltered both domestically and abroad. It took a while but eventually, how he was as he disintegrated became normal. It was like passing through stages of grief — if you can somehow get there, you accept.

The Obama years were so different. While I felt bad for the president and his family because of the attacks that started as soon as he began his campaign, I enjoyed how most of the criticism was more about the ignorance and bigotry of the accusers than anything real. Not that there weren’t things to take President Obama to task for; there were. There always are. That being said, at least when the man spoke, you had the idea that he was truly engaged and understood what he was talking about, whether you agreed with him or not. Much of the frustration from “the other side” stemmed from the fact that they knew they were outmatched."

David Faris's essay was printed in The Week on Aug. 31, 2017:

From throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game to rallying hopeless citizens in the aftermath of disaster, one of the president's most critical tasks is mustering eloquence and public spirit in the service of shared ideals.

When the country suffers a calamity or a tragedy, the president must work carefully both to convey a sense of the situation's gravity as well as to express optimism and hope for those who need it in their most desperate moments.

* * *

The best way to be competent at the presidency's ceremonial functions is to not be a pathological narcissist. The kind of emotional intelligence required to respond to a national crisis is something that many functioning adults possess almost instinctively. It's how you instantly mobilize to help a family member in need, or how you surround the sick or the grieving with love, run their errands and cook their meals. Most people know, without being told, not to respond to crisis by starting fights, reopening old wounds, or making someone else's tragedy about them.

President Trump is not most people. He is a narcissist. He's the kind of person who starts wailing inconsolably when your mom dies. He's the sort of friend who descends into self-pitying coldness when you get a promotion. These kinds of poisonous people suck up all of the emotional energy in the room by turning everything into a maelstrom of selfishness and performance and rage. Everyone is, by happenstance or poor decision-making, stuck with a handful of people like this in their lives, but over time we find ways to minimize their presence, and to distance ourselves from their worst outbursts.

President Trump's leadership during the Hurricane Harvey nightmare is a microcosm of everything he is incapable of as a human being: sustained empathy, determined focus, and the ability to put aside one's short-term needs and desires for the sake of people who need help. He put the dark abyss of his soul on display for everyone to see.

* * *

These are not political failings, things which President Trump possesses in almost biblical abundance. They are, instead, the pathologies of a deeply broken man, a person so devoid of feeling for his fellow humans that he reliably has exactly the wrong reaction to every single event that captures the public's attention. And while such people are, in some cases, deserving of a certain kind of sympathy, they have no business being in charge of the world's most critical symbolic job.

Susan Neiman, interviewed by Chauncey DeVega for Salon on Sept. 19, 2017:

"In the end, what matters in determining evil is not the state of one’s soul, but the effects our actions have on the world we live in — which is why having good intentions but not significantly acting on them is never enough. And here it is just unquestionable that what Donald Trump has done is evil. We all have our lists of least-favorite things he has done so far (though, mercifully, he hasn’t achieved as much as he would like). But what is absolutely clear is that Trump has made open and violent racism acceptable. Perhaps even worse, I fear, is that he has made it acceptable not to have values at all — except grasping for power and money. I worry about the effect his example will have on young people who are already uncertain about whether or not any value but power and money is real. Unfortunately, so much in the culture tells us that we should be embarrassed to believe in ideals of goodness, justice and mercy."

* * *

"Unfortunately, because it can be so easily abused, many progressives tend to avoid the concept altogether. This is a terrible mistake, because it leaves the most powerful concepts we have in the hands of those who are least equipped to use them thoughtfully. Instead of avoiding strong moral language, it’s imperative to use it reflectively and well.

I don’t think definitions of evil are of much use, but I think it is possible to do careful analyses of people’s words and actions to decide when words like 'evil' are appropriate."

* * *

"Americans with moral values need to unite around those values, and not let ourselves be divided by differences of race or gender or minor political differences. What we are facing now is not a political problem but a moral one."

Corey Robin wrote in his updated book The Reactionary Mind, published in October 2017: “Amid the vast desert of deprivation that is the Trumpian self, there appears to be no room for anyone else. ... Without a genuinely emancipatory left to oppose, Trump’s rage seems to be nothing more than what it is: the ranting and raving of an old man.”

Ironically for someone who seems to care primarily about gaining attention for himself, his proclamation for October 15-21, 2017 as "National Character Counts Week" stated: "Character is forged around kitchen tables, built in civic organizations, and developed in houses of worship. It is refined by our choices, large and small, and manifested in what we do when we think no one is paying attention."

Rep. Peter King (Republican, New York) told MSNBC on Nov. 29, 2017 that his constituents ask him to tell Trump to stop tweeting, which should imply what they think about the content of those tweets.

Ed Simon wrote in December 2017 (in “A spiritually illiterate man, a moral midget”): “At his core he is simply a consummate narcissist with little intelligence and less curiosity, one who has somehow become the most powerful man in the world.”

Adam Davidson wrote in The New Yorker on April 14, 2018: "There are lots of details and surprises to come, but the endgame of this Presidency seems as clear now as those of Iraq and the financial crisis did months before they unfolded. Last week, federal investigators raided the offices of Michael Cohen, the man who has been closer than anybody to Trump’s most problematic business and personal relationships. ... This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency. This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth." He adds:

"It has become commonplace to say that enough was known about Trump’s shady business before he was elected; his followers voted for him precisely because they liked that he was someone willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, and they also believe that all rich businesspeople have to do shady things from time to time. In this way of thinking, any new information about his corrupt past has no political salience. Those who hate Trump already think he’s a crook; those who love him don’t care.

I believe this assessment is wrong.

* * *

The narrative that will become widely understood is that Donald Trump did not sit atop a global empire. He was not an intuitive genius and tough guy who created billions of dollars of wealth through fearlessness. He had a small, sad global operation, mostly run by his two oldest children and Michael Cohen, a lousy lawyer who barely keeps up the pretenses of lawyering and who now faces an avalanche of charges, from taxicab-backed bank fraud to money laundering and campaign-finance violations.

Cohen, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka monetized their willingness to sign contracts with people rejected by all sensible partners. Even in this, the Trump Organization left money on the table, taking a million dollars here, five million there, even though the service they provided—giving branding legitimacy to blatantly sketchy projects—was worth far more. It was not a company that built value over decades, accumulating assets and leveraging wealth. It burned through whatever good will and brand value it established as quickly as possible, then moved on to the next scheme.

* * *

Of course Trump is raging and furious and terrified. Prosecutors are now looking at his core. Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its partners around the world; he was chief consigliere and dealmaker throughout its period of expansion into global partnerships with sketchy oligarchs. He wasn’t a slick politico who showed up for a few months. He knows everything, he recorded much of it, and now prosecutors will know it, too. It seems inevitable that much will be made public. We don’t know when. We don’t know the precise path the next few months will take. There will be resistance and denial and counterattacks. But it seems likely that, when we look back on this week, we will see it as a turning point. We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency."

Paul Begala wrote in May 2018:

"The kind of intelligence I believe Trump has is enormously useful if you want to, say, be a politician — even better if you want to be a demagogue.

He has a cynical, innate intelligence for what his base wants to hear. It's like a divining rod for division, prejudice and stereotyping. His relentless rhetorical repetition ("No collusion, no collusion, no collusion") is brilliantly designed to tell folks who are predisposed to like him what they want to hear.

* * *

The problem is, Trump's idiosyncratic intelligence, while enough to propel him to the White House, does not serve him well for the job of President. He lacks, by most accounts, the broad curiosity, the policy depth, the healthy skepticism of his own positions, the attention span, the appreciation of nuance, and most of all, the intellectual humility that successful presidents must have."

Later that month, The Hill reported that Sen. Jeff Flake said in a commencement address to Harvard Law that Trump "has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division," that Congress "is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily," that "we may have hit bottom," and that "opposing the president and much of what he stands for is not an act of apostasy. It is, rather, an act of fidelity."

On June 6, 2018, Charles M. Blow focused on Trump's comment about the Central Park Five: "I want to hate."

Paul Krugman wrote for the New York Times the next day: "But what’s really striking to me is not so much the extent of corruption among Trump officials as its pettiness. And that pettiness itself tells you a lot about the kind of people now running America." For example, Scott Pruitt has committed corrupt acts to achieve "everything from [obtaining] customized fountain pens, to telling an aide to procure a used mattress, to an attempt to use his office to secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife." Krugman says: "Consider how weak your self-control must be if you’re willing to put this huge payoff [a future lobbying career] at risk for the sake of a used mattress. But," he continues, "the downward arc of corruption from Teapot Dome to Chick-fil-A isn’t just telling you about Trump officials’ immaturity; it’s also a window into the emptiness of their souls." Of Pruitt: "The absurdity of his demands is a feature, not a bug: I have doubts about whether he ever uses that $43,000 soundproof phone booth, but he surely took pleasure in making his staff jump to provide it." It seems that Trump "sees nothing wrong in what they’re doing; it’s what he would do, and in fact does himself. So as I said, we’re being governed by men with small and empty souls. Does it matter?" Yes, insofar as: "We don’t need a government of saints; people can be imperfect (who isn’t?) yet still do good. But a government consisting almost entirely of bad people — which is what we now have — is, in fact, going to govern badly."

After Trump canceled peace talks with North Korea without informing the U.S. ally South Korea (they learned about it from the news), Nicole Gaouette wrote for CNN about how allies perceive the US. She quoted Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, as characterizing the administration's policy as "'You're with us, even if you don't want to be with us. We're dragging you along.'" She also quoted Aaron David Miller as saying that the America First approach means that "allies become much less important unless they fundamentally address a goal that's important to Donald Trump," and that as President he chose to take his first overseas journey to Saudi Arabia and Israel simply because: "He knew he'd be feted and flattered." (In her 1984 book Wickedness, Mary Midgley wrote: "A morbidly proud person reads everything that the people around him do as an answer to the single question 'Do they honour him enough?' If this is his central motive, that is his basic rule, the plan of his life. And in that case the honour he is looking for is something enormously higher than any of them could possibly give. This is because it has to take the place of all other motives...") The result, as Gaouette explained Miller's point, is that "Trump can flatter Chinese President Xi Jinping because he needs his support on North Korea, and chastise Mexico for illegal immigration, but he doesn't have to cultivate the Europeans because the issues he would need them on, including the Iran nuclear deal and climate change, 'he doesn't care about.'" She also quoted Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, regarding the U.S. exit from the Iran nuclear deal: "It's hard to overstate how angry and resentful the Europeans are." In June 2018, the U.S. ambassador to Estonia announced his resignation and commented on Facebook: "For the President to say the EU was 'set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank,' or that 'NATO is as bad as NAFTA' is not only factually wrong, but proves to me that it's time to go."

Longtime GOP strategist Steve Schmidt announced in June 2018 that he was quitting the party. "I won’t share a party label with people who think it’s all right to put babies in internment camps," he said. “Trump didn’t destroy the Republican Party — it’s the cowardice of the Republican leaders, their complicity in all of it, the lack of courage to stand up for what's right."

Chris Cillizza wrote on June 29, 2018: "Past presidents have openly pined for circumstances that allowed them to sit astride history, emerging as the great men they believe themselves to be. (Remember: Many "great" men are not "good" men.)"

Monday, June 25, 2018

How does one gain political converts?

Pat Buchanan's 2011 book Suicide of a Superpower included the line "White America is an endangered species" and the accusation that white Americans who tolerate demographic shifts suffer from "ethnomasochism". In June 2018, Buchanan appeared on “The Laura Ingraham Show” and asked "whether Europe has the will and the capacity, and America has the capacity to halt the invasion of the countries until they change the character — political, social, racial, ethnic — character of the country entirely." While acknowledging that "separating migrant kids from their parents" looks bad "politically and emotionally," Buchanan says that the president nonetheless has got it right on "the mega-issue — the Third World invasion of the West".

What's he on about? Charles M. Blow, who quoted the lines above on June 24, 2018 — and who also cited a recent Brookings report that, since 2007, less than half of American newborns are "white non-Hispanic" and furthermore that, among white non-Hispanics, there are more deaths than births — says that "[w]hite extinction anxiety, white displacement anxiety, white minority anxiety" is at the "core" of the Republican administration's current immigration policies.

Blow writes:

All manner of current policy grows out of this panic over loss of privilege and power: immigration policy, voter suppression, Trump economic isolationist impulses, his contempt for people from Haiti and Africa, the Muslim ban, his rage over Black Lives Matter and social justice protests. Everything.

Trump is president and is beloved by his base in part because he is unapologetically defending whiteness from anything that threatens it, or at least that’s the image he wants to project. It is no more complicated than that. These immigrant children crying out for their mothers and fathers are collateral damage, pawns in a political battle to wring strict legislation out of Congress — medieval torture displays meant to serve as deterrents.

* * *

These immigration policies are for people who conflated America with whiteness, and therefore a loss of white primacy becomes a loss of American identity.

The hard-right endorsement of guns similarly manifests racism, as argued in a tweet from several months ago. The link goes to an academic paper from 2015.

But what to do about it? On June 25, Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" discussed how to persuade the "42 to 45 percent of Americans" who currently support Donald Trump to withdraw their support. "How do they move away," he asked, "from a candidate, from a politician who is using race constantly, who is lying every day, who is subverting the rule of law every day, who works every day to undermine the power of the federal judiciary?" “I don’t think calling them racists and I don’t think kicking them out of restaurants," he said, referencing a current debate about three Trump administration officials who faced backlash in restaurants, "will move them. At the end of the day, politics is about making friends. It’s about converting people to your cause.” A guest agreed, saying that comparisons between the Trump administration and Nazi Germany are especially excessive and counterproductive, and he suggested that a better response is to portray the president as "simply not up to the job. That's it. He can't do the job."

This is a problem. What if Trump supporters are indeed motivated by racism, and what if the Trump administration is indeed uncomfortably close to authoritarianism — and what if calling out that truth causes his supporters to dig in their heels and thus worsens our collective situation? Should opponents of Trump paint him as someone who "can't do the job"...of what? Of enacting enough racist, authoritarian policies? Doesn't portrayal of him as an ineffective, hapless thug risk inspiring white people to turn to another candidate who is a more brutal thug? I suggest that we have to identify specific good things he cannot accomplish and identify politicians who are capable of doing those good things. I also suspect that pointing toward goodness will occasionally necessitate calling out racism and authoritarianism as goodness's opposite. Can we do this without offending and distancing some people? No. What will the result be? I don't know.

Scott Jennings wrote on June 25 that the left was wrong to think that "outcry over this decision" — namely, the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border — "would fundamentally alter the political landscape." After all, this policy is consistent with Trump's platform, and some of his supporters "may even like him more" for it. He added that "whatever Trump's family separation position cost the Republican Party politically has more than been erased by hysterical comments like those from Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters, who called for the public to 'create a crowd' to 'push back on' Trump administration officials....voters may not want to trust control of the government to people who believe in mob justice over civil discourse."

Ryan Cooper in The Week on June 25 offered a different perspective: "For someone legitimately concerned about political incivility, the far right would rationally get about 90 percent of the attention." (David Runciman, in his book How Democracy Ends, released in the US in June 2018, made a similar point: “He governs from outside the bounds of democratic civility, which requires recognition that there can be truth on the other side. He is making a mockery of the system that is tolerating him.”)

Cooper continued:

But civility worriers have internalized the fact that the right could not possibly care less what they think or say (unless it is to laugh in their faces for being prissy and easily bullied). It feels pointless to hit Trump for being an indecent monster, because it basically is. Nobody will ever convince the hard right of anything; if we want to stop them they must be politically defeated.

So instead, the left gets half or more of the attention. Discourse anxiety caused by the president of the United States being a disgusting oaf gets transplanted onto a handful of powerless college students and peaceful protesters. The only accomplishment is to sow disunity and bitter arguments among the opposition to Trump.

But how to defeat the right without convincing at least some of them?

Sunday, June 24, 2018

On public shaming of, and service denial to, political officials

On Friday, June 22, a small restaurant in Lexington, Va. turned away President Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, due to the restaurant owner's political disagreement with her work. The restaurant owner talked to her employees and then asked Sanders to come outside with her where she explained her decision. It was not an isolated occurrence; Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller were recently shouted at in Mexican restaurants. Dean Obeidallah, writing that "[a]s a progressive, I feel that denying service to a person is instinctively troubling," nevertheless concluded that these incidents were "not even in the same universe" as excluding someone "for their race, religion or sexual orientation. The backlash is because they have freely chosen to be a part of the Trump administration..." He worries about a politicized version of Newton's third law of motion, "For every action, there's an overreaction," or, in other words, that many more people will retaliate and exclude each other. Despite the risk of rampant intolerance, however, "[t]he reality is that for many, the stakes are simply too high to remain silent".

The day after Sanders was ejected, the Washington Post published Jennifer Rubin's opinion:

If you think the decision to separate children from parents as a means of deterring other asylum seekers is simply one more policy choice, like tax cuts or negotiations with North Korea, then, yes, screaming at political opponents is inappropriate. Such conduct is contrary to the democratic notion that we do not personally destroy our political opponents but, rather, respect differences and learn to fight and perhaps compromise on another day. If, however, you think the child-separation policy is in a different class — a human rights crime, an inhumane policy for which the public was primed by efforts to dehumanize a group of people (“animals,” “infest,” etc.) — then it is both natural and appropriate for decent human beings to shame and shun the practitioners of such a policy.

Rubin's position is that "it is not altogether a bad thing to show those who think they’re exempt from personal responsibility that their actions bring scorn, exclusion and rejection. If you don’t want to provoke wrath, don’t continue to work for someone whose cruel and inhumane treatment of others rivals the internment of U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II."

In response to a Twitter thread started on Sunday by Tom Nichols, Ayo Griffin acknowledged that there are reasons for people to feel ambivalent about ejecting the president's press secretary from a restaurant but nonetheless he objected that Sanders "keeps playing the victim card and getting sympathy," while Duncan Rouleau said "the definition of civility is under assault along with our institutions. Sometimes being uncivil is an act of morality."

On Sunday, the Washington Post editorial board weighed in. Sanders was turned away because the restaurant's gay staff members "objected to Ms. Sanders’s defense of Mr. Trump’s discriminatory policies against transgender people. The staff also objected to the administration’s recent actions leading to the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border." The Washington Post sees this as resulting partly from a "blurred" separation "between work hours and private time" and argues that Trump administration officials "should be allowed to eat dinner in peace. Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment."

(They follow this with: "How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?" Actually, this requires no imagination at all, as it's a matter of recent historical fact that abortion doctors have been harassed at home and assassinated in their clinics and even at church.)

"Down that road," they say, "lies a world in which only the most zealous sign up for public service." The suggestion is that some segment of the population will always disagree with the current administration and, if it is considered acceptable for members of the public to disrupt the personal lives of these officials, officials will need extra "zeal" to put up with this.

This point seems a bit off-kilter for several reasons. First, if we are going to distinguish public and private spheres, we should see that being "allowed to eat dinner in peace" or being "able to live peaceably with their families" [emphases mine] is distinct from asking to be served dinner in a restaurant. And as far as expecting equal service at a business, the obvious hypocrisy is that the current administration has been pushing so-called "religious freedom bills" to allow business owners to deny service to customers based on the business owners' "sincerely held" religious or moral beliefs and that these same political officials are discovering that they do not like such discrimination when the exclusion affects them. In the Washington Post's warning about potential hypocrisy on the part of liberals who would discriminate against Republicans ("think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment"), they miss the call-out of the Republicans' current hypocrisy on the subject of freedom to discriminate on moral grounds. Moreover, if one is not already a zealot for bad causes, one should meet very little resistance from business owners. Most small restaurant owners in most normal times would be thrilled to have the president's press secretary show up for dinner. Yes, you need extra zeal to endure call-outs of your moral beliefs, but you won't be discriminated against very often if you aren't already using your zeal in ways that are morally unpopular among the constituents whose interests you purport to serve. The proper emphasis here is first that powerful people shouldn't use their energies for evil, and a more distant second that — as the Washington Post chose to emphasize first today — less powerful people should consider how their activist methods drain the energy of powerful people who are using their energies for evil.

David Roberts dissents from the Washington Post's position. He threads his tweets today, saying that, for decades, liberals have been

dismissed as crazy partisan hippies, condemned as "uncivil," told they are part of the problem, because being mad about illiberalism is just like illiberalism. The question has always been, where do you draw the line? At what point in the GOP's devolution do we say: OK, that's too far. We're no longer in Normal Politics. We're in a crisis situation, on the verge of losing our democracy. Where is the line? The most insidious thing about the descent into illiberalism is that it is incremental. There's no dramatic moment, no Rubicon. Every step seems bad, but only a little worse than the previous step. Smart autocrats are careful not to provide that moment. As this slide into illiberalism has continued, the mainstream DC establishment, including the sorts of Very Serious People that write major newspaper editorials, have *helped prevent that moment*. They have normalized, normalized, normalized, greasing the skids. ... By jailing toddlers, Trump has potentially made a mistake. Instead of incremental illiberalism, this seems like a jump, something to shock the conscience. It is yet another opportunity for a Moment, a time for the rest of us to say: no. This is not normal. It's not ok. That what's the owner of the Red Hen was doing by refusing to serve Sanders: saying, No. This is not just a normal political dispute that can remain confined to the political sphere. You cannot support this & still expect to be treated like a normal, decent person. The owner was trying to draw a line, disrupt the normal daily patterns of civility & accommodation, create a Moment around which people can rally to echo the message: No. This is not normal, not "just politics." We must stop pretending it is; we must snap out of hypnosis. And so, right on cue, the Very Serious People ride to the rescue of the aspiring tyrants, saying, yet again: Calm Down. Let's not get crazy here. Let's not be RUDE. Heavens no. We must retain our decorum at all costs. WaPo editors say that accepting incivility (gasp) is a "slippery slope." But that gets it exactly wrong. WE ARE ALREADY ON THE SLIPPERY SLOPE. It's a slope that leads to illiberalism, violence, & collapse. It's a slope greased accommodation & civility. ... The Very Serious People who serve as tone police in DC need to decide what they value more: democracy or civility. Because we're just sliding, sliding, sliding down this slope, pretending all the while that things are still Normal. To get off the slide will, almost by definition, require a break with Normal. It will require some sand in the gears, some raised voices, some violations of decorum and precedent. I dunno if restaurant service is the right mechanism, or even a good one. No one knows. (tweets 5-8, 11-15, 17-18)
Some Twitter users responding to Roberts suggested that, while speaking up risks incivility, not saying anything risks complicity. One said: "There's a name for those that politely sit on the sidelines, unwilling to question or call out viciousness and cruelty perpetrated by their nation's leaders: COLLABORATORS." Another said that "this, like the 1930s, is a time when the 'let's work through this, let's not make a fuss' people are just plain wrong." A third offered a slightly different perspective, saying, "we don't shame them be we think it will change them. We know it won't, it never has. We must shame them publicly to hold the line of True Decency™, so that we don't become them by our silence."

Ryan Cooper in The Week on Monday, June 25:

Nobody jumped Miller and beat him senseless, or made any violent threats, or even broke anything. The confrontation was all clearly within the nonviolent political tradition of boycott, protest, civil disobedience, and so forth.

If there is any main wellspring of "incivility" (an extremely ill-defined word, but setting that aside), it comes from the monstrously evil actions of the Trump regime. This administration — which is full to bursting with criminals and con artists stuffing their pockets with public money — put forth a policy of snatching the children of asylum seekers and putting them in concentration camps. It is obviously motivated by a racial panic over demographic change making white people no longer the majority. Anti-immigrant hardliners like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) are not remotely subtle about this.

Who's uncivil? The president:

He's a man who has boasted about sexual assault on tape, who threatens to jail his political opponents, who lies with practically every breath, who makes a mockery of deliberative democracy, and who is more publicly coarse and rude than any president since Andrew Johnson. And because he is the most powerful person on Earth, that incivility is 10,000 times more influential than any lefty protester on Earth.

Cooper said that "civility in itself is routinely used to disguise grotesque crimes" and reminded us that "even allowing a civil debate on very odious opinions can create an unwarranted bias in their favor". He invited us to imagine a world in which "powerful people experienced severe social ostracization in the nation's capital when they committed or enabled terrible crimes."

Dan Rather told CNN on June 25 that the president is "mean as a wolverine," which is unprecedented in American politics and contributes to an unprecedented level of incivility.

This image was widely shared on social media:

Trump also bragged during the campaign that he would not lose support if he murdered someone, did not fire his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski after he was accused of grabbing a female reporter, and supported a Republican politician after he bodyslammed a male reporter, breaking the reporter's glasses. In April 2017, Trump invited Ted Nugent to the White House despite Nugent's many prior uncivil comments such as calling Hillary a "worthless bitch" and Obama a "subhuman mongrel".

There is the argument that people who perceive a threat to themselves do not believe they have the option of civility:

Rin Chupeco threaded these tweets on June 25, arguing that the right's request to the left for civility is a mere bid to have the left sit quietly while the right steamrolls them.

Speaking as someone born in the last years of a dictatorship, you Americans are already several steps in one. ... Marcos was also adept at convincing regular Filipinos that "as long as you don't commit crimes I won't come for you. I'm only getting rid of the 'filth'." He lied, of course. He jailed his most vocal opponents, people whose businesses he wanted to confiscate for his use. But Filipinos have always been susceptible to strongman personality cults, just like your Republicans. (...Repubs still singing Reagan's praises despite the fact he was FRIENDS with Marcos and helped him retain power, making it 1000x worse for us.) White people, journalists who insist on civility- you seem to think civility is a common ground you share with opponents like Trump et al. Here's a clue - whenever you offer these assholes middle ground, they will invade that space & then claim you never gave them ground at all. Marcos kept pushing. First it was all protesters were communists. All student protesters. Then it was the free press. Then it was the people with businesses he coveted. And then it was anyone who looked at Imelda Marcos or his daughter, Imee, wrong. Arrested, raped, murdered. ... White people asking for performative civility do the same thing they did, for the same reason - they're afraid. You've never been raised to fear discrimination or prejudice against a system that has always been built in your favor for centuries. Your argument for civility is a terrified lashing out against an uncertain future that your ancestors / fellow white people have subjected people of color to for centuries. It's built in POC culture to learn how to cope with this. You've had none, because you've never needed to. ... In any upheaval, white people have the least casualties. That makes them the last demographic wanting to rock the boat, even if the boat is full of Nazis steering it straight into Auschwitz. ... And here's the kicker: YOU KNOW THEY'RE NOT CIVIL. That's why it's the liberals you keep appealing to for decorum and politeness. You know you're not going to get most Trumpsters on board anything amounting to basic decency. ... "So much for the tolerant left." This is why they say this all the fucking time. This is the bait they expect you to fall for. Your required "tolerance" for the things they do, even as they do the exact opposite to you. The first requirement when approaching any discussion with civility is that both sides must come to the table with it. The side that advocates putting kids in cages and are now thinking of stripping citizenship from legal green card holders, never had that to begin with.

Renée Graham wrote in the Boston Globe on June 26 that "the Great Civility Crisis of 2018...was an inane talking point even before White House fabulist Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant last weekend."

For those supporting bakers who refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, or a pharmacist who declines to fill a prescription because he has a moral objection to its medical use, think of Wilkinson’s stance as a faith-based decision. And one of the tenets of that faith is an aversion to lies, racism, incompetence, and cruelty.

That’s what’s driving this. Well, that, and a furious unwillingness to surrender our nation quietly to Trump and his dystopian hellscape. You don’t bring Miss Manners to a no-holds-barred street fight. You resist, and you get angry.

I ignore anyone who claims we must respect and listen to the anger of Trump voters, even as they denounce anger on the left as counterproductive and self-defeating. Stoking anger, especially racial resentment, got Trump to the White House. No one told his supporters wearing “Trump That Bitch” or “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” T-shirts to be civil.

Civility is a buzzy word for the ultimate goal: submission. Republicans don’t want civility. They want us to shut up. It’s civility in the form of a boot on our collective necks.

"Civility," she said, "will not defeat the most uncivil man ever to occupy the White House."

John Pavlovitz wrote that the Right is hypocritical to call for civility:

After voting for a self-proclaimed genitalia-grabber.
After he suggested dissenters at his rallies should be beaten up.
After hearing him call violent nazis “fine people.”
After he bulldozed sacred Native American lands and turned frigid hoses on tribe elders.
After he ignored mass deaths in Puerto Rico and vilified their public servants.
After he began dismantling protections to our planet and shrinking our national parks.
After witnessing Flint, Michigan go without clean water.
After watching exhausted refugee families stranded at airports.
After leveraging religion to justify all manner of discrimination.
After ignoring evidence of a Russian interference that threatens our national sovereignty.
After seeing ICE raids in hospital rooms and workplaces.
After his gross, reckless fabrications about Muslims and Mexicans and immigrants.
After witnessing him work tirelessly to take healthcare from the sick and the poor.
After he vilified kneeling black athletes and badgered their employers into silencing their peaceful protest.
After his unhinged Twitter rants against private citizens and their businesses, against celebrities and political opponents and world leaders.
After terrorizing teenage shooting survivors on social media.
After allowing the radicalized Christian right and soulless NRA gun zealots to shape national policy.
After sanctioning Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka and Jeff Sessions.
After retweeting the toxic filth of Dana Loesch and Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter.
After celebrating while he’s alienated our greatest allies and aligned with malevolent dictators.
After your silence in the face of migrant children being ripped from their parent’s arms and placed in dog kennels.
After digging in your heels for the past two years on every bit of it.

No, he said:

We’re going to be unflinching, and we’re going to use our outside voices, and we aren’t going to mince words when it comes to the inherent worth of human beings, the affronts on our Constitution, or the hijacking of our faith traditions.
You can call that uncivilized if you’d like, but honestly we don’t give a damn.
We’re going to be profoundly pissed off whenever diversity is threatened or when human beings are treated as less-than or when religion is invoked to do harm or when America’s stability is under attack.
In the face of the inhumane things on display in this country right now, we’ll take the cause of humanity and our volume every single time.
We’re going to be loud in the cause of love, even if that sounds like anger in your ears.
The LA Times editorial board wrote on June 26:
...refusing to serve a meal to a White House spokesman or confronting an administration official in a department store doesn’t make the case for change any more than chanting “Lock her up” at a rally.

The better solution is to defend American institutions and the rule of law, to meet untruths with facts, to answer ravings with rationality in the public sphere. The courts must be given the opportunity to defend the Constitution, and thoughtful lawmakers from both parties must speak out against and work to change hateful policies. The system can still work. When the administration went all-in on separating migrant parents from their children, the public rose up, and Trump backed down.

Well, no, he didn't back down. He came up with a different evil-genius plan to keep families together by locking them up indefinitely, in violation of laws that specify that children cannot be detained longer than 20 days. The system may still work, but this is is not proof of that.

Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, after resigning from the Republican party, told Rolling Stone on June 27 that

"The effect of Trump is the justification it gives to people who are angered by Trump to act more like Trump. To debase themselves into opposition. If you want to oppose Trump, the first thing you should do is say, "I'm not going to do one thing that makes it worse." Because making it worse helps Trump. Part of the damage of this era is his debasement and his purposeful divisions. That's unique in all of history."

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Psychological effects of separating kids from parents

On the psychological effect of separation from parents (ABC News on 18 June):

“Two of the most damaging childhood adversities are loss of the attachment bond with the parents and childhood physical and sexual abuse,” University of Texas psychiatry professor Luis Zayas told ABC News. “If you want to damage someone permanently, expose him or her to one or both of these traumas.”

* * *

After visiting a shelter in Texas, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Colleen Kraft, in a television interview, likened what she saw to abuse.

"It is a form of child abuse," Kraft told CBS News. "This type of trauma can be long-lasting, and it's difficult to recover from this. We know very young children go on to not develop their speech, not develop their language, not develop their gross and fine motor skills and wind up with developmental delays."

Similarly, the Washington Post on 19 June:

This is what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents.

Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.

* * *

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association have all issued statements against it - representing more than 250,000 doctors in the United States. Nearly 7,700 mental-health professionals and 142 organizations have also signed a petition urging President Donald Trump to end the policy.

* * *

[In a study of children in Romanian orphanages:] Those separated from their parents at a young age had much less white matter, which is largely made up of fibers that transmit information throughout the brain, as well as much less gray matter, which contains the brain-cell bodies that process information and solve problems.

* * *

The [Romanian] children, who had been separated from their parents in their first two years of life, scored significantly lower on IQ tests later in life. Their fight-or-flight response system appeared permanently broken. Stressful situations that would usually prompt physiological responses in other people - increased heart rate, sweaty palms - would provoke nothing in the children.

* * *

Research on aboriginal children in Australia who were removed from their families also showed long-lasting effects. They were nearly twice as likely to be arrested or criminally charged as adults, 60 percent more likely to have alcohol-abuse problems and more than twice as likely to struggle with gambling.

In China — where 1 in 5 children live in villages without their parents, who migrate for work — studies have shown on those "left-behind" children have markedly higher rates of anxiety and depression later in life.

Michael H Fuchs, former deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, wrote in The Guardian on 20 June:

As George Takei — who was imprisoned by the US government in an internment camp as a child during the second world war — pointed out, not even those Japanese-Americans imprisoned during the war were separated from their parents. In America today, border agents reportedly told parents their children were getting bathed and then never came back, evoking Nazis taking away children in death camps and telling people being led to the gas chambers that they were going to take a shower.

The former Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Sandweg, said that "permanent separation" has been known to happen. NBC News on 19 June paraphrased his observation "that migrant parents separated from their children at the border are sometimes unable to relocate their child and remain permanently separated...While a parent can quickly move from detention to deportation, a child's case for asylum or deportation may not be heard by a judge for several years because deporting a child is a lower priority for the courts..." On 20 June, the Detroit Free Press reported that 50 immigrant children had already arrived in Michigan to be put in foster care. "Trump administration officials," the Associated Press wrote the same day, "say they have no clear plan yet on how to reunite the thousands of children separated from their families at the border..."

"By all accounts, this has happened as early as October 2017. About 700 children were separated from their guardians and at least 100 were under 4 years old, according to The New York Times," Ricky Riley wrote for Blavity on 18 June. Riley shared actress Reagan Gomez's recommendation "to not compare our present to 'The Handmaid's Tale' but instead examine the past and think about what happened to Native American children and enslaved black children. Native children were taken from families and placed in schools where they were forced to assimilate."

A Boston Globe editorial on 20 June noted: "At least 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since early May." They added: "Contrary to the White House’s spin, family separation on the scale of the last few weeks is unprecedented. The shift can be traced to Miller, Trump’s anti-immigrant whisperer, a veteran of his presidential campaign. Miller is a longstanding supporter of restricting immigration, both legal and illegal; he also coauthored the administration’s ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries. Turning twisted notions of white nationalism into policy is the role Miller seems to have prepared for his whole life."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions helped implement the new policy over the past few months and then publicly quoted a Biblical passage from Romans 13 to justify why it is important to follow the law. Ed Kilgore wrote for New York Magazine:

Those who are unacquainted with the Bible should be aware that the brief seven-verse portion of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has been throughout the ages cited to oppose resistance to just about every unjust law or regime you can imagine. As the Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum quickly pointed out, it was especially popular among those opposing resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act in the run-up to the Civil War. It was reportedly Adolf Hitler’s favorite biblical passage. And it was used by defenders of South African Apartheid and of our own Jim Crow.

Hundreds of clergy and laymembers of the United Methodist Church, of which Sessions is a longtime member, signed a letter raising formal church charges against him including his use of Romans 13 which they argued was a false doctrine.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Will Trump succeed in repealing the Johnson Amendment? (And why does he want to?)

A follow-up to the December 2017 discussion of Stephen Mansfield's book Choosing Trump.

Donald Trump campaigned on the promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a part of the IRS code that prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, including churches, from participating in partisan politics and endorsing candidates. Political religious organizations would benefit from repealing this rule. (As a matter of popular opinion, however, even most religious people do not want their churches to become arms of partisan politics.)

June 2018

In June 2018, while Trump was in Singapore speaking to Kim Jong-Un, Vice President Mike Pence revived the issue of the Johnson Amendment:

And why was Trump so interested in repealing the Johnson Amendment? Here's one theory:

Hemant Mehta wrote on June 16 that we invoke the Johnson Amendment in our popular understanding when "referring to the rule prohibiting religious leaders from endorsing candidates from the pulpit," but: "The Johnson Amendment isn’t really about churches. It’s about non-profits. The same rule that bars pastors from endorsing candidates also bars the ACLU and the NRA and AARP from doing the same thing." Thus, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood's recent lawsuit claims the Trump family engaged in “persistently illegal conduct” through its family foundation. This includes the donation of $25,000 in 2013 to the reelection campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) and also paying expenses for Trump's own campaign in early 2016. Mehta quotes Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State: "When Trump started talking about how he’d like to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, I just assumed that Jerry Falwell Jr. or another one of his Religious Right lackeys fed him the line because, unlike most religious leaders in America, they are eager to politicize their pulpits and issue orders on how congregants ought to vote. But it turns out a move like that could be a huge benefit to Trump himself."

It's one matter to acknowledge that religion and politics are both driven by values and that it's difficult and potentially undesirable to compartmentalize values. Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in 2006: "A progressive spiritual politics agrees with the Religious Right that there is no such thing as a neutral public sphere. Our political institutions, our economic institutions, and our dominant culture are all suffused with values. And by and large today those values are rooted in an ethos of materialism and selfishness that is corrosive to human life, to community, and to religious and spiritual values."

However, a commitment to values in all major spheres of life does not entail that organizations that endorse partisan candidates should be granted tax exemptions by the government.


Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. p. 28.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Twitter reactions to the North Korea/US meeting, Day 3 and 4 (14 and 15 June 2018)

Day 3

Day 4