Thursday, May 17, 2018

The moral hazard of working for a corrupt administration

Those who work for a corrupt political administration can expect to have their own careers damaged. There were many warnings about this prior to Trump's inauguration. One of the early casualties was campaign manager Paul Manafort, who resigned several months before the election over concerns about his connections to Russia and, two years later, remains under increasing legal pressure.

Upon Trump's inauguration in January 2017, Republican commentator and former Bush speechwriter David Frum identified four personal risks of associating with the new administration: exposure to Trump's "finances...including tax and corruption investigations"; to his "clandestine contacts with hostile foreign governments"; to enabling his lies, especially if they become illegal, such as when he speaks to Congress or speaks under oath; and to his general disregard for the law.

"A law-abiding person will want to stay as far as possible from the personal service of President Trump. As demonstrated by the sad example of Press Secretary Sean Spicer spouting glaring lies on his first day on the job, this president will demand that his aides do improper things — and the low standards of integrity in Trump's entourage create a culture of conformity to those demands.

* * *

Good people can do the right thing even under pressure. But be aware: The pressure to do the wrong thing can be intense — and the closer one approaches to the center of presidential power and prestige, the more intense the pressure becomes. It's easy to imagine that you’d emulate Walters when reading the book he wrote four decades after the fact. But in the moment? In the Oval Office? Face to face with the president of the United States?

So maybe the very first thing to consider, if the invitation comes, is this: How well do you know yourself? How sure are you that you indeed would say no?

And then humbly consider this second troubling question: If the Trump administration were as convinced as you are that you would do the right thing — would they have asked you in the first place?

Reflecting on a first week in office that included "big splashy pronouncements such as announcing a wall that he would force Mexico to pay for, even as the Mexican foreign minister held talks with American officials in Washington" and "quiet, but no less dangerous bureaucratic orders, such as kicking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of meetings of the Principals’ Committee, the senior foreign-policy decision-making group below the president, while inserting his chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, into them," Eliot A. Cohen wrote: "In an epic week beginning with a dark and divisive inaugural speech, extraordinary attacks on a free press, a visit to the CIA that dishonored a monument to anonymous heroes who paid the ultimate price, and now an attempt to ban selected groups of Muslims (including interpreters who served with our forces in Iraq and those with green cards, though not those from countries with Trump hotels, or from really indispensable states like Saudi Arabia), he has lived down to expectations."

He added that the president embodies the opposite of "reverence for the truth" and "sober patriotism grounded in duty, moderation, respect for law, commitment to tradition, knowledge of our history, and open-mindedness."

He said:

"Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have."

He cautioned:

"To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. ... To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction."

Eliot Cohen also warned professional conservatives: "Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it." Indeed: "Many conservative foreign-policy and national-security experts saw the dangers last spring and summer, which is why we signed letters denouncing not Trump’s policies but his temperament; not his program but his character." He predicts that this president will "fail" because: "With every act he makes new enemies for himself and strengthens their commitment; he has his followers, but he gains no new friends."

Traditionally, Senate-confirmed officials submit resignation letters when a new president takes office, with the expectation that nonpartisan people will be kept on board, since "[o]nly career officials have the decades of institutional knowledge required to keep the nation’s agencies running," Ronan Farrow wrote in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Foreign Service officers must eventually have a presidentially-appointed job or, eventually, be forced to retire. Not being given a job means the same thing as being fired. One diplomat said she was informed: "Your assignments are broken. Who knows if you have your next job, maybe you don’t. It’s utter chaos. And it’s out of the blue. No reason." Many dismissals happened around the time of Rex Tillerson's Feb. 1, 2017 confirmation as Secretary of State; Tillerson would later claim not to have been aware of some of these dismissals. Farrow wrote: “In the first days of 2018, when I asked Tillerson about Countryman and the wave of forced retirements, the secretary of state stared at me, unblinking, then said: 'I’m not familiar with that one.' A little over a month later, Tillerson was gone too: another casualty of a fickle president and a State Department in disarray.”

In February 2017, Paul Waldman said of the President that "the idea of him having a coherent ideology is absurd" and that what he has instead is "a remarkable lack of human virtues and an even more remarkable set of character flaws". If there were a terrorist attack,

"he won't try to calm people down or remind them of how safe we are. He'll do exactly the opposite: ramp up people's fear and anger, using the attack (now matter how minor it might have been) as justification for a range of policy moves. He said during the campaign that he wanted to put mosques under surveillance; that could be just the start of a range of harsh actions directed at American Muslims. ... And given his regular, personal attacks on judges that don't rule as he'd like, there's a genuine question of whether he'd obey lawful court orders that restrained him in a situation where he felt he had the advantage. ...there will be some kind of attack eventually, and Trump will try to exploit it. The more we understand that now, the better prepared we'll be to push back when the time comes."

Allan J. Lichtman wrote in his book The Case for Impeachment, published in April 2017:

"Even early in his presidency, Donald Trump exhibits the same tendencies that led Nixon to violate the most basic standards of morality and threaten the foundations of our democracy. Both Nixon and Trump exhibited a determination to never quit, to win at all costs, to attack and never back down, and to flout conventional rules and restraints. But as ambitious and headstrong as they were, they also shared a compulsion to deflect blame, and they were riddled with insecurities. They exploited the resentments of white working class Americans and split the world into enemies and loyalists. In the first month of his presidency Trump talked more about ‘enemies’ than any other president in history. Neither man allowed the law, the truth, the free press, or the potential for collateral damage to others to impede their personal agendas. They cared little about ideology but very much about adulation and power. They had little use for checks and balances and stretched the reach of presidential authority to its outer limits. They obsessed over secrecy and thirsted for control without dissent."

Ryan Lizza wrote in October 2017:

"Working for Trump means that one’s credibility is likely to be damaged, so there is a kind of moral calculation that any Trump supporter must make: Does working for him serve some higher purpose that outweighs the price of reputational loss?

There is a hierarchy of justifications for backing Trump. At the bottom are the spokespeople and purely political officials who are almost instantly discredited, because they are forced to defend the statements of a President who routinely lies and manufactures nonsensical versions of events. Sean Spicer learned this on his first day on the job, when Trump sent him into the White House briefing room to tell the press lies about Inauguration-crowd sizes. He never recovered. But there was also no higher purpose for which Spicer could claim he was serving Trump, except that he was a political-communications official, and being the White House spokesman is the top prize in that profession. Republicans in Congress are a little farther up the pyramid. ... They justify their support by noting that Trump will implement the core Republican agenda, and that alone is worth the price of a person at least some of them believe is unfit to be President.

* * *

The tougher cases are at the top of the pyramid. The government needs to be staffed, and, especially in positions of national security, it’s hard to argue against anyone taking a senior position at the Pentagon, the State Department, or the National Security Council to insure that Trump’s worst instincts are contained."

An alarming number of departures have indeed steadily come to pass. Elizabeth Shackelford, a political officer for the U.S. State Department's mission to Somalia, wrote a resignation letter on Nov. 7, 2017 to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that the damage to the U.S. reputation under the Trump administration "is visible every day in Mission Somalia, my current post, where State’s diplomatic influence, on the country and within our own interagency, is waning." Noting that other diplomats have left the agency, she asked Tillerson to "stem the bleeding" or else "follow me out the door.” Tillerson was fired the following March; there were many reports that he learned that he was fired at the same moment the rest of the nation did, that is, when Trump tweeted it. In May, addressing the Virginia Military Institute, Tillerson said: "If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom."

In November 2017, Michelle Goldberg published this opinion in the New York Times:

"Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned that it was a mistake to infer that what we’ve seen so far of the Trump administration will be 'as bad as it gets.' As time goes on, he wrote, 'Trump will find people who will empower him, instead of trying to contain him. Some of these will be junior officials who gain experience. Others may be opportunists who see a chance to gain high office by pledging to be more of a loyalist than the current cabinet.'"

A year after the inauguration, on the morning of Jan. 29, 2018, David Frum once again had dim expectations for the State of the Union to be given that night. "Look, if President Trump gets through the hour without putting a fork in somebody’s eye he will be praised as the most presidential president since the most presidential president," he said. He went on to say: "We all know what he is, we all know why he’s president, and what got him into that job. So, I think the question for all of us is how do we protect the country during the remainder of the presidency. There are no serious questions left about what kind of person he is.”

There have been at least 29 "high-profile" departures as of May 2018. Those who work for this president are learning their lessons.


"Advice for Those Weighing Jobs in the Trump Administration: Assessing the risks of service." David Frum, The Atlantic, Jan. 28, 2017.

"A Clarifying Moment in American History." Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic, Jan. 29, 2017.

"Beware Trump's Reichstag fire," Paul Waldman, The Week, Feb. 7, 2017.

Allan J. Lichtman. The Case for Impeachment. Dey Street Books, April 18, 2017. p. 21.

"John Kelly and the Dangerous Moral Calculus of Working for Trump", Ryan Lizza, New Yorker, October 20, 2017.

Ex-Bush speechwriter sets low bar for Trump’s SOTU: ‘As long as he doesn’t poke someone in the eye with a fork,’ Sarah K. Burris, Raw Story, Jan. 29, 2018.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Scott Lively's candidacy for governor of Massachusetts: On LGBT issues

Scott Lively is a Christian pastor and will be a gubernatorial candidate on the Massachusetts Republican primary ballot on Sept. 4, 2018. I encourage Massachusetts voters especially to pay attention to his personal record on LGBT issues. Here's some of his views as he currently represents them on his own campaign website (accessed May 12, 2018).

On his homepage, he says that society must support the "primacy" of the "natural family" (which he defines by "life-long" monogamous heterosexual marriage and the getting of children "through birth or adoption") and should practice "tolerance for those who choose to live discretely [sic] outside the mainstream." (This is on his campaign homepage under "Seven Issues that Define My Campaign and My Life," Item 3, "Devotion to Family.") He does not define what it would mean for someone to live discreetly (i.e. unobtrusively to others), why that request does not infringe upon someone's dignity and right to free expression, and exactly what kind of intolerance he is threatening against them if he should notice their gay existence.

On his Issues page, under "My Position on LGBT Issues," he refers to "the LGBT movement" as "the anti-church". He wants to see "a new legal doctrine creating the 'Separation of LGBT and State'," meaning that the government would not be able to fund any organization that promoted "LGBT ideology" and that government officials would not be able to march in Pride parades. He says that so-called "Sexual Orientation Regulations" often have been used "as a sword to attack religious freedom and freedom of speech," though he gives no examples or references on this webpage, and that Massachusetts should have a policy that these "sexual orientation regulations" shall never "supersede the First Amendment rights of individuals, churches and religious organizations to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion," though he gives no indication of why he believes that such conflicts (if they exist) can be resolved on the level of Massachusetts policy and are not rather a matter of how the U.S. Supreme Court interprets First Amendment and anti-discrimination laws.

He thinks such a restriction would be equivalent to the "separation of church and state" (hence why he names it "separation of LGBT and state"), yet he does not cut out theism from his own speech in the same way that he wants other people to cut out their beliefs about human sexuality. He says that government officials should not be able to lend their speech to a Pride parade, but he doesn't square this with why he, as candidate for governor, is entitled to write on his campaign homepage: "I believe the Bible is the Word of God, and the best source of guidance in every aspect of human life...God will prove Himself to every person who honestly seeks Him."

His Issues page also says: "I will work to pass a law following the Russian model of banning the promotion of non-traditional lifestyles to minors, a law for which I advocated while in Russia and the former Soviet Union in 2006 and 2007." Indeed, in 2013, Russia passed a law against distributing LGBT-normalizing "propaganda" to minors, meaning that it may be dangerous for anyone in Russia to simply acknowledge the existence of gay people in front of a child under 18 since they could be accused of promoting LGBT ideology. Lively wrote an open letter to Putin congratulating him for passing the law.

He was also involved with Uganda's "anti-homosexuality act," a bill that originally called for the death penalty for same-sex relations, which you can learn about on the Wikipedia page for Scott Lively.

Lively's campaign homepage also identifies him as a Trump supporter.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

War is still about power, not truth

President George W. Bush told the nation in his 2003 State of the Union that Iraq tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. Months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when no weapons stockpiles had been found, the head of the Iraq Survey Group testified that it "turns out we were all wrong." President Bush had to admit this in Summer 2003, and he used the line "we were all wrong" in his memoir, Decision Points, in 2010 after he’d left office and while the war was still ongoing.

Americans, then and now, rationalized the national error by compounding it, insisting on an additional mistaken belief that Iraq somehow contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A majority of Americans believed it at the time, and even today in 2018 the narrative still has traction.

In reality: None of the hijackers were Iraqi. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz “was not able to justify his belief that Iraq was behind 9/11” but had the idea of “using” outrage over the terrorist attack “to deal with the Iraq problem,” as the 9/11 Commission cited the memory of Secretary of State Colin Powell. In September 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he’d “not seen any indication” and President Bush said “we have no evidence” of Saddam’s involvement in that plot.

The extremely regrettable takeaway is that the US can start, and maintain, a decade-long, trillion-dollar war that was originally based on wrong information. I don't think the US as a nation ever fully internalized the great shame of this error. Maybe in intelligence circles, but not in the public consciousness.

Truth — our access to hear it, our ability to grasp it, our acceptance of what it means to ourselves and others, our willingness to pass it on — is something we should all care about. It should be a universal value. We need it for science, for journalism, for making the most of the lives we are given. We need it for multilingual, interracial, and interfaith understanding.

Our reactions to error — our own personal errors and those of our nations — do, however, differ. The way in which I feel embarrassment or shame about mistakes, and the way in which I recover from and correct problems, carries for me a bit of religious feeling if anything still does for me these days. Acknowledging fallibility feels tied to reverence, at least in my personal constitution. For me, the wow feeling that some call "spiritual" often means: Look how much we don’t understand. Look what we still have to learn.

I feel the shame of colossal error in my bones, and so I ask: What have we collectively learned about how to speak truthfully about weapons inspections over the last fifteen years since the invasion of Iraq? To judge by this week’s results — the abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, an impressive and deeply serious work of diplomacy — we have learned less than nothing.

Major diplomatic agreements are intended to endure through multiple administrations. They are not designed to be exited when a newly elected leader finds them inconvenient. Pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as the U.S. president did yesterday, weakens the nation’s credibility in making long-term deals with any country going forward. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that the US “doesn't respect international agreements” and “has officially undermined its commitment to an international treaty”; he intends to renegotiate the deal with the other signatories (the UK, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and China). The US has simply isolated itself.

The deal had provided assurance that Iran would be unable to begin developing a nuclear weapon for at least the ten years’ duration of the agreement. If the deal collapses, there is no assurance that Iran will not begin developing a bomb immediately. Today, the US has no leverage within the tatters of the 2015 deal and no credibility with which to secure a new deal in the future. So much for the real estate mogul who was elected to the U.S. presidency touting his dealmaking skills.

The claim by the U.S. president today that Iran isn’t complying with the nuclear deal is worse in at least one way than the 2003 claim that Iraq had illicit weapons of mass destruction: This time around, the lie is more profound.

UN weapons inspectors say that Iran is in compliance. No significant faction of the U.S. intelligence community promotes the opposite claim. Journalists and think tanks everywhere rip this thin claim of noncompliance to shreds. Accordingly, no information-based argument of Iran’s noncompliance has even managed to be successfully sold to the American public or the world. “The [U.S.] president’s decision is a wholly baseless rejection of the conclusion of our closest allies’ military and intelligence services, international nuclear experts and his own Secretary of Defense that the agreement is working,” as a J Street statement put it.

But truth-assessments don’t stop this president from saying what he wants to say and doing what he wants to do. Since his inauguration, he has made thousands of false and misleading statements, an average of six per day, according to the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” department; he manages this prolific output despite having essentially abandoned the presidential tradition of giving formal press conferences. In disputing news reports, he doesn’t use the word “false” so much as he uses the word “fake,” a term he applies to dismiss anything that is unflattering to him. He drew this equivalence the very next day after announcing his withdrawal from the nuclear deal by referring to “News about me [that] is negative (Fake).” For him, the fake is the negative — not the untrue. Why, then, should anyone believe anything he said about Iran the previous day, or at any time about anything, for that matter? The hard lesson we continue to learn here is that war is still about power, not truth. The so-called Information Age has done nothing to change that, U.S. democracy hasn't been able to put the brakes on it, and the Nuclear Age makes the potential consequences ever more frightening.

Politically, we are not in the Information Age, but the Post-Truth Age. Post-truth means employing falsehoods to gain power, which, says Lee McIntyre, is “the first step towards authoritarian rule.” There is a long, grim tradition of this. "Speaking truth to power" can make a difference only as long as power cares about truth. Today in the United States, it does not.

Monday, May 7, 2018

On Abelard and Heloïse

James Carroll's 2018 novel The Cloister retells the story of Abelard and Heloïse as seen by a fictional Jewish scholar who died in the Holocaust. This article focuses only on the fictionalized retelling of the 12th-century history and not of the 20th-century story. The newer part of the story picks up on Abelard's defense of Jews that was rejected by Catholic hierarchy and resumes with an imagined 20th-century Jewish scholar's attempt to revive it, receiving similar pushback from Catholic academics, resulting in scholarly eradication.

"Only eunuchs would think they [romance and theology] are unrelated."

Peter Abelard was the son of a knight. As a teenager, he was expected to fight in Baldwin's army in Pope Urban’s war for Jerusalem, but instead he became a tonsured monk. He maintained an unpopular position: that Jews do not go to hell. This made him foes with the White Monk, Bernard of Clairvaux. What he is more famous for, however, is falling in love with his pupil Heloïse, which came to light because Heloïse became pregnant.

In the novel, Heloïse says she fears that the baby will be deformed as a punishment. “If the child is whole," she warns, "the Church will seize him as its slave. Filius nullius. The son of one tonsured is the ‘son of no one.’ He will be a thrall, and you’ve seen even here how such poor bastards are treated.” In this novel, Canon Fulbert often takes his personal thrall to bed "for the fondling he was taught to perform as a very young boy," and this unfortunate servant is the one who will exact punishment on Abelard:

“Of the several figures closing on him, one carried himself in a familiar stoop — Fulbert’s thrall. Peter Abelard’s half-aware mind failed to register the intruders as his mortal enemies until too late, when they had pinned his arms and legs to the frame of the pallet. He never saw the blade with which, in one cut, his penis and scrotum were severed from his body. The pain was as brief as it was intense, because he lost consciousness. With blood rushing out of the gash between his legs, he began to die.”

He survived. Thus, his famous letters to Heloïse. Heloïse, too, was forced to become a nun, eventually being elected Prioress. The letters were sent in Latin. (They likely spoke Old French.) In the novel, a character explains: “These letters show a great contest between two people, but also a contest of the two people against the whole rest of their age. They are humanists. The first humanists. But also mystics. The two things feed each other.”

Theobald, a former student of Abelard and heir to the House of Blois, saw Abelard carried to the physician after his injury. Theobald would, later, be in a position to offer asylum to Abelard. Years later, Abelard admitted, “I wear underwear, needing it," unlike women, "more than once a month," for his incontinence.

Though Heloïse was separated from Abelard and out of contact with him for years, she never fell out of love with him. When she finally saw him again, many years later...

"The door frame made him stoop. She had always imagined seeing him at this moment as if he were young, his expression glad with the fervor of their just-finished play. But his mouth was unhappily clenched, his skin was blotched, and the dust of an unforgiving conscience, like an unkind wind upon the sea, shuddered across the pool of his eyes. ... His brow was lined, and the dark stain of weariness made hollows of his eye sockets. Time had touched him roughly."

Because of his castration, Abelard could no longer see himself as belonging affectionately to Heloïse. He told her it was "God’s just punishment. I was torn asunder so that our marriage would be torn. Our marriage was false. It was a sin." Heloïse said she disagrees.

”Peter turned his face to the wall. ‘But, living, I am punished in the offending part. I am disqualified now from being yours, a fate that is meet and just.’

’The only fate meet and just is what befell my villain uncle’s henchmen.’

’Ah, so now my own lads have joined in the evil. Eye for eye, blade for blade. Manhood for manhood.’


"Peter was speaking out of an abyss of despair. 'Have you troubled to take notice of my condition? I am a eunuch now.'

'Not to me! Never to me!'"

Then he says, “You should have let me die,” and faced the wall.

Heloïse was only attentive to his castration in the symbolic sense as it applied to the intellect. When Abelard said, “I am accused of preferring thought to faith — and of that I am guilty. I presume to contradict the great Anselm, who has become holy writ. But I must do it from afar,” Heloïse was disappointed with his timidity, thinking, “The great man of her youth — still emasculated?”

At age 61, he was excommunicated as a heretic by Pope Innocent II. He took refuge in Cluny and died within the year of illness.


James Carroll. The Cloister. Nan A. Talese, March 6, 2018.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Crotilda, disguised as a eunuch, in 'The Fatal Contract' (1639)

The publisher's dedication says that this 1654 book was a posthumous publication. It was originally written c. 1639 according to this plot summary. Previously it had been circulating in "private Transcripts, where it past through many hands".

As the Blogging the Renaissance plot summary explains, "one of [Queen Fredigond's] sons (Clotair) raped the fair Crotilda, and one of Crotilda's family killed the queen's brother (Clodimir) by mistake." Thus begins a dark tragicomedy of errors in which everyone is mad at everyone. Crotilda is in disguise as a dark-skinned, villainous eunuch for the entire play. This is known to the reader at the very beginning, as "Crotilda, by the name of Castrato, as an Eunuch" is named in the character list, but it probably would not have been obvious to an audience when the play was performed.

In his first appearance, the eunuch (Crotilda) summons two soldiers, her relatives (who for some reason do not recognize her), to the Queen. Disguised as the queen's eunuch, he hands them bags of gold and a letter and walks offstage with no words exchanged. One soldier says to the other, "It was the Eunuch." The other replies: "That needs no deciding." The soldiers correctly perceive that the Queen is extending a false olive branch and she intends to punish them for crimes of their parents against her brother.

Next, the queen, alone with her eunuch, contemplating her revenge against the soldiers, says:

“Hark, hark Castrato, the musick of the Sphæres,
O ravishing touch, hark how the others voice
Ecchoes the Lute, is’t not a divine softnesse?"

The eunuch replies:

Eu. Oh were I but a man as others are,
As kind and open-handed nature made me,
With Organs apt and fit for womans service.
Qu. What if thou wert?
Eu. What if I were great Queene?
I'd search the Deserts, Mountaines, Vallies, Plaines,
Till I had met Chrotilda, whom by force
I'd make to mingle with these sootie limbs,
Till I had got on her one like to me,
Whom I would nourish for the Dumaine line;
That time to come might story to the world,
They had the Devil to their Grand-father.
Qu. I find thee Eunuch apt for my imployments,
Therefore I will unclaspe my soul to thee.
I've alwaies found thee trusty, and I love thee.
Eu. With thanks I ever must acknowledge it,
And lay my life at my great Mistress feet,     Kneels.
To spend it when she pleases.
Qu. We need it not
As yet Castrato, but we may hereafter.

The queen begins to detail the physical punishment she'd like to mete out. The eunuch praises her: "You are the Goddess of invention." The queen then announces her attraction to him:

Now by this light I'm taken strangely with thee,
Come kiss me, kiss me sirra, tremble not.     (Queene kisses him.)
Fie, what a January lip thou hast,
A paire of Iscicles, sure thou hast bought
A paire of cast lips of the chast Diana's,
Thy blood's meere snow-broth, kiss me again:     (again)

The two soldiers are brought into the presence of the queen and the young king Clotair, and the queen immediately and discreetly poisons the king, planning to blame it on the soldiers.

Eu. Madam, is't done?
Qu. I my black Genius, such a fatal dram
I have administred, will wing his soul
With expedition to the other world...

In this passage, the queen is referring to her eunuch as a "black Genius" (as in, "Aye, my black Genius," a spelling that is used later in the play when Clotair says "I Dumain" to Dumain).

She then asks the eunuch: "See'st thou not death thron'd in his hollow eye, / Great tyrant over Nature?" It is a little unclear whether she is referring to the king or the eunuch as a "tyrant over Nature" (a king is more likely to be described as a tyrant, but a eunuch is more likely to be described as unnatural).

In a following scene, the eunuch, carrying a candle, leads Aphelia to Clotair, assuring her that the Clotair will not advance sexually on her. Clotair, however, threatens violence against her if she does not submit to him. The eunuch acknowledges his own villainy in the play's violent intrigues: "Thus on all sides the Eunuch will play foul, / And as his face is black he'll have his soul."

In a following scene, the eunuch comments: "The venom'd poyson of a womans tongue / Is more sublim'd than Mercurie." The queen spars verbally with Clotair, and the eunuch comments again:

How cunningly she spits her poyson forth!
I know her soul is light, she's glad he's dead,
And joyes in the opportuntie to curse the killer,
For which she gaines the name of pious mother;
Here's pretty woman-villany and dissimulation.

The queen asks, "Eunuch is our bed ready?" suggesting that bedchamber arrangement was an expected duty of his. She then invites her lover Landry to bed. The eunuch says to himself: "to cover my discoverie / I'll set on fire the Queens Bed-chamber". He also says he'll warn King Clotair to send help to rescue his mother. "About it then, this is a happie night, / The more it works their woe more's my delight."

Clotair, still dying from poison, says, "Castrato stay, / And with they Counsell cure they dying Prince; / Thou art my bosome, Eunuch, and to thee / I dare unclasp my soul..." The eunuch tells him he saw Landrey, a former page, in his mother's bed. He also tells him that Landrey and the Queen wanted to kill Aphelia so she would not become queen.

The queen then wonders aloud, to the eunuch, how she could have been found out. The eunuch says: "This is strange, / Some comick Devil crosses our designes..." She conspires with the eunuch, telling him, "My dul Æthiope, I will instruct thy blacknesse," that she intends to hide with Landrey in a secret chamber. "Excellent mistris, I applaud your brain," he replies. She asks him to inform Landrey of the plan. He anticipates her request for him to kill either Aphelia or the young king, and she replies:

Thou hast a brain which doth ingender thoughts
As regall as our own, which do beget
A race of rare events; what pitty 'tis
Thy body should be sterril, since thy mind
Is of so pregnant and a fruitful kind;
Farewell, remember me.

The eunuch says to himself: "Learn ye that pamper up your flesh for lust, / The Eunuch in his wickedness is just." He brings Landry and the queen poisoned food, first saying, "You'll let me tast it for you, will you not?" Then, after they have eaten, he laughs: "Ha, ha, ha, y'have both eat and drunk abominable poyson," adding, "The poyson's sure, I did prepare it for ye, / And have my self taken an Antidote". He taunts Landry: "You are our cushion, and i'l sit on you. / I am not very heavie, am I sir? / I do not altogether weigh a man." The queen calls him a "Villanous Traytor," and he responds: "So perish all that love Adulterie."

The eunuch's next mischief is to tell Clotair that his wife Aphelia is pregnant by another, unnamed man. Aphelia denies it, and Clotair calls a torturer with hot irons and threatens to destroy her breasts so she cannot "suckle lawless issue". Clotair, despairing of his overall situation, then asks the eunuch to shoot him with a pistol that he'd previously intended for Landrey. One of the soldiers who was originally selected by the Queen to be framed for the poisoning of her son asked the "Hel-hound Eunuch" to "tell us who ha's done these fatall deeds." The eunuch responds, "Chrotilda and a woman." To the disbelieving soldier, Clotair supports Chrotilda's reveal, and says that even the Queen didn't know the truth: "no Eunuch she; / No sun-burnt vagabond of Æthiope, / Though entertain'd for such by Fredigond." The revealed Chrotilda says, "I should have kill'd thee King, and had put on / A masculine spirit to perform the deed," but claims she was prevented by "A womans weakness".

It is free on Google or can be bought printed on demand.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Can the president use social media to promote other people's books?

Ainsley Earhardt is a Fox anchor. She co-hosts "Fox & Friends," has a Hannity segment called "Ainsley Across America," and expresses support for President Trump. Her book, The Light Within Me: An Inspirational Memoir is referred to by publisher HarperCollins as "a powerful, uplifting look at her life and her spiritual journey, reflecting on her family, her faith, and her successful career." The book includes an interview with First Lady Melania Trump. President Trump tweeted on May 2 that consumers should "bring it to number one."

"Number one" on what list, we aren't sure. Presumably not the standard-bearer, the New York Times, which the president claims to hate. Perhaps Amazon (where, as of the morning of May 3, the new release was placing first in one category: Hardcovers in "Biographies & Memoirs > Arts & Literature > Television Performers." OK.

And never mind that he misspelled Earhardt's name in this advertisement. She probably doesn't care too much.

The bigger problem here is that the president is using his office to advertise a product. It was not OK when Kellyanne Conway gave a "free commercial" for Ivanka's fashion line in February 2017. As the White House did not "take any meaningful disciplinary action against her," according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, when she was promoting the financial interests of the president's family, it seems even less likely that the White House cares if the president promotes the financial interests of someone outside his family.

It does, however, still seem contrary to the law. "Use of public office for private gain," 5 C.F.R. § 2635.702, stipulates: "An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity...An employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office to endorse any product, service or enterprise...

Earlier the same day, the president promoted The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump by another Fox anchor, Gregg Jarrett. Not only would Jarrett profit from sales of the book, but the content of this book clearly is meant to buttress Trump's political power.

As of May 3, these tweets did not appear on the official @POTUS Twitter account, but it doesn't matter much what account he used. His tweets are presidential records regardless.

What do you think about this use of social media by the government?

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The character of Kazdim the Eunuch, Chief of Police, in Dennis Wheatley's 'The Eunuch of Stamboul' (with spoilers)

Dennis Wheatley was a popular author in early twentieth-century England. His novel The Eunuch of Stamboul enjoyed many printings with different cover designs, many of which illustrate the titular eunuch.

Wheatley dedicated his book to Capt. George "Peter" H. Hill, author of Go Spy the Land and Then Came the Dawn, who he credits as an influence. He also mentions the friendship of "Colonel Charles Davey and Mr. Norman Penzer, both of whom have known the mystery and romance of Stamboul."

The author lays bare one of his guiding stereotypes about Turks late in the story. It will be helpful for us to see it up front:

"Kazdim [the Eunuch] was so completely Oriental — subtle, shrewd, sadistic, but so certain of himself and showing so little of his emotions that it had seemed a waste of breath to bandy words with him, whereas the [Turkish] Prince was so much more a Western type that Swithin [the Englishman] felt almost as if he were up against an exceptionally depraved and brutal specimen of his own kind." (p. 207)

In this blog post, I reveal the repetitive descriptions of Kazdim as fat, ugly, and evil, which is a common treatment of eunuch characters in both fiction and non-fiction. After that, I summarize the plot (with spoilers!) and provide links to the film version.

The trope of the fat, ugly, evil eunuch

The story is notable for its portrayal of the Eunuch, Kazdim Hari Bekar. A "treacherous rascal" (p. 55), he had formerly lived in the palace "less than ten years before" the novel's action is set and had "slain beautiful disobedient odalisques with one of those glittering scimitars" (p. 122). With the fall of the old political system, he is now the Chief of Police. The career trajectory makes sense, as a character explains:

"Spying's the natural business of a Eunuch. In the big harems there were scores of bonnie lassies wi' only one husband between the lot of them and no natural ootlet fer their passions. At times they'd go fair mad fer the lack of a man, so every harem was riddled wi' plots to smuggle in some lusty young hamal or soldier fer an hour. 'Twas the job of the Eunuchs to match their cunning against that of the women, and the clever ones made a mint o'money at the game. Think of the opportunities fer blackmail in sich a poseetion, mon! When one of these onnotural creatures had nosed out a love affair he'd play the woman like a salmon trout by threatening ta tell the master if she did not find him sil'er enough to still his tongue or, if she were rich, he'd encourage her to play the whore provided he made a guid thing oot of it. But all the time he'd have to go canny as a cat, fer if the woman were caught at her tricks he'd be called on ta answer fer it and if his brother Eunuchs found him out they'd tell on him to curry favour with their boss, so he stood a double chance of having his fat neck wrung. Can ye tell me a better school than that fer a secret service man?" (p. 56)

One of the British characters speculates: "Kazdim is naturally a reactionary at heart. As one of the old school of thugs and grafters the reforms Kemal has brought in have probably robbed him of a fortune, so he would be among the first to sympathize with the aims of the Kaka [the anti-Kemal resistance]." (p. 116)

The word "Eunuch" is typically capitalized in this novel — for example, "the young Turk probably knew who the Eunuch was and his evil reputation already" (p. 109) — suggesting it is treated more as a title than a gender. There are no other eunuch characters in the novel.

Kazdim is a single-minded spy and assassin and is uniformly charmless in his conversation. Every time he appears, the reader is reminded of how enormously fat he is. We never see him eat; instead, he is always smoking cigarettes.

"He was a tall man with immensely powerful shoulders but the effect of his height was minimized by his gigantic girth. He had the stomach of an elephant and would easily have turned the scale at twenty stone [i.e. 280 lbs, or 127 kg]. His face was even more unusual than his body, for apparently no neck supported it and it rose straight out of his shoulders like a vast inverted U. The eyes were tiny beads in that great expanse of flesh and almost buried in folds of fat, the cheeks puffed out, yet withered like the skin of a last year's apple, and the mouth was an absurd pink rosebud set above a seemingly endless cascade of chins." (p. 87)

Later he is described as having a "circumference about two ells [i.e. 90 inches, or 2.3 meters] and weight nearly up to that of a Brontosaurus." (p. 164) These sobriquets make comebacks: "the twenty-stone Eunuch" (p. 172), "the Brontosaurus is after her" (p. 236). When not dinosaur-like, he is "elephantine" (p. 290).

He has a "vast protruding paunch," an "absurdly small mouth," and a "tiny fluting voice." Again, in another place: "the big man bleated in his high thin voice." (p. 173)

He is: "Huge, sinister, implacable, relentless, as though the passage of time had no meaning for him" (p. 133), owner of "those small beady eyes embedded in their rolls of fat" and a "high-pitched, child-like voice" (pp. 135-136). "His great moon-like face broke into a smile of evil enjoyment as he slowly crushed out his cigarette with that air of terrible finality." (p. 171) And: "...the great brute placidly lit another cigarette and puffed at it thoughtfully, watching him with that unwinking stare by which a snake fascinates a bird." (p. 172) Given an opportunity to execute someone, Kazdim's face is "pasty white and grinning in the torch light, a mask of unutterably cruel enjoyment." (p. 182) "The Eunuch looked old, tired and evil tempered as he sank heavily into the only armchair." (p. 255) "Over her mother's shoulder, as in some awful nightmare, she saw the vast, still form of the Eunuch, overlapping the sides of the armchair, a great pile of cigarette ends making a small mountain in a brass ash tray beside him." (p. 271)

He has "puffy eyelids" (p. 215). "The Eunuch's enormous sides wobbled and shook as though they were made of jelly." (p. 215) "Kazdim's great expanse of face had gone grey with fury." (p. 271) "The Eunuch's small dark eyes bored into hers." (p. 272)

"The only things small about him are "[h]is small feet which so miraculously supported that huge body..." (p. 272) Again, "the patter of the Eunuch's tiny feet sounded upon the first stairs..." (p. 274)

Even the description of his study contains a fat joke:

"They crossed a spacious tiled hall, with a gallery running round above it, and a fountain playing in a marble basin at its centre. Then passed into a small, comfortably furnished room, with book-lined shelves and one tall window. A great satinwood desk, from which a semi-circular portion had been cut to accommodate the stomach of its owner, and a specially made swivel chair of enormous proportions behind it, showed the room to be the Eunuch's special sanctum." (p. 290)

His allegiance to his superior, Prince Ali, is revolting in large part because Ali is revolting. When Ali enters the room, Kazdim unseats himself "and, with unexpected agility, salaamed almost to the floor" (p. 215) He addresses Prince Ali: "''To hear is to obey,' O Flower of Holiness,' cringed the Eunuch, bowing again almost to the ground." (p. 218)

Plot (with spoilers)

The story has a contemporary setting during the presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938).

The first six chapters set the stage. Through a series of somewhat farcical accidents, Diana, the young daughter of Sir George Duncannon, is mauled outside a dance in England by the lips of the late Turkish sultan's nephew, General His Serene Highness the Prince Ali, Emir of Konia and Grand Commander of the Star and Crescent. Diana is unsure of his age, as "[i]t is difficult to tell with Orientals," (p. 12) except that she knows he served in the World War, but in any case he is a loathsome chauvinist and she doesn't care for his advances. In an amusing appraisal: "Half unconsciously she noticed that for so tall a man his hand was surprisingly small — plump, sensitive, womanish — and that the index finger was distinctly crooked." (p. 6) An English officer, Capt. Swithin Destime, rushes to her aid and decks Prince Ali without realizing who he is. Destime is fired from the military as a diplomatic necessity. He fears, despite his fluency in Turkish, Arabic, and Greek, that he will never get another job, but George Duncannon offers him a special covert mission for him in Stamboul as a spy. The characters sail on the Orient Express to Constantinople.

In chapter seven, the British party disembark their yacht in Stamboul and the fun begins. A young Turkish man, Reouf, confides the intention of his political group, the Kaka, to overthrow Mustafa Kemal. At that moment, Kazdim, "one of the strangest looking individuals they had ever seen," appears and interrupts. He warns them that he speaks English and lets them know he'd like to show them "the wall" built by Emperor Theodosius in the fifth century. Although Swithin intuitively feels "intense distrust," he idiotically asks the man if he is a tour guide and, yet more idiotically, he and Reouf climb into the wall with him. (p. 88)

"The repulsive-looking fat man" leads them to an oubliette (a hole through which people are dropped from a great height into a river) and warns them that "such things still might happen to those who are so clever that they make the big mistake." (pp. 90-91) (Later, Swithin recalls the eunuch's face as "gloating" at this moment. (p. 144)) That evening, Kazdim shows up and announces, in a "thin falsetto," that "that of which we spoke together has happened." Reouf rises and leaves with Kazdim. Swithin remains clueless. A woman at the table tells him: "That is the Chief of the Secret Police, Kazdim Hari Bekar, the Eunuch of Stamboul!" (p. 107) She has to explain further: "That man is a monster of sadistic cruelty; 'e 'as never missed an execution an' delights in carrying them out 'imself!" (p. 108)

Swithin tells Diana that he treated Tania Vorontzoff as a messenger for some confidential information. Diana tells him that this was a big mistake, since Tania works for Kazdim and "the second Kazdim sees that letter he will be after you." (p. 118)

In the next scene, Kazdim hides behind a pillar (as best he can, a "vast grotesque a modern lounge suit" (p. 122)) to spy on Peter Carew, who is dining with Tania. Kazdim then surprises Tania at her home, seating his "vast form" in "their largest armchair" and generating "a little mountain of cigarette stubs". Tania's mother, the Baroness, deliberately calls Kazdim by the title "Effendi" (i.e. lord) because she knows he likes it, even though he has to ask her to refrain from doing so because the title is no longer usable under the new laws. (p. 132, see also 258) "His little rosebud mouth curved into a smile between the huge hanging cheeks wrinkled like withered apple skin," Wheatley says, just before Kazdim threatens the Baroness: "I am your protector as long as you obey my every word — if not..." (p. 133) While talking with Tania he suddenly shouts "Silence!" and adds: "A chattering woman is a scourge to thought." (p. 137) He threatens to send Tania and her mother back to Russia, as he controls their permit to live in Turkey. He tells her she's not the only attractive woman he can find for the job he needs done. "Allah! why is that thou hast cursed women by making them such imbeciles? Think, girl. Think, I say!" (pp. 137-138) He twists her ear gratuitously on his way out the door. (p.138)

Reouf's drowned corpse is recovered, hands tied behind his back, and Swithin finds time to talk with Reouf's brother Arif. Arif says he knows that "that hell-spawn Kazdim" killed him. (p. 148) Swithin argues that Kazdim did so not to damage the Kaka but to protect it, as Kazdim likely believed that Reouf had loose lips and was a liability. He believes that Kazdim, despite his position for the current government, is himself secretly a Kaka rebel. Swithin warns Arif that "that devil Kazdim is high up in this thing so he will be one of your new rulers. Surely you are not mad enough to wish to make a Minister of your brother's murderer." (p. 158)

Kazdim and his two armed guards lie in wait in his own apartment for Swithin to arrive. (p. 168) As he threatens Swithin with immediate death via oubliette, "the Eunuch chuckled." (p. 174) Swithin resists and ends up bound, gagged, semi-conscious, sharing the back seat of a car with Kazdim, driven to the oubliette. Two guards drop him down the hole.

The guards are described as follows:

"Both were huge negroes, naked to the waist, their black skins shiny and glistening, their white eye-balls staring at him with dumb animal curiosity.

Kazdim spoke to them in his high falsetto. The mouth of one opened in a half-imbecile grin and Swithin realized dimly, through a wave of sickening horror, that the man had no tongue — and that they were mutes, old henchmen of the Eunuch's from his Palace days perhaps, the instruments of many hideous crimes under his orders if they could only tell of them." (p. 182)

This description is dehumanizing insofar as they have "animal" rather than human "curiosity" and even "eye-balls" rather than eyes. The word "dumb" is complicated insofar as it is immediately revealed that they are, in fact, mute (a secondary definition of the word "dumb"), but Swithin had not known this until after they were described as "dumb."

Swithin miraculously survives his attempted execution. When he next sees Prince Ali, he tells a swaggering lie that Ali and Kazdim are expected to be hanged together (p. 209). Kazdim, for his part, is amazed to see Swithin alive. Swithin says "I have nine lives like a cat," and Kazdim thinks of ways to kill him again:

"give you a drink of strychnine, stick a knife into your liver — shoot you through both lungs — impale you on a stake — hang you by the neck — cut your throat — and, finally, burn your body. Thus will we dispose of the eight lives which you have left, and if I exercise some care, you will, I trust, remain conscious up to the seventh operation — although each would prove fatal in itself after a lapse of time."

Asked for alternatives, Kazdim suggests

"bowstringing — cutting of the head — flaying — suffocation by pillows — starvation — sewing up in a sack with wild cats — snake-bite — or feeding you to the rats in one of the old cisterns,"

methods he claims to "have witnessed in my time." (p. 213)

Here, then, we finally get some back story on Kazdim's character. He says that he was mentored by "'Twisted Beard' Pasha" who was the "Comptroller of the Household to His Majesty the Sultan Abdul Hamid," and also by the "Grand Eunuch Djevher Agha." Swithin taunts him, saying that Djevher Agha, just like Kazdim, had "royal proportions and many chins" which resulted in a botched hanging, a long time choking on his own blood, with his head finally "nearly a yard from his shoulders and his great carcass suspended by a rope of neck not thicker than my wrist." (pp. 214-215) (Note: I suspect Wheatley may have gotten this information about Djevher Agha's hanging from the 11th chapter, "Cleansing of the City and Dispersal of the Imperial Harem," of Francis McCullagh's 1910 book The Fall of Abd-ul-Hamid.) But this is the only information we are to receive about the formation of Kazdim's character. We don't hear about how he came to be castrated or why he is so evil.

He spies on Tania and her mother, and reveals himself, "huge, triumphant, his little black eyes glinting, his tiny mouth twisted into an evil snarl." He indicts them with "a thin vindictive screech." (p. 273) He kills Tania's mother by slapping her on the neck with his bare hand (p. 274), the very touch of his skin proving itself lethal.

When Ali says in front of everyone that he intends to commit a prolonged rape against Diana by making her bathe, dress, and make obeisance to him according to the elaborate harem ritual, Kazdim "smiled with devilish amusement and toyed with the big automatic." (p. 295) He is, to complete the poetry of the novel-length fat joke, shot in the stomach (of course by Tania). He issues "a thin wail" of mortal injury. "His black eyes started out from between their rolls of fat, a terribly agony seemed to shake his great body for a second, then he crashed forward..." (p. 297) Swithin muses shortly afterward: "The only clear thought she had left was to get the Eunuch — and she did." (p. 301) We don't see Kazdim finally expire and he isn't given any last words, but we hear he returned fatal gunfire at Tania before he died.

Film version

In 1936, the year after the publication of the novel, it was turned into a film called "The Secret of Stamboul." Kazdim was played by Frank Vosper, who never made another film because he died suddenly in early 1937.

In this short clip, beginning at 1:30, you can see Kazdim on the left dropping an object into the oubliette to impress Reouf and Swithin. The dialogue is not the same as in the book, nor is the actor as physically large as the novelist insisted the Eunuch was.

The film was also known as "The Spy in White." The full film is here: