Sunday, September 30, 2018

Quote of the Day (Fr. Craig Morrison, on the Beguiled, Baffling and Ambiguous King David)

“As I embarked on this commentary on 2 Samuel, I assumed that my task was to interpret, or ‘exegete,’ the life of King David for my readers. But the more I tried to interpret him, the more elusive, complex, and distant he became. A king, a father, a warrior, a diplomat, a murderer, a manipulator, a tyrant, a beguiler who is often beguiled, David, as baffling as he is ambiguous, interprets and exposes the fictions of those who meet him.”—Fr. Craig Morrison, Berit Olam: 2 Samuel (2013)

The last week has seen public images of Judge Brett Kavanaugh so divergent—star student, family man and respected judge vs. youthful fratboy, booze hound and sexual assailant—that it has left viewers wondering how they could be considering the same man. 

The events in the life of King David to which Fr. Morrison refers, however, vividly convey that, since ancient times, the greatest heroes favored by God can also be all too human and sinful; that light and dark coexist in the human heart; and that private misdeeds not only can pollute the conduct of public life, but can have repercussions lasting far beyond the immediate event.

Having slain the feared Philistine giant Goliath and survived assassination attempts instigated by the prior Israeli king, Saul, David was at the height of his influence when he caught sight of Bathsheba, the wife of one of his generals, Uriah, bathing. The pregnancy resulting from the subsequent affair would have been sinful, but a private matter among the king, his friend and the latter's wife. 

But David compounded his transgression with an abuse of power: ordering Uriah into the front lines of a battle without adequate support, making certain he would be killed and unable to learn about and protest the betrayal of his friend and wife.

David’s sin could not remain secret, of course. He might have won the hand of Bathsheba, but he was confronted by the prophet Nathan as an adulterer and, in effect, a murderer. He ruled Israel for 40 years, but his reign was darkened by a revolt led by one of his children, Absalom. 

If the Devil can quote Scripture to their purpose, then so can politicians and political commentators. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton quoted Psalm 51—widely regarded as David’s confession of his affair—in a more successful attempt to move the nation past his affair with Monica Lewinsky than his initial, angry televised attempt. In 2016, Sean Hannity attempted to explain away Donald Trump’s videotaped bragging about groping women by noting, “King David had five hundred concubines for crying out loud."

The actual story of King David resists any such shallow attempts at justifying the private misbehavior of the powerful  I do not profess to know anything about the truth or falsity of Christine Blasey Ford’s charges against Judge Kavanaugh. But for those who wonder what harm really occurred from events 35 years ago, it is well to remember that actions performed secretly long ago can indeed cry out to the world, far louder and later than we could ever imagine.

(The image accompanying this post is a still from the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward as the lovers.)

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Quote of the Day (Lech Walesa, on ‘Polish Aspirations to Freedom’)

“I think that all nations of the world have the right to life in dignity. I believe that, sooner or later, the rights of individuals, of families, and of entire communities will be respected in every corner of the world. Respect for civic and human rights in Poland and for our national identity is in the best interest of all Europe. For, in the interest of Europe is a peaceful Poland, and the Polish aspirations to freedom will never be stifled. The dialogue in Poland is the only way to achieving internal peace and that is why it is also an indispensable element of peace in Europe.”—Former Polish President, union leader, and democracy icon Lech Walesa, “Nobel Peace Prize Address,” Dec. 11, 1983

Lech Walesa was born 75 years ago today in Popowo, Poland. The arc of his career—first leading the exhilarating battle for freedom in Eastern Europe, then increasingly marginalized in this region as it embraces the worst form of nationalism—is familiar but dismaying.

In 1980, Walesa sparked a series of strikes that won for Solidarity the right to represent workers. The free world cheered again as he endured house arrest and systematic harassment during Polish General Jaruzelski's imposition of martial law. Late in the decade, he proceeded from triumph to triumph, as Solidarity negotiated the right to free elections in Poland. A decade after the Gdansk strike, he became the first freely elected President of Poland. 

Unfortunately, Walesa was less adroit as President than as dissident and union leader. His alienation of former allies and inability to ensure a stable post-communist economy ensured a narrow defeat at the polls in his 1995 re-election bid—ironically enough, to a former communist functionary.

In the wake of that defeat, many believed that the freedoms Walesa had helped secure would survive in his homeland. But, while there has been no going back to Poland’s communist past, the nation has taken another problematic political turn, with the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party supplanting liberal news anchors and talk-show hosts on state media with more congenial right-wing voices. At the same time, the new leadership also packed the Constitutional Court with five justices of their own liking and, particularly heinously, adopted a law (since modified) restricting public debate on the Holocaust.

Under the new regime, Walesa’s once-bright star has dimmed. He’s been forced to deny accusations that he served as a communist informer in the 1970s before he rose up the union ladder. More recently, he was pointedly excluded from any speaking role at recent anniversary celebrations of Solidarity. 

Poland is “now being destroyed,” Walesa explained to Bloomberg in discussing why, in his mid-70s, he felt compelled to step back into the political arena to monitor his country’s elections. His case illustrates how voters the world over, riven by socioeconomic discontent, might turn away from the liberal free-trade regime that preserved European collective security after WWII.

Friday, September 28, 2018

‘The Combination of the Few’: Slavery, Trumpism, and Violence Against the Media

“Who are the men that issue this invitation to silence the press by violence? Who but an insolent, brawling minority, a few noisy fanatics, who claim that their own opinions shall be the measure of freedom for the rest of the community, and who undertake to overawe a vast, pacific majority by threats of wanton outrage and plunder? These men are for erecting an oligarchy of their own and riding rough-shod over the people and the people’s rights. They claim a right to repeal the laws established by the majority in favor of the freedom of the press. They make new laws of their own, to which they require that the rest of the community shall submit, and, in case of a refusal, they threaten to execute them by the ministry of a mob. There is no tyranny or oppression exercised in any part of the world more absolute or more frightful than that which they would establish. So far as we are concerned, we are determined that this despotism shall neither be submitted to nor encouraged. In whatever form it makes its appearance, we shall raise our voice against it…. We hold that this combination of the few to govern the many by the terror of illegal violence is as wicked and indefensible as a conspiracy to rob on the highway. We hold it to be the duty of good citizens to protest against it whenever and wherever it shows itself, and to resist it, if necessary, to the death.”— Journalist-poet William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), “Abolition Riots,” New York Evening Post, Aug. 8, 1836, in Power for Sanity: Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant,1829-1861, compiled and edited by William Cullen Bryant II (1994)

I suppose that we should count our blessings when President Trump acts merely “combative, humorous and boastful” at the press conference this week described by The New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis. After all, if he had a crowd larger than the reporters gathered in that room—like one of those ravenous rallies he enjoys with supporters out in the American Heartland—journalists might eventually hear something along the lines of, “People are telling me I should have them dragged out and thrown to the wolves.”

The fear of physical harm to the media is nothing new, as I was reminded in the above quote I found recently in a kind of message in a bottle: an American Literature textbook of the early 1950s created especially for Catholic high schools. One of the writers included was William Cullen Bryant, whose poems “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl” I had encountered previously in a college American lit survey course. 

But I had never read any of Bryant’s nonfiction writings—mostly produced in a half-century as owner and editor of the New York Evening Post—until I came across this excerpt from an editorial denouncing violence perpetrated by a mob against an abolitionist newspaper. 

Bryant—for whom the park behind the main branch of the New York Public Library was named—wrote these words at an urgent moment in American history, and I discovered them at a similar one today. They hurled defiance at the proponents of entrenched privilege who hoped to intimidate the press from espousing alternative points of view and from revealing ugly truths. 

In the 1830s, the “combination of the few to govern the many” consisted of Southern plantation owners and their smaller cadre of Northern sympathizers. Today, it consists of a different set of “noisy fanatics”; a lying, bullying New York real estate developer who somehow convinced a sizable portion of the Republican Party, then the nation, to vote for him as President; the opportunists who went along for the ride; and GOP officeholders now terrified of taking him head-on lest they lose their jobs.

What the “combination of the few,” then and now, have in common is the fear that aggressive reporting might bring to light unsettling questions about accommodations to a human-rights monstrosity: a racism-based, mercantile-enhanced slave system in antebellum America, and a nationalist authoritarian regime in post-Communist Russia that now has an ally in the 21st-century U.S.

It is ironic indeed that Trump and the ideologue who passes as his “brain trust,” Steve Bannon, look to Andrew Jackson as a forbear in their battle against the elites, for it was Jacksonian Democrats, firmly entrenched in the South, who attempted to stamp out criticism of the source of their power: cheap, ill-gotten slave labor. To accomplish that, the Jacksonians not only passed the infamous “Gag Rule”—the most serious Congressional attempt in American history to interfere with the right of petition—but fomented mob violence against the abolitionist press.

The “Abolition Riot” that drew Bryant’s denunciation was perpetrated against The Philanthropist, a newspaper founded by anti-slavery advocate James Birney. It consisted not simply of riff-raff but also of two of the most respectable leaders in town—Judge Jacob Burnet and banker, winemaker and art patron Nicholas Longworth—and was observed, silently but approvingly, by Mayor Samuel W. Davies. The mob not only tore apart the paper’s presses but threw a part of it into the river—and when they did not find Birney at home they turned on the African-American community, smashing up homes along the way. 

Though Birney escaped physical harm that night, another Midwestern abolitionist editor, Elijah Lovejoy, was not so fortunate a year later. Having had three of his presses already destroyed, he drew his gun to prevent a fourth from being wrecked in Alton, Ill., when he was killed (an act depicted in the image accompanying this post). It was the logical culmination of a period when slaveholders tried to suppress not just unrest among the slaves they directly controlled but dissent among the whites beyond their ken.

As bad as abolitionist editors had it, they did not have to contend with instant communications from a President who could summon mobs to do his bidding. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, ok?” candidate Donald Trump said in January 2016. “It’s, like, incredible.”  

Since Trump, despite his reputation from The Apprentice, has had difficulty firing people himself, one doubts he would have the nerve to fire a gun against an irate, righteous citizen. Instead, he would get others to do it—like a mob, whose citizens collectively surrender their consciences. 

The President has never come right out and commanded mayhem and murder toward his critics, mind you. But he does so much through a conspiratorial nod and smirk between him and his followers. 

Sometimes it might involve a calculated silence, followed by approving verbiage from this least subtle of politicians. Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte, for instance, slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground, after being asked a question he didn’t like about the GOP healthcare bill. A tape of the attack proved definitively that Gianforte committed the assault, then lied to police about it. Yet supporters awarded him a win at the polls. 

Not only did Trump never condemn the assault, but he strongly implied an endorsement of it. “I’ll tell you what, this man has fought — in more ways than one — for your state,” Trump said. “He has fought for your state. Greg Gianforte. He is a fighter and a winner.”

Even more striking if Trump’s consistent, odd refusal to condemn Russian President Vladimir. "They said, you know, he's killed reporters. I'd never kill them," Trump said at one rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. "But I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting people."

Please read that statement again. They said, you know, he’s killed reporters. Yes, dozens of them, according to a Scott Simon report on NPR back in April. Yet the President’s tone suggests only that the Russian leader is a bit…excitable. Sort of like a college frat boy who gets into a drunken scrape with the police. 

Instead, his real scorn is reserved for reporters—people who doubtless never feared until now, unlike those in Russia, that their lives are at stake with every critical word that they write about a President.

Even before the 2016 campaign, Trump would routinely threaten reporters and editors with litigation. Since then, he has escalated to insults and denunciations of the media for spreading “fake news” and, more seriously, for being the “enemy of the people,” an epithet once routinely employed under Josef Stalin.

That has been enough to incite his followers. Shirts have been sold at Trump rallies reading "Rope, Tree, Journalist: Some assembly required." NBC’s Katy Tur has described the atmosphere at the Grand Rapids rally this way: “The arena is packed, and it's a basketball stadium so the seats go very steep. The media, there was like 30, 40 people surrounded on all sides. And Donald Trump leaves, and so does the Secret Service, and suddenly it's like anybody can do anything in there."

Reporters like Tur who cover Trump rallies now must be prepared to be verbally harassed, beaten and thrown to the ground—in at least one instance, by a Trump staffer (in 2016, by hideous campaign operative Corey Lewandowski—who now, irony of ironies, makes money off the very group he attempted to physically manhandle, as a political commentator for CNN).

Even away from such stages, the poisonous rhetoric and helpful little hints have had their effect. Last month, a California man termed Boston Globe employees the “enemy of the people” in the course of threatening to shoot them. (Fortunately, he was arrested.)

After staffers at Annapolis, Maryland’s Capital Gazette were killed in June, Trump issued a statement saying that “journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.” But it came with the same dry, perfunctory tones with which he’d delivered his sort-of apology for his Access Hollywood tape about groping women, or his walk-back criticism of white separationists in Charlottesville. Before long, he was back to doing and saying what came naturally.

The hypocrisy of Trump’s braying about how this group has done him wrong defies description. All of this comes from a real estate developer who thrived on publicity, even of a critical sort. Reporters he could not use to inflate his reputation could be turned into his foils. Far from being enemies of him, let alone “the people,” journalists should be on his permanent Christmas mailing list.

Instead of squelching opposition to slavery, the attempt to intimidate 1830’s press critics like Birney and Lovejoy only hastened a realignment of party politics, with Northerners such as Lincoln’s future Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, turning to anti-slavery parties. Trump is pushing 21st century American politics toward a similar partisan hardening. 

The President has made much ado about his scorn toward the “lying, disgusting” people who chronicle what he says and does. But even at this still-early stage of his administration, more and more Americans are realizing that he just professes to despise the same qualities he finds every morning in his own mirror.