Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘American Society’ Category

Pure Religious Hypocrisy

In American Society, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government, Secular Humanism on April 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Paul Ryan shame

It has been a very long time since I’ve blogged the New Testament, which is a shame really as it was one of the primary reasons for starting this blog. I was very impressed with David Platz’ blogging of the Old Testament for Slate, and I wanted to attempt to do the same thing for the New, with a similar, rational, secular approach.

I could blame the Great Firewall of China or a variety of other hindrances, but that would only be partially true. The thing is, when I post a couple of photos on my travel blog, I get 500 ‘likes’ right away, but I can’t even get that many paid likes for a 1500-word essay on secularism. (Seems like you can easily generate 100k or more likes with cute butt photos, but I’m not sure how to tie that in to the topic). But I don’t feel bad – I notice on my twitter account that other secularists, agnostics, and atheists are unable to generate a dozen re-tweets a day, and they’ve got much greater name recognition.

Writing rationally about religion is thankless work – writing and speaking irrationally about it pays millions.

Furthermore, as Sam Harris mentioned in his podcast, with Donald Trump as POTUS, somehow, as scary as theocracy is, suddenly there are ideas – like nihilism, fascism or WWIII – that are just as scary or more so.

But, let’s suppose global thermonuclear war is not imminent, and pick up where we left off, with the Epistle of James. Take a few minutes to read about what we’ve learned so far about one of the earliest New Testament books written. We’ve learned that it’s unlikely that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the letter – and that it doesn’t really matter if he did or not. We’ve learned that James is not a fan of the idea that the wealthy are job creators, and that Christians need to listen more and stop shouting angrily at pro-Trump rallies. We’ve also learned that, according to James, Christians should be working for a greater morality for themselves, not for the nation as a whole – more on that in a minute.

Perhaps the most astonishing idea I’ve written about, for me personally as an ex- Sunday school teacher, is that when James tells us to be doers of the word and not hearers only – one of the most well-known verses in the NT – he could not possibly be referring to the Bible. And we’ve only covered the first chapter. If a person unfamiliar with American politics read only the first chapter of James, he’d have a hard time reconciling it to most every conservative Christian/Republican policy over the last 20 years – why do Christians vote Republican again?

We’ll finish the first chapter today, in short measure, by examining part of James 1:27, the part about looking after orphans and widows.

If you’re a regular reader, you already know where I’m going with this. But let me go there more forcefully than I usually do – in part, because drastic Trump times require it, but in a greater part because this is an example of Christian hypocrisy that really gripes my ass.

There are no two areas that reveal the hypocrisy of the evangelical, politically involved Christian – out of the many hypocrisies – than the issue of war, and the issue of taking care of the unfortunate. Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, yet Christians keep putting warmongers in office. Jesus said ‘as you’ve treated the least of these, brothers and sisters, this is how you’ve treated me’ – referring specifically to the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. I don’t even need to give you chapter and verse, dear Believer, as you know it is exactly what Jesus said.

And yet – you vote overwhelmingly for the Paul Ryans and the other ‘fiscal conservatives’ who – with great joy – funnel more tax dollars into the war machine, and to the coffers of the rich (whom James disparages) and would strip the poor and sick of what little safety net they have. (Note the recent failure to pass healthcare reform because conservatives thought it didn’t punish the poor quite enough). Given that any pro-lifer logically should be anti-war and pro social safety net – how the hell do you sleep at night? (But logic is not a conservative forte – when Tomi Lahren stated the obvious logical consistency between being pro small government and pro-choice, she lost her job as a conservative commentator the very next day).

If I ever meet Mr. Ryan, aka Ebenezer Scrooge / Simon Legree – that’s the only question I’d want to ask – how, as a Christian, Mr. Ryan, do you sleep at night, knowing that you have purposely disobeyed many of the commands of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and are personally responsible for the suffering and perhaps even death of thousands – so that the Koch brothers can stack up a few more mil? I mean, forget about those whom you must consider to be the dregs of society – what about your personal salvation? (Although, being Catholic, I suppose you can just go to confession after each major legislative push – as can much of the Supreme Court). On another hypocritical note, it’s amazing that Evangelicals consider Catholics and Mormons to be anathema when it comes to worshipping together – but a-ok when voting. How can you let a man make decisions for millions of Americans, when you wouldn’t let him teach a Sunday school class or serve as a deacon in your church of a hundred souls?

James reinforces Jesus’ message – pure religion has a personal and public aspect. Personally, maintain the high bar on morality. Publicly, take care of widows and orphans. But American Christians skew their politics completely vice-versa, where morality becomes something that should be legislated and charity is an individual virtue, not a public one.

I’m familiar with your hypocritical dodge of this scriptural imperative, dear Christian (in fact, as an agnostic, I’m probably familiar with much more of the scripture, your worldview, and your theology than you, my hazy-thinking friend, are yourself. Yes, I know, even the Devil can cite scripture to his own advantage – thank Shakespeare for that one, not Jesus). Your excuse is that being a peacemaker and taking care of the poor are personal commands, not national ones. I see this argument everywhere online, and certainly in the comments section of my Facebook page.

Really? Please show me in the Bible where it’s explained how your actions and your voting are different – chapter and verse, if you don’t mind. Voting doesn’t count as an action? How, specifically, is voting for someone you know will punish the poor different from you making extra-sure that the poor are indeed punished? How is voting for a profane, immoral, warmonger not an act of profanity, immorality, and warmongering? How do you explain to your own children that you vote for people who exhibit behavior that you would not condone in – your own children? Even taking for granted the Herculean feats of circular logic it takes to maintain your system of belief against the everyday onslaught of increasing evidence – isn’t this a bridge too far?

And furthermore, what I consider to be the epitome of hypocrisy, Christians have spent decades insisting that the dictates of the Bible should be the the guiding light of government. God isn’t only telling me not to engage in homosexual activity – he’s judging us as a nation. Not only is God telling me not to have an abortion, he wants us to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. The Lord’s Prayer should be on public display in courthouses and schools, and every public square should have a little baby Jesus come Christmas.

Oh but, feed the poor, well that’s personal, that shouldn’t be what government does. Peacemaking? That’s me making amends with the woman down the street that criticized my apple pie at the last church social. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bomb the shit out of ISIS or the North Koreans.

Listen to yourself – your hypocrisy is worse than pathetic. It’s foul, poisonous equivocation – and left unchecked it will destroy our nation.

James, whom you believe to be Jesus’ own brother, tells you to take care of widows and orphans. He tells you this is the purest form of Christianity. And yet you vote for politicians who will punish the poor for the dire straits they find themselves in, while rewarding the rich – whom James says are exploiting you and blaspheming God. (But I’m ahead of myself – that’s James 2).

Shame – by your own Biblical standard – shame on you. When I see such odious, unrepentant hypocrisy, I almost wish there really were a hell.

Kaiser Trump

In American Society, Current events, The Trump Administration, Wars and Rumors of Wars on April 13, 2017 at 6:33 pm

I digressed from my three-part series on Trump’s relationship with Fascism to make a few comments about the recent US missile attack on Syria – today I finish that series. Some of the notes I had made in preparing this essay were made prior to Trump’s military actions there, and now seem unbelievably timely.

I previously interrupted a five- or six- part essay on the Protestant Work Ethic and its influence on American economic policy, in order to discuss what seemed like the more pressing issue of a new American fascism. I’m still planning to eventually complete that series. And at some point, I’ll get back to blogging the Bible. So many issues, so little time for this poor, sometimes neglected blog. If any of this ever makes it into a book, I promise to be more linear. 

I’ve stated in prior posts that Donald Trump is no Nazi. Yes, as I’m writing this, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, is busy apologizing for remarks that could be construed to be revisionist Nazi rhetoric – incorrectly stating that Hitler didn’t use chemical gas on his own people. Believe it or not, I don’t think Secretary Spicer is a Nazi sympathizer – I think he’s just actually that stupid. Notice how, when trying to defend his remarks, he stumbles at the point where he’s about to say ‘gas chambers’ – and says ‘Holocaust centers’ instead – only at that moment dawning on him that, ‘doh, gas chambers used chemical gas’. I don’t believe he was trying to deny the atrocities of the Nazis, or to insinuate that German Jews were somehow less than German, making them ‘not his own people’. It’s just that Spicer, like so many of the people Trump surrounds himself with, isn’t a very thoughtful or well-read person.

However, I think that it’s unclear thus far as to whether Trump could be called a fascist. He certainly whips up his base with a kind rhetoric that can be disturbing at times, with apparently no intention of changing his dangerous ‘tweeting’ habits. Part of the problem lies in the fact that his words and actions indicate nothing more than the President’s current whim, leaving the disturbing impression that, beyond vanity, there is no ‘core’ of convictions that might indicate who Donald Trump really is. As the acclaimed British journalist Max Hastings writes,  “As ever with this President, it is impossible to judge whether he means what he says, or even understands the significance of his words.”

Much like the Bible or the Koran, Trump’s words and actions are enigma, upon which his followers are able to superimpose any meaning they desire. Just as the prophet Ezekiel or the apostle Paul made pronouncements with little thought of what effect they might have on the world in the 21st century, so too does Donald Trump. Yet true believers receive them as gospel, full of hidden meaning that will be revealed in the fullness of time. 

To the liberal or progressive, he epitomizes everything that’s wrong with the political system, specifically as it applies to the GOP misinformation machine. To the Trumpite he is – – I don’t think we have a word in English to describe the concept. He’s like a scapegoat, except in a positive and opposite way. Instead of placing all of your admitted sins upon him, letting him suffer the consequences of your evil deeds, he instead wears all of your impure – but much-beloved – impulses without shame. His incredibly wide shoulders (but small hands) bear them all, as he is led, not down the Via Dolorosa to certain death, but down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. 

(There are, by the way, many concepts we find hard to put into words, for which there is foreign vocabulary to assist. Schadenfreude, for example, is a German word for which we have no equivalent, but it is something we experience nonetheless. My current favorite is kalsarikännit, the Finnish word for sitting around at home in your underwear getting drunk. If you know a word for a kind of positive scapegoat – in any language – drop me a line.)

Trump’s exoneration is a vindication of all the terrible ideas of his followers. There is no repentance or absolution – there is instead an ascension to political paradise with all sins intact. To the Richard Spencers of the world, he’s a führer. To David Duke, he’s a kinsman KKK. To those equate being white and owning a gun to patriotism, he’s a modern-day Andrew Jackson. 

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So, if Trump isn’t the next Adolf Hitler, who is he? The incredible thing is, if you’re American, the picture above might not even tip you off. You’d have heard little or nothing about him in history class, and have little understanding of how he helped make a bad political environment, at home and abroad, even worse. His actions helped to precipitate World War I.

British and Continental European commentators, however, sharing a more intimate experience with his bombastic incompetence, have been making comparisons for months. – Donald Trump as 21st-century Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Here are some of the other things Hastings – knighted, by the way, for his contribution to the understanding of history – has written about Trump:

(He is)…carelessly dropping matches beside a powder keg, with the same mingling of ignorance, vainglory and recklessness that the German emperor displayed in 1914. Trump needs a war to fulfill his constant quest for enemies, at home and abroad, and because he is a risk-taker, with little understanding of the cages he is rattling or the world order he threatens to undo….Trump’s record suggests a man who calls for High Noon, then suggests lunch at one of his golf courses instead.

That last sentence was actually meant to be hopeful – perhaps Trump is all bluster and no bite. I don’t think a few missiles lobbed at Syria discredit this observation.  The next statement is in quotes because it comes from Hasting’s article, and is meant to describe both the Kaiser and Trump. But it is the opinion of so many policy experts that I feel quotes are superfluous:

But the only way to make an effective foreign policy is to say what  you mean, mean what you say….Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm did not seriously want a war in 1914. But he got one anyway, because he postured once too often, drew his sword and waved it aloft. Thus, others drew their swords, too, and soon all Europe was using them.

Trump rained missiles upon a Syrian air base because he saw a video on television. He did not do extensive study into the Syrian conflict, nor did he base his decision on intelligence reports. It was – no better word for it – a whim. 

European comparisons of Donald Trump to Kaiser Wilhelm (or William II of Prussia – he was Queen Victoria’s oldest grandchild) prompted me to learn a bit more about the Kaiser’s personality. I could only remember the cartoon caricature of the man from high school history classes. What I found sounds alarmingly familiar:

(He was)…gifted, with a quick understanding, sometimes brilliant, with a taste for the modern,—technology, industry, science—but at the same time superficial, hasty, restless, unable to relax, without any deeper level of seriousness, without any desire for hard work or drive to see things through to the end, without any sense of sobriety, for balance and boundaries, or even for reality and real problems, uncontrollable and scarcely capable of learning from experience, desperate for applause and success….he wanted every day to be his birthday—romantic, sentimental and theatrical, unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off, a juvenile cadet, who never took the tone of the officers’ mess out of his voice, and brashly wanted to play the part of the supreme warlord, full of panicky fear of a monotonous life without any diversions…(Wikipedia)

Wow. Nail on the head. Bigly. Or big league. Or whatever the hell it is Trump says. 

He believed in force, and the ‘survival of the fittest’ in domestic as well as foreign politics….William was not lacking in intelligence, but he did lack stability, disguising his deep insecurities by swagger and tough talk. He frequently fell into depressions and hysterics… William’s personal instability was reflected in vacillations of policy. His actions, at home as well as abroad, lacked guidance, and therefore often bewildered or infuriated public opinion. He was not so much concerned with gaining specific objectives…as with asserting his will. This trait in the ruler of the leading Continental power was one of the main causes of the uneasiness prevailing in Europe at the turn-of-the-century. (Wikipedia)

This trait in the ruler of the leading power today is also one of the main causes of uneasiness prevailing in the world now.

The Kaiser was in power before Fascism swept Germany – but his sentiments, misadventures, and bluster allowed that disease to grow. And his erratic policies increased international tensions, creating an environment ripe for war. While history illustrates that fighting right-wing fascism in the US is an important fight, it doesn’t take a Hitler to start another world war.

A Kaiser will do as well.

 

Degraded American Fascism

In American Society, The Trump Administration on April 7, 2017 at 7:24 pm

I stated unequivocally in my last post that President Trump is not a Nazi, certainly not another Adolph Hitler. I think attempts on the left to paint him as such are misguided and hyperbolic, and hyperbole never helps to move the conversation further. In addition, whenever someone cries ‘Nazi’ for lesser crimes than the Nazis actually committed, it does a disservice to those who truly suffered under that ugly regime.

However, that doesn’t mean I think he’s a good person, nor certainly does it mean he’s a good fit for the presidency. He is, in fact, uniquely unsuited for the job. He is someone who’s been granted every advantage in life who yet cannot pass on any opportunity to bully those who haven’t. Perhaps one could excuse an uneducated day-laborer for resentfully decrying that the Mexicans had ruined his economic opportunities, but where does the Wharton grad’s resentment come from? Daddy should’ve left him a few million more?

He’s not even a particularly good businessman. His multiple bankruptcies – and the fact that he refuses to release his tax returns – speak volumes. Much was made a few weeks ago about the fact that, if he had just put his inheritance into an index fund, he would be worth substantially more than he is today. Repubs like Trump are always saying the government should be run more like a business – I’m sorry, but I don’t think bankrupting the country three or four times to finally make it ‘profitable’ is the direction most of us want to go in.

The fact that the Right can still even make assertions like these just leaves me gobsmacked. I’m reminded of the parade of big shots asking the government to save their banks from their own incompetence, Hank Paulson on his knees begging George W to specifically NOT let the banks fail, as pure capitalism would’ve required. The very un-business-like business of bailing out Wall Street criminals less than a decade ago should have discredited this kind of talk for a generation.

But so should have Trump’s failures as a person and a businessman disqualified him as a viable candidate for president, even by the very low bar for behavior set by corporate America. As ever, Sam Harris puts it in the right perspective:

There isn’t a single Fortune 500 company, or a reputable university, or any other respectable institution in this country, which has a board of directors, which, three years ago, would have said the following, ‘You know what we need to take our organization to the next level? We need a truly brilliant leader. We need someone with vision and integrity, someone who is ethical and deeply knowledgeable. We need the wisest person we can find, to take us forward at this point. You know who we need? We need Donald Trump.’ I am confident that had those words been uttered in any boardroom in America, the result would have been derisive laughter. And there are good reasons for that.

Conservatives worry that a more progressive government might allow some ne’er-do-well to receive a few thousand bucks more than he or she deserves, thereby upsetting the survival-of-the-fittest, Ayn Rand ethos so necessary to a capitalist system; elevating a few thousand souls out of poverty might keep a ‘job creator’ from being a billionaire. But doesn’t the existence of a guy like Donald Trump indicate that our current system does not necessarily move the cream to the top? (Not to mention pretty much every other reality TV star).

So why is he President? Thomas Dumm, writing over a year ago for the blog Contemporary Condition, credits then-candidate Trump’s popularity to what he calls a degraded, 21st-century, American Fascism:

I would suggest that the European fascism of the first part of the twentieth century has its degraded counterpart in the form of an American fascism suited to the twenty-first. Trumpism is the current incarnation of this degraded fascism, in which the newsreel in the movie theatre is replaced by the resonating power of Fox News….and the impotent admiration of the MSNBC resonance machine.

Fascism requires propaganda to thrive, and Fox and other conservative outlets have been creating fertile ground for the extreme right and the alt-right to grow for nearly two decades now. Peddling half-truths and innuendo for years has conditioned their audience for a guy like Trump, who deals in ‘alternative facts’ – no truth at all. It’s telling that in his defense of tweets accusing the Obama administration of wire-tapping him, he said last week that they are becoming true. You make assertions, twist the facts, browbeat the press, and your assertions become truths.

Trumpites

But these new ‘newsreels’ created by Fox, Breitbart, and Trump’s tweets are only effective because they allow a particular group to hear a story they want to hear. Dumm explains, “This is fascism; it is a new means for giving expression to the masses, while ensuring that the underlying economic arrangements remain intact.” (italics mine)

This was so prescient – Trump, who ran as the champion of the working man, has made little pretense of doing anything for his voters at all, besides his attempted Muslim bans. He’s cobbled together the wealthiest, most inexperienced Cabinet in our history, with neither the ability nor the inclination to do anything for the angry white middle class. He promised to drain the swamp, but instead its brimming over with the financial and ethical conflicts brought in by his staff. He tried to push through Paul Ryan’s healthcare plan – knowing it was worse for the middle class than even an outright repeal would be. Even some in the GOP remarked that his budget proposal appeared to purposely punish the very people who voted for him.

And here’s the thing – his supporters knew he wouldn’t deliver – that it was all just symbolism. From coal jobs coming back to better healthcare to locking Hillary up – it was all about “giving expression to the masses” never about really fixing anything. It was all about the right to say and do all the politically incorrect things they wanted to say and do, to poke a finger in the eye of those uppity liberals. And of course to proclaim a kind of cultural mythology in the face of a diversifying and changing country. But no real plan to actually fix the holes in our economic system that technology has torn.

Dumm continues:

But I want to suggest something more — that this is nihilism as well. Why? Fascism, as a totalitarian political force, insists upon an intense organization of its masses. That is a part of its aesthetic. Trumpism — for lack of a better term – is not nearly so organized….His policy pronouncements are closer to being automatic writing than coherent attempts to demonstrate solutions to problems, sketches on the back of envelopes that are then farmed out to hack consultants to puff up in to white papers.

There does seem to be an ominous message – not sure if it’s from Breitbart or where – but the idea that if we can’t somehow drag things back to the 1950s or some other ‘past of former greatness’, then it would just be better to blow the whole system to bits. There’s an entire  sub-culture on the right actually preparing for this as an eventuality

This ties in with my series of posts about unemployment (which I promise to finish) – my real fear is that these new fascist sentiments, degraded or otherwise, will make it impossible to honestly tackle the problems we’ll face when the future position of the working class becomes even more tenuous. If real structural changes can’t be made – in other words, if the progressive agenda America needs to implement is instead viewed as truly socialist (and not just rhetorically so) by an increasingly nihilist right – then we are facing a very ugly future indeed.