Regarding the “denials” and “affirmations” of the recent “Nashville Statement” on “Biblical sexuality” from the self-styled Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, I hereby deny the following: that the signers have any special idea what cards God is holding.
After Hurricane Katrina, Mike Pence, then an Indiana Congressman, said on the House floor that “as we begin to rebuild…let’s figure out how we’re going to pay for it. Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren.” That was then. Today Pence said in Rockport, Texas, that Houston is going to be rebuilt “bigger and better.” Pious hypocrisy at the expense of poor people and non-Republican people comes naturally to the Vice President. But Pence leaped beyond hypocrisy today into heathenism.
If Pence actually cared about not creating a catastrophe of future debt, rebuilding Houston even bigger is wrong and stupid. Paving over what’s left of the prairies that used to soak up rainwater, and loosening lax building codes even further, is not going to reduce future government debt unless the federal government treats Texans as if they had truly seceded and excludes them from disaster relief. President Trump signed an executive order just ten days before Hurricane Harvey hit that revoked prudent regulations set in 2015 but not yet put into force. The Obama-era rules, according to Business Insider, “would have required the federal government to take into account the risk of flooding and sea-level rise as a result of climate change when constructing new infrastructure and rebuilding after disasters.” That kind of basic stewardship of resources and that kind of cautiousness are apparently foreign to the Trump-Pence administration. In fact, Pence’s “bigger and better” promise today goes beyond hypocrisy and amounts to false piety. How so? What Pence’s embrace of Osteen-style prosperity gospel doesn’t get about Christian faith is something John Calvin grasped quite clearly: the doctrine of God’s providence does not authorize or empower us to stop paying prudential attention to the “secondary causes” we find in the visible world. Believing in God’s providence does not allow, much less require, us to rebuild “bigger” in a subtropical coastal plain that has become a toxic swamp of hazardous and explosive chemicals. Faithful Christian stewardship (and Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or pagan stewardship, for that matter) of our only planet is a far cry from the heathenish YOLO attitude we hear from Trump and Pence whenever it suits their political purposes.
Paul Ryan, by the way, has attacked Obamacare because it crushes “freedom” and forces healthy people to pay for sick people. How does Speaker Ryan feel about forcing dry people to pay for flooded people? That is how risk pools work, Paul. I do feel that if the federal government makes sensible regulatory restrictions on rebuilding after disasters difficult or impossible, we are in for an even faster race to the bottom, and an ugly future in which an universal American risk pool for health care or disaster relief recedes onto an even more distant horizon.
It’s really not only Americans who insist on trying absolutely everything else before doing the right thing, as Winston Churchill (or maybe Abba Eban) is supposed to have said. Tens of thousands of people were killed by the waters of the Thames River in the 19th century before London managed to build an effective sewer system and river embankments to stop the spread of cholera. Why did it take over fifteen years after the cause of cholera was pinpointed by physician John Snow before the city completed construction of the Victoria Embankment and the sewers that intercepted effluent and dumped it downstream of urban London? Jerry White, who has written three fine books on London in the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries (their order of publication reversed the temporal flow) pointed to the “querulousness, doubts, vacillation, personality clashes and petty jealousies, the almost endless timewasting” before the Metropolitan Board of Works finished work on the two projects (and as White notes, the achievement was “equivocal” in that heavy rains continued to overload the sewage system until at least the 1880s and in parts of London until the late twentieth century).
Does any of this have anything to do with Hurricane Harvey? I suspect that our American way of not doing the right things will not mirror the Londoners’ way of “querulousness” and “vacillation.” Our way seems to be more explosively obstinate. We have a president who scoffs at climate change (let alone “global warming”) because he says it is not nearly as big a problem as nuclear conflict, and maybe he is right. But couldn’t I expect our political leaders to pay close attention to both? Walk and chew gum: too much to ask? Sad to say they may be reflecting the muddled self-serving wishes of us, the constituents, to be “free” and “left alone” but also to count on government as our backstop. As Jerry White sums up how London coped or didn’t with mass deaths from cholera, “a mean-spirited reluctance ever to put enough capital into public works tarnished the very greatest of London’s civic achievements of the nineteenth century.” With floods made worse, if not caused in every instance, by global warming, in the end there is no such thing as a gated community–but you couldn’t tell that from our president’s speech today calling for cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
Is Senator Ted Cruz just your everyday hypocrite, or a full-fledged casuist? He supports federal aid to Texas pronto in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. That’s his job, really, since he represents the people of Texas. He did not see his way clear to voting in favor of federal aid after Hurricane Sandy, though. And he denies that his motivation then differs in any way from his motivation now. An unlikely story. Senator Cruz claims that “two-thirds” of federal aid after Sandy was unrelated pork. His claim has been debunked (see Glenn Kessler in today’s Washington Post, who explains that almost all of the aid bill passed in January 2013 did go to repair storm damage). Cruz is not likely to admit that he has abandoned the moral high ground as well as common decency here, but he has. He is, happily, a transparently poor excuse for a casuist. Like the president he met in Corpus Christi today, Cruz has little evident use for a social contract that extends beyond his loyalists–but then we are not left with a social contract at all, are we? When Ronald Reagan said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” the viciousness of his attack on the social contract was hidden by his smooth TV actor presentation. Reagan was a good enough politician, if not human being, to avoid saying “I don’t like people who get trapped in hurricanes.” For the sake of our country’s future, I hope this president blurts out something enough like that that we finally say “enough.”
Update: Chris Christie has called Ted Cruz “disgusting” and accused him of spreading “reprehensible lies.” So that’s that.
Immanuel Kant, writing less than a decade after the U.S. Constitution gave our president an almost unlimited power to grant pardons, wrote that “of all the rights of a sovereign, the right to grant clemency to a criminal…is the slipperiest one for him to exercise; for it must be exercised in such a way as to show the splendor of his majesty, although he is thereby doing injustice in the highest degree–with regard to crimes of subjects against one another it is absolutely not for him to exercise it; for here failure to punish is the greatest wrong against his subjects. He can make use of it, therefore, only in case of a wrong done to himself…This right is the only one that deserves to be called the right of majesty” (Metaphysics of Morals, Doctrine of Right, Part II, #49).
Our current president has just exercised his pardon prerogative for the first time by commanding amnesty for former Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt earlier this summer for ignoring a federal court order to cease arrests based on racial profiling. Arpaio had not yet been sentenced, so the pardon short-circuited both the juridical process and the work of the Justice Department pardon attorney. The pardon is irreversible from a legal point of view, but our First Amendment also permits me to give my opinion that the president’s action was the opposite of majestic and has irreversibly dimmed the splendor that could have belonged to him. Instead of displaying the splendor of his majesty, he slipped and fell into an underworld of shadows. He confirmed the fears of the founders who feared during the debates of 1787 and 1788 that the executive pardon power could be abused in just the way we saw yesterday.
From Kant’s ethically rigorous vantage point, Trump’s pardon of a political ally was utterly knavish, not at all kingly (or “very presidential”). The concerns of founders (some of whom were antifederalists) such as “Centinel” (Samuel Bryan of Pennsylvania) and Luther Martin of Maryland regarding the pardon power were rigorous in a different sense. Their rigorous thoughts were in the domain of prudential politics. They were worried about the dangers to civil society of unchecked presidential pardon power. “Centinel” proposed in the Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal of October 24, 1787, a “small council” without which the “chief magistrate could abuse his authority, “for as it is placed [solely in the president] he may shelter the traitors whom he himself or his coadjutors…have excited to plot against the liberties of the nation.” Is it hyperbolic to worry that our president might “shelter traitors” he himself has riled up in order to weaken our constitutional liberties? How many of us are unwilling to give our president yet another benefit of the doubt, when he seems to enjoy unchecked powers a whole lot more than working with anyone in Congress on actual nitty-gritty and possibly unpopular details of any issue at all? Here’s what Luther Martin worried about in “The Genuine Information” (Not Fake News, that is), published in the Maryland Gazette, January 29, 1788: “the power given to the president of granting reprieves and pardons, was also thought extremely dangerous, and as such opposed–The president thereby has the power of pardoning those who are guilty of treason…it was said that no treason was so likely to take place as that in which the president himself might be engaged–the attempt to assume to himself powers not given by the constitution, and establish himself in regal authority–in which attempt a provision is made for him to secure from punishment the creatures of his ambition, the associates and abettors of his treasonable practices, by granting them pardons should they be defeated in their attempts to subvert the constitution.” Did Luther Martin foresee what happened in last year’s election? Did he know the names of Paul Manafort and Felix Sater and Kislyak and Putin? Of course not–but I can imagine he knew people like them. The Arpaio pardon, legal but knavish, is not the big problem; the big problem is what might come next.
Federalist par excellence Alexander Hamilton saw (Federalist paper #74) reasons for and against the exclusively presidential pardon power. For: “it is not to be doubted that a single man of prudence and good sense, is better fitted, in delicate conjunctures, to balance the motives, which may plead for and against the remission of the punishment, than any numerous body whatever.” But also against: “the supposition of the connivance of the Chief Magistrate [in crimes of treason] ought not to be entirely excluded.” Hamilton in his wisdom is telling us, I think, that no formula or text or even “norm” is guaranteed to give us good outcomes or to protect us against a corrupt executive devoid of conscience. Are we there yet?
“To ruminate upon evils, to make critical notes upon injuries, and to be too acute in their apprehensions, is to add unto our own tortures, to feather the arrows of our enemies, to lash ourselves with the scorpions of our foes, and to resolve to sleep no more.” Thomas Browne wrote that in the 17th century, but it does seem to explain some of the wee wee hours tweets. I thought that eight years of President Obama was probably enough, but does #45 realize that if he eclipsed Obama that that makes Trump the moon and Obama will re-emerge as the sun does after eclipses? Is Trump playing some extradimensional chess invisible to me? I hope not.
Hat tip to Charles P. Pierce for his comment the other day that while he doesn’t want to sanitize history, he would like to fumigate it. Our Sanitizer-in-Chief, in spite of himself, may help us fumigate our history and reconsider our memories. He said today it is “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson–who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! The beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
The President is not a trained professional historian and should not be judged as such. He has, however, insisted that he comprehends very well and he is right in this case. He displayed considerable familiarity with the talking points of 21st-century white nationalism and neo-Confederate ideology. For example, he repeated their assertion of the moral equivalence of Washington with Lee and Stonewall Jackson at least in part to deflect attention from his indefensible comments Tuesday excusing the neo-Nazi torchbearing marchers. Trump (perhaps guided by a poll-reading Bannon) attacked those who propose removing monuments to Confederate war heroes. “Where does it stop?” asks Trump. I would say that “it” doesn’t stop, if “it” is the struggle over how to remember, venerate, honor, or dishonor leading figures from our past. Washington, Jefferson, and several other Founders were born into slaveowning societies; some of them eventually freed some of their slaves, while others did not. Other Founders were not slaveholders, but for the sake of ratifying a national Constitution accommodated the slaveholding societies of the Southern states (not forgetting Northern profiteering off the slave trade, as well as slaveholding in the North itself; Connecticut did not abolish slavery until 1848). Perhaps all the Founders were hypocrites in La Rochefoucauld’s sense of vice paying tribute to virtue. We do not, however, have monuments to national traitors such as Benedict Arnold. Trump equated nation-builders with would-be nation-destroyers. Maybe Trump’s “where does it stop?” Is an aggressive way of letting his “forgotten men” and “deplorables” know that the respectable elites can’t handle the whole sordid truth, and that if he (Trump) is going down he will take all his complacent enemies with him.
When monuments to Confederate generals were put up, usually by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, decades after the Civil War the intent may well have been, in part, to celebrate Southern “heritage” and history. But many if not most such memorials, as well as many of the reunions decades after the Civil War between Grey and Blue, were done with the intent of solidifying white supremacy and the same-as-it-ever-was subjugation of black Americans, thereby erasing the abomination of Reconstruction. Historian Eric Foner described the post-Civil War collision between two ways of remembering that war: the “reconciliationist” memory that “emphasized what the two sides shared in common, particularly the valor of individual soldiers, and suppressed thoughts of the war’s causes and the unfinished legacy of emancipation,” versus the “emancipationist” vision of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its “new birth of freedom.” Within a dozen years after the Civil War, “reconciliation” between North and South meant the end of Reconstruction and the end of restraints on white supremacist terrorism in the South. Slavery was no longer legal, but the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal citizenship for all had become a dead letter and the Fifteenth Amendment guarantee of the voting rights was ignored in the former Confederate States. The emancipationist vision waited almost a hundred years for a Second Reconstruction. Ken Burns’s Civil War TV series, which has become the canonical story for many millions of us in the early 21st century, does not suppress either of these ways of remembering. (For example, at risk of oversimplifying their views, the final “Was It Not Real” segment includes Barbara Fields as well as Shelby Foote.) But there was, I feel, a reconciliationist gauziness in the way the reunions of aged Civil War veterans brought the curtain down on the show. For white Americans north and south in the days of Donald Trump’s–and Hillary Clinton’s–youth, the reconciliationist version of remembering the Civil War dominated. Some rememberings were gauzier than others and some were indifferent toward black Americans while others were actively hostile. And in last fall’s presidential campaign, Trump was unfortunately not the only candidate to buy into a version of Reconstruction in which black Southern political participation after the War was marred by “barbarous” freedmen and the end of Northern efforts to impose on white Southerners was thus a blessing (See Ta-Neheisi Coates’s article in The Atlantic, January 26, 2016 on Hillary Clinton and the Dunning School).
So when Donald Trump says “you can’t change history,” he is right in a narrow sense, but he is perhaps clever enough to know or feel that that is not really what is at stake. It’s not just a matter of what the traces in archives will disclose to conscientious researchers. It’s a question of what we the people want and need to remember and memorialize and venerate. And of whose memories and feelings get to count, and whether we have the gumption to undergo the process of “truth and reconciliation,” as the post-apartheid commission in South Africa put it. I wonder if President Trump could acknowledge that what he is really saying could be “I am not happy that my childhood prejudices and presumptions are being challenged. Never mind that I am 71 years old, I demand to hold on to what I learned was true in 1953 or 1954.” And what Trump, and many of us who get the benefit of the doubt while others don’t, really want to hold onto is the comfort and privilege of willful blindness to the claims of people who have suffered subjugation.
Trump senses the power of monuments and memorials, which are liable to activate our nostalgia and freeze out any critical reassessment of our past. British historian John Lukacs wrote that the “remembered past is a much larger category than the recorded past.” We are about to experience a total eclipse next week all across the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina. I hope that we are also in for an experience (that lasts longer than two minutes) of reckoning with the light and shadow of memory and forgetting that does not end in forced amnesia, but with a thorough airing out of our history and culture, We need to consider changing and enlarging the scope of some of our memories.
President Trump did raise a very important question today: where does it stop? Who and what should be remembered and memorialized and commemorated? The statues of Confederate leaders, as a rule, did not go up right after the Civil War. Robert E. Lee himself was opposed to putting up monuments to Confederate generals. The monuments went up as living memory faded away in the early twentieth century, and especially in the post-World War I backlash against black people, spurred by their fighting and dying in that war and by the unforgivable presumption of surviving black veterans that they ought to get some respect. Nothing doing, said conventional white American wisdom. The peak of Confederate commemoration was the heyday of the Klan, the 1920s, and not only in the South. (As Malcolm X said, if you are south of the Canadian border you are in the South.)
Donald Trump challenged those who, he said, want to “change history” and “change culture.” I thought he wanted to be a great president. Doesn’t he want to have a crack at changing history and culture? Yes, truth and reconciliation are complicated. No time like the present to get started. By the way, I accept that the only empirically verifiable doctrine of Christian faith, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, is original sin (and I do not feel any need, in spite of that, to subscribe to the the whole scheme of vicarious atonement). Because of that, I do not feel any need to prove the moral purity or righteousness of the people who counter-protested against the neo-Nazis, white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Confederates. Proving or disproving their moral perfection is beside the point. The family history of the accused murderer in Charlottesville sounds heartbreaking, but that is finally beside the point too. The point is who do we honor, and where do we want to go next. If our president does not want to be considered a despicable racist, fine. Show us a way forward. Show us who and why and what should be considered memorable and venerable.
BTW Mr. Trump I doubt Rupert Murdoch wants to go down in flames with you. Watch yourself.
After the CEO of Merck criticized the president’s response to Charlottesville and resigned yesterday from Trump’s Manufacturing Council, our snowflake-in-chief wasted less than an hour before attacking. “Now…Ken Frazier…will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”
I’m as eager as anyone to see drug prices come down. But I can’t help thinking that instead of responding like the petulant snowflake he usually presents himself as, our president could do something constructive to help out millions of Americans by taking a couple of steps that would actually lower drug prices. The head of Merck is in business to make money. (By the way Frazier, unlike Trump, is not bound by the emoluments clause, which Trump is violating every day. The Constitution forbids presidents from charging ripoff prices for hotels, restaurants, golf courses, etc. because the Founders feared a corrupt ruler, like Trump, putting the interests of foreigners (such as Russians or Turks, among others) above the interests of U.S. citizens.) Merck is in no position to lower their prices unilaterally because that would put their shareholders’ investment at risk. But the American president can do at least two things today that could lower drug prices: 1) tell Congress to revise the Medicare drug benefit law passed in the George W. Bush years, and insist that the federal government have power to negotiate drug prices, which current law forbids. Current law is a big fat giveaway to drug companies. The law practically begs drug companies to charge ripoff prices. Memo to Trump: stop being such a snowflake, pay some attention to details, and become a real hero; 2) use your presidential authority to direct HHS and Healthcare.gov to stabilize the Obamacare exchanges. Rebrand the exchanges as Trumpcare if that makes you feel better. Then push for a public option, or a Medicare buy-in for people aged 55 or 60, or even lay out how a single-payer system could lower drug prices. Get a grip on the oath you took, which was to serve the American people.
Babyface Kim seems to have long-term strategic goals. Babyface Trump, well, “long-term” isn’t a word I would associate with him but I hope I’m wrong about that. In fairness to Babyface #2, he did inherit a problem. North Korea has been working to become a nuclear-armed state since the 1950s, and tested a nuclear weapon over ten years ago (2006). Babyface #2 is acting as if Babyface Kim is the one with more to lose. Does Babyface #1 recognize this as bluster and bluff? When you have to hope that the leader of North Korea has a better sense of humor than the American president does and a clearer sense of the real incentives in the “game” being played than Trump does, it’s not a happy day.
Newt Gingrich, bless his heart, defended Mitch McConnell vis-a-vis Trump by observing that the president is a player on the field, who ought to be playing with the Republican team, not acting as if he is the owner in a skybox. Trump will do his very best to stay in the skybox and avoid blame for anything and everything that happens on the field. Not a great approach if you actually wish to achieve political and domestic policy goals, even misguided and harsh ones. I think it’s an even worse strategy to climb down out of the “leader of the free world” foreign affairs skybox and recklessly intensifying a mudwrestling match with a truly world-class piglet. He seems likely to enjoy it more than we will. Hope I am wrong about that, and that Babyface #2 is making the best of a very tricky situation.
P.S. Maybe a North Korean missile will misfire, come down in Manchurian countryside, and China will decide to put an end to Kim’s regime?
According to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the President, of course, “weighed in” on a public statement that misled (that’s polite language) the public about his son Donald Jr.’s meeting with Russian and Russian-American operatives (spies, perhaps). Trump Sr., reports say, dictated a very inaccurate statement, “as any father would.”
So, to retrace, 1) no collusion; 2) uh, maybe we talked about adoptions; 3) oh, OK, we tried to collude but so what because we failed; 4) who among us would not collude! #MAGA!
Points for consistency, though: it’s all in the Family, which liberal snowflakes don’t understand, and quibbling about obstruction of justice is disloyal and ungodly. How dare anybody question the legitimacy of #45? The big issue for August, so far, seems to me to be whether the Senate will go into official recess and thus let the president fire and replace his loyal but not bada-beep loyal enough Attorney General.