“I Am Not Your Negro”

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Author James Baldwin undertook a project in 1979, to tell about the lives of three of his friends who had been assassinated in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. He had only written thirty pages of notes by the time he died eight years later of stomach cancer.

Raoul Peck, Haitian film-maker put together the movie I Am Not Your Negro using Baldwin’s own words (sometimes from TV talk shows, sometimes read by Samuel L. Jackson) to express what he felt about race in America. The result is powerful.

Early in the movie there is footage shot in the South in the early sixties of hate-filled white people carrying signs. One says, Miscegnation is Communism. Another says it is the Antichrist. It’s dolefully ironic that miscegnation (sexual relations between black and white) was initiated by white slaveowners who then blamed black men for wanting to rape white women, thus turning the dynamic inside-out. Black men are still blamed for their sexuality, though, just as women are blamed for tempting Adam to eat the apple. A good myth is hard to give up.

Also early in the film is a black girl walking alone to go to a white high school surrounded by whites carrying signs saying they don’t want to go to school with blacks. They’re jeering and spiting at her too. Baldwin speaks, saying that he saw this footage in France, where he was then living, and besides being enraged was filled with shame, adding, “One of us should have been there with her. ”

It’s hardly surprising he died of cancer. Cancer and heart disease are in part caused by stress, and he had the stress of being both black and gay. A recent article says it’s a shame the movie didn’t address his being gay too, because Baldwin did in his writing. The three of his novels I remember best spoke of homosexuality as well as race. Actually, I don’t think Giovanni’s Room talked about race. So sexuality was very important to Baldwin too. He comments in this movie that black men aren’t allowed to show their sexuality (that may be less true now), and that movie star John Wayne, who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians, had permission, because of his whiteness, not to grow up. It was okay for him to kill Indians. He didn’t have to learn to negotiate with them as equals.

Baldwin met Medgar Evers early in the 1960s and traveled with him as Evers attempted to gather evidence about voting suppression. The sixties weren’t far advanced when he was murdered himself. Baldwin says he was extremely frightened traveling through Mississippi, but also felt he needed to do that as a witness, and that he needed to travel widely as a witness. Eventually he also traveled to Georgia and Alabama where some of the famous Civil Rights protests had been. More footage of police beating defenseless men and women.

Baldwin says he watched Malcolm X and Martin Luther King come from very different positions to eventually drift into almost exactly the same position. Footage is shown of Malcolm X criticizing King for not wanting blacks to fight back when abused by whites. However understandable his feeling, it’s also obvious that taking on whites in a race war in which they would be vastly outnumbered and outgunned would be a self-defeating strategy. King replies to Malcolm X by saying that he sees love as being a powerful force rather than a cowardly surrender. Did Malcolm X come to appreciate that position before he died? Baldwin says he was in London with a friend taking a day off when he learned of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Baldwin came home from France in the later sixties. He said he missed very little about America, but missed his brother, sister, their children, and his mother. He was visiting them in 1968 when his sister was called away from the table. When she returned she said nothing, but he felt something was wrong. Then she said, “Martin Luther King was just killed. Reporters are coming to get your reaction.”

He attended the funeral, and said he tried not to cry, felt that many others were trying not to cry too, and for the same reason: they didn’t know if they could stop.

He felt he had to visit the widows and children of those leaders, also not easy. Perhaps especially because none of the three lived to be as old as forty.

I was vaguely aware of the strife of the sixties, but didn’t really feel it. I had problems of my own taking up my attention. But the sixties shaped my political views. In the 1950s we had had a comic book portraying Rosa Parks taking a white person’s seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refusing to get up. That’s where I first heard of Dr. King.

In 1963 I was with my grandmother while she watched coverage of the March on Washington, and got to see in real time Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What the Civil Rights movement was protesting was so obviously unfair that I didn’t see any alternative to being a liberal. It seemed that all conservatives were racists, a term that has since been used too lightly for too many frivolous reasons. No one in the Civil Rights movement has had the kind of gravitas Dr, King had, which is a shame. He and the other two were murdered because they held up a mirror to show us all what we were, causing panic fear. People comfortable with segregation felt their world was coming apart, and had no answer but violence. After King was killed, many others felt THEIR world was coming apart too. If my heart was in the right place in feeling sympathy for the movement (which is debatable), I did nothing about it, to my shame.

Baldwin didn’t only report his feelings about the movement and the death of his friends (as well as many other more anonymous people), but looked at the larger picture of America, its racism and other forms of injustice. He saw white America being as entangled and imprisoned by racism as black America, and striking out in violent resentment of it. Black Americans never wanted to come here, but neither did whites, he says. Using blacks as slaves made them prisoners too.

The fact is that the American way of life hasn’t made many people happy. Satiated, in some cases, but not happy. That many of us have secure lives that most people in the world can’t even imagine, and yet are fearful of people unlike ourselves is ironic, if not paradoxical. Look at some of the things we lead the world in: numbers of prisoners, people killed by police, consumption of illegal (and legal) drugs. Those things don’t indicate a happy culture. More people have a higher standard of living than any time previous in the world, but they aren’t happy, and their standard of living comes at the price of devastation of other peoples and the waste of natural resources. They, who are WE, prefer fantasy to reality, because experiencing the reality of what WE are complicit in would mean we must experience overpowering guilt and responsibility. Nobody wants that. So we’ll have to pay in another way.

The climactic scene of the movie is footage from the Dick Cavett show. A new guest enters and says he disagrees with what he’s heard Baldwin say, and asks if there isn’t any other way for him to connect than through race? Surely he must feel more connection with a white author than with an illiterate black.

Baldwin answers that the man is invoking an idealistic vision that he has seen no evidence of. Is he to trust not only himself, but his relatives and children to an idea which he’s never seen manifest in real life? The other seems to have nothing to say–or maybe it’s just that I can’t imagine him saying anything to refute Baldwin.

The idea that racism was once a problem, but is no longer, is popular in some circles. When people complain about it, or even try to talk about it, they’re said to be “race-baiting”. I don’t suppose people with this view are even insincere–that they’re aware of. One such person friended me on Facebook during the past year or so, complimenting me on the posts I’d written on this blog, and trying to persuade me of his views. He was nice to me, never being rude when I stated my own views (which he probably saw as liberal cliches), and even defending me from some of his friends. But I couldn’t agree that racism was no longer a problem, nor could I support his candidate for president. I’m not sure if this movie would mean much to him. I’d like to think it could open his eyes, but that might be too much to expect. There are quite a few people who seem pretty sincere in their disagreement with what I believe. And I certainly am not always right.

The movie Raoul Peck has made isn’t perfect. As one writer complained in a recent article, he didn’t address Baldwin’s homosexuality, even though Baldwin wasn’t shy about that. If he had, the movie would probably have been longer, and even more powerful. As the writer pointed out, Baldwin was criminalized in two ways: not only as a black man, but as a gay man. He was doubly an outsider in ways most whites don’t experience, unless they really want to. Most of us want to be accepted, so don’t confront the injustices we see. That’s what is known as white privilege, a term some people are impatient with. They don’t see themselves as privileged. They also don’t think to ask how a black person might see them.

The movie quickly surveys several movies with themes of black vs white. One is the movie in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are handcuffed together after escaping from prison. At the end of the movie they’ve managed to get rid of the cuffs and are running to catch a train and ride in the box car. Poitier climbs onto the train, Curtis clutches at his hand, but can’t hold on, and falls down the hill. Poitier jumps back off the train. This, Baldwin says, is to reassure a white audience that black people still love them, in spite of the way whites have abused blacks. But, says Baldwin, the black audience had a completely different reaction: they said, “Fool, get back on the train!”

Do we want to know how the people we live with, who had a major role in building this country, but got very little out of it, actually feel, or do we prefer a fantasy? The answer to that question may go a long way to determining our future, as Baldwin says.

An Interesting Time

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We live in a fractured nation, and some of us hardly even know it because we’ve imposed a de facto segregation  on ourselves, and often hear few opinions we disagree with, except on TV.

But there is disagreement, and it’s virulent. Conservatives think conservatism is the natural way to be, and think liberals are hypocritical and malicious. Liberals feel the same way about conservatives. Neither lives up to their best ideals; both feel the other wants to impose their views on a whole range of issues. Not just abortion, but in religion, schools, etc. Part of the problem is economic: an expanding economy and good pay makes up for a multitude of sins, but a lot has to do with cherished beliefs too. A Dominionist Christian is quoted as saying other denominations should have their religious liberties taken away. This is extreme, but isn’t different from past Christian attitudes. It’s contrary to the vision our Founding Fathers had, though.

The Founding Fathers weren’t, in many cases, conventionally religious. They amended the Constitution to include religious liberty because of the still remembered (by some) religious wars of the 17th century. One way to avoid these was to allow every religion to practice, but none to impose its views on any other. The monotheistic religions tend to produce fanatics, and fanatics like to impose their own beliefs. Perhaps we periodically need to be reminded how well that works.

Daryl Davis attended Howard University intending to become a spy or a diplomat. He became a musician instead. He also acquired an unusual hobby: he began talking to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

This may have begun accidentally. He talked to someone after a performance who appreciated how he played piano. That person was a Klan member, and maybe other contacts followed from that one. Davis’s attitude towards him and other Klan members wasn’t accidental, though. He said his question was, How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? It turned out not many could. All many of them wanted was to be listened to. After he listened to them, many began feeling different, and got out of the Klan. Those leaving no longer had any use for their robes, and gave them to him. In the PBS program about him he estimates he has twenty-five or six such robes.

That part is inspiring. He has justified his faith that people can change. What is sad is when he talks to three activists in Baltimore who don’t believe white supremacists CAN change. I couldn’t really blame them: nothing in their experience leads them to believe that, and they feel Davis is a traitor.

They’re not the only people who feel others are traitors, or are angry for other reasons. According to Sidney Blumenthal, our 45th president has always pined for the love of New York City, which has resolutely withheld it from him. This may account for the resentment he displays, and also for his ability to engage the resentment of others, which enabled him to win his campaign. It’s possible we will suffer because New York City didn’t love Donald Trump enough, but many people feel unloved. Christianity told us to love one another, but didn’t teach us how to do that. Consequently, we have done a miserable job of it.

In Mary Renault’s novel about ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine, one character quotes Socrates as saying, “Be what you wish to seem.” This expresses much of the exasperation various groups in America feel about each other: not necessarily their views, but that they don’t behave according to those views. Shaming opponents for believing differently doesn’t change their minds, it causes resentment.

It’s not hard to understand why many people oppose abortion. At least until they know someone who wants to get one because of, for example, rape or incest.

Homosexuality is a similarly hot-button issue. Sexuality is a difficult issue for almost everyone, and the idea of not only having sex outside of marriage but with one’s own gender seems alien to most. Some can be persuaded that it’s not so evil when they know someone who is gay, but not all can. Some parents reject their children when they discover they have AIDS. They seem to believe their children have chosen a life of evil, but aren’t objective enough to ask why they would choose an orientation that so many people detest. When asked that question, they take it very personally, as an attack on their faith, as in some ways it is. Faith in the literal truth of the Bible is a kind of anchor for many who find any analysis of its text to be personally threatening. That’s much of the quarrel of a certain kind of conservative with liberals: liberals make them think unwanted thoughts. That some of these thoughts may embody the sort of compassion Jesus Christ taught doesn’t improve matters. We all prefer the religion that confirms our preexisting beliefs.

When such a resentment is present, it’s not hard to play on it and encourage hatred of others. How did Daryl Davis persuade white supremacists that their views were mistaken? He didn’t judge them. He listened to them and, he says, they persuaded themselves.

Not all will be persuaded, though. The 45th president may or may not emulate Hitler in every way, but there’s a family resemblance in their resentment. Hitler’s father abused him. The president’s father may not have, but the president does seem to feel unloved. Whether it’s New York City he feels rejected by, or whether the rejection comes from elsewhere, it seems likely many of us are going to be punished for it because many others share the feeling. Liberals are an enemy many can agree on, so liberals will be punished. Ordinary people may find that as liberals get punished, so do they, and regret their vote, but by then it will be too late.

Perhaps less justly, Muslims and Hispanics will be punished too. They too seem alien to a lot of people, so are easy to stereotype. It’s not hard for people who don’t know any Muslims to believe they all are terrorists. That few of the Muslims in this country are, that few are likely to get here, and that we have terrorists of our own seems harder to process, especially if one sympathizes in some respects with the white terrorists. Fear of immigrants is easy to take advantage of. The mechanism seems to be that many fear new immigrants will do to us what our ancestors did to Native Americans and imported black slaves. We all know we haven’t treated minorities well, which gives us good reason to fear them. Because of our fears, we mistreat them again, which won’t resolve our difficulties.

Anger can be a potent fuel, but it doesn’t help us harmonize with our neighbors. Unfortunately, the time seems ripe for a holy war. War certainly releases tensions, though it would be nice if we could release them in a more productive fashion. But that’s a matter of individual decision. Perhaps enough individuals will find a better way to behave than they are being encouraged to. This is an interesting time, in the Chinese sense.

Collisions

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We’re told that Congress is preparing to repeal the Affordable Care Act as soon as possible, and that substantial changes to Social Security and Medicare are to follow. According to one narrative, the action with regard to the ACA is because it’s a terrible failure. According to another, it’s because it was enacted by President Obama, which is reason enough in itself. The latter rationale fails to recognize that the Act was based on a Republican plan enacted in Massachusetts by then governor Mitt Romney, and that it insured 20-30 MILLION citizens who hadn’t previously been able to afford health insurance. Figures on the possible consequences of the repeal suggest that 43 million or more people will lose their health insurance, and that something like three million jobs in conjunction with the Act are likely to be lost.

Does this make sense?

There is one advantage to the repeal: wealthy tax-payers, who are specifically targeted to fund the ACA would gain substantial amounts of money (seven million per person?) when those taxes are repealed, and this demographic is, of course, one of the main Republican constituencies. They have others, less wealthy, but seem not to be overly concerned about them.

Disadvantages, besides the loss of health insurance for many people, include damage to the economy through loss of jobs. Do Republicans (at one time considered the fiscally responsible party) care about this? Or does the advantage to the wealthy through tax repeal make up for any disadvantage?

Republicans assure us that there will be a replacement for the ACA, but I have yet to hear what that might be. One of my friends told me she had faith there would be no repeal without an adequate replacement. I told her I wasn’t as optimistic. After all, Republicans have been talking about repeal ever since the ACA was enacted. Why haven’t they been able to agree on what ought to replace it?

One hypothesis is that they don’t WANT to replace it. That’s the extreme view, the one which believes that resistance to the ACA wasn’t just partisan, but also racist, and part of the class war which few people want to acknowledge, especially Republicans, who are currently winning it.

Class war suggests that the vast majority of those opposing Republican initiatives (not including elites of the Democratic party, whose views are not so very different from Republican elites) are not wealthy, and therefore deserve to be scorned and mistreated. Is that too radical a view? I suggest that repealing the ACA, to say nothing of defunding Social Security and Medicare, are actions radical in the extreme, and will not be approved by very many of America’s citizens. If Republicans actually intend these actions, I think they either believe their point of view is more popular than it is (dubious, considering their enthusiasm for suppressing votes by those they consider unlikely to vote for them), or they don’t care if it’s popular or not. That suggests they’re willing to use violence to enforce their desires.

If that’s the case, they no longer believe in democracy, nor do they wish to any longer protect the democratic republic that elected them to high office.

If the above is true, Republicans are unlikely to admit it, even if that’s what they consciously believe. And of course there are rationales for not continuing to maintain a truly democratic (small d) system.

One party is largely composed of the poor and middle class, who aren’t as responsible as the wealthy. If they were responsible, they’d be wealthy themselves. It’s the wealthy who really have “skin in the game”, which is what really encourages responsibility. If you don’t have substantial amounts of property, you can’t be considered a serious citizen. The Founding Fathers believed that, and the expansion of the franchise since is a perversion of their vision. The wealthy show their responsibility by demanding bailouts when their ventures fail, which is certainly an interesting manifestation.

The Founding Fathers also made provision for the institution of slavery, which means that slavery, or its equivalent, is quite acceptable. In turn, this means that if you’re unable to avoid the equivalent of slavery, you’re irresponsible and ought not to have a vote on any issue that affects the whole nation.

Another reason is that democracy, and particularly the version practiced in the USA may be considered inefficient. That is, it’s extremely difficult to get anything done. That the Founding Fathers designed the system to function in this way is beside the point, and need not interfere with the sanctification of the American way of legislation. It should be noted, though, that the Founders did this because they didn’t want it to be possible to pass legislation too easily. From that could come tyranny. Unfortunately, we’ve discovered that tyranny of sorts can come from blocking the legislation process too.

A third reason is that the capitalist economic system is often seen as equivalent to democracy, though it differs in some important respects. One such is that it doesn’t prohibit taxation without representation, one of the main reasons for the American revolution. Capitalism is largely manifested through large corporations (now legally defined as persons) which are responsible only to their shareholders, and no one else. Anyone objecting to that particular definition of democracy runs the risk of being considered a socialist, which is possibly the most dangerous form of treason, although socialism in the form of the aforementioned bailouts seems to be quite acceptable.

As things are presently constituted, the logical end of the proposed changes is the death of many unnecessary people. One may be defined as unnecessary if one doesn’t fill some important function which also pays extremely well. Such functions are now less common than they used to be, since many industrial jobs have now been automated, and only require programmers in order to produce.

Such workers are most desirable, since they don’t require wages, and never get tired. A certain amount of maintenance is sufficient. This makes it possible for wealthy Americans to castigate the poorer ones for laziness without providing them jobs with which they can actually support their families. The days of self-sufficiency pretty much ended with the steep decline in family farms, partly assisted by legislation that made illegal some of the ways they survived, as well as the advent of factory farms, with which smaller organizations couldn’t compete.

Now nearly everyone is dependent on what the large economic players do, and they are very willing to take advantage of that dependence.

Wendell Berry, the writer who is also a farmer, compares the migration of farmers to the cities in America, which began in the 19th century and continued into the 20th, to the migrations in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The difference, he says, is that in the USA the compulsion was economic, while in Russia it was naked violence.

Considering the alienation of the political class from ordinary Americans, violence of one sort or another is by no means impossible in the near future. Republicans are very comfortable with fulfilling the wishes of wealthy elites at the expense of their other constituents. Democrats may be less comfortable, but don’t object to that role.

The stage seems to be set for a variety of collisions. Let’s hope they don’t damage the country and its citizens too much.

The Next President

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After reviewing Donald Trump’s history, it seems obvious that public service isn’t a major motivator for him. He’s always been ambitious, and has evidently been thinking of running for president as long ago as the late eighties. Not seriously at that time, it seems, since he confined his efforts to commenting on the UN and other issues. At least until Barack Obama became president.

The birther controversy was probably initiated by someone else, but Mr. Trump put his face on it. No doubt Mr. Obama was somewhat annoyed about that, because he struck back. When Trump had scheduled a press conference to talk about it, Obama scheduled one at the same time to show documentation for his place of birth. Footage in the documentary on his life shows the TV crew disappearing and Mr. Trump walking away alone.

Obama didn’t stop there. At a function attended by Trump he joked about the birther controversy at length, and Trump had no choice but to laugh along with the rest of the audience. As the narrator of the documentary commented, what Trump hates most is humiliation. Obama had found a chink in Trump’s armor. But Trump had, the narrator suggested, at that moment decided to run for president himself.

His plan went nowhere in 2012, but we know what happened in 2016.

The documentary showed Trump speaking at what was supposedly his first campaign speech. He practically sniffed the air, tuned into what his audience was feeling, and put that into words. When he got a response he knew where to go from there. One of his advantages was in not appearing scripted–because he wasn’t, most of the time. Another was his ability to move an audience. President Obama has that ability too, but his style is much different: cool and rational vs hot and emotional. But hot and emotional was the winning combination this past year.

A lot of people were angry, and willing to vote for someone who promised change, even if it was questionable change. They weren’t interested in voting for experts telling them things they didn’t want to hear. Telling them she wasn’t Trump wasn’t a good strategy for Hillary Clinton. Especially since a lot of people were skeptical of her, whether they should have been or not.

Narrowly he won. President Obama has been walking a line with him since. On the one hand, vowing to make the transition of power as efficient as possible; on the other, stating that had he been at liberty to run, he believes he could have won the presidency again. That’s not an opinion Mr. Trump can be happy hearing, though I’m not aware of his having responded. But it seems clear (after seeing the documentary about him) that Trump saw his candidacy for president as a direct competition with Barack Obama even more than with Hillary Clinton. He won that competition; now he has to win the competition with the view of Obama as a great president. That will probably bedevil him for years to come. He may or may not win applause from Republicans. Winning it from Democrats will be more difficult, and he may settle for making Democrats and liberals (there may be no difference in his mind) as angry as possible. That would play into the desires of his most fervent supporters.

He will say he wants the country to heal, but that’s probably just what he thinks he SHOULD say. He wants applause, but how will he go about getting it? From his nominations for cabinet positions, it appears it’s hard-core Republicans he wants to please. His nominations are people who will likely destroy the departments he wants them to run: a man who favors selling public lands to run the Department of the Interior, a woman with no experience in public education and a record of hostility toward it to run the Department of Education.

If the Republican Congress manages to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and radically cuts both Social Security and Medicare, he will be able to please Republican elites by signing those bills. If he does, though, he will be very publicly breaking a campaign promise, which I doubt will make even his supporters happy.

He wants attention always, and would prefer positive attention, but has also shown a taste for negative attention too, if it upsets people he doesn’t like. On the other hand, he’s thin-skinned, and easily upset by criticism, which he’s going to be getting a lot of. That’s another reason the presidency doesn’t seem to be a good fit for him.

It will be very tempting for a lot of people to try to upset him, since it’s so easy to do. Given his desire for revenge, this may not be the best tactic, though. What may work better is praising him if and when he does anything praiseworthy, on the theory that he may then do more of it. But that doesn’t mean we should let him get away with breaking his promises either, or allowing him to make the presidency into a money-making machine for himself and his family (to say nothing of his cabinet members).

It’s pretty clear we’ve never had a president quite like him. The next four years will be interesting. Let’s hope they’re not also disastrous.

Preview of the Trump Era

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With Donald Trump’s appointments to the cabinet, the shape his administration is going to take becomes clearer.

A racist for the Department of Justice suggests what kinds of crimes will get prosecuted and what won’t.

A wealthy woman who to the Department of Education despite never having been a teacher, never having attended a public school, nor ever sending her children to one suggests what will likely happen to public schools.

A general to be national security adviser who has a reputation for believing conspiracy theories is also suggestive. Such an adviser ought to warn of dangers, but do so objectively. Credulous belief in conspiracy theories suggests the possibility of panic.

The appointment of an executive of Goldman Sachs as Secretary of the Treasury suggests that Trump’s promise to work against lobbyists is going to be broken.

The appointment of a skeptic of human activity affecting climate change suggests that the EPA won’t be preventing pollution and that our national parks will be mined for natural resources, especially oil and natural gas.

And, though he hasn’t yet appointed a Secretary of State, that may well show something of what his administration will be like. I’ve heard three possibilities mentioned: John Bolton, who favors war with Iran; Rudy Giuliani, who doesn’t seem terribly diplomatic; and Mitt Romney, who didn’t support Trump during the campaign. I suspect Mr. Romney will play a role like students in Mr. Trump’s reality show, in which most eventually got fired. Does Mr. Trump want Mr. Romney to beg for the job? Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Kellyanne Conway have all spoken against the choice of Romney. I’ll be surprised if he’s chosen, but then again, Mr. Trump likes to be surprising.

Perhaps the most controversial of his appointments is of Steve Bannon as an adviser on strategy. Bannon is a former editor of the far-right Breitbart publication, who is generally considered to be a white supremacist. So what kind of strategy will he be advising, against whom, and what kind of goals will he favor?

Maybe we should see Mr. Trump’s appointments as including kinds of people who haven’t been included before in government (though the point is debatable). Looking at it that way would be ironic, though, as so many of his appointments are of people who don’t believe in being inclusive.

It’s not as if Mr. Trump is making disastrous appointments in all cases. Nikki Haley as ambassador to the UN isn’t controversial, from what I hear, and she didn’t support him during his campaign, but he didn’t (as far as I know) try to punish her, as he’s punished others who haven’t supported him.

But she’s an exception. What I think I see so far is that Trump is making sure he’s appointing people liberals won’t like. That’s probably why Mr. Romney won’t get Secretary of State–unless he’s willing to beg for it–he would be more acceptable to liberals than most of Mr. Trump’s other appointments. Appointing the people he has will thus be popular to the supporters he’s attracted. A lot of people are tired of an establishment they see as liberal. It won’t be liberal anymore (I doubt any of his nominations will be rejected), though it may also not serve the country too well. These appointments will speak to the resentment of many of Mr. Trump’s supporters, which has been building up for decades. Declaring they have no right to be resentful would be pointless. They ARE resentful, whether the rest of us agree or not. But disagreeing doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address these people and their complaints.

A lot of people wanted things to get shaken up in Washington. They may get shaken both more and less than many of his supporters want. Liberalism is unlikely to be the predominant culture, but the “swamp” seems to be getting deeper, and if the Republican Congress succeeds in repealing the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Social Security, a lot of his supporters may begin having second thoughts.

A Shape of Things to Come?

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Like a lot of liberals, I’ve been in shock since last week. Although I liked some things Donald Trump said during his campaign, I didn’t believe he meant very many of them, and a lot of things I really didn’t like. What I hear about his preparations for assuming power don’t reassure me much. I don’t like the things he seems to be planning to do, and I don’t think many of his appointments are very wise. Conservatives are crowing because liberals are so upset, since that’s how they felt when President Obama was elected. Who can blame them? We’ve been living with the politics of resentment for quite awhile now. Each election seems to generate more of it.

It’s going to be interesting to watch how things unfold. From what I read, some people are emboldened to commit crimes, confident that they won’t be prosecuted. Is that what the next four years are going to be like? If Mr. Trump’s actions match the rhetoric of his campaigns, maybe so. That’s how a supposed democracy could devolve into something else.

But he will have to step cautiously. Some Republicans, including the man he is supposedly strongly considering for Secretary of State, are in favor of war with Iran, assuming Trump can’t (as he promised) get a better deal than the arrangement negotiated by John Kerry. How would he do that? How will he get them to agree? He can threaten them, but if you think Iraq was bad (and Trump did), trying to fight a war in Iran would be worse. It’s a country with mountains, so it’s built for a guerilla war. It’s not a war that would be popular at home very long either. Unless Republican legislators want to send their own children to fight it (Is that too mean to say?).

Mr. Trump reportedly also wants to cut taxes. We already have an immense national debt (the deficit has been, I understand, greatly reduced, but it still isn’t small). What I read about his tax plan is that mainly the wealthy and corporations will benefit. How will his supporters feel when they find out about that? It means they still won’t be making enough money to get ahead, and that’s not why they sent him to Washington. It will also look like lobbyists have gotten their way again, something Mr. Trump said would not happen.

Add to that the Affordable Care Act being repealed without a suitable way to insure the millions of people that used to be uninsured. I doubt that even Donald Trump will be very popular if that happens.

And suppose Social Security and Medicare get taken away too. Those are two other things Trump said he wouldn’t do, but the Republican Congress wants to do them. I guess their existence keeps too much money from being handed to the wealthy. If those things happen, President Trump is going to be exceedingly unpopular. Congress may be too, but at that point this may no longer even nominally be a democracy.

Resentment has been powerful in this country for a long time. Mr. Trump could smell it, and knew what to say to get people to express it. He was a bit like a comedian I saw perform a few years ago. He sniffed the air, said a few things, felt the vibrations coming back, and found his way to say what the crowd wanted to hear. Once he gets the first laugh (or cheer, or other reaction), he’s got the crowd’s number, and just hones in on what will get the biggest reaction. He’s never been close to Hillary Clinton in intellect, but he’s beat her with intuition.

That made Mr. Trump an extremely skillful campaigner. But, not being a politician, how is he going to navigate the extremely treacherous swamp he’s promised to drain? Does he actually want to? In one respect, it would be much easier not to even try to keep his promises to the white middle class who gave him such strong support. It’s hard to oppose the people who fund politicians and lobby for favors because they’re extremely powerful. If he can’t keep them happy, they won’t be giving him things he wants, like pay to play. He said he opposes that, but can that really be true?

On the other hand, if he doesn’t keep his promises to his supporters, how will he be seen? If he thinks he’ll be seen as a loser, that might be powerful incentive for him to try to oppose the powerful in Washington, to actually make an effort to “drain the swamp”. But will he see it that way? Or will he decide he wants to emulate Vladimir Putin?

Putin could be the embodiment of the character in George Orwell’s 1984 who told the protagonist that the true image of the state was a boot kicking people in the face forever. Mr. Trump has said he admires Mr. Putin, and it now appears they may be rather closer friends than is seemly for heads of different countries that often disagree. One possible interpretation of Mr. Trump’s history is that he really does like kicking people in the face, metaphorically at least. He will now have the power to have it done literally, if he wants to. He certainly has fans who like to do that.

I think I understand, to some extent, why a lot of people voted for Trump ( apparently not as many as voted for Clinton–though conservatives dispute that). They’re understandably tired of business as usual. A lot of them are hurting economically, and a lot find the way their country continues to change frightening, and a lot are influenced by propaganda–from both sides. They don’t feel that Democrats have stood up for them, at least partly because of propaganda, but also because Democrats too often haven’t when they should have.

So now they’ve gotten what they wanted. I hope they’ll be happy with it, but am afraid they’ll be disappointed. Maybe some of them extremely. I’m afraid there’s going to be an immense assault on people’s freedoms and their ability to make a living. There actually has been for more than thirty years, but it looks like it’s going to get worse. I think Congress wants this government to continue to be of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations. Will Mr. Trump have the courage and a strategy to oppose that? I hope he will, but I doubt it. If he doesn’t, we might as well stop calling ourselves a democracy, and begin calling our government fascist.

The Secret Book of Kings

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This novel revisits the early history of ancient Israel at the beginning of the monarchy. Its central point is the power of the story. Yochi Brandes, an Israeli Biblical scholar, makes it very plausible that many of the stories in the Old Testament showing King David in a favorable light are propaganda, making it seem that claiming him as an ancestor might be similar to claiming Hitler or Stalin. David merely acted on a smaller stage.

Some years ago I read a history of ancient Israel in which the author expressed some wonderment that David was so venerated when his career wasn’t much different from many opportunists.

In this novel the story of his rise is told by Michal, daughter of King Saul, his first wife, who was advantageously placed to see what happened. She tells how she falls in love with David as a teenager, though he is less enthusiastic about her. She travels with him to entertain the troops, then goes home and tries to get him to go with her. He refuses. He has other things to do.

The other things include organizing an army of his own, led by his relatives, and marrying other women. One of my acquaintances thought David had a sexual relationship with Jonathan, and remarked that David behaved better during that period than he did later. The fact that David defected to the Philistines (as told in the Old Testament) and helped organize the invasion of Israel that killed Saul, Jonathan, and all of Jonathan’s brothers, suggests that whatever relationship he had with Jonathan was a totally cynical one on his part.

After the invasion he arranges his own coronation, then takes Michal and the remainder of her relatives to live with him in his palace with his other wives. Michal had previously married a man who had waited a long time for her. David separates them, and arranges for her husband to be killed. Later, their son and the remainder of her young relatives are also killed. David also conquers neighboring countries and commits what would now be called war crimes there.

All this is told to the narrator of the novel, who turns out to be the great-grandson of King Saul, and the grandson of MIchal, now known as the Mad Princess because she spends every night lighting many candles all over the palace and screaming. This behavior is a cover for her: if she can be dismissed as insane, she’s not perceived as a threat. I suspect this part is invention.

The narrator has been brought up by foster parents in the tribal territory of Ephraim, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. His mother lives in seclusion in a retreat for lepers which she never leaves, and where she always covers her face. She doesn’t have leprosy, but is in danger from the royal family. Shelomoam, the narrator, becomes disenchanted with his foster family, largely because he senses something wrong with the story he’s been told about his background. He leaves his home village to go to Jerusalem to join the army.

On his way there he meets Hadad, an Edomite, who trains him for the army. Edom is one of the neighboring countries conquered by David, and Hadad is determined to get it back. He believes Shelomoam is the key, and we find out why when Shelomoam meets Michal. His father was her son, Nebat, who was killed along with most of her other relatives.

Shelomoam is tested by the authorities and sent to Ephraim to be the head tax collector. David’s policies have preferred his tribe, Judah, to the rest of the tribes, who now (during the reign of Solomon) suffer from high taxes and forced labor, as Solomon carries out grandiose building projects and collects foreign women for his harem. Michal has told Shelomoam how Bathsheba manipulated her way into David’s bed, how (with the aid of her grandfather) David managed to get away with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband with a slap on the wrist, and how Bathsheba managed Solomon’s accession to the throne, in spite of David’s older sons.

Shelomoam is in a dangerous position: he must produce taxes and laborers, or be punished, but if he does, he’ll incur the hatred of the people of Ephraim. He manages this crisis through communication. He persuades the wealthy of the area that by taxing them higher than the poor people they will manage to avoid ruining the area. The rich will eventually be ruined too, and forced labor will ensure a shortage of labor and ruin of the laborers’ families. He becomes very popular. He even manages to prevent punishment when demands to raise taxes and send even more laborers come. He sends fewer laborers than demanded, and tells the authorities that he has to reduce taxes to prevent ruin. The other tribes follow his lead, and this provokes a plot to kill him, so he takes his family and flees to Egypt.

His flight to Egypt is true, according to the Old Testament; I’m not certain we know about the narrator’s early life. When he returns to Ephraim a couple of years later he has changed his name to Jereboam, signifying that he will increase the population of Israel, and manages the separation between Israel and Judah. The novel ends on an optimistic note.

But things in the long-term didn’t work out as well for Israel as Judah. A book about the Old Testament tells us that Israel, though it was richer, more willing to innovate, and more integrated into the life of the region (Judah was a poor and isolated country), was also more volatile. David’s line was preserved in the kings who ruled until the sixth century BCE, when Babylon conquered Judah and deported many of its ablest people. Israel had been conquered by Assyria about a century before, and unlike Judah, was never able to put its kingdom together again. In that time there had been multiple dynasties. The Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament were descendants of the northern kingdom, and detested by the Jews, who lived in Judah (called Judea by the time the Romans conquered the Middle East), which was why the parable of the Good Samaritan is found in the Bible. The Jews had been more conservative, and some were fanatical, at least about the presence of the Romans.

Interestingly, a book I read about twenty years ago, said there were still Samaritans surviving in the Middle East, but only a few hundred. The account said they had their own Torah (not including equivalents of the later books of the Old Testament, apparently), which was somewhat different than the Jewish version which has come down to us.

It seems that the northern kingdom, which seems superficially more attractive than the southern one, was less stable, though the southern kingdom also suffered a great deal. Assyria probably deported a lot of Israelites, and the suspicion is that many of them assimilated. Jews would later assimilate too, but not often (this was not always their doing).

The only obvious moral is to beware of propaganda. It seems that even David’s most famous feat wasn’t really his: Goliath seems to have been killed by someone else. This novel doesn’t credit Saul’s supposed attempts to kill David; it says Saul would have succeeded if he’d tried. Nor does it credit Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor. All these incidents were propaganda created by the victor to justify the treason that gained him the monarchy. Propaganda is no less dangerous today, and no easier to decode. It may be even more ubiquitous than in the past: America took the lead in creating the advertisement industry which influenced Adolph Hitler in particular. There may be other morals here too: perhaps that suffering and faith mean more in the long run than wealth. That’s not a particularly welcome message.