Suffer the Children

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In these years of our discontent there is no shortage of outrage. If you are a Trump supporter, these are your salad days in which the outrages of the Obama administration are finally receiving their comeuppance. If you are not a Trump supporter, but now find your moral sensibilities being dragged behind a pickup with three rifle racks across a landscape of cacti, rocks, and boiling sand, then there is a certain relief in shouting out loud. It is cathartic. I am in the latter group. You are free to leave at this point; no hard feelings.

I mention that it is catharsis only because so much has already been written and said and analyzed and disseminated about the Trump administration’s policy of tearing children away from their parents at the border. I am writing because thinking out loud helps me understand what is important to me, and more to the point, how I can express a spiritual faith in times like these.

There are a few moral precepts that one should be able to affirm without agonizing over. Slavery, the rape and abuse of women, and the abuse of children are among them. Stating them thus does not exclude other precepts nor should it be considered a knee-jerk reaction without thought and reflection. Rather, these are simply part of one’s moral landscape, familiar markers that commemorate a covenant between God, oneself, and others, markers that remind us of the (now) obvious conditions of being faithful to God, responsible to one’s society, and true to oneself. These are also three reasons for moral action, as I understand it.

The first one is that God asks us to refrain from certain actions and to do other actions. For people of faith, whatever form their god may take, this is often enough reason to act. It is a powerful reason, and for some does not require any further reflection.

Even some who are moved by it still find themselves intrigued by Plato’s question: are actions right because the gods approve of them or do the gods approve of them because they are right? According to some lines of the historical discussion, if we do them because the gods approve of them we may run the risk of blindly following some arbitrary divine commands. What if your gods are tricksters, irresponsible, forgetful, or otherwise not to be trusted? On the other hand, if the gods do them because they are right then while that is a powerful vote of confidence in the moral justification of the actions, it makes the gods look weak. In the first case, the gods have arbitrary and perhaps capricious power; in the second case, not enough power to make them worthy of worship.

Most historical religions have a moral structure and some even have commands for meeting moral and religious expectations. We could chose to think of these commands as arbitrary, but then we would have given up any semblance of trust or even of thoughtful reflection on our relationship with our god. Again, it’s a matter of trust: we do these things not only because our gods ask us to, but also because doing them is an exercise of our moral freedom.

The second reason is to be responsible to one’s community—and again, we may choose to act for a number of reasons. We may wish to avoid jail time if we break the rules; we may desire to be in favor with our neighbors, our friends, and our families (Adam Smith called it the ‘approbation of society’ in his Theory of Moral Sentiments); we may want the rewards that come with good behavior or we may genuinely want to contribute to the well-being of our society. These are all good reasons for doing the right thing, and as many have pointed out, one does not have to be religious to accomplish them. For many people today, ethics is the new religion.

The third reason is to be true to oneself, a piece of advice that can be traced back at least to Aristotle. It’s not hard to see that either or both of the previous reasons could give us a sense of ‘self,’ but some people will immediately get diverted into questions of whether we have a self or not, and if we do, how much of it is the result of genetics plus environment. Since most of us act as if we are selves and treat others as if they are selves too, we can leave the questions to others and try to think about whywe ought to be true to ourselves.

Classical ethical theory invokes Aristotle here (practicing virtue aligns us with our true end or telos , which is to flourish) and Kant (do the right thing because you respect yourself and others and you’d want the same respect for everyone else).

Being true to oneself not only involves respect for oneself and others, but going deeper in and farther back to find the highest regard we can have for the human being.

In an essay on goodness, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) examines the relation between habit and nature. “Goodness I call the habit,” he says, “and goodness of nature the inclination. This, of all virtues and dignities of the mind, is the greatest, being the character of the Deity; and without it man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing, no better than a kind of vermin.” Bacon believes that we achieve a “habit of goodness” through “right reason,” but that just as there is in some people a natural inclination toward goodness and a willingness to help others, there is in others a “natural malignity” that drives them beyond mere irritation with others to envy, anger, and selfishness.

Such people revel in the calamities of others. They are like flies buzzing around a raw wound, says Bacon, and rather than bind up the wounds of those who are suffering these misanthropi enjoy the misfortunes of others. “Such dispositions are the very errors of human nature; and yet they are the fittest timbers to make great politics of.”

Having been the victim of some palace intrigues in the courts of Elizabeth I and King James I, Bacon knew from first-hand experience how crooked the timbers of politics could be.

The policy of the immigration hardliners in the Trump administration to separate children from their parents has been roundly condemned by congressional Democrats and some Republicans. Immigration-advocacy groups, lawyers, children’s rights organizations, psychologists, educators, and doctors, all have been scathing in their criticisms. The Catholic Church has flatly called out the practice as immoral. Melania Trump has expressed her horror at it and former First Lady Laura Bush, diffident to a fault, has written an op ed in which she called the policy “heartbreaking.” Even Franklin Graham, who refuses to call out Trump on anything, has characterized the practice as “disgraceful.”

And yet here is Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General of the United States, whose shrill pronouncements increasingly sound like the cries of a desperate man, fiercely clinging to his “zero-toleration” position. When Christian authoritarians run out of options for justifying their immoral policies and laws they reach for the fire extinguisher they think will put out the blaze—Romans 13—in which the Apostle Paul advises his readers to obey the laws because the authorities have been put in place by God. Read out of context these verses (Romans 13: 1-7) have been used to justify slavery, war, apartheid, and systemic evils of all kinds. Marilynne Robinson drily comments in her recent collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, that “Indeed, unread books may govern the world, not well, since they so often are taken to justify our worst impulses and prejudices. The Holy Bible is a case in point.”

Read in context, these verses are sandwiched between the marks of a true Christian—extending hospitality to strangers, living in harmony with others, and overcoming evil with good—and showing love for one another by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Paul is pretty clear earlier in his letter to the Romans that every person, Christian or not, knows in his or her heart the basics of what is right. The implication is that Christians try to do what is right in every situation out of love for the neighbor and respect for that which God has created. The assumption is that good rulers and good laws have the blessing of God; the knowledge that there are bad rulers and worse laws is so obvious that it does not need mentioning. God’s people are expected to know the difference and to live by their consciences accordingly.

People of faith who look to the Bible to understand the function of principles in shaping our ethics and actions see that caring for children is pretty high up on the hierarchy of values for Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus makes the point that people make mistakes in caring for children, but woe to the person who deliberately hurts a child. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt, 18: 6).

With his characteristic irony and pointed hyperbole Jesus lays it down that crushing a child’s faith and hope is a deadly sin. These are things that everybody is expected to know and abide by. As Bono says, “Jesus said ‘Suffer the children to come unto me,’ not make the children suffer!” But the fact that Jesus speaks so urgently means that this fundamental precept of human existence, caring for the children, was alarmingly ignored in his time. So it has ever been. And now we’re doing it again with howling cynicism and hypocrisy by appealing to the sanctity of the rule of law and the authority of God and scripture. Except that it’s literally not a law but a prejudice, and Jesus condemns such actions in the strongest possible terms.

In the increasingly fractious and twisted arguments over immigration one thing should be clear: these children have the most to lose right now and in the years to come. And as for us adults, it’s time to throw off our millstones.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Five Reasons Why Trump Should Not Get His Military Parade

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In a year in which the President has consistently upset normal expectations of conduct becoming to that office, Trump continues to bend the image until it shatters. His latest demand: a grand military parade, the likes of which America has never seen. He first expressed his desire when standing alongside French President Macron last summer, watching the extravaganza thrown for his benefit on Bastille Day. Trump was awed, fascinated, and driven to exceed it.

He has apparently been mulling this over since September, thinking about it in the midst of all the partisan and personal tweetstorms he indulges in daily as he guides the ship of state ever nearer to the rocks of its destruction.

Here are five reasons why there should be an official and torrential rainstorm on his parade.

It would be way expensive. Although “his generals” have not put a figure on this event we can be sure that it will cost in the millions. Everything public these days costs in the millions. A traffic light costs between $250,000 and half a million to install, plus $8,000 a year to maintain. Advertisers paid $5 million for a 30-second commercial at the 2018 Super Bowl. Elon Musk and SpaceX plan to spend $10 billion on their commercial space flights. In 1999 the M1A1 SA Abrams tank cost about $6.2 million for a brand-new one. Estimates are that the cost has risen to about $8 million. These would most likely be the tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue on the 4th of July if Trump gets his way. The tanks are made in Lima, Ohio—and they have been in continuous production since the end of World War II—but they are in storage, all 2,000 plus of them, near Reno, Nevada. How much would it cost to ship out a decent lineup of tanks for Trump’s parade? Millions.

It would be a logistical nightmare. Imagine those tanks chewing up the asphalt of our DC streets. District crews can’t keep up with the potholes that grow in the winter like cancerous cells, much less have the streets ready for work on the 5th of July. And where do you put a fleet of tanks while waiting for the Grand Marshal’s signal? How many ballistic missiles could fit end to end down Constitution Avenue? How do you park a missile anyway? If their trailers get a flat could Triple AAA be called?

And think of half a million people marching on the Mall in protest.

The saber rattling is cringeworthy. Assuming that we’ll still be here come the 4th of July, this crude display of American might can only antagonize our enemies and embarrass our allies. Why should the largest military force in the world need to flex its muscles? Isn’t it enough that the United States outspent China, Saudia Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France and Japan combined by $16 billion on its defense in 2016? That defense spending accounts for 16% of federal spending and almost half of our discretionary spending? And do we really have to act like the countries we so fervently despise?

It’s against our ideals. Since 1776 the United States has been at war for 222 out of 239 years. One estimate puts it at 93% of the time, with only 20 years of our history in total in which peace broke out. Despite that statistic, the better angels of our nature want to believe we are a peace-loving people, only driven to war as a last resort in a Hobbesian world of constant aggression. Gratuitous displays of military machismo feed the primal hostility that lies just under the surface. With the gutting of the State Department and the Trump administration’s constant goading of North Korea and Iran, such a display only confirms the worst possible scenario in the global community. Can we not be leaders in working for diplomatic solutions to hostilities?

It will only feed Trump’s ego. The White House has denied that all this planning is being done for Trump’s self-aggrandizement. Of course it does. We are told that this is simply the President’s way of showing his vast appreciation for the American military. This from the man who was given five deferments during the Vietnam War because of bone spurs. Somehow, some way, Trump will turn legitimate gratitude for the military and its veterans into a celebration of his own awesomeness. The day after his parade he’ll be saying, “They say this is the best military parade the world has ever seen!” Take that, France! We’ll never hear the end of it. If you thought he’d driven the inauguration numbers into the ground wait until he makes up the stats that will dominate air time for the foreseeable future.

Trump will not be outdone in public spectacles. His stomach must have been churning as he watched the Bastille Day parade. After all, Macron had bested him in the grip-and-grin, and here he was, with a mere snap of his French fingers, summoning this breathtaking, in-your-face unleashing of military song and dance. This could not be happening. Mon Dieu, the French, after all! So Trump will pronounce, he will proclaim, he will demand, he will snarl, until he gets assurances that his parade will be the greatest human event since the inauguration.

His generals are predictably deferential, even circumspect. No estimates have been released. Everything is in the initial planning stages. Perhaps they hope Trump will forget or be focused on beating down John McCain or giving Devin Nunes the Congressional Medal of Honor. Maybe they’re counting on him being preoccupied with the final release of the Mueller Report. After all, they don’t know where the money will come from for all this, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Congressional representative for the District of Columbia, has made it clear that the city is not footing the bill. If Trump wants it, he’ll have to pay for it.

Not a dime of Trump’s own money will be spent on this, we can be sure. Could he count on the Koch brothers then? Sheldon Adelson? The Mercers, perhaps? Betsy DeVos and the rest of his billionaire cabinet?

Ah, maybe Mexico.

Photo image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Loyalty: Comey and Trump

Everybody has heard of loyalty; most prize it; but few perceive it to be what, in its inmost spirit, it really is,—the heart of all the virtues, the central duty amongst all duties.

— Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty

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(Photo: The Washington Post)

Loyalty does not appear in Aristotle’s list of virtues, nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit, but it is something that the great mass of people know to be valued between friends, toward spouses, and by tribal warlords, Mafia families, fraternity brothers, and Marines. That such a wide variety of individuals and groups hold loyalty dear should not surprise us, since in a time of torrential self-interest we treasure any branch we can cling to that will arrest our plunge over the falls.

Josiah Royce, longtime professor at Harvard and lifelong friend and philosophical jouster with William James, declared loyalty to be the primary virtue. In his Philosophy of Loyalty(1908), he outlines it as the fulfillment of morality and declares, “Justice, charity, industry, wisdom, spirituality, are all definable in terms of enlightened loyalty.” He could hold to this sweeping maxim because he viewed our lives as a tension between the autonomy of the individual and our duty to the community. Loyalty is the magnetism that holds the poles of individual desires and community responsibilities within the same force field.

Royce defines loyalty as a voluntary dedication to a cause outside ourselves. This doesn’t come naturally, since most of us, when we are young, don’t have a clue who we are and why we are here. And this also sets up a paradox, as he puts it: “No outer authority can ever give me the true reason for my duty. Yet I, left to myself, can never find a plan of life. I have no inborn ideal naturally present within myself. . . Whence, then, can I learn any plan of life?”

His answer is that we learn from the models set before us in life. We learn to play, to work, to speak, by entering into our social life with others. Living and learning from others stimulates our own self-expression and our own individuality. It’s never simply a matter of imitating others. We conform in order to learn and having learned we build our own plan for life within the social community.

“Thus loyalty, viewed merely as a personal attitude” says Royce, “solves the paradox of our ordinary existence, by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service.”

If we’re fortunate and have learned from good people we may find that purpose which centers our life, that gives us passion and defines the shape of our soul.

Artists and musicians know something about the power of a cause outside themselves. It is that which Bob Dylan spoke of in his Nobel Prize lecture as the spark that passed between him and Buddy Holly in one of the last concerts before Holly was killed in a plane crash. Dylan describes his awe as he watched from six feet away on the front row: “He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”

A day or two later, just after Holly was killed, someone he didn’t even know handed Dylan a Leadbelly record. “That record changed my life then and there,” he said. “It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me.”

Still a teenager, still living at home, still Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, the convergence of those experiences turned him inside out. The music set him free because it was real to life. The books he devoured in grammar school—Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Moby Dick, The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front—their themes shaped the world inside his heart and fleshed themselves out in his lyrics. His music was his passion, that to which he gave his life.

We see loyalty here to Beauty, to Truth, to Justice—we could call up a hundred moments in the lives of those who have electrified us through the causes that gripped them. Think of Steve Jobs’ fierce dedication to the perfect convergence of Art and Technology. Pick almost any of the Old Testament prophets for whom the cause of justice burned within their bones until they cried out. Antigone and Creon, separated by an abyss of ritual duty—which one is truly loyal, which one irredeemably corrupted? Loyalty runs through our history and literature like a stitch along a seam: now we see it, now we don’t, but a pattern is clearly there.

Aristotle said, “To thine own self be true,” which sounds close enough to loyalty for most of us. It’s a value that we’ve embraced, despite the fact that “our self” is in flux and at times a mystery even to us. There’s more than a hint of desperation in the memes and tweets that proclaim how humbled we are by our own awesomeness. Royce reminds us that, “Loyalty is social. If one is a loyal servant of a cause, one has at least possible fellow-servants.”

But if loyalty is midwife to the emergence of the self, “Loyalty without self-control is impossible. The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance.”

That brings us to Donald Trump and James Comey, and the loyalty demanded by one and withheld by the other. In his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey describes a tense meeting with Trump in the White House in January soon after the inauguration. Summoned to a private dinner with the president, Comey was told “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” According to The Washington Post, “Comey said he “didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.” The president again asked for loyalty, but this time Comey recovered enough to promise him honesty. That apparently wasn’t enough for Trump: “I will give you honest loyalty,” said Comey, and with that rather stilted expression the dinner concluded. The conversation for Comey, again in the words of The Post, “raised concerns in his mind. ‘My common sense told me what’s going on here is he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job,’ Comey testified.”

In the light of what Royce has said about loyalty, some observations can be made. First, both men understand the word “loyalty” in very different ways. Trump uses it, rather paradoxically, to express both domination and need. He expects Comey’s loyalty as due him by virtue of his position as president. More importantly, he expects it as payment for the debt incurred by Comey because Trump allowed him to stay in the job—despite the fact that FBI directors typically serve a 10-year term. But Trump also needs Comey’s loyalty, a slip of the tongue that reveals perhaps more than he intended. He needs the assurance that everyone who serves him can be trusted and is willing to pay obeisance. Thus, for Trump loyalty is strictly a personal matter of the noble pledging fealty to the king.

Comey, however, recoils from such a misuse of loyalty because for him there is a much larger issue at stake. He has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and to maintain a bright, clear line between the kinds and uses of power for their appropriate ends. Furthermore, the loyalty demanded is only as strong as the loyalty given; loyalty cannot be coerced, only earned.

Let us admit that even with the best of intentions our loyalties are divided and our motives are mixed. H. Richard Niebuhr, an American theologian and social critic, channels Royce quite neatly when he notes, “Without loyalty and trust in causes and communities, existential selves do not live or exercise freedom or think. Righteous and unrighteous, we live by faith. But our faiths are broken and bizarre; our causes are many and in conflict with each other. In the name of loyalty to one cause we betray another; and in our distrust of all, we seek our little unsatisfactory satisfactions and become faithless to our companions.”

If we accept Royce’s thesis that loyalty is dedication of oneself to a cause outside of oneself, then the differences between the two men become even starker. Trump’s version of loyalty is a demand centered on satisfying himself alone; Comey’s is a principle that points beyond itself — and him — to an ideal of justice and fairness. Comey is loyal to the ideal of loyalty; Trump is loyal only to himself.