Take a look. Whatever one’s political affiliation, the senatorial leadership of both parties is anything but inspiring. And voices that might eloquently defend the Constitution, that might risk their own reputations for the good of the country, appear to be few. And diminishing. While it is depressing enough to lament the absence of Daniel Webster from the current United States Senate, it is in folklore that we discover how urgently we need a statesman of his stature.
In 1936 Stephen Benét published a short story entitled, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” It was a reinvention of the Faustian legend, with a distinctly American audience in mind. In the story Jabez Stone is a poor farmer from New Hampshire. Overcome with desperation, he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for successful crops and subsequent wealth. When the debt comes due, the devil, traveling under the name of “Scratch,” returns to claim his prize. The prospect of actually surrendering his soul to the devil makes the farmer even more desperate, so he enlists the assistance of Daniel Webster who challenges Scratch in a court of law. Although the judge and jury are stacked against him—all conjured from the world of the damned—Webster’s oratory carries the night.
As a child I was fascinated by that story. I attended a Catholic school and in truth, some of the allure of Benét’s fable might have rested in the suggestion by the sisters that I was a bit like the devil, himself. But what I really wanted was to be like Daniel Webster and I imagined myself equally able to outwit the master of lies.
Even as a child I realized that legends such as this are not literal. They are parables—powerful myths that draw us into a world where we can be shaped by truth. But as an adult I have seen how easily that truth escapes us. For there’s a little Faust in everyone. Who among us has not wished for something so deeply that we say, “I’d sell my soul to the devil.” Of course, that’s only an expression. Until it isn’t. Until it becomes a reality. In America today, one is left to wonder.
Woven through a large segment of our society is a complete disregard for both fact and truth. We have become a people victimized and defeated by deceit. Perhaps victim is too generous a description. After all, we accepted deceit when we elected Donald Trump as president. The “Make America Great Again” cry was not just a campaign slogan. It was the rallying lie. For America was already great. But everything based on a lie eventually crumbles. And since Trump’s election America’s greatness has only dwindled on the world stage. Our allies watch in wonder as our president is played by one adversary after another—Russia, China, North Korea. We are learning with some regret that narcissism and buffoonery do not make America great. And fraying our long standing alliances makes the whole world weak. Where is Daniel Webster when we really need him?
Perhaps for the nation the bill has not yet come due. In the meantime, the effects of selling America’s soul continue unabated, as hypocrisy, fraud and treachery emanate from the highest political offices, turning Washington D.C. into a city of prevarication. Explanations for alleged illegalities, such as the infamous Trump Tower meeting, change so rapidly they do not even come full circle. Rather, they descend in an unending downward spiral. On a daily basis we listen to President Trump lie, then double down on those lies and then lie about lying.
His press secretary, Sarah Sanders, forsakes the customary political spin in order to blatantly compound the president’s dishonesty. When asked at a cabinet meeting in July whether Russia is still targeting the U.S., we were able to see and hear Trump answer, “No.” Yet Sanders informed us that what we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears never really happened. Had she been capable of intellectual integrity, her statement would have been grievously offensive. As it is, it was merely absurd—and the take away distressing. Apparently it is not just the news that’s fake. Even our experiences are. In less than two years we have moved way beyond the fiction of the “largest inauguration crowd in history,”—another claim we were able to disprove with our own eyes. As it turns out, the inauguration fiction was merely a preamble of things to come.
Examples can be cited indicting nearly every cabinet officer and presidential appointee, both those who have departed their positions as well as their replacements. The Trump Administration, from cabinet officers to closest advisors to attorneys, all share something in common. And it is not fealty to their boss. Trump has surrounded himself with an avaricious crowd who place their own good above that of the country. Whether their greed is for money, or power, or influence, or merely to cement an ideology, they each have their reasons for selling their souls. Nor are those who left the Administration modern day versions of Jabez Stone. He regretted the deal he made with Scratch. I doubt that many former administration officials regret having joined team Trump in the first place.
Of course, all is not lost. The economy continues to improve as it did through most of President Obama’s time in office. And for Trump personally, although he remains one of the most unpopular presidents in American history, his ratings are strong among what is called his “base”—irrationally so, given his amorality, constant lies and astounding incompetence. And, of course, his most fundamental promise of draining the swamp was, arguably, his most disingenuous. Maybe it’s too soon to cry out for Daniel Webster. After all, we still have Congress.
Then again, the Republicans in Congress have completely abdicated their constitutional obligation to serve as a check and balance to the Trump administration. Enfolding his arms around Vladimir Putin, Trump placed the good of Russia (and most likely himself) above the good of America. By embracing the enemy of the state, Trump, himself, became the enemy. Still Congress does nothing. What other explanation exists than to acknowledge that they, too, have sold their souls to the devil? And what did they get in return? Paul Ryan got a tax cut, while Mitch McConnell got two Supreme Court nominees (although one might be tempted to wonder why he did not hold out for a little charisma).
Speaking of the Supreme Court, much has been made of Brett Kavanaugh’s lying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Perhaps no single lie stands out more brazenly than his response to the question about the sex game known as the Devil’s Triangle. Unflinchingly, Kavanaugh engaged the classic telltale mark of a liar. He paused and darted his eyes up to the right. One could almost see his mind whirling for a plausible answer. In that attempt he failed, instead proffering the absurd response that it was a drinking game.
It is difficult to ascertain what others, such as Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy received. And it is truly baffling to ponder what Lindsay Graham got in return for his soul. Maybe it was just the thrill of dealing with the devil—akin to the excitement of winning the lottery. Whatever the explanation, Scratch is now present and active in all three branches of government, and a cry is beginning to rise throughout the land, “Where is Daniel Webster now that we really need him?”
When Benét reinvented the Faustian legend he sought to accomplish two laudable goals. On the positive side his story intended to stir a patriotic sense of truth and justice; to suggest that politics was still a noble calling; to believe that a senator who is committed to placing the good of the country above personal or partisan power, might also be able to deal a decisive defeat to evil.
The second goal was a diabolical warning: The pact is sealed and the devil will have his due. Even if this Administration does not answer to Congress, eventually it will have to answer to Scratch. Without much difficulty one can already hear the voices of Donald Trump, Sarah Sanders, Scott Pruitt, Betsy Devos, John Bolton as well as countless elected officials wailing loudly, “Where is Daniel Webster when we really need him?” But they will discover that reaching into myth and legend is of no avail.
Trump sold his soul to become president. Some might argue it was a fair trade. After all the Presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. Others might argue that the devil got the short end of that deal. Still others might suggest this whole discussion is an exercise in silly superstition, for many people no longer believe in the devil. But one thing emerges with absolute clarity: The patriotism and oratory of Daniel Webster has been silenced and is unlikely to return and reanimate a moribund Republican party.
On closer analysis there is yet another, less encouraging conclusion. It is something that even Benét did not anticipate. What if Scratch is the one occupying the Oval Office? That would explain a lot, not the least of which being the quotidian and ubiquitous falsehoods. After all, one of Satan’s nicknames is “Father of lies.” Clearly Satan is real. And just as clearly he has taken up residence in Washington—whatever his specific address. His hand is detected behind nearly every White House tweet. How ironic that the devil is the one who has truly mastered the art of the deal! Fable has morphed into reality, and this time no one will defeat Scratch. For I’m afraid that not even an entire senate full of Daniel Websters would be sufficient. We should not be asking “Where is Daniel Webster?” The real question is—was it worth the soul of America?
“God bless America” has become the norm for ending presidential speeches and even most campaign speeches. In and of itself it is innocuous. But it is also a blatant attempt to manipulate the listeners, at least those who believe in God. President Nixon first used the expression to deflect attention from his criminal activities surrounding the Watergate scandal. President Reagan used it to inflame the passions of patriotism. And now, in spite of the fact that it has become commonplace, it serves to suggest that every word in the speech that preceded it must be true because the speaker believes in “God and Country.” But there is a problem. Maybe the expression is not so innocuous after all, for it creates and then plays into a myopic vision of the world.
If there is one word that encapsulates this past election it is xenophobia—in its broadest sense. Not just fear of foreigners, but fear of anyone and anything that is different. Fear of people who are different whether because of their place of origin, the language they speak, the color of their skin, their sex or sexual orientation, their faith, their political beliefs. This broad definition of xenophobia also encompasses fear of international trade, of political and cultural exchange, even of scientific knowledge. In this kind of fear and uncertainty it is much more difficult to determine who are we as a people. Everything seems to have become unfamiliar and threatening. So we define ourselves by our past.
I am not convinced that the values of the right and the left are all that different. What I am convinced of is that we fear each other. But there is a solution. Getting to know an individual or group of people who are different from us; placing them and ourselves on the same plane; accepting them as equals; this is how we eliminate fear. By way of example, the reason that same sex marriage is so acceptable to most younger Americans is that they have grown up with friends who are gay, lesbian, bi and, more recently, transgendered. But when we ghettoize our existence, when we wall each other out—or in—we feed fear. And in that world of fear, who we are as a people becomes less attractive.
It is not surprising that the overarching xenophobia that drove the recent election centered around immigration. Immigrants are the ultimate other. They look, speak and worship differently than we do. And they come here to share (some would say take) our prosperity, our way of life. But this is the great conundrum for the Christian, and by extension for all other Americans.
Prior to WWII, most political and religious groups accepted that nations had an inherent right to limit immigration. After witnessing the devastation of the Nazis, and the Fascists and the threat posed by Communism, the Catholic Church made a profound move away from that right. This was partially influenced by the Church’s universality, and by its own immigrant experience, especially here in the United States. More importantly, though, the Catholic Church was evolving a body of social teaching that began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum.” In 1963 John XXIII declared in “Pacem in Terris” an absolute right to emigrate, and by 1967 Pope Paul VI made clear in “Populorum Progressio” that an individual’s right to emigrate supersedes a nation’s right to close its borders. Over the last fifty years, the Church has only reinforced its defense of the rights of immigrants to move where they will.
Although not popular with politicians or nativists, the Church’s teaching should surprise neither a believer nor a student of humanity. What country we are born into is purely an accident of birth. The land does not belong to us. We are its stewards, not its owners. For the believer all the earth belongs to God. For the non-believer it belongs to the whole of humanity. Immigration, along with globalization, must be seen as part of God’s plan for a universal humanity, one in which everyone partakes of and shares the world’s resources and where the few do not prosper at the expense of the many—not only within one country, but around the globe.
The Cold War that emerged at the end of WWII brought with it terms such as “Super Power” and “Leader of the free world”—words and ideas that became part of our daily lexicon. Whatever positive imagery arises from them, they also carry an unmistakable downside—dividing the world into us vs. them, and further deepening suspicion and fear. But we need not be restricted to the concepts that rise from those terms. Our imaginations remain unlimited and we possess the creativity to conceive the world any way we choose. The founding of the United Nations with its Declaration on Human Rights proves this. We have the ability. We seem to have lost the will.
I am glad to have been born in the United States and I appreciate my life here. But I do not believe in America first. America is a land of great opportunity, but it is not inherently better than other countries. We profoundly proclaimed our right to freedom and self-determination with words that have inspired people the world over: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights articulated here belong to ALL people, not just Americans.
Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have long been beacons to the world, enshrining the concepts of liberty and justice. But when we surrender to the grasp of xenophobia they are reduced to the status of dusty documents, illuminating neither us nor the world. We should not accept America first. We should only accept America together. To borrow the language of fictional Camelot, all countries should be seated at a round table where all are equal.
TRUMP TO PRIEST: “I Will Kill Myself!”
October 20, 2016
When my phone rang at 6:00 AM this morning, I had just stepped out of the shower. The screen indicated an unknown New York telephone number. I was about to push the reject button when curiosity won the day. And what a day!
“Good morning, Rev. Messenger. I hope I did not wake you. My name is Kellyanne Conway. Mr Trump would like to speak to you.”
It was way too early for a practical joke. Besides, I’m not a Trump supporter. Suspecting this was the work of one of my friends, I decided to play along.
“And why would he want to speak with me?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” she replied. That was my first indication that twisted truth was on the line. She answered media questions about Trump in just the same way.
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll speak with him.”
“Hello, Rev. Messenger, this is Donald Trump.”
“Good morning, Mr. Trump. What can I do for you?”
“I need someone to talk to,” he replied.
“Because you’re a priest and a good counselor.”
“Why would you say that? You don’t even know me.”
“As you know, I’m very well liked. And I have friends, many, many friends in Los Angeles. They tell me good things about you.”
“I have to be honest with you, Mr. Trump…” He interrupted.
“Call me Donald.”
I continued, “I’m a Hillary supporter.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re a priest and I have a problem. Will you at least listen?”
This was a man I did not respect and I was tempted to decline. But he was right about the priest part. Listening to a soul in distress comes with the job. The voice I heard was desolate and full of anxiety. And I was intrigued. This did not sound like the Donald Trump I had seen at campaign rallies or read about in the papers. The Trump of the campaign trail would never admit to having problems.
“Go ahead,” I said.
“Look. I never wanted to be president. I started this as a way to help Hillary. I’ve known her a long time. She’s a good person. Hillary and Bill were even at my third wedding. They both said very nice things about me.”
“You haven’t been saying very good things about her lately,” I prodded.
“That’s because she’s started saying mean things about me. At first I liked her. I started my campaign to force the other Republicans out, because I’m a winner. That’s what I do. I win. I thought low energy JEB would survive and then I could find an escape. But that fool quit and I couldn’t stop winning. All those other guys, and I include Carly Fiorina in that, they all turned out to be losers. Now I’m stuck.”
“You might not win, Mr. Trump. Hillary is way up in the polls. And that Access Hollywood tape only made matters worse.”
“I have a secret. I leaked that tape.”
I did not know where this conversation was going, but I did not believe him. I asked, “Why?”
“I was looking for a way out. I couldn’t quit. I’ve never done that in my life. That’s why I didn’t respond to the tape until my family forced me to. I thought maybe the useless Republican leadership would get rid of me. I could live with that. But they proved what I’ve been saying about them all along, especially Paul Ryan. He is disloyal and incompetent. They never wanted me.”
After years as a priest, I bought into the “nothing new under the sun” idea. This conversation changed that. What Trump told me on the phone was as bizarre as his candidacy itself. I tired to be reasonable.
“Mr. Trump, there’s no shame in dropping out of the race. Tell people you changed your mind. Tell them it’s not what you thought. Being president is not what you really want after all. They’ll accept that. I’m sure some people will be disappointed. But those who see you as real, who know you speak your mind, they won’t have a problem.”
“Listen, Reverend. I need you to understand. I can’t quit. I have to think of my fans. I have many of them. Millions all over the country. No Republican ever won as many votes in the primaries as I did. They want me to stay in the race. But I also can’t lose.”
“I’m not an expert in politics, Mr. Trump, but if you stay in you will lose.”
“And if I do, I will kill myself.”
I wasn’t sure if he was serious, but then I was one of those people who did not take his candidacy seriously, either. So I cautiously asked, “What will you accomplish by suicide?”
“I’ll go out hugely. Just like I’ve lived. I’ve never lost before—at anything. I always found a way to win, even when I cheated on my previous wives. This will be my way out.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“My life’s a mess right now. My daughter Tiffany thinks I’m a pig, Ivanka is tired of defending me and Melania is not even talking to me. Did you see her at the debate last night? She said if I lose the race she’ll leave me. Only my sons understand me. I raised them right. They’re just like me.”
“About that debate.”
“I know what you’re going to ask. You want to know why I won’t accept the results when Hillary wins. Because I won’t have to. I won’t be around to give a concession speech. That’s what I meant about keeping people in suspense.”
“But Mr. Trump…”
“Look, Reverend. I know I can’t win. Then, for the rest of my life I’d be known as a loser. That’s not who Donald Trump is. I built a great business with just a small loan from my father. It was all me. And I have properties all over world. Beautiful, massive properties worth billions of dollars. I won’t become a loser. I’ll kill myself if that happens.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
“I already told you it’s because you are a priest. After I shoot myself you’ll know the reason and you can explain it to everyone. You can help people understand me. If I kill myself that is the only thing people will remember. They’ll forget about the weak Republican leadership, the rigged election. Maybe they’ll blame the media. But they’ll only say one thing about me—Donald Trump was huge. He even chose his own way out.”
I suddenly realized that I was dripping wet from my shower. I was standing with the towel in my hands and no telephone. Had I just been speaking with Donald Trump? Either my imagination had gone wild, or I was the victim of a cruel science fiction time warp.
If only the country could warp back to June 6, 2015. Maybe we could start over. Maybe Trump would not run. Maybe Donald Trump would not commit suicide on November 8, 2016. Maybe.
Of course, children were able to recognize Spot, they knew his name and could speak the simple sentence about him running around before they could read it. They were able to do all that because of…well, let’s call it “Speech” 101. In a very logical fashion, we learn to speak using single syllable words and employing them as building blocks. An elemental form of communication, their sentence structure moves quickly, holding and directing the attention of an audience assuring that people do not find themselves lost in a complicated and unfamiliar lexicon. But only two year olds regularly and predominantly use one and two syllable words when speaking.
Most people, having graduated from Literacy 101 and Speech 101, utilize an ever expanding vocabulary, blending words with many different syllables to communicate a richer complexity of ideas. But not everybody.
When it comes to presidential politics all citizens have a responsibility to examine the speech patterns of candidates. It is a primary means of discerning their capabilities. Among all the legitimate questions confronting the American electorate today, two fly under the radar, despite their urgency: “What is the preponderance of monosyllabic use in a politician’s speech?” and “Why?”
Donald Trump has turned single and double syllable words into an art form. “I have great plans. I won’t tell you what they are.” “Trust me, it’s gonna be huge.” “I have a very big brain.” “This looks very bad.” “I’m very rich.” “I don’t like losers.” “People love me.” “I know more about ISIS than the generals.” Now how did that pesky three syllable word slip his lips? Oh well, it seems the first question has been answered, but I suggest that preponderance is an understatement.
Determining the “why” is far more difficult. At first glance one might be forgiven for concluding that Donald Trump has not progressed beyond toddlerhood. It is, after all, hardly coincidental that like the two year old, his use of one and two syllable words centers on himself: “I’m a winner.” “I’m very, very smart.”
But there is another possibility, far more disconcerting, as to why Donald Trump has homesteaded in the monosyllabic world. He thinks Americans are stupid. Any serious discussion with Trump calls into question his intellectual prowess, or lack thereof, as well as his emotional stability. By using the simplest possible words, he tries to exploit the attention of his audience, quickly moving them off inconvenient topics and thereby forestalling, if not eliminating, any serious analysis. The danger for the country is self-evident, but for Trump it has so far been successful. For a year now the media has provided Trump with extraordinary and unfiltered coverage, leaving most people desperately seeking shelter and asking “Is there some defense against this auditory assault?”
Ironically, the Dick and Jane books suggest a clue. Place hands on ear. Hold tight. Lest you hear Trump speak. Now that’s very smart.
Democracy, certainly the American version of it, is predicated upon the principle of one person, one vote. No one individual possesses a greater claim than any other on the outcome of an election. At its core, democracy is essentially egalitarian. But this guarantee of equality is eroded when elections are determined by the amount of money available in a campaign. That is a lesson we should have learned in the 1970’s.
The Watergate scandal toppled an administration and led to the only Presidential resignation in U.S. history scarring the reputation of Richard Nixon, arguably a great statesman. But it did more. At the time, the scandal awakened Congress and the American people to the corrupting influence of money in politics, proving that this corruption is not just theoretical. The buying of politicians and political influence is intrinsically perverted and leads inevitably to a political and social landscape that is as dark as the night that follows the day.
The U.S. Supreme Court, at least five Justices, appear ignorant to historical reality. In yesterday’s decision McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” Ironically, and not just a touch cynically, that is exactly the right that the Supreme Court has now stripped from most Americans.
I am baffled by one aspect of this decision: Why didn’t the Supreme Court just abolish elections altogether and merely put candidates up for auction? Oh, come to think of it, they did. How many Americans have $3.6 million to contribute to an election? People might do well to ask themselves whether their individual votes equate with participation compared to that kind of wealth.
There is an element of incomprehensibility in the court’s decision. Money is a tangible object, but the Justices want us to believe that spending it to influence elections is an exercise of free speech. This suggests that some people are more free than others because they possess more wealth. It also makes slaves of the poor, reducing the average American to a plantation worker. And if I am not mistaken, we already fought a war over that.
America is quickly falling, if it hasn’t already, into a world of oppression. An abyss where the oligarchy control all aspects of government—legislative, executive and judicial. We’ve seen this before, throughout history and around the globe. And we know the result. People will put up with oppression for only so long before they revolt. We did it ourselves over two hundred years ago. The last line of defense should the Supreme Court, but it has now fallen prey to the power and whim of the wealthy. As such, more and more citizens will begin to realize how powerless and disenfranchised they truly are.
I fear we are nearing a new revolution. Since the court’s ruling in McCutcheon infringes on the fundamental rights of the governed, maybe it is time to revisit our own Declaration of Independence. That founding document states, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government…” Then again there might a less drastic solution.
In American democracy the government is the people. That’s why we have elections in the first place: to vote in and out of office those who, respectively, do or do not represent us. It is a reality today that running a campaign costs money. Perhaps the time has come for the government to equally fund all campaigns—the federal government for federal candidates and state governments for state candidates—and to eliminate all private funding. This is money that belongs to all the people, not just a privileged few. I realize that such a proposal will fall on many a deaf ear. But elections should be determined by the power of a candidate’s ideas and convictions, not the size of his or her bank account.
Money talks, but it is not speech.
Al Gore, Jr. was destined to be president, literally. He was not only raised in Washington, D.C., he was born there. His was father served as a U.S. Representative and subsequently as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee. As little Al grew up, he learned to converse with representatives, senators and ambassadors. He served in the military, was elected to the House of Representatives and to the Senate. Finally, he was elected Vice-president of the United States. Al was on his way.
Mitt Romney was also destined to be president, though not quite as literally. His father was governor of Michigan, a far cry from the halls of Washington. He learned to converse with businessmen and he became rich. Mitt failed in his quest to become a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. However, in spite of the fact that his father failed to pass on the importance of sharing tax returns, Mitt succeeded in being elected governor of Massachusetts. His destiny seemed less tied to his political heritage than to his visions of self-importance. He felt America owed it to him. Still, Mitt was on his way.
I was destined to be pope. It is true that my parents were neither famous nor powerful, but I had something that Gore and Romney did not. As I was growing up, everyone told me my mother was a living saint. I went to church more often than Jesus, and my parents received more religious literature than the local parish. I went to the seminary and learned to converse with nuns and priests, even a few bishops and cardinals. Finally, I was ordained a priest. I was on my way.
Then came disappointment for all three of us. I came to realize that I had no real prospects of being elected pope, so I settled for parish life. Gore deflected the chants of his followers who called him the “real president” and settled for cooling the planet. Romney realized that he is not everyone’s beloved hero, and so he blames.
One thing I do not share in common with Al Gore and Mitt Romney, is that I keep dreaming. Not about being pope. My dream is that I never have to hear Romney speak again. It is such a peaceful sleep. There are no lies in this dream, so there are no fact-checkers. There is no arrogant wealth, so nobody else is demeaned or made to feel worthless. Indeed, in this dream there is no “us v. them” of any kind.
But what we wake up to, is at least as important as what we dream. Yesterday I awakened to the cold reality of Mitt Romney still speaking. I heard him wallowing in his disillusionment and self-importance. I heard him saying what a wonderful candidate he was. I heard him blaming Obama, Obama’s team and especially the 47%. By the way, he lost by more than 47%.
Now I am left with a terrible choice: living in a waking world where Mitt Romney is not silent, or sleeping.
Good night, my friends!
In both court and theatre, the jester or fool had a secondary role beyond mere entertainment. They were often artful and witty satirists, deftly ridiculing both king and guest. As noted in the writings of Shakespeare, the jester was a skillful actor whose cleverness was an inherent quality and a pre-requisite to success. In his play Twelfth Night, he describes the jester Feste as “wise enough to play the fool.” In real life, a story is told of George Buchanan, jester to James the VI of Scotland, who tricked the king (briefly) into abdicating the throne to the jester, himself!
Danny Kaye, arguably one of the most gifted entertainers of all time, gave a convincing performance in the 1956 film “The Court Jester”. In this movie, he joins with freedom fighters to expose the illegitimate king and cast off the shackles of tyranny. In the process he rescues and restore the rightful heir to the throne. Indeed, there was a social, entertaining, political, and literary role for court jesters and fools.
By contrast, buffoons and idiots are bereft of any social grace or value. In general, they do not possess any inherent qualities or wisdom. Not that they cannot also be entertaining. The difference is an oft-quoted distinction not to be forgotten: The jester or fool is someone we laugh with, the buffoon or idiot is someone we laugh at. The jester knows he is a fool and does not take his antics seriously. The buffoon, usually unaware that he is an idiot, takes himself very seriously, assuming delusional importance.
A casual observer of modern America would suggest that the jester has returned. In entertainment, one need only look to television and the news media. They continually foist the absurdities of Donald Trump on an unsuspecting public. But is Trump a jester?
A careful observer would recognize not the resurgence of a jester, but the ubiquitous presence of a buffoon. Perhaps Trump intended to perform the role of jester or fool. Personally, I think that is too kind. A more accurate assessment is that Donald Trump is a buffoon who has clearly crossed the line. He has become merely an idiot.
Trump’s “birther” nonsense reached new heights when he made his offer to donate $5 million dollars to charity if President Obama would turn over his academic records and passport applications. Of course, it was not the campaign “game changer” that Trump promised. It was merely another example of his insatiable desire for attention. He proved this in his reaction to last night’s election tweeting that the election was “a total sham and a travesty”, that “the electoral college is a disaster for democracy” (even though Barak Obama won the majority of the popular vote, also!), and finally claiming, “We are not a democracy”.
Jester, fool, buffoon or idiot, there is something quite serious at play here. Trump will never achieve the self-importance that drives him to absurdity, both in thought and action. As the clever quip states, Trump “is a legend in his own mind.” Outside that mind, he gets a lot of attention. Therefore, it seems appropriate to question the media.
Is there any merit or justification to the attention Trump receives from television radio and print? If he contributed anything of value to American society, even if it were only being a jester, the answer would be yes. But he does not. The American media are simply playing into the hands of a self-indulgent buffoon. The fact that he is also a megalomaniac, makes all this attention dangerous. But there may be hope.
Trump’s real estate investments are ubiquitous, his buildings eponymously named. When Hurricane Sandy hit shore in Atlantic City, she seemed to take dead aim at Trump Plaza. It was quite a sight. The lights that usually spell out Trump’s name were like the lights in his head. They were out. Darkened. Nobody home. Perhaps the various media outlets could take a cue from Hurricane Sandy.
Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, stripping the fun from life and politics. Maybe America would be well served by some incarnation of the court jester, a person wise enough to play the fool and entertain. One thing is certain, however. We do not need a buffoon. We do not need “Donald Trump, American Idiot”!
What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
In my last blog, I challenged a statement by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. I suggested that the document disguises a clear bias in favor of Republican political candidates. Nonetheless, the statement cleverly avoids transgressing IRS regulations that prohibit religious organizations from engaging in partisan politics. The rules are the result of granting tax exempt status to religious organizations. In the process, these same regulations should safeguard the free exercise of religion for everyone. That would seem to include not politically coercing congregations during worship services.
Sadly, some individual bishops, don’t seem to understand. Case in point, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Illinois. On April 14, 2012, he preached a homily that was an extreme affront both to the Gospel and to the Constitution.
Jenky does not seem to appreciate the Constitution or the world of debate. Does he truly see himself as so self-important that he (as well as the Bishops’ conference) is always right about everything? That only bishops have the answers to all of life’s questions? He must have failed the course on logic in the seminary, for he appears ignorant of the basic principle of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. The building blocks of compromise and consensus. But his diseased logic is minor compared to the symptom.
He castigated politicians who disagree with the Bishops’ position on health care reform. He then proceeded to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. He certainly is entitled to approve or disapprove of any politician. He is even obligated to explain Catholic values (as he understands them), and how they apply to policies under consideration by various government agencies and elected officials. After all, freedom of religion does not equate with the elimination of religion. Politics and religion should not be adversaries in the lives of the citizenry.
However, Bishop Jenky is not entitled to abuse the role of preaching the Word of God by using it for partisan politics. He has no right to belittle and demean the President or any other individual politician. He betrays his own corruption by attempting to tell his congregation that they must oppose one candidate and vote for another.
Contraception is at the heart of Jenky’s tirade. Theologically, the Catholic Church is on dicey ground when it comes to this subject. Already, more than 80% of Catholics practice some form of artificial contraception in their sexual activity. Putting that aside, Jenky’s actions are not really about faith or theology.
It seems to me that he is simply drunk with the perception of his own power. His preaching makes a mockery of religion and a caricature of himself.
I do not wish the people of Peoria to suffer because of the vicious rhetoric of a misguided bishop. But perhaps the only way to rein in such hateful speech is for the IRS to investigate and ultimately strip the Diocese of its tax exempt status.
In the meantime, let’s hope that Jenky’s routine only plays in Peoria.
What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
Two recent statements, one by a Bishops’ committee, the other by an individual bishop, raise serious questions about the competence and integrity of U.S. Catholic leadership. The first deals with religious freedom and the Constitution, the second with the upcoming election.
One of the beauties of the American experiment in democracy is the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment. No freedom, however, can exist unbridled. There are limits. The question will always be whether the common good outweighs the actions of any specific religion. It is part of the price we pay for freedom, democracy and diversity. The alternative is the failed experiences of Christendom and other religiously controlled governments.
In the United States today, as in times past, there are those who would seek—contrary to the Constitution—to severely restrict religious liberty and ban all religious reference from public life. However, the April 12, 2012 statement issued by the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty is both alarmist and disingenuous. The government is not engaged in an anti-Catholic war.
In sum, the committee’s statement is less than defensible. In part, it is dishonest. The selective quote from Pope Benedict XVI implies that the Department of Health and Human Services requires religious organizations, such as hospitals, to participate in intrinsically evil practices. Such language is extreme and misleading. Whatever the Church’s teaching on contraception, it is not an intrinsically evil act.
A careful reading of the ad hoc committee’s statement exposes a thinly veiled intrusion into partisan politics. It is, in reality, an attempt to arouse fear in Catholic citizens and direct their vote toward Republican candidates. As such, the bishops come close to violating IRS regulations. They do not quite cross the line. However, perhaps because the bishops mask their true intent, they dance so close to the edge as to lose their balance. Collectively, the U.S. Bishops are writing and speaking their way into irrelevance.
The heart of the Gospel, and the message that drove the teachings and actions of Jesus, was and must be non-partisan. It also must be rooted in authentic and compelling theology. The committee’s statement is neither. Would that they engaged solid theological principles and applied them equally to both political parties!
That would be something worth reading and listening to!
The 24 hour news cycle has also contributed to the flip of the presumption principle. In a rush to scoop other networks and to cement the attention of the viewer, cable news, in particular, frequently and irrationally condemns and convicts persons accused of crime, leaving little or no room for the finding of fact. This finding of fact is what a public trial is supposed to be about, but cable news has become its own courtroom. When the jury pool is comprised of people who have already convicted the accused, how fair or just is justice?
A third, and even more insidious, factor originates in the halls of government. Ever since 9/11 various branches of the government have played on the nation's fear. No one wants to see planes hijacked, buildings blown up and innocent civilians killed. Terrorism strikes fear in the hearts of all. But should we also allow terrorism to strike paralysis in the mind? Our justice system is designed to protect the rights of all, the victim and the accused. When the pursuit of justice is slanted in either direction, the scales become unbalanced. When it is driven by fear, the collective mind becomes unhinged.
This past Wednesday, November 17, the first Guantánamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court was acquitted on 284 of 285 counts of conspiracy and murder. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. He was accused of participating the 1998 bombings of United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania--bombings in which 224 people were killed. Captured in Pakistan in 2004, Ghailani was held for nearly five years in a "black site" run by the CIA--far away from the peering and pesky eyes of U.S. justice--and then at Guantánamo.
Immediately following the verdict, pundits and politicians began parsing the trial and condemning the Obama Administration for proceeding in a civilian court instead of a military tribunal. It is much easier to admit illicitly obtained evidence in military courts. And, after all, everyone knows that Ghailani is guilty. Right?
Whoa! Back up a bit. Many, if not most, of those who are condemning the Obama Administration's decision are not at all interested in truth or justice. They are merely provocateurs seeking to capitalize on the fear of the American people. Even my friend David Kelsey over at Examiner.com got into the act with an article that was more inciting than informative. These critics seem to forget that there have been other civilian trials of suspected terrorists that have resulted in guilty verdicts.
In this latest trial could the unthinkable be true? Could Ghailani actually be innocent? Or on a darker note, could the unspeakable be true? Could U.S. agents actually be engaging in illegal torture to elicit information that they have already deemed as fact? This was the real problem with the evidence against Ghailani--much of it was obtained illegally and so was excluded from trial. There is a reason that not even the government is supposed to be above the law. The integrity of the justice system must be maintained at all cost. At this point I have to wonder if the Administration's critics are not simply driven by some kind of self-serving limelighting.
It is not extreme to suggest that the country itself is at stake in these proceedings, and not because terrorists might be set free. The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document that stands as a model and example for all. If its guarantees are restricted only to U.S. citizens, it becomes capricious and arrogant and our moral standing in the world is diminished.
The concept that a person is innocent until proved guilty is not uniquely American. It is foundational law in many countries including Canada, England, France, Brazil and Russia. It is also enshrined in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the United Kingdom and the United States have chipped away at the presumption of innocence, it must remain a bulwark in our legal system, regardless of what various commentators might suggest.
The Bush Administration led the American public into a legal tunnel. Unlike the carnival, however, this tunnel was not filled with artificial amusement. It held real dangers and it did not exit to the lights and thrills of the amusement park.
Rather than being pilloried by the press and other right-wing critics, the Obama Administration should be heralded for having the moral integrity to restore justice to its rightful place in the fight against terror. As a country we must have faith in our Constitution and the courage of our convictions. In the end, the loss of truth and freedom is greater than the loss of life.
There is much to bemoan in the current U.S. economy, as well as that in other parts of the globe. As a result, pundits from across the spectrum are analyzing this past Tuesday's election, spinning the outcome to support their own biased perspectives. That is not what I intend, although I would suggest that the U.S. election was more about economics and unemployment, than anything else. The Tea Party, of course, believes the election was about economics AND the "anything else"--particularly their desire, nay, their demand that they be allowed to pursue their individual passions and the rest of the country be damned. It is precisely here that the Tea Party runs smack against the values of the Gospel.
For months the American public has been subjected to Tea Party activists who have espoused a philosophy of government and economics that has gone largely unchallenged in principle. Those who have opposed the Tea Party have done so primarily by focusing on policy and arguing about the value of the stimulus bill, the financial and health care reforms, etc. While acknowledging the dismal employment statistics, they have suggested that things would be worse without some of the emergency legislation passed by Congress. But there are deeper issues at work in the country, issues that go to the heart of the Gospel, and this is where I believe the Tea Party must be challenged.
We frequently hear activists speak of smaller government, using phrases such as "keeping the government out of our pockets." A very careful analysis of the language and issues of the Tea Party unveils a thinly disguised self-centeredness that demonstrates no concern whatsoever for others. In reality, it is simply another incarnation of the "me" mentality, but from a different generation. They want to get everything out of life and keep it for themselves. The hubris of this approach was on display during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The same people who were decrying government spending and regulation of industry were demanding more and faster federal response, not to mention their demand for federal dollars and prosecution of the responsible parties. I guess that when your world revolves only around yourself, you don't need to be rational or consistent.
It has been a long time since politicians have spoken of the common good--or at least a long time since using that specific language. Even President Obama, with all the hope of a new future that he brought to national politics, does not use the term. I realize that there are multiple ways of interpreting the Scriptures. How else could anyone preach the absurdity of literalism! Still, at the heart of the Gospel is the concept of the common good, so it is baffling how the core of the Tea Party movement, those Christians who claim religious superiority over others, can dismiss with such apparent ease everything that Jesus stands for.
Take, for example, the miracle of the loaves and fish. A quick side note: this is the only miracle that occurs in all four Gospels, so it is uniquely significant. Whatever explanation one offers for this miracle, it is a demonstration of sharing with and caring for those in need. When Jesus told the disciples to give food to the multitude, they objected. In a phenomenally prescient expression of Tea Party politics, they protested against spending their own money to feed the others--those people who did not have the foresight to bring their own food! Sounds like a page out of Sarah Palin's, and by extension, the Tea Party's handbook. The problem is that their handbook is not the Gospel.
It has become practically a national sport to attack any idea that sounds "socialist" such as the redistribution of wealth. Of course, that is pure ignorance and exactly what the Tea Party preys upon. Pity the poor Christians who do not recognize the socialism in the words of Jesus, or the redistribution of wealth in the miracle of the loaves and fish. In this miracle, with just a few loaves and fish, Jesus demonstrated what happens when people do not think only of themselves or put themselves first. Not only did everyone eat their fill, but there was food left over.
For the record, Jesus did not preach that we should take as much as we can from this world and everyone else be damned. This kind of self-entered individualism inevitably leads to division and a sense of superiority or disdain. It also leads to a misguided independence. Sadly, though, like cholera it is highly contagious and possesses the ability to infect an entire nation. The Tea Party are among those people who believe that America is the best in everything and does not need anyone else. As much as I love my country, this is delusional. We certainly have much to offer the rest of the world, but then we also have much to learn from the rest of the world.
The Tea Party takes its name from the 1773 revolutionary protest in Boston when colonists threw English tea into the harbor. Instead of tossing it overboard, it seems that today's tea party has been drinking the stuff. The story of the loaves and fish does not tell us what Jesus gave the people to drink, but it's a good guess it was not tea!