Monday, July 23, 2018

Beyond a reasonable doubt, it's a big country in need of citizens


Stony Man Trail, Shenandoah National Forest


     The pump at the gas station was old. So after I dipped my credit card, when it came time to choose a fuel type, I mashed my fingers on the "87." Nothing. I paused, puzzled, then some residual muscle memory took over and I lifted the metal hook the nozzle had perched on. The pump sprang to life.
     Nor did the pump, after dispensing the gas, ask me whether I want a receipt—I've learned to refuse them; why print one just to throw it away?
     The receipt automatically spat out, and told me we had paused in Hurricane, West Virginia. I added it to the list of enigmatic Mountain State place names like Nitro and Mossy.
     "Hurricane?" The ocean is 500 miles away. 
     What you call something, and what it actually is or represents, can be two very different things. Turns out the town is named for windblown trees.
     It was odd last week to track President Trump's Helsinki performance at a remove, while on vacation. Missing the original event, following the radiating shock waves bouncing around Twitter. People kept calling it "treason" though I don't see how that could be. "Fawning" maybe. Not an attractive quality in a person, never mind a president. But not a crime either.   
     Hugely significant, for a day, then not at all, as the smoke cleared and there he was, untouched. The liquid metal man in Terminator 2. His supporters, gulled dupes clinging to their charlatan, undeterred.
     I don't want to insult them. There's too much of that. Several times we saw a billboard, "Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Jesus is Alive." I smiled, admiring the subtle jab. You'll believe what we do, it suggests, if you've got any sense.
     Really? He sure ain't alive for me. Or for lots of folks, and believing Jesus is alive is not reason, but faith.
     You can't drive five miles in rural America without some farmer shaking his religion at you, and not nicely either. Do they win converts with that? Or are they just venting their frustration at other people insisting on believing differently than they do. It's a threat, and they lash out, calling them irrational, even though irrationality is a definition of faith.

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Traitor Week #7: Donald Trump—"No puppet; you're the puppet"

      The traitors we've looked at this week have one thing in common: betrayal of the country to which—or, in Judas' case, the person to whom—they supposedly had allegiance.
     Some did this by fomenting revolt. Some welcomed invaders, or sold information to hostile powers, or friends.
     What has Trump done?
     The short, candid, answer is: nobody knows.
     Maybe nothing.
     Maybe he just really likes Vladimir Putin. He certainly acts that way. No crime there. It isn't a crime to fawn.
     That said, Trump certainly acts like a man who's done something wrong. His continual assaults on the Justice Department, FBI, and particularly the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.
    If Trump is a criminal, then he's not a very smart one, hanging around the police station, cat-calling the investigators. Lex Luthor the man is not.
    Were I to say, "Trump is a traitor," his supporters would jump up and object that nothing has been proven. And they'd be right. But they, like their leader, are also assailing the process by which what Trump and his associates have done is being investigated. There is no proof he is a traitor. But there is no proof either to support Trump's cries of "witch hunt" mantra and his claims of bias. One email from one FBI agent.  It would be laughable to rational people, an increasingly small subset of America at this point.
     So Traitor Week was a smokescreen? Maybe. I don't know. You can't expect other people to assess the world clear-eyed and then refuse to do so yourself. We don't need to guess, we only need to wait. There is a truth out there, and it will present itself.
    What could that truth be? Perhaps Trump will be found to be deeply in bed, financially, with the Russians. Perhaps there really is a "pee tape." Perhaps his operatives merely huddled with Russian agents, eager to get their hands on the embarrassing Democratic emails the Russians stole, never considering that they were helping a foreign power undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process, as fatal a stab at American democracy as can be imagined.
    We'll find out.
    Honestly, I'm not that interested in what Trump actually did. What is more important, to me, is how indifferent his supporters are to the possibility of Trump treachery. They just don't care. Nothing is going to make them care. This is worse than any meeting with Russians. Their my-side-versus-your-side, dodgeball mentality is a staggering revelation.
    Should it be? A hundred years ago we imprisoned pacifists and deported union leaders. In the 1950s, we were so terrified of the Soviets we adopted their methods, of loyalty oaths and star chambers and secret lists. Johnson lied to Congress to justify the Vietnam War, Nixon scuttled the Paris Peace Talks to help his election chances in 1968. We know far more about Trump's possible treachery than Americans knew at the time of those betrayals.
    Yet we don't feel better off.
    Maybe the horror of the Trump years is not that America became some awful place under his watch, but that a certain segment looked around and realized what we are. The illusion vanishes, the beautiful skin withers, and we see the grinning skull that has been here the whole time.
    Maybe that's it.
    No rush in figuring this out, to be honest. With a voting system hopelessly skewed toward rural Republican voters, I don't harbor much expectation of either flipping Congress this November or defeating Trump in 2020. If you immediately insist that Trump won't be re-elected, then answer this: who'll beat him, and where is that person now? What are they saying and doing? Because it sure isn't resonating now. It's a steady march of Trump Trump Trump and if you cup your ears against that chant and try to detect a warble of Democratic leadership you only hear crickets. It's maddening.
     Sorry to be Debbie Downer. I ran Traitor Week while my wife and I drove our younger son to law school in Virginia. The good news is, it's still a vast, beautiful country. People are still nice, individually. Make eye contact in Ohio and people will smile and nod, even wave.
     A young generation prepares to take up the task from us, and honestly, we have to be optimistic about that, because really, they couldn't do a worse job, could they? Couldn't screw up our country any more resoundingly than we have, could they? An ignorant president with vast, unjustified love for himself, and no concern at all for his country, supported by a devoted swarm of the passionately defrauded. We don't need Robert Mueller to tell us that. Could the next generation do worse than this?
    Of course they could.  There are hells below this one. Keep that in mind.



Saturday, July 21, 2018

Traitor Week #6: Jonathan Pollard—"I never intended or agreed to spy"

Jonathan Pollard
      Jonathan Pollard is the only American ever given a life sentence for providing secrets to an ally. The Naval intelligence officer was arrested in 1985 for passing military secrets to Israel because, as he put it, "the American intelligence establishment collectively endangered Israel's security by withholding crucial information."
    He always insisted, "I never intended or agreed to spy against the United States."
    No matter.
    As Traitor Week ends tomorrow with, of course, the man of the hour, we must realize that it doesn't matter what your intentions are. Or the entity with which you are colluding. Republicans trying to justify Trump's alleged collaboration with the Russians by saying the Russians aren't so bad are badly missing the point. They could be, not our fiercest enemy—as the Russians certainly are—but one of our closest allies, like Israel. Treason is treason. The crime could be a classified cookie recipe given to Canada. 
     It's important to understand why: it isn't so much the specifics of what is being revealed to whom, but the structure being revealed and who else might see it. The information Pollard passed along to the Israelis cast a light on American intelligence practices and procedures, and of course once the Israelis knew them, there was no guarantee where else they might go. And indeed, intelligence officials believe that material leaked by Pollard to Israel eventually found its way to the Soviet Union. 
     It's a shame that the GOP doesn't apply the same "the law's the law" rigidity it directs at every hardworking immigrant who crossed the border illegally decades earlier to the president and his associates. But hypocrisy is the grease on which Trump's America spins.
     So even if you just thought you were accepting the help of friendly Russian intelligence agency with a load of embarrassing emails of your rival in the presidential campaign, what matters is that you undercut your nation's vital interests—say, being able to hold free and fair elections—for your own selfish, private interests, whether those are pro-Israel or pro-yourself. Noble motives don't get you off.
     They might come close. Bill Clinton was about to release Pollard, but his CIA director, George Tenet, threatened to resign if he did—America's intelligence agencies tend to always take espionage more seriously than does the executive branch, Republican or Democratic. 
     During the Clinton administration, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz was a vocal defender of Pollard—a reminder that having the back of traitors isn't new to Dershowitz, if their politics align with his.
     Pollard served 30 years of a life sentence—his wife, implicated in his actions, served three— before Obama commuted his sentence. Thanks Obama. Some Americans felt that Pollard's long sentence was unfair—Chelsea Manning served just seven years after releasing far more damaging documents to Wikileaks. But justice is a crapshoot, and should you get your hand caught in the machinery, the rest of you just might follow that fingertip in. Once you are stuck with an espionage charge, and that jailhouse door clangs behind you, it can be a challenge to get out.  The public tends to forget about you. Something for Paul Manafort and Trump's other confederates, abandoned by their boss to twist slowly in the wind, must be thinking about a lot lately. 


Friday, July 20, 2018

Traitor Week #5: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—"A society which does not defend itself is not worthy of survival."


     Now that betrayal of our country has practically become a Republican folk illness—79 percent approve of Donald Trump's disgraceful genuflection to Vladimir Putin this week—it might be the right moment to remind ourselves that liberals have done their share of traitor-coddling, once upon a time.
    Remember the Rosenbergs,. Julius and Ethel. A married couple in their mid-30s, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets . Julius had worked in a sensitive Army job during World War II; Ethel enlisted her brother who worked at Los Alamos.
     During their trial, and for decades after, the Left was enthralled by the notion that the Rosenbergs were innocent, victims of a police state trying to squash dissent. The couple had either been set up, or were being persecuted for non-crimes.
     Writers such as Nelson Algren, scientists like Albert Einstein, world celebrities like Picasso, all spoke out in defense of the Rosenbergs. Sartre compared the case to the Dreyfus affair—the Rosenbergs were Jewish. Which didn't stop the pope from appealing to Eisenhower for clemency.
     In calling for the death penalty, U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol said, "A society which does not defend itself is not worthy of survival."

      Common wisdom is that Ethel was a bit player, condemned to encourage Julius to tell all he knew. It didn't work. "She called our bluff," a prosecutor later reflected.
      Those caught up in the Trump campaign collusion with the Russians should not forget Ethel Rosenberg. They might cling to the notion that whatever role they played was small they'd somehow escape notice. Ethel's low level of involvement didn't matter when the switch was thrown. 

     ''When you're dealing with a conspiracy, you don't have to be the kingpin," said James Kilshiemer, a prosecutor who built the case against the Rosenbergs. "You have to participate,."'  Treason is like pregnancy; you can't do it a little.
     The couple died in the electric chair at New York's Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953.   
     After the fall of the Soviet Union, classified documents came to light showing that not only did the Rosenbergs conduct espionage, but recruited other spies to join them. 

     Oops.
     Even after their undeniable guilt came to light, some kept the flame,
     "While the transcriptions seemed inconclusive, they forced me to accept the possibility that my father had participated in an illegal and covert effort to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis,''wrote his son Robert Meeropol who defended his parents for years.
     "Accept the possibility..." "defeat the Nazis" -- because it wasn't so bad to hand over atomic secrets to a foreign power during World War II, since we both faced a common enemy. Nice try,
     A reminder: no matter how damning the evidence against any traitor, there will always be defenders. A 79 percent approval rating of Trump kowtowing to Putin means that no amount of proof will be enough to shake his support. We might as well get used to that now. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Traitor Week #4: Vidkun Quisling—"A vile race of Quislings"

Vidkun Quisling
    Few traitors can commit their betrayals alone. They need collaborators, co-conspirators, dupes, lackeys, water carriers. Even the most famous traitors. As singular as the role of defense minister Vidkun Quisling was in handing Norway over to the Nazis in April, 1940, and as unpopular as he would become, he was not alone, as Winston Churchill pointed out in a speech on June 12, 1941, when Quisling's name was already well on its way to becoming a staple in most of the world's languages:
      "The prisons of the continent no longer suffice. The concentration camps are overcrowded. Every dawn German volleys crack. Czechs, Poles, Dutchmen, Norwegians, Yugoslavs and Greeks, Frenchmen, Belgians, Luxemburgers make the great sacrifice for faith and country. A vile race of Quislings—to use a new word which will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries—is hired to fawn upon the conqueror, to collaborate in his designs and to enforce his rule upon their fellow countrymen while groveling low themselves. Such is the plight of once glorious Europe and such are the atrocities against which we are in arms."
   Joseph Goebbels was so dismayed to see the name of the Nazis' man in Norway being used as a synonym for "collaborator," he used his propaganda machine to try to similarly tar the names of pro-Allied politicians as synonyms for a people leading their country to disaster.
    It didn't work. Quisling's unpopularity couldn't be reproduced. He was already disliked in the 1930s, when Quisling created the Norwegian fascist party and embraced Hitler. Quisling was more enthusiastic about the Nazis invading Norway than Hitler had been, and had to convince him. 
       That only deepened when the war broke out and Quisling handed his country over to the Germans, infecting a group you might not expect: his supposed masters. The Nazis also grew to hate and distrust Quisling, because he couldn't get things done. He was too disliked.  When Quisling was installed as prime minister in February, 1942, his popularity was estimated at 1 percent, and was met with terror bombings and the resignation of the Supreme Court, en mass. He was more an annoyance than an asset; eventually the Germans had to forbid Quisling from writing to Hitler.       
    Not that much of this sank in. The vanity of the traitor knows no bounds. Even as the war ended, Quisling assumed he could slip out of this misunderstanding. He always had Norway's best interests at heart.  In May, 1945, he surrendered himself, arriving at prison in the silver-plated Mercedes-Benz limo that Hitler had given him. Quisling complained about being kept in an ordinary cell, and that its chair was too small. His captors were not sympathetic.
     Sullen and defiant, Quisling shouted out at his trial that he was the "Savior of Norway!" 
      He was sentenced to death before a firing squad, and executed in October, 1945. His last words were the very Trumpian, "I am convicted unfairly and die innocent." 
     Which leads to an interesting question: will it be "Trump," as in, "If he sells those secrets he'll become a Trump." Or the lowercase "trump"? And how many of his collaborators will share his deathless shame? Time will tell. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Traitor Week #3: Benedict Arnold—"Whom can we trust now?"



Benedict Arnold
      No, I'm not Nostradamus—I conceived Traitor Week months ago, starting with Catiline, then Judas, and continuing today with the most famous traitor in American history, posting it now because I'm on vacation. Not that I knew Trump would put in a jaw-dropping display of obsequiousness and betrayal in Helsinki. But because he was a traitor last week, and last month, and last year. Only now it's finally dawning on some folks who have spent years being willfully blind. Welcome to the club. What took ya? And what's going to prevent you from doing that Terminator II metal man thing you do where, however the Trump is Great worldview is blown apart by reality, your folly somehow manages to reconstitute itself and keep plodding forward? 

     Whoever glorifies the past is displaying a profound ignorance of it. People weren't nobler or better back then. They were always people, alas. What happens is we forget the long stretches of selfishness and meanness, remembering only the stuff we want to remember: the moments of splendor, chiefly.      

      Although there are exceptions. With traitor Benedict Arnold, we tend to remember the treason and forget the glory that went before.
      Benedict Arnold was a hero of the American Revolution.He was with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys when they captured Fort Ticonderoga. Half his men died or deserted during the long march to Quebec City, where Arnold's leg was shattered by a British musket ball. He was brave, daring, dedicated.
     But Arnold's heroism, rather than fortify the man, only embittered him, and he felt less appreciated, more passed over (not without reason; he had powerful enemies). He sulked. He complained to Washington, who summed up the American mood of the moment in a way that would shock our veneration of the Spirit of '76.
     ''Such a dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole," the Father of Our Country wrote, "that I should not be surprised at any disaster that may happen.''

     That disaster was Benedict Arnold, who took his greed and jealousy and began putting out feelers to Mother England around 1779. He made contact with the British and, as befits the business man he had once been, carefully negotiated just how much he would get for the specific treason he had in mind—the surrender of the key American fort at West Point. 
      He earned the command, and all was going according to plan when one Maj. John Andre, of the British Army, fell into American hands carrying incriminating papers of Arnold's plot. Often it is not the traitor himself but his confederates, who first give away the game.
     "Arnold has betrayed me," Washington despaired. "Whom can we trust now?''     Not as many as Washington would have liked. A quarter of colonists, remember, supported the Crown, and given they had been subjects a few years earlier, it could hardly be considered treason, and more a case of picking the wrong side of history. With Arnold, the treason is more direct, since he wore a uniform.
     Arnold not only escaped, but published a letter, rationalizing his treason with the classic taken-out-of-context defense. As is common with traitors, he insisted he was a patriot, trying to make his country great again:
     "Love to my country actuates my present conduct," he wrote. "However it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions."
     Arnold escaped to serve the British during the war and to live in London afterward, his only punishment being that his name would go down in obloquy for the rest of American history. Although I would suggest that another name might soon be synonymous with treason, drawing even more scorn that Arnold's
     Although we are in different times and the amazing development now is that while Trump's treason has long been suspected and openly discussed, his supporters show an astounding resilience. There is no development so jaw-dropping that it radiates through the hands clapped over their own eyes. The skill of ignoring sins, honed on gaffes and insults, has proved strong and durable. The issue of just how strong and how durable is the point on which our country's future will pivot. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Traitor Week #2: Judas Iscariot—"Do quickly what you're going to do"


     I could have started Traitor Week with Judas, the ur-traitor in Western culture. 
     But everybody knows Judas, or thinks they do, so I decided to go chronologically and begin with Catiline, nearly a century earlier. 
     Plus Catiline has the benefit of being undeniably real, while Judas is obscured in  the mist of the Biblical—while few suspect Jesus was spun from whole cloth, after that the factual nature of the disciples is hazy at best. But Judas was no doubt an important literary figure, whose famed treachery, whether it occurred or not, echoes to this day. 
  
     In the 34th and final canto of "The Inferno," after a gut-turning, heart-rendering trip through all nine circles of Hell, replete with sorrow and torture, Dante gets to the very bottom, the sump of the pit, and his guide Virgil turns to him and says, in essence "Okay, now here you have to brace yourself." ("Ecco il loco ove convien che di fortezza t'armi" literally, "Here is the place where you need to be a fortress.") 
    Which of course makes Dante go cold and  feel faint, though that isn't anything new for him.  The duo turn the corner and see Satan, a giant, buried to his chest in ice. Three faces on one head, a toothy mouth in each face, and in each mouth a sinner in agony, being chewed to bits. 
    "That guy," Virgil says to Dante, "Who suffers the most is Judas Iscariot."
    Of course it is. Sins like greed and fornication are minor misdemeanors compared to betrayal, and Judas is the very definition. To be a Judas means betrayal. What's interesting to me is though almost every soul they meet in Hell is closely quizzed by Dante, allowing the damned to recount the crimes that earned them eternal damnation.
      There is no such questioning of Judas. He never speaks. The reader knows. Judas betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans, he led them to the Garden of Gesthemone. That's pretty much his entire role in the Bible. He does little else.
    The tougher question is why, and here even the Gospels disagree. Greed—those 30 pieces of silver. The aforementioned Satan injecting himself into his heart. That's the reading of John—Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him; the Gang of 12 immediately demand to know who, Jesus says, the person he is going to hand this bread to will betray him, gives it to Judas, saying "Do quickly what you're going to do." 
    Which sort of undercuts the obloquy that Judas has been held in for 2,000 years or, as Joan Acocella put it in the New Yorker: "If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act?"
     Apparently yes. Remember that "Judas" is just the Greek rendering of "Judah," which is "Joe" for Jewish people. Judas has to betray Jesus to justify his co-religionists' persecution, though I don't see why the Pharasees aren't enough.     
    Once the Bible finishes with Judas, however, popular culture gets in its licks, although its interpretation of Judas cuts across the spectrum.
    At one end, in Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita," Pilate is treated so sympathetically, he becomes the good guy—the most richly-drawn character in the book, certainly more appealing than Jesus. Yet Bulgakov doesn't even allow Judas to kill himself; Pilate orders him assassinated, a grab at redemption.
    At the other extreme is  the hit musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," which could have more accurately been called "Judas Superstar," since it's really the story of his disillusionment with Jesus, his temptation, betrayal and remorse.
     The remorse, I would suggest, is the essential part of the story. Remember, the Bible was crafted, in essence, as a guide to behavior, and Judas is the model for all who sin, who betray not Jesus, the man, but his teachings. You might get the silver now, but you'll be sorry later. That's the Christian template for sin.
    That's their policy in the personal realm. In the political realm, when dealing with the sins of the powerful, we see another dynamic altogether. Christians line up to shrug sin off, when convenient, "Sure, Donald Trump sins. So do I. We are all flawed, all in need of grace." They wave away error. When they want to. 
     When they don't, it's damnation, both now and later. 
     Judas' motives come into play because motive is always a mitigating factor—are you doing what you think is right, or abandoning your principles for personal gain? The question of whether Trump genuflects before the Russians because he admires strongmen like Putin, because Putin has incriminating evidence against him, because of business interests, is something historians will argue over forever. My guess is that Putin saw something that 40 percent of the country couldn't: that Trump is a dumpster fire who will drive the country to the brink of ruin. So Putin backed Trump, as a way to strike at the country, and Trump fell in love with Putin because he is a broken man who adores anybody who likes him. The welfare of the country never crossed his mind. Which makes Trump worse than Judas. At least Judas thought about Jesus when betraying him. For Trump, the United States of America never crossed his mind, locked on Trump, Trump, Trump, me, me, me, all the time. Who doubts that it is so?