King Lear on the Heath

In dark times the urgency to remember ourselves grows acute. As I absorbed the full shock of the levity with which we disposed of our democracy on Black Tuesday last, I realized that to gain both my bearings and my faith I had to lose myself in mundane daily tasks. On the farm I bottled a batch of cherry cider. I took apples to our pigs and hand fed them daily. I cooked dinner several nights running for our farm crew. I graded papers. I planned lectures. I finished syllabi for next semester – a next semester that for the first time in my life, I wondered if events in this country or the world would let me finish. I had to go to the library to see if it was remotely possible that they might have a copy of Euripides’ Trojan Women to show to my students at the end of the semester. They didn’t. But as I was browsing I discovered they had all of the BBC Shakespeare, so I grabbed the whole Henry VI trilogy (with its majestic language, fifty percent of which we now know attributable to Marlowe) and, by serendipity, the Olivier King Lear (with John Hurt as the fool and Diana Rigg as Regan).

The act of reading or even watching King Lear is, for me, as for Ben Johnson, extremely difficult. The family relationships and their destruction are both hair-raising, and far too close to home for my comfort. The constant references to “nothing”, the themes of nothing, of dark, of oblivion, of blindness, close in on the thoughtful viewer infiltrating the corners and crevices of one’s being until even that feels obliterated. I found the play so powerful this week, so painful, so terrible as it crescendos through palace, heath, and barren cliff. It seemed to me one single, long, animal cry of anguish. It is a paean to nihilism, to the anguished realization that our bearings in the world can be so misread, so illusory. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to Lear this week.

The stories we were told as children, those great ones that teach us to be ethical creatures, to respect one another, to cherish freedom, to love thy neighbor as thyself (God’s admonition both in Leviticus and through His son), their lesson can simply vanish in a blaze of tribal rage, avarice, and odium. What happens when these are gone? When all you have thought about one’s sense of justice, of fairness, of good faith, of charity and obligation, is so lightly discarded? Where does one go when the public announces that freedom of expression, of conscience, of consultation of faith, of an informed citizenry, of decency, can be sacrificed on the altar of a vulgar authoritarian? That the memory of that for which men died at Gettysburg, in Normandy, in Flanders Field, in North Africa, is to be held cheaper than the value of celebrity and money? We are now unmoored from those great men who sacrificed for us, or who had the courage to struggle for the belief in a people’s government, for if the ideas that triumphed on Black Tuesday are right, then Lincoln and Jefferson were wrong. If the ideas that triumphed on Tuesday are right, then Martin Luther King and Gandhi were wrong. If the ideas that triumphed on Tuesday are right, then Socrates, Abraham, and Mohammed are wrong. If the ideas that prevailed on that Dies Irae are right, then Jesus was wrong.

And so here many of us sit, unmoored suddenly from democracy in favor of autocracy; but that implies that we are now unmoored from one another. What bond of affection will hold us together if we just look to one who says “I am your voice?” For that is not democracy. Democracy is not about peace, it is not about order, it is about self-determination, which we have now abdicated. It is about bonds of affection not between the one and the many, but between and among all fellow citizens. And together, we were, in theory, tied by what Lincoln called “the mystic cords of memory”, a shared history of sacrifice and endeavor towards our Union, and all of its values both written and implied, that has now been shattered in a way none of us ever hoped to live to witness. Many of us feel violated and assaulted; personally, I feel as though my country has suffered an attack for more deleterious than anything any outside enemy of our country ever could or has devised. We have witnessed an authoritarian right wing coup, one we were warned about for many years from many quarters.

Perhaps that is why I was drawn to Lear this weak. Two of his children betray their father, despite his generosity, in spectacular fashion. The third, whose love is most sincere, he despises as an outcast. When he sees his error and realizes how deeply he has been betrayed and in turn damaged the one who most loved him, he is driven mad. Perhaps that is how some of us feel this week – for myself, having experienced a situation not unlike that of Lear, but in something of a reverse, I can understand the old man’s grief. People of generous temperament have a hard time understanding this, and perhaps they can’t. We wish everyone in the country well: universal access to food, health care, education, living wages, and a clean environment. We believe in shared risk and shared obligation as the only way to survive as a country, indeed, ultimately as a species; and this is not a belief built on hope, but simple observation that this is the only way, over the long haul, that we can move forward and thrive. I am quite willing to give to achieve that, because I have had a very rich life, in no small part because the state has, at key times, put its trust in my talents (and, I might add, been amply rewarded in return).

I understand that not all agree. People are stuck in their fears, their prejudices, their tribes, though it feels as though now, fellow citizens have now been turned into strangers. A wall of adamant has been erected that now among the citizenry. But to return to Lear: Betrayal. Nothing. Madness. Primal screams whose well-spring is the anguished sense of injustice. The protests are now primal screams of grief by people driven mad by the sheer horror of a party whose constituency believes in nothing – nothing save power. Nothing. For if the Constitution meant something to them beyond the second amendment, their leader would have been called out for his willful ignorance of the document and his pledge not to adhere to the norms of speech and press freedoms. If Christianity meant something to them they would not embrace a man who has called for torture, mass deportations (a crime against humanity), mocked the disabled, and vows to strip the sick and indigent of what little security they possess. If our history meant anything to them they would build on the best of it, not betray it and revert to its worst, most malignant instincts. They have betrayed this democracy, handed it over to monsters, and shown precisely what they value: “Nothing, nothing, nothing”. “Why, you are men of stones!”

Yes, it was a fine week for Lear.


The Pivot

Throughout the campaign, during the primaries, we kept hearing pundits ask whether the GOP’s lead candidate could pivot towards the general election campaign (code: can a vulgar ignoramus hide that simple fact of his ignorance and vulgarity). Once the nomination was won, surely he would “pivot”, i.e., conform to the norms of decency and basic dignity that one would want in a president. But the pivot was not yet forthcoming. Well, surely after the convention then. No. Well, then, maybe as the fall campaign really starts to gain a head of steam. Again: No.

But after the election, surely, surely the pivot will come. And it did. From People, from Bill Maher, from the New York Times, from college administrators. You can see it in slow motion over the past week. They are moving to normalize this.

Jason Stanley, a philosopher from Yale, had a fine essay in the New York Times about this. The authoritarian personality creates a new reality and a befuddled populace accepts it, no matter how ludicrous. (Stanley cites Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism in his article). They (i.e., strongmen) “convey power by defining reality”, the reality is a simple one, and “offered with the goal of switching voters’ value system to the authoritarian value system of the leader”.

Only it is not the values of voters that this regime is shifting. It’s the values of the media, the people that need to keep their eyes on this stuff so that it can be opposed with the ferocity and tenacity that it demands. Instead, our most liberal of institutions are normalizing the least liberal of values. And this is not just something for the Left to care about; in the end it will come back to bite the Right in the ass because both sides have an interest in social, economic, and global stability. The networks just have an interest in ratings.

And if you do not believe me that the press is moving towards normalization of the grotesque, here are just a couple of examples (I am not including the vile “come to Jesus” moments that the msm and their ilk will doubtless have on television). The Washington Post this morning referred to the president elect’s new senior counselor and chief West Wing political strategist Steve Bannon as “combative”, and Breitbart News, of which he was in charge, “incendiary”. There is no reference to his KKK ties. No terms like “racist”, or “conspiracy monger”, which is what he is and what his site is. No reference to the Neo-Nazi ties and the simple fact that there is no daylight, none, between Bannon and David Duke, Grand Wizard of the KKK. The New York Times described Breitbart like this: “Some [referring to grassroots activists connected to Breitbart] of them have long traded in conspiracy theories and the sometimes racist message of Breitbart news”. Some? Why not just say Bannon’s name? And why no historical context? Why not just say this is the first time since Reconstruction to boast an actively allied member of the KKK in its administration, and hell, possibly ever.

We will need to nail our 95 Theses to the doors of Wittenburg church every day and remember that apart from the sheer horrors of what might well happen to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the environment, women’s right to choose, mass deportation which is tantamount to a crime against humanity, the following:

  1. A white supremest is in the White House.
  1. A game show host now occupies the seat of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.
  1. He has close links to the KKK.
  1. He has close links to Neo-Nazis.
  1. He consorts with and accommodates the Mob.
  1. He is by admission a sexual predator.
  1. He has incited his supporters to violence.
  1. He is a patent misogynist.
  1. He advocates for crimes against humanity.
  1. He wants to create a national registry for Muslims.
  2. He mocks the disabled.
  1. He mocks Gold Star families and questions their sacrifice.
  1. He questions the first amendment.
  1. He has threatened press freedoms.
  1. He ran a fake university and cheated people out of their money in the process.
  1. He degraded democracy by threatening to prosecute his opponent, a threat he may well carry out.
  1. He degraded democracy by threatening not to accept the results of the election if he lost – which he did by the way.
  1. He degraded democracy by race baiting and shredding the social contract.
  1. He degraded democracy by frankly introducing some of the most immature name-calling ever to be injected into our political discourse.
  1. He is a deeply, willfully ignorant man, and utterly incurious.
  1. He consorts with conspiracy theorists who have shilled patent, provable lies about his political opponent.
  1. He hates LGBTQ people.
  1. He called for the execution of six innocent men in a full page ad in prominent New York papers in 1987.
  1. He accommodates anti-Semites and himself may well be one.
  2. He has not paid his fair share in taxes for well over two decades, possibly longer, but we will never know because he will never release his returns.


And this is just off the top of my head.

The media is now about to start its pivot, and the end will be that most of the country will be Gas-lighted, and it may be too late, because look . . .

Nixon was a horrible man and criminal who deserved what he got but he and the Right set out to rehabilitate his reputation to make him look like an elder statesman. Let me assure you he was not, despite the current comparanda that will soon occupy the Oval Office. Iran Contra was horrific – heads should have rolled, Reagan been impeached, end of report. Then we had Dan Quayle foisted on us – surely this would be the Nadir? But no, they double-downed. We got George W. Bush with his illegal invasion of Iraq, the normalization of torture, and attack on civil liberties, particularly the Fourth Amendment (and I haven’t even mentioned the economic collapse of ’08). Maybe we could repair this? Maybe the country can learn from making some really bad decisions. Then John McCain foists upon us Sarah Palin, an unforgivably ignorant specimen, who, by the way, also delights in some abominably cruel hunting practices (and no, I am not against hunting, but she sometimes shoots from a helicopter often only injuring the animal and allowing it to suffer needlessly). And I am not saying that the opposition hasn’t contributed to the dumbing down, and worst of all, the normalizing of such deep and vulgar corruption that enabled this and brought us here: cronyism, venality, crude behavior – the GOP doesn’t have a lock on it (God knows Clinton was horrible), they are just the top 1% who own most of it. We have normalized this sort of stuff for the last four decades to the point where both national and global stability are at risk. We gave Gaius Caligula the nuclear codes because we were worried HRC had a private email server in her house (and mutter mutter Benghazi and mutter mutter mutter Foundation mutter mutter conflict of interests mutter mutter and insert unprovable meme or rumor here). I keep saying it but no one believes me: democracies can be really shitty at risk assessment.

My point is, if someone as comparatively benign as Nixon was not normal and we could all decide, including his own party, that yes, he should pay a price, how much more so the very embodiment of corruption that now holds the highest office? This is not normal and we must not accept it as such. My pique, because it’s the environment I’m in, is particularly at college administrators, who under the guise of “respecting diversity of opinion” will coddle like a viper in their bosom an ideology that is utterly odious.

So maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but in the months or years ahead if you start to think you are out of touch, or maybe your whole world view that rejected some of the key ingredients of Nazism are wrong, contact me, and I will be happy to slap you and throw a pitcher of cold water on your face. You will need to keep a clear head about you and realize that you are not crazy, because sometimes the world just goes mad, like in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Sometimes humanity faces apocalypse, like in 1180 BC or AD 476. And sometimes you’re just screwed. But that doesn’t mean you lose your sanity or, more importantly, your values and with that, yourself.

It is now the duty of all good Jews, Muslims, Christians, and any other people of faith – even if that faith is a science based Atheism – to keep a clear head to help our brothers and sisters that sinister forces now have in the cross-hairs. That includes above all, defending ourselves against being drawn in by any who talk about unity and respect for that which is intolerable, indeed, the very toleration of which may turn on and consume its parasitic host from the halls of academe to newsrooms all over what is left of this once fair country.

Listen to me . . .

Listen to me, because I am right. Were we to sit down face to face and discuss a variety of issues, you could probably argue me down in a heart-beat, because I have a tendency to get very emotional and lose my clarity of thought. But I am right. I have always been right. I recall arguments with a number of people in 1989 who wanted to somehow intervene to prevent the unification of Germany in the wake of the Soviet collapse. You can’t, I told them. And I was right.

I remember horrible arguments with fellow grad students at Brown who felt that our 1991 intervention in the wake of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a good thing. No, I said: it won’t be done humanely or intelligently and at one point I recall trying to bring people to their senses by noting that “This will be the beginning of great trouble for the Athenians” among people who should have known better. The quote comes from Thucydides, and its context is simple: As the Spartans and the Athenians came to blows in a great war starting in 431 BC, the Athenians were overconfident of success – well, they had had so many successes before, how could this possibly be different? But it was, and what ensued was a 27 year civil war among the Greek city states that ended with the collapse of Athenian power. Did I think the war would result in American collapse? No (although when we look back in hindsight someday, we may see it as the beginning of the end). What I believed, what I still believe, is in the wisdom of the Spartan king, Archidamas, who at the congress of Corinth in 432 BC pointed out two essential facts: once you go to war, you do not control events. The unforeseen takes over. And two: you do not control the outcome. Occupying the Arabian peninsula with a standing army was prima facie a bad idea. Ten years later came 9/11. Why? Occupation of the Holy Land was a key reason, and it didn’t hurt that we supported unpopular governments throughout the Maghreb and the Near East (and beyond). Meanwhile, we assisted Israel in furthering their Apartheid against Palestine and the Palestinians.

Then came our response in 2002-2003. By admission, at first I was taken in, particularly by Colin Powell, a figure I had trusted, mistakenly as it turns out; but when push came to shove, in the end, I thought no, just no (and I told my students as much). This will not end well; and if you need further argument or evidence for this, then you may as well just stop reading here. The aggressive, illegal invasion of Iraq was a supreme crime that led to all the other crimes and disasters of that war, from torture to (now) the destruction of Palmyra and the horrific execution of some of its citizens among its very ruins.

Next came the farm. A substantial number of reasons went into the life change my wife and I made that led to my giving up tenure at the University of Maryland to start a farm back in my home state of Oregon. One of those I have rarely shared, and yet, I believe, it was my most prescient. As the Bush years advanced I sensed a creeping miasma on the land – a creeping that I will discuss in a future post. You could feel it like a poisonous mist, seeping out of the radio and television; people were becoming, increasingly, not quite right. A resurgent racism. An irrational hatred of government. The Balkanization of media and opinion. Rejection of the very intelligentsia that had made life good and livable for all of us. A convenient scape-goating by those who had no reason for hate or fear. The attack on voting rights. The embrace of environmental degradation and the collective collapse of any political will to address the existential threat of climate change. Our people, I came to believe, had become self indulgent and explosive, in their hate, with no good reason for it. I lost faith in the stability of the republic. We wanted to go to a place where we could duck our heads as best we could if the shit flies.

And today, here we stand. The GOP has only won the popular vote twice for the presidency since 1988. The Senate’s Democrats received four and a half million votes more than the GOP last week yet they control it. Riots. Anger. Occupy protests. A social safety net about to be dismembered. Conservatives are supposed to be for stability, and apparently do not understand that to unravel this – just as to unravel our alliances – will create a great deal of instability, social unrest, and most of all, untold suffering. They believe that to be mean, to be cruel, is some how a show of strength. Let me assure you that it is not – it is self-indulgent cowardice.

As Lincoln noted over a century ago, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”.

My current predictions?

First, and ye gods I hope I am wrong: I see civil strife – serious civil strife – looming. Maybe a brief breakup of the union. California succeeds, say. And no, I do not say that because I hope for it or wish for it; but something like it is simply is coming, like a train, and the left cannot win it. Cannot win it because the military and intelligence agencies are packed, for the most part, with those of a temperament that embraces a regimented and authoritarian Weltanschauung.

Second, climate change is really starting to kick in; historians of the Syrian civil war see it, not as a cause, but as a “stressor”, that is, a factor that may have been the tipping point in contributing to the conflict. Failure of the Russian wheat harvest drove up the price of bread throughout Syria, Egypt, and beyond. A prolonged drought in Syria had put added pressure on farmers in the region. It contributed to the powder keg that exploded in the form of the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria. All it will take are two regional enemies with nuclear arms, say Pakistan and India, to run out of water; the Himilayas are a main source of water for both, and the source is running dry. A simple miscalculation, and the denoument is nuclear conflict in our biosphere that is sure to draw other powers in, and even if it doesn’t, the human catastrophe between the actual use of such weapons and the attendant fallout will be breath-taking.

Third, the wild card. We have entered a dark room with this election. No one knows what will happen, or how it will end. It introduces a level of Chaos that is, to put it mildly, befuddling.

Let me end this post with a simple hope: I hope that I am wrong this time around.