Stand Up Against the Would-Be King

I want to write a blog saying there was a revolution in Congress. And throughout the land the heart of the nation was awakened⎼but it did not happen, not yet. It’s just so hard to acknowledge what is going on politically, or to think about it too much. It ‘s so ugly. And disturbing.

 

But I have to say what seems obvious to so many of us: we are confronted with a situation where one man (and those that finance and support him) thinks of the whole world, and all the other people and beings in it, as, at best, pieces to manipulate; at worst, as commodities to acquire or resources to exploit for his (their) own wealth and power. Everything and everyone exists for the taking. Even words, laws, notions of truth exist only to serve his interests. Only what increases his wealth, and what mirrors back to him his own primacy, is true. Everything else is false; everyone else is a liar and dangerous.

 

For laws to rule, the difference between opinion and facts must be, at least theoretically, fairly clear. Truth is recognized as being what really occurred or what was actually said, and what can be reliably verified. If everyone is “innocent until proven guilty,” then we are all theoretically and equally innocent unless proven guilty. For freedoms and rights to exist, the laws guaranteeing those freedoms and rights must be upheld.

 

But in Trump’s world, there are no commonly verifiable truths and thus no commonly enforceable laws. Thus, no “rule of law.” The only law is what emerges from his own mouth in that particular moment. No one is free except him. No one is innocent except as we mirror back to him his own image.

 

An example of him believing and asserting he is the truth and the law is his pardoning of Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative author, filmmaker, and admitted felon—and supporter of the president. Likewise, Trump pardoned his ardent supporter and convicted felon, Joe Arpaio, as well as Scooter Libby, the aide to former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney.

 

As Ruth Marcus argues in a column in the Washington Post, there is something particularly wrong and askew in these pardons. Trump violated the normal process and criteria for a pardon.  The process usually involves a five year waiting period and serving a sentence as well as accepting responsibility and atoning for the offense. Instead, D’Souza, and Trump, both showed disdain for the legal process itself.

 

D’Souza had admitted his guilt in court, for establishing straw donors in order to deliberately violate campaign contribution limits. However, the New York Times reminds us that on “Fox and Friends” after the pardon, he claimed his prosecution was retribution by President Obama for a movie D’Souza had made—so much for accepting responsibility and atoning for his crimes. He also asserted selective enforcement during the court trial and the judge held a hearing over the claim. The judge found: “There is no evidence of discriminatory effect nor of discriminatory purpose…” The judge called D’Souza’s claim “nonsense.”

 

After the pardon, Trump tweeted D’Souza “was treated very unfairly.” He also said nobody had asked him to grant the pardon. Yet, according to the New York Times, D’Souza himself, and congressional officials—Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX) pleaded the case for the pardon at a White House dinner the previous night.

 

As Ruth Marcus points out in her column, all these pardons show a political and personal motivation and illustrate Trump’s constant narrative of “they’re out to get me,” “I am the victim here.” Instead of these pardons serving the purpose of correcting an injustice, they commit an injustice. And they possibly also serve a very disturbing political purpose—to signal to anyone who might fear criminal prosecution for collusion with Russia, or for money laundering or corruption, that if they support Mr. Trump, they too will be pardoned. After all, he is the law.

 

If you doubt he is trying to assert this absolute power, look over his tweets from yesterday (Monday, June 4th). An article in the New York Times speaks to this and the ramifications of Trump’s actions. In one tweet he said he had “the absolute right” to pardon himself for any crime. Last year, he asserted he had “an absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department.”

 

The NYT article goes on to quote David Kris, a former senior Justice Department national security official as saying Trump is making “a far more sweeping claim to power than even other presidents by saying he can use the Justice Department for whatever he wants.” Trump’s lawyers are in fact claiming, “that he is the law—that he is the personification of justice and cannot obstruct himself.” So much for our constitution and our laws being meant to free us from monarchs, or the King from Mar a Lago.

 

Well, Trump becomes the law only to the degree we, and our elected officials, participate in his delusion and yield to him this awesome power. Mueller by himself can’t get Congress to act. We, the majority of the American people, need to unite to stop him, and take the fight against the health care laws as an inspiration. We need to turn our distaste for even hearing his name into action, to call Congress, talk with friends and neighbors, be ready to protest, and use our imaginations to find ways to wake up an organized opposition, to wake up the heart of this nation.

 

**Update: This has been a big week for pardon talk. Why? He has granted six so far and is talking about many more. He has granted pardons both to well-known individuals and those fortunate enough to have a celebrity advocate for them. Maybe he is getting off on the power? Maybe he thinks the people he pardoned can feed his made-up narrative of the deep state being out to get him? Or maybe he thinks that if he grants lots of pardons to a diverse group of people, it would fool us into thinking he is not doing it for his own personal and political purposes? Maybe he thinks we the people would have more trouble discerning and attacking his real motivation, the one Ruth Marcus describes above: namely of undermining the pressure exerted by the Mueller Investigation on Cohen, Manafort and others to reveal what they know about T possibly colluding with Russia?

Discussing Religion

Discussing religion in public schools is obviously controversial. Religion (and opposition to religion) is very close to the core of many people’s understanding of reality and so must be treated with sensitivity and awareness. There are also constitutional and legal constraints.

 

Although the implications of the first (and fourteenth) amendment are still argued in some circles, the purpose is to protect a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and religion. It forbids congress from promoting one religion over another. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson and before him, Roger Williams, spoke of a “wall of separation” between church and state. The prohibition against religion in public institutions is a prohibition against combining church and state, or making church the state.

 

But does this mean that religion should not be discussed in schools at all except in very limited circumstances? Circumstances such as world history classes, where history textbooks give relevant dates, name important people, central practices, teachings and terminology? These references are usually very superficial, dry, and do little to help students understand or learn about religions other than their own (if they have one).

 

I think religion must be discussed in schools. For one thing, students have many questions. It is in the headlines, often in very negative terms. We hear about religion fighting religion, about religious extremists and terrorists. A report by Media Matters, in 2007, found the coverage of religion oversimplified, with a consistent bias in coverage in favor of conservatives. “Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.” Some students have no experience with religious teachings at all. Others go to a church, synagogue, mosque, center or whatever but rarely do they get to ask questions or think about religion from a perspective of someone not a member of their community. Students need a deeper and more inclusive picture. A reality ignored or oversimplified is a reality distorted and abused and we have enough of both in our world.

 

The questions about religion that concern secondary students most and I think should be predominantly examined in schools are psychological and philosophical or ethical. What is religion? Why has it been part of human life, history and culture since the initial days of humanity? What is the place of reason and doubt in the face of belief and faith? Discussing religion easily leads to deep questions and concerns, about purpose, morality, mind, soul and death, about truth and how you know what’s true, about compassion and love. Throwing out religion as a topic of study often leads to throwing out what is crucial to the lives of each and every human being. Do we want to empty schools of the deepest and most meaningful questions and concerns? If so, we know why many think of school as a wasteland. In fact, is religion another way to speak about one’s central concerns in life? Is religion so tied to culture that the two can barely be separated? If you can’t discuss religion, at least discuss these philosophical questions and how to humanize and respect those with views other than your own.

 

The discussions need to be real and in-depth, the questions mostly open-ended, with no one right answer. There are not “two sides” to any deep religious or philosophical question (or maybe any important question) but multiple sides. There are also factual questions that need to be researched and reliable “experts” in the field interviewed (historians, psychologists, philosophers of religion, theologians, and spiritual leaders, in person, or through YouTube and books). For example, students told me that in many classes when religion was discussed, it was portrayed as a way to explain the unexplainable or to give people comfortable answers to uncomfortable questions. Although I think there is some truth to this, this explanation of the “why” of religion is woefully inadequate. It might even be a way to sneak in a dismissal of the religious as lazy or poor thinkers. Anyone who argues this has never read the writings of, or listened to, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama or others. Also, it is untrue. Some religions do not give comfortable answers. One example is Buddhism, which speaks of the suffering common to most people’s lives. Overcoming suffering does not come easily and is not from belief but through an almost scientific examination of how the world is, of mind and awareness.

 

Of course, I am arguing this viewpoint with some trepidation. Open-ended discussions of religion can be difficult to lead, very personal and require great trust on the part of students in the teacher and the classroom community, a trust that has to be earned. And schools are already being attacked from many sides and often unfairly so teachers might feel themselves vulnerable to attack. Religious groups pushing their particular doctrines and corporate groups doing much the same assault them.

 

But schools are the closest we have to common places where, maybe, perhaps, wisdom might be found and encouraged, even taught, along with compassion and understanding. Or where there are people, namely teachers, who are deeply committed to developing such attributes in themselves and young people. It’s about time to let schools attempt such a mission instead of being bogged down with test prep and superficial knowledge. And discussing meaningful questions might actually increase engagement and learning in the classroom.

 

Next week: How do you foster and lead such discussions without distorting the discussion with bias? What do you think?

 

 

**The photo is of my wife, Linda, in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.