Politics In A Season Of Plague

A sign of our times: Times Square empty

It seems uncouth, if not obscene, to talk about politics while we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. To be honest, I’ve avoided talking politics much over the past week or so, as things here in the US went from bad to worse, precisely because we need to pull together. This is a situation that hits everyone, Republican or Democrat, liberal, conservative, progressive, right-wing, whomever. We need each other as fear spreads a bit faster than a disease we’re still struggling to learn about.

That does not mean politics isn’t still happening. Just yesterday, Sen. Rand Paul tried to insert an irrelevant amendment regarding the Afghanistan War into the coronavirus relief bill. Which is not to say that ending the Afghan war isn’t important. It most certainly is! We need, however, to remain focused at the moment.

I’m honestly not interested in the kind of simple-minded partisan finger-pointing because that, my friends, is the blame game. It’s a game children play. Right now, we don’t need children yelling at each other who started what. We do, however, need clarity about responsibility, because when this moment passes – and it will pass, though it will take longer than most people think right now – we will need a season of accountability. I think many thanks are due to the governors of Washington, California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois for acting fast in trying to control a situation that seemed to become more complicated and dangerous by the day. Other states are following suit, except for a few – Texas, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee, among others – whose state leaders seem unwilling to act to protect their residents.

Part of accountability is going to be making clear just how badly our federal government responded. One word I’ve seen bandied about a lot is “bungling” and there has been that. If for no other reason, our current federal bureaucracy is led by some of the most inept, unqualified people imaginable. Starting at the top with the President, they are people who have shown themselves unequal to the challenge; precisely the kind of challenge they are supposed to address with intelligence, calm, openness, and a continual flow of the best information available. While the fed’s actions seem to be catching up to the facts on the ground, it is far too little far too late for far too many. Accountability begins with the one in charge, and it seems pretty clear there wasn’t anyone in charge.

Someone today left a comment about how we need to have “smaller government” in the wake of our current emergency. Nothing, however, shows up the basic fallacy of the “small government” ideology than our current situation. First of all, as a general rule, it is impossible to govern a sprawling modern state on the cheap. Second, our current emergency is precisely why we have government agencies that deal with infectious diseases, disaster response, the coordination of everything from the flow of information to the supplying of resources. The best example is something I read from someone in a company that manufactures respirators, of which we currently are undersupplied. While they’re certainly ready to crank them out, absent large orders from the federal government, they’re not going to start producing. While there’s definitely a need, private hospitals, localities, even states, don’t have the resources to place the orders needed. That’s the federal government duty and they aren’t doing it. And Trump’s, “You try to get them yourselves” comment to governors is woefully short of anything resembling leadership.

Funny enough, we’ve found money to support people put out of work by our situation. We’ve found money to help cover medical expenses for the vulnerable. All the things we were told couldn’t be done for one reason or another are suddenly becoming a reality. It seems to me obvious that this is a lesson we need to hold close.

Of course, the pandemic also shows our social and structural weaknesses, brought about by far too many years listening to people who insisted our poor are undeserving. People who receive welfare, WIC, food stamps, Medicaid, and other help all too often work, sometimes more than one job. This shows, more than any graph or chart could, how obscenely inadequate our minimum wage is. Raising the minimum wage, not just to $15/hr but above the poverty line, seems a necessity now. Far too many people who work hard still don’t have any resources, or access to public resources, they need just to get by. The time for public frugality is done.

Our healthcare system, of course, is in a precarious position. Understaffed, often facing more and more stringent budgets, we don’t have anything close to the capacity, tools, and personnel needed to face what’s coming. Precisely because someone had the bright idea to turn medicine into a for-profit industry, we see the incompatibility of the demands of the market and the demands of the Hippocratic Oath. We as a whole people need to decide, sooner rather than later, which one is more important for all of us. Obviously, public health has come into focus with our crisis; but that doesn’t mean the needs which seem acute right now aren’t still there in more normal times. Addressing the many deficiencies of our healthcare system is something that we need to do, together, as a whole country. We have suddenly realized all our lives depend upon it.

We need to hold each other up in the middle of all this. We need to recognize we are all and each of us in this together. We’re all afraid, we’re all anxious for the near future. But we also must pull together and demand accountability, demand changes that make us far more ready to face extreme emergencies. Most of all, we need to remember to elect people who are up to the challenges of governing our sprawling, complex, modern, post-industrial state. Politics is serious business and should be treated as such.

Berned Out: The Stupid Democratic Primary Season

Sanders won as a Democrat, not a revolutionary, and he needed to pivot to a strategy that would unite the existing Democratic Party around him.

But it’s hard to move from treating the Democratic Party establishment with contempt to treating it like a constituency, and so far, the Sanders campaign hasn’t.

Sanders can’t lead the Democrats if his campaign treats them like the enemy, Ezra Klein, VOX, March 4, 2020
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

In a comment thread on Facebook the other day, I said that this has been the stupidest primary season I’ve seen. It might be possible my memory is faulty because all primary seasons contain stupidity. This year, however, has been uniquely ridiculous in large part due to the actions of supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. While some of the more wild and ridiculous things posted on social media by “supporters” may well be the result of troll farms, Russian or otherwise, who benefit from the chaos created by open hostility among Democrats, quite a lot of that hostility rests on the shoulders of Vermont’s 78-year–old junior Senator.

I’ve kept at least part of one eye on Bernie Sanders since he entered Congress in 1988. I mean, who wouldn’t be excited by a real live socialist?!? It soon became clear, however, that while excellent at those one-minute morning speeches that are a long tradition of the House (usually railing against threats to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), he had neither the interest nor ability to pursue effective, structural legislative change.

The facts are, Bernie has no real legislative successes to speak of. Part of the reason for this is his refusal to work with like-minded Democrats on issues that might have been important, or even forge friendships or good working relationships with members of either party. Preferring to bring a pox upon both their houses, Sanders has claimed his outsider status as a badge of honor.

Until 2016, when he decided he wanted to run for President. Knowing that running as an Independent would be a non-starter, he registered as a Democrat and ran against front-runner Hillary Clinton in a nasty, brutal campaign in which he spent most of his time besmirching Sec. Clinton’s personal integrity, professional accomplishments, and the Democratic Party power structure. While I found enthusiasm among his followers admirable – he did shift much of the discussion during that primary leftward, always a good thing – I found much of their online carrying on both woefully (perhaps willfully?) uninformed as well as counter-productive.

This time, I feel much the same way, only it has occurred on a far larger scale. A good example is the fate of California Senator Kamala Harris. It can certainly be argued that Harris’s time hasn’t come yet, there is little doubt her tenure as California Attorney General, then as the junior Senator from our largest state offered her an excellent platform from which to begin building a coalition. Before a single vote had been cast, however, Harris’s accomplishments had been denounced, her record distorted beyond recognition, and her support disappearing like the water in the Colorado River. Much the same happened to the far more centrist junior Senator from New Jersey, Corey Booker. He quickly ran out of steam, unable to find a place from which to begin to be heard before being shouted down.

Whenever I’ve seen Bernie supporters carry on about the Democratic Party being a capitalist party beholden to large financial and corporate interests, I have to wonder if they know anything at all about politics. I mean . . . of COURSE it is! What else might it be? Yet to Bernie supporters, and occasionally to Bernie himself, this seems a smear worthy of derision. As if a large institution like the Democratic Party could survive outside corporate support! This is just one of the many stupid things I hear more often than is good for my intelligence.

Perhaps the most egregious nonsense has been the concerted effort to paint Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as some kind of centrist, neo-liberal shill with no accomplishments or vision. The facts are precisely the opposite of this, of course, as any cursory search of Warren’s professional history would show. The result, however, has been creating an Elizabeth Warren who doesn’t actually exist. Combined with an ineffective campaign on Warren’s part, this has reduced what should have been the alternative to Bernie on the left of the party into a shadow candidacy, in which Warren finds herself defending things that need no defense, or attacks that are just nonsensical on their face.

With the votes still being counted from yesterday’s Super Tuesday primary, it seems to be a race between Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. Over the past few weeks, I have seen any number of attacks on Joe Biden’s record, whether on race, abortion rights, or what have you, that once again create a strawman that has nothing to do with who Joe Biden has become over he decades of public service. Yes, in the 1970’s, Biden was not a huge proponent of Civil Rights; he was a Senator from border state Delaware, after all. His performance during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, attacking witness Anita Hill, was awful. These, however, are actions in the far past and Biden has demonstrated a willingness not only to change, but to listen to critics, admit his errors, and work to change for the better.

Were Biden an unreconstructed Jim Crow Democrat, would he have the support of African-American communities, particularly among black women voters – the real heroes of the Democratic victories over the past several election cycles – that he has demonstrated? It is precisely because he did listen and did show progress and change that dredging up actions from 30 and even nearly 50 years ago are not only wrong but ignorant. In dismissing the very real support Biden has among the most important, most active part of the Democratic coalition, Sanders and his supporters show an ignorance not only of Biden’s record, but feels like a racist dismissal of the very real preferences of communities of color around the country.

If the Democratic Party is to take back the Presidency this year – not at all a given, despite Trump’s obvious weaknesses – it has to be as the Democratic Party is constituted right now, not as some might wish it to be, or want it to become after the election. That means working across constituencies and ideological boundaries to achieve a common end. Spending as much energy running against the Party you’re seeking to lead as against the Republican opponent is not only not a good look; it’s a strategy that will not create a willingness among members of the Democratic Party to work for a Bernie Sanders agenda. As I said above, it’s counterproductive.

As an old school friend said on FB, I will support whichever old white straight guy the party nominates. I will do so knowing whoever that might be is far better than our current President. I will do so, however, coming quite close to holding my nose as I do so.

Voting 2020: Why I’m supporting Elizabeth Warren

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

With so much attention focused on the Affordable Care Act as Pres. Obama’s signature piece of legislation, most people forget another serious legislative accomplishment: the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Set up to stand for people who’ve lost large amounts of money to the same financial conglomerates that crashed and burned down the world economy in 2007-2008, it was the singular brain child of then Associate Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren.

The real action in any administration is executive in nature: knowing what regulatory buttons to push, which enforcers can really go for blood, who to put where, and how to manage them.

It’s a job Warren’s done before, when she was charged with building the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from scratch. It’s an agency she initially proposed in an article as a law professor more than a decade ago and it has a singular mandate: to stand up for everyday Americans against the financial industry and the banks.

Elizabeth Warren has just one plan, Emily Stewart, VOX, September 19, 2019

Warren was, according to this article, so effective an advocate, she pissed off then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. All the same, love her or hate her, there was little doubt that not only was Warren committed to bringing her plan alive, she was “ruthlessly effective at making them real.” It is this ruthless effectiveness, more than anything else, that’s convinced me she’s the best choice for President this year.

With an agenda virtually identical to Sen. Bernie Sanders (despite the nonsensical lie that Warren’s really a neoliberal shill), the difference between them is Warren’s effectiveness as an advocate, organizer, and bridge-builder. In the wake of these past three years, there is much work to be done not so much repairing the extensive damage to the Executive Branch, as reshaping it with an eye toward something new. Relationships between the Executive and Congress need work (although much of that work would await the loss of a Republican majority in the US Senate, which I don’t anticipate), and Warren has demonstrated a willingness to work across party line without compromising her fundamental vision and values. She also has the skills needed to bring together the left-wing of the party and its moderate center. Much of her campaign has been about doing just that, creating working coalitions that will outlast this particular campaign.

Should the Democratic Party win the Presidency this year, that President will need to recognize the extent of the damage done to our institutions, the trust between the Executive and the public, and the Head of State with other countries. It will require not just creative rethinking, but plans for moving forward that recognize the instability of the status quo, both within the Democratic Party and in the country as a whole. Only Elizabeth Warren has demonstrated this ability at creative rethinking of governance. She has my vote next week in the Illinois Presidential primary.

Now Is That Time

For years the politics of both Left and Right have been informed by a political consensus that reflects the interests not of the American middle, but of a powerful upper class and their cosmopolitan priorities.

This class lives in the United States, but they identify as “citizens of the world.” They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community.

And they subscribe to a set of values held by similar elites in other places: things like the importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress.

MO Sen. Josh Hawley, quoted in “Sen. Josh Hawley Reaches Out To The Neglected American Herrenvolk:, Doktor Zoom, Wonkette, July 19, 2019
Obergruppenfu . . . I mean Republican Senator Josh Hawley, MO

Many remember thinking to ourselves, “If fascism were to come to America, I’d know and I’d speak out!” Wasn’t that part of our education, after all? Being taught to recognize the signs of the civic illness beginning to sprout, and asked, “What would you do?”

Of course, we’re well down that right-turn road now, aren’t we? I personally don’t see Trump as leading any such movement; I actually understand him to be far more a symptom of our decline than any cause.

What, however, do we do with the speech Freshman Senator Josh Hawley gave recently? Do we write it off as just another over-enthusiastic presentation of right-wing talking points? Perhaps we could, were it not for repeated renditions of National Socialist rhetoric recognizable to any high school history student. Words like “cosmopolitan”, which is just another way of saying “Jew” and “Jewish”. Perhaps the following quote might ring a familiar bell:

Since the days of the city-state, the republican tradition has always viewed self-government as a project bound to a particular place, practiced by citizens loyal to that place andloyal to the way of life they share together. [Emphasis added]

As Wonkette’s Dr Zoom writes below this blockquote in the above-linked article, ” You might even say they’re bound by blood and soil, we suppose.”

This young, fresh-faced lawmaker has moved far beyond the simple-minded rhetoric of patriotism and a watered-down Christianity of much of our recent Republican politicians. Hawley has opened himself to the Goebbels Manual of Style, and allowed himself to speak quite openly words that drip with the blood of millions. “You’re being alarmist!” people will no doubt say.

They said much the same of some of the earliest refugees from Hitler’s Germany.

This Trumpjungen has no business in any polite or educated or human society. Let alone the United States Senate. When you start sounding just a bit too much like the unlamented Reichfuhrer, without apology, it is time to be very clear where we stand: Either we call Hawley the American National Socialist he is or we surrender now any claim to resistance down the road.

Christian Faith In Dark Times by H. Jackson Forstman

The late Jack Forstman

Moving from Hannah Arendt’s Men In Dark Times to Jack Forstman’s Christian Faith In Dark Times was easy. For one thing, both Arendt and Forstman offer insight into how different people of amazing intellectual force and moral power struggled with and either lost or won their battles with particular “dark times”. Unlike Arendt, however, Forstman offers us a view of six of the most creative theological minds in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War as they faced the twin krises of their times: the emergence of Dialectical Theology in the 1920’s and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. Unlike Arendt, who seems willing to give some failures a pass (read her essay on Brecht), Forstman is unsparing in making it clear that theologians (under discussion here are Friedrich Gogarten, Paul Althaus, and Emmanuel Hirsch) who sided first with the German Christian Church and the National Socialist Party and its leader failed the most crucial test any Christian must face.*

Serving as an excellent introduction to the early years and controversies of Dialectical Theology and its opponents, supporters and hangers-on (this last would include Paul Tillich and, after a fashion, Rudolf Bultmann who considered himself a part of the movement in the mid-20’s but distanced himself over time from Barth’s stridency), Forstman offers readers a bird’s-eye view of an important historical moment in the life of Christian theology in the West. Born in the disillusionment that flowed from the collapse of the West in the First World War, its initial proponents, Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, sought to reaffirm that most basic proclamation of the Christian faith – that God is God, not a predicate of any human construct nor the subject of human activity and inquiry. While shifting his emphasis over the decades of his long career, Barth never lost this most basic point: God is. Everything else is not God. That distinction, what Barth called after Kierkegaard an “infinite qualitative distinction” should humble our statements regarding theological possibilities. For Barth, the far-too-enthusiastic participation of the German churches and theological faculty in prosecuting the war** showed the emptiness at the heart of then-regnant Liberal Theology.

Over the ensuing years, Dialectical Theology served much the same function as, in a different context, punk music served in Great Britain in the 1970’s. While punk was a living, vibrant, edgy scene that offered to those who understood it a way out of the morass of the over-corporatized megagroup music then in favor, the truth is it was a commercial failure and was, as even Elvis Costello would say, an “elitist” approach to musical revolution. So, too, with Dialectical Theology; while from our perspective a century after the publication of Barth’s Romerbrief it’s easy enough to see the change it and subsequent publications in much the same vein brought to European and later American theology, at the time it was loud only because Barth was his own best publicist and had a very loud, one might say strident, voice.

As the times changed, however, attention shifted to the growing power and influence of a political movement few intellectuals took very seriously. Philosopher Hans Georg-Gadamer, in an anecdote Forstman includes in a footnote, was at the time (the early 1930’s) a student at Marburg and one of a circle of young disciples of Rudolf Bultmann. Gadamer knew nothing about the National Socialists other than their outrageous views, criminal activities and thought it nonsense that such a thing might one day become powerful enough to rule Germany. Intellectually and practically, Hitler and National Socialism up to the moment it seized power, was an improbable joke.

Only when the National Socialists became the second largest party in the Reichstag in elections in 1931 did people suddenly realize that if Hitler were a joke, no one was laughing anymore. Due to the volatility and ineptitude of Weimar Republic German politics and politicians, Hitler was reluctantly appointed Chancellor of a coalition government by President von Hindenburg. After an attempted arson on the Reichstag building, the Nazis moved swiftly to consolidate power through the passage of what was unceremoniously called “Enabling Legislation” granting to the Chancellor a series of emergency powers that resulted in the destruction of rival parties, the jailing of opposition leadership in hastily-built concentration camps, and the emergence of an enforced Cult of Personality that included requisite loyalty oaths to the National Socialist State and the person of Adolf Hitler.

Not long after the enabling legislation was passed, Tillich lost his teaching position but was offered a soft landing at Union Seminary in New York City, thanks in part to the intervention of Richard Niebuhr and his brother Reinhold. Others – Gogarten, Hirsch, and Althaus – not only signed the oath but Hirsch and Althaus wrote offering an enthusiastic “Yes” to the person of Hitler and the work of the Nazi Part in the State. Karl Barth would only sign an oath if a qualifying sentence would be added; after much back-and-forth, the state accepted, Barth signed, then a week later was dismissed from the theological faculty in Gottingen. Like Tillich, Barth had a soft landing in his hometown of Basel on the Swiss/French/German border.

The unlikeliest of heroes, Rudolf Bultmann emerges from Forstman’s text as the most courageous of the men investigated. He refused to sign the oath but never lost his teaching position. He continued to be critical both of Nazism and the German Christian movement throughout the war years, preaching often at local churches and never shying away from speaking the Gospel in a demon-haunted land. He always faced opposition, even protest, but he kept his position, continued to teach, and after the War became known in the English-speaking world for his exegetical work on New Testament texts.

The question Forstman asks at the beginning of the book – “[A]re there in Christian faith understandings of God, self, and the world that can help one recognize the demonic before it shows itself boldly?” – has become ever more relevant. I first purchased and read this book in 1992. At the time, there were certainly troubles and frustrations, both within the churches in the United States and in our political life. In the ensuing quarter century, however, what was only nascent if at all has become our own kairos. We Christians living in America have faced over recent history moments of choice; by and large, the majority of American Christians have chosen poorly. This has harmed both the churches in America as well as our common life as American citizens. I know there are some, perhaps many, who wouldn’t abide the idea that our politics has become demonic; that this fiendish infiltration took root first in the churches before spreading itself out, allowing for the election of our very own clownish, ridiculous leader, Donald Trump.

Here we are, however. I think that the best Christian theology offers tools for those willing to use them to be able to stand in critical distance from our own moment and shout a “No!” that would make Karl Barth proud. Alas, I think too few people use these tools. Thus it is we find ourselves in our current state of affairs. Forstman’s book, then, is hardly at all dated; like Arendt before him, Forstman challenges his readers to recognize the fallen angels of our time, to wrestle with them honestly and fearlessly, and be able to call them by name even as they continue to ravage our churches and world.

*The exception seems to be his rather more tentative statements regarding Hirsch. Considering Hirsch never repudiated his membership in the Nazi Party, held fast to the virulent anti-Semitism of the Party, and accepted exile from academic life rather than deny his adherence to Nazi ideas, this hesitancy seems more than a little misplaced. Yes, Hirsch was brilliant, as those things can be understood, in the depth and breadth of his intellect. To call an unrepentant Nazi “extremely ethical”, as Forstman does, does violence to the word.

** I do not know if Barth ever knew this, but the infamous speech Kaiser Wilhelm gave in defense of his declaration of war – infamous both because of the content of the speech as well as a photograph of the event shows very clearly a young Austrian immigrant, Adolf Hitler, looking on in rapture as Wilhelm spoke – was written in large part by Barth’s teacher, one of the greatest historians of Christian teachings, Adolf von Harnack.

A Moment Of Light

Our prophetic first Commander-In-Chief

Was it Trump going off-script again, trying to ad lib even though he is incapable of doing so? Was it a misreading of “ports” on blurry teleprompters brought about by heavy rain? Was it an ignorant – or perhaps playful – speechwriter? Regardless of the circumstances, Trump’s mangled attempt to portray the honor and bravery of our revolutionary forbears is now the stuff of Internet legend. Searching the hashtag #RevolutionaryWarAirports on Twitter offers up a view of creative ridicule that should stand the test of time.

It is fitting that, over the past couple days, I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s Men In Dark Times, a series of essays on men (and two women, Rosa Luxemborg and Isaak Dinesen) who let their light shine, even if only dimly, in the midst of the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. One of the many benefits of the essays is to see how different people responded to the catastrophes of the years 1914-1945 in ways that allowed even a tiny bit of light to shine. Even Walter Benjamin, perhaps the darkest portrait (because the most beset character) in the collection, comes off as the true prophet sine qua non of an era whose legacy we still struggle to comprehend. Precisely because Benjamin saw himself, as described so beautifully by Arendt, as a collector of the detritus of a tradition once-for-all smashed to bits by the excesses of War, Revolution, Anti-Semitism, and Barbarism, he lived wholly in and of the historical moment, taking its darkness upon himself in order to keep it from obscuring the light of his insights and kritik.

We who are living in our own Dark Times search for some bit of light to keep from being overwhelmed. It is hardly just the political situation in which we find ourselves; the climate crisis presses itself all around us, not just as Americans but around the world. Wars and injustice rooted in our rapidly changing climate, creating refugees seeking nothing more than a quiet life are creating conditions in which a spreading fascism becomes ever-more a viable alternative. Precisely because there is, now perhaps too late, a sense of the limits we as a species face, there also appears (far too easily among a vocal few) a willingness to offer those most vulnerable as a sacrifice for the salvation of the rest of us.

With an American President attempting a self-aggrandizing military parade on our Day of Independence was insulting enough. Coming as it does amidst a daily assault on every attempt to make our land somewhat more livable, more humane, it seemed another step on a march toward a peculiarly American fascism. Lucky for us, however, as he did recently in his canceled attack on Iran, Trump demonstrated he is not so much to be feared as he is to be ridiculed. A master of no plans, his inability to lead only overshadowed by his ineptitude at even the most basic civic functions, Trump’s attempt to offer stunning visuals of himself surrounded by American military might turned into a rain-soaked farce that was topped with a series of misstatements that have become a source for much entertainment.

And why not laugh at the absurdity? The man himself, Donald Trump, is as absurd a figure as history has thought fit to toss our way. This Mini-Mart Mussolini doesn’t even have the wherewithal to understand how ludicrous he really is. Far better to laugh than to rage in any event; not for nothing do tyrants (even wannabes like Trump) fear laughter more than anything precisely because mockery exposes the reality of weakness and fear behind every autocrat. Even as we rage and sorrow over the treatment of children in our care (and do so, on both left and right, with a remarkable historical blindness to such treatment being part and parcel of American history); even as we witness the degradation and destruction of our institutions in the name of momentary political advantage; even as some actually get angry about a shoe company; why the hell not laugh when someone says that the Continental Army sought to control airports?

After all, I think that’s the reason for the reaction (perhaps overreaction?) so many on social media have had. Even as we worry about what might yet await us, there is at least the comforting thought our pretend President isn’t smart enough to know there were no airports in the 18th century. We can, for a moment or two, laugh at Trump’s absurdity. stupidity, and vacuousness before we return – as we always must – to the darkness of our present moment. Why begrudge our laughter at the expense of someone so well-suited to derision?

Unearth The Whole Offense

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god

“September 1, 1939”, W. H. Auden
Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States

The above, much of the second stanza of Auden’s poem, is quoted by Larry McMurtry in the Introduction to his essay collection Sacagawea’s Nickname. Offering it as a warning to those who might seek in history answers to questions that cannot be answered, McMurtry writes: “Vast book has followed vast book, and yet no one is still quite able to say with precision why that particular culture went mad.” (p.x) As it was with the German descent into barbarism, so, too, I think will be the case with historians trying, at some point in the future, to understand just what happened with the United States during “those years”. Should, that is, we survive it to have historians to ask the question.

The current online flap over whether or not to call the detention centers “concentration camps” – centers where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently house thousands of men, women, and children who have tried to enter the United States in deplorable, unsanitary, unhealthy conditions that are, apart from their illegality, understaffed or staffed with unaccountable (to the American people) private contractors who are already accused of abuse, violence, and rape – brings the question Auden thought worth asking, “What happened at Linz?” to the forefront in a most immediate way.

It is all too easy, I think, to believe that pretty much everything is up for debate. “You say tomato, I say tomahto” seems to be a model for a kind of pseudo-democratic public sphere. Is the earth getting warmer? Did we humans have a significant role in that warming? What does this climate event mean for human societies going forward? Are reparations for slavery still a just answer to the crime of slavery? Is the United States operating “concentration camps” in the historical understanding of that term? These are questions that everyone seems to have an answer to, even if they don’t understand what’s actually at stake in creating a question out of a statement. The internet has created a false sense of expertise, a notion that every opinion, every thought, every point of view is equally legitimate; therefore we must, by the demands of some pseudo-democratic rule, accord equal measure to cranks and historians, ideologues and pragmatists, honest brokers and those with agendas. All responses to these and other questions in our current public discourse are of the same validity, we are told, therefore demand thoughtful responses.

Of course, this isn’t really how things are. There really are people who know things in a depth and detail that can be astounding. Part of their task, often, is teaching; not just offering information (although God knows that’s too often lacking) but a way to think about things. One of the first things the best teachers confer is a critical awareness that, despite what our grade-school teachers told us, there really is such a thing as a stupid question. Consider, for example, the discussion about reparations. The case for them is pretty straight forward and sensible. An “argument” against them that I often see is, “No one living today has ever owned a slave. Therefore no one living today owes black folk anything.” The problem with this statement, of course, is it doesn’t address the matter of reparations at all; it is, rather, an attempted evasion of personal responsibility for a situation of ongoing collective injustice against a population still facing structural barriers to full participation in American life. A person might soothe their conscience by saying such things; it also is meaningless to the matter or reparations.

As with the reparations debate, so, too, with the matter of concentration camps. The term was first used by the British during the Boer War to describe large prison camps where the Afrikaans population of British South Africa were housed to prevent their participation in actions against the British. When Hitler was granted the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933, one of his first acts was mass arrests of communists, socialists, intellectuals, and other “undesirables” and the creation of a system of camps where they could be held indefinitely outside the judicial processes of the state. They were not the same thing as the killing centers, the latter built in what was called the Poland General-Government. These latter didn’t appear until after the Wansee Conference in 1942 at which the “Final Solution” to the so-called Judenfrage was determined to be human slaughter on an industrial scale. At the concentration camps in Germany, renegade clergy, religious minorities, sexual minorities, the old, the developmentally disabled, political dissidents, and others were housed in conditions that led to mass death through malign neglect. The killing centers – Auschwitz and Sobibor and Treblinka and the rest – existed only to kill millions of people as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Obviously, we haven’t yet built killing centers. We have, however, built concentration camps. And not for the first time in our history. What were the Indian reservations but large unfenced and unguarded prisons where the indigenous populations were left to rot and die? The internment camps for Japanese during World War II were nothing other than a variation on concentration camps. The United States even exported the idea to South Vietnam, calling them “strategic hamlets” but actually little more than a way of corralling and neglecting a hostile people. To pretend that the US is somehow immune to the charge of having built and used concentration camps, either in the past or present, ignores things that really happened and are happening right now.

I have seen many on the right complain that, since the previous Administration did much the same thing without a hue and cry, doing so now amounts to little more than opportunism would have more merit if there weren’t many people on the American left who indeed called what the Obama Administration did deplorable and criminal. They used the same words, up to and including concentration camps, to talk about the conditions under which people were being held without trial or any adjudication at all. The Obama Administration isn’t off the hook for its crimes; history will judge it just as harshly. Pointing out the criminal and offensive nature of the act now may perhaps be a kind of partisan or ideological blindness or hypocrisy; that doesn’t make the statement any less true.

Part of the way we as a people will recover from our current season of civic, social, and political madness is to be honest with ourselves about things that really are happening. We must, even in the midst of so confusing and exhausting a time as now, do our best to unearth the whole offense if we are to committed to repenting our current madness. It is never easy to say of one’s own country, “We are committing horrific acts against innocent people.” Yet we Americans do so frequently. In this particular instance, saying the state is operating concentration camps isn’t a matter for debate. It is, or at least should be, a matter for contrition, for action to end them, and to seek penance for the crimes we are committing.