Human Packs and Alpha Dogs –Part 2

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AMERICA 2019: PUZZLING AND CONFOUNDING

We are in the midst a constitutional crisis in the U.S.A. that leads most of us scratching our heads. How did we get here? How will we get out of it? No one knows.

Part 1 of this three-post series suggested kinship with dogs who, by nature, live in packs led by Alpha Dogs. In Part 2, we turn to a time-honored voice from an earlier time.

AN OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE

Karl Barth‘s way of seeing and hearing offers one such perspective. Barth was one of great theologians of the 20th Century, known for his brilliance, and for his early opposition to the rise and rule of Adolf Hitler and the nationalist ideology of the Third Reich.

Barth saw what those with “eye disease” did not. Idolatry, not atheism, is the issue for the human creature.

In Adolf Hitler and nationalist party that ended a constitutional republic, Barth saw what he called “the lordless powers” that have no Lord but themselves. They allow for no superiors. They submit to nothing and to no one. They are what Barth’s American friend William Stringfellow called “imposters of God” that prey on our anxiety, powers greater than ours, in effect a ‘lord’ — an Alpha Dog — to protect us and conquer what threatens us.

“DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES”

As a Christian theologian, Barth professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. This Lord is no victor. For Barth, Jesus Christ was the man for others who stooped to wash others’ feet, a chore assigned to household slaves; unmasked the lordless powers of empire; wept over the city, and rode into it “humble and riding on an ass” in counterpoint to the emperor entering the city on his white stallion; proclaimed a kingdom of infinite compassion not built by ‘the lordless powers’; prayed on his knees to the Lord of lords and King of kings of all the lesser packs; and bent his back to the soldier’s whip and Roman execution, and reached out to the rebel on the cross next to his.

The Jesus of Nazareth who bowed his head to no other power than YHWH — the Ineffable One, the Eternal One, the Lord beyond the lordless that rise and fall and are forgotten — represents humankind in our proper relationship with God.

“The demonism of politics consists in the idea of ’empire’, which is always human as such.

The Nazi Party and its Alpha Dog were ‘Lordless’ because they were accountable to no one and to nothing. Their authority and power were absolute. Everyone in the pack was ordered to yield to a headstrong man and a “headstrong dream.”

Barth’s theological anthropology offers insight into our vulnerability in an anxious world.

Man’s (sic.) alienation from God at once carries with it his self-alienation: the denaturalizing of the humanity and fellow humanity of is own existence, the contraction of the determination, inalienably given to him as God’s creature, that he should belong to God and have in God his Lord, the beginning of speech, action, and therefore existence, which are headstrong because they have no Lord.

Karl Barth, The Christian Life, 213-14.

Knowing that social control requires consent of the pack, Hitler and the Third Reich systematically transposed the prevailing religious belief system into the key of nationalist supremacy. The religion that proclaimed the elusive Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ as Lord was brought to Heel: Heel! Sit! Down! Off! Leave it it!

The church that prayed “Thy Kingdom come” bowed the knee to the nearer-to-hand kingdom, raising its arm to salute the national messiah. “Heil Hitler!” and Sieg Heil” replaced Handel’s ‘Messiah’.

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5).

Handel’s Messiah

As for the Jews? It’s much harder to bring to heel a people whose faith looks to YHWH, the Holy One, and does not regard any human being as a divine incarnation. They would need to be removed from the fictional Aryan pack. They were stripped of every constitutional protection, herded onto trains, and delivered to concentration camps as people unfit for German society.

“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”

Like the Germans in the lead up to 1933, we in America in 2019 are manipulated by well-calibrated propaganda and disinformation campaigns that ‘denaturalize’ and turn neighbors into enemies in the age of cyberspace.

Slogans are simply vents with whose help ideologies surface and in the form of loud whistles call for general applause and acknowledgment. Let us not be deceived: we all listen to the most varied catchwords, we all use them more or less merrily, and in so doing show that we ourselves are people who have been struck and stabbed and snared by systematized ideologies.

Propaganda is putting things in black and white. … What they have to push systematically is their own excellence and usefulness, and by way of background must show how utterly valueless and harmful their rivals and opponents are.

THE TRUMP PHENOMENON

Classical Christian theology is clear about the need for an Alpha Dog. Its understanding of human being is sometimes called theological anthropology. Our mortal human nature is best understood in light of our submission — witting or unwitting — to this, that, or another power. When an Alpha Dog rises to claim the allegiance of a pack, we are thrown back.

Most of us in Roman Catholicism and progressive protestant churches have moved beyond patriarchal metaphors and talk of kings, kingdoms, and lords. We speak instead of ‘kin-doms’ without kings — horizontal societies without authority, what Barth called “the Lordless powers.” The reign of compassion is upended and replaced by an Alpha Dog who reigns absolutely, using propaganda, fear, hate, and cruelty to bring the pack to Heel.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 12, 2019

I will look for You – a Psalmic reflection

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WHY AM I AWAKE?

The comforter feels heavy. My body is sore. So is my spirit. I shift from one side to the other and turn on my back, but it doesn’t help.

picture of digital clock

I look over to the night table at the old digital clock that once told my parents the time of day or night — the inheritance with the BIG red numbers that glow in the dark to help old folks read them.

The red numbers read 3:13.

I throw off the covers, stumble down the 18 steps to the first floor, make a pot of coffee, pour myself a cup, turn on the small table lamp by the fireplace, and sit down for an early morning conversation with the psalmist in the copy of The Book of Common Prayer Sue Kahn put in my hand years ago.

MEDITATION ON PSALM 5 (SELECTED VERSES)

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.[v.3]
Art work by Andrej Mashkotsev with Tower of Babel in the backgound adds visual weight to "the little kings and usurpers.

I will put my trust in You. I will not surrender to powers that know no higher power.

You, Lord, are the Breath that breathes in all and makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust — “Lord of lords and King of kings,” the Eternal One from Whom the little kings and usurpers cannot flee.

“AN EMPIRE” – ANDREJ MASHKOTSEV

I make my appeal to You for Whom the darkness is as light. Things are dark here in America. We are divided. The future looks dark. Although my faith tells me You are present everywhere, I do not feel hopeful. It seems as though You have left us to our own devises.

For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness,
and evil cannot dwell with You. [v.4]

Though it feels as though You are hiding, I have to believe You do not take pleasure in wickedness, and that the partisan evil, as bold and obvious as the big red numbers on my parents’ digital clock at 3:13 A.M, will not prevail. Evil cannot dwell with You.

Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; you hate all those who work wickedness. [v.5]

Does it matter to You?

If braggarts cannot stand in Your sight, come into sight. Show Yourself. Take Your seat on the judgment throne to hold the braggarts accountable for their treason against You and all that breathes. Summon the braggarts to stand before You before it is too late.

Do You hate wickedness? Does Love also hate? Do You shrug and let it go?

PAINTING “JOHN” BY LILIA MAZURKEVICH 

But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. (v.7)

I will bow down in awe of You. The good green Earth is Your temple. I will look to the greatness of Your mercy. When it feels as though You are hiding, I will seek You. I will remember the wisdom of the Hasidic grandfather teach his grandson about You, when young Yechiel came home in tears because his friend had stopped looking for him in a game of hide-and-seek.

artwork "Hide-and-Seek" by Marieke Peters - Visual Artist adds visual impact to the Buber story and intent of the post.

“Rebbe Barukh caressed Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his eyes, he whispered softly, ‘God too Yechiel, God too is weeping. For, He too has been hidden with no one looking for Him’.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim).

HIDE-AND-SEEK, MARIEKE PETERS

I will look for You.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 6, 2019.

Humans, Packs, and Alpha Dogs – Part 1

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INVITATION TO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX

In times like these, it helps to step outside the box.

My canine friend Barclay and his predecessors, Maggie and Sebastian (RIP), offered an opportunity to see ourselves and others differently.

REFLECTIONS OF AN ALPHA DOG

I love dogs. No one loves dogs more than I, except for Mark, and he and his latest golden retriever are in Maine. Like Mark, I have to have a dog! Living with Barclay, I’ve noticed the same thing I saw with Maggie and Sebastian.

Barclay is calmest when the Alpha Dog establishes and maintains authority: Heel Sit! Stay. Down. Off. Leave it. Fetch. Get the ball! Drop it.

Photograph of my dog friend Barclay in the car, looking at his Alpha Dog.

Barclay loves his human Alpha Dog. It’s in his nature to submit to the pack’s Alpha Dog.

Without an Alpha Dog, Barclay is a mess.

We tell ourselves we’re not canines; we’re human beings. We’re not members of a pack, and we don’t have Alpha Dogs. We are the Alpha Dogs who give the commands that house-train Maggie not to look you in the eye and squat on the Persian rug, and Sebastian and Barclay to lift their legs on fire hydrants instead of the legs of the dining room table. The Alpha Dog’s house is not their ‘loo‘, as the British say.

Maggie and Sebastian playing in the snow.

Dogs seem happiest when the pack’s Alpha Dog has established clear limits and boundaries.

HUMANS, PACKS, AND ALPHA DOGS

Living with Maggie, Sebastian, and Barclay while obsessing over events in the U.S.A. recently lead me to wonder: Is there much difference between canines and humans? Are we also pack animals in need of an Alpha Dog?

Members of 12-Step groups answer yes. They join anonymous packs whose participants recognize that an addiction has taken over their lives — “My name is Bob/Harriet, and I’m an alcoholic/heroin addict” — and encourage each other in their shared day-by-day surrender to a higher power, however each member defines it.

Twelve-Step programs do not have a theology, but they do have an anthropology and a philosophy that runs counter to a dominant culture which, if is certain about anything, it’s that we’re not members of a dog pack. We don’t submit to anything; we’re the Alpha Dogs!

PARTS TWO and THREE

Part Two will look through the eyes of Paul Tillich, Willem Zuurdeeg, and Karl Barth as their wisdom applies the American scene in 2019.

Thanks for dropping by. Leave a comment, if you wish, to widen and deepen the conversation.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), available on Amazon in kindle and paperback, Chaska, MN, Dec. 3, 2019

Stay Awake! An unspoken sermon

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This sermon was written for a congregation of one the first Sunday after stepping out of the pulpit five years ago.

STAY AWAKE!

First Sunday in Advent, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” [attributed to Jesus, Gospel of Mark 13:37].

It’s hard to stay awake in times like these. To be conscious includes grief, helplessness, anger at the state of the nation and world, and the stupidity of the human race.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” is supposed to bring comfort but it doesn’t, unless the heaven and earth of which Jesus speaks are the ones our pride has created. The imaginary ones. The heavenly and earthly projects that rise out of human insecurity as in the Genesis story of Babel, the story of what never was but always is, according to which the building of the ideal city is interrupted and the tower “with its top in the heavens” is “left off”. But the Word – the story about it – has not passed away. It endures. As fresh today as it was when first shared around a campfire as a way of telling each generation the respective places of God and man (humankind).

Fourteen years after the World Trade Towers collapsed in NYC, a new tower, “One World Trade Center” – taller, stronger, bolder – stands where the old towers fell on 9/11. One World Trade Center, symbolizes a resurrection of the crashed myth. Standing a few blocks from Wall Street, where the global economy is reconstructed every day, One World Trade Center resurrects the myth of national supremacy, benign goodness, and virtue of the American economic system.

We could have left Ground Zero empty of monoliths. Turned it into a memorial and monument to the error of pride, a turning away from global arrogance. A repentance from the economic-military-religious complex that has expropriated the oil fields in the Middle East, assassinated the elected President of Iran in 1958, installed the Shah in his place, ignored the human rights of Palestinians, supported and installed western-friendly oligarchies and strong men in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), and Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) until, except for Saudi Arabia, they turned against us.

Instead of listening to the word that does not pass away, we Americans, to the sorrow of New Yorkers like Michael Kimmelman (NY Times, Nov. 29, 2014), opted for the old words and worn-out scripts that had failed us. The Democratic Spring in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia did not do what the NeoCon exporters of Western democracy had imagined. It unleashed a seething volcano of anti-American resentment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, have become desert quagmires – Vietnams without the jungles.

Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warning of an emerging military-industrial complex is all but forgotten as One World Trade Center stands like a phoenix raised up…and up…and up from the ashes, symbol of global dominance resurrected from the horrifying deadly collapse of 9/11.

Words and symbols are everything in this world.

photo of Tower of Babel by Master of the Duke of Bedford

Mr. Kimmelman opines, “But it [i.e. the World Trade Center] never really connected with the rest of Lower Manhattan. There had been talk after Sept. 11 about the World Trade Center re-development including housing, culture and retail, capitalizing on urban trends and the growing desire for a truer neighborhood, at a human scale, where the windswept plaza at the foot of the twin towers had been.”

It’s all about human scale. A plaza. Not a tower with its top in the heavens.

Staying awake is hard. Being attuned to what is not passing away takes faith. It takes hope. Maybe even love.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” [Mark 13:28]

Jesus often seems to have said that the word we need to hear is spoken by nature. Learn from the fig tree. It waits through the dormant season to become tender again, to put forth its leaves toward summer and the production of figs. Nature is calling. Nature is our home. Nature is what is – the real heaven and earth – the word that will not pass away, the word that will survive when we are gone. We need to love nature again. Awaken to nature. Re-imagine ourselves as part of nature, “creatures” among the multitude of creatures. Our words will pass away, even the best of them. Our Creator’s will not.

During this most puzzling of seasons – the Season of Advent, the season of wakeful, wait-ful anticipation of a Coming in fullness – I find myself crying out like Isaiah. It feels something as though “you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” [Isaiah 64:7]

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations [the ethnoi in NT Greek, i.e. the peoples] might tremble at your presence!” [Isaiah 64:1-2]

The “nations” have always been God’s adversaries, closed in on themselves, puffed up, defensive against intruders foreign and domestic, plunderers of nature and other nations, hostile to the foreigner, both human and Divine.

In this season of “economic recovery” when the poor continue to get poorer, the rich get richer, and the middle class shrinks, and the climate change clock ticks closer to midnight, deliver us, Good Lord, from “the hand of our own iniquity”.

Remember, “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” [Isaiah 64:8]

This word is the only word that lasts. Stay awake, my soul. Stay awake to the whole of it – all of it: the sorrow and the grief of it, the loneliness of it, the anger of it, the guilt of it, the finger pointing out and away and the finger pointing back at me, a nation to myself, and the presence of the Potter – and my soul will be well, new and fresh every morning.

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (Wipf and Stock, 2017) available on Amazon in kindle and paperback, Chaska, MN, First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2019.

Truth needs no propaganda

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Truth and falsehood

“Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Prudence,” Essays: First Series (1841).

I imagine Emerson quietly applauding Fiona Hill boldly calling out the false narrative that stabs at the health of democracy in her testimony before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s Trump impeachment inquiry.

U.S. National Intelligence expert on Russia begs U.S. House Intelligence Committee members to stop spreading the Russian intelligence false narrative about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

PARTISAN PROPAGANDA: THE BIG LIE

“The great masses of people . . . will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.”

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1924), 1.10.

MAKING THE WIND APPEAR SOLID

“Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to the wind.”

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Shooting the Elephant (1950).

TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD

“Man can certainly keep on lying (and does so), but he cannot make truth falsehood.”

Karl Barth quoted in The New York Times obituary, December 11, 1968.

TRUTH NEEDS NO PROPAGANDA

If there has always been propaganda in some form, from the time of the modest newspapers of the seventeenth century it has developed with a new speed and to a new degree, as new and more effective instruments have been found and brought into use. One should note that the truth needs no propaganda and does not engage in it. As the truth, it simply speaks for itself and opposes falsehood. Propaganda is a sure sign that what is at issue is not the truth but an ideology which needs it, to whose nature it corresponds, and which is not ashamed to make use of it.

Karl Barth, “The Lordless Powers,” The Christian Life, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromley, p.227.

Propaganda and National Security

Continued promotion of a self-serving false narrative under the guise of patriotic concern for national security puts American national security at risk.

A subsequent Views from the Edge commentary will explore what Karl Barth‘s “lordless powers” and Christian scripture calls “principalities and powers.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, November 23, Chaska, MN, Nov. 23, 2019.

Cracking the Code: “I want nothing. No quid pro quo!”

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Photo of Michael Cohen, head school uploaded from Wikimedia

“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in a code. And I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade.”

— Michael Cohn, Feb. 27, 2019 testimony before Congress.

SPEAKING IN CODE

Although Michael Cohen knew of his boss’s business dealings in Russia, Mr. Trump often said in Michael’s presence that he had no business ties in Russia. Michael, his lawyer-fixer for 10 years, understood what he meant. It wasn’t a statement of fact. It was code for an order: Deny any connection with Russia.

THE CODE

STONE’S RULES – BLAME THE TRANSLATORS

“Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counter-attack.”

“Attack, attack, attack, never defend.”

FLASHBACK — “They’ve got him”

“They’ve got him — credible witnesses, documents, and who knows what else. In all my years as a prosecutor, I’ve never seen such an open-and-shut case.” — U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson’s announcement to President Nixon of the results of the federal investigation of bribery. The case was resolved with a quid pro quo: Quid: Vice President Agnew would resign with a plea “no contest”; Quo: the Vice President would not go to prison.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 22, 2019.

The Ides of March — Are the boys still there?

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JULIUS CAESAR AND THE IDES OF MARCH

Statue of Julius Caesar Via dei Fori Imperiali
Leomudde [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Last Friday was not the Ides of March, but it may have been the day the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar of the consequences of overstepping the Roman Republic’s limits to executive power.

According to Plutarch, on his way to the fateful meeting of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March, Caesar passed the seer, mocking his fortune-telling with a confident sneer: “The Ides of March are come.”

“Aye, Caesar,” said the seer, “but not gone.”

That same day in 44 BCE the soothsayer’s warning was confirmed. As many as 60 senators ended the threat to turn the Roman Republic into an eternal dictatorship.

THE DAY OF THE SOOTHSAYER

Events last Friday echo the soothsayer’s warning:

  • Maria Yovanovich, the nonpartisan diplomat of impeccable character summarily recalled from her duties in Ukraine with no explanation, honored the House Intelligence Committee’s subpoena to appear for testimony at the Committee’s impeachment inquiry hearing;
  • The president who had suddenly dismissed Ms. Yovanovich just as suddenly smeared her reputation with a tweet while she was testifying before the Committee;
  • Roger Stone, the career dirty-trickster and long-term friend and mentor of Donald Trump, architect of the 2016 “Make America Great Again” campaign strategy and tactics, was convicted by a jury on all seven counts of making false statements, obstruction, and witness tampering;
  • President Trump tweeted:

“So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn’t they lie?”

Donald J. Trump tweet during Maria Yovanovich testimony, November 15, 2019.

ROGER STONE’S RULES

Roy Cohn and Roger Stone are the the political dirty-trickster mentors who who trained Donald Trump in the Machiavellian rules for how to succeed in business and politics.

The following are a few of “Stone’s Rules” as he shared them in the documentary film Get Me Roger Stone:

  • “Hate is stronger than love”
  • “Unless you can fake sincerity, you’ll get nowhere in this business”
  • “Politics isn’t theater. It’s performance art. Sometimes, for its own sake”
  • “White shirt + tan face = confidence”
  • “Hit it from every angle. Open multiple fronts on your enemy. He must be confused, and feel besieged on every side.
  • “Always praise ’em before you hit ’em”
  • “Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack”
  • “Attack, attack, attack, never defend”
  • “Never turn down the opportunity to have sex or be on TV.” (attributed to Gore Vidal)
  • “Nothing is on the level”
  • “It’s better to be infamous than never famous at all.”

CONGENITALLY INCAPABLE

Presidential historian Jon Meacham spoke within hours of the president’ latest tweety. “My sense,” he said, “is that we have a president who is congenitally incapable of seeing beyond his own self-interest. And what these witnesses have done is proven that while he wants to build a wall at the border, he has no interest in building a wall around our elections.” (The Beat, Friday, Nov. 15.)

ARE THE BOYS (THE KING’S MEN) STILL THERE?

“A political leader must keep looking over his shoulder all the time to see if the boys are still there. If they’re not, he’s no longer a political leader.” (NYT obituary for Bernard Baruch, June 21, 1965.)

Bernard Baruch Obituary, New York Times, June 21, 1964

The impeachment inquiry is about much more than a sitting president’s continuance or removal from office. It’s about the survival of the Constitution of the American Republic in an era when an entire political party has substituted the habits of Stone’s Rules for the sworn duty of every elected member of Congress “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”

“Admit nothing. Deny everything. Launch counterattacks. Attack, attack, attack. Never defend. Distract, distract, distract!” is a heinous violation of the Oath Office.

Is it too much to hope that soothsayer’s warning will result in coming to our senses? If not, we may be left to hope John Arburthnot was right that “political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 18, 2019.

America in the Stress Test Waiting Room

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Last week I asked a psychiatrist friend whether he has been seeing increased levels of stress in his patients. “Yes,” he said, “Universally.”

As the impeachment inquiry hearings begin today, we are divided and angry. But we’re all under stress, and we’re all Americans. When we’re stressed, we do strange things. Some of us clam up. Some of us scream and shout. Some of us need company. Which led me to think again this morning about the stress test waiting room and a World War II veteran named Bill. I’m wondering what Bill might say.

Bill in the Stress Test Waiting Room

visual image of hospital waiting room

He sits by himself in the hospital waiting room.

“Where you from?” he asks, as if welcoming the stranger who’s come to his home for a stress test.

“Chaska.”

Where?” he asks over the whine from his hearing aids.

I’m not anxious to strike up a conversation. I’m here for a stress test. I’m an introvert. Chatting with strangers when I’m gathering myself when I’m under stress, waiting for a stress test, is the last thing I want.

C h a s k a!” I repeat.

“Oh! I’m from Waconia! I’m Bill.”

He gives a broad smile as though we’re related. (Waconia and Chaska are neighbors in Carver County, MN.)

His gowned wife, fresh off the treadmill, returns from her stress test.

“This is my wife, Jane. She’s a lot younger than I am. I’m 96.”

“Ninety-four,” says the younger wife. “We’ve been together 15 years.”

“Chaska’s the county seat,” says Bill. “That’s where i was sworn in.” (Clearly, he’s an extrovert. He feels better when he has guests.)

“World War II?”

“February 6, 1942. Eighty of us. A lot of guys from Chaska.”

“Where’d you serve?”

“He was part of D-Day,” answers Jane. Bill’s head sinks toward his lap. His chin begins to quiver. A long pause follows.

D-Day, WWII.

Only 15 of us came back.”

“Were you injured?”

“No,” he says, forming his hands in prayer and looking up. “I don’t know why.” He falls again into silence.

Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Minnesota

Bill’s body is with us, but he’s not here. He’s back at Normandy Beach on D-Day.

“That’s a lot of death,” I say. “A lot of killing. A lot of loss.”

He looks up, nods, and drops his head again.

Post-traumatic Stress,” I say quietly to Jane. “I’m a pastor. I’ve seen it so many times with Vietnam War and Iraq War veterans.”

“I think so,” she says. “He still can’t talk about it after all these years.”

The technician calls my name. “Mr. Stewart?”

As I stand to leave the stress test waiting room, Bill reaches up to say good-bye with a firm handshake and friendly smile for the whippersnapper from Chaska.

Robert Davis of Clarkston has an outpatient stress test run by exercise physiologist’s Richard Andrevzzi and Donna McCollom in the Royal Oak hospital.

I leave the waiting room and get on the treadmill, reminded that there is stress and there is stress, knowing that mine bears no comparison to Bill’s and thankful for a few moments with a 94 year-old who has every reason to think he’s 96.

Today and tomorrow, as I zoom in on the televised public hearings on impeachment, I’m wondering what Bill would say.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 13, 2019.

The last refuge of the scoundrel

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THIS MOMENT IN TIME

At long last, this Wednesday (Nov. 13, 2019) we will see the faces, hear the voices, and watch the body language of the members of the House Intelligence Committee and those who testify. Witnesses to the quid pro quo — we’re no longer arguing whether there was a quid pro quo — will bring their testimonies. Members of the Committee will examine, weigh the evidence, and decide whether to recommend impeachment.

This Wednesday we will be ushered to our seat in the observer section through different doors chosen by the flip of remote to select the door that suits the conclusions to which we have already come. Some will be ushered in by Fox; some by MSNBC or CNN; a few who prefer no pundits, will watch it on C-Span. Those who walk through different doors to the left or the right will watch the same thing so differently that an outside observer might wonder whether we were seeing different things.

THE QUESTION AND THE VOICE OF THE DEAD

The question at issue is whether the President violated his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. As each of us considers the gravity of Mr. Trump’s quid pro quo with Mr. Zelensky, we might do well to listen to the dead. Our ancestors no longer belong to a political party. Some of the dead were patriots, others were not. The harshest critic sometime was a patriot while the one who talked incessantly of patriotism turns out to have been a scoundrel. G.K. Chesterton is among the dead who speak from the grave with wisdom and wit and a twinkle in his eye:

I have formed a very clear conception of patriotism, I have generally found it thrust into the foreground by some fellow who has something to hide in the background. I have seen a great deal of patriotism; and I have generally found it the last refuge of the scoundrel.

G.K. Chesterton, The Judgement of Dr. Johnson, Act III.

WHAT KIND OF “QUID PRO QUO?

Michael Mulvaney was right, and he was wrong in saying that quid pro quo‘s “happen all the time.” “Something for something” is not evil. I want an apple; you want an orange. II give you one of my apples; you give me one of your oranges. “We do it all the time.” “I’ll support the funding bill for bridge repair in your district, if you support the bill for road repair in my district.” We do it all the time. That’s the nature of politics in a democratic republic. We elect public servants to serve us within the wider context where local self-interests convene to get thing done by the art of compromise.

But this alleged wrongdoing is not that kind of legitimate quid pro quo between equals. There is nothing inherently unconstitutional in a “something for something” transaction to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. The question is whether the President’s “something” (release of $300+ Million of military assistance with an invitation to the White House) in exchange for a conditional “something” (Ukrainian investigation of a likely opponent in the 2020 U.S. election with a public announcement by Mr. Zelensky) was in the best interest of the United States or whether it served his own personal purposes for re-election.

THE DEMOCRACY OF THE DEAD

The American Republic is still young among the nations, but we have a tradition, an inheritance of self-government under the Constitution and the rule of law. Tradition and freedom are not opposites. “Tradition means giving voice to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” wrote Chesterton, sounding like an Ojibwe teaching his people to make decisions after looking back seven generations of the ancestors and forward seven future generations yet unborn. “[Tradition] is the democracy of the dead.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy.

Was the President’s quid pro quo an act of patriotism, or was it the behavior of a scoundrel. If Donald Trump was a scoundrel, does the offense rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors”?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2019.

Where’s my Elliot Richardson?

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BREAKFAST WITH ELLIOT RICHARDSON

Why a memory bubbles up in a particular moment often is a mystery. Other times an explanation does not require a Freudian or Jungian analyst.

I’m having breakfast at the Hyatt in downtown Minneapolis with former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson. Just the two of us. We are meeting to get acquainted before the noon Westminster Town Hall Forum when I will introduce him to a packed house and the radio audience of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).

“VOICES OF CONSCIENCE: KEY ISSUES IN ETHICAL PERSPECTIVE”

A singular moment of American history qualifies Elliot Richardson for the public forum that features “Voices of Conscience: Key Issues in Ethical Perspective.” Elliot Richardson was the United States Attorney General in the Nixon Administration, a lifelong Republican remembered for refusing President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor of the Watergate affair. The memory of Elliot Richardson’s act of courage is still fresh in the hearts and minds of those who respect the courage of conscience in American public life. Elliot Richardson refused to sell his soul to the White House.

“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”

The turmoil of 2019 seems explanation enough for the reappearance of the memory from twenty-two years ago.

Bill Barr became the Trump Administration Attorney General after Jeff Session angered the president for refusing to recuse himself from overseeing the Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That was after FBI Director James Comey had been fired after a one-on-one private dinner at the White House when the president asked for Comey’s pledge of personal loyalty.

In the midst of failed attempts to secure personal loyalty, and nostalgic for the fealty of his former lawyer, whom Alan Derschowitz described as “the quintessential fixer,” the president’s is reported by the New York Times to have cried in a moment of exasperation, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

ROY COHN AND THE TACTICS OF JOSEPH MCCARTHY

Roy Cohn had been front and center stage on national television as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Committee hearings hunting for Communists and Communist sympathizers allegedly hidden in the U.S. military, government agencies, and the entertainment industry.

Edward R. Murrow‘s televised commentary featuring Army defense lawyer Joseph Welsh’s rebuke of McCarthy and his tactics brought McCarthy to a screeching halt:

“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Joseph Welsh, Esq. statement to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, 1954.

THE LONG ARM OF ROY COHN

In the wake of Murrow’s broadcast and the turning of public opinion against McCarthy’s character assassinations of America’s political left as unpatriotic, Roy Cohn left McCarthy’s side to go into private practice. During the 30 years that followed, his clients were a rare assortment of the famous (the Archdiocese of New York, the New York Yankees and the team’s owner, George Steinbrenner; Aristotle Onassis) and the infamous (mob bosses “Fat Tony” Salerno, Carmine “the Cigar” Galante, extortionist “Teflon Don” John Gotti, and the owners of Studio 54 convicted of tax evasion, among others.

Roy Cohn became Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, mentor, and fixer, the master teacher who taught his disciple how to succeed in public life: require absolute loyalty, strike fear in anyone who dare oppose you, manipulate the media, attack harder when attacked, and demonize your opponents as public enemies. In the end, the disciple did to Cohn what Cohn had taught him to do. After the New York Supreme Court disbarred Roy Cohn and Cohn was dying from complications reportedly related to AIDS, the lawyer-fixer-mentor’s friend was no longer useful. The mentee dropped his loyal “friend” like a rock.

ELLIOT RICHARDSON and THE ARC OF THE MORAL UNIVERSE

Roy Cohn and Elliot Richardson had three things in common. They were lawyers. They had their moments in the national spotlight. They worked closely Republican Presidents. But they stand on opposite sides of history.

But, if “the arc of the moral universe is long, but … bends toward justice” (Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting Theodore Parker), the shadow of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn is short and fleeting, and the memory of a courageous Republican who refused to sell his soul to the White House may yet awaken the party he would not recognize to surrender the question “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” for a different question:

Where’s my Elliot Richardson?

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 5, 2019.