Toward Truth and Wisdom

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Time governed by Wisdom

In the time of American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, prudence (wisdom) was still held in high regard. People were no less foolish in Emerson’s time than we are in ours and folks lied back then, but truth was the measure against which speech and opinion were tested. Emerson’s essay on “Prudence” speaks of truth and the damage to the self and society when truth is violated.

Every violation of truth is not only
a sort of suicide in the liar,
but is a stab at the health of society.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
ESSAYS: FIRST EDITION (1841)

Emerson’s essay on Prudence put to paper what Titian (1490-1576) had painted on canvas in his “Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence” four centuries before.

The old man on the left (Titian himself) is turned toward the past. The boldest figure at the center (Titian’s oldest son, Orazio) represents the present. His cousin, Marco Vecellio, at the right is facing the future. The triple-headed beast — wolf, lion, and dog — represent the cardinal virtue Prudence.

In classical western philosophy dating to Plato’s Republic, Prudence (Wisdom) has been regarded as the thoughtful supervisor or manager of the other three moral virtues (Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice). Prudence (Wisdom) brings the insight to distinguish between the semblance of reality and reality itself, and the considered intelligence to act accordingly.

Titian’s painting, like Emerson’s essay, offers guidance during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Why? There is a parallel. Titian and his heir both died in the same year during the Plague.

Reality and the semblance of reality; truth and the distortion of truth

We in our time face a threat of two simultaneous plagues: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the violation of truth that “stabs a society” and commits “a sort of suicide in the liar.” Little attention is paid to the past or the future. A society without the Wisdom to discern the difference between truth and falsehood, reality and the semblance of reality, temperance and impulse, fortitude and facades, justice and privilege, and between a democratic republic and autocracy is a society in trouble. How we manage our way through the COVID-19 pandemic will determine the American character and the nation’s future.

The postcard

In the last two weeks, every home received the post card guiding the American public through the coronavirus pandemic. In a normal year, one might expect the guidelines to arrive from an authoritative source — the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, perhaps in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service.

But 2020 is not a normal year. It’s and election year. The President who called the coronavirus threat a hoax, played to the myth of national exceptionalism with references to “the Chinese virus,” assaults the patriotism of the Speaker of the House, members of the opposition party, and the Fourth Estate (the free press of the First Amendment), substitutes his personal feelings for the knowledge of the medical science professional, and puts himself at the microphone and television cameras of the daily coronavirus updates — this is the President who sends a post card presuming to provide guidance by post card to every American household at taxpayer expense.

Post card offering guidance for America, paid for by taxpayer money

Emerson knew that truth-telling was an essential virtue that protected the American republic from homicide and its citizens from killing their own souls. Prudence and imprudence in government were not strangers to Emerson or those whose genius crafted the balance of powers the became the U.S. Constitution.

How does a wounded country heal?

How and why it happened requires a look at American history. How we move forward leaves many of us scratching our heads. But one thing is certain. If we allow our disparate passions and partisan allegiances to replace Wisdom, we will have chosen personal suicide and societal homicide.

Emerson’s essay and Titian’s “Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence” found a friend in Anglican priest and poet Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (June 27, 1883 – March 8, 1929), the WWI British Chaplain nicknamed ‘Woodbine Willie’ for the Woodbine cigarettes he gave injured and dying soldiers.

After World War I Studdert Kennedy became a pacifist and a socialist whose books and sermons were on the front line of the political-economic debate over the country’s future. He stood for his convictions, but saw himself as a member of a commonwealth who, like all other citizens, was called to search for wisdom “outside the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife.”

There is, and there must be, a plane upon which we can think and reason together upon questions arising out of our wider human relations, social questions, that is, apart from and above party prejudice and sectional interest. If that is not so, and there is no such plane, and we can not think of these big questions outside the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife, then it is safe to assert that there will never be a solution of the problem whatsoever. The idea that politics in the true sense — that is, the art of managing our human relationships on a large scale — must remain a separate department of life, distinct from morals and religion, is ultimately irrational and absurd.

One of the great public and religious dangers of the day is the use of the words socialism and capitalism without any real attempt to define their meaning.

– G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, “The Church in Politics” sermon preached at the 1926 annual meeting of the Industrian Christian Fellowship at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

This April Fools Day, may God grant courage to all us fools to let Prudence lead us to find Truth again and save us for each other and our better selves.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaka, MN, April 1, 2020

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

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No, not THAT Tea Party –the one that turned Boston Harbor into a sea of tea; and not THAT Tea Party — the 20th Century movement to strip government to its bare bones. THIS one is from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Daily Briefings

Watching the White House daily briefings on the coronavirus, I feel like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I mutter to myself, “if something made sense for a change?”

The Mad Hatter, who recently cut the pandemic disease office of the National Security Council as fat and who has no medical education or expertise, presumes to know better than Dr. Anthony Fauci and the other health professionals standing behind him. I talk to the president through the television broadcast to explain what I see and hear.

Photo of Dr. Anthony Fauci

“When you’re at the microphone facing the cameras, you can’t see what I see on the faces of the doctors standing behind you. You don’t see the stares or feel the energy it takes to hide their disdain. They cringe when you give assurances that everything is under control, declare with authority that the risks are minimal to none, and make announce remedies that don’t exist or are dangerous to our health.”

I shout at the television, “‘If you don’t think . . . , you shouldn’t talk.’ You haven’t made sense since you called the coronavirus a hoax. We’re all guests at your Tea Party, doing our best to be respectful while kicking each other under the table, winking, and passing notes with the scones and tea cozy.

“Those who know their history have read the book(s) your co-author Tony Schwartz and first wife, Ivana, claim to have seen in your bedroom. We know that history repeats itself for those who ignore their history. Our grandparents and great-grandparents risked their lives and died to save us from the day when those books might become America’s Bible. We hear in your manner of speaking, repetition of phrases, framing the free press as America’s great enemy, and see in your facial expressions and body posture, the projection of the Strong Man. What you say and how you say it has a ring to it.”

The Strong Man’s Script

“As the last factor I must in all modesty describe my own person: Irreplaceable. Neither a military man nor a civilian could replace me. Attempts at assassination may be repeated. I am convinced of my powers of intellect and of decision. Wars are always ended only by the annihilation of the opponent. Anyone who believes differently is irresponsible. Time is working for our adversaries. Now there is a relationship of forces which can never be more propitious for us. No compromises. Hardness toward ourselves. I shall strike and not capitulate. The fate of the Nation depends only on me. No one has ever achieved what I have achieved. My life is of no importance in all this. I have led [the nation] to a great height, even if the world does hate us now.”

“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.”

“The Strong Man is mightiest alone.”

“Strength lies not in defense, but attack.”

“Do not compare yourself to others. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.”

“The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”

“The victor will never be asked if he told the truth. ”

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

“But the most brilliant propaganda technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.” 

“I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.”

“Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”

“I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.”

“Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice.”

“Life doesn’t forgive weakness.” 

“Strength lies not in defense but attack.”

“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”

“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.”

“To truly ‘learn’ history means to open your eyes and discover the forces that cause historical events to happen. The art of reading and of learning means remembering the important parts and forgetting the unimportant.”

All the above are quotations from Mein Kampf or speeches of Hitler

There Will Be No Throne Here

The original Tea Party threw the tea into Boston Harbor to protest a colonial power’s taxation of the colonists without representation. They were telling the King of England to go home. There would be no palace or gilded throne in the new American Republic.

portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm III

Little could the colonists at the original Tea Party have imagined a king rising from American soil — a free electorate allowing a would-be king to shred its own Constitution.

Neither could they have imagined another democratic republic which de-throned Kaiser Wilhelm II turn back the clock for the Strong Man promised to make Germany great again and re-paint the Jewish Jesus as an Aryan-race anti-Jewish fighter who gave his blessing to the nationalist purge and purification we now call the Holocaust.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of 2020 is not in Germany, and pundits have been well-advised to refrain from any comparisons, especially when the need to unite is so apparent. But we cannot pretend not to see what we see and hear what we hear.

“That’s very important,” the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: “Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,” he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

“Unimportant, of course, I meant,” the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, “important—unimportant–unimportant–important–” as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down “important,” and some “unimportant.” Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; “but it doesn’t matter a bit,” she thought to herself.

Members of the Jury: “important . . . unimportant . . . important”?

The danger to an America locked down to safeguard public health is greater than the coronavirus. It is the threat that we will come to see the Boston Tea Party and the U.S. Constitution as partisan mistakes, and plug our ears lest we hear even the faintest hint of the shredding of the Constitution and see no similarity to the Strong Man’s Script.

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, available in paperback and kindle through Wipf and Stock and Amazon.

EMERGENCY MEETING TODAY

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Today is not any other day. It’s the day the Federal Judges Association Executive Committee meets in EMERGENCY SESSION to protect and defend the federal courts from political interference.

EXCERPT FROM HUFFINGTON POST

“An association of federal judges is holding an emergency meeting Tuesday to address concerns about the interventions in politically sensitive cases by Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump, USA Today reported.

“The Federal Judges Association, which has about 1,100 members, called for the meeting last week after Trump attacked federal prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation for his longtime pal and convicted felon Roger Stone and then soon after the Justice Department pulled back the recommendation. 

“Trump also criticized the judge who is presiding over Stone’s case.” — Huffington Post, 2.18.20.

SHOW YOUR SUPPORT FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL BARR’S RESIGNATION

E-mails and tweets to members of the FJA Board of Directors will show public support. Click this LINK for FJA officers, executive committee members. Unfortunately, the list does not provide contact information, but I can say with certainty that your computer skills exceed mine.

Thanks for listening,

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, Chaska, MN, Feb. 18, 2020.

P.S. If you are a lawyer, please ask the U.S. Bar Association and Federal Bar Association to call for Attorney General Barr’s immediate resignation.

“Sham on you!” — a word from the Founders

A WORD TO SENATORS ABOUT PUBLIC TRUST

Public trust that you will tell the truth and seek the truth, no matter where it leads, was already dangerously low. Although we know that it is your constitutional right to set the rules for an impeachment trial, the American people know that a “trial” without witnesses and evidence is not a trial. Those still paying attention knew how it would end. Majority Leader McConnell told us. Some of us have stopped watching because we don’t care anymore. Others care but have tuned out to manage their blood pressure and keep their dinners down. We all could use an infusion of wisdom to guide us through this national crisis.

JOHN WITHERSPOON and JAMES MADISON

I write as a pastor in the tradition of John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was the only religious leader to sign the Declaration of Independence, whose moral philosophy influenced James Madison, the Founding Father of the U.S. Constitution. As President of The College of New Jersey (Princeton), Witherspoon taught moral philosophy. James Madison and other students took Witherspoon’s “Common Sense” philosophy of public morality into the courtrooms of 37 judges (including three Supreme Court justices), and onto the floors of the Continental Congress (12), the U.S. House of Representatives (49), and the United States Senate (28 Senators) where you now serve.

THE CONSTITUTION AND PRELIMINARY PRINCIPLES

In 1787 John Witherspoon participated in two simultaneous national meetings within four blocks from each other in Philadelphia. At Independence Hall the Continental Congress was preparing the U.S. Constitution. Down the street, the first national assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Unites States of America was adopting the “Preliminary Principles” to guide the church through times of divided opinion and disharmony. There are eight (8) Preliminary Principles. I lift up for your attention the First (conscience) Fourth (truth) , and Fifth (mutual forbearance) Preliminary Principles.

PRINCIPLE: CONSCIENCE

“God alone is Lord of the conscience…” — First Preliminary Principle (1787)

One morning Henry Ward Beecher cut himself shaving. He didn’t like what he saw in the mirror. The public man and the private man were at odds. Public scandal and conscience formed the razor’s edge that cut through his defenses.

Everything hinges on the right and duty of conscience. One need not believe in God to avow the primacy of conscience.

The tight internal discipline and uniformity of the GOP caucus against calling witnesses and admitting evidence in the impeachment trial looks no different from the enforced cohesiveness of the Mafia, the Gangster Disciples, and other street gangs. Step out of line and you’re “going to go through some things.” Courage and conscience are not part of the code. Compliance and scheming have taken their place. We, the people, lose hope watching the gang-banging in the highest places of authority and power.

PRINCIPLE: TRUTH AND GOODNESS

“Truth is in order to goodness….” — Fourth Preliminary Principle (1787)

Truth-telling and truth-seeking are essential building blocks of a good society. The road to goodness is not falsehood, misinformation, disinformation, and concealment. Without truth-telling and truth-seeking we become a society built on quicksand.

“The Fourth Principle continues:

No opinion can be either more pernicious or absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s (sic) opinions are.” — Fourth Preliminary Principle (1787)

Some opinions are pernicious (highly injurious or destructive: deadly). Others are simply absurd (ridiculous, silly, incredible). Some opinions are both. The exercise of one’s duties by means of falsehood is injurious to goodness. Truth is the plumb line against which an opinion is tested. Truth matters. Falsehood matters. Facts matter. Reality matters. There is no such thing as an alternative facts.

“On the contrary, we are persuaded, that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.” — Fourth Preliminary Principle (1787 –)

There is a direct connection between truth-telling, truth-seeking, and public life. The connection is essential for a civil society. When partisan interests displace truth and conscience, the result is a society with neither a moral code nor a functional Constitution. Watching the Senate impeachment trial tells a different story to the American people: power trumps principle.

PRINCIPLE: MUTUAL FORBEARANCE

“There are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies, to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.” — Fifth Preliminary Principle (1787)

‘Forbearance’ — i.e., patience, tolerance, continuing in relationship — is no longer a household word in 2020. Neither is it frequently practiced. Mutual forbearance is rarer still. Mutual forbearance is essential to achieving E pluribus unum (i.e. “one out of many), which Cicero saw as basic to relational bonds and thriving societies and states.

If God alone is Lord of the conscience, those who differ with respect to those “truths and forms” that are not universally accepted, i.e. political philosophy, owe it to each other and to the body politic to continue in respectful, peaceful relationship.

WHAT IS AT STAKE IN THE IMPEACHMENT TRIAL?

Mutual forbearance with people of good character and principles is embedded in the history of the Senate. But your good character is on trial. The impeachment trial is a test of the Senate’s conscience, commitment to truth and goodness, character and principles, and mutual forbearance. The great institution in which you are privileged to serve, and a general population that expects a trial to be a trial are at stake in your decisions. The Senate’s good character and principles, as well as Donald Trump’s, is on trial in the court of public opinion. Those who know their history can hear a long shout from James Madison and John Winthrop:

“Sham on you!”

— Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock), Chaska, MN, February 3, 2020.

Competing Obsessions: Impeachment and Car Shopping

A READER’S COMMENT

The comment left by a reader in reply to yesterday’s post on the impeachment trial (“This Day in History“) expresses a more widely held sentiment.

“I watched most of the Congressional hearings, but watching the Republican Senate pretend that ‘everything is JUST FINE” and there was NOTHING WRONG and NO CRIME is madly depressing. I am not handling this well. I’m trying to believe it will all work out, but I don’t really believe it. It has been a hard, hard, hard few years. Doesn’t it feel so much longer than that?”

Views from the Edge reader’s Comment in reply to “This Day in History” (Jan. 21, 2010)

LOSING OUR FOOTING

The first day of the Senate impeachment trial left me scrambling for sure footing in a world whose foundations are shaking, a condition familiar to the Psalm on which I had focused early yesterday morning. ‘Evil’, ‘the righteous’, and ‘evildoers’ are words of judgment readers of Views from the Edge do not expect to hear here. We do best to steer clear of these words of spiritual pride. Dividing the world into good and evil, sheep and goats, is the opposite of a gospel of reconciliation. But the words of an ancient Psalm gave expression to what I felt watching the Senate’s resistance to “doing impartial justice”.

1 Do not fret because of the evildoers;
    do not be envious of those who do wrong,
for they will soon wither like the grass,
    and like the green grass fade away.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
    do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
    over those who succeed in evil schemes.
[Psalm 37:1-2,7]

My faith tradition practices the Confession of Sin before the One “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” There are sins of omission (“we have left undone the things which we ought to have done”) and there are sins of commission (“and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”).

My father and mother taught us the spiritual practice of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and “the amendment of life.” But it’s often hard to tell when one is committing or omitting. Obsession manages to succeed at both. What dawned on me yesterday was my obsession with evil schemes.

COMPULSIVE OBSESSIONS – IMPEACHMENT AND CAR-SHOPPING

Can I, should I, will I part ways with my beloved 2003 Toyota Avalon? It’s an existential dilemma.

My beloved 2003 Toyota Avalon XLS (171,773 miles)

A person’s relationship with a car isn’t “BREAKING NEWS!” No one cares about my three-week long obsession with a car! Not even when it replaces my obsession with writing for Views from the Edge. Who cares?

Preoccupation with the sirens that call me to sell or trade my faithful Avalon may be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but this car thing feels familiar. It has a history. I’ve been here before.

THE APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE: finding and staying with the Avalon

Maybe it’s in my DNA. “Let’s go out and look at that new Buick,” Dad would say. It didn’t matter that Parkinson’s and the Department of Motor Vehicles had put the car thing in his rear view mirror; Mom and Dad’s Buick Skylark was 21 years old. “Oh, Ken, for heaven’s sake!” We don’t need a new car! You can’t even walk anymore, and, besides, we don’t have the money for a new car.” It didn’t matter. When the car itch took over, he had to scratch it.

Mom and Dad’s 1983 Buick Skylark

Finding the Avalon nine years ago was completely unexpected. I dropped by Total Auto, a mom-and-pop used car dealer, to look at a one-owner Subaru Legacy. I took the Legacy for a test drive, but didn’t like it. But there was another car, covered with snow and ice, a one-owner 2003 Toyota Avalon XLS traded at a Lexus dealer after 115,000 miles. We dug it out of the snow and took it for a spin. It drove like a dream. What’s not to like about a low-miles, loaded top-of-the-line Avalon XLS?

All these years later, after nine good years together, the car itch returned. I’ve been scratching it every day over the last month. But it occurs to me that obsession is a spiritual and mental health thing, and that the return of Dad’s car itch may have been a healthy substitute for the three-year obsession about which I have no control: the rogue president and the political party obsessed with pleasing him and protecting him with evil schemes that prevent a trial.

REGAINING SOLID FOOTING

10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
    
 23 Our steps are made firm by the Lord,
    when he delights in our way;
24 though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
    for the Lord holds us by the hand.

27 Depart from evil, and do good;
    so you shall abide forever.
28 For the Lord loves justice;
    he will not forsake his faithful ones.

… and the U.S. Constitution, division of powers, and a faltering Republic may yet survive. You can’t trade the Constitution for a new car.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, day two of the Senate Impeachment, January 22, 2020.

Is Recusal in Order?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has greater reason to recuse himself from participation in the Senate impeachment trial than Jeff Sessions had for recusing himself from the DOJ investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

An online dictionary defines ‘recuse’ as “the withdrawal of a judge, prosecutor, or juror from a case on the grounds that they are unqualified to perform legal duties because of a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality.”

Until the day Mr. Sessions made his announcement, the terms ‘recuse’ and ‘recusal’ were unfamiliar to most Americans who work outside the court system. Though Mr. Sessions’ decision angered the president, it was the right thing to do. Senate Majority Leader McConnell should do the same.

U.S. Senate floor

If public perception is nine-tenths of reality, a Senate trial that is not a trial will deepen and spread the cynicism that threatens the survival of this Constitutional Republic. Unless the Senators act like Senators willing to lay aside partisan rancor for the sake the greater good, the distrust in America’s foundational institutions and democracy itself will widen further into a chasm that no one can cross. We need to believe that our better angels have not left us.

Senator McConnell’s view that impeachment is a partisan sham is a matter of public record. Sen. McConnell has established the rules for the trial in close collaboration with the White House, which seems unusual. He has decided there will be no witnesses. The trial will be short. The verdict appears to be in before the trial begins,

No trial is more important than an impeachment trial. The Senate is composed of women and men as flawed as the rest of us. But is it too much to ask that the Senators approach this moment of crisis the way American jurisprudence expects a jury of peers to assess the evidence before coming to verdict? Prospective jurors for a trial on Main Street who have come to conclusions of guilt or acquittal are dismissed during voir dire as unfit for jury duty.

Members of the Senate will serve as the only jurors, after swearing an oath many Senators cannot take in good conscience: “I solemnly swear [or affirm, as the case may be] that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of [the person being impeached], now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.”

This oath taken before an impeachment trial is secondary to the Oath of Office to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” There is a remedy for any Senator who cannot honestly swear the oath “to do impartial justice. . . . So help me God” in an impeachment trial. It’s called recusal.

A jury and trial that are shams will stab at the heart of who we thought ourselves to be. Pogo will again prove right. But this time, the consequences are odious. We will have met the enemy and discover he is us.

Gordon C. Stewart. Chaska, MN, December 19, 2019

An Open Letter to Members of the U.S. House of Representatives

December 18, 2019


Today you will decide whether to advance articles of impeachment to the Senate. Sadly, we who will watch the debate on the House floor know what to expect. Republicans will be Republicans. Democrats will be Democrats. Only a handful of Members, if any, will break ranks with their party lines.

My generation grew up believing America was different from those we were taught to fear. We were not a one-party State of Hitler or Stalin which allowed no dissent. We did not pledge allegiance to a party, or so we thought; we and those who represent us owed our loyalty to the Constitution of a democratic republic.

In times of stress, I spend time alone in the pre-dawn stillness. In the days to come, I encourage you to begin each day with a copy of your Oath of Office, the Constitution, and the official seal of your office with the nation’s long-standing motto, E pluribus unum.

The motto is thought to point back to Cicero’s paraphrase of Pythagoras in De Officiis where he discusses essential bonds that keep together a family or a society. “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many (unus fiat ex pluribus), as Pythagoras wishes things to be in friendship.”

If today’s debate is a shouting match between two party scripts with no room for dissent, the essential bonds of friendship, mutual respect, and trust will tear even farther, and the Constitution you have sworn to preserve and protect will be well on its way to becoming a fiction. Let your conscience guide you to speak and act with wisdom and courage.

Respectfully,

Gordon C. Stewart
Chaska, MN

The Democracy of the Dead

An Unexpected Discovery

A lifelong aversion to anything ‘orthodox’ kept me away from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy before inheriting a copy from the library of my late friend Wayne. Wayne was neither orthodox nor Orthodox, but there it was — Orthodoxy — with passages he had marked and indecipherable comments he had written in the margins.

G. K. Chesterton at work

The Arrogant Oligarchy of the Living

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” wrote G.K.Chesterton in a book I’d never read until my friend Wayne died. “It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (1908).

I’ve often had the sense of this oligarchy and find it treacherous. Not only because it’s arrogant and oligarchical, but because it is foolish and destructive. Tradition is not the enemy of vitality. Nor is it the enemy of free thought nor science.

Photograph of by-the-sea sailors

Without tradition we are like by-the-wind sailors, the jellyfish who have no way to propel themselves, thrown this way and that by the tides and storms. Jellyfish go with the flow without conscience, memory, or agency to create a better future.

Collecting the Fragments: Egoism and Altruism

“There is a huge and heroic sanity in which moderns can only collect the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labeled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them, and for his vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.

The Seamless Coat Woven from the Top

“Lopped arms and legs walking about.” What an image! The soul of Christ torn into silly separate strips of egoism and altruism. Chesterton had a way with words — images that jar the senses of what is real, pushing the by-the-sea sailors in a direction we did not expect.

The Democracy of the Living and the Dead

“All democrats object to [anyone] being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good person’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.” — Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.

Honoring the Great Ancestors and Great Grandchildren

My seven years at the Legal Rights Center — a public defense corporation founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement and African-American civil rights activists — moved this by-the-sea sailor to think again about freedom and tradition.

We inherit a tradition from the ancestors and are responsible for passing the treasure (i.e., the tradition) to the next generation. In times of decision-making, American-Indian culture universally calls us to consider the previous seven generations and the seven generations that will follow: the democracy of the dead, the living, and those who come after us. This tradition of
America’s First Nations, like the Reformed Christian tradition, looks back, looks ahead, and looks up for the re-weaving of the strips. The coat without seam was, is, and always will be woven from the top.

Wayne’s name is scribbled in pencil at the top of the title page of Orthodoxy. This year Wayne no longer lives to protest and resists the arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around. He has joined the blessed democracy of the dead.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 20, 2019.

The Ides of March — Are the boys still there?

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.

The last refuge of the scoundrel

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.