The Man who Will not Bow

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Independence Day at Mount Rushmore

The Fourth of July feels a bit different this year. When the sculptors chiseled the 60-foot faces of Presidents George Washington (1732–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), they could not have imagined a pyrotechnic desecration of national monument, although they knew their defacing of the granite desecrated the land once enjoyed by America’s vanquished First People. They could not imagine that in 2020 the four celebrated presidents’ statues would be toppled on public squares for having owned other human beings while their successor ignores a pandemic to shine the light on himself.

“Too much faith in ‘just one man'”

Weeks ago I learned that FoxNews host Tucker Carlson had asked my question. I have to check it out. Finding a YouTube of that particular Tucker Carlson Tonight episode, I can’t believe my ears or eyes.

“Many of our leaders believe his every word is tantamount to law, and in effect it has been,” says Tucker. “Just how wise is the man making these laws? Has America put too much faith in just one man?”

Who is the man?

Answer? Dr. Fauci. “Is he really a man of science?” We’re living in parallel universes. While the president who doesn’t drink was taking — or alleged to be taking — a cocktail of hydroxychloroquine against the medical counsel of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx. Replying to a White House corrrespondent’s question about the drug he claims is a “game changer,” Mr. Trump responded, “Yeah, I’m taking it. I’ve been taking it for two weeks,” adding that he follows up the antimalarial drug with an antibiotic.

Misplaced Faith and Displaced Science

Two weeks later, Lancet, the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal that began in 1823, published a study of the risks and benefits of treating COVID-19 with antimalarial drugs, based on the medical records of 96,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients on six continents. “Nearly 15,000 of the 96,000 COVID patients in the analysis were treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine alone or in combination with a type of antibiotic … within 48 hours,” as reported by the Washington Post (May 23, 2020).

The death rate of the patients treated with antimalarial drugs increased by 45%. Risk of serious heart arrhythmias increased by 411%. They found no benefits.

“If there was ever hope for this drug,” said Cardiologist Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Transatlantic Institute, “this is the end of it.”

Not the End of It

But it’s not the end of it. A president who has claimed to know more about the military than the generals and the Pentagon; more about Afghanistan, North Korea and China than career professionals at the State Department and the intelligence community; more about medicine than the CDC, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, and the public health professionals licensed to practice medicine; the man who shifts the global spotlight from the coronavirus pandemic to his own sorry self; the law-and-order president who fires inspectors-general who do their jobs of protecting the rule of law from political influence — this is the president who will continue shamelessly shamming and scamming the American public on the road to re-election.

The Man Who Does Not Bow

President Donald Trump bows to no one but himself. The Fourth of July firework display at Mount Rushmore will be hosted by a man who believes there will be a fifth face chiseled in the granite with the former presidents who were not as great as he. Assuming Mr. Trump’s cocktail doesn’t take him before the November election, he can count on Fox to bow to continue the propaganda campaign to “Keep America Great.”

Gordon C. Stewart, author Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN

P.S. A future social commentary will discuss bowing as an act of humility and respect for what is greater than one’s lesser self.

The Art of the Deal with the Devil

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The Faustian Bargain

The daily White House updates on the coronavirus pandemic bring to mind the Medieval folklore of Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles (the devil). Faust surrenders his soul for the diabolical blessings of wealth, power, and fame.

Dr. Fauci, Dr. Trump, and Dr. Birx

We see and hear POTUS Donald Trump; then we see and hear Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Birx. Two of three have M.D. degrees required to diagnose and dispense medication. The other has no degree and no license to practice medicine but repeatedly ignores and contradicts Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci.

Yesterday’s White House update (April 23) offers the latest conflict between knowledge and what seems like insanity. The president referred to “emerging” research showing that the increased sunlight and higher humidity of spring and summer kill the virus. Past studies have not found good evidence to support the theory. But that’s not the worst of it.

Noting unidentified research into the effects of disinfectants on killing the virus, the president went further off the rails by wondering aloud whether a disinfectant could be injected into people because the virus “does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.” Where is Sigmund Freud when we need him?

Sigmund Freud’s Case Study in Demonic Neurosis

We are children of the Enlightenment. Few of us believe in real life Faustian bargains with the Devil. But Sigmund Freud became intrigued by Johann Christoph Haizmann (1651-1700), a Bavarian-born Austrian painter, after reading Haizmann’s newly recovered narrative description (L) and triptych painting (below) of his Faustian bargain.

Haizmann’s personal description of his experience became the occasion for Sigmund Freud’s and Gaston Vandendriessche’s research on “the Haizmann case” became a part of the study of psychology and psychiatry.

photograph of triptych by Johann Christoph Haizmann
Votive triptych by Johann Christoph Haizmann’s (1651/52 – 14 March 1700). Left: Satan is depicted as a fine burgher, while Haizmann signs a pact with ink. Right: The Devil reappears a year later and forces Haizmann to sign another pact with his own blood. Middle: The Virgin Mary makes the Devil return the second pact during an exorcism.

The Burgher and the Deal with the Devil

Of interest to us here is Haizmann’s depiction of the Devil as “a fine burgher” in the left panel of Haizmann’s triptych. ‘Burgher’ was a title of the medieval a privileged social class. Public officials were drawn from among the burgher class of medieval towns and cities. Haizmann’s choice of a burgher as the Devil in disguise is its own repudiation of wealth, privilege, and power. Only the Virgin Mary could free him from the pact with the Devil.

Freud de-mythologized the religious language and metaphors by which Haizmann had understood himself and his world. In 2020 only a quack would speak of demonic possession! Yet the biblical pictures of demonic possession still have a way of reaching parts of us we cannot explain or escape. Every one of us is a little insane at night, or locked in during the coronavirus pandemic. Few of us keep our twitter feeds on the pillow to push away the darkness. Few of us belong go the burgher class, yet there is something about Donald Trump that was with us before is election and will remain with us after he is gone: the age-old demonic dreams of wealth, privilege, and power.

We speak of neuroses and psychoses instead of demons or the devil the way Haizmann did. But still, there is the haunting memory of King Saul dropping into the abyss of insanity, throwing his spear at David, and the man who had been possessed by the Legion of demons before Jesus asked his name and sent them into the herd of swine. What is happening to us in America defies rational explanation. How does it happen that we allow a soul-less burgher who imagines injecting Lysol into our veins to take the world stage with Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci?

The Art of the Deal and the Deal with the Devil

The Art of the Deal put Donald Trump on the world stage. Art of the Deal is an autobiography. But it’s not. According to the publisher and the book’s ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, Mr. Trump never wrote a line, but continues to say he was he author. Now that the coronavirus has shut down the economy he tricks himself into being a doctor who always knows best.

By way of contrast, Johan Christoph Haizmann, relieved from the frantic need for the burghers’ recognition. He joined the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, aka, the Brothers of Mercy to spend the rest of his life serving the poor, and the sick of body and mind.

Manuel Gómez-Moreno González: San Juan de Dios salvando a los enfermos de incendio del Hospital Real (English: Saint John of God saving the sick from fire at the Royal Hospital)

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, host of Views from the Edge: to See More Clearly, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, April 24, 2020.

Water is wider than blood

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Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker
But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood.

Aldous Huxley, Ninth Philosopher’s Song, 1920

When Aldous Huxley turned the adage “blood is thicker than water” on its head there was no Earth Day. No COVID-19. No economy stuck in idle at the brink of the cliff. No orders or guidelines to stay home and wash your hands. But he had been the flu pandemic of 1918.

Makeshift hospital for flu patients, Oakland, CA, 1918.
Makeshift hospital for “Spanish” flu patients, 1918

Blood Brothers — Teddy Bonsall and I

“Blood is thicker than water” is about family ties, or becoming ‘blood-brothers’ the way Teddy Bonsall and I did when we drew blood with our pen-knives, and put our cut fingers together to mix our five year old blood. Maybe something in our little minds knew that ‘blood’ described the bond between soldiers in battle. Blood-brothers — soldiers who risked their lives, as our fathers had in World War II — were closer than brothers and sisters born of the same womb. The world was a war zone. Teddy and I would go down together, whatever new war might come along. We were blood brothers.

A virus doesn’t know about ‘blood-brothers’

The day after Earth Day 2020 tests the way we frame who and what we humans are and will, or will not, be on a planet on its way to boiling both blood and water. We are not blood brothers or blood sisters. We can no longer frame ourselves as warriors in wars between our nation and their nation(s) without committing species suicide. No more blaming the Spanish for the 1918 flu pandemic or China for the new coronavirus. There will be no great America without a green planet. Everyone is a child of water — the amniotic fluid of every mother’s womb, and the water that is wider than blood (the oceans, rivers, and water tables) that keep the ‘pale blue dot’ blue and green.

The Daily Briefings

Most afternoons I tune in to the president’s coronavirus pandemic team’s daily updates, but I can’t do it anymore. I’ve run out of Maalox, and I refuse to fill a glass or two from the liquor cabinet. This is no time to self-medicate. I’ve watched the climate-change-denying president and his ‘oleaginous’ vice president and administration re-frame COVID-19 as a foreign invasion — the ‘Chinese’ flu — to be ‘defeated’ by an army of American blood brothers. The updates are not COVID-19 updates. They are 2020 presidential campaign rallies with Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx thrown in to provide cover for the medical disinformation no doctor or scientist can support. Day by day, the conflict between the president and the medical professionals becomes increasingly apparent in the faces of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx barely able to conceal their professional and moral in the face of a kind of medical malpractice they once could not imagine.

While the members of the coronavirus team stand shoulder to shoulder without masks, members of the White House press corps practice the social distancing guidelines the people with the microphone do not. Spaced six feet apart, the correspondents ask the questions that publicly trap the president in his own lies and contradictions. The medical professionals become more outspoken, less likely to say what the president expects them to say.

The White House press corps occasionally rises to the expectations of the First Amendment, offering slivers of hope that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will go away before the Earth is left to the viruses.

The Voice that cannot be silenced

photo of Aldous Huxley

I imagine Aldous Huxley in the last row of the White House correspondents section. He’s the only one in the room who brings wisdom from the “Spanish Flu” pandemic a hundred years ago.

He’s had his hand up for 20 minutes. No one will call on him.

Finally, in exasperation, he whispers in hopes someone watching might remember the greater threat to Earth itself:

“Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker
But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood!”

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, April 23, the day after Earth Day 2020.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

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.

The President and a Letter to an A__hole.

Horace’s Reassurance

One can’t help but wonder why a president with no medical knowledge would contradict the doctors and research scientists standing next to him at a news conference meant to address the coronavirus. Aaron James’s “Letter to an Asshole” reminds the reader of Homer’s wise counsel:

“You should be open to wise counsel — if not from me, then maybe from Horace. ‘All swollen up with love of glory, are you?’ Horace offers ironic reassurance:

“No one’s so far gone in savagery —
A slave of envy, wrath, lust, drunkenness, sloth — 
That he can’t be civilized, if he’ll only listen
Patiently to the doctor’s good advice.”
- Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (Anchor Books, 2014)

My Annual Physical

I’m accustomed to ignoring the doctor’s advice. “You’re overweight. I’d like you to lose 10 pounds by our next annual visit. You need to eat smaller portions and walk a mile every day,” advises my doctor.  I thank her, hop in the car, and drive one block to the ice cream parlor for a banana split. Refusing to listen is common to us all, but few of us are surrounded by the props of glory that allow us to deny our savagery. 

Chicken Little’s Annual Physical

Chicken Little goes for his annual physical. “Well,” says the doctor who has been the family doctor for years, “before we begin, is there anything you’d to discuss?” Chicken Little tells the doctor the same story he tells every year. “I’m depressed, doctor. “I need an anti-depressant. Nobody listens to me anymore.” “Let’s hold that thought for discussion after the physical exam,” says the doctor. “Remember . . . I don’t do that glove thing,” says Chicken Little. After the physical exam, the doctor addresses Chicken Little’s concern. “Chicken Little, we’ve known each other for years. We know each other pretty well. Today I want to do what a good friend does. I want to tell you the truth no one else will tell you. If you want people to listen, you need to stop yelling ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling’. It drives people crazy and no one listens to you because the know science. They know the sky can’t fall.” The doctor gives him a postcard to keep with him at all times. Chicken Little ignores the postcard; an hour later, he’s yelling about the sky falling. He can’t help himself.

Chicken Little’s Cousin’s Annual Physical

Chicken Little’s cousin visits the same doctor. He, too, makes up reality. But there is a difference. While Chicken Little proclaims gloom and doom, even on the best of days, Chicken Little’s cousin never sees a cloud, even on the darkest days. His annual physical ends with the doctor’s good counsel. “You and Chicken Little think you’re opposites, but you’re just alike. Chicken Little lies every day: ‘Fire! Fire! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ and no one listens. You, on the other hand, tell people what they want to hear, no matter how real the danger. ‘Everything is fine. Nothing can go wrong!’ If and when something goes wrong, you’ll be as responsible as Chicken Little. Neither of you has been open to good advice.’”

As he had done with Chicken Little, he hands the cousin the postcard to keep him in touch with reality, but unlike Chicken Little, he reads it.

Let us settle ourselves, and work and
wedge our feet downward through the
mud and slush of opinion and prejudice
. . . till we come to a hard bottom and
rocks in place, which we can call reality.
-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

The Coronavirus News Conference

The sky is not falling, but neither is it cloudless. The coronavirus has made people anxious. The general public needs reassurance, someone to settle them by cutting through the mud and slush of opinion and prejudice. They want a leader who will tell them the truth, someone who stands on the hard bottom of reality.

The President of the United States, accompanied by the nation’s leading medical experts, steps behind the White House podium to address an anxious nation. He blames the press for exaggerating the danger and driving down the stock market. This is the same president who calls climate change a hoax, regardless of international scientific consensus; eliminated the National Security Council’s pandemic disease team’s leading specialist; and proposes slashing the funding of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He reassures the people that the threat to this country is very low — “very, very low” — not much more than the common cold, and that it will be gone in a couple of months, and that a vaccine is weeks away.

He offers the microphone to the public health experts and steps behind and to the side of the podium. His body posture says he’s ill-at-ease. His eyes are squinting as though he cannot see something from afar but they are blank. One after another, the medical ‘experts’ express deep concern and uncertainty. They correct the disinformation about the timing of developing a vaccine for coronavirus. Vaccines are not developed quickly. The question is not whether the virus will spread; it’s a question of when it will spread.

The President returns to the podium, thanks the staff, and repeats Chicken Little’s cousin’s insistence that Chicken Little is wrong. The sky is not falling. But, just in case it does, he is appointing Mike Pence to coordinate the different teams addressing it. ”[Mike] is really very expert at the field,” he says. ”Mike will be working with the professionals and doctors and everybody else that’s working. The team is brilliant.”

Letter to Chicken Magnus

You face grave risks. If I may say so, as you are, it is as though you sit, squatting, defiant, and starving, in a dark cave of your own making. You prefer to be feared, if not respected. In that way you strive for a pale copy of true moral recognition. … You would not like the epitaph I would write for you…. Or maybe you aren’t bothred. Either way, please accept my honest concern for your health and safety. One could easily pity your condition, and so I hope you change it.

Aaron James,”Letter to an Asshole,”Assholes: a Theory

Is there a doctor anywhere in the house?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 28, 2020.