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.

What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness?

North American culture of 2019 is like a house on fire. Words like ‘holy’ and holiness’ are . . . well… relics of tradition. We’re free thinkers, not … not like that!

It was, I suppose, a coincidence that this post caught my eye while reading G.K. Chesterton’s view of democracy and tradition, yet the two readings strike me leading upstream to the same source.

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead,” wrote 34 year-old Chesterton nearly a century ago in a book with an arcane title (“Orthodoxy”) that sends us free thinkers running from a house fire.

Although it seemed outdated at the time, I now remember with nostalgia the rest I knew as a child on Sundays when the noise and distractions were stilled. We opened the windows, breathed fresh air, gave thanks we were still breathing, and went down for a long afternoon nap.

Click THIS LINK to open Live and Learn’s post featuring Margaret Renkl, from “What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness?” (NY Times, October 21, 2019).

Thanks for dropping by Views from the Edge to see more clearly,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 10, 2019.

Do you have the time?

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When my most intimate companion failed to respond as normal, I feared she had suffered a stroke like the cerebral hemorrhage that took Uncle Bob years ago. Uncle Bob was the smartest guy in South Paris, the Harvard Law valedictorian who, against all expectation, had made South Paris his home until he suddently dropped dead leading the Congregational Church’s Annual Meeting. He had shown no signs of stress during worship, directing the Choir from the organ bench as he had for 25 years. Church meetings are like that — they often raise a leader’s blood pressure — but this was different! All of a sudden he was gone.

Like Uncle Bob, she showed no signs of stress before retiring last night. She is the one who has done the most of anyone to encourage my writing and publishing — filing things away until I needed them, flagging a mis-spelled word or correcting faulty grammar. I’ve depended on her every day for the past six years. She is more than an assistant. Since the day we met, I’ve turned her on. This morning is different. Nothing turns her on.

I  gently carry her to the garage, cover her with a blanket, and drive to the Urgent Care at the Southdale Mall. They admit her for tests and suggest I return in an hour in an hour or so.

“Do you have the time?” I ask.

He gives me a strange look and checks his iPhone. “It’s 10:30. We’ll text you when we’re done. Where can I reach you? What’s your number?”

“I don’t have a number.”

“Okay, how about an email?”

“I don’t have a mobile phone. You know, there are no public clocks anywhere anymore. Everybody’s in a bubble.” 

He pauses and looks up. “Hmmm. You know . . .I hadn’t thought about that! Come to think of it, I guess you’re right. “Okay . . .well, just be back by 11:30.”

Anxious and alone with an hour to kill, I wander the corridor from shop to shop before going into Macy’s. It’s easy to distract yourself shopping, and Macy’s is just the place. You can find anything at Macy’s…except a clock. “Excuse me, do you have the time?” I ask the clerk in the men’s shoe department. It’s not a question he gets anymore. He glances at his iPhone, looks up, and, with a strange look, gives me the time: “10:45.”

With forty-five minutes to spare, I remember Macy’s famous Lakeside Grille and follow the confusing signs to catch a late breakfast or early lunch. I tell the waitperson I have an important appointment at 11:30 and ask for the time. “10:50,” he says. “I don’t have a phone. Would you be so kind as to give me a heads up when it’s 11:15?” He takes my order and agrees to notify me. I scarf down the Oktoberfest special of pork schnitzel, spaetzl, and green beans, wondering what time it is. The waitperson is nowhere to be seen. I ask another waitperson, “I’m sorry. Do you have the time?”

I rush back to Urgent Care, anxious about the test results. “Mr. Stewart,” says the neurologist, “I’m sorry. We ran all the tests and the news is not good, but it’s not beyond hope.” I breathe a sigh of relief, waiting for what comes next. “She’s still alive, but she needs immediate surgery. We have a neurologist standing by.” “What’s the cost,” I ask, knowing she has no insurance. “We can replace her keyboard for $485 so you can turn her on again, but she’s old. It’s only a matter of time before she goes. Or you can buy a new one for an additional six-hundred dollars or so. Your call.”

End of life decisions, like putting down my canine companion after fourteen years– are harder than others. For months after Maggie’s death, I swore I’d never get another dog. There’d never be another Maggie. I couldn’t bear the thought of holding another Maggie in my arms when her time would come.

“I’m a writer,” I say. “Like lots of other writers, I have ADHD and sometimes, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I drink too much. I’m completely dependent on her for filing and saving my work. She keeps it all in her head. Besides she’s the only one I’ve ever turned on.”

“Not to worry, Mr. Stewart. If you leave her with us for 24 hours, we’ll be glad to download her memory to the new MacBook Air. We’ll treat her with great respect. We’ll take good care of things. We’ll be glad to recycle her free of charge. As Hemingway said, ‘Time is the last thing we have.'”

I leave her behind to be downloaded and recycled, grieving my loss, but consoled by the knowledge that, life Uncle Bob and Maggie, she will be in a safe place.

 — Gordon C. Stewart, author of NYT Worst Seller List Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, dedicated to my late assistant, Chaska, MN, October 30, 2019.

Elijah and Cousin Calvin

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Introducing Elijah’s cousin Calvin

Followers of Views from the Edge know Elijah from his conversations with “Bumpa” (Grandpa), but have not been introduced to Elijah’s six month younger first cousin and buddy, Calvin.

The cousins are talking up a storm with impressive vocabularies — many more words than the occasional “Mine!” but they need some help with grammar.

Conversation among Elijah, Calvin, and Grandpa

Grandpa: Good morning, Elijah! Good morning, Calvin! How’d you sleep last night?

Calvin: Not so good. I cried all night. Elijah was dead! I saw it TV.

Grandpa: I’m so sorry Calvin. But look — Elijah’s standing right. He’s alive. The Elijah on TV was a United States Congressman. Elijah Cummings was 68 years old.

Calvin: Phew! That makes me happy.

Grandpa: How about you, Elijah. How was your night?

Elijah: Great! I went right to bed after me and Mom played in the bathtub.

Grandpa: Wonderful. But I want you to learn to put others before yourself.

Elijah: You mean Calvin?

Grandpa: No, I’m talking about talking, I want you to grow up saying “Mom and I”.

Elijah: I just did! I just told you! I went to bed after me and Mom played in the tub. You don’t hear so good, Bumpa.

Grandpa: Well, I did hear you, and it’s “well“, not good. “You don’t hear so well.” It a common mistake. I want you boys to grow up with good grammar. That’s why I want you to say “Mom and I.”

Elijah: I just said that!!! Didn’t I, Calvin?

Calvin: Nope. You said “me and Mom.” You didn’t say “Mom and I.” You’re selfish! You always put yourself first. Everything’s ‘Mine, mine, mine’. ‘Me, me, me!’ You always put yourself first!

Elijah: Do not!

Calvin: Do, too!

Grandpa: Okay, boys. This isn’t that important. I’m talking about talking. I want you grow up learning good grammar.

Calvin: We already love Granmma!

Elijah: Yea, Bumpa! Me and Calvin love Granmma. Me and him love Gramma more than you!

Gordon C. Stewart (Bump), Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (click THIS LINK to explore on Amazon), Chaska, MN, Oct. 26, 2019

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

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This awkward moment

Today a rare mixture of people momentarily lay aside their differences to gather in Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church to give thanks to God for the life of Elijah Cummings. This is a community like few others — members of Congressman’s home church, constituents of his Congressional District, colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the powerless and the powerful, the homeless and and the well-housed, the hungry and the well-fed; elected officials and career civil servants, maids and nannies and those who employ, red and yellow, back and white, all precious in God’s sight — convened at this most awkward moment when the Congressional impeachment inquiry, led by the deceased, has been called a ‘lynching’ by a child of white privilege.

James Cone — The Cross and the Lynching Tree

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the late Professor and author James Cone of Union Theological Seminary in NYC elucidates the blindness of white Christians who see no relation between the cross of Jesus and the lynching tree.

“In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

“The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Is it too much to hope and pray that today’s awkward moment in Baltimore help white Christians see the cross in the lynching tree, understand the sordid history of lynched (black) and lynchers (white), lay aside glib talk of a lynching, whether ignorant or intentional, and find our way beyond the collective sin of white supremacy.

Thank you, Elijah and James, for your witness and wisdom. The chariot has come to take you home. RIP.

Elijah Cummings and the Blue Note Gospel

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Photo of antique copy go Thomas a Kemis' Imitation of Christ.

“No one can be a speaker without risk to his soul unless first he is fulfilled when he says nothing….”Who enjoys tranquility? “The one who doesn’t take seriously either praise or lack of it from people.” – Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471)

Thomas à Kempis‘ words from the Imitation of Christ describe the human challenge to each of us: to be one person… everywhere…every day…all the time.

EVERYWHERE, EVER DAY, ALL THE TIME

Elijah Cummings never seemed to get too big for his britches. He seemed unaffected by praise or the lack of it — “a speaker” whose soul was uncorrupted by the need for public praise.

The child of sharecroppers, he stayed grounded in the black church in the “rat and rodent infested” city of Baltimore where he was free to be just another brother moaning the Blues and shouting the gospel shout in a stormy world, as Otis Moss III put it, while those enjoying the ease of white privilege were quiescent and mum, or worse.

America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday. The world is experiencing the Blues, and pulpeteers are dispensing excessive doses on nonprescription prosaic sermons. . . . The church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag.

Rev. Otis Moss III, Pastor of Trinity United Church, author of Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World.

THE BLUES MOAN AND THE GOSPEL SHOUT

Every year, every week, every year for 40 years, Elijah Cummings went back and forth between a different kind of church the mixes the Blues Moan and the Gospel Shout in such a way that they cannot be separated, and his chair in the United States Congress, where being yourself everywhere everyday all the time poses a daunting challenge. His long-time friend and pastor at New Psalm Baptist Church, Bishop Walter Thomas, said of him:

He’s the congressman, but to members, he is Brother Elijah Cummings. … He’s one of us. . . He sits in Congress. He has major concerns and issues he has to solve in the world Monday through Friday, and he sits beside them on Sunday morning. He seeks the same place to be fed as they do. To them, he is their brother in Christ.

Baltimore Sun, October 17, 2019

On stormy Mondays at the Capitol in recent weeks, we observed the Chair of the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee fulfill his oath of office by demanding the truth from those in power while expressing compassion for those whom others scorn. The only ‘t’ he knew was ‘truth’; the only club to which he belonged had no entry fee. Insisting on the truth, he was a lion who roared like the Hebrew prophet Amos. “Come on now! We can do better!”

THE BLUE NOTE GOSPEL

When speaking to the “fixer” who had told the truth, the lion became as gentle as a lamb, expressing God’s anguish like the prophet Hosea. Speaking directly to Michael, he was a grandfather who practiced the Blue Note Gospel.

“I don’t know why this is happening for you. But it’s my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better.”

Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man, that thing—man, that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you—I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.

Whether speaking with Michael or challenging those of his colleagues who returned home to the tees and greens of privilege, Elijah Cummings was the same. He was one person everywhere every day all the time. His integrity stayed intact.

“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?”

“Come on now! We can do better than this!”

Elijah Cummings to the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 18, 2019. For commentaries on the blues of white privilege, see “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” (p.71) and “The Forlorn Children of the Mayflower” (66f.) in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR).

Elijah and Mr. Quisling

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UNCLE GARY’S LETTER

Photo of Mr. Quisling (c. 1919)

Elijah’s Uncle Gary sent a letter for Elijah from Norway.

Uncle Gary “met” Vidkun Quisling, Norway’s WWII fascist traitor, at the Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo. The Center is housed in Mr. Quisling‘s former home, Villa Grande.

CONVERSATION BETWEEN BUMPA AND ELJAH

How was daycare today, Elijah?

You should have been there, Bumpa. You’d love daycare!

Well, we didn’t have daycare when I was your age, but daycare may be in my future.

I sure hope so. You’ll love the slide, Bumpa!

Elijah, I slide every day, but not the way you do.

Where? You and Gamma live in a condo. You don’t have a yard like we have at daycare. You don’t have a slide. You don’t have a swing either.

Oh, I do, Elijah. I do! It’s hard to understand at your age. It’s a metaphor. Bumpa swings up and down, back and forth, and slides further down the rabbit hole every day. Our country’s in big trouble.

You should read Uncle Gary’s letter again, Bumpa. You’ll feel a lot better.

Why’s that?

Mr. Quisling died a long time ago far, far away in Norway. Uncle Gary says he was execrated as a traitor. You don’t have to worry anymore about him, Bumpa. Was Mr. Quisling ever depeached?

  • Gordon C. Stewart (two year-old Elijah’s Grandfather [“Bumpa”]), Chaska, MN, October 11, 2019

The Measures of Ourselves

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Midtown Manhattan viewed from Weehauken, NJ, photo by Dmitry Avdeev.

THE FOUNDATION AND THE MORTAR

Who are we? Can we suspend shouting long enough to reflect on who and what we in the United States aspire to be? By what social norms do we measure a person’s or a nation’s well-being? A culture’s shared values form the foundation on which a society is built. Every culture is both an inheritance and a work in process. Without thoughtful care, time and neglect eat away the mortar between the foundation’s bricks.

FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

The Constitution represents the boundaries of that consensus. If we didn’t know it before, we know in 2019 that the constitutional republic we call the United States of America is no Eden. Lord knows, Abel’s blood still cries out from our history and Cain’s inexplicable, impulsive violence will stain our hands again. Repeatedly. Sin is like that. It crouches at the door as in the Genesis legend. There is no perfect culture or society. Although we miss the mark (which is what the biblical word ‘sin’ means) by intention or by inattention, it falls on each of us to reaffirm and refresh the cultural code and ethical norms by which we measure ourselves personally and collectively. These measures are not abstract.

TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES

  • Be respectful
  • Don’t call people names.
  • Don’t make fun of people
  • Be kind
  • Be honest/tell the truth
  • Your word is your bond
  • Deal fairly with each other
  • Show compassion
  • Empathize with those less fortunate than yourself
  • Be generous with your money
  • Help those who suffer
  • Be true to yourself, but be ready to compromise
  • Settle disagreements peacefully
  • Don’t get too big for your britches
  • Be humble
  • Do not show off
  • Be above board in your dealings with others
  • Love your family
  • Respect the individual right to religious belief and practice
  • Honor the principle of free speech
  • Protect a free press
  • Be courageous and patient

TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR

stone mason tuck pointing the mortar

Check out the mortar. Is it holding? Where does it need tuck pointing? Re-assess traditional culture’s tangible ways of measuring the quality of human life. Delete those you consider outdated. Add other measures you believe should be added. Then look in the mirror. Look at your behavior. Look at what you choose to watch and hear. Think again about who and what you want us to be. See the mortar crumbling. But don’t stop there. Despair is no excuse. Get up and do something to repair the foundation of humankind’s best nature.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, September 16, 2019

Rubbing My Eyes: How Long, Lord? How Long?

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“Watching Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas while being hit by an avalanche of tweets that treat tragedy as a television opportunity has left me speechless. Nothing from the White House connects the dots — the growing frequency of 100 year storms, floods, and fires (weather) — with an urgent call to act now on climate change. The planet’s lungs are on fire in the Amazon while the man who promises to make american great again shreds established regulations put in place to protect water, air, our forests, and soil. Meanwhile $3.1 B are stripped from FEMA and national security to pay for the wall for which we were promised the Mexican government would pay. I feel like the psalmist. ‘How long, Lord? How long?'”

Those words went up on FB yesterday, breaking a long silence on FB and here on Views from the Edge. That was before reading Katha Pollitt’s piece in The Nation. “Almost Everything Bad that Trump Did This Summer” details some of the Trump Administration behavior between June 3 and September 1, 2019.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 6, 2019

In Search of Rest

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“To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself with established goals. … To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there top put it right.” - David Whyte, Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
photograph of cabin by the wetland showing orange wall with morning light.

In search of rest, I retreat from the world of 2019 and my “already exhausted will”. The walls inside the cabin by the wilderness are rough-cut pine, the natural color of the president’s orange hair. Alas! The world comes with me, even by the wetland: I cannot rest from comparisons and disdaining thoughts of orange hair and Greenland.

I’m worrying and fretting, wanting to put the world right: rescue the English language from the words that paint the world orange: words like ‘bad’…’good’ … ’nasty’ … ‘nice’ …’not nice’ … ‘loyal’ … ‘disloyal’, that divide, blame, simplify, stereotype, scapegoat, and choke the best in us. Words do matter. The unexamined underlying meaning of words matters most.

First thing in the morning, while Barclay is still asleep in his kennel, I do what I once disdained as flight from action. The word ‘devotional’ has a different meaning now. A ‘devotional’ is not an escape from responsibility. The half-hour devotional is what it says: to devote attention to the Source of consolation and solace in the world that makes my head hurt. Here at the cabin, I devote my attention to the Psalm before checking the mouse trap.

Sometimes the Psalm consoles; other days it does not. When something in the Psalm whets my appetite for the underlying meaning of the words, I turn to the Paraphrases of the Church of Scotland. The Paraphrases, like scripture itself, take me to an earlier time that knew nothing of the United States, Greenland, Denmark, or Mexico, orange hair, or the “summer camps” for migrant children along the border.  I read the Paraphrase of Psalm 146:

The stranger’s shield, the widow’s stay,
     the orphan’s help is he:
  But yet by him the wicked’s way
     turned upside down shall be. 
  — Psalm 146:9, Paraphrases

Consoled and nearly comforted by David Whyte and the old Scot paraphrase of the ancient Psalm, I put down the Paraphrases to fill Barclay’s bowl with fresh dog food before freeing him from his kennel, remembering the One,

Who righteous judgment executes
   for those oppress’d that be,
 Who the hungry giveth food;
   God sets the pris’ners free.
-- Ps. 146:7

But first I free from the trap the orange mouse my dog shall never see.

– Gordon C. Stewart, by the Minnesota wetland, August 22, 2019.