Monday, February 18, 2019

Impeachment: the History

Having just finished reading the little book, Impeachment: An American History, by Jeffrey Engel, Jon Meacham, Peter Baker and Timothy Naftali, I am more convinced than ever that the several moves to impeach Donald Trump have merit and will proceed. The book’s authors do not take that stand, not even in the Conclusion written by Jeffrey Engel. But it’s clear that in writing about the three previous impeachments in American history—the one in 1868 of Andrew Johnson, the one in 1974 of Richard Nixon, and the one in 1999 of Bill Clinton—Meacham, Naftali and Baker definitely had today’s impeachment possibility in mind. Even so, the meat of the book, to my mind, is really contained in the three sections authored by Engel: the Introduction, the history of the Constitution’s writers concerning impeachment, and the Conclusion. 
            Take the history first. Engel makes clear that the 1787 Constitutional Convention was called primarily because the Articles of Confederation that purported to govern the thirteen colonies until that time weren’t working. The main problem: no central authority. The colonies, that is, each governed themselves, coined their own money, and imposed tariffs on each other as they saw fit. The result was chaos, or as most referred to it, anarchy. It was to solve this problem of ‘anarchy’ that the framers decided to institute the office of President. Like a monarch, he would be able to think and act for the country as a whole, rather than parochially for each state. He would embody the central authority of the government and act as a check on the more partisan tendencies of the representatives of individual states. But there were problems raised. The nation had formed itself in opposition to the unchecked power of England’s king. Monarchies concentrated power in one person and this led to the abuses the colonies had suffered firsthand. Everyone in the United States feared monarchical power. So the two dangers were, in effect, played off against each other: mass chaos and anarchy on the one hand, and unchecked concentration of power on the other. 
            Once a president was decided upon, therefore, some way to check that power was needed. And here is where impeachment was proposed as a remedy. Of course, if George Washington could have remained president, few people would have feared unchecked power. And the key to Washington’s near-deification in this regard was the quality that he seemed to display: his concern always for the whole country, even at the expense of his own interests. As Pennsylvania’s Governor Morris, who opposed impeachment, put it: the president was to be “A firm guardian of the people and of the public interest…their great protector” who put their welfare above his own(p. 29). So, for the framers, the defects that might deserve a president’s impeachment could be summarized as: “What would George Washington nothave done?” (9). The framers had to be more specific, of course, and so, after much debate and word substitutions, they came up with these words: 

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Most of this is clear. But the key words have always been “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What, precisely, did the framers mean by “high” crimes? Jeffrey Engel is very edifying about this. “High” crimes were crimes “committed against the sovereign state, or against the people in republics” (37). That is to say, as opposed to crimes that one citizen might commit to injure another, “high” crimes were “those committed against the crown in a monarchy, or the people in a democracy” (ibid). And it is important to note that a “high” crime in this sense need not be indictable under criminal laws or statutes. Engel cites Hugh Williamson of the Constitutional Convention, in defining impeachable offenses as “offenses against the public interest.”An early Supreme Court justice further defined them as “offenses which are committed by public men in violation of their public trust and duties” (39).  Engel concludes by summarizing thus:

This is why the absence of virtue—evidenced by a president’s concern for his own welfare above and beyond the public’s, whose fate he is entrusted to preserve—is the best sign we have that the founders would have wanted him impeached (45). 

“Virtue” is not a word we use much these days, especially regarding public figures, but it is the visible lackof that quality by a president who looks out for himself rather than the public he is sworn to serve, that is key here. And it takes very little reflection to see that precisely this concern, over and above concern for the public good, best characterizes Donald Trump. He has been called everything from selfish to self-obsessed to pathologically “narcissistic” (concerned for himself to the exclusion of all others), all of which point to the absence of the very “virtue” that we expect presidents to have. 
            But of course, characterizations by journalists or opponents or even psychological experts (see The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, 2017) are not sufficient to impeach a president. There must be some kind of evidence assembled by the House of Representatives and presented to the Senate for a trial. It is for this reason that Richard Nixon was able to last almost two years under intense scrutiny and vilification: there was no real evidence that, despite being a dirty trickster and loathsome human being, Nixon had actually directed the break-in at the Watergate and the subsequent coverup. Until, that is, the White House tapes were discovered—and I remember what a banner day that was. But even then, Nixon himself took charge of editing the tape transcripts, wiped out certain passages that proved his involvement in the crimes, and almost got away with these edited tape transcripts. Except that he forgot something big: a copy of the tapes had already been given to Judge John Sirica overseeing the special prosecutor; which meant that Nixon’s edits of April 1974 could be compared to the originals from 1973, and constituted proof of obstruction of justice. Equally damning was the transcript of a June 23, 1972 White House conversation in which the President is heard clearly directing the CIA to obstruct the FBI’s Watergate investigation. When Rep. Wiggins of CA, up to this point a staunch Nixon defender, saw this transcript, he said “Holy smoke! It’s all over.” The tapes proved that Nixon was a liar and a criminal. Rather than go through the humiliation of public impeachment, he resigned from office within days.  
            Nixon was, one might say, hoist by his own petard—his paranoid insistence that everyone who came to the White House be secretly recorded. The tapes provided indisputable evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Needless to say, that taping system was quickly removed from the White House, no other president wanting to be caught in the same system. But there are other public records that might be used, such as emails and tweets and recorded public statements. These are what will be needed to impeach someone like Donald Trump. Whether they can be assembled and marshaled against the 45thpresident of the United States is still an open question. But what is clear to this observer—and, in a soft-pedaled way, to Jeffrey Engel in his Conclusion—is that what Trump is accused of in the Russia investigation and elsewhere, if proven, would definitely constitute impeachable offenses. Here are Engel’s words:

Time has already told us what the Constitution’s framers would have made of someone in power who committed the type of crime of which Trump stands accused. They feared these very things…a president “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression” James Madison warned his fellow delegates when explaining impeachment’s necessity, or “might betray his trust to foreign powers” (209).

If we think of just the most visible schemes Trump has been accused of—continuing to work for a Trump Tower in Moscow even after his inauguration; using his hotel in Washington DC as a kind of cash cow from foreign dignitaries seeking to curry favor; paying off women with whom he had sexual relations with money designated for his campaign; publicly defending Vladimir Putin after their secret meeting in Helsinki; appearing beholden to Putin in almost everything he does, inciting speculation that he is somehow compromised; presiding over an administration with an alarming number of aides and appointees already convicted or making plea deals with the Special Prosecutor investigating Russiagate; and much much more—we know that what Engels concludes hangs over this president like the proverbial sword of Damocles. That is:

The founders believed any president corrupted by foreign influence should be impeached. Period (210). 

Amen to that, I say (and so, I believe, will anyone reading Impeachment). And may it be soon. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Fascist Politics in Our Time

I became active in political protest in the 1960s, and from that time to this, there have been countless accusations that some politician or political system was “fascist.” Usually, this was taken to be but an exaggerated form of criticism, the term “fascist” not literal but a kind of shorthand. Now, however, with the advent of Donald Trump and other ‘populist’ leaders worldwide, the term has begun to sound more and more literal. It takes only a little remembrance of the tactics of the Trump campaign to realize that this would-be dictator has employed strategies that appear dangerously close to those of fascist leaders in the pre-World War II era. Now comes a book by Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them(Random House: 2018), that outlines the basic characteristics of fascism, including how the politics of our current president adheres more closely to them than many have dared to think. 
What Stanley does is write a chapter about each of ten different political strategies that define fascist politics: The Mythic Past, Propaganda, Anti-Intellectual, Unreality, Hierarchy, Victimhood, Law and Order, Sexual Anxiety, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Arbeit Macht Frei. He proceeds to show how each of these, both singly and collectively, serves to exacerbate the divide between “us” (the favored population) and “them” (the outsiders who are targeted in the fascist state). He also shows how the most notable fascist leaders, like Hitler and Mussolini and also Viktor Orban of today’s Hungary, use these strategies to seize and hold power in their respective fascist states. Throughout, Stanley makes plain that he is not studying fascism per se (though he does comment that by fascism, he means a kind of ultra-nationialism where the nation is represented by an authoritarian leader who claims to literally “be” the nation). Rather, he is outlining how his ten categories work in combination to implement “fascist politics,” or, as he puts it: “my interest is in fascist tactics as a mechanism to achieve power.” Whether those tactics result in a state one could actually label “fascist” is implied, but by no means guaranteed. The real danger they represent lies in how they “dehumanize” certain segments of the population—in short, whatever “them” is targeted. 
            First—and Benito Mussolini with his recalling for Italians the “glorious” past of the Roman Empire (and his use of a Roman term, fasces,to characterize his regime as “fascism”) is the prototype—the evocation of a mythic past is almost a given. Importantly, the past recalled is an invention, not a true remembrance of history. Hitler and his Nazis, in turn, sought to fetishize the volkisch movement, a mythic, medieval Germanic past evoking close-knit ethnic and racial ties. The idea was to get back to an imagined past where Germanic peoples, the volk, were united by blood. It can easily be seen how more modern movements use the same inventions keyed to their local histories. In India, the current leader, Narendra Modi, is a member of RSS, a far-right Hindu nationalist party calling for the suppression of non-Hindu minorities. Similar movements in Hungary, Poland and even France are characterized by similar appeals to an ethnically-united, mythic past. In the same way, the past is regularly mythologized in the American South to whitewash slavery and to justify the monuments that still glorify the Confederacy and its ‘noble’ fight against the Union. It has been noted elsewhere (see Greg Grandin, The Nation, June 2016, “It’s the Empire, Stupid’) that nations with waning empires are particularly susceptible to fascist appeals to this mythic past. We only have to think of Donald Trump’s “Make American Great Again” campaign slogan to realize how this might appeal especially to white men whose jobs have disappeared and who, fearing that they are being replaced by dark “outsiders,” would want to imagine a past when their good jobs seemed secure and their right to rule was unquestioned. 
            The value of Propaganda for fascist politics hardly needs demonstrating. The basic idea is to united people by disguising, with acceptable ideals, the actual nefarious goals that are sought. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan about “draining the swamp” in Washington is a perfect example of calling “corrupt” the state that he wanted to run in his own corrupt way. And that is exactly what has happened. How do fascist politicians get away with this? By the implication, as Stanley makes clear, that the corruption they seek to eliminate is really “the corruption of purity rather than of law…corruption in the sense of the usurpation of traditional order” (26). In this sense, the fact that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, even lived in the White House, was a kind of corruption of tradition (white men only in the White House), and Trump supporters could see the former President and everything he did as corrupt. In thus undermining reasonable public discourse, which is a necessary part of democracy, fascist propaganda segues neatly into what Stanley calls “Anti-Intellectualism.” Here, the value of education, of expertise, of complex language are all devalued in the effort to leave only one thing in their place: the power of those in the tribe, especially the ‘leader’. This power is typically expressed in simple language such as that used by Trump with his slogans. Stanley cites a February 2018 interview with Steve Bannon, who said: “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall” (55). The complex ideas promoted in university faculties and in education in general, by contrast, undermine the effectiveness of such simple-minded slogans and must be attacked. Universities thus become the lair of Marxists and Communists seeking to invalidate the national myths. Both of these tactics, in turn, lead to the next one: Unreality. With “liberal elites” and rational thought condemned as biased, the ability to agree on truth itself becomes fraught with anger and argument. Anything that contradicts the Dear Leader’s pronouncements or desires gets labeled “fake news.” As Stanley puts it, 
Fascist politics exchanges reality for the pronouncements of a single individual…Regular, repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space (57). 

Though reputable newspapers like the Washington Post have consistently totaled up the numbers of false statements Trump has uttered (well over 4,000), the president seems untouched by such accounting. He needs only cry “fake news,” seconded by his propaganda channel, Fox News, to be believed by his adoring, and misinformed supporters. What is even more astonishing is that these supporters treat such obvious lies as more truthful than the more accurate words of conventional politicians. Trump, according to his followers, is “telling it like it is.” 
            In accord with the myths of a glorious past that fascist politics exalts, it also exalts the myth of Hierarchy (racial or economic or gender) in society—where leadership, honor and money go disproportionately to the powerful. The myth inheres in the fact that this allegedly accords with nature or the divine plan. Stanley puts it succinctly: “For the fascist, the principle of equality is a denial of natural law…The natural law allegedly places men over women, and members of the chosen nation of the fascist over other groupings” (80). One of the most memorable examples cited by Stanley is a March 21, 1861 speech by Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. Known as the Cornerstone Speech, it specifically identifies constitutional principles of equality as violations of nature:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [of equality]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition (80). 

The very same principle of racial inequality or hierarchy formed the cornerstone of Hitler’s Third Reich. And the concomitant to this alleged ‘natural’ principle is the fascist politician’s disdain for the “undeserving,” those who receive government help or healthcare. Donald Trump made this point recurrently in his campaign and it was meant to evoke, in his rabid followers, their complaint that whereas we are hardworking, upstanding citizens, they, the others—of whom there are many, mostly people of color or immigrants—are lazy and unwilling to work. When a nation is in the condition of apparently losing its favored or wealthy status—as many pre-fascist states typically are—this sense of loss becomes aggravated to the point at which the appeal of fascist leaders becomes particularly strong. We’re losing and we don’t deserve to lose, becomes the cry of those who follow such a leader.  
            This paves the way for one of the most important chapters in Stanley’s book: Victimhood. In the United States, at least since the Civil War, this has always taken the form of whites feeling like victims to government-imposed equality. While the Civil Rights Act of 1866 finally made black Americans U.S. citizens with protected civil rights, it took not even a month for new President Andrew Johnson to veto the act because it gave the ‘colored race’ more safeguards than the white race ever had. Johnson saw this as “discrimination against the white race.” Today’s whites, especially in the solidly Trumpian states of the South and Midwest, see the same thing. As Stanley points out, 

Forty-five percent of President Donald Trump’s supporters believe that whites are the most discriminated-against racial group in America; 54 percent of Trump’s supporters believe that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in America (94). 

Stanley cites several studies showing that the prediction of the U.S. becoming a “majority-minority” country around 2050 is seen as highly threatening by white groups, to the point where many feel like victims. This makes them far more likely to oppose policies like affirmative action and immigration and to support right-wing policies. Nor is this unique to the United States but is, rather, a “universal element” of contemporary fascist politics. Because nationalism (not nationalism in pursuit of equality but nationalism in pursuit of domination) is at the core of fascism, the fascist leader uses a sense of “collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity” (106). Whether based on skin color, religion, or ethnic origin, it always situates itself as guarding against an invasive “them” in order to restore the safety and dignity of the dominant group, “us,’ whose sense of loss it always exaggerates. As he did in an October 2017 speech at the International Consultation on Christian Persecution, Viktor Orban of Hungary railed against the “danger” to Europe’s Christian roots represented by soft immigration policies: 
“A group of Europe’s intellectual and political leaders wishes to create a mixed society in Europe which, within just a few generations, will utterly transform the cultural and ethnic composition of our continent—and consequently its Christian identity” (107). 

As victims of such unfair persecution, Orban urges Hungarians to join him in thwarting this “invasion” fostered by liberal elites, and revive Hungary’s traditional (mythic) role as the defender of Christian Europe against barbarian hordes. 
            Perhaps Law and Order is the most familiar tactic used by fascist politics. But what is interesting about Stanley’s take is that members of the target group are not only characterized as “criminals,” though that is bad enough; it also represents them as threats to the nation’s purity. This was particularly poisonous in Nazi Germany, but it reigned supreme in the American South as well. The underlying threat, of course, is the threat of rape, which threatens not only women themselves, but the actual “manhood” of the nation. This is why this tactic plays directly into the next one, Sexual Anxiety. With the “leader” depicted as the “father of the nation,” any threat to male control and family traditions also threatens the fascist view of male dominance and strength. According to Hitler, “Jews were behind a conspiracy to rape pure Aryan woman as a means of destroying the ‘white race’” (129). The Ku Klux Klan apparently shared this theory, referring to the Negro goal of “destroying by the bastardization which would necessarily set in, the white race which they hate” (129). It goes without saying that the danger posed by black rapists was also at the heart of the rampage of lynching that marked the Jim Crow era. 
            Finally, fascist politics takes on both the corruption of cities—Sodom and Gomorrah where outsiders usually concentrate and, like parasites, depend on the largesse of the state—and the contrast between the “hard work” ethic of the countryside and the laziness marked by immigrants and urban dwellers. What’s most damaging about this mythology, according to Stanley, is that fascist movements actually attempt to make their mythic constructions about “them” into actuality by using social policies to do it. By driving Jews out of Germany, the Nazis believed that turning Jews into refugee beggars would prove their fascist contention that Jews were naturally shiftless and lazy. In the same way, American policies in Latin American countries like Honduras and Guatemala turn large populations into migrants, who then, as immigrants, can confirm the fascist contention that they are lazy and dependent on state aid. And for the native population, destroying labor unions, instituting ‘tough on crime’ policies, and fostering the economic inequality that grows more threatening in the U.S. each year also acts as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—that “those people” are simply lazy and deserve their lot. 
In his epilogue, Stanley sums up what he has pointed out in this short but powerful, thought-provoking book:
The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between “us” and “them,” based on a romanticized fictional past featuring “us” and not “them,” and supported by a resentment for a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. “They” are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). “They” mask their destructive goals with the language of liberalism, or “social justice,” and are out to destroy our culture and traditions and make “us” weak (187). 

That’s it in a nutshell. And for those who think that “it can’t happen here,” this little book should be an eye-opener and a wakeup call because, as they say, we’re already half-way there.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Last Syllable of Recorded Time

What time is it? Most of us ask this question unthinkingly, several times a day. Time to eat. Time to sleep. Time to work, to watch the news, and so on. But we are reminded recurrently—as on New Year’s Eve, for example—that clock time differs depending on where you live on the planet. Revelers in Australia are already celebrating the New Year while we in America still have hours to go before the Times Square ball drops (and if you’re in California, the ball has already dropped at nine o’clock, but our TV channels kindly re-run the tape for us at midnight Pacific Time.) So even the dullest of us knows that time is different—but regularlydifferent—in different time zones; and that the “now” I am experiencing at this moment is the same as everyone’s “now” no matter what the clock says in different parts of the globe. 
            Now comes Carlo Rovelli, a physicist whose specialty is ‘loop quantum gravity,’ to disabuse us of even this simple notion. Time is not at all simple, Rovelli tells us in his new book The Order of Time, (Penguin: 2018), and in fact may not even exist. And there is no “now” that prevails throughout the universe. At one point he even says it plainly: “The time of physics is, ultimately, the expression of our ignorance of the world. Time is ignorance” (140). 
            To summarize what Rovelli means is not easy, and I’m not sure I understand many of his arguments, beautifully phrased as they are. But here is what I can more or less comprehend. First, he gives us a brief lesson in the history of speculations about time. Aristotle was the first to ask himself ‘what is time?’ and he concluded that “time is the measurement of change.” Pretty good. We can all see the logic in that. But Newton disagreed, and reached the opposite conclusion. Regardless of objects and the changes in them and in our world, there is something called “true time,” said Newton. This is the time, perceived and measured by physicists with their instruments, that goes steadily on regardless of whether things are changing or not. All of Newton’s principles and theories (and our clocks) depend on this notion of time. But, of course, along came Einstein, and he upset Newton’s sensible notions once again when he introduced his notion of space and time as “fields.” As “fields,” space and time become space/time, “the fabric on which the rest of the world is drawn” (74) as Rovelli puts it. And what this means for time is that it is no longer independent, as Newton thought, but relativeand thus, together with space, interacting with the rest of the world. We all know of the example of a twin in space aging more slowly than his sibling on earth because of the differing speeds at which they travel. But very large objects also have a noticeable effect on this fabric of spacetime, which is why clocks run more slowly near large objects: their gravitational fields distort the very fabric of time. Rovelli points out, in this regard, that clocks (very accurate ones) even show time passing more rapidly high on mountaintops than at sea level, due to this effect.  
            Rovelli then takes us into the strange world he studies, quantum mechanics, and tells us how it has, in turn, essentially demolished even the relativity of time Einstein discovered. In quantum mechanics, things get very strange indeed, and, according to Rovelli, so does time. The scale, of course, is beyond our imagining: it is called the Planck scale. For grains of time, Rovelli gives us the figure of 10-44 seconds, or “a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second” (82). With such infinitesimal units, Rovelli speculates that “the notion of time is no longer valid” and “values of time t do not exist.” Thus, time at this level is not a continuous flow, and our notion of time loses its meaning. When added to the indeterminacy of everything at quantum levels (physicists call this “superposition”), spacetime gets so vague as to be cloudy, fluctuating. And here “even the distinction between present, past, and future becomes fluctuating, indeterminate,” just as with elementary particles. This means, according to Rovelli, that “an event may be both before and after another one” (88). If this doesn’t boggle your mind, you haven’t read that correctly. 
            What I like most about Rovelli is his writing ability and his sense of humor. Consider this little zinger, for example, where he is trying to emphasize his point that the ‘physical substratum’ that determines duration “is a quantum entity that does not have determined values until it interacts with something else” and then onlyfor that specific interaction; “they remain indeterminate for the rest of the universe” (90). It’s like many ‘things’ in the quantum universe: they do not take form as substances until they interact with an observer, until we look at them. In fact, they are better understood as “events” rather than “things.” And these “events” happen in what appears to be not the orderly, past-to-present fashion theorized by Newton or even Einstein, but in a kind of random order that is at best local. Hard to understand, but here is Rovelli’s metaphor to make this more humanly relevant: 
The events of the world do not form an orderly queue, like the English. They crowd around chaotically, like Italians (96). 

You gotta love a physicist, Italian himself, who writes like that. 
            One of Rovelli’s main ideas concerns what he calls “blurring:” this refers to the fact that we cannot see deep into matter, into what is going on at the quantum level, so our vision of the world is ‘blurred.’ Rovelli writes it this way: “the quantum indeterminacy of things produces a blurring,” even when we think we can measure everything. He goes on, 

Both the sources of blurring—quantum indeterminacy, and the fact that physical systems are composed of zillions of molecules—are at the heart of time. Temporality is profoundly linked to blurring. The blurring is due to the fact that we are ignorant of the microscopic details of the world (140).

So while we “see” a universe which “began” with the Big Bang and its low entropy state (which in turn produces our sense that greater order [low entropy] leads to greater disorder [higher entropy], to past preceding present preceding future—hence our sense of the ineluctable order of time), Rovelli maintains that all of this may be “more down to us than to the universe itself.” In other words, the universe in time appears as it does because of who we are, not how the world is. Here is how he concludes this line of thought:

The low initial entropy of the universe might be due to the particular way in which we—the physical system that we are part of—interact with it. We are attuned to a very particular subset of aspects of the universe, and it is thisthat is oriented to time (147). 

This is significant because everything that we know of proceeds from the growth of entropy; from, that is, sources of low entropy like our sun which is constantly breaking down due to its nuclear burning, but whose breaking down, or entropy, gives us the light on which we and all organisms depend. And of course, the low entropy of the sun comes from “an entropic configuration that was even lower: the primordial cloud from which the solar system was formed” (160), and that low entropy comes from other sources back to the low initial entropy of the universe at the Big Bang. This is the “great story of the cosmos” says Rovelli, the story of time powered by the growth of entropy. And it is the particular story which we, as humans, have become sensitive to, and aware of. A great story, no doubt about it, a story of causality, memory, the history of the happenings of the world, in short, the world in time, but a very limited story, only one story out of many. In short, Rovelli says, our sense of time is peculiar to us and necessarily ignores the vast, timeless goings-on at microscopic levels of which we are mostly unaware. Citing St. Augustine, Rovelli summarizes it thus: “this is what time is: it is entirely in the present, in our minds, as memory and as anticipation” (182). 
            There is more in this fascinating and often beautiful book, but to do it justice requires a leisurely reading, and reflection, and probably re-reading. Reading it like this will change your view of time, at least in part, and perhaps make you reflect on how little we truly know about time and its last syllables and what exactly it is that we are recording. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

America's Toxic Legacy

Sunday as I was driving, I heard a radio piece via “On the Media” with Brooke Gladstone, discussing the work of lawyer Bryan Stephenson. I knew I was in for a treat because I’d heard Bryan Stephenson before and considered him one of the most impressive African-American activists I’d ever come across. I’d seen his powerful National Memorial for Peace and Justicein a Newshour report when it opened, and knew of that too. But I’d never heard the specific take I was hearing in this “On the Media” segment—finding out only online that it was called “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done,” a phrase that comes from Stephenson’s idea that people are not the same as, and cannot be identified with ‘the worst thing they’ve ever done.’ He uses this principle in his law practice, which often consists of defending black teenagers, 13- and 14-year-olds who are condemned, in his home state of Alabama, to life in prison for crimes committed when they are children. Stephenson’s general point is that no one can be forever identified and judged by a single act done in a single moment. His Equal Justice Initiativetakes a similar stand, arguing that the incarceration of so many Black young men—the figures are horrifying, amounting to huge percentages of young Black men who are either in prison (incarcerated at 5 times the rate of whites), or on parole far beyond their representation in the population as a whole—equates to a continuing miscarriage of justice that essentially extends slavery to our present day. And that constitutes his other major argument: while most Americans think that the original crime of slavery ended in America with the Civil War, in actual fact, the racist war against ‘freed’ slaves simply continued in another form—especially the constant lynching that Stephenson specifically labels “terrorism.” And one of the points he makes is that it was not only poor black men who were terrorized by lynching; often it was freedmen and women who had become economically successful, a sin against white power almost as great, in white post-Civil War America, as eyeing a white woman. 
            But to get to the real point of Stephenson’s ideas in “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done,” what he has been arguing all along is that Americans have never come to terms with the outrages against African Americans not only of slavery, but of the more than 4,000 lynchings (Stephenson emphasizes repeatedly that this was literal ‘terrorism,’ long before 9/11) that continued those outrages virtually to the 1950s (and continue today in mass incarceration). Indeed, Stephenson repeatedly maintains that slavery, horrible as it was, wasn’t the most egregious crime against African-Americans. The most long-lasting crime (one that, as anyone can easily see, is continuing and given encouragement by the current President of the United States) was the notion that was used to justify it, both pre- and post-Civil War. This was the notion that Whites were simply following nature in enslaving Blacks, that Whites were naturally superior, and that Blacks could never—freed or not—be considered equal and hence deserving of equal rights, equal opportunities, or equal justice. What this means is that America itself has never, not ever, come to terms with its past—especially when compared to apartheid South Africa, or Germany regarding its Nazi era. To make this point, Gladstone in her radio segment interviews several current residents of Germany, and they highlight the numerous monuments erected in Germany to memorialize and constantly remind Germans of the extermination of Jews in the Nazi death camps. One such reminder is the Holocaust Memorial that sits smack in the center of Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate—making it impossible for any German to ignore what took place. This reminder of and confrontation with the past—and thereby its acknowledgment—simply cannot be avoided by modern Germans, and thus makes it almost impossible to deny (though some neo-Nazis these days have been trying.)  
         Comparing this German example to the situation in the United States then becomes deeply instructive. In the American South, for example, monuments to Civil War “heroes” are everywhere, including Stephenson’s hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Civil War generals are everywhere memorialized and spoken of with reverence. Families take great pride in the deeds of ancestors who “fought the good fight” for the “noble cause.” This would simply be unthinkable—to publicly and proudly idealize Hitler or Eichmann or Goebbels—in Germany. And yet heroic statues of confederate General Robert E. Lee are found throughout the American South (it is no accident that the one in Charlottesville VA became the center of the white supremacist riots there in 2017). In Montgomery, the most active slave-trading port in the South, there are many such markers, including the “first White House of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis lived until 1861” (“A Visit to Montgomery’s Legacy Museum,” TheNew Yorker: July 17, 2018.) 
            This is precisely what Bryan Stephenson and his EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) set about to remedy with his Legacy Museumand National Memorial for Peace and Justicein Montgomery. The Memorial has been covered in several pieces, including the above-mentioned one in The New Yorker. It is a powerful piece of symbolism that makes vivid, on steel slabs hanging from the ceiling, 816 of the more than 4,000 lynchings Stephenson and his team have found and documented. The viewer, as Brooke Gladstone testifies in her piece, has to look up, as he or she would have to look upward to see a black body lynched in a tree. To further emphasize the lynchings, Stephenson has placed in the Legacy Museum(itself sited in a warehouse formerly used as a slave market) small Mason jars filled with soil taken from the site of single lynchings throughout the South and beyond. Each jar is labeled with the name of the victim, the date of death, and the county where the lynching took place. Some jars are accompanied by related videos: John Hartfield, accused of assaulting a white woman, was captured and kept alive by a doctor until, on June 26, 1919, 10,000 people from Ellisville, Mississippi could gather in a festive crowd to watch him be hanged, have his dead body riddled with 2,000 bullets, and then burned, while jubilant spectators passed around his severed fingers. The intention of the soil jars is to persuade (or shame) each community to place a monument to memorialize this dark part of its past, for only by doing so, according to Stephenson, can the United States as a whole begin the process of acknowledging and coming to terms with the original sins of its long-denied past. Only in this way can some sort of reconciliation and truth begin the process of national healing, the process of “liberation” as Stephenson puts it. 
            Only in this way, in short, can the false notion that slavery was merely the South’s ‘peculiar institution,’ a necessary and justified economic option for an agricultural South that a ‘noble’ war tried to preserve, be repudiated. Only in this way can the never-abandoned ideology of ‘white supremacy’—the real ‘toxin’ that has poisoned our nation, according to Stephenson—be buried once and for all. Only in this way can the people of the United States come to terms with the truth about the persistence of this ideology, with the underlying racism that not only allowed slavery to take hold in the South, but also allowed thousands of lynchings to erupt in the Jim Crow era that followed ‘emancipation’ and persist virtually to the present day. Indeed, if there is something “exceptional” about this nation that Americans may rightly claim, this may be it. For as the crusading Black journalist Ida B. Wells wrote in a speech in 1909:

No other nation, civilized or savage, burns its criminals. Only under the stars and stripes is the human Holocaust possible.(cited by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, May 4, 2018). 

To be sure, no American with even a rudimentary moral sense would want to claim such a legacy. For precisely that reason, it is something every American should hear about in detail, hear about and face and internalize in such a way that the poisonous crime of white supremacy underlying it might be extirpated without reserve, forever. With his graphic Memorial and Museum, that is precisely what Bryan Stephenson is trying to get all of America to face in its full depth and horror. God knows it is about time. 

Lawrence DiStasi

for reference:
Dec. 28, 2018 On the Media: “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done.”
Bryan Stephenson TED talk: “We Need to talk about an Injustice,” Mar. 4, 2014. 
Allyson Hobbs and Nell Freudenberger, “A Visit to Montgomery’s Legacy Museum,” The New Yorkerhttps://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/a-visit-to-montgomerys-legacy-museum 




Sunday, December 23, 2018

Possession

Given that we are in the midst of our annual solstice celebrations (aka Christmas), and the yearly orgy of buying that they have become, perhaps some contemplation of the underside of all this is in order. Notwithstanding the fact that the mythologized idea of Christmas consists in the buying of gifts for others, it takes no great perception to see that the real idea, cemented in our minds from childhood, has become more about ourselves: how much we get; how much we have after the presents have been unwrapped and are stacked in ‘our’ personal pile. In that sense, Christmas in the modern world has become a truly American holiday—steeped in the American ethic of rating our individual worth by how much material we possess. This ‘worth’ is also gauged, often enough, by how much we can affordto have, how much our net worth allows us, or would allow us if we cared to exercise it, to buy. And it cannot evade our consideration that the man who heads the United States government at this moment, Donald Trump, emblazoning his name in gold on all his holdings, epitomizes this American mania of possession. 
            Well, you may say, what of it? Haven’t kings and princes and potentates of every kind always done this, conspicuously displaying their possessions in order to elicit awe in those whom they ruled, whose loyalty they required? Well in some senses, particularly in historical times, yes. From Persians to Greeks to Romans to Moghuls to Chinese Emperors to the Sun King to Russian czars to Victoria, all modern rulers have found it necessary to display their riches for the sake of rationalizing and emphasizing their right to power. The plantation owners in Mississippi and the robber barons with their mansions in Newport dutifully followed suit. All these ‘blessed of the earth’ seemed to take delight in the vivid contrast/gulf between the visual spectacle of their consumption and the meager possessions of those they ruled, indeed literally possessed. For that is the most exaggerated form of possession of which humans are capable: to literally own the body and soul of other human beings, to possess the very means of their survival, of their ability to be. Which is what the capitalist moguls of our time possess as well.
            But again, what of it? Isn’t that what everyone always wants, what humans have always wanted? To lord it over their fellow humans, if they possibly could, to work diligently and ceaselessly to get to that point? Well, not exactly. In the chiefdoms of the Northwest Coast of America, for example, riches conferred on the chief an opposite privilege: the privilege of giving it all away. The potlatch was a ceremony where Indian chieftains took pride in giving all that they had to their assembled tribesmen. And the measure of their success was precisely how much they could give away. Possession, therefore, was not for keepingwhat others couldn’t have; possession’s most conspicuous privilege lay in how easily and freely it could be dispensed with, given away. And of course, sociologists tell us that such gift giving served the very important function of circulating goods so that their use and worth was distributed and multiplied many times over. 
            It is not clear to me whether chiefs or their tribe members understood giving in this way, nor if they understood the dark side of possession (as, for example, many cultures do as expressed in the folkway of evil eye, where the display of goods is believed to inspire envious eyes and thereby evil), but it certainly seems possible. Be that as it may, some among us have always understood that life and possession may not always be fully compatible. Surely, the slaves in the American South must have known that being someone else’s possession—to be bought and sold on a whim—made it impossible for the possessed one to truly live. And we all, on some level, understand that, hence our American mania to be the one with enough wealth to possess rather than be possessed, to own rather than be owned. What some of our folk wisdom indicates, moreover, is that there’s even more to it than that. “‘Tis better to give than to receive:” almost everyone subscribes, at least nominally, to that idea. The same goes for other sayings, often found on our Christmas cards: “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving;” “For it is in giving that we receive;” and so on. So many and varied are these sayings that it is almost as if a shadow of guilt lies over our annual gifting season, the holiday that, more than anything else, serves to determine how well the economy of our nation is faring. For if Christmas buying is anemic, the entire economy braces for a downturn. No wonder we are all hustled by advertising and the entire panorama of false holiday cheer into buying and possessing far more than we can afford. 
            But there’s a deeper side to all of this, (deeper even than the fact that so many are the useless goods that Americans give and buy even when it’s not Christmas that we, and western culture in general, are literally drowning in our own waste) and it has to do with possession itself. Ironically, some of the most impressive thoughts about possession and its problems come from some of our American thinkers in the early days of our possession mania. It is as if early on, thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson were able to see more clearly than we can now how much possession, or even dispossession, animated the founding and early ethic of our nation. Consider just the early settlers, starting with Columbus, who were so anxious to plant symbols, i.e. claims, of possession in the new lands they ran into. Not only did they insist on ownership, using western concepts of property to swindle the indigenous people out of their lands, but they proved themselves eager to cement the case with the murder of as many aboriginal claimants to “their” lands as possible. As settlers moved west and “claimed” more and more of the Indian lands they brought under cultivation (this involved the concept of vacuum domicilium, which meant that ‘undeveloped’ lands—those without such improvements as fenced fields and permanent structures—could simply be occupied and possessed regardless of Indian claims and unwritten traditions), they buttressed their claims with legal cases, the most important of which was the 1823 Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh. This case, stacked from the beginning due to the basic assumptions underlying it (Indians were “savage tribes” with inferior culture and primitive subsistence drawn from the forest),didinitially admit that Indians “were rightful occupants of the soil;” however, their actual sovereignty and right to dispose of their tradition-bound lands “was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.” In other words, their dispossession was made legal by the “discovery” of their lands by Europeans. Steven Newcomb, Director of the Indigenous Law Institute, summarized this legal doctrine as follows:
“Based on this bizarre theory, our very existence as Indians is now assumed to be subordinate to, ruled by, and possessed as property by, the political and legal successor of the first Christian ‘discoverers,’ namely, the United States.” see www.nativeamericannetroots.net

Thoreau was quite familiar with this dispossession, this theft of Indian land that lay at the heart of every American possession throughout the new nation, and so expressed again and again his problems with the very idea of possession, which goes deeper still. 
Consider that Thoreau’s deep problem with possession came from his understanding of his basic function, the function of the artist or poet. Thoreau, that is, meditated on the fact that the very material of his art consisted of the objects of the material world, and that to write about them meant in some sense to possess them. Though he did not have to ownsuch objects in the common sense, he did have to take possession of them, either by internalizing them, deeply understanding them or, as a poet, simply naming them. The problem, as he knew, was that whether incorporating or comprehending or naming, he was in some fundamental sense losing the thing itself. He was losing the innocent (Thoreau was obsessed with maintaining his ‘innocence’), the more or less primary apprehension of it in favor of a word or a concept. And that concept was really only shorthand for the freezing of the multiplicity of impressions that the living object actually was. The action of the taxidermist or the butterfly collector, who must kill his specimen in order to preserve it, perhaps conveys this sense best. Museum curators know this as well: once an object has entered a collection to be catalogued and mounted and preserved, it is like an animal caged in a zoo, in that it has lost its functional life. It becomes something named, circumscribed, identified, catalogued, and embalmed. Worse, we who view such things become, as voyeurs, embalmed as well. 
Here, then, is the deep problem with possession. To possess something—and this goes double for the possession of spouse that western and many other cultures gave to males in a marriage—is to establish it as an object, frozen in time as if to make it permanent. It is to circumscribe its always-changing life, its real being. It is to cripple its dynamic life in the most basic sense, to kill its freedom. This underlying demand is why so many murders are attributed to a male whose “possession,” his wife, has asserted her freedom one way or the other. “If you can’t be mine, then you can’t be anyone’s, and must die.” Nor is it just in the extreme case of spousal murder where this idea reigns. As noted above, simply naming things is truncating them, cutting them short of what they actually are—living, breathing, constantly-evolving entities. And so, when we know things by their names, it is an advance at first, as all shortcuts are; but after habituation, it becomes a loss. A reduction. We no longer see trees as dynamic always-changing life forms. We see treeas a concept. We see floweras a concept; skunkas a concept; ballet danceras a concept. And it usually takes artists to re-image such common objects to shake us out of our frozen and static conceptions. If we did not have this re-imagining, we would be embalmed in all our conceptions, blind to the world as it really is—which is, for most of us, the way we get through life. 
In many ways, we do the same with our selves. Though we recognize that we change over time, especially when we see photographs of our early selves, we still have frozen concepts of “self” deeply imbedded in our brains. We see our selves even in baby pictures. And so, when our physical characteristics or abilities change, we rebel: this can’t be happening; this isn’t the real me. Which is why the question about self is a basic one in wisdom traditions. Who are you? We think we know: I’m me. But which me? And for how long? And what of these other manifestations of me that I may not like or even know about? 
Getting back to possession, then, we can shape some conclusions that have to do with the basics of having and being. To possess means to take, to take possession. And this involves, at some level, the reduction or even destruction of that which we take possession of. What’s more, it also involves a reduction in ourselves. For if we focus, as many of us do and are encouraged to do in our culture, on getting and having, we not only lose the object—its ability to truly be—but ourselves as well—our ability to truly be. That is, by focusing exclusively on the havingof things—things as ourobjects that we keep and protect for ourselves—we remove ourselves from our true nature: directly feeling, or eating, or using; in short, being. We objectify, we concern ourselves with storing up for the future, we become preoccupied with securing for ourselves alone our “things,” and thus remove ourselves from the immediacy of living. Wherehavingbecomes paramount, being, in the sense of living life fully, becomes forgotten or delayed or put aside for a more convenient time. In this sense, we can say that in order to havesomething, we must diminish not only that which we possess, but ourselves as well—the true life of being we all yearn for. For Thoreau, this idea was implicit in almost everything he wrote. Specifically, he wrote in an early journal entry something that cast these ideas in the imagery of looking at Nature, which he did almost constantly:
Man cannot afford...to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through her and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone. (V45, Torry and Allen, eds, The Journals of Henry D. Thoreau, Boston: 1906.)

If we take Thoreau’s image of “looking at Nature directly” as a metaphor for ‘taking possession of,’ then we can see that the deadly result, for Thoreau, is that “it turns the man of science to stone.” In other words, scientists were those who separated Nature, who objectified Nature, and the result is that they became, metaphorically, stones: dumb, insentient beings. This is a kind of reversal of the cited myth from Greek mythology, where the Medusa’s glance turned men to stone. In Thoreau’s version, it is the men of science whose own reduction of Nature to objects— possessing them to study them—turns themto stone. 
            I think it is clear that Thoreau meant this to apply to most of his countrymen, to the American ethic of business and possession he inveighed against so often. ‘If you insist on possessing everything in sight, even or especially the natural world, you will end up turning yourselves to stone.’ It’s something we might want to think about in this mad season of getting, getting and more getting. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 17, 2018

Things Are Just Crazy Here

The above title comes from a quote by Gary Cohn, Trump’s first Director of the National Economic Council and a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, in describing to presidential secretary Rob Porter his (Cohn’s) inclination to resign from the Oval Office. As described in Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House, Cohn’s remark comes after the President made his fatal remarks about the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, when the president equated the victims with the neo-Nazi perpetrators: “There is blame on both sides…you also had people that were very fine people on both sides…” (246). As Woodward lays it out, this had Cohn threatening to resign right then, but he was persuaded by the president to remain and finish the crucial Republican tax bill. Cohn did remain, but the continuing chaos emanating from a president who never prepared or even read the briefing materials laboriously prepared by those like Cohn, had him disheartened. He conveys this to Rob Porter, Trump’s White House secretary: 

“I don’t know how much longer I can stay. Things are just crazy here. They’re so chaotic. He’s never going to change. It’s pointless to prepare a meaningful, substantive briefing for the president that’s organized, where you have a bunch of slides. Because you know he’s never going to listen…He’s going to get through the first 10 minutes and then he’s going to want to start talking about some other topic” (271). 

We then get a prime example of this when Trump, in an Oval Office meeting about the automobile industry, when he is shown Cohn-prepared charts proving that the auto industry was doing fine (though Detroit was producing 3.6 million fewer cars and light trucks since 1994, the rest of U.S. production, mostly in the Southeast, was up by the same 3.6 million). Unimpressed, the president insisted that the industry had to be fixed. Cohn then brought up the World Trade Organization document he’d put in Trump’s daily book, but which Trump clearly had not read: “The World Trade Organization is the worst organization ever created!” Trump said. “We lose more cases than anything.” Cohn then reiterated what was in the daily book, a document that showed that the United States “won 85.7 percent of its WTO cases, more than average.” Cohn added other wins at the WTO in disputes with China. 

            “This is bullshit,” Trump replied. “This is wrong.” 
“This is not wrong. This is data from the US trade representative. Call Lighthizer…”
“I’m not calling Lighthizer.”
“Well,” Cohn said, “I’ll call Lighthizer. This is factual data. There’s no one that’s going to disagree with this data.” Then he added, “Data is data” (276-7). 

But the president simply continued to argue against any data that did not fit his preconceptions and obsessions. 
            This pattern is repeated again and again in Woodward’s account. The president makes known his discontent, usually based on his obsessions, particularly his conviction that any arrangements with other countries should produce a profit for the United States. His shorthand for this was to usually blame generals or statesmen for not understanding ‘cost-benefit analysis.’ That was what should animate all deals, according to Trump: making money. When he saw agreements as costing the United States money—as in NATO, KORUS (the trade deal with South Korea), the WTO—then he wanted to trash the agreements and withdraw. For example, on August 25, 2017, the president decided he would make wide-ranging decisions concerning three ‘deals.’  “We’ve talked about this ad nauseam,” Trump said. “Just do it. Just do it. Get out of NAFTA. Get out of KORUS. And get out of the WTO. We’re withdrawing from all three” (264). Gary Kohn and General Kelly (now having replaced Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff) tried to explain how important the alliance with South Korea was in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, how KORUS was actually cheap as national defense. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, and H.R. McMaster, National Security adviser all agreed that withdrawing would be insane. Trump finally agreed to put off the 180-day letter announcing the withdrawals to a later time. But only days later, on September 5, Rob Porter entered the Oval Office to see in Trump’s hands a draft letter of the 180-day notice withdrawing from KORUS. Porter (normally the one who would write the letter) hadn’t written it, but someone (he guessed it was probably Peter Navarro or Wilbur Ross, usually the ones pushing Trump in this insane direction) had. It played right into Trump’s insecurity: “Until I actually take some action to demonstrate my threats are real and need to be taken seriously,” Trump said, “then we’re going to have less leverage in these things.” When Gary Cohn realized what had been done, however, he (Cohn) actually stole the letter from Trump’s desk and hid it in a folder marked “KEEP.” So central to the whole Trump presidency did Woodward see this incident that he makes it the opening prologue of his entire book. As Woodward describes it, Cohn told an associate, “I stole it off his desk. I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country” (xviii-xix). Cohn and Porter and many other principals knew this strategy would work because the president simply forgot anything that wasn’t directly in his face (If it was out of sight, it was out of mind…Trump’s memory needed a trigger—something on his desk or something he…saw on television (158). So the hope was that this insane impulse to scuttle some of the nation’s most important agreements would simply disappear into the memory hole. Woodward ends his Prologue and defines his theme with these words:

The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader. Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world (xxii). 

            What strikes this reader is not only the fleshing out of this hair-raising scenario (until, of course, several of his “staff” either resigned or were fired: Priebus, Tillerson and Cohn being the most important), but also the recurring assessments that many of these highly-placed leaders of Team Trump registered about their boss. Steve Bannon offers some of the juiciest assessments of the man he once called a “political genius.” When Bannon was prepping McMaster for his interview for the National Security job, for example, he told the general: ‘Don’t lecture Trump. He doesn’t like professors. He doesn’t like intellectuals (he never went to class in college, never took a note (87). This same General McMaster said he believed that General Mattis and Rex Tillerson both had concluded the same thing: the president and the White House were crazy, so, as much as they could, they tried to implement foreign policy without him. After a particularly raucous meeting concerning the importance of world order and free trade, in which Trump publicly belittled his secretary of state, Gary Cohn asked Tillerson if he was ok. Tillerson’s now-famous reply: “He’s a fucking moron” (225). It was also at this point that one unnamed official summarized the meeting:

“It seems clear that many of the president’s senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views” (226).

Reince Priebus, Trump’s first Chief of Staff, offered his own summary of the president after he had been unceremoniously sacked by tweet (this after Trump had just assured him his announcement wouldn’t come until the weekend): “The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way” (235). As to the operation of the White House, where the rules of access were routinely violated by certain privileged ones who simply walked into the Oval Office when they felt like it (Ivanka Trump, her husband Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, and Bannon), Priebus compared it to a 'team of predators,' where discussion is 

“designed not to persuade, but, like their president, to win—to slay, crush and demean…If you have natural predators at the table,” Priebus said, “Things don’t move…Because when you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody. That’s what happens” (237). 

            There are many more of these assessments throughout Woodward’s book. Most underline the initial impression of a White House (where planet-impacting decisions are made almost hourly), in which Trump’s favorite mode was insulting his inferiors (“He’s a globalist. He’s not loyal to the president”—about Gary Cohn, whose wife Trump also blamed for Cohn’s upset about the remarks after Charlottesville), while they bit their tongues and commented afterward—“The president’s unhinged” said Kelly. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about” (263); “This is no longer a White House,” Porter said. “It’s just all-out war now” (252). Perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of the president came from Steve Bannon, Trump’s closest favorite in the early days, until he was fired. Here is how Woodward summarizes Bannon’s remarks:

Grievance was a big part of Trump’s core, very much like a 14-year-old boy who felt he was being picked on unfairly. You couldn’t talk to him in adult logic. Teenage logic was necessary (299). 

This comes very close to what Secretary of Defense Mattis said after the meeting in which Trump maintained that collective defense, as in NATO, was sucker play, and that he wanted to withdraw from all deals not of his own making. The president, Mattis said, acted like—and had the understanding of—“a fifth or sixth grader” (308). 
            In other words, friends, the mind of Donald Trump—the most powerful man in the world—is, according to those working most closely with him, the mind of a volatile, unread, emotionally unstable, desperately aggrieved and predatory teenager. 
            And that doesn’t even get to his character, his ethics or morals. For that, Woodward waits till the very end of his book, and puts the assessment into the mouth of the lawyer Trump chose to maintain his defense against the Mueller investigation. John Dowd joined Trump’s team of lawyers in May 2017. He had a reputation as one of the most successful defense lawyers of his time. He apparently believed that cooperating with Mueller would be the best strategy, and he did that for about a year. But he also believed that Mueller did not have a real case concerning Trump’s collusion with Russians, and therefore urged the president not to testify in person. He would take written questions and have Trump answer them with his lawyers’ help, but he would not allow the president to sit down for an interrogation with Mueller and his team. He believed that Mueller would “trick” the president into perjury. Trump, contrarily, believed that he had to agree to testify. Mainly, he believed he was superior to the lawyers who would question him. He was seconded in this position by his other lawyer, Ty Cobb, whom he urged to assert publicly that the president was ‘not afraid to testify.’ This was the nub of it for Trump: how he would look if he was seen to have ‘taken the fifth’ (i.e. taken refuge behind the Fifth Amendment’s stipulation that a person could not be forced to testify against himself). He was, after all, the president who had made a religion of the idea of toughness, of breaking down his opponents with threats, with fear. How could such a man’s man be afraid to testify to a bunch of bureaucrats? But Dowd was insistent, and when he couldn’t find the words, was in fact afraid to use the real words to convince the president that by testifying he would end up in jail, he resigned. And this is how Woodward ends his book, with a summary of John Dowd’s real reason for his insistence that the president not testify. It represents the book’s final assessment of Donald Trump, and succinctly and shockingly says it all:

But in the man and his presidency Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying “Fake News,” the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: 
       “You’re a fucking liar.” (357). 


Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Cooperation Makes the Forest

The really big takeaway from modern research on trees is simple: trees in an old-growth forest cooperate. Far from being individuals seeking only their own success, trees cooperate not only with others of their own species but with those of different species too, and also with the fungi that, though often feeding upon them and debilitating them, also cooperate with trees to the mutual success of both. In order to do this, of course, trees must communicate in some way that has long been invisible to us, but is now becoming more commonly known. This ‘secret life of trees’ forms the basis for two books I’ve read recently, one a novel: The Overstoryby Richard Powers, and the other a nonfiction account by a German forester, Peter Wohlleben, who wrote The Hidden Life of Trees. Together with the pioneering research of Suzanne Simard about plant-fungi communication (Simard writes a note to Wohlleben’s book and is the model for the fictional scientist, Patricia Westerford, Powell creates in The Overstory), these two books change one’s outlook on what a tree is, and why preserving old-growth forests is more important in more ways than we ever could have imagined. 
            To begin with The Overstory, Powers writes a novel dramatizing the awakening to the importance of trees by several characters, most of whom he brings together as activists committed to saving old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. These actions are based on the activism of well-known ‘tree-huggers’ like Julia Butterfly Hill and others, but Powers has them take even more radical action, perhaps based on the Weathermen—that is, setting fire to buildings. All of them stop this activity when one of their number is critically injured in a fire, but their commitment makes the point: humans are latecomers to life, owe much of their sustenance and even genes to trees, and with logging are destroying the very means of maintaining life on the planet. For me, the most compelling character in Powers’ fictionalized account was scientist Patricia Westerford, so much so that I was driven to search out the character upon whom she was based. That brought me to Dr. Suzanne Simard, who has several videos wherein she makes the case for her major research finding, tree communication. 
            Simard is a professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. In her note at the end of Wohlleben’s book, she writes that her doctoral research led her, in 1992, to some amazing discoveries regarding the mutual relationship between paper birches, a deciduous tree, and their conifer neighbors. The birches seemed to be feeding the soil and helping Douglas firs nearby. Simard’s question was exactly how and why they were doing this. Here is what she writes:

            In pulling back the forest floor using microscopic and genetic tools, I discovered that the vast belowground mycelial network was a bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species. These fungi are mutualistic. They connect the trees with the soil in a market exchange of carbon and nutrients and link the roots of the paper birches and Douglas firs in a busy, cooperative Internet. When the interwoven birches and firs were spiked with stable and radioactive isotopes, I could see, using mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, carbon being transmitted back and forth between the trees, like neurotransmitters firing in our own neural networks. The trees were communicating through the web! (Wohlleben, 248).

Simard went on to discover the dynamics of the synergy between the two tree species: “the firs were getting morephotosynthetic carbon from the birches than they were giving,” which meant that the birches were spurring the growth of the firs, as if they were caring for them; and the firs, in turn, were being “mothers” to the birches as well, depending on the season. There was, in short, a mutual exchange between two apparently rivalrous species, mediated by fungal mycelia, thus making a forest. In her paper describing this, published in Naturein 1997, the term “wood-wide web” was introduced. Many scholars have now built on Simard’s research about belowground communication between trees, mapping and monitoring the subtleties of communication that goes on in an ostensibly “silent” forest to the enhancement of the mutual health of all. As she puts it, “these discoveries have transformed our understanding of trees from competitive crusaders of the self to members of a connected, relating, communicating system” (249).  
            This becomes the essence of what Peter Wohlleben describes for us in The Hidden Life of Trees. A forest is a community. That is, an intact forest that is allowed to grow on its own, without the interference of humans (who think they are helping forests by thinning them out but are really hindering them), seems to know what it is doing, and to act for the good of the whole. The deep humus soil, enriched constantly by dead and dying trees, and inhabited by an astonishing array of life forms (“There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet” (86), is really the lifeblood of this immense life-fostering system. When it is disturbed and compacted by huge logging machines and cleared by ignorant humans, it is crippled. This is why, for example, trees in urban neighborhoods topple over so easily in windstorms: the roots, which are the brains and anchor of the tree, are limited from growing by concrete and by compacted soil; without their normal extended root support, trees topple over in strong winds. What’s even more astonishing and sad is the fact that while trees in intact forests carry on an active conversation via several modes of communication, trees in monocultural plantations (which we are assured replaces all the old-growth trees we use for lumber) are spaced in such a way that communication is silenced. As Wohlleben puts it, “Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants (including trees planted for lumber) have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb” (11—emphasis added). 
            Wohlleben gives us many instances of exactly how and why trees communicate. First and foremost is to create the ecosystem of the forest, which “moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity” (4). In such an environment, trees are our elders, living, through cooperation, to be hundreds of years old and surviving even regular forest fires. Needless to say, when forests are cleared or ‘thinned,’ that ecosystem, and life itself, is interrupted. But if, on the other hand, trees are allowed to live and learn (yes, trees have been proven to learn from experience and store that learning, probably in their root systems), they can perform feats such as those found among the thorn acacias of Africa. Scientists discovered many years ago that somehow these acacias were able to discourage giraffes from feeding on them and their neighbors. Upon investigation, they discovered two things: first, as soon as the trees ‘felt’ giraffes munching on their leaves, they started to “pump toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores” (this ability of plants to create almost endless varieties of chemicals is a cause for wonder, not to mention gratitude) (7). But this was only the beginning; the acacias being eaten also “gave off a warning gas (specifically ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand,” and instantly the warned trees also pumped toxins into theirleaves to protect themselves! In short, while we used to think that only animals or birds could warn their relatives of coming danger (vocally), we now know that trees do the very same thing—only employing systems that escape our senses. 
            One reason for our insensitivity, of course, is that much of the communication between trees takes place below ground. Here is where that mycelial network comes in. Since they cannot photosynthesize as trees do, fungi bargain with their specific trees: the fungi spread their mycelia throughout the tree roots, greatly increasing the root surface to suck up more water and nutrients. As Wohlleben points out, scientists find “twice the amount of life-giving nitrogen and phosphorus in plants that cooperate with fungal partners than in plants using their roots alone” (50). In return, the fungi get the sugar and other carbohydrates they need (from the tree’s photosynthesis) by growing into the tree’s root hairs, so that up to a third of the tree’s total production comes to them. This is costly for a tree (and each tree seems to have its appropriate mycelium with which to cooperate), but it apparently pays off in better nutrients, in the communication mentioned above, and also in the trick the fungi have to filter out heavy metals (damaging to trees) and bacteria that would otherwise feast on the tree. In short, this is a kind of symbiosis that is widespread in nature but which many human societies (or parts of them such as robber barons and bankers) seem to have forgotten. 
            One other benefit of trees (among the hundreds cited by Wohlleben) deserves mention. Trees, especially coastal rainforests, play an important role in how rainfall is used and distributed on the land-locked portion of continents. Part of every rain is intercepted by the huge coastal forest canopy formed by the tree crowns. Wohlleben writes that “each summer, trees use up to 8,500 cubic yards of water per square mile, which they release into the air through transpiration” (106). This tree-created water vapor then actually forms new cloudsthat travel farther inland than the average of 400 miles for typical ocean-driven storms, to release their rain. In other words, coastal forests amplify the life-giving precipitation from oceans and spread it far into the interior flatlands—the lands that in North America chiefly depend on this rain for farming. When these coastal forests are destroyed or dry out due to clear-cutting or thinning (as is already happening in Brazil, and as lumber companies have been doing in the Pacific Northwest), this life-giving system falls apart. Because of their moisture-preserving capacity (coniferous forests in the Northern Hemisphere also give off terpenes—whose molecules, giving moisture a place to condense, create clouds that are twice as thick), such forests even play a part in slowing down climate change. Of course, this is of no interest to the lumber predators and climate deniers now holding sway, but very soon the real price of this ignorance will become all too apparent. And finally, trees actually disinfect their surroundings through the release of phytoncides, chemicals with antibiotic properties they release to fight off bacteria. This makes the air in pine forests almost germ-free, perhaps one reason people find being in such forests so refreshing. 
            In sum, as many of our primary myths and legends suggest, trees are our forebears, the source of much of our DNA, our cells, our rain, our communication systems, our structure, our nutrition. The next time you think to cut down a ‘dumb’ tree, therefore, or hear about idiot legislation to make it easier to ‘harvest’ what’s left of our national forests, you might want to think again. You might want to pay homage to your parent, and see if you can get others to do the same—that is, to cooperate both within and between species—before it’s really too late. 

Lawrence DiStasi