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Pro and Con, or squished?

Monday, February 20th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — counterpoint: giving all voices a fair hearing. even when conflicting ]
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I try to avoid taking political sides in American politics, partly because I’m a guest here and it seems only polite and wise to leave such matters to my hosts, and partly because bridge-building is the therapeutic method of choice in times of division and conflict. Keeping to a middle path may be something of a high-wire act, though, and is seldom popular wit those on either side.

**

I went looking for a quote that expresses the idea that this kind of middle way can get you killed, and my friends offered me a variety of possible items including Jim Hightower saying:

There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.

and Mr Miyagi:

Squished!!

**

The most cerebral near-miss was this one, from Adam Gopnik writing about and quoting Camus in the New Yorker a while back:

At the Liberation, he wrote (in Arthur Goldhammer’s translation):

Now that we have won the means to express ourselves, our responsibility to ourselves and to the country is paramount. . . . The task for each of us is to think carefully about what he wants to say and gradually to shape the spirit of his paper; it is to write carefully without ever losing sight of the urgent need to restore to the country its authoritative voice. If we see to it that that voice remains one of vigor, rather than hatred, of proud objectivity and not rhetoric, of humanity rather than mediocrity, then much will be saved from ruin.

Responsibility, care, gradualness, humanity—even at a time of jubilation, these are the typical words of Camus, and they were not the usual words of French political rhetoric. The enemy was not this side or that one; it was the abstraction of rhetoric itself. He wrote, “We have witnessed lying, humiliation, killing, deportation, and torture, and in each instance it was impossible to persuade the people who were doing these things not to do them, because they were sure of themselves, and because there is no way of persuading an abstraction.”

and the most scriptural from Scott McW, Revelation 3.14-16:

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Michael Lotus supplied:

There’s even a film (h/t Barbara Hope) titled In Danger and Dire Distress the Middle of the Road Leads to Death — though I haven’t seen it.

**

John Messer catches the perspective I’m coming from when he comments:

One limitation perhaps is our framing of the challenge as a dichotomy rather than a 360 POV or perhaps a sphere of alternatives. In mediation one always looks for the unifying value that embraces all.

It seems harder and harder to present both sides of en ever-more-violently polarized situation without taking fire from each side — so I’d ask you to read what follows (and my posts on similar topics) as attempts at that unifying balance, rather than as statements of my own preferences.. which do exist, and no doubt can be glimpsed, but are not what I’m trying to propagate with my writings, at least thus far..

**

Consider these two opinions of Trump aide Sebastian Gorka — each the opinion of a valued friend:

and:

It was F Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Is there any room for a first-rate intelligence any more?

**

Or consider this juxtaposition as a DoubleQuote expression of a parallelism between Trump and Hitler:

Is that fair comment or not?

The two phrases are indeed close parallels –n but obviously the Nazi analogy is one that (a) members of the never Trump faction feel a strong urge to explore, and (b) which is liable to close the ears of the pro Trump faction to any logic it might possess.

How do we hear both sides of so fraught an issue?

**

How do we retain awareness of that superbly humble and nuanced insight of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
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During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

That’s the perspective I cherish.

Please see also my follow-up post..

Does Trump trump Bannon, or does Bannon bannon Trump?

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — there’s so often an eminence grise, neh? ]
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The New York Times editorial board raises the question quite bluntly:

Mxx Boot answers it. Unless that title, too, was an editorial decision.

**

Digging in for a little more detail..

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Oh, ah — but we have heard the like before:

**

Sources:

  • New York Times, President Bannon?
  • Foreign Policy, President Bannon’s Hugely Destructive First Week in Office

  • Guardian, Steve Bannon’s role in inner circle of Trump team raises fears of security crisis
  • Vanity Fair, Steve Bannon, Trump’s New CEO, Hints at His Master Plan

  • Guardian, Is this the real president of the United States?
  • **

    I strongly doubt that simple org charts can capture the niceties of influence in situations like these.

    Dawson & Amarasingam, Furnish & McCants

    Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — multi-causal and single focus motivations not incompatible ]
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    Tim Furnish offered a terse “File this under ‘duh.'” in response to a CNSNews report titled Study: Religion is ‘Primary Motivator’ of Foreign Jihadists Who Go to Iraq & Syria on Facebook today. In response to a comment, he elaborated: “I’ve done the same study about 37 times over the last 15 years.”

    Tim’s right. But I also believe we need a more nuanced approach to the issue of motivation.

    **

    Here’s the passage from the study in question, Lorne Dawson and Amarnath Amarasingam‘s Talking to Foreign Fighters: Insights into the Motivations for Hijrah to Syria and Iraq:

    The findings reported here converge with those of these other studies in terms of how people radicalize and become foreign fighters. However, they tend to diverge with regard to why they go. In the twenty interviews analyzed no one indicated, directly or indirectly, that forms of socioeconomic marginalization played a significant role in their motivation to become a foreign fighter. Moreover, the interactions with these individuals were so heavily mediated by religious discourse it seems implausible to suggest that religiosity (i.e., a sincere religious commitment, no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox) is not a primary motivator for their actions. Religion provides the dominant frame these foreign fighters use to interpret almost every aspect of their lives, and this reality should be given due interpretive weight.

    There we are:

    Religion provides the dominant frame these foreign fighters use to interpret almost every aspect of their lives

    I couldn’t agree more. But then again, as Will McCants reminds us in Trump’s misdiagnosis of the jihadist threat (late 2016, but now twitter-pinned “because the causality question comes up constantly”):

    The disappoint stems from the desire to attribute the jihadist phenomenon to a single cause rather than to several causes that work in tandem to produce it. To my mind, the most salient are these: a religious heritage that lauds fighting abroad to establish states and to protect one’s fellow Muslims; ultraconservative religious ideas and networks exploited by militant recruiters; peer pressure (if you know someone involved, you’re more likely to get involved); fear of religious persecution; poor governance (not type of government); youth unemployment or underemployment in large cities; and civil war. All of these factors are more at play in the Arab world now than at any other time in recent memory, which is fueling a jihadist resurgence around the world.

    **

    I’ve never been clear-headed enough to follow Aristotle‘s distinctions between material, formal, efficient, and final causes, let alone discussion of hypothetical causes that follow their effects, but it seems to me that the two statements above are easily reconciled if we understand that there are many causes for disgruntlement, to which a religious solution is in all cases present as disgruntlement turns to ISIS-sympathetic recruitment.

    Religion (as Dawson & Amarasingam have it, “i.e., a sincere religious commitment, no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox”) is the sine qua non of jihadism.

    **

    So yeah, doh! — with multi-factorial causality earlier in the process..

    Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Steve Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War

    Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — tying our colloquium on Thucydides to current White House events ]
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    **

    Well, I’ve been majorly out of it since the Thucydides roundtable started, and am only slowly getting back into the swing of things, but I’d like to bookend my initial roundtable comment with a closing observation, this one concerning Steve Bannon and his interest in the history of warfare. The quote that follows is from the Armchair General‘s column, Steve Bannon’s Long Love Affair With War, in today’s Daily Beast:

    You can also find Bannon’s affection for military and strategic ruthlessness in what he reads. According to two of Bannon’s former friends from his West Coast days, two of his favorite books are Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the hugely influential ancient Chinese text on military strategy, and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The latter tells the story of a holy war to establish dharma.

    Sun Tzu, check. Bhagavad Gita, double check. Dharma! Indeed!

    **

    The article continues:

    Julia Jones, Bannon’s longtime Hollywood writing partner and former close friend, recalls seeing him excitedly flipping through both books, and talking about them lovingly and often. She would frequently see various “books all over [Steve’s place] about battles and things,” among his clutter of possessions and interests. (Late last year, Jones — who identifies as a “Bernie Sanders liberal” — had a falling out with Bannon due to his work on the Trump presidential campaign, a role that she said absolutely “disgusted” her.)

    “Steve is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war — it’s almost poetry to him,” Jones told The Daily Beast in an interview last year, well before Trump won the election and Bannon landed his new job. “He’s studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome… every battle, every war… Never back down, never apologize, never show weakness… He lives in a world where it’s always high noon at the O.K. Corral.”

    Almost poetry.

    And back to dharma:

    Jones said that Bannon “used to talk a lot about dharma — he felt very strongly about dharma… one of the strongest principles throughout the Bhagavad Gita.”

    I suppose I should write a follow-up about dharma and the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna instructed Arjuna in the dharma appropriate to a warrior.

    And so to our roundtable topic — the Peloponnesian War:

    She also noted his “obsession” with the military victories and epic battles of the Roman Empire’s Marcus Aurelius and Julius Caesar. But a personal favorite of Bannon’s was the subject of the Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta.

    “He talked a lot about Sparta — how Sparta defeated Athens, he loved the story,” Jones said. “The password on his [desktop] computer at his office at American Vantage Media in Santa Monica was ‘Sparta,’ in fact.”

    This is the mindset of Trump’s top White House aide who just earned himself a seat at the table on the National Security Council.

    **

    You’d like a more direct Bannon Thucydides connection? The topic is smaller than Bannon’s role at the NSC — the “war” between Breitbart and Fox — but Thucydides is front and center. In a Breitbart piece from August 2016, Fox Faces Its Uncertain Future: The Minor Murdochs Take Command, Steve Bannon writes:

    Here at Breitbart News, we see ourselves as a small yet up-and-coming competitor to Fox. Yes, you read that right, Breitbart is on the rise, and Fox is in decline. Even the MSM has noticed the changing of the guard; here’s the Washington Post headline from January: “How Breitbart has become a dominant voice in conservative media,” reinforced by Politico just this morning. In this modern-day version of the epic Peloponnesian War, the incumbent Athenians might as well know that the Spartans are coming for them, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it; indeed, more Spartans are joining us every day. As Thucydides would warn them, if the leaders of Fox choose to pipe Mickey Mouse aboard and give him command on the bridge, well, that will only accelerate Fox’s fall.

    See also: Titus in Space (Paris Review, November 2016)

    Holocaust Memorial Day, remember

    Sunday, January 29th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — still recovering from heart surgery, still a couple days slow on current affairs ]
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    Holocaust Memorial Day might have passed me by completely had President Trump not decided to sign his executive order putting an initial ban on refugees — and green card holders — from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US.

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    The parallelism speaks for itself. In a single tweet:

    Read all about it: Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry as refugees to the U.S.:

    “The story seems to unfold in slow motion as the painstaking exchange of letters journey across continents and from state to state, their information often outdated by the time they arrive,” the New York Times wrote … “Each page adds a layer of sorrow as the tortuous process for gaining entry to the United States — involving sponsors, large sums of money, affidavits and proof of how their entry would benefit America — is laid out. The moment the Franks and their American supporters overcame one administrative or logistical obstacle, another arose.”

    **

    See also the St. Louis Manifest Twitter feed.

    The Smithsonian magazine describes it as “like a slow dirge, steadily announcing the names of the St. Louis passengers who were killed..”

    A sample:

    **

    Yet despite all..

    **

    And that’s before we begin to consider the constitutionality, in a nation dedicated to having “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, of executive orders that ban Muslims while showing preference for Christians, nor the likelihood that such orders will blow back on us, increasing IS and AQ recruitment.

    Consider, for instance, this quote from an article subheaded ISIS aims to exploit Trump’s controversial rhetoric about Muslims to reinforce its propaganda, five current and former members told BuzzFeed News. “Trump will shorten the time it takes for us to achieve our goals,” one said.

    ISIS also sees Trump as an ideal enemy for propaganda purposes, the former and current members of the group said, believing that his campaign’s heated rhetoric about Muslims will help the extremist group with recruitment by reinforcing its central narrative that America and the West are at war with Islam. “Trump announced his hatred of Arabs and Muslims and did not hide it as presidents did before him,” an ISIS official based outside the city of Palmyra said, speaking via an encrypted chat service.


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