American as a Morality Play That is Still Ongoing

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March 4, 2018

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood. How shall I say what wood that was! I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness!

Dante, Inferno, Canto I

Republics don’t last forever. None ever has. Rome as a republic (a republic of the elites to be accurate, no democracy) succumbed finally to dictatorship, rule by emperors with absolute power. Some, like Hadrian, were wise; some, like Augustus, were competent; many, like Nero, were mad; most were incompetent, lazy, and ignorant. All but the wise few were corrupt, greedy, and given to luxury.

Athens as a democracy lasted less than 200 years until it too fell to internal political illness and was taken over by tyrants. France, as republican government is not much older than 150 years, and that only if one exempts the four years of occupation by the Nazis. Russia has never been a republic. The Weimar Republic lasted just 14 years, succumbing to Adolf Hitler who adroitly fomented social divisions and fears, and who used a paralyzed political system to seize absolute power without ever having won a majority of the vote. The United States, taking as a start date the final ratification of the constitution in 1790, has lasted 250 years. Where in this life cycle of republics is the United States today? Two hundred fifty years is a better than average run for a system of government that requires wisdom, values, and courage. 

Some believe that the American republic may be close to the end of its natural history, dying of old age induced political weakness or having caught a fatal virus.  That prediction may be too dire, but a great many, including myself, think that the republic has strayed far from the straight path and has stumbled into a very dark wood indeed. The United States is a poisoned society, both morally and intellectually, and divided against itself. The attacks on thought and on truth by Trump, by Fox News, and now, as we know, by foreign actors, have done the damage that they were intended to do.

That there might be such things as facts and truth has become almost an anachronism, a quaint notion that people held to when they still remembered the founding principles of the republic, before the distractions of spectacles, before cable and the internet, before the social media demons that often substitute for community and that have, for many, relieved them of the chores of critical thinking. The extent of the damage has come home to me through two personal experiences.

A close friend, a reliably centrist Democrat, told me in September 2016 that he could not vote for Ms. Clinton. He would sit out the election. I was shocked.

 “But why,” I asked.

 “Because Clinton is so corrupt,” was the answer. 

“In what way corrupt? Give me an example,” I asked. 

“I don’t know any specifics,” was the reply.

 “Then how do you know that she is corrupt?”  

“Because everyone says so,” was the rather astonishing answer.

“Who is everyone?” I pressed

“The internet.” My friend was beginning to be a bit embarrassed.

“What TV news do you watch?” I probed.

“CNN usually.”

“Do they say that Clinton is corrupt?”

“No, but you can’t trust the media.”

“Do you read a newspaper?”

“No, I don’t have time.”

He was a family man,  a two-job household, two children under 12 in school. Besides, the city’s newspaper, a Gannett brand, offered little more than local news, drug busts, high school sports, weather, and ads. 

The second experience involves a former friend, a Yale-educated and modestly wealthy man now in his early seventies, a man whom I had not seen in twenty-some years, whose politics I knew nothing about, but who had remained on my email lists and so was receiving my commentaries. He began to respond to them.

“I know you mean well,” was his opening line. From the beginning, it was clear that he disagreed with virtually everything that I wrote. Initially, he sent me statements that expressed his own opinions. “We are blessed to live in a rich country and to keep this blessing we must have unfettered personal liberty and strictly limited government,” was the gist, a doctrinaire libertarianism. When it comes to personal liberty and the role of government I take a more nuanced view: too much liberty is not good and not enough government isn’t either; the shades and details of such an arrangement—how much is “too much” and when is “not enough” the best judgment—is the stuff that politics is meant to deal with. 

After a time, however,  he began sending links to articles and websites that had apparently shaped or buttressed his opinion. He often prefaced these emails with “Read this if you have the courage.” At first I was dismissive because I knew that it was unlikely that my politics—politics based on values, not on party loyalty or adherence to any sort of doctrine, and informed by a reading of history—would be likely to change. Finally, however, my former friend’s persistence began to poke at my resistance. 

With the Russian/collusion issue as the situational background, he became more importune. His desire to protect the president, to deny the legal validity of the Mueller investigation, to discredit the FBI had a tone of urgency to it. In one of his messages, he referred to the FBI as “Hillary’s stooges;” this was the same FBI that, because of James Comey’s late-in-the-day reopening of the email issue, may have cost Clinton the election. But his “read this if you have the courage” was a challenge I decided that I should take. If I were to be intellectually honest, I should take a look.

So I have. There are a great multitude of conservative, alt-right, sources of “information” and opinion, but I decided that to explore that entire dark wood was beyond my capability. I would use my former friend’s suggestions, and in the order that he sent them to me, as my map. The result has been a journey through an intellectual wormhole to a place where the laws of critical assessment and rational thought do not appear to be operational.

I thought of Dante’s descent into a funnel of ever-narrowing size, narrowing as the crimes and sins became greater. I have long admired Dante’s, great poem, The Inferno. He examines the human creature, in body, in society, and in spirit with as much wholeness as I think any writer has ever done. There we are, all our flaws displayed for our moral edification. Not only our minor vices and excesses (the sins of lust, gluttony, greed, and anger) but the political sins as well, crimes not of the appetite but of the mind. Dante considered these the more serious, the mortal sins; he was at his core a citizen. I had no Virgil, but I had Dante. I reread key passages from Inferno. And I followed his example. Examine, then climb out into the air and sunlight. 

My former friend urged that I read the work of “a thinker” named Dinesh D’Souza. Mr. D’Souza has a website through which he promotes his views and books, and on which he touts himself as a person who “mops the floor with weak Republicans.” Mr. D’Souza’s hobby horse appears to be the conviction that Democrats are Fascists. His book, The Big Lie, Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left, apparently proves this, to his satisfaction at least.

Mr. D’Souza apparently has an idée fixe about Democrats being like the Nazis and since I am more inclined to identify with Democrats or progressives than I am with Republicans or Nazis, I knew I would not get much from his book. I admit that I didn’t read it. I did, however, rummage around on his website, giving it what I thought was a fair chance. Mr. D’Souza displayed a bizarre self-inflation that was fueled, I suspect, by disappointment that only people as delusional as himself took him seriously. I left him to his imaginings and continued further down into a fosse of dark thoughts, a place, as I was discovering, that was crawling with hates, misinformation, and beliefs in conspiracies.

The next plateau, a step-down, was a “conservative website” called The Daily Caller, where I could read, again “if I dared,” an article headlined “The Obama administration’s Brazen Plot to Exonerate Hillary Clinton is starting to leak out.” This was a plot “to frame an incoming president with a false Russian conspiracy, according to an exclusive interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation.” The writer of the article was the conservative activist Ginny Thomas, wife of a sitting supreme court justice, the sphynx-like Clarence. 

Deflecting attention from and discrediting the Mueller investigation and the FBI was the leitmotif of this story and most of the others that my former friend urged me to read. Daily Caller had a recent article called “The shocking history of sexual misconduct in James Comey’s FBI.”  The article was vague and unspecific, even though it alleges sexual intercourse by agents on the portico of the FBI building and in the parking structure. There was a link to a source that reports on child sexual abuse issues. Through that wormhole I went next. That source had still another link, this to an article that contained the following passage:

This post comprises 1 part of a 3 part series from David Wilcock. It does include references to child sexual abuse and pizzagate, but also concentrates on a much wider agenda of what is happening in the battle between the thorough corrupt USA deep state and Luciferian criminal cabal and the “alliance” seeking to take down this negative entity.

David Wilcox, an intense-looking young man with blue eyes, is, according to his website, a self-proclaimed visionary who is  “rewriting entire branches of the sciences and human history.”  After the Las Vegas massacre, he announced that “Something big is coming.” I didn’t feel I could go far with Mr. Wilcox.

I cannot say if The Daily Caller and David Wilcox are in the same “alliance” against the Luciferian cabal, but since I found Mr. Wilcox through The Daily Caller, I thought it possible. Through that loose connection, I had been given a glimpse of how the contamination, the viral spread of nonsense, works. One just clicks through and comes back with all sorts of filth on one’s hands.

The Daily Caller had a subscription advertisement saying that since Sean Hannity, the Fox News Trump propagandist, got his news from The Daily Caller, shouldn’t you? And “Tucker gets his news here. Why don’t you?”

The ad fails to mention that Tucker Carlson is the founder and owner of The Daily Caller, creating, in my mind at least, a suspicion that journalistic impartiality may be lacking. But a journalist who gets his news from himself may be a characteristic of this new alternative-facts universe. 

I went on my way. My former friend insisted that I read a series of articles in The National Review that claimed that the Representative Nunes/Republican memo about the “illegality” of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act)  wiretaps on Carter Page was a partisan smear campaign by a corrupted FBI.  My research confirms that the FBI was onto Mr. Page as a possible Russian agent long before he was connected with Trump as a foreign policy advisor and that all the wiretaps were obtained following proper procedures and disclosures from four different FISA judges, all of whom had been appointed by Republican presidents. A quote from the National Review will display the incendiary tone of the several anti-FBI articles.

Special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators resemble axe-wielding firefighters frantically stomping through a house and not finding so much as a lit birthday candle. Meanwhile, the home next door burns to the basement. Team Mueller’s never-ending hunt for reds in October 2016 has found zero evidence of Russian collusion among Team Trump. In contrast, Russian collusion among Democrats has been as hard to miss as a California wildfire. 

But little candles keep appearing: the security clearances for Trump White House staff are being withdrawn for cause, almost en mass, for conflicts of interest, for failures to disclose relevant information like contacts with Russian bankers, diplomats, and intelligence agents. Even brighter, candles being the metaphor du jour, are the guilty pleas by Mike Flynn, George Papadpoulis, Rick Gates, and the expanding indictment against Paul Manafort. True, this is no proof of collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russians, but these lights do provide a glimmer into the dank thickets of this dark wood. 

My former friend then guided me to The American Spectator and an article that said that Trump must fire Mueller. The imagery of the house on fire seems to have become contagious, but here the emergency is even worse and the sense of going through the wormhole, an upside-down world, was for me even more alarming. 

Where there is smoke, there is fire. Somewhere, right now in Washington, there is a fire raging, just out of sight, but entirely out of control. The fire is the unimaginable. Everything that is publicly known in and about Washington, and trumpeted by the so-called “mainstream” media, is actually the opposite of the truth.

Instead of Trump being guilty of obstruction of justice, and about to be bounced out of office through impeachment, it is actually the FBI, and President Obama’s Justice Department, that are guilty of obstruction of justice, with top figures about to be bounced into prison, or worse.

Instead of Trump being guilty of collusion with the Russians for help in defeating Hillary, it is Hillary Clinton who colluded with the Russians to try to defeat Trump…

It was the Crown Prince and Princess of progressivism, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who concocted and tried to carry out the fascist plot for America’s intelligence agencies to overturn the duly elected President of the United States and remove him from office, through Obama’s illegal espionage against the Trump campaign. This is the first and only attempted fascist takeover of America in U.S. history.

The date of this feverish bit of prose is 25 January 2018. What would the magazine’s editor think after the first of Mueller indictments was unsealed on February 16th? The Mueller indictments reveal a Russian campaign that began as a generalized effort to sow confusion and doubt about the integrity of US elections but morphed into an effort to harm Clinton and to aid the surprise Republican nominee, candidate Trump, a man who was openly friendly to Russian state interests, an admirer of Vladimir Putin, and who had long expressed interest in doing business in Russia.

In the old fashioned world of facts, the indictments of the 13 Russians, with the granular details of dirty tricks, covert financing, and false identities, would surely put an end to the Trump claim that the whole Russia business is a hoax. Does The American Spectator recant or reposition itself? I would hazard a guess that editors who have committed themselves to a statement like the “only attempted fascist takeover of America” would have a hard time rethinking it. The meme seems pretty deeply implanted. A confession of delusionary thinking is hard to do. 

Rummaging around in The Daily Caller website, in the David Wilcox link, I found a passage that describes for me the position of all these alternative “news” outlets, these pipes that flow into the commons of America society and dump such toxic nonsense.

In the information war that goes on, with the corrupt and lying mainstream media intent on obfuscation it is difficult to tell truth from lies, use your own discernment about what resonates with you.

If it resonates with you has become a reliable measure of accuracy, of factuality. of truth! My goodness! The idea that the earth was at the center of the universe resonated with vast majorities for millennia.  It turns out that it wasn’t factual. There is a difference between what resonates and what is true.  

I thought about how about how I form opinions, settle on facts, and understand what is true. Part of the process has to do with authority, consensus, and credibility. I don’t, for instance, need to reexamine the evidence or redo the experiments that prove that the earth revolves around the sun. I accept it on the reputations of credible sources.

On matters not quite so clear, with no history behind them, I trust the reputation of the source. I have fifty years of experience with the newspapers of record and of reputation of the major western democracies, the New York Times and Washington Post, the Guardian and Financial Times of LondonLe Monde of France. I read them all.

They do at times make mistakes, and usually take responsibility for the errors,  but when I assess the reliability, character, and reputation for truth-telling of the party (and parties) who is denigrating these sources as “fake news,” I come down firmly, without hesitation, on the side of the media. I read analysis, not tweets. In the present case of the Mueller indictments, the issue that has so exercised my former friend, I decided that I would go to the source document itself, the indictment. I wanted to understand precisely what crimes have been alleged. In doing so I started with one prejudgment: knowing the reputation of Mr. Mueller I was sure that his charges against the 13 Russians would have been carefully documented and that they would stand up to preemptory legal challenges. 

The charge is surprisingly simple. The opening paragraph states the proposition.

The United States of America, through its departments and agencies, regulates the activities of foreign individuals and entities in and affecting the United States in order to prevent, disclose, and counteract improper foreign influence on U.S. elections and on the U.S. political system. US law bans foreign nationals from making certain expenditures or financial disbursements for the purpose of influencing federal elections. U.S. law also bars agents of any foreign entity from engaging in political activities within the United States without first registering with the Attorney General. 

That is the statement of what U.S. laws were involved. The purpose of these laws, also stated clearly, is to provide 

the American public with accurate data about the … activities of individuals and entities supporting federal candidates,…,so that … the people of the United States are informed of the source of information and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and law. 

The defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.

The conspiracy had as its object impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States by dishonest means in order to enable the Defendants to interfere with U.S. political and electoral processes, including the 2016 US. presidential election. 

To restate. The Russians conspired to interfere with an essential function of the American democracy, namely elections, and with the government of the United States whose responsibility it is to protect the integrity of those elections. They violated numerous U.S. laws in the pursuit of these aims and did so by fraud, by concealing their identity, giving false information as to their purposes in visiting the United States, hiding the sources of their funds, violating U.S. laws about foreign money in U.S. elections, and failing to comply with laws requiring that they register as foreign agents. They conspired to interfere with a lawful function of the U.S. government with the intent of harming the United States. And to the extent that any U.S. persons aided, participated, advised, made suggestions, or assented to these plans, they too are guilty, not of the specific crimes, but of conspiracy against the United States. This is something more serious than collusion.

And so, by way of the legalistic language of a criminal indictment, The United States of America vs 13 named Russians, I return to the words of my guide, the 14th-century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. Dante treated human venial sins relatively lightly; mortal sins are crimes against one’s fellow man, against one’s friends or family, against one’s country (one’s city in Dante’s time), or against God.

Indeed, as one descends into hell, it is in this circle, number eight out of the nine, that one encounters crimes of the liar, the seducer of public opinion…

Simoniacs, sycophants, and hypocrites,
Falsifiers, thieves, and sorcerers,
flatterers, demagogues,* and all such filth.

Dante’s medieval categories translate easily into modern terms. The Simoniac would be one who corrupts an office of public trust, betraying his or her oaths and responsibilities for money, a description that would fit most of the legislators of the Republican Party and some certainly on the other side of the aisle.  As we listened to the sanctimonious assurances from the Republicans during the attempt to kill health insurance, during the recent tax bill, or in every debate about gun control we were hearing a choir of hypocrites singing in unison. 

A distinguishing characteristic of Dante’s narrative is that he names specific individuals as examples of the sins. Thus among the 8th Circle for modern hypocrites and falsifiers, we would find Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and all their ilk.  Falsifiers would also find equivalence in the peddlers of “news” that is provably false. The sorcerers are those who twist words and images to lead astray the citizens who want to believe what “resonates” with their pre-existing fears and hates. Joseph Goebbels would qualify, and Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Alex Jones would as well. There are no valid moral excuses for spreading lies and intellectual toxins.  Whether we are virtuous or vicious is up to us individually. Responsibility is the price of individual liberty. We can be good or bad. Americans are living today in a world directed by some very bad people. 

In an earlier post, I made the mistake of trying to link my values and opinions with legal concepts, hence my discussion of treason. I realize now that this was wrong-headed. Treason, like subversion, is narrowly defined in law, and appropriately so, for the accusation of treason is a favored tool of tyrants. Recall Trump suggesting that those who did not clap for him at the State of the Union address were guilty of treason. That incident showed me my error (and I received some corrective instruction from a lawyer friend).

No matter how dangerous or despicable I might consider Trump and Trumpism, no matter that I think the modern Republican Party—Trump’s protectors and enablers—is by and large inhabited by bad men, I have to accept that bad and despicable are not legal concepts. So I’ve left the legal issues to Robert Mueller and he has defined them clearly. But discovering, by revisiting Dante,  the moral equivalences has been a great comfort. The underlying theme of Canto XI, the 8th Circle, is betrayal, and the crimes committed by those punished there involve, in each case, a variant of fraud. 

Malice is the sin most hated by God.
And the aim of malice is to injure others
Whether by fraud or violence. But since fraud

Is the vice of which man alone is capable,
God loathes it most…

Man alone is capable of fraud. No natural predator does it. Not the wolf, the alligator, or the snake; man only. And as I watch the Republican-controlled Congress and the Trump White House, I am struck by how easily man comes by it. 

What of my former friend? The man I liked and respected once no longer exists. Same body, a bit older, same face, but not the same person. The same tragic transformation has happened to America itself. The country I once loved has lost its way.

The basic translation of Inferno that I’ve used is the John Ciardi. * Dante’s barrati, which I translate as “demagogue” is more narrowly defined as one who misuses the law and stirs up trouble by that misuse.

Fox News needs no explanation.

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