The Autumning Empire

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Donald Trump: America’s Master Baiter and Switcher in Chief

Previously on The Autumning Empire

…we argued that asking why Hillary Clinton lost the election was an an all but pointless exercise. Clinton poses no threat to our Autumning Democracy/Republic/Empire, and unless, on December 19th,  the Electoral College pulls off a miracle by actually performing the constitutional safeguard envisioned by our founders, she will not be our next president.

donald-trump

Let’s instead look at the man who will take the oath of office. On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will place his hand on a Bible and swear to uphold a constitution that he’s surely never read. Even some of America’s most reactionary imperialists are frightened of Trump. And while it is sort of fun watching George Will grab for the smelling salts, those of us who work for social justice have, for at least four years, a whole lot of work to do.

Albert Einstein once said that if he had an hour to figure out a problem, he’d spend fifty-five minutes trying to understand it, then use the remaining five to solve it. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t alive in Europe during the 1930s, which means that I’ve never faced a problem like Donald Trump. So let’s take less than fifty-five minutes to figure out why and how this man won in 2016, and see what it teaches us about moving forward.

Trump Understands Media

Let’s put aside our liberal handwringing about “the mainstream media” and remark upon one aspect of The Apprentice star’s evil genius. It began long, long ago, years before Donald Trump even ran for president. Legend tells of a mighty Trump Tower where, in the dark and sinister hours of the night, long after Melania had gone to bed, a young(er) Donald Trump would secretly sign onto his Twitter account. Alone and free from inhibition, he horcruxed himself into America’s master baiter and switcher, seducing his dark followers with promises he’d never, ever keep. Pleasuring himself with the forbidden fantasies of fake birth certificates, Mexican rapists, Muslim infiltrators, and a media that just wouldn’t give a guy fair shake, Donald Trump learned how to make a tweet work the message of Sting’s message in a bottle. And soon, a hundred million bottles washed up on the shore. It seemed like Donald wasn’t alone in being alone.

trump-twitter

Trump is the first successful presidential candidate to use Twitter as a primary media platform, but this obviously isn’t the extent of his astonishing media savvy. His infamous domination of cable news, his ability to create a story out of nothing, out of less than nothing, is the anti-Christ’s answer to turning water into wine. As of this writing, The Atlantic Daily Media Tracker clocks Trump at over a million news mentions; Clinton never cracked 650,000. The lesson for liberals and progressives? Don’t play it safe in 2018 or 2020. A candidate isn’t simply a job applicant and policy crafter. He or she is the symbol of and rallying point for America’s unmet needs. And it’s tough to rally around a candidate who can’t successfully manage Twitter or the 24-hour news cycle.

Trump is a Communicator

And make no mistake: he’s really, really good at it. And here’s what hurts: what I hate about Trump’s speaking style is the very thing that makes him so goddamn successful.

Back in January, 2016 Evan Puschak created a linguistic analysis of Donald Trump’s answer to Jimmy Kimmel’s question “Isn’t it un-American and wrong to discriminate against people based on their religion?” Here are the highlights of Puschak’s findings:

  • When it comes to vocabulary and sentence structure, Trump speaks like a fourth-grader. Goddamnit, I knew I was smarter than Trump! But here’s the thing: I know brilliant people, lots of brilliant people, who can’t write worth a damn. Why? Because they don’t know how to take complicated ideas and make them understandable. And Donald Trump can, in part by lying his ass off. But simple word choices – even when used honestly – can be powerful tools for persuasion, which brings us to…
  • Monosyllabic words comprise 78% of Trump’s answer. 17% of the words are two syllables long. Another sign of Trump’s stupidity? Before you rush to judgement, pause a moment and check out this little piece of oratory from a fellow by the name of Winston Churchill:

…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

 “We”. “Shall.” “Fight.” “Beaches.” “Grounds.” “Fields.” “Streets.” “Hills.” “Never.” Here then are the building blocks of Sir Winston’s famous rally against the evils of fascism. The only word here that exceeds two syllables in this passage is “surrender.” I don’t suggest that Trump is a statesman on par with Churchill – or that he’s even a statesman at all. But Trump is a salesman, and salesmen know how to talk. George Orwell would be horrified (and familiar) with the likes of Donald Trump. But 1984’s author would also be forced to concede that our president elect slavishly obeys Orwell’s 2nd rule of writing: “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” *

  • Trump uses simple sentences. “We have a tremendous problem.” “There’s a hatred out there.” (Notice how those statements are a lot truer now than they were one year ago?) Sure, Trump’s improvisational-non-sequiturial-incoherent ramblings produce their share of run-ons. Some are sentences that might charitably be called “complex.” But you don’t have to go too deep into the Trump rhetorical haystack to find simplicity’s sharp and dangerous needle.
  • Trump understands the power of repetition. When answering Kimmel, Trump uses the word “problem” six times in one minute. This may not have the same pleasing effect as Churchill’s anaphorical, “We shall fight,” but it certainly does the job. Trump counters Kimmel’s assertion that targeting Muslims is un-American and wrong by reminding us that there is a problem – one that demands an effective, albeit unsavory, solution.
  • Trump knows how to end a sentence. Quoting directly from Puschak, he does this…

…with strong, punchy words. A lot of times he’ll rearrange the beginning of a sentence awkwardly so he can end strong. For example: here it would probably more natural to say, “You know, you can’t solve a problem until you find out what the root cause is.” But he brings the “is” forward so he can end on “root cause.” (You know, you can’t solve a problem until you find out what’s the root cause.”)

Pretty fancy linguistic strategizing for a guy with a mouth like a fourth-grader.

Now these rhetorical tricks that Trump uses are not the only ones available to aspiring political candidates. But look at a list of American presidential contests since 1980. With the possible exception of 2000 (when Al Gore not only won the popular vote, but had a legitimate claim to an Electoral College victory as well) the winner had better communication skills:

Year                            Winner                                  Loser                        

1980                           Ronald Reagan                      Jimmy Carter

1984                           Ronald Reagan                      Walter Mondale

1988                           George H.W. Bush                Michael Dukakis

1992                           Bill Clinton                             George H.W. Bush

1996                           Bill Clinton                             Bob Dole

2000                           George W. Bush                    Al Gore

2004                           George W. Bush                     John Kerry

2008                           Barack Obama                       John McCain

2012                           Barack Obama                       Mitt Romney

2016                           Donald Trump                       Hillary Clinton

It’s worth noting that there is one area of communication where Hillary Clinton consistently out-performed Trump: the debates. She totally kicked Trump’s ass. And the polls showed that Clinton’s popularity enjoyed some degree of bounce after every single face-off. But there were only three. Had Trump and Clinton been forced to debate every day for the last month of the election, its outcome might have been different.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

For me, the most chilling moment of the 2016 election – other than Donald Trump winning – happened on March 8. That’s the day Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton with an upset in the Michigan primary. FiveThirtyEight had been showing Clinton leading by about 21 points, but she didn’t prevail. I was a Sanders supporter myself, but I found his upset deeply ominous. Why? Because it meant that:

  1. It was possible for the polls to be very, very wrong.
  2. Clinton was in trouble in the Rust Belt.

Eight months later – to the very day – Clinton lost again in Michigan, only this time to Donald Trump. She also lost Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states where she’d been the projected winner, and Ohio, which was no surprise but certainly didn’t help.

trump-rallyWhy? As her husband’s campaign so eloquently put it back in 1992: “It’s The Economy, Stupid.” Hillary Clinton had more experience than Donald Trump, better economic policies than Donald Trump, and was better for working families than Donald Trump. But Trump won. How? With a simple, memorable economic promise to “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s ear was well attuned to the cries of those who’d been left behind by the Obama recovery – cries that were politely ignored by liberals, some of whom spent eight years blaming every decision Obama did or didn’t make on his predecessor, George W. Bush. That’s not to say that Clinton didn’t try. But pitching incrementalism to voters clamoring for change is a little bit like giving a Band-Aid to a man who needs a tourniquet. It’s better than nothing, but…

Tragically, Trump’s populist rhetoric was only that: rhetoric.  His cabinet choices make it abundantly clear that his campaign was mere bait. It’s followed by a cruel switch to an oligarchic plutocracy, a New Gilded Age.

Yet Donald Trump is vulnerable. But he won’t defeat himself. It’s not enough to decry Trump’s soon-to-be-manifest economic outrages. Those of us who hate the fakery must embrace the real thing: an honest, economically empowering, non-xenophobic form of populism. Let’s start with the basics: single payer health care, free college tuition, and a $15 an hour minimum wage. This populism needs to rally behind inspiring, media savvy public leaders who are ready to slay this dragon. Then, and only then, will Donald Trump be fully exposed for what he is:  a cynical, venal robber baron, America’s master baiter and switcher in chief.

donald-trump-bankruptcy-lies-r

David Berkson

December 16, 2016

You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com or @DavidBerkson on Twitter. You can also “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook.

 

* On the other hand, Trump is a serial violator of Orwell’s sixth and final dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

 

 

 

 

Art House 007: How Heineken Poisoned the Well of the West’s Most Beautiful Franchise

This piece was read by the author at Late Night Library’s 2nd Anniversary Party “Read It Like You Mean It” on April 26.

The Autumning Empire

James Bond fans are angry. Very angry. At a time of economic chaos and global uncertainty, we need archetypes that are consistent and reliable. Can you imagine Homer Simpson eating caviar? Hamlet making a fart joke? Carrot Top making a successful joke at all? No, this is not the time to “experiment,” “shake things up,” or “think outside the box.” Yet the creators of Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, have done just that. In a scene that’s created no small measure of hullaballoo and controversy, audiences will now be forced to watch Daniel Craig’s 007 drink not the customary shaken-not-stirred vodka martini. No, instead fans throughout the world will be treated to the spectacle of the world’s greatest secret agent and super spy sipping on…a Heineken.


Why? In the name of god, why would anyone allow this to happen? The answer is simple: money. This is product placement, nothing…

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The Triumph Over Will: Why Educators Need to Get it Right About Who Wrote Shakespeare

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. We celebrate it on April 23. Best present you can give the man is to acknowledge his authorship of his magnificent body of work.

The Autumning Empire

Imagine that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing class. Perhaps it’s not the only course you’re taking, but for you it’s by far the most important. So you throw yourself into your work with passion. Every day you hit the page, and soon, you begin to stretch the limits of your ability and imagination. Characters leap out from nowhere. Your facility with language skyrockets, and your work as an artist matures. Even your classmates and instructor begin to take note of the scope and depth of your writing. And at the end of the year you are rewarded, because the incredible risks taken have paid off with an enduring and meaningful body of work.

But now pretend that after the class is over (perhaps a year or two has passed), you are abruptly called into your professor’s office. There, he accuses you point blank of plagiarizing every single word. “This…

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Today would have been my mom’s 74th birthday. Back in 2011, I wrote this as something of a tribute to her. Since then I’ve finished the first draft of my novel, but the fear of writing persists, as does mom’s awesome influence. Happy Birthday, Dorothy.

The Autumning Empire

Mom

Four years ago my mother died. She’d had a stroke a month earlier. The doctors asked about an autopsy. They were curious, I suppose, about the overall picture and unanswered questions regarding Mom’s health during those final years. Perhaps I should have been grateful. But honestly, I sure would have appreciated little more of that medical curiosity while she was alive. Maybe an autopsy would have been informative, but I declined the offer. The questions I had (and still have) about Mom wouldn’t even have been asked, let alone answered.

A parent’s death reminds us that our days our numbered. It also highlights our own pieces of unfinished business, which plague us in the form of The List. The List is a catalogue of things that we just haven’t gotten around to doing. But that we will do, really, once we have a little more time. The items on The…

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These Are A Few Of My Favorite Blogs

Everyone has his or her hell month; mine is April. I just haven’t had time to write.

Well, I guess that’s not true. Actually, I’ve been writing tons of letters to the elected officials of Portland, Oregon, begging them not to eliminate my son’s afterschool educational program. This is a rough time for parents, but it sucks even worse to be a kid. Portland Public Schools cut $17 million from its budget last year, and we’re looking at $10 million more for this one. Film critic David Denby recently attributed the success of The Hunger Games to the fact that “it makes teens feel both victimized and important.” What he neglects to mention is that teens are important, as are all kids. And unfortunately, as funding for public education tragically demonstrates, that feeling of victimization is not pure fantasy. *

I guess that’s a long way of saying that for April I got nothin’. I actually should be completing my mid-term evaluations right now.

But blogging is so addictive.

I’ve been having incredible fun with these posts since I started last December. I guess that’s no surprise. The shocker is that people  actually read them. Not just in the states: The Autumning Empire is now an international, pan-continental….success? Drop in the bucket? Cultural footnote? Non-entity? All I know is that somebody has read (or clicked on) this blog on every single continent. Call me geeky, but I’m thrilled. I can’t be entirely sure why my work seems to connect with so many people in Sweden, but I’ll take it.

So since this blog has nothing new to offer its international readership in April, I’d like to direct you towards other blogs that do. I came to the blogosphere party rather late, but the whole thing still feel very new and vital, kind of the like the Elizabethan publishing explosion towards the end of the 16th century. There’s a lot out there, and I have papers to grade, so this list is by no means complete. Please! Feel free to comment or reply with your own recommendation (especially if it’s your own blog!). We’d love to check it out.

At the top of the list is Writer’s Wavelength. My dear friend Cindy McGean posts this blog, and it is wonderful. Read her last three posts, and you’ll get everything from a meditation on writer’s block, to a lovely analysis of Fitzgerald’s imagery. I owe Cindy big time for advising me at the beginning of The Autumning Empire, although I have yet to follow her advice by making my posts more brief.

As a huge fan of parody, I can’t get enough of Yelping With Cormac. If you’ve ever wondered how Cormac McCarthy Yelp reviews might read (and honestly, who among us hasn’t?), then wonder no further. I’m particularly fond of the Trader Joe’s review:

A sweltering breeze hissed among the grape vines soldiering in rows up the hillside. The earth and the grass baked and golden and high above the white orb of the sun left the farmer spotlit and shadowless as the riders approached. They came from several directions winding among the vines insouciant and lordly with their rifles and before them like some conquering general rode a man in spotless denim and wearing a ten dollar stetson. He pushed his black thoroughbred forward till the farmer could smell the hay on the animal’s breath. The rider stood the horse there and watched the farmer for a long time. Do you know who I am, said the rider.

I wish I’d written this, but the credit goes to EDW Lynch.

Credit for bringing this blog to my attention goes to Glen Weldon, one of the regulars on the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour

This is incredibly addictive show comes out every Friday, and I highly recommend it. What do you like to talk about? John Cheever? The Muppets? The Oscars? Samuel Barber? The Hunger Games? Regretable Television? The Superbowl? This (roughly) hour long, weekly conversation is hosted by Linda Holmes, author of NPR’s pop culture blog Monkey See. The roundtable regulars are Holmes, Weldon, Trey Graham, and Stephen Thompson, and they are fun, fun, and more fun – your time will be very well spent.

Those of you who read my post Your Own Republican Jesus will not be surprised to know that my politics do not lean towards the right. But I that think educators of any political stripe will benefit from Rethinking Schools. The blog and website are both incredible resources for teachers, and owe much of their success to my former Global Studies teacher Bill Bigelow, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for The Autumning Empire earlier this year.

For my fellow progressives, an FB friend recommended Shakesville, which I’ve checked out and enjoyed. And I continue to be a huge fan of the blogging and reporting found at The Nation. Eric Alterman, Christopher Hayes, John Nichols, and Katha Pollit are just some of the excellent writers you’ll find at this website. Playwright Tony Kushner occasionally makes an appearance. I can thank him for helping me discover Emerson’s Harvard Commencement Address, which is as lovely a piece of writing as I’ll ever hope to find.

Of course, you could help me find a lovelier piece by posting in the comments section. I’d like to hear more from my readers. (Especially the ones in Sweden! Why are there so many of you? How did you even find me?) April is your month. Promote your own work! Promote someone else’s! Enjoy some nice weather! (If you live outside of Portland, that is.) I’m going to grade papers, and celebrate my first blog ever that’s clocked in under one thousand words.

Just for you, Cindy!

David Berkson

4/14/14

*Denby, whose work I usually love, didn’t even bother to connect the dots between his review of The Hunger Games and Bully, which appeared in the same edition of The New Yorker.

Your Own Republican Jesus

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Please make it stop!” So reads an e-mail that I received this week from my friend Sue. She and I regularly attend an Episcopal church in Portland, Oregon, where I used to be the youth minister. Sue is usually calm and relatively soft spoken, so the urgency of her opening line naturally grabbed my attention. The “it” that so desperately needs stopping is described the following headline:

Santorum: Obama Leading Christians to the Guillotine

I don’t think it’s the president that Sue wants to stop. She appears to be much more afraid of the man who wants his job, Rick Santorum. The former Senator from Pennsylvania blames the 9th Circuit Court’s overturning of California’s Proposition 8 on Barak Obama (who does not even support gay marriage). And then, in a leap of faith and logic, which would have amazed even Kierkegaard, Santorum goes on to compare this judicial ruling to…The French Revolution.

Santorum warns us: “When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights then what’s left is the French Revolution…what’s left in France became the guillotine.”

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/02/09/santorum-obama-leading-christians-to-the-guillotine/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=cheatsheet_afternoon&cid=newsletter%3Bemail%3Bcheatsheet_afternoon&utm_term=Cheat%20Sheet

When Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry dropped out of the Republican presidential race, it seemed as if we might receive much needed respite from all of this evangelical hysteria. * But Santorum is like Jason from the Friday the 13thhorror movie franchise: endlessly returning from the dead, leaving nothing but blood and carnage in his terrifying wake.

Unfortunately, Santorum is a mere symptom of a larger trend. A recent analysis from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life tells us that 70% of America’s Protestant evangelicals identify themselves as Republicans. That’s up 5% from 2008. In fact, every religious group polled, including black Protestants and Jews, is trending towards the Republican Party. Small wonder that most of the candidates want more than a little piece of that God action.

http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Trends-in-Party-Identification-of-Religious-Groups.aspx?src=prc-headline

“Front runner” Mitt Romney has been working for years to make good with evangelical “value voters.” The former governor of Massachusetts is not a Christian, but a Mormon, or a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Even though Jesus is right there in the name of Romney’s religion, he apparently just wasn’t cutting it with the evangelical block. That is why, on December 6, 2007, Romney gave his now famous “Faith in America” speech at the George H.W. Bush presidential library, where he said:

“There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”

That this is the only thing Romney revealed about his own personal faith is telling. It is hard to imagine a Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist making any headway in the Republican primaries or caucuses. But Romney believes in the Carpenter from Nazareth, and perhaps that’s helped him (barely) hang on to his frontrunner status. I guess for Mitt Romney, Jesus does save.

And let there be no mistake. Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the only three winners of any 2012 Republican primary or caucus, have loudly and explicitly made their belief in Jesus front and center in their campaigns. This is certainly any candidate’s prerogative. But what exactly does it mean to believe in Jesus? And how does this belief affect public policy and legislation? It’s a thorny question, but it is possible to make some rough generalizations:

A. Many evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians argue for a factual/literal interpretation of The Bible.

B. A factual/literal interpretation of The Bible means that every word printed in it is factually true.

C. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of mankind as one reason for being elected president assumes that Jesus’ words and actions should literally and directly influence the public policy that such a president might propose.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s de-marginalize faith in America, and look at what The Bible actually says. After all, God must have opinions on matters other than gay marriage and the life of the unborn. So let’s examine three examples from the life of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels, and see how our three top Republican contenders for president (and their respective policy positions) stack up:

1.    Jesus Provided Free Healthcare

Jesus was a healer. For most of His three-year ministry, He avoided the more metropolitan areas of Palestine, gravitating instead towards such backwater towns as Capernaum and Galilee – the forgotten areas of the mighty Roman Empire, populated by the poor and destitute. He wasted no time in ministering to the sick. If we are to believe Mark’s Gospel, Jesus spent the first 24 hours of His ministry:

  • Casting out an unclean spirit,
  • Healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever,
  • Healing “many” who come crowding to the home where He was staying (“the whole city was gathered together at the door”),
  • Curing a leper.

That’s a lot of work in one day. And this is just the first chapter, which ends “Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.” (Mark 1:45)*

There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus ever charged or accepted a single denarius for any of these services. (And, as we’ll see in the next section, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he didn’t.) Nor did He say: “I’m sorry, but you have a pre-existing condition. I really, really wish I could help you. I do have a cousin named John who does some interesting work at the Jordan River; why don’t you try him?”

No. Jesus did not leave it to the market place to decide who should receive healthcare. And the frequent casting out of demons shows His concern for the physical, emotional, and mental health of every person he met. How strange that all of our Republican presidential hopefuls vitriolically oppose President Obama’s health care bill – even Romney, who helped create its blueprint while governor of Massachusetts. Finding Mitt’s real position on healthcare is like solving the Rubik’s cube, but here’s the basic thrust:

“My plan is to harness the power of markets to drive positive change in health insurance and health care. And we can do so with state flexibility…no new taxes…and better consumer choice…”

http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-05-11-Romney-on-fixing-health-care_n.htm

I’m no Biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus didn’t “harness the power of the markets” to enable “state flexibility” when restoring sight to the blind. And I’m sorry, but the phrase “consumer choice” is pure, Orwellian bullshit. 49.9 million Americans have no health insurance (up from 49 million in 2009), and it’s not because they enjoy being sick. http://money.cnn.com/2011/09/13/news/economy/census_bureau_health_insurance/index.htm My wife and I were both without health insurance when my son was born; Blue Cross/Blue Shield dropped us two weeks before Nicholas’ birth. That’s because my employer had stopped paying his share of the premiums for me and everyone else in the floundering start up company. Nick’ birth was fraught with complications and extremely traumatic. Our total, out of pocket bill for that medical care was $50,000.** So much for harnessing the power of the markets.

Besides, these hollow promises fly in the face of one of Jesus’ primary achievements: healing incredibly sick people who couldn’t afford to go to a doctor. If Governor Romney and his ilk believe that Jesus really is “the Savior of mankind”, they can jolly well follow His example by going beyond ObamaCare, and providing healthcare to every person who lives in this country (yes, single payer), regardless that person’s ability to pay.

2.    Jesus Was an Enemy of Private Wealth and Profit

Really? Nu-uh. Not Jesus. That’s just crazy. Besides, what’s wrong with making money?

Well, Jesus found plenty wrong with it, and His opposition to private wealth may have cost His life. Returning to Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus on the Monday before He was crucified occupying the temple in Jerusalem in a shocking act of civil disobedience:

So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ”

And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. When evening had come, He went out of the city. (Mark 11: 15-19)

In less than one week, Jesus will not lift a finger to prevent his own execution. Yet here He is, for the first and only time, using force, even physical aggression. I guess He must have been pretty upset.

He had good reason: for centuries, Jerusalem’s temple had been the center of Jewish spiritual life, and considered nothing less than the house of God. But in that house now dwelt an unwelcome guest: the Roman Empire, which had occupied Jerusalem and the surrounding areas since 63 BCE.

This means that the “scribes and chief priests,” so frequently and disdainfully cited in all four Gospels, were little more than imperial puppet figures. This had been true since the reign Herod the Great, arch villain of Luke’s Christmas story, and collaborator with Augustus Caesar. Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan document Herod’s impressive historical stature in their book The Last Week:

“Above all, he rebuilt the temple. (It was) surrounded by spacious courts and elegant colonnades, with sumptuous use of marble and gold. (Herod constructed) and enormous platform, about 1,550 feet by 1,000 feet – almost 40 acres…He built a palace for himself, which was later to become the residence of the Roman governors, including (Pontius) Pilate, when they were in Jerusalem. It was luxurious, with columns of colored marble and glittering fountains, shaded pools, ceilings painted with gold and vermillion, chairs of silver and gold inlaid with jewels, mosaic floors with agate and lapis lazuli. Like the temple, it was huge. His dining room had enough couches for three hundred guests.”

http://www.amazon.com/Last-Week-Gospels-Really-Jerusalem/dp/0060872608/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328913545&sr=8-1

It is this Herodian temple that prompts Jesus to quote Jeremiah, indicting it as a ‘den of thieves’. An operation of this splendor and magnitude demanded heavy taxes upon Judea’s poor and destitute, and all for a puppet regime that owed as much to Rome as South Vietnam’s Diem regime owed to the United States in the 1960s.

Jesus made a lot of enemies during His ministry, but it took the cleansing of the temple to get the serious (and lethal) attention of the Roman authorities. The reason? His civil disobedience cut into the bottom line, and questioned the very core of imperial legitimacy. As empires go, Rome’s was reasonably tolerant of the religious practices of its subjects. But disrupting the normal flow of business and profit, well…that’s just a little bit more than the law would allow. Jesus was executed four days later.

The proposition that Jesus opposed the concept of private wealth is one that won’t sit well with many Americans, liberal or conservative. But Jesus made it painfully clear:

How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18: 24-25)

Ok, but I’m not rich. I’m middle class. (Aren’t all Americans?) Besides, I’m pretty sure that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

Perhaps, but just a few verses earlier, Jesus turns away a potential disciple in an act that would have most not for profit development directors scratching their heads in wonder:

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ “And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. (Luke 18: 18-23)

The message is clear: private virtue is not enough. Every person has a public obligation to equitably share all the material goods that he possesses. Note that Jesus does not say: “Sell some of what you have…” No, Jesus says all. And as conservative evangelicals so often like to remind us, when Jesus says something, we can be pretty well certain that it’s exactly what he means.

Well? Who will be the first Republican candidate to sell all that he has and distribute it to the poor? And then put forward legislation mandating a complete redistribution of public and private wealth? Can you say “Chinese Cultural Revolution?” C’mon, gentlemen! Who’s first in line? Romney? Santorum? Gingrich? Dear God, Newt thinks that Obama is a socialist; what would he say about Jesus? Not his Jesus, but the one documented in the Gospels: protester and the enemy of private wealth and profit. Gingrich is always up for a debate; I’d like to see him go toe to toe with the Savior of mankind. Odds are they wouldn’t even get to the economy, as I suspect that Jesus might want to have a word with Gingrich regarding the holy sanctity of marriage.

3.    Jesus Was an Advocate of Peace and an Enemy of Violence

Even the most cursory glance at the Gospels confirms this. You might even think that the argument stands without proof. Yet here we are, a nation that some describe as “Christian”, spending more money than any other country on its armed forces. The Violence Policy Center estimates that an average of 30,288 people die in America from gun related deaths per year. http://www.vpc.org/press/1201guns.htm Last New Year’s eve, President Obama signed the NDAA, legalizing indefinite military detention, an infamous breeding ground for military abuse and torture. So perhaps we need some reminding:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. ’But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5: 38-46)

And there you have it. The problem isn’t simply Republican. Our empire is nowhere near ready to renounce our love affair with violence. Nor was Constantine’s when he converted to Christianity. And don’t we all think that God is on our side? Pope Julius II certainly did when he personally led troops on horseback against the French in 1506. So did the men who blew up the World Trade Center. And George W. Bush when he used U.S. troops to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Humanity has all but worn out the fig leaf of religion to mask our ancient bloodlust. But that leaf proves to be remarkably resilient. Of all the Republican candidates, Ron Paul is the only one calling for meaningful reductions in defense expenditures, and…well, look where that’s getting him.

 

The last I checked, the First Amendment to our constitution draws a clear and unambiguous line between church and state. I attend my own church on a fairly consistent basis, but I won’t for a moment suggest that anything should be put into law simply because it’s been written down in The Bible.

But our three top Republican candidates would have it otherwise. Fine, then. Have it your way, gentlemen. I challenge all candidates who employ the name of Jesus in defense of their actions to immediately call for nationalized healthcare, abolition of all private property, and an end to all domestic and foreign forms of violence. (Let them work to abolish the Second Amendment while they batter away at the First). To take up even one of these three crosses would demonstrate supreme courage and true Jesus like conviction. Anything less from our Republican presidential hopefuls exposes them for what they are: Herodian arch villains, and imperial vipers in a rancid den of thieves.

David Berkson

2/10/12

 

* Rick Santorum is a Catholic, not an evangelical protestant. He never the less enjoys tremendous support from the Republican Party’s evangelical wing: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-16/santorum-seeks-momentum-after-evangelical-leaders-endorsement.html

** All Biblical citations use the New King James translation.

*** After a great deal of petitioning, we were able to have our debt reduced to $10,000.

The Voice Of A Reluctant General: Why Obama Can (and Should) Win a Second Term

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Rick Santorum. The former Senator from Pennsylvania is a leader and a darling of the Christian right. He is a vocal and committed homophobe who has called gay relationships analogous to “man on dog.” He supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution “to protect the holy sacrament of marriage from those who would legalize same-sex ‘marriage.’” Mere weeks ago he was polling in the single digits. But as of Tuesday night’s Iowa caucus, Rick Santorum is (at least for now) the Republican party’s new “It” boy, trailing Mitt Romney  for the party’s nomination by eight stinking votes.

For the last year, the 2012 race for the Republican nomination has seemed more Reality TV than…well, actually real. But unfortunately, this contest is real: one of these candidates will run against Barak Obama in less than twelve months. With that in mind, it might be useful to step back from Iowa’s Tuesday night freak show, and look with a wider perspective at the upcoming November election.

Even before last night’s contest, I looked back at 2008 with tremendous nostalgia. I especially remember our family gathering around the television to watch Barak Obama’s victory speech on election night. Our then five year old son Nicholas stayed up way past bed time to be a part of this historic moment. No less poignant for me were Obama’s earlier primary wins in states like Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. I was born in 1966. I can only imagine what would have happened had an African American dared to campaign for president (or virtually any elected office) below the Mason Dixon line during America’s civil rights era. Yet here was Obama, 42 years later, winning by inspiring and decisive margins, achieving what a mere generation earlier had seemed a distant, and perhaps impossible, dream.

Candidate Obama was a remarkable figure of clarity and inspiration. What happened to him? His famed rhetorical brilliance seemed to disappear on the very day he was sworn in. The Marc Anthony of Chicago somehow transmogrified into the Brutus of D.C., the persuasive verse of the candidate almost instantly diminishing into the pedantic prose of a mere office holder.

Effective presidents are not always great speechmakers. Neither Truman nor LBJ were known for the rhetorical gifts of their predecessors. But they were plain spoken Democrats who employed blunt powers of speech to fight, hard when necessary, to put through policies which some members of congress and the public were not quite ready to embrace.

But these are different times. And perhaps it’s not really fair to compare Obama to other presidents. And the demands of the office are hard, so incredibly hard. And of course, the romance of the campaign will always seem sweet when followed by the compromise required by the marriage of governance.

But the American economy is still in a shambles. The current 8.6% unemployment rate tells only a fraction of the story. According to the U.S. Census bureau, over 47 million (one in six) Americans are now living below the poverty line, which is $22,400 per year for a family of four. (For more on this, read Francis Fox Piven’s excellent article at http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175463). 1 in 5 of our children are members of those families. And the infamous 1%? They possess 34.6 percent of all the private wealth in America. (Source: http://www.thenation.com/article/164434/war-against-poor).

Argue, as some do, that the president is not solely responsible for fixing a broken economy. (In 1992, Republicans did argue that on behalf of President George H.W. Bush). And to his credit, Barak Obama, who inherited the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, took immediate action at the beginning of his administration with a massive, billion dollar stimulus package. Sure, he could have pushed harder for a larger bill, but he finally got one through, and any massive government shot in the arm would have been unthinkable with a Republican sitting in the oval office.

But in the midst of a bleak economy, Obama is still our president. He may not deserve all of the blame. But he certainly bears much of the responsibility.

As it stands today, Americans are almost evenly divided on Obama’s performance: 45% disapproving vs. 41% approving. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/113980/gallup-daily-obama-job-approval.aspx) This ambivalence stems not so much from the success or failure of one policy or another. It may not even rest entirely upon our faltering economy. (I’d like to think that it’s at least partially caused by Obama’s appalling record on worldwide indefinite detention, which I’ll discuss later). No, I suspect that America’s real issue with our 44th president comes from his puzzling indifference, and even disinclination, to shape and move the public opinion.

It is a skill that was mastered with dazzling success by FDR and Ronald Reagan, the two most influential and transformational presidents of America’s last century. Both instinctively grasped the public’s need to hear and understand a solution before rallying behind it. Each man also understood his own responsibility to articulate those solutions simply, clearly, and frequently. Roosevelt and Reagan both used their astonishing powers of persuasion to reshape the way voters understood the government’s role in American life. Roosevelt reversed course in the1930s; Reagan turned it all the way back around in the 1980s. And each molded, with varying degrees of success, the mechanics of government in accordance with his own particular vision.

Candidate Obama seemed poised to follow in their footsteps. Indeed, with every chief executive since Reagan calling for less government, it seemed as if we were ready for another great president: charismatic, persuasive, and ready to take big risks in a time when they were most needed.

But Obama’s transformational moment was his change from Candidate to President. Starting from his inaugural address, he took on the personae of a caring, but somehow testy and impatient father, rebuking and scolding his children for failing to see the bigger picture:

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Well, no one can argue with that. But compare it with the manner in which Reagan seized his first inaugural moment:

“We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look…Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God. “

Reagan followed that speech by doing everything in his power to rip apart FDR’s New Deal. But The Gipper owed a tremendous debt to Roosevelt (a man whom he’d earlier idolized) when it came to communicating with the public. The phrase, “we have nothing to fear but fear it self,” is now a cliché. But in 1933 a desperate America heard its president say those words for the very first time. That inaugural address was his crucial first step in selling The New Deal. The rhetoric was less folksy and personable than Reagan’s, but no less effective or direct:

“With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems…The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.”

Must a president (or his speech writer) be a master of rhetoric in order to achieve greatness? Maybe not. But it sure doesn’t hurt. Governing, like marriage, requires communication. This is where Roosevelt and Reagan were unstoppable: both brilliantly employed the media to talk directly to the American people and ask for their help. “Hey! You know all that money you have stuffed under your mattress? Gather it up and put it in the bank that the government just insured!” “America, I have this pain in the ass Democratic congress that I have to deal with. Could you please write your representative a letter and tell him you want lower taxes?” What president since Reagan has appeared on television and directly asked the voters to take action? Other than a post 9/11 plea from W to go out and shop more, I can’t think of any. President Obama has an excellent voice. I’d like to hear it more often.

But our current president’s problems aren’t limited to style. Let’s say that during Obama’s first year he had appeared on television and appealed directly to the public. What would he have asked for? “My fellow Americans, I would like you to write to congress and ask for immediate passage of the health care initiative. What’s in the bill? Well, I’m leaving that up to congress. Me? I’m pretty flexible regarding its contents; everyone needs a voice here, and I’m sure that we’ll all find a compromise. So just tell your congressperson to pick himself up, dust himself off, and hurry up to get that bill written so we can get this sucker through.”

Roosevelt’s army knew where to march because the general gave them direction. The many parts of the New Deal adhered to one basic principle: the government’s job is to protect the people, and help them when they are in trouble. Reagan decided to march his troops in the opposite direction: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem.”

Obama was right to pitch his tent in the midst of America’s staggering healthcare crisis. His tragic mistake was not writing the bill himself. The opportunity for a big risk to pay off was huge: he might have demanded the public option, or even (dare I say it?) single payer. Obama had every opportunity to take it to the American people like this: “See this bill? It ensures that the next time you or a member of your family gets sick, you will receive excellent medical treatment no matter what, and you will get it without having to go bankrupt. Now please, ignore the hysteria, pick up the phone, contact congress, and tell them to pass this bill. Now.”

It would have been hard. And it might have been bloody. But by entering the battle in a spirit of compromise, Obama allowed the Republican minority to frame the debate, tragically ceding the populist mantle to the vitriolic Tea Party. A general does not ask for his troops’ permission; he picks a direction and tells them where to march.

=============================================================================================

By focusing on our president’s shortcomings, I have ignored his considerable achievements. (Apologies to George Clooney.) And Obama’s accomplishments are considerable and impressive. He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. When nominating Supreme Court justices, he thankfully passed over Hermann Goering.  But in sizing up the current political climate, it is not enough to defend Obama. We must also perform a frank and sober assessment of those who would replace him: the cast of Tuesday night’s nail biter Republican caucus.

What can we say about this motley crew? It’s striking how many liberals are following the Republican primary unusual attention and delight. Why? Maybe it’s the sheer bizarreness and absolute unbelievability of this morbid and surreal spectacle. Did Rick Perry really just say “oops”? Whoa, is that really Michelle Bachman’s husband? Are we really watching Herman Cain’s campaign commercial, or is that a Daily Show spot? Wait, is “man on dog” Rick Santorum really “surging from behind” (will the media please stop using that phrase?) to just barely come in second? No, seriously. Is this really, really happening?

Yes, America. This is really, really happening. A serious presidential candidate has in fact called Kim Jong Il “Kim Jong the Second.” Mitt Romney did in fact say that “corporations are people”. Newt Gingrich advocates replacing unionized school janitors with teenagers (most of whom can’t be counted on to clean up their own rooms, let alone an entire school). Ron Paul has the audacity to call himself a champion of individual liberty while joining his colleagues in an all out attack on women’s reproductive rights. And Rick Santorum has compared homosexuality to bestiality and child molestation.

America is full of sane, reasonable, rational, thoughtful, and introspective Republicans. Too bad none of them are running for president. The candidates have their differences. But does it really matter who wins the nomination? Come November, you will have a choice between Barak Obama and a candidate almost entirely beholden to his or her party’s right wing. Count on the Republican candidate to work long and hard to finally smash Roe v. Wade to bits. Given the opportunity, Obama’s opponent will tip the Supreme Court even further to the right. And once in the oval office, that Republican will rip apart whatever is left of America’s fragile safety net. It won’t matter if that person is a Mormon, Catholic, or Protestant Evangelical. When the sun goes down, these candidates all pray to the same God: the Almighty Free Market, and their talismanic belief borders on the Medieval.

And it will not matter how many Americans are unemployed. It will not matter how many children live and die in poverty. It will not matter how many small businesses fail. It will not matter how many Americans become sick due to lack of health insurance, or lose their homes because they can not pay their rent or mortgage.

No matter how bad it gets, none of that will mater. Because the answer will always be the same. Cut government. Cut regulations. Cut taxes for the nation’s wealthiest citizens and corporations. Cut, cut, cut until there’s nothing left to cut, and then cut some more. “Fiscal conservatives” call it “starving the beast.” Well, at least they got the starving part right.

And I haven’t even addressed foreign policy. Obama’s would be competitors are giving it short shrift as well. That’s because (with some exceptions), our commander in chief looks and acts the part of a Republican. He didn’t put on a flight jacket or land on an aircraft carrier, but he did locate and direct the assassination of Osama bin Laden (a job that his tough talkin’ predecessor was “truly…not that concerned about.”) He also tragically reneged on his commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And on the day of the Iowa caucus, President Obama, to America’s great shame, signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law (http://www.aclu.org/national-security/president-obama-signs-indefinite-detention-bill-law), legalizing and legitimizing the inhumane practice of indefinite detentions throughout the world. It’s a day that will live in infamy.

But look at the alternatives. Would a Republican president have done any different? Or would he have gone further? That same president would have likely continued the war in Iraq, rather than pull U.S. troops out. Liberals and conservatives, doves and hawks, let’s put aside our differences for a moment and ask: are any of us really prepared to hand over the reigns of foreign policy to the likes of Romney, Paul or Santorum?

No. Barak Obama can, and should, win a second term. He is a smart and disciplined man who takes his job seriously. He is the most qualified candidate. And, perhaps most importantly, he understands that the Almighty Free Market, like anything else, has its limits, and may only be stretched so far.

A second term Obama will cast his eye not towards re-election, but the history books. They’ll be a lot more kind if he acts like a general and chooses a field of battle. (Let me be clear: I mean a figurative, domestic field of battle, not a real, foreign one). The history books will also be kind if he finds Obama way to repeal the NDAA, an action that every progressive must work to persuade the president to perform.

If re-elected, how could Obama’s second term be better than his first? Well, he could start by demanding (with legal action if necessary) that America’s mega corporations like General Electric do their fair share and pay their taxes. All of them. Those proceeds could start funding a major, exciting new economic initiative like an Education Stimulus Package. I would love to see the Republicans in congress gripe about raising the pay of teachers, administrators, and custodians (sorry, Newt!), and hiring new ones to reduce the obscene and unmanageable size of our public classrooms. While congress bickers, Obama could make a tour of our red and blue states to meet with America’s overworked, underpaid educators. Imagine those teachers (employed and out of work) standing beside our president while telling their inspirational and heartbreaking stories. Obama was himself an educator from 1992 to 2004. I wonder if a project like this might help our reluctant general once again find his inspiring voice, use it to summon his army, and lead our march to the very halls of congress.

Does the whole thing sound impossible? Sure it does. But the miracle of 2008 was in Candidate Obama’s call on our audacity to hope. Given a direction, we marched to victory. Hope we did, and hope we may again.

But first, Obama has to win. Time for all of us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and follow our general (or push him, if necessary) to begin again the work of a disciplined attack upon our nation’s common problems.

David Berkson

1/3/12

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