Archive for February, 2018

THEY

On HBO’s Homeland, they attempted to assassinate the president of the United States. Another they—the president herself—curbed Constitutional rights. In real life, survivors of the mass shooting at Parkland, Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School demand greater gun control. In response, some Americans believe they have created a conspiracy against gun owners.

Pioneer America accepted citizens’ possession of rifles and pistols. The closing of the frontier and growing urbanization necessitated curbs on weapons for public safety. Over recent decades, the gun lobby pushed back, exhibiting religious reverence for the Second Amendment: A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a  free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Questions abound. Must the right to bear arms be unmindful of technology? Muskets and muzzle-loading, single-shot rifles are relics. Who, boar hunters included, needs an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon—adaptable to automatic—designed for combat? Can any ad hoc group call itself a “well-regulated militia?” What is the National Guard? And are our armed forces our defenders or oppressors?

A large majority of Americans favor stricter gun control rather than abolition. Hunters and people in self-defense mode would not be affected. But a minority holds sacrosanct the position of the National Rifle Association, a political donor with major clout. The NRA, as does President Trump, points to mental illness as the cause of mass shootings. Their solution? Arm teachers.  

Per capita, the U.S. suffers no more mental-health problems than the rest of the world, which experiences far fewer per capita mass shootings. Further, as Dr. Amy Barnhorst of the University of California, Davis, wrote in Tuesday’s New York Times, “The mental health system doesn’t identify most of these people because they don’t come in to get care. And even if they do, laws designed to preserve the civil liberties of people with mental illness place limits on what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will.”

It’s our stock of weapons—about one for each of us—that’s sets America apart.

Still, the slippery slope theory underlies opposition to common-sense gun measures: They want to ban assault-style weapons first—then confiscate all guns. The NRA and its adherents support that position with a second theory.

They plot against the people. On Wednesday, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre excoriated Democrats and liberals: “Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our fire arms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.”

Stoneman Douglas survivors disagree. These young people, at the muzzle-end of real horror, have been eloquent in calling for banning assault-style weapons and determined in confronting politicians. So?

A Florida legislative assistant claimed that two students are actors; he was dismissed. A YouTube video singles out one student as an actor; it may still be online. Rush Limbaugh claimed that the students are being used by the Democrats; he’s still on the air. And Internet broadcaster Alex Jones—on whom Homeland based a major character—preaches that the dead children of Sandy Hook, Connecticut (2012 shooting) and their parents were actors.

Top that? Last Tuesday, as Stoneman Douglas students bused to Tallahassee, the Florida House voted 71–36 against discussing banning assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines.

Now I’m wondering, exactly who are they?

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TEOTIHUACAN

An “us vs. them” world tends to produce belief in cultural superiority. But human beings share more in common than perceived—and, admittedly, sometimes real—differences that may separate us. Exhibit A: Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacan is a sprawling pre-Columbian archaeological site northeast of Mexico City. Famed for its huge pyramids, Teotihuacan once contained 125,000 residents. Carolyn and I went there over 40 years ago. So naturally, we attended the recent exhibit of Teotihuacan artifacts at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

One piece particularly fascinated me: an incense burner dated 350–550 CE. No photo—at least taken by me—can do it justice. Fifteen to 18 inches high, it depicts a king or priest with a huge headdress. Its multi-planar construction could suggest a 21st-century artist. I didn’t over-think the piece. I just stared in awe.

Some Americans might think this piece primitive since it’s highly stylized rather than realistic. But such art, found worldwide, speaks to me far more than European art of the medieval and Renaissance periods, at first stylized then trending towards realism.

The Teotihuacan piece led me to wonder: How do Americans who don’t visit museums view art from outside the U.S. and Europe? Do they consider valid only European art of the 12th through 19th centuries? Do they think that legitimate art comes only from white Christian civilization, and its Greek and Roman antecedents?

No knock on European art, but my preferences run to Native-American, Latin-American, African, Middle-Eastern and Asian art—along with anything from antiquity. Also, the European Impressionists and many modernists. Why?

Stylized or representative art involves me precisely because it isn’t photo-realistic. Here I turn to Plato, who wrote of numina and phenomena. Simply put, all physical objects in the world represent—but cannot duplicate—their conceptual ideals, known as numina. For example, all physical chairs—phenomena—cannot replicate the ideal no matter how beautiful or utilitarian.

Likewise, no painting or sculpture of a horse can depict the ideal horse. By definition, any physical image is too specific and thus limited in scope. But artists still grapple with numina. Picasso drew a horse utilizing a single line—what appears to be a simple outline. The viewer’s imagination fills in the details and comes to some understanding of the concept of horse. That’s what makes representative art so engaging.

Regardless of style, representative art—like realistic art—expresses the universal human desire to understand the world in which we live and in doing so, ourselves. With clay, wood, metal and plastic; on board or canvas or rock; in leather and fabric; on slabs of stone or cave walls, artists from all places and times have sought to come to grips and move us with a greater reality.

The need for art is so basic, all cultures pursue it. Placing geographical constraints on art’s value dehumanizes artists—and ourselves. Moreover, variance in form and style does not make one culture’s art superior to others. There’s art well-done and art not particularly accomplished. Art presents is with a win-win proposition.

We can learn much from the art of other cultures, past and present. Their history and religions can inform us, too. As the old saying goes, we’re all different just the same.

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IL DUCE LIVES

In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York, wrote in a letter what became his presidential philosophy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” If only Donald Trump had the judgment to heed TR.

Trump wants to hold a grand military parade in Washington. The U.S. last held one in 1991 after a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. I suggest that the parade under the auspices of President George H.W. Bush sought not only to honor our troops victorious in a 100-hour war but also make amends for the terrible treatment of American military personnel during and after the Vietnam War.

Why a parade now? Trump was impressed with the Bastille Day parade he attended in Paris last summer. But France long has been a secondary military power. In 1914, Germany overran much of France. In May 1940, Germany outflanked the heralded Maginot Line. France fell in six weeks. In 1954, the Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. France bid adieu to its Indo-Chinese colonies. French forces have fought well in Afghanistan, Iraq and its former African colonies. But French military parades honor ancient glories.

What other countries hold military parades? Dictatorships and autocracies. Vladimir Putin loves seeing soldiers, tanks and rockets roll through Moscow’s Red Square. Kim Jong Un shows off the same in Pyongyang. China also gets in on the act. And Iran, under supreme leader Ali Khamenei, showcases rockets and missiles to menace America and Israel.

All draw on precedent. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler loved military parades and being worshiped at enormous theatrical rallies. So, too, Josef Stalin. Dictators believe in speaking loudly and brandishing their big sticks. This enables them, they believe, to both cow other nations and intimidate internal opposition.

All of which paints Donald Trump as something of a junior Mussolini. Like Il Duce, Trump struts, glowers and preens. Hurls insults with abandon. And equates dissent with treason. Duce Jr. demands personal loyalty at home while disdaining America’s allies and eschewing diplomacy. This provokes hostile nations and troubles our friends, all of whom understand that America’s stick is very big indeed.

Still, even the biggest (read nuclear) stick can be challenged. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq taught us how critical it is to know when to hold back. And that small nations and non-state actors can vex us with asymmetric warfare and terrorism.

But Duce Jr.’s bloated ego demands showing off his big stick—a sign not only of U.S. military might but of his own manliness. When the troops pass the reviewing stand, Trump will applaud not them but himself. He will believe that the troops are saluting him personally. And he will, again, be wrong. They will salute his office. That’s how the Constitution rolls.

A lover of our military, Trump never served (military school doesn’t count) unlike Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom he publicly disparaged as a prisoner of war. During Vietnam, Trump received five deferments—four for college and one medical deferment after graduation.

Last Saturday, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) referred to Trump as “Cadet Bone Spurs.” She earned the right, having lost both legs flying combat helicopter missions in Iraq. I might rephrase that, “Cadet Bone Spurious.” This all would be funny if it wasn’t so frightening.

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THE REAL STATE OF THE UNION

Delivering his first State of the Union address, Donald Trump stuck to his script. Although often wandering from the truth, he saluted an improved economy and painted a rosy picture of his presidency and the future. Beware! The real state of the union is far gloomier.

Trump’s speech featured heavy doses of self-congratulation. It also engaged in shameless pandering with guests sobbing on camera as Trump told stories of violent crimes committed against their families. Still, seventy-five percent of people who heard the address approved. But Trump did no more than present a Potemkin Village.

A more accurate portrait of this presidency emerges from the ongoing lies, attacks on American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and inability to deal straightforwardly with Congressional leaders—of both parties.

In terms of breaking news, Trump continues trying to thwart the Mueller commission’s investigation into his connections to Russia. This morning, Devin Nunes (R-Cal.), chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, released a memo written by his staff casting a negative light on the FBI. Bureau director Christopher Wray—chosen by Trump to replace the fired James Comey—had condemned releasing the memo, as did leading members of Congress, intelligence experts and journalists. They believe the memo to be out of context and distorted. They fear it will reveal Bureau sources and methods, putting American intelligence operatives at risk. Trump permitted its release.

Back to the State of the Union and something you may have missed. Trump concluded by calling for Americans to maintain “trust in our God.” Our God? Do all Americans believe in the same God? If they believe in God at all?

Given Trump’s support by ecumenical Christians, I assume he referred to Jesus. I’m a Jew. Jesus isn’t my God—or the God of American Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others. “Our God” is not the God of Israel, Saudi Arabia, India and Japan. Vladimir Putin promotes Russia, despite its large Muslim population, as a Christian (Orthodox) nation, but referencing “our God” can only heighten tensions with China, Iran and North Korea. Will our God battle their Gods?

The comment served to send a clear message to the Trump base: that America remains a white, Christian nation. That, re Charlottesville, Virginia, “good people” can march alongside white supremacists and neo-Nazis. That immigrants from Haiti and Africa really do come from “shithole” countries.

For Trump, the State of the Union was all about money—with no acknowledgment of Barack Obama’s role in moving the economy forward. Economic growth is good. Mammon is not.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Jethro), presents the Ten Commandments. The commentary Etz Chayim examines the (Jewish) First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought out of the land of Egypt.” Egypt, a nation of great wealth, was the house of culture, science and mathematics. All good. But for Israel, it was the house of bondage. The scholar Benno Jacob (1862–1945) comments, “If freedom and culture cannot coexist, we should bid farewell to culture for the sake of freedom.” Money cannot be “our God”.

Trump continues to widen American divisions. No matter how strong the economy, bigotry and hatred—espoused and supported by the president of the United States—can only turn America into Pharaoh’s Egypt. And we know how that story turned out.

As I publish, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average has plummeted over 800 points since last Friday. Will Mr. Trump, as the force behind the American economy, accept responsibility for this?

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