"We are in serious times, and this is a really serious job. This is not entertainment; this is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States." --President Obama, May 6, 2016
Donald Trump is the greatest threat to America today, or so the conventional wisdom left and right would have you believe. More realistically, the greatest threat to America today is actually believing that Trump is the greatest threat to America today.
To believe that Donald Trump is the greatest threat to America today, one needs to be a little hysterical or dishonest (or both). Actually believing in the mortal Trump threat requires believing that the Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, the security state, and all the other the other agencies of government, as well as all the states and most of the populace will suddenly become helpless to oppose the White House. That is an imaginary helplessness with no basis in reality, as viciously demonstrated by the Republican Congress of the past six years. For better or worse, the Constitution is designed to enable gridlock.
Advanced Trump-phobia is mostly political posturing, as in the president's quote above. The country is drowning in bad faith like this and worse, because the country isn't ready to look itself honestly in the mirror. When your political system produces bad results, it's all too easy, cynical, and dishonest to blame the results. That's just politics. Intellectual integrity is quite a different orientation, one that is in short supply in a country in the near death-grip of decades of national mindlessness. Examples are plentiful.
"We'll pay $6 million, but we don't admit doing anything wrong"
On November 22, 2014, Cleveland police officers drove into a playground and executed a 12-year-old boy less than one second after they arrived. The cop who did the killing had had violence problems when he was with another police department. The prosecutor, who failed to get an indictment from a grand jury, later lost a bid for re-election. The family of the boy, Tamir Rice, sued the city in federal court under the civil rights statute. In April 2016, Cleveland agreed to pay Tamir Rice's estate $6 million, perhaps the largest Cleveland settlement in a police-shooting case. Under the settlement, the Rice family will drop its complaint against officers Frank Garmback and Timothy Loehmann, the shooter, who are both still city employees. While paying $6 million, the city admits no wrongdoing, even though the event was rife with wrongdoing.
Failure to admit wrongdoing despite committing wrongdoing has long been an acceptable corrupt practice in the American legal system. Instead of accountability for killing or maiming people, the perpetrators are allowed to lie legally as one means of limiting their damages in a fair trial. Corporations that create Love Canal or Gulf Coast oil spills are the most common beneficiaries of this class-based double jeopardy against the victims. So common is this blatant injustice that it is rarely challenged politically, or denounced, or more than mentioned. But it is a soul-destroying practice embedded in American culture that enriches the rich and protects the guilty. Voters know this viscerally, so when Trump says the system is rigged, they know he's right, and they know almost no one else is telling them that truth.
"Honoring slavers is our way of showing that slavery was wrong"
On April 28, 2016, Yale University president Peter Salovey tried to explain the Yale Corporation's decision to retain the name of the residential hall Calhoun College, named for South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, Yale 1804. A lawyer, Calhoun owned dozens of slaves and defended slavery as "a positive good." He fought for the expansion of slavery into new territories. He argued that the federal government should defend minority rights, meaning the minority comprising southern slave owners. He defended states' rights in general and in particular the right of the South to secede, either peacefully or by force:
If you who represent the stronger portion [the North], cannot agree to settle them on the broad principle of justice and duty, say so; and let the States we both represent agree to separate and part in peace. If you are unwilling we should part in peace, tell us so; and we shall know what to do, when you reduce the question to submission or resistance.
In other words, Calhoun was a significant historical figure who was also a slave-owning bigot and traitor, lacking only the opportunity to betray his country because he died in 1850. Yale named Calhoun College after him in 1931, largely on the basis of his achievements -- serving as vice president, congressman, and senator (as almost no other Yalies had) -- not on the basis of his character. After months of public dialogue within the Yale community and private consideration within the Yale Corporation, Salovey explained the decision to continue honoring Calhoun this way:
We are a university whose motto is "light and truth." Our core mission is to educate and discover. These ideals guided our decisions. Through teaching and learning about the most troubling aspects of our past, our community will be better prepared to challenge their legacies. More than a decision about a name, we must focus on understanding the past and present, and preparing our students for the future.
This explains nothing, and students were unhappy. What in this somewhat lofty rhetoric makes it an educational necessity to honor a slave-owning secessionist? Nothing. These are experiences that are not illuminated by having students live in a place named for a horrible exemplar of a horrific past. Calhoun and the legacy he represents will not be hidden if the place is called by any other, benign name, Salovey's rationalizing notwithstanding:
Ours is a nation that often refuses to face its own history of slavery and racism. Yale is part of that history. We cannot erase American history but we can confront it, teach it, and learn from it. The decision to retain Calhoun College's name reflects the importance of this vital educational imperative.
The decision to retain Calhoun College's name demonstrates a muddy-mindedness that can't or won't distinguish between changing a name and erasing history. By Yale's form of reasoning, Calhoun may as well fly the Confederate flag. Surely people as smart as those at Yale can figure out how to confront the history of slavery and racism without honoring slavers and racists.
Making the Calhoun decision even more indefensible, Yale has also announced the names of two new colleges it plans to build. One will be Benjamin Franklin College, in honor of the recipient of a Yale honorary degree in 1753. While the choice is ambiguous (and was greeted by laughter from students at a town hall meeting), Franklin's brilliance and contributions to learning are undeniable. And the fact that he was a slave owner has real, potential educational value in tracing how Franklin came to be an abolitionist. Calhoun died unreconstructed and apparently unreflective.
Yale's other new college will be named for Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, a 1965 Yale Law School graduate and 1979 recipient of an honorary Doctor of Divinity. Born into a poor black family in 1910, Pauli Murray grew up to spend most of her 75 years fighting for positive social change that should make Calhoun roll over in his grave. As Salovey put it, without subterfuge this time:
Pauli Murray represents the best of Yale: a pre-eminent intellectual inspired to lead and prepared to serve her community and her country. She was at the intellectual forefront of the battles that defined 20th-century America and continue to be part of our discourse today: civil rights, women's rights, and the role of spirituality in modern society.
Yale, like most of America, is having trouble dealing fairly with minority students and faculty. Yale, like most of America, is still part of the national mindlessness about race and ethnicity. Of that, at least, Calhoun would be proud. Trump, on the other hand, might note that at Yale's going rate, $250 million could create a Trump College at Yale.
"Hey, be grateful, drones kill fewer civilians than carpet bombing!"
For almost pure psychic numbing, let's turn to the White House, where it's needed most (except possibly at the Pentagon). What the Germans did to London and Coventry in World War II constituted war crimes, unlike what our side did to Dresden and Hiroshima. Killing civilians (at least deliberately) violates the law of war, or at least it used to. Having done a lot of saturation bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq, to little military or political avail, the US decided to use the cheaper, more "precise" drone attack tactic, also to little military or political avail. The more meaningful accomplishment of drone warfare has been to turn the president (first Bush, and now Obama, more so) from the chief executive into the chief executioner.