On January 6, 1941, at the edge of what would become a terrible global war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress and spoke of a better future "founded upon four essential human freedoms." These were, as he saw it, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. It was -- and remains -- a moving prescription for the planet from an American president.
More than three quarters of a century later, twitching in the Oval Office is a president who seems to believe that freedom of speech and expression (his excepted) is fake news; that the freedom of every person to worship in his or her own fashion shouldn't include Muslims or perhaps people who live in "huts" in "shithole countries" (or was it "shithouse countries"?); that freedom from want only applies to plutocrats (because they, naturally enough, always want more); and above all that the need to fear, to be afraid, truly afraid -- an emotion on which, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon points out today, the national security state in its present outlandish form has been built -- couldn't be more useful. It's what, as recent national security budgets have shown, funds and builds so much, walls included.
So in a White House in which the fear not of god but of Trump is to be instilled in everyone, don't expect this president to lay out four essential anythings, no less freedoms, other than his freedom to say whatever happens to cross his mind, however bizarre it may be. If a genuine program for a better future is to be laid out by anyone, it certainly won't be by our tweeter-in-chief. In other words, it's up to the rest of us to do it, which means, as Rebecca Gordon suggests, that we need to muster our better selves in resistance to our present American world without the expectation of a helping hand from Washington. Tom
Becoming Stable Geniuses
Seeking New (and Very Old) Habits for a New Year
By Rebecca Gordon
A little over a year ago at TomDispatch I wrote about the bloody nightmares rupturing my sleep and the night terrors gripping my little household in the wake of Donald Trump's election. That piece was reposted by a wide range of publications. And then, in what at first seemed like a terrible mistake, I read the comments.
Some of them weren't very nice. Some of the names the guys (and they were all guys) called me were downright mean. Shocking, I know. But a common thread ran through those responses, one I've been musing about ever since. It was this, as one fellow put it: "There's nothing to be afraid of. Stop being such a coward." They were wrong, of course. There's plenty to be afraid of in the Trump era from climate disaster to nuclear war to disappearing medical care. But they were half-right, too. Those of us seeking to resist Trump can't afford cowardice. We need to practice courage.- Advertisement -
Remembering that exchange with those trolls has gotten me thinking about some of the personal qualities we'll need to sustain the movements resisting Trump and the Republican agenda forward. The ancient Greek philosophers called such qualities "virtues," by which they meant stable habits of character -- a dependable tendency to act a certain way in certain situations. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed we can only develop such habits through practice. We become courageous, he wrote, by acting courageously. In effect, we fake it till we make it.
There are many lists of such virtues. Aristotle himself described a number of them, some of which didn't even have names -- like the ability to be entertainingly witty at a dinner party. But most of the classical and medieval European philosophers settled on four key or "cardinal" virtues: justice, courage, temperance (which, today, we would call moderation), and wisdom. It's as good a list as any to cultivate for those intent on resisting the transformation of our world into a Trumpian hell on Earth.
Ancient philosophers spent a lot of time defining justice. For the Greek philosopher Plato, a just person was someone in whom each part of the personality played the role it was best suited for. For Aristotle and many who came after him, justice consisted of giving to people what they were due or owed, what they deserved.
We've certainly seen the Trump administration fail to give people their due.
For example, in April 2017 Attorney General Jeff Sessions acted to stop the implementation of consent decrees worked out between the Obama-era Justice Department and a number of local police forces around the country. Those agreements to reform law enforcement practices came in the wake of a new media interest in an old problem: the deaths of striking numbers of unarmed people of color annually at the hands of police departments from Staten Island to Baltimore to San Francisco, not to mention Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was infamously shot to death by a city police officer.- Advertisement -
After Brown's death, the Justice Department investigated the practices of the Ferguson police and discovered that, far from giving that city's citizens their due, the police department and its municipal court were preying on them for financial gain. "Ferguson's law enforcement practices," the Department's Civil Rights Division found, "are shaped by the city's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs." In other words, the main activity of the police and court turned out to be wringing as much money as possible out of the African American population.
As a result of Justice Department action, in 2016 Ferguson agreed to a consent decree outlining the concrete steps it would take to correct an unjust system. Similar agreements were put in place in other cities with histories of discriminatory, indeed murderous, treatment of communities of color. Now, Trump's attorney general has halted enforcement of these consent decrees, effectively ending an attempt to bring justice to communities suffering at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them.
Donald Trump himself has demonstrated little respect for the institutions responsible for justice in this country. In January 2018, for example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a Trump move to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (the DACA program, which allows undocumented immigrants who came here as children to remain in the United States). Trump's reaction? An attack not only on this particular decision, but a tweet pronouncing the entire court system "broken and unfair" (followed by his now infamous assault on the "shithole" countries from which such immigrants come and a call to replace them with "Norwegian" immigrants).