A Pillar of the Earth

I’m startled at how hard I’m taking the fire at Notre Dame. Maybe it’s because I have French family and friends. Maybe it’s because, as a high school French teacher, my mother took busloads of adolescent Americans to Notre Dame to witness the light and the weight of their first Gothic cathedral. Maybe it’s because this building, with its history, and its relics, and its literature, and its weddings, and its 0 km marker, is one of the hearts of Paris. Maybe it’s because I’m watching a loved one die in real time, during the equally-real melancholy of Holy Week. Whatever it is, I don’t think I’d weep as much for the demise of Mt. Rushmore, or the Space Needle, or even the St. Louis arch. 

Maybe all of this is so horrible because it can also symbolize an age of endings. I’m not Catholic, and I do not believe that the true relics of Christ have become imperiled by flame. But the symbolism of this burning church, plus the symbolism in the recent burning of American southern churches, resonate with what I perceive as threats to Christianity as a whole. The world’s nationalism, extremism, hypocrisy, and hate—it’s all so shameless, and righteous, and commonplace that I can’t even watch the news anymore. That said, I realize that Notre Dame is over 800 years old. It’s seen, encouraged, and discouraged the rise of extremism, over and over again. It even housed the post-mortum retrial of Joan of Arc in 1455. But through all that, the cathedral has persisted as a witness, or a record, or even a relic in itself. As a “pillar of the earth,” it was a library of history. And in its destruction, we have lost an emblem of devotion, inspiration, error, ambition, hope, celebration and condemnation. In this article, I’ve stacked all these words to itemize what’s perished, because I’m not sure what all is gone–except that it feels both cultural and significant. We’ve lost a symbol of Christianity’s shameful and beautiful attempts to talk with God. And speaking so symbolically, I’m not quite sure what is rising to take its place. Is it the fearful tackitude of the megachurch? Trumpism and its anti-Christianity? The alternate history that springs from the alternate facts of the alternate right?

Notre Dame is a building—I know that, just as I know that its relics of Christ have more cultural worth than true, divine power. But on holy week, of this year, in this age, it all went up in flames. And this likely wasn’t a terrorist job—it wasn’t the much-touted malice of our enemies. The parable, if I may, is in how the destruction arrived simply through our own negligence.

Veteran, 95, Disavows Trump

The following letter to the editor appeared in the Altoona, Pennsylvania, Daily Mirror:

Living through the 1920s and 1930s, we were occupied with hard times and not really aware of foreign affairs.

In Europe, dictators in Germany and Italy were taking control–Hitler with his stiff-armed salute and Mussolini with his protruding jaw salute.

Freedom of speech and government of the people was vaporized.

We took care of them in World War II at a heavy cost. A total of 84 young men in our outfit alone sacrificed their lives.

I speak for them.

Today, we are watching one man–our president–present similar character attempting to blowhard his personal desires and disrupting our elected officials from taking care of the needs of this great nation of liberty for which so many sacrifices have been made.

Physical walls create a cage, not the gateway to freedom of our ancestors.

My lifelong term as a Republican is over. I can’t believe any right-minded politician can abort the principles of this nation by supporting this swaggering tyrant.

I’m no Julia Roberts, but I do get the feeling we’re sleeping with the enemy.

A 95-year-old vet still willing to fight for our heritage.

Lee E. Wertz Jr. [Tyrone, PA]

Of Lebensraum and Lapdogs

That idiot, PewDiePie, had the self-awareness to say that the New Zealand shooter’s call out to him made him sick to his stomach. That idiot, our president, has made no such rebuttal to the shooter’s mention of him. A generous soul might think that Trump covered all this when he tweeted, “God bless all people.” But I have no more generosity for Mr. Trump. And anyway, considering that the NZ shooter is just one of a series of white supremacists who have acted in Trump’s name, you’d think Trump would take care to say something that would distance himself. But he won’t do that—at least not without equivocation. And the reason is because 1) he thinks some white supremacists are very fine people, 2) he knows that he can carry this thought without alienating his base of lapdogs, and 3) he knows that this thought can actually win him more lapdogs. I suspect that Trump himself is a bigot. (Okay. I’d put money on the fact that Trump is a bigot.) But I think he refrains from distancing himself mostly because he knows that bigots help him. They keep voting for his platform. They keep mentioning his name. They keep giving him their approval. And Trump is a sucker for approval almost as much as he’s a sucker for power. And this…er… suckage makes him so malleable that he won’t even reject praise from murderers. He is actually that weak.

And really, the NZ massacre isn’t the first time we’ve seen Trump play footsie with terrorists. We saw him grovel for Putin, last July. We saw him praise Kim Jong Un, last month. We talk so much about Russian election collusion that we rarely mention the other risks to national security that Trump’s spinelessness engenders. As a bully, he’s a pack animal. He impresses and dominates the less-powerful. And then he shows his belly to those who impress and dominate him. It’s the same mechanism that got authoritarians to vote for him: If you have money, then you must be strong—and we want our leader to be strong. We want our country to be strong. We want to be great again.

The problem—or one of the problems—is that a pecking order follows a transitive effect. If you bow to Trump, then you also bow to those who make him their bitch. If you bow to Trump, then you bow to Kim, and you bow to Putin, and you at least share words of praise with a white supremacist who killed 49 Muslims. As far as you are concerned, maybe this truckling is worth the big dogs’ approval—their praise of your race, or of your so-called Christianity, or of your so-called heroism in the face of those who are different from yourselves. Or, I could be wrong here. Maybe you don’t care about approval at all. Maybe you’re not really a lapdog, but an actual jackal, where you’ll join any pack that tears enough from the scapegoats that it’ll leave some fat for you too. It doesn’t matter, really. Not in the end. You’re still debasing yourself for scraps.

EDIT: Regarding NZ, there’s another post that somebody should write about social media and massacres. Perhaps it will be more original than this one. I just tire of Trump and his platform escaping blame for crimes that literally invoke him.

Customer SATisfaction

I’ve told this story before, but with all the test fraud in the news, I’m going to tell it again: In high school, I posted thoroughly mediocre SAT scores. (For those of you who knew me then, I’ll just say that my math and my verbal were exactly the same.) I’m sure they kept me out of some schools, to say nothing of the scholarships. So a few years later, when I wanted to go to grad school, I actually bought a book to help me study for the GRE. As I prepped, I hauled myself through the algebra and geometry sections. I got myself acquainted with the logic section. I pored over hundreds of vocabulary words that I may, or may not, still remember.

I took the GRE in the late nineties, when the test had just become computerized. On the day of reckoning, my dad drove me to the examination site. While we sat in traffic, I gave the vocab list a final look. When we got to the testing place, I sat alone in a room, wearing one of my favorite author’s shirts, facing a PC that had a fair chance of deciding my fate. I stumbled through the math section. (“Why, Lord? Why TWO variables?”) I got to the logic section, which consisted of little, syllogism thingies and those big matrix puzzles. My GRE guide had told me to skip the puzzles, so I could save them for last, and to do all the syllogisms first. So I tried that with the first matrix. And then the computer gave me another puzzle. I skipped it again, and the computer gave me a third puzzle. It was around this point that I realized that these puzzles were getting easier, and that by passing them up, I was tanking my score. Talk about logic tests! So I practically chewed a hole in my cheek, while I did my best to salvage what I could. Then I held my head in my hands, while I waited for the machine to cue up the verbal section. The verbal section: It was my exact vocab list. It was so exact that I got a little suspicious. But the timer was ticking–so in the end, I just dumped everything out of my rote memory, and dispatched the thing.

I sat back. I watched the score calculate. The returns suggested that I was half-crippled in math, extraordinarily verbal, and completely out of my mind. The score kept me out of some graduate schools, but it got me into the one I wanted. And that’s all there was to it.

The rage today surrounds the news that some people got into elite universities because their test scores were fake. That scandal is nasty—I won’t say otherwise. But let me tell you: To a greater or lesser extent, all test scores are fake. The original SAT emerged from Princeton as a means of keeping immigrants out of the United States. It was a eugenicist’s tool. And while I admit that, these days, board scores report some forms of academic speed, memory, and savvy, I suspect that they mostly report advantage. They ask if you know how to react to a computer that’s testing you; if you have access to the right vocabulary list; if you have somebody who can drive you to a test, so you can give that list one last look; and whether, if you do poorly on the test, you have the time and the money to take it again.

I can respect a standardized test as a single indicator of somebody’s intelligence. But it is fallible enough, and biased enough, that I cannot accept it as anything beyond a number that also reflects circumstance. And if elite schools have been basing admission decisions largely on this number, it’s no wonder that people from a particular circumstance mostly populate those universities. I don’t need Felicity Huffman to show me that. In a way, I’d purchased my results too.

A Quintet of Rants on the Cohen Testimony

As of noon EST: To me, the hearing sounds like divorce proceedings.

But I can’t stop there. 1. If the courts stopped using little dirtbags to catch bigger dirtbags, the criminal justice system would grind to a halt. Cooperating witnesses are useful, even if they aren’t angelic. 2. If we aren’t to believe anything a liar says, we shouldn’t believe anything the president says. After all, he’s been caught lying on tape. 3. A liar’s testimony becomes harder to rebut when he has documents to back that testimony. 4. Cohen is already facing time. I can understand his reducing his sentence with a deal, but at some point he’s achieved all he’s going to get. What would he have to gain by piling lies on top of lies? In fact, if you tell a lie, you do better if you keep it as simple as possible, right? And if you want to tell a truth, you don’t pack it with lies, lest one of the lies gets found out, and destroys the rest of your credibility. 5. The Republicans would rather believe that the media, the intelligence community, and the witnesses giving sworn testimony are all telling lies, rather than question a president who can’t put two pieces of truth together any better than I can match a pair from my errant-sock pile. At some point, dearies, the determination to believe a lie amounts to dishonesty itself.

I repeat: National divorce. Irreconcilable differences is probably the reason that will stick. But infidelity feels closer to the truth.

Red Fox

Whenever I seriously consider Trumpism, I decide that the real trouble is Fox News (and all its propagandic spinoffs and appendages). One way or another, Trump will go away. I mean, he’s in his seventies and he lives off McDonald’s. He will desist. But his henchies will persist as long as they have the likes of Hannity, and Carlson, and Rush to offer them lies that make them feel both virtuous in their hatred and fearful through their ignorance. As long as the right embraces propaganda as their State News Service, as long as people like Trump can cow congresspeople by threatening them with the propagandist’s ire, as long as Fox and friends lie enough about conservative leaders to allow their followers to keep lying to themselves, we will see no defeat of Trumpism. The facts can’t compete with the Fox. And as for reason: Trumpers either reject it as something less godly than blind faith, or they maim it with so many falsehoods that it can point in only the most twisted directions. The Trumpers—the Fox followers—are lost. And I mean that in every sense of the word.

And this leaves us with a much larger problem than someone who won’t survive the next few election cycles. We face something that has come into its own after decades of preparation. Fox has been the most-watched cable news service for the past three years. In 2018, it enjoyed its highest viewership in 22 years. And in that same year, Sean Hannity beat out all other cable-news programs, with an average 3.3 million viewers.

This is what we’re up against. And I think it’s nearly undefeatable. I mean, we can’t outlaw Fox. That flies in the face of the First Amendment. I don’t even think we can pass legislation requiring news services to be truthful. Because even if we did get the votes to do such a thing, we’d just drive Fox underground, where it would play even more to the fantasies of its “Christian” martyrs.

My gut feeling is that Fox will fall only after massive Republican divestment. And most presently, I could see that happening in only two ways. The first is that liberal commentator, Charles Pierce, recently suggested that one reason the Republicans do so much to shelter Trump from the Russia investigation is that it’s very likely that through money laundering via the NRA, a great many Republican politicians actually received Russian money during the 2016 campaigns. If that were true, and if Fox, as a news service, had to break that story to their constituents, the fallout could cause a schism that would be difficult to repair. Fox has occasionally shown streaks of journalistic integrity (say in its opposition to Trump’s ouster of the CNN reporter). If an incontrovertible news story forced their hand, they could betray the GOP just to save their skin.

ON THE OTHER HAND (and this is Way No. 2), my mother made a joke last night about how Trump’s true Russian handler is probably Sean Hannity. We laughed—but then we stopped. I don’t know about Hannity himself. But if I wanted to investigate Russian influence into American politics, the first place I would look would be at how much they have invested in outlets like Fox. I mean, we all know that Trump owes a political debt to Fox. So next we should wonder to whom Fox has a debt of its own. We keep searching social media for Putin’s little, red fingerprints. And I say, go bigger. Have the Russians made inroads with the Murdoch clan? Have they approached Sean Hannity, or Tucker Carlson, or Tomi Lauren, or even Bill O’Reilly? And what about the NRA? If Russia has laundered money through that organization, and if the NRA spends, say, any money advertising on Fox, could we find a trail there? For instance, according to The Hill, the NRA spent more than $54 million on the 2016 election—and this expenditure included political ads. Did any of them show up on Fox News?

I don’t know to what extent Russia has dug its fingers into our little cable-network pies. Maybe—maybe?—they haven’t at all. But the possibility bears investigation. Because one thing is clear: Fox Etc. has worked to destabilize mainline US politics since Roger Ailes established it in 1996. And few people have shown more interest in doing the same thing, except for Vladimir Putin, who first became president of Russia in 2000. If nothing else—if nothing at all—they share both a timeline and at least part of a motive.