Friday, February 3, 2017

On Resistance and the "Normalizing" of a Trump Administraton

Once upon a time, long ago in an era known as the mid to late 2000's, I blogged incessantly about the idiocies, injustices and wickedness of a Presidential Administration that I, along with many others, thought was the most pernicious administration to ever set foot in the White House.  The irony is not lost on me that at this moment, I would find George W. Bush a welcome relief in comparison to the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Donald Trump is the scourge that launched a thousand think pieces.  Pieces depicting him as everything from the salvation of America from the palsied claws of multicultural confusion and politically correct paralysis, to the shockingly orange second coming of a certain hysterical Austrian Corporal have been penned by wiser, wittier and more eloquent voices than mine, and all of them have come equally to naught.  All the condemnation in the world has not prevented Trump's ascent, nor has all the praise made him into anything remotely resembling the leader of the free world.  The man remains stubbornly as he always has been, a strutting, wannabe thug whose incompetence is exceeded only by his arrogance. 

Unfortunately, as many past Presidencies have illustrated, as much damage can be wrought to the republic by incompetence as can be done by malice, and Mr. Trump and his cronies seem to have more than enough of both qualities to share.  So, faced with a President who praises our enemies, alienates our allies, boasts openly of both his corruption and his moral depravity and whose administration seems to lurch from outrage to greater outrage in an endless quest to destroy all that was once hallowed and cherished about our nation and its institutions, what's a shell-shocked liberal to do?

The answer, shouted from every Twitter feed and Facebook post across blue America seems to be RESIST!  THIS IS NOT NORMAL! DON'T YOU DARE MAKE THIS NORMAL! #NOTMYPRESIDENT, etc., etc.  And while I sympathize with these statements, I have some issues with the whole question of "normalization."

Allow me to be blunt:  Unless you are willing to engage in armed insurrection in the interests of overthrowing the Federal Government, you are normalizing the Trump Administration.  I will admit that there is a continuum of resistance to Trump and his goons and that protesting, letter writing, organizing, boycotting etc. all lie closer to the side of resistance than apathy in the overall scale of things, but all of these things assume that, overall, you are continuing to participate within the institutional limits of American society.  You are treating President Trump as you treated his predecessors and expecting a some form of response from the Trump Administration similar to those provided by previous administrations, (if albeit, somewhat more crass and bombastic and likely to be issued over Twitter at 3am).  This may be resistance, but by working within the legal and normative framework of American society it is also inherently normalizing.  You may say that Trump's Administration is different from any that has ever governed the country, and you may be right in saying so, but ultimately you are treating it no differently than your forebears treated Reagan, Nixon or LBJ.

To truly deny the Trump Administration "normalcy" requires one to go a bit further than marches or memes or hashtags.  We're talking about violent insurrection here, resistance that not only states its moral opposition to the policies and actions of the current government, but actively seeks to halt and reverse them through brute force.  These actions enter the territory once staked out by the Weather Underground, the Irish Republican Army or the Red Brigades.  It involves the suspension of normalcy not only for the government, but for the resisters and the governed as well, as resisters must take on the Manichean viewpoint that "those who are not with us are against us" and that there are no innocent bystanders, only those loyal to the cause, and those who are collaborators with the enemy.  In practice, this would mean that instead of tweeting #Calexit, you actively tried to destroy federal property in California, seize Federal installations and attack personnel working for the Federal Government.  In essence, "resistance" that denies the Trump Administration "normalcy" involves serious crimes and an appetite for atrocity that I would imagine your average American protester (at least when they're in person and not sounding off anonymously on an online message board) doesn't really have.

Lest I be mistaken I am not advocating armed insurrection against the Trump Administration or violent resistance of any sort.  While I feel that President Trump's policies are disastrous and give shelter to those who abuse and viciously threaten the innocent, I do not see the way of the gun ending well in an America where the "deep state" of coercive security institutions remains as strong as it currently is.  Violent resistance in the United States will merely result in the spectacular and futile deaths of those who engage in it, and provide the powers that be with a fig leaf to excuse further abuses of power and armed oppression.

That said, we need to stop looking at this from a position of normal/not-normal.  Like it or not Mr. Trump is President, and his despicable views and vile policies have the force of law in as much as they are not checked by the other branches of the Federal Government.  This is the "new normal" in all its horror being played out before us.  So instead of framing this as a question of normalcy, we should take a page from our opponents on the right and frame these issues as a question of right and wrong.  As the actions of men and women across history such as Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks all remind us, just because a thing is "normal" does not make it right.  President Trump's policies and rhetoric may indeed be normal for America in 2017, but that doesn't make them right, and if we are to truly resist them, we must deny them that status above all.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Thoughts and Prayers: Meditations on the Need for Faith and Works in the Wake of Tragedy

In the wake of last week's mass shooting in Orlando, we were treated to the same sad spectacle we have become all too familiar with in the aftermath of tragedy: the long parade of elected officials, desperate to record some reaction to the latest news cycle offering their "thoughts and prayers" on behalf of the victims and their families.  As is inevitable in our politically polarized republic, these expressions of grief (however sincere they may or may not have been) were swiftly responded to with condemnation and wrath by gun-control advocates, who observed (in language ranging from the merely exasperated to the quasi-blasphemous) that, in the case of many of these officials, "thoughts and prayers" seemed to be all they had to offer.

In a particularly cutting commentary, comedienne Samantha Bee cited the Epistle of James in the New Testament, which states "Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone." (James 2:17)

Is this truly the case?  Are prayers for the welfare of the bereaved and survivors truly exercises in futility, the throwaway gestures of a cynical political class that knows that they're expected to do something in situations like this, and therefore have chosen prayer as a sort of safe "bare minimum" of action that provides a patina of piety, without the risk of actual commitment?  According to Ms. Bee, and an earlier (and, if possible less diplomatic) argument from the New York Daily News this might seem to be the case.

In honesty, I get their frustration.  In the three and a half years since the Sandy Hook massacre, there has been no constructive action toward preventing mass shootings (either through gun control or any other form of legislation) while the awful drumbeat of slaughter has continued unabated and, in the awful case of Orlando, reached new heights of infamy and atrocity.  We the people expect our elected officials to do something, and it would appear that other than offer prayers that seem to go unanswered, that is precisely what they have failed to do.

I am a firm believer in the power and virtues of prayer.  Prayer is a vital communion between us and divinity, a key link between us and our Heavenly Father by which we express gratitude, ask for blessings and seek divine guidance and wisdom.  Some of the most sacred and important experiences in my life have been initiated through prayer and I try not to make any serious, life-changing decision without prayer and meditation beforehand.

That said, I will also admit that, despite my testimony as to the sacred power of prayer, my prayers are not always as sincere, or as reflective as they ought to be.  The Savior taught his disciples to avoid "vain repetitions" in their prayers, giving "lip-service" as it were to God by going through the motions of prayer without engaging in any actual communication with Him.  Such empty recitations fail to bring us closer to divinity, and God, in turn, rarely responds with the sacred and precious gift of revelation to those who approach him thoughtlessly with no intention to act upon what he might reveal to them.

Now, I cannot speak for the sincerity of each and every elected official who expresses their sympathies after a tragedy with an expression of "thoughts and prayers."  Doubtless there are a fair number that do indeed sincerely seek the blessings of solace and comfort upon the bereaved and injured while imploring guidance on how to avoid the repetition of such horrors.  However, the ongoing lack of constructive legislative action, in any form, on this topic, while heedlessly eroding whatever paltry safeguards remain to prevent these tragedies leads me to suspect that a great number of these officials may be drawing near to the Lord with their lips, while their hearts are far from him.  That their prayers, if engaged in at all, are directed no further than the ceilings of their offices, with neither desire, nor intention, of acting upon any guidance that God might potentially give to them.  Such prayers seem to take the format of "If God doesn't want this to happen, he'll personally prevent it from happening, and if not, then there's clearly nothing we can do about it, so we will do nothing."

As one who has read the Scriptures, I cannot agree with this interpretation of divine will.  As a Latter-day Saint, I can actually point to examples that directly contradict this argument.  I think back to the example of Nephi, who entered Jerusalem and allowed himself to be guided by the Spirit when promised that the Lord would deliver Laban "into his hands."  Nephi didn't wait outside the city walls for the Lord to deliver his enemy to him on a silver platter, he was willing to act on the promises he had received.

I also think of Captain Moroni who, despite having witnessed the miraculous deliverance of his armies in battles with the Lamanites nevertheless engaged in fortification of Nephite cities and the preparation of his armies with armor and provisions.  He possessed an unshakable belief that God would deliver his people and grant them victory, but he understood and respected the fact that God still expected them to the things that were within their power to do.

In this sense, I wonder if the Almighty's response to many of these "thoughts and prayers" expressed via social media wouldn't sound something like this:

"Senator so-and-so, you are a United States Senator, you wield great influence in one of the greatest lawmaking bodies on Earth.  You have access to the learning and knowledge of literally millions of experts who can be called up to testify and provide you and your peers with the information you need to help solve this problem.  I am more than happy to guide you and grant you the wisdom you need to defend the lives of your countrymen, but I will not do for you what you are unwilling to do for yourselves."

President Thomas S. Monson gave a talk some years ago in General Conference in which he detailed the lives of fishermen in the South Pacific who had learned to face the risks of their profession by adopting a simple, faithful habit, "...they pray, and then they go." Like them, we don't need to stop praying, indeed I think prayer is as necessary now as it ever has been, but like these fishermen, we need to recognize that after prayer we are required to act, for unless we do so, the slaughter witnessed in Orlando, already all too commonplace in our society, will only get worse.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"20 Minutes of Action"

It has probably been a year and a half since I wrote a blog post, but a recently published letter, penned by the father of a Stanford student convicted of rape to the judge responsible for his son's sentencing, has shaken me out of my comfortable inertia to seek the clarity and catharsis of writing.  So here goes:

In his ill-advised (and that is putting it mildly) plea for leniency for his son (who was caught and apprehended by two bystanders while raping an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster), Mr. Dan Turner argues, among other things, that a prison sentence for his son would be, "… a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life."

While the letter in it's entirety is an impressive example of entitlement, self-delusion, and lack of empathy, that reference to "20 minutes of action" has echoed in my mind for the past several days.  I almost want to ask the father what period of time engaged in atrocity is sufficient to warrant a harsh punishment?  Twenty minutes is more than enough time to make any number of awful, stupid, short-sighted or selfish decisions resulting in the death or serious injury of one's self or others.  Indeed, far more serious atrocities, such as the Sandy Hook Massacre, which took the lives of 26 people (20 of whom were children) took place in less time.

As I reflected on these words, my mind was brought back to a tough conversation I had with my father many years ago.  I don't remember exactly how old I was at the time, but it was probably somewhere between the ages of 10-14.  Like many young men, I was a moody adolescent going through puberty and subject to bouts of temper.  In this case, I must have either broken something, or had risked breaking something in a rage, and my father was dressing me down to relay some harsh truths. 

Now my Dad was renowned for his lectures, which usually lasted at least half an hour, and took place under the withering stare of his icy blue eyes.  I have forgotten almost all of what was said in this particular dressing-down (sorry Dad) but one particular comment remains fixed in my mind after all these years:  After observing that in a few short years I would be old enough to receive my Driver's license, my father asked me, in light of my recent behavior, how he could trust me to put my own life, as well as the lives of everyone else on the road, at risk by entrusting me to drive a half-ton steel vehicle, when I could neither control myself, nor adequately consider the consequences of my actions?

In short, I was not alone in the world and I could not assume that, in fulfilling my own desires or satisfying my own passions, I needed only to consider myself.  Moreover, by failing to consider the consequences of my actions, I could hurt, maim, or indeed kill people who had nothing to do with me, and should not have to pay the price for my recklessness or incompetence.  That my thoughtless acts, made with less than a second's consideration, could have repercussions for myself and others that could last a lifetime. Until I recognized these truths and lived my life in such a way that demonstrated that recognition, I was not a man, and would not receive the privileges normally associated with manhood.

I am now a father to three children that I deeply love, and I am beginning to have those difficult conversations with them in the hopes of preparing them to not only consider the effects their actions will have on others, but to take responsibility for those actions as well.  I am grateful to my father for having taught me these things and I wonder if Mr. Turner ever took the time to have similarly unpleasant conversations with his own son.  The fact that he fails to recognize even now, how his son's "20 minutes of action" could have lifelong consequences for not only his son, but also his victim (who eloquently described the traumatic effects that being raped hashad on her life) suggests to me that he has not.  More's the pity.