“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” — Edward R. Murrow
As we wrap up Donald Trump’s first full week as President of the United States, I like nearly everyone else am just stunned. Stunned at the pace of the executive orders and memoranda (which carry a bit less legal weight) that the White House has been issuing (and these are rumored to have been mainly authored by the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon – I’ll get to him shortly), stunned by the apparent lack of planning or review that went into most of them, stunned by a thin-skinned seventy year old child obsessed with ratings and reviews as if the presidency were another “reality” show, stunned by the free market capitalists & Ayn Rand aficionados in Congress apparently unconcerned with the President of the United States directly meddling in the affairs of corporations – and therefore directly impacting the stock market, stunned by “alternative facts” and continually hammering of the media as unbiased and unfair for pointing these things out. Actually, I’ve been thoroughly astonished by so many things coming out of Washington, DC over the past week, that I really had a hard time focusing on a small enough number to write a readable blog post.
So – where do I start? Let’s dispense with one huge piece first – the notion of “alternative facts”. I’d initially intended this post to be about words and truth and facts, but I got distracted by the other, louder, noise. So I will deal with the other noise first & finish up my thoughts on words and how much they matter later in the week. For now, all I’m going to do is state the obvious – “alternative facts” by any other name are falsehoods. We can debate the meaning of “lie” and whether we need to be sure of intent before calling a falsehood a lie, but “alternative facts” are not facts and they likely aren’t the truth, either (“truth” has its own interpretive issues, alas).
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” — Aldous Huxley
And that brings me to the next topic….
One of the first things that the new White House did was update the White House website to make sure that any references to that science-y stuff was replaced by political babbling about “An America First Engery Plan” – campaign speak with no substance – except for making it clear that we are about to take a 40 year step backward. And since there is now no longer any mention of “climate change” at all, it is safe to assume that the 3% of scientists that disagree have won the day in DC.
Along with the website changes, there has also been stifling of several governmental departments – including, to name a few, the Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior. Interesting things about the latter – the National Park Services falls under the Dept of Interior, and they had some fun this week – tweeting out climate statistics. Most of those have now also been muzzled, but there has been an amazing number of AltParkService-like named sites cropping up. Who would have thought that the rebels would be the Park Service employees? It would be funny, if the entire situation weren’t horrifying.
To that end, there is a March for Science in the active planning stages now – and I’ve decided that I will participate in some way with the event(s). There is an undercurrent of anti-science/anti-knowledge in the Congress right now, and since the the president himself seems to not value science much, either, we are entering a dangerous period in our history. And that may be an understatement.
“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.” — Albert Camus
And then there’s the press, which I’m not going to dwell on too much right now because I’ve written before on the importance of our 1st Amendment and the rights of the press. And I just used the above quote a couple of weeks ago. But that was then – this week, Donald Trump’s chief strategist & president-whisperer, Steve Bannon said in an interview that the media should just “keep its mouth shut”. Apparently because everything is rosy in Washington, the president is “making America great”, and the press is merely a bunch of spiteful idiots who are venting because they were wrong about the election (apparently that obsession with ratings goes beyond the president). And for the past two days, our Twitter obsessed commander in chief can’t seem to stop hammering the New York Times (possibly because they’ve elected to use the work “lie” in headlines). I have every reason to believe that I will write more on this topic, and probably soon, but not today.
On Friday, which was Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump signed a couple of other executive orders. One on immigration which suspended for 90 days the entry into the US of citizens of seven, primarily Muslim, countries. These countries are, and have been for some time, on the Department of Homeland Security’s watch lists and travel is already somewhat restricted. It seemed to have been poorly planned, which led to a great deal of confusion. It appears to (maybe) apply to legal resident aliens if they are traveling between here and one of the listed countries – and this may not be a good thing since it very strongly raises the likelihood that families will be separated, and that corporate employees will be unable to return to work from trips abroad (Google, who said they had 187 impacted workers, recalled them from vacations and business trips). The peculiar thing to me was that the order, and the president, himself, invoked the 9/11 terrorist attacks – but none of the countries listed had citizens involved in the attacks. And the recent attacks in the US also did not involve citizens from the listed countries – in fact, many involved US citizens. We can debate whether the countries of real concern were omitted for business reasons (but I suspect it likely political ones since we never seem inclined to alienate Saudi Arabia), but it is important to understand that this connection between the order and 9/11 is dangerous because so many people here in the US still think that Iraq was responsible for the attacks. They one take in their news in limited sound bytes.
More alarmingly he chose Holocaust Remembrance Day as the day to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the US back to 15 year old rates (and the number has always been quite small), and included the provision that preference would be given to minority religions (in Islamic countries that would be not-Muslims) – he even went so far as to tell a Christian Broadcast Network interviewer that that was intended to give Christians preference over Muslims. This may well be unconstitutional, and there absolutely will be lawsuits, but more disturbing to me was the timing of the order. One of the things that was already being widely shared on social media and elsewhere was information about the Jewish refugees that we turned away in the runup to World War II. I’m sure that the irony was lost on him.
Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, the president decided not to specifically mention the 6 million Jews that were killed in the Holocaust, or the traditional mention of the role of anti-Semitism, in the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. Yes, there were 5 million others killed as well, but given his continually stated love for Israel, we all assumed that this was an oversight, but the White House has clarified that the omission was intentional and they they “took into account all those that suffered”. How very politically correct of you. How unusually politically correct of you.
Now, that brings me back to Steve Bannon since it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he drafted the statement, given his nationalistic tenancy, and the high regard with which white supremacists and neo-Nazis hold him.
President Trump, in a traditional new-president realignment of the National Security Council did something highly unusual and deeply disturbing – might well be the single most disturbing thing he’s done to date – he put Steve Bannon on the NSC as a principal, and he effectively demoted the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – in fact they are no longer going to be attending the principal meetings unless specifically requested. What the F***? Why the hell would you want to keep the intelligence and military heads off the the security council – do they not have valuable insight to offer? Insight that might come from experience and a non-political perspective, perhaps? Insight that may not be coming from the man that turned Brietbart into a beacon of hope for racists, anti-Semites, and xenophobes throughout the land? As much as George W. Bush valued the advice of his terrifying strategist, Karl Rove, he deliberately kept him away from the NSC in order to avoid putting the taint of politics on intelligence briefings and national security (but then again he had a Vice President that proved quite adept at muddling the two).
So now we have a disturbing, and possibly disturbed, individual, who apparently is qualified for the NSC because he’d been in the Navy, as the most prominent voice that the president is listening to on political strategy, apparently policy matters, and now national security decisions. I’m guessing because it’s mostly an echo chamber and a reinforcement of what our glorious leader already believes to be true. And all of that brings me to a variant on ‘words matter’.
Donald Trump, on the White House website and in his recent speeches has taken to using the phrase “America First” in an array of contexts obviously intended to show that he, and his administration will put us first, and that corporate America had better do the same (and outsiders beware). Wonderful, really, and largely meaningless political stump speech drivel. BUT… wait a second. Let’s look at this for a bit.
That phrase has a pretty ugly history in the US. One that Donald Trump may not know about & certainly wouldn’t care about since he seem to prefer saying things that are catchy and good for ratings (kind of like “you’re fired” or “make America great”) – and this is campaign speech catchy. I am fairly certain, though, that Steve Bannon knows exactly what is being said – and implied – by its use. He has probably encouraged it.
In 1940, the America First Committee was started at Yale University – and the movement attracted an interesting array of people – notably former President Gerald Ford and President John Kennedy’s future brothe-in-law, Sargent Schriver. Later, as it grew and spread outside of the Yale arena, it also included the likes of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. It was an isolationist movement, heavy with anti-Semitism that urged the United States government not only to stay out of World War II, but more significantly sought appeasement with Hitler. Officially, the organization ceased to exist after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (when it was clear that there was no longer a path to keeping us out of the war), but not before Charles Lindbergh managed a truly vile speech critical of the Jews living in the US, overseas, and, strangely, at the British.
By using the “America First” slogan, our president is invoking a disturbing image that I fear may not be unintentional. And it is largely Steve Bannon’s increasingly prominent position in the Trump Administration that has left me feeling deeply concerned about the path that this country is allowing itself to be led down because so many people – good people, kind people far outnumbering those with less pure motives – want to give the president a chance regardless of how uneasy they feel. And that’s fine – but giving him a chance does not mean not calling out things that are wrong, or reasonable. And remember, too that the longer we go allow things to pass unremarked, incontested, the further we risk sinking into a mire that will be very difficult to extricate ourselves from. If we can.
We have begun entering a world that is unlike any we’ve been in before, led by a man unlike any president that we’ve ever had before. And yet, the populist ‘revolution’ that put Trump in office, his authoritarian nature, his thin-skinned tantrums, and continued reliance on people like Steve Bannon, call to mind this line from George Orwell’s 1984: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
I really hope I’m wrong.