Cognitive Dissonance (Mental Health Edition)

“You will never take back our country with weakness,” says Trump, inciting his mob. Please remind me, because being weak and feeble-minded I have forgotten: who has been in charge of this country these last four very long years?

Pearl Harbor Day

As I have noted before, my father was at Pearl Harbor. More exactly, he was in the Army and based in Honolulu. The most he ever said about it was, “I was AWOL on Waikiki Beach.” Years later I found the journal he kept. The first entry is dated “Saturday, Dec. 13, 1941. 3:15 P.M.” It is typed on onionskin paper, now yellowed and brittle with age. He left very narrow margins — less than 2cm all around — to save paper. It was, after all, wartime.

This is the seventh day. I suppose I had better start from the beginning, or as near the beginning as I can.

Sunday morning, with Ben Glasser and Harold Davis, I went over to see Sam & Ellen Jacobs. I was due to go on guard that afternoon, but until then I was to help Sam clean up his yard. When we walked into the house, just a few minutes after eight, Ellen said something about a radio broadcast requesting all service men to return to their posts. I couldn’t understand it, inasmuch as we had just left, so I concluded that she had misunderstood the announcer. However Ben and Harold were a little uneasy so Harold decided to phone. Just then someone turned on the radio and I heard, “I repeat, the Islands are under attack. All police officers will please report to their stations immediately.” At the sometime we heard anti-aircraft fire, which to ben Sounded like 155’s. We wasted time but said goodbye on the way out, and hurried back to DeRussy. At the guardhouse I stopped for a drink of water and Sergeant Black, who was Sergeant-of-the-Guard, told me to get back to the battery as quickly as possible.

All this while I couldn’t believe that we were actually fighting. But still, I couldn’t convince myself that the military and naval authorities would be so foolish as to cry wolf, so from the moment I left the Jacobs’ until the time I saw Pearl Harbor aflame I was constantly debating with myself.

To get back: when we reached the battery we quickly climbed out of our civvies and into fatigue pants and o.d. shirt; shouldered our packs and grab the nearest rifles. Then we hotfooted across the parade ground to the gun-square where Ben was told to report to East Group and I was ordered to Battery Randolph. Harold had been a little quicker than either of us and I don’t remember when it was that I saw him next. I haven’t seen Ben since.

At Randolph I found most of the men already sweating with the ammunition. No one was pissing, we just kept the stuff running, a pretty steady rate, from the magazine to the spot where a truck was backed up and being loaded. After a while we got ahead of the truck, despite the fact that almost half of the men had been called back tot eh guns to help unload. But we didn’t slow up, just kept going back and forth. One of the first things I remarked upon to myself was that the stuff didn’t seem to be nearly as heavy as we had found it at Sand Island only the week before. We were so busy that we had no time to be tired — that’s the way I explain it now.

Every so often we could look up and see dogfights. AA bursts were clouding the sky, some of them breaking nowhere near a target. We concluded that their barrage was one of the main factors in driving off the enemy. Once we heard a loud report from the general direction of our guns and I thought that we were firing trial shot since most of the enemy had already disappeared. Later I learned that it was a bomb exploding somewhere the other side of Kalakauna Avenue. Anderson thinks it was a fragment from this bomb which almost struck him as he was standing outside the latrine, but I believe it was a piece of shrapnel from one of our own guns. When I heard about [it], during a slight break in the ammo carrying, I felt rather angry. What the hell do they want to go around bombing Calamaria’s craphouse for, I thought to myself.

So he wasn’t AWOL, and he wasn’t on Waikiki Beach. He simply didn’t want to talk about it. That chapter in his life was closed; I suppose not talking about it was the best way he had of keeping the past in the past and the door well shut. That diary cracked the door open. No wonder he left it in the most remote corner of his desk drawer. It was probably the first time those pages saw the light of day since he typed them.

Seventy-nine years ago today, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was also my aunt’s 21st birthday, a fact not recorded in my father’s journal. She — his younger sister — is 100 years old today: a centenarian. She has seen wars begin and end, presidents and congressmen and senators come and go: people and things that seem in their moment eternal turn out to be just passing through. Today I wish I could be there to celebrate — with friends, with family. With cake.

I’ve been plotting a trip to the Left Coast for a visit, but it’s obviously not to be undertaken right now. The best I can do is say, “Happy Birthday, Chane!” My birthday wish (though it’s not *my* birthday) is that this pestilence — of Biblical proportions — finally exits the scene. With luck, soon, and we can have a long visit, long overdue. I’ll even bring cake.

Ockham’s Razor

Simple explanations — not implausible scenarios or convoluted conspiracies — are most likely to be correct. This well-known dictum is attributed to William of Ockham: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate. Pluralities — complexities in a theory — must not be asserted without necessity. Never suppose multiple, interlocking explanations when a single, simple reason is sufficient

It is a rule easily tested by common sense and everyday experience. Consider these two well-known, well-worn statements:

  1. The dog ate my homework.
  2. I didn’t do my homework.

Few people would choose (1) as the likeliest explanation: it is neither simple nor particularly credible. The addition of more details about the assignment’s encounter with domesticated animals (“My homework flew out the bus window and a cow ate it”) only serves to make the matter worse.

Donald Trump won’t admit he lost the election; more disturbing, many of his followers can’t accept the simple idea that although 74 million people voted for Trump, setting a record, over six million more voted for Mr. Biden. Having heard the phrase “rigged election” over and over, they conclude — without examining the premise — that it must be rigged; their guy lost, after all. Enter Sidney Powell, loudly proclaiming that Trump’s defeat could only be the result of fraud; and, moreover, a fraud so far-reaching that it was orchestrated by none other than Hugo Chavez — who died in 2013.

News flash for Messrs. Trump and Giuliani, and for Ms. Powell: That is how democracy works. “Your guy” doesn’t win every time; sometimes the other guy, the other party, the other philosophy of government, wins the day and has its chance.

Special attention should be paid, these days, to that phrase: Philosophy of government. For the Republican Party has ceased to have anything resembling an organizing principle; instead we have terse slogans (“Small government! Freedom!”) and a determination to use politics to remain in power, rather than to craft compromise legislation that will serve their constituents. The present spectacle — a legislature that cannot legislate, cannot provide financial relief for millions of people forced into unemployment during a pandemic — is more than just a case in point: it is a fitting finale to years of brinksmanship and gamesmanship instead of statesmanship, the logical conclusion to a decades-long showdown between a party that believes in government and compromise, and a party that believes only in its own ability to exercise raw power.

Nobody believes the kid who says, “The dog ate my homework.” Absent hard facts, the simpler solution is most likely true. Unlike the case of the wind blowing papers into the path of a grazing bovine — multiple credible witnesses swore they were on the bus and saw it happen — nobody has yet offered a single actual fact suggesting election fraud on any scale, let alone of a magnitude necessary to produce 81 million votes. The dog didn’t eat the homework, and Donald didn’t win the election. Both of them — and all of us — would be better off if they accepted reality.

Trust (IV)

I had hoped, at this point in the examination, to start exploring ways of rebuilding our institutions — and so rebuilding our trust in them. We need better protective mechanisms: circuit breakers, tripwires; some sort of fail-safe that will spare future generations the havoc of the last four years. I had hoped: I’m looking forward to a day — some time soon, please — when events no longer move faster than my meager 70wpm. But the announcement — by tweet, of course — that negotiations on a second major relief bill would be suspended “until after I am reelected on November 3rd” sent the markets (predictably) downward; the hours-later tweet demanding congressional action on a relief bill did nothing to allay anyone’s anxiety.

Trust makes the world work. But let’s shrink that just a little bit. Trust makes a relationship work, a business work; it makes local government work; it makes a country work: a citizen’s trust that the institutions of government won’t get everything right, and won’t execute perfectly, but they’ll get more things right than wrong and will operate as a brake on excesses attempted by (just for example) an out-of-control executive. A citizen’s trust that government’s word is its bond, and that policies won’t change at whim, that any course correction or major alteration will be the result of carefully considered facts and subject to rigorous debate. (The individual’s trust extends to diplomatic relations, too: allies want reliable and rock-steady partners, not erratic and unreliable fair-weather friends.)

The Trump tweets — like everything Trump — put on display, again, the open contempt not just for facts and reality but for his fellow citizens (including his bafflingly steadfast base). He insults our intelligence with his non sequiturs, nonsensical pronouncements, and nonproductive “solutions” to the actual problems of real people. But such is the unplumbable depth of the narcissist’s self-delusion, that the history of the universe is significant only because it culminated in his spiritually, emotionally, and financially impoverished existence.

The Biden presidency — and we must hope and pray, all of us, that there will be a Biden presidency — will take on several difficult tasks from the very start. Rebuilding public trust in government and the institutions of government is both the base and summit. Some trust in government can be rebuilt by the steady and competent execution of a plan to restore public health and recover something resembling our long-ago normal lives. The experts have been right all along: “It’s the economy, Stupid” is good electoral strategy, but when a deadly and highly contagious pathogen is in the air then the economy must take a back seat. Mask-wearing isn’t a matter of personal choice or personal virtue, it’s a matter of good policy for this moment. It’s worth noting that on any given day in the last week there have been more new cases of Covid-19 in the White House than in all of New Zealand or Taiwan.

Leadership matters: “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” A leader leads: at a critical moment in history he doesn’t take his people where they want to go, but where they need to go. Moses led us through the desert; Kennedy started us on a journey to the moon and the stars. Trump doesn’t lead so much as blunder about, a human pinball content to rebound off the bumpers forever, in any direction whatsoever so long as our attention is on him. “I’m a leader and I had to lead,” he says. “Churchill didn’t stay in his basement.” Yes, he did. A true leader can lead from anywhere; the charlatan needs the crowd far more than they need him.

The leader, to paraphrase JFK, charts a particular course not because it serves him but because it serves all. It isn’t easy, especially when the road is a difficult and possibly unpleasant one; but it is necessary. It’s the hard road; the high road; the road to redemption.

Trust (III)

“Trust is what makes the world work.” Right now, the world is not working for too many people in America. There is widespread distrust of government. Only the ruling class benefits when political gamesmanship takes the place of statesmanship: people busy with their lives, people trying to make ends meet, have neither time nor inclination to analyze the reasons; they know only that their needs are not being met, they tune out the politicians, and they don’t show up at the polls. The ultimate consequence of this systemic voter suppression is to make nearly every seat a safe seat; and so the pols respond not to the real needs of their constituents but to the loudest voices: those who exercise their voting rights. And though it might serve the elected officials well, by keeping them in office — lifetime sinecures, really — it amounts to the death-spiral of democracy by discouraging ever larger numbers from bothering to vote.

Trust makes the world work: in education, in commerce, in finance, in government. If we can’t trust our institutions to do their jobs, they fail us and all future generations. Cronyism and baksheesh are the ways of desert tribes and banana republics, not the beacon of the free world. In the United States today we see that virtually no one trusts government institutions: if it isn’t a deep distrust born of police excesses, systemic injustices, and income disparities that affect every aspect of life; then it is wild conspiracy theories about vaccines, school curricula, voting rights, and climate science. The market for tinfoil hats has never been stronger.

As I write this, reality has finally caught up with the reality-show president. After six months of denying the threat, doubting the science, denigrating public health professionals, Trump has tested positive for Covid-19. It is surprising that it has taken this long given his refusal to take the basic precautions recommended by public health officials around the world, as if an acknowledgement of vulnerability to disease (by wearing a mask, for example) is a sign of personal weakness. “I learned a lot about Covid,” he says glibly. “I learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn’t the let’s-read-the-books school. And I get it. And I understand it. And it’s a very interesting thing and I’m going to be letting you know about it.” So ten months after the first warnings from our national security apparatus we are supposed to believe that he “gets it” because he has the disease. Warnings weren’t enough; briefings weren’t sufficient; 210,000 American deaths (and over 1 million worldwide) made no impact. As he has his entire adult life, Trump sees himself at the center of everything. Unless he is sick, a global pandemic has no real meaning.

We have gone from a government that many simply didn’t trust, to government that no one can trust. The reasons for past mistrust of government are many and varied, and help explain (in part) how we came to our present predicament. The reason nobody can trust today’s government is quite simple: when it is impossible to know whether anyone is speaking the truth it is safest to assume that none of them is. Some of the lies are obvious; some are outed as falsehoods soon after they are uttered; and still others might not be known until days later when they are flatly contradicted by the next statement of alternative fact.

The problem, of course, is that this is real life. We find ourselves now living not in the world where “up” and “down” are clear directions; instead we inhabit the conspiracy-driven dystopia of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s good entertainment but an abysmal alternative to science and the rule of law.

Trust (II)

Democracy cannot function without trust in government: people must know that their elected officials are working for the collective good, not for private gain nor for the limited benefit of (let us say) wealthy donors. This is the fundamental compact of democracy: Governments, Jefferson wrote, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The citizens of this nation live for this ideal and many have died for it; but too many people now believe themselves powerless in the face of a government that does not operate in their interest. Simply put, they do not trust their elected representatives.

And why should they? These same (“Trust me! I alone can fix it!”) elected officials, and their appointees, have failed the most fundamental tests. In a crisis — a worldwide pandemic, a health crisis that has claimed over 200,000 American lives and nearly a million around the globe — they have failed in every imaginable way: from literally throwing out the NSC manual on dealing with a pandemic; to pitting states against each other to acquire protective gear; to denying the seriousness of the problem; to pretending that it has already passed, even as the daily number of new cases outstrips the rate of March and April.

“We have serious problems in this country and we need serious people to solve them,” says President Andrew Shepherd in the 1995 movie, “The American President.” We did, we do.  And we do need serious people to solve them: people dedicated to an ideal, people who will work for the greater good. These are not the people currently in the White House or the Senate majority. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a gang less serious about solving your problems — they would much rather line their own pockets or amass power simply for its own sake. It’s easier than working, and apparently more rewarding.

In the last six months we have seen our government yawn at those 200,000 unnecessary deaths; release tear gas on citizens exercising their First Amendment rights; vow to revoke the health insurance of 21 million Americans during a pandemic; and call into question the results of a future election. The chief executive has called soldiers fallen in battle “losers” while he hides from protesters in a bunker. 

Serious people to solve our problems? Hardly. The people nominally in charge are the serious problems we face. While the House of Representatives continues to do its work, as best it can, the United States Senate — the self-styled “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” — perfects its transformation from functioning legislature to legislative graveyard, where bills supported by a majority of voters go to die. The Senate majority leader can’t be bothered, in the face of a pandemic that is on track to kill over a quarter million before Election Day, to bring a relief bill passed by the House in May to the floor for debate and a vote; but he will rush through a Supreme Court nomination — a nomination which has yet to be announced. Just what are the priorities here? Doing the People’s business has taken a back seat to entrenching a jurisprudence rejected by a solid majority of those same People.

No wonder Americans have lost faith and do not trust their government. They believe their government does not operate in their interests and feel powerless, unable to issue any corrective. What power, after all, does a single vote have? They are not wrong, but neither are they right: we have seen how just a few votes in the right places can swing an election. (That this has much to do with the Electoral College, itself a vestige of America’s original sin, is a topic for another day. For now the point is simply: every vote matters as we know from the painful experiences of 2000 and 2016, not to mention 1888, 1876, and 1824.) That feeling of helplessness is encouraged by established power structures and the incumbents who support and benefit from them: a poll tax is not the only voter-suppression tool, nor is it necessarily the most effective.

In the long term, big structural reforms will be needed; in the short term, the best corrective is the simplest: Vote.

Trust (I)

Every once in a while an idea is presented so strikingly that it forces you to look at things in a wholly different way. Sometimes the insight comes from a teacher; sometimes a friend, or a parent, or a coach; sometimes a peer or coworker. Sometimes it’s a random encounter on the street, or even one of the clucking heads on Fox — everyone is allowed the occasional, if unintentional, flash of brilliance. Frequently the new insight becomes, in hindsight, obvious: how could I have missed that? And often the answer is: because earlier proponents were simply not as articulate, or perhaps so blinkered by their own perceived brilliance that they struggle to communicate their ideas.

So it was that I attended, about thirty years ago, a panel discussion on public key cryptography. One of the speakers — whose name is on one of the critical pieces of that now-critical infrastructure — began by explaining the principle of trust. Asymmetric encryption — in which there is a public key known to the world and a private key known only to the holder — is important to electronic commerce because it assures the parties to the transaction that they are who they say they are. It is a trust mechanism: not an enforcer, but a reliable conveyor of fact. A message encrypted with the recipient’s public key can only be deciphered by her private key — ensuring message integrity; a message encrypted with the sender’s private key can only be verified using her public key — proving identity.

Well, yes, I was thinking, even then. But so what? “Trust,” said my panelist, “is what makes the world work.” And there it was. Simple. Obvious. And rarely articulated so starkly or so clearly. Trust that you are who you say you are; trust that you own what you say you own; trust that you will deliver on your promises to pay or to perform. The public key infrastructure (PKI) assures the first of these (identity) and goes a long way to assuring the second (truthfulness). It does nothing to assure the third — the kind of trust that is earned (reputation).

I mention all this because the Trump era presents a particular problem of trust: trust in government, trust in institutions, trust in the mechanisms that protect our liberty and propel our national and individual success. Americans no longer trust their government to keep them safe, help them thrive, and ensure that their children grow into a better world than they received from their own parents. Ironically, the solution for a very vocal minority has been to repose trust in a man who is utterly untrustworthy, who never tells the truth (except perhaps inadvertently), whose appalling and bottomless need for validation is his only motivation. He is incapable of empathy — and for that reason alone he cannot be trusted: he will never act for the common good because his personal benefit is the only thing he is capable of seeing.

Trust — like its fraternal twin, Respect — is earned. Without that foundation a leap of faith is a headlong plunge into the abyss. And yet: “Trust me. Believe me. I alone can fix it.” These words ring hollow to most people, but strike a chord with just enough of our compatriots whose faith in government was already so broken and battered that they opted for the grinning autocratic mountebank rather than the charmless competent technocrat.

Popular culture is full of references to the notion that America is not a country, it is an idea: the American Experiment, we call ourselves. The foundational document of our republic speaks of “a more perfect union”: the experiment is always evolving, always changing, always growing. This is — quite literally — progress. There have always been those who want to arrest it, or at least slow it. This idea finds spectacularly clear expression in the penultimate scene of “The American President”:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.

Decades have passed and this speech is stunning not just for its clarity, but for its prescience. “He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid, and telling you who’s to blame.” This is the Trumpian tactic; this is McConnell at his cynical and dishonest worst. Replace “whore” with “anarchist socialist who wants to destroy America” and we are in the present. This is not the language of statesmen or problem solvers; it is the sentiment of men interested in power for its own sake, not for its use towards the common good and a common goal.

The question we all should be asking — and the press should be leading the way on this — is also simple: Why do you think that American citizens want to destroy America? What, exactly, is the reason for that? How do they benefit? And if you can’t answer that question, why are you saying such things? Why, in short, if you so claim to love America, do you so obviously hate your fellow Americans? Why do you not grant them the same courtesy, trust and respect you demand?

This is a nation of divergent and often opposing views. Democracy assumes that compromise will be reached in the back-and-forth of the legislative chambers. The winner-take-all view of today’s Republican Party does not acknowledge the possibility that theirs is not the only legitimate vision for America and its people; it takes instead the autocratic position that might makes right. “Trust us,” they say. “We know best.”

Trust and respect are earned every day; they are never given as of right. Electoral outcomes do not repose unfettered confidence; they are a signal that the winner should, instead, proceed to prove his case. That is the American way — and we stand on the precipice of forever losing it.

A National Strategy Requires a National Government

Like so many Americans, I find myself envying nations that have a national government, and all that implies: A national sense of purpose; a national strategy for testing and tracing; a national plan for a public health crisis. There was a time when the United States had purpose, whether it was defeat of the Axis or putting a man on the moon. “We’re going to win!” is neither a goal, nor a strategy for achieving one. And, “We’re going to win so much, you’ll be tired of all the winning!” What does that actually mean? It is tautological, nonsensical, risible. “Winning” in this telling is undefined and lives (if it lives anywhere) beyond the looking glass, where words are just sounds with no actual meaning:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

It’s a sure bet that Donald Trump hasn’t read the book, nor would he understand the exchange. Irony, as they say, is not his long suit. At least, not intentionally.

Any dream of a national purpose must wait for another day; the pressing need, today, is for a national strategy: the novel coronavirus is among us and is not leaving any time soon. The national response has been botched — because in truth there was no national response. We had, instead, fifty state responses, some more successful than others but all of them at risk: the weak responses in a very real sense threaten the stronger ones. Our constitution guarantees freedom of movement, and while the governor of (for example) New York can require travelers from Texas and Florida to self-isolate for two weeks after arrival, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to make a literal Federal case out of a very real and very practical exercise of the state’s police power. Health and safety be damned, because this is America!

Meanwhile, in the real world: over 30 million people are unemployed; over 5 million have contracted Covid-19; over 160,000 have died from the disease, and 1,000 more die each day. (Our infection rate has been doubling about every six weeks; at that pace, by May or June the entire nation will be Covid-positive, a stunning achievement. If “winning” means, “create a nation of lepers”: mission accomplished.) And the United States Senate, the self-styled “world’s most deliberative body,” can neither deliberate nor negotiate nor even formulate legislation that might help  American citizens survive — pay the rent, buy groceries — until the pandemic subsides and the jobs actually do come back. Bear in mind that formulating legislation is the actual job of senators: it is their primary responsibility, enshrined right there in the job title: “legislator, upper body.”

For anyone who might be persuaded by the argument that “the House refuses to negotiate,” please bear in mind that the House actually passed legislation in May. The Senate (and the White House) chose to wait until the expiration of the March bill (July 31) before even beginning negotiations, evidently in the hope that Democrats would be persuaded of the urgency of passing anything and would thus accept whatever weak last-minute tea the Republicans brewed. (The Republicans, for their part, can’t even agree among themselves what to ask for or try to pass. So much for their legendary party unity.) It has taken a generation, but the Democrats — and Speaker Pelosi — have gotten wise to this game and aren’t having it.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee — under Lindsay Graham’s “leadership” — grills Sally Yates about the spooks under the bed. (Ms. Yates wasn’t having it, either, and deftly put the majority in its place.) Writing legislation is the Senate’s primary job, but by all means let’s ask more questions about Hilary’s emails, eight years after the fact. Changing the subject is a time-tested method of distracting attention from your failures, collectively as a legislative body as well as individually.

By most accounts the American people aren’t buying, not this time. There is an actual plague in the land, and the federal government isn’t doing anything to control the spread or mitigate the effects. We’re on our own, until we’re able to put people in government who are actually interested in doing the hard work of governing.

A Crisis of His Own Making

In the beginning it was popular, among the so-called chattering classes — the op-ed pages, the Sunday talk shows, drive-time radio — to refer to the Covid-19 pandemic as the first crisis Trump has faced that is not of his own making. (It’s not quote true, of course: there was Maria and the devastation our citizens in Puerto Rico are still suffering, three years on. Trump didn’t create the storm, but the lasting effects were made far worse by his customary blend of indifference, insensitivity, inaction, indolence, and incompetence.) Crises in the Trump era have been, most notably, the foreign policy blunders and debacles: North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Brazil… the list goes on, and each and every one actually started with Trump.

And now, Covid-19.

The alarms were first rung at least in late December 2019 — fully seven months ago, if not more. Trump ignored them. A month went by, and further disturbing intelligence emerged — and Trump ignored it. Worse, the National Security Directorate tasked with managing a pandemic response had been disbanded and the literal book on health crisis management, a sixty-plus page manual developed by the Obama administration, had been tossed aside by people so sure of their own abilities that nobody in the history of the world could possibly teach them anything. Seven months later — when the rest of the world has returned to normal and has resumed life as usual, the United States struggles: over 1,000 dead each day (compared with perhaps a dozen in all of Europe); nearly 150,000 dead since March; the mortality rate continues its grim ascent parallel to the long handle of the hockey stick; and over 4.5 million known cases. Trump insists that we test more, and therefore have more cases. No: nor will eliminating biopsies cure cancer. That any adult would say this might be amusing; for such dissembling nonsense to spew daily from the Oval Office is terrifying.

So is this truly not a crisis of Trump’s own making? The facts suggest otherwise. The signal event — the virus’s species jump — was surely beyond anyone’s control; the reaction to that event, and how to manage its consequences, is entirely within the control of any government interested in doing its job. Trump prefers to preen and posture; rolling up his sleeves and doing actual work is far beyond his capabilities. By ignoring facts, science, and a set of written instructions left by the previous administration, Trump has exacerbated a crisis that, properly managed, might have been over by March; instead it is now a raging plague that will be with us for years to come.

Historians are forever telling us that every president campaigns on domestic issues and is soon consumed by international affairs — hot spots and flareups that the United States must address in its capacity as beacon to the world and, since 1990, sole superpower. In the age of Trump the United States no longer lights the way except in the strictly negative sense: don’t do this, more pratfall than pragmatism. It’s not that we have become the problem so much as we have lost control of the entire enterprise; and feeling now out of control we have no real idea how to correct course. Our democracy is threatened by those sworn to protect it and the American experiment in self-governance is closer to burning out than it has ever been in its 244 year history. The beacon of the world is perilously close to self-extinguishing.

Presidents, and crises, come and go. That Trump would both by his actions, and by inaction, create crisis after crisis was predictable. But the only cure, the only lasting remedy, is to look beyond Trump and acknowledge and act upon what our founders knew in their bones. As we consider the Trump Trifecta — a pandemic, record unemployment, and rampant social injustice — we might bear in mind the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel from just fifty years ago, when he joined the ranks of protesters in an earlier age of social unrest and upheaval:

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

The Prophets aren’t going to lead us out of this low ebb in our history; only the collective voices of all Americans, shouted as one on November 3, can begin to reverse the tide and begin the long road to redemption and restoration to greatness. In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible. Trump and his enablers might be guilty; but we are all responsible to send them packing.

Great and Small

Small men hide their mistakes and admit no error. Great men expect and own theirs. Small men require adulation; great men earn respect. The small man will punch down (but never up), trying to improve his own standing by standing on others. Great men reach down and lift up.

The small man believes that marble and bronze likenesses are proof of greatness. The great man’s monument is his achievement, memorialized by the judgment of history. The small man pounds his chest to make a point; the great man pounds the pavement to win the day. Small men remain small despite their puffery; great men know the worth of words and of ideas.

Great men lead the way into battle; small men say, “The fight is over yonder, come back when you’ve killed something.” Great men will explain a higher purpose and persuade to do the hard things; small men don’t look beyond where their followers are going anyway. Great men know that a chain, or an army, or a nation, is only as strong as its weakest component; small men know only the rhetorical intimidation of projected strength.

Great men learn from their mistakes; small men repeat them.

This Independence Day, as we look towards the nominating conventions and a national election, let us all aspire to greatness. Mistakes are the human condition, but a failure to learn — and a compulsion to repeat — looks like willful stupidity.