Donald “Asshole” Trump

Back in 2012 — several years before the 2016 US election that saw what many believe was an inept, incompetent, lying, Russian agent and con artist get elected to the US presidency — associate professor of philosophy Aaron James wrote a book called, “Assholes. A Theory.” It wasn’t about anyone in particular, although it was easy to see others — including many contemporary politicians and celebrities — in his definitions and classifications. It was somewhat satirical, but also a serious attempt to define a psychological personality while using the vernacular.

The original “theory” was also produced as a film in 2019. I reviewed and commented on the book back in 2014, with additional comments about it and its relevance to our local municipal council, in 2017 (while some of the council changed in the 2018 election, many remain and thus the comments are still valid). 

James then conflated his ideas into a smaller edition, published in 2016, called “Assholes. A Theory of Donald Trump.” Somewhat of a truism in that title, as we recognize today. James wasn’t offering a political ideology to convince anyone of Trump’s assholeness. That was a given. Rather it was an attempt to frame his assholeness in the larger concepts of asshole-ology and how it reflected his inability to assume the role of president.  It was in many ways, a non-partisan approach to Trump, for which it was criticized by those looking for more reasons he would be unfit as a president (as if there weren’t already enough before that election).

For me, while I found the books entertaining, they were somewhat overkill. Assholes are, like the definition of art, a personal, subjective view, as in: I don’t know much about art, but I’ll know it when I see it. Clearly millions of Repugnicans didn’t see Trump as the asshole millions of others did, and even after four years of his turning America into a shithole, they still don’t, so no definition of assholeness can fit securely around anyone. But it is somewhat cathartic to read them again with an “I told you so” sense of superiority, pointing at the last four years of Trump.

Now another election approaches. The USA has suffered four years of Trump’s egregious mismanagement, lying, corruption, nepotism, racism, abuses, insults, and incompetence. Protests, violence and rage have erupted across the country, and armed neo-Nazis are on the street killing unarmed protestors. During which their president has uttered more than 20,000 lies.

Every sane person with an IQ higher than room temperature hopes Trump and his corrupt, venal, lying, racist, pseudo-Christian cohorts get booted out of office this time. Repugnicans and their Talibangelists, of course, want them to stay because while some now reluctantly agree Trump is an asshole, he’s their asshole and they’d rather have their asshole in Washington than anyone else no matter how much more literate, competent, coherent, classy, intelligent, stable, faithful, empathetic, or honest any Democrat is. For Repugnicans, trifles like morality, honesty, competence, religious faith, empathy, and ethics have no role in their choice of leaders.

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The Talibangelist Conspiracy to Rule America and the West

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Talibangelists (aka (aka the pseudo-Christian, far right) would love to force everyone believe in and obey their highly-adulterated pseudo-religion, and to punish those who don’t.  Or won’t. Punishment is big on their agenda: unbelievers, those who stray, followers of a real faith, scientists, intellectuals, people of colour, gays, people with an “R” in their name — they love to punish anyone not among their small circle of authoritarian theocrats  (aka theocons, because their pseudo-religious ideology is conservative-far right) and enablers (cue the theme music from The Handmaid’s Tale).

In order to bring their authoritarian ideology into public policy and ramp up the punishment machine, they must  infiltrate and then replace the governments of the world with their own theocracy. In the USA, where they are strongest and most numerous, they already have a running start: numerous Talibangelists are active in the Trump administration, close to the president, on the supreme court, and among the justice system (Attorney General Barr being one). They are close to success and have had much of their agenda made into US public policy already. They intend to rewrite the very Constitution to enable their goals, especially that irksome Establishment Clause that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” that prevents religious (or in their case, pseudo-religious) control over the government.

They can’t do it without their religious disguise. Any similar attempt to overthrown the government would be seen as what it is: a rightwing, authoritarian coup d’etat. They’d be rounded up and jailed. Charged with treason.  But by pretending to be religious, they can make everything they do about religious freedom, about biblical law, about god, and make themselves look like champions of Christians (particularly the Evangelicals and other rightwing religious sects who seem most gullible to this con). But in fact they are as deeply anti-Christian as they are anti-democracy.

Nope, no difference at all.

They would have all national laws based on or subservient to biblical laws — including, they note with anticipatory glee, stoning homosexuals. Talibangelist laws have been compared to Islamic sharia law, but the comparison is unfair: Talibangelists ideals are much more aggressive, punitive, unforgiving, and oppressive. Despite that, theocons get offended and shirty when you compare their biblical laws with sharia laws.

Of course, they don’t want all the bible’s laws enacted: only those that are convenient for them or that fit their homophobic, misogynistic, racist, nationalist ideology.  And also because, for all their codswallop about the bible and their morality, they simply can’t obey the vast majority of them (where, for example, would they even find the silver trumpets that must be sounded at feasts, at the new moon, and also “in times of tribulation, to call the congregation together”?).

They wouldn’t want, for example, the death penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) because that would mean their better-than-Jesus president would be stoned to death for his many sins in that category. Or for liars to be punished as Proverbs 19:5 demands, because he’d suffer every time he tweets or holds a press conference. What about the law not to fail to repay a debt (Lev. 19:13) or not to steal money stealthily (Lev. 19:11) or not to overcharge or underpay for an article (Lev 25:14) or not to work people oppressively (Lev. 25:43), not to covet and scheme to acquire another’s possession  (Ex. 20:15), not to bear a grudge (Lev. 19:18)… Trump has broken so many mitzvot, not just the ten commandments, that even the theocons have lost count.

Nor do the Talibangelists want to obey all  laws themselves. They ignore the dietary laws in Leviticus 11 because it would mean no more bacon or shrimp. They don’t want to obey the law in Numbers 15:32-36 that forbids work on the Sabbath on penalty of death because it would mean they wouldn’t have places to dine or shop that day (it’s okay if other people have to work on the Sabbath because their deaths don’t matter). As the LA Times pointed out,

The Hebrew Bible enjoins us many times not to mistreat or oppress foreigners, and it offers provisions for the care and feeding of strangers. Leviticus says, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born,” and the book of Hebrews reminds us to “show hospitality to strangers.” I didn’t see the memo, but God must have revised his thinking on immigration before his endorsement of Trump.

So many biblical laws are just plain inconvenient to the Talibangelists, or threaten their power base, so they ignore them. Surely it’s not hypocrisy to demand others obey laws you refuse to even recognize? Or to forgive your president the same sins you would have others put to death for?

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Trump plays the god card

trump as jesusFor a nation that allegedly separates church and state, Americans sure love to splash religion all over everything, their elections especially. So this week, Donald Trump made headlines by accusing the frontrunner, Joe Biden of being “against god.” Cue the angels with trumpets.

Americans make big oompah sounds about their politicians having religion — Christian religion specifically and preferably protestant — although curiously, as Trump has proven, the voters don’t seem to give a rat’s ass whether that same politician has any ethics or morality.

Trump didn’t say which god, of course. I’m pretty sure it would be accurate to say Biden is “against” Marduk, or Baal, or Ganesh, or maybe even Thor, if by “against” you mean he doesn’t recognize these gods as those he worships or recognizes as a supreme deity. By that definition, Trump himself would be against these gods. Both candidates would likely be against the Flying Spaghetti Monster, too. Which god, though, is left up to the imagination, but in Trump’s case, I’d guess it was Mammon.

Trump also warned his audience (who were expecting him to speak on the economy, not make a self-serving campaign rant) that Biden had “no religion, no anything,” and would “hurt the Bible, hurt God.” He didn’t specify how Biden would do these things or how a mere mortal could actually hurt an immortal, omnipotent, incorporeal being.

But this isn’t just Trump’s usual word salad, full of lies, incomplete sentences, and contradictions.  While it’s always expected Trump will lie and bluster — as he does daily — by bringing god into the picture, he seems to be more desperate to beat the drum as the election approaches. *

Trump is playing to his base of pseudo-Christians (aka the Talibangelists) — pretty much all the support he has left after four years of horrific mismanagement, incompetence, lies, and blunders. The Talibangelists react to any accusation that someone is “against god” or doesn’t like the bible, or has no faith (their definition of faith) or is of another religion with a hair trigger into frothing anger and vituperation. Unlike Trump, the Talibangelists have a very definite idea of who their god is: a  tall, English-speaking, blue-eyed, vindictive, Caucasian of Northern European descent, who hates gays, lesbians, Jews, and Muslims, but lets his followers eat bacon and shop in box stores on the Sabbath, and encourages viewers to send televangelist preachers all their money.

In 2016, Trump — a confessed adulterer who paid porn stars for sex, who has been accused of sexual assault and even rape by dozens of women, and who has mocked the disabled — won 81% of the “white evangelical” vote, which says a lot about that segment’s gullibility and disdain for basic moral principles. Their continued support only underscores their willingness to ignore the truth of his unethical and immoral behaviour to keep him in power. But to be fair, they are CINOs —Christians In Name Only — so they have an opportunistic code for themselves.

This comes from a man who claimed the bible was his “favourite book” yet in an interview could not identify any book, verse, or story in the bible (admittedly, no one can really imagine Trump actually reading any book, let alone the bible) , who has an openly grasping and venal looney as a “spiritual advisor,” who praises a batshit crazy doctor-pseudo-christian pastor who claimed “alien DNA was being used in medical treatments, and that scientists were cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious.” And it’s the same guy who had peaceful protestors tear-gassed so he could walk across a street for an awkward photo op with someone’s bible held backwards. As noted in Raw Story, Trump admitted it wasn’t even his own bible (no one, it seems, can confirm he even actually owes one):

By saying “it’s not my Bible,” Trump in effect winked at the press, letting White House correspondents in on the joke he’s been playing though the joke required gassing peaceful protesters out of the way for the punchline to work. This, in combination with holding the Bible as if it were a Trump Steak, may have had the effect on twice-born Christians of draining the holy from the moment. By telling the truth, the president broke the fourth wall to confess to playing a fake Christian on television.

Of course, Trump is hardly new to hypocrisy or using religion  and people for his own ends. He doesn’t even attend church, although the Talibangelists overlook that. Before the 2016 election, Pope Francis commented about Trump the candidate, that,

A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.

Trump responded by blaming — his usual response to anything negative is to blame someone else — the pope’s comments on the “Mexican government convinced him that Trump is not a good guy.” I suppose that’s the same Mexican government Trump promised his followers would pay to build the wall between the two countries. To date only “16 miles of the 194 miles that have been constructed were built in places where fencing didn’t already exist.” (167 miles of primary wall replaced existing structures). Mexico hasn’t contributed a peso towards it and never will. But I digress.

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Can an atheist be a good citizen?

The answer to the headline’s question is no, at least according to the late Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus in a podcast in the Socrates in the City series (Sept. 22, 2004; I came across it as one of the chapters in the 2012 book from the podcast, Life, God, and Other Small Topics. Neuhaus’ talk was actually based on a 1991 piece he wrote.) To which response I must respond: codswallop.

Not that I expect religious employees like Neuhaus to defend atheism, but to suggest people can only be good under the influence of the supernatural — and even then only their particular version of the supernatural — is an arrogant, ideological statement, not one of fact. It’s been debunked by much better minds than mine (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Buckman come to mind). 

Interestingly, the Catholic League weighs in on the debate, Can We Be Good Without God, without entirely refuting Neuhaus, but rather by expanding on several points of the argument. However, the conclusion the author of that piece reaches is that “Ultimately, yes, one individual here, another individual there could be really sweet and fine without God, but a system that obliterates the religious basis of morality will ultimately consume itself.” To which, I again say, codswallop.

Neuhaus’s perspective is regrettably narrow: Christian, Catholic, and American. He takes pot shots at Protestants, especially recent ones, doesn’t comment on other world religions at all (as if they were invisible), ignores non-theistic philosophies, doesn’t talk about levels of governance aside from the US federal, rambles about the American founders, and ignores the experience in other countries. Even in context of his American perspective, he blithely sidesteps the vexing Constitutional separation of church and state by not raising it at all. For such a big issue, his answer is a peashooter response that misses the target entirely.

Yet for all my disagreement, this is the sort of philosophical debate I love to read about and engage in (not that there’s a lot of opportunity to actually debate these days; Facebook is just a noisy echo chamber). So my participation is mostly limited to reading the works of others and blogging about my own perspective. So here goes.

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Thoreau and Buddhism

Henry David ThoreauIn his introduction to Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings (Bantam Books, 1962-1981), Joseph Wood Krutch described Henry David Thoreau’s writings as having four “distinct subjects”, which I paraphrase somewhat as:

  1. The life of quiet desperation most men live;
  2. The economic fallacy that is responsible for their condition
  3. The delights yielded from a simple life close to Nature, and
  4. The higher laws which people intuitively realize from a gentle life in Nature.

These appear similar in form to the ‘Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhist philosophy:

  1. Life means suffering
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
  4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

The parallels are, to me, striking. Not that Thoreau was a Buddhist, mind you, not as we might consider one today, but he was familiar with many Eastern and Oriental scriptures. As were many of his transcendentalist contemporaries – Ralph Waldo Emerson (his mentor) and Walt Whitman in particular. Thoreau and his friends were actually more familiar with Hindu texts initially and Thoreau wrote enthusiastically about them.

In 1845, he read the Bhagavad Gita, and later wrote, “The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita’s ‘sanity and sublimity’ have impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants.” Thoreau had on his bookshelf his copy of the Gita when he stayed at Walden Pond, and he read it during his time there.

He wrote in Walden, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

The influence of the Bhagavad Gita on Thoreau’s Walden was even the subject of a course on year at the University of Chicago. In the course description, it said, “Both books begin with despair and defiance and end with coming to some understanding of the ways of action and of knowledge, of devotion and nature, of self and the cosmos.”

Of course, this was during the American intelligensia’s first contact with alternate (and Eastern) philosophies, and it became a sort of intellectual epiphany that awakened a great creative surge barely a century after the nation was formed. Unlike today, many Americans in the 19th century were open to, even eager to learn about other cultures, other faiths, other philosophies. One cannot even imagine the current president and his followers learning, much less learning about an Asian philosophy.

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The Ten Bulls

Search for the BullA series of ten Buddhist drawings make up what are known collectively as the Ten Oxherding Pictures or sometimes just as the Ten Bulls. Each one graphically illustrates a stage along the path to enlightenment or self-realization, but they can also be seen as a metaphor for a wider range of human development and growth. (they are not, as Lifecoach screams ungrammatically but histrionically in its headline, “The 10 Secret ZEN Steps Straight To ENLIGHTENMENT!” There is no secret about them, and they are not steps but metaphors for steps.)

I first encountered these illustrations as a section in the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones was published in 1957 and has since gone through several editions.

Discovering the FootprintsI was given a paperback copy of the book in the late 1960s by the Buddhist owner of a farm in BC where I briefly stayed during one of my peripatetic explorations of Canada. I managed to hang onto that copy all these years and all the miles in between and I have read it several times since I first received it. That copy still sits on my bookshelf, well read and well worn, one of a very rare few that survived my travels and my frequent changes in interests.

In fact, Buddhism — or perhaps more correctly it would be Buddhist ethics — has been one of the few things I have been relatively constant with in my studies, something I still read and learn about. And attempt in my humble way to practice. (I lean towards the Zen-like North American Buddhism rather than the schools that still include supernatural aspects and elements (Tibetan, for example), although all share common themes in ethics and morality.)

Perceiving the BullThe Ten Bulls has long been a particular favourite of expression for me, both artistically and as a metaphor. At any point in our lives, if you think about your progress in whatever it is you are doing, whatever goal you pursue, we can all identify with every image, every stage. That’s why this series has such a universal appeal. It can be read in reference to, say, learning a musical instrument (“In his song “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” Cohen interprets the Ten Oxherding Pictures through the eyes of a western cowboy balladeer… singer-songwriter Cat Stevens made reference to the Ten Oxherding Pictures in the title of his album Catch a Bull at Four.” See here for more.). Or writing a novel. Or accomplishing a fitness goal. Even financial accomplishments have been paired.

Catching the BullYou can also read the series as a political metaphor: chasing the bull(shit) of modern politics (see Herding facts and their alternatives in a post-truth-era). Even without the scatological reference, politics is itself a learning experience (at least for those in it who care about more than themselves) with stages of growth that can be represented by these images.

But don’t be fooled into believing that each image is an isolated step like some sort of enlightenment hopscotch: each is rather a snapshot of a progression, or as one writer puts it, the “…action unfolds in poetic leaps that cross over several stages. The leaps from one stage to another are driven by the ongoing interaction between subject and object, which is captured poetically rather than logically.”

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Natural selection simplified

Antibiotic resistance - natural selectionI was startled by the simplicity of the forumla. Stephen Jay Gould, the late eminent paleontologist, biologist and historian of science, summed up Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection so eloquently and so succinctly that it rocked me back on my heels. It was something even a diehard creationist could understand (assuming he or she wanted to try…)

First there are three basic facts Gould states about life and living creatures:

  1. All organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive;
  2. All organisms within a species vary from one another;
  3. At least some of these variations will be inherited by offspring.

From these three, simple facts – easily proven by observation, research and analysis – Gould says the principles of natural selection, as Darwin postulated in 1859, can be inferred. These are:

  1. Since only some offspring will survive, on average these survivors will have those variations that are generally better adapted to survival in changing environments;
  2. Those offspring will inherit the favourable variations of their parents;
  3. Organisms of the next generation will be better adapted to local environments.

Simple, eh? I thought so, too. Next year will mark 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published. I already have a bottle of wine aging for the celebration.

I came across this elegant description some years back, while reading Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, by Carl Zimmer (Harper Collins, New York, 2001). The book is the companion to the PBS series on evolution. Gould wrote the introduction. I have yet to see the series (we don’t subscribe to TV) , but I enjoyed the 364-page book. It’s one of many such titles in my library.

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Why are American evangelical Christians so cruel?

What does that sign say? Thank you Lord for Jesus President Trump... makes no sense...The article in Forbes’ Magazine, March 11, didn’t ask that question I used in my headline. Instead, the headline simply stated the piece would explain, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” (The author later republished this on his own site under the less pointed title, “Why the Religious Right is so cruel.”)

In America, where theocracy is a more powerful political force than free speech and where its president has publicly threatened to muzzle journalists and uncomplimentary media like other tinpot dictators do, such a piece was apparently unwelcome. Forbes removed it – but not in time to prevent it from being read and cached and shared. Forbes’ excuse for the removal was that, “We also have a policy of not talking about social issues like abortion at Forbes Opinion — only economic policy and politics.” Weak, methinks.

No doubt the writer – Chris Ladd – hit a nerve in his increasingly theocratic, decreasingly tolerant nation when he wrote:.

Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call “evangelical Christianity,” is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries.

This isn’t really news or even new. Back in August, 2017, John Gehring wrote a piece for the Religious News Service (RNS) titled, “What is wrong with white Christians?” Gehring wrote:

Too many white Christians sacrifice the gospel’s radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed with comfortable, self-serving ideologies. Prosperity gospel preachers affirm the cult of consumerism and individualism. Evangelicals rally behind political leaders who make a holy trinity out of tax cuts for the wealthy, attacks on social safety nets and anti-government propaganda.

Given the number of fervent, uber-right “court evangelicals” in Trump’s White House (like evangelist anti-education Betty Devos, the evangelist anti-environment Scott Pruitt and evangelist anti-Muslim Mike Pompeo) appointed by Trump to positions of authority, it’s little wonder this sort of critical commentary isn’t welcome in his USA. Just look at his thin-skinned evangelical VP Mike Pence, who had a hissy fit when an interviewer jokingly suggested that he didn’t hear the voice of his imaginary friend Jesus, and was instead, “mentally ill.”

Pence ranted and frothed loudly, and probably put a lot of pressure on her network for her to apologize to all Christians, as if he alone was the representative of the 2.2 billion Christians, and that a poke at him was an insult to all of them.*

Well, here’s the truth: Jesus doesn’t speak to Pence. Or to anyone, Christian or not. Jesus is dead. Dead people don’t talk, whether they died yesterday or two millennia ago. Those voices in your head are you. But don’t try to tell that to American evangelicals like Pence. Yes, hearing voices in your head IS called mental illness. Just because Pence calls the voices Jesus and David Berkowitz said it was his dog Harvey speaking to him doesn’t mean that they’re not the same form of madness.

Pence has often described himself as a “Christian, conservative, Republican, in that order,” clearly putting his personal loyalty to the state and its people lower than that for his imaginary voices-in-his-head friend.
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War for the Planet of the Apes considered

Pierre Boulle never imagined War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest film in the remade franchise. In fact, it would be fair to say the author of the original book never imagined any of the series, from the first in 1968 to the latest, released in 2017. They were far, far from what he had envisioned in the early 1960s. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Boulle’s 1963 novel, Monkey Planet, was basically a satire and a social commentary. And it wasn’t based in America: the astronauts came from France (and their last view on landing was of the Eiffel Tower not the Statue of Liberty… oops. Spoiler alert!). But it had a lot of contemporary themes common to both, including Cold War jitters.

The novel was scripted into an action movie in 1968, starring the hammy Charlton Heston, with Roddy McDowall (and others) in chimp makeup. Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone fame had a hand in the writing, but so did others, and it ended up a sort-of reflection of Boulle’s original. A fun-house mirror reflection.

While the lumbering Heston would (mercifully) only have a cameo role in the first sequel (Beneath, see below), McDowall starred in the remainder and set the tone for the series.

In the 1968 film, Heston plays a heroic American astronaut who fights to win freedom for the humans and stir up a revolution against ape dominance (ironic that the US was so hep on such concepts when they did them, but took umbrage when anyone else – such as Che Guevara – did it). (Heston went on to become a mouthpiece for the NRA.) The other films have no less histrionic plots.

Although Beneath ends with a “divine” bomb blowing up the planet (apes and mutant humans both), the series went on for three more films, the writers providing a “miraculous” escape for apes Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo via an astronaut’s space ship, arriving back in time to 1973. The former couple have a son they call Caesar, who becomes the lead revolutionary in the subsequent two movies, culminating in the final overthrow of humans in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
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