Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Devil's Garden: "The American Gulag -- An Elegy"

After the fake-President's latest decree ending the practice of separating parents and children seeking refuge at our border, there are two major points to keep in mind.
Families seeking refugee status at the Mexican border will still be treated like criminals. Families may not be separated, but they will together behind bars -- indefinitely.
Secondly, US government officials claim they have no way to help families reunite and no intention of offering any assistance to parents (who are, remember, criminals) seeking to find their stolen children. The lack of accurate records reveals our government's unwillingness to treat refugees as real human beings with names and personal histories, and family members such as parents who also had names. 

Here's my poem about the practice of separating families and the implications of America's attitude toward those seeking refuge here.

The American Gulag: An Elegy

O, weep for America -- she is dead!
O weep for Liberty's long shuttered flame!

Weep not for the family of Márcio Goulart do Nascimiento
who crossed the river for fear of being murdered by the neighborhood drug house
in Brazil, where police told him, 'if you complain
you will be killed.'
For now they are safely jailed in Texas, Marcio and his wife in one place,
his two children somewhere else in the American gulag,
convicted of infringing on the peace and security
of the great Land of Liberty
because, as he himself confessed, "I did not wish us to be killed."

Weep not for Juan Francisco Fuentes Castro, fleeing the violent streets of El Salvador,
who sought only, he pled ("may it please the Court")  to bring his children to safety,
for surely they are safe now behind bars.
Some day, perhaps, he will see them again.

Nor weep for poor José de Jesús Días of Mexico,
who fails to understand why the court cannot tell him
where his daughter is.
And so he alone will not accommodate the Court with the obligatory guilty plea
until someone can tell him where in this land of freedom
they have placed her, safe behind bars.

For it is a simple thing, is it not, to declare one's guilt
for wetting one's feet in the sacred waters of Destiny's Dividing Line
in order to preserve the lives of one's own family members?
The Madonna would understand. The Savior would understand.
The judge too sympathizes, but his hands are tied by the bonds of Liberty.
Weep not for José de Jesús Días, for he is patently 'illegal.'
His daughter too is illegal,
but now no doubt safe in a place made of bars and uniforms,
among the tribes of lost children.

Nor let us shed our tears for the sufferings of Elizabeth González Juárez,
who alone among so many, knows where her daughter is.
She crossed the River of Tears from Guanajuato, Mexico,
to protect from harm a three-year-old child, abused by her  
drug-dealing father,
and sought the healing Balm of Gilead in the home
of her own mother who dwells among the kind and peace-loving souls
of Fort Worth, Texas.
Alas, the Land of Liberty could spare no refuge for a single infant more
upon a camel's back of three hundred million souls,
and so delivered the child straight into the hands
of her rightful, family-abusing, drug-dealing father.
It is the American Way.

Weep not, I say, for the 17 defendants dispatched by the Court in
an hour-plus session, finishing in time for lunch.
All are guilty.

But, in the quiet watches of the night,
lend a thought for a thousand children, and yet a thousand more
(by unofficial count at best)
young minds and hearts below the age of legal consent
ripped from the arms of their parents in a few weeks' time
on the strength of a Liberty-abusing Demonic Decree.
How many more victims, both old and young,
lie in separate hells
among the thousands denied refuge in the Home of the (no longer) Free?

Now is the time for your tears.

(Names and other facts taken from The Guardian newspaper: see

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Thorny Garden: Republic and Empire, Rome and America, and Imperial Tendencies in the Current Mor-ass

            Everyone is familiar with the historical catastrophe called "The Fall of the Roman Empire."
            What's less familiar, but far more relevant to our political situation today, is "The Fall of the Roman Republic."
            Most of us were probably introduced to some of the crucial events in the Roman state's transformation from republic to empire by being required to read Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in high schools. (Do high schools still do that?) Or at least watching the classic movie version, with Marlon Brando in the role of Marc Anthony. 
              Brief refresher: two powerful Roman generals with political ambitions -- Caesar and Pompey -- fight a civil war to see who will be top dog. Caesar wins. His followers want to make him  "king," in part to put an end to chaotic political divisions. Before this can happen, a conspiracy of aristocrats who wish to preserve the republic (and "Roman liberties") assassinate Caesar. The pro and anti Caesar factions then fight a civil war. Caesar's followers, under the leadership of Anthony and Octavius, emerge victorious.
            But pretty soon those two similarly ambitious power-hungry figures fall out and fight another war. Octavius's army triumphs, and he has himself crowned "Emperor." Opponents, and critics of one-man rule such as the Roman political philosopher Cicero, are put to death.
            Why does this history matter to the United States? In part because the founders of America's Constitutional system of government viewed the Roman Republic as an essential case study in political science.
            Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the other leaders of the founding generation desired to create a republican form of government that would protect individual rights and withstand the challenges that -- as in the case of Rome -- undermined a government of laws and patriotic values replaced it with a form of one-man absolutist rule.
            In their time the British Empire was headed by a monarch. A republic is generally defined as a form of government with an elected head. A democracy is a form of government in which the head of state and other offices are elected by all its citizens, not by a privileged class.
            Monarchs, or 'kings,' historically claim the right to rule -- in Roman times and as well as in 18th century Europe -- as "absolute monarchs." Absolute rulers have the power, so to speak, to pardon themselves. The king is above the law, because the actions of the king are the law. Other words for this phenomenon: emperor, dictator, archon, tyrant, emperor, strong man, autocrat, czar, kaiser, shah... "sovereign"  One-man-rule, supreme leader, fuhrer, el duce, "party chairman," and many others. It's a very popular career choice.
            But if all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then protections against placing too much power in the hands of one figure have long been regarded since the time of the Enlightenment -- which spawned America's 'founding generation' -- as essential components in a desirable system of government.
            The Roman Republic had a number of these protections. For one, the top executive position --called 'consul' -- served only one year. Moreover, two consuls were elected each year to that post, with the clearly stated intention that each would keep an eye on the other. The Roman Senate, which elected the consuls, kept a lot of power for itself. And its own power was diffused by a large membership.
            But perhaps even more important, according to Rome's own historians, was the Republic's tradition of honorable and public-spirited conduct by those serving in public offices.
            According to the historians Plutarch, Sallust and Cicero, "republican virtues" such as restraint, honesty, and fairness were inculcated in the country's rulers throughout the early and middle periods of Rome's Republican history. In this atmosphere the highest positions tended to be held by is most able men.
            Leaders motivated by these virtues succeeded in guiding their country to unquestioned pre-eminence in its region. Then, according to the historians, Rome's accumulation of great wealth combined with absence of a viable threat from other countries led to a a weakening in traditional values. Personal ambition -- the desire for wealth and fame -- rather than national well-being, drove the conduct of the ruling class.
            The senatorial class, consisting of the county's wealthiest citizens, no longer put public interest ahead of personal goals, such as ambition, power, 1-percenter wealth, and the decadent pleasure we've learned to now call 'conspicuous consumption.'
            The country's 'best men' were now corrupted by pure self-interest, ambition and envy: the would-be dictators Gaius Marius and Sulla (Ceasar's forebear) and as the first century BCE drew to a close by rival military titans Caesar and Pompey. 
            While the Roman Republic was not democracy by modern standards, common citizens, called plebs, had representation in government through an office called the 'tribune' and through their eligibility to serve in the wide-ranging positions of practical, decision-making authority the Romans called "magistrates."

             Taken together, these practices and traditions offered the citizenry of the Roman Republic considerable protections against the abuses of power that the consolidation of power in a single figure or 'dynasty' is likely to bring.
             Given the analysis offered by Plutarch and the others of the causes of the Roman Republic's decline and destruction, followed by the accession of imperial one-man rule -- unchecked, absolute, driven by ambition, vanity, love of power -- no constitutional system, however well devised, is likely to survive the loss of sane, moderate, rational, morally decent standards of conduct by its leaders.
             Values such as honesty, fairness, respect for others -- including those who hold opposing ideas -- for the rule of law, for facts, for science, for traditional humane ideals -- are at least as important as a Constitutional enumeration of powers (abetted by a centuries-long legal and institutional history of respect for precedent and judicial oversight) to the preservation of popular self-government.
            This is why the current travesty of America's national government is no laughing matter, even though I am sorely tempted (and often yield to that temptation) to laugh at it.
            And why I found a few paragraphs in a recent opinion piece appearing in the Boston Globe so provocative. Niall Ferguson is a conservative British political commentator whose basic outlook I abhor. Judging from his piece in the Globe, he believes thinks "slowing China's ascendancy" is more important than protecting democracy, caring about the wellbeing of human beings, or honoring truth. 
            Nevertheless Ferguson makes some very interesting observations in a couple of paragraphs of his op-ed "A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad president builds an empire" appearing in the Globe on June 11. 

            "Think of the world as a three-empire system. It is dominated by the United States, China, and Europe, in that order. Each empire is evolving in a different direction. The American empire, having experienced overextension in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not retreated into isolation. Its latest step down the road to empire is domestic: Trump’s claim that he can pardon himself epitomizes the fundamental challenge he poses to the formal and informal rules of the American republic.
            "All the accompanying symptoms of the transition from republic to empire are already visible. The plebs despise the elites. An old and noble senatorial order personified by John McCain is dying. A cultural civil war rages on social media, the modern-day forum, with all civility cast aside and character assassination a daily occurrence. The president-emperor dominates public discourse by issuing 280-character edicts, picking fights with football players, and arbitrarily pardoning convicted criminals."

            I've also been thinking, more than I wish to, over the past two years of comparisons between the fall of the Roman Republic and the contemporary breakdown of the American political system of self-rule -- what Ferguson airily refers to as "the transition from republic to empire."

            Perhaps there may something valuable to that "old senatorial order" of which McCain may be seen as an exemplar. After all, it was U.S Senators who exposed Nixon's chicanery 44 years ago and drove him out of office. Senators used to behave with a degree of independence, instead of blindly bowing to a President's bad ideas and atrocious conduct out of fear their party would screw them at their next election. Today the only Republican congressmen who call out Trump's misdeeds are those who have already announced they won't run again. The ” president-emperor," as Ferguson tellingly christens the current asshole, indeed 'dominates public discourse.' Even media outlets hostile to everything he says and does lead with the latest 'revelation' every night.
            I'll say it again: there is no such thing as bad publicity. 
            The media's obsessive coverage of Trump's primary campaign -- while largely ignoring Sanders's -- normalized his buffoonish candidacy. Now they obsess over his 'reality show' White House usurpation, legitimized by a stolen election, as if President Shithole were just another politician.
            He isn't. At best he's a transitional autocrat -- and at worst the real thing. And "emperor" (the word is right) aptly describes his style. The Roman Emperor Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate. Our President Dumpster pardons his favorite felons. I'm waiting for one of these monsters to get a judicial appointment.
            And -- to repeat something said above -- in autocratic government the king, or emperor, or dictator is innately above the law. That's exactly what 45 believes.   
            Also, I've just exemplified (about three times) Fergusons's point on the breakdown of public civility by my scurrilous references to the one-time respected office of POTUS.
            When it comes to the political pornography emanating from America's most powerful governing institutions, including some recent Supreme Court decisions, I readily admit that my mind is in the gutter.
            For the record, however, unlike the smirking, empire-friendly Niall Ferguson, I don't think that America's transformation into an "empire" is an acceptable alternative, even if that's the only way to "slow China's ascendancy." 
            Who cares what your 'rival' is up to, if your own country is no better?