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Weekly Reader: Let’s learn from experience

This Weekly Reader features links to articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy as we navigate our way through the last days of the Trump administration. I usually write that I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. Laughter is probably in short supply this week.

This edition of Weekly Reader was headed in a different direction…then January 6th happened. So now it is bifurcated, much like our country at the moment. The first part has articles on the Trump-led riot and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, while the second part — beginning with a wonderful story by the novelist Ann Patchett — covers articles of resilience and the need to address the grief that comes before the grief. If you have read enough about January 6th, jump down to the image of the helping hands.

Frank Rich has been covering Donald Trump and his crimes for years. In New York magazine he writes of The Trashing of the Republic with thoughts on the events of January 6th coupled with the historic election of Senator-elect Raphael Warnock in Georgia the day before.

There are 74 million Americans who voted for the crime boss in the White House, who spent his entire time in office ginning up that mob. Seven of Warnock’s soon-to-be colleagues in the Senate continued to support Trump’s effort to overturn a free and honest presidential election even after his stormtroopers trashed the place. To believe that any of them will abandon Trumpism after Trump is gone is a fantasy.

So what is to be done? I’d say for starters let’s not forgive, let’s not forget, and let’s not delude ourselves. Let’s stop saying, “This is not America” every time “rogue” white cops kill a George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, or when white supremacists foment violence, whether in Charlottesville or Kenosha or Washington.

Rich walks through Trump’s sordid past and his four years of being enabled by wild-eyed believers, cynical opportunists, Vichy Republicans, and yes, some Never-Trumpers who “with the conspicuous exceptions of Stuart Stevens and Joe Scarborough” have never owned up to their “complicity in some of this history even as they rebrand themselves on MSNBC.”

Let’s stop taking seriously Never Trumpers like David Brooks who as recently as August enthused about the “intellectual ferment” in the Republican party and touted to Times readers four senators who embody the “post-2020, post-Trump Republican future”: Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Ben Sasse. (No Black men need apply, of course.)

But Rich doesn’t see all gloom in the events last week. He also recognizes the historic election of The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, to the U.S. Senate. Warnock won, Rich rightly notes…

“…because of Black voters and a remarkable Black political organizer, Stacey Abrams, who defied the systemic efforts of both local officials and the John Roberts Supreme Court to suppress and vitiate minority voting rights….”

“As the old saw has it, it can take a century (or two) to build an institution, but only a day to raze it to the ground. That’s what America flirted with this week. It was heartbreaking, but it should be galvanizing. Let’s be clearheaded: Those who were part of the problem are not part of the solution. Most of them are traitors. Let’s join hands with Senator-elect Warnock and those of good will like him to try to save a country that has for some time now been on the brink of its second civil war.”

One of the best summations of where we stand as a country at this moment comes from Timothy Snyder, the Levin professor of history at Yale University and the author of histories of political atrocity including Bloodlands and Black Earth, as well as the book On Tyranny, on America’s turn toward authoritarianism. Writing in the New York Times, Snyder’s essay The American Abyss is a look at Trump, the big lie, the mob, and what comes next.

As Snyder notes in his book On Tyranny,

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

I highly recommend the essay in The Times. You may also be interested in this list of the 14 characteristics of fascism and the post in Medium about the list’s history and its author Laurence W. Britt.

Another long but informative piece comes from The Religion Dispatches, where Mark Juergensmeyer writes about The Three Qualities Marking the Capitol Assault as Terrorism.

“Though it’s true that the reasons for insurrections are different—supporters of the Islamic State are not the same as militant Buddhists in Myanmar, for example—all the violent extra-legal acts of force aimed against public order that I’ve studied have some common features, including symbolic empowerment, performance violence, and cosmic war.

Speaking of religion, if you wonder where some of the anger on the right comes from, I suggest you read Katherine Stewart‘s New York Times opinion piece The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage.

As someone who writes about the inner workings and leading personalities of a movement that has turned religion into a tool for political power and domination, her piece — like so many these days — is sobering.

Christian nationalists’ acceptance of President Trump’s spectacular turpitude these past four years was a good measure of just how dire they think our situation is. Even a corrupt sociopath was better, in their eyes, than the horrifying freedom that religious moderates and liberals, along with the many Americans who don’t happen to be religious, offer the world.

That this neo-medieval vision is incompatible with constitutional democracy is clear. But in case you’re in doubt, consider where some of the most militant and coordinated support for Mr. Trump’s postelection assault on the American constitutional system has come from. The Conservative Action Project, a group associated with the Council for National Policy, which serves as a networking organization for America’s religious and economic right-wing elite, made its position clear in a statement issued a week before the insurrection.…”

“…Mr. Hawley isn’t against elites per se. He is all for an elite, provided that it is a religiously righteous elite. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School and he clerked for John Roberts, the chief justice. Mr. Hawley, in other words, is a successful meritocrat of the Federalist Society variety. His greatest rival in that department is the Princeton debater Ted Cruz. They are résumé jockeys in a system that rewards those who do the best job of mobilizing fear and irrationalism. They are what happens when callow ambition meets the grotesque inequalities and injustices of our age.” (emphasis added)

Our last Weekly Reader included an interview with my friend Anthea Hartig, Director of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, who spoke about dealing in a historical moment such as we are experiencing now. The timing was fortuitous, as seen in the Washington Post story by reporters Maura Judkis and Ellen McCarthy entitled The Capitol mob desecrated a historical workplace — and left behind some disturbing artifacts.

Because of the historic nature of the Capitol riot, the mob not only destroyed historically important artifacts but created them. As cleanup crews tended to the Capitol’s exterior on Thursday, another type of worker was sifting through the mess for salvageable items. Frank Blazich, a curator from the National Museum of American History collected signs and other ephemera from the scene outside. Among the objects: a sign that read, “Off with their heads: Stop the steal.” Other leavings, including pro-insurrection stickers and flags found inside the Capitol, will be preserved along with artifacts like the speaker’s damaged name plate in the House and Senate collections and shared with national museums, including the Smithsonian’s, said the Committee on House Administration spokesperson.

Maybe I spoke too soon about not finding any laughter, because little did I know that the infamous Zip-Tie Guy — who is, of course, from Tennessee and who, of course, worked at Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk & Rock ’n’ Roll Steakhouse until he was fired a few months ago — brought his mother with him to assault democracy at the U.S. Capitol. Monica Hesse, writing in the Washington Post, explains the details in Trumpist masculinity reaches its high water mark. I hate to say it, but I grew up around people like Zip Tie Guy and his mom.

These final pieces that come out of the events of January 6th examine future options in response to authorianism. Historians including Eric Foner speak to the Washington Post about how Section 3 of the 14th Amendment could be applied to Donald Trump. In looking forward at what the Biden Administration and the Congress can do to help rebuild our democratic institutions, Richard L. Hasen in Slate outlines his ideas in The only way to save American democracy now. In Mother Jones, Bill Gifford writes of progressive policy wins in Utah in the article Red State Rebellion.

Helping hands (photo credit: James Chan from Pixabay)

This is the point where I originally intended to begin this week’s post, before January 6th intervened. Novelist Ann Patchett has a moving story in Harper’s Magazine entitled These Precious Days that I found pitch perfect for these times.

As Maria Browning, the editor of Chapter 16 says, this is a riveting story that “considers the nature of hope, courage, friendship, and storytelling itself. Do yourself a favor and set aside some time to read These Precious Days as we enter the new year.” The story is long (like 45 minutes-long) so make a cup of coffee or tea when you sit down with this one.

If you don’t know about Chapter 16, it is a A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby and I highly recommend you sign up for the newsletter on their website.

It was the same issue of Chapter 16 that reminded me to look at Margaret Renkl‘s recent op-ed in the New York Times, The Bomb That Struck the Heart of Nashville.

If years were musical genres, 2020 would be a country song — or maybe a blues album, or possibly gospel. It’s hard to know, in the midst of sorrow, exactly which brand of anguish is lodged in the human soul. I do know this, though: It’s been a miserable year here (in Nashville), a year that tore our hearts to pieces even before a bomb reduced a historic part of this city to rubble on Christmas Day.

Renkl writes thoughtfully about the anguish and grief that is such a part of 2020. While grieving about what the bomber did to her city, Renkl notes that…

…I am also thinking of the weight we’ve all carried this hard year, in Nashville and everywhere. There are times when it feels too heavy, no matter how resilient we are determined to be.

Pressed into service unrelentingly, resilience can develop into a carapace that grows too hard, a scab that closes off a festering desperation. And if any good is to emerge from all this grief, it will only be because we have learned not to ignore the suffering that came first. If we finally address the grief that came before the grief.

As I’ve written before, Renkl is someone who refuses to settle into ignorance, but instead looks at the world with open eyes. You may also be interested in her piece in Monday’s New York Times on the changing nature of Southern politics in Lies, Damn Lies, and Georgia. She is worthy of following.

If we are to turn things around during these tumultuous times, there are a range of lessons we need to take from the past and apply them to the way we live in the future. On his Life Advice that Doesn’t Suck blog, Mark Manson asked his readers for suggestions in 1,273 People Share Their Best Life Lessons from 2020.

Two spoke directly about the challenges of living in difficult times:

  • A crisis doesn’t change people; it amplifies who they already are. Adversity seems to bring out not necessarily the worst in people, but the essence of people.
  • Fear is dangerous. (F)ear drives people to be highly selfish, capable of only thinking of themselves, their own health and convenience.

These are difficult times requiring resilience. But as Renkl writes we can’t ignore the suffering that is leading to so much desperation in the country today. We also can’t ignore how desperately some people — including some smart individuals with “callow ambition” — want to destroy our democracy for their own selfish gains. That requires ever-vigilant resistance.

More to come…


Image by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay

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