Tone Matters, Mr. Trump

when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom,
the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

William Shakespeare
Henry V, Act 3, Scene 6

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As anyone who visits this blog will note, it has been a year and a half since my last posting. Although this corresponds with Donald Trump’s rise to power, this is not the reason for my absence. I have finally buckled down on a long-planned novel and, by excluding nearly everything else from my thoughts, written the first twenty-some chapters, and developed a detailed outline of its plot and characters. However, now that I would like to take a rest from the book and resume posting (even if only on the occasional basis that is my habit), I find myself in a strange position. Although I would prefer to consider matters of more substance than Donald Trump’s public tantrums, the genuine threat he poses to our democracy and our natural environment make this impossible. Also, the first Independence Day of Trump’s regime has encouraged me to share my own thoughts about the state of our nation.

Although much can be said about Trump and the Republican Party’s agenda, other, more qualified writers have addressed this in considerable depth. Instead, I would like to focus on the tone of his speeches, tweets, and incidental remarks, which seem to come from a man unable to enter the kind of civil discourse that has characterized our democracy’s finest moments. Instead, he attacks even the slightest opposition with unprecedented levels of bile, vulgarity, and mean-spiritedness. This has been evident in his attacks on immigrants, journalists, the handicapped, and most disturbingly, on women including Mika Brzezinski, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Megan Kelly, and others.

Many commentators have warned against letting Mr. Trump’s endless twitter storms distract us from the larger issues raised by his policies, appointments, and executive orders. Some have even argued that his tantrums are deliberate attempts at distraction. This may be true, but I don’t think we can separate the substance of his presidency from the tone he has taken.

When I was a child, my mother taught me the importance of kindness and good manners. She was not simply responding to some outdated social code. She correctly understood that success in life depended on an ability to behave courteously, even with people I might find stupid and despicable. Civility is not a sign of weakness; it often takes real effort. As I age, I seem to encounter more situations where restraint is needed, and must exert more effort to do so. Also, I will admit that I have not hesitated to breach standards of behavior when confronted with people who truly deserve it. Anger and heartfelt profanity are often useful, but lose their power when they become our only way of facing opposition.

There is a quote that has been attributed to Oscar Wilde (I was unable to confirm his authorship): A true gentleman is never unintentionally rude.

This commitment to civility does not just belong in our personal lives. It is a foundation of democracy. The idea that everyone should be able to express their ideas freely, without either threatening or receiving physical or verbal abuse, has been recognized since classical Greece (it is true that Socrates was killed for exercising this right, but as I recall, his persecutors were conservative politicians threatened by his calls for change, and his appeal to the younger generation). If we look at the Declaration of Independence, its tone is high-minded, and reasoned, even though the men who signed it faced very real threats of treason, execution, and war.

The reason for this commitment to civility across time and cultures is simply that it works: it is the essential foundation of any social order that will endure. The explicit legal, institutional, and procedural structures of our laws and government derive from implicit canons of civil discourse, from respect for people and institutions, and from shared standards of fact and reason that have evolved across history. They are evident in the first codifications of law in the bronze-age Mediterranean. They were articulated in the thinking of both Classical Greece, and Confucianism and Taoism in the East.  They are honored by all the world’s religions. They resonate in the words that introduce our nation’s founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The problem is not simply that Mr. Trump offends standards of civility. His actions leave him and our country weaker. Old allies in Europe and Asia are already starting to distance themselves from our longstanding alliances. The toughness he boasts is not letting the US negotiate better trade deals; by pulling out of agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords, he is leaving a vacuum that countries like China and the European Union are rushing to fill. He has squandered the USA’s moral authority in the world, and left us to face emboldened enemies with little more than threats and an increasingly over-stretched military. Even his political power inside the beltway is lessening, as members of congress recognize he offers little threat to their re-election, and increasingly speak out against his more outrageous behaviors.

Dictators have often started their rise to power by trampling standards of civil discourse, but they ultimately fall when the populace rejects the escalating spiral of cruelty and oppression required to sustain authoritarian regimes. Reason and civility have always reasserted themselves, although sadly, it can take time and often follows shocking convulsions of violence. In modern times, with people who have experienced reason and democracy, this reaction is even more inevitable.

Whenever Donald Trump tweets his latest vulgarity, his shills and sycophants repeat the same rationalizations: “He is a different kind of president”; “He is a fighter who strikes back”; “This is what the people voted for”; “This is a modern presidency”; and on ad nauseam. One of the most interesting of these rationalizations is the claim that when a person enters the presidency, its traditions and magnitude will change him in positive ways: that the nature of the office will elevate the office holder. They tell us that we only need to wait for this magic to work on Mr. Trump, and all will be well.

It is true that all the presidents I remember were visibly transformed by the office, but I am not waiting for this to happen with the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. These men respected and opened themselves to the traditions and examples of the presidency. They allowed themselves to be humbled by the thoughts and deeds of people they recognized to be greater than they, and in doing so claimed their own share of greatness.

Mr. Trump will not rise in this way because he attacks the very traditions of reason, vision, and humility that define the presidency at its best. He has barricaded his fragile ego against the forces that shaped his predecessors, and surrounded himself with extremists and opportunists who reinforce his worst tendencies. He is trapped in a cage of narcissism and paranoia, and will remain a foolish, bitter person’s parody of power.

Embracing our traditions of reason and civil discourse is the surest way to resist Trumpism simply because doing so aligns us with the ascent of justice, reason, science, and compassion across history. Maintaining a civil political discourse will also help us further to isolate Mr. Trump as all but his most fanatical supporters peel away in disgust. Even congressional Republicans are starting to talk about working with Democrats on issues like healthcare.

There is another reason we must challenge Mr. Trump’s vulgarity. The endless onslaught of his rages can wear down even the strongest of us. How do we counter the feeling of emotional and spiritual exhaustion caused by venom he spews daily? How can we recover our faith in the fundamental decency of our fellow citizens when so many of them embrace this man’s outrages? How can we engage the power of non-violent resistance, but do so from a place of hope, rather than despair?

I believe the answer to these questions is to strengthen our connection to the historical, philosophical, and literary foundations of reason and civil discourse, to remind ourselves that the forces of history, and the voices of our greatest thinkers are on our side. We can begin by re-reading our own founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. I keep a small pocket copy of these documents close to my desk, and refer to it often; they are a model of reasoned thought. We can find encouragement in writings and examples of practitioners of non-violence, including Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

We can draw strength from embracing the ancient foundations of democracy. Over the last year, I have found strength in the Greek philosophers, including Socrates and Aristotle. I have found reassurance in the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoics, in spiritual writings ranging from Lao Tzu to the Bible, and in the works of Milton, Locke, and other Enlightenment thinkers who inspired our own founders.

As a writer, I have revisited my literary inspirations, starting with Homer’s tales of both virtuous (Odysseus) and foolish (Agamemnon) leadership. I have found deep resonance in Shakespeare’s explorations of the personal, moral dimensions of power in his histories and tragedies. I have found comfort in the uniquely American voices of poets, from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson, to more modern figures including Stevens, Frost, and Ginsburg.

As a scientist, I have found inspiration in the lives of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, and others who fought against ignorance to bring the modern world into existence – a world where reason triumphs over dogma, and truth is measured against reality, rather than political expediency.

These are not prescriptions, but only examples of things that have given me perspective, inspiration, and faith in the future. Reason and civility live in so many branches of our cultural heritage that anyone who looks will find them. These are the traditions that Donald Trump is attacking, because deep down, he and his supporters realize that that civility, compassion, and reason are the ultimate opposition to his vulgar stew of hatred and authoritarianism.

I also believe they are the soil in which our resistance will grow and bear fruit.

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Christmas Reflections of a Nonbelieving Scientist, 2015

Home (NASA Image)

It has long been my habit, even though I am a confirmed agnostic (I recognize that this is something of an oxymoron), to pause on Christmas and consider the spiritual message of the holidays. This year, doing so seems even more important than ever. Around the world, religious and ideological differences seem to be deepening in intensity, widening in breadth, and boiling with a rage that too often erupts into violence. In my own country, I see broad public support for a right-wing demagogue’s proposal to ban all Muslim’s from the country. I hear the political rhetoric surrounding a psychotic loner’s attack on a women’s health clinic echoed in presidential debates. I witness the terrible consequences of the systematic perversion of an ancient religion to exploit a troubled people to violence in cities around the world. And, among all this madness, even progressive leaders have failed to offer any compelling alternative to rage, hatred, and destruction.

I find myself searching for some counterweight to the forces that have left our society so out of balance.

Certainly, the challenges are great. The pressures of population growth and the disruptions of technology have brought long-stable cultures and faiths into collision. Economic shifts have left countless people without the means to build a life for themselves or their families. Corporate greed and governmental complicity have allowed arms manufacturers to flood the world with terrible weapons, all the while denying any responsibility for the destruction that follows. Easy travel and telecommunications have made it possible for the smallest, most irrational political movements to threaten the entire planet.

Although the civilized world’s diplomatic, military, and intelligence organizations are responding to the best of their ability, we must recognize that they cannot by themselves reverse the forces underlying this violence. Lasting answers must come from changes to the human heart. In spite of the divisive rhetoric that dominates our politics, we must learn to embrace the diversity of culture and belief that now fills the world.

In spite of the differences that separate people, all of us – all the people and animals on our planet – are bound in a web of interconnections, a deeper, universal fabric of life. It is the divisions between us that are illusory, delusions fostered by men and women of meager imagination and even less compassion, who see these divisions as a way to gain power, wealth, or simply to spread their egotistical ambitions through the world.

This interdependency is biological: we all draw life from the same air, the same water, and the same biosphere. It is also cultural: my humanist beliefs have been shaped by the same religious and secular thinkers who have articulated the hopes of all men and women of good will.

So on this day of shared winter celebration, even as I remain the irreligious individual I have become, I will open my heart to this deeper unity. I will embrace the knowledge that I am part of this broader fabric of human and animal life.

Today, I will recognize that I am indeed a humanist, but also I am a Christian, and I am a Jew, and I am a Muslim. Today, I am a Buddhist, I am a Hindu, and I am an atheist, and I will embrace all the good these diverse philosophies have created, just as I will continue to reject the evil that too often grows within them.

Today, I am the Catholic who finds a new Pope’s embrace of love has strengthened her own faith.

I am the Jew that rejoices in my spiritual home in Israel, but longs to bring a similar home to the Palestinian people living on its fringes.

I am the young Muslim man who rejects the call of violent Jihad, and embraces the harder struggle of building a world of peace.

I am the Native American sitting in a drum circle, resurrecting an ancient culture from the ruins left by genocide.

I am the displaced worker in Iowa who finds comfort in the words of Christ, while rejecting the poisonous ideologies coming from the pulpits and podiums around me.

I am the feminist imprisoned for speaking out in a country that sees her and her sisters as little more than cattle.

I am the Tibetan monk who faces the end of my ancient way of life with patience and compassion.

I am the Chinese soldier who longs to build a life with the girl he left in a factory in Guangzhou.

I am the fourteen year-old Nigerian girl, abducted by Boko Haram terrorists and given as a prize to their soldier, who sits nursing the rapist’s baby in a locked room, waiting for her tormenter to return from his mission of terror, and praying for a deliverance that will not come.

I am the architect who sees all she has created turned to rubble by a terrorist’s bomb, and gathers herself to rebuild.

I am a pregnant teenager, homeless and alone in a winter city whose name has lost all meaning.

I am a young black man, imprisoned for a crime of no consequence, reading books of law in a prison library.

I am the tribesman working to stop poaching in a nature reserve in Uganda, while my own survival remains uncertain.

I am the billionaire who chooses to use his wealth to help the lost and powerless, rather than to spread the ideology of privilege.

I am a starving polar bear searching a receding glacier for food, and I am a lost cat, prowling garbage for scraps in an alley in Los Angeles.

I am an honest cop in Chicago, facing mistrust in the eyes of everyone I encounter.

I am the scientist who refuses to stop warning of environmental catastrophe, and struggles against politicians who would silence those warnings.

I am a gay teenager struggling to understand the emotions that have set me apart from my family.

I am a wife and mother in Paris who finds herself on the front lines of a war that has shattered the city she loves.

I am the artist who seeks to express the legacy of the past and the promise of the future, within the chaotic forms that surround me.

I am an old man in a mid-sized city in the southwestern United States, hoping to face my final years with wisdom, compassion, and the love of the woman beside me.

I am harmless, powerless, frightened, unheard, but on this day of celebration, I pray for compassion and safety for all the creatures of the world.

Christmas, 2015.

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Aging Consciously

I look at everything that I have done,
The years, the days, the hours;
Life it don’t overcome,
But it opens like a flower.

Love More or Less
Marianne Faithfull, Tom Mcrae

When I retired three years ago, I found myself with a large amount of free time, and financial resources sufficient to enjoy it. At the same time, I became aware of the challenges of aging, both by observing older people, and by noting the appearance of various twinges in my own body. I began to wonder why some older people seem beaten down by age, and resigned to further decline and death, while others seem to retain an enthusiasm for life, creativity, and friendship throughout their final years.

I have tried to follow the better of these examples by embracing a positive attitude, healthy living, good relationships, and my work as a writer and musician – to age consciously, through deliberate, hopefully life affirming choices. I have also learned that, although this commitment is necessary for the life I want to live, it alone is not sufficient. The challenges of aging and of mortality are daunting. To be honest, they can be terrifying. I find myself needing some sense of purpose, some work that will guide me through these fertile, unexplored, and ultimately final years I have been given.

Many of my contemporaries find this sense of purpose in religion, but I have never been able to embrace the leaps of faith and submission to spiritual authority organized religions demand. I have worked and lived my life as a scientist. I find enough wonder and beauty in the scientific explanation of the universe to fill my heart with a constant gratitude for being alive. When I read the words of Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, William Blake, and other spiritual masters, I find them to be more in tune with the traditions of humanistic reason and the joys of artistic expression, than the labyrinthine, guilt-ridden theologies required by most religions.

So, I find myself wondering how I can think of my remaining years in a way that makes them the great adventure I know they can become. Most importantly, how can I do this through reason, empiricism, and perhaps just a touch of faith and spiritual love? This is particularly difficult in a culture like ours, which places its greatest value on the dreams of youth, the seductions of the new, and the visible symbols of professional and economic success. In an often-quoted line from Yeats: “This is no country for old men.”

Fortunately, I have been blessed with a humanities education, which gives me some tools for answering these questions (as well as the ability to quote Yeats, a skill which is of less use to me as a happily married man than it was in my wilder days). In the course of going back over the library I’ve accumulated since high school, I seem to have found an answer in the same place I find answers to most questions: In the writings of Classical Greek Philosophers, particularly Aristotle, whose thinking has always resonated with my own perception of the world.

In his Ethics, Aristotle describes the highest good humans should strive for as ευδαιμονία, or eudaimonia. This is often translated as happiness, and although happiness fits as a literal translation, I think that our modern association of happiness with money, status, and consumption has devalued the term. Bliss and blessedness are much better translations, but the interpretation that strikes me as most fitting is flourishing.

Aristotle tried to understand the flux of existence by arguing that everything has a deep nature, an innate potential that is unique to it, and that becomes actualized over time. We can understand the seeming chaos of existence as a grand dance of everyone and everything moving toward a realization – a flourishing – of its potential. The important part of this idea is that this potential is inherent in the nature of the thing itself – not in some abstract, idealized, Platonic other. So, the big bang becomes a universe because the laws governing universes formed within it during its first few nanoseconds. A vibrating string becomes music because the physics of sound and the biology of hearing enable us to perceive harmony and rhythm, tension and resolution. Similarly, seeds become plants, bunnies become rabbits, babies become adults, and old men become . . .?

Every person, at every age strives to express his or her potential (they really can’t avoid doing so), and to flourish in so doing (if they are fortunate). This goal takes on a unique flavor at this time in my life: I am closing in on my last chance to actualize whatever potential remains unrealized within in me. The thought of anyone dying without realizing their unique, innate gifts – without flourishing – strikes me as terribly sad. Putting it bluntly, my purpose, my responsibility, my great adventure in these final years, is to complete myself before I die.

This has become the focus of my desire to live and age consciously, and it has placed everything I experience in a sharper focus. If music touches me more profoundly, if literature resonates with a deeper understanding, and if the beauty of nature, art, and well-graced men, women, and children is more arresting, it is because all of these move me toward this completion.

At the start of this essay, I included as an epigram a few lines from a song written by the wonderful Marianne Faithfull. These lines capture this idea in far fewer words than I have needed. Repeating them offers a perfect end to this essay:

Life it don’t overcome,
but it opens like a flower.

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The Mad Men Finale: Creativity as a Way of Living in the World

As readers of this blog know, I am a huge Mad Men fan. So, whether in the hope of adding something new to the gigabytes of fan analysis and commentary that fill the internet; or consoling my grief at the end of one of television’s finest creations; or simply trying to stop the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” song from replaying in my mind all day, I would like to share my own thoughts on the series finale. In particular, although many commentators have described the resolution of Don‘s journey simply as a cynical return to advertising with a great idea for a Coca Cola commercial, I found it to be a deeply resonant insight into the joys and struggles of living a creative life.


First, a few words about the other characters, whose stories expanded the themes of the show with remarkable power:

I found Joan’s story to be the most moving, being both heart wrenching and triumphant. Although I had hoped she would find the love she desired, I had suspected that the need to realize her professional and creative potential would become the center of her life. How can someone with her intelligence endure the abuse of unimaginative, sexist, corporate drones without developing an overwhelming drive to realize the gifts that had been denied for so long?

Although I was initially disappointed that Peggy turned down Joan’s offer of a partnership in her production company, I believe that her instincts were right. Joan was as much a mentor to Peggy as was Don, and it was clearly time for Peggy to move past both of her teachers and navigate toward her own goals. I do not know what will become of Peggy’s romance with Stan, but it is part of the process of finding her own creative voice.

As to Pete Campbell, I found myself happy for him, in spite of his ingrained tendency to selfishness, deceit, and self-pity. Although I doubt he will remain faithful to his wife for long, I do believe he has learned to keep his affairs discreet, short-lived, and out of town – an approach greatly simplified by the Lear Jet now placed at his disposal. I also believe Trudy probably will come to recognize and accept the arrangement, at least at an unconscious level.

I find Roger and Marie’s romance to be surprisingly sweet, and much deserved for a man who was possibly the sweetest character in the series. As they settle into a deep connection, made almost unbreakable by the intensity of their sexual passion and the ferocity of their arguments, I can see them becoming icons of sophisticated, New York Bohemianism, sitting at their usual table in a well-worn cafe, surrounded by a growing community of artists, writers, and assorted eccentrics.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the finale showed Don’s daughter Sally washing dishes in the dimly lit Victorian kitchen while her domineering, cancer-stricken mother sat smoking at the table. I can only hope that Don’s past and future presence in Sally’s life will help her to shake off her mother’s influence and live her own life – a possibility suggested by the strong albeit turbulent connection between Don and his daughter, and by Betty’s surprisingly perceptive comment in her last wishes letter: that Sally would indeed walk to her own drummer.

LOW RES image - Don Draper MAD MEN finale credit: AMC

That leads us to Don’s strange, somewhat ambiguous satori on the meadow overlooking the California coast. Although his “enlightenment” was ultimately grist for his advertising work, producing the famous “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial, I disagree with those commentators who describe it simply as Don failing to rise above his life as an ad man. If we look past Don’s sexual irresponsibility, his desperate alpha-male persona, and the harm he has caused those close to him, we can see his journey as a flawed Everyman’s effort to realize the gifts of great creative ability in spite of the obstacles of modern society and his own fundamental loneliness. Continue reading

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The Day I Met Thelonious and Nica in Heaven

Nica and Thelonious
Nica and Thelonious

I was sitting in my music room the morning after the biggest snowstorm of the winter, alternately practicing my guitar and looking out at the snow piled heavy on the trees. My wife walked in with a late morning cup of coffee.

“I hate winter,” she said.

Not wanting to disappoint her, I gave my standard answer. “I love it. It’s pretty. Besides, we get to spend the morning drinking coffee and looking at the snow.”

“Some of us have to go out and run errands,” she said, sipping her coffee. “What are you working on?”

“A Thelonious Monk tune: Pannonica,” I said handing her the sheet music. “I can’t seem to get it right.”

She looked it over. She’d had early training on the piano and could read music easily. Sometimes, I felt envious.

“I’ve heard you practicing this,” she said. “You sound pretty good to me.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I can play the notes OK, but I just can’t get the feeling right.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a love song, but I can’t seem to make it sound like one.”

“A love song?” she said looking over the music, her eyes narrowed in concentration. “It looks strange for a love song.”

“That’s Monk’s genius. He could make all those odd chord changes and dissonances sound beautiful. You see,” I went on, “it’s a song he wrote for a woman who literally saved his life. I just can’t seem to give it the feeling it deserves.”

My wife took another sip of coffee and sat down. She knew I wanted to talk. Continue reading

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