General Flynn’s Resignation: A Holy Warrior Derails Himself

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Flynn waiting for an elevator in Trump Tower back in December (NBC)

W.J. Astore

General Michael Flynn’s resignation as National Security Adviser is good news, and not only because of his lack of candor in regards to Russia.  Flynn is a believer in religious war.  He sacralized the war on terror and saw himself as a holy warrior against radical Islamist terrorists.  (Of course, he couldn’t perceive his own extremism and radicalism.)

Both in religious terms and in predatory terms, men like Flynn and Steve Bannon see radical Islamists as the enemy.  These “animals” cut off heads!  A creed war that treats the enemy as animals is a combustible combination.  When you see the enemy as an inferior yet insidious “Other,” there is no opportunity for compromise.  Vermin can only be exterminated.  Especially when they are allegedly out to destroy your “Judeo-Christian” values.

Flynn’s war against radical Islamists would be unending, driven as it would be by outrage against what he saw as a verminous enemy.  In such a “holy” war, killing acquires quasi-sacred meaning.  Flynn’s war was not to be a Clausewitzian war of politics by other means. Nor was it a greed-war driven by money and empire.  His war was far more insidious.

When you conceive of the enemy as predators who simultaneously have the human ability to enslave you with their own creed (Sharia Law): Well, this enemy is a shape-shifting monster. Small wonder that Flynn infamously tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”

What was the source of his fear?  In theory, what is the biggest threat to humans?  Not tigers or snakes or other predators; they can be identified.  The biggest threat is something human but not quite human.  Something that looks human, has human skills, human smarts, but is ruthlessly inhuman, even as it readily blends in with “normal” humans.

The tight Islamophobic circle around Trump (one weaker, with Flynn’s resignation) appears to view Muslims in this way.  It’s a little like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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They look like us — act like us — and that’s precisely the problem!  Even a five-year-old Muslim refugee, no matter how innocent-looking, is seen by Sean Spicer and crew as an opening to an unstoppable invasion of America, hence Trump’s hurried and sweeping ban on Muslim immigration.

Flynn’s ideology supported the dynamic of permanent religious war.  His writings and tweets were consistent with an exterminatory struggle for existence of the worst kind.  His actions and views would only perpetuate jihad, a struggle he apparently sees as inevitable.

Until we neutralize jihadists like Flynn (and Bannon) and his Islamist counterparts, until we see a common humanity instead of viewing the enemy as insanely ferocious predators who are out to destroy our way of life, there is no hope for even a semblance of peace in this world.

What Will “Freedom” Mean in a Trump Administration?

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Remember the 1st and 4th Amendments?

W.J. Astore

What will freedom mean in a Trump administration?  During his campaign, why did Trump harp on the Second Amendment but none of the others?  How did our country come to define freedom as buying lots of guns and ammo without restrictions, or flying objectionable symbols such as Confederate battle flags?  What kind of “freedom” is the freedom to spend lots of money on guns? What kind of “speech” is flying a symbol that is highly offensive and hateful to many Americans?

The “freedom” to fly a flag associated with slavery, rebellion, oppression, and racism doesn’t seem to me to be much of a “freedom.” The same is true of the “freedom” to spend lots of money on guns and ammo. What is so “free” about that?

The “freedom” of the average Joe has come to be defined as the right to carry guns or the right to fly racist flags. But what about the right to a living wage, the right to privacy, the right to good health care, the right to a decent education, the right to clean water and fresh air, the right to have a real say in the political process?  These rights are being increasingly abridged, yet so many Americans see no infringement to their “freedom” here.

Surely one of the great triumphs of the power elite has been the redefinition of “freedom” such that the freedoms that are allowed, like buying lots of guns, make no impact on the elite’s ability to rule and to exploit.

A couple of sobering facts.  During his campaign, Trump railed against the press, suggesting that he’d work to change libel laws so that he could sue and punish the press for writing critical stories about him.  Also, Trump has suggested some kind of national registry for Muslims, and members of his staff have suggested internment camps for unreliable elements, citing the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a laudable precedent.

What the hell?

As the Trump administration takes shape, apparently with men like Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and retired General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, Americans would do well to read and re-read the Bill of Rights, all of them, not just rights like the Second Amendment.  For what good is it to be able to buy lots of guns if you need to worry about your religion, your right to privacy, your ability to organize and protest, and your right to a press that is untrammeled by the government?

Alarmist?  Consider the following facts about retired General Flynn, according to FP: Foreign Policy:

Earlier this year, Flynn Tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” and just last month offered his support for a prominent Alt-Right writer and activist. In his book Field of Fight released earlier this year, Flynn wrote, “I’m totally convinced that, without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated, and very likely destroyed” by Islamic militants, FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce noted in a story about the book.

Sitting in your walled bunker, surrounded by guns as well as the stars and bars and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, is not much of a “freedom” if the government is illegally watching you, or getting ready to intern you in a camp because you worship God in the name of Allah instead of Yahweh or Jehovah, or getting ready to deport you because not all of your papers are perfectly in order.

First they came for undocumented immigrants, and I did not speak out, for I was not undocumented.  Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out, for I was not Muslim.  Then they came for the protesters, and I did not speak out, for I was not a protester.  Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Islamophobia Must be Fought and Defeated

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Muslim-Americans have given much to America.  Some have given their all.

W.J. Astore

When I was a lieutenant colonel on active duty, I supervised an officer in the U.S. Air Force who was (and is) an Iraqi-American. He came to the U.S. as a boy after President George H.W. Bush’s call to the Shia to revolt against Saddam in the aftermath of Desert Storm, which was ruthlessly suppressed by Saddam as Bush and company did nothing.

As an Iraqi-American in uniform, he served as an interpreter attached to the 101st Airborne in Iraq in 2004, if memory serves–dangerous times indeed for U.S. troops in Iraq.

He wrote to me, rightly outraged, after Ben Carson made his anti-Muslim comments back in September of 2015 during the presidential primary season. It made him so sad, so angry, as a U.S. Air Force veteran and as a Muslim-American to hear such ignorance, such bias, such Islamophobia. And it made me angry as well.

So many Muslim-Americans have served this country with distinction, troops like Navy veteran Nate Terani, who has written an eloquent article at TomDispatch.com on the prejudice he faced as an Iranian-American.  Terani is doing his best to fight a new enemy, Islamophobia, the irrational fear of Islam fed by the unhinged rhetoric of candidates like Ben Carson and Donald Trump.

Here is how Terani puts it in his article:

In Iran, theocratic fundmentalists sowed division and hatred of outsiders–of Westerners, Christians, and other religious minorities. Here in America, the right wing seems to have stolen passages directly from their playbook as it spreads hatred of immigrants, particularly Muslim ones. This form of nationalistic bigotry–Islamophobia–threatens the heart of our nation. When I chose to serve in the military, I did so to protect what I viewed as our sacred foundational values of liberty, equality, and democracy. Now, 20 years later, I’ve joined forces with fellow veterans to again fight for those sacred values, this time right here at home.

As America builds walls and weapons and wages war all over the globe, as our leaders look outward for enemies, we’re forgetting the enemy within America, the enemy that is a much more serious threat to our national security.  That enemy, which exists right here in America’s heartland, is ignorance, hatred, fear, aggression, compounded by a cowardly desire to “get even” and to “make America great again” by ostracizing other Americans who are considered “different” and “untrustworthy.”

But spreading fear and bigotry is not a way to national security; it’s a way to national insanity.  Islamophobia, like all other irrational fears, must be fought and defeated.

Hillary Clinton’s Deplorables and Irredeemables

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W.J. Astore

When Hillary Clinton called out half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” to the point where some are “irredeemable,” I shook my head at her elitism even as I was surprised by her lack of political acumen.  Her comment lumping these “deplorables” into a “basket” came at a fundraiser on September 9th, even as her podium touted the message “stronger together.”  As I wrote in a Facebook post on September 10th, “Painting half your opponent’s supporters as [potentially] irredeemable is just bad strategy.”

But it’s worse than that.  First off, Hillary should have known better.  After all, she went aggressively after Barack Obama when in 2008 he made his comment about bitter rural folk clinging to guns and religion.  (And Obama’s comment is considerably milder than Hillary’s.) By calling out Obama for his comment, Hillary was able to win that year’s primary in Pennsylvania.  Second, for a seasoned pol Hillary showed a surprising lack of discipline.  She herself prefaced her remarks with the phrase, “to just be grossly generalistic.”  Grossly generalistic?  That’s supposed to be Trump’s sphere, not Hillary’s.

But third and finally is that word, “irredeemable.”  Having been raised Catholic and having studied evangelicalism and American religion, that word instantly caught my attention. For Christians, to suggest that someone is “irredeemable” is in itself deplorable.  It’s as if you’re limiting the agency of God.  God determines who is redeemable and who isn’t.  No sinner, i.e. human, has the probity or power to do so.

All Christians know the story of the thief on the cross next to Christ as He was crucified. Christ chose to redeem that man, saying to him that “today, you will be with me in paradise.” As I type these words, an old hymn plays in my mind: “Christ, Jesus, victor.  Christ, Jesus, ruler.  Christ, Jesus, Lord and Redeemer.”  For God, no one is “irredeemable,” nor should any person make such claims, for God’s ways are past searching out.

Mark Shields on PBS put this exceptionally well this past Friday night:

You don’t [use that word, irredeemable] — America is built on redemption. People came here because things weren’t working out.

My generation, the old, oldest fart generation, OK, 13 percent of us were in favor of same-sex marriage 15 years ago, now 41 percent. On civil rights, America has changed dramatically and profoundly. We believe in redemption, not just because you’re a liberal, because you’re an American.

And that — when you write off people and blame the customer, that is really bad.

To this, David Brooks at PBS added the following:

[The word] irredeemable is what leapt out at me.

And the person who was at the Emanuel Baptist — AME Church in Charleston, they believe the guy who shot and killed their close friends was redeemable, but she thinks millions of Americans aren’t?

And that speaks and I think it plays, because there is a brittleness there. And I don’t know if there is a brittleness within. I sort of doubt it. I think she’s probably a very good person within. But there has been a brittleness to her public persona that has been ungenerous and ungracious. And it plays a little to that and why people just don’t want to latch on [to her campaign].

If Hillary loses the election in November, it may very well come back to her “grossly generalistic” comments on September 9th, when she anointed herself as the judge of who is redeemable and who isn’t.

 

“Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty”: Remembering the Catonsville Nine

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W.J. Astore

In May 1968, nine Catholic activists set fire to draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, in a deliberate act of sabotage and protest against the Vietnam War.  For the crime of destroying government property, a crime they freely admitted, they were tried in federal court in Baltimore and found guilty.  I’ve been reading the edited trial transcript (with commentary) by Daniel Berrigan, one of the Catonsville Nine and a Catholic priest.  What unified these nine people was their moral opposition to the Vietnam War, a moral revulsion to the acts their country was committing in Vietnam, a revulsion that drove them to burn draft records with a weak brew of homemade napalm so as to gain the attention of their fellow citizens.

On this Easter Weekend, I would like to focus on a few of the statements made by the Catonsville Nine, as recorded by Daniel Berrigan in “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”

Statement by Philip Berrigan

We have been accused of arrogance
But what of the fantastic arrogance … of our leaders
What of their crimes against the people … the poor and powerless
Still no court will try them … no jail will receive them
They live in righteousness … They will die in honor
For them we have one message … for those
in whose manicured hands … the power of the land lies
We say to them
Lead us … Lead us in justice
and there will be no need to break the law
Let the President do … what his predecessors failed to do
Let him obey the rich less … and the people more
Let him think less of the privileged
and more of the poor
Less of America and more of the world
Let lawmakers … judges … and lawyers
think less of the law … more of justice
less of legal ritual … more of human rights …

Statement by Thomas Lewis

We were speaking as Americans
We were proud to be Americans
Yet we have representatives in Vietnam
who do terrible things in our name
We were saying to the military
This is wrong … This is immoral … This is illegal
And their response to this was
they were only obeying orders

Question from the Judge: But they did respond to you, did they not?

Thomas Lewis: It was an atrocious response.

Statement by Marjorie Melville

I know that burning draft files
is not an effective way
to stop a war … but
who has found a way
of stopping this war
I have racked my brain
I have talked to all kinds of people
What can you do
They say yes … yes
But there is no answer
no stopping it
the horror continues

Statement by Thomas Melville

I hear our president … confuse greatness with strength
riches with goodness … fear with respect
hopelessness and passivity with peace
The clichés of our leaders
pay tribute to property … and indifference to suffering
We long for a hand of friendship and succor
and that hand
clenches into a fist
I wonder how long we can endure

Statement by George Mische

We were not out to destroy life
There is a higher law we are commanded to obey
It takes precedence over human laws
My intent was to follow the higher law
My intent was to save lives … Vietnamese lives
North and South American lives
To stop the madness
That was the intent

Statement of Daniel Berrigan

Question from the Judge: You say your intention was to save these children, of the jury, of myself, when you burned the [draft] records?  That is what I heard you say.  I ask if you meant that.

Daniel Berrigan:

I meant that
of course I mean that
or I would not say it
The great sinfulness
of modern war is
that it renders concrete things abstract
I do not want to talk
about Americans in general ….
I poured napalm [on the draft records]
on behalf of the prosecutor’s
and the jury’s children

Closing Statement by Daniel Berrigan

When at what point will you say no to this war?
We have chosen to say
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of truth stops here
this war stops here
Redeem the times!
The times are inexpressibly evil
Christians pay conscious … indeed religious tribute
to Caesar and Mars
by the approval of overkill tactics … by brinksmanship
by nuclear liturgies … by racism … by support of genocide
They embrace their society with all their heart
and abandon the cross
They pay lip service to Christ
and military service to the powers of death
And yet … and yet … the times are inexhaustibly good
solaced by the courage and hope of many
The truth rules … Christ is not forsaken …

At the end of the trial, as all nine defendants were found guilty, a “member of the audience” cried, “Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty.”

That last statement, and the words of the Catonsville Nine, give us much to ponder on this Easter Weekend.

Why Fund the Arts and Humanities?

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W.J. Astore

Federal funding for the arts and humanities often comes under attack, notably from conservative quarters when a particular artistic expression is considered to be objectionable.  Cut the NEH and NEA (national endowments for the humanities and arts), Paul Ryan says, and we can save a whopping $335 million a year (slightly more than the cost of one F-35 jet fighter for the Marine Corps).

What are the humanities and the arts, after all?  Why should the government fund them? Can’t we let the marketplace rule?  Won’t good art find an audience (and patrons) without the government getting involved?

Art and the humanities?  Well, they are what make us human.  Art and music and dance and theater, but also our history, literature, languages, poetry, and so on.  Art and the humanities teach us about the human condition — what it means to be human.  So, in a way, religion is also part of the arts and humanities in the secular sense of the history of various belief systems, what they teach us about morality and ethics, as well as their iconography, music, and so on.

As a personal aside, I’m sure my first true artistic/humanistic experience came in my local Catholic church.  The splendor of light streaming through stained glass windows, the intricacy of the architecture, the majesty of the altar, the beauty of the music: all of this and more represented an artistic and humanistic experience that resonated with me, putting me in touch with something larger than myself.  I’ve felt similar majesty being out in the cathedral of nature, gazing out at the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet as clouds raced overhead after a long hike in the Colorado Rockies.

Nurturing and protecting the arts, humanities, and nature too is fundamental to being human.  We should be stewards of beauty in all its forms.  And certainly government must have a role in funding the arts and humanities as well as protecting the planet.

Unfortunately, the American political scene is oligarchical and driven by venality and greed.  So nowadays what you see in education is an obsessive push for STEM, for competitiveness vis-a-vis various foreign countries, for workforce development, as if education can be reduced simply to job/vocational training. Arts and humanities? Humbug!

I have nothing against science, technology, engineering, and math.  I majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, loved calculus and differential equations, took several courses in physics and chemistry, and eventually got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology. Science is great and wonderful; technology is fascinating and much needed. Vocational training is important too.

But there’s more to life than getting a job.

Oligarchical powers don’t like to fund the arts and humanities.  They’d rather fund business and industry in the name of competitiveness (and profit!). But there’s more to life than building things, crunching numbers, and working for the man. We have souls, if you will (there’s the Catholic in me), and our souls need to be nurtured by ideas and ideals, by beauty, by the angels of our better natures as represented by the arts and humanities.

So please act to save the arts and humanities, especially in our schools. They enrich our lives in ways you simply can’t measure with dollar signs.  And please act to preserve nature and our planet as well, whether you see it as God’s creation or as spaceship Earth — or both.

The U.S. Military and Religion

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An older symbol of the Chaplain Corps that includes Christian and Jewish symbols. There are now Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim symbols as well

W.J. Astore

Disturbing, upsetting, baffling: these words often apply when young troops face religious pressure or discrimination for the first time.

And it disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a nation founded on religious freedom produces people that want to abridge or eliminate that freedom in the (false) name of following Christ.

It also disturbs, upsets, and baffles me that a military that is supposed to defend our Constitutional freedoms, to include freedom of religion, occasionally works in ways that undermine that very freedom.

I was born and raised within the Catholic church, but I would never push my religious beliefs on someone else.  Certainly not in a military context, in which supervisory authority is nearly absolute.

I believe there is a place for God (or gods, or no god) in the military, and a place for chaplains.  Troops should be able to worship freely in the military, as is their right as American citizens.  But there’s no place for proselytizing, pressure, “mandatory” Bible studies, and all the rest of that.

I remember how much Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy changed between my first tour there (1990-92) and my second (1998-2002).  Lots of evangelical organizations (like Focus on the Family) built headquarters just to the east of the AF Academy.  I started to see that evangelical influence permeate the Academy.  I suppose I was lucky I left in 2002, just before the scandals involving religious discrimination broke.

The military attracts many young people looking for certitude as well as a mission, a calling.  Some of these young people come to espouse a narrow form of “Christianity,” one that sees itself as uniquely American and uniquely suited to a military context.

Yet how can troops take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which enshrines freedom of religion, and then work to curtail or offend the religious freedoms of others?

Here’s what people need to remember about military settings: the authority of your direct supervisor is nearly absolute.  If your drill sergeant, your platoon commander, your company commander, makes it obvious that he or she favors Christianity, it puts enormous pressure on subordinates to conform, or at least to fake it.

If your boss in a civilian setting is an assertive Christian evangelist, at least you have the option of quitting (however painful that might prove).  There is no option in the military of “quitting” your platoon, your company, your unit.  Furthermore, in a war zone, refusing to conform to an evangelical zealot as a leader could literally become a matter of life and death.  Hey, Private Jones, you’re an atheist: go ahead and walk point again, i.e. take the lead as the unit walks through dangerous enemy territory infested with IEDs and snipers.  Maybe that’ll give you some faith in God.  Ha ha.

Again, the U.S. military must remember its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution.  In fulfilling that purpose, there is simply no place for evangelism of any religion, Christian or otherwise.

Note: Since 2005, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has fought to ensure religious freedom within military settings.  The foundation represents nearly 45,000 service members, 96% of whom identify as Christian.  Find out more about the MRFF at http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org.