UNTRUTH: Trump calls Puerto Rico response an incredible unsung success

President Trump on Sept. 11 praised his administration’s response to the damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, where the death toll was nearly 3,000.

(by Josh Nawsey, The Washington Post, September 12, 2018)

An estimated 3,000 people died after the devastating Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico last year. Large swaths of the island were without power for months. FEMA was short thousands of workers and underestimated how much food and supplies were needed in the recovery, according to a federal government report.

But in the eyes of President Trump, the government’s response was a raging success — and one he touted this week as a monstrous hurricane pinwheeled toward the Carolinas.

“We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan),” he wrote Wednesday on Twitter.

It’s a frequent tactic of the president — elevate a widely perceived failure or mistake and defend it as a great triumph while attacking his critics. His detractors say it is shameless and sometimes comical gaslighting; supporters say he is just a master marketer who uses hyperbole and always shows strength.

“You just never give an inch or admit any mistake in public,” said Sam Nunberg, a former aide describing Trump’s mind-set.

Inside the administration, firing James B. Comey as FBI director in May 2017 is widely perceived as an original sin that spun a cascade of other problems for the White House — including the creation of a special counsel’s investigation that has tormented the president and includes an obstruction-of-justice inquiry. He was repeatedly counseled against the firing by top aides such as former chief of staff Reince Priebus, White House counsel Donald McGahn and former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who have since faced hours of questioning over Trump’s actions as part of the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe.

Puerto Ricans agree: Trump’s response to Maria was a failure

In the town of Yabucoa, residents say their government let them down and their struggle continues one year on.

But rather than show any signs of regret, the president has instead championed Comey’s firing, both publicly and privately, as a smart decision.

“I did a great service to the people in firing him!” Trump tweeted this summer.

Trump faced withering criticism, even from supporters, for standing on a podium in Helsinki in July and cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin while seeming to question U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election and entertaining the idea of letting Russian law enforcement officials question American citizens.

But to hear Trump tell it these days, it was one of his finest hours.

“One of my best meetings ever was with Vladimir Putin,” he said earlier this month, before attacking the “fakers,” or his short-term for the “fake news media.”

This week, he has repeatedly brought up Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” — continuously calling attention to a portrayal of his White House as incompetent and veering toward a breakdown. Trump says the book is a “scam” and that his White House is a “smooth running machine.”

Aides say that Trump’s tendency to focus on and defend his perceived failures is fueled by a mix of potent factors. He obsesses over negative news coverage sometimes long after the topic has changed. He often marvels that he can make the cable news chyrons change. And he is constantly selling himself — regardless of who is in front of him and no matter the topic.

Sometimes, he is trying to preempt criticism that he knows is likely to revive itself, like before this week’s hurricane. And he tells senior aides that his supporters will believe his version of events.

It leads to awkward encounters and surreal situations for those around him. His comments this week on the administration’s handling of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico following last year’s hurricane quickly morphed from a defense of how a difficult situation was handled to a declaration that it couldn’t have gone better.

It was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday.

It was a statement that drew immediate condemnations and questions about how Trump could characterize the recovery effort as such a success especially on the heels of a study that estimated there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane.

“You know there are no A-pluses in disaster recovery. That letter doesn’t exist,” said Marc Ferzan, who led recovery in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy and is now a consultant.

Trump also broods over perceived mistakes, even if he won’t admit they are missteps. He has repeatedly brought up to aides his decision to endorse Roy Moore in the Senate race in Alabama last year. Moore lost after The Washington Post reported on allegations that he pursued and sexually assaulted teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

“The president asks me all the time, ‘Why did Roy Moore lose?’” Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, recently said at a New York fundraiser.

He has also complained that aides publicly admitted mistakes earlier this year over their handling of allegations that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was emotionally and physically abusive toward his two ex-wives. “You should have never apologized,” he told a group of communications aides, according to two people. “You don’t ever apologize.”

Trump observers and critics said that the president’s refusal to admit mistakes and to go a step further and declare them smart moves has long been part of how he operates.

“One of his great strengths is that he lives in his own reality distortion field — there is this narrative going on all the time in his head about how successful he is, how great he is — one of the things that allows him to plow ahead after he makes mistakes,” said Timothy O’Brien, a longtime Trump biographer.

Edwin Stanton Was Part of the ‘Resistance’—in 1860

If President Buchanan’s experience is a precedent, Trump’s internal critic may privately flatter him.

By Adam Rowe
the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2018

Donald Trump isn’t the first president to be undermined by a senior official who claims to be saving the Republic from the chief executive he formally serves. The role of secret internal resister within the White House was first pioneered by Attorney General Edwin Stanton, perhaps the most relentless schemer in American political history. Stanton’s strange career is also an object lesson on the folly of trusting those claiming to play a role that, after all, requires a talent for deception.

Stanton joined the cabinet of lame-duck President James Buchanan on Dec. 20, 1860, the same day South Carolina seceded from the Union. Buchanan, a Democrat who was both loyal to the Union and personally friendly with many of those bent on destroying it, didn’t know what to do about the crisis in which he found himself. Mostly he blamed the Republicans and pitied himself, while many of his most trusted advisers did everything they could to weaken the government before resigning to serve the Confederacy.

Before joining the cabinet, Stanton’s most noteworthy achievement had been successfully defending Buchanan’s friend Rep. Daniel Sickles of New York, on murder charges. Sickles had fatally shot his wife’s lover, who also happened to be U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, in the middle of the day, steps from the White House. Stanton argued that Sickles was morally and legally justified in killing his wife’s seducer because—well, wouldn’t you? That was enough for the jury. Sickles was carried out of the courthouse like a hero, and Stanton earned Buchanan’s gratitude.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1863.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1863. PHOTO: BUYENLARGE/GETTY IMAGES
Immediately after taking office as attorney general, Stanton offered himself to several prominent Republicans as a spy within the administration. He mortified them with tales of imbecility and treason. One of them, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, recalled that it was “strikingly providential” that Buchanan had brought “that strong, rugged, downright, patriotic man” into his cabinet at such a fateful hour. In secret midnight meetings, Stanton told Wilson of his heroic efforts to save the republic from its treacherous chief executive.

“The President—poor, weak old man—trembled and grew pale,” Wilson quoted Stanton as saying. But for himself, Stanton claimed, the nation would have been dismembered by traitors before Lincoln and the Republicans took power. It’s a dramatic story, but alas, Stanton was lying—to the Republicans, to Buchanan, to everyone.

“I believe him to be a perfectly honest man,” poor, bewildered Buchanan later wrote, privately, of Stanton. “He was always on my side, and flattered me ad nauseam.” Stanton’s letters to Buchanan bear out this characterization. He praised Buchanan’s policy unequivocally and contrasted it with the “imbecility” of his successor. “The first month of [Lincoln’s] administration,” Stanton wrote to Buchanan on April 3, 1861, “seems to have furnished an ample vindication of your policy.”

The most charitable interpretation of Stanton’s career is that he was as sincere in his loyalty to the Union as he was treacherous in his loyalty to individuals. But that doesn’t explain why he continued to write Buchanan fawning letters even after Lincoln had arrived in the White House. In sending Buchanan a scathing indictment of Lincoln’s administration after the Union defeat at Bull Run, Stanton observed it was only a matter of time “until Jeff Davis turns out the whole concern. The capture of Washington seems now inevitable.” Whatever happened, Stanton planned to be on the winning side.

Stanton possessed an almost incredible ability to convince everyone—abolitionists, secessionists and many in between—that he was their faithful ally. “It is hard to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, but Stanton seems to have mastered the difficulty,” his predecessor as attorney general, Jeremiah Black, later marveled. “If he kept up this fraudulent deceit for 30 years, and thereby got the highest places in the gift of both parties, he was the most marvelous imposter who ever lived or died.”

Stanton soon became secretary of war under his new Republican friends, despite condemning them unsparingly to his old Democratic friends. And it is one more measure of Lincoln’s greatness that even this dishonest opportunist served him loyally and well. But Lincoln’s bumbling successor, Andrew Johnson, brought the conniver back out. Stanton praised Johnson warmly to his face and condemned him unsparingly to his enemies.

When the 1867 Tenure of Office Act came up in the cabinet, “Mr. Stanton was more earnest and emphatic in the expression of his objections than any member of the Cabinet,” Orville Hickman Browning noted in his diary. A second cabinet member’s diary corroborates the observation. The Tenure of Office Act was a trap radical Republicans passed to build a case for impeachment, and it revolved around Stanton. It stipulated that the president couldn’t remove certain officeholders without Senate approval.

When Johnson asked Stanton to write the message vetoing the bill, Stanton demurred on grounds of poor health. For good reason, Johnson wanted Stanton’s “emphatic” views in writing, and for equally good reason, Stanton did not. Stanton later cited the act in defying the president’s authority to remove him from office. The resulting quarrel between the president and his subordinate was the direct cause of the first presidential impeachment in American history.

History’s recurring rhythms are never exact repetitions. But if Stanton’s example is any guide, President Trump’s harshest anonymous critic may also be his warmest admirer.

Mr. Rowe is a teaching fellow in the social sciences at the University of Chicago.

 

Trump’s Huge Mistake on Refugees

His administration is considering another extreme reduction in the number of refugees allowed into the United States.

By Ariana A. Berengaut and Antony J. Blinken,

The New York Times, September 11, 2018

(Ms. Berengaut and Mr. Blinken worked at the State Department in the Obama administration.)

A demonstrator last year in New York protesting President Trump’s policies on refugees. His administration is now weighing another cut in the number of refugees allowed into the United States.CreditCreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images

When President Bashar al-Assad’s forces swept into the southwestern Syrian region of Dara’a this summer, American diplomats scrambled to save the lives of a few hundred besieged civil defense workers known as the White Helmets.

The White Helmets, who were carpenters, bakers, doctors and engineers before the war, have shown extraordinary bravery pulling civilians from the rubble of Mr. Assad’s barrel bombs and documenting his depravities. They became prime targets of the regime and its Russian backers.

Rescuing the rescuers hinged on securing written promises from Western countries to resettle them. American diplomats looked everywhere but at their own country: The Trump administration had all but shut the doors of the United States to refugees.

It may be about to get worse. Mr. Trump is considering another extreme cut in the number of refugees legally allowed into the United States. Already, his administration lowered the cap for 2018 by more than half, to 45,000 — the smallest number in the four-decade history of our modern refugee program. The administration also took actions that make it more difficult to secure a slot: It imposed a temporary refugee ban, put in place draconian, ill-defined vetting procedures and placed immigration hard-liners like Stephen Miller in charge.

The administration also buried a government study establishing the economic value of accepting refugees and falsely claimed they threaten our security.

The result has been a huge drop in the number of refugees actually admitted into the United States. We are on pace to bring in just 21,000 this year, compared with 85,000 in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Simply put, Mr. Trump is strangling the refugee admissions program to death.

Destroying our bipartisan tradition of refugee resettlement goes against the American value of extending a lifeline to the world’s most vulnerable. And it’s economic malpractice: Refugees return more in taxes than they receive in benefits, revitalize towns whose best days seemed behind them and enrich the United States with new energy, ideas and businesses.

The refugee program is also an important tool of American foreign policy and has enhanced our global standing and security. We evacuated Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon, took in Soviet Jews in the 1980s, airlifted Kosovars fleeing genocide in the 1990s, admitted thousands of Sudanese “Lost Boys” orphaned by war in this century. In each instance, we sent an important signal to the world — and so goaded governments into action, undermined the legitimacy of authoritarian leaders and defended religious freedom.

The United States long resettled more refugees a year than every other country combined. That gave us global leverage. American leadership helped increase the number of countries formally admitting refugees to a record 37 in 2016, from 14 in 2005. That same year, the Obama administration rallied other nations to double admissions worldwide.

The Trump administration’s abdication of responsibility has contributed to a 48 percent drop in global resettlement from 2016 to 2017. Data from the United Nations Refugee Agency forecasts an even steeper decline this year. As Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, put it, if the American share of refugee resettlement diminishes, “my humanitarian negotiating power diminishes as well.”

Last year, Mr. Trump tried to justify a retreat on refugees by suggesting that American assistance alone is sufficient. But the administration also sought to slash humanitarian aid by 44 percent in its first budget and by 32 percent in its second.

In August, the administration canceled $230 million for Syrian stabilization and all funding for the United Nations agency that assists Palestinian refugees. Diplomacy, resettlement and assistance work together — cutting off one bleeds the effectiveness of the others.

The refugee program also helps us keep faith with key partners, making it more likely they will step up when we need them. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers, diplomats and aid workers rely on local translators and guides who put their lives on the line to serve by our side. The Trump administration is making a mockery of a special admissions program the Congress established to fast-track their resettlement. So far this fiscal year, between October and August, we have admitted just 48 Iraqi partners, compared with 5,100 in 2016 and 3,000 in 2017.

Some countries of first refuge — like Jordan, Turkey and Kenya — have been counterterrorism partners and hosts to the United States military. These and other countries offering temporary havens are under growing domestic pressure to send back refugees, which risks setting off new humanitarian crises and further destabilizing countries where terrorists find sanctuary.

When we worked at the State Department, we met two young Muslim brothers from Afghanistan who had fled the Taliban. We listened to their story in the California offices of Catholic Charities. They had been resettled by Jewish Family and Community Services, and first found shelter at the San Damiano Friary, a Franciscan retreat.

That was America at its best: a reflection of the generosity and common humanity that defines us and casts a light into the most forlorn corners of the world.

If Mr. Trump effectively shuts down the refugee program, he will be plunging the world — and Americans with it — into greater darkness.

Ariana A. Berengaut, director of programs at the Penn Biden Center, served at the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department from 2011 to 2017. Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is a managing director at the Penn Biden Center, a co-founder of WestExec Advisors and a contributing opinion writer.

Antony J. Blinken, a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is a managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy, a co-founder of WestExec Advisors and a contributing opinion writer.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

John McCain at 81 years is dead. And what a life he led, although in important respects it didn’t work out, as he would have liked.

For one, for almost from the time he left the US Naval Academy in 1958 he tied himself irredeemably to unnecessary and subsequently failed wars, wars that may have been well fought but were terribly wrongly conceived.

For two, the heroism of his father’s war, that he so longed to be a part of, had no place in Hanoi where he was imprisoned for five long years. Nor, and for three, was there any real greatness to be had in the wars against the peoples of the Middle East, wars that McCain continued to wage if only as a U S Senator. And finally and for last  there were the  presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2008, won by George Bush and Barack Obama, who would one after the other eulogize the Senator in Washington’s National Cathedral on September 1, the two campaigns both ending in failure. McCain remained in the Senate, a frustrated and conflicted man, until his death on August 25 of this year.

McCain wasn’t the country’s hero that he would have liked to have been. But he was a good man, and in some respects a great man (“let them go before me”) and throughout his life, especially remarkable in the age of Trump, he was honest and given to straight talking.

I want to have something good to remember him by. And I found a lot, of this, a lot of good things to remember him by, in a brief, but excellent “vita” of McCain written by George Blaustein  for N+1 magazine. What follows here  are the first couple of pages from Blaustein’s Vita,  My Fellow Prisoners.

My Fellow Prisoners

On John McCain

THERE IS a right way to swear, a right way to spit, a right way to roll a cigarette on the deck of an aircraft carrier, a right way to drink wine on the retreat from the Battle of Caporetto, a right way to get gored by a bull, a right way to dismantle a welfare program, a right way to blow up a bridge, a right way to taunt your captors, a right way to catch a bonefish, a right way to lead, a right way to serve, and finally there is a right way to die.

The right way is the heroic way and the manly way, which happens also to be the moral or ethical way, which happens in turn to be the picturesque way. You will sometimes fail to follow the right way, in which case there is a right way to grimace and a right way to atone.

“MOST CURRENT FICTION bores the shit out of me,” said John McCain in 2007, surprising no one. He always gravitated to the lost generation, Ernest Hemingway above all. If we are to believe McCain’s account, when he was 12 (this would be 1948) he found two four-leaf clovers in the yard and ran inside to preserve them in the pages of a book. From his father’s shelves he happened to grab For Whom the Bell TollsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and his eyes lighted upon this:

“What are you going to do with us?” one asked him.

“Shoot thee,” said Pablo.

“When?” the man asked in the same gray voice.

“Now,” said Pablo.

“Where?” asked the man.

“Here,” said Pablo. “Here. Now. Here and now. Have you anything to say?”

“Nada,” said the civil. “Nothing but it is an ugly thing.”

This is the scene in which Pablo, leader of a band of Republican guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War, kills four policemen and has the town’s fascists flailed to death.

The mature McCain who relates this anecdote admires Hemingway’s “austere glare at the savagery that war can coax from even good-natured people,” and notes that the scene “should disabuse the most immature reader of any romantic notions about the nature of organized bloodletting.” There is a wrong way to kill fascists. But young McCain was beguiled: Hemingway’s account of the Spanish Civil War “gave flight to a boy’s romantic notions of courage and love, of idealistic men and women ennobled by their selflessness and the misuse and betrayal they suffered for it.”

The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is an American professor of Spanish who has come to blow up a bridge for the Republican side. He falls in love with a girl named Maria. Despite Pablo’s treachery and the mission’s increasing risk and his own doubt that blowing up the bridge will really accomplish anything, he does his duty. Old McCain recounts his younger self’s breathless page-turning:

Hemingway, the rascal, allows the reader a brief moment of hope with a quick feint toward a happy ending as the hero nearly escapes his fate and rides to a better life with his new love. . . . I, still smug because I had penetrated the story’s early mysteries, fell for it and cheered silently.

But instead of a happy ending we get a picturesque death, which, young McCain realizes, is an even happier ending. Jordan is injured by an explosion, orders to safety the Spaniards he has come to love, drags himself to a tree, and waits there with a gun. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I hate to leave it very much,” he thinks as he dies. That line gave McCain the title for his second memoir—Worth the Fighting For—in which he fondly recounts this romantical reading. “How great it made me feel as I closed the book and charged on with my young life,” old McCain remembers, “aspiring to Jordan’s courage and nobility and certain I would possess it someday.”

It must be nice to have a favorite book, and to have it remain your favorite book your whole life. McCain reread For Whom the Bell Tolls many times, but the first impression of a 12-year-old looking for models of greatness and manly exertion—“how and why to be brave, how a real hero lives and dies”—remained the truest impression. No older, wiser reading could supplant it. To read Hemingway and fall for it, to enjoy falling for it, to think it is your destiny to fall for it—maybe this is how Great Men read books: like boys.


 

Wasn’t there something said one time about loving your neighbor as yourself?

In the scale of American blunders — from the Dred Scott decision of 1857F36CADD4-0AA8-4F18-A5B7-A4F52D1D6E7D

to the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s, to the tragedy of Vietnam — is the Trump presidency really unique?

(Bret Stephens, August 30, 2018)

Stephens is asking, have we done worse things? We’ll sure, but I would say that these single unfortunate and destructive acts of the past are not appropriate actions against which to measure the Trump presidency.

What Trump is doing to America, to all of us, and so far without effective opposition, is undermining the shared humanity that always has and still does account for our very greatest achievements, be they cultural, artistic, scientific, or intellectual. Without our cherishing our neighbors as belonging no less than ourselves to one and the same human family our lives are subject to constant warfare, of tribes endlessly warring among themselves. the Middle East being not the only example but the most pronounced of what may happen when our shared humanity is no longer felt.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.   Leviticus 19-17

Hume modelled a way of life that was gentle, reasonable, amiable: all the things public life now so rarely is.

Do you know Aeon, “We are committed to big ideas, serious enquiry and a humane world view.” Aeon is a digital magazine whose articles published on the web would “ask the big questions and find the freshest, most original answers in short and long essay and video format provided by leading thinkers on science, philosophy, society and the arts.”

I didn’t know Aeon at all until stumbling upon it just the other day. Talk about worlds apart, the redaction room say at Aeon, where real thinking and truth seeking are happening and the Oval Office where Trump and friends pretend to be thinking, pretend to be taking our country back to its past greatness while continuing to shred into sorry bits and pieces any real greatness that may have survived their terrible depredations up until the present moment.

Well it was one of these articles, in short essay form, that I stumbled upon, Hume the Humane, by Julian Baggini. Hume the Humane because Hume believed we are nothing more or less than human, and that’s why he’s the amiable, modest, generous philosopher we sorely need right now. (Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth, 2017).

Philip Waring

HUME THE HUMANE

Socrates died by drinking hemlock, condemned to death by the people of Athens. Albert Camus met his end in a car that wrapped itself around a tree at high speed. Nietzsche collapsed into insanity after weeping over a beaten horse. Posterity loves a tragic end, which is one reason why the cult of David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher the West has ever produced, never took off.

While Hume was lying aged 65 on his deathbed at the end of a happy, successful and (for the times) long life, he told his doctor: ‘I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.’ Three days before he died, on 25 August 1776, probably of abdominal cancer, his doctor could still report that he was ‘quite free from anxiety, impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing books’.

When the end came, Dr Black reported that Hume ‘continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness … He died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.’

In his own lifetime Hume’s reputation was mainly as a historian. His career as a philosopher started rather inauspiciously. His first precocious attempt at setting out his comprehensive new system of philosophy, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), published when he was 26, ‘fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots’, as he later recalled, with self-deprecating exaggeration.

Over time, however, his standing has grown to the highest level. A few years ago, thousands of academic philosophers were asked which non-living philosopher they most identified with. Hume came a clear first, ahead of Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein. Scientists, who often have little time for philosophy, often make an exception for Hume. Even the biologist Lewis Wolpert, who says philosophers are ‘very clever but have nothing useful to say whatsoever’ makes an exception for Hume, admitting that at one stage he ‘fell in love’ with him.

Yet the great Scot remains something of a philosopher’s philosopher. There have been no successful popular books on him, as there have been for the likes of Montaigne, Nietzsche, Socrates, Wittgenstein and the Stoics. Their quotes, not his, adorn mugs and tea towels, their faces gaze down from posters. Hume hasn’t ‘crossed over’ from academic preeminence to public acclaim.

The reasons why this is so are precisely the reasons why it ought not to be. Hume’s strengths as a person and a thinker mean that he does not have the kind of ‘brand’ that sells intellectuals. In short, he is not a tragic, romantic figure; his ideas do not distil into an easy-to-summarise ‘philosophy of life’; and his distaste for fanaticism of any kind made him too sensible and moderate to inspire zealotry in his admirers.

Hume had at least two opportunities to become a tragic hero and avoid the cheerful end he eventually met. When he was 19, he succumbed to what was known as ‘the disease of the learned’, a melancholy that we would today call depression. However, after around nine months, he realised that this was not the inevitable fate of the wise but the result of devoting too much time to his studies.

Hume realised that to remain in good health and spirits, it was necessary not only to study, but to exercise and to seek the company of friends. As soon as he started to do this he regained his cheer and kept it pretty much for the rest of his life.

This taught him an important lesson about the nature of the good life. As he later wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748): ‘The mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry.’ Philosophy matters, but it is not all that matters, and although it is a good thing, one can have too much of it. ‘Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit,’ says Hume, ‘and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you.’ The life ‘most suitable to the human race’ is a ‘mixed kind’ in which play, pleasure and diversion matter as well as what are thought of as the ‘higher’ pursuits. ‘Be a philosopher,’ advised Hume, ‘but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.’

In 1770, Hume was also presented with an opportunity for martyrdom, in somewhat bathetic circumstances. The Nor’ Loch in Edinburgh, where Princes Street Gardens now stands, was being drained as part of the expansion of the city. Walking across it one day, Hume fell into the bog that still remained. He cried for help but unfortunately for him, the women who heard him recognised him as ‘the great infidel’ and were not inclined to save him. Hume reasonably pointed out that all Christians should help anyone irrespective of their beliefs, but their understanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan was not as up to scratch as his and they refused to save him unless he became a Christian there and then, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the creed.

A Socrates would perhaps have refused and died in the name of truth. Hume, however, was not going to allow the stupidity of others to cut his own life short, so he did what any sensible person should do: he went along with their request without any intention of keeping his promise.

In this he was following the example of the only other philosopher to rival Hume for all-time greatness: Aristotle. Here is another thinker whose stock among cognoscenti couldn’t be higher, but who has failed to capture the public’s imagination (although Edith Hall’s recent book Aristotle’s Way(2018) is trying to change that). Not coincidentally, I think, Aristotle also refused to play the martyr. Like Socrates, he was condemned to death for impiety. Also like Socrates, he had the opportunity to flee the city to safety. Unlike Socrates, that is exactly what he did. So while everyone knows how Socrates died, few know that Aristotle, like Hume, died in his 60s, probably also of stomach cancer.

It is somewhat perverse that the attractiveness of a philosophy seems to be directly correlated with how miserable its author’s life was. However, that is not the only reason why there are few self-ascribed Humeans outside academe.

Hume’s philosophy does not add up to an easily digestible system, a set of rules for living. Indeed, Hume is best known for three negative theses.

First, our belief in the power of cause and effect, on which all our reasoning about matters of fact rests, is not justified by either observation or by logical deduction. We only ever see one thing following another: we never observe any power that makes one thing necessitate an effect. Even if we could be satisfied that we had established x caused y, logic can’t establish any general principle of causation, since all the regularities we have observed in nature were in the past, but the principle of cause and effect is assumed to apply in the present and future.

1. Logically, you can never arrive at a truth about the future based entirely on premises that concern the past: what has been is not the same as what will be.

Hume did not deny cause and effect were real. We could not reason about any matter of empirical fact without assuming their reality, as his own writings frequently do. However, he was clear that this linchpin of sensible thinking is not itself established by reason or experience. This is philosophically strong stuff but hardly the source of inspirational Instagram quotes.


Hume is also well known for his arguments against various aspects of religion, although he never came out as a fully fledged atheist. Most famously,

2. Hume argued that it would never be rational to accept the claim of a miracle, since the evidence that one had occurred would always be weaker than the evidence that such things never happen.

It would always be more likely that the witness to a miracle was mistaken or lying than that the miracle actually took place. But again, skepticism about the claims of traditional religion does not amount to a substantive, positive philosophy.


Hume’s third notable negative claim does have the benefit of a stirring slogan, albeit one that is somewhat opaque:

3. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’ Reason by itself gives us no motivation to act, and certainly no principles on which to base our morality.

If we are good it is because we have a basic fellow-feeling that makes us respond with sympathy to the suffering of others and with pleasure at the thought of them thriving. The person who does not see why she should be good is not irrational but heartless.

As these three core claims illustrate, Hume’s philosophy is essentially skeptical, and skepticism seems to take away more than it offers.

However, understood correctly, Humean skepticism can and should be the basis for a complete approach to life. It is built on the skeptical foundations of a brutally honest assessment of human nature, which could be seen as the essence of Hume’s project. It is not accidental that his first attempt to set out his philosophy was called A Treatise of Human Nature. Humanity was his primary subject.

Hume saw human beings as we really are, stripped of all pretension. We are not immortal souls temporarily encaged in flesh, nor the pure immaterial minds Descartes believed he had proved we were. Humans are animals – remarkable, highly intelligent ones – but animals nonetheless. Hume did not just bring human beings down to Earth, he robbed us of any enduring essence. Arguing against Descartes’s claim that we are aware of ourselves as pure, undivided egos, Hume challenged that when he introspected, he found no such thing. What we call the ‘self’ is just a ‘bundle of perceptions’.

Look inside yourself, try to find the ‘I’ that thinks and you’ll only observe this thought, that sensation: an ear worm, an itch, a thought that pops into your head.

Hume was echoing a view that was first articulated by the early Buddhists, whose ‘no-self’ (anattā) view is remarkably similar. He also anticipated the findings of contemporary neuroscience which has found that there is no central controller in the brain, no one place where the sense of self resides. Rather the brain is constantly executing any number of parallel processes. What happens to be most central to consciousness depends on the situation.

As for our intellect, Hume demonstrated how extraordinary it could be by rigorously showing how imperfect it really is. Pure reason, of the kind celebrated by Descartes, was largely impotent. Its demonstrations are restricted to proofs concerning ‘the relation of ideas’, the ways in which concepts are logically related to each other. So you can prove 2 + 2 = 4 but that tells you nothing about what happens when you put four things together in nature, where they could obliterate each other, multiply or merge into one. You can show that a female Pope is a logical contradiction, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that a woman could lead the Catholic Church: evidence rather than logic tells us that the story of Pope Joan is almost certainly false.

Most of our ‘reasoning’ is little more than an almost-instinctive ‘association of ideas’. Learning from experience is ‘a species of Analogy’ in which we expect similar things to have similar effects. That’s why Hume had no problem attributing reason to animals. They too evidently ‘learn many things from experience, and infer, that the same events will always follow from the same causes’. We do not of course think that this learning involves ‘any process of argument or reasoning’. But then, neither does most of the learning of human beings – even philosophers. We are guided primarily by ‘custom and habit’.

Humean humans are therefore creatures of flesh and blood, of intellect and instinct, of reason and passion. The good life is therefore one which does justice to each of these characteristics. Hume never explicitly articulated what such a life would consist of, but he arguably did even better: he showed it by his own example. He studied and wrote, but he also played billiards and cooked a sheep’s head broth that had guests talking days later.

Everyone who knew Hume, with the exception of the paranoid and narcissistic Jean-Jacques Rousseau, spoke highly of him. When he spent three years in Paris in later life he was know as ‘le bon David’, his company sought out by all the salonistes. Baron d’Holbach described him as ‘a great man, whose friendship, at least, I know to value as it deserves’. Adam Smith, writing to pass on the news of Hume’s death to his publisher, William Strachan, said, ‘I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.’

If he lived such an exemplary life, why is it not more widely lauded as such? One reason is that Hume’s moral philosophy, and with it his conception of good, is not one which is superficially appealing. Other moral philosophies have stirring slogans expressing easy-to-grasp principles. ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,’ wrote Kant. Utilitarians have Bentham’s line: ‘Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’ said Jesus. Hume advocated no simple principle of morality at all, and it isn’t even clear what it means for him to be good.

For Hume, morality is rooted in nothing more than ‘sympathy’: a kind of fellow-feeling for others which is close to what we now call empathy. Moral principles cannot be derived by logical deductions, nor are they eternal, immortal principles that somehow inhere in the Universe. We behave well to others for no other reason than that we see in them the capacity to suffer or to thrive, and we respond accordingly. Someone who does not feel such sympathy is emotionally, not rationally, deficient.

Few have been satisfied with this account of morality. It looks to many like nothing more than the principle that you should be kind if you feel like it and if you don’t, there’s nothing more to be said. However, I think Hume was fundamentally correct and that far from making us pessimistic about the possibility of human goodness, it should make us more optimistic. If morality is rooted in pure reason, what hope can we have that we will understand and agree on what we ought to do, given that not even the finest minds in history have been able to demonstrate what reason demands of us and why? And if morality is rooted in some kind of extra-human transcendental reality, we are condemned to moral disagreement. But if morality is rooted in nothing more than the capacity to recognise the interests of another, it is something we can all respond to.

Hume was a great believer in paying attention to evidence and I think experience supports his model of morality better than the main competitors. The best human beings have not been driven by ideology, moral philosophy, and certainly not logic. They have always been people who have put the response to human need above creed or doctrine. Indeed, the worst crimes have been committed by people convinced of a justifying moral principle.

The physicist Steven Weinberg was wrong to say that ‘for good people to do evil things, that takes religion’: any rigidly held ideology will do.

But I suspect the main reason why Hume is not upheld as a paragon of virtue is because it did not conform to the heroic models of most civilisations. ‘Great men’ (since women have lamentably rarely been granted greatness) have either been powerful leaders or self-sacrificial saints. To be exceptional is to be more god-like than most, whether that is a powerful deity of myth or the God who died on the cross of Christianity. Hume’s kind of exceptionality is the opposite: he was more fully human than most, nothing more, nothing less. The virtues he expressed were not extreme ones of daring or courage but quiet ones of amiability, modesty, generosity of spirit, hospitality. Lest this sound like little, consider how difficult it is to live our lives consistently expressing such virtues.

Celebrating such a life is difficult because it undeniably depends upon privilege. So many struggle even to stay alive, so many live in war zones, that no wonder we prefer to praise those whose self-sacrificial acts help others. But the Humean good life, like that of Aristotle, points to what all that altruism is supposed to lead to. We want to eliminate poverty, disease and war so that people can get on and live flourishing, productive lives, like that of David Hume. In a better world, we would have no need of heroes.

Skepticism is central to this Humean good life. Not the ‘excessive’ Pyrrhonic skepticism that suspends judgment on everything, but a ‘mitigated’ skepticism that corrects our natural dogmatism. Hume was anticipating the findings of contemporary psychology when he observed, ‘The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counter-poising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments.’ Here we find confirmation bias and motivated thinking avant la lettre.

This fundamental moderation is, I think, another reason why Hume has never become a popular philosopher. He is just too damned sensible. Reasonableness and balance are seen as boring, signs of lack of spark or originality. Hume was always suspicious of what he called ‘enthusiasts’ and it is perhaps telling that the meaning of this word now has an unambiguously positive meaning. We would do well to remember that the word derives from the Greek entheos: having a god (theos) within. To be an enthusiast in Hume’s sense is to forget one is human and act as though one were a god, sufficient in reason and knowledge to be entirely confident about what one believes.

Hume knew that this error was all the more likely when we believed we knew God and his intentions. In his essay ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’ (1741) he described how ‘the mind of man’ is ‘subject to an unaccountable elevation and presumption’. In this state of mind, humanity gets above itself, thinking it has within it the divine. This gives rise to a form of ‘false religion’ in which ‘no sublunary beauties or enjoyments can correspond’ and ‘every thing mortal and perishable vanishes as unworthy of attention’. The best prophylactic against this is to fully embrace our humanity and, with that, humility, accepting our limitations. Secular enthusiasts who elevate human rationality and nobility too highly make the very same mistake, creating a kind of godless religion of humankind which is just as pernicious.

If ever there were a time in recent history to turn to Hume, now is surely it. The enthusiasts are on the rise, in the form of strongman political populists who assert the will of the people as though it were absolute and absolutely infallible. In more settled times, we could perhaps use a Nietzsche to shake us out of our bourgeois complacency, or entertain Platonic dreams of perfect, immortals forms. Now such philosophical excesses are harmful indulgences. Good, uncommon sense is needed more than ever.

We also desperately need the right kind of skepticism to replace the weary, global shrug that allows people to dismiss climate change as a hoax or the judgments of experts as conspiracies. Humean skepticism is an antidote to hubris, not a recipe for inaction or an excuse to defer to prejudice. Hume’s mitigated skepticism rests on the principle that we should proportion our beliefs to the evidence, not doubt the value of any of it. Hume would not be a climate change skeptic but skeptical of our glib assumption that whatever happens, we’ll be okay.

The problem for fans of Hume is how we can be enthusiastic advocates of someone so opposed to enthusiasm. If the case for Hume is to be made in Humean terms, it has to be gently but eloquently argued for. More importantly still, perhaps, it has to be demonstrated. True lovers of the secular, reasonable way of life Hume stood for ought to avoid hysterical condemnations of religion and superstition as well as overly optimistic praise for the power of science and rationality. We should instead be modest in our philosophical pretensions, advocating human sympathy as much, if not more, than human rationality.

Most of all, we should never allow our pursuit of learning and knowledge to get in the way of the softening pleasures of food, drink, company and play. Hume modelled a way of life that was gentle, reasonable, amiable: all the things public life now so rarely is.

Aeon was founded in London by Paul and Brigid Hains. It now has offices in London, Melbourne and New York. They are a not-for-profit, registered charity operated by Aeon Media Group Ltd. Aeon is endorsed as a Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) organisation in Australia and, through its affiliate Aeon America, registered as a 501(c)(3) charity in the US.

Universal Civilization, 2

I promised you an abridged version of my earlier blog, Our Universal Civilization. Well here’s one, written by Naipaul himself for the NY Times, just one week after he gave the Walter B. Wriston lecture in Public Policy, at the Manhattan Institute October 30.

November 5, 1990

Our Universal Civilization

By V. S. NAIPAUL

Inever formulated the idea of the universal civilization until 11 years ago, when I traveled for many months in a number of non-Arab Muslim countries — Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan — to try to understand what had driven them to their rage. That Muslim rage was just beginning to be apparent.

I thought I would be traveling among people who would be like the people of my own community, the Trinidad Indian community. A large portion of Indians were Muslims; we both had a similar 19th century imperial or colonial history. But it wasn’t like that.

Despite the history we had in common, I had traveled a different way. Starting with the Hindu background of the instinctive, ritualized life; growing up in the unpromising conditions of colonial Trinidad; I had gone through many stages of knowledge and self-knowledge. I had been granted the ideas of inquiry and the tools of scholarship. I could carry four or five or six different cultural ideas in my head. Now, traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world that I had been growing into on the other side of the world.

Before I began my journey — while the Shah still ruled — there had appeared in the United States a small novel, “Foreigner,” by Nahid Rachlin, a young Iranian woman, that in its subdued, unpolitical way foreshadowed the hysteria that was to come. The central figure is a young Iranian woman who does research work in Boston as a biologist. She is married to an American, and she might seem well adapted.

But when she goes back on a holiday to Teheran, she begins to feel lost. She reflects on her time in the United States. It is not a time of clarity; she sees it now to be a time of emptiness. She has never been in control. We can see that she was not prepared for the movement out of the shut-in Iranian world — where the faith was the complete way, filled everything, left no spare corner of the mind or will or soul — to the other world where it was necessary to be an individual and responsible; where people developed vocations and were stirred by ambition and achievement, and believed in perfectibility.

In her distress, she falls ill. She goes to a hospital. The doctor understands her unhappiness. He tells the young woman that her pain comes from an old ulcer. “What you have,” he says in his melancholy, seductive way, “is a Western disease.” And the research biologist arrives at a decision. She will give up that Boston-imposed life of the intellect and meaningless work; she will stay in Iran and put on the veil.

Immensely satisfying, that renunciation. But it is intellectually flawed: it assumes that there will continue to be people striving out there, in the stressed world, making drugs and medical equipment, to keep the Iranian doctor’s hospital going.

Again and again, on my Islamic journey in 1979, I found a similar unconscious contradiction in people’s attitudes. I remember especially a newspaper editor in Teheran. His paper had been at the heart of the revolution. In the middle of 1979 it was busy, in a state of glory. Seven months later, when I went back to Teheran, it had lost its heart; the once busy main room was empty; all but two of the staff had disappeared. The American Embassy had been seized; a financial crisis had followed; many foreign firms had closed down; advertising had dried up; the newspaper editor could hardly see his way ahead; every issue of the paper lost money; the editor, it might be said, had become as much a hostage as the diplomats.

He also, as I now learned, had two sons of university age. One was studying in the United States; the other had applied for a visa, but then the hostage crisis had occurred. This was news to me — that the United States should have been so important to the sons of one of the spokesmen of the Islamic revolution. I told the editor I was surprised. He said, speaking especially of the son waiting for the visa, “It’s his future.”

Emotional satisfaction on one hand; thought for the future on the other. The editor was as divided as nearly everyone else.

One of Joseph Conrad’s earliest stories of the East Indies, from the 1890’s, was about a local raja or chieftain, a murderous man, a Muslim (though it is never explicitly said), who, in a crisis, having lost his magical counselor, swims out one night to one of the English merchant ships in the harbor to ask the sailors, representatives of the immense power that had come from the other end of the world, for an amulet, a magical charm. The sailors are at a loss; but then someone among them gives the raja a British coin, a sixpence commemorating Queen Victoria’s Jubilee; and the raja is well pleased. Conrad didn’t treat the story as a joke; he loaded it with philosophical implications for both sides, and I feel now that he saw truly.

In the 100 years since that story, the wealth of the world has grown, power has grown, education has spread; the disturbance, the “philosophical shriek” of men at the margin (to use Conrad’s words), has been amplified. The division in the revolutionary editor’s spirit, and the renunciation of the fictional biologist, both contain a tribute — unacknowledged, but all the more profound — to the universal civilization. Simple charms alone cannot be acquired from it; other, difficult things come with it as well: ambition, endeavor, individuality.

The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain.

In Trinidad I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought.

Because my movement within this civilization has been from Trinidad to England, from the periphery to the center, I may have felt certain of its guiding principles more freshly than people to whom these things were everyday. One such realization — I suppose I have sensed it most of my life, but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk — has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue.

This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.

V. S. Naipaul is the author of numerous novels and travel memoirs. This article is adapted from the Walter B. Wriston lecture at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy organization.

V. S. Naipaul 1932-2018

Our Universal Civilization

V. S. Naipaul and I were born within a few days of one another, in August of 1932. This past week he died. While I knew him, he didn’t know me. He was somebody, and I of course was, well, nobody. I’ve never seen the man or heard him speak up close, but have been reading him off and on, but steadily and constantly, for some 30 or 40 years, mostly since I left the Waring School in the nineties. I have always felt while reading him that we were close, that we saw things in much the same way. In the lecture below, and in particular what he says so eloquently and convincingly about “our universal civilization.” I find that while he’s speaking for himself, he is also speaking for me.

(YES, CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS!! There is such a civilization and why are you afraid to be a part of it?)  

In a later blog I’ll try to give you a much shortened version of this lecture. At this moment, close to Naipaul’s passing, I didn’t want to remove even one little word of what he had to say to us. If you read it I think you’ll see why.


Naipaul2

October 30, 1990, V S. Naipaul, considered by many to be the greatest living English language novelist, delivered the fourth annual Walter B. Wriston lecture in Public Policy, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute. Mr. Naipaul takes as his subject the “universal civilization” to which the Western values of tolerance, individualism, equality, and personal liberty have given birth. He describes the personal and philosophical turmoil of those who find themselves torn between their native civilizations and the valued of universal civilization. We are pleased to present his remarks here in full.

I’ve given this talk the title “Our Universal Civilization.” It is a rather big title, and I am a little embarrassed by it. I feel I should explain how it came about. I have no unifying theory of things. To me, situations and people are always specific, always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out. To work in the other way would be to know the answers before one knew the problems; that is a recognized way of working, I know, especially if one is a political or religious or racial missionary. But I would have found it hard.

That was why I thought, when this invitation to talk came, that it would be better for me to find out what kind of issues that members of the Institute were interested in. Myron Magnet, a senior fellow of the Institute, was in England at the time. We talked on the telephone; then, some days later, he sent me a handwritten list of questions. They were very serious questions, very important. Are we—are communities—only as strong as our beliefs? Is it enough for beliefs or an ethical view to be passionately held? Does the passion give validity to the ethics? Are beliefs or ethical views arbitrary, or do they represent something essential in the cultures where they flourish?

It was easy to read through to some of the anxieties that lay behind the questions. There was a clear worry about certain fanaticisms “out there.” At the same time, there was a certain philosophical diffidence about how that anxiety could be expressed, since no one wants to use words or concepts that might boomerang on himself. You know how words can be used: I am civilized and steadfast; you are barbarian and fanatical; he is primitive and blind. Of course, I was on the side of the questioner and understood his drift. But I got to feel, over the next few days, and perhaps from my somewhat removed position, that I couldn’t share the pessimism implied by the questions. I felt that the very pessimism of the questions, and their philosophical diffidence, defined the strength of the civilization out of which it issued. And so the theme of my talk, “Our Universal Civilization,” was given me.
I am not going to attempt to define this civilization. I will only speak of it in a personal way. It is the civilization, first of all, that gave me the idea of the writing vocation. It is the civilization in which I have been able to practice my vocation as a writer. To be a writer, you need to start with a certain kind of sensibility. The sensibility itself is created, or given direction, by an intellectual atmosphere.
Sometimes an atmosphere can be too refined, a civilization too achieved, too ritualized. Eleven years ago, when I was traveling in Java, I met a young man who wanted above everything else to be a poet and to live the life of the mind. This ambition had been given him by his modern education; but it was hard for the young man to explain to his mother exactly what he was up to. This mother was a person of culture and elegance; that should be stressed. She was elegant in visage and dress and speech; her manners were like art; they were Javanese court manners.

So I asked the young man—bearing in mind that we were in Java, where ancient epics live on in the popular art of puppet plays, “But isn’t your mother secretly proud that you are a poet?” He said in English—I mention this to give a further measure of his education in his far-off Javanese town, “She wouldn’t have even a sense of what being a poet is.”

And the poet’s friend and mentor, a teacher at the local university, amplified this. The friend said, “The only way he would have of making the mother understand what he is trying to do would be to suggest that he is being a poet in the classical tradition. And she would find this absurd. She would reject it as an impossibility.” It would be rejected as an impossibility because for the poet’s mother the epics of her country—and to her, they would have been like sacred texts—already existed, had already been written. They had only to be learned or consulted.

For the mother, all poetry had already been written. That particular book, it might be said, was closed: it was part of the perfection of her culture. To be told by her son, who was 28, not all that young, that he was hoping to be a poet would be like a devout mother in another culture asking her writer son what he intended to write next, and getting the reply, “I am thinking of adding a book to the Bible.” Or, to attempt another comparison, the young man would be like the character in the story by Borges who had taken upon himself the task of rewriting Don Quixote. Not just retelling the story, or copying out the Cervantes original; but seeking, by an extraordinary process of mind-clearing and re-creation, to arrive—without copying or falsity, and purely through original thought—at a narrative coinciding word by word with the Cervantes book.

I understood the predicament of the young man in central Java. His background, after all, was not far removed from the Hindu aspect of my own Trinidad background. We were an agricultural immigrant community from India. The ambition to become a writer, the introduction to writing and ideas about writing, had been given me by my father. He was born in 1906, the grandson of someone who had come to Trinidad as a baby. And somehow, in spite of all the discouragements of the society of that small agricultural colony, the wish to be a writer had come to my father; and he had made himself into a journalist, even with the limited opportunities for journalism existing in that colony.

We were a people of ritual and sacred texts. We also had our epics—and they were the very epics of Java; we heard them constantly sung or chanted. But it couldn’t be said that we were a literary people. Our literature, our texts, didn’t commit us to an exploration of our world; rather, they were cultural markers, giving us a sense of the wholeness of our world and the alienness of what lay outside. I don’t believe that, in his family, anyone before my father would have thought of original literary composition. That idea came to my father in Trinidad with the English language; somehow, in spite of the colonial discouragements of the place, an idea of the high civilization connected with the language came to my father; and he was given some knowledge of literary forms. Sensibility is not enough if you are going to be a writer. You need to arrive at the forms that can contain or carry your sensibility; and literary forms—whether in poetry or drama, or prose fiction—are artificial, and ever changing.

This was a part of what was passed on to me at a very early age. At a very early age—in all the poverty and bareness of Trinidad, far away, with a population of half a million—I was given the ambition to write books, and specifically to write novels, which my father had presented to me as the highest form. But books are not created just in the mind. Books are physical objects. To write them, you need a certain kind of sensibility; you need a language, and a certain gift of language; and you need to possess a particular literary form. To get your name on the spine of the created physical object, you need a vast apparatus outside yourself. You need publishers, editors, designers, printers, binder; booksellers, critics, newspapers and magazines and television where the critics can say what they think of the book; and, of course, buyers and readers.

I want to stress this mundane side of things, because it is easy to take it for granted; it is easy to think of writing only in its personal, romantic aspect. Writing is a private act; but the published book, when it starts to live, speaks of the cooperation of a particular kind of society. The society has a certain degree of commercial organization. It also has certain cultural or imaginative needs. It doesn’t believe that all poetry has already been written. It needs new stimuli, new writing; and it has the means of judging the new things that are offered.

This kind of society didn’t exist in Trinidad. It was necessary, therefore, if I was going to be a writer, and live by my books, to travel out to that kind of society where the writing life was possible. This meant, for me at that time, going to England. I was traveling from the periphery, the margin, to what to me was the center; and it was my hope that, at the center, room would be made for me. I was asking a lot—asking, in fact, more of the center than of my own society. The center, after all, had its own interests, its own worldview, its own ideas of what it wanted in novels. And it still does. My subjects were far-off: but a little room was made for me in the England of the 1950s. I was able to become a writer, and to grow in the profession. It took time; I was forty—and had been publishing in England for fifteen years—before a book of mine was seriously published in the United States.

But I always recognized, in England in the 1950s, that as someone with a writing vocation, there was nowhere else for me to go. And if I have to describe the universal civilization, I would say that it is the civilization that both gave the prompting and the idea of the literary vocation; and also gave the means to fulfill that prompting; the civilization that enables me to make that journey from the periphery to the center; the civilization that links me not only to this audience but also that now not-so-young man in Java whose background was as ritualized as my own, and on whom—as on me—the outer world had worked, and given the ambition to write.

It is easier today for someone setting out to be a writer from places like Java or Trinidad; subjects once far-off are no longer so. But I have never been able to take my career for granted. I know that there are still large tracts of the world where the cultural or economic conditions I described a while ago do not obtain, and someone like myself would not have been able to become a writer. I couldn’t have become the kind of writer I am in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union or black Africa. I don’t think I could have taken my gifts even to India.

You will understand, then, how important it was to me to know when I was young that I could make this journey from the margin to the center, from Trinidad to London. The ambition to be a writer assumed that this was possible. So, in fact, I was taking it for granted, in spite of my ancestry and Trinidad background, that with another, equally important part of myself, I was part of a larger civilization. I suppose the same could be said of my father, though he was closer to the ritual ways of our Hindu and Indian past.

But I never formulated the idea of the universal civilization until quite recently—until eleven years ago, when I traveled for many months in a number of non-Arab Muslim countries to try to understand what had driven them to their rage. That Muslim rage was just beginning to be apparent. “Fundamentalism”—in connection with the Mohammedan world—was not a word often used by the newspapers in 1979; they hadn’t yet worked through to that concept. What they spoke of more was “the revival of Islam.” And that, indeed, to anyone contemplating it from a distance, was a puzzle. Islam, which had apparently had so little to offer its adherents in the last century and in the first half of this—what did it have to offer to an infinitely more educated, infinitely faster, world in the later years of the century?

The adaptation of my own family and Trinidad Indian community to the colonial Trinidad and, through that, to the twentieth century hadn’t been easy. It had been painful for us, an Asian people, living instinctive, ritualized lives, to awaken to an idea of our history and to learn to live with the idea of our political helplessness. There had been very difficult social adjustments as well. For example: in our culture, marriages had always been arranged; it took some time, and many damaged lives, for us to arrive at the other way. All this went with the personal intellectual growth I have described.

And I thought, when I began to travel in the Muslim world, that I would be traveling among people who would be like the people of my own community. A large portion of Indians were Muslims; we had both had a similar nineteenth-century imperial or colonial history. I thought that religion was an accidental difference. I thought, as people said, that faith was faith; that people living at a certain time in history would have felt the same urges.

But it wasn’t like that. The Muslims said that their religion was fundamental to them. And it was: it made for an immense difference. I have to stress that I was traveling in the non-Arab Muslim world. Islam began as an Arab religion; it spread as an Arab empire. In Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia—the countries of my itinerary—I was traveling, therefore among people who had been converted to what was an alien faith. I was traveling among people who had had to make a double adjustment—an adjustment to the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and an earlier adjustment to the Arab faith. You might almost say that I was among people who had been doubly colonized, doubly removed from themselves.
Because I was soon to discover that no colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith. Colonized or defeated peoples can begin to distrust themselves. In the Muslim countries I am talking about, this distrust had all the force of religion. It was an article of the Arab faith that everything before the faith was wrong, misguided, heretical; there was no room in the heart or mind of these believers for their pre-Mohammedan past. So ideas of history here were quite different from ideas of history elsewhere; there was no wish here to go back as far as possible into the past, and to learn as much as possible about the past.

Persia had a great past; it had been the rival in classical times of Greece and Rome. But you wouldn’t have believed it in Iran in 1979; for the Iranians, the glory and the truth had begun with the coming of Islam. Pakistan was a very new Muslim state. But the land was very old. In Pakistan were the ruins of the very old cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Fabulous ruins, the discovery of which earlier this century had given a new idea of the history of the subcontinent. Not only pre-Islamic ruins; but possibly also pre-Hindu. There was an archaeological department, inherited from British days, which looked after the sites. But there was, especially with the growth of fundamentalism, a contrary current. This was expressed in a letter to a newspaper while I was there. The ruins of the cities, the writer said, should be hung with quotations from the Koran, saying that this was what befell unbelievers.

The faith abolished the past. And when the past was abolished like this, more than an idea of history suffered. Human behavior, and ideals of good behavior, could suffer. When I was in Pakistan, the newspapers were running articles to mark the anniversary of the Arab conquest of Sind. This was the first part of the Indian subcontinent to be conquered by the Arabs. It occurred at the beginning of the eighth century. The kingdom of Sind (an enormous area: the southern half of Afghanistan, the southern half of Pakistan) at that time was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom. The Brahmins didn’t really understand the outside world; the Buddhists didn’t believe in taking life. It was a kingdom waiting to be conquered, you might say. But it took a long time for Sind to be conquered; it was very far away from the Arab heartland, across immense deserts. Six or seven Arab expeditions foundered.
At one time the third caliph himself, the third successor to the Prophet, called one of his lieutenants and said, “O Hakim, have you seen Hindustan and learned all about it?” Hakim said, “Yes, O commander of the faithful.” The caliph said, “Give us a description of it.” And all Hakim’s frustration and bitterness came out in his reply: “Its water is dark and dirty,” Hakim said. “Its fruit is bitter and poisonous. Its land is stony and its earth is salt. A small army will soon be annihilated, and a large one will soon die of hunger.”

This should have been enough for the caliph. But, looking still for some little encouragement, he asked Hakim, “What about the people? Are they faithful, or do they break their word?” Clearly, faithful people would have been easier to subdue, easier to lighten of their money. But Hakim almost spat out his reply: “The people are treacherous and deceitful,” Hakim said. And at that, the caliph did take fright—the people of Sind sounded like quite an enemy—and he ordered that the conquest of Sind was to be attempted no more.

But Sind was too tempting. The Arabs tried again and again. The organization and the drive and the attitudes of the Arabs, fortified by their new faith, in a world still tribal and disorganized, easy to conquer—the drive of the Arabs was remarkably like that of the Spaniards in the New World 800 years later. And this was not surprising, since the Spaniards themselves had been conquered and ruled by the Arabs for some centuries. Spain, in fact, fell to the Arabs at about the same time as Sind did.

The final conquest of Sind was set on foot from Iraq, and was superintended from the town of Kufa by Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq. The topicality is fortuitous, I assure you. The aim of the Arab conquest of Sind—and this conquest had been thought about almost as soon as the faith had been established—had always been the acquiring of slaves and plunder, rather than the spreading of the faith. And when finally Hajjaj received the head of the king of Sind, together with 60,000 slaves from Sind, and the royal one-fifth of the loot of Sind, that one-fifth decreed by the religious law, he “placed his forehead on the ground and offered prayers of thanksgiving, by two genuflections to God, and praised him, saying: ’Now have I got all the treasures, whether open or buried, as well as other wealth, and the kingdom of the world.’ “ There was a famous mosque in Kufa. Hajjaj called the people there, and from the pulpit he told them: “Good news and good luck to the people of Syria and Arabia, whom I congratulate on the conquest of Sind and on the possession of immense wealth…which the great and omnipotent God has kindly bestowed on them.”

I am quoting from a translation of a thirteenth-century Persian text, the Chachnama. It is the main source for the story of the conquest of Sind. It is a surprisingly modern piece of writing, a good fast narrative, with catching detail and dialogue. It tells a terrible story of plunder and killing—the Arab army was allowed to kill for days after the fall of every town in Sind; and then the plunder was assessed and distributed to the soldiers, after the fifth had been set aside for the caliph. But to the Persian writer, the story—written 500 years after the conquest, is only “a pleasant tale of conquest.” It is Arab or Muslim imperial genre writing. After 500 years—and though the Mongols are about to break through—the faith still holds; there is no new moral angle on the destruction of the kingdom of Sind.

This was the event that was being commemorated by articles in the newspapers when I was in Pakistan in 1979. There was an article by a military man about the successful Arab general. The article tried to be fair, in a military way, to the armies of both sides. It drew a rebuke from the chairman of the National Commission of Historical and Cultural Research.

This was what the chairman said: “Employment of appropriate phraseology is necessary when one is projecting the image of a hero. Expressions such as ’invader’ and ’defenders’ and ’the Indian army’ fighting bravely but not being quick enough to ’fall upon the withdrawing enemy’ loom large in the article. It is further marred by some imbalanced statements such as follows: ’Had Raja Dahar defended the Indus heroically, and stopped Qasim from crossing it, the history of this subcontinent would have been quite different.’ One fails to understand”—this is the chairman of the Commission of Historical and Cultural Research—”whether the writer is applauding the defeat of the hero or lamenting the defeat of his rival.” After 1,200 years, the holy war is still being fought. The hero is the Arab invader, bringer of the faith. The rival whose defeat is to be applauded—and I was reading this in Sind—is the man of Sind.

To possess the faith was to possess the only truth; and possession of this truth set many things on its head. To believe that the time before the coming of the faith was a time of error distorted more than an idea of history. What lay within the faith was to be judged in one way; what lay outside it was to be judged in another. The faith altered values, ideas of good behavior, human judgments.

So I not only began to understand what people in Pakistan meant when they told me that Islam was a complete way of life, affecting everything; I began to understand that—though it might be said that we had shared a common subcontinental origin—I had traveled a different way. I began to formulate the idea of the universal civilization—which, growing up in Trinidad, I had lived in or been part of without quite knowing that I did so.

Starting with that Hindu background of the instinctive, ritualized life and growing up in the unpromising conditions of colonial Trinidad, I had—through the process I have tried to describe earlier—gone through many stages of knowledge and self-knowledge. I had a better idea of Indian history and Indian art than my grandparents had. They possessed rituals, epics, myth; their identity lay within that light; beyond that light was darkness, which they wouldn’t have been able to penetrate. I didn’t possess the rituals and the myths; I saw them at a distance. But I had in exchange been granted the ideas of inquiry and the tools of scholarship. Identity for me was a more complicated matter. Many things had gone to make me. But there was no problem for me there. Whole accumulations of scholarship were mine, in the sense that I had access to them. I could carry four or five or six different cultural ideas in my head. I knew about my ancestry and of my ancestral culture; I knew about the history of India and its political status; I knew where I was born, and I knew the history of the place; I had a sense of the New World. I knew about the literary forms I was interested in; and I knew about the journey I would have to make to the center in order to exercise the vocation I had given myself.

Now, traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world, that I had been growing into on the other side of the world. I was among people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith. I was among people who wished to be pure.

In Malaysia, they were desperate to rid themselves of their past, desperate to cleanse their people of tribal or animist practices, all the subconscious life, freighted with the past, that links people to the earth on which they walk, all the rich folk life that awakened people elsewhere cultivate and dredge for its poetry. They wish, the more earnest of these Malay Muslims, to be nothing but their imported Arab faith; I got the impression that they would have liked, ideally, to make their minds and souls a blank, an emptiness, so that they could be nothing but their faith. Such effort; such self-imposed tyranny. No colonization could have been greater than this colonization by the faith.

While the faith held, while it appeared to be unchallenged, the world perhaps held together. But when there appeared this powerful, encompassing civilization from outside, men didn’t know what to do. They could do only what they were capable of doing; they could only become more assiduous in the faith, more self-wounding, more ready to turn away from what they didn’t feel they could master.

Muslim fundamentalism in places like Malaysia and Indonesia seems new. But Europe has been in the East for a long time, and there has been Muslim anxiety there for almost all of this time. This anxiety, this meeting of the two opposed worlds, the outgoing world of Europe and the closed world of the faith, was spotted a hundred years ago by the writer Joseph Conrad, who, with his remote Polish background, his wish as a traveler to render exactly what he saw, was able at a time of high imperialism to go far beyond the imperialistic, surface ways of writing about the East and native peoples.

To Conrad, the world he traveled in was new; he looked hard at it. There is a quotation I would like to read from Conrad’s second book, published in 1896, nearly 100 years ago, in which he catches something of the Muslim hysteria of that time—the hysteria that, a hundred years later, with greater education and wealth of the native peoples, and the withdrawing of empires, was to turn into the fundamentalism we hear about:

“A half-naked, betel-chewing pessimist stood upon the bank of the tropical river, on the edge of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless, empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips; a cry that, had it come out, would have run through the virgin solitudes of the woods as true, as great, as profound, as any philosophical shriek that ever came from the depths of an easy chair to disturb the impure wilderness of chimneys and roofs.”

Philosophical hysteria—those were the words I wanted to give to you, and I think they still apply. They bring me back to the list of questions and issues that the senior fellow of the Institute, Myron Magnet, sent to me when he was in England last summer. Why, he asked, are certain societies or groups content to enjoy the fruits of progress, while affecting to despise the conditions that promote that progress? What belief system do they oppose to it? And then, more specifically: why is Islam held up in opposition to Western values? The answer, I believe, is that philosophical hysteria. It is not an easy thing to define or understand, and the Muslim spokesmen do not really help. They speak clichés, but that might only be because they perhaps have no way of expressing what they feel. Some have overriding political causes; others are really religious missionaries rather than scholars.

But years ago, while the Shah still ruled, there appeared in the United States a small novel by a young Iranian woman that in its subdued, unpolitical way foreshadowed the hysteria that was to come. The novel was called Foreigner; the author was Nahid Rachlin. Perhaps it was just as well that the novel appeared while the Shah ruled, and thus had to avoid politics; it is just possible that the delicate feeling of this novel might have been made trivial or ordinary if it had run into political protest.

The central figure of the book is a young Iranian woman who does research work in Boston as a biologist. She is married to an American, and she might seem to be all right, well adapted. But when she goes back on a holiday to Tehran, she loses her balance. She has some trouble with the bureaucracy. She can’t get an exit visa; she begins to feel lost. She is disturbed by memories of her crowded, oppressive Iranian childhood, with its prurient sexual intimations; disturbed by what remains of her old family life; disturbed by the overgrown, thuggish city, full of “Western” buildings. And that is interesting, that use of “Western” rather than big: it is as though the strangeness of the outside world has come to Tehran itself.

Disturbed in this way, the young woman reflects on her time in the United States. It is not the time of clarity, as it might have once appeared. She sees it now to be a time of emptiness. She can’t say why she has lived the American life. Sexually and socially—in spite of her apparent success—she has never been in control; and she cannot say, either, why she has been doing the research work she has been doing. All this is very subtly and effectively done; we can see that the young woman was not prepared for the movement between civilizations, the movement out of the shut-in Iranian world, where the faith was the complete way, filled everything, left no spare corner of the mind or will or soul, to the other world, where it was necessary to be an individual and responsible; where people developed vocations, and were stirred by ambition and achievement, and believed in perfectibility. Once we understand or have an intimation of that, we see, with the central figure of the novel, what a torment and emptiness that automatic, imitative life in Boston has been for her.
Now, in her distress, she falls ill. She goes to a hospital. The doctor there understands her unhappiness. He, too, has spent some time in the United States; when he came back, he said, he soothed himself by visiting mosques and shrines for a month. He tells the young woman that her pain comes from an old ulcer. “What you have,” he says, in his melancholy, seductive way, “is a Western disease.” And the research biologist eventually arrives at a decision: she will give up that Boston-imposed life of the intellect and meaningless work; she will turn back on the American emptiness; she will stay in Iran and put on the veil. She will do as the doctor did; she will visit shrines and mosques. Having decided that, she becomes happier than she has ever been.

Immensely satisfying, that renunciation. But it is intellectually flawed: it assumes that there will continue to be people striving out there, in the stressed world, making drugs and medical equipment, to keep the Iranian doctor’s hospital going.
Again and again, on my Islamic journey in 1979, 1 found a similar unconscious contradiction in people’s attitudes. I remember especially a newspaper editor in Tehran. His paper had been at the heart of the revolution. In the middle of 1979 it was busy, in a state of glory. Seven months later, when I went back to Tehran, it had lost its heart; the once busy main room was empty; all but two of the staff had disappeared. The American embassy had been seized; a financial crisis had followed; many foreign firms had closed down; advertising had dried up; the newspaper editor could hardly see his way ahead; every issue of the paper lost money; waiting for the crisis to end, the editor, it might be said, had become as much a hostage as the diplomats. He also, as I now learned, had two sons of university age. One was studying in the United States; the other had applied for a visa, but then the hostage crisis had occurred. This was news to me, that the United States should have been so important to the sons of one of the spokesmen of the Islamic revolution. I told the editor that I was surprised. He said, speaking especially of the son waiting for the visa, “It’s his future.”

Emotional satisfaction on one hand; thought for the future on the other. The editor was as divided as nearly everyone else. One of Joseph Conrad’s earliest stories of the East Indies, from the 1890s, was about a local raja or chieftain, a murderous man, a Muslim (though it is never explicitly said), who, in a crisis, having lost his magical counselor, swims out one night to one of the English merchant ships in the harbor to ask the sailors, representatives of the immense power that had come from the other end of the world, for an amulet, a magical charm. The sailors are at a loss; but then someone among them gives the raja a British coin, a sixpence commemorating Queen Victoria’s jubilee; and the raja is well pleased. Conrad didn’t treat the story as a joke; he loaded it with philosophical implications for both sides, and I feel now that he saw truly.

In the 100 years since that story, the wealth of the world has grown, power has grown, education has spread; the disturbance, the philosophical shriek, has been amplified. The division in the revolutionary editor’s spirit and the renunciation of the fictional biologist—both contain a tribute unacknowledged, but all the more profound to the universal civilization. Simple charms alone cannot be acquired from it; other, difficult things come with it as well: ambition, endeavor, individuality.
The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain. In Trinidad, I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought.

I come back now to the first questions that Myron Magnet put to me earlier this year. Are we only as strong as our beliefs? Is it sufficient merely to hold a worldview, an ethical view, intensely? You will understand the anxieties behind the questions. The questions, of course, for all their apparent pessimism, are loaded; they contain their own answers. But they are also genuinely double-edged. For that reason, they can also be seen as a reaching out to a far-off and sometimes hostile system of fixed belief; they can be seen as an aspect of the universality of our civilization at this period. Philosophical diffidence meets philosophical hysteria; and the diffident man is, at the end, the more in control.

Because my movement within this civilization has been from the periphery to the center, I may have seen or felt certain things more freshly than people to whom those things were everyday. One such thing was my discovery, as a child—a child worried about pain and cruelty—of the Christian precept “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” There was no such human consolation in the Hinduism I grew up with, and though I have never had any religious faith, the simple idea was, and is, dazzling to me, perfect as a guide to human behavior.
A later realization—I suppose I have sensed it most of my life, but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk—has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.

 

Dwight Eisenhower on the God path

I encountered for the very first time just the other day, Kevin Kruse and his book, One Nation Under God.

I had never read him, much to my chagrin because he had well worked the earth that I was just beginning to turn over, and I could have been much further along in my own planting if I had had him with me. Anyway, I jumped into his work and I haven’t stopped reading him since I began just a few days ago.

He doesn’t use my own expression, God’s path, or better maybe, God’s way, but he is really talking about Krusethat, about how our entire country would, or will have become now with Trump and his Evangelical base, a nation of people following God’s path.

This movement, of course, is more than anything else what has gifted us the presidency of Donald Trump. And here the irony is sharp indeed. We couldn’t have chosen a less god-like person to lead us into becoming an even more God decked out nation. And a God decked out nation was not the nation of the Founding Fathers. And in fact God was never mentioned in the Constitution, our founding document.

And who is principally responsible for this happening? Our nation swathed in God language? And here again the irony is no less sharp. The man who has done most to put the country on a God path is the man who did most to defeat the Axis powers during the Second World War, General Dwight Eisenhower. Going from waging war to waging God. Is General James ‘Mad Dog‘ Mattis another one? Can you wage God? Well Ike did. And Trump is trying but he happily doesn’t have the smarts to do so, as for so much else that he would like to do for the country.

Here is Kevin Kruse’s shortened and edited account of what Ike almost without asking us, the American people, no more than he had asked Charles deGaulle about his plans for invading France in 1944, about what he was intending to impose upon the people, about how he dressed us up in the language of God, from the prayer breakfast to begin the day, to the evening prayer of thanksgiving at the end of the day for all of God’s wondrous gifts.


THE INAUGURATION OF PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. Eisenhower was much more than a political ceremony. It was, in many ways, a religious consecration. Though such a characterization might startle us today, the voters who elected Eisenhower twice by overwhelming margins would not have been surprised.

In his acceptance speech at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Eisenhower promised that the coming campaign would be a “great crusade for freedom.” As he traveled across America that summer, Eisenhower met often with Reverend Billy Graham, his close friend, to receive spiritual guidance and recommendations for passages of Scripture to use in his speeches….

Eisenhower won 55 percent of the popular vote and a staggering 442-to-89 margin in the Electoral College. Reflecting on the returns, Eisenhower saw nothing less than a mandate for a national religious revival. “I think one of the reasons I was elected was to help lead this country spiritually….”

The inaugural ceremonies on January 20, 1953, set the tone for the new administration. Some of Eisenhower’s supporters tried to get Congress to designate it a National Day of Prayer, but even without such an official blessing, the day still had all the markings of one. In the past, incoming presidents had attended religious services… but Eisenhower turned spirituality into spectacle. At a transition meeting with his cabinet nominees, he announced that they and their families were invited to a special religious service at National Presbyterian Church the morning of the inauguration….

Immediately after his oath of office, in his first official words as president, Eisenhower asked the 125,000 Americans in attendance—and the estimated seventy million more watching live on television—to bow their heads so that he might lead them in “a little private prayer of my own” he had composed himself that morning.

“Almighty God,” Eisenhower began, “as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the Executive branch of Government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere.” The inauguration and its immediate aftermath established the tenor for Eisenhower’s entire presidency.

On the first Sunday in February, Eisenhower became the first president ever to be baptized while in office, taking the rite before the congregation of National Presbyterian Church. That same night, Eisenhower broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” ceremonies, urging the millions watching at home to recognize and rejoice in what the president said were the spiritual foundations of the nation.

Four days later, he was the guest of honor at the first-ever National Prayer Breakfast, which soon became an annual tradition…. The convening pastor led a “prayer of consecration” for Eisenhower, who then offered brief remarks of his own. “The very basis of our government is: ‘We hold that all men are endowed by their Creator’ with certain rights,” the president asserted. “In one sentence, we established that every free government is embedded soundly in a deeply-felt religious faith.”

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité