2018 Retrospect: Person of the Year

banner Feb 2019

2018 was quite a year. In the spirit of Time magazine, the members of the Avon Hills Salon are kicking off 2019 with a look back, at persons of significance for the year past.  Time’s Person of the Year is usually living (though not, at time of publication, this year’s Jamal Kashoggi). We have chosen a mix of persons, some living and some dead, who wrote, said, or did something that made us think, helped us live, stood out or stood up to power. We hope you’ll enjoy the variety.

*Noreen Herzfeld

nick-hayesA Good Year for Putin

Nick Hayes

Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin

Person of the year for 2018?  Vladimir Putin, of course.

A year ago, The Atlantic kicked off the new year in its January/February 2018 issue with an in-depth article by Julia Joffee on “What Putin Really Wants.”  If The Atlantic had run a follow-up story looking back at 2018 from Putin’s perspective, the lead would probably read, “2018: The Year Putin Got What He Wanted.”  Let’s suggest a few items that would have been on Putin’s 2018 to-do list.

First of all, in Putin’s mind the personal is always political.   Putin had a grudge to settle with the Obama administration.   In 2016, the Panama Papers were leaked documenting and spreading the “dirt” on the illicit wealth of the Kremlin insiders and Putin hidden in off-shore banks.   Putin took it as a personal attack by the Obama administration and was determined to retaliate.

Secondly, he had wanted a new way to assert Russia’s influence in international politics.  He found it in the successful launch of a new weapon:  hacking.  The continuing controversy and discord over the Mueller investigation adds further evidence that Putin had been right to gamble that hacking American computers could throw confusion and discord into the U.S. election and tilt it in favor of the Kremlin’s choice.  According to Joffee, Putin had “. . . pulled off one of the greatest acts of political sabotage in modern history, turning American democracy against itself.”  In the process, Putin acquired a bit of what the Russians call “blat,” or a bit of leverage with the American president. Google the media coverage of the joint press conferences by Putin and Trump last July in Helsinki.  Now, imagine that you are Putin watching the nervous and fawning American president.  What would you think?

Third, self-congratulations would be in order. You would think that your investment in cultivating Trump was paying off very nicely.  Putin’s international agenda did stall a bit in 2018.  The Kremlin intended to do to the eastern Ukraine what it had done to the Crimea. Moscow appears to have settled for a long-term stalemate. Although Trump offered little help for Putin’s agenda in Ukraine, the American president more than made up for that oversight in his policies toward Syria.  His announcement that he would pull out the U.S. forces in Syria left its future in the hands of Putin and his protégé Bashar-al Assad.

Fourth, legislative achievements have never been high on Putin’s to-do list.  This past fall, he did float a pension reform that would have raised the retirement age by five years. In the face of widespread popular protests, Putin blinked.  He reduced the proposed increase in retirement age for women, but not for men and has subsequently slow-walked the proposal. Putin did score a legislative victory on another issue dearer to the heart of his base.  This past January, Russia’s Justice Ministry acted on an earlier proposal from Putin to decriminalize bribery and corruption in certain “exceptional circumstances.”  Nether Putin nor the Justice Ministry has offered an explanation or a more precise definition of what is meant by “exceptional circumstances.”

Finally, what about Putin’s grudge against the Obama administration over the Panama Papers?  Putin’s payback came in the hacking and interference in the American election.


The Professional

Tony Cunningham

Person of the Year: Robert Mueller

I’m a philosopher by trade.  Good philosophers think carefully about things that matter, and by necessity, they doubt their own thoughts and answers.  The point of philosophical inquiry isn’t to arrive at tidy conclusions, but rather, to track the messy truth, and doubt is a philosopher’s best friend.  As I tell my students, thoughtful uncertainty beats thoughtless certainty every time.  If you are pursuing anything but the obvious, complexity and vagueness are inevitable.  The answers you seek may elude you forever, and progress is generally marked by inching toward a better, but imperfect rendering of the world, not the whole story laid bare, once and for all time.  Intellectual humility is a prerequisite for any philosopher.  You must become comfortable with not knowing; believing you have everything figured out gets in the way of truly figuring things out.

Donald Trump makes a mockery of philosophy.  He doesn’t read or study or deliberate at all, much less devotedly.  He insists that he knows more than thoughtful people who have read, studied, and deliberated.  As he sees it, his “gut” feelings track the answers to complex questions that should be entirely beyond him.  To call him a Sophist, the skilled orators that Socrates criticized for persuading people with slick appeals to emotion, rather than with reasoned argument, is unfair to the Sophists.  Trump vacillates, exaggerates, and lies shamelessly at every turn.  He is all will and no reason, the anti-philosopher in the flesh.

Robert Mueller, head of the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in theMueller pic.jpeg 2016 election, is basically everything Trump isn’t, and as such, he is my “Person of the Year.”  Since we do not know the results of the inquiry, the selection may seem premature.  Perhaps they will not amount to anything beyond the indictments, verdicts, and guilty pleas obtained so far.  However, the conclusion is less important to my choice than the character of the man and his inquiry.  Mueller and his team have worked methodically, leaking nothing and saying little.  They have met Trump’s incessant whining about a “witch hunt” and “12 angry Democrats” with stony silence.  No matter what they might deliver, they have plugged away tirelessly, relying on reason and the evidence, not the gut feelings of ignorance.  The Mueller inquiry has been a breath of fresh air for America so far as reasoned inquiry goes.

Ultimately, the Mueller investigation reflects the man, someone entirely unlike Trump.  Like Trump, Robert Swan Mueller was born into wealth.  But whereas Trump escaped Vietnam with convenient bone spurs, Mueller volunteered.  Indeed, he had to persist to serve as a Marine.  Inspired by a Princeton classmate killed in the war, a knee injury rendered Mueller ineligible at first, but he healed enough by the following year to enroll in Officer Candidate School.  After his unit’s first major battle, his reputation was sealed with his soldiers—“The minute the shit hit the fan, he was there.  He performed remarkably.  After that night, there were a lot of guys who would’ve walked through walls for him.” Around the same time, Trump went to work for his father.  He later joked that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the New York dating scene was his “personal Vietnam.”  Robert Mueller never speaks about the war.

Robert Mueller’s entire life has been about professionalism in the very best sense of the word.  The work—whether commanding a unit in Vietnam, directing the F.B.I., or heading the Russia investigation—has never been about him.  He has set the highest standards, demanding the best of himself and those who work with and for him.  In Trump’s world of vapid reality television, Mueller would be boring—all content and no show.  At a time when we are captive to a president who is all show and no content, Robert Mueller is a nothing less than a gift to the nation, a merciful reminder that reasoned inquiry and faithful service are not dead.  Thank goodness for Robert Mueller and his kind.

banner-of-staffDo the Work

Louis Johnston

People of the Year: Joan, John, Judy, Mona, and Pam

 Do the Work! That’s the title of a book to which I turn whenever I’m frustrated with a project. The cover shows a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh. He called it Man With a Hoe:

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, regarding this drawing and a group of similar sketches, “there are things that are worth doing one’s best for, either because they gain approval or because, just the opposite, they have their own raison d’être. Blessed is he who has found his work, says Carlyle, and that’s absolutely true.” He went on, “And as for me, when I say that I want to make figures from the people for the people, then it goes without saying that the course of events will influence me only indirectly, that is to the extent that my work is made harder or easier, but making the drawings themselves is my main preoccupation.”

Doing our best work makes possible two key principles of economics: Specialization and trade. Specialization involves finding a task at which a person, group of people, or even nation is relatively good at and then focusing on doing that job well. Trade comes into the picture when two people, groups of people, or nations exchange the goods and services they produce with one another.

Yet, I too often take for granted the people who do their work day in, day out, week after week, and make it possible for me to specialize and do my best work. I implicitly trust that they will be there. That’s the missing ingredient when economists and other discuss trade: that we must trust one another to do what they have agreed to do. If they do not, then the entire edifice crumbles.

My people of the year are the men and women who get up every day and do what needs to be done on our campuses. Clean our buildings. Make our food and clean up after us. Keep the lights on, the heat flowing, and the water running. Supervise our student workers, get the copy machine fixed when it inevitably breaks down, print out our exams.

Mona Gruber and Joan Volkers take care of the Main Building for all of us who work there. I’m constantly amazed how they can keep everything together in the middle of a building-wide renovation but they do it. They clean the bathrooms; mop, sweep, and vacuum the floors, empty the trash, and do dozens of other tasks that I don’t even know about. Thank you, Mona and Joan.

I eat lunch 3-4 times per week at Gorecki. I love the pizza, and Pam Marchand is there almost every day running the station, making pies, baking them, slicing them, and just as important she is chatting with both fellow workers and diners. I’ve overheard her helping out a rookie behind the counter or encouraging another worker when they’ve made a mistake. Thank you, Pam.

When I’m done with lunch, John Holland and the crew in the dish room wash all of the plates, glasses, silverware, and everything else we who have eaten lunch generate day after day after day. I look forward to seeing John and saying hello as he is usually finishing lunch when I come in. Students, staff, and faculty eat thousands of meals and yet we can always count on clean plates, clean glasses, and clean silverware. Thank you, John.

I’ve worked with Judy Shank since we were both over in Simons Hall at St John’s. I know that if I need something (a quiz printed, an errand run) she’ll not only do it but do it well. She’s now the Economics Department staff person but I still think of her as my guardian angel, always looking out for me. Thank you, Judy.

I’ve only mentioned five people but there are dozens more who do the work. I hope all of them know how much I appreciate what they do and how much all the work that all of the staff at our colleges do makes it possible for faculty like me to specialize in what (we hope) we do well. People like them, who show up every day and get the job done, should be awarded Person of the Year every year.


It Can’t Happen Here?

Jim Read

Person of the Year: Sinclair Lewis

My selection for Person of the Year 2018 is the American novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951). He was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930). His first great novel, Main Street, was modeled on his home town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in western Stearns County.

Sinclair LewisBut it is not for these reasons that I have selected him for Person of the Year. It is for his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which depicts a fascist takeover of the United States. In the novel a folksy demagogue, Buzz Windrip, skillfully exploits economic distress, racial and religious prejudice, and xenophobia to win the presidency, whose powers he quickly employs to declare a national emergency, put members of Congress under house arrest, violently suppress all opposition, and establish himself as dictator.

The title of the book comes from the claim made by several characters early in the novel, despite the warning signs, that a fascist dictatorship was impossible in the United States. “Nonsense! That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen!” But it does happen, with lightning swiftness. Most ordinary citizens make no attempt to stand up for the Constitution whose virtues they had been ritually praising. Soon many of the same characters who once claimed a fascist dictatorship was impossible in the United States now treat it as an accomplished fact about which nothing can be done.

The most interesting and unsettling part of the story is the secret of Buzz Windrip’s appeal to ordinary Americans, the “Forgotten Men” as he calls them. “Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man…But he was the Common Man twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”

His economic promises were ridiculous and full of contradictions but nevertheless appealed to people in financial distress. The wealth of the country would be redistributed so that everyone got $5000 off the bat, but property rights would be respected and everyone would come out ahead. “He had thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low.” By cutting off all foreign trade and producing everything at home, “even coffee, cocoa, and rubber,” Americans would “keep all our dollars at home,” generating a large enough balance of trade to finance the $5000 promised to every family.

Of course once Buzz Windrip is in power, the $5000 doesn’t come. The results instead are enormous profits for a few large politically-connected corporations and enormously increased misery for nearly everyone else. But Windrip cleverly pins the blame on blacks, who are targeted for re-enslavement, and Jews, who are targeted for annihilation. This plot turn would seem obviously based on Hitler’s “Final Solution” – except that It Can’t Happen Here was published in 1935, long before most people had any idea what was to come.

The novel’s conclusion leaves unresolved the question of whether fascism could permanently defeat democracy in the United States. Buzz Windrip eventually falls victim to an internal coup, but fascist rule continues under new leadership. There is an underground resistance movement promising to restore democracy, but the novel promises only that the resistance will continue, not that it will succeed.

Is democracy threatened in the United States today? This is an intriguing question to pose in the wake of a long and still-unresolved political crisis engineered by a president who in effect said to Congress, “Do as I command, or I will shut this country down.” It is encouraging that at least some congressional leaders still take their constitutional responsibilities seriously. But what are the attitudes of the wider American public?

A special September 2018 issue of The Atlantic (published before the shutdown crisis) posed the question, Is Democracy Dying? Among the eye-opening details reported in the feature was that in an August 2017 survey, more than half of the Republicans said they would support postponing the 2020 elections if President Trump claimed this was necessary to prevent the (supposed) threat of undocumented immigrants voting.

Political theorist Yascha Mounk in The People vs. Democracy: Why our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (2018) argues that both in the United States and in Europe, democracy is in process of “deconsolidating.” By “deconsolidation” Mounk does not mean that democracy will necessarily be overthrown (though he considers that a real possibility) but that in the U.S. and western Europe the once-overwhelming consensus across the political spectrum in favor of maintaining a democratic system has evaporated. It now has open opponents as well as advocates. Democracy has gone from being remarkable stable in the United States to increasingly unstable; it has ceased to be the only game in town.

Mounk reports some disturbing survey evidence, especially among younger voters. “In 1995, 34 percent of young Americans aged 18-24 felt that a political system with a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections was either good or very good. By 2011, 44 percent of young Americans felt the same way.” Similar upward trends are evident among Americans who say they favor military rule. From 1995 to 2011 the number of Americans who say they favor military rule increased from one in 16 to one in six. Among young, wealthy Americans the percentage who say they favor military rule had increased to 35 percent by 2011. (Mounk, pp. 108-112). These surveys were taken well before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate.

So these are my reasons for selecting Sinclair Lewis as Person of the Year. I am not saying that the death of democracy will happen here, only that it can happen here. There are many things we as citizens can and should do to restore our democracy to health and reverse the trend toward authoritarian politics. But simply insisting that “it can’t happen here” won’t do the trick.

noreen-herzfeldWhere Have All the Niebuhr’s Gone?

Noreen Herzfeld

Person of the Year: Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr did not shy away from hard truths.  Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1928-1960), Niebuhr was for the mid-twentieth century something we very much lack today—a theologian and public intellectual who was a conscience for his time, and, oddly enough, for ours.

NiehbauerIn his Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man, he notes that human beings, standing “at the juncture of nature and spirit,” tend to overestimate themselves, falling into the dual trap of pride and an overreaching will-to-power.  While an individual may overcome this temptation, nations rarely do: “Sinful pride and idolatrous pretention are an inevitable concomitant of large political groups.”  Niebuhr described modern nationalism as a “daemonic” force that would be the inevitable ruin of nations that espoused it.  Of course, he was thinking of Hitler and Mussolini at the time.

But not entirely.  In 1937, Niebuhr wrote a prescient piece for the American Scholar Niehbuhr 2.pngentitled, “Pawns for Fascism—Our Lower Middle Class” in which he envisioned the forces that could bring down American democracy.  Niebuhr writes that should our civilization fail, “the chief contributory cause of its failure will lie in the demonic force latent in the lives of all the good little people, so touching in their personal rectitude and individual discipline, who serve us in the shops, who till our soil and who perform all functions in our social mechanism with the exception of industrial labor.”  He believes the lower middle class to be the most “politically inept” of all classes.  These voters embrace the social conservatism and individualism of the Right, yet fail to recognize that their position is not the same as that of the wealthy politicians whom they elect, not seeing “the gulf between property as social power and property as minimal social security.”

Niebuhr could be talking about our society today.  He describes what modern writers have dubbed “the precariat,” a failing middle class who “are least able to find themselves amidst the complexities of a technical civilization and the perplexities of . . . change.”   They are “ignorant of the cause of, and confused about the ways of escape from, [their] social difficulties.”  They seethe with “a profound resentment, which is the more bitter for its failure to articulate itself clearly,” and thus, are easy prey to “the economic creed of the demagogue”, “virulent racism”, and “patriotic passion.”  Niebuhr warns that, in an economic downturn, lower middle-class grievance will “undoubtedly express itself in fascistic or semi-fascistic terms…. It may well become the decisive factor in our political life.”

Niebuhr writes: “It is too early to prophesy, and much too early to write, the tragic social history of our era.”  That was eighty years ago.  Today we see much of what he foresaw.  Niebuhr does not prescribe a solution.  He saw the world as broken by human sinfulness and democracy as “a proximate solution to insoluble problems.”  He does, however, point out that “history is filled with many achievements and constructions which ‘have their day and cease to be.’”  In other words, no matter how complicated or broken our current situation seems, this too shall pass.

Reinhold Niebuhr remains popular today, quoted by political figures (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, James Comey) and pundits (David Brooks, Andrew Bacevich) alike.  He has been described as “one of the last two indisputable public intellectuals in the United States.”  Which raises the question, “Where are the Niebuhrs of today?”   Niebuhr rose to prominence in the 1930s after the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society and became the “go to” theologian during and after WWII for a media searching for understanding of our civilization’s turmoil.

There are plenty of smart and articulate theologians out there today.  Unfortunately, we do not hear them in the clamor of today’s media, which all too often take the easy way out, elevating evangelicals, such as Jerry Falwell or Franklin Graham, who are willing to give their American audience the simplistic answers they want to hear, and to do so in a soundbite.  Yet, if we had the likes of Niebuhr today, would we listen?  Or has our attention been too fragmented by technology, and too jaded by a media that looks for the extremes that make for a good fight?

Summer Reading Reviews

The contributors to the Avon Hills salon decided to make this issue a variant on an old theme – the summer reading list. Like so many liberal arts alumni/ae, your summer reading list of years ago probably included at least one Russian classic. Our list gives the old reading list a contemporary twist. No, we are not asking that you finally finish reading Lev Tolstoi’s War and Peace or disrupt the tranquility of a day at the beach by returning to Fyodor Dosteovesky’s The Brothers Karamozov. We are suggesting instead that you take your pick from our list of five Russia themed books.

Noreen Herzfeld’s review of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow takes the reader back in time to Moscow’s Hotel Metropol and its involuntary guest, Count Alexander Rostov. Sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, Count Rostov is a metaphor for the passing of the old Tsarist Russia and a reflection on the ways Soviet citizens found to carry on despite the capricious brutality of life in the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Louis Johnston also invites the reader to take a Russian journey, the quintessential Russia journey – the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Former NPR Moscow bureau chief, David Greene’s Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia is a book for all of us who have fantasized about taking the legendary train trip across Siberia and playing the role of a latter day John Reed covering the unfolding drama of the end of the old Soviet regime and the troubled rise of a new Russia. Piano playing was political in the Soviet Union. That is one lesson you can draw from Louis’ second recommendation, Nigel Cliff’s The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War. Cliff tells the story of Van Cliburn’s famous performance in Moscow in 1958 and how in effect Van Cliburn broke through the ice of the Cold War and in his mastery of the Russian classical style provided a cultural bridge between Russia and the U.S. Louis’ third pick, Marvin Kalb’s The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956 – Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost and a Young America in Russia is the stuff of envy.

Who could not feel at least a tinge of jealousy as Kalb tells his story from Russian language training in Fort Meade, Maryland, to graduate studies in Russian history at Harvard, and finally to an assignment in Moscow in the pivotal year of 1956? Kalb offers you his front row seat to watch the rise and failure of Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms. Kalb’s book is well worth the read if only to learn about the origins of his “Peter the Great” joke.

Finally, I offer my recommendation with a bit of caution. Timothy Synder’s The Road to Unfreedom might dampen your curiosity or enthusiasm for taking any trip to Russia. Snyder provides a well-researched, alarming, and devastating study of the rise of the Putin regime in the very recent years from 2010 to the present and a convincing argument that the Trump-Putin axis is even far more threatening to democracy than we have feared.

* Nick Hayes

Noreen Herzfeld on A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles
Viking, 2016


A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles is a charming elegy to a lost civilization.  The novel takes place entirely in the Soviet era, beginning in 1922 with the sentencing of Count Alexander Rostov to house arrest in the Metropol hotel and ending in 1954, the year Khrushchev unveiled the world’s first nuclear power plant.  A Gentleman in Moscow, however, celebrates the manners and mores not of the Soviets but of the Tsars.  The four confining walls (and sometimes roof) of the Metropol turn out to contain a world of people, events, objects, and ideas.  And while these are described by an outside narrator, we view life in the Metropol almost completely through Rostov’s eyes.  Thus, luxury hotel and aristocratic interpreter combine to form a lush portrait of the privileged life in Russia, both before and after the revolution.

This underlies both the novel’s strengths and its weaknesses.  The Metropol becomes for the reader a charming and cozy set, with a quirky cast of characters that begin to feel like family:  nine year old Nina, who somehow possesses a master key with which she takes Rostov into the hotel’s inner workings; Mishka, a poet friend from Rostov’s youth who struggles with the new order; friendly maître d’ Andre and temperamental French chef Emil; Anna, an actress and love interest; various government officials and foreign diplomats; Nina’s daughter Sophia; and even a one-eyed cat.  Both Rostov and the narrator exhibit a wry sense of humor and a fondness for historical and literary digressions.  The text is light, witty, and amusing, reminiscent of the chatter at a fin de siècle ball.

Which is also the novel’s weakness.  The digressions pile up at times.  Several characters seem too pat, and  while some characters run afoul of the new ruling caste, anything too serious or painful takes place outside the hotel.  When a typical obstacle is nothing more than the unavailability of saffron to make bouillabaisse, life in the Metropol, and by extension in Stalin’s Russia, looks pretty damn good.  Maybe a little too good.

If A Gentleman in Moscow has a message, it would be, in Rostov’s words, “A man must master his circumstances or be mastered by them.”  Against the Soviet will toward collectivization and the common good, Towles has written a supremely American ode to the intrepid individual.  He suggests that this individualism is not just part of the American psyche, but the Russian as well:

Towles, in describing his book, writes: “Kazan Cathedral is a perfect symbol of Russia’s mystique for me during the Soviet era. Built in 1636 on Red Square . . . Kazan was among Russia’s oldest and most revered cathedrals. In 1936, the Bolsheviks celebrated the 300th anniversary of its consecration by razing it to the ground. In part, they leveled the cathedral to clear Red Square for military parades, but also to punctuate the end of Christianity in Russia. But Peter Baranovsky, the architect who was directed to oversee the dismantling, secretly drafted detailed drawings of the cathedral and hid them away. More than fifty years later, when Communist rule came to its end, the Russians used Baranovsky’s drawings to rebuild the church stone for stone. . . . At the heart of this history is a lone individual who at great personal risk carefully documented what he was destroying in the unlikely chance that it might some day be rebuilt. The Soviet era abounds with sweeping cultural changes and with stoic heroes who worked in isolation at odds with the momentum of history towards some brighter future.”

A Gentleman in Moscow is a good summer read that mixes historical accuracy with flights of fancy.  It may start slowly, but it picks up momentum in the second half and by the end leaves the reader wishing that her reservation at the Metrapol would last just a few days longer.

Louis Johnston on Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into the Heart of Russia
David Greene
Norton, 2015

Three years in Russia: Marvin Kalb in 1956, Van Cliburn in 1958, David Greene in 2013

I often stumble onto themes in my reading. Over the past few months I’ve read three books about Russia and the Soviet Union.

I first read David Greene’s, Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia this past winter. Greene, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, served as NPR’s Moscow bureau chief from 2009 to 2012. In 2011 he took the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok; the trip affected Greene so much that he decided to do it again in 2013 and use the route as a framework for a memoir about his time in Russia, Ukraine, and other former republics of the Soviet Union.

I love trains and riding the Trans-Siberian is on my bucket list, so that was what attracted me to the book as well as hearting Greene regularly on NPR. However, I soon found myself immersed in a book that wove together history, memoir, and travelogue to tell a story about Russia today. Here’s a taste:

The Russia I saw was very much as Gogol described it more than 150 years ago: careening down an uncertain path. On the Trans-Siberian Railway I began to see a thin line of constancy, connecting Russia’s cities and its steppes, its problems and its potential, its past and its future. Cultural heritage seems to pervade a nation that stretches from Europe to Pyongyang and Alaska, making some customs and ways of thinking feel the same through all of Russia’s extremities. And across this vast country the emotion that remained constant was an uneasy frustration: Here are millions of people across different landscapes, climates, and communities, all with families they love and ideas to offer, but almost universally unable to answer some simple questions: Where is your country going? And what do you want for its future?

Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War
Nigel Cliff
HarperCollins, 2016

I love trains, but running close second is music, in general, and especially the piano and pianists. This drew me during the spring to Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War. Van Cliburn’s Beethoven sonatas inspired my own playing during the 1970s and I’ve always been fascinated by his victory in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 and its connection to the Cold War.

The title exaggerates Cliburn’s role in the Cold War but it’s still a great story.

In particular, Cliff uses recently opened archival material to show how oblivious to politics, and indeed to everyday life, was Cliburn. His mother, a fine pianist herself, determined to form Van into a great pianist in the classical, Russian style. This approach fell out of fashion in the US from the 1940s until Cliburn’s arrival, according to Cliff, and was one reason why no one thought that an American could win the Tchaikovsky Competition.

Another reason was that most observers assumed the competition was rigged so that a Soviet citizen, or perhaps a pianist from China or a Warsaw Pact country, would certainly win first prize. Cliff documents the role played by Nikita Khrushchev in ensuring that the competition remained clean. When his minister of culture came to Khrushchev with the news that the American would probably win first prize, and wondered if there is anything he should do, Khrushchev replied, “What do others think of him? Is he the best?” The minister responded, “Yes, he is the best.” Cliff writes, “In that case, ‘the premier grunted, ‘give him the first prize.’”

The Year I was Peter the Great
1956 Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia
Marvin Kalb
Brookings Institution Press, 2017

Finally, over the past few weeks I read and re-read Marvin Kalb’s The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956 – Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia. If ever there was a story of the right person, in the right place, at the right time, this is it.

Kalb grew up in the Bronx and graduated from City College of New York. He volunteered for military service in 1953, and served from mid-1953 through mid-1955 at Army Security Center in Fort Meade, Maryland, “where I found myself in an elite unit of Russian-speaking soldiers who had studied Soviet communism.”

In December 1955, Kalb was a 25-year-old Ph.D. student at Harvard, working on a dissertation in Russian history. I’ll let him tell you what happened next:

One day in late December, Marshall Shulman, once Dean Acheson’s speechwriter at the State Department and now associate director of the Russian Research Center, asked a question that took me totally by surprise: Would I accept a Moscow assignment as a State Department translator, and would I be prepared to leave in a week or two? It was helpful, he said, that I had recently held a top-secret clearance at the Army Security Center. And, by the way, he added, he needed an answer by tomorrow. I gulped.

Kalb arrived in Moscow in late January and witnessed an extraordinary year in Soviet and world history. Specifically, Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech to the 20th Party Congress in February and denounced Stalin along with the system he (and many, including Khrushchev) had built over the past 30 years. In the months that followed, Kalb observed its effects on US-Soviet relations along with the whirlwind it created throughout Soviet society. With hope, he watched as the openness encouraged by the Secret Speech and other changes made by Khrushchev spread from the USSR to Eastern Europe.

Sadly, by late summer and early fall he saw the Soviets crush the opposition engendered by the Khrushchev reforms, first in Poland, then more violently in Hungary. By the end of 1956, Kalb heard Khrushchev offer a toast: “God grant that every communist be able to fight as Stalin fought!”

Kalb tells wonderful stories, including how Khrushchev came to call him Peter the Great every time they met. The best tale is in the book’s postscript. I won’t spoil it, but imagine that you were working in an archive, gathering material for your dissertation, when someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “You have a call, uh, from a man who says he is, uh, Edward R. Murrow.”

Perhaps I should book that trip on the Trans-Siberian sooner rather than later…

Nick Hayes on The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
Tim Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 2018


In this past year, did you find yourself drawn, like an involuntary tropism, to stories of the rise of an autocratic president, his administration by corruption and cronyism, and his pandering to far right nationalism, then Timothy Snyder’s history of the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, The Road to Unfreedom, is for you.  If you feared for your own descent into paranoia as you followed the news of how Putin’s hand stretched into Ukraine and Crimea, Syria, assassinations by poisoning in the U.K., and into the inner circle of the Trump White House, Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom offers some consolation. At least your fears are real and not paranoiac delusions.

The reviews and critics of Snyder’s new book agree on one thing.  The Road to Unfreedom is “unignorable.” He is a bit intimidating. His resume would humble even the most arrogant of scholars.  The footnotes in The Road to Unfreedom lend credibility to the line in his resume that claims a command of seven languages. Any discussion of WWII today must include Snyder’s Blood Lands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.  It is a blood-chilling account of the genocidal collusion of Hitler and Stalin.  In 2017, Snyder stepped into the public arena with the publication of On Tyranny.    In this case, Snyder drew upon the tragic history of twentieth century Europe on how to survive in an age of dictatorship and totalitarianism.  He predicted, moreover, the inevitability that Trump will take a script from the Nazis and fake a military crisis, declare martial law, and impose a dictatorship.

The Road to Unfreedom weaves together three distinct genres.   There is Snyder’s personal voice that turns many sections of the book into a memoir.  He recounts how the birth of his children coincided with the crisis in Ukraine or his presence and voice at numerous gatherings as the conflict unfolded.

He provides a convincing narrative of Putin’s orchestration of the crisis in Europe since 2010 and the complicity of the Trump organization.

Lastly, he adds the perspective of a philosopher of history.  Snyder frames his narrative as a conflict of two competing views of history: “inevitability” and “eternity.” The former derives from the Enlightenment and underscores the tradition of liberalism and the rule of law.  The latter grew out of late nineteenth century nationalism and feeds fascism and the ultra-right.

To be honest, Snyder lost me in his digressions into “inevitability” and “eternity.”  Had he asked for my advice, I would have told him to take his cue from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Develop your story.  If you want to philosophize about history, add it as a separate section at the end.

His observations on today’s politics, however, are clear, unmistakable, and a cause for alarm.

Take the issue of “fake news.”  It was not the invention of Trump.  Snyder documents Putin’s reliance on “fake news” as a key weapon in his political arsenal.  Snyder makes a convincing case that Putin had invested heavily in cyberwarfare and had personally approved a strategy to target the U.S. 2016 elections.  Snyder leaves the reader with little doubt that the Kremlin favored Trump and interfered in the U.S. election.  Snyder makes an even stronger case.  The Kremlin’s most outrageous act of “fake news” was, in fact, the invention of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.  He was, Snyder concludes, the “Russian candidate.”

One Year Retrospective on the State of the Union

This week the Avon Hills Salon reflect upon Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address on January 30, 2018.

The Gift of Trump
Anthony Cunningham

Plato’s Republic Manuscript

Years ago, I had a hard time getting students to take Plato’s qualms about democracy seriously.  In his Republic, Plato describes the disintegration of an ideal state, and a democracy is but one step removed from tyranny, the worst form of government.  His democracy comes about when the masses grow disenchanted with the oligarchs who command all the wealth and power.  These forgotten people wrest power from the establishment, and eventually, all hell breaks loose because the democratic man does whatever he pleases, thereby necessitating the rise of a powerful tyrant to save society by quelling the resulting disorder.

Try as I did to give life to Plato’s worries, my students could no more imagine serious threats from a democracy than they could imagine being attacked by unicorns.  Their faith in democracies was an understandable result of their lived experience and what they knew of American history.  They acknowledged imperfections in America’s democracy, but they pointed to what they saw as constant progress toward a better America.  After all, once upon a time, slavery was legal, Jim Crow ruled, women couldn’t vote, and people couldn’t come out of the closet.  These things never should have happened in the first place, but at least our democratic values of liberty and equality prevailed in the end.  And once won, these moral victories were permanent.  Americans could be confident that in time, other evils would be eradicated.  Justice would prevail, and we would all share in the bounty of America, the unparalleled land of opportunity.

And then came Trump.  Of course, he is a variation on Plato’s tale.  He is an oligarch, not some poor fellow leading the huddled masses against the 1%.  But he might as well be one of the downtrodden because he tapped into a powerful wellspring of anger, fear, and dispossession.  Trump capitalized on the sense of loss, worry, and resentment amongst Americans who felt like they no longer mattered.  His talk of arrogant elites, violent illegals, and globalists who cared less about America struck a chord, and Trump used the vitriol to full advantage.  True, he said bombastic things, boasted at every turn, made wild promises, and displayed vulgar sensibilities that would have eliminated a conventional candidate, but all was forgiven or overlooked because he was their guy, the ferocious fighter who was willing to throw political correctness to the wind to fight honestly on their behalf.  Evangelicals could hardly avoid the conclusion that Trump was a sinner, a profane man who talked about grabbing women “by the pussy,” but perhaps this was all part of God’s plan.  God so loved them that He sent them the unlikeliest hero.  Maybe God had a sense of humor.  All that mattered was that Trump would deliver them from evil, just as he would deliver all the manual laborers struggling to make a go of it in a different world.  He would drain the swamp and give them so much winning that they might just grow tired of winning.  Everything would be better with Trump.  Everything.

One year into the Trump presidency, he has given America a gift, though not the kind he promised.  He has destroyed the illusion that democracy is any magic pill to cure all social ills.  The progress wrought in American history through the efforts and sacrifices of people trying to make good on the ideals of liberty and equality can be rolled back, and if we doubted this before, Trump is proof in the flesh.  The thought that moral progress mirrors the progress of science—after all, once we see into the inner workings of the natural world, we seldom abandon such knowledge—is comforting, but Trump exposes it as a fantasy, and a pernicious one if it lulls us into complacency.  Democracy at its best is a fragile thing.  The ills of yesteryear can be rejuvenated, and they can be ushered in by people who think they are making America great again.  Bigotry can be exalted, precious freedoms can be rolled back, and knowledge can be replaced with convenient lies.  Trump did not invent the cracks and fissures in our fragile democracy; he capitalized on them, and in the process, he did us the favor of making us face the fact that the best things about America are never settled once and for all.  Donald Trump might just help make America great, though not the way he thinks.

Sins of Omission
Nick Hayes

Dante would have condemned President Trump for the sin of omission, a capital sin. In his State of the Union speech, Trump omitted several things we have come to know about him during his first year in the White House.

President Trump at the 2018 State of the Union Address

For example, Trump really likes Forbes magazine.  Based on comments by his erstwhile paramour, Stormy Daniels, Trump doesn’t actually read Forbes but finds it handy for other things.

It was useful, for instance, in the games Trump has been playing with Congress. It had mandated that the Trump administration produce a list of the elite oligarchs in Russia with close ties to the Kremlin and Putin. Congress’s purpose for such a list was to identify and impose sanctions on Putin’s cronies. The Treasury Department complied by cribbing a list of 96 names from a list published by Forbes of the 200 richest businessmen in Russia. Why would Trump prefer to plagiarize from a popular magazine rather than turn to the CIA for the information?  His motive might have been to turn the arguments for imposing sanctions into a joke, his staff, not unlike many a college student, did not think its plagiarism would be caught, or he really does like Forbes magazine. All three explanations could be true and are not mutually exclusive.

In any case, they are part of a pattern that explains the most obvious omission in Trump’s speech.  He made one reference to Russia.  Only one.  Conspicuously absent was any reference to the big story of Trump’s first year in office, the Russian meddling into the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.  His silence on the Russian controversy revealed that he has no intention of providing an explanation to the American public and every intention of sidetracking, derailing and undermining Congress’s investigation.

In the meantime, Trump’s silence serves Putin well.  His friend in the White House slow walks the call in Congress for sanctions against Russian.  There was neither a tweet nor a comment from the White House last week when Russian police brutally assaulted a demonstration by the only feasible opposition movement in Russia. Putin’s kangaroo courts have disqualified Aleksei Navalnyi, the last remaining political challenge to the Putin regime.

The Slothful – Salvadore Dali

Dante put those who committed the sin of omission together in hell with those guilty of the sin of sloth.  Both, Dante tells us, saw evil and did nothing to interfere or stop it. What might he have to say about the Trump or the Republican Congress?




Christianity Keeps Losing
Noreen Herzfeld

On the morning after the election of Democrat Doug Jones and the defeat of Republican (and accused harasser of teenage girls ) Roy Moore for the Senate seat in Alabama, the editor of Christianity Today noted that, given the vociferous evangelical support for Moore,  the Christian faith was that election’s real loser.  “When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”

Has the situation improved in the intervening three months?  Evangelicals would be wise to heed the old adage “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.”  Recent responses to a variety of scandals and to Trump’s own words in the State of the Union Address show evangelical leaders still frantically plying their shovels.

In response to the allegation that porn star Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 to remain silent about an affair she had with Donald Trump in 2006, shortly after the birth of his son Barron, Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council said in an interview with POLITICO, ““We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’” This and similar statements made by others mark a remarkable sea change in evangelical attitudes toward character in office.  According to PRRI, in 2011 only 30 percent of white evangelicals agreed, “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” By late 2016, when Donald Trump was running for president, that number rose sharply to 72 percent.

Perhaps this reflects a new inclination toward forgiveness on the part of evangelicals.  Sadly, this spirit of forgiveness does not extend to everyone who occupied the Oval Office.  Perkins went on to say evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”  When reminded that Christians should turn the other cheek, he replied, “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”  Perkins language reflects that of “muscular Christianity,” a movement that has been part of evangelicalism from the beginning, which sees machismo and stereotypical male behavior as a necessary counterbalance to the feminization of religion.

Evangelical comments on Trump’s immigration stand take a similar tone.  On January 25 Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted:

I find these words, and the actions they seem to be inspiring, hard to reconcile with the words of Jesus, who not only called on his followers to “turn the other cheek” but also said they would be blessed “because I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).  A recent report that ICE officials were dumping water put in the desert by volunteers for thirsty refugees makes one wonder what part of Jesus’ words the current administration does not understand.

The editor of Christianity Today ended with the following observation. “What events of the last year and a half have shown once again is that when Christians immerse themselves in politics as Christians, for what they determine are Christian causes, touting their version of biblical morality in the public square—they will sooner or later (and often sooner) begin to compromise the very principles they champion and do so to such a degree that it blemishes the very faith they are most anxious to promote.”  He questions whether the religious right is really about religion or merely about politics.

Evangelicals who prize political power over love of neighbor, machismo over character, would be wise to recall that Jesus’ response to a tempter who offered him bread, fame, and political power (Mt 4:1-11) was, “Get away from me, Satan!”

Riding the Wave
Louis Johnston

President Trump hails his economic policy achievements at every opportunity. For example, here is a recent tweet:

No, Mr. President, our economy is not better than it has been in many decades. Instead, we’ve clawed our way back from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s and you were fortunate to take the reins at just the right time.

Let’s take a look at the economy’s vital signs since President Obama ook office in January 2009. Start with real GDP, the total output of the US economy adjusted for inflation:

GDP for 2017 is the last point on the far right of the graph. If 2017 had seen performance “better than it has been in many decades,” that point should be significantly higher and we should see a sharp break in the trend since 2009.  Sorry, Mr. President, it’s just not there.

Inflation is the next vital sign:

Again, there doesn’t seem to be any significant change in 2017 except that inflation is lower. However, the president doesn’t have much to do with this number; rather, it’s primarily driven by Federal Reserve policy. Unfortunately, the president did not reappoint Janet Yellen, the Fed chair who guided this policy.

Finally, the president touts record low unemployment rates. Let’s take a look:

Today’s low unemployment is the product of an eight-year trend of falling unemployment rates and steady job growth. The same is true of African-American unemployment, another bragging point for the president:

The economic state of our union is good, but not because of President Trump’s leadership. The true test will come when his policies kick in and he can no longer ride the wave created by his predecessors.

Nixon Went There
Derek Larson

EPA Documerica Project, 1972

Two critical issues our nation faces went unmentioned in President Trump’s first State of the Union Address: the ongoing Russia investigation and global climate change. His ignoring the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election is unsurprising. After all, President Nixon did say in his 1974 address “One year of Watergate is enough,” and eight months later he resigned in disgrace. But in that same address Nixon also highlighted the fact that “…for the first time ever, we have organized a massive national effort to protect the environment.” Faced with the biggest environmental challenge in the history of our species, Donald Trump had nothing to offer about climate change at all in his highest profile speech since his election.

Sadly, the State of the Union was riddled with the same nonsense Trump often spouts about “clean coal,” “floods, fires, and storms” that if not already made worse by our changing climate will be so in the future, and references to an imaginary “war on American energy.”

Taken in the context of the actual war on environmental regulation led by  EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the president’s glaringly misinformed comments to the press confusing weather and climate in recent weeks, this is perhaps what we should have expected. But it is far from what we need if we are to prevent the worst of our scientists’ predictions from coming true.

Days before Trump’s speech, William Ruckelshaus, the Nixon appointee who led the formation of the EPA 1970 and served as its administrator again under Ronald Reagan, criticized Trump’s inaction on climate change as “a threat to the country… If you don’t step up and take care of real problems, and don’t do anything about it, lives will be sacrificed.” It may not be surprising the president spent eighty minutes speaking to 45 million Americans on television without once mentioning climate change. But he should have. Richard Nixon would have, and it seems fair to expect Trump to at least live up to the standard he set.

Nixon at 1974 State of the Union Address “For the first time ever, we have organized a massive national effort to protect the environment. Our air is getting cleaner, our water is getting purer, and our agriculture, which was depressed, is prospering. “(WHPO-E2145-15A, richardnixonlibrary.tumblr.com)

Political Turmoil and Personal Refuge: Trump Presidency at 100 Days and Beyond

This week the Avon Hills Salon reflect upon where we are headed and what we have experienced, politically and personally, since Donald J. Trump became President on January 20, 2017.

Stupidity or Treason?
Nick Hayes

In October 1916, as the Russian war effort in the First World War stumbled from one catastrophic defeat to another, the leading liberal voice of the Russian Parliament (or “Duma”), Paul Miliukov, rose to the floor. He was an eminent historian, a leader of the Russian “Cadet” Party (the dominant liberal party), and future foreign minister of the ill-fated Provisional Government. He excoriated the unseemly corruption of the Kremlin regime and summed up its foreign and military policy with a question: “Is this stupidity or is this treason?” Take a hard look at the Trump regime’s foreign policy since his inauguration in January and ask yourself the same question.  Stupidity or treason?

Now, l admit that Trump’s performance in office to date makes a good case for defending him on grounds of stupidity.  Only a below average guy would have said, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”   Trump’s comments on Andrew Jackson brought back to my mind the 1960 rock hit by Sam Cook, “What a Wonderful World” with its line, “Don’t know much about history.” Trump spoke of how Jackson agonized over the Civil War.  Jackson had been dead for sixteen years before the start of the Civil War.  Appealing to his supporters on the Christian right, the President attempted to show case his knowledge of scripture by referring to “2 Corinthians” leaving the impression he was talking about two guys from Corinth.  Angry over the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign’s ties to Russia, Trump tweaked his outrage over the appointment of a special “councel.”   (It’s too late to check.  Someone removed the misspelling from the twitter account.)  On his arrival in Tel Aviv during his recent trip abroad, Trump announced that he had just left the Middle East.  He might want to check to see where a map places Israel.

By now, team Trump’s Russia hands are household names.  Paul Manafort.   The onetime campaign manager for Trump colluded with a Putin crony, billionaire, and reputed Russia mafia figure, Oleg Deripasha, to the tune of a $10 million annual contract.   Manafort received $12.7 million in 2007 as a consultant in the campaign and election of Vladimir Yanukovich.  Backed by Putin, Yanukovich won a highly fraudulent election.  In 2014, popular demonstrations deposed Yanukovich and sent him into hiding in Russia.  Carter Page. An advisor to the Trump 2016 campaign, Page received an offer of a 19% stake in Rosneft, a Russian oil company, if after the election he could convince Trump to lift the sanctions on Russia. Michael Flynn.  Is it necessary to list again Flynn’s nefarious record?  For starters, recall Flynn’s $45, 000 payment for a speech and a photo op with Putin at a celebration of RT, the state sponsored Russian television station.

The White House has attempted to distance itself from Manafort, Page, and Flynn as a bunch of out of control clowns.  Then, last week the news of another Trump-Russia connection broke.  The President’s son-in-law and special advisor, the occupant of an office adjacent to the Oval Office, the voice on foreign affairs that Trump listens to, Jared Kushner, had met twice with Russians, a banker with a dubious portfolio and the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.   Kushner’s agenda was to set up a direct line of communication based in a Russian property in the U.S. to establish a direct link between Trump and Putin.

As I write this article, on the morning of May 30, CNN has broken another story.  US intelligence sources have evidence that the Russians believed they had sufficient “derogatory information” on Trump’s inner circle to give the Kremlin leverage over the Trump administration.  The “krompromat,” or incriminating information, the sources say, is “financial” in nature.  Manafort, Page, Flynn, and even the pet son-in-law, Kushner naively and gladly  have walked into a classic Kremlin trap.

Pavel Miliukov 1916

Stupidity or treason?  Actually, you don’t have to choose one over the other.  Trump’s policy is both.  The Russian Miliukov gave his speech on the eve of Russia’s singular national catastrophe, the Russian Revolution whose 100th anniversary we mark this year.  The Trump team’s stupidity and duplicity are the stuff that a nation’s nightmares are made of.




Noreen Herzfeld

In the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency numerous commentators suggested we read Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, propelling it to the top of Amazon’s best seller list.  Lewis’s novel traces the rise of a populist president with autocratic tendencies and the resistance movement that fights him.

While it has resonance for our political situation, the novel that comes to my mind is not Lewis’s, but that of another Minnesotan: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s examination of wealth and morals in the Roaring Twenties.  The following quotations capture something central to the Trump presidency:

          I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. . . The truth was that Jay              Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was            a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be                    about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. 

 Just as James Gatz changes his name and invents a background to fit his persona, so, while it was not Donald who changed the family name, he did change the family heritage from German to Swedish.  And while Trump downplays the perks of his privileged upbringing, he echoes Gatsby’s display of ostentatious wealth as part of an image he has studiously curated.  Who, but someone with a Platonic conception of himself, would speak of himself frequently in the third person?

Yet while it is easy to compare Trump to Gatsby, it is Tom Buchanan, the large and wealthy husband of the woman Gatsby loves, who channels the same Zeitgeist in the twenties that Trump does today.  Consider the following statement Tom makes early in the book:

          Civilization’s going to pieces. I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things.

 The baseball caps proclaiming the need to “Make America Great Again” showcased the premise underlining Trump’s campaign—that America is in decline and needs to be rescued, and only Trump can do it.  This pessimistic vision came out even more strongly in Trump’s inaugural address, in which he spoke of an American “carnage,” proclaiming that for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

Tom continues:

          The idea is, if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged…It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.

A wall on the Mexican border, his dismissal of a judge of Mexican heritage as biased, his early executive order to restrict Muslim immigrants, his recent call for a commission to look into election fraud—each looks as if it has racist intent.  As Nicholas Kristof puts it, “we have a man who for more than four decades has been repeatedly associated with racial discrimination or bigoted comments about minorities, . . . While any one episode may be ambiguous, what emerges over more than four decades is a narrative arc, a consistent pattern.”

Near the end of the book, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, sums up the impact of Tom’s actions:

          They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and               then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that               kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

A string of six bankruptcies in Trump’s past all too often left investors, lenders, and workers holding the bag.  In light of Trump’s leaking of confidential matter to the Russians, David Brooks notes, “the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar. . . And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country.”

And one almost pities Mike Pence and Shawn Spicer, recipients of lies and shifting truths, who are, nonetheless, expected to represent and explain the administration to the public.  The rich don’t have to clean up their own messes.  They always have someone else to do that for them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald captured an enduring element of the American character that Trump embodies in a way that resonates with his base.  The Great Gatsby ends with the line:

          So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 

Trump believes in a glorified past, a past of American greatness built on coal, on manufacturing, on small homogeneous towns.  That past, like Gatsby’s imagined past, never existed.  Gatsby’s dream of making his imaginings real ends in tragedy.  I hope Trump’s equally illusory dreams will not lead to a similar end.

Icebergs Ahead
Louis Johnston

What will block the Trump Administration’s policy agenda: Russian interference in the 2016 election? Executive orders regarding immigration policy?  Firing the FBI director? It’s a parlor game pundits and prognosticators play almost daily.

These matters might grab the headlines but the submerged state may be the ultimate barrier to enacting the Trump program.

Suzanne Mettler defined the term in her book of the same title. She writes, “The ‘submerged state’ includes a conglomeration of federal policies that function by providing [regulations,] incentives, subsidies, or payments to private organizations or households to [require,] encourage or reimburse them for conducting activities deemed to serve a public purpose.”  In particular, it consists of “existing policies that lay beneath the surface of U.S. market institutions and within the federal tax system.”

These government benefits are generally not delivered directly to citizens. Rather, government encourages or mandates that private actors must follow these standards. They are now part of the submerged state, invisible to most of those who benefit from these policies.

This stands in contrast to more direct state programs, such as unemployment benefits or Social Security, in which the government issues a check directly to the recipient.

What is the result of these different pathways of state aid? According Mettler, “Many Americans express disdain for government social spending, incognizant that they themselves benefit from it,” particularly if their benefits arrive via the submerged state. Furthermore, “even if they do realize that benefits they utilize emanate from government, often they fail to recognize them as ‘social programs.’ People are therefore easily seduced by calls for smaller government—while taking for granted public programs on which they themselves rely.”

Health care as an example of the submerged state

Government policy plays a central role in the US health care system. Medicare and Medicaid are single-payer systems, and the Veterans Health Administration is part of the federal government, but public policies shape the private health insurance market as well.  For instance, companies that provide health insurance to their employees can deduct the costs from their corporate income taxes, and state and federal regulations determine minimum levels of coverage for insurance plans.

Many Americans simply do not understand this, and thus our health care systems are a prime example of the submerged state. Americans benefit from an array of government regulations, but often do not recognize this reality. Mettler describes how Americans frequently believe the system, e.g. as in health care, has emerged as a result of private, market actions when, in fact, it is the product of complex public and private interactions.

This fed into the opposition to the Obama Administration’s health care reform efforts, with citizens haranguing their representatives about government interference in what they seemed to think was a private, competitive market system.

Republicans continued this line of attack even after the ACA was enacted.  They spent seven years demonizing Obamacare as a government takeover of health care system, and thought they could ride that demon through Congress.

However, to their surprise, by the time President Trump took office, the ACA was more popular than it had ever been.  For instance, here are the results of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from January:

Source: “Obamacare More Popular Than Ever, Now That It May Be Repealed.” New York Times, February 1, 2017.

The ACA created public benefits that Americans started taking for granted. They like the idea of keeping their children on the family’s health plan until age 26; they accept the notion that pre-existing conditions should not affect one’s ability to get health insurance; they increasingly recoil at the idea that a family’s ability to afford health care should affect their chances of being covered.  The submerged state shaped their perceptions of what is right and necessary.

This is why the House Republicans barely passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) in April. The AHCA reduced the minimum benefits required of private health plans; once again, allowed insurance companies to factor in pre-existing conditions when setting premiums; and started tearing at the fabric of what Americans now took as natural, settled parts of the health care systems. Americans were enraged and started calling and e-mailing their members of Congress in opposition.  They were not coming to the aid of a government program; rather, they were angry that Congress was messing with what they now took for granted. The Republicans ran smack into the submerged state.

Icebergs ahead

President Trump, Speaker Ryan, and Majority Leader McConnell will find many more icebergs in their path over the month ahead, most of which are part of the submerged state in their path.  Tax reform and Trump’s budget proposal both promise to affect policies that large numbers of Americans accept as normal such as college saving plans, mortgage interest deductions, and myriad programs administered by private organizations but funded by the federal government.

Russian-American intrigue may dominate the news and congressional hearings, but the submerged state is probably the strongest part of the resistance to Republican policies.

I thank Susan Riley for extensive help with this essay.


What Would Lincoln Do? Action and Reflection in the Age of Trump
Jim Read

I am under contract to write a book about Abraham Lincoln, and I should be spending every available moment on it. But current political events make it difficult to concentrate. I ask myself, “What would Lincoln do?” Answer: he probably wouldn’t be writing a book about Abraham Lincoln.

Donald Trump’s presidency has motivated many people to follow political news and engage in political activity to a much higher degree than usual: marches, demonstrations, blogs, phone calls to elected officials, billions of posts on social media, meetings, meetings, meetings.  If nothing else, Trump’s presidency has reminded many people, including those who were disengaged during the fall campaign, that elections have consequences.

Did Donald Trump or members of his campaign team collaborate with Russian operatives to interfere in the U.S. elections? Will the United States renounce the Paris Agreement on Climate Change? Will Muslims become enduring targets of persecution in the United States? Will “Obamacare” be repealed? Will the Environmental Protection Agency be abolished?

Each new executive order, outrageous 3 am tweet, or headline-grabbing leak follows rapid-fire upon the previous ones, without allowing us to catch our breath. Even keeping track of events, much less comprehending them, is time-consuming and exhausting. What happened yesterday? What is today’s headline? What will it be tomorrow?

I personally have been hyper-engaged since Trump’s inauguration in attempting to understand for myself, and explain to others, this fast-and-furious chain of extremely consequential political events. In one sense, it has been thrilling. Why did I devote my life to teaching and writing about politics, if not for moments like this?

But this political hyper-engagement comes at a price. One risks becomes a reaction-machine of the moment. Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery could be peacefully abolished if — wait, there’s a news flash about what Trump said to the Russians! Sorry, Abe – catch you later.

Of course, the political crisis of the 1850s that preceded the Civil War was very much like our own time in this respect. Then, too, event rushed upon event: Fugitive Slave Act, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bloody Kansas,” collapse of the Whig party, formation of the Know-Nothing and Republican parties, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown, the Democratic party’s self-destruction, Lincoln’s election, secession, war.

The essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (Lincoln’s contemporary) found himself participating in politics to a much greater degree than he had before the 1850s. Emerson felt a strong moral obligation to actively oppose the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forced citizens of free northern states to become slave-catchers. He spoke at public meetings, rubbed shoulders with abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips (the latter of whom Emerson privately described as having only “a platform existence, and no personality”), stumped for congressional candidates, and raised money for John Brown’s dubious activities in Kansas. He was puzzled by his friend Henry David Thoreau’s record of never once voting in an election.

However, at the same time Emerson feared that for him the moment of quiet reflection, of generating new ideas and modes of experience, of true self-reliance, was being suffocated in the press of antislavery politics. Even as he participated in it, Emerson saw antislavery activism as a distraction from his own proper work of freeing “imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man.” His preferred form of political engagement was the individual conversation. Mass antislavery meetings, though he attended them and recognized their effectiveness, left him cold. (See my 2011 essay “The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition” in A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson.)

Emerson never satisfactorily resolved the tension between activism and reflection. He took up his pen in support of the Union war effort, especially after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and lived another 17 years after the war’s end. But his significant work as a writer was finished by 1860.

Abraham Lincoln

Does this mean that political action and philosophical reflection are incompatible? Not necessarily. Ralph Waldo Emerson was never able to reconcile them.  But Lincoln himself as president, pressed on all sides by duties and time demands far greater than Emerson’s, found the inner resources to compose prose-poems like the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address that are more enduring than anything Emerson penned. Lincoln could do this because his writing was inseparable from his political-moral vision for American democracy: action and reflection were inseparably fused.

What would Lincoln do? He would act, of course, but he would also reflect. Somehow, amid the crisis and chaos and personal grief, he was able to find that quiet center from which all his words and actions radiated. I find there a measure of reassurance for our own troubling times.

Practicing Silence
Kathleen A. Cahalan

The day after the 2016 presidential election, I took a day of silence.

When the world gets too noisy, it is not unusual for people to turn to the spiritual as a source of solace. The spiritual life director at the Saint John’s Abbey Guest House reported to me that after the election there was an uptick in people coming for personal retreats. I began to ask other spiritual directors if they saw the same phenomenon. Yes, many said. People are confused, hurting, angry, searching. They seek a time and place set apart.

Silence, as a spiritual practice, is embraced by most religious traditions. Most hope that silence will bring them a sense of peace, calm, and rest away from society’s disarray and rampant confusion. That’s what I sought.

* * *

But not before all hell breaks loose.

In turning to silence, peace is about the last thing I find. I don’t know about others, but my inner life, especially on the day after, was as loud and noisy as any newscast. Arguments bounced back and forth between foes as I told someone on the other side, in a spiteful and self-righteous tone, how wrong this all is.

One wise spiritual director told me:  “Beware. In times such as these, people’s afflictions are on the rise.” She was referring to the ancient teaching of John Cassian, an early Christian monastic teacher, who taught that afflictive thoughts are the main obstacle keeping one from obtaining true silence in prayer.

My experience resonates with several of the afflictive thoughts on Cassian’s list, such as anger, dejection, and pride. To his list, I would add fear. I recognize that my stream of consciousness is littered with afflictive thoughts; I can see them seeping out in my chronic tendency to constantly check the headlines, or the ease in which I name enemies, and my gleefulness when I hear that they are losing out. I’m not above mocking or belittling, either.

Cassian taught a basic practice to deal with afflictions: counter this stream of thoughts with another. When afflictive thoughts arise, repeat the words, “O, God come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Ps 70:1). Early Christians adopted such spiritual exercises partly from Greek philosophers who were seeking wisdom, and we can find similar mantra practices in other faiths as well. The practice of silence is quite rigorous if one is to detach from one set of thoughts and attach to another. You become what you think, in order words.

* * *

Much has been said in these 100 days about how to live with integrity in the face of so much duplicity, hypocrisy, and fear-bating. Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option, opts for one version of the monastic as living apart from the world’s chaos and focusing on local communities. And David Brooks articulated three ways to resist the chaos in Washington:  non-violent protest; also going local and building up a community; or supporting prudent and wise public leaders, of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Saint Benedict, and Gerald Ford, respectively, served as an example of each (marking the first time those three appeared in the same piece together).

But such depictions of the monastic miss an essential point. The step away—in the early desert community or today—is not a rejection or separation from the world but rather a time to face our own inner chaos, struggle, and fake news sources that are rumbling around in our consciousness. As Thomas Merton notes in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think.” (77).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew the same. To resist the growing Nazi influence over this country, he created a school, Finkenwalde, where a generation of Christian pastors could be trained in a place set apart in order to be strong enough to face their country’s future. As a Bonhoeffer biographer, Charles Marsh, notes, “Dissent and resistance, they were taught, required spiritual nourishment: prayer, Bible study, and meditation on the essential matters to expand the moral imagination” (232).

*  *  *

Practicing silence, then, is an intentional choice to step into a world of deep conflict and affliction. But it is not a permanent place to reside. It is to prepare for stepping back out into the world, ready and willing to embrace the news of the day and be more discerning about which kinds of resistance are called for and on what scale.

In my own Christian practice, I can recognize the afflictions that rumble around in me and they were on the warpath back in November. When I felt my own afflictions rising up, I knew I had to get back to my practice. And the practice I share with other Christians is to seek divine aid by keeping the Word on my lips, in my thoughts, and in my heart. Without this focus, I too easily become my afflictions and am not able to face the challenges that come from a world turned upside down. As the spiritual writer Howard Thurman notes, “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.” For the next 100 days, and the next, and the next, practice silence when needed.

The First Hundred Days and the Future of the Planet
Derek Larson

The now-routine evaluation of the first hundred days of a presidency dates back to the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s radio address of July 24, 1933 (recall that until 1937 presidents were inaugurated in March, not January). In that broadcast FDR looked back on the launching of the New Deal and the appropriation of $3.5 billion (about $65 billion in today’s dollars) to support relief and efforts to revive the economy. After a brief assessment of the unprecedented productivity of the first hundred days of the legislative session, he offered a proposal for the next stage in the economic recovery, suggesting that “If all employers will act together to shorten hours and raise wages we can put people back to work. No employer will suffer, because the relative level of competitive cost will advance by the same amount for all.” 

Roosevelt’s address was less a look backward than a bold call for action going forward, proposing the National Recovery Act (NRA) as the New Deal’s greatest leap of faith, a program dependent on voluntary cooperation from businesses and consumers alike. Americans would join in the effort, FDR believed, because they understood the concept of shared sacrifice and need for collective action to address the economic calamity they faced. He closed by saying “I am asking the employers of the Nation to sign this common covenant with me—to sign it in the name of patriotism and humanity.

I am asking the workers to go along with us in a spirit of understanding and of helpfulness.” The official slogan for the NRA would be “We Do Our Part.”

While others have addressed the long list of failings evident in the first hundred days of the Trump presidency, none will have a more serious or longer-lasting impact than his refusal to accept the scientific consensus on climate change and the political solution embodied in the Paris Accord. By even suggesting that the U.S. might withdraw from the accord, Trump has undermined the only global effort we have to stem the impacts of centuries of fossil fuel consumption that has literally altered the planet’s atmosphere in such a way that the collective future of civilization is threatened. While FDR could reasonably expect Americans to accept shared sacrifice and make some concessions to unbridled capitalism to save to economy, Trump and his supporters cannot even be moved to “do their part” to save the planet by accepting their role in a voluntary accord.

President Trump’s nascent environmental record has sometimes been overlooked within the well-deserved flood of criticism surrounding his controversial cabinet appointments, concerns about Russian influence in his campaign, the ill-advised Muslim ban attempts, his cartoonish budget proposals, and the seemingly endless parade of headlines stemming from his unfettered use of Twitter to make policy or attack perceived enemies. But lurking behind his appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator is the most anti-environmental agenda of the modern age. While other presidents appointed political figures who were hostile to environmental regulation and recommended significant budget cuts for environmental agencies, none have been as boldly oppositional or draconian as Trump’s. Even Reagan’s first EPA administer, Anne Gorsuch, only called for a 22% reduction in the agency’s budget before being forced to resign after being cited in contempt of Congress. Trump and Pruitt want to slash the EPA budget by nearly a third, which would cripple both cleanup and enforcement efforts nationwide.

Our deepest concerns, however, should be reserved for Trump’s pending action on the Paris Accord. He and his advisors have repeatedly stated the goal of withdrawing from the accord and not only rejecting the scientific consensus on climate change but actively working to purge mentions of climate change from federal web sites and to curtain federal spending on climate research. The abdication of U.S. responsibility to address the future health of the planet and the human species will be the lasting legacy not only of Trump’s first hundred days, but of his presidency: he will be the person most directly responsible for our failure to, in FDR’s words, “sign this common covenant… in the name of patriotism and humanity…to go along with us in a spirit of understanding and of helpfulness.” The rest of the world is watching and they have found us lacking—while Europe, China, Japan, Australia, Canada, indeed the majority of the world’s people can say “We do our part” –the United States no longer can. The blame for that does not rest solely on Donald Trump, but his failure to address the climate crisis will undoubtedly be chief among the criticisms future historians lay on his administration.

Participants in the Paris Accord were asked to write letters to their descendants six generations in the future. What can we say to ours?

Speaking in another age, Franklin Roosevelt said “This is no time to cavil or to question the standard set by this universal agreement. It is time for patience and understanding and cooperation.” Unfortunately, during his first hundred days in office, President Trump has evinced no patience, understanding, or cooperation at all when the future of the planet is in question. History will judge his record but the world is watching today and has already found him lacking just months into his presidency.

The Election: Our View from the Avon Hills

Trump’s Economic Policy: Squaring the Circle
Louis Johnston

banner-of-staffDonald Trump will take office at an enviable time in US economic history.  Low unemployment and inflation combined with slow but steady economic growth means that a Trump Administration could concentrate on long-term policies without having to deal with economic challenges of the magnitude facing Ronald Reagan in 1981 or Barack Obama in 2009.

Unfortunately, instead of using this opportunity to formulate a coherent economic plan, Trump spent the 2016 campaign proposing a grab bag of policies that work against each other at every turn and that threaten our current economic situation.  Among the schemes:

  • Massive tax cuts combined with increased defense spending along with promises to prevent further increases in the national debt;
  • Tariffs on Chinese imports and revocation of trade agreements while assuming that other countries will continue to purchase our exports at current levels;
  • Rejuvenation of the coal industry while at the same time enacting energy policies that will drive down the price of substitutes for coal such as natural gas.

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