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Power without Moral Compass: Caligula, Trump, Pius XIII, and Machiavelli

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Smoking is ok if the Pope does it” –Pius XIII in “The Young Pope” “If the President does it, it is not illegal” –President Nixon during his impeachment

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]t is practically impossible to watch the latest rage on cable TV, the serial ten episode narration of a future Pope, Pius XIII, and not be struck by the uncanny parallels between it and the ancient political situation under emperor Caligula of the Roman Empire, as well as the present political landscape in the Atlantic Alliance under President Trump.

The movie is directed by Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino, who knows well ancient Roman history and more recent Italian history, the Italy of Berlusconi, Pius X, Pius XII, as well as Hitler, Mussolini and other madmen of the times.

Critics have accused the film of being a caricature of the Papacy, a gossipy reality show of the Vatican who portrays an interesting character (the mad Pope) but not a real-to-life personality; a Vatican melodrama glittering with pomp and circumstances of the Vatican; but that is a misinterpretation, a superficial rendition of the content of the film,

Right from the first episode we are alerted that the real issue of the film is the issue of political power on which both Niccolo Machiavelli and Francis Bacon meditated so deeply. Machiavelli said that in politics “the end justifies the means.” Francis Bacon said that “knowledge is power” and they said a mouthful. The ancient idea was that knowledge is virtue; now, within enlightened modernity knowledge is power to be seizes and held at any cost.

The movie is, in fact, about the intricacies of power, temporal power, at the heart of Catholicism; something that has gone on now for some 17 centuries, since Constantine allegedly donated one third of Italy to the Pope thus creating the Papal temporal power and initiating the problematic mixing the transcendent and the temporal within Christianity. Dante places three popes in hell because of that improper mixing.

The issue of power is perhaps the main idea explored in the series, and this right from the first episode where we witness this intriguing conversation between the newly elected young American Pope, Lenny, and the cardinal Secretary of State, his aide in the administration of the Vatican. During the conversation what comes through is that the new Pope has been elected by the cardinals because of his youth and inexperience in the intricacies of power which will render him easy to manipulate and control.

For the cardinals immersed in the Byzantine intrigues of the Vatican, good disciples of Machiavelli and Bacon that they are, power is knowledge and knowledge is power. During the conversation the Cardinal Secretary asks “Do you know why all the good souls of this world rage against power?” “Why, Your Eminence?” “Because they simply don’t know what it is.” “What is it?” “Power is knowledge.” There you have it. That short exchange contains the key of the narrative: the issue of power, of power devoid of a moral compass.

While the new pope understands the importance of knowledge in order to obtain and maintain power, he also understands it in a very instinctive emotional way. He feels that he is the Pope not because of his abilities, or his faith, or his compassion, but because it is his destiny. Power, as understood by the new Pope, trumps (pun intended) tradition, law, and even truth. When the Pope starts smoking in the papal palace we witness the following exchange: “Holy Father, Holy Father, smoking is not allowed in the papal palace!” “Is that so? Who decided that?” “John Paul II.” “The Pope?” “Yes, the Pope.” “There’s a new Pope now.” “True.”

But why have the cardinals chosen an unbalanced sociopath? Well, they thought that he would be easy to manipulate, an easy to market moderate Pope, a rather naïve person, as most Americans supposedly are. They are to be greatly disappointed. Lenny is not your average Pope. What they got is Caligula who installs as his closest adviser Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) as his advisor, violates the sanctity of the confessional (to get to the secrets which he will blackmail, compromise and yield power over the cardinals), questions even the existence of God.

How can one not see the similarities between Caligula, the sociopathic emperor, Pius XIII, the sociopathic Pope, and Trump, the sociopathic President? They are all pathological narcissists; the universe revolves around them; they are gods, unpredictable, disdainful of common people in general, especially tourists, like to see them humiliated, have little respect for conventional moral principles. They all repudiate the tradition of their predecessors. The Pope wants to make the Catholic Church Great Again. If it sounds familiar, it is. In short Pius XIII is a version of Donald Trump. Both men, one in fiction one in reality (reality show) have tapped into the wave of discontent sweeping the world which has given rise to extreme right movements culminating in Brexit and the potential break-up of the Atlantic Alliance (NATO).

This Young Pope is so appealing not as a person that in fact does not exist at the moment, but because of his complex contradictions and his character. All narcissists and madmen are complex appealing characters, but not in any positive mode. At the start of the episodes the Pope defines himself as a contradiction: “I am a contradiction, like God.” What is pathological is that he thinks of himself not as God’s representative or witness on earth, but as a god, the way a Caligula did, the way a Trump does.

These people are compelling not because thy are in any way admirable, but because we just can’t stop talking about them. We keep asking in wonderment: why do people accept the bullying, why all that rudeness. Why the lack of challenge? Most importantly, what is it about power, about the bully culture of “might makes right” that turns people into monsters?

Some tentative answers can be supplied by a comparison between Trump and Young Pope. Like the Pope who says that smoking is OK in the Vatican palace if the Pope does it, (and nobody else), Trump seems to have gone back to the famous Nixon quip “if the President does it, it is not illegal.” This is scary stuff for the survival of democracy. Both man lack a clear moral policy agenda for their institutions. What is clear is the Machiavellian goal of asserting power and making sure that nobody dares to challenge it. They are out to get what they want, no matter how petty. They rule by creating dissensions and confusion and establishing capricious priorities, like that of buying back the papal tiara from the basilica in Washington and wear it as he is carried about in the “sedia gestatoria,” as a saint of heaven, a tradition long in disuse.

Power, shock and awe is the goal to be grasped as an end in itself and in whose name all means are acceptable. As the young Pope says: “Power is domination, control and therefore a very selective form of truth, which is a lie.” One needs to create one’s alternative facts to keep one’s enemies down, humiliate them and destroy them. At the same time one needs to keep the people entertained with showmanship. Make them wonder, whom they are really dealing with; be ready to punish any one who dares tell the truth and declare the emperor naked.

Ultimately, the two deranged characters, one fictitious, the other real, while declaring themselves demi-gods, do not believe in any god at all. They believe in power. As the young deranged Pope tells his confessor” God, my conscience does not accuse me, because you do not believe I am capable of repenting, and therefore, I do not believe in you. I do not believe you are capable of saving me from myself.” When the confessor is outraged by the statement, the Pope replies that it was just a joke.

So, what we have are two nine year olds desperately looking for love and understanding while their pathologies place the whole world in peril. This is surrealistic stuff of high quality, a reality show worthy of a Fellini movie, entertaining, fascinating, but also frightening and disquieting. An American Pope who does not believe in God, and an American President who does not believe in democracy and the constitution.

But the best of the reality show may still be coming.

Author’s note: this essay, in a slightly modified form, has already appeared in Ovi magazine on February 11, 2017.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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In Praise of the Lioness of Law: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her Jurisprudence

Punsara Amarasinghe

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image credit: Wikipedia

The death of the US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has created an abyss in the court for the liberal voice where justice Ginsburg was seen as the linchpin of the liberal block of the Supreme Court at a time when that block was shrinking. Especially late judge had vociferously advocated for women ‘rights, environmental issues and often came up with unique dissents in delivering her judgements which were propelled by her jurisprudence which embodied the solemn ideal in American legal system “Equal Protection under the Law “. She was on a quest to defend the delicate balance between honoring the timelessness of American Constitution and recognizing the depth of its enduring principles in new centuries and under new circumstances.

She grew up in an era where men held the helm in every aspect of social life and especially the legal profession was utterly dominated by men. Recalling her legal studies at Harvard law school in the 50’s judge Ginsburg had stated later how she was once asked by the Dean of Harvard law school to justify her position as a law student that otherwise would have gone to a man. Yet she had the spunk to overcome all the obstacles stood on her way and excelled as a scholar becoming the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.

In tracing her legal career that it becomes a salient fact, Judge Ginsburg marked her name in American legal history even decades before she joined the bench. While at the American Civil Liberties Union in the early seventies she made an upheaval in American in legal system in famous Supreme Court Case Reed Vs Reed. In Reed Vs Reed the brief drafted by Ginsburg provided an astute analysis on the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause. Ginsburg’s brief changed the aged long practice existed in the State of Idaho on favoring men over women in estate battles by paving the path for a discourse on gender equality rights in the USA.

Judge Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1994 during Clinton administration marked the dawn of new jurisprudential chapter in the US Supreme Court. Two terms later, in the United States v. Virginia (VMI), Justice Ginsburg applied her lucid perspective to a sharply disputed constitutional claim. The United States challenged Virginia’s practice of admitting only men to its prestigious military college, the Virginia Military Institute. Writing for six Justices, Ginsburg held this policy unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. In reaching this result, Ginsburg adroitly cut away potentially confounding issues about women’s participation in the military or the advantages of single-sex education.

Her robust activism in securing gender equality often attracted the admirations of the feminist scholars and activists, but it should be noted that her contribution was not only confined to the protection of gender equality. She was a robust critique of racial dissemination which still pervades in American society and she frequently pointed out how racial discrimination has marred the constitutional protections guaranteed to every citizen. Especially in the case of Gratz Vs Bollitnger, she stressed on the commitment that the state ought to fulfil by eliminating the racial biases existing employment and education. Moreover, disabled citizens. In Olmstead v. Zimring, she held that “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination” violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.45 She elaborated a two-fold concept of discrimination, noting that unneeded institutionalization both “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life”.

In remembering the mortal departure of this prudent judge that one cannot forget her keenness in incorporating international law into her judgements regardless of the disinclination shown by conservative judges like Antony Scalia. Going beyond the mere textualism approach to the law, Ginsburg’s jurisprudence was much more akin to using international law to make substantive decisions. For instance, in her concurring verdict in Grutter Vs Bollinger, Justice Ginsburg relied upon international human rights law, and in particular upon two United Nations conventions, to support her conclusions.

Indeed, the demise of Ruth Ginsburg is a major blow for the liberalists in the USA, especially in an era where liberalist values are at stake under the fervent rise of populist waves propounded by Donald Trump. Especially late judge had been one of the harsh critics of Trump even before ascendency to the Oval office. The void created by the demise of judge Ginsburg might change the role the US Supreme Court if the successor to her position would take a more conservative approach and it will fortify the conservative bloc in the US Supreme Court. Trump has already placed Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and the third pick would more deeply entrench the conservative views in the US Supreme Court, which would inevitably undermine the progressive policies taken during Obama’s administration towards issues such as the environment. The political storm appeared after the death of the late judge has already created a tense situation in US politics as president Trump is determined to appoint a judge to fill before the presidential election in November.

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The Politics of (In)security in Mexico: Between Narcissism and Political Failure

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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Image credit: Wikimedia

Security cannot be that easily separated from the political realm. The need for security is the prime reason why people come together to collectively form a state. Providing security is, therefore, one of the most basic functions of the state as a political and collective entity.

Last Friday, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) laughed during his daily morning press briefings over a national newspaper headline about 45 massacres during his presidency. This attitude summarises in a macabre way his approach to insecurity: it is not his top priority. This is not the first time that AMLO has showed some serious and deeply disturbing lack of empathy for victims of crimes. Before taking office, he knew that insecurity was one of Mexico’s biggest challenges, and he has come to realise that curbing it down will not be as simple as he predicted during his presidential campaign.

Since the start of the War on Drugs in 2006, Mexico has sunk into a deep and ever-growing spiral of violence and vigilantism as a result of the erosion of the capacity of the state to provide safety to citizens. Vigilantism is when citizens decide to take the law into their own hands in order to fill the vacuum left by the state, or to pursue their own very particular interests. Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Tabasco, Tamaulipas and Veracruz have over 50 vigilante organisations that pose substantial danger to the power of the state.

Vigilantism is not the only factor exacerbating the security crisis in Mexico: since 2006, young people have also started to join drug cartels and other criminal organisations. There are important sectors of the population who feel that the state has failed to represent them. They also feel betrayed because the state has not been able to provide them with the necessary means to better themselves. These frustrations make them vulnerable to the indoctrination of organised crime gangs who promise to give them some sort of ideological direction and solution to their problems.

As a result, it is not enough to carry out a kingpin arrest strategy and to preach on the moral duties we have as citizens as well as on human dignity. People need to be given enough means to find alternative livelihoods that are attractive enough to take them out of organised crime, Mexico can draw some important lessons from Sierra Leone who successfully demobilised and resettled ex-combatants after the armed conflict. Vigilantism, recruitment by organised crime, and insecurity have also flourished because of a lack of deterrence. The judicial system is weak and highly ineffective. A large proportion of the population does not trust the police, or the institutions in charge of the rule of law.

A long-term strategy requires linking security with politics. It needs to address not only the consequences but also the roots of unemployment and deep inequality. However, doing so requires decisive actions to root out widespread and vicious corruption. Corruption allows concentration of wealth and also prevents people from being held accountable. This perpetuates the circle of insecurity. Mexico has been slowly moving towards a borderline failed state. The current government is starting to lose legitimacy and the fragility of the state is further perpetuated by the undemocratic, and predatory governance of the current administration.

Creating a safer Mexico requires a strong, coherent, and stable leadership, AMLO’s administration is far from it. His popularity has consistently fallen as a result of his ineffective policies to tackle the pandemic, worsening insecurity, and the economic crisis. Mexico has reached over 72,000 Covid-19 deaths; during his initial 20 months as incumbent president, there has been 53,628 murders, among them 1800 children or teenagers, and 5888 women (11 women killed per day) This criminality rate is double than what it was during the same period in the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012); and 55% higher than with the last president, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). Mexico is also experiencing its worst economic recession in 90 years.

Insecurity remains as the issue of most concern among Mexicans, seeing the president laughing about it, can only fill citizens with yet more despair and lack of trusts in the government and its institutions. AMLO’s catastrophic performance is not surprising, though. Much of his failures and shortcomings can be explained by both ideology and a narcissistic personality. Having someone with both of those traits ruling a country under normal, peaceful times is already dangerous enough, add an economic crisis and a pandemic to the mix and the result is utter chaos.

AMLO embodies the prototypical narcissist: he has a grandiose self-image; an inflated ego; a constant need for admiration; and intolerance to criticism. He, like many other narcissists, thinks about himself too much and too often, making him incapable of considering the wellbeing of other and unable to pursue the public interest. He has a scapegoat ready to blame for his failures and mistakes: previous administrations, conservatives, neoliberalism, academics, writers, intellectuals, reporters, scientists, you name it, the list is long and keeps getting longer.

AMLO keeps contradicting himself and he does not realise it. He has been claiming for months that the pandemic is under control: it is not. He declares Mexico is ready to face the pandemic and we have enough tests and medical equipment: we do not. He says Mexico is on its way to economic recovery: it is not. He states corruption is a thing of the past: it is not. He says Mexico is now safer than ever before: it is not. When told the opposite he shrugs criticism off and laughs, the behaviour of a typical narcissist.

AMLO, alike narcissists, due to his inability to face criticism, has never cared about surrounding himself by the best and brightest. He chose a bunch of flunkies as members of his cabinet who try to please and not humiliate their leader. A further trait of narcissistic personalities is that they love conflict and division as this keeps them under control. The more destabilisation and antagonism, the better. AMLO since the start of his presidency has been setting states against states for resources and for pandemic responses, instead of coordinating a national response. He is also vindictive: playing favourites with those governors who follow him and punishing those that oppose him.

Deep down, narcissistic leaders are weak. AMLO is genuinely afraid to lead. He simply cannot bring himself to make decisions that are solely his. This is why he has relied on public referendums and consultations to cancel projects or advance legislation. He will not take any responsibility if something goes wrong: It was not him who decided, it was the people, blame them. He inherited a broken system that cannot be fixed during his term, blame the previous administrations, not him.

AMLO is a prime example of a textbook narcissist, unfortunately he is not the only one: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte are only a few more examples of what seems to be a normalised behaviour in contemporary politics. Every aspect of AMLO’s and other leaders presidencies have been heavily marked by their psychopathology. Narcissism, however, does not allow proper and realistic self-assessment, self-criticism, and self-appreciation therefore such leaders will simply ignore the red flags in their administration and have no clue how despicably and disgracefully they will be remembered.

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Minor Successes And The Coronavirus Disaster: Is Trump A Dead Duck?

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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That reminder from the Bible, ‘He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone’ may give us pause — but not journalists who by all appearances assume exemption.  And the stones certainly bruise.

Evidence for the bruises lies in the latest poll numbers.  Overall, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump 50 to 43 percent, a margin that has continued to increase since January.  It is also considerably wider than the few points lead Hillary Clinton had over Trump four years ago.  It gets worse for Trump. 

In the industrial states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump in 2016 won by razor thin margins, he is losing by over 4 percent.  Also key to his victory was Wisconsin where, despite his success in getting dairy products into Canada, he is behind by a substantial 7 percent.  Key states Ohio and Florida are also going for the Democrats.

Trump was not doing so badly until the coronavirus struck and during the course of his news conferences he displayed an uncaring persona larded with incompetence.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the man he fired for correcting Trumpian exaggerations became a hero and Trump the bully.

If that bullying nature won him small rewards with allies, he hit an impasse with China and Iran … while bringing the two closer to each other.  Then there is the border wall, a sore point for our southern neighbor Mexico.  President Lopez Obrador made sure the subject never came up at the July meeting with Trump,   Thus Mexico is not paying for it so far and will not be in the foreseeable future.

The United Arab Emirates, a conglomeration of what used to be the Trucial States under British hegemony. have agreed to formalize its already fairly close relations with Israel.  In return, Israel has postponed plans to annex the West Bank.  Whether or not it is in Israel’s long term interest to do so is a debatable question because it provides much more powerful ammunition to its critics who already accuse it of becoming an apartheid regime.  However, it had become Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sop to the right wing who will have to wait.  Of course, the reality is that Israel is already the de facto ruler.

If Mr. Trump was crowing about the agreement signed on September 15, although it is akin to someone signing an agreement with Puerto Rico while the United States remains aloof.  As a postscript, the little island of Bahrain also signed a peace deal with Israel.  Bahrain has had its own problems in that a Sunni sheikh rules a Shia populace.  When the Shia had had enough, Saudi and UAE troops were used to end the rebellion.  Bahrain is thus indebted to the UAE.

How many among voters will know the real value of these historic (according to Trump) deals particularly when he starts twittering his accomplishments as the election nears?

There things stand.  As they say, there is nothing worse than peaking too early.  Bettors are still favoring Trump with their money.  The longer anyone has been in politics the more there is to mine, and for an opponent to use to his/her advantage.  Time it seems is on Trump’s side.  

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