“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.
Back to an Authoritarian Past? Elections in Baja California
On the 2nd of June2019 Mexico held local elections that proved to be a successful referendum on the incumbent president’s popularity. These elections were the first ones after his inauguration on December 1st, 2018. Despite a declining economy and increasing levels of violence, his ruling party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), gained major wins and further extended his influence across 6 states: The governorships in Baja California and Puebla; Tijuana’s Mayor’s seat; and legislative majorities in the local congresses of Baja California and Quintana Roo.
Baja California has become key in recent weeks in the process of democratisation in the country. After 30 years of being the ruling party in the state, the National Action Party (PAN), was defeated by MORENA. Conditions are set in Baja California are set for an intense post electoral process with serious consequences for the incumbent administration, and for the prospects of democracy in Mexico: On Monday 8th of July, the local Congress approved an extension to the current term of the governor from 2 to 5 years.
The choice of Jaime Bonilla as MORENA’s candidate was a troublesome one. Bonilla was resident of the American state of California until very recently, and a militant of the American Republican Party. The problem lies on the way he was chosen as candidate and his Republican militancy in the United States. Bonilla’s candidacy was propped up when Andrés Manuel López Obrador travelled to Baja California and agreed to publicly share a photo with the candidate, in a style that mirrored the very old authoritarian practices of the former hegemonic party Institutional Revolutionary Party, (PRI). MORENA’s obstinacy materialised to ensure the extension of the term once he was elected.
A 2014 constitutional reform mandated that the governor of the state of Baja California elected in 2019 would serve a 2-year term. This was done to align the state’s gubernatorial elections with the federal mid-term elections of 2021. MORENA argued that a 2-year term administration would prove to be more expensive and create higher political and economic uncertainty in the state. If such argument is allowed to be used this time, this could set a dangerous precedent to disappear institutions and extend terms of future administrations in order to make public administration more cost-effective. This is not a plausible justification and represents a serious setback.
The extension of the term from 2 to 5 years is a constitutional violation and electorally speaking it represents a throwback to the old monopolistic practices of the PRI. It also represents a violation to what election means in a democracy. Elections make a fundamental contribution to democratic governance. Because direct democracy. Elections enable voters to select leaders and to hold them accountable for their performance in office. Accountability can be undermined when elected leaders do not care whether they are re-elected or when, for historical or other reasons, one party is so dominant that there is effectively no choice for voters among alternative candidates, parties, or policies. Elections also reinforce the stability and legitimacy of the political community.
More importantly, a country cannot be truly democratic until its citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives through elections that are free and fair. Elections also need to ensure the respect of essential criteria to be considered fair that include impartial electoral frameworks; credible electoral administration; and respect of electoral results. In the particular case of Baja California, such a reform to extend the term of the governor, should have been discussed, negotiated and ratified in 2017, before the elections of 2018 and 2019 for it to be considered as a legitimate measure. From a constitutional perspective, electoral processes are considered conclusive and each stage is final.
The president has decided to distant himself from the matter and leave this issue in the hand of the judiciary. The president has the attribution to promote an action of unconstitutionality in the Supreme Court of Justice, should he wish to condemn a clear anti-democratic action. Legislators of opposition parties have presented such recourse, and the incumbent Baja California governor has refused to ratify the results. López Obrador’s attempt to distance himself from the decision in Baja California is not an expression of respect and autonomy, it is rather one of consent and complicit that would leave doors open to further unconstitutional actions.
It is worrying bathat López Obrador washes his hands in a clear trampling of the popular will and the constitutional framework. By not defending effective suffrage, the president is validating the right to extend the term of any administration, by simple legislative whim, in any other governmental administration. All this could mean a setback to Mexico’s democracy. Like the PRI, MORENA is a pragmatic umbrella organisation including all sorts of political actors: there is room for everyone: the left, the right, those with a history of corruption, those who are not corrupt. It is back to the future. MORENA could also take over much of the PRI’s old patronage networks. While the PRI has curbed the power of top unions, MORENA has courted them, and part of MORENA’s ascent is based on the territorial grassroots work that the PRI dominated decades ago, let us hope that MORENA does not decide to also start mirroring the old authoritarian, undemocratic practices that allowed the PRI to remain in power for 71 years.
Trump: Rebukes and Worries
It’s one for the history books, as they say. On July 16, 2019, Donald Trump was formally rebuked by the House (in a 240 to 187 vote) for his ‘racist’ tweets on four Congresswomen. The last time the House rebuked a president was William Howard Taft over a 100 years ago.
So what did Trump do? He told the four members of Congress to ‘go-back’ to the ‘the crime infested places from which they came’ instead of ‘viciously telling’ us ‘how our government is to be run.
Three of the women were born in the U.S. and Ilhan Omar was a refugee from Somalia. Not difficult to guess which country was largely responsible for a proxy war in Somalia that overthrew a regime agreed to by warring parties for a rare interlude of peace. The resulting civil war now continues, and Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are home to more than 2 million Somali refugees. Others have ventured further, to the EU and the US.
Trump’s assessment of all this is uniquely Trumpian. He thinks he has won because he has now got Speaker Nancy Pelosi exactly where he wants her for the 2020 election … in the arms of the squad of four, who he positions as radicals.
Exactly how radical are they? They want a living minimum wage, healthcare for all — something other developed countries already have — a decent shot at education, and they are strongly against Trump’s policies on the southern order. Finally, they want Palestinians to get a fair deal.
Steny Hoyer (aged 80) the Majority Leader and Nancy Pelosi (aged 79), the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, both with distinguished decades’ long careers, starting together coincidentally as staffers in the office of Senator Daniel Brewster (Democrat, Maryland), have weathered difficult battles on critical issues as well as the rough and tumble of politics for many a year.
To them the squad of four appear as upstarts with a brashness and energy that have captured the attention of mainstream news, and had a heretofore unseen impact on social media. They seem unwilling to compromise, and speak as equals despite a half-century age difference and a vast power gap in the House itself.
Not for them the lure of key committee appointments or other such carrots for a successful Congressional career. They are out and out idealists with a platform publicized positively thanks to left-wing websites and social media, and which can not be ignored by the mainstream outlets. The world has changed; no, these four have turned it upside down.
Trump himself has other worries. There is the case against Roger Stone his long-time ally, friend and attorney, who was back in court for disobeying the judge’s gag order. As the case goes forward, we will be back to the 2016 election, the Russian connection, and other efforts to smear Hillary Clinton. Will the calls for impeachment finally find a receptive ear in Nancy Pelosi?
Then there is Iran. Trump’s idea of a better deal is always to walk away from the present one. No matter if its a treaty or an international agreement. Ayatollah Ali Khamanei is not having any of it. People in this country are unaware that most such clerics, in addition to Islamic studies, are experts in jurisprudence and philosophy, are well-read, well-informed, and above all have to be highly intelligent to have been selected for this career path. The Ayatollah wants relief from sanctions first.
Trump’s new envoy to Iran, Senator Rand Paul is a libertarian like his father, and both are anti-war with a particular aversion for America’s misadventures abroad. So there is hope.
Just What Is An American?
The greatest mistake any leader, or moneyed powerful individual, or even masses of people (all 3 of which tend to have the loudest voices) is to culturally appropriate unto themselves, just exactly what it means to be an American, based on their own selfish notion of what it means.
The fact remains that the ideal of Americanism is a concept – a truly growing, organic, ever changing, and ever expanding idea that is enshrined within its founding documents and laws.
For example, the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, US Constitution, Civil Rights Act, and the Equal Rights Amendment, among scores of other acts of legislation, point to an ever growing ongoing journey to forge a new nation, just like ancient Rome did, united by a common destiny, and drawn from different experiences, cultures, cuisines, religions, ethnicities, races, nationalities, and world views.
So when President Trump on July 15, 2019 told four minority female congresswomen in sum and substance to “go back to there they came from” if they “didn’t like America,” he trampled over their own views, ideals, and experiences as Americans.
Quite simply his statement was an appropriation of what it means to be an American, from the point of view of a German/ Irish American senior citizen male, to a group of Latin/ Somali/ Palestinian/ African-American younger females.
Perhaps President Trump should re-visit his own people’s racial history, wherein the Irish were systematically excluded by the previously arrived and established Anglican Protestants, or even with the Germans in America who were actually interred in camps during the periods of World War I & World War II.
The German-American Experience
During World War II, the legal basis for this detention was under Presidential Proclamation 2526, made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt under the authority of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
With the U.S. entry into World War I, German nationals were automatically classified as “enemy aliens.”
Two of the four main World War I-era internment camps were located in Hot Springs, N.C. and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer wrote that “All aliens interned by the government are regarded as enemies, and their property is treated accordingly.”
The Irish-American Experience
In 1836, young Benjamin Disraeli wrote: “The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”
Nineteenth-century Protestant American “Nativist” discrimination against Irish Catholics reached a peak in the mid-1850s when the Know-Nothing Movement tried to oust Catholics from public office.
Much of the opposition came from Irish Protestants, as in the 1831 riots in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After 1860, many Irish sang songs about “NINA signs” reading Help wanted – no Irish need apply.
The 1862 song “No Irish Need Apply” was inspired by NINA signs in London.
Alongside “No Irish Need Apply” signs, in the post-World War II years, signs saying “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” or similar anti-Irish sentiment began to appear as well.
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