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An Imaginary Conversation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the Current Predicament of the US

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]dams: Good morning Thomas. What is your ghost up to, strolling through the streets of Washington DC so early in the morning?

Jefferson: Good morning to you too John. I surmise my reason is the same as yours: I’ve been unable to rest in my grave. A grave is supposed to be one’s final resting place, but these days I’ve been tossing and turning at the mere thought of what is happening in our beloved country. So I decided to take a walk and see what our ordinary fellow citizens are up to some 230 years after I wrote the Declaration of Independence. It’s a good thing that we are invisible and nobody can see us.

A: quite right Thomas, quite right. I have been in the grave just as long as you have been. Remember that we died the same day on the 4th of July 1826, and I don’t think it was a mere coincidence. In any case, it’s more reassuring to stroll through Washington and simply see ordinary people going about their business unconcerned with all the Byzantine political machinations taking place in the halls of government. To look at them, you’d think that all is well with the world and nothing extraordinary is going on.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day on the 4th of July 1826

J: Ah, ignorance is bliss! But I suppose that had one taken a stroll through the streets of Philadelphia any day or hour of the week during the revolutionary times, things wouldn’t have appeared that much different. Surely you remember.

A: Indeed. But that “business as usual” atmosphere was quite deceptive even then. I remember only too well the words of Benjamin Franklyn reverberating in my head as I walked in the Philadelphia streets at the time: “either we hang together or we shall surely hang separately.”

J: Indeed, that was an urgent and wise warning to all of us revolutionaries. To rock the boat is to run the risk of being branded a subversive and a traitor fit for hanging.

A: no doubt about it. Had we lost the war of independence, we the signers of the Declaration of Independence would all have been hung together; every last one of us. All those ideals we spelled out in the Declaration of Independence would not have been very useful to any of us. Power would have trumped liberty, pun intended.

J. Yet, as you know John, today in America we have the spectacle of people in national security departments of the government who think nothing of conducting secret deals and negotiations with foreign powers, even acting as secret agents of the same, out to dismantle the whole security apparatus built over many years, not to speak of the Constitution. Some make no secret of wishing to “deconstruct” what they now dub Deep State. One such advisor is inside the White House, almost as a Trojan horse, and his name is Steve Bonner.

A. What did the Roman senator and orator Cicero say? “O tempora, o mores.” I suppose that is what you had in mind when you counseled that “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” and that as Plato warned democracy built on ignorance is a pseudo-democracy.

J. Indeed, John, one cannot take liberty for granted just because we, the founding fathers, wrote its principles in a document called the US Constitution. Democracy demands education and eternal vigilance from all its participants. A democracy based on ignorance and apathy ignorant of its noble identity, is like a house built on sand.

A. How true. And history confirms it. As you know, I conducted a study of the history of republics throughout human history, and was somewhat surprised to discover that most republics died after an average span of approximately 300 years. That sounds rather natural, most human phenomena are born, grow and eventually die. What I found surprising and somewhat disconcerting, however, was that most of them did not die of natural causes, so to speak, or by external invasion by their enemies, but by self-inflicted suicide. The most common cause for the eventual termination was public corruption.

J. But the ancient Roman Republic lasted much longer than 3 short centuries. Can we not hope that the American republic will go beyond 300 years?

A. I wish I could answer yes but unfortunately, even Rome did not go on for very much longer after its imperial corruption culminating with the installment of the likes of Caligula and Nero.

J. Could you please elaborate on this point?

A. What happened with Rome, is that it held on to power and control but in effect the republican spirit had all but died by the time one gets to Caligula. That is to say, Rome was no longer a republic of virtue. It was on its way to becoming a swamp of corruption which would defeat it internally. It was not the barbarians that overrun the Empire; it was the Empire that forgot its foundations and traditions.

J. And how did the ancient Greeks and Romans understand virtue?

A. As you well know, Plato in the Republic, and Aristotle in his political and ethical tracts outline which virtues are necessary to govern a city. In the first place there is prudence and wisdom with concern for the common good as distinct from individual egoistic self-interest, there is also harmony among the various factions and branches of government, there is honesty, enterprise, free speech, the sincere belief and search for truth. There is democracy; there is the rule of law but also the rule of reason, compromise, tolerance; there is respect for the rights of others, for civil rights, human rights coupled with an intuition that all of these derive from the very nature of what it means to be fully human. There is the persuasion that unalienable rights are not granted by a powerful state but by the Creator and are integral part of human nature. They cannot be given and they cannot be taken away. This is the great mistake we made at the outset of our republic: we proclaimed unalienable right on paper but forgot to practice them when it came to the slaves who were also fellow human beings.

J. So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that there is a strict correlation between the loss of those virtues you just enumerated and the eventual demise of any polity that conceives itself as democratic or republican?

A. Precisely Thomas. That’s why I coined the expression “Republic of virtue.” A republic of virtue has a better chance of surviving and going on for a while, albeit all of them came to an end eventually. Some of them went on for many years, even centuries, but it was only a semblance of democracy.

J. I concur. If one loses the very identity of being a republic or a democracy, one has for all intent and purpose ceased to be one. Not to be a republic of virtue is to be something else while continuing to delude oneself that one remains a democracy. That’s why I counseled “eternal vigilance as the price of freedom.” Not to be republic of virtue and of ideals, that is to say a perfectible political entity, is to become a tyranny or an oligarchy catering to special interests. It is to have as one’s core value the worship of power. And we have seen what absolute power does to individuals and nations.

A. Quite right, Thomas. Then voting and public debates become a charade. Voting is not the essence of democracy per se; it is merely a sign. The essence resides in truth and liberty. Once those are lost you have a floundering republic. A floundering republic is one where the principle of perfectibility (“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union” begins the US constitution) has been abandoned and that of the path of least resistance and greatest advantage has been instituted.

J. And what would you say, is the most glaring sign nowadays that the present American Republic (which we and other founding fathers started as a noble experiment some 230 years ago), is a floundering social experiment which doesn’t allow us to rest in peace in our tombs?

A. The most glaring sign, I dare aver, is the fact that many citizens no longer possess a great deal of respect for what the Greeks called the transcendentals: True, the Good, and the Beautiful. We seem to have gone back to the cynical question of Pilate: “What is truth?” Some talk of an Orwellian Deep State controlling everything which needs to be dismantled, or, as they put it “deconstructed.”

J. You seem to be saying that the centrifugal process of political disintegration is already an ongoing one in our country, just as there was one just before the Civil War that almost broke our country apart.

A. Yes, it is going on as we speak. All you have to do is look around. Cooperation and solidarity is the exception, fierce competition and survival of the fittest, a la Ayn Rand, seems to be the norm. There is a general disdain for institutions that have served us well for over two centuries. The conspiratorial counselor in the White House calls it “deconstructing the Deep State.”

J. No doubt, our country is in deep trouble. And we have not even broached the subject of our present presidential descendant, Mr. Donald Trump. He seems to be the elephant in the room here.

A. Indeed, Thomas. But we have proceeded correctly by first examining the theoretical implications of democracy and republicanism, before dealing with particular individual charges that may appear biased and unilateral to those who have voted for and support Mr. Trump.

J. I suppose we now need to address the principal cause for our turning and tossing in our graves lately. Let’s therefore talk about Mr. Trump.

A. Consider this: how do you think I would have felt had I, the second president of the US, been accused by you, the third president of the US, of subversive and traitorous acts toward you while you were the president elect? Let’s say, of spying on you, with secret traitorous letters, given that there were no telephones at the time. We had our differences, God knows, especially on the issue of slavery, and sometimes they hurt our friendship, but they never induced us to go beyond the threshold of honor and civic duty to our country.

J. True, John, our mutual love for our country always managed to restrain us from descending to such a low level as slander and false accusations. But today honor and genuine patriotism has become a sham, not to speak of respect for the objectivity of truth. What seems to be all important is self-interest, narcissism and what is convenient and useful at the moment, never mind Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

A. I keep hearing the slogans “the era of post-truth” and “making America great again.” But it stands to reason that without truth, justice and fairness also become a chimera. The Greeks taught us as much.

J. I think we have arrived at the crux of the issue, John. It has to do with the issue of truth. What we may have sitting in the same place we used to sit in in the White House is a veritable embarrassment. We were not perfect men, far from it. Like most men, we were flawed, and historian has created for us the myth of men who never told a lie, but we never put in doubt the very concept of truth. We never denied that it had rained when the road was still wet, or that a crowd was there when it was not there, or that people had protested by the thousand in N.J. when the tween towers came down, or that unemployment statistics were fake when one’s predecessor was in office but true when one was in office, etc. etc. etc.

A. Indeed, the inability to distinguish truth from falsehood is a sure sign of psychological derangement, never mind metaphysics. What is most troubling of all, is that almost half of the country actually ignored the issue and elected the man to the presidency, which says something about the present collective psychological status of our country. As in the Andersen tale, few dare proclaim, like the little boy in the tale, that the emperor goes around without clothes.

J. Which also says that my warning has not been heeded. As I walk throughout the country, I get the feeling that there isn’t much of a “republic of virtue” to be discovered; that a great purging via some social catastrophe may soon ensue. That perhaps it will lethally be brought about by the deconstruction of a Bannon. That perhaps at this crucial point the burden to save the republic will fall on the shoulders of a few heroes who understand the real peril of the crisis. In 1861 that purging, or perhaps divine retribution as one may wish to interpret it, came via the civil war and a hero like president Lincoln almost failed in his mission. But I ask, what are the lesson that should have been learned? Has anything been learned? Or shall events follow their inexorable course toward extinction?

A. I am afraid I cannot offer a positive answer Thomas. I see the same resurgent centrifugal forces at work now that were in place then. Let’s hope we are both wrong in this regard, but the omens do not look very good, and unfortunately my study of republics and their demise confirms it.

J. Well, it was good to see you again and chat for a while, as of old, John. We can now return to our respective tombs. History will soon render a verdict on the present dire situation. Perhaps then we can meet again under the capitol and resume our conversation.

A. I am already looking forward to it, Thomas. Perhaps we can involve a few more former presidents who must also be turning and tossing in their graves, not to speak of those who are still alive and are incredulous at what they are witnessing.

J. By all means. Be well, and God bless America.

Note: this article has appeared already as part of the Symposium Section of Ovi magazine of March 15, 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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Americas

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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