Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, January 8, 2017

I posted last year about this feast day, and since the Mass is the same every year, I’ll let that post suffice.


As I noted then, there are three events to the Epiphany: the adoration of the Magi, which is emphasized in today’s Mass; the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, which gets its own feast day, this year on January 9; and Jesus’ changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, which was the gospel passage read on January 7.


Since this is my first post of 2017, I also want to wish a Happy New Year to all!


Five Days at the Monastery — Beyond the Schedule

It’s now six weeks since I arrived at the monastery, and over five since I came back home, so I’d better get to this before I forget everything.

The evening I got there, the monks had a buffet dinner, cooked by one of the monks, in the Chapter Room, instead of the everyday dinner in silence with table reading. This is the usual practice on Sunday evenings. It gave me an opportunity to tell the junior monk who had tweeted a recommendation of Destiny of the Republic that I had bought the book and begun to read it. He told me had come across it one day browsing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

The next day at haustus (snack time in mid-afternoon) some monks were talking about a student at the college, Louis, who was spending the weekend with the Franciscans exploring whether he might want to join them. Naturally, they would rather see him join the monastery. As it happened, since the day was a holiday, the abbot chose to have dinner in the Chapter Room again. Unexpectedly, Louis was at Vespers. Since the campus eateries were closed for the holiday, the abbot invited him to join us in the Chapter Room, and he accepted. It almost looked at times as if some of the monks were putting the “full court press” on him to get him to consider the monastery. Well, I suppose all religious orders can always use new members, but the abbey needs to maintain numbers to be an effective presence in the college. It happens that last summer one of the two junior monks who had taken temporary vows in 2014 had decided to leave, so now they only have two people “in formation,” the remaining junior and a novice who was admitted last January. I hope Louis will ultimately decide to join there. I don’t know him, so I can’t be sure he belongs, but the monks who do know him seem to think he’d be a good fit.

One thing I enjoy about the Chapter Room meals (held outdoors in the cloister in warm weather) is that afterwards, the monks clean the dishes and utensils, because the regular kitchen employees get the evening off. It’s fun, but it’s also impressive to see everybody, from the 80+ year old retired bishop of Portland to the novice, chipping in to do the work. I’ve noticed that other guests don’t join, but I go to the monastery to visit the monks as well as for private benefit, so I’m happy for the additional opportunity to spend time with them.

On Tuesday, when the campus bookstore reopened, I went to get some cough drops and something or other else. As I entered, the clerk cheerfully called out, “Happy Monday,” to which I replied, “or Tuesday, as the case may be.” After I had made my purchases and was walking away, I thought of a pun and went back and told her that “Tuesdays after a holiday can feel mundane.” She and a customer got a nice chuckle from it.

One day I went out to the cemetery. I know who most of the monks buried there are, since they were monks when I was there in the 60’s. Another day, I asked the abbot about visiting Fr. William in the nursing home. He wanted to go, but there were meetings of the College trustees that week, and he ended up not having a chance to go see Fr. William.

I had planned to leave on Friday afternoon in time to get home before dark. But then I noticed on the bulletin board that the Mass on Friday (at 5:15 because college was in session) would be for all the deceased monks of the abbey and its sister abbeys of the American-Cassinese Congregation of monasteries. With that added incentive, I decided to stay for the Mass, and the following dinner, recreation and Vespers. Leaving the Chapter Room a the end of recreation, I tried to say good bye to the junior and the novice, but couldn’t get to them.

As we were all walking down the corridor toward the church, Father Peter twice urged me to visit again soon. For services in the church, the monks file in led by the juniors, with the abbot at the end of the procession. Leaving, the order is reversed, beginning with abbot, and ending with the most junior. After they’ve all left, the guests leave. I was pleasantly surprised at the end of Vespers on Friday to find that the junior monk and the novice had stopped at the door into the corridor to say good bye. Then, a little bit farther on, the abbot was waiting to bid me good bye.

It had been a very pleasant visit, and I’m looking forward to going back in the not-too-distant future. I’m trying to remember the big points I took from the book I had found in my room. I had thought I might set aside some time each day to continue reading the Pirenne book, the follow-up by Scott, and then other books, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, when I finished Destiny of the Republic as my dinnertime book, I turned to the Pirenne, which is better organized in the final chapter than in the earlier ones. One change which has continued is that I’ve expanded my usual morning prayers into something more like the Vigils they pray at the monastery at the beginning of the day. It’s interesting that it took me three yearly visits to be motivated to do that. “Third time never fails.” But seriously, it seems that sometimes it takes several exposures for something to sink in.

Five Days at the Monastery

Background: For about 2 1/2 years in the 1960’s I was at St. Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire as a prospective monk, in a status they called “scholastic.” Now the category which most nearly corresponds to it is “postulant.” But scholastics lived in an apartment on the college campus, and joined the monks for some prayer and meals, whereas postulants live in the monastery and participate in everything.


Anyway, I eventually left, but I’ve continued to hold good memories and warm feelings from my time there, and in recent years I’ve begun to visit regularly, staying as a guest in the monastery. At this point there are about five active monks whom I knew as monks or college students  back in the 60’s.


From the evening of October 9 through the 14th I was there for a visit. The daily routine of prayer and meals, which I followed, begins with Vigils at 6:00 a.m., lasting about 45 minutes. Breakfast is at 7:25. On non-school days, Mass is at 8:30, Daytime prayer at 12:00, followed by Lunch, Vespers at 5:35, followed by Dinner and Recreation, with Compline at 7:05. On school days, Mass at 5:15 takes the place of Vespers, and Vespers replaces Compline, which is then prayed privately.


Usually, during lunch and dinner, there is reading, first briefly from scripture and the Rule of St. Benedict, then, for most of the meal, from a “normal” book. While I was there the reading was from The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, by Joseph J. Ellis. It was interesting to listen to, and, despite the author’s clear sympathy for continuing centralization and disdain for “original intent,” I’ll probably buy the book so I can get the rest of the story as he tells it. If so, this will be the second time in three years that I’ve bought the book being read during my visit. In 2014, I heard readings from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas, and bought it for myself.


These visits (2014 and 15 and this year) serve several purposes. They function as a retreat, as I focus on a spiritual book I’ve brought to read. They give me a chance to visit with old and new friends. They give me a break from the internet, since I don’t have anything to use to get on line. One reason it’s so long since I’ve blogged here is that I’ve been catching up. In addition, there have been some changes to my daily routine inspired by the visit. (Beyond that, I’ve just been busy.)


In the times between prayer, meals, and recreation, I do a fair amount of reading, both from spiritual books and from other books I bring to read. This year, I brought several small books on the Jubilee Year of Mercy which Pope Francis proclaimed for this year. I finished Celebrating Mercy (on incorporating the jubilee into liturgical actions), read Parables of Mercy, and began Psalms of Mercy. I also found in my room a small book titled A God Who Acts: Recognizing the Hand of God in Suffering and Failure, by Harry Blamires. Even though I don’t think of myself as having suffered or failed very much, i figured I’d see what it had to say. There sere some good points. One is that if we’re attempting something good but don’t succeed, it can simply be that God’s providence needs something else. Another is that when we’re grateful for God’s gifts, it’s not enough just to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you:” God’s gifts are given to us to be used for his purpose.


For my “secular” reading, I had brought a tandem of recent acquisitions: Mohammed and Charlemagne, by Henri Pirenne, published in 1937, and Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, by Emmet Scott, published in 2012. Interspersed with my spiritual reading and other doings, I read a bit more than half of the Pirenne book. He argues that Roman civilization didn’t end in the West with the barbarian invasions, with such events as the raids of Atilla or the death of the last western emperor in 476. He presents considerable evidence that Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, and other tribes who settled within the boundaries of the empire. adopted the culture and way of life of Rome, looking to Constantinople as thhe locus of supreme political authority. In his view, it was the Islamic conquest of much of the Middle East, northern Africa, and Iberia which cut off contact between East and West and caused the break with classical civilization which is called the Dark Ages. Unfortunately, Pirenne had only completed his first draft of the book at the time of his death, and, as his son explains, it was his habit to rework such drafts extensively before publishing the book. Although his thesis was important enough to justify the book’s publication, the book suffers from not having had the author’s revision. It seems very disorganized. To me it reads like a succession of note cards collected under various headings. It jumps around from events out of chronological sequence, and I found it difficult going. But I did get through the first part, dealing with the period before the Saracen conquests, and read into the second part, getting the description of the Islamic conquests, with the consequences still to be spelled out.


This is probably long enough for one post. I’ll try to post soon with more: other things I did, interactions with various monks, and the aftermath since I came home.


Pulse (Orlando*)

* Although the attack occurred in Orlando, the most important fact about it is that it was perpetrated in a gay club. Just as the assault at the offices of Charlie Hebdo became known by the target, rather than the city where it occurred, this terrorist attack would better be known as Pulse than Orlando. The city is an appropriate designation for attacks where the victims are random and the location is not associated with a specific target group. In this post, I’ll be considering this attack in its character as an attack against gay, or LGBTQ, people.

The choice of Pulse for the attack, when any number of other clubs were available, is itself enough to show that the attack was motivated by hatred of gay people. The widely reported account by the killer’s father of his son’s anger at seeing two men kissing in public confirms the fact. Many comments and a candidate for President blame the hatred on Islam and target all Muslims in response. Other comments have blamed Christians who have opposed homosexuality for creating a climate of hatred.

I think it is inaccurate to blame Islam for this attack, even though the attacker was Muslim. The “Joint Muslim Statement on the Carnage in Orlando” shows clearly that many Muslims believe that such violence against gay people is wrong — this despite the fact the Islam considers homosexual conduct immoral and deserving of death. So it is unjustifiable to blame Islam as such for the actions of that Muslim, in the same way as it is unjustifiable to blame Christianity for violence against gays — despite the fact that some Christian churches continue to maintain the traditional doctrine that homosexual conduct is wrong. In fact, I think some Catholic bishops did very well in expressing that homophobia should not have any place among us.

Nevertheless, it is clear that some Christians do believe that violence against gays is justified, even that gays deserve to be put to death. The rest of us should explicitly reject such ideas. This is clear enough. But we need to go beyond that. This incident should be recognized as a wake-up call. We need to acknowledge that the insistence with which many of us have made an issue of homosexuality, the forcefulness with which we have upheld our positions — even if justified at the level of moral theology — have indeed been factors in promoting the climate of hostility within which some people feel justified in resorting to violence.

Somehow, we needed to be clearer that, while we were appealing to the consciences of individuals, we were not seeking to compel those who disagreed with our theology. In the first place, though, we needed to be clearer in our own minds about that. For many, homosexual conduct seemed to be some sort of “super sin.” That view doubtless shaped the thinking of those who turned to violence.

I think we “conservative ” Christians still need to be clearer in our own minds, as well as in our ways of expressing our beliefs, about our love and acceptance of gays as deserving of respect, and welcome in our churches. Some people say “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” At a theoretical level, that may be cliché; but in reality it is hypocritical when the only time we say it is when we are talking about people who engage in homosexual conduct. We don’t say it about fornicators or adulterers, the proud, the avaricious, the calumniators, the rash judgers, the lustful. Some people have the attitude that homosexuals have to refrain from homosexual conduct as a condition of being welcome, but we never withdraw the welcome from gossips, from money-grubbers, from cohabiting couples.

The problem for many if us is that there are ingrained habits of mind which it will take sustained effort to change, but we have to do it. We have to catch ourselves whenever we find ourselves making judgments on gay, when we think of them as cases in moral theology, when we start regarding being on good terms with them as something we need to justify to ourselves. We need to see them as individuals, not as members of a category. Which means we have to be willing and able to become acquaintances, friendly acquaintances, and friends, with whom we deal as ordinary people. When enough of us do that, perhaps fewer gay people will perceive us as enemies.

It may be that the anti-gay prejudice which exists is similar to racism or prejudice against Jews. It can exist in us unnoticed or nearly so, and it can be overcome only with conscious effort. One thing which helps, of course, is getting to know people as individuals, so that we can no longer think of them merely as categories.

Beyond looking at our own attitudes and manners of expression, we should also do what we can to promote a climate in society where expressions of anti-gay prejudice are unacceptable.

Some responses to the killings have suggested that the expression of doctrines which hold homosexual conduct to be wrong is, in and of itself, so damaging to gay people’s sense of acceptance and so productive of a climate of fear among them that those doctrines must no longer be proclaimed. To me, that seems to go too far. It must be acceptable for simple traditional doctrine to be taught by churches to their members. That, however, doesn’t mean that churches need to or should make public statements condemning the private conduct of others.

At this point my thinking on how we should go forward is provisional, but it seems to me that our church leaders should refrain from public statements, press releases, or the like, proclaiming opposition to homosexual conduct. Such positions are already well known and do not need to be repeated. What is needed is a living out of Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” If someone asks a question about what we think, we should answer truthfully, simply, and as non-confrontationally as possible. But otherwise, for those of us who aren’t someone’s pastor or spiritual director, their perceived or proclaimed orientation isn’t really our concern and shouldn’t be an issue, and the sooner we can realize that and live accordingly, the better it will be.

For gay people to feel accepted in our churches, it is necessary that they actually be accepted. For them to feel safe in our society, it is necessary that they be safe. We need to do what we can to promote that acceptance, based on love and respect, and to bring about that safety

Trump, NATO, Putin, & the Baltic States

It seems to me that If Donald Trump becomes President, the Baltic States will be at high risk of being wholly or partially overrun by Russian armed forces and incorporated into Russia. I was led to think about this as I reflected on seeing Congressman Seth Moulton at our Memorial Day services at Abbot Hall, since I had recently corresponded with his office about a recent study by the RAND Corporation — — which found that NATO, as its forces are currently deployed, cannot successfully defend the territory of those states from a Russian invasion. The study further found “that a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities — could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.” Would Donald Trump support such a deployment? Given his attitudes toward NATO and toward Vladimir Putin, I don’t think so.

First, here are some reports of recent statements by Trump regarding NATO.
From Reuters, March 21: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said the United States should decrease the amount it spends on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We are paying disproportionately. It’s too much and frankly it’s a different world than it was when we originally conceived of the idea,” Trump said in an interview on CNN.

“We have to reconsider. Keep NATO, but maybe we have to pay a lot less toward NATO itself,” he said.

From Fortune, March 22: Donald Trump added another twist to his already unconventional campaign for the presidency on Monday: he became the first mainstream candidate to ever suggest that the United States withdraw from NATO. His rationale? It costs the U.S. too much money.

In an interview with The Washington Post, the Republican frontrunner chided the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO for its expense. He said the U.S. might need to reduce its involvement in NATO in coming years, a move that would flout Washington’s long-standing support for the 28-member military alliance. “We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore,” Trump said. “NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO, but we’re spending a lot of money.”

… He said the United States should not be focused on nation-building overseas; money should be spent domestically instead. “I just think we have to rebuild our country,” he said.

Later on CNN, Trump clarified that he didn’t necessarily want to shrink the U.S.’s role in NATO; he just wanted the nation to pay less.

From CNN, March 22: Donald Trump said the U.S. should rethink its involvement in NATO because the defense alliance costs too much money.
In remarks to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Trump said the U.S. pays a disproportionate amount to NATO to ensure the security of allies.

“Frankly, they have to put up more money,” he said. “We are paying disproportionately. It’s too much, and frankly it’s a different world than it was when we originally conceived of the idea.”
For instance, Trump said Washington was “taking care” of Ukraine and that other European nations were not doing enough to support the Kiev government that has been locked in a long showdown with Moscow. …

Later in the interview, Trump qualified his remarks saying that the U.S. should not “decrease its role” in NATO but should decrease its spending.

Here’s analysis on March 24 in Business Insder: Geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer said Thursday that Donald Trump’s skepticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would give the Kremlin more breathing room on the world stage.

“That’s certainly a reason Putin decided to endorse Trump — he understands that US allies will be supported less in a potential Trump administration, giving the Kremlin more room to maneuver,” Bremmer, who is president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider in an email.

Earlier in the day, Trump criticized NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance, as “obsolete.”

“It is time to renegotiate, and the time is now!” the Republican presidential frontrunner tweeted.

Trump argued that NATO, which was formed in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union and nationalist militarism in Europe, should focus more on terrorism. The terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, where NATO is based, that killed more than 30 people.  …

Considering NATO’s tensions with Russia, Trump’s suggestion that the US might back away from this alliance could be seen as a coup for the Kremlin.

Putin has spoken highly of Trump. And Trump has defended Putin when the US media asks about the Russian government’s alleged assassinations of its political enemies.

This is a change in tone from American politicians who have criticized Russia or emphasized the need to keep the Kremlin in check. …

Trump’s comments are also consistent with his campaign message of negotiating better “deals” for Americans.

“The strongest consistent piece of Trump’s policy platform isn’t to Make America Great Again,” Bremmer said.

He continued:

It’s America First. Blaming outsiders for America’s woes. Mexicans are coming to rape our women. Chinese and Japanese are robbing us blind. Muslim refugees want to come here and blow us up. And the Europeans are free riding on American defense.

Finally, from, April 3: Donald Trump has stepped up his attack on Nato, saying he would force member nations to leave the transatlantic security organisation unless they contributed more money to what he said was an “obsolete” defence alliance.
The Republican presidential contender has been lambasting Nato since he told the Washington Post recently that he would downgrade the US role in the 28-member alliance, which has formed the cornerstone of the US-European defence relationship for decades.
Speaking in Wisconsin ahead of the state’s primary on Tuesday, he went further by saying that Nato’s demise would not be a serious problem.
“Its possible that we’re going to have to let Nato go,” Mr Trump told supporters in Eau Claire. “When we’re paying and nobody else is really paying, a couple of other countries are but nobody else is really paying, you feel like the jerk.”
Mr Trump said that, if elected US president, he would contact many of the other 27 Nato members and put pressure on them to make a larger financial contribution or leave.
“I call up all of those countries . . . and say ‘fellas you haven’t paid for years, give us the money or get the hell out’,” Mr Trump said to loud cheers. “I’d say you’ve gotta pay us or get out. You’re out, out, out . . . Maybe Nato will dissolve, and that’s OK, not the worst thing in the world.”
Addressing a crowd in Wisconsin on Saturday, Mr Trump asserted that the US was paying 73 per cent towards Nato, but figures from the organisation show that Washington contributes 22 per cent of the direct budget, followed by Germany which pays 15 per cent, and France which puts up 11 per cent. …

With such an attitude toward the alliance, he seems unlikely to want to use American armed forces and money to defend our allies.


As for Vladimir Putin, here’s what Trump says.

From The Guardian, July 30, 2015: … He admitted that he had no idea what characteristics he shared with Putin, but the Russians loved him. “I think I would probably get along very well with Russia. I think I would probably get along very well with Putin. I think I would probably get along very well with the people of China.” …

From the Atlantic, December 18, 2015: “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.

I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”

From Washington, December 29, 2015: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump defended Russian President Vladimir Putin against accusations that he has assassinated political adversaries and journalists, responding to criticism from his rivals over his embrace of praise from the Russian leader.

“Nobody has proven that he’s killed anyone. … He’s always denied it. It’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody,” Trump said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, at least in our country. It has not been proven that he’s killed reporters.”
On Thursday, Putin praised Trump during a wide-ranging news conference, calling him “talented without doubt” and “brilliant.” Trump has embraced the remarks, drawing fire from critics such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who facetiously called the alliance “a match made in heaven.” Trump welcomed Putin’s praise, citing it as proof that a Trump administration would be able to work well with the Russians.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, at a campaign event in Iowa, continued to tout praise from Russia’s Vladimir Putin saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if … Russia and us could knock out an enemy together?” (Reuters)
“If he has killed reporters, I think that’s terrible. But this isn’t like somebody that’s stood with a gun and he’s, you know, taken the blame or he’s admitted that he’s killed. He’s always denied it,” Trump added.


Given all of this, it is hardly surprising to read in the Wall Street Journal of May 13, “One proposal that has garnered positive Russian attention is Mr. Trump’s suggestion that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization focus on combating terrorism instead of deterring Russian aggression. That alarms officials in Ukraine and the Baltics, former Soviet states that fear they could become Mr. Putin’s next targets following Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian region of Crimea in early 2014.”

It does not seem to occur to Mr. Trump that there can be benefits to the United States other than monetary ones from our alliances, nor does it seem to occur to him that other countries aren’t as well fixed to provide for their defense, nor does it seem to occur to him that small countries certainly cannot maintain or pay for military forces strong enough to defeat aggression from large countries, nor does it seem to occur to him that keeping our word in the form of our treaty obligations to our allies is both legally and morally required.

While NATO was established to defend against a threat that does not now exist, namely expansionist international Communism, Russian expansionism is a new threat, taken seriously enough by RAND for them to undertake their study. Even if Putin would be content to stop at hegemony over the territory of the former Warsaw Pact, there is no justification for is expansion into any of those now independent nations of Europe (or Asia, for that matter). It seems probable that Donald Trump would see no financial benefit, and hence no value, in protecting the Baltics from a Russian takeover. If he could get an agreement from Putin to destroy ISIS, he’d probably think it was a good deal for the U.S. to sacrifice the Baltic States to get that agreement. The risk is too great. We must not elect Donald Trump.



Memorial Day in Marblehead — 2016

Because of a rainstorm moving up the coast overnight, our parade was cancelled and the ceremonies moved indoors to the Abbot Hall auditorium. (When I was a selectman, we never had rain on Memorial Day.) It was unfortunate that the units that make up the parade were unable to participate, except for the band which comes from Lawrence. They provided music before the program began and provided the national anthem, “Marblehead Forever,” and “God Bless America” at the end.

The ceremonies began with the advancing of the colors from the rear of the auditorium followed by an excellent invocation by Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El. Next was the laying of wreaths by various officials, including Roger Hamson the honorary grand marshal, our speakers, Congressman Moulton in his marine uniform, and various Town officials. Our speakers were two Grader cousins, both Marine Corps veterans. (See this story for brief biographical information.) The first speaker was Lt. Col. Derek Grader, who had served in the Middle East. He spoke specifically of the holiday as one honoring those who gave their lives in defense of our country. He gave three specific examples of individuals he had known in the service. Two were people he had met during his service, good people whose deaths he grieved. The third was a classmate of his from Marblehead, Chris Piper. All three left children behind when they were killed. He made the point with these examples that the people whose memories we honor are not numbers in a toll or names on a page or monument: they are individuals with their own life stories; they are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. It was a very poignant speech.

Next, Capt. Moses Grader spoke of our military as citizen soldiers. In the oath of enlistment they freely take they swear “to defend the Constitution of the United States of America,” — not the United States, not a king or queen, idea or ideology. This, he said, is unique. It is the Constitution which guarantees our rights and liberties as citizens and makes the United States exceptional. Thus what they defend is those rights and liberties. In swearing to obey the orders of the President and the officers above them in the chain of command and the regulations of the service, they give up some of their freedoms and liberties as citizens in order to defend those freedoms and liberties for their fellow citizens. Because of the burden of service which they willingly  undertake, it is appropriate that the oath concluded with an invocation of God’s help in fulfilling it. It was a thought-provoking speech. Both speeches were well received.

Then Dave Rogers, our Veterans Agent, read the roll of the veterans who had died since Memorial Day, 2015. It amazes me that there are still dozens of World War II veterans whose names are read every year. It seems as if most of our young men at the time must have served. The playing of Taps followed the reading of the names of the deceased. After a fine benediction by Rabbi Meyer, the musical selections and the retiring of the colors concluded the ceremonies.

I’m very proud of Marblehead for the way we observe Memorial Day every year. Other towns may do something similar; I’m not familiar with their observances. But what matters to me is that my town maintains such a fine tradition, reminding ourselves on this day, and again on Veterans Day, of the gratitude we owe to those who served in our armed forces and, especially today, those who gave their lives for us. It’s good that that we honor them as we do.

Thinking about Trump as Nominee Presumptive

This is a fine kettle of fish. I blame the Tea Party.


Ted Cruz wasn’t acceptable either, although for different reasons than Trump.


I don’t want Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders nominating Supreme Court justices — even more so if, as seems quite possible, the Trump candidacy at the top of the ticket causes Republican candidates for Senate to lose in numbers sufficient to give the Democrats the majority in that chamber.


The silver lining is that when Trump goes down to crushing defeat, Paul Ryan will be the top Republican in D.C., and the Tea Partiers should realize that their intransigence doesn’t work.


My dilemma is whether I should vote for a third party candidate (effectively helping the Democratic candidate), or vote for an unacceptable major party candidate. Fortunately (?) my decision is inconsequential, since the Democrats are sure to carry Massachusetts anyway. Cf.

Playing the Trump Card: The Candidacy

If the current state of politics in the U.S. facilitates a candidacy like Donald Trump’s, that does not explain his popularity. It may be worth noting that although he leads in most polls at this time, he is not the first choice of a majority, and it is possible that he is not the second, third, or fourth choice of enough for him to actually get the Republican nomination. Still, at this point it seems entirely possible that he will be nominated. So why is he as popular as he is?

I think the answer is desperation. For decades the federal government has imposed rules and policies which were against the will of a large portion, in many cases a majority, of the American people — from abortion on demand to same sex marriage (with small business owners being persecuted by vindictive and intolerant same sex couples). Small businesses and local governments chafe under the requirements of the federal bureaucracy. The federal government seeks to control local education. Fishermen are put out of business. The provision of health care has been federalized. It seems that the constitutional principles of limited government and enumerated powers are completely disregarded. Various segments of society have various complaints. The “wars” on drugs and crime have visibly failed. Meanwhile, in areas which are truly its responsibility, such as immigration policy, properly funding Social Security, and foreign policy, the federal government cannot or does not act effectively.

For decades, Republicans have nominated mostly center-right (“moderate”) candidates for President. Whether they won or lost, whether Republicans controlled any houses of Congress, the federal juggernaut rolled on, and the festering problems continued to fester. Meanwhile, the mantra of the populist Democrats, that the plutocrats control the government has begun to ring true. The result is that large numbers of people are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” It is ironic that they are supporting one of the plutocrats, one whose credentials as a Republican — much less a conservative — are highly questionable, but they have given up on government as usual, and he seems the candidate most likely to put an end to government as usual. The issues on which he is most vociferous, immigration and terrorism, are ones where his simplistic positions are just what many Republicans want to hear, and that’s sufficient to attenuate any interest in other areas.

Intransigence and extreme partisanship, it seems to me, have been largely responsible for creating the conditions which make Donald Trump’s candidacy popular with so many. Republicans and Democrats alike have been more interested in wining the next election than anything else. They have demonized presidents of the other party; they have routinely refused to seek consensus, preferring to try to make the other party appear extreme. In other words, his candidacy is the result of the actions of those in power. Paradoxically, the Tea Partiers are opposed to compromise and accuse other Republicans of being RINO’s, but if the partisan gridlock had been broken and compromise reached on a number of real problems, the Tea Party might not have been as popular, and Trump might not have emerged as their favorite.. Goldwater and Reagan were nominated because a majority of the party didn’t want “more of the same.” Trump’s supporters are similarly unwilling to have more of the same in Washington.

Will it be possible to stop Donald Trump? If Republicans who support other candidates don’t regard him as their second or third choice; if other candidates don’t drop out too soon; if Trump supporters begin to realize that his rhetoric is empty and simplistic, maybe he’ll be stopped. But if several second-tier candidates drop out and a high percentage of their followers go to Trump, there could be a bandwagon effect. Let’s hope his supporters become disillusioned before he swamps his opposition and becomes inevitable.

Playing the Trump Card: The State of Politics

I recall two landslide losses by presidential candidates: Barry Goldwater’s loss to Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern’s loss to Richard Nixon. In both cases, the loser in the general election had ridden a wave of grassroots support to win his party’s nomination over an “Establishment” candidate. While we don’t know if Rockefeller could have beat Johnson, or Humphrey beat Nixon, the result almost certainly would have been much closer.

Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, has written a fairly perceptive piece on the possibility of Donald Trump’s becoming the Republican nominee in 2016. He points out that party organizations now have little say in who gets nominated and that the media no longer enjoy the respect which once made them effective when they pointed out the flaws and falsehoods of candidates. He notes, “A growing number of Americans have become convinced the entire system is rigged – including the major parties, the media, and anyone honored by the establishment.” The result is that “now it’s just the candidates and the public, without anything in between.” There is no need to advance reasoned, thoughtful proposals. Demagogic sound bites seem to be enough to get the publicity that will translate into votes from the like-minded.

None of this happened overnight. It has developed slowly over decades.

At one time there was more variety in the ways convention delegates were selected. Some states had primaries, which might or might not bind delegates to vote for the voter-preferred candidate. Others had state conventions to select national convention delegates. Those who attended the conventions were often the self-nominated local party committee members. The process wasn’t always winner-take-all: states might send delegations that were divided among the candidates they favored. Thus the system gave party officials a considerable amount of power over the result.

Primaries are now much more widespread as a result, it seems to me, of a movement, largely supported by the left wing, for what they conceived as greater democracy. Ironically, it is the party officials who are more concerned with winning elections than ideological purity — whereas ordinary voters tend to care more about a candidate’s ideology than his electability — and in that way, they actually promote the democracy of offering candidates with the broadest possible appeal to the electorate as a whole.

Another change has been the way the public understands the campaigns and the conventions. When I was a boy, it was clearly understood that the national conventions were where the party’s nominee would be chosen and that the purpose of the preceding campaigns was to amass as many convention delegates as possible. But, except when the party had an incumbent president who was running for reelection, there was no expectation that any candidate would arrive at the convention with enough delegates to secure the nomination. There would be negotiations in “smoke-filled rooms” as campaign managers attempted to gain the support of enough other candidates to gain the nomination. Now, the clear expectation is that well before the convention happens one candidate will have the votes necessary to be nominated. This shift has been promoted by the media’s focus on polling results and corresponding neglect of delegate counts. The result is that having a lead in the polls is seen as a sign of the inevitability of a candidate’s nomination. There is also a certain “bandwagon effect,” with people abandoning possible “kingmakers,” in order to go with a winner. Nowadays candidates tend drop out even if there is still a possibility that they could be part of a coalition that could stop a front-runner.

The media’s loss of influence is much less complex. There is a difference between honest reporting on a candidate’s positions and “attack journalism.” It seems that with Watergate, the media’s understanding of their job went from factual reporting to bringing down the “bad guys” by finding and printing whatever negative things they could find about those “bad guys.” As it became increasingly clear to the public that the media were taking sides, of course they lost the respect they had when they were thought to be disinterested reporters, presenting facts with no attempt to slant the reporting.

What this all adds up to, as I see it, is that changing mechanisms for selecting convention delegates and a changing media approach to journalism — both of which I’d guess Secretary Reich liked — have, along with changing public attitudes toward the process (fostered by the media), led to the situation we now have where Donald Trump, because he leads in the polls, is considered a likely nominee for President. As I’ve noted, insurgencies have succeeded before, generally with unfortunate results for the party in question, but it seems easier to mount one now.

One final note: the “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party regularly excoriates more moderate Republicans and those who are willing to make compromises to get desirable legislation as RINO’s: Republicans In Name Only. In doing so they falsely claim that only their ideology exists within the Republican Party, and they ignore the fact that the purpose of parties is to win elections, not to be ideologically pure. To win elections, it is often necessary to create broad coalitions of people who are not like-minded on all issues. To place ideological purity ahead of electoral success is truly to be a RINO, so it is these rule-or-ruin Tea Partiers, not the ones they accuse, who deserve the label.

Still to come: some thoughts on why Donald Trump’s candidacy has gained so much support, despite his lack of the normal qualifications for the presidency.

Thoughts on “Tannhäuser”

On October 31, I attended a “Live in HD” showing of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Tannhäuser.” It was a very good production. The costumes, scenery, and action strove for authenticity, and achieved it, IMO — unlike some opera and theater productions where the director decides to remove the piece from its intended time and place, usually to the detriment of the work. The story of the knight and minstrel who spends a year with Venus in her subterranean abode, returns to the above-ground world, is disgraced when he reveals that he has been with Venus, goes on a penitential pilgrimage to Rome, is at first rebuffed by the Pope, but finally pardoned was very moving as sung and acted, above all in the scenes where Elisabeth pleads for him with the knights, where he describes his pilgrimage, and where his pardon is proclaimed by the arrival of the Pope’s miraculously leafed-out staff. Not having seen James Levine in several years, it came as a shock to see him in a motorized wheelchair, looking at first glance like Stephen Hawking, with arm movements that seemed on partially controlled. But he clearly still knows the music and can communicate to the players and singers. So it’s admirable that he continues to practice his profession in spite of his physical limitations.

There will be an “encore showing” of the performance in various theaters on November 4, and I recommend seeking it out.

But I’ve been thinking about how Wagner treated the story, which is his mixture of two sets of legends. It’s a really effective drama. Still I have my problems with Wagner, relating both to the scenario and to specific language.

First, the language. An important element of the story is Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope for his sin. I find it remarkable that Wagner always uses circumlocutions in referring to the Pope. It’s never “Pope” but “him who speaks God’s judgment,” “him through whom God reveals himself.” Can’t he bring himself to say, “Pope?” I  suppose the circumlocutions  are more poetic, and indicate the authority ascribed to the Pope, and therefore the importance and validity of the pilgrimage. But still, I’m surprised.

A bigger deal for me, is Wagner’s attitude here and elsewhere to the pre-Christian deities. Both here and in Lohengrin, there is a battle between Christianity and those pre-Christian deities, conceived as still existing. It seems true enough that vestiges of pagan notions, and even pockets of pagan belief, persisted in Christianized parts of Europe. So in creating a drama from legends about the early 13th Century, he may be using elements of folk culture of the period. In Tannhäuser, the conflict is between carnal love, represented by Venus, and chaste love, represented by Elisabeth. While chaste love is victorious in this opera, and in “Parsifal,” it is quite the contrary in “Tristan und Isolde.” Of course, chaste love and carnal love coexist in holy matrimony, but you won’t get that from Wagner.

Then there’s the “Ring Cycle.” It treats the Norse gods as real but eventually destroyed because of their greed leading to various acts of treachery, adultery, and incest. At its center, though it celebrates, not so much this destruction of the gods, but the union of Wotan’s daughter with his grandson. Hearers are led to have sympathy for the semidivine offspring of Wotan and to be sorry for their deaths.

So, I’m bemused by Wagner’s theology, as I understand it, but good theater often presents challenging ideas, and the dramatic story and fine music make Tannhäuser worth seeing.