An Admonition

William Ramp

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“On the morning I left him for home, we did talk. About Donald Trump. Not at length: Dad tires easily. But the news coverage of Trump had clearly shaken him. The open departures from truth or even reality; the cheerful contradictions; the in-your-face hyperbole; the coarseness; the utter contempt for whole categories of human beings; the ritualized expulsions from rallies by private and public police—all this had begun to remind him too much of the anti-morality of Hitler’s speeches and of the menace and at times open brutality of the Nazi rallies reported on newsreels in his childhood.”—William Ramp

Small Things Recollected

By William Ramp

Donald Trump in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 8, 2016.

Donald Trump in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 8, 2016.

“All of the phony TV commercials against me are bought and payed [sic] for by SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS, the bandits that tell your pols what to do.” Donald Trump, March 6, 2016

“Just watched lightweight Marco Rubio lying to a small crowd about my past record. He is not as smart as Cruz, and may be an even bigger liar.”— Donald Trump, February 27, 2016

“This is a war . . . these attacks will continue . . . whether at an opera house in Paris; whether at a community center in San Bernardino. Their target is each and every one of us. And we need a president who sets aside political correctness.”—Ted Cruz, March 22, 2016

William Ramp

LETHBRIDGE Alberta—(Weekly Hubris)—4/4/2016— I have been AWOL from Weekly Hubris for some months, nursing a persistent case of writer’s block, a malady rarely traceable to a single cause, and not easily curable by cruelly-optimistic techniques that make the rounds on social media. 

In my case, the perilously dim geopolitical, economic and survival prospects of the global climate and international politics haven’t helped. I’ve been depressive most of my life, but I’ve often cheered myself into imagining that a natural bias toward pessimism meant that the real future would always be better than imagined. It isn’t pleasant to think that depressive pessimism is now an attitude most likely to be voted realistic by many of my peers who study such prospects.

Recently, an article by Juan Cole on Bill Moyers’ Facebook page caught my eye: How the US Went Fascist: Mass Media Make Excuses for Trump Voters. I thought to myself, “Looks like a should-read, should share,” but immediately realized I didn’t want to do either. I’ve been reading article after article on the Trump phenomenon; I gave a talk on the subject just a few weeks ago. But the steady drumbeat of political anxiety, and the ever more over-the-top character of the Trump campaign—in which yesterday’s “he wouldn’t dare” becomes today’s “he just did”—have worn me down.

So, no: I really didn’t want to share Juan Cole’s article, perceptive though it is. I didn’t want to assess how accurate it might or might not be. I didn’t and don’t really want to continue in the social media fray over Trump’s candidacy. Why, then, am I discussing it here? After all, there’s no guarantee that between now and when these words are published, Trump will still be riding high in the polls, or that some unanticipated event or misdeed won’t have crashed his campaign. (My sense is that his candidacy is unstable despite the millions likely being lavished on the best PR brains money can buy.) 

But keep in mind that, even if Trump blows up his own campaign or someone else does it for him, the political beast he’s awakened remains at large. Other candidates for political office, perhaps less brazenly demagogic but more calculating, are likely try to harness it to their own ends.

However, the words I want to pay attention to here are not mine, Trump’s, nor even Cole’s. They are few, simple, and express a personal more than a political concern. They were spoken by someone who’s seen more of life than I, and the foreboding in them drove me past blockage to contribute one more journalistic pebble to the beach-head that the Trump armada is driving for.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk on the Trump political phenomenon; how it seemed that the more outrageous his contradictions and the more outlandish his claims, the more his poll numbers went up. I attempted an explanation in terms of his play on the emotional rather than cognitive dispositions of his followers.

On my way home, I caught a flight that allowed a stop-over for a short visit to my parents. They are now in care; their lives largely circumscribed by small daily routines: staff shift-changes, meal times, the juice cart, meds, getting up, and going to bed. They occasionally say, wistfully, that they have little to talk about, and certainly they are not passionately engaged with political issues.

I told Dad about my talk on the Trump phenomenon, and showed him a poster for it which contained a couple of paragraphs of description. He took it and, instead of glancing at it and putting it aside, read it slowly and with obvious care, hands trembling slightly. Later, we watched a bit of the news. As is the case just about every day now, there was another shooting somewhere—this time, an Uber driver who had randomly killed people between assignments. Something about the story bothered Dad.

Before I return to what bothered him, let me give some context. I doubt my father has ever voted anything but conservative all his life. He tends to regard the NDP (Canada’s social-democratic party) as dangerous, and had few compunctions about tweaking me with his admiration for former Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper.

Dad was born in the Netherlands and lived through the five-day war in May, 1940, and the German occupation of Holland that followed. He didn’t talk at great length about that experience, though some years ago, at his children’s urging, he did write about it. What shook him most about the five long years of occupation, I think, was the way in which government, especially when it came under tighter Nazi control from 1941, descended into open, even casual criminality. The ideals of justice, including fair trials, or even their pretense, were wiped away by men in trench coats on shadowy but official payrolls, armed with short-barreled shotguns, who roamed the night and left their suspects, heads shattered, lying in street gutters to be discovered by whomever in the morning.

Casualties in Amsterdam, May 7, 1945, after German troops fired on a crowd celebrating the capitulation of occupying forces.

Casualties in Amsterdam, May 7, 1945, after German troops fired on a crowd celebrating the capitulation of occupying forces.

This was a world in which sounds—unexpected but not uncommon—could interrupt daily life at any hour. Explosions, perhaps, or anti-aircraft artillery or gunshots. Air raid? An “action”? Sabotage? Retaliation? One learned not to ask, nor even, in certain circumstances, to notice. In this world, there was constant and seemingly arbitrary disruption —sonic, visual, cultural, legal, social— affecting food supplies, transportation, “official” procedures, and what counted as “safe.”

My Dad left Holland in 1948, but he brought more than a suitcase and his father’s ex-military chest with him. He came with an experiential legacy that gave him plenty of reason to value conservatism and stability. During the years of the right-wing Harper government in Canada (closely resembling and related to those of Tony Abbott in Australia and David Cameron in Britain, and friendly with US conservative brain trusts), Dad didn’t really see the radical disruptiveness that lay behind its “conservative” facade. I did: I sensed something in the parade of large, loud-voiced, braying men in too-tight suits who swaggered on to the political stage, and off again; one to eventual conviction on charges of breaking Canada’s Election Act.

But Dad and I didn’t talk much about these things during my too-rare visits.

I sensed something, too, in the way those men spoke of their political enemies. I sensed something in the way in which their legislation was tendentiously-named; was delivered to the legislature in large, confusing and difficult-to-unpack omnibus bills, and seemed calculated to strip public institutions, public science, and the civil service of arms-length autonomy. Something in the way in which it also seemed, at times, to reward ideological, institutional, and personal friends.

I sensed something in the way that Revenue Canada, our federal taxation authority, appeared to be auditing more charitable groups concerned with social justice, the environment, or alternative energy, on the grounds that they were engaging in politics in a manner that violated their charitable status. Meanwhile, right-wing think tanks with charitable status pronounced on political matters, yet seemed strangely immune. But Dad and I didn’t speak much of this. Visit time was short; why use it to cause upset?

I sensed something viscerally the time I was passed on an Ontario highway by a convoy of black Escalades with motorcycle police escort, traveling well above the speed limit; the police systematically closing off intersections and stopping traffic till the black train had passed. But Dad and I didn’t speak of such things.

But on the morning I left him for home, we did talk. About Donald Trump. Not at length: he tires easily. But the news coverage of Trump had clearly shaken him. The open departures from truth or even reality; the cheerful contradictions; the in-your-face hyperbole; the coarseness; the utter contempt for whole categories of human beings; the ritualized expulsions from rallies by private and public police—all this had begun to remind him too much of the anti-morality of Hitler’s speeches and of the menace and at times open brutality of the Nazi rallies reported on newsreels in his childhood. It reminded him especially of what he’d heard adults say about the Sturmabteilung (SA) in the early 1930s, before that organization of bullies had its leadership murdered in a single night and was reined in and repurposed by the SS.

SA Chief Ernst Rohm (right) with SS officials Kurt Daluege and Heinrich Himmler, August 1933.

SA Chief Ernst Rohm (right) with SS officials Kurt Daluege and Heinrich Himmler, August 1933.

The constant coverage of shootings on the television news, including shootings by police, also left him uneasy.

As I was leaving, he said (and I’m paraphrasing, but trying to capture both his words and their impact on me as accurately as I can): “You be careful, now. It’s getting too much like 1933. Too much like what we saw coming then. And you may be more ‘known,’ more prominent, than you realize. Be careful, in your classrooms and your office.”

These aren’t the words of a political expert nor an educated observer of the cultural scene, nor an activist. Nor of someone changing his political colors. Just the words of an 88-year-old retired farmer who had had certain things traumatically impressed upon him at an early age; who’d felt old experiences and impressions rising again to the surface, along with new intuitions of dread. A father concerned for his son.

On one level, his admonition was specifically for me. An article in Salon recently noted with some confusion Trump’ s “odd and condescending claim, ‘I love the poorly educated.’” My father knew my academic work was becoming more politically pointed and that I’d become outspoken outside the classroom, and his warning was inflected by a remembered context. Many university students joined the Resistance, and ended up dead in alleys or tortured in Gestapo cells. Intellectuals were targeted by Nazis—especially in the early 1930s by the SA—as elitist parasites. Where have we heard similar characterizations recently?

One night during the Occupation, my father’s sister brought home a young man she’d noticed walking awkwardly down a street in what turned out to be stolen wooden shoes. It turned out he’d been doing Resistance work, had got caught in a raid, and had just narrowly escaped from a transport. A lawyer’s son, he impressed the family that night with his ability to talk intelligently and, even under those circumstances, with humor, on a range of subjects.

But I can’t help but hear a broader intuition in Dad’s words; one I take as seriously as those of media pundits or political scientists, and because of, not despite his deep conservatism. I’ve heard him many times voice concerns about how political things, if they followed a certain trend, could lead eventually either to “communism” or to something “like the Nazis.” But what I caught in his voice on that Monday as I left was something different: not mere speculation about new totalitarianisms, but a tone that betrayed a sense in his bones that a rough beast—old, but newly-dressed and with new powers (if just as ridiculously-coiffed)—was once again slouching towards a doomed political Jerusalem. A beast that might find it too easy to dispense with things and people. A beast with a mouthpiece yelling a celebratory “Get him outta here!” as protesters were ejected from rallies; a beast slyly winking at roughing-up incidents, and warning salaciously of riots to come.

I think that, for Dad, this peculiar combination of coarseness, contempt, and incipient violence pointed to the more sinister advent of a breakdown in the rule of law and human decency.

By rule of law, I mean (and I think he would mean) not more aggressive policing, but impartiality, due process, and respect of persons.

Now, it has to be said that faith in the rule of law is easily abused, in rhetoric and in reality. The history of law in the United States and in Canada, especially as applied to African-Americans or First (or Indigenous) Peoples provides plenty of examples of systemic discrimination, as well as of resistance to that discrimination.

On a deeper level, it may be argued that the institution of law itself comes with a price: the constituent power which institutes law always implies exceptions to the law and, indeed, its own potential exemption from law. In 1922, the German jurist Emil Gumbel wrote a stark condemnation of the administration of law during the civil war which followed Germany’s defeat in 1918:

Countless social bonds connect the murderer-officer with the judge who will acquit him, who will close the case, who will believe the witness who described the “attempt at escape” in detail. . . . They are of the same flesh and blood. The judge understands their language, their tactics, their thoughts. Subtly, his soul sways along with the murderers, covered by a mask of pretense to proper procedure. The murderer goes free.

Similarly, the term “decency” has been used as a fig-leaf to cover a multitude of sins against creativity, diversity, freedom of thought, and action. It has also been a cudgel wielded against women, people of color, and those who do not fit hegemonic norms of gender and sexuality. What other meaning could be rescued from that? Perhaps this: a barrier against the treatment of humans, other animals, and the natural world as mere objects of use or abuse. A restraint against treating others as counters in a theory game. A constraint against self-elevation at the deliberate expense of others.

We can all name sinners against decency, thus defined. Too often, we fail to name ourselves. Could we not say that indecency occurs every time we make a consumer purchase or buy a meal, and take that act to be an absolute right that sales clerks, wait staff or, more distantly, manufacturing, textile and agricultural workers, should bow to, and hustle to fulfil, no matter our rudeness or impatience? Every time we use the terminology of early 20th-century eugenics (moron, imbecile, idiot) to make fun of those culturally or politically beneath our contempt? Decency in these circumstances would be a stance politically opposed to the enactment and enjoyment of contempt, disdain or derision for their own sakes or for the sake of our superiority.

Protest at Donald Trump Rally in Chicago, 11 March 2016.

Protest at Donald Trump Rally in Chicago, 11 March 2016.

An appeal to modesty over bluster, decency over coarseness, or law over violence, does not in itself constitute a watertight political theory; nor does it alone underwrite a practical solution to the political ills that beset the 2016 US Presidential campaign. The social rules which define and govern decency are never without their own particular histories and politics and, from a sociological perspective let alone a philosophical one, no legal system is ever free of ambiguity, contradiction or context in its structure or in its implementation.

But perhaps we need to consider pressing questions and immediate remedies. In the context of Trump and the forces he seeks to command, it seems to me to be imperative to defend vigorously things that in other times could be questioned at more leisure. But perhaps this should take some other form than reifying those legal and political structures which have failed to stop a Trump; failed to stop the hollowing-out of US industry; failed to assure people of equal access to equal justice; failed to provide a real basis for basic dignity or even basic means of life.

Can a heretical Canadian get away with saying this? Perhaps what is most needed is not a fence around the US Constitution nor around any partisan interpretation of it, nor even around the existing legal system, to keep the marauders out. Perhaps something else is more urgent: filling social spaces with a practical lawfulness made from the ground up in circumstances as they are given; an on-the-spot affirmation of and commitment to life and love, freedom and mutuality; the creation of a commons.

Perhaps what is also needed is to mount a defense that refuses to imitate the coarse contempt of Trump’s “Get him outta here!” In other words, not treating political decency as a code to defend, but as a model and a form of generosity that refuses to objectify the enemy while also refusing the enemy a freedom to despoil. I have heard, and read, much about the stupidity of Trump’s followers. I have shared humor at their expense. I have taken a political stance in respect to the Trump candidacy, and I believe it’s the right one. I hope it is. But I have also, on several occasions, taken the side of superiority. And therein lies very great danger. It took me hard work and sacrifice to become an academic. But what forms of unacknowledged privilege also got me here, and how available were they to the unlettered and disadvantaged among Trump supporters? How might acknowledging that privilege change my attitude toward them?

Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at Muscatine Iowa, 24 January 2016.

Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at Muscatine Iowa, 24 January 2016.

On the other hand, however my attitude might change towards people who see their national salvation in Trump, I could not imagine changing my political stance towards the sort of politics Trump practices. This is not about seeing the good in everyone as an excuse to do nothing. But if I oppose the blaring condescension, the selective demonization, the coarse contempt, the dehumanization so evident in his speeches and at his rallies, I cannot ethically turn away from my own too-easy wish to dismiss, dehumanize, dispose of those who support him.

Rachel Shields, a colleague and friend to whom I sent an early draft of this article, commented on exactly this issue:

[Y]our father’s words . . .  reveal an anxiety that has much more to do with the form of politics than its content. And if we pay attention to the form, we see that it doesn’t matter what “side” we take (indeed, that is why Trump can engage so many contradictory positions at the same time)—it matters that the form of politics today relies on anticipating the “stupidity,” the “badness,” the “falseness” of all other positions than our own and then proudly elevating ourselves to the position of “righteous” at the expense of others. To use Isabelle Stengers’ terms, it is to allow the wrong kind of laughter into our political lives—the laughter of derision—when what we should form a commons on is the laughter of commonality, the good-natured laughter of recognition and understanding.

As Stengers would put it, “Learning to laugh is not learning derision. It is not learning always to anticipate the same disappointing, deceiving thing lying behind the pretensions.  . . . What is learning to laugh again? It is relearning a laugh which would not be the irony and derision which always avoids risk-taking, going beyond the differences to recognize the same. It is, instead, the laughter of humor. It is comprehending and appreciative without expecting to find a secure position. It is able to disagree without being awe-stricken or trying to be awe-inspiring.”

Reading these words, I could not help but think of that young man 70-odd years ago, the lawyer’s son from Tilburg, who in desperate circumstances talked engagingly of many things, and made my father’s family laugh behind the darkened windows.

Rachel continues:

And I couldn’t help but notice this line from Stengers as well: “Since Aristotle’s time, living beings have served to illustrate an ends-means logic. With Darwin, they became interesting as bearing witness to the many aspects of entangled slow stories.” The idea that others (other beings, not just other humans) ought to be treated as more than mere means to an end is, perhaps, a recognition that others bear witness in a way that is undeniable. Perhaps, then, decency is a gesture of good faith in the ability of others to testify. And this reminds me of a phrase from Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language: faith has to do with “that experience of language that it is not possible to doubt.” And this is common to all.

The forging, then, of false oppositions (such as “left” and “right”) does not admit this kind of commons. It makes “winning” by way of dismissing, disproving, and deriding the “other” position paramount. It means establishing these oppositional “sides” as so distinct from one another that communication becomes impossible. It manifests as incredulity at how utterly wrong other people are when they don’t see things my way.

None of this is to argue that there’s any moral equivalence between the politics of Trump and that of his opposition. But if those of us who are disturbed by Trump’s politics are to be clear about the ominous cruelty of that politics, we must be also clear about how our own politics models and enacts something different.

Is there something sacrificial about this sort of “decent” politics? Yes. My un-chosen Lenten discipline this season has been giving up a certain moral superiority after a personal and political failing was bluntly and devastatingly pointed out to me: a failing I thought someone like me would never commit. It’s a kind of sacrifice almost unbearable to make—at least, without the support of others. But in political hard times like the present, what ethical stance does not admit sacrifice of something, if only comfort and safety? Decent politics is tough politics. It’s the exact opposite of wishy-washy.

As I write this, news is coming in about the bombings in Brussels (March 22), and I am reminded that Dad’s unease was triggered not only by the tenor of the US political campaigns, but also by the seemingly random violence he saw on the news; violence that may well have reminded him of the unpredictable disruptions of the war years.

Capturing the uncapturable: CCTV camera footage of three suspects in the Brussels bombings.

Capturing the uncapturable: CCTV camera footage of three suspects in the Brussels bombings.

For a long postwar stretch, it was possible for many in North America to imagine that, aside from the existential threat of nuclear war, open and unpredictable violence was consignable to a global periphery with little connection to suburban living and mass consumption. In the 1960s, burning American cities and increasingly militant protest began to put an end to that dream. They also fostered a political desire to emulate at home harder-edged police actions practiced elsewhere.

The Korean stalemate and the withdrawal from Vietnam after a decade of direct involvement were followed by a series of never-ending “Wars-on,” beginning with the War on Drugs and continuing today with the War on Terror. These, meant to rid America of a scourge, seemed only to encourage more vicious forms of it, demanding more spending, more technology, more vigilance, more sacrifice of freedoms, more security-line-up inconvenience. But strangely, these forms of protection and defense seemed to become, if anything, less systematic the more they became ubiquitous: more impressionistic, even random, especially when subcontracted. They also became more terroristic, in effect regardless of intent.

I will leave it to others to debate whether there could ever be any moral equivalence between terror and anti-terror. I will suggest only that, from the standpoint of those awaiting the next gunship attack on a hospital, counterinsurgency operation, drone strike, barrel-bomb drop, sniper round, drug raid or rounding-up of “illegals,” these might feel little different from an airport suicide bombing, a machine-gun attack on a nightclub, a hostage-taking, or a Gestapo razzia.

In the era heralded by the Geneva Convention, the League of Nations, and the UN, nation-states worked out rules of engagement for war—and promptly broke them, depending on place, time, (un)clarity of objectives, opportunity, and the enemy-of-the-moment. But the illusion could be maintained. With My Lai, the glass that reflected it cracked; with Abu Ghraib, it shattered. In the past two and a half decades, hundreds of thousands of technologically-assisted but largely fruitless deaths from Libya to Afghanistan sowed a wind, and we (along with millions of refugees) now reap the whirlwind.

Depending on your place in North American, European, or Russian society today, terror can come home to roost in more than one guise. What can my father do to protect me, or me him? What can protect any of us?

Across North America, as many people die, and as more families are traumatized every month in automobile accidents than died in the World Trade Center attacks, the automobile infrastructure—roads, facilities, parking, fuel, petro-state corruption—has more effectively terrorized the natural environment than any group of fundamentalists. But these deaths, unexpected by those who suffer them and seemingly random, exercise us as public issues less than does the threat of terror. Might they not, however, be connected?

These are general and impressionistic observations, I admit, and it’s hard to get specific about them in a few hundred words. But specification is not just a matter of more words, but of embodied memory, and moral orientation, and deeds.

What does this have to do with the words my father spoke to me that Monday a few weeks ago? They appear to carry slight rhetorical or intellectual weight.

But try this. Listen for the feel of the words. 

Listen for the weight of memory, and the shadow of prospect.

Ask: can we join in holding light to the shadow, to defy a little longer the coming night?

Acknowledgements:

This article as a whole benefited from the thoughtful attention of Rachel Shields, whom I have also quoted at length. I am grateful for her insightful comments, and I thank her for her permission to reproduce some of them in this article.

And I also thank my father, without whom, in several ways, this article would not have been written.

Photo Credits

Image 1. Photo by Marc Nozell, on Flickr. Online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46942232. Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Image 2. Photo by Krijn Taconis. National Archives and Records Administration. Online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amsterdam_shooting,_May_7_1945.jpg. Public domain.

Image 3. Photographer unknown. German Federal Archives, Online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-14886,_Kurt_Daluege,_Heinrich_Himmler,_Ernst_R%C3%B6hm.jpg. Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0 License.

Image 4. Photo by nathanmac87, on Flickr. Online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trump_protest_Chicago_March_11,_2016.jpg. Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Image 5. Photo by Evan Guest. Online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trump_with_supporters_in_Iowa,_January_2016.jpg. Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Image 6. CCTV footage, Brussels airport. Online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brussels_suspects_CCTV.jpg. Source, lemonde.fr. Public domain (CCTV system)

Notes:

  1. “. . . cruelly-optimistic techniques . . .” A sly reference to a book that I highly recommend as a partial diagnosis of the cultural and political depression of our times: Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011)
  2. “. . . I gave a talk on the Trump political phenomenon . . .”  William Ramp, “Feeling the Truth: Paranoid Politics and outrageous freedom in the 2016 US Presidential Campaign,” Laboratoire d’études durkheimienne de l’UQAM, Montréal, 18 February 2016. Here’s a brief summary of it (perhaps a longer version might make it into a future column):

Republican candidates for president in the 2015-6 US primaries have stoked fears about conspiracies as varied as ISIL terrorist plots imported by refugees and state takeovers by climate scientists. Donald Trump has increased his popularity because of—not in spite of—his increasingly outrageous statements. This presentation will examine how Trump’s political persona not only exemplifies an anomic freedom in the Durkheimian sense, but also provides a focus for rebellious political desire. What Trump says matters less than how he says it: his transgression of acceptable political speech opens new expressive space for free-range rage as an antidote to an imagined fatalism of affect imposed by “political correctness.”

But the content of his statements also contributes to an affective process. His identification of enemies and outsiders provides an emotional focus and remedies collective political depression by stimulating an insatiable anxiety around representations of the feared. In speaking outrageously about these, Trump opens up temporary occasions for their public exorcism, but the anxiety they provoke remains available for future use, as does the desire for freedom of affective expression: freedom to rage against limits to offensive speech and against imagined conspirators.

The theoretical question raised by this exploration will be how a Durkheimian political sociology of emotion, working from the concept of collective emotional effervescence and its converse, might help clarify the nature of this mobilizing process and the vexed question of the extent to which it can be labelled populist or fascist. Could something like this process serve a similar political purpose on the left as Trump’s demagoguery does on the right, and if so, with what consequences?

  1. “. . . Dad didn’t really see the radical disruptiveness . . .” Part of this loyalty, I’m sure, derived from the Harper government’s expert political appeals to the security fears and wishes of older, middle-class voters.
  2. “. . . indeed, its own potential exception from law.” See Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Columbia, 2012), and Kahn, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty (University of Michigan Press, 2008). See also Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998. Kahn discusses his ideas in The Myth of the Secular, Part 5, CBC Ideas (CBC Radio).
  3. “. . . the German jurist Emil Gumbel . . .” Emil J. Gumbel, Vier Jahre politischer Mord [Four Years of Political Murder] (Berlin-Fichtenau: Verlag der Neuen Gesellschaft, 1922). Quoted in translation in Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler’s First Victims (Vintage Books, 2014), p. 105. I highly recommend Ryback’s book.
  4. Rachel Shields, personal communication, March 20, 2016.
  5. “. . . Isabelle Stengers . . .” Isabelle Stengers (tr. Penelope Deutscher), “Another Look: Relearning to Laugh,” Hypatia, Vol. 15, No. 4, Contemporary French Women Philosophers (Autumn, 2000). Quoted material from pages 43, 52 and 48, respectively.
  6. “. . . from Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language . . .” Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 54.

Further Reading, Listening & Viewing:

  1. Recently, NPR’s This American Life ran a fascinating short documentary on an avid, young, and highly unlikely Trump supporter. It’s a useful antidote to oversimplification for any who might be tempted to combine my father’s foreboding with a total dismissal of any and all Trump supporters as mindless. Have a listen to Zoe Chace’s, Sex, Boyhood and Politics in South Carolina.
  2. In part, the talk I gave in Montreal was a response to a book I’m using as a course text: Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 best-seller, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, now out in paperback from Vintage. I don’t agree with all of Haidt’s argument, but I do find it valuable to spar with, and I recommend it in that spirit.
  3. On questions of law and “constituent power,” see the following:

: Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Columbia, 2012)

: Paul W. Kahn, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty (University of Michigan Press, 2008)

: Paul Kahn also discusses his ideas in an excellent CBC Radio podcast The Myth of the Secular, Part 5, CBC Ideas.

: Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998)

: Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Stanford, 2011)

: Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (Stanford, 2010)

: David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015), especially Chapter 3 and Appendix. 

  1. On the fateful year of 1933, and one German legal official’s dogged struggle to defend the rule of law during it, I very highly recommend Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler’s First Victims (Vintage Books, 2014).
  2. And finally, here’s a list of articles found on the Web that seem to shed various kinds of light on Trump, his politics, responses to that politics, and the larger political, economic and social malaise within which he seems to flourish:

: On Trump and violence—Ezra Klein, “Donald Trump’s ideology of violence,” Vox Policy and Politics, March 12, 2016

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/3/12/11211898/donald-trumps-ideology-of-violence

: On (not) calling out Trump—Jack Mirkinson, “The media’s indefensible Trump cowardice: How CNN & NPR shirked their obligation to the truth,” Salon, Friday, Mar 18, 2016

http://www.salon.com/2016/03/18/the_medias_indefensible_trump_cowardice_how_cnn_npr_shirked_their_obligation_to_the_truth/

: On Trump, fear of the mob, and the framing of the Constitution—Peter Wehner, “The Man the Founders Feared,” The New York Times, March 19, 2016

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/opinion/campaign-stops/the-man-the-founders-feared.html?smid=fb-nytopinion&smtyp=cur&_r=0

: On what drives Trump’s following—Molly Ball, “The Resentment Powering Trump,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2016

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/the-resentment-powering-trump/473775/?utm_source=SFFB

: More on the latter subject—“It’s not bigotry but bad trade deals driving Trump voters, says author Thomas Frank,” The Current, CBC Radio, March 16, 2016

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-march-16-2016-1.3493397/it-s-not-bigotry-but-bad-trade-deals-driving-trump-voters-says-author-thomas-frank-1.3493433

: And yet more—Eric Fershtman, “Donald Trump and the politics of nostalgia,” Medium, March 11, 2016

https://medium.com/soapbox-dc/donald-trump-and-the-politics-of-nostalgia-3a55383b79b2#.19hg76z26

: On what’s rotten in the state of Iowa—Richard Manning, “The Trouble With Iowa: Corn, corruption, and the presidential caucuses,” Harper’s Magazine, February, 2016

https://harpers.org/archive/2016/02/the-trouble-with-iowa/

: On the political and social process of scapegoating—I’m not sure if I entirely agree with René Girard’s case for its centrality, but his argument is profound and compelling. This is the first of a magnificent five-podcast series: “The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 1,” CBC Ideas (CBC Radio)

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-scapegoat-the-ideas-of-ren%C3%A9-girard-part-1-1.3474195

: Another compelling piece on fashionably-infective self-righteousness is Michael Robbins’ review of the movie Witch—“We Other Puritans,” n+1, March 16, 2016

https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/we-other-puritans/

The philosopher Simon Critchley doesn’t refer to US politics in this interview, but it’s worth a read with that in mind—Simon Critchley, with Brad Evans (interviewer), “The Theater of Violence,” in Opinionator, The New York Times, March 14, 2016

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/14/the-theater-of-violence/

And finally, The Christian Century weighs in on how Jesus trumps Trump: “Jesus Trumps Tribalism” (Editorial), The Christian Century, March 14, 2016

http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-03/jesus-trumps-tribalism

William Ramp

About William Ramp

William Ramp teaches sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, Canada. He’s bemused to find himself in his sixth decade, nursing both a long and faulty memory, and age-inappropriate attitudes. He is fortunate to be organized, inspired and kept in line by dear friends and cheerfully-irreverent children. He contends as best he can with a host of garden-variety demons, imagining that some day he will beat them all, but suspecting he really should invite them in for coffee and a chat at fireside. Though trained in academic prose, he’s returning to a love of creative and incidental writing left behind in high school. That love is now his lifeline; a way to retain a footing on new paths and to contribute to uncaged and free-range conversation. His interests tend to be intellectual, but he delights in poring over antique machinery, grafting strange sprigs onto unsuspecting trees, listening to frogs in spring, watching thunderstorms outside and in bare feet, and talking to crows and magpies. He bumbles at night around the porch-lights of culture and ideas, and gravitates to redolent old things left at the curb of modern life. He tries not to let frustration with bad politics and worse news eclipse his sometimes wayward and over-ardent affections for the things of this world. Banner(1) photo used by permission of photographer Penny McCoy: www.pennyphotographics.com; banner(2) photo used by permission of photographer Bradley Rawlings; headshot photo by Louis-Philippe Valiquete, Laboratoire d'études durkheimienne, UQAM.
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6 Responses to An Admonition

  1. Avatar Will Balk, Jr. says:

    Good lord! How wonderful it is to read William Ramp! This pained and painful essay has more in it than almost any recent effort I have read about trying to make sense of the phenomenon we have been creating. Its very personal quality makes the issues immediate and visible and truly powerful; unusually, this personal core at the center of the piece also makes the historical and global ramifications of our recent and ongoing elevation of these figures and these ideas more universally comprehensible. This is another of Bill Ramp’s essays that absolutely must get broad distribution and must be read and discussed as widely as possible. I am deeply grateful for having Bill Ramp back among the writers and essayists here, but just having him writing and thinking somewhere would make the world a better place.

  2. Avatar William Ramp says:

    Wow — thanks Will! You’re right, though, that the essay was pained in the making, and uncertain. I’d rather live with that than succumb completely to the dark certainties so evident now. And I’d rather work (outwards) with others in the same boat.
    I hope you don’t mind if I interpret your kudos as to be shared with my colleague, Rachel Shields, quoted at length above.

  3. Avatar Will Balk, Jr. says:

    Ms Shields’s contribution, both the quoted passages and the obviously considerable critical support beyond that quoted portion, is important to the piece. My appreciation is for the work, certainly encompassing Ms Shields’s efforts, and that appreciation is YUUUUGE!

  4. Avatar William Ramp says:

    I’ll be sure to pass that on. Thanks!

  5. Avatar Bill Franz says:

    A very powerful essay… I need to reflect more on it. Kevin Van Tighem shared it on Facebook as we are on the cusp of a New Year (2018).

  6. Avatar Peter Christensen says:

    I admire Ramp’s courage to admonish himself and hope that he will extend this to the notions he puts forward about “filling social spaces with a practical lawfulness made from the ground up in circumstances as they are given” because, even though he qualifies his preference by assuming that practical lawfulness will be a guided and administered by an “on-the-spot affirmation of and commitment to life and love, freedom and mutuality”, there is no guarantee that such noble sentiments will hold sway during the heat of moment. Rather as he points out earlier Rule of Law (not rule of police) should prevail, that is “impartiality, due process, and respect of persons.” I prefer that these prescribed notions about order and fairness are in place and administered through a judicial system rather than depending on practical lawfulness, which could as easily become the vigilantism that his father warns us against.

    Racheal Shields differentiation between the form of politics and its content are a key observation: “ that it doesn’t matter what “side” we take (indeed, that is why Trump can engage so many contradictory positions at the same time)—it matters that the form of politics today relies on anticipating the “stupidity,” the “badness,” the “falseness” of all other positions than our own and then proudly elevating ourselves to the position of “righteous” at the expense of others.”

    Truly she has hit the nail on the head, for it is the current form that politics has taken that enables dark forces. Missing in our political vocabulary is “the good-natured laughter of recognition and understanding.” She goes on to say that, “decency is a gesture of good faith in the ability of others to testify.” Ramp graciously acknowledges this wisdom and admonishes himself to devolve his person of self-righteousness and in doing so shines a light to delay the coming darkness, which I hope is not as inevitable as the forgoing suggests.

    Shields then goes on quote from Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language: “faith has to do with that experience of language that it is not possible to doubt.”, its commonality. Ramp ably sets the stage for this revelation through his thoughtful approach to his father’ experiences and by embracing his own short comings: this is where our real learning begins, this is from where comes the good natured laugh. This is where we understand Ramp’s struggle for context and decency when he says, “in political hard times like the present, what ethical stance does not admit sacrifice of something, if only comfort and safety? Decent politics is tough politics. It’s the exact opposite of wishy-washy.” Thank you to Ramp and Shields for the thought provoking and honest essay.

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