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For this day’s work, lords, you have encouraged treason and opened the prison doors to free the traitors. A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and he carries his banners openly against the city. But the traitor moves among those within the gates freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears no traitor; he speaks in the accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their garments, and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation; he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city; he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared. The traitor is the carrier of the plague. You have unbarred the gates of Rome to him.

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I have seen the words above online used as a meme, attributed to the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero from the year 42 BCE. I immediately thought they described to a tee the current situation at hand here in this country, especially with the revelations of continued Russian meddling for and collusion with our president*** from the last couple of days.

These words  certainly could be applied to this president*** and his enablers and to think they came from over two thousand years ago was enlightening. The ways of treason and the traitor have not changed much over the ages.

Taylor Caldwell

Taylor Caldwell

Unfortunately, though I feel resonance between those words and these times, those are not the actual words of Cicero. They are from a 1965 novel, A Pillar of Iron, from bestselling author Taylor Caldwell. The book is a fictionalized account of the life of Cicero and his fight to save the Republic from approaching tyranny. He was assassinated for his efforts at the urging of Marc Anthony in 43 BCE.

While the words as we see them are not the actual words of Cicero at the time, much of their intent is derived from his orations of that time. Caldwell did her research and scoured the words of Cicero to create her own fictional interpretation of what Cicero may have said when he addressed the Senate then.

So, while the traitorous treachery Caldwell’s version of Cicero called out in the words at the top of the page may have come from 1965, their meaning most likely was born in some part in the words of Cicero from over 2000 years back. And whether they are from 2000 years ago or just 55 years, fact or fiction, they are words to which we should pay attention.

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Watch on the Rhine- Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, 1943

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In Praise of the Fighters

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.

There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.

There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.

But there are those who struggle all their lives:

These are the indispensable ones.

Bertolt Brecht, The Mother,  1930

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I came across this short poem/song taken from the play The Mother written by Bertolt Brecht and was reminded of one of my favorite movies, Watch on the Rhine, which featured one such indispensable fighter. I was reminded, as well, of the path we are hurtling down as a nation, especially in the light of the events here of the last few days and weeks. The transformation is accelerating as all guide rails that have protected us in the past are smashed aside. The parallels between what is happening here at the moment and the formation of other authoritarian/fascist regimes in the past century are haunting.

But this short verse and this movie favorite of mine remind us that in almost all of these other regimes, they have been opposed and often defeated by people of great strength and resolve. They were Anti-Fascists or Freedom Fighters who put aside concerns for their personal benefit or safety and devoted their lives to opposing, in every possible manner, the cruelty of fascist rule.

You might read this and shake your head and think that this is an overstatement of what is taking place, that things are not so dire as I might see them and that we are light-years away from fascism.

I hope you’re right.

But I remind you that in all of these past regimes there were large numbers of their citizens who thought just that same thing, that such a thing was inconceivable. It can’t happen here. But authoritarianism creeps up on you, taking hold little by little. Then, when there is a window of opportunity for it to impose its total will on the citizenry, it accelerates at a pace that exceeds the ability of normal response to restrain it.

It may be too late beyond that point but for these people who stand in brave opposition. The fighters.

I urge you to see Watch on the Rhine if you get a chance or at least read the original play. The film was made in 1943, adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett from the prize-winning play written by his wife, Lillian Hellman. It concerns a well-heeled family in the Northern Virginia area across the Potomac from Washington whose daughter ( played beautifully by Bette Davis ) returns home from a war-torn Europe for the first time in many years with her husband and children. It is set, and was written, in the year or so before before our entry into World War II.

Her husband is a German freedom fighter named Kurt Muller who is a fugitive leader in the underground movement against the Nazis. He is played by Paul Lukas in a magnificent performance, one that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor that year over Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bells Toll. Yes, it was that good.

His Muller is the common man who finds himself in the role of the selfless hero willing to give up everything– his career, his family, his life– in order to stand against evil. Muller did not seek this task but knows that it is one he must shoulder. His words are simple, direct and powerful.

Lukas, who also originated the part on the Broadway stage, is brilliant. Whenever I see this movie, I am haunted for weeks afterwards by Lukas’ performance. The power of it thrills me but I find myself questioning my own strength and beliefs as a human. Thankfully, to this point, I have never been put into a situation like that faced by Kurt Muller and hopefully never will.

But would I be able to stand with even a fraction of the grace and courage of Lukas’ character?

I really don’t know.

There is a different first line of Brecht’s song at the top of the page taken from another translation of the verse from its original German: Those who are weak don’t fight.

I sincerely hope I don’t fall into that category if the situation ever presents itself at my door.

And I worry that it is coming up my walkway even as I write this.

 

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Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind
They lie through their teeth
With their head up their behind

You open up their hearts
And here’s what you’ll find
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind

John Prine, Some Humans Ain’t Human

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Maybe it’s just being tired from wrestling with a foot of fallen snow or maybe it’s just being sick of being sick about the state of affairs taking place here in this country. I can’t say for sure but whatever the case, it has made me a little misanthropic as of late.

It bothers me and it’s not something I embrace lightly. I’ve always resolved to follow the Will Rogers maxim of I never met a man I didn’t like, believing that I could always find common ground with anyone I came across, could find something that we could agree on. And that was generally the case for the better part of my life.

But the last three or so years have put that resolution to the test as so many of my fellow citizens have been suddenly liberated to openly express their prejudices, their hatreds, their conspiracy based beliefs, their petty spitefulness and a whole litany of stupid behaviors that would crush my spirit completely if I were forced to list them all.

This morning, I just want to give up and embrace my angry misanthropy. Maybe walk to the end of my driveway and give the finger to the first passing car.

That’ll teach ’em, won’t it?

Oh, I know. That won’t happen. I will still try to find good in people, try to find things we have in common.

But be warned: my patience ain’t what it used to be.

So, for this Sunday morning music I have selected what I consider a fitting choice for this mood. It’s Some Humans Ain’t Human from John Prine. He wrote it in 2005 as political commentary on George W. Bush‘s decision to put into the war with Iraq, that one we still can’t seem to shake free from. He said he didn’t want to die with people not being sure where he stood on Bush.

Give a listen and if you want to sing along, go to this link for the lyrics. Then have yourself a good day. No, I really mean it. I want you to have a good day. So steer clear of me, okay?

 

 

 

 

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Frantisek Kupka – The Black Idol (Resistance) 1903

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“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

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Cautionary words from a man who experienced the results from a nation that went in the direction in which we seem to be moving. Much like yesterday’s post, a warning that we shall reap the amplified consequences from the evil we have sown with the silent compliance contained in our acceptance of it.

As they say, ’nuff said.

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When men sow the wind

it is rational to expect

that they will reap the whirlwind.

–Frederick Douglass

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Amplified consequence.

In his 1892 essay, Lynch Law in the South, Frederick Douglass used the proverb from biblical book Hosea, to illustrate how man often sets things in motion that have results that extend far beyond– and often in stark opposition to– their intended goals. Douglass wrote that the deadly violence being shown against the black citizens of the south at that time would eventually come back to haunt those that perpetrated the deed or stood idly by, complicit in their silence.

The biblical proverb in Hosea was about how the the citizens of Israel of that time ( ca 725 BC, I believe) took to idolatry, the worship of false idols, and how their actions brought down upon them the wrath of God. In that book the author uses the concept of farming to make his point, that a  a single seed of grain sowed by a farmer returns to him many times over.

An amplified consequence.

Of course, the farmer can usually tell what the result of his sowing will be. X amount of seed will allow him to reap Y amount of grain at harvest under normal circumstances. Predictable.

But that same degree of predictability doesn’t apply to all other actions man sometimes sets in motion. While we might initially think we control the outcome, we sometimes put actions into motion — sow our seed– that we cannot control, that return to us with such amplification and intensity that we are overcome and sometimes decimated by the result.

One small, seemingly insignificant action, such as not paying attention to a rising dangerous wind, can sometimes turn into a maelstrom of destruction that we never saw coming.

Take that for what it’s worth, given the events in recent days in this country.

The painting at the top is called Into the Winds of Change and is part of the West End Gallery‘s annual Little Gems show that opens tonight with an opening reception from 5-7:30 PM. Hopefully, like the Red Tree here, we can stand against and overcome the whirlwind that may soon be upon us.

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The worst of it is that we live in a spoiled moral environment. We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other, to worry only about ourselves. The concepts of love, friendship, mercy, humility or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension, and for many of us they represent only some sort of psychological curiosity or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times, somewhat ludicrous in the era of computers and space ships. . . .

If I speak about a spoiled moral atmosphere I don’t refer only to our masters. . . I’m speaking about all of us. For all of us have grown used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an immutable fact, and thereby actually helped keep it going. None of us are only its victims; we are all also responsible for it.

Vaclav Havel, New Year’s Day Address, 1990

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I came across the line, We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another, in a tweet last night from former CIA Director John McLaughlin who said it ran through his mind several times yesterday as he watched the display of moral bankruptcy from the GOP senators taking place before our very eyes.

The onetime Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel spoke those words in his New Year’s Day address to the Czech people after becoming the first democratically elected President of that nation in the post-communist era just weeks before. To that point, Havel had lived his entire life under an authoritarian regime. His plays were banned in his own land and he was imprisoned as a political prisoner multiple times, over four years during the longest incarceration, for attempting to bring light into a society where truth was what the regime claimed it to be. Many citizens were under almost constant surveillance and show trials were the norm.

Shows trials are those, particularly in Soviet nations of the Cold War Era, that have a predetermined outcome and don’t rely on witnesses or real evidence. As with truth, the evidence was what the regime claimed it to be. It was an expedient manner to remove political opponent with the appearance of justice taking place.

Sound familiar?

After reading Havel’s address and watching the events of the last few days, knowing already what the outcome will be as in any show trial, I could see real parallels in the moral illness that Havel described in his address and the behavior of our Republican senators. How can these people who speak one thing while thinking another believe that this will not corrupt our whole society, that which they have been entrusted to protect?

Their corruption will beget more corruption and that corruption more yet. Our Great Leader’s thousands upon thousands of lies will become accepted truths and his skewed amorality becomes the moral compass of our nation. Unless we reject these new norms, we will remain in this spiral that will soon bring us to a form of totalitarianism complete with more show trials and deeper surveillance for those who dare to stand against those in power.

We still have a chance to avoid this end. As Havel said: None of us are only its victims; we are all also responsible for it.

You can’t stand on the sidelines now. You can’t let others do the heavy lifting alone. Too many of us have done that for too long.

We are all responsible for it.

 

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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you
It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do

Chris Isaak, Wicked Game

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Another piece headed to the West End Gallery for their annual Little Gems exhibit, opening next Friday, February 7. It’s called Wicked Game after the title of the Chris Isaak song from 1989. Wow, hard to believe it’s been that long. But that opening line– The world was on fire…— was the first thing that came to mind when I finished this little piece.

It fit the painting.

As does the second line– It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do…– which fits the time, this particular moment in history as we watch a Republican party so fixated on their desire to maintain power that they will turn a blind eye to the corruption of our system that has taken place in the open for us all to see. The question of whether they will ever stand up for truth and justice, against those wrongs we know have been done and those we expect will be done in the future, seems to leaning toward a big and emphatic NO.

Doing that which is right even when it doesn’t personally benefit you or goes against your personal interests is a noble and honorable thing.

Don’t expect to see such a thing anytime soon.

Like the song says: It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do. Put on your seatbelts, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Here’s the original from Chris Isaak.

 

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