Sa’adi’s Iranian Poetry and International Order

October 29, 2019

This could be called a tale of two birthdays. While celebrating my wife’s birthday at a restaurant, she got an email in response to her request that the writer handle some things at an upcoming national conference.

Early American presidents ended their letters by declaring themselves “Your most humble and obedient servant.” They believed in humility and public service. Persians express humility differently. Like my wife and myself, the writer of the email she opened had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His note reflected Iranian hyperbole and the Persian system of manners which they call Ta’arof: “I am your sacrifice,” he wrote, “you may walk on my eyes.” That was not a complaint, but, in context, much like Jefferson’s expression of humility and willingness.  The Persian reference to injuring eyes preserves painful memories, like many nursery rhymes we sing unsuspectingly. The Persian reference is to Mongol rulers, descendants of Genghis Khan, who cut out their opponents’ eyes. Knowing it’s meaning, I’ve never been able to use that expression. But both his and Jefferson’s reflect a culturally rooted sense of civility.

My dad visited me while I was in the Peace Corps and I threw him a party for his 70th birthday. While there, he gave me a book of Persian poetry as a gift, the Gulestan or Rose Garden, by Sa’adi, a much loved thirteenth century Persian poet, and the pride of the city where I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Poetry is very important to the Persians. There were monuments in Shiraz to Sa’adi and Hafez who wrote just a few years after Sa’adi died. Two centuries earlier, Ferdowsi wrote his Shahnameh or Book of Kings, a beautifully poetic attempt to remember the pre-Islamic past of Iran.

This Administration, and some of its predecessors, have tried to force Iran into submission with painful restrictions on trade. This and other countries have also tried to isolate Iran among dangerous regional regimes that have threatened Iran in the past, most notably Russia and the Soviet Union.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, of which my wife is president, was invited to make a presentation at the Kennedy Center. As part of that presentation, John Limbert, himself both a former ambassador and hostage, responded to the policy of penalizing and isolating Iran with a reference to the poetry of Sa’adi.[1] Many Persians know Sa’adi’s poetry by heart. In fact, when I called a friend to ask him about the language Ambassador Limbert had recited, I heard my friend’s father start reciting the entire poem in the background.  Here is the couplet Limbert recited – in both Persian and English translation:

نمیبینی که چون گربه عاجز شور

به چنگال در آرد چشم پلنگ

Nemibini ke chun gorbeh ‘aajez shavad,

be changaal dar avarad, cheshm-e-palang?

Have you not seen the cornered cat,

whose tiny claws will tear out the eyes of a leopard?

The implication is that they don’t want to fight but can and will to save their country.

It is a mistake to think of Iran in stereotypical terms as a bunch of brutes. Like all peoples, they can overreact, especially during a revolution, and international politics often brings out the worst instincts of nations. Nevertheless, I experienced Iranians as a very decent, cultured and friendly people, but a people who love their country and expect to be treated with respect. It’s funny, but showing respect is, at once, one of the easiest and most difficult things to do. Often, it’s little more than the language that reflects each other’s humanity and accomplishments. But it’s so difficult when we fight about who’s number 1.

[1] The Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa’di , 85-86 (George Allen & Unwin, ltd. Edward Rehatsek, trans., W.G. Archer, ed. 1964) (in the eighth story in the first chapter).


Environmental Mass Murder

October 22, 2019

I’ve spoken recently about the seriousness of Trump’s disloyalty as reflected in the whistle-blower’s complaint, his drive to imitate Hitler in exercising power, and the way rising wrong-wing violence is aggravating the threat from Trump. All are reasons to impeach or defeat Trump as soon as possible, and they combine to aggravate the danger of a dictatorial takeover.

But the environmental damage that Trump is aggravating is also a form of mass murder. It will drive millions of people out of their homes if they’re lucky, and kill, starve or suffocate them if they are not. That is mass murder. And mass murder is certainly a good reason to impeach a president.

He is aggravating global warming by removing limits on the production of greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, reducing efforts to substitute solar and wind power for methods that produce greenhouse gasses. He removed protections on public lands that absorb some of what we pour into the air. And by removing limits on what we pour into the oceans he has reduced the oceans’ ability to feed us.

Global warming brings many threats. It aggravates forest fires. And many things compound the problems of global warming, like the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest. But what can we do?

Actually lots of things, provided we have people in Washington who take it seriously. People on other continents have been converted from poachers to defenders of our natural patrimony with well-targeted incentives. That can be done in Brazil. A committed Administration could find ways to encourage Brazilians to take care of their rain forest.

But it won’t be done by an Administration that belittles the damage and cares less.

The same is true of the oceans. Global climate change is acidifying the oceans. As they become more acidic, the oceans will not sustain much of the marine life we depend on. Can we stop the process? Again, the answer is yes if we have an Administration in Washington that takes the problem seriously and puts its minds together to deal with it.

Burning fossil fuels creates some of the acids that are causing the acidification of the oceans. So there are double benefits to dealing with the burning of fossil fuels that create greenhouse gasses. Not only can we keep the earth at a livable temperature, but we can keep the oceans fertile.

Frankly, I think this is a loyalty issue. All of those people who are supporting the fossil fuel industry and its unleashing of greenhouse gasses are doing great damage to our country. That definitely includes the president, much of his Administration, Mitch McConnell and all members of both houses of Congress who refuse to support effective action against climate change. They are threatening the survival of Americans and the country itself. As far as I’m concerned that’s a good definition of treason.

We’ve got to clean up the environment with the method that Mary Martin made famous in South Pacific – we’ve got to wash those men right out of our hair – and every place else!


The Threat of the Alt-Armed Wing

October 15, 2019

I spoke last week about Trump’s intentions. His intentions are particularly scary because of the growth of wrong-wing violence. Time Magazine published an excellent summary as The Terror Within, in its August 19 issue.  Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan first broke their story on Time’s website. They explained that white nationalists are responsible for a multiple of the deaths and injuries from any other causes of terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11, more than all other causes put together. But Congress and this Administration frustrated FBI efforts to assign more agents to stop mass killers from mowing us down. As a result it gets worse.

Violence has spread as copycat crimes. Potential killers are separated from others like Communists who used to work in cells. That makes them harder, though not impossible, to find. The FBI has a good record of stopping more Muslim terrorism in the U.S.  But, what I refuse to call the right-wing because there is nothing right about them, feasts on assault weapons newly made available courtesy of the wrong-wingers on the U.S. Supreme Court. And, as the authors of the Time article put it, we now have “a Commander in Chief whose rhetoric appears to mirror, validate and potentially inspire that of far-right extremists.” Nothing has been a better predictor of armed revolution and dictatorial takeover than the spread of weapons among the public.

The president elides the necessity of blaming killers by referring to good people on both sides and attacking Antifa, which stands for Anti-Fascist, as if there is an equality between those trying to take our democratic institutions down and those standing up to the Fascists and trying to stop them.

In a prior era, the House Committee on Un-American Activities would have challenged the president’s loyalty. But conservatives and their wrong-wing-nut allies insist on a correspondence between investigations of the left and right as if illegal activity on the alt-wrong means that there must be at least equal and opposite illegality on the left – no evidence required. The Court has barred removing American citizenship from American citizens. But that might be the best way to protect ourselves from a disloyal president before he has the opportunity to do serious damage.

A second problem traces back to how we handle armed might in this country. Trump invited many members of the military into his Administration and then fired them. They had the backbone to resist some of the nonsense being cooked up in the White House. But they are no longer in the military. How deep can Trump get into the loyal ranks of the military before putting people in charge willing to do his bidding. Dictators have followed that dangerous pattern to power in many countries. The NRA claims it’s prepared to protect the country against governmental abuse. But their definition of abuse is public servants trying to enforce the laws about grazing cattle on public land, not presidents trying to engineer a wrong-wing takeover.

The country switched to an all-volunteer military at the height of the war in Vietnam to calm some of the controversy over that war. But if the military installs a dictator, we will see the mistake after it is too late.

Trump must be removed from office before it is too late.


Hitler’s Acolyte – Trump’s Dangerous Motives

October 8, 2019

I spoke last week about the importance of the whistle-blower’s complaint. It’s also the tip of the iceberg. Burt Neuborne was ACLU legal director and a founder of NYU’s Brennan Center.  I’ve known Burt for decades. His publisher accurately describes him as a leading constitutional lawyer who’s sued every president since LBJ.

His new book raises very serious concerns about Trump’s dictatorial intentions. As Burt notes, we’ve known since 1990 that Donald Trump kept a copy of Hitler’s collected speeches by his bed and studied them carefully.

For those born later, Adolf Hitler initiated World War II and the extermination camps that were responsible for the deaths of seventy to eighty-five million people, from all continents. More than a million American soldiers were killed or wounded. That’s Trump’s idol.

Burt goes further, comparing the themes that both Hitler and Trump emphasized. Whatever else he hasn’t figured out, or doesn’t care about, Trump has been a good student of Hitler’s.

There isn’t time to lay them all out. Like Trump, Hitler fired his supporters up with racial and religious hatred, extreme nationalism, closing borders, mass detention and deportation. Almost every word from Trump is about hostility based on race, religion, national origin, closing the southern border and extreme nationalism, stirring a recipe for violence.

Hitler and Trump insulated themselves from criticism by denying the press any credibility and found ways to reach the public without going through the media. Reporters spend their days interviewing people, checking documents, records and participants in the news. Trump simply calls everything fake, and attacks the media in its entirety, though he’s obviously the biggest liar among us. Everything he says is reduced to single adjectives – fake, terrific, good, bad, etc. – without evidence or explanation while denying the obvious. Unhinging his audience from the work of everyone else means he can speak without fear that contrary argument will reach his audience’s ears, until truth becomes meaningless.

Both Hitler and Trump cemented their rule by enriching the wealthiest, giving them outrageous gains, tax cuts, and exemptions from rules meant to protect the public from death, destruction and deceit.

Both thumbed their noses at democratic, judicial and legislative processes and powers. In other words Trump cares only about himself and his ability to become a dictator in the style of his idols. Encouraging people to use what he labels their “Second Amendment rights” in politics is what Hitler did with his Brown Shirts, substituting the nozzle of their guns for ballots and elections. That’s the path to hell but it is a path, with the trappings of dictatorship, that looks good to Trump.

I’ve hesitated to call for impeachment because my priority is to oust Trump from office, however possible, before he can get further with his obvious desire for unchecked power.

That said, Trump’s refusal to obey constitutional limitations on using his office for personal gain, and to abide by statutes and congressional subpoenas, are clear indications of his thirst for power and disrespect of the work of the American Founders, the Constitution, its meaning, original or otherwise, and the system of checks and balances set up to control people like Trump. The emoluments clause was intended to limit opportunities for presidential disloyalty to America. But rather than make America great again Trump is intent on destroying America for personal gain, the ultimate form of disloyalty.

He must be removed from office.


The Seriousness of the Ukraine Meeting

October 1, 2019

Let’s clarify the problems with Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

First, restrictions on foreign contributions to American elections protect American control over our government. If foreign countries can influence American elections, they can deflect the benefits of American wealth and power for their own advantage and the disadvantage of the rest of us. Restrictions on foreign contributions to American elections also keep candidates’ and office-holders’ loyalties home. More than that, if a foreign country can influence American elections, it can undermine American national security, preventing us from responding to the dangers from abroad.

Second, American foreign policy should not be for sale for personal benefits to American presidents. Corruption is not just a minor flaw. It sacrifices public to personal advantage. Corruption means that politicians are shirking their duty to the public in order to gain benefits for themselves.  Numerous provisions are in the Constitution to help stop that misbehavior, including the emoluments clauses. Of all types of corruption, none can be more serious than disloyalty, making deals with foreign countries at the expense of the American public. That is a particular risk of presidential power, which is why the emoluments clause outlaws the president or any other office-holder from gaining any personal advantage in dealing with foreign powers. The Constitution does not permit the risk that the president might deflect American foreign policy for personal advantage.

Third, it’s against the law. Federal statutes prohibit candidates for federal office from accepting contributions from foreign nationals.[1] That applies to the president and everyone else. They should be responding to American, not foreign, incentives. And the Constitution, though written in eighteenth century language, underscores that prohibition. It forbids any “person holding any office or profit or trust under … [the United States], without the consent of the Congress, [to] accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” In other words the president could not accept anything from the Ukrainian President individually or from his government.[2]

This whistle-blower complaint, about selling American foreign policy to a foreign government for personal advantage, is about disloyalty, about selling American “security assistance to Ukraine.” No president in American history has been as corrupt as Donald Trump. Since he took office, Trump has been determined to use his position to advance his personal financial interests. And before Donald Trump, no president in American history has ever been found guilty of putting American interests up for sale for personal advantage.

Let me end with a word to Trump’s supporters, both in and out of government. This is not a time when you can simply dismiss what everyone else sees and knows, indeed what the majority of America understands. The consequences are just too serious. Supporting a man whose corruption and foreign allegiances are so obvious is the most disloyal thing you can do short of pulling the trigger. It’s time to wake up and discover what the rest of the world knows.

[1] 52 U.S.C. 30121(a).

[2] U.S. Const., Art. I, sec. 9, par. 8.


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