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They tried to ban the Beatles, too

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Most of you aren’t old enough to remember the “Ban the Beatles” movement here in America. It was the summer of 1966; the Beatles were at the height of their fame, having just released Revolver, which at that time was the most progressive of their LPs. Earlier that season, John Lennon had given an interview to a London newspaper, in which he said—pretty much casually—what a lot of people were thinking: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples his were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

By early August, protests in the Bible Belt had reached fever pitch. Led by Christian radio DJs, people at anti-Beatles rallies were burning Beatles albums, tearing up Beatles posters, and of course the Ku Klux Klan got involved. Christians waved signs that said “JESUS LOVES YOU, do the Beatles?” and “Thou shalt have no other GODS before Me.”

These Beatles haters were the forebears of fascist-clerical conservatism yet to come: the marriage of Republican politics with evangelicism, the election of Ronald Reagan, the Tea Party and, yes, the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism. We’ve always had that rightwing fringe of Christian paranoia; sometimes it’s at low ebb, as it was for most of the middle of the 20th century, and sometimes it flares up, as it did starting around 1980 and continuing today. But it’s important to realize it never quite goes away. If we’re to have any success combating it—and we need to combat it—we have to understand its etiology.

There are a lot of photographs of the Ban the Beatles people, and they look remarkably similar to the “re-open” people and MAGA-rally people. Granted, the haircuts are different, and they’re fatter today than they were in the Sixties. But the people themselves are of a type: Caucasian, often young, their faces twisted by hatred. It’s not hard juxtaposing the Klansman throwing Beatles records onto the “Beatles Bonfire” with the open-carry freaks who closed down the Michigan statehouse last week.

Why do they never go away, these religious bumpkins? America was founded on principles of the Enlightenment, of secular humanism, of “All men are created equal” and the Constitution, which was drafted to create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Such noble beginnings. How is it possible that, despite all our progress, we still have this canker of religious whackjobs?

Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the Catholics are right: humankind is essentially damned, incapable of rising above its primitive beginnings. Maybe the Hindus are right: these rightwing zealots are living out their awful karma, and have no control over themselves. Whatever the explanation, it’s sad to realize that for every positive step forward we take—and The Beatles represented a huge positive step forward for America and for the world—there’s a sizable group of uneducated yahoos who wants to drag us backwards.

What do they really want? It’s unlikely they understand history, since their schooling is limited. They seem to want a return to when societies were ruled by Christian prelates, who enforced their rule through the systematic use of clerical armies, who had few compunctions against torturing or murdering apostates and heretics. History does record at least one such time in the West: the Dark Ages, which extended into the 1700s as witch burnings and other forms of ecclesiastical punishment continued even in America.

Good times, the Dark Ages! People knew their place. Women weren’t uppity like they are now. Men who performed abominable acts with each other knew they had to keep well-hidden, or pay for their sins with their lives. The local seigneur or lord of the manor was the absolute law, responsible only to his King and his Christian God. Nobody had rights. Society didn’t change from century to century, for a thousand years in a row—and that is exactly how the rulers of society wanted it. Change is bad, dangerous. Thought is dangerous. Too much thinking might lead people to wonder if every word in the Bible really was true, as they were told. Thinking therefore had to be eliminated; hence, witch burnings, excommunications and banishment and other forms of religious punishment. Hence, by 1966, the album burnings. The Beatles made people think, and for Christian conservatives, that was the most dangerous thing that could happen. Thinking people might decide that religious superstitions are hokum. Therefore, they must be ruthlessly expunged. Hitler and Goebbels knew this as well as anyone. So, too, do modern theological autocrats, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and their leader, Donald J. Trump.

The good news is that the Christian radicals were unsuccessful in stopping The Beatles. They’re more popular than ever; their influence on culture is ongoing. But the radicals never stop trying; everytime they look around, there’s a new threat to their desired theocracy: Obama, or Hillary, or Gay marriage, or immigrants, or Democrats and liberals, or scientists. There will never be an absence of threats to religious extremism because the human intellect will never die, no matter how much it’s suppressed by dictators; and the human intellect is the dragon-slayer of religious fundamentalism. So when you’re feeling blue, think of the irrepressible vibrancy of enlightened intellectual progress. It’s what makes us as the human race go forward. The temporary emergence of a Donald Trump is awful, but just like Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.


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Early in the 18th century, while the Spanish Inquisition still raged, the Catholic Church fathers declared an 18-year old girl guilty of heresy, and they did to her what they had done to thousands of others over the previous 200 years: They burned her at the stake.

We don’t know what heresy the girl was accused of. Possibly she was a Jew who had refused to convert to Catholicism under orders of the Inquisition. At any rate, they subjected the girl to the auto-da-féthe “act of faith” by which the flames that consumed her body also would purify her soul, so that it could enter into Heaven cleansed of sin, and sit forever at the side of Jesus.

Even as the Inquisition was expending its last energies in Europe, a new movement was arising: The Enlightenment. Led by men such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Spinoza, Hobbes and Locke, the new movement sought to overthrow what it perceived as the brutal and irrational cult of religious-Christian superstition which had dominated European thought for a millennium, and replace it with what we might today call “secular humanism”—an approach that emphasized the worth of the individual mind and conscience, stressed the importance of science over superstition, and was based upon Greek and Roman philosophical notions of freedom, truth, reason and beauty.

The 18-year old girl’s horrible murder did not go unnoticed. Just to the north of Spain, across the Pyrenees in Bordeaux, Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu, was a wealthy lawyer who had left that profession in order to devote himself to philosophical studies. (Montesquieu’s essays about man and reason became powerful influences on our American Founding Fathers, especially James Madison). How Montesquieu learned of the girl’s death, we do not know; but he wrote about it, in a work in which he assumes the guise of a Jewish man speaking to the leaders of the Inquisition.

In his remarks, Montesquieu—the consummate humanist and rationalist—is scathing concerning the Church’s “crimes.” The Roman Church, he thunders, had become “incorrigible, incapable of all enlightenment and of all instruction; and a nation [i.e. Spain] is very unhappy that gives authority to men like you.” He has a particular message for the murderers who lit the girl’s pyre: “We must warn you of one thing; it is that, if someone in the future ever dares to say that the peoples of Europe had a police in this century in which we live, you will be cited to prove that they were barbarians, and the idea one will have about you will be such that it will stigmatize your century and bring hatred on all your contemporaries.”

By “police,” Montesquieu referred, not to our modern notion of a civic police force, but to older Latin concepts of policy, or politics: the idea that a rational people will tend towards justice and reason, if governed correctly and educated in a rational, scientific way. He meant, in other words, that there apparently was no such moral force in Europe in the 18th century—at least, not in Catholic Spain. If you think about Montesquieu’s warning, it’s clear that it has come true: we look back at the Inquisition, at the psychotic Church “fathers” who burned little girls at the stake, and we indeed do stigmatize them and hate what they did and what they stood for.

A modern version of Montesquieu’s warning might well be adapted for the evangelicals and others who form the base of the modern Republican/Trump political party. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they too believe they, and only they, know the word of God, and that God has instructed them to do what has to be done in order to carry out that word, and hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they harbor no doubts about the correctness of their actions. Like the Inquisitors of Spain, they too engage in heinous acts. Perhaps they no longer burn people at the stake, but they indulge in hateful actions and speech against people whom they consider their enemies, and they enable a president who, by his words and deeds, causes pain, suffering and death. And like the Inquisitors of Spain, they gaze upon that pain and suffering and death and see that it is good, because it is the will of their God.

So here is Montesquieu’s warning, recast for 21st century Republicans: “if someone in the future ever dares to say that the Christian Republicans of America had a moral imperative, you will be cited to prove that those dreadful people, the evangelicals, were barbarians. And the idea one will have about you, and about your leader Trump, will be such that it will stigmatize your century, your political party, your false version of religion, and bring hatred on all your contemporaries.”

It’s too bad that we People of the World can’t get rid of these strains of superstitious bigotry and stupidity forever, so that Reason, and Reason alone, will rule. There seems to be some metastasizing corruption that keeps spurting out of some humans, in the guise of “religion,” so that for every two steps we take forward, we’re tugged one backward. The new Inquisition has become Republican evangelical Christianity, its Grand Inquisitor Donald J. Trump. And we know exactly how history will treat it, because we’re writing that history right now, and you’re witnessing it.


A psychopathological interpretation of Trump and trumpism

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“Social cohesion in all societies is based on authority, and the more rigid, unquestionable, or, politically-speaking, absolute authority becomes, the more hierarchical and repressive societies tend to be. Subordination to a strict authority, whether it be embodied in the stern father…or, analogously, in a powerful leader of an absolutistic state, makes tremendous demands on individuals, especially if obedience is elevated to the status of the primary moral obligation in private and public life. It does not allow an individual to disobey—that is, to ventilate the aggression or dissatisfaction that subordination routinely induces—in a socially or politically acceptable manner.”

Lonnie R. Johnson, historian

Johnson wrote that paragraph, in his book “Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends.” He was referring to the way in which absolute despotism, and its attendant horrors, routinely arose in Central Europe: from the witch hunts of medieval Germany to the pogroms of Ukraine to the dictatorships of the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns to Hitler’s gas chambers. But he might have had Trump’s regime in mind.

All U.S. presidents are authority figures, by definition. But none in our history ever aspired to the level of absolute authority like Trump. We witness his desire to repress all opposition in his repeated slurs of the media as “fake,” in his attacks on the Democratic Party, in his extortion of Zelensky, in his threats to annihilate Republicans who dare cross him, in his obstruction of the Congress by refusing to comply with lawful subpoenas, in his violent State of the Union address last night, and in a hundred other ways.

The subordination to him by his acolytes, which he demands, makes, as Johnson notes, tremendous demands on them. Some of these demands are psychological—indeed, psychopathological. The repression that the stern father imposes on the child shows up, years later, in all manner of mental imbalances, most especially rage and its hand maiden, violence. When the repressor has the vast powers of “an absolutistic state,” rather than a mere father, the demands are correspondingly greater: a stern father can make life unpleasant for a disobedient child, but a stern state can make life impossible for her—or end her life altogether. Nor can the repressed child ventilate her dissatisfaction: To do so risks being socially isolated and shunned. This is why so many Republicans repress their own reaction to Trump: they bury it beneath the purview of consciousness. For, if they admitted to themselves the horror to which they have abandoned all pretense of religion, decency and morality, they could barely live with themselves.

In psychoanalysis, the person who yields to an authoritarian figure is known as an “aggressive-subservient personality type.” Their subservient nature is expressed through the obedience with which they “obey orders.” The adjective “aggressive” is interesting; it implies that a resulting “reaction formation” occurs in the repressed person, which expresses itself in violence towards a perceived “enemy” who is—naturally—defined by the authoritarian figure. Trump has signaled his repressed followers to take their anger—which is really towards themselves—and aim it instead at foreigners, Moslems, Mexicans, gays, liberals, women, disabled people, the poor. When, as Johnson observes, the “absolutistic state” becomes ever more repressive and total, the violence towards perceive “enemies” moves beyond mere rhetoric into physical forms: the roundups, the street attacks, the cattle cars, the camps, the gas chambers.

Johnson, the historian, seems almost to describe the current state of the Republican Party in America, in this note concerning Hitler’s ideology. “[N]ationalism and racism, the idealization of the German nation…and the degradation of alleged enemies can be explained as psychological mechanisms. The device of negative integration was a characteristic of imperial German nationalism: the ability to portray ‘internal enemies’—Communists; Socialists; Catholics; Jews; and Polish, Danish and French minorities—and ‘external enemies’ as so subversive or threatening that ‘good Germans’ would close ranks against them.”

Sound familiar? It’s straight out of the Trump playbook, except that, in place of Jews and Catholics, you have Moslems, and in place of Polish, Danish and French minorities, you have dark-skinned people, especially Mexicans.

Roundups, camps and gas chambers is, obviously, the worst-case scenario with this Trump regime, but history teaches us that it’s not impossible. “It can’t happen here,” Sinclair Lewis warned us, satirically; but it did. Acquitted in the Senate, as Trump will be later today, unleashed from the yoke of Mueller and Ukraine and everything else, more beloved and feared than ever by the aggressive-subservient personality types who follow him, and more unhinged, Trump now is likely to brook no opposition whatsoever. And his Republican henchmen in the Congress, in for a dime, will figure they might as well be in for a dollar. There’s no reason to expect they’d stop him from doing anything he wants.


Putting the Left-Right divide into historical context

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The clash between Left and Right in America has been likened to our Civil War, with its north-south gradient hinged on the issue of slavery. Although the issues this time are different in detail and geography, this comparison is natural enough, since the internecine war of 1861-1865 remains a linchpin of our national (and emotional) history.

But a more apt analogy might be the collision of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation that marked the late 16th and 17th centuries. The Reformation, you’ll recall, supposedly began when Martin Luther nailed his famous “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenburg (Germany) church in 1517. Protestantism quickly spread after that, as popular dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church sparked northern European countries, including Scandanavia but especially Germany, to bolt from the authority of Rome.

Rome, the world capital of Catholicism, and the Pope who headed the church were not about to sit back and allow their “universal, holy, Catholic and apostolic” church to be destroyed in their own backyard. The Church retaliated, launching the Counter-Reformation; a series of wars ensued that never wholly resolved affairs.

Both sides, as the historian Lonnie Johnson tells us, fought with “an apocalyptic sense of urgency” that “led them to see the world as a battlefield for the agents of God and the devil.” This was “a spiritual battle for souls, a psychological battle for hearts, and an intellectual battle for minds.” In the event, the two sides exhausted themselves into a stalemate: Northern Europe became primarily Protestant (with the exception of Poland) while Mediterranean-southern Europe remained Catholic. (Southeastern Europe, which had long been dominated by the Turks, also saw sizable numbers of Moslems.)

Religious wars tend to be the bloodiest. People imagine they are fighting for celestial ideals, not for mere booty. (The American Civil War was not specifically a religious struggle due to our tradition of the separation of church and state, but the passions on both sides were “religious” in the fury of their convictions.) In the Protestant-Catholic confrontations of the 16th and 17th centuries, both sides committed egregiously extreme acts of violence: German Protestants burned witches while Catholic Inquisitionists torched and tortured heretics. But one side has come to be viewed by historians as far worse than the other. “The doctrinal and organizational centralization of the Roman church,” says Johnson, “made the excesses of its crusaders qualitatively different from Protestant ones.” The Roman church was better organized, by far: it was unified (“Universal”), while numerous Protestant factions vied among themselves, at local levels, for leadership, an historical phenomenon known as “particularism.” Possibly for this reason, the unified Catholics were more brutal.

Viewed from this perspective—and taking into account that, in the long run, nobody “won” the Catholic-Protestant standoff—the current dispute between Left and Right in America can be analogized with some precision. The Reformation is the Left (Democrats), while the Counter-Reformation is the Right (Republicans). The Left became the Reformation because, since the heyday of Franklin Roosevelt, it stood for overturning the corporate-autocratic, conservative, artistocratic domination of American politics and culture, in favor of a popular reformation which took inherited rights away from the wealthy few and redistributed them among the people at large. A part of this revolution—not its central goal, but a consequence—was a diminution of the role of religion, and of evangelical Protestant religion in particular, in favor of what has been called “secular humanism.”

The Right became the Counter-Reformation. Just as the Roman Catholics of southern Europe were not about to permit their church—which was really everything they believed in, their entire way of life–to be assaulted, so too the reactionary Republicans who saw their power ebb away under Democratic “liberal” government decided to fight back. Their various professed motives (an end to abortion, “family values” and a definition of marriage as between man and woman, religious instruction in public schools, anti-“elitism”) were sincere, but in a larger sense, the Right was fighting for a “way of life” that encompassed all these themes, but was larger than all of them together.

If religious wars are bloody, so too are they confusing. Both sides always lay claim to the “truth,” and it can be difficult, even for historians, to discern whose “truth” is “truthier” than the other side’s. In the case of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation struggle, it’s safe to say that historical judgment, as least in the West, has tended to side with the Protestants. For all their many faults, they did stand for Western-style multiplicity, for tearing down the aristocracy (including an addled priesthood), doing away with the fossilized rituals of the Roman church, and handing self-determination and self-realization over to the people at large, while the Catholics seemed to stand for little more than an anti-democratic insistence on clerical (and often irrational) theocracy.

Likewise in our time, the view of history—of reason and common sense—is that the Left is more in keeping with “the moral arc of the universe” than the Right. The Left is humanistic, inclusive, encompassing, rational, and progressive, in the sense that history does seem to have a direction, and that is towards greater freedom. The Right, like the Catholic church of the 16th century, is intolerant and authoritarian, and its self-professed values (such as “family values”) are hypocritical (consider the sexual depravity of so many of their ministers, caught with their hands in the cookie jar of adultery and illicit fornication. Consider, also, the moral dereliction of the Republican president).

I reject the Right because I am American. We fought a War of Independence to free ourselves from the shackles of an outmoded, unfair, uncaring and insane religious authority. The Right now wishes to re-impose a theocracy on our country. This should be reason enough for Americans to rise up and resist it.


Here’s why Republicans stand by Trump even though they know he’s dangerous and repugnant

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Because he’s giving them every wet dream they’ve had for decades.

Make no mistake: Trump is in the process of making this country more conservative and reactionary than it’s ever been. He is scheming to:

  • ban all forms of abortion
  • reverse gay rights, including the rights to serve in the military and to get married
  • end legal immigration of dark-skinned people
  • eliminate, as much as possible, all corporate taxes
  • allow companies to maximize their use of fossil fuels
  • rescue the coal industry
  • crush the burgeoning alternative-energy industry
  • intimidate a free, inquiring media
  • muzzle government employees from whistle-blowing
  • delegitimize the Congress, which is a co-equal branch of government
  • pack the courts with reactionary judges
  • end workers’ unions
  • form alliances with dictatorships and end America’s partnerships with Western democracies
  • prevent the Palestinians from ever having their own nation
  • promote his family in order to increase their wealth and power
  • cause Americans to doubt the truth and reality of science
  • elevate rightwing evangelical Christianity to become the equivalent of a State religion
  • end public schools and replace them with private, for-profit schools
  • suppress millions of dark-skinned and poor people from voting in U.S. elections
  • destroy the Democratic Party and all other competing political parties
  • make his presidency a dictatorship and extend it beyond a second term—health permitting

This explains everything. There are no longer any mysteries. Trump, aided by Republicans (or maybe it’s the other way around), have decided to go for the gold: after years of beating around the bush, of talking about what they want but not getting it, of incremental approaches, they’ve made the ultimate decision: Grab all the chips.

Because this is the right moment. If they’d waited any longer, the mood of the country might have shifted leftward. Trump’s Teflon might have become scarred enough for even Republicans to sicken of him and his greedy family of grifters. The Courts might have blocked further progress toward the right. Growing evidence of global warming might have caused even Texans and South Carolinians to worry. More and more kids and young adults coming out of the closet might have prompted even evangelicals to love, rather than hate, these members of their own families.

Sometimes, when you’re playing for high stakes, you just have a feeling it’s time to put all your chips on the table. The risk is enormous—but so is the potential reward. With Trump in the White House starting in 2017, and both Houses of Congress under Republican control, Republican overlords realized this was it: no more dithering, no more playing games with Democrats, no more kicking the can down the road. The time had come: Crush everything in their path, using every extra-Constitutional means. The media be damned; the public be damned; elections be damned.

This is what revolutions look like, and that is what Trump is doing. The only difference between a revolution and a civil war is that in the latter case large segments of the population take up arms against each other. We have not reached that point…yet. Nor, in the Republican master plan, will we. Their strategy is to make the opposition party so exhausted, so feeble in its attempts to fight back, so demoralized, that effective opposition will evaporate. Democrats and anti-Trump independents may whine, complain and scream bloody murder, but to no avail. Republicans will march through and over them.

This is what’s happening at this very moment in the United States Senate. While Democrats lay out, with articulate precision, the crimes and evil of Trump, Republicans play with them, like cats with mice. Let the mice have their precious moments of illusory freedom. The cats know they can strike and destroy at any moment. The game is pleasant, which is why they allow it to continue. When it becomes tiresome, the claws will rend.

Is there no way of stopping it, of rescuing America? Or are we doomed? The entire world seems to be backsliding into authoritarian regimes, presidencies-for-life, absolute dictatorships. Two centuries of Enlightenment seem to be slipping away. Reason, democracy, freedom, equality—all the great foundation-stones of Western political thought—seem to be crumbling; Donald Trump is only the outward manifestation in one country of this worldwide phenomenon.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has just moved its Doomsday Clock to “100 Seconds to Midnight,” closer to midnight than ever before in its 73-year history. The group cites three mounting threats to the continued survival of humankind:

  1. the worsening nuclear threat
  2. lack of meaningful action on climate change
  3. rise of cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns

Any one of these threats could bring the world “closer to catastrophe in seconds.” Any two of them, in combination, could cause “an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs.” All three of them, together, have resulted in the gravest threat to the continuation of the world in history.

And what of Donald Trump? With his bungling of foreign policy and dangerous “Space Force,” he has increased the likelihood of nuclear war. With his absolute denial of the science behind climate change—forced upon him by the fossil fuel industry and his ignorant backers in the evangelical community—he is single-handedly preventing meaningful action to slow down global warming. And with his embrace and encouragement of disinformation, he is undermining the public’s capacity to formulate rational responses to any of the challenges facing us. For all these reasons, therefore, Donald Trump constitutes the single gravest threat to Earth.


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