Monday, April 18, 2016

Defeating Donald Trump is a Moral imperative.

"His imagination should not be married to power". With words of rare eloquence and passion Mitt Romney summed up why Donald Trump's candidacy threatens the bedrock of American democracy. Defeating Trump is not a political choice but a moral imperative and here's why.

Every election year we hear that this is the most important election of our lifetime but 2016 election is, without a doubt, the election of our lifetimes. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are riding a wave of discontentment fueled by voters anger against the so-called 'establishment' and 'status-quo'. Trump and Sanders are easily interchangeable but for the mendacity and racism that undergirds Trump's candidacy. Sanders and Trump's positions on trade and foreign policy, two of America's most important pillars, are absolutely alike. They both have stoked a resentment towards establishment candidates and the parties themselves that seek to be standard bearers of. Both have literally hijacked the parties they seek to represent. Yet, it is Trump who literally threatens the heart and soul of America and therefore defeating him is a moral choice.

"He tells it like it is" say his supporters. Nothing is further from truth. Trump says what voters want to hear and without filters. Trump has made a virtue of being politically incorrect and his voters swoon with admiration that he's tearing up the playbook. When he was booed at a debate Trump sneered, with contempt dancing on his lips, "all lobbyists and supporters of Jeb". He was right. Tickets for being in debate audiences were often sold to lobbyists, campaigns and volunteers. What no candidate would've had the chutzpah to state bluntly Trump gladly stated and dismissed unfavorable audience reaction. Like many things with Trump he is correct once and wrong many times over. His 'tell it like it is' was less about stating inconvenient truths and more about flinging offensive accusations, blatant racism and sexism.

Trump launched his candidacy by informing America that Mexicans are rapists and vowed that he'd deport millions of illegal immigrants. In a country where the politically correct term for an illegal immigrant is 'undocumented immigrant' Trump's offensive became refreshing candor. While it is liberalism run amuck to object calling an illegal immigrant by the word "illegal" it is beyond indecency to call a people as 'rapists'. It is naked bigotry and accepting it because he serves it alongside with a dish of boldness is exactly the stupidity that'll unmake a great country. What is worse Trump cites the controversial programs of the Eisenhower era to support the feasibility of deporting millions. That program was unmitigated humanitarian disaster and America, at large, will simply not tolerate it today. China has a wall that was built to fend of invaders and therefore building a wall will be panacea to America's immigration mess says Trump and, to the lusty cheer of his supporters, he adds that he'll make "Mexico to pay for the wall". Pressed on how he'd make Mexico pay for it Trump cites the trade deficits with Mexico as a leverage. Damn the consequences of a trade war.

Both Sanders and Trump rail against trade agreements like NAFTA as having robbed America's jobs. Trump in addition rants that American negotiators, unlike him, the author of 'The art of the deal', were weak and every other country practically took advantage of US. When I watched a documentary of Reagan negotiating with Gorbachev at Reykjavik I wondered if Obama, famously aloof, would ever do such a thing. The trans-pacific-pact is a grand achievement that serves important economic and strategic goals of US. Trump said that China, which is not a part of the deal, had the better part of the deal. Why bother with knowing the details when empty sloganeering with dollops of outrage is all the electorate needs?

Why should America , asked Trump, defend South Korea and Japan while their cars, not American cars, take the lion's share of American car buying. Both Sanders and Trump conveniently forget that Japanese cars, more expensive than American cars, are the choice of American consumers who benefit from better quality vehicles being available. A little realized fact is that Hondas and Nissans are now mostly made in America. And, they are sold in America by the same rights that GM enjoys in selling in China and India.

Trump shocked foreign policy orthodoxy when he suggested that South Korea and Japan acquire nuclear weapons of their own. A nuclear arms race in South Asia is the last thing the world needs. After apoplectic reactions ricocheted across the world Trump gave an incoherent back track.

Sanders and Trump rail against NATO, the most successful military alliance in human history. Yes, it has been a long standing complaint that Europe takes a free ride on American military expenditure but no one in their sane mind has suggested, precisely when Russia and China are threatening global peace, torpedoing the grand military alliance.

Building a wall, tearing up NAFTA, withdrawing from NATO would all be acceptable nonsense and even an artless blunt way of speaking about issues in an attention grabbing way. All of that while enough to disqualify him for the Presidency what make him dangerous is his non-policy related vitriol. Policy related insanity can be stopped by Congress and other institutions but the democratic institutions of any country, including a 200 year old republic, are no match to racist rhetoric.

ISIS is beheading hostages so it is OK to waterboard them or kill their families said Trump. When CIA chief said that his organization will not follow any illegal order even if it is the commander-in-chief issuing them Trump blustered that as President he has the right to issue any order. I was reminded of Richard Nixon's "when the President does it, it is not illegal".

I was watching Oliver Stone's largely fictional 'Nixon' and it dawned on me that Donald Trump is more dangerous than Richard Nixon.

A sickening refrain I hear from his supporters is that he'll be more presidential once he gets the nomination or the presidency. We're told by his admirers that all this vulgarity and pugnacity is for show and that unbeknownst to us there is a gentleman to boot within Trump's persona that is waiting to taking front seat once he sits at the Oval office. This is absolute cockamamie bullshit and Nixon was proof of it.

Richard Nixon believed and practiced slash and burn politics. Nixon, the president, it turned out, was no different from Nixon the candidate. Speaking of his democratic opponent, a lady, Nixon said "she's pink down to her underwear". In office Nixon referred to Indira Gandhi, a leader he loathed, will even worse epithets. Trump wants to make it easy to sue for libel and give the First Amendment a knock. Richard Nixon's henchmen cast the press as enemies and went at the press with gusto. Race baiting was par for the course for Richard Nixon and Trump follows suit. In office Nixon was no different.

During the heated presidential race of 2008 rumors flew about Sarah Palin's youngest child and about the pregnancy of her teenage daughter. Obama unequivocally said "family is off limits". When a supporter spoke of Obama as a Muslim McCain objected and said "No" to the supporter. Campaigns have played nasty about families but never before has it been done directly by the candidate himself. In fact candidates go to great lengths to distance themselves from the troops who malign opponents, just to appear presidential. Hypocritical as it may seem we little realize that the sense of shame that makes candidates behave so is the last remaining defense against a president become the attack dog himself.

When a Super PAC released half-naked photos of Trump's wife Trump, after threatening to 'spill the beans' on Ted Cruz's wife, retaliated by sending tweet of an unflattering photo of Ted Cruz's wife alongside a stunning photo of his wife. All lines of decency has been breached by Trump. To add to it all, he, without any evidence, accused the Ted Cruz campaign of having coordinated with the Super PAC, a federal crime, to release those photos of his wife from a photoshoot she did in her days as a model. Accusing an opponent of federal crime and then disgracing his wife for her looks shows that Trump, in pursuit of the office, will not only slash burn but practically adopt a Hannibal like scorched earth policy.

Let us assume for a moment that Trump indeed becomes presidential after getting the nomination should we then forget and forgive these transgressions. Absolutely no. If we did that we'd have only condoned the attitude of unleashing a spectrum of despicable behaviors in the pursuit of office. A victory does not and never should it validate abandoning principles in it's pursuit. Never in human history has anyone achieved victory dishonorably only to behave honorably in office. Dishonorable candidates have been worse in office. Richard Nixon is a stark reminder of that.

Both Sanders and Trump are proving to be sore losers when it comes to how they talk of possibly losing the nomination thanks to the labyrinthine rules of the primary processes in each party. While the primary processes of each party can do with some reforms it is churlish when candidates complain of the process when they lose. Sanders's supporters, equally mercenary like and very willfully blind to logic like Trump voters, threaten revolting against the nominee if it's not their candidate. A key difference is that Trump, unlike Sanders, is openly threatening violence at the convention. Whatever the merits in Trump's complaints be, threatening violence unless he gets his way is a dangerous attitude that even Nixon did not show.

The 1960 election was a nail biting close one and charges of voter fraud against JFK, especially in Chicago, flew thick and fast and yet, even Richard Nixon, shied away from contesting the election. While Al Gore tried every constitutional method to change the verdict in Florida there came a point where even he yielded in the larger interest of the nation. To both Nixon and Gore the country was above party and the presidency was above satisfying personal ambition. Don't expect such grace from Trump. He'd rather leave the country dismembered than subjugate his volcanic ego. This is not portrayal of strong leadership but dangerously naked megalomania.

Politicians have always had contentious and even confrontational relationships with journalists and media houses. During a campaign stop in 2000 Bush was overheard on an open microphone, which he did not know was open, referring to New York Times journalist Adam Clymer unflatteringly and Dick Cheney agreeing. What they'd say behind closed doors Trump will do on twitter for all world to see. Trump's conduct of hurling abuses at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly has been the most interesting sub-plot of this election. From accusing that her tough questioning of him during a debate was because she was menstruating ('she has blood coming out of her wherever')to ranting that he's overrated he has made it a personal crusade between himself and her. Again, that Bush would be careful to say something in what he thought was a private moment and not in public is not hypocrisy or being weak. Spouting off whatever crosses one's mind in a moment is not how ordinary citizens conduct themselves in their daily lives with their spouses, colleagues and kids, let alone presidents or candidates running for the highest office of the land. Now, think about whether Richard Nixon said anything close to Trump's tweets about Washington Post or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Who was the last American presidential candidate who talked on a debate stage about the size of his hands and that of his genitals? Who was the last candidate who relished giving his opponents offensive nicknames? Lying Ted. Low energy Jeb. Short Marco. Crooked Hillary. Would we condone our kids behaving like that? Why should we accept from a presidential candidate what we would not accept from our kids? We teach our kids that being a bully is not being strong. How do we accept schoolyard taunts from a candidate? Today it is his political opponents and tomorrow it very well could be Angela Merkel or David Cameron. Presidents and Prime Ministers speak colorfully of their counterparts in private meetings but when such comments are leaked a full blown damage control will be unleashed. Again, and again, by obliterating what people do in private and in full public glare and by promoting it as 'telling it like it is' we are promoting a bully.

The Trump rhetoric is seeping into the public conscience and already reports are coming out that school kids are adopting his rhetoric. In Wisconsin, a Fox news report says, at a high school girls soccer match "a group of students yelled 'Donald Trump' and 'Build the wall' at rival Latino players". The report says that similar incidents occurred in high school basketball games in Indiana and Iowa. The report adds that an analysis by Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks racial incidents, showed that 'of 5000 comments from teacher across the country' a staggering '1000 of them mentioned Trump as a factor in spreading racial and religious tension'.

Trump nonchalantly cites FDR's internment of Japanese-Americans in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor as precedence for treating Muslim-Americans differently. Are Americans concerned about terrorists using refugees as cover to infiltrate? Of course, yes. But to pander to fear and to fuel it by proposing an embargo on Muslims is sheer bigotry. In a moment of sweet irony now even democrats, including Obama, are citing how George Bush conducted himself very carefully after 9/11 and went to great lengths to show that America is not at war with Islam. Muslims serve in US military and CIA and Muslim neighborhoods in US have cooperated with FBI is combating terror.

I recently visited Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and saw a moving exhibit about letters that Japanese-American fathers wrote to their sons who joined the all-Nisei 100th infantry battalion. A father wrote, "do your best for your country (America). Die if you must. Live, if you can, but whatever you do, do not bring haji (shame) to the family. Your country, the honor of your family comes first". Let us remember that the most famous and longest running incidents of espionage in FBI and CIA were carried out by white Americans.

Mitt Romney was hounded all through 2008 for being the CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity firm that specialized in Leveraged Buy Outs. He was pilloried endlessly for the layoffs at firms that Bain took over. Romney always nervously explained how he created jobs 'net-net'. Private equity firms are literally the last resort of failing firms and therefore in the inevitable restructuring that follows. Watching a passionate and eloquent  Romney making the case for why Trump should not be elected many muttered "we'd not be here if only he had shown such passion and eloquence in getting himself elected". Where Romney was shy to explain the virtues of private equity Trump supplied bombast and bravado when asked to explain the bankruptcies of his firms. Trump thumped his chest and said that as businessman he was smart to use the available legal options for shutting down non-profitable businesses. The audience cheered as he added that having used the loopholes he's knowledgeable to fix American economy. Oy vey, why not elect Bernie Madoff and the long list of corporate crooks? America, with good reason does not 'elect' CEOs and with even better reasons does not 'select' CEOs to be Presidents.

Romney himself unwittingly provides the best evidence of the dangers of accommodating a little evil in the hope that it is just objectionable and nothing serious. Trump endorsed Romney in 2012 for the presidency. At that time Trump was notorious for what is called 'birther' nonsense, questioning that Obama was not qualified to be president because he was not, contrary to all evidence, a natural born US citizen. When such basic indecency is tolerated as a passing fad we should not be surprised when it mutates into something monstrous as mendacity without limits. Trump hit back at Romney saying that if he had asked Romney to "drop down" on his knees for that endorsement in 2012 Romney would've gladly done so.

The United States Holocaust Memorial quote's a text from Pastor Martin Neimoller to illustrate the dangers of accommodating evil because it is directed at somebody else.

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak for me"

If Romney had repudiated Trump when he was insulting the President of the United States as unqualified he could've occupied an unsullied moral pedestal from which if he had issued his condemnations they would've had a unrivaled moral strength.

I vividly remember how Lal Krishna Advani stoked the fires of religious separatism in pursuit of political office. In office as Deputy Prime Minister Advani's conduct was irreproachable but the Frankenstein's monster he had unleashed continues reverberate and create tremors in the Indian polity. Nixon created the EPA, the darling of today's leftists; wanted to implement universal healthcare, an obsession for Sanders today; created history by opening relationships with China and yet he's rated as the worst president in US history for the many wrongs he inflicted on humanity and democracy and all his wrongs stemmed from Nixon's own twisted megalomania married to power. America and the world can ill afford another Richard Nixon.

Donald Trump may become the nominee of the Republican Party or even, god forbid, the President but he'd have done so without my vote. I owe this to my conscience and to my daughter.

Monday, April 11, 2016

H is for Hawk:Falconry as Therapy for Grief

"We sat in chairs that Dad should be sitting in, drank from cups he had drunk from, and when I saw his careful handwriting on a note pinned by the back door it got too much". Having lost a much loved father Helen Macdonald learns that "Absences. Losses. Things that were there are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between gaps". Grow, she does, 'between the gaps' by turning to falconry.

Macdonald decides to raise a falcon and not just any falcon but a goshawk, a breed known for its ferocity and find meaning after the death of her father leaves a painful vacuum. Published to great acclaim 'H is for Hawk' is a lyrical tale told with beauty that braids falconry, grief and biography of falconer and author T.H. White.

When I read Paul Kalanithi's masterful "When breathe becomes air" all I could think of was my dad who passed away recently. As I wrote in my book review he would've enjoyed that book at many levels. A song, a book, a thought here, a beach there, a piece of music, a phrase all can conjure up memories of my dad. Even my politics is guided by the values we shared. MacDonald makes a profound observation when she states that the "archeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world".

Writing dismissively of how people often mistake a sparrowhawk for a goshawk MacDonald describes a goshawk, "In real life goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see. Birds of the deep woodlands, not gardens, they're the birdwatchers' dark grail". It is such a bird that MacDonald decides would be therapy to her grief stricken soul.

As an 8 year old Macdonald had read T.H. White's 'The goshawk' and felt "this was a book about falconry by a man who seemed to know nothing about it". A falconer's journal had summed  up the book as "The Goshawk will be a well-written catalogue of most things one should not do". Now, an adult falconer, MacDonald turns to White's book to re-read. The book then flits back and forth between Macdonald's domestication of the goshawk, White's compelling life history and falconry itself. Punctuating this layered storytelling are memories of Macdonald's father. The chapter titled "Holding Tight" narrates how making jesses, harnesses for the falcon, reminds the author of how she's holding tight to her father's memory.

T.H. White, his biographer wrote, was a sado-masochist and Macdonald writes "White always took great pains to be gentle precisely because he wanted to be cruel". White, a homosexual, and author of books on the Arthur legend retreated from society to raise a goshawk. He penned a memoir that was discovered by chance and published in 1951.

Manning a goshawk was to White a "metaphysical battle" akin to tales like "Old man and the sea" and "Moby Dick". White's retreat to the countryside was motivated by another vital factor than just his conflict with human society. Being a gay man in then England was, as Alan Turing would learn, a death sentence. Macdonald trenchantly observes that "the countryside wasn't just something that was safe to love: it was love that was safe to write about". "Many classic books about animals", MacDonald realizes, "were by gay writers who wrote of their relationships with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak".

In class obsessed England White realizes that improper usage of falconry vocabulary will make him an outcaste. Macdonald who reads the old classics of falconry realizes that unconsciously she was "soaking up the assumptions of an imperial elite".

Macdonald, alternates between seeing herself as the hawk and realizing that she and the hawk will never be the same. At one moment she feels "the hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of life". But then she realizes that "the world she lives is not" hers because the "hawk can see colors" that she could not, "right into the ultraviolet spectrum".

Falcons have always suffused the imagery of war and Macdonald, in one chapter, weaves memories of her father growing up during the war, airmen who flew allied aircraft during the war amidst great danger and White's politics. "One in four did not complete their tour of duty", she wrote of the airmen, "The sky was not a place of safety, no matter how commanding their view. What happened to them was terrible. What they did was terrible beyond imagining. No war can ever be just air".

Birds have inspired both Keats and Shelley. Macdonald quotes Keats when she feels she has become one with the hawk:"you are exercising what the poet Keats called your chameleon like quality, the ability to tolerate a loss of self, and a loss of rationality by trusting the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment". Now read Shelley's 'Ode to a skylark'. The lines will radiate and be transformative.

"Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest."

                                (Watch this video to see a goshawk fly in slow motion - BBC)

The idea of Keats's 'chameleon like quality' reaches new heights in the observations of anthropologist Rane Willersley about the Yukaghir community that Macdonald quotes. The Yukaghir community, Macdonald quotes Willersley, think that "humans and animals can turn into each other by temporarily taking on one another's bodies".

Writing about animals gives scope for colorful vocabulary. People in groups are crowds, gatherings or mobs but for animals a group of lions is a herd, a group of hyenas is a pack, a group of pheasants is a city. Helen Macdonald, a lprofessor of history and philosophy, serves up iridescent passages where profound observations come clothed in fine prose and in places sparkling prose brings vividly to the reader's mind a picture.

Comparing the relative advantages of a hare, running on the ground, from its aerial predator, the goshawk, Macdonald writes "The hare has purchase: its claws and furry pads dig into leaves and mud, and it uses the ground to propel itself against. But the hawk moves in air alone. It is like watching one element against another. One world versus another, like a gannet diving into the sea for fish".

"Have you ever watched a deer walking out from cover? They step, stop, and stay, motionless, nose to the air, looking and smelling. A nervous twitch might run down their flanks. And then, reassured that all is safe, they ankle their way out of the brush to graze". Any sensitive reader can imagine vividly a deer that apprehensively steps out and "ankles out of a brush". Calling shreds of a chicken that the hawk eagerly tears and swallows Macdonald coins a fine phrase, "disarticulated pieces of chicken'.

The finest prose is when Macdonald describes how a male, called a tiercel, and female hawk flirtatiously fly.

"They were loving the space between each other, and carving it into all sorts of beautiful concentric chords and distances. A couple of flaps, and the male, the tiercel, would be above the female, and then he'd drift north of her, and then slip down, fast, like a knife cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl underneath her, and she'd dip a wing, and they soar up again". Read Shelley again.

Describing a world spinning out of control W.B. Yeats wrote "the falcon does not listen to the falconer". Reading 'H is for Hawk' taught me why Yeats chose the falcon and falconry as symbols of a world order being disturbed. "Civilizations rise and fall but hawks stay the same".

"H is for Hawk" was awarded the Samuel Johnson prize and made it to the top 10 books to be read in New York Times's list of books in 2015 and one of the best books of the year by The Economist. All richly deserved accolades.

The book is a very rewarding read. That said, I felt the book could've benefited more with better articulation of why Macdonald feels so deeply attached to her father. The snatches of memory that she interweaves into the narration give glimpses into her father's nature but not too much about how her father affected her. Maybe the lightness of detail is intentional so the private remains sacred and private. The eponymously titled chapters frames each chapter into a readymade expectation for the reader thus robbing of subtleties and kind of provides the reader with an instant gratification when passages that reiterate the chapter title occurs and that detracts some artistic merit.