WORSHIPING AT THE ALTAR OF THE WHITE HOUSE GOLDEN CALF
Allel Madonna, Oil on Canvas, 36" x 48", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1999, Courtesy Van Wagoner Family Trust**
The Don continues his emergence as The Role Model for the ages, or at least for Evangelicals. As spokesman for the constitutional right to maintain official intolerance of the “loathsome,” Trump continues his assault on the legitimacy of spiritual pursuit by purporting to be religion’s protector-in-chief. While former Director Comey was telling the truth about everything that “totally vindicated” The Don and lying about everything else, The Don was quoting what must be one of his favorite passages from the Book of Isaiah, no doubt emblazoned in his memory from daily scripture study. But alas, the quote’s intellectual, cognitive and emotional language eludes him (indeed, Isaiah’s words on The Don’s lips would seem less strange rolling off the lips of an orangutan). No matter—the propaganda thrills his congregation and they double down, contorting and distorting so-called pre-Christian and Christian principles into all too recognizable hatred and bigotry. This is clearly what Christ had in mind.
Who doubts that The Don, if challenged, would claim Isaiah’s words as his own?
"Learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow."
Learn something? All noble words, epitomized by The Don as manifest altruism throughout his campaign and first 150 days in office. Let us count the ways. He then added a few of his own soon-to-be canonized verses:
"The entrenched interests and failed bitter voices in Washington will do everything in their power to try to stop us from this righteous cause, to try to stop all of you. They will lie, they will obstruct, they will spread their hatred and their prejudice, but we will not back down from doing what is right. . . . Because, as the Bible tells us, we know the truth will prevail."
Lots of important words, these, though to whom the foregoing pronouns refer remains something a mystery. I do hope, for our sakes, truth prevails and sets us all free—of him.
Since his speech seemed based in Old Testament scripture, I thought he might launch into a sermon on the importance of abiding at least some of the Ten Commandments. It would have been rapturous:
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” So long as The Don spoke in the first person, he’d be fine.
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.” Things with one’s faux-gold-plated name plastered all over them were not meant to be included.
“Thou shalt not kill.” Sending men and women in uniform into harm’s way as diversion from one’s own disastrous incompetence, criminal conduct and scandals doesn’t count.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” too often. And the Decalogue says nothing about grabbing pussy.
“Thou shalt not steal.” Defrauded investors and students in failed scams along with unpaid contractors, vendors and other service providers not included. And if someone steals a thing of value and gives it to you—say the US election—it would be wasteful, a sin, not to accept it.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness” with every single word one utters or tweets. 17% truth constitutes technical compliance.
“Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife,” unless she's asking for it which, of course, she is. Who wouldn’t.
A Trump lecture on the Sermon on the Mount might not have rung quite as true.
Untitled, Watercolor, 21” x 28”, Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 2005, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
In 1980 my philosophy professor introduced the class to the six stages of morality under Kohlberg's theory of cognitive development. Kohlberg's theory consists of three levels of two stages each: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality. Each stage comprises indispensable qualities for integration into the next. Moral development, the theory goes, is driven by the individual’s ability to recognize limitations and thereby sense some measure of dissatisfaction in one’s current stage of thinking when faced with conflicts or dilemmas. Moral development would, it seems, require some capacity for introspection and self-awareness.
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
State 1: Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
Stage 2: Self-interest orientation (What's in it for me?) (Paying for a benefit)
Level 2 (Conventional)
Stage 3: Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms) (The good boy/girl attitude)
Stage 4: Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
Stage 5: Social contract orientation
Stage 6: Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)
I recently posed the question: What do Kohlberg's six stages of moral development and malignant narcissism have in common?
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/neurosagacity/201702/malignant-narcissism-collision-two-personality-disorders (The Intentional Destruction of Others while Pathologically Loving Self)
The prevailing answer was stage 2 (what's in it for me, paying for a benefit) of level 1 (pre-conventional). One response suggested research shows level 1 stage 1 (obedience and punishment orientation, that is, how can I avoid punishment). One thoughtful comment suggested, if I understood it correctly, that malignant narcissism was incompatible with moral development of any level or stage, and that the only way a malignant narcissist can be motivated to do or not do something is to pay him/her. Maybe we should offer to make The Don a billionaire, but we’d have to pay him more than he’s making now by misusing the presidency to increase his personal wealth and that of his family.
That politics is utterly corrupt is no mystery. Money, ego, power and self-interest drive many decisions—from gerrymandered districts to voter suppression and campaign finance, from money as (corporate) speech to PACs, special interest groups and lobbyists, from undermining and dismantling alliances to not caring about Country or Constitution (unless the harm is perceived as somehow personal). Consider Trump’s failure even to discuss with Comey (assuming one believes Comey’s account of said failure) any active or potential measures taken by law enforcement and the intelligence community to protect the Country from cyberattacks and warfare. Very little of what people in leadership positions say bears any resemblance to what actually drives their decisions. I've posted thoughts about prioritizing certain duties, including oaths of office.
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God" http://lastamendment.com/2017/05/09/untitled-4/
Swearing an oath of office is not altogether dissimilar from swearing to tell the truth in an official proceeding. Lying ought to be frowned upon in both settings.
The market-place presents a simple analogy to politics and political infighting versus keeping one’s oath to protect and defend the constitution, which seems a slightly higher duty. Along those lines, Judge Cardozo, then of the Court of Appeals for New York, wrote a stunning explanation of work-a-day duties as compared with fiduciary duties. His 1928 decision said:
"Many forms of conduct permissible in a workaday world for those acting at arm's length [politics], are forbidden to those bound by fiduciary ties [oaths of office]. A trustee is held to something stricter than the morals of the market place. Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior. As to this there has developed a tradition that is unbending and inveterate. Uncompromising rigidity has been the attitude of courts of equity when petitioned to undermine the rule of undivided loyalty by the ‘disintegrating erosion’ of particular exceptions . . . . Only thus has the level of conduct for fiduciaries been kept at a level higher than that trodden by the crowd. It will not consciously be lowered by any judgment of this court."
That punctilio of an honor the most sensitive—oath to protect and defend the Constitution—has been consciously lowered by those who justify, rationalize, excuse, explain, enable, assist, endorse or otherwise support the behavior of the most incompetent, incoherent, corrupt and mentally ill executive during my lifetime and possibly in US history. The “disintegrating erosion” is damaging and destroying US leadership, credibility, competence, diplomacy and alliances throughout the world. The Don is a national embarrassment. Many in the lockstep Congress are not far behind.
Parenthetically, conscious behavior interests me but my real intrigue is what drives that behavior. Politics can, of course, be studied for the comparison of behavior with its actual motivation. While I have some interest in understanding the severely diseased mind and debilitating personality disorders which, in this instance, inhibit or altogether proscribe morally driven behavior, it is the latter—morally driven behavior—that is most compelling to me. Having grown up with the strong belief that god hated me for my perpetual unworthiness, much of my examination of motivation—what drives or should drive decisions and conscious behavior—was self-centered. I have always doubted the quality and veracity of even good behavior that wasn't what I thought to be "properly" motivated. I believed that one must do the right thing for the right reason or it didn’t count. I even questioned whether the fact of caring about motivation diminishes the value of the derivative behavior. Doing good is or should be its own reward I thought.
The Don’s propaganda, his feigned interest in religion and its artificial need for greater protections, are only slightly more transparent than the motivation that drives much of what is preached from the pulpit. My personal view that meaning, morality and law exist within human consciousness and endeavor, independent of any lawgiver, may represent a failure of my own imagination. Still, if one strips away religion, which at times promotes, justifies and rationalizes demonstrable evil, it shouldn't be all that difficult to treat others with dignity and respect, to tolerate their differences and to care for their well-being. If god isn’t commanding hatred, bigotry, racism, xenophobia and intolerance—a panoply of The Don’s best qualities—people then have only themselves to blame. Perhaps my belief—that behaving morally, consistent with one's internal values, is enough—represents yet another failure of imagination (after all, The Don’s behavior does indeed seem consistent with his internal values). And so I admit, my personal pursuit for high-moral consistency does not always find my motives and behaviors aligned with my views and aspirations. But aligned or otherwise, I try to pursue self-awareness through continued reflection and introspection. It’s a process driven by honest self-examination, likely of little interest to The Don.
*My brother the fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to lastamendment.com
**My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in lastamendment.com are hers