Saturday, January 18, 2020

Re-Reading "The Prince" for the 10th Time: So Different Under Trump



Since 1980 I have read and re-read The Prince every four years. I have been delighted anew each year as I read his advice to rulers.  His central advice:

"A ruler must take power and keep power because without power the ruler can do nothing."

Until this year, reading Machiavelli was an act of cultural translation as well as being translated from 16th Century Italian.  I was reading advice to a monarch as a citizen of a republic. 

That was then. 

This year when I read The Prince I was reading as a citizen of a republic which is slouching slowly towards authoritarian government. 

With Trump in office, I don't have to translate into democracy. His every instinct is authoritarian, so he grasps for power. He is limited only by his own willful ignorance and laziness.  But that limitation is glaring.

Machiavelli said the leader should constantly study war.  He recommends the leader go hunting to allow him to see his land up close and to know how it feels to live off the land.  Trump could not be farther from this advice. He is soft, delicate with no exposure to hardship, so some of the pathetic errors he makes would be remedied if he were not a physical and moral coward. 

Trump wants to control and close the southern border.  If he spent time on the ground on that border, many of the issues would be clear to him.  The blazingly stupid foreign policy of abandoning the Kurds would not have happened if he were capable of exposing himself to hardship. 

Thankfully, he is a gelatinous coward. Many of my worst predictions of what Trump would do have not come true, overwhelmed by Trump's own aversion to actual hardship.

Machiavelli says people are cowards and fools for the most part. They will swear loyalty to the leader when times are good and desert him when times are bad. 

Trump knows and believes this. There are things Trump does exceedingly well because he knows he is talking to fools.  Machiavelli says the leader need not have actual religious faith, all that matters is the appearance. Despite bragging about breaking every commandment and being entitled to break every commandment, he draws thunderous applause from white Evangelical and conservative Catholic audiences.  The gaggle of millionaire televangelist that gather around to worship Trump declare Trump's true faith.

Machiavelli says that the leader must never use half measures. He must either pamper people or destroy them.  He also said if the leader has a choice either to be loved or feared, he should choose fear, because people will easily betray love but respect those who can hurt them. Within the Republican Party leadership, loyalty to Trump is based on fear of his twitter account.  In a party where the primary is the election, a Trump tweet can end the career of any red state Republican. 

Another glaring Trump failure from Day One has been his inner circle. Machiavelli says we can judge the quality of a leader by the quality of his inner circle.  In this Trump is beyond pathetic.  Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Betsy DeVos, Rudy Giuliani, Kellyanne Conway, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, the rogue's gallery is endless. Trump's deplorable quality is evident in those who surround him.

Chapter 23 of The Prince says the leader should avoid flatterers.  This advice is pathetically funny. The vile chief of flatterers Mike Pence leads the worship of the Dear Leader. Kissing Trump's dumpy rump is a requirement for continued service in the administration. 

Machiavelli ends his little book discussing fate and luck.  America has been lucky for nearly two and a half centuries to avoid the incarnation of idiocy that is Trump, but now it's here. Trump has been lucky at every step of his improbable rise from failed casino owner to the Racist-in-Chief.  Can his luck hold? I wish him and his minions nothing but failure, but the odds are with an incumbent, so I will fight until he is out of office.  And I will look for other places to live that will accept Americans and re-read The Prince in 2024 from somewhere far away from Don Junior's 2024 campaign.

In the meantime, I am re-reading On Tyranny for how to handle the present.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Line Between Good and Evil: A Confession



“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” says Aleksander Solzhenitsyn in his book The GULAG Archipelago.

Until this year I agreed with Solzhenitsyn, at least I believed I did. Then I read Not in God’sName: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Sacks agrees with Solzhenitsyn. The line between good and evil cuts through each of us—until it doesn’t.



Sacks said seeing good and evil as an inner struggle is the mark of the major monotheistic religions. Other cultures put the line between good and evil at the at the border of their settlement, village, state, country—outside themselves. 

Sacks is well aware that even if the line between good and evil can cut through the heart of each person, the line easily moves outside.  Before I read Sacks’ book, I could have testified under oath that I agreed with Solzhenitsyn.  But Sacks showed me that my ideal was history, and probably had only existed in my better moments.

Since 2015, the site of every Trump Nuremberg Rally was certainly, in my view, a line between good and evil—inside evil, outside good.  Then after November 2016, the line between me and the 63 million Trump voters became the good and evil line.  I would not have asserted the claim at that moment, but it was true. 

I would ask, rhetorically, how anyone but a racist could vote for a Birther.  That’s not a question. Those who vote for a Birther are racists or are idiots who do not know they are racists. The march of Trump tweets and policies just made my belief deeper: the Muslim ban, attacking POWs, attacking Gold Star parents, saying Nazis are fine people, Trump’s whole Addams Family bouquet of hate, the bouquet of thorns without roses that define his character and his actions. 

And so to my confession. If I ever truly believed the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, I don’t know.  The lists of community and personal sins of Yom Kippur confession are, to me, almost quaint. What do the Ten Commandments mean in a nation where the head of state brags about breaking those commandments, brags about being entitled to break those commandments, and is cheered by people who claim to be believers?

When the President backed by all of his cabinet and by his propaganda ministers at Fox News declares me and those I love and admire “enemies of the people” we live in a nation that officially says good is Us and bad is Them. In Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Rwanda, and Serbia after Yugoslavia, people like me became Them.  And the record of those slaughtered says they did not know it or could not believe it.

German Jews after Kristallnacht thought Hitler could go no further. Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 went to Easter services with Hutus. Starting the next week, the same Hutus slaughtered Tutsis in those Churches. The Russian Jewish √©migr√© Masha Gessen says when a tyrant tells you what he is going to do, believe him.  Timothy Snyder says the same in his book OnTyranny. Trump has been calling the news media the enemy of the people since his campaign started. Sooner or later, journalists will be killed by people wanting Trump’s approval.  When that happens, the killing won’t stop with journalists.  There is no end to a list of enemies of the people: professors, protesters, comedians, the deep state, democrats, anyone who criticizes the Dear Leader.


I know Trump supporters who tell me they will defend The Constitution of the United States if Trump or anyone goes against it.  I think they are sincere.  But they are deluded. 

When Trump used his office to extort an ally for political gain, he could not have more thoroughly violated the Constitution, yet they defend the Dear Leader more fiercely. Those pathetic patriots will swallow every excuse Trump makes for every violation of The Constitution and cheer at his next Nuremberg Rally. 

I aspire to believe that the line between good and evil cuts through my heart, but for now, for as long as America is marching toward the end of democracy, I believe good and evil is Us and Them.  I want to see every Republican defeated and out of office beginning with Trump and McConnell and the Freedom Caucus. I want them utterly without power. 

When the government does not officially hate the people I admire most, when the government does not attack the weakest, when the government does not turn away refugees, in other words when the Republican Party is utterly out of power, maybe I can return to the view of Rabbi Sacks. But for now, I am going to do what every Jew in Germany should have done in 1933. I am going to assume that when the President will point at American citizens in public and call them the enemy of the people, that same President will soon point at me and say the same thing. 




Friday, January 10, 2020

Real Rail Fan by Philadelphia Tracks

A Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 Electric Locomotive 

I met Tom as he stood beside the tracks that run north-south through Philadelphia along the west bank of the Schuylkill River. His place to watch trains is where the freight tracks run along a roadbed 20 feet above the river and 30 feet below the Schuylkill Expressway.  He stands at a spot close to the Philadelphia city line near his childhood home in Manayunk. Trees line both sides of the tracks rising up to the expressway on the east side and making a wooded border between the tracks and the sheltered picnic area below the tracks close to the river.

Tom is a lifelong railfan. He was born within sight of a bridge in Manayunk where the freight tracks cross a creek.  He knows now that a house within sight of a busy freight tracks means he grew up poor, but at the time he thought himself incredibly lucky. Day or night year-round he saw long freight trains roar as the accelerated from the city and heard the clash of couplers as long trains slowed going into the city. 

While we talked a long train passed with many cars painted bright green or blue. A few were red or orange. They had no logos and looked like an odd cross between sea-going containers and freight cars.  Tom told me we were looking at a trash train.  Since it was going north it was empty. Unit trains of eighty cars roll out of New York City filled with demolition waste from construction and regular trash also.  The trains go south to rural areas in poor inland southern states willing to “bury the trash for New York cash.”

A container train went past with long-slung flat cars holding double-stacked forty-foot containers from ships. I said something about these container trains being the highest priority trains. Tom quickly corrected me. “The highest priority trains are the two UPS trailer trains every day. One goes New York and one to Atlanta each day.  Everything else moves to a siding when they go through.”

We talked about Philadelphia being a rail town and great place to watch trains. Four miles south of where we were talking freight tracks pass through the city on a long trestle thirty feet above Drexel University. The double-track steel structure supports trains with nearly one hundred cars and four engines.  These mile-long trains can weigh more than twenty million pounds.  When the trains pass over Market Street, they are above 30th Street Station. Just below the freight trestle, SEPTA trains go into and out of the station on six tracks on the second floor of the north side of the huge station building. 

Below street level, Amtrak passenger trains going to New York and points north, Washington DC and south, Harrisburg and the west, roll in and out of the station on ten tracks.  Even below that are the Market Street El and trolleys to the west side of the city.  Four levels of trains above and below the main street of the city and even below the river. 

Tom grew up watching the trains from his window and riding into the city on a banana-seat bicycle seeing SEPTA and Amtrak trains along with the El and the trolleys as they changed over the years.  His main interest is freight trains. Steam engines were taken out of service on the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1957, a few years before Tom was born, but he saw electric freight engines when he was young. 

As mist started to gather on the cool afternoon as we spoke, we saw a unit train of crude oil tankers go past. He talked about how new and well designed the cars are. He would prefer that crude moved in pipelines, but thinks rail is vastly better and safer than trucks. Tom remembers when long trains of coal hoppers moved up and down these tracks daily.  He works at a small chemical plant making road repair products, sealers and tar.  “I’m in my late 50s. I’ll retire in a few years. They can’t find young people to replace us. It’s tough work.”  When he does retire, Tom plans to stay in the Philadelphia area.

Tom stands by the tracks that were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The same tracks were part of Conrail at the end of the 20th Century and are now owned by CSX.  He takes pictures and videos of the trains as they pass. He said he has been chased away from trackside by the CSX security guards. But they don’t bother him very often. He brings lunch, an umbrella and a camp chair and watches the Saturday trains go by.









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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Secrets of the Universe on AMTRAK




On the train trip back from Philadelphia I sat with Calvin, an electrical engineer who I have seen on the train for more than a decade. We had never spoken before except to say hello.

He took his computer out and hoped to work, but his hotspot was intermittent, so unable to work he turned to me and said, “You’re some kind of long-distance cyclist, right?” I said yes. “Didn’t you do an Ironman.” Again, I said yes. He then said he rides inside on a Peloton stationary bike because riding on the road is so dangerous. He immediately told me about a friend who got hit by a car and had eight broken ribs, and about the complications three months later and…

…I interrupted and said, “I have a friend who will soon become a Blackhawk helicopter pilot. I told her that when she becomes a pilot and meets new people who find out she is a helicopter pilot; they will start talking about someone they knew or a friend of a friend who died or was maimed in a helicopter crash.” 

He understood and we changed topics to communications technology. He said, “I am not for net neutrality. I want to pay for better access to the internet. Not share overburdened networks with gamers and music downloads.” 

We started talking about 5G and how long it would take to overwhelm even that much bandwidth. Then he remembered seeing that I was in the Army not too long. He asked what I did. I told him tanks in the 70s and 80s and helicopters recently. 

It turns out that when I was in tanks, he was an engineer working on guidance and targeting systems. The technology he was designing for aircraft was transferred to the new (then) M1 Abrams tank that could shoot on the move. I told him about tank gunnery without computers, what the process was for engaging a target with no electronic assist. 

He no longer works in defense but designs electronic systems for advanced networks.  From there, we talked about chemistry and engineering. He said he had trouble with both physics and organic chemistry in college, but now physics is a hobby for him.  When he said that, I guessed the next turn the conversation would take.    

After a pause in his otherwise rapid and sustained speaking, Calvin said that God designed the universe with a beautiful and consistent underlying mathematics.  He said he was led to this belief through the physics of electron flow in a wire and how utterly consistent it is. He then began to tell me about how he discovered this underlying mathematical principle.

ASIDE: When I worked at a museum of the history of science, the people I met or corresponded with or heard who knew the secrets of the creation of the universe were more likely to be engineers than any other professional group. I also met a few doctors who were ardent creationists, but mostly engineers. I remembered an engineer who helped to design the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack aircraft who retired to write several books about how the Earth is 6,000 years old. 

At that point, I saw an open seat a few rows up. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and changed seats when I came back. We shook hands as we left the train in Lancaster.





Monday, January 6, 2020

Books of a Decade



Timothy Snyder and his little book On Tyranny became my touchstone 
for life after November 2016. He has been sadly correct in his terse predictions.


At the end of this decade, I consolidated ten years of annual book list spreadsheets into one long list of 376 books.  The list divides almost in half between the 177 books by 46 authors—the authors of whom I read between two to eighteen of their books—and the other 199 books.

The others I was obsessed with in the decade just ending:

C.S. Lewis—I re-read 18 of his books and read two books about him. I have read all 39 of the books he wrote during his lifetime and several posthumous collections. I have read something by him pretty much every year since I first read him in 1977. 

Patrick O’Brian—Beginning in June of this year I read the first twelve books in the Master and Commander series. I am reading the 13th now.  There are seven more to go in the series and a few other books he wrote about sailing.

Hannah Arendt—I first read her a few months after I returned from deployment to Iraq. Sara Rouhi told me I should read her. I have read eleven of her books, an average of a book a year beginning with The Origins of Totalitarianism. Reading Arendt also makes me trendy, because sales of Arendt’s books spiked in November of 2016.

Kazuo Ishiguro—I first read Ishiguro in 2014 and fell in love with his book The Remains of the Day. By last year I had read all the rest of his books and re-read Remains of the Day for a total of ten.

Mark Helprin—next on the list with seven. I have been reading Helprin since 1983 when I read a short story in the New Yorker that was an excerpt from his first novel A Winters Tale.  I read everything he writes as it is published. His latest novel Paris in the Present Tense is my favorite.

George Orwell—I read six of his books this decade, most recently Animal Farm after the last election.

There are four authors of whom I read five books each:
--Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Timothy Snyder who both write about the dangers of Totalitarianism one from inside Russia during the Soviet era, the other looking back at how the Soviets and Nazis took power and what that history can tell us about current authoritarians.
Alexander Dumas and Joseph Brodsky, I read and re-read for their clarity and beauty.

Milan Kundera and Vasily Grossman are next on my obsession list with four books each.  I had not read Kundera before this decade. Grossman wrote a pair of novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate that together are 1,900+ pages about the battle that turned the tide of World War II against the Nazis.  The second volume Life and Fate is by far the better of the two, but Stalingrad has some brilliant scenes.

I read three books each by ten authors: Aristotle, Herodotus, Machiavelli and Russell Kirk from the past. I read and re-read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri, a simply incredible history of our species and his less luminous Homo Deus.  I read three mysteries by Alison Joseph who I met at a lovely reception in London.  Agatha Christie is a character in some of her lovely stories. I read three books by Elmore Leonard after seeing the FX series “Justified” based on Leonard’s novels. 

The list of authors of whom I read two books include novels by Hermann Hesse, Vladimir Nabokov, Sergei Dovlatov, Philip Roth, Boris Pasternak, Victor Pelevin, Tim O’Brien, Tom Robbins, David E. Fischer, Nick Montemarano and Vladimir Sorokin.  I want to read more by all of these writers.  Sorokin is living proof that there is still some freedom in Russian, otherwise his book Day of the Oprichnik would have gotten him killed by Putin.  Robbins is just crazy. Pasternak brings beauty to the smallest scene. Dovlatov is wickedly funny and makes me wish I could read Russian fluently.  Homer, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Dante, Primo Levi, Charles Pierce and Bernard-Henri Levy are also on my two-book list.

Amos Oz is also on the two-book list.  One of the categories I track is whether an author is living or not.  I have been reading more living authors in the past decade than previously. But Oz is on both lists. I read his book How to Cure a Fanatic before he died and his memoir after his passing.

On the one-book list are many authors I hope to read more of, particularly Jill Lepore, Haruki Murakami, James Wood, Svetlana Alexievich, Kurt Vonnegut and many others. 
Also, I re-read The Forgotten Soldier which I first read when I was serving as a tank commander in West Germany in the 1970s.  This book follows a teenager who enlists at 17 and serves in the German Army on the Eastern Front for the entire war with Russia. 

At the end of the year I got interested in the Enneagram and read The Sacred Enneagram. I plan to read The Wisdom of the Enneagram in 2020.

By category, Fiction is one-third of the all the books I read at 120. Most of the other categories fall somewhere in the twenty to thirty books on the topic range: Faith, Memoir and Biography, Politics, Philosophy, Science, Self-Help, History, Poetry and Language. 

The authors I will not read again: Eric Metaxas and Rod Dreher.  Metaxas for me is the worst of sell-out-to-idolatry Trumpvangelicals. Metaxas wrote a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian leader martyred by the Nazis, and now he supports Trump.  He is hideous.  My problem with Dreher is here in my 2017book report.

The first book I will read in 2020 is my quadrennial re-read of The Prince by Machiavelli along with re-reading Black Earth by Timothy Snyder, the 13th volume of the Master and Commander series, the book listed above on the Enneagram, a volume of poetry by Leonard Cohen and a book called Silence.


Saturday, January 4, 2020

No Bucket List! One Thing Just Leads to Another


A real book I found in a Bronx Thrift Shop

In a thrift shop in The Bronx, I saw the book above.  Inside the book are hundreds of places and activities that could form a personal Bucket List.  Just for good measure there are a dozen blank pages if skydiving naked and swimming the Bering Strait in the winter aren’t enough (I made those up.)

I don’t have a Bucket List. I don’t like Bucket Lists.  To have a Bucket List, you have to plan, stick with the plan, and believe you need to do or see a specific thing before you die. 

The stick-with-the-plan part is tough for me.  And all of my travel has deeply convinced me that nothing leads to further travel like the overwhelming impression many trips have made on me. 

It turns out, I am too optimistic to think I need to see and do this list of things, and I am unable to stick to a long-term plan so I could not have a list of Must-Do-Before-I-Die activities even if I wanted to.

I am a confirmed enthusiast as a personality type: Enneagram Type 7, Myers Briggs ENTP, and Strength Finders Woo. So, the thing I want to do right now is something that flowed from the last thing I did. And then there is a strong need to do what I think is being taken away from me. When I perceive my freedom or freedom of choice is inhibited, that motivates me to do things—sometimes awesome things, sometimes not so awesome. 

My re-enlistment in the Army a dozen years ago was an idea I held loosely for months until I broke my neck and nine other bones in a near-fatal bike racing crash. In a neck and chest brace, I saw enlistment being taken from me. I got angry and wanted to enlist. I was angry in a way that has happened in races when I crash and jump back on the bike, determined to finish, ignoring as well as I can the injuries. 

On my recent trip to Israel, I had planned to ride the length of the country. It’s a small country so the ride would be the equivalent of riding from Philadelphia to Boston.  But my recently replaced knee swelled up the night before the trip.  So instead of riding the length of the country, I drove the length of the country and then spent a week riding in and out of Jerusalem. 

My next trip overseas begins in Jerusalem with my friend Cliff and ends with visiting the Dachau and Flossenburg concentration camps.  In between I will be in Athens and Macedonia and Rwanda. I was going to go to Russia or Azerbaijan, but I wanted to go to Rwanda and just read a book about the Rwandan Genocide. I can get a relatively cheap flight and spend a week there.

I know people who travel by a plan and I realize the benefits of what they do. I admire them. It’s just that I know myself well enough that I can’t be them. 

I was delighted planning my 2017 trip across Eastern Europe visiting the worst Holocaust sites and many memorials.  I had planned to see and pass through 20 countries.  I did. But seven of the countries were different than the countries I planned to see. 

At one point I was on a morning train from Prague to Warsaw. My plan was to get to the Baltic States and St. Petersburg, then back through Lviv, Ukraine, to Auschwitz and back to Germany. But the ride from Belgrade to Prague had taken days longer than I planned. I realized that if I went north, I would not be able to spend a week at the Monastery where my friend Cliff is Franciscan Monk. 

As I thought, the sign board above my head said Katowice in five minutes.  Katowice is 30 miles from Auschwitz.  I could leave the train, ride south and be there by early afternoon. I pulled my bike from the hanging rack, grabbed my bags and left the train, throwing the bags so I could get the bike through the narrow door easily during the brief stop.

I rode from Auschwitz to Lviv and back to Krakow with a new plan and saw different countries. 

And from beginning to end, I was and am delighted with the trip. 

Beyond this year, I want to go back to Hong Kong and to southern reaches of South America, but maybe I will end up in Iceland or Mumbai or North Platte, Nebraska. (Actually, I’ve been to North Platte, probably not returning.)

Re-Reading "The Prince" for the 10th Time: So Different Under Trump

Since 1980 I have read and re-read The Prince  every four years. I have been delighted anew each year as I read his advice to rulers.  H...