Across the Pond, Part II

On April 16, the people of Turkey went to the polls for a referendum. The matter under consideration was a broad set of amendments to the country’s constitution. Most notable among other things, the amendments would abolish the office of the Prime Minister and effectively replace Turkey’s parliamentarian government with a presidential system.

Most every presidential system of government needs a strong executive to function effectively, and the proposed amendments did not claim otherwise. In the process of doing away with the government’s Prime Minister, the amendments would endow the president, a largely ceremonial post with little hard power in the previous system, with the powers of chief executive and head of state. And the actual powers that come with these title bumps are far from trivial – new authority to appoint government ministers, select judges, enact laws by decree, declare states of emergency, and dismiss parliament.

Parliament, which would serve at the pleasure of the president, would also be stripped of its authority to scrutinize ministers as part of their appointment proceedings or conduct thorough investigations of the government. It would retain the ability to impeach the president, however, since the president could dismiss parliament at any time it remains to be seen if that capability has any tangible force behind it.

Though a unique issue in a unique country, like Brexit and the Trump victory, the referendum in Turkey won by a tight margin at the polls: 51.4 to 48.59.

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What a Loss to the Collective Memory

According to HistoryNet.com, by late 1945 over 12 million Americans were in military service. This group represented approximately nine percent of the U.S. population at the time, while including none of the millions of Americans who contributed to the war effort in factories, resource collections, war bond drives, and many other capacities. The conflict is known as a “total war,” because its influence permeated into nearly all major aspects of shared society and individual daily life for those living in the participating countries. (And, as the term “world war” suggests, participating countries included most of those on Earth. Besides which, even the nominally neutral countries experienced dramatic effects as well.)

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century the U.S., and much of the Western world by extension, took for granted the basic assumptions and collective experiences the war etched into their populations. Never has this been more clear than now when, in the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Donald Trump found a large constituency responsive to withering critiques of fundamental aspects of the post-war/early Cold War international order. The necessity of U.S. global leadership – a phrase which here means the need for the U.S. to best approximate a world uber-authority in the anarchic global polity – is now a major question in U.S. politics. And around the world, resurgent nationalist parties and political movements are finding purchase in populations that doubt the value of supranational organizations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some of the bafflement of world’s so-called elite leadership – meaning people who are rich, politically engaged and powerful, highly educated, and often aristocratic – at these changes is surely due to their lack of understanding that many people have not inherited the assumptions and collective experiences that were forged in the war and dominated the post-war political and economic landscape. The consequences of this lack of inheritance have been compounded by the astounding arrogance of the Liberal Democratic order – most apparent in numerous ill-conceived and poorly executed military engagements and the total lack of accountability or serious self-reflection following the catastrophic 2008 financial crisis.

Remembrance of the past never remains static. Instead, it changes with the moment and with the state of the world and with those doing the remembering. This is particularly true in large democracies with diffuse media to fracture the transmission of information to voters and politicians. It stands to reason that, with the deaths of those who experienced the trials of World War II and the deaths of those only one generation removed, the past will change as well.

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!                                                                                                 –Richard II

There are many things to say as we watch the collapse of one of the world’s great political parties play out in real time. Let’s begin by going back to the last time the U.S. of A. experienced a party realignment comparable to this one. The realignment, like most other relatively recent big social changes in this country, took place in the 1960s.

In the year 1960, the presidential election pitted the incumbent Republican Vice President – Richard Nixon – against a young, handsome, articulate son of one of the nation’s wealthiest families. This particular son was not supposed to be the family’s political standard-bearer (that role belonged to the eldest), but World War II changed a lot of things for a lot of families. The Kennedy’s, even with their great wealth and prestige, were no different.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was optimistic, energetic, and beautiful on screen. Richard Milhous Nixon was unattractive, somewhat creepy, but highly qualified. The result of the contest was one of the closest and most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. Kennedy won, barely, and to this day many are convinced that votes, especially in Chicago, were bought or stolen.

Kennedy’s presidency is a strange one to describe. The beautiful man with his beautiful wife and beautiful children captivated the sentiments of many, but accomplished little tangible domestic reform. Abroad, there was the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also the Bay of Pigs debacle. His administration is remembered more for its captivating rhetoric and great dreams deferred than any legislative or diplomatic accomplishment.

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What a Week It Has Been

Most of the time changes happens slowly. It’s only by looking back at a long stretch of time and reflecting that we recognize substantial differences in our reality. However, there are some weeks, like these past two, when so much seems to happen all at once.

After an outrageous and distinctly American act of terrorism, huge momentum has emerged to remove symbols of treachery and hatred from prominent places in the South. The highest court in the land affirmed President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, ensuring millions continued access to affordable healthcare. And, as the best sequel since Godfather Part II, the same court legalized gay marriage nationwide.

Much of what this means for our country and the legacy of President Obama remains to be understood. But, if anything, it should put to rest forever any ideas that his presidency has been a minor one. Quite the opposite is the case. For too long, too many have been quick to think that the president has failed to deliver. He promised change they say, but too much remains the same. This, quite simply, ignores objective reality. It’s one thing to disagree with what he’s done; it’s lunacy to suggest that he hasn’t done much. That has never been more obvious in any week during his presidency as this one.

Yet for all his tangible actions while in office, his greatest achievement is and always will be the fact of his election. He is, and always will be, the first black president this nation has ever known. That fact is inescapable and never more apparent than it was on Friday when he delivered the eulogy for the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney. He spoke as only he could. In his oration, he articulated the astonishing and gut-wrenching flaws of our country, baked into it from the founding. But his words did far more than that. They went above and beyond the filler text politicians and leaders too often mumble to pay lip-service to the “conversation about race.” They were real. They were personal. They spoke to his own experience, to the experience of his audience. They lamented the dead. He made us remember what we too often forget and ignore or never even learned. He helped us decipher a small section of the American story, with tales of the past and present. As one of our greatest once wrote, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Our president has failed in countless ways, but Friday he was there for all of us, carrying the light onward. Leading us with grace and song.

More reactions from James FallowsDavid Remnick, and Greg Howard.

Gangs of New York, Mild Spoilers

Gangs_of_New_York_Poster

Gangs of New York is a 2002 action movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cameron Diaz. The entire film is set in 19th-century New York’s infamous Five Points neighborhood. The story focuses on Amsterdam Vallon’s (DiCaprio) quest for revenge following the murder of his father (Liam Neeson[s]) at the hands of Bill “the Butcher” Cutter (Day-Lewis).

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Yes, This One Matters

Pope

Ever since his election in March of 2013, Pope Francis has made big headlines all over the world. In both substance and form, he has demonstrated a marked shift from the personalities and policies of the past two popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For conservatives this has been concerning, for liberals, thrilling.

Regardless of one’s political, religious, and general cultural opinions, it is essential to acknowledge that the Holy Catholic Church is an ingenious institution. The most important criterium for judging the effectiveness of an institution are 1) how long it has lasted, and 2) the loudness of its voice in the present. On both fronts, the Church gets an A-plus.

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American History

It has been a long time since the last post. Life is busy and routine-oriented. If you’re in you’re in, and if you’re out you’re out. College graduation and a big move have brought me back to a point where I want to be in. That and recent events.

On Wednesday night, nine of our fellow Americans were massacred in a church. A man walked into the church and sat in on a Bible study for about an hour, and then opened fire. He left one woman alive to testify to what he had done. There was also a five-year-old who survived by playing dead. The words he spoke to the woman have been ringing in my eyes ever since I first read them. I will not repeat them here.

There are almost an infinite number of reactions to this horror. Many of them have been acted and spoken and written through a variety of mediums and platforms – vigils to protests to quiet prayer and tears – in the past few days from politician and citizen alike. One thing that is often said in times like these (and there have been far too many times like these, unfortunately there will be more) is that there are no words. On its face, this is in some ways a true and reasonable response. Words can do incredibly many things, but they do not have the power to contain the awfulness of such a thing as this. They only contain what the mind can hold. Unfortunately, this is not enough. It is not enough to be speechless in such times. Especially when there are so many words that must be said to rebut the words of the murderer and the murderer himself: racist, appalling, disgusting, repellent, criminal, abominable, killer, murderer, evil, liar, pathetic, narcissist, paranoid, cynical,…, American. The last one may be the most important of all. This was a crime committed against Americans, by an American. The crime took place in the state where the American grew up, a state with the Confederate flag flying over its capital building.

More words: Charles P, Pierce; Ta-Nehisi Coates; and a Vox collection. Last, but not least, Jon Stewart’s brilliant response here.