Archive

December 29th

America the Indivisible

    Rare indeed, and bracing, are the moments that strip us of certainties and force us back to consideration of our most fundamental values.

    Such was 2016.

    Donald Trump campaigned to an America now largely dependent on televisual and social media-provisioned sources of information and misinformation.

    Institutions - such as newspapers, political parties and universities - that have traditionally helped test and vet evidence and argument hit, and now must face, the limits of their influence.

    As a society, we find that our disagreements are deep and that many of us, perhaps even most of us, too easily personalize them. We are dangerously near treating one another as aliens.

    Where to from here? The single most helpful resource I have hit upon this fall is an old book by the Roman politician and intellectual Cicero. It's called "On Duties." In it, Cicero offers guidance on navigating turbulent political times.

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The hope of Christmas in times of horror

    As a kid, the 24 hours leading up to Christmas were always the longest day of my life. Time fought to stand still, grudgingly giving way to the movement of the clock's hands.

    I wanted the day out of the way in time for the great vigil - an event I never stayed awake long enough to observe: the surreptitious delivery of presents by a visitor in the night.

    Now, Advent, that four-week waiting period for Christmas, has assumed its rightful time and place in my adult life.

    Advent comes with instructions that are often hard to follow: Slow down, be quiet and meditate on the real reason for the season; prepare for what's to come.

    Try doing that this tumultuous year.

    Advent, which ends Saturday, got started on Nov. 27 at my St. Mary's Episcopal Churchwith a ceremonial lighting of "Hope," the first of four candles on the Advent wreath.

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Pastor, Am I a Christian?

    What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century? Can one be a Christian and yet doubt the virgin birth or the Resurrection? I put these questions to the Rev. Timothy Keller, an evangelical Christian pastor and best-selling author who is among the most prominent evangelical thinkers today. Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

    Kristof: Tim, I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match? 

    Keller: If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.

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The world can have peace and prosperity, if it wants

    Roy Cohn was dead, to begin with.

    There will be nothing remarkable in the tale which I am about to relate unless you are entirely convinced of that.

    And the door-knocker was a perfectly ordinary knocker. It was, indeed, not even the sort of knocker at which Donald Trump - of the counting house Trump & Trump - was accustomed to stare. Which made it all the more remarkable that on the night before Christmas, as he halted at the door of Mar-a-Lago, Trump discerned in this perfectly ordinary large knocker no knocker at all - but Roy Cohn's face.

    He halted - blinked - and it was gone.

    "Sad," he murmured to himself. "Loser." His voice echoed off the six chandeliers, caromed between faux-marble pillars, and bounced back to him from a large painting of himself in an immense brass frame. This reassured him slightly. Yet he was not altogether quiet within himself. Melania was still away. The house felt too large without her.

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The world can have peace and prosperity, if it wants

    "Peace on Earth, good will toward men." One hears this phrase in the United States this time of year, but prospects for peace and goodwill abroad, not to mention at home, appear to be evaporating before our eyes. Staving off a gradual downward spiral of foreign and domestic politics into violence and rancor requires some serious reflection on what's gone wrong, and a willingness to rethink our present approach.

    A little over a year ago, I wrote a column explaining why international peace was in the U.S. national interest. Yet none of the presidential candidates - not even Bernie Sanders - made it a key theme of their campaign. We heard a lot about strength and resolve and "greatness" and leadership, along with repeated warnings about alleged threats and "enemies," but hardly a word was said about the virtues of peace or the policies that the United States should follow in order to preserve it. Indeed, one of the candidates kept making bizarre and bellicose statements of various kinds, including not-so-veiled threats of violence against his political opponents. And guess what? That guy eventually won.

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Slow readers at the CIA

    We are former senior CIA analysts who, in our combined 23 years of service, have been privy to secrets that would amaze you. You will never hear them from us. We also have learned other critical, but unclassified, information about dealing with terrorists and dictators that we want to share - but the government has thrown needless roadblocks in our path.

    CIA employees pledge that for the rest of their lives they will submit their writings to the agency in advance of publication to ensure that nothing appropriately classified is inadvertently revealed. We fully support this. But we are both paying a price well beyond the spirit of our agreement. Each of us has written a nonfiction book that has been ensnared in red tape by the CIA - for 11 months (for John Nixon) and 14 months and counting (for Nada Bakos). The courts have held that this signed agreement is a lifetime enforceable contract, provided that the review is limited to the deletion of classified information and that a response is given to the author within 30 days of submission. (The 30-day time constraint was set forth by the 1972 circuit court decision inU.S. v Marchetti.)

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'Sanctuary cities' are on legal ground

    Cities and public universities are exercising their constitutional authority when they declare themselves "sanctuaries" in response to Donald Trump's vow to deport 2 million to 3 million immigrants upon taking office next month. Trump has threatened to force state and local governments to implement his deportation policies, including by taking away federal funds, but such actions would be unconstitutional and likely halted by the courts.

    The term "sanctuary," as used in this context, does not mean that a city or institution will conceal or shelter undocumented immigrants from detection. Rather, sanctuary policies might, among other things, commit a city to serving all individuals without regard to immigration status, protect the privacy of community members by keeping their immigration status confidential, or direct law enforcement officers not to investigate, arrest or hold people solely on the basis of immigration status.

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Red State Hope for Democratic Blues

    For the longest nights of the year, there is no better place to be than on snow-crusted ground, staring up at Montana’s big empty sky. Democrats across rural America must know the feeling, this Christmas week, of looking into a black void and feeling so very alone.

    There is a chance for the pulse to quicken — a flash of the northern lights, perhaps, the distant howl of a wolf — in that utter darkness. And there is hope for a party spurned in the wide-open spaces of the country, as well. Meet Steve Bullock, the newly re-elected Democratic governor of Montana.

    Donald Trump took Montana by 20 percentage points — a rare win for celebrity-infatuated megalomaniacs in a state whose voters can usually smell the type from a hundred miles out. But once again, Democrats won the governor’s office and did it with votes to spare. Bullock’s Mountain State secret sauce is something national party leaders should sample during their solstice.

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'It's A Wonderful Life' puts Trump in perspective

    "Pottersville is closer to how we live now than Bedford Falls."

    Mary Owen, youngest daughter of the "It's a Wonderful Life" co-star Donna Reed, is sitting in the Washington Square Diner in Greenwich Village. Across the street, a sold-out house is watching the film in a theater.

    Mary had just spoken to the audience, mostly millennials. Some had never seen it. She shared stories of her mother and secrets of the filming. She said watching it now is "a good corrective to the campaign we just went through." The crowd cheered.

    Frank Capra's film premiered 70 years ago this week. It was a commercial flop. "People had already lived through the Depression," Mary says over a cup of chicken soup. "They had already lived through runs on the bank. They had already lived through World War II, and the rationing. And then suicide. Why would they want to go to a movie [about] all of that?"

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Democracy is dying as technocrats watch

    On Nov. 29, three weeks after Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election, a chart, showing a precipitous decline in support for democracy around the world, went viral after appearing in The New York Times:

    Plenty of public argument ensued about the validity of the underlying data. But there was hardly any comprehension among experts about why moral support for democracy might be eroding - in part, because there's good reason to think that experts are themselves to blame.

    This is most obvious in the case of Trump, who devoted a large share of his presidential campaign not just to attacking democratic norms but also to attacking the technocratic experts who have come to symbolize democracy in the United States.

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