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things fall apart

The Second Coming

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Week Democracy Died

Dark days this summer showed how government by the people—beset by illiberal populists on one side and undemocratic elites on the other—is poised for extinction.

Animation by Slate. Photos by Getty Images, Reuters.

There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.

The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

A Week Full of Omens

 

The week started with all eyes on the United Kingdom. Brits had recently voted to leave the European Union in a referendum whose unexpected results sent shock waves across the continent. But when David Cameron resigned as prime minister, when the promises of leading members of the “Leave” campaign went up in smoke, when the pound tanked and the first companies announced layoffs and many voters reportedly began to regret their choice, it seemed as though the country’s elites might engineer some subtle subterfuge. And the woman to engineer that subterfuge was Theresa May, a cautious supporter of the “Remain” campaign who had quickly emerged as one of two candidates to succeed Cameron as the country’s next prime minister.

Those hopes were dashed when May set out her political program in a hastily arranged campaign appearance in the city of Birmingham early on Monday morning. “Brexit,” she vowed in the most significant piece of political tautology of recent times, “means Brexit.” If May became prime minister, she would lead the country out of the EU—throwing the defining political project of Europe’s postwar era into an existential crisis.

 

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Top: Theresa May on April 12. Bottom: A lone Brexit supporter during the protest against the referendum decision to leave the EU on July 2.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters, Michael Tubi/Corbis via Getty Images

 

By the time Big Ben had struck noon, Andrea Leadsom, May’s last remaining rival for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party, and the country, had dropped out of the race. Within 48 hours, May kneeled before the Queen, and was named the second female Prime Minister in the country’s history. The cabinet picks she announced on Wednesday evening confirmed that she meant business. With Euroskeptics like Boris Johnson and David Davis in key positions, the last shreds of doubt about her commitment vanished. Britain will leave the European Union. Europe’s postwar order is one step closer to unraveling.

* * *

Thursday, July 14, was Bastille Day. After a brutal 18 months in which France was hit by two major terrorist attacks, the nation took the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. In his annual Bastille Day press conference at the Élysée Palace, President François Hollande announced that he would end the state of emergency that had held sway since the bloody attack on the Bataclan last November. On the beaches of Nice, just beyond the storied Promenade des Anglais, a second home to Europe’s rich and famous for the better part of two centuries, tens of thousands gathered to watch a fireworks display resplendent in red, white, and blue.

When the fireworks were over, when the city was teeming with humanity—young and old, rich and poor, French and foreign, Christian, Muslim, and Jew—a truck of death barreled down the Promenade, zigzagging, firing shots, killing indiscriminately, killing avariciously. By the time the truck had come to a standstill, 84 people were dead or dying.

Eighteen months earlier, when terrorists had stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and gone on to kill shoppers at a kosher supermarket in the east of Paris, solidarity among the French political class had held for about a week. This time, the jockeying for position started almost immediately.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right populist National Front, mocked Hollande for his ill-timed revocation of the state of emergency and accused the government of total failure in its fight again Islamist terrorism. Her broadside resonated. Every attack pushes frightened citizens “a little closer to surrendering to the impulse to embrace an authoritarian response,” warned Art Goldhammer, one of the most astute American observers of France. While it had once seemed unimaginable that Le Pen might become president of France in elections next spring, “it is becoming thinkable” that it will be she who holds the traditional Bastille Day press conference from the Élysée Palace on July 14, 2017.

* * *

Just as tensions began to rise among the French political class, the first explosions pierced a quiet Friday night in sleepy Ankara. Yet another terrorist attack, the good people of Twitter quickly concluded. But what played out in front of the world’s eyes over the next hours was something else entirely: an old-fashioned coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, updated for the age of social media by his desperate FaceTime pleas for Turks to take to the street and come to his rescue.

Both illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism may be headed for a remarkably similar fate: a gradual descent into dictatorship.

Plotters, even ones imminently doomed to be deemed incompetent by CNN’s self-proclaimed coup experts, tend to have the benefit of surprise on their side. In those first hours, tanks secured Atatürk Airport and the offices of the state broadcasting station. Erdogan, infamously vain, was reduced to addressing his nation through the speakers of a TV presenter’s iPhone; rumors already located him en route to political exile in Germany or perhaps the United Kingdom. The country’s secular elite, it seemed, had retained more of its power than observers had thought possible. With the might of the army’s F-16s on their side, they were mounting a last-ditch attempt to resist Erdogan’s creeping Islamicization of the country. The coup looked likely to succeed.

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Top: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks on CNN Türk via FaceTime call in the early morning hours of July 16. Bottom: A wounded Turkish woman lies on the ground, July 16 in Ankara.

Burak Kara/Getty Images, Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

 

Then the tide began to turn. When Erdogan next spoke to the nation, he stood in front of real cameras, looking more self-assured. At his behest, Turks came out in tens of thousands to defend democracy, or to pay allegiance to their tribune, or to claim the right to impose their religion on others, or perhaps all three at once. Most of the army fought the plotters, opposition parties condemned the coup, and—once they could be reasonably confident that Erdogan would stay in power—so did Angela Merkel and Barack Obama.

By daybreak, a military dictatorship had been averted. But liberal democracy seemed to be in no less trouble. Safely returned to Istanbul, Erdogan called the coup “a gift from God” and set about the task of purging the state of anybody whom he suspected of disloyalty. Among the scores of arrests he made, and the thousands of judges he fired, some might plausibly have had a hand in the plot; but for most, their crime was one of thought, not action. And so Turkey had witnessed two coups in 48 hours: first, the failed rebellion of factions of the military against Erdogan’s proto-authoritarian rule, and second, Erdogan’s successful purge of all who might one day challenge his position, whether through the barrel of a gun or the power of the ballot box.

* * *

Never one to allow harrowing events to upstage him or to let propriety stand in the way of his sales pitch, Donald J. Trump cheered every twist and turn in London, Nice, and Ankara from the sidelines. When Brits voted to Brexit, Trump congratulated them on taking “their country back,” promising “to do the exact same thing on Election Day 2016 here in the United States.” When he heard of the terror attack in Nice, he saw, first and foremost, an opportunity to drive home his opposition to Muslim immigration. “When will we learn?” he tweeted that Thursday night. “It’s only getting worse.” Even the coup in Turkey became “further demonstration of the failures of Obama-Clinton. You just have to look,” he said at a Saturday press conference announcing Mike Pence as his running mate, “every single thing they’ve touched has turned to horrible, horrible death-defying problems.”

Trump’s case is straightforward: The challenges facing America are momentous. But they were brought about by incompetence, corruption, or false loyalties. And so they can easily be solved once a strong, incorruptible, patriotic leader—a leader just like Trump—takes power. He, and only he, is the solution to the “death-defying problems” that shaped this terrible week.

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introducing his newly selected vice presidential running mate Mike Pence during an event at the Hilton Midtown Hotel, July 16 in New York City.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

 

It is this providential fusion of the people and their leader—the belief that collective deliverance from a dark world can only come from a pure, unadulterated conduit for the people’s voice—that defines the core of his appeal. And it is his closely related inability to contemplate that he may at times be mistaken, or that there may be legitimate conflicts of interest in a democracy, or that the power of the presidency needs to be checked by other institutions, that makes him so dangerous.

Never has the egotism at the heart of his appeal been more apparent than during the media blitz to introduce his running mate. During the Saturday press conference at which they first appeared in public together, Trump was barely able to say a few consecutive sentences about Pence. Instead, he passionately spoke about his own views, interlaced with a few perfunctory talking points about his would-be vice president read from a conspicuous cue card.

Sunday brought yet another display of Trump’s egotism. When Pence was asked what kind of vice president he hoped to be during a joint interview on 60 Minutes, Trump answered the question for him. When Pence lauded Trump for speaking from his heart, Trump interrupted again: “Well, I speak from my heart and my brain. Just so we understand.” But the best line of the interview, and the most telling, came when the interviewer suggested that Trump is “not known to be a humble man.”

“I think I am actually a humble man,” Trump responded. “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”

Liberal Democracy Under Attack

The truly scary thing about Donald Trump is not that he is unique. It is, rather, that he is far from exceptional. In a rich, raucous republic of 300 million, there will always be a glamorous bully with a taste for the gutter. What is new is not the existence of a populist willing to voice nasty sentiments; it’s that a lot of voters have become so disgusted by the political class, and so disillusioned with the current state of the country’s institutions, that they are willing to vote for someone quite so nasty.

In the long run, Trump’s particular views and quirks matter less than we would like to think. He is ultimately no more than an extra in an unfolding horror show—the most prominent beneficiary of an epochal shift whose roots predate Trump’s entry into politics and whose effects will continue to shape our societies long after he has retired to one of his many estates.

The political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands.

Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will.  Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.

Geert Wilders
Dutch far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders in Brussels in 2014.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

 

Critics often attack Trump, Le Pen, and their cohort for being undemocratic. But that is to misunderstand both their priorities and the reasons for their appeal. For the most part, their belief in the will of the people is real. Their primary objection to the status quo is, quite simply, that institutional roadblocks like independent courts or norms like a “politically correct” concern for the rights of minorities stop the system from channeling the people’s righteous anger into public policy. What they promise, then, is not to move away from popular rule but rather to strip it of its artificial, liberal guise—all the while embodying the only true version of the people’s will.

Places like Hungary and Poland show what this might mean in practice. Once celebrated as examples of successful democratic transition, these countries are now at the forefront of the movement toward illiberal democracy. After Viktor Orbán took power in Budapest six years ago, his Fidesz party undermined the country’s constitutional court, stacked government institutions like the electoral commission with party loyalists, and turned the most important media outlets into uncritical propaganda machines. Over the course of the past year, Poland’s Law and Justiceparty has accomplished much the same feat in a fraction of the time. In both places, key liberal rights are honored more in the breach than the observance.

Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own. But if the populists are pushing for a political system that does away with one half of liberal democracy, the truth is that a large number of establishment politicians are increasingly tempted to embrace a system that does away with the other half. Where Trump and Le Pen seek to establish an illiberal democracy, a lot of sensible centrists are quietly seeking their salvation in what I call “undemocratic liberalism.” If the people want to violate the rights of unloved minorities, setting up the prospect of democracy without rights, the political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands, opting for a form of rights without democracy.

To be sure, undemocratic liberalism usually retains a democratic sheen. The standard rigmarole of political life in a supposed democracy is jealously observed: There are regular elections and hard-fought campaigns, grand speeches and parliamentary votes. The institutional apparatus that supposedly serves to translate the will of the people into public policy remains in place. And yet, the actual purpose of these institutions—to let the people rule—is increasingly forgotten. To anyone who cares to take a skeptical look, it is obvious how ineffectual representative institutions have become at delivering on the noble task they supposedly serve.

Take the U.S. Congress. Legislators are supposed to represent the people, but the views of ordinary voters now have precious little influence on Capitol Hill. More wealthy, more white, and much more likely to have gone to elite schools than the average American, congressmen and senators don’t resemble the people they are supposed to represent. But the main problem is not who they are but rather what incentives the systems gives them. To get elected, politicians need to prevail in a primary system that emphasizes the voice of a small number of radical ideologues. To bankroll their campaigns, they need to raise contributions at a constant clip, making them dependent on the good will of major funders. And to enjoy a plush retirement, they need to cultivate the corporations and lobbyists that are likely to throw easy money their way once they leave office. Given those conditions, it is hardly surprising that political scientists who study to what degree legislation reflects the preferences of average voters have concluded that there is a deep democratic disconnect, in the United States and in many other supposed democracies across the West as well.

Legislation thus reflects the will of the people less and less. As important, many areas of public policy have been taken out of the legislative process altogether. Congress is not only constrained by traditional balances like the Supreme Court. Increasingly, it is also hamstrung by the expanding influence of experts, an increase in bureaucratic autonomy, and the rise of new international organizations. Economic policy is a case in point: Some of the most essential economic decisions are now made by independent bureaucratic agencies like the Federal Reserve or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, set in stone by far-reaching trade agreements like NAFTA, or adjudicated by international institutions like the World Trade Organization.

Ordinary people are angry at the political system in part because they recognize to what extent they have been shut out of key decisions. But, by the same token, the process is becoming so unresponsive in part because the rise of illiberal populists has given the political establishment a good reason to insulate itself from the people’s anger. A pendulum is swinging from illiberal democracy to undemocratic liberalism, then back again. And its swings are getting wider and wider.

* * *

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a perfect illustration of the tension between illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism.

Even the most passionate defenders of the EU find it difficult to deny that it suffers from a serious democratic deficit. Most of the power in the institution rests with the European Commission, which is run by career bureaucrats, and the European Council, which represents the governments of member states. While the European Parliament is meant to provide a democratic counterweight to this elite-driven process, it is toothless in practice: elected with a tiny turnout by voters who barely register what it does day to day, the body has few formal powers. For all of its many achievements, the EU is a key exhibit for the existence of undemocratic liberalism.

Resistance to the European Union has long been especially strong among Brits, who have traditionally prided themselves in the unchecked sovereignty enjoyed by their parliament. Under increasing pressure from right-wingers in his own party, David Cameron thus agreed to a referendum on membership in the EU. Giving the people a one-time simulacrum of plebiscitary democracy, he hoped, would “lance the boil” of Euroskepticism once and for all.

Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

There was only one problem with this plan: When the British people were offered the little finger of plebiscitary democracy, they decided to grab hold of the whole hand. Expected to follow the lead of their betters, they took great pleasure in shocking them with their disobedience. And while there are some perfectly reasonable grounds on which to dislike the EU, opinion polls leave little doubt as to the real reasons why most Brits wound up favoring Brexit. While the hard-line Euroskeptics who forced the referendum may have been concerned with questions of sovereignty, most voters cherished an opportunity to express their illiberal resentments. For all intents and purposes, the referendum turned into a plebiscite against immigration.

In the manner of a parent who tells Little Timmy he can have anything he wants for dinner, then tries to back out of the deal when Little Timmy announces he would like a dozen grasshoppers with a side of vanilla ice cream, a lot of political leaders were tempted to backtrack on Brexit once the results were in. Couldn’t they negotiate a deal that would end formal membership in the European Union while keeping all the important things the way they are now? Or call a second referendum in the hope that it might produce a different result? Faced with a blatant expression of how illiberal the preferences of most people are, the temptation to subvert the democratic procedures that were meant to translate those views into actual public policy was—understandably—strong.

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A Brexit supporter outside Downing Street in London, June 24.

Neil Hall/Reuters

 

Theresa May ultimately quashed the hope that Brexit might mean something less than Brexit. The people had been allowed the rare luxury of speaking their mind, and she recognized it would have been too embarrassing to renege on so prominent a promise. If Little Timmy insisted, he would be allowed to eat grasshoppers with vanilla ice cream this one time. But just as any prudent parent would learn from the experience and grow much more wary of letting an unruly child make untutored decisions in the future, so too the political class has mostly interpreted Brexit as a warning about the irrationality of popular referenda. By and large, it will serve as a reminder of the importance of holding the illiberal preferences of the average voter at bay.

* * *

Liberal democracy is decomposing into its constitutive parts: Over the next decades, much of the world will face a tragic choice between illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy.

But if that comes to pass, it is unlikely to be the end point. For when illiberal democrats fall out of favor, they tend not to give up power. What starts as a genuine attempt to channel the voice of the people all too often degenerates into a straightforward dictatorship. A strikingly similar development might well befall undemocratic liberalism: Forced to defend itself against an onslaught of illiberal populists, it may have to resort to increasingly illiberal means to subdue its opponents. In the long run, both illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism may thus be headed for a remarkably similar fate: a gradual descent into an unvarnished form of dictatorship.

There could hardly be a more striking illustration of this prediction than recent developments in Turkey. For decades, Turkey was a relatively clear-cut case of undemocratic liberalism: In a deeply religious country, a small, secular elite protected ethnic and religious minorities, resisting any attempt to pass laws inspired by Islam. Whenever a popularly elected government made small steps toward putting religion at the center of public life, the army was waiting in the wings to depose it. Then Erdogan managed to lead a seemingly moderate Islamic movement to political victory and to break the power of the secular elite. For some years, outside observers hoped that he would turn Turkey into a true democracy, allowing pious Muslims fuller participation in social and political life without violating the rights of secularists or religious minorities. But that hope gradually faded. Before long, Erdogan pushed illiberal legislation, from new restrictions on the sale of alcohol to increasingly extreme measures against critical journalists and academics.

The failed coup was no more than a final showdown between the two ugly sides of this coin. If the coup had succeeded, the victorious factions of the army would likely have reestablished some liberal freedoms, in part by reverting to a more secular vision of Turkey. At the same time, they would have done away with any pretense of democracy: The freedom to drink alcohol in the streets of Istanbul would have been purchased by an inability to speak one’s mind about the new military government.

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A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag against an electronic billboard during a rally in Kizilay Square on July 18 in Ankara.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

 

When the coup failed, the outcome was not all that different. Long desperate to consolidate his rule, Erdogan seized the moment. In the first three days after the coup, he suspended close to 30,000 members of the civil service, revoked the licenses of 21,000 teachers, took over 6,000 soldiers into custody, and commanded all 1,577 deans of Turkish universities to submit their resignations. The purge is continuing apace: All in all, over 26,000 people have been arrested in the weeks since the coup. Elected as a people’s tribune, Erdogan has now amassed so much power that he can well afford to ignore the views of his electorate. The form of illiberal democracy he has instituted for the past decade has finally taken off its mask and revealed the ugly face of dictatorship.

The Roots of the Crisis

By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

That remarkable fact has made it easy to ascribe the stability of the West’s political institutions to its fundamental attributes: universal suffrage, rule of law, checks and balances, individual rights. Each country gives its own spin on the genealogy of its particular political settlement. Americans tend to thank the genius of their founders, the French the principled visionaries on the barricades, Brits the fortuitous rise of pluralistic institutions owed to the blood-soaked compromises struck between lord and liege. But for all of the specificities of national myth and memory, the triumphalist upshot is remarkably similar in every democratic country. The question of the best regime form, which had animated the writings of thinkers from Socrates to Rousseau, has supposedly been solved. The end of history has arrived.

This happy story overlooks a number of facts that have been so formative of our political world that it is easy to forget just how extraordinary they, too, are by historical standards. All through the history of democratic stability, the incomes of ordinary citizens grew rapidly. All through the history of democratic stability, a democracy has been the most powerful country in the world. And all through the history of democratic stability, democracies have been highly homogeneous.

Over the last decades, each of these factors stopped being the case. Living standards stagnated. The rise of China is threatening American hegemony. Democracies in North America and Western Europe are more diverse than they have ever been before.

History cannot tell us how liberal democracies perform under those circumstances, so we are only just starting to gather the first shreds of evidence for what the effects of those transformations might be. What little we know suggests that the answer is not going to be pretty.

 

* * *

Since the founding of the American republic, the median citizen in every generation could pride himself on being much wealthier than his parents and had strong reason to believe that his children would be even better off. Indeed, ever since the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, a clear majority of American citizens ended their lives with comforts they could barely have imagined when they were growing up. From 1935 to 1960, the standard of living of the median voter just about doubled. From 1960 to 1985, it just about doubled again. From 1985 to 2010, it flatlined.

Most Americans have not experienced real economic gains since George H.W. Bush was elected.

In the years since then, America’s gross domestic product, the Dow Jones, and the incomes of the rich have all recovered from the depths of the Great Recession. But the incomes of most Americans have barely improved. Most citizens have not experienced real economic gains since George H.W. Bush was elected.

If statistics lie, it’s often because averages hide. The stagnation of living standards conceals the phenomenal increase in income and wealth for the richest Americans. It also conceals the remarkable decline in income and wealth for the poorest Americans. That is true for many Latino and black Americans, who are more likely than other demographic groups to be doing the kinds of blue-collar jobs that have seen wages decrease in real terms. But it is felt especially keenly among white Americans with high expectations, limited qualifications, and declining hourly wages—that is to say, among some of Donald Trump’s most passionate supporters.

Trump Supporters
Supporters of Donald Trump at a campaign rally at Grant Park Event Center in Westfield, Indiana, July 12.

Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images

 

The appeal of illiberal democracy cannot be understood in abstraction from this economic story. The fortunes of the populists do not necessarily rise and fall in step with the business cycle or even the unemployment rate. Nor need it always be the very poorest, or those who stand to suffer the most immediate losses because of globalization, who flock toward them in the greatest numbers. The story that matters is broader than that: The basic deal offered by political elites since the inception of democracy was to provide ordinary people with large increases in their standard of living from one generation to the next. So long as that deal held, the people were willing to defer to the political class. Now that the deal has been broken—broken spectacularly—they no longer feel bound by their side of the bargain. And so many of them are willing to entertain the hope that the illiberal demagogues who are courting them so assiduously will serve them better than the unfaithful lot that is now in power.

* * *

In most parts of Europe, democracy took firm root only after the killings and expulsions of World War II turned countries that had once been home to a large number of minorities deeply homogeneous. Democracy in those places is a creation of the nation state, and for outsiders, membership in those nations has always remained difficult and incomplete. A German or an Italian or a Swede was thought to look a particular way and to descend from a particular ethnic stock. Though not every German is blond, and not every Italian has olive skin, it went without saying that somebody who is black or Asian or Middle Eastern could be neither German nor Italian.

The story was a little more complicated in the United States and in Canada, where membership in the nation had always been based on mutual aspirations for the future rather than descent from common ancestors. But even in the U.S., the lip service to diversity was secretly—and not so secretly—predicated on two important facts: The social and economic superiority of whites was not to be called into question. And particular ethnic or religious groups could not be associated with physical threats to the safety of American citizens. What happened in the brief intervals when these background conditions did not obtain speaks for itself. During World War I, some descendants of German immigrants were suspected of disloyalty; a flourishing German American associational life quickly disappeared. World War II was much worse: In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were classified as enemy aliens and promptly interned.

The brittle foundations of ethnic inclusion explain why tensions over immigration and racial identity have been running especially high over the last two decades. In Europe, places like Germany and Italy had to admit to themselves during that period that they were indeed “countries of immigration” and that they would not be able to go on forever denying immigrants of Turkish or Middle Eastern descent full membership in the nation. Meanwhile, in North America, many members of ethnic and religious minorities ascended to unprecedented positions of power and prestige, threateningthe majority’s comfortable assumption of perennial dominance.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these transformations—which are cultural as much as they are economic or political—made the ethnic majority deeply resentful. The fuse was now in place, and it was connected to a ton of TNT. The terrorists just had to light it.

This is the most important political effect of the series of spectacular Islamist terror attacks on liberal democracies in the West that began on 9/11 and has continued to wreak havoc since: The constant terror threat gradually transformed a division of “us” versus “them” that had once been one of many important facts of politics into the primary line of political division and mobilization.

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An anti-Muslim group in Austin, Texas, in 2015.

Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

 

In every country and epoch, political life is defined by the key questions that determine which side you are on. In some countries these questions are socio-economic: Are you for the industrialists or the landowners, for the proletariat or the bourgeoisie? In other countries, the key questions are religious or ethnic: Are you for the Protestants or the Catholics, for the Luo or the Kikuyu?

These political “cleavages” can be a productive element of democratic life, a way of balancing the interests of different groups who mobilize to defend their own. But they always run the risk of turning so deep that people on both sides of the divide can no longer recognize each other as fellow citizens with legitimate interests. That is when victory at the polls starts to provide an excuse for subjugating a minority; when different groups might formally retain citizenship of the same country but the state becomes no more than a committee for advancing the interests of the ascendant faction. This is what the fallout from Islamist terrorism is now threatening to do across North America and Western Europe: A cleavage that was already fraught in most liberal democracies is becoming an instrument of tyranny.

 

These political “cleavages” can be a productive element of democratic life, a way of balancing the interests of different groups who mobilize to defend their own. But they always run the risk of turning so deep that people on both sides of the divide can no longer recognize each other as fellow citizens with legitimate interests. That is when victory at the polls starts to provide an excuse for subjugating a minority; when different groups might formally retain citizenship of the same country but the state becomes no more than a committee for advancing the interests of the ascendant faction. This is what the fallout from Islamist terrorism is now threatening to do across North America and Western Europe: A cleavage that was already fraught in most liberal democracies is becoming an instrument of tyranny.

Despite their hatred for each other, the populists and the terrorists thus live in a strange kind of symbiosis.

Despite their hatred for each other, the populists and the terrorists thus live in a strange kind of symbiosis. The more marginalized Muslims feel in Western societies, the easier ISIS finds it to recruit converts to its bloody cause. And the more homegrown terrorists kill innocents in the name of Islam, the easier it becomes for populists to incite voters against liberal democracy’s protections for ethnic and religious minorities. Seen in this light, the terror attack in Nice is yet another weapon in the armory that might allow Marine Le Pen to subvert liberté, egalité, and fraternité: It is yet another cause of fear in the population; yet another excuse to see politics from the vantage point of an ethnic in-group; and yet another example Le Pen can point to in claiming that Muslim immigrants simply do not fit into France.

The terrorists, the pious sentiment goes, will never have enough power to vanquish the principles of liberal democracy. That is true, so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. As the political fallout from the attack in Nice—and the attacks in Orlando and Brussels and Würzburg, Germany—demonstrate, it’s looking increasingly likely that we will let them win by doing their bidding for them.

The most pressing political question of our age is how we can stop that from happening. What reforms are needed to re-establish the social end economic foundations of liberal democracy? And how can we express liberal democratic values convincingly enough to win the battle of ideas against the likes of Donald Trump?

Regaining Our Conviction

Habituation breeds indifference. A turn of phrase that expressed a point with the help of a striking image no longer packs the same punch because we have grown inured to its literal meaning; linguists call this a dead metaphor. Driving to work in the sweet ride we bought a few months ago no longer gives us the same pleasure; economists call this hedonic adaptation. The person who once sent our heart racing enters the room and we barely notice it; grown-ups call this being married.

Something akin to this form of habituation has happened to our most fundamental political values. The ideals of liberal democracy are all around us. We know that the people are supposed to rule and that all citizens have a right to the same basic freedoms irrespective of their race, creed, or religion. But precisely because these ideas have surrounded us in a diffuse way for so long, we have begun to forget their meaning and their grandeur. “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful,” John Stuart Mill presciently warned inOn Liberty, “is the cause of half their errors.”

So, while civics teachers dutifully recite the ideals of the Founding Fathers and while the political instincts of mainstream publications from Time to the Huffington Post are in some vague sense “liberal,” the intellectual energy is now on the side of liberalism’s opponents.

A few decades ago, right-wing critics of liberal democracy were mostly confined to the oddballs and nostalgics who stubbornly harkened back to some imagined golden age, whether it be the era of fascism in Europe or the era of Jim Crow in the United States. Their ideas were terrifying and their influence, at times, real. And yet it was clear to all that they were ultimately defunct, bound to become more and more ridiculous with every passing year.

Since the turn of the millennium, this has changed fundamentally. The assumption that far-right alternatives to liberal democracy are invariably a remnant from the past is, itself, a relic of a bygone era. Illiberal democracy, the form of rule the far right now advocates in most places from the United States to the United Kingdom and from France to Turkey, is in many ways a new invention—and its ambition is nothing less than to claim the future for itself. Its broad appeal and rapid spread, encapsulated so painfully in the week of July 11, 2016, demonstrates that this aspiration is not to be dismissed lightly. To ensure that the future does not belong to illiberal democracy, its opponents will have to do the hard work of political resistance—and be willing to overcome their own deep divisions to cooperate against a common enemy.

As in the 1920s, when liberal democracy first came under deadly fire across the world, this willingness to work together in the face of a grave far-right threat is far from assured. Nobody should be more scared of the rise of illiberal populists than the left. And yet, in both Europe and North America, much of the left increasingly thinks of “liberal” as a term of abuse. Indeed, a growing share of left-wing activists has gone from understandable anger at the many shortcomings of the status quo to an outright rejection of the foundational political values of our age. Assuming that ideals that are flagrantly contradicted in practice can’t be worth very much in theory either, they too are giving up on the core tenets of liberal democracy.

If Donald Trump rails against Muslims in his speeches then, they believe, it is time to accept that freedom of speech is an outmoded concept. And if the police kill innocent black Americans then, they believe, the ideal of state neutrality between different ethnic groups is no more than a tool for white domination. The society they envisage is not one in which liberal democratic ideals are more perfectly realized than they are now—but rather one in which these ideals are sacrificed in the name of social justice.

The most foolhardy parts of the left even go so far as to see the rise of their enemies as a strategic opportunity. Believing that things will have to get worse before they can get better, their most urgent desire is to smash up the status quo. Unwilling to recognize any real difference between the policies favored by the likes of Trump and the policies favored by the likes of Clinton, they prefer the agent of chaos, however violent, to the defender of the current political order, however decent.

And so it is centrist politicians who have now become the last explicit defenders of liberalism. But, squeezed between a blatantly authoritarian right and an increasingly illiberal left, they have begun to seek refuge in new forms of technocratic rule. In the short run, the undemocratic bulwarks they are building against illiberal sentiments are protecting the rights of minorities. But their lack of urgency and the dearth of their vision mean that they do not even attempt to tackle the root causes of the populist rise, like the stagnation in living standards. In the long run, this is very dangerous: The exclusion of the people from the political process—especially when coupled with an unwillingness (or an inability) to pass real economic reform—will only serve to inflame illiberal passions, turning even more citizens against liberal democracy.

Among the many worrying signs of our time, perhaps the most concerning is that those who believe both in liberalism and in democracy, both in popular rule and in individual rights, have increasingly taken on a defensive crouch. They seek to rescue what they know to be valuable, and yet they have lost their ability to articulate what part of contemporary reality is worth fighting for and why. And so many of them wind up focusing their energies on shoring up the bad as well as the good parts of our crumbling political order: Rather than imagining what social and economic policies might help to diffuse popular anger and fulfill the promises of liberal democracy, they seek their salvation in immobility.

To fight the terrorists and the populists, to prevail both against the plotters of undemocratic coups and the illiberal tribunes propelled into office by the intense anger of a volatile age, will require liberal democrats to stand tall for their values—and to develop the radical imagination that is desperately needed if we are to recreate the conditions that once allowed for the system’s stability. New economic policies are needed to ensure that ordinary people capture much more of the world’s economic gains than they have in the past decades. Meanwhile, democratic institutions designed for the 18th century need to restore the promise of popular rule by incorporating the technologies of the 21st century.

By the cruel standards of human history, the last few decades have been uncommonly serene. It is looking less and less likely that we will one day be able to say the same thing of the next few decades. Radical change seems to lurk just around the corner. The question is no longer whether we can preserve our political order in its current form. (We probably can’t.) It is what reforms are needed to ensure that the precious, fragile combination of liberalism and democracy does not entirely vanish from the face of the earth. If the center is to hold—if we are to rescue what is best about our imperfect political order—a lot will have to change.

 

Was Columbus secretly a Jew?

Christopher Columbus bids farewell to his son Diego at Palos, Spain, before embarking on his first voyage on August 3, 1492.

Today marks the 508th anniversary of the death of Christopher Columbus.

Everybody knows the story of Columbus, right? He was an Italian explorer from Genoa who set sail in 1492 to enrich the Spanish monarchs with gold and spices from the orient. Not quite.

For too long, scholars have ignored Columbus’ grand passion: the quest to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims.

During Columbus’ lifetime, Jews became the target of fanatical religious persecution. On March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella proclaimed that all Jews were to be expelled from Spain. The edict especially targeted the 800,000 Jews who had never converted, and gave them four months to pack up and get out.

Tens of thousands of Marranos were tortured by the Spanish Inquisition. They were pressured to offer names of friends and family members, who were ultimately paraded in front of crowds, tied to stakes and burned alive. Their land and personal possessions were then divvied up by the church and crown.

Recently, a number of Spanish scholars, such as Jose Erugo, Celso Garcia de la Riega, Otero Sanchez and Nicholas Dias Perez, have concluded that Columbus was a Marrano, whose survival depended upon the suppression of all evidence of his Jewish background in face of the brutal, systematic ethnic cleansing.

Columbus, who was known in Spain as Cristóbal Colón and didn’t speak Italian, signed his last will and testament on May 19, 1506, and made five curious — and revealing — provisions.

Two of his wishes — tithe one-tenth of his income to the poor and provide an anonymous dowry for poor girls — are part of Jewish customs. He also decreed to give money to a Jew who lived at the entrance of the Lisbon Jewish Quarter.

On those documents, Columbus used a triangular signature of dots and letters that resembled inscriptions found on gravestones of Jewish cemeteries in Spain. He ordered his heirs to use the signature in perpetuity.

According to British historian Cecil Roth’s “The History of the Marranos,” the anagram was a cryptic substitute for the Kaddish, a prayer recited in the synagogue by mourners after the death of a close relative. Thus, Columbus’ subterfuge allowed his sons to say Kaddish for their crypto-Jewish father when he died. Finally, Columbus left money to support the crusade he hoped his successors would take up to liberate the Holy Land.

Estelle Irizarry, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, has analyzed the language and syntax of hundreds of handwritten letters, diaries and documents of Columbus and concluded that the explorer’s primary written and spoken language was Castilian Spanish. Irizarry explains that 15th-century Castilian Spanish was the “Yiddish” of Spanish Jewry, known as “Ladino.” At the top left-hand corner of all but one of the 13 letters written by Columbus to his son Diego contained the handwritten Hebrew letters bet-hei, meaning b’ezrat Hashem (with God’s help). Observant Jews have for centuries customarily added this blessing to their letters. No letters to outsiders bear this mark, and the one letter to Diego in which this was omitted was one meant for King Ferdinand.

In Simon Weisenthal’s book, “Sails of Hope,” he argues that Columbus’ voyage was motivated by a desire to find a safe haven for the Jews in light of their expulsion from Spain. Likewise, Carol Delaney, a cultural anthropologist at Stanford University, concludes that Columbus was a deeply religious man whose purpose was to sail to Asia to obtain gold in order to finance a crusade to take back Jerusalem and rebuild the Jews’ holy Temple.

In Columbus’ day, Jews widely believed that Jerusalem had to be liberated and the Temple rebuilt for the Messiah to come.

Scholars point to the date on which Columbus set sail as further evidence of his true motives. He was originally going to sail on August 2, 1492, a day that happened to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples of Jerusalem. Columbus postponed this original sail date by one day to avoid embarking on the holiday, which would have been considered by Jews to be an unlucky day to set sail. (Coincidentally or significantly, the day he set forth was the very day that Jews were, by law, given the choice of converting, leaving Spain, or being killed.)

Columbus’ voyage was not, as is commonly believed, funded by the deep pockets of Queen Isabella, but rather by two Jewish Conversos and another prominent Jew. Louis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez advanced an interest free loan of 17,000 ducats from their own pockets to help pay for the voyage, as did Don Isaac Abrabanel, rabbi and Jewish statesman.

Indeed, the first two letters Columbus sent back from his journey were not to Ferdinand and Isabella, but to Santangel and Sanchez, thanking them for their support and telling them what he had found.

The evidence seem to bear out a far more complicated picture of the man for whom our nation now celebrates a national holiday and has named its capital.

As we witness bloodshed the world over in the name of religious freedom, it is valuable to take another look at the man who sailed the seas in search of such freedoms — landing in a place that would eventually come to hold such an ideal at its very core.

Was Columbus secretly Jewish? Historians argue explorer’s epic voyage was to establish new homeland for his people as they escaped the Spanish Inquisition

  • Scholars believe Columbus was a ‘Marrano’, a secret Jew who feigned conversion to Catholicism
  • Historians say five clues to the explorer’s true faith can be found in his last will and testament
  • New theory suggests he was looking for a safe haven for the Jews persecuted and driven out of Spain
  • He was described as a ‘deeply religious’ man who was committed to the cause of liberating Israel’s Holy Land
Hiding his faith? Scholars have offered a fascinating theory about the true religion of Christopher Columbus

Hiding his faith? Scholars have offered a fascinating theory about the true religion of Christopher Columbus

He was an intrepid explorer, heroically leading his crew into the unknown as he set sail for the New World on a voyage of discovery.

 

His legend might be cemented in history as the man who discovered America, but a remarkable new theory has emerged about Christopher Columbus and why he embarked on his momentous voyage of 1492.

On the day marking the 508th anniversary of the explorer’s death, scholars have claimed there is compelling evidence that suggests Christopher Columbus was secretly Jewish and that he hid his true faith to survive the Spanish Inquisition.

In a further revelation, historians believe the real motive behind his historic quest was to find a new homeland for Jews who were persecuted and run out of Spain.

As well as his legendary status as an explorer, Columbus has been described as a deeply religious man who was committed to the cause of liberating Jerusalem from the Muslims.

Jews were the target of a brutal and systematic ethnic cleansing during the lifetime of Columbus.

As part of fanatical, religious persecution it was proclaimed by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in March 1492 that all Jews should be expelled from Spain.

This move was particularly aimed at the 800,000 Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism and were given just four months to leave the country.

The remaining Jews in Spain fell into two groups: The ‘Conversos’ – converts who embraced Catholicism and renounced Judaism – and the ‘Marranos’, meaning swine, who feigned conversion but secretly continued with their own religious practices.

In search of a safe haven? An illustration of Christopher Columbus setting foot on American soil for the first time... but was he looking for a new Jewish homeland?

In search of a safe haven? An illustration of Christopher Columbus setting foot on American soil for the first time… but was he looking for a new Jewish homeland?

Question of faith: The Spanish Inquisition tortured tens of thousands of Marranos, who were ordered to give up the names of others - including friends and relatives

Question of faith: The Spanish Inquisition tortured tens of thousands of Marranos, who were ordered to give up the names of others – including friends and relatives

The Spanish Inquisition tortured tens of thousands of Marranos, who were ordered to give up the names of others – including friends and relatives.

 

Marranos who had their secret lives exposed were paraded in front of crowds, tied to stakes and burned alive while the crown and the church divided and took their land and personal possessions.

It has been claimed that Columbus was a Marrano and that keeping his Jewish heritage secret was crucial to his survival.

The scholars believe he left intriguing clues to his true religious background when he died, CNNreported.

Five provisions discovered in Columbus’s last will and testament, signed by the explorer on May 19, 1506, point to him being Jewish, the scholars argue.

Firstly, he left one tenth of his income to the poor and outlined another wish that an anonymous dowry be provided for girls with no money – both of which are part of Jewish customs.

Map showing the voyages of Christopher Columbus and fellow explorer John Cabot: The expedition is said to have been funded not by Queen Isabella of Spain, but by three prominent Jews

Map showing the voyages of Christopher Columbus and fellow explorer John Cabot: The expedition is said to have been funded not by Queen Isabella of Spain, but by three prominent Jews

The Holy Land: Columbus has been described as a deeply religious man who was committed to the liberation of Jerusalem in Israel

The Holy Land: Columbus has been described as a deeply religious man who was committed to the liberation of Jerusalem in Israel

CLUES OF A SECRET JEW?

Historians say there are a number of intriguing hints that point towards Columbus being Jewish.

Two provisions made in his will were Jewish customs: To leave one tenth of his income to the poor and providing an anonymous dowry for girls with no money.

He left an undisclosed amount supporting the crusade of liberating the Holy Land.

He also gave funds to a Jew living at the entrance of the Lisbon Jewish Quarter.

He instructed his heirs to use a triangular signature made up of dots and letters, mimicking a Jewish prayer.

His famous voyage was funded not by the Queen of Spain, but by three prominent Jews – and it was them who he updated first on the progress of his quest.

 

He also left an undisclosed amount of money to support the crusade of liberating the Holy Land, as well as leaving funds to a Jew who lived at the entrance of the Lisbon Jewish Quarter.

Perhaps the most intriguing clues are within Columbus’s signature itself, the scholars claim.

The explorer used a series of dots and letters – formed in a triangular shape – resembling inscriptions found on gravestones of Jewish cemeteries in Spain, which he ordered his heirs to use.

It is believed by one British historian – Cecil Roth, the author of A History of the Marranos – that the signature cryptically replicated a Jewish prayer, the Kaddish, which is usually recited in a synagogue by people mourning the death of a close family member.

This would have allowed Columbus’s sons to say Kaddish for their father after his death, it is claimed.

Another historian, Simon Weisenthat, claimed in his book Sails of Hope that the motive behind Columbus’s voyage was to find a homeland and safe haven for the Jews following their expulsion from Spain.

The scholars say that, contrary to popular belief, the expedition was not funded by Queen Isabella, but by three prominent Jews who all stumped up 17,000 ducats, CNN reports.

This theory is supported, they say, by the emergence of the first two letters written by Columbus, which were sent to his ‘backers’ instead of the royal couple, revealing what he had found and thanking them for his support.

Ursula Le Guin’s Viral Video: “We Will Need Writers Who Can Remember Freedom”

In the midst of all the end-of-the-year lists and reminiscences, there is a speech that made the social media rounds recently that we thought deserved a special mention here at BillMoyers.com.

In accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at this year’s National Book Awards, eminent sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin made a knock-out speech about the power of capitalism, literature and imagination that, as she put it afterwards, “went sort-of viral on YouTube.”

The 85-year-old writer started with a shout-out to her fellow fantasy and sci-fi writers, who have for so long watched “the beautiful awards,” like the one she’d just received, go to the “so-called realists.” She continued:

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality. …

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want — and should demand — our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Le Guin’s speech was fully transcribed by Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. You can read the entire speech at Higgins’s blog.

In 2000, Bill Moyers interviewed Le Guin about the 1980 PBS adaptation of her 1971 book, The Lathe of Heaven, that became the most requested film ever in the PBS archives. The plot revolves around the main character’s dreams altering reality. Le Guin tells Bill she was very skeptical that it could be adapted for television. We’re working on adding the show to our archive, but in the meantime, here’s a version from YouTube.

In Honor of Maya Angelou: The Caged Bird Sung and Sung

Maya Angelou was raped as a child. Visiting her aunt and uncle, she was frightened to tell them about the rapist for fear her uncle would hurt this man. She decided to use her voice; she decided to tell. Some time afterwards a sheriff knocked on the door to report that they found the man dead. Maya, at age seven, concluded in her child’s mind that she was responsible.

In response to the “deadliness of her voice” she decided not to speak. She didn’t use her voice for over six years. While I don’t think she killed this man; I do think there was immense power in her voice. Anyone who listened to her couldn’t help but be profoundly moved. The unfolding and life-giving power of that voice would change the course of millions.

In her silence she created an alchemical chamber where the power and absolute beauty of her voice unfolded and flowered. Her grandmother, whom she called “mama” never tried to correct Maya or “heal” her from her wound. Instead, mama kept telling Maya that she would be a great teacher someday. Mama knew something that very few would even consider — that the soul, spirit, and nature of this young girl were transforming and needed to be held in a radical faith and love. Maya suffered great insult not speaking as a youth — she was teased, criticized and mocked as she wrote her words for others to see instead of using her voice. She spent much time under mama’s porch feeding on poetry, both black and white.

One day, six years later, mama said, “You’ll never appreciate those words until you hear them rolling off your own lips.” [1] She took Maya to church to speak before the congregation. Maya let some poetry pass over her lips, but it was not a black poet as most would have expected. Here are her words:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

This is Sonnet 29 from William Shakespeare. When asked why she didn’t recite a black poet, why she recited Shakespeare, she said, “I knew that was written for me.”

Maya knew, as a black girl, a silent child, what it meant to be in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes; I’m sure, often, she “alone bewept her outcast state.” But she also knew that nature made her, even in her trauma, more than a king.

The first time I saw Dr. Angelou she was in her 60s. She told the story of her rape. Some people and counselors thought that she needed to let this part of her story go, but I was inspired that she didn’t ‘heal it away;’ instead, she made it into something. Life, mama, and Maya made that story into something gloriously human with all the potential we all have to make the deepest humanity out of our pain and suffering. I can hear her saying, “I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.”

The next time I saw her was around 10 years ago; I suppose she was about 76-years-old. She asked to be introduced as Dr. Maya Angelou. She had earned her doctorate, spoke seven languages, and had many honorary doctorates as well. She said something that amazed me — that it was not easy for her to ask others to use the label “doctor” to refer to herself. It was easy for mainstream America to see her as a poet, an author, and a dancer, but to see her as a doctor – many were still having to get over their prejudices to be comfortable calling a black woman “doctor.” I think this is still true. Here was one of the grandest intelligences America had to offer; here was a black woman six-feet-tall, wearing heals and a sleeveless blouse, standing before thousands who came to hear her speak and still she was growing into her full self, her full powers. What a model!

The last time I saw Dr. Angelou she told a story of a white woman who came up to her after one of her talks. The woman thanked her saying that her daughter was suicidal but changed the course of her life after hearing Dr. Maya Angelou speak. And then the woman did something unexpected; she said that she was surprised to learn that this influence on her daughter’s life looked like her — a black woman. My eyes teared; my gut cringed; how would this model of humanity respond? I imagined she would see this woman for the ignorant child she was. Instead, Maya said that she went home and cried much of the weekend. She cried; even though we “shouldn’t take people personally,” “Shouldn’t suffer fools,” etc. She cried; that meant that I could also. I was in law school at that time; I was in my early 40s. I cried many evenings after class. Maya told me it was ok.

I remember reading an interview she did with Dr. Cornel West where she told the story of being on the set of the film Poetic Justice. A fight ensued between two men and threatened to become violent. People on the set backed off wanting to protect themselves. She stepped in, put her hands on one of the men, and said, “Let me speak to you. Let me talk to you. Do you know you’re the best we have? Do you know we don’t have anybody better than you? Do you know everybody has paid for you, and they’re all dead?” [2] The man started to cry and she walked him away from others so he would not be ashamed of his tears. She didn’t know at the time that the man was Tupac Shakur. When asked in an interview years later why she did that, Dr. Angelou said sometimes we have to put our hands on another person and remind them how precious they are; to remind them that they are the best we have.

In honor of Dr. Maya Angelou, may I say in my own voice, a voice empowered by hers, you are the best we have; each of us are the best we have.

[1] Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Bantam Books, 1969).

[2] Cornel West, Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 199.

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory