Sometimes two family members, or friends, or members of the same social group can kind of “steer clear” of each other’s hot spots. Maybe agreeing to disagree works, or simply avoiding the topics in question (Thanksgiving dinner comes to mind!). However, certain issues are just too ineluctable to make peace with. This is why it has been said that “one shouldn’t talk religion or politics in polite company.” In this blog, I reflect on a couple instances when this was the case for me. Morality is hard to compromise about, and when you have two diametrically-opposed opinions about fundamental moral issues, it can be too difficult to successfully square the moral circle, as it were.
In thinking about morality vis-a-vis social relationships that are important to us, if we can stop short of the slippery slope that ends in rancor, virulent partisanship, and obnoxious tribalism, then taking a moral stand is a sign of integrity. Indeed, integrity really counts when one has to suffer for one’s decision.
So, Dustin was a friend of mine from freshman year in high school to probably about age 23 — a long time, and we were very close. In many ways, it was clear that Dustin basically considered me like a brother, despite our differences (we grew up on different sides of the tracks, if you will). He was always a bit of a roughneck, and sort of walked the fine line between the culture in Bellflower, CA (there was lots of marijuana smoking, a few stolen car stereos, and more fighting than I was terribly comfortable with). I was from Downey — and the northeastern part, in which my father, a doctor, and our family fit in pretty well. We had “the big house” amongst all my friends, put it that way. Dustin wanted to go to Downey High School, and he wanted to play water polo (and he was good!). It was as though he sort of accessed his better angels when he was hanging out around my pool, or playing basketball, or Dungeons & Dragons, with me. But when he went home it was easy for him to screw off and act like a fairly typical teenager from a dysfunctional home. We found common ground that didn’t put me too far out of my comfort zone, and had quite a bond.
So one day when we were 22 or 23, he tells me a story that blew my mind. I, too, smoked weed (yes, he introduced me to it when I was in college, and was ready to try it), and so I remember thinking, “Am I so stoned right now that I’m experiencing dysphoric mood, and am casting everything in a dark light? Why does this story feel so awful to me?” I smiled and nodded, but later really fretted about what I had heard.
Dustin and his beach-buggy-driving, beer-drinking, weed-smoking hoodlum friends were in Mexico. They were camping on the beach, and there was another couple of guys who were Americans not far from their spot. I got the impression the duo was kind of “hangers-on” and not very socially desirable. Late into the night, this group of n’er-do-wells reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, did something that just took me aback. Dustin relayed — laughing, mind you — that they snuck over while the due was apparently sleeping in their tent, and collapsed it on them. When they were stuck in this precarious position, the group shot them with BB guns in the regions of their bodies that would probably not be morally dangerous (e.g., the buttocks, the back, etc.). It was like a degradation ritual that prisoners get put through on day one, or which famously went awry in the amazing movie A Few Good Men (when two Marines followed orders and beat a misbehaving recruit with bars of soap inside pillow cases, and shoved his shirt into his mouth — thereby causing lactic acidosis, accidentally killing him).
I was dumbfounded. Even when it came to something like fighting fellow toughs in Bellflower, or stealing a car stereo, I sort of justified it as “no big deal” or whatever. This, though — this felt very premeditated, very cruel. If Dustin took the stance of “Man, do I feel GUILTY now that I sobered up!” I probably would have forgiven him. I just couldn’t get past the idea that he took joy in seeing two “out group members” accosted and basically battered. I thought, only someone who doesn’t know what honor means would do this, and laugh about it. Someone callous. Ironically, Dustin did have the Japanese word for honor tattooed on his body.
I stewed about this for a week, and finally it struck me that I cannot, in good conscience, let this travesty go unmentioned. I had to say something because I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance: how could my very close friend be a guy who enjoys light torture? I wrote him a letter. I told him my feelings, and I remember writing, “You say you have honor, and yet you behave like this and even revel in it. That is not honor, that is cruelty and cowardice.” It was immoral, and morally-speaking it was hard for me to square the circle. He flew into a rage on my answering machine, pointing out how much I had changed and to never EVER call him again. I suppose he was either ashamed, or I totally misunderstood the story.
I don’t know if one can have a close relationship with someone without some judgment, sooner or later — not if one is a person of integrity. We all slip up, yes, but Dustin’s reaction on the phone indicated that it wasn’t a slip-up for which he would take my counsel, it was part of his character. I don’t know quite how that came to pass — the fact that that day, finally, I noticed part of his character that was an affront to my sense of honor. Either he changed or my standards grew more stringent, and I think it is the former.
A second situation is also noteworthy. My very very close childhood friend (call him Daniel) also came from the other side of town, but we got along pretty well. Looking back, I am not sure that I meant to him what he meant to me, but I am probably a bit sensitive and have some more feminine qualities than he did/does.
In high school, the cool faculty member was named Randal. He must have been 30 when Daniel and I were 16. One day he told me that Randy, with whom he was sort of fast friends, has this thing called a “Renaissance faire group” — a group of friends that went to Renaissance faires, at which they dressed up and acted like particular characters (and drank and ate and chit-chatted about things that concerned lords and ladies in the 16th century, basically). That sounded interesting, and Daniel went on to portray a knight in Randal’s subsequent group. Randal was into philosophy, and Rush, and I did look up to him. Me he could leave, but Daniel he was drawn to. There was always something about the guy; I suppose charisma would be a good word to describe it. Randal was part-friend, part-mentor, for years.
We both found Daniel’s chosen profession of Border Patrol agent (and then he was promoted to agent in charge of public relations at one of the branches along the Mexico border) to be a pretty stand-up career. Basically, Daniel “did good” — ascended the ranks, got respect, saw pay increase after raise after pay increase. I perceived his role as preventing drug smugglers and criminals (or worse) from crossing north across the border into the United States, and treating captured “illegal immigrants” with a sense of decency that distinguished him among his fellow officers. He proudly wore the badge and gun, and it was not easy work. Randal and I were able to respect his career choice, even though it wasn’t exactly our cup of tea, being fairly liberal.
Fast-forward to the Trump Administration. Now, our mutual friend claims that my “hatred of Trump is clouding my judgment,” but I think I see the situation fairly clearly.
It seems to me that, like a mid-level Nazi official in Germany, Daniel didn’t necessarily want to see Trump (who plays Hitler in this scenario) elected. Daniel impressed me a couple of times as being more liberal than some of his colleagues, more of a critical thinker. Yes, he was not in favor of many restrictions on gun ownership, and sort of disliked the media, but he wouldn’t do something immoral for pay, is what I mean. However, over time, Daniel seems to have changed. In this analogy, he wasn’t the guy throwing the switch in the gas chamber, but he became increasingly willing to carry Trump’s water. I would liken it to performing the function of schoolteacher in Nazi Germany, something like that. Nonviolent, but morally questionable, to say the least.
So, I do believe that Trump can be likened not only to Hitler (well, a milder version, but cut from the same cloth) but also “the mad king” of Game of Thrones lore. I perceive him as megalomaniacal, narcissistic, authoritarian, and of extremely low moral character. Trump has been through four (count ’em — FOUR) heads of the Department of Homeland Security in four years. That department is like many others in the era of Trump — degraded by lies, inanity, and corruption. That is, those with a certain level of principles — of moral character — are drummed out by the moral reprobate who beat Clinton in the Electoral College vote. The guy with his finger on the nuclear button, basically.
Daniel was probably asked to “toe the line” and was able to cut a few corners, professional-ethics-wise. The devil usually lets a person hang themselves by the rope that the devil provides, more than forcibly hanging the individual. Metaphorically speaking, of course, the devil seems to get a perverse joy out of having people sign on the dotted line — to slowly come to want what the dark lord is offering.
Indeed, Randal and I cannot figure out how it is that Daniel morally justified the issue of children of immigrants being forcibly separated from their parents and kept in separate holding cells. As reports now show, the problem was not minor, and it was not morally dubious. Kids were kept in cages for astoundingly long periods of time — not for any good reason, but I believe it was admitted because it would discourage further immigration. The demagogue in chief found some kind of perverse joy in torturing those poor families who were fleeing atrocities in their home countries which the United States actually played a role in creating and fomenting over the decades. El Salvador would not be the “shithole country” Trump referred to if we hadn’t mucked around with it for Cold War or Drug War purposes.
Point being, Daniel didn’t turn in his badge and gun when this atrocity was taking place; no, he was justifying it to the media and the community (he is the public relations officer, as I mentioned). When asked to make a moral argument in favor of putting kids in cages — some of whom died — on behalf of Donald Trump’s nasty policy position, he did so. I don’t know if he had any sleepless nights, or if he took to the role like a Nazi to a cushy bureaucratic position serving der Fuhrer.
As this summary by the very reputable Southern Poverty Law Center shows, there really isn’t a lot of moral ambiguity in Trump’s inhumane border control tactics (and creating a huge wedge issue for his base to enjoy).
Randal and I do not see that as a moral grey area, and we were flummoxed that Daniel could work in the Trump chain of command. Randal, I admit, was faster on the uptake. I knew about this and he definitely made some moral choices I didn’t agree with over the years, but I didn’t speak up. Today, I am reminded of the famous lamentation written by the contrarian theologian put to death by the Nazis, Reinhold Niebuhr: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I said nothing….”
Daniel actually dumped me as a friend about two years ago. He never really provided me with a good explanation — nothing that would be morally justifiable, I don’t think. He said, “I guess I got miffed and harbored some resentment over the whole using identifying info related to a blog or Twitter or whatever it was thing.” Does that sound like bullshit to you? It does to me, in part because he is an avid political discussant on Facebook all the time. Everyone he knows knows he is a high-ranking Border Patrol agent, so it isn’t like I outed him or something. I have seen some very heated debates over border security philosophy, border security measures, gun control, and so on. So, suffice it to say, he had other reasons for quitting me as a friend. Though that kind of disloyalty is ignominious, I think, I won’t follow suit and say anything else about what I think that dishonorable decision was all about. I sort of doubt it was about politics, though.
I sort of mourned the loss of my childhood friend a year or 18 months ago, and just moved on with my life. I saw him the other day on a friend’s page, though, justifying Donald Trump’s highly questionable use of federal law enforcement officials at his command to go into “blue” cities with Democratic mayors and clean up the streets. The rationale is dubious, the methods harsh at times, and the invitation nonexistent. It is basically an authoritarian tactic meant to sway certain white voters who would fall for the Nixonian “law and order” campaign strategy.
To quote Kenneth Blay at length on the nature of Trump’s moves in Portland, Chicago, and other “blue” cities in the wake of a self-induced catastrophe with COVID and the resultant economic carnage — which Daniel defended by citing the proper legal code instead of throwing up his hands and saying, ‘Hey, it’s not my call. It feels pretty authoritarian to me, but I’m just a lowly public servant.” No, he very publicly and very carefully justified Trump’s use of forces who have been way out of line, the media is clearly showing. Again, Mr. Blay from The Nation:
“The Trump Administration is consulting with John Yoo, the fascist author of the D.O.J. memo purporting to prove that torture was legal at Abu Ghraib. Yoo is advising the Trump administration how to rule by decree, bypassing Congress and the Courts. This is the very definition of dictatorship, and it is not merely theoretical.
Trump is at this moment using federalized Brownshirts to provoke riots in Portland, Kansas City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and other places as excuses to:
1. Declare a state of emergency.
2. Impose marshal law using DHS thugs.
3. Suspend the elections.
4. Establish himself as a permanent dictator.
It is equally clear that Yoo, Wolf, Barr, Pompeo, Miller, McConnell, Nunes, several federal judges and numerous other traitors are active conspirators in this transparent plot. If local urban police departments do not repulse Trump’s invasions of their cities, America will be a police state before November.
American democracy is gasping for air like a 233 year old Covid patient.”
As well, the Nation article reads:
“The deployment of unidentified federal officers is particularly dangerous in a situation like that in Portland and elsewhere in America, because it could easily lead to right-wing militias’ impersonating legal authorities and kidnapping citizens. As former CIA counterintelligence analyst Aki Peritz notes, ‘All it takes is one of these similar-kitted out militiamen groups to start grabbing folks off the street as well, but then having their way with them, for there to be huge, possibly violent pushback for these tactics. This hurts the police, and the citizenry.’ Peritz argues, ‘We’re quickly entering secret police territory now. DHS is becoming Trump’s Mukhābarāt” (the Arabic word for intelligence agency, used colloquially to refer, for example, to the Egyptian or Iraqi or Libyan secret police).'”
So this is no small matter. A person of higher moral character would have disavowed Trump’s moves and refused to comment on their legality. Daniel in fact said on Facebook, “Governors and mayors in fact have no say in when and where federal law enforcement officers conduct enforcement.”
Here are a few quotes that illustrate how obnoxious this latest in what I call “fascism-creep” on Trump’s part (and, necessarily, on the part of the remaining cronies and underlings who follow orders) — unlike Lt. Col. Vindman who did the right thing in coming forward about Trump’s unprecedented official acts he was aware of [in the impeachment trial] — and who was later drummed out of his post by a vengeful Donald Trump):
“Welcome to the world of performative authoritarianism, a form of politics that reached new heights of sophistication in Russia over the past decade and has now arrived in the United States.” (Anne Applebaum)
“The state of Oregon and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued the Trump administration for unlawfully detaining Oregon residents, and some Republicans spoke out against its tactics on Monday. “There is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding people up at will,” tweeted U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. The Chicago Tribune reported that Homeland Security was making plans to deploy around 150 agents in the city this week where police defending a statue clashed with protesters on Friday.” (Reuters)
On Facebook recently, Daniel went to bat for the Trump Administration’s policies about the Portland intervention, citing legal codes as to why the Border Patrol or any other federal law enforcement officer has every right to go to wherever this president orders them, to do whatever he says they ought to do. We have seen the behavior of these individuals (I would say the term “jack-booted thugs” is probably a bit hyperbolic), wielding their pepper spray and tear gas and batons, and whisking away Portlanders in their unmarked cars. In many instances, though not in toto, the police have acted deplorably, and the police response to the public’s response to the George Floyd murder in broad daylight lays bare the quasi-authoritarian instincts of many cops and many departments. Daniel would always bat back any commentary about the police being too “militarized” or using dubious tactics against protestors on Facebook. He would have the moral recognizance to say, yah, that victim of police brutality didn’t deserve what they got, but his views of the institutionalized racism and brutality evinced by various local, state, and federal law enforcement officials wasn’t obvious to him. He is playing for a team now, and the media and the rabble are on the opposite side.
Daniel also said on Facebook: “I’ve never lost a night of sleep over my feeling I did something wrong in enforcing the law. People are free to cast judgment as their political ideology dictates….I brush it off and continue about my business.” Well, isn’t that convenient?! Here is a quote that Daniel seems to have forgotten — but Randal and I are sure he once knew, before “fascism-creep” marked Daniel’s frequent argumentation with friends of mine and others on Facebook: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to stand by and do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)
I just don’t see how there is anything one can do but to decry this latest fascistic move by Trump, meant no doubt to move the needle in the upcoming presidential election. But not Daniel. He rejected my criticism of him and of Trump. He doesn’t see the moral forest for the moral trees, I think.
And so it leaves me asking, What went wrong with Daniel? How did my childhood friend who always played the paladin (knight) in Dungeons & Dragons, and who was always obsessed with bushido and samurai culture, justify his role in this — the worst presidential administration ever to curse America (in my lifetime, at least). History will sort all this out, and people like Trump, Attorney General Barr, and all the rest of the moral nincompoops who haven’t left that god-forsaken Administration will fare very poorly. One day those who enacted Trump’s bizarre, untraditional, and self-serving will on the Southern border may have to account for simply following orders when things didn’t jibe with what is right.
As Daniel knows, a soldier is not required to follow illegal orders, such as to massacre a village in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, or torture a terrorist to extract whatever information they may (or may not!) know. Kids in cages — resulting in severe psychological damage and even death — is no small matter, and Daniel deflected this inhumane tactic by Trump in his opining on Facebook. One friend was so dismayed by Daniel’s lack of apparent concern for the policy of family separation that he doesn’t even speak to Daniel anymore. As this report by the BBC states, “The circumstances have been similar: they cross the southern US border without the proper documents, get detained by border patrol agents and, shortly after, die of health complications.” Indeed, just because one’s boss wants one to justify a dubious decision sent down by Trump to the media by way of public relations does not mean that such a position would comport with standard conceptions of private morality or public ethics.
This is how Randal thinks about Daniel’s moral reasoning and his character:
Here’s the thing; moral clarity is not…well, unclear. Not in the least.
You can argue the merits of trickle down economics…you can argue the merits of tax incentives (until it’s proven they don’t work), you can argue the merits of single-payer health care vs subsidized health care a la Obamacare. There are things you can disagree about and debate because morality isn’t really part of the equation; not directly anyway.
And then there are things where there’s just no moral grey area.
You cannot argue ripping children from their parents is a moral grey area. You cannot argue snatching people off the streets is a moral grey area. You cannot argue indefinite detention (e.g., the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba/United States prison) is a moral grey area. NO ONE with any moral decency, any moral sensibility, no matter how small, can argue there’s any grey area [in such matters].
Not only that, but these are the VERY things the Gestapo did, and WE tried them as war criminals for it. Now we’re doing the very same thing and it’s perfectly acceptable?? If they do it its a crime; if we do it, that’s ok? Are you [expletive] kidding me?
I’ve learned that most people are cowards. Not even something this big, but smaller, local issues. I knew someone who was abusing their foster kids, and another person and I actively worked with the state to provide info — including surreptitiously recording the offenders admitting to some of what they’d done. There was NO grey area: what was happening was wrong and needed to be stopped. But when I spoke with other people who had been to the house, saw what was going on, and said, “Hey, you need to speak up,” most people quietly slinked into the background. To one person I knew pretty well I said, “You’ve been around, you’ve seen what goes on, you need to let the state know what you’ve seen” suddenly all the excuses started coming out: “I didn’t really see anything,” “I don’t have anything more to add,” “I don’t know what good it will do” and the classic “I don’t want to get involved.” Damned cowards.
I think most people involved in someway are similar cowards, like this Border Patrol agent, and they’ll go along with what they know is immoral because they’re cowards. They wont say, “No.” or quit their jobs because they fully recognize how wrong it is. No, they’ll go along with it. As long as it doesn’t directly affect them, they’ll go along with it. Now it seems this particular individual had enough of a conscience to say he would no longer do it, but where was that conscience before he did it the first time? Look, I don’t have to rip a child from his parents before I understand how horrible, and traumatizing — and immoral it is.
I can agree with Randal that the Nazis got most of the Germans who were collaborators and Party members to do what they did one small moral step at a time. If Hitler started off on Day 1 saying “We need to kill all the Jews we can get our hands on!” I have to assume that he would have heard 20% of people clap and 80% stand there with furrowed brows, mumbling. But once you have done ten, twenty, or thirty preliminary acts, the evil just kind of materializes — but it was a stepwise process. Hannah Arendt believed so (link to her idea of the banality of evil).
In it, Sam Dresser delves into Arendt’s view of the idea of immorality (evil, I suppose, is a better word) vis-a-vis Adolf Eichmann, the most notorious Nazi to be brought before a tribunal in Israel (the Nuremberg Trials prosecuting Hermann Goering and others was in Germany, and Hitler and Mengele did not survive the war). He writes:
“Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terrifyingly normal’. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy. Eichmann was not an amoral monster, she concluded in her study of the case, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Instead, he performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’.
So, my former best friend is apparently “morally neutralizing” the ways in which is is furthering the interests of Donald Trump and whatever orders inept or corrupt head of ICE or DHS or the Border Patrol issues. I assume one day, if he ever has to account for his banal decisions, tactics, and public relations work, will say something akin to what most Nazi officials claimed at Nuremberg: “I was just following orders.” Dustin might have justified the night at the beach in some way, or simply forgotten about it. Both he and Daniel might be able to square the moral circle in their heads, but I think it is mental gymnastics meant to allow themselves to save face, feel moral, and avoid guilt. Ω