Pros and Cons of the Syrian Missile Strike

There is nothing at all uncomplicated about the crisis in Syria—to the point that I find it difficult to say anything meaningful about it. That is to say, I spent a lot of time stopping and deleting what I had written. Below are my thoughts, strewn in a mess, roughly to the effect that I am somewhat frustrated by the general liberal response, but more frustrated by the strike itself. There are plenty of understandable ethical, legal, and political reasons to oppose targeted strikes, in principle and in practice, as well as to support them circumstantially, which is where I tend to fall. Even so, I am put off by arguments that suggest the correct course of action is somehow apparent because of some dogmatic belief for or against targeted military strikes. The circumstances, the long-term effects, and the motivations which surround any strike matter. And so I definitively oppose Trump, May, and Macron’s choice to strike Assad as they have done. Anyway…

Given the lack of clear constitutional authority to use military force, on principle President Trump’s actions are hard to justify. Last year, I argued much the opposite; however, as I’ve thought more about the need for congressional approval of any armed conflict, I’ve become convinced that we as a people have become complacent about the encroaching presidential prerogative to use force in situations which may embroil us in a long-term conflict. For instance, it’s easy to imagine a military strike in Syria going sideways and escalating into war with Russia or Iran, something to which no one person should be able to unilaterally commit the country. Our Founders understood that a president in political jeopardy, or who just hopes to score political points (though I doubt they would have used such a phrase), might work to utilize the glory always attached to war to save or bolster his political career—what may be exactly what’s happening now—which is why they gave the power to declare war to Congress. Furthermore, the authorization of military force given by Congress, in the wake of 9/11 which is nominally used to justify our efforts in Syria, has been stretched beyond meaning, and it is simply disingenuous to imagine it was intended to be used in this way or that its plain text allows it to be.

Additionally, the clear lack of interest the administration and its analogues in France and the UK have shown in seeking any kind of support in the UN is disappointing. Obviously, Russia would veto any kind of authorization of force against Syria in a Security Council vote. But making the case to the UN, even if quixotic, must be done if we are to imagine ourselves as a member of the world community, as opposed to its unreliable vigilante enforcer. And while nonbinding, a vote of support in the general assembly would matter. The US, the UK, and France cannot act like lawless cowboys, if for nothing else than because it offers an implicit justification for other nations to intervene unjustly in like fashion with less moral authority.

At the same time, many arguments I’ve seen against the strike are at times underwhelming. When we talk about the evils of bombing a decently sized country such a Syria, we often forget that these targeted strikes aren’t a wholesale military bombardment. We’re not carpet-bombing their major cities, we’re not engaging in a large-scale operation. And so I wonder if we problematically reduce a whole country to a single imagined point in space, something we can only do from a(n imperializing) distance. That is to say, just as conservative hawks discount the full repercussions of military force—for instance, they tend to undervalue the heinousness of civilian deaths, something I would never want to fall prey to—because they don’t see a foreign, subaltern country as full or worthy of deep thought, liberal doves do much the same work when they talk about how we’re “bombing a people already bombed by its government”. Once we know the extent of civilian causalities (as well as military casualties, whose deaths we also tend to discount), we can better assess these claims, but in the abstract, doves also reduce the country—to its most easily empathized pieces, as though a strike on an abandoned airbase (as was last year’s) were a strike on a hospital. Our sense of scale, from a distance and often aligned with an imperial behemoth, is always askew, and we shouldn’t conflate a strike on an airbase, for instance, a strike against a chemical weapons plant, or a strike against a terrorist camp, with a strike on a refugee camp. At the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that military discourse often does similar work in reverse, acting as though attacks in a refugee camp can, through mental acrobatics, be self-servingly reclassified as an attack on a terrorist cell because a single suspected terrorist might have died among dozens of civilians, and so we have every right to be skeptical. But not to be reductive.

Obviously, people I respect often ask what gives the US, the UK, and France the authority to use force against any country. As I argue above, there is no legal authority to my knowledge, which is a gross shame. At the same time, the quietist position offered here by liberal doves is truly concerning. If Assad were gassing his people by the tens of thousands, would they still argue for inaction? Would the impossibility, due to Russia’s veto, of binding sanction by the UN thus necessarily—and acceptably for them—foreclose any possibility for intervention? The moral authority to intervene to protect innocent people when the (world’s still nascent international) law is unable to do so, even when illegal, bears some consideration. The immediate responding question would likely be, “What innocents do we protect by a random and inconsistent string of military strikes, which themselves cause very little logistical strife to the offending nation(s)?” It’s a question with whose premises I largely agree—our strikes of determent are often more for show to civilians at home and not actually aimed at determent at all. We should be more consistent in our use of force, ideally through the UN but also through other international communities, and we should more heavily inflict logistical consequences—although how to do so without increasing casualties, once again both civilian and military (who are often as much imbricated by political forces against their wills as civilians), is a heck of a question. In an ideal world, our use of target strikes would deter a figure like Assad from using chemical weapons ever again. More importantly, however, it would act to deter other would-be genocidal despots. Because our use of force is inconsistent and often only token, we’ve failed in both parts of that mission—Assad has been undeterred, and likely will remain so going forward, and other human rights abusers know the consequences tend to be small and rarely dealt and thus know they can likely act with (near) impunity. This is a structural failing, by the US, the UN, and the global community. However, if one truly believes in the necessity of avoiding genocides and crimes against humanity, it’s difficult to imagine any alternative than some sort of strong response to the use of chemical weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction. The form of that response, when diplomatic and economic tools prove ineffective or equally morally defective (like, is it truly super-duper ethical to endorse the starvation of millions of North Korean civilians due to international sanctions?), sometimes must be military in nature. Otherwise, we implicitly authorize the use of such weapons, both now and in the future.

On the whole, then, I am not in principle opposed to strikes against Assad. The price the Syrian people and the wider world has paid for our inaction is impossible to estimate. Had we intervened at the start of the conflict, no matter how messily, would things have devolved to this degree? It is increasingly clear to me at least that the situation has only worsened with time, and so I wonder how long we can wait until the world is forced to do /something/. Thus far, we have largely demurred, due to the complexities of the problems and the impossibility of any clear, just answer. How long we will continue to be able to do so is anyone’s guess. And while it is totally imaginable that our early intervention could have led to a situation much like Iraq, or that present intervention would also lead to commensurate catastrophes, inaction is not without its own cost. If Iraq has been our dark lesson in overeager action, Syria seems like a lesson in reticent inaction. Dogmatically choosing one strategy to use across time and circumstances, either living as a hawk or a dove, would therefore prove disastrous in the long-term, and so I am opposed to the blanket opposition offered to any and all intervention in Syria no matter the situation or context.

At the same time, due to its ineffectual nature, the disinterest in UN involvement, the lack of constitutional authority, and the presence of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief, in practice this strike deeply troubles me. I do not trust Trump to make these decisions, and the further he implicates us in this predicament, the more challenging the obstacles he will face and the more likely he is to tumble us into deep and lasting war. Consequently, while I am somewhat nonplussed by anyone who imagines that Trump is acting as bellicosely as Clinton evidently would have—which is a common thread I’ve seen online, people mocking that one headline “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk”, as though Clinton wouldn’t have committed more force to Syria that Trump has (something I, again, would have likely supported her in, with probable qualms)—I agree with the host of people I follow online that Trump lacks the temperament or the capacity to lead us through this crisis. While there is a clear call to action, even had he and our allies made their case to the UN, even had Congress voted to approve targeted strikes, even were the strike more thoughtfully placed, I am more and more and more opposed across the board to Trump’s use of force, even in situations where I might otherwise support it. There is, as I have said, a cost to inaction—one that in general I am loathe for the world to pay. But in this situation, with this American president, I am much more conflicted and much less convinced.


We Will Overcome

We find ourselves enraptured in a war for the nation’s soul. This in and of itself is nothing new. From the first clashes between those who wished to abolish slavery and enshrine in our founding documents total and inalienable equality and those with lesser imagination who protected the slave trade and the plantation system in order to preserve the Union; from that later slaughter in which those who fought to preserve the Union and liberate the enslaved died in the fields and in the forests and on the hills alongside their injudicious brothers and cousins; to the marches in which dogs and water hoses and batons were sicced and flushed upon innocent demonstrators exercising their constitutional right to assembly and protest against a fundamentally immoral and unjust system of oppression—America’s original sin has always been slavery.

The metaphor of original sin seems so apt to me. This is the concept in many mainstream Christian denominations that because of Adam and Eve’s moral failure, humanity can only be redeemed through Christ and Christian observance. Wrapped up in that doctrine is the understanding that human beings are not born pure, but rather born in sin. Whatever you make of that, in regard to America and its racial history, the comparison rings true. None of us alive today fought for the Confederacy. None of us alive today owned or traded slaves. None of us alive today established an unjust system or allowed for all the moral compromises bedeviling fugitive slaves that followed. But that is no matter. Until we find redemption, until we achieve some greater and more perfect Union than the one we have at present, it makes no difference our own actions or our own sense of justice or our own moral will. What matters is that a deep corruption lies at the heart of this American experiment and the damned spot just won’t come out.

In our mythology, we have turned Martin Luther King Jr. into a Christ-like figure. We too often as a society imagine that in his death, America was freed from racial injustice. We feel because we teach him and his legacy in our schools, because we have anointed a holiday with his name, because we accent our speeches with platitudinous quotations from his words, that we have effected a moral metamorphosis and escaped the memory of bondage and of racial injustice.

We forget all too often that there are many, many still living who remember segregation. We ignore all too often the evils of sharecropping. We forgive all too often the terrors imposed upon blacks in the North, even after the Civil War. We whitewash across the board the deep and lasting scars that racial injustice left throughout the South and, yes then, in the North as well. I have heard again and again, from people in my life and online, that white people were the ones who freed the slaves, and so black people should be grateful—somehow ignoring who exactly the bastards were that owned said slaves in the first place! We must not disremember that this nation’s original laws were written to protect the slave trade. In the Constitution, indeed, only two things were explicitly made impossible to amend or change: the figure of senators apportioned to the states and the protection given to the slave trade that it could not be abolished until 1808. No act of Congress, nor any constitutional amendment, could have changed that fact. And even once the slave trade was abolished in 1808, slavery flourished for another fifty and some years. These were the priorities of our Founders. However painful it may be to admit, protecting racial injustice was one of two overpowering priorities of our Founders, so important it was made impossible to change. And to act as though we have escaped those realities is disingenuous, nefarious, and downright cold—and something only possible, it seems to me, if you’re white.

It is not right that if a resume is headed by the name Jamal the job candidate will be treated differently than if the name were James. It is not just that voter-ID laws disproportionately affect people of color. And it is unconscionable that a man who refuses to denounce white nationalism lives within the White House today. This is the same building in which Abraham Lincoln plotted the Emancipation Proclamation and planned his fight for the 14th Amendment, acknowledging in manmade law what had already been true in natural law: that African Americans were citizens of the United States and entitled to all the protections and guarantees thereof. This is the same building into which Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington for dinner, the first time any such high-profile racial meeting had taken place. This is the same building from which Harry S Truman desegregated the armed services. This is the same building into which Lyndon Johnson brought reluctant lawmakers in order to cajole them into supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And while we cannot afford to whitewash our own history, forgetting that it is the same building built in part by slaves and the same building that housed generations of actively racist American presidents—culminating in the vitriolic bigotry of Woodrow Wilson and the dog-whistle politics of Richard Nixon—we must not forget the moral bravery we have come to expect from our presidents. Despite the moral cowardice of some, despite the indecent silence of many, the White House has housed within its walls true heroes in the fight toward equality, and that legacy was harmed grievously today. We have known better, we expect better, and we must hold our president to account.

No other president in recent memory has flirted so heavily with, and allowed his positions to be so heavily influenced by, the forces which crowd under the dark clouds of white nationalism. This should leave us with a heavy heart. Because while no American president has been perfect, and while all have had much to answer for as history has judged their sins, no position seems so out of place, no disposition seems so crude or unusual, as our current president’s incestuous attraction to white nationalist and Nazi organizations in 2017. There has never been a moral case for racial oppression. But if there has ever been a time when this has been so well known to be the case, when it is so commonly accepted how inhumane and unwarranted such a position of support would be, I don’t know of it. Racial prejudice has always been morally unjustifiable, but in 2017, it is known to be unjustifiable in a way it has never been before. And yet, despite this knowledge, despite the sum of history at our backs, our president chooses to make his bed with the sheets of moral equivalency and the bedding of honest indifference.

There have been many warriors for the soul of these United States. We had the honor to see some in the streets of Charlottesville, yesterday and today, counterprotestors who refused to fall victim to the call of violence, who eschewed the ideology of white nationalism and the seductive allure of inaction, our brave neighbors who refused to allow Nazis to march through an American city undisturbed. They stand in a line of American champions, from those who marched with King, to those fought and defeated Hitler, to the unsung millions who have agitated for social justice across our history. More than any president, we the people, over the course of our history, have fought against one another regarding race, and regarding sex— regarding the environment, civil liberties, unions, labor, justice, the size of government, the scope and span of religion, the use and pursuit of armed weapons—and regarding so many things. We have fought and died in order to win America’s soul. In this moment, as have so many others before us, we find ourselves with a moral duty to speak out against violence, against hatred, against bigotry. We find ourselves with a moral obligation to stand up to white nationalism, to racism, to prejudice. We must not let our president’s moral indifference pervade this nation, nor can we allow it to define us or to pollute our values. We have come so far on our journey toward racial equality, toward a more perfect Union. The violence in Charlottesville has shown us, yet again, that the arc of moral history may bend toward justice, but the currents of injustice always and ever push us backward toward demons we would prefer to imagine as dead and gone. But our original sin remains within us—for as long as any person of color has any reason to fear the police more than any white person, for as long as real racial gaps in education and wage persist, for as long as a deep kernel of hatred remains in the heart of any lost and deplorable soul.

Our president, God forgive him, has placed his lot on the wrong side of history. But we retain the choice, as a free people, to see and believe the truth for what it is. We retain the right to speak our truth to the public. We retain our responsibility to fight against terror and injustice, wherever it is found. And when the time has come, in God’s good time, we will undo the wreckages left behind our travesty of a president and we will resume our march toward progress. In short, despite the bludgeon of systemic violence, despite the legions of torch-bearing white nationalists who remain among us, despite the torturous road our brothers and sisters and siblings of color continue to march upon, I believe in my heart that in the end we will overcome.

Constitutional Quandry #1

Here’s a funny thing we don’t know from the Constitution:

Whether or not a president can be indicted before being impeached.


The first thing you learn from a google search, though: This question has not be consistently asked since 1998. lol


The second thing you learn: Many people erroneously claim that the question is settled and that the President holds absolute immunity until he has been impeached.


The third thing you learn: A lot about whether you can sue a president. Turns out, the Supreme Court has held that you can never sue them personally in civil court for actions they took professionally during office (Nixon v. Fitzgerald); however, you can sue the president for civil actions taken before their term of office (Clinton v. Jones). I’m not sure whether there is any precedent regarding whether you can sue a president in civil court for personal actions taken during his term, however.

Ambition Against Ambition

People have said and taken for granted that nothing can be done against Trump while Republicans hold both houses of Congress. And they may be right. But there comes a time when each and every individual Republican lawmaker has to ask themself, “Is this mess worth risking my reelection over?” Normally, there’s only one thing lawmakers risk their chances for reelection over: ideology. A lawmaker will sometimes vote “the wrong way” on a controversial bill, and risk losing their seat, if it’s something they truly believe in. (Or possibly if they’re secretly offered a deal that benefits them financially. We know less about that one because it’s kind of illegal.)

But increasingly, Donald Trump’s presidency hangs on the question of whether or not members of Congress believe in him. Some do, but many–likely most–we know do not. So inevitably, Trump’s political survival hangs on whether Republicans are willing to risk their chances at reelection to keep him in power. If he had delivered big on health care, or if he had made stronger moves on tax reform, or if he had any ability to get anything done, the question before them would be much harder. As things stand, however, it is hard to imagine the dozens of swing state and swing district lawmakers whose own careers hang by a thread ignoring the momentum against Trump.

And so, I fundamentally disagree with the notion that Trump is the hill the Republican Party is willing to die on. Or, rather, that he is the hill individual members of the Republican Party are willing to die for. I could be wrong, but the fire underneath Trump is intensifying, and it is becoming increasingly dangerous to support him. As we turn toward 2018, an election cycle originally written off for Democrats, the future looks increasingly promising for the left and damaging for the right. After all, then, if an investigation–or impeachment–is inevitably coming in 2019, once the Democrats retake the House, what do Republicans win by holding off? Especially Republicans facing tough reelections already, who now somehow have to somehow justify continuing their support for an historically unpopular president. This can’t continue much longer. And for Republican lawmakers, the stakes in 2018 are high.

In the end, it is worth remembering that Republicans turned on Nixon not just because Democrats held both houses, but because they would have been crucified had they done otherwise. As Trump’s actions seemingly become more and more illegal, it is inconceivable to me that Republicans will risk everything for a president they don’t generally like, who limits their policy agenda, and who spells political doom; in short, it is inconceivable that they will risk everything for someone who means nothing to and has done nothing for them.

The Unraveling of Donald J. Trump

The most depressing thing about the careening White House is the way that many Republican lawmakers continue to hope that, eventually, President Trump and his administration will right the ship and return the country to business as usual. What they continue to purposefully ignore, perhaps for their peace of mind or perhaps for their conscience, is that these scandals, these indiscretions, these acts which increasingly border on the illegal—if not the treasonous—are getting worse. They are not getting better.

That is, indeed, Trump’s modus operandi, to up the ante and to increase tension, confusion, or what have you, in order to distract his audience and to complicate the narrative. What’s more, Trump’s recent decisions to fire James Comey and to share classified information with the Russians speak deeply to the President’s inability to act rationally, instead of emotionally. Both decisions indicate the President’s trust in his own gut, optics or strategy be damned, and his need to be the biggest dog in every room he’s in. He fired Comey because Comey refused to pledge loyalty, refused to quiet the Russian investigation, refused to back him up on Trump’s Obama-wiretap claim. A day later, he bragged to the Russians about how much he knows, giving himself credit for the vast and monumental intelligence infrastructure our nation has constructed, only then to prove how much he knows by sharing an incredibly sensitive secret that the Russians had no right to know—a secret we had, as of then, failed to even share with some of our closest allies.

These breaches in our political norms are reaching ever closer to being breaches in our constitutional law. Such a breach, it seems to me, is becoming day by day increasingly inevitable. His actions are, echoing Bob Corker, spinning his administration out of control. And yet, there is no end in sight, and no reason to think such an end is ever coming. It’s only a matter of time until Trump truly goes too far—so far that even the most reticent Republicans will know their damnable place in history if they continue to stand by him.

A Nation Under Hope

Can you imagine
The cold shucks of terror brewing in
Washington and Adams and Jefferson
As the colonies they were born within
Entered armed rebellion?
If this battle or that delegation had gone awry,
They would have been hanged alive,
Then left for dead, brutal footnotes in history
with no legacy left.

But they were more than their fear.
They knew, in battle and under fog of war,
That the risks they took could bloom
Into those blessings of prosperity
They offered us.
They were no saints—too many of our founders
were slave owners, and even those who denied
the right of one man to own another allowed
for their country to accept bondage and captivity.

A classic deal with the devil you know,
To save the idea of a country that could be more.

It is the country that remains unborn,
That future state that has reached forward
And grasped those highest ideals
that I struggle for and toward.

Madison and Lincoln and Roosevelt
Knew that to lose the wars they fought
Would spell the end of all they sought;
The death of the Republic, within sight,
Like a night-iceberg with sirens and their call,
with bright promises of an easy out for all,
And yet they led our ship home to harbor.

We have seen union busters and war mongers,
We have felt witch hunts and blunt misogyny;
The worst of mankind has come from our shores,
and festered in our souls, as in any other land.
But time and again, we have taken a stand
against those worst instincts within us—
Patriots, like waves, have risen to the task.

Now at last, we must be the jealous guardians
of our democracy.

We must bear the turmoil and risks,
The weight of war and peace making;
We must check our hardest instincts,
and open the nation up toward love,
toward truth, toward justice;
Or else this fragile experiment
in human decency and human rights,
our democratic republic of states,
Will fall in on itself.

There is no natural momentum in our favor;
The faults of petty men and
the weight of broken institutions
Pulls us down at every step.
But know this to be true:
Always, we have risen again, to find and make new
That which is best within us.

We are not the destination—
Our nation is in progress still
Toward a land of our highest ideals,
made manifest and real;
The land dreamt of by Tubman,
by Anthony, by King; by Franklin,
by Paine, by Hamilton; by Whitman,
Dickinson, Hawthorne, and Hughes;
Imperfect men and women, calling out to us
Across time, toward some new space,
Where the dreams of our fathers and of our mothers
Will come alive.

I do not know the path we will take,
And my faith may yet be misplaced,
But I believe, yes, I believe—
That men may be flawed, and the future may be dark,
And the challenges before us surely are vast:
But we will get past them, one way or another,
Because the spirit that enlivened our forebears
Remains alive and within us.

It is the spirit that spills from Niagara,
That curls down the Mississippi,
That rises to the highest slopes of the Appalachians,
That cascades down from the Rockies;
It is a spirit that has become imbued
Into the very fabric of our being,
Such that no matter how complacent we have become
Still the strength from on high will come,
Arresting our iniquity, enormity, delinquency,
Carrying us, yet again,
toward the place we would call home;
Each of us was born or brought into this textual web,
Supported and comprising those famous words of the dead:
The country as it is and as we imagine it, they are the same,
And we are crusted over with the dreams of those
whose best wishes will keep us from dear infamy.

Many are those who have come to doubt
The strength of our convictions.
But the love we share for our more perfect Union—
It shall not perish from this earth.
It will overcome.

A Portrait of Post-Election Devastation

Søren Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

The genre of inspiration quotations relies on breaking complex, importation thinkers down into single, pithy statements. I’m not usually a fan. At the same time, however, occasionally a quotation does hit you in the chest, pressing down and refusing to let go until you find it hard to breathe. I recently experienced that with this line from Søren Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

For most of us who actively hope and try to resist the current administration, our sights remain readily focused on the 2018 midterm elections. They will be our next chance to slow the march of pseudo-authoritarianism in the United States. From there, our eyes turn to 2020, when we will nominate someone who, hopefully, will find dispatching President Trump and his campaign as easy as many claim it should have been in 2016.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is 2016 that is on my mind right now. Perhaps it’s the French election, perhaps it’s that I happened to overhear “Fight Song” yesterday, I don’t know. What I have been thinking about is how many of my friends, even my loved ones, voted for Hillary Clinton out of fear for Donald Trump, not out of any particular excitement. Which, fine, a vote’s a vote. Something I’ve struggled with personally, though, since November 8th of last year has been my own emotions regarding Hillary Clinton.

There’s a scene in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s among the most famous scenes in the book. The main character, Stephen Dedalus, is a child, home from school for the Christmas holidays. It is, indeed, set during Christmas dinner. As is so often the case during such family meals, a political fight breaks out between those who are loyal to the Catholic Church in Ireland and those who feel that it actively subverted the nationalist politician, Charles Parnell, who was widely considered at the time to have been Ireland’s best chance at independence. However, because Parnell was discovered to have had a long term affair, with Kitty O’Shea (a legally married woman), the Catholic Church came out publically against Parnell and, at least in the narrative put forward by Joyce (and possibly in fact, as well), hounded him until his death shortly thereafter. I’d like to bring us through the scene, if you don’t mind overly much. Skip through as you will, because I plan to quote heavily, but I do suggest you read as much of it as you can, as it is one of my favorite scenes in literature. (Dashes within the quoted text, I wanted to note, signal for Joyce quotation. He refuses to use quotation marks for conversation.)


Let’s start just before Christmas, as Stephen thinks about the nature of God and his place in the universe:

[Stephen] turned over the flyleaf and looked wearily at the green round earth in the middle of the maroon clouds. He wondered which was right, to be for the green or for the maroon, because Dante had ripped the green velvet back off the brush that was for Parnell one day with her scissors and had told him that Parnell was a bad man. He wondered if they were arguing at home about that. That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr Casey were on the other side but his mother and uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it.

Twice earlier in the novel, Stephen has noticed the green velvet as a symbol of Parnell, as a symbol of an independent Ireland. Now, the housekeeper, Dante (her name echoing the great Catholic poet), has torn off that velvet because of Parnell’s—literal?—fall from grace. I especially love the line, “That was called politics.” After all, so much of the arguing that constitutes political debate, in the US but also in any country, is the long work of arguing with loved ones. Whether on facebook or in real life, we debate far more often with those we respect, those we love, than we do with strangers. I also love how the paragraph ends on the note of the newspaper. For Joyce, as Bruce Robbins writes elegantly about, the newspaper is a continual metaphor, appearing at the end of his most famous short story, “The Dead”, as a kind of unionizing force, one that allows all of Ireland, at once, to be seen and engaged with. Benedict Anderson, the 20th century’s foremost theorist of national formation, argued in his seminal work, Imagined Communities, that newspapers formed the backbone of the ability for people to imagine themselves as members of the same community, the same nation, despite being separated by great distances. Then, as now, it had incrementally become impossible to know a significant fraction of one’s fellow citizens, but newspapers allowed the entire country to self-examine, and thus self-imagine, itself into existence. As he writes:

Why this transformation should be so important for the birth of the imagined community of the nation can best be seen if we consider the basic structure of two forms of imagining which first flowered in Europe in the eighteenth century: the novel and the newspaper. For these forms provided the technical means for ‘representing’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation.” (25)

Furthering this comparison between newspapers and novels, Anderson writes, “fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality, creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations” (36) or, as he jokes, “Reading a newspaper is like reading a novel whose author has abandoned any thought of a coherent plot” (38). Finally, then, to home in on the newspaper as the form which allows a country to, shall we say, read itself, Anderson makes clear that “we have seen that the very conception of the newspaper implies the refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also how important to that imagined community is an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time” (65). In this way, a novel such as Joyce’s works just as the newspapers Stephen has recognized as important—both allow a nation to gain a wider perspective upon itself, seeing members of its wider community who would otherwise seem nonexistent or inexpressible. Or, as Joyce writes following the above quoted material, “It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak.”

Soon thereafter, Parnell dies. Joyce handles the scene with a light hand, gently and perhaps even minimalistically representing just enough to embody the tragedy. Stephen, who has at this point fallen quite ill and is in the school’s infirmary, distantly hears voices:

How pale the light was at the window! But that was nice. The fire rose and fell on the wall. It was like waves. Someone had put coal on and he heard voices. They were talking. It was the noise of the waves. Or the waves were talking among themselves as they rose and fell.

He saw the sea of waves, long dark waves rising and falling, dark under the moonless night. A tiny light twinkled at the pierhead where the ship was entering: and he saw a multitude of people gathered by the waters’ edge to see the ship that was entering their harbour. A tall man stood on the deck, looking out towards the flat dark land: and by the light at the pierhead he saw his face, the sorrowful face of Brother Michael.

He saw him lift his hand towards the people and heard him say in a loud voice of sorrow over the waters:

—He is dead. We saw him lying upon the catafalque. A wail of sorrow went up from the people.

—Parnell! Parnell! He is dead!

They fell upon their knees, moaning in sorrow.

And he saw Dante in a maroon velvet dress and with a green velvet mantle hanging from her shoulders walking proudly and silently past the people who knelt by the water’s edge.

The comparison between the people’s voices and the waves is gorgeous. The people, then, become a part of the natural ecosystem, with their coming political tidings a fact of life, a facet of natural reality. Moreover, they are represented en masse as supporting Parnell. At this point, Stephen seems to hallucinate, likely due to a fever, during which he imagines the news coming into the harbor of Parnell’s death—something he is likely literally overhearing, for which he is providing an imagined visual field—then sees the mourners fall to their knees, then pictures Dante “proudly and silently” refusing to be commune with the mourners, refusing even to acknowledge them. She is, as will soon become clear, glad for Parnell’s death, glad to see that “bad man”, as she described him to Stephen, die. That small detail, though, that she walks “silently” is remarkable—given my reading of the scene, Stephen is providing visual stimuli for himself based on the auditory stimuli of the people talking. Dante, however, comes from without; she is not caused by what Stephen can here. She is, instead, already there, always already a part of his reading of politics, the only detail Stephen provides without a present antecedent or cause.

Immediately after this scene, there is a line break, and then there is the Christmas dinner. Stephen is home now, and at first things are well. The scene begins with a warm description of the family by the fire, content, waiting for dinner, which will “be ready in a jiffy his mother had said.” Uncle Charles and Stephen’s father punctuate their banal conversation with laughter, until eventually dinner comes and Stephen offers a traditional Catholic blessing. Then, “All blessed themselves and Mr Dedalus with a sigh of pleasure lifted from the dish the heavy cover pearled around the edge with glistening drops.” It seems trite, but altogether unavoidable, to mention the attention to detail here, from Stephen’s  father’s sigh of pleasure, to the “pearled … glistening drops” around the lid. For Stephen, this is a special meal, the first time he has been allowed to eat with the adults, and both he and his father are feeling emotional at this ceremonial coming of age:

It was his first Christmas dinner and he thought of his little brothers and sisters who were waiting in the nursery, as he had often waited, till the pudding came. The deep low collar and the Eton jacket made him feel queer and oldish: and that morning when his mother had brought him down to the parlour, dressed for mass, his father had cried. That was because he was thinking of his own father. And uncle Charles had said so too.

I think it’s clear, too, that his entry to the adult table is his de facto entry into politics, as will shortly be made manifest.

Soon, Stephen’s father and Mr. Casey begin to make jokes at the Catholic Church’s expense. Up until this point, there has been some tension between Dante and Stephen’s father, but it has been subsumed, only noticeable in that the conversation is focused on someone named “Christy” and Dante’s refusal of sauce after Stephen’s father has forgotten to offer her any. The critical moment comes after Mr. Dedalus says, “suavely”, that Catholic priests “have only themselves to blame … If they took a fool’s advice they would confine their attention to religion,” to which Dante responds, “It is religion… They are doing their duty in warning the people.” Mr. Casey then rejoins, “We go to the house of God… in all humility to pray to our Maker and not to hear election addresses.” (I wonder what Mr. Casey would think of Trump’s recent executive order to allow for more such election addresses from members of the clergy…) Dante repeats herself, saying, “It is religion… They are right. They must direct their flocks.” As will likely be unsurprising to anyone who has experienced a conversation like this one, the three continue to repeat themselves, becoming increasingly angry, until Stephen’s mother demands that they drop their fight, “For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year,” to which Uncle Charles offers his agreement. Nonetheless, Dante continues to prod Mr. Casey and Stephen’s father, first with a petty aside and then with, “And am I to sit here and listen to the pastors of my church being flouted?” The conversation continues to escalate then, as the participants tread the line between criticizing the priests and criticizing the religion:

—Nobody is saying a word against them, said Mr Dedalus, so long as they don’t meddle in politics.

—The bishops and priests of Ireland have spoken, said Dante, and they must be obeyed.

—Let them leave politics alone, said Mr Casey, or the people may leave their church alone.

—You hear? said Dante, turning to Mrs Dedalus.

—Mr Casey! Simon! said Mrs Dedalus, let it end now.

—Too bad! Too bad! said uncle Charles.

—What? cried Mr Dedalus. Were we to desert [Parnell] at the bidding of the English people?

—He was no longer worthy to lead, said Dante. He was a public sinner.

—We are all sinners and black sinners, said Mr Casey coldly.


—And very bad language if you ask me, said Mr Dedalus coolly.

—Simon! Simon! said uncle Charles. The boy.

The boy, of course, to whom they refer is Stephen. Charles, who we know has not taken a side in this debate, repeatedly seems anxious at what the boy might be hearing. Briefly, attention is turned to whether Stephen is eating enough, and he and the rest are giving more turkey. Dante sits “with her hands in her lap” and “red in the face”. Stephen’s father attempts a joke to lighten the mood, which goes over as well as could be expected:

—There’s a tasty bit here we call the pope’s nose. If any lady or gentleman…

He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork. Nobody spoke. He put it on his own plate, saying:

—Well, you can’t say but you were asked. I think I had better eat it myself because I’m not well in my health lately.

He winked at Stephen and, replacing the dish-cover, began to eat again.

There was a silence while he ate.

Mr. Dedalus continues to talk and to talk as he does here, but the rest of the table continue to refuse to respond. To me, that’s one of the most mimetic features of the scene, the easily recognizable social dynamics by which Mr. Dedalus attempts (and fails) to deescalate the fight. Eventually, he becomes sullen, “Well, my Christmas dinner has been spoiled anyhow,” to which Dante replies, “There could be neither luck nor grace… in a house where there is no respect for the pastors of the church.” From here, the fight grows hotter and hotter, with insults aimed at the priests growing in viciousness:

Mr Dedalus threw his knife and fork noisily on his plate.

—Respect! he said. Is it for Billy with the lip or for the tub of guts up in Armagh? Respect!

—Princes of the church, said Mr Casey with slow scorn.

—Lord Leitrim’s coachman, yes, said Mr Dedalus.

—They are the Lord’s anointed, Dante said. They are an honour to their country.

—Tub of guts, said Mr Dedalus coarsely.

The adults half-heartedly refer to Stephen now, with Charles or his mother worried about what he’s hearing, and the rest then using him as a pawn in their arguments, before they begin to swear. There’s a certain self-awareness here to how this conversation will imprint itself upon Stephen, which if Stephen is indeed Joyce’s substitute for himself, turns out to be quite true:

[Mr Dedalus] twisted his features into a grimace of heavy bestiality and made a lapping noise with his lips.

—Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It’s not right.

—O, he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly—the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.

—Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.

—Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When [Parnell] was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Low-lived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!

—They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!

—Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!

Uncle Charles raised his hands mildly and said:

—Come now, come now, come now! Can we not have our opinions whatever they are without this bad temper and this bad language? It is too bad surely.

The repeated interjections from Uncle Charles and Stephen’s mother, begging for a kind of reasonable disengagement, continue to be ignored. The rest of the adults debate whether or not Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus are renegade Catholics, protestants, or something worse, with Dante regularly mocking them. “The blackest protestant in the land would not speak the language I have heard this evening,” she says.

After a long and winding story, centered around the death of Parnell, referred to in a pseudo-tribal way as “the chief”, paying heed to Ireland’s more medieval past, Stephen has a thought to himself about his own political leanings:

He was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father: and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played GOD SAVE THE QUEEN at the end.

There’s something so innocent here, with Stephen’s confusion at how Dante could possibly be against Parnell, but also for Irish independence. It’s a feeling I think many of us have, even as adults, when we see someone refusing to support the candidate we are just so sure better represents their vested interests. In any case, Stephen struggles to understand why the adults are fighting, what they are fighting about, and what exactly they’re referring to when they reference Kitty O’Shea, Parnell’s lover and downfall.

Stephen’s father and Mr. Casey press onward, arguing for the Church’s historical role in undercutting the Irish independence movement, while Dante continues to endorse the Church wholesale.

Mr Dedalus gave a snort of contempt.

—Ah, John, he said. It is true for them. We are an unfortunate priest-ridden race and always were and always will be till the end of the chapter.

Uncle Charles shook his head, saying:

—A bad business! A bad business!

Mr Dedalus repeated:

—A priest-ridden Godforsaken race!

He pointed to the portrait of his grandfather on the wall to his right.

—Do you see that old chap up there, John? he said. He was a good Irishman when there was no money in the job. He was condemned to death as a whiteboy. But he had a saying about our clerical friends, that he would never let one of them put his two feet under his mahogany.

Dante broke in angrily:

—If we are a priest-ridden race we ought to be proud of it! They are the apple of God’s eye. TOUCH THEM NOT, says Christ, FOR THEY ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE.

[A quick aside—Christ never uses the phrase “apple of my eye”, and certainly not to refer to Catholic priests. Many see Joyce subtly undercutting Dante’s argument here, suggesting that all her bluster is in reality based on secondhand misunderstanding.]

—And can we not love our country then? asked Mr Casey. Are we not to follow the man that was born to lead us?

—A traitor to his country! replied Dante. A traitor, an adulterer! The priests were right to abandon him. The priests were always the true friends of Ireland.

—Were they, faith? said Mr Casey.

He threw his fist on the table and, frowning angrily, protruded one finger after another.

—Didn’t the bishops of Ireland betray us in the time of the union when Bishop Lanigan presented an address of loyalty to the Marquess Cornwallis? Didn’t the bishops and priests sell the aspirations of their country in 1829 in return for catholic emancipation? Didn’t they denounce the fenian movement from the pulpit and in the confession box? And didn’t they dishonour the ashes of Terence Bellew MacManus?

His face was glowing with anger and Stephen felt the glow rise to his own cheek as the spoken words thrilled him. Mr Dedalus uttered a guffaw of coarse scorn.

The physical movements Joyce takes care to describe, from facial tics to fists thrown against tables, enlivens the scene and gives it a physical depth. Moreover, there’s something powerful in imagining Stephen’s face starting to blush, as a kind of empathic connection forms between him and Mr. Casey. The scene finally ends, as Mr. Casey heretically denies God, Dante admits her full scorn for Parnell, and Stephen’s father completely breaks down.

Dante bent across the table and cried to Mr Casey:

—Right! Right! They were always right! God and morality and religion come first.

Mrs Dedalus, seeing her excitement, said to her:

—Mrs Riordan, don’t excite yourself answering them.

—God and religion before everything! Dante cried. God and religion before the world.

Mr Casey raised his clenched fist and brought it down on the table with a crash.

—Very well then, he shouted hoarsely, if it comes to that, no God for Ireland!

—John! John! cried Mr Dedalus, seizing his guest by the coat sleeve.

Dante stared across the table, her cheeks shaking. Mr Casey struggled up from his chair and bent across the table towards her, scraping the air from before his eyes with one hand as though he were tearing aside a cobweb.

—No God for Ireland! he cried. We have had too much God In Ireland. Away with God!

—Blasphemer! Devil! screamed Dante, starting to her feet and almost spitting in his face.

Uncle Charles and Mr Dedalus pulled Mr Casey back into his chair again, talking to him from both sides reasonably. He stared before him out of his dark flaming eyes, repeating:

—Away with God, I say!

Dante shoved her chair violently aside and left the table, upsetting her napkin-ring which rolled slowly along the carpet and came to rest against the foot of an easy-chair. Mrs Dedalus rose quickly and followed her towards the door. At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage:

—Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!

The door slammed behind her.

Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.

—Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king!

He sobbed loudly and bitterly.

Stephen, raising his terror-stricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.

And thus the scene ends, with Stephen confronted by his father’s crying—a traumatizing experience in its own right for a young boy, to see his own father crying.

I have quoted at such length not just to prove any local point, but instead to allow for a more global reading of the entire scene, even for those who have not read it. Joyce’s depiction of this Christmas dinner is one of the most overtly political moments in his corpus, and has been generally understood as an autobiographical account of Joyce’s own childhood pain at the fall and death of Parnell. While his opinions of Ireland shifted regularly—sometimes erratically—throughout his adult life, his childhood love for Parnell and his anger at those who had allowed for his fall never seems to have wavered. With Parnell’s death, the dream of a united and independent Ireland was pushed back nearly a generation; it would take a failed uprising and a full-scale guerrilla war in order to finally free the southern part of the island. To this day, though, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom.


It is November 9th, maybe four in the morning, and I am still either drunk or experiencing emotional whiplash. I am probably experiencing both. My entire family has gone to sleep, I can taste tequila in the back of my mouth, and Donald Trump is officially the president-elect. I call a friend, and my call wakes her up. She is also drunk, and she is someone who had been in class with me the first time I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I describe to her something I haven’t been able to explain to anyone else, because I don’t know anyone else who has read the novel and who would take my calls so late at night/early in the morning. I tell her about how despite all the readings I’ve come across centered on the emotional power of the Christmas dinner scene and despite my general understanding of the political situation in Ireland at the turn of the century, I have never really understood, never really gotten, the scene. It was a focal point in my senior thesis, but still I had disliked it. It had always seemed to be a bit gauche, perhaps a shade purple, certainly unbecoming of Joyce and clearly overdone or underwritten or both.

Now, however, half-drunk and brokenhearted, I understand. And all I can think about, as I stare into the darkness, is how they have destroyed my hero, my queen you could even say, for bullshit reasons and misbegotten lies. She has been undone, like Parnell, not for her indiscretions, but out of a severely over-moralistic response to those indiscretions. She has been stopped, in her tracks, by those without the moral fortitude to rise above the petty everyday issues of the campaign and those like the Catholic Church who have pressed their fingers on the scale and worked to destroy her. The media and James Comey, perhaps by accident, and the Russians, certainly on purpose, along with so many have worked together to destroy a candidate I don’t just support, but a candidate that I have loved for years, a candidate to whom I have pinned all my hopes and all my dreams for a better country, a candidate who said we need more love as a culture, one who has promised increased domestic spending on programs that will help people, one who plans for the future, who offered a brighter future, one who was strong and capable and experienced and ready.

But the country wasn’t ready. I don’t want to get into the mistakes of the campaign cycle. I don’t want to have to tell you that, yes, she never went to Wisconsin, but she did damn well go to Pennsylvania just about every week, and she lost there by twice as much. And I don’t want to argue the merits of her message, the reasons for her downfall, the causes of Trump’s success. I just don’t. What I wanted to share with you here, even if you had never read the scene from Joyce’s novel before, was a sense of my devastation when Hillary Clinton lost. Some of you still won’t understand. Talking to one of the field’s distinguished Joyce scholars, I explained my experience, I explained how I had never really understood Joyce’s pain at the defeat of Parnell, and I compared my own experience with Joyce’s. “Hillary Clinton is no Parnell”, he replied. And perhaps he’s right.

But to me, she meant so much.

Many look forward to replacing the Republican Congress with a Democratic one. Many are excited by the candidates lining up to run in 2020. Many are fired up, angry, ready to fight and resist against the administration. And I exist in that world—my attention is paid to the political fight, it is centered in the arena, I am ready to do whatever I can to stop Trump. But I also exist in another world, the one I will never be able to access, the one in which Tim Kaine is Vice President and Hillary Clinton is President, and we aren’t losing our health care and we aren’t banning Muslims and we aren’t denying science.  Again, Søren Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

When I think about November 8th, I feel as though someone died. Yes, when I think about it, I am filled with the same nauseated feeling, the same pit of dread, the same hollow emptiness I have as when I think about the day my mother died, January 23rd, 2013. For both, though, it is not the loss itself that hurts the most, but the living—day after day—in the wrong future. It is about knowing that life could be better than it is, but having to slog through nonetheless. It is, I think, what Joyce experienced, knowing that Parnell was stolen from Ireland, and having to live without him and without the change and promise he represented. It is knowing exactly what would make things better, but being forever separated from such a panacea.

Hillary Clinton may not mean that much to you, and she might not have been such a panacea. But she will always have a deep place in my heart. Because despite her flaws, despite her indiscretions, despite her mistakes, she was smart and she was kind and she was strong. She understood me, understood my family, understood what we needed to live our best lives. Perhaps she was too reactionary, perhaps she was too bellicose, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But she inspired in me a love for the best in this country, and she inspired a hope that someday I might possess, as she represented, a drive to persevere despite all odds, an unwillingness to give up, and a boundless energy to work through whatever divides us no matter the sacrifices and no matter the costs. When she looked into the camera, despite how politically jaded I have become, I felt like she saw me, and I knew, on a profound and visceral level, that she was fighting for me, despite never having known my name.

Joyce never stopped mourning the loss of Charles Parnell. Perhaps I, too, will never shake my youthful allegiance to Hillary Clinton. Whatever you happen to think of her, though, in my heart I know that I will be a stronger, kinder, and smarter person due to her example. I’m not embarrassed to admit that. Many of the people I like and respect most failed to see that side of her, and have judged me for my own naivety. And who knows, I could be wrong. I might be naïve. Maybe Hillary Clinton isn’t who I imagine her to be—or rather, who I imagined she would be. Because she lost, we will never know.

But I do know what she symbolizes for me. And that, as we wage battle against the darkness and as we hold onto each other in this terrible and sometimes hopeless future, matters. To close with another quotation plucked out of context: “Legacy. What is a legacy? / It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

No matter how painful the price of remembering that future none of us will ever get to see, as we march forward, I refuse for the good I do to be the legacy of a would-be despot. I refuse to be defined by the reality of the world as it is. Instead, in my own self-narrative, I live in sight of the world as it could and can be, and the good I do will be part of the legacy of our would-be president—Hillary Rodham Clinton.