The Imperial Presidency of Donald Trump:
A Threat to American Democracy and an Agent of Chaos in the World?
With awareness and foresight, this incisive article on the US empire and the concurrent demise of democracy in America was published on February 15, 2017 shortly after Trump’s presidential inauguration.
In the words of Julius Caesar, “you cannot build an Empire with a Republic.”
“In order to obtain and hold power a man must love it. Thus the effort to get it is not likely to be coupled with goodness, but with the opposite qualities of pride, craft and cruelty. Without exalting self and abasing others, without hypocrisy, lying, prisons, fortresses, penalties, killing, no power can arise or hold its own.” Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), (in ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ 1894.)
“The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history.” Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), (in The Conquest of Happiness, ch. 1, 1930.)
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. ” Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th President of the United States, 1861-65; (N. B.: Originally found and attributed to Lincoln in a biography entitled “Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy” by Horatio Alger Jr., pub. in 1883.)
“Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged against provisions against danger, real or pretended from abroad.” James Madison (1751-1836), Father of the US Constitution, 4th American President, (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, May 13, 1798.)
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), (It Can’t Happen Here, 1935, a novel about the election of a fascist to the American presidency.)
When 46.1% of Americans who voted, in November 2016, to elect a real estate magnate in the person of Donald Trump as U.S. President, they did not know precisely what they were buying, because, as the quote above says, we really know how a politician will behave only once he or she assumes power. Americans surely did not expect that the promised “change” the Republican presidential candidate envisioned and promised was going to be, in fact, “chaos” and “turmoil” in the U.S. government.
President Donald Trump (1946- ) has surrounded himself with three politically inexperienced Rasputin-like advisers, i.e. his young pro-Israel Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner (1981- ), advising on foreign policy and acting as a speech writer, and his far right media executive and chief political strategist Steve Bannon (1953- ) with an apocalyptic worldview, who is, moreover, a voting permanent member of the National Security Council (NSC). Stephen Miller (1985- ), 31, also a young inexperienced senior White House adviser, completes the trio. He is working with Jared Kushner for domestic affairs and is also a Trump speechwriter.
Stephen Miller (1985- ) Jared Kushner (1981- )
Three weeks after his inauguration, President Trump has turned out to be a much more erratic politician than could have been expected, even after all the inanities he uttered during the U.S. Presidential campaign.
I, for one, thought that once elected president and installed in the White House, he would abandon his tweeting eccentricities. —I was wrong.
Stephen Bannon (1953- )
In fact, for a few weeks after inauguration day, on January 20, 2017, before the nominated secretaries of various government departments were confirmed by the Senate, and anxious to “get the show going“, the Trump White House behaved like an imperial junta, issuing a string of executive orders and memos. The objective, seemingly, was to force the hands of the responsible departments and of the elected Congress, and to bend the entire U.S. bureaucracy to its agenda. It may have gone too far.
Indeed, when the heads of important departments like the Department of Defense (James Mattis, right) and the State Department (Rex Tillerson) were confirmed and assumed their functions, President Trump changed his mind on many policies about Israel, China, the Iran Deal …etc.
U.S. courts have also thrown a monkey wrench in the blanket executive order closing the U.S. borders without recourse to the citizens of seven Muslim countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen), for spurious “security reasons”.
Let us recall how the inexperienced Trump White House has created chaos during the first weeks following inauguration day.
President Donald Trump has shown a propensity to govern by decree with a minimum input from government departments and from the elected Congress
A dangerous and potentially disastrous approach to government, in a democracy, occurs when a leader adopts the practice of governing by decree, without constitutional constraints, thus forcing the hands of responsible departments, of the elected Congress and submitting the entire U.S. bureaucracy to his will by governing as an autocrat. If it were to continue on that road, the Trump administration could turn out to be more like a would-be imperial presidency than a responsible democratic government.
This term was first coined by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his 1973 book The Imperial Presidency, in response to President Richard Nixon’s attempt to extend the power of the U.S. president, declaring “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal”. In my own 2003 book The New American Empire, I dealt with the issue of American presidents having usurped over time the power to adopt a policy of global intervention, and the power to launch wars of aggression at will, with a minimum input from Congress.
President Trump seems to want to outdo President Nixon in considering the White House as the primary center of political power within the American government, contrary to what the U.S. Constitution says about the separation of powers.
To be sure, other American presidents have issued executive orders and presidential memos early in their administration, but this was mainly to re-establish procedures that a previous administration had abandoned. They usually did not deal with fundamental and complex policies without debate, although many did.
In the case of President Trump, his executive orders and presidential memos have not only been multiple, they also have dealt with fundamental policies, without consulting and requesting the professional input of the Secretary and of the department responsible, be it on healthcare, abortion, international trade, immigration, oil exploration, justice, etc., and without producing policy papers to explain the rationale behind the policy changes and without outlining the objectives being pursued.
When such a development of governing by decree has occurred in other countries, democracy was the loser, and the consequences for the leader and his country turned out to be disastrous.
President Donald Trump seems to be anxious to find pretexts to pick fights with other countries: For him, it seems to be the U.S. against the world
In a March 2007 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the future presidential candidate Donald Trump said that President George W. Bush had been a disaster in foreign relations and that he was “the worst American president in the history of the United States”, adding that he “should have been impeached” because he lied his way into a war of aggression against Iraq and sent thousands of people to their death. This is an assessment that he has repeated on numerous occasions.
However, ironically, President Donald Trump seems to be on the same track as George W. Bush regarding the country of Iran, using lies and false claims to pick a fight with that country, and in so doing, echoing the hysterical rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has also recklessly insulted the heads of a half dozen countries, even going so far as to threaten the President of Mexico to invade his country. As to his criticism of President George W. Bush, it seems that really, “it takes one to know one”!
President Trump should be reminded of what he promised as a presidential candidate. In a foreign policy speech delivered on Wednesday April 27, 2016, he declared “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength. Although not in government service, I was totally against the war in Iraq, very proudly, saying for many years that it would destabilize the Middle East.”
President Donald Trump has been less than candid regarding the influence of the Wall Street lobby on politicians, including himself
During the 2016 Presidential political campaign, candidate Donald Trump was very critical of politicians who do the heavy lifting for Wall Street firms in Washington D.C. On many occasions, Mr. Trump said that Wall Street is a symbol of a corrupt establishment that has been robbing America’s working class and enriching the elite. He also tweeted point blank, on July 28, 2016, that Secretary Hillary Clinton was “owned by Wall Street” and that Wall Street banks had “total, total control” over his rivals Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz, implying that they were unfit for the Office of the President. On October 19, 2016, Mr. Trump tweeted that “crooked Hillary is nothing more than a Wall Street Puppet”, thus presenting himself as the populist defender of the working class against the financial elite.
But guess what? One of Mr. Trump’s first moves as President was to order the undoing of the banking regulations known as the Dodd-Frank legislation, which was adopted in 2010, after the 2008 subprime financial crisis. President Trump thus quickly answered the main request made by the very Wall Street mega banks that he had accused previously of corrupting Washington politicians. He went even further when he named a former Goldman Sachs banker, Steven Mnuchin, (right) as his Treasury Secretary.
Also, Mr. Trump has reached to the mega-bank Goldman Sachs for help and support. He name Mr. Gary Cohn (1960- ), president of Goldman Sachs, head of the President’s National Economic Council, thus making sure that Wall Street bankers will have a big say in his administration’s economic and financial policies.
Was his lambasting of his opponents as Wall Street banks’ puppets simply campaign rhetoric without substance? That is certainly a question worth asking.
President Donald Trump’s continuous attacks against the free press and against independent judges who rule against his policies is an authoritarian approach to government and is a violation of the separation of powers
On Monday February 6, President Trump launched a barrage of off-the-cuff intimidating insults at the American news media, accusing them of “refusing to report on terrorist attacks”, without providing any evidence to back up such serious accusations. He has also attempted to intimidate judges who have to rule on the constitutionality of some of his decrees and threatened their judiciary independence.
This is not a trivial matter, because when an authoritarian regime wants to establish itself and avoid accountability, it usually attacks the legislative and the judiciary branches of government to pressure them to toe the line of the executive branch, and it tries to silence the very institutions that can put the false statements of politicians to the test.
President Donald Trump has a mercantilist view of international trade, which is rejected by nearly all economists
President Donald Trump seems to think that his country should have trade surpluses on goods and services vis-à-vis other countries, the latter being saddled with trade deficits, whatever the overall balance of payments of the United States, especially its capital account, and whatever the domestic and foreign economic circumstances. This is economically false. That is not the way adjustments in the balance of payments of a country work, in a multilateral world.
When Donald Trump places all the emphasis on only one part of the balance of payments, the trade balance, he misses the point. For example, if a country lives beyond its means and borrows money from abroad, such foreign borrowing appears as an inflow of foreign capital in the country. Such an inflow of foreign capital causes an excess of domestic spending over its production, and that helps finance an excess of imports over exports of goods and services with the rest of the world. The capital account of the country shows a surplus, while the trade balance (more precisely the current account) indicates a deficit, thus balancing more or less each other.
The main reason why the United States is registering trade deficits is because it borrows too much from abroad.
This is partly due to the fact that the U.S. government runs huge fiscal deficits, spending more than its tax revenues, and borrowing money both from the private sector and from foreigners, thus increasing the public debt. Such deficits often are the result of tax reductions and of increased military expenditures. The fact that the world economy uses the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency represents an interest-free loan that the rest of the world makes to the United States, which allows the USA to have a chronic trade deficit. Mr. Trump and his advisers would be wise to understand these truths of international finance.
If his administration wants to reduce the annual U.S. trade deficit with the rest of the world, the U.S. government should balance its books and reduce its foreign borrowings. Trade wars will not improve the U.S. trade balance if the country keeps over-spending and keeps borrowing from abroad. They would only make matters worse.
For many decades now, the U.S. government has piled up debt upon debt while running continuous fiscal deficits, mainly due to the fact that it has been waging costly wars abroad, while financing such interventions with foreign money. This is a problem that American politicians must understand if they don’t want their country to go bankrupt. This has happened in the past to other overextended empires, and there is no reason why it should not happen today when a country continuously spends more than it produces. And wars do not produce anything, except death and destruction.
Hopes of putting an end to the Middle East chaos have greatly diminished
One of the positive results of the Trump election was the promise to end the deadly chaos in the Middle East. During the presidential campaign and once in power, Mr. Trump threw some cold water on that promise.
Firstly, in his March 21, 2016 speech to AIPAC, he flattered his rich Zionist donors by announcing his intention to break with the half-century policy of most western nations that considers the city of Jerusalem a United Nations protected zone and an international city occupied by Arabs, Christians and Jews. He declared “we will move the American embassy [from Tel Aviv] to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
Secondly, on Thursday December 15, 2016, to make sure that everybody understands that he is one-sided in the more than half a century old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President-elect Trump announced his choice of a hardliner pro-Israeli settlements on privately-owned Palestinian lands for U.S. ambassador to Israel (in fact, David Friedman, his former bankruptcy lawyer). The new ambassador didn’t waste any time in professing that he was looking forward to doing his job “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
And, thirdly, seemingly forgetting that he had criticized Secretary Clinton for proposing a similar dangerously reckless policy, President Trump announced, on January 25, that he “will absolutely do safe zones in Syria”, seemingly without considering if it was legal to do so without the consent of the Syrian government, and without consulting with the three principal countries (Russia, Turkey and Iran), which had just concluded a peace plan for Syria. He opted instead to talk to leaders of Saudi Arabia and of the United Arab Emirates— two countries known to be sponsoring terrorism in Syria.
The world is afraid of President Donald Trump: Doomsday Clock scientists have concluded that humanity is just two-and-a-half minutes from the apocalypse
Late in January, the scientists in charge of the Doomsday Clock set the clock at just two-and-a-half minutes from the apocalypse, allegedly because of Donald Trump. They said that the businessman turned politician, with his disturbing and ill-considered pronouncements and policies, has the potential to drive the Planet to oblivion.
This means that they consider that the Earth is now closer to oblivion than it has ever been since 1953, at the height of the nuclear confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union.
The existential threats facing the Earth now come from the loose talk about using nuclear weapons and the proliferation of such weapons, as well as the observed acceleration of climate change.
All considered, the turn of events since the election of Donald Trump has raised a number of fears that a lot of things could go wrong in the coming years. Many of the policies advanced by the Trump administration are the wrong remedies for the problems facing the United States and the world. In fact, many of these ill-conceived policies are more likely to make matters worse, possibly much worse, than to improve them.
Things seem to have begun to change somewhat with the arrival of newly confirmed secretaries in the decision-making process and new advisers. Let us hope that cooler heads will bring experience, knowledge and competence to a Trump administration that cruelly needs it.
I grew up in a strange way. A strange little boy, fragile and sickly, in a land that abjured him. Now, you might say: so what? What does that have to with the Western story of progress, and how it’s wrong? Let me explain why I mention it.
(I have to warn you. This is going to be a deeply personal and long read. It has to be, and perhaps, if I’m successful, you’ll understand why, by the end. I’m going to struggle to express myself well and stumble over my words. If you want to get the most from it, maybe you’ll have to read it a few times. Perhaps it won’t even make much sense to you at all, if you’re American — I don’t know. You can be the judge of all that.)
When I was a boy, this was my life. I had no real friends at my schools in America — I was too alien, too frail, too brown, too other. Too weak, which means too feeling, I think, above all. So my only real human contact came from, often, sitting around the dinner table. There was Uncle Nelson from China, with a PhD from Harvard. Uncle Peter from Argentina, with one from Yale. Uncle Mansur from Iran, with one from Princeton. There was my dad, just the same — they were all his colleagues. And so on. I grew up in this milieu of successful emigres from dirt poor countries — who’d immigrated to the West, to America in particular, and become its thinkers and intellectuals.
Not famous ones, of course — that role was reserved for white men, who, invariably, were their bosses. Even if, I’d come later to discover, Uncle Nelson and Peter and Mansur had been far, far more brilliant. My uncles — were they my fathers, too, in some way? — were just its workaday thinkers, at institutions like the IMF, World Bank, UN. The middle managers, if you like, of the global order the West had created.
Now, since I was rejected at school, even by my teachers, the more white and male, the harder — and I rejected the little society of my school as freakish, ugly, violent, and stupid, right back — Uncle Nelson and Peter and Mansur would give me books to read. Serious books. Big books. Books they’d give their grad students. About economics and politics, full of big and great ideas, that this global order they now were middle managers hinged on.
(I’d ask them questions and pick their brains, and they enjoyed this precocious little kid debating them like some grad student. I’d absorb these books like water — only really barely understanding them — because they were the only company I had in a world that seemed to fiercely want me to disappear, for some reason. That matters — I’ll come back to that.)
It all seeped in by osmosis anyways. Hence, I turned into a kind of economic wunderkind — publishing my first book in my early 30s, having one of the most successful columns about the economy in America by my twenties. Now, ironically, all I ever wanted to be was a musician (disco, if you must know.) I hated my career. But I didn’t have much of a choice. Growing up in that way — it was expected of me to carry on just like my dad, Uncle Nelson, Peter, Mansur. To be the next generation of middle managers for the global order America had built. Maybe even do better than they did — not just a middle manager, but a senior executive. A Vice President of an IMF or World Bank or so on.
There was just one problem.
I’d surrendered to becoming a pundit, a talking head, an economist. But there was one compromise I couldn’t make. The more I read all these books they gave, the more I saw a theme. A linear notion of triumphant progress.
The Western fairy tale of progress I read went like this. Once upon a time, there was a world of backwards, ignorant people. Then, an industrial revolution — made by rich white people — gave them all better lives. Bang! A supernova had gone off. Where once there was poverty…now there were forevermore riches, ever increasing. The world, as the Steven Pinkers would later say, “was always getting better”…from that Omega Point, that Big Bang of creation, the industrial revolution, which was the Enlightenment made flesh. In other words, I was reading a kind of origin myth. A divine fairy tale. “India and China were lifted out of poverty!”…by what? By the invisible hand of Western industrial progress and capitalism.
Hold on — I found myself thinking. What about the long history of violence, exploitation, and violence of the West against the rest? What about centuries of unimaginable horrors of slavery, genocide, and colonization? Where had those gone from Western economics and political thought? Deep down, little me, teenage me, twenty-something me knew: this story was badly wrong. The world was not the place the West said it was — a triumph of linear progress for all. It was something much darker.
I couldn’t make an intellectual surrender to the fairy tale. No matter how hard I tried, or wanted to. But why not? I couldn’t understand it then. I would only know later that it was a for a reason that cut me deep down in the soul. Not something I knew factually from textbooks —they erased it anyways — but from something much, much deeper. What part of me there is of all my mothers and fathers. But I’ll come to all that.
Why was it in all the books I read, the wealth of the West was explained by “innovation” and “technology” and superior “organization” and even superior virtues, like being more industrious, self-reliant, and harder-working — but centuries of violence, colonialism, supremacy, and enslavement weren’t mentioned…even once? Wasn’t there something obviously and bizarrely wrong with that?
And why was it that 90% of the world was still poor, while 10% of it was still rich…precisely the same 10% that had enslaved and colonized the 90%…if the world was on some triumphant path of linear progress? (Why was it that even Western societies were growing more unequal, less democratic, more stable — as greed and hate and selfishness came back to haunt them?) Wasn’t this fairy tale, this origin myth of a Big Bang of linear progress, wrong on all counts?
I thought about all this for a very long time. A decade or so, maybe more. I struggled with it intensely.
And it seemed to me that Western thought — American thought, I should say, because European thought is far less guilty of it — sanitized away the true story of human progress. When you and I think about it today, it should be obvious to each and every one of us that our wealth only largely exists to the degree it does because of centuries of violence and enslavement. The “technology” and the “innovation” isn’t why we are rich. Not mostly. The disparities in the world today don’t exist because we invented cotton and gunpowder — we didn’t — or even because we made making them more efficient…but because we enslaved the world to make them, or for the raw materials for them, and in a very real way, we still do.
Now, I can’t give you a number — 80% of our wealth comes from innovation, and only 20% from slavery! — because…there aren’t any. Literally almost nobody has studied the subject of…how much wealth enslaving the world created in Western thought. Why would they? Who’d fund that? So there are literally too few estimates to build a statistical perspective on. But doesn’t that more or less…prove exactly my point? We Westerners have whitewashed away our long, sordid history of violence, brutality, and enslavement…which has left us with a childish fairy tale myth of noble, linear, progress…beginning with the industrial revolution’s Big Bang…which feeds our own savior and hero complexes…and makes it easy to feel good about ourselves…so we never really have to change anything…from our societies to ourselves…which is how we end up with Trumps shaking little fists in rage at the very world…we’ve always been exploiting.
But I didn’t just struggle with all this intellectually. Not just in some dry statistical way — but emotionally, viscerally, deep down, like I said, in my soul. Let me give you an example.
I’d read, in those books that my Uncles gave me, the triumphant line that I hear repeated every day by white Western pundits and economists and leaders — “India and China have been lifted out of poverty!” Wait, what? They have? But why were they poor to begin with? Because they were colonized, brutalized, and enslaved. “We let you get a tiny bit richer so you don’t all have to eat dust after we spent centuries violently exploiting you”…didn’t seem like…much of an argument for progress to me at all. It seemed to me precisely the opposite: we were rich, because they were poor.
But like I said, I didn’t just think that. I felt it. Deep down in my bones. With a terrible shudder. With very real tears I couldn’t understand how to cry…for a life and a world I would never know. With a yawning, numbing, ice-cold emptiness that a little six year old should never even begin to know how to feel — but one I didn’t know to escape. All I knew is I seemed to be surrounded by a kind of profound, omnipresent, impossible sorrow, as deep as an ocean, as wide as a canyon in my parents, in all those uncles, in all their friends…and they, like adults do, gave it to me…but no one would tell me why it was, what it was, or where it came from.
(So I had two problems if you want to put it too reductively. One, being traumatized from the day I made, more or less, and two, never understanding or knowing how, why, or even that I was. That is a lot for a little kid, isn’t it?)
I know that perhaps sounds mysterious and odd and maybe even melodramatic if you are a white Westerner. It’s OK. I will come to exactly and precisely what it means.
You see, I didn’t know it as a little child, but what I really was was an exile, who was a traumatized boy. I was a broken orphan of a lost world. An tiny helpless thing abandoned in a desert, seeking an ocean. What do I mean? By family came from what is today called India and Pakistan. But back then it was just British India.
Partition — when India and Pakistan separated — was a holocaust, my friends. It was the largest mass migration in human history. A million people died, and many, many more were raped, maimed, injured, and abused. Did you know that? For a very long time, I didn’t either. Because in India and Pakistan, the truth is that we still don’t discuss our holocaust enough. But I wasn’t in India and Pakistan. I was in America. Where this holocaust doesn’t exist at all, and never did.
(If you’re Jewish, I understand if you object to me using the word “holocaust.” I don’t mean to drawa moral equivalence. Please don’t think I am trying take anything away from you. I would use another word if only I had one.)
I was alienated, in other words, from my own grief, by the story of Western progress. That is why I ached so, even as a little boy. Why I felt like an unwanted stranger in this land that told me “everything was getting better!” — even while my grandparents had barely escaped being murdered on a desperate train to a shaky freedom. Even while my parents fled from the bombs and terrorists that were turning their home into a land of despair and violence. Wait…where was the Western story of progress in my life? I was the lucky one. I’d made it to the promised land — which scorned me just for feeling my very pain, which wasn’t supposed to exist. So what about all the rest? Do you see a little bit what I mean by “alienated from my own grief” now? I mean: I wasn’t allowed to mourn for a holocaust that had been erased from history by a linear fairy tale of triumphant progress.
But I needed to, my friends. I needed to cry desperate and bitter tears. I needed to shake in rage and weep and shout at the indifferent sky. For my grandparents, for my great grandparents, for my parents. For all my mothers and fathers. For all the people dispossessed by centuries of the violence of slavery, exploitation, and savagery. For the trauma and violence done to them. For the shudders that shook them as they saw the murders and rapes and beatings. For the desperation on those trains and in those sudden, terrified mass migrations. For all the labour on all the fields all the broken bodies did.
I needed to mourn deeply — as deep as my tiny bones could — for a whole world that had been ripped apart — and then was, in a final theft, ripped from me, at last, too. A world I would never know, because I was an orphan, exiled in the promised land. No grief was allowed there. Only happiness. But that, my friends, is the truest definition of despair I know. Not being allowed to grieve for a wound to your soul that doesn’t exist. Because the ache of a wound to the soul…doesn’t go away…just because you are not allowed to grieve for it. It just goes right on aching, harder and harder every single day. Destroying you with absence. Shattering you with tears you cannot cry, and smiles you must smile. Making you erase yourself…day by day…until you are nothing at all. That is what a holocaust you can’t grieve for does to you.
Now. Do you know why British India was divided into Pakistan and India? It wasn’t just because “people wanted it!” Not at all. It was because the West needed it. India at that time, you see, leaned socialist. And the West was terrified — this was just after World War II — of the Soviets. If India allied itself with the Soviet — the Middle East’s oil was just next door. And that was a “strategic risk” too great to take. So Pakistan was allowed to be born. The idea was that it would ally itself with the West, in opposition to a socialist India — and thus create a kind of barrier to the Middle East’s prized oil.
So. The world that I needed to grieve for — the holocaust I needed to weep over, as a little child, but couldn’t…to dispel this ache that burned deep within me, this ache of always feeling alone, different strange, unlike the other kids, somehow scarred and wounded by a great and terrible violence — was the one that was created by the West. Not by me, or by you. Partition was a holocaust that had happened…for oil. The West could have easily arranged a more peaceful transfer of power. But it let the slaughter happen, largely — because it wanted enmity from the very beginning, so that Pakistan and India would hate each other oil, and the West’s prized oil would be safe.
What’s worse than a holocaust? Have you ever thought about it? Perhaps one that has disappeared. One that never existed at all. One that you cannot grieve for. One that no one will let you cry for. One that there can’t be any sorrow for. One that has simply vanished from history. Leaving its descendants…like I was, as a child…not just wounded — but alienated, lost, estranged. Estranged from grief, history, meaning, time. Numb inside. Torn by a kind of impossible pain, that seemed to come from nowhere — and had no resolution, because it had no source. An ache like an ocean, forever surging and flowing, coming from nowhere, coming from everywhere — but one with no life-giving water in it at all.
So I grew depressed as a helpless little thing. I stayed depressed all my young life, I suppose. I couldn’t relate to anyone, young or old. I had no friends, because nobody felt the same way as me — and those of us who did feel this terrible pain…what way did we have to talk about holocausts that had never been at all? So what point was there to my little life? I could get good grades without thinking about it. So what? Who was I? What was I? Where was I?
I knew, you see, that something terrible — something literally unspeakable, something literally unimaginable — had happened. And it had happened in many places, at many times.
I knew it deep down in my bones. I saw it in all my fathers and all my mothers. I knew it in my mom crying to old ghazals — classical songs — every sunny afternoon. What was she mourning for? Why couldn’t she say? I saw it in the lines of sorrow that crossed my father’s face too young. I saw it in my grandfather’s unrelenting defiance as he built a country I saw it in the rage of too many broken relationships, in which history seemed to have stopped dead. I saw it everywhere in my little world. In trauma and hurt. In silence and yearning. In sudden rage, that came from nowhere, as if a secret fire beat in the heart of all my mothers, and all my fathers.
All my fathers, and all my mothers. I saw it, too, in Uncle Nelson, in Uncle Peter, in Uncle Mansur. In the sadness in their eyes. In the quiet sorrow of even their laughter. In the way they took care to nourish me, knowing the world around me, somehow, was a hostile, savage place, for a boy like me — a tiny, fragile, sickly wanderer they’d brought with them to a pitiless desert. Where else could he go? They had the grief of their own holocausts in them, too. I knew that more surely than I knew anything else. (And they knew, somehow, that a child of holocaust deserved something truer than they could give me. Something like belonging, grace, worth, respect. Things I would never, ever have.)
In this story of progress, this fairy tale of immaculate progress — I had disappeared, right along with my pain, and the pain of billions of others…which was never allowed to exist…and still isn’t. Please — the point isn’t about me. I want you to see it clearly. Let me try to explain it a little better. My holocaust had never happened. So I could never grieve for it. I just went feeling this astonishing, ceaseless ache, this terrible loneliness, every day. My holocaust had never happened because in the Western story of linear progress…“India and China had been lifted out of poverty!!” Nope. No holocaust here. No pain here. The world has always been getting better — didn’t you know? What are you — a dummy?
That story, I’d come to understand, went like this. One day, there were poor people. Lazy, dumb, foolish, idle people. And one day — they were getting rich! The West had arrived! It’s technology and virtues had made them wealthy! Wow! I’ve told you that even a child — like me — couldn’t believe that stupid fairy tale.
But now perhaps you see just why. I could feel so deeply that wasn't true — because my world was made of this terrible, invisible, unspeakable sorrow. Every last ounce of it. Some days it felt like there was nothing but sorrow, as deep as the summer sky. Grief radiated from every single person who cared for me — because all of them had been through some kind of holocaust, like Uncle Nelson, Peter, Mansur, my mom, my dad. It shone like an eclipse. Only nobody would talk about it. Maybe they didn’t understand it themselves. Know how to process it. Today, I would say to that little boy: just to belong at all, they had to recite the myth of Western progress…which kept them alienated from the terrible truth of their grief. Their choice was belonging with a false smile or choking back their sorrow. Which one would you choose?
So there I was. Unable to grieve for a holocaust that had never happened. I knew I was different from the other kids. I was “depressed.” I was “angry.” I was “difficult.” I was “challenging.” I thought too much about too many strange things. But I didn’t know how different I really was — yet just like how so many billions I was, too.
The fairy tale story of Western progress had stolen something from me. But not just me. From billions just like me. It had stolen me from me. All my mothers and all my fathers from me. All their mothers and all their fathers from them, too. All those lives and their pain…gone. So I was traumatized and wounded as a direct result of it, too. Of having to hear it over and over every day, recited like a strange and foolish mantra. Of having to hear holocaust, atrocity, exploitation, slavery, colonization, and abuse…erased…dismissed…ignored…trivialized. Like such terrible things had never mattered. Been. Existed at all. The world has always been getting better! Why are my fathers’ eyes lined like cracked earth with sorrow, and why do my mothers forever weep in the spring afternoons?
I am not allowed to be this strange thing I am: a person trapped in despair’s twilight by grief that has never been allowed to exist — but cannot for moment cease to be. I have been existentially dispossessed. Dispossessed of time and meaning, of history itself, my place in it, of the souls of all my ancestors, their bodies broken and their minds savaged. And so have billions just like me been existentially dispossessed, by the Western fairy tale of progress. They have been told their pain has never existed at all.
But the flipside of my trauma is your ignorance. You do not understand, also, having heard the fairy tale of Western progress, just why the Western world is imploding, in a supernova of greed, violence, and rage. But if you understood slavery, colonization, and exploitation, my friends…if you felt them deep in your bones like me, like us…the dispossessed of the world, Fanon’s wretched of the earth…nothing would make more sense to you.
I still don’t have belonging. I will never really belong to any society or culture, I now understand, in a rooted way, because the only one I ever had was ripped up and torn from me, and replaced with a great, vast emptiness. How can someone who doesn’t exist to begin with belong to the very thing which has made them disappear? My choice is to not exist, right along with my pain, and belong to a lie — or to dare to exist, and not belong to anything at all. What do I choose?
Some days, I yearn to belong to the lie still. “The world has always been getting better!!” How much easier it would be. But now I understand myself, at least. Salman Rushdie called us, famously, “midnight’s children.” The ones born not just in the long, dark night of catastrophe and holocaust — but of its — whoosh— disappearance from history, too.
I look into my father’s sad, gentle, fierce eyes. The old lion. His impossible sorrow is still there. I hold my mothers’ hand as she cries, still, to the old songs. The work of mourning is a cathedral forever unbuilt. Uncle Nelson and Uncle Peter laugh me with me, over the same dinners, and I hear in them just the same gentle, deep sadness. And we speak, still, of the same things. How is your next book? I liked that essay! Thanks, I love you. But now I know, I think what they are mourning for. All those lost holocausts. All those lost holocausts, gone from the lie called history we must tell, simply to try get through another day in the pitiless desert. Who will give us water, if we tell them our truth?
So here I am. I am forever mourning a holocaust I can never know. I am lost in a desert as wide as the sun. I am dying of thirst, because I will not drink from a poisoned well. I won’t lie and smile and pretend the world has always been getting better. Oops. There went my column, my TV appearances, my career. Good riddance. Would you rather exist and not belong, or not exist and belong? I’ve made my choice.
But it would be foolish of me to say: I’ve made peace with any of it. I haven’t. This rage, this anger, this loneliness sears me, sometimes, deep down in my soul. I feel just like that little lost boy, most days. Estranged. Alienated. Totally and utterly alone. The thing that needed to be mine most was ripped from me. My holocaust. What am I now? Who have I ever been? What do I belong to? Only I know now where that ache in me comes from. From a grief that I can never really touch or feel, but which consumes me still, every day. That old feeling. Is there a word for that? Whatever it is, it flows through me like lightning in those moments. It makes my body shake. I am a pure absence. There is only loss in me now. Even the pain of my mothers and fathers was taken away from me. What is such that kind of emptiness called?
My partner takes me in her arms, and consoles me. My little puppy leaps into my lap. They know the truth of me, in some strange way. They know when history pours through me like a terrible river. They know that I am still that fragile, lost, little boy, wandering a pitiless desert alone. At least now there is a companion by my side.
How do you grieve for a holocaust that never happened? I can’t tell you, my friend. I wish I knew.
“Billions in India and China were lifted out of poverty!”
Ah, my friend. Please — will you teach me how to grieve for a holocaust that never happened, if you know how?
War is Stupid, terrible for the environment and destroys infrastructure we humans need to survive and flourish and hampers our higher spirits from maturing as a species.
P. Brooks McGinnis
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
Martin Luther King
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used to create them.”
~ Albert Einstein
America's Religious War
America will soon have a generation raised entirely during wartime
with no end in sight.
There's a terrible cost to waging war, human, environmental & economic.