Amazing Grace.

John Newton (1725-1807) grew up the son of an English merchant ship captain.  From 1736 to 1742 he learned the sailor’s trade on voyages with his father.  In 1743 he was “pressed” into the Royal Navy; when he tried to desert, he got eight dozen from the “cat.”  Later he joined the crew of a slave ship bound for Sierra Leone, but fell out with the captain and was left ashore as a slave for several years.  Finally rescued from slavery himself, he nevertheless returned to working in the slave trade until 1754.

However, he had begun to undergo a long conversion to evangelical Christianity.  In time, Newton became a Protestant minister and then an abolitionist.[1]  In 1779, he published a collection of hymns he had written.  Among them was one now called “Amazing Grace.”  It remains a widely popular hymn,[2] probably because it is a lamentation suitable for funerals.[3]

However, I wonder if we are listening without hearing.  “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see.”  It is, in its bare bones, a story of a deeply flawed human being “saved” by God’s grace.  In Christianity, God’s grace is “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it.”[4]

Until modern times, redemption stories like that of John Newton abounded.  They signified the liberation of the individual from the evil impulses that had held him or her in captivity.  Many stories celebrated the redemption of sinners.  They begin with Saint Paul, who described himself as having been the “chief of sinners” before his conversion experience.  John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1666) testified to his own redemption in a 17th Century England torn by political strife.  The “Second Great Awakening” (a Protestant religious revival that came at a time when Americans were overwhelmingly Protestant, c. 1790-1850) called people to abandon their sinful past and to live better, more rigorous lives.

People who had wallowed in bad behavior could alter their lives so dramatically that observers could scarcely credit that the same person had lived two so wildly different lives.  Thus, there used to be a way back for sinners.

Now there isn’t.  We live in a society that has become increasingly secularized.  The natural and social sciences have provided more satisfactory answers to many questions that the ones provided by religion.  Religious doctrines don’t have the same bite they once did.[5]  Apparently, that includes grace and redemption.  Then, Newton could offer “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Now, you are for all time your worst words or deeds.  Who would publicly confess and try to make amends for their failings under such circumstances?

[1] He appears in the film recounting the contributions of Evangelical Christians to ending Britain’s role in the slave trade.  See: “Amazing Grace” (dir. Michael Apted, 2006).

[2] Check out the sample of versions available on Youtube.  https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Amazing+Grace

[3] For an alternative approach, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6kNHWh_RwY

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_in_Christianity

[5] This comes on top of, but is not caused by, the failings of some religious people.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Erg09oOpmo

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Talking to Myself 1.

Brett Kavanaugh has just been blind-sided at the last moment before the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on whether to approve his nomination to the United States Supreme Court.  He’s been hit by an accusation of “sexual misconduct” that is alleged to have occurred thirty-five years ago, when he was seventeen.  There is no corroborating evidence so far.  Apparently, sixty-five women who knew Kavanaugh at that time say he never mistreated women to their knowledge.

What to do?  It’s difficult to say because there are several different issues that over-lap in this case.

First, we don’t yet have any proof that this event occurred. It’s just “He said-She said.”

Second, if proven, would such behavior thirty-five years ago, followed by unstained behavior since then, disqualify Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court?  In the current environment, it certainly should disqualify him.  By “current climate” I mean that people (myself included) are finally starting to pull their heads out of their “culus” about an age-old problem.  With any luck, this isn’t just a phase that is going to pass.  It will become the new normal.  Certainly that would be unfair to Kavanaugh, whose alleged action would have occurred under a different morals regime.  Thirty-five years ago was, like, 1983.  (In January 1983, the Washington Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl.  That’s how long ago it happened.)

Third, Diane Feindstein holding onto the letter, then releasing word of it at the last possible moment is pretty slimy.  However, if you think that Senator Feinstein’s actions are wrong, then you must also think that the Republican majority refusing to hold hearings on Merrick Garland was wrong.  They didn’t have to approve Garland.  The Constitution doesn’t say that “The Senate must approve anyone nominated by the President-Emperor.”  Ask poor Harriet Miers.  The appointment of judges at all ranks has become politicized because people have taken to the courts to obtain what they can’t get through the legislative process.  As Mr. Dooley opined, “politics ain’t bean-bag.”

Fourth, what should happen?  Put the clutch down on the Kavanaugh nomination.  Thoroughly investigate the accusation.  Yes, if the Democrats regain the majority in the Senate before the investigation is completed, then Kavanaugh is toast.  He will lose any vote on a purely party-line vote.  It will not matter what the investigation discovers.  It could acquit him and he would still lose.  Even so, that would be better than having someone appointed to the Supreme Court under a cloud, especially this kind of cloud.

Reasoning by analogy, we’re all in the same boat as the Catholic priesthood.  You can’t solve the problem by saying “Sorry” and promising transparency in the future.  (Yes, there’s a certain comic element in Democrats going “zero tolerance!” on this issue, while rejecting it on other issues.  Hypocrisy is central to American public life.)  On the other hand, I’d be opposed to trying to strip Kavanaugh of his current position as an appellate court judge.  (Like I said, hypocrisy is central to American public life.)

Final thing.  Take a moment to recall the Duke lacrosse and Charlottesville frat cases.  Both were examples of liberal lynch mobs.  We can’t tell yet what is true about the Kavanaugh case.  So, everyone should take a deep breath and think about what is best for th republic.  Here endeth the sermon.

Where did our love go?

First, the Supreme Court’s decision in “Plessy versus Ferguson” was considered settled law from 1896 to 1954.  The Supreme Court’s decision in”Roe versus Wade” has been considered settled law since 1973.

Second, given the politicization of the judiciary since the Warren Court, should the Justices of the Supreme Court be elected officials serving for limited terms, as are the members of the Legislative and Executive branches of government?  The ideal of an impartial and disinterested group of experts regulating the passions of the people currently seems impossible to fulfill.  The spectacle of Court nominees appearing before the Seante’s Judiciary Committee only to evade questions and of potential presidential candidates buffing their profiles in courage could appear equally disgusting.

Trump latest news.

After Russo-American relations soured, the American Justice Department and the F.B.I. came up with the idea of roping-in some Russian “oligarchs” with tight links to Vladimir Putin as sources of information.  Oleg Deripaska is one such “oligarch.”  He is suspected by the United States government of involvement in extortion, bribery, and possibly murder.  From 2014 to 2016, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. hoped to turn him into an informer on Putin and on Russian organized crime.  At first, they were interested in Russian organized crime and its possible connections to Putin; later they added an interest in possible connections between the Russians and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  So the Americans offered Deripaska help in getting visas to the United States for business purposes.[1]

Bruce Ohr, who had led Department of Justice campaigns against Russian organized crime, and Christopher Steele, the former head of the Russian desk at the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), played roles in this effort.  Steele’s role was to serve as an intermediary between the Americans and Russians.[2]  While the contacts between Ohr and Steele focused largely on the Deripaska case [and the other oligarchs?], they also discussed Steele’s “dossier” during the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign.

On 16 June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president.

In July 2016, the F.B.I. began investigating possible contact between members of the Trump presidential campaign and Russians.  Paul Manafort left the Trump campaign in August 2016 after reports surfaced that he had worked for pro-Russians in Ukrainian politics.

The Americans contacted Deripaska in September 2015 and again in September 2016.

In September 2015, the Americans pitched their theories of Kremlin-organized crime links to Deripaska.  He rejected the theories, declined to help them with their inquiries, and quickly informed the Kremlin of the approach.

From mid-summer 2016, the American intelligence had become concerned over the Russian hack of the Democratic National committee’s e-mail and by reports of Russian contact with Trump campaign staff.  In late Summer 2016, Steel began briefing American intelligence officials on his findings.

In September 2016, the Americans over-rode Deripaska’s refusal to hold a second meeting by showing up at his apartment or hotel in New York.  This time, they wanted to explore their theory of Trump campaign collusion with Russia.  In particular, they wanted to know if Paul Manafort had provided a connection between the Russians and the campaign.  Again, Deripaska derided the theories as “preposterous” and doubted that any Trump-Russia connection existed.[3]

With this avenue closed, Steele continued to share his information with American officials and journalists, both before and after the election.

[1] Kenneth Vogel and Matthew Rosenberg, “U.S. Agents Tried to Turn Oligarch into an Informer,” New York Times, 2 September 2018.  Presumably they also assured him that they wouldn’t let word leak to Putin or the “vory” that he was helping a foreign state.  What with their impulse-control issues and all.

[2] After retiring from MI-6, Steele had started a private business intelligence company.  Among his clients was one of Deripaska’s lawyer.  So, was that, perhaps, how the approach was made?

[3] The anonymous sources leak to the NYT apparently did not include a report on the response of the other oligarchs.