Monday, June 5, 2017


Moses and Joshua Bow Before the Ark, by James Tissot
So Donald Trump has decided to walk away from the 2015 Paris climate accord.  Count me among those who believe this will make less difference that may at first appear to the ultimate outcome of humanity's battle with climate change - which is, at root, a battle with ourselves; whether the interests of our future selves can overcome the greed and inertia of our present selves.  Aquinas would have called this temperance (before that word became associated specifically with alcoholic indulgence):  "a disposition of the mind that binds the passions".

Can our "passions" be controlled? As every self-help book will tell you, it is easier to do that if we set goals together and hold one another accountable, which is what the Paris agreement (a voluntary, nonbinding accord) was aiming for; Trump's pullout will damage that. But for climate temperance to be successful, it cannot anyhow be limited to the actions of heads of state.  It will have to become embedded in life at every level. Trump's action ultimately, I believe, makes little difference to this.  The flurry of local responses, like Pittsburgh's mayor pushing back after Trump's rhetorical claim that "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris", is an encouraging sign that this sort of embeddedness is beginning to develop.

No, what is changed here, perhaps irreversibly (I do not know) is the idea of America, not the hope for climate action.  I have been reading the books of Samuel in Robert Alter's magnificent translation. Chapter 4 of 1 Samuel presents the story of Israel's "loss" of the Ark, the visible sign of the presence of God in their midst.  Israel at this time is being run by Eli, described as an old, overweight man, who has given up much of the day to day business of government to his corrupt family.  These family members decide to bring the very Ark itself as a talisman to ensure victory into a battle with the Philistines; their plan backfires, the Ark is lost, the Israelites are defeated, and one messenger escapes to bring the news to old Eli, "seated in a chair by the road, for his heart was trembling over the Ark of God".  "What happened, my son?", asks Eli. "And the bearer of the tidings answered and said, 'Israel fled before the Philistines, and what's more there was a great rout among the troops, and what's more your two sons died- Hophni and Phineas - and the Ark of God was taken.  And the moment he mentioned the Ark of God, Eli fell backward from his chair through the gate and his neckbone was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy."  

Shortly afterwards we learn that the wife of the ill-fated Phineas, horrified by the news, gives birth prematurely to a son and dies in childbirth. "And she called the boy Ichabod, which is to say 'Glory is exiled from Israel' - for the taking of the Ark and for her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, 'Glory is exiled, for the  Ark of God is taken.' "

Now listen to Alter the Hebraist, who lets a non-expert like me see some of the inner ties of the text. "The term for 'glory', kavod, is transparently cognate with kaved, 'heavy', the adjective used to explain Eli's lethal tumble from his chair; the leader who might be supposed to represent Israel's glory exhibits only deadly heaviness."

"American exceptionalism" is an oft-used phrase, though I have not heard it so often lately (perhaps now that President Obama is not around to be accused of not believing in it).  For many people, "exceptionalism" involves the idea that the USA is the guardian of a certain "glory", what Jefferson called the "Empire of Liberty" - a set of values "based on the natural and universal rights of man", which could by American example "be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if [they] shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."   America's glory, in this reading, is its choice (or destiny) to take thought for the world.

The strongest feeling that I have in reading Trump's speech on the Paris Accord is: That glory has departed.  And what remains, in the Trumpian US, is nothing but a "deadly heaviness".

Ichabod, indeed.

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