Obstare Decisis

In the US, hostility towards Roman Catholics goes back to the Nativist “Know Nothing” movement of the 19th Century, to “No Irish Need Apply” signs and to Democrat Al Smith’s humiliating defeat in the 1928 presidential election; this hostility even continued into the post WWII period with, for example, warnings of a Catholic plot to take over America from widely read author Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949).  (By today’s standard for vitriol, Blanshard’s book reads like a gentlemanly agreement to disagree.)

So, the current 6-3 strongly conservative Supreme Court majority composed of 5 Roman Catholics and 1 Catholic become Episcopalian is an extraordinary phenomenon in a land with such a long history of anti-Catholic fervor; counting Gorsuch and the liberal Sotomayor, 7 of the 16 Catholics ever to serve on the Court are on the Court today – where are the WASPs of yesteryear?

However, Catholics are not new to the Supreme Court – the first Catholic on the Court was Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision that drove the country to Civil War. But not all Catholics on the Court have been reactionaries; Justice William Brennan provided intellectual leadership for the progressive Warren Court; sitting Justice Sotomayor is also a Catholic in the progressive tradition. And Catholicism itself has a long tradition of social consciousness rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy – hospitals, orphanages, schools, … .

However, the Court has been dominated by right-wing Catholics since 2006 with Justice Alito’s joining Justices Roberts, Thomas, Scalia and Kennedy. Today Roberts, Thomas and Alito are still on the Court and they have been joined by Barret, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch – these last two even overlapped for two years at Georgetown Prep, the elite Jesuit high school in Washington D.C.

Traditionally, though, Catholics were working-class: well represented in the Democratic Party and in the labor movement. But things were changing by the mid 20th Century. And War II highlighted how important a population the Catholics in America had become – one critical to the war effort; and this was reflected in Hollywood movies: imagine Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers playing Irish Americans Pat O’Toole and Katie O’Hara in Once Upon a Honeymoon, the 1942 comedy/drama about the lead-up to the War in Europe. In the après-guerre, the economic situation of American Catholics was improving. Returning soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill in the 1940s and again in the 1950s after the Korean War; the level of education of Catholics was becoming superior to that of Protestant America. Families moved from the inner cities to the booming suburbs – the Catholicism of immigrants gave way to that of a new economically prosperous confident optimistic mainstream congregation.

And then there was the threat of Atheistic Communism that dominated both foreign policy and domestic politics. Catholics became enthusiastic Cold War warriors – for example, there was the Knights of Columbus’ successful campaign to insert the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance (1953). Catholics weren’t alone, though, in deconstructing the gap between Church and State: not to be left behind, the US Congress passed a bill changing the traditional US national motto from E Pluribus Unum to In God We Trust, a bill that was signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1956. Catholics played a role in zealous witchhunts giving rise to the sorry phrase “McCarthyism”; they were the driving force behind Red Channels, an organization that specialized in blacklisting radio and television people.

As social issues such as birth-control and abortion came to the forefront, American Catholicism was driven further to the right. And Catholics took over the intellectual leadership of the conservative movement in the US. William Buckley and Russel Kirk wrote influential books – God and Man at Yale (1951) and The Conservative Mind (1953), respectively. Buckley launched the National Review (1955) and brought Kirk on board.  Buckley’s libertarian, militaristic brand of conservatism replaced the isolationist, communal outlook of traditional WASP conservatives like the Tafts, the Cabots and the Lodges – Adieu Edmund Burke, Bonjour Ayn Rand.

The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 made the integration of Catholics in America official.

The next chapter in the move towards a Catholic dominated reactionary court was the creation of the Federalist Society in 1982. The founding group was composed of conservative law students from Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago.  The Society functions as a pressure group and debating society dedicated to placing right wing ideologues in key positions throughout the justice system. Richard Nixon had tried to place some conservative Southerners on the Supreme Court after the Dixiecrats had turned Republican in reaction to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement; not surprisingly candidates like Haynsworth and Carswell were considered “good-old-boys” and  just not impressive enough for confirmation. But Catholics screened by the Federalist Society would fill this void. The kind of Court we have today begins with the nomination of University of Chicago Law Professor and Federalist Society icon, Antonin Scalia, to be an Associate Justice by Ronald Reagan in 1986; Scalia was approved by the Senate in an impressive 98-0 vote and he joined the conservative Rehnquist Court.

Fast forward to 2005-6 when things pick up steam with the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Court; now there was a Catholic “conservative” majority – the others being Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy.

With a Catholic majority, the persuasive Scalia was able to push an already conservative Court even further to the right and to play a critical role in some earth-shaking decisions. His announced methodology was based on originalism and textualism, a casuistic approach to the law promulgated by the Federalist Society: to wit, the Constitution is not a living document and it should be interpreted using the sense the text would have had when it was written.

But in actuality originalism turned out to be license to turn legal analysis into a form of Medieval Scholastic theology – worse, one where in the end the meaning of a text would be what the jurist decided for him or herself. The Middle Ages saw the rise of a sophisticated and brilliant Catholic school of rationalist thought, known as Scholasticism. It covered areas of philosophy, theology and logic with important contributors from all over Western Europe – such as Duns Scotus Erigena from Ireland, Duns Scotus from Scotland, William of Occam from England, Albertus Magnus from Germany, Ramon Lull from Spain, Abelard and Buridan from France, and the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas from Italy. In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell admires the thoroughness and force of Thomas Aquinas’ arguments but cautions that Aquinas relies too much on the power of words themselves at the expense of observation and facts.

Indeed, this use of the magic of words is seen in Scalia’s mind-bending majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). He, abetted by the four other “conservatives,” put gun manufacturers before people by replacing the standard interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that went back to Madison’s time with a dangerous one, cynically appealing to originalism by claiming the authority to speak for Madison and his contemporaries.

The Second Amendment reads

    A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The phrase “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” is a grammatical construction known a nominative absolute, a free-standing phrase that establishes context for what follows. (A common example is “All things being equal.”) But Scalia cavalierly dismissed this phrase as meaningless – imagine a so called originalist disrespecting James Madison’s carefully crafted prose. Moreover, there was no compelling legal reason to play games with the accepted meaning of the 2nd Amendment – if the over 200 years of interpretation of the wording of the amendment isn’t enough, if the term “militia” isn’t enough, and if the term “bear arms” isn’t enough to link the amendment to matters military in the minds of the framers, one can consult James Madison’s original text:

    “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.” [Italics added].

The italicized clause was written to reassure Quakers and other pacifist religious groups that the amendment was not forcing them to serve in the military, but it was ultimately excluded from the final version for reasons of separation of church and state. This clause certainly indicates that the entirety of the amendment, in Madison’s view, was for the purpose of maintaining militias. Note too that Madison implies in this text and in the shorter final text as well that “the right to bear arms” is a collective “right of the people” rather than an individual right to own firearms. You don’t “bear arms” to go duck hunting.

The radical ruling in Heller by the five “conservative” justices has scuttled all attempts at gun control, enriched gun manufacturers, elevated the National Rifle Association to the status of a power-broker and made the Supreme Court complicit in the wanton slaughters of so many. The current spate of school shootings, random murders, racist and anti-Semitic killing events is just out of control – and nobody will do anything about it. It has also created the watchword “Second Amendment rights” and legitimized militia movements. Tragically, Scalia’s originalism has created a license to kill, kill, kill. Hopefully, someday Heller will be declared “wrongly decided.” But, in the meantime, the current Court will soon come down with a decision on a NY State law that requires a permit to carry a concealed weapon which will likely only make matters worse (New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen).

Scalia/Scholastic style wordcraft is entrenched in the Roberts Court and its solid “conservative” Catholic majority.  This Court has overturned campaign finance laws passed by Congress and signed by the President by summoning up an astonishing, ontologically challenged version of the legal fiction that corporations are “persons” and imbuing them with new First Amendment rights (Citizens United v. FEC 2008). Some context: corporations are treated as legal “persons” in some court matters, basically so that they can pay taxes and so that the officers of the corporation are not personally liable for a corporation’s debts. But, there was no compelling legal reason to play Dr Frankenstein in Citizens United and create a new race of corporate “persons” by endowing corporations with a human-like right to free speech that allows them to spend their unlimited money on U.S. political campaigns. Citizens United already appears on several lists of “worst Supreme Court decisions” such as the one compiled by TIME magazine. The immediate impact of this decision has been a further gap between representatives and the people they are supposed to represent; the political class was at least somewhat responsive to the voters, now they are only responsive to the donor class.

These five justices didn’t stop there.  Along the way, they made a mockery of stare decisis in several cases such as Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), Hem v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. (2007) and others; and even just now in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez.

In Shelby Counter v. Holder (2013) they ignored the separation of powers as they gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 –  ignoring the obvious and declaring that there was no longer a need for federal monitoring of voting laws in states with a history of voter suppression: a claim dramatically disproven by incessant machinations since by governors and state legislatures. Adding insult to injury, five years later they steamrolled over the work of a lower court in the Texas Redistricting Case (Abbot v. Perez, 2018) – arrogating decision power to themselves, eliminating any vestige of the Voting Rights Act.

They breached the separation of Church and State in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014) by elevating the personhood of corporations yet further and ascribing to them “religious interests.” Here the magic words were “closely held” business, a phrase which restricted the scope of the ruling to privately owned companies in a dance around the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Education (2020) and in Carson v. Makin (2022), they continued to gnaw away at the separation of Church and State by ruling that states cannot exclude religious schools from scholarship and tuition programs.

Simply put, these decisions constitute a real threat to Democracy in America. And today things look even worse, what with the new line-up of six “conservative” justices, the five right-wing Catholics (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh, Barret) plus the right-wing Catholic turned Episcopalian (Gorsuch). And they are not wasting time. Already they are in the process of inflicting division and chaos on the country with the expected ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that will likely overturn Roe v. Wade in yet another repudiation of stare decisis. The new stage direction is “Exit stare decisis” and the new legal expression for this sabotage of the legal system is then obstare decisis, replacing stand by decisionswithoverturn decisions.”

For the record: In Latin, for the verbs stare and obstare the complement is in the dative case – instead of the usual accusative case of a direct object. Decisis is the dative plural of the past participle of the verb decido and means “the things decided.” So stare decisis literally means “to stand with the things already decided” and obstare decisis literally means “to oppose the things already decided.” As usual the Latin is much more concise, one of its distinguishing features.

The leaked draft of Alito’s write-up of the impending decision in Dobbs brings us right back to the 13th Century; therein he shows his Scholastic chops and appeals to Henry de Bracton’s Latin treatise on the Law; in fact, it was de Bracton, a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, who introduced the Scholastic theory of Natural Law into English law which now in the American legal system allows for an appeal to a higher authority: in principle, so long as it does not contradict the Constitution. Ominously, Natural Law is a concept especially dear to Justice Thomas. With these right wing Supreme Court judges we should rightly be afraid: already Catholic dogma on birth control (Hobby Lobby) and soon abortion (Dobbs) will have made its way into American legal reasoning. Moreover, De Bracton was a priest in the Catholic Church – an archdeacon, the rank just below a bishop – and he thought of the legal profession as a priesthood: “Ius dicitur ars boni et aequi, cuius merito quis nos sacerdotes appellat” (Law is called the art of the good and the just, an art whose priests we merit to be called). Armed with the Natural Law and the principle of obstare decisis, this 6-3 majority of relatively young judges in their priestly sacerdotal robes will in all likelihood continue to distort American values for some time to come.

A Logician’s Tale

The Association for Symbolic Logic (ASL) is a professional organization of researchers in Mathematical Logic, a field that also includes people from Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy as well as Mathematics itself. When it is not a plague year, the ASL holds an annual meeting in North America and another one in Europe.  This April, the North American meeting was held at Cornell University in Ithaca NY and this writer was invited to give a talk – not on his latest theorems this time but on certain historical aspects of an area in Mathematical Logic he last worked on forty years ago. But it was wonderful to take a break from Covid induced solitude, to re-find old friends and to meet new people in the field.
A gathering like this is basically a religious event for a priesthood of scholars who believe in the magic and majesty of their subject. It is a pilgrimage drawing people from all over – English is the official language but one would hear Hebrew, Polish, Spanish etc. in conversations and black-board sessions throughout the meeting. The comparison can be made to the School of Pythagoras, where Philosophy and Mathematics were blended with a religious theory based on the harmony of the spheres.
The field has its mythic figures – ancients like Aristotle, medieval scholars like William of Ockham and more recent ones like George Boole, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, … . It has a hierarchy based on talent – and some grand old men and women. Apropos, the group at Cornell was about 25% women, 75% men; the current president of the ASL is Julia Knight, a professor at Notre-Dame.
As the meeting unfolds, a first impression one forms is just how far removed from ordinary earthly considerations this subject can be. Like mathematics in general, the subject is driven above all by its own internal momentum – which does make its practitioners seem to inhabit an Ivory Tower constructed by their own imaginations. Many there were talking about monstrously large infinite cardinal numbers – a mystical pursuit justified in part by the knowledge that more one knows about the infinite, the more one can know about the ordinary integers. There was a series of talks on the frontier field of Quantum Computing, calibrating it with classical mathematical models of computability such as Turing machines. Among other topics, there were talks on Model Theory, a subject which extracts rich mathematical information from the simple fact that a subject’s axioms, theorems and open problems can be expressed in a particular formal language.
But these researchers are on the faculties of elite colleges and universities; their work is funded by grants from government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the European Science Foundation. (Some young people from Europe even said that they were especially glad of the opportunity to come to a live meeting at Cornell because the travel money in their grants had to be spent this academic year!) But why all this financial support for such a seemingly marginal enterprise?
The simple answer is that research in pure mathematics has again and again proved vital to progress in the physical sciences. Historically, much mathematics developed in tandem with physics – Archimedes, Newton – but even so their work was based in turn on the geometries of Euclid and Descartes.
In a more modern context, work on the Riemannian Geometry of dimensions higher than 3 provided Einstein the tools he needed for the 4-dimensional geometry of the Theory of Relativity. Drolly put, mathematicians were traveling in space-time even before Einstein!
Yet more recently, it was work in pure math by Yves Meyer and others on Harmonic Analysis (the mathematics of sound) that had a new tool ready for engineers for the development of high-definition digital television –  the wavelet. The wavelet plays the role the classical Fourier transform does for analog radio and TV.
Apropos, Meyer was a colleague of this writer at the University of Paris (Jussieu campus) back in the 1970s – very much the Parisian intellectual: good looking, brilliant, witty and, what’s more, a very nice guy.
And this kind of anticipation of the needs of science and engineering is also true of Mathematical Logic. To start, Boolean Algebra is key to the design of computer chips. And there was Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the extraordinary discovery that the axiomatizations of strong mathematical systems like Set Theory and Number Theory would necessarily fall short as oracles for discovering the truth – human intuition can not be done away with; to accomplish this, Gödel applied mathematical methods to mathematics itself (aka meta-mathematics), to analyze algorithms and proofs, an analysis that led to computer programming as we know it today. Indeed, at a high enough level of abstraction, proofs and programs are pretty much the same thing.
Gödel’s work was in response to Hilbert’s Program, a project which was launched by German mega-mathematician David Hilbert in the late 1920s to apply Proof Theory and its meta-mathematics to establish that the axioms of standard mathematical systems could not yield inconsistent results. Gödel, practically speaking, put an end to Hilbert’s Program although its spirit continued to motivate outstanding work in Proof Theory.
Apropos, at an ASL meeting many years ago, this writer was walking with Stephen Cole Kleene, a giant in the field and one who contributed important work on mathematical models of computability in the 1930s; when asked what motivated them back then, Kleene, an American, responded “Well, the Germans had this Proof Theory and we were just trying to catch up.”
In 1933, John Von Neumann came to the recently created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; Von Neumann, a true polymath, worked in many areas of mathematics including Logic: Set Theory and Proof Theory, in particular. It was he who arranged for Kurt Gödel to visit the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton on three occasions in the 1930s and then arranged a permanent position for Gödel there after the latter’s dramatic escape from Vienna in 1940 – train from Vienna to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, boat to Japan, ship to the US – in 1940 before the German invasion of Russia and before Pearl Harbor. Gödel himself wasn’t Jewish but he was being accused of doing “Jewish mathematics” and his life was being threatened.
In 1936, the young British mathematician Alan Turing published a paper “On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” Here Turing presented a new mathematical model for computation – the “automatic machine” in the paper, the “Turing Machine” today. Turing proved that this much simpler model is equivalent to the other schemes of Gödel, Herbrand, Church and Kleene; the Turing Machine is couched in terms of a very primitive device manipulating 0s and 1s; furthermore, Turing demonstrated the existence of a Universal Turing Machine which can emulate the operation of any Turing machine M given the description of M in 0s and 1s along with the intended input; this will turn out to prove very important barely 10 years later. Turing presented his paper at Princeton and then stayed on to do a PhD under Alonzo Church, author of another important model of computation, the λ-calculus – a model far less intuitive than Turing’s but one important today in work on automated proof checking and other areas of Computer Science. Von Neumann tried to get Turing to stay at Princeton as a post-Doc after the latter’s PhD dissertation there in 1938 but Turing went back to England where he was soon working on breaking the codes of the German Enigma machine.
BTW Applying the Universal Turing Machine to itself opens the door to a treasure trove of paradoxical insights and results. In a similar way, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem relies on self-reference. Very roughly speaking Gödel’s proof employs a stratagem reminiscent of the Liar’s Paradox of Antiquity: Gödel constructed a self-referential formula asserting “This statement is not provable” – if provable, it’s false; if not provable, it’s true. So if the axioms do not yield false results, Gödel’s statement is true but unprovable. (For an example of an incompleteness in mathematics that does not employ mathematical self-reference, see the Kanamori-McAloon Theorem.)
Scientists have long been involved in the design of new weapons systems: Archimedes used parabolic mirrors to create a laser like beam of light that set the sails of Roman ships on fire in Syracuse harbor; Leonardo supplemented his income by sketching visionary weapons for Ludovico II, the Duke of Milan. But WW II was a watershed when the military and governments realized that for new modern weapons systems, scientists and mathematicians were needed in addition to military engineers.
The most spectacular wartime weapons effort was the Manhattan Project for constructing atomic weapons. John von Neumann worked on the Manhattan Project as did Logician Stanislas Ulam. Ulam started his academic career in Lviv working in Set Theory on very large infinite cardinal numbers – yes, at that same city in western Ukraine today that is subject to constant bombardment and yes those same monstrous infinities that were the subject of several exciting talks at Cornell.
Apropos, Ulam wrote a breezy autobiography Adventures of a Mathematician (1976). At one point he came to Paris and joined a couple of us logicians for dinner at a Basque restaurant near the Panthéon. We tried to get him to tell us whether the Monte Carlo algorithms he had invented were done in connection with his work on the hydrogen bomb – he was charming but evasive. However, he did write down our names most carefully; presumably, were we to become famous, we would get a mention in his next book!
BTW The Soviet Union followed suit in its post-War support for Mathematics and the Soviet School (already strong before the War) became second to none. Mathematics and Theoretical Physics were very attractive areas for young researchers in the USSR since these were the only areas where spying government apparatchiks would never be able to understand what you were actually doing and therefore would leave you alone.
In the early days of modern computing machinery one had to rewire the machine, replace external tapes, swap plugboards or reset switches for the next application. This would change. After the War, Von Neumann joined the team at the University of Pennsylvania under John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, the team that built the pioneering ENIAC (1945). For this next government funded project, Von Neumann wrote up a report on the design of the next digital computer, “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”; inspired by the Universal Turing Machine, in this report, von Neumann introduced “stored programming” where you just input the algorithm along with the data into the memory of the machine – the algorithm and the data live in the same universe after all. This was a crucial step forward. Today, the role of the Universal Turing Machine is played by the operating system of the computer or phone; MS-DOS, Windows, macOS, Unix, Linux, Android, iOS.
BTW In the post-War period, US courts were revealed to have a Platonistic philosophy of mathematics – who knew ? It was ruled that an algorithm could not be patented because the mathematical theorems underlying the algorithm were already true before their proofs came to light – mathematicians were thus discoverers and not inventors. Later the courts patched things up with industry by declaring that one could patent the implementation of an algorithm!
After the war, US government and military financing of university research continued to pay off in spectacular fashion: e.g. the Internet and Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI itself had its roots in Mathematical Logic and the first to warn the world that machine intelligence was destined to outstrip human intelligence was Alan Turing. In his 1951 talk at the University of Manchester entitled Intelligent Machinery: A Heretical Theory, Turing spoke of machines that will eventually surpass human intelligence: “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control.” This eerie event is now called the Singularity and “experts” predict it will come soon after 2030.
Set Theory, Model Theory, Proof Theory and other areas of Logic also prospered in the post-War era; interest in the field spread and new centers of Logic emerged in the US and as far abroad as Novosibirsk in Siberia. In 1966, Paul Cohen received the Fields Medal (the mathematicians’ “Nobel Prize”) for his elegant work on the Continuum Hypothesis  – this was the subject of the very first in a list of 23 important open problems drawn up by that same David Hilbert in 1900, problems whose solutions would determine the directions Mathematics would take.
Apropos, this writer used Cohen’s techniques to settle a form of the Continuum Hypothesis problem that had been raised by work of Gödel. This earned him an audience with Gödel where they discussed set-theoretic axioms to extend the power of mathematics; when one of this writer’s suggestions was proving too convoluted, Gödel simply said “That won’t work; it has to be beautiful to be true.”
Today, AI and other fields that originated in Mathematical Logic have merged with Computer Science and new fields have been created – such as Complexity Theory which analyzes the run-time of algorithms; and this links in turn to modern cryptography such as that behind the omnipresent  https://  . Also in this intersection of Logic and Computer Science there is ongoing work on automated proof checking: this involves new logics and new constraints on the structure of proofs and the conversion of proofs into programs – right back where this all started in Proof Theory.
But can one say that the kind of work presented at the Cornell ASL meeting will have such pervasive consequences as that from years past? We do not know, of course, but mathematics is the best tool humans have for understanding the physical universe both in the large and in the small. Indeed, people always marvel at how the Mathematics fits the Physics so perfectly. Some skeptics claim that human intelligence is limited to the point that mathematical models used for Physics are simply the only ones that we ourselves can understand. Others, more traditional in their philosophy, hold that Mathematics is just the best way for us to touch the mind of God.

1052 And All That

It was in the Lord’s Year MLII that the Great Schism took place that separated Western Christianity from Orthodox Christianity and created a fault line in Europe that is dangerous to this day, particularly for the Slavic peoples of Europe.
There had been conflicts both theological and political before between the Pope in Rome and the Archbishop of Constantinople but the rift had always been smoothed over. The Great Schism was caused by a number of basic disagreements: there was the Western practice of using unleavened bread for the Eucharist for example, but the main theological disagreement was over the relative positions of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in the Trinity – known as the filioque controversy that resulted from the Latin Church’s tinkering with the Nicene Creed. For some details, click HERE .
The actual events on the ground that immediately triggered this dramatic split are the stuff of silent comedy with the Papal Legate and the Archbishop of Constantinople hurling excommunications around like Jovian thunderbolts. But, this time there would be no turning back. The result has been a painful fissure in the structure of European society that continues to this day and that even underlies the current crisis in Ukraine.
For the most part, Slavic peoples are in the Orthodox zone with some exceptions at the very Western end of the Slavic lands. Thus the Westernmost Slavs – Slovenians, Croats, Czechs, many Slovaks – were absorbed into Western Christianity. Western Christianity reached Poland by means of the dynastic marriage of Doubravka of Bohemia, a Catholic, with Mieszko I of Poland, a pagan; the result was that Mieszko himself converted and ordered his subjects to do the same – all circa 966. (The legend is that Doubravka used her charm to engineer the conversion, but scholars today think it was built into the pre-nuptial agreement with Bohemia.)  The Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia – close politically to Poland for a long time adopted Western Christianity too.
Serbia was part of the Byzantine world and Orthodox Christianity was established there by the middle of the 9th Century. Further East the Christianization of Slavic peoples also began in the 9th Century with the Byzantine missionaries, the sainted  brothers Cyrille and Methodius (“Apostles to the Slavs”) who brought a new Faith and alphabetism to (roughly) what is now Bulgaria.
But the big prize was the Kievan Rus, the great land of the Eastern Slavs; from its capital at Kiev, it spread from the Black Sea in the South to the White Sea in the North encompassing important cities like Rostov-on-Don and historic Novgorod  – the city defended from the Teutonic Knights in 1242 by Prince Alexander Nevsky, the eponymous hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s film .
For a map of historical Kievan Rus, click HERE .
Indeed, the modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus as their cultural ancestor and Belarus and Russia even derive their names from it. The conversion of Kievan Rus to Orthodox Christianity was not the work of missionaries or of foreign conquest. Rather, it followed the Polish model: the Duke of Kiev, Vladimir the Great (980–1015), entered into an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Basil II aiding him in suppressing a revolt with the help of Kievan troops . The alliance included marriage with the Emperor’s sister and a conversion to Orthodox Christianity. With the non-chalance worthy of a great autocrat, Vladimir ordered the townspeople of Kiev to make their way down to the Dnieper River for a mass baptism, an event which has become iconic in the lore of the Christianization of the Eastern Slavs. In Kievan Rus and in Poland, however, there was resistance to this forced break with traditional Slavic paganism and its Indo-European gods, cousins to the Greco-Roman Olympians.
Nothing involving religion ever being simple, there are also the Ruthenians (aka Greek Catholics) who range from Slovakia deep into Ukraine – their rite is in Church Slavonic (a language which preceded the emergence of modern Slavic languages) but they recognize the authority of the Pope in Rome. Perhaps the best known American Ruthenian is Andy Warhol whose work shows the influence of Eastern rite mosaics and icons on his artistic imagination. BTW the village of his parents in Slovakia is now a tourist attraction – something he would doubtlessly find amusing.
Romania is a special case: the region became part of the Roman Empire with the Emperor Trajan’s conquest of historical Dacia in the 2nd Century A.D.  The time-honored legend is that Christianity itself was introduced in Dacia by the apostle St. Andrew in the 1st Century. Because of the conquest, Romanian is a Romance language; nevertheless, the people turned to Orthodox Christianity with rituals celebrated in Church Slavonic, a practice that lasted into the 17th Century.
From the time of the Great Schism till today, the boundary lines separating duchies, countries, socialist republics, kingdoms and principalities in Orthodox Europe have been drawn, erased and drawn again over and over; the map of Slavic Europe is so confusing, always shifting and changing. By way of example, in 1914 the city of Lviv (which is much in the news today) was part of the Hapsburg edition of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) with the German language name of Lemberg; then between the wars, it was in the newly created country of Poland with the name Lwow; then following WW II, it was assigned to the Ukrainian SSR with the name Lviv – so polyonymous is this town that it even has two different names in Yiddish.
For a remarkable evolving map illustrating boundary changes in Europe over time, click HERE .
On the map, one can see the city Mykolaiv built by Count Potemkin (but not a Potemkin Village this time) during the reign of Catherine the Great along the Black Sea coast of modern Ukraine. Mykolaiv and other cities which date from that era – Odessa, Dnipro, Kherson, Sebastopol – are also very much in the news today. On this map, Ukraine only appears as a demarcated political entity for a brief spell in the early 20th Century before it is swallowed up by the USSR following the October Revolution of 1917 and the peace treaties ending WW I. And the map does not show that Crimea only became part of the Ukranian SSR in 1954 (when Ukranian Nikita Kruschev was Premier of the Soviet Union).
Present day Moldova (aka Bessarabia) is part of the Romanian story from the point of view of organized religion; but in 1940, as part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the area was ceded by the Kingdom of Romania to the Soviet Union to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic forming a buffer between the Ukrainian SSR and Romania.
At the end of WW II in 1945, all of the Orthodox Slavic lands were in the Communist sphere of influence – either as part of the USSR, part of the Warsaw Pact or part of Yugoslavia. All this would come crashing down with the partition of Yugoslavia and the fall of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th Century. The partition of the Kingdom of the Slavs saw Western Europe at its worst as Germany and others raced to disassemble the country and then failed miserably at containing the violence and slaughter that followed – violence and slaughter only accelerated by ancient unforgotten enmities which ineluctably resurfaced.
Historically, the Russians have had reason to fear Western Europe – the Teutonic Knights of the 13th century, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons that humiliated Mother Russia in the Crimean War in the 19th Century (alas giving rise to that poem about that brigade), the Hapsburg Empire’s ultimatums against Orthodox Serbia which led Tsarist Russia to start WW I as “Big Brother to the Slavs,” the murderous German armies (with their “Eastern front mentality”) of WWII. The European Union (EU) is often called the new Holy Roman Empire (HRE) – a revival of the historic imperial structure of Western Christianity. Today the EU and NATO can look to Russians like an expanded Western Christian force of Franks and Germans augmented with Anglo-Saxon auxiliaries.  Since the 1990s, this new Holy Roman Empire has been pushing relentlessly East both militarily with NATO expansion (despite assurances to the contrary once given) and culturally with the EU. Russian geo-political paranoia is not totally unfounded.
Orthodox Christianity is part of the Russian soul, even today despite 70 plus years of Communist rule. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that Orthodox Christianity provided Russia and the Slavic world a buffer against the individual liberalism of the West, something that earned him the reputation of being a “reactionary” in the West.
For someone like Putin who presumably takes the long view, the penetration of Western mores into Orthodox Eastern Europe is a threat to civilization itself. Organized religion provides a framework for social organization and for an individual’s path in life. Orthodox Christianity is entrenched in Russia, a symbol of Russian nationalism and a useful help in legitimating the regime.  On the contrary, in Western Europe, Christianity is in disarray. Not incidentally, Italy, Spain and Malta– bastions of tradional Roman Catholicism – have the lowest birth-rates in the EU, well below the level required to maintain the population, despite Church prohibitions of birth-control. It is not so funny that Anglicans quip that they go to Church only for “hatch, match, and dispatch”. (N.B. Anglicans both use the Oxford comma and put the quotation sign inside the period – one must respect that when writing about them.) For a deep look into the religious crisis in Western Europe, there is Chantal Delsol’s mordant analysis La Fin de la Chrétienté, 2021. (For a NYTimes piece on the book, click HERE .)
Not to say that Putin is especially religious (though he does attend church regularly and maintains excellent relations with the Russian Church) but he would not be alone in thinking that the godless, neo-liberal capitalist model of Western Europe is much more threat than benefaction for the Eastern Slavs; indeed, the social and human price of “progress” is admittedly very high.
From the Russian point of view, the situation in Ukraine deteriorated greatly with the Maidan protests of 2014-15: the pro-Russian president Yanukovych who had stepped back from an accord with the EU and favored economic integration with Russia and Belarus was deposed and the new regime quickly signed an association agreement with the EU. The takeover of Crimea, the incursion into Donbas soon followed. The refusal/failure of current Ukrainian president Zelensky’s government to declare publicly that Ukraine would not join NATO made it easy for Putin to ignite the slow fuse that set off the present conflict. One European nation that did not immediately join in the condemnation of the insane Russian invasion was Serbia, the Orthodox state that Russia had gone to war to defend in 1914; however, Serbia is in the process of applying for membership in the EU and so, under pressure from that new HRE, their delegation recently voted to condemn the invasion in the General Assembly of the UN – one can hear Putin cry “Et tu Illyricum.”
A special sort of madness, called até by Homer and Aeschylus, seems to take over the minds of leaders and makes them blind to reality and the consequences of their acts. Recent cases include Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Boris Johnson. Putin is but the latest in this list of victims of até , a list that goes back to Agamemnon. Nothing in any long-term view of Russian paranoia justifies the horrors of this invasion of Ukraine. But it does speak to the blindness of world leaders and the rest of us to deep structures that embody conflicts which linger on beneath the surface, so hard to see.

Legitimate Political Discourse

The mob who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was composed of a menagerie of anti-government groups with names like QAnon, The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, spurred on by a Donald Trump pep talk. Reaction by law enforcement has been slow. TIME Magazine reported on the situation as of Jan 6, 2022: “Only around one-tenth of those arrested—71 individuals—have received criminal sentences, while the rest are waiting for their trials or haven’t yet reached plea agreements. … So far, the median prison sentence for the Jan. 6 rioters is 45 days. An additional 18 rioters have been sentenced to periods of home detention, while most sentences have included fines, community service and probation for low-level offenses like illegally parading or demonstrating in the Capitol, which is a misdemeanor.”
But seven people died as a result of this assault! And these are the sentences! Mishandling of white supremacist and militia groups has been the rule, alas, in the Federal Government’s history for a long time now starting with Confederate officials and generals.
At the end of the Civil War, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis was confined for two years and then released on bail awaiting trial. However, on Christmas Day 1868, President Andrew Johnson pardoned just about everyone involved in the insurrection – an example that Trump has announced he plans to follow once he becomes President again. For his part, Robert E. Lee was never arrested or charged; he did lose the land which now is the site of Arlington National Cemetery – but his family was compensated later.
However, neither Davis nor Lee could accede to political office because of Section 3 of the 14th amendment which excludes former officials who have abetted or participated in an insurrection from serving again. This clause is of obvious interest today in so far as it can be applied to Donald Trump; for the text, click HERE .
The post-Civil War period gave rise to the longest lived white supremacist movement in the country, namely, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) – a group that has functioned with near impunity into the current era. Indeed, in Nov 1979, there was the Greensboro Massacre where Klan members killed five Communist Worker Party members who were participating in a pro-labor demonstration; there was a state criminal trial and a federal civil rights trial – in both all the assailants were acquitted. Similar result for the attempted murders of black women in 1980 in Chattanooga Tennessee. On the other hand, a most effective force against the KKK has been the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) which has succeeded in impoverishing clan groups by means of successful civil suits.
Among the first of the new violent white supremacist groups to form was the Aryan Nations in the 1970s. Inconsistency being a kind of virtue for these cult-like groups, the Aryan Nations both were virulently anti-Semitic and staked the claim that people from the British Isles are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel – a position known as British Israelism ! Under tight surveillance by the FBI, the group declined – also due to its own infighting and mismanagement. But it was not the FBI that brought the organization down in the end; rather it was that same Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that won a $6.3M lawsuit against the Aryan Nations for their sadistic mistreatment of a Native American woman and her son.
A more violent white supremacist offshoot known as The Order emerged in the 1980s and this group descended into bank robbery and more – such as the despicable murder of Jewish radio host Alan Berg; in this case at least, the government was able to bring the murderers to justice thanks to informants etc. As The Order connected up with other violent groups (among them the KKK), the Federal Government did bring seditious conspiracy charges against 14 conspirators formally indicting them in 1988 at Fort Smith Arkansas; however, 13 of them were acquitted and the charges against the 14th were dropped.
The 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho has become deeply symbolic for anti- government movements. People died but the two protagonists Randy Weaver (a Vietnam vet) and Kevin Harris were acquitted of all charges associated with the siege.
In 2006, a new militia group formed in Michigan with the name Hutaree, which was claimed to mean “Christian Warriors.” In 2010 in response to their activities, the government brought charges of seditious conspiracy against 9 members of the group: in 2012 the judge in the case dismissed all these charges.
And these malignant para-military groups have continued to multiply: in 2008, the Three Percenters, in 2009 the Oath Keepers, in 2016 The Proud Boys, and on and on.
In 2014, Cliven Bundy, white-supemacist and anti-government hardliner, had an armed standoff with federal government agents when he insisted that the government should not control federal lands. In support of Bundy, the Oath Keepers showed up. However, Bundy was not arrested and continued to graze his cattle on federal land without obtaining permits or paying fees.
In 2016, members of the Three Percenters joined the insurgents under Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven, at the Malheur Refuge Center in Oregon. This seizure of federal property lasted for months and one of the protesters was killed while resisting arrest. There were some convictions but even more acquittals. Cliven Bundy himself was arrested on his way to Malheur in 2016 but then all charges against him were dismissed in 2017 because of government bungling.
The rise of the right-wing conspiracy group QAnon is a new kind of phenomenon – born of the internet and social media like Reddit. Since 2017, people from all over have been galvanized by QAnon to contest the government based on crazy stuff like the Hilary Clinton led pedophilia ring in that pizza parlor in Philadelphia. Nutty as it is, when a lie passes its tell-by date, they simply come up with a new one.
The Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville VA in 2017 involved a congeries of anti-government, white-supremacist and anti-Semitic organizations among them neo-Nazis and the KKK. A counter-protestor Heather Heyer, was killed by a car driven into a crowd by a white supremacist demonstrator; this time the murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment. But all this criminal behavior was played down by then President Donald Trump who spoke about “very fine people on both sides.”
The state of Michigan has been a breeding ground for these anti-government cabals. In 2020, a movement calling themselves the Wolverine Militia plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The group was infiltrated and the plot forestalled, leading to charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping against 13 defendants – all of this is still working its way through the courts. The scheme was hatched following a series of protests (including an incursion by armed men into the State Capitol) in reaction to Whitmer’s strict COVID mitigation measures – measures which were derided by Donald Trump who called Whitmer “that woman from Michigan” and who tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” an all caps fascist dog-whistle.
These groups, Oath Keepers et al., are eerily like the Blackshirts and Brownshirts of the fascist movements of Europe in the 1920s. They were an integral part of the Jan 6 Insurrection where an organized, equipped and violent mob stormed the US Capitol terrorizing members of Congress and others. The goal of this action was to interfere with the count of the Electoral College votes; and then either (1) to have the vote for president assigned to the House of Representatives or (2) to have Vice-President Mike Pence accept the bogus alternate slates the Republicans had prepared for Arizona, Michigan etc; but Pence let them down. In the first case, in an election for president  in the House of Representatives, each state has one vote and the Republicans have a majority in more states than the Democrats do (even though the Democrats have more seats in the House over all) – result: victory for Trump as it was for John Quincy Adams in 1824 over Andrew Jackson who actually had won more of the popular vote and of the electoral vote. In the second case, numerous swing state electors would have been switched – result: victory for Trump as it was for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 when alternate pro-Hayes electors from Southern states were seated in return for the end of Reconstruction, thus defeating the Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden who had won the popular vote.
The Jan 6, 2021 attack is not an isolated event; it has its place in the history of white-supemacist violence; and the reaction to Jan 6 is so far eerily ineffective and reminiscent of the handling of past militia violence. And now in an “in your face” moment, the Trumpist Republicans have declared that this murderous insurrection was just an example of “legitimate political discourse.” This trick of blatantly rewriting history is a classic fascist tactic.
The material damage to the Capitol has been estimated at $30M and will rise further, much further. Four attackers died during the stampede (one, an Air Force veteran, from police fire as rioters tried to breach the House chamber, the others for medical reasons), a police officer was killed during the attack and two other officers committed suicide in the following days. Up till now, the punishments meted out have been almost all “slaps on the wrist.”
Only recently has the Department of Justice begun to move up the insurrectionist chain of command and arrest ring-leaders who were not necessarily physically present in the Capitol Building that day; the government has brought seditious conspiracy charges against 11 such defendants, among them the leader of the Oath Keepers, army veteran Stewart Rhodes. This charge of seditious conspiracy was used successfully against the Puerto Rican nationalists of the 1954 assault on the Capitol and on various Marxist groups, but it has failed when used against white supremacists and militias as in the 1988 Fort Smith sedition case and as in the 2010 case against the Hutaree militia in Michigan.
One must remember that the Nazi movement in Germany first tried its notorious Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923; the Putsch failed but the lame reaction to it only emboldened the Nazi party and its para-military apparatus, which placed that country on the fast lane to fascism. The Jan 6 Commission, the Department of Justice, the courts and public opinion had better all move quickly: with a lame response to Jan 6, we will be reduced to telling ourselves “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Post Scriptum For more on the disputed elections of 1824 and 1876 and their implications for our time, click HERE .
Post Post Scriptum For more on the fascist threat underlying Trumpism, click HERE .

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Femmes Fatales of Yesteryear, Part II

For his classic poem The Ballad of Women of Times Gone By, François Villon rhapsodizes over the snows of yesteryear and the femmes fatales of yesteryear; naturally, he selects his heroines most carefully.
In the first stanza, he singles out two renowned courtesans of the ancient world.
There is Thais who followed her lover, one of Alexander’s generals, on the Macedonian march of conquest; after Alexander’s death, her paramour became Ptolemy I of Egypt – launching the dynasty of the Ptolemies that only ended with Cleopatra.
And there is Flora the Roman beauty – so prosperous in her chosen profession and so magnanimous of spirit that, according to legend, she financed the first Floralia ceremonies in Rome: springtime flower festivals and lusty happenings, annual six day events that lasted long into the Christian era. With the growth of Roman power, these exuberant ceremonies quickly spread throughout the empire – quite understandably since the Floralia “were much appreciated by conquered peoples for their licentious nature,” to translate from a prudish French source.
Things get a bit comic though in this first stanza when Villon references Alcibiades (Archipiades in the text) who was, in fact, a man. Alcibiades was known in his day as the most beautiful youth in Periclean Athens – apparently Villon and his contemporaries took him to be a woman so universal were the paeans to his beauty in classical writings. The less easily befuddled among us today hold Alcibiades more to account for his role in the disastrous siege of Syracuse in the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.
But then Villon leaps forward to the late Middle Ages invoking Héloïse and Marguerite de Bourgogne – both most worthy of the poet’s attention. The actual story of Marguerite and the scandal of The Tower of Nesle involves other dazzling women – among them are the two other daughters-in-law of King Philippe Le Bel, Jeanne de Bourgogne and Blanche d’Artois both of whom figured in the actual historical events but who were mostly left at peace by the legends and literature that followed. However, the story of The Tower of Nesle also involves Isabelle de France, King Philippe’s daughter who was the one who aroused the suspicions of her father about the future queen Marguerite’s extra-regal activities. And this is the Isabelle known to history as the She-Wolf of France (la Louve de France)! Should she not be there among the femmes fatales of Villon’s poem?
Well here is her story: daughter that she was of the King of France, at the tender age of 12, she was married off to Edward II, the King of England; this was a dynastic marriage arranged to keep the peace between England and France – as the Duke of Aquitaine and Gascogne, the Plantagenet Edward II controlled a large part of France but was in feudal terms a vassal of the King of France. It is also interesting that although the English Court at the time of these scandals was very much French, the French Salic Law never became part of English law: this law was inspired by Marguerite’s story and prevented a queen from being the reigning monarch; on the contrary, in England there were the impressive reigns of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. But the plot thickens: the same Isabelle, who had denounced Marguerite, herself led a successful rebellion against her own husband Edward II aided by her lover Roger Mortimer, baron of Wigmore and descendant of Normans who came with William the Conqueror. Edward II was thus forced to abdicate in favor of the 14 year old Edward III, his son with Isabelle; the deposed king died imprisoned at Berkeley Castle not long after, either by natural causes or on the orders of Mortimer – historians differ. Edward III only being 14 years of age when made king, Isabelle served as Queen Regent and ruled the country – she did well, making peace with Robert the Bruce and the unruly Scots, for one thing. When Edward III did take control at age 18, he promptly saw to it that Mortimer was executed – but Isabelle, though kept away from Court, lived out her days playing the model grandmother in a style befitting the daughter, wife and mother of a king.
As with Marguerite de Bourgogne and The Tower of Nesle, the story of Isabelle de France is too good to have been passed up by the world of letters, Villon notwithstanding. And this time it was Christopher Marlowe himself who seized the occasion.
    BTW, Marlowe’s star continues to rise; the New Oxford Shakespeare now lists him as co-author of all three of the Henry VI  plays – this attribution was made using a sophisticated Artificial Intelligence program which determines authorship by matching phrasings against other works by the writer in question etc – thus pretty well settling at least one question involving Marlowe’s contributions to Shakespeare’s work.
Marlowe, it seems, had a predilection for plots involving close ties between men and, true to form, in his 1592 play Edward II, he develops the story around the close and controversial relationship Edward had with his favorite Piers Gaveston. Like Dumas’ play The Tower of Nesle, Marlowe’s play too has been made into films – most recently there is the 1991 film Edward II by British filmmaker Derek Jarman: here it is Edward’s relationship with Gaveston that triggers Isabelle’s alienation – although historians tend to think that it was Edward’s dalliance with his next favorite Hugh Dispenser the Younger that drove Isabelle to open rebellion – and, indeed, in the end Isabelle did have Hugh Dispenser dispatched in a most ghastly way.
Books too continue to be written on this dramatic chapter of British history; already in this century we have Paul Doherty’s Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (2003).
And the world of art has been there since the beginning. For a medieval image of Isabelle de France, taken from the original Froissart’s Chronicles, the late 14th Century history of the 100 Years War, click HERE . Admittedly, Isabelle would have been better served by a master painter of the Renaissance but that would only have been possible some 100 or more years later. For a print from Froissart’s Chronicles of the first steps in the execution of Hugh Dispenser, click HERE .
Given all this, Isabelle de France clearly deserves her place in the pantheon of femmes fatales of yesteryear. Did François Villon only overlook her because she was Queen of England and not Queen of France? We will never know, hélas. But a simple way to give her her due is to recreate the lines that are manifestly missing from Villon’s poem, inserting them into the middle of the stanza devoted to Heloise and Marguerite; after all the poem is dedicated to dangerous women of the past, she certainly qualifies and fits in so well with the other two.
There must be a circle in Hell reserved for those who tamper with great poetry (the crime of lèse-poésie or is it lèse-poète), but for Isabelle’s sake a poetic sacrilege is justified here and so we propose that lines be added both to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Victorian translation and to Villon’s original poem.
We note with pride that the quatrains below follow Rossetti’s and Villon’s rhyme. Also like these poets, we have recourse to the language of yesteryear: in this case the arcane word mariticide which denotes the murder of a husband.
Following Rossetti:
And where is the Isabelle so intelligent
That she drove her lover to regicide
Thus becoming the Queen Regent
Thanks to her little mariticide
Following Villon:
Où est cette Isabelle si brilliante
Qui poussa son amant au régicide
Ce qui fit d’elle la reine régente
Grace a son petit mariticide
For the full Rossetti text, click HERE ; for that of Villon, click HERE .
One more treat: for Villon’s ballad sung with classical syllabication by the great French chanteur Georges Brassens, click HERE .