American Paganism

It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.

Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.

Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public squareRod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.

Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularismis actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.

Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”

This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it

  1. rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
  2. Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.

In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion. 

Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.

More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.

Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.

Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.

But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”

For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.

Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”

The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.

The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”

For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”

Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.

To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.

A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.

First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.

Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.

Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as

  • unrestrained capitalist greed; as
  • authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
  • callous environmental degradation; as a
  • superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
  • petty “sanctimonious nationalism.” 

In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:

We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.

The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.

But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”

Schmitz’s analyses from April and August of 2016 really must be considered at length, given where they were published. Take this representative passage:

At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his ­fellow men.

And here’s another:

In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.

By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”

If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The  Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.

But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today. 

Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?

This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.

We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.

But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.

This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”

Pompeo Stresses Friendship With Saudis, Amid Stormclouds

Secretary of State reinforces alliance with kingdom while discussing Yemen, Khashoggi

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Monday with Saudi Arabia’s leaders, bearing a message of support for a close Trump administration ally at a time when the relationship is under pressure at home and abroad.

Mr. Pompeo met separately with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the royal court in the kingdom’s capital, telling reporters afterward that he raised at least two difficult issues—the war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

On those issues and on allegations of Saudi human-rights abuses, Mr. Pompeo stressed the friendly nature of ties between Washington and Riyadh.

“The Saudis are friends, and when friends have conversations, you tell them what your expectations are,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo’s stop in Riyadh came near the end of a multination Middle East trip and took place as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for a re-evaluation of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, including its support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.

But Mr. Pompeo, smiling in brief public appearances with the Saudi leaders and other officials, adhered closely to the administration’s stance regarding Saudi Arabia since the Oct. 2 killing of Mr. Khashoggi. He pressed for accountability, but avoided personally blaming Prince Mohammed, who U.S. intelligence officials have concluded likely gave the order for the killing.

Mr. Pompeo and other officials consistently have emphasized the enduring nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and its vital role in countering Iran, a main thrust of Mr. Pompeo’s trip, which has included stops in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Pompeo said he broached the issue of human rights, but didn’t specifically address allegations that a Saudi crackdown on dissent has included acts of torture against jailed women’s-rights activists, including lashings and electric shocks.

On Yemen, the U.S. mission to the kingdom said on Twitter that Mr. Pompeo and the crown prince discussed the conflict and “agreed on need for continued de-escalation and adherence to Sweden agreements, especially cease-fire and redeployment in #Hudaydah,” referring to the Red Sea port city that is the gateway for the vast majority of the country’s food and aid.

The administration has accelerated its efforts to secure a peace agreement in Yemen, for a conflict that has killed tens of thousand of people and caused a humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who Riyadh sees as proxies of their rival Iran, and they have used U.S.-made bombs and intelligence assistance in their bid to defeat the group.

“We discussed with Pompeo the joint effort in fighting Iran’s expansionist policies that harm regional and international security,” former Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said, according to the Saudi state-owned Ekhbariya news channel.

The officials discussed the crises in Yemen and Syria, the situation in the Red Sea region, and efforts to fight terrorism and extremism, Mr. Jubeir said, according to the channel.

Mr. Pomeo also addressed a pair of Twitter messages sent Sunday by President Trump in which he vowed to devastate Turkey’s economy if it targets Kurdish populations in northern Syria as the U.S. withdraws its forces. Mr. Trump called for a 20-mile safe zone between the Turkish border and U.S.-allied fighters, and also called upon America’s Kurdish allies not to provoke Turkey.

“The president’s aim there, I think, is the one that we’ve been talking about for some time. Which is that we want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate and ISIS have security, and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey,” Mr. Pompeo said, referring to Islamic State by an acronym.

The exact method of achieving these “twin aims” has yet to be determined, the secretary said. “If we can get a space—call it a buffer zone; others might have a different name for it—if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.”

Mr. Pompeo planned to return to the U.S. earlier than planned to attend a family funeral, the State Department said on Monday. After departing Saudi Arabia, the secretary was traveling to Oman for meetings with leaders there, but planned to forgo a scheduled stop in Kuwait.

The secretary’s swing through the Middle East was aimed at reassuring partners and promoting a new regional alliance. Mr. Pompeo arrived in Riyadh from Doha, where the U.S. and Qatar held their second strategic dialogue.

During his remarks in Doha, the secretary pledged to continue trying to broker an agreement between Qatar and the four states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt—that have isolated the country over allegations of support for terrorism.

The schism threatens to derail U.S. plans to form a Middle East Strategic Alliance envisioned as a counterpart to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Asked about his hosts’ reaction to his comments in Doha, Mr. Pompeo said the Saudis also hope to heal the rift with Qatar.

“We can certainly provide assistance and support, but at the end of the day those countries have to get it back together,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Jailed Women’s Rights Activists Tell Saudi Investigators of Torture

Human-rights commission investigating alleged waterboarding, electrocution of activists who led campaign to end driving ban on women

A human-rights commission reporting to Saudi King Salman is investigating the alleged torture of detained women’s rights activists, including accusations of waterboarding and electrocution, according to government officials and other people familiar with the activists’ situation.

A top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, allegedly oversaw some aspects of the torture and threatened at least one jailed woman with rape and death, according to testimony before the commission, those officials and others said.

One activist told the commission that security officials electrocuted her hands. “My fingers resembled barbecued meat, swollen and blue,” the woman told Saudi investigators, according to a person familiar with her statement.

.. Some of the imprisoned women’s rights activists were labeled as traitors in pro-government media and accused by the government of conspiring with unnamed foreign entities and of spreading discord in society. None of them have been formally charged.

.. Critics say the government targeted activists to send the message that change can only come from Saudi Arabia’s top leadership. Prince Mohammed has cracked down on internal opposition while he pushes through his agenda to liberalize Saudi Arabia’s conservative society and open up its oil-dependent economy to foreign investors.
.. Saudi security officers physically abused them, including by electrocution, lashing and sexual harassment. Some of the most severe treatment was meted out to Ms. Hathloul, according to the Saudi officials and other people familiar with the women’s situation.Mr. Qahtani personally oversaw her interrogation, which included waterboarding, people familiar with her situation said. “Saud al-Qahtani threatened to rape her, kill her and to throw her into the sewage,” one of those people said.

.. Mr. Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s former media adviser and a top lieutenant, has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. The Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, has reported he played a central role in the operation that led to the journalist’s death. Before he was fired, Mr. Qahtani was in charge of the monarchy’s crackdown on those it viewed as dissidents.

Of the 18 detained activists, at least eight have been physically abused in custody, according to Saudi advisers, activists and others with knowledge of the prisoners’ treatment. Much of the abuse occurred in a government-run guesthouse in Jeddah in the summer months, before they were transferred to a regular prison, they said.

.. According to people familiar with their situation, the victims also include driving activists
  • Aziza al-Yousef, a 60-year-old university professor;
  • Eman al-Nafjan, a mother of three; and
  • Samar Badawi, who is known for having opposed Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship rules and whose brother, liberal blogger Raif Badawi, is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent detainees.

.. Some Saudi officials monitoring the situation said they are doubtful the investigation would lead to criminal charges.

I don’t see how they will hold anyone accountable if they already publicly denied that the torture ever happened,” said a Saudi official who is aware of the torture allegations and of the commission’s investigation..

.. “The detainment and torture of women’s rights activists demanding equal rights in Saudi Arabia is another example of how the current Saudi leadership does not share our values,” Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, told the Journal. “This pattern of human-rights violations is unacceptable, and it very well may have consequences for the bilateral relationship.”

 

Nicholas Kristof: President Trump, a bull in a China shop

I’m increasingly concerned that the U.S. and China are heading for a collision. At a time when the global economy and world stock markets are fragile, this would be bad for everybody. I do think there is a reasonable chance that Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping will hammer out some kind of a tentative deal at their G20 meeting in two weeks, but I fear that may be only a temporary ceasefire and that the longer term trends are likely to lead to more friction.
One basic problem is that Trump and Xi are a bit alike: Both are overconfident, impetuous authoritarian nationalists who disregard human rights. Hence the symmetry of two freight trains colliding, the topic of my column on the long run souring toward China and the dangers ahead. Here’s what you should watch out for.
.. I’m still gnashing my teeth at the “caravan hoax” pulled by President Trump to scare voters into supporting GOP candidates in the midterms, and I think too many news organizations were too credulous in covering the story without sufficient context and fact-checking. We in the media shouldn’t allow ourselves to become a channel for fear-mongering and demonization. And now it looks as if the U.S. may spend $200 million pointlessly keeping U.S. troops in the desert near the border, away from their families over Thanksgiving, as a forgotten prop for the midterms. Meanwhile, we can’t afford effective treatment for 90 percent of people with drug addictions, and we can’t afford to reduce lead exposures that damage the brains of more than half a million American kids each year. Grrrrrr.
Saudi Arabia has changed its story again on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, pinning it on some fall guys but protecting the crown prince. And the U.S. seems happy to buy into that cover-up. Indeed, NBC reports that the U.S. is considering deporting a Turkish dissident cleric (something Turkey very much wants) as a kind of bribe to get Turkey to keep quiet about the torture, murder and dismemberment of Jamal. What the Trump administration doesn’t seem to appreciate is that the crown prince is not a force for stability in the Middle East, but for instability (as we’ve seen in the mess he’s made with Yemen, Qatar and Lebanon). Check out this extraordinary video reconstruction of the murder of Jamal and subsequent cover-up.

Arms and the Very Bad Men

Trump’s rationale for going easy on Saudi Arabia is a shameful lie.

A few days ago, Pat Robertson, the evangelical leader, urged America not to get too worked up about the torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi, because we shouldn’t endanger “$100 billion in arms sales.” I guess he was invoking the little-known 11th Commandment, which says, “On the other hand, thou shalt excuse stuff like killing and bearing false witness if weapons deals are at stake.”

O.K., it’s not news that the religious right has prostrated itself at Donald Trump’s feet. But Trump’s attempt to head off retaliation for Saudi crimes by claiming that there are big economic rewards to staying friendly with killers — and the willingness of his political allies to embrace his logic — nonetheless represents a new stage in the debasement of America.

It looks unlikely, then, that deals with Saudi Arabia will raise U.S. annual arms exports by more than a few billion dollars a year. When you bear in mind that the industries involved, mainly aerospace, are highly capital intensive and don’t employ many workers per dollar of sales, the number of U.S. jobs involved is surely in the tens of thousands, if that, not hundreds of thousands. That is, we’re talking about a rounding error in a U.S. labor market that employs almost 150 million workers.

Another way to look at Saudi arms sales is to notice how small the stakes are compared with other areas where Trump is casually disrupting business relations. He seems, for example, to be eager for a trade war with China, which imported $187 billion worth of U.S. goods and services last year.

.. Because the Federal Reserve believes that we’re at full employment, and any further strengthening of the economy will induce the Fed to raise interest rates. As a result, jobs added in one place by things like arms sales will be offset by jobs lost elsewhere as higher rates deter investment or make the U.S. less competitive by strengthening the dollar.

.. what we’re looking at here is another step in the debasement of our nation.

  • Accepting torture and murder is a betrayal of American principles;
  • trying to justify that betrayal by appealing to supposed economic benefits is a further betrayal.

And when you add in the fact that the claimed economic payoff is a lie, and that the president’s personal profit is a much more likely explanation for his actions — well, genuine patriots should be deeply ashamed of what we’ve come to as a nation.

Brett Kavanaugh and the G.O.P.’s Bargain with Trump

Once the Senate Republicans decided to countenance demagoguery, one step led to another.

.. Leland Keyser, a friend of Ford’s who does not remember being at such a party but has expressed her faith in Ford’s account, was also interviewed. A number of Yale classmates who offered portrayals of Kavanaugh as a belligerent drinker, and without whom, Democrats argued, the investigation was incomplete, were not. Neither were Blasey and Kavanaugh.

.. Republican senators, in the interest of getting a conservative nominee confirmed, discounted the apparent lies that he told about his role in Bush-era torture and detention policies and in judicial nominations. And it extends to their decision to tolerate the excesses of Donald Trump, in return for his promise to nominate a conservative. When you decide to countenance demagoguery, one step leads to another.

.. Last week, the Republicans had to put up with the President goading a crowd at a rally in Mississippi to laugh at Ford. Some of Kavanaugh’s supporters worried that this would make it harder for late-deciding Republicans to vote yes. In fact, Trump made the process more humiliating, not only for them but for the entire Republican Party.

.. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, was the only Republican to say that she would not support Kavanaugh.

.. In contrast, the majority of the senators who had made their choice clear weeks ago were allowed to move, unperturbed, toward what was one of the most momentous votes of their careers. They made speeches if it was opportune, but not much else was expected of them, other than party loyalty.

..  Scott Pelley, of “60 Minutes,” asked him if he would have been willing to call for the postponement of the vote if he were running for reëlection. “No, not a chance,” he said. “There’s no value to reaching across the aisle. There’s no currency for that anymore.”

What Is John Bolton’s Bully-Pulpit Attack on the International Criminal Court Really About?

Fatou Bensouda, asked the court’s judges to authorize an investigation of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan since 2003, including allegations of torture by members of the U.S. military and agents of the Central Intelligence Agency. Bolton, who was at the time a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, responded immediately with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: “The Trump administration should not respond to Ms. Bensouda in any way that acknowledges the ICC’s legitimacy. Even merely contesting its jurisdiction risks drawing the U.S. deeper into the quicksand.”

.. “Any day now,” Bolton said in his speech, “the I.C.C. may announce the start of a formal investigation against these American patriots, who voluntarily signed on to go into harm’s way to protect our nation, our homes, and our families in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. . . . An utterly unfounded, unjustifiable investigation.”

..  the I.C.C. showed no intention of going after Americans, and, in Bush’s second term, when Bolton was serving as the Ambassador to the U.N., U.S. officials began to see that the court could serve as a useful instrument in pursuing their own interests, and began to offer it support and coöperation accordingly, ultimately stepping aside—over Bolton’s objection—to allow its investigation of war crimes in Darfur.

.. His telling of the I.C.C. backstory left off in 2002, with a note of regret that he had been unable to convince “every nation in the world” to pledge to protect Americans from the court, and also with a dig at holdouts in the European Union, where, he said, “the global-governance dogma is strong.”

..  he said that his “worst predictions” about the I.C.C. had been confirmed and decried what he claimed to be its supporters’ “unspoken but powerful agenda”: to “intimidate U.S. decision-makers, and others in democratic societies,” and thereby to “constrain” them.

.. The I.C.C., from its inception, has been impossibly compromised by the simple, definitive fact that many of the world’s most lawless countries, along with some of its most powerful—including the U.S., Russia, and China, the majority of permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—reject its jurisdiction. After sixteen years with no major triumphs and several major failures to its name, it would be easier to make the case for it if there were reason to believe that it could yet become the court of last resort for all comers that it is supposed to be, rather than what it is: a politically captive institution that reinforces the separate and unequal structures of the world.
.. simultaneously exaggerating the power of the I.C.C. as an ominous global colossus and belittling it as a puny, contemptible farce. The only historically proven deterrent to “the hard men of history,” he declared, is “what Franklin Roosevelt once called ‘the righteous might’ of the United States.”
.. it is tempting to think that he was deployed to deflect attention from the White House chaos, while his boss spent the day issuing uncharacteristically Presidential tweets about the hurricane bearing down on the Carolinas.
.. The President and the nation cannot be held to account or supervised, so the prosecutor has to be. The President and the nation cannot be criminals, so the prosecutor must be.