Monthly Archives: September 2020

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US Marines, Battle of Belleau Woods, France 1918
Trump visits the Suresnes American Cemetery in France, Nov. 11, 2018.

Note: Belleau Wood denotes a significant military engagement in France in June 1918 in which (especially) US Marines displayed enormous courage- and incurred enormous casualties- in a victorious battle against German forces, this being of course WW1. Two years ago there were commemorations in Europe marking the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1. Trump attended some of these and now, two years later, The Atlantic magazine published an article accusing Trump of odious behavior related to his visit to France in Nov. 2018. There were reportedly four anonymous sources for article and the allegations have been vigorously denied by the Trump administration. Links to both The Atlantic article and an article discussing Trump’s refutation of the claims are below.

The other day I received a brief e-mail from a highly educated scholar with an impressive amount of real world experience. He is a serious and very respectable person who tends to be a “never Trumper.” His e-mail expresses his belief that the accusations are true and his associated disgust with Trump; the bulk of this article is my responding that such accusations should be viewed with objective skepticism. Note the syntax used reflects a familiarity between him and me, hence it might sound as such.

His e-mail:

in other news, the latest from our esteemed president (via the Atlantic):

Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

My response:

I can appreciate the frustration a historian must feel at times, hoping to find a gestalt, so to speak, among disjointed and largely non-existent source materials, and then to make the discovered knowledge meaningful in some way. Say a music historian found an unsigned piece of paper in an ancient manuscript that stated Salieri had frequent intercourse with Mozart, what might be inferred? Here are several possibilities: Salieri and Mozart had an ongoing homosexual relationship; the word “intercourse” often had a different, non-sexual meaning in the historical context of the time and that they were frequent collaborators; or that Salieri wanted people to think he was a close confidant of Mozart but didn’t want to personally state such. Let’s say the historian was also a gay-rights activist, the kind who, for example, use salutations from the 18th century as evidence that many founders of the US were homosexuals, and we see a headline, “Renowned historian discovers that Mozart and Salieri were lovers.” Something that seems so benign can become, willfully or not, interpreted or misinterpreted in so many ways.

If a primary Spanish speaker, in learning English, transliterated “Mi tio Pedro me molestaba cuando yo tenia cinco años,” he or she might say, “My uncle Peter used to molest me when I was five,” but this wouldn’t be correct, though someone who didn’t understand the linguistic context might accuse Uncle Peter of being a pedophile.

18 months ago or so it was widely and unequivocally reported in the most august news organizations in the US that Nathan Phillips (the 60+ year old guy who banged the drum in the face of the Covington High School student) was a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam war, but he wasn’t, nor was he a “Marine recon ranger,” which was also reported as fact.

Two years ago this month it was reported that Brent Kavanaugh and some high school buddies were involved in essentially a gang-rape assembly line in which they drugged young girls and had sex with them while they were incapacitated. People that hated Trump were ecstatic, and never really asked themselves, “Is this really likely to be true?” because they so desperately wanted to believe it.

So we have an article in the Atlantic, very much a leftist publication but one of the few remaining with some traces of true liberalism, using (I believe) four anonymous sources to report rather ignorant and odious statements emanating from Trump’s mouth made two years ago. Anytime something like this is proposed, an intelligent and educated person, tempered with a bit of wisdom and complemented with some real life experience (and always with a bit of skepticism), should ask themselves not if it’s possible it’s true, because the answer is always yes, but is it likely to be true?

If it was reported that Trump said something like, “Belleau Wood, what the hell is Belleau Wood?” that would be believable, especially because ignorance of history runs deep in the US, and I wouldn’t doubt that 95% of Americans (and 98% of elected officials!) have no idea what Belleau Wood was nor its significance and, more worrisome, wouldn’t care. As to referring to the Marines killed during that engagement as “suckers,” I don’t buy it for several reasons.

First, obviously, is the anonymous nature of the sources, but even if the claimants were known, we’ve seen in the last four years any number of people making false or specious claims against Trump (or his representatives) out of hatred, greed, desire for celebrity, political reasons, or a combination of these factors: as we learned with the “whistleblower” during last year’s impeachment proceedings, he (though I think his name still remains officially undisclosed) was a blatant partisan. Second, the timing is suspect: if Trump made such an unfortunate statement two years ago, why was this not made public at the time, in an environment ripe for any and all accusations against Trump. And the other half of the timing question is, "why now?" I imagine and suspect in the next two months we are going to see many similar accusations, with some being reported as “bombshells,” and these, regardless of veracity, will dominate the news cycles. Thirdly, though Trump clearly has a tendency to say nasty things about people he perceives as opponents, there is no real motivation for him to say such things generically.

An unfortunate trait of human nature, shared by all of us, is pleasure derived from hearing bad things about people we don’t like, and accepting them without critical regard or context or perspective. In some cases, if dislike becomes hate, it goes beyond schadenfreude and becomes almost a drive to hear and believe things that will elicit blind outrage, which sometimes I think is a neurophysiologic state: a paradoxical pleasure stimulation evoked by a barrage of neurotransmitters!

Thinking and mature people, who seem increasingly rare (perhaps even more so in academia!), will view reported "bombshells" with healthy skepticism. A personal example for me were reports that Obama ordered the White House to be cast in a purple light when Prince (or the “artist formerly known as Prince”) died of a drug overdose. Actually this was very conceivable based upon Obama's precedents, but before I personally began to express and share my “outrage,” I checked it out and, much to my disappointment, found it wasn’t true. And it didn’t matter whether I “felt” it was true or that “it might as well have been true,” it simply was not.

You might consider to reading Trump’s response and see if there is there is a basis for questioning the article in The Atlantic.