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30. VIII 2020
Do not ask him to be content, ask him only to be calm, to believe that he has found his place. But only the madman is really calm. (Antonin Artaud).
On a superficial level the Jul-28 Congressional testimony of Bill Barr was all it hadn’t promised to be. There were no scandalous new discoveries, no big confessions, no legal ambushes or breakthroughs, just routine obfuscations, deflections, pivots, denials and falsehoods – it was really a revelation about the new mode of functioning and condition of the American justice system and bewilderment with what had happened to it.
However, when placed in a proper context, this event is an important chapter of a fascinating story and a peak into the darkest side of American politics, the sinister regressive forces of its Dark Star. But, more than anything, the event is a testimony of a mad man who has come out in full light of his lunacy and delusions. To set the terrain, consider this exchange between Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Mass, and Barr during the Jul-28 hearing.
Swalwell: At your confirmation hearing you were asked: “Do you believe a president would lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise to not incriminate him?” And you responded with: “No that would be a crime”.
Barr: Yes, I said that.
Swalwell: … And you promised to the American people that if you saw that, you would do something about it. Is that right?
Barr: Yes, that’s right.
Swalwell: Now, Mr. Barr, are you investigating Donald Trump for commuting the prison sentence of his long-term friend and political advisor?
Swalwell: Why not?
Barr: Why should I?
Here it is, right there, the logic of a madman, absence of metaphoric thinking, use of language solely in its literal meaning without its symbolic layers, the whole thinking process; the madness that distorts the space of logic and reason in full display: Parallel lines intersect multiple times, angles in a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees, circles never close, but become infinite spirals…
During the four hours of the hearing, despite being frequently interrupted, cut off or cornered into a blind alley of inconsistencies and outright lies, Barr kept his composure and remained strangely calm, never raising his voice or visibly contesting the interrogators’ aggressive questioning. For him, this looked like just another day in the office. This, one could argue, is probably the most disturbing aspect of the entire event. No one is as calm as the mad man. Throughout the hearings, his face and body language exuded peace and calm that can be found only in a truly mad man who is at peace with his visions — a man for whom any reality outside of his madness either does not exist or does not matter.
The display of the insane, warped logic is not a new element in Barr’s life. It has been with him for a long time as an essential part of his entire life. His 2019 speech at Notre Dame provides the necessary connective tissue between the recent Congressional testimony and his entire career. It has been transcribed into an 8-page document. It is a treasure trove of information both historical and legal, and is well worth a read. However, more than anything, the composite picture is a monument to Barr’s conflicting personality and career.
The first, coherent, part of the speech is an expose of American history with deconstruction of the constitution and the axioms used as its base. To be fair, this part is actually well presented and informative. Outside of a plain summary of facts, it has pockets of lucidity which, although initially there, begin to drift away as the speech progresses. The second, less coherent part is the “synthesis of a mad man”. There, the Constitution, and the ideas behind it, are placed in a contemporary context. Barr’s arguments during this part of the speech reveal a disturbed and delusional mind, at best, or a corrupt (and potentially criminally insane) fanatic, at worst.
However, regardless of the intent, the speech retroactively sheds some light on Barr’s recent testimony and defines the context, which, despite twisted topology of his mental landscape does close the circle, and enables one to understand not only his Congressional testimony, but the entirety of his actions in the current and previous administrations as well.
America’s failed experiment
Law is a linguistic construction that changes as the common sense changes.
The central theme of Barr’s speech was the Framers’ belief that religion is indispensable to sustaining our system of free government. After all, he is talking to the graduates of Notre Dame. However, that aspect alone doesn’t explain what he is about to unload, not even approximately. So, let’s go back in time to October of last year, to the beginning of Barr’s speech:
It has been over 230 years since that small group of colonial lawyers crafted a magnificent charter of freedom – the United States Constitution – which provides for limited government, while leaving “the People” broadly at liberty to pursue our lives both as individuals and through free associations.
According to Barr’s self-congratulatory appraisal, this quantum leap in liberty has been the mainspring of unprecedented human progress, not only for Americans, but for people around the world. This is the legacy of the 20th century when the ideas of the founding fathers paid off in spades.
But, Barr continues, in the 21st century, and in the long run, the question is whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.
Unsurprisingly, in his view, this dilemma is real and acute due to the increasing rate of secularization and general departure from core Christian values, which Barr sees as sine qua non of the American society and social organization.
By and large, Barr continues, the Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesmen understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good, also had the capacity for great evil.
The dilemma of the founding fathers is the realization that no society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of how America has behaved since the end of WWII (or even longer) – all tenets of social cohesion have been thoroughly dismantled in a programmatic and astonishingly systematic way. Abandoning the mechanisms of individual restraint, any moral boundaries, and submitting them to the most vulgar-materialistic ideal of unconditional profit of the most powerful is the core of the American ideology and its modern culture. It is here where Barr begins to drift and lose touch with reality. With every attempt to make contact with contemporary America, the sparse islands of lucidity begin to drift apart and seeds of madness inhabit the space between them. But he was not yet done with the past:
If you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, Barr goes on, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny. So, unless there is some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.
This is exactly where we are now (especially in the last four years) for precisely those reasons. This realization somehow is completely missed or ignored by Barr. And, as if that was not happening here and now or in the country where he sits at the helm of the Justice Department, but in anther galaxy, Barr goes on by quoting Edmund Burke: “Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their appetites….”
Sensing that this perhaps might be to close to home and too much hypocrisy even for devout Catholics, he quickly teleports himself back to the safety of the 18th century and concludes with:
The Founders decided to take a gamble. They called it a great experiment. They would leave “the People” broad liberty, limit the coercive power of the government, and place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the American people. This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.
All this is pretty good and non-controversial when one talks about 18th century America, but is irrelevant and grossly inadequate for its 21st century.
Barr finally comes out and drives it home with the punch line: In Framers’ view, free government is only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.
In the grand conclusion, Barr engages in a little flattery to the audience, makes them feel a little special, in order to neutralize the aftertaste of all the BS with some more 18th century wisdom from John Adams (just in case some of them took a nap and missed his key point) which, despite being more than two centuries old, Barr sees as a foundation of the contemporary state and legal system: Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.
And for those who have missed the main point of his expose so far and where he is going with it, he flexes the argument further with yet another phrasing from Adams.
The American tenet was not that: Free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral order.
The Founding generation was Christians. In their 18th century, they believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man, which is not that odd for that time. However, for Barr, as if nothing had happened since then – in his head, it is still 1787. He believes in the same thing as his ancestors did 250 years ago. Literally! It goes without saying that “man” for him means a white male Catholic bigot of that epoch.
This is the same warped logic as the one revealed in Barr’s exchange with Eric Swallwel displayed in full swing. By now, the islands of lucidity have moved so far apart, that they can no longer be seen in the sea of madness. And this is when the really insane second part of his speech goes in overdrive. In that part, roughly half of the text, Barr argues that all the misfortunes and social decay are a result of the secularization of society. Violence, poverty, moral degradation, drug use, all this Barr sees not as a consequence of poverty, exclusion, disenfranchisement and neoliberal policies, but the lack of moral backbone. In his view, it is a correlate of the fact that the people of this country stopped praying and no longer believe in Immaculate Conception or creationism, but in facts and science (this is probably where his affinity for Trump comes from).
Ironically, the reality of these developments is exactly the opposite of Barr’s account. Family decay, homelessness, divorce rate are not consequences of secularism, but exactly of removing any ethic barriers to turbo capitalism. These stylized facts and the statistics that support them are singular for America, its politics and its functioning.
At the same time as he was talking about moral personal conduct and its importance of social stability and the functioning of the Constitution, Barr was acting as the consigliere of the most unethical and criminally incompetent president in the entire American history, whose behavior and conduct he has been supporting and defending unconditionally, the president who exercises no restraint and emphatically denies accountability and responsibility for anything and everything that a president by definition is responsible for – the most radical departure from the self-governing individual stipulated by the founding fathers.
This comes hardly as a surprise to anyone who knows Barr’s history. In his book, The Imperial Presidency, which appeared in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Arthur Schlesinger enumerated the (bad) habits of potential autocrats: The all purpose invocation of national security, the insistence on executive secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the refusal to spend funds appropriated by Congress, the attempted intimidation of the press, the use of the White House as a base for espionage and sabotage directed against political opposition. While Schlesinger’s points were, in the context of that time, highlighted as pathologies, they in fact became defining axioms of both the current administration as well as Barr’s vision of how unlimited executive power should be implemented in the 21st century.
Matthew Miller, a former director of the justice department’s public affairs, said: Bill Barr has gone off the deep end like the entire Republican Party. Also he’s had his brain pickled by years of Fox News. He has all Trump’s bad intentions but with little of Trump’s incompetence.
The uprising decomplexified
All of man’s problems derive from the fact that we do not know what we are, and cannot agree on what to become. (E. O. Wilson)
The central theme in William Barr’s story, however, is not the reality of today’s America, but the historical moment of Barr’s introspection of his new awakening and how he envisions his place and role in the grand scheme of things. He sees himself as a medieval knight straddling the millennium with America at the crossroads of history, not so much as a US Attorney General or Trump’s enabler, but a Christian martyr, a timeless defender of the Christian value system, something like a modern-day Joan of Arc. He believes in the grand victory of his cause, if not physical, then at least “moral” (whichever way that concept is distorted in his head). In his mind, Barr is a tenure-track saint who will inevitably be canonized by the Church and his name permanently engraved in the Pantheon of Christianity.
In Barr’s view, the American Experiment has been failing. And, it is not the capitalist inner contradictions, wealth disparity, widespread poverty and disenfranchisement of an ever-growing segment of the population, but moral erosion inflicted by spreading of secularization as the main source of all contemporary evils.
When stripped of all the veneer of old-time verbiage and symbolism, here is where the core of the problem resides according to Barr’s vision of America. White American males have always been in charge. They made the rules and they called the shots in the workplace, in the home and at the ballot box. They’ve owned the world for so long and have been getting increasingly uncomfortable as their grip on power had been eroding. Now the unthinkable is happening: They are faced with becoming the minority. For the first time more minority children were born than white children; a black president had served two terms, his Secretary of State was a woman; the most educated segment of society are black women, and every other daytime talk show or news anchor is gay.
And all these folks now believe they are entitled to and moreover, demand, the same rights and opportunities as the white men. Suddenly this country is way off the main path; the whole system needs to be restored and some reset buttons need to be pushed. Restoring order means the resolute masculinization of society starting by arming men with weapons – the more lethal, the more masculine they are – establishing male supremacy values (this has worked since the Stone Age, and it should continue to work in the 21st century as well), and establishing a fear of god — this helps the male cause because god is a dude (white, of course). This is where he meets Trump and his base – where the parallel trajectories of the insanities of conservative privilege and white underclass intersect.
Pushing those reset buttons is the task Barr sees himself entrusted to accomplish. Sure, he will have to break some eggs along the way, make some concessions, commit series of illegal acts, perjuries, possibly get disbarred, impeached and almost certainly ostracized by the entire legal community, and permanently stain his entire career. But what is all that in comparison with enormity of the task he has endowed himself with? After all, his father, Donald Barr, small-time self-styled autocrat as the headmaster of Dalton School some forty years ago, who among other things, may have given Jeffrey Epstein his first job, disgraced himself, in an almost identical way as his son is doing it now, by committing a series of petty, unethical, and professionally unacceptable acts in the name of a higher order only he envisioned at the time. William Barr today is just paying homage to his father, closing the gap between the two of them, by repeating, in a higher-stakes version of that game, the same mistakes in order to justify them.
Here is the major cognitive parallax and dichotomy of Barr’s worldview in the context of American political history. If we follow his line of thought, which is basically the same dogmatic and unconditional interpretation of the Constitution as is the fundamentalist Christian reading of the bible, we see the madness of his universe where circles never close and parallel lines inevitably intersect. First, in the 18th century, you draft the Constitution whereby oppression is internalized by giving people constrained freedom so you can reduce the power of the state. The constraint (religion, moral tropes,…) becomes the regulator and an instrument of self-governing. Then, in the 20th century, you design ideology, which obliterates all of these constraints, so you have a government of the people that are not held accountable to anything else but their personal interests. And things go predictably wrong. And when the toxicity of that maneuver, together with resulting social configuration, is in an advanced stage and, after decades of ideological program of systematic symbolic annihilation, you drag the idea of religion through the mud making mockery of its basic premises with TV evangelism, you decide to go back to the 18th century in order to restore its already outdated and bankrupt role. What can be a more ridiculous and ill-conceived project than this? Only a true lunatic could think that this could be a meaningful proposition.
Barr is not a principled constitutionalist, or a principled Catholic or, for that matter, anything else that adheres to principles. With his blatant hypocrisy and ethical bankruptcy, he never let consistency and principles stay in the way of conservative ideas of segmented social organization and elevation of their privilege. Use of warped logic at any time to betray the oath of office if the opportunity arises or whenever reality doesn’t fit his reduced vision of the world has been the signature of his modus operandi. This position of extreme “flexibility” has earned him millions in terms of consulting fees, position on the board of directors for Opus Dei-operated Catholic Information Center in DC, and other lucrative corporate and political engagements. His support for unchecked executive power, which has been wavering depending on the party that controlled the White House, reflects something far more troubling: An opportunistic and unprincipled bigotry full of personal and ethical conflicts.
The apprentice of sainthood meets The Apprentice
Much like the Catholic Church, Trump in his long career as a “businessman” (with six bankruptcies under his belt) and later as politician has never been on the right side of any argument. The two are the leading competitors when it comes to the worst historical record in that respect. Church has been around longer and their negative track record is overwhelming, but they have had also some, albeit not many, good moments unlike Trump who has had none. This parallel had to be one of the strongest points of subliminal attraction for Barr as a Catholic. Trump, in this context, is seen by Barr as a pilot who will take him and us to that promised land of coherence, the place that does not exist outside of Barr’s head.
Barr volunteered for the AG job after recognizing in Trump a potential catalyst that would open the gate to his sainthood, something that was not there during his first mandate with Bush, the father. His current project of reinstalling the regressive medieval dystopia is such that no one in their right mind would ever, even half-jokingly, consider it. Barr recognized in Trump an epic fool (he got that part right), compromised so thoroughly that he would agree to any game, including Barr’s insane dream, in exchange for shallow flattery and his consigliere services — legal (or pseudo-legal) protection that would cover his misdeeds and keep him out of jail or international tribunal courts. Barr seized on that opportunity as his last chance to accomplish his otherworldly mission of putting this country back on its “right” course, according to the designs of 18th century minds, and earn himself sainthood.
When he talks about victory, the one where winners get to write the history, the history that will ex-post exonerate his actions, he is not thinking about Trump’s reelection, but of a moral victory of which he is certain of. And that certainty is what justifies all present action and instills his current calm.
The Lafayette Park photo-op, and the surge of violence that preceded it, was purely Barr’s creation and choreography; the whole thing has his fingerprints all over the place. In 1992, when rioting erupted following the acquittal of four policemen who were videotaped beating Rodney King, it was Barr, then the AG for Bush, the father, who deployed two thousand federal agents on military planes to stop the unrest. The “walk in the park” charade was a rehearsal for – a proxy reenactment of — the triumphant march of the righteous Christian martyr coming to the wreckage of a church, picking up the holy book from the rubble and raising it in a menacing way. Trump was only a puppet, Barr was the puppet master, observing from the outside, but feeling from the inside. As Trump raised the bible, Barr was already savoring the image of himself on large oil canvases hanging in the atriums of future government buildings on a white horse with a spear as St. George killing the Dragon.
What a tacky symbolism of a juvenile mind, and a sick wet dream of a disturbed and repressed former altar boy! Is this the best the American white privilege and elite education system could produce?
The figure of William Barr is a monument to the cultural debasement of America that will remain as a permanent stain in its history. Other societies have outgrown their medieval constraints and baggage. Why is America stubbornly clinging to outdated dogmas and bigotry that have been colliding daily with its contemporary realities? After all, as Slavoj ZIzek pointed out, Europe’s most precious legacy is atheism. This is what makes modern Europe unique. It is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post. This is the most emphatically a European legacy worth fighting for. For America, however, that option has expired, which could very well be the last developed country to modernize itself.
At this historical point, America remains trapped in the vortex of its own unresolved past which continues to suffocate it, without offering any venue of escape.
The story of William Barr is a reminder of the irreconcilable contradiction between what America has always been and what it wants to be. This is a uniquely American problem that shows time and again how complicated and toxic the baggage of its own unresolved past has been and how difficult and painful it will be to deal with it in any constructive way.
Postscript: The younger brother
But we shouldn’t leave important things out. Bill’s younger brother, Stephen Barr, who looks and speaks like him, is a scientist. He has had a career in theoretical elementary particle physics with a long list of respectable papers in refereed journals that meet the highest standards of quality and rigor of research that would bring you a tenured academic position. And although his research has not produced earth-shattering results, and University of Delaware is not a Princeton or an MIT, by the standards of accuracy and intellectual integrity of the environment where his older brother operates, Stephen Barr has always been light years ahead.
Stephen’s focus has been in the field of grand unified theories and cosmology, which tackles the foundations of the structure of our universe. However, recently he has taken the emeritus status and has been devoting his time to lecturing about the interplay between science and religion, the old theme about the long-standing conflict between the two.
In his post-physics role, he has emerged as a propagandist and apologist for Catholicism, his arguments relying on dubious interpretations and obscure “documents”. He has interpreted this well-understood and non-controversial topic not so much as historical tension between religion and science per se, but as a historical misunderstanding and, in his opinion, deliberate and malicious, misinterpretation by militant secularists and atheists.
Interestingly, and not coincidentally, Stephen is also on a mission — his deliberate falsification of history and reality runs in parallel with his older brother’s political actions.
According to Stephen’s narrative, science and the Catholic Church had never had material disagreements and were always on the same side. Rather, he sees what has been a well-documented and well-established record of destructive antagonism, and the war in which the Church had been dealt an unrecoverable defeat, as a kind of second-hand-smoking effect driven by predominantly radical Protestantism and scientific materialism, two rabid fringes of both sides, a distinction that probably alludes to the materialistic approach to physics as an aberrant approach to reality (with clear allusion to Marxism, intended to give it an ideological dimension and make it even more abhorrent to typical American conservatives). Stephen’s post-academic coming out demonstrates the same obsessive logic of messianic delusion his older brother reveals in his exchange with Swalwell.
The important distinction between the two Barr brothers, or their two professional careers, is that, unlike Bill, Stephen comes from the academic world where money is never an objective – there is simply no money to be made in theoretical physics and so it never becomes a metric of status and success. People strive for prestige, respect and influence using the currency of their intellectual integrity, rigor and consistency of thinking. Nothing else.
In Bill’s universe, on the other hand, one balances between integrity and profit – higher payoffs justify ex-post intellectual and/or ethical compromises and provide the metric for making these concessions. Bill’s opportunistic maneuvering has earned him tens of millions of dollars as well as the nickname “cover-up general Barr”. With that metric in the background, Stephen’s activity presents a far more radical transgression and intellectual perjury than any violation of rules and legal precedent his older brother has committed or is about to commit.
However, when all is said and done and when politics are pushed aside, the whole saga of the Barr family, their male part, underscores one more time the importance of family as an irreducible social unit whose event horizon is so strong that it is capable of crushing any other force of nurture, no matter how superficially dominant they might appear.
No matter where you go, which schools you attend, what your political affiliations are or what social status you acquire, the stuff you absorb in your formative age remains always with you. The family remains the most nurturing and the most violent, and potentially toxic, social unit. No one can screw you up as thoroughly and as deeply as your own parents (what better example of this than the current First Family). The success of the fundamental objective of social emancipation of an individual is conditioned on one’s capacity to resist the crushing force of family influences — an ability to liberate oneself from its pastoral confines — and to carry those influences not as shackles, but merely as initial conditions and stand on his/her own as an autonomous social and political subject.
 All italicized segments are quotes from Barr’s speech