As the coronavirus spreads in China, so does fury at the government
I read the news today, oh boy / … I just had to laugh / I saw the photograph (the Beatles, 1967).
British and American journalists since the 19th century have known August as “the silly season,” the time when both Parliament and Congress are out of session: less political news, more opportunity to fill pages with accounts of trivial or frivolous matters. So we’ve had photos of bare-chested Vladimir Putin, a dozen people squeezing into a phone booth, massive vegetables, escaped cows, and dogs on surfboards.
This year, though, bad news abounded, and not just in big news about Iran and North Korea. More than 20 local governments in Texas faced ransomware attacks. A Kansas University professor faced federal charges for working full time for a Chinese university while also doing U.S. government–funded research on energy at KU. An Australian appeals court upheld convictions against Cardinal George Pell for sexually abusing children. The Sun reported Nature Ecology & Evolution’s discovery that “extreme weather conditions may be encouraging an increase in angry spiders.”
Many other cultures refer to the silly season as “cucumber time,” after the vegetable harvested then that doesn’t have much substance: It’s sauregurkenzeit in German, okurková sezóna in Czech, onat ha’melafefonim in Hebrew, and agurketid in Danish. So imagine you’re Carla Sands, sitting pretty during cucumber time as the U.S. ambassador to Denmark. You were an actress in the 1980s on the TV soap The Bold and the Beautiful and in several trashy movies, most notably Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell. In 1990 you became a chiropractor and married a real estate mogul who died in 2015.
Why are you in Copenhagen? You poured yourself into fundraising for Donald Trump, most notably at a July 2016 party for 200, each of whom donated thousands of dollars to attend. You contributed at least $250,000 yourself plus a postelection $100,000 for Trump’s inaugural committee. That bought you the ambassadorship to a small country whose innovators gave us LEGO sets, insulin, wind turbines, loudspeakers, and Danish Modern furniture.
It was a pretty good gig with no heavy lifting until Aug. 21. The problem: Our president had decided the United States should buy Greenland, the icy island three times bigger than Texas but with 28 million fewer residents. Greenland’s 57,000 seem content under the rule of a country half the size of South Carolina, but news leaked that Trump wanted to make an offer. When Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said Greenland was not for sale, Trump canceled a Denmark trip scheduled for Sept. 2 and 3.
It got worse. Frederiksen said Trump’s idea was “absurd.” Trump, showing again that hell hath no fury like a president scorned, said the prime minister was “nasty.” But Ambassador Sands looked as cool as a cucumber in a photo she posted of herself standing next to Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeppe Kofod. Sands tweeted, “Denmark is an enduring friend and important partner.” Kofod retweeted it. That’s what diplomats do. People are crashing chairs on each other’s heads, and diplomats report “a frank and open exchange of views.”
Joel Belz’s column raises the right questions. I’ve always liked “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” that story by Denmark’s leading literary export, Hans Christian Andersen. The key debate these days: Is our president the naked emperor or the boy who blurts the truth? Søren Kierkegaard, Denmark’s leading philosophical export, once declared (maybe tongue-in-cheek) “boredom is the root of all evil.” If that’s true, we owe President Trump big time, because with his tweets Washington scribes rarely have a dull day.
On Aug. 21 our president not only fought Denmark but took no issue with some blasphemy when he tweeted, “Thank you to Wayne Allyn Root for the very nice words.” Root had said “the Jewish people in Israel love [Trump]. They love him like he is the second coming of God.” Jews, sad to say, are unlikely to love him that way, since they don’t acknowledge the first coming. But even if that were accurate, wouldn’t it be better for Trump to say, as Paul (and Barnabas) spoke to Ephesians about to worship them, “We also are men, of like nature with you”?
Still, it’s easy to become exasperated with our president and ignore some of his administration’s accomplishments: judges, pro-life policies, respect for religious liberty. Besides, as Joel writes, what’s the alternative? Tucker Carlson with his move to Fox News has become a flamethrower, but on Aug. 20 he rightly pointed out the embellishments in Joe Biden’s new autobiography: “Remember that this man, this former coal miner and civil rights leader, is the single sanest person running for president as a Democrat this year. Meditate on that for a minute.”
The Christian necessity amid this morass is to remain cool as a cucumber, and remember that no Washington intrigue keeps us from loving God and loving our neighbors. To quote another song that references journalism, here’s a line from Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971): “Bad news on the doorstep / I couldn’t take one more step.” But step we must. Back to Kierkegaard, and a statement I apply both literally and metaphorically: “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. … I have walked myself into my best thoughts. … The more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill.”
We must walk with Christ. Kierkegaard again, from his book Provocations: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? … Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
Note to readers
Right now we’re working on stories not only for the next issue but also for our annual Roe v. Wade issue in January. One of the stories will be the gratifying but complicated tale of how buildings once devoted to killing unborn babies are now centers of pro-life activity. We’ve already identified 15 cities where that’s happened: If you know of others, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.