America’s Word is Good … for Nothing

GELFAND’S WORLD--Earlier this week, Donald Trump was shown on television pulling the United States out of the Iranian anti-nuclear deal. Trump likes to say that unlike other politicians, he keeps his word. We got a bit more of that bragging this time around: 

“Today’s action sends a critical message: The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them.” 

There is something missing from Trump's kind of thinking. He assigns to himself all rights and duties of keeping one's word, but he neglects the idea that the nation as a whole is expected to keep its word. This is a strange kind of thinking indeed, where the commitments made by half a dozen previous presidents have no meaning. 

It's not really clear whether Trump understands this point at all. If you buy into the claim that Trump suffers from malignant narcissism, it is entirely conceivable that he just doesn't separate the national interest from his own personal needs. 

The founders actually built fealty to international commitments into the Constitution when they included treaties as part of the supreme law of the land. There has, until now, been an understanding that solemn commitments on the part of the nation as a whole have meaning and weight. (The U.S. has obviously broken some commitments, but this has generally been considered a failing rather than a virtue.) 

Trump's action in pulling the U.S. out of the Iranian agreement ignored that tradition -- what the founders called "our sacred honor" -- by treating the agreement with contempt. He criticized it as a terrible deal, but this didn't take away from the fact that it was indeed a deal. 

By his continuing attacks on former presidents, Trump violates the spirit of continuity in foreign policy. Yes, our policy has changed from time to time and from president to president, but such changes are supposed to represent responses to changes in real world affairs. 

Alexander Hamilton enshrined our commitment to paying our debts, an important way of telling the world that the United States of America keeps its word and -- at least at this level -- establishing the U.S. as a force to be reckoned with. The principle was enunciated in phrases such as "sound as a dollar" and to some extent in Richard Nixon's demand that the U.S. should not become a "pitiful helpless giant."

 Ryan Cooper summarizes the awfulness of Trump's actions in an article in The Week titled Trump's clear message on the Iran deal: America is not to be trusted. Here is one sobering thought from that article: 

". . . this act sends a far worse and far more comprehensible message: that the United States' word is worthless. Why would any country sign any deal ortreaty of any kind with America, if it might be casually discarded at any time for deeply petty or actively evil reasons?" 

Trump's record of duplicity was summarized the day after the Iran announcement by Steve Benen: As Trump breaks his promises, he boasts about keeping his promises. 

Trump's action provoked one commentator to ask whether Trump even thinks about the national interest in his decision making process. It's a legitimate question. 


Long Beach Opera takes on a different version of Tristan and Isolde. It's apparently wonderful. 

As we've discussed before in this column, the Long Beach Opera takes on challenges that other theatrical companies would avoid, whether it be an operatic depiction of the Battle of Falujah and the attendant post traumatic stress disorder, or the extremely controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer. This weekend and next, the LBO will take on a different challenge. 

The story of Tristan and Isolde was taken up by Richard Wagner and is still bringing in packed houses, even though it premiered two months after the end of the American Civil War. The LBO is doing another version of the Tristan story. It will be a lot shorter than the Wagnerian version and is musically and dramatically quite different. LBO uses an English title, The Love Potion, taken from the French title Le Vin Herbefor the piece by Swiss composer Frank Martin. 

Luckily for us, we have a review of the production and the music -- a review that was published in  the Chicago Tribune a little more than a year ago. That's because LBO's music director Andreas Mitisek doubles as the director of the Chicago Opera Theater and sometimes produces the same piece in both cities. In this case, the piece was performed in Chicago during the 2016 season and is now coming here. 

Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein wrote glowingly of the Chicago production: 

"Mitisek's austere production is like a mystical ritual that exists beyond time. . . " 

He summarizes the scale and instrumentation of this version of the story: 

"Here, a 12-member vocal ensemble relates the tragic tale, commenting on the narrative rather like a chorus in classic Greek tragedy. Singers step out of the ensemble to enact the principal characters, but the focus is not so much on the lovers as on the storytelling, supported by a chamber orchestra of seven strings and piano." 

This is obviously not an attempt to redo Wagner's epic, but a work of art unto itself. 

Chicago's Tristan, Bernard Holcomb, will perform the same role here. LBO veteran Jamie Chamberlin is Isolde. 

As previously, the LBO will be making use of the historic Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro. Performances will be on May 13 and May 19. 


Jurassic Park becomes true at a microscopic scale 

Variants of the nasty human virus Hepatitis B were recently found in human remains as old as 7000 years.  The New York Times story by Carl Zimmer summarizes work that has now been published in scientific journals. 

The take home lesson is that Hepatitis B has been plaguing humanity for a very long time. The fact that it can be recognized in these old skeletons suggests that it may have been around for a lot longer -- perhaps tens of thousands of years. 

There is one other part of the story that we might take note of. One research group is bringing back at least some of this old virus into the modern world: 

"One of the co-authors of the Nature study has taken a novel next step: He is resurrecting extinct strains of hepatitis B in a secure laboratory. 

"Dieter Glebe, a molecular virologist at the National Reference Centre for Hepatitis B and D Viruses in Giessen, Germany, has manufactured DNA molecules that contain the viral genes recovered from ancient skeletons. 

"When he inserts that DNA into human cells, they produce viable hepatitis B viruses. It may be the first time these strains of hepatitis B have existed in several thousand years." 

This is the sort of thing that freaks out the anti-GMO crowd, but in this case, we should want to know that every possible containment precaution is being used.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]