Danielle McLaughlin: Donald Trump Jr and the death of Socrates
OPINION: With the blast furnace that is the New York City summer in full force, my parents have arrived for a visit. The facets of their stay have been myriad – beaches, playgrounds, rooftops for sunset cocktails (a surprise for my Dad's 80th), and a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Central Park's west side.
The Met, a jewel of the city, houses some of the most revered art in the world. Monet's Water Lily Pond, Gauguin's Two Tahitian women, van Gogh's Self portrait with a straw hat, and David's The death of Socrates.
Jacques-Louis David's magnificent painting recreates a moment just before the great philosopher's death. In 399 BC, Socrates was tried and found guilty by the Athenians of corrupting the city's youth and rejecting the city's gods. Offered the choice of renouncing his beliefs or committing suicide by drinking cup of hemlock, he chose the poison.
David finished the painting of Socrates – reaching for the hemlock with a hand raised in defiance – in 1787, during the dawn of the French Revolution and just four years after the end of the American Revolutionary War. The work is artistry and political activism: David's work honours Socrates' decision to stand firm on his principles. It was created at a time where ordinary people were eschewing the power, wealth and excesses of monarchies, and standing up for the principles of democracy.
The death of Socrates transcends time and place because its themes compel us to consider human questions as old as civilisation – the nature of loyalty and treachery, and the costs and rewards of commitment to principles. It is the answers to these questions – right and wrong – that become enshrined in art as lessons for the ages.
We are again reflecting on loyalty, treachery, and commitment to principles in the US this week, upon learning that in June last year, US President Donald Trump's eldest son was offered a meeting to convey information damaging to Hillary Clinton sourced from the Russian government.
His reaction was not that this might be wrong or unethical or possibly illegal. He received the meeting with clear enthusiasm, musing openly in an email exchange with the organiser about when the campaign might drop the information: "If it's what you say I love it especially later in the Summer" he wrote, after being told that the documents "would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father" and that the documents were "high level and sensitive information… part of Russia and its government's support for Mr Trump".
Now, politics is a dirty game. And collecting opposition research is standard operating procedure. The Democratic National Committee in 2016 worked with the Ukrainian government to expose ties between the Russian government and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
But the communique to Donald Trump Jr, and the meeting that ensued, was different. It involved senior campaign aides – Manafort and Jared Kushner. And what was on offer was purportedly the work of a hostile foreign government. It is not illegal to talk to foreign governments during the course of a federal election. But it is illegal to solicit or accept anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a federal election.
Where Trump Jr's election activities fall in the realms of loyalty, treachery, and commitment to principles is yet to unfold. A firmer commitment to principles might have meant a flat-out rejection of the Russian offer. And a call to the FBI.
But he has denied that the offer of damaging information materialised and that he received anything of value. His father's administration continues to vehemently deny Russian collusion. And so we wait.
Who and what the US president's son remained loyal to in this moment might not be a lesson for the ages, like the death of Socrates, but it serves as a reminder that everything old is new again.
- Sunday Star Times