The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

In an op-ed last week, The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt, advised voting for a Democratic Party candidate for president based on the enthusiasm he or she excites in you, but also on how well the candidate’s program appeals to economic populism.  “A substantial majority of Americans favor a populist agenda — higher taxes on the rich, better federal health insurance, more government action to create good-paying jobs and so on. The Democrats did so well in the midterms partly because of the populist campaign many of them ran…I think their best chance of winning in 2020 involves a campaign centered on fighting for working families.”

Over the next few blogs and reviews of several recent books on contemporary economics, I want to put forth an argument that, whatever the value of the first criterion for casting a vote to select a Democratic Party candidate, I suggest that, while fighting for working families is certainly legitimate, and both sides make a claim to do so, that should not be done on the back of populist economics. For what you sow, so shall you reap.

Republicans say their program of reduced taxes not only helps the rich but benefits the working individual by creating more jobs, creating a need for workers and a need to compete for workers which in turn will lead to higher wages for them. Democrats who follow Leonhardt’s lead think in terms of minimum wages, rules to strengthen collective bargaining, taxation policy that redistributes wealth rather than offering incentives for accumulating it and sometimes protectionism. Republicans supposedly support a balanced budget and then run up deficits their Democratic opponents are afraid of lest they be accused of ruining the economy. Republicans, therefore, set aside PAYGO, the congressional rule that increases in spending be matched by cuts elsewhere, when it suits them. The G.O.P. 2017 budget did precisely this.

Projecting an image of a Democratic Party in fear of budget deficits places restrictions on righting the wrongs of the past through increased benefits and laws to redistribute income. This was the position of Nancy Pelosi’s critics when she ran to be speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, however, resisted their criticism and resolved to abide by PAYGO. However, economists like Paul Krugman argue that austerity and budget restrictions impede economic growth and lead to economic stagnation by ignoring or setting back the need to invest in infrastructure and in human resource development for example. I want to question whether either approach is better or worse, or even whether a choice has to be made in the face of the globalizing technological economic forces driving modern economies.

This Central debate within America has to be set within what is taking place on the global level. Richard Haas, and many others, look upon what is happening with an apocalyptic lens. The liberal world order, which began in the seventeenth century and was greatly expanded and refined after WWII with a set of institutions, is at the beginning stages of disintegration. That order was based on an idea of promoting the economic well-being of everyone on this planet by constructing an international system based on the rule of law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country within a world order.

One factor that has contributed to the disintegration has been the very instruments seen to be the culmination of integrating the whole planet, namely the internet and, more specifically, social media. For what set out to enhance worldwide communications has created a crisis for open societies and the freedom of the mind that was the pillar of the liberal world order. George Soros as Cassandra has written that, “The current moment in world history is a painful one. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Donald Trump would like to establish his own mafia-style state but cannot, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it. Not only is the survival of open society in question; the survival of our entire civilization is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power. But the root cause goes even deeper. Mankind’s ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow, while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and is now at a low ebb.”

Soros is far from alone. Who would know better than John MacWilliams, who heads the Department of Energy where the internet was invented? He insisted that whenever we interact on a telecommunications device, someone not invited is listening. In fact, many are listening. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, which I will review, dubs this the first risk. When married to the fifth risk, the failure to manage this (and other risks) by denigrating management in favour of ideology, by denigrating knowledge in favour of ignorance, offers the anti-intellectual tools to destroy the modern liberal order.

Why the increase in quasi-fascist and fascist states? Because the policeman (America) of the world has given way and surrendered the responsibility of regulation. Democratic values were viewed initially as being protected by military interventions and crusades. That resulted in a propensity to concentrate power in hegemonic states, unfortunately.  International institutions were created to foster a world of interdependence that could counteract that propensity. The result, as Joseph Nye and others argue, was an unprecedented level “of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. USsis leadership helped to create this system, and US leadership has long been critical for its success.”

However, in our digital age, giant, mostly American, platform companies have turned the greatest political power ever seen on this earth into an impotent giant as companies, that initially played an enormous role in innovation and liberalization, have fallen into the hands of interests which are primarily transactional, focused on promoting consumption rather than liberty in what Yanis Varoufakis dubs “the relentless commodification of privacy.” That, they argue, has made privacy and individual autonomy no longer possible. Innovators, like Mark Zuckerberg, have lost control of the Frankenstein they created.

Pseudo-knowledge – actual false claims – become the headlines people absorb and think of as knowledge. The weighing and evaluating of conclusions are set aside in favour of mass appeal. Sound bites are the clowns of this pseudo-cognitive world, sweeping minds and feelings into mass hysteria. Stop the merry-go-round. I want to, I need to, get off.

However, when it comes to the real world, our material world, our world as understood through economic science, the conclusion that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is offset by the cheery remarks of a leader that the country has the lowest unemployment levels and extraordinary rates of growth of that economy, blissfully ignoring the forces building up. Many if not most analysts see a collapse on the horizon. The volatile Wall Street stock market is just the foreplay for a 2020 depression that will make 2008 look like a blip on a screen and even the mode of management in 1929 seem like a cakewalk.

The fiscal policies of the U.S. are viewed as unsustainable. The period of sustained and synchronized growth has lost steam and is nearing a collapse, Unlike 2008 and 1939, governments no longer have the tools to reverse course according to Nouriel Roubini and Brunello Rosa.

2019 is supposed to be the tipping point with the U.S. running up unprecedented deficits, China has responded to the American-initiated trade war with even looser fiscal and credit policies as Europe limps badly as it still tries to recover from the centrifugal fragmenting forces threatening to throw a united but fragile unity into dozens of pieces. The protective devices of banking unification are proceeding too slowly and are too weak. Fiscal policy coordination is inadequate as political rifts and schisms grow exponentially. Political uncertainty across Europe, especially in the mainstays, France and Germany, grows as the domestic drivers of economic growth weaken and exports suffer because of the American-led trade war with China on a macro scale and the cancellation of the American decision to lift sanctions on Iran decrease trade on a more modest level.

Why? For many, the new communications system and the digital age are not the primary villains. Neoliberal ideology and “public choice” theory emphasizing the reversal of the regulations introduced following the 2008 crisis, are. The dominant economic model is becoming totally incongruent with the actual historical patterns on the ground which demand and need much greater intervention and management of the economy rather than greater anarchy. In spite of many efforts in place, the policy direction is working in reverse even though, in Europe, there is at least a plan in place to counter these trends and to maximize economy strengths in ingenuity and high-end manufacturing.

We have a communications crisis. We have a fiscal crisis. We have a governance crisis. In a globalized economic world with a pressing need for global management of a natural climate crisis of unprecedented proportions coming at us, we need more integration, not less, more governance not less, more regulation not less. But the signs of an emerging system of global governance are all pointing in the wrong direction. The tide of increased global trade that has contributed so much to rising worldwide prosperity is in retreat as the global trade game has shifted from free trade to increasing reliance on mercantilism, that is, regulation and intervention precisely in a way it is not only not needed, but is destructive to the international order. And central banks can no longer cope with the variety and size of the challenges that states face.

The startling part of it all is that we are just on the edge of vast improvements in productivity resulting from the digital age as machines not only replace the need for our muscle. Artificial intelligence is on the brink of displacing many levels of decision-making that can be better managed by electronic rather than by human intelligence. Look at how out of synch economic policies are. Tax policies in the U.S. and elsewhere increase inflation and impede investment just when more intelligent management of the economy is needed, not less. Most of all, there is public discord that grows as economic inequality grows and as the graduates of even our universities no longer see a route to owning their own homes unassisted by inherited family wealth.

In other words, the problem is not just economic disruption, but an earthquake taking place in our institutions of governance both domestically and internationally. On the macro scale, even as Democrats re-energize themselves in America, the institutions of liberalism and democracy appear to have weakened so much that salvation appears almost impossible. On the micro level, our youth face a housing crisis and young families face an eviction crisis as they face mortgage renewals at rising rates that they cannot support. At the same time, all my moves, all my plans – for travel, for work, for leisure – to eat, sleep and be merry – are being tracked as advertisers both monitor and target our desires. The surreptitious mapping of our habits and desires work to erode autonomy and individuality. Freedom then becomes reinvented as celebrity. Glitz and glamour displace gravitas and critical reflection. And opinion displaces fact as a foundation for decisions.

On a more mundane, but the most painful level, debt is punted down the line to future generations. Further, the problem is not only the exploding federal debt, but, as Carmen Reinhart has written, the high issuance of corporate collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), the new temptress on the financial runway that has pushed corporate bonds aside. High-yield corporate debt instruments are the emerging market within the U.S. economy, but the rapid rise is even greater in Europe where yields are even higher. Of course, these are of very different order of magnitude than in 2008, but they hit the productivity rather than consumer side of the market. Thus, these could be the equivalents of the high-interest poorly secured bundling of mortgage obligations in the first decade of this century that led to the 2008 financial crisis as the money is borrowed by weaker corporations and with more questionable valuation of the collaterals. And the debt is arranged through third tier lightly regulated banks. Do all capital surges end badly?

Unprecedented unemployment levels, owing almost entirely to the rapid increase in the service sector, in the atomized environment of outsourcing, does not produce increased income resulting from increased competition for workers. Expected increases in income have not been forthcoming. Thus the rise of Trump in America, of the Brexit fiasco in Britain, of Macron as a fleeting shooting star, not to count the quasi-dictatorships in Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil, to list some of the major ones which still exclude totalitarian oppressive regimes such as North Korea or Myanmar, and imploding governments such as that of Venezuela, are all part of this trajectory towards disaster.

The rise of populist political parties and leaders with increasing influence almost everywhere threatens economies that depend on facts, on analysis, on knowledge-based decisions instead of whims and ignorance. Trump and other leaders on the right avoid comprehensive and coherent policy platforms for they are impossible to come by in an era dominated by ignorance and impulse, lies and braggadocio. Agility declines. Rigidity sets in.

Other Cassandras, such as George Brown, appear as optimists, for they still believe that steps can be taken to save the world from the collapse of a liberal globalization and a planet destroyed by climate change. How appealing then are the corrective measures promoted by The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt? There are two: based on enthusiasm in a candidate for public office who excites you; and choosing on the basis of how well thought out a program the candidate offers that simply appeals to economic populism. I will argue that they feed the beast rather than stopping it in its tracks.

Reviews of economic books follow.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Competition for Recognition Part V The Moral Compass: Division on the Political Right

Is Donald Trump a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment in accordance with the views of Jordan Peterson? Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself” and representative of those who feel unrecognized and who are willing to defy social convention from the right? Dummitt declared that the moral compass in the modern world on the left as well as on the right, was rooted in the authentic self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts. Is this accurate?

Whether or not the above is true, will the winner in this competition be the side which invokes the morally superior identity? If conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race, is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded, while each should provide the moral compass for the modern world?

If this depiction of the core of current polarization is accurate, can that polarization be overcome by avoiding the dichotomy of left and right and giving priority to traditional liberal and/or conservative references, say citizenship or to an overarching social order, that is, making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us? Such a solution would once again prioritize our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility. Or do we have to reach back further in our history, into the biblical narrative, a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?

As I see the American political battleground, a four-way fight is underway. On the right, for now, the populists have won. On the left, the Left Liberals remain in charge, but the democratic socialists are in the process of mounting stronger and stronger challenges.

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:

 

  Democratic socialist Left Liberal Conservative Populist
Substance Benefits Protections Markets Identity Wars
  Group rights Civil rights Human rights Foetal rights
Process Challenge incumbents Defend Incumbents Surrender

Incumbency

Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Overview Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural War
  Resentment – Identity Politics Appreciation Appreciation Resentment – Identity Politics

Tomorrow, I will focus on the battle on the left. Today, attention is focused on the victory of right-wing populism over traditional conservatism in the internecine war on the right.

I begin with modernity and the moral purity of the economic right as best expressed by Friedrich A. Hayek. (See Individualism and Economic Order.) One type of individualism [economic] leads to freedom and spontaneous order. The other type of individualism [cultural] leads to a controlled economy and imposed order rooted in collectivism according to Hayek. For many, this implies that the only collectivist challenge comes from the left. However, there is a collectivist, a nationalist, challenge that comes from the right.

The Trump presidency is a case of deliberate inauthenticity, a case of wearing the mantle of market freedom, but organizing a takeover by collectivists who are nationalists, that is, by a group identified by their common loyalties. Order is imposed by a singular leader claimed to embody the nationalist spirit even if the actual spirit consists of lies, degradation of customs, racism, degenerate language and de facto narcissism. The playbook and the philosophy of fascism has not fundamentally changed since Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher, set down the tenets of fascism in the book, The Doctrine of Fascism that he ghostwrote for Benito Mussolini.

Gentile misinterpreted Hegel and put forth what he called a neo-Hegelian view that extolled collectivism and denigrated individualism. There was no objective reality or reference points external to the self. Hence, this variation of the proposition, “To thine own self be true.” The true subject was not an abstract “I,” an individual postulated as an abstraction in an ideal world where that “I” enjoyed a full panoply of protections. The true subject was embodied, was an actual individual, a concrete rather than abstract individual. There was no true manifold objective world and no true abstract individuality. Truth was to be located in the subject, the heroic subject that asserted agency on behalf and in the name of the national collectivity. The objective world was only a projection of that individuality. Experience is only a product of what is projected; objectivity does not provide boundaries for this narcissism in the name of the collective.

There are no lies since the only truth that exists is that projected by the mind of the “wise” leader as the divine is conceived of as immanent in such projections. The leader is the “truest” believer in himself. The objective world must conform to this form of subjective Being.

Let me make these abstractions concrete. Ryan Costello lost his seat (the 6th Congressional District in Pennsylvania) in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections (see The New Yorker, 12 November 2018). He is an example of a traditional or moderate Republican, a conservative centrist. He was willing, even eager, to have government catch up with technical advances in renewable energy. He was willing to work with the Democratic opposition across the aisle to improve health-care delivery and introduce reasonable immigration controls.

“And then Trump gets elected. And the norms of politics all just blow up and you’re trying to figure out how to orient yourself when the rules don’t apply anymore, and you’re allowed to say and do things which used to be disqualifying.” Trump lied. Repeatedly! Often! Daily! Without due process, Trump banned entry to persons from seven Muslim countries. Without due process, Trump took away the White House press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta. Costello wanted the Mueller investigation into election collusion with the Russians to go forward without any political interference. But the leader of his party, the president, denounced the FBI as corrupt, denounced the press for spreading fake news, insulted black female reporters while insisting on decorum at White House press briefings.

Costello faced a choice. Complicity with Trump or disloyalty to the Republican Party that had been taken over by Trump and his followers. He chose to walk a tightrope, generally ignoring the depths of degradation of his party’s leader, occasionally publishing on Facebook his own dissent towards Trump’s latest malfeasance when it became too extreme, but expressing no interest in condemning or censoring the president in the House. He chose not to accompany Jeff Flake of Arizona into the political wilderness. He allowed fear to determine his choices.

However, he faced chaos from the left as well as the right and barely escaped being shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter who critically wounded the Majority Whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, at a Republican charity baseball game. However, the bulk of artillery aimed his way came from the right even as he tried to sidestep Trump’s racism and Trump’s ignoring and ignorance of the Constitution and the rule of law. Costello faced either the ire of the voters in Pennsylvania or the ire of the President who would back an alternative Republican candidate in the primaries in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. He avoided the latter only to see his political career destroyed (at least for now) by the former. His principles of balanced budgets, free trade, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers had all crashed and burned much earlier as prudential silence morphed into the “habitual muteness of the acquiescent.”

The politics of total war against party dissidents and politicians with backbone and character meant that reasonable compromise was no longer the language of politics. Extremism, zealotry and populism were. Conspiracy theories were floated in the air like hundreds of sky lanterns, even though everyone knew they were fire hazards. Republicans moved from being the upholders of institutions and their values to participating in the destruction of norms and institutions and engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering. Shock value and publicity seekers usurped the role of thoughtful and reflective independent minded politicians.

But the roots lay in those same institutions. For the core issue of getting a foothold on the race to power depended most on the commitment of a core group of party members in a district and/or actually recruiting those members for the nomination. In a far less democratic Canada, constituency nominations depended, in most suburban ridings, on getting one ethnic group, or an alliance of two ethnic groups, who could deliver the signatures to party membership and their votes on nomination day. 1-2% of eligible voters could choose the candidate for their party, and, depending on the national race, could coast to victory.

In the USA, the nomination depended less on getting the support of a core of party members in a constituency party meeting (as in Canada) than on winning a popularity contest in a political primary, that is, in electioneering that never stopped and depended on the energizer batteries of politics – money and human time. The kind of publicity adopted depended on the intellectual, policy and publicity silos of your side. Decency, rationality, objectivity and a primary concern with truth had largely been shovelled into the ashbin of history, though to different degrees and with respect to different key issues. Core support came from two sometimes overlapping sources: evangelical Christians who had already subscribed to surrendering the individual self to a higher “divine” self, who appeared immanently in history; and resentful white Americans who felt they had lost their place in history.

Totally contrary to Christopher Dummitt, the core reference point has been neither authenticity nor moral purity, but expediency, opportunism and ambition. People’s rule had replaced party rule and the people were no longer an aggregate of individual voters, but an ideological tribe in which the members demonstrating the greatest zealotry won over the mob. Rallies, not debates, became the central focus of an election campaign by both the socialist left and the populist right.

However, on the right the collectivists, the nationalists, emerged victorious. Each day that passed witnessed the defeat of another compromiser, of another compromise, of another part of objective reality. Climate change impelled by human activity, according to Trump, was not a major contributing cause to the tremendously destructive fires that so recently laid waste to enormous tracts of land and even a whole city in California. The fact that these were not forest fires but largely shrub lands, the fact that, in any case, forests were not managed primarily by the State of California but by the federal government that owned the majority of forest tracts, the fact that “sweeping forests” was not an idea passed on by the Finnish Prime Minister as a forest management tool or that it was even a useful one, did not matter. Trump, as usual, mouthed off in ignorance and pronounced that there would be no more such fires. More than that, he pronounced his own personal view of nature as simply an extension of his own wishes rather than an independent reality.

“I have a strong opinion. I want great climate, and we’re going to have a forest that is very safe.”

 

 

 

 

Descent into Hell: Parshat VaYeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The problem with old age is that we spend far too much time seeing doctors and trying to keep an old and decrepit chassis working. Ignoring times spent in labs for various blood and urine tests, for x-rays and Dopplers, echograms and neurological tests, this week alone I saw my general practitioner, my heart doctor and my sleep doctor. And today I head to the Toronto Western Hospital to have my eye measured to prepare for surgery and the removal of cataracts.

Not only do these visits take time, but when I meet old friends, we spend too much time reciting and comparing our ills. But it is not only with friends. Yesterday, I was on the phone talking with my youngest son for about two hours – he lives in Vancouver – and he was upset that I had not kept him up to date on my health and my treatments. And then there are the visits – to friends who have really serious health issues. I miss them. I want to see them. I want them to keep going even as I tire of the effort to keep going myself. Illness consumes time.

Why then bore you with such issues? Because I could use some help. I visited my sleep doctor yesterday – or perhaps it was the day before. I, to my surprise, had not seen her for quite awhile. I went to check whether my CPAP breathing mechanism that I use at night was set at the correct pressure. I made the appointment before I found out that taking a diuretic pill once a day got rid of the excess water in my legs and lungs that evidently accounted for why I had been feeling so tired. Hence, the breathlessness I had been experiencing. Perhaps that is why I was even more cheerful when seeing her than I perhaps usually am.

She told me that she likes to see me and missed me. How often does a doctor tell you that? Patients with sleeping problems are normally grumpy and melancholic. They feel sleep deprived and wish they could sleep more. In contrast, she said, I seem to be the rare – very rare evidently – a patient who comes to see her who is upbeat, tries to tell funny stories and cheers her up. I do not complain about lack of sleep for the fact that I need much less sleep pleases me enormously as it allows me normally to get my blog written before breakfast.

However, this time I had a real problem. I had a horrible nightmare early in the week. I had watched the news and the frightening fires in California where flames skipped over three football fields in minutes. I watched on television as families in cars escaped through walls of flames when they could barely make out whether they were fleeing the fire or getting into it. The children in the car were panicky as a father tried to reassure them that they should calm down. They would escape, he insisted. They evidently did so; that is why we could watch their car video that they had made.  Unfortunately, perhaps 200-300 did not escape.

I had gone to sleep about 10:30 p.m. and instead of waking up around 3:30 a.m., I woke at 11:45 p.m. I woke shaking. I could not get back to sleep. I also could not write. This is very unusual for me when I can be sitting at my desk writing within 60 seconds of waking up. I also do not usually remember my dreams. My sleep rhythm is unusual since I enter a deep sleep almost as soon as I put my head on my pillow – perhaps it can take as much as 30 seconds. And when I wake up, I am not drowsy but fully awake. But this past week, I could not write for two mornings in the aftermath of that nightmare. I missed writing two blogs.

However, this dream – or, rather, nightmare – was vivid in my memory. I was shaking when I awoke. In that dream, I had been in Africa working when I received a phone call that there was an enormous fire in the region where we lived back home – and home seemed to be California rather than Toronto. The caller told me that they had not been able to locate my wife and my two youngest children. In the dream, they were 6 and 9 years old at the time – so the dream was set almost 25 years ago.

I immediately flew home and began looking for them. The dream consisted almost entirely of that search – a futile search for I never found them. I passed houses with flames 30-40’ in the air. I passed cars engulfed in flames and tried to peer into them to see if my missing wife and two youngest children were in those cars. The dream went on and on, searching and searching but finding nothing. But the most peculiar part of the dream is that when I walked endlessly among these flames, I was freezing cold. I felt like an iceberg – assuming an iceberg can feel. I was frozen and never warmed up.

I told my sleep doctor that the dream had stayed with me all week, not only because it had been so horrific and because it had shaken me up so much, but because I could not figure out what it might mean. I usually find I can find an interpretation that seems to make sense. However, in this dream, the only thing that seems to have been clear was that the videos of the flames and the children in the escaping cars had probably set off the dream. Nothing else.

Of course, my sleep doctor was not a dream doctor. Her expertise was in the mechanics of sleep and not its imaginary content. I did not expect her to help me interpret the dream. I merely wanted to explain my physical tiredness succeeded by relief via a diuretic and then my mental tiredness brought on by a dream. I welcome any efforts at interpretation. In this there remains hope. For my readership offers me the opportunity and the audience to try to understand that dream.

But it is not my dream that I want to write about, but Jacob’s.

 

10 And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went to Haran.   י

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

11 And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.   יא

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:

12 And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.   יב

וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ:

13 And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed.   יג

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֘ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   יד

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

15 And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”   טו

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַֽהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ:

16 And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”   טז

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֘ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:

17 And he was frightened, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”   יז

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

18 And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.   יח

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ:

19 And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city.   יט

וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה:

20 And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;   כ

וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ:

21 And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God;   כא

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

22 Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.   כב

וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:

Jacob had his dream while lying on the ground with his head on a rock. I was in bed with my head on a pillow. In Jacob’s dream, there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In my dream, earth has become a fiery hell. In Jacob’s dream, angels skip up and down the ladder; it is a sulam with the same numerical value as Sinai that adumbrates Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Jacob wakes from his dream in amazement. I woke from mine in anguish, despondent, dejected and wretched.

In my dream, I plod along horizontally. There is no skipping, just despair. If God stood over Jacob in his dream revealing himself to Jacob and promising that the land on which he rested his head will be given to him and his progeny, there was no God in my dream. No angels and not even Satan. I was alone in my dream, very much alone. And I walked in a landscape that no one would want to inherit.

Jacob flees his life of cheating his brother and wrestling away Esau’s birthright and blessing. Finally, between his home and that of his uncle, he is able to lie down and have a dream. But in my dream, I can only wander endlessly and aimlessly. I cannot even look forward to wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he entered into a covenant with God, namely that, as long as God was with him and protected him and guided him, as long as he gave Jacob food to eat and a garment to wear, Jacob would remain His loyal servant. There was no one in my dream protecting my wife and children. There was no one guiding me as I trudged along amongst the flames and through the smoke without direction. And I felt only cold. Where Jacob had seen the house of God and the gate of heaven, I wandered the streets of hell.

The next morning after the dream, I went to synagogue and recited the kaddish. It was my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death eighteen years ago. It was morning and I recited the Shaharit prayer, the morning prayer that Abraham had supposedly established. Though I went through the motions and had amiable conversations with my friends, my heart was not in it. And it was a prayer for my mother. I felt more like Isaac, but in a paved over field with burning houses and cars on all sides. But in my dream, there was neither any prayer that poured out of me, nor conversation either. I saw no one. I asked no one. I searched, but the streets were deserted. It was certainly not Jacob’s evening prayer for there were no encounters at all.

In fact, the smoke was so thick, I could not tell whether it was morning, noon or night. It was true hell for the different times of the day had been obliterated. And I did not ask God to take me out of the darkness of that day into the light. Was this a world that God would inhabit, for it was truly a scorched earth unsuited to bring forth food, for sustaining animals and allowing beautiful yellow and purple flowers to grow. It was a world of gray on gray except for the brilliant red of the flames. It was a world that no one owned and no one would even want to own. The world was indeed illuminated, but not by the sun’s light, not by God’s light, but by the darkness and the flames that make up hell.

The celestial spheres, the sun and the moon, were blocked out by billowing black and grey smoke. And there was no one in charge of a world headed towards hell. God had abdicated. God had also fled the flames and abandoned His responsibilities. And I could not find my wife or my youngest children. Instead of the darkness providing an ambience for intimacy, there was nothing. There was nothingness. There was no God to embrace me in my fear, in my terror. There was no God with whom I could even make a deal, draw up a covenant, one in which we could exchange mutual promises and obligations. I did not feel, as I usually felt, when I awake in the very early hours of the morning and would write until I saw the light of day beginning to form outside of my picture windows in my study. I was not merely insecure, tired and wary as Isaac always seemed to be. I was petrified and identified with Jacob who loved bright colours and innocent jokes to cover up his profound terror. Deep down, he felt hopeless and was in despair, for a night of intimacy with his God had been lost. It was a night in which, except for the flames, all cows were both black and dead.

There was no progress in that dream, from hope to worry and trepidation. Instead of God turning on the lights, the flames were subsiding and left only burned out collapsed homes and frames of vehicles in a bleak landscape. Would the lights come on again? Would I see my wife and two youngest children again? I was so obsessed that I could not even thank an unknown God that my older children were safe and living elsewhere.

I pray every day that God renews His creation if there is a God and if God is still working at His job. I pray that each day will be a brand new day, a day full of creativity, a day of renewal when the world is always experienced anew. But the world had died. It had been torched.

I have never been concerned with whether God existed or not. The issue was never for me whether I believed or did not believe God existed. The issue had always been whether I believed that if God existed, that I was worthy of His faith in me. But in that bleak landscape, I feared that I had lost the faith in myself, the real faith that sustained me, that the world was and would be born anew every morning with a different pattern even though the elements were identical, that at night the angels ascended and descended the ladder in continuous motion, like elves, to renew the world for another day even though fascists and Nazis driven by the politics of resentment were in pursuit.

Will my family, will all families, be so blessed as I have been blessed? Will they even have a ladder to climb?

From Is to Ought

Ben Rhodes The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, 2018.

In the Prologue of Ben Rhodes memoir, he describes how, in his last meeting with any head of state, Barack Obama passed the torch onto Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. “You’re going to have to speak out when values are threatened.” Trudeau promised that he would “with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.” Obama was an American, a liberal American, who believed that morality framed coercion and military might. “American leadership depended on our military, but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness.” (25) And that goodness was built into institutions and laws but backed up, if need be, by force. (48)

A smile would not do the job. Yet Obama, flummoxed in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and emergence of autocrats around the world, conscious that his best ally, Angela Merkel, had been severely wounded, could only reach out to a Canadian leader who led with a smile and not even a soft voice. Further, and more importantly, Canada did not carry a big stick.

The real mantle of leadership had been stolen by Donald Trump, a would-be autocrat. He was willing to meet with other autocrats around the world – without any preconditions – North Korean, Russian, Turkish, even Iranian. Trump was blasted in the liberal press for doing so. Yet, when Ben Rhodes joined the Obama presidential campaign, his Democratic contender also had promised to meet US adversaries without conditions. As Rhodes wrote, “[T]he reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is somehow punishment to them, which has been a guiding diplomatic principle of this [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.” (12) Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, disagreed. She called Barack Obama naïve. Republicans, the same ones who as sycophants and toadies, defended Donald Trump when he did it, called Obama much worse.

Diplomacy without preconditions was not the only tactic Trump stole from Obama. “Turn defense into offense.” (18) “Restore America’s standing around the world.” (22) When Trump ran on a version of the latter, Obama made fun of the slogan, “Make America great again.” “America had always been great,” insisted Obama.

There is, of course, a difference between Obama and Trump. For the latter, such diplomatic meetings are simply transactional and the Donald believed that he was and is master of the deal. Obama believed, and his legacy – the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement for which leadership had been passed to China and Xi Jinping, the negotiations with the military junta in Myanmar – proved it, that diplomacy rather than inter-personal deals work. But a diplomacy capable of setting aside mindblinding and politically binding assumptions. In every single case, Donald Trump in his first two years in office proved that he was the master of and replacing professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures.

The destruction of many of Obama’s overseas achievements had as much to do with personal animosity as Trump’s propensity for demolition, and both certainly more than the absence of any substance in his foreign policy. Donald Trump had been a leader in the blatantly racist “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. Obama had folded before the media onslaught and finally acceded to releasing his longform birth certificate. That quieted but did not close down the flow of fake news. More importantly, a few days later after the birth certificate release, Barack Obama had his revenge at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In a series of spot-on jokes, he humiliated Donald Trump in the media and before the American public. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing.” (132-133) Trump’s unwinding of Obama’s many successes was Trump’s revenge.

The Obama administration did have its own share of failures – dealing with Russia over Georgia (inherited from Bush), Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, as well as Syria itself and, of course, the disastrous Libyan initiative, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the incoherence of the US policy towards Egypt, and the fiasco of Afghanistan that I wrote about in the Farrow book review. What is worse, Obama and Rhodes knew that, “the Taliban could not be defeated so long as it had political support in Afghanistan and a safe haven in Pakistan.” (73)

Obama had kept Robert M. Gates on as Secretary of Defence and initially backed the failed strategy of counter-insurgency in an arena in which it could not and did not work. Vice-President Joe Biden was the only individual in the administration who consistently and persistently opposed a troop surge and argued that the US military was jamming Obama. (65-6) So what was Obama’s rationale if America was not going to defeat the Taliban? “We need to knock them back to give us space to go after al Qaeda.” (75) The troop surge was approved.

But perhaps Egypt was even more telling than Afghanistan. Obama and Rhodes knew that in a repressive society like Egypt’s, a democratic election would probably lead to the victory of an Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (54) Yet the Obama administration backed the removal of Mubarak and fell back on the position that America would “judge any political movement by whether they choose to act and govern in a way that is consistent with democratic principles.” (55) But what if that political movement, though noisy in its demonstrations, was marginal in its political depth and the real choice was between two other movements – one rooted in the military and the other in the religious establishment? How should America act when faced with a Hobson’s choice when, in the end, military coercion was the real and only power? That same effort to achieve a balance between two incompatible political perspectives would prove to be the root of the Obama administration’s enormous but fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It would also be at the root of Rhodes’s failure to comprehend the limitations of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Rhodes expends few words on the doctrine and I cannot elaborate n it here, but it is clear that he aligned with Samantha Power (82) and, to some extent, Susan Rice, who believed that the R2P had to be a bedrock of American foreign policy – that is, liberal state had the right to intervene with force when a state persecuted its own citizens or could not protect them from other s bent on destruction. Obama never bought into it. Rhodes in his book never explains why except to suggest that Obama was more a realist than the small idealist cohort he had working for and with him.

However, R2P was fundamentally flawed. This doctrine had originated as a Canadian initiative. It advocated the right of any foreign power to intervene when the government of a state targeted its own people. Within a very short time after its formulation, it was adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations. Except the vote was only unanimous because the heart of the doctrine had been cut out. Humanitarian intervention would only be permitted with the approval of the state being targeted. Once again, sovereignty trumped moral principles.

Further, it could and never would be applied in the Chinese mistreatment of the Uyguars or even the military junta mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Sanctions certainly. But not coercive intervention. In the easiest situation possible, with a UN peacekeeping force on location and the government perpetrators on the ropes in its fight with a Tutsi-led military force, the world had failed to intercede and stop the genocide in Rwanda. Diplomatic exhortation and lofty principles were no substitute for action on the ground.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest success in the domestic arena – not the Affordable Care Act, but the salvaging of the world economy – was also his greatest failure and paved the way for the rise of Trump. This was in the domestic arena and not foreign affairs to which Ben Rhodes had dedicated his talents. The 2008 economic crash was a direct product of President Bush and, to some degree, his predecessors. Obama inherited an economic mess.

Ben Rhodes wrote the following words for Barack Obama. “Jobs have disappeared, and people’s life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet…So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” (33) Ben made Obama sound like a Marxist. Talk about hyperbole! The 2008 economic crash, the greatest since the depression, was the final epitaph for capitalism, not just for a failure in banking regulation. Capitalism had completely failed. This is how the statement sounded.

However, the philosophy referred to was not capitalism but one version of it – trickle-down economics and deregulation. Further, even on that there was no final verdict. In fact, Barack Obama in part made possible the restoration of that capitalistic ideology to pre-eminence after two years of his presidency and totally cleared the road from any blockage to it by contributing to the election of Donald Trump. How? Precisely by overstating the failure and understating the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. Not just jobs, but hundreds of thoUSnds of them were wiped out. Millions of families not only faced foreclosure but were, in fact foreclosed upon when Obama bailed out the banks without helping those who bought homes that were now financially under water.

Ben Rhodes was a foreign policy speechwriter and adviser and was not up on domestic policy let alone economic policy. There is an enormous problem with trickle-down economics, but that was NOT the issue in the 2008 economic crash. Rhodes not only failed to hit the target, but grossly understated the effects on the average American just as he overstated the implications of the crash for capitalism. In his memoir, he never seemed to notice this oversight.

Unfortunately, the same disposition applied to foreign policy. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in the very beginning of Obama’s presidency when he was in The Czech Republic, Ben Rhodes added a few sentences to Obama’s address to the Czech people. “I sat at my computer inserting a strongly worded warning to the North Koreans about the isolation they’d face for continued nuclear and missile tests.” (42)

When Trump was in the same position, he threatened fire and brimstone and then met with Kim and called him a wonderful guy who likes me. Greater isolation! North Korea had survived for years, though barely, against the greatest international deep freeze applied to any foreign state in the post-WWII period. And the country still persisted in its nuclear and missile development program. Rhodes’s and Obama’s threat rang totally hollow at the time. More significantly, eight years later, Ben Rhodes failed to notice let alone be self-critical of such a shortcoming. And this in spite of the deep faith of liberals, like Barack Obama, who held a progressive view of American history and “the capacity for self-correction” (43) to which Obama (and Rhodes) attributed America’s purported exceptionalism. But what if this purported exceptionalism rested as much on the failure of America to be deeply self-critical and to truly engage in self-correction at a fundamental level?

Louis Menard wrote a review of Rhodes’s book and claimed it traced the evolution of a political junky from an idealist to a realist. Unlike Farrow’s book, Rhode’s memoir is indeed a book in which observation and self-reflection are woven together by a fine writing style, but one which only records faces and clothes and settings when they are directly pertinent to the narrative. But Menard is wrong. The shock is that Rhodes never became disillusioned about his ideals. Tired, certainly. Sometimes depressed. At other times simply resigned. But he is indefatigable in holding onto his ideals. That is perhaps why Obama loved him. That is certainly why Rhodes worshipped Barack Obama.

As with his previous co-authored book with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, (Without Precedent: Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission), Rhodes’s book is a very inside story, but of the day-to-day crises and pro-active stances of the Obama regime from the campaign through eight years in the White House. During that time, Ben Rhodes began working as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Obama in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President and ended up serving for eight years as deputy national security advisor with oversight over speechwriting, public communications and relations as well as undertaking specific diplomatic missions himself.

During that time, according to Rhodes’s reflections on his service and the Obama administration, the arc of history did not move from idealism to realism but, rather, a realization that “the world (w)as (and is) a place that could – in some incremental way – change.” (421) As he ends his memoir, at “I was a man, no longer young, who – in the zigzag of history – still believed the end of his service to Obama, to the American nation and to his own ideals, in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” The book is not about the decline of his ideals, but increasingly focuses on the actual challenges to those ideals and the efforts made to overcome those challenges.

Holbrooke, with his idiosyncratic personal characteristics for a diplomat and his pursuit of realism in the conduct of foreign relations, was Farrow’s flawed hero. Barack Obama is Rhodes’s idol, an idol he did not worship from afar, nor even merely up close to reveal the crevices that began to appear on Obama’s boyish good looks, but one whose mind and heart and guts Rhodes entered into wholly and without reservation, even in the odd moments when he disagreed with his leadership on a particular issue.  Rhodes learned to focus on a small portion of the grains of sand on the earth than on the even greater number of stars in the sky.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Ten Feet Tall

Do you remember when America stood ten feet tall, when America was a political, economic and intellectual giant in a world of pygmies? That was one side of the portrait. The other side meant that America was an oversized and clumsy monster that trampled on buildings, boats and buses. Whether a giant or a monster, America was imbued with the conceit that it could – indeed did – touch the sky, that the country descended from the clouds above to be “a light unto the nations.”

This is a branded medical condition – periarteritis nodosa – a destructive inflammation of the arteries that feed oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. The symptoms of the condition are remarkably distinct:

  • A sense of enormous strength  
  • Accompanied by an extreme sense of well-being
  • An utter faith in each and every action taken
  • Incessant talking
  • An unquenchable desire for food leading to obesity
  • A manic-depressive psychosis.

But is this not also the description of a cryptid, a hidden animal, a mythical creature found in virtually every corner of our planet earth? Bigfoot, the American cryptid otherwise known as Sasquatch, or sometimes Yeti or the Skunk Ape, is easily the most famous. Like all other cryptids, he is a male but otherwise fictional, even though lots of evidence is put forth to substantiate his reality. In spite of the many stories and alleged evidence for his existence, this massive, hairy, bipedal humanoid who stands perhaps ten feet tall remains elusive and mysterious.

Sasquatch lives on the edges of civilization – the Rocky Mountains of Washington or Oregon – and on the fringes of both our imagination and comprehension.  He is a paranormal creature. Yet he so resembles the condition of periarteritis nodosa, that it is difficult to insist that he is not an abnormal but rather a real living creature. I suggest the same is true of America – a country that is both very real but ultimately also a country of myth and legend.

We are living through a time when the legend has been disintegrating. The self-destruction began with the conceit of America having won the Cold war as men like James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State, served as a catalyst to the disintegration of another mythical and legendary but also real menace, the Soviet Union in 1991. America became the unipolar power in the world, only to find that power squandered in an amoral attack on the dictator Saddam Hussein under the pretext that Iraq was becoming a rival nuclear power with storehouses of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The two-decade decline culminated with the boastful presidency of Donald Trump, his triumphalism, his logorrhea and his incessant lying that provided one book end to the other, Joe Biden’s stumbles and mumbles, verbal slips and demonstrations of impotence.

January 6th 2021 was not so much an insurrection as an eruption. Though rioters who assaulted police and destroyed sacred property provided so-called leadership, the mob was driven rather than being a driver of any real change. They were reinforced by large numbers of more passive reactionaries and revisionists, ideological rhetoricians rather than men of intention and action. What all the groups shared was a belief in legend and a distrust of institutions and lack of respect for formal authority. The common characteristic of all their symptoms and all their behaviour was an inability to know what was real and what was fiction. And for that failure, they did not look within themselves but at the intellectual and political leadership that had failed to provide this most fundamental level of security – the ability to differentiate between reality and myth.

In the meanwhile, the pandemic continues even though the promise of its abatement is just around the next corner. Confusion arose over long-term effects and collateral damage to those whose medical treatment was postponed, to those additional hordes who became afflicted by opioids and to the many more marriages that disintegrated under the pressure. These problems were either ignored or dismissed as necessary collateral damage. The old bogeyman of inflation has returned driven by both a shortage of skilled labour and the disruptions in the supply chain for services as well as material goods.

 And the yellow peril has once again raised its ugly head both in a pervasive rise of racism and antisemitism and in the identification of China as the new world’s threatening monster, an interpretation reinforced by its own mistreatment of minorities, threats against Taiwan and suppression of rights in Hong Kong. Russia mobilizes to browbeat, intimidate and menace Ukraine. Insults and threats cross borders far more easily than travelers.

Polarization pervades both foreign and domestic affairs. And covid has become its blaring symbol as groups increasingly define themselves in terms of identity politics and whether they were or were not vaccinated. Liberals assumed that if you were not vaccinated you had to be an ideological anti-vaxer worthy of being defined as “fringe” and “misogynist.” and “racist.” That you may have held a more universalist sense of distributive justice re vaccines, or a scepticism about claims or sufficiency of proofs, or cast your lot with eminent scientists of alternative strategies to deal with the pandemic, were largely ignored, dismissed and even in some cases suppressed. Instead, the tiny group that carried antisemitic signs and Nazi symbols to the rally in Ottawa were headlined.

In adopting a sceptical posture towards mandate and lockdowns, you may have been wrong, but in the vast majority of cases, you were not a moron or an ideological nut, though, if you are honest, you had to admit that your side was sprinkled with a good number who could be characterized that way. But the battle was not fought on the cognitive level of competing theories, interpretations and policies but on the level of insults and calumnies, branding and misrepresentation.

America is but the most prominent of perniciously polarized polities. Why? Because it is very rich. Because it is deeply democratic so the formation of silos that do not compromise of even address one another is extremely distressing. The reality is that America has set sail in a sea of shoals with whipped-up waves and very dangerous undercurrents.    

Barack Obama may have celebrated America as the most successful experiment in creating a multicultural and multiethnic and multireligious society. However, the very portrait belies its ignorance of its immediate neighbours, its own conceit and its fragile susceptibility to disintegration as a consequence of political identity politics. In America, the ethnic and religious rivalries are reinforced by a democratic system that reifies and rigidifies binary choices which always greatly exacerbate a rising insecurity.

Surprisingly, that insecurity is strongly felt among the .1% who control the majority of wealth in the United States but whose plutocratic control is being challenged. At the same time, the strays at the other end of the spectrum who feel left out and abandoned, have become so disoriented that their greatest fears focus on bureaucrats as if they were Sasquatch himself. Government mandarins are perceived as autocrats and the economic predators are protected by the diversion of the animosity. The fact that the marginalized were raised on promises of opportunity, on beliefs in American superiority, on faith in America’s dominant power, shatters their mirrors into much smaller fragments.

Thus, the illusion of a future Promised Land that was purportedly real in the past. Thus, the reactionary revolutions whose numbers are greatly increased by disaffected conservatives and evangelicals who live on the borders of loss of faith. They buy into a new vision of self-sacrifice, but one clearly based on legend rather than scientific verity even as they challenge the credibility of their opponents. Freedom is defined as surrender to a higher power. The marginals and the misfits join with the misfortunate and the monied class to form the shock troops for the misbegotten messages of salvation from the destructive course of their ship of state.

The present has no reliability; the past is legend. What can the future be? An angelic promise propelled by vehemence more than simply anger, by insulting missives and vehement messages, by a manic hatred that seems boundless and builds to militant posturing and even actions. By mindblindness in which minorities become scapegoats on whom responsibility can be reposed. And truth becomes deposited in madmen and manipulators.

In such a system, Bigfoot becomes more real than any grizzly. And ideological liberals not only buy into this arena as the centre of the conflict, but try to enjoin their kissing cousins to the north in the same imaginative world of cryptoids to try to form a counter mass movement of so-called “moderation.”

A recent Washington Post op-ed called on Canada to “confront the toxic “Freedom Convoy” head on assembling in Ottawa and at key border crossings across Canada to confront mandatory pandemic measures. In interviews with truckers, such as one who owns a small trucking firm in the Niagara peninsula and also serves on a local municipal council, these modern voyeurs come across as begging to be heard, as challengers of dogma and as rational dissenters with no “affinity with Trumpists, however much they are claimed as affiliates. They come across as longing for ears to listen and a dialogical exchange rather than being branded as deplorables. They may be wrong in the substance of their views, but they do not come across as maddened in their rhetoric.

Some trucker convoy participants may indeed have a history of white nationalism and racism. And many liberals may be led by and pushed forward by neo-Marxist ideologues. The op-ed advised that, “Canada’s response to the convoy should be a strict line of resistance that doubles down on, or in certain cases at least introduces, commitments to anti-hate resistance, pandemic supports, vaccine mandates and a media policy of refusing to platform, humanize, or, God forbid, glorify the convoy and its members beyond the bare necessity of speaking to their existence and outlining a program for pushing back.”

In other words, do not listen. Resist. Double down. Don’t humanize the participants. Treat all participants as toxic. Denunciation and demonization not dialogue is the message.  Yeh to polarization!

Parshat Mishpatim – On Milk and Meat

When I was sixteen and in Grade XII, I went with some of my friends to a restaurant in what was then Chinatown in Toronto and is now a walking boulevard on the west side of the City Hall Plaza immediately east of Osgood Hall. The restaurant was called “9 1/2” I am not sure whether that was its real name or not. But it was the address on the door which led to a second- floor restaurant that was really the long hall of a semi-detached house with the walls of the rooms torn down to make room for tables. 9 ½ served Chinese food.

When Gandhi lived in London as a student, he too went to a restaurant with a Muslim friend. For the very first time, he ate meat. For the very first time, his friend ate pork. The event remained memorable for the rest of Gandhi’s life. When I went to 9 1/2, for the first time ever I ate barbecued spareribs. I ate pork and I can still taste how delicious those ribs were 66 years later.

But what I could never eat was milk with meat. I have never had a cheeseburger to the best of my knowledge. I have never had a glass of milk with a steak; at the present, that combination remains appalling to me. But it is a gut reaction, not one based on any reflection or deep commitment. Yet, of all the prohibitions from my orthodox early upbringing, it remains the most powerful. It does not bother me at all to turn on a light switch on shabat. But I still cannot eat milk and meat together even though one of the results of following the prohibition became an addiction to drinking coca cola with meat, a far from health practice.

Since I attended Talmud Torah, I have always known the source of the prohibition. It occurs in this week’s parashat in Exodus 23:19 which reads,

יט  רֵאשִׁית, בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ, תָּבִיא, בֵּית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.  {פ}19 The choicest first-fruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.    

It is a prohibition repeated in almost identical terms in Exodus 34:26, but in Deuteronomy, the third time the prohibition occurs, the wording and context are somewhat different and clearly suggest a dietary rather than just a cooking prohibition. In the two occurrences in Exodus, the prohibition is connected in the context bringing to YHWH the first fruits of your soil. A kid who is the first fruit of its mother, however, should not be torn away from that mother while it is still suckling, but only after it is weaned. God would not do anything to intervene in the developing attachment of a mother and its babe.

Deuteronomy 14:21 reads:

כא  לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל-נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר-בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ, אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי–כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ. 21 Ye shall not eat of any thing that dieth of itself; thou mayest give it unto the stranger that is within thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto a foreigner; for thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. 

Here, the prohibition is connected with a holy people banned from eating an animal that dies of natural causes and, thus, clearly implies a dietary and not just a cooking restriction. The intent seems to be the opposite of that in Exodus, namely, that a kid still suckling and then cooked is contaminated. The issue then is not one of intervening between the bonding of a babe with its mother so much as a suckling newborn connected to rotting flesh of an animal.

However, whatever the differences, the prohibition seems to be the same – do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. In Exodus, it is a prohibition about cooking, not about eating. And it is not about all meat, not even all goat meat, but about a baby goat still suckling from its mother. This is the interpretation both Augustine and Martin Luther adopted – what is prohibited is eating a sucking still at its mother’s breast. On the other hand, in an opposite direction the intent is interpreted as referring to not letting the suckling get too fat before it is sacrificed to God.

Now I remember a game the boys in Yeshiva used to play with us when they were not entertaining us with scatological interpretations of biblical texts. If you pour sour milk down a drain, then put scraps of meat down and you pour boiling water down the drain to clear it, are you not boiling meat in milk? Is pouring boiling water over scraps of meat and milk really cooking? What if the scraps were previously cooked – does that get around the prohibition? What if they were put down the drain at separate times and by different people, in which case the second person would be abysmally ignorant that there were scraps down the drain. And even if they were put down the drain by the same person, if the intent in pouring the boiling water down was to clear the drain, would that be cooking?

This is pilpul, the process of making endless further distinctions in examining arguments to either drag the argument down a rabbit hole or, alternatively, to mock that form of argument altogether, though the exercise was excellent in training my analytical mind even though exercised on esoterica and irrelevant issues. I took the questions seriously.

What if the mixture consisted of meat and cheese rather than meat and milk? In any case, the prohibition was against cooking, not eating. Yet it was clearly a very important prohibition. After all, the angels in heaven were forbidden from receiving the Torah because they were accused eating milk and meat together.

In any case, the deeper question was not the rule itself but the intent of the prohibition. Why is it prohibited not simply to cook a newborn kid in its mother’s milk, but, as Deuteronomy suggests in the third iteration of the mitzvot, why are we forbidden to eat the two products together. There have been a plethora of suggestions over the ages. Meat represents nutrition. A baby kid suckling at its mother’s breast entails taking in more than nourishment but a mother’s love. The prohibition is intended to make sacred aspects of eating related to reproduction and emotional memory rather than simply nourishment.

Food as our lifeblood has two distinct roles, a profane one – eating to stay healthy – and eating to imprint an emotional connection as well. It is this aspect of emotional imprinting that interests me rather than the great variety of textual interpretations and the defenses for each of them.

Further, my interest in imprinting is not because I am concerned with reinforcing positive emotions but because we are going through a terrible period of polarization in which opposing camps have been imprinted with an interpretation framework that denies legitimacy to alternatives. In Israel, the polarization is primarily between the secular versus the ultra-orthodox Israelis much more than between the Palestinians and the Jews.

Secularists, presumably led and manipulated by Reform Judaism, has imprinted a mindset that displaces orthodox Judaism. The leaders of Reform imbue secularists not simply with a critical attitude towards orthodoxy but with hatred. How many times have you hear that the ultra-orthodox because they do not serve in the army live off the security provided by the secularists but are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the preservation of their own Jewish state? But the same accuser of others spreading hatred and stereotyping, Yisrael Eichler, a member of the Israeli Knesset, has described secularists human beasts who behave like two-legged animals. They belong to an abomination culture ridden with snakes and scorpions.

In North America, in the debates over how to respond to the covid pandemic, Anthony Fauci has been venerated as the scientific Moses who will lead his people to safety. But he has also been vilified as the numbers of popular protests against mandates and closures and requirements for documentation of vaccination increase. In Canada, truckers are cheered on as they head in a convoy to Ottawa to protest against imposed vaccination.

In Ontario, over 11,000 have died from the pandemic. In the US, the death toll now exceeds 900,000. Insults fly in both directions. Those who refuse to get vaccinated or who simply support the right of individuals to refuse to get vaccinated are accused of putting selfish personal interest before the common good. Rage as well as delusion mark not only the protesters but the defenders of the dominant system for tackling the virus. Fauci called an opponent a moron – and to me, he sounded like one. Prime Minister Trudeau called opponents misogynists, fringe types and racists – at least some of them, thereby protecting himself from accusations of stereotyping while managing to imply his opponents were, at the very least, dupes of these anti-vaccine dogmatists, though the evidence clearly indicated that 90% of the protesters were vaccinated and some of the others joined the opposition not because they opposed vaccination but because of justice ethics and the insistence that those in need in other countries should get the vaccine before they do.

What we are witnessing is critical thinking on both sides mixed with dogmatism and opportunism, extreme behaviour and extreme language. Fauci is not Mengele. As citizens retreat more and more into their silos, they accuse the other side of abandoning real science, falsifiability and the pursuit of facts and hypotheses as a result of experiment and evidence. Even the virtue of saving lives gets lost in the rhetorical flights pushed and reinforced by dogmatic imprinting.

Instead of shared data and collaboration among those with differing views and arguments, we witness the rise and leadership of charlatans. In the US, under the leadership of an ex-President, they falsely claim the election was stolen and in the process undermine democracy, critical thinking and the role of evidence in establishing truth.

For what is at work in Canada, in our neighbour to the south, in Israel and around the world has been not simply imprinting, but imprinting that is more a tattoo, an identifier, rather than one interpretation among many. Fauci, the saintly leader of the vaccination campaign, is accused of promoting his view because of thigh salary he receives and because his personal stock portfolio benefits. Lies, lies and more lies rather than a pursuit of truth. The fight is unnerving to those who love critical discourse and dialogue versus insults and food fights.

It is not that the pandemic has hijacked civilized behaviour so much as it has facilitated uncivil behavioir. Our governments are no longer trusted. Our bureaucracies and mandarins have lost control.  Changing positions are not rested as responses to more accurate scientific conclusions but to hypocrisy and ignorance, the pandemic continues in spite of false promises about its termination, not simply because of disproven assumptions and unforeseen mutations but because our leadership led us down a false path, just as the Israelites accused Moses whenever they ran into seemingly insurmountable challenges.

I am not against imprinting. I am against tattooing. Our beliefs should not br pasted on our skins as they are tested by our intellects and our trials. Much worse than the pandemic has been the deterioration of our civility and our ability to both listen and hear.

Six Feet Under – a series review

Six Feet Under, created and written by Alan Ball, is a TV series than ran for five seasons between 2001 and 2005 and is currently streaming on HBO. In its time, it won numerous awards: nine Emmies, three Screen Actor Guild Awards, three Golden Globes and a Peabody Award.  It is reputedly one of the best and highest rated series to have ever been shown on television. People are not just buried six feet down but six feet under where the turmoil of primal emotions are also buried against a backdrop of psychoanalysts in the role of grave robbers of psychic souls.

We just watched the first two seasons and the beginning of the third season. In one sense, it is odd writing a review of a show broadcast two decades ago. But since the series is a rather macabre one that takes place in a funeral home in Los Angeles where death is set against the background of ocean, hills and magnificent weather of what was then regarded as paradise before the area was ravaged by fire and floods, a retrospective may be in order. Especially when the viewer only gets occasional glimpses of paradise and the foreground is filled with mundane ordinariness, dead bodies, and kinky sex before the episodes revert back to ordinary psychological and social catastrophic liaisons. In fact, it is the juxtaposition of the mundane and the mad, of ordinary life and dysfunctional relationships, of the secular and the sacred, that gives this series its power.

Each episode begins with another death, usually of a life terminated by sheer accident prematurely. In one funeral, a three-week-old baby expired from SIBS (sudden infant death syndrome) or crib death. The first death is that of old man Fisher (Richard Jenkins), the owner and director of the funeral home. He will haunt the rest of the series as a ghostly presence in the memory of his widow and three children and as a projection of their ruminations and worries about their current problems. The manner of the death initiating each episode and the persona of the individual who died set the theme and background for that show.

The oldest child, and the most normal individual in the series centred on the Fisher & Sons funeral home, is Nate Fisher played by Peter Krause. Though he had appeared in a plethora of shows and series in the nineties, I only saw him in one other black comedy, The Truman Show (1998), but he did not have a major role. Peter Krause received three Emmy nominations for his role as Nate Fisher in Six Feet Under. As well, he has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, and seven Screen Actors Guild Awards. I do not recall ever seeing one of the many series in which he subsequently starred.

In Six Foot Under, he plays the son of an uptight mother and widow, Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy). He is also the older brother of David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) and a teenaged sister, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who is full of the anxieties and uncertainties during that rite of passage in one’s life. David Fisher, as the brother who stayed in the funeral business with his father, is as picture perfect and straight as his mother, except he turns out to be gay. The first several years of the show often deal with his struggles with that identity and his growing warm relationship with his brother, Nate, who reluctantly also became a funeral director following the death of their father.

Nate Fisher develops a deep love interest in Rachel Griffiths (Brenda Chenowith) who has a very high IQ, a troubled history as the child of two crazy psychoanalysts, including the mother, Joanna Cassidy who plays Margaret Chenowith. Brenda is also the heroine of a study by a different psychoanalyst and a best-selling book. Needless to say, her life unfolds in relationship to the ordinary Nate Fisher in extraordinary paths complicated by wayward experiments with kinky sex.

The juxtaposition of the mad and mundane are evident in two very contrasting side characters, Keith, a black cop who is a centre of solidity even as he increasingly shows signs of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) after he inadvertently kills an armed man harassing and threatening that man’s girlfriend and beats up a “wife’ beater who, contrary to any impression (or credibility for that matter), is claimed to be an ecological genius. At the other end of the spectrum is Brenda’s brother Billy who suffers from bipolar disorder. Other characters appear, such as Gabriel Dimas (Eric Balfour), another troubled teenager and friend of Claire who reveals himself to be a druggie and borderline sociopath. Madness, death and deep devotional love entail two rather than six degrees of separation.

The series is not “ha, ha” hilarious. The laughs are quiet but as disturbing as they are revealing. For the glaring sunlight of Los Angeles has some very dark moments that crash against the sublime Pacific shore. One is always on edge as the dangerous and hidden undercurrents reveal themselves in the different sub-cultures that characterize LA – whether of ancient and wild hippies, members of a relatively sane motorcycle gang, a bizarre sex club or of a Jewish community struck by an unintended suicide and then put to the acid test by an inappropriate stand-up comic at the shiva of his deceased entertainment lawyer.

Nothing will be as it seems, particularly the prettified corpses of the bodies being prepared for burial primarily by Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez), the mortician artist charged with restoring the dead to look like the one who had just lived even as each one lies still in their very different coffins. This Puerto Rican and “artistic” live wire with a wife and two young children is the marker of everyday life in a churning sea of morbidity and mania, delirium and derangement.

The series bounces back between humour and compassion all underwritten by a very intelligent and perceptive script. But I doubt if that was sustained for the full five seasons, though it may have been. In any case, I may return to at least watch the last episode, reputedly the best finale of a television series ever, evidently a projection forward to the inevitable death of each character. However, I gave up at the beginning of the third season when the episodes appeared more and more contrived rather than compelling and the twists and turns seemed arbitrary rather than following the natural curves of Highway One running down the coast of California.

The setting and the events ensure that death always remained as the central theme and the foremost subject of consciousness of the ensemble cast. But it is not just death. The meditations are also macambre, for the fear of death haunts everyone in the series and their everyday efforts to escape its embrace. Each episode is a reminder of how transient our lives are, how subject they are to contingency and serendipity. As we meditate on the themes, we never lose sight of our mortality, though the series is suffused with morbidity even more than with our pursuit of self-destruction marked by an excessive deeply-rooted gloom and sense of our fragility as we all lead lives of disquieting desperation.

In the first two seasons, the episodes became deeper and darker at the same time as they became more droll. The self-mockery and dry humour provided the comic relief and the ghost of the Fisher father’s wry sense of humour and commentary on the follies and foolishness of ordinary life lightened the dark clouds – death put in service of life.  The series sprinkles the episodes of poignant drama with salt and pepper sardonic humor and heartrending sentiment.

Death is the subject matter, not dying. The series is NOT primarily about the suffering that very often precedes death, though a very few episodes have this as their focus. Pain is otherwise generally eschewed. Juxtaposed are not pleasure and pain but life and desire, the former imbued with the fear of mortality and the latter with the search for eternity and immortality. Desire mediates the two poles. But desire belongs to this world and is imbued with social assumptions and prejudices that throw the tension askew. Los Angeles seems to be characterized as a geo-political locale that has lost any magnetic compass let alone a moral one.

At one time in the series, I lost it – in the episode mentioned above that began with the baby who dies at three weeks from sids, sudden infant death syndrome. I burst into tears. The memory came back of myself in the delivery room in Mount Sinai Hospital when my son Gabriel emerged from the womb as a droopy white rag. I think I fainted, but I can no longer remember. It took an eternity that lasted at most a few minutes for the doctors to bring him back to life and I, never mind Gabriel, could breathe again.

Can you possibly imagine meeting with funeral directors to plan your infant son’s internment? The series does so with sensitivity and nuance.

But none of the above is why I write about the series. Rather, my conviction is that Six Feet Under marked a turning point when America repeated the mistakes of Vietnam and went to war in Iraq under the pretense of finding weapons of mass destruction and, even worse, into Afghanistan which Barack Obama had labeled as the right war in contrast to Iraq. America would reveal itself as a unipolar power incapable of exercising that power to help nations rebuild. This was the period when the dream of America as leader of the free world began to sink into an abyss and that vision was buried under the preoccupation with personal and interpersonal psychological and social dramas as the collectivity began to fragment and implode.

America itself was being buried six feet under.

Parshat Yitro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 There and Then: The “Ten” Commandments

Yesterday, paradoxically, I wrote about Here Today, about Here and Now in accordance with a comic genre. Today, I will address the issue of There and Then, again, a paradox, but one within the genre of tragedy.

Tragedies often begin with messengers. Parshat Yitro in chapter 18 begins with Jethro, a pagan priest and Moses’ father-in-law who begins by listening to Moses’ tale of what God instructed him to do, what happened and how he led his people out of Israel with God’s guidance. Jethro listened and heard. He also reprimanded. Jethro concluded (18:10-11):

0[Thereupon,] Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. יוַיֹּ֘אמֶר֘ יִתְרוֹ֒ בָּר֣וּךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרַ֖יִם וּמִיַּ֣ד פַּרְעֹ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִצִּיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־מִצְרָֽיִם:
11Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted, [He came] upon them.” יאעַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּֽי־גָד֥וֹל יְהוָֹ֖ה מִכָּל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים כִּ֣י בַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר זָד֖וּ עֲלֵיהֶֽם:

It is a pagan who recognizes the Hebrew God as the most powerful god.

Second, the next day it is also Jethro who teaches Moses the first and most important principle of governance: delegation and separation of the judicial and executive functions of office. Arafat sought to rule like a traditional sheikh, dispensing both favours and judgements. I witnessed it personally on a visit to Gaza late one evening. It cannot and does not work but rather leads to cronyism, corruption and poor governance.

Why does Jethro pronounce Moses’ efforts to listen to disputes between and among neighbours and then make the disputants aware of the law and God’s interpretation as without worth? First, because Moses cannot do such a job alone. In the words of Isaiah, it makes “fat the heart” and that is “not good”. Instead, Jethro insists that Moses’ responsibility is not to be a judge at all, but a defence attorney and his client shall be the Israelites whom he is told to defend in the court of God. The major event and issues are tensions and disputes between man and God not between and among humans.

Moses must also be a teacher about God’s laws and ordinances as well as a defence attorney as distinct from a judge. Only in this way will Moses be able to survive as a leader and ensure peace for the people of Israel.

After Jethro returned to the land of the Midianites, he left Moses to lead his people as he had instructed him. The Israelites moved on and camped at the foot of Mount Sinai.

3Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel, גוּמשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יְהוָֹה֙ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
4‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me. דאַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָֽאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָֽאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי:
5And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. הוְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִֽהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ:
6And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” ווְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּֽהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

Obey. Keep my covenant. And in this way become a holy nation. Moses took that message back to the people and they agreed to do as God wished. When Moses returned to God with that agreement, God promised Moses that when he speaks, the people will hear and they will have faith in your leadership. But they must not try to ascend the mountain themselves, but only go to the rim at the bottom lest they meet their destruction. Then Moses ascends and returns from the mountain with what is known as the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments first inscribed in chapter 20.

2“I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. באָֽנֹכִ֨י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֽוֹצֵאתִ֩יךָ֩ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֗ים:
3You shall not have the gods of others in My presence. גלֹ֣א יִֽהְיֶ֣ה־לְךָ֩ אֱלֹהִ֨ים אֲחֵרִ֜ים עַל־פָּנַ֗י:
4You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. דלֹ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂה־לְּךָ֣ פֶ֣סֶל | וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם | מִמַּ֡עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁר֩ בָּאָ֨רֶץ מִתַּ֜חַת וַֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמַּ֣יִם | מִתַּ֣חַת לָאָ֗רֶץ:
5You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, הלֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶ֣ה לָהֶם֘ וְלֹ֣א תָֽעָבְדֵם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵ֠ד עֲוֹ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֽׂנְאָ֑י:
6and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments. ווְעֹ֤שֶׂה חֶ֨סֶד֙ לַֽאֲלָפִ֔ים לְאֹֽהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹֽׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֹתָֽי:
7You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain. זלֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַשָּׁ֑וְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יְנַקֶּה֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ לַשָּֽׁוְא:
8Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. חזָכוֹר֩ אֶת־י֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֜ת לְקַדְּשׁ֗וֹ:
9Six days may you work and perform all your labor, טשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֣ים תַּֽעֲבֹד֘ וְעָשִׂ֣יתָ כָל־מְלַאכְתֶּךָ֒:
10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities. יוְי֨וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י שַׁבָּ֣ת | לַֽיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ לֹ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה כָל־מְלָאכָ֡ה אַתָּ֣ה | וּבִנְךָ֣־וּ֠בִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ֨ וַֽאֲמָֽתְךָ֜ וּבְהֶמְתֶּ֗ךָ וְגֵֽרְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ:
11For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. יאכִּ֣י שֵֽׁשֶׁת־יָמִים֩ עָשָׂ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖נַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י עַל־כֵּ֗ן בֵּרַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וַֽיְקַדְּשֵֽׁהוּ:
12Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you. יבכַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ לְמַ֨עַן֙ יַֽאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ:
13You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. יגלֹ֖א תִּרְצָֽח: ס לֹ֖א תִּנְאָֽף: ס לֹ֖א תִּגְנֹֽב: ס לֹֽא־תַֽעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר:
14You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor.” ידלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ך ס לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַֽאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַֽחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ:

Except, these are not commandments. They are sayings.

  1. Do not worship other gods in my presence.
  2. Do not engage in idolatry.
  3. Perform chesed or acts of loving kindness.
  4. Do not commit blasphemy by taking the name of the Lord in vain.
  5. Keep the sabbath by performing no labour on that day or permitting your servants of strangers from performing this labour – there can be no shabas goys.
  6. Honour thy father and mother.
  7. Do not murder.
  8. Do not commit adultery.
  9. Do not steal.
  10. Do not bear false witness against your neighbour; don’t commit perjury.
  11. Do not covet thy neighbour’s house or whatever belongs to your neighbour.

But that makes eleven not ten commandments. Usually, the third is omitted to ensure there are ten. Yet the third is more often interpreted as the most basic and all-encompassing. Or else the first and second are combined as one. But it does not matter except rhetorically whether there are ten or eleven or whether the same ones are reiterated in Deuteronomy 5. Rather, notice that there are three prohibitions with respect to God – no worshipping other gods, no idolatry and no blasphemy, three positive instructions, performing chesed, keeping the sabbath and honouring your mother and father, and then five further prohibitions but this time in relationship to other humans – don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, commit perjury or covet.

Each of these prohibitions or advisories is subject to interpretation. For example, the first is often interpreted as insisting on a monotheistic faith. Except that Jethro worshipped other gods and interpreted the Israeli God simply as the most powerful. Further, more idiosyncratically, the prohibition has been interpreted as not worshipping other gods in front of the Lord. But the intent seems clear enough at its core – not a metaphysical monotheism but a legal one. The people must consent to the arrangement. The arrangement also requires their commitment. Third, the sayings in effect provide a contract between God and the Israelites, a pre-nuptial agreement in their marriage. Consent, commitment and contract seem to be requisites.

Take these sayings in the three groupings above beginning with the instruction not to worship any other god (in front of or as first in power -?) before the Israelite God. Do not commit idolatry, more specifically, make a graven image as an object of worship. Obviously, making a material object like a golden calf or any other cultic physical representation and treating it as if it were God is idolatry. But idolatry means far more. There can be no physical representation of the divine for that is oved avodah zarah (worship in a pagan or strange service). But then why is Jethro given such a high status?

Any answer requires a lengthy exposition, but suffice to say it simply means, and Jethro attests to that meaning, that God is the only God responsible for all creation and His creatures that He created, especially the Israelites whom He consecrated as a people and with whom He entered a covenantal relationship. God too entered into a commitment and a contractual relationship.

Speaking of God in profane terms (blasphemy) is also forbidden. This does not simply mean that we should not say, “God damn!” Rather, it prohibits disrespect or contempt for God. It does not mean not arguing with God. It does mean not engaging in a pissing match. That means, as Isaiah said, listening with a lean heart, one that is emotionally sensitive, hearing what is said by washing out one’s ears and looking at the other as a cloud rather than with eyes glazed over as if one could readily see the other. It means to hear intently without claiming to understand or categorize, looking closely without presuming what one can perceive. It means being open to the Other.

How then do we fit in chesed? Rabbi Simiai in the Talmud claimed that, “The Torah begins with chesed and ends with chesed.” Chesed provide the book ends to hold up the Torah, the shelf on which the Torah can rest but is not itself the Torah.  Mercy and compassion are prerequisits for a lean heart, unstopped ears and unglazed eyes. It is God who embodies chesed, what Jews translate as mercy and Christians, grace. Chesed entails God’s love for His people, the zealous love of one person for another and the compassion of people towards God.

The forbidding of murder, theft, adultery, perjury and especially being covetous are all expressions of what it is not to be charitable and kind to others. They are all mean acts. Covetousness is not forbidding acquisitiveness. It does mean an injunction against jealousy for what one’s neighbour has.

That was then and there. The tragedy is always when was there and then as an aspiration has become a lost cause, that we give up on forbidding a covetous life, that we fail to empathize with the other, hear the other and see the other not through either rose coloured glasses or darkened shades. For we must pronounce, Hinaini, here I am ready not only to say but to go, to hear intently without presuming to understand and to look closely without assuming one perceives.

Here Today – a movie review

The buddy film starring Billy Crystal as Charlie Burnz and Tiffany Hassish as Emma is a change of pace. It is a warm comedy rather than a cold tragedy. Billy Crystal plays what he has always played best – a comic version of himself. And he directs as well. He is an old-style stand-up comic working as a writer on the equivalent of Saturday Night Live among a gaggle of young comics less than half his age. He and Tiffany, a street performer and jazz singer aspiring to be a stage artist, form a fast friendship – fast both in the sense that it took very little time to gel and fast in the sense of firm and deep.

When Tiffany introduces Billy to her ex-boyfriend, who is a fan of Billy, the latter invites Tiffany to be his “date” at his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. She accepts on condition that he dance with her. He replies that he is a very poor dancer, indeed, a very dangerous dancer, the only person he knows who carries “mambo insurance.” But she insists. He accepts on condition that she wear a football helmet and pads. When you write the one-liners down, they do not seem very funny. But when Billy delivers them, they are hilarious.

Why? Because although the lines are smart-alecky and witty, they are also authentic, expressing real emotion underneath. Secondly, they are expressed with “the lightness of being.” Tragedy is heavy and the challenge is to lighten it up so that we do not drown in despair. Comedy is inherently light and the challenge is to turn air into helium and make the balloon rise faster and higher until it is out of sight. Third, comedy requires a comic situation. As older comic with early onset dementia befriending, indeed, falling in love in a way, with a young vibrant jazz singer who gives him energy, appreciates his talent and restores for him a sense of vitality even as she expresses a deep sensitivity for his situation, is a joy to watch. The redemption comes naturally; a melodramatic situation is raised to the level of a romantic comedy.

Their first real informal date is at a wax museum where Billy can demonstrate his imitation and comic skills of the various characters on display. But his comic skills make these wax figures live again in your memory. It is a movie full of “honest laughter.” Watch Billy’s autobiographical show, 700 Sundays (2204), which is also available on streaming, and you can see much more apparently how Crystal relies so much on authenticity to make his comic sketches work.

Here Today may be about the transitory nature of life. But that life is given meaning by love and relationships that have a positive outcome even as we watch the early stages in which a clever, sensitive and well-informed man decline into senility.

Bob Rae sent me a sketch, indeed an evening in Stratford Ontario (https://youtu.be/7b4hi5bjkEY), following a performance of Macbeth in 2016, which filmed a mock appeal to three real Canadian supreme court justices on behalf of Macbeth and his wife. Bob Rae performs as the “expert witness” and, it turns out that although he is not a Billy Crystal, he is authentically a brilliant sit-down comic. Placing Macbeth within a comic frame also turns out to be very revealing about the play itself.

Comedy is very hard to do but when it is done well, there is no better remedy when you are recovering from covid.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review:

Part III Denzel Washington and Francis McDormand

Denzel Washington is almost seventy years old. He has been a Hollywood star for decades. He has stared in comedies (Carbon Copy with George Segal), a host of second rate murder mysteries, westerns (The Magnificent Seven, 2016), thrillers (Mississippi Masala and The Taking of Pelham – 2009 and a repeat version in Unstoppable, 2010), science fiction (The Book of Eli, 2010), crimes stories (The Pelican Brief, 1993), action movies (The Mighty Quinn), what I regard as his best roles in historical dramas (as Steve Bilko in the 1987 film, Cry Freedom, Malcom X in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie by the same name, the 1999 movie about the boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter wrongly convicted of murder – The Hurricane, the 1993 movie staring Tom Hanks where Denzel played Tom Hanks’ homophobic lawyer in Philadelphia, the psychodrama, which he also directed, Antwone Fisher, as drug lord, Frank Lucas, in American Gangster – 2007, and as Professor Melvin Tolson, the Texas debating coach in the 2007 movie The Great Debaters), a myriad of police dramas (the 1999 movie The Bone Collector, Training Day, 2001), war films (Glory), and musical dramas (Mo’ Better Blues). Lately, his forte seems to have been police detectives, FBI agents and CIA operatives. However, I missed him in Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian comedy, Much Ado About Nothing (1993). After watching him in Macbeth, I vowed to go back and watch that film.

I do not know and cannot count how many other shlocky films that I did not see in which Denzel Washington appeared. But his versatility is legendary. However, I could never have imagined him as Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Fortunately, Joel Coen with his genius did.

Denzel gives Shakespeare’s poetic and high-minded language a colloquial tone. Instead of bravura and bombast, we watch a man twisting on his own petard of psychological conflict. Macbeth may be both a war hero and a serial killer in this movie, but it is the internal workings of his mind that fascinate Shakespeare, Coen and Washington. Denzel Washington’s lines are delivered in a restrained, even hesitant, manner rather than a tone full of bluster and braggadocio. Shakespeare’s language may be grandiloquent, but Denzel allows the magniloquence to emerge much more forcefully and clearly through the use of restraint and introspection. Rather than a man living in the glory of his achievements, Denzel’s Macbeth is a man wearied by war and conflict, but driven to repeat his fighting acuity by an unbridled and little understood ambition. In a context stressing mood and mystique, symbolism and sensitivity, we watch a close-up of a hero who turns into a mad dog.

In his first and pivotal murder, we watch Denzel’s boots as he marches down a long corridor with the stomping echoing through the emptiness. We see a line of vertical light on a doorway at the end of the hall. Before we can discern what we are viewing, Macbeth asks whether what he sees is a blade. And, as we come closer, we perceive that the sliver of light is indeed a knife that serves as the handle to open the door to the king’s bedchamber. Denzel will use that handle-knife to slit Duncan’s throat as he sleeps.

How does one combine masculinity and might with psychological feebleness, power with impotence in the grasp of fate which has taken one prisoner? That is a very hard act to pull off. And Denzel Washington succeeds superbly. Instead of mud and grit, instead of fields of dead bodies, we observe a great man disintegrating before our eyes.

Frances McDormand is his prefect partner. For it isn’t the lust for power that drives the pair. They seem to have no idea of what to do with the power they have once acquired. Instead, what we see is ambition for position in which power evaporates like the water on the floor of the castle that serves as the witches’ cauldron. Instead of fractures and floundering, the players became wearier and wearier and more broken and fragmented with their achievement. Not because it has not been enormous. But because the victory has been hollow, without purpose or meaning. Even the plan for blaming the courtiers of Duncan goes awry when, in a supposed fit of passion, Macbeth murders them. Instead of displacing the blame, Duncan’s sons, Malcolm (who looks like Steve Lewis did in high school) and Donalbain quickly grasp the source of the mayhem and flee for their lives.

I remember Frances McDormand as the pregnant cop, Marge Gunderson, in the early Coen film Blood Simple (1984) where she plays the role of an unfaithful wife of a murderer, as the lead pregnant detective in the very famous Coen film, Fargo (1996), as Mrs. Pell the interpreter of the source of prejudice in Mississippi Burning (1988), as Elaine Miller as the protective but threatening mother of a young prodigy, the smart, good-hearted fifteen-year-old rock journalist in the story of the young boy who becomes a journalist for Rolling Stone in Almost Famous (2000), as Jane in another rock-era film as a libertine mother and ’60s-era record producer past her prime who nurses a band to stardom In Laurel Canyon (2002), as the unfaithful wife of a barber determined to become a fraudster in Joel Coen’s 2001 film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, as the self-appointed detective to solve her daughter’s murder in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, as part of an ensemble cast in both Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and in his stop-motion animated fiction comedy Isle of Dogs (2018), alongside Matt Damon as Sue Thomason, a silver-tongued gas company land buyer who has little time for any relationship in the story of heartless corporate America in Promised Land (2012), and in North Country (2005) which we just rewatched where she played a supporting role as a female miner dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease who becomes the main psychological supporter for Charlize Theron who plays the standout role as the leader in the first class-action sexual harassment case in US judicial history.

Frances McDormand played the van dwelling nomad in Nomadland (2020) who lost everything in the Great Depression. These are all realist rather than symbolic roles, but rich in nuance and subtlety. Frances McDormand usually plays an earthy woman grounded in everyday life. Who could have imagined her as Lady Macbeth? Presumably, only she and her husband, Joel Coen. How fortunate we are that we have been enabled to watch this enormous and very successful stretch. Though sometimes deep in a swamp of corruption, more usually she stands for decency and determination set against a “valhalla of decadence.” In The Tragedy of Macbeth, she becomes the central decadent figure.

In The Tragedy of Macbeth, we watch two characters melting before our eyes as they disintegrate in a fate they cannot reverse. They both become mad – not just Lady Macbeth. They remain in consort even in their insanity. Inevitability and insignificance are married against a backdrop of magnificence and heroism. For such a psychological drama, the film is uncompromisingly physical. It is not only their minds that fall apart, but their bodies. Lady Macbeth’s hair begins to fall out. From an elegant and self-confident woman, she herself becomes a frazzled hag. And McDormand manages the transition with a depth of intensity and subtlety that is almost incomprehensible.

How can one be both regal and so fragile? Because both leads are also older and very experienced actors rather than relatively young and vigorous thirty-year-olds. Frances McDormand’s histrionic range is deliberately kept in check. The deicide is a last gasp rather than the first outrageous step in a long march towards power. The frames are cold and stark. The score echoes and haunts. The past imprisons the present and condemns the future. It is the first and only time that I have seen Macbeth where the depth of the psychological force emerges with such unrepentant fury.  

The film opens with clouds and birds (witches) emerging from not only those clouds, but from the audience as if we were watching a Hitchcock thriller at the same time. For we must be part of the psychodrama being created. This is NOT an action movie in spite of a culminating fight scene on the castle walls. An individual treks across a snow-covered field and it is not where he comes from or even where he is going that counts so much as the tracks he leaves behind. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand allow us to follow those tracks, step by weary step, until their last moment of recorded time. And they keep in step, locked together in both love and madness, supportive of each other in their doomed journey.

he Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review:

Part II Set, Lighting, Costumes & Score

The sets (Stefan Dechant – Avatar and True Grit), lighting and cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel), costumes (Mary Zophre) and score (Carter Burwell – FargoThe Big LebowskiNo Country for Old Men) are more intrinsic to this movie than in any that I have seen lately. The action and interpretation are enormously enhanced as well as facilitated by the lighting and sets, costumes and soundtrack. The film is shot in black and white – really dark and light grey – to emphasize shadows and beams of light that penetrate the high brutalist architecture (cf. the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto) of a stage set that has been stretched vertically and horizontally and in terms of depth beyond any stage you have ever witnessed. The unnaturalism of the set supersedes what could have been viewed on a wild Scottish heath.  

Why? Because, in the end, we are not really in Scotland but instead dwell within the architecture of Macbeth’s mind and mythic dimensions of the play. We are watching a stage, not a landscape, where the mind plays out its struggles and contradictions. The most brilliant quality of the movie I found was how Coen combined the poetry of Shakespearian blank and rhymed verse with such barren visuals. The sets and sounds and costumes all allow the language a greater clarity.

The scenes are not always logical or sequential. Characters appear out of mists, appear in hallways, on long stairways and on castle ramparts as if emerging from thin air. This is because we are offered an unnatural realm for the unconscious to act out, not a natural landscape. The combination of the real and the dream – or really the nightmares – create a super-reality. The film owes much more to German expressionism as developed after the horrendous events of The Great War than to the stock shots of Hollywood, even though the whole movie was shot on a sound stage.

The first manifesto of the surrealist movement wrote of a “psychic automatism.” This is how Macbeth and Macbeth’s wife’s actions have to be viewed – not as behaviour determined by intentions, but actions driven by unconscious passions. On the cognitive level, Macbeth cannot both believe the witch’s prophecy that he will be king AND that it will be Banquo (Bertie Carvell) who produces a line of kings. Why seize the throne if that will be the outcome?

But the actions are not determined by a consequential calculation but by hidden forces that turn a brave warrior into a bloodthirsty serial killer. The scenery does not represent a Scottish heath or any real Scottish castle. The concrete is too smooth, the elevations are far too lofty and the fenestrations make no rational sense. They are there simply to direct beams of light on the action. On a more metaphysical level, the film offers a critique of those who believe that political actions on the world stage can be understood in terms of rational explanations. The film is but another radical departure for a Coen film, for it is rooted in the depths of the imagination far more than a Minnesota landscape or a Scottish one for that matter.

Joel Coen, using Bruno Delbonet, films the movie through a 1:33:1 aspect ratio adapted from silent film and discards the widescreen approach of modern films the better to hone in on the intimate and the personal against a minimalist but brutalist background. Further, birds turn into witches and witches sit above the action on beams rather than on the same level as humans. Potions and parts of bodies are dropped onto the floor of the castle which has become a pool of water, first bubbling and then boiling and finally dissipating altogether.  Elements not found together in real life are juxtaposed. For this is a film about the unconscious life projected on the world stage. What counts is not the verisimilitude of the image but its emotional power to evoke the imaginative realm.

Why now? Why this Macbeth? Because we live in a time in which irrationality rather than reason rules the roost, where rational calculation is bracketed to reflect how thought really works. It is mythical. It is allegorical. It is mystical. It is metaphysical. German expressionism as expressed by George Grosz or Wilhelm Klemm is inverted, for the intention is not to remind the audience of our inalienable humanity but of our most evil instincts. Art then is not redemptive but subversive.

That is why Stefan Dechant has been inspired by brutalist architecture, its minimalist construction and its use of bare building materials. No ornate baroque here. No decorative design or carpets or wall hangings. Instead, we find long columns or walls of smooth concrete punctuated by openings above and below and from the side. The angular Pythagorean shapes suggest a rationality of the surface that disguises the turmoil beneath. The black and white – or gray on gray – monochrome offer shadows rather than shades, sharp contrasts rather than blends. Joel Coen wants to liberate us from a nostalgic view of Shakespeare to reveal him as a prophet of our contemporary age. It is a search for honesty and revelation rather than hiding the underlying structure of the mind. What is revered is not a divine force but the harsh reality of the concrete and real world seething with passions underneath. The absolute clarity of the structure and the strict formality of the clean lines and angles using the barest of hard materials is reflected in a repetition of ballustrades, openings, steps, shafts – all suggesting a modular world that is very contemporary.  And cold. And austere. And bare. And hollow. And empty. Yet very muscular with very long wide corridors and very high walls.

The armor plate of the warriors and their costumes convey not only strength and security but aesthetic beauty. Thus, Ross (Alex Hassell), as a minor character promoted in status, emerges first as a striking sleek figure in black with a sharp goatee, a very handsome face and the body of a stud. He is a striking cool presence while he serves as an Iago for Macbeth, a facilitator of evil and murder rather than the grace he appears to express.

Carter Burwell’s sound cues (cf. https://www.what-song.com/Movies/Soundtrack/104698/The-Tragedy-of-Macbeth) – are drawn from action and horror films, but mostly thrillers – the pounding boots hitting the concrete floor, the slapping of a tree branch against a window pain, the drips of water reverberating like thunderclaps in the room which has itself become a cauldron. Death is made palpable. And even more than death – the fear of mortality. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are driven by a deep desire to fend off mortality by grasping for a last gasp of greatness. In the moment of action, we hear the weighty instrumentation of the fiddle rather than violin strings that reverberate and recall earlier soundings, especially the prophecies of the witches in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have become trapped. At the same time, those folk sounds are grounded rather than elevated. The musical chords are used to shadow the present moment and adumbrate the future as the plot unfolds, the pace increases and the end is foreshadowed.  

Sets, lighting, cinematography, costumes and score all reverberate against one another to convey Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

As Macbeth conveys the message in his famous soliloquy:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review: Part I The Three Witches

Joel Coen is an artistic genius. He and his wife, Frances McDormand, have produced and he has directed one of the most extraordinary productions of William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. Released in theatres (a limited release) on Christmas, it has as of 14 January been streaming on Apple TV.  It is a MUST see.

A thane is a Scottish lord. Backed by the Norwegian King Sweno, the Thane of Cawdor organized a rebellion against King Duncan; Macdonald was the military head of the uprising. After a see-saw battle in which Fortune seemed at first to favour Macdonald, the rebellion is put down by Macbeth, the head of Duncan’s army. Macdonald was killed. Not just killed. Macbeth “unseemed him from the nave to the chops” and presented his severed head as a trophy. And Macbeth then repelled the Norwegians. He is a military hero. He is a Stoic, like Marcus Aurelius: “A man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions.” However, Macbeth’s ambition proves to be the extent of his greatness.

Why did Cawdor rebel? According to Duncan, he was a man of integrity and honour; he courageously accepted his punishment by getting his head cut off. But why did he rebel in the first place? Was Duncan a corrupt king? An incompetent one? We are not told. And as presented in the opening scenes of Coen’s movie (and Shakespeare’s play), there is no indication that Duncan was anything but a noble and upright ruler. This adds to the ruthlessness of Macbeth. Otherwise, how could he do what he did next – kill the king himself, assume the throne and then instigate an endless bloodbath.

Macbeth is not just an ambitious man. He is a superb warrior, “valour’s minion.’ But in the stark misty landscape that has little resemblance to the Scottish highlands, he has also reenacted Christ’s crucifixion at Golgotha, the skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem. Who is Christ in the play? Macdonald? The Thane of Cawdor? We have no idea as the opening witch scene throws no light on the politics that gave rise to the rebellion and then the doubly traitorous act of brave Macbeth. All is ambivalent and confusing. And that is a point of the play – ambivalence.

For how can Macbeth be ambitious if it is foretold by the witch that Banquo, not he, will give rise to a line of kings? Besides, he (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) are childless and seem too old to bear children. Thus, the irony. He wants the throne, but it is a passion without a future.

Usually, the opening scene of the play with three witches reciting Shakespeare’s immortal lines sets the stage for what follows but does nothing to clarify the instigation of the action. Coen does something unique. The movie opens with one high-flying crow. Then a second appears among the clouds when the first is at the bottom of the screen. Then a third flies out from the viewer into the scene startling a lonely traveler who goes on to report the results of the battle to King Duncan.

Macbeth and Banquo appear out of the mist and discern a black figure beside a pool in which two other black figures are reflected. The first shape-shifts into an old contortionist hag whose scrawny limbs can bend and twist like pretzels with one leg slung over her shoulder. Kathryn Hunter plays all three witches in an award-winning performance on a misty rough unreal terrain. She looks like an old crow, acts like one as she jerks her head back and forth, and incites the famous incantation. She is truly weird, or “wayward” as Shakespeare spelled it, the weirdest and most harrowing witch I have ever seen. No long bent noses here. No steaming pot in the middle with frogs legs.

The Anglo-Saxon term “wyrd” means destiny or fate. But Shakespeare offers a twist. The witches are wayward, more like Delphic oracles than witches who offer spells and feed a person magical potions. They are sinister, not because of what they do, but because of what they say, and what they say and look like projects the inner state of a man’s soul.

Hunter turns from a raven into a stone that is a black Golgotha and then into an animated crow-like hag in a masterly exercise in magical realism that raises the whole scene to the level of epic surrealism. You know the witches are creatures of Macbeth’s mind because the one becomes three, each with a unique but, at the same time, identical smoky voice, that is also the voice of a fourth male character who appears later. The first witch who looks ancient and haggard predicts the future that hypnotizes Macbeth with its optimism, even though driven by an ill-understood and ageless id. The second witch is ironical and wry in adumbrating how that future will unfold. Then the third, angry and chastising, the superego that will deliver the mental turmoil that will doom Macbeth. The third witch is the “harpier,” a harpy, a loathsome monster in Greek myth with the head of a hag but the body of a predator bird. The three witches are three aspects of one being and in the movie are played as one person.

Here is Shakespeare’s versions of Act I, Scene 1 set in “a desert”

[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First WitchWhen shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second WitchWhen the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third WitchThat will be ere the set of sun.
First WitchWhere the place?
Second WitchUpon the heath.
Third WitchThere to meet with Macbeth.
First WitchI come, graymalkin!
Second WitchPaddock calls.
Third WitchAnon!
ALLFair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

In this mesmerizing chant in which the witch herself is summoned by her guardian spirit, a gray cat (graymalkin), we are introduced to the topsy-turvy world of Macbeth where evil rather than the pursuit of the good reigns and Macbeth is bewitched. There is no other way to explain his behaviour.

In Shakespeare’s play, the witches do meet again in Act 3, Scene 5.

ACT III SCENE V A heath. 
[A banquet prIn the Middle Etepared. Enter MACBETH, LADY MACBETH, ROSS, LENNOX, Lords, and Attendants]
[Thunder. Enter the three Witches meeting HECATE]
First WitchWhy, how now, Hecate! you look angerly.
HECATEHave I not reason, beldams as you are,
Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call’d to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done10
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you.
But make amends now: get you gone,
And at the pit of Acheron
Meet me i’ the morning: thither he
Will come to know his destiny:
Your vessels and your spells provide,
Your charms and everything beside.
I am for the air; this night I’ll spend20
Unto a dismal and a fatal end:
Great business must be wrought ere noon:
Upon the corner of the moon
There hangs a vaporous drop profound;
I’ll catch it ere it come to ground:
And that distill’d by magic sleights
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear30
He hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear:
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.
[ Music and a song within: ‘Come away, come away,’ etc ]
Hark! I am call’d; my little spirit, see,
Sits in a foggy cloud and stays for me.
[Exit]
First WitchCome, let’s make haste; she’ll soon be back again.
[Exeunt]

The three witches are wayward, beldams, crones who have traveled on their own path without direction from Hecate, that is, without a moral compass. They do not guide the action as much as reflect it. They are bold, saucy and themselves rebellious. Hecate may be mistress of their charms, but these witches do not work through charms. They do not contrive or create harms. They are reflections rather than real agents of the action. They do not operate through magic nor are they responsible for Macbeth’s confusion. Most of all, Hecate is wrong. Empty ambition, not the quest for security, is portrayed as mortals’ greatest enemy.

It is no wonder that Joel Coen excised Hecate from the play; she was superfluous and, in the end, misleading.

In Scene 1 in Act IV when the witches return a third time, after a preview in the movie, the recitation begins – “double, double” for the play is about inversion and doubling that instigates the trouble for doubling entails deception. The witches do not enter but sit on cross beams above the action and the first drips one magical item after another in the pool of water on the castle floor.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: Act IV, Scene 1

Thunder.
Enter the three Witches
(in the play but not in the movie; there, only the first witch speaks. After the introductory verses, she looks up to the ceiling and begins the famous incantation: “Double, double…”)

First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.


All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.


Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
 
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

[Enter Hecate, to the other three Witches]

Hecate
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

[Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ etc, Hecate retires]


Second Witch
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, but also of childbirth, appeared first in Act III, scene 5 in Shakespeare’s play (though perhaps not in the original version) to reprimand the three witches for leaving her out of the action and for interfering with Macbeth without her approval. But she was MIA, missing in action, for Lady Macbeth has been barren. Yet in the scene above, she contradictorily congratulates the witches.

I assume, to avoid the confusion, Joel Coen excises Hecate in the film. And the witches are left to drop their charms from the rafters into a boiling pool of water down below. In that water, the face of Biancho’s son appears wearing a crown. While Macbeth promises his death, the voice from the depth predicts that he will be king. Macbeth’s ambition will be truncated.

(To be continued: Set, Lighting, Score and Costumes)

Landscapers – a series review

THIS WHOLE REVIEW REQUIRES A SPOILER ALERT!

The Lost Daughter starring Olivia Colman was one of the terrific films of 2021. Released on HBO as a four-part series on 7 December, Landscapers starring Olivia Colman as Susan Edwards is the best series that I have seen from 2021. It is hailed as a true crime drama. Though based on and inspired by an actual crime, the series in the end is not primarily about the crime nor even about the truth. The movie is NOT an “immaculate retelling of real-life murderous couple Susan and Christopher Edwards,” if only because the couple may have murdered, but they are not murderous.

To claim it is also about fantasy is also a stretch, though it is about the way we construct the past when we act and, once again, when we defend those actions, about the way that reality is reconstructed in different ways by the police and prosecutors as they try to prosecute a case. It is also, and perhaps mainly, about the way art, including this series itself, reconstructs events when the justice system and the agents caught up in it clash over their respective differences over reality. What art can do and courts cannot is explore the imaginative lives that undergird actual behaviour in history.

The most intriguing creation was that of Christopher Edwards (played by David Thewlis who called the series “the very finest project I have worked on in many years”), the husband of Susan, a mild-mannered and caring accountant who is secretly a shooter, indiscreetly shoots his mouth off fifteen years after the crime was committed and is accused and found guilty of the actual shooting of Susan Edward’s parents, Bill and Pat Wycherley. The synopsis reads, “Husband and wife Susan and Christopher have been on the run from reality for over 15 years.” They may have been on the run for 15 years, but not from reality. Their ordinary lives were always steeped in reality. They were on the run into creating their own imaginary fantasy, their own version of Bonnie and Clyde, their particular love story.

For the film is at its core a love rather than crime story, though a crime did take place and much of the movie is taken up trying to establish what happened in that crime. But after you watch the movie, it is not all clear what happened, just what the cops and the prosecutor and, in the end, the judge determined what happened, But what is clear and distinct is the fact that these two extra-ordinary – literally, supremely ordinary – people created their own world of real love precisely because they shared a fantasy world and love of movies, particularly westerns and ones starring Gérard Depardieu, the former reference clearer than the latter.

The series is about the magic of films and the magic of love as opposed to the crass reality of the search for truth and justice. The core facts are not in dispute. In 1998, the parents of mild-mannered and considerate Susan Edwards were murdered in Mansfield in England. Susan and Christopher did wrap the bodies of Susan’s parents in duvet covers and buried the bodies in the backyard of the home of those parents. Seven years later, the home was sold. Seven years after that, the Department of Works and Pensions wrote a letter asking to interview Bill Wycherley. Susan and Christopher had obviously been cashing his pension cheque since his demise had never been reported.

Susan and Cristopher fled to France. The balance of the funds from the sale of her parent’s house had obviously been dissipated, in good part because Susan had become a collector of movie memorabilia. When the couple were down to their last few dollars, Christopher, in order to get a loan from his stepmother, told her that they had buried the parents and where they had done so. There is no real effort to grasp why he made that confession or how it helped him get the cash advance – the implication is that the couple had reached a dead end with their finances and prospects. However, the slip became the catalyst for the stepmother informing the police and the police instigating an investigation.

Several additional undisputed “facts” emerged in that investigation. Susan had been sexually abused by her father as a child. Susan had also always been belittled by her mother. Third, Susan’s grandfather, not wanting to bequeath his own son anything, had left an inheritance to Susan which she used to jointly purchase a house with her parents. But her mother browbeat her into signing her portion of the house over to them and the parents quickly sold the house and moved away.

All the facts told in the series – we do not know what all the facts were that were revealed in court – are used by the scriptwriters and directors to direct the sympathies of the audience towards Susan.  Further, Susan and Christopher had rehearsed their version of events and told the police the same story – Pat had shot Bill and inadvertently Susan had killed her mother as the mother once again taunted and belittled her daughter and for the thousandth time told her she was worthless. Then, after a week, she had summoned Chris from Dagenham, told him what had happened, and he had helped bury the bodies. But the justice system determined that version of events was a lie. Chris never reported how putrid the house would have been with corpses lying under a bed for a week. Rigor mortis had not set in when the bodies were moved. Susan claimed there were casings found on the floor when the type of pistol used did not drop casings. Perhaps most incriminating of all, the couple opened a bank account with the parent’s money the first day after the killing. Chris and Susan were found guilty of killing the parents to get back full ownership of the house. They were sentenced to a minimum of twenty-five years in prison.

At one point Susan offers an impassioned speech. Prison can’t break me. Because. Because I am already broken. I had been shattered and the justice system could do nothing more to compound the pain of her early life or the love she had found together with Christopher. The crime, police investigation and court drama are not the main event. The love story is.

A love story at its core is about what binds two people together. Love can also bind a family together, but in this tale, it is a story of hate and oppression that leaves little if any room for love. The miracle is that Susan and Chris were able to tease love, and such a strong love, out of the broken fragments of another’s life. Chris had that propensity as demonstrated in his love for both his mother and deep love for his brother David before he died. They were evidently both fragile people whom he protected and loved.

As he did Susan. Only she claimed she was NOT fragile. How could she be. As indicated by the righteous indignation of her monologue, she had been broken. It is the hard-headed interrogator policewoman, Emma (played superbly by Kate O’Flynn – she certainly deserves at least a nomination as best supporting actress), who had her own axe to literally grind against her own father. Emma defines ”fragile” from a realist perspective: “It means you’re in charge…You’re the pain in the arse, basically.” In those terms, it is Emma who is fragile not Susan. Susan only appears vulnerable. However, she’s in charge of all the shattering illustrated by the wealth of great graphics.

But how does a writer (Ed Sinclair, Colman’s husband in real life) and director (Will Sharpe) turn murderers into star-crossed lovers, not sensational characters like Bonnie and Clyde, but people who seem to excel in being ordinary? By – as the film actually does – taking down the fourth wall of a film set and showing the relationship of the making of the series to the construction of the fantasies and love life of the couple. They were not driven by hate. Hate drove Susan to be the broken woman she was disguised as a polite librarian who loved novels and films. She just waited for her prince charming to save and protect her. And Chris was a protector – or so the film would have us believe in contrast to the crime and trial story.

The intersection of fantasy and reality, of iconic film clips and real scenes that imitate art, of real people playing scenes from old cowboy movies, work wonders. Literally! Sets deconstruct. The colour slips away. Current “reality” dissolves into iconic forties movie scenes. Reality is suspended as fiction becomes the greater reality. This is not a love story like the one between Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw, the rich Harvard undergrad and the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The 1970 “Love Story” directed by Arthur Hiller may have won Oscar nominations for its stars, but that is because the film transformed an archetypal but real love story into an emotional chorus of violins. This series does the reverse. The violinists are put in the scene alongside the Western trekking wagons, the cowboys and the posses that hunt them down.

The Lost Mother

The Lost Mother – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

The Lost Mother is not the name of the movie. It is called The Lost Daughter. Maggie Gyllenhaal offers audiences one of the most outstanding films of last year with the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel. Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is nuanced, incisive and uses the cinematic grammar of a top director with 20-30 years of experience. The pacing and pausing directly evoke the ambiguity that permeates the movie. Go see the film; it has been streaming on Netflix since 31 December. Do not read this review until you do. For there are too many spoilers.

The performance of 48-year-old Leda by Olivia Colman (Jessie Buckley plays her twenty-year younger self) is simply superb. In fact, both performances are excellent. Since the two are physically quite different looking that a twenty-year difference could not disguise, it is also the more remarkable that I, and no one I spoke to, had any difficulty accepting that the two were the same person at two different stages of one life. This fits in with a movie theme – do not trust appearances and impressions; it is the deeper psychological factors that establish identity – attitudes, intentions, how one handles emotions and how the body language of both point to an identical psychic make-up. This is particularly difficult to pull off when we only have a partial glimpse of an ambiguous inner self.

Leda in William Butler Yeat’s 1926 sonnet, “Leda and the Swan,” adopts the name Leda from Greek mythology as the mother of all of humanity, the product of intercourse with all the mighty gods – Zeus, Jupiter, et al, who appear to her deceptively as swans and rape her. Progeny include the beautiful Helen of Troy who is the “cause” of the great calamity of the ancient world, the Trojan War. Fate is born in disguise and the result is both violence and indifference.

How unlike the Torah where mankind is a result of the war between earthly lust and intellectual abstraction. In the novel and the film, the root problem is steeped in Hebraic rather than Greek mythology. The Greek origins of Leda, like much of the remaining content of the film, offers only a set of distractions and false clues. If we follow them, we will never discover the ambiguity of this amalgam of Adam and Eve as the virgin mother of humanity. And the roots of the inhumane!

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

                                  Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Rape is not the backdrop of The Lost Daughter.

I call the review The Lost Mother because that is what I think the movie was really about. Discovering that primal mother. But I am not sure. It is rare that I am left so perplexed by a film that I consider great. But I am. And I want to tell you why. It may have something to do with one of the themes of the film – female acuity versus male obtuseness. As a male, I suspect that I was not alone in my puzzlement for, as Leda in the novel says, “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” Yet Leda recognizes that she, herself is “a very selfish person.” It is also a movie focused on body language for, as Leda says at one point, “The unspoken says more than the spoken.” But it is Leda who repeatedly misinterprets the unspoken. Yet we, in the audience, are repeatedly and endlessly exposed to the close-up so that we are put off balance by the absence of a frame as the characters exude emotions with every slightest inflection.

The movie takes place on an unnamed Greek island – except it is the one on which Leonard Cohen made his home for years, Hydra, his second home rather than his first for he could never leave the Hallelujah chorus of his Jewish birth in Montreal behind. It was the home of his muse, the Norwegian Marianne Ihlen, for whom he wrote the masterpiece, So Long. Marianne, his own complicated lyric of abandonment.

In Greek mythology, Hydra is the child of Typhon (think typhoon) and Echnida, a monster half-woman and half-snake, the mother of most of the monsters that populate the Greek mythos. Hydra is a gigantic poisonous water-snake with nine heads. Cut off one head and two heads grow in its place. Hydra or hydra-headed connotes an ambiguous and multifarious dimension of existence.

However, in Hebraic mythology, the snake is not female, but the masculine penis objectified and detached as the male conceives of himself as divine, as pure mind detached from body and responsible for creating the world with words and language. Leda is a translator, a translator of one mythology into another and herself a hybrid creature: female with powerful maternal instincts and male with a cold indifference to the irritating progeny she breeds in favour of enlightened intellectual pursuits.

The first verses of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s ode to Hydra, Moving On, are about our inability to move on, our incapacity to leave the past behind.         

I loved your face, I loved your hair
Your T-shirts and your eveningwear
As for the world, the job, the war
I ditched them all to love you more

And now you’re gone, now you’re gone
As if there ever was a you
Who broke the heart and made it new
Who’s moving on, who’s kidding who

I loved your moods, I loved the way
They threatened every single day
Your beauty ruled me, though I knew
’Twas more hormonal than the view

And now you’re gone, now you’re gone
As if there ever was a you
Queen of lilac, Queen of blue
Who’s moving on, who’s kidding who

Hydra as a Greek resort island is a recreational retreat. But looks can be deceiving. For what we experience is not a place of beautiful calm waters and a warm sea, but a seething cauldron of cross currents with a powerful undertow. What appears peaceful and refreshing can really be turbulent and dangerous. And ditching a life of responsibilities does not have to be done for love and enchantment of another. Intellectual life has its own allure. So does basic sexual attraction.

Leda is a professor of comparative literature in Cambridge (US), near Boston – hence Harvard. (In the novel, the location is Florence.) She is on vacation – a working holiday (?) – by herself looking forward to a quiet period of reading, writing and relaxing. She is a Brit translating a book from English into Italian and looks down upon the crudeness, crassness and unruliness of the Greek (Italian in the book) family sharing the beach and dominated by a pregnant Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk). Leda is a loner and an outsider. Nina (Dakota Johnson) is a mother with a young daughter who belongs to the extended Greek family. Nina’s attraction to and identification with Leda proves that Leda is not as alien as she appears even as she endures rather than engages in conversation with Nina.

The key event takes place as Leda watches Nina interacting with her daughter as well as the rest of her family. In the novel, both Leda and Nina are originally from Naples and have clearly moved up in the world, though in very different directions. In the movie, this dimension of class is hinted at because Nina is from the New York borough of Queens and suspects Leda, from her accent, may be as well. But that allusion to a common past went way over my head because I could not imagine Leda with her clipped English accent having even a hint of borough New York in her voice.

The daughter goes missing – to the consternation of the whole extended family. Leda seems to know where to look for her and finds her, returning her – to her mother’s overwhelming relief.

But it is Leda who is really missing. And has been all her life. Not only Leda. Many of the characters are escape artists from life. Ed Harris, Lyle the caretaker, fled his responsibilities almost three decades earlier; but surprisingly, we don’t hold him in contempt. Is it because he is currently presented as a caring and considerate individual while Leda, in stealing the little girl’s doll (I did offer a spoiler alert), proves she is beyond redemption even though she, unlike Harris, returned to resume her responsibilities and continued to have a close relationship with her children? After all, as children, the girls had a very physical relationship with their mother – wanting to touch her, caress her, press flesh upon flesh. In contrast, Nina escapes the insensitive arms of her handsome husband into the arms of a young Australian lad in a less dramatic act than the young female academic, Leda, who absconded from her family and abandoned her two daughters many years earlier.

When Leda capriciously steals the girl’s doll, it is absolutely unexpected. The child is beside herself. Distraught, crying – nothing the mother does can ease her daughter’s pain at the loss. Nina must endure a week of tantrum and tears emanating from her daughter. Leda witnesses this all but is unmoved. She is pitiless. The scene is extremely painful to watch, indeed harrowing as much from its unpredictability. Why? Why so cold-hearted? Why so callous? Why so cruel? The mystery is not that she was the thief but why?

My youngest daughter offered me an explanation in terms of Freudian object displacement, “an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.” Leda has projected her whole psyche onto that doll, all the trauma of being a mother and sacrificing one’s personal life to the responsibility of caring for and raising a child. The accompanying jazz-blues score by Affonso Gonçalves captures the rapid changes in mood and mania of Leda’s shifting emotional states.

However, isn’t the movie simply a story of a self-centred female unwilling to assume the requisite sacrifices of motherhood? As such, isn’t she in the end repulsive in general and most especially for the theft of the doll even more than deserting her daughters at a young age for several years? But the movie not only reveals her irritability, her taut desperation, overwhelmed and frazzled by motherhood – and her deep frustration, but also her loving and inventive devotion.

Leda’s alter ego, Nina, the mother of the little girl who gets lost and whose doll is stolen, is also desperate and distracted, but not by the lures of an intellectual life, but by sex with a younger man when her husband is such a macho oaf. In contrast, Olivia Colman’s brooding passion never gets beyond flirtation with both the older Ed Harris, the caretaker, or the younger Australian tourist.

Leda and Nina are two peas in the same pod, but such different peas. Nina, like her namesake in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, can say, “In me is the spirit of the great Alexander, the spirit of Napoleon, of Caesar, of Shakespeare, and of the tiniest leech that swims. In me the consciousness of man has joined hands with the instinct of the animal; I understand all, all, all, and each life lives again in me.” Leda would rewrite these words and insist that instinct dies rather than lives within her, for the consciousness of man lives in her schizophrenically divided from her maternal consciousness as a woman.

So what is the problem? My dislike, indeed, condemnation of Leda is understandable. But where was my empathy. Sometimes it peaked out of my heart, got caught up in my throat and welled up in my tears. But they never flowed for Leda. The disgust at what she had done to the little girl whose doll she stole and her own daughters was too great.

Do you have to be a woman to fully empathize with such an ultimately repulsive character? Am I just an old-fashioned war horse intolerant of “non-natural” mothers? Is Leda simply taboo for me so that I want to lash out rather than commiserate? The movie even anticipates this response by differentiating between the language used by women to communicate and the inability of men to understand that language of imperceptible gestures, side glances and surly lips.

Nice review, Dad.I think your self-awareness about your lack of sympathy for Leda was perceptive.You missed the play on the doll’s name–Leda’s doll from childhood, “Mini-mama”, which her own daughter, Bianca, had scribbled all over–and the beautiful, sexy Nina, mother of the daughter who got lost and then lost her doll/mother.You also didn’t explain how the “transitional object” moves from daughter to mother.But fair enough.  The Yeats background is important.Leda gives birth, in the wake of the rape, to Helen (by Zeus) and Clytemnestra (by Tyndareus): hence “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.” I think the shadows of those two daughters flit across Leda’s body in the film, too–Bianca’s passionate (and almost destructive) attachment to her mother, while Martha (?) was more placid.Maternal ambivalence is powerful and under-explored in movies.
I don’t think the Leonard Cohen background and the song about “Hydra” really shed much light on the film for me.You were just free associating?Also, it was Callie (callous, obtuse Callie) who thought Leda was from Queens (–and, I agree, how unlikely!). 
It makes me want to read the book.

Rachel