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


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

On the Competition for Recognition Part IV Peterson (and Heidegger)

[To repeat my warning, this blog may be dangerous to your mental health.]

I begin with Jordan Peterson and the alleged failure of liberalism in order to comprehend his view of the forces underlying the conflict between the political right and left. How, in the pursuit of what each sees as the true order of the world, the true good, is the result not simply mutual incompatibility and exclusion, but the very opposite result of the one intended by each? Leftists, it is said, want to change the world; though he berates the extreme right, his more frequent target seems to be the left which he regards as the embodiment of postmodernism, relativism and, believe it or not, aggressiveness. Those on the right believe the priority should be on changing yourself, which is Peterson’s aim. But then how can the two positions be reconciled if this so-called traditional conservative right position merely regards the extreme right as a distraction more than a target?

I will not review Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which, though an international blockbuster and extolled by new media sensations on YouTube such as PewDiePie, has generally been greeted by respected reviewers as inconsistent, self-contradictory, sloppy, shoddy, glib, banal, obscure, boring, full of philosophical buzzwords with virtually no explication, lazy analogies and clichés. They often claim the book to be a tedious read full of arbitrary judgments, and assertions without any defence or argument and citations at odds with the actual references.

Peterson is the mercurial intellectual equivalent of the polarizing Trump, one who mixes polemical tirades with boy scout pep talks. When he offers an assertion without an argument – such as respect and project strength – he comes across as weak. As one commentator noted, he displaces a conservativism of substance, a conservatism of tradition, a conservativism of civility, with the moral equivalent of pop art that turns ads into objects of art as he puts forth a gospel of masculinity.

However, I have bracketed the book’s weaknesses. I am not concerned with Peterson’s own contradictory tales of the genesis of the book out of his “procrastination-induced reasoning” or his more careful and purportedly 1999 deeper volume, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. I also avoid any consideration of his role as a public intellectual and charismatic communicator using contemporary media, propelled by his singular acerbic stance against the Canadian Parliamentary Bill C-16 to include “gender identity or expression” to be protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson’s gun slinging stance, reinforced by his quaint Alberta slang – “Sort yourself out, bucko” and “Toughen up, you weasel” – aims to slay the evils of male emasculation and gender protection akin to the gunfighters at the OK Corral. The position has been contemporaneous with the rise of Donald Trump. But I set that all aside.

Instead, I will focus on the philosophical underpinnings, the most important of which is Heidegger, more particularly, Peterson’s interpretation of Heidegger, and the latter’s notion of Being. In a separate blog sometime in the next few weeks, I will dig into Heidegger’s views in his own right. Today, I address the quotes and the queries posed to me by an academic colleague and one of the careful readers of my blogs.

According to Peterson’s interpretation of Heidegger (see Being and Time), Being is activity (contrasted with matter which is passive) and central to human existence; human existence is inherently tragic. The task of humans is to transform the negativity of Being, its inherent nihilism and conflictual character, into improvement and something positive, namely proper (184) or perfect Being (190) – rule 6. We find meaning, value (and, surprisingly, even joy) by finding our “rightful destiny” (28) in what Heidegger dubbed “Dasein,” that is, how individuals experienced Being in their own unique lives.

How? By developing our consciousness. There is, on the one hand, matter which is passive, and then two active competing forces, one tending towards chaos and ignorance and accompanied by despair and angst, betrayal and horror. The other inclines towards order, towards structure, towards authority. “Order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country… It’s the flag of the nation.” (36) Consciousness is that which is non-material and which mediates between chaos and order and, therefore, suffers from the tension of such an existence, especially since, even as we enhance order, we are inherently hurtling towards death and suffering pain as we face a telos of destruction even as we try to give meaning (rule 7) to what is meaningless, to do good and not add to the evil, to the meaninglessness, of the world. Instead, our prototype is the good man (168-9), an overachiever aiming for the highest good as a father, a husband and a friend even if, in experience, pain, strife and the inevitably of suffering define the world. (172; 174) One of Peterson’s heroes, versus Aristotle, is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who insisted that humankind was not destined for happiness.

The biblical stories of Adam and Eve, of Cain and Abel, exemplify this portrait of experience. Adam, like God, seeks to give order to the world and to be recognized by God for his efforts. Eve allows herself to slip towards chaos, towards disorder and material existence. In interacting, the two come to know one another and thereby to know both good and evil.

Cain follows in the footsteps of his mother and Abel of his father. Abel, a shepherd, does not work towards increasing order, increasing institutional structures, towards cities and civilization. He is a nomad. Cain, in contrast, the proprietor of order and orderliness and imposing those on nature, in his quest for meaning, ends up killing Abel and, tragically, advancing the chaos he so assiduously tries to avoid and counteract. If Adam and Eve met their tragic end because of their complementarity, and became conscious of good and evil in the process, Cain and Abel do so through conflict between them and the polar tensions towards which each is drawn. That is why we end up with a Hobbesian world that is “nasty, brutish and short” and, in the effort to make the world good and more orderly, we compound that state by adding evil to the mix.

This is satanic. This emerges as conscious malevolence. For, if we are aware that we cannot bring order and meaning to the world, that ultimately we cannot achieve goodness, then we surrender to despair and we turn to destructiveness, to “pure hatred of man, God and Being,” to expediency and acceptance of life as catastrophic instead of accepting that life is a struggle to exemplify order and the good even though we recognize the effort is futile, that proper or perfect Being is out of reach. However, if we do not make the effort, then the self becomes the benefactor of evil who strides “about the stage of Being as Nazi and Stalinist alike; who produced Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the multiplicity of the Soviet gulags.”  (p. 194)

What then is the role of thought, of critical thought, of reason, which Descartes in the seventeenth century defined as the essence and central character of the modern individual and Karl Popper, in that same line and out of that inheritance in the twentieth century insisted that thinking as logical was primarily engaged in building order through a process of falsification of that which contributed to disorder, of taking apart fake news at the same time as the opponents of thought labelled all thought per se as fake. Descartes used doubt to try to defeat doubt and find a foundation for certainty in reason that would replace the dying faith of religion. However, over three centuries, the only result has been sewing distrust in reason itself and affirming the reality of pain and suffering rather than the contentment of logic as the essence of existence. Peterson, using the same doubt, comes to a different conclusion, not the certainty of the self but the certainty of suffering.

The tragedy – in deconstructing and labeling the fake, thought contributes to the notion that all thought is fake. Thought falls into the trap of thoughtlessness and, therefore, helps neo-fascists in their quest for power. That is the tragedy of thought. That is the tragedy of thinking. That is how the quest for the good helps produce the horror show of contemporary existence. Thought cannot avoid becoming an abettor of evil even as it acts in the name of the good, even as it acts in “good faith” to advance the realm of thought and reason. For if the essence of thought is scepticism, if the essence of thought is critique, if the essence of science is premised on falsification, then it is easy to see how that good faith is turned inside out, is inverted to translate all of experience into doubt where truth claims receive no more status than false ones.

There are implications of Peterson’s views on issues such as “fake news.” CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, they all stand on the side of “facts” and discriminating between what is factually accurate and what is hyperbole, what is misleading and what is an absolute falsehood. But all these “news” organizations fail to convey that what they portray as “news,” what they deconstruct as false, only feeds the frenzy of deceit as they suborn themselves to the conviction that fake news, that false news, is the news, when that is the oldest satanic seduction of all. In defence of facts, they help shovel the dirt on the grave of facts. And when we become self-conscious of this, we are driven to despair and into the long night of the human soul.

How can Peterson emerge from this long passage on the road to hell by supporting a very non-Nietzschean moral quest for being humble in one’s exertions in order to resist the core of the satanic path of pride that necessarily leads to intolerance and oppression? He does it by turning away from the dictum “To thine own self be true” towards the humbler premise that one does not possess a self to which one can be true. Rather, he advises, become self-conscious of the deceit in your own heart, of the cowardice in your own gut, of how your own motives are driven by resentment and towards malevolence.

Peterson offers an updated version of a Christianity in which we are born sinners and, however much we strive, and ought to strive, to overcome a propensity to malevolence, we and the world all eventually succumb to their embrace. So generally, “it is best to do what others do, unless you have a very good reason not to.” Peterson found very good reasons in his own mind for rejecting correct thinking and the preference for neutral over gender pronouns. Conformity and critique are not opposites but complements. Be cautious but forceful seems to be his maxim.

By accepting pain and suffering as inevitable, we minimize our contribution to that tragedy and can work to alleviate unnecessary pain and suffering. By accepting the inherent irrationality, the inherent lack of logic to existence, we minimize the worst mistake of the Enlightenment, the belief that we can replace the tragic with a divine order of goodness through science and reason. By surrendering the utopian quest of modernity, we can best minimize though not evade its inevitable hell.

Peterson’s maxims are simple: Pursue meaning even as you accept that it will all be meaningless in the end. Seek unity and order even as disunity, disorder and chaos confronts us and spreads. Pursue the Kingdom of God on Earth, but only if you recognize that God’s kingdom can only be established in heaven. Only then can Being emerge out of Nothingness. Only then can God’s quest to order the world through logos, through words, be pursued though never realized. Pursue truth but surrender the vision of a singular objective truth in favour of your own truth. Resurrect the true meaning of, “To thine own self be true.”

What about the proposed rules? Rule 1 – “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.” The analogy is a lobster to put forth a Darwinian proposition defending dominance hierarchies which are “older than trees.” Posture expresses dominance – as do handshakes. You can understand why so many sophisticated critical readers found this writing banal.

Rule 2 – “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping.”  The rule is not act towards others as you would have others treat you, but treat yourself as if you were another in need. Clever but not exactly profound.  It is as if the inversion in his writing served as a deliberate ploy as when, in narrative chaos, he esteems self-criticism prior to any worldly critique in rule 6 stated above with the imperative that you put order in your own house before criticizing others.

What about Rule 11 – “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding?” Don’t impose order when children are discovering their own way to make order out of chaos.  Don’t be over-protective. The book may be badly written. The philosophy underlying it may appear obscure. But the advice is not bad. Rule 12 states, “Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street.” That alone leads me to understand why my youngest son, though professing some ambivalence towards Jordan Peterson, urged me strongly to read him.

I have done my duty.

On the Competition for Recognition Part III: Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the inner authentic self

[WARNING: this philosophical blog may endanger your mental health.]

In Part I, I referred to two tensions set up in Dummitt’s review article between globalism and nationalism and between an inner authentic and an outer socially imposed self. With respect to the latter, Dummitt argued that the political left and the right both favour the authentic self over a socially imposed one, but that the left’s definition of authenticity favoured globalism. The right defined authenticity in terms of national self-realization versus universal human rights.

To clarify the debate, we first have to go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Dummitt, after stating that, “In all times, individuals have been at odds with their societies.” He then quoted Fukuyama as follows: “But only in modern societies has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former.” Thus, “It is not the inner self that has to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that that needs to change.”

Note the following:

  1. At all times, individuals have not been at odds with their societies. More accurately, individuals are much more often at odds with parts of a society as they defended other parts. Isaac was at odds with Philistine society, but certainly totally obeisant to his own tribal norms. Further, he was at odds with the Philistine civil society mobs but not substantively with King Abimelech.
  2. The dichotomy between an inner self and social impositions does not begin in modernity but has earlier versions, ones that run quite contrary to Rousseau. Stoicism, for example, esteemed a self indifferent to, but not in tension with, socially prioritized values, such as wealth or status or social accolades. The esteemed self was not one that was “true to itself,” but only true to the degree it became virtuous in terms of the values of wisdom and courage, justice and self-control.
  3. Before we deal with the tensions and incongruities between the self and society, it is crucial to understand the tensions and lack of congruity between the self and the physical world that surrounds us, including our own bodies.
  4. For example, Dan Crenshaw, the rising non-Trumpite Republican star and ex-Navy SEAL who won a House of Representatives seat in Texas in the midterm elections, as a result of injuries suffered from an IUD or mine, is not only blind in one eye, but cannot judge how to coordinate a pitcher to pour water into a glass unless the two objects actually touch one another. He suffers from a visual form of agnosia, perceptive agnosia; he is unable to assess the size and shape and orientation of objects relative to one another separated in space and compensates by making the objects touch so that he can grasp one in one hand and the other in the other hand to pour water from one to the other.
  5. There are many other forms of such incongruities between the self and our physical world. For example, I have a friend with a spinal injury whom I visited yesterday. As a paraplegic, he suffers from anosognosia, where he assumes he has pain and sometimes even movement in his legs when they are totally paralyzed. He “knows” they cannot move nor feel pain, but nevertheless feels that pain and sometimes even movement. To give one other example in myself, I was blind in one eye for decades. About twenty years ago, I regained vision in the blind eye, fuzzy at first but able to make out figures on large billboards. Currently, I can now read with that eye if the print is reasonably large. Nevertheless, I find I still read almost exclusively with my other eye. It is a mild form of hemineglect which could possibly, and probably, be overcome with visual exercises.
  6. There is a much more general human incongruity between any human and the world that surrounds us. Owls, as I have written, primarily locate prey through very finely tuned hearing rather than their wide and large eyes. In a famous essay in the 1970s by the philosopher, Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” he tried to imagine how bats “see” the world when they rely on echolocation rather than sight. Nagel’s point is that we can only see and experience the world that we are equipped to see. Put another way, are the sounds owls and bats hear objects?
  7. I have digressed and probed only slightly into these areas of epistemology and consciousness to make one point, that a self is what it experiences and a self, whether that of any human or that of an individual, can only experience that which it is equipped to experience Further, what the self experiences is dependent on the body and the state of the body may even determine if we can have experiences. A blind person or a paraplegic still has a self. But does a person suffering from severe dementia or from extreme Parkinson’s still have a self?
  8. What we experience is not only limited by our bodies, but by the mental frameworks that we overwhelmingly inherit and use to understand the world, unless we are those rare geniuses that create new frameworks for grasping the world. The external world cannot be grasped independent of the instrument by which it is understood. (Hegel Introduction, Phenomenology of Spirit) Werner Heisenberg insisted that, “what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning,” or, as Albert Einstein put it, theory “determines what we can observe.”

I want to make one last point before I return to the issue of the authentic self versus socially imposed norms.

What is the “authentic” self to which Jean-Jacques Rousseau refers? Rousseau, I believe, would accept all I have written in points 1-5 above. However, as Fukuyama stated in his volume, The End of History and the Last Man, Rousseau agreed that human “nature” had developed, was rooted in both the body and the historical framing provided by the mind and largely inherited. His contention was that the frames we have inherited and the norms thrust upon us by society have deformed humans and made them unhappy. The security we demand is largely a product of what we now call paranoia, for humans are not “naturally” out to get one another. Material demands are not part of an inherent demand to acquire goods but are socially constructed to establish status. “The wants created by modern consumerism arise, in other words, from man’s vanity, or what Rousseau calls his amour-propre.”  (83)

All these demands – for security, for wealth for status – are infinite. They lack boundaries. Even more importantly, for Rousseau, they result in greater and greater unhappiness as the gap effectively grows between our basic needs for security, material goods and minimal recognition. Abandon the treadmill. Return to nature and recover the joys of the natural life. Move to Vancouver Island, better yet, Salt Spring or Pender Island.

Two points. Rousseau’s philosophy was not the first and most fundamental attack on the project of “conquering nature.” (84) Second, even his own reply, calling for a return to nature, had many variations, many of which did not presume the pre-existence of an essential authentic self.

I offer Baruch Spinoza as an example within the modern age and the Western tradition. Like the Stoics, he valued, not the authentic self, but the virtuous one in which control of the passions lead to happiness. Second, his view of God, the world, the self and knowledge required, not a command over nature, but a reconciliation with nature. For everything was but an aspect of nature. Happiness was not acquired by becoming a slave to needs, to the quest for security and wealth or status – all these are transitory – but to the life of reason that would lead us back to a unity with nature, the opposite direction of his Jewish upbringing and the Dutch bourgeois society that surrounded him and of which he was so much a part in running his family’s business.

However, his God, the God that he had come to believe in, was not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the absolutely infinite, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God of the unity of Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. His was not a God who unleashed a flood that drowned the world and then said He was mistaken, for that action did nothing to improve the commonwealth of humans. Spinoza’s God was not a god for all humanity, not a god who revealed himself in and through history and, in particular, the historical narrative of a specific people, Jews. As Spinoza wrote in Proposition11 of his Ethics, “God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.” God’s essence as infinite entails God’s existence. The very conception of grasping the Infinite entails that God must exist.

Spinoza was not ex-communicated by his synagogue, the cherem imposed on him because he did not believe in God, and possibly for his ethical and political views, but because he proposed a God, not of experience and presence, but a product of abstract thought and reason. Further, everything – that which is given in nature and the artifacts made by man – are all aspects of God. God does not give form to pre-existing matter. Matter is an aspect of God. God and nature are not other; they are one and the same.

Rousseau could not agree that a reconciliation with nature could come about through reason, for reason was the source of the deformation of what was natural in man, what was universal in man. And what was natural was given, not created – by God or by humans. Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke, tried to decipher the “state of nature” prior to human historical development.

Hume would reject such an effort and Hegel went further for he insisted that, like the ancient Israelites, the quest for status, the quest for recognition, was not an artifact of history, but a precondition of any history whatsoever. Adam wanted to be like God, to create things by giving form to the world he found through language. Cain and Abel each wanted exclusive recognition from God. Jacob and Esau each wanted their father’s recognition. The quest for recognition, not security or wealth, drove the development of humans as historically-rooted beings.

The more basic divide than the ones that separated those who defined the essence of humanity as security-seeking or wealth-seeking or getting back to one’s true nature stripped of its so-call historical and socially imposed accretions was between philosophers who insisted that humans had a universal nature and those who viewed humans as a product of their history, whether in the minor scale (Hume) or the grand one (Hegel). Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke, and like Spinoza in his pantheism, was an essentialist.

Rousseau’s essentialism was not the given foundation of history but the way of escaping the disaster that history had wrought.

Is this the core bottom line of both the political right and the political left as claimed in the Dummitt essay? Were both sides variations of a common Rousseau theme?

Tomorrow: Part IV

The Foundation Stone of the Contemporary Political Right and Left

With the help of Alex Zisman



On the Competition for Recognition Part II: Dummitt and Fukuyama: Individualism in the Modern Age


This blog will deal only with the first of the dozen questions I asked in my last blog:

Is the conflict between an inner authentic self and a socially imposed outer self the defining characteristic of individualism in the modern age so that what is required is social change, not an alteration to the personality and values of the individual?

Dummitt, echoing Fukuyama, claimed that the beginning of modernity was rooted in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of a conflict between an inner authentic self and a socially imposed outer self that defined individualism in the modern age or even just modernist thinkers and writers. That meant that social change, not an alteration to the personality and values of the individual, was prioritized.

I believe there are many tributaries that flow into the larger stream of individualism that marks modernity and not just or even primarily the Rousseau stream. Though I will later add a contribution from the ancient world, I offer three others associated with three other modern philosophers, all British:

Thomas Hobbes – individualism, survival and security

John Locke – possessive individualism

David Hume – individualism as a product of custom

Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan argued that individuals by nature possessed liberty, and in such possession, individuals were all equal in the state of nature. However, unlike Rousseau, they did not possess an individualized authentic self, differentiated from others, but, rather, their own particular instinct for survival. They were unbounded and free to take any action needed to survive. The result – conflict with others and, thus, fear. Without an overarching sovereign authority, flight and fight would be the two dominant expressions of that fear. The historical task, therefore, was to create a sovereign authority that protected those included under its safety net. Thus, to survive, individuals had to surrender their liberties as necessary and as long as the surrender of that liberty contributed to self-preservation.

John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government put forth a different starting point rooted in economic rather than political man. In nature, the individual was driven not just by a need to survive, but by a need to express himself (excuse the gender bias, but it is inherent in the material) by expanding his somatic self in the world. Only there was no way to do this. All he could do was be a hunter/gatherer collecting food to survive. However, money was invented, that is, an abstract way to give permanent value to what was accrued to the individual. That money might be the number of sheep or camels in a herd or pieces of a standardized metal representing the value of such accretions. With such a system, men could accumulate material goods ad infinitum. The individual became a possessive individualist rather than a defensive individualist. It was the conflict over possessions that led to political and violent conflicts. Thus, to keep the peace, one merely had to arrange a transactional relationship between the individual and the state – the state protects me and my ability to engage in commerce through orderly laws and I pay taxes for that protection. And the state provides protection against other states, preferably by treaties, but, as a last resort, war.

David Hume disdained both ahistorical accounts of the origins of the body politick rooted in either a natural predisposition for survival or an inner predisposition to acquire possessions. Locke had offered a form of individualism that was economic. Hobbes, with his foundation in self-preservation, put forth an individualism that was incorporeal rather than somatic; it was rooted in a moral intellectualism or an intellectual moralism in which individual autonomy and self-sufficiency morphed into unique contributions to the intellectual wealth of the world. David Hume, though he generously hosted an unstable (and unappreciative) Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his home, held a very opposite view to that of Rousseau. Humans were not unique creatures who had to throw off the accoutrements of history and society to express their individual authenticity. Or, à la Hobbes, their intellectual rationalism or, à la Locke, their self-interested somatic calculations. Humans were often and customarily irrational and, versus Rousseau, very fallible creatures. Thus, their individualism was best expressed in a historical context which emphasized individual self-expression – in many forms – but in a historical and social context which valued such self-expression, but recognized the need for those expressions to be boundaried and limited by custom and law.

These are very different ways to emphasize the moral worth and primacy of the individual, the prevailing characteristic of modernity. They oppose the reductionism of Dummitt and Fukuyama. To make each of them clearer, it is helpful to place them within an ancient context that emphasized kinship genealogical and contractual ties where communitarian values seemingly trump individualism in its various expressions as having moral priority.

The reading of Toldot this past Shabbat offers a case in point. It is the story of Isaac and his relationship with his wife, Rebekah, and his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, though also of Rebekah’s relationship to Isaac, her favourite. Each is individualized both genetically and in terms of socialization. Isaac, according to most rabbinic commentators, is weak, a nebbish, a fearful, timid and passive individual who follows the patterns of the past and is easily manipulated by his more forceful wife who had a clearer understanding of the destiny of the Israelites. This timidity and passivity may have resulted from the fact that he was the second-born son of Abraham whose mother forcefully displaced the first-born and her son. It could have been exacerbated because of trauma, his father’s willingness to sacrifice him on an altar to give proof of his father’s loyalty to God.

Whatever the reasons or combination of factors, Isaac is a unique personality. He is the first figure portrayed in the Torah who actually loves another. He did not choose her; his father via his servants did, but, in the tale, it is Rebekah who chooses the smitten Isaac. It is ironic, but also rings true, that this same nebbish would favour the son who was an outdoorsman, a hunter who easily expressed his immediate urges and lived in the moment rather than being swamped by the heritage of the powerful personality of his father, Abraham. Esau seemed to be everything that Isaac was not.

Isaac followed God’s instructions to the letter (in contrast to his father, Abraham, who finds a way out of his conundrum). “Don’t go down to Egypt,” God instructs him. He obeys, even though it seems clear that the only friend he has in the land of the Philistines is the king, Abimelech.

No sooner is the matter settled than Isaac follows in the footsteps of his father, Abraham, and says that his wife is his sister so the Philistines will not try to seduce or rape her given that she has the protection of a man. If she were his wife, they might kill him to collect his beautiful bride as a concubine. Clearly, a Hobbesian form of survivalism is in play.

But a flawed one. For he allows himself to be seen by the king fondling Rebekah. Abimelech, the king, the sovereign authority, kicks in and reprimands him, reminding him that Isaac did not think of a third option, that someone might have tried to seduce or even rape Rebekah, especially given that Isaac was the furthest thing from a warrior that anyone could imagine. The consequences feared, would not be what Isaac would do in revenge, but what the gods might do and the guilt that would accrue from dishonouring their own Philistine mores.

We seem to be in Hobbesian territory, but with an overlay of historical and customary customs and norms, especially since Isaac’s safety is only ensured by the protection of the sovereign, King Abimelech. The tale then takes a Lockean turn. Isaac becomes rich with herds, flocks and servants. But the richer he got, the more envied he was by his Philistine neighbours. After all, this nebbish had a beautiful wife and lots of money to boot. What did his neighbours do? Out of a competitive zeal, they filled all the wells that he had inherited from his father with rubble. Isaac faced economic ruin.

Abimelech stepped in. “I can’t protect you from my own people. Their envy over your wealth is too strong. If I tried, they might go to war against me. But go into the countryside where there is a lot of land and dig new wells there for yourself and your family.” Isaac did not protest but followed Abimelech’s instructions. To no avail. He restored a well that his father had dug. The surrounding Philistines filled it with rubble claiming the water belonged to them. Isaac called the well Esek, a well of contention. Two different expressions of possessive individualism, but now clearly rooted in ethnicity, were in play, and the more powerful won.

The same thing happens to a second well he dug, but this time Isaac names the well Sitnah meaning enmity. Isaac clearly saw that the conflict over the well was not just driven by different self-interests in conflict, but by a deeper hatred that would later be labeled antisemitism. This was not just a battle for survival needing the protection of a sovereign, in this case a sovereign too afraid of an uprising by his own people to provide protection. Nor was it just a battle for competing Lockean self-interests. But neither was it merely a battle between different customs of the tribe of Abraham versus the Philistines, for Abimelech seemed to imply the two tribes shared the same customs.

If neither Hobbes nor Locke nor Hume were sufficiently in play, what was the source of this visceral jealousy and hatred? Justin E. H. Smith in The Stone wrote about the roots of the “race” problem in our contemporary world in an essay, “The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours.”

In 1734, Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former chamber slave of Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled “On the Impassivity of the Human Mind.” (T)he rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus praised “the natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning,” and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things.” Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.

Yet, David Hume, ignorant of accomplishments such as that of Amo, and ignoring a number of his intellectual forbears, wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” Immanuel Kant would echo the same sentiment. Kant dismissed the citation of a black author because “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” Donald Trump remonstrating three female black and very professional reporters for asking “stupid” questions echoed these same sentiments.

This is not individualism where people are recognized for what they do and for what they achieved either as soldiers in defence of their country or intellectual inventors behind start-up nations, nor as capitalists engaged in personal wealth accumulation. This is racism, bold and simple.

A former student of mine, Cecil Foster, has a book coming out in the new year called, They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada. It is a book about how pullmen on the passenger trains of an expanding Canada not only influenced the development of trade unionism, a concept of a community of communities, as well as how travel enlightens and how trade is and should be conducted, but shaped race relations and human rights in this country as well as Canada’s dominant motif as a “multicultural” nation. These are some of the superlative preview reviews:

  • unforgettable – Toronto Star
  • equates the coming of age of his protagonists with the coming of age of the nation – National Post
  • an evocative book about black men – Vancouver Sun

As U of T professor George Dei wrote, “Foster brings historical depth to his work and shows that the social and political recognition of blackness and multiculturalism is itself a contingent moment in history.”

The struggle in the Enlightenment was not just rooted in stark individualism of either the Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke or even Hume variety, but in an individualism rooted in black (and Jewish) communitarianism in a struggle which is cultural as well as somatic, intellectual or merely rooted in competing systems of customs.

Isaac opts for flight rather than fight, since he clearly is vastly outnumbered and digs his own well rather than digs up one of his father’s that was filled in. Out of necessity, he becomes his own person. He calls that third well Rehovot, where he finally had space and air to breathe free of the threat of persecution.

But then Isaac’s servants dug a fourth well, but only after he built an altar to the sovereign God, the one God of all nations. Only then was Isaac’s tribe accepted as a sovereign entity with which Abimelech could make a treaty, not one between states with defined borders, but between and among ethnic groups within a single kingdom, as happened in the constituency nomination meeting that I wrote about last week.

In my view, Dummitt and Fukuyama have a very truncated view of individualism and modernity, for modernity is both informed by and informs group identities.

Last evening, after going out to dinner with friends, we listened to a jazz band at Koerner Hall, Still Dreaming, with Josh Redman on sax, Ron Miles on cornet, Scott Colley on base and Brian Blade, the percussionist. Though the first two tunes were explicitly written by Josh and Ron respectively, the evening was a tribute to Josh’s father, Dewey Redman on tenor sax, and his exciting and innovative band of the 1970s and 1980s, “Old and New Dreams.” That music was lyrical but cerebral; it was neither visceral nor emotional. The energy and passion were translated into daring innovation and novel structures.

The sophisticated playing last night, however, went beyond that tribute. The band offered a structured architectonic of different tunes so that the whole program came off as if a drama was unfolding rather than just an assemblage of numbers. At the foundation was the rivalry between the sax and the cornet expressed in different form and expressions of beauty as they riffed on the same chord in the first two tunes. Then the music travelled through conflict, reconciliation, a semblance of unity and ultimately, in the call-back, a unique complementarity. The genius was not only in the quality of the players but in how they combined their talents and their instruments to provide a whole evening of both aesthetic and dramatic excitement. Throughout the evening, the base always returned to keep the different approaches to melody intact as the percussionist provided a steady but varied beat to keep the others on track.

Still Dreaming offered a suitable metaphor for my thinking yesterday and my blog this morning, of how different expressions and tributaries come together in the modern world to flow into a major stream that goes back to the past and even the ancient world. And all the time, contingency is in play.


With the help of Alex Zisman

On the Competition for Recognition Part I: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9)

Christopher Dummitt, a professor of history at Trent University, recently wrote a review article for the Literary Review of Canada (October 2018: 26:8) called, “We Are All Outsiders Now: The triumph of individual autonomy in politics, and everywhere else.” It was a review essay on three books:

Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment;

Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics;

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity.

It is an essay about identity politics with the argument that the current divided age, the extreme polarization of the present, is a direct product of that identity politics. Dummitt quotes Fukuyama favourably: “Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today.” The essay focuses on the origins and development of the quest for recognition in the modern age.

But that quest does not start with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his distinction between an inner intrinsically valuable authentic state and an outer society that systematically deforms that authenticity as both Fukuyama and Dummitt suggest. I am not just referring back to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke or David Hume. The politics of the fight for recognition is as old as the Torah. It helps to go back to those earlier accounts to assess the degree to which the request for, no, the demand for recognition, explicates the current polarization.

Adam and Eve had two children, Abel, a shepherd, and Cain, a farmer. Each brings a sacrifice of the best of his work – the best sheep or the best of his crops respectively – as an offering to God to gain God’s favour. God recognized Abel for his offering and paid no heed to Cain’s.

Cain was crestfallen. God asked him, “What’s bugging you? After all, if you conduct yourself well, if you do the right thing, that is what should lift you up and not my recognition.” In fact, the failure to do what is right is underpinned by the failure to master the urge towards self-absorption and concern with recognition of yourself. The aim should be self-mastery by reigning in and taking control of that need of and urge for recognition.

But Cain killed Abel. And then he engaged in a cover-up and lied to God when God asked after his brother. In the famous rhetorical question to God’s inquiry about the location of his brother, Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The two options are set in stark relief. Master your need for recognition and be your brother’s keeper versus indulge in the deep desire and need for recognition and pursuit of what is wrong, the focus on the primacy of the self.

Without going into the consequences and implications of Cain’s failure, note its source. It is sui generis. It is not the product of a tension between an inner authentic self and a set of socially imposed rules.

Fast forward from chapter 4 of Genesis to chapter 25. Isaac, Abraham’s son, marries Rebekah. She gives birth to twins. It was a painful labour. God explained: “Two nations are in your womb,/ Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;/ One people shall be mightier than the other,/ And the older shall serve the younger.” This is a case in which it is critical to show the original Hebrew of Genesis 25:23.

בראשית כה:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הֹוָה לָהּ
שְׁנֵי (גיים) [גוֹיִם] בְּבִטְנֵךְ
וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ
 And YHWH answered her:
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body . . .”
וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ
וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר:
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.

 Why is the Hebrew original critical? Because Rebekah asked what the purpose was for her delivering babies in such pain. God’s answer, like that of a Delphic oracle, is ambiguous, the ambiguity signalled by the poetic form. They are not just twins. They will be the fathers of two different nations or peoples. That is clear enough. As is customary with such oracular pronouncements, the ambiguity is in the second half. First, there is the ambiguity over the meaning of the words themselves, usually translated as stronger versus weaker and older versus younger. But the latter could mean the more populous serving the less populous. Further, the parallelism is ambiguous. On the surface it seems to mean that the older or the more numerous is the stronger, but it may man the reverse – the older (or more numerous) shall be served by the younger.

This allows for four different possibilities:

Ambiguity of Meaning Ambiguity of Order
1 Ambiguity of Meaning Older = stronger
Younger = weaker
Older serves younger
2 Ambiguity of Order Older = more numerous
Younger = smaller
Younger serves older

As most customarily translated, does the poetic form mean that A1 + B1, that the older is the stronger and will serve the younger? Or A1 + B2, that the older will be served by the younger and weaker, which is what would be customarily expected. Or A2 + B1, that the more numerous older one will serve the younger, or A2 + B2, the younger and smaller will serve the older and more numerous, which would be what is empirically expected.

Without getting into a long disquisition on the interpretation of the Hebrew and the implications of word order, the eventual result of an oracular saying is neither the customary expectation (A1 + B2) or the natural one (A2 + B2). Nor does it usually turn out that the obvious paradox is the true meaning, namely A1 + B1, that the stronger will serve the weaker, but that the realized prophecy is the correct one, A2 + B1, namely that the more numerous, the larger, will serve the smaller. Neither birth priority (custom) nor physical strength (nature) will determine the outcome, but, rather, the more populous will serve the much smaller nation rather than the counterfactual, that the stronger will serve the weaker.

If the competition between Cain and Abel was between two different economic ways of life, farming versus herding, each demanding recognition and priority, the competition now is one of power, not two different ways of life. It will develop in the competition between nations.

In this case, God does not choose. Instead, God prophesizes that of the two twins, the firstborn, Esau, the stronger or more numerous in terms of population and the firstborn, will serve the younger either depicted as the weaker nation (practically unlikely if not impossible) or less populous nation, at least a possibility in realist terms. What happens in the story? What happens in history?

Jacob, the younger, is depicted as either weaker or made up of smaller numbers. Esau was a hunter and a father’s boy. Jacob was a mild homebody who loved cooking; he was a mother’s boy. Mild, but cunning, a trait learned from his mother. In this tale, the competition is not over God’s recognition but over their father’s.

Jacob cons Esau, not once but twice. On his own initiative, Jacob, another character who is definitely not his brother’s keeper, offers his brother, Esau, the food that he has just cooked, for Esau was famished after a hard day of hunting. But the offer is not made as a gift; one might expect that a younger brother would share his food with his older sibling. Instead, the gift is turned into a transactional exchange. Only in exchange for the birthright due the firstborn does Jacob give food to Esau. The latter, driven by hunger and a focus on the immediate, agrees to the deal.

At a second occasion when their father lay dying, the quest for recognition is for their father’s blessing for that meant even more than the birthright. The blessing entailed actually getting both the wealth and the power at stake. Following his mother’s concoction of a way to trick Isaac, substituting goat for the father’s favourite, fresh game, and presumably spicing it up somewhat to taste more gamey, and by covering Jacob’s arms with animal hair, a double irony implying that what appears naturally stronger is not necessarily so, for the rewards may go, not to the stronger or more populous nation, but the more cunning. Jacob pretends he is Esau and tricks his father into giving him his blessing.

Notice the following:

  1. In both tales, that of Cain and Abel and that of Jacob and Esau, there is a quest for recognition, in the first narrative from God and in the second, from the father.
  2. The quest for recognition is not just individual, but also communitarian – priority of one way of economic life over another and a battle between rival nations. The communitarianism complements the quest of the individual for recognition.
  3. In both tales, it is the unethical, the side that rejects that one is one’s brother’s keeper, even when that brother is as close as a fraternal twin, that merges on top in spite of God’s will or the preference of one’s father.
  4. In the interpretation that I favour, the customary values and the natural expectations are both set aside for a result contrary to custom but not to what could naturally be expected; the stronger does not serve the weaker but the more populous nation serves the smaller one.

To anticipate Part II, the two tensions set up in Dummitt’s review article are between globalism and nationalism and between an inner authentic and an outer socially imposed self. According to Dummitt, the left and the right both favour the authentic self over a socially imposed one, but its definition of authenticity favours globalism. The right defines authenticity in terms of national self-realization versus universal human rights.

I assume, as does the Torah and Fukuyama, that the quest for recognition takes both an individual and collective form. However, I will ask the following questions:

  1. Is the conflict between an inner authentic self and a socially imposed outer self the defining characteristic of individualism in the modern age so that what is required is social change, not an alteration to the personality and values of the individual?
  2. In historical terms, does the selection of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s characterization of the inner versus outer struggle provide the base line for the development of identity politics in the modern age?
  3. If there is an alternative, or if there are alternative base lines, what are their historical precedents and modern trajectories that throw light on the current polarization?
  4. Does the singular trajectory that Dummitt stresses, while alluding to at least one other (that of Charles Taylor), or the various trajectories, all end up so that each and every one of them results in prioritization of the self versus society, both on the left and on the right?
  5. Is the moral compass in the modern world, both on the left and on the right, only sourced in the authenticity of the self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts from on high?
  6. Will the winner in this competition be the one who invokes the morally superior identity – a message quite contrary to the biblical narrative which is a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?
  7. Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself”?
  8. Is Trump the representative of those who feel unrecognized and are willing to defy social convention?
  9. Is Trump really a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment (à la Jordan Peterson)?
  10. Is that liberal left “Reaganism for lefties,” where 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?
  11. 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?
  12. Can the polarization be overcome by giving priority to, say citizenship, to an overarching social order, to making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us, once again prioritizing our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Democratic Politics: The American Midterm Senate Elections  

On the evening of the election, I watched CNN and fell asleep once it seemed like the Democrats had lost the senate races in Florida and in Texas and the governorships in Florida and Georgia. I was depressed, even though the Democrats were on the verge of winning the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin. When I awoke early yesterday morning to write yesterday’s blog, I flitted back and forth between my computer and the TV. I sent out my depiction of a grass roots nomination meeting to indicate that the key to winning elections is not ideas (my field of engagement), but the process on the ground. Given that conclusion, below are my preliminary observations on the American midterm elections, in particular in this blog, on ten Senate races that seems to offer some confirmation of that thesis.

435 seats in the House of Representatives, 35 of 100 seats in the Senate, and 39 governorships in 36 states and three US territories were up for election. I tried to follow 10 senate races, 5 in which Democrats might upset Republicans and 5 in which Republicans were expected to prevail. These included (incumbents are marked with an asterisk.):

Arizona – Martha McSally (R 49.4%) beat (?) Krysten Sinema (D 48.4%) [As of the original date of publication on wordpress, their positions reversed and Synema led McSally; at the time McSally conceded, when 92% of the votes had been counted, the results were: Sinema 49.6% McSally 48.1%.]

Florida – Rick Scott (R 50.1%) appeared to beat Bill Nelson* (D 49.8%) [Under recount]

Indiana – Mike Braun (R 52.9%) won over Joe Donnelly* (D 43.2%); [results as of 14.11.2018 51.7% vs 44.1%]

Mississippi – Cindy Hyde-Smith (R); Mike Espy (D) – runoff 27 Nov.

Montana – Matt Rosendale (R 48.9%) I thought beat Jon Tester* (D 48.2%), but Joe Tester eventually won 50.2% to 46.9%.

*Nevada – Dean Heller (R 45.4%) lost to Jacky Rosen (D 50.3%)

North Dakota – Kevin Cramer (R 55.4%) beat Heid Heitkamp* (D 44.5%)

Tennessee – Marsha Blackburn (R 54.7%) beat Phil Bredesen (D 43.8%)

Texas – Ted Cruz* (R 50.9%) beat Beto O’Rourke (D 48.2%)

West Virginia – Patrick Morrisey (R 46.2%) lost to Joe Manchin* (D 49.5%)

Democrats won only two of the five seats they hoped to take. Why?

Jeff Flake who retired as a Senator, was an anti-Trump Republican who chose not to run again. Given the absence of an incumbent, the Democrats thought they had a reasonable prospect of taking the seat. In the polling leading up to the election, Sinema was sometimes in the lead by a few points, but generally McSally led. It was clearly going to be a tight race. At the time of writing, there was still no declared winner, but it appeared that evening that McSally won by a very narrow margin. In subsequent days, the positions reversed and McSally eventually conceded.

In Arizona, a key component of the Republican victory was the third-party candidacy of appropriately named, Angela Green, who got 2.24% of the vote (38,978) that would have put Krysten Sinema (830,775) ahead of Martha McSally (856,848). But Maricopa, which includes Phoenix, had still not announced its voting results. However, since most voting was by mail, as the ballots rolled in, Sinema eventually won. Arizona has a history of supporting strong independent voices, both moderate and far from moderate. Arizona was the home of John McCain as well as Jeff Flake.

McSally had only a 6% score on the National Environmental Scorecard. She introduced anti-environmental bills, prioritized the initiatives of power companies and voted to slash EPA funding, whereas Sinema was a strong environmentalist. McSally was a strong supporter of Kavanaugh while Sinema was a belated critic. Other than the existence of a third party candidate on the ballot, major factor that McSally had as strong a showing as she did may have been Trump’s rousing of his base and getting them out to vote in sufficient numbers to offset Sinema’s leading edge in the growing new suburbs of Arizona, especially among women. The fear of foreigners and immigrants may have played a significant role in boosting McSally’s support.

In another very close Senate race in Florida, the margin of apparent victory for Scott over the Democratic incumbent was very slim and meant a recount since the difference between the two candidates was less than .5%; as subsequent ballots rolled in, the difference narrowed even further.) Even though the difference had narrowed to less than 13,000 vote at the time of these amendments to the blog, Scott appears headed for victory even though polls showed that Nelson would win. What happened?

If you look at the House of Representative seats, there was relatively little change. Democratic seats re-elected Democrats; Republican seats went Republican. But the changes are telling. Donna Shalala, a Democrat, even though she ran a poor campaign, defeated Maria Elvira Salazar in a previously Republican seat in the 27th congressional district. Shahala was one of two Muslim women elected to the House of Representatives for the first time.

Shahala was a former president at the University of Miami and a Cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton. Her Republican opponent was a Cuban American. It would appear that the antipathy of educated suburban women trumped Cuban ethnic identification, perhaps in part because of Trump’s denigration of Latinos. The anti-Islamic and anti-Latino Trump voice helped a Republican lose. Further, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell beat GOP incumbent Carlos Cubelo who, as a moderate Republican, refused to run as an acolyte of Trump.

Why did the Democratic incumbent possibly lose in the Senate race? Turnout. Getting supporters to the polls. In Broward County, a Democratic stronghold, though turnout went up from 44.5% to 57.4%, it did not compare to the 62.1% turnout statewide. Trump stumping in Florida on a platform of a politics of fear evidently helped bring Republican base support to the polls, especially since both Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum (running for Governor) ran on a fear-of-Trump platform. It seemed not enough to bring out their supporters in sufficient numbers. The politics of fear seems to work for Republicans but not for Democrats.

One more item needs to be mentioned. The referendum to allow 1.5 million former felons to vote in Florida was victorious. Most are Black and expected to vote Democrat in large numbers if they reach the voting booth. Prospects for Democrats in the future look terrific if Democrats continue the battle against voter suppression and gerrymandering.

The third-party candidate in Indiana took 4% of the vote, but that would have been insufficient to put Joe Donnelly ahead of Mike Braun. This was a seat that Republicans flipped. As usual, districts with minorities and with more educated citizens favoured Democrats while those with an older population favoured Republicans. The two candidates had been polling neck and neck. How and why did Braun move ahead with such a relatively large margin?

Indiana overall is a red state. Donnelly was a right of centre Democrat, but opposed Obamacare repeal, the Republican tax law and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Republicans turned out in droves as Trump aroused his base. Trump, in comparison to the rest of the country, has an approval rating in Indiana of 50% and ran 20 points ahead of Hillary in the 2016 election. The reality is that Connelly was only there because the Republican candidate in 2016 was a jerk who insisted that if a raped woman became pregnant, that was God’s will; there should be no abortion.

Mississippi is a deep red state. Nevertheless, Mike Espy forced a runoff election later this month. State Senator Chris McDaniel, a dissident Republican, was the spoiler who came in third and took 16.4% of the vote. Cindy Hyde-Smith had only been appointed earlier this year to replace the ailing sitting Republican senator. She is a Trumpite and opposes abortion, opposes the refugees heading north and is a strong opponent of gun control. It is almost certain she will win, especially since her co-Republican in the senate, Roger Wicker, easily defeated his Democratic opponent, David Baria.

Montana was another very close race in which a third party candidate, Rick  Breckenridge, took 2.9% of the vote. However, in this case, he is a Libertarian so the vote would most likely have increased the Republican vote if he had withdrawn. Further, it is a state that backed Trump by 20 points in 2016. However, the state also has a record of electing Democratic senators. And Jon Tester was the right candidate to try. A farmer and populist running against a state auditor, Tester also had the advantage of incumbency. The polls showed him winning, though by a small margin. Trump’s appeal made the race close; he went to the state four times with his usual pitch. His base turned out in droves, but that was insufficient to beat Tester..

In Nevada, a Democrat, Jacky Rosen beat the Republican, Dean Heller, 50.3% to 45.4%. Democrats also won the governorship. As was the case across the country, minorities, the better educated and especially educated women, supported Democrats. On the electoral map, however, the vast swath of the state is red. However, in both the lower right and left hands of the state, Las Vegas and Reno, where the bulk of the population live, the state has moved into the Democratic camp.

In North Dakota, Republican challenger, former member of the House of Representatives and a strong Trump supporter, Kevin Cramer triumphed over Heidi Heitkamp. North Dakota is a very red state and should not have been viewed as very competitive for the Democrats even though Heidi Heitkamp was the incumbent. She sided with Trump on a number of issues, not because she came across as an independent voice like Joe Manchin, but seemed to take her stand as a matter of political expediency. The effect – she could not bring out her natural base in droves and she looked like a wimp beside a very strong Trump acolyte who echoed Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

There was another important factor standing in the way of Heidi’s re-election – voter suppression. North Dakota had a new state voter law requiring precise identification – something which undermined the Native American vote in particular and more than offset Cramer’s gaffes about women speaking in public about sexual assaults against them. Polls showed that Cramer led by a wide margin entering the election.

Marsha Blackburn (R 54.7%) ran a fiery campaign as a Trump Republican in Tennessee to beat Phil Bredesen (D 43.8%). She won 92 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. It was a sweep. It helped that she was a woman. It helped that she was a Trump supporter. This offered further proof that Trump retains a strong base that, when galvanized, influences election results. A moderate Republican would not have done so well.

Texas, on the other hand, was a close race. For months on the campaign trail, Ted Cruz, a top Republican incumbent in a state where not one Democrat holds a statewide office, seemed to be in real danger of losing. He fell far behind O’Rourke in raising funds – $40 million, compared with $70 million by O’Rourke. In this race, O’Rourke was the fiery outsider coming from the El Paso relatively remote south-west of the state. He had terrific crowds and rallies. In Austin, Willie Nelson helped draw a crowd of 50,000. Even Trump drew only 19,000.

Cruz fought back by adopting Trump’s hyperbolic misstatements, characterizing O’Rourke as a dangerous Bernie Saunders liberal who would allow immigrants to flow freely across the border. He eventually overcame the view that he was still an anti-Trump Republican, even though he had sold out to Trump a long time ago. Thus, while O’Rourke led most of the evening with huge support from the suburbs of the large cities in Texas, the voters in the numerous red GOP strongholds across the state in the more rural areas came out to vote and put Cruz over the top.

Finally, in West Virginia, Joe Manchin, a Democrat. beat Patrick Morrisey by three points in an otherwise close race. He is often portrayed as a Trump Democrat because he supported the tax bill and the confirmation of Kavanaugh. But he opposed Trump on Obamacare and came across as his own man beholden to neither the Washington Democrats or Republicans. West Virginia may be a red state, but it appears to be a red state that wants its representatives to have the backs of the little guy whatever his party stripes.

Many have argued that this was an election over value, over ideas and ideals. In the election race, did the Democrats choose hope over fear? No. They largely chose fear of Trump over both fear of immigrants and idealistic visions and soft talk. And in the battle of fear-mongering, they were able to bring out their base among minorities, among youth and among educated suburban women. Though the election was a war over very different visions for America, the real war took place on the ground and in the process of getting troops into battle and having candidates who could do so.

By and large, the Democrats did opt for civility versus rudeness and crudeness in politics, but did they choose to go high when the Trump’s GOP went low? No. They opted for politeness because they could not win a battle where the other side already had a monopoly on boundaryless speech.

They did not choose equality over racism, but intergroup coalitions (not the same as the principle of the equality of individuals). They opposed minority and female denigration and boosting white ethnic nationalism. Upholding human rights was just one tool to accomplish that. If Democrats had fought on the grounds of equality and non-discrimination, they would have done worse than they did. They fought for on-the-ground issues – e.g Medicaid, insurance for those with pre-existing conditions.

[After a break for some other issues, I will return to the midterm elections and dicscuss the voting for governors.]

With the help of Alex Zisman