The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews of economic books follow.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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

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

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

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

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

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:


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


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

Opulence and Frugality Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10)

Last Friday I wrote about the extravagance and opulence of the mishkan and linked it with a theory of property. The description of its opulence is repeated and expanded in this week’s portion and I want to use that depiction to discuss both the ethics and politics of wealth. The ethics discussion focuses on how one handles personal wealth. The political discussion focuses on how the community or society deals with allowing individuals to engage responsibly in the use and distribution of wealth.

The description of the opulence and its detail are mind boggling. For example, the olive oil has to be pure and used to light the mishkan eternally even though the light provides no function the vast majority of the time.

With respect to the political use of the wealth, why dress Aaron and his sons, the priests, in such expensive clothing? Why Aaron in particular who is such a passive personality? Look at what they were to wear: a choshen hanging from two golden rings attached to two golden chains. On that breastplate were attached twelve precious stones, four rows of three stones each, in gold settings, the two shoham stones on which were inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, six names on each, and the breastplate chains attached in turn to the gold rings at the corners of the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen, the work of a master weaver. The priest also wore a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap and a sash.

Why the excessive finery? The answer offered – for honour and glory. (28:2) What is the honour? Aaron is sanctified. What is the glory? To become a bondsman to God and serve Him, for Aaron is tasked with carrying the names of the twelve tribes on the two stones “as a remembrance.” To remember is to glorify God. But the answer goes deeper. For attached to the ephod were the Urim and Thummim, singular terms in spite of their plural endings. What were they for?

Cutting through all the various theories, the most convincing to me is that Urim refers to the one who is cursed, the one who is found guilty, while Thummim refers to innocence. They were the means of rendering judgement and possibly the means of deciding who was innocent and who guilty, as in cleromancy. They were akin to the Tablets of Destiny worn in Babylon by Marduk, here made plural to enhance the majesty of the objects. For the priests were dressed up in all that regalia to dispense legal justice.

Honour. Glory. The majesty of justice and the law. The people needed to be impressed. They needed to be in awe of not only God, but his laws and judgements. “Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the choshen of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times.” (Exodus 28:29)

The text goes on. The robe had to be of pure wool, bordered and decorated in a specific way as if the dedicated specificity itself supplied proof of the authority and accuracy of God’s commands and judgement. The robe had to have a showplate of pure gold on which was engraved, “Holy to the Lord,” in case anyone missed the point. The text is anything but subtle. Josephus may have invested each jewel, each colour, each sash with symbolic meaning. Philo may have invested each drop of blood placed on the priest’s right ear, right thumb and large right toe as standing for purity in each word heard, in each action taken and in the path one takes in life. But the real significance was the effect of the whole.

That is how you invest people with formal authority even though Aaron demonstrated not a single sign that he could himself be a source of authentic authority. When God slew Aaron’s two sons for making a possible minor error in the fire used in the priestly rituals, Aaron was silent. He sat there and he “doan say nuttin.” And that is perhaps why he was chosen, to be a mere vessel of the divine will. His costuming was intended to communicate dignity, not his mind, not his heart, not his soul. It would be akin to making Mike Pence the head of the Supreme Court.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that when Moses is away and the people demand a visible god that Aaron is the one who creates the golden calf. What an inversion of an alpha male. Aaron is often described as a man of peace, as a humble man, as an introvert rather than an extrovert. In reality, he seems to be a pushover for wherever the wind is blowing. He had to be invested with dignity since he as himself had none. Recall that God was still torn between wanting to govern humans who simply followed edicts blindly, who were patsies, or whether He wanted his people to mature and take responsibility for themselves and what they did. Over time, God would learn and reveal that his mission was the latter. This whole parashat is evidence that God was still of a mind that all He wanted was emissaries of his own divine will. But that sensibility, ironically, was of immeasurable value in the development of and the acceptance of human responsibility. The God of revelation exhibited its own ironic truth.

The reality is that such a position gives humans enormous strength as evidenced by Holocaust survivors who gave testimony in their lives and in their faith in following Halakhah in the concentration camps in spite of all the evidence surrounding them that they had been abandoned by God. Their sense of dignity, their sense of worth, came from a higher authority even when they were stripped of all the ostentation of religious authority. But what about the few who preserved their sense of self, their sense of worth in spite of both the horrors of the camp, but without any reliance that they were any longer just funnels for a divine will? A much greater challenge!

When each type stands before the grim reaper in the face of gross and grotesque injustice, one principle stands out. They are equal in the eyes of God. And they are equal in the court of judgement. The court is ruled by the principle of equality before the law. Thus, “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls.” (Exodus 30:15) And it goes both ways, both concerning the giving and the taking away.

Here, I eat into next week’s portion. “Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death (my italics); for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” (Exodus 31:14) What Nehemiah found when he returned from Babylon was fish sellers and merchants selling their wares in the square before the temple on shabat. Order had to be restored. The rule of law had to be made majestic again. The people had to be purified. 3,000 Jews had to be slaughtered to make a point that would have made the Ayatollah proud. “Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.” (Exodus 32:27)

To carry out such heinous acts in the name of a divine command seems to demand rows of medals on the commanding officer and ornate garb on the priests of justice, a God that glitters and shines among them and behaves as a boastful braggadocio. It is not surprising that those who want their priests to be humble but dressed in glamour end up with leaders that are the very opposite and lead them down a path to hell.

The dialectic is not a synthesis of humility and high purpose, of gravity and grace, for they exist in tension unresolved but raised to higher levels. By reifying that tension at a very early stage of development, as Ezra and Nehemiah tried to do, you end up with empty formal authority without any authenticity. Thank God that their effort to revive the priesthood failed in the end, and that teachers, rabbis rather than priests, became the vehicle for carrying the religion forward.

Parashat Tetzave this year falls on Shabat Zakhor when the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is repeated in synagogues throughout the world. It is well to remember who Amalek represents. For Deuteronomy reminds us, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the journey, after you left Egypt.” God may be about remembering. But the Israelites were commanded also to forget. “(Y)ou should blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Egyptians may have enslaved the Israelites. The Egyptian military and royal family may have resented and feared the Israelites for their proliferation. For the Egyptians, the Israelites were tools for their economy and scapegoats for the failures of the ruling class. Why was Amalek so much worse? We are commanded to remember what the Egyptians did. We are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Why the difference?

My thesis is that Amalek does not refer to a minor tribe who were once defeated by the Israelites, but to a type. Amalek is derived from, “am,” people, and ā-lek/’alek < עאלכ/עלכ: which translates as, “Sure, as if” you were the people of Amalek, losers on the stage of history to be cast into its dust bin.

What then is the political ethos? Here, we are not concerned with distributive justice, with the redistribution of wealth to alleviate suffering and enhance equality of opportunity. We are concerned with regarding each individual as having an equal standing before the law and the judgements of history. We are concerned with innocence and guilt and not justice as fairness. Confusing the two categories is a serious mistake with grave consequences, but that is a discussion for another day.

In the realm of legal and historical justice, the majesty and authority of those who render judgement must be enhanced even when the occupants of high office are fools. Costuming does that. Setting does that. And these are important lest we confuse the principles and the laws with the individuals occupying such a position for the historical moment. We are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek so that we can be blind in the court of justice to human differences.

When you see a statue of the Lady of Justice blindfolded, it is not simply that justice must be blind to the differences of those brought before the court, but must also be blind to the differences between the individuals holding such a high office. For the judge may be a fool, but the system of justice must retain its respect. The system of justice requires coercion on the one hand – the Lady of Justice carries a sword – and the scales of justice in which the evidence must be weighed and balanced. Most think that the blindfold is only intended to refer to the individuals charged. It is also intended to refer to the person making the determination. In that moment, we are commended to forget Amalek, to bracket that ordinary and weak humans may occupy such high office. For it is the people who bear the responsibility for ensuring and respecting the majesty of both the court of law and the court of memory.

There is an economic dimension to this segment, and, as I wrote above, it is not about distributive justice. Rather, it is about ensuring that the surplus wealth of a community is held and managed by a transcendent body, by a federal reserve as it were, and neither by individuals, nor, even worse, by a populist mob. Central banking, financial regulation and public finance must be held by an independent authority, independent of popular will.

I was told the other day, to my chagrin, that the world’s financial system was controlled by the Rothschilds. I do not believe the person was antisemitic. He was simply your typical conspiracy theorist about central bankers. He is an anarchist who would reclaim the gold held at the centre to guarantee business exchanges and redistribute it to the people so they can melt it down and make golden calves. The fierce pugilists of the populist right do not trust centralized and independent banking. They would tear down the mishkan and redistribute the wealth to the twelve tribes.

But if there is to be a nation-state and not just an aggregate of grubbing individualists, then it is important that a nation has a central institution that is a repository of wealth and that carries with it majesty and authority to dispense financial as well as criminal justice. It must be a repository of memory while always remembering the people it serves. When a federal reserve or a central bank forgets that mission, it allows its pomposity to go to its head.

We are thrust between the Scylla of populism and the Charybdis of plutocratic arrogance. It was the genius of the Israelites and their God that they created an institution designed to ride through the storms that could tear the nation asunder. Populists are hypocrites who would hold two opposite positions and ignore the difference between the Scylla and the Charybdis. In the case of Andrew Jackson, who railed against Alexander Hamilton’s insistence on the necessity for a federal reserve, he hated paper money but wanted to give the states unlimited authority to print as much of it as they wanted. He hated the idea of gold-backed currency but exhibited an unlimited passion for gold. What he wanted, in reality, as Donald Trump does today, is to accrue all economic authority to himself so that he alone could decide how to use, and, therefore, abuse, a nation’s wealth.

In the end, the most important feature of the mishkan and the majesty and opulence of its wealth is to serve as an institution without which there cannot even be distributive justice.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants Part IV: Walls

Walls keep people out. Walls keep people in. Walls are revered – think of the Western or Wailing Wall, the Kotel, in Jerusalem, the remaining structure of the Hebrews’ great temple to their God. What is often forgotten in the reverence for any wall is why it became sacred. As told in the Book of Ezra/Nehemiah in Ezra’s story of the return of the exiles from Babylon under the protection of Cyrus the Great, and as retold by the prophet Nehemiah, the Jerusalem wall was not only an instrument for physical protection but was viewed as a way to separate Jews from gentiles given the rate of intermarriage that Ezra and Nehemiah found upon their return.

When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found that, “the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the land…they have taken from their daughters for themselves and for their sons, and mixed the holy seed with the peoples of the land.” (Ezra 9:1-2) This is how chapter 13 of the final book of the Torah ends, in praise of a wall of ethnic and linguistic separation and division.

1.On that day they read in the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and therein was found written, that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God for ever;

2 because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse them; howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.

3 And it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the alien mixture.

For Nehemiah saw that: “(23) the Jews that had married women of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab; (24) and their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.”

Nehemiah, a former assimilated Jew and high official in the Persian imperial administration, returned to the land of Judah for three reasons: 1) to ameliorate the deplorable physical conditions of both Jerusalem and its Jewish community; 2) to provide physical protection from, not only the Ammonites, but also the Samaritans who had not been deported to Babylon and saw themselves as the true heirs of Torah; neither group viewed Jerusalem as the capital. Perhaps most importantly, Nehemiah returned 3) to re-establish the ethnic identity and purity of the heirs of Judah. (Ch. 13)

The building of the wall around the Temple was viewed as a physical, religious arrier and a demographic barrier. Nehemiah “built with one hand, while holding daggers in the other” (Nehemiah 4:11) while resisting what he saw as the challenge of intermarriage to the ethnic purity of the Jewish people. Ironically, the book Ezra/Nehemiah was written in Aramaic; the only other book of scripture not written in Hebrew was the Book of Daniel. Yet, Nehemiah raged against what he insisted was the widespread inability of the children of intermarriages to speak Hebrew.

Is this reminiscent of some contemporary populist nationalist politicians? “We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.” (Viktor Orbán) Can bans on intermarriage be far behind?

Walls are so often symbolic. I know it is almost a cliché, but Robert Frost in Mending Wall is always worth quoting, if only to ensure even more that he is not endorsing the phrase he quotes from his next-door landowner, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

“Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

In Toronto, we built a drywall between our lawn, which is about 30” higher than the street, and the sidewalk. People passing sometimes stop to sit on it. I do not mind, except when they leave their coffee cups behind. Or their bags of dog pooh. That wall does not divide but reinforces. It is not massive like the brick retaining wall that supports the terrace in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Carlton D. Wall House in Plymouth, Michigan, but it is a fortification rather than a separation barrier.

Think of how walls are now denigrated for dividing what people currently believe should be united. Frank Lloyd Wright was a different kind or architectural prophet in introducing the open plan for the modern home in places where functions should be linked rather than separated. In contemporary housing design, we have taken the walls down between our kitchens, our dining rooms and living rooms. What walls do is never unite.

Walls fail to protect all the time, even if at first they appear to do so. I am in Mexico and I am reminded that,

“Hernán Cortés’ men met a wall

of arrows, then turned and ran.

Montezuma’s men met a wall of armor,

wept, then stoned their chief off the wall

for helping the conquistadores.”

The Walls by Ray Gonzalez

The reality is that humans build too many walls and not enough bridges. Haruki Murakami said it well in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 2009. “We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us — create who we are. It is we who created the system.”

The introduction to Virgil’s great twelve-part epic poem, the Aeneid, that serves as a fictional justification (or condemnation?) of the Roman Empire, ends the verse referring to the “lofty walls of Rome.” Or is it the “walls of lofty Rome,” as the great classicist Daniel Mendelsohn would translate it. If the first, walls were revered in Rome to keep the barbarians out. That is how Hadrian, the emperor who succeeded his cousin, Trajan, read it. Further, he first confirmed to himself that he would be Trajan’s successor by using the Aeneid to predict his fate when he read the line at which he arbitrarily opened the poem, “I recognize that he is the king of Rome.”

In the second century AD, he built the 73 mile Hadrian’s Wall through what would become northern England to keep the Picts, the wild men further north, from invading southward. Hadrian believed in lofty walls, not a lofty Rome, for civilization needed protection from barbarians rather than further extension to spread the sense of law and justice to the rest of the world that so elevated the Roman people. For Hadrian never felt secure either in his personal role, earned by inheritance and good fortune rather than merit, or in the mission of Rome to spread civilization to the rest of the world. Hadrian, believing that his mission had been imposed upon him “by divine instruction” focused on keeping the empire intact.

Walls can be monuments to insecurity, perhaps initially justified, as with the walls that separate Israel from the West Bank, Israel from Gaza and Israel from the Sinai and the threat from terrorists, and, I would add, illegitimately, from refugee claimants from Sudan and Eritrea. The Great Wall of China in the end never kept the Mongol hordes from invading and conquering China. Over six decades in the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan swept into China, crushed the Yuan Dynasty and established the Mongol Empire.

Walls are not only built to keep people out. They are built to keep people in. Think of the Berlin Wall the construction of which started on 13 August 1961 to prevent the people of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from fleeing to the West. This symbol of the Cold War and of communist oppression was dismantled on 9 November 1889.

Walls are not just physical structures. They serve as barriers to ideas and values that threaten a military order built on sand. Walls surround prisons and concentration camps. Walls restrict freedom of movement physically and mentally. They are not just barriers against the threat of violence, but are ways to keep those outside walls from looking in and observing the coercion, the exploitation, the outright sadism, that goes on behind those walls. (See Shane Bauer’s American Prisons.)

However, not all walls are imposed from without to imprison those within. Some erect walls around their minds to keep new ideas out. These are often the strongest walls, the ones placed within one’s own head and heart. Then you live a life of nostalgia carrying every memory, both small and large, like stones and building blocks in a wall. That wall is stronger than one built of masonry. It is very difficult to breach and often impenetrable. The best that one can do is not butt your head against the wall directly, but rather pull the stones out from the bottom that support the wall.

“Today, we have a true democracy in Iran. Parties, newspapers and the media are free in this country, and all authorities must approach elections with an open mind. The more our mind is open, the readier we will be to prepare the groundwork for the presence of all thoughts, parties and factions.” The latter is a sentiment with which I fully agree. If only the facts on which it was premised were accurate! If only President Hassan Rouhani sincerely meant the words he uttered in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square when he addressed the Iranian people on the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini coup!

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants     Part III: The Balderdash of Barriers at the Border

Donald Trump, a skeezy hustler rather than a “plutocrat with impeccable business instincts,” Donald Trump, insecure in the legitimacy of his presidency, has been so dedicated to keeping out prying eyes from the sordidness of his business dealings that it should be no surprise that he wants walls to keep people out. It should also be no surprise that he has invested so much of his diminishing political capital in his campaign promise to build a wall on America’s southern border with Mexico. The wall is much more important as a symbol than as a real barrier. For in his florid imagination, Trump needed a wall. But facts first and symbolism later.

It has not been because of real threats. Trump opined: “We have terrorists coming through the southern border because they find that’s probably the easiest place to come through. They drive right in and they make a left.” However, there may have been up to a half dozen terrorists who entered the U.S. through the northern border with Canada, and all at legal entry points. However, Trump does not campaign to build a wall along the Canadian border.

Further, in spite of his portrayal of Mexico as a portal for terrorists, a State Department report of September 2017 (Country Reports on Terrorism) released a year later found that, “Counterterrorism cooperation between Mexico and the United States remained strong in 2017. Improved information sharing regarding migrant populations constituted a major step forward. At year’s end there was no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States. [my emphasis] The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States.”

The report covering Canada is much longer. Unlike Mexico, Canada has been home to “violent extremists inspired by terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida and their affiliates and adherents.” When it comes to land crossings, Canada, unlike Mexico, has been a source of terrorist suspects entering the U.S., though not in great numbers. By far the majority of people who arouse concern try to enter by air. “By the end of 2017, approximately 180 Canadian citizens or permanent residents had traveled abroad to engage in terrorist activity in Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS and approximately 60 have since returned to Canada.” Yet there has never been a suggestion that a wall be built along the Canadian border.

On 3 February 2019 on CBS’s Face the Nation, Trump actually put forth the position that, “Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.” It was a repetition of what he had said two days earlier. “Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”

This is the portrait Trump paints of the caravans, mostly consisting of women and children, fathers and brothers from Central America moving through Mexico to make refugee claims at America’s legal points of entry. And just a few days ago. “Human trafficking by airplane is almost impossible. Human trafficking by van and truck, in the back seat of a car, and going through a border where there’s nobody for miles and miles, and there’s no wall to protect — it’s very easy. They make a right, then they make a left. They come into our country. And they sell people.”

These are not facts. There is virtually no evidence to back up such claims. These are products of a fevered imagination and/or a political calculus to stir up fear. His proof offered in his State of the Union Address: “The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities.”

In fact, the Secure Fence Act from 2006 during the George W. Bush administration led to the construction of a fence in El Paso between 2008 and 2009. However, violent crime reached a peak in 1993. 6,500 violent crimes were committed that year. Between 1993 and 2006, crime in the city fell 34%. Two years after the wall was completed, crime rates were actually up 17% from 2006 to 2011.

Police-community relations and cooperation between law enforcement agencies at different political levels were the main factors that contributed to the city’s safety before the border fence was even constructed. It is believed by many that the decision to construct the fence by federal authorities contributed to a degree in the breakdown of those relations. Much more importantly, building the wall “reduced trust and cooperation in immigrant communities” with law enforcement authorities.

“Police chiefs know that to be effective at crime control in this community-policing era, they must have public support. If local police are perceived as immigration enforcement officers, immigrants—both documented and undocumented— will avoid contact with police because of fear of arrest and deportation of themselves or a family member; 85 percent of immigrants in the U.S. live in mixed-status families.” (The Police Foundation Report 2009)

Take another border town, Nogales, Arizona. There a barrier wall was considered insufficient. The army strung miles of barbered concertina wire to further divide the intimately integrated 400,000 people of Nogales, Arizona, USA and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The population is split between the two municipalities roughly 50/50. Meredith Mingledorff, spokesperson for the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP), announced that CBP was in the process of adding four to six additional lines of concertina wire in “high-risk urban areas commonly exploited by criminal smuggling organizations” on U.S. government property, outside of the town’s jurisdiction.

After all, city officials would never have permitted it. They saw no threats. Since the opening of the maquiladora industry through the National Industrialization Program in Mexico, economic integration had increased enormously. Further, American citizens of Nogales resented making their city look like a prison or concentration camp. Yet the CBP claimed that, “Hardening of current infrastructure specifically in high-risk locations of the urban area help reduce the illicit activity, to include violent criminals, in these areas and increase the public safety.”

What threats? The 254 pounds of fentanyl and 395 pounds of methamphetamine seized by border patrol agents in a Nogales bust were narcotics smuggled in a truck heading through a port of entry. A 50-foor long tunnel has been found before it could be used to smuggle drugs. Further, as virtually all studies have shown, undocumented migrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native Americans. U.S. border cities are generally safer than other U.S. cities. Crime rates there have either been stagnant or even dropped in recent years.

For example, in 2016, “border communities like Laredo, El Paso, Edinburg and Brownsville all saw fewer than 400 crimes for every 100,000 residents.” As a Nogales businessman, Eva Kory, said, “You hear on the news that an invasion is coming, but in fact, border communities have been invaded by our own government.” As U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva stated, “The additional wire is nothing more than a spectacle by the Trump administration to reinforce his twisted narrative of rampant lawlessness at the border.”

In his SOUA, DT claimed that, “San Diego used to have the most illegal border crossings in our country. In response, a strong security wall was put in place. This powerful barrier almost completely ended illegal crossings.” However, San Diego’s original fencing was completed in 1994According to the Congressional Research Service, that fence alone “did not have a discernible impact” on the number of immigrants crossing the border into the United States illegally or in almost doubling the numbers apprehended between 1994 and 2018.

Do Trump and his supporters fear the demographic changes that seem so disproportionately favour the Democratic Party, a party in which support is based on a coalition of minorities, women, educated youth and progressives that once were the hallmarks of the Republican Party that Abraham Lincoln represented and in which Frederick Douglas, the greatest black American statesman of the nineteenth century, was a stalwart member?

The above recitations are just examples of the efforts to keep people out, even   though the effort to gain entry illegally declined by over 75% from the peak in 1993. 396,579 immigrants crossed the border illegally in 2018; in 2000, there were 1,643,679 arrests.

The other half of the effort entails kicking people out who are not legal residents of the U.S. by diverting resources into deportation, not just of felons, but of overstayers and those found without any proper visa at all. Even those legally in the U.S., but who are deemed likely to become a public charge because of their use of welfare and Medicaid, are being targeted for deportation. The number of undocumented migrants in the U.S, is currently at its lowest level since 2004. In fiscal year 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 256,058 people; ICE removed 409,849 people in fiscal year 2012 during the Obama administration.

In his SOUA, Trump claimed that, “In the last 2 years, our brave ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of criminal aliens, including those charged or convicted of nearly 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 killings.” The impression left was that the Trump administration had been more effective in deporting criminals. The facts are otherwise. Even according to a Trump apologist like Steven Camarota, excluding immigration violations, only 67,000 non-citizens in total were sentenced in the federal courts between 2011 and 2016. The total number in 2017 and 2018 had to be less than 30,000.

It is true that ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations made a total of 143,470 arrests in fiscal 2017, a 30% rise from fiscal 2016, largely in Florida, Oklahoma and northern Texas. The highest number of arrests (16,250) were made in the Dallas area. A border town like El Paso had among the fewest arrests (2,000). The reason: DT signed an executive order on 25 January that expanded ICE’s enforcement focus to most immigrants in the U.S. without authorization, regardless of whether they have a criminal record. Under President Barack Obama, by contrast, ICE prioritized the arrests of those convicted of serious crimes.

Under Trump, ICE shifted its focus from border to interior enforcement. In 2009, the year Obama came into office, with his focus on border enforcement and the arrest of non-citizens who had committed felonies, 297,898 were arrested, about twice the number of Trump in his first year in office. However, under Trump, though the number of arrests declined by about 50%, the percentage of those arrested for criminal offences rose from 39% to a majority with prior convictions. What were the vast majority of those convictions? Not assault. Traffic and drug offenses were the most common past convictions. In 2017, 48,454 had prior convictions or pending assault charges. But 62,517 had been arrested for immigration offenses, 76,503 for dangerous drug offenses and 148,893 for traffic offences.

However, the key reports that rile people up are not statistics, no matter how misleading, but notorious individual cases. On 25 April 2018, Luis Bracamontes was sentenced to death in a Sacramento court for killing two police officers on 24 October 2014, Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr. Bracamontes was an illegal migrant living in the U.S. Trump acolytes publicized this case to support Trump’s policies, ignoring that the arrest had been made under the Obama administration.

What was also ignored was that:

Bracamontes had been deported multiple times before his crime rampage on 24 October 2014

First arrested on charges related to marijuana possession in Phoenix in 1996, he was sentenced to four months in jail and then deported in 1997 when Bill Clinton was president

In 1998, Bracamontes was arrested on drug charges in Phoenix, then released by the office of the notorious Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, “for reasons unknown,” the same sheriff whom Donald Trump pardoned on 25 August 2017; Arpaio had been convicted of racial profiling in open defiance of a federal judge’s court order to stop and desist

LB last entered the country while George W. Bush was president and deported again when caught with marihuana

He lived near Salt Lake City until that fatal 2014 road trip fueled by methamphetamine ended in the two murders

Arpaio, ignoring the 1998 incident, in 2014 lamented the mushiness of federal immigration law; “Once again we are faced with another tragedy on our hands because of a form of ‘backdoor amnesty.”

There was no amnesty, only the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the Trump administration.

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants Part II: Legal Refugee Migration

In Part I, I dealt with DT’s ostensible support for more legal immigration, in particular, attracting immigrants who are very highly skilled and well resourced. Then why deny work authorization permits for spouses of H-1B visa holders? Why limit their ability to travel abroad? Further, DT’s efforts to limit family-sponsored migration stood out as being at odds with such a goal since many highly-skilled and well-resourced migrants want to be able to subsequently sponsor parents and adult children, particularly if they come from Asia or Africa. But the policy also applies to citizens with a Mexican heritage and sponsoring siblings. As one immigration lawyer put it in a case of a Mexican-American trying to sponsor his sister, “right now the processing time is looking like at least 20 years, if not longer.”

DT’s attacks on the lottery system which supports diversity and migration from countries that historically were underrepresented in the cohorts who had applied to migrate to the U.S., such as African countries, suggested that racism might possibly be the motive behind the criticism of the diversity lottery system, especially given DT’s record of discrimination against blacks in his family’s housing projects in Queens and, more recently, when he hosted his television show and was reported by Michael Cohen, his lawyer at the time, saying that he had not chosen Kwame Jackson, the black Goldman Sachs banker, to win in season 1, because, “There’s no way I can let this black fag win.”

DT has put in place hurdle after hurdle to the ease in obtaining a Green Card or permanent residency in the U.S. by:

  • Slowing down the processing of applications – the backlog increased by 35% by the end of 2017
  • Requiring in-person interviews with all applicants
  • Adding restrictions to applications for naturalization from non-citizens serving in the U.S. military and rescinding the policy of offering military recruits expedited citizenship after they complete their basic training
  • Limiting access to health and welfare benefits to immigrant applicants while DT lied openly about their abuse of federal assistance
  • Redefined and restricted eligibility for “specialty occupations” such as a computer programmer, as well as “employment” and “employer-employee relationship,” to reduce the numbers who qualify
  • An October 2017 policy memo gave visa officers the discretion to treat visa renewals in the same manner as new applications
  • Granting immigration officers absolute discretion to deny applications if there are any errors in the application, however minor, and, further, to initiate deportation proceedings immediately.

DT undermined and undercut a perfectly legal route to migrate to the U.S. under the American humanitarian refugee program. He:

  • initially suspended the refugee admissions program
  • reduced the number of humanitarian refugee admissions into the U.S from 110,000 in 2016 to 50,000 in 1917 and reduced the intake in 2018 to 20,000 even though the target was 45,000; he set a target of 30,000 for 2019, the lowest number in almost forty years.

DT’s claim that he supports increased legal migration is also undercut by his strong opposition and the policies he has put in place to decrease the ability of individuals to arrive at an American border, whether in an airport or on the southern border, who legally and properly want to claim Convention refugee status. What actions did he take?

  • Endorsed the practice of immigration patrol officers turning people away from legal points of entry when they indicate that they want to claim refugee status
  • Rescinded the right of all asylum seekers to a hearing before an immigration judge and permitting denial if the adjudicator determines upon initial review that the claim is fraudulent or has a low chance of success
  • Reduced the categories under which asylum claimants could justify that they were targeted from persecution, such as denying the right of an applicant to claim refugee status because he or she had been a target of spousal or gang violence
  • Limited the border crossings at which asylum claims could be filed
  • Enhanced vetting for refugee asylum applicants from 11 countries deemed to be “high-risk” – Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Limited the discretion accorded to refugee adjudication officers to positively approve claims
  • Absolutely barred entry to anyone, including asylum claimants, who come from specific Muslim countries.

All of these initiatives have been taken against a background in which the DT administration removed the language of the Statue of Liberty that celebrated America as a land which welcomed immigrants.

What lies behind these changes? Some are innocuous. Some are simply changes in the administration of immigrant and refugee movements to ensure improvements in processing. But many, if not most of the changes, are intended, not to calm fears citizens have of strangers, but to instill and roil those fears because:

  • Current citizens view newcomers as increased competition for jobs that they want
  • A belief that supporting migrants, and especially refugees, will create greater tax burdens on themselves
  • Still others believe that existing opportunities only provide the initial wedge to developing a totally open-door policy
  • Others base their resistance to resentment at literally changing the face of America and efforts to increase legal immigration are undercut by a nativist agenda.
  • For still others, it is an expression of their strong patriotism that in the end boils down to nativist narrow nationalism.

The reality, however, is that the majority of Americans are NOT driven to resist immigration by a mythological nostalgia for the past and a better America. Polling repeatedly demonstrates that a majority of Americans do not believe that immigration should decline. Although Trump trumpets his support for more legal immigration, the administration of even legal immigration suggests a white nationalist agenda. Ignoring the deterrent administrative initiatives to legal migration, legislation that Trump has supported would probably halve traditional legal levels. When administrative and legal initiatives are combined, the effect on traditional patterns of legal migration would be devastating.

However, as everyone knows, the most sensational news concerns illegal migration. Tomorrow morning, I will address that issue under the title of “The Balderdash of Barriers at the Border.”

God Instructs the Israelites to Build Him a Highly Adorned Sanctuary Why? Terumah: Exodus 25


God Instructs the Israelites to build Him a highly adorned portable sanctuary, a mishkan. Some commentators seem to be embarrassed by the extravagance and tend to downplay the adornment and the quality of the materials. As Dena Weiss writes, “The mishkan is a fitting home for God not because of its expensive materials and fine appearance, but because it was built by, and placed in the midst of God’s people.” (my italics) But the section opens with verse after verse of the expensive materials: gold, silver, brass, expensive dyed materials of blue, purple and scarlet made from goat’s hair and ram’s skins, sealskins and acacia wood, oil for the lights scented with expensive spices, onyx stones in the ephod and breastplate. (Exodus 25:3-7) Only then does God say (25:8) that the purpose of the sanctuary is so that God can live among the people.

To get a sense of the value of the material used, look at the issue of the use of goat hair for the sanctuary. It is self-evident that this was not the outer hair of the goat that was coarse and usually black and used to make the tents for the Israelites. Black outer hair was a very functional material since the wool expanded in rain and provided waterproofing while it insulated the interior from the hot sun and contained the heat in the cold nights of winter. But it was coarse.

The goat’s wool used for the mishkan was the underwool, the layer beneath the outer coarse hair of the goat’ It was the much more valuable wool because it was half the width of the outer coarse hair (15 versus 30 microns) and akin to cashmere (from Kashmir goats) and angora. It is the wool used to make pashminas in Pakistan and India. Some experts speculate that Abraham brought with him from Mesopotamia these valuable goats with the fine underwool and that provided the source for his quick and vast increase in wealth.

We know throughout history that red and purple dyes, the dyes of royalty, are very expensive as well. Since the underwool tended to be white, it was far more suitable for dying than grey or darker wool such as mohair. In Oaxaca, we learned that second to the silver mines of the new world, the largest source of wealth for the Spaniards was the import of dyes from cochineal and “cochineal became increasingly important to royal finances.” (Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red, p. 105) In other words, the value of the mishkan was not simply in the overlay of the arc and the staves with pure gold and the crown of gold, but the cloth, the dyes, the incense, the skins and the quality of wood used in its construction. The bluish-purple dyes were likely derived from a substance extracted from molluscs as a parallel to the cochineal dyes.

What about the tachash covering the tabernacle that is translated as sealskin? Whether or not it is sealskin, it refers to a highly valued material. In Ezekiel 16:10, God is referred to as making his wife (Israel) sandals of tachash to wear as well as dressing Israel in valuable silks and fine linen. If the material really was sealskin that had been imported into Egypt, these were very highly valued.

Further, examine the following structural parts of the mishkan made from acacia trees:

  • the ark and its poles
  • the table of showbread and its poles
  • the brazen altar and its poles
  • the incense altar and its poles
  • the poles for hanging the curtains
  • the support boards.

Acacia trees probably grew in the Sinai, but they grew alone rather than in forests. They are highly valued because the wood is very hard and very dense, a result of their very slow growth explaining their much higher value.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that such a tree was used for construction. In most societies, it would have been regarded as a sacred tree used as places to perform sacrifices, conduct religious ceremonies and rites of passage and burials. For that purpose, the Israelites used caves. Bedouin used sacred trees as places to conduct law courts or as community social centres. In any of these cases, cutting up a sacred tree for construction, even for Israel’s God, would have been considered sacrilegious and even profane.

For the Israelites, natural mountains served to connect earth and heaven. Even more significant, the construction of the mishkan was intended to allow God to leave heaven and live in the midst of the Israelites. The sacred was not to be kept on high apart from the profane, but in the centre of everyday life while retaining its exclusivity. The acacia trees were used for construction, perhaps not only for their value, but as a message that trees, even acacia trees, did not possess supernatural powers to grant favours or render judgements.

What about the onyx stones? Onyx is not an extremely rare and valuable material. They were to be set in gold though. Onyx stones were to be used to decorate the ephod, the richly embroidered, apron vestment worn by the high priest with two shoulder straps and ornamental attachments for securing the breastplate. The clue may lie in two areas. Onyx with its parallel bands is considered a powerful warrior stone and connotes courage and a resistance to fear. More importantly, perhaps, it is a hard stone used for carving and engraving and is referred to in Genesis 2:12 as found in the Garden of Eden. Exodus 28:9 reads: “And thou shalt take two onyx stones, and shalt grave on them the names of the children of Israel.”

Not in ordinary stones. But in precious stones. God will not only live in the midst of the Israelites, but the names of the Israelites shall be engraved on the breastplates of priests. “He prepared also two onyx stones, fast set and closed in gold, and graven by the art of a lapidary, with the names of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 39:6)

What does all this add up to? If we are embarrassed or play down the lavishness of the adornment, we miss a main point. Further, the quality is not only in the materials but in the details of the design – the preparations, the proportions, the positioning, the detailed particularities and specifications. The artistry in the use and conjunction of these materials is at least as valuable as the materials themselves. I suggest that in this section we have been presented with the Hebrew theory of property.

The Israelites were nomads. Value was placed in portability, in that which could be traded and moved much more than fixed property, such as land. Second, value and wealth were respected, not something to be embarrassed about. Third, the most valuable property was communal. Fourth, valuable property was made, not simply through raw labour to convert the natural world into artifacts and possessions (John Locke and Karl Marx), but through the investment of inherited and highly developed crafts as well as a sense of design and beauty. Fifth, it was the beauty of the material world that conjoined heaven and earth and, further, allowed the divine to live and reveal Himself amidst ordinary people. Sixth, the focus was on this world, not a nether world or an afterlife. Seven, the value of onyx stone was made even more precious, by carrying the past into the future through engraving, remembering and recalling the past.  Finally, as would be shown later in the tale of the making of the golden calf, God was the trustee of what was valuable. Humans are merely sojourners on earth, responsible for its preservation and enhancement. When humans start worshipping the glitter of gold as if it were divine, they betray their divine calling.

What a different sense of property than the property of possessive individualism at the root of capitalist thought or the collectivist ownership of property to be managed through political institutions of Communism. The difference extends to the conception of labour itself. In John Locke’s possessive individualism, humans invest their labour into nature to convert nature into things – animals and grains – that they can consume and keep themselves alive. In the state of nature, there is enough and sufficient for all.

However, with the invention of money, with the invention of an abstract form of measuring wealth, a few would be able to accumulate capital and live off the labour of others. That accumulation would lead to scarcity and conflict, thereby necessitating government to set the rules for this class conflict. For Karl Marx, the class conflict had to be inverted and turned on its head so that the many bondsmen of the world, the exploited labourers, could repossess their surplus capital in the name of all workers as a collective possession.

In either case, labour was a forced exercise. Humans had to labour in order to survive. Second, the labour of workers through coercion was used for the benefit of the wealthy. However, in the biblical account in Exodus 25:2, the contribution to making the mishkan is strictly voluntary. God instructs Moses: “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering.” The stress is on the voluntary. The stress is on the willing sacrifice for the common good. And for the shared beauty.

Hegel tried to recover this sense of property in his Phenomenology of Spiri,t though the section on Lordship and Bondage is most dominantly, and incorrectly, interpreted through a Marxist reading, in the twentieth century most prominently by Alexandre Kojève. These thinkers ignored the historical fact that Hegel was a religious thinker and philosopher and, more particularly, tried to translate the content of scripture into a philosophical dialectic of development, change and revelation. There is concurrence that humans are riven by two internal contending forces, life and the effort to survive, and, second, desire, the effort to make a name for oneself and gain historical recognition. In the Marxist and neo-Marxist version, the lordship/ bondage of the feudal regime emerges out of the effort of one party in conflict with another to gain recognition of his or her superiority over the other and by the other.

In this violent clash of wills, the party that defeats and kills the other loses in two very different ways. There is no gain in the use of another’s labour. Second, there is no other to recognize the victory of the winner. Thus, the winner, instead of killing the other, holds a sword to his neck and offers the other a deal. The winner will allow the loser to survive. In fact, the winner will provide protection. However, in return for permitting the other to both live and be protected, the other must give two things, first labour on behalf of the lord who won and, thereby, becoming his bondsman. Second, he must recognize the lord as one whom the bondsman not only serves, but recognizes as superior. Thus, the lord rules over the bondsman through coercion.

However, in the religious interpretation of Hegel, the desire is not to rule over another and to be recognized by the other as superior, but to be like God. That will not mean coerced servitude but a voluntary offering of oneself for a purpose seen as divine. As in the Marxist interpretation of Hegel, the quest for survival and the quest for eternal recognition rather than simply recognition of one’s superiority by another, will be at odds. However, in the religious interpretation, the tension is never resolved but transported to another plane where humans in their quest for survival give up and surrender their higher aspirations. This includes settling for recognition by others of one’s superiority over the other when what one really wants is recognition by God of one’s worth.

To gain that recognition entails a sacrifice, a sacrifice of one’s time, one’s energy, one’s labour, one’s skills, one’s artistic sensibility in pursuit of this higher purpose. It is and must be voluntary. It cannot be coerced. But it will always be unstable as we are prone to distrust the divine within us and that God’s testament will be inscribed on our lives and we are prone to revert to survival mode. Further, there is a pernicious side to the dedication to a higher purpose as illustrated in the very beginning in the story of Adam and Eve.

Adam believes he is like God in two very different ways. He uses words to name things and therefore bring them into existence in a constructivist epistemology and in imitation of how God created the world. In doing so, he forgets he is human, that he is embodied. He projects his bodily needs and reproductive desires onto the other, Eve, who is simply viewed as a physical projection of himself. Further, the part of himself that represents sexual desire, embodied desire, is othered. He views his penis as a separate erect snake tempting Eve and over which he takes no responsibility. The result in the story is well known and need not be repeated.

Thus, the divine spark is both crucial to higher aspirations but a fundamental flaw if we forget we are embodied and human and still need to survive. The mishkan in being made of precious materials reminds us that the world is here and now in relationship to others and that, in the end, we are not gods or simply in service to a divine purpose; we are not constituted by that divine purpose. We have sexual partners. We breed children and have a responsibility for them.

The problem is always how to work out this internal tension and dialectic between life, between the quest for survival, with desire in both its higher aspirational version and through connecting us to others.

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants Part I: Legal High-Skilled Migrants and the Diversity Program

Yesterday morning in my blog I wrote, “Trump’s nativist demagoguery, though relatively brief, was on full display in his State of the Union address last evening.” It seemed straightforward and uncontroversial when I wrote it. Evidently not! Was DT’s demagoguery not “relatively brief”? Some believed that, in the SOUA, DT went on too long and revealed his continuing obsession and fear of migrants. Others contended that DT’s demagoguery was not on full display for a change.

I will dissect his comments in this and a subsequent blog and you judge. Thankfully, I am helped somewhat by the fact checkers at CNN and The Washington Post and many scholars and journalists who concentrate on immigration and refugee issues.

In his SOUA, DT stated unequivocally, I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” Did The Donald ever give you the impression that he loved migration into the U.S., wanted much more of it, but only on the condition that the migrants enter legally? It is one thing to attempt to build a wall against migrants attempting to cross a border illegally because you believe they are criminals and rapists. It is another matter to build an administrative wall, a very high one, against legal migrants, in an effort that seems to belie DT’s new line that he wants people to come to America “in the largest numbers ever.”

First, this line was adlibbed. It was not included in the copy of the State of the Union Address that was circulated to journalists. And, of course, it was noticed by immigration advocates and experts because it seemed to be directly at odds with the policies DT put in place in the first two years of his presidency. It was no surprise then that in the briefing that followed with reporters, DT was asked whether the remark signalled a change in policy.

“Yes,” was his answer, effectively admitting that in the previous two years he had introduced policies to limit legal immigration, quite aside from his efforts against illegal migrants. Trump offered an explanation for the change. “(W)e need people in our country because our unemployment numbers are so low, and we have massive numbers of companies coming back into our country.” He had signalled this new line a week earlier at a meeting on human trafficking on the southern border, with an additional qualification. “We really need people, but it has to be through a legal process and a process really of merit.” (my italics)

Lobbyists who were nativists or who opposed large scale immigration for other reasons also noted the policy shift. Ira Mehlman, the spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, greeted the change by dubbing it “bad public policy” and a reversal of previous presidential positions. “Mass immigration, legal or illegal, undermines the jobs and wages of many Americans, overburdens vital social institutions and the social safety net. The president seems to be ignoring the impact of excessive immigration on American society.”

On the other hand, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also noted the change, but welcomed it “as the unemployment rate has fallen and businesses have struggled to fill job openings.” For those who favoured the change, the issue remained: what was deemed a meritorious migration increase based on merit? Was the merit one simply of need? Then an increase in the guest worker program demanded by employers might suffice with no route to citizenship. On the other hand, if merit applied to the skills of the immigrant applicants, then a very different policy would follow encouraging highly skilled migration to the U.S. Since guest worker programs in the U.S., though legal migratory programs, usually do not entail any path to permanent residency and/or citizenship, my focus in this blog will be on legal immigration and not on legal migration with respect to guest workers.

The policy shift, even if it was one – and, given DT’s record of reversals when his nativist base is aroused, one might remain suspicious – left open the meaning of meritorious legal migration. Look at the record of the first two years of the administration for clues. It certainly does not seem to include fostering family reunification, even though the possibility of family reunification is a key component when highly skilled individuals consider migrating anywhere.

What has the Trump administration policy been towards family reunification? Trump has repeatedly complained about chain migration and the family reunification policies that enhance chain migration. Immigration advocates argue that reuniting families through the immigration system is humane and contributes to stability, prosperity, and stronger communities. They could also argue that it enhances the migration patterns of the highly skilled. Trump policies have curtailed family reunification by cutting the number of eligible categories, including parental and adult children sponsorship. It should be no surprise that the excision of categories disproportionately affects minority migration. So do other administrative practices.

I am not here concerned with DT’s well-publicized efforts to divide families without any legal status. If Trump plans to increase the entry of highly skilled workers, why did his administration enact policies that planned to revoke spousal working permits for migrants traveling on the high-skilled H-1B visas? Why would you have policies that restrict family reunification only to minority-aged children when the highly-skilled are very concerned with the well-being of their parents as well as their adult children? Further, programs that restrict parental and adult children sponsorship have a much greater effect on highly-skilled migrants from Third World countries.

Other administrative measures significantly slowed down the processing of family-based immigration applications. The processing of green card or permanent residency applications has significantly slowed down. DT campaigned to lower overall immigration. I am not talking just of non-immediate relative family reunification applications that fell from the adjudication of just 22% of applicants in 2016 to only 9% in 2017. Immediate relative application processing fell from 67% in 2016 to 54% in 2017. The backlog has increased 35% to over 800,000 petitions.

Trump has kept Stephen Miller, his most strident member of the White House advocating strict immigration limits, in place. There appears to be a contradiction between encouraging high-skilled immigration and increased restrictions on family reunification. Other administrative measures suggest that practices have been put in place that undermine any effort to increase the number of highly-skilled immigrants.

For example, the Department of Homeland Security has made it mandatory that all applicants for employment-based permanent residency have personal interviews. Further, H-1B visas were to be only issued to the most highly skilled and to the highest-paid beneficiaries. Extension or renewal of green cards are no longer processed as routine, but are processed as if they were applications de novo. The above changes are just the tip of the iceberg. Specialty occupations are being redefined to make them much more restrictive. Additional hoops and requirements have been added.  And this is ostensibly an anti-regulatory administration!

This is not simply a Trump immigration policy but a Republican one. See the 2015 Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority which overtly argued for severe cuts in overall immigration levels. But that policy specifically targeted guest workers, suggesting that Trump’s policy reversal to support increased levels would only apply to the highl-skilled. But, again, if so, why the increased restrictions on family reunification when that is one key to attracting highly-skilled migrants? The arguments above not only question the sincerity and/or consistency with which Donald Trump is pushing for increased immigration, but even question the coherence of a program ostensibly aimed at encouraging immigration of the very highly skilled. As constructed, it suggests that Trump sincerely wants greater highly-skilled immigration, but possibly not if those immigrants come from countries that will increase the proportion of minorities within the U.S.

This interpretation is reinforced by Trump policies with respect to the Diversity Visa Program. That program allows prospective migrants from countries with a record of low immigration to the U.S. to enter a lottery to apply for permanent residency. Trump has repeatedly tried to end that lottery system that benefits the migration of minorities, particularly migrants from Africa.

In Part II, I will consider the legal migration of those who want to apply for Convention refugee status in the U.S. However, I want to leave the reader with a teaser. There is a great deal of literature that suggests that increased diversity in a population, to the surprise of many, reduces support for refugees. (See, for example, Liza G. Steele and Lamis Abdelaaty 2018 study,”Ethnic diversity and attitudes towards refugees,” in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies which, with some exceptions, supports this finding. See also the European Social Survey, the World Bank Development Indicators, and the Manifesto Project Dataset.) The greater the ethnic diversity, the more that new refugee arrivals are viewed as a threat. If that is the case, Donald Trump, if he opposes the arrival of Convention refugee applicants at U.S. legal entry points, logically should support greater diversity in the intake of legal economic migrants. The above analysis suggests that he does not blog. Why?

One might expect that the greater contact between and among different ethnic groups enhances support for refugees. In the next I want to not only analyze and dissect Trump’s policies towards refugees, but also do so in conjunction with his alleged biases on the one hand (after all, I alleged that Trump’s demagoguery was on full display in his State of the Union Address) and the predisposition of many American constituents on the other hand.

To be continued.

Absorptive Capacity: Four Rationales for Limiting Immigrant Entry

In response to my very recent blog on “Darkness,” one reader criticized me for my extremely negative picture of Donald Trump. He also criticized me for my use of the term “black.” He wrote “History has many faces of black, including pitch black, jet black, coal black, and dark black. Man made a dreadful noun of ‘black’ when it defined dark skinned Africans as ‘black’ people.”

I will leave Trump out for the moment and focus on the claim that man made a dreadful noun of ‘black.’ There is a radical difference between the noun ‘black’ and making ‘black’ into a dreadful noun by using black to stir up dread. The dread does not attach to the noun but to its use. I will not offer a defence of my use of black for black is indeed beautiful. Instead, I refer to a 2007 book, Blackness and Modernity: The Colour of Humanity and the Quest for Freedom. It was written first as a PhD thesis under my supervision at York University just before I retired in 2003. The thesis became this book that won the prestigious John Porter award from the Canadian Sociological Association for the best scholarly book published in the discipline in Canada that year. I recommend the book.

Just by way of introduction, Cecil Foster, the author, was born in Barbados and is a Canadian novelist, essayist, journalist and scholar. He is one of Canada’s leading public intellectuals writing and speaking about Canada’s experience with multiculturalism. He has written 5 novels as well as other scholarly books, his latest on the role of the black porters employed by Canadian railway companies and how they helped transform Canada into what it is today. Cecil is now a professor at the University of Buffalo and chairs its Department of Transnational Studies. “We see our department as the university’s gateway for students eager to explore connections across boundaries of all kinds: across national borders, continents and oceans; across lines of social identity; across time; between humanity and the natural environment; across the disciplines; between theory and practice; and between research and social engagement.”

I use this as an introduction to this morning’s blog because immigration of those who are different – whether black, Sikh, Chinese, or Vietnamese, Jew or Muslim – has been opposed under the general rubric that a country’s absorptive capacity is the reason for limiting the entry for certain groups of new immigrants and/or refugees. However, there are at least four different definitions of absorptive capacity and the consequent reasons for putting limits on intake. Two have to do almost entirely with the character of the immigrant/refugee. Another two have to do with the limitations of the host country where the immigrants and refugees want to stay

The first brands a certain class of immigrants/refugees as Other, as Others who are generally lesser, as Others who are dangerous and a threat to the society into which they are seeking entry. The absorptive capacity of a country is limited because these immigrants/refugees are perceived as posing a threat to the culture, well-being and stability of the receiving country. It is the core reason why Donald Trump opposed Muslim immigrant/refugees and migrants from Mexico and Central America. I have written a critique of that position in an earlier blog on “Locusts.” Trump’s nativist demagoguery, though relatively brief, was on full display in his State of the Union address last evening.

There is a second meaning of “absorptive capacity’ which puts the problem squarely on those seeking entry. It was brought to my attention by another reader of my blog in a response yesterday, who also berated me for my preoccupation with Donald Trump, this time, not because I mis-characterize him so much but because my attention was considered excessive and a waste of my time. That reader introduced me to a German writer for Die Welt, Henryk Broder, who also happens to be Jewish.

The reader brought to my attention a 4 February 2019 article that I had already read in Tablet by Clemens Heni entitled, “Why is Germany’s best-known Jewish journalist giving speeches to its holocaust-downplaying, far-right party?” The article can be found here criticizing Henryk Broder for his speech to the far-right neo-Nazi party in Germany, AfD:

When I first read Heni’s piece, I took the criticism at face value.  But my reader also sent me her translation of the speech Broder gave. I have included it at the end of the blog. It is hilarious and a brilliant piece satirizing the very neo-Nazis he was addressing. Heni totally misrepresented Broder’s position and what he stood for. The speech was definitely not an intellectual embrace of the AfD.

However, when I concurred with that critique of Heni, I was asked to listen to another of Broder’s speeches which he delivered at the Danish Parliament Christiansborg at a conference on “The Danish Mohammad Cartoon Crisis in Retrospect” on 26 September 2015 put on by the Free Press Association to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the publication of the Muhammad drawings.

I listened to the speech. What a contrast with the one that Heni criticized! The opening line was funny, but the rest was not.

The speech brought out a very different side of Broder, his critique of Angela Merkel for allowing one million refugees to enter Germany. He claimed that they were almost all Muslim. Though most were, very many were Christian and Yazidis and most were not even from the Middle East. The speech was serious and not intended to be funny. Small errors however, then count more. Essentially, Broder argued that allowing the entry of one million Muslim Syrian refugees into Germany was a calamity from which Germany would be unable to recover. He deplored the appeasement approach to the threat of Islamicization and insisted that the refugees could not be absorbed, not only because of the problems of finding housing, food and teachers, but because there was a clash of values, a clash of civilizations, that the policy of multiculturalism tried to cover up.

The refugees had no experience with rights as part of their culture, he argued. The history of the Scottish enlightenment, of German philosophy, the French Revolution, Italian pasta and Danish design were foreign to them. There was a historical spirit to Europe with which they did not and could not identify. Broder was simply calling a spade a spade, he said, seemingly totally unaware of the transformation of the expression from referring to speaking the unvarnished truth without embellishment to a reference to African-Americans in the 1920s as “spades.” In answer to a question from the floor, he insisted that the policy was a product of self-flagellation and false guilt towards the plight of the Third World.

Below are some extracts from that speech:

After his opening joke about his casual dress to improve the reputation of Germany, he said that the gathering was intended to “mourn the passing of our peninsula” with 500 million Europeans as an outcrop of Asia. The spirit of Europe, he insisted, “did not perish overnight.” Not physically, but “mentally, culturally and in terms of self-esteem.” “Europe has committed suicide.” The villains? Those who promoted peace, love, tolerance and multiculturalism.

The fortress of education, culture and science that Europe had been was allowed to be breached by Broder’s leftist and liberal German friends in the name of women’s rights, gay rights but, most significantly, great sensitivity to Muslim culture. Germans were to use speech responsibly. Self-restraint was necessary to make social peace. These were the new imperatives that acted to restrict rights according to Broder, a self-declared proud fundamentalist of the Enlightenment.

When Angela Merkel was asked what she intends to do to protect Germany from Islamicization, a perfectly simple question in Broder’s view, she responded that if someone is afraid of Islamicization, they should read Holy Scripture. According to Broder’s critique, Merkel was praised for her courage and influence. But Broder charged Merkel and other German leaders with appeasement and pre-emptive surrender. Unlike Viktor Orbán of Hungary, with whose position he explicitly identified, Broder saw no hope beyond the horizon in the face of a million “mostly young Muslim males unable to restrain themselves.” The actual number who arrived was 890,000. They would be followed, Broder argued, by perhaps one million more in 2016. In fact, the numbers dropped back to one-quarter of that projection. In the last month of 2015, the number had eased. Further, though the increase from one quarter million to 890,000 was claimed to be largely made up of Syrian refugees, in fact only about one of three came from war-torn Syria directly or indirectly. In fact, Albanian and Kosovars made up the top two groups. Broder perhaps would not care. They were Muslims even if they were European Muslims.

Broder mocked Obama’s “Yes we can,” and Merkel for saying, “Wir schaffen das” or “We can do this.” He rebuked Merkel for her “Willkommenskultur,” or welcome culture. One thing Broder said that we know for sure: “The unrestricted influx of Refugees with no experience of democracy, human rights, women’s rights and the rule of law will change Germany beyond recognition. And not only Germany. Europe will not survive this test of endurance.” He claimed that Europe was unsalvageable and blamed its self-destruction on Brussels bureaucrats whose avarice and arrogance blocked their perception of reality. They were accused of being masters of fraud and deception. Europe was now a house of cards failing apart and immigrants/refugees bore a considerable responsibility for that fact. Broder insisted that, “We cannot cope with millions of refugees coming from different cultures.”

The problem of refugees was not that they were rapists and killers or that they were lesser beings and alien threats. Broder is no Donald Trump. However, he does adhere to the clash of civilizations ideology and that these refugees could not be integrated into Europe. I do not know whether he is aware that the same reasons were offered for keeping Jews out of Canada before 1948.

There are two other schools that use the limits of absorptive capacity as a reason for limiting the intake of immigrants/refugees. Both point to limitations of the receiving society, which the nativists and culture clash ideologies also cite, but more as asides. Politics and socio-economics of the receiving side become primary for these two versions of absorptive capacity.

David Frum belongs to the political school for limiting the entry of immigrants and refugees into the U.S., not because there is anything inherently wrong with the immigrants and refugees themselves, but there is a problem when the numbers become too great and they threaten the American polity. They do so in several ways, according to David. First, a bleeding heart, like Barack Obama, in order to delay the deportation of Dreamers, protected them by executive order when he could not get an agreement with Congress. This set a terrible precedent for Donald Trump.

David Frum offered a large number of quotes to demonstrate that Republicans not too long ago argued for protecting Dreamers and not deporting them. (Trumpocracy 34-36) What the party elite did not recognize, and Donald Trump alone did, was, “that their voters did not share the donors’ and pundits’ policy consensus.” (36) As a result, traditional Republicans lost control of the party to Trump.

David Frum is not anti-immigrant. When he was only nineteen, he was singularly responsible for organizing the most private sponsorships of Indochinese refugees through the synagogue to which he belonged compared to any other – fifty sponsorships. Further, it was at a time when the majority of Canadians opposed the intake of 60,000 Indochinese refugees. It took courageous leadership by all political parties in Canada, particularly the Tories at the time, to confront that resistance, to refuse to give in to the nativism and racism and fear of competition from these newcomers from a very different culture.

However, for David Frum, what was brave instead of prudent in 1979 for Canadian politicians, was imprudent for Republicans who in their blindness failed to see the rise of a dangerous populist like Donald Trump who truly threatened the fabric of institutions and political culture and values of America. In the name of political prudence, Frum argued for caution and limits.

I, and a great deal of research, would suggest that this is the real appeasement; the damage is not only done to all those refugees who are not allowed entry, but to the values that Western democracies do and should aspire to realize. Canada, because of its private sponsorship program, has the advantage of having built a grass roots significant constituency that can and does lobby for pro-refugee policies. Unfortunately, the pioneering of Canada has been copied only very recently by a few countries.

Finally, there is a fourth school with respect to absorptive capacity. The reference is foreshadowed by the other three, but the emphasis is not on the refugees but on the need to educate citizens that refugees are not a danger to their livelihoods, their political institutions and their fundamental values. That education takes time and puts limits on how many refugees can be admitted in any one year. My own research, however, suggests that the limit has never ever been approached. However, it is true that if multicultural policies are weak, if educational programs are lacking, if effective mechanisms for integration are not in place, then the possibility of an effective backlash is so much greater. The risk is even much greater when a political party decides to use the populist fears to build a constituency and a voting base to win an election.

However, contrary to Broder, I would argue that such appeals must be confronted with political cleverness as well as rational debate in public. I will end with telling a story I have told many times before. When in 1979 we were confronted with the National Citizens’ Coalition using a racist campaign to challenge the policy of admitting 50,000 Indochinese refugees, we launched Operation Intellectual Kneecapping and recruited enlightened Conservative donors to threaten the NCC with cutting off their donations if they continued their racist strident objections to the intake of Indochinese refugees. The NCC stopped their campaign. Contrary to Broder, the real appeasers are those who give in to nativist xenophobia or those who believe in the false doctrine of a clash of civilizations.


Henryk Broder’s talk at the AfD faction of the Bundestag

Jan 29, 2019, as documented [in a shortened version] by Die Welt on 31.01.2019

Translated by bea sara goll © 2019 [explanations in […] are of the translator.]

For the full talk in German, see:

Preliminary note: Before my speech, a photo was taken showing how Alice Weidel, leader of the AfD parliamentary group, embraced me. This image has been disseminated by the AfD in the social media. It would have been right to avoid the embrace. As a journalist you should keep a distance from politicians. There is, of course, no reason to draw any further conclusions from this embrace. I apologize and vow to be more careful at the next opportunity.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the invitation.

I have been to the Bundestag several times, most recently at a meeting of the Petitions Committee. But I have never spoken before a faction. My first choice would have been the Grüne. I would have even come here by bike or a rowboat. But the Grüne are not that far yet, that they would invite someone like me. First of all, I would have to start separating my waste, heating my home sparingly and using less water. I do not do that. I do not even believe that the climate change exists because there has not been a day in history when the climate has not changed. Climate change is as new as the eternal succession of winter, spring, summer and fall. What is new is that the climate has become the fetish of the enlightened, who believe neither in Jesus nor in Moses or Mohammed. The British writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the inventor of Father Brown, has already said the right thing: “Since people no longer believe in God, they do not believe in anything, they believe all sorts of nonsense.”

The worldwide hype surrounding a 16-year-old Swede, who considers herself a revenant by Jeanne d’Arc, has proved that again, just recently.

But this was just my attempt at an icebreaker to warm up. Back to the beginning. Just as I wonder why you invited me and not Richard David Precht, so ask yourself why I accepted the invitation.

The thing is very simple. They wanted to see if anyone who can write as good as I do could speak just as well-in the den or hell of brown spotted lions, in the snake pit of reaction, in the darkroom of history. And besides, you want to know if I’m really as likeable as I always seem when on TV.

Some of you may never have seen a real Jew in nature and are now waiting for the room to fill with the smell of garlic and sulfur.

I like doing stuff I’ve never done before. I recently went on a cruise for the first time in my life – and I liked it a lot. On my to-do list, which I would like to work off before my 75th birthday, are still: the visit to a swingers club, the journey to the center of the earth and a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway with Florian Silbereisen [cruise ship captain in a German soap opera] as my personal butler.

Although a visit to you was not on my list, I accepted the invitation anyway; when does a Jew already get the opportunity to perform in a room full of Nazis, neo-Nazis, crypto-Nazis and Para-Nazis?

Besides, I’m only doing what the Bundespresident has recently advised us to do. We should approach each other; get to know each other better, talk to each other in order to strengthen the cohesion of this society.

That’s exactly what I’m doing. I am a bridge builder, a reconciler; I advocate a colorful, open and tolerant society in which no one is marginalized. I judge people in my environment not by origin, skin color or religion, but by whether, in broad terms, they also accept opinions other than their own. I am tolerant to the limit of self-denial, but I do not want to be tolerant of a group of people: the intolerant ones, who make themselves the measure of all things and promise me either eternal life in paradise, if I follow them, or a box seat in hell, if I refuse them.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the introduction. Now follows the main part.

The idea was that we talk about Political Correctness, though nobody knows what the term really means. It is an empty box into which anyone can throw whatever he considers inappropriate, evil, insulting or dangerous, anything that could threaten “social peace”, and that – social peace – is something that is not something that serves peace but rather something that threatens the freedom of expression.

That we can no longer buy “Negro Kisses” and that the Sarotti Moor has been renamed “Sarotti – Magician of the Senses”, that I can live with. Worse, much worse, I find that in some Dutch supermarkets there is no longer any “Jodenkoeken” (Jewish cake), a specialty of short crust pastry, which was invented by a Jewish baker at the end of the 19th century. The “Jodenkoeken” are now called “Dutch cookies” and are exported under this name all the way to China. That may be politically correct, but I shall call it a cultural expropriation. I want my Jodenkoeken back!

In Germany, this magnificent product is not sold, which probably has to do with the name. It would have to be renamed, politically correctly, in “Jewish men and women’s Cake,” and that would be a great laugh then.

But even that is just a petitesse on the edge of the PC field. What I find unspeakable and intolerable, on the other hand, is a statement by Cardinal Marx, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference. He recently said in a discussion in Berlin that the term “Christian Occident” should not be used, because it is “exclusionary”. Even more annoying than the cardinal’s statement was that no one disagreed with him and nobody said what this statement is for: a preventive submission.

Now, as a Jew, it would not matter to me how a cardinal defines Europe and what semantic exercises he does to avoid being suspected of “marginalizing” anyone.

At first glance, such a statement may be seen as a sign of humility; in fact, the opposite is the case. It demonstrates conceit and hypocrisy. “Look how tolerant we are! We do not even claim our story for ourselves! ”

To exclude no one may be a noble idea. It just races past the reality. I have never been invited to a Eucharist celebration. Will I be marginalized? An application from me for a place in Jungle Camp was not even answered. A clear case of exclusion. And what about the many prelates, vicars, chaplains and deacons in the Catholic Church who did not make it to Cardinal? How must they suffer from exclusion? Not to mention the women, who have no chance of being accepted into the cardinals’ circle.

Even in nature there is always exclusion. A hamster has no choice, even though he would rather be traveling as a gazelle, one must feel sorry for all giraffes who dream of a life as dolphins, but we cannot help them.

Political correctness starts where reality ends, in the now over 70 gender options, in the rather funny assertion that man and woman are not biological facts, but “social constructs” that leave every man the choice, whether he or she wants to be a man or a woman or today this and tomorrow that.

Whereby it is scandalous that der Mensch [human being] is a masculine noun for whom there is no feminine counterpart.

While we sit here so nicely, a dozen doctoral theses are written about this problem and how you could overcome it.

To avoid misunderstandings, I want to say that I am not a principled opponent of political correctness, if it means that there are things that one should not do and should not propagate.

However, this space of what can be said and what can be done is subject to constant change. I think it is right and proper that homosexuality has been decriminalized and that marital rape has been reduced to a crime from having been a husband’s privilege. I think it is right and proper that child marriages should be banned, regardless of the cultural background of the families involved. I am in favor of judging the offense of “child molestation” more severely, in order to be able to follow such cases as that of the already mentioned Greta from Sweden, who was chosen by the climate coalition as the icon of their movement.

I think it is also correct that I – if I call someone an “anti-Semite” – must prove this accusation, which is not easy given the level of education or German judges, for whom the [6 million victims of the] Holocaust is the measure of things and everything under that number is considered mere administrative offense.

And if someone calls a politician he does not like a “Nazi slut”, then that would have to be proved and not rewarded by using the satire-card. There is still a considerable need for legal education here.

But it is not just laws that can be interpreted differently, of course, by what is called the “discretionary margin,” which in turn leads to verdicts that no “normal” thinking person can comprehend. It’s also about something that our PC-moderately unspoiled parents put into the words “That’s not done”. You do not put your feet on the table, you do not burp while eating, and you do not call the twelve worst years in German history “bird shit.” [The AfD lead, Gauland called Hitler and the Nazis just a piece of bird shit on the more than 1000 years of glorious German history at a congress of the AfD Junge Alternative].

This is a grave sin – not only from the point of view of the Nazi victims – the Jews, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the resistance fighters, the deserters.. It must also be a no-go for any German who is not a Jew, not a Gypsy, not gay and has no relatives who were persecuted by the Nazis.
Ladies and gentlemen, I did not come here to give you a sermon or tell you what to do or not to do. I do not want to block you nor do I want to show you the way. Well, maybe a little.

I am here for two reasons. First, I am all for fair play. And dealing with your party is anything but fair. When your Bremen colleague Magnitz was beaten up – does anyone know how far the search for the perpetrators is now? – Although all have condemned the act, in some of the distancing was also noted that those who sow the wind, must expect to reap storm. Like women, who are blamed, and accused of some complicity when sexually molested because they wear too short skirts.

This is not possible; this is unworthy of a democracy that is based on the idea in the broadest sense that “wrong” attitudes and opinions, that is, deviating from the general consensus, are to be protected. The limits of that which is permitted, I have already pointed out, are established by the Criminal Code. The right to freedom of expression knows no “right” and no “wrong” opinions.

This also applies to tastelessness of all kinds, such as the SPD deputy Johannes Kahr’s lowering himself into the levels of his outhouse a few weeks ago in the course of a parliamentary debate. You remember. He advised you to look in the mirror so you can see how ugly you are. “Hatred makes you ugly!” He shouted to you with the innocence of a man who has no mirror at home himself.

I was speechless and waited, in vain, for an order call from the Speaker of Parliament. Of a similar quality was the contribution of an editor of the Hamburger Morgenpost, who let his imagination run wild: “In a fair world, one would have to withdraw the right to vote from AfD supporters. The same ways as you take away children’s toys when they behave badly.”
The question of how one recognizes AfD fans and how such a measure would be compatible with the rules of a free election was neither asked nor answered.

An isolated case, but a characteristic one.

Yesterday, one day after the Holocaust Remembrance Day, green radio MEP Michael Cramer was interviewed on Deutschlandfunk – on climate change and pollutants in the air. Cramer said, among other things: “That you have different positions, that’s part of it. There are people who deny the Holocaust. There are people who deny that particulate matter and CO2 and nitrogen oxides are harmful to health, that’s part of it. ”

I try to imagine what would happen in this country if one of you had said something like that. I would be among the first to attack you.

Some deny the Holocaust, the others the climate, which is not just an idiotic analogy. As already mentioned, one would have to speak of climate change deniers, more precisely: of people who doubt that there is a man-made climate change. Now I am waiting for climate denial to be punished as much as the denial of the Holocaust, and I look forward to the first trial of a Green People’s Court chaired by Michael Cramer.

Ladies and gentlemen. We live in a consensus democracy. That may not be bad, but I am convinced that it is not consensus but dissent that constitutes the essence of democracy, as we see it right now in England, where the Prime Minister is being cornered by her own party. What would be as unthinkable with us as the takeover of the Bundeswehr by the Salvation Army.
So today I am here to – as Anja Reschke [German journalist] would say – “set a signal” for fair dealings with the political opponent, in the spirit of our Bundespresident. And because as a responsible citizen of this republic, I do not allow myself to be prescribed where and when I am allowed to appear. Of course, I know that the AfD is a no-go area that should be dealt with on a large scale. More and more it becomes routine to start disputed opinions with the words: “I am not a supporter of the AfD, but …” But what?

The attitude to the AfD is a kind of political litmus test, as it was to my youth the attitude to the GDR. Whoever failed to refer to the GDR as the “so-called GDR” was considered a communist. My first and only summons to the political police I got before graduation. I had ordered some brochures somewhere in the GDR, which were intercepted on the way.

When a few days ago I told an old friend that I would be performing with you today, he made a face as if I had confessed to him that I make my living with drug trafficking. “You’re only instrumentalized,” he said. “Do not you know?”

Of course, I know it. And you know what? I do not care. Everyone exploits everyone today. The Bild does it to Helene Fischer, Helene Fischer to Florian Silbereisen, Florian Silbereisen to his dorky fans who are following him.

And me, I’m instrumentalized every day. As proof that there is again a Jewish life in Germany, Jewish communities, Jewish literary and musical days and more and more Jewish cafés and restaurants, one more instrumentalization does not matter.

You instrumentalize me, and I instrumentalize you. I try how far I can go. If there is no shitstorm, it is good, if there is one, it is even better.

And if you want to know now whether I intend to vote for you, all I can say is that it depends entirely on you. I am a picker. At the last general election, I gave my vote to the Animal Protection Party. If you want my vote, then you have to convince me. I think it is great that you affirm Israel’s right to exist, although that is a matter of course, we also do not discuss the right of existence of Belgium. But that’s not enough for me, I expect more. You would have to curb your enthusiasm for Russia and Putin, your US allergy, avoid ambiguities in German history, and give your members and voters clear wine that you are not a depot for contaminated German devotional items. It may cost you a few voters, but it should be worth it. Clarity before unity!

As with good wine, the same goes for political parties. A drop of butyric acid spoils the taste of the whole bottle.

I have long considered how to end this short speech. Dramatic or relaxed? With a good punch line or a bad joke? Maybe with the classic: I do not share your opinion, but I will always work for you to express them freely … That’s too worn out for me, and the source is unclear. It could be from Voltaire or Rosa Luxemburg.

So I make it short and painless: Thank you for the invitation. I hope I have not bored you. And I wish you the strength and the courage to question yourself.

Shalom everyone!