The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews of economic books follow.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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

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

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

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

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

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:

 

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

Incumbency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Is to Ought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III: Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza and Sacrifice

Spinoza was a critic of empiricism for it cannot establish the principle of proportion and leaves the products of observation uncertain and indefinite. All we can discover through such a method is accidental properties rather than necessary ones. Bacon was a critic of abstract rationalism insisting that reason was utilitarian rather than an end in itself and that any product of reason had to be tested in the empirical world. Yet they both agreed on the importance of the imagination in feeding desires and raising appetites to the status of love and commitment. Affective responses are never without cognitive content. But science must be the means of determining that content, for Spinoza derived by deduction, for Bacon derived by induction. 

Both Spinoza and Bacon were founders of the Enlightenment. Other than science and the use of reason or accurate observation, other ways at arriving at valid truths – tradition, myth, divine revelation – were invalid. However, reason, either deductive or inductive, could not capture men’s hearts. Then conflicts – which are not rooted in reason or accurate observation but in conflicting beliefs – are the result. The ultimate decision in the end required violence, in reality political terror. The basic fault of the Enlightenment is that it is unable to deal with political terror. It cannot demand sacrifice. Reason and careful observation do not need sacrifice.

Bacon called for a system of using imagination to produce outward conformity, to sell a vision of human aspiration, but in the process seeded disenchantment. The emotional power of science, whatever the appropriate methodology, was weak to non-existent. It fed the creation of the organizational man and the administered life. As we shall see, John Locke would introduce risk as the replacement for sacrifice. Hobbes would offer submission to an authoritarian figure. We will see if those answers worked. Spinoza had nothing in his quiver of arrows to perform this role. Bacon offered a fable. However, a utopian product of the imagination could not and did not serve that task.

Instead of the Enlightenment completing the task of the Reformation, it perhaps destroyed faith altogether, in good part because it did not demand sacrifice and commitment. For light was no longer linked to heaven and service to an other worldly presence. For the eyes of the spirit in Bacon were focused on things of this world.

Bacon did not realize that attention to the here and now would create confusion and, even worse, dullness. One gets experience but no way to measure the value of that experience. Experience then becomes an end in itself and the populace moves from one fad to another that grabs its attention. Spirit becomes impoverished. We all become roots out of dry ground dying for a drink, a sip of water and not even a glass from the divine, because there was no longer support for the presence of the divine.

Bacon and Spinoza offered no set of beliefs that could replace the convictions of religion and, thereby, both a source for both social stability and instability. For Bacon, religion had become utilitarian. For Spinoza, it was deconstructed and needed to be reconstructed through the efforts of reason.  The result – a solipsistic world in which there is a great attraction to egotistical narcissists. How then to complete the task of the Enlightenment? Human autonomy and self-sufficiency dependent on a system of reason did not seem to do the job.

I am a senior fellow at Massey College where Nathalie Des Rosiers is the new principal. She is superb. She is a model of promoting melioration. She remains a spokesperson for fairness, for justice, for rights and for education to prepare students by providing them with networks that allow them to develop their minds. But what about their hearts? What about their guts?  

Medieval Europe offered a community of Christian or Jewish believers where, in the Christian community, every Christian was indoctrinated with the idea that their mission, their sacred duty, was to uphold and defend the community. Jews were taught that just being and remaining a Jew was a sacrifice, though for most there was no other choice. For Christians, it was their route to redemption and salvation.

What about prosperity? What about autonomy? What about freedom? What about justice? What about peace, order and good government? Loyalty to the Christian Commonwealth was the answer requiring fealty. First the Reformation and then the rise of the nation state shattered the unity of the Christian Commonwealth.  

We have had only false gods and inadequate ones to replace the medieval sense of the divine. The main one, taken from Grotius and modeled on ancient Israel, has been the nation state. But what has happened to that nation state? Supposedly, it requires absolute control over who is admitted into membership, a demarcated territory, a common language, a sense of self-determination and autonomy and control over its own destiny. But what states have these traits?

In a world with over sixty million refugees and many more would-be immigrants trying to escape war, personal insecurity and economic deprivation, the numbers knocking on the gates of the “successful” states are overwhelming and the numbers breaking through the gates of neighboring states have usually cracked those gates. Further, the premise was a world of nation states, but the reality is a world of multinational states. In addition, boundaries remain disputed in many places – Ukraine takes up a lot of print in the media precisely for this reason  – and there are states in everything but name, such as Taiwan, and many nations of significant size without a state of their own – Uyghurs and Tibetans in China, Kurds and Palestinians in the Middle East.

And how many states enjoy any measure of full autonomy? Even America, the most powerful state in the world, suffers not only from a second-rate power intervening in its 2016 election to favour one candidate, but has just surrendered its exclusive control over trade and commerce to a renewed and rewritten continent-wide trade agreement. Most significantly, reason has led leaders to promote supra-national bodies on the political and economic levels. But those new entities do not invite a passionate attachment and a willingness to sacrifice. Instead, when it comes to the crunch, the integrity of states is compromised as they join supra-national bodies governing trade and international relations.

But who offers their lives, more importantly, their children’s lives, in service to these various supra-national bodies? Instead, the reactions against them invite movements of secession – Brexit and even secession from the secessionists – Scotland from the UK. Instead of the dream of world order, we face a nightmare of world disorder. It does not help that in the past soldiers were duped and taxpayers misled about the just cause of a war – whether Vietnam in the sixties or Afghanistan in the twenty-first century.

The reality is that we are really impoverished when it comes to supra-national authority structures. When faced with the greatest crisis in the history of humanity, climate change, when we are preparing a world in which our children and grandchildren will be sacrificed, rather than voluntarily accept sacrifice for themselves, we reveal ourselves to be almost bankrupt as we stutter and drift towards the apocalypse. The nation-state has revealed itself to be ridden with the cancer of organized hypocrisy; populist feeling expresses itself in revolt.

Instead of the promise of ever-increasing prosperity, the rich grow richer at a rate 7 times their original assets while the upper middle class doubles its property, the lower middle class with a struggle stays level and the income and assets of the lower class decline. Reason and knowledge were supposed to serve everyone under a principle of fairness and possibly even a promise of greater equality. They have failed in that task, though they have made enormous breakthroughs in knowledge and communications.

Let me quote from John Gantz’s review of The Irishman, which I myself wrote about:

The Baby Boomer generation, fairly or not, stands accused of growing up in a prosperous country and then throwing away everything that allowed for that prosperity in a fit of selfishness, either out of unwillingness to just pay their damn taxes or lack of interest in anything except their own hippie-dippie projects of self-realization. While denigrating the narcissism, self-indulgence, and unearned sanctimony of the Boomers, young people are also now looking back to older ideologies and institutions: the labor movement, socialism, the New Deal, and the anti-fascist crusade of WWII.

There is a revived nostalgia for my generation since currently security and prosperity are so much more difficult to achieve. In many ways, the world built by our grandparents looks very attractive now that material prosperity and a meaningful life are harder and harder to obtain. But what was that world – lost souls, opportunists, men obsessed with wealth and power – that grew into corruption at the centre of the modern networked empire. Managerial or patriarchal capitalism, whether in the freewheeling West or the government-managed East, gets its direction from a union of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and technocrats. None of these attract affection. And the politicians above them attract suspicion.

And deservedly so. But who, in the most powerful country in the world and a leading democracy, do they elect? A person who not only golfs most weekends, but even owns a string of golf courses. And he criticized his predecessor for golfing too much. They elect a man who perpetually lies all of the time and cheats even when playing golf by himself. He buys a golf course, creates a tournament, is the only golfer in that tournament and then boasts of the 18 tournaments he has won without disclosing that he was the only player in those tournaments. He then gives himself the title of first club champion. He kicks the ball so often that caddies have nicknamed him Pelé. (See Rick Reilly Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.)

Americans have elected a very sick megalomaniacal narcissist as their democratically elected king. Why and how could they have done such a thing? I believe it is because they have elected what they feel they are themselves and unconsciously hate – hollow men, and men mostly elected him. They know that the promise of the modern world has turned out to be a fraud. They know that the Enlightenment resulted in an elite largely indifferent or, at best, impotent to do anything about their well-being.

Golf is the one sport where a person is accountable to himself. There are no referees, though there can be peer pressure. But Donald Trump sets up a game to ensure peer pressure is absent. For he believes he is the divine, one beyond accountability to anyone. As Reilly wrote, “I liked him (Donald Trump) as a writer because he’s a crazy fabulist who tells lies so big they can float in the Macy’s parade.” When the two played together, Trump would introduce Reilly, not as a well-known sportswriter, but as president of Sports Illustrated. Companions had to be elevated to the level of seraphim who surround his throne. And his throne had to be ethereal, even as it was adorned by the most glitter and gold.

What a paradox – creating an Enlightenment world where truth, where validation is king, whatever the disputes over the various routes to achieve that ideal, and in the most powerful and one of the oldest democracies, they elect a king who has no use for either truth or authentic validation. And this depiction goes well beyond the United States. Rick Noack in The Washington Post, commenting on the very recent British election, wrote, “Dishonesty and dirty tactics define Britain’s election.” This is the land of Francis Bacon. This is the land that has worshipped empirical truth for centuries. And it too has disintegrated into the epitome of unfairness.

The misleading is deliberate, not accidental. When knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian function, what happens when dishonesty proves to be more useful in obtaining success than honesty? Information integrity has not even received a proper formal burial. The media is used to garner an emotional rather than a cognitive reaction. And it works. It works because a much more powerful affective allegiance supporting truth no longer exists. The Enlightenment has left the field wide open for fraud. Is it any surprise that yesterday I could count 13 robo calls all intended to deceive me and relieve me of my private information and my money?

The elites either looked down with disdain at the masses and offered them emotional pap and a false promise of success and fairness if only they worked hard. They did. They ended up totally disenchanted. So why not elect an obvious fraudster, an open fabulist and liar rather than others claiming to tell the truth, when the very truth and promise of the Enlightenment proved itself to be a lie? Was it not the case that these very same elites that created the best tool ever, the modern electronic media, for disseminating knowledge, have created the best tool for the dissemination of disinformation, for spreading lies faster and more frequently than ever seemed possible at an earlier date? Social media have become disinformation networks. The lies come at us like a barrage. The speed at which virulent disinformation is spread is truly lightning fast and validation offers the most feeble tools in trying to keep up.

And who are the most frequent targets even as we remain largely immune and even largely unaware of the growth and extent of the assault? The Jews. For Grotius, the Jewish model of the nation state was the political premise for building the modern world. Should they not be justly blamed for the inability of the world to collectively get together to effectively counter the approaching apocalypse?

And look at the modern version of that ancient model – Israel. It not only has displaced the Palestinian population and in its own self-defence countered their self-inflicted erroneous efforts to create their own nation state, but Israelis have come to a state where the very blood of a democracy circulates, general elections. The result – stalemates and no government. Three elections within one year. The accumulated plaque is chocking the clogged coronary arteries of the Israeli democratic system. The Prime Minster is an accused felon. Israelis cannot even cobble together a coalition.

In The Hague a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Aung San Suu Kyi defends the government of Myanmar against charges that its military took part in ethnic cleansing and even genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority. In India, the legislature under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership introduces and passes legislation on a first vote that openly discriminates against Muslims from becoming members of the polity. These Hindu nationalists despise the secular state put in place by Gandhi and Nehru.

Is there anywhere where we can look for a foundation for greater hope?

With the help of Alex Zisman

Parashat VaYishlah – When Brothers Meet Again

In 27 March 2019, my younger brother, Stan, passed away. Just over twenty years ago, on 11 May 1999, my older brother, Al, died after a traumatic illness, a blastoma that riddled his brain and soon enough his mind; he died a horrific dragged out death. We were one year apart in age and spent high school together in the same grade, though only sporadically in the same form room. We walked to school together. We walked home together. We played basketball together. We sold ribbons at football games together at Varsity Stadium. We scalped tickets together at Maple Leaf Gardens hockey nights in Canada. And I delivered the papers on his paper route so he could be a star on our football team. And we played hooky together – hooky, not hockey. I never did learn to skate properly. When I was sixteen and he was seventeen, we had saved enough money to buy my mother, a single mom, a house on Ranee Avenue in Toronto. We did all this and more together.

But I got into trouble all on my own. And so did he. Al’s blastoma was probably the result of radiation leaking from the machine which he used for performing angiograms. A doctor from Western Hospital and a nurse working in the same lab also died, both of a blastoma, a very virulent and incurable form of brain cancer. He was a highly regarded cardiologist who had introduced angiograms and angioplasties into Canada. The procedure has saved many lives. Twice at least I watched him do the procedure. He was so fast that I was sure that he would kill the patient. He never did.  

My illness is the result of my own neglect and my own mistreatment of my body. I cannot blame it on a machine. I do not exercise. I do not even walk vigorously around the block. I do walk up and down the stairs in our home. I do walk back and forth to either the bus stop, two blocks to the west, or the subway stop, two blocks to the north. I was and remain the bookman. Al was always the sportsman.

This morning, I am going in to have my own angiogram, and an angioplasty if necessary. For those unfamiliar with the procedure, an angiogram is a diagnostic X-ray and is the gold standard for evaluating blockages in the arterial system serving the heart, providing that organ with the oxygen and the nutrients to keep that pump working every second and every minute and every day, month after month and year after year. Earlier in this week, I had a nuclear procedure to try to detect a blockage. The results were inconclusive.

An angiogram detects blockages using X-rays taken during the injection of a contrast agent (iodine dye). If a blockage is found, then an angioplasty can be used as part of the same procedure to clear the blockage and restore blood flow through the coronary arteries. In both procedures carried out in a hospital, the doctor threads a thin tube through a blood vessel, usually an artery in the arm and/or a vein in the groin, up and through the targeted artery or vein. Tens of thousands of lives in Canada have been saved by these two procedures which together are both diagnostic and therapeutic.

A doctor whom Al had trained and who gave Al’s eulogy at his funeral will be doing the job. The procedure will take place at the Western Hospital rather than the General where Al used the facilities for his practice. I would not care for the latter – too much memory. My procedure will take an estimated 35-40 minutes, the norm for both an angiogram and an angioplasty. (Al used to do the two procedures in 15 minutes. It was unbelievable watching him – the grace, the speed.)

I had the strong premonition that I will be meeting Esau – I mean Al – at the end of yesterday. Then, I woke at 2:00 a.m. with that conviction. I went back to bed at 4:00 a.m. I woke again at 5:00 a.m. A vivid, so vivid, dream woke me up. At one point in the dream, I was masturbating on the floor of the living room and looked up to see the room full of relatives and friends, some of whom I had not seen for decades. Exhausted, I went upstairs to bed and lay down. I woke because someone was lying next to me and kissing me. It was not my wife, Nancy. She was on the other side of this figure. Suddenly, I recognized the voice of my fourth child. And on the other side of my wife, there was another person in the bed. It was my fifth child, Daniel. Were my other children in the same bed?

I woke up to shake away the dream. My god, I hate dreaming. There was no one in bed but my wife. It was 5:00 a.m., too early to go to the hospital. I fell asleep at my desk writing this. It is now 7:05 a.m. and I am due at the hospital at 8:00 a.m. I quickly got dressed in a track suit to make the change into a hospital gown more convenient.  I am leaving now for my meeting with Esau. I have the strongest premonition that I am going to meet Al.

The Next Morning

It is 3:23 a.m. When I got home from the hospital in the late afternoon yesterday, I ate – I was famished – and I went to bed at 6:25 p.m. I was totally exhausted. Now I am sitting at my desk again, only this time with my right arm in sling. I was told not to use a computer as my right hand could not be bent at the wrist for 24 hours. I try very awkwardly to write this with one finger on my left hand. I am a righty and normally type pretty quickly with two fingers. In this one paragraph, I have already made a plethora of mechanical mistakes which I have had to correct. I will get faster and better with practice.

What happened yesterday? Before I tell you, let me go back about 4 decades ago. The first angioplasty had been performed successfully in San Francisco in 1977. Catheters have been used for five millennia to open pipes in the body, beginning with the Egyptians. About two-and-a-half millennia ago, the procedure was used by the Egyptians on the heart – then on cadavers to establish how the blood circulation system worked in general, and, more particularly, how the heart and its valves operated as a pump.

Under the sway of the dogmatic scholastics in thrall to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, established medicine claimed that the blood in the body operated on an ebb and flow system, contrary to the empirical conclusions of the Egyptians. Up until the Enlightenment, only four centuries ago, Europeans, including Jews and Christians, continued to practice medicine under the totally misleading intellectual frame of a balance of “humours” (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) and an ebb and flow blood system.

Galen (Aelius Galenus), a Greek physician and philosopher of the second century B.C., dominated Western medicine for short of two millennia. He at least tried to practice empirical medicine, but he was never permitted to dissect the human body. His treatise was called, The Best Physician is Always a Philosopher. In spite of Galen’s enormously useful work, particularly in taxonomy, I have argued that philosophy can be very detrimental to medical practice, but that philosophers have much to learn from empirical medicine. My own creative work on the logic of discovery depended on work I did using my brother’s research on cardiomyopathy.

Thank God for William Harvey at the beginning of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century. He was inspired by Middle Eastern medical practitioners in the thirteenth century (such as Ibn Al-Nafis) and other Europeans who came after. Though not the discoverer of the circulatory system, he was the first to correctly describe the circulation of blood in the body showing that arteries and veins provided a complete circuit with the heart and its contractions at the centre serving as a pump.

But it took until ninety years ago for a German physician, Werner Forssmann, who became a Nazi in WWII, to eventually and deservedly win a Nobel Prize for his innovative work in performing an arterial catheterization. This took place only after being branded as crazy. He was initially fired and driven out of cardiology by the mindblindness of the German medical establishment.

Two years after the Nobel Prize, in 1958, when I and Al were beginning our second year of medical training and I was living in Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Mason Sones, an American army vet, introduced diagnostic recovery angiograms. He, along with Drs. Dotter and Judkins, all pioneers in the field, died tragically in 1985. That same year, perhaps the most important innovator of them all, Andreas Grűntzig, died in a plane crash as he travelled incessantly to spread the word and the skills of this marvellous new technique that he had developed in Zurich. By then, Al had established his lab at Toronto General Hospital. As a cardiologist, he had flown to California to master the new, improved revolutionary procedure of angiograms and angioplasty and then returned to Canada to introduce the procedure here.

I am just boasting about my knowledge of the history of medicine. More significantly, I am stalling. Let me return to yesterday.

What a different experience than when I watched Al perform the procedure in the eighties. Then, there were only four people in the room – Al, a radiologist, a nurse, a technician and myself. I watched what was going on but tried to stay out of the way. Everything from beginning to the end was over in a half hour. In contrast, I went into a pre-op room with perhaps thirty beds or more. There were countless nurses. I counted at least nine who had seen me over the course of the day.  Four had asked my name and birthday to confirm that they were dealing with the right patient. They asked if I had traveled in the last two weeks. Had I had a fever? Sniffles? Food that morning? And on and on.

One time, bored, I offered my brother’s name. This threw the nurse off course. My wife intervened and said that they had no time for my nonsense and feeble attempt at humour. They had other patients to take care of. I let them weigh me, take my height, review my medications and prepare me for surgery. In my left arm, one nurse came by and put in an intravenous supply. Another nurse came by and shaved my groin. Another nurse inserted a needle and a tube in my groin to have access to my veins. A different nurse also applied a local anaesthetic to my right wrist and seemed to insert an even larger needle and tube there. It may not have been larger, but it grew in size as I felt some pain and even more discomfort from the process. They did other things I believe, but bored with assembly line nursing, I went to sleep.  

Just before the doctor came in, I had woken up. He greeted my wife – “Long time since I have seen you.” He then turned to me and asked how I was. He then asked some of the questions the nurses had asked. When had I eaten last. When had I last taken a blood thinner pill? When had I last had a diuretic? He then outlined the procedure. I would get a mild sedative, much more for discomfort for it was highly unlikely that I would feel pain. But I would not be put to sleep.  

He described how and where the catheter would be inserted and to what parts of the heart it would visit. If an angioplasty was indicated, he would perform that as part of the procedure. He then warned me ominously that there was only a one in one thousand chance that I would come out of this medical intervention worse than I went in. He did not specify how much worse. He then asked me to read and sign the consent and release form. I signed it without bothering to read it just as I had with the two forms the nurses had given me earlier.

After five more minutes, I was then wheeled on my bed into the operating room and asked to slide over onto the operating table. They gave me a needle and began to hook me up. I promptly fell asleep.

The doctor had just finished when I woke up. He would come and talk with me after awhile in the recovery room – the same place where I had the pre-op preparation. I slid over onto my bed and the nurses wheeled me back into my alcove. I promptly went to sleep. When I awoke, they were once again taking my blood pressure, my temperature and other vital signs. Nothing untoward.

My wife returned. She arranged for some food, an egg sandwich on brown bread and a choice of orange or apple juice. I asked for both. My wife fed me and let me drink the juices through a straw. I was not permitted to move at all, but they did raise the bed so that, although I was still lying flat, I was propped up. Finally, after another brief sleep and a wait for over an hour, a nurse came in to get additional results – my blood pressure, my temperature, etc. I asked her to read me my complete chart and eventually get me a copy. She obliged.

Evidently, it is highly unusual to get your coronary arteriographic report. Mine showed that a 78 vein and a 59 sized arterial catheter had been used. The contrast had been 75. My heart valve reading seemed normal 120/80/95, no surprise since I do not have stenosis or regurgitation and no heart murmur. This had already been established by my echocardiogram. I have had no indication that rheumatoid arthritis had affected my heart and the chart confirmed that.  

The pulmonary artery pressure results were 42/20/29, a little towards the upper end I thought, but was not sure. I believed that it was not alarming. In any case, as I told the nurses many times when they repeatedly questioned me, I am not diabetic. I will have to check these results with my doctor next when I see him, but I did not remember to query him in the short period of time that he had for me after the operation. My pulmonary capillary wedge pressure (PCWP) gave a figure of 17 and I thought that less than 20 was a warning, but I really do not know and will have to ask. As well, I had a CO of 7.8 and a CL of 3.4.

The most interesting part was the picture of the heart itself. I showed irregular dominance in the upper right quadrant (the left side in a heart diagram) but no stenosis in the arteries or stent, other than the collapsed arteries in the bottom of the heart were the muscle is inoperative from a very old heart attack that I never knew I had. There was also lyreplasia in the frontal coronary artery where the stent had been put in; at least it was not hyperplasia.

The doctor summed it all up when he came in. He did not have to do an angioplasty because everything was clear. I was good to go. I would have to ask him my detailed questions another time. After about three hours in recovery, the nurses got me ready to leave. That was when problems emerged.

They warned me that for a week, I was to:

  • walk slowly
  • take it very easy going up stairs
  • not lift anything over 10 pounds
  • not do any exercise (wonderful advice for a guy like me)
  • have no hot baths.

I could drive a car after a day, but that was irrelevant since I don’t drive.  My doctor said I could fly in a week, welcome news since that is when we are flying to Vancouver Island to see our youngest two sons. Today – later – I can take the bandages off my groin and wrist, though I might have a lump on my wrist that would disappear by the end of two weeks at the latest.

Then there were all the warnings about what could go wrong. They were dire. However, nothing was said about what happened when they stood me up. I was woozy. I saw double. I could not walk around the room as requested. I do not even think that I took a full step. They quickly put me back to bed and said I had better rest for another hour. I promptly went to sleep.

When I woke up I was determined to get out of the hospital. I was still seeing double but only if both eyes were opened. If I kept my left eye closed, I was fine. I wasn’t sure whether I was or was not lying; I told the nurses that the double vision had happened before because the left eye had been blind for about 40 years. The nurses had started going home at the end of their day. I was getting desperate. I was a little wobbly walking, but got all the way around the room without help. We got a wheel chair and my wife went to get the car and then helped me get in. I walked very slowly into the house and even more slowly up the stairs. I had some soup and went to bed.

No dreams. I had seen the hands of my brother when I had my angiogram in the operating room. My older brother was so delighted to see me. He embraced me. He cried. And I lied. I said we would get together again. Soon. But I went home to another place. I knew that I would never see my brother again.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Francis Bacon – Part II: The Secular as Sacred

If Spinoza used reason to unpack the misconceptions and misinterpretations about and allegedly found in sacred texts, Bacon made it his life’s work to set the mind on the path of discovery, first by dethroning the very idea that all knowledge had already been discovered and merely needed to be handed down by tradition and scholarship. Though approaching a problem from opposite angles, both thinkers were committed to freeing up the mind and thereby the life of humans. For Bacon, this entailed both deconstruction – the exposure to the light of day the idols of the past that have been embedded in our minds – and construction, the establishment of truth based on observation, induction, experiment and falsification.

This applied to the “Jewish problem.” In his work, The New Atlantis (1626), his model civilization is called Bensalem; religious tolerance is its defining characteristic. Though Jews had been banned from England in the thirteenth century, Jews had been allowed informally to set up some businesses in London. Bacon describes his encounter with one such Jew in Bensalem. Given its description, particularly the latter half, it is highly unlikely that it really happened. The whole story, after all, is a fable. He wrote:

By that time six or seven days were spent, I was fallen into straight acquaintance with a merchant of that city, whose name was Joabin. He was a Jew and circumcised; for they have some few stirps of Jews yet remaining among them, whom they leave to their own religion. Which they may the better do, because they are of a far differing disposition from the Jews in other parts. For whereas they hate the name of Christ, and have a secret inbred rancor against the people amongst whom they live; these, contrariwise, give unto our Saviour many high attributes, and love the nation of Bensalem extremely. Surely this man of whom I speak would ever acknowledge that Christ was born of a Virgin and that He was more than a man; and he would tell how God made Him ruler of the seraphim, which guard His throne; and they call Him also the Milken Way, and the Elijah of the Messiah, and many other high names, which they though they be inferior to His divine majesty, yet they are far from the language of other Jews.

Does this suggest that Francis Bacon was an anti-Semite? Perhaps in part, an advocate of anti-Judaism in its traditional form, but not antisemite. A deconstruction of the text in a Baconian mode indicates why.

There is an actual place called Bensalem in Pennsylvania, but the name is taken from Bacon rather than being the origin of the place Bacon describes. Similarly, though there is a place called Salem on the coast of Massachusetts where the notorious witch trials of the seventeenth century took place, Bacon could not have been referring to that Salem since the town was established the same year that the New Atlantis was published. Since Oregon was established well after the seventeenth century, its capital, Salem, had to be derivative as does the name of towns in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and South Dakota. Only Salem in Virginia and Bensalem in New Jersey might qualify.

I could have driven to Salem, Virginia, a town of 25,000, in five hours from Chattanooga by driving north-east, but it would have been of no help in understanding Bacon since the town was established 45 years after the New Atlantis was published. This is also true of the currently shrinking city of Bensalem in New Jersey of about 5,000 which I could have driven to in about a half an hour when I visited my eldest son about a month ago in Princeton. But it too was established at the same time as Salem, Virginia.

The reality is that the name has its root in the Torah, specifically Genesis XIV:18. 

יח  וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן.18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High.

The chapter begins with a description of a war around the Dead Sea between one alliance of four kings (Alliance 4) and another of five kings (Alliance 5). The second alliance (Alliance 5) included the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. The war had already witnessed the defeat and slaughter of the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Emin, the Horites, the Amalekites and the Amorites. Then the alliance of the five kings, that included Sodom and Gomorrah, took their stand against the marauding alliance of the four kings and were routed. Sodom and Gomorrah were both ravaged and looted. The kings of both Sodom and Gomorrah in flight threw themselves into bitumen pits. Lot, Abram’s brother’s son who lived in Sodom, was taken captive.

Abram was told of this. He then had 318 men under arms and, with his allies, went to free his brother and his brother’s son, which he did. He also recovered not only their property, but looted the property of the four kings and chased the losers towards Damascus. Following the battle that completely shifted the war effort, Abram was welcomed back as a conquering hero. “And Melchizedek king of Salem (my italics) brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High.” In other words, Abram was a war hero who totally reversed the fortunes of a number of rulers and was given a ticker tape parade in Salem.

Bensalem is the son of Salem taken from the Hebrew, shalom (שלם) meaning peace or to make whole or to complete, and ben meaning son. It is considered another name for Jerusalem, in fact, the original site of what would become Jerusalem. For Puritans, and their Baptist and Methodist successors, the name Bensalem was used to refer to a chapel belonging to a non-conformist church. According to Psalm 76:2, God’s tabernacle is in Salem. Yet it is also the location of the King of Sodom of infamous fame.

There is another personal name rather than place name in the story – the name of the Jew Bacon encounters, Joabin, also spelled Jobin. The suggestion is that it is a reference to Job, but the meaning of “in” as a suffix is not clear. It may mean a lesser Job as when we use sifron to mean a booklet compared to a sefer.  Who is this little Job?

If we look at the Book of Job, Chapters 1 & 2 provide a prologue, namely a wager between Satan and God in which Satan bets God that a pious man will abandon his faith in God if his life becomes a misery. Job loses his wealth, his family and his well-being but refuses to speak against God. However, his tone changes in Chapter 3 when he begins to curse his life. “You must have done something wrong to deserve this,” say his friends. “I’m innocent,” Job insists. Job turns to God and asks, “Why?” “Why this self-evident injustice?” And whatever the interpretation of God’s two answers, it is clear that suffering is NOT caused by sin. Job in the end remains faithful to God, both when God had been good to him and even when he was wronged.

This is not the time or place to go into the various theological debates that have arisen over the Book of Job, but the lesser Job in Bacon’s New Atlantis, in Bensalem, now overwhelmingly populated by Christians, is a Jew for Jesus, but of a very different kind than the one currently connoted by the phrase. This new Jew, Joabin, attributes to the Christian saviour lofty traits and even may acknowledge that Jesus was born of a virgin Mary. That is, Jesus is an archetype, a fictional model and not a flesh and blood being. For Joabin, Jesus was “more than a man” and assigned by God to be ruler of the seraphim. This new ideal offers a glimpse into a new source of light. In contrast, there are the “other” Jews who hate Jesus and carry a deep animosity to Christians. Why would Joabin as a lesser Job suffer for his beliefs?

There are a number of possible answers:

  1. He was disowned by the other branch of the Jewish people who despised Jesus;
  2. He identified with the suffering Jesus.
  3. He went from being a happy and prosperous citizen of Bensalem to someone, who, like Job, lost his family, his wealth and his good health.

The problem is that the fable says nothing of the kind re the third proposition. Further, with respect to the first, Joabin seems indifferent to the other branch of the Jewish family who hate Jesus and resent the Christians who have inherited Bensalem. What seems to be the case for Bacon is that Jews who accept Jesus, at least, as we shall see, this Enlightenment view of Jesus, are happy and contented and no longer even have to go through a suffering phase like Job while Jews who despise Jesus are malcontents, bitter and resentful. It is not Jews qua Jews who should be banished from England, but only Jews who reject Jesus as their saviour, that is, the new Enlightenment Jesus, as well as the traditional Jesus who, after all, can now be understood as a mythical figure given how he is characterized.

This is a midrash, a product of the imagination rather than a scientific conclusion drawn from observation and experimentation. But why would Bacon, this beacon of light for the Enlightenment dedicated to science as the means for improving the human condition fall back on a stereotype, on what he himself had labeled an Idol of the Market, a prejudicial notion unsupported by evidence and rooted deeply in a fixed perception of the other? Further, why would a man committed to science as the means for human betterment fall back on a religious trope that suggests that faith as a Christian is what delivers the goods?

As we read on in The New Atlantis, Bacon substitutes science for God as the means of satisfying and guaranteeing human welfare.  Bacon is not a believer in knowledge for its own sake. He is a proto-utilitarian. What function then does a belief in Jesus serve? Is the Christian church suddenly a supporter of science? Well, a certain kind of Christianity is, a religion which accepts reason as the light, and Jesus is that light, and education rather than surrender to the will of God is the means of salvation. A Christianity which gives a community coherence to support the utility of science is the kind of religion Bacon extolls.

So why divide Jews in to the good kind who accept Jesus as the ruler of the seraphim versus those who despise Jesus? Look at the difference between traditional Christianity’s view of Jesus as the supreme light versus reason as the supreme light. The former light is divine; the latter light is earthly. In The New Atlantis, the Governor of Bensalem tells the tale of the founding of Bensalem by Salomon (Solomon???) who creates the College of Six Days’ Works, “Salomon’s House,” dedicated to spreading “God’s first creature… light” throughout the world via the scientific prowess of Bensalem. Bensalem is the start-up metropolis inhabited by the “Merchants of Light” and “Lamps” which make empirical knowledge possible. And knowledge is power.

But the city is still an adaptation of Augustine’s City of God. Except it works through research that unveils secrets and provides material benefits – health, wealth and well-being, the very benefits God restores to Job when the latter remains faithful.

Just as God worked for six days to create the world, the College of Six Days’ Works uses reason, science and education to enable progress to usher in a new Zion in which Christianity provides the social cohesion which reason cannot provide. Christianity is instrumental in tricking people into accepting the scientific revolution and the quest for a new scientific paradise, one in which we now live. What about our original question – why offer a stereotype of the bad Jew and a utopian view of the good Jew?

Note that the religious priest of Bensalem wears clothing with both Christian and Jewish elements as well as Muslim ones. He is ecumenical. This is not a tale in which the birth of Jesus changes the course of history. Rather progress in history – and there is progress – depends on science, something which only the intellectual elites understand while the masses are carried forward by the use of traditional costuming.

Note that the Tanach appears in the sea for the sailors who seem to be substitutes for the sailors on the ship which threw Jonah overboard; it is equivalent to a hologram, an image created for effect but without any substance. The god of The New Atlantis is reason and science and he is a humanist. Insofar as Jews worship this rewritten version of God, insofar as they join the Enlightenment and, like traditional Christians, leave behind their Idols of the Market, they can join in the new religion of reason, science and the Enlightenment.

Joabin, and the Jews like him, are honest and tolerant and full of brotherly love for non-Jews. All humans belong to the same human family. Jesus, at least this re-interpreted Jesus, is a spokesperson for that view.  Therefore, Jews who no longer reject this Jesus, who accept the new sense of community, Jews who accept assimilation in the religion of reason and progress, Jews who no longer betray a dual loyalty, will not suffer as Job suffered at the hands of God.

If you recall Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock and Marlowe’s portrait of Jews, whatever objections one might have to Bacon’s doctrine, this is a very different world than one which sanctioned the exclusion of Jews.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Francis Bacon – An Introduction

Spinoza wrote that what he meant by God was “the fixed and unchangeable order of nature or the chain of natural events.” God was a unity. Nature was a unity. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the so-called father of empiricism and of precise observation of nature, in contrast with Spinoza’s emphasis on abstract critical reasoning and Nature with a capital “N,” divided knowledge into three realms associated with three different faculties:

Philosophy   reason

Poetry          imagination

History        memory.

For Spinoza, there was only one route to knowledge – reason – and only one body of knowledge – Nature or God. However, nature created men of different kinds. But these differences were external and not substantive, a product of varied circumstances versus constant laws. Bacon argued that different fields of study required different methods and different disciplinary practices. For Spinoza, one could only get to fixed laws through the use of reason.

However, Spinoza wrote that the mind is a complex of mental (both cognitive and affective) states. The essence of the bodily aspect of Nature is appetite. Will applies to reason alone. Appetite applies to both mind and body. One consequence: we do not desire the good but dub the good what we desire, a principle almost identical to one Bacon put forth. Whatever we desire we brand good. But Bacon offered different grounds for this principle.

His originality is his defence of the classification rather than the classification itself. Classification allows organization and hence accessibility and, thereby the democratic spread of knowledge. Bacon becomes a contemporary precisely because of his concern, not with the purpose of knowledge, its end, not the why of knowing, but the how. Information, for Bacon, is processed through three routes, reason, the imagination and though narrative or historically. Spinoza also depicted the imagination, but not as a vehicle to knowledge, but a passive response to pleasure and/or pain as part of the common order of nature. Love is pleasure resulting from an external cause. Hate is its parallel – pain resulting from an external cause. Therefore, love can be a product of either fleeting or long-term gratification. Imagination encompasses the wide range of passive responses to these affects.

Whatever their philosophical differences, both were prodigies. Like most of the other precocious personalities discussed thus far from the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, Bacon was a brilliant student. Even taking into consideration the much younger age when young men attended college, Bacon went up to Cambridge when he was only 12 years old. Though he made his intellectual name as a philosopher of science in his volume Novum Organum, he made his public name earlier as a diplomat and was a student of law, statecraft and languages. Thomas Jefferson regarded Bacon as one of his heroes alongside John Locke and Isaac Newton, with Bacon having the added advantage of founding colonies in Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as Newfoundland.

Bacon was very ambitious, determined to both uncover the truth while serving his country, all along remaining faithful to the church. Unlike Spinoza, Bacon was no iconoclast. He became a politician sympathetic to Puritanism and a promoter of the union of England and Scotland. He supported the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. It was he who explicitly identified England with Athens and Spain with authoritarian and militaristic Sparta. On the other hand, he actually opposed Queen Elizabeth I for being so punitive towards Catholics, but nevertheless was named by the Queen to be her legal counsel. He tempered the hard-nosed proponents of Realpolitik with compassion, but nevertheless became an ardent supporter of King James I. Some would call him an opportunist, others a proto-pragmatist.

When the House of Commons was at odds with James I over his extravagant lifestyle, Bacon tried to mediate between the King and the Commons. One could argue that he had become an apologist. But much worse. When he was named Attorney General in 1613, he used torture to help convict Edmund Peacham of treason and get him hung. Three years later, in 1616, he initiated the impeachment of Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. He became Regent for a short period and them Lord Chancellor at the age of 45 when he married Alice Barnham, a 14-year-old daughter of an ambitious alderman. She later went on to have an affair with Sir John Underhill, possibly because Bacon was gay and preferred a Welsh servant. Bacon disowned her.

His worst period came in 1621 when he was charged with corruption – he had accepted legal fees while holding high office. He made a plea bargain. His fine and confinement to the Tower of London were both pardoned by the king, but he never could hold a political office again, a great benefit to the future because he then devoted himself to study and writing.

Our interest, however, is on the interaction of his religious beliefs with his political and scientific ones. He was an Anglican with a sympathy for Puritanism, but never a dogmatist in religious terms. In Fama Fraternitatis he wrote, “after a time there will now be a general reformation, both of divine and humane things, according to our desire, and the expectation of others: for it’s fitting, that before the rising of the Sun, there should appear and break forth Aurora, or some clearness, or divine light in the sky.” “According to our desire and the expectation of others.” We act, not for a divine end, but to satisfy desires and others’ expectations.

Let me offer a contemporary application of the guiding principle of historical knowledge that the politics of the present, the divisiveness of politics in America, is affected by competing accounts of the past. The Confederate flag that Governor Nikki Haley took down from the South Carolina State House following the murder of nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is a case in point. Her action was invaluable. However, her rationale was dead wrong. The flag was not hijacked by white supremacists; it has always been the symbol of white supremacism both for the secessionists in the nineteenth century and for the Dixiecrats in the forties and fifties of the twentieth century. To read the flag simply as a symbol of sacrifice is to hide its heritage in deep racism and to cover up that for which there had been so much sacrifice, so much Jim Crow, so much murder and mayhem, so much abuse of the rights of others. Under the Confederate flag, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops killed unarmed black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

For Spinoza, competing accounts of the past were just different efforts to create an imaginative world, a construct as it were, that reinforced one’s desires and appetites. Thus, there was no truth value in such imaginative efforts, just personal satisfaction. The only hidden meanings worth unpacking were those in Nature uncovered by reason. Bacon, however, found hidden meanings in myths and fables as well as historical narratives. All hidden meanings in whatever realm are regarded by establishments as not only hidden but forbidden knowledge.

Both Spinoza and Bacon opposed the realm of superstition and promoted its replacement by what could be called substition, that is unpacking the hidden truth beneath the surface. However, religious belief for both were matters of faith, not knowledge. It was a realm in which to escape and provide relief from the pains of this world and find pleasure in another. That perhaps explains why Bacon is probably most famous for his depictions of the idols of the mind.

There are four such idols:

                                        Idols of the Theatre

                                                      !

Idols of the Cave          ————!————         Idols of the Market

                                                     !

                                        Idols of the Tribe

An idol is an image fixed by the imagination in the mind which is venerated but has no substance. That is, it lacks any truth value. An idol is an idée fixe that cannot be dislodged by counterfactual evidence. We begin at the base – Idols of the Tribe inherent in all humans. They are human propensities to distort, exaggerate and inflate and disregard what is directly apparent to one’s senses. At one extreme, the idols create utopian fantasies which gain dignity over time, especially when constructed of an admixture of facts. At the other extreme, they are pure fabrications used to denounce and destroy others and advance one’s own interests and appetites.

If Idols of the Tribe belong to the public realm, Idols of the Cave are inner creations of the imagination roaming about in the cavern of one’s mind. Given our education and preoccupations, these idols are used to interpret and distort what appears to our senses as these are filtered through forms and categories to which we have given a preferential status. A military historian will give a preference for viewing the past through military categories while an economic historian gives preference to economic matters and a physiologist may give a strong preference to explaining phenomena in terms of the functioning of the body. Truth entails dislodging these Idols of the Tribe and Idols of the Cave from their fixidity. These fixations are often viewed by Bacon as feminine qualities. In Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626), in a frontispiece, a winged figure, Father Time, retrieves a female figure from the dark cave of the mind and brings her into the light.

Idols of the Market are not what one may assume in today’s consumer culture as those bitten by an advertising bug so that one becomes intent on purchasing something which may, in the end, be of little use. Rather, Idols are of the Mind and not the material realm, and an Idol of the Market is more akin to what George Orwell tried to expose in his dystopian novel, 1984.  If we use words to give them a false significance, even an inverted significance, we engage in Idols of the Marketplace such as when we call the vicious autocrat, Stalin, Uncle Joe, or call the rulers in a dictatorship, Big Brother, or another person whom you are trained that you cannot trust, comrade. When words become substitutes for thinking, in fact, often prevent thinking, when words are used to overwhelm the other with the Big Lie, with repeated claims that are unsupported by any evidence – such as the Ukraine rather than Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 American election, then you are dancing with an Idol of the Marketplace.

Idols of the Theatre occupy the top tier because these are idols that frame our thoughts rather than simply being fake news. The view that the sun revolves around the earth and that the earth is the centre of the cosmos is an Idol of the Theatre, in this case, the drama of the cosmos. Similarly, the Aristotelian emphasis on final causes, on telos, is an Idol of the Theatre because it is a mental worldview presented to the masses not to enable them to think but so they will not think. Here we enter the arena in which philosophy or theology has become a servant to power and the establishment. When we have erected a false mental superstructure in the mind that cannot itself be subjected to analysis and criticism, then we have enslaved our faculties to the Idols of the Theatre.

The antidote to these idols – pay attention in detail to causes in nature, not, like Spinoza, to nature on a grand scale, but to nature in all its varied details. And keep in mind utility. Knowledge is important for the use that we can make of it. Bacon was a proto-pragmatist. The value of certain spheres of knowledge depended on their degree of contribution to the well-being of humanity. Further, that knowledge had to be subject to tests of falsification. This was the essence of the scientific method.  Knowledge may be inherited but its truth value can only be assessed through observation and established by experimentation and testing.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Spinoza Addendum

I have been asked by several readers to expand more fully on Spinoza’s biblical criticism in his Theological-Political Treatise of 1670. I have already written on the connection of theology and political theory in general in both Grotius and Spinoza. This blog offers specific illustrations and answers some questions directed at me. Nothing I write is earth shattering or original.

Clearly, the basic premise was that the Bible should be examined and analyzed by rational methods. This was the forerunner of what became known as “higher criticism.” Further, I believe Spinoza was the first to argue that the Torah was a product of different authors and, following the rabbinic commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century), expanded on the latter’s thesis that Moses could not have been the author. In addition, Spinoza claimed that reason was sufficient to find basic ethical principles. The Torah was primarily a pedagogical tool. Perhaps, even more importantly, as I have put forth, the Torah was for Jews the constitution of the Jewish people.  For an extended analysis, readers may want to consult Jonathan Israel (2001) Radical Enlightenment.

Readers of my blog were interested in examples in which Spinoza found the Torah to be “faulty, mutilated, tampered with, and inconsistent,” a synthetic product of different versions, some lost forever. His views were also shared by some Calvinists, like Isaac La Peyrère, namely that the flood did not cover the whole earth or that Adam was the first man. In doing so, Spinoza did not disparage the Torah. He upheld it as a crucial text to teach ordinary people through telling tales that offered norms by which to live. But Spinoza was also an intellectual snob. It is because the ordinary guy was incapable of higher reason that the teaching had to be written as stories to be read to and by the ordinary guy.

What he most disparaged were miracles – of which the text is full. He did not need to prove that any one one of them was false for, from the proposition that natural laws are manifestations of God and miracles are breaches of natural laws, and that it was irrational for God to express his nature in natural laws at the same time as He provided for breaking those laws, it was a contradiction and irrational. Therefore, not only were there no miracles, but there could be no miracles. Claims for miracles were only products of the imagination, tall tales without any truth value.

More radically, Spinoza disparaged the idea of God as judge. God manifested Himself in nature and nature was the expression of God. God is an immanent presence and not transcendent. Further, even the application of a concept like free will is misleading. For if God manifests Himself in nature according to laws, and that is called God’s freedom, then “free will” is a superfluous expression. There is no personal God. God does not feel, get angry or mete out justice. God does not expect nor does He experience disappointment. God does not even make choices. So why worship or pray to Him?

Spinoza’s most profound critique targeting the Aristotelians was his attack on final causes, the notion that to each thing there is an essential end and that through the purpose of anything, its telos, we can unravel the nature of the world. Spinoza disparaged the view that the world has a purpose especially made for our benefit; such a perspective was as fallacious as the doctrine that the sun revolves around the earth. His critique claimed that there was an inherent contradiction. If God is perfect, then there is nothing yet to be unfolded. More importantly, it suggests that there is something that God does not have but which God wants, pointing to an insufficiency in God.

Further, if nature as an expression of God is perfect, why are there faults and failings in the system, such as in the way the heart functions for some. If the heart was designed by God, then God could not be perfect for He makes imperfect pumps. Since there are imperfections in the particulars, it is only in the overall composite of natural laws that you can come closer to perfection – but still very far away. An inability to understand variations in a system is but a reflection of our limited minds rather than saying anything about nature, let alone God.

The problem most believers have with Spinoza is not so much that nature is a manifestation of God, of the divine spirit, but that one cannot extrapolate, not only a purpose, but even a preestablished order. In a modern idiom, Spinoza would insist that, “it is what it is.” Standards of beauty, of good and evil, are constructs of humans and do not inhere in nature.

Why then was Spinoza excommunicated? Who would disagree with his views of imperfection, his critique of teleology and his contempt for miracles? First off, excommunication was no great thing in a Jewish congregation. It meant that you lost your membership. When we think of excommunication, we think of the Inquisition, we think of Galileo. And even in that case, as I tried to show, the action was far more permeated with politics at the time than just a conflict over religious doctrine. Nor was Galileo’s house arrest anything close to being burned at the stake.

Further, Spinoza was just being kicked out of membership in his synagogue. He was free to join another Jewish community in Hamburg or Leiden or Vilna. The language may have been drawn from Inquisitional documents – such as clauses about no contact or discourse with the man – but Spinoza continued to have contacts with Jews even as he expanded his correspondence and contacts with gentiles.

I was asked what were the particulars of Spinoza’s herem? Asa Kasher and Shlomo Biderman in their essay, “Why Was Baruch de Spinoza Excommunicated” in D. Katz et. al. 1990 edited collection, Sceptics, Millenarians and Jews or Steven Nadler’s 2013 essay, “Why was Spinoza Excommunicated,” (Humanities 34:5) offer detailed accounts. The condemnation reads as follows:

The Senhores of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. However, having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter. After all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim [“wise men,” or rabbis], they have decided, with the

[rabbis’]

consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

The reasons sound horrific and the extent seems global. The “crime” certainly seemed very serious and, for the Jewish community, the punishment was very severe.  Though the offence could have been for a cause as mundane as not paying dues, the instigation in Spinoza’s case was far more serious. Although the Board of Directors of his synagogue had responsibilities equivalent to the United States Senate, Spinoza was not an officer of the synagogue nor was he excommunicated for high crimes and misdemeanours. In fact, he was not even the worst villain. Daniel Ribero and, especially, Juan (Daniel) de Prado, whose memberships were also up for review at the same time, were worse. There was no equivalent to Galileo’s trial. There was not even a trial.

Reread the document above. Neither it nor any other document has been found which tells us what the “monstrous deeds” and “abominable heresies” were. Dr. Prado, charged at the same time, recanted. The charges were dropped until Prado repeated the offence a year later and was then excommunicated. Spinoza would not recant on the first round and even rejected the offer to be relocated in another Jewish community alongside all the Jewish refugees who had fled Brazil. There are some suggestions that Spinoza felt that the four Sephardic congregations in Amsterdam had all been “infected” with the Christian conviction as a dogma that the soul was immortal, since all four rabbis espoused such a belief and critics argued that this was a result of their immersion in Christian beliefs before they converted back to Judaism.

Yet this young man, only 23 at the time, from a well-respected Portuguese Marrano family, with no published works, is branded with such a severe edict. My hypothesis is it was the same charge leveled against Socrates for which that ancient Greek philosopher was forced to take hemlock – the corruption of youth by questioning the Bible’s historical accuracy. Spinoza was brilliant. They did not want him to influence their children and his peers lest his “abominable heresies” become even more “monstrous deeds.” When he did publish, he proved that the Directors of the synagogue were correct. Spinoza ended up “corrupting” the whole religious world.

What about Spinoza’s reference to the particularism of Judaism and the universality of Christianity? First, that distinction should be suspect from the get go. After all, Christianity really anthropomorphized God; Judaism only did so with characterization – how God felt, how He thought, how He decided, how He had regrets. That meant a constraint on human freedom and reinforcement of institutionalized authority. The establishment had a way of keeping the masses in line. The consequences of disobedience were enormous, much more for a Christian than for a Jew. Nadler speculated it was worse for Jews because God then could not have “chosen” the Jews.

But even Spinoza’s God could have done so, not by giving Jews a special status, but by assigning them by nature to a specific function or set of functions. A role, not a reward, was defined. But once the world became or aspired to become a commonwealth of nations, “there is nothing whatsoever that the Jews can arrogate to themselves above other nations.” They no longer need to define themselves as more different than other nations. Further, the history of Jews has proven than the laws Jews adopted were historically rooted. The laws of Temple sacrifice were no longer relevant and had been abandoned. So would be the end of other irrelevant Jewish laws.

Except for one law that was universal. Love thy neighbour. Love your fellow human beings. Act towards others with justice and charity. The Lutheran doctrine that one could only grasp the truth of scripture by “opening oneself first to grace and surrendering oneself to the service of and trust in Jesus” was even more irrelevant than the accretions of Jewish law. Institutions, the Christian churches much more than the Jewish establishment, perverted the universality of the message of both Jesus and of the prophets, including Moses.  Even though the prophets directed their message to the Jewish people, one should attend to the universality in the message. When Paul taught that Jesus died on the cross to free men, it was not to free them from the rule of law, but from the bondage imposed by irrelevant legal commands. That is the correct way to read the Gospels. Jesus “purified” the universalist message within Judaism. The institutions built over his dead body resurrected authority structures to undermine the message.

It should be no surprise why liberal Calvinists respected Spinoza so much while conservative Calvinists, who clung much more to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, were even more negative that Spinoza’s own congregation. Did this make his synagogue more sensitive to the dangers of Spinoza’s beliefs?

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question: VI Political Theology

My previous five blogs dealt with the following:

I Sovereignty

II Grotius and Spinoza

III Spinoza

IV Menasseh ben Israel

V Theology and Revolution

In the last blog in this series, I want to review the previous five blogs, but within the context of political theology. What is political theology? It is a doctrine that the secular cannot be divorced from the sacred. If a divorce is attempted, parts of the secular world will be made sacred, and that can be very dangerous as evidenced by the relatively mild case of laïcité in France and in Quebec, and the very serious case of the national socialist movement (Nazis) in Germany. For without sacred ground, there is no solid foundation for political authority.

The topic was brought to the forefront of political thought by a German National Socialist (a Nazi), the German jurist and professor of law, Carl Schmitt, in his 1922 book, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. His 1915 equivalent to a master’s thesis was titled, On Guilt and Types of Guilt. His equivalent to a doctoral thesis in 1916 was called The Value of the State and the Significance of the Individual.

He also wrote:

Dictatorship (1921)

The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923; 1926; 1988)

The Idea of Representation: A Discussion (1931; 1988)

The Concept of the Political (1932; 1966; 2007)

The titles alone suggest where he stood in terms of politics.

However, the titles may suggest what he believed, but they do not indicate how those beliefs were translated into significant action. And I am not just referring to his joining the Nazi Party as a radical antisemite or to his active participation in the bonfires burning Jewish books as un-German or anti-German. In 1932, he was the counsel for the Reich government in opposition to the deeply socialist Prussian government that was suspended by the right-wing government of Franz van Papen. The court ruled against the Reich by concluding that the suspension was illegal, but, based on Schmitt’s innovative arguments, the court nevertheless ruled that the Reich had the right to install a commissar in control of decisions. This ruling effectively destroyed the federalism of the Weimar Republic. It also set the precedent for sidelining President Paul von Hindenburg and allowing the newly installed Nazi government to rule by decree or, as they say in America, by executive action.

Modern political theory, constitutional law and international law, as conceptualized by Hugo Grotius, rooted sovereignty in the people rather than a singular all-powerful monarch on the basis of a covenant with God. As conceived by both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the original covenant was simply a social contract made amongst a group of people to constitute a state in which their natural powers were delegated to either a ruler or a legislative elected authority, primarily a transactional exercise in Locke. Hobbes, as we shall see, legitimized authoritarian rule because the sovereign people of their own free will deeded their authority to a singular all-powerful ruler. Locke argued that the people would not surrender their power to anything but a legislature and executive branch that they continued to control. As we have seen, Grotius took neither of those two paths, but continued to insist that the prime covenant must be made between God and humans. The prime source of authority was still the sacred.

In the decision to make the people sovereign rather than a singular divine authority of His representative, for Schmitt, the foundation of the political was not and could not be rooted in human rational choice theory but had to be based on a theology that gave primacy to one voice over another. The shift from a divine source of authority to the people was not itself a matter of choice, but a paradigm shift that itself was irrational and, therefore, theological since it went beyond reason into the realm of faith.

As I wrote in my first blog in this series, we are witnessing the reintroduction of theology of the irrational into politics, not just over issues like abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia, but in the emergence once again, this time, in the most powerful nation in the world, of a leader who believes he stands not only outside of and apart from the legislative authority of the state rooted in the people, but outside of the fundamental conception of the people as sovereign. Trump believes that the leader is sovereign because the leader is in tune with and knows the will of the people. Trump may just be a Hobbesian dictator, but I suspect not, since in his thinking, there is no reference to the people delegating power to a singular person. They voted for him because his people identified with him.

Thus, for his base, it does not matter what intellectual elites say. Rather, the members of his base feel as if those elites condescend towards them. In contrast, Trump speaks their language and says what he thinks, and assumes that because he thought it, that it must be true since he said it. It does not matter that Trump lives in a penthouse with gold taps or is a billionaire, the members of the base feel that they are seen through him. The members of the base believe that members if the intellectual elite do not see them, know them or desire to know them.

This has created a constitutional crisis, not because the elected leader has assumed he has been placed in power by the will of a collectivity, but, more importantly, because a supine political party that once rested totally on the rule of law, totally on individual rights, totally on rationalism and self-interest, has been inverted and surrendered its legislative authority to a lawless autocrat who can turn international diplomacy into a personal transactional exercise rather than a defence of national interests.

However, perhaps that should be no surprise. After all, the party of individualism, the party of free enterprise, always did take its communitarian base largely for granted. It was Richard Nixon who saw the necessity of joining the issue of security on the international stage to security on the domestic stage and winning the Deep South to the Republican cause by appealing to the presence of racism in most Americans at the time. Even more importantly, the Republican Party knew that it was the party of the Revolution, the party forged by the Civil War, the party that, in the name of the “sacred union,” declared war on states in which their members’ representatives voted democratically to secede. Did the political body of each state in a federation have the right? Or did the constitution create a covenant which made the nation indivisible? For Schmitt, the choice of which sense of the sacred was right could not be determined by reason, but only by unreason and, hence, the resort to violence.

In fact, America had been born through such a choice, through revolution. In the international realm, were the treaties made between Native Americans and Britain sacrosanct or were they simply instruments of an imperial power to keep a vibrant new nation within boundaries? The key issue in the Civil War then became how do we decide, or who decides who is sovereign and what is the characteristic of that sovereignty domestically? How do we decide and who decides whether or not to base ultimate authority in the hands of a democratically elected legislature and who has the right to belong to that body who delegates responsibility to a legislature? The answer Grotius offered still resided in the sacred and was never separated from sacred authority?

Grotius used the biblical text as his authority that insisted that God gave that authority initially to a people, the Israelites who spoke a common language, forged a national identity and were rooted in a specific territory guaranteed them by God. God did not give that authority to an institution like the Roman Catholic Church so that it could ultimately reside in a pope and through the device of the king’s two bodies, a secular king that erred and a sacred one that expressed divine authority. Who then was there to sanction a monarch as possessing a divine right to rule? The Jews were a light unto the nations and the Dutch nation had come to see that light. In imitation of the Jews, they insisted that, through revolution, they could and would earn the right to rule themselves as a nation state.

For Grotius, in contrast to Hobbes and Locke, sovereignty was not a matter of a random collection of persons coming together in a state of nature to forge a state at a time when the nation and the state were created at one and the same time. Rather, the nation preceded the state. It had a common linguistic and cultural heritage and an attachment to a specific territory. But in history, it was just as much or even more that the battle with Spain over the freedom and self-determination of the Dutch, as well as an escape from Roman Catholic repression, that forged the nation. Nation states were born in blood – or, in the case of Canada, the fear of blood.

That is, as Schmitt argued, revolution, the recourse to violence, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a cause. Revolution and blood sacrifice were critical. In other words, sovereignty comes to the fore in the context of a crisis. There is currently such a crisis in the U.S.A. today. Democrats, and three of the eminent legal scholars who testified last Wednesday, argue that the national interest had been compromised and that foreign powers had been invited to intervene in an American election – arousing a deep-seated fear that foreign interference would undermine the sacredness of the insulated electoral process. In the abuse of that sacred right, the elected monarch of the United States posed as a traditional monarch, one above the law and one capable of denying witnesses and evidence to a duly elected committee of the House of Representatives.

I insisted in my opening blog that it was necessary to go back to sources, which was also the insistence of Grotius. Natural law emerged in history and could not be conceived as an abstraction forged in a state of nature divorced from history. The secular state governed by its people in accordance with the rule of law emerged from a sacred text. Grotius was not a modernist who divorced the sacred and the secular, just the church and state. Though he had a secular agenda, he supported that by reference to the Bible and, in particular, the emergence of the Israelites as a nation governed by the rule of law.

To repeat what I wrote in my opening blog in this last series, “Grotius propounded a theory of sovereignty based on a doctrine of natural law independent of the will of God and deriving its existence from the nature of man as a rational being who seeks a society consonant with his intelligence. Reason provided the basis for justice in the state and justice among states, both in peace and in war.” But the fault line remained the juncture of the sacred and the secular. And underneath that fault, was violence, war and conflict, the resort to which Grotius tried to restrict to the rational. Resorting to violence required a just cause (in contrast to conquest or revenge). The threat had to be imminent and self-defense must be the ultimate justification. Those who decide must be rightfully constituted authorities and consider the resort to war a last resort adopted to overcome a serious injustice.

But who decides who is the rightfully constituted authority, especially when the conflict is precisely over that issue? Who decides whether abolishing slavery is a just cause or, alternatively, the principle of states’ rights and self-determination is? Grotius did not resolve those issues. However, by alluding to the biblical record, he argued that God’s message and the true answer to that bedevilment was revealed in using critique to understand the intention of the Biblical text. The secular remained firmly rooted in the sacred even as it sought its independence.

“A doctrine of a right of rebellion explained the nature of sovereign authority within the state; a doctrine of just war was used to explain the nature of the sovereignty among states. Sovereignty, internally considered and defined by will and externally considered, defined by consent, derives its content and meaning, and its force of obligation, from the nature of man, from the law of nature, hence, natural law theory.” War between and among nations was to be determined by a compact among nations.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question – Part V: Theology and Revolution

For non-Christians, this is intended as a useful backgrounder to Hugo Grotius’s Christianity and a preparation for my final blog on Grotius. Some Christians who are not Calvinists might find it useful as well. I welcome corrections from my Christian friends.

As I have written, unlike Galileo Galilei, Hugo Grotius (Huig van Groot) (1583-1645), who was twenty years younger than Galileo, was intimately involved with Jews, and with one Jew in particular, Menasseh ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro 1604-1657). Like Galileo, Grotius was an amateur theologian. Again, like Galileo, he was aligned with one faction of Christianity opposed to another, but instead of being aligned with Catholic anti-Aristotelians versus the Aristotelian Jesuits, Grotius was aligned with a Calvinist Protestant faction, the Arminians against the Gomarists,  

Jacobus Arminus (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian. His followers were known as Remonstrants, a faction of Calvinists, that is, Augustinians as opposed to Thomist Aristotelians. In particular, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at the University of Geneva, introduced the soteriological variation to Calvinism preoccupied with salvation. The Remonstrance (1610) was a theological statement signed by 45 ministers and submitted to the States General of the Netherlands, the Dutch Congress comprising a House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) and a Senate (Eerste Kamer) that so influenced the structure of the nascent republic of the United States of America. The States General in turn convened the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 to consider the five articles of Remonstrance dealing with salvation, namely:

  1. Salvation (and condemnation on the day of judgment) was conditioned by the graciously-enabled faith (or unbelief) of man;
  2. The Atonement is qualitatively adequate for all men, “yet that no one actually enjoys [experiences] this forgiveness of sins, except the believer …” and thus is limited to only those who trust in Christ;
  3. “That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will,” and unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will;
  4. The Christian Grace “of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good,” yet man may resist the Holy Spirit;
  5. Believers are able to resist sin through Grace, and Christ will keep them from falling; but whether they are beyond the possibility of ultimately forsaking God or “becoming devoid of grace … must be more particularly determined from the Scriptures.”

In other words, salvation, deliverance or redemption, the saving of an individual from eternal suffering and from a separation from God, depended on faith and not works nor the rulings of any institution – God alone would be the judge of human innocence or guilt. All Christians, not just Arminians, not just Calvinists, not just Protestants, but all Christians could atone for their sins, for Jesus had died on the cross to atone for the sins of all humans, but only those who had accepted this proposition, that Jesus had died on the cross so that they could be forgiven, could garner atonement in this way.

Thus, though salvation was open to anyone, atonement, or forgiveness of sins, was only open to Christians. Depending on the sin, they had a ranked order in terms of degrees of depravity. Various Christian sects differed on what was or was not to be considered a depraved state and to what degree. This led to at least five different theories of atonement: ransom, Christus Victor, recapitulation, satisfaction and moral influence. Recall that Catholicism had demarcated three forms of required atonement: penance, alms and satisfaction.

Arminians were Calvinists who believed that saving grace was a prerogative of the divine spirit and nothing that humans did of their free will could determine whether they could be saved, but only the Holy Spirit. But even if one was chosen, humans could remain closed to receiving that Holy Spirit. Grace, however, could even overcome that resistance.

Who were the Gomarists? They were followers of Franciscus Gomarus (François Gomaer 1563-1641) He had been educated in Strasbourg, Oxford, Cambridge and Heidelberg. Like most Calvinist theologians, he was fluent in Hebrew and was named a Professor of Hebrew at the University of Leiden, the main competitor in continental Europe to the University of Padua as the Princeton of its age. There, Jacobus Arminius was a colleague. Gomarus accused the latter of teaching Pelagian doctrine, namely that a person from his own free will was capable of doing good or evil and choosing God without the aid of divine intervention – in direct contradiction to the basic precepts of Calvinism.

Arminius, however, insisted that election was solely a matter of faith and predestination determined that faith. Gomaris and Arminius came to direct intellectual blows in the assembly of the States of Holland in 1608 and 1609. Then Arminius died. Against Gomarus’ will, Konrad Vorstius, one of the Arminians, took his place. Gomarus was so offended he resigned his professorship and became a professor first at Saumur and then at Groningen.

Unlike Arminius, Gomarus advocated that restrictions be placed on the Jews. Why did Arminian doctrine remain open to the equality of Jews while Jews remained suspect to Gomarians and required limitations on where they lived, how they dressed and on their interactions with Christians? In Arminian theology, election depended on faith; predestination determined that faith. For them, that was the central message of the Bible. But in life, humans were free to do good or evil whether or not they were open to being saved.

For Gomarists, God, not humans, was the author of all sin; ironically, this was similar to the position of Spinoza, a liberal. But the principle for Gomarists had a particular Christian twist. The Fall of Man was decreed by God. So was the Fall of Jews and their failure to accept Jesus as their saviour. Thus, Gomarists, unlike Arminians, opposed tolerance not only for Jews but for Roman Catholics as well. As long as Jews believed that their salvation depended on following the rules of biblical law, they not only could not be open to salvation, but could influence Christians, namely Calvinists, to close their hearts to faith. Jews themselves could never be saved. However, Arminius left open the possibility that Jews could be saved by other means than faith, but only those who became Calvinists were eligible for grace being bestowed upon them.

Nevertheless, both men were thoroughly fluent in Hebrew and had a close acquaintance with the Torah. However, only Artimius reached out to Jews, and most particularly Menasseh ben Israel, to help in interpretation of Hebrew words and phrases and for learning different techniques for biblical interpretation.

When Gomarus in the Synod of Dort (Dordtecht) failed in the debate to have Artimius condemned for heresy and fled Leiden, Leiden became an intellectual and financial centre for both Christians and Jews and one of the islands of respect and tolerance in Europe. 

For the new covenant of faith in Jesus and God succeeded, but did not displace or replace the Jewish covenant with God. Jews could have had their own route to atonement and salvation. It was an early form of two-stream theology with respect to the relations of Christian and Jews. It was not for man to determine that Israel had broken the old covenant which gave rise to the new one of salvation through accepting Jesus as one’s saviour. Hence, there was no need to convert Jews or for Jews to convert, let alone to persecute Jews inherently as fallen and needing salvation.

For both versions of religious belief, God alone was absolutely righteous. Only persons pure of sin could approach Him. Only God could decide on reconciliation between man and God, but Jews followed a different path of sacrifice, more specifically, the ritual of the Paschal lamb and the search for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement. Christians required acceptance through faith in the role of “the suffering servant” and the mediation of a divinely sent servant of the Lord who was wounded for man’s transgressions and would bare the sins of the many.

Jews, learned and practicing, did not accept this depiction of themselves, even as they thrived under this form of theological tolerance. For one, forgiveness by God was not a single epiphany in one’s life, but a temporary state very dependent on follow through. Further, korbanot or offerings could only be useful in atoning for minor sins committed in ignorance without intent. They were not transactional exercises; there were no payments for sin and giving the gift to God was the means of transforming a sinful into a sacred act. The sacrifice was only effective if the person making the sacrifice was sincere in his or her repentance. Finally, restitution to the person harmed was required. All of these principles would have a deep effect on Grotius’ conception of the role of law.

One other piece of background, this time political rather than theological. For eighty years, between 1568 and 1648, the northern seven provinces of the Netherlands or the Low Countries (as distinct from what became Belgium and Luxembourg) which were extensively, but far from majoritarian, Calvinist or at least Protestant, were in revolt against the rule of the Roman Catholic King Phillip II of Spain who was the hereditary monarch for those provinces. His father, Charles, had been born and brought up in the Netherlands and spoke Dutch as well as French, Spanish and German. Phillip II would eventually become heir to the Spanish throne and eventually ruler of the entire Habsburg Empire, of which the Low Countries were an integral part.

However, as head of the most powerful state in the world at the time with its huge empire in the Americas, the Spanish ecclesiastical and corrupt nobility turned out to be no match in the end for the sincere, pious, humble and morally superior Dutch rebels who took advantage of the initially decentralized rule of Charles V and Phillip II after 1555. Phillip, unlike his father, had grown up in Spain and spoke no Dutch.

The Dutch managed to keep the Inquisition at bay and were able to resist and win against the efforts to re-centralize power using a precursor of no taxation without representation. They revolted against a heavy burden of taxation and the heavy hand of repression of Phillip’s de facto governor, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, in 1567 led by William of Orange (senior), but only after initial very severe losses and a retreat to guerilla warfare. Victory would be achieved as the powerful Spanish were weakened by a four-front war – against the Ottomans, against the French, against the English pirates and, finally, against the Dutch.

This was a clash of cultures with deep roots in religion. William of Orange converted from Catholicism to Calvinism in 1573. But under the influence of an intimate knowledge of the Torah, the Dutch developed a nationalist ideology of self-determination influenced by the history of the Jews whom they believed had discovered and become the first nation state. The international law of Hugo Grotius was premised on nation states as the prime entities of the international system with international law governing the relationships between those states. Thus, the revolt led to the creation of an independent Dutch Republic, the United Provinces, under the rule of William of Orange (William the Silent), de facto in 1581 and de jure in 1648. But it was not without great cost. In the Spanish-French rivalry, which we have already seen played out in Italy and in competition for leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, the Dutch had France as an ally, but that meant that large swaths of the Southern Netherlands were annexed by France under Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII of France.

It was during this period of the revolution that Dutch theology, political and legal theory emerged as the prototype for a modern nation state. Further, the energy and creativity of the Dutch Republic led to it becoming an important sea power with its own colonial empire, a very prosperous merchant class alongside an economic, scientific and cultural explosion. However, two factions emerged in the Dutch camp mentioned above, each rooted in theology, economics, class and distribution of power. There were the well-to-do merchants who became Arminians and were intellectually led by Hugo Grotius. They were opposed by the Gomarists with their much harsher and narrower interpretation of scripture. Though the Arminians won the intellectual debate, in 1619 they lost the internecine conflict. Grotius, initially captured, was helped by his wife to escape in a chest ostensibly filled with books. The mode of escape was itself symbolic.

The significance: secular politics and its sacred ground were seen then as interdependent.

With the help of Alex Zisman