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

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

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

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

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

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Is to Ought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


With the help of Alex Zisman

On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIIC Procedural Democracy & the American Left Rorty versus Rawls

Let’s presume we subscribe to the primacy of defending human rights, with the premise that the responsibility and opportunity of individuals is to develop and exercise their natural endowments, and that this goal must be protected, and that such a program must be carried out within a system that protects those most disadvantaged. However, if we find that such a foundation is not only inadequate to advance justice internationally but unintentionally compounds the problem domestically. As globalism advances, where do we find alternative ethical premises on which to construct a new international ethical order when you favour duty over sentiment, universal validity over the historical and context and space in which you find yourself?

We begin by understanding the core critique of the John Rawls’ political manifesto. Even though I never offered a theoretical critique of John Rawls, Rawls’ ethical political theory began based on an assumption that an autonomous political domain that was self-sufficient and free-standing had to be presumed to provide a starting point to provide a foundation for the conception of citizenship that may be shallower – yes, shallower – but embrace a broader conception of the citizen.

Rawls not only brackets but is indifferent to whether those citizens are opportunists who lack any moral compass whatsoever but justify their position on the basis of the survival of the fittest, or whether they are ethical but have radically different foundations for what they believe. They may be religious believers, liberal intellectuals or Marxists or quasi-Marxists who believe in latching onto historical forces to determine what is ethical in the political sphere.

In contrast, Richard Rorty cares, cares about whether you retain and maintain a moral sensibility and a conscience, whether you are a Donald Trump, an ultra-orthodox Jew, a liberal intellectual or a quasi-Marxist radical. For Rorty, an ethical political realm can only be founded when everyone shares a belief in secular humanism, at least when it comes to the foundation for norms in the political sphere. America offered a secular religion of democracy, aspiring to achieve social justice and liberation for all members in society. You have to be a political liberal and not just a centrist agnostic. You certainly cannot be a self-centered narcissistic individual engaged in politics as a shill game.

I have used only a very few selected texts as reference points:

PMN 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

CIS 1989 Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

AOC 1999 Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

PCP 2007 Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers

Does it matter whether you are an institutional liberal who believes in operating within an accepted normative frame that can only be modified very cautiously and according to strict second-order rules? Does it matter whether you are a progressive who allows the goal of human betterment to offer a way around restrictive political institutions? Even if both groups are embraced as a sine qua non of a democratic polity, a secular conversion is required as a precondition so that citizens are infused with a passion for the American dream, not as a dream of personal financial success, but of the American liberal democratic dream that insists that the political realm be governed by such a mission as the polity engages in political discourse and the “rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective.” It is a belief in procedural democracy. The foundational democratic principles of liberty and equality must be tied to a future vision of an improved, but not a perfect, democratic polity in which all humans are free and have an equal opportunity because they have both the right and the actual opportunity to decide how to correct faults and failures in the political realm.

Rather than an abstract starting point, Rorty insists that a utopian end point is a pre-condition for an ethical democratic polity. John Rawls, in contrast, requires a clear articulation of the conceptions of justice, of the nature of the state and of the role of the rule of law. For Richard Rorty, what is required is a conviction about process, about discourse, about conversations that permit cultural criticism and that enhance one’s political consciousness. Rather than a Platonic prerequisite of conceptual clarity requiring a univocal conception of the basic “forms” for a polity, the measure in not an ideal but a focus on shortcomings, on what is found lacking. It is a focus on incompleteness, inadequacies, contradictions and incoherence without presuming a meta-historical law that can reconcile these inadequacies and contradictions. You do not need a utopian consensus about the end. You do need a pragmatic consensus about the process.

Richard Rorty offers a melioristic rather than a utopian project. It differs from the realist meliorism of thinkers such as Amartya Sen or Bernard Williams by remaining married to Rawls moralism without his utopianism. For Rorty, we may not need purely articulated moral ideals, but you do need foundational second order rules. Rawls and Rorty, as well as Sen and Williams, may be pragmatists, but they are pragmatists of different stripes.

Rorty, unlike Rawls, is preoccupied with how democracy is realized in actual practice, in particular, in democracies that operate in accordance with the premises and traditions of a liberal industrial society. Even when Rawls ventures into the world of practice in his later works, it is through conceptions such as an “overlapping consensus” and a vision of “public reason.” In contrast, Rorty’s focus is on how a majority consensus is actually constructed and how one engages in productive reasoning in the political sphere.

I, on the other hand, am engaged in an effort that is in some ways closer to Rawls in his later philosophy, determined to make explicit the implicit political culture of a democratic society. However, whereas Rawls remains a Platonist convinced that there is one such ideal culture, I am convinced there are many and, in this series of blogs, I refer to ethical philosophers to render explicit the underlying premises of the different strands of the liberal left to ascertain whether and to what degree a consensus can develop and, more importantly, how that discourse can be shaped to achieve such an end. While Rawls is drawn to an ahistorical utopianism, ironically characteristic of centrists, my approach is distinctly historical and not only not utopian, but anti-utopian. It is the utopianism of centrist moralists like Rawls engaged in the problems of real political works that leads to their mindblindness.

The issue is not one of a presumed social cooperation, but how such cooperation is developed in a world in which even the definition of a free and equal citizen is a matter of debate and not a given, in which the “well-ordered society” looks increasingly more disordered, a world in which society no longer seems to have a fundamental social structure that holds it together for even those who are nominally committed to each of these conceptions. These conceptions are interpreted in different ways such that the divisions weaken the proponents of a democratic polity and strengthen those who want power but disdain democratic premises.

Paul Berman in the third of a series of three articles in Tablet entitled, “The Philosophers and the American Left,” (25 November 2018) quoted Rorty from AOC to demonstrate his prescience in describing the earthquake that American democracy was veering towards.

“At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

What happens when there is no overlapping consensus or when that traditional overlapping consensus is being rapidly eroded by the rising sea levels of the intolerant right? What happens when “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” is under enormous strain and appears to be breaking down? What happens when the premises of a democratic industrial society need to be replaced by premises more suited to the information age and where industrialism, in all its varied senses, is being exported, but without the traditions of democracy which wrapped around those liberal societies? What happens when the very premise of the rule of law as fundamental is being attacked by using democratic means of free discourse and democratic legislative practices to undermine the democratic system?

What happens when the electorate chooses for its leader a person who believes in disrupting basic structures, in discarding truth as the fundamental ground of any rational discourse, in conceiving of patriotism as narcissistic self-serving instead of an expression of loyalty and self-sacrifice? It then becomes impossible to separate personal morality from the ethical underpinning of social and political structures? For those same structures have selected a person actually dedicated to destroying them.

Thus, this two-sided conundrum. The democratic polity uses its practices to select a person who could not care less about those democratic processes. On the other hand, those same democratic practices might not have sufficient heft and strength to counter the predatory behaviour of a non-democratic populist. The theoretical failing of Rawls becomes a source of danger to the actual practice of democracy. For it was the centrists, those who most notably expressed in practice a Rawlsian point of view, who provided the extra lift and rationalization to allow such a non-democratic leader to be chosen.

Liberal theory, in particular that of Richard Rorty, is supposedly there to save the day. For Rorty’s liberalism includes a patriotism that puts off limits selling one’s nation out to a rival nation for the purpose of either self-interest and/or the supposed universal welfare and peace of humanity. You cannot be a traitor to your nation. You cannot collude with a state dedicated to undermining the very basic principles that are the foundation of your state. Nor can you commit felonies that abrogate democratic practice by accepting emoluments while serving the public or corrupting the democratic processes by using money illegally to advance your own quest for power. Most importantly, you cannot ignore the rule of law and give the finger to legal norms that bind the procedures developed by a democratic polity.

These connections between personal and public morality, which are ignored by Rawls, become the critical second order rules for ensuring a truly democratic dialogue. That is the essence of liberalism, not substantive norms but procedural ones, ones which tie together personal and public morality rather than segregating them. The problem is not instantiating ethical principles in actual practice, but preventing corrupt practices from undermining the democratic project. The problem is not moralism, but how to exclude immorality from seizing power. There is no basic structure, just limits to a variety of alternative structures that can be developed within boundaries.

The stress on those boundaries is very different than an emphasis on a foundation. In attempting to demonstrate how classical utopian political and philosophical ideals could be synthesized with a contemporary industrial democratic society, Rawls not only included the wealthy beneficent plutocrats within the democratic polity, but the wealthy amoral anti-democratic populist mobsters who were given plenty of space and opportunity to gain power. A liberal polity had to be dedicated to creating barriers that prevent such a takeover. It is tough to admit it, but it was precisely utopian idealism and do-goodism that made room for nogoodniks to gain power.

Democracies do not share a basic conceptual architecture but have different architectural expressions and designs rooted in different histories. They bear only a Wittgensteinian family resemblance to one another. What they do possess in common are sets of second order rules, often relatively weak, to keep scoundrels away from the levers of power.

This means that the selection of a leadership class may not be concerned with moving towards the greatest good, but that the structures will be used to prevent the process itself from being seized by the unscrupulous and by anti-democratic forces. Rawls never paid attention to the role of multinational corporations. Marxists, proto-Marxists, and even progressives did. Like Rawls, neither did centrists belonging to the liberal camp. With one exception; they had to protect the norms of discourse essential to a democratic polity from corruption, a goal that became particularly acute as the information age displaced the industrial age at the head of the line of history.

Rawls insisted that, “The idea of an overlapping consensus is introduced to make the idea of a well-ordered society more realistic and to adjust it to the historical and social conditions of democratic societies, which include the fact of reasonable pluralism.” However, reconciling pluralism and a well-ordered society can be done through populist democratic means which sacrifices and limits that pluralism, ostensibly for the sake of preserving the society. Hence the attack on immigrants. For the one universal premise is that which Michael Walzer insists upon, that the most important decision any democratic polity can make is who it admits into citizenship.

The other side of the coin is who is excluded from membership. Consensus can best be reached by making the boundary conditions narrower for entry so much so that such a step undermines the goal of spreading the democratic polity throughout the world. It is the latter that Rorty insists must be the mission of a liberal democratic society. And it must pursue that task by emphasizing personal virtues, enunciating and practicing a set of procedural norms already well established, and seeking to expand those norms to the international and inter-state sphere. In doing so, we cannot rely on the powers of practical reason, as Rawls does, but must do battle with the powers of irrationality. Abstract theorems of political philosophy offer an escapist nostrum to avoid the realities of democracy on the ground.

We need more case studies rather than neo-Kantian theoretical developments. We need in-depth historical understanding to advance the liberal enterprise. As Bernard Williams wrote, liberalism must, “start with what is at hand,” and not with an ideal of what should be. For Rorty, we must start with the historical and political situations that confront us.

That demands that we not only understand the takeover of traditional conservativism by an immoral right-wing populism, but the divisiveness amongst and the inadequacies of left liberals that allowed such a situation to emerge. That is precisely how you can have an ethical polity without either an abstract foundation or utopian ideal, but a system of government that arises from and improves upon existing practices, specifically of a liberal democracy.

However, if working at that improvement requires, for Rorty, hope, what is the source of that hope? Where can hope be found in the practices of a liberal democracy? For hope is not a practice, but it may be a necessary precondition for believing in progress, believing that we can improve within the confines of the historical situation in which we find ourselves to both extend and deepen those moral values.

But what if this hope, this secularized religious faith, is akin to Rawls’ utopian ideal such that it induces a mindblindness both to dangers creeping in from the side and inadequacies that we fail to notice as we naively seek to better the world?  Hope, which can be viewed as a necessary resource to improve the world, may be the very reason why depravity creeps in. Further, it induces us to neglect other resources that are far more important than hope in the polis to make it both safe and democratic.

Do we have to move past Rawls and Rorty? But where can we find a guru in these troubling times?


With the help of Alex Zisman

The Favourite is a Fraud – Part II The Movie and History

If the movie had not been a satire of a period but had been simply an absurdist comedy on its own, my evaluation might have been different. However, though there is quite a bit of theft from history, the grotesque historical misrepresentation, not for exaggerated effect, but simply to prove that artists can be bigger and better liars than politicians, I find more than off-putting. In this time of great political stress, it is both bad art and irresponsible.

Do not get me wrong. I love black comedy, but I want satire to speak truth to power not add even falser representation to the hyperbole, lies and hypocrisy of those who hold power. First let me offer some historical background. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your angle of vision, in my PhD thesis on historical explanation, one of my case studies was the explanation for the success of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William of Orange and his wife Mary, Queen Anne’s older sister, captured the throne of England. The beginnings of real parliamentary democracy gained a foothold in the British Isles.

Ill with gout and bed sores, relatively uninformed about world affairs, Queen Anne, who inherited the throne in 1702 while bemoaning 16 miscarriages and infant deaths and one son who lived until the age of eleven, was understandably also disinterested in politics and left much of the ruling of state to others. Contrast Queen Anne with another Queen Anne, Anne Boleyn of Henry VIII’s rule in the mid-sixteenth century and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. That Anne set in motion the English Reformation. Queen Anne at the first of the eighteenth century fortunately died in 1714 at the age of 49 before she could possibly set back the consolidation of the reforms introduced in 1688. Both Annes helped advance the Protestant Reformation, Anne Boleyn consciously and deliberately and Queen Anne more instinctively.

In the movie, Anne is presented as both stupid and a lesbian, thereby accepting and using only one half of the thesis, the latter one, of Anne Somerset (Queen Anne: The Politics and Passion) that the queen was both a lesbian and a woman of great intelligence, discernment, political acuity and resolved to retain and maintain her formal authority. (See also Helen Edmundson’s play, Queen Anne.) Though Lady Sarah in her memoir made aspersions to Anne’s lesbianism and her affair with Abigail, the evidence is weak. Further, in contrast with the portrayal in the movie, Anne was not a stumbler and bumbler, but did engage in affairs of state to a degree, yet could not compete in that realm with Lady Sarah Churchill. Further, she was gouty and fat, but the deft political touch with some of her ministers is entirely missing in the film.

Though both women were hot tempered, Anne Boleyn was much more akin to Lady Sarah Churchill in her cool and detached understanding held together with wit and charm. Both knew how to use power and both were acerbic observers of the political scene. While Queen Anne was power-challenged in a way that mirrored her painful and horrifying experience of her inability to have a healthy child, Sarah seemed to truly love her, a feeling inadequately, if at all, portrayed in the film. Further, Anne did have her own political successes. Though she did succeed in blocking the final disposition of the corrupt and incompetent French monarchy so that the English and subsequent British rivalry with France would last at least another century and could be said to be the deep cause of Britain’s loss of its American colonies, for without the support of France, the American revolutionaries would surely have lost. On the other hand, in the short term, Queen Anne did back the party of peace.

Whereas Anne Boleyn was loved in court but hated by the masses, Queen Anne was widely looked down upon in court and pitied by the masses. While Ann Boleyn had been well-educated, Queen Anne was ill-informed. While Anne Boleyn was a graceful dancer, Queen Anne was a clumsy oaf. While Anne Boleyn received her education in a lascivious and corrupt French court and learned to survive with flirtatious aggression, Queen Anne bled profusely with neediness in the face of a parliament struggling to find its feet. Whereas Anne Boleyn was charming, Queen Anne was often repulsive.

It was Lady Sarah Churchill upon whom she relied to handle matters of state. For Sarah, like Queen Anne’s predecessor, Anne Boleyn, sought to align herself with the Whigs as Boleyn had allied with Thomas Cromwell. Lady Churchill, like Anne Boleyn, became the most powerful person, and not just female persona, in each one’s respective court. While Anne Boleyn was beheaded only a few years after she became queen, Lady Churchill lived to 84 years of age, and, was always backed by her loyal husband of forty years, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough.

Lady Churchill began her political career and advance towards power by both befriending Anne after her Catholic father, King James, had been deposed and sent into exile in 1688, an invasion triggered in part by the birth of a Catholic son to King James, James Francis Edward. Given James II‘s paranoia, the Earl of Marlborough, who was previously a supporter of James, switched sides. The weak and incompetent James II tried to arrest both his daughter, Princess Anne, and Sarah, Lady Churchill, and place them under house arrest, but both easily escaped to a Protestant stronghold in Nottingham.

The cowardly James II, without the support of King Louis in France (the reasons for the loss of his support can be found in my PhD thesis and some of my very early writings), fled the field without a fight and went into exile in France. Sarah solidified her relationship with Anne, the soon-to-be queen, by convincing parliament to grant her an allowance of £50,000 a year so she would no longer have to be dependent on the largesse of William. When William of Orange died in 1702, after only four years on the throne, Sarah became the right hand to Anne when she was installed as queen. Queen Anne reciprocated Sarah’s early loyalty be getting parliament to give her husband an annual parliamentary stipend of £5,000 as well as £2,000 from the privy purse. She made Sarah Mistress of the Robes, but I never caught that reference either in the film, which seemed to stress her informal influence rather than her actual formal positions. She was also Keeper of the Privy Purse.

In the movie, only the surface political relations are depicted; the economic ties are largely ignored and replaced by alleged but historically weakly supported sexual scenes which have little foundation in historiography. More significantly, the excursions into lascivious sex serve as substitutes for a failure to explore the characters with any depth or provide them with either a consistent psychology to explain their actions or events which account for the development of their respective personalities. Instead, both Sarah and Abigail are portrayed as if they themselves are only actors playing different parts rather than genuine historical characters.

Though I did not notice historical dating in the film, its history is initially set in the fourth year of Queen Anne’s reign in 1705. While the Duke of Marlborough became effectively both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence, Sidney Godolphin, the first Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), served as Prime Minister, but Lady Churchill was his de facto political partner as Lord Churchill led the troops on the expedition to deal France a fatal last blow. After a final falling out with Queen Anne in 1712, Sarah left the court and focused on building Blenheim Palace; we see a plan for it in the film with occasional returns to politics.

There is a glancing reference to The Settlement Act of 1701 (between Scotland and England). The Act of Union of 1707 passed in accordance with The Settlement Act, but the threat of a Stuart and re-establishment of Catholicism with James, Anne’s half-brother assuming the throne after the death of the childless William and Mary, barely received a glancing comment in the movie, however central it was to that first decade of eighteenth century British history. After all, that was a fundamental foundation for the divide in Britain at the time and the fault line continues until today.

Sarah was indeed Anne’s confidante and had been assigned key roles to implement power. Sarah, as depicted in the film, was brutally honest with Anne and refused to use flattery to influence the Queen’s decisions. However, this was depicted as vicious disdain for the queen, whom she genuinely liked. Sarah actually employed argument and persistence. However, the arguments for one policy over another are never presented so that politics is simply reduced to personal preference and taste. Further, the vivacity and charm with which Sarah conducted herself are omitted in favour of a one-dimensional characterization of a mini-tyrant and bully. In historical reality, she was a strong believer in discussion, dialogue and debate, whatever the status of an individual, and this is hinted at in the library scenes and her conflict with Abigail over a missing book. The film does refer to the Queen’s need for affection and kindness and not just the bullying or an imagined manipulation by way of sex.

Again, in historical reality, Anne’s attachment to Sarah began to whither, not because of the manipulations of Abigail, but because Sarah was often away, weary of court pretensions and intrigue and preoccupied with seeing that her policies were being implemented. Further, Sarah was really only drawn to court not simply to brace up a wavering and fickle Anne, but a queen who was a Tory at heart and favoured isolationism and tax cuts rather than support abroad for English imperial ambitions. Sarah’s grieving over the death of her son, which could have brought her closer to the childless Anne, in fact had induced her to become withdrawn, and this was well before 1705. But the movie takes historical time lines even less seriously than the importance of politics.

Though Sarah was allied with the Whigs, she distrusted and feared the radicals in the party who were critical of the monarchy altogether. But in the film, you never understand why Sarah as well as the queen had to engage in a balancing act between the opposition Tories and the Whigs. In fact, I do not recall the party titles being used at all as if all values and beliefs can be eliminated from politics and replaced by cynical self-interest and personal passions.

Sarah and Abigail were indeed rivals for both Sarah’s affections and for power. Sarah did introduce her impoverished cousin to court to help her, but where is the evidence that Abigail had begun as a scullery maid? Further, the historical evidence suggests that Sarah did support Abigail out of motives of family solidarity and genuine concern for the unfortunate condition of her cousin and not just a cold calculation of utility. In fact, Abigail became Lady of the Bedchamber, personal attendant to Queen Anne, a year before the film ostensibly begins, and serves in that position until Queen Anne’s death.

Abigail did not obtain her position by guile, as depicted in the movie, though later when she became a rival, she did adopt some of the lessons in political maneuvering that she learned from Sarah. The reality was that Anne was afraid of the domineering Sarah. Even though the latter was effectively Chancellor of the Exchequer and controller of the privy purse, Anne hid from Sarah the fact that she had granted Abigail an annual stipend of £2,000.

But the two women were rather opposites in character, ones who initially were real friends but whose character drove them in different directions. Sarah, as portrayed, was blunt and direct almost to a fault, brilliant and politically passionate, both daring and demanding, while Abigail was more retiring, not simply as a secret and deceitful device, but genuinely affectionate and also indifferent to politics. Abigail was gentle and congenial and would never have put her foot on the rabbit to pretend she was crushing it. Such portraits go far beyond artistic license into the realm of calumny and deliberate distortion of history.

Anne was sick. Abigail offered her comfort and gentle strokes and allowed her to retreat from rough and tough politics. It was not Abigail’s arousal with her tongue inside Queen Anne that won Anne, but simple comfort of someone in great distress and need. Rather than a male sexual war transposed to females, the conflict between Sarah and Abigail was one of care for the nation versus care for the monarch of that nation. Sarah lost because Anne was an ideological partisan who did fail to get Abigail dismissed, but she wanted that dismissal for political reasons. For politics were the core of her life and passion. It was Sarah who circulated the unfounded rumour that Anne and Abigail were having a lesbian affair, a rumour which bounced back on her, especially in this film where she is portrayed as having begun and advanced her own career through sex.

What about the centre of the political debate over whether Lord Marlborough should or should not have pressed his victory over France in the Battle of Oudenarde to force France to sue for victory? The Tories argued not simply that they did not want to pay the taxes that the further pursuit of the war would cost, but that, in the aristocratic value system, defeating one’s enemy did not entail humiliating that nation. Total defeat was not part of their lexicon. But the Whigs with their economic and imperial ambitions wanted to take advantage of the fact that France, which, twenty years earlier, had been the greatest power in Europe, was now on the ropes.

However, the public and not just the landed aristocracy were truly tired of war and supported a peace platform following the War of the Spanish Succession. I do not know where the evidence might have come from for the suggestion that Abigail was responsible for the claim of Lord Marlborough’s embezzlement. The claim was real, but Abigail’s responsibility as well as the actual embezzlement both appear to be fake. So is the implication that Abigail prevented Sarah’s letters from reaching the queen. However, Sarah was indeed asked to return the gold key, the symbol of her authority. That took place in 1710, but you would not know where to place any event from watching the movie. It might help to read Sarah’s admittedly self-serving memoir, An Account of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough from her first coming to Court to the year 1710.

But movies are not required to be historically accurate, especially satire which depends on hyperbole and exaggeration. But if satire is to be pointed, if satire is to be acute, if satire is necessary to challenge power, then it is both important to understand the real power relations and the real stakes rather than engage in art for art’s sake in the name of making a movie that neither accurately nor adequately satirizes the real struggles of the beginning of the eighteenth century in England. Preferably, a satire set in the past should have currency with our current political struggles, usually the most important function of historical satire.

Of course, though Sarah went into exile, she returned with the death of Anne in 1714 and her succession by the Protestant Hanoverian line and the accession of George I to the throne, a line from which Queen Elizabeth II is directly descended. With all the wars and conflicts between and right up to Brexit, the underlying tensions within Britain have never been resolved even though England, and then Great Britain, had set aside its religious obsessions and civil wars in favour of peace and prosperity and was determined never again to place their debates at the foot of their monarch’s religious beliefs. It is a terrible pity when satire is wasted on sheer frivolous invention rather than targeting and pointing out real and deep fault lines in the political system.

Perhaps I simply have a great distaste for films based on the premise that humiliation is funny. Humiliation is devastating because it cannot even miss a bird with a shot when it is close up. The movie is only a faithful mirror of the director’s imagination. So why set it in history?


With the help of Alex Zisman





The Favourite is a Fraud – Part I the Movie

When I read that the website, Metacritic, had given the film, The Favourite, a quality score of “universal acclaim,” a quantitative score of 91 and characterized it as one of the 10 best films of 2018, and since it swept the British Independent Film Awards, without reading any of the reviews, I immediately placed the film as number one on my must-see list. After all, Yorgos Lanthimos’ (The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) Irish production from Element received five Golden Globe nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

After two last minute postponements, I finally went to see the film last evening. If you want to see a movie with absolutely superb acting in a magnificent setting, go see the movie. Olivia Colman as Queen Anne (nicknamed by Lady Sarah Churchill as Mrs. Morley) received a very well-deserved best actress nomination. Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill (nicknamed Mrs. Freeman) and Emma Stone as Abigail Masham (née Hill), Lady Sarah’s cousin, were both, very unusually, nominated for best-supporting actress. By the rules of the game, at least two of the three have excellent chances of winning. But what’s in a name? Is not everything malleable? All that is presumed to be fixed evaporates in a puff of smoke.

Perhaps the wonderful costuming (Sandy Powell) alone is sufficient reason to see the film, especially on the big screen. The frumpy and sometimes supposedly elegant (as in one of the horse-riding scenes) clothes worn by the grieving and despairing witless and dull queen stand in stark contrast to the high style of Lady Churchill’s androgynous court costumes and the increasingly flamboyant and over-the-top nouveau riche striving of Abigail (less successful in her case). Even the dresses of the maids and ladies-in-waiting convey the relationship of lordship and bondage in a sick social hierarchy.

Although there is no sign of Queen Anne’s lace in the movie, a ruthless fellow maid tricks Abigail into washing a floor with bare hands and hot water heavily laced with lye. There is an ingenious use of bandaging when Abigail wraps her hand, burned when she put her bare hand of soapy water to wash the stone floor, with her knowledge of herbal remedies, heals herself and gradually unwraps and throws away the bandage to gradually reveal a striving self-interested, ambitious and calculating, but absolutely gorgeous witch, at least according to the film rather than actual history.

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne is pitiful and pathetic, repulsive and revolted, jealous and needy, incompetent and moody, subject to both impulsive decisions and procrastination, but never, as one critic described her, someone with “guileless charm” or, as another described her, a person with both “awareness and intelligence that are palpable.” When backed into a corner where she was unwilling to go, she revealed herself as not absolutely spineless and would respond with fury and absolute commands, but the anger is never backed up by thought, reflection or even a plan. The queen is neither playful nor profound, a precise mirror for the film, though in history she proved generally to be a credit to her nation.

Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill is both lordly and possessed of a calculating honesty. But she also reveals herself as somewhat impervious to counter-argument, magnified in the film when her historically known love of discourse and argument are not put on display. However, one critic that I read this morning wrote of her as having “advised the queen on policy matters that she didn’t understand.” The critic is both an historical ignoramus and even misses her characterization in the movie. In fact, rarely have I read so many reviews that are both gushing while failing to note, that other than the great acting, the costumes and the set, the movie is bawdy but not brilliant and, for me, mostly a bloody bore.

Emma Stone as Abigail, as an abused child who was lost in a card game by her alcoholic father (was this true, a historical fabrication or one original to the movie?), developed a patina of innocence to cover what is gradually and misleadingly revealed in the film to be a calculating cold heart in the costume of a caring initially wide-eyed ingénue. Abigail is introduced in the movie by being pinched on the derrière as she leaves her carriage and lands splat in the mud. This is a very unsubtle introduction to sexual abuse and the unrepentant power of men who believe that they can grab pussies without complaint. In the movie, a true and sensitive friend to Queen Anne, whatever her political myopia, she comes across as struggling with an unresolved contradiction between caring and conniving. Later, Sarah will be dragged through the mud when she falls off her horse after being drugged by Abigail, again a very unsubtle reference to her newly fallen status. And one hears the echo of Jonathan Swift’s lines from “The Windsor Prophecy,” “They assassine when younge, and poison when old.”

A scene in which Lady Churchill teaches Abigail to shoot birds is revealing. Abigail does learn accuracy, but uses her acuity to splash the blood of the bird she shot on Lady Churchill’s dress. Presumably, her unbridled competition with a condescending mentor becomes fused and allows her quick learning to become diffused and mis-directed, resulting in the destruction of all three female leads in the movie. Only that has nothing to do with history and, therefore, satire, and everything to do with facile creativity and fake news.

If you want to avoid my least favourite movie of 2018, which also has the worst music score (mixing the classics with distracting scratchy modernist and brutalist contrapuntal electronic beats) and editing that is full of affectations rather than artful, do not see the movie. If you do go because you expect to see a good film and not simply terrific acting, you may not be as furious as I was after you leave the theatre, but you may be terribly disappointed. Crazy Rich Asians may also have been a case of false advertising and a bad movie, but I simply did not like it. I hated The Favourite.


First, because of the fake news and hype. Here are some summary headlines:

  1. “Iconoclastic revisionism – iconoclastic, yes, but “fake news” and boundaryless invention would be a better description than revisionism.
  2. “Largely based in fact” when the film is only tangentially based in fact.
  3. “Brilliant restoration comedy”
  4. Is the reference to xenophobic nationalism, transferred to the beginning of the eighteenth century popular opinion re the war with France, that passes as wit, funny? “They’ll be angrier when the French are sodomizing their wives and planting their fields with garlic.” By way of contrast, again read the words of a true satirist, Jonathan Swift’s “The Windsor Prophecy”

Then shall the tall black Daventry Bird
Speak against peace right many a word;
And some shall admire his coneying wit,
For many good groats his tongue shall slit.

  1. Is Lady Churchill’s zinger to Queen Anne’s request to show affection to her rabbits an example of epigrammatic snap: “Love has its limits.”
  2. What about the visual jokes?
  3. When on her wedding night, preoccupied with her machinations in court, Abigail coldly turns her back on her husband and masturbates him, is this supposed to be funny?
  4. Is the portrayal of the lords of the land as buffoons throwing pomegranates at a fat and naked servant supposed to be satire?
  5. Is the portrait of the bewigged lords and cackling cheering courtiers betting on a duck race supposed to be a clever comment? If so, on what?
  6. The scene with the wildly exaggerated courtly formality played out in an absolutely absurd bird courting (pun intended) in the mode of avant-garde period dance that imprints modern movements onto the refined and precisely scripted motions and movements between the genders of the period, in this case, between Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Lord Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), is, indeed, very funny, but it has little to do with satirizing the courtly manners of the early eighteenth century Stuart court and is certainly of no relevance to commenting on either the court manners of Elizabeth May or the bad manners of Donald Trump, though all members of the Queen Anne court in the first decade of the eighteenth century and the Donald Trump court in the second decade of the twenty-first century were and are characterized by sniping mixed with false flattery, menacing bullying and sycophancy. Instead, the movie is simply ill-mannered.
  7. “Arch political satire,” but the men who held the real power are mostly invisible and the men who held power on the surface did appear, but as emasculated ninnies and wimps, and there is not a single glimpse of an insightful political instinct.
  8. Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband, is never seen or even referred to, as best I can remember, though he does not die until 1706 whereas the film starts in 1705.
  9. The Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), Sarah’s husband, a true war hero, makes a cameo appearance at the beginning of the film never to be seen again – or he may have been in one of the last scenes, but it was too confusing to know.
  10. Lord Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) was not a racy lad or subsequently a put-upon cuckold; he did marry Abigail and receive his lordship as a reward for the affection and grace Abigail gave Anne; in the film, however, Abigail’s betrothed comes across as a handsome fun-loving ambitious man who is turned into a cuckold, but there is no transition or understanding provided.
  11. Nicholas Hoult as the Tory speaker of the House of Lords, Lord Harley, is portrayed as a rouged fop obsessed with high fashion and ostentatious frippery, though underneath his outrageous makeup and wig, a handsome man who was in fact a cousin of Abigail, but that is not noted in the film; except for that one moment, in spite of being in many scenes, he too remains hidden.
  12. “Scintillating black comedy of manners,” but the pampering of the queen is obscene rather than objectionable and the concern for her obvious extreme loneliness, intended perhaps to lend a glimmer of heart to the movie, instead of being painful, comes across as literally a pain in the ass
  13. “Boldly feminine-centric” – nonsense, even though the women have the top power, the movie is misogynist, especially because the women are both in charge and portrayed as different expressions of witches.
  14. Most generally, the movie is unequivocally misanthropic.
  15. Thematic stupidity:

“Power is a fickle thing. There are those who hold it that have no idea what it is, and those that grasp for it, terrified of its loss. It slithers between people.”

However, things are not fickle; people are. Further, Lady Churchill, when she lost power, certainly understood it and was truly determined to use it for what she saw as the good of the country. Though determined to hold onto power, as portrayed in the movie, she was not terrified at its loss, but was a true believer in the slogan that “What goes around comes around.” And it did.

  1. The affectations of the camera work, though my youngest son may comment that, although I have recovered my sight in both eyes, I remain blind to the brilliance of visual story-telling.
  2. The love affair of Queen Anne and Abigail superimposed with hordes of bunnies!!!!
  3. Wide angles and warped effects of rooms and distorted representations of objects, as perhaps a negative commentary on the possibility of objective truth, tells us more about the film itself than the period or the present.
  4. Fish eye effects zeroing in on the goldfish bowl of the palace, whereas the scheming and backbiting are normally hidden from view.
  5. The camera in constant motion lest we be allowed time for reflection
  6. The angular framing in a film that imitates like the ugly and dysfunctional entry to the ROM.

Then there is the script. A Golden Globe award for best screenplay! Someone has to be kidding. Though Deborah Davies and Tony MacNamara were widely lauded for their script, I found that clever filthy quips do not add up to good jokes let alone brilliant writing. Is Emma Stone as Abigail walking down a long palace hall saying “fuck” over and over again supposed to be scintillating? And what about the division of the movie into chapters with titles meant themselves to be quips, but which can only be read as either obvious and simplistic, or irrelevant and absolutely inexplicable?


To be continued – Part II tomorrow on History and Film

Dreaming of Riches – Parashat Mikeitz (Genesis 41-44)

Have you ever noticed how many biblical stories are concerned with money? At the same time, have you noticed how few commentaries on parashiyot take up the problem of wealth and its significance? Why the discrepancy? When I opened my email this morning, at least 80% of them had to do with money, and this was after a number of self-evident immediate deletions. I originally typed in 50%, but, as I listed the first twenty stories and notes that I received and opened (I get an average of 80 per day), I kept going back and upping that figure and finally settled on the expression “at least” lest any higher figure look totally implausible.

You don’t believe me? Check your own emails this morning. You may wish to skip but perhaps out of curiousity glance at some of the stories I read before I write my blog each morning. The first twenty of mine included:

  1. Amazon offering a discount “Save up to 69% today;”
  2. Harry Rosen sending me a membership card to get rebates;
  3. Two communications about hiring someone to shovel our snow.
  4. An article entitled, “What the old economy got wrong, the blue economy could get right;”
  5. An article on the possibility of a second Brexit referendum in the face of possible (likely?) impending gloom and doom if Britain exits the EU, and, more significantly, does so without a trade deal;
  6. “High Court (Israel’s) OKs demolition of part of Barkan shooter’s home,” a story of economic punishment – destruction of private wealth – because of terrorist activity;
  7. A story titled, “Fatah: If Hamas is a terrorist organization, so are we,” a news report about Fatah, which has been withholding funds from Gaza, ironically now backing Hamas at the UN as the U.S. pushes a resolution condemning Hamas terrorism while the Palestinians insist attacking Israel, including civilian targets, cannot be called terrorism;
  8. A news story about the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel, David Lau, warning Israelis that, “liberal Zionist organizations are using resources to harm the Rabbinate and distance it from the public;”
  9. A story about hundreds of women calling on MK Aryeh Deri, who spent years in prison for fraud and has now been charged again, to stop Women of the Wall who conduct prayers at the Western Wall in protest against male and Orthodox exclusiveness;
  10. Netflix sending me a message about a new movie to watch;
  11. A story about “mixed” marriages in which one partner comes from a Jewish background and the other from a background that celebrated Christmas and how to discuss the melding of such traditions with civility, but what is most notable in the story in an absence of any reference about the custom that has emerged where the partner with a Jewish background ups the ante over the plethora of presents under a Christmas tree by offering gifts eight nights in a row;
  12. Trump’s efforts to push literally under a Persian rug the story of MBS’s alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who had worked for the Washington Post as a journalist, especially since Trump publicly asked rhetorically why this is important since Saudi Arabian investment and trade (largely in the purchase of arms) is so important for the U.S. economy, ignoring for the moment that factually that trade is not significant in the context of the whole American economy;
  13. A parallel story about the lawsuits registered against Trump businesses under the emoluments clauses of various federal laws prohibiting American politicians from personally benefitting from the political positions they hold – the Saudis booked floors of the Trump Hotel in Washington following Trump’s inauguration and poured “vast sums of money” into Trump properties;
  14. A general story about Donald Trump’s pecuniary obsessions and his identity as a “transactional” president;
  15. A specific story about Trump enterprises, particularly Mar-a-Lago, using illegal immigrants to clean rooms, wash dishes and take care of the grounds, and the few brave women who came out as illegals to rail against Trump’s hypocrisy: “We are tired of the abuse, the insults, the way he talks about us when he knows that we are here helping him make money, We sweat it out to attend to his every need and have to put up with his humiliation.”
  16. A story just about power rather than money concerning speculation over Angela Merkel’s successor in the face of growing right-wing populism in Germany;
  17. A story about the economies of the new president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who, in his first few days in office, has introduced specific symbolic economies – putting the president’s plane up for sale in California, opening up the presidential mansion to the public, continuing to drive his Volkswagen on his own rather than ride in a glitzy motorcade;
  18. A forthcoming Webinar on Immigration;
  19. An invocation to the Russians to scrap or modify their Novator Missile System to avoid an escalation in the new Cold War;
  20. A pithy story by Jamie Lauren Keiles on the JAP stereotype, the Jewish American Princess who embodied both an attitude and a style of dressing where, as a paragon of nuance, Jewish and American identities “collide in a calamity of Coach bags, upmarket loungewear, and entitled dispositions towards luxury and ease” with a style that prioritizes “grooming, trepidatious trendiness, and comfort;” “At worst, she [a JAP] is the dybbuk of the upwardly mobile, the ever-hounting spirit of the Jewish nouveau riche as it tries to find its place in the American class system. At best, she performs her own kind of Jewish drag, reclaiming the anti-Semitic tropes of yore as a positive ideal of Jewish womanhood. I see her as a queen of multitudinous existence” born, as Eve was from Adam, from a Jewish male’s insecurity about himself;

There are a plethora of other emails, such as one relevant to the series I have been writing on how the left is already writing the 2020 Democratic election platform, but this morning I want to focus on the song, “Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round,” as instantiated in bible stories, in particular, the story of Pharaoh’s dream and how Joseph rose to become the most powerful official in Egypt and how he was re-united with his brothers who sold him into slavery.

Look at Pharaoh’s two dreams about the seven lean and ugly cows devouring the seven handsome and healthy cows and the one in which the thin ears of grain swallow up the seven healthy and full ears of grain. It is a story about the importance of setting aside wealth accumulated in the present (cattle and grain) to provide for hard times, for the era of plenty to provide for a possible penurious future. It is also a tale of power as evidenced by an ostentatious display of material wealth.

42And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and placed it on Joseph’s hand, and he attired him [with] raiment of fine linen, and he placed the golden chain around his neck.   מב

וַיָּ֨סַר פַּרְעֹ֤ה אֶת־טַבַּעְתּוֹ֙ מֵעַ֣ל יָד֔וֹ וַיִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֖הּ עַל־יַ֣ד יוֹסֵ֑ף וַיַּלְבֵּ֤שׁ אֹתוֹ֙ בִּגְדֵי־שֵׁ֔שׁ וַיָּ֛שֶׂם רְבִ֥ד הַזָּהָ֖ב עַל־צַוָּארֽוֹ:

During the seven years of plenty, after being married to the daughter of a governor, Joseph began the years of famine and want with his two sons, Manasseh named to remind Joseph that he has forgotten both his past sorrows as well as the whole house of his father, and Ephraim, symbolizing how “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” In Manasseh, the older son, the painful memory of being picked on by his brothers is combined with missing the warmth and ties of family. In Ephraim, the memory of early slavery in Egypt is tied to his rise in power and wealth. Just as the pleasure of family life is accompanied with much pain so, in achieving economic wealth, one must not forget the times of affliction.

However, others’ afflictions can be used to gather even more wealth as scarce bread is sold to Egyptians initially in exchange for their savings and eventually in exchange for their lands, reducing independent Egyptian landowners to peasants. However, in the case of family members, they were given food as a gift since the money they paid was returned. Joseph had misleadingly accused his brothers of being spies who had come to Egypt only “to lord over the nakedness of the land.” (42:12) He held one brother, Simeon, back as a hostage in order that his nine other brothers return with Benjamin, his only full blood brother, the youngest of the twelve, ostensibly to prove that they had indeed come to buy grain and not spy out the land.

Why did they comply? Not just to get the one brother out of captivity, but because they were guilt-ridden and felt the current calamity had come upon them for what they had done to their brother [Joseph] and had not listened to his pleas for help. They feared that blood was being demanded to make up for the blood they had betrayed. They returned to their father’s home where Jacob bemoaned all the troubles that had now befallen him – Joseph ostensibly dead, Simeon in prison and now Benjamin, his youngest, to be taken away.

Jacob was not willing to risk the loss of Benjamin, the last surviving son, as far as he knew, of his beloved Rachel. Reuben only convinced him by assuring his father that if he, Reuben, did not return with both Simeon and Benjamin, his father could put his own two sons to death, echoing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son to prove his fealty to his God. Jacob, now explicitly called Israel, asked his sons why they had told the most powerful man in Egypt that they had a younger brother still at home. They said that they had been tricked by what initially seemed simply to be a friendly inquiry about the family.

Judah offered the final argument to convince his father, not a pledge of sacrifice of the children of Reuben, but of a pledge that all would survive, that the family would prosper and all the children and the children’s children would thrive. Jacob, now Israel, agreed and set them back to Egypt with gifts – balm, wax, honey, pistachios and almonds, as well as the money to be paid for more grain and the money that they had found in their sacks to be returned.

Then the most touching scene when Joseph beheld his brother, Benjamin, and learned that his father was still alive.

29 And he lifted his eyes and saw Benjamin, his brother, the son of his mother, and he said, “Is this your little brother, whom you told me about?” And he said, “May God favor you, my son.”   כט

וַיִּשָּׂ֣א עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּ֞רְא אֶת־בִּנְיָמִ֣ין אָחִיו֘ בֶּן־אִמּוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֲזֶה֙ אֲחִיכֶ֣ם הַקָּטֹ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּאמַ֕ר אֱלֹהִ֥ים יָחְנְךָ֖ בְּנִֽי:

30 And Joseph hastened, for his mercy was stirred toward his brother, and he wanted to weep; so he went into the room and wept there.   ל

וַיְמַהֵ֣ר יוֹסֵ֗ף כִּֽי־נִכְמְר֤וּ רַֽחֲמָיו֙ אֶל־אָחִ֔יו וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ לִבְכּ֑וֹת וַיָּבֹ֥א הַחַ֖דְרָה וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ שָֽׁמָּה:

But then one last trick. Not only did Joseph return the money to the sacks of the ten brothers that they had brought this time, not only did Joseph return the money which they had brought with them that they had found in their sacks after the first trip to purchase grain, Joseph had his men hide his gold goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Then, as the sons of Israel were on their journey home, Joseph’s minions caught up with them, accused them of stealing the goblet which they found in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers were forced to return and stand before Joseph where he pronounced that they all could return except Benjamin who would become his slave.

And there the story is left as a cliff hanger until the next week.

But the messages are clear.

  1. Blood is indeed thicker, not only than water but gold, a lesson Israel (Jacob) failed to learn when he avoided reconciliation with his brother and thought gifts alone would buy Esau off.
  2. Transactional exchanges, of money in return for goods or burial plots (Abraham), are to be trusted, not gifts and the shame culture associated with gifts.
  3. Money is important as a record of a history of hard work (all three of the founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), as an expression of status and power, but, most importantly, to accumulate for a rainy day, for buying a bride, for even paying ransom for relatives if needed.

This is not a tale of an ethics obligating redistribution based on a principle of either equality or even of helping the most disadvantaged. Presumably, those norms emerged later in the life of the nation after obligations had been extended from those closest in blood, to those members of one’s own tribe and then to a whole nation. But in that order. Such obligations were extended in the twentieth century to all of humankind.

So why is Hanukkah, which is always linked to this week’s portion, associated with gift giving? More importantly, why is the holiday linked with a divine miracle? The answer can be found in the Book of Daniel which mirrors and parallels the tale of Pharaoh’s dream, with Daniel not only revealing the interpretation of the dream but the dream itself. It is a story of God’s miraculous power and authority being more important than worldly power and wealth. According to Professor Michael Segal, “Daniel tells him [Nebuchadnezzar] “about a statue with a golden head, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, and legs of iron, which is crushed by a giant stone, which itself becomes a mountain (vv. 31-35). Daniel explains that each of these metals represents a kingdom that would rule the world, and the stone is God’s kingdom (vv. 36-45).”

What is that stone that is God’s kingdom? It is God manifest as mercy, as YWHY, as Hashem. “the name,” as the God which confronts man face-to-face rather than behind the scenes, as a force of nature, as the sum of all laws of nature and of the socio-economic and political laws governing human behaviour. God as Elohim. It is the name God acquires and develops as he wrestles with his own natural being. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “Hashem is God as we encounter Him in personal relationships, above all in speech, conversation, dialogue, words. Elohim is God as he is found in creation. Hashem is God as He is disclosed in revelation.”

That revelation takes place over the course of history as a moral and legal universe seeks sovereignty over a transactional universe of wealth and power, as a world of peace and grace seeks to make natural law the servant of history rather than its master, that reveals Joseph as a master of prediction and prophecy but not as a prophet. After all, in the whole long tale, God never once addresses Joseph, never once interprets the dreams for him, never once assigns Joseph a historic mission, never once establishes his role as a leader rather than just a ruler. It should not be any surprise that Joseph takes advantage of the penury of the Egyptians to reduce them to peons and permanent subjection that will eventually build into an enormous resentment against the Israelites by a populist Pharaoh who brought destruction to Egypt.

On the Competition for Recognition Part IXA International Ethics & the American Left – John Rawls

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, wrote, “Now that I’ve left the Republican Party, I am often asked why I simply haven’t become a Democrat. In part it’s because I don’t agree with the progressive wing of the party: Some of them are as protectionist, isolationist and fiscally irresponsible as President Trump. But it’s also because, after having spent my entire adult life in one ideological bubble, I don’t want to join another. I refuse to make excuses for Trump — and I don’t want to be tempted to make excuses for a future Democratic president, either, as so many did for Bill Clinton after his sexual misconduct.”

Ignore for the moment the contradiction – Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes had nothing to do with ideology. Boot charged a part of the left in America with being protectionist, isolationist and fiscally irresponsible. Protectionist – a few perhaps, but the left overwhelmingly consists of free traders. The protectionist union members have largely shifted to Trump’s party. Isolationist? Hardly. A cautious approach to overseas intervention combined with a militant approach to humanitarian intervention is more like it. Hardly isolationist at all. And fiscally irresponsible? A very partial truth, more in understanding than in performance. The Democrats have not overseen massive cuts in taxes while running up the international debt enormously. More often they behave like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who confused $21 trillion in tracking problems in the Pentagon budget over 17 years with actual waste that could be used to cover the cost of expanding Medicaid estimated at $32 trillion, but over 10 not 17 years. In any case, the $21 trillion is not a record of waste but of inadequate accounting. Total defence spending over seventeen years, 1998-2015, was only $9 trillion.

Yet an anti-ideological position is very understandable. But the backdrop of the Republican Party is a marriage of economic ideology and cultural nativism. Left liberals, whether largely members of one party as in the U.S. or divided among several parties, as in Canada, have purportedly been parties of interests rather than ideologies. But that has been their problem. The parties of the left supported globalism, the same doctrine of the economic ideological conservatives, but, in part, betrayed the interests of industrial workers who saw their numbers shrivel as competition from industrialization in states working their way into a modern economy attracted companies and industries. At the same time, taxes for companies and wealthy individuals also declined in the competition to have these individuals and companies locate in one’s urban area, in a state or province, and in a country. The tax burden shifted from income to expenditures, largely through sales taxes.

The most obvious expressions of this tension between globalization – which demands in ethical terms that we rapidly decrease the use of fossil fuels to save the planet from the effects of climate change – and the interests of the average working class, are the current demonstrations and riots in France. Macron’s carbon tax proposals disproportionately affect working people who live in exurbia and travel by vehicle long distances to work. They are not employed in the centre of large cities served by subways. And when they are, they have to commute relatively long distances. Alternatively, they need vehicles and pickups to carry their tools.

New forms of consumption taxes – whether sales or carbon taxes – end up being borne disproportionately by the working middle class in a polity that supposedly uses taxation to rectify imbalances in power and privilege in a modern political economy. The result – a revolt against globalism, whether the globalism of manufacturing and trade, the globalism of population movements of immigrants and refugees, the globalism of the environmentalists or the ethical globalism of the do-gooders of this world.

The liberal left in the U.S. is still overwhelmingly dominated by a coalition of centrists, liberals and progressives rather than the far left. Can the liberal left share a set of values, even if not an ideology, that can build on the globalized world created and left as our inheritance by the developers of the modern international system. Those creators may have come came from the left, as in the case of those committed to the development of international rights, legal and political institutions, or from the right as in the case of the role of the last conservative president in that tradition who lies in state in Texas today, George H. W. Bush.

In my intellectual education, four international ethicists stood out who tried to address this problem when it was still in an inchoate state – John Rawls, Richard Rorty, Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel – all committed to the primacy of the practical. I have excluded any consideration of Robert Nozick’s libertarianism that is used to inform the ethical right. I intend to examine each of these four in turn, unfortunately very briefly, in this blog and the next three that will follow, to assess whether there exists a coherent philosophy that can ground the left liberal position as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper did for the economic right. The central theme is justice.

The philosophy of John Rawls can best be aligned with conservative or liberal centrism and was set forth in his writings during the seventies and eighties. Many would question his membership on the liberal left at all since he has most often been identified as a conservative. But he is an ethical conservative dealing with global ethics and its appropriate norms, a stance which informed, implicitly or explicitly, the positions of ethical politicians confronting the dilemmas of the modern world. In my exposition, rather than any critique of the theoretical flaws and inadequacies, I focus on only a few selected essays and works most relevant to my concerns:

TJ – 1971: A Theory of Justice

FG – 1975: “Fairness to Goodness”

KCE – 1975: “A Kantian Conception of Equality”

BLP – 1982: “The Basic Liberties and their Priority” Tanner Lectures

JFPM – 1985: “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical”

IOC – 1987: “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus”

PRIG – 1988: “The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good”

DPOC – 1989: “The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus”

I begin with the issue of justice said to inform the operations of our social institutions and the measure of their performance, the worst effects on the most socially disadvantaged.  Rawls, Rorty, Walzer and Sandel had all set aside any classical notion that we could define moral truth as an abstract reference point or ground ethics in a divinely given or inspired revelation but, instead, sought to forge an ethics of reasonableness allowing agents in society to work out differences in resolving problems. In constructing a well-ordered society, which of these theories can best appeal to and motivate the various sectors on the liberal left?

Rawls set forth one prime criterion that is at the root of the development of institutions protecting individual rights in the modern world – social institutions must not tread upon or compromise the freedom and integrity of individual agents in a society. On the other hand, Rawls was not initially a globalist since he contended that his “philosophical system” only applied to self-sufficient, self-contained and closed systems theoretically abstracted from other societies.

How is this practical when there are no self-sufficient and self-contained nation-states in the modern world system? Rawls answered that the system of rights developed in a single self-sufficient and closed nation state had then to be applied to that same nation-state when it opened itself up to the rest of the world as the U.S. did when it moved from isolationism to becoming the leader of the free world. How do we deal with refugees while protecting rights? How do we deal with poverty and disabilities and illnesses abroad while ensuring minimum standards for everyone at home?

Let me offer a concrete example. The Gates foundation in an effort to counter AIDS in Uganda, poured plenty of money into the Ugandan health system to counter the problem. The incidence of AIDS declined dramatically and treatment rose in both quantity and quality. However, there were unintended effects. Infant and pregnant women mortality rates increased sharply as health professionals shifted from other areas of medicine to AIDS treatment where the rewards were significantly larger. At the same time, as medical personnel in Uganda enhanced their expertise, they were lured abroad because of that expertise. The result: the problems of distribution of health services in a nation that already had a severe shortage of health workers suffered even more. In the effort to address one problem, problems created in other areas more than offset the gains in the response to AIDS. Women and infants had become the least advantaged so that the issue was no longer the distribution of benefits to them, but that the emerging system of distribution turned them into a group with even greater needs.

In trying to protect the rights of AIDS patients to access appropriate health care, the problem then is not simply what happens to the most disadvantaged, but that the group that is most disadvantaged not only changes, but the overall ability to provide health care declines. In the effort to address one problem, the costs are born by another side of society that is also weak as well as for society as a whole and its abilities to distribute health care fairly.  At the same time, the health care system of the U.S. improves as it can now import health care workers without investing in their basic education and training. Further, those imported health workers tend to work in hospitals and clinics serving the most disadvantaged in America. When health facilities are staffed disproportionately by new immigrants, the most disadvantaged locally become even more disadvantaged as their interests and needs are served by those least politically rooted and those least able to defend the dignity and rights of those domestic citizens who become politically further disadvantaged.

Thus, an ethics rooted in the protection of rights and redistribution internationally through voluntary donations easily subverts its own intentions by shifting the disadvantaged constituency abroad (from AIDS patients to pregnant women and infants) and diminishing the political presence of the disadvantaged domestically. Lacking an overall polity to govern the system of redistribution, it is almost impossible to envision how a more comprehensive approach might be adopted to address the problem.

Thus, building a system of justice based on protecting the rights of individuals while measuring efforts at redistribution by the effects on those most disadvantaged does not seem to work in practice. No amount of playing with the two basic ethical supports would seem sufficient to deal with the problem. The failure in comprehensiveness is not simply a problem of mindblindness and “motivated cognition” that tends to focus on practical resolutions that comport with one’s own ethical premises, for any repairs attempted to address the shortcomings have a propensity to exaggerate rather than alleviate the problem of just redistribution by creating new distortions elsewhere, enhancing existing distortions at other nodes in the overall “system.”

Nor can the blame be placed on individuals or specific groups for enhancing the plight of those most disadvantaged in the name of protecting rights universally. For the cause is not a specific accountable agent but a systemic fault characterized by anonymity and the reality that we seem to recognize the defects only after they have become pronounced.

What if we approach these problems of complexity in the same way literary scholars do by focusing on intertextuality, the focus on similar and related problems in related spheres (literary types) that both differ from and reflect one another? It does not help, not only because the problems are too complex, not only because the interweaving is so dense, but because the starting point of a self-sufficient and self-contained nation-state conflicts with the issue of global redistribution when there is no global regulatory authority to govern redistribution. A centralist pragmatic ethic rooted in humanitarianism through charity combined with the protection of rights pushes in the direction of increased globalism without attacking the problem of an absence of a global governing authority charged with both protecting rights and engaging in redistribution to help the most disadvantaged.


Next: Richard Rorty

On the Competition for Recognition Part VIII International Law and the American Liberal Left  

Like every week lately, this is a momentous one. The coffin of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the U.S., lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Bush symbolized a time when the Republican Party presumably was a stand in for virtue in politics over and above interests. Leadership was defined in terms of duty, honour and service to one’s country to enhance decency, prudence, moderation and pragmatism.

At the same time, special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, offered a sentencing recommended on Donald Trump’s former advisor on foreign policy during his campaign and his first national security adviser for only 24 days, Michael Flynn. Mueller, though Flynn admitted his guilt in lying to the FBI, recommended that he not receive any prison time in return for his enormous cooperation with the Russia probe. According to the sentencing memo, Flynn had provided substantial assistance in his 19 interviews and offered firsthand information about the context and content of the interactions between Trump’s transition team and Russian government officials. Though heavily redacted, the court document more clearly than anything heretofore pointed to the very likely collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. We await the adumbrated next two shoes to be clarified and drop.

Flynn’s long military and public service record was both lauded as distinct among those charged as well as exemplary, at the same time as it was held up as a set of values Flynn had betrayed when he provided false information to government officials about his interchanges with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s record “should have made him particularly aware of the harm caused by providing false information to the government.”

Hopefully, this was another nail in the coffin of personal interests displacing the rule of law at the highest level of government.

As another piece of important news this week with respect to the first of the three positions mentioned above, international political negotiations, Donald Trump no sooner praised the exceptional results of his meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires to provide a 90-day breathing period and pause in raising tariffs on Chinese goods to allow the U.S, and China to renegotiate their trade relations, than he arrived back in Washington to tweet that he was Mr. Tariff Man, insisting that countries pay for the privilege of raiding America’s wealth. One day he celebrated his own negotiations. Two days later, he dissed those same discussions. The stock market, that had leaped ahead following the ostensible agreement in Argentina, just as rapidly and steeply plunged after Trump’s fickle behaviour and the contradictory readings of the Chinese (polite generalities) versus the American official press release (ostensibly specific reductions in Chinese tariffs, particularly on the import of automobiles). The four c’s of international political negotiations – compromise, consistency, coherence and correspondence with reality – all had been shredded and trashed immediately after victory had been announced.

In addition to virtue, the rule of law, politics in its highest form, there is only one other source to combat the assaults on decency and respect for your fellow humans by self-interested behaviour in accordance with presupposed law of the jungle, survival of the most self-interested and wily who will rob, steal, cheat and even murder to survive rather than sacrifice in the name of virtue, in the name of the rule of law or the governing order of prudence and political compromise that is the essence of politics. This immorality is the theme of a wonderful series we have been watching on Netflix, called Ozark, though the main protagonist, Marty Byrde played by James Bateman, a financial advisor, who seems at first just to be a nebbish and victim of his wife’s infidelities and his partner’s criminal activities, turns out to be a survivor in a world governed by immorality and lawlessness while he, surprisingly, retains a shred of decency and morality like the black stripe down the back of a skunk.

The fourth source of opposition is faith which thus far has been only introduced tangentially in the first year of the Ozark series. These competing forces for “good” – the importance of virtue, the rule of law, the necessity of political prudential compromise and perhaps faith – are all at work against the background of the U.N. conference on climate change that began in Poland this week. For accompanying the virtually unanimous reports of climate scientists of the dire future that awaits future generations on this earth and the failures of governments generally to meet even minimum targets they set for themselves let alone the much higher goals required to avoid an apocalypse, is the tale of the ignoramuses and so-called sceptics who pooh-pooh the idea of man-made destruction of their own planet. Against this background of hopelessness and helplessness, against the background of exhibitions of seeming long-lost virtues, against a background of weak persistence of determination, discipline, dedication and devotion to follow the rule of law domestically let alone internationally, we are reminded of a fourth source of strength in the battle against the forces of destruction and distraction currently sitting in our backdrop. It is the miracle of hope.

I was reminded of that when I watched a very short video of one of my younger sons yesterday helping his three-year old to light a candle for the Chanukah menorah. I do not know what moved me more to tears: my grandson exclaiming, “Now can I light the candle all by myself?” or my own supposedly no-longer religious son reciting the blessing in perfect Hebrew for lighting the candle; or, third, the sound of my wife with her beautiful voice singing, “Burn little candle, burn, burn, burn,” to my grandson. All are signs, even when unacknowledged, of a very different source of opposition to selfishness, lawlessness and ruthlessness – namely hope and a trust in miracles delivered from above which is purportedly the essence of Hanukkah.

The current bulletin of Chabad relays a story written by Simcha Bunim Unsdorfer called “Chanukah 1944 in Buchenwald,” excerpted from his volume, The Yellow Star. It is a tale of a small but brave group of Jews in the Nazi murder slave labour sub-camp of Niederorschel who connived to smuggle oil into their bunkhouse, obtain a match and create a wick to light the first candle of Hanukkah and even escape a Nazi guard and his vicious dog entering the bunkhouse as they were lighting the candle. Literally, a miracle from heaven saved them.

In this case, what matters is not whether the story actually happened, for various versions pop up in other settings, such as from prisoners of conscience camps in Siberia. As recorded by Asharon Baltazar, read, for example, the story of how a man of faith, Reb Mordechai Chanzin, a dissident who spent 21 years in gulag prisons for his “counter-revolutionary” activities to preserve the flickering flame of Judaism in the Soviet Union. He also evidently lit a menorah in the gulag with purloined oil, margarine in his case. What counts is the message that even in the most vile of situations, humans can be found who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the virtues of decency, respect and trust in one’s fellow human beings, and, in the end, hope for divine intervention in a world where everything seems stacked against the odds of human decency surviving.

Unsdorfer in his tale set in Buchenwald describes how the inmates in that bunkhouse had divided into various sub-groups. There were those who belonged to no group yet were consigned to the class of men who fought recklessly and ruthlessly to save their own skins, robbing, stealing and betraying in order to obtain extra food and better working conditions. Their actions were governed by the Darwinian natural law of survival of the fittest – that is, of the most unscrupulous and self-serving – in a context of omniscient terror.

Standing in opposition to these evil men were three tables or groups of men who shared three different approaches to life. There was the table of so-called intellectuals, really a group of professionals – doctors, lawyers, dentists, architects, and businessmen – who ate together and conducted themselves in accordance with rules and norms of fairness, who measured out the portions of food to ensure equality of benefits among them all. There was a group of “scientists” or sceptics, usually communists, at the “free table” where the non-believers sat who believed that both the intellectuals and the men of faith were naïve and that only by assigning power to an advanced guard dedicated to serving all could humans be saved from the strife and horror resulting from self-interest.

The table of faith and hope, at which Unsdorfer himself ate, was made up of Jews who managed, in spite of prohibitions, to pray to their God above. It is they who conspired to “cheat” and collect the oil “illegally” in contradiction to the rules and light the first candle for Hanukkah. It was they who found hope and strength in God and prayer to Him and not in man-made rules and laws and principles of egalitarian justice, nor in the forces of world history and certainly not in rapacious self-interest. They saw themselves as suffering for the sake of God who listened to their pleas.

They had their own authoritative leader, Benzi, who tolerated no arguments at his table and distributed the rations according to no known principles except that if anyone complained, they received the smallest proportion. Their risk and sense of self-sacrifice to attempt to light a Hanukkah candle was a homage paid to the past, to their ancestors throughout the ages who had kept their faith alive and continued to inspire them with hope, faith, and courage to survive the grimmest of circumstances.

All of this is but a prolegomena to writing a few words about a documentary we saw last evening at the Hot Docs cinema on Bloor St., called Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Firencz. Firencz was one of a number of exceptional individuals who grew up in the Great Depression and was the youngest prosecuting attorney at 27 years old who conducted the largest war crimes prosecution in history at Nuremberg, the trial of the men of the Einsatzgruppen, Schutzstaffel members of the SS, paramilitary death squads responsible for mass killings by shooting Jews, Gypsies and dissidents and, for a time, gassing them in closed trailers. The film is a paean to both Firencz and the emergence of international criminal law out of the ashes and atrocities of the WWII.

In the beginning of this documentary, we listen to the rhetoric of Robert H. Jackson in his opening statement at the first Nuremberg Trial of 21 major Nazi war criminals by an international military tribunal (Ben was a legal investigator for that trial) for killing 11 million people in WWII. It was seen as the greatest trial in human history. The opening statement of Ben Firencz was only summarized by himself, for it was not filmed, the cameras having only started after his opening statement. In both opening statements, the issue was not simply trying war criminals before an international court of criminal justice in which the facts are put forth as well as international norms of criminal responsibility, but also a justification for the creation of international criminal law and, in the end, the creation of an international criminal court that has, since the turn of this century, been established in The Hague. The development of international criminal justice and eventually of an International Criminal Court (ICC) was a dream realized for ethical and legal globalists.

Before the Nuremberg trials, there had never existed a system of international courts and the relevant investigative and prosecuting expertise to hold individuals to account for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The whole sphere of international human rights was being both invented and constituted in the nineteen-forties. Before then there had only been “victor’s justice.” The process which took a century to evolve began at the very end of the nineteenth century with the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 to apply ethical norms to the conduct of war. However, as the Nuremberg judges opined in 1946, “The Hague Convention nowhere designates such practices (methods of waging war) as criminal, nor is any sentence prescribed, nor any mention made of a court to try and punish offenders.”

The International Criminal Court was ratified by the minimum of sixty nations required, but excluding the U.S. Bill Clinton had signed the ratification at the last minute on his last day in office, inspired, according to the film, by an op-ed co-authored by Ben Firencz and Robert McNamara. Ben had quipped to McNamara that the latter had to recognize that if the international criminal law had been operational at the time of the Vietnam War, McNamara might have been one of the first to have been charged.

As it turned out, George W. Bush Jr. when he was elected refused to implement any U.S. involvement in the development of the ICC under the conviction of American exceptionalism, that America already followed those international norms and was unwilling to delegate its responsibilities to an international tribunal. Ironically, and tragically, Bush, and his sidekick Chaney, authorized the unlawful use of torture against captured alleged terrorists.

Now rhetoric can refer to how language that is neither honest nor reasonable is used to influence people by a man such as Donald Trump. Or, as in the film we saw last evening, it can refer to the opposite, the use of language to achieve a laudable purpose, in the case of the film, the establishment of a system of international criminal justice. The cinematic bio of Ben Firencz is a case in point, an exercise in film narrative or rhetoric to celebrate the life of a founder of the system of international criminal justice and the eventual development of an international criminal court, the ICC.

Rhetoric in both meanings, uses words, phrases and composition, “the artifact,” to persuade, to convey a message. We commentators opine on what the message is and evaluate it.  In the film, Ben Firencz openly comments on Jackson’s opening of his indictment, his use of heightened speech of enormous power to persuade his contemporaries and future historians of the importance of norms of international justice. In the case of an individual trial, the rhetorical foreword offers the framework for the criminal indictment rather than a historical framework proffered in an historic trial as, for example, in Plato’s narrative of the trial of Socrates.

The principles established at Nuremberg were based on justice according to international law and not vengeance. Evidence was offered to support the original contention, in the Firencz case, the enormous systematic collection of data and documentary records of the Nazi killing machine. Given the plethora of documentary evidence, there was no need to call witnesses.

If the prefatory speech at these trials set both the introduction to the justification of the use of international criminal trials in international affairs as well as a summary of the argument, methodology and conclusions warranted by the evidence to be presented, those arguments, as echoed in the rhetoric and narrative of the film itself, require a critique, for the very definition and nature of laudable discourse is that it be subject itself to examination and criticism. In the case of a bio-op of a moral hero told in romantic terms, that is difficult, for there is a propensity to regard the criticism as smearing the white patina of the hero of the film and the cause for which he stands.

Yet this counter communication and rhetorical critique is inherently required of laudable rhetoric and its convictions about reason and justice. That critique itself reveals new knowledge and offers an angular perspective on what has emerged as holy, in this case the elevation of rules and laws above faith, above supposed laws of history, above popular will which would probably dictate revenge and did result in capital punishment by hanging in spite of Ben Firensz’s extreme disquiet at the killing of what he called otherwise decent men who engaged in war and criminal activity, not out of any inner propensity, but because of the political forces extant at the time. In Ben’s eyes, these men could have gone either way. After all, according to his very dry wit, he himself was faced with the choice of becoming a criminal or becoming a lawyer when he was a high school student. He did not like the idea of being a criminal so he chose the alternative, law, about which he claimed to be entirely ignorant. And to think, I as a young boy, had always believed (falsely) that lawyers were crooks.

Ben was and remains even in his late nineties, a terrific rhetorician, a great story teller full of quips and short jokes. Was his narrative about international justice and the need for an international court valid in the context of the subsequent development of lawfare and the use of international courts to pursue political goals by other means? On what ethical foundations can we build a liberal international order?

On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIA U.S. Populist Left on the Ground – Members of the House

I have read a number of articles and heard a few commentators refer to the midterm election in the U.S. as a game changer for the Democratic Party, not for gaining 40 seats in the House of Representatives, not for setting the stage for a victory in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections, but for shifting the party significantly towards the radical left sufficiently that the complete conversion of the Republican Party to populism would be imitated over the next two years by the Democratic Party  so that a populist victory on the left that had come close with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016 would be victorious in 2020.

It just ain’t so! First in the midterm elections, representatives from the far-left did gain a foothold in the Democratic Party. However, it was small and highly unlikely to develop into a significant presence let alone a majority to turn a liberal-progressive party into one driven forward by left wing populism. I previously provided an overview of the divisions on the American political left in general. In this and the next two blogs, I focus on the divisions on the ground, more specifically, within the Democratic Party and parallel to the party in grass roots organizations. I offer evidence why a radical shift has not taken place and why it is highly unlikely to take place.

I will not take the time to demonstrate why, though Bernie Sanders exhibits some populist themes, he is a social democrat in the tradition of representative government in the West and not a populist per se. In a future blog I will show how, since Ronald Regan won the presidency, the Republican Party gradually shifted to the full-blown and very dangerous populism of the right under Donald Trump. That successful historical pattern and development in the Republic Party and its historic failure to develop in the Democratic Party will then be analyzed.

In this blog, I will cover the following:

1.     the far-left in the House of Representatives before the midterms;

2.     liberals and progressives added to their numbers in the 2018 elections.

In the next blog, as an example, I will document a toss-up district in which a far-leftist lost, a case where there are questions about whether the candidate was a progressive or a far-leftist, and then probe in greater detail the new far-left members of the Democratic Party who as of January will be Democratic Party members of the House of Representatives.

In the following blog, I will describe the character and roll of grassroots movement that developed between 2016-2018 that sprang up on the progressive and far-left side to indicate whether a grassroots movement has been set in place to prepare for a victory of or even a close competition by the fat left in the Democratic Party in the 2020 elections.

The primary division in the Democratic Party has been between the liberal wing and the progressives, the latter supporting much greater intervention by the state to help the disadvantaged. Most progressive members of the House of Representatives from 2014-2016 were identified for their support of generally liberal progressive reforms with respect to health care, environmental protection, gun control, racial and gender equality, education, and foreign policy. Interestingly, not one of them initiated bills on minimum wages, union organizing or job protection, the core traditional strength of the Democratic Party in connection with the labour movement. The six platforms covered are not specifically far-left. I identified 11 Democratic members of the House, just over 5% of the Democrats in the House, who have generally been identified as progressives on every one of these issues.

The bills they initiated were indicators:
Health Care
Rep. Mark Takano California 41st
Rep. Yvette Clarke New York 9th
Rep. Charlie Rangel New York (did not run in 2018 – alleged tax violations)
Rep. Judy Chu California 27th
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s At-Large District (non-voting)
Rep. Chris Van Hollen Jr. Maryland 8th; 2017 appointed to the Senate
Rep. Barbara Lee California 13th
Racial and Gender Equality
Rep. John Conyers Jr. Michigan, did not run – alleged harassment charges;
Rashida Tlaib succeeded him
Gun Control
Rep. Mike Honda California 17th
Rep. James “Jim” McGovern Massachusetts 2nd
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Arizona’s 3rd
Foreign Policy
Rep. Barbara Lee California 13th

There is another measure of assessing the degree of a far-left approach among Democrats in the House of Representatives – critical approaches to Israel, more specifically, vocally criticizing the occupation and/or labelling Israel as an apartheid state. Thus, Mark Takano might be considered in this group since he voted against a rebuke of the UNSC resolution opposing Israeli settlements on land that could be part of a Palestinian state. However, Takano has consistently been an unwavering advocate for the sovereignty and security of Israel clearly defined as a Jewish state. He is a progressive critic of Israel but not a leftist anti-Zionist.

Yvette Clarke is another possible far-leftist even though her district includes a good part of Crown Heights and Flatbush in Brooklyn heavily populated by Jews. Clarke, however, supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though some of her stances have subjected her to public criticism by constituents in her district. In 2009, she refused to support HofR resolution 867 criticizing the Goldstone Report, one for which Goldstone himself retracted his support. She signed two letters in 2010 critical of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, but later retracted her signature and support.  In 2015. Clarke indicated she would vote for President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, despite appeals from some of her Jewish constituents to vote against the deal. I personally would have done the same. In explaining her decision, Clarke said in a statement, “Iran is on the verge of creating a nuclear bomb, right now. The JCPOA provides a pathway that holds great potential to forever change this reality.” However, in 2015, Clarke, after initially expressing uncertainty, attended Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu‘s speech before a joint session of Congress. She is a critic not an anti-Zionist.

Judy Chu opposed the HofR Res. 11 that objected to the UNSC that deemed all settlements across the Green Line as illegal. Nevertheless, I would dub her a moderate progressive rather than far-left based on her voting record and stances on Israel. Eleanor Holmes, a veteran human rights activist from the sixties who was a member of SNCC, most recently attended the Washington Adas Israel Congregation interfaith and solidarity service memorializing the 11 parishioners killed in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. She too has no record of undermining the sovereignty and security of Israel.

Barbara Lee, who began here career of political activism as a volunteer for the Black Panthers and has been a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and is the current Whip and former Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was unique in opposing the Iraq War (as I did) and joined other members in September introducing a resolution to withdraw US military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, but has no record of anti-Israeli activity that I could find.

Mike Honda supported a Hof R resolution directing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State to end the blockade of student travel from Israel and called for a diplomatic initiative to lift the Gaza blockade, but has otherwise not been an activist against Israel. Jim McGovern is another human rights activist who has shown no pattern of undermining Israel. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, from Arizona’s also began his political career as a militant and is generally considered the most liberal member of the House, but he has no record of anti-Israel activity. His involvement on the boycott issue was not about Israel, but about boycotting Arizona itself for its stand on immigration.

The progressives in the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives in the last Congress were noticeably liberal and not far-left. The far-left did not have a single representative. That cannot be said after the midterm elections. (For the full results, see

Who was elected in the midterms in 1918? Here are samples in possible toss-up seats. In New York’s Third Congressional District, centered in northern Nassau County, the Democrat Tom Suozzi, a first-time congressman who won in 2016 over Jack Martins by just over 17,000 votes, defeated his Republican opponent, Dan DeBono, in 2018 by a margin of 17 points. To get the nomination in 2016, he had to defeat four other Democratic contenders, Anna Kaplan, Jon Kalman, Steven Stern and Jonathan Clarke and he was not really challenged in 2018. He outspent by six times the defeated GOP candidate.

In a district that was two-thirds white and one-third divided almost equally between Hispanics and Blacks, and with one-third of voters college graduates, one might have expected a much larger victory by the Democrats given the low opinion of Donald Trump and that DeBono, a former Navy SEAL, was a Trump-supporting banker endorsed by a Trump absolute loyalist, Roger Stone. The surprise is not that Suozzi won, but that his margin of victory was not much greater. On the other hand, if you look closely at the other races across the state, the efforts of upstarts or of third-party candidates largely fizzled out.

Jump to Texas where, going into the election, the Democrats only had 11 representatives compared to 25 Republicans. In the 2016 elections, John Culberson, a Republican in a supposedly swing seat, the 7th district, won by more than 31,000 votes. The seat went to Lizzie Pannill Fletcher by five points or about 12,000 votes in 2018. Lizzie had defeated Laura Moser, the left activist in a bitter primary contest.

In the other seat that the Democrats won, the 32nd district, Colin Allred, a Black former pro-football player and a civil rights attorney who could be said to be more left than liberal, defeated Pete Sessions, a well-established incumbent, by 6.6 points. It was a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and one in which a Libertarian candidate drew over five thousand votes away from the GOP.  Allred can be placed comfortably within the Democratic Congressional Progressive Caucus but is not far-left.

In California where Democrats voted 2:1 across the state against Republicans, of seven possible swing seats, every one shifted to the Democratic column. In the 48th district, projected to be a neck-and-neck race, Harley Rouda, a Democrat, beat the incumbent, the uniquely pro-Russia and pro-Trump Dana Rohrabacher, by 6.5 points in major part because the increase in voter turnout for the Democrats was double that of the Republicans. In fact, Orange County, formerly a Republican stronghold, became a Democratic one.

We could track each new winner in a swing seat, but the record is clear. The Democratic Party in the House of Representatives is made up of middle-road democrats and a significant minority of true progressives. However, there are now a very small cluster of far-left Democrats in the House, but they number just over 1% of the Democratic members. They will help shape the debate, but not the actual outcome concerning anti-Israel stances of far-left position. I will document this in the next blog.

The mark of a far-leftist in my view is one who follows the dictum of Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal, a Palestinian rights group. “You cannot take positions on social justice issues, on the border wall, on immigration rights, without addressing the injustices of the Israeli occupation.” If you vote for social justice issues consistently, you are a progressive. If you believe that you cannot separate social justice issues from Israel’s activities in the West Bank and Gaza, you are a member of the far-left.

In sum, the overwhelming number of Democrats who won in the midterm elections are liberals or progressives and not far-leftists.