Obama2. His Cultural Conservative Critics.30.01.13

I vividly recall in the summer of 1987 when Michael Marrus brought up to our cottage Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. I read the book and offered Michael what I thought was a devastating critique. Though the book was a surprising best seller, little did I anticipate that it would become the cultural bible for social conservatives whom I would be analyzing 25 years later. Cultural conservatives are radically different than economic conservatives. Cultural conservatives believe strongly in using the state for social engineering, not to facilitate greater equality or even greater equality of opportunity but to facilitate the reinforcement of a set of social values. Economic conservatives are adamantly opposed to the engineering state.

 

David Frum, as an economic conservative, has been highly critical of the cultural conservative attempt to take control of the Republican Party agenda and claims that, because of them claims, “The Republican Party is becoming increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America.” (“How the GOP Got Stuck in the Past,” Newsweek, 11 November 2012) Unlike his friend and fellow economic conservative, Conrad Black, Frum opined that, “When eco­nom­ic conditions are as bad as they were in 2012 and the incumbent wins anyway, that’s not ‘close’.”  Frum is inclined to blame Romney’s election loss to Obama on the cultural conservatives (otherwise known as the combative conservatives) and the reason why “the GOP is becoming the party off yesterday’s America.” Instead of Romney running as a strong fiscal conservative with a track record as a competent manager with a pragmatic disposition, Romney was forced by the cultural conservatives into a corner in order to win the nomination to refashion himself and come across as a contradictory weak-kneed amorphous persona. My interest is to analyze the nature of that opposition and to try to understand the extent to which that opposition demonizes Obama and is responsible for the chasm between Obama’s public image and the reality of his policies and actions. Frum wanted the cultural conservatives to be reborn as social conservatives and become religious and secular activists for the needy independent of a nanny state. However, Rick Santorum was the only Republican candidate who recognized that the middle class had become economic losers.

 

This recognition is not what drives the vast majority of cultural conservatives. William Bennett, needless to say no relation to Naftali Bennett leader of the Habayit Hayehudi pro-settler party in Israel that I wrote about last week, was the Secretary of Education in the George Bush Sr. administration from 1985 to 1988.  In a CNN piece “Republicans lost the culture war” dated 14 November 2012, Bennett drew attention to the claim that the Republicans were involved in a culture war more than a war over economic doctrine. (http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/14/…/bennett-gop…/index.html – United States) Cultural conservatives are a different breed than economic conservatives. They cite Plato and his dictum that the future depends on who teaches and what they teach. For cultural conservatives, the Lefties who preach multiculturalism rather than a one-size fits all American identity, who praise socialism and disparage capitalism, who teach relativism rather than certain moral precepts, who celebrate diversity at the cost of faith in American exceptionalism, who sew class divisions with special privileges, including preferential university admissions for minorities, need to be displaced and cultural conservatives with their moral foundations in family, faith, freedom, community country and moral conduct restored to supremacy. The universities and colleges have to be retaken or America is lost. Their battle is not an intellectual exchange but an institutional takeover.

 

Though William Bennett and Naftali Bennett are not blood relatives, they share a number of common traits. Both are paired with economic conservatives to pull the conservative polity further towards what is represented as the right. In the Israeli election, Naftali Bennett was the one to make Netanyahu more extreme, yuktzan Netanyahu, in contrast to Yair Lapid who was elected to make Netanyahu more moderate, yemurkaz Netanyahu. The cultural right in America also works to pull the Republican Party more towards the right.

 

Samuel Goldman in The American Conservative offered an analysis of “Naftali Bennett and the Continuing Appeal of Religious Nationalism” (14 January 2013) just before the elections in the wildly mistaken expectation that Naftali Bennett would possess the second largest cluster of seats in the Knesset. The legacy of the religious Zionists under Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Yehuda Kook was revived with the settler movement to re-establish religion as the foundation of the new Israel by becoming the settlers on the new frontier of Samaria and Judea and officers in the IDF. Religious settlers would displace socialist kibbutzniks as the icon of Israel reborn. Instead of the religious playing a role of keeping religion alive simply by partnering with the secular leading Zionists, or feeding off the trough of the state as religious welfare bums, the religious would soar into a leading role through their sacrifice and messianic leadership.

 

What are the ideological similarities of both groups? Naftali Bennett proposed annexing 62% of the West Bank and turning the remainder into a self-governing Bantustans. Imperialism married to exceptional state leadership inspired by religious precepts was alive as an ideology. The cultural right in America and Habayit Hayehudi both represent religious nationalist sentiments, to return the core of the respective nations to their true home, the heartland of America and Judea and Samaria respectively. If the West Bank settlers want to occupy Israel (see Ari Shavit’s piece in Haaretz on 3 January 2013), the cultural right want to retake America. They do it with a pincer movement by effectively establishing their own party, The Tea Party in America, and by taking control of a mainstream party by driving out the more moderate members, Meridor and Begin in the Likud in Israel and Colin Powell and the Rockefeller heirs in the Republican Party in America.

 

Though cultural and religious conservatives can be distinguished, unlike the link with economic conservativism which is only opportunistic, religious and cultural conservatives overlap considerably, though only the religious conservatives openly oppose the separation of religion and state and want to revive the influence of religion on politics. Both cultural and religious conservatives want to advance their goals through political participation in party politics. Both politicize religion. Basically they believe that a nation is held together by common bonds drawn from religious or classical sources. Their enemies are relativism and diversity when it comes to the national core values. Instead of multiculturalism, they espouse a more authentic version of identity. In Israel, the foundation stones of authentic life are the land of Israel (Eretz Israel), the Torah and Am Israel (the people of Israel). In America, the foundation stones are the American heartland, the American constitution interpreted as the genesis code for a great nation, and the people of American, an identity projected in the ideal image of small town America.

 

Rogers Brubaker, a colleague consulted when we undertook our study of genocide in Rwanda, wrote an article called “Religion and Nationalism” that was published in the journal Nations and Nationalism in 2011. Instead of regarding religion and nationalism as analogous phenomena or explaining nationalism through religious motifs as Sanford Levinson did in his book on Constitutional Faith (Princeton University Press) whereby a set of beliefs that had been secularized provided a sense of coherence to the American identity by being embodied in the Constitution, or adopting a third option and demonstrating how politics and religion were intertwined by politicians such as George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, the cultural right propagate a distinctively religious or quasi-religious form of nationalism.

 

Nationalism itself aspires to a congruity between the nation and the state. That is why separatists in Quebec and Scotland, though they currently come from the left and oppose religious nationalism, seek to secede. The state has the job of protecting the nation. Further, they espouse a fundamental ground for authority in the spirit of the nation whence the values that bind the nation arise. Those values provide the basic legitimacy for the activities of the state. The nationalism that became predominant in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries was secular and defined in opposition to and rivalry with religion. It espoused that individuals operated not only in two autonomous realms of religion and state but in a multitude of autonomous realms, the universities, the economy, the polity, civil society. The new religious nationalism said that if these realms were allowed to remain autonomous, the nation would disintegrate and wither away. The greatest danger to the nation came from the universities for they taught students that relativism and secularism were the norm. Instead of making claims for the nation that conjoined with religious claims, as Bush Jr, and Jimmy Carter had, religion was seen as providing authenticity to the nation. Instead of politicians just using religious symbols to advance their political programs, in religious nationalism, God spoke to his people; his people received their inspiration from religion which was both the foundation for the nation and the state, and the guarantor of the integrity of both.   

 

As Roger Friedland argued in an older 2001 article, (“Religious Nationalism and the Problem of Collective Representation (Annual Review of Sociology 27, 125-152), collective solidarity is located “in religious faith shared by embodied families”. The family is the backbone of the nation. Politics cannot be dependent on inclusiveness and diversity

So why do the cultural conservatives hate Obama even more than the economic conservatives? After all, Obama is a very strong family man. He is not only a Christian but claims in his writing to have been born again, not in the sense that he suddenly received the light and the spirit of Jesus took over his very being, but in the sense that he was brought up without faith in Christianity and returned to embrace that faith of his mother’s parents as an adult. He has confessed his sins and made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as his saviour “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life.” As Joel Hunter (former president of the Christian Coalition started by Pat Robertson and author of A New Kind of Conservative as well as a Methodist and spiritual adviser to Obama) has testified, “There is simply no question about it: Barack Obama is a born again man who has trusted in Jesus Christ with his whole heart.” But Obama is a liberal. As he said in a 2006 speech, “secularists shouldn’t bar believers from the public square, but neither should people of faith expect America to be one vast amen corner.”

 

Most community conservatives decry these claims as a fraud and a ruse. Because Obama’s Christianity harks back to the social gospel, to social service and taking care of those in need and not to conservatism. Obama is a strong family man and a Christian who is a twentieth-century liberal. In 2008, when presented with a choice between someone who was not born again, McCain, and Obama, many actually voted for Obama. Those numbers declined in 2012, but still an estimated six million evangelicals supported Obama, particularly if they were young. Why? Because they too were Christian liberals and supported healthcare, support for education and a fairer allocation of taxation relative to income.  (http://www.christianpost.com/news/young-born-again-christians-lose-interest-in-obama-barna-group-says-84496/#2M6aplFRqYIGEz9g.99)

 

The strident opposition comes from evangelical Christians who are social conservatives for whom Obama’s family and Christian values give them apoplexy. A secular liberal is one thing but a Christian and a strong family man who is a liberal is another. The fight over alternative worlds versus alternative economic ideologies is much more heartfelt and vicious. Since it is about the moral quality of the person, it is doubly disconcerting to see the leader of your country as apparently upholding your religious and family values so if one is a community conservative, it is imperative that the ostensible believer be revealed as a fake and a dissembler. Denigration and demonization become central to the cause of discrediting Obama.   

 

So we have two groups, one adamantly and the other doubly opposed to Obama and eager to blacken his name and portray him as not only opposed to what they believe but as a failure. Is that sufficient to explain the alignment of his electoral support with his approval rating? After all, many a politician who one would not vote for is seen as a success even if one disagrees with his or her political agenda. To try to probe deeper I will examine first Obama`s cheerleaders and then his equivocal supporters.

[tags Obama, USA, President, politics, community conservatives]

Advertisements

Narcissism

Yesterday evening, Nancy and I went to see the play, Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle Vienna play, The Amorous Adventures of Anatol, at the Tarragon Theatre. This season we have been delighted and moved to see such wonderful productions as This is WarA Brimful of Asha, and No Great Mischief. But last night was a real disappointment and, given the seats we chose, we were trapped and could not slip out quietly and unobtrusively.

 

Perhaps the production was doubly disappointing because Morris Panych, a talented playwright and director in his own right, interpreted the play as just a piece of flaky Viennese pastry rather than a fast-paced farce with a dark centre that tells a tale of self-destruction of a vain, self-centred playboy in Freud’s world. (Freud, a friend of the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, would twenty years later publish an important paper on narcissism.) The whole pattern of the play is lost as Panych replicated the repetitive drawers of one of the most marvellous sets by Ken MacDonald (as well as uses of lighting and projection) in my recent theatre-going. The wall of compartmentalization apothecary multi-use drawers is used for doors, shop windows, peak-a-boo holes, and most of all store houses of memories by Anatol for collecting magical moments where each momento helps to recall, not the delightful creature whom he romanced, but just another of his own fanciful projections.

 

I have been writing about sociopaths and lying; a wonderful opportunity was lost to reveal the pathology of the condition through the lens of humour and wit. First, instead of a pathological specimen, we saw Anatol played by Mike Shara only as an indecisive neurotic romantic twit so self-absorbed that the audience cannot possibly identify with him. But that is the challenge – how to get the playgoer involved in Anatol’s progressive self-destruction. All we get is repetition as if the director is as entranced as the main protagonist.  And Max, as played by Robert Persichini, is only a heavy-footed befuddled friend taking notes The production never allows you to see why. Does Max truly befriend this romantic, self-deluded and lying romantic scoundrel with soulful resigned patience as his proffered advice is rejected? The friendship is then totally incomprehensible. The lines presented as just light banter along the lines of a TV sitcom never emerge as a series of ironic and perceptive takes on the narcissism of Anatol. Max should have been played as a cigar-chomping, witty scientific observer, not a hapless buddy.

 

Perhaps I am being too hard. The series of seven women were played absolutely wonderfully by Nicole Underhay; she succeeds in bringing out each of the character’s unique resilient properties as we progress from victim to each very different variation who can increasingly turn the tables on the self-absorbed roué. But Panych could have done so much more with Adam Palooza who plays all the silent mime parts of doorman, servant, waiter to valet. As the bondsman to a master of self-conceit and self-deceit he could have provided so much more of the body language to comment on this preening poppycock. 

 

In the first scene with Hilda where Anatol’s jealousy is revealed as an absorption in his own imagination with his projections on women of himself as an irresponsible serial liar, the projection we see on the much magnified apothecary wall of drawers is the word “Hilda” rather than a translation of the original “Die Frage an das Schicksal” which was an adumbration of the fate of Anatol as the playwright played with the double-sided meaning of shicksa and fate. So another opportunity to unveil the darker meaning of the drama was lost.

 

One of the issues is of memory. If everything we deal with is merely a projection of our self-love, and the self is just a handsome, boastful uncomprehending dolt, then there is no memory at all. For memory differentiates. Memory teaches, Memory enriches our lives rather than reflecting it back as a series of boring repetitious failures so that all an Anatol wants to do is undercut even the memories of others. When Anatol says at the beginning of the play that everything is hypnosis and magic, then the shameless use of magic and its limits dramatized in the first scene gets lost as just a theatrical trick.

 

When in Greek myth Narcissus rejected the nymph Echo because he was so entranced and enraptured with his own reflection in a the river that Narcissus turned into a flower, the theme of vanity and self-absorption that requires the other to be reduced to a projection of oneself and oneself to spend one’s time in love with their own imagination of the other that they will not even follow through with a hypnosis of the other to be confronted with the truth, for the only truth is their self-absorption; there is no empathy. There is no understanding. There is no self-conscious awareness. And if the director does not comprehend this, then the combination of flattery and sense of vulnerability, the haughty tone of his words and the fear of being shamed, the thin skin and the use of clothes as a protective body shield, the hyperbolic exaggeration and the absorption in self and minutiae cannot be understood.  

 

How could Anatol have such contempt for women he professed to be in love with? Because it was a projection of his own self-contempt. How could he spend so much time degrading others with whom he was intimate? He had to as the only way to protect himself from seeing his own degradation. Where was the rage demonstrated of the narcissist when his expectations were thwarted and his will was frustrated? The exploitation of his conquests comes across more as a kitten playing with a ball of wool than an outrageous misuse of an Other. Where is the flitting back and forth and dizzying movement between fantasies of conquest and imaginative humiliations, exaggerated sense of one’s own intelligence and shame at one’s total display of banality? They are in the words and structure of play but we could not find them in that production.

 

 

Obama: Appearance and Reality – 1. His Conservative Economic Critics

Why is Obama portrayed as a failed president as he starts his second term in office? One explanation is the frequent, articulate and very numerous criticisms by conservative economic voices among the chattering classes. They paint a picture of Obama as converting America into a welfare regulatory state and inaugurating a social democratic program if not outright socialism. From the perspective of their economic ideology, they try to do anything to undermine his democratic legitimacy and weaken his political capital. The portrayal is unrelenting and unforgiving. Does it bear any resemblance to reality? 

 

Conrad Black in The National Post wept verbal tears after Barack Obama’s second historic victory as America’s first ever African-American president, even more than he wept over his own believed unjust incarceration under what he calls a terrorist regime of a fascistic prosecution. (Conrad Black: The Obama Disaster: Part II, 12 November 2012) Black wrote that, “Historically, when America has needed leadership, its greatest leaders have come forward. Not this year.”

 

Black implied that that Obama was elected with only a marginal mandate. As Black opined, Obama only managed to eke out a second victory because George Romney was such a weak and not very credible candidate for the Republicans. But the historical record suggests otherwise. Ignoring the electoral college, in which Obama won an overwhelming victory, and focusing only on the popular vote, Obama did not eke out a victory; he repeated the precedent of winning with 51.06% of the vote compared with the last democratic candidate who won a majority of voters, Jimmy Carter (50.08%). Bill Clinton won with only 43% of the popular vote in 1992. In 1996 when Bill Clinton won an overwhelming 379 Electoral College votes, he still only won 49.24% of the popular vote. Obama even beat George Bush’s 50.73% in 2004. In recent memory, until Reagan’s re-election, few presidential candidates won with over 50%. George Bush Sr. did with 53.37%, repeating what Franklin Roosevelt accomplished during WWII with 53.39%. In 1980, Ronald Reagan only won his first election with 50.75% of the vote, less than Obama’s share, but won the historic and unprecedented landslide in modern times in 1984 with 58.8%.

 

If we restrict Black’s interpretation of Obama’s victory as very marginal to only presidents running for re-election, the issue is not so much the margin of the popular vote but the discrepancy between that vote and his approval rate on inauguration day. The economic conservatives’ position on Obama’s approval rating is not so hyperbolic. Obama had an approval rating of 52% for the week of January 21-27 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/116479/barack-obama-presidential-job-approval.aspx) George F. Will declared that Barack Obama had the lowest approval rating of any re-elected president when inaugurated since WWII. (George F. Will “The President’s Contradictory Agenda,” The National Post, 28 January 2013, A12) Though Obama tied George W. Bush with the same approval rating at the beginning of his second term – just 52% – nevertheless both Bush Jr. and Obama really did enjoy the lowest approval rating of any re-elected president since WWII. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s was 59%, Ronald Reagan’s was 60%, Richard Nixon, who would not long after be forced to resign, had an approval rating of 65%. Dwight Eisenhower had an approval rating of 72%. 

 

Though the conservative right uses such statistics to weaken Obama’s legitimacy, I want to ask another question – why the discrepancy between Obama’s historic success at the ballot box but his historic failure to win the nation’s approval by a significant margin? If re-elected presidents generally have a significantly higher approval rate on their inauguration than their votes 2 1/2 months earlier on election day, why was Obama’s approval rate on the date of his inauguration virtually the same as his percentage of the popular vote?  

 

One reason offered is that right wing commentators keep harping on Obama as a failed president, particularly in economic matters. Economic growth continues to be sluggish. Although the unemployment rate is dropping, historically high percentages of Americans are out of work. As George F. Will put it, if the same percent of persons of working age were employed, there would be 14 more million people in the work force. Black lamented that, “The wealthiest country in history is bankrupt, with 50 million citizens in poverty and the entire middle class on an economic knife-edge.” Black bemoans that a $10-trillion of national debt, accumulated from 1776 to 2008, became a $16-trillion debt.

 

The assertions are correct but they ignore context and comparisons. The debt is less as a percentage of GDP than the debt incurred during WWII. They fail to acknowledge that the debt was an investment (admittedly a risky one) to save the nation from past follies to allow the country to grow in the future. The extra funds bailed out the financial sector, rescued the auto industry, invested in infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) in a way not seen since the Republic Eisenhower post WWII administration, and invested as well in education and in clean energy. Obama appears at least to have led America back from the brink of a great depression. Why is this not, at the very least, acknowledged even if one disagrees with the claim?

 

Peter Ferrara epitomized right wing critics of the Obama presidency with his article in Forbes on January 11, “President Obama Offers A Repeat Of His Same Failed Policies.” The refrain was similar to many others. Tax rate cuts are inherently pro-growth and expansionary. Government regulation depresses economic initiative. There is no distinction between taxes needed to build infrastructure and enhance education as crucial elements in economic growth and tax revenues spent on otherwise frivolous items. Nor is there any recognition of those regulations that enhance growth because they enlarge the field of economic opportunity. Instead we get a mantra of homogenization and lack of distinction, a mantra that refuses to take account of evidence that might falsify the claim that Obama is a failed president.

 

Do lower capital gains taxes produce greater revenues for the state? Then why did 2012 yield $38 billion less in capital gains taxes than in 2007? Did cutting the tax rate increase employment? If so, why is Obama blamed for the huge increase in unemployed Americans during his first term even though he agreed to continue the Bush capital gains tax cuts?  Len Burman of Syracuse University studied of the relationship between capital gains tax rates and economic growth between 1950 and 2011. His study showed no correlation between the two. Nor is the correlation negative. The rate cuts also did not affect the downturn in the economy. There is just no 1:1 correlation between capital gain tax cuts and economic growth in either direcion. (See Burman’s opening chart in his article in Forbes on 15 March 2012: “Capital Gains Tax Rates and Economic Growth (or not).”) The correlation was not even statistically significant. So capital gains cuts likely played no significant part in either economic growth or the series of economic downturns, including the overwhelming one that came after the end of the Bush presidency. This finding was confirmed by the independent Congressional Research Service (CRS) in its report, subsequently withdrawn under pressure of the Senate Republicans, Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945 and another report, Small Business and the Expiration of the 2001 Tax Rate Reductions: Economic Issues.

 

Jennifer Rubin, another right wing economic pundit in her op-ed, “Obama’s challenge: Why give a failed president another chance?” (The Washington Post, 3 September 2012) repeated the effort to blacken Obama’s economic record and challenged Obama for falling back on failed policies of raising taxes on the upper income group, expanding investments in teachers and education and enhancing infrastructure investments. Ashe Schow in The Foundry on 18 October 2012 in his article, “President Obama’s Taxpayer-Backed Green Energy Failures,” zeroed in on all the eco-companies that failed in their initiatives even though they received large federal government grants – Geothermal ($98.55m), Babcock and Brown ($178m), Ener1 ($118.5m) (Ner1 was sold to a Russian businessman). Johnson Controls ($299m). Others actually filed for bankruptcy – Abound Solar ($400m) (the company actually only received $68m when the government cut its loan off) and A123 Systems ($279m) (the Chinese conglomerate, Wanxiang Group, bought A123 for 1% of its share value at its peak evaluation), Solyndra ($535m).

 

The message is simple. Venture capitalists, not governments, should be the only ones entrusted to pick winners and losers. As Charles Krauthammer summed it up, Obama, who began his program of enlarging the state with medicare in his first term, reaffirmed his commitment to healing the planet in his second inaugural address by promising “a state-created green energy sector, massively subsidized (even as the state’s regulatory apparatus systematically squeezes fossil fuels, killing coal today, shale gas tomorrow).” (Charles Krauthammer: Obama Unbound – Our President Wants to Undo Everything Reagan Ever Did,” FoxNews, 24 January 2013.)

 

The charge that Obama invested in eco-company losers, let alone his cronies, is also distorted. One only has to choose enough winners to outpace losses from losers over the long term. For venture capitalist investments in green energy, it is too early to tell, though Jesse Jenkins, Devon Swezey, and Alex Trembath in their article, “Solyndra’s Failure Is No Reason To Abandon Federal Energy Innovation Policy” in Forbes on 2 September 2011 concluded that “when judged by its entire diverse portfolio of investments, the LGP has performed remarkably well.” They argue that, “with a capitalization of just $4 billion, DOE has committed or closed $37.8 billion in loan guarantees for 36 innovative clean energy projects. The Solyndra case represents less than 2% of total loan commitments made by DOE, and will be easily covered by a capitalization of eight to ten times larger than any ultimate losses expected following the bankruptcy proceedings.” Even if one does not accept those positive assessments, the reality is that when private government investments in green energy are compared to government investments, government investments were slightly more successful even though the private sector chose less risky and more senior tranches. (World Economic Forum http://www.weforum.org/content/closing-green-investment-gap) I myself was very surprised by this result.

 

If Americans went through the greatest downturn since the Great Depression, Obama did not put them there. Bush did under a program of tax cuts, expensive and apparently never-ending foreign wars, and transferring the costs to future generations. Instead of lauding the legislation that saved the auto industry and that launched the largest ever infrastructure program since the post WWII period under the Republican Eisenhower administration, the economic conservatives harp repeatedly on Obama’s alleged poor economic record and other sins such as the fact that the number of people with criminal records in the USA is heading towards 50 million. The economic conservatives do not go on to add that this is the case largely because of obsolete marihuana laws that are beginning to be dismantled under democratic state legislatures; finally, we are witnessing the reversal of the trend and continuing demands for incarceration as a primary policy for dealing with crime even by Republicans.

 

Black, although he granted that Obama has at least “avoided the open-ended adventurism of his predecessor,” did not credit him with much more. The right wing economic critics of Obama’s various economic strategies work by repetition of stock phrases, are selective in their citations, and ignore analyses that might falsify their beliefs. It is possible that their position could be right to some degree. However, they create a caricature. The evidence when weighed does not demonstrate that the economic conservatives are right. Instead the evidence suggests that ideological conviction rather than comparative detailed analyses yield their conclusions.

 

However, I am not so interested in determining whether the criticisms are correct or not. I am more interested in their methods of homogenizing and repeating negative colourings and conclusions based on selected writings, pithy refrains and repetition to blacken Obama’s image. Why are they so outrageously unfair? Are they responsible for Obama’s stalled approval rate staying at the same level as his popular vote on election day? Surely community conservatives must share at least part of the blame (tomorrow’s Blog), if the blame is to be placed on the repeated deformations of the right. 

[tags economics, neo-cons, USA, President]

Obama: Appearance and Reality – Introduction

“Obama’s is the most transformational presidency in modern history, but it simply does not feel that way.”
Michael Tomasky, “Obama’s Big and Quiet Transformation,” New York Review of Books, LX:2, 7 February
2013, 19.

Last week Obama was inaugurated for his second term. I was busy focused on the Israeli
election. Then it was Martin Luther King Day. I needed to say something. In the next
three weeks I will devote my Blog to Barack Obama, but only after first giving space
to his conservative economic and cultural critics who appear even more bizarre than
the economic spoilers. Though the conservative cultural critics are dismissed by many
of the conservative chattering class, such as David Frum, as a danger to Republican
prospects, they offer some deeper insight into the fundamental question that concerns
me. After I give his strong and weak defenders a chance to reply, I will then ask the
question that bothers me most? Why is Obama’s presidency experienced so widely as
at best a mediocre and, at worst, a failed performance? Why is he lauded by a few as a
great president? If he is a great president, why the discrepancy between appearance and
reality? Why the great chasm in experience? I offer a phenomenological account of the
experience of the Obama presidency as he begins his second term.

Like the serials of old that we used to watch in movie theatres on Saturday afternoon as
kids, I have divided the BLOG into instalments. Just let me know if you hate instalments
or hate hearing another word on Obama or hate both and do not want to receive the Blog.

Week I
Preview
A. Obama as a Failed President
B. Obama as a Dangerous President to the Essence of America
C. Obama as a Great President
D. Obama as an OK President

Week 2
E. Analysis of the Economic War Among the Chattering Class
F. Analysis of the Cultural War
G. The End of the Old Racial War on Both the Right and the Left
H. The New Cultural War

Week 3
I. Obama as a Black President Who Appears to Embody Whiteness
J. Obama as a White President Who Embodies Blackness
K. Obama as a Gestalt President – Both Black and White
L. Blackness as the New Cultural Norm.

Sociopaths

Psalms 73:18-20

18. Only on slippery places do You set them; You cast them into darkness. 19. How they have become desolate in an instant! They came to an end, they were consumed by terrors, 20. like a dream upon awakening. O my Lord, disgrace their image in the city.

 

 

Lance Armstrong’s public confession to doping in the bicycle racing world is a famous scandal around the world. Chris Spence’s resignation as Director of Education for the Toronto School Board for serial plagiarizing is a more local Canadian scandal in the educational world. In the medical world, and even more locally known, the anaesthesiologist, Dr. George Doodnaught, is undergoing a criminal trial alleging that he sexually assaulted 29 female patients when they were under conscious sedation?[1]  He claims he is innocent of the charges.

 

These three cases do not have the same degree of fame or, rather, infamy. Lance was known the world over as winner of seven Tour de France Grand Prix in bicycle racing as the leader of the U.S. Postal Services Team as well as a cancer survivor and philanthropist. Chris Spence was known in educational circles in Toronto as the very popular superintendant of education. Though also from Toronto, but in contrast to Chris Spence until charged with sexual assault, Dr. George Doodnaught was relatively unknown outside medical circles. What he did share with Lance Armstrong is that both had five children and possibly both are sociopaths. I believe, though Chris Spence was a serial liar, the evidence does not indicate he was a sociopath.

 

All three share the same ignominy of being well respected members and even leaders in their field until they were publicly exposed. At least two were known for overcoming enormous challenges. Lance Armstrong overcame cancer and even established a cancer charity, Live Strong. Chris Spence was a hero to the black community having risen from a child of Jamaican immigrants in Canada to a star line backer for the B.C. Lions (cf. his 2000 biography, Skin I’m in: Racism, Sports and Education) and an educator who eventually led the largest school board in Canada. But all three have become better known as frauds or alleged frauds for serial lying. The doctor continues to deny that he committed sexual assaults over a long period while his patients were under anaesthesia.

 

Further, society was taken in by their frauds and subsequent denials. People suspended any willingness to disbelieve and initially protected the reputations of all three, insisting on the integrity, responsibility and honesty of each of the men. In fact, Lance Armstrong, as by far the best known, wore his heroic status like a cloak to help hide his perfidy. In his interviews with Oprah Winfrey, he disclosed that fraud had become endemic to his life. Chris Spence in football learned that an essential element in successful play was the fake (or feint) whereby one runs in one direction to mislead an opponent and then breaks away in another. And one can only imagine the extra thrill an anaesthesiologist might have in fondling, kissing and even sticking his penis in the mouth of a partially sedated patient as his medical colleagues operated on that same patient on the other side of an antiseptic blue curtain. In fact, if the charges are upheld, one suspects that the thrill of performing in public under such high risk of exposure was part of the adrenaline rush in at least the Armstrong and possibly the medical scandal.

 

In education, plagiarizing is considered the foremost crime. In sports, taking banned substances to enhance performance is currently considered the greatest sin. And certainly sexually assaulting a helpless patient and then telling her that she was hallucinating under the influence of the anaesthetic can be considered one of the greatest breaches of the Hippocratic oath. In each case, the history of deceit allegedly went a long way back. Subsequent to the discovery and proof that Chris Spence had plagiarized parts of an op-ed piece, journalists uncovered a history of plagiarism that evidently went back to at least his PhD thesis for the University of Toronto and likely even his term papers as an undergraduate at York University where I taught for 37 years. For faking is an acquired skilled developed over time, not simply in presenting borrowed material as one’s own, but in presenting oneself in public as a significant achiever. It is not just the specific act that is faked; it is the whole performance.

 

These are not victimless crimes either. Mike Anderson was a bike mechanic who worked for Lance Armstrong between 2002 and 2004 not only to maintain his bikes but as a personal assistant, but was fired soon after finding steroids in Lance Armstrong’s medicine cabinet. When he asked for help in establishing a bike shop as he claims he had been promised, Armstrong sued Anderson for being unstable and untrustworthy. As Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah, he couldn’t remember how many people he had sued and, one might add, how many lives his actions ruined — including not only that of Mike Anderson but also that of Greg LeMond, now the only American winner of the Tour de France. Armstrong charged LeMond twelve years before his admission to doping with having a questionable relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari, the famous doctor of dope,[2] which charges led to the cancellation of LeMond’s sponsorship by Trek even though it was LeMond who resisted Armstrong’s entreaties to establish a connection with Ferrari and was evidently fired from the US team for it. Other victims included Frankie Andreu, Armstrong’s former team mate, and Emma O’Reilly, his former masseuse who in her 2003 book depicted Armstrong’s doping and whom Armstrong branded as an alcoholic whore for accusing him of back-dating a prescription to cover up a discovery that he had elevated levels of cortisone in his body in 1999.[3]  

 

Anderson, in his interview with Sports Illustrated[4], depicted Armstrong as completely lacking in empathy and incapable of genuine contrition. Kathy LeMond said he lied about her husband Greg, depicted him as a drunk and alcoholic and she recalled him as threatening, screaming, crazily angry and out of control, even suggesting he could access emails and phone calls. Greg lost his income, his company and his reputation.[5] Betsy Andreu said that, when she would not keep silent about the in 2007 admission she had overheard from Lance Armstrong to doctors that he had taken five PEDs, Armstrong went into character assassination mode and depicted her as a neurotic psychopathic who was bitter, jealous and vindictive.[6] However, the personal damage was not only psychological. Almost surely as a result of the doping culture in world cycling, just in the 13 months leading up to the 2004 cycling season, seven competitive cyclists died of heart attacks. (Hamilton and Coyle 2012)

 

Travis Tygart, CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), who had built the overwhelming case that Armstrong had been doping for years by using the banned blood booster miniature doses of EPO that were undetectable, blood transfusions, oral testosterone (only detectable for a few hours), corticosteroids like THG that was undetectable, masking agents, trafficking and for administering those drugs to other riders[7], received death threats when he investigated Lance Armstrong. Armstrong denied in his second interview with Oprah that he once offered USADA a donation of $250,000 though Travis Tygart confirmed that such an offer had been made in 2004.[8]

 

Even in the Oprah interviews, Armstrong continued to lie and denied that he had bullied other riders to dope; he insisted that he rode clean in 2009 and 2010 contrary to the evidence. As Anderson contended, the really big crime is not doping (or plagiarism or even sexual assault) but “the crime against human decency, against the truth”.[9] In his Oprah interviews, Armstrong presented himself as going along with an existing culture rather than as the strong and bullying proponent of the culture that he actually was. Though trying to blend the confessions with other lies may be part of the strategy of attempted recovery, not only is the recovery unlikely, but Armstrong and the others will not only have their careers ruined but, in the case of Armstrong, he is likely to lose much if not all of his reputed $125 million fortune as various parties sue him, such as the insurance company who paid him a $12.5 million bonus for his 2002 Tour de France win and The Sunday Times which erroneously settled a defamation suit for $1.5 million. The higher they have risen the further they have to fall.

 

Chris Spence, when initially exposed for plagiarism about one op-ed piece[10], apologized, offered an excuse and pledged to take an ethics course in journalism. When revealed as a serial plagiarist, he resigned as Director of Education and pledged “to restore my reputation, and to uphold academic integrity I consider to be so important. But most certainly, to make amends for what I have done.”[11] How is that possible? How can you return and uphold academic integrity when you have spent your whole life undermining an essential principle? Anyone can inadvertently plagiarize. But in Spence’s case, the pattern demonstrated continuous and outright borrowing from other people’s work. How do you make up to the numerous staunch supporters over the years and those deceived into awarding accolades?

 

Why do they really own up? First, they find themselves totally entrapped by their fraud. Lance Armstrong said he could not look his 13-year old son in the face who he overheard defending him. He also claimed to not want to compromise the charity he had set up though Anderson in his interview claimed that Armstrong had set up the charity as a sham, a cover up and disliked spending participating in its public events. Chris Spence said that he did want to be a further distraction to the Board of Education. George Doodnaught has not yet confessed to anything and still insists on his innocence even though over 20 women have given statements that they were sexually assaulted. What does he say to his children?

 

Why are the families closest to these fallen heroes last to know and most profoundly hurt? Why are the institutions around these men initially in such a state of disbelief and incredulity when accusations are first made that it may take years before any real investigation is undertaken and then, when the situation is uncovered, express such shock and dismay?

 

A search through the literature on sociopaths provides most of the answers.[12] Sociopathology was once referred to as moral insanity but in the language of the antiseptic present it is called an antisocial personality disorder characteristic of those who suffer from a lack of respect for the moral and legal order. Sociopathology begins with a person’s sense of self and sense of the Other, a magnified sense of themselves and a diminished sense of the Other, the magnitude of the view of themselves and the diminution of the Other providing the measure of their degree of sociopathology. So when you ask yourself how could they believe they never would be caught, remember that they regard themselves as omniscient and omnipotent and entitled to full self-realization without taking into account their impact on others

 

That is why Lance Armstrong of the three cases seems to be a leading sociopath. That is why sociopathology is so closely linked with narcissism. As Martin Buber pointed out in I and Thou, the other is treated as an object and not a self-determining agent with his or her own rights while sociopaths regard themselves as “entitled” to their rights, including a ‘right’ to return to the field where they caused so much destruction and from which they have been banned. In fact the one thing they cannot tolerate is banishment from living on the edge. That is also why they seem so incapable of any deep love so that when Armstrong seems to show empathy and compassion for his own son, it is difficult for others to know whether it is feigned and sincere since, in the past, such expressions were only tools to serve an ulterior motive. Why only when he was totally uncovered did he not understand the horrible situation into which he had put his children in conscripting them into the business of being a serial liar?

 

Where they demonstrate genuine passion is the outrage they feel when their own sense of self is damaged or threatened and why that outrage is accompanied by verbal outbursts, rage, abuse and efforts to mete out punishment on those perceived as out to hurt them. That is why their efforts are insatiable and that is why, when they are caught, they profess to want to make amends and seem to express some empathy perhaps for the first time, but show so little understanding of the depth of pain they caused others and what genuine atonement would really require – that is, directly and publicly recognizing and apologizing to those harmed, taking full responsibility for th harm caused and making amends in full and paying compensation.

That damage was mostly caused to others who thought they were their friends. Those friends, when their use as accomplices was over, were humiliated, punished and victimized. Sociopaths never truly recognize how they wrecked the lives of others; they only express a superficial sympathy for those others for being run over by a depersonalized truck. Sociopaths are no more responsible or reliable when they express contrition than when they built their edifice of double dealing for they never recognize that they are deeply sick, only that they were caught up and carried along in a systemic process for which the only responsibility they bore was not resisting its powerful effects.

All sociopaths are serial liars but not all serial liars are sociopaths. Though Chris Spence developed a habit of failing to credit others and hence of misrepresentation, his repeated lying and deceit did not seem to be undertaken for personal profit or pleasure but seemed to have been indulged in repeatedly in a way that increased the risk of discovery. Nor did he leave his route to success strewn with victims. Once caught he quickly assumed responsibility for his misdeeds, resigned and did not resort to trying to talk his way into redemption. Though a habitual deceiver, Chris Spence recognized he was engaged in an unacceptable practice. There seems no evidence of a record of vindictive behaviour. The irony is that, while the serial liar who is a sociopath will try to redeem himself in the eyes of others, the non-sociopathic serial liar will want to disappear into the woodwork. But serial liars who are not sociopaths are redeemable; genuine sociopaths do not seem to be.


[1] Dr. Doodnaught pleaded not guilty to 21 counts of sexual assault between 2006 and 2010 to 21 women age 25 to 75.

[2] Cf. Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle (2012) The Secret Race. Dr. Ferrari was banned for life from having any relationship with professional cycling.

[3] Emma O’Reilly, “Lance is a bully who branded me as an alcoholic whore,” Mail OnLine, 18 January 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/othersports/article-2264832/Lance-Armstrong-scandal-Emma-OReilly-Oprah-interview.html Cf. David Walsh and Pierre Ballester (2004) L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong, Paris: Editions de la Martiniere.

[4] David Epstein, “Mike Anderson, Lance Armstrong’s former bike mechanic, speaks out,” http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/more/news/20130117/mike-anderson-lance-armstrong/#ixzz2IMfjBPKN

[5] David Epstein, “Kathy LeMond: Armstrong embarrassed, not truly sorry,” Sports Illustrated, 18 January 2013. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/more/news/20130118/lance-armstrong-admission-kathy-lemond-reaction/

[6] Austin Murphy, “Betsy Andreu always knew that Lance Armstrong doped,” Sports Illustrated, 18 January 2013. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/more/news/20130117/betsy-andreu-lance-armstrong/

[7] Juliet Macur, “Witnesses Made Case Against Armstrong Potent,” The New York Times 24 August 2012.

[8] Michael O’Keefe, “Fiery Lance Armstrong in a state of denial,” New York Daily News, 18 January 2013. http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/i-team/lance-claims-offered-donation-usada-article-1.1243041

[10] Spence had written: ” In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, this is what our children need: For us to reassure them, listen to them and comfort them. We must also remind ourselves that schools are still exceedingly safe places for our children to be and believe it when we tell our children.” Those identical words were published by Aisha Sultan in the 24 December St. Louis Dispatch. Other paragraphs repeated Sultan word for word without attribution.

[11] Megan O’Toole and Chris Selley (2013) “‘You can’t be the director of education and plagiarizing’: Chris Spence resigns as head of school board,” 11 January.

[12] For an amateur scissors and paste but excellent summary of the literature on sociopaths, see, “Profile of a Sociopath” at http://www.mcafee.cc/Bin/sb.html.

Kant and Morality

1. Is Block’s interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative correct, namely that there are propositions universal in their application to all humans absolutely? 

Kant’s categorical imperatives are universal a priori propositions. That means they are not drawn from experience and are universal whether or not they apply in experience. Further, for Kant, they are a priori necessary conditions for having any moral sense whatsoever and that is what makes them universal moral propositions. If the first formulation of the categorical imperative is that one must act according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will (my italics) that the imperative become a universal law, how can you will what is already a given universal moral law in nature?  Categorical moral propositions are imperatives of reason, in the case of morality, of pure practical reason, that is, of a reason which legislates and prescribes rather than describes what is. That is why, for Kant, freedom and a self-conscious willing autonomous individual are transcendental a priori conditions inherent to having categorical imperatives and, hence, morality. If that is the case, then morality logically demands that every other human must be treated as a free self-conscious individual, in his formulation, as an end in itself and never as a means only. Further, given that each individual is an autonomous free and rational agent and given that each rational agent must treat every other human as a free and rational agent, then everyone must treat every other one according to a universal law as an end and never merely a means.

My depiction of Kant’s categorical imperative differs from Block’s in the following ways:

a) Though the categorical imperative inheres in all humans, all humans are not necessarily expressions of the categorical imperative even in a minimal sense. If humans are to be considered moral, they must treat every other human as an end, but if another human does not act on the basis of being a self-legislating being, but is a sociopath or a psychopath with absolutely no empathy for the other but just uses people, must that person who “appears” human be treated as a human? (I will have to answer this last query in a subsequent blog.)

b) Kant avoids linking the moral sense to natural proclivities versus Block who depicts the moral senses as akin to innate abilities and instincts, that is, empirical (and, hence, a posteriori) characteristics, for, in Block, respect for one another and a sense of justice” were imparted to humankind to enable “man to form societies and live together”. Quite aside from contradiction of introducing a consequentialist argument into a deontological account, this is an empirical account of moral sensibility as “basic emotions in man” that are innate rather than an a priori account that results from pure reasoning. Block writes: “I believe there is something innate about these feelings, such that we find it quite natural (my italics) to have them.”

c) For Kant, the good will which is the only thing good without qualification is a pure will, that is a will independent of and logically prior to any actual act of willing. Block writes that what, “one means by a good person is at least a person about whom one would say that it is unthinkable that this person could act unjustly or cruelly.” Not according to Kant. What one means by a good person is what he writes: a good person is one who can will that his actions be governed by universal moral principles and that that person treats every other human on the same basis. The judgement whether an actual individual is good is an empirical question about observing how the imperatives are made operational and not about the meta-ethics of imperatives themselves. 

d) Block says that “there are no excuses for lying” for prudentially it would mean that no one would have anything to do with a liar. Quite aside from the contradiction of introducing yet another consequentialist argument in  an anti-consequentialist deontological theory, and whether it is empirically valid to say that no one would have anything to do with a known liar – a proposition I believe could be easily falsified – let us simply look at Kant’s reasoning. The imperative not to lie is a perfect duty that follows from the categorical imperative because if lying were permissible, then anything anyone said could not be trusted and this would undercut the possibility of morality altogether. But what if Eichmann asked a woman whether she had a child hidden under her dress as he was ordering children onto a cattle car headed for Auschwitz, would she be permitted to lie i) to save her own life for if she told the truth she would be treating herself as a means only and not an end, a means to fulfill Nazi fantasies of extermination of the Jews; ii) to save the life of her child for if she revealed the location of the child, that child would be shipped to a death camp and exterminated? Block says that lying is never permitted. I say that what appears to be a lie is permitted in this case, possibly even for a Kantian because, as an imperative consistent with the categorical imperative, there is not only permission to tell what appears as a lie but a duty to deceive Eichmann if it means saving a human life. What one said would not be a lie in terms of the categorical imperative because it would not be a statement addressed to a person who endorsed the principle of the autonomy and freedom of every human individual.  For Block, there are no excuses for not telling the truth, However, the categorical imperative itself provides the excuse, for an untruth in this case is not a contradiction to the categorical imperative but an expression of it; what would be said or left unsaid is not a lie per se in the meta-ethical sense of the injunction not to tell lies. 

e) Goodness, for Kant, is not something concealed beneath a dark shell hidden in the soul but that which is readily visible to the pure light of reason when reason shines upon it. Nothing need be removed; the empirical realm only needs to be bracketed and the pure light of reason thrown on how moral reasoning takes place. 

f) Is the categorical character of a proposition that which makes the judgement moral?

For Kant, definitely! For consequentialists, teleological moralists or Darwinian emergent or natural moralists (the moral sense is empirically innate), no. Kant, though still avoiding any empirical contamination to a pure a priori proposition of pure practical reason, does slip into teleology with his concept of a “Kingdom of Ends”. Block, on the other hand, confuses universal empirical and general empirical propositions with categorical ones. For him, goodness is a nascent ability that needs to be developed rather than a condition identified by pure practical reason as a condition of any morality whatsoever. A good will is a logical and purely rational precondition and not an empirical element that merely needs nurturing. 

2. Are the core ideas of morality compassion and justice, and are compassion and justice basic moral senses? What is a basic moral sense – the fact that all humans are born with them, that is, moral qualities G-d gave man when he created the world? If someone is generally morally good does that mean that it is unthinkable or unimaginable that he would act unjustly, that he lacked compassion and/or a sense of justice?

When Adam was created, he demonstrated no sense of either compassion or justice. He did not even come close to compassion even for himself for he did not even recognize he was lonely. G-d had to tell him. And he did not recognize even his own body and his urges or that the erect phallus was part of himself for which he should take responsibility; the phallus was something other. He saw himself as made in the image of G-d creating things and bringing them into being by the sole act of naming them, therefore never even understanding the role of self-consciousness in naming and what Wittgenstein made clear, that the meaning of names of things are revealed by the role those names play in language as well as by the objects to which they refer. However, Adam not only failed to take responsibility for himself as an embodied creature and for his emotions (that is, as a moral being) and not only lacked any adequate insight into how language connected him with the world (that is, as a scientific being), but lacked any sense of the other. For though man is born of woman, Adam in his fantasy life and dreams saw Eve simply as a physical extension of himself rather than another autonomous being responsible for herself. So when they have sex, Eve acknowledges she allowed herself to be seduced. Adam, in typical male fashion, could only protest his innocence or ignorance. Only once thrown into the world of labour could and did man learn to become a moral being.

The knowledge of good and evil does not come from recognizing the good but by beginning to suffer the consequences of not taking responsibility for oneself, not understanding the other and not understanding that complaining that ‘its not fair’ starts from the opposite end of justice. So we do not begin with a nascent compassion and sense of justice but with a stubborn unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself, for being as anti what it should be to be a moral being as possible, and demonstrating both a lack of compassion and even recognition let alone lack of understanding for the other and an almost total lack of a sense of what justice means, for at that stage what is unjust is simply when anything bad occurs to you whether or not you deserved it.  Rather than it being unthinkable or unimaginable that a moral being would act unjustly, that he lacked compassion and/or a sense of justice, the understanding of morality begins precisely by imagining what it is to be irresponsible, to lack compassion and to have virtually no sense of justice. And the core of immorality is the failure to take responsibility for oneself and one’s actions in the world. What happens when some humans remain frozen in that stage and thereby become sociopaths? I will discuss that in a future blog.

Manna as Social Justice

Yesterday: -25C in Toronto with the wind chill; the streets covered with a patina of frost.
Today:
We must melt that frost.
Tomorrow: Jews read the Biblical portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16).
The parashah is also known as the “Shabbat Shira,” associated with the “Song of the Sea”
sung by Moses, Miriam, and all the Israelites after Pharoah’s charioteers were drowned.

When the Israelites begin their trek across the Sinai to the borders of Canaan, in the fifth
aliyah we read that Moses obtained water in Marah. The sixth aliyah (Exodus 16:11-
16:36) focuses on the manna that God delivers from heaven. In the seventh aliyah of the
parshah, Moses strikes a rock to once again get fresh water. Between the two walls of salt
water in the Reed Sea that drowned the Egyptian army, the dark places of the earth filled
with dens of violence were deposited (Psalms 74:20). By contrast, the story of manna is
located between two tales of fresh spring water. Enemies were slain by dividing the sea;
the Jewish people are revitalized and united by receiving manna and social justice.

For the Israelites, who obtained their freedom from bondage in Egypt, must still be taught
the relationship between hard work and distributive justice. Acquired wealth is irrelevant.
Everyone must work according to their capacities to gather the manna. “They gathered,
both the one who gathered much and the one who gathered little” (Exodus 16:16).

The gatherers are not allowed to keep all they gather; what is acquired must be
redistributed so that everyone receives a minimum sustaining portion. Now, the primary
issue is not the fear of restoring oppression of the Israelites by others, but the freedom
from oppression among themselves. The people must ensure sufficiency for all! We are
commanded not to forget the life of the poor, not let “the downtrodden be forgotten”.
(Psalms 74:21) On this principle the various tribes of Israel are brought together.

That is the lesson of the recent Israeli election. Jews must ensure social justice for all
(including Israeli Arabs) as a precondition of unity and confronting enemies. Hopefully,
all 120 members of the Knesset will unite on the principles of social justice. The
Israelites did not know what the manna from heaven was (Exodus 16:15). It is the bread
of social justice, a fine bare and rare substance, a thin and delicate layer encased in hoar
frost and dew. The layer of ice covering our hearts must melt and evaporate. Social
justice is a precondition of continuity, though one omer, a token of manna needs to be
preserved as a testament for future generations. (“Let one omer of it be kept throughout
the ages, in order that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness when I
brought you out from the land of Egypt.” Exodus 16:32) But, unlike the gold and jewels
with which the Israelites fled, social justice is not something you normally save up. It
becomes putrid. Social justice cannot be postponed for another day.

Except for shabbat! For on Friday we receive a double portion of manna. The second half
is held over to sustain everyone one extra day. For on shabbat, all of us, even the richest
among us, needs to receive the white coriander seed that tastes like a honey-covered
wafer from an Other and become a recipient as well as beneficiary of social justice.