Yesterday’s blog was late because I had another turn spending overnight at a sleep clinic. Monitoring my circadian rhythms threw me off the rhythm of my everyday life. My daily biological clock and my writing performance went out of synch.

The most frequent response to my blog has not been about the content. I have not received a note that goes along the following line: "That`s terribly boring deep shit; shouldn`t you get treated for logorrhoea?" I have received a number of encouraging positive responses. But the most frequent one has been about the frequency itself, and the quantity of words. "Don’t you ever sleep? How do you get so much done?"

Today, I offer a brief answer. I have a type of sleep phase disorder.

The condition presents itself as follows:

a) I sleep a shorter numbers of hours during the night (currently an average of 4.5 hours);

b) I get sleepy during the day, particularly around noon and 4:00 p.m. A brief 10 minute nap at those times solves the problem of sleepiness;

c) I can fall asleep at odd times. I was elected Chair of the Senate at York University years ago, and one of the reasons given for nominating me was that if I was chair, I could no longer fall asleep in the back row — as I was wont to do;

d) Sometimes it is embarrassing when I am introduced to someone new at a bad time for my sleep rhythm and the person introducing me does not know I have the disorder. I fall asleep in front of the person to whom I am being introduced. My host is far more embarrassed than I am since I am accustomed to my condition; the person to whom I am being introduced becomes either angry or bemused;

e) If someone gets angry at me to my face, a chemical reaction is set off and I go to sleep. If they were angry before, can you imagine the reaction when I go to sleep?

f) When I wake up, I am instantly wide awake and am usually working at my desk within a few minutes;

g) I very rarely dream before I wake up since my sleep rhythm shows I go from a very deep sleep to a wide awake state in a very short time;

h) When I lie down, I am usually asleep in a minute or two and quite often in 10-15 seconds.

i) I absolutely hate being woken up; if that happens, my normal easy going nature disappears;

j) I have apnea; this means I stop breathing 1-3 times per minute for a second or two, though at some exceptional times it can occur more frequently in one minute. This occurs both when I am awake and when asleep, but it occurs more frequently when I am asleep;

i) My apnea, which can be bothersome at first to others, is not even noticed when people get used to me;

j) Though the condition has been with me for as long as I can remember, I never became conscious of it until I was in my mid-thirties;

k) I have always considered that I have been blessed by this disorder, but in the last few years I have been informed that there are negative consequences;

l) For one, as you get older, you develop high blood pressure as a result of the shortage of oxygen as a result of the apnea;

m) As a consequence, I now sleep with a breathing machine and mask, a treatment which I resisted for the longest time. My doctors persuaded me to try it and, by golly, after six weeks of use, I am willing to go on one of those late night television ads, jump up and down and affirm that it works. I do get a better sleep;

n) There are sleep phase disorders, more formally circadian rhythm sleep disorders (CRSDs)

Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13. Part I

Obama 16 Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

Part I: Background


Howard Adelman

I will first set the debate over drones and targeted assassinations within the larger context of the overarching meta-narrative of the way America deals with the wicked, and specifically its foes, of which the movie, Zero Dark Thirty was an example. I will then sum up the historical residue of the first historical instance of American intervention overseas against non-state actors, the Barbary pirates at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I want to then connect this discussion with the movie, Zero Dark Thirty with respectto the decision process, the alternative modes of implementation and the factors considered. Then I will return to the issue of the after debate focus on torture versus an examination of the legal and ethical factors in the decision.

Tomorrow, in Part II, I will discuss the debate over the use of drones and targeted assassinations.

We are not living in the antebellum America of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, of Thoreau and the conversational popular poetry of Walt Whitman. Emerson deposited the core myth of American culture in its literature and defined American exceptionalism and indifference to the old and the rest of the world. Americans are different. Americans have had a different experience and have endured their own unique traumas. The American environment is different. It has a frontier (and when it crosses that frontier, it will always need another).

Contemporary Americans are heirs to the pre-Iraq War literature of Toni Morrison and Ralph Waldo Ellison though always haunted by pre Civil War shadows of Ahab’s fight with Moby Dick, except in the unusual parallel to hunting for Usama bin Laden. Further, Americans have the sense that to live a normal bourgeois life is to choose mere survival (as depicted in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending)rather than the adrenaline rush of true living. Americans, and perhaps many other peoples, love an adrenaline rush.

America’s role as leader of the world is not over. It is about to be reborn and resurrected, not in the stupid and self-destructive ways of George W. Bush and bully boy Dick Cheney who a year ago (12 March 2012) thought Toronto was too dangerous and cancelled a speaking engagement. America is now being reborn and resurrected in terms of the vision of Barack Obama. America will describe the world as Americans see it and remake the world in terms of that image. I am trying to get a handle on that new image and the analysis of domestic policy was the propaedeutic. The vision becomes clearest in the articulation of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

To inspire Americans with a new vision, the president has to embody a set of norms that most Americans will buy into. The only other alternative was to envision secession as the New England states did prior to the Civil War, and as the poet James Russell Lowell advocated in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1850s to free New Englanders from the taint of slavery. Lowell’s sense of an ending was articulated in his essay, "Where Will It End? Except for small groups of Americans, that vision of secession has certainly not been possible after Lincoln. Since the Civil War, Americans have to deke it out (excuse the Canadian hockey metaphor but it is appropriate), though no longer domestically using military means, until there is only one vision of America left as pre-eminent.

Walt Whitman claimed he was the poet that could embrace and speak for all Americans and articulate what it was like to live and experience both the chaos and the grandeur of such a dynamic country. He did not succeed. Instead America got Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War that taught most Americans not to kill each other, at least in a civil war, but also the desirability and necessity of fighting it out politically and symbolically. Barack Obama as a true heir to Whitman is busy selling America on itself in terms of his vision.

One hundred and fifty years later, the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 9/11 was the symbolic equivalent to the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861. The reality, horrific enough, is not nearly as important as its symbolism and its resonance with the iconography of American historiography.


Very soon after its birth, America became an interventionist power thrusting whatever might it had into situations of violence overseas. Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador of Israel to the United States and a well-renowned scholar, wrote an influential essay based on his bestselling 2007 book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. The article appeared in the journal, Politics (22 November 2008) "How To Deal With Pirates," in which he argued that the historical lesson was clear: respond aggressively.

At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, pirates, backed by the North African city-states of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, were attacking merchant ships in the Mediterranean. The pirates demanded protection money so the ships of the respective nation would not be attacked. Alternatively , and after the fact, they demanded ransom money for the sailors, ships and cargoes that they did capture. The rationale offered was not greed but the Islamic injunction in the Koran that Muslims had a "right and duty to make war upon whomever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." In London in 1795 they offered John Adams and Thomas Jefferson assurance that American ships would not be attacked if America paid $1 million, then 10% of the national budget. 20% of American overseas trade went through the Mediterranean. In opposition to John Adams, Jefferson was adamantly opposed to paying protection money. In 1785, Americans paid a ransom of $60,000 to get two ships released, but the costs for protection rose astronomically over the ensuing decade. Ten years later, the USA paid almost $1 million to get back the dey of Algiers and 115 sailors.

Lacking an overseas navy and no longer enjoying the protection of either the British navy or the French navy under their 1778 alliance, the Americans were cornered. Jefferson tried to create a coalition to fight the pirates but failed since most European states found it more expeditious to pay protection money than engage in another war. Initially, so did the USA which, for example, paid a tribute of $80,000 in 1784 but against the advice of Thomas Jefferson. "The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace." (Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson) In the new century he was president.

In 1801, when he refused to pay $225,000 and $25,000 per annum, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. Contrary to Jefferson’s previous resistance to a standing army or navy, he sent a small squadron of frigates to the Mediterranean. Americans were humiliated with the loss of the frigate, Philadelphia, and the capture of her crew in 1803. By 1805, after a spectacular raid that blew up the captured ship and caused extensive damage to Tripoli, and by sending additional ships and land forces, America largely freed itself from the scourge of pirates and paying annual tributes, a process that took ten further years to complete with naval victories by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur.

For a short version of this narrative, see Gerald W. Gawalt who is the manuscript specialist for early American history in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, "America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional War"; it is available online. For fuller versions see the following: Joseph Wheelan (2003) Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801–1805;Frank Lambert (2005) The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World; and Joshua E. London (2005) Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation. For a very livelier, short and more contentious account as indicated by the title, see Christopher Hitchens, "Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates" also available online. It is subtitled: "America’s first confrontation with the Islamic world helped forge a new nation’s character." Hitchens mentions that in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, later excised, he included a condemnation of “the Christian King of Great Britain” for engaging in “this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers.” The war served as a critical factor in the states agreeing to a stronger and more centralized federal system, especially for defence. Further, the culture created by those actions and their rhetorical embellishments inculcated into future generations the Marine Corps anthem with which most of us are familiar, at least with the opening line, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

Honour versus humiliation, self-defence and revenge, freedom of the seas versus ‘surrender’ to terrorism were all in play. Hitchens, Gewalt and others cite Kipling’s poem "Dane-Geld", especially the final two lines explicating why one should never surrender to depradation:

"For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

The Decision Process and Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty makes clear that a decision had been made to close down the operation tasked with finding bin Laden, a task that far pre-dated 9/11. The film suggests several of the possible reasons – the belief that he was either dead or so holed up in a cave in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan as to be ineffective, the shift in priority to home security, the need to execute two major wars, the lack of any solid intelligence on his location.

A formal announcement that the operation to find bin Laden, code-named Alec Station, had actually been abandoned was made by the CIA on 3 July 2006 and published in The New York Times the next day in a story entitled, "CIA Closes Unit Focused on Capture of bin Laden" even though George W. Bush had vowed after 9/11 in his usual propensity for over-statement that, "The most important thing is for us to find bin Laden," and reaffirmed that, "It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him." ("Transcript of Bush press conference," CNN, 13 March 2002 Note that the emphasis had been on his capture. I believe that this was not just for public relations purposes.

However, the issue getting bin Laden was resurrected in the 2008 presidential campaign with Obama replaying the Kennedy democratic tact of showing that a democratic candidate was more militant than the Republican one. In the second McCain-Obama presidential debate on 7 October 2008, mostly spent on domestic economic, education and health policy, one of the questions posed to the candidates on foreign affairs was the following one from Katie Hamm: "Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?" The question was about using Pakistan as a safe place to retreat by Afghani terrorists and whether the candidates favoured hot pursuit.

McCain responded first suggesting he was a metaphorical Canadian in the ilk of Paul Heinbecker and Don Hubert in support of prudent humanitarian intervention, an answer that had nothing to do with a question about hot pursuit and everything to do with McCain trying to counter an image of him as an uncontrollable hawk and to display his experience and cool prudence in contrast to that of Barack Obama. In citing the Canadians, I am here referring to the work on cooperative security undertaken in the last decades of the nineteenth century and its successor, the Canadian doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect that was articulated by Canada under the leadership of Canada’s then Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy and key civil servants such as Don Hubert and Paul Heinbecker, and academics such as Fen Hampson at The Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. (Cf. Rob McRae and Don Hubert (eds.) (2001) Human Security and the New Diplomacy: protecting people, promoting peace, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Fen Hampson (2002) Madness in the Multitude: Human Security and World Disorder, OUP).

By the middle of the first decade, the doctrine had received unanimous support by the United Nations and then virtually no implementable activities in spite of the strenuous efforts to ensure that the doctrine remained narrow and actionable. Libya could be interpreted as the rare exception. (Cf. Fen Hampson (2011) "Libya’s bigger lesson? There are no lessons," iPolitics INSIGHT, 29 August) I believe that civilian protection was offered as one reason for the air protection provided by the West, but I do not believe civilian protection was the main motivation. In any case, as Fen Hampson concluded, it was unlikely to be imitated. The twenty-first century continued as an American century and Canadian cosmopolitanism slipped into the background.

In the presidential debate, Obama responded to the question Katie Hamm raised that was similar to McCain’s only in that he too ignored the query. Instead of discussing hot pursuit, he said, "I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us." He pushed his refrain that Iraq was a bad war and Afghanistan is a just war because integrally related to the War on Terror. After inserting an aside on American humiliation in the past and that America should not be coddling Pakistan as McCain was suggesting, he added: "if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden (my italics); we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority." Not capture, not capture or kill, just kill. And he reiterated the point in a follow-up.

On 2 June 2009, seven months after he was elected, President Obama resurrected the hunt for bin Laden. There was no suggestion that this was a result of a lowly CIA gent uncovering new information. Obama directed Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, to have a detailed operational plan for locating and capturing (not killing) bin Laden. When bin Laden’s suspected compound was located in January of 2011, that it was bib Laden’s was far more overwhelming that suggested in the movie. In the film, the evidence is limited to the following:

– Abbottabad was an excellent communications hub

– the compound was .8 miles fro the Pakistan Military Academy implying this would inhibit an American raid, not that the Pakistani military would come to bin Laden’s aid

– the third floor balcony had a 7′ high privacy wall, sufficient to keep the 6’4" bin Laden from being seen

– the compound had no internet or landline telephone.

What was left out, presumably to help the plot and pacing, were the following:

– the compound was at the end of a dirt road

– it was built after 2001 but before 2005

– the compound was huge, eight times larger than the luxurious compounds nearby

– the surrounding wall was extra thick and extra high (12-18′)

– no garbage was ever set out for collection (someone correct me if my memory is incorrect on this one).

The delay in making the decision was not because of heavy doubts about whether the compound belonged to bin Laden but because of the time needed for preparation to ensure the best means were used with the least risk to the troops and America’s reputation. The preparation process had to provide for:

– the time it takes to establish a safe house

– the time to build the replica of the compound and practice (in taking the shortcut of failing to build the wall and only using a chain link fence in the model, the Americans failed to understand the effect of the wall on the downdraft of the helicopter rotors)

– the time to prepare the back up rescue team, in turn requiring a detailed understanding of roads, routes and traffic patterns

Evidence that the compound belonged to Obama was presented with three different options to attack it at a meeting of the National Security Council:

a) bomb the compound using B-2 stealth bombers;

b) send a smaller drone;

c) send in a tactical team by helicopter.

The first option was eventually ruled out for two reasons. A bomb large enough to destroy a possible or suspected underground bunker would blow up at least one adjacent Pakistani house and at least a dozen Pakistani civilians would be killed in addition to the civilians in the compound. Further, Pakistani cooperation would be required for that type of raid and the Americans, especially President Obama, did not trust the Pakistanis with information on a secret mission. Initially, however, Obama was on side with Maya in the film. He favoured the bombing option. Given the implications, at the meeting of the NSC on 29 March, that option was bracketed. The helicopter raid became the option of choice.

Why wasn’t the option of using a drone-fired tactical munition considered further since it was initially favoured by Robert Gates, then Defence Secretary? Because it depended on bin Laden’s habits and they were too irregular to guarantee certainty. At the end of March, orders were given to develop the implementation phase of the raid but without the final go ahead order. Note that all along there is no evidence that consideration was given to civilian deaths of women and children within the compound as a key factor in making the decision. The key factor was the safety of the tactical team and ensuring they got out. On 19 April when Obama gave the ok to the helicopter raid, he qualified the raid by insisting that the team be well enough equipped to fight their way out because he did not trust the plan to obtain Pakistani cooperation once the raid was underway if the military were alerted and initiated action. The final ok came on 29 April.

Yet none of the factors in this deliberation and planning were portrayed in the movie. It was just Maya’s will versus the cats in charge who did not seem to have her gumption. For a very detailed account of the deliberations over options and implementation, see Also read Mike Allen (2011) "Getting Osama bin Laden: How the Mission went down," Politico, 2 May.

As I wrote yesterday, in the movie Maya wanted to send drones or drop a bomb to blow up Usama bin Laden’s compound. The only references to why this option was taken is a reference to risk, risk to America’s reputation since a drone attack was far less risky to American troops than landing Navy Seals within Pakistan with a Pakistan military base less than a mile away. The presumption is that the women and children in the compound mattered, not because if they were killed, it might be offensive to legal and ethical principles under just law norms, but because America would have to deal with the negative fallout from the bad public relations that would follow. Further, a daring-do raid would have the opposite effect.

We never hear anything approaching a rational decisions process that would consider the conditions, the consequential expectations, the norms (these are not even mentioned), whether bin Laden should or should not be captured alive, etc. All we get are hints at such a debate and the implication that any rational process would have squashed an attack on the compound altogether. In the film, it was not Barack Obama’s or his advisors rational considerations that determined the outcome but Maya’s indomitable will and determination. The film did not really get into the difficulties in making the decision or the various factors that weighed on them. But neither did the discussion after the movie. Is a raid to kill bin Laden less reprehensible that if done with a drone?

Why did the film not think the issue of civilian protection in the compound was relevant? Further, why did the chattering classes spend all that word copy on the issue of torture and not debate killing Obama when there was no evidence he offered armed resistance? Why is a raid by Navy Seals on a compound in another country to kill residents therein a matter of enormous curiousity but not a matter of a normative debate when, within weeks of the release of the film, a raucous debate rose up over the use of drones and targeted killings? Yet the killing of bin Laden was the most sensational targeted assassination of any of them. Is it alright to kill the unique albino Moby Dick while enormous energies are spent on determining whether it is right or not to kill various other types of Islamist toothed whales — sperm, narwhal, pilot and beluga whales — and what degree of collateral damage can be tolerated for baleen whales whether they be blues, grays, bowhead, fin, humpback, minke or right whales?

Tomorrow Obama 17 Drones and Assassinations 21.02.13

Part II: Circumstances, Objectives, Anticipated Results and Norms


[Tag Obama, bin
Laden, Barbary Pirates, Zero Dark Thirty, Targeted Assassination]

Obama16.Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13.doc

Obama15.Zero Dark Thirty.Deciding to Kill bin Laden

WARNING: If you have not seen Zero Dark Thirty and do not like the plot revealed, do not read past the first six to eight paragraphs. The essay is also attached.

Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13


Howard Adelman

There has been an enormous amount of paper spent on the ethical question of torture as portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal’s (the screenwriter) movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Some questions were raised about whether the torture scenes should have been portrayed with such realism, whether the claims to journalistic or historical accuracy should have been made in a fictional film that was a slender selection from historical events (the movie opens with the undeniable assertion that the film is based on firsthand accounts of actual events), about how the filmmakers obtained access to all the information and whether the release of the film was initially scheduled to boost Obama’s chances of re-election, especially since both John McCain and Mitt Romney had opposed the hunt for bin Laden.

I am lucky that the distributor decided to postpone the release until after the November election or there would have been a lot more material for me to read. In any case, none of the above questions yielded the quantity of copy, even when put all together, as the question of whether the film said that torture revealed crucial information that enabled the Americans to hunt down Usama bin Laden (UBL in CIA tradecraft). Did the movie take a neutral stand on torture or did the movie condemn torture or promote it?

Those are not my questions. I was fascinated by a very different question. In all my reading I did not see one reference to the issue of my concern – and I really looked, so if you have seen any, please send them to me. But before I discuss that issue, I offer an overview of the torture debate if only to prove I did my homework as well as offering an opportunity to summarize the first quarter of the film, thereby providing necessary background for my question. If you, dear reader, have not seen the film, if, further, you detest commentators who reveal the plot, I offer a fair WARNING; this is an essay using the film as fodder for the issues discussed. It is not a review written with the clear norm in mind that a reviewer should not spoil a movie by giving away the plot. On the other hand, if you are a lover of films, in particular, if you are a lover of gangster movies and know that you can watch The Godfather over and over because the plot itself in a gangster movie is as irrelevant as the details of that plot, then enjoy. The plot is standard with enough novel innovations to make it fascinating. That is why the events could be borrowed so easily from actuality to make the movie. In any case, virtually everyone knows in general what happened. The pleasure is in the details of how what happened is executed. I will, of course, ignore all the copy on how the movie’s chance of winning Oscars dropped precipitously as a result of the controversy and political backlash over the torture topic. And I will not prophesy how the film will do at the Oscar ceremonies this Sunday.

Some of the comments on the torture issue were outlandish – like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) calling Bigelow America’s Leni Riefenstahl and suggesting she too would go down in history as being a handmaiden to torture. Naomi Wolf published an open letter in The Guardian on 4 January 2013 asserting that the film was an apology for torture. "By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden’s killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist… now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden."

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in ‘the global war on terror’, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent. Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the ‘information’ it ‘secured’, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls ‘the detainee program’.


Naomi Wolf went on to speculate and suggest that, in order to get the cooperation of the military – necessary Naomi believed to get the shots of the high tech secretive stealth helicopter program – in turn necessary to get financing, Bigelow had to offer a pro-military message. Then Bigelow compounded her crime, according to Wolf, by claiming the film, though not a documentary because it interspersed fiction with reality, was akin to one. But it was not, according to Naomi Wolf. There are no sources to be corroborated. There is no evidence that the regime of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib got the information that led to bin Laden as the film claimed. And then Wolf went into a long screed about what she witnessed in visiting these torture sites. It is a wonder she did not see a plot against herself since Wolf is the name of the Head of the Counter-terrorism unit in the CIA in the movie.

Admittedly, Wolf’s take on the torture issue was one of the more extreme interpretations, but it led me to my own speculations. Was this the equivalent of watching women’s mud wrestling among the chattering classes? Does it enchant because of the pleasure of seeing the beautiful Naomi Wolf throwing mud balls at the equally beautiful tall and willowy Kathryn Bigelow? On a deeper level of suspicion, was Naomi’s screed an attempt at revenge against Kathryn Bigelow for undermining the founder of third-wave feminism’s thesis that images of female beauty have become crueller and even heavier weights as women crash through barriers erected by the male dominated establishment? After all, when Maya breaks through the ramparts of the last and strongest holdout of male superiority in Langley, Virginia, and feels great rather than lousy about herself (though, in the last shot, clearly very lonely) and, even more importantly, gets the viewer to feel terrific about what she has done, even if it is only to become the de facto kingpin of one mafia group knocking off the leader of the rival syndicate, was this just Naomi Wolf’s way of showing she could direct a drone missile at Kathryn Bigelow whereas Kathryn’s hero in the movie never achieved the top prize?

There were many others who attacked the film for its portrait of torture and declared the film to, at the very least, misrepresent the contribution of torture to capturing terrorists and, at worst, prescriptively suggest that the use of torture was both useful and ok. Some even suggested a boycott. Martin Sheen and Ed Asner were reported as backing David Clennon’s appeal along those lines, but Martin Sheen later backed off his endorsement of Clennon’s stand and Clennon himself subsequently also insisted he did not mean that people should not see the film, only that Bigelow should have been more forthright in condemning torture. Michael Moore then praised the film as fantastically well made, defended Bigleow and said the film will make you hate torture. And so it went on from a myriad of commentators.

Get serious, fellas! This is a gangster movie. It is a movie, not historiography. It uses historical events, but part of the hysteria and mania in America is about the misuse of history and the narrative that 9/11 was so searing that it radically changed America forever. 3000 were killed, not all of them Americans. 1 in 100,000 died! I do not want to diminish the importance and pain of any who died in the World Trade Centre or in the Pentagon, but how can we view this event as equivalent in historical importance to 1 in 10 Yankees dying and 1 in 4 Confederate males dying in the American Civil War. More than 600,000 Americans died in that conflict, not 3000. Six million did not die! That is the equivalent number that would have had to have died if 9/11 is to be compared in historical importance. And recall that in the American Civil War, many, many more were maimed. Admittedly, the Civil War was different. Americans were killing one another. In 9/11 a small group of bearded religious fanatics who were not Americans had killed Americans, and perpetrated the crime on American soil. Some symbols are far more powerful than actual number counts reveal.

Kathryn Bigelow’s film recognizes that fact. The film opens with a black screen as we listen to a collage of actual telephone calls after the World Trade Centre was attacked by two hijacked planes. We do not have to see those iconic pictures of the hits and the collapse of one tower after another. The voice of the panicked woman screaming and asking for help as the she feels the increasing heat sends chills down one’s spine. This is going to be a very personal story of the hunt for bin Laden and not the suggested quasi-documentary that might have been expected by the opening credits. And we are emotionally held in detention before we even see the first visual.

Ammar (played brilliantly by the French actor, Reda Kateb), an alleged al-Qaeda is in an interrogation room at a Black Site where he initially is just beat up, though for some initially unexplained reason, one of the smaller hooded CIA men does not join in on the beating. Though there are subsidiary scenes, in the main protracted scene of torture Daniel Stanton is the chief CIA operative in Islamabad played by the Australian actor Jason Clarke (he was the cop in Rabbit-Proof Fence) as a mixture of a PhD psychological expert and hip American dude with an impeccable accent and tattoos; he switches from mean physical and psychological abuse to humour and empathy in an instant.

His hooded partner, the smaller one who did not participate in the beating, leaves the interrogation room with him. After the ski mask is removed, we see that the presumed ‘he’ is a somewhat squeamish she, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent who carries the film and takes some time to adjust to the use of torture under Daniel’s tutelage, but adjust she does as she turns into a taut, determined and singularly focused agent on her first assignment that will unexpectedly last years. The mask or towel is put on Ahmed to "waterboard" him as if paying homage to Oscar Wilde’s quip: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” ("The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellman, 389. I have borrowed this quote from a new book that my daughter Rachel is writing.)

We are introduced to torture as a matter of using a variety of techniques in addition to waterboarding, but all geared to humiliating the other. Initially Ammar verbally fights back and calls Daniel "a garbage man in a corporation" and Daniel calls him just "a money man, a paperboy". In Pakistan, Daniel pulls Ammar’s pants down as he is strung up and exposes what he calls Ammar’s "junk" and then guffahs as he observes that Ammar has shit in his pants. Daniel puts Ammar in a dog collar and walks him around as his dog. The symmetry has very quickly become asymmetrical and, subsequently, Ammar is hung up, put into a small wooden box, sleep deprived but when repeatedly questioned about the sate and place of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia by Daniel Stanton as the CIA’s man in Islamabad, Ammar says nothing. And then the attack in Saudi Arabia takes place. A bearded man enters an apartment tower and shoots two westerners (it is not clear whether they were targeted), then in the pattern of a serial killer, walks down the hall killing others. Endorsing torture because it yields results!!!

Contrast that story line with the one in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden, the much lower budget rival to Zero Dark Thirty released about the same time but completely obscured by the fog over Beigelow’s film. In Seal Team Six, the same female agent goes directly for a torture session to the chase for the Usama bin Laden’s courier. The message in that film is unequivocal. The clue to the big break came from enhanced interrogation techniques.

In Zero Dark Thirty, the torture scenes shift into the background as we are given a ten minute college 101 introduction to intelligence gathering from various sources – other countries such as Jordan, satellite feeds, human informers, intercepts — and still the bombings take place, in London in the tube and on the buses, the Marriott Hotel where Maya is almost killed. Against this background we watch how intelligence is gathered and collated and interpreted at enormous effort, brain-power and expense. Still the bombs get through. In praise of the value of intelligence let alone torture – hardly!!! Naomi Wolf must have seen a different film than the one I watched. But she never described the film so we will not know. She focused only on denunciation.

Then the key little bit of information comes out, the only intelligence retrieved from someone tortured, and it comes out not by using torture, though the past torture ambiguously may have played a part. The information is obtained by using empathy, playing on the fallibility of memory and Ammar’s inability to know what he had said and what he did not. Through these psychological methods helped by trickery and a lie, Maya and Daniel learn something – the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who is bin Laden’s courier.

The scenes shifts to military interrogations through questioning, Turkish interrogators with a hint but only a hint that they are even more ruthless torturers, then Maya in a black wig visiting a black site on a rusty old ship in a Baltic port where she meets Hakim, a very valuable asset who adds to the corroboration that Abu Ahmed is indeed a high level courier. So perhaps torture was critical to putting the story together. We are not told that, but it allows the viewer to easily draw that conclusion.

Should torture have been used? I believe it is not justified even if it is proven to be effective and there are a plethora of studies about its ineffectiveness. Does the film have anything to add to that debate? No. It does help portray what we are debating but not how the debate could or should resolve itself or even how it affects those who participate in its use or as its victims. But this film is not about torture. And the question about the utility and ethics of using torture belong in another context.

What matters in the story is that torture was used and then was prohibited. It’s Obama’s prohibition that is important. In a brief scene Obama is being interviewed on 60 Minutes on 16 November 2008, and he asserts unequivocally, "I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture." We are told very clearly that many CIA operatives believe that they now have to work with one hand tied behind their back. Worse yet, they may be exposed for whatever they do before a political inquiry. The shut down has made them all über cautious. That is the point other than that torture was used and the ambiguity about the degree that torture contributed to that result. When an almost broken Daniel has decided to go back to Washington to take a desk job and is grieving over his pet monkeys because his superiors believed that they could possibly escape – "Can you believe that?" – Daniel warns Maya, "you gotta be really careful with detainees now. The politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar with the oversight committee."

This is why that background is so important, for the key part of the film is the third section after using CIA assets to track and find the courier in the second section. The core of the film is the decision to attack the compound where Maya alleges Usama bin Laden is holed up, though the only evidence she has is all indirect – a high level courier for bin Laden lives there, it had no TV, cable, satellite or telephone access. One inhabitant never appears and is assumed to be there because there are three wives and only two husbands. The third man is never even seen by satellite imagery. The evidence is all circumstantial.

How can I perversely claim, against all other accounts of the movie that I have read, that the key is the decision to attack the compound not the torture issue. First, because how technically some key information was obtained is interesting, but it is not the core of the drama unless the characters themselves wrestled with the question of whether torture was or was not effective or ethical. They do not. It is just a given. The ‘how’ – in this case, how information is obtained and used – is very critical to a chase movie or a heist movie, but is not the centre of focus of a high drama. And the real drama comes with the question of whether to attack or not.

The second argument is a structural one. If torture was the central issue – though it clearly has been interpreted to be so by the media coverage – why does it take place in the first half hour and why is the issue then dropped? Third, look at the structure of the drama. The film follows a conventional plot line leading from the background on the initial cause, presumably known by everyone so that it needed only 15 seconds, then the effort to get to the starting gate, then the crisis – to go or not to go – and then the implementation.

I would also cite as an authority, Acting Director Michael Morrell of the CIA who, in an unprecedented gesture, issued a press release on the film on 21 December 2013 to insist the film was a work of art and not a documentary as suggested and certainly not historically accurate. Maya did not do it; a huge team worked on the issue and it was a big team effort. Secondly, he too believed that the film suggested that "the former detention and interrogation program were the keys to finding bin Laden". "That impression is false," he insisted.

Morrell did not recognize the ambiguity of that assertion. We know he was referring to the issue of whether torture yielded the results, but he seemed totally unaware that the assertion that the impression is false could have referred to his impression and interpretation of the film. His interpretation that the film gave the message that enhanced interrogation techniques yielded the key evidence could have been false. Ironically, he admitted to using "enhanced interrogation techniques", asserted that they contributed key evidence, but insisted that that multiple streams of intelligence were used.

I keep thinking I have seen a different film than anyone else. For the film I saw, even though it spent an inordinate amount of time on torture for what I suggested were very different reasons – did attribute the conclusion to multiple intelligence sources and did not unambiguously suggest that the key information was obtained as a result of torture. Morrell also wanted to defend the memories of his colleagues – one thinks primarily of character of Jessica in the movie – against the fictional portrayal, though I suspect, given the influence of film, those memories will be deformed and reformed as a result of the movie.

I wanted to read his objections because I expected him to take issue with the way the decision process in the CIA was portrayed. He did not. So I presume that it was a reasonably accurate portrayal. Silence says so much.

However, my main argument — that the core of the film is the CIA decision process and not the first quarter torture scenes — is the artistic, political and theoretical concerns and priorities of Kathryn Bigelow as the film director. I have only viewed two of her other movies even though she has been making movies since the late seventies. Everyone knows about Hurt Locker because Bigelow won two Oscars for the film and was the first female director ever to win and Oscar. I also saw one of her films about twenty years ago called Point Break. I still remember it though I never knew she had directed it until I recently read her bio.

Point Break is a film that merges the genre of a serf movie with that of a crime movie when an FBI agent, played by Keanu Reeves, goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers led by Patrick Swayze in Los Angeles who rob banks to finance their life style wearing the masks of presidents – Nixon, etc. In the process, the FBI begins to identify with them and, as we watch, we are left in suspended animation curious whether he will join with his new "friends" and subscribe to their code or maintain his code as a police officer. On one level, the plot is sustained by the events. But at a deeper level it is sustained by the self transformation in consciousness of the FBI agent and the titillating prospect of its disastrous consequences. The muscular beauty and luscious sheer physicality of the movie married to a gang film was both a comment on a life style as well as upon the presidents whose masks they wore both to disguise and reveal themselves was brilliant, as was the pacing and the suspense.

Bigelow has made at least a dozen other movies and I was determined to watch at least a few of them before writing this piece – but I did not. In any case, in Zero Dark Thirty the sense of tension is not maintained by whether Maya will or will not sell out and adopt the male code, but whether, in doing so, she will succeed in her mission to kill bin Laden. On that message the film is unequivocally clear: she converted and became more testerone- driven than any of the other honchos in the CIA. Further, that was the only reason she, and therefore the CIA and America, managed to kill Usama bin Laden.

Review again how Zero Dark Thirty starts; the initial collage of 9/11 that revs up shock and fear and anger, even rage; then the code of a muscular gangster film of men beating up someone in accordance with the fixed rules of a Hollywood scene of pausing and giving the victim a chance before dealing another vicious blow. It is literally gut wrenching and Nancy and I both cringed for we respond viscerally to physical violence in films, especially when so realistically portrayed. (Nancy whispered at the time, "So this is where you take me on Valentine’s Day!)

The film no sooner captures our attention at the gut level than it touches our hearts again already wide open by the cri de coeur of the woman in the burning and collapsing Trade Center Tower. Maya is as squeamish about violence as we are. So we are with her throughout her Odyssey as she is made over and shaped and inducted into the code of a torturer at one level and the CIA masculine code of what makes a successful case officer. She learns to torture – without wearing a ski mask. She learns to push her way among a crop of vacillating and week-kneed frightened CIA senior heads. So we learn as she learns the codes, the language, the slang, the acronyms. We in the audience hear the following lines, but I bet there was not one person in the theatre who could decipher them. George at one point says, "I run the Af-Pak division of CTC, and I’m primary on this for the agency. This is a title fifty operation."

What is the Af-Pak division? What is CTC? What status is a primary? That one we can guess. What’s a title fifty operation? In one line of text we are wallowing in CIA bafflegab for a lay audience. But that is unimportant. It’s the use of code language that counts. Our ignorance tells us it is a code language. We have been introduced to the private language that the CIA used as part of their bonding.

There is one other key female CIA agent to whom we are introduced in the film. Jessica is sure she has a lead on an informer, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who she insists is really motivated. He supposedly has been turned by the Jordanians and is also motivated by money ($25 m is on the table). When Maya turns off the 60 Minutes program with Obama insisting that America doesn’t torture, Jessica informs Maya that the doctor will not come to Islamabad to meet them because he fears for his own security. The irony is distinctly there. We know what is coming even if that knowledge is not allowed to creep into consciousness. Jessica should fear for her security. They agree to meet in Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to which the next scene shifts.

After a long wait and way after the meeting time, just as the CIA team, which includes another young female CIA officer, Lauren, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and the base’s CIA security head, John, after last minute instructions on how the interrogation will be handled, the team is now on the verge of giving up. We feel the tension, the expectation, the disappointment, the anxiety, the renewed eagerness when a car is seen approaching from the distance. It stops outside the barriers by gate guards. Jessica panics and fears that her informant will be spooked. Jessica urges John to wave the gate guards off. But security only works, he says ominously, if we stick to the rules and the game plan, if we are constant. Make an exception, she urges. I can’t he replies. I’m responsible for everyone’s safety, not just yours. Then, in the one totally unconvincing scene in the film, he surrenders to her will and determination. He orders the guards to stand down We in the audience sit pinned to our seat waiting for the car bomb that will massacre them all. Only it is not a car bomb. The Islamist is wearing a body bomb which the doctor (?) blows up when he gets out of the car and they order him to take his hand out of his pocket.

There are no surprises in the general plot of a heist movie, a gangster movie, a spy movie, an action movie, except in the manner of implementation of the next step. In the best of such films, it is not the external drama of events that propel the film but the personal psychological transformation of the central protagonist.

See what can happen when we bend the male security codes for women driven by their feelings and their instincts! That is the message! It is the backdrop to Maya’s pressure on her CIA superiors to give the ok to attack the compound. But before that Maya will have her own setbacks. Just after she has witnessed via satellite feed the death of her closest friend and her team, she is handed a disc that shows that the Abu Ahmed, who she has been chasing now for years, is dead. She watches the video and refuses to believe it. When asked what she will do she replies that she will smoke everybody in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden. Not capture him! Not interrogate him! Kill him! Maya has become an unstoppable force, ruthless and dedicated, willing to suppress emotion and wreck revenge on bin Laden personally. He’s mine, all mine, she lets us know, echoing Daniel’s statements as he tortures Amman in the opening scenes. She is the vengeful force of wrath. And unlike the typical gangster, she is a superwoman and cannot be killed riding shotgun or at the wheel of the car in the reverse attempted revenge by al Quaeda against her personally.

Further, as in a typical gangster movie, your real enemies are not the other gang, but your colleagues. As the line goes in Goodfellas, "Your murderers always come with smiles on their faces." Will her desk jockeys in Washington manage to kill her project before she gets to kill bin Laden? On her side, the central issue is betrayal. The dispatch of the other side automatically follows, even if it requires great technical ingenuity, managing to survive and prevent being betrayed. The murder of bin Laden is straight forward. The subtle efforts to undermine Maya when she is least suspecting and most vulnerable are at the core of the film. Recall Maya’s dirty look at Daniel when he votes for a soft 60% that the compound hold bin Laden.

But this is a gangster film of the twenty-first century when the real gangsters have gone international, but it mirrors the old gangster movies of the sixties and seventies when all gangsters got their just desserts rather than the gangster films of the eighties and nineties when the good guys and the gangsters each betray their own side and kill one another. In Zero Black Thirty we are back to an age of innocence in gangster movies but now on an international stage. The bad guys get their come-uppance. The good guys cheer even if they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the murder scene.

Maya toils for years with no results until Debbie, a new recruit who is as perky as Maya was when she first arrived, walks up to her desk and tells Maya that she came to Pakistan inspired by tales she heard about Maya. Debbie hands Maya a file that seems to indicate that it was not Abu Ahmed who died but his brother. Why had Maya not been told before? "Things got lost in the shuffle. Human error." Caprice! History takes a turn because of chance and chance was needed to offset human error. Habeeb, Abu Ahmed’s older brother, who looked just like him, was the one who died. How does she know? By inference. If someone as important as Abu Ahmed had died, the chat rooms all over would be flashing

Daniel in Washington goes to bat for her. In an interchange with Wolf, the Muslim head of the counter-terrorism unit in CIA headquarters, Daniel offers to be the fall guy, the body, the scapegoat, that the Inquisitors for the government will be looking for to punish for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. He does so as a noble knight in service to Maya’s obsession and in return for a couple of hundred thousand dollars needed to find the phone number of Abu Ahmed’s family. Daniel goes out into the field again and offers a prince in Kuwait a V10 Lamborghini in exchange for the phone number. No torture now. Just payola.

One after another Maya bends other male reluctant officers to her will in spite of their initial reluctance. She convinces Larry to help on the slim evidence that the guy who phones home from many different places and lied to his mother shows clear signs of tradecraft. Until she runs into Bradley at the American Embassy! Bradley tells her that he can’t understand her obsession with getting surveillance on some guy who a facilitator once said might have been bin Laden’s courier. In any case, Bradley doesn’t give a fuck abut bin Laden. What matters is preventing attacks in America. He threatened to send her home to work on American al Quaeda cells.

Maya doesn’t budge an inch. If you want to stop attacks on the homeland, get bin Laden; he keeps ordering them she yells back. Bradley barks back, "no one has talked to bin Laden in four years. He’s out of the game. He’s dead. You’re chasing a ghost." Maya responds even more strongly, but with a very personal attack on Bradley for being a no-nothing and just wanting to tick a box that you got another low-level operative. Then she raises the stakes beyond the weapons of verbal humiliation used in sparring and blackmails him. "Either give me the team I need to follow the lead, or the other thing you’re gonna have on your resume is the first Station Chief to be called before a congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden. Bradley responds, "You’re fucking out of your mind." We cheer Maya for winning what to date seems her most important cock fight for we have been well socialized in the code of gangster movies. As worshippers of the image on the cave wall, we understand the laws of revenge. We have all caught scopophilia, the predominant male gaze of Hollywood cinema. Only instead of women portrayed as simply objects, we watch them mutate into male protagonists. We go to the movies desiring "to watch and identify with what you’re watching" so women, half the audience for movies, can now be mesmerized by gangster films.

The code is simple. If someone tries to subvert you, you have to retaliate with a harder blow than the one he threw. Otherwise you’re a wimp. Maya proved she was no wimp and had learned the rules of the war of all against all that prevails in the Hobbesian state of nature. No compassion. No backing down. No saying you are sorry No bowing down before superior formal authority. It is the law of gangs. It is the law of prisons. It is the law of the jungle. It is the laws that Daniel articulated at the beginning of the film. Formal authority be damned! The issue is always who the lord and master is and who the bondsman.

So it goes. As you sit in the audience you cheer her on and despair at the number of wishy-washy bosses she has to beat up. Then we get on what seems a side track. Bradley is being pulled out of Pakistan because he has been named publicly in a lawsuit by the family of the victim of a U.S. drone attack. The issue isn’t Bradley’s departure. That’s the feint. The issue is that drone attacks create their own media relations nightmares and a different kind of security problem. Maya wanted to nuke the compound but indirectly we are told that she had to draw back; accept killing bin Laden and give up on the fast and certain but with indeterminate political consequences. Maya has been socialized to become a sociopath standing out and challenging the system in terms of its own real rules and using any means she can to get her way. And we in the audience love every bit of it. The law of the jungle is bulldoze your way through and use whatever norms there are against the system itself to get your way. Compassion for the kids in the compound! Does Maya express one bit of concern about the kids who would be killed? Not a whit! A bleeding heart she ain’t. Up with rugged individualism!

We now have the answer why Maya did not completely get her way. She wanted to blow bin Laden’s compound with a drone rather than using Navy Seals. Pakistan gets a new CIA head. Maya says she needs people to track Abu Ahmed. The new head folds rather than argue with her. Her reputation has preceded his taking the job. He knows who really runs the show. But the hunter has become the hunted. An assassination gang tries to get her, shooting up her car. But she gets away. She has become one tough and resourceful broad.

Now the peak to which everything has been building — getting an affirmative decision to attack the compound. Days pass. Weeks. Months. Maya takes to writing in lipstick on the glass wall her boss’s office how many days they have waited for a go-ahead.

What are the considerations? The scenes are fast paced and tumble one on top of the other even though they take place over four months and obviously take much more time than we see. We view a hall at the White House outside the office of the President’s National Security Adviser (NSA). George approaches as the team files out and says to the NSA, "I just don’t get the rhythms of politics." The NSA replies, "You think this is political? If this was political we’d be having this conversation in October when there’s an election bump. This is pure risk. Based on deductive reasoning, inference, supposition and the only human reporting you have is six years old, from detainees who are questioned under duress. The political move is to tell you to go fuck yourself, and remind you that I was in the room when your old boss pitched WMD in Iraq…at least there you guys brought photographs." The memory of Iraq haunts the whole bureaucracy just as the Mogadishu syndrome haunted the Clinton presidency when the Rwanda genocide broke out. But Maya is so determined and wilful that she can not only resurrect zombies but can even dissolve the ghost of the Iraq War.

We learn that the issue is a calculation of risk and not politics. Given the evidence, it’s a no-brainer – go fuck yourself. George pops back: But how do you weigh the risk of bin Laden getting way? He is far more subtle that Maya in his use of blackmail. The NSA now suggests that the problem is no longer whether to attack but how. "Give us options."

But we are not given the options. We are not explicitly told why they chose to use Navy Seals rather than drones. Was it because of the women and children in the compound? Was it because they wanted concrete proof that they had bin Laden? Was it because they wanted to capture documents? Was it because they feared bad public relations?

We never know. Had the film already gone on too long? Was it over budget? We are not given any information on the options and why one was chosen over the other. The climax focuses on the decision on whether to implement one option or not. We move to Nevada and an Air Force base and we meet the Navy Seal team and view two high tech stealth Blackhawks that have never been tested with people or in an actual operation. There will be all kinds of risks in employing them. But we never see any real calculation of that risk. We are never introduced to any sense that the decision is really about rational deduction and inference. It is about will and only about will with a supporting cast of reasons playing minor roles.

And we are back to the decision? A Navy Seal asks Maya in an incredulous tone, ‘You mean you have no intel on the ground?" But even these tough soldiers, Maya wins over. She is truly an unstoppable force. She is truly a superwoman. But on route to their conversion from sceptics to followers if not believers, she tells them her preference: "Quite Frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb but people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb, so they’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser… But bin Laden is there – you’re going to kill him for me." Vivian who plays the same agent in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden insists on the same: "We should bomb the fuck out of it." Since the two different filmmakers did not share notes, it seems that the character of Maya/Vivian was based on a real person.

The tough and best way was to use a drone. But the politicos are too worried about the hell that would break lose if they had the wrong target or for killing women and children. We do not know if this was part of the reasoning. It is part of showing Maya as tougher than any of the men she has dealt with and certainly tougher than the politicians. America has found its Margaret Thatcher.

But then she comes up against the CIA Director played by James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame with Wolf, the Deputy Director, Daniel and others in attendance. Yes or no the CIA Director asks. 60% two of them answer, including Wolf. 80% says George. Daniel suggests a soft 60% for bin Laden but high probability for a high level target. Then the CIA Director turns to Maya, but is interrupted by his deputy who insists they have taken her opinion into account in their assessments of the probability. But Maya says her piece anyway. "100%, he’s there – okay, fine, ninety-five percent because I know certainty freaks you guys out – but it’s a hundred!"

She beat them all at their own game. She did not get her drones but she got the next best thing. Bigelow has directed a brilliant film in which she surrendered her belief as youth drawn from conceptual art that the aesthetic should always be in service to the idea and instead made a movie in which the idea and the aesthetic work in a remarkable tension as she continues her explorations of the coded language of the masculine herd, in this case, one in which a female has become the winning prize fighter. Her movie is a remarkable visceral journey involving gut, heart and eventually head. The rest of the movie is the climatic action film of the implementation of the decision and strictly about the code of masculinity in a state of nature that is all about power and violence. That ending, however, that muscular he-man stuff is, however, anti-climactic to the psychological thriller that just ended.

In the end Maya flies alone to where we do not know.

Tomorrow: Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

[Tags Obama, Zero Dark Thirty, revenge, rational decisions,


Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

The copy is attached as well.

Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending


Howard Adelman

Part II History and Redemption

Last night, Nancy, I and our friend, Lynn, went to see David Russell’s comic romance, Silver Linings Playbook. Pat Solatano played by Bradley Cooper had just finished a term of eighth months in a mental institution for beating the bejeezus out of a history teacher (who better?) employed at the school where his wife taught after he found the two together in a shower. He lost his own job as a teacher, lost his wife and his own home and returned to live with his parents. His mother, played by Jacki Weaver, delivers her dry humour with impeccable timing. His father, played by Robert DeNiro, as our friend Lynn quipped, has recently carved a brilliant career playing criminal nutcases living on the precipitous edge of normalcy.

One of the very hilarious scenes is the occasion when DeNiro parleys his bet on the outcome of a football game and ties it to the outcome of a dance competition that his son has entered with Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) as the most clear-edge portrait of a woman I have ever seen on screen, clear-edged to the point of madness. The movie is effectively about parleying bets until they tumble over and under one another like a sex scene to the accompaniment of a washing machine and the accumulations that Adrian in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, speculates to be the essential calculus for understanding human relationships. Like the best of romantic comedies, it is a story of unrequited love and arrested development, of sex postponed but culminating in marriage in the highest tradition paid to the secular religion of our age, romantic love.

The movie, Silver Linings Playbook, is a reflection of a dominant contemporary myth dressed up in a jester’s costume. In contrast, The Sense of an Ending has a great deal to teach us about reality. While Adrian behaved as if life was a parley, Tony had behaved as if it was just a matter of addition and subtraction and had maintained his sanity and equilibrium thereby. Unfortunately, Adrian lost his bet and ended with nothing. Why did the best and the brightest in this case lose?

Since the four boys had not yet been granted status as adults and allowed to become full participants in the religion of our time, romantic love, they could only engage in idle speculation about why Robson committed suicide. The consensus seemed to be that it was just an intellectual balancing act and a scientific commitment to the principle of population stability. Since he was bringing one new life into the world, Robson would have to leave it. After all, Guitar in Song of Solomon played according to the same principle by killing the same number of Whites as Blacks killed by Whites who escaped being held responsible for their actions. Even if the motives and the outcomes were different, the principle of balance was the same.

Except there is a suggestion, a hint (a feint?), that Adrian demurred. Was it an adumbration of the end? Perhaps Adrian’s final act was an exercise in absolute freedom and determining control over life and death consistent with Camus’ view of the ultimate in freedom. That is what we are led for much of the novel by Tony’s ruminations to believe. The real question in life for the boys was whether they would make a real choice in their lives instead of remaining on the sidelines as bystanders and become the protagonists portrayed in fiction who loved and lost, who suffered and were ecstatic, who were betrayed and even killed, who saw power and justice and engaged in revolution and wars. Real literature, in the end was about "character developed over time," virtues and vices and not the follies and foibles of romantic comedy.

If so, then wallowing in fleeting memory was not where it’s at, as the four boys seem to see. They would have to wrestle with history. But what if history was just the historiography as relayed by the victors as Tony believed, or an onion sandwich as Colin cynically joked with the same old oscillations between war and peace, tyranny and rebellion, always stuffed with the same delicious delicacies that left you with a foul breath? Adrian, however, offered another option: "History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." As Frank Kermode wrote – of which more later – a crisis is not about what is out there but about how we have framed the narrative to wrap our minds about what is out there — "crisis is a way of thinking about one’s moment, and not inherent in the moment itself."

This was the lesson that Barack Obama had learned in grappling with his own memoirs and trying to get a grasp on how power is acquired and exercised. History is the crossing point between individual virtues and collective actions. History was not trying to subsume events and actions under laws of probability or certainty as Carl Hempel had argued. Nor was it the empathetic re-enactment of the decisions individuals made in accordance with the ethical and other norms they upheld so that we could understand the reasons why they decided to do what they did as Bill Dray had argued. History was a conundrum that had to be puzzled through like a detective story or like a piece of fiction that was about history as a detective story by ploughing through vaporous messages from the past and constructing a quasi-coherent narrative to frame it.

The vapours rarely explored concerning historical figures of action are the fictions they read and not just the fictions they write or the serious books they read. Julian Barnes makes my case. To himself, Tony Webster, the narrator, ends up as a bystander, an individual of no consequence except as a reporter and interpreter of Adrian. And his girlfriend of college days ends up with Adrian, in part, because the books Veronica owned were both ones she read and, more importantly, ones that "seemed to be an organic continuation of her mind," whereas the books that Tony had on his shelf, if he honestly read them, were "functionally separate straining to define character." If you are or are to become a person of history, then the books you own, read and love are extensions and revelations of your character. On the other hand, it is not clear to me whether you have to choose to be clear-edged while in practice being anything but, or choose mystery and manipulation over clarity as many politicians and manipulative men and women are wont to do.

In Barnes’ novel, the first iteration of strong feelings, instead of ambiguous expressions of longing and self-doubt, comes from Adrian after Tony had inquired about Jack, Veronica’s brother, who is ahead of Adrian at Cambridge but also studying moral sciences. After several initial non-committal comments about Jack, that he has heard and read about him, Adrian becomes vehement and barks, "I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious." Obama, even through he wears his semi-permanent pearly smile with aplomb, is always serious about being serious. In contrast, Tony had stagnated and his girlfriend Veronica began to introduce more space between herself and Tony.

That was because Tony had chosen survival rather than life. The irony is that the Tee of Life in the Garden of Evil is about choosing survival and not entering into life and history. What most people do not recognize is that the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden is not the option of immortality. That was never an option for either Adam or Eve. They were humans. If they ate of the Tree of Knowledge they became self-conscious of death, self-conscious of the tension between eros and thanatos. But then what was the Tree of life? It was Tony’s choice – choosing the safe path, the peaceable path the path of self-preservation rather than risk. His marriage to the clear-edged Margaret, his second wife – and their split – would follow the path of least resistance as his life became more and more empty and more and more non-committal. Obama chose the path less travelled by. Adrian in the end chose not to walk the path, but at least he evidently chose. In contrast, Tony "began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was."

But what about Adrian? In the end Tony’s mother appeared to have it right. Adrian was just too clever. He thought things out and had the disciplined character of a man of courage to act on what he believed. He acted on those conclusions and left common sense behind, unlike Tony who had a surfeit of common sense. To his enormous chagrin, in the end his common sense made no sense at all.

Adrian appeared to have suffered the hubris of rationalism. Rationalism is the soul mate of romanticism and the two are wedded together in married agony in our contemporary secular faith. The former go out into the world under the illusion that man is a possessive individualist driven by greed with the tools of a utilitarian calculating brain. The latter stay at home or go to the movies and watch chick flicks and dream of a prince charming, even if that prince charming has just been released from a mental hospital even though he still has not gained mastery of his anger and rage, even if the black horse of rage yoked to the white horse is really in charge of setting the direction. And what happens if a man of principle possessed of pure practical reason and the powers of deduction and not the instrumental powers of calculating reason, is about to enter the world at large and meets a member of the opposite sex who is a possessive individualist, who is an instrumental calculator? It appears that he does not have a chance. He is doomed, especially since he, as well as Tony, had even been blind to the identity of the super manipulator.

Tony would, with his friends, turn what they believed to be definite in memory into anecdote. The rest they relegated to uncertainty and, with overlapping and backtracking that uncertainty in turn was relegated to the storehouse of shreds and patches of false memories put away in storage boxes we seal and do not revisit even though we continue to pay the storage charges. Decades would go by before chance intervened once again and the story could resume with time running backwards as frozen anecdotes were cast aside in favour of critical inquiry. Until that time, Tony had survived, had eaten of the Tree of Life, and history was still being written by survivors rather than victors.

As time moves on there is less rather than more certainty and less rather than more corroboration of what your life has been. Further, though history that happens underneath our nose ought to be the clearest, it is the most deliquescent dissolving and melting into the anecdotes that freeze the past into current memory dollops.

But what if that which is deliquescent entails not only evaporation, as when the hot frying pan is plunged into the cold water in the sink, but liquefaction takes place and absorption from the air brings a dehydrated life back to a vital presence? A mere little document can do it – return memories frozen in anecdote back into the lively process of historical discovery and revelation. For the turning point in the novel comes when, four decades later, Tony himself re-reads the mean-spirited letter of vituperation he had sent both Adrian and Veronica after Adrian and Veronica had gotten together. For aside from the clear edged but not peaceable piece of correspondence, we get a glimpse of what Tony could have been and had not become, the counterfactuals of history so revealing of what perceived in juxtaposition could have been. If only Tony could have married the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes with the sentiment and empathy of David Hume and Adam Smith. It is for the absence of the latter not the clarity of the former that Tony begins to feel remorse and regret.

What might have happened if Barrack Obama had a Tony as a best friend when he was young? Not very likely! Tony wasn’t a Boswell. In any case, Adrian checked out and decided not to become a Johnson. 70% through the novel, Tony asks a key question: "What if by some means remorse can be made to flow backwards, can be transmuted into simple guilt, then apologised for, and then forgiven? What if you can prove you weren’t the bad guy she took you for, and she is willing to accept your proof?" Tony remained deluded. He just never got it.

But what about Adrian, why did he opt out, not just mentally, but altogether? He had so much promise when he went up to Cambridge. Was it the outcome of what follows from a pure principle of practical reasoning? Was it really the grand refusal of "an existential gift"? Or did he act for more mundane reasons? As the novel progresses towards the end and new affective states reopen blocked-off neural pathways, we are taken by surprise at what we learn and are forced to rewrite our memories though not our histories.

Cambridge enters the novel through another route. Frank Kermode was a professor of English at Cambridge before he left for Columbia University and then Harvard. The title of the novel is borrowed from his volume of English criticism published in a turning point in history for many Jews, the Six Day War in 1967 – The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction – when Kermode was teaching at University College at the University of London. I was introduced to Frank Kermode as a literary critic through my first wife, Margaret, but I also remember the scandal the same year his volume of criticism came out when he resigned as editor of Encounter when it was revealed that the CIA had been funding the journal.

I last looked at an essay of his a few years ago when I was talking to my youngest son about apocalyptic themes in movies. The subject came up again – not Kermode but his thesis in his book – that fictions are the instruments we use to make sense of the world by constructing what I have called meta-narratives, ways to grasp and make sense of reality by giving it shape and form. The issue arose in the context of the environmental crisis when my two youngest sons were home for Christmas, my youngest with his focus on film and horror, apocalyptic themes and continuity of life through sacrifice of the other. Daniel, his slightly older brother, is a passionate environmentalist and the possible collapse – I believe he thinks likely since we are not doing enough to reverse the process – of the environment hangs over his life like a heavy cloud.

It is not that he is morose or does not get on with his life. He has not been immobilized at all and speaks against pipelines. But the sense of an immanent end to the world permeates his consciousness and colours his activities – he made what was to me a very impressive presentation to the hearing on the contentious pipeline in the west. He feels like Sisyphus rolling a heavy boulder up a hill, made much more perilous and far more difficult because it is actively being pushed down by the decadent cynics who mock the whole process and by the American imperial adventurism which displaces the main crisis facing the world onto adventurous campaigns against Islamist terrorism and a determination to begin a new era with the conquest of Iraq to rid it of the fictional weapons of mass destruction it was claimed the country had.

I owe those categories of framing the issue to Kermode. I owe the sense that the consciousness of the young generation has been shaped by the environmental crisis to Daniel just as the consciousness in my youth had been shaped by the nuclear arms race. There is a mood to an age that cannot be separated from the conditions in which we live and fiction is a means to make sense of it. The mood is far heavier than when the nuclear arms race hung over my generation and when the Cuban missile crisis occurred.

But this is not, I believe, why Barnes borrowed the title. There is no sense of environmentalism. The characters are members of the baby boom generation. They do not even seem to be very conscious of the nuclear arms race or the other crises stirring up Britain at the time. In that sense they seem to be living outside history.

I take that possibly to be Barnes’ point. The title is somewhat ironic. For though the ending is needed to reconstruct the story, the whole story is set by the beginning – hence my frequent references to the options available when you are in the Garden of Eden. The characters are not located between world history and their own personal lives for the story about the dialectic between history and memory is told as if world history did not exist and the thesis is about historiography rather than history itself. The main character imposes his fictions on his experience, not to make sense of the world, but to reinforce his own common sense which tells him not to engage the world. If we live in an age of kairotic time where each moment is charged with enormous significance, you would never know it from reading this novel by Barnes.

But the reference to Kermode has another point – linking Kermode’s idea of the apocalypse back to Barack Obama. As Mark Lilla (2012) wrote in his review essay of "The Great Disconnect: ‘I Am the Change’," by Charles Kesler in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 27 September, "The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago, is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation." As Lilla wrote elsewhere in the essay, "the conservative apocalypse has always been a movable one." But the conservative mind has always been informed by an apocalyptic mindset.

Unlike most critics from the left, and bracketing Kesler’s criticism, I think that Charles Kesler’s 2012 analysis of the political thought of Obama in his volume, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism is on the right track. I have tried to document Obama’s commitment and understanding of liberalism. Further, unlike Lilla, I agree with Kesler’s assertion that Obama is intent on becoming a great transformational president and not just being president. And in another essay I will go further and argue that Obama not only has very large ambitions for the American polity, he has large ambitions concerning the two rival parties for power within that polity.

But there is a prior point. Kesler, like most conservatives, insist that Obama’s conservatism is a ruse, a public relations trick, something not to be taken seriously. Because Kesler is himself a conservative in the Leo Strauss tradition, he has not attended to Obama’s conservatism because he not only believes that liberalism has inherent contradictions, but because he mistakenly sees liberalism and social conservatism as unalterably opposed. I have added the thesis that Obama’s position has been informed by virtue ethics and a version of social conservatism. He is not just a liberal or a social democrat.

Obama may loves fiction that sets up worldviews to which he is opposed – and there are many – and we have discussed four of them, but I doubt if he appreciates fictions that purport to represent reality or construct history in terms of a grand idea as Kesler has created. That’s our job.

Kesler starts his grand narrative with George E. Hegel and put forth the old idea discarded by most contemporary Hegel scholars that Hegel viewed history as one grand sweep of human nature moving towards the absolute of perfect freedom and that the modern instrument for forwarding the idea was the state and its bureaucracy. Though Hegel certainly depicted the state – and civil society – as keys to understanding modernity, Hegel was not writing teleological history. Otherwise, why would the Owl of Minerva flap its wings at dusk? History looks backwards. Marx may have inverted Hegel in many ways to make it serve a materialist forward revolutionary thrust, but this was not Hegel’s agenda. Ironically, Kesler reads Hegel through Marxist eyes.

Secondly, the absolute is not just at the end. It is at the beginning and at every key point along the way. For the irony is that at any point we look backwards we presume we have an absolute standpoint when where we are standing will only prove to be a way station. Third, you have to understand how humans enter into a state of critical self-consciousness, a condition of living in history, but probably also of writing history. In Hegel, that begins not with a fight over power and recognition, a fight between ways of life as Cain and Abel were engaged, or between economic conservatives and liberals in our contemporary period over who deserves recognition as a defender of the highest values, as a defender of freedom, and but with the internal struggle of life and desire, with the struggle between the two trees in the Garden of Eden, between eros or desire and survival – the Tree of Life – the deadly stultifying and stagnant governing thrust of Tony’s life rooted ironically as it is in thanatos. Barnes understands this. Kesler does not. Understanding the beginning is far more crucial that even the trajectories we construct.

Kesler’s beginning starts with the American religion, its faith in the constitution. And for Kesler that constitution enshrines the ideas of John Locke not those of Hegel. According to John Locke, humans were naturally possessive individualists. However, in the state of nature, they could not exercise their passion to work on the world with their labour and convert it into artifacts that they could possess and thereby extend themselves and their identity though holding property. But that inherent will to possess combined with their inherent ingenuity allowed them to create money. Money allowed humans to accumulate. Storing bananas up was useless for they would only rot. Money abstracted from natural decay. But that led to scarcity. That led to war. That led to the social contract and men agreeing to set up government just for their collective security and to set the rules of the game for competitive possessive individualism. Hence the idea of limited government.

Except for the last deduction, it is one story of the beginning. It is one story of the role of government, not, as I suggested, a necessary logical consequence of the beginning story even for John Locke or the other members of the Scottish enlightenment. Nor does it determine the trajectory of everything going downhill to betray the constitution one the academics like Woodrow Wilson and the state builders like FDR and then Johnson had their way. It is a story that also has created an historical fraud by excising Republican presidents from this history or painting the ones that are included as traitors. In the building of the debt, the elaboration of regulations and the additions to the welfare state, Republican presidents are either blanked out like pictures in the Kremlin’s story book or painted with the same brush but with a lighter hue of red.

As was seen in Barack Obams’s inaugural and in his State of the Union Address, his set of policies are indeed ambitious, but they are based on a different foundational story and grand narrative that includes virtues ethics as well as a program of social democracy and that moves forward by articulating an original myth of caring and sharing.

I will bring the various elements together but I first want to move into foreign policy and discuss first Obama’s attitude to rights in terms of the movie, Zero Dark Thirty and then his attitude to the use of drones.

Tomorrow: Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13


Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America. 17.02.13; Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

Please find a copy attached as well. I will finish the discussion of memory in relationship to history tomorrow and how it throws light on Obama when I complete my discussion of Barnes’ novel.

Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending


Howard Adelman

Part I Memory (Part II will be a separate blog sent on Monday.)

The Sense of an Ending is a superb novel that tells a story of how memory works but, even more, why a whole collection of memories never turned into history, and, therefore, when memories can and do turn into history as has been the case with Barack Obama. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending came out in 2011 and with almost no real contest won the Man Booker prize by being, as one of the judges, Gaby Wood, opined "The most obvious book on the list". The book revisits and acquires insights by re-examining the main character, Anthony (Tony) Webster’s own faulty memories and sense of loss. Like The Invisible Man, a novel set against a society ridden with the schism of a deep racial divide but at base a novel about character and virtue, The Sense of an Ending is a novel about the exploration of virtue ethics but this time in a totally middle class bourgeois milieu with slights and attitudes to reflect internal middle class divisions in British society. Telling the reader, if you have not read the book, that Adrian killed himself, is not spoiling the novel since this is revealed early and is not the crux of the suspense.

The story begins with "I remember…" But no sooner does the novel begin than it reminds us of the end. For most of the recalled images are of moving water – steam rising when a hot frying pan is put into a wet sink – an adumbration of an actual scene when Tony Webster, the narrator, goes to meet his girlfriend, Veronica’s, family and Veronica’s mother, after serving Tony an extra fried egg as a gesture of her approval of him, casually "half-threw the hot frying pant into the wet sink" and water fizzed and steam rose on impact delighting the mother with the small havoc she had created. Even at the time when we read it in the first part of the novel, we have no idea of how ominous that depiction will be and how its deeper meaning is only revealed on re-flection.

Is the image of sperm circling a plughole a picture of Tony’s state, at least in his long adolescence and early university years as a young wanker and then an older retiree? Surely the other image of water, the image of a river in which the direction of flow is disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface, is a reflection of most of Tony’s life in which there is all kind of movement, but no flow, much excitation on the surface but too little going on underneath in the deep brain and in the heart.

Then there is the image of a river rushing upstream lit by six chasing torch beams. Tony did some things other than study and see Veronica when he was at Bristol University. He witnessed a singular outstanding event, even mysterious and other-worldly – a Severn Bore when the water flowed backwards up the river and "it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for a few minutes, nature was reversed, and time went with it." Though Tony was amazed at seeing the phenomenon, he never connected it with himself as he moved around and around in a stagnant backwater. Who would expect him to actually experience the phenomenon in a very personal way in his retirement and the whole construction of his memory and hence of his life would have to be radically inverted!

We have the sense of the ending before the narrative has started – "bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door". The water is dead; it is still. The water is no longer evaporating upward or eddying downward into a plughole, no longer perversely flowing upstream or confusing us about the direction of its flow by a stiff wind. The water is still. There is no way of even seeing it because the door to the bathroom is locked. As Barnes writes, "The last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed." How ironic that depiction would turn out to be. Is that because Tony was not critically self-conscious, not prescient and did not know or investigate the clues that Adrian, if he could not swim in history, would enter that stagnant bathtub before it was covered in algae and began to stink, would enter that bathtub and cut his wrists. Why had he not warned Adrian of what he knew – or at least thought he knew — but had not yet articulated even to himself, that Veronica "was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing"? How did what appeared first as simply an exceptional expression of wrath and rage turn into a prophetic claim and then, in another twist, turn back on itself and reveal that Tony never got it and never would.

Why did Adrian, a youth with so much promise, go into the bathtub? Each time we think we have an answer it will just as certainly be undermined. Adam left the Garden with Eve. They entered history. Adam did not refuse his orders to go. After he sinned, Tony chose to remain behind and eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, of perpetual stagnation. Adrian decided not to after he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but to die rather than leave the Garden. Barack Obama followed the path set by Adam rather than either Tony`s or Adrian`s path, though he has a great deal in common with Adrian.

How can you begin a novel with a reminder of the end? How can you begin a novel with a memory of something you did not or could not possibly have remembered? Not only is memory different than history, but memory itself seems to lack any fixed sense of identity. If Heraclitus said that you could not enter the same river twice, suggesting, in opposition to Parmenides’ search for the essence or the eternal or the unchanging, that all is change, Barnes begins his novel by undercutting even that proposition. We cannot even understand change as flowing in an ever moving stream. Is change evaporation upward or a whirlpool into a black sink hole? Is change a river paradoxically flowing backwards or in any and all directions depending on each gust of wind? Directionless! Aimless! Much more confusing than simply stepping into a flowing stream – especially when the water is perfectly still, especially when the stillness could never have been witnessed, especially when the image may not even be something remembered.

The problem is not just time’s malleability but that its movements are so affected by our emotions – speeding up and slowing down and not simply going every which way. And time can go missing "until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return." But what if it does return? What if it comes back and turns the world we thought we knew upside down? The novel begins with this sense of dead time, with time missing, with time gone, with a time when we no longer will be able to remember.

We are introduced to a gaggle of four schoolboys, the original three who wore their watches with the faces on the inside of their wrists so that they could pretend that time is not passing and that they cannot live in the world of Peter Pan forever. Adrian Finn stood out if only because he refused the opportunity of being bored, of trying to escape time’s suffocating embrace. The first one we meet is the last to join the Gang of Four – Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy. Is Barack Obama the stranger who "initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself"? Certainly he attracted attention – not only of his fellow pupils, but the attention of the masters of the school who wanted to figure out his intelligence and sense of discipline. Was he scholarship material? Was he of use to the reputation of the school? The intellectual superior youth wise beyond his age was not treated by his teachers as an end in himself.

One of those masters was their history teacher, affable Old Joe Hunt "whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom." Was that how all systems were maintained – by managing boredom? Is boredom the core human condition so that all activity is a flight from its downwardly spiralling swirl into blackness? Or is it, as Peter Tooley depicts in Boredom: A Lively History, a very dynamic if directionless activity to adapt to our environment? Is boredom interesting, something to be managed, controlled, dissected and differentiated? It is certainly not a feeling, not an emotion, not like fear or rage, not like love or humiliation. It could be something of which we know nothing because we are too busy escaping it even to assign Adam the job of naming it. Or boredom could be profound, informing us of the intellectual substructure or the foundational meta-narrative of our lives if only we would attend to it? In either case, it had to be managed. Or does it? Is Tony Webster’s life proof that managing boredom, if clearing up your messes and not leaving messes consists of managing boredom, is the worst route to take on life’s journey?

Anthony (Tony) Webster is introduced as his reverie was interrupted by Old Joe Hunt asking about the character of Henry VIII’s regime. Why the zeitgeist of Henry VIII? Perhaps because of our disgust with him, the man who disposed of wives on a whim and the mighty Catholic Church because he wanted to dispose of a wife! If boredom has to be managed, what better way to do it than ask about a fixed characterization, a stereotype, especially a stereotype that immediately arouses the tantalizing emotion of disgust which is itself a milquetoast kissing cousin to boredom, akin to boredom as annoyance is to anger? Perhaps an attention to tasteless whitebread instead of an olive and spice baked baguette might provide some insight into the still water of that bathtub when nothing happens. What if we look at Henry VIII through the eyes of Shakespeare, one of Obama’s favourite authors? What if we look for stability and constancy through the lens of a period of serial philandering summed up in the life of a polygamous royal butcher, a period when wives were considered as both matters of inconvenience and the key to the continuity of power and control?

If Tony is the middle class witness to Arian Finn’s short life, does another friend, the cynical Colin, play the roll of jester to Henry VIII, the Will Somers who survived all that chaos and went on to keep jocularity alive in a time of violent conflict, civil war, chaos and suffering through the unstable regimes of Edward VI and Mary I until Elizabeth I was crowned and a long and relatively peaceful reign ensued? If Adrian intrigues the masters by his intellect, was Colin useful as a comical distraction lest we become fixated on the horrors of the age? What better way to manage boredom than offering a joke or two. Certainly far better focusing on a cautious know-nothing comical survival than being mesmerized by the intellectually clever machinations and inventiveness of true ignorance!

Enough of reverie! Enough of idle speculation! Enough of escape from the vicious grasp of boredom! Let’s get to the real thing. Tony Webster, the voice of the novel, the non-present viewer of the dead water in the bathtub, introduces us to the intellectual depth of Adrian Finn before we meet Colin and Alex, the other two boys in the clique. Phil Dixon, like Tony Judt from Kings College in Cambridge, was their English teacher who, with his interest in T. S. Eliot and birth, death and copulation, enters the unfolding novel. Why was T.S. Eliot, the monarchist anti-Semite, one of Obama’s favourite writers? Surely Obama did not look forward to counting out his life in coffee spoons and wearing his trousers rolled? Surely Barnes also did not since he started a novel with three out of four boys who wore their watches rolled and inverted on their wrists.

Phil Dixon, the English teacher, asks Adrian Finn what a poem was about. What is Barnes’ novel about? Adrian Finn answers without a pause, "Eros and Thanatos". Like Adrian Finn, Obama was a gangly very intelligent kid but from a home where the mother not the father had abandoned the family. With the solid support of his mother, Obama never had to confront eros with thanatos a la Freud and contemplate (and commit) suicide as Adrian did, but everyday he had to walk a tightrope to resume his commitment to life and history. The issue was not personal choice a la Camus and choosing your own destiny, but coming to grips with your own past repeatedly and living to fulfill the destiny chosen for him as any hero of old. "The clarity of his life" reflected in his commitments and service. As for John Kennedy and for Plato, courage is a vital virtue that must be cultivated and developed through the self-examined life.

Did Adrian Finn have the "courage of his convictions", the intellectual agility to wrestle with sex and death? Or was that the source of failure rather than the illusion that he exercised absolute freedom by alone determining whether he would live or die. For that’s where all the conflict and chaos, the escape from boredom starts, with the conflict between desire and life, with the conflict between two trees planted in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Goodness and Evil and the Tree of Life. Adrian Finn could ask the question: Why did Adam and Eve not eat of the Tree of Life first? Then they would not have had to become self-conscious of the death penalty they faced.

But all Tony Webster could say to Phil Dixon his English teacher was that the poem was about a barn owl. He could not even add that the Owl of Minerva only spreads its wings with the falling of the dusk, that we can only understand our histories through a rear view mirror. Adrian Finn, who refused to wear his watch rolled, went into history as if he could read history forward rather than backward. He began where time began, with sex and death, not with looking over his shoulder and examining the past so that he became like the Milkman in The Song of Solomon frozen into inactivity and boredom. Adrian’s new found three friends were occasionally serious when they were not taking a piss. Adrian was essentially serious though he took the odd break to have a piss.

As Adrian Finn became friends with Tony, Alex and Colin he always remained the outlier, Charles de batz-Castlemore D’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers, by joining in the fencing club and sports, preferring gymnastics and the high jump while Tony and Alex made fun of conformity and Colin adopted a satirist’s disdain. While his three friends remained tone-deaf to the rhythms and the music of the time, Adrian brought a clarinet to school so he could train to be a Pied Piper. Adrian kept his own counsel while his three best friends cultivated their cleansing scepticism. Tony denounced the political system, Colin denounced the family and Alex questioned any reference to reality as a benchmark at all. But Adrian believed in all three, in family, in the political system and in reality. As does Barack Obama!

Adrian may or may not have been on the way to becoming a liberal social democrat but he was always a social conservative who believed in family, who believed in politics and the efficaciousness of the democratic process with all its faults, and much more profoundly believed that there was a reality and that society was not just a projection of his own beliefs. For Adrian Finn was a social conservative who did not accept relativism. He was not like the individualists of both right and left who so dominated political discourse, who believed that the central issue of life is material existence. Adrian wanted to believe in and do what family, what society, what reality required rather than that which was determined by something or someone else. Though the Tree of Life might be his or everyone’s major preoccupation, the key to understanding and to living in history, as Henry VIII knew, was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and eating thereof.

Barack Obama pledged in his State of the Union Address to strengthen the Middle Class in spite of his own recognition that a great portion of that middle class, and certainly of those who supported him, who belonged to the not-so-genteel social Darwinism of the bourgeoisie who, in contradiction to their own overt beliefs, offered great sacrifices to ensure their children would be better than they were. They were futurists. They needed to be won over on a promise of hope even though their beliefs told them that life had no meaning and you couldn’t even tell which way the river was flowing let alone step into it twice.

Barack Obama, Adrian Finn and I were all raised in single parent households, Adrian and I at a time and in a social milieu when single family households were unseemly, when it was a matter of humiliation, when my mother never told her fellow workers at Simpsons that she was separated and then divorced. But Adrian, like Obama, "said he loved his mother and respected his father". Unlike his three friends, Adrian did not accept that youth was a time when you were kept in a holding pen while you shut your eyes to the reality that when released from your youthful prison you would only enter a larger one. Adrian was born free, mature beyond his age. He believed, believed in the family, believed in politics and the democratic process and believed that principles should guide action, but he also believed what Camus said that the greatest decision and freedom of all is choosing to live or die. What counted was not the outcome but that you made the choice.

When the boys debated whether the individual was responsible for what happened in history or whether the laws and forces were the determinant or even whether, as Colin quipped in morbid disbelief, it was caprice, Adrian opined that the real question was why we asked the question about responsibility? "Isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence." We ask the question about responsibility to escape responsibility. The issue then is not history itself but the mind of the historiographer who writes it.

Then the boys learned that Robson who was their age in Sixth Science had committed suicide. He purportedly had a girlfriend and got her pregnant. How did the boys react to Robson having a girlfriend, making out with her and even conceiving a child? They never evinced any sentiment of empathy for his family, for the abandoned girl and especially for their fellow student. Instead, they were jealous for they had not even suffered the pangs of humiliation by a girl scorning a tentative feint that had even the appearance of a move on a member of the opposite sex. They had learned all about romance and sex, all about the suffering and sacrifice, the pain and the humiliation. But they had yet to experience it for themselves.

When Tony did have the experience, it was everything he anticipated it would be for his first serious relationship was with Veronica. From her he received contempt and from her father and brother, condescension, and he would feel deep humiliation until the only way he could cope was to walk away himself. But Tony walked away only when he and Veronica actually crossed the line of unfulfilled passion, of unrequited love. Tony recognized that he did not want to be the one who would just do. But, in the end, as we shall see, he never did get it.

Tomorrow: Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

[Tags Obama, Barnes, The Sense of
an Ending, social conservatism, memory]

Obama13.Virtue Ethics.Redemptiom.America18.02.13.3.doc

Terumah On Charity – Parashat Terumah Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 16.02.13

The blog is attached as well.

Terumah On Charity – Parashat Terumah Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 16.02.13

Haftorah I Kings 5:26 – 6:13

Commentary on Exodus 25:1-8


Howard Adelman

Yesterday I wrote about humiliation in which a person is not only exposed as unworthy of the status he or she holds, but experiences that he or she is unworthy of even aspiring for such a status. In this Shabat’s parashah, the name of the portion is Terumah. The word derives from the verb rum (root: resh.vav.mem) meaning to raise up and present. The noun form, terumah, is a gift offering. How can a gift or an offering raise someone or something up? By giving someone a boost in morale? The question becomes more difficult when the paradox is brought out more clearly.

Terumah literally means something that is uplifted or raised up to a higher level. The term also suggests giving something away and saving something. To take the latter first, the literal meaning of terumah also means ‘setting aside a portion’. Finally, it also means a ‘donation’ in the sense of a portion removed from one’s possession. So we can depict the three meanings of terumah as follows:

1. giving something away, that is, a portion is removed from one’s possession;

2. saving something in the sense of setting aside a portion;

3. lifting or raising something to a higher level.

How can you both give something away and save it at the same time while also raising it up? How is that possible?

In German, the verb aufheben also means three seemingly contradictory things: to eliminate or abolish; to save or put away; and to raise up through sublation. Aufhaben is central to understanding how Hegel’s dialectic of self-consciousness takes place. T’rumah also has three meanings:

1. giving something away;

2. saving something;

3. raising something up.

How are these three activities related and how does that connection fit in with God’s request that the mishkan, God’s portable tabernacle, be constructed? At the beginning of the Parashah, the Israelites are asked to contribute fourteen different materials for its construction: three metals (gold, silver and copper); dyed material made from three different colours of flax (sky-blue dye from one species of purpura snail), purple from the crimson worm that is a strong, bright, deep reddish purple, and crimson red (from another species of purpura snail); then one item that stands alone – fine natural or beige coloured linen; then three materials derived from other living species (goat’s hair, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins); three other materials brought forth from this earth, acacia wood, oil from olives and spices for the aromatic incense; and finally the other stand alone item, gemstones, including lapis lazuli, to decorate the official dress of the high priest, the ephod and the breast piece. (Exodus 25:3-7)

The gifts shall be accepted by Moses can be organized as follows:

The Mishkan The Contents

Structure Décor Priestly


Altar Altar Artefacts Decorations
Gold Blue Flax Goat’s Hair Acacia wood
Silver Purple Flax Linen Ram Skins Olive Oil Gems
Copper Red Flax Acacia Wood Spiced Incense

Note the following: while God commands that the portable arc of the covenant be built, He does not command the Israelites to donate the material and labour. He requests the donations. In contrast with the Haftorah portion (IKings 5:26-6:13) describing in detail the building of the first temple, the portable temple is built by the people on a voluntary basis. The permanent temple is built by King Solomon. Second, the material must be given freely from a full heart of one who is smitten with God. Third, whereas the structure of the permanent temple is built of hewn stones and cedar wood, the mishkan is built of metal, of very precious metal with respect to the first two items, gold and silver. At today’s prices, copper isn’t so cheap either.

In Hasidic lore, gold, silver and copper, the items requested to build the structure, are symbolic of the three pillars upon which the world stands, Torah, prayer and good deeds or tzedakah. (Aaron L. Raskin "Gold, Silver, Copper: Parsha Terumah) They are also connected with the three core meanings of Terumah as follows:

Pillar of the World Material Meaning

Torah Gold Allowing a portion to be removed from one’s possession

Prayer Silver Saving and preserving

Tzedakah (charity) Copper Raising someone up

Let me expand on each of the above.

When I study Torah, I begin by accepting God as mighty and powerful. God is Lord and our strength. I study by reading and interpreting a portion of the Torah. I then share that interpretation and the interpretation becomes the possession of anyone who reads it. It is no longer mine. Part of me, of my intellect, has first allowed myself to be inspired and informed by my learning and my muse. I am possessed. Then through sharing, I have been allowed to be possessed by others.

Prayer, tefilah, means to beg and beseech; it means to implore. Jews pray to God but for themselves — to preserve their lives, their health and their comfort and to allow their hearts to be open to the divine spirit, to make ourselves sacred and prepare ourselves for service and sacrifice. We pray for empowerment. We pray for courage. If Torah is other directed, prayer is self-directed. Through prayer, we gain a sense of humility and cannot be humiliated because, through prayer, we recognize that we have a very lowly status. If Torah is our gold standard, prayer is the silver foundation of our lives. If for Torah, God is the Lord and Master, in prayer, God is Mercy, though He never seemed to inhabit the road that led to Mercy Hospital, No Mercy Road, more formally known as Mains Avenue in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. That road was blocked and Blacks traditionally were not afforded the comfort of a room in Mercy or No Mercy Hospital. Through prayer, God cannot help you boost yourself by your own bootstraps with God’s help. For the point of prayer is not to obtain God’s help but to facilitate our own self-reliance. Prayer is not a bargaining session in which we trade off a promise of servitude in return for a loan. We pray even though God is broke and the bank is closed. Prayer is associated with our sacrifices, not rewards from God.

The Hebrew verb for prayer—tefilah is hitpalel (root: peh.lamed.lamed) in the reflexive mode. It means ‘to judge’. "The use of this shoresh in its simpler forms is generally associated with ‘judgement’. For instance, in Shemot 21:22 – the case is to be ruled *…v’natan biPh’LiLim* – ‘…paying as much as the judges determine.’ (BDB 813), however, suggest an earlier usage of the shoresh – which evolves into "judgement". They render *P*L*L as ‘intervene, interpose’. Since the arbitrators/judges intervene (on behalf of the wronged party), they are fulfilling an act of *P’LiLah*; thus, judges (or the court) are rendered *P’LiLim*." (Rambam, Hilkhot T’fillah 1:01,

In this case, the one who prays (usually in silence) and the one prayed for are the same. To pray means judging oneself thereby allowing us to transform ourselves. Through the activity of prayer, and not because of the One prayed to, God makes possible self-transformation and renewal. Prayer allows us to acquire an attitude of self-reliance and is not intended as a path to influence God. The target is the one offering the prayer.

The third of the tryptich of Torah and Tefilah is Tzedakah.

Tzedakah is usually translated as charity but actuallymeans “doing justice, or what is right”, not “charity”, as in the Christian caritas. Tzedakah includes giving alms to the poor and donating funds for the old aged home and for refugees. Tzedakah is more than charity. Tzedakah is not just doing good deeds but making sure that charitable donations and one’s deeds actually serve to raise up the other. The other must not only feel raised up but must actually be on a higher level. Even though tzedakah is purportedly of the same value as all the other mitzvoth in the Torah put together, tzedakah is still only symbolized by copper. (See Miamonides’ “Eight Levels of Tzedakah”

So Terumah provides a structure of Torah, Tefilah and Tzedakah which we can decorate, wear pure but unadorned linen, cover the arc and dress our holy priests. When we build something physical, whether it is a home for God or for ourselves, we are building a home for a family and building a structure that will enlarge our spiritual lives. The portion began with God’s request that we donate to permit the building of the portable arc of the covenant and the building of the structure to carry the arc, so that we could sacrifice and give away that which can raise another up.

This virtue is not an abstraction. The demand greets us everyday, outside the subway station and outside the bank. On Wednesday I received the following email from one of my blog readers:

Hi Howard, I have a story to share and a request to make. Purim is just days away, and traditionally we celebrate the triumph over evil, share food treats and find ways to help the needy. I have spent most of my life doing just that. I was born in the Kensington Market to very poor immigrant parents who left Europe in time. My father was from Russia, my mother from Poland, One sister also came to Canada before the war but everyone else was murdered. I grew up knowing we had to help each other. When I was six years old, there was unusual jubilation in the Market, unlike the sadness and mourning and struggles that were my daily life. The State of Israel had been declared! I have been an ardent and active Zionist ever since. In 1963, having worked my way through University College, I had a BA, the first university graduate in my family. I was approached by the director of Jewish family and Child Services to work for them as an untrained social worker because I am fluent in Yiddish and French and they needed that to better serve the immigrants from post war Europe and the new wave from Morocco and Tangiers and other parts of North Africa. I went on to earn an MSW from U of T , graduating in 1969. and worked in many of the major hospitals as a psychiatric social worker. In the early 1990’s I was divorced, three great kids, elderly parents who needed help, a full time job and strong ties to Israel. A couple of hard to diagnose illnesses caused me to lose my job, and after a couple of months, lose my home and everything I had worked so hard for.. To say it was a difficult time is an understatement. I never thought this would have happened to me, however I am very strong and resilient. It took some years but I survived and moved on. I started thinking about people who were not as strong… who was helping them? From that time I reached out to vulnerable people and offered them my best. There have been many dramatic success stories. I have newspaper clippings and thank you letters and videos. Rabbis call me, and occasionally clergy from other communities as well. The shelters know who I am and what I do. Occasionally a wealthy family needs my help and they do pay generously. More often the person has no way to pay me but if I know things can be made better for that person I don’t refuse. At this time in my life, I need support. If you or anyone you know would be willing to make a donation it would help me a great deal at this point in my life. I have done a lot of work in the Russian Jewish community here in Toronto and one of their congregations will accept donations towards my work and can provide a legitimate receipt for 2013 tax purposes. I look forward to hearing from you, best regards, Lillian Please feel free to forward this email to anyone who might be interested. I am also available to speak to any groups, large or small about how we can more effectively help the most vulnerable here and in Israel.

Lillian Freedman lillianfreedman18

Sunday or Monday:

Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

[Tags Torah, prayer, charity,


Obama11: Virtue Ethics and Revenge Against White America – Toni Morrison Song of Solomon.14.02.13

Happy Valentine’s Day. With better forethought this blog could have been about love.

A copy of the blog below is also attached.

Obama11: Virtue Ethics and Revenge Against White America

Toni Morrison Song of Solomon


Howard Adelman

What a terrific novel. One of the best! What a privilege to write about it. What a pleasure to read a second time.

The pleasure is doubled if it proves useful to understanding Barack Obama’s world view, his governing meta-narrative, his sense of public and virtue ethics. Why not simply use his own writings, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream? In a way I am. For as I will indicate at the end of my series of blogs on Obama, the themes brought up in those volumes and directed at the American public are really being unpacked in far greater depth when the discussion goes beneath the self-conscious reflections and deliberate intentions of the coolest president to penetrate the passions, tensions and fears beneath the hopes and vision of a united America.

If The Invisible Man starts with, "I am an invisible man," Moby-Dick starts with "Call me Ishmael," the Foreword of the Song of Solomon starts with "I have long despised artists’ chatter about muses – ‘voices’ that speak to them and enable a vision, the source of which they could not name." This blog is one in several about Obama’s muses, the voices he hears and reads that touch him deeply. It is a blog about naming, humiliation and naming humiliation for what it is. Blacks had nicknames not names and got "their names the way they get everything else –the best way they can. The best way they can." The inability to properly name themselves is one of the foundations of their humiliation.

Each opening is about an identity at the core of the novel. The hero of the novel who is hibernating in a manhole in The Invisible Man is not someone who is invisible because he is conjoined with and belongs to the world of the Holy Spirit, the world of Christ’s love in contrast to the Judaic realm of appearance and the rule of law. He is invisible because he belongs to the subterranean world that is beneath both appearance and revealed truth, beneath the visibility of the earthly world and especially the invisibility of the heavenly world. From the sanctity of the invisible underworld he must become self-conscious of who he is.

Ishmael belongs to the seeing world, the world of the observer who can never understand the subterranean forces at work. Ishmael is a scientist like Adam in the Garden of Eden before woman. He can describe and discriminate in the finest detail. He is the one saved because he truly belongs on earth. In Toni Morrison’s opening, what she long despised – muses and voices – that are not visible but the source of visions – she discovers after her father dies. She discovers the invisible world that gives rise to visions and images and voices. Why? Because with her father’s death, she mourned the death of the girl in her father’s head projected on to her – interesting, capable, witty, smart, high-spirited. It was that loss she sought to recover by listening to the voices from that invisible world whether called muse, insight, inspiration, ‘the dark finger that guides,’ the bright angel. So like the invisible man, like Ishmael, she too goes on a journey to recover the muse of her father.

The novel proper begins with Robert Smith’s suicide, a man who worked as a life insurance agent and who was, therefore, always associated with death, but we have to wait until halfway through the novel to discover how close the association was for this quiet unassuming bachelor finally driven mad because he had wedded thanatos. Smith, the insurance agent who kills himself in that opening, whose suicide is revealed in the end as a Christ-like sacrifice, an act of tenderness and mercy itself towards his own people, worked for North Carolina Mutual Life, the black-owned company that married life to a condition of mutuality. Grace, called mercy by Morrison, cannot be granted by the white world, for the white world had relegated Blacks to the unseen underworld on whose inhabitants one cannot bestow mercy. But Blacks can redeem themselves but in Morrison’s world in the novel in the 1930s and 1940s and even in the 1970s when the novel appeared, they cannot yet redeem whites.

White People are unnatural. There are not natural. Bill Clinton may play at being cool, but only Blacks can be ultimately cool and touch death without anger, without fear, without any intention of achieving money or power. Mercy in the end touches and redeems the most murderous figures in the novel. Hagar bestows it on Guitar who bestows it on another for, as Guitar says, "My whole life is love," love for my people. Never again! Blacks will not be exterminated like the Pequot. So he lived life on the cutting edge wedded the terror, the very trait that attracted Milkman to be his lifelong friend. This is a book of wonders rather than a trip through a subterranean Hades that is the River Styx leading to hell.

If Morrison’s novel is a story about flight – of the insurance agent who tries to fly, of Milkman who only frees himself when he stops fleeing from Hagar, of all Black men who in desperation seek to escape the responsibilities of family, not because they do not care for those families but, ironically, out of love for them. Though like The Sense of an Ending which is explicitly about memory,about rival memories among the characters of Barnes’ novel (The Sense of an Ending starts with, "I remember"), Song of Soloman is a novel about rival memories between whites and blacks. The central thoroughfare in Southside was the officially named Mains Avenue, but it was colloquially and locally known as Doctors Street because that is where Milkman’s grandfather, the only Black doctor in town, lived. When the white city rulers insisted on restoring the official name from its local nickname, the local Black Southside residents renamed it once again as No Mercy Hospital because the street at its northern end led to the Mercy Hospital, the very hospital that denied Dr. Foster, Ruth’s father and Milkman’s grandfather, privileges and from the roof of which Smith tried to fly. The flight was witnessed by Ruth, the traumatized daughter of the only Negro doctor and her two daughters, one of whom at least had been very embarrassed by her mother’s pregnancy. Ruth then went into labour pains and became the first Black admitted into the gynaecological ward of Mercy Hospital as another Black woman wrapped in and old quilt and a knitted navy cap pulled far down on her forehead, who we later learn was her sister-in-law Pilate, sang,

O Sugarman done fly away

Sugarman done gone

Sugarman cut cross the sky

Sugarman gone home.

We are first introduced to the impertinent Guitar as a young adult who will later recall his life in Florida as a natural-born hunter and at first we will not recognize how ironic this is. For we meet him initially as a cat-eyed five year old, then as a teenager who pukes at the sight or taste of sweet desserts because he associates sweets with death and white people for it makes him remember the taste of the very sweet candy, divinity, which his father’s boss offered him when his father was sliced in two at the sawmill where he worked. Guitar was born always wondering why he could not fly and had to stay close to the ground.

His friend, nicknamed Milkman, was the youngest child of Macon and Ruth Dead, grandson of the Doctor, brother of the rose petal-making sisters, Lena (Magdalena) and (First) Corinthians, the latter much better educated for she had graduated from Bryn Mawr and travelled to France and received a liberal education that made her unfit for 80% of the useful work in the world. Instead of educating her young brother, she treated him with disdain and casual malice. When she finally took a job with the poetess Michael-Mary Graham it was as a maid where she bore the humiliation of wearing a uniform that was at least blue in exchange for a degree of independence and the assumption of some responsibility. Perhaps if she had learned to type she could have become Miss Graham’s amanuensis if she had not been sidetracked into a relationship with a distinctly lower class Porter for whom she felt only shame as she fed her hunger for male companionship and love.

Milkman was cousin to Macon’s sister’s daughter and second cousin to her granddaughter Hagar who became the love of his life and then sought to kill him. Milkman was a "peculiar" child as disinterested in the outside world as well as himself as Ishmael was in himself, but not a scientific disinterestedness, but a diachronic one rooted in time rather than a fixation on objects and things in space. Milkman was so fixated on what was behind him as if there "were no future to be had", which is how he came to pee on Lena’s dress when she came up from behind while he was peeing and surprised him.

Milkman’s disinterestedness did not save him from acute embarrassment when he first came face to face with his poor aunt, Pilate, whom he initially hated because of her reputation as ugly, dirty, and drunk, but more significantly was flooded with shame under her friendly but withering stare and her mockery of his school, his teachers and himself. By the time he was a teen he had developed a very affected strut to cover up the fact that one leg was a half inch shorter than the other. One day when he was older and both threatened and stood down his father when his father was about to beat his mother once again, it was his father who felt humiliated, but also expressed a mixture of rage at and pride in his son for asserting himself and finally standing up to him. Milkman felt shame in turn for humiliating his father and seeing his father humiliated.

Thus, Milkman never became a coherent and self-contained adult but lived and unresolved tentative existence unable to determine his own destiny and forge his own future, unable to decide whether to go forward or turn back and, if he decided, he knew the decision would be as careless, haphazard and tentative as the way his grandfather had chosen Pilate’s name. As he grew older and supposedly matured, instead of even going backward, he became infected with boredom and, "No activity seemed worth the doing, no conversation worth having." Even Hagar had become the third beer, "the one you drink because its there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?" As Guitar mocks him, "Looks like everybody’s going in the wrong direction but you, don’t it?" This is a novel not only about grace and mercy but about shame and humiliation, a novel not only of love but of serial embarrassments.

Almost all the scenes of embarrassment and humiliation are a result of unplanned and unintended accidents. Accident is not caprice. Caprice is that which you cannot predict. An accident is a product of carelessness, lack of attention, lack of focus and, in the end, a disinterestedness that was a mockery of a scientific point of view for it signalled a lack of commitment rather than a commitment to objectivity.

Though Macon Dead, Milkman’s father only lived on the thin side of evil, he enters the story as a man so filled with hatred that Ahab looks like a saint; on the other hand, Ahab in Moby-Dick was a determined and narrow focussed hater as contrasted with Milkman and Guitar who only chased their albino peacock as a bit of side play for Milkman lived only for escape "looking for whatever was light-hearted and without consequences". Macon was a slum landlord. As one family about to be evicted depicted him, "A nigger in business is a terrible thing to see." For show, Macon Dead drove a large Packard dubbed by his neighbours as Macon Dead’s hearse.

Macon hated his wife, Ruth, the doctor’s hapless, insubstantial, shadowy and vaporous daughter who was blessed with "guileless inefficiency" and whose only mooring was a water stain on the dining room table made by a piece of seaweed put on it to decorate the table. When the decoration was dismissed by Macon and embarrassed Ruth, Ruth neglected it until it disintegrated and left that unerasable stain. However narrow Ruth’s passions, those passions ran very deep, reinforced and deeply repressed because she had long been deprived of sex and had to resort to self-manipulation for some release.

Macon Dead was disappointed with his daughters whose grace and self-esteem withered away under his peering disapproving eyes. Ruth, however, was fierce in the presence of death and deliberately followed death when it beckoned. For death provided direction, clarity and audacity. But she too suffered repeated humiliations. She was a master at innocently using stories of her humiliation to bring Macon into a rage of violence aimed at her. In psychological jargon, she was a passive aggressor.

And towards his restrained, courteous but ultimately indifferent son who remained sucking at his mother’s teat for years out of habit and the same indifference, so that the janitor, Freddie, dubbed him Milkman, a name, Macon Dead always associated with something dirty, intimate and hot as well as the disgust he always felt for his wife, particularly after he saw that she had touched the body of Smith, a sight he always regarded as odious but in fact went further back before Milkman was even born.

His hated sister Pilate, though, not always hated, in fact was once beloved before the incident at the cave. She was named in a fit of accidental finger movements as Pilate Dead, a name that unintentionally associated her for the rest of her life with the killer of Christ. For Macon Dead after the cave event, the name was associated with betrayal. And more disgust at her employment as a bootlegger, at her unkempt and murky presence, but only in part, for the expression of intense constant surprise and eagerness on her face discomfited him. But most of all Macon Dead hated himself, for his metaphysical loneliness, for feeling like a propertyless alien and outsider in spite of his ownership of a number of properties. The past was never over for him but haunted him. His son wanted the past to be over, wanted to "beat a path away from his parents’ path"; the father repeated the past over and over again. It is no wonder that when his long departed sister, Pilate, returned, she found Macon truculently inhospitable and perpetually embarrassed by her presence.

But Milkman suffered from a constant sense of humiliation, for himself, for his father and mostly for his mother. "Somebody he couldn’t see, in the room laughing…at him and at his mother is ashamed. She lowers her eyes and won’t look at him." With that memory, Milkman finally dredges up the memory of that which made him most embarrassed, the fact that he sucked his mother’s breast when he was old enough to stand and wear knickers. But embarrassment was intricately woven into his everyday life. Milkman and Guitar got their kicks by mocking the world. If somebody out-insulted them or ignored them, "they wise-cracked and name-called until the sweat of embarrassment evaporated from the palms of their hands."

Milkman did love, or at least was obsessed with one person for a long period at least, his niece, Hagar. But he avoided commitment and his love was shallow and fleeting. He shied away from strong feelings as much as ne avoided decisions. Lacking curiousity except insofar as it fed his escapist fantasies, lacking any self-reflective ability, he only sought to get through each day with a light display of amiability. So faced with the need to make one big decision, he procrastinated, he stalled, he insisted on developing plans as his fantasies grew weaker and undermined his will.

Of all the wonderfully rendered characters, Hagar’s is perhaps the most intriguing. The daughter of Rena and spoiled granddaughter of Pilate, impelled by a graveyard love she was the epitome of the wildness and an absence of any control but otherwise a combination of calculated intelligence and the determination and will of a witch riding a broomstick, especially as her inner predator emerged when through Milkman’s indifference, her love was carelessly cast aside. If her grandmother was a natural healer, Hagar was an unnatural but totally ineffective destroyer – even targeting Milkman who was her only real home in the world challenged only by Ruth who was Milkman’s home. Of course, the reason for the ineffectiveness of her rage and jealousy to result in Milkman’s death was obvious – she wanted his attention much more than she wanted his death.

I have focussed on the characters rather than the bizarre plot or the absolutely brilliant writing style because of my interest in virtue ethics. And this is a novel of vices, petty but deadly vices. Social justice was interpreted as proportionality and balance but in a perverse form, balancing the number of whites killed with the number of blacks by whites who were never punished.

Behind it all is the theme of humiliation that permeates the novel. After Milkman and Guitar were arrested for having a bag of bones in their car which they thought was gold, Milkman once again felt a deep sense of shame.

Something like shame stuck to his skin. Shame at being spread-eagled, fingered, and handcuffed. Shame at having stolen a skelton, like a kid on a Halloween trick-or-treat prank rather than a grown man making a hit. Shame at needing both his father and his aunt to get him off. Then more shame at seeing his father – with an accommodating ‘we all understand how it is’ smile-buckle before the policemen. But nothing was like the shame he felt as he watched and listened to Pilate. Not just her Aunt Jemima act, but the fact that she was both adept at it and willing to do it – for him. For the one who had just left her house carrying what he believed was her inheritance…It was this woman [and the thoughts of all she had done for him] whom he would have knocked senseless, who shuffled into the police station and did a little number for the cops—opening herself up wide for their amusement, their pity, their scorn,. Their mockery, their disbelief, their meanness, their whimsy, their annoyance, their power, their anger, their boredom – whatever would be useful to her and to himself. (61%)

And Magdalene on her father Macon Dead: "All our lives were like that: he would parade us like virgins through Babylon, then humiliate us like whores in Babylon."

But it went deeper. As Guitar explained to Milkman when he wanted out, wanted to escape his sister Corinthians’ hurt and anger at him, his sister Lena’s scorn, his father’s intention to raise him as a replica of himself and his mother’s efforts to keep him as her sweet boy sucking on her breast, "It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet – which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness,’ Tame except in bed….And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding." The problem is a master-slave mentality that permeates us all. That is why it was necessary for the Israelites to spend forty years in the desert. They had to purge themselves of a life built around humiliation.

In the last half century, the Islamists have developed a meta-narrative of humiliation and betrayal in their history of relations with the West. (Khaled Fattah and K.M. Fierke (2009) "A Clash of Emotions: The Politics of Humiliation and Political Violence in the Middle East," European Journal of International Studies, March) Barack Obama has tried to address that narrative without compromising American security, a topic I will return to when I address Obama’s foreign affairs. But his main concern has been the meta-narrative of humiliation and betrayal on the domestic front.

Shame and embarrassment are what you feel and experience when you are publicly humiliated. For humiliation is a public act that always produces shame. Humiliation sears a sense of shame into our memories and leaves scars for life. Some thinkers may notice such occasions but fail to raise the issue into self-consciousness and analyze the effects. (Tony Judt) Others, such as Mohandes Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, understood fully the effects of efforts at humiliation and developed a strategy, style and tactics designed to prevent succumbing to its cruel fate. For the suffering at the time was never as important as the long term corrosive effects. As we have read in the events of the last 10 days in the case of Chris Dorner, humiliation and revenge is often cited in cases of mass murder often followed by suicide. (Cf. for example, the film Dark Matter by Chen Shi-Zheng of his PhD adviser and four other academic colleagues before killing himself for a remarkable exploration of humiliation and its consequences, not only as an domestic issue but on the international stage where suggestions of foreign superiority and condescension have to be replaced by an understanding of insecurity and historical victimization without losing one’s one sense of self in the process.)

In Morrison’s prescient tale, the original humiliation is usually not just circumstantial. The humiliation may be subtle and just insensitive or it can be deliberate by persons in authority who resort to the use of coercive methods to deliberately humiliate another as in the use of torture. The effects can be devastating, especially when the practices are built into the social structure of a society or a family. Moreover, family patterns that perpetuate humiliating social practices and relations usually reflect larger societal norms and patterns.

When Corinthians, who was educated at Bryn Mawr and given a sense of herself as significantly better intellectually and socially, is reduced to making rose petal cutouts daily and this situation comes to public attention even if only accidentally, then she is recognized and forced to recognize that her life has been reduced to a menial repetitive level. The result is a combination of a powerless rage and a feeling of lacking any real worth that reinforces a sense of helplessness. Hagar who began her relationship with Milkman as his social and sexual mentor but developed an intense dependency on the relationship such that when Milkman decided to end it callously as a product of his deep indifference, Hagar felt deeply betrayed and hurt but in a manner that even undercut her ability to execute the powerful rage and desire for resentment she felt. Feeling duped and used, she became obsessed and full of self-loathing.

A common element is all of the cases above – and everyone of the characters at certain points suffer from being humiliated, and in the case of the main character, Milkman, it is the dominant experience of his life even though he takes little responsibility or initiative in determining his future — is a disjunction between the status a person sees for him or herself or is told he or she has and the actual continuing or incidental experiences. Blacks feel humiliation not simply because they were treated in a degraded way but because they were also taught that they were citizens of a country that had recognized them as equal with God-given rights. Their treatment and prevalent practices contradicted that promise. Michele Obama invited Desline Victor, the 102 year old Haitian native and American living in North Miami to attend the State of the Union address to give witness to her determination not to vote and not be intimidated by the long wait she was forced to endure as part of a deliberate effort to discourage lower class Blacks and Hispanics from voting. Though not likely to deter new efforts to rearrange state electoral votes from a cross state to a constituency basis to erode the massive democratic vote in urban areas, nevertheless the occasion illustrated how certain mechanisms are not just used for short term gains but to instil the long terms scars of humiliation. Part of the process of treatment entails pulling the practice into the full light of day and throwing light on the efforts at manipulation so that the shame is reflected back on the perpetrators. Leave it to

Fox News radio on its program Kilmeade and Friends to dismiss both the actual 3 hour wait of Desline Victor and the recognition Obama gave it (13 February 2013). Fox News dismissed the gesture as trivial and irrelevant for, after all, in the end she was happy; she voted. They just don’t get it!

The core issue is whether each citizen is to be counted equal within the political process; rights cannot be denigrated. The long delays for the urban economic underclass in certain areas sent the message that they did not have status as equal citizens. The difference in this case is that the potential for humiliation was turned on its head by Desline Victor’s determination and success. In contrast, Morrison’s novel is a litany of failure on the micro-public level rather than on the stage of grand politics. When failure to challenge a claim for status, when subjected in addition to hazing, ridicule and derision even if only in the habitual jocular back and forth teasing within the male buddy system, the humiliation is reinforced.

The reality is that mass murder and homicide will unlikely be significantly decreased by measures to register gun holders and monitor and regulate the purchase and sale of guns, but the symbolic message is important. The real challenge will be to reduce significantly the variety of social occasions in which humiliation and shaming are built into current practices. Note that although we are sometimes embarrassed [em-bare-assed] by what we do, not all or even most embarrassing situations are ones of humiliation. Humiliation requires some degree of public participation. When those processes are written deep into social practices, then a class of invisible men and women is created. The issue is not simply the message that a person’s claim to a certain status is built on sand but that the person is not even worthy of making such a claim. Humiliation entails degradation, not just de-grading, but instilling in the other a belief that he or she is not even worthy enough to attempt to achieve that grade let alone a higher one. The consequence is sewing the seeds of impotence and a sense of powerlessness to change one’s condition, a sense of powerlessness that can be acted out in revenge, murder and mayhem rooted in a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. What the humiliated individual experiences is the desire to flee and fly away with blue plastic wings, a resort to fantasies and an increasing inability to grasp reality.

Morrison’s great strength is her remarkable ability to portray that phenomenon on the micro level in a variety of social situations, characters and situations. For example, Morrison repeatedly describes milkman’s relative high status with girls and in his social milieu but also reveals that retaining and even reifying a status claim status will not prevent humiliation if an agent’s low self worth is in play. Though Milkman is relatively affluent and has inherited the mantle of a property owner, he knows he is just his father’s messenger boy and deeply desires to make it on his own even if it means resorting to stealing to seek the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But this is the illusion. Just as the experience of travel on an airplane in his quest which exhilarated him and encouraged his illusion of invulnerability. For in the book there is not one single example of a solid family within which the various individuals are respected and admired for the roles they play. Milkman’s own family is a dysfunctional farce. His aunt’s family is an example of female single parent upbringing. His friend, particularly Guitar, is an example of male commitment to non-attachment and serial short term affairs to the neglect of responsibilities towards one’s immediate family and future progeny. The distressing thing about western culture is that family values are increasingly being abandoned for the sake of self-interest, the primary value stressed by economic conservatives.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was still a sociologist at Harvard and then later as a senior analyst in the Department of Labor began documenting the roots of the fragmented family in Jim Crow America and slavery and the conclusions of his research that informed his 1965 Moynihan Report when he was Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration (Negro Family: The Case for National Action) Recall that he wrote the report undercutting the inherited liberal view that poverty was the cause of the decline of the American family. Untrue! The cause as he documented so well was the disintegration of the black family, the increasing percentage of out-of-wedlock births and the increasing abandonment of responsibility for their families by male heads of households. And that was at a time when the problem had only infected 25% of black families before it increased exponentially and spread to the rest of society so that the whole society is now primarily Black with all the faults and virtues of that coloration.

Milkman’s quest for the pot of gold in the cave allows him to discover a real pot of gold, not the illusory prize economic conservatives promised by Lotteries and Las Vegas for those without the entrepreneurial skills to get there on their own, but the root myth of black flight from slavery of Milkman’s great-grandfather Solomon and the meaning of the song his Aunt Pilate, the smiling and entertaining and seer but Christ killer, sings. One did not have to go into the depths of Plato’s cave to find the root illusion in its black depths for it was there all along on the surface, in the repeated refrain of flight, escape and irresponsibility packed into Pilate’s songline. The truth was to be found in a blues song of memory of Solomon’s flight and abandonment of his wife and 21 children.

Obama’s greatest contribution as president will not be any of his initiatives domestically or overseas no matter how great. His greatest contribution will be as an exemplar of the importance of family values. At the time of Obama’s State of the Union Address, my wife, Nancy, queried me asking why Barack Obama did not allow his two girls to attend and see their father at such a memorable occasion as his second State of the Union address. I offered such lame explanations as he was a strict father, it was a weekday, they had school and homework, and anyway they would be bored by an hour long litany of policy initiatives. But I think the more basic reason was the message he sent out. The issue was not his status as president. His status as father and his commitment to the future well-being of his family was far more important than any lesson they could learn from his status as America’s president and leader of the free world or what responsibilities that entailed. In that message, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had the same message but Barack Obama was in a far better position to convey it to those who needed to hear it most. The question is whether and to what degree community conservatives recognize the message he is conveying.

Monday: Obama: Julius Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending: Redemption

[Tags Morrison, Song of Solomon,
Obama, humiliation]