Wronging and Opp Strangers

Wronging and Oppressing Strangers: Mishpatim Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

by

Howard Adelman

Is it serendipity that we read such a text between Donald Trump’s aborted cruel, inhuman and unconstitutional Executive Order dealing with migrants and the delayed promise to issue a revised order next week? When immigration enforcement officers were previously restricted to rounding up illegal aliens in the U.S. found guilty of serious crimes, is it serendipity that we read Mishpatim when restrictions on U.S. immigration officers have been lifted and they are now instructed to round up illegal aliens found or even alleged to be guilty of any conviction (going through a red light) and not just a criminal let alone a serious criminal record?  Guadalupe García de Rayos, was arrested in Phoenix and ordered deported; she is the mother of two American-born children and had been in the U.S. ten years and was registered with the American Immigration Service to which she reported dutifully twice per year. But she had been found guilty years ago of carrying and working under a fake ID.

Is it serendipity that we read Mishpatim when refugees in the dead of winter have been crossing the undefended and usually unprotected land border between the U.S. and Canada at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec or near Emerson, Manitoba or in British Columbia at unmanned border crossings such as in Surrey where a Honduran family recently entered Canada? RCMP officers may monitor banks of screens receiving data from surveillance cameras, but that only tracks and does not stop claimants from crossing into Canada. Once on Canadian soil, they are assisted by Quebec provincial police, RCMP officers, Canadian Border Services agents or volunteers to be taken to a centre where they can make a refugee claim. In January alone, 452 asylum seekers crossed into Quebec and over 400 into Manitoba. To repeat, this has been in the dead of winter. In another month, we can expect the numbers to greatly increase so that I will not be surprised, if the circumstances do not change in the U.S., to see up to 40,000 asylum claimants cross the border into Canada illegally in 2017. And this could turn out to be a gross underestimate.

There is a way to circumvent these riskier crossings. Allow claimants to cross at legal entry points and make a claim there. That would mean suspending the definition of the U.S. as a Safe Third Country. For that provision presumed that asylum claimants would be protected by U.S. law. There are justifiable fears that this is no longer the case, not just by sympathetic Canadians, but by supporters of refugees in the United States, many of whom have volunteered to take the asylum claimants to areas where they can walk across the border at a terminus of a new underground railway network into Canada.

Many Americans and Canadians are taking Justin Trudeau at his word when he tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” This week, Canada welcomed into Manitoba another group of the 1,200 Yazidis due to arrive in Canada this year as humanitarian refugees who will not have to be processed through the Convention refugee claims system.

Canada is on the outer fringes of the refugee movements, especially the hundreds of thousands crossing into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. This past week, we read of 87 bodies recovered from a capsized boat off the cost of Libya; the smugglers had removed the motor and allowed the boat to be swamped. Last week I learned that the son of an Israeli friend, a diver who inspects underwater pipelines, found numerous bodies trapped under the pipeline at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

Several weeks ago, a visiting Israeli rabbi talked to a group of us about the refugees arriving in Israel from Africa and the Middle East and discussed the “Extradition of Refugees According to the Jewish Tradition.” He quoted Deuteronomy 23:16-17 dealing with the treatment of bondsmen who should not be returned to his master and, instead, should be allowed to dwell with one who found him or her. That escaped bondsmen should be allowed to live in freedom within the gates of the city and no wrong should be committed against him.

Mishpatim (laws) deal with both slaves and strangers. Though Genesis 14:19 enjoins Israelites to “love the stranger for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Mishpatim is the first time this moral injunction is put into a legal code posed as a negative as distinct from a positive moral injunction of action that is just, These Covenantal laws, Sefer HaB’rit, are not as generous as the Deuteronomic Code or the Holiness Code found in Leviticus, but just as Moses upon the advice of Jethro made a beginning in the administration of justice and introduced a more decentralized system of administering law, one in which the magistrates were to be chosen based on moral criteria without direct guidance from God (see my blog from last Friday), much more specific and clearly man-made laws well beyond the Ten Commandments had to be introduced. If we take the position in the text as reflecting a time when the laws were introduced (unlikely), these laws were promulgated before Moses disappeared for forty days and forty nights.

It is telling that the very first laws are those applicable to Hebrew slaves and then to property. Only then, and very briefly, do we read, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (22:20) I thought that Rabbi Plaut had told me that this injunction was the one most repeated in the Torah and was cited 27 times, but my memory must be incorrect because the visiting rabbi said that, in fact, he had counted and it was repeated 36 times. As everyone knows, and as the Babylonian Talmud reminds us (Bava Metzia 59b), the more repetition, the greater the significance. It isn’t as if there is a causal relationship between the experience of slavery in Egypt and the obligation not to wrong or oppress strangers, but, as many know who have undertaken research on those who assist refugees, the closer the connection in the family history with the experience of refugees, the greater the motivation to help. Having been a stranger is neither an adequate nor a necessary motive for helping refugees, but, statistically, it increases the likelihood of offering such assistance. Even more importantly, it established a fundamental identity between the person offering assistance and the refugee. History and memory must be reinforced to ensure hospitality for the stranger.

But the Israelites were not just strangers in Egypt; they were slaves. The section Mishpatim begins with slaves as an echo of Genesis, “Know now that your descendants shall be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years.” (Genesis 15:13) Refugees are often treated worse even than slaves, for they often lack the protections of the larger society or state in which they live. However, if we are to understand what it means in the instruction not to wrong or oppress the stranger, it is helpful to look at the initial and first try at dealing with slaves, not slaves who are non-nationals, but Hebrew slaves.

Hebrew slaves in Exodus were debt slaves, though in Leviticus (17-26) they are simply called debtors. Reduced to impoverishment, they became slaves to compensate for debts. But as Hebrews, they were not Other. Further, there was a maximum limit to their enslavement – 6 years unless the master provided a male with a woman to wed and they had children. (The Deuteronomy Code – in reality more an incomplete collection of common law rather than a systematic code, but I will use the latter as a term of convenience – renames the debt slave as a brother and goes further, requiring the master to release the debt slave with part of his profits from his years of labour to allow the debt slave to get a new start -15:13) In the latter case, in the Exodus Code, the wife and the children continue to remain slaves belonging to the master, but they were also released in the improved Deuteronomy Code. If a man does not want to be separated from his wife and children, he may voluntarily stay as a refugee for the rest of his life, a status to be marked by an awl pierced through his ear.

Note that this part of the code had to do with male slaves. The code was based on gender discrimination. Daughters could be sold by their fathers (not their parents) but as “wives,” not as slaves, but only under the Exodus Code. But if the male tired of a woman he kept as a concubine, he either had to let her go free, especially if he violated her rights, or provide for her for the rest of her days. He could not sell her. If his son married her, then she had to be treated equally as any other woman chosen to be a wife. (Exodus 21:2-11) So there is a hierarchy of Others – male slaves, female concubines and strangers. The greatest number of injunctions by far apply to the treatment of strangers.

This does not mean that there was a correspondence between the law and actual behaviour. As is well known, there is often a gap between the moral aspirations of a society and its conformity to those ideals. Abuse of debt slaves, of women in slavery and of strangers increased as the gap widened between the protections offered to those at the bottom of the ladder and the rewards taken and presumed by those at the top widened. That is, as societies became more corrupt, as the prophet Amos pointed out, the greater the mistreatment of debt slaves, of women and of strangers. That mistreatment is often a by-product of that corruption and/or used as a distraction from it.  The results were often horrific.

For example, a widow cried out to the prophet Elisha:

ד:א וְאִשָּׁ֣ה אַחַ֣ת מִנְּשֵׁ֣י בְנֵֽי־הַ֠נְּבִיאִים צָעֲקָ֨ה אֶל־אֱלִישָׁ֜ע לֵאמֹ֗ר עַבְדְּךָ֤ אִישִׁי֙ מֵ֔ת וְאַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתָּ כִּ֣י עַבְדְּךָ֔ הָיָ֥ה יָרֵ֖א אֶת־יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וְהַ֨נֹּשֶׁ֔ה בָּ֗א לָקַ֜חַת אֶת־שְׁנֵ֧י יְלָדַ֛י ל֖וֹ לַעֲבָדִֽים: 4:1 A certain woman, the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha: “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know how your servant revered Yhwh. And now a creditor is coming to seize my two children as slaves.” (2 Kings 4:1)

This ruthlessness, obviously, is not restricted to the ancient world. When the very people who caused the mortgage crisis and economic collapse in 2008 were rescued, the hundreds of thousands who owed money on many of those mortgages on properties that were then financially underwater were not given relief by and large, but were foreclosed upon and thrown out of their homes because the system “sold the just for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Ruthlessness became even more the order of the day.

When we do not take care of our own needy (evvon), it is much more difficult to take care of the needs of strangers. The innocent, the just, the idealists (tzaddiqim) are swept aside and everyone out for himself becomes the ruling ethos. The poor, the needy, have indeed been cheated by the system as their incomes decline and they fall into poverty. It is no wonder that many are willing to follow a leader who displaces the blame on foreigners, on strangers, for often, this is a distraction to hide even more deep-seated corruption.

The stranger is not to be treated wrongly or oppressed. These are not the same, but there is contention about the difference. Some argue that a wrong falls under the law – someone is wronged when he or she is treated other than in the way the law requires. A person oppressed is a victim of society. In another interpretation, a wrong is a monetary infraction for which there can be compensation. There can be no compensation for oppression. Alternatively, a wrong is a verbal slight, an expression of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia for which there can be no financial compensation. Oppression is a specific action of exploitation. In a fourth and somewhat complementary conception, a wrong is corrected by writing and applying just law; oppression can only be corrected through empathy by a native-born for the stranger.

Whatever the differences, a ger stranger is not a visiting foreigner (nochri), but an alien living among us who is not yet a citizen. The Torah demands that the ger be treated with all the rights we have and, as well, with a welcoming hand and smile. Xenophobia is the precise opposite to this treatment.

 

I am grateful for the insights into debt slaves to the commentaries of Professor Marvin A. Sweeney (“The Bible’s Evolving Effort to Humanize Debt Slavery”), Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber (“The Law of the Hebrew Slave: Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy”), and Dr. Aaron Koller (“The Law of the Hebrew Slave: Reading the Law Collections as Commentary”) who contends that the three different versions apply to three different types of servitude and that Deuteronomy fills in lacunae rather than develops the law in a more benign direction. On the principle of treating the stranger, see Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s commentary from 2 February 2008 entitled “Loving the Stranger.”

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Learning the Techniques of Persuasion

Learning the Techniques of Persuasion

by

Howard Adelman

Against a background of coal miners in hard hats, Donald Trump signed a measure a week ago that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation restricting coal mines from dumping debris into nearby streams. Patricia Nana, a Cameroonian-American, insisted that, “If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work. I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything – you could see how happy they were.” Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say. The reality: the regulation would have cost very few jobs that would more than be compensated by new jobs created through the clean-up of the streams.

The Washington Post on 21 February 2017 reported this as “an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.” These supporters at a Trump rally in Florida received their news regularly from Fox News and right-wing radio. Those interviewed were aware of what they read and what they saw, but knew virtually nothing about topics embarrassing to the president, such as the recent resignation of Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, because he lied to the Vice-President. If they knew that, they knew nothing of the broader charge, that he spoke inappropriately, frequently and possibly illegally about lifting the sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, before Trump was even president. Some did not even know that Flynn had resigned and had been replaced by Lt. General H.R. McMaster.

One cannot win an effort at persuasion unless one has access to the other side. Even then, what is said will be filtered through a set of beliefs largely resistant to the information and arguments being put forth. And we are not speaking of Donald Trump himself or his immediate acolytes. We are talking about the Trumpists, the true believers in his entourage who voted for him and would vote for him again even after a month of chaos and mismanagement.

Do not attempt to practice the arts of persuasion on Donald Trump, on his acolytes or on the true believers that are his followers. There are plenty of others who cast ballots for Donald Trump who do not approach issues with a pre-formed mindblindness. The first rule: select your targets who may possibly be open to listening to the case you wish to bring. But such a rule creates its own problems. Do we end up only talking to those who share our bubble? Do we retreat to our “safe spaces”? Does that reinforce intolerance and even deeper misunderstandings, especially with the almost total breakdown in the consensus, led by the president, in respecting the media and in engaging in civil discourse? There is no longer even a consensus on the civility expected of a president.

Even when dealing with those more malleable than the ardent Trump supporter, there is a problem in conducting discourse within the larger climate of fear and suspicion. In his Florida rally, Donald Trump may have stoked that fear by referring to a non-existent event in Sweden the night before, but what he did see and hear was an author, Ami Horowitz, who claimed that statistics on rape and violent crime in Sweden had increased since the large influx of foreigners in 2015. Don Lemon on his CNN show interviewed the author and challenged both his misuse of statistics and his conclusions, but without another expert present, the interview disintegrated into the interviewee insisting that what he claimed was true while Lemon kept offering evidence and arguments for its false representation of the situation in Sweden.

A quick subsequent review of some authoritative evidence from Sweden indicated that Don Lemon was much more accurate than his guest and supposed expert in representing rape and violent crime rates in Sweden. What had been offered was hyperbole and distortion by pointing to a one year spike and ignoring the overall pattern of declining rates of violence and sexual assault. Even when there were outstanding examples of violence, as there was two evenings ago, the riots looked tame compared to those that have occurred frequently in American cities. And they are much rarer, one about every second year. In these cases, Middle Eastern refugees were involved.

But there was no rape. There was no violence – though one police officer was slightly injured. When there is violence, the perpetrators were much more likely to be right-wing extremists than immigrants. Swedes seem to know this and a majority continue to support the intake of refugees and migrants. Nevertheless, Trumpists insist that there is a media conspiracy to cover up the incidents of rape and violence in Sweden.

However, even if we have some glimpse of what we face in the world of persuasion, how can we use our rational and communicative skills to best effect? When we try to persuade another, do we first attempt to establish the facts or, as the ancient Sophists did, focus on arête or virtue, on values of the highest order – excellence in other words? If the latter, what rhetorical and philosophic techniques are required? Or do we set aside argument and discourse altogether and instead opt for authenticity, opt for giving witness to what you believe to be true as opposed to the claims of the Other.

Mel Gibson’s totally unsubtle and sometimes saccharine Hacksaw Ridge, with the most gruesome and graphic scenes of the maelstrom of war I have ever seen, tells the “true” story of a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), as the true believer and saint-like figure who served as a U.S. medic in the war against the Japanese in Okinawa. He won the highest award for bravery, the U.S. Medal of Honor. Doss volunteered to serve, but given his faith (he was a Seventh Day Adventist) and promise to God, he would not bear arms. In Gibson’s interpretation, this superhero combined an open-hearted approach to life with steely determination to defend his beliefs.

Some of his fellow soldiers viewed that as cowardice and bullied and beat him. His commanding officers treated his behaviour as disobedience and undertook an effort to have him court martialled. But through witnessing to his faith, through his unqualified brave actions in battle, he proved them all wrong. He did not use argument to defend his case, but he did need an order from a superior officer in Washington that conscientious objectors serving as medics need not bear arms. But most of all, he needed to prove they were wrong and more than did so in repeated acts of outstanding bravery in rescuing his fellow soldiers.

There are other ways to win arguments than with words and arguments. There are also other ways to lose arguments regardless of one’s skill with words and reason. Does the payment of money in exchange for such teaching these skills corrupt the process as Socrates proclaimed as he sought to establish the pursuit of Truth, Wisdom and Courage as the superior values for a warrior and aristocratic class? After all, Trumpists and anti-Trumpists often insist that supporters or opponents respectively are being paid to be there.  And senior executives of companies may indirectly be paid for touting the Trump presidency when they attend his “job” rallies because the company benefits from the positive publicity and the president promoting their products and their commitment to America. It is not they who have to pay off the president but the president who may be paying them off for being touts for himself.

Modern universities, though periodically invaded by corruption, have overwhelmingly proved the falsity of Socrates’ claims and shown that guaranteed wages and the principle of academic freedom have overwhelmingly protected the independence of scholars and scientists in both their teaching and research functions. By and large, responsible media outlets, and even irresponsible ones, have largely succeeded in drawing a line between the sources of their ad revenues and their news and editorial content. It should not be presumed in advance that material influences trump intellectual ones.

We have also learned that, contrary to Socrates, knowledge is not a single craft, but a multiplicity of tasks each with its own specialized vocabulary, techniques, objects of study and standards for assessing results. There is no singular path to knowledge. There is not even a singular Truth with a capital “T.” There is a difference between being a sage and being a scholar or research scientist. Most of the latter are not sages, as much as they may contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

In the ancient Greek world of Socrates, rhetorical skills were valued more than parsing arguments and evidence in a written work or stringing together depictions in a coherent way in a story or a novel. The latter was exemplified in the movie, Genius, the biopic of renowned Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins (Colin Firth), and his exuberant unboundaried novelist, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River were, arguably, both made into coherent, readable and popular novels because of the concise effort of editing the logorrheic outpouring of the poetic prose of the American Walt Whitman of the twentieth century. In a book culture, arguments and evidence in science and scholarship, or narrative plots, themes and characterization in fiction, must be coherent to facilitate communication.

This is not the case where alternatives to persuasion are used. Incoherence, boring and meaningless repetition of phrases, body language and snorts or their equivalents in tweets, may be used to confound coherence and disparage criteria such as truth and consistency. When the message requires audience fragmentation, traditional and legacy media with standards of correspondence to facts and coherence in presentation must be regarded as the enemy to be undermined and debilitated. Following Donald Trump’s rant as an excuse for a news conference last week (16 February 2017), in a tweet the next day, he dubbed the news media “the enemy of the American people.” In the original version, he wrote: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!” Given the grammar and style, he should have written sic! The illogic was best exemplified when he dubbed the leaks about his election campaign’s links to Russians authentic, but the reporting of those leaks, “fake news.”

We have four different groups in contention, however, not two. There are the modern scholars and scientists, journalists and writers who, like the ancient Sophists, adhere to standards of reasoning and establishing evidence, to techniques of differentiating truth from falsehood. In the other corner are the modern cynics, the dogged or dog-like (κυνικός – kynikos) celebrators of fame and fortune, of strength and power. Modern cynics are the very opposite of their Athenian predecessors – Antisthenes and Diogenes made famous in Plato’s dialogues. The latter became ideologues who insisted in turning the rigour and discipline of argument into an ascetic life style. Trump and his followers have replaced rigour and discipline with incoherence and rants.

The modern version of ancient cynicism are evangelicals with their narrow adherence to ideology. Paradoxically, they unite with modern cynics because both disparage rigour in thought and use of language. The two groups are united in a single camp because of their opposition to the use of reason and reflection, attention to facts and follies, as a method for establishing truth. For contemporary cynics as ideologues as well as cynical inversions of those ancient practitioners, Truth is either revealed or it is whatever I believe. It is not something to be pursued.

In addition to the Sophists, there is a fourth group. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. From very different perspectives, they were philosophers. Like the ancient cynics and their modern evangelical ideologues, they believed in Truth with a capital “T”. Like the sophists, they believed Truth, along with the virtue of Justice, could be established by adherence to the principles of reason, of consistency in argument, of correspondence with facts and of coherence in weaving it altogether. Unlike the sophists who revered the techniques of rationality and made no claims about an ultimate revelation, these philosophers believed that they could reveal that Truth and uncover the principles of Justice through reason alone.

The partnership of sceptical sophists and rational philosophers, Camp A, opposed the members of Camp B, the union of believers in sincerity and goodness of human motives and actions (evangelical ideologues) with the contemporary cynics of disbelief and insincerity who regard human motives and actions to be fundamentally base. Linking the evangelical ideologues and the contemporary cynics are the economic ideologues who believe human motives are strictly self-interested, but, like the evangelical ideologues, have constructed an ideology, materialistic rather than value-based, indifferent to facts and arguments that predetermine how the economic order is to be constructed.

The question then is when there are no rules of discourse, when frameworks trump dialogue, how do the members of Camp A persuade those who belong to Camp B? The members of both camps speak the same language with the same grammatical rules, but the rules of logic and the rules of falsification differ dramatically. They are not shared. At least by the core members of one camp versus those of another. That is where one finds an opening in the gaps between the core and the periphery and in the divisions among the sub-groups in Camp B. Before one can take advantage of those openings, it is necessary to establish common grounds for Camp A.

In the next blog, I inquire into what we can learn from ancient Greeks caught up with the question of persuasion.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Malignant Narcissism and Epochal Change

Malignant Narcissism and Epochal Change

by

Howard Adelman

We are in the process of an epochal change. Narcissism, as indicated throughout the world, is on the march and in many places – Turkey, Russia, and now the U.S. Malignant narcissists (MNs) occupy the highest political positions in the land and threaten to do so in many other places, facilitated by minor non-malignant narcissists who already dominate the corridors of power. The new media somehow have helped dismantle the institutional intellectual checks that worked and were designed to keep such personalities away from the apex of power. When the personality who occupies the top political office in the land and the centre of political authority, when the self-centredness that was supposed to be the essential character of the economic order – though it was really not – becomes the predominant trait envisaged as dominating all orders, then the seeds of rot and disorder have invaded the central hub to allow destructiveness rather than constructivism to become the order of the day.

Narcissists love themselves more than anything, and malignant narcissists love only themselves or those considered to be reflections of themselves. All energy is expended in self-confirmation rather than in efforts to understand and comprehend the mysteries of the universe. Immune to falsifiability, MNs disparage science, the essence of which is a willingness to be open to self-criticism and critical self-reflection. The MN is very capable of pivoting and tactically adjusting to setbacks, but will never admit that the initiative of the Executive Order on migration was just a terrible and inept expression of governance. An MN not only dislikes restraints and government rules to protect the citizenry in the economic sphere, but he expands this dictum into a transcendental principle of understanding altogether. A new executive order on migration will be written and issued to get around the obstacles, but these are not regarded as constitutional limits on actions, but as barriers to be crushed in due time.

If the empath is inherently shy and is embarrassed by praise, the MN cannot live without it. The thirst for accolades is insatiable in proportion to the distance of any personality traits or accomplishments from deserving such praise. While empaths seek solitude to restore their equanimity, MNs need to surround themselves with courtiers, supplicants and sycophants who are loyal, not to any idea or ideal, but to The Donald.

But what about friends. Brian Mulroney, once Prime Minister of Canada, is a friend of Donald Trump. Whatever his failings as a blowhard, Mulroney was not a self-serving malignant narcissist. Self-serving perhaps, so when I first met him, within 30 seconds he had sized me up and, having determined I was of no use to him, abruptly terminated our contact. The Donald would not have needed that initial handshake to even make such a determination.

Further, an ordinary egocentric character like Mulroney could still bestow US$5 million on Nelson Mandela of the ANC after he was freed from years in prison. An extraordinary person like Brian Mulroney was also one of the rare statesmen who, without fanfare, was the only world leader we knew who wrote two, not just one, letter to President Habyarimana of Rwanda urging him to retreat from the persecution of Tutsis. So why and how could Mulroney be friends with Trump?

Bob Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, is another personal friend of Donald Trump. By virtually all accounts, Kraft is a fair and generous man, highly successful and well loved and respected. During Super Bowl week, he explained his friendship with Donald Trump. “When [Kraft’s wife] Myra died [in 2011], Melania [Trump] and Donald came up to the funeral in our synagogue, then they came for memorial week to visit with me. Then he called me once a week for the whole year, the most depressing year of my life when I was down and out. He called me every week to see how I was doing, invited me to things, tried to lift my spirits. He was one of five or six people that were like that. I remember that.”

This is not a false memory. This is true. And there are many other such testimonies of individuals who have remained loyal to Donald Trump in spite of what they regard as his eccentricities, his bad taste and his often oafish and insensitive behaviour. Further, Trump offers these loyalists, these Red Tories, reasons to identify with his political platform. Kraft said of DT’s planned remake of America’s inner cities: “Working class people and lower income people, we have to help more. They’ve gotten hurt over the last decade a lot. We have to create jobs and a vibrant economy that helps those communities throughout America. I really believe and hope that the new administration is going to do that.”

Kraft is not an empath. He is just a very successful good-hearted citizen who cannot recognize a practiced manipulator for what he is. Kraft can evidently not pick up false empathy, empathy which is practiced as a craft rather than as an expression of the inner soul. The reality is that Trump populates his universe with worshippers, courtiers and billionaires, the later as the necessary icing on the cake to ensure that he can bathe in the shadow of another’s celebrity at the same time as he demands, as he needs, their acceptance and applause. When he interviewed billionaires for important positions in his cabinet, the ultimate selection criterion was not whether their policies were in accord with his or, when different, could be well-defended, but whether they would truly and fully acknowledge DT as leader of the pack.

That is why money matters. That is why glitter matters. That is why gold matters. They are, for a malignant narcissist, the ultimate symbol of success – not academy awards or honorary doctorates, but money. DT has the Midas touch, the golden touch precisely because he cannot really touch or be touched as I noted in an earlier blog discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XI. What I did not write is that Midas had been very generous and kind to the drunken poet, Silenus. Midas entertained him, wined and dined him and extended to him an unprecedented 10 days of hospitality to an otherwise fall-down-dead-drunk. When Dionysus offered to reward Midas for his generosity and granted him one wish, that wish was that everything he touched should turn to gold, including the presidency of the United States of America. The roses in his huge garden lost their suppleness, their colour and their velvet feel as they turned to gold upon his touch.

And when his daughter came to weep about what had happened to the roses, as in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories, when Midas went to touch his daughter, she too turned to gold. Donald Trump has five children. Some evidently keep their distance or, as much as possible, are kept at a distance. But the three oldest have been converted to the belief that the pursuit of gold is the highest achievement, even though there is no evidence, however accomplished Ivanka Trump may be, that they possess the Midas touch. Trump’s children are props for him, to be cited and used as testaments, for one, to his lack of anti-Semitism. They are the only courtiers he can trust.

But they dare not disabuse him of his deep conviction that he got the most electoral votes ever, that larger crowds attended his inauguration compared to that of any other president-elect. He could not stand, he could not tolerate a blatant visual image that Barack Obama in 2009 had attracted much larger crowds than he had. He had a fit, a temper tantrum, and berated The National Park Commission for issuing false images and pictures. Most of all, he took to task the media with their fact-checking and continual replay of the pictures that told more than a thousand words. The replays only made Trump more furious and he declared open warfare on the false, on the lying, media – with the exception of the small number of TV stations that continued to pour accolades on Donald Trump without reserve.

Most of all, in the central focus on themselves as the reference point for not simply assessing value, but for establishing himself as the ultimate value, Donald Trump offers no praise of past history or even acknowledges it or the institutions developed by that history to protect against the exercise of power by a narcissist. In that sense, he is akin to the empath, but with this major difference. The empath can see and foresee. The Donald can and must play and replay. The more nostalgic, the more comforting, the less challenging, the more often it is replayed. On 20 January 2017 began the first day of the New Common Era and the beginning of draining the swamp into which DT had thrown all of history.

In both the film The Arrival and in the world of Trump, history is problematized. However, whereas in the movie time can run backwards as well as forwards, in the Trump world, linear time is deconstructed into recurring existential moments to create a repeated existential presence, an image of action more akin to the hell Sisyphus suffers in rolling the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down the next day, making it necessary to repeat the action. Only in this ultimate inversion, this state of hell is depicted by Trumpists as the other side of the Pearly Gates.

Frenetic in motion and in speech, Trump cannot and will not sit still. Most of all, he has to restore his energy as he feeds on the applause of the crowd. But what happens as the applause begins to die out. Desperately, he will search for more rallies in an attempt to still the discontent within. We now live in this inverted world and have passed irredeemably into a new epoch. How can we cope?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Malignant Narcissism and Empaths

Malignant Narcissism and Empaths

by

Howard Adelman

The list of characteristics described below have many similarities to the ones published by the DSM describing the symptoms of narcissism as a mental disorder and to the depictions in Michael Brenner’s email on the subject, but the organization and sometimes the emphasis is somewhat different. My concern is less with the person afflicted with the condition – I contend that he is a lost cause – but with those caught up in the mass psychosis stimulated and reinforced by the condition. I want to make clear how the skills of persuasion can or cannot be used to penetrate the minds of those caught up in the madness – including my own – and to peel them away from an obsession with the narcissist towards a greater concern with the damage done and how to deal with it. I want to pull away from the very narcissist who would colonize my mind and my attention yet not ignore the individual who inserted into a presidential executive order, not what the president in his legal capacity is allowed by law to do, but the “I” who will absolutely permit or deny.

Let me begin with contrasting the characteristics of a malignant narcissist with those of an empath, the latter clearly not a mental disorder though often regarded by others as strange or alien. The characteristics of the latter are probably rarer than that of the malignant narcissist, but just as readily recognizable. In the Denis Villeneuve’s film, The Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s inventive “Story of Your Life” and a script by Eric Heisserer, Louise (played by Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics, is an empath of an extreme order, capable of anticipating even more than just picking up another’s feelings; she is able to adumbrate the future. That is why her daughter has the name, Hannah, which is a palindrome spelled the same forward or backward. Louise is the real alien in the movie. (As a side note, the film was made in Montreal and used two McGill professors as consultants for the linguistic issues in the film – Jessica Coon and Morgan Sonderegger.)

The fact that Louise is a linguist is not accidental, and not simply because of the function she plays in translating an alien language into our own. She is a linguist because she is totally attuned to the logic of grammar, of syntax. Language is inherently interactive. And alien languages can only be deciphered as children do by starting small with the ordinary rather than grandiloquent statements. She can decipher coherent patterns of thought where others read only chaos and still others use language as only a chaotic representation of their own internal souls. Linguistic self-indulgence is the use of speech, broken sentences and fractured thoughts, diversions, excursions and free associations, to reveal internal incoherence and absence of both reflection within and an ability to reflect the conversations of others. Such an individual is indifferent to established customs and norms for the preservation of coherent communication.

Donald Trump is the alien in all our lives who has totally dispensed with the “grammar of hard thinking” in preference to using speech as a mode of self-reference and self-preservation. He uses language to impress himself on others and to inflate himself among others. Impression, however, is not communication. His is a malignant and dangerous presence and precisely the kind of person who would have attempted to blow the aliens from another part of the universe up even though they demonstrated no evil intent and even though they self-evidently belonged to a civilization far superior to our own.

Words lose their meaning – “false facts” is an inherently contradictory phrase. If something is false, it is not a fact, and if something is a fact, it is not false. Words also lose their contact with reality, so any word can mean just what you want it to mean disregarding customary or traditional use. Those who speak the language of “false” or “alternative” facts would confound coherence and logic in favour of sheer nonsense. While humans still converse through the medium of language and words, the medium disintegrates before our ears in favour of noise and grunts of affirmation or shouts of “Arrest her.”

Reality becomes totally plastic in the process. In fact, reality is reduced to process. The distinction between the virtual and the actual world gets lost.  Since a malignant narcissist is the gatekeeper of his own reality without balance and certainly without any checks, he alone is entitled to determine what is true and what is false so that anything he dislikes and would challenge his mental portrait is a disturbance. Such assertions are banned as false facts and relegated to the recycling bin. It does not matter who did what; there is virtually no accountability. There is no need to decide what happened since the fault is in asking the question not the failure to offer an answer. And it is impertinent to ask why something happened since the ultimate answer is always because that is what The Donald wanted. Donald Trump truly lives in a world that is both truth-challenged and memory-challenged where all norms of measuring truth have been discarded.

In contrast, the aliens are represented as communicating through visual images, the logic of which Louise has the task of deciphering. However, those images on the glass barrier between the aliens and humans seem clearly to be reproductions of the representation of the nerve patterns of hubs in our brains and suggest a mode of communication that can dispense with the mediation of language. Just as some estimate that we have twelve main mental hubs, the aliens land twelve “spaceships” – really timeships – from twenty-five hundred years hence – at twelve different places on earth. I was sure the landing places formed a pattern, but as far as I can recall, the movie never revealed that pattern though the window drawings were broken down into twelve elements.

My concern here is not with the movie, but with the character of Louise who stands out in such stark contrast to that of Donald Trump. Whereas Amy Adam’s character is tremulous, soft, quiet and inviting, that of Donald Trump is hard, bombastic and repulsive. Whereas Donald’s world is made up of enemies and allies, and the greatest enemy is characterized by those committed to communication – the media – the world Louise encounters is one that is grasped through networking rather than through the barrel of a gun sight or a piece of artillery.

That is why The Arrival has very little action and virtually no violence. The Arrival is the story of reason and thought dominating fear and violent action. The Arrival is the story of feeling in tune with thought rather than radically separated from it. The Arrival is the story of female sensibility and reason winning over male schizophrenia. The Arrival is the story of integration rather than differentiation and specialization, of dynamic interaction rather than either/or thinking, of connecting various specialized faculties, whether seeing, hearing, language use and conceptualization as well as feelings.

The tone of Louise is always modulated and lacks any of the immoderate hysteria of that of Donald Trump with his broken sentences, fragmented thoughts, eruptions and disruptions, with the eternal recurrence of self-reference. Louise explicitly and directly feels and experiences the emotions of another, even of the supposed “aliens” or heptapods on the other side of a glass barrier. Louise is so clearly claustrophobic and cannot stand the “space suits” or contamination protection outfits that the military insist she wear. She strips that costume off at the first opportunity so she can come closer to her own thoughts and feelings as well as that of the aliens.

Louise, given where she lives and how she responds to the mass and mob movements, is a moment of serenity in a sea of panic. And she flees the panic. She flees the crowd. She is an independent thinker and feeler. She does not feed off fear, but struggles to overcome it. Donald Trump, by contrast, loves mass rallies and mass events. He draws his energy from the masses instead of drawing out energy from an inner being to give to others.

The greatest difference, however, is with respect to truth and falsity. Louise knows when she is being handed “false news.” She knows when others have got it wrong and especially when they are lying. She is an empath. Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist who cannot even discern when he is telling a lie. “Look at the incident in Sweden last night,” he will shout out at his rally, even though no one can locate the incident to which he was referring. MN are the enemies of empaths. As Michael Brenner wrote, “Attentiveness to the feelings and emotions of others risks subordinating the imperial self to someone else.”

Donald Trump always reminds me of carnies I worked with and about whom I wrote an essay for my anthropology professor in first year university. When they told a story, the time references never made sense because the past experience in Windsor the year before or in London, Ontario last week were as real as the events the evening before and were woven together in an amalgam where it was almost impossible to separate fact and fiction.

The biggest difference between malignant narcissists and empaths is that the former suffer from a disorder, but have a disproportionate influence in this world, whereas the latter belong to a truly higher order of being, of thinking and of feeling, but are generally considered as aliens. If malignant narcissists are bottom feeders, empaths are givers. If a malignant narcissist loves discord, an empath is tuned into harmony. If malignant narcissists reject anything that will challenge their prior beliefs, empaths are open to the novel and the new. If malignant narcissists love the garish and the kitschy, an empath is entranced by true beauty, creativity and subtlety.

A malignant narcissist is obsessed with himself and evaluates everything in relationship to himself. An empath is attuned to the other and easily picks up otherwise ignored cues. An MN can be told a feeling, can have that feeling demonstrated before him, but will be blind and deaf in the face of it, as Donald Trump was to the Muslim couple whose son died fighting for America. An empath senses based on only the slightest cues. That is, of course, why The Donald can go on and on creating barriers to any unwanted incursions from what is going on around him while an empath is highly sensitive to negative vibes and disruptive environments. A negative environment can overwhelm an empath. A MN works to dominate and overwhelm his environment.

A MN seems to lack any intuition. When an ultra-orthodox reporter asked Donald Trump at his recent inchoate press conference about what he planned to do about the rising spate of anti-Semitic incidences in America, instead of treating this as a lob from a pro-Trump supporter, and even though he should have recognized him from their conversation the day before, Trump cut him off, ordered him to sit down and went on a diatribe on how he was the most non anti-Semitic person around. Trump cannot read a room or a person even when its stares him in the face. All conversation can only be excessively self-referential. But Trump can manipulate a room better than anyone as he picks up and plays on negative feelings and responds to and exaggerates fears.

And hopes. For everything he blesses is the best and the brightest, the most beautiful and the most wonderful, the most glittering and the most captivating, the most splendiferous and the most stupendous. Alternatively, it is trash, the worst treaty ever made, the worst medical plan ever introduced, the worst slums ever seen and experienced, the worst mess that any new president could inherit. There are only these two extreme poles. There is no middle ground.

Trump is said to have a thin skin since he allows satirical sketches and negative statements about himself to irritate him so much that he cannot help scratching. But I have learned that this is not because his skin is thin and he is sensitive to criticism, but because he has a very thick almost impenetrable skin, but nevertheless allows any minor irritant to become and be read as an overwhelming assault on his very being. Unlike an empath, a MN has the body armor of an armadillo. It should be no surprise that empaths dislike narcissists and malignant narcissists heap scorn and abuse on “feelies.” A MN would rather grab for the pussy of a woman than have her emotionally touch him; it is as much a defensive as an aggressive gesture.

Donald Trump has an attention span of 2-3 minutes. He has a hard time listening to others, let alone an intelligence briefing which is a distillation of enormous effort and analyses. He always knows better – better than the intellectuals, better than the scientists, better than the generals and better than the intelligence officers. An MN is almost incapable of listening since his own voice drowns out almost any intrusion through the senses. An MN is the precise opposite of an empath.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Malignant Narcissism: Mental Disorder or Metaphor

Malignant Narcissism: Mental Disorder or Metaphor

by

Howard Adelman

 

I want to use this morning’s blog both to demonstrate the role of argument in persuasion, but the veritable impossibility of employing that tool of argument to change the mind of a narcissist of the extraordinary dimensions of Donald Trump. On 15 February 2017 in the New York Times (A26), Dr. Allen Frances, an extremely eminent and highly regarded psychiatrist who is the epitome of scholarly care and judicious reasoning, wrote a letter (An Eminent Psychiatrist Demurs on Trump) criticising using the term “narcissism” to characterize Donald Trump as suffering from that mental disorder.

To the Editor:

Fevered media speculation about Donald Trump’s psychological motivations and psychiatric diagnosis has recently encouraged mental health professionals to disregard the usual ethical constraints against diagnosing public figures at a distance. They have sponsored several petitions and a Feb. 14 letter to The New York Times suggesting that Mr. Trump is incapable, on psychiatric grounds, of serving as president.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.

His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.

ALLEN FRANCES

Coronado, Calif.

This was not your run-of-the-mill criticism. Frances chaired the task force that compiled the definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental; Disorders IV. (D.S.M. – IV). Frances was the member of the committee who also evidently composed the descriptive characteristics of “narcissistic personality disorder.” In his words, Trump “does not meet the criteria that define the disorder.” Frances insisted that Trump was not mentally ill.

I could try to get around his authoritative judgement by insisting that I am not using “malignant narcissism” as a professional psychiatrist – which I clearly am not – but using a term that was adopted by psychiatry from a far broader literature. And I will certainly defend my use of the term on that basis. But I also want to deal with Frances’ criticisms of the psychiatrists who also called Trump a narcissist with a mental disorder.

It is not as if Frances was defending Trump. He chastised Trump for his “grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy.” He characterized the denunciation of Trump as appropriate for his “ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.” However, bad behaviour, he argued, is “rarely a sign of mental illness.” It is an insult to the mentally ill (mostly well-behaved and well meaning) who suffer “the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.” Further, and most importantly, Frances himself called Trump “a world-class narcissist.” Frances was not arguing that Trump was not a narcissist, but that his narcissism did not fall under the category of mental disorder because it did not produce the “distress and impairment” in the subject characteristic of a mental disorder.

Further, Frances denounced, in the same manner as my son had, name-calling. It is not clear in the letter whether the name-calling was the characterizing of Trump as narcissistic or the characterizing of his suffering from a mental disorder, but, from the context, and in order not to accuse Frances of contradicting himself, I believe it was evidently the latter. Labeling Trump as a narcissist may be alright, but naming him as a narcissist with a mental disorder is erroneous, not only because Trump does not suffer distress from his condition, but is, in fact, richly rewarded for it. Further, it suggests that psychiatry is an inappropriate response when the “antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.”

Rule 1 of rational argument: state the argument of the individual you wish to contend with accurately and fully.

Rule 2: consider alternate positions put forth by others.

One was put forth by W.J.T. Mitchell in the Los Angeles Review of Books that was published a day after Frances’ letter appeared. An earlier version had been presented in a lecture at the Université de Genève, 18 January 2017. The essay was called, “American Psychosis: Trumpism and the Nightmare of History.” It began with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: “Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

We are all, both the Trumpists and the anti-Trumpists, going through the long and dark nightmare of our collective soul. With Donald Trump’s election, we crossed the Rubicon into a new epoch. It is an epoch adumbrated in the film, Being There, though in a very different version. The epoch was predicted even earlier by H.L. Menken. “As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Mencken was a cynic and had great contempt for the “common man.” I share his prophetic view but not his reasoning. The fault is more institutional. When democracies reduce themselves to populist polities, as in Brexit, disaster will likely follow. America is even more prone to such a disaster. That is because America is a democratic monarchy and one day, a fool was almost certain to make the monarchical role primary and the presidential role and responsibility of governing second. As Mitchell wrote, when the combination of an oligarchy of the super rich joins forces with increasing inequality and the brew is fed by a new and innovative media, the conditions were created for the perfect storm.

Populism is not responsible government. Populism is not democracy, just its meanest expression. It reared its ugly head in the Brexit vote. We wait on pins and needles for the shoe to drop in the Netherlands, in Germany, but, most of all, in France. And we hope and pray that the example of the U.S. will dissuade enough voters in Europe to avoid the fatal edge of a cliff. For though the economic forces now favouring renewable energy may guarantee the eventual replacement of fossil fuels, will the victory come too late? Will Donald Trump as a climate change denier who appoints a fossil fuel lobbyist to head an agency responsible for monitoring the destructive effects of fossil fuels on our lonely and lovely green planet, do irreparable damage? Will the triumph of renewable energy sources have arrived too late?

However, the issue is not just whether Donald Trump’s condition as a malignant narcissist can be characterized as a mental illness, but also whether collective behaviour can be characterized as mass psychosis. Describing a condition as “madness” by Mitchell is not just a rhetorical tool. He put it forth, not to describe a mental illness, not to get shafted on the end of an épée, but to analyze a way of thinking, a mental state, a collective psychology rather than an individual mental illness.

I will return to our collective mental state in a subsequent blog, but I want to focus in this blog on Donald Trump’s mental state. Is that state an illness? Mitchell quotes Freud to assert than an individual’s mental state invariably involves others – models, helpers, opponents. We cannot separate the two. But, unlike Mitchell, I think it is best to start with the individual, with Trump rather than Trumpism. Subsequently, I will delve more deeply into the paradox of men and women, who are otherwise decent, hard-working, moral and, most of all, reasonable, becoming victims of “amnesia, ignorance and delusion.” Whereas Mitchell seems to see Trump as simply the purveyor of an image that mirrors a collective madness, I see him as a magnet and stimulant of that madness. And that is not saying the same thing in different words.

Let me go back to the issue of whether the primary error in depicting Trump’s characteristics is not whether he possesses those traits, but whether they add up to a mental illness. The collective Michael Brenner (MB) – https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?hl=en&shva=1#inbox/15a57040fcb2acc7[1] – argues that the man in the oval office is unhinged. MB makes that argument in all deference to Allen Frances, but in sharp disagreement with him. He does so on the basis of the following five arguments:

  1. Trump’s personality is almost a perfect fit for the profile of a narcissistic personality disorder;
  2. One does not have to suffer distress or impairment to be diagnosed with that disorder, and that criterion is not mentioned in DSMIV;
  3. Though pain and discomfort may accompany such a disorder on the individual “suffering” that disorder, those conditions are also not necessary conditions for such a diagnosis;
  4. Though many and perhaps most mentally ill individuals do no harm and cause no distress to others, this is not the case with psychotics or with narcissism of the gargantuan proportions of Donald Trump; they impose pain and discomfort on others;
  5. Narcissism is the one condition that most clearly causes acute distress for others because the strategies devised protect the self at the expense of others.

I think these arguments are persuasive. Donald Trump’s condition is a mental disorder. On the other hand, it is also, as I will argue, not a treatable condition. It a condition unworthy of attention to the “sufferer” as distinct from most mental conditions. Donald Trump neither demands of us nor is he deserving of sympathetic care. His narcissism alone is more than sufficient to protect him from abuse directed at him by others.

So why call it a mental disorder if we not only cannot but will not even attempt to treat it? Further, disorder conveys chaos, disarray, confusion and a question arises whether Donald Trump creates that disarray and disorder, simply mirrors it or more radically acts out the collective psychosis of our age?

As with many things, the devil is in the details. In the next blog, I will offer the characteristics of this state, which I also contend is a disorder. For that narcissism is not only an expression of a disordered mind, but is also a stimulant, adding to the disorder at large. One sign of that disorder is that Trump would not listen to, could not follow if he did listen, and would reject out of hand all four positions set forth in this blog, which includes my own. In the next blog, I will try not only to specify that Donald Trump’s disorder does not allow him to listen to arguments and contrary views, but why he characterizes all such arguments as personal attacks.

Neither Frances, nor Mitchell, nor MB nor I would regard our differences as personal attacks, but instead treat them as arguments and expressions to be debated and resolved in a rational universe. Donald Trump does not belong to that universe and is incapable of being persuaded of anything. Deviation from his path, sometimes, but never persuaded. That is why the real issue is not Trump, but those caught up in the mass psychosis and how they can be persuaded to abandon Trump.

With the help of Alex Zisman

[1] Michael Brenner does not exist in actuality. It is, rather, the nom de plume for a loose association of persons who share a perspective on the world of politics and a sensibility about cultural matters. They are of diverse background and profession. The consortium’s members came together by happenstance. There is no organization nor is there a physical location for an electronic hub… The associates’ insistence on absolute anonymity is due to more than their innate modesty. They hold the firm belief that what counts are the thoughts and ideas rather than persons. In addition, there is some consideration being given a run for the White House in 2020 by the “legend” of “Michael Brenner” – if an appealing individual can be found to assume the persona. High name recognition would be crucial to offset Ivanka’s immense popularity and her lock on the primate vote. (From a communication received 12 February 2017)

Alternatives to Persuasion

Alternatives to Persuasion

by

Howard Adelman

Given the apocalyptic vision that forms the foundation of satire, given that satire does not exist to offer palliatives or lessons, given that the ultimate role of its caustic method is to unveil the skeletal horror at the core of the present, where does hope come from? Where is the opening to escape this underworld of horrors? Where is there a path to redemption? It will not come from satire. For the arts of persuasion come from a very different order. Satire is inherently destructive and may prepare the ground. But satire itself is not intended to persuade, to move a person from one set of beliefs to another,

There are other methods for doing so. Inducements can be used to replace influence. In István Szabó’s 1999 film Sunshine starring Ralph Fiennes as the male protagonist, the director traces three different generations of a wealthy Jewish family called Sonnenschein who changed the family name in Hungary to Sors, meaning fate. The latter is an ironic name because, while in each generation the hero acts to take his fate into his own hands, the family’s fate is always to be regarded as Jews no matter what efforts taken to assimilate. The Holocaust does not come as an aberration in the second generation, but merely the most extreme version of the persistent years of anti-Semitism that continue well after the Nazis are defeated.

Ignatz Sonnenschein is a dedicated judge and totally loyal to the Emperor, in spite of the class discrimination of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Adam Sonnenschein, who changed the family name to Sors, converted to Catholicism to escape the race discrimination of the high period of Hungarian nationalism, ends up frozen to death as a Jesus-icicle in a Nazi concentration camp by the bare-faced racism of the Nazi period. Ivan Sors, as a police officer under the communists after WWII is forced, not only to witness, but to abet the purge of Jewish communists, including that of his Jewish friend and superior played by William Hurt, by a corrupt Stalinist regime. The attempt of the Sonnenscheins to trade in their Jewish identity for another repeatedly fails.

In the middle of these three generations, to advance his career and be able to play in the Officers Club, the only route to competitive fencing at such a high level, Adam Sors (modeled on the real life of the Hungarian Olympian fencing gold medalist in the 1936 Olympics, Attila Petschauer) converts to Roman Catholicism. Inducements to set aside one’s ostensible set of beliefs for another may be monetary, but they can also be pride and ambition, Thus, after winning the Hungarian national fencing championship, the heads on Adam’s original “Jewish” fencing club offer him huge amounts of money to rejoin the original club, but Adam not only refuses, but berates “those people” who believe they can buy anything they want in an exhibition of Jewish self-hatred. Adam’s rejection of financial inducements in favour of the inducements of honour and status and the opportunity to realize an ambition, does not make the latter a better quality of honey to the crasser but, ironically, purer inducement of money.

But authority can also be used to attempt to change minds and hearts. In New Spain, that eventually became Mexico, many centres of authority were in competition: the Office of the Inquisition versus the hierarchy of the church itself, the female nunneries from Augustinian Hieronymites to the much stricter Carmelites, the church versus the power of the state, and various forms of state power, including the conflict between Vicereine Leonor Carreto and her husband, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. But the underlying battle is between these various sources of formal authority and the authentic authority of knowledge, whether of Copernicus or of a young brilliant self-taught illegitimate child, Juana Inés de Asbaje, eventually Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

The actual name of the superb Netflix original series, covering the life of this extraordinary scholar and poet and eventually a person of enormous political and intellectual influence in the history of Mexico, is called Juana Inés. She is forced by the authorities to join a nunnery as the only, and initially illusionary, route to her faith in the authority of knowledge, an intellectual source of authentic authority to resist the corruption of both the court and the church. The influence of ideas is the only authentic means of persuasion in comparison to the influence of inducements. In that contest, Juana Inés de la Cruz betrays both her faith and her political superiors, vows to give up writing, but continues in her deeper faith to eventually produce 200 volumes.

Finally, intellectual persuasion can be contrasted with the use of coercive means to get someone to change positions. The latter is exemplified in how God deals with Pharaoh, sending Moses in to warn Pharaoh of each disaster about to befall him and Egypt. In the end, it is not persuasion or even the threats of more disasters, but murder and war that get Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Persuasion backed by inducements, formal authority or coercive power, are never and can never be authentic means to change people’s minds and hearts.

However, inducements, whether intellectual or material, are not the only instruments to alter behaviour. For altering behaviour is quite a different enterprise than changing people’s hearts and minds.

Like Pharaoh, Trump is a bully and a tyrant. He cannot and will not be convinced that he is on the wrong track, that he is leading his country to destruction. But one must beseech him, not in the belief that he will be convinced, but to teach oneself the arts of civility, the sophisticated arts of persuasion, even though they can have absolutely no real effects on this egoistic centre of self-aggrandizement. Given that scenario, it matters little if you suffer an impediment of speech, if you are neither smooth of tongue nor clever with words, or you have the gift with words and are clever with language and an inventive wordsmith, for, in any case, Pharaoh Trump seems incapable of coherent conversation and dialogue as witnessed by his rambling, erratic and almost unhinged press conference this past Thursday – but more on that in other blogs.

One technique is to imitate the arts that allowed Pharaoh to achieve power and to maintain power. You must learn precisely whom you are addressing. You must master the science of segmentation of the audience and the arts of manipulating that audience. The character of the addressee, not the substance of the address, is what counts. In the contemporary world, it means using all the techniques of big data and psychographics to break down a supposedly homogeneous electorate of equal and rational citizens and decision-makers into a disconnected amalgam of colours. It is akin to the practice of pop art creating a portrait of the public made up of different pure colours, each colour representing a cluster of the population with common psychometric characteristics to which you can appeal. Truth is irrelevant in such messaging. Seeking out a constant message in the old politics is a disaster because you are not trying to convince them to buy your line or buy into your convictions, but to buy into a portrait where they can locate their own fears and desires.

What is needed is audience targeting and data modeling to match the message to the recipient. Alexander Nix is the new magician in the Pharaoh’s court. And the first lesson is name recognition. The first lesson is branding. The leader must be portrayed as a Pharaoh, as one entitled to and capable of exercising power, as the one and only one capable of exercising that power and occupying the position of the highest authority in the land. Pharaoh may be as ignorant as Swiss cheese and as incapable of composing a coherent paragraph only so long as he communicates strength and the will to power. The media is not the message. The message is the media that requires audience fragmentation.

If Trump were to kill Senator Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate when the Senate is in session and everyone could observe what took place, the Senate would never convict Donald Trump of murder or even manslaughter in the Pharaoh’s court. If Donald Trump were to stand on Fifth Avenue and kill a passerby, his voters and supporters would never find him guilty. That is Donald Trump’s absolute belief. He is immortal and cannot be downed by mere instruments of law and rationality. The objective of an election for a Pharaoh is to create a supine audience and a supine group of legislators that will revel in your power on the one hand as an ordinary follower and cower before that power as a co-conspirator. The objective is not to have an electorate that chooses, but to find and tease out different groups among that electorate who can be seduced, not with a coherent and repeated positive message, but with a message in which voters can find their fears confirmed and their hopes raised. The repetition of messages is used only to destroy the reputations and possibilities of individual rivals and the broader traditional media in general.

To accomplish this task, it is necessary to combine the findings of behavioural science with the techniques developed in advertising, now refined by the feedback mechanisms of big data analysis. There is no single audience. There are only audiences. You may not be able to reach the Israelites, but you must reach out to the mass of Egyptians. Not because they are divided into shepherds and stone masons, farmers and undertakers, but because they are divided, not by function, but by form, by sets of characteristics that allow one group to be inspired by one message and another group by another. Mass advertising is no longer useful. Targeted advertising is. The art of behavioural communications must be mastered to manipulate, not communicate with, different audiences.

But if I use my rod and leave the lectern to point to these different factors on the screen at the front of Plato’s dark cave, and then, while everyone is watching the graphics on the screen, turn my pointer into a slithering serpent hissing like a snake oil salesman to take down Pharaoh, he already has a host of magicians who have mastered those black arts. The sorcerers merely respond and overwhelm you with their spells and tricks. Your disposition in the first place is to use persuasion, not manipulation, so you are handicapped when it comes to competing against master manipulators. You must learn and understand the magic of manipulation, but it will never provide the road to victory, just the route for understanding the black arts at your opponent’s disposal.

Those arts attempt to establish a congruity between the message and the messaged, to marry data on age and gender, ethnicity and religious affiliation, with data on attitudes and preferences, hopes and plans, fears and foibles. If you master those arts, they will make you competitors of your opponent’s sorcerers, but not victors of citizens who choose their leaders and are influenced by them. You must go far beyond mastering the magic arts of manipulation. But you must first develop those arts, not to persuade citizens, but to undercut the power and authority of Pharaoh. It is important to understand him and not focus on the followers he manipulates to build his strength.

That is why satire is a propaedeutic. To what? That is the question.  Especially if the next phase of the battle leads to war. For the shedding of blood and the gutting to let the blood of one’s enemy gush forth will provide the next battleground. It may not be the beaches of Normandy, but it may be the beaches of Yemen. The Pharaoh may botch his battles, may try to second guess his generals and leave unprepared and without intelligence to pursue clearly enunciated goals. But it is you that must track every drop of blood that flows into the river of time. It is you who must track the casualties on both sides, and not mainly the soldiers, but the women, the old people and especially the children. You must track every single individual who contributes to turning the Nile or the Mississippi from a slow-moving stream of water into a place where the only way to bathe is to bathe in blood.

That will not make you a winner, but it will level the playing field somewhat. You must now help sew distrust between the Pharaoh and his courtiers. And you must take them on, one at a time, in a concentrated attack from all quarters.

The arts of persuasion can only have room to thrive if the non-persuasive arts are mastered. But they must be put to work always and only in the service of advancing and making room for dialogue and rational debate.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Politics and the Administration of Justice

Politics and the Administration of Justice: Yitro: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

by

Howard Adelman

My commentary is restricted to Chapter 18.

The Israelites, or, at least Moses, had been taught the basics of diplomacy and how to deal with an irrational and vengeful tyrant. The Israelites were then taught some core lessons in the art of war. Diplomacy and military skills may be necessary for a people to be secure. But the key will be politics, the ability of a people to govern themselves.

“But I thought that the Israelites were governed by God!” That is a misconception. Parshat Yitro illustrates that this conception is erroneous. The Israelites had fought and won a glorious and impossible victory. Last shabat was shabat shira, the shabat of song and rejoicing when Miriam with song and timbrel against the backdrop of the sea led the Israelites and danced and sang the night away. The God of tradition, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the god of diplomacy and wrath who subsequently revealed Himself as a warrior God, a God of war, has now made room for pleasure and joy, for happiness and delight. God talks but He does not sing. It is we who sing in praise of God – and other things. Does God now reveal Himself to His people, to all his people, as a god who can teach the people the arts of government and not just the arts of war?

Water was scarce. The principles of change had been transformed into the principles of security and resistance against change. Food too had been scarce. Neither the earth nor the heavens opened up to feed the people. Their souls were starving even more than their bodies. Little did they know that the exhilaration of victory would be followed by the long and dark tunnel of struggle, of resentment. Appreciation for what they had and for what they had accomplished had been replaced by resentment and self-pity. The water they drank had become bitter.

The water is made sweet. The heavens and the earth yield, if not their bounty, sufficient amounts to survive. And the military tradition becomes professionalized as Joshua defeats Amalek, with Aaron and Hur each holding one arm of Moses on the hill overseeing the battle.

Against this backdrop, Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, appears on the scene to reunite Moses with his wife, Zipporah, and his two sons, Gershom (stranger in a foreign land) and Eliezer (God is my help). Moses will have to introduce his people to a land that will not be foreign, but will be their own land. Moses will also have to help his people learn self-reliance and not be so dependent on God’s help and assistance. But Moses, himself, in keeping his family safe while everyone else risked their own families, demonstrated that he was not fully of the people. The other Israelites had their families, their wives and children with them. Further, Moses himself was still far too reliant on God.

Why were Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer left in the safety of the home of Jethro while Moses took on the Egyptians in an epic diplomatic and military battle? The question is not only not answered, it is not even asked. Instead, Moses updated his father-in-law, not an Israelite but a Midianite priest. The next day, Jethro watched Moses serve as the magistrate of his people resolving disputes among them.

The scene reminded me of one when I was first introduced to Arafat. We were in Gaza. It was about 10:00 p.m. in the evening. We were ushered into a large room with chairs all around the perimeter of the room. There were perhaps 16-18 people occupying those chairs. Recall, it was 10:00 p.m. in the evening. We were escorted past those waiting supplicants into a smaller reception area where four others were waiting. We did not sit but stood. Soon, two individuals emerged from another adjacent room. One brushed past us and the other invited us to follow him in.

Arafat came out from behind his desk, grasped each of our hands with both of his and greeted us warmly. We were individually introduced, all four of us, and Arafat nodded at the introduction. There was no translation into Arabic and it was not clear to me whether Arafat followed the introductions. Pleasantries were exchanged and then we were invited by our escort to follow him out of the room, but not before there was some more grasping of hands and smiling nods.

When we left and were once again outside, I asked the leader of our group, a very experienced diplomat, what that was all about. He said it was a courtesy introduction before we could continue our discussions in Gaza. My question, however, was not about the perfunctory introduction, since it was clear that it had just been a formality. I wanted to know what Arafat was doing seeing people in the late evening with twenty or so waiting to talk to him.

I was told that this is what Arafat did and often until three in the morning. He saw Palestinians who wanted a favour, a disposition, an intervention in a domestic or business dispute, or on any other matter under the sun. It might be a request to adjudicate a dispute with a next door neighbour over a fence line. Arafat had never been educated by Jethro. He lacked a father-in-law to serve as a mentor. Arafat was performing as Moses did before Jethro arrived on the scene in Sinai.

13. It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. יגוַֽיְהִי֙ מִמָּ֣חֳרָ֔ת וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב משֶׁ֖ה לִשְׁפֹּ֣ט אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֤ד הָעָם֙ עַל־משֶׁ֔ה מִן־הַבֹּ֖קֶר עַד־הָעָֽרֶ

Unlike the Palestinians in Gaza waiting to see Arafat who had seats, the Israelites waiting to see Moses had to stand for hours.

14. When Moses’ father in law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?” ידוַיַּרְא֙ חֹתֵ֣ן משֶׁ֔ה אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה לָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֗אמֶר מָֽה־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה עֹשֶׂה֙ לָעָ֔ם מַדּ֗וּעַ אַתָּ֤ה יוֹשֵׁב֙ לְבַדֶּ֔ךָ וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם נִצָּ֥ב עָלֶ֖יךָ מִן־בֹּ֥קֶר עַד־עָֽרֶב:

Jethro remonstrated Moses. Moses had made the Israelites stand for a long time and did not respect the dignity he owed each of his people. He was akin to the physician who has all his patients come early and accumulate lest the doctor lose time waiting. For hours, the Israelites stood while he, Moses, sat. Secondly, Moses handled all the adjudication personally. Moses replied to Jethro in a defensive way. “I did not ask them to come. They sought me out. Secondly, they came to see me not just to seek a resolution of a relatively petty problem, but to seek God’s ruling on such matters. They come to seek God. In other words, as God’s stand-in, I, Moses, am only a conduit for God’s word.” We are presented with a case of government which is neither responsible nor responsive, neither representative nor respectful,

15Moses said to his father in law, “For the people come to me to seek God. טווַיֹּ֥אמֶר משֶׁ֖ה לְחֹֽתְנ֑וֹ כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א אֵלַ֛י הָעָ֖ם לִדְר֥שׁ אֱלֹהִֽים:

As far as Jethro was concerned, that was no answer at all. For at least two consequentialist reasons. The process would wear out Moses and would also make the people weary – all that waiting, and in terrible circumstances just at a time when they needed relief, not a further weighty burden.

17. Moses’ father in law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good. יזוַיֹּ֛אמֶר חֹתֵ֥ן משֶׁ֖ה אֵלָ֑יו לֹא־טוֹב֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה:
18. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. יחנָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֤ד מִמְּךָ֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר לֹֽא־תוּכַ֥ל עֲשׂ֖הוּ לְבַדֶּֽךָ:
19. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God. יטעַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ הֱיֵ֧ה אַתָּ֣ה לָעָ֗ם מ֚וּל הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֥ אַתָּ֛ה אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִֽים:
20. And you shall admonish them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do. כוְהִזְהַרְתָּ֣ה אֶתְהֶ֔ם אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַתּוֹרֹ֑ת וְהֽוֹדַעְתָּ֣ לָהֶ֗ם אֶת־הַדֶּ֨רֶךְ֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔הּ וְאֶת־הַמַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַֽעֲשֽׂוּן:
21. But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens. כאוְאַתָּ֣ה תֶֽחֱזֶ֣ה מִכָּל־הָ֠עָ֠ם אַנְשֵׁי־חַ֜יִל יִרְאֵ֧י אֱלֹהִ֛ים אַנְשֵׁ֥י אֱמֶ֖ת שׂ֣נְאֵי בָ֑צַע וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ עֲלֵהֶ֗ם שָׂרֵ֤י אֲלָפִים֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֔וֹת שָׂרֵ֥י חֲמִשִּׁ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֥י עֲשָׂרֹֽת

Simply put – delegate. Give the lesser matters to others and only involve yourself in the very major disputes. Note, there is no separation of powers between executive and judicial functions. The judiciary are still named and appointed by Moses and are only permitted to rule on relatively minor matters. Further, they also serve as political leaders to apply the laws handed down from Moses.

But they are chosen based on their rectitude, their unconcern with using their positions to advance their monetary interests for they are already men of substance, men of chayil (חַ֜֜יִל) in the material sense and in a sense that they carry with them gravitas. For chayil refers not only to wealth, but to strength of character, a man of moral worth, hence, a man of substance. They are serious men. They must also be both honest and God-fearing in order to carry out their responsibilities. It is as if they put their property in a blind trust. After all, the Talmud, as Rashi cites it, says, “Any judge from whom money is exacted through litigation is not [fit to be] a judge.” [based on Mechilta and B.B. 58b] They must use their positions only to judge honestly and impartially.

This is not a lesson in self-government. It is still a top-down system. There is still no differentiation between the executive branch, the judicial branch and the legislative arms of government. God legislates. Moses serves as the magistrate and organizes the implementation of both the legislative and judicial functions.

The second lesson offers the criteria for choosing leaders who are also judicial officers. They must be men of wealth. They must be honest men whose gains are not ill-gotten. They must be trustworthy that they will implement what they decide. They must also be God-fearing.

There is a third lesson hidden among all the other recommendations. It is a statement in verse 19. “You represent the people before God.” Moses has his position, not as the undisputed leader of or over the Israelites, but as the representative of the Israelites before God. His primary job is not top-down, even though he performs that function; it is bottom-up – to represent the people. Thus, we get the first glimmerings of democracy as well as the first steps towards efficient government and the requirement that the men who make up that government be chosen on the basis of a very lofty set of values.

Note the following. The values are eternal and unchanging and are delivered from on high, from above. The lesson about efficiency comes from the side, from a foreigner. Though he came to respect the power of the Israeli god, there is nothing said about his conversion as Rashi implied. The Israelites had to remain open to others, non-Israelite lights.

If authority in values come from above, ideas on how to organize the system of authority came from the outside and by means of a non-Israelite agent. The Israelis had to remain open to outside influences. Third, interests flowed from below and Moses’ prime job was to represent the people as a whole to God. Not special interests. But everyone’s interests. The nation’s interest.

We now have the basic skeleton for a polity.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman