On the Competition for Recognition Part I: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9)

Christopher Dummitt, a professor of history at Trent University, recently wrote a review article for the Literary Review of Canada (October 2018: 26:8) called, “We Are All Outsiders Now: The triumph of individual autonomy in politics, and everywhere else.” It was a review essay on three books:

Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment;

Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics;

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity.

It is an essay about identity politics with the argument that the current divided age, the extreme polarization of the present, is a direct product of that identity politics. Dummitt quotes Fukuyama favourably: “Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today.” The essay focuses on the origins and development of the quest for recognition in the modern age.

But that quest does not start with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his distinction between an inner intrinsically valuable authentic state and an outer society that systematically deforms that authenticity as both Fukuyama and Dummitt suggest. I am not just referring back to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke or David Hume. The politics of the fight for recognition is as old as the Torah. It helps to go back to those earlier accounts to assess the degree to which the request for, no, the demand for recognition, explicates the current polarization.

Adam and Eve had two children, Abel, a shepherd, and Cain, a farmer. Each brings a sacrifice of the best of his work – the best sheep or the best of his crops respectively – as an offering to God to gain God’s favour. God recognized Abel for his offering and paid no heed to Cain’s.

Cain was crestfallen. God asked him, “What’s bugging you? After all, if you conduct yourself well, if you do the right thing, that is what should lift you up and not my recognition.” In fact, the failure to do what is right is underpinned by the failure to master the urge towards self-absorption and concern with recognition of yourself. The aim should be self-mastery by reigning in and taking control of that need of and urge for recognition.

But Cain killed Abel. And then he engaged in a cover-up and lied to God when God asked after his brother. In the famous rhetorical question to God’s inquiry about the location of his brother, Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The two options are set in stark relief. Master your need for recognition and be your brother’s keeper versus indulge in the deep desire and need for recognition and pursuit of what is wrong, the focus on the primacy of the self.

Without going into the consequences and implications of Cain’s failure, note its source. It is sui generis. It is not the product of a tension between an inner authentic self and a set of socially imposed rules.

Fast forward from chapter 4 of Genesis to chapter 25. Isaac, Abraham’s son, marries Rebekah. She gives birth to twins. It was a painful labour. God explained: “Two nations are in your womb,/ Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;/ One people shall be mightier than the other,/ And the older shall serve the younger.” This is a case in which it is critical to show the original Hebrew of Genesis 25:23.

בראשית כה:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הֹוָה לָהּ
שְׁנֵי (גיים) [גוֹיִם] בְּבִטְנֵךְ
וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ
 And YHWH answered her:
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body . . .”
וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ
וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר:
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.

 Why is the Hebrew original critical? Because Rebekah asked what the purpose was for her delivering babies in such pain. God’s answer, like that of a Delphic oracle, is ambiguous, the ambiguity signalled by the poetic form. They are not just twins. They will be the fathers of two different nations or peoples. That is clear enough. As is customary with such oracular pronouncements, the ambiguity is in the second half. First, there is the ambiguity over the meaning of the words themselves, usually translated as stronger versus weaker and older versus younger. But the latter could mean the more populous serving the less populous. Further, the parallelism is ambiguous. On the surface it seems to mean that the older or the more numerous is the stronger, but it may man the reverse – the older (or more numerous) shall be served by the younger.

This allows for four different possibilities:

A B
Ambiguity of Meaning Ambiguity of Order
1 Ambiguity of Meaning Older = stronger
Younger = weaker
Older serves younger
2 Ambiguity of Order Older = more numerous
Younger = smaller
Younger serves older

As most customarily translated, does the poetic form mean that A1 + B1, that the older is the stronger and will serve the younger? Or A1 + B2, that the older will be served by the younger and weaker, which is what would be customarily expected. Or A2 + B1, that the more numerous older one will serve the younger, or A2 + B2, the younger and smaller will serve the older and more numerous, which would be what is empirically expected.

Without getting into a long disquisition on the interpretation of the Hebrew and the implications of word order, the eventual result of an oracular saying is neither the customary expectation (A1 + B2) or the natural one (A2 + B2). Nor does it usually turn out that the obvious paradox is the true meaning, namely A1 + B1, that the stronger will serve the weaker, but that the realized prophecy is the correct one, A2 + B1, namely that the more numerous, the larger, will serve the smaller. Neither birth priority (custom) nor physical strength (nature) will determine the outcome, but, rather, the more populous will serve the much smaller nation rather than the counterfactual, that the stronger will serve the weaker.

If the competition between Cain and Abel was between two different economic ways of life, farming versus herding, each demanding recognition and priority, the competition now is one of power, not two different ways of life. It will develop in the competition between nations.

In this case, God does not choose. Instead, God prophesizes that of the two twins, the firstborn, Esau, the stronger or more numerous in terms of population and the firstborn, will serve the younger either depicted as the weaker nation (practically unlikely if not impossible) or less populous nation, at least a possibility in realist terms. What happens in the story? What happens in history?

Jacob, the younger, is depicted as either weaker or made up of smaller numbers. Esau was a hunter and a father’s boy. Jacob was a mild homebody who loved cooking; he was a mother’s boy. Mild, but cunning, a trait learned from his mother. In this tale, the competition is not over God’s recognition but over their father’s.

Jacob cons Esau, not once but twice. On his own initiative, Jacob, another character who is definitely not his brother’s keeper, offers his brother, Esau, the food that he has just cooked, for Esau was famished after a hard day of hunting. But the offer is not made as a gift; one might expect that a younger brother would share his food with his older sibling. Instead, the gift is turned into a transactional exchange. Only in exchange for the birthright due the firstborn does Jacob give food to Esau. The latter, driven by hunger and a focus on the immediate, agrees to the deal.

At a second occasion when their father lay dying, the quest for recognition is for their father’s blessing for that meant even more than the birthright. The blessing entailed actually getting both the wealth and the power at stake. Following his mother’s concoction of a way to trick Isaac, substituting goat for the father’s favourite, fresh game, and presumably spicing it up somewhat to taste more gamey, and by covering Jacob’s arms with animal hair, a double irony implying that what appears naturally stronger is not necessarily so, for the rewards may go, not to the stronger or more populous nation, but the more cunning. Jacob pretends he is Esau and tricks his father into giving him his blessing.

Notice the following:

  1. In both tales, that of Cain and Abel and that of Jacob and Esau, there is a quest for recognition, in the first narrative from God and in the second, from the father.
  2. The quest for recognition is not just individual, but also communitarian – priority of one way of economic life over another and a battle between rival nations. The communitarianism complements the quest of the individual for recognition.
  3. In both tales, it is the unethical, the side that rejects that one is one’s brother’s keeper, even when that brother is as close as a fraternal twin, that merges on top in spite of God’s will or the preference of one’s father.
  4. In the interpretation that I favour, the customary values and the natural expectations are both set aside for a result contrary to custom but not to what could naturally be expected; the stronger does not serve the weaker but the more populous nation serves the smaller one.

To anticipate Part II, the two tensions set up in Dummitt’s review article are between globalism and nationalism and between an inner authentic and an outer socially imposed self. According to Dummitt, the left and the right both favour the authentic self over a socially imposed one, but its definition of authenticity favours globalism. The right defines authenticity in terms of national self-realization versus universal human rights.

I assume, as does the Torah and Fukuyama, that the quest for recognition takes both an individual and collective form. However, I will ask the following questions:

  1. Is the conflict between an inner authentic self and a socially imposed outer self the defining characteristic of individualism in the modern age so that what is required is social change, not an alteration to the personality and values of the individual?
  2. In historical terms, does the selection of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s characterization of the inner versus outer struggle provide the base line for the development of identity politics in the modern age?
  3. If there is an alternative, or if there are alternative base lines, what are their historical precedents and modern trajectories that throw light on the current polarization?
  4. Does the singular trajectory that Dummitt stresses, while alluding to at least one other (that of Charles Taylor), or the various trajectories, all end up so that each and every one of them results in prioritization of the self versus society, both on the left and on the right?
  5. Is the moral compass in the modern world, both on the left and on the right, only sourced in the authenticity of the self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts from on high?
  6. Will the winner in this competition be the one who invokes the morally superior identity – a message quite contrary to the biblical narrative which is a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?
  7. Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself”?
  8. Is Trump the representative of those who feel unrecognized and are willing to defy social convention?
  9. Is Trump really a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment (à la Jordan Peterson)?
  10. Is that liberal left “Reaganism for lefties,” where conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race?
  11. Is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded?
  12. Can the polarization be overcome by giving priority to, say citizenship, to an overarching social order, to making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us, once again prioritizing our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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