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

Part II: Democratic Politics: The American Midterm Senate Elections  

On the evening of the election, I watched CNN and fell asleep once it seemed like the Democrats had lost the senate races in Florida and in Texas and the governorships in Florida and Georgia. I was depressed, even though the Democrats were on the verge of winning the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin. When I awoke early yesterday morning to write yesterday’s blog, I flitted back and forth between my computer and the TV. I sent out my depiction of a grass roots nomination meeting to indicate that the key to winning elections is not ideas (my field of engagement), but the process on the ground. Given that conclusion, below are my preliminary observations on the American midterm elections, in particular in this blog, on ten Senate races that seems to offer some confirmation of that thesis.

435 seats in the House of Representatives, 35 of 100 seats in the Senate, and 39 governorships in 36 states and three US territories were up for election. I tried to follow 10 senate races, 5 in which Democrats might upset Republicans and 5 in which Republicans were expected to prevail. These included (incumbents are marked with an asterisk.):

Arizona – Martha McSally (R 49.4%) beat (?) Krysten Sinema (D 48.4%) [As of the original date of publication on wordpress, their positions reversed and Synema led McSally; at the time McSally conceded, when 92% of the votes had been counted, the results were: Sinema 49.6% McSally 48.1%.]

Florida – Rick Scott (R 50.1%) appeared to beat Bill Nelson* (D 49.8%) [Under recount]

Indiana – Mike Braun (R 52.9%) won over Joe Donnelly* (D 43.2%); [results as of 14.11.2018 51.7% vs 44.1%]

Mississippi – Cindy Hyde-Smith (R); Mike Espy (D) – runoff 27 Nov.

Montana – Matt Rosendale (R 48.9%) I thought beat Jon Tester* (D 48.2%), but Joe Tester eventually won 50.2% to 46.9%.

*Nevada – Dean Heller (R 45.4%) lost to Jacky Rosen (D 50.3%)

North Dakota – Kevin Cramer (R 55.4%) beat Heid Heitkamp* (D 44.5%)

Tennessee – Marsha Blackburn (R 54.7%) beat Phil Bredesen (D 43.8%)

Texas – Ted Cruz* (R 50.9%) beat Beto O’Rourke (D 48.2%)

West Virginia – Patrick Morrisey (R 46.2%) lost to Joe Manchin* (D 49.5%)

Democrats won only two of the five seats they hoped to take. Why?

Jeff Flake who retired as a Senator, was an anti-Trump Republican who chose not to run again. Given the absence of an incumbent, the Democrats thought they had a reasonable prospect of taking the seat. In the polling leading up to the election, Sinema was sometimes in the lead by a few points, but generally McSally led. It was clearly going to be a tight race. At the time of writing, there was still no declared winner, but it appeared that evening that McSally won by a very narrow margin. In subsequent days, the positions reversed and McSally eventually conceded.

In Arizona, a key component of the Republican victory was the third-party candidacy of appropriately named, Angela Green, who got 2.24% of the vote (38,978) that would have put Krysten Sinema (830,775) ahead of Martha McSally (856,848). But Maricopa, which includes Phoenix, had still not announced its voting results. However, since most voting was by mail, as the ballots rolled in, Sinema eventually won. Arizona has a history of supporting strong independent voices, both moderate and far from moderate. Arizona was the home of John McCain as well as Jeff Flake.

McSally had only a 6% score on the National Environmental Scorecard. She introduced anti-environmental bills, prioritized the initiatives of power companies and voted to slash EPA funding, whereas Sinema was a strong environmentalist. McSally was a strong supporter of Kavanaugh while Sinema was a belated critic. Other than the existence of a third party candidate on the ballot, major factor that McSally had as strong a showing as she did may have been Trump’s rousing of his base and getting them out to vote in sufficient numbers to offset Sinema’s leading edge in the growing new suburbs of Arizona, especially among women. The fear of foreigners and immigrants may have played a significant role in boosting McSally’s support.

In another very close Senate race in Florida, the margin of apparent victory for Scott over the Democratic incumbent was very slim and meant a recount since the difference between the two candidates was less than .5%; as subsequent ballots rolled in, the difference narrowed even further.) Even though the difference had narrowed to less than 13,000 vote at the time of these amendments to the blog, Scott appears headed for victory even though polls showed that Nelson would win. What happened?

If you look at the House of Representative seats, there was relatively little change. Democratic seats re-elected Democrats; Republican seats went Republican. But the changes are telling. Donna Shalala, a Democrat, even though she ran a poor campaign, defeated Maria Elvira Salazar in a previously Republican seat in the 27th congressional district. Shahala was one of two Muslim women elected to the House of Representatives for the first time.

Shahala was a former president at the University of Miami and a Cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton. Her Republican opponent was a Cuban American. It would appear that the antipathy of educated suburban women trumped Cuban ethnic identification, perhaps in part because of Trump’s denigration of Latinos. The anti-Islamic and anti-Latino Trump voice helped a Republican lose. Further, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell beat GOP incumbent Carlos Cubelo who, as a moderate Republican, refused to run as an acolyte of Trump.

Why did the Democratic incumbent possibly lose in the Senate race? Turnout. Getting supporters to the polls. In Broward County, a Democratic stronghold, though turnout went up from 44.5% to 57.4%, it did not compare to the 62.1% turnout statewide. Trump stumping in Florida on a platform of a politics of fear evidently helped bring Republican base support to the polls, especially since both Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum (running for Governor) ran on a fear-of-Trump platform. It seemed not enough to bring out their supporters in sufficient numbers. The politics of fear seems to work for Republicans but not for Democrats.

One more item needs to be mentioned. The referendum to allow 1.5 million former felons to vote in Florida was victorious. Most are Black and expected to vote Democrat in large numbers if they reach the voting booth. Prospects for Democrats in the future look terrific if Democrats continue the battle against voter suppression and gerrymandering.

The third-party candidate in Indiana took 4% of the vote, but that would have been insufficient to put Joe Donnelly ahead of Mike Braun. This was a seat that Republicans flipped. As usual, districts with minorities and with more educated citizens favoured Democrats while those with an older population favoured Republicans. The two candidates had been polling neck and neck. How and why did Braun move ahead with such a relatively large margin?

Indiana overall is a red state. Donnelly was a right of centre Democrat, but opposed Obamacare repeal, the Republican tax law and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Republicans turned out in droves as Trump aroused his base. Trump, in comparison to the rest of the country, has an approval rating in Indiana of 50% and ran 20 points ahead of Hillary in the 2016 election. The reality is that Connelly was only there because the Republican candidate in 2016 was a jerk who insisted that if a raped woman became pregnant, that was God’s will; there should be no abortion.

Mississippi is a deep red state. Nevertheless, Mike Espy forced a runoff election later this month. State Senator Chris McDaniel, a dissident Republican, was the spoiler who came in third and took 16.4% of the vote. Cindy Hyde-Smith had only been appointed earlier this year to replace the ailing sitting Republican senator. She is a Trumpite and opposes abortion, opposes the refugees heading north and is a strong opponent of gun control. It is almost certain she will win, especially since her co-Republican in the senate, Roger Wicker, easily defeated his Democratic opponent, David Baria.

Montana was another very close race in which a third party candidate, Rick  Breckenridge, took 2.9% of the vote. However, in this case, he is a Libertarian so the vote would most likely have increased the Republican vote if he had withdrawn. Further, it is a state that backed Trump by 20 points in 2016. However, the state also has a record of electing Democratic senators. And Jon Tester was the right candidate to try. A farmer and populist running against a state auditor, Tester also had the advantage of incumbency. The polls showed him winning, though by a small margin. Trump’s appeal made the race close; he went to the state four times with his usual pitch. His base turned out in droves, but that was insufficient to beat Tester..

In Nevada, a Democrat, Jacky Rosen beat the Republican, Dean Heller, 50.3% to 45.4%. Democrats also won the governorship. As was the case across the country, minorities, the better educated and especially educated women, supported Democrats. On the electoral map, however, the vast swath of the state is red. However, in both the lower right and left hands of the state, Las Vegas and Reno, where the bulk of the population live, the state has moved into the Democratic camp.

In North Dakota, Republican challenger, former member of the House of Representatives and a strong Trump supporter, Kevin Cramer triumphed over Heidi Heitkamp. North Dakota is a very red state and should not have been viewed as very competitive for the Democrats even though Heidi Heitkamp was the incumbent. She sided with Trump on a number of issues, not because she came across as an independent voice like Joe Manchin, but seemed to take her stand as a matter of political expediency. The effect – she could not bring out her natural base in droves and she looked like a wimp beside a very strong Trump acolyte who echoed Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

There was another important factor standing in the way of Heidi’s re-election – voter suppression. North Dakota had a new state voter law requiring precise identification – something which undermined the Native American vote in particular and more than offset Cramer’s gaffes about women speaking in public about sexual assaults against them. Polls showed that Cramer led by a wide margin entering the election.

Marsha Blackburn (R 54.7%) ran a fiery campaign as a Trump Republican in Tennessee to beat Phil Bredesen (D 43.8%). She won 92 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. It was a sweep. It helped that she was a woman. It helped that she was a Trump supporter. This offered further proof that Trump retains a strong base that, when galvanized, influences election results. A moderate Republican would not have done so well.

Texas, on the other hand, was a close race. For months on the campaign trail, Ted Cruz, a top Republican incumbent in a state where not one Democrat holds a statewide office, seemed to be in real danger of losing. He fell far behind O’Rourke in raising funds – $40 million, compared with $70 million by O’Rourke. In this race, O’Rourke was the fiery outsider coming from the El Paso relatively remote south-west of the state. He had terrific crowds and rallies. In Austin, Willie Nelson helped draw a crowd of 50,000. Even Trump drew only 19,000.

Cruz fought back by adopting Trump’s hyperbolic misstatements, characterizing O’Rourke as a dangerous Bernie Saunders liberal who would allow immigrants to flow freely across the border. He eventually overcame the view that he was still an anti-Trump Republican, even though he had sold out to Trump a long time ago. Thus, while O’Rourke led most of the evening with huge support from the suburbs of the large cities in Texas, the voters in the numerous red GOP strongholds across the state in the more rural areas came out to vote and put Cruz over the top.

Finally, in West Virginia, Joe Manchin, a Democrat. beat Patrick Morrisey by three points in an otherwise close race. He is often portrayed as a Trump Democrat because he supported the tax bill and the confirmation of Kavanaugh. But he opposed Trump on Obamacare and came across as his own man beholden to neither the Washington Democrats or Republicans. West Virginia may be a red state, but it appears to be a red state that wants its representatives to have the backs of the little guy whatever his party stripes.

Many have argued that this was an election over value, over ideas and ideals. In the election race, did the Democrats choose hope over fear? No. They largely chose fear of Trump over both fear of immigrants and idealistic visions and soft talk. And in the battle of fear-mongering, they were able to bring out their base among minorities, among youth and among educated suburban women. Though the election was a war over very different visions for America, the real war took place on the ground and in the process of getting troops into battle and having candidates who could do so.

By and large, the Democrats did opt for civility versus rudeness and crudeness in politics, but did they choose to go high when the Trump’s GOP went low? No. They opted for politeness because they could not win a battle where the other side already had a monopoly on boundaryless speech.

They did not choose equality over racism, but intergroup coalitions (not the same as the principle of the equality of individuals). They opposed minority and female denigration and boosting white ethnic nationalism. Upholding human rights was just one tool to accomplish that. If Democrats had fought on the grounds of equality and non-discrimination, they would have done worse than they did. They fought for on-the-ground issues – e.g Medicaid, insurance for those with pre-existing conditions.

[After a break for some other issues, I will return to the midterm elections and dicscuss the voting for governors.]

With the help of Alex Zisman

Democratic Politics Part I: Politics Depends on the Feet More than on the Head

Last week, I attended a constituency (precinct in the USA) meeting to select a candidate for one of the political parties for the coming federal election in Canada. It was very instructive. There were three candidates seeking the nomination in a riding with about 85,000 voters. Party membership totalled about 1,800 in the riding. The vast majority of those members were recruited by the three candidates. If each candidate recruited about 500 new members, and there were already 300 existing members on the rolls, one key task was getting those supporters signed up to the ballot box on nomination voting day. It was sort of a dry run for the election.

About 50% of those recruited were expected to vote. That meant that one key to winning was first signing up members. If, to win, you needed 50% of the members that vote, then a winning candidate would have to obtain 450 votes. If the candidate signed up 500 new members and he or she could get 65% out to vote instead of an average of 50%, then that candidate would have 325 votes and would need to pick up about 125 additional voters.

Thus, signing up members was critical, but not sufficient. Getting the vote out was critical but also not sufficient. The ballot was a preferential one. That means, voters marked their preferences on the ballot as “1” and “2” indicating which of the other two candidates they favoured if their choice did not get past the first ballot and was lowest in ranking. If they marked an “x” or a check mark for only one candidate, they effectively lost their vote in the runoff ballot, though it counted in the initial vote. If they made two x’s, the ballot was considered invalid.

Thus, a third requirement entered the fray. A candidate’s supporters had to be taught how to mark their ballots. Not just how technically, but how substantively and strategically. For if one of the candidates signed up more than the average of 500 – say 750 – then that candidate had a larger base to draw from. If that candidate could also get out 65% of his supporters to vote, then he or she would have an excellent and sure chance of winning, for that candidate would get about 490 votes. However, if the leading candidate could only deliver 50% of his or her supporters, the candidate would only have 375 votes and could not cross the finish line on the first ballot.

Then the second preferences came into play. If the other two candidates made a deal instructing each of their supporters to vote for the other one if he or she ran third, that means that the candidate who ran second on the first ballot would win the vote, provided, of course, that supporters followed the instructions of the candidate on how to mark their preferential ballot.

But other elements enter the possibility of winning a nomination. It was noticeable that in a multicultural riding, the bulk of the voters for each candidate came from the candidate’s own ethnic group. Further, it was also clear that one of the candidates was in a better position to deliver his supporters to the polls from the central institution of that ethnic group. Thus, an alliance not only between the candidate with the second and third most votes on the first ballot, but between and among ethnic groups counted, not only between a candidate’s own ethnic group and that of another, but between members of ethnic groups that did not have a candidate on the ballot. Which candidate could best appeal to other ethnic group members as well as to his or her own supporters in his or her own ethnic group?

The strategy gets even more complicated. Members of an ethnic group not represented by one of the ethnic groups were unlikely to turn out to vote even if they were members of the party. What if deals could be made across constituencies? The voters in an adjoining riding might come primarily from two or three other ethnic groups than the ones represented in your riding. If you could get a candidate in the next riding to recruit and get out the vote of this fourth or fifth ethnic group, and you as a candidate in turn agreed to recruit and get out the vote of members of one’s own ethnic group who lived in that adjoining riding, then it would be possible to pick up 50-150 additional voters from outside of your own ethnic group.

Some might call this a betrayal of democracy for the following reasons:

  1. First and foremost, are democracies not premised on the responsibility of individual citizens rather than communitarian allegiances and cross-communitarian alliances?
  2. Second, nomination victory does not seem to depend on which candidate puts forward the best policies, but which candidate can recruit and turn out to the polls their own supporters. [As I observed, virtually the only ones who turned out to hear the speeches of the three candidates were core supporters, about 150 of the total of 1,800 members of the party in that constituency. Few people were present to be persuaded by arguments and positions.]
  3. Since it is generally believed that about 90% of votes cast in the general election depend on the leader and on the national campaign of the party, of 85,000 constituents, of hopefully two-thirds or about 56,000 voters, in a two-way race – and most are 3 or 4-way races – local candidate influences only about 3,000 votes. This can be a matter of victory or defeat, so the quality of the local candidate does count, especially in close races.
  4. Finally, if the selection of the local candidate really depends on only about 500 votes from a constituency of 85,000, it means that very small numbers, perhaps .5%, yes, ½ of one percent, of the voting population in a riding selects the local party candidate.

However, this is how a democratic polity operates on the ground. The selection of local candidates on the ground in each constituency, especially in ridings in contention, can be influenced by selecting a candidate from a riding in whom the party had great confidence and, then, backing that candidate with manpower and financial resources to recruit new members, get the members out to vote, get them to vote in the way needed according to the number on the ballot, and helping forge cross-constituency alliances. Then, the central party can play a decisive role in the selection of candidates.

My attention above focused on ethnic groups, a dominant feature of Canadian politics on the ground level. It has the great advantage of facilitating the entry of representatives from minorities into the political process. In the American election, they may be Hispanic, black or Native American. The system also encourages cross-ethnic group alliances.

There are other communities than ethnic or religious ones. There are youth. There are older constituents. There are rural and there are urban voters. There are women versus male voters. Gender orientation is relevant. There is also education – those having a post-secondary education and those who do not. And then, especially in the United States, there is the issue of race. As you follow the results of an election as they rolled in for the midterms last night and this morning, all of these factors were at work in various different combinations.

One tentative conclusion was that Trump’s alienation of educated women voters in suburbs served as an important stimulus that permitted a number of victories across the nation in suburban areas. On the other hand, Trump’s emphasis in the last weeks of the midterm election on fear of immigrants and foreigners, rather than lauding the success of the economy, did seem to energize his base and get them to turn out in unprecedented numbers in a midterm election.

I have been shifting back and forth between writing this blog and observing the results of the American election on television last evening and this morning. The actual election is but the icing on the cake of a democracy. But the process starts out at the base, a base in which only .5 % of eligible voters in a riding may be need to pick a candidate. I will now turn my attention to my preliminary observations on the American election.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Donniel Hartman: “Nationalism and Democracy in Israel”

The midterm American elections take place today. If every eligible American votes in this election, about 230 million people will cast ballots. Over 30.6 million Americans (over 13% of eligible voters) have already voted, surpassing the 28.3 million (about 12%) who cast ballots before the last midterm elections in 2014. Then, there was an abysmal low turnout – 36%. 82.8 million Americans of 230 million determined the shape of American democracy for the subsequent two years.

In contrast, in the 2016 elections, 137.5 million Americans cast ballots, but that only represented a 60% turnout in a very dramatic presidential election. America, hailed (incorrectly) as the foremost and first democracy in the modern world, has a record of very low turnouts for elections. Many observers and Democrats were convinced that the low turnout was the main reason why they lost in 2014 and 2016. Many Democrats are comforted by the higher pre-election turnout this year.

However, some of the early results are not that comforting. Some states require registration by party affiliation. In those states, 36% of Republicans in contrast to 41% of registered Democrats voted. But that is little direct indication of voter patterns; it may only suggest the degree of commitment of the dedicated party members who want to free up their time to work in the election to get the vote out. Further, both parties are exceeding their previous turnouts where it counts for them.

But other indicators raise hopes for Democrats. In key swing states, voter turnout has been particularly strong, from youth in Florida, suburban women in Virginia and new midterm voters in Georgia where 36% of the 1.8 million ballots cast were new voters. In any case, tonight, we shall see.

Though I will observe the results with intense interest, I am going to take a break from my obsession with America for the moment. Part of the reason is that both my desktop and my laptop are in the process of being repaired. My desktop had evidently 3,657 attacks against it. The efforts never penetrated the protective barriers, but the computer was temporarily disabled and half of yesterday was spent getting it operational again and cleaning up the mess. The problem with my laptop largely just concerned my mouse pad and I have now shut off the mouse pad in favour of an independent mouse.

However, those were simply reasons for the pause over the last two days. This week is Holocaust education week and I want to write on some of the talks that I attend.

Last evening, I heard Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, speak to an almost full house at Holy Blossom Temple on “Nationalism and Democracy in Israel: The Aftermath of the Nation-State Law.” He was a terrific rhetorician and delivered his remarks, sometimes in relative quiet and at other times in a soaring voice. The audience seemed spellbound. However, the talk barely dealt with the aftermath of the nation-state law, except for some concluding remarks and prognostications at the very end.

As is often the practice in Torah study groups, he handed out some material for discussion. Other than the initial material describing Donniel’s publications and some material on the Hartman Institute, there were three documents:

  • Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish people (2018)
  • The Israeli Declaration of Independence
  • Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (1992)

Donniel made a passing reference to the second and virtually none to the third document. The first half of his lecture focused on the Nation-State Law which I analyzed in some detail in a previous blog. While I had parsed its meaning, he read it clause by clause to insist there was nothing in the law to which he would object. He was a nationalist and a Zionist who supported each and every proposition. On the way, he discussed the relationship of universalism for him as well as distinguishing two types of nationalism.

On universalism, he said that the Jewish people were a people of the Book and a people of their own narrative. Their identity as Jews arises from that narrative. He made it very clear that he was a particularist; Jewish nationalism was rooted in religious narrative and not abstract principles. He was not a universalist who based his ideas on abstract ideas picked off the intellectual shelf of the supermarket of ideas. In the process, he alluded to Kant as a philosopher who set universalism in opposition to particularism.

Yet, as made clear in answer to a question I posed to him afterwards, he was also a universalist who borrowed one version of the categorical imperative from Immanuel Kant and another version from Hillel to allow the marriage of nationalism and universalism.

On nationalism, he distinguished between the simple notion of nationalism as patriotism, as loyalty to one’s people and one’s country, and a nationalism of aspiration whereby the vision of and for one’s people is embodied in certain values and ideals towards which you want your nation to aspire. In the second part of the talk, he introduced a third form of nationalism.

That second half was a “nevertheless.” Though he agreed with each and every clause of The Nation-State Law as eventually passed, with key repulsive clauses removed, nevertheless he opposed the law. Not for what it said, but for what it omitted. But primarily he pounced on the motives for the law. As I understood him, he distinguished three goals, one to isolate and send beyond the pale what the proponents of the law considered an existential danger posed by one group of Jews. The second focused on the centrality of the group promoting the law for the salvation and future of Israel. The third linked the Israeli Jewish community to other non-Jewish communities and nations throughout the world, not through shared values but through shared interests.

To Hartman, the first motive of the promoters was to target a ghost, a spectre, a phantom that did not exist – an enemy of the people, a group who threatened the Zionist state. Other than the Arab party, no other party in Israel espoused anything other than that the Jewish homeland was the historic homeland of the Jewish people, for the law did not say that the state was coterminous with that historic homeland; the state of Israel was the body politic of that people. The nation state was the expression and realization of the natural, cultural, religious and historic right to self-determination. The state symbols included the name of the state, its flag, its emblem, the Menorah, and its national anthem, Hatikvah. All parties, except the Arab party, were authentically Zionist and upheld the belief that Jerusalem was the complete and undivided capital of the State of Israel.

The official language was Hebrew, though Arabic had a special status. The ingathering of the exiles meant simply the openness to such an effort. The State of Israel had a special role in protecting, not only all its citizens, but Jews throughout the world, their relationship to the state and the cultural, historical and religious heritage of Jews in the diaspora.

And who can be opposed to Jewish settlements? Perhaps Jewish settlements as the avant garde of annexation, he implied, but not the principle of Jewish settlements in the homeland of the Jewish people. He could have noted that The Nation-State Law does not apply to the occupied territories.

The official calendar is the ancient Hebrew calendar alongside the civic one. The three state holidays – Independence Day and the Memorial Days for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, and the Holocaust – who can object? These are just facts, givens, as are the definitions of the day of rest for Jews and non-Jews.

What is there to object to in The Nation-State Law?

To repeat, Hartman’s response was the intentions of the movers. The law was unnecessary. It was merely a summary of givens. But the pushers of the law were determined to use the law to demonize Jewish groups such as the New Israel Fund. Secondly, it was used to advance the cause of those Jewish groups who espoused a third form of nationalism, an exclusivist nationalism, a nationalism that celebrated Jews at the expense of others, a xenophobic nationalism, a proto-fascist nationalism, a make Israel great nationalism. Third, instead of promoting a globalism based on universal principles that are also congruent with historic Jewish values, The Nation-State Law was promoted by a group that would identify Israel as a start-up nation, as a transactional state of Jewish interests rather than a state of the Jewish people, a state that exists in a world in which antisemitism is an eternal reality, and that Jews could only trust goyim and goyim could only trust Jews because they had interests in common rather than values.

As I suggested earlier, he did make some allusions to the aftermath of The Nation-State Law, namely that it was the canary in the coal mine that signalled new attacks against refugee rights and Israel’s commitment to the International Refugee Convention, to new attacks against the Supreme Court of Israel and the effort to make a simple parliamentary majority sufficient to overrule determinations by the court. Though Hartman did not specifically state this, the two issues are connected, for it is the Supreme Court of Israel that did not simply strike down specific legislation by the Knesset for violating universal rights, but required the government to take specific actions to protect refugees and not warehouse them in camps or simply send them back or onto Uganda without allowing them to make a refugee claim.

On Monday, the Knesset approved in its first reading a bill that would allow the government to deny state funding to organizations or events that: deny that the State of Israel is a Jewish, democratic state; incite racism, violence or terror; support an armed struggle or acts of terror against Israel by an enemy state or a terror group; mark Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning; or engage in any act of destruction or physical degradation of the flag or any state symbol.

One of the ironies, of course, is that it will be the Supreme Court that will rule on whether The Nation-State Law is or is not constitutional. If the Court does the latter, the attacks against the court for setting aside the will of the people and of their representatives will grow enormously. The Supreme Court will also decide if the law restricting cultural grants infringes on the rights of Israelis.

Was Donniel Hartman’s analysis and argument persuasive? First, note several paradoxes. He espoused a universalism that arose from the Jewish narrative rather than one abstracted from it, but the links between particularism and universalism were muddy. His singular focus was not on consequences, though there were some references to normative ends, but on intentions. And intentions are the signature of the ontological ethics of Immanuel Kant, whom he cited as a standard bearer of universalism divorced from particularism. Very simply put, with deep apologies to Kant, what makes one good are one’s good intentions. What makes one bad are one’s bad intentions. The pushers of the law had bad intentions.

That is why Hartman claimed The Nation-State Law was bad, not because of its substance, but because of the intentions of its promoters. He never attempted to document that these were the intentions. He simply asserted that to be the case. Secondly, he not only chastised the intentions of the pushers of the law, but also demonized them. Why? For demonizing groups of Israelis critical of government policies – the New Israel Fund mentioned above, but also Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO established in 2004 by veterans of the IDF that encouraged serving personnel and discharged veterans to tell their stories of their experiences in the Occupied Territories. He, himself, was critical of the latter for taking their complaints against the IDF to foreign countries, but he criticized those who tried to characterise its supporters as enemies of the state.

Third, and most important, he claimed that there was a war underway for the soul of Israel, a war over fundamental values. The promoters of the law were demonized, just as these groups apparently demonized the critical left as dangers to Israel. Hartman demonized the right pushers of the law as threats to the very soul of the Jewish people. When I asked whether there was a possible contradiction in taking such a stance – demonizing those who demonized – he claimed that he was not demonizing them. But if they were threats to the soul of the Jewish people, if they were cultural enemies in a war over the identity of the Jewish people, was this not a form of demonization?

If we go back to the issue of intention, the Torah recognizes the import of intention, of kavvanah. But not as an abstract underlying a priori principle that is a condition of being moral altogether – a somewhat different version of Kant than the one I believe Hartman adopted – but as a matter of substance. It mattered whether someone killed intentionally, for murderers were not given protection in sanctuary cities. Those who killed unintentionally, those guilty of manslaughter, were. The norm was applicable whether or not one was a Hebrew or a non-Hebrew.

How do we distinguish between the two forms of killing? By documenting in detail that one deliberately and intentionally aimed at the death of the other. Hartman’s point was that The New Israel Fund and Breaking the Silence had no intention of killing Israel; they were just critics of government policy. However, as I heard Hartman, the promoters of The Nation-State Law were accused of trying to murder the Supreme Court as the final authority on whether a specific law runs contrary to universal principles of human rights. The promoters of The Nation-State Law were out to murder the International Convention protecting refugees, which I argue is not rooted in human rights law as Hartman suggested, but in humanitarianism and rights to membership in a nation-state.

In sum, I found Hartman confusing on his connection between universalism and particularism and contradictory on the issue of demonization. There were many other misgivings I had about the talk because, as I interpret The Nation-State Law, I agree that it is mainly a reiteration of what Israel is and what it stands for. But, unlike Hartman, a nation state does not define itself at the beginning before the nation state is born, such as in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, but in the laws it develops along the way.

Canada, for example, replaced immigration rooted in ethnic identification with the majority in favour of a universalist approach in the immigration laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s. Countries do define their identities as they develop and many political fights are about identity. But a fight about identity is not a fight about the soul of a nation. The latter can lead from verbal spats to violent ones as in the American Civil War where legislation is used to advance one view of the soul rather than another. For either “religious” view may be a form of puritanism. And it may be critical. But if The Nation-State Law did not do this, then it offers no evidence of a cultural civil war and the existence of a threat to the very essence of the Jewish people. Such hyperbole may be the danger rather than the intentions and positions of most defenders and most critics of the law.

With regard to the latter, unlike Hartman, there are many criticisms of the substance of the law – one is the primacy given to Israel in the protection of Jews around the world rather than a stress on partnership between the diaspora and Israel, a position with which Hartman seemed to sympathize. A second is that the law engages in diplomatic creative ambiguity allowing delicate issues, like Israeli expansionism through settlement, to be skirted while allowing interpretations over time to clarify the meaning – which I took to be implicit in Hartman’s defence of the law in its wording – as only making explicit what already is fact. Third, there are many Israeli Jews, though not nearly a majority, who object to defining Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

Many Israelis, led by Tzipi Livni, were also critical of the omission of any obligation of the state to protect the equality of all its citizens. Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab member of a Zionist political party, resigned from the Knesset over this issue, arguing that the law made Arabs second class citizens.

Others argued that the issue of equality was redundant since the Declaration of Independence already does that. Minorities, such as some Druzim, who serve in the army and in the border police, usually with distinction, were critical of the law for its omissions – something to which Hartman alluded, though Druze MKs Hamed Amar and Ayoub Kara not only voted for the bill, but cosponsored the bill in its original iteration. Were they intent on demonizing a group of critical Israelis as enemies of the state? Hartman, on the other side, never mentioned another omission, leaving out making Judaism the official religion of the state as is the case in many countries, including many European ones.

More seriously, there are Jewish groups in Israel, sometimes in alliance with other non-Jewish groups, who do not support Israel as an exclusively Jewish sovereign state. They object to the Israeli state being defined primarily by its Jewish identity rather than as a state primarily that protects all its citizens.  Many would interpret the intention of the law as pre-empting moves towards a non-ethnic definition of the Jewish state or even the development of a bi-national state. The target of the majority of supporters was not critics of the government, but critics of Zionism as the reigning philosophy of Israel.

In sum, though I agreed with Hartman that the criticisms of the law itself have been greatly, and without warrant, amplified, I find his objections based on intentions to be put forth in an empirical vacuum, in considerable confusion on the relationship of universalism and particularism, and totally unresolved over the issue of who was being demonized.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Editorial assistance: bsg communications

 

 

 

 

 

Implementing Economic Transactionalism in Foreign Policy Part VI: Immigrants Are the Enemy

Bob Woodward (2018) Fear: Trump and the White House, New York: Simon & Schuster

Last night was Halloween. We went with our two young grandchildren and their parents to the annual pumpkin walk of the Waldorf School in Cowichan Station. What a delightful way to celebrate Halloween. Parents come with their children from the whole area and, when admitted to the school grounds, were invited to give a donation. The suggested amount is $10 per family. I estimate that there were well over 300 carved pumpkins, almost all carved by the students of the school, very many works of art in their own right. Lit up with the usual candles inside, they lined the pumpkin walk through the grounds of the school.

There were about a dozen “stations” along the walk where teachers or students put on very short scenes that celebrated nature, the turning of the seasons, the gathering in of crops and, more broadly, the love of humans for the blessings of this earth and of the people who inhabit it. Though the Cowichan Valley is overwhelmingly “whitebread,” coming from Toronto, it was very familiar and delightful to see a Sikh family and a Chinese family in the crowd. It was very evident that this organization and the people in attendance would be very welcoming to anyone, whatever their background.

This is important because it is racist to assume that, because a community is overwhelmingly white, that it is prejudiced against “foreigners” or Canadians from different backgrounds. This was not true of Canada in 1979 when the country agreed to admit 60,000 Indochinese refugees into the country. At the time, the National Citizens Coalition launched full page ads in key newspapers opposing the first Liberal and then Conservative initiatives in welcoming and receiving these newcomers. At Operation Lifeline, the organization founded to encourage the private sponsorship of refugees, we were afraid of these almost explicitly fear-mongering racist ads, not because they would lead to any policy changes, but because, if influential, they would damage the dominant cultural ethos of |Canada that celebrated diversity and welcoming the stranger. Further, they made it uncomfortable for the new arrivals in their efforts at integration.

We launched “Operation Intellectual Kneecapping,” which I have referred to briefly in previous blogs. It was a stupid name, but the strategy used was not dumb.

Though the dominant national political culture in Canada at that time was pluralist and welcoming of all refugees, a majority of Canadians were not. There was only minority support for an intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees. The National Citizens Coalition (NCC) emerged to lead a barely-hidden racist attack on the program that could have damaged support for the program, its successful implementation and the atmospheric reception. The campaign against the NCC entailed getting wealthy and conservative members of the NCC, but social progressives in favour of pluralism to withdraw their financial support of the NCC. Key influential members agreed to do so and the racist campaign came to an abrupt halt.

I offer this summary as a foil to the last-minute desperate advertisement campaign of Donald Trump and the Republican Party to stir up fears of immigrants and refugees. Threats from Iran and North Korea, the rise of right-wing autocrats to power around the world, and domestic racist and antisemitic terrorists were not seen by Trump or most Republicans the key enemies of the United States.

The advertisement can be found on https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/23/trump-and-gop-unleash-anti-immigrant-onslaught-to-sway-midterm-voters.html

Very briefly, the ad, widely distributed with Donald Trump tweets, begins with a familiar claim: “President Donald Trump and Republicans are Making America Safe Again.” Then a flash:
Illegal Immigrant, Luis Bracamontes
“KILLED OUR PEOPLE!”

A laughing bulldog of a man is presented asserting, “I killed (expletive) cops.”

“They’re (expletive) dead. I don’t (expletive) regret that. (expletive)”

“I will break out soon and I will kill more.”
“I would kill (expletive deleted) cops again.”

Then more scare headlines:

“DEMOCRATS LET HIM INTO OUR COUNTRY.”

“I DON’T (EXPLETIVE) REGRET THAT (EXPLETIVE). The only thing that I (expletive) regret is that I (expletive) killed two, I wish I (expletive) killed more of those (expletive).

More scare headlines: “DEMOCRATS LET HIM STAY”.

Scenes are then shown of a crowd marching and then crashing against a gate.

“WHO ELSE WOULD DEMOCRATS LET IN?”

“PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP AND REPUBLICANS ARE
MAKING AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!”

There is no subtlety in the ad, especially against the background of Trump policy announcements and tweets. Latino immigrants and intended refugee claimants are cop killers. The caravan from Central America has to be stopped. It is a direct threat to the security of the United States. Fifteen thousand troops will be mobilized and sent to the border at an estimated cost of $100-150 million for a political campaign stunt. (Yesterday, in a press conference on the lawn of the White House, Trump said they would be instructed to respond to stones with rifles.)

Who is Luis Bracamontes? Does he have any connection with the caravan making its way up the spine of Mexico? Bracamontes is a Mexican deported from the U.S. a number of times both under Republican and Democratic governments. The individual who first set him free without taking him to court was the very sheriff Trump pardoned when he was convicted.

Bracamontes was involved in the drug trade. He reentered the U.S. illegally, got into an altercation with the police in Sacramento, killed two police officers, Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr., wounded a third as well as a civilian bystander. He was sentenced to death.
The ad echoes the “Willie Horton” campaign ad on behalf of George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. Horton was a convicted murderer and rapist, crime he committed while on furlough from prison.

The Willy Horton ad was very effective. Perhaps Trump had plans all along to use a similar one in a pinch. After all, at his first address to a joint session of Congress on 28 February 2017, he had invited Jessica Davis and Susan Oliver, the widows of the two slain policemen, to attend. The new ad revived the Sacramento murder of those cops in the public media.

Tweets sent out by Trump reinforced the message that the Democrats facilitated murder. “I Will Make America Safe. It is outrageous what Democrats are doing to our country. Vote Republican now! Vote GOP.”

Another tweet and a total fabrication:

“The Caravans are made up of some very tough fighters and people. Fought back hard and viciously against Mexico at Northern Border before breaking through. Mexican soldiers hurt, were unable, or unwilling to stop Caravan. Should stop them before they reach our Border, but won’t!” Two stones were thrown and two police officers were treated for lacerations.

Trump was the lead shrill screamer in the most vitriolic and racist, the most divisive and emotionally charged campaign message in the last three decades. Essentially, Trump was accusing Democrats of letting Latino killers into the country and allowing them to stay. The caravan of Central American potential refugee claimants was seeded with cop killers, Trump implied.

According to American law. they were entitled to claim refugee status. They might not get it. They might not be able to prove that they had a well-founded fear of persecution. But reporting to a border officer and claiming refugee status was perfectly legal.

Law! Shmah? What does Donald Trump care about the law? His other assault against foreigners was directed at non-citizens whose babies were born in the United States and who were entitled to American citizenship in accord with the 14th Amendment of the American constitution. Incendiary ads, total mischaracterizations of would-be refugees and mobilizing fifteen thousand troops to send to the U.S.-Mexican border, were not enough. Trump was ready to dismiss the American constitution as well.

Amendment XIV, Section 1, reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereofat excludes diplomatic personnel], are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of lawnor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

There are four other clauses of great importance, but the key relevant amendment is section 1. The privileges and immunities clause applied to citizens (section 2) is critical in American law, but not to this blog. What is important is that Trump would single-handedly try to set aside Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the American constitution in his frantic and frenzied effort to stir up fears of foreigners who seek refugee status or who have babies in the United States.

The 14th Amendment, otherwise known as the Reconstruction Amendment, passed in 1868 after the Civil War addressed issues of equal rights that would be guaranteed to any citizen or anyone born on the territory of the United States. Citizenship was to be based on birthright and not jus soli.

Disregard of the law. Disregard of due process. Fear and Hate! Fear and Hate! That is the core of Trump’s frenzied and frantic last few days of the American midterm election. The Republican Party has been supine, though Paul Ryan did dismiss the President’s birthright gambit. Trump appeal was one that Canadians avoided in 1979 when conservatives stood Trump’s xenophobia against xenophobic fear-mongering. They shut the campaign down.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Implementing Economic Transactionalism in Foreign Policy Part V: Fear and the Haunted Hill

Bob Woodward (2018) Fear: Trump and the White House, New York: Simon & Schuster

I returned last evening from Vancouver to Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island after a visit with my youngest son, a filmmaker and horror film fanatic. Yesterday morning, we had gone to one of the most interesting art installations that I have ever attended, Melbourne’s Patricia Piccinini’s sculptural and video creations, Curious Imaginings, on offer in 18 intimate and private rooms of one wing of a floor of the Patricia Hotel located in a sketchy area of Vancouver, East Hastings.

The rooms themselves are an art piece in which commerce and poverty have been domesticated. The show is part of the 2018-2020 Vancouver Biennale; it runs until 15 December. It is worth flying to Vancouver to see it. We went at the opening time at 10:00 a.m. and avoided the line ups; for the first fifteen minutes we had the show to ourselves. It is an exhibit that should not be seen in the midst of a crowd so they limit admissions to 40 at any one time.

The transgenic show is described as a hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” made of a mixture of materials – silicone, fibreglass, real hair. Each art creation is set in one of the rooms in the midst of very appropriate and complementary everyday objects – sheets, jars, books – but every installation is about hybridization and crossing the boundaries between the human and the animal world, between botany and zoology, between the natural world and the world of man-made artifacts in our new world of holograms, genetic engineering, and body part replacements with the organs of pigs and legs made of titanium.

What fascinated me most was not the message about bio-engineering or of environmental degradation, that was also a lesson at the Vancouver Aquarium that we had visited the day before – in the last two generations of humans, 60% of the world’s mammals have evidently disappeared. In the art show, alterity and difference is normalized. Boundaries are crossed. In the Vancouver aquarium, myths were debunked – that the piranha fish of the Amazon devour flesh in seconds, leaving only a skeleton. What may seem horrifying, may be portrayed and viewed as loving. Our empathy rather than our disgust may be aroused. Our wonder at the variety and the beauty of our world may be greatly appreciated. The caravans fleeing terror and deprivation may be seen through other lenses than those that create a Halloween terror of invasive species.

I wish I could send pictures with my blog, but I was advised that you can find pictures of the sculptures on the site http://www.imcurious.ca. In one room, there is a super-realistic creation of a peacock renowned for its beauty as well as the question of the function of that beauty. On the bed was a doll-like young girl of perhaps six-years of age (evidently modelled on Piccinini’s own daughter) that is as lifelike as one could possibly imagine. She beams with love as she is embraced by a creature with a human-pig (?) face, arms and legs, seemingly of bone, but having the contours of titanium replacement body part. The creature has a hairy back with extraordinary beautiful patterns. The creature’s arms around the child and his look are both loving.

In another room, a man – but not a man – and a woman – but not a woman, lie in bed in a loving embrace. In still another, a pig-like human feeds her young at her teats. Love is everywhere. It is boundless and boundaryless. Eyes do not look out with suspicion and fear. They are always gentle – and caring. They draw you in. What could be creepy and crawly is just a pale human-like baby with translucent skin climbing over the back of her mother who is a cross between a human and an orangutan. The Donald may be an orangutan, but he is hard to picture with a baby on his back and another on his chest; Barron seems to barely get the time of day from a father glued to TV news 4-6 hours a day or playing golf at Mar-a-Lago.

We learn that Donald Trump is a frightening monster, but these artistic aberrations with wrinkles, opposing toes and faint blue veins may initially repel, but a closer look invites you to set aside any wariness of difference. The sculptures are articulate though they are silent. Whereas Trump is careless in his thoughts, words and actions, Piccinini is meticulous and the epitome of care about process.

In the Raptor show we saw last week in Duncan, turkey vultures were not filthy birds but kept the land clean and restored, as did the hybrid human-beaver in the Curious Imaginings show. Nature in all its wonder and difference and beauty, even in ugliness, has been made into a home in an urban area crowded with the homeless where maternal love and nurturing is celebrated rather than left out in the cold with the homeless addicts, where pigs have human hands and feet, but nevertheless are more pig than human.

When I got back to Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island last evening, I watched the last two episodes of Mike Flanagan’s 10-episode Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House that I had been watching for the past five days, if only to talk about a series that my son insisted I watch. (I am not a horror film aficionado.) The series too is about fear versus love, about home as a walled off space to hold off what frightens you and home as a place of openness in which experiences are shares rather than remaining buried secrets. The Hill House mansion is not meant to be a home, but a transactional economic exercise in which the parents are renovating the house and plan to flip it for a very large profit. It will haunt them all their lives.

If the art exhibit is an expression primarily of love to combat the fear of strangeness, the ten-part series is primarily about fear as defined in the last episode (three different times) as “the relinquishment of logic, of the willing suspension of the reasonable.” We either surrender to that fear or fight it, but we cannot meet it half way we are advised. For Trump it is never retreat. Never back down. Defence is weakness. Fight until you win. The result, like The Haunting of Hill House, is erratic behaviour, disorder, disruption, chaos, isolation – and churning, churning, churning.

Ironically, love is also a suspension of logic and reason and is the principal component that saves the remnant of a family of two parents and five children. The Trump saga is unlikely to have a redemptive ending, but this horror series did.

However, when love is used to wall out danger, to build a barrier against insecurity, to protect one’s family within a defined boundary, a home becomes a monstrous prison. Instead of nurture, motherly love suffocates. A house intended to be a home eats you alive as each member of the family retreats into his or her own world of secrets and closes himself of herself off from the others. In isolation, the house and its successors are populated by ghosts. And everyone is turned into a different variation of a paranoid freak. Life becomes just professional lying full of self-delusion.

This is precisely the description of Donald Trump in the last chapter of Woodward’s book. The issue is not whether Donald Trump had “corrupt intent’ or “knowledge aforethought,” whether he suborned perjury or did not, as Mueller sought to establish, but whether he would fall himself into a perjury trap because he was incapable of controlling either his thoughts or feelings. He only really felt alive, felt vital, when he was “spontaneous” as he spewed out the venom he had ingested all his life and lies he could not stop telling. His absence of logic and reason, his inability to read an extended brief, except if it directly concerned him, were part and parcel of an overweening narcissism that ate at him from within and consumed him.

Ty Cobb, Trump’s second-in-command personal attorney, specifically cited how the Mueller probe was haunting Trump (325). The ghosts of Obama’s successes never left him. Nor did his obsession with building the wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, which he repeatedly promised was underway even though he had just “approved a two-year spending bill for $8.6 trillion that had no money – not one red cent – for the wall.” (323) I am not reading into the Trump saga a tale of horror simply because I saw a horror series. This is what his aides, his associates and his cabinet ministers saw and described in the White House that Melania haunted as a rigid, remote presence.

Reince Priebus noted that, “Since the tweets were often triggered by the president’s obsessive TV watching, he looked for ways to shut off the television. But television was Trump’s default activity. Sunday nights were often the worst…The president and the first lady had separate bedrooms in the residence. Trump had a giant TV going much of the time, alone in his bedroom with the clicker, the TiVo and the Twitter account. Priebus called the presidential bedroom ‘the devil’s workshop’ and the early mornings and dangerous Sunday nights ‘the witching hour’.” (195) “Priebus could see the fires building around a string of troubled investments.” (194) This horror show is for real.

In the horror series on Netflix, the parents, Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton when he is older – I list the actor playing the older version second), Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) and their five children, Steven (Paxton Singleton and Michiel Huisman), Shirley (Lulu Wilson and Elizabeth Reaser), Theo (Mckenna Grace and Kate Siegel), Luke (Julian Hilliard and Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell – Eleanor (Violet McGraw and Victoria Pedretti), temporarily move into Hill House. Just as the White House is being renovated, so was Hill House. Just as the Crain family had moved into the house to flip it for a profit, many suspected that this was the deep reason Trump wanted the presidency. Certainly, he viewed all events, domestic and foreign, as transactional exercises with nothing to do with real security, the defence of democracy or human rights and freedoms.

The tale of Donald Trump is a story of the paranormal, as is the case of Hugh and Olivia Crane and their children. Events do not have scientific explanations for Trump; they are simply projections of his beliefs. He perceives, not what occurs, but what haunts and bothers him. But the White House, just like Hill House, may consume and devour the family since, unlike the Crains, there is unlikely to be a happy ending even for a remnant still able to confront their deep fears and bring their secrets into the fresh air.

In the case of the Crain family, the various children carry different varieties of the paranormal – Steve the sceptic who is in denial and transforms his own and his family memories into fiction, Shirley who becomes a repressed mortician, Theo, a practicing psychologist, but one who has to wear gloves to prevent reading the twisted lives of those whom she touches, Luke, a fearful child who grows into a drug addict, and his younger, twin sister, Nell, who, unfortunately is the most sensitive of them all.

I was not horrified by the series. The labyrinthian plot was too hard to follow for the first few episodes and the jump scares too bothersome and distracting from the effort of trying to wind your way through the maze. But perhaps I am too inexperienced with fictional horror films and too preoccupied with the horrors we face daily with the rise of authoritarian figures as the head of polities around the world. My youngest son thinks The Haunting of Hill House is fantastic and a great horror film. But he cannot stand and look; he turns away from the horror of The Haunting of the White House.

But the two have a number of common elements – apparitions, for example. Apparitions are spectres or phantoms; they are not real. The claim that Obama was not a native American was a phantom. And Trump sees such phantoms everywhere. The Canadian government threatening the U.S. and taking advantage of the country south of the border, is another spectre. And we observers are repeatedly startled and sidelined by new ghosts and familiar ghosts and we are unsure whether they are deliberate distractions or the projections of a mad mind.

Another situation in the horror series is the sleep paralysis that Nell exhibits. As scientifically explained in the film by the sleep technician who eventually marries Nell, sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious, but you are unable to move.

Evidently, it takes place between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, the individuals stricken with sleep paralysis are unable to move or speak for a short period. The cabinet members and the aides around Trump, at times, all suffered from sleep paralysis when they were stricken dumb and speechless by one or other outrageous observation or conclusion uttered by Donald Trump. In fact, Woodward’s set pieces of conversations and events, I would argue, is simply a series of instances of sleep paralysis by Trump’s appointees – until, of course, they wake up or are woken up and fired. They literally choke.

Other elements of a horror series are part of the Trump legacy – storms, an interweaving plot, repetitions and flashbacks. Gary Cohn or Rex Tillerson or John Kelly or Rob Porter or John Dowd, even Steve Bannon and Lindsay Graham, no sooner believe they have an agreement with the president than they are sideswiped. Trump wakes up in the morning, sends out a tweet that totally reverses the agreed course of action.

Trump also believes he has an extraordinary power to communicate with other autocrats. He calls it chemistry. They used to call it telepathy. For example, even though Trump initiated a major trade war with China, he believed that everything would be settled because he and President Xi Jinping understood one another. “He and Xi will work out a deal. It’ll be a beautiful deal. The best deal you’ve ever seen.” (341) China may be an economic aggressor, a major thief of proprietary commercial secrets, an abuser of human rights norms with a plan to emerge as the strongest economic and military power, “But all of those problems were superseded by his [Trump’s] rapport with Xi.” (232) Trump, if he knew the word, was claiming that he could form a psionic communication line with another ruler.

Another psychological characteristic used in horror films, and in The Haunting of Hill House, is a psychogenic fugue. Trump also seems to suffer from dissociative fugue or a fugue state whereby he repeatedly suffers from amnesia to the great benefit of those around who want to manipulate him. For he forgets what he orders, so his aides ignore orders with which they disagree. He may diss a cabinet member in the strongest language one day and forget all about it and praise the same person as the best and the brightest several days later.

But perhaps the best indication of Trump as a protagonist in his own horror film is his relationship with the Mueller probe. John Dowd convinced Trump to cooperate fully with the probe – which he did in supplying documents and witnesses – but would not allow Trump to be cross-examined under oath by Mueller or the other prosecutors lest he go off on a wild rant combining total fiction with snippets of truth. Trump praised the professionalism of Mueller in private, but in public branded the whole probe a witch-hunt that drove him to distraction. But if it was truly a witch-hunt, then perhaps he was the target, not of collusion with the Russians or even of obstruction of justice, but of practicing witchcraft, especially since he was a specialist in arousing panic and mass hysteria.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

To be continued