On the Competition for Recognition Part IV Peterson (and Heidegger)

[To repeat my warning, this blog may be dangerous to your mental health.]

I begin with Jordan Peterson and the alleged failure of liberalism in order to comprehend his view of the forces underlying the conflict between the political right and left. How, in the pursuit of what each sees as the true order of the world, the true good, is the result not simply mutual incompatibility and exclusion, but the very opposite result of the one intended by each? Leftists, it is said, want to change the world; though he berates the extreme right, his more frequent target seems to be the left which he regards as the embodiment of postmodernism, relativism and, believe it or not, aggressiveness. Those on the right believe the priority should be on changing yourself, which is Peterson’s aim. But then how can the two positions be reconciled if this so-called traditional conservative right position merely regards the extreme right as a distraction more than a target?

I will not review Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which, though an international blockbuster and extolled by new media sensations on YouTube such as PewDiePie, has generally been greeted by respected reviewers as inconsistent, self-contradictory, sloppy, shoddy, glib, banal, obscure, boring, full of philosophical buzzwords with virtually no explication, lazy analogies and clichés. They often claim the book to be a tedious read full of arbitrary judgments, and assertions without any defence or argument and citations at odds with the actual references.

Peterson is the mercurial intellectual equivalent of the polarizing Trump, one who mixes polemical tirades with boy scout pep talks. When he offers an assertion without an argument – such as respect and project strength – he comes across as weak. As one commentator noted, he displaces a conservativism of substance, a conservatism of tradition, a conservativism of civility, with the moral equivalent of pop art that turns ads into objects of art as he puts forth a gospel of masculinity.

However, I have bracketed the book’s weaknesses. I am not concerned with Peterson’s own contradictory tales of the genesis of the book out of his “procrastination-induced reasoning” or his more careful and purportedly 1999 deeper volume, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. I also avoid any consideration of his role as a public intellectual and charismatic communicator using contemporary media, propelled by his singular acerbic stance against the Canadian Parliamentary Bill C-16 to include “gender identity or expression” to be protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson’s gun slinging stance, reinforced by his quaint Alberta slang – “Sort yourself out, bucko” and “Toughen up, you weasel” – aims to slay the evils of male emasculation and gender protection akin to the gunfighters at the OK Corral. The position has been contemporaneous with the rise of Donald Trump. But I set that all aside.

Instead, I will focus on the philosophical underpinnings, the most important of which is Heidegger, more particularly, Peterson’s interpretation of Heidegger, and the latter’s notion of Being. In a separate blog sometime in the next few weeks, I will dig into Heidegger’s views in his own right. Today, I address the quotes and the queries posed to me by an academic colleague and one of the careful readers of my blogs.

According to Peterson’s interpretation of Heidegger (see Being and Time), Being is activity (contrasted with matter which is passive) and central to human existence; human existence is inherently tragic. The task of humans is to transform the negativity of Being, its inherent nihilism and conflictual character, into improvement and something positive, namely proper (184) or perfect Being (190) – rule 6. We find meaning, value (and, surprisingly, even joy) by finding our “rightful destiny” (28) in what Heidegger dubbed “Dasein,” that is, how individuals experienced Being in their own unique lives.

How? By developing our consciousness. There is, on the one hand, matter which is passive, and then two active competing forces, one tending towards chaos and ignorance and accompanied by despair and angst, betrayal and horror. The other inclines towards order, towards structure, towards authority. “Order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country… It’s the flag of the nation.” (36) Consciousness is that which is non-material and which mediates between chaos and order and, therefore, suffers from the tension of such an existence, especially since, even as we enhance order, we are inherently hurtling towards death and suffering pain as we face a telos of destruction even as we try to give meaning (rule 7) to what is meaningless, to do good and not add to the evil, to the meaninglessness, of the world. Instead, our prototype is the good man (168-9), an overachiever aiming for the highest good as a father, a husband and a friend even if, in experience, pain, strife and the inevitably of suffering define the world. (172; 174) One of Peterson’s heroes, versus Aristotle, is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who insisted that humankind was not destined for happiness.

The biblical stories of Adam and Eve, of Cain and Abel, exemplify this portrait of experience. Adam, like God, seeks to give order to the world and to be recognized by God for his efforts. Eve allows herself to slip towards chaos, towards disorder and material existence. In interacting, the two come to know one another and thereby to know both good and evil.

Cain follows in the footsteps of his mother and Abel of his father. Abel, a shepherd, does not work towards increasing order, increasing institutional structures, towards cities and civilization. He is a nomad. Cain, in contrast, the proprietor of order and orderliness and imposing those on nature, in his quest for meaning, ends up killing Abel and, tragically, advancing the chaos he so assiduously tries to avoid and counteract. If Adam and Eve met their tragic end because of their complementarity, and became conscious of good and evil in the process, Cain and Abel do so through conflict between them and the polar tensions towards which each is drawn. That is why we end up with a Hobbesian world that is “nasty, brutish and short” and, in the effort to make the world good and more orderly, we compound that state by adding evil to the mix.

This is satanic. This emerges as conscious malevolence. For, if we are aware that we cannot bring order and meaning to the world, that ultimately we cannot achieve goodness, then we surrender to despair and we turn to destructiveness, to “pure hatred of man, God and Being,” to expediency and acceptance of life as catastrophic instead of accepting that life is a struggle to exemplify order and the good even though we recognize the effort is futile, that proper or perfect Being is out of reach. However, if we do not make the effort, then the self becomes the benefactor of evil who strides “about the stage of Being as Nazi and Stalinist alike; who produced Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the multiplicity of the Soviet gulags.”  (p. 194)

What then is the role of thought, of critical thought, of reason, which Descartes in the seventeenth century defined as the essence and central character of the modern individual and Karl Popper, in that same line and out of that inheritance in the twentieth century insisted that thinking as logical was primarily engaged in building order through a process of falsification of that which contributed to disorder, of taking apart fake news at the same time as the opponents of thought labelled all thought per se as fake. Descartes used doubt to try to defeat doubt and find a foundation for certainty in reason that would replace the dying faith of religion. However, over three centuries, the only result has been sewing distrust in reason itself and affirming the reality of pain and suffering rather than the contentment of logic as the essence of existence. Peterson, using the same doubt, comes to a different conclusion, not the certainty of the self but the certainty of suffering.

The tragedy – in deconstructing and labeling the fake, thought contributes to the notion that all thought is fake. Thought falls into the trap of thoughtlessness and, therefore, helps neo-fascists in their quest for power. That is the tragedy of thought. That is the tragedy of thinking. That is how the quest for the good helps produce the horror show of contemporary existence. Thought cannot avoid becoming an abettor of evil even as it acts in the name of the good, even as it acts in “good faith” to advance the realm of thought and reason. For if the essence of thought is scepticism, if the essence of thought is critique, if the essence of science is premised on falsification, then it is easy to see how that good faith is turned inside out, is inverted to translate all of experience into doubt where truth claims receive no more status than false ones.

There are implications of Peterson’s views on issues such as “fake news.” CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, they all stand on the side of “facts” and discriminating between what is factually accurate and what is hyperbole, what is misleading and what is an absolute falsehood. But all these “news” organizations fail to convey that what they portray as “news,” what they deconstruct as false, only feeds the frenzy of deceit as they suborn themselves to the conviction that fake news, that false news, is the news, when that is the oldest satanic seduction of all. In defence of facts, they help shovel the dirt on the grave of facts. And when we become self-conscious of this, we are driven to despair and into the long night of the human soul.

How can Peterson emerge from this long passage on the road to hell by supporting a very non-Nietzschean moral quest for being humble in one’s exertions in order to resist the core of the satanic path of pride that necessarily leads to intolerance and oppression? He does it by turning away from the dictum “To thine own self be true” towards the humbler premise that one does not possess a self to which one can be true. Rather, he advises, become self-conscious of the deceit in your own heart, of the cowardice in your own gut, of how your own motives are driven by resentment and towards malevolence.

Peterson offers an updated version of a Christianity in which we are born sinners and, however much we strive, and ought to strive, to overcome a propensity to malevolence, we and the world all eventually succumb to their embrace. So generally, “it is best to do what others do, unless you have a very good reason not to.” Peterson found very good reasons in his own mind for rejecting correct thinking and the preference for neutral over gender pronouns. Conformity and critique are not opposites but complements. Be cautious but forceful seems to be his maxim.

By accepting pain and suffering as inevitable, we minimize our contribution to that tragedy and can work to alleviate unnecessary pain and suffering. By accepting the inherent irrationality, the inherent lack of logic to existence, we minimize the worst mistake of the Enlightenment, the belief that we can replace the tragic with a divine order of goodness through science and reason. By surrendering the utopian quest of modernity, we can best minimize though not evade its inevitable hell.

Peterson’s maxims are simple: Pursue meaning even as you accept that it will all be meaningless in the end. Seek unity and order even as disunity, disorder and chaos confronts us and spreads. Pursue the Kingdom of God on Earth, but only if you recognize that God’s kingdom can only be established in heaven. Only then can Being emerge out of Nothingness. Only then can God’s quest to order the world through logos, through words, be pursued though never realized. Pursue truth but surrender the vision of a singular objective truth in favour of your own truth. Resurrect the true meaning of, “To thine own self be true.”

What about the proposed rules? Rule 1 – “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.” The analogy is a lobster to put forth a Darwinian proposition defending dominance hierarchies which are “older than trees.” Posture expresses dominance – as do handshakes. You can understand why so many sophisticated critical readers found this writing banal.

Rule 2 – “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping.”  The rule is not act towards others as you would have others treat you, but treat yourself as if you were another in need. Clever but not exactly profound.  It is as if the inversion in his writing served as a deliberate ploy as when, in narrative chaos, he esteems self-criticism prior to any worldly critique in rule 6 stated above with the imperative that you put order in your own house before criticizing others.

What about Rule 11 – “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding?” Don’t impose order when children are discovering their own way to make order out of chaos.  Don’t be over-protective. The book may be badly written. The philosophy underlying it may appear obscure. But the advice is not bad. Rule 12 states, “Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street.” That alone leads me to understand why my youngest son, though professing some ambivalence towards Jordan Peterson, urged me strongly to read him.

I have done my duty.

On the Competition for Recognition Part III: Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the inner authentic self

[WARNING: this philosophical blog may endanger your mental health.]

In Part I, I referred to two tensions set up in Dummitt’s review article between globalism and nationalism and between an inner authentic and an outer socially imposed self. With respect to the latter, Dummitt argued that the political left and the right both favour the authentic self over a socially imposed one, but that the left’s definition of authenticity favoured globalism. The right defined authenticity in terms of national self-realization versus universal human rights.

To clarify the debate, we first have to go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Dummitt, after stating that, “In all times, individuals have been at odds with their societies.” He then quoted Fukuyama as follows: “But only in modern societies has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former.” Thus, “It is not the inner self that has to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that that needs to change.”

Note the following:

  1. At all times, individuals have not been at odds with their societies. More accurately, individuals are much more often at odds with parts of a society as they defended other parts. Isaac was at odds with Philistine society, but certainly totally obeisant to his own tribal norms. Further, he was at odds with the Philistine civil society mobs but not substantively with King Abimelech.
  2. The dichotomy between an inner self and social impositions does not begin in modernity but has earlier versions, ones that run quite contrary to Rousseau. Stoicism, for example, esteemed a self indifferent to, but not in tension with, socially prioritized values, such as wealth or status or social accolades. The esteemed self was not one that was “true to itself,” but only true to the degree it became virtuous in terms of the values of wisdom and courage, justice and self-control.
  3. Before we deal with the tensions and incongruities between the self and society, it is crucial to understand the tensions and lack of congruity between the self and the physical world that surrounds us, including our own bodies.
  4. For example, Dan Crenshaw, the rising non-Trumpite Republican star and ex-Navy SEAL who won a House of Representatives seat in Texas in the midterm elections, as a result of injuries suffered from an IUD or mine, is not only blind in one eye, but cannot judge how to coordinate a pitcher to pour water into a glass unless the two objects actually touch one another. He suffers from a visual form of agnosia, perceptive agnosia; he is unable to assess the size and shape and orientation of objects relative to one another separated in space and compensates by making the objects touch so that he can grasp one in one hand and the other in the other hand to pour water from one to the other.
  5. There are many other forms of such incongruities between the self and our physical world. For example, I have a friend with a spinal injury whom I visited yesterday. As a paraplegic, he suffers from anosognosia, where he assumes he has pain and sometimes even movement in his legs when they are totally paralyzed. He “knows” they cannot move nor feel pain, but nevertheless feels that pain and sometimes even movement. To give one other example in myself, I was blind in one eye for decades. About twenty years ago, I regained vision in the blind eye, fuzzy at first but able to make out figures on large billboards. Currently, I can now read with that eye if the print is reasonably large. Nevertheless, I find I still read almost exclusively with my other eye. It is a mild form of hemineglect which could possibly, and probably, be overcome with visual exercises.
  6. There is a much more general human incongruity between any human and the world that surrounds us. Owls, as I have written, primarily locate prey through very finely tuned hearing rather than their wide and large eyes. In a famous essay in the 1970s by the philosopher, Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” he tried to imagine how bats “see” the world when they rely on echolocation rather than sight. Nagel’s point is that we can only see and experience the world that we are equipped to see. Put another way, are the sounds owls and bats hear objects?
  7. I have digressed and probed only slightly into these areas of epistemology and consciousness to make one point, that a self is what it experiences and a self, whether that of any human or that of an individual, can only experience that which it is equipped to experience Further, what the self experiences is dependent on the body and the state of the body may even determine if we can have experiences. A blind person or a paraplegic still has a self. But does a person suffering from severe dementia or from extreme Parkinson’s still have a self?
  8. What we experience is not only limited by our bodies, but by the mental frameworks that we overwhelmingly inherit and use to understand the world, unless we are those rare geniuses that create new frameworks for grasping the world. The external world cannot be grasped independent of the instrument by which it is understood. (Hegel Introduction, Phenomenology of Spirit) Werner Heisenberg insisted that, “what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning,” or, as Albert Einstein put it, theory “determines what we can observe.”

I want to make one last point before I return to the issue of the authentic self versus socially imposed norms.

What is the “authentic” self to which Jean-Jacques Rousseau refers? Rousseau, I believe, would accept all I have written in points 1-5 above. However, as Fukuyama stated in his volume, The End of History and the Last Man, Rousseau agreed that human “nature” had developed, was rooted in both the body and the historical framing provided by the mind and largely inherited. His contention was that the frames we have inherited and the norms thrust upon us by society have deformed humans and made them unhappy. The security we demand is largely a product of what we now call paranoia, for humans are not “naturally” out to get one another. Material demands are not part of an inherent demand to acquire goods but are socially constructed to establish status. “The wants created by modern consumerism arise, in other words, from man’s vanity, or what Rousseau calls his amour-propre.”  (83)

All these demands – for security, for wealth for status – are infinite. They lack boundaries. Even more importantly, for Rousseau, they result in greater and greater unhappiness as the gap effectively grows between our basic needs for security, material goods and minimal recognition. Abandon the treadmill. Return to nature and recover the joys of the natural life. Move to Vancouver Island, better yet, Salt Spring or Pender Island.

Two points. Rousseau’s philosophy was not the first and most fundamental attack on the project of “conquering nature.” (84) Second, even his own reply, calling for a return to nature, had many variations, many of which did not presume the pre-existence of an essential authentic self.

I offer Baruch Spinoza as an example within the modern age and the Western tradition. Like the Stoics, he valued, not the authentic self, but the virtuous one in which control of the passions lead to happiness. Second, his view of God, the world, the self and knowledge required, not a command over nature, but a reconciliation with nature. For everything was but an aspect of nature. Happiness was not acquired by becoming a slave to needs, to the quest for security and wealth or status – all these are transitory – but to the life of reason that would lead us back to a unity with nature, the opposite direction of his Jewish upbringing and the Dutch bourgeois society that surrounded him and of which he was so much a part in running his family’s business.

However, his God, the God that he had come to believe in, was not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the absolutely infinite, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God of the unity of Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. His was not a God who unleashed a flood that drowned the world and then said He was mistaken, for that action did nothing to improve the commonwealth of humans. Spinoza’s God was not a god for all humanity, not a god who revealed himself in and through history and, in particular, the historical narrative of a specific people, Jews. As Spinoza wrote in Proposition11 of his Ethics, “God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.” God’s essence as infinite entails God’s existence. The very conception of grasping the Infinite entails that God must exist.

Spinoza was not ex-communicated by his synagogue, the cherem imposed on him because he did not believe in God, and possibly for his ethical and political views, but because he proposed a God, not of experience and presence, but a product of abstract thought and reason. Further, everything – that which is given in nature and the artifacts made by man – are all aspects of God. God does not give form to pre-existing matter. Matter is an aspect of God. God and nature are not other; they are one and the same.

Rousseau could not agree that a reconciliation with nature could come about through reason, for reason was the source of the deformation of what was natural in man, what was universal in man. And what was natural was given, not created – by God or by humans. Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke, tried to decipher the “state of nature” prior to human historical development.

Hume would reject such an effort and Hegel went further for he insisted that, like the ancient Israelites, the quest for status, the quest for recognition, was not an artifact of history, but a precondition of any history whatsoever. Adam wanted to be like God, to create things by giving form to the world he found through language. Cain and Abel each wanted exclusive recognition from God. Jacob and Esau each wanted their father’s recognition. The quest for recognition, not security or wealth, drove the development of humans as historically-rooted beings.

The more basic divide than the ones that separated those who defined the essence of humanity as security-seeking or wealth-seeking or getting back to one’s true nature stripped of its so-call historical and socially imposed accretions was between philosophers who insisted that humans had a universal nature and those who viewed humans as a product of their history, whether in the minor scale (Hume) or the grand one (Hegel). Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke, and like Spinoza in his pantheism, was an essentialist.

Rousseau’s essentialism was not the given foundation of history but the way of escaping the disaster that history had wrought.

Is this the core bottom line of both the political right and the political left as claimed in the Dummitt essay? Were both sides variations of a common Rousseau theme?

Tomorrow: Part IV

The Foundation Stone of the Contemporary Political Right and Left

With the help of Alex Zisman



On the Competition for Recognition Part II: Dummitt and Fukuyama: Individualism in the Modern Age


This blog will deal only with the first of the dozen questions I asked in my last blog:

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?

Dummitt, echoing Fukuyama, claimed that the beginning of modernity was rooted in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of a conflict between an inner authentic self and a socially imposed outer self that defined individualism in the modern age or even just modernist thinkers and writers. That meant that social change, not an alteration to the personality and values of the individual, was prioritized.

I believe there are many tributaries that flow into the larger stream of individualism that marks modernity and not just or even primarily the Rousseau stream. Though I will later add a contribution from the ancient world, I offer three others associated with three other modern philosophers, all British:

Thomas Hobbes – individualism, survival and security

John Locke – possessive individualism

David Hume – individualism as a product of custom

Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan argued that individuals by nature possessed liberty, and in such possession, individuals were all equal in the state of nature. However, unlike Rousseau, they did not possess an individualized authentic self, differentiated from others, but, rather, their own particular instinct for survival. They were unbounded and free to take any action needed to survive. The result – conflict with others and, thus, fear. Without an overarching sovereign authority, flight and fight would be the two dominant expressions of that fear. The historical task, therefore, was to create a sovereign authority that protected those included under its safety net. Thus, to survive, individuals had to surrender their liberties as necessary and as long as the surrender of that liberty contributed to self-preservation.

John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government put forth a different starting point rooted in economic rather than political man. In nature, the individual was driven not just by a need to survive, but by a need to express himself (excuse the gender bias, but it is inherent in the material) by expanding his somatic self in the world. Only there was no way to do this. All he could do was be a hunter/gatherer collecting food to survive. However, money was invented, that is, an abstract way to give permanent value to what was accrued to the individual. That money might be the number of sheep or camels in a herd or pieces of a standardized metal representing the value of such accretions. With such a system, men could accumulate material goods ad infinitum. The individual became a possessive individualist rather than a defensive individualist. It was the conflict over possessions that led to political and violent conflicts. Thus, to keep the peace, one merely had to arrange a transactional relationship between the individual and the state – the state protects me and my ability to engage in commerce through orderly laws and I pay taxes for that protection. And the state provides protection against other states, preferably by treaties, but, as a last resort, war.

David Hume disdained both ahistorical accounts of the origins of the body politick rooted in either a natural predisposition for survival or an inner predisposition to acquire possessions. Locke had offered a form of individualism that was economic. Hobbes, with his foundation in self-preservation, put forth an individualism that was incorporeal rather than somatic; it was rooted in a moral intellectualism or an intellectual moralism in which individual autonomy and self-sufficiency morphed into unique contributions to the intellectual wealth of the world. David Hume, though he generously hosted an unstable (and unappreciative) Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his home, held a very opposite view to that of Rousseau. Humans were not unique creatures who had to throw off the accoutrements of history and society to express their individual authenticity. Or, à la Hobbes, their intellectual rationalism or, à la Locke, their self-interested somatic calculations. Humans were often and customarily irrational and, versus Rousseau, very fallible creatures. Thus, their individualism was best expressed in a historical context which emphasized individual self-expression – in many forms – but in a historical and social context which valued such self-expression, but recognized the need for those expressions to be boundaried and limited by custom and law.

These are very different ways to emphasize the moral worth and primacy of the individual, the prevailing characteristic of modernity. They oppose the reductionism of Dummitt and Fukuyama. To make each of them clearer, it is helpful to place them within an ancient context that emphasized kinship genealogical and contractual ties where communitarian values seemingly trump individualism in its various expressions as having moral priority.

The reading of Toldot this past Shabbat offers a case in point. It is the story of Isaac and his relationship with his wife, Rebekah, and his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, though also of Rebekah’s relationship to Isaac, her favourite. Each is individualized both genetically and in terms of socialization. Isaac, according to most rabbinic commentators, is weak, a nebbish, a fearful, timid and passive individual who follows the patterns of the past and is easily manipulated by his more forceful wife who had a clearer understanding of the destiny of the Israelites. This timidity and passivity may have resulted from the fact that he was the second-born son of Abraham whose mother forcefully displaced the first-born and her son. It could have been exacerbated because of trauma, his father’s willingness to sacrifice him on an altar to give proof of his father’s loyalty to God.

Whatever the reasons or combination of factors, Isaac is a unique personality. He is the first figure portrayed in the Torah who actually loves another. He did not choose her; his father via his servants did, but, in the tale, it is Rebekah who chooses the smitten Isaac. It is ironic, but also rings true, that this same nebbish would favour the son who was an outdoorsman, a hunter who easily expressed his immediate urges and lived in the moment rather than being swamped by the heritage of the powerful personality of his father, Abraham. Esau seemed to be everything that Isaac was not.

Isaac followed God’s instructions to the letter (in contrast to his father, Abraham, who finds a way out of his conundrum). “Don’t go down to Egypt,” God instructs him. He obeys, even though it seems clear that the only friend he has in the land of the Philistines is the king, Abimelech.

No sooner is the matter settled than Isaac follows in the footsteps of his father, Abraham, and says that his wife is his sister so the Philistines will not try to seduce or rape her given that she has the protection of a man. If she were his wife, they might kill him to collect his beautiful bride as a concubine. Clearly, a Hobbesian form of survivalism is in play.

But a flawed one. For he allows himself to be seen by the king fondling Rebekah. Abimelech, the king, the sovereign authority, kicks in and reprimands him, reminding him that Isaac did not think of a third option, that someone might have tried to seduce or even rape Rebekah, especially given that Isaac was the furthest thing from a warrior that anyone could imagine. The consequences feared, would not be what Isaac would do in revenge, but what the gods might do and the guilt that would accrue from dishonouring their own Philistine mores.

We seem to be in Hobbesian territory, but with an overlay of historical and customary customs and norms, especially since Isaac’s safety is only ensured by the protection of the sovereign, King Abimelech. The tale then takes a Lockean turn. Isaac becomes rich with herds, flocks and servants. But the richer he got, the more envied he was by his Philistine neighbours. After all, this nebbish had a beautiful wife and lots of money to boot. What did his neighbours do? Out of a competitive zeal, they filled all the wells that he had inherited from his father with rubble. Isaac faced economic ruin.

Abimelech stepped in. “I can’t protect you from my own people. Their envy over your wealth is too strong. If I tried, they might go to war against me. But go into the countryside where there is a lot of land and dig new wells there for yourself and your family.” Isaac did not protest but followed Abimelech’s instructions. To no avail. He restored a well that his father had dug. The surrounding Philistines filled it with rubble claiming the water belonged to them. Isaac called the well Esek, a well of contention. Two different expressions of possessive individualism, but now clearly rooted in ethnicity, were in play, and the more powerful won.

The same thing happens to a second well he dug, but this time Isaac names the well Sitnah meaning enmity. Isaac clearly saw that the conflict over the well was not just driven by different self-interests in conflict, but by a deeper hatred that would later be labeled antisemitism. This was not just a battle for survival needing the protection of a sovereign, in this case a sovereign too afraid of an uprising by his own people to provide protection. Nor was it just a battle for competing Lockean self-interests. But neither was it merely a battle between different customs of the tribe of Abraham versus the Philistines, for Abimelech seemed to imply the two tribes shared the same customs.

If neither Hobbes nor Locke nor Hume were sufficiently in play, what was the source of this visceral jealousy and hatred? Justin E. H. Smith in The Stone wrote about the roots of the “race” problem in our contemporary world in an essay, “The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours.”

In 1734, Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former chamber slave of Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled “On the Impassivity of the Human Mind.” (T)he rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus praised “the natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning,” and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things.” Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.

Yet, David Hume, ignorant of accomplishments such as that of Amo, and ignoring a number of his intellectual forbears, wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” Immanuel Kant would echo the same sentiment. Kant dismissed the citation of a black author because “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” Donald Trump remonstrating three female black and very professional reporters for asking “stupid” questions echoed these same sentiments.

This is not individualism where people are recognized for what they do and for what they achieved either as soldiers in defence of their country or intellectual inventors behind start-up nations, nor as capitalists engaged in personal wealth accumulation. This is racism, bold and simple.

A former student of mine, Cecil Foster, has a book coming out in the new year called, They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada. It is a book about how pullmen on the passenger trains of an expanding Canada not only influenced the development of trade unionism, a concept of a community of communities, as well as how travel enlightens and how trade is and should be conducted, but shaped race relations and human rights in this country as well as Canada’s dominant motif as a “multicultural” nation. These are some of the superlative preview reviews:

  • unforgettable – Toronto Star
  • equates the coming of age of his protagonists with the coming of age of the nation – National Post
  • an evocative book about black men – Vancouver Sun

As U of T professor George Dei wrote, “Foster brings historical depth to his work and shows that the social and political recognition of blackness and multiculturalism is itself a contingent moment in history.”

The struggle in the Enlightenment was not just rooted in stark individualism of either the Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke or even Hume variety, but in an individualism rooted in black (and Jewish) communitarianism in a struggle which is cultural as well as somatic, intellectual or merely rooted in competing systems of customs.

Isaac opts for flight rather than fight, since he clearly is vastly outnumbered and digs his own well rather than digs up one of his father’s that was filled in. Out of necessity, he becomes his own person. He calls that third well Rehovot, where he finally had space and air to breathe free of the threat of persecution.

But then Isaac’s servants dug a fourth well, but only after he built an altar to the sovereign God, the one God of all nations. Only then was Isaac’s tribe accepted as a sovereign entity with which Abimelech could make a treaty, not one between states with defined borders, but between and among ethnic groups within a single kingdom, as happened in the constituency nomination meeting that I wrote about last week.

In my view, Dummitt and Fukuyama have a very truncated view of individualism and modernity, for modernity is both informed by and informs group identities.

Last evening, after going out to dinner with friends, we listened to a jazz band at Koerner Hall, Still Dreaming, with Josh Redman on sax, Ron Miles on cornet, Scott Colley on base and Brian Blade, the percussionist. Though the first two tunes were explicitly written by Josh and Ron respectively, the evening was a tribute to Josh’s father, Dewey Redman on tenor sax, and his exciting and innovative band of the 1970s and 1980s, “Old and New Dreams.” That music was lyrical but cerebral; it was neither visceral nor emotional. The energy and passion were translated into daring innovation and novel structures.

The sophisticated playing last night, however, went beyond that tribute. The band offered a structured architectonic of different tunes so that the whole program came off as if a drama was unfolding rather than just an assemblage of numbers. At the foundation was the rivalry between the sax and the cornet expressed in different form and expressions of beauty as they riffed on the same chord in the first two tunes. Then the music travelled through conflict, reconciliation, a semblance of unity and ultimately, in the call-back, a unique complementarity. The genius was not only in the quality of the players but in how they combined their talents and their instruments to provide a whole evening of both aesthetic and dramatic excitement. Throughout the evening, the base always returned to keep the different approaches to melody intact as the percussionist provided a steady but varied beat to keep the others on track.

Still Dreaming offered a suitable metaphor for my thinking yesterday and my blog this morning, of how different expressions and tributaries come together in the modern world to flow into a major stream that goes back to the past and even the ancient world. And all the time, contingency is in play.


With the help of Alex Zisman

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:

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