When I write of sidesteps, they are mine, not Donald Trump’s. Yesterday evening I went to hear David Frum in conversation with Professor Cliff Orwin speak to a full house in the very large main sanctuary of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto on the subject, “Human Rights in the Age of Nationalism and Populism.”
The sanctuary in which the talk took place is gorgeous, a beautiful melding of opposites – with its mediaeval Romanesque-style narrow entries, round arches, barrel vault for the main sanctuary culminating in the gorgeous rounded recess over the bema, but without the very heavy walls and buttressing of parallel narrower vaults on each side as in its mediaeval predecessors. The original delicate brutalism, as distinct from the heavy (and ugly in my mind) brutalism of the 1970s and 1980s, used a poured concrete building far ahead of its time when it opened in 1938 to provide a very large and very high-ceilinged main place of worship in the Temple.
It was a very appropriate place to hold a discussion that tried to tie very opposite traditions together within a common conceptual structure – republican patronizing elitism and listening to the populace. Preserving and catering to the inherited traditions and institutions, particularly legal ones, while constantly adapting to new challenges. The effort did not work so well on the conceptual level as the structure did on the concrete material level.
Rabbi Yael Splansky introduced the evening with what she presented as a dark story told by Reb Nachman of Bratslav from the beginning of the nineteenth century. A descendent of Baal Shem Tov, he was the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement. I am always reminded of him whenever one of my friends in Torah study speaks, for the central issue for my friend, as it was for the Rav, is proximity to God in the ordinary daily conduct of life – hitbodedut. There are many simple stories he told. Rabbi Splansky introduced the evening with one about the king and his stargazer, one of his tales that I had never read before.
The story goes as follows:
The king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would become insane. “What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.” “Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be considered the not normal ones. “Rather,” said the king, “I suggest that we too eat from the crop, like everyone else. However, to remind ourselves that we are not normal, we will make a mark on our foreheads. Even if we are insane, whenever we look at each other, we will remember that we are insane!”
For Rabbi Splansky, the present is a very troubling time suitable to hear a dark tale about public insanity. Do you participate in the insanity and put a mark on your forehead to remind yourself and those who share the mark that you are not insane. Or are the ones who carry that mark the insane ones? Both David Frum and Cliff Orwin wore marks on their forehead to remind each other that they were rational, were reasonable, were prudent and retained their sense and sensibility in the Mad Hatter House of Trump. But were they the insane ones? After all, in 2011, in New York magazine, David had written that, “Some of my Republican friends ask if I’ve gone crazy.” He went on to write, “Look in the mirror.” As Frum and Orwin faced one another, which of the two speakers was the king and which the stargazer?
The latter question is easiest to answer for anyone familiar with their writings and thoughts, particularly in the era of Trump. I knew Barbara and Murray Frum, David Frum’s parents, from university. Barbara became famous across Canada as the host of CBC’s “As It Happens,” a program on world affairs. Murray graduated as a dentist, but morphed into a prominent property developer in Toronto as well as a unique collector of African art. David was born in 1960 three months before my eldest son, Jeremy, who is currently a professor of History at Princeton University. At David’s bar mitzvah, he not only chanted the entire Torah portion (very rare) but, in effect, conducted the whole service as Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld of Temple Emanu-El looked proudly at the wunderkind of his congregation. So I have the advantage of knowing something about his history in addition to reading some of his writings and listening to him yesterday evening.
Just after David completed Grade 13 before he went off to study at Yale University, in 1979, David Frum organized fifty private sponsorships of Indochinese refugees in his relatively small congregation. That was a record in Canada. He also was invited to and joined the board of Operation Lifeline. I tell you these tales because David was not only brilliant and an activist at a very young age, but a very different one than his mother or I. For someone who began as a social democrat at the time he had his bar mitzvah, he turned from a caterpillar into a right-wing butterfly by the end of his teens, but one who always retained his mother’s powerful social conscience. He was the stargazer, but unlike the king’s adviser, always looked down at the plight of the pedestrians below who could not fly.
He went on to become a very high flier. After he got his juris doctor from Harvard Law School, he began his lofty career as a public intellectual. He went from being an associate editor for Saturday Night, an important Canadian magazine, to an editorial position with the Wall Street Journal followed by a stint at Forbes magazine and other conservative papers and journals. He was a mover and shaker in the marriage of the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada, but I do not know whether he was happy when the Reformers assumed control.
Frum was destined to fly higher still. After the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Michael Gerson, currently of CNN fame, hired him as a Bush speechwriter even though he never became an American citizen until 2007. He left that position very shortly after he wrote Bush’s most famous speech that included the phrase “Axis of Evil” which David Frum’s wife, Daniele, boasted to friends was his creation. Whether that possibly indiscrete boast or other factors led to his departure became unimportant as he went on to become a very public intellectual, but one who always remained a gadfly on the body politic of the Republican Party – supporting Medicare in the form of a version of Obamacare, and confessing that he had been wrong as a neo-con who had supported the invasion of Iraq and even co-authored a book in its defense with Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. I do not know whether he also felt he erred when, in 2007, he supported Rudolph Giuliani’s run to become the Republican presidential candidate, but by 2016 he had become a vocal Republican anti-Trumpian and even voted for Hillary Clinton.
In his talk last night, he echoed that confession and said that part of the reason for the rise of populism was that the elites at the beginning of the twenty-first century were flying too high as butterflies and had forgotten to hear and attend to the pedestrians below. In addition to David Frum, others included Bill Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, the late Charles Krauthammer, and Max Boot who just published an important piece in listing 18 possible “high crimes and misdemeanours” which might lead to Trump’s impeachment. (See David Frum’s 2018 book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic and Max Boot, “Here are 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian asset,” The Washington Post, 14 January 2019.)
In David’s talk, he tried to continue to be a stargazer while also skipping from one beautiful flower on the ground to another and despairing of those Republicans who flew higher and higher on the uplift winds of populism, claiming to be the headwind of that movement, but exploiting it for the most fraudulent purposes. Trump was not the only one who had lost sight of the people as he claimed to speak on their behalf. Republicans, Frum argued, had for a long time feared the people, feared “that the time would soon come, and maybe already had come, when democracy would be turned against those people who regarded themselves as its rightful custodians.”
However, if this was the logical endpoint of modern republicanism, and not an aberration, why was Frum still tilting at windmills and hoping that a proper resurrection of a responsible elite leadership would arise out of the ashes of the Republican Party? His analysis and his hopes seemed so at odds, but consistent with the madness of our times and the madness depicted by Reb Nachman of Bratslav in his tale. How do you recognize who is crazy when the craziest one of all occupies the presidency? As the multiplication of his lies accelerates, we start to shut our eyes and ears at the cacophony to preserve our own sanity, but then are unable to recognize who does and who does not wear a mark on their forehead.
Frum began his talk tracing the emergence of human rights as a direct by-product of the turning away of the St. Louis in 1939 and the Holocaust. Frum in a later response to a question about refugees distinguished between refugees individually targeted for persecution who become asylum seekers under the Geneva Convention, and the mass of humanitarian refugees fleeing war, general oppression, environmentalhardships, gang violence and poverty. In contradiction to the role David played in 1979, he would only take in Convention refugees and would offer funds to resettle humanitarian refugees in first countries of asylum, ignoring that such an effort failed dismally in the case of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.
Are the Rohingya humanitarian refugees or Convention refugees since they face possible genocide? Are the Muslims in North China, if they could escape, victims of cultural genocide and eligible for Convention refugee status? What about the Yazidis and the Christians who are being systematically religiously cleansed from the Middle East? Now that Trump has announced his withdrawal of troops from Syria, will the Kurds be next since they are already being persecuted in Turkey?
David’s simplistic distinction and even simpler division of policy and responsibility for fine tuning a solution seemed to arise from his analysis of Brexit as a direct by-product of the influx of 1.2 million Syrian refugees into Germany, with many of them moving on to larger London to participate in the fastest growing labour market in the world. Little Britain had become frightened and the implication was that the elites had to cater to their fear.
But is that not the real slippery slope to Trumpism? It is certainly true that the ongoing war in Syria that resulted in over five million refugees has rattled the nerves of most countries. It is also true that Canada’s humanitarian effort is akin to trying to stop a fracturing dike holding back flood waters by putting your thumb in the first hole that appears. Certainly, the so-called global laws undergirding the refugee regime and the approach to humanitarian refugees offer a way out by addressing the rights of the few while plying the very many with droplets of humanitarian aid, but it is a way out by using the rule of law, not to protect the vulnerable, but to select an elite among the vulnerable while warehousing the vast majority of the rest under inhuman conditions.
This distinction feeds into Trump’s depoliticization of humanitarian refugees that turns them into products of conditions other than victims of human rights abuses, but, in doing so, covers up and camouflages the construction of the refugee as a threat, as a legal outsider, and ignores the racism and misogyny informing such a frame. The refugee instead of a person with rights becomes a person without rights, a pariah as in Hannah Arendt’s analysis. Taking it one step further, the refugee becomes an object of suspicion. As with Trump, borders, territorial divisions, nations become reified, even if Frum tries to dam up the logical movement of his own argument.
That does not mean we are left with no alternative. One of the brilliant retired practitioners and analysts of the refugee dilemma, Doris Meissner, together with her colleague, Sarah Pierce at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington D.C., have examined the problems of borders, movements, acculturation and security. They drew conclusions with which I concur from my studies:
- One problem is the failure to actually apply the law for asylum seekers fairly by enabling them to actually make a claim, to have legal support to make that claim, to have sufficient numbers of adjudicators to hear that claim, to enable them to have their rights protected while their claim proceeds, etc.
- the absence of an orderly and reasonable immigration system that will allow jobs to be filled and families to be re-united;
- a global covenant that extends rights protections globally to migrants, as the recent compact undertook to do in an initial aspirational way and which Canada signed, but the U.S. did not, and which Frum mocked because the compact both lacked teeth and many countries on UN human rights bodies were much more famous for their abuse of such rights.
In Trumpocracy, David, in the third chapter on Appeasers (pp. 35-38), criticized Republicans who betrayed their policy embracing and championing immigration reform, but as I heard David Frum, he was doing the same thing, but on the refugee issue. Is it possible that David suffers from a different version of the autoimmune disease he mentioned in his talk and which forms chapter 9 in his book. There, the main problem is that the administration, because it is incompetent, because it is based on lies, because it is illegitimate in the larger meaning of that word, because the White House is so at odds internally and so dysfunctional, because many of the key appointments are still vacant, turns against itself and becomes self-destructive as the head of the body politic.
David Frum is too smart, too honest, too possessed of genuine integrity, too transparently compassionate, too, in other words, rational and prudent to commit the massive Trump administration canniballistic behaviour on its own flesh and blood, to be guilty of the same auto-immune disease that Donald Trump suffers from. But perhaps David suffers from a different variety, one in which his hopes belie his analysis and this immune system is too weak to prevent the cancer already within his body raging on and metastasizing as he makes one fruitless effort after another to stop the Republican Party headed towards a crisis of self-immolation.
Another nostrum, and the main one offered by David Frum in his complaints about the weakness of the global system of laws and norms and his push to repatriate rights into the national legal regime, makes two outright errors:
- he ignores the weakness of states in policing the Zuckerbergs of the world; David made the same complaints as George Soros in terms of the privatization of the responsibility for regulating free speech by the leaders of the global communication system; certainly, and much more importantly, states have been unable to tax them properly in order to reverse the process by which they carry a smaller and smaller tax load as states compete for their presence in the name of job growth;
- an historical error in tracing the emergence of human rights to the pre- and post-WWII period influenced largely by a dominant consensus about the international system carrying responsibility for enforcing those rights; in fact, that never took place. the state always retained control over rights and delegated very little to the globalized order, certainly virtually no power; further, nothing was done to allow Jewish refugees still in camps in Europe to resettle in Palestine before May 1948,
Let me end by introducing Cliff Orwin who served as the commentator and selector of audience questions to pose to David. An eminent political science professor at the University of Toronto, Cliff is a liberal who was in conversation with an anti-Trump conservative last evening. But Cliff is equally anti-Trump. A year ago in The Globe and Mail, Orwin insisted that “Donald Trump is unimpeachable…not just because a Republican Congress is so unlikely to impeach a Republican President [but] also because of the constitutional stipulation that the only impeachable offences are ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’.”
After playing with the strange juxtaposition of high crimes with misdemeanours, a term connoting very minor infractions, Cliff agreed, in a far more cautious language that Trump had compromised his presidency. He too criticized the Trump loyalists who excused his crazy behaviour by falling back on a defence of some policies with which they agreed. However, Cliff, perhaps too precipitously a year ago, claimed that the “verdict on Mr. Trump is clear: low crimes and misdemeanours.” But, in fact, his crimes may have been very high indeed. He may, in effect, be a traitor, even if only for transactional reasons.
Last evening, Cliff played the king querying, not the tainted harvest resulting from Donald Trump’s election, but whether David Frum was really a liberal disguised as a conservative. Were they both not wearing the same cross on their foreheads? But while Frum was dedicated to saving the elites by catering to the populace to some degree, Cliff came off as a constitutional liberal who thought that it was a fundamental political mistake to distinguish intellectual leaders as members of the elite who have to listen sufficiently to the masses lest they lose their bearings. In a liberal progressive regime, expertise is theirs to serve and work on behalf of the body politic, not to form an elite of any kind. That is the king’s response to his stargazer. For either reason, both the king and the stargazer must put a cross on their foreheads, but for different reasons and with different consequential expectations.
But both seemed resigned to living with the insanity until the next election. Both seemed resigned to wait for next year’s harvest and endure the madness in the interim. My own suspicion is that earlier action is not only better than later, but it may be an absolute necessity for, as I have suggested, we might otherwise be watching Trump as he pulls the pillars down that support our society. If the harvested grain is tainted, the focus should be on removing the taint, save what you can, distribute what you have left as fairly as you can, find as many substitutes as you can, and recognize that we are all in the same boat together. We must not allow madness to take over the polis. We must drive out the source instead of marking our foreheads and mirroring our own insistence that we are still rational.
That requires returning to what I insisted is the central issue – who can and cannot be members of the polis, how do they become members and how are the rights and privileges of membership distributed.
To be continued.