The San Pancho La Patrona Beach Club

I have already distributed my own commentaries on the mishkan and the tale of the golden calf as well as my daughter’s commentary on the relationship of the two. What does a beach club in San Pancho, Mexico, have to do with the mishkan discussed and described at great length in Exodus (400 verses in all, almost six times as many as those devoted to the Temple in Jerusalem)? You likely cannot answer that question because, even if you have bothered to read in the Torah the detailed instructions on how the mishkan was built, for the vast majority of my readers it is highly unlikely that they have even been to San Pancho let alone seen or read about the La Patrona Beach Club, one of the most beautiful structures that I have ever seen or been in.

At first glance, a beach club juxtaposed against the mishkan may seem improbable. Though both display luxury, it is for radically different purposes. A beach club is dedicated to hedonism, to the pleasures and joys of the beauty and bounty that we owe to nature. The mishkan was dedicated to sacrifice, to the recognition of a possible world, to ethics and law rather than aesthetics for its own sake. In the mishkan, we sacrifice the best food we nurture and grow to God who lacks a mouth and a digestive system to consume that food. It is truly a sacrifice because the best food is offered, but it is given no material worth. And that is the point of the sacrifice. In contrast, a quality beach club generally promises fantastic dining that appeals to all our senses.

For example, the Beach Club and Resort in Parksville on Vancouver Island’s east coast on the site of the historic Island Hall Resort offers spectacular views out across the Pacific Ocean and of the mountains. It has a seaside pool, hot tub, Stonewater Spa and fitness centre. Like most good beach clubs, it is dedicated to the worship of the healthy and beautiful body.

What is perhaps just as or even more important is its architecture as an expression of place, more particularly what has become known as West Coast style. Given the role of trees in the temperate rain forest that is British Columbia, the West Coast style is most marked by its use of post and beam construction. By exposing its timber structural members, it offers an explicit identification with a particular and special place on this earth. At the same time, there is a worship of light in the use of skylights and extensive glazing. Horizontally, it offers a sense of unity and connectedness among functions with the use of an open floor plan in places and spaces that bring people together. There is also the explicit connection between the interior and the exterior, between human habitation and the natural world outside. This is emphasized by the use of wood finishes in both the interior and exterior facades. Buildings are oriented to ensure maximum exposure to the beautiful views and vistas. And our eyes project outward to the vast sea as the mountains rise to tower over the flat roof designs in the West Coast style.

West Coast style also expresses a particular time, generally the thirty years between 1945 and 1975 when that style was at its pinnacle as British Columbians insisted on their own pride and exceptionalism in this world as their architecture became a reflection of the local landscape and climate. The decline in the pre-eminence of West Coast design was first adumbrated by Arthur Erickson, one of the foremost architects who placed his own signature on the West Coast style, when, in the design of Simon Fraser University, he turned towards globalist brutalist architecture as its defining motif in trying to dominate its perch on a mountain in Burnaby rather than seamlessly fitting into it.  Subsequently, British Columbian architecture has at least thankfully turned toward globalist modernism, but that has seemingly made the West Coast style appear parochial and passé.

I put forth this brief summary of the Beach Club and Resort in Parksville as both a foil for my description of the San Pancho La Patrona Beach Club, but also to point out similarities. The main difference is that the B.C. facility used post and beam construction while the La Patrona Beach Club (LPBC) combined the internationalist modernist style with a traditional Mexican palapa, but one that was architecturally unique and outstanding, transforming the traditional palapa into a modernist expression. To get a glimpse of that structure, look at:

Palapa is a word of Tagalog origin. Any of the Philippine nannies who worked for us in the past when our children were young would easily recognize the term that has been incorporated into Spanish. The genesis of the word may come from the far Pacific, but its architectural expression is viewed as indigenous to Mexico and viewed worldwide as one of the most important architectural contributions of West Mexican culture.

A palapa refers to the petiole of the palm leaf, that is, the long stalk that attaches the palm leaves to the stem of a palm tree. This long stalk and its attached leaves are dried and used to form the thatched roof of open-sided dwellings called palapas worldwide. In hot weather regions, they are terrific in providing shade yet protection from heavy rains in the rainy season of most tropical countries. They are also viewed as ecologically sustainable based on the use of local materials available. Aesthetically, they are also seen as combining simplicity and rustic charm at the same time.

The huge palapa of the LPBC raises rustic charm to high style, especially in the context of all the modernist elements. It does so first by height. I estimate that the palapa of the LPBC to be about 50 feet high. Secondly the pillars that hold up the palapa consist of a combination of bamboo stocks of virtually equal dimensions that have been filled with material to provide stability. They are wrapped together to provide a column. They are quite a contrast with the pseudo-Greek columns that hold up the palapa in the house we are renting in San Pancho. In the LPBC, the bamboo stalks wrapped together simulate a tree that holds up the thatched roof, with the branches flayed out to serve as trusses.

Instead of a pastiche that replicates classical structures using local materials and styles, the architect has created a unique modernist pillar that pays homage to the area in which it has been constructed and its natural materials that are easily available. The reality, however, is that the stalks were imported at great expense from New Zealand and then sent to Costa Rica to be bent in precisely the needed way through the use of steam. Thus, instead of a pastiche of classicism and the rustic that is explicitly imitative in what I would regard as creating an unearned sense of gravitas and history to complement local charm, as in the house we rent, we are offered a very modernist expression of the local even though it is dependent on foreign sources and the technology of nearby states.

Thus, as with the Vancouver Island beach club, local climate and the landscape squeezed between the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the forested mountains, LPBC’s forested mountains are jungles and not a temperate rain forest. Hence, the choice of a very different support material and, most importantly, an absence of glazing and skylights. Instead, glass is used as a separation and reflective material rather than as a protection against outside elements. For example, on the evening we were there, there was an art exhibit in which the colours of the paintings included all the bright greens, red, oranges and yellows of traditional Mexican art and the paintings were reflected through the glass and from a very shallow reflecting pool to make it appear that the hanging paintings were reflected on the imaginary level below. Further, the hanging blown glass large bulbs serving as lights appear like huge coloured droplets swaying to the ocean breezes from the ocean side of the palapa.

The floor plan of LPBC was, like its Vancouver Island parallel, open, but the openness extended towards the sand beach and the ocean and the sand beach itself was replicated in one area as floor material in LPBC. In other words, interior and exterior spaces were even much more integrated than even in the West Coast style.

As one example that can be viewed in the picture cited above, there is a high separation wall within the palapa that divides the professional kitchen from the dining area. It is unique in that its covering consists of ceramic folded rectangles bolted in place to give the effect of waves rising vertically. To add to that effect, in the openings behind and between the ceramic “tile” pieces, there are additional cup-like pieces that I believe were other tile pieces, but brightly coloured to suggest the deep blues and reds and various bright colours of a coral reef beneath the surface. Perhaps this was intended to suggest that the food being prepared behind the white-wave wall was as exotic and colourful as anything found in the deep sea.

Whereas the usually stained wood finishes in both the interior and exterior of the Vancouver Island structure were often stained dark, the wood finishes on the outside LPFC wall on the road side appeared as light almost blond vertical strips. In contrast, the dining and serving tables of LPBC were made of a dark and very dense wood which I did not recognize, but it appeared to be very rare, perhaps of Brazilian origin.

We went up a staircase with modernist glass side panels to a flat deck and into a walled room that served as a yoga studio. Except the walls were made up of a bamboo-like material in panels that could be opened up to the full length so that one stood on a roof deck protected from the sun by another roof. However, with the walls pulled back, the yoga studio was directly linked with the beach sand and the ocean waves. What was of particular note, there were no railings protecting someone from falling off. The Toronto building code would never have permitted such a use, but safety barriers would have totally spoiled the effect.

The materials chosen to display opulence were not jewels. Nor were the exteriors painted in the usual pastels – greens and oranges and reds. Instead, beautiful stone work made up the wall separating the building facing the road, but with plenty of peak-through features. The same could be said of the iron fencing on the road side which looked more beautiful than any iron work I had previously seen, and Mexico is particularly noted for its excellent grates and gates on windows and openings.

As I interpreted the separation walls, they did not serve as physical barriers as much as they were social barriers that communicated openness to the general public while, paradoxically, sending out a message that this was an exclusivist preserve. The ordinary riff raff, or even the ordinary middle class, did not seem to be invited in. This might explain why we had not previously ventured forth to see the inside of the facility previously. The iron grill work and stone wall signalled a social and economic barrier more than a physical one.

When we attended the art show, everyone was treated as if they were millionaires there to purchase an expensive painting. Egalitarianism was the rule of the day. That is, once you were inside. But it also seemed clear that everyone was not welcome in spite of the direct link to the public sand beach on the ocean side and the ability to peak in from the road side. The real barrier was as invisible as God. Instead of a space where the divine would appear in the emptiness guarded by two cherubim, there were no guards in sight. Further, this was not space in which access was forbidden except to High Priests. Access was limited by a more invisible process; this exclusive club communicated a class barrier.

The mishkan was an enclosed and very sacred space. LPBC was a very open space, but closed in by a very invisible class barrier. Without the need for neon lights, the muted colours of the stone, the glass, the sand and the wood as well as the high-style design, communicated exclusivity. In that sense, the golden calf was egalitarian in the extreme. Everyone had easy access to its worship. There was no mediation required of a high priest. No one was obligated to pay half a sheckel in homage. The golden calf was a populist materialist god as distinct from a plutocratic hedonistic secular one. The latter message was clear since LPBC was owned by and linked to La Patrona Polo Polo and Equestrian Centre (LPPEC) just a few city blocks away. Polo in itself is a message of expense and exclusivity.

Though people attend the Sunday brunches and watch the polo matches dressed casually in open shirts, shorts and even flipflops, its huge expanse (220 hectares in total), its elegant tone, its horse stalls with slate floors and wooden finishes on the walls that are far more expensive to build than the tiny houses of local Mexicans, send out a message of a regal sport set in a huge sprawling and stunningly designed and coiffured club with a soaring steel 20 foot high roof structure. There are, in fact, three polo fields, not one, two regulation size, each nine times as large as a soccer field. There is even a hospital and therapeutic pool for the horses.

The owners, a Mexican billionaire and a Swiss billionaire, Iván Echeverria [no relation to the former kleptocratic president] and Gabrielle Weber, have succeeded in created a hymn to physical pleasure and delight of the highest sophistication which, paradoxically, at one and the same time, conveys total transparency and an invisible exclusivity. A space apparently open to all is really only accessible to the extremely rich. God does not appear in the empty space between the guardian cherubim. Rather, there is a physical emptiness that has been raised to an enormous aesthetic height, but there is no voice that will ever come forth with a divine message about faith and obligations. The invisibility is, paradoxically, invisible, communicating openness when it is really very exclusive, communicating fullness and sensual satisfaction in a high style that disguises the very sins underpinning that form of plutocratic life. The club is representation and valorization of a life spent in pursuit of the fullness of a healthy physical life but, ironically, also conveying the emptiness of that life. There is no absent or hidden god there.

Do not expect anyone to come to La Patrona Beach Club to atone for their sins. The patrons come to get a fix. It may not be heroine, but it is the regal materialist equivalent. The patrons do not come to seek change or to be changed. They do not come to remember past traumas but only to experience current pleasures. In the worship of nature and the earth-bound, the club also tries to sore upward, but only towards the sky and never to heaven.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Why Not Worship a Golden Calf? KI TISA, EXODUS 30:11−34:31

In one of the most well-known biblical tales in Exodus, of all people, Aaron, the High Priest of the Israelites, makes a calf out of molten gold (32:4). It is made to be an object of worship “to the Eternal” (32:5). Rituals, that include sacrifices and festive dancing, attend those rituals. (32:6) The story seems to be the epitome of idol worship or idolatry.

Further, Aaron defends his action and never seems to be punished for an act of apparent treason against God. But 3,000 Israelite idol worshippers are murdered as punishment, though rabbinic commentators tend to focus on the words and actions of Moses; because of his pleas to God (32:11-14), God reverses Himself and does not eradicate the Israelites from the face of the earth (32:19). However, when Moses himself directly observes what the Israelites did, in a rage, he smashes the tablets on which are written the ten commandments. He burns the golden calf (32:19-20).

That got me. Everyone, or almost everyone, knows that gold does not burn – except in rare circumstances if you use fluorine gas. And there is no evidence that Moses had access to such a substance. In any case, in an oxygen atmosphere, gold will not burn. It is inert. So why tell such a preposterous fib?

You don’t believe that the Torah lies? Read it yourself. Oops! That is not exactly what the text says. Moses did burn it, but only to soften it so he could grind it into a powder which he sprinkled on the water which he made the Israelites drink. Perhaps I mis-read other parts of the narrative. Let’s read it again.

א  וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ. 1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him.’
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, אַהֲרֹן, פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם; וְהָבִיאוּ, אֵלָי. 2 And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’
ג  וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיָּבִיאוּ, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן. 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
ד  וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ, עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ–אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’

We are given the circumstances. Moses had gone up the mountain and had not returned. They asked Aaron to make them a god (אֱלֹהִים) that could go before them in their flight from Egypt. Perhaps they were not asking Aaron to make a substitute for God, but a substitute for Moses whom they had begun to treat as a god. After all, they did not abandon God, but planned to worship God the next day. For Aaron proclaimed: “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” (32:5) Today shall be a festival for replacing Moses. Was that the suggestion? Was Aaron engaged in a palace coup against his younger brother? But then why build an altar in front of the golden calf? There was no altar to Moses.

Further, Aaron announced in verse 4 that this is thy god (אֱלֹהֶיךָ) when the request had been for a god (אֱלֹהִים). You can see how tricky it gets. From the previous chapters, there had clearly been no objections to making objects out of gold dedicated to the worship of God – the breastplate for example that the High Priest wore. Opulence, as I wrote, was the order of the day. Aaron did not try to melt down what the artisans had already crafted. He asked for donations of the people’s personal jewelry.

Further, the occasion of the request was not that Moses had been gone for so long, but that his day of return was delayed. But it was not. Rashi, therefore, offers a commentary to explain why the Israelites had become confused in their counting of the days, with the suggestion that Aaron was just practicing a delaying tactic.

Already we have at least two possibilities.

  1. Aaron was engaged in a palace coup;
  2. Aaron was totally loyal and was engaged in stalling.

There are other complications in interpreting. Those beseeching Aaron were not the Israelites who escaped from Egypt, but Egyptians who had escaped with them and wanted their gods to be represented in the leadership. They wanted multiculturalism to be respected and Apis or Osiris represented in leading the exodus and not just a god who appeared as a cloud of smoke of a pillar of fire. They wanted something much more solid.

Thus, the people, whoever they were, wanted:

  1. A substitute for God;
  2. A substitute for Moses;
  3. An addition to the Israelite pantheon.

This begins to read like a story which at multiple points can be read in different ways and, depending which interpretation you make at that nodal point, the story continues with a different trajectory. Perhaps a close and nuanced reading only sinks us deeper into confusion. The above are only samples. For example, if the text is read as an allegory about the situation at the time it was written, then it might be a story to reprimand the Israelites in the Northern Kingdom who had split off from the Southern Kingdom. Jeroboam, the Northern Kingdom’s first king, to offset Jerusalem as the centre of worship with the symbols of winged lions (cherubim) adorning the sacred altar, created his own cultic practice around the worship of a calf.

What precisely is the situation? What are the motives of the protesters? What are Aaron’s motives? Was Aaron simply a passive nebbish who gave way to a populist appeal, or someone who was taking advantage of that appeal but who subsequently did not and would not take responsibility for his actions? Or was he himself the secret initiator of the uprising? Why a golden calf? To compete with the opulence of the existing mobile tabernacle? But how do you move a weighty statue? Further, if God is represented by fire and clouds, both ethereal in some sense, this idol is itself made from a material that comes up from the bowels of the earth. Perhaps the dissatisfied followers just wanted to be grounded.

The tale at the very least seems to be a contrast between the weighty and the ethereal, the inert and unenergetic (inert, from the Latin in (not) and ert (energetic), versus the dynamic. In building a golden calf, the preference is for a “native” state rather than a nation in the making. A person relates to God, argues with God, tries to persuade God as Moses does. There is no relationship with a golden calf. The Israelites and the golden calf did not share any memories and no covenant bound them together. A calf made of gold is inert and does not react to or relate with other substances. Echoing yesterday’s blog, the golden calf symbolizes a stress on the natural, the earth-bound as the driving force as opposed to hope and promise and ethical principles and laws. On the one hand, the calf is stable and balanced – see Aristotle’s depiction of the Golden Mean. The tale is about the misdirection of populism, the demand for political correctness and a resistance to rapid change.

And then in addition to fire and air versus earth, water is introduced. Moses makes the Israelites drink water sprinkled with the dust of the pulverized gold. We recall that whenever the Israelites enter the Tent of Meeting, they wash their hands with water so “they will not die.” Perhaps, this is just a hygienic practice. The message is clear and repeated over and over. You have to cleanse yourself. You have to take responsibility for what you do wrong. What stands out most in this story is that Aaron, the High Priest, does not take responsibility for what he does and is not punished for what he did.

Recall that the idol is a calf, not a mature bull. It is young and immature. Further, even matured, a cow is a dumb and passive creature. The bias is obvious. The dynamic versus the static. Laws of man not determined by laws of nature. But it is also an allegory about goals. In everyday life, we see it all around us. People are awarded gold medals and gold trophies, Nobel prizes in gold, gold plated Oscars and Emmies, the Palme d’Or. Perhaps Moses sprinkled gold on the water that he forced the Israelites to drink so that they would incorporate gold as a sign of value into their very being. The gold dust would mature them.

Return for a moment to Aristotle’s golden mean. The Tanakh is not about making a deal between polar extremes, but dialectically working with two qualities, say freedom and rights, not versus equality, but between two values having different and related dimensions. The task is to make them compatible, not seek to weaken either through choosing a point between.

We do not worship a golden calf because we do not worship inertia. We accept gold as ornamental, especially in relationship to that which adorns the divine, but we do not make the gold divine.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Wall V – A Psychological Version of Ocular Malice

[The additional discussion of Germany and its “mental wall” will be saved for a subsequent blog.]

I begin by contrasting two world views in dealing with hatred. These two are not the only ones. However, the two agglomerations of ideas are critical in understanding the contending voices in our current zeitgeist. I contrast the two world views in terms of their contrasting interpretations of:

  1. The Driving Forces Behind Political Behaviour;
  2. The Character of Memory;
  3. Mass Psychology;
  4. The Norm of Political Correctness.

An elaboration of Jordan Petersen’s views offers a helpful start.

Underlying Peterson’s claim that his actions were propelled by the need to defend free speech against the tyranny of political correctness, one does not find a premise of liberty, but of biology rooted in Darwinian determinism. Gender was not socially but biologically determined. Further, there were only two possibilities, male or female, a thesis that ran contrary to the nominalist position that the use of language is a convention and scientific language is not naturally determined, but a product of practice and agreement.

The Darwinian premise also underpinned one of my reader’s extensive objections to my psychological thesis explaining that the nature of hatred directed at others. The reader held that, “fundamental human nature…is first and foremost self-interested, particularly when these interests of the self are perceived as being threatened – no matter whether the threat is real or imagined.”

Jordan Peterson claimed that we are doomed unless we reverse course and found values on natural law and Darwinian deterministic scientific law whereby all humans are perceived through the lens of survival of the fittest. As his former academic colleague, friend and supporter, Bernie Schiff, has written, for Jordan Peterson, “Gender, gender roles, dominance, hierarchies, parenthood [are] all firmly entrenched in our biological heritage.”

For my correspondent, the universal propensity to self-interested behaviour in the interests of survival is then coloured by social psychology determined by the dispositions built into citizens by their different national cultures. In America, the pioneer ideal fostered individualism. Germans by ethnicity are rooted in their village of birth which fosters a sense of communal welfarism and an insular resistance to outsiders. Then why are both Americans and Germans so divided?

Quite aside from the very questionable theory of the roots of national culture in Germany, the thesis ignores the fact that one-fifth of the German population was uprooted at the end of WWII and forced to resettle in other parts of Germany than their place of birth. One could try to rebut by arguing that this trauma simply reinforced the disposition to adopt communal values and conformity more deeply. However, then the “birthplace” thesis would still need to be modified, especially for the several generations that followed.

This deformation of German history also ignores the fact that 10% of the names in the Berlin telephone directory are Huguenot, descendants of the first group forced to move in modern times who were referred to as refugees, the Protestants in flight from intolerance in Catholic France.

My reader’s thesis is an example of collective history that I referred to as forgetting, as falling back on a simplistic and reified view of national identity captured by a nostalgic outlook. Many Germans did this. Many did not and have tried to remember, to recall what happened by empathetically re-enacting the thoughts, feelings and decisions of their German predecessors of all varieties.

Jordan Peterson also exhibited a propensity to engage in misrepresentation accompanied by a disposition to seek martyrdom when no persecution or prosecution was in sight. He holds a contrarian deterministic view to the current dominant view of biology and certainly a contrarian view to the currently dominant consensus on the rules of language use. However, in defense of his position, he also revealed within himself and in his behaviour the social psychology of authoritative figures that he had at one time studied as objective fact. That depiction has since been internalized and incorporated into his own rhetorical style.

There was first of all the rhetorical appeal to emotions based on the mass psychology of those who shared his basic way of thinking. Peterson both insisted that he was a rallying cry for freedom of speech while tapping into a zeitgeist that defined regulations of any kind to be restrictions on freedom  Further, he accused those engaged in identity politics as the real sources of discrimination, a similar position in this respect to that of Francis Fukuyama.

Peterson thereby tapped directly into the resentments of many male white young adults whose relative status had declined relative to other ethnic groups and in the face of female success.

Political correctness and its imposition were viewed as the root cause of the threat to freedom of speech, ignoring the degree that it might not just be a mode of repression, but could, in fact, also guide the use of language to emphasize civility and respect for the dignity of others. On the metaphysical plane, the attack on existing norms of language use was a critique of a conventionalist wedge in the use of language that would lead to chaos.

Political correctness could be a means of repression and a force for conformity. Nominalism could easily slip into postmodernist disrespect for any claim to objective truth. And one might identify with Peterson when these were his targets. For example, there is the very recent case of Phillip Adamo, a respected history and mediaeval studies professor at Augsburg University in Minnesota who earned the Carnegie Award in 2015 as the best university teacher in that state. He was suspended under pressure from students who “felt uncomfortable” and “did not feel safe in his class” when he discussed James Baldwin’s use of the term “nigger” in The Fire Next Time. The specific Baldwin sentence was: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.” Adamo was suspended by the university in October; until today, to the best of my knowledge, he has not been reinstated.

As Randy Kennedy noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “This is not a case of a professor calling someone ‘nigger.’ This is a case of a professor exploring the thinking and expression of a writer who voiced the word to challenge racism. This is not a case of a professor negligently throwing about a term that’s long been deployed to terrorize, shame, and denigrate African-Americans. This is a case of a professor who, attentive to the sensibilities of his students, sought to encourage reflection about their anxieties and beliefs.”

Quite aside from the obvious abuse of the principle of academic freedom and the failure to follow any due process procedures in suspending the professor, the university’s defence of its actions made everything even worse. According to Augsburg’s chief academic officer, instead of his academic colleagues, a team of students and multicultural student services staff, which also included faculty representatives, have been assigned to review, not whether the suspension was inappropriate, but “the program areas about which concerns had been raised.” “We know that the work of fostering an inclusive learning environment is ongoing, and we are fully committed to it,” said President Paul C. Pribbenow. “We are grateful to the students, faculty and staff who have spoken courageously to raise campus awareness, who have engaged in actively listening to the issues being expressed, and who have called for changes that advance our equity work.” This seems, at least on the surface, to be an open-and-shut case of political correctness gone awry.

Perhaps even more interesting, the Administration’s defence of its actions offered the mirror image of Peterson failing to recognize that the legislation he objected to was about discrimination and not threatening a professor’s rights to use language. Except Peterson, instead of engaging in discussion governed by rules of civility and respect, shot arrows at postmodernists, suggesting that their classes be boycotted and that parents involve themselves in such protests and demands. Nor were his efforts to ask governments to cut university funding for courses that allegedly contributed to chaos not perceived as at odds with his insistence on protecting his free speech rights as a so-called champion objector to “political correctness.”

In contrast to Adamo, Peterson’s free speech rights were never challenged. At the same time, he challenged the rights of postmodernists to spread their convictions on the grounds that their beliefs would result in chaos. He claimed martyrdom on another front – his application for a research grant had been rejected, he claimed, based on the public position he took, while providing not a whit of evidence to support such a charge. Finally, he did not simply argue with his critics, but was angry and abusive towards them.

Before I clarify and elaborate on my own thesis, let me offer several others that attempt to explain this hatred as a form of group-think leading to attacks on and even endangering the well-being of others. In one thesis, what begins simply as a propensity to conformity morphs into protecting a collectivity and tribal rivalry. Hate is a symptom of fear. Fear is a symptom of insecurity, that the expression of your self-interest is not being and cannot be achieved. The frustration leads to the proposition that you are a victim of external forces, external negative forces that have their source in alien others out to get you. This is the displacement thesis.

As one writer put it, “The politics of national populism are not, as critics claim, simply and only cloaks for fascistic voters and governments’ pursuing policies of racial discrimination—though some obviously are. But other iterations of this are instead natural (my italics) expressions of community—a perfectly uncontroversial idea that was once conventional wisdom. Those of us interested in moving beyond flame-throwing—and into a useful conversation about how to create meaningful and effective public policy that benefits the most people—would do well to return to it.”

This natural expression of community is somehow, and I would argue, contradictory to the definition of “effective public policy” as “policy that benefits most people,” a utilitarian consequentialist stance that is at odds with the conservative value of preserving nationalism and a particular way of life.

The latter is a disposition and a choice and not natural in the sense of a universal given. In the next blog, I will elaborate on the character of this latter form of conservativism, which I value even though it is not my primary disposition or preference. It is a conservatism that is compatible with some ideas on the left and other ideas on the right, but is not compatible with the proto-fascism that I have been describing. The latter is prone to defend its positions on the basis of natural laws, on laws and propensities given in nature rather than in terms of a disposition chosen and reinforced or modified or even rejected by an individual who possesses that disposition.

On 13 September 2016, Psychology Today published an article to explain how, “Research explains why Donald Trump maintains support despite shocking behaviour.”  However, that is not the actual reference group, for the article refers only to the adamant supporters for whom Trump can do no wrong. Facts and conclusions of research have no persuasive power. Their behaviour was explained in terms of “natural laws.” The first was the Dunning-Kruger (D-K) effect.

David Dunning in Politico, wrote, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.” However, it is not because they are dumb; it is because they are not self-critical. They can only regurgitate what they believe; they cannot actively re-think. But this is simply the character of dogmatists. And there are plenty of dogmatists just as assuredly opposed to Trump. This so-called effect explains nothing except to assert that most of Trump’s diehard supporters are dogmatists evidently incapable of or unwilling to reflect on their position.

A second explanation is that the individuals in the group have a hypersensitivity to threat. Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety.

In other words, we are anatomically and physiologically automatically predisposed to being conservatives. Branding migrants as threats stimulate a fear response especially strong in certain individuals.

A third explanation rooted in science derives from Terror Management Theory. Humans “have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitability of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.”

“Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identify, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not… Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates.”

The fourth scientific explanation offered is “High Attentional Engagement.” DT could keep the brain engaged. Hilary Clinton could not. “Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session” using showmanship and simple messages. He was the better entertainer.

Summed up, Trump supporters lack self-critical skills, have a hypersensitivity to purported threats, especially those put forth as threatening their lives, and prefer entertainment to news. These are not scientific laws; they are simply correlations.

The issue is why? Explanations which commit “natural fallacies” (which I will explain in Sunday’s blog) are circular and explain nothing but merely insist there are a number of biological propensities that dictate support for DT. The implication: we can do little to dissuade Trump supporters from their support. They have a wall against contrary information which, unlike the Mexican border, is impenetrable.

Sunday: The Naturalistic Fallacy; Conservativism that is not a Wall but an Opening

Wall IV – The Identity Illusion: Four Men and the Psychology of the Other

Dedicated to my youngest son, Gabriel, and my oldest daughter, Shon

I want to understand the identity illusion and go beyond it. I do not want to simply repeat all the horrific traits of Donald Trump and his appalling administration simply to hold a mirror up to it. Bookstores are now awash in essays, books and other tomes that do precisely that. I want to comprehend what I have seen and analyzed. Out of that analysis, I hope to probe the character of our modern ethical compass premised on freedom in the form of rights, equality and democracy after developing a psychological and sociological theory rooted in hard facts, what in Russian is called truth or pravda. Instead of the delusional effort to make fairy tales real, I want to closely examine the cruelty of the reality of the rise of populist nativism we are living through to raise it to the level of insight without pretending I have discovered a new transcendental truth, istina in Russian.

I proceed by offering a ham and cheese sandwich. The bottom bread slice features Fritz Kuhn in a short documentary film of a 1939 Nazi rally in New York. The top slice is a portrait of Jordan Peterson, a U. of T. psychologist and current media superstar about whom I have written before. In between, I offer the ham of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on identity politics and the cheese of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s views on the same subject. The two slices of bread reveal behaviour, though the top slice claims to be rooted in theory. In between, we find two efforts at theorizing about the relationship of self to the Other.

Eighty years ago, on 21 February 1939, 22,000 Nazis marched through Manhattan and held a rally in Madison Square Gardens. This long-forgotten event is recaptured in a short 7-minute riveting, but truly revolting, documentary film, Night at the Garden, using archival footage shot that evening. The film is directed and edited by Marshall Curry with the support of Field of Vision. Curry believed that this episode has long been forgotten because Americans wanted to forget this shameful incident. But Katja Petrowskaja in her novel, Maybe Esther: A Family Story, covering the effort of the USSR to erase from history the Ukraine famine and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, offers another more insightful thesis.

Not shame and embarrassment, not repression of a deplored past, but rather the deaf-muteness of opportunists who change costumes to suit the times. There are no unbearable memories, only memories we deliberately bury, not out of shame, but to escape being targeted, caught, labeled, rejected and marginalized. To remember, however, is more than recognition, is more than honest identification. It is to empathize, to reenact a past as if one were there, as if one was a participant. To remember is to accept the possibility of the subjunctive. To forget is to deny this enormous power of the imagination and substitute contrived and repeated illusions and delusions, reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar, to the readily recognizable in formulaic language. In contrast, to remember is to recover the unfamiliar without the quest for redemption or the insistence on judgement. Remembering entails an encounter with the unvarnished truth, unmediated by pundits and commentaries, that allows you to see, to hear, to watch, to observe and to wrestle with what your eyes and ears are taking in.

Listen to, do not just read, the following:

William Randolph Hearst: “Whenever you hear a prominent American called a fascist, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism,” in Hearst’s view, for true Americanism.

Halford E. Luccock  (effectively replying to Hearst): “When and if fascism comes to America, it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.”

Fritz Kuhn, the German Bund Orator in the Madison Square Garden 1939 rally as an ostensible memorial to George Washington, whom he characterized as “immortal,” insisted that:

  • We are the silent majority
  • We are faced with the denial of justice and a reign of terror
  • Jews are the source of that denial and the source of terror
  • We have the right to speak up against the Jewish-controlled liberal press and media
  • We will succeed no matter who blocks our way.

What we hear is the expected demagoguery, the attacks on the press, the insistence that they are “the silent majority,” the claim that the members of the German-American Bund are the true Americans who simply want to take the country back from the usurpers – the Jews. There is no civility, only the implication that kindness and respect for others is simply equal to political correctness.

From The New York Times this morning:

Trump, for his part, characteristically spent the weekend venting his spleen on Twitter. He brought up “retribution” against “Saturday Night Live” and TV networks that he believed were unfairly ridiculing his administration. And he inveighed against the “RIGGED” and “CORRUPT” media, whom he yet again branded as the “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”

As familiar as the script may be at this point, analysts are no less concerned. Now that Trump has taken the extraordinary step of seeking emergency powers for politically controversial ends, he joins a long, dark history of would-be and actual authoritarians doing the same.

I now turn to my second male, the ham in my sandwich offering. Francis Fukuyama of “end of history” fame, in his latest book, Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, explains why, contrary to his predictions, liberal democracy faltered and went into reverse. Why? Identity politics. Identity politics explains why “white nationalism” has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics.

However, white nationalism has been central to American politics and has never been a fringe movement. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, efforts in the U.S., many successful, were made to limit voting rights to whites. Following the Civil War during Reconstruction, a systematic effort, using both legal means and violence, was used to “eliminate the nigger from politics.” Even the champions of the anti-slavery movement, the Republican Party, in spite of controlling both houses of Congress, over several decades at the end of the nineteenth century and in the decade after WWI, never could find its way to enacting an anti-lynching law. Over the last four decades, voter suppression, using legislation and intimidation, has been used to undermine the Voting Rights Act. Rather than marginal, the suppression of Black rights has been central to American politics.

Based on his witless misconstrued history, Fukuyama offers the now standard explanation for the overwrought fears of white, middle American citizens, largely male, to both immigration and minority rights. He traces that obsession to anxiety about loss of status in the globalized economy. True enough. But why did this anxiety express itself in resisting Black voting rights and immigration from the “brown” south? Fukuyama’s answer – it was a response to the Democratic Party “cult of diversity.” Activists on the left abandoned the New Deal and the quest for equality that required attending to relatively declining incomes for the American working class and opted to “coddle minorities,” thereby impelling voters to rally around their Christian and white identity. Identity politics on the right was a response to identity politics on the left, not a resurrection of a standard trope in American history in a new form.

The left is blamed for proliferating identities and undermining a common one, for fostering intercommunal suspicions and reinforcing insulated communities, and for the postmodern insistence that truth cannot be differentiated from lies for there are only different perspectives given one’s group identity.

I am not trying to defend postmodernism, the view that almost every action is an expression of racism and that Western culture is inherently colonialist and patriarchal. However, I do want to counter the effort to displace responsibility from the anti-democratic right onto the shoulders of the left. The intolerant right have powerful roots in the history of America that did not need left identity politics to reinforce its exclusionist ideology.

Fukuyama attributed these developments to the effects of modernization that both enormously multiplied choices available while undermining authoritative norms to guide those choices for the majority of humans who are anxious about autonomy and inclined towards conformity. In addition, he directly blamed Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s distinction between an inner authentic self of subjective feelings, which Rousseau valorized, and an outer imposed self of cultivated so-called “rational” norms, which Rousseau identified with repression. These beliefs about American history, the current global zeitgeist and a historical intellectual psychological view of the self in relationship to others, together are used to justify an assimilationist approach to immigration combined with a very cautious approach to absorptive capacity which would strictly limit immigration lest those fears Fukuyama depicts be exacerbated.

In contrast to Francis Fukuyama, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Class, Culture, is a vocal pluralist rather than assimilationist, a promoter of cosmopolitanism rather than a supposedly responsible and broader nationalism, and a self-critical rather than declamatory thinker. For Fukuyama, the disposition to conformity is overriding, whereas for Appiah the need for identity is not determined by identification with another, but as a reference point to frame what we see, how we see and how we evaluate what we see.

There is no essential character to a religion, a nation, social status or even culture. Each has a range of meanings with only a family resemblance among them. Lacking any essentialism, there is no norm to determine assimilation, which, in any case, is always a two-way street, a process and an interchange rather than an immigrant conforming and adapting to a dominant culture. The meaning of social status, the interpretation of one’s religion and belief system, the conception of what is brightest and best in one’s nation, and, most of all, one’s culture, will shift over time in response to a multiplicity of differences and their respective valences.

Homogeneity, presumed to be an ideal by assimilationist advocates, is a chimera. We live in a shape-shifting world. That means that even our definitions of freedom and equality will vary over time and from nation to nation. Its democratic expressions will be expressed in a wide spectrum. Cosmopolitanism is the recognition of and tolerance for these variations.

But then how can we say that our freedoms are being undermined, that we are receding even further from the goal of minimizing inequalities. More significantly, Appiah buys into the basic explanatory thesis that Fukuyama accepts, and that I once did as well, that the election of Donald Trump was mostly an expression of resentment, but against the cosmopolitan ideal rather than the emphasis on multiculturalism and pluralism, which may be the same thing. But where Fukuyama places the responsibility for instigation on the pluralists, Appiah celebrates their pluralism and is proud that he lives in a city like New York that fosters a respect for difference. The issue for both is whether that resentment characterizes the bottom line or whether it too must be interpreted in terms of something more basic.

My thesis, as expressed in previous blogs, is not to deny the politics of resentment in either of the above expressions, but to suggest, perversely, that deeper than the sense of rejection, of looming and experiencing marginalization, is an unconscious identification with the very ones one targets, whether it be Jews, Blacks or migrants from Mexico and Central America.

I cannot prove it. But perhaps I can illustrate my thesis by a reference from right field. Jordan Peterson deplores leftist identity politics. His ardent opposition has propelled him from a position as an obscure psychology professor at the University of Toronto to a superstar public intellectual in three years, in large part because of the new media. What are the core facts of his rise to international celebrity status?

Though he was a very popular professor, and though many of his ideas long pre-dated his rise into the intellectual stratosphere, his fame took off when he declared that he would not comply with Bill C-1, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code introduced in the Canadian Parliament on 17 May 2016 just when Donald Trump was sewing up his effort to become the Republican nominee for president of the United States. The week before, Donald Trump won the primaries in both West Virginia and Nebraska. The changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code added gender identity and hate propaganda as protected grounds.

Bill C-1 became law on 17 June 2017 after being passed with huge majorities at a time when Trump had been in office for almost six months and just when reports appeared that special counsel, Robert Mueller, had been investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice and whether he tried to end an inquiry into his sacked national security adviser.

Peterson publicly and vociferously insisted that he would not comply with the Act’s requirement that he refer to certain students who requested to be addressed in gender neutral pronouns. He insisted that he was willing to go to jail rather than comply. Had he not read the bill? It was explicit. It was not a bill to dictate language use, but to protect individuals from discrimination and from being targets of hate propaganda. To be an offence, an action had to be proven to have been motivated by bias, prejudice or hate. It was very difficult to see how any prosecutor, let alone court of law, could construe Peterson’s actions in defence of traditional linguistics to be a hate crime. And none did.

Peterson entered the global public sphere based on misrepresentation, sensationalism and a quest for martyrdom where there was virtually no possibility he could or would ever be charged let alone given a fine or even a jail sentence.

This act of defiance against alleged political correctness created a storm of controversy that quickly rocketed Jordan’s profile skyward, but this would not have happened if he had not mastered the new media and established his brand on it. Further, he had grounded his protest on the same grounds as Fritz Kuhn in the 1939 Madison Square Garden rally, an insistence that the foundation of the protest was a defence of the right to free speech when no one was challenging that right.

Tomorrow morning, I will explore Peterson’s position further as I shift from a focus on America to Germany.


Wall V – The Psychological Version of the Berlin Wall in Germany


With the help of Alex Zisman

Wall III – A Hypothesis to Explain Hatred of the Other

I have suggested symbolic, cultural, business and corrupt motives for promoting the building of the wall on the Mexican border of the U.S. But that is not enough. I have railed against politicians and hangers-on who grow even richer by themselves railing against the elites they claim control everything as they themselves fatten themselves like turkey vultures on the carcass of democracy. The issue remains of how to fit the two parts together, the manipulators and the manipulated. How do they become congruent?

What remains is to explore the psychological and sociological factors that facilitate this integration. This morning and tomorrow morning, I will, focus on the psychological. In an ensuing blog, I will offer a sociological thesis. At the core of the psychological thesis, I find hatred. After all, it was Henry Adams who defined politics as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” Even more important than the hatred of Hillary Clinton by Trump supporters was their hatred of refugees entering, or trying to enter, the U.S. from the south. The central point of my psychological thesis is that, in some very fundamental and unconscious sense, the haters reject what they despise about themselves and project those traits onto what they regard as radically other.

This is a thesis. Or, more accurately, a hypothesis. I find it convincing enough to offer it up for examination without the confidence to claim that it has truth value. It is an exploration, a probe. I very much welcome comments and criticisms. But please wait for the two mornings that I need to articulate my position.

Who hated?

What did they hate?

Why did they hate?

Most important, what was the nature of that hatred?

Instead of Donald Trump himself, let me begin with Trump’s former Attorney-General, the A-G Trump loved to despise, Jeff Sessions. Jeff was even more determined and focused on deterring Mexican and Central American arrivals into the U.S. than the president. As Andrew G. McCabe put it in his new memoir, How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump. “He didn’t read intelligence reports and mixed up classified material with what he had seen in newspaper clips. He seemed confused about the structure and purpose of organizations and became overwhelmed when meetings covered multiple subjects. He blamed immigrants for nearly every societal problem and uttered racist sentiments with shocking callousness.” (my italics) One might believe the reference was to Donald Trump, but it was to Jeff Sessions.

Why is a person a racist and why does one blame immigrants and refugees for all social problems? Why is that hatred translated into violence against immigrants and refugees?

For years, Francisco Cantú was an American border agent working on the Mexican/American divide. His just published book, The Line Becomes a River, explores how violence against Mexican and Central American migrants became normalized and valorized. For a border, such as that between Mexico and the U.S.A., serves as the frontier of a surveillance society which, at its centre, harvests billions of bits of personal information voluntarily surrendered in exchange for access, for crossing into the ethereal world of the internet and connectivity. The fee – reading advertisements. In turn, that interconnectivity becomes largely colonized by the sensational and the salacious, the divisive and the diversionary.

In this surveillance society as it manifests itself on the borderlands, it is not just that electronic and human eyes are seeking out migrants trying to cross the border illegally, but the border guards themselves actually experience it even more intensely. And the guards are on the periphery.

In the borderlands, you become conditioned, above all, to living with an ever-present sense of unease, of being watched, of moving through a landscape that has been resignified as a transitional terrain – a place made to exist, literally and figuratively, at the margins. To inhabit such a place is to inhabit a space of in-betweenness, a space where the ground is aggressively claimed, but the people who belong to it, and those seeking to cross it, are rejected.” (NYRB 17 January 2019, 4)

To live as if you are being observed all the time. To live with an ever-present sense of unease. To live on a territory that is transitional rather than permanent and secure. To live on the margins. To live where you are convinced you belong, but where you are rejected. To live in a place claimed by others. This is not just the experience of border guards, but the experience of those who live in those parts of America that have become economically and culturally marginalized.

The inhabitants feel they belong, but also feel that they do not and have been left behind. They feel that they are living on the borders of a society about to be invaded by aliens wanting their space. They live in a place where they feel displaced, feel out of place, where they feel unprotected and exposed, where they feel there are no real boundaries. In a land that they once owned and governed, they feel they have become the enemy and they turn themselves into “enemy combatants.”

That is why they project onto others at the crossings the label of “terrorists,” even though there are none to be found in reality. That is why in their fantastical world, those others become rapists and criminals. The borderlands, both the interior ones and those between the U.S.A. and Mexico, become the New Frontier, outside the reaches of the law, but where the law is used to reach out and seize and search with no regard to due process and the rights of man. It is a place where law becomes lawless and those appointed as officers to guard and protect grow inured to the death of the thousands, tens of thousands, who tried and continue to try but largely fail to cross a territory branded as a “wasteland,” a land of open graves where lives are wasted.

It does not matter that the numbers trying and the numbers dying have drastically dropped in recent years. What matters is the picture of those migrants imprinted on the minds of the haters. What matters is the increase in marginality of those far from the border. Identity on all levels is central both to being in this state and being rejected by the state. It begins with the absence of passports and visas or any legal document that will allow them passage. Those living in the hinterlands of America also lack a means to get out and move on.

I recognize that this is a perverse argument. The reason some Americans hate, despise and fear immigrants and refugees is because they identify with them, but reject this identity, ‘other’ that identity and project that identity onto others who lack the key elements of identity in the modern world, a passport that allows them to pass and a visa that allows them to remain. In failing to recognize the same in difference, they join the “culture of indifference,” the culture of self-centred inhumanity and avariciousness in which most people around the world are forced to live.

The modern world conceived five hundred years ago distinguished individuals, each with an ori ode that was material and an ori inu that was spiritual and interior. The ori inu was the authentic self, the true self of the ori ode which appears, which shows its face. This is a distinction that Jean-Jacques Rousseau would totally secularize. On the surface, we find a festering material corruption. But beneath, on the inside, we find festering emotions, resentments and hatreds. Periodically, the waves and swells turn into a tsunami to drown the tainted landscape in deep water.

Instead of a civilization where institutions have been created and developed to both protect rights and secure the good, society disintegrates into a Darwinian search for self and the quest for a leader who will restore personal government and individual financial management in place of bureaucratic and rule-based formalized structures and procedures. In other words, to restore the pre-constitutional absolute monarchy.

The masses and ignorant monied elites would combine to squeeze out expertise and meritocracy in the name of participatory democracy, a democratic polity to be led by a leader with erratic and unpredictable behaviour and subject to whims and rages to prove once and for all that government itself was impossible and anarchy must reign. For as soon as such a leader is accused and convicted of treason and heresy, then tolerance as the central motif of a liberal society will be replaced in fratricidal fights over that which characterizes treason and that which constitutes heresy.

I will write on tolerance as the core character of liberalism in trying to reconcile liberty and equality, freedom to and freedom from, rights and the good. That clarification is sorely needed in an era when populism and demagoguery threaten representative democracy and the latter is conceived as the weak link in the chain in failing to protect the hard-working and unrecognized native citizenry from the migrant hordes threatening to cross the borders. And, to anticipate, it will not be by locating the roots of democracy in the French Revolution and in Rousseau’s secularization of ori ode and ori inu where the latter, the inner, is the authentic self, while the self, developed by habits and restricted by the rule of law, is treated as dispensable.

For the danger does not only come from the right in search of a personalized elected absolute monarch, but from the left that opts for participatory rather than representative democracy in order to overcome the crises of identity in our contemporary world. (I will explore that crisis in my next blog.) Neither the right nor the left, of course, can address the most pressing crisis of our time, climate change. That requires a global response. Neither can address the need for enhanced political participation to battle the secrecy of governments and corporations and the suppression of information required to make responsible decisions. Engagement in that real battle requires a respect for rather than demeaning of governing institutions.

Neither the right nor the left can address the need for enhanced protection of rights, for both revert to “natural” rights, either rooted in a tooth-and-claw nature or rooted in the mediaeval tradition of natural law, and ignore the reality that rights always depend on citizenship. There is a similar tension over equality as over rights, the right extolling the least restrictions to award the equality of opportunity while the left extolls the use of governance to compensate for disadvantages and seek a society where the least inequality is the desired end.

However, I am getting ahead of myself.

In this current kleptocratic realm in which leaders and their acolytes brazenly lie, brazenly commit fraud, brazenly steal from the public treasury, both of foreign disintegrating realms and from their own, while advancing conspiracy theories of aliens born in Kenya posing as Americans, of a country in which every major crime in the history of the republic, every inexplicable incongruency, is the result of plots and cover-ups. They become fixated on monstrous patterns ultimately out to do them, and America, in. And the most monstrous and fearsome of them all are the invading hordes clamouring at the southern border. In this “scenario of shadows and invisible hands, of eyes that spy and voices that whisper…where the causes of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows,” the enemy becomes the wretched of the earth, literally emerging from the earth like zombies to destroy their world.

Of course, this is a portrait of flawed humanity. What else can be expected in such a world? Of course, it is a world of those obsessed with the pursuit of success who are defeated, largely by themselves, largely by literally shooting themselves in the foot. Of course, it is a world of characters buried in nostalgia for a world that never was that has been betrayed and that is daily being betrayed. Of course, it is a world in which fiction and fact become indistinguishable as the blood-stained furies turn cities into cemeteries of waste and detritus as poisonous deceit is exuded like a gas from the centre.

Stephen Holmes in a recent NYRB article called it, “The Identity Illusion.” I will begin with that analysis tomorrow morning.


With the help of Alex Zisman

On Walls II

Thanks for all the responses to my essay on the symbolism of the wall. I will mention only two – one serious and the other satirical. The first was written by a very committed Zionist high school classmate who moved to Israel after Grade XII.


‘We’ll build a wall’

they say.

‘They’ being those who know.

The generals

who first declared

we’d have to live together

side by side,

and trust the others

to behave like us.

Or like we’d like to be, that is.


And now ‘They’ say

it’s better to build walls

that separate

and keep us out of range

of rage unbridled

and the lust for blood

set free.


But no one listens now

because we’ve learned

that walls cannot contain

the fury

any more than words can


the dream.

                                                                                                      November ‏2001

Ricky Rapaport Friesem                          (First published in Moment, April 2003)

The poem was included in her collection, Parentheses, Kipod Press. Ricky, in 2015 wrote an iconoclastic essay on the Israeli national Anthem, Hatikva, called “Pagan Worship of Place.” In 2016, following the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA, her 2006 poem, first published in “Cyclamens and Swords” in November 2008, “Back in the USA,” was republished in Haaretz under the headline, “Will Mobility Trump Trump?” In 2017, she won the Israeli poetry award and in 2018 was the winner of the Tiferet Journal non-fiction award for writing promoting peace.

Her 2006 poem went as follows:

Back to the U.S.A / Ricky Rapoport Friesem

Another nowhere town
With a string of nowhere malls
Could be Dayton, Sacramento
Cedar Rapids or Sioux Falls.

What’s the difference? Same old shopping
Same old Big Boy, Home Depot
Toys ‘R Us and Circuit City
Pizza Hut and food to go

The motel room, same old carpet
Patterned to conceal the stains
Complimentary tea or coffee
Could be either, tastes the same

Same old wake-up call recorded
Cheerio voice to start the day
Followed by the same old breakfast
Plastic cereals, bread like clay

Eaten while the same old sound bites
Stir the air with gusts of news
Blasts of ads and blasts of music
And the same words over-used

“How’ya doin? Ya-da, ya-da
Have a nice one. Come Again.”
Wish I could, but I have changed and
Here’s not what it was back then

Oh, America I loved you,

Love you still but I can’t stay.
Gone too long and seen too much
To fit into the USA.

Written ten years before America’s election of Donald Trump, this critical depiction of a mindless, aesthetically challenged and heartless heartland that would become the base of Trump’s strongest support, suggests a distinctive cultural root to the rise of Trumpism in the USA. The other humorous feedback suggested a far more transactional root to the decline in America and the rise of the almost alt-right.

When Donald Trump visited Israel in May 2017, he went to the Kotel and placed a note in it like many Jewish people do in order to have God help them with something, solve a problem or perhaps give thanks. Here is what was written on businessman Trump’s note according to my second correspondent: “Please let me know who the contractor was for this project. I am planning something similar.”

However, a third explanation suggests that the transactional turn is but a cover for a far moreinsidious cause, the ability of con men to take Americans for a ride and install in place of a republic, a kleptocracy on the Russian model, the model prevalent in the vast majority of states run by very authoritarian-prone leaders. The campaign for the wall is but a distraction from the real program of walling off any close look at Donald Trump’s financial wheeling and dealing.

A third reader sent me a copy of an interview on Fresh Air by Terry Gross with Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and his article, based on access to four years of correspondence, about Paul Manafort called “American Hustler: Oligarchs, Shady Deals, Foreign Money – How Paul Manafort Helped Corrupt Washington and Laid the Groundwork for the Subversion of American Politics.”

Given the opportunities presented and his own accumulated expertise since 1980 in running conventions, taking head counts and amassing delegates, Paul Manafort, like Roger Stone, a pioneer of modern trickster lobbying for foreign autocrats and plutocrats and political campaigns, dubbed the “torturer’s lobbyist,” volunteered as Donald Trump’s campaign manager. He was indicted in October by Robert Mueller. Manafort had been a lobbyist for Russian oligarchs and the Ukrainian political kleptocrat, Viktor Yanukovych (see Bullough below), and the Russian business mafioso, and billionaire, Oleg Deripaska.

When Yanukovych was swept from power and Deripaska hit a financial wall, Manafort, the epitome of vulgar consumerism, was left emotionally, politically and financially bereft and had a breakdown in 2015. He owed Deripaska, the Russian oligarch, $20m., while supporting a mistress in an expensive Manhattan apartment and his very large family home in the Hamptons. The emotional breakdown was evidently triggered when his daughter, in response to his newfound frugality re her imminent wedding expenses, discovered that he had lied and had not broken off his relationship with his mistress as promised.

This is but the superficial appearance of a kleptocratic system that goes much deeper than run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorists allege. A number of researchers attest to that. One turned out to be a prophet. Richard Palmer, a CIA station chief in Moscow in the early nineties. He testified in 1999 before Congress as follows:

  • America’s founding fathers feared the elevation of the pursuit of private gain at the expense of the public good
  • Billions in Russian money ended up in accounts in the Bank of New York
  • The Clinton administration plans to deal with money laundering by tabling new legislation enhancing banking regulations went nowhere
  • In October 2001 as part of the Patriot Act, George W. Bush included Title III, the International Money Laundering Abatement and Anti-terrorist Financing Act requiring suspicious money transfers to be reported to the government
  • Real estate transactions were exempted from the legislation and the result was an enormous increase in the purchase of luxury properties and condos anonymously through shell companies
  • In 2007, Bradley Birkenfeld revealed how American plutocrats were facilitated in investing assets abroad in tax-free havens anonymously
  • In 2010, Congress passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) requiring foreign banks to report American assets held abroad
  • In the same year, the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United determined that corruption be defined very narrowly to refer effectively only to open bribery
  • The Obama administration in 2016 introduced two pilot projects in Miami and Manhattan to create a robust enforcement regime for reporting properties sold to anonymous foreign nationals
  • In November 2016, Americans elected a president who owed much of his recovery from bankruptcy to borrowing overseas capital of dubious origin and selling high end condos and properties to Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes; under Trump, real estate remained exempt from the provisions of the Patriot Act attempting to unveil the use of questionable capital from abroad to be invested in American real estate
  • Americans demanded disclosure of deposits in Swiss and other banks but the U.S. itself has become banking’s secrecy jurisdiction with little appetite for helping foreign governments repatriate stolen monies laundered in the US
  • In parallel, American professionals – lawyers, accountants and financial advisers – have largely fallen in line to become complicit in hiding stolen and ill-gotten gains
  • Dark money in the millions is now being spent to influence the results of American elections.

In the next blog, Wall III, in addition to cultural, business, Supreme Court and corrupt factors behind the support for Donald Trump in an age of legalized bribery and the rise of rot from within to become the cream on our coffee, I will probe the mass psychology and sociology that made this possible. In the meanwhile, the following references may be helpful in filling out the story of how kleptocracy has infested both America and much of the rest of the world.

Zephyr Teachout (2014) Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, Harvard University Press.

Review, Thomas Frank, The New York Times, 18 October 2014: the dialectic & telos of scandal

Louise Story and Stephanie Saul (2015) “Towers of |Secrecy: Piercing the Shell Companies,” The New York Times, 7 February.

Bradley Birkenfeld (2016) Lucifer’s Banker: The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Banking Secrecy


Oliver Bullough (2018) Moneyland: Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future

Review, Andy Beckett, The Guardian, 7 September

Franklin Foer (2019) The Atlantic, “Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America.”

Vadim Nikitin (2019) London Review of Books, “Kleptocracy,” 41:4, 21 February.


Opulence and Frugality Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10)

Last Friday I wrote about the extravagance and opulence of the mishkan and linked it with a theory of property. The description of its opulence is repeated and expanded in this week’s portion and I want to use that depiction to discuss both the ethics and politics of wealth. The ethics discussion focuses on how one handles personal wealth. The political discussion focuses on how the community or society deals with allowing individuals to engage responsibly in the use and distribution of wealth.

The description of the opulence and its detail are mind boggling. For example, the olive oil has to be pure and used to light the mishkan eternally even though the light provides no function the vast majority of the time.

With respect to the political use of the wealth, why dress Aaron and his sons, the priests, in such expensive clothing? Why Aaron in particular who is such a passive personality? Look at what they were to wear: a choshen hanging from two golden rings attached to two golden chains. On that breastplate were attached twelve precious stones, four rows of three stones each, in gold settings, the two shoham stones on which were inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, six names on each, and the breastplate chains attached in turn to the gold rings at the corners of the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen, the work of a master weaver. The priest also wore a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap and a sash.

Why the excessive finery? The answer offered – for honour and glory. (28:2) What is the honour? Aaron is sanctified. What is the glory? To become a bondsman to God and serve Him, for Aaron is tasked with carrying the names of the twelve tribes on the two stones “as a remembrance.” To remember is to glorify God. But the answer goes deeper. For attached to the ephod were the Urim and Thummim, singular terms in spite of their plural endings. What were they for?

Cutting through all the various theories, the most convincing to me is that Urim refers to the one who is cursed, the one who is found guilty, while Thummim refers to innocence. They were the means of rendering judgement and possibly the means of deciding who was innocent and who guilty, as in cleromancy. They were akin to the Tablets of Destiny worn in Babylon by Marduk, here made plural to enhance the majesty of the objects. For the priests were dressed up in all that regalia to dispense legal justice.

Honour. Glory. The majesty of justice and the law. The people needed to be impressed. They needed to be in awe of not only God, but his laws and judgements. “Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the choshen of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times.” (Exodus 28:29)

The text goes on. The robe had to be of pure wool, bordered and decorated in a specific way as if the dedicated specificity itself supplied proof of the authority and accuracy of God’s commands and judgement. The robe had to have a showplate of pure gold on which was engraved, “Holy to the Lord,” in case anyone missed the point. The text is anything but subtle. Josephus may have invested each jewel, each colour, each sash with symbolic meaning. Philo may have invested each drop of blood placed on the priest’s right ear, right thumb and large right toe as standing for purity in each word heard, in each action taken and in the path one takes in life. But the real significance was the effect of the whole.

That is how you invest people with formal authority even though Aaron demonstrated not a single sign that he could himself be a source of authentic authority. When God slew Aaron’s two sons for making a possible minor error in the fire used in the priestly rituals, Aaron was silent. He sat there and he “doan say nuttin.” And that is perhaps why he was chosen, to be a mere vessel of the divine will. His costuming was intended to communicate dignity, not his mind, not his heart, not his soul. It would be akin to making Mike Pence the head of the Supreme Court.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that when Moses is away and the people demand a visible god that Aaron is the one who creates the golden calf. What an inversion of an alpha male. Aaron is often described as a man of peace, as a humble man, as an introvert rather than an extrovert. In reality, he seems to be a pushover for wherever the wind is blowing. He had to be invested with dignity since he as himself had none. Recall that God was still torn between wanting to govern humans who simply followed edicts blindly, who were patsies, or whether He wanted his people to mature and take responsibility for themselves and what they did. Over time, God would learn and reveal that his mission was the latter. This whole parashat is evidence that God was still of a mind that all He wanted was emissaries of his own divine will. But that sensibility, ironically, was of immeasurable value in the development of and the acceptance of human responsibility. The God of revelation exhibited its own ironic truth.

The reality is that such a position gives humans enormous strength as evidenced by Holocaust survivors who gave testimony in their lives and in their faith in following Halakhah in the concentration camps in spite of all the evidence surrounding them that they had been abandoned by God. Their sense of dignity, their sense of worth, came from a higher authority even when they were stripped of all the ostentation of religious authority. But what about the few who preserved their sense of self, their sense of worth in spite of both the horrors of the camp, but without any reliance that they were any longer just funnels for a divine will? A much greater challenge!

When each type stands before the grim reaper in the face of gross and grotesque injustice, one principle stands out. They are equal in the eyes of God. And they are equal in the court of judgement. The court is ruled by the principle of equality before the law. Thus, “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls.” (Exodus 30:15) And it goes both ways, both concerning the giving and the taking away.

Here, I eat into next week’s portion. “Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death (my italics); for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” (Exodus 31:14) What Nehemiah found when he returned from Babylon was fish sellers and merchants selling their wares in the square before the temple on shabat. Order had to be restored. The rule of law had to be made majestic again. The people had to be purified. 3,000 Jews had to be slaughtered to make a point that would have made the Ayatollah proud. “Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.” (Exodus 32:27)

To carry out such heinous acts in the name of a divine command seems to demand rows of medals on the commanding officer and ornate garb on the priests of justice, a God that glitters and shines among them and behaves as a boastful braggadocio. It is not surprising that those who want their priests to be humble but dressed in glamour end up with leaders that are the very opposite and lead them down a path to hell.

The dialectic is not a synthesis of humility and high purpose, of gravity and grace, for they exist in tension unresolved but raised to higher levels. By reifying that tension at a very early stage of development, as Ezra and Nehemiah tried to do, you end up with empty formal authority without any authenticity. Thank God that their effort to revive the priesthood failed in the end, and that teachers, rabbis rather than priests, became the vehicle for carrying the religion forward.

Parashat Tetzave this year falls on Shabat Zakhor when the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is repeated in synagogues throughout the world. It is well to remember who Amalek represents. For Deuteronomy reminds us, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the journey, after you left Egypt.” God may be about remembering. But the Israelites were commanded also to forget. “(Y)ou should blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Egyptians may have enslaved the Israelites. The Egyptian military and royal family may have resented and feared the Israelites for their proliferation. For the Egyptians, the Israelites were tools for their economy and scapegoats for the failures of the ruling class. Why was Amalek so much worse? We are commanded to remember what the Egyptians did. We are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Why the difference?

My thesis is that Amalek does not refer to a minor tribe who were once defeated by the Israelites, but to a type. Amalek is derived from, “am,” people, and ā-lek/’alek < עאלכ/עלכ: which translates as, “Sure, as if” you were the people of Amalek, losers on the stage of history to be cast into its dust bin.

What then is the political ethos? Here, we are not concerned with distributive justice, with the redistribution of wealth to alleviate suffering and enhance equality of opportunity. We are concerned with regarding each individual as having an equal standing before the law and the judgements of history. We are concerned with innocence and guilt and not justice as fairness. Confusing the two categories is a serious mistake with grave consequences, but that is a discussion for another day.

In the realm of legal and historical justice, the majesty and authority of those who render judgement must be enhanced even when the occupants of high office are fools. Costuming does that. Setting does that. And these are important lest we confuse the principles and the laws with the individuals occupying such a position for the historical moment. We are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek so that we can be blind in the court of justice to human differences.

When you see a statue of the Lady of Justice blindfolded, it is not simply that justice must be blind to the differences of those brought before the court, but must also be blind to the differences between the individuals holding such a high office. For the judge may be a fool, but the system of justice must retain its respect. The system of justice requires coercion on the one hand – the Lady of Justice carries a sword – and the scales of justice in which the evidence must be weighed and balanced. Most think that the blindfold is only intended to refer to the individuals charged. It is also intended to refer to the person making the determination. In that moment, we are commended to forget Amalek, to bracket that ordinary and weak humans may occupy such high office. For it is the people who bear the responsibility for ensuring and respecting the majesty of both the court of law and the court of memory.

There is an economic dimension to this segment, and, as I wrote above, it is not about distributive justice. Rather, it is about ensuring that the surplus wealth of a community is held and managed by a transcendent body, by a federal reserve as it were, and neither by individuals, nor, even worse, by a populist mob. Central banking, financial regulation and public finance must be held by an independent authority, independent of popular will.

I was told the other day, to my chagrin, that the world’s financial system was controlled by the Rothschilds. I do not believe the person was antisemitic. He was simply your typical conspiracy theorist about central bankers. He is an anarchist who would reclaim the gold held at the centre to guarantee business exchanges and redistribute it to the people so they can melt it down and make golden calves. The fierce pugilists of the populist right do not trust centralized and independent banking. They would tear down the mishkan and redistribute the wealth to the twelve tribes.

But if there is to be a nation-state and not just an aggregate of grubbing individualists, then it is important that a nation has a central institution that is a repository of wealth and that carries with it majesty and authority to dispense financial as well as criminal justice. It must be a repository of memory while always remembering the people it serves. When a federal reserve or a central bank forgets that mission, it allows its pomposity to go to its head.

We are thrust between the Scylla of populism and the Charybdis of plutocratic arrogance. It was the genius of the Israelites and their God that they created an institution designed to ride through the storms that could tear the nation asunder. Populists are hypocrites who would hold two opposite positions and ignore the difference between the Scylla and the Charybdis. In the case of Andrew Jackson, who railed against Alexander Hamilton’s insistence on the necessity for a federal reserve, he hated paper money but wanted to give the states unlimited authority to print as much of it as they wanted. He hated the idea of gold-backed currency but exhibited an unlimited passion for gold. What he wanted, in reality, as Donald Trump does today, is to accrue all economic authority to himself so that he alone could decide how to use, and, therefore, abuse, a nation’s wealth.

In the end, the most important feature of the mishkan and the majesty and opulence of its wealth is to serve as an institution without which there cannot even be distributive justice.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants Part IV: Walls

Walls keep people out. Walls keep people in. Walls are revered – think of the Western or Wailing Wall, the Kotel, in Jerusalem, the remaining structure of the Hebrews’ great temple to their God. What is often forgotten in the reverence for any wall is why it became sacred. As told in the Book of Ezra/Nehemiah in Ezra’s story of the return of the exiles from Babylon under the protection of Cyrus the Great, and as retold by the prophet Nehemiah, the Jerusalem wall was not only an instrument for physical protection but was viewed as a way to separate Jews from gentiles given the rate of intermarriage that Ezra and Nehemiah found upon their return.

When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found that, “the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the land…they have taken from their daughters for themselves and for their sons, and mixed the holy seed with the peoples of the land.” (Ezra 9:1-2) This is how chapter 13 of the final book of the Torah ends, in praise of a wall of ethnic and linguistic separation and division.

1.On that day they read in the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and therein was found written, that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God for ever;

2 because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse them; howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.

3 And it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the alien mixture.

For Nehemiah saw that: “(23) the Jews that had married women of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab; (24) and their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.”

Nehemiah, a former assimilated Jew and high official in the Persian imperial administration, returned to the land of Judah for three reasons: 1) to ameliorate the deplorable physical conditions of both Jerusalem and its Jewish community; 2) to provide physical protection from, not only the Ammonites, but also the Samaritans who had not been deported to Babylon and saw themselves as the true heirs of Torah; neither group viewed Jerusalem as the capital. Perhaps most importantly, Nehemiah returned 3) to re-establish the ethnic identity and purity of the heirs of Judah. (Ch. 13)

The building of the wall around the Temple was viewed as a physical, religious arrier and a demographic barrier. Nehemiah “built with one hand, while holding daggers in the other” (Nehemiah 4:11) while resisting what he saw as the challenge of intermarriage to the ethnic purity of the Jewish people. Ironically, the book Ezra/Nehemiah was written in Aramaic; the only other book of scripture not written in Hebrew was the Book of Daniel. Yet, Nehemiah raged against what he insisted was the widespread inability of the children of intermarriages to speak Hebrew.

Is this reminiscent of some contemporary populist nationalist politicians? “We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.” (Viktor Orbán) Can bans on intermarriage be far behind?

Walls are so often symbolic. I know it is almost a cliché, but Robert Frost in Mending Wall is always worth quoting, if only to ensure even more that he is not endorsing the phrase he quotes from his next-door landowner, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

“Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

In Toronto, we built a drywall between our lawn, which is about 30” higher than the street, and the sidewalk. People passing sometimes stop to sit on it. I do not mind, except when they leave their coffee cups behind. Or their bags of dog pooh. That wall does not divide but reinforces. It is not massive like the brick retaining wall that supports the terrace in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Carlton D. Wall House in Plymouth, Michigan, but it is a fortification rather than a separation barrier.

Think of how walls are now denigrated for dividing what people currently believe should be united. Frank Lloyd Wright was a different kind or architectural prophet in introducing the open plan for the modern home in places where functions should be linked rather than separated. In contemporary housing design, we have taken the walls down between our kitchens, our dining rooms and living rooms. What walls do is never unite.

Walls fail to protect all the time, even if at first they appear to do so. I am in Mexico and I am reminded that,

“Hernán Cortés’ men met a wall

of arrows, then turned and ran.

Montezuma’s men met a wall of armor,

wept, then stoned their chief off the wall

for helping the conquistadores.”

The Walls by Ray Gonzalez

The reality is that humans build too many walls and not enough bridges. Haruki Murakami said it well in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 2009. “We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us — create who we are. It is we who created the system.”

The introduction to Virgil’s great twelve-part epic poem, the Aeneid, that serves as a fictional justification (or condemnation?) of the Roman Empire, ends the verse referring to the “lofty walls of Rome.” Or is it the “walls of lofty Rome,” as the great classicist Daniel Mendelsohn would translate it. If the first, walls were revered in Rome to keep the barbarians out. That is how Hadrian, the emperor who succeeded his cousin, Trajan, read it. Further, he first confirmed to himself that he would be Trajan’s successor by using the Aeneid to predict his fate when he read the line at which he arbitrarily opened the poem, “I recognize that he is the king of Rome.”

In the second century AD, he built the 73 mile Hadrian’s Wall through what would become northern England to keep the Picts, the wild men further north, from invading southward. Hadrian believed in lofty walls, not a lofty Rome, for civilization needed protection from barbarians rather than further extension to spread the sense of law and justice to the rest of the world that so elevated the Roman people. For Hadrian never felt secure either in his personal role, earned by inheritance and good fortune rather than merit, or in the mission of Rome to spread civilization to the rest of the world. Hadrian, believing that his mission had been imposed upon him “by divine instruction” focused on keeping the empire intact.

Walls can be monuments to insecurity, perhaps initially justified, as with the walls that separate Israel from the West Bank, Israel from Gaza and Israel from the Sinai and the threat from terrorists, and, I would add, illegitimately, from refugee claimants from Sudan and Eritrea. The Great Wall of China in the end never kept the Mongol hordes from invading and conquering China. Over six decades in the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan swept into China, crushed the Yuan Dynasty and established the Mongol Empire.

Walls are not only built to keep people out. They are built to keep people in. Think of the Berlin Wall the construction of which started on 13 August 1961 to prevent the people of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from fleeing to the West. This symbol of the Cold War and of communist oppression was dismantled on 9 November 1889.

Walls are not just physical structures. They serve as barriers to ideas and values that threaten a military order built on sand. Walls surround prisons and concentration camps. Walls restrict freedom of movement physically and mentally. They are not just barriers against the threat of violence, but are ways to keep those outside walls from looking in and observing the coercion, the exploitation, the outright sadism, that goes on behind those walls. (See Shane Bauer’s American Prisons.)

However, not all walls are imposed from without to imprison those within. Some erect walls around their minds to keep new ideas out. These are often the strongest walls, the ones placed within one’s own head and heart. Then you live a life of nostalgia carrying every memory, both small and large, like stones and building blocks in a wall. That wall is stronger than one built of masonry. It is very difficult to breach and often impenetrable. The best that one can do is not butt your head against the wall directly, but rather pull the stones out from the bottom that support the wall.

“Today, we have a true democracy in Iran. Parties, newspapers and the media are free in this country, and all authorities must approach elections with an open mind. The more our mind is open, the readier we will be to prepare the groundwork for the presence of all thoughts, parties and factions.” The latter is a sentiment with which I fully agree. If only the facts on which it was premised were accurate! If only President Hassan Rouhani sincerely meant the words he uttered in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square when he addressed the Iranian people on the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini coup!

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants     Part III: The Balderdash of Barriers at the Border

Donald Trump, a skeezy hustler rather than a “plutocrat with impeccable business instincts,” Donald Trump, insecure in the legitimacy of his presidency, has been so dedicated to keeping out prying eyes from the sordidness of his business dealings that it should be no surprise that he wants walls to keep people out. It should also be no surprise that he has invested so much of his diminishing political capital in his campaign promise to build a wall on America’s southern border with Mexico. The wall is much more important as a symbol than as a real barrier. For in his florid imagination, Trump needed a wall. But facts first and symbolism later.

It has not been because of real threats. Trump opined: “We have terrorists coming through the southern border because they find that’s probably the easiest place to come through. They drive right in and they make a left.” However, there may have been up to a half dozen terrorists who entered the U.S. through the northern border with Canada, and all at legal entry points. However, Trump does not campaign to build a wall along the Canadian border.

Further, in spite of his portrayal of Mexico as a portal for terrorists, a State Department report of September 2017 (Country Reports on Terrorism) released a year later found that, “Counterterrorism cooperation between Mexico and the United States remained strong in 2017. Improved information sharing regarding migrant populations constituted a major step forward. At year’s end there was no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States. [my emphasis] The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States.”

The report covering Canada is much longer. Unlike Mexico, Canada has been home to “violent extremists inspired by terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida and their affiliates and adherents.” When it comes to land crossings, Canada, unlike Mexico, has been a source of terrorist suspects entering the U.S., though not in great numbers. By far the majority of people who arouse concern try to enter by air. “By the end of 2017, approximately 180 Canadian citizens or permanent residents had traveled abroad to engage in terrorist activity in Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS and approximately 60 have since returned to Canada.” Yet there has never been a suggestion that a wall be built along the Canadian border.

On 3 February 2019 on CBS’s Face the Nation, Trump actually put forth the position that, “Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.” It was a repetition of what he had said two days earlier. “Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”

This is the portrait Trump paints of the caravans, mostly consisting of women and children, fathers and brothers from Central America moving through Mexico to make refugee claims at America’s legal points of entry. And just a few days ago. “Human trafficking by airplane is almost impossible. Human trafficking by van and truck, in the back seat of a car, and going through a border where there’s nobody for miles and miles, and there’s no wall to protect — it’s very easy. They make a right, then they make a left. They come into our country. And they sell people.”

These are not facts. There is virtually no evidence to back up such claims. These are products of a fevered imagination and/or a political calculus to stir up fear. His proof offered in his State of the Union Address: “The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities.”

In fact, the Secure Fence Act from 2006 during the George W. Bush administration led to the construction of a fence in El Paso between 2008 and 2009. However, violent crime reached a peak in 1993. 6,500 violent crimes were committed that year. Between 1993 and 2006, crime in the city fell 34%. Two years after the wall was completed, crime rates were actually up 17% from 2006 to 2011.

Police-community relations and cooperation between law enforcement agencies at different political levels were the main factors that contributed to the city’s safety before the border fence was even constructed. It is believed by many that the decision to construct the fence by federal authorities contributed to a degree in the breakdown of those relations. Much more importantly, building the wall “reduced trust and cooperation in immigrant communities” with law enforcement authorities.

“Police chiefs know that to be effective at crime control in this community-policing era, they must have public support. If local police are perceived as immigration enforcement officers, immigrants—both documented and undocumented— will avoid contact with police because of fear of arrest and deportation of themselves or a family member; 85 percent of immigrants in the U.S. live in mixed-status families.” (The Police Foundation Report 2009)

Take another border town, Nogales, Arizona. There a barrier wall was considered insufficient. The army strung miles of barbered concertina wire to further divide the intimately integrated 400,000 people of Nogales, Arizona, USA and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The population is split between the two municipalities roughly 50/50. Meredith Mingledorff, spokesperson for the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP), announced that CBP was in the process of adding four to six additional lines of concertina wire in “high-risk urban areas commonly exploited by criminal smuggling organizations” on U.S. government property, outside of the town’s jurisdiction.

After all, city officials would never have permitted it. They saw no threats. Since the opening of the maquiladora industry through the National Industrialization Program in Mexico, economic integration had increased enormously. Further, American citizens of Nogales resented making their city look like a prison or concentration camp. Yet the CBP claimed that, “Hardening of current infrastructure specifically in high-risk locations of the urban area help reduce the illicit activity, to include violent criminals, in these areas and increase the public safety.”

What threats? The 254 pounds of fentanyl and 395 pounds of methamphetamine seized by border patrol agents in a Nogales bust were narcotics smuggled in a truck heading through a port of entry. A 50-foor long tunnel has been found before it could be used to smuggle drugs. Further, as virtually all studies have shown, undocumented migrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native Americans. U.S. border cities are generally safer than other U.S. cities. Crime rates there have either been stagnant or even dropped in recent years.

For example, in 2016, “border communities like Laredo, El Paso, Edinburg and Brownsville all saw fewer than 400 crimes for every 100,000 residents.” As a Nogales businessman, Eva Kory, said, “You hear on the news that an invasion is coming, but in fact, border communities have been invaded by our own government.” As U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva stated, “The additional wire is nothing more than a spectacle by the Trump administration to reinforce his twisted narrative of rampant lawlessness at the border.”

In his SOUA, DT claimed that, “San Diego used to have the most illegal border crossings in our country. In response, a strong security wall was put in place. This powerful barrier almost completely ended illegal crossings.” However, San Diego’s original fencing was completed in 1994According to the Congressional Research Service, that fence alone “did not have a discernible impact” on the number of immigrants crossing the border into the United States illegally or in almost doubling the numbers apprehended between 1994 and 2018.

Do Trump and his supporters fear the demographic changes that seem so disproportionately favour the Democratic Party, a party in which support is based on a coalition of minorities, women, educated youth and progressives that once were the hallmarks of the Republican Party that Abraham Lincoln represented and in which Frederick Douglas, the greatest black American statesman of the nineteenth century, was a stalwart member?

The above recitations are just examples of the efforts to keep people out, even   though the effort to gain entry illegally declined by over 75% from the peak in 1993. 396,579 immigrants crossed the border illegally in 2018; in 2000, there were 1,643,679 arrests.

The other half of the effort entails kicking people out who are not legal residents of the U.S. by diverting resources into deportation, not just of felons, but of overstayers and those found without any proper visa at all. Even those legally in the U.S., but who are deemed likely to become a public charge because of their use of welfare and Medicaid, are being targeted for deportation. The number of undocumented migrants in the U.S, is currently at its lowest level since 2004. In fiscal year 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 256,058 people; ICE removed 409,849 people in fiscal year 2012 during the Obama administration.

In his SOUA, Trump claimed that, “In the last 2 years, our brave ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of criminal aliens, including those charged or convicted of nearly 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 killings.” The impression left was that the Trump administration had been more effective in deporting criminals. The facts are otherwise. Even according to a Trump apologist like Steven Camarota, excluding immigration violations, only 67,000 non-citizens in total were sentenced in the federal courts between 2011 and 2016. The total number in 2017 and 2018 had to be less than 30,000.

It is true that ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations made a total of 143,470 arrests in fiscal 2017, a 30% rise from fiscal 2016, largely in Florida, Oklahoma and northern Texas. The highest number of arrests (16,250) were made in the Dallas area. A border town like El Paso had among the fewest arrests (2,000). The reason: DT signed an executive order on 25 January that expanded ICE’s enforcement focus to most immigrants in the U.S. without authorization, regardless of whether they have a criminal record. Under President Barack Obama, by contrast, ICE prioritized the arrests of those convicted of serious crimes.

Under Trump, ICE shifted its focus from border to interior enforcement. In 2009, the year Obama came into office, with his focus on border enforcement and the arrest of non-citizens who had committed felonies, 297,898 were arrested, about twice the number of Trump in his first year in office. However, under Trump, though the number of arrests declined by about 50%, the percentage of those arrested for criminal offences rose from 39% to a majority with prior convictions. What were the vast majority of those convictions? Not assault. Traffic and drug offenses were the most common past convictions. In 2017, 48,454 had prior convictions or pending assault charges. But 62,517 had been arrested for immigration offenses, 76,503 for dangerous drug offenses and 148,893 for traffic offences.

However, the key reports that rile people up are not statistics, no matter how misleading, but notorious individual cases. On 25 April 2018, Luis Bracamontes was sentenced to death in a Sacramento court for killing two police officers on 24 October 2014, Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr. Bracamontes was an illegal migrant living in the U.S. Trump acolytes publicized this case to support Trump’s policies, ignoring that the arrest had been made under the Obama administration.

What was also ignored was that:

Bracamontes had been deported multiple times before his crime rampage on 24 October 2014

First arrested on charges related to marijuana possession in Phoenix in 1996, he was sentenced to four months in jail and then deported in 1997 when Bill Clinton was president

In 1998, Bracamontes was arrested on drug charges in Phoenix, then released by the office of the notorious Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, “for reasons unknown,” the same sheriff whom Donald Trump pardoned on 25 August 2017; Arpaio had been convicted of racial profiling in open defiance of a federal judge’s court order to stop and desist

LB last entered the country while George W. Bush was president and deported again when caught with marihuana

He lived near Salt Lake City until that fatal 2014 road trip fueled by methamphetamine ended in the two murders

Arpaio, ignoring the 1998 incident, in 2014 lamented the mushiness of federal immigration law; “Once again we are faced with another tragedy on our hands because of a form of ‘backdoor amnesty.”

There was no amnesty, only the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the Trump administration.

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants Part II: Legal Refugee Migration

In Part I, I dealt with DT’s ostensible support for more legal immigration, in particular, attracting immigrants who are very highly skilled and well resourced. Then why deny work authorization permits for spouses of H-1B visa holders? Why limit their ability to travel abroad? Further, DT’s efforts to limit family-sponsored migration stood out as being at odds with such a goal since many highly-skilled and well-resourced migrants want to be able to subsequently sponsor parents and adult children, particularly if they come from Asia or Africa. But the policy also applies to citizens with a Mexican heritage and sponsoring siblings. As one immigration lawyer put it in a case of a Mexican-American trying to sponsor his sister, “right now the processing time is looking like at least 20 years, if not longer.”

DT’s attacks on the lottery system which supports diversity and migration from countries that historically were underrepresented in the cohorts who had applied to migrate to the U.S., such as African countries, suggested that racism might possibly be the motive behind the criticism of the diversity lottery system, especially given DT’s record of discrimination against blacks in his family’s housing projects in Queens and, more recently, when he hosted his television show and was reported by Michael Cohen, his lawyer at the time, saying that he had not chosen Kwame Jackson, the black Goldman Sachs banker, to win in season 1, because, “There’s no way I can let this black fag win.”

DT has put in place hurdle after hurdle to the ease in obtaining a Green Card or permanent residency in the U.S. by:

  • Slowing down the processing of applications – the backlog increased by 35% by the end of 2017
  • Requiring in-person interviews with all applicants
  • Adding restrictions to applications for naturalization from non-citizens serving in the U.S. military and rescinding the policy of offering military recruits expedited citizenship after they complete their basic training
  • Limiting access to health and welfare benefits to immigrant applicants while DT lied openly about their abuse of federal assistance
  • Redefined and restricted eligibility for “specialty occupations” such as a computer programmer, as well as “employment” and “employer-employee relationship,” to reduce the numbers who qualify
  • An October 2017 policy memo gave visa officers the discretion to treat visa renewals in the same manner as new applications
  • Granting immigration officers absolute discretion to deny applications if there are any errors in the application, however minor, and, further, to initiate deportation proceedings immediately.

DT undermined and undercut a perfectly legal route to migrate to the U.S. under the American humanitarian refugee program. He:

  • initially suspended the refugee admissions program
  • reduced the number of humanitarian refugee admissions into the U.S from 110,000 in 2016 to 50,000 in 1917 and reduced the intake in 2018 to 20,000 even though the target was 45,000; he set a target of 30,000 for 2019, the lowest number in almost forty years.

DT’s claim that he supports increased legal migration is also undercut by his strong opposition and the policies he has put in place to decrease the ability of individuals to arrive at an American border, whether in an airport or on the southern border, who legally and properly want to claim Convention refugee status. What actions did he take?

  • Endorsed the practice of immigration patrol officers turning people away from legal points of entry when they indicate that they want to claim refugee status
  • Rescinded the right of all asylum seekers to a hearing before an immigration judge and permitting denial if the adjudicator determines upon initial review that the claim is fraudulent or has a low chance of success
  • Reduced the categories under which asylum claimants could justify that they were targeted from persecution, such as denying the right of an applicant to claim refugee status because he or she had been a target of spousal or gang violence
  • Limited the border crossings at which asylum claims could be filed
  • Enhanced vetting for refugee asylum applicants from 11 countries deemed to be “high-risk” – Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Limited the discretion accorded to refugee adjudication officers to positively approve claims
  • Absolutely barred entry to anyone, including asylum claimants, who come from specific Muslim countries.

All of these initiatives have been taken against a background in which the DT administration removed the language of the Statue of Liberty that celebrated America as a land which welcomed immigrants.

What lies behind these changes? Some are innocuous. Some are simply changes in the administration of immigrant and refugee movements to ensure improvements in processing. But many, if not most of the changes, are intended, not to calm fears citizens have of strangers, but to instill and roil those fears because:

  • Current citizens view newcomers as increased competition for jobs that they want
  • A belief that supporting migrants, and especially refugees, will create greater tax burdens on themselves
  • Still others believe that existing opportunities only provide the initial wedge to developing a totally open-door policy
  • Others base their resistance to resentment at literally changing the face of America and efforts to increase legal immigration are undercut by a nativist agenda.
  • For still others, it is an expression of their strong patriotism that in the end boils down to nativist narrow nationalism.

The reality, however, is that the majority of Americans are NOT driven to resist immigration by a mythological nostalgia for the past and a better America. Polling repeatedly demonstrates that a majority of Americans do not believe that immigration should decline. Although Trump trumpets his support for more legal immigration, the administration of even legal immigration suggests a white nationalist agenda. Ignoring the deterrent administrative initiatives to legal migration, legislation that Trump has supported would probably halve traditional legal levels. When administrative and legal initiatives are combined, the effect on traditional patterns of legal migration would be devastating.

However, as everyone knows, the most sensational news concerns illegal migration. Tomorrow morning, I will address that issue under the title of “The Balderdash of Barriers at the Border.”