Yesterday, there was a zoom panel at the university discussing the American election. Inevitably, the issue arose of Trump followers, rubes from Middle America, who live in a silo and swallow what Trump says is the truth when we all know he is a serial liar. Evidently, according to anecdote, some patients on their death beds even deny that they are dying of COVID-19 because The Donald told everyone we were rounding the curve. That he lies is undeniable. Is it because he does not know the difference between truth and what he believes is true?
Misrepresentation is a dimension of lying. In watching Trump, one cannot help but conclude that he is the Emperor of Deception. However, he also has a reputation for being just as he is, for not being your typical deceptive politician. Some voters love him because he offers straight talk. He is one of them. He does not hide or beguile. He says what he thinks. He may have many suits, but he seems to wear the same one every day. This is also true of his overcoat. He is who he appears to be – an archetypal George C. Parker with a reputation for selling the Brooklyn Bridge to unwary and naïve newcomers to the big metropolis of New York. George C. Parker, the prototypical con man, ended his life in Sing Sing.
Last evening, we finished watching the fourth season of the series, The Crown. One important theme in the series is the necessity of keeping up appearances. Appearances cover up problems and issues. But the theme seems to be that the immense concern with appearances is the cause of a great many problems. Further, while the exercise in the unveiling of the monarchy has a great deal to do with hats and dresses, one soon becomes convinced not only that appearances can be deceptive, but the point of those appearances is to be deceptive. That creates an aura. It is just a different kind of con, a British rather than a Brooklyn one.
What happens when a young and beautiful Diana (Emma Corrin) comes on the scene? She first appears when she is not supposed to show herself as one of the mischievous enchanted tree nymphs from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Prince of Wales (Josh O’Connor) sees her, or really glimpses her. He is intrigued. But not intrigued enough to follow through on his initial enchantment. Of course, we know where this is going because it is adumbrated by a letter that Lord Louis Mountbatten (Charles Dance) wrote to Charles, Prince of Wales.
Mountbatten is dead, blown up by an IRA bomb on his lobster fishing boat off the coast of Ireland by the IRA near the end of August of 1979. It was a period of my own life when I was immersed in Operation Lifeline and the organization of the private sponsorship of the Boat People from Indochina, a very different situation in which we fought against the importance of appearances, namely the colour of your skin and your ethnic origins, in favour of multiculturalism and an open society. Just before Operation Lifeline, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson in The Crown) had been elected as Prime Minister) and she began her arrogant and cold-hearted governance of Britain. One episode of The Crown is dedicated to her opposition against all the other members of the Commonwealth backed by the Queen to a boycott against apartheid in South Africa.
In Mountbatten’s letter to Charles, he chastises him for his affair with the married Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell) and advises him to settle down, find a woman whom he can love as a princess and who can develop into a Queen. But Mountbatten is dead. The Royal family has lost its Gold Stick (the name of the first episode of Season Four), the symbolic and actual protector and guard to the health and success of the royal family. Without his wise counsel – God has died – the royal family fragments through the eighties and Charles’ marriage to his young beautiful princess falls apart. Ironically, just over four decades later, Donald Trump ran for a second term and one of the items he sold his acolytes was a gold pin that said, “Stick with Trump.” They did. They stuck with their Gold Stick. But. in this case, they collapsed with him in his mountain of lies. Many of them died.
The eighties offered a decade of violence, of horror, of war, of which “The Troubles” in Ireland were but one symbol of an inability to resolve differences through dialogue and discussion, the essence of politics. Charles gutting a fish in Iceland, his father shooting game birds at Balmoral Castle in Scotland and then Mountbatten targeted by the IRA in Ireland. In international relations, in both the public sphere of Thatcher’s government and in the private sphere of the royal family, repression and violence were the main tools for handling differences. Over this decade, the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) unfolds.
Later, when Diana and Prince Charles are married and go on a royal trip to Australia and New Zealand, Diana mesmerizes the crowds with her wholesomeness, her vulnerability, her accessibility and her honesty. She is who she is – an enchantress. And Charles is jealous, Charles, who deceives his young wife even on the night before they were to be married, is a coward and a cad, an insensitive and insufferable snob who lacks any insight into himself. He is as myopic as Isaac in in this week’s Torah portion.
Charles and Diana appear to the Aussies and the Kiwis to be the perfect fairy tale couple. However, they are far from it. Appearances can deceive and do deceive. And Prime Minister Hawke of Australia becomes discombobulated as his republican aspirations to throw off the burden of the monarchy are dashed by a beautiful sprite. She has bewitched the Australian masses. But not Charles. Never Charles. He is too insecure and too focused on his own incapacities to appreciate the virtues of the mother of his two sons.
However, Diana is no Machiavellian. She does not live secretly as a republican intent on acting – and providing advice on how to rule – in order to reveal the emptiness behind the power of the Medicis. She is not an anti-royalist in intent. But she becomes one in her actions as her very being undercuts and reveals the shallowness of the monarchy, its preoccupation with form, with ritual, with pomp and with circumstance.
Thus, Charles deceives as a matter of custom and tradition. In contrast, Diana deceives as a fairy does who sprinkles fairy dust to see colour and beauty and joy everywhere, even as she vomits from bulimia in hew own washroom and grows thinner and more miserable in her unhappy marriage to Charles who seems totally incapable of demonstrating affection or giving his wife a hug when she needs one.
But neither Charles, and certainly not Diana, is mendacious. One cannot imagine either of them in their insecurities blaming others and calling their non-election to high office as a fraud, as a result of fraud. But what of Rebekah in the Torah who sees more clearly and more perceptively than any of the above characters. She knows what she is doing. She is not a victim of what she knows not of. And she is a principle deceiver.
Look at how Rebekah met Isaac in comparison to Diana’s initial meeting with Charles. Charles saw a young teenager in a tree costume flitting from behind one pole to another. He never saw her clearly – and never would. She is a sprite. She is a nymph. With all his obsession with various types of gardens and dislike of straight inorganic lines, he cannot really see what is right in front of him. Contrast that with Isaac’s severe myopia. Isaac did not even see Rebekah beside the well, only the shapes of large camels in the distance. Charles was blind because his eyes looked elsewhere until he eventually really became blind. Isaac was initially blind because he was myopic. Neither he nor Charles saw the beauty and the self-confidence and the sheer joy in life of the women in front of them.
And what did Rebekah see? She saw Isaac. She was stricken by the sight of him as she alighted nimbly from her camel. Why? What did she really see? A holy man who filled her with awe? But she was never in awe of Isaac as some of the rabbinical commentators have suggested. I suspected that she saw a man riven to the marrow of his bones with pain, a boy whose father loved him absolutely but came close to sacrificing him on an altar in accordance with an apparent command of God who took no notice of how such an experience might traumatize Abraham’s son. Rebekah saw that pain. Rebekah saw that trauma. She was a woman of enormous compassion. Her heart felt deeply the pain of others.
What does Rebekah do? She asks after the stranger. She inquires. She is curious, painfully curious. She is told that this is the man she is destined to marry. Unlike Diana, she does not wait for him to ask her or even wait until he marries her. She places the veil of marriage herself over her own head. For she, like her forbear, Eve, and unlike Diana, is the carrier of the action. She is the decision-maker. She is not modest and demure like Diana. She did not suffer from bulimia. She was at one with herself, knowing her own mind and her own heart without a single hesitation when she learns that she must follow this stranger to his house. She must go far from her family home. She does so willingly. She does so eagerly.
Diana when she travels to meet Charles at Balmoral Castle arrives in a car sent for her just as Eliezer, Isaac’s servant, fetched Rebekah. Diana was not awed at Balmoral. For it was a place of nature. It was a place where you could lie in the grass and stalk a stag with an enormous rack. It was not a place where you dressed up, but where you dressed down. She was at home and became a triumph in seducing the royal family. But that family when it dressed up, when it appeared in order to awe the public, when it engaged in its own brand of deception, when it was ensconced in Buckingham Palace in London, was a very different family, in fact an institution rather than a family, an institution governed by arcane rules and protocols that took a lifetime to master.
When Diana got to Buckingham, she was all left feet not knowing whom to curtsy first and who second and who not to curtsy at all. She had to take detailed lessons in “manners” and customs that in effect beat much of the spunk and spontaneity out of her. What happened to Rebekah when she went from her home to join Isaac’s family?
Rebekah was young and self-confident. Isaac, like Charles, was older; he was forty. Diana, even though Charles cheated on her, became pregnant. Rebekah, like her mother-in-law, remained barren. Isaac prayed to God and Rebekah became pregnant and gave birth – to twins. They were like Carol (Rebecca Humphries) and Mark Thatcher (Freddie Fox). Carol was Jacob, the interior one, the one who became a journalist and a writer. Mark was the adventurer who at one point in the serries gets lost in a car race across Africa to the consternation of his parents and all of Britain. Esau knew how to hunt.
While Mark was openly and unequivocally the favorite of the two twins of Margaret Thatcher, Jacob was Rebeka’s favourite child. For Rebekah was warm and loving. Margaret Thatcher was cold and detached. Rebekah saw which of her sons would carry the royal line. Margaret Thatcher was biased against sentimentality and women; she failed to recognize her daughter as the insightful journalist and writer she became while Mark went off to Texas to marry an oil billionaire’s daughter.
Two nations lived in Rebekah’s womb, the British one with its inquisitiveness, its intellectual and cultural sophistication, a mild nation focused on the mind, and an American Texas one that valued riding and hunting and guns and collecting as many mansions and material goods as possible. The first was Jacob – born second and on the heels of Esau who left for Texas. But who did God say would be the mightier in the end? Jacob. Esau would serve Jacob even though it appeared in the latter half of the twentieth century that Britain had been reduced to a satrap of the United States.
Why did Isaac favour Esau? Because he was myopic. Because he was enamored by external success. Because Isaac had a taste for game, for the birds and the deer shot at Balmoral Castle. And Margaret Thatcher sought to remake Britain along the model of the neo-cons and the Reaganites, as a cold-hearted place dedicated to externals rather than the life of the mind.
Jacob was cooking a stew. Esau arrived home famished. He asked for a bowl of the stew. Jacob agreed, provided Esau gave him his birthright in return. What did Mark care about his birthright? He wanted to go into the wider world and conquer it. He wanted to go to Texas. Esau sold it to Jacob for a bowl of stew, for that was what Britain looked like in the eighties – a bowl of stew. Esau spurned his birthright that came from the depths of Oxford, from the long history of Cambridge, from the stage at Stratford, from a nation-state with a long and fabled history of democracy and respect for human rights. Mark, as well as his mother, did not give a damn for that Britain.
Isaac had been traumatized by his father, Abraham. His father had been as cold and hard-hearted to his son as Phillip had been to Charles. Icy and aloof. And Isaac became a copy of his father, but a much weaker version. Like his father had done to Sarah, Isaac claimed Rebekah was his sister lest he be assailed and killed by men who coveted his wife. Neither men were men. Neither were protectors of their women. Charles recognized Diana’s beauty, but he did not love her for the great joy and love and caring she bore with her beauty. Isaac also sold Rebekah short. Rebekah ceased to love Isaac. He was a wimp.
In the story of Isaac and Rebekah, unlike that of Abraham and Sarah, King Abimelech saves Isaac from his folly. He is the Gold Stick in the story. But Charles’ Gold Stick has been killed by terrorists. He has no one to say to him, “What have you done to us? One of the people might have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” Isaac was saved from such a fate. But Charles lacked an Abimelech, lacked a Lord Mountbatten. And men laid with his wife. And a stain of guilt covered the royal family which Charles had brought on.
Further, in Britain, Margaret Thatcher went to war over the Falkland Islands. Prince Andrew (Tom Byrne), the second son of Queen Elizabeth II, went along as a helicopter pilot. In the biblical tale, when there were disputes over the ownership of wells, Isaac moved on and found and dug wells elsewhere. Margaret Thatcher stuck to her guns literally and forced the Argentinians to withdraw. Isaac eventually made peace with his enemies without a fight and entered into treaties with his former enemies. But he and Rebekah suffered from the unfortunate marriage of Esau just as Isaac and Rebekah did over that of Prince Andrew. However, Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, in spite of her denials, in a whirlwind romance married Sarah Ferguson, a marriage that blew up, though not as loudly and as broadly as happened to Charles’ marriage to Diana. But, as we all know, Andrew went on to live a raffish lifestyle that brought scandal upon the royal family, something that hangs like a distant shadow over the fourth season of The Crown.
Then came the second trick, this time one instigated by Rebekah herself. Isaac was about to bless his oldest son. Esau, like Abraham before God, announces hineini, “Here I am.” Isaac instructs his son to shoot some fresh game and make a meal for him. When he goes out, Rebekah initiates her deceit. She knows that Esau will never be the heir that God promised. She convinces Jacob to put on Esau’s clothes, cover his hands and neck with the skin of kids so that it would be hairy like that of his brother when his father went to bless him. Jacob was instructed to offer his father food that she would prepare so that Isaac would give Jacob rather than Esau his blessing. Her ruse works.
But at a cost. For Esau vows to kill his brother. So Rebekah sends him away for his own safety, never to see him again as long as she lives. Jacob is tricked by his Uncle Laban in turn to marry both his daughters and he never returns before his mother dies.
Deception is at the heart of politics, whether of the nation or the family. Machiavelli, in teaching the Medicis the art of deception, deceived them so that they would eventually lose their positions. But they recover their power. And Machiavelli was imprisoned and dies there. One can imagine the last decades of Rebekah who had no contact with her favourite son and must have been inconsolable when she died.
Deception seems to have its own laws of natural justice. Appearance can be deceptive. At critical times, appearances perhaps has to be deceptive. But only when deception serves life. When life becomes a slave to deception, life becomes a fraud.
“Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless, our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account, and have known how to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning. In the end these princes have overcome those who have relied on keeping their word.” Thus, occasionally, and only occasionally, “words must serve to veil the facts. But let this happen in such a way that no one become aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately.”