Desire and Life: Parashat Ve’eira וארא Exodus 6:2-9:35

A friend called me two days ago on Wednesday and asked what I would be writing about this Friday. I said that I did not know. I usually decide Thursday afternoon, do some research, and write my blog Friday morning. He then asked why I did not write about God. After all, God was the major and continuing character in the Torah. How could I write about everything under the sun and ignore God? There is nothing in Torah that is more important. My flippant answer was that God was about the future. God is He who shall be. God is revelation. I rarely write about the future. I am a terrible prophet. I write about what is happening and what has happened.

So, let me begin by writing about God. In last week’s portion, Moses expressed grave doubts about his being chosen to lead the Hebrew people to freedom from oppression. God reassured Moses, promised he would not only remain at his side, but would also provide a sign by which Moses could prove that God had sent him and that he was not simply appointing himself.  

יא  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.11 And Moses said unto God: ‘Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’
יב  וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, וְזֶה-לְּךָ הָאוֹת, כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ:  בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת-הָעָם, מִמִּצְרַיִם, תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה.12 And He said: ‘Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.’

Moses then asked who he should say sent him. “What is His name?” God replied, in the Masoretic text that I use, “’I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thou shalt say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’ and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’” (3:14) Gunther Plaut in his edition does not offer a translation. “And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.’ He continued, ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” (3:14)

Robert Alter in his translation of the text bites the bullet and translates as follows: “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be.’ And he said, ‘Thou shalt say to the Israelites, Ehyeh has sent me to you.’” “And God said further to Moses, ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites: ‘The Lord God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob sent me to you.

That is my name forever

And thus am I invoked in all ages.’” (3:15)

Is God “I Am”? If so, God is Being. God is everything there is in the present tense. God is permanence. God is eternally the same. God is unchanging. Or is God, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” God is then Becoming. God is the one who reveals Himself. God is He Who Shall Be Who He Shall Be.” God is a promise. Or is God the continuity of He who was the God of your ancestors: He who revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Figure out who I am and who I shall be by reading who I have been to your forefathers.

God not only appears enigmatic, but the Hebrew is enigmatic. If God had said, ‘My name is Sam,’ or ‘My name is Arthur,’ there is a clear implication that there are other gods with different names. That has to be ruled out. Instead, God offers an ontological question (not a definitive answer) of the most profound sort. In Greek philosophy, the alternatives were represented by the division between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides insisted that the fundamental character of reality was being, was constancy, was eternally the same. Heraclitus insisted that everything always changes. You cannot step into the same river twice. Everything is becoming. Everything is change.

Are you on the side of Being or on the side of Becoming? God in the Hebrew text seems to be saying that I am akin to a quantum in physics, both a particle (Being) and energy (Becoming) at one and the same time. I appear and am physical, but I have the least amount of physicality possible, only sufficient to engage in an interaction with the world. On the other hand, I have no restricted discrete value. I am unlimited. Instead of being a particle that occupies the least amount of space possible, I spread through all space. I am energy. I am creativity and not just what has been created. From one perspective, I am matter and not just immaterial. From another perspective, I am not matter but only energy, only creativity.

When you look to the future, “I will be Who I Will Be.” When you look to the present, “I Am Who I Am.” And when you look backwards in time, I am neither and I am both. I am the Being who reveals himself as ever-changing. I was the Being who was always Becoming. I am the God of creativity. As the Arabic and Hebrew scholar, Shlomo Dov Gottein, demonstrated, Yahweh derives from the Arabic root h.w.y (هوى), and the word hawaya (هوايا), which means “desire.” (Cf. Professor Israel Knohl’s commentary on this week’s portion.)

After all, the original Arabic meaning of אֶהְיֶה, of Ehyeh, YHWH, originates in Midian and derives from the Arabic term for “desire.” God is He who wants what he does not have. God is not perfection as the Greeks led the Jews to believe later in their history. God was and is incompleteness. God was the process of both making Himself and revealing Himself, becoming He who He was not and who He became. Robert Alter in his footnote insists that “I Am That Who I Am” cannot be excluded as the meaning of God’s name, that is, the name can be translated as, “I Am He Who Endures,” However, “I Will Be Who I Will Be” is the most plausible construction of the Hebrew. (p. 222)

Alter chooses “will” rather than “shall” because “shall” suggests a declaration whereas “will” implies an affirmation, one uttered with emphasis. The assertion is not just a promise, but “I Will Be Who I Will Be” is more, a promise, a guarantee and not just a mystery.

Alter adds that in oral Hebrew, “the Greek transcriptions reflect a pronunciation close to ‘Yahweh.’ In that form, the name would be the causative, or hiph’il, form of the verb ‘to be’ and thus would have the theologically attractive sense of, ‘He Who Brings Things into Being.’” As Alter writes after deciphering the meaning and arrangement of the letters, the name, Yahweh, fits “a common pattern for male names in the third-person masculine singular, qal conjugation, imperfective form, Yitdhaq (Isaac), ‘he will laugh,’ Ya’aqov (Jacob), ‘he will protect.’ Or ‘he will grab the heel,’ Yiftah (Jephthah)’. “Yihyeh then suggests God who is unlimited in his creativity.

All this is but background to this week’s portion, more particularly, chapter 6, 2-8 where the God who has revealed his enigmatic name now describes what He has done in the past and what He will do in the future and does so by His own authority without reference to any other legitimation. God is a historic version of the American constitution that provides the foundation of a promise. He will not only liberate Israel, but will deliver Canaan into their hands.

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.
2 And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: ‘I am the LORD;
ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.
ד  וְגַם הֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתָּם, לָתֵת לָהֶם אֶת-אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן–אֵת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֵיהֶם, אֲשֶׁר-גָּרוּ בָהּ.4 And I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings, wherein they sojourned.
ה  וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי, אֶת-נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם; וָאֶזְכֹּר, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי.5 And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant.
ו  לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲנִי יְהוָה, וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם, וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם; וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים.6 Wherefore say unto the children of Israel: I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments;
ז  וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם, מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם.7 and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
ח  וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת-יָדִי, לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב; וְנָתַתִּי אֹתָהּ לָכֶם מוֹרָשָׁה, אֲנִי יְהוָה.8 And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the LORD.’

In the present, God is, both by appearing, coming into view, and by speaking. The key factor in the past was God establishing a covenant – not a contract – with the Israelites. It is a covenant that is recalled. It was unconditional. For, in the immediate past, God listened and heard the suffering of the Israelites and remembered that covenant. (Did He forget for four hundred years?) In the future, where most of the action resides, God will deliver the Israelites out of bondage, will redeem the people, will make the people His people, and will deliver Canaan into their hands as a heritage.

Yehwa was the place name, the toponym, for where one found God’s presence on earth originally in the nomadic lands rather than the settlements of the Nile basin where prosperity was guaranteed by the repeated overflow of the waters of the Nile each year onto the farmlands lining each shore, Yahweh is the theonym for that divine presence just as Athena was the goddess for Athens.

Desire is the will to close the gap between what is and what is not. God is not only the guarantor that the gap will be closed, that the desire of the people will be fulfilled, but that promise has its only legitimation in God as the promiser as well as the guarantor that the promise will not be broken. It is not a conditional agreement, but a unilateral unwavering commitment. That is who God is and will be.

In such an account, God is not everything that is. God is not the divinity of the Pharaohs, the cult of which was dedicated to guarantee eternal life, not like the promise to the Israelites as a collectivity of a future as a nation-state on their own land in Canaan. God does not deliver on his covenant in a single stroke. God first destroys the constitutional foundation of the alternative of a promise of eternal life. The ideology of the ancient Egyptians was an antithesis to God. Yahweh was a jealous God in a world of monolatry with different gods and ideologies competing for loyalty rather than a monotheistic world where only one god was posited as existing.

To understand this further, let us, like the frogs, leap ahead to the plagues. The first two plagues are blood and frogs. (Cf. Professor Christoph Berner’s commentary on this week’s portion.)

יז  כֹּה, אָמַר יְהוָה, בְּזֹאת תֵּדַע, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה:  הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מַכֶּה בַּמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר-בְּיָדִי, עַל-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר–וְנֶהֶפְכוּ לְדָם.17 thus saith the LORD: In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD–behold, I will smite with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood.
יח  וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר תָּמוּת, וּבָאַשׁ הַיְאֹר; וְנִלְאוּ מִצְרַיִם, לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן-הַיְאֹר.  {ס}18 And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink water from the river.’ {S}
יט  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה-יָדְךָ עַל-מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם עַל-נַהֲרֹתָם עַל-יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל-אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל-מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם–וְיִהְיוּ-דָם; וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים.19 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’

Blood appears in the idols [rather than vessels, a word that does not appear in the Hebrew text) of wood and stone, in the central symbols of the Egyptian world that worshipped gods of wood and stone. Instead of water, however, the core substance of living forms, blood, spreads from the life-giving waters of the Nile River. It is Yahweh who gives life to these objects of wood and stone and reveals that they are inanimate, that they lack any life force on their own. With the first plague, God attacked the core belief of the Egyptians, a belief in reification, that the purpose of this world was to mummify life and preserve it for an eternal state. That foundation and structure was the first bastion of the Egyptian belief system to be attacked.

Then out of that same river came swarms of frogs which invaded the bed chambers, ovens and kneading bowls of all Egyptians. And then the frogs were all killed; the stinking contamination piled up in heaps and particularly desecrated the instruments that had to be spotlessly clean. The Egyptians who disdained the eating habits of the Hebrews were now themselves made unclean.

With the first two plagues, the God of Israel has attacked the core ontological and existential elements of the Egyptian way of life. It was a belief system dedicated to eternal life, to reification in contrast to the Hebraic vision of change, of dynamism, of creativity. Becoming trumped Being. Instead of the Egyptian values of freezing time forever, within the flow of time was the promise of change, of revelation. Revelationists lived on promise and hope for a better future. Reificationists and restorationists lived to make the present and the past permanent.

The war of worlds had begun.

Part II: To Impeach or Not to Teach?

Lord of Lies


Republicans  101974
Totals2321974 = 433

One of the interesting items to note about the whole affair of Donald Trump and the Storming of the Capitol is that impeachment was not really a question for almost all the legislators. Virtually all Democrats knew what they wanted to do. A small group of Republicans, not that much larger than those who voted for impeachment, did not want to impeach POTUS, not because they were uncertain about whether he committed a high crime, in particular, one of inciting sedition, but because a rapid process might be flawed, due process was not observed, the time left was too short to deliberate the matter, or some combination of these reasons that prevented a proper investigation of the matter and the right to a defence. They urged their Democratic colleagues to practice restraint and not politicize the impeachment process.

Of course, the vast majority voted “Nay” because, if they voted otherwise, it might affect their position in the party or their prospects for re-election two years hence. Liz Cheney, who voted “Aye,” after insisting she wasn’t going anywhere, before the evening was out, reportedly resigned her position as the third ranking Republican in the House of Representatives.  Some Republicans voted “Nay” because they feared not simply for their own lives, but for the lives of their wives and children.

Of course, this is not how most defended their negative vote. Their free speech rights were being quashed. Republicans just lost two Senate seats in Georgia to the Democrats in a runoff vote, in good measure because of Trump’s attacks on the Republican state governor and the secretary of state for not ensuring that enough ballots went his way to assign the electoral college votes of Georgia to him. This was the same election responsible for electing QAnon Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Greene complained of suppression of her rights, justifying her Nay vote. Lauren Boebert of Colorado went further and tweeted the speaker’s location during the invasion of The Capitol.

Jim Jordan of Ohio and Glen Grothman of Wisconsin joined Greene in denouncing the cancel culture that wanted to silence Trump so that he could not have the opportunity to investigate and expose the election as fraudulent, the same ballot that reelected all of them. Tom McClintock of California dubbed Donald’s speech to the mob at his rally on Wednesday as freedom of speech and just normal politics when the Donald instructed his supporters to march to The Capitol. The Donald insisted that the bottom line in the political arena was determined by strength. The use of fiery language before a mob was just free speech; Steve King of Iowa complained that the Lord of Lies had been “deplatformed” in “cyber god’s Kristallnacht.” How obscene could they get!

The invaders of The Capitol who killed a Capitol police officer were not charged with denying First Amendment rights to certify the vote as honest. Only their will had been repressed. Only the attackers, not the legislators who hid under their seats or in safe rooms, had been denied their rights of free speech. Only Donald Trump suffered from cancel culture when the Silicon Valley cabal of large media companies canceled his ability to use social media to spread lies and incite insurrection. Trump was not the arsonist. The Democrats in their efforts to douse “the burning embers of the movement” with gasoline were destroying “the whole experiment in self-government” according to one Republican legislator. It was a topsy-turvy Alice and Wonderland world which they had joined.   

Of course, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House was not exactly angelic when she insisted Donald Trump was “a clear and present danger” and that is why he must be impeached. She knew full well that the chance of Mitch McConnell, who still controlled that august body, the Senate, until inauguration day, would be most unlikely to call the Senate together to hold a trial before inauguration day. The vote to impeach would not remove The Donald from the presidency, only deservedly besmirch his name.

The star of the day was Liz Cheney (Wyoming), a Republican who voted to impeach Donald Trump insisting that, “there has ‘never been a greater betrayal’ by a president to his office and his oath to the Constitution days after a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol.” John Katko from upstate New York and Adam Kinzinger from Illinois were also vociferous critics of Trump. Even a dyed in the wool Trump loyalist like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy from California insisted that Trump had been “irresponsible” in the way he addressed the mob; he still voted Nay.

The actual vote in the Senate will not depend on innocence or guilt of the charge, but on the politics of dealing with the charge. Further, some who would wrack vengeance on the shattered future life of Donald Trump would like to add to his woes by denying him the post-service benefits of security, pension and other office benefits. Unfortunately, that will require new legislation once Biden takes office.

Since there is so little time left – 7 days – would it not have been better to travel the political route? After all, quite aside from all the court cases expected to follow him into private life – assaulted women suing him, commercial imbroglios, tax issues – it is expected that Trump will face charges for conflicts of interest and possibly obstruction of justice in addition to the cases that state attorney generals are preparing against him, a criminal charge of sedition is unlikely since the bar of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is so high. Case law suggests that his directive to the mob at the rally on 6 January to march up to The Capitol is not the same as ordering the mob to march up there, capture,  occupy and rack havoc on the legislative building itself. That you must fight, that you must have strength, are considered metaphorical versions of political conversation and speech making. A criminal charge to stick would probably require that his directions be more explicit and not implicit.

The American Second Amendment, unlike other political jurisdiction, is fairly broad in terms of permissible speech. Even Guliani’s urging the mob to engage in trial by combat might not be enough to satisfy a criminal charge of incitement, unless, of course, he offered explicit directions that we know nothing of at this time. Further, the renewed Merrick Garland Justice Department will have its hands full recovering from the destructive effects of the Trump regime. Attorney General Garland might not want to invest human resources in a case that would meet the standard of a good prospect of a conviction.

What about Vice-President Michael Pence invoking the 25th amendment instead of using impeachment? This was the Democrat’s preference. But that would require the willingness of Pence to initiate such an action and his ability to round up at least half the remaining cabinet to support making a finding of incapacity. Quite aside from his personal reluctance, given his desire to become a future candidate and needing the support of Donald Trump’s base, there is the problem that the 25th amendment was designed to deal with incapacity, possibly including mental incapacity, but not willful criminal behaviour. That is the rationale for the impeachment process. Pence declined because he said that he wanted to give “the nation time to heal.” He wanted members of Congress to “avoid actions that would further divide and inflame the passions of the moment.” An arsonist incites a mob’s destruction of The Capitol and threatens the lives of its members, but responsibility was not assigned to Trump for spreading lies about a fraudulent election of for stirring up the passions of the mob, but loaded on the Democrats for insisting that the president be held accountable for his actions

The real reason for Pence not taking this route was explained in another long letter by Pence to members of Congress, not about invoking the 25th amendment, but explaining why on 6 January he could not comply with Donald Trump’s pressure on him as chair of the Senate to set aside the electoral votes declaring Biden as president elect. His role was only ceremonial.  For that, Pence had already become a target of the insurrectionists who planned to lynch him. As Donald Trump put it, ““Mike Pence, I hope you get to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country, and if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you,” Trump subsequently locked him out of the White House. Pence had no interest in rousing Trump’s supporters further.

I suspect the real urgency for pushing the impeachment process was preventing Trump from using his very wide-ranging pardon powers to get a wide swath of family members, cronies and even insurrectionists off the hook. The fear that he can pardon himself seems far-fetched. He may issue such a pardon, but the Supreme Court, with a majority rooted in Originalism as a basic legal theory, is unlikely to set aside the court ruling in 1974, before Richard Nixon resigned, that no person can be the judge and pardoner of his own case. Extending a pardon is an act of extending mercy to another, even if this is not what motivated Trump thus far. Further, there is a very good chance that Trump will pardon even unnamed individuals and offer an amnesty for certain categories of actions. Such pardons would likely be considered lawful, even if an abuse of the intent of the power. Clearly, the law governing the use of pardons needs to be updated in light of Trump’s abuse of the provision. But none of Pelosi’s moves are likely to prevent Trump from abusing his powers. In any case, since there is no pardon for obstructing justice, Donald Trump can be expected to face legal action on this score.

The real impact of all of this will mostly fall on the Republican Party itself. The party is already continuing to lose support, donors and legitimacy. This may have been what most motivated Mitch McConnell to try to stem the tide by insisting that Trump was directly responsible for the insurrection and AWOL in tampering it down. McConnell even signalled that he was open to voting for impeachment, probably in an effort to purge the party of Trumpism.

I personally think that the most important after-effect of the whole affair focuses on the far right in the Republican Party and the white supremacist enablers who support or at least sympathize with the alt-right efforts. Routing out the insurrectionists offers an opportunity to destroy the extreme right-wing of the party. The investigation of the insurgency is already well underway. The FBI is evidently doing everything it can to identify all the conspirators, with proper attention to due process and very sensitive attention to the law.  Foreign governments like Canada have already announced that they are considering designating extremist groups, such as Proud Boys, as terrorists and adding them to the country’s list of organized terrorist organizations. The extreme right is a broad movement with millions of sympathizers, and the investigations and trials and hearings that will follow can provide an opportunity to exhume this menace to American democracy.

My eldest son believes it might also turn Trump into a martyr. Another reader suggested that QAnon is becoming the core of a new American religion. There is no doubt that this is a real danger, but I believe it is one that must be countered by the rule of law, by transparency and by truth. The last has been the most important victim of Trump’s campaign of lies about the alleged fraudulent 2020 election. Even after the insurrection, 71% of Republicans still believe Trump. As I implied in my previous blog, it is critical that the dangerous far right be excised as a force in the American polity.

That entails naming and at the very least shaming the legislators who were enablers of the insurrectionists. Based on their lies, their fiery speeches and even Jeff Hawley’s raising a fist in solidarity, on the evidence available, it would seem that there is no basis for criminal charges, expulsion from Congress or even censure. This is in spite of their parroting of Trump’s falsehoods and claims that the election was a fraud and he was the real winner. Those who supported the position that the election was stolen carry a tremendous responsibility for riling those right-wingers who disrupted the counting of the Electoral College vote confirming Joe Biden’s win. But there will be an investigation and who knows what will turn up. There is a rumour that members of Congress actually threatened fellow members. But though these actions were clearly irresponsible in leading the lying chorus, that in itself is not incitement to insurrection or criminal. Censure, however, and informal sanctions may be considered.

The rise of Trump and his performance in office points to a whole other area – the need for reform of the duties and responsibilities of the president, turning what pre-Trump were established norms about conflicts of interest and obstruction of justice, about the independence of the Attorney General and reporting on payment of taxes, into written legislation. Even more important are laws focused on foreign interference in the democratic process in American domestic politics. Harder to achieve will be laws against voter suppression, gerrymandering, disenfranchising voters, campaign financing and even minimum common standards in the conduct of elections.   That is a long and urgent agenda for an administration that already faces enormous challenges ranging from Iran to COVID-19.  My hope is that the investigation of the insurrection will provide a much broader opportunity for electoral reform, especially since so many on the Republican side held this up as their banner in opposing impeachment.   There is another realm. As one pundit wrote, “The results of Wednesday’s melee don’t only threaten U.S. domestic institutions, but our national security interests and foreign policy priorities.” America has become an exporter of right-wing extremism. They spread their distrust of democracy in the name of democracy to foster a transnational fascist movement. America is an exporter of extremist right-wing and white supremacist ideology. At the same time, the U.S. has lost most of its moral standing in demanding that other regimes adhere to a high democratic standard. Further, many of the human rights advocates in Hong Kong and other jurisdictions fled to the United States as a safe haven and, surprisingly, a number became supporters of Donald Trump:   “barefoot” lawyer Chen Guangcheng from ChinaBob Fu of ChinaAidWang Dan, a former Chinese student leaderAlexander Otaola, a Miami-based Cuban activistAhmad Batebi, an Iranian dissident, called Ashli Babbit, the 33-year-old ex-airforce rioter who was killed on 6 January, a martyrMasih Alinejad, another Iranian dissident.   With a background in confrontational politics and backing from Trump, they have often allied with Trump and identified with his protests against rigged elections.   Of all the negative aspects of this whole crisis, this is, in my mind, the worst.

Punishing the Radical Right in America

Part I: Cauterizing the Radical Right

Just over fifty years ago in October 1970 (in what became known as the Crise d’Octobre or the October Crisis), Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act. It was the first peaceful use of that draconian measure. It set aside the civil liberties of all Canadians. With far-reaching powers, the police rounded up 497 Canadians and put them in jail without any immediate prospect of bail and initially without any charges being laid. Many were acquaintances from Quebec. A few were even friends. 3,000 premises were raided and searched. Though it must be admitted that, true to Canadian form, both the arrests and the searches were reputedly very courteous. That is Canada. Civility even in the face of insurrection!

The application of the War Measures Act was not a response to an invasion of 40,000 Canadians and their seizure of our Parliamentary Buildings with five casualties. It was a response to radical Quebec separatists from the Font de liberation du Québec (FLQ). They had kidnapped and murdered Pierre Laporte, the provincial deputy Premier of the province. They still held British diplomat James Cross in captivity. The latter was released in return for the murderers agreeing to go into exile in Cuba. The War Measures Act explicitly took away the rights of due process. Habeas corpus (an individual’s right to have a judge confirm that they have been lawfully detained) was suspended. They could be held for up to 28 days without charges being laid and were not even entitled to have legal representation or even call a lawyer. They could be held without bail for 90 days.

The Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, and the Mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, supported Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act which drastically limited civil liberties as almost 500 Quebec separatists or separatist sympathizers or believed separatist sympathizers (not FLQ supporters or sympathizers) were rounded up and imprisoned, though the vast majority had nothing to do with the kidnappings and murder or even with the FLQ. In fact, only 62 of those arrested were even charged and most of those were exonerated. It is as if the American FBI not only arrested identifiable insurrectionists videotaped at the invasion of The Capitol, but rounded up 5,000 right-wing extremists across the U.S.A., when the vast majority were not even in Washington at the time of the insurrection.

What if Pierre Trudeau himself had been a separatist fellow traveler? What if a huge throng of separatists had arrived in Ottawa and marched on the Parliamentary Buildings after being egged on by the Prime Minister himself? What if they had ransacked the centre of our democracy and five people had died as a result of the mob effort?  What if the instigation had been Pierre Trudeau’s false claim that he had just lost an election to the opposition leader, Robert Stanfield, an election that he falsely claimed was fraudulent?

Further, remember that Pierre Trudeau had called out the military. Canadian troops patrolled the streets of Montreal, Quebec and Ottawa. What if Americans had done the same upon the singular orders of say Vice-President Pence whom the insurrectionists had threatened to hang? Obviously, the comparison is more than a stretch. Its only purpose is to indicate the relatively mild response of the American politicians to what was an attempted insurrection, even if one implemented by “protesters” in colourful clown costumes and military fatigues rather than secret conspirators working in the underground of Quebec politics.

Polls at the time showed that Canadians, especially Quebeckers, supported the invocation of the War Measures Act by a wide margin. 89% of English-speaking Canadians and 86% of French-speaking Canadians supported Pierre Trudeau’s dramatic and drastic response. I did not. I was among a small minority who argued that the action was excessive and very disproportionate to the events that had instigated such an extreme response. However, I had to admit that the excessive step did succeed in cauterizing the organized efforts to use violence to advance the separatist cause. From then on, electoral processes were relied upon to advance a separatist agenda. In fact, just five years later, a sovereigntist government was put in power in Quebec with the election of the separatist Parti Québécois which formed the government in 1975.

In both Canada and the U.S., the events had been preceded by years of violence. In the seven years between 1963 and 1970, 950 bombs, largely of post boxes, had been set off. It was equivalent to 10,000 bombs being ignited in the US. But post boxes were not the only targets. Admittedly nothing in Canada occurred as serious as Timothy James McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing 168 and wounding 680, but the radical separatists did bomb the Montreal Stock Exchange on 13 February 1969 when 27 were injured, a few seriously. Montreal City Hall, the T. Eaton department store and RCMP (The Federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) facilities, had all been targeted.

One major difference is that the insurrection in the US was an entirely domestic affair. The separatists in Quebec had external support. President Charles de Gaulle of France even instigated dramatic separatist action when he shouted “Vive le Québec libre” from a balcony in Montreal. Canadians were not in a position to impeach Charles de Gaulle, but the Prime Minister at the time (24 July 1967), Mike Pearson, rebuked him and sent the president home tout de suite. Pearson fumed, “The people of Canada are free. Every province in Canada is free. Canadians do not need to be liberated. Indeed, many thousands of Canadians gave their lives in two world wars in the liberation of France and other European countries.”

I am convinced that as the FBI investigates extremist right-wing activities in the United States, they will discover the equivalent of other militant insurrectionist plans, such as the kidnapping of the Israeli consul in Montreal, stores of guns and explosives, and documented evidence of plans to overthrow the government. Further, in Canada, a number of prominent individuals defended the aims if not the actions of the FLQ separatists. Robert Lemieux became the FLQ lawyer and not only negotiated the exchange of the kidnapped Cross in return for exile, but he urged students at the Université de Montréal to boycott classes in support of FLQ. He also organized a rally at the Paul Sauvé. Paul Chartrand, a prominent labour leader, insisted that support for the separatists, and the FLQ in particular, was rising as a result of their dramatic action – admittedly a statement he made before learning that Pierre Laporte had been killed. Bernard Mergler and Robert Demers were two prominent lawyers who negotiated the release of FLQ prisoners and those involved in the Laporte killing and their exile in Cuba in return for the release of James Cross after 62 days in captivity.

A number of observations are apropos. First, though the U.S. tardily did bring out the National Guard, which do have a legislated responsibility to help preserve domestic order, no American authority proposed the use of the military dedicated to keeping America safe from foreign adversaries. Canadians made no such distinction and Canadian troops occupied Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec, though the troops only functioned in support of the civilian authorities. Second, the American insurrection threatened every member of the federal legislative chambers in Washington. The federally elected members of Parliament in Ottawa were never in danger. There are other comparisons that can be made, all of which suggest that the Canadian response was far more extreme than the current American one with its focus on criminal actions against the insurrectionists and impeachment of the president.

In Canada, the FLQ was declared illegal, giving the police virtually unlimited powers to arrest and hold suspected members. In the US, we have yet to see whether QAnon, members of the Boogaloo movement, the Patriot Front (unlike others on the right, they reject Trump), the Base, the Nationalist Justice Party, the Order of Five Angels, the Proud Boys (remember Donald Trump in the presidential debate advising them to “stand back and stand by”), the Groypers and the various other iterations of right-wing extremism will be dubbed as domestic terrorists, an action taken by the Canadian government by federal fiat.

Before I get into the impeachment, I want to point to one result of the Canadian response. The radical non-democratic, in fact, anti-democratic left-wing insurrectionist effort in Canada was cauterized. In medical surgery, cauterization, burning the ends of a blood vessel, is used to stem the loss of blood. A hot iron or equivalent is used both to destroy the infected tissue and to deaden the infectious process behind the bleeding. Extremist left-wing separatism was destroyed in Canada. We have yet to see whether the same will occur in the United States with right-wing extremism and whether the governmental authorities will go after the myriad of extremist groups in the US and not just remove the president and bar him from office in the future.

In the US, 2020 was a record year for far right or alt-right (really fascist) violence with more murders and car attacks aimed at peaceful protesters than any year in recent memory. Their most important enabler, ever since he labeled Barack Obama a foreigner and accused him of not being born in the United States, has been Donald Trump. Since then, the Republican Party, the GOP, has been effectively taken over by the Trumplicans. What unites all of these movements is a family of beliefs and activities which culminated in the proposition that the election of the president in November 2020 had been a fraud. These include:

  • The belief in the existence of a “deep state” that controls the American government against the will of the people
  • The belief that the president-elect, Joe Biden, is a member of satanic pedophile cabal
  • That Black Lives Matter (BLM) is merely an extension of the Antifa anti-fascist movement on the left
  • That the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax
  • That wearing surgical masks is merely a step towards denying individual freedom

The history of right-wing violence in the US has been permeated with a record of sporadic acts of violence as well as scurrilous racist and antisemitic rants on social media platforms with exchanges of conspiracy theories and disruption plans. A selective list of violent events restricted to this past year only is offered below that do not include many arrested for plotting violent actions.

  • March Timothy Wilson, a National Socialist – fascist – member on route to bombing a hospital, was killed by police in Portland
  • April 30 armed protesters invaded the Michigan legislature threatening to kidnap the governor
  • In May, Steven Carrillo was arrested for murdering a federal security guard during the Oakland protests
  • In late May, a police precinct was burned in Minneapolis and militant demonstrations broke out across the country in response to the Black Lives Matter invigorated protests in response to a Minneapolis police officer killing of George Floyd
  • On 31 May, Donald Trump tweeted, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” but he has never seriously rebuked right-wing terrorism
  • On 26 August, a militia member, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Kenosha Illinois, killed two people at a BLM demonstration, and this was but one of many attacks on BLM peaceful protesters
  • Just before the end of August, Aaron Danielson attacked random individuals as part of a far-right protest in Portland, Oregon and was killed by a self-declared antifa proponent, Michael Forest Reinoehl, who in turn was killed by law officers on 3 September (Donald Trump gloated that he was shot down.)
  • During the Western wildfires, vigilante right-wing armed checkpoints were set up to catch and arrest antifa alleged arsonists based on rumour and absolutely no evidence
  • In October, Lee Kellner, a right-wing activist, threatened a TV crew in Denver and was killed by police
  • In the same month, 13 right-winger members of a Michigan militia group were arrested for planning to kidnap the Governor Michigan
  • The 6/1 rally of Trumpists in Washington was preceded by the 14 November Washington Million Maga March, the 12 December right wing clashes with four stabbings that ended up destroying two Black churches, the Proud Boys attempts to break into the Oregon state legislature in Salem on 21 December.

All of this is offered to put the American political initiative to impeach their president in a comparative context.

Next: Part II: To Impeach or Not to Impeach)

Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Part VI: The Financial Crisis of 2008 – Moralism versus Structural Analysis

 (A 2010 scholarly article of mine analyzing the source of the disaster provides a more in depth analysis: “Trust and Transparency: The Need for Early Warning,” in Iain MacNeil and Justin O’Brien (eds.) The Future of Financial Regulation, Oxford: Hart Publishing, Ch. 18, 322-336.)

I presented Obama’s very brief summary of his analysis of the housing and financial crisis in my last blog. A Later blog will provide a much more detailed review. For now, a few basic questions. What was Obama’s substantive depiction and analysis of the financial crisis, more specifically, the mortgage crisis?

Obama first clued in that something was really wrong when “the nation’s second largest subprime lender, New Century, declared bankruptcy.” (177) The Federal Reserve had forced the largest subprime lender into a shotgun marriage with Bank of America. In September 2007, Obama decried “the failure to regulate the subprime lending market.” He proposed stronger oversight. Though ahead of the curve compared to most of his colleagues and competitors, he was well behind the bonfire already underway. However, he was correct in pointing at a failure in regulation but never offered a diagnosis of the reasons for that failure except to imply greed was at fault.

Subsequently, “financial markers saw a flight to safety as lenders and investors moved their money into government-backed Treasury bonds, sharply restricted credit, and yanked capital out of any firm that might have significant risk when it came to mortgage-backed securities.” (178) In October 2007:

  • Merrill Lynch announced $7.9 billion in losses related to mortgages
  • Citigroup projected possible losses of $11 billion

The situation was unravelling fast. By March 2008, Bear Stearns stock value plummeted from $57 to $30 in a single day, forcing a fire sale to JP Morgan Chase. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and, especially, Lehman Brothers were all hemorrhaging capital at alarming rates. While some looked on with self-righteous glee at the comeuppance to these capitalists and their firms, Obama determined that “in a modern capitalist economy it was impossible to isolate good businesses from bad or administer pain only to the reckless or unscrupulous.” (178) “Everybody and everything was (sic!) connected.” By that Spring, the consequences had been dire – contracting demand, widespread layoffs, canceled orders, deferred investments and literally millions of foreclosures.

But surely the COVID-19 economic crisis of 2020 should have been a clue for Obama that the problem was systemic and not simply a matter of sorting out good businesses from bad ones. In the Great Recession that followed, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 witnessed property values dropping by 20% to 50%, depending on the location. Stock portfolios lost 30% of their value. Pension plans were big losers putting at risk the plans of millions of pensioners. However, a period of collapsing asset prices combined with high unemployment and shrivelling demand also provided an opportunity for the government, as the largest potential buyer of last resort, to purchase stock and other assets at fire sale prices. Falling prices are short term and provide enormous opportunities for perceptive investors. And many less-panicked entrepreneurs cashed in – especially in the Florida and Arizona real estate markets where properties were selling for at least 50% less than their pre-recession values.

Is this not a cold-hearted way to look at the situation? On the one hand, brokers and firms according to Obama had been unscrupulous. “They (irate Republicans and mortgage brokers) didn’t appear chastened by the fact that the game they played had been rigged up and down the line, if not by them then by their employers, the real high rollers in wood-paneled boardrooms. They didn’t seem concerned by the fact that for every ‘loser’ who had bought more house than he could afford, there were twenty folks who had lived within their means but were now suffering the fallout from Wall Street’s bad debts.” (273)

If you look at the economic calamity from a moralist perspective, then working to save the financial institutions seems hypocritical. If you bracket morality and do your utmost to save as many financial institutions as possible because the system is so complex and interconnected and too many failures of TGTF (too big to fail) institutions would bring the whole system crashing down, then you save the economy but come across as an amoral capitalist enabler. In either case, millions of small homeowners lose their homes.

Obama recognized the unfairness of applying a moral calculus to those losing their homes. “Was it fair to devote the hard-earned tax dollars of those Americans to reducing the mortgage payments of a neighbour who’d fallen behind? What if the neighbour had bought a bigger house than they could really afford? What if they’d opted for a cheaper but riskier type of mortgage? Did it matter if the neighbour had been duped by a mortgage broker into thinking they were doing the right thing? What if heir neighbour had taken their kids to Disneyland the year before rather than putting that money into a rainy-day fund? – did that make them less worthy of help? Or what if they had fallen behind on their payments just because they’d put in a new swimming pool or taken a vacation but because they’d lost their job or because a family member had gotten sick and their employer didn’t offer health insurance or because they just happened to live in the wrong state – how did that change the moral calculus.?” (272) Obama rejected this approach, both because it offered no practical route to a solution, because it took the moral weight off those he thought were primarily responsible, and because the government’s function then was to be a fire department and stop the fire from spreading rather than assessing the credit worthiness of the homeowner.

However, Obama is as guilty of playing the blame game as his Republican colleagues, blaming the brokers and bankers though rather than imprudent home buyers and owners. However, if you see the problem as systemic, a structural error that encourages immoral behaviour rather than inherently immoral, then you can concentrate on correcting the faults in the system rather than simply applying bandages. But what if it is too late to close the proverbial barn door? What if the system is totally aflame? Isn’t the first priority bringing in the fire department rather than either looking for the arsonists who started the fire? Is the priority not rescuing what you can? Perhaps you simply have to accept that whole communities will be destroyed in the conflagration.

If the problem is that the core of the fire was a faulty electrical transformer rather than a domestic greasy oil fire on which you had to pour tons of foam, then fixing the transformer after temporarily disconnecting it could limit the damage. Further, recognizing the right source and correcting the problem may mean that you can use the electrical grid itself as a critical tool in limiting the spread of the fire. At the heart of the matter, you can use prospective profits to offset the short-term costs of helping homeowners get past the crisis. But how can one consider the government making a profit from the calamities of others?

A simplistic answer – by turning a negative sum game in which there are greater and lesser losers into a positive sum game in which the benefits are skewed in favour of the homeowners rather than the banks and financial institutions. The objective would be to ensure that everyone benefits to some degree. Further, the prudent lenders would benefit more than any imprudent ones, but the effort should be made to save as many homeowners’ homes as possible from foreclosure.

Let me digress for a moment and examine a situation where the government itself was directly responsible for depressed real estate prices. In Ontario in the eighties, rent controls meant that apartment buildings were for sale at very depressed prices related to their replacement costs. While the government costs for building new apartment units for subsidized housing was costing on average $150,000 per unit, older rental apartment buildings could be purchased at $30,000 per unit. Many of these buildings were in need or repair and updating, since it did not pay the owners to make improvements. That could be done then at a cost of $30,000 per unit bringing the cost of a renovated unit to $60,000 compared to $150,000 for a new unit.

There were two ways to accomplish this. On one hand, rent controls could be eased to allow, and even encourage landlords, to renovate their properties so that renters paid for the costs over time and the assets of the 0wners eventually more than doubled in value. Alternatively, you could create a system that facilitated the tenants purchasing those units – they would get the benefit of the capital cost improvements rather than the owners of the buildings. But that would mean users rather than owners would get the advantage of the capital gains.

The latter approach was taken to a very limited extent in the conversion of about 1,000 units to co-operative ownership in Toronto. Renters were provided with a unique opportunity for many to buy and own apartments when they otherwise could not afford to do so. They could get on the capital ownership ladder on rungs much closer to the ground. However, by far the major effort focussed on saving the assets and capital appreciation for the landlords and reserving the yearly increasing system in which over half the population lived in rental housing with decreasing opportunities to gain home ownership. Indeed, pressure was put on the government to allow apartment owners to renovate their buildings and pass the costs onto tenants while, at the same time, effectively doubling the value of their assets.

The opportunity to convert the bulk of tenants to owners was not only lost when a social democratic government was in power, but laws were subsequently passed preventing the conversion of rental housing to co-operative ownership by the inhabitants on the specious argument that it would deplete the rental housing stock even further. Though the facts indicated otherwise, that is that renters who were able to get on the ownership ladder at a much lower rung, went on to “buy up” and thereby decrease the pressure on the rental market. Within a few years, they went on to buy their own homes and leave the inventory of what had been or continued to be rental housing units to a smaller pool. These facts were ignored for very different reasons by conservative and socialist provincial governments alike.

Imagine the government not building subsidized housing units at $150,000 each, saving on both capital costs and continuing rental subsidies even though supporters of increased government owned or rent subsidized housing might strenuously object. Imagine if the government had set up a lending facility to help tenants both buy the buildings they occupied and renovate them with the government purchasing the minority of units where tenants would not take up the offer. There would be no cash outflow, just loan guarantees or assets purchased securitized by the property. Reducing the costs of building new units and subsidizing rents would, in fact, decrease the outflow of expenses to the government. Further, by purchasing units not bought by tenants, the government continued to have rental units on the market while benefitting considerably from the capital gain to those units. Effectively, the government would be buying property at very depressed prices for the benefit of renters and allowing those renters who could otherwise not purchase property to become home-owners.

This is not just an abstract model. We demonstrated it in practice in the 1980s as I indicated above. Further, if the government wanted to be fairer to property owners because of guilt over buying their property at depressed prices when it was the government itself that was responsible for those low prices, the government could have provided added incentives to encourage property owners who wanted to – and many were eager to do so – to get out of the rental market and retrieve their investments by offering concessions on capital gains taxes when buildings were sold to tenants.

How does this example apply to the depressed value of real estate in the 2008 crash? Very simple! And I mean simple. While quick-on-their-feet entrepreneurs bought up enormous swaths of property at very depressed prices only to sell them four or five years later at recovered prices, realising very large profits, the government would facilitate homeowners retaining their homes at the depressed prices when mortgage companies foreclosed. It could do so by taking three actions – 1) delaying forced evictions as the government is doing currently in the COVID-19 crisis, 2) requiring foreclosed homes to be first offered to occupants, and 3) offering mortgages on those repurchased homes at 100% of the depressed value, but with the government retaining an interest – say 25% of any profit realized when the home was sold.

This was not done. Instead, the financial institutions were directly bailed out and most saved from insolvency. And tens of millions lost their homes. Many if not most, were never again able to re-enter the home ownership market. What about the home occupier who had also lost his or her job and could not even afford payments on a mortgage even when it was reduced by 50%? For those cases, the government could introduce a mortgage repayment forgiveness program and gain incrementally up to another 25% of the increased profit of the home when it was sold.

As I will show in a future blog, the government did introduce a limited version of this but without any gain for the government. Why? I believe it was because the dominant analysis of what went wrong was erroneous. It was not primarily a combination of unscrupulous mortgage lenders and gullible and greedy buyers who could not afford their purchases. Obama would himself later agree about the misrepresentation of the buyers, but when it was too late. And he never really understood the core of what happened.

Next VII: The Obama Analysis and the 2009 Rescue

Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Part V: From the Personal to the Political Economic Crisis

Obama was always a political gambler. But never an economic one. He was suspicious – and rightly so – when many he personally knew “suddenly became fluent in the language of balloon payments, adjustable-rate mortgages, and the Case-Shiller Index.” (CSI 173) (The CSI was the leading U.S. measure of residential real estate prices that tracked the changes – up and down – of those prices.) The miniboom in house and condo prices should have meant that almost anyone owning property would and could make a profit, provided, of course, they got out of the market before prices fell. Obama did avoid the larger storm to come because he was off to Washington. The surprise is that it seemed that he did not make much on his condo.

Obama had been warned by a friend about the real estate bubble in the U.S. at the time and how inflated house prices were and how, with any weakening of the economy, many home buyers could not afford the debt they had assumed. A tremor had hit the Chicago real estate market. But a tsunami was on the way. Obama looked at the impending eruption from the perspective of a very conservative, innocent and cautious home buyer himself. And his summary of the crisis provided a clue, an analysis written with the benefit of hindsight and a quick course in real estate economics by his advisers.

“So long as housing prices kept going up everybody was happy: the family who could suddenly buy their dream house with no money down, the developers that couldn’t build houses fast enough to satisfy all these new customers, the banks that sold increasingly complex financial instruments at handsome profits, the hedge funds and investment banks that were placing bigger and bigger bets on these financial instruments with borrowed money; not to mention furniture retailers, carpet manufacturers, trade unions, and newspaper advertising departments, all of which had every incentive to keep the party going.” (174)

Though in other places in his book he might appear to contradict this apparent position, for Obama, the party started with the home buyer who had little or even no down payment. And it ended up with everyone buying into their share of the unsupported acquisitions in expectation of profits. A community of self-interest had been created that became an economic hazard for the commons.

But this is a terrible analysis of what happened and why. Obama’s analysis was upside down. You have to start with the brokers, the hedge fund managers and the banks to understand the bubble and why it went awry. The fault does not begin with the imprudent home buyer. (Obama later makes this argument.) Further, Obama saw the solution beginning with saving the financial institutions. That is where the analysis not the solution should have started. In contrast, the remedy should have started with how to save the homes for most home buyers who occupied those houses.

This isn’t bravura. Nor is it an attack on the rich and powerful. This critique is based both on personal experience and theoretical analysis. I begin with the experience. When I was a young untenured assistant professor at York University, I was invited to give a talk at the Harvard. Kennedy School. I was enormously flattered. But puzzled as well. My book, The Holiversity, with a few exceptions, had only a parochial interest. Perhaps it was my article on the new left as it was a rare self-critique that might have attracted attention. But it was published in Social Praxis, a journal with only a small circulation. Finally, and I mean finally, I figured out what it must have been. I had appeared as a keynote speaker at a Washington conference just before Eric Fromm gave another keynote that was really a preview of his book, The Art of Loving. The response to Fromm had been exhilarating. In contrast, my talk was derisively ignored, derisively because it was negatively compared to Fromm’s as the wheelie talk that preceded the feelie one. I spoke about the various techniques communities could use to acquire housing.

I was right about the reason for the invitation, but only came to that conclusion after my talk. I had not dared ask why I had been invited beforehand lest they discover they had invited the wrong person. When I got to Harvard about a half hour before my talk, I was taken to a conference room that normally would hold perhaps 40 people comfortably. The room was packed. There had to be 150 people in the room. Students were even sitting on one another. “Late-comers,” that is, those who came on time, had to stand in the hall and the double doors to the room were left open. I was in shock.

I was duly introduced and I should have suspected why I had been invited. Instead of citing any of my academic credentials, they noted how I had been the leading figure in creating student owned housing at UCLA, Ann Arbour in Michigan and at a number of campuses in Canada. They estimated, relatively accurately, that I had been involved in the acquisition and construction of real estate worth an estimated fifty million dollars in 1969 figures.

I had prepared a very academic talk. After all, this was Harvard. I turned my Washington talk, which was a mixture of practicality with a smattering of theory, into a purely theoretical exposition of my philosophical economic theory. It was called “Joyful Capital.” I reviewed theories based on beliefs in inherent natural value versus John Locke’s and Karl Marx’s views on the labour theory of value, with the notion that Marx had added to John Locke and Adam Smith the notion of excess value that capitalists exploited and skimmed off the top.

Both of those theories had represented ancient capitalism where value was based on the past – either an inherent natural one, or one based on traditions that envisioned different degrees of value inhering in different types of substances. Alternatively, modern theories were based on the amount of labour invested and present in converting what was found in nature into artifacts. However, in capitalist practice, the current market determined what an item could be sold at, not the amount of labour invested. In my theoretical position, capital value was based on future expectations. Could the item retain or even have its value enhanced in the future. Current markets did not matter so much as future desire. Manufactured cars depreciated. But property appreciated as it grew scarcer and scarcer. There was a finite amount. The trick for a growing economy was to use increasing land values to fund productive enterprises where one could envision the value increasing in the future. Capitalism was based on future hopes and bets rather than on labour inputs.

Then the questions came. I received not a single question about my theory. It was simply ignored. As I later summarized the crushing discounting of my intellectual ideas, all they wanted to know was how actually I did what I did – acquire property for those who had no or few assets against which they could borrow money, at least nowhere near the percentage normally required in standing lending practices. While I was disappointed deep down, I easily segued to how it was done. After all, building developers did it all the time. That is how huge real estate empires had been built relatively quickly (and, more recently, high tech companies in which investments had been acquired based on future earning projections).

In concrete terms, I broke down the process. First, there had to be a willing lender. After a significant lobbying effort, we had convinced the Canadian government to include an additional clause in their mortgage lending corporation (Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation – CMHC) to amend it to allow lending 90% of the costs of a building project to student-owned as well as university-owned housing. We had presented figures that demonstrated that we could build student housing to residential standards (in contrast to traditional university institutional standards) at one-third of the capital cost even when the costs included the acquisition of land.

Further, even though co-ops paid municipal taxes and universities did not, the operating costs, and hence the residential fees, would be 25% less for students than the costs of living in a university residence. At a time when enrollment in universities was expected to increase exponentially, the demand would always be there. Further, in the summer months, the co-op could run its facilities as a hotel.

But we still needed 10% equity. The mortgage was only for 90% of the project costs. The 10% was raised by:

  1. Selling the ground floor rights to build commercial space back to the developer for a $1 provided the developer gave us a second mortgage on the property equivalent to 5% of its gross costs;
  2. Selling one floor of the building to a fraternity whose property had recently been expropriated by the university;
  3. Getting the architects and engineers to give back 1% of the fees for the project.

These, and a few other methods, in fact, raised more than 10%. Variations on this system were adapted to the different circumstances of different campuses. The Harvard faculty and students had invited me as they had become engaged in activism and wanted to figure out how to build co-op housing for minority populations in Boston and Cambridge. The goal was laudable, but I still went home very depressed that my theoretical position had been totally ignored.

Further, I doubted if they could pull it off. After all, I had learned that whether the project was state owned, institutionally owned or user owned, entrepreneurship was required to develop it. From all the questions, I was not able to identify an entrepreneurial spirit in the bunch.

I had come to recognize this problem when I had been hired as a consultant by the Martin Luther Jr. Health Center in the Bronx to see if they could develop their own housing around their new facility. Every Friday, I flew down to La Guardia Airport on the first early flight to go to the Bathgate area in the Bronx to consult and study the problem. I quickly learned that it took deception to get there. I would get into a cab and fumble around among my papers to get the address until we were out on the highway. When I finally pronounced where I was going, the driver – every single one of them – swore at me. I had to pay before we arrived and when we did, the driver practically threw me out of the taxi and sped off. He would, I am sure, have abandoned me on the way except that he would have to line up again in the airport taxi lineup after missing a fare and a fee. So he just cursed.

Why? Because the Bathgate area of the Bronx was then a disaster zone. The largest medical centre built by the American government was located there to be used as a training facility to provide health skill training for residents of the Bronx and as a stimulant for redevelopment. The only problem was that this was an area in which one third of the homes had been burnt out, one-third had been vandalized so that they lacked plumbing and electricity, but most were occupied by squatters, and the final one-third were occupied but the housing would have been condemned if located in Toronto. Garbage was piled high in the street with lots of heroin needles scattered about. My hosts took me on a tour of four high rise public housing apartment buildings nearby. Windows had ben smashed. The walls were painted with graffiti. The exit stairwells were filthy. And several of the elevators in each of the buildings were out of order. To my shock, I learned that the complex was only three years old.

The plan to train locals had worked magnificently. The actual management was now in the joint hands of a Black woman and a Puerto Rican one who were superb administrators. But as soon as they got their jobs and saved some money, they moved out of the area. The problem was how to get people to move back into the area. The acuteness of the problem was made readily apparent every other Friday when I prepared to fly back to Toronto and got a lift out of the area. Just before I left, the employees collected in posses to be escorted out with armed guards, for on that day they had received their pay cheques.

In my research, I found that the landowners all around would have been happy to dispose of their lands for a $1 plus the payment of back taxes. We developed a plan developing owned housing within gated communities at great prices compared to other apartments in New York. The problem was that the residents in a survey indicated that even at a significant saving, they would not buy into the project. At the time, no developer was willing to take the risks. The plan was never implemented.

If there had been government leadership at the time, it would have helped considerably. For example, Ontario had a Tory government but, after the student co-ops had demonstrated how inexpensively student housing could be built, the government set up a student housing corporation to produce student housing for universities. I was induced to join the government to head it. But I declined, not wanting to give up my academic career and in fear of working within a bureaucratic environment. I also did not care for the legalized method of rewarding law, architecture and engineering firms who were party donors; I was unwilling to select firms only from those lists.

This was neither the first nor the last time my stubborn unwillingness to conform to what were then accepted practices closed off opportunities for me.

What has all of this to do with Obama? I merely want to communicate that Obama lacked any real experience with the housing market or any feel for how it operated. In the end, it was about facilitating ordinary people buying their own homes and how the various societal institutions facilitated that activity. The key ingredient was not the amount of equity the purchaser had but the amount of debt he or she could afford to carry provided there were normal income opportunities available.

If there were virtually none, then many homeowners would not be able to retain ownership unless there was assistance on the income side. Whatever the faults of the financial system – and there were many – this was the bottom line. The health of those financial systems would only be assured if homeownership was reinforced.

Further, if students lacking any significant and guaranteed income could end up owning property without any initial equity, why could not individuals already active in the employment market?

Exodus and Storming of The Capitol

I know that it may seem obscene to compare the Exodus to what happened in Washington, D,C. on 6 January 2021, specifically the storming of the Capitol. After all, Exodus is an archetypal tale of escape from slavery. The storming of the Capitol was led and perpetrated by racist white supremacists. The Exodus is a story of Jews seeking freedom and memorialized for thousands of years by those Jews on Passover. Though undertaken in the name of liberty, the storming of The Capitol; was infused with antisemitism. The Exodus took place thirty-three hundred years ago; the storming of The Capitol took place two days ago.

How can one possibly compare the ragtag anarchists and attackers on the citadel of democracy, the citadel of the rule of law, the citadel of the paradigm democracy for the whole world, to an escape from the clutches of an autocratic and oppressive regime? The storming of The Capitol was undertaken to continue the rule of a wannabe autocrat trying to consolidate his authoritarianism. Most importantly, the exodus was an effort to flee the clutches of a state while the storming of The Capitol was intended to recapture the state that they felt had been lost, a loss sealed by what to them had been a fraudulent election.

However, consider what the events in Exodus and the storming of The Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021 have in common? I can think of at least the following common themes for both sides:

  • Both were violent actions
  • Both were about the heart of a nation
  • Both were about liberation as the primary value
  • Both were about faith rather than a reference to facts and history, even as realism and facts and history were foundation stones for both the Hebrews and most of those under attack in The Citadel
  • Both were about the same personal sense of oppression – the liberationists from Egypt insisted that they were being suffocated in that country, just as the Black Lives Matter exponents echoed the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed lack man killed in 2014 after being killed by New York police in a chokehold

The revolutionary Hebrews and the Egyptian Restorationists had a different narrative to back up their position. Though the Hebrews told their story as an escape from slavery, in the long durée, in Egypt, the Hebrews had gone from being favourite sons of the Pharaoh when Joseph was alive with all kinds of special privileges and the most fertile land in Goshen, to becoming a marginalized people. The alt-right movement, like the ordinary Egyptians, had been reduced from freehold landowners to serf-like marginalists, even if, in the modern era, the central monopolists were the owners of agribusiness and big box stores. In its various strands, the Restorationists represented the resentment of people who felt themselves to have once belonged to a privileged people who had become marginalized in that society

However, the biggest and most significant comparison is that the Exodus was about retaining the purity of a people. But that is only an appearance. In reality, the expulsion or escape of the Hebrews was about the homogenization of Egypt just as attack on the Capitol was about a better system of purity, and the opposition symbolized miscegenation and multiculturalism.

The Restorationists are the ones that uphold an anti-miscegenation ideal. The Restorationists has as a leader a Pharoah-type central narcissistic figure who took himself to be at least an absolute monarch and even a god on earth to be idolized. The rebels in the Exodus story – the Hebrews trying to escape Egypt – must have been opposed, not just by the Pharaoh, even when he was targeted as the enemy, but ordinary Egyptians trying to take back their country from those they saw as an alien force within their country. In America, the ostensible restoration is against corruption at the centre – cleaning out the swamp – and the internationalists and globalists who, in their eagerness for wealth, have sold out the society in which they reside. The “people” wanted them to leave. But the Hebrews created a tale as if it was only the all-powerful Pharaoh and his acolytes that owned such a deep desire.

However, in Egypt, the rebels fled the state to take a journey in forging a nation, in marrying themselves to a Covenant, and in seeking a new physical and spiritual home. Exodus is at once a political, a psychological and a spiritual journey. In storming the Capitol, the insurrectionists wanted to recapture their heartland and their homeland, even if it meant the breach of The Constitution, the basic Covenant of American democracy.

The Hebrews are not analogous to the revolutionaries who stormed The Capitol but to those who the Restorationists want expelled. The Restorationist rebels are the Egyptians trying to retake power and control in their own country. In both cases, that of the Hebrews and that of the Egyptians, there is a conflict over what is seen as A Promised Land.  But, for the Hebrews, it became a vision of elsewhere, whereas for the Egyptians – and for the Restorationists – it is the recapture and restoration of a promised land that was once their own, as they saw the matter. The exodus is a drive towards a new utopia. The restoration is a drive towards recovery of a lost utopia, a dream of making America Great Again. The Hebrews had a dream of a promised land where the principle of equality would become supreme. The latter was a dream of progress, the former a dream of regress. The former is a vision and a promise. The latter is a myth of a lost world that needs to be recovered.

The Restorationists have a guide and leader – Donald Trump. Barack Obama was the Moses in opposition, now with Joe Biden in place as a high priest of a different set of values to that of the Pharaoh. The major difference is that, in the Exodus story in Egypt, the restoration is for one land and the transformation is for another. In the contemporary conflict – as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the violence is in the name of who will inherit the same land. The Exodus story is of one where the Restorations in Egypt won and the revolutionaries flee and turn their narrative into a tale of an escape to freedom instead of a loss of their homeland. But in the tale of the exodus, the tensions between the two parties will reassert itself again and again in new ways each time.

However, there is another thread that links the two tales, the contemporary and the ancient one. On one side were diviners and necromancers. On the other side are people who believe in education as the route to amelioration. They are those who espouse incrementalism and the creation and preservation of institutions. On the other side are those who distrust intellectuals, who scorn the pundits and view them as sellouts, who demand the expulsion of these foreign influences from their native land.

The irony, of course, is that the messianic impulse rests with the Hebrew revolutionaries rather than the Restorationists, even though a huge portion of evangelical Christianity backs the position of the Restorationists. That is because, the revolutionists believe in Final Days, a reckoning when the lamb will lie down with the lion, when people will live in peace and unity, while the Restorationists believe that, in the end, it is individuals that have to be born again. The state is merely a vehicle to that end. In contrast, the revolutionaries believe that it is the nation as a whole that must experience a rebirth.

The Restorationists in some sense are correct in their branding of their opponents as socialists and elitists. Because an analysis of the Democratic opposition suggests a party that had always been led by a self-selected elite, a socially crafted vanguard, just as Moses and his acolytes and priestly defenders once led the Hebrews.

In other words, just as Blacks do, I do not read the exodus tale as sui generis to the Jews, but as an archetypal tale in which the Exodus is not a unique history but rather a variation on a template. In the Egyptian story, the revolutionaries are the losers, more akin to the United Empire Loyalists who traveled north to Canada to stay within a constitutional fold and in compliance with international agreements with native inhabitants. The tension between keeping such contracts and breaching them evolves into a significant theme in the Exodus story.

At root is the question of who are the oppressors? From the ordinary Egyptian point of view, it is the Hebrews who conspired with a past Pharaoh to take their land when they were suffering and put those lands in the hands of large monopolists. The Hebrews saw themselves as the oppressed and the enslaved because the restoration of the singular Egyptian vision had already taken place. Now they experienced even a worse outcome than the Egyptian serfs. But the latter blamed the former for what had been their oppression. The Jews, however, left the ordinary Egyptian out of the story, largely made that population invisible, and focused all their attention almost exclusively on the Pharaoh and his immediate enablers.  

Among the revolutionaries, geological and patriarchal history of Genesis have been left behind. The Covenantal people of both the Exodus and the American experiment will conveniently forget that what they created was a democratic monarchy, but a monarchy nevertheless with enormous power in the hands of a central authority, power to be checked by the will of the people, but the will of the people when it rose up, destined to be repressed and oppressed. Further, while they remember the Joseph period of a past ideal when the Hebrews came close to the centre of power, what is only sketchily recalled as an afterthought is how that power was used, ostensibly to save the Egyptians from starvation but at the cost of their ownership of freehold land. That the ordinary people had increasingly been reduced to renters rather than owners under the new regime, was conveniently forgotten, especially in light of the new corporate collectivism entailed in building first a nation and then a state.

In the tale of the journey to the promised land in America, people from many lands fleeing oppression have come together to establish a new Jerusalem based on the Covenant of the Constitution and the rule of law, much as the system forged by the Hebrews en route to Israel to forge a collective destiny. For the Restorationists, that ideal lived in a past greatness that required restoration.

In Shemot, the first reading in Exodus scheduled for tomorrow, the tale begins as a story of population growth, of a replanted people who grew in numbers and consisted of different tribes, strains and backgrounds. The indigenous population was not defined as an integral part of this population, even though that population re-emerged again with their own effort to recover some status within a population of settlers that had expanded from a few transplants into a real multitude.

In America, a new elected monarch arose over America. He did not know Joseph. In fact, he really knew no history. But he said to his people, and he regarded them as his people as opposed to the others, that the incomers were becoming too numerous – the immigrants and refugees who were not native to this land. We have to stop their population increase urgently and now, for they are about to outnumber us if they have not already. Further, they are a potential fifth column who will ally with our enemies, a cosmopolitan culture rather than a distilled and purified Egyptian one. The face of that group was black and its soul was Jewish, so they had to be put back in their place as we Restorations retake our land and our lives.

But whatever the Restorationists tried, the multiculturalists and alien element within the body politic of America grew in numbers and threatened the way of life of purportedly “true” Americans. What to do? Enhance inequality rather than equality. Reduce THEM to serfs and slaves by significantly shrinking the middle class. Deprive them of the promise of an ability to own property just as once they had deprived us of our property rights. In fact, go further. Use the police to slay and incarcerate their youth. But while many complied, that population grew in status and even wealth. After all, native Americans – and I do not mean indigenous people – could not nearly keep up o the birthrate of these “foreigners.” Therefore, we must prevent their entry, imprison their oldest boys who are their natural macho men and leaders, and reduce them to aa penurious crowd without any leadership.

But from that group of misbegotten, a miscegynist horde, one emerged as a handsome child, loved exceedingly by his mother. She saved him from any oppression by infiltrating him into the centres of power until he captured the imagination and leadership of the people by first attacking oppressors in Chicago and going there to wed and have children. Eventually, he would receive a call. For, even though he was raised to become part of the intellectual and economic royalty, to go into politics and to lead his people to full freedom and sovereignty in the land where they had been reduced to slaves, history and its unfolding had as yet to be fulfilled.

Where was the volcano where Moses first heard his name called to fulfill his mission? Not until after he was elected. Not until after he was chosen. On 7 November, Obama visited Munt Merapi volcano in Indonesia just as Moses had come to Horeb in what is now south-west Saudi Arabia. Merapi and Moreb both belched lava and ash and turned the surrounding vegetation into burning bushes.

What did Obama preach when he spoke to the Indonesian Diaspora Congress in Jakarta in 2017 after the Restorationists had won power in Washington? Respect the other. Tolerance of differences and openness to others were supreme values. Pluralism mattered. So did the tule of law. But Obama warned: “We start seeing a rise in sectarian politics, we start seeing a rise in an aggressive kind of nationalism, we start seeing both in developed and developing countries an increased resentment about minority groups and the bad treatment of people who don’t look like us or practice the same faith as us. We start seeing discrimination against people based on race or ethnicity or religion.”

Like Moses, Barack Obama had been full of self-doubt. Who was he to presume a leadership let alone as the leader? Further, unlike Moses, his role was not to rescue his people, but all the people, and not to bring them out of the land but to let them stand on and live in that land with full dignity.

Hence, the Exodus story is a narrative for all peoples in all places, a paradigmatic tale that can make sense of fundamental divisions. Further, it is a tale that takes place in historical time and in particular locations. It is grounded rather than mythologically constructed. The belief in a better life belongs to the here and now. It is an archetypal tale of lordship and bondage to an arbitrary, inconsistent, moody, intemperate and very earthly figure as much as he dreamed of himself living in a golden heaven. But the revolutionaries in opposition to the Restorationists have an identical attraction to individual appropriation and the accumulation of wealth. They were brought up also as Egyptians and not only as prospective members of a Covenantal order. Materialism is also their Achilles’ heel.

As the tale unfolds of the fight between the revolutionaries and the Restorationists, within the former, the struggle will continue between passivity and activism, between Covenantal versus the apocalyptic politics of their enemies, between their belief that all humans are inherently equal and should be regarded with empathy and respect versus a recognition that their enemies threaten the realization of their dream. For the archetypal revolutionaries as well as Restorationists, the experience as Egyptians, continues to inhabit their souls.

Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Part IV: From Candidate to President-Elect and a Financial Crisis

I most shared with Obama his conviction that diplomacy had been neglected in favour of military solutions, especially in Iraq when the alleged problem was a chimera. “[T]he Washington foreign policy establishment got things backward – taking military action without first testing diplomatic options, observing diplomatic niceties in the interest of maintaining the status quo precisely when action was called for. It also indicated the degree to which decision makers in Washington consistently failed to level with the American people.” (99) But if Obama believed all of this, I looked forward to his explanation of why he re-appointed Robert Gates, a Republican, as Secretary of Defense.    

Of necessity, Obama wrote of the petty fights between the competing campaigns and after reading those pages, I wished I had skipped them. To me it was like taking a bath in gossip and the worst politics has to offer. But my intolerance for this dimension of the enterprise was just another reason why I could never be a successful politician, a calling which I consider the most ennobling in spite of its terribly rough edges.  

At the very opposite end of the spectrum was Obama’s analysis of why the organized Black community in good part held back from endorsing him, Part of the reason was the trust in and loyalty they felt towards Hillary Clinton. But perhaps a greater reason is because they just did not believe that America was ready for a Black president. They were, instead, “Unconvinced that victory was possible.” (117) They were also imbued with a “protective pessimism.” They did not want to see Barack Obama hurt. Instead, even his Black supporters often saw his race purely in symbolic terms.

This is where Obama’s audacity stands out. This is where his willingness to take risks shines. This is what actually provided the ground for his victory – he believed he could do it and America was ready for a Black president. Almost for that alone, he deserved to be elected. “I needed to use language that spoke to all Americans and propose policies that touched everyone – a topflight education for every child, quality healthcare for every American. I needed to embrace white people as allies rather than as impediments to change, and to couch the African American struggle in terms of a broader struggle for a fair, just, and generous society.” (118) Most of all, I liked the depiction that Obama belonged to the Joshua generation while those Black leaders who came before him belonged to the Moses generation as part of the unbroken chain leading Blacks back to a promised land.  Just as when Moses sent his spies ahead and then most reported back that a return would encounter too much opposition, Obama was “running against the implacable weight of the past, the inertia, fatalism and fear it produced.” (127)

Most important of all, Barack had Michelle. She was “funny and engaging, insightful and blunt” (133) and, I would add, unencumbered by either vanity or ambition.  Michelle, however, made one major gaffe that Obama took the blame for when she said that she had finally come to believe in America. It was a rhetorical error, not comparable to the three major mistakes Obama took responsibility for in the final stages of seeking the nomination:

  1. He failed, or his team failed, to do their research on Reverend Wright, Obama’s own pastor, who, in sermons, characterized America in the most offensive terms and which Obama handled by making the gut-wrenching decision of resigning from his church, thereby stemming the hemorrhaging of support.
  2. He himself made a more important rhetorical slip, perhaps not as bad as when Hillary Clinton referred to the supporters of her Republican opponent as “deplorables,” but almost as bad when he described the same constituency as “bitter’ and “clinging” to guns and religion.
  3. He made a very serious tactical error when he had almost clinched the presidential nomination, but then spread his campaign energies and resources across late primaries in Texas, Nebraska, Idaho and Iowa where Hillary ended up winning clear victories in both Texas and Iowa.  

Obama, however, recovered. He went on to win the nomination. The next challenge, and the most important, was the election.

Obama’s first and last job as a candidate had to do with Hillary Clinton. Though the Democratic Party needed unification – as it does after every leadership campaign – Obama convinced me that the last and most important post he filled, that of Secretary of State, was with Hillary, but not primarily for the purpose of healing the party but because he admired her so much. Perhaps this is because Obama is a good salesperson. He convinced Hillary that this was his motive. He convinced me.

His first decision was to choose a running mate. He presented the arguments for choosing Joe Biden over Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia. He chose Joe because of the breadth of his experience, his detailed knowledge of Washington and the warmth of his empathetic character. “On domestic issues, he was smart, practical and did his homework. His experience in foreign policy was broad and deep.” (163) Obama was impressed with his skills and discipline as a debater. He did not know how absolutely loyal he would be. He did know that his own marital partner, Michelle, would also have his back, as much as she was wary of any political involvement on the national stage, and, when given the chance, would reveal her own star power.

What he did not control was the choice of his Republican opponent. John McCain was a formidable choice – a genuine war hero, a man of principle and insight, a man who would silence his own supporter’s boos at the mention of Obama’s name, insisting that his opponent be treated with the respect that he deserved. McCain, however, had three fatal flaws. First, George W. Bush had left him with a political and military mess in the international arena – both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the push from Dick Chaney and Donald Rumsfeld, American had invaded Iraq under the lie that the country had weapons of mass destruction.

That invasion and conquest were compounded by a dismantling of both Iraq’s predominantly Sunni army and civil service. On 11 May 2003, Paul Bremer was named to head the Coalition Provisional Authority. Twelve days later, he issued the order to dismantle the entire Iraqi military apparatus instead of just weeding out Saddam Hussein’s henchmen. He did this without the authority of either the Pentagon or the White House. In fact, that action ran contrary to Anthony Zinni’s contingency plan as Chief of the Central Command up until 2000. In case of an invasion of Iraq, the U.S. was to use the army to build a new regime should the U.S. choose to take Saddam Hussein out. As a consequence of dismantling the Iraqi military, the Americans were left without a local military force to combat an insurgency while, at the same time, providing those insurgency forces with military-trained leadership and recruits. The new Shi’ite Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, filled the new army with untrained (and corrupt) cronies as he used American military financial support to fill his and the pockets of his friends.

The United States was left with managing a Shi’ite dominated state fast becoming a satrap of America’s sworn enemy, Iran. It was a horrific situation for America which had become embroiled in a war that seemed it could only extricate itself by leaving behind a thoroughly corrupt government increasingly beholden to Iran.

The 43rd President of the United States also bequeathed to his successors the worst economic crisis for the United States since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, McCain knew nothing about fiscal and economic policy. Further, he did little to learn, even once he had been nominated as the candidate for the Republican Party. This was particularly difficult when he led a party distrustful of big government intervention and a deficit recovery at precisely a time when both were sorely needed.

Third, McCain headed a much more divided party than Obama did. After all, he was identified as a RINO – a Republican In Name Only – in a party increasingly dominated by rightwing populism, the part of the party most needed to rouse the passion of its supporters – with all the dangerous consequences that we observed yesterday in the storming of The Capitol. With inadequate vetting, McCain chose as his running mate, Sarah Palin, an exemplar of that wing who immediately upon her selection brought a bracing wind behind the sails of the GOP, attracting and rousing the same crowds to whom Donald Trump would eventually appeal. However, her basic knowledge of both foreign and domestic affairs indicated even more ignorance, if that is possible to imagine, than the candidate who would win the primaries for the 2016 election. “And what became abundantly clear as soon as Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight was that on just about every subject relevant to governing the country, she had absolutely no idea of what the hell she was talking about.” (170)

Paired with a partner who was the epitome of stupidity – not a fatal flaw as Donald Trump would demonstrate – but exacerbated by two foreign wars which America did not seem able to win and an economic crisis that threatened the very viability of the U.S. without sufficient economic smarts to deal with the crisis, Obama could effectively stroll from being the Democratic candidate to becoming the president-elect.

Obama, in contrast to his Republican opposition, became a sample of a fast learner who could travel abroad and earn a degree in a short and intense course in international affairs. He could also study what had happened to the economy advised by an economic brains trust. But his learning simply covered up but did not eliminate his ignorance in both foreign affairs and in economic and fiscal policy.

The latter ignorance began with his own personal finances. He was a state Senator, a university professor and a part-time legal practitioner. His wife was a successful lawyer and subsequently an administrator. Yet with their combined income on top of their student debt, all they could afford was an older condo apartment for themselves and their two children. It cost them $227,500. They paid 40% down with financial help from Obama’s grandmother, Toot. (172) “[W]hile the principal on our college and law school; loans never seemed to decrease, money was perpetually tight, our credit card balances grew, we had little in the way of savings.” Obama had to be talked into the benefits of paying off his high interest credit card loans using credit from his home equity by a mortgage broker. Would or should anyone trust putting the American (and the world) economy in the hands of someone so abysmally ignorant of the role of credit and debt in accumulating assets?

I ask this question of a man that I admire, even revere. But, as I will try to show, I was very critical of the way he handled the economic crisis, even though his Republican opponents would have been so much worse. My distrust was confirmed with the way he handled his personal finances. I speak out of some experience.

When I was sixteen, my older brother, Al, and I bought my mother a story-and-a-half house, our first owned home, at 89 Ranee Avenue in Toronto. It cost $15,900. If my mother and my youngest brother used the dining room on the first floor as their bedroom and my brother and I slept in the finished basement, we could rent the second floor with a separate entrance from the side to a couple and the income could cover the taxes and the mortgage costs. The mortgage was $10,000 and a CMHC insured mortgage interest rate was then 5 3/8% with a twenty-five year amortization rate. It meant that our monthly mortgage payment would be just over $60. With heat and electricity, taxes and water bills, if we rented the apartment for $90 a month, we could live almost rent free – which is how my mother got by as a single mother with three kids when we rented entire houses and sublet sufficiently to pay our rent plus most of the expenses.

Where did we get the down payment? We had been saving my brother and my earnings since I was twelve. We always had jobs. We had paper routes, We ran the second largest syndicate selling ribbons at football games. We scalped tickets at football and hockey games. I remember the Christmas of 1952 when I was still fourteen and we lived at 592 Palmerston Avenue. We counted our earnings for Christmas week; we had netted almost $300 for the week:

                   Paper routes                                                  $  30

                   Prize money for new subscriptions – 2nd prize   50

  •    3rd prize    25

Christmas tips                                                      30

Ribbon business                                                  45

Football ticket scalping                                    45

Hockey ticket scalping                                    65

Total                                                           $290

It was cash income. My brother and I spent almost nothing on personal expenses. It helped that we did not have cell phones in those days. Over four years, with the big boost from summer earnings when my paper route alone expanded to 560 papers per day or when we got full time summer jobs, we managed to save $3000 in cash and secured an interest only loan of $3,000, now called a line of credit, the payment on which we could finance out of our earnings.

After I moved downtown when we went to university, my mother remarried, sold the house, repaid the $3,000 and was left with a little nest egg. Al and I were in the same grade. We both went to medical school. We accumulated no debts from university since one way or another we managed to live rent free and earn enough money for food. Fortunately, my school fees were covered by scholarships.

I also became the manager of the student co-op residence at the university which owned four houses when I took over in the summer of 1957. Eight years later, the co-op owned 28 houses and we were building new residences in Waterloo and Toronto. In the meanwhile, I had married. By the time I was a 27-year-old and just finishing graduate school, my wife and I had four children over a five-year period. We always lived well by following the same pattern as my mother had – renting houses and subletting parts to pay the rent and running costs. Finally, when I got my appointment in 1966 at York University and, our rented farm hose had burned down, we had collected $3,000 for the loss of all our possessions. We borrowed money from banks and got a mortgage to purchase an enormous house for $80,000 cash and with mortgage and bank loans managed to still have $1500 when we moved into 51` Wells Hill Avenue where we rented out three separate apartments.

This is all said to indicate my practical bona fides. In spite of all my involvement in social causes, we acquired assets by knowing how to borrow money to acquire assets. Even though he was a brilliant student, Barack Obama had no clue how to do this. When he became a U.S. Senator, they sold their East View Park condo “at a price high enough to cover our mortgage and home equity loan and make a small profit.” (173)

This personal financial naivete affected how he handled the inherited financial crisis.

Part V: From the Personal to the Political Economic Crisis

Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Part III: From Seeking the Nomination to Candidate

Obama was not always lucky. After all, he was not Irish. But he did have Irish blood. His forefather had been a boot maker who lived only 5 km. from Joe Biden’s ancestors in Ireland and practicing the same profession. When he ran against Bobby Rush, Obama was plagued with bad luck. He lost by thirty points. Biden was more Irish, but he lost several races for the presidency. Irish luck has its limits.

Obama also had the benefit that he was a very fast learner, and the lessons he gained were many:

  • Lace speeches with humour
  • Wrap them in inspiration
  • Be open about yourself
  • Respect political nuts and bolts and attend to detail and the ground game
  • Be prepared for the unexpected
  • Resilience is an absolute necessity in order to handle inevitable setbacks
  • The importance of path dependency – it is not the end point or the final cause that is a major determinant of action, but the need to justify choices already made
  • Face it – ego and envy of others also play a role
  • Hire key aides who have mastered an encyclopedic knowledge of the local political scene in which they operate – Dan Showman in Illinois
  • Not addressing an audience but listening to constituents and their daily confrontations with the challenges they encountered was the most critical aspect of a successful politician – not necessarily in getting elected, but in delivering on policies that helped one’s constituents
  • Politics is a bridging not a dividing exercise
  • In American politics, money is what fuels a campaign; a candidate must demonstrate an ability to raise loads of it, in Obama’s case, without selling out his soul
  • The importance of magic – or what the Obama called magic beans – such as the reliance on earnings from a book that Obama would write but which was nowhere in sight. Michelle: “In other words, you’ve got some magic beans in your pocket. That’s what you’re telling me. You have some magic beans and you’re going to plant them, and overnight a huge beanstalk is growing to grow high into the sky, and you’ll climb up the beanstalk, kill the giant who lives in the clouds, and then bring home a goose that lays golden eggs. Is that it?” And it was. Barack Obama had magic beans in his pocket (or charms constituents gave him), only, in climbing the beanstalk, he had to displace a number of giants on the way and not just the one at the top.
  • Campaigns are NOT about the candidate; rather the candidate was the conduit for the frustrations, disappointments, challenges and hopes of his or her constituents
  • It is important not just to win more votes, but to win across the board from all demographics, from urban and rural areas and from all geographical regions
  • Cadence, your speeches have to have cadence, a flow, a pattern and a rhythm, and one that is unique to the speaker, just as a jazz player or an artist has a recognizable signature
  • In addition to cadence, there are seven other crucial c’s – confidence, conviction, commitment, consistency, cash, a coalition and a cohort of brilliant advisers and helpers
  • A candidate has to be able to feed off the energy and emotion of his or her audience
  • Appreciate, recognize, thank and, most importantly, listen to the excellent staff – policy experts, political strategists, speech writers, publicists, logistic managers, etc. – you must assemble and realize that they, more than yourself, are responsible for your victory
  • Watch your choice of words – you may oppose the Iraq War, but never assert that the lives of American soldiers lost in the war were “wasted” – the policy of invasion was undoubtedly wrong and Obama’s initial opposition was certainly right, but that did not mean that you could not recognize and appreciate the bravery of the men and women who died for their country; characterizing their lives as wasted was to disparage not only the policy but the people entrusted to carry out that policy
  • Timing – as Ted Kennedy told Obama, “you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you.”
  • Novelty may have more value than depth of experience, especially when running on a platform of change
  • Motive cannot be underestimated in assessing a candidate for public office, whether it is a sense of monomaniacal narcissism as Donald Trump displayed, or the final argument Obama made to Michelle to get her required buy-in for Obama to run for president – “Here’s one thing I know for sure, though. I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around the country – Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in – they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone…that should be worth it.” (77)

“Well, honey,” Michelle said finally, “that was a pretty good answer.”

Obama not only recognized the skills needed for a successful politician, but he built on his natural endowment and mastered those skills. He put them into practice. At key moments, he would rise to the occasion and deliver a great speech, laced with humour, wrapped in inspiration while engaged in just the right amount of self-revelation. On a February morning in 2007 in the old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, in the very spot where Abe Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech on 16 June 1858, Obama announced his candidacy.

If he had been Joe Biden in 2020, he would have echoed Abraham Lincoln. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half believing in fiction and half in science and logic. The union will not be dissolved. The house will not fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become one thing or the other.

This was not Obama’s speech. I never heard Obama’s speech at the time. I was in Australia in my second year as a Senior Research Fellow at the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. I had completed my work with Astri Suhrke on the Rwanda Genocide (The Path of a Genocide: the Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire) and as associate editor of the three volume, Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. I had just published a volume on Humanitarian Intervention in Zaire and, with my shift to Australia, my focus also shifted from Africa to south-east Asia. I was preparing a volume on protracted refugee situations in both regions. But I continued my work on political racist approaches and attitudes. It was at that time that I published an essay on the hijab controversy in France (“Rights and the Hijab: Rationality and Discourse in the Public Sphere”) for volume 8 of Human Rights & Human Welfare published by the University of Denver.

I subsequently read Obama’s speech. It was about the fundamental divisions in America. But mostly it was about what America must become. It was about what America could be. He told his audience, “you came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that’s shut you out, that’s told you to settle, that’s divided us for too long, you believe that we can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building that more perfect union.”

When I worked in East Africa and in south-east Asia, I do not recall of ever speaking or writing of peace, but of managing, mitigating and minimizing violent conflict. These were not the same as peace, order and good government. Obama spoke in terms of a dream, a dream of a more perfect union. I wrote about incrementalism, about amelioration, about decreasing the amount of suffering and discrimination in the world and sources of conflict.

Obama had come to Illinois “to build a better America.” I traveled the world to make it not as bad as it was. Obama in his speech spoke of his experiences and roles. I wrote in the detached idiom of social science and philosophy. Who I was did not matter. I could never write let alone give a speech saying that “when a child turns to violence, I came to realize that there’s a hole in that boy’s heart that no government could ever fill.” For me, the function of governance was not primarily about enhancing economic opportunity, as valid a goal as that was, but about not murdering 800,000 civilians in ten weeks in Rwanda. It was about making “Never Again” real and not a dream.

Obama assumed “the best in people.” I encountered the worst. Obama sought to implement health care that Canada and other advanced democracies had provided its citizens for four decades at the least. Obama sought fairer tax systems and even ethics reform. Anthony Lang in his 2007 volume at that time, Crime and Punishment: Holding States Accountable, hailed my (and others’) efforts at introducing an ethics of responsibility and accountability for states on the international stage. For Obama, the international stage was a realm for realpolitik; ethics was to be applied to equality primarily on the domestic stage. I was writing on just war theory and its application to the violent conflict in Gaza. (“Research on the Ethics of War in the Context of Violence in Gaza” Journal of Academic Ethics 7:93-113, 2009) Obama was focused on America even when he advocated getting out of Iraq.

Obama described a myth of America as a country seeking freedom from tyranny, not of the reality of a country seeking freedom to invade and take over the lands of indigenous people with whom Britain had signed treaties. In American hagiography, George Washington was an idealist, not a land speculator in the “Indian territories.” Obama was answering a call. Obama possessed “an unyielding faith.” The audacity of hope was inspiring, but, in the end, far from enlightening. He spoke of marrying words to a will for change. As much as I worked for change, I could never be inspiring. But I could give witness. I could offer analysis. I could recommend change.

Obama concluded that it was not the absence of sound policies that held us back. “What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics.” I argued that what stopped us was the brilliance of bad leaders and the enormity of destructive politics and “big” ideas. As much as Obama referred back to the will and participation of the people, he was an advocate of the grandeur of the leader, the emphasis on the particular traits and behavior of gifted individuals, not those holding power over their followers, but those set in their midst to inspire them and offer direction. As participatory as Obama was and is, I have found leadership in everyday practices where we are not dependent on mobilizers but on co-creators. Obama had been raised in the ideals of a democratic monarchy in spite of being a community organizer inspired by Saul Alinsky while I have witnessed leadership actually at work in a cooperative and community context.

I recognize that leadership in terms of the romantic individualist end of the spectrum is the opposite of leadership in a collective enterprise, and that in the context of America, Obama was much closer to the latter than the vast majority of Americans. But from my perspective, he was still imbued with the idea of great leaders as much as he acknowledged the strength and wisdom of the team he led.

His analysis of how they pulled off the victory in the Ohio primary is a textbook study invaluable for any political science course on how the ground “war” can offset inexperience and even gaffes. He was learning not to be an academic, not to be circuitous and ponderous. Not to be wordy but to speak in sound bites. Further, mood was important. He had to learn not to be grumpy about the tribulations of campaigning, but to find joy in meeting and listening to people. He also learned how to tell stories more than argue policies. He had to learn – and he did – to be a “happy warrior.”

Ironically, his main opponent was also a model. Though overly scripted, Hillary Clinton was “hardworking, personable, and always impeccably prepared. She also had a good hearty laugh that tended to lighten the mood of everyone around her.” (88) Most of all, she taught him by being a counter example, the type of politician he could not afford to become – “people were moved by emotions, not facts.” That lesson helped Obama beat Hillary Clinton. It was not a posture that came naturally to him. But Obama was a quick learner except when it came to detailed management skills. His unique contribution was that he was even-tempered, extraordinarily analytical, and very skeptical of convention and pretense.

Most of all – and in such a contrast with Donald Trump – he knew how to attract and retain talent. His depictions of the roles of David Plouffe, David Axelrod and Paul Tewes are not only insightful, but clear indications of a generosity of spirit and a willingness to give credit where credit is due. Tewes was the General Patton who led and won the ground battle in Ohio by creating an effective political movement. RESPECT. EMPOWER. INCLUDE. However much Obama was also attracted to romantic views of political leadership, his team kept him grounded in the belief that he did hold that politics was more about community and connection than about power and positioning.

The question soon became how to use that acquired power.

Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Part II: National Identity, Serendipity and the Right Skills

I recall Irwin Cotler calling me up and soliciting my advice. He had been asked to run for the Liberal Party in Westmount. Irwin was a driven man – driven to fulfill himself and to make the world a better place. But I asked, why politics? It is such a public realm. You expose yourself and at the same time have to deal with all kinds of distractions and bothersome details. But in discouraging him, I failed to take account of who he was, what was good for him and how much more he could contribute to the world if he entered the political fray. Thank goodness, he ignored my advice and my projection of my own character and preferences on him. And he continued to go on to make even greater accomplishments.

Obama too had initially viewed politics as a disrespectful dubious profession for people with blow-dried hair, wolfish grins, bromides and self-peddling. (11) But he went into the fray determined to retain his integrity while coping with all the downsides of the role. On the way, he encountered other models of important politicians with their own version of integrity and different combinations of skills who became his mentors. He lost his self-righteous disrespect for the political game without significantly compromising who he was, who he wanted to be and what he wanted to accomplish. He believed as I did that democracy was not a transactional exercise but an opportunity for a variety of people to express themselves and help determine a collective outcome better for all of us.

When Obama went to Columbia University for his last two years of college, he lived like a monk. As I read his account, I thought of living at 11 Harbord Street in Toronto in a coop that I managed, practicing Hatha yoga and living as a vegetarian with a very rigid schedule and my own lists of what I had to accomplish and read. I was still in medical school and, in order to read as much as I planned to make up for my gross ignorance, I was determined to limit my medical studies to a maximum of two hours every evening. This should have been a clue that I wanted to read philosophy and literature and especially read plays rather than study Gray’s anatomy or Ham’s physiology. There is a glimpse in his memoir that Obama during that period might have been as self-righteous and humourless as I was at the time.

That similarity was a possibility. But another was a certainty. Obama knew that he was not ready yet to accomplish much. “That uncertainty, that self-doubt, kept me from settling too quickly on easy answers. I got into the habit of questioning my own assumptions, and this, I think, ultimately came in handy, not only because it prevented me from becoming insufferable, but because it inoculated me against the revolutionary formulas embraced by a lot of people on the left at the dawn of the Reagan era.” (13)

But a distinction must be made – between questioning one’s own assumptions, questioning one’s own abilities versus questioning one’s self. Obama did not second guess himself. That is not what he means when he says he had self-doubt. He means that he was not a dogmatist. Further, he was always aware of the limitations as well as the proficiencies he brought to a task.

The issue of dogmatism and questioning existed acutely in the thirties and at the dawn of the fifties for me. Almost all my friends, including my brother with whom I was closest and in the same medical year, were admirers of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. I read translations of Castro’s speeches. In one in particular that had lasted 3½ hours, he addressed the federation of farmers’ cooperatives in Cuba. He told them that there was a shortage of seeds. Since those farmers only represented their own members and the interests of those members, he argued, he would have to allocate the limited supply of seeds only to collective farms which operated according to the interests of the whole state.

The cooperatives voted overwhelmingly to convert to state-owned collective farms. I thought Castro had acted like Joseph when he was vizier in Egypt and distributed grain during the famine only when the farmers voted to give up their freehold land and become serfs of Pharaoh. It was blackmail, pure and simple. When they had agreed to become serfs – in Egypt and in Cuba – suddenly there was enough grain or seeds for everyone. It was a shell game and I cannot count the number of arguments I had with my friends over my disparagement of their hero, Fidel Castro.

There was a major difference between myself and Barack Obama even though I was against Castro. He was an American. He believed in American exceptionalism. “America was the greatest country on earth – that was always a given.” (13) I was a Canadian at a time when we were discovering that we had a vision of ourselves as “beautiful losers.” We thought, or used to think, we were second best. Over and over, we had sold our inventions and our resources out to the Americans at bargain prices. But when we travelled south on the freedom marches, when we saw the horrific war that America fought against the Vietnamese in the sixties, by 1967 and the Canadian centenary, we had become proud Canadians. We were proud of our new flag. We took special pride that Americans wore Canadian flags on the backs of their jackets, otherwise they risked getting disparaged as they backpacked through Europe.

We overlapped in another sphere. In 1983, when Obama graduated from Columbia, he went to Chicago to become a community organizer. A little more than two decades earlier, I had become the co-initiator and president of the University of Toronto branch of the Combined Universities Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament. (CUCND) At the same time, I was a manager and developer of student co-op housing and grew the enterprise from four owned houses to twenty-eight. By the latter half of the sixties, we were building new coops in Waterloo and planning Rochdale and Neill-Wycik Colleges in Toronto.

In between, I had traveled on marches down to Washington and to the southern United States. We learned to become extremely critical of American exceptionalism as we developed our own sense of Canada as a very unique polity. Though I witnessed the racism Obama was up against, I never experienced it personally as he had. Though we named the three houses in the Dag Hammarskjold Co-op at the University of Waterloo after Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner who had been murdered by racists in the American south, I had never experienced any very serious antisemitism. As a kid, we avoided the territory controlled by the Jersey Gang when we went for Passover at my mother’s uncle’s apartment above a store on College west of Clinton Street. There was a sort of quota for Jews for entry into medical school by insisting that entrants be distributed throughout the province otherwise half the class would have come from Harbord Collegiate in Toronto if entry was based only on Grade XIII provincial exams. But even then, when Jews were about 2% of the population, 25% of our medical class consisted of Jews.

Once in an anatomy class, our professor was drawing back muscles on the blackboard with certain characteristic striations. If we were ordering a chuck steak from a cow, it would have a similar configuration, we were advised, and if it did not, you would know the butcher was trying to jew you. The silence in the class was palpable. The professor turned around to see what was wrong. Detecting nothing, he went back to the blackboard and his lecture. He was not an antisemite in any way we could detect. He was just insensitive and was still using “jew” as a verb to mean “cheat.” We were as guilty when we used “gyp” for the same meaning. Nothing was said to him, but we all became much more self-conscious of our own use of racist terms.

People, as Obama discovered, were mostly basically decent. The new age was dawning in which the conviction had begun to instill itself that the threads that united us were far more important than the divisive ones. At least this was what Obama professed to believe and preached. I have my doubts. People can be full of malice. Obama recognized this but tended to underplay it.

One additional lesson from my initial introduction to Barack Obama. In my co-op work, in my anti-nuclear organizing, in my participation in the Student Union for Peace Action, and especially in my efforts to establish a utopian vision of a university that I later learned really harked back to the amateur university of the early nineteenth century primarily dedicated to training the elite that would govern the society, I became an institutionalist. I learned that without continuity, without structures, without organization without proper governance, chaos would ensue. That is what happened in Rochdale College to my everlasting shame as one of the co-founders. Obama, like myself, is an institutionalist.

I also learned that in politics, hope is not enough. Obama believes in America. Obama believes in the power and ideals of American citizens. Recall that the audacity of hope became his trademark as did, “Yes we can.” But Obama knows that to realise those embedded ideals requires much more than hope. That hope had to be tempered with straight talk that was both clear, concise and forceful. For Barack, Michelle provided the standard. Hope was not only tempered with realism but driven by hard work. When Obama faced choices when two roads diverged in the wood, he ALWAYS saw himself as taking the harder and more demanding path.  As we shall see, I have reasons to question whether this self-assessment was always correct.

At the same time, we also learn how much of a sentimentalist Obama was. His mother’s death during his first political campaign unnerved him and he felt deep shame because he was not beside her in Hawaii when she died. He cried. He was beside his grandmother, “Toot” when she died just when he was preparing for his inauguration as president. Toot had congratulated him for “a very nice speech.” And then added, “You know I’m proud of you, don’t you?” Barack replied, “I know,” I said.” And it was only after I hung up that I allowed myself to cry.” (143) He also wiped away his tears again a few years later. “Right there, in that high school in the middle of the country on a cold winter night [He had been campaigning for the presidential nomination in Ohio] I had witnessed the community I had so long sought, the America I imagined made manifest. I thought of my mom then, and how happy she would have been to see it, and how proud she would have been, and I missed her terribly.” (107)

Barack Obama had to become president – for his mother, for his grandmother and for all the Blacks and whites in America who dreamed of a better country.

I also believe that it is critical that leaders inspire their citizens with hope. But for me, hope is an abstraction, not something to which I aspire or rely on. I am much more of a cynic. I counter the cynicism with the mantra that whatever the outcome, it is our obligation to work for change for the better even when there seems to be no sign of hope. The difference is important. A believer in hope is so much more effective in the political game.

However, though Obama and I differ in the role we allow hope to play, we are both indefatigable workers. But given two diverging paths, I almost always will take the easier one. In that sense, I have been very lucky – somehow the opportunities and paths that opened up were not very difficult to follow up successfully. It was a very different time, especially than now, when the world was literally our oyster.

But whether inspired by hope or resigned to realistic pessimism, serendipity is even more crucial. “Accidents and happenstance determine more than we care to admit.” (65) Look at Obama’s career – even just noting the different phases of that career up until he ran to be a presidential candidate:

  1. Political opportunities suddenly appeared when politicians occupying positions turned out to be crooks or where there were other

scandals; alternatively, they made other than the expected choices and left openings for him:

  1. Mel Reynolds, the congressman from the Second District of Illinois, had been indicted on several charges, including allegedly having sex with a sixteen-year-old volunteer campaign worker; an opportunity to run for office suddenly opened up
  2. State Senator Alice Palmer as a state senator wanted that seat in the federal legislature so did not run against Obama
  3. When he decided to first run for the U.S. Senate, there was no incumbent because Senator Carol Moseley Braun because of self-inflicted wounds from financial scandals
  4. Obama’s Republican opponent for the Illinois Senate race was Peter Fitzgerald, a wealthy, ultra conservative and humourless banker who withdrew from the race at the last minute
  5. His closest rival for the Senate Democratic nomination had his legal papers released from his divorce during the campaign in which his wife alleged abuse
  6. His Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, ran a bad campaign and, at one point, criticized Obama as a big spender using numbers that were widely off base.
  7. The support Obama had from his wife and mother, the two most important women in his life
  8. His success in attracting first class aides, such as Ron Davis who ensured that he had four times the number of accurate petitioners nominating him for office
  9. Alice Palmer reneged on her promise and decided to run again for the State Senate, but she lacked competent assistance and her petition for the nomination was a mess, with repeated names, indecipherable, ineligible out-of-district names and not nearly the seven hundred needed in the end
  10. Because no one wanted the job, thinking it was full of traps to make enemies, he was the only one open, even eager, to take up the task
  11. He was able to pair with Republican Kirk Dillard in the Illinois legislature to forge and get passed a law setting ethical boundaries for people running or in office
  12. He entered the political scene just when openings appeared to transform the Republican pattern of gerrymandering in Illinois to ensure a Republican majority
  13. Illinois at the time was becoming increasingly Democratic
  14. Getting David Axelrod (Axe) to join his campaign
  15. Given the extent of his victory on the first ballot against seven rivals for the Democratic candidate would-be’s, Obama was invited to address the Democratic National Convention; his speech there, in addition to making him a political star, propelled his book from the remainder table to a new best-selling edition that resolved his and Michelle’s money worries.

Luck may be very important. But so are intelligence and political skills.

Next: Part III: From Seeking the Nomination to Candidate

Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I Introduction

This is not a review of Obama’s book. Rather, it is about using Obama’s book to reflect on who he is and what he stands for, but mostly it is about who I am and what I stand for as I reflect on those questions in response to my reading his book. My writing will flow as I read the book. I invite readers to come along for the ride and read the book alongside me. As you can imagine, very few books have this effect upon me. I occasionally break through my wariness at reflecting on my life. But reading Obama almost compels me to do so. One question I ask myself as I begin reading is why? Hopefully, I will have an answer by the end.

Of course, Obama’s book is important for history as he reflects on the people and events in which he played such an important part. You should read the book for those discussions as, at most, I will only refer to them, and then only insofar as his account makes me reflect on what my position was at the time and whether it has changed. The question is: what does Obama’s response say about him? What does my response to his response say about me? For we are both creatures of our time and, in the case of Obama with his clarity of thinking and writing style, easily invites the reader to view the world through his eyes. If I accomplish only an iota of that success, I will consider my “responsa” to be well worthwhile.

There is a second thread through the book – Obama’s encounters with ordinary people, from the gardener who worked for forty years in the White House to a constituent he talked to in southern Illinois. Obama has a unique ability to make contact on this level. When I was involved in helping create an early warming and conflict prevention system in East Africa, I worked alongside the former head of the Kenyan civil service in developing CEWARN, Conflict Early Warning and Response Network, that was launched in 2002 under the auspices of IGAD, the seven-country Inter-Government Authority for Development in East Africa. He was a Nelson Mandela type diplomat and political animal that I have only met in Africa. Call him KNM. Among his many accomplishments, he had been the key mediator for resolving the conflict between FRELIMO and RENAMO in Mozambique in 1992. He would go on to help forge the initial very tenuous peace agreement from 1999 to 2000 for Somalia, the Addis Ababa Agreement.

I recall when the two of us were in Addis Ababa to attend a meeting with representatives of USAID at 10:00 a.m. We had arrived that morning from Nairobi and the plane had run late. It was already 10:05 when we reached the hotel. The meeting was on the mezzanine level. As we entered the hotel, KNM greeted the doorman by name and asked about his two children – also by name. When we got to the front desk to get directions to the meeting room, after saying good morning to the other two clerks whom he knew, the woman – really just a girl in her late teens – behind the desk was new. KNM asked for directions but immediately also asked her for her name, inquired about her family and background and engaged her in an 8-minute conversation as I stood impatiently shuffling back and forth, glancing at the clock on the back wall of the check-in desk.

As we headed up to the meeting and I hurried him along, he said that he had noticed me nervously looking at the clock. What I had to learn was that that these ordinary citizens we were running into were more important for our complex system for warning and averting violent conflict than the high-up funders from USAID in Washington whom we would be meeting. The latter could wait an extra ten minutes. The opportunity to get to know that girl could not be missed.

When Obama described stopping to talk to the White House gardener as he went from his residence in the West Wing along the colonnade to his Oval Office, I thought of KNM. Obama may have scarcely known his Kenyan father, but, somehow, he had inherited those amazing political genes and genius that I have only encountered so extensively in individuals in Africa, what is often called “the common touch.” Of course, Nelson Mandela was the epitome.

Obama inherited a country deeply immersed in a fruitless and stupid war in Iraq and an economy on the brink of total collapse. When he left office eight years later, the country was incomparably better off until his successor took over. Four years later, Trump is on the verge of leaving office with the country reeling economically in the midst of a pandemic in which 1 in every 1,000 Americans has died, where racial divisions that many of us had thought were behind us had forced protesters to take to the streets in very large numbers and where, perhaps most significantly, the norms of democracy had been abused like never before in American history and, instead of a flag flying proudly, it flies tattered and torn at the sight of which America’s friends could only weep.

Obama has always been aware of the contradictory forces that constitute America. But he has also been attuned to what Abraham Lincoln called its better angels. As a Harvard Law School graduate and the first Black editor of its famous law journal, and as a law professor, he was acutely aware of the mistreatment of Native Americans and the use of the law to deprive them of their property rights for “the court of the conqueror has no capacity to recognize the just claims of the conquered.” (xv) In spite of Trump and his populist appeal, Obama always remained hopeful. He learned to place his faith “in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature, and who insist on making real those principles that their parents and teachers told them were true but perhaps never fully believed themselves.” (xvi)

Part I of his memoir is called “The Bet.” It ends as follows. “I had made a bet a long time ago and this was the point of reckoning. [He was on the verge of declaring his candidacy to be the Democratic nominee for president.] I was about to step over some invisible line, one that would inexorably change my life in ways I couldn’t yet imagine and in ways I might not like. But to stop now, to turn back now, to lose my nerve now – that was unacceptable.” (78) And, quite aside from his brilliance and acute political sensitivities, there is a nutshell is the difference between Obama and myself.

As Obama wrote in the next section, “ultimately it was rap that got my head in the right place, to songs especially: Jay-Z-s “My 1st Song” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Both were about defying the odds and putting it all on the line. (‘Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip…’); how it felt to spin something out of nothing, getting by on wit, hustle, and fear disguised as bravado.”

Obama took risks. I have always been risk averse – even when I finally left medical school after two previous attempts and all the proof anyone would need that, as good as I was at getting high marks, I would be terrible at diagnosis. If the Dean of Medicine had not spent three hours with me and finally reassured me that if I left medical school, I could resume precisely where I left off anytime in the next three years, I would not have made the leap from medicine to philosophy. Obama, when much of the evidence was against it, but – and this is important – enough evidence had been gathered to support his next level of personal risky decision-making, could and did bet on himself. He did not require a safety blanket.

On the other hand, when it came to policy, as we shall see with his economic restructuring and his bailout of the mortgage crisis, he was very cautious. He believed not only in incrementalism but trusting the experts who had been part of the very system that brought about the collapse. As I will try to show, there were two roots to this caution. His audacity of hope often stretched beyond his knowledge and experience. Secondly, inherently, he was actually a financial conservative more than a reformer in spite of both his sentiments and his professed liberal positions.

There is another way to describe this same propensity. My eldest son summed up the tension between fortuna and will as follows: Obama was “exceptionally clear ability to know when fortuna was working for him and when his will was working.” He was better than Clinton when it came to will; as I will make clear in a subsequent blog, he beat McCain thanks to fortuna. Obama was “a ‘reformer’ in the long tradition of that word and good at it because he knew about personal and structural limits.” But pushing for reform but accepting personal and structural limits as so critical made him effectively a policy conservative in practice as we shall see.  

Perhaps the most valuable advice Obama ever received was from that gardener he sometimes met on the colonnade or in the rose garden of the White House. His job was “to make the garden look good,” (4) and he took great pride in his accomplishments. When I read those lines, I could not help but remember the Peter Sellers 1979 satirical movie, Being There, where Sellers plays the role of Chauncey Gardiner.

Chance (Chauncey) as you will recall if you have seen the movie, was a simple-minded man who had spent his whole life behind the walls of a rich patron taking care of his garden. He only knew what he saw on TV. The rich man dies. Chance is thrown out into the world with a benign faith that, as long as one tends your garden, everything will be ok. Using that mantra, unintentionally he rises to business and political heights and the film ends with the current president’s advisers planning on making him the next presidential candidate.

There are two key similarities between the allegory of Chauncey Gardiner and Barack Obama, neither of which is about brain power. First, Obama, though certainly not without his own and Michelle’s deliberations, is carried forward on the geist of the times which will eventually sweep him into the presidency. Second, in the end, the job of the president is no different than any other job and it can be summed up as tending to the garden, ensuring it is healthy and bountiful. “I needed to work as hard and take as much care in my job as they [the gardiners] did in theirs.” (5) All along, serendipity will play a major roll at every step of the way.

As relaxation, I often play solitaire, not any game of solitaire, but Las Vegas solitaire where, after distributing cards in seven uneven piles of increased numbers by one, with the top card face up, you play the rest of the cards, not in a repeated series of three, but one card at a time with only one chance through the deck. The Las Vegas version is closer to the allegory of life in two respects. There is only one run through. Second, although some skill, memory and judgement can help you to win, the outcome is overwhelmingly the result of luck. Serendipity, not destiny nor rational choice, is the most important factor in determining your life history. Even brilliance is a matter of luck and the genes you happen to inherit.

Obama, in spite of his brilliance, always recognized that the major factor determining his success was that he was at the right place at the right time. Choices had to be made. And that meant risk. He is noteworthy in the political and career risks that he took. Second, as important as luck was, there was no substitute for care, for caution and for considered observation and reflection to help tip the scales of chance in the direction you wanted. You may have very little control over events, but it is critical that you apply the greatest acumen to the narrow openings that you do have.

One most important stroke of luck was Obama’s mother. She made Obama look like a piker when it came to taking risks. “Appalled by racism, she would marry outside her race, not once but twice, and go on to lavish what seemed like an inexhaustible love on her two brown children. Incensed by social constraints put upon women, she’d divorced both men when they proved overbearing or disappointing, carving out a career of her own choosing, raising her kids to her own standards of decency, and pretty much doing whatever she damn well pleased.” (7) Like his mother, issues of race and class would preoccupy him, but with his eyes less on the personal than on the larger-than-life picture and the underlying structures. Further, it may have instilled in him a willingness to take risks, but in his marriage to the love of his life, Michelle, he was unwilling to sacrifice a marriage partnership for intellectual and career freedom and the dangers of serious financial hardships.

While Obama immersed himself in the world of books to figure out the nature of his calling (10), it is hard to reconcile comments such as these with his insistence that he did not believe in destiny. Whatever the nuances of difference between destiny and calling, one message comes through loud and clear – Obama was always very ambitious. In reading his memoir, I came to realize how important ambition is in providing a goal and the energy to drive towards it. I, on the other hand, have lacked that kind of single-minded ambition. At each step of my way, I have simply done what I liked doing without a great goal in mind either for myself or for the world. I also did not weigh the differences in values in the various options that I had. Instead, often I was driven more by personal needs than a detached appraisal.

Most of the time, I had luck on my side, both in the gifts that I had fortuitously been given in my DNA and my culture, and in the timing and opportunities that had been offered to me. These included my role as a student co-op housing organizer, a professor, a university administrator, a founder of refugee action and research, a participant in creating regional political institutions in Africa and, perhaps the most important job I ever had, studying why countries stood by and did not try to stop or mitigate the Rwanda genocide when it was clearly possible. The international community sponsored the study, but I do not believe it absorbed the lessons.

Where I excelled, and where Obama did to a much greater degree, was in seeing openings and opportunities and understanding how well they suited my skills and abilities and my desire to improve the world. Reading Obama, I realize how much further I could have gone and how much more I could have contributed if I had had one-tenth of Obama’s very focused ambition. Perhaps I was too much like Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son in the bible, a moralist but without the singular focus to see a task through to the end. Many times, self-expression counted more than implementation.

Next: Part II: National, Racial and Ethnic Identity