Redemption

Redemption

by

Howard Adelman

In the days leading up to the High Holy Days in Judaism, Rabbi Splansky last evening ran a seminar to discuss the Um’taneh Tokef, the central poem in the High Holy Days liturgy that begins, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water…” By way of introduction, Yael began with a short story called, “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” taken from the 1966 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Shai Agnon, from his Days of Awe.

Agnon in “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” claims to have found a manuscript by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Mainz who in turn claimed to have discovered how Rabbi Amnon of Mainz composed this liturgical poem, a claim as fictional as Agnon’s tale for its core is found in the much earlier Cairo Geniza. Rabbi Amnon is introduced in superlatives — great, rich, of good family, handsome, and, to top it off, “well-formed.” Thus, the loss of his extremities will be even a greater loss. Though the story reads like a horror tale, anyone familiar with the efforts of forced conversion of Jews by Christians in the Middle Ages will find that, in its details, Shai Agnon’s story resonates with actual historical truth.

The Archbishop of Regensburg, along with the lords of the realm, demanded that Rabbi Amnon convert to Christianity. Under constant pressure, Rabbi Amnon finally conceded that he needed three days to reflect on the matter and take the proposal under advisement. Why did he say this? To buy time. And that was his sin, which he quickly recognized. The issue was not his fear of what might happen to him if he failed to take the demand of the Archbishop seriously. His sin, according to the story, was conceding that he had to think about it when, according to his Jewish faith, there was nothing to think about.

For Jews lived in awe of a “living God.” Christians worshipped at the feet of a god who had died and been resurrected as a sacrifice for human sins. Having asked for time to think about the choice was to admit there was possibly a real choice and that, in itself, was not a matter of making room for reason for his faith, but an act undermining his faith altogether.

He stopped eating and drinking. He became dreadfully sick. Like Job, he refused consolation. “‘I shall go down to the grave mourning, because of what I have said.’ And he wept and was sad of heart.” When the archbishop summoned him on the third day, Rabbi Amnon refused to go. The archbishop sent a force that compelled Amnon to appear before him. In answer to the question about an explanation for his non-appearance, Amnon did not begin with the discussion of his failure, but with his punishment. “Let the tongue that spoke and lied to you be cut out.”

However, the archbishop imposed his own punishment, for the sin was not in what Amnon had agreed to, but in Amnon failing to come before him. So instead of lopping off his tongue, Amnon’s feet were severed. And then each finger in turn. Before having each chopped off, Amnon was given a chance to repent. At each point that he refused, another finger was severed. Amnon’s dismembered but still living body was sent home on a shield with his severed members at his side.

As the Days of Awe approached, Rabbi Amnon asked his relatives to carry him exactly in the state that he had been returned to his family and laid beside the reader reciting the High Holy Day prayers. The climax came when the reader came to the Kedushah, the prayer sanctifying God. Amnon sanctified God’s name then and there, sanctified the Day of Awe then and there, by dying and, in dying that way, offering testimony for the truth of God’s sovereignty, for the sake of God’s unity – in contrast to the Christian theology of the Trinity – to honour God as Judge, to honour history as the ultimate arbiter.

And what rose up from the dying rabbi? Not the resurrection of the rabbi’s body, but the ascent of Rabbi’s severed feet and fingers. Why feet and hands? To justify the verdict. To demonstrate that “the seal of every man’s hand” is on the verdict of history. It is in this sense, that his fate was decreed — not foretold — on Rosh Hashanah. That is how Rabbi Amnon expressed “the powerful sanctity of the day.”

How and why does this tale express the meaning of the Um’taneh Tokef, the powerful poem at the centre of the High Holy Days liturgy?

First, it is irrelevant whether this story was historically true and whether a Rabbi Amnon had ever lived and been martyred in this way, or, alternatively, whether the story is apocryphal and a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz never existed. In the latter version, Amnon is an anagram, a rearrangement of the letters of the Hebrew, “Ne’eMaN” meaning faithful. Amnon does not ask on his deathbed why God has forsaken him, but expresses, to the fullest extent possible, his faith in a “living God,” a god that lived in him when he was alive. Why hands? Why feet? Because they had been severed from his body yet he was still alive. He still lived to give testimony to his faith. Even laying on the shield on the bima beside the reader on Rosh Hashanah, he could give testimony to his faith. That faith determined what it meant to lead a Jewish life, what it meant to express the sanctity of the day, what it meant to pass on the memory of an incident, whether historically true or apocryphal. Further, Rabbi Amnon was not alone with that responsibility, for everyone’s hands contributed to seal Rabbi Amnon’s fate. In turn, it was Rabbi Amnon who was atoning, not only for his own error, but for everyone’s, including the hands of the legal and religious authorities who had severed his limbs.

Did Rabbi Amnon live ever after in heaven after he vanished from the earth?  There is no such suggestion in the story. Rather it is the story itself that, re-told, testifies to God’s goodness. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the story. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the tongue the Archbishop decided not to sever.

The fuller meaning of the tale comes forth when it is juxtaposed with the Um’taneh Tokef part of the High Holy Day liturgy chanted when the Torah ark is open in words allegedly composed by Rabbi Amnon himself which I have appended. Note the essence of the tale. Amnon was a handsome and rich “well-formed” man. He enjoyed a tremendous reputation for his good works and his inspiring words. But, in his own light, he sinned. He said he would think about the proposal of the archbishop asking him to consider conversion. The sin was a sin of speech and not deeds. Like Job’s, the punishment seemed totally disproportionate to the presumed sin.

But the story is not about punishment. It is about redemption, that even the life of a good, of a rich, of an honourable and handsome man can culminate in error, however slight, and that error must be corrected even at the cost of one’s own life. The awe and frightening quality of the High Holy Days is not contained in the ghoulish severing of the rabbi’s extremities, but in the slip of even considering the renunciation of the living God in favour of the worship of a god who died and was resurrected. No, not even actually considering. Merely making a statement to buy time signaling that such a consideration might be possible.

How is the redemption manifest? By exalting God as the one true sovereign and, by logical implication, insisting that neither the lords of the realm nor the highest spiritual authority of Christianity in that realm could dint that divine sovereignty even by making one accede even possibly to reconsidering one’s faith in a living God. How is the kindness of God’s sovereign authority exalted? By being firmed up with “kindness,” with deeds that testify to History, of the living God of revelation, not men, as the embodiment of Truth and Goodness. Time will tell. History will judge, attest and give witness. History will set the seal about one’s fate. History will remember what has been forgotten.

In our remembrance of Rabbi Amnon’s story, in our retelling that story, even if apocryphal, we give witness to that which exemplifies Truth and Goodness. Most importantly, each person’s signature, however faint, will, in the end, sign off on the Book of Remembrance so that the thin and still voice of one who went before will still be heard. God is not heard in the mighty winds of nature of Hurricane Irma that split mountains and shattered bricks, nor in the water that both rained down and rose up in the surge that followed that wind, nor in the Mexican earthquake that shattered the lives of so many, and not even in the devastating fires raging in Alberta and British Columbia.  Rather, the angels stand in awe of the “soft thin murmuring voice” amidst all that calamity.

This interpretation turns the polarization and dichotomy between those who are righteous and those who are not into a spectrum. The righteous may be immediately inscribed in the Book of Life, the very wicked relegated to the ashbin of the revelation of the living God, but we all die in the end. Everyone, no matter how unworthy, contributes his or her signature, no matter how faint, to that book.

Why then will angels be seized with fear and trembling? Not because they witness calamities, not because they witness atrocities, not because they watch extremities being cut off, but because these messengers of the unfolding of time remain in awe of humans made of flesh and blood who in their lives can and do contribute or detract from the cumulative truth and goodness that is the expression of the living God of revelation. Even such a great one as Rabbi Amnon will not be guiltless in the eyes of judgement.

That History is rewritten each and every year, not just for the year that passed, but for all of history, for the awe-inspiring profundity of creation itself comes up again before a tribunal of judgement and everyone’s fate, NOT his or her final determination in life, but the value of everyone’s contribution to revelation will be weighed and re-assessed and re-inscribed or inscribed for the first time in the Book of Chronicles. The greatest fear is that one’s name will be blotted out for all eternity, some immediately for their loathsome and foul sins will be so heinous. Though we are all born of dust and to dust we must return, we are obliged to drink from the well of goodness.

What is written on Rosh Hashanah is sealed on Yom Kippur for another year, who shall rest and who shall still wander, and who shall be redeemed through repentance, prayer and charity, through rescuing the sheep lost and scattered by calamities either natural or human on days of cloud and gloom. For all, whether the wicked or the righteous, die. That is why each human is “a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream.” Job’s life was but wind, his days a breath.

לשׁנה טוֹבה תּכּתב (Leshana tovah tikatev); “May you be inscribed for a good year.”

Appendix

Um’taneh Tokef

“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Remembrances — it will read itself — and each person’s signature is there. And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin voice will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them — and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’ — for even they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgment.”

“All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep.[24]Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed — how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval [25] and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the Decree.”

“For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately. It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”

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The Irrepressible and Irresponsible Donald Trump – Part II

The Irrepressible and Irresponsible Donald Trump – Part II

 

by

Howard Adelman

There is truth and there are lies. The first represents reality. The second deforms it. There are many kinds of lies. There are visual lies created by the selection and juxtaposition of images; the visual lie is also provided by the omission of other images. There are rhetorical lies, lies that result by the choice of words, by the way words are brought together, by the words omitted and by the way an argument is made. There are behavioural lies, lies conveyed by body movements and by actions, by policies and by plans. Finally, unlike these previously ambiguous lies that require dissection to reveal the distortions, there are simply outright lies, lies that are bare-faced and bald-faced, that are simply naked and carry no ambiguity whatsoever. The latter are usually brazen, bold, brash and blatant. They lack a trace of concealment. They are undisguised and unabashed.

In his response to the story of the Charlottesville torch march by the alt-right and in its aftermath, Trump told all four types of lies.

I begin with the visual that was so important in grasping the truth about Charlottesville. If you go to youtube, you can see multiple versions of the visuals of what happened at Charlottesville. Thanks to the prevalence of camera phones, if one goes through many of the postings, one can obtain a clear sense of what went on during the torch parade on Friday evening and on the Saturday following. Or one can look at a composite film made up of those images. A greater truth can even be obtained when the composite, when the scissors-and-paste effort to reveal the truth, juxtaposes those images with images from the past – from what Trump has said in the past and from films of fascists in the thirties, both real and fictional. I commend the following one to you. It is powerful and frightening.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1_wfS1LGig

But films misrepresent because they are clearly an artifice. They are a selection of images. Even when they reveal a greater truth, as I believe the one that I have pointed out does, they select, they juxtapose and they omit. This is what makes them so powerful; they are pointed. The video above omits any images of violence by the alt-left. It also omits the video images of the candlelight vigil and the over one thousand students and faculty at the University of Virginia singing those memorable songs of the protest movement in the sixties. For those images, one has to scroll through many of the videos posted on youtube. Thus, in the most powerful way of revealing the truth, through what one sees and hears, and if you were actually there, what you smelled and the fear you felt in your belly, these films, and even the compilations based on them, cannot offer a comprehensive and coherent view of the truth, but only a perspective on and the closest correspondence with that truth.

In the effort to get to a more comprehensive truth, a shift to rhetoric is required. This does not exclude the visual. It does require juxtaposition on a different level to a visually edited compilation, the extraction from what was said by Donald Trump on Tuesday that obliterated his conciliatory and wooden performance before the teleprompter on Monday. On Tuesday, DT doubled down and went back to the rhetoric of insisting on violence on both sides (a correct observation in itself if one goes carefully through the images), but implies proportionality, implies equivalence when there was none either in intent, quantity, quality or consequence, let alone in the justification accorded that violence by the proponents and users of that violence.

Let me begin with the easiest rhetorical device – repetition – one used so frequently by Donald Trump. On Tuesday, he repeated fifteen times – fifteen times – that he knew the facts and we listeners and viewers, and the media reporting about him, did not.

“Before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”

“You don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts.”

“It takes a little while to get the facts.”

“You still don’t know the facts.”

“And it’s a very, very important process to me and it’s an important statement. So I don’t want to go quickly, and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.”

“I like to be correct. I want the facts.”

“Before I make a statement, I need the facts.”

“But unlike you, and unlike the media – before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”

“I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters, unlike a lot of reporters.”

“I didn’t know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts, and the facts, as they started coming out, were very well stated.”

“I couldn’t have made it sooner because I didn’t know all of the facts.”

“Frankly, people still don’t know all of the facts. It was very important –“

“Excuse me, excuse me. It was very important to me to get the facts out, and correctly.”

“I want to make a statement with knowledge, I wanted to know the facts. Okay.”

“What about the fact they [the alt-left] came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs?”

What we have learned from Donald Trump is Trump’s Law. The more he repeats himself, the greater the lie. DT is and has proven himself to be a serial liar. The more he insists that he, and virtually only he, knows the real truth, the more you can bet that this lie will be a whopper.

One merely has to go through the assertions he made in these series of repeated claims to be Moses and that he and he alone has an exclusive access to revelation and an exclusive ability to reveal facts and the truth to reveal the misrepresentation. One repeated theme: “Before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.” Are you kidding! DT is notorious for pronouncing the truth long before he has or could have access to the facts. The instances are so many that what he says has to be ranked as indeed a bald-faced lie. He does not check the facts. His beliefs and ideas determine the facts, not what he sees or hears.

Is this an expression of delusion or a lie? Is he simply saying what he believes to be true or is there some degree of deliberation to misrepresent behind the statement? That is the ambiguity. For there is virtually a unanimous consensus, even among many supporters, that Trump maintains this idiosyncratic belief that he is a man who is not only committed to getting at the truth by getting the facts first, a claim totally contradicted by his record of lying. But is he delusional? Is he mentally ill? Or is there a possibility that he both believes that about himself and is conscious that he misrepresents what is generally accepted as real, namely that DT is a deliberate liar. I have concluded that his own self-admissions, his own exercises in advertisements for himself, indicate the latter to be the case. He states what he knows is not true because he believes he is the creator of reality.

It was DT on Saturday, who without any analysis, without the time to engage in inquiry, claimed that there were good and bad people on both sides, totally contradicting his claim that he does not make judgments until he has the facts. In explaining why he was doubling down on his initial claim that both sides were equally violent, he insisted that getting at the facts takes time. But he did not take any time to make the initial claim on Saturday that he then insisted was the real truth on Tuesday.

DT claimed that “you” – the reporters, the viewers of that unscripted press conference – do not know the facts. How could he possibly make such a claim – not simply that some may not have access to all the facts – but that universally everyone there, and, presumably everyone watching and listening, do not know the facts. He would have to analyze what each of us knows and does not know and parse that with analysis. Later he modified the claim to refer to “most reporters,” a claim that in itself contradicted his earlier universal claim and proved that he knew that universal claim was false, as well as a later claim that the facts were well known. However, consistency is not Donald’s forte. DT notoriously does not examine, does not analyze. The claim is both self-contradictory about patience and pattern, that on its surface it had to be a false claim to knowledge which he did not and could not have had.

DT claimed that he did not know that David Duke was at the torch-light parade. One could only recall that during the presidential race he claimed not to have known David Duke, that he had never met him and knew nothing about him when there are extant videotapes from years earlier when he was explaining why he would not accept the nomination of the Reform Party – because he did not want to be a member of a party to which David Duke, the former Grand Vizier of the Ku Klux Klan, belonged.  He did know who David Duke was when he claimed to know nothing about him. And if he was now claiming not to know that David Duke was at the rally, and was one of the chief organizers, then this man who claimed to want to know the facts before he made a pronouncement was displaying his ignorance for all to see. The chief policy maker, who had an obligation to know those facts, a fact easily ascertained by going to the website of the “Unite the Right” movement, supposedly did not know this.

Further, if the facts as they came out, presumably with respect to David Duke, “were very well stated,” how could DT claim that most reporters did not know the facts?

What about DT’s claim that the alt-left, swinging clubs, charged the parade of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klu Klus Klanners – or, as he preferred to depict it, the majority of peaceful paraders who were there simply to protest against the dismantling of the Robert E. Lee statue in what was formerly called Lee Park? DT was correct. Members of the alt-left were present, did wield clubs, did attack racist demonstraters. They even attacked one white bearded older man carrying a confederate flag, surrounded him and beat him.

Representatives of Antifa – short for anti-fascist – and some of the members of Black Lives Matter, did use force as can be seen if you scan the videos. Further, they used more than clubs. They used mace; in the now famous VICE video, Christopher Cantwell, can be seen pouring water over his face while claiming he was attacked with mace twice. Some members of the alt-left threw bottles of urine and other despicable material at the representatives of the extreme right. They engaged in fisticuffs.

All true. But also true and omitted by DT was that the protest against the “Unite the Right” demonstration was organized by clergy and others who opposed violence, but were in no position to keep out violent extremists from the so-called left. The racist paraders included men armed with automatic weapons who brandished them; one showed his automatic rifle, his reserve rifle in a case, his Glock automatic pistol in a front holster, his other pistol stuck in his back belt, his gun strapped to his ankle and, to top it off, his knife. The protesters against them did not have any guns as far as anyone could tell.

There was no equivalence in numbers. There was no equivalence in organization. There was no equivalence in arms. There was certainly no equivalence in proportions. And there was no equivalence in intentions. The alt-right had organized their torch-lit parade to call for a white ethnic state without Blacks, Jews or minorities. Anyone who marched alongside claiming to be simply protesting against the plan to remove the Robert E. Lee statue had to be naïve or contaminated, for what “good” person, as DT depicted the majority of those in the parade, would march alongside neo-Nazis chanting, “The Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and Soil,” the basic slogan of the Nazi movement in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. If there were any non-racists in that parade, they could neither be good nor simply or primarily focused on the Lee statue. The Robert E. Lee status was a symbol. The alt-right offered a clear expression of why this statue should be dismantled. or moved.

Monuments and Media Matter

Monuments and Media Matter

by

Howard Adelman

On Saturday evening, I was returning from the Arts and Crafts Fair in the Sultan’s Pool opposite the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and flipping channels on the TV set. I was startled to come across Donald Trump on an Israeli news show. He was calling for unity and condemning hate and violence in America. I had no idea about the context since I had not followed North American news since I left Canada just over a week ago. My response was: was that really Trump? Has he changed? DT condemned hate and violence! Even though the condemnation seemed to be simply a rote display, this seemed to be a new Trump for me, ignorant as I was of the frame for the remark. Nevertheless, it was hard for me to believe Trump had changed his spots.

When I arrived back in Canada just over 36 hours ago, I got onto my computer after I unpacked and tried to catch up on the hundreds of unread emails. Then I learned of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and White Supremacist in the “Unite the Right” rally that had instigated violence in in the small quiet college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. The following tweet of Donald Trump, usually so promiscuous in his condemnation of others by name, followed the earlier statement that I had heard. In the second statement, he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” And, as his wont, he repeated the phrase: “on many sides.” Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, claimed falsely that people on both sides showed up in Charlottesville “looking for trouble” and that he wouldn’t assign blame for the death of a counter-protester on either group. As very many commented, why had DT not named the perpetrators of the violence, the loose coalition of extreme conservatives and fringe groups that gave energy to his campaign – the alt-right?

The white supremacist, Richard Spencer, a key organizer of the torch parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, invented the term. Alt-right is “identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world.” The alt-right includes white supremacism, white nationalism and the neo-Nazis, all opposed to diversity, multiculturalism as well as democracy and universalism.

Daily Stormer on his alt-right page wrote: “He [DT] didn’t attack us. Refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.” Yet Stormer’s web site disingenuously insists that, “We here at the Daily Stormer are opposed to violence. We seek revolution through the education of the masses.”

These neo-fascists praised DT for not surrendering to the liberal intelligentsia. More specifically, why had DT not named and condemned the Trump-heiler and chief rabble-rouser, 39-year-old Richard Spencer and his “torch-wielding bullies out for notoriety and intimidation of “nigger lovers.” Spencer was determined to “humiliate all those people who oppose us.” Why had DT made the protesters and anti-right protesters equivalent? Abraham Foxman head of the Anti-Defamation League insisted that, “It is time to condemn racist-white supremacist neo-Nazi hatred and violence by name!”

Before I try to explore that question, let me go back and put the rally and the anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville in context. The rally against the planned removal of a statue of General Robert Edward Lee from Forsythe Park in Charlottesville and a statue of Jackson from another park became the symbol of the political-right resistance to the changes that have been underway in America. It was a bronze statue of Lee on his horse, Traveller, put up, not after the Civil War, but over fifty years later during the institutionalization of the Jim Crow laws.

In the movement to remove symbols of hatred, racism and anti-black ideology, including the confederate flag and various statues of those who led the battle to retain slavery, this effort in historical correction recently received an impetus with the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House and the statue of Jefferson Davis, the ostensible president of the Confederacy, from New Orleans. Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans’ mayor, explained: “The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”

The city council of Charlottesville had voted to move its statue of Lee to another location and rename Lee and Jackson Parks as Emancipation and Justice Parks, but the implementation has been delayed by court action. Charlottesville’s Circuit Court Judge, Richard Moore, issued a six-month restraining order lest the moving of the statue result in “irreparable damage to a war memorial.” As the mayor explained, “we have these two [statues] that have drawn a lot of controversy, and what we’ve heard from many people in the community, and what I believe, is that we’d be better off adding more history, creating a dynamic present that shows both the offense and the response to the offense. That creates a conversation and does not fall into what I think is the concern that, if we don’t remember the past, we’ll be condemned to repeat it.” After all, monumentalizing a person is intended to set one version of history or anti-history physically and literally in stone or bronze. No wonder statutes come alive during historiographical wars.

Individuals who are unequivocally not racists have opposed the removal of these symbols. One of those happens to be the very progressive mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer who happens to be a Jew and who has been the target of a slew of personal anti-Semitic attacks by the alt-right. On the rational level, I have read the following arguments of others:

“I do agree on the intrinsic value of historical monuments. All histories and civilizations are built on injustices, their symbols (while serving as a tribute) are an important reminder of those times. The basic difference should be past and present. A confederate statue built in the past surely must be viewed differently than a confederate flag raised today. By pulling down a statue we don’t erase a history. The second argument in favor of leaving historical monuments alone is that it is precisely pulling them down, or wanting to, that draws attention to them in the first place and ignites white supremacist ideology and the explosion of polarities we’re witnessing with such frequency today.”

“There are many existing forms of art that represent or stem from political movements, but they are first and foremost works of art and should be perceived as such – not as propaganda (e.g. cultural revolution in China).”

Fortunately, the fallacies in these so-called counter-arguments against removal of these symbols is easy enough to point out. Historical monuments do not have “intrinsic” value. The statues of Hitler, say the one in the Austrian village of Braunau Am Inn where he was born, the many statues of Lenin and Stalin, the statues of Saddam Hussein, all lacked any intrinsic value. The role those statues play in processing memory is far more important than the sculptural product.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who supported the removal of the statue of Davis, did so with the following argument: “These monuments have stood not as historic or educational markers of our legacy of slavery and segregation, but in celebration of it. I believe we must remember all of our history, but we need not revere it. To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in some of our most prominent public places is not only an inaccurate reflection of our past, it is an affront to our present, and a bad prescription for our future.”

  1. The statue of Lee is not primarily a marker of history, but a celebration of certain values from that history and was erected to help reinstate those values in new forms.
  2. There is a difference between remembering all history versus revering some parts and putting them on a pedestal.
  3. Remembering belongs in museums, with the context provided to educate viewers, not in public places which are intended to celebrate values; this was the option the mayor of Charlottesville favoured, but to do so in place by providing supplementary monuments and a contextual frame.
  4. In terms of an educational role, without the context to provide that education, we only receive a deformed view of history.
  5. The radical separation of past versus present made by the non-racist opponents to removal of the statue is a false dichotomy, for the past is very much part of the present and is used to forge the future.
  6. Last, and least important, the statue is not very good piece of art, though the original sculptor was the artist, Henry Shrady, who happened to be Jewish and was the artist who sculpted the statue of George Washington at Valley Forge and created the Ulysses S. Grant memorial on the United States Capitol, both recognized generally as excellent works. However, the sculptor who finished the work on Lee in Charlottesville when Shrady died at a relatively young age in 1922 was the Italian-American, Leo Lentelli, whose work, though demonstrating great craftsmanship, is stilted and never comes alive even as it displays Lee in a proud moment of courage.

However, the key proof of the fallacy of the arguments opposing the removal of the statue were the actions on display of the racists. They came from all parts of America, some dressed in combat fatigues and openly carrying semi-automatic weapons, others with shields and batons, and still others with bottles of water that actually contained mace and pepper spray. They physically attacked the local peaceful demonstrators who supported removal of the statue and opposed the neo-Nazi demonstration.

These purveyors of violence proved demonstrably and clearly that neo-fascism is alive and well in America. Though no longer stalking the halls of academia as it did eighty years ago when the president of the American Political Science Association in his 1934 presidential address dismissed the “dogma of universal suffrage,” criticized democracy for allowing “the ignorant, the uninformed and the anti-social elements” to vote, and urged Americans to appropriate elements of fascist doctrine and practice, unfortunately the ideology is now parked in the White House.

As Ernst Nolte wrote over fifty years ago in his phenomenological analysis of the political movement, Fascism in its Epoch (in English in 1965, The Three Faces of Fascism), fascism, whether in its French, Italian (the theoretical version that I had focused upon in my recent writings) or German Social nationalist “synthesis,” were all anti-modernist, anti-progressive and anti-liberal in the name of national self-assertion, but rooted deeply in stoking fear. Although America is not going through a recession but an economic boom, though radical Islamicism is nowhere equivalent to the danger of communism, and though American fascists no longer have the model of Germany as an economic and military powerhouse – it is now an economic and ethical powerhouse – yet a resurgence of fascism in America has been clearly shown to be possible given growing disparities in income, given the hollowing out of many small towns in America and given the fears of globalization, not only in America but in Europe as well.

The time has proven to be ripe for a resurgence of fascism. It must be fought. But first it must be identified in all its expressions.

Trump Fascist Part VII: Dystopia and Utopia

Trump Fascist Part VII: Dystopia and Utopia

by

Howard Adelman

I have not spent full blogs on many of the basic philosophic premises of fascism and instead have included them as minor keys within a larger discussion of one principle, such as the reference to the breakdown between the public and the private within the discussion of chaos, democracy and fascism. However, there are two remaining themes that I want to discuss at some length in this blog, the dystopian view of the existing world and the utopian portrait of a nostalgic as well as future world characteristic of fascism.

As was widely noted when Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech after he won the nomination at the Republican Convention, in contrast to Barack Obama’s stress on hope and the typical stress on optimism characterizing presidential hopefuls, DT painted a very bleak picture of both the state of the nation and the world.  In a dystopia, people live dehumanized and fearful lives. Of course, it is an imaginary world conforming very little to reality, but all the more powerful because of that.

DT’s portrait of the state of the nation was cast in terms of murder and mayhem, moving towards financial ruin because of unfair trade deals and an invasion by immigrants and refugees. More recently, he insisted he won New Hampshire – he did not; he won the primary – because it is a drug-infested den.

The general explanation is that he was tapping into widespread anger and fear among white working-class men. However, in listening to interviews in the states that he won and among individuals who voted for him, I heard no expressions of fear, except in the abstract – that is, if something is not done, the U.S. is headed to hell in a basket. I heard very little anger. His supporters were calm and determined to have a candidate that reflected themselves and only fearful that DT and the Republican-led Congress would not deliver. Thus, the irony. They voted for the candidate who held the most jaundiced view of America than anyone had ever expressed on the campaign trail while they most deeply wanted to preserve the status quo where they lived in the American heartland.

The dystopic text for comprehending the regime is not George Orwell’s 1984 but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that dystopic novel, order is not maintained by Big Brother watching your every move and thought, but by an amusement and entertainment absorption resulting in “blissed-out and vacant servitude.” (Christopher Hitchens) However, we live in an age of celebrity politics. DT as a candidate won power on a platform of “draining the swamp” by appointing billionaires, extras from Goldman Sachs and generals. In ignoring this and many other blatant contradictions, those who voted for DT were not “blissed out” by an absorption in amusement and entertainment, but rather in soap box melodrama both before and after the election. Aldous Huxley was right about distraction, but wrong about the vehicle. For the latter, as it turns out, is even more effective in burying facts and analysis in weepy clichés rather than sensual distractions.

In 1935, the great muckraking novelist, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, warning about the immanent possibility of fascism in America. As Brian Bethune wrote in an essay in Macleans in January, “A dystopian reading list for the Donald Trump era,” the political style of the president was to sneer at “tact” and “courtesy.” Civility was not to be a hallmark of such an administration. Rather, a self-advertising and self-promoting hero defines himself as the only one who can make America great again in a fictitious America where citizens hide away fearful of marauding hordes of migrants.

The irony – one among many – is that this promoter of chaos mentioned “law and order’ four times in accepting the role of presidential candidate for the Republican Party. Further, his first TV ad in black and white at the beginning of the year, when he sought the nomination, included images of the two accused San Bernardino shooters, missiles, a body on a stretcher, bombs dropping on buildings. In this hellscape of riots that bore little resemblance to the then current reality in America, DT painted a portrait of the American nightmare rather than the American dream, the reference point for almost all American politicians running for high office.

This did not mean that his platform, his program and his performance lacked a utopian dimension. Quite the reverse. It was integral to his appeal.  DT views America as a once great nation (assuming, of course, that his words approximate his deep beliefs – a big assumption in itself) that is currently beset by a myriad of problems resulting from the U.S. being exploited and used by the rest of the world. He campaigned on a vision: “Make America Great Again.” Not only has the world taken advantage of America, but the elites have betrayed their own country.

Of course, the dystopic and utopian sides of his coin of the realm are at one and the same time a distorted picture of America’s problems and wrongheaded view of the solutions to the real problems of the country. DT promised to bring the coal industry back to life and restore the well-paying jobs in the industry. He is averse to involvements in foreign wars, but has been unable to forge an effective military doctrine to extract the U.S. from Afghanistan.

However, he has delivered his promises to the business world as he wages war on regulations. He promised to produce jobs and reduce unemployment and so far the economy has sizzled even higher than under Obama so that the U.S. is at the lowest record of unemployment in sixteen years – 4.3%. The unemployment rate was even lower in 19 of America’s fifty states, ironically mostly in states that voted for Hillary Clinton. Within the vision of this schizophrenic dystopian president one finds a utopian vision of America with full employment, high paying jobs, job security and thriving businesses operating in a country free from foreign wars, a reduced influx of “unwanted” migrants and increased domestic freedom from both regulations and taxes.

However, DT is a particularly odd type of saviour. For he has never been interested in creating a new world order. Nor even a new national order. His slogan is not. “Make America great,” but “Make America great again.” His utopia hearkens back to the vision America projected of itself when DT was a boy in the fifties, when the image was there, but not the reality of widespread discrimination, of the Korean and later Vietnam War. For DT, the strains and stresses of domestic strife in the U.S. began the long decline. D.T.’s utopian vision is a backward gaze immersed in nostalgia and mindblindness.

Linking the dystopian and utopian vision is the projection of himself as a doer, as a man of action, as a leader who signs executive order after executive, order, many, if not most, without reflection, vetting or input even by his own party or even cabinet. But if he emerges as disastrous on domestic policy requiring legislation (repeal and replace Obamacare), his record is even more disastrous when it comes to foreign policy. The Philippines has been allowed to fall into the Chinese sphere of influence. He is determined to destroy the Iranian nuclear agreement even as his officials certify that Iran has kept to its terms, even as his rants have undermined the relatively moderate leadership of Hassan Rouhani and even though his views are contradicted by his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. DT also spoke of supporting NATO in contradistinction to DT who wallows in belittling the alliance, wearing on the nerves of his allies. His one foreign policy success, getting through the UN Security Council a unanimous vote, resolution 2371, in support of severest sanctions ever against North Korea, but even that success might be highly overrated if China does not follow through with strict compliance on the boycott of North Korea.

However, even the North Korean UN victory cannot be attributed in any way to Donald Trump, but to the twin wrestling team of Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the UN. For unlike their boss, they take the importance of the UN, and particularly the Security Council, seriously. They both emphasize the importance of diplomacy, though Nikki is more likely to wave the big stick. Rex Tillerson stresses clarity. “We do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.”

The sanctions passed will slash North Korea’s revenues from coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood by one billion dollars, a full one-third of its foreign currency earnings. The victory is also noteworthy because it relied on subtle diplomacy rather than shifts between rants and insults versus excessive praise and flattery. We can only watch to see if China, and, to a lesser extent, Russia really comply with the sanctions resolution.

Utopian/dystopian frameworks for politics lead to mindblindness to the actual problems nations face and the realistic alternatives for resolving them. The split undercuts rational analysis and detailed empirical research. Most importantly, it feeds the politics of centering attention on a leader who sees and projects a reality that is overwhelmingly a product of his own mind. As such, it reinforces an attachment between that leader and followers caught up in a similar or identical imaginative worldview.

Donald Trump Fascist Part VI: Chaos, Human Rights and Democracy

Donald Trump Fascist Part VI: Chaos, Human Rights and Democracy

by

Howard Adelman

Democracy is a system of government accountable to voters. Democratic republics and responsible or parliamentary democracies have in common that both are governments by the people. However, in the model of responsible government, the supreme power in vested in a parliament made up of representatives of the people. In a republic, the people are represented by a supreme power divided between an elected leader versus a legislative body made up of elected representatives. Republics inherently deal with a system that makes checks and balances a core part of government based on the premise that strong leadership is a requisite of effective government, while, at the same time, there is a need to provide boundaries and checks to that strong leadership.

I usually call a republic a democratic monarchy because the issue is not any objection to a single political leader, but an insistence that the leader be directly accountable to the electorate. A republic denies power to a monarch without limited terms where power is transferred based on inheritance and there is no accountability. Both parliamentary democracies and republics eschew inherited power. Republics elect their kings or queens for limited terms. Parliamentary democracies, if they are monarchies, usually put their monarchs on a pedestal where they have no power. Absolute power is given to the legislative branch of government, subject only to the limitations of an independent judiciary system and sometimes a written constitution.

There is little debate that parliamentary democracies have gradually moved towards a presidential model, or the model of an elected president where the elected representatives often achieve office on the coattails of a prime minister. On the other hand, there remain distinctive differences.

This simplistic version of Politics 101 is not intended to discuss the benefits and dangers of the two respective systems, but to raise the issue of free speech as well as the principle of order and good government. The highest value is placed on the protection of individual rights, especially the right to free speech. For both systems – a parliamentary government and an elected democratic monarchy or republic – are guardians of that fundamental right. From the perspective of a member of a state based on a parliamentary democracy rooted in a principle of responsible government, one is appalled that “free speech” can be so defined that it protects the right of hate speech, certainly to a much higher degree than is the case in Canada. This does not mean that there are no critics in Canada of the refusal to protect hate speech. In contrast, Americans in general are much greater purists with respect to free speech and will often defend the right to express hatred of groups.

In the case of the current debates in the U.S. over Russian hacking into the American electoral system to favour one candidate, the objections are primarily to a foreign state doing so. Spreading false information is perceived as simply part of the democratic political tradition. Listen to Jeffrey Lord on CNN; he even fails to acknowledge the legal limits placed on malicious free speech which intentionally misrepresents. This, according to most American constitutional theorists, is banned by U.S. law. However, whatever the range of differences, the bar is very high in only restricting intentional and explicitly malevolent lying. This is very different than restrictions that can be found in a democracy like that of Canada.

One corollary of such a difference is that the American republic places a much greater stress on human rights; in the U.S., individuals enjoy a wider compass. At the same time, fundamental weaknesses have come to the fore in a democratic monarchy, particularly in the last American election of Donald Trump as the monarch. The American government has moved, certainly in the White House, even further away from order and good government towards chaos. What is less evident is that opportunities to restore order become fewer and harder to implement the longer DT is in office. “Topological mixing” versus linear clarity is enhanced because of the continuous presence of a “shift operator.” In other words, chaos has a propensity to increase because of the continuing central role of Trump.

This points to a second and related major difference. Both democratic monarchies and parliamentary democracies are committed to preserving order and preventing chaos. However, a system of responsible government is more averse to chaos and disorder. For in republics, political division exists, not simply between political parties, but among different governmental institutions. This is part of the system of checks and balances that builds into the system a greater degree of chaos than in a parliamentary democracy. In contrast, order and good government are mainstays of parliamentary democracies and enjoy a higher status. I argue that in parliamentary democracies, the principle of averting chaos is more important than even the protection of human rights and the freedom of speech.

What is chaos? Since the popularity of the 2001 movie about John Nash, A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe, chaos theory has become part of public, though not popular, parlance. The biggest threat for responsible government is chaos even more than breaches of human rights. However, according to chaos theory, systems which are more dynamic tend to have a greater reliance on chaos. Further, in chaos theory, dynamic systems are, ironically, far more sensitive to initial conditions.

Stanford Levinson in his 1989 book, Constitutional Faith, argues that the foundation of the American secular religion is its 1788 constitution that forms the counterweight to fragmentary propensities, on the one hand, and the emergence of tyrants on the other hand. Chaos is anathema to both democratic republics and those responsible democracies which esteem order and good government. Chaos is neither governance nor responsible. Chaos is favoured by fascist systems. In part, it is because fascism offers itself as the only escape from chaos; chaos is created to make the need for fascism apparent. But it goes deeper. For in all dynamic systems, the creative energy, the initial big bang, comes from that chaos.

However, there is a third way in which chaos is favoured – not simply as an impetus and distraction, not simply as an energy source, but as proof of the need for a transcendental mind that will impose order on that chaos. There is also a fourth sense which makes chaos crucial to a fascist system. Chaos undercuts the possibility of a hierarchical ordered system. That is why DT is a populist. That is why he will undercut his army brass and arbitrarily demand that transgender individuals be thrown out of the army. That is why he will upset the leaders of the boy scouts by using a jamboree as a political rally. That is why he will upset most police chiefs when he suggests that there is no problem with roughing up arrested individuals when putting them in a squad car.

Contrary to authoritarian governments and widespread impressions, the leader of a fascist regime does not bring about order by imposing it from above, but by making it the duty of his subordinates and followers to discern and then work towards the realization of the amorphous image of the transcendental mind of the leader. That is why a fascist system, to most people’s surprise, is not a top-down movement. The leader may say that we must build a wall to keep out the bad hombres and that the government of those bad hombres will pay for it, but it is the followers who will have to figure out how to square that circle. For if it is a government of bad hombres, why would it pay to build the wall? The duty of the leader’s subordinates and followers is to discern how to realize this contradictory vision in the leader’s mind.

The dilemma applies to health care and to tax policy, to refugees and to immigration. How can the U.S. be a country open to the poor and an elitist country that builds a great deal of its human capital by skilled and well-educated imports from abroad? Reconciling expanding health benefits both in the entitlements and the people entitled while lowering premiums has to be “im Sinne des Führers ihm entgegenzuarbeiten.” It is the duty of all, especially appointees and followers, to interpret the vision of the leader and work assiduously towards its realization. Thus, initiatives are not just relegated to subordinates, but subordinates are held responsible to take those initiatives. They will of necessity be at odds with other colleagues, since there is no centre of interpretation. That in turn will recreate the chaos that is the foundation of a fascist system and, in turn, the demand for the leader to impose order.

Delegation, interpretation, conflict and disorder will all be hallmarks of such an administration. There will be a chaotic struggle of overlapping and competing centers of power that will vie as if in a Darwinian struggle to predetermine and refine the contents of a mind that works by free association rather than according to the rules of logic. Contrary to popular myths about fascism, the will of the leader will neither be absolute nor monocratic. A four-star general might be recruited to make sense of that chaos, but John Kelly as head of the White House, in spite of his experience and esteemed record, will crash his head against a wall trying to make sense of the slovenly manner in which Donald Trump makes decisions, sticking to some like gorilla glue while discarding others as mere flotsam while tossing the detritus overboard, and, to deliberately mix metaphors, then throwing the subordinate offering that interpretation “under the bus”.

However, when he cannot and does not decide between and among competing interpretations of his inchoate inspiration, any inability to make “spontaneous” and “irrevocable” decisions will drive him to retreat to stare at his own navel and issue a flurry of tweets as if they were a genuine means of communication of policy in a system of governance based on checks and balances.

The result, ironically, is even more personalized rule and the increasing elimination of the separation of the private and the public spheres, a hallmark of fascism as subordinates continue to vie to promote what they believe to be the leader’s will. It will be a system where the buck never stops at the White House Highest Office, except in cases of clear success, even if those successes are not the prime responsibility of the leader’s regime.

This is why so much attention is payed to Donald Trump’s psychological make-up. His self-esteem is not only the centerpiece of the governing structure, but it is one most propelled by past scars left when that self-esteem had been wounded. Was Donald Trump most humiliated when the Manhattan bigwigs in the New York development world spurned this vulgar arrival from Queens and Brooklyn or when the banks turned their backs on him when his businesses declared bankruptcy for the fourth time after the fiasco of his casinos in Atlantic City? It is not simply difficult but impossible to discern which flapping of the butterfly’s wings determined the Trump trajectory.

Donald Trump did not achieve his office on his own. He said that he was the voice of his followers. But they are the echo of his voice. In Nebraska where almost 80% voted for DT, after seven months of chaos in his administration, the vast majority still, as he does, blame the chaos on the “obstructionists.” His voice is viewed as their voice and the expression of sincerity, both because that which he articulates is based on emotion rather than facts and logic, and because he conveys sincerity even as he repeatedly lies and avoids any depth of reflection or deliberation.

But others in addition to the solid base of populism are responsible. Conservatives believed they could manage this vulgarian. Conservatives and the followers of his populism are “strange attractors.” At the very least, the conservatives believed that they could use his rule to advance the conservative agenda in judicial appointments, in administrative changes in a myriad of departments – health, the environment, agriculture, science policy, etc. And they have done so even if there has been no positive legislative record.

However, will conservatives and even his base begin to desert him if the chaos continues as well as his shameless record of lying and betrayal? For he demands fealty but offers no loyalty in return, even as he attacks the responsible media for producing “fake news,” a claim which his followers repeat. Reporters are “scum” and “enemies of the people.” Thus, paranoia is enhanced as DT’s base wallows in fantasies about immigrants and refugees and lap up conspiracy theories.

Another source and expression of chaos is DT’s overt contempt for his appointees, even though he periodically praises them with superlatives, and his covert condescension for the members of his base whom he manipulates with the tremendous repertoire of an actor even as he plays the charmer and cracks “jokes” at the expense of others. When interviewed and asked about their support after seven months of the DT administration, they quickly reveal that they live in “echo chambers or information cocoons.” (Cass R. Sunstein) Instead of exposure to difference, instead of celebrating the unplanned and the unanticipated, what counts is repetition of the same, precisely the environment for enhancing rather than reducing chaos. Chaotic complex systems are characterized by their feedback loops and repetition, by self-similarity rather than broad variation.

There are mundane expressions of this chaos. DT loves to play golf. It is a game in which prediction is difficult and where many variables determine the quality of play. But golf is also a game of honour; each player keeps his own score. DT is renowned for his cheating. More publicly, even in his own golf courses, he breaks all the rules and drives his cart across greens and tee boxes. And he can’t shut up when others are shooting. He talks through his game, filling the narrative with his usual hyperbole. While he celebrates the game for the exercise it offers, he always rides a cart.

Most importantly, DT manifests the greatest contempt for the rule of law. Even though Jeff Sessions has proven to be the most effective cabinet member in realizing a conservative agenda, DT belittles him for doing what he was legally required to do, recuse himself from the Russian investigation. DT fired James Comey as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for pursuing the inquiry. DT threatens Robert S. Mueller III, the Special Council heading the investigation, if he crosses the red line of probing his finances. In the meanwhile, he denounces the investigation as a witch hunt, illegitimate and a total fabrication instead of stating, as his own lawyers have done, a commitment to cooperating fully and transparently with the probe. DT, in contrast, does not express any belief in the role of an impartial investigation insulated from political interference, but sees all employees, even those in the Justice Department, even those in the special investigation unit, as his lackeys who owe fealty to him. As Ruth Marcus wrote in The Washington Post, “Trump is a one-man assault on the rule of law.”

It is precisely because of this trait that the longer DT remains in office, the more unpredictable his behavior will become rather than more predictable and better controlled. Uncertainty will increase exponentially the longer he stays in office. This means that he is unlikely to walk quietly into the night if he is indicted. He will battle. He will bring his followers into the streets.

One might dismiss the charge that DT is a fascist because he has neither quasi-militarized black nor brown shirts at his back, only Trump peak caps. Further, DT is wary of foreign wars rather than being a territorial expansionist. And he picks on Muslims rather than Jews. But those are details and different manifestations which are not at the core of fascism. Chaos is. Characterizing the expression of responsible journalism and free speech as fake news is. Chaos is not simply an accidental feature of the Trump administration that hopefully can be corrected by better management, but that which is at its core. Though insufficient in itself, chaos is another necessary condition for defining Trump as a fascist.

Trump Fascist Part V: Reason and Empiricism – The Art of the Deal

Trump Fascist Part V: Reason and Empiricism – The Art of the Deal

by

Howard Adelman

The third key philosophical premise that characterizes Donald Trump is his contempt for both reason and empirical truth. It is an indicator of fascism – again not a sufficient condition for labeling a fascist, but a necessary one. I will offer an alternative example of an argument that uses neither reason nor a reference to empirical fact to support a decision, but the conversation does not reveal or suggest fascism. I outlined the character of DT ignoring the use of reason and empiricism in my previous blog. Neither objectivity nor rational discourse is a measure for what is real. Reality is created by the spirit of a powerful personality who lays down his vision for the world.

This morning I will explore the implications of this proposition and its negative effects by analyzing the debate between Moses and God on Moses’ plea to be allowed entry into the promised land that is contained in this week’s parshat, parashat va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11). I will compare it to the arguments that Trump presented to both the President of Mexico and to the Prime Minister of Australia in his conversations with each one in turn.

 It should be recalled that this shabat is referred to as “Shabbat Nachamu,” (my wife’s Hebrew name is Nechama), the sabbath of comfort or solace. We may also ask what comfort the words of Moses and God bring? Compare it to the continuing discomfort resulting from Donald Trump’s words and actions.

 Usually, or, at least, very often, commentators on this parshat focus on the rule of law as discussed in the version of the Ten Commandments put forth in Deuteronomy as distinct from previous iterations. Or they choose the Shema, the declaration of the oneness of God for further discussion and analysis. They may take apart Moses’ narrative of the whole Exodus story and compare it to earlier iterations.

I choose to focus on the issue of entry into the land and the debate between God and Moses asking what rationalism and empiricism, the use of logic and the reference to the real world to falsify and confirm beliefs, have to do with that debate. The argument between God and Moses will be the source of the revelation.

The opening of parashat va’etchanan read this shabat begins with Moses pleading to be allowed to enter the promised land. Now Moses was not and never had been a narcissistic Alpha Male. His first concern had always been the security and survival of his people, not his own, a commitment that went back to his striking of the Egyptian guard and then being forced to flee Egypt and his life of privilege. He initially also always insisted that he was undeserving of the task of leading his people. Based on his own self-knowledge, Moses recognized that he was not an Alpha Male and seemed ill-equipped to lead his people given the Egyptian example. He was not even able to deliver a coherent speech.

Further, while developing great skills as a practitioner of the magic arts, he remained both the ultimate realist and rationalist. On the latter, it was he who accepted the advice of his non-Israeli father-in-law to decentralize the political leadership and judicial system based on Jethro’s reasoning, even though there was no evidence yet available that a decentralized system was more effective than a centralized one. Jethro’s experience counted, no matter the non-Israelite source. It was he who recognized after the spies returned from Canaan that the issue was not the fearsome might of the peoples there and the strength of the walls around their cities, but the will to win among his own.

A very different Moses emerges at the end of his life in complete contrast to the beginning. This text of Deuteronomy begins as follows:

Deuteronomy 3:23-3:28

Do not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who will battle for you.”

23

וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying,

24

אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֗ה אַתָּ֤ה הַֽחִלּ֙וֹתָ֙ לְהַרְא֣וֹת אֶֽת־עַבְדְּךָ֔ אֶ֨ת־גָּדְלְךָ֔ וְאֶת־יָדְךָ֖ הַחֲזָקָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִי־אֵל֙ בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם וּבָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה כְמַעֲשֶׂ֖יךָ וְכִגְבוּרֹתֶֽךָ׃“O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!

25

אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”

26

וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֤ה אֵלַי֙ רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The LORD said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!

27

עֲלֵ֣ה ׀ רֹ֣אשׁ הַפִּסְגָּ֗ה וְשָׂ֥א עֵינֶ֛יךָ יָ֧מָּה וְצָפֹ֛נָה וְתֵימָ֥נָה וּמִזְרָ֖חָה וּרְאֵ֣ה בְעֵינֶ֑יךָ כִּי־לֹ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֥ן הַזֶּֽה׃Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.

28

וְצַ֥ו אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ וְחַזְּקֵ֣הוּ וְאַמְּצֵ֑הוּ כִּי־ה֣וּא יַעֲבֹ֗ר לִפְנֵי֙ הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְהוּא֙ יַנְחִ֣יל אוֹתָ֔ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּרְאֶֽה׃Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.”

Moses could have offered many arguments to God on why he should be permitted to enter the promised land. He deserved such a reward after all his labours and sacrifices. Refusing to allow his entry was unjust and disproportionate if the reason for that refusal was his failure to invoke God when he struck the rock with his rod to bring forth water in the exodus across the Sinai. Even if you add to that all his other failures of commission and omission as a leader of his people, denying him the right to enter the land appears to be an extraordinary punishment totally out of proportion to any accumulation of his small sins.

Moses could have insisted that his people needed him. At that moment, it was highly risky to change leaders just when the real confrontation with the enemies of the tribes of Israel was about to begin. As the mediator between the people’s trust in God, he could have argued that he was indispensable. Moses could have insisted that since he had kept his part of the bargain, God should keep His and allow his entry. Finally, with the conquest of Sihon and Og and the settling of one-and-a-half tribes on the east side of the Jordan, Moses could have argued that the Israelites were already in the Promised Land. They were already in Canaan for the defeated peoples were Canaanites.

However, Moses offered none of these arguments or others he could have used. Moses does not try to reason with God nor offer evidence for God acceding to his request. Instead, he “entreated” (וָאֶתְחַנַּן) God to allow his entry. As Rashi wrote, “חִנּוּן [and its derivatives] in all cases is an expression signifying [requesting] a free gift. Even though the righteous may base a request on the merit of their good deeds, they request only a free gift of the Omnipresent.”

Moses also appears to flatter God. With God’s greatness and his mighty hand that no god in heaven or on earth can equal, it was totally within God’s power to grant such a request. Are the remarks of Moses similar to Donald Trump’s pleas, first to Mexican President ­Enrique Peña Nieto, not to talk publicly about Mexico not paying for the wall because that was politically embarrassing to DT given that he had run and won on such a platform? Are the remarks of Moses akin to DT’s discussion with Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia? After all, with both DT alternated disparagement with flattery.

The context of the first conversation was DT signing an executive order to begin construction of the wall on the Mexican border without any agreement that Mexico would pay for it and Nieto cancelling his trip to Washington when DT kept insisting that Mexico pay for the wall. Threats by DT were injected – tariffs, restrictions on imports and refusal to meet with the Mexicans in the future if they failed to accede to his request. There were also promises, but insulting ones – we will send our boys to help fight the tough hombres. Whereas Nieto made his requests in terms of the mutual interests of both countries, DT’s emphasis kept returning to the effects on his image.

DT’s other reference was to his great election victory – “the large percentage of Hispanic voters” and 84% of the Cuban-American vote – both lies – and that “no one got people in their rallies as big as I did” – 25,000 to 50,000. DT also used insincere flattery of Nieto as “smarter” and “more cunning” combined with insults. “You have not done a good job of knocking them [the drug dealers] out.”

Finally, there is the insistence of DT’s absolute authority to impose taxes and tariffs on Mexican goods coming into the USA independent of any vote in Congress – another lie. “I am sort of in this bad position because the deal that they are making is not nearly as good as the deal I could impose tomorrow – in fact this afternoon. I do not have to go back to Congress or to the Senate. I do not need the vote of 400 people. I have the powers to do all of this.”

The conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was much testier. DT insisted that the Australian PM break the agreement that the US had made to take in 2,000 asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds that had been interned in islands off Australia since the deal was so antithetical to the platform on which DT had run. “The deal will make me look terrible.” “This is going to kill me;” “that will make us look awfully bad;” “I look like a dope.” The references and arguments are all addressed to his own image and not the best interest of America or the mutual interests of both parties, let alone a set of higher ethical and political ideals. Instead, DT insists the deal is stupid and hangs up on Turnbull.

Contrast these conversations with the one Moses had with God. First, Moses entreated God. He granted right from the start that it was within God’s absolute power to grant such a request. His reference to God’s omnipresence should be viewed in this context, not as flattery, but as a sincere recognition that if a deal is to be made, the other, but especially God, has the right and power to decide on what He will do.  With all his flattery and insults in dealing with other leaders of countries in the free world, DT never grants such an acknowledgement, but veers between putting the other down and self-aggrandizement as he boasts about his own powers.

There is also a contrast between the substance of the requests. Moses asks to be allowed to cross over and at least see the land on the other side of the Jordan, and, as a tack on, Lebanon. DT asks to keep migrants and drug dealers at home in Mexico and to keep the manufactured goods flowing so freely across the border at home. DT asks Turnbull to keep the refugees. Moses asks to keep the border open for him to cross. DT asks to close borders lest the image of himself that he has created and projected be damaged. The first constitutes religious respect. The latter is out-and-out self-idolatry, in this case, when one envisions oneself as the idol.

Does God respond to Moses with reason? Not at all. He just says, Shut up! Nor does God offer any empirical evidence for his decision – such as, given the strength and position of their enemies, why Joshua is now more fit to lead the Israelites. God just delivers the decision from on high. Don’t bring up the issue again. But there is a twist. God offers Moses compensation. He throws a bone. Moses will be allowed to see the land but not enter it. In return, Moses will pass the role of leader formally to Joshua so the leadership transition will go smoothly. Moses was instructed to pass on to Joshua his gifts of strength and courage.

And Moses accepts. That is the art of the deal when the object is not the protection of one’s own image, not narcissistic idolatry, but the primacy of service to the nation. All three examples of efforts to change the mind of another (1 by Moses and 2 by DT) begin with a sense of deep disappointment. All ask for a change of mind. But Moses is other-directed – towards God and towards his people. Donald Trump, while claiming to express the interests of Americans and to be the voice of his followers, is clearly almost exclusively interested in boosting and boasting about his own image. None of his arguments are sincere and some are outright lies.

Not all arguments and pleadings are settled by reason and a reference to facts. In the Moses example, this was definitely not the case. But in such instances, the use of a plea rather than a threat, the recognition of the other rather than the focus on the self, the willingness to accept a half measures instead of bullying to get what one wants even if one only wants half the pie in the first place, offer guidelines for the art of the deal, practices that DT seems to totally lack.

It is also an acceptance of one’s mortality as well as the acceptance that one fulfills one’s mission in life, not by accomplishing the goals set out, but by doing one’s best to advance those goals. There are consolation prizes in life and these are sufficient. There is no need to aspire towards immortality. But that is a message that will have to be saved for another blog.

Trump as a Fascist Part IV: The Alpha Male, the Nation and the State

Trump as a Fascist Part IV: The Alpha Male, the Nation and the State

by

Howard Adelman

If you are an Alpha Male, there is no necessity that you will be a fascist. However, there is no example of fascism that does not have an Alpha Male as its leader. An Alpha Male as a leader of a fascist moment is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition, of identifying a movement as fascist.

I thank God (colloquially and not ironically) that I come from a tradition that puts the stress on non-Alpha Males as political and spiritual leaders. Abraham was not an Alpha Male. Isaac was not an Alpha Male. Jacob was not an Alpha Male. The list goes on. Neither Joseph nor Moses were Alpha Males. Sampson was, but he was not a leader, but a martyr.

An Alpha Male has the following characteristics, often seen and promoted in ads or on internet sites as positive virtues. Those promotions are social and psychological equivalents to the ads I would read in comic books when I was a kid about the skinny guy on the beach being beaten up. But if he took the Charles Atlas exercise program, he would be the beater rather than the beaten. Further, he would get all the girls.

For a central characteristic of an Alpha Male is one who strives to win, not just by demonstrating superiority to a rival, but by whipping that rival. Winning versus losing is not enough. The victory must be convincing to all who watch. Hence, the pitiful display, both of the way Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton (“Lock her up”) and his need and insistence that he won with the greatest majority in history.

The advertisement for himself begins, always, with self-confidence. It is not that self-confidence is a vice. It is clearly not. But when at fourteen years of age as a student in a military academy when, in a baseball game, you hit a ball into left field and the ballplayer fumbles the catch, you not only boast that you hit the ball way into the stands, but insist that your teammate verify the truth of that claim. The self-confidence is not only physical, but vocal and revealed in both action and thought (not reflection, for the behaviour tends to be on auto—pilot).

Accompanying this form of self expression is a demonstration of perseverance. Again, perseverance, stick-to-itiveness, is not a vice in itself. It is normally a virtue. But when that doggedness is accompanied by two other characteristics, it is without question a vice. Tenacity is insufficient. First, there is no second guessing. What is expressed must be reality. There are no social or intellectual checks and balances. However, a second characteristic is also present – the ease with which the Alpha Male changes his mind. But the change always comes from his mind and never the influence of others. He must be the genesis of all thought and action. He must define himself. No one else.

Until he changes his mind, he is immovable in his convictions. But if and when he changes his mind – and that will be often – there will be no admission of such. DT has never confessed that he was wrong in his insistence that Barack Obama was not born in America. He will go from being a professed supporter of LGBT rights to demanding that transgender individuals be kicked out of the armed forces virtually overnight without any acknowledgement that he has changed his mind.

As a result, this Alpha Male, afraid to be the victim of a bully, becomes the bully on the beach. After all, in his world view, there are only winners and losers, dominance or submission. That is expressed in every aspect of his body language which I have already depicted – from the pompadour hair styling to the upwardly thrust chin and the exposure of his neck as if he were daring anyone to come up to the podium and try to slit his neck. Exposing his neck is not an act of submission but of bravado. Don’t slump; thrust your shoulders back. Don’t fold your arms; display them and your hands, for you, as the Alpha Male, fear no one. Shake hands, if possible, with your palm down. DT took instructions from the best Alpha Male manuals.

This bravado is also expressed in his use of language – the repetitions, like the rattling of a gatling gun, the unapologetic way in which he interrupts a conversation or abandons it if he cannot prevail. It is why he is such a poor listener for he is in thrall to his own voice. When he speaks, he so frequently uses the device of the pregnant pause that he would make the believer think that he is the source of a brilliant idea every fifteen seconds. He stops in the middle of sentences, even the middle of a phrase, to communicate that everyone listening must “hang” onto his every word.

As everyone now recognizes, the crisis of the time may be North Korea developing nuclear weapons, but what absorbs 80% of his energy is himself and how he appears to others. He needs to stand out. He needs to say what he wants to say and insist that what he says becomes the centre of attention. When he is not the centre, he is very creative in interrupting the public conversation and turning the spotlight back on himself. Thus, he is not a simple Alpha Male, but one who suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder. He has to demonstrate that he can do what he wants, when he wants because he can. He does not ask. He tells. He must show that he is in the lead and ahead of the game all the time even when he is leading backwards and retreating.

If an Alpha Male is a leader, does he not have to demonstrate that he takes care of the people close to him, that he listens to them to find out what they are thinking? Does he not have to demonstrate that he can put his own ego aside to learn and grow rather than demonstrate defensiveness and insecurity about one’s own ego?  The answer to both questions is – Yes. The issue is the few that he allows to be close. In front of those few, he will demonstrate that he can sideline his ego, but only to allow it overnight to re-appear bigger and supposedly better by the next morning.

That does not mean that he lacks considerable social skills. He can laugh and tell a story. He can flatter and make others feel good about themselves. But only so long as those around are sucked into his construction of reality. When they demonstrate they are the agents of their own actions, even when those actions conform to his own wishes or, in the case of The Mooch, to his own style, he will not only be dismissive of them, but can resort to humiliation and denigration. DT’s treatment of Jeff Sessions is a case in point. Just because the norms of justice demand that any Attorney General recuse himself when the subject of an investigation includes him as a central figure, that is of no consequence. The only thing that matters is that Sessions acted without consulting him and getting his stamp of approval. The preeminent Alpha Male must make all decisions that may affect oneself.

Such an Alpha Male must not only be the star of the show, but the All-Star. However, that ego must be fed, fed by people who are in awe of him. At the same time, the Alpha Male must demonstrate that he goes into battle with a magical talisman that deflects both bullets and criticism. He firmly believes that nothing can harm his Ego.

However, the weakness of that ego, the insecurity behind the insistence on only self-validation, is the need to rely on others demonstrating an overwhelming sense of reverence and admiration. He must not only be imposing and impressive, formidable and frightening at one and the same time, he needs to be exalted and treated as a wondrous being. In turn, he doles out approval in superlatives – he is the best; isn’t she the greatest. But what about self-deprecation? What about admitting that you do not have all the answers? Any form of such admission is not a demonstration of superiority, but of inferiority and dependence on others.

What about honesty and integrity? DT is a serious serial liar. He can barely tell the truth even when he has no need to deceive. One could argue that the Alpha Male has no reason to lie because he is unconcerned with how others view him. But a super Alpha Male needs to create his own reality and suck everyone else into his vortex. Lying and insisting on its truth is not a mere tactic of never admitting you are wrong, but an ontological need for the only reality can be one that the Alpha Male creates.

What has all this to do with politics – especially in a democratic order? Everything, especially if the democracy has put itself at risk by removing barriers to the ascension of an Alpha Male to a throne of power. According to Giovanni Gentile, what made the world was not an objective understanding of it, but an imposition of the ideas of a subjective agency upon it. In objective thought, opposites in contention were the source of validating reality. In Gentile’s fascist world, the one who chose among opponents in contention determined leadership. Nothing exists external to the human mind and spirit and the most dominant expression of human will, therefore, defined reality. There was no empirical reality independent and capable of assessing and evaluating the predominant spirit. What that spirit must do is offer to “his” people, especially appealing to those left behind by the current direction and dialectic of history, was a vision of a totalized whole of society in which they could all be a part. All thought had to be subsumed by the state and independent media could only be a source of false ideas and untruths.

Thus, individual interests of divergent groups were to incorporated into one movement that in turn was determined to incorporate them into the state. That meant a state defined by humans and not by laws and a constitution. That meant a state based on a doctrine of, “L’état c’est moi.” The “stato etico” was to be the means of resolution of the problems of alienation. What about the conservative vision of a diminished state. No problem. The issue was not how much the state delivered services, but how much the state expressed that unified vision where efforts to balance and deal with various interests were anathema. The state may shrink, but no one can be free of its ever-presence and the omniscience and domination of its leader.

Thus, two propositions are identified with the theory of fascism. “The State is a wholly spiritual creation of its leader” and “the nation is also a creation of mind and not a pre-existing entity.” Make America great again means “make America.” The past is denigrated and the future becomes wide open and adaptable to the contingencies of the time and place. A dominant human will imposing its authority on the will of others must prescribe that reality with the message that he is the deliverer from the forces of oppression and the spokesperson for the historical expression of a pre-determined destiny. There are no independent laws and there is no independent reality separable from that vision and articulation.

Education may be privatized, but simply to allow the movement to capture control from the pre-existing state. Individualism, the idealization of the self-centred and self-interested self, must be idealized only to subsume that individual in the will of a nation and a state bound together by a common vision of a greater America that, at its ultimate, will demand the self-sacrifice of the individual for this duty to serve the higher expression of the larger community. For it is in the national spirit that the individual truly lives and experiences reality.

There is, thus, a rejection of materialism, a rejection of empirical positivism, a rejection of scepticism, for a vision of man creating through the exercise of that “free will” his own world. And it will be his world, a world he can own and not a world that is passing him by. To participate, he and she must become active agents in this project of self-creation accepting the vision of the leader as the maker of the new reality. And making that new reality will not be an easy enterprise. It will take work. It will take a sustained effort. It will take trust in the leader. Since the movement believes in the state and in the nation, but not government, the exercise of government is only instrumental to serving the vision. As such, the movement will have more of the characteristics of a mass cult than of a political party.

Its roots will be the family. Leadership will extoll the foundation of society in the traditional family, and, in turn, the social group in which one experiences a commonality of purpose. Diversity becomes a swear word in such a context. Instead, the stress is placed on a commonality of tradition, even as one reconfigures those traditions, such as the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, and, most of all, the commonality of language. Hence, the insistence that those recruited into the community share that language and those traditions.

How can man act on both society and on nature? With respect to the latter, denying both the importance and the relevance of nature’s laws. The problem with the concept of global warming is not the earth warming resulting from human activity, but the idea of the earth warming by forces almost out of human control. The exercise is not to conform to nature’s laws, but to insist that humans, more specifically, societies led by leaders are in control independent of such forces. If that means being a climate change denier, so be it.

Only in this way can liberty escape the prison bars of liberalism, escape the individual driven by drives and interests, in favour of a nation and a state created independently, indeed, in disregard of, such natural forces. Only then will the nation and the state express the free will of the individual to achieve a higher state of being through that nation and through that state. Contrary to the suggestion that DT is an anti-statist, he is anti-government. Chaos is not an accidental feature of his administration but its core. For only out of chaos will the new emerge.

No wonder that super Alpha Males and this notion of the nation and the state forge such a perfect marriage. Congratulating the scouts for the universal virtues developed and created as part of civil society is anathema, for the boy scouts must be harnessed by the movement towards an organic nation and state. Using a scout jamboree as if it is a movement rally is par for the course and not considered deviant behaviour. For there can be no virtues outside this spiritual movement thrust forward by the vision of a renewed nation and state.

Hence, fascism is and must be totalitarian even if, on the way to that end, compromise may be necessary. Therefore, individuals who fall by the wayside out of this cultish movement must be denied the rites even of a proper burial of their role and, instead, literally tossed under the bus. Because the rise of fascism is opportunistic. The absence of ethics as we know it in all these ways  is a telling revelation of the means and ends of the movement.