The Promise – a movie review

The Promise – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I am not breaking my summer silence, merely taking a recess. The cause is a movie I saw on television last night called The Promise. It is about the Armenian genocide. If I was a true film aficionado, I would know about the film, whether I had seen it or not. But I not only did not see it when it was released, but I had not heard of it. I initially thought I had an excuse because the release date that I read was 27 May 2017. However, the actual release date in Canada was 21 April 2017. Further, it was at TIFF in 2016. In any case, my lame excuse had been that I went north to my island for the rainy and cold month of June and did not return fully until July.

Before I begin the review, a few, and perhaps too many, words about the Armenian genocide. As is well known, successive and very different Turkish regimes have denied the existence of any intentional slaughter of the up to 1.5 million Armenians killed in that slaughter. The Armenians were killed, the Turks claim, because they allegedly started a civil war. Civilians were killed in the crossfire. They were casualties of war, not deliberately murdered. In any case, the Turks insist, the numbers that died is grossly exaggerated.

They are not. The genocide took place as depicted.

I became a secondary scholar of the Armenian genocide when I was asked by the Toronto School Board to sit with two other academics, experts on the Holocaust, to adjudicate whether the story of the genocide should be included on the curriculum for high school students in Toronto. Deliberately, not one of asked to serve on this voluntary judicial advisory committee because we had published on the Armenian genocide. The Board of Education wanted expertise without offering grounds for the formal Turkish government complaint to subsequently declare a prior bias.

This was, of course, not entirely possible. All three of us were familiar with Holocaust deniers. I certainly knew of Rwandan genocide deniers, or those who try to mitigate that tragedy, though the latter position was virtually impossible to sustain. Instead, in the case of Rwanda, deflection is used – a practice with which every reader is likely to be extremely familiar since the election of President Donald Trump. The claim is that President Kagame of Rwanda has been systematically slaughtering Hutu since the Tutsi-led rebels invaded Rwanda and initiated the civil war in 1990. The numbers killed on each side, these genocide distractors imply, are about equal. This past month, I was asked to review a research paper that edged in this way towards apologetics. However ruthless President Kagame may be as an elected dictator in Rwanda, any fair examination of his record, positive and negative, would not declare him to be a genocidaire.

However, the Turks, and their successive governments of very different stripes, have been united perhaps on only one topic for over one hundred years  – the persistent and insistent denial of the Armenian genocide.  A Turkish graduate student of mine – not an Armenian – wanted to write a thesis on the Armenian refugees in WWI. Somehow the Turkish government heard of it. A representative of the Turkish embassy in Ottawa paid me a visit when I was the founding director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. He asked generally whther any student was writing about refugees, particularly from Turkey, during I disclosed nothing but informed my student. That student, fearing punishment on any return to Turkey, switched topics.

On the committee, I read much of the scholarly literature on the Armenian genocide as well as the Turkish propaganda denying its occurrence. What was distinctive from the Jewish and the Armenian genocides is that, in this case, there were two reputable scholars who denied that a systematic government-led effort to slaughter and forcefully relocate the Armenians had taken place. The vast majority of scholarly conclusions – as the committee claimed in its report to the Board of Education – supported the claims of genocide. Though the committee did not find that the evidence for the Armenian genocide taking place was incontrovertible or unassailable – there are very few historical events in which this is the case – the committee concluded that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, and the logical flaws of the deniers, made it unquestionable that the Armenian genocide should be taught as a segment of actual history on a high school curriculum and without providing any necessity to make room for the literature of deniers. The evidence was as indisputable and indubitable as one can find in historiography. Yet two films appeared relatively recently that bordered on genocide denial – The Ottoman Lieutenant and Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner.

All this is to say that when I watched the film, I had no distraction or concern that the genocide had taken place. However, I was bothered somewhat by the implication that Turkey during the dying days of the Ottoman empire and even the beginnings of the Young Turk takeover in the aftermath of the disastrous Turko-Russian War largely waged in the Balkans in 1912, was simply a prosperous multicultural society. It certainly had that appearance. But just as there had been early warnings of a genocide in Rwanda with some trial efforts at mass slaughter, the warnings in Turkey were far clearer with the slaughter of 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians in the massacres of 1894-95 by the paramilitary Hamidye (the Interahamwe militias were used in Rwanda) and the 10,000–30,000 murdered by units of the armed forces in the Adana massacre of March-April 1909. However, as most scholars point out, a pogrom does not constitute a genocide. But pogroms can be precursors.

Thus, the film is correct in dating the formal start of the genocide to 24 April 1915 when several hundred Armenian professionals and intellectuals were rounded up and interned, with the vast majority eventually being killed. Second, the film depicts the second stage of the genocide when young Armenian (as well as Assyrian and Greek Christian) males from their teens to their forties were arrested, subjected to forced labour and murdered en masse in the process. The third phase of the slaughter portrays whole Armenian villages and towns put to the torch and Armenian older men, women and children set out on a forced march to Syria, where, on route, the vast majority perished in the desert which they attempted to cross with inadequate supplies of food and water. In the finale, the film portrays the brave and victorious Armenian 53-day self-defence by the Armenians from the villages of Kabusia (Kaboussieh), Yoghunoluk, Bitias, Vakef, Kheter Bey (Khodr Bey) and Haji Habibli  at the mountain, Musa Daği (ironically, Moses’ Mountain) recorded in Franz Werfel’s  novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, until over 4,000 Armenians were rescued by the French navy.

The genocidal scenes are handled with mastery by the director, Terry George, and constitute a complement to the beauty and variety and richness of Constantinople before the war. Terry George entered this project with a stellar reputation from directing Hotel Rwanda and, before that, Some Mother’s Son (1991) about the 1981 IRA prisoner hunger strike, In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997), the latter two both starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unlike these depictions of the troubles in Northern Ireland, The Promise is directed on an epic scale with wonderful crowd scenes varying from the throngs in the markets of Istanbul to the forced labourers to the mass deportations in cattle cars and the forced march of the Armenian inhabitants of towns and villages. The leads portrayed by Oscar Isaac as Mikael Poghosian, an apothecary with a determination to become a doctor, Charlotte Le Bon as the vivacious and vibrant Ana, and Christian Bale as the famous American journalist, Chris Meyers.

So what is wrong with the film? Why is it not the Armenian equivalent to Schindler’s List? It is certainly not the cinematography which is gorgeous – perhaps all-too-gorgeous, even in the scenes about the flight. Unlike Atom Egoyan’s 2003 imperfect movie Ararat, also on the Armenian genocide, the flaw in The Promise is in the script co-written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. The weakness is not because they used a romantic triangle among the three to anchor the film in the personal, but because the triangle remains too central when the belated portrayal of the genocide begins. Further, it turns into a contrived and cloying series of segments through the latter half of the movie. Finally, and I could not figure why, there is almost no sexual chemistry between Ana and Mikael.

Some reviewers that I read this morning found this simply to be a distraction. For other reviewers, it spoiled the film. While I agree with the consensus on the sentimental and manipulated personal narrative at the core of the film, the power of the portrayal of the genocide, the brilliant directing and cinematography, and the wonderful acting, even though the character of Mikael Poghosian is too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, the events and their portrayal more than make up for this lapse so that I was mesmerized by the film and would have rated it much higher than the negative and barely positive reviews that I read.

However, do not read the reviews before you watch the movie. I did not, and very rarely do, for, in this case, review after review egregiously offer an account of the plot in great detail. A script which allowed reviewers to be distracted from the main and very important subject matter can be blamed on the screenwriters, but reviewers are as much to blame for allowing their narrative sensibilities to detract from the power of the movie.

It is a must see. And it does not cost nearly as much to watch on TV as in a movie theatre, though I desperately wish I had viewed the panoramic scenes on a large movie screen.

 

with the help of Alex Zisman

Clouds Over the Land: Sunset Song – Numbers 10:9

Clouds Over the Land: Sunset Song – Numbers 10:9

by

Howard Adelman

If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your God, and thus be saved from your enemies.   טוְכִי תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם עַל הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם:

וְכִֽי־תָבֹ֨אוּ מִלְחָמָ֜ה בְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם עַל־הַצַּר֙ הַצֹּרֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֔ם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶ֖ם בַּחֲצֹצְר֑וֹת וֲנִזְכַּרְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּ֖ם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶֽם׃

When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God and be delivered from your enemies.

The Israelites are in the wilderness. Why are they getting commandments about blowing a trumpet in a certain way when they are defending their land against an aggressor? The Israelites had no land to defend. This is the only mention of the land in this section. There are verses on the cloud settling in over the Tabernacle and remaining there. There are verses on the cloud lifting from the Tabernacle and once again permitting the Israelites to go forward. There is the fire on the altar; when the cloud rests over the Tabernacle, and then the latter had the likeness of fire. (9:15) However long the cloud settled in over the Tabernacle, the Israelites remained encamped, unmoving and unable to move.

There may be fire, there may be water in the form of a mist, and there is always the harsh land, but what is noticeable is the absence of any mention of ruah, the divine spirit that animates things. Sometimes ruah is identified with the breath of life and with the soul, the only thing that remains when the physical body melts away with death. Earth, water – sometimes in torrents rather than as simply a mist – and fire, but no ruah.

The setting is described at the beginning of Numbers in the opening of verse 9:1-2. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying (2) Let the people offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time.” Some take this as a message to hold a second Passover when you were unable to celebrate the first, when the family was unclean because someone had just died. But it is a description of a second Passover, as horrid a period as when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt when God was killing the first-born in every Egyptian family.

On the first anniversary of the exodus, when the nostalgia for what has been lost sets in, when the Israelites are in the desert, when the casualties of the trek through the desert can be counted, they are told that they are suffering a very different misery. This misery too shall pass. The cloud of despondency will lift and they will be able to move on with their lives. But when death lies in their midst, they are unclean. And once again they must eat bitter herbs and consume unleavened bread, the bread of affliction.

On the anniversary of the exodus, on the New Year, on Rosh Hashanah, otherwise known as Yom Teruah (Numbers 29:1), Tekiah is sounded, a long blast, when the people are assembled. Then, when they are attacked, when they are at war with themselves and, thus, with others, the Israelites sound the Teruah, the series of nine very short staccato notes, and the Shevarim, three medium length blasts following each Teruah section of three notes. The community is called to leave behind its misery, leave behind self-pity and get on the move to fight the enemies that assault them.

If you want to comprehend this section of the Torah, I suggest you watch Terence Davies’ movie, Sunset Song. It is a long film. (two hours and fifteen minutes) It is also a slow film. But it deserves your patience, if only to view the gorgeous but harsh Scottish countryside and the main character, Chris Guthrie played by Agyness Deyn. Chris is a bonnie lass and one of the greatest, if not the greatest character, in Scottish fiction. The film is an adaptation by the director of the first 1932 volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, set in the north-east in the Scottish village or estate of Kinraddie and largely located in the farm, Blawearie, the meaning of which is found in its very sound – blah and weary.

The farm stands in stark contrast to the name of the larger community, Kinraddie, which means whistling away to oneself when the day shines bright before one and the sun is shining. The film oscillates between these two opposite moods. As Gibbon wrote, “there were more than nine bit places [like the very short blasts of Teruah] left in the Kinraddie estate.” Blawearie is one of those bit places. The film ends with the Sunset Song, the Flower Song, in an elegiac reference to the passing of loved ones and the passing of an old order, the passing of an age of innocence, but also of horror that receives its ultimate global expression in the muddy trenches of World War I.

The film begins in Kinraddie, in the local school, where a tall and thin and precocious red-headed lass, Chris Guthrie, is singled out for her excellent pronunciation of French, her ability to whistle as the instructor says, without making the whistling sound. The film ends by repeating the refrain, “The Land endures.” “Only the land endures.” And Chris discovers that she is the land. Otherwise, “there were lovely things in the world, lovely that didn’t endure, and the lovelier for that… Nothing endures.” But the land! The land endures even as the song, “Flowers of thee Forest” is sung.

I’ve hear them liltin’, at the ewe milkin,’
Lasses a-liltin’ before dawn of day.
Now there’s a moanin’, on ilka green loanin’.
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
As boughs in the mornin’, nae blithe lads are scornin’,
Lasses are lonely and dowie and wae.
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighin’ and sobbin’,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.
At e’en in the gloamin’, nae swankies are roamin’,
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin’ her dearie,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
In har’st at the shearin’ nae youths now are jeerin’
Bandsters are runkled, and lyart, or grey.
At fair or at preachin’, nae wooin’, nae fleecin’,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
the English for ance by guile wan the day.
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.
We’ll hae nae mair liltin’, at the ewe milkin’,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae.
Sighin’ and moanin’ on ilka green loanin’,
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.

How does that harsh land endure? How does it survive the harsh winds and pouring rain, the heavy snows of winter? Through fire. The constant flame throughout the film is the family altar, the big stove in the kitchen ever burning. And life is renewed when Chris falls in love with Ewan Tavendale (James Grant) and they blow out the candle to have sex in the dark, not only when they are first married when Chris is still seventeen and approaching her eighteenth birthday, but on each occasion afterwards. Except when Ewen returns from WWI on leave.

Ewen went to war to fight for king and country, urged to do so by his Presbyterian pastor to fight Kaiser as the anti-Christ and lest he be regarded as a coward. War transformed him from a loving and sensitive man into a brute who rapes his wife without turning out the candle. The scene is even more horrific than it reads. However, his ostensible cowardice was truly an act of bravery, for the spark of love within him, the ruah in the film, made him seek out the “white feather” treatment by the military; he was shot as a deserter in the three short blasts of the shofar, the Teruah, in the final act of the film.

The flowers of the forest are all wede away. They go mad. They rage. They rave. As Chris does when Ewen, her dear and loving lad turned into a monster by a war he did not want to fight, by the English who “by guile wan the day” “for the order sent our lads to the Border,” is shot as a deserter, his self-sacrifice lest he condemn Chris to a life of abuse as her mother, Jean, had been before she took her own life and that of her baby twins.

However, that is not where the film begins. We will soon learn about the harsh unforgiving reality of the hardscrabble land of these Scottish farmers, but Chris leaves the class with which the film opens with her best friend. They skip playfully through the forest in one of the many moments of pure bliss in a scene of sheer pastoral beauty, like the many scenes of golden fields of grain and green pastures.

Sunset Song, in the end, is not a lament for a past that will be no more, though it is that, with all its vices and virtues, but it is about the renewal of spirit, the renewal of life, just when you begin to think that life cannot get any worse. We know from the narrator of the film, Chris herself, who will go to renew her love of books, her love of life, her love of what I would call Torah rather than the harsh prescriptions in the biblical text that become the sole focus of tyrannical men and fathers who will mistreat their sons and even long for incest with their daughters. Peter Mullan plays John Guthrie with the same mastery that he lights his pipe in the few moments when he sits content with himself and with the world. At other times, he straps Chris’ brother Will (Jack Greenlees) across the back. One suspects that Chris became a writer as well as a teacher, for poetry suffuses a movie of tragic loss and despair.

In the opening, Chis intones about herself: “So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrises there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.” The schizophrenia was only resolved when, after many tests akin to those Job suffered, she discovered that she was the land.

The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They had yet to learn that they were the land, that they were at one with the land, and that they would repeatedly betray that land as they betrayed their harsh and unforgiving God.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Johnston and Donald Trump: Europe and Russia

Donald Johnston and Donald Trump: Europe and Russia

by

Howard Adelman

Russia and Europe are both in the headlines these days, Russia because of the probe into the connections with the Trump White House, and Europe because of the fallout from Donald Trump’s visit last week. “The American-German relationship has been the core of the transatlantic alliance for more than 70 years. It was in Berlin in 1963 that President John Kennedy uttered the phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner” signalling the unbreakable link between the U.S. and Germany.

Following last week, that close relationship is now dead. At its centre were trade and a military alliance. With respect to the latter, Donald Trump refrained from endorsing Clause 5 of the NATO pact. Trump even lectured his European colleagues for their failure to pay their fair share of NATO costs. Yesterday we learned that most are expecting Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Accords.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel rebuked the American leader. “Anyone who accelerates climate change by weakening environmental protection, who sells more weapons in conflict zones and who does not want to politically resolve religious conflicts is putting peace in Europe at risk.” Angela Merkel said that it was time for Europeans, “to take our fates in our own hands.” Given “what I’ve experienced in recent days,” the days when “we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent.” “We have to fight for our own future, as Europeans, for our destiny.”

These statements, as much as one might deplore this extraordinary breach in the trans-Atlantic alliance, seemed to prove Donald Johnston’s conviction that Europe had to have strong, visionary leadership. Though he had not seen it yet when he wrote Chapter 3 of his book, “Europe Listing, but Afloat,” the statements of German leaders, the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France, the prior rejection in Austria of a right-wing populist government, the rebirth of Greece and its rejection of a Greek Grexit, the solidification of the Spanish and Irish economic recoveries, all spoke to a revived Europe, and one without the UK which had voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit upset referendum.

The UK seems to be on a downward slide. London’s place as a world financial centre will begin a slow spiral driven by the gravity of less access to markets. Further, the UK faces the possibility of disintegrating into even smaller nation-states as Scotland looks forward to another vote for separation and rejoining Europe. While most Germans, Dutch and French identify as Europeans, the English still overwhelmingly identify their nationality with their little British Isle. Nevertheless, Johnston believes that the English will soon come to their senses, especially as the unravelling gets closer and more difficult. He believes that Brits will reverse course before it is too late.

One reason Donald Johnston offers is not only the difficulties in unravelling membership, not only the increasingly apparent high costs, but his belief that the Brexit referendum “was a vote of passion, not reason.” Rational self-interest would win out over identity politics currently manifest in the U.K.’s resistance to the influx of outsiders, even though two-thirds of migrants to the UK were not Europeans. Further, like populists on the right in the U.S., those supporting exit from the EU hated the Brussels bureaucracy and called for “independence.”

Nevertheless, Johnston believes that Brits will change their minds before the break is finalized. “What government would have the courage to sign off on Brexit if the polls show a large majority of electors opposed, which is likely to be the case when the consequences are well understood?” If they don’t, separation will take place “against the will of the majority of people in the United Kingdom.” How does he arrive at that assessment? He adds together those who voted against exit with those who did not vote at all on the assumption that 100% would oppose Brexit. Further, even if the divorce is concluded, he expresses the belief that Britain would remain in the European economic zone or, at the very least, forge a free-trade agreement.

Ignoring the statistical sleight of hand above, which Johnston rails against in his chapter on stats, for someone who supports democratic institutions, it reveals a strong distaste for populism and referenda, a dislike he repeatedly expresses in the book. The problem, of course, is that a united Europe is primarily a mandarin’s dream while people throughout Europe and not only in the UK resent the usurping of tradition, of national parliaments and national pride. Johnston believes in a federated state model for Europe. He is an unabashed supporter of multilateralism and globalization as he envisions an even stronger Europe with increasingly open markets, a diminution of trade subsidies, a supporter of structural reforms in the provision of labour and manufacturing. But without completing the mission of creating a united federal state of Europe, the prospect of it becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world while ensuring social cohesion is, for DJ, iffy.

It is not that Johnston has not considered the reasons for populism – the suspicion of remote bureaucracies or the desire for greater parochialism. He has, but only to dismiss such approaches and to double down in defence of globalization. Nowhere in the book could I find an analysis of the effects of restructuring and globalization on workers. Further, and this is most surprising, though he applauds the goals of the Lisbon Declaration in support of education, research and innovation, research and innovation are not included in his graphic summary of his moral economics. Nor is his support for representative democracy and his fears, even hatred, of referenda and populism. The latter just provide grounds for demagogues and irrational passions displacing the task of rational decision-making. DJ quotes Edmund Burke with enthusiasm for parliamentarians who offer unbiased opinions, mature judgement and an enlightened conscience applied to political decision-making. Even those who have a deep faith in rational decision-making can be romantic visionaries.

What remains wrong in Europe? No equivalent to a European-wide securities and exchange commission, no EU-wide drug or food agency, no effective common immigration and refugee position, if only to counter-balance population decline, no formula for redistribution and strengthening weak regions. These unachieved goals, not identity politics, are responsible for the reassertion of populist, irrational, ill-informed and volatile popular will.

Donald Johnston presents himself as the antithesis to Donald Trump. Except he thinks Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an effective leader in Turkey and only became a radical pro-Islamic politician because Europe procrastinated and dithered on Turkey’s application to join the EU. Turkey’s flaws are largely the product of that rejection, even though he concedes that many who suspected his demagoguery and counter-democratic tendencies may have been correct. What he writes abut Russia offers a test of whether he can reconcile his support of parliamentary representative democracy and admiration for strong, effective leaders, for the latter is the trait he unabashedly shares with Donald Trump.

That, however, does not seem to be the case when he begins his chapter on Russia. “Putin’s personal agenda is totally incompatible with democratic ideals, free markets, freedom of expression, and even human rights.” Sounds pretty much like Erdoğan. Both men came to power with a very specific goal – to make their respective countries great again. Both used democracy to advance their own popularity and agenda. Both are economic mercantilists. And both are enemies of freedom and human rights. So why is Johnston so favourable to Erdoğan but critical of Putin? The sentence that follows partially answers the question. “His popularity is founded on hostility and aggressive policies towards the west.” (p. 41)

But what is the difference between the two leaders of Turkey and Russia respectively? Both disappeared adversaries, Erdoğan blatantly, openly and extensively. Putin was more surreptitious, but only Putin is accused. The difference seems to be that people eliminated in Russia included technocrats who Johnston knew – Boris Nemstov, for example.  Erdoğan only wiped out Kurds, jailed journalists and rounded up tens of thousands of members of his own party, civil servants and members of the judiciary, or anyone he thought might be opposed to his increasingly autocratic rule. The only substantive difference: Turkey had a much longer period as a democratic state.

But the causes are the same. Western failures. “Putin [like Erdoğan] is a product of Western blindness.” The stimulus may be different – the closure of the EU to Turkey versus the resurrection of the Cold War in a new form against Russia. The EU dithered on admitting Turkey. OECD procrastinated with Russia’s application to join.

Look at DJ’s answer to Putin’s query to him for an example of bad practices that OECD could help eliminate. Johnston replied, with only the slightest hesitation: “In Canada, which is a vast and diversified country and has similarities with Russia, we committed many mistakes. We pushed local development policies that were more tailored to positive political outcomes than to economic ones.” His reaction to Putin’s impassive response is even more interesting, explaining that passivity because Putin recognized that, “in democracies, placating local constituencies with public funds is an odious, yet obvious (my italics), by-product of the election process.” (p. 45) That says very little about Putin, but a great deal about Johnston’s cynicism and very guarded qualified defence of democracy, which seemed to boil down to the less you consulted your constituents, the less you tried to placate and cater to them, the better leader you were.

Putin could ignore proposals to liberalization of trade, effective taxation, privatization and methods for attracting foreign capital investments. Why? Because the West had made him justifiably wary because of the advance of Western missile defence systems eastward and NATO expansion to the borders of Russia. Those missile defence systems and the move of NATO eastward were not because former satellites had learned to distrust Russia throughout their history and needed reassurances if they were going to embrace the West.

Whether the problem was Crimea, the Ukraine or Syria, the answer is always the same: the mindblindness of the West. The West had failed to provide, in a timely way, healthy market-oriented and properly regulated economic nostrums in the nineties so that Russia could have avoided the depredations of corruption and kleptocratic oligarchs. Why? Because “the Harvard boys” with their unboundaried faith in self-correcting free markets got to Moscow before the OECD boys and their ethical economic doctrines. Russia could and should have been made part of the EU community earlier and history would have run a different course. The IMF got it wrong. OECD had it right.There are vast differences between DJ and DT: DJ’s high regard for civil servants and DT’s contempt for them; their joint appreciation of free markets, but Trump for unregulated ones and DJ’s belief in moral boundaries to them; DJ’s and DT’s contempt for the populace, but with Trump gleefully manipulating the public while DJ did so with his head down and with no sense of self-satisfaction. However, look at the similarities. Both support military withdrawal from spheres of Russian interest. Both share a belief in the power of personal diplomacy. Both respect strong leadership. Trump crusaded against corruption while openly admitting he was part of the corrupt system. DJ, though critical, was more accepting of corruption in its institutionalized democratic forms.

With respect to the latter, there is a major difference. DJ believes in consulting, placating and catering to constituents as little as possible. Trump does not exactly consult them, but psychologically he needs their approval and applause – look at how he is handling the abrogation of America’s signature to the Paris Accords.

DJ and DT are not the same. They are in many ways opposites. However, they are twins, though DT is the hairy one prone to mistakes, governed by instinct and unabashedly frank and even trusting. DJ is cautious, reads his briefing papers diligently and, even more importantly, appreciates others who do the same. Both have strong opinions and both offer very weak defenses of them. Trump’s are almost non-existent or simply products of his imagination.  But DJ respects mandarins. DT despises them. DJ is a globalist and cosmopolitan. DT is a nationalist. DJ is the epitome of civility. DT disses his opponents.

But both believe that history can be commanded and controlled – DJ through thoughtful and careful deliberation, DT through instinct and unabashed self-trust.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Johnston and his Hairy Twin, Donald Trump

Donald Johnston and his Hairy Twin, Donald Trump

by

Howard Adelman

Donald J. Johnston (2017) Missing the Tide: Global Governments in Retreat, McGill-Queens University Press.

The evening before last, I attended a book launch at Massey College of Donald J. Johnston’s new book chastising the international community for missing the opportunities over the last quarter of a century and for failing to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities to significantly advance both global social and economic progress. The book is a lamentation with a very loud wail. For there were many opportunities, Johnston argued. ALL were missed. It is also a paean, not so much to freedom from the classical laws of economics, but a cri de coeur to impose an ethical regime in control of the economic realm.

That regime required offsetting any rise of a monolithic dominant state in favour of a newborn vision of a balance of power among states using the leverage of international institutions, but without any international agreed-upon economic standard, such as the now ancient international gold standard. The “self-regulating market” with its unprecedented record of wealth creation had to be wedded to national and international political regulation which had produced “unheard-of material welfare.”  Johnston want to update the moral economics of Karl Polanyi, but with a full acceptance of the market without its neo-classical lack of moral boundaries.

For Johnston, global free trade is in retreat and, with it, the chance to extend increased prosperity to the developing world. Further, since both economic growth and social cohesion rest on a foundation of proper respect for mother earth that provides the wherewithal for both prosperity and social cohesion, the failure to adequately reduce the dangers of climate change may be the most serious missed opportunity.

Thus, the wreckage is economic. The wreckage is social. And the wreckage is environmental. But Donald Johnston is both a small “l” and a large “L” liberal and Liberal. If you do not know who he is, chances are that you have not yet reached your sixtieth birthday. In 2008, the Honourable Donald J. Johnston could add OC after his name for he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, both for his contributions to public service within in Canada and as the first non-European secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a position he held for ten years from 1996 to 2006, just before the great economic crash of 2007-08. He not only played a signal role in those so-called missed opportunities, but had a bird’s eye view of what happened in that fateful decade.

Further, he came to that position with enormous accomplishments behind him – as a gold medalist in law from McGill in 1958, as a founding partner of the legal firm, Heenan Blaikie, in 1964, where he worked alongside my next door neighbour, also a tax and business law specialist. Johnston was first elected to the Canadian Parliament in 1978 and quickly assumed a place in the sun as President of the Treasury Board, Minister of State for Science and Technology and subsequently for Economic and Regional Development. In addition to these positions between 1980 and 1984 in the Trudeau government, he was named Minister of Justice and Attorney General in the short-lived Turner Liberal government. For, if you are old enough, you might best remember him as the candidate who ran third in the leadership race behind John Turner and Jean Chrétien in 1984 and then broke ranks when his friend and colleague, John Turner, then leader of the opposition, opposed Brian Mulroney on free trade, specifically the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, but supported the PCs on the Meech Lake Accord. Johnston supported free trade and opposed Meech; he resigned from caucus and became an independent Liberal.

However, it is for his term as OECD Secretary-General that he will be best known. What a bird’s eye view! What an opportunity to influence the direction of history! But if you are looking for an account of his failure, forget it. For the failures were not his. They were the international community’s. There was George W. Bush’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq which initiated the undermining of the U.S. as the world’s leader with the initiation of positions and policies that were frugal on truth, disrespectful of science, expansive on pride and hubris, and thoroughly permeated by corruption and a disrespect for the small “l” liberal values of human rights.

From reading Johnston’s book, the politics of salesmanship, once slick versus the current display of vulgarity, the economics of favouring the 1% and ignoring the well-being of the remainder, promoting the military and foreign adventurism while undermining the welfare needed to hold society together, began much earlier than the ascension of Donald Trump as President. If the slick version of chicanery missed the opportunity to make Russia a full partner in liberal progress, the contemporary much crasser version is nostalgic with its outreach to a kleptocratic and autocratic Russia.

In the nineteenth century, the poor were severed both from the land and their access to charity. Trump will strip them of any possibility of realizing the dream of home ownership and, at the same time, of any right to access state welfare while promising the opposite.  In contrast, for Johnston, good governance on both the national and international level was and remains needed as an offset of once vibrant communities of reciprocity.

What happened? The U.S. was only ostensibly a proponent of free trade, but actually promoted bilateral trade and investment agreements, the forerunner of Trump’s policies without his frank openness. Why did this happen? Because the U.S. was a behemoth which operated to promote its own advantage. (p. 11) Why take on the Lilliputians collectively when you could pick them off one at a time? However, if that is the explanation – the inevitability of the exercise of uneven power – why declaim opportunities missed? If that norm was truly a universal law of behaviour, then there were really no opportunities. It was all a chimera.

Therein lies the contradiction. Forces are at work that overwhelm the liberal agenda of uniting economic growth and wealth creation with policies promoting social stability and cohesion through good governance at the top and a respect for nature at the base. The laws of “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” were reinforced by national predispositions. “Americans would never (my italics) accept the taxation levels of many European countries where there is a cultural tolerance for higher taxation to support public funding for education, health, and social safety nets.” (p. 14) But that meant the trajectory in the U.S. would always favour the rich at the expense of the middle and under class and would need foreign adventures to distract the populace through patriotic appeals and circuses.

The book is permeated with various versions of this contradiction between the inevitable power of social forces and the faith in choice and taking advantage of opportunities to forge what my son, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History and Director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University, calls the doctrine of moral economics, which he identifies with Karl Polanyi. (See Jeremy Adelman, “Polanyi, the Failed Prophet of Moral Economics,” Boston Review, 30 May 2017.) The connection need not be inferred. It is totally evident in the accomplishments at the OECD for which Johnston is lauded: establishing the world standard for the Principles of Corporate Governance, the revised Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises enunciating the norms of corporate social responsibility,  correcting harmful international tax practices; the international harmonization of competition policy, fostering sustainable development, and, as well, establishing the Education Directorate and the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) for assessing educational comparisons. For unlike Karl Polanyi, an intellectual father, Johnston strove to institutionalize morality and not leave it as a moral cloud haunting the economic market.

Without apology or any self-critical analysis, Johnston was and remains a champion of one version of Polanyi’s moral economics and moral norms, that in both their moral and institutionalized iterations proved to be as weak a barrier to the floods produced by raw capitalism as the levees that promised to hold back the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in Hurricane Katrina from drowning New Orleans. For a number of years, I used Karl Polanyi’s classic, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times (1944) in the general education courses that I taught at York University. As it turned out, it was my marked-up copy that Jeremy used in writing his article.

As Jeremy writes, Polanyi’s book is a “sacred text” for liberals unable to stomach the laws of inevitability espoused by both Marxists, on the one hand, and the worshippers of untrammeled markets and the invisible hand, on the other hand. Could liberalism counter “the iron broom of the classical economists”? He wrote a sacred text against a background when capitalism met its most profound economic crisis of the twentieth century, the Great Depression, and its most horrific political crisis, the rise of populist Nazism with its accompanying antisemitism in Europe.

Like Polanyi, Johnston is an “ethical stepchild of nineteenth-century liberalism, quick to condemn its shortfalls and determined to create a new moral order without the odor of Marxist class conflict.” However, unlike Polanyi, Johnston wanted to embed economic moralism in international institutions, for he accepted rather than rejected the globalization of consumption. Polanyi was a Puritan; Johnston is an Anglican or Episcopalian, at least in the secular economic religion. The market was not just a source of plutocratic enrichment at the expense of workers. It was the arena for creating wealth and it had to be tamed by rules and umpires and not treated as a circus for distraction.

Thus, Johnston’s book is timely and is part of a revivalist movement to beat back “the era of walls, visas, Eurofatigue, and slumping global trade.” He offers a moral counterpoint. Johnston writes about using good (my italics) governance to ensure the transfer of the benefits of growth to society as a whole. Could the OECD serve as an offset to the cult of stable money which was administered by states under a doctrine of state sovereignty, but where the forces at work lay “outside national boundaries, beyond the reach of community regulators”? Polanyi argued that markets had to be “embedded” within social norms to ensure the benefits served communal purposes.

I have written previously about the role of assimilated Jews who tried to address current economic and political issues with the moral lessons of the Torah, but where the Torah was only a silken thread connecting these modern “protestants” to their historic roots. Today is Shavuot that celebrates God’s giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Since I did not stay up this year to study Torah all night, it is convenient to refer to Julie Nathan’s essay, “The Gift of the Law: Civilisation, Shavuot and the Hatred of the Jews” (Religion and Ethics, 29 May 2017) Nathan wrote that the Jewish nation, which has had a lasting influence and impact on the human heart and mind rather than its institutions, unlike the great civilizations of the ancient world that grew up along major waterways,  “did not develop along a major river or amid lush vegetation, but was born in an arid desert, in a no-man’s land, and was founded not by kings and conquerors but by pastoral nomads and runaway slaves.” Polanyi may have left his shtetl Judaism behind, but he carried forward its emphasis on ideas, on values, on ethics and on laws to serve as a vision for humanity, but in a Christian form.

Look at Polanyi’s norms: human brotherhood, the sanctity of life, respect for individual dignity, the role of conscience, the upholding of social responsibility, respect for human rights, equality before the law, and a vision of the world guided by justice in pursuit of peace. Jeremy was named after Jeremiah, the prophet of peace.  Nations “shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation. They shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4). More generally, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) and, “Love your neighbour [and] the stranger as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, 19:34)

These were the values of Karl Polanyi. These remain the basic values of Donald Johnston. For Nathan, “Jews are targeted because they are the bearers of these values, the living affirmation of a universal message of a humanitarian and ethical world. Will Donald Johnston also be reproved for trying to revive this ancient message? Or will he be ignored and his analysis relegated to the dust heap of history because it fails to engage self-critically to truly understand why those norms could not succeed against the forces of Mammon?

Assimilated Jews cast adrift from their moral bearings, tried to resurrect and concretize them in international institutions. Donald Johnston, an archetypal WASP and visionary Canadian, emerges as an honorary Jew. As Larry Zolf used to say, “When you are in love, the whole world is Jewish.” Alternatively, one could be Jewish like Polanyi who eschewed knowledge of his origins and opted for resurrection without history. Polanyi claimed that Jews “were guilty, not for the death of Jesus, but for ‘rejecting the teachings of 4520885018036092Jesus, which are superior’.” Polanyi championed a new Christian unity superimposed on free markets and expressing the importance of a political balance, in the Aristotelian sense, set in place by these overarching values.

This is self-evidently a romantic view of Judaism and of the world. Polanyi was an heir to that romanticism. Whereas, both are proselytizers of a sacred secular economic and political religion wherein liberals in a confessional mode flagellate themselves for the failures of their liberalism, Johnston is an Orthodox rabbi in comparison. But both were blind to the real dangers of populist nationalism. “Now, will the Trump administration correct this crumbling once-great democracy or will it, like others, be seduced by the extraordinary wealth of some Americans instead of being motivated to address the poverty and disillusionment of millions who supported Trump?” (p. 16) To even pose this as a question, to even ask whether Trump and Trumpism will be seduced by money, to even hold out the possibility that Trump will convert to the religion of economic moralism, is to expose the emptiness of this economic dream world and suggest why it stood powerless in the face of opposing forces.

Further, there is a failure to grasp Trump’s policies of railing against currency manipulation, implicitly favouring managed currencies, his national protectionism opposed to globalized economic forces, and make-work in industries such as coal mining. All these policies merely demonstrate that Trump, rather than Johnston, was not the usurper of Johnston’s birthright, but rather the true wished-for heir of the small “l” liberal tradition, Jacob (Johnston) longed to steal the birthright of Esau (Bush/Trump), but without Jacob’s mother’s wile. Polanyi was Johnston’s intellectual father, but Trump was the natural heir, not moral economic globalism embedded in institutions.

Johnston ends with this assertion, “I think it will happen.” It reveals the triumph of hope over reality, belief over facts, faith over skepticism, in fact, the very same foundation of charlatan Trumpism’s cynical evangelism based on faith rather than truth, founded on a lavish lifestyle, the Benny Hinn of American secularism. As Jeremy asked, is the search for the middle but a cover for the intellectual, economic and political misery of a muddle?

Lamentations focus on the gore of history. Charlatans nostalgically appeal to past glory. But both were conceived in the same womb.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

Reflections on the Trump Overseas Tour

Reflections on the Trump Overseas Tour

by

Howard Adelman

My overall impression of Donald Trump’s first excursion overseas as President is the low standard American commentators have set for their President. Further, Trump has surrendered American leadership in the world, although the focus has been on whether his visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican and the G7 were far less damaging than expected.  I examine the trip thus far one stop at a time.

Saudi Arabia

The glitz was familiar. Friendships were forged and solidified. The dancing at the ardha ceremony on the part of the Americans was awkward, and that may have been the metaphor for the whole visit. At the same time, a number of issues came into sharper focus.

  1. Donald’s supreme ignorance concerning terrorism

Though Trump declared that the war against terror was not a war of one civilization against another or one religion against another, but a war against evil, Iran alone was blamed as the heinous source of terrorism, as “the tip of the spear of global terrorism.” To some extent, in the Middle East, the country is a prime source. However, most radical Islamicist terrorism in Europe, in North America and even in the Middle East, is a product of Sunni, not Shiite, background. Wahhabism, rooted in Saudi Arabia, is both a source of proselytizing as well as repression, though both merge together in terrorism in only a small proportion of adherents to this fundamentalism. ISIS in its theology and jurisprudence is far closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran.

  1. Donald proved he could be diplomatic

He learned to follow Barack Obama’s lead, a lead at which he once aimed withering criticism, and avoided the phrase “Islamic terrorism.” He also deliberately ignored his anti-Islamic rhetoric in addressing Muslim leaders and conveniently forgot that he had once declared that Muslims hate us.

  1. Donald’s Respect for Democracy

Saudi Arabia is a dynasty and theocracy, permitting only male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud, to rule. Further, the Basic Law that dictates a dictatorship is rooted in sharia law; punishment can be severe for apostasy, sorcery and adultery. Trump could have offered indirect criticisms of the Saudi democratic deficit by applauding the honesty of its December 2016 elections and the innovation in allowing women to both vote and run as candidates, while urging moves towards further reform. If he had a deeper sense of diplomacy than he exhibited, this need not have emerged as a scolding, but as encouragement towards judicial independence and due process in opposition to rampant use of arbitrary arrest, particularly targeting human rights activists. However, Donald Trump’s “principled realism” unveiled an absence of any principles.

  1. Donald’s Ethos

Donald seems to have no sense of human rights – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly – and universal values; he expresses a positive disdain for them in the leaders he admires. He never once brought up the issue of human rights or confronted the repressive government of the Saudis. Instead, a member of his executive, Secretary Wilbur Ross, lauded his visit to Saudi Arabia by noting there were no protesters. “There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard.” When Ross was offered an option to amend or qualify the statement, he abjured and, instead, doubled down on the plaudits he awarded Saudi Arabia without reference to the authoritarian reasons.

(See the U.S. Government Report: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/253157.pdf)

This State Department Report explicitly notes that, “the [Saudi] government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies.” Two protesters currently sit on death row sentenced to be beheaded.

  1. Donald’s Economic Interests

While the billions in trade deals (selling billions of dollars in arms to the Saudis whom he once charged with masterminding 9/11) were being celebrated, so was Saudi investments in America – $55 billion in defence, manufacturing and resource companies. Sales and investments also promised to bring more jobs to America. Less apparent was the fact that a close associate of Donald Trump, Hussain Sajwani, whose DAMAC Properties built the Trump International Golf Course Dubai, might be a big beneficiary.

  1. Saudi Middle East Peace Plan

Though the fifteen-year-old Saudi-led plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians had previously led nowhere, there were hints that the Saudis had modified their approach by offering Israeli recognition as well as trade and investment cooperation if Israel took positive steps towards peace – freezing settlements, releasing prisoners. The increasing surreptitious cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia in trade, security and even diplomacy has, in fact, provided the possibility of making the current period propitious for an advance toward peace, however unlikely that seems to be.

Israel and the Palestinians

At this time, virtually no one with any in-depth knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict expects any breakthrough on the conflict. This is especially true of the Palestinians. Some still believe that Palestinian stubbornness on the “right of return” is a, if not the, major impediment. In fact, there is a deal in the backdrop which allows Israel to ensure its demographic Jewish majority while giving a nod to Palestinian honour. Since there are agreements in place for trading territory and various resolutions are thrown about in dealing with the 80,000 Jewish settlers outside Area C in the West Bank, the problem of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel versus East Jerusalem serving as a capital of a Palestinian state still seems insurmountable. Could that problem be bracketed and a peace deal agreed upon on the other issues?

  1. Orthodox Jews were already suspicious when an unknown rabbi purportedly gave permission to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner landing in Saudi Arabia after the sun had set for the beginning of shabat.
  2. Donald Trump arrived in Israel against a background in Washington where he let the Russians know that intelligence had come from Israel.
  3. Former MK Moshe Feiglin, former leader of Zehut, criticized the $110 billion dollar-weapons-deal signed by Donald with Saudi Arabia.
  4. Netanyahu had to order his ministers to meet Trump at the airport; extreme right wing members recognized that they could not win Trump’s endorsement for a one-state solution based on Israeli victory.
  5. Netanyahu welcomed Trump to the “united capital of the Jewish state.”
  6. Donald Trump, whatever the huge range of his ignorance and inadequacies, does have a keen ear for identity politics and an ability to appeal to that side of Palestinian political concerns. In the past, efforts to strike a deal based on Palestinian self interest have failed. Would Donald be able appeal to their identity concerns?
  7. Recall that in February, Trump suggested that he, and the U.S., were no longer wedded to a two-state solution, even as the State Department reaffirmed that the U.S. still supported a two-state solution. Only a bare majority of Israelis continued to support a two-state solution and the support among Palestinians had dropped to 44%. However, it was not clear whether Trump had dumped the two-state solution or whether he was holding out that possibility if the Palestinians refused to bend and compromise. In his dealings with Israel, he was much clearer that he continued, for the present, to support a two-state solution, but it was also clear that it would not be based on a return to the Green Armistice Line, though Trump disdained the use of a label to characterize the solution without clarification of any content.
  8. When Donald Trump went to Bethlehem to meet Mahmud Abbas, he was greeted with a banner declaring Trump to be a man of peace: “the city of peace welcomes the man of peace.”
  9. Donald Trump did urge Palestinians to refrain from inciting violence.
  10. Trump broke a taboo and flew directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.
  11. Trump broke another taboo and, as U.S. President, visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, but without any Israeli politicians.
  12. He also reinforced Netanyahu’s propensity to demonize Iran as Trump insisted that Iran would never be allowed to make nuclear arms in the same week that a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, had just been re-elected as President of Iran.
  13. On the other hand, Trump did not announce moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem as he had promised.
  14. Further, Trump asked Netanyahu to “curb” settlement expansion, but did not ask for a freeze on building housing units in existing settlements.

The Vatican

  1. Instead of building bridges, as Pope Francis favoured, the Pope had criticized Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border during his campaign.
  2. Trump in return had called Francis “disgraceful.”
  3. Pope Francis, a critic of climate change sceptics, openly advocated adopting policies to deal with climate change. (Francis gave Trump a copy of his encyclical on preserving the environment – of course, there is little possibility that Trump will read it).
  4. Francis is also perhaps the best-known world figure who identifies with giving a helping hand to the poor, with compassion for refugees and, in a Ted talk, he had urged the powerful to put the needs of the people ahead of profits and products.
  5. Francis and Trump did not end up in fisticuffs, but the half-hour visit appeared to be a downer for the Donald and certainly for Sean Spicer, a Catholic, who never got to meet the Pope; the background of the Manchester terror attack did not help, though Trump is all sentiment when children are killed and riled up when terrorists do the killing.

Brussels

  1. The visit to the heartland of globalism was bound to depress the Donald, especially when the UK placed a curb on sharing intelligence with the U.S. since Washington leaks could have compromised the investigation of the Manchester terror attack.
  2. The release of the CPO discussed yesterday did not help.
  3. Donald lectured other members of NATO – totally ignoring the progress made towards the 2% of GDP to be dedicated to the military; he claimed other members owed “massive amounts”; “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying.”
  4. The combination of ignorance and bravado earned some open sniggers from a few European leaders but more frowns.
  5. Donald did not say that NATO was obsolete or dysfunctional, but neither did he pledge America’s unconditional fealty to NATO as required under Article 5 dealing with collective defence and the requirement that each member come to the defence of another.
  6. Donald was mostly left to wallow in his depressed isolation.

The G7

  1. At the G7, Trump lost the control he had exhibited in the Middle East and even Rome.
  2. It is difficult to say whether this was because of events back in Washington – John Brennan’s testimony that there definitely was Russian interference in the election and “possible” collusion because of Trump campaign officials contacts with the Russians, the breaking news of Trump possible obstruction of a criminal probe when he urged his intelligence chiefs to announce that there was no evidence of collusion, and the continuing parade of information that the Trump budget would be disastrous for Trump’s working class white supporters, or whether it was a result of events at the G7, or some combination thereof.
  3. First, while Trump refused to commit to the Paris Accord on the environment, he bragged that he won two environmental awards. And he did – for soil erosion control and preserving a bird sanctuary on one of his golf courses and for donating park land to New York State. Donald did not add that the first on the golf course complemented his self interest and the second was a way to get a charitable donation for land on which he was refused permission to build a golf course. Further, as one drives on the Taconic State Parkway through Westchester, you are greeted with large signs advertising the approach to Donald J. Trump State Park, but one finds the park is small (436 acres of woods and wetlands) relative to the signs, lacks any amenities – trails, parking, washrooms and picnic areas – and is uncared for (overgrown pathways and buildings deteriorated and covered with graffiti) since Trump never donated the money needed for its maintenance.
  4. President Xi of China told Trump that the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord would be irresponsible.
  5. Was America’s pledge to commit $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund alive or would Trump issue an executive order this week cancelling the American commitment?
  6. In turn, European leaders lectured Trump on the fallout for the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Accord – a wave of international anger that would lead to retribution, declining trade with the U.S. and destroy the last shred of trust in Washington; withdrawal would be treated by the world as “diplomatic malpractice” and characterized as betrayal; Trump had delayed an announcement before he arrived at the G7 and, perhaps, might allow U.S. state interests to take precedence over fulfilling his wild and destructive promises.
  7. Europeans tried to educate Trump on globalization and trade policy, but there was little indication that they had made a dint in his thinking. However, a private meeting with Justin Trudeau seemed to indicate that Trump would not scrap NAFTA, but would work to iron out wrinkles. On the other hand, the Europeans rejected out of hand his plea for bilateral trade deals instead of multilateral ones.
  8. The Donald was sabotaged in his effort to deliver French President Emmanuel Macron his traditional macho pull and handshake. Macron, instead of greeting Trump first, let him stand there, as he planted cheek kisses on Angela Merkel, greeted several others and then, having been briefed, subverted Trump’s effort and even pressed his hand harder and longer and would not let Trump pull away.
  9. When all other leaders are seen chatting informally with one another as they look over an iron fence at the spectacular view, Trump is nowhere in sight. Instead of walking there with the others, he went in a golf cart. When he arrived, he was surrounded by a phalanx of security men and only then joined the group and appeared to dominate the conversation.
  10. When Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, as host of the conference, addressed his fellow leaders, all leaders had on headphones and listened – except Donald Trump, sitting two seats away, Donald without headphones sat looking vacantly at the table. Perhaps no one can understand Italian as well as he can.
  11. Trump had been gone too long from living in what he owned and projected his possessive individualism. Was it the requirement of collegiality that made him slip from his vacuous demeanour at the Vatican to his glumness in Taormina, Sicily?
  12. There was a media dustup over whether he referred to Germany as evil or bad, and, if “bad,” as seems to be the case, did he mean the situation in which Germany finds itself, specifically with respect to refugees, or did he mean German political policies were bad?
  13. The meetings confirmed what Angela Merkel had come to believe: a) that the U.S. was no longer a reliable ally on which Germany could depend; b) American current policies on trade and climate change were disastrous.
  14. Trump had gone from dancing with swords in Riyadh to dodging darts at the G7.

The trip overseas marked the U.S. loss of leadership in the Western world and threatened America with negative repercussions because the Europeans had linked action on climate change with trade policy. Trump managed to keep his head above water in this overseas trip as he escaped the domestic closing in on the administration in its fourth month in office, but only by moving America towards disastrous policies that would be economically and politically detrimental to the U.S.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

One for All and All for Me

One for All and All for Me

by

Howard Adelman

Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno in Latin means “One for all, all for one” in English. It was the brand of the Musketeers and d’Artagnan in Alexandre Dumas’ famous French novel published just before the Swiss Civil War began in 1847. In German, the expression is Einer für alle, alle für einen, in French, un pour tous, tous pour un) and in Italian Uno per tutti, tutti per uno. There is a Romansh version (In per tuts, tuts per in). All four versions were adopted by Switzerland just after the American Civil War ended in the midst of devastating Alpine floods to show how, in a small country, four different ethnic and linguistic groups could serve the whole with a sense of duty and solidarity to keep the country unified in spite of centrifugal forces that almost pulled it apart twenty years earlier. It has since been the slogan of the country.

This is not the slogan governing the recent House of Representatives American Health Care Act (AHCA). The economic analysis of the bill by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) came out this past Wednesday, 24 May. https://www.scribd.com/document/349349526/eilsnell

Recall that the CBO is an agency of Congress headed by a Republican selected by Republicans that has a stellar reputation for impartiality. Nevertheless, the report is flawed, not because of its results, but because it approaches the health crisis in the U.S. by comparing AHCA to the previous flawed House bill that failed to pass.

That flaw is not fundamental, just inconvenient. I also would have liked the CBO to offer more analysis of the effect of the legislation on the stability of the insurance market, already detrimentally affected by setting aside a single payer system, insisting on state versus federal control which prevents insurers from crossing state borders and allowing some states to permit young people to opt out of insurance without penalty, thereby ensuring both higher premiums and more limited coverage, by lacking a system to shift medical practice from treatment to prevention, and providing no incentives for encouraging medical practice based primarily on care and not primarily, as in some states, on medical entrepreneurship.

Even without these more ambitious concepts, the current instability resulting from both the inability to improve Obamacare, allowing states to undercut the plan, and insurers pulling out of the market in the face of current uncertainty, has meant that, for example, in Missouri, 19,000 were left uninsured when Blue Shield and Blue Cross abandoned Obamacare.

Further, there is a true tragic irony. House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows (R-NC) was the one that championed state waivers and pushed for the Bill’s passage, but was shocked when he read the CBO. For, while he supported the rights of states to mold the legislation to suit their own constituents, he was brought to tears when he learned that the Bill had not come near to adequately funding high-risk pools. Given his personal family history, he was genuinely upset by the CBO results and vowed changes would have to be made. “In the end, we’ve got to make sure there’s enough funding there to handle preexisting conditions and drive down premiums. And if we can’t do those three things, then we will have failed.”

Too little funding! Inadequate to ensure coverage for preexisting conditions! Failure to drive down premiums! The Bill he eventually pushed was declared by him to have failed.

About 20 million Americans are currently insured under Obamacare. [In discussions of those insured and uninsured, I and the CBO leave out those who have limited insurance policies for dread diseases, policies with limited insurance benefits for specific diseases, insurance for dental care or eye glasses, supplemental insurance, say for single or double occupancy rooms rather than 4-person rooms in hospitals, and indemnity insurance.] Of these, 20 million, 10-12 million are newly insured. So why does the CBO claim that 23 million more Americans would be left uninsured under AHCA in comparison to the 24 million left out in the previously failed Republican legislation? How can 23 to 24 million people be left uninsured if only 20 million are enrolled and, of those, only 10-12 million are newly insured since Obamacare came into existence?

First, the 20 million figure represents those that will be left uninsured in 2021 compared to those currently covered in 2017. In 2018, the figure would be 14 million left uninsured in comparison to Obamacare. Does that mean that everyone of the insured under Obamacare (14 million) would go from being insured to uninsured? If that was the case, how could the numbers of uninsured grow 50% in the next four years?

First, though the projections are of those who would be uninsured, it does not mean that all of them would not have access to some health coverage. An estimated several million would be able to access health care by using tax credits to purchase health insurance, but insurance that would not cover major medical risks. Second, recall that millions of Americans remain uninsured under Obamacare. As estimated by Kaiser Permanente, there were 28.5 million in 2015. In the year before, the number of uninsured in America dropped dramatically by 8.8 million when over 33-37 million Americans were without health insurance. Further recall, that in 2014, the first year that the Affordable Care Act was in full operation the number of uninsured Americans dropped dramatically from 13.3% of the American population to 10.4% of the population.

To answer the question raised above about how, if only 12-14 million had enrolled in Obamacare, 20 million could be left uninsured in 2020, the answer is that there is a difference between the total of those who have access to health care because of government support and the total who have access because they purchased insurance. That is because, in addition to those who purchase insurance, there are those covered by Medicaid who would also be detrimentally affected by the 2017 AHCA.

There are two sources of health coverage: insurance that individuals and families purchase on their own either through the ACA marketplaces or directly from private insurance companies, and those insured under Medicaid. The 2017 AHCA detrimentally affects not only insured receivers of health care, but those who receive benefits from Medicaid. Previous to Obamacare or the Affordable Health Care Act (2013 AHCA), Medicaid overwhelmingly serviced seniors. Of the 16 million Americans under 65 who gained access to health care through the 2013 AHCA, a number, an estimated 4-6 million were enrolled in Medicaid by the end of 2014. That number has grown since. The estimate of 14 million detrimentally affected, to the extent that they would lose access to health care, includes not only those who would be forced out of the insured cluster, but both the under-65 age group and the retiree group that would find themselves without access to health care.

The CBO took all this into account when it projected a loss of insurance for about 14 million this year and by 2020 an additional 6 million who would lose coverage. The stats from 2013 to 2014 when Obamacare was in full operation show the following figures:

  1. Uninsured drop from 41.1 to 32.3 million uninsured;
  2. Employer insured grew slightly from 168.1 to 168.8 million;
  3. Medicaid insured increased from 52 to 58.4 million;
  4. Direct-purchase insured increased from 23.7 to 33.9 million;
  5. Those previously covered under veteran or medicare programs stayed roughly constant.

The figures to calculate concern, not only those who directly purchased insurance and those enrolled in Medicaid who would be detrimentally affected by the new Act if it ever passed the Senate in some form, but also employer-insured Americans. They would suffer as well. Note that those who work part time or as independents before Obamacare likely lacked any medical insurance; Obamacare’s subsidized options directly benefited this group. Thus, whereas the total number of uninsured dropped 8.8 million by the end of 2014, the number of part-time workers aged 18-64 who were uninsured fell by more than 6 percentage points from 24 to 17.7% and the numbers who were unemployed for virtually the whole year who were uninsured fell from 22.2 to 17.3%. The drop in the fully employed aged 18-65 fell by only 2.7%. Among the overall beneficiaries, those who most benefited were Blacks and Latinos.

Thus, other than ideologues, the dislike of Obamacare came from those insured who resented their insurance rates increasing to pay for the health benefits of minorities and of the part-time and the unemployed. However, the 2017 AHCA would also detrimentally affect even them as legislation removes the obligation of the insurance companies to cover high-cost medical procedures. Those insurance companies could also exclude those with previous conditions. Simply put, in all the categories, the weakest and most vulnerable suffer to ensure premiums are somewhat more stabilized than when more people from minorities, more part-time employed and unemployed were covered.

Nevertheless, the CBO estimates that, on average, under the new legislation, prior to any consideration of tax credits, insurance costs would increase faster than under current law by an average of 20%, though in subsequent years that increase would be somewhat offset by the stability fund. Further, depending on how a state permits insurers to discriminate based on age, older people would face higher premiums and younger people smaller premiums, especially in states which permit premiums to be established on the basis of an individual’s health status. Basic deductions allowed would also affect premiums – the greater the deductible, the smaller the premium. In such states, premiums can be expected to increase, especially for those most in need of that insurance. If mental health care, maternity leave or treatment for substance abuse are not included, this would also reduce premiums while significantly increasing the already terrible stats on health outcomes in the U.S.

Importantly, the cost to government coffers for covering the most vulnerable would be significantly reduced, thus benefiting the bottom-line taxes middle-income and certainly upper-income Americans would pay. “The largest increases in the deficit would come from repealing or modifying tax provisions in the ACA that are not directly related to health insurance coverage — such as repealing a surtax on net investment income, repealing annual fees imposed on health insurers, and reducing the income threshold for determining the tax deduction for medical expenses.” Their insurance is projected to increase or, at best, very modestly decrease directly. The greatest benefit would be the decline in obligatory expenditures of the federal budget. The budget saving of the new Health Care bill would be $119 billion over ten years, less than the previous estimate for the bill that never made it through the House of $150 billion. The lion’s share of those savings under the proposed tax cuts would go to the 1%, but the middle-income earner would see a minor benefit here as well with even the possibility of a slightly lower projected increase in premiums for insurance.

However, since the real extensive savings would result from increasing the deficit considerably because of those tax cuts, and because the economy is unlikely to grow at the rate of an average of 3% per annum projected in the Republican budget, not only will the partially employed, contract workers and the unemployed suffer disproportionately, not only would Blacks and Hispanics suffer disproportionately, but so would the youth of America as burdens are projected forward to pay for benefits today, not only from these cuts in subsidies, but also by reducing the income threshold for tax deductions for medical expenses. To be fair, these negative effects would be partially offset by enhancing the Patient and State Stability Fund put in place to reduce premiums and the benefits accruing to employers who would no longer suffer penalties for not insuring its workforce, a clear benefit to small business owners, but at a cost to their employees.

On the other hand, CBO projects that one-sixth of the American public would live in areas in 2020 in which the insurance market will become even more unstable than it is now as healthy, mostly younger, Americans only purchase insurance for what they need and from insurers which offer policies only for that group based on their low risk as the insurance companies exclude high risk cohorts. “People who are less healthy (including those with pre-existing or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all.”

In sum, no health coverage for many more Americans, possibly slightly smaller effective premiums for middle and upper income earners, and savings for small business people. But these last categories would suffer as well if one of the members faces a catastrophic health care costs and if limits are placed on the amount insured or if insurance companies can reject coverage for previous illnesses and disabilities.

I have not attended to the effects and costs in general that poor health services deliver to a large swath of Americans: lower age of average mortality than the rest of the developed world, higher incidents of infant mortality and of women in labour. These cost the American economy.

If partially employed whites in West Virginia and Ohio are detrimentally affected, why do they continue to support Trump? It is clearly not in their self interest. I contend that the issue is identity politics and not self interest. Trump played and continues to play the identity card, as have Republicans in general. The poor whites may be suffering from an opioid crisis, may die earlier and have less access to health services, but they want to be recognized for who they are more than for the benefits they get. In fact, they have tied their identity to a claim that they are self-reliant. Democratic appeals to their self interest largely fall on deaf ears. And that may continue to be the case even when the effects of Republican health care planning, as modified by the Senate, is passed, if a Bill is passed and takes effect.

In Canada, Medicare was fought strenuously, especially by medical associations and the doctors in Saskatchewan who went on strike against what grew to be a central feature of the Canadian identity, especially as doctors found they actually gained from Medicare since they no longer had to worry about the costs and the losses from fee collection problems. Based on those lessons and on the results of the CBO, it should be no surprise that currently in the U.S., virtually every single medical and health professional as well as hospital organization has opposed the Republican plans for health care “reform” – the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association are but two examples.

The fight boils down to an ideological one between those who believe, at least in dire circumstances such as sickness and injury, we are our brothers’ keeper. Caring for the most vulnerable is best ensured by the state versus reliance primarily upon public charity.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

First-Borns

Numbers 3:11-13 First-Borns – Parashat Bemidbar הפטרת במדבר

by

Howard Adelman

 

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 11 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
יב  וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם, מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, תַּחַת כָּל-בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם, מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהָיוּ לִי, הַלְוִיִּם. 12 ‘And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every first-born that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be Mine;
יג  כִּי לִי, כָּל-בְּכוֹר–בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי לִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאָדָם עַד-בְּהֵמָה:  לִי יִהְיוּ, אֲנִי יְהוָה.  {פ} 13 for all the first-born are Mine: on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto Me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast, Mine they shall be: I am the LORD.’ {P}

What’s the deal? Why did I pay my friend, a Cohen, whose actual name happened to be Aaron (the Cohenim are all descendants of Moses’ brother, Aaron) to redeem one of my sons as a baby? It did not even cost me the five silver dollars I gave to Aaron, for he handed me the coin in the first place and asked me whether I wanted to keep it and give him, as a representative of God, my son, or whether I wanted to return the coin. I chose my son and he gave the five silver dollars as a gift to him. And I said a blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם. אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו. וְצִוָּנוּ עַל פִּדְיוֹן הַבֵּן

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the redemption of a son.

I only learned much later that I should have redeemed my son for 100 grams of silver. I never weighed the five-silver-dollar coin to check if the weight exceeded the minimum amount. Was the whole ceremony invalid?

In any case, Aaron blessed my son. The ritual is called, “Pidyon Haben.”

It seems on the surface to be a nutty ritual. What does it mean that the first-born belongs to God? Why is a first-born redeemed? Why are the Levites provided as a substitute? What are these three verses about?

Exodus 13:2 reads: “Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites, is mine.” If you have four wives or two wives, assuming they are Jewish, the first-born son of each of them belongs to God.

Exodus 13:12-13 reads:

12 you shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the Lord.13 But every first offspring of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.

The commandment runs through the Torah text. (See Deuteronomy XV:19-22 where the reference is only to the first-born of animals.) It is not a one off in Numbers. Further, in Exodus it is connected to the tenth plague when the Lord slew all the first-born of Egypt. How? And why the first-born of animals as well as the first son?

In the case of animals, it must be unblemished, the best of the newborns among one’s herd. The Priest ate the flesh of the sacrifice. But no one eats the flesh of your first-born son. You do not want him to die. You get him back. And I even paid the money only symbolically. The rabbis say that a first-born is holy by nature. Ironically, holiness appears to be a given, not something acquired.

It is from this attribute that Christians insist that Jesus as the one and only son of God was sacrificed, as a beast is sacrificed, so that the sins of humans can be redeemed. What a contrast with Judaism. The Jewish ritual is a shell game. For I never gave Aaron my son. He never took him. It is all symbolic. Jews abhor sacrificing their children. Christians celebrate that God sacrificed his only son. Sacrifice is avoided for redemption, not to achieve redemption for oneself and clearly not for the sins of mankind.

Further, there is a twist. The first-born could be a girl. You do not have to redeem a daughter. Only a son. And only if he is the first-born, which he is not if a daughter is born first. The reference is both to boys and to first-borns. Both are necessary conditions. There are additional conditions. If the first-born son of a Jewish woman is delivered by caesarian section and does not “open the womb” himself, the child does not have to be redeemed. If the woman had a stillbirth, that child, even though born dead, was considered to have opened the womb so that even if she subsequently gives birth to a boy, that boy is not considered a first-born to be redeemed in the ritual of Pidyon Haben. But if she has twins, only the first out of the womb is redeemed. Finally, if the child himself is a Levite or a Cohen, he does not have to be redeemed. Why? Because he is destined to be a sacrifice and not someone sacrificed. Further, he is destined for religious institutional rather than political leadership.

There are a number of explanations for the ritual. One is that in Egypt, given Pharaoh’s command, the first-born sons were at risk. Another is that when God slew the first-born infants of the Egyptians, the first-born sons of the Israelites needed special protection. In another innovative interpretation, it is the first-born son of Jewish women, not Jewish men, who must be redeemed because the redemption is carried out for the shechinah, the feminine side, the nurturing side of God, the place where God actually dwells. In another account, the ritual is carried out in memory of Rachel whose fist-born son, Jacob, was sold into slavery.

I want to try another approach by trying to understand the nature of the first-born before trying to figure out the resolution of the puzzles and the connection with previous explanations.

Though key characteristics such as agreeableness, aggression, conscientiousness, extraversion and openness seem to be randomly distributed among children, first-borns seem to have a disproportionate share of the following twelve characteristics:

  1. Achievers who strive to win;
  2. Controlling;
  3. Careful rather than rash high-riskers;
  4. Diligent;
  5. Greater BMI (body mass index);
  6. Higher proportions of homosexuality;
  7. Lower insulin sensitivity, hence higher amounts required;
  8. Premature adults with a propensity for leadership;
  9. Reliable;
  10. Self-assured;
  11. Serious;
  12. Structured

Note that 21 of NASA’s first 23 astronauts who made trips into space were either eldest or only children. All seven of the original Mercury astronauts were first-borns. Fighter pilots are most likely to be first-borns or only children. Assuming the validity of the evidence concerning the significance of birth-order, though the data does not track first-borns following stillbirths, etc., what has all of this to do with the rituals described above? Even more significantly, what does it have to do with God and Jewish history favouring second-borns – think of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob; Ephraim and Menassah. First-borns may receive a double inheritance, but also need to be redeemed from God.

It is noteworthy that Jesus was a first-born and Christ is considered “the first-born of all of Creation.” (Hebrews 1:6) Israel as a nation is referred to as God’s first-born son. (Exodus 4:22) Yet so many times it is a second-born who replaces a first-born in a leadership role. Relative to Judaism, Christianity, especially through the doctrine of supercession, can be considered a second-born which takes the blessing of Israel away. By nature and custom, in terms of privilege, first-borns have a clear edge.

Then why is the actual sacrifice of the first-born replaced by the dedication of that fist-born to service to God and then the Levites provided as stand-ins? Put another way, why does the first-born naturally belong to God while the second-born turns out to be the one chosen by God? Jesus, paradoxically, is a natural first-born, but the religion founded upon his sacrifice becomes the second born that historically Christians believed succeeded primogeniture in history.

I am sorry, but I do not have an answer. But I do have some thoughts. Four core ideas are involved: sacrifice; substitution; redemption and historical significance versus natural birth order. I begin with the last.

Of 44 presidents, 24 were first-borns, even more if one includes George Washington for his older siblings were half-brothers. (This was also true of FDR and Clinton who also had older half-siblings, adding further to the count.) John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson from the founding fathers were first-borns. In addition, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush were all first-borns. However, I suggest that although first-borns may be fighter pilots, fighter pilots are only the best political leaders for democratic monarchies or parliamentary democracies headed in that direction. Then you want first-borns as warrior kings, though with Jimmy Carter, the U.S. certainly did not get one.

The history of Canada, though a parliamentary rather than a residential system, is not much different. Of Canadian prime ministers who served more than a couple of years (this excludes John Abbott, John Thompson, Mackenzie Bowell, Charles Tupper, Joe Clarke, John Turner and Kim Campbell), Sir John A. Macdonald, as wily a politician as one can find, had two older siblings; his oldest brother died (William) when he was two-years old. Alexander Mackenzie had older brothers. Wilfrid Laurier had an older sister who died two years before he was born. William Lyon Mackenzie King had an older sister who lived to the age of 41. Only R. B. Bennett and Robert Borden, two notable failures as prime ministers, were first-borns before WWII.

 

However, after WWII when Canada came into its own as a nation, things changed with respect to first-borns. Only Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were not first-borns. Louis St. Laurent John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau were all first-borns. Does that mean anything? Statistically, it certainly does. Being first-born plays a significant role in directing one towards political leadership.

 

Why then in the Torah did the Israelite nation in its genesis run counter to this propensity and told stories of younger siblings usurping the leadership role of his elders? Why would an unsteady and insecure character like Moses become the founding political leader of his people? Why does the Torah favour selection over the authority and natural leadership of first-borns?

 

Do first-borns tend to sacrifice others for their own advancement while second-borns sacrifice themselves for the public good? The careers of Justin Trudeau, Paul Martin, Lester Pearson, and Louis St. Laurent would seem to belie that. There is no evident correlation, though there is a possible one with ideology.

 

However, there is another sense of sacrifice. The first-born is the testing ground in parenthood, the child on whom all the inadequacies of parents (and God) are thrust. The first-born, with all the advantages of favouritism, is the sacrifice undertaken in raising children. Parents do learn something, as does God, from initial mistakes. Further, a later child can learn from those who go before, particularly lessons in figuring out how to get around road blocks. Relatively and disproportionately, first-borns are brave born leaders for the most part, but second-borns are more wary of direct confrontation. (There are exceptions, of course, Jean Chrétien is an example; as the 18th of 19 children, he had to learn to be scrappy to earn his place in the sun.) A second child inherits more experienced parents and has a chance to watch and learn more than the first-born. The second-born must rely more on his own wits to get ahead. This often makes the later-born a more cultivated leader without the brash thrust of the first-born.

 

Precisely because the first-born is up for sacrifice, the first-born must be redeemed from God. This requires that a substitute be offered to minimize the extent of that sacrifice. The suggestion is not that second-borns and later-borns have a propensity to make better leaders than first-borns, but, rather that the two groupings constitute very different kinds of leaders, ones wary of competing in a wide-open field or vast sky, but, instead, prepared to search for a niche where they can shine. Hence, Jews became a niche people instead of fulfilling God’s wish that they multiply and dominate the world as God’s physical expression in the world. Hence a polity very different than either the U.S. or Canada, in spite of the wide differences between the U.S and Canada.