Sarah Laughs

Towards an Interpretation: The Akedah (Binding of Isaac Genesis 22)

Sarah Laughs

by

Howard Adelman

Of the four classes of interpretation discussed in the last blog, this analysis offers notes for a discussion of which interpretation is best supported by the text. Except for the mystical one. That esoteric re-imaging of the text in terms of, for example, an analysis of the Hebrew alphabet, is omitted as a contender for two very non-objective reasons. First, I neither possess the tools nor the time to master the intricate tools of such an exercise. Second, I have no sympathy for, nor any temptation to, reinterpret Torah to fit an eastern cosmological religious view as offering a path of understanding towards the cosmic union of man and God through the forces of nature. That is not how I read the text nor see any reason to even make the effort. I also have no personal sympathy for esoteric mystical approaches in general.

As for the pietist existentialist interpretation of Sören Kierkegaard and his Jewish very learned cousins, such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz, they require attention. But, as I adumbrated in my last blog, I begin with very little sympathy for a pietist perspective, whether Christian of Jewish. Nevertheless, this type of interpretation is far too important to ignore. It will be relegated to the wings rather than occupying stage front. However, it will emerge to dominate the final scene, but in the opposite way to the one on offer. To begin, I will focus on two main contenders – the dominant traditional version of the text and the ethical evolutionary perspective prevalent in Reform circles and among a significant minority of Orthodox commentators.

Genesis 22:1

א  וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. 1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’

Instead of the, “It came to pass after these things”, the Plaut text and commentary begins in English with the simple introductory phrase, “Sometime afterward.” Both versions suggest a transition from the previous chapter that simply says “next.” This underplays the significance of the phrase, “אחר הדברים האלה”.

Rashi, however, takes the transition as significant and interprets “devarim” to mean “words” rather than the more generic “things”. He suggests that two references are involved. In his midrash on the text, he speculates that the reference is to the words of God, who, in an argument with Satan along Job lines, makes a verbal bet that if He asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Abraham would do it. A second reference is to words that Isaac had with Ishmael. Where the latter boasts of his willingness to sacrifice his foreskin at the age of thirteen when the operation is very painful and much slower to heal, Isaac insists that if his father asked him, he would go far beyond a willingness to sacrifice a mere fleshy part of one organ, but would willingly sacrifice his life if his father made such a request.

I take the text as significant. But my reference is not nearly so esoteric. The reference is to the words of the previous stories that preceded this chapter. They offer clues and adumbrate the meaning of the binding of Isaac. The events preceding this narrative set the stage for what is about to happen.

What are those events immediately prior in the words of the text? There are four narratives that serve to frame the story of the binding of Isaac. The first is the tale of the three strangers who pass by and are invited by Abraham to be his guests. The second is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The third is the tale of Abraham’s interaction with Abimelech. The fourth, the necessary prerequisite to the binding of Isaac, is the miraculous birth of Isaac borne by Sarah when she was very old.

Let’s start with the first story of the three strangers. The portion of the Torah, designated as Vayera, begins with Abraham idling in front of his tent on a hot afternoon when he looks up to see three men standing there. At once upon sighting them, he ran forward to greet them. Bowing before them, he invited them to partake of his hospitality by encouraging them to wash, refresh themselves with a drink and break bread with him. When they agree, Abraham instructs Sarah to bake fresh cakes and even sacrificed a calf to feed the three strangers veal cooked in milk. (Abraham was not kosher.)

After the strangers ate, they asked after his wife by name. How would they know her name? Without a pause, Abraham responds to the question rather than raising the subject of their knowledge of his wife. He replied, “In the tent.” One of the three strangers said, “Your barren wife will have a son” and I will return when the birth is due. Sarah, who had long before had become post-menopausal, laughed (inwardly as we shall see), not so much at the promise that she, at her age, could bear a child, but at the idea that Abraham would have any interest in having sex with herself as an old withered woman.

The stranger who spoke, now explicitly referred to as the Lord, asks Abraham why Sarah was so scornful for no deed is impossible for God to perform. Further, and significantly, God seems to interpret the laughter as focused, not on the ridiculousness of Abraham wanting to lay with her, but on her inability to bear children. God now repeats the promise that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah, in fear and trembling, and frightened for her life at the thought of who was speaking, then lies. She denies she laughed. God insists that she did and tells her, leaving us with the puzzle of how He could address her face-to-face when she hid herself in the folds of the tent.

What are we to make of this story?  What will it have to do with the binding of Isaac? In Genesis 21:6, after giving birth, Sarah says, “And God brought me laughter.” She was overjoyed at the birth of her son at her stage of life. Her laughter was also one of incredulity. She names her son, “laughter,” that is, Isaac. And Isaac will grow into a man bemused by his very existence at the same time as he enjoyed a rich life with two wives and two radically different twins, one, pondering, serious, very physical and very loyal, and the other, a mother’s boy and a schemer.

Abraham, in contrast, in this portion never laughs. But at the end of the previous portion which offers another version of the same tale, it reads that

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed (vayitzchak) at the suggestion that he and Sarah would have a child, not because he had lost interest in Sarah as a sexual being, but because both were so old. He did not laugh inwardly but was outward and at full volume. His laughter is interpreted traditionally as an expression of wonder and joy in contrast to Sarah’s incredulity and scorn at the idea. But the plain reading of the text provides no indication that Abraham and Sarah’s laughter were expressions of different responses and, if one is not reading into the text, one comes away with the impression that in both cases, both future parents expressed disbelief.

The difference is that in the second account, Sarah denies she laughed. Further, it may be Abraham who insists that she did laugh in spite of her denial. However, unlike Abraham who fell over himself in raucous laughter, Sarah laughed inwardly (bekirbah) and to herself and at her innards, at the thought that her womb could have a placenta, at the thought that she once again in old age could be attractive enough for a man to want to enter into her, and inwardly because she could not laugh freely and out loud. Therefore, she was telling the truth when she denied laughing, meaning she denied laughing in any noticeable way. The absence of open laughter was a sign of a locked womb, a womb not open to the seemingly impossible. The silent laughter recognized by the holy messenger was the opening needed to allow Sarah to become pregnant.

Therefore, when God or the angel insists that Sarah did laugh, he may have been remonstrating Abraham for not telling her so that, like Abraham, she would not have to be surprised when the three angels appeared. Was this a setup to let us know that Abraham had doubted God so much that he never even told Sarah the news such was the extent of his disbelief? If that were the case, then Abraham endorsed the denial. But God knew. God knew that Sarah laughed even though she, unlike Abraham, only laughed to herself.

Why did Sarah deny she laughed and then later embrace that laughter? What was she afraid of? In an orthodox and unimaginative interpretation, Sarah’s denial simply meant humans are not to mock God. But there is no indication she mocked God. Disbelief is not the same as mockery.

When Sarah laughs the second time when Isaac is born and she names him, it is both in celebration and recognition of the absurdity of the whole event as well as the possibility that she herself may become a laughing stock for bearing a child at such an advanced age. The root letters of Yitzhak are tzadi-het-kuf [tz-h-k] – as well as Gen. 18:12-15, see Gen 17:17; 21:6 and 21:9 – unequivocally referring to the sheer joy at the miraculousness of the event. But the celebration is peppered with the previous disbelief and scepticism. Further, the delivery of the child comes at a time in life when she can only expect to enjoy the beginning of her son’s life but not delight in his maturity and in her grandchildren. It is a bitter-sweet moment.

In what way does that laughter and the denial prefigure the Akedah story? Is it possible that Isaac accompanied his father up the mountain in a bemused state? Then Isaac’s behaviour would not so much be an expression of faith in both God and his father, but as a distant amused detachment. More significantly, have we been alerted to reading the Akedah story with the same mixture of disbelief and amazement? If so, why?

My daughter, Rachel, wrote a commentary called “Wise Women: On Laughing and Remembering” published in Project Muse. (https://www.academia.edu/5800266/On_Laughter_and_Re-membering?auto=download) (pp. 230-244) She noted that not only did Sarah laugh to herself, but there is no depiction of any face-to-face encounter with the three supposed angels. So how could they know she laughed? If the three were mere mortals, they would laugh for it would be quite natural and an expected response which would be foolish to deny. Who would not laugh at the idea of a ninety-year-old woman bearing a child? And if they were all-seeing and all knowing, why would they ask about Sarah’s whereabouts?

They could ask precisely because they knew. Sarah, on the other hand, hides herself at the doorway of the tent. Like Eve, she hides when confronted. It is not God who is hidden, but humans who hide from themselves. Even on a relatively very minor response, such as bemusement, one is accountable and transparency is demanded. But rarely given. While Plato focused on the need for people to come into the open and in the sunlight to really know the truth, Biblical tales focus on the hiding, on living in the shadows. There is more truth discovered in exploring those shadows. As Rachel wrote, what we have is not a Kierkegaardian suspension of the ethical, but a coming face-to-face with reality. To believe she would have a child, Sarah would have to embrace a “teleological suspension of the credible.”

But that is precisely what the story is about. Sarah’s laughter adumbrates and sets the stage for that which is incredulous – that Abraham would willingly and without complaint sacrifice his son upon God’s orders, that Isaac, who was far stronger than his old father, would quietly comply with being tied up and lying on an altar to be sacrificed. We are in the arena of the incredulous. And, after all, that is what laughter is about – recognizing the incredulous. And, as my daughter wrote, in order for Sarah to give birth to a child, she had to not only learn to laugh, but to laugh openly and in joy, not in mockery and scorn, but in an expansive, inclusive and joyful way. “God made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6) The inner and the outer had to join hands, not in a metaphysical union with a cosmic consciousness, but in a concrete and embodied union of the inner and the outer, not so much the projection thrown by a background light of one’s own image on the wall of a cave produced by others, but in order that one can transcend one’s own self-image.

Halloween has just passed, a night in which children hide themselves behind masks and costumes as they seek out the sweet pleasures of the world. I suggest that the Akeda may be more about family politics and psychology than about the “suspension of the ethical,” that is about the dialectic of the physical and the metaphysical, not to escape this world into a unity with a cosmic consciousness, but to dance with joy in the dialectic of the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the metaphysical.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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The Irrepressible and Irresponsible Donald Trump – Part II

The Irrepressible and Irresponsible Donald Trump – Part II

 

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You still don’t know the facts.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irresponsible Trump – Part I

Irresponsible Trump – Part I

by

Howard Adelman

Donald Trump praised the extreme right-wing blogger, Mike Cernovich, who labeled DT’s own security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, as a puppet of George Soros who in turn allegedly owed his allegiance to the Rothschilds. No wonder that the violent demonstrators in Charlottesville Virginia in turn openly insisted that they were there in support of Donald Trump and what he stood for. So why did Donald Trump take two days to read from a teleprompter the following?

“Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our creator, we are equal under the law, and we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.”

However, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood, fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro, there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”

No wonder that many remained dissatisfied with DT’s clarification, and correctly so as we saw with extreme clarity yesterday. First, the statement was greeted as too little and much too late. Second, it appeared only to be the result of DT feeling cornered, given the widespread criticism from his own party. Third, though he had promised to hold one of the rarest events in his presidency, a press conference – a promise which he eventually kept yesterday – he did not keep his promise the previous day. Fourth his statement was read and, to many, came across as disingenuous because it lacked the personal voice and conviction he conveyed when he condemned Mexican illegals as rapists and Muslims as terrorists and that was part of yesterday’s rant which took back everything he read the previous day and went back to equating the thugs who, DT claimed, were mixed in with the good people protesting the taking down of the statue, with violent protesters on the other side.

Fifth, he did not include the “alt-right” in the groups he explicitly mentioned; yesterday he pointedly demanded that a reporter define the alt-right – a phrase he deliberately refused to use, but, as I indicated in my previous blog, the white supremacist, Richard Spencer coined and defined in terms of racism. Sixth, instead of highlighting the neo-fascist and racial issue, in his five-minute speech, he made his anti-racist comments as a footnote to the success of his economic policies (without, of course, noting that the success was the continuation of the upward curve of the Obama administration or acknowledging that the news was not all positive, and without DT noting that he was using the same evidential sources that he once condemned as phony.)

But, sixth, Trump only presented a very partial truth as he does on just about everything. The Dow Jones industrial average passed the 22,000 mark for the first time, possibly partly related to Trump’s initiatives in deregulation. Unemployment fell from 4.8% when Obama left office, to 4.3%, and is threatening to close in on Bill Clinton’s record of 3.9% unemployment. But wages and GDP growth both remain flat, though DT, against common practice, rounded up the GDP rate upwards. Disparities continue to grow and the labour force participation rate has actually fallen. If DT is not lying about the economy, he still repeats his habit of ignoring evidence that fails to support a claim he is making.

Seventh, DT did the typical blaming, condemning the media for fake news in its coverage of the Charlottesville violence: “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied … truly bad people!” Eighth, when Ken Frazier, an African-American and CEO of Merck Pharma, dissociated from Trump’s failure to condemn the racists by resigning from the President’s Manufacturing Council (“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.”) Trump, instead of trying to empathize and understand and holding an open hand for Frazier to return, instead of being penitent and seek to heal the wounds he had opened, instead of being contrite, he was hostile and turned on Frazier and bitterly tweeted, “he will have more time to LOWER DRUG PRICES.” (In a second tweet, he said, “Merck Pharma is a leader in higher & higher drug prices while at the same time taking jobs out of the U.S.”) So why had he appointed him the Manufacturing Council? Why did he not rebuke the two, and, subsequently, five white members who resigned following these rebukes and following rather than preceding his effort to correct the record?

Ninth, Trump never apologized (but he never does) for his initial failure to condemn the neo-Nazis; Trump does not do atonement. Instead of bending on his knees for forgiveness, Trump boasts. Tenth, he announced no new actions to gather intelligence on the alt-right and to prepare for government intervention and prevention. Finally, he did not announce that he would fire policy adviser, Stephen Miller, and especially chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who once headed Breitbart News which allowed the alt-right a voice.

The Trump failure to vocalize his condemnation of white supremacists, the small vocal and demented faction of a larger though minority part of racist America, stood out more boldly because of what other members of his team stated. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the alt-right attack on counter-protesters fit the Justice Department’s definition of “domestic terrorism,” even though he had instructed his department to investigate, not the alt-right, but American universities for discriminating against white applicants. Sessions is now investigating the Charlottesville violence. If the violence entailed the use of weapons, including the car, to deliberately hurt the counter-protesters, then a charge of domestic terrorism might be appropriate.

In contrast to DT, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado repudiated the white supremacists: “We don’t want them in our base, they shouldn’t be in a base, we shouldn’t call them part of a base.” Gardner urged DT to call this white supremacism “evil” with the same kind of conviction that DT used in “naming terrorism around the globe as evil.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), with a moral clarity that Trump clearly had not displayed, said, “My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee condemned the torch-bearing and gun-toting and the 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio driving a Dodge Challenger, in imitation of radical Islamicism, into civilians. “The person who drove the car is a murderer when he ran over and killed 32-year-old Heather D. Heyer and injured 19 others. “That is simple murder. There is nothing you can do besides condemn that action. That is not politics, that is not America. That is evil, sinful, disgusting, behavior.” And DT.’s own daughter, Ivanka Trump, after the violence immediately and clearly stated, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazis.” As a convert to Judaism, she possibly was particularly incensed at the Jew-filled hate speech directed at Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Mike Signer and on display at the torch-lit neo-fascist march on this past Friday evening in Charlottesville.

What would she have thought if she had tuned into the news coverage by the VICE reporter embedded within the alt-right? What would she have said or even thought if she watched the torch bearers repeatedly chant, “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi phrase, “Blood and Soil” with absolutely no evidence of “good people amongst them simply there to protest taking down the Lee statue. What would she have thoughts if she had been with the Jewish congregants who fretted through the shabat service in Charlottesville as “Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols… Soon, we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue… but we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.”

America in 2017!

Inconceivable only two years ago, and even in the 1930s, white supremacists without hoods and sheets foment race conflict and congregate in a small American college town in Virginia to spew their hatred. Did DT with his personal hate speech, with his anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican rhetoric, with his reluctance to condemn white supremacists except when forced into a corner, create the atmosphere that emboldened these white supremacists? Is DT reverting to his insistence of executing the five innocent young Blacks falsely accused of raping a white woman. He had served as the voice of the birther movement, insisting that Barack Obama was not born in America. All of this helped prepare the ground for the emergence of white supremacism into the light of day?

Perhaps what disturbs me most was not how Donald Trump responded, but how some anti-liberal Jews dealt with the issue. One of the men I have esteemed for years, a Holocaust survivor, emailed me just after I left for Israel and which I read on my return: “Trump certainly is a better friend to Israel than Obama who while President visited every country in The Middle East except Israel. Thank god for TRUMP.” Would he say the same after Charlottesville?

On the other hand, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that “once again, hate has killed.” He issued a statement: “The vile presence and rhetoric of the neo-Nazis who marched this weekend in Charlottesville is a reminder of the ever-present need for people of good will to stand strong, to speak loudly against hate, and act both to delegitimize those who spread such messages and to mitigate the harm done to the commonweal of our nation and to those that are the targets of hate messages.” While commending the opening of DT’s 12th of August statement, he said that we (speaking for the Reform movement) are deeply troubled by the moral equivalence evident in President Trump’s statement. If our leaders cannot name the culprits, then America will fail to stop it.” However, hate may motivate but an action is only criminal when the intention was to harm a specific group as defined in law.

Monuments and Media Matter

Monuments and Media Matter

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Fascist Part VII: Dystopia and Utopia

Trump Fascist Part VII: Dystopia and Utopia

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuteronomy 3:23-3:28

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

23

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

24

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

25

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

26

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

27

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

28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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