Lloyd Zerker, Ralph Halbert and Arnie Noyek

As the days grow shorter as we move towards the winter equinox, the number of people over whom we say kaddish seems to increase. Three people whom I knew passed away this month.


Lloyd Zerker

Sally Zerker was a colleague of mine at York University and a fellow member of the Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East (CPPME). She is brilliant, feisty and holds strong opinions. Her husband, Lloyd, passed away. I am reminded of the saying, “Behind every strong and forceful woman in public life there is a man of great integrity and a strong supporter of women having an independent voice.” Lloyd, a quiet, thoughtful and very caring person, was such a man.

Ralph Halbert

I met Ralph in Jerusalem in 1977. I was a Lady Davis Visiting Professor at Hebrew University and Ralph inaugurated the Programme of Canadian Studies, later renamed the Halbert Centre for Canadian Studies. Ralph began as a dentist and became a very successful developer. He also co-founded the Israel Tennis Centers that used tennis to promote the social, physical and psychological well-being of its students. An ideal philanthropist, he was focused, dedicated and modest, renowned for his civility. He was committed to higher education in both Israel and Canada. He cared deeply about both people and causes.

Arnold Noyek

In 1958-59, Arnie and I were in the same clinical group in our second year in Medical School at the University of Toronto. Later, he became my ENT doctor. He provided extraordinary leadership in using medicine to advance peace between Israel and Palestine. He founded CISEPO, the Canada International Scientific Exchange Program that began by introducing hearing treatment (cochlear implants) and supplying hearing aids to Palestinian children. CISEPO focused on promoting capacity building in the field of health. The partners in CISEPO were committed to peaceful coexistence, equality, mutual respect and trust. Arnie always signed off on his emails to me – and presumably to everyone – “Always moving forward.”


Pharaoh, Jacob, Joseph and Judah: Four ethical standpoints Vayigash 44:18 – 47:27

If I asked which one of these characters was a hero, I would be asking a Greek question. The Jewish question is whether any one of the above, particularly Joseph, who is often celebrated as such by many, is a prophet. In Homer’s Greece, a hero (ἥρωςhḗrōs) fights bravely whatever side of the battle he is on. Heroes are especially powerful and noble. Over time, the concept of a hero evolved to designate not quite a god, though some gods were heroes, but a dead person who lived on as a spirit to protect the living. Joseph lived on as a spirit to doom the Israelites to slavery and the Egyptians to a genocidal exercise of power.

Prophets are different than heroes. They are said to be individuals in contact with the one God to carry the message of God to their fellow Hebrews. They are not simply diviners, though they may engage in projecting the future if the Israelites fail to correct their behaviour. A female can be a prophet. Rashi named seven. But prophets were mostly men. Of the 48 he designated for that honour, Jacob was included even though, as we have read, he was not a man of the greatest integrity. He was certainly not a hero.

On the other hand, against much of popular belief, Joseph was not named by Rashi as a prophet. After all, where does it say that Joseph talked to God? Where does it say that Joseph carries a message to the ancient Israelites to scold them for their behaviour?

My question, however, is neither about heroism nor prophecy, but about ethics. Am I speaking about virtue ethics? Virtue is about a person’s character. Be honest. Be charitable. Virtue ethics attends to the characteristics a person must possess to act properly. Normative ethics refers to right actions as a condition for becoming a righteous person. Virtue ethics refers to the right characteristics a person must possess to perform a right action.

Virtue ethics stresses the good. Normative ethics stresses what is right. Virtue is concerned primarily with defining the good, normative ethics with defining what is right. One way scholars have distinguished the Hellenistic culture from the Hebraic one is to suggest that the Hellenes stressed virtue while the Hebrews stressed ethical norms.

The Joseph saga, particularly the portion read this week, should allow us to test that radical distinction as well as assess specifically whether Joseph is worthy of being characterized as a prophet. In this comparative analysis we will both try to bring out the character of these four protagonists as well as the socio-political ethos implicit in their behaviour. It is ironic that this portion begins with the phrase, “And he drew near,” where the central figure of the story, Joseph, is one who distanced himself from the beliefs of his Israelite tribe while it is Judah who managed to draw near to Joseph, to touch him and thereby draw Joseph back to his roots.

Take Pharaoh first and foremost, for he was the most powerful person in the land. Unlike the Pharaoh Abraham encountered, he is not a buffoon. Unlike the Pharaoh of Exodus, he is definitely not an intolerant tyrant. The Pharaoh of the Joseph story appears to have at least the following characteristics:

  1. He is tolerant rather than bigoted and shows no animosity to people from other cultures;
  2. He is a reformer, open both to individuals of merit and to making changes to protect and benefit his people;
  3. He is beneficent, certainly to those who strengthen his rule and bring him honours in front of his people and even invites pastoralists, the Israelites in this case, who were generally despised by ancient Egyptians, to own land and settle in Egypt;
  4. He rewards success; he sees that Joseph is successful and he makes him his right-hand man in charge of both his personal household and all of Egypt.
  5. He delegates, trusts and allows Joseph to control all the assets of the Egyptian kingdom, make the rules and set the terms for the political economy of the land.

With respect to the last point, it is clear that this Pharaoh is not a world-historical figure intent of setting his personal stamp on history and shaping the nature and governing principles of the polis. His governing norm seems to be a minimalist one – make sure the least advantaged are at least fed. Recognize the natural endowments of others and facilitate their development. He would seem to conform in this regard to John Rawls’s depiction of the characteristics required of a ruler. This Pharaoh would appear to be a cosmopolitan liberal beneficent ruler, but one with little concern with whether Joseph is an opportunist who might over the long run undermine Egypt or whether he is guided by a moral compass at all. It is sufficient that Joseph identifies with a very powerful god.

What about Israel, previously named Jacob? He seems to be the exemplification of a Rortyan rather than a Rawlsian character. After all, Jacob, unlike Pharaoh, believes strongly that a national identity must be preserved and protected. He clearly and strongly leans towards sentiment in making determinations rather any cold calculation or, for that matter, any obligations handed down by tradition. Jacob, unlike Pharaoh, may have been interested in ensuring the distinctiveness of his tribe, but showed no ability or even interest in preserving the autonomy and self-sufficiency of his extended family.

Israel passed on a basic premise to all his descendants that the most important goals are community survival and the preservation of the distinctive norms of the Israelite people. To do that, the community had to share a common belief system, one with a special concern for social justice and ensuring the liberty and freedom of its people. It is a nation in which norms could only be modified with great difficulty and in accordance with very prescribed rules.

Hence, the preoccupation with shortcomings, inadequacies and failures and the stress on prudence in world affairs. Further, the lessons concerning conduct come from practices and from telling stories and offering a narrative of the history of the group with all its blemishes highlighted. Jacob would prefer his people were fed rather than refuse to uproot themselves from the promised land. Further, with Ephraim and Manasseh, he would continue the pattern of entrusting leadership to the prudent second born rather than the gung-ho heroism characteristic of the first born.

What about Joseph as depicted in chapter 46?

א  וַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וַיָּבֹא בְּאֵרָה שָּׁבַע; וַיִּזְבַּח זְבָחִים, לֵאלֹהֵי אָבִיו יִצְחָק. 1 And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beer-sheba, and offered sacrifices unto the God of his father Isaac.
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמַרְאֹת הַלַּיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב יַעֲקֹב; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי. 2 And God spoke unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said: ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ; אַל-תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה, כִּי-לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם. 3 And He said: ‘I am God, the God of thy father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation.
ד  אָנֹכִי, אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, וְאָנֹכִי, אַעַלְךָ גַם-עָלֹה; וְיוֹסֵף, יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל-עֵינֶיךָ. 4 I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes.’

Just as Jacob took advantage of his father’s blindness, Joseph would go further and cover his father’s eyes so that he could not see how Joseph was radically altering the Israeli polity and, further, that Jacob could not see that Joseph was sowing the seeds for the enmity that would befall the Israelites because of the political and economic reforms Joseph introduced to Egypt. Further, Joseph claimed not only to rule over his brothers in the end, but to even be a “father to Pharaoh.” Joseph was the real power behind the throne.

ח  וְעַתָּה, לֹא-אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי, הָאֱלֹהִים; וַיְשִׂימֵנִי לְאָב לְפַרְעֹה, וּלְאָדוֹן לְכָל-בֵּיתוֹ, וּמֹשֵׁל, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 8 So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God; and He hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

However, look at Joseph’s loyalties and his favouritism. He cried over his reunion with his brothers, even more over his reunion with his father and most of all when seeing his full brother, Benjamin. He is a sentimentalist writ large, but one without an overriding universal principle so he can initiate and preside over a regime that does take care of the least fortunate by doling out food, but which also reduces the status of farmers from freeholders to peasants as wealth is amassed for Pharaoh. Joseph quickly assimilates into Egyptian society and surrenders his clothes, his habits and his language.

I would argue that the hero, in the Jewish rather than Greek sense, in the story is not Joseph and certainly not Jacob or Pharaoh. It is Judah. Joseph was a peacock and loved the dress and display of Pharaoh’s court. He had no trouble donning the dress and life style of the Egyptian elite.

Judah, in contrast, is not gamey. He does not plant gold or goblets in his brother’s sacks. He does not play with the feelings of others. This week’s portion opens with Judah’s long and repetitive narrative of the interaction of the Israelites with Joseph and which culminates with his impassioned plea to Joseph to take him as a slave rather than imprison Benjamin.

לג  וְעַתָּה, יֵשֶׁב-נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר–עֶבֶד, לַאדֹנִי; וְהַנַּעַר, יַעַל עִם-אֶחָיו. 33 Now therefore, let thy servant, I pray thee, abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren.

Dena Weiss in her commentary asked, why, before Judah makes that bold and self-sacrificial request, does he first repeat the whole story of Joseph’s recent interactions with his brothers who do not recognise his kinship with them. As Weiss says, it is a very long and repetitive speech and says nothing that Joseph does not already know. Judah offers a lesson in diplomacy and the art of creative ambiguity in how he recollects what had happened.

First, history and the narrative are coloured by selection rather than objectivity. In the attempt to make a moral point, details that might detract are deliberately omitted – the fact that Joseph falsely accused his brothers of being spies or that Joseph probably framed them by planting the money and the goblet in their travel sacs. Rather, Judah tells a tale of how what has occurred has been so painful for their father. If Joseph really believes that he is even the father of Pharaoh, even if metaphorically, then Judah has the insight to know where to touch (and manipulate) Joseph’s feelings, which are primarily egoistic.

Thus, without turning himself into a sycophant, Judah knows what to tell Joseph to prevent him from becoming defensive while making an emotional appeal to his narcissism. The speech is not about justice as fairness nor about just norms for a society or agents in conflict, but about bringing about a more just outcome than might otherwise be the case. Ethics becomes heuristic. The point is the outcome not the norms for producing it. Focus on facts and the future and not on failures. Appeal to empathy rather than normative abstractions and rules, first and foremost by displaying your feelings rather than hiding them as Joseph did.

Joseph has power. Though Judah does not know it, Joseph may also be vengeful. Otherwise, why all the deceit and trickery and to what end? Judah, without being righteous offers himself for a sacrifice for his father’s sake. Recall that until his brothers came to buy food, Joseph had virtually forgotten his father’s household and had bought into the ostentatious display of wealth, a self-serving pattern . Judah never indicates that he is morally superior to Joseph, though he really is, but not one strain of self-righteousness crept into his speech to Joseph.

Most of all, Judah appeals to hope for the future, not Joseph’s prescience about it. That prescience allowed Joseph to take advantage of others and rise through the power structure. Who in your judgement is the more virtuous?

On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIIE Liberal Communitarianism versus Social Democracy Pettit versus Walzer

When I was a visiting professor at Princeton University from 2003 to 2005, for a period I occupied the office of Professor Philip Pettit, a brilliant political theorist. I had the benefit of using his personal library. He is an apt choice to compare his theoretical underpinning of social democracy on the left to that of Michael Walzer’s progressivism.

Pettit begins his essay, “Towards a Social Democratic Theory of the State,” (Political Studies 1987) that he wrote when he still taught in Canberra, Australia with a third order question – not about the theoretical foundations of a state, or the second order rules according to which we should determine how a democratic state should conduct itself, but about third order norms – what values a state ought to advance. Both progressive liberalism and social democracy or democratic socialism (the two depictions are somewhat different, but, for our purposes, we can ignore those differences) are based on the pursuit of the ideal of “equal respect,” or what I have heretofore called equal recognition. Equal respect means that individuals and institutions, including the state, do not dominate others – other individuals, other institutions, other states – do not arbitrarily impose one will on another. Each philosophical position gives that ideal a different interpretation.

Pettit is modest. He does not insist that the social democratic version is better, only that it is worthy of consideration, that it is tenable and, further, that it is preferable, a different matter than arguing it is better for the latter requires a definition of the good against which the results can be measured.

Pettit’s definition of social democracy is stipulative and not historical because he does not want to get bogged down in the actual historical shifts the conception underwent as it developed. Instead, he simply wants to bring out the essential features commonly accepted of both social democracy [SD] and progressive liberalism [PL].

For the theoretical background to the entire liberal spectrum of ideas of the organization of the state, see Chapter 7 in the collection, Republican Democracy entitled, “Two Republican Traditions.” For a mature version of his more developed and comprehensive thesis lauding one distinctively republican theory of democracy and legitimacy, see On the People’s Terms. A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy (1997). Justice and legitimacy are the two normative domains of political theory, namely justice, the one that I attend to in these series of blogs, and law. In Pettit’s volume, the concept of equal respect evolved into the norm of freedom as non-domination. Justice applies to the horizontal relations between individuals and their institutions, while legitimacy applies to the relationship between those citizens and their governing institutions. The following is my interpretation of Pettit’s work depicting only the differences between progressive liberalism and social democracy as expressed in my words.

For PL, all individuals who are members of the state bear the responsibility for ensuring equal respect. In the SD framework, the state is viewed as the beneficent institution that will define equal respect for the benefit of all the people. In PL, the aggregate of individuals serve as the addressor and the state is the addressee. In SD, the state is the addressor and the collectivity is the addressee. PL depends on a watchful citizenry and the institutions designed to make that watch work, especially representative democracy. SD depends on a beneficent state and participatory democracy. “Liberal democratic theory is distinguished, I believe, by the assumption that equal respect for all is an ideal addressed to (my italics) individuals; social democratic theory by the assumption that it is an ideal addressed to the state.”

For PL, the focus must be on individuals seeking and ensuring that political and civil society institutions serve them, their interests and their values. For SD, it is the state, and not its citizens, that bears the responsibility for the shape of society. Another way to put it is that in a PL democratic regime, civil society defines political life. In a SD system, the polis defines and refines and protects civil society. This is not just a matter of looking at the same phenomenon from two opposite vantage points, but rather seeing democratic polities as founded on these two different ways of seeing the political world.

Thus, PL will applaud dissidents, that is, behaviour in which individuals do not demonstrate equal respect, in order to advance the long-term goal of equal respect. SD presumes that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that individuals act with equal respect. To the extent a state veers in the direction of PL, hate crimes will not normally be integral to the law. In contrast, in a SD, hate crime will be an integral element of the legal system.

There is thus a difference between asking a state to exemplify equal respect and requiring a state to promote it. This is also true of the value given to economic redistribution. PL states tolerate differences in the distribution of material goods as long as every individual is given sufficient economic support so that an individual is in a position to demand of society equal respect. In SD, the state is obligated to promote equality of distribution as a necessary prerequisite of equal respect; the direction of policy must work towards the improvement of equal respect with regard to an individual’s material well-being.

Another way to put it is that, in a PL, individuals as addressees must hold the state accountable for satisfying the criterion of equal respect whereas in SD, the democratic state is said to be inherently responsible for treating everyone the same. The question for SD is whether the state delivers in its beneficence, and if not, why not and how that can be corrected. PL operates on the presumption that the state will only serve the ideal of equal respect if the individual members hold the state’s toes to the fire.

Let me make these theoretical distinctions more concrete, first be doing what Pettit does not do in that seminal essay, root the differences in the development of different ideologies concerning democracy. Historically, we have become one human family, namely deracinated because of the underlying economic forces of globalism. The centrists are correct. America is indeed a society of “radically isolated individuals, rational egotists, and existential agents, men and women protected and divided by their inalienable rights.” Not because the U.S. political-economic order emerged out of a state of nature and not because it can be deduced from first principles that establish the necessary conditions without which there could be no liberal society, but because, as Rorty insisted, liberalism has its own history developed in its fight against traditional societies.

How has that tradition developed in actual concrete practice? I believe that liberal theory in its most sublime form does mirror liberal social practices. The only tradition that almost all Americans share is American Thanksgiving, for Puritans and Methodists complained that Christmas had been reduced to a bacchanalian revel superimposed upon Catholic idolatry. But Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in different ways. The centrists and individualist liberals celebrate a secular humanism, the former based on the mythical story of absolutely free and unencumbered individuals emerging ex nihilo from a state of nature or as rational expressions of a deduction from pure reason, while the latter celebrate the mythical history of colonists in America fighting for individual rights, especially property rights, against an oppressive imperial regime overseas.

However, progressives tend to stress the common pattern in America of using Thanksgiving as an opportunity not only to bring the family together from far and wide, but to push to the forefront that it is a celebration of bringing together different nations, first and foremost American colonists and the First Nations living in North America. Thanksgiving was a “national rite of reconciliation and patriotic concord.” In the present era, that means inviting people of many faiths and non-faiths, and from varied ethnic backgrounds to the table. Thanksgiving offers a chance to forge a unified identity out of a pluralist background.

For social democrats, in turn, Thanksgiving is often and perhaps usually celebrated as an autumn harvest festival to remember (and assist) those unable to do so to participate in the rich harvests of America. Thanksgiving is used as a reminder of the great inequalities that continue to exist in America and contend that the celebration of American colonial settlement and Native American unity was not just a myth, but a lie. Though the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 taught the Puritan settlers to both plant crops and forage for wild foods, the first Thanksgiving festival in 1627 was a celebration of the massacre of an entire Pequot village.

Obviously, all of these themes, positive and negative, many contradictory, are interwoven in almost all Thanksgiving celebrations on the fourth Thursday of November. But one of them is usually given priority. Social Democrats prioritize the focus on what others lack as they offer thanks for what they have but are “disdainful of Thanksgiving’s aura of divine blessing and pious gratitude.” As an article in The Atlantic (22 November) opined, “Gilded Age populists and secularist crusaders criticized the holiday’s gospel of abundance” that mocked struggling farmers and industrial workers who have lost their jobs.

Who should the poor thank for poverty’s wage;

For hollow-eyed Want, that stands at the door;

For hunger and rags and homeless old age;

For the kicks and the cuffs that fall to the poor,

And other sweet morsels like these?

However, whether in a form endorsed by either Rawls or Rorty, whether the myth is ignored or celebrated as a narrative background, “All that the critics have to do, so they say, is to take liberal theory seriously. The self-portrait of the individual constituted only by his willfulness, liberated from all connection, without common values, binding ties, customs, or traditions – sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything – need only be evoked In order to be devalued: It is already the concrete absence of value.” On this the left liberals, whether of the progressive or more radical stripe, unite against their opponents within their own democratic tribe. That opposition against the right within the left trounces on the contradiction between an insistence on rights versus a stress on utility.

In the name of consensus, there is none. In the name of a meeting of minds in the public sphere, there is none. And there cannot be. For if people have an absolute right to choose, large numbers choose to ignore communal obligations, ignore even any obligation to vote in the “triumph of private caprice” as social democrats note. The very definition of liberalism makes a common value system that obligates everyone virtually impossible.

In fact, Donald Trump can be said to be the absolute perfect expression of such a liberalism with his fickleness, his reversals, his insistence that what he deems to be true is true. It should be no surprise that fragmentation even more than divisiveness is the hallmark of the current regime based on the problematic co-existence of individuals. An ahistorical community cannot emerge from such a swamp. How can a unity around procedural justice emerge from a society with no conception of the good? Determining rights will not suffice to unite an aggregation of strangers. But real life does not represent abstract or concrete representations of liberal beliefs. There are families and ethnicities and clubs and communities each with their own histories and narratives.

Certainly, there are transactional relations, but the model of the central dynamic of life premised on the rights and wills of individuals neither makes a community nor resembles communities as we actually find them. That is true even in business relations where trust and loyalty are, in fact, central features, much more important than selfish grasping for the highest ring. Walzer asked, “how are we to understand this extraordinary disjunction between communal experience and liberal ideology, between personal conviction and public rhetoric, and between social bondedness and political isolation?”

Individuals may and do operate in accordance with the natural laws of Brownian motion. Americans uproot themselves like no other nation, moving from city to city and state to state. Americans are either upwardly mobile or slipping downwards. Americans, and other proto-American societies, take commitment to be so ephemeral that relationships constantly dissolve as new ones take their place. Finally, and this is what politics is about, mobility is instantiated in the migration of individuals from one party to another. Democracy, ironically, depends on political instability as this freedom to move enacts the American individualist dream. Americans are less and less bound to the politics of their parents, however powerful that political DNA is passed on.

However, just as we move further and further apart as atomic individuals, we move closer and closer together in discourse silos and the mythologies of a new age. 32% of Americans do not believe their president is a liar let alone the greatest liar by far that has ever occupied a high office in America. Hence the resort to a new form of communitarianism, identity politics to take on the anomie of the right. For we are gay and female, black and Asian, Hispanic and white, Jew and Muslim. The new communitarian liberalism is built on a foundation of alliances among disaffected communities. In reality it is through the formation of alliances that new communities are created. Communities define the objective of neutrality as both blown up by the right and now disdained by the left as a trap to neutralize them.

In the PL tradition, the state serves as an umpire to, in John Dewey’s words, “avert and remedy impasses of one group upon another, but also to give members of the polity greater liberty and security” without becoming the front-line guarantor of that security and liberty. The two positions expressed in this proposition envision liberalism, whether a progressive one or a social democratic one, as constituted by relationships. Those relationships are primarily voluntary for PLs, but must be facilitated and even guaranteed by the state for SDs.

The issue is not the constitution of the self as an individual, as it is for Rawls and Rorty, but the construction of the society and the state. For PLs, voluntarism is the final guarantor, including the opportunity for alternative identities and affiliations, and for Exit as well as Voice to be possible as elaborated by Albert Hirschman about whom I have written previously. For SDs, the measure is the result delivered by the state and the genuine concern for those left behind and washed up on shore in abandoned towns and cities who feel most betrayed even when they are most deeply rooted in their neighbourhoods.

In a subsequent blog, my ambition is to bring all four theories underpinning the liberal left within a common framework in order to query the significant different impacts of each theory and to ask whether an overall unified theory is possible rather than giving preference to one over another. For all I consider are tenable. However, I hope to test the degree to which individuals, civil society associations and the state can be relied upon to deliver that recognition which we require, which institutions ought to be given responsibility and for what sphere.

On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIID Procedural Democracy & the American Left Walzer versus Rorty

Both Michael Walzer and Richard Rorty engage in situational philosophy. That is, both attend to the particular conditions under which ethical judgments are made. Both endorse the requirement that in making such judgments, one must be guided by a common set of procedural norms, second order norms, which are instantiated in making primary level substantive judgments. The issue of humanitarian intervention illustrates this position. Why insist that a humanitarian intervention in Rwanda to mitigate the genocide would have been justified but military intervention in Myanmar to stop and reverse the persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya would not be?

The answer is not as complicated as it might seem. For these are clear cut cases. There are at least four different orders of rules to make a decision to intervene or not.  First, there is the end of the intervention. Stopping or mitigating a political act of genocide is not the same as stopping, mitigating and reversing a process of ethnic cleansing. The evil must be extreme to justify intervention at this point in human history. Second, in the case of Rwanda, the UN had formally authorized an international military force for that country, under which authority the intervention could be justified. There was no equivalent international formal authorization in the case of the abhorrent actions of the military rulers in Myanmar. Even the UN Security Council resolution a year ago simply to criticize the government of Myanmar for its human rights abuses against the Rohingya was opposed by both China and Russia.

Third, in Rwanda it was feasible to intervene. The international community controlled the airport in Kigali and there were already thousands of troops on the ground with over 2,000 highly trained Belgian forces. The support for the genocide by the army of Rwanda was divided and, in any case, the greatest proportion of the forces was tied up holding back a rebellious army on the road to victory. Finally, the military leadership and political will for intervention were there on the ground. General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian in charge of the military force, was willing, indeed eager, to use his peacekeeping force to intervene against the genocide, the latter overwhelmingly the work of poorly armed para-military forces and civilians.

Not one of these conditions was present in the case of Myanmar. Canadians subsequently tried to make humanitarian intervention an obligation and not just a right in the document The Responsibility to Protect. When the principle was endorsed unanimously by the UN, that endorsement only took place when the document was disemboweled; the consent of the state in which the intervention was to take place was required. There was now a right to intervene but not a legal obligation.

In Rwanda, it was wrong not to have intervened, but there was no obligation to do so. In Myanmar, whether it would have been correct or not to intervene was much more a matter of discussion. The situation was far from achieving an overlapping consensus about the responsibility to protect, which states would assume that responsibility, how far that responsibility would extend – would there be authority to reverse the damage done and ensure the return and support for Rohingya to reestablish their lives in Myanmar? And what about other sources of harm and other minorities suffering under the authoritarian military regime?

Whereas Richard Rorty is more invested in an unqualified commitment to a set of substantive beliefs, secular humanism and American pragmatism, Walzer’s commitments always seem to be engaged in a far greater, more thorough and detached reflective consideration of procedural norms with less concern with a specific framework. Hence, Michael Walzer’s most famous two books, Just and Unjust Wars (JUW, 1977) and Spheres of Justice (SJ, 1983), are far more concerned with second order norms to control the misuse of collective violence by either democratic or non-democratic regimes or to govern the norms in dealing with refugees, whereas Rorty’s commitments are directed towards strengthening the mainstays of domestic democracy.

For Walzer, there is a central issue of competing loyalties, both among groups with different values and within oneself. In an archetypal story of lighting Chanukah candles, there are four different types of people in a forced labour camp in Nazi Germany or in a gulag of the USSR:

  1. Those who share a religious faith and rely in the end on a higher being;
  2. Those kapos and sellouts to the NAZI regimes, for example, who did anything to secure extra rations and their own survival;
  3. Those wedded to an allegiance to historical laws which, in their belief, would determine the future – the only requirement is that one act to advance those laws;
  4. The so-called “intellectuals,” ordinary doctors and dentists and others, who use reason to thrash out options and determine what to do and which actions are appropriate, including, for example, deciding on a measurement technique, a set of rules for distribution – equality or for each according to need – and the process for appointing someone to divide the food according to those principles.

What happens if you are a member of the “intellectual” group, your fourteen-year-old son is in the camp, he becomes sick and presumably needs more nourishment? However, the person elected to divide up the food fairly according to pre-established principles, is dividing unfairly according to you, or is interpreting the rules in such a way as not to take into consideration the conditions of your son. Then your loyalty to those principles, including the principle of selection, may be challenged because of your intense loyalty to your son’s well-being. That is why case studies of famine are so important in articulating the principle governing both the choice of administrators and the rules governing their actions.

The same type of tension can be found in modern post-industrial economies which, propelled by international firms, favour cheap labour abroad rather than traditional industrial labour domestically, thereby squeezing the industrial worker out of the middle class. No country has developed a system for riding on both these rails in the same direction. The propensity of globalist liberals has been to favour enhanced justice for those abroad and, implicitly, decreased distributive justice for workers in the domestic economic arena. However, Walzer in Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (TT, 1994) rejected even the possibility that a common set of principles could provide an escape from such conundrums. Opposed to Rawls, where reason is at odds with sentiment and reason rules in favour of globalism and a universal set of principles, the norms of different groups vary and they are developed and applied in different ways. The problem is to work towards developing a consensus which takes into consideration different sentiments instead of believing that reason can ignore or ride roughshod over sentiment.

“Morality is thick from the beginning, culturally integrated, fully resonant, and it reveals itself thinly only on special occasions, when moral language is turned to special purposes.” There is a tension between the detailed and rich narratives one can relay about one’s own family and one’s “tribe” versus the thin and relatively abstract narrative of the history of the world. Moral reasoning begins with trust among a closely-knit group – a family, a tribe, a nation – and becomes thinnest when applied to all of humanity. But the latter is where it must head if we are to avoid war and violent conflict. Unless you are John Rawls or Immanuel Kant, the average person does not start with first principles, adhering first to an abstract proposition, a universal obligation to a principle of justice kept pure by an immunity to irrational feelings.

Can a Walzer moral code ever have a universal reach without insisting that the moral system is universally valid? Yes, but only if we make it so through our inter-state treaties and agreements, but not a priori. For Walzer, one will never find a context-free source of validation in practical reason or ethics. For even if we say another people are like ourselves in needing a basic food intake, they are not like ourselves in determining the minimal amount of food to distribute, how it should be distributed and under whose authority. They may be like ourselves in determining unacceptable forms of warfare – hence universal laws in their reach (versus formal universality) for initiating and conducting wars – but they are not like ourselves sufficiently to establish a universal and eternal peace. We may be reasonable in why we go to war and how we fight a war, but we are not reasonable in determining whether or not we should go to war.

Contrast Walzer with members of the Trump tribe. Take Mike Pompeo, the current Secretary of State and former Director of the CIA. International relations, for him, are not based on reasonable people agreeing to disagree but nevertheless seeking a way to live with one another, but a system of distrust, of bluff, of what he called “swagger diplomacy” that has no governing ethic except self-interest – hence the prioritizing of transactional relations with the Saudi regime over bringing the Saudi prince to justice for the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, Time’s Man of the Year. Hence, Pompeo’s unwillingness to even share power with Congress as required by the American Constitution when the Senate, with its majority of Republicans, voted 63 to 37 to halt aid for Riyadh in its fight against the Houthi in Yemen.

The Trump administration could and did scrap the Iranian nuclear deal, but the unilateralism induced the Europeans to begin to denominate its oil trade in Euros rather than American dollars. Thus, self-centered policy turns out not to serve self-interests as it undercuts the rule of law by exhibiting a horror of sweet reason. This is also true on the state level as defeated Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin use the lame duck period to limit the governor’s authority and enhance the unfairness towards those who vote Democratic by using gerrymandering to ensure a majority of Republican state representatives even though a clear majority of voters overall indicated that they prefer Democrats. Constitutions that are based on applying rules uniformly are undermined when one “tribe” tries to stack the deck against the other.

In Wisconsin, Democrats won the popular vote by 54:46 but took 36 seats compared to the GOP’s 63. The GOP prefers to try to lock in power rather than give into the wishes of the people, but to do so by insisting that some people (rural) in a democracy are entitled to greater representation. Walzer, Rorty and Rawls would all criticize such moves, for ethics must be valued over self-interest in the governance of the polis and in its relationship with other polities even if the rationale for that opposition differs.

Let me end by adumbrating my next blog focused on the contrast between Walzer’s communitarian liberalism as a form of progressivism compared to a social democratic ethos. Thus far, the philosophical left on the liberal side of the political spectrum has ranged from centrists (Rawls) to individualist liberals (Rorty) to communitarian liberals (Walzer). I will next take up the rationale for social democrats at the left end of the liberal spectrum.

Communitarianism contrasts with social democracy, which has become a permanent presence alongside of and sometimes conjoined with liberal politics. “Liberals and social democrats alike share a commitment to economic growth and cope (although in different ways) with the deracinated social forms that growth produces.”

I will explore those similarities and differences in the next blog.


On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIIC Procedural Democracy & the American Left Rorty versus Rawls

Let’s presume we subscribe to the primacy of defending human rights, with the premise that the responsibility and opportunity of individuals is to develop and exercise their natural endowments, and that this goal must be protected, and that such a program must be carried out within a system that protects those most disadvantaged. However, if we find that such a foundation is not only inadequate to advance justice internationally but unintentionally compounds the problem domestically. As globalism advances, where do we find alternative ethical premises on which to construct a new international ethical order when you favour duty over sentiment, universal validity over the historical and context and space in which you find yourself?

We begin by understanding the core critique of the John Rawls’ political manifesto. Even though I never offered a theoretical critique of John Rawls, Rawls’ ethical political theory began based on an assumption that an autonomous political domain that was self-sufficient and free-standing had to be presumed to provide a starting point to provide a foundation for the conception of citizenship that may be shallower – yes, shallower – but embrace a broader conception of the citizen.

Rawls not only brackets but is indifferent to whether those citizens are opportunists who lack any moral compass whatsoever but justify their position on the basis of the survival of the fittest, or whether they are ethical but have radically different foundations for what they believe. They may be religious believers, liberal intellectuals or Marxists or quasi-Marxists who believe in latching onto historical forces to determine what is ethical in the political sphere.

In contrast, Richard Rorty cares, cares about whether you retain and maintain a moral sensibility and a conscience, whether you are a Donald Trump, an ultra-orthodox Jew, a liberal intellectual or a quasi-Marxist radical. For Rorty, an ethical political realm can only be founded when everyone shares a belief in secular humanism, at least when it comes to the foundation for norms in the political sphere. America offered a secular religion of democracy, aspiring to achieve social justice and liberation for all members in society. You have to be a political liberal and not just a centrist agnostic. You certainly cannot be a self-centered narcissistic individual engaged in politics as a shill game.

I have used only a very few selected texts as reference points:

PMN 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

CIS 1989 Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

AOC 1999 Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

PCP 2007 Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers

Does it matter whether you are an institutional liberal who believes in operating within an accepted normative frame that can only be modified very cautiously and according to strict second-order rules? Does it matter whether you are a progressive who allows the goal of human betterment to offer a way around restrictive political institutions? Even if both groups are embraced as a sine qua non of a democratic polity, a secular conversion is required as a precondition so that citizens are infused with a passion for the American dream, not as a dream of personal financial success, but of the American liberal democratic dream that insists that the political realm be governed by such a mission as the polity engages in political discourse and the “rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective.” It is a belief in procedural democracy. The foundational democratic principles of liberty and equality must be tied to a future vision of an improved, but not a perfect, democratic polity in which all humans are free and have an equal opportunity because they have both the right and the actual opportunity to decide how to correct faults and failures in the political realm.

Rather than an abstract starting point, Rorty insists that a utopian end point is a pre-condition for an ethical democratic polity. John Rawls, in contrast, requires a clear articulation of the conceptions of justice, of the nature of the state and of the role of the rule of law. For Richard Rorty, what is required is a conviction about process, about discourse, about conversations that permit cultural criticism and that enhance one’s political consciousness. Rather than a Platonic prerequisite of conceptual clarity requiring a univocal conception of the basic “forms” for a polity, the measure in not an ideal but a focus on shortcomings, on what is found lacking. It is a focus on incompleteness, inadequacies, contradictions and incoherence without presuming a meta-historical law that can reconcile these inadequacies and contradictions. You do not need a utopian consensus about the end. You do need a pragmatic consensus about the process.

Richard Rorty offers a melioristic rather than a utopian project. It differs from the realist meliorism of thinkers such as Amartya Sen or Bernard Williams by remaining married to Rawls moralism without his utopianism. For Rorty, we may not need purely articulated moral ideals, but you do need foundational second order rules. Rawls and Rorty, as well as Sen and Williams, may be pragmatists, but they are pragmatists of different stripes.

Rorty, unlike Rawls, is preoccupied with how democracy is realized in actual practice, in particular, in democracies that operate in accordance with the premises and traditions of a liberal industrial society. Even when Rawls ventures into the world of practice in his later works, it is through conceptions such as an “overlapping consensus” and a vision of “public reason.” In contrast, Rorty’s focus is on how a majority consensus is actually constructed and how one engages in productive reasoning in the political sphere.

I, on the other hand, am engaged in an effort that is in some ways closer to Rawls in his later philosophy, determined to make explicit the implicit political culture of a democratic society. However, whereas Rawls remains a Platonist convinced that there is one such ideal culture, I am convinced there are many and, in this series of blogs, I refer to ethical philosophers to render explicit the underlying premises of the different strands of the liberal left to ascertain whether and to what degree a consensus can develop and, more importantly, how that discourse can be shaped to achieve such an end. While Rawls is drawn to an ahistorical utopianism, ironically characteristic of centrists, my approach is distinctly historical and not only not utopian, but anti-utopian. It is the utopianism of centrist moralists like Rawls engaged in the problems of real political works that leads to their mindblindness.

The issue is not one of a presumed social cooperation, but how such cooperation is developed in a world in which even the definition of a free and equal citizen is a matter of debate and not a given, in which the “well-ordered society” looks increasingly more disordered, a world in which society no longer seems to have a fundamental social structure that holds it together for even those who are nominally committed to each of these conceptions. These conceptions are interpreted in different ways such that the divisions weaken the proponents of a democratic polity and strengthen those who want power but disdain democratic premises.

Paul Berman in the third of a series of three articles in Tablet entitled, “The Philosophers and the American Left,” (25 November 2018) quoted Rorty from AOC to demonstrate his prescience in describing the earthquake that American democracy was veering towards.

“At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

What happens when there is no overlapping consensus or when that traditional overlapping consensus is being rapidly eroded by the rising sea levels of the intolerant right? What happens when “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” is under enormous strain and appears to be breaking down? What happens when the premises of a democratic industrial society need to be replaced by premises more suited to the information age and where industrialism, in all its varied senses, is being exported, but without the traditions of democracy which wrapped around those liberal societies? What happens when the very premise of the rule of law as fundamental is being attacked by using democratic means of free discourse and democratic legislative practices to undermine the democratic system?

What happens when the electorate chooses for its leader a person who believes in disrupting basic structures, in discarding truth as the fundamental ground of any rational discourse, in conceiving of patriotism as narcissistic self-serving instead of an expression of loyalty and self-sacrifice? It then becomes impossible to separate personal morality from the ethical underpinning of social and political structures? For those same structures have selected a person actually dedicated to destroying them.

Thus, this two-sided conundrum. The democratic polity uses its practices to select a person who could not care less about those democratic processes. On the other hand, those same democratic practices might not have sufficient heft and strength to counter the predatory behaviour of a non-democratic populist. The theoretical failing of Rawls becomes a source of danger to the actual practice of democracy. For it was the centrists, those who most notably expressed in practice a Rawlsian point of view, who provided the extra lift and rationalization to allow such a non-democratic leader to be chosen.

Liberal theory, in particular that of Richard Rorty, is supposedly there to save the day. For Rorty’s liberalism includes a patriotism that puts off limits selling one’s nation out to a rival nation for the purpose of either self-interest and/or the supposed universal welfare and peace of humanity. You cannot be a traitor to your nation. You cannot collude with a state dedicated to undermining the very basic principles that are the foundation of your state. Nor can you commit felonies that abrogate democratic practice by accepting emoluments while serving the public or corrupting the democratic processes by using money illegally to advance your own quest for power. Most importantly, you cannot ignore the rule of law and give the finger to legal norms that bind the procedures developed by a democratic polity.

These connections between personal and public morality, which are ignored by Rawls, become the critical second order rules for ensuring a truly democratic dialogue. That is the essence of liberalism, not substantive norms but procedural ones, ones which tie together personal and public morality rather than segregating them. The problem is not instantiating ethical principles in actual practice, but preventing corrupt practices from undermining the democratic project. The problem is not moralism, but how to exclude immorality from seizing power. There is no basic structure, just limits to a variety of alternative structures that can be developed within boundaries.

The stress on those boundaries is very different than an emphasis on a foundation. In attempting to demonstrate how classical utopian political and philosophical ideals could be synthesized with a contemporary industrial democratic society, Rawls not only included the wealthy beneficent plutocrats within the democratic polity, but the wealthy amoral anti-democratic populist mobsters who were given plenty of space and opportunity to gain power. A liberal polity had to be dedicated to creating barriers that prevent such a takeover. It is tough to admit it, but it was precisely utopian idealism and do-goodism that made room for nogoodniks to gain power.

Democracies do not share a basic conceptual architecture but have different architectural expressions and designs rooted in different histories. They bear only a Wittgensteinian family resemblance to one another. What they do possess in common are sets of second order rules, often relatively weak, to keep scoundrels away from the levers of power.

This means that the selection of a leadership class may not be concerned with moving towards the greatest good, but that the structures will be used to prevent the process itself from being seized by the unscrupulous and by anti-democratic forces. Rawls never paid attention to the role of multinational corporations. Marxists, proto-Marxists, and even progressives did. Like Rawls, neither did centrists belonging to the liberal camp. With one exception; they had to protect the norms of discourse essential to a democratic polity from corruption, a goal that became particularly acute as the information age displaced the industrial age at the head of the line of history.

Rawls insisted that, “The idea of an overlapping consensus is introduced to make the idea of a well-ordered society more realistic and to adjust it to the historical and social conditions of democratic societies, which include the fact of reasonable pluralism.” However, reconciling pluralism and a well-ordered society can be done through populist democratic means which sacrifices and limits that pluralism, ostensibly for the sake of preserving the society. Hence the attack on immigrants. For the one universal premise is that which Michael Walzer insists upon, that the most important decision any democratic polity can make is who it admits into citizenship.

The other side of the coin is who is excluded from membership. Consensus can best be reached by making the boundary conditions narrower for entry so much so that such a step undermines the goal of spreading the democratic polity throughout the world. It is the latter that Rorty insists must be the mission of a liberal democratic society. And it must pursue that task by emphasizing personal virtues, enunciating and practicing a set of procedural norms already well established, and seeking to expand those norms to the international and inter-state sphere. In doing so, we cannot rely on the powers of practical reason, as Rawls does, but must do battle with the powers of irrationality. Abstract theorems of political philosophy offer an escapist nostrum to avoid the realities of democracy on the ground.

We need more case studies rather than neo-Kantian theoretical developments. We need in-depth historical understanding to advance the liberal enterprise. As Bernard Williams wrote, liberalism must, “start with what is at hand,” and not with an ideal of what should be. For Rorty, we must start with the historical and political situations that confront us.

That demands that we not only understand the takeover of traditional conservativism by an immoral right-wing populism, but the divisiveness amongst and the inadequacies of left liberals that allowed such a situation to emerge. That is precisely how you can have an ethical polity without either an abstract foundation or utopian ideal, but a system of government that arises from and improves upon existing practices, specifically of a liberal democracy.

However, if working at that improvement requires, for Rorty, hope, what is the source of that hope? Where can hope be found in the practices of a liberal democracy? For hope is not a practice, but it may be a necessary precondition for believing in progress, believing that we can improve within the confines of the historical situation in which we find ourselves to both extend and deepen those moral values.

But what if this hope, this secularized religious faith, is akin to Rawls’ utopian ideal such that it induces a mindblindness both to dangers creeping in from the side and inadequacies that we fail to notice as we naively seek to better the world?  Hope, which can be viewed as a necessary resource to improve the world, may be the very reason why depravity creeps in. Further, it induces us to neglect other resources that are far more important than hope in the polis to make it both safe and democratic.

Do we have to move past Rawls and Rorty? But where can we find a guru in these troubling times?


With the help of Alex Zisman

The Favourite is a Fraud – Part II The Movie and History

If the movie had not been a satire of a period but had been simply an absurdist comedy on its own, my evaluation might have been different. However, though there is quite a bit of theft from history, the grotesque historical misrepresentation, not for exaggerated effect, but simply to prove that artists can be bigger and better liars than politicians, I find more than off-putting. In this time of great political stress, it is both bad art and irresponsible.

Do not get me wrong. I love black comedy, but I want satire to speak truth to power not add even falser representation to the hyperbole, lies and hypocrisy of those who hold power. First let me offer some historical background. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your angle of vision, in my PhD thesis on historical explanation, one of my case studies was the explanation for the success of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William of Orange and his wife Mary, Queen Anne’s older sister, captured the throne of England. The beginnings of real parliamentary democracy gained a foothold in the British Isles.

Ill with gout and bed sores, relatively uninformed about world affairs, Queen Anne, who inherited the throne in 1702 while bemoaning 16 miscarriages and infant deaths and one son who lived until the age of eleven, was understandably also disinterested in politics and left much of the ruling of state to others. Contrast Queen Anne with another Queen Anne, Anne Boleyn of Henry VIII’s rule in the mid-sixteenth century and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. That Anne set in motion the English Reformation. Queen Anne at the first of the eighteenth century fortunately died in 1714 at the age of 49 before she could possibly set back the consolidation of the reforms introduced in 1688. Both Annes helped advance the Protestant Reformation, Anne Boleyn consciously and deliberately and Queen Anne more instinctively.

In the movie, Anne is presented as both stupid and a lesbian, thereby accepting and using only one half of the thesis, the latter one, of Anne Somerset (Queen Anne: The Politics and Passion) that the queen was both a lesbian and a woman of great intelligence, discernment, political acuity and resolved to retain and maintain her formal authority. (See also Helen Edmundson’s play, Queen Anne.) Though Lady Sarah in her memoir made aspersions to Anne’s lesbianism and her affair with Abigail, the evidence is weak. Further, in contrast with the portrayal in the movie, Anne was not a stumbler and bumbler, but did engage in affairs of state to a degree, yet could not compete in that realm with Lady Sarah Churchill. Further, she was gouty and fat, but the deft political touch with some of her ministers is entirely missing in the film.

Though both women were hot tempered, Anne Boleyn was much more akin to Lady Sarah Churchill in her cool and detached understanding held together with wit and charm. Both knew how to use power and both were acerbic observers of the political scene. While Queen Anne was power-challenged in a way that mirrored her painful and horrifying experience of her inability to have a healthy child, Sarah seemed to truly love her, a feeling inadequately, if at all, portrayed in the film. Further, Anne did have her own political successes. Though she did succeed in blocking the final disposition of the corrupt and incompetent French monarchy so that the English and subsequent British rivalry with France would last at least another century and could be said to be the deep cause of Britain’s loss of its American colonies, for without the support of France, the American revolutionaries would surely have lost. On the other hand, in the short term, Queen Anne did back the party of peace.

Whereas Anne Boleyn was loved in court but hated by the masses, Queen Anne was widely looked down upon in court and pitied by the masses. While Ann Boleyn had been well-educated, Queen Anne was ill-informed. While Anne Boleyn was a graceful dancer, Queen Anne was a clumsy oaf. While Anne Boleyn received her education in a lascivious and corrupt French court and learned to survive with flirtatious aggression, Queen Anne bled profusely with neediness in the face of a parliament struggling to find its feet. Whereas Anne Boleyn was charming, Queen Anne was often repulsive.

It was Lady Sarah Churchill upon whom she relied to handle matters of state. For Sarah, like Queen Anne’s predecessor, Anne Boleyn, sought to align herself with the Whigs as Boleyn had allied with Thomas Cromwell. Lady Churchill, like Anne Boleyn, became the most powerful person, and not just female persona, in each one’s respective court. While Anne Boleyn was beheaded only a few years after she became queen, Lady Churchill lived to 84 years of age, and, was always backed by her loyal husband of forty years, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough.

Lady Churchill began her political career and advance towards power by both befriending Anne after her Catholic father, King James, had been deposed and sent into exile in 1688, an invasion triggered in part by the birth of a Catholic son to King James, James Francis Edward. Given James II‘s paranoia, the Earl of Marlborough, who was previously a supporter of James, switched sides. The weak and incompetent James II tried to arrest both his daughter, Princess Anne, and Sarah, Lady Churchill, and place them under house arrest, but both easily escaped to a Protestant stronghold in Nottingham.

The cowardly James II, without the support of King Louis in France (the reasons for the loss of his support can be found in my PhD thesis and some of my very early writings), fled the field without a fight and went into exile in France. Sarah solidified her relationship with Anne, the soon-to-be queen, by convincing parliament to grant her an allowance of £50,000 a year so she would no longer have to be dependent on the largesse of William. When William of Orange died in 1702, after only four years on the throne, Sarah became the right hand to Anne when she was installed as queen. Queen Anne reciprocated Sarah’s early loyalty be getting parliament to give her husband an annual parliamentary stipend of £5,000 as well as £2,000 from the privy purse. She made Sarah Mistress of the Robes, but I never caught that reference either in the film, which seemed to stress her informal influence rather than her actual formal positions. She was also Keeper of the Privy Purse.

In the movie, only the surface political relations are depicted; the economic ties are largely ignored and replaced by alleged but historically weakly supported sexual scenes which have little foundation in historiography. More significantly, the excursions into lascivious sex serve as substitutes for a failure to explore the characters with any depth or provide them with either a consistent psychology to explain their actions or events which account for the development of their respective personalities. Instead, both Sarah and Abigail are portrayed as if they themselves are only actors playing different parts rather than genuine historical characters.

Though I did not notice historical dating in the film, its history is initially set in the fourth year of Queen Anne’s reign in 1705. While the Duke of Marlborough became effectively both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence, Sidney Godolphin, the first Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), served as Prime Minister, but Lady Churchill was his de facto political partner as Lord Churchill led the troops on the expedition to deal France a fatal last blow. After a final falling out with Queen Anne in 1712, Sarah left the court and focused on building Blenheim Palace; we see a plan for it in the film with occasional returns to politics.

There is a glancing reference to The Settlement Act of 1701 (between Scotland and England). The Act of Union of 1707 passed in accordance with The Settlement Act, but the threat of a Stuart and re-establishment of Catholicism with James, Anne’s half-brother assuming the throne after the death of the childless William and Mary, barely received a glancing comment in the movie, however central it was to that first decade of eighteenth century British history. After all, that was a fundamental foundation for the divide in Britain at the time and the fault line continues until today.

Sarah was indeed Anne’s confidante and had been assigned key roles to implement power. Sarah, as depicted in the film, was brutally honest with Anne and refused to use flattery to influence the Queen’s decisions. However, this was depicted as vicious disdain for the queen, whom she genuinely liked. Sarah actually employed argument and persistence. However, the arguments for one policy over another are never presented so that politics is simply reduced to personal preference and taste. Further, the vivacity and charm with which Sarah conducted herself are omitted in favour of a one-dimensional characterization of a mini-tyrant and bully. In historical reality, she was a strong believer in discussion, dialogue and debate, whatever the status of an individual, and this is hinted at in the library scenes and her conflict with Abigail over a missing book. The film does refer to the Queen’s need for affection and kindness and not just the bullying or an imagined manipulation by way of sex.

Again, in historical reality, Anne’s attachment to Sarah began to whither, not because of the manipulations of Abigail, but because Sarah was often away, weary of court pretensions and intrigue and preoccupied with seeing that her policies were being implemented. Further, Sarah was really only drawn to court not simply to brace up a wavering and fickle Anne, but a queen who was a Tory at heart and favoured isolationism and tax cuts rather than support abroad for English imperial ambitions. Sarah’s grieving over the death of her son, which could have brought her closer to the childless Anne, in fact had induced her to become withdrawn, and this was well before 1705. But the movie takes historical time lines even less seriously than the importance of politics.

Though Sarah was allied with the Whigs, she distrusted and feared the radicals in the party who were critical of the monarchy altogether. But in the film, you never understand why Sarah as well as the queen had to engage in a balancing act between the opposition Tories and the Whigs. In fact, I do not recall the party titles being used at all as if all values and beliefs can be eliminated from politics and replaced by cynical self-interest and personal passions.

Sarah and Abigail were indeed rivals for both Sarah’s affections and for power. Sarah did introduce her impoverished cousin to court to help her, but where is the evidence that Abigail had begun as a scullery maid? Further, the historical evidence suggests that Sarah did support Abigail out of motives of family solidarity and genuine concern for the unfortunate condition of her cousin and not just a cold calculation of utility. In fact, Abigail became Lady of the Bedchamber, personal attendant to Queen Anne, a year before the film ostensibly begins, and serves in that position until Queen Anne’s death.

Abigail did not obtain her position by guile, as depicted in the movie, though later when she became a rival, she did adopt some of the lessons in political maneuvering that she learned from Sarah. The reality was that Anne was afraid of the domineering Sarah. Even though the latter was effectively Chancellor of the Exchequer and controller of the privy purse, Anne hid from Sarah the fact that she had granted Abigail an annual stipend of £2,000.

But the two women were rather opposites in character, ones who initially were real friends but whose character drove them in different directions. Sarah, as portrayed, was blunt and direct almost to a fault, brilliant and politically passionate, both daring and demanding, while Abigail was more retiring, not simply as a secret and deceitful device, but genuinely affectionate and also indifferent to politics. Abigail was gentle and congenial and would never have put her foot on the rabbit to pretend she was crushing it. Such portraits go far beyond artistic license into the realm of calumny and deliberate distortion of history.

Anne was sick. Abigail offered her comfort and gentle strokes and allowed her to retreat from rough and tough politics. It was not Abigail’s arousal with her tongue inside Queen Anne that won Anne, but simple comfort of someone in great distress and need. Rather than a male sexual war transposed to females, the conflict between Sarah and Abigail was one of care for the nation versus care for the monarch of that nation. Sarah lost because Anne was an ideological partisan who did fail to get Abigail dismissed, but she wanted that dismissal for political reasons. For politics were the core of her life and passion. It was Sarah who circulated the unfounded rumour that Anne and Abigail were having a lesbian affair, a rumour which bounced back on her, especially in this film where she is portrayed as having begun and advanced her own career through sex.

What about the centre of the political debate over whether Lord Marlborough should or should not have pressed his victory over France in the Battle of Oudenarde to force France to sue for victory? The Tories argued not simply that they did not want to pay the taxes that the further pursuit of the war would cost, but that, in the aristocratic value system, defeating one’s enemy did not entail humiliating that nation. Total defeat was not part of their lexicon. But the Whigs with their economic and imperial ambitions wanted to take advantage of the fact that France, which, twenty years earlier, had been the greatest power in Europe, was now on the ropes.

However, the public and not just the landed aristocracy were truly tired of war and supported a peace platform following the War of the Spanish Succession. I do not know where the evidence might have come from for the suggestion that Abigail was responsible for the claim of Lord Marlborough’s embezzlement. The claim was real, but Abigail’s responsibility as well as the actual embezzlement both appear to be fake. So is the implication that Abigail prevented Sarah’s letters from reaching the queen. However, Sarah was indeed asked to return the gold key, the symbol of her authority. That took place in 1710, but you would not know where to place any event from watching the movie. It might help to read Sarah’s admittedly self-serving memoir, An Account of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough from her first coming to Court to the year 1710.

But movies are not required to be historically accurate, especially satire which depends on hyperbole and exaggeration. But if satire is to be pointed, if satire is to be acute, if satire is necessary to challenge power, then it is both important to understand the real power relations and the real stakes rather than engage in art for art’s sake in the name of making a movie that neither accurately nor adequately satirizes the real struggles of the beginning of the eighteenth century in England. Preferably, a satire set in the past should have currency with our current political struggles, usually the most important function of historical satire.

Of course, though Sarah went into exile, she returned with the death of Anne in 1714 and her succession by the Protestant Hanoverian line and the accession of George I to the throne, a line from which Queen Elizabeth II is directly descended. With all the wars and conflicts between and right up to Brexit, the underlying tensions within Britain have never been resolved even though England, and then Great Britain, had set aside its religious obsessions and civil wars in favour of peace and prosperity and was determined never again to place their debates at the foot of their monarch’s religious beliefs. It is a terrible pity when satire is wasted on sheer frivolous invention rather than targeting and pointing out real and deep fault lines in the political system.

Perhaps I simply have a great distaste for films based on the premise that humiliation is funny. Humiliation is devastating because it cannot even miss a bird with a shot when it is close up. The movie is only a faithful mirror of the director’s imagination. So why set it in history?


With the help of Alex Zisman





The Favourite is a Fraud – Part I the Movie

When I read that the website, Metacritic, had given the film, The Favourite, a quality score of “universal acclaim,” a quantitative score of 91 and characterized it as one of the 10 best films of 2018, and since it swept the British Independent Film Awards, without reading any of the reviews, I immediately placed the film as number one on my must-see list. After all, Yorgos Lanthimos’ (The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) Irish production from Element received five Golden Globe nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

After two last minute postponements, I finally went to see the film last evening. If you want to see a movie with absolutely superb acting in a magnificent setting, go see the movie. Olivia Colman as Queen Anne (nicknamed by Lady Sarah Churchill as Mrs. Morley) received a very well-deserved best actress nomination. Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill (nicknamed Mrs. Freeman) and Emma Stone as Abigail Masham (née Hill), Lady Sarah’s cousin, were both, very unusually, nominated for best-supporting actress. By the rules of the game, at least two of the three have excellent chances of winning. But what’s in a name? Is not everything malleable? All that is presumed to be fixed evaporates in a puff of smoke.

Perhaps the wonderful costuming (Sandy Powell) alone is sufficient reason to see the film, especially on the big screen. The frumpy and sometimes supposedly elegant (as in one of the horse-riding scenes) clothes worn by the grieving and despairing witless and dull queen stand in stark contrast to the high style of Lady Churchill’s androgynous court costumes and the increasingly flamboyant and over-the-top nouveau riche striving of Abigail (less successful in her case). Even the dresses of the maids and ladies-in-waiting convey the relationship of lordship and bondage in a sick social hierarchy.

Although there is no sign of Queen Anne’s lace in the movie, a ruthless fellow maid tricks Abigail into washing a floor with bare hands and hot water heavily laced with lye. There is an ingenious use of bandaging when Abigail wraps her hand, burned when she put her bare hand of soapy water to wash the stone floor, with her knowledge of herbal remedies, heals herself and gradually unwraps and throws away the bandage to gradually reveal a striving self-interested, ambitious and calculating, but absolutely gorgeous witch, at least according to the film rather than actual history.

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne is pitiful and pathetic, repulsive and revolted, jealous and needy, incompetent and moody, subject to both impulsive decisions and procrastination, but never, as one critic described her, someone with “guileless charm” or, as another described her, a person with both “awareness and intelligence that are palpable.” When backed into a corner where she was unwilling to go, she revealed herself as not absolutely spineless and would respond with fury and absolute commands, but the anger is never backed up by thought, reflection or even a plan. The queen is neither playful nor profound, a precise mirror for the film, though in history she proved generally to be a credit to her nation.

Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill is both lordly and possessed of a calculating honesty. But she also reveals herself as somewhat impervious to counter-argument, magnified in the film when her historically known love of discourse and argument are not put on display. However, one critic that I read this morning wrote of her as having “advised the queen on policy matters that she didn’t understand.” The critic is both an historical ignoramus and even misses her characterization in the movie. In fact, rarely have I read so many reviews that are both gushing while failing to note, that other than the great acting, the costumes and the set, the movie is bawdy but not brilliant and, for me, mostly a bloody bore.

Emma Stone as Abigail, as an abused child who was lost in a card game by her alcoholic father (was this true, a historical fabrication or one original to the movie?), developed a patina of innocence to cover what is gradually and misleadingly revealed in the film to be a calculating cold heart in the costume of a caring initially wide-eyed ingénue. Abigail is introduced in the movie by being pinched on the derrière as she leaves her carriage and lands splat in the mud. This is a very unsubtle introduction to sexual abuse and the unrepentant power of men who believe that they can grab pussies without complaint. In the movie, a true and sensitive friend to Queen Anne, whatever her political myopia, she comes across as struggling with an unresolved contradiction between caring and conniving. Later, Sarah will be dragged through the mud when she falls off her horse after being drugged by Abigail, again a very unsubtle reference to her newly fallen status. And one hears the echo of Jonathan Swift’s lines from “The Windsor Prophecy,” “They assassine when younge, and poison when old.”

A scene in which Lady Churchill teaches Abigail to shoot birds is revealing. Abigail does learn accuracy, but uses her acuity to splash the blood of the bird she shot on Lady Churchill’s dress. Presumably, her unbridled competition with a condescending mentor becomes fused and allows her quick learning to become diffused and mis-directed, resulting in the destruction of all three female leads in the movie. Only that has nothing to do with history and, therefore, satire, and everything to do with facile creativity and fake news.

If you want to avoid my least favourite movie of 2018, which also has the worst music score (mixing the classics with distracting scratchy modernist and brutalist contrapuntal electronic beats) and editing that is full of affectations rather than artful, do not see the movie. If you do go because you expect to see a good film and not simply terrific acting, you may not be as furious as I was after you leave the theatre, but you may be terribly disappointed. Crazy Rich Asians may also have been a case of false advertising and a bad movie, but I simply did not like it. I hated The Favourite.


First, because of the fake news and hype. Here are some summary headlines:

  1. “Iconoclastic revisionism – iconoclastic, yes, but “fake news” and boundaryless invention would be a better description than revisionism.
  2. “Largely based in fact” when the film is only tangentially based in fact.
  3. “Brilliant restoration comedy”
  4. Is the reference to xenophobic nationalism, transferred to the beginning of the eighteenth century popular opinion re the war with France, that passes as wit, funny? “They’ll be angrier when the French are sodomizing their wives and planting their fields with garlic.” By way of contrast, again read the words of a true satirist, Jonathan Swift’s “The Windsor Prophecy”

Then shall the tall black Daventry Bird
Speak against peace right many a word;
And some shall admire his coneying wit,
For many good groats his tongue shall slit.

  1. Is Lady Churchill’s zinger to Queen Anne’s request to show affection to her rabbits an example of epigrammatic snap: “Love has its limits.”
  2. What about the visual jokes?
  3. When on her wedding night, preoccupied with her machinations in court, Abigail coldly turns her back on her husband and masturbates him, is this supposed to be funny?
  4. Is the portrayal of the lords of the land as buffoons throwing pomegranates at a fat and naked servant supposed to be satire?
  5. Is the portrait of the bewigged lords and cackling cheering courtiers betting on a duck race supposed to be a clever comment? If so, on what?
  6. The scene with the wildly exaggerated courtly formality played out in an absolutely absurd bird courting (pun intended) in the mode of avant-garde period dance that imprints modern movements onto the refined and precisely scripted motions and movements between the genders of the period, in this case, between Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Lord Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), is, indeed, very funny, but it has little to do with satirizing the courtly manners of the early eighteenth century Stuart court and is certainly of no relevance to commenting on either the court manners of Elizabeth May or the bad manners of Donald Trump, though all members of the Queen Anne court in the first decade of the eighteenth century and the Donald Trump court in the second decade of the twenty-first century were and are characterized by sniping mixed with false flattery, menacing bullying and sycophancy. Instead, the movie is simply ill-mannered.
  7. “Arch political satire,” but the men who held the real power are mostly invisible and the men who held power on the surface did appear, but as emasculated ninnies and wimps, and there is not a single glimpse of an insightful political instinct.
  8. Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband, is never seen or even referred to, as best I can remember, though he does not die until 1706 whereas the film starts in 1705.
  9. The Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), Sarah’s husband, a true war hero, makes a cameo appearance at the beginning of the film never to be seen again – or he may have been in one of the last scenes, but it was too confusing to know.
  10. Lord Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) was not a racy lad or subsequently a put-upon cuckold; he did marry Abigail and receive his lordship as a reward for the affection and grace Abigail gave Anne; in the film, however, Abigail’s betrothed comes across as a handsome fun-loving ambitious man who is turned into a cuckold, but there is no transition or understanding provided.
  11. Nicholas Hoult as the Tory speaker of the House of Lords, Lord Harley, is portrayed as a rouged fop obsessed with high fashion and ostentatious frippery, though underneath his outrageous makeup and wig, a handsome man who was in fact a cousin of Abigail, but that is not noted in the film; except for that one moment, in spite of being in many scenes, he too remains hidden.
  12. “Scintillating black comedy of manners,” but the pampering of the queen is obscene rather than objectionable and the concern for her obvious extreme loneliness, intended perhaps to lend a glimmer of heart to the movie, instead of being painful, comes across as literally a pain in the ass
  13. “Boldly feminine-centric” – nonsense, even though the women have the top power, the movie is misogynist, especially because the women are both in charge and portrayed as different expressions of witches.
  14. Most generally, the movie is unequivocally misanthropic.
  15. Thematic stupidity:

“Power is a fickle thing. There are those who hold it that have no idea what it is, and those that grasp for it, terrified of its loss. It slithers between people.”

However, things are not fickle; people are. Further, Lady Churchill, when she lost power, certainly understood it and was truly determined to use it for what she saw as the good of the country. Though determined to hold onto power, as portrayed in the movie, she was not terrified at its loss, but was a true believer in the slogan that “What goes around comes around.” And it did.

  1. The affectations of the camera work, though my youngest son may comment that, although I have recovered my sight in both eyes, I remain blind to the brilliance of visual story-telling.
  2. The love affair of Queen Anne and Abigail superimposed with hordes of bunnies!!!!
  3. Wide angles and warped effects of rooms and distorted representations of objects, as perhaps a negative commentary on the possibility of objective truth, tells us more about the film itself than the period or the present.
  4. Fish eye effects zeroing in on the goldfish bowl of the palace, whereas the scheming and backbiting are normally hidden from view.
  5. The camera in constant motion lest we be allowed time for reflection
  6. The angular framing in a film that imitates like the ugly and dysfunctional entry to the ROM.

Then there is the script. A Golden Globe award for best screenplay! Someone has to be kidding. Though Deborah Davies and Tony MacNamara were widely lauded for their script, I found that clever filthy quips do not add up to good jokes let alone brilliant writing. Is Emma Stone as Abigail walking down a long palace hall saying “fuck” over and over again supposed to be scintillating? And what about the division of the movie into chapters with titles meant themselves to be quips, but which can only be read as either obvious and simplistic, or irrelevant and absolutely inexplicable?


To be continued – Part II tomorrow on History and Film