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

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


Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Trump as a Philosophical Fascist – Part III

Trump as a Philosophical Fascist – Part III


Howard Adelman

In Sheri Berman’s article, “Donald Trump isn’t a fascist” that I cited in my last blog, she wrote: “This debate over labels may seem merely semantic. But definitions matter. The point of labels is to identify, clarify, understand, and, if relevant, figure out ways of coping with the phenomenon at hand. Labeling Trump or other new-right parties and politicians ‘fascist’ implies something not just about what these people and movements stand for but how the opposition should deal with them.”

Sheri Berman is right, but not quite perfectly. Words matter. Definitions matter. Labels matter. They identify and clarify by implying and connecting with associations that give meaning to that label. However, they only help us understand in a significant way when the associations that provide that meaning are both comprehensive and correspond to empirical reality. Only then can we have the precise tools to deal with the problem at hand.

The critics of labeling Donald Trump a fascist did so because they listed four or seven or whatever number of symptoms that indicate that the political ideology signified by those symptoms was fascism. For Berman, the requisite symptoms are suspicion of capitalism, anti-democratic propensities because one regards democracies as both weak and inefficient, celebration of the use of violence for its own sake and use of a revolutionary rather than an evolutionary strategy.

Other commentators point to prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviour towards minorities because of fear of either difference or outsiders or both, a cult of action and celebration of alpha male aggressive masculinity as public political performance, an intolerance of criticism as a psychological characteristic, a pitch to the frustrations of the lower middle class, and populist appeals to national pride, resentment of humiliation and an opportunity for everyman (and woman) to identify directly with the power of the leader.

There is nothing wrong with this list. A few others could be added – such as focusing on the most up-to-date media at the time, whether radio and movies in the 1920s and 1930s, or tweets on the internet currently – to communicate directly to followers. But listing symptoms is not the issue. Of course, it helps to identify them to identify and classify but hardly sufficient.

In medicine, a symptom is a physical or mental feature that is an indicator of a disease or condition; an indicator is not usually the disease itself, but it may be part of the disease process as well as the effects on the body or the mind. In politics, the spectrum is broader. Symptoms which directly track the disease include mental items – such as the psychological (an emphasis on alpha male propensities, narcissism) and the ideological make-up of the politician. Both spheres are reflected in and are manifested by policies that translate into strategies for social change, whether in the democratic political system, the economic (capitalist in our case) system, the emphasis on action and the use of violence to achieve ends versus democratically elected and accountable legislatures and an independent judiciary for achieving goals. It is also helpful to identify the process as either chronic or acute.

In medicine, a patient may be prone to accepting quack beliefs. In politics, it may be a fear of minorities and paranoia about strangers (in medicine, someone with a cleanliness fetish or someone with an irrational fear of inoculation). Recognizing a patient’s openness to falsification and instilling criticisms of inherited folk wisdom when it is inappropriate, is important. Some patients may even have a propensity to want a shaman or witch doctor whom that believe capable of performing miraculous cures rather than a medical practitioner steeped in empirical knowledge of both the objective world and established proven practices as means of attacking problems. So too does it help if we identify conditions that provide ripe grounds for a disease to expand quickly. In politics, this may be rural or small town social groups, declining in numbers and prosperity, and resentful of their declining status.

Thus, it is not sufficient to list indicators. It is important to classify them and differentiate between and among direct indicators of the disease or condition, the best grounds for it to flourish and spread, and the social conditions and belief systems that foster that growth. However, simply identifying indicators with the disease or condition itself is a category mistake. For symptoms qua symptoms are merely the most superficial elements in recognizing a disease. We also must identify the anatomical location, the physiology and aetiology of the development of the disease. Only then can we grasp which interventions are most successful and why.

In the case of fascism and fascist leaders, we are very far from such a developed state of recognition. But we do know some of the factors that go beyond symptomology. Rather than simply via symptoms and conditions for the spread of a disease, fascism at this stage is best recognized by a specific ideological constellation concerning the body politic just as a disease may be identified by its actual effects on the body.

Let me shift from the theory of naming to actual deeper identifiers than symptoms. It should be no surprise then that I turn away from political scientists, historians, social and cultural commentators to a philosopher. Further, it is not just any philosopher. Giovanni Gentile was a leading Italian philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century from his academic post, first at Palermo University and then at the University of Pisa. He enjoyed a long quasi-partnership with Benedetto Croce, usually identified as the father of twentieth century positivist philosophy. The two went through an intellectual divorce in the early 1920s and Gentile became the “philosopher of fascism.” He provided Italian fascist thought with its intellectual foundation.

Though cast within what was dubbed a neo-Hegelian framework, his articulation of “actualist idealism” was not a development upon, but a gross distortion of Hegelian thought. This articulation was not simply the subjectivist extreme of idealist thought, but an intellectual framework that carried idealism over the edge. Those ideas were best expressed in his volume – originally a 40-page extended essay in the 1932 edition of the Italian Encyclopedia – The Doctrine of Fascism (“La dottrina del fascismo”) – that he co-wrote with Benito Mussolini which glorified the fascistic male – Uomo Fascista. Gentile was solely responsible for the first part on the fundamental precepts “Idee Fondamentali” in contrast to the second part, the doctrine of fascism (“Dottrina politica e sociale”) which may have been penned by Mussolini or both authors.

From that work and from H.S. Harris’ 1966 study of Gentile, The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile with a biography of unknown origin, I have extracted the following core elements of fascism. A more accessible source for most readers might be Thomas Clay’s 2009 essay in the journal Gramsci and Educational Thought (41:6, 640-660) “Introducing Giovanni Gentile, the ‘Philosopher of Fascism’.” That essay is available online.

  1. The Cult of the Alpha Male
  2. The Cult of the Nation and the State
  3. The Contempt for both Reason and Empiricism
  4. The Contempt for Universal Human Rights and Liberal Ideals
  5. The Celebration of the Transcendental Mind: Free Will as The Absolute
  6. The Celebration of Populism vs Democratic Responsible Government
  7. A Dystopian View of the Existing World
  8. A Utopian Vision of a New World
  9. The Merging of the Private and the Public
  10. The Dialectic of Conflict to Foster Change and the Victory of the most Powerful Nation.

The first six of these core elements focus on the “anatomy” of fascism. The last four deal with its “physiology,” the depiction of the dynamics of change. Clearly, some of these are akin to specific symptoms mentioned above. However, unlike mere symptoms, these articulations try to address the phenomenology of experience rather than the experience of phenomena. Further, they are the parallel to identifying a mental disorder in the individual rather than an anatomical disease or condition. Only this is a condition which is political and which manifests itself, not simply in deviant individual behaviour, but in a public manic state in which large masses of individuals who consciously or, most frequently, unconsciously embrace fascism, become part of a large and significant political movement that threatens the very life of a democratic and liberal society.

In the next blog or blogs, I will clarify each of these elements in turn and indicate the evidence of Donald Trump being the current poster boy for that tradition. What I intend to make clear is that Donald Trump is merely the face of a much larger social change. That social change was already well underway when Trump became its titular face and leader. I will develop this claim in a follow-up blog on the precursors of the emergence of Donald Trump as president of the USA. If an individual exhibits traits that cause them to feel and behave in socially unacceptable and distressing ways and limit the individual’s ability to function and establish social relations, a collective political condition like fascism is much more damaging and widespread.

Further, there is no incompatibility between Donald Trump suffering from a psychological or psychiatric condition, such as a narcissistic personality disorder, and the spread of a plague of fascism. Donald Trump, as I will argue, is the prime instrument for spreading that plague. But he suffers from it as much as he has become its poster child. At the same time, the characteristics he exhibits in his deformed personality are ideal conditions for becoming a lead player in the spread of the disease of fascism.

That leaves one major problem. Sheri Berman wrote that it is not sufficient to label a disease or condition or anything else for that matter if that label and the underlying characteristics do not allow us to deal with and reverse the condition. In fact, filling out the definition of fascism and illustrating its applicability to the current case is itself subject to the test of whether and how the agents for developing an immunity can be fostered sufficiently to defeat and destroy the danger of that condition.

Donald Trump the Fascist – Part II

Donald Trump the Fascist – Part II


Howard Adelman

Conrad Black in his biography Richard M. Nixon (2007) informed us that, in the 1950 California Senate race, Helen Gahagan Douglas accused her opponent, Richard Nixon, of advocating “nice, unadulterated fascism.” In this morning’s blog, I implied that few of Donald Trump’s American critics had suggested an identification of Donald Trump with fascism. A reader commented that a Google search in 38 seconds revealed 559,000 results connecting Donald Trump with fascism. However, very few Americans claim that DT is a fascist. They generally equivocate in the endless stream of commentary and analysis of Donald Trump. The analogy hangs in the air, but generally does not land on his head.

Trump has been called a proto-fascist and his post-truth is labeled as pre-fascism. Few Americans label him outright as a fascist.  For some, such as Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College and an expert on the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, this is because he is a populist, but not one that conforms to four basic characteristics of fascism. (See her article, “Donald Trump isn’t a fascist,” (…/1/3/14154300/fascist-populist-trump-democracy.) For her, Trump was not an ardent pro-nationalist, wherein the individual is in service to the nation; he does not view the nation as an “organic entity”. Trump does not possess a suspicion of capitalism. He may to some degree be overtly anti-liberal, but he is not anti-democratic rooted in the belief that the people must be led by a strong leader since American democracy as inefficient, unresponsive and weak. Finally, although Trump fails to reject violence unequivocally and will even urge police officers not to protect the heads of those arrested when throwing them in the back seat of a squad car, he does not advocate the use of violence as both a means and an end. In any case, fascism comes to power through revolutionary conquest not the ballot. In the rise of populism, there is a gradual erosion of democratic norms and institutions rather than undermining them through radical revolution.

But this is to confuse the rhetoric of fascism at a particular time with its core tenets. Such a definition gives pre-eminence to the tumultuous environment of hopelessness that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Berman argues that, although Trump bears a similarity to fascism in promising to protect Americans from the pernicious effects of foreigners and the disruptions of globalization and free trade that have, in his eyes, decimated America as a manufacturing centre, these are populist appeals common to both fascism and populism. But a populist does not a fascist make. Nor are the conditions – such as military defeat and economic depression – ripe for the rise of fascism.

A Toronto Star (2 April 2016) article by Olivia Ward asked, “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” and opined that “Donald Trump’s strong-armed call to keep Mexicans and Muslims out of America echoes last century’s fascist governments.” Ward cited young historian, Fedja Buric, from Bellarmine University in Kentucky, a specialist on the rise of fascism as the successor to Tito’s communism in Yugoslavia. Buric insisted that Trump was merely the face of fascism in America. He even compared DT with Benito Mussolini. New Republic editor Jamil Smith declared unequivocally that, “yes, Donald Trump is a fascist.” But Buric and Smith were foils for Ward who insisted that, “the jaw-jutting reality star doesn’t quite squeeze into the classic 20th-century mold.”

Even earlier than 2016, on 3 December 2015, Ross Douthat in The New York Times had asked, “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” based on his illiberal musings about Muslims and his blatant lying? Douthat even cited Jamelle Bouie in Slate who, referring to Umberto Eco in turn, “argued that Trumpism, however ideologically inchoate, manifests at least seven of the hallmarks of fascism…a cult of action, a celebration of aggressive masculinity, an intolerance of criticism, a fear of difference and outsiders, a pitch to the frustrations of the lower middle class, an intense nationalism and resentment at national humiliation, and a ‘popular elitism’ that promises every citizen that they’re part of ‘the best people of the world’.” Bouie was born in Virginia and I should have qualified my words about most Americans being reluctant to label Trump as a fascist, for Boule is a Black Virginian and Black Americans seem to disproportionately recognize fascism when they see it.

For those who eschew applying the fascist label to Donald Trump, America historically provided poor soil for fascism given the American conservative tradition of “a libertarian skepticism of state power, a stress on localism and states’ rights, a religious and particularly Protestant emphasis on the conscience of an individual over the power of the collective — that inoculated our politics against fascism’s appeal.” However, DT lacked the inoculation against that contagion because he was not an ideological conservative. In spite of the similarities of DT to Eco’s seven identification markers, and in spite of the fact that DT resisted any vaccination against the pox, neither religion, which for him is purely instrumental, nor Perot’s economic nationalist libertarianism and love of small government, nor, finally, Wallace’s deep racism and local and regional chauvinism, were available to save him from infection, for like a fascist, l’état c’est moi, Trump clearly is not averse to centralization as long as he is at that centre. Nevertheless, Douthat concluded that DT was at best a proto-fascist at one end of the conservative spectrum. “Trump may indeed be a little fascistic, but that sinister resemblance is just one part of his reality-television meets WWE-heel-turn campaign style. He isn’t actually building a fascist mass movement.”

Ishaan Tharoor in The Washington Post (28 March 2017) wrote that, “nobody invoking the ‘analogy’ seriously believes the hideous slaughters of another era are imminent.” Not much comfort. Tharoor went on to identify DT’s “reactionary platform in sync with xenophobic rhetoric and the extremist far right politics of Europe. But this just meant that, “The shadow of an earlier moment of demagoguery seems to unavoidably loom over the national conversation.”

The issue is not that there are no American commentators that called DT a fascist, but that the vast majority avoid, for very different reasons, labeling him with the fascist designation and draw back even at the last minute from knighting him as such. Douthat thought that, although DT had not been inoculated against fascism, conservatives in the Republican Party were and would refuse to embrace him if he overtly takes on those traits.

How wrong he was. Further, as my blog tomorrow will indicate, I want to insist that DT’s fascism goes much deeper than the above merely superficial resemblances to fascist performers.  Trump is philosophically a fascist and it is as a philosophical fascist that he is able to wrap conservatives around his little fat pinky.

I am aware that scholars of Italian fascism, such as historian Enzo Traverso, the Susan and Barton Winokur Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University, argue that identifying Trump “through the old category of fascism” is not only misleading but useless (World Policy Journal “Trump’s Savage Capitalism: The Nightmare is Real,” 34:1, Spring 2017, 13-17). This scholar insisted that, despite Trump defining himself as the charismatic leader and despite his speeches and meetings having “an incontestably fascist taste,” the fascist analogy remains superficial involving only Trump’s personality. “Fascism is reducible neither to the temperament of a political leader nor to the psychological predispositions of his followers. The fact is that Trump does not lead a mass movement; he is a TV star.”

Isabel Hull, the John Stambaugh Professor of History and colleague of Traverso at Cornell, pointed out that some of the things that paved the way for fascism in Germany are repeated now, such as a weak government that was intentionally undermined by its elites, and “a highly stove-piped national press, such that people only heard and saw what they already thought, and that should sound familiar though it now comes in a different mode.” Another similarity, Isabel Hull pointed to at the Cornell symposium on “Trump and Fascism,” was that Hitler, like Trump, “had no regard for bureaucracy or law or regularity or policies. Under National Socialism, that system of government made it flexible, adaptable, but also self-radicalizing and ultimately completely self-destructive.”

However, for these thinkers, although there are significant analogies, the identification is just not there. Trump is not an imperialist. Rather than arguing for military expansionism, DT is an isolationist. What drives him is his personal business interests and his family. Xenophobic and reactionary, yes; fascist, no. Populism, not fascism, explains DT.

Without denigrating the role of populism and without insisting that DT exhibits all the expressions of fascism in the 1930s. I suggest that DT is at his core a philosophical fascist and not simply a behavioural one or even that some of his behavioural traits share a kinship with fascism.

I make this assertion, not as a scholar of philosophical fascism, but because of knowledge by acquaintance. When I co-taught the graduate course on Hegel at York University, my colleague was the late Professor Henry Silton Harris, H.S. Harris or simply Harris as he was called by his colleagues and friends. He was and remains the foremost Hegelian scholar in the world. What few seem to know was that his PhD thesis was on Giovanni Gentile, subsequently published as, The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile: with a bibliography (1962).

Gentile, already a widely recognized philosopher in Palermo and then Pisa, Italy, before Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, became Minister of Education in the first Mussolini government of 1923 and ghost wrote Mussolini’s A Doctrine of Fascism (1930). His own philosophic identification with fascism and the characterization of its essential precepts were inscribed in his volume, The Origins of the Doctrine of Fascism. The fascist themes were also indicated in his break with Croce, the intellectual founder of positivism, the doctrine that science provides the model for all thought and explanation, more fundamentally, that all thought is rooted in sense experience.

With the help of Alex Zisman


Donald Trump the Fascist – Part I

Donald Trump the Fascist – Part I


Howard Adelman

On Friday night at dinner, my friend complained that a crossword puzzle with the clue “mission” required the answer, “errand.” He thought that was unfair. I defended the answer to the clue because an errand – sending someone to fetch something – was one kind of mission, an activity directed intensely towards a single goal. My companion conceded the point and then asked what about the word “stupid”? The answer in the puzzle was “crass”. In this case, I tended to agree with my friend who was incensed at the injustice of the query.

However, my concurrence bothered me. For I knew I was often ignorant of some of the meanings of terms. Though I thought “stupid” conveyed primarily “lacking intelligence,” and “crass” conveyed “boorishness,” perhaps the two terms did, in some of the uses of each, enjoy a family resemblance. I looked “stupid” up in the thesaurus and found this additional equivalence:


Crass behaviour is stupid and does not show consideration for other people.

They have behaved with crass insensitivity.

In this meaning, “crass” is not so much defined by the words and deeds of the character said to be crass, but by the crass individual’s ignorance about the effects of his (or her) behaviour. A crass individual is stupid in his or her insensitivity to others.

I begin with this very small anecdote because of puzzlement about Donald Trump who seems both crass and stupid. But how can someone so stupid, so ignorant about so much, know such a great deal about those who follow him? More significantly, how can he keep not only his own populist followers, but also so many conservatives and Republicans (the latter two are not identical) in line if he is both stupid as well as crass? Simply put, my answer comes in explaining Donald Trump as a fascist.

However, before we explore that response, it is well to understand another very different reason why we may be avoiding pinning the tail of fascism on the ass of Donald Trump. We use him and need him as either an object of ridicule or as a measure of madness. I focus on the latter.

Instead of calling DT a fascist, we say that he is mad, daft, crazy, an insane narcissist. Senator Jack Reed (D- R.I.) said, “I think — I think he’s crazy. I mean, I don’t say that lightly and [mean that] as a kind of a goofy guy.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted against the Republican efforts at “repeal and replace” of Obamacare, seemed to express her concurrence. This was on top of his ignorance. “I don’t think he knows there is a [Budget Control Act] or anything,” added Collins.

Mark Cuban, the billionaire, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and celebrity on “The Shark Tank,” dubbed DT “bats” and David Brooks of The New York Times described DT as suffering from “multiple personality disorder.” However, if DT is mad, he has certainly developed a mastery of celebrity politics, more than sufficient to wipe the floor with his 16 opponents on the campaign trail for the nomination and then to go on to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College.

One problem is that if Trump is mad-as-a-hatter, we should not normally ridicule him. Blaming a madman for his erratic behaviour simply undercuts the judicial principles developed over the last century whereby the mentally disturbed are not laughed at, but rather treated for their illness. If DT is mentally ill, some might criticize him but not laugh at him. For most cases of mental illness, we extend sympathy and empathy to the troubled individual. However, some diagnoses empirically do not generally elicit sympathy. Offering sympathy or empathy in some cases takes place only at considerable risk to the one who proffers it to a severe narcissist/sociopath/psychopath. For the latter will only use that empathy to disadvantage the person who is attempting to offer it, always in order to get the upper hand. DT is a master at doing just that. Further, if he claims personal experience trumps reality supported by evidence, we can end up only treating the individual as a deliberate liar rather than delusional.

Most important, we fail to get at the source of his erratic behaviour that runs so counter to his own interests. Just last week, these irrational patterns included:

  • Continuing the efforts at humiliating his only critical ally in the legislature when he was campaigning and who was so important in linking him up with the conservative core of the Republican Party, his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions;
  • Embarrassing an organization such as the Boy Scouts by treating youth as a staging ground for his rallies with his railing against the Washington swamp, and getting those boys to cheer for him rather than his applauding them for upholding the universal virtues that the movement tries to instill in its youthful members;
  • Doing far better than central casting, appointing Scarry Moochy, Anthony Scaramucci, as his Communications Director [for only trn days] who even upped DT himself in his profanity and use of humiliation to drive his rival, White House Chief of Staff and a pillar of the Republican establishment, Reince Priebus, from office by accusing him of being a criminal and crazy at one and the same time; the Mooch called Priebus a leaker (a felony) and a paranoid schizophrenic;
  • Contrary to his campaign pledge to guard their back, DT announced that he was not only denying transgender military personnel access to state-supported funds for medical procedures to which they were entitled as members of the armed forces, a denial policy pushed by many conservatives, he went further and tweeted that he was kicking them out of the armed forces altogether, claiming the decision followed consultation with “his” generals when, in short order, it became apparent that they had been blindsided and were unwilling to implement an order contained in a tweet.

The list could go on. These were only the most outstanding expressions of what is easily dubbed as madness. These were not simply breeches of democratic norms and standards of decorum expected of a president, but symptoms of a very deep illness.

There is another view. His nuttiness is merely his unique brand of cutthroat cleverness. As the campaign was heating up, Konrad Yakabuski in The Globe and Mail eighteen months ago wrote that, “While the historians debate whether Mr. Trump is a bona fide fascist or just an opportunistic rabble-rouser, the pundits have already decided that he is crazy – like a fox. His endless disregard for the boundaries of acceptable political discourse only serves to ensure that he dominates the news cycle – to the detriment of rivals struggling to gain basic name recognition – and to consolidate his support among a slice of the electorate that is hopping mad and sick of slick career politicians.”

Craziness had been converted into political craftiness based on absolute amorality. The main object is to continually hijack the debate, to hijack debate altogether, in favour of one outlandish claim after another, each more extreme than his previous record. Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post, six months after Yakabuski penned his op-ed, opined that he had once thought that DT was just “being crazy like a fox. Now I am increasingly convinced that he’s just plain crazy.”

Crazy or crazily calculating? However, if DT is that sick, should we laugh at him or ridicule his behaviour? Rather, should we not try to analyze the source of his dysfunction and urge treatment? Instead, DT has served as a boondoggle to liberal satirists. And he is such an easy target given his inability to complete a sentence unless he has his eyes literally tied to a monitor. With his compulsion to repeat phrases, his open-hands used to wave away criticism like a set of bothersome flies while he communicates that he is totally open to the audience as his limbs move in unison to draw in identification with himself as the abiding authority.

Like primates, wolves and dogs, Trump snarls.  Dogs snarl as a defensive, protective gesture and to provide a warning signal. DT does it to communicate threatening disdain as he shrugs to deflect criticism. His distinctive eye roll relays his contempt while his smirk discounts the other as a fool and his finger pointing identifies his enemies. He purses his lips to scowl at his opponents as childish miscreants and turns his torso towards them as an expression of domination. Finally, his swept blonde hairdo signals that he is not afraid to convey any of these characteristics, but wallows in the attention these gestures bring.  He is not only a celebrity who is energized by the spotlight, but a black star that uses all its energy to absorb the light from everything around.

Many in America are reluctant to use the term “fascist” and apply it to Donald Trump lest they be regarded as “off the wall” and exaggerating. They would, thereby, undercut the opposition to Donald Trump. However, non-Americans need not be so timid. My friend, Michael Marrus, wrote an op-ed in the Globe and Mail on 7 July entitled, “The new face of fascism, American-style.” ( Michael is a European historian and for years was the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto.

Other than prudence, Michael offered many other reasons why the term fascist had been avoided. The following elements seemed to be missing:

  • a cult of militarization and war
  • a celebration of youth
  • an idealization of sacrifice and death
  • an incubator of economic depression
  • seething ethnic quarrels.

My inclination is to suggest that all of these are lurking in the shadows. However, Michael suggested another reason for avoiding the use of the term fascist. Citing George Mosse, he wrote that, fascism is a “scavenger ideology,” “less a coherent body of thought and policy than a mood articulated by talented demagogues who patched together, from the popular culture, strident calls to action in the service of ill-defined myths of a nation’s greatness.” Michael urged us to resist the temptation and the many reasons on offer for avoiding the link between Trump’s overt behaviour and the label “fascist”. Rhetorically, he asked whether Trump’s contempt for a free press and his cruel insinuations and use of stigmas indicated a fascist personality. DT’s behaviour was not merely crass and stupid. Nor could his remarks simply be dismissed as just “inappropriate” and “disappointing”.

Michael cited Robert Kagan of the Brooking Institute, one of the few Americans unafraid to link DT with fascism in print. For fascism has come to America, “not with jackboots and salutes … but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac ‘tapping into’ popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party – out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear – falling into line behind him.”

The result has been:

  • an emphasis on fealty rather than loyalty
  • a professed disdain for elites as Trump surrounds himself with obeisant generals and billionaires as well as sycophants
  • embracing rather than rejecting the principle of contradiction
  • contempt for convention, comity and civility.

In People Magazine in 1981, Trump described humans (actually “men”) as “the most vicious of all animals.” He went further than Thomas Hobbes in insisting that this military viciousness was not even controlled or controllable by political institutions, but meant that life was just “a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.” You were either a killer or a sucker. He was not a believer in the doctrine that the end justifies the means, but an idolater who believed that the only end worthy of effort was victory űber alles, including especially army generals whom he relished being made into his subordinates. The world is divided into alpha males and the “rest.”

As Trump boasted, “I was elected president.” Neither his supine nor his clever and intelligent opponents were able to defeat him. And in a memorable effort to confine Donald Trump within the constitution and some scraps of morality, Khizr Khan, father of a decorated deceased Muslim war hero whom Roger Stone, one of DT’s mentors, had labeled a “Muslim Brotherhood agent,” this “agent” waved the pamphlet containing the constitution, offering it to DT as reading material for DT seemed so ignorant of its contents, Trump was easily able to brush an attack launched from a pinnacle of virtue into the swamp created by the dam he has so assiduously built in the valley below.

As David Givens, Director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Washington, noted during the primary campaign referring to Donald Trump, “Nobody has done it this well since John F. Kennedy. Or Mussolini.” It is to Mussolini and his philosophical partner, Giovanni Gentile, that I want to move. However, I will first elaborate on the debate over whether DT is a fascist. My position is clear. Whether a clown or crazy, Donald Trump’s behaviour does not simply bear a superficial resemblance to that of fascists. Donald Trump deeply identifies with the philosophical tenets of fascism.

With the help of Alex Zisman – and others.

Respect and Critique

Responsa – Respect and Critique


Howard Adelman

In response to my blog, “Our Pristine Island and its Traditional Custodians,” my friend wrote the following:

I wish I shared your view.  I would like my spirit to soar.  But, sadly, I do not.  I fully acknowledge that we are only custodians of the land and that artificial ownership only serves artificial economics, but that does not extend to my placing any significant weight on who came first to the country. So what if the indigenous peoples came first!  How is anyone’s worth a function of their ancestors’ place in history? For me, it is all about this generation and who is here now.

I feel no guilt for the residential schools nor the history of white man’s discrimination against native peoples, even though I acknowledge it was all bad and racist. Why? Because my parents came from the coal mines of Wales. We discriminated against no one. We respect everyone. We’ll assist anyone. I am NOT my forgotten very distant ancestors. And even if there was case to be made for bearing some responsibility, look at how those same ancestors treated me and my family. My father was destroyed by war. We grew up in poverty. I was very often marginalized, discriminated against and unassisted. That is the way life is.  

To me, we are all in this together. Black, white, yellow and brown. And that requires an acceptance and embrace of all. But that all is restricted to my time on earth and what I can directly influence during my time here. I am not in the least responsible for that which happened when I was not here. It is the main reason I speak up so much now – because I am here now and I am responsible for me now. 

Do not misinterpret this as anti-native. They deserve our love and support. But only reasonably so and for those in need. And I will give that, but I will not add an apology nor will I accept responsibility for their current plight. My love and support now should be enough.


Below, please find an open letter to my friend who critically questioned my insistence of acknowledgement and recognition of the role of indigenous people in Canada as well as my celebration of tradition.

To My Dear Friend;

I should not be charging you with confusion or even the note underlying my response to your latest missive, your inconsistency. Logical, you are not. But loveable, endearing, loyal as well as belligerent, but respectful, even worshipping of nature, you are. You have a hard-hearted realism combined with a romantic love of your Sally. And you will refuse right until the end to go gently into that good night. For you will always insist that even death will have no dominion over your soul.

Where do you think that attitude, that stance, came from? Out of the blue?

Let me begin with Bob Dylan who recently won a Nobel prize for his bardic poetry and who dismissed and tried endlessly to run away from his Jewish tradition as Robert Zimmerman to adopt that of another, the Welsh – yes Welsh bard – Dylan Thomas, even as his songs were infused with Biblical themes and phrases. Before I discuss the latter, let me compare my experience of you to the former.

Bob Dylan wrote “Life is Hard.” You not only could write “life is hard,” but you deliberately chose to make it so – physically and in terms of survival. However, look at the differences. Sally is at the centre of that difference. Whereas Bob Dylan wrote,

I’m always on my guard

Admitting life is hard

Without you near me

You too could write “life is always hard,” but you make sure it does not overwhelm you. In contrast with Bob Dylan, you keep the one “so dear and near to you” ever nearer, ever closer, so that she will not slip far away, so that, in the end, with all your scepticism, with all your escape to the northern bush, she would not stray. For with all your sense of emptiness and the lack of meaning in life except that which we give in the day-to-day, you are at heart a romantic.

You continually echo Bob Dylan’s words:

I don’t know what’s wrong or right

I just know I need strength to fight

Strength to fight that world outside
You refuse to feel “a chilly breeze. In place of memories,” you continuously bring up one memory after another, one anecdote piled atop a different one, not to evoke loss, but to insist that you survived, that you sustained yourself through all the tribulations.

In perhaps his most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” the refrain repeats:

“How does it feel, how does it feel?

To be on your own, with no direction home

A complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”

Of course, Bob Dylan became the most famous minstrel of his time, even though he was like a rolling stone, not like the same one Sisyphus rolled up the hill only to see it roll down the next day so that he had to start over, but one that rolled through one tradition after another, from his Judaism, which continued to haunt him all his life and inform his themes and lyrics, through folk and rock, through evangelical Christianity, through the revival of a unique blues voice borrowed from the voices and rhythms of those who struggled hardest in North America.

But you did not follow that path of rolling through history, but a path that rejected history, that rejected a collective community. You chose, instead, to embrace nature and an atomized community of your own. But you too have not found a direction home. Bob Dylan’s song is about surviving in a world of fraudsters, con artists and crooks, a world in which the individual is reduced to one who has “nothing to lose.” You have deliberately sought the world of all monks who aspire to live a life where they have nothing to lose.

In Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, there is a song, “I’m only bleeding.” Dylan sings, and I quote in full:

Darkness at the break of noon

Shadows even the silver spoon

The handmade blade, the child’s balloon

Eclipses both the sun and moon

To understand you know too soon

There is no sense in trying
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn

Suicide remarks are torn

From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn

Plays wasted words, proves to warn

That he not busy being born is busy dying
Temptation’s page flies out the door

You follow, find yourself at war

Watch waterfalls of pity roar

You feel to moan but unlike before

You discover that you’d just be one more

Person crying
So don’t fear if you hear

A foreign sound to your ear

It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing
As some warn victory, some downfall

Private reasons great or small

Can be seen in the eyes of those that call

To make all that should be killed to crawl

While others say don’t hate nothing at all

Except hatred
Disillusioned words like bullets bark

As human gods aim for their mark

Make everything from toy guns that spark

To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark

It’s easy to see without looking too far

That not much is really sacred
While preachers preach of evil fates

Teachers teach that knowledge waits

Can lead to hundred-dollar plates

Goodness hides behind its gates

But even the president of the United States

Sometimes must have to stand naked
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged

It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge

And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it
Advertising signs they con

You into thinking you’re the one

That can do what’s never been done

That can win what’s never been won

Meantime life outside goes onAll around you


You lose yourself, you reappear

You suddenly find you got nothing to fear

Alone you stand with nobody near

When a trembling distant voice, unclear

Startles your sleeping ears to hear

That somebody thinks they really found you
A question in your nerves is lit

Yet you know there is no answer fit

To satisfy, insure you not to quit

To keep it in your mind and not forget

That it is not he or she or them or it

That you belong to
Although the masters make the rules

For the wise men and the fools

I got nothing, Ma, to live up to
For them that must obey authority

That they do not respect in any degree

Who despise their jobs, their destinies

Speak jealously of them that are free

Cultivate their flowers to be

Nothing more than something they invest in
While some on principles baptized

To strict party platform ties

Social clubs in drag disguise

Outsiders they can freely criticize

Tell nothing except who to idolize

And then say God bless him
While one who sings with his tongue on fire

Gargles in the rat race choir

Bent out of shape from society’s pliers

Cares not to come up any higher

But rather get you down in the hole

That he’s in
But I mean no harm nor put fault

On anyone that lives in a vault

But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him
Old lady judges watch people in pairs

Limited in sex, they dare

To push fake morals, insult and stare

While money doesn’t talk, it swears

Obscenity, who really cares

Propaganda, all is phony
While them that defend what they cannot see

With a killer’s pride, security

It blows the minds most bitterly

For them that think death’s honesty

Won’t fall upon them naturally

Life sometimes must get lonely
My eyes collide head-on with stuffed

Graveyards, false gods, I scuff

At pettiness which plays so rough

Walk upside-down inside handcuffs

Kick my legs to crash it off

Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?
And if my thought-dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.
Think of how often you refer to the shadows that haunt the silver spoon. Think of your core existential philosophy that can be summed up as, if you are not being reborn daily a la Nietzsche, you are dying.  Look at your rejection of sentimentality, your insistence at always being at war with the world in which you look askance at the waterfalls of sentimental tears, acting to improve the world and your self, not only by rejecting pity, but pitiless in your denunciation of sentiment. What you have not yet discovered, as you try so hard and so persistently to harden your heart, I believe, is that you are but “one more person crying” as you bark disillusioned words like bullets. As you have dodged the games people play, as you avoid the siren call of consumer advertising, as you refuse to join in the gargles of the rat race choir and refuse to be bent by society’s pliers, you echo the refrain:

Although the masters make the rules

For the wise men and the fools

I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.
For you, money does not talk; it swears. For you reject fake morals and, unlike the cowardly Jeff Sessions, you throw the insults back at megalomaniacs like Donald Trump, You refuse to be part of the obscene world. You scoff as false gods and stuffed graveyards. But you refuse to lay your neck upon a guillotine. For it is all life.

All this said, it is not as if you are anything akin to Bob Dylan. If anything, you have so much more in common with an identity Dylan revered, Dylan Thomas. Of course, I am not writing about Dylan Thomas, the young Salish indigenous artist who lives in British Columbia near you, but the Welsh poet who would be one hundred and two years old today, except he died when he was only about forty. Dylan Thomas was also a minstrel poet, but so different that the bard Bob Dylan that one has a hard time imaging the Welshman as Robert Zimmerman’s idol. But that he was, so much so that he appropriated his name.

But read Dylan Thomas. Read one of the truly greats of your tradition, a tradition you claim not to know and which you overtly eschew, but in your love of words and love of disputation you echo daily. You should steep yourself in the poetry of your ancestry and rediscover your own rich roots in the oldest literary tradition of the English-speaking world. There are a myriad of poets to choose from – Gwenalit Jones and Waldo Williams to name but two of literally hundreds. But I focus on the most famous of them all – Dylan Thomas.

I suspect you do not celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday, but please read or re-read, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” before this December. Listen hard over the crashing sounds of breaking waves of the two-tongued sea to the distant speaking of Welsh voices. For, like Dylan Thomas, I suspect that the sky and not Granville or Hastings is your real street, and it is the Georgian Straits that sing you carols. For like Dylan Thomas, you desperately need to be transformed into the identity of a hunter, of an Inuit arctic marksman where cats become lynxes and the bell calling out dinner is a gong warning of fire. For the sense and sounds of the present are used to transport you to an ethereal world as grounded and as hard-fisted as you insist you are.

For in your imagination and in your life, you live in another world, an alternative universe, unlike Bob Dylan who always sought and despaired of finding utopia in the here and now. But not for you the age before the motor car, before the motor boat, before electricity and even petticoats.  As much as you deny living in the past and insist you live in the present, you are at heart a true romantic who wants to create the world in which he would choose to live. You do it with your raw hands and your once strong back, but the effort is always accompanied by a vivid imagination. You are lyrical even when you insist on being prosaic. You are impassioned even when you disdain passion for lost causes. And you are very funny, even in your dour seriousness.

But it would help if you allowed yourself to become intoxicated with the words of Dylan Thomas, with the musical language of his writing, with the surrealism all life has to offer even as one steeps oneself in its harsh reality. If only you would allow yourself to be embraced by the past, by your beautiful past, instead of rejecting the cold harshness of the Welsh coal town. For Wales also offers a place of beauty, overflowing with life and love and, yes, with tradition, for its towns are also as full as a lovebird’s egg. I believe you have always longed to get back, and are exercising that longing and desire to return to the “limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”

Just remember that the image of Dylan Thomas was on the Beatles album cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Bob Dylan was always searching for his father and made Dylan Thomas his spiritual father, his muse. In the poem, “The Follower,” Seamus Heaney offers a funerary monument to his father. I know what it is like to reject one’s father. The rejection rather than the love lives on in your heart and corrupts the core of who you are. Learning one’s tradition is a step towards one’s grandfather and great-grandfather so that, once again, one can meet one’s father in a new bespoke suit.


There was an unusual amount of response to my letter to my friend. I include only two, one relatively critical of my response and then an email from my friend after he received my analysis. Before I print them, I first want to put the issue of an appropriate tone for critique, which I personally have great difficulty achieving, in a larger context. How do you engage in critique of another while enhancing the other’s ability to absorb what is said?


On this past shabat, in synagogue we began reading the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. Further, this coming Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the holy day set aside in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. I have always been puzzled. If Deuteronomy is a text that introduces hermeneutics at the core of Judaism as Moses reflects on his memories and the deeds of his people as they are about to enter the promised land, if the volume lays more stress on a God of love and justice than a warrior, angry and very reluctantly forgiving God, if God in this text is more removed from the world and primary responsibility is placed on humans themselves for what happens to them, if the text prepared the groundwork for the shift from the emphasis on ritual and sacrifice to the stress on reading and interpreting text, the shift from Judaism as a priestly religion to a prophetic and rabbinic Judaism based on a sacred text, its study and interpretation, why mourn the destruction of the Temple which was the key act that allowed rabbinic Judaism to supplant priestly Judaism?

I will not answer the question, but I offer a direction for finding an answer. We mourn most, not what we have lost, but what we failed to achieve. Tisha B’Av, for me, is more about the situation that led to the destruction of the Temple than its physical demolition. We mourn so that, in the current iteration of disastrous behaviour, we once again do not miss out and allow catastrophe to overwhelm our commonweal.

Our rabbi offered a commentary on one word in Deuteronomy along these lines. The key line is chapter 1, verse 9 of Genesis when God asks Adam, “What’s up?” as if Adam were a mischievous child caught in the crosshairs of a knowing parent. The Hebrew word is אַיֶּכָּה, translated as, “Where art thou?” or, more colloquially, “Where are you at?” This sweet concern combined with the buzzing threatening sting in this word is echoed again in Deuteronomy 1:12.

יב  אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם. 12 How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?

Again, there is the word.אֵיכָה.

The word only appears 16 other times in the whole of the biblical text. In Deuteronomy it appears as a considerate and compassionate query into the emotional mind and mindset of the Other instead of merely a seemingly innocent probe with a lining of menace. Lamentations begins with the same word – אֵיכָה – an inquiry into “How” Jerusalem became a faithless city. Again, the tone of hurt combined with rebuke is apparent. Isaiah (1:21) echoes the same sense of wailing reprimand.

The champion boxer, the Louisville Lip, Muhammad Ali, offered words that are most frequently quoted when he promised to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” The words of reproof by God, by Moses, by Isaiah, and by Jeremiah, are admonitions in the form of loving criticism, the very opposite of critique designed to shame and humiliate. It is what a professor ideally does when he critiques a student’s or a colleague’s work, or what a psychoanalyst tries to do with his or her concern and probing queries.



In response to whatever he might have said, you are critical, rather harshly, of his unique coping mechanisms. What are you trying to achieve? While we may question his ways, and think we ourselves would not go his ways, he is an independent adult who had made a choice to live life his way. Like we all did.

That he is bitter or negative about some aspects of his experiences is part of his coping: this does not mean he wants to change anything. He feels his ways work for him, so leave it at that, even if you strongly disagree. While we can and do have opinions about how others choose to live their lives, we cannot tell them that they should change, because this is in effect saying that the way they live is wrong and we disapprove of it. Such harsh criticism is not exactly an incentive for anyone to want to heed our well-meant advice. The wish to change must always come from the person himself, and if and when it does, and they need our input, they will approach us. Even if that is the case, I think it is better to employ a quasi-Socratic method in that we merely assist them in clarifying their own thoughts: the thoughts and feelings must originate from them, not from us. I know I know, I sometimes comment re: your behaviour or rather about the impression it makes on me, but I would never tell you to change: I accept and cherish you the way you are, as long as you accept the way you are. If you wish to change I am ready to listen and help you mull it over. But the initiative would have to be always yours.

Plus: in my earlier very profound dialogues with your other reader [with whom I have also corresponded], I got the impression (I can divulge this much, if this helps) that he considers you hugely superior to himself, alone for the reason that you are a famous professor with “a bunch of doctor titles” and he is just a rough and tough biker dude. Of course, you and I both agree that he is a smart and sensitive guy who did a whole lot of great things for others, so he should not feel inferior to eggheads, but he does. Once he sent me some of his stories and they were fantastic and lively, full of energy, and I said they would be well suited as comic book stories, with the appropriate sound effects in bubbles (POUF, PLAK, ZISS). I think comic books are a fantastic genre, with fast dialogues and great dynamics. But he must have thought comic books were for stupid, uneducated people and once he remarked something to the effect about you: “Why would the rabbi be interested in the comic book writer?” or some such, which aptly demonstrates how he feels about you: huge reverence for you and little esteem for himself (this remark is on your blog in WordPress, so it is public). This is one more reason why I would not overwhelm him with such a forceful answer. It would possibly just reinforce his own demons, the way he thinks of himself.

Naturally, I am not telling you what to do ;>)))). But, despite my own quitting communicating with [your other reader (for I tend to get slightly PTSD about such levels of aggression as his, even if they are not directed at me) I feel suddenly protective of him and also you. You are uniquely brilliant: you do not need to go into any offensive.  

The friend whom I addressed did not evidently regard my email as offensive. He wrote:

That was a delightful surprise.  A philosophy professor’s take on who I am! I am feeling the love, HA.  Thankyou -a lot- for that.

And to a large extent I agree. ‘Course not the belligerent part! (which only serves to prove your point.). I am a romantic, I admit. An idealist romantic, to boot. But I think we are a dying breed, we idealists. But not extinct. We could use a few more.

And I am 100% wedded to Sally in this epic romance that is as much a journey as a love affair, as much an education as a comfort, as much a mystery as a partnership.

Thanks for taking the time to look and the extra time to comment. It is that kind of recognition and acknowledgment I respect. Acknowledgement of who I am now. It is that kind of recognition that inspires me. To what, exactly, I do not know but, you are right, it at least gives a second wind to rejoining the battle.

I do battle. Maybe too much but somebody has to do it.

Mind you, the battle-rage is abating with age. Not the causes for the rage (they seem to be increasing and ever more glaring in their proliferation and ugliness) but, rather, my ability to wage effectively against them. Thus, the retreat.

Read Dylan Thomas, eh?

I will.  No sense in having a mentor if you do not do as advised.  No sense in going to a doctor if you ignore their advice.

And, you are right again. I am uncomfortable with Xmas. I avoid it as much as possible. Feels phony to me. In fact, most rituals, scheduled celebrations and obligatory attendance events feel phony to me. I do not even like parties!

But I love intimate dinner parties where REAL communication ensues, real warmth exuded, and personal connections are made or strengthened.

I’ll give you this: it is hard to shake the past even when the past was indicative of little. The past still looms for me. I didn’t like it. I suppose even acknowledging THAT is part of what you are saying.

Thanks again for writing that.


Our Pristine Island and its Traditional Custodians

Our Pristine Island and its Traditional Custodians


Howard Adelman

Yesterday morning, I received a number of acknowledgements that welcomed my return to writing. One reader suggested that our family island may have been one of the few pristine places of peace in a world that appears to be steeped in conflict. The reader implied that such a retreat may be an important ingredient for restoring one’s spirit.

Given the violent conflict in the world, given the factious situation in Washington that dominates the daily news, this is very difficult. Donald Trump most recently repeatedly dissed and humiliated the Attorney General in his government for not owing fealty to himself personally but, instead, recused himself given his obligations to the rule of law and the constitution. Further, the Republican-dominated Congress approved expanded sanctions against Russia while the Trump government forged agreements that effectively ceded control of Syria to the Russians. Even worse, in the Russian election scandal, that administration possibly was willing to trade sanctions relief for cooperation with the Russians in interfering in the American election. Given the current efforts of the Republican-dominated Congress to take away health insurance from over twenty million people in the supposed name of making up for the acknowledged flaws in Obamacare, it is hard to avoid becoming cynical and despondent.

Even our family island does not escape the troubles and turmoil of the world, though the situation on the surface was much more mundane. After almost fifty years, I have come to recognize that it is time to pass on ownership of the island. It is becoming too difficult to maintain my responsibilities for its upkeep even as I enjoy its beneficence. So I was preparing the cottage for disposition. Further, the island is not as pristine or removed from the current turmoil of our world as one might believe.

About two miles across from our family island, there is another called Grave Island. The local Ojibway claim it as an ancient burial site, though, to the best of my knowledge – which is not very extensive – no evidence has been found to support that claim. In this case, actual ownership for ritual purposes may not be the real issue. There is a much larger one – recognition of the prior custodians of all of the territory, not only where our cottage is located, but even where we live in the city.

Canadians, following the lead of their New Zealand cousins, now begin ceremonial occasions in many places and venues with a statement of acknowledgement, not simply of previous claims, but of its prior custodians. In fact, custodian may be a superior term to ownership because ownership is so specifically linked with the development of modern society.  In traditional thought, as in traditional Judaism, land in the end was owned by a world spirit and not specific human beings. We are simply the custodians of the land while we are here.

Though a close friend of mine regards ceremonial statements of such acknowledgement as empty tokenism, “politically correct” utterances and somewhat hypocritical gestures, I find they serve a number of purposes. It reminds Canadians, and new Canadians when they are taking an oath of allegiance and accepting Canadian citizenship, that long before Canada came into existence as a country, there were earlier inhabitants who lived here, “owned” the land, benefited from its bounty and carried the responsibility for continuity and prosperity. Further, the recognition of indigenous cultures and peoples is critical to understanding the history of this land which did not start, as my history books implied, with colonization and European settlement.

As importantly, such recognition is a critical ingredient in the process of transitional justice as part of the reconciliation between the indigenous peoples and Canadians who settled in Canada long after they did. The indigenous peoples were more often than not mistreated and exploited and their cultures deliberately and intentionally overridden. Currently, the infamous residential school system may simply be the best known. Further, and hypocritically, all such efforts were made in the name of bringing civilization to so-called “savages”.

If Canada is truly a multicultural society, then among the most important cultures of this land that deserve a place of honour are those of our indigenous peoples. This is not a patronizing statement, simply a statement of the historical record often, and usually, deliberately ignored by the current dominant culture. If Canada is to be inclusive, then it is crucial that we be inclusive of the original inhabitants of this land.

Public events are one important place and time to do so. And to do so formally. For formality – whether it is singing Oh Canada or acknowledging the ancestral custodians of the land – is a critical step in public education. Further, such acknowledgement fosters the idea of partnerships between a preceding system and a succeeding culture. In Judaism, when the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, when the rabbinic system was well on its way to displacing a religion that had Temple worship at the centre, the Levites and the Cohanim of the older cultural system who were central to worship in the Temple, were given a special formal place of honour in the new system in which the Torah rather than the Temple had become the central focus of religious practice. Similarly, the indigenous people must be treated not simply as partners in continuing the challenge of building Canada, but must be ensured a place of honour in that enterprise.

This should not be an empty gesture full of sound and absent of fury and, therefore, signifying nothing. It must be an explicit demonstration of a commitment that we not simply partner in raising the level of material and spiritual status of our indigenous peoples, but ensure that they have an honorary status and significant recognition for being the true historical pioneers in the country.  That status must be given substance by ensuring that each and every member of our indigenous peoples be given an opportunity to achieve excellence in whatever they aspire to do, and that we learn from them as much as they benefit from the training and education that must be available to all Canadians.

The health and education of our indigenous peoples must be the top priority in Canadian government policy and not compromised because of other demands. In order for that to be the case, in order for the training, education and health care to be and remain preeminent in actual practice, other Canadians must learn at a very early age, and have that message re-instilled throughout their adult life, through the formal school curricula, through formal occasions in public life, that this is a necessary priority for Canadians. Just as our elders must be cared for and respected, so must our older indigenous cultural heritage.

Further, such acknowledgements, such ritual practices need not be confined to public ceremonial occasions but can be part of meetings, conferences and special functions, particularly those signifying rites of passage. Inclusion of such remarks and acknowledgements at events of a great variety should be used to instill and reinforce the values and respect we owe our indigenous peoples. No matter how small the event, room can and should be made for at least a statement of formal acknowledgement.

The issue is, however, not just formal acknowledgement, not just a ceremonial matter pledging our commitment to our indigenous peoples, but a mode of recognition of the traditional ways in which they served as custodians of this land. Respect for indigenous peoples is part and parcel of demonstrating respect for the land and ensuring that we do not continue to mistreat the environment. Formal words at ceremonial openings are but a beginning of a process of integrating the ceremonies and protocols of indigenous culture that they wish and are eager to share into the wider Canadian experience.

The broader benefits are obvious. Multiculturalism entails mutual respect for differences. Multiculturalism entails cultural engagement with the other. Multiculturalism does not entail surrendering one’s own cultural practices and commitments, except in cases where those practices are demonstrably inimical to the communal values of all Canadians, a just place for wrestling with the politics of differences.

Thus, when we open an occasion, whether it is a school day or a formal ceremony, incorporating the traditional indigenous practice of welcoming people to share the land in peace and prosperity is an important start. This can go beyond a one-paragraph short statement, though that is where it should certainly begin. It could and should develop into incorporating into such ceremonies a traditional song of welcome recited and sung in the original language.

Traditional symbols can be included. The ceremony could even incorporate a traditional ceremonial practice. These are all ways of remembering, acknowledging and offering recognition. However, none of this must be done as appropriation, but only with the full participation and endorsement of our indigenous peoples. This is written in the plural not simply in recognition that Canada consisted of many indigenous peoples with different languages, customs and practices, but in recognition that a local region may have been an area of contention between and among competing peoples. All must become part of the process.

As such processes develop, representatives of indigenous peoples will and should be given places of special honour, just as Cohanim and Levites are acknowledged in Jewish ceremonies. This will include rites of passage – such as bat and bar mitzvahs as well as weddings in my own tradition. The recognition of the time and commitment of an indigenous person is not just a matter of formal status, but compensation should be paid for that time, for the responsibility of conveying and continuing the practices, and for ensuring that the responsibilities for recognition of our full history are validated. Cultures must not simply be replaced by successive ones. Traditions must be elevated and given a place of honour as new cultural expressions become predominant among all of us. Further, such a recital should only be an initial set in integrating indigenous law, non-indigenous and international law.

When we recite at an opening ceremony a simulacrum of the following, do not be embarrassed. Do not be bored. Engage. Welcome and embrace the opportunity. The statement can be as simple as the following with, at the very least, the discovery of the name or the names of the peoples who traditionally owned and occupied the land before the arrival of European and, subsequently, settlers from all over the world.

I or we respectfully acknowledge the (in our case) Anishinaabeg as the original custodians of this land on which we are currently holding this event and consider it a privilege as a Canadian to recognize that tradition and the people(s) who served as its historical custodians. We honour an occasion in which we can express those thanks and give acknowledgement and respect for that which we have inherited.

There are other variations:

I wish to acknowledge the custodians of this land, past and present, the Anishinaabeg people as the original custodians of this land.  I recognise and respect that cultural heritage, its beliefs and the protective relationship to the land.

I acknowledge that this meeting (conference, event, wedding, etc.) is being held on the land of the indigenous Anishinaabeg people or nation, the traditional custodians of this land.

Before we begin the proceedings, I would like us to acknowledge and pay our respect to the traditional custodians of the ancestral lands on which we meet, the Anishinaabeg nation.

An Australian poet in New South Wales, Jonathan Hill, wrote:

Today we stand in footsteps millennia old.

May we acknowledge the traditional owners

whose cultures and customs have nurtured,

and continue to nurture, this land,

since men and women awoke from the great dream.

We honour the presence of these ancestors

who reside in the imagination of this land

and whose irrepressible spirituality

flows through all creation.

Embrace tradition. It can make your spirit soar.

The Promise – a movie review

The Promise – a movie review


Howard Adelman

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

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

They are not. The genocide took place as depicted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


with the help of Alex Zisman