A Potpourri: On Jewish Aliens, Populism and Intellectuals
One of the joys of writing my blog is the responses of readers. Many are insightful and even brilliant. Others are informative. Some are more interesting than my originals. Of the many I receive, a small assorted selection, though incongruous, offers a mixture of very recent comments by readers of my blog that offer a very complementary blend suitable to bring forth a sweet new year.
Flowers (Spoiler Alert – best read after seeing The Shape of Water)
“One way to look at a sci-fi or horror film is to try to identify who is the Jew. The mute girl, Elisa’s first name is a variant of Elisha who was a prophet who performed miracles of healing. Her last name, Esposito, is not from the Hebrew. It is from the Latin and means an outsider or, more interestingly, a foundling. In the film, we learn that Elisa was found beside a river and that she had neck wounds which rendered her mute. Is there is a gender reversal theme in the film? Elisa may be a faint echo of Moses. He was rescued from the river and grew up to have a speech impediment.
Usually, it is the monster in a sci-fi or horror film who represents the Jew – the misunderstood alien or other outsider who is to be feared. In this film, the monster or “Asset”, as he is called, is an amphibian who can live in two worlds. That is very Jewish. The Asset, however, is a problematic Jewish metaphor for me. First, he eats cats and cats are not kosher. More importantly, he has godlike attributes and there is only one G*d. I suppose that it is okay for the Asset to perform miracles, such as hair restoration, which are similar, in kind, to the healing miracles by Elisha the Prophet. It is not okay, for me, that the Asset seemingly performs an act of creation when he tranforms Elisa’s neck scars into gills in order that she could become his consort back home in the river.
The third possible Jewish figure in the film is the scientist at the OCCAM research institute: Dmitri Hofstedtler aka Robert. Hofstedtler could be the name of a Russian Jew. He has sensibilities for life and knowledge not possessed by either his thuggish Russian handlers or by his American boss Strickland, the bigot. The film alludes to a Russian/Jewish connection when Strickland examines the explosive Dmitri used to cause the power failure in the OCCAM complex. Strickland deems it to be of Israeli origin and evidence of a Russian operation. He says something similar to: “The Russians hate the Jews but love their toys.”
I thought that Hofstedtler was the Jew in the film until I read your review, Howard. In your first paragraph, you stated:
‘To my surprise, this movie that I saw last evening is also about recognition, about a mute but not deaf woman, a “princess without a voice” who is as alien to her fellow humans (except one of her fellow cleaning partner, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer) as the alien amphibian, neither centaur nor satyr, with whom she falls in love.’
I had not pushed the idea of Elisa’s being a Jew as alien far enough. She is the monster not the Asset. She is the one to be reclaimed to her people in the South American river. Why was she abandoned by the river side originally? We do not know. Maybe she was abandoned because she looked like a monster in appearance to her people by accident of birth. Maybe her people damaged her gills so that she could not return to the water world. Maybe her people were threatened as were Moses’ and their abandoning her, presumably on dry land, by the river, was a desperate attempt to let her survive.
Second, you pointed out about the research facility’s being named OCCAM. I had missed that clue which is also a Coenesque joke. The lab is a giant, sprawling, rule bound, and incompetent bureaucracy. Dmitri and Strickland bicker and joust about the proper protocol to be followed in the workplace. Dmitri is not to enter his boss’s office directly without permission, and Strickland is reminded to use the proper honourific “Doctor” when addressing Dmitri. As an aside, the man who is responsible for the facility, General Hoyt. is a reference to the historical General Hoyt Vandenburg who was an early CIA Director.
The clue that you provided is that the Asset is the real Occam of the film. He literally uses his teeth and, more importantly, his claws to make the razor cuts that both startle us and serve to advance the plot. At the end of the film, the combination of his claws and his healing hands appear to open up and restore Elisa’s gills. The Asset may not have been more godlike than a prophet after all. He does not create or transform but merely heals and restores to the original. He is a plot device. The movie is about Elisa.”
Herbs (On the Rise of Populism in Europe)
Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics,
2 November – 14 December 2017, University of Michigan
A Selection from the Program
Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics Populism is a type of politics that some would contend existed as long ago as Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In the modern democratic era, populism has become a political style that has emerged in many nations throughout the world. Political figures or mass movements labeled as populist generally claim to champion the ordinary citizen or common people against a powerful elite. The lectures in this series will explore varieties of populism historically and in contemporary politics. European, South American and U. S. populism will receive the most attention. In addition to describing specific features of populism in individual countries, the lectures will attempt to capture the essence of populism, because it is frequently viewed as a concept that is vague and elusive. The very recent outbreaks of populism in the United States (e.g., Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders), Europe (e.g., Le Pen in France), the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, and South America (e.g., Hugo Chavez) will be analyzed and placed within the very long tradition of populist politics.
November 2 DEMOCRACY DISMANTLED: HOW POPULISM IS A PATHWAY TO AUTOCRACY Erica Frantz
Erica Frantz is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Michigan State University. She studies authoritarian politics, with a focus on democratization, conflict, and development. She has written four books on dictatorships and development, and her work has appeared in multiple academic and policy-oriented journals.
Speaker’s Synopsis: Populism is spreading across the globe. Various causes lie behind the populist upsurge, ranging from increased economic hardship to frustrations with globalization. The consequences are worrisome. Today’s populist wave is paving the way for competitively elected leaders to subtly dismantle their countries’ democratic institutions. This form of transition to dictatorship in which incumbents slowly chip away at constraints on their leadership is also associated with the initiation of personalist rule, the most pernicious form of autocracy. November 9 WHAT POPULISM IS Elizabeth Anderson Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has taught at UM since 1987, specializing in moral and political philosophy, especially on democratic theory, egalitarianism and its history, and the roles of experts and citizens in democratic policy making. Speaker’s Synopsis: This talk will explain what populism is and trace its origins to tensions in democracy going back to Rousseau. The speaker will show how populism can be either left-wing or right-wing, highlight the characteristic messages of populist leaders, and argue that populism, although cast as a fulfillment of democracy, is a threat to it as well as to sound public policy formation.
November 16 POPULISM AND ONLINE POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: THE CASE OF NARENDRA MODI Joyojeet Pal
Joyojeet Pal is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research focuses on the use of technology in the Global South, including accessible technology for people with disabilities and social media use by politicians.
Speaker’s Synopsis: This talk outlines the role of social media in populist electoral campaigns, and highlights the case of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, whose 2014 general election victory was aided by a very effective social media presence. This talk examines strategies of political attack, innuendo, and personal insult in online political speech. Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics Populism is a type of politics that some would contend existed as long ago as Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In the modern democratic era, populism has become a political style that has emerged in many nations throughout the world. Political figures or mass movements labeled as populist generally claim to champion the ordinary citizen or common people against a powerful elite. The lectures in this series will explore varieties of populism historically and in contemporary politics. European, South American and U. S. populism will receive the most attention. In addition to describing specific features of populism in individual countries, the lectures will attempt to capture the essence of populism, because it is frequently viewed as a concept that is vague and elusive. The very recent outbreaks of populism in the United States (e.g., Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders), Europe (e.g., Le Pen in France), the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, and South America (e.g., Hugo Chavez) will be analyzed and placed within the very long tradition of populist politics.
November 30 POPULIST POLITICS IN LATIN AMERICA Robert S. Jansen, Ph.D.
Robert Jansen is a comparative-historical sociologist of politics and culture. He is the author of Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru (University of Chicago Press) and has published various articles on Latin American politics in academic journals. After receiving his Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA, he spent three years as a junior fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
Speaker’s Synopsis: Recent political events in the U.S. and Europe have brought renewed attention to the problem of populism. But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about populism? And what do we know about its social and political causes and consequences? This lecture provides some provisional answers to these difficult questions by considering various moments in the political history of Latin America—a region that has long been susceptible to populist mobilization and claims-making.
December 7 THE FUTURE LIES EAST: POSTCOMMUNIST EUROPE’S NEW MODEL OF POPULISM Kevin Deegan-Krause, Ph.D.
Kevin Deegan-Krause, Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University, received his B. A. in Economics and History from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. in Government and International Relations from the University of Notre Dame. His research focus is on political and governmental systems in Central and Eastern Europe. He has authored or co-edited books and journal articles on a variety of political topics. His current research focuses on political party system transformation, populism, and the sources of electoral support for authoritarian leaders.
Speaker’s Synopsis: We have come to associate the word populism with the right in Western Europe and with the left in Latin America, but in Eastern Europe new political movements advance not from the left or the right but from the outside, as dissatisfied citizens rally around non-political celebrities to challenge what they see as a corrupt status quo. As the trend-setter in this new political style, Eastern Europe offers insights into an increasingly widespread variation on populism.
December 14 EUROPEAN POPULISM: SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES WITH THE PAST Andrei S. Markovits
Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. His many books, articles, and reviews on topics as varied as sports, dog rescue, and many aspects of European and comparative politics have been published in fifteen languages. Markovits has received many prestigious prizes and fellowships. He has also won multiple teaching awards, most notably the Golden Apple Award at the University of Michigan in 2007. In the same year, the University of Lueneburg in Germany awarded Markovits an honorary doctorate. In 2012, the Federal Republic of Germany bestowed on Markovits its Cross of the Order of Merit, First Class, one of the highest honors given by that country to its citizens or foreigners.
Speaker’s Synopsis: In Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, and a number of other European countries, populist movements have appeared in many guises altering these countries’ politics and policies. While sui generis, these constructs have displayed characteristics that are reminiscent of thought decidedly not identical with developments of the 1920s and 1930s. The lecture will highlight the current situation, analyze its causes and manifestations, and look at similarities and differences to events that contributed to a very turbulent history on that continent.
Spices (A warning about the dangers of intellectuals as politicians)
I discovered this author just recently: he was an English Studies professor in Germany, who also wished to found a theatre in Shakespeare’s style in a former pub. He was found dead in this theatre room (apparently due to hypothermia – he was suffering from Huntington’s and may have not been able to leave the place in time). He wrote a bestselling novel in 1996, about sexual harassment on campus (Der Campus. Goldmann Taschenbuch, München 1996) that is at the same time hilariously funny and tragic, showing the ugly side of university politics and how such situations are often much more complex than what today’s media hype makes them out to be; an excellent analysis on European anti-Semitism (Das Shylock-Syndrom oder die Dramaturgie der Barbarei. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 1997); several books on Shakespeare, and on culture in general; as well, a most interesting book on men (Männer: Eine Spezies wird besichtigt. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 2001). He is funny, but fair, and quite knowledgeable. He unveils human weaknesses in a Wittgensteinian style, being an insider and at the same time an unbiased meta-observer, with much humour and understanding. Sadly, not many of his books have been translated into English. Here is a little sample I translated myself, from his book about men (warning: tongue in cheek, but he means it)
Dietrich Schwanitz: The Intellectual, in Männer: Eine Species wird besichtigt (pp. 169-175)
Translated from the original German
by Bea Sara Goll © 2017
First, we have to clear up an unfortunate misunderstanding: Even if it seems natural, the concept “intellectual” has very little in common with a superior intellect, just like the Austrian “Genietruppe” [engineer corps] with geniality. Genius used to be an old-fashioned word for engineer. Likewise, “intellectual” does not mean that this person is more intelligent than another; rather it means that such a person makes it his life’s task to publicly ponder societal matters without thereby serving anybody’s interests. Thus, among intellectuals we find free authors, journalists, commentators, artists, writers, editors, satirists and all those who focus on the state of the entire society. A geology professor who writes only for a small group of experts is not an intellectual, even if his IQ is over 160. But a professor of the theory of culture whose writing could influence the public’s ability to understand itself is. An intellectual must be free in order to comment critically on society. That’s why we used to speak earlier of the liberal professions. Members of this group were the ones to participate in the public discourse. Their close connection to politics was reflected in the French expression “république des lettres”. Only a republic allows public discourse.
Society for an intellectual is like the husband for his disillusioned wife: subject to ongoing efforts to reform and to critique. He cannot let the society go, but wishes it were a different one. He has a love-hate type obsessive relationship to it. He must change it, replace it, rebuild it or re-educate it. He must criticise it, reproach it and preach at it. He disagrees with it, yet he feels like he is its guardian. He protects the fire that society no longer possesses, in order to rekindle it after society’s rebirth. He is the type that depends on the horde albeit totally unhappy with the one he belongs to. Thus, he spends his whole life looking for his own tribe.
This is nothing special actually. Most men do the same when they are unhappy with their reference group. Or they try doing so at least. If they don’t like their colleagues, they look for another job. If they cannot stand their friends anymore, they move in another city. If they want to change the type of group they hang with, they look for a different activity and switch from journalism to politics, and from politics into business. So everybody is looking for his own horde that suits him.
But to the reformer, the entire society is his group. He cannot exchange it. There is no alternative. Thus, the reformer wishes to reform society to suit him. In his mind he changes it so that he can find his ideal place in it. His societal dreams originate in his wish to find his proper place in the group. In order to accomplish this, however, the group must first learn to see things with his eyes.
Such a type may be an outsider or even a total misfit. He has a conflict with common values. He is a critic and an oppositionist. He appears therefore quite independent. Perhaps he really is that, in several aspects. He serves his own grandiosity by regarding the entire society as his group. Since he, in his phantasies constantly rebuilds the society, he imagines himself as its government. When he speaks, he develops ideas that could function as a declaration of the government. When he discusses an issue, you would think he is preparing for a cabinet meeting. His world is the world itself. Nothing escapes his attention, be it the issue of global warming or computer supported training. He could become the president from one minute to the other and he would know what to do.
All else pales in comparison when he goes about his historic mission. He is like the creator of a new world. Unbeknownst to himself, he derives his own self-importance through the importance of the issues at hand. His principles are supported by the weightiness of it all. He represents the interests of the entire humanity. He feels like a parliamentary representative for the whole world. That’s why he loves terms with “world” in them: worldwide, world politics, world peace, universal measure, world economics, world population, etc..
Whenever it is about politics, the situation among intellectuals is like in soccer: the clubs create competing teams as opinion clubs. Professional intellectuals only play in the top-level leagues. The ones below them are amateurs. They all live in a society to which they wish there were an alternative. Some of them actually call themselves “alternatives”.
To the man who is into a grand historic mission a woman can acquire only a low level and only a temporary importance – mainly when and as long as she strengthens him in his mission. His focus is on his vision of the ideal group. In that he is a typical male. As a representative in the public discourse he represents the sphere of men itself. He is the living opposition to intimacy. Every woman who attempts to drag him off the stage of public discourse will be unsuccessful. This would be akin to cutting him off from the source of his self-love. She only has two options: give up or play along.
Should he be required to take care of the family or household, he views the individual situation as a universal problem: therefore he cannot do it in small measures. Is he to find a flat, he will found a whole real estate agency. Is he to find a placement in a kindergarten, he writes an article about the mistakes in family politics. Whatever he encounters, he uses as an example in support of the necessity for reform. If he gets into trouble with his wife or girlfriend, first thing he does is to lecture her about her objective interests vs. her subjective errors. His actual medium is the debate. Here he finds himself on familiar territory. He has led at least eighty-thousand debates in his life so far. He is well trained and unbeatable. Not one person has ever encountered the situation in which he would have let himself be convinced or persuaded by another. The more amazing is his imperturbable belief that he in turn could convince another. Then again, it has been often observed that his opponents became exhausted, frustrated, and flew. But for him to change his opinion – no, nobody has ever witnessed that.
Before a woman wishes to share her life with an intellectual she should know: the debate will continue lifelong. If she has problems with taking it for 45 minutes, let alone for three days, she should give up right away. Otherwise, in three weeks she will be exhausted, after three months she will tune out, and after three years, she will flee. Or, she will learn to hate his never-ending debate. When he announces his theses in company, she will smile contemptuously to let everybody know that she has already heard these ideas four hundred times. Or she will deliver a direct put-down: She will say: “Let him talk” meaning: “totally worthless”. And she will indicate that she views all that talk as a form of impotence and that she secretly lusts for a man with action. She will see through all his phantasies of grandeur, and even more despise him for them. And since he is too busy dealing with the election reform to notice this, she will increase the dosage until all their friends notice it, except for him.
But if someone wants to sign up for lifelong debates, she should know a few things about the debating style. The intellectual claims, based on his own social theory, that the opinions of an opponent are not valid, they are just a cover-up for his dark intentions. So, he refutes an argument never in the context in which it was developed, instead, he considers it as a totally different idea. And then shoots it down. If someone does not know this and does not know the rules of the game, she will soon become extremely frustrated. While the opponent has made a lot of effort to work out the argument that lead to the conclusion – the intellectual does not listen to her at all. It is like the Maginot-Line of the French. All engineering effort had been fully in vain when the enemy found a way around it. If however one understands the strategies, the debate might be quite enjoyable which improves the relationship as well; though she will never convince him. But it is not at all about convincing anyway. It is more likely that she will impress him. She will be respected by him. He will even become aware of her existence. Since the art of the debate functions like a sensory organ, he will see her much better.
She will succeed in achieving this more often, the more she beats him in the debate. But such will rarely happen through a simple confrontation. He will have set up his arguments already from the start in such a way that whoever holds the opposite opinion will encounter defeat. Much better she deploys the famous three-step method: sidestep-analogy-moral discrediting. The whole thing is like a swift fight move to shove the opponent into the morass of becoming morally discredited. Such morasses are clearly marked on the maps of morality. The intellectual also knows where these are and will try to avoid them. The art of warfare is in the surprise of suddenly driving him into the morass when he least expects it.
For example, the intellectual says: “This pompous academic style is abominable. Nobody gets it: it is like Chinese. Why do they have to use so many foreign terms? Why cannot they write in proper English?”
This statement is a multi-tasker. In a talk-show it would get applause. It is safely removed from the moral morass. But watch: here come the side-step and the analogy: “He who is against foreign terms, is also against foreigners!” You should see how fast the intellectual will disintegrate here. Nobody would want to be in the company of the enemy of foreigners. And then you move in for the kill: “Foreign terms are the Muslims of language!” One more side-step and you can portray him as a neo-Nazi, a hater of foreigners, wishing to perform a veritable ethnic cleansing in exterminating all foreign terms from the language – while he was merely arguing for a more comprehensible style. So is the art of debate among intellectuals.
One recognizes a couple where he is the intellectual based on the way how he distributes the responsibility for decision making. He makes the really important decisions, for example the proper attitude about nuclear energy or about the Third World. She decides about the unimportant details such as school, home or money. This is the way the couple shares what is close by and what is afar.
While she is wondering why he cares so much about the overpopulation in India instead of taking care of the broken tap in the bathroom, he does not understand why she does not get this. The broken tap is not something about which one can make himself look great. He needs a grand stage for that. One ought to get the UNESCO involved! In his mind he is already giving a lecture in front of the United Nations. He is rehearsing in front of his wife. She does not want to listen? So, then he will go over to Brigitte next door. Though she is only a sales clerk, she is interested in such things. The bathroom tap? What am I, a plumber? She should call the trades. I have more important things to care about. Like the population explosion on the Indian subcontinent. If we are not careful… Brigitte, I worry about the population explosion on the Indian subcontinent. Have you read the article? No? Come, I’ll explain it to you…
The media feeds the intellectual with a daily provision of news, about which one can opine. The media connects him with his imaginary stage, the world. The media maintains his phantasy room daily where he appears in the parliament, reads the Levites to the government, impeaches the president and reduces the taxes. Here he receives foreign diplomats, finds the right words to greet them and governs for the good of the country and the entire planetary circle. The media enable him to turn his back to the narrow domesticity of his home, and reach for the skies in his mind.
Then his girlfriend notices his strangely vacant gaze. She has no idea that just this moment he is participating in the cabinet meeting advising the minister.