My Sandhill Crane

My Sandhill Crane

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday morning when I was cleaning out the cleaning closet – the last step in preparing the cottage for the summer – I was suddenly very startled. It was very early in the morning. The sun had just woken. A new day was dawning. Should I focus and appreciate the rising of the sun or finish cleaning up the last remnants of the previous summer?

Some very local geography first. Our family cottage is located on an island in Georgian Bay. It is quite isolated and we have no close neighbours. But we are not on the open bay, but on an island in a very large bay, Shawanaga, off the very much larger body of water that is itself the size of one of the Great Lakes. The cottage sits at the pinnacle of the island which is just a six-acre treed outcropping of rock. The back door to the cottage has a large glass plate the length of the door. It stands right next to the cleaning closet.

The noise that startled me was a loud rat-a-tat. Repeated. No, not rat-a-tat, but tat-tat-tat, repeated loud sharp noises in rapid succession against the glass. I looked up and before me on the other side of the glass stood a bird as high as my mid-chest – and I am still over six feet even though I have certainly been shrinking in the last two decades. The bird had a very long beak and I thought it was going to break the glass against the door. The bird’s bill was longer that its head was tall. Its neck was long and thin as it thrust back and forth hitting the window with its beak each time with a noise loud enough that I thought it would waken my wife.

I was standing on one side of the glass and the bird was on the other. I had never seen such a large bird – it was not as large as an ostrich that I had seen up close in South Africa – but not nearly this close. The black legs were very long so I knew it was some kind of wading bird. I thought of the flamingos that I had seen around the Ngorongoro Crater in Kenya. But the only bright colour of this bird was its scarlet red crown. Otherwise, the bird was a mottled gray. If it had a bath, would it become white? Later, when we looked for the bird in our bird book – my wife found the picture instantly – the description said the bird could have a rusty wash on its upper body, but I saw none. Nor did I see its evidently famous “bustle” at the back, for the bird was facing me.

But not just facing me. And not just trying to thrust its beak through the window. It was doing a bit of its dance as it came forward, jabbed the window about ten times, and then danced back, only to thrust forward again almost immediately. The bird was alone. I did not know whether it was a male or a female, but I presumed it was a male because of its aggressive behaviour.

Should I wake my wife? She loves birds. I bet she had never seen such a large bird facing her and just a pane of glass away. But I remembered when we arrived at the cottage. That same glass window was covered in blood. Had a bird injured itself badly against the window? There had been some feathers on the back porch. Were they grey? Maybe it was this bird’s mate and it was seeking revenge. But all I could think of was that the bird might break the glass, that the bird was probably injuring itself, that the bird might wake my wife.

I started to make noises and do my own wild dance to chase the bird away, all accompanied by a low roar – if a roar could possibly be low. The bird stepped back, a bit startled, but clearly unafraid. Then it thrust forward again with the loud tat-a-tat of its bill against the glass of the door.

Suddenly, it turned, spread its wings – the span was at least six feet – and flew upwards towards the north in a low flight pattern that soon circled back south as it increased altitude. Other than its huge flapping wings – though they only flapped at the beginning for the bird seemed to be a glider – the bird now seemed so large that the body, compared to when the bird stood tall before me, seemed to shrink. Of course, that body was now horizontal, like a very aerodynamic missile. As the bird rose, it seemed to require very few strokes. And all of this right in front of my eyes!

I never heard it make a sound, though someone, whom I saw later yesterday at a book launch back in Toronto, told me that its honking sound was prehistoric, more like a haunting bellows rather than the honking of geese. It was also suggested that the bird was engaged in a mating dance. Had it fallen for me? Had I scared off a very large bird that was courting me?

My ego was quickly deflated when it was suggested that the bird saw a reflection of itself and thought it was a female. The male and female look alike. The bird was not courting me. Nor was it being narcissistic. Rather, it probably saw – or thought it saw – a potential mate. It was baffled at the sight of me. It had never seen quite as strange a dance. And the sounds coming out of my mouth were very prehistoric. Later, when we were reading about the bird, we learned that it was a sandhill crane that mates for life. I clearly was not a suitable partner. It is also a very ancient bird with the oldest bird fossil 2.5 million years old.

The sandhill crane is largely found north of Sudbury and North Bay, but my informant at the book launch told me that he had seen a nesting pair on an outer island nearby. He told me they laid very large oval brown eggs. Presumably their breeding grounds and range had been creeping south with climate change.

The formal species name of the sandhill crane that I saw is Antigone Canadensis. Canadensis make sense for this is Canada. But Antigone? Anti came from the Greek meaning “opposed to,” but sometimes “compared to.” Given the Greek myth of Antigone, I took it to mean opposed; the story was one of conflict between two different sources of moral authority. But, in this case, opposed to what? γονη, (goné) in Greek means birth or offspring, so that the dance I saw performed could very well have been a courting ritual. But that still does not explain Antigone and the theme of opposition.

Let me explain. Antigone is the main character in a Greek myth that Hegel discusses at some length in The Phenomenology of Spirit. One of my graduate students wrote her thesis on that section. The issue was not on pride and the hubris of Icarus who flew too close to the sun so the wax in his wings melted and he plummeted to the ground. Nor is it about Hegel’s owl of Minerva, the bird after whom the lead periodical on Hegelian scholarship in English is named.

Hegel in the preface to the Philosophy of Right wrote, “When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.” I saw my sandhill crane in the early hours of the morning, not at dusk. Though the bird was gray, it was not the colouring of a life grown old beyond rejuvenation when an age of history is ending and cannot be resurrected and when the only obligation is to recall and understand the past. I believe that my bird was seeking to give new birth to life. But, to ask again, why then Antigone, even though goné in Greek means “birth” or “offspring”? For the tale of Antigone is as dark a story as you will ever read.

Antigone was perhaps cursed at birth. Her father was Oedipus – the guy who slew his father and married his mother, inspiring Freud with his greatest brand. Antigone’s mother was Jocasta, the Queen of Thebes who was married to King Laius. However, the couple was told by a prophet that their son would grow up and kill the father. So, like Abraham, they took the infant up the mountain, bound him, but, unlike Abraham, left the baby to be eaten by birds of prey. But no such “luck.” The child survived and grew up to unknowingly slay his father. And marry his own mother. And then poke out his own eyes when he discovered the truth. Thus, Jocasta was both the mother and grandmother of Antigone.

With a parentage like that, as a product of incest, what chance did she have? However, she was both a very loyal and determined girl. When her father, blinded, went into exile, she accompanied and guided him. When he died and she returned to Thebes, she found that her two brothers were at war, Eteocles defending Thebes and Polyneices attacking the regime. Both were killed in the battle and Antigone’s uncle Creon became king. He buried Eteocles in an elaborate state funeral, but issued an edict, in accordance with the law of the land concerning treason, that the body of Polyneices be left on the field. Whether enemy or friend, in death everyone deserved to be buried. And Antigone refused to comply with her uncle’s command and had Polyneices buried.

Creon had Antigone arrested and locked in a cave to die. However, Antigone was engaged to her cousin, Creon’s son, Haemon, who was deeply in love with Antigone. Haemon went to the cave to free Antigone, only to find she had hung herself. In despair, he took his own life.

The central theme for Hegel in this tale was not a story of the Owl of Minerva and the death of an era. Nor was it of rebirth and a new age emerging. Rather, it was a tale of the process of history. Creon was a figure of state who believed he had to uphold positive written law and deny any burial for Polyneices, his own nephew, because Polyneices was regarded as a traitor.

But Polyneices was the brother of Antigone and Antigone felt she had to follow a higher law, a divine law, a humane law, a natural law, a law at odds with positive law. She followed her principles and died for them.

The issue is not the end of days when both divine and humane law have become exhausted. This was not the time for the Owl of Minerva to pronounce the death of the old and the obligation to recollect and understand. Nor was the tale about birth of a new era. It is a struggle between positive law gone awry and the obligation to stand up and be counted in opposition to defend a higher moral law.

Was my sandhill crane an omen?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

by

Howard Adelman

Last week in Ottawa, I attended an interfaith conference called, “Our Whole Society: Religion and Citizenship at Canada’s 150th.” My talk, indeed the panel I was on, addressed the issue of immigration and refugees. A short report on my talk can be found in Peter Stockland’s article, “How Faith Fosters Civility,” in the magazine, Convivium, 19 May 2017:  https://www.convivium.ca/articles/how-faith-fosters-civility. I will elaborate on the talk I gave in a subsequent blog.

There are five in this series:

  1. Underpinnings
  2. Undercutting and Reinforcing
  3. Democratic Deficit
  4. Political Communication
  5. Canada’s Civic Religion

In this blog, I want to deal with the presumptions underpinning my observations of Canada’s civic religion. If you are disinterested in philosophical grounding, skip this blog. In subsequent blogs in the series, I will point to the conclusions of various communication sciences to indicate why the values of Canada’s civic religion, as best articulated in interfaith dialogue, will not save Canada from the disaster afflicting America. Only then will I provide a more comprehensive articulation of the norms of that civic religion and offer a critique.

The term “civic religion” may seem inherently contradictory. After all, we live in the Western world where there is a strict separation of religion and the state. Civic, in the sense used here, refers to civic duties of citizens of a state. Thus, we have a moral duty to vote, not as an inherent belief of one’s religion, but as a member of a democratic polity. Civic duties are about this world. Religious duties are often conceived to be about the world to come or about the transcendental power of a divine being that manifests itself in different beliefs and practices and, indeed, worship. Reason is purportedly the language of politics; faith is the language of religion. That religion has values which are used to inform conduct in this world. However, it is precisely this separation of the religious and secular worlds that is in play.

Immanuel Kant wrote that his efforts were undertaken to define the boundaries of reason and of knowledge to make room for faith. But his perspective shifted over his period of intellectual development. After the peak of his intellectual output for which he is best known, his voluminous three Critiques, published between 1787 and 1790, propounded the view in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Subsequently, his definition of limits to reason and knowledge to make room for faith began to make room for a more subversive position. He asserted that religion was and had to be rational and had to provide the foundations of our values. Religion permeated civil and political society to constitute the core values of a society. God emerged from this intellectual journey as immanent rather than transcendent. This series of blogs is an exploration of how this took place in Canada.

There are many reasons offered for this shift, including non-rational ones, such as his resentment against the Prussian Junkers under Frederick William II for attempting to censor his writings on religion – Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. There were also cultural influences – his initial pietism stressing biblical study and moral behaviour, but later rejection of the side of pietism that celebrated external religious displays. His inherited Enlightenment convictions concerning the rule of reason led first to his rejection of creationism, and later his rejection of the belief that religion, and even science as a pursuit rather than a method, could be founded on reason alone. He became convinced that a rationally-based religion was not possible; religion was a matter of non-rational faith and had to retreat to make room for the universal truths of Newtonian science as he pursued the goal of rooting science in reason alone independent of an omniscient and perfect divine being. Finally, there was also the influence of Hume’s scepticism that rooted both religious faith and even scientific pursuits on habits forged by history and culture.

How are the dimensions of reason and empiricism, as well as reason and faith, reconciled? As he articulated his doctrine in his triad of great books, the Critiques, the reconciliation lay in the necessary preconditions for both faith and reason, of both empirical (the premise of causation) and deductive methods. For all were rooted in the necessary conditions for any thinking as revealed in his unique transcendental method that allowed for faith outside but ethical behaviour within the bounds of reason. Scientific reason, moral behaviour and practical judgement, even as they relied on experiential input, were all based fundamentally on a priori premises that were universally valid and a precondition of any thought whatsoever.

What emerged was the development of an ethical religion. For an adherent, it did not matter whether one was a Jew or a Lutheran. Both could worship the same God in defence of the same set of values that were themselves as universal as any religious creed. Establishment Jews in large numbers in Germany – the Polanyi, the Stern, the Baum families, abut whom I have been writing – converted to Lutheranism to practice the common ethical moralism of German society, ignoring entirely the deep roots of antisemitism in the writings of Martin Luther, the founder of that church. Of course, conversion also was opportunistic since the formal rules often banned Jews from taking up professorships in universities at one time. Karl Polanyi would develop an ethical economics, Fritz Stern an ethical history of Germany, Gregory Baum an ethical sociology and theology. Kant had introduced a seismic revolution for both Christianity and Judaism to allow both to live on the surface in imperfect harmony.

The superficiality of that harmony was revealed by Hegel and was ripped asunder by Friedrich Nietzsche. Emil Fackenheim, in The Religious Dimensions of Hegel’s Thought, pointed out that Hegel’s central critique of Kant was that the latter had failed, and failed absolutely, to reconcile faith and reason. And not just in thought, but in political and religious institutions. Kant facilitated mindblindness. Revolutionary forces were underway and Kant provided a rationale that allowed a positive ethical external religion to provide a cover that left the dynamics of ecstasy and action as well as the enthusiastic creative energy of spirit behind. Life throbbed. Kant only offered lifeless thought.

Hegel showed that philosophy, rather than being divorced from history in abstract thought, was, and had to be, understood as thoroughly rooted in context. Time and space were not abstract dimensions of sensibility and thought, but the experiential realities from which even barren thought arose. History was about resolving incongruences, not just the abstract ones at the core of Kantianism. History was about desire and passion, about power and economic needs, and, in the end, about conflict between old, outmoded institutions and the demands (and shortcomings) of the new. Philosophy was historical, not ahistorical. Further, life and philosophy were inherently religious as will become clear by the end of this series of blogs. And the comprehending activity of religion had itself to be critiqued and comprehended. The absolute was with us in every age and time and we comprehend the divine and the shortcomings of our comprehension through the examination of the absolutes of our time.

All our gods, all our absolutes, have failed and must be resurrected anew for each period. Judaism, unlike the Christianity of Kant’s Prussia or the Weimar Republic over a century later, understood that all these gods were different aspects of the one God that revealed himself in history while Christianity was a repeated effort to flee that insight, to flee its basic foundation, in favour of Greek abstract and ahistorical thought and theology. In reality, God descends, becomes immanent and sacrifices Himself in different modes in different times. Those who dub this as a progressive transformation are blind to the destructive forces let loose by the process of transformation as we experience at each stage the death of god and are required to go through a period of suffering and sacrifice.

In Hegel’s time, and in our own almost universally, man has once again repeated the ultimate sin, the sin of idolatry, the sin of narcissism, the sin of regarding and worshipping himself as divine. The alternative to the vision of an omniscient and omnipotent god need not be worship of the self and the ability of the individual to engage in self-realization and self-transformation. The latter sin and that idolatry, as well as the cover up for it, must be observed in the particulars of our time and the thought in which and through which history is understood and reflected. What we must search for and uncover is the partiality of all thought. Every attempt to comprehend it all will be doomed to be shattered as much as we may have faith in its overarching vision. Spirit itself as revealed in time is always partial and explains why we can never see and confront the face of God head on.

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel defended twelve theses at a formal Disputation to earn his right to offer university lectures. The problem of philosophy was not the search for eternal and infinite wisdom, but the effort to reconcile the vision of the perfect with the reality of the imperfect, insisting that Kant had become frozen in carrying through the radicalism of Hume’s scepticism and had carried rational philosophy to a dead end by finding an absolute in itself, and becoming uncritical of itself.

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the last section follows the section on Spirit with a portion on Religion, that discusses how we manifest our abstract religious beliefs and values in everyday life. Consciousness is institutionalized. And consciousness is merely the reflection of and reflection into human experience. Morality that is certain of itself becomes the distillation of that religious consciousness.

If Marx became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion in worship of the material realm, Nietzsche became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion to save spirit. Nietzsche’s enemy was Christianity, that element of and phase of Judaism that failed to recover from its exile in Babylon and return. Instead, Judaism turned inwards and became frightened. Nietzsche challenged the retreat into oneself in favour of the transvaluation of values, in favour of radical inversion of morality managed solely by the heroic individual. Instead, he opted to return to a form of paganism as he expressed in Ecce Homo, the need to develop a new breed of men, an elite, not one that led the workers of the world in revolt, but ones dedicated to taking humanity to a higher level. The premise, which challenged both the Judeo-Christian precepts and Kantian morality, was a denial, not simply as Hegel contended that humans were unequal in different ways at different times in their spiritual epic journey, but that salvation, as Marx insisted, depended on an avant-garde, an elite that led humanity into transforming itself fundamentally.

In Nietzsche’s view, Judaism once embraced this spirit of conquest, this consciousness of the necessity of power, both over others and to transform oneself, and the joy and hope to be found therein. But that spirit of self-transformation had been lost with rabbinic Judaism and its turn inward to legalism and with Christianity in the absolute submission of man in service of a divine Other. It was then that Jews sold themselves short and sold out to legalism and were sold out in turn and subsequently became the victims of persecution of those who rejected the rule of law in favour of suffering and sacrifice and the need of a scapegoat to escape that outcome for themselves. Diaspora Jews, who could and were in a position to save humanity and resurrect the life spirit according to Friedrich Nietzsche, largely cowered in fear and accommodated themselves to the dominating force of authority instead of expressing their historical dynamism by returning to nature, by returning to their roots in the land to once again become the strongest and toughest people on earth. Nietzsche did not live to see the rise of Zionism.

How were humans to accomplish this? Not by receding from history in service to the eternal and not by accommodating the dominant ethos of the status quo. Nor by expressing resentment concerning a disillusioned secular world, a world that had lost its sense of enchantment and awe to find deliverance either in the ecstatic escape of unreason or an escape into reason, individualism, self-making and self-overcoming.

Hitler declared, and Donald Trump now concurs, that, “The national government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. Christianity is the foundation of our national morality and the family the basis of national life.” Hitler and Trump offered a mystical brew of pseudo-religion and purported self-interest that would soon reveal itself as the interest of the few and the deception and seduction of the many. What we need to examine is how, following Hegel, the dialectic of history has come to be interpreted pragmatically in the form of a set of overriding Kantian values for our time, and how that set of values, while inspiring high moral accomplishments, also blinds us the weaknesses of our own position as we are appalled at the values that we see articulated by Hitler copycats.

In Hegel’s time, it meant that Protestant clergy remained hostile to the truly liberal state as well as to Jews who refused to convert. Today, it means that this clergy embraces the values of the liberal state as well as their Jewish brethren. They have thrown overboard the doctrine of supersession in favour of shared beliefs, not only with Judaism, but with all other faiths. Some commentators believe that Democrats believe that all American Democrats need to do is copy Canadians and articulate the core values of the American civic religion in terms of historical connections and metaphors that touch their constituents.

An examination, first of our underlying nature and of various sciences, especially those involving communication, will try to show why that will not work (tomorrow), while, in the final blog in this series, a critique of Canadian interfaith values will try to delineate the shortcomings in terms of the population they do not reach and the declining power and efficaciousness of the civic religion of Canada.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Owls, Memory and Prophecy

Owls, Memory and Prophecy

by

Howard Adelman

Last evening we went out with friends to eat at a wonderful Greek restaurant on Ashbridges Bay on the shores of Lake Ontario in the east end of the city. When I was waiting outside the house both for my wife to come out and for our friends to arrive and pick us up, I heard the constant and repeated clucks rather than songs of a plump gray bird just larger than a typical sparrow flitting from one branch to another in the pine tree in our front yard. He was moving too frenetically for me to get a good look, but I did notice he had no noticeable colour except for several white streaks on its upper torso. The beak looked black, but I could not be sure, and its breast was lighter gray rather than white. Its tail seemed unusually short.

Needless to say, I am not a birdwatcher and would not really know a sparrow from a warbler, wren, flycatcher or vireo, let alone differentiate among the very wide variety of each species. I wished then that I had one of those apps on a cell phone where you can record the sound of the bird and the phone will tell you what kind you are looking at. Alternatively, you could take a picture and the phone would tell you which type of bird it is. My wife insists I carry around her old phone – mostly I forget – so she can reach me in emergencies, even though she knows I rarely notice if it is ringing and have to be told by a stranger annoyed by my not answering the phone that I should answer. In any case, my phone is an unsmart one, so out of date that it is only useful for making phone calls if I would ever learn to use it or even just hear it. I do feel it, however, if I put it onto “vibrate”

All this is beside the point since, as usual, I did not have the phone on me, though at the moment I really wanted such a phone to make up for my inabilities at keen observation, ignoring the fact that even if I had a smart phone with the right app, I would be so clumsy at figuring out how to use it that the bird would have long started to migrate south again for the winter. Nevertheless, I longed for such an app for I could not really describe the colour let alone shape of its bill though I had been watching the bird for what seemed to be a very long time but was probably only 2-3 minutes. Was the cape a different colour than the feathers on its back? Did it have rings around its eyes? I could picture my embarrassment when my wife queried me and gradually became exasperated at my inability to answer.

When Nancy did emerge from the front door – our friends had not yet arrived – I told her about the plump grey bird that was just larger than a sparrow but had suddenly gone silent and seemingly flew off. I described the repeated clucks and had heard higher pitched tweets and a slightly lower pitched melodious chord but could not identify their source so I pointed out what I thought was a closed in grey nest in the crotch of a branch and the main trunk that I thought (to myself) looked like a very small owl with two twigs sticking up like ears. I thought that the plump bird larger than a sparrow was trying to protect its nest.

“That’s an owl,” Nancy announced after one look.  “It’s a very small owl. Its eyes are closed but you can clearly see them. Looks like…” – she gave me a name but I cannot remember what she said. So I looked up pictures of owls this morning. It could have been a screech owl or a young long eared or short eared owl, but I know she did not give me those names. It is evidently very unusual to see an owl in the city. Nancy had brought my attention to the hoot of an owl that very morning and concluded that this must have been the owl she had heard. She then digressed into a story of how she and her father would go hiking at night at their farm tramping through the crisp crust of piled up snow with special field glasses looking for owls, particularly great snow owls. All the while I was feeling stupid for not being able to distinguish between an owl sitting perfectly still and a nest. But I excused myself. After all, I had never seen a real owl before except a stuffed one in our museum.

The only owl I really knew was the Owl of Minerva and the famous saying of Georg Friedrich Hegel from his Phenomenology of Spirit that the “Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”. The Owl of Minerva was the name of the most important journal of Hegelian studies and was meant to convey that we, as philosophers, can only look backwards to understand the characteristic of an age. We are lousy prophets. Wisdom can only be retrospective and only in hindsight do we have 20/20 vision. That is why philosophy cannot be prescriptive but only analytic and phenomenological, focused on what we have already experienced.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses that I just referred to in a recent blog, a crow bitches that it is not regarded with divine worship because it has been displaced by the unworthy owl which has an undeserved reputation for wisdom. The crow was a terrible gossip and spread the word that the Owl created by Minerva was really Princess Nycitimene, the daughter of Epopeus, the King of Lesbos, who raped his own child. That is why owls skulk around in the night and are so hard to spot. They live in eternal shame as victims of incest.

Whether they are or are not ashamed, or whether they are or are not ashamed because of a past sexual trauma or because they are incapable of understanding the future, they do take pride (and refuge) in their superior acuity in understanding the past. Of course, this is an ironic inversion of the Greek belief that owls should be revered for their wisdom because they can see so well in the dark – and the future is always black and provides little help to enlighten us about what is about to happen. The owl became the symbol of Athens and associated with Athena not only to be identified with universal and eternal truth but even with the capacity not simply to prophecy but to help bring about a desired outcome as a symbol of Athena’s intervention in the affairs of humans. Hegel inverted the Greek understanding of wisdom by insisting that wisdom be rooted in history and in retrospective analysis as we look wide-eyed and startled at the mess we just left behind.

However, lately I have been betraying my Hegelian philosophical roots. I used to say that if I prophesied something, especially something bad, it would never happen because I would always be wrong. So if I feared a terrible outcome I could really relax since I was so bad at prophecy I could be content that my bleak prognostication would not take place. I have strayed and betrayed my philosophical foundations and engaged in something more akin to Hebrew prophecy. Sometimes, when I am being particularly flippant and superficial, I will blame it on my increasingly failing memory. I cannot analyze the past if I cannot remember it. So if I am going to dance among the shadows, I might as well try to discern the character of the shadows of the future even if I cannot tell the difference between an owl and a bird’s nest right in front of my eyes.

I have been more and more encouraged by recent past successes over the last decade or more. Of course, it was really not hard to discern that the Iraq War was a folly right from the beginning as well as an immoral and politically stupid undertaking by the Georg Bush Jr. administration. Certainly, the ridiculous way the Americans followed up their quick military victory with the dissolution of the Iraq military as well as the civil administration given its previous control by the Baath Party all but guaranteed a developing insurgency and the soundness of the many like myself who outlined disaster. Though the Afghan War, unlike the Iraq War, had been partially politically and ethically justified, there was plenty of evidence from the past that it too would be a disastrous quagmire. So we critics were not just critical bench-sitting quarterbacks in the bleachers who had perfect vision because we were engaged in hindsight. The outcome was just all-too-obvious.

This prophetic propensity has not only taken place concerned with major events of worldwide importance but with Canadian events. In January, I co-authored a draft of a paper that in part dealt with the temporary worker program in Canada and, in particular, that part of the program focused on unskilled workers. In one section, we referred to all the scholarly literature that pointed to the terrible outcomes of such programs – particularly the problem of overstayers and the inevitable exploitation of such workers, that has not yet been part of the current brouhaha in Canada over the current program and forced Minister Kenny to shut the program across the country applied to the restaurant business. The current political mess had become a scandal because of the evidence of Canadian long-term employees being laid off and replaced by temporary foreign workers. We had not anticipated that this negativity would result so quickly. Although our timing was totally off and our focus has been peripheral to the main discussion, we could still claim credit for our muted prophecy about the disastrous character of the program.

Debates focused on whether employers really needed such workers or not and the effects on lowering wages in the particular industry. We had suggested that refugees be brought in for such jobs, sponsored by a partnership of businesses and Canadian churches, synagogues, mosques and community groups. The latter could orient the refugees and monitor their work conditions. The former could provide the monies to employ them and get them initially settled. It would be a positive sum game because the employers would get loyal workers, refugees would get a secure home and sponsors could get the great pleasure of saving lives and helping anther eager new Canadian settle into our great country. And there would be no problem of overstayers. In the next month we will be travelling to Halifax and Calgary to discuss launching pilot programs in those two jurisdictions to see how the  program works.

Who says that philosophers are useless even if we do rely on owls that can only look backwards and cannot even see a real owl when perched right in front of us?

Sam Ajzenstat

IN MEMORIUM: Sam Ajzenstat

by

Howard Adelman

Sam Ajzenstat died in his sleep on Thursday in the early hours of the morning. He suffered from diabetes for years. More than a year ago, he had a severe stroke and had been living in a full care facility at ShalomVillage. He had retired as a professor of Philosophy at McMasterUniversity a few years earlier. He will be buried this afternoon on Hamilton mountain at the HessStreetShulCemetery. There will be a service first at the United Hebrew Memorial Chapel Funeral Home in Hamilton at 4:00 p.m. and a shiva following at the home Sam and Janet lived in for decades at 172 Cline Ave. N. in Hamilton.  As his son, Sandor, wrote, Sam “was a man of words, and a man of love.” 

Sam Ajzenstat and I attended the same high school, Harbord Collegiate, in Toronto. He was one year behind but had already made a name for himself throughout the school. He was one of the few students to take Greek as well as the Latin, French and German that the rest of us studied. Further, he became infamous when he asked one of the few shiksas in our school overwhelmingly populated by Jews for a date to the prom and then even more infamous over the year book he edited.

We both attended the University of Toronto. When he became editor of the Varsity at university, I was its chief drama critic and Peggy Atwood was the poet in residence. We undertook many political pranks together. I played a minor roll in a sting operation Sam generated to show that sororities and fraternities, which were given extraordinary privileges on campus at the time, were then ridden with racism. Those university privileges were henceforth taken away from those social clubs. The revolution had begun.

We both majored in philosophy. We were both then pacifists and naïve idealists. One of the most infamous editorials Sam wrote was on Remembrance Day and Sam celebrated pacifism. I was influenced by Gandhi. Sam took his pacifism from his own moral precept of integrity, Kant`s injunction to be a self-legislator and not allow others to determine your course of action. He found that precept of autonomous rational self-legislation supported in the Torah and in God`s rejection of David`s offer to build Him a temple because David was a war-monger with blood on his hands.

Sam and I studied for our PhD comprehensive exams together. One day we started a discussion and a philosophical argument. It went on for 28 hours. In the last hour, Sam recapitulated the whole argument we had covered clearly stating both my and his point of view as the debate unfolded. I could not even remember what I had said let alone what he said. I conceded total defeat. 

I was a universalist anti-Zionist until the build up to the 1967 war when I witnessed my struggle between my ostensible indifference to the existence of Israel and the tremendous fear that I felt that this small and unique country would be wiped off the face of the earth. My emotions were totally at odds with my head. I vowed to visit Israel and did so with my wife and first four children just before the 1973 war. I became a Zionist, slowly but surely. I credit Harry Crowe, a gentile and philo-semite, for my conversion. Sam became a Zionist on his own as he gazed down at Israel from a visit to the Golan Heights and threw off his pacifism. For though he was unwilling to go to war to save his own skin, he was no longer willing to forfeit the war option and give up protecting the skin of his loved ones and his people. Secondly, pacifism was surrendering control over the moral project of taking responsibility for one`s life and surrendering it to the man of power, the one who carried the big stick.

In a piece Sam wrote called “Reflections on an ‘incurable tension'” in 2008, he said, “Of course, just because we are still in a world of hard choices, made even harder by Israel’s genuine desire to live up to high moral standards, doesn’t mean we can’t ever criticize the choices she makes. Criticism is not treason. Israel’s real enemies are those who think there are no hard choices because we must always choose purity above survival. That naïve idealism is our worst enemy. It only begins to turn into anti-semitism (or Jewish self-hatred) with the realization of how deeply Judaism rejects naïve idealism.” Sam was a Kantian. I was and am a Hegelian. But we were both wedded to critical rational discourse and saw the idealization of purity above survival as the source of deep evil, that naïve idealism, which we had both embraced in our teens, as mankind’s worst enemy.

After I quit teaching at TrinityCollege at the University of Toronto and had vowed never to teach in a university again, Sam tried to lure me to McMaster where he was then ensconced in the philosophy department. At the same hiring hall at the meeting of the American Philosophical Association in New York – Canada did not have its own learned philosophical society then – I was offered a job at AtkinsonCollege at YorkUniversity where I was assured that I would only have to teach students who were dedicated and hard-working. Instead of taking the job offered at McMaster, I opted for Atkinson and York. It was the right choice for me but, as a result, Sam and I saw each other much less frequently as the years passed. I had watched his wife, Janet, become a noted academic and political theorist in her own right, and his children, Sandor and Oona, grow up. Oona became a professor of Jewish studies and my daughter, Rachel, became a professor of rabbinics at a rabbinical college in Boston. Neither of us could have predicted such an outcome when Oona and Rachel were teenagers, though it was predictable that Sandor, and my daughter, Shonagh, would both enter the field of art.

Though others may have been able to predict that, as we grew older, religion would become a central theme in our lives, neither Sam nor I foresaw such an outcome. Sam became an Orthodox Jew decades ago and played a very important role in saving and reviving the Hess Street orthodox synagogue in Hamilton. As Sam wrote, the Sabbath ends with God making a distinction between the sacred and the secular. We both took the injunction to mean that one should not try to import the world of pure spirituality into the everyday world of mankind. It did not mean excluding religious practices or different forms of religious dress and self-expression from the secular world, for that was to make the secular a sacred idol and a betrayal of the rationale for the original distinction. Sam wrote, “Secularism, with as as-yet unchastened sense of its liberatory power, has no tradition by which to see the point of accommodation with the sacred. For it, modernity must be secular relativism: the struggle of the secular finally to gain exclusive authority over the civil order.” We both found secular revivalism, as an agent of the same coercive uniformity that made society eject organized religion from much of everyday life, as something to protest and criticize.

Sam loved opera. I love Broadway musicals. Sam became a commentator on opera on the old CBC program, Saturday Afternoon At The Opera. I may not have had a taste for opera, but I appreciated his insights and evaluations. Last evening, my wife and I went to hear Audra McDonald at Koerner Hall. Audra McDonald is a soprano who trained at Julliard and has sung opera — Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine”, and most notably, Kurt Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” that won her two Grammys, one for Best Opera Recording. However, last night she sang a medley of show tunes and other songs for which she is much better known – she has won an outstanding five Tony awards in the past. But the song she sang last night that made me think of Sam and that she delivered with such articulation and feeling was a song I had never heard before, and for which she accompanied herself on the piano. It was dedicated to her father who died seven years ago in the crash of a plane he was piloting. It is called “Migration V” written by Adam Guettel for his musical The Light in the Piazza that won a Tony Award.

The lyrics go as follows: 

We sail above the weather
We search the ocean floor.
We rival our creation,
Still yearning for more.
But can we fly together-
A migratory V?
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

A single voice in whispered prayer
Can only pray to travel there.
But all as one,
We sound the everlasting sound
And sing our salvation.

Aloft and in formation,
A migratory V.
How wonderful if that’s what God could see.

Sam sailed above the weather, always the lead bird in a migration that soared above us all. Always in intellectual flight, he nevertheless also always articulated, not what he professed or what he believed, but tried, as a true neo-Kantian would, to express “what God could see” and to marvel at its beauty, wisdom and ethical coherence.

Audra McDonald also sang a number from the Kander and Ebb oeuvres, the last one they wrote before Ebb died, the song “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys. The musical is the story of the Scarborough nine, five black youth convicted totally unjustly of rape and sentenced to death in Alabama at the end of the thirties, a conviction later reversed but they were convicted again – and again and again on retrial after retrial – though they were unequivocally innocent. In the musical, performed as a Minstrel show, as the boys await execution in death row after their first conviction, they sing about what they most want (“Go Back Home”). I thought of Sam who has now gone back home and who was a pioneer in seeking racial justice before any of us. I also thought of Sam during another song written by a very young composer, Adam Gwon, called “I’ll Be Here”. Though it is written about a woman who loses her partner and deep love in 911, the song is so moving and universal that Audra McDonald sang it as a hymn to the recovery and rebirth she and her mother experienced after her father’s tragic death and that I saw that Oona, Sandor and especially Janet would necessarily have to go through. 

I know with Sam as their father, they will be reborn and will be truly here. I will miss Sam and his loving wisdom.