The Afikomen: The Divided Self

The Afikomen, the Divided and the Hidden Self – an Introduction to the Jewish Soul


Howard Adelman


Last night I watched a panel on autism on Steve Paikin’s show, “Agenda”. The show was very instructive, as his shows generally are. One woman in particular who had a brother, who suffered from autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder – ASD) was particularly instructive since she went on to pioneer in creating a therapeutic app for finding a structured order within which autistic children can orient themselves. They cannot function in environments with chaos and sensory overload. If there ever was an environment with chaos and sensory overload, it is surely the average Jewish seder. Seder means order but a seder is often an exemplar of everything but.

A Passover seder is a festival in which people break bread together, identify with one another and with a common past to forge a better future. Autism is a condition in which interpersonal communion and empathy with another may be very difficult. Its symptoms include failure to make eye contact, resistance to being held or touched, a lack of a sense of proper distance when speaking to another, a failure to share experiences with one another, an inability to grasp symbols and figures of speech, an inability to read body language, an aversion to answering personal questions, a propensity to engage in conversation disconnected from what went before and often to burst into observations unrelated to the social context or what someone else had been saying, and, most of all, an inability or difficulty in connecting with what another person is feeling and, therefore, a propensity to naively trust another and, therefore, easily prone to be victimized by bullies. One way to think of a seder is as an antidote to the propensity to ASD that may be present in all of us, though not to the degree to be noticeable as in individuals diagnosed with ASD.

The Passover seder is modelled on a Greek symposium but the message and the substance of these two different symposia are very different, for, as I have described before, the Passover seder is about communion in the present by communing with and reliving the past. It has a very different purpose than its original intention in ancient Greek culture.

When Plato depicts the self, he offers a number of images, the most well known being the story of the cave followed immediately by its abstract version in terms of the geometrical figure of the divided line that is said to be analogous to the different parts of our cognitive selves, but it is a mistake to think, as we shall see, that the cognitive self constitutes the whole of the psyche.

Let me start with the Divided Line (DL) as depicted in The Republic (509d-510a). A line is divided into two uneven portions, the larger portion representing the comprehension of the intelligible world in terms of its contribution to truth and the smaller portion representing the comprehension of the visible world having a smaller contribution to truth. So if a line is 18” long and is divided, for example, in two uneven parts in a ratio of say 2:1, then the larger section of 12” would represent the comprehension of the intelligible (non-visible world) and 6” would represent the comprehension of the visible world.

Plato then divides both of the sections once again in terms of the same ratio, 2:1.  The intelligible world is then divided into two sections, one 8” and the other 4”. The longer section represents what pure reason can grasp, the pure forms or abstractions free entirely of any residue from the visible world, pure forms which can only be grasped by reason. Einstein’s equation linking energy (E) and matter (M) and where C is the speed of light in the formula E=MC² would be a close example. The shorter section of the upper intelligible realm is represented by understanding rather than reason, that part of intelligence which abstracts and generalizes from the visible world. It is the realm of creating categories or classes and propositions based on hypothetical thought. It lacks the degree of certainty and clarity of reason and the purely intelligible realm of mathematics.

The lower section is divided as well into two sections in the same 2:1 ratio, or 4” and 2” respectively. The larger section belonging to the visible world is about our everyday knowledge of objects in the visible world, the realm of sensibility. The smaller section is about our fantasies, our projections of the visible world on the movie screens of our imagination and deal with likenesses of the visible world that are phantasmagoria, images that come into being and dissolve like the mist. They are shadows which can be taken to be real by the naïve who have no detached perspective about what they are grasping. This is the level of knowledge inculcated by imagery or advertising as we now call it. It is NOT worthless as a degree of knowledge, but, for Plato, it occupies the lowest and least part of the cognitive self. It is the realm of knowledge gained from reading fiction or from watching movies that I write about so often.

A final note re the analogy of the Divided Line (DL). A caption over the door upon entry to Plato’s academy read that knowledge of mathematics geometry was a prerequisite for studying at the academy. Without going into the geometrical theorem, whenever a DL is divided into two unequal portions and the two parts are once again divided by the same ratio, then the two middle sections will always be of the same length. Therefore, in the above example, the section that is analogous to understanding and hypothetical reasoning and the section of the visible world dealing with the direct knowledge of objects, both have the same length, or, in other words, the same degree of clarity and approximation to truth. The benefit of understanding and hypothetical knowledge is its proximity to reason and knowledge of the pure Forms rather than the degree of truth it might possess. So one should not think that Plato was dismissive of empiricism.   

The narrative story of the cave is perhaps a better or richer or more memorable way to portray the different levels of knowledge. At the lowest level, people are tied to a log and watch reflections on the cave wall cast by a light behind those people that they do not see and they take those projections as reality. These are the shadows that captivate us, the ghosts of our imagination, the movies we watch and the novels that come into being in our imaginations. When the people on the log are freed up from their mesmerisation with illusory shadows, they are able to turn their heads and see the objects, the images of which are projected on the cave wall and they can then recognize they were watching phantasms. But the cave is the realm of the visible world. When they escape the cave and go out into the sunlight, they can see reflections of the pure forms of reason initially as a means of abstracting from the visible world in the bowels of the cave. The ideal is, of course, to see pure Forms without any connection with the visible world, to look directly at the Sun in all its glory for that is ultimately the source of all enlightenment.

Before we compare Plato to the sense of the psyche depicted by the three layers of matzah, another narrative by Plato needs to be introduced taken from his dialogue Phaedrus (246a-254e). Plato’s portrayal of the three parts of the soul in terms of an analogy to a chariot where the charioteer is the intelligible part of the soul and the two horses guided by intelligence are the spirited horse (rational desire or prudence?) which can detect the guidelines of the reins that is yoked to another horse, the appetitive part of the soul which has only the instinctive energy to drive ahead but no ability to follow the directions of intelligence. The two horses represent the the spirited part of the soul and the appetitive part of the soul respectively.

Appetite is instinctual and constitutes NO part of the realm of knowledge whether visible or intelligible or the capacity to acquire knowledge. It is about doing not thinking. On the other hand, the spirited part of the soul which is also about doing rather than thinking also does not represent any realm of knowledge but represent emotions or passions that can be linked to rational self-interest, whether those passions be greed or ambition, rage or shame. To link this metaphor up with the theory of the DL and the myth of the cave, the charioteer or intelligence represents all four aspects of the world of knowledge and the faculties associated with it. Neither emotions nor appetites belong to the intelligible part of the soul at all, which, according to the image of the DL and the narrative of the cave is itself divided into four parts.

Notice the following differences with the parts of the psyche as represented by the three layers of matzah. First, matzah, the bottom layer, is not equated with irrational and instinctual behaviour unable to listen. Rather, it is l’chaim, life, the instinct for survival worthy of celebration and joy. To eat, drink and celebrate the sensibilities is the foundation of all ethics rather than simply a realm needing strict controls and yoking to another part of the soul which can control its wild character. Further, unlike in Plato, the appetites when based in sex are a realm of knowledge in their own right, embodied and bodily knowledge as when Adam was said to know Eve after both had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Second, in the three layers of matzah, the top layer is identified with passion and compassion, with empathy with an Other and not with abstract reason. In Plato, these passions can listen to and be guided by reason. They are not guided by identification and understanding the world as perceived by another human being. In Plato, humans experience the world in the same way and are governed by the same instinctual appetites but differ because of different admixtures of the passions and, most of all, by their inherited ability to use intelligence to govern the passions and thence govern the appetites. The passions are best when the listen to intelligence and ignore the temptations of the appetites. In contrast, in the Hebraic cosmos of the psyche, the passions are the source of creativity, or our imagination that reaching beyond the world we experience and can envision a new world, a world of hope, a world that belongs over the rainbow.

Thus, though the seder may be modelled on the outward form of a Greek symposium, its psychic premises are radically different. Further, so is its structure. For a seder follows a particular order to allow us to stage how we can re-enter and relive the past as the present and teach us the stages of redemption to prepare ourselves for the future. It requires entering a world of shadows, of ghosts from the past, of what Plato thinks are just images on the walls of a cave representing reflections of objects in the real world whereas in the Hebrew ceremony they are the true ghosts of the past which it is our job to bring back to life so that we too can be redeemed in the present. Further, whereas the object of the seder is to tell a story of an escape from slavery and towards freedom, Plato offers an apologia for slavery, for repression rather than expression, as it is necessary for reason and the Sun God to rule over the rest of the psyche and to bring harmony to  our internal (and external) conflicts. In contrast, conflict, the asking of questions, is at the heart of the seder, NOT with pre-formed answers as in Plato’s dialogues, and often imitated in many seders, but as a true exploration of questions and queries from a variety of different minds with their own preferences and ways of looking at the world. The aim is not to harmonize thought but to appreciate different perspectives and approaches as we re-enact the Past in the Present.

Thus, for example, the contrarian child should not be envisioned as one who arbitrarily questions authority but one who critically examines the pretensions of reason to have discovered and explicated absolute truth.  The contrary child is the dissident and the critic. At the Hebrew seder, one lives in a radically different world than that of the Greeks, whether we are talking of Plato or Aristotle. First, the appetites are appreciated, particularly the driving force of sex. Second, recapitulation as history is denigrated by Aristotle because it belongs to the realm of the particular rather than the realm of the universal, but in re-enacting the Past as the Present, the universality in the particular is recognized and re-experienced. History becomes the most important part of our repertoire of knowledge and is not banished from the cognitive realm along with poetry and the arts.    

Where does the middle matzah come in, the realm of reason and intelligence that mediates between the passions above rooted most basically in compassion and identification with an Other, and the appetites below which are an independent source of knowledge, knowledge rooted in one body coming to know another body through intercourse? Why is it divided and what is the larger half, the Afikomen, that is hidden and children are sent to find and redeem it? The smaller half is the easier to grasp for it is our practical intelligence that enters into everyday life and mediates between our imagination and creativity rooted in our passions and our instinct for survival and reproduction, for the continuity of ourselves and our DNA and our community. That intelligible self does combine abstract reasoning or pure theory and the sciences based on induction and hypothetical knowledge of the empirical world. That practical reason also involves everyday knowledge acquired through interaction ith the physical world of objects and people as well as the faculty of the imagination that can take those experiences and imagine another world, including the past world when we too were slaves in Egypt and bring that past into the present.

All this practical and scientific knowledge is the smaller half of our intelligence. The Afikomenen is the larger half. It is the part that absents itself from the seder and plays little part in telling the story or enabling the re-enactment but it has at least four characteristics. It is hidden. It is found by innocent children. Third, the children who search for it and the one who fins it are especially rewarded with a prize – usually a coin. Fourth,everyone at the seder table eats a piece of it at the end of the meal. The Afikomen is not just a heuristic device to entertain children while the interminable tale of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom is told in however an abbreviated form. It does symbolize innocence, the Passover lamb, that which is sacrificed so that we can consummate togetherness.

Sephardim have an especially close appreciation of the Afikomen because they regard it as having magic qualities. The ruined and empty synagogue in Košice, Slovakia in which Simon Schama began his documentary segment “Over the Rainbow” in telling the story of the Jewish people, the Jewish temple that was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans and the reason why we no longer sacrifice and eat the Passover lamb, these are all parts of our ghostly past with which the Afikomen is in touch, with that which is hidden and supposedly lost but which we must reclaim. We cannot tell the story of the escape from slavery into freedom without bringing those ghosts back into the present. Unlike progressive views of history, the present is only brought fully to life by reclaiming the past as part of the present.

And that takes magic. That takes, historians. That takes innocence to leave behind the present realism and imagine a past. Our passions may be geared to our hopes for the future. But our hopes for the future must be rooted in a resurrected past. Then why is the larger piece of the broken middle matzah have a Greek name, for “Afikomen” is a Greek word?  And the word has the same meaning as God who pronounces I shall be who I shall be. The Afikomen is associated with the ultimate coming, the coming of the messiah, the hope that drives all hope, the hope for the coming of a world of justice and mercy. And only innocent children can truly believe is this as a world to come. Any ordinary adult has become too jaded to accept this possibility in the light of all they experience. But it is precisely this possibility, this a priori proposition that lies embedded in all our hopes to pursue our dreams over the rainbow. This is why children are and must be at the centre at a Passover seder. For although the seder is a device to teach them, in the end it is they who must teach us the importance of the restoration of innocence.

Why again call this most central part of the seder service by a Greek name? My answer is simple. Because we Jews owe so much to the rest of humanity, but, in this context, especially the Greeks who gave us the form of the symposia. We may have transformed its meaning. We may have transformed the very nature of the conception of order from a pre-fixed organized world in terms of a perfect ideal into a hope for the future linked to a lost and destroyed past, but we owe the Greeks the form that makes this possibility come alive. In Christianity, the Afikomen became the wafer eaten to partake in the body of Christ whom they believe to have been the messiah and the sacrificial lamb. It has been transformed into the sacramental bread, the “host”, the unleavened bread which is the Eucharist. In Judaism, it remains a broken off piece of matzah hidden and left for children to find so that we can, at the end of the seder, all partake in that broken off past so that we can hope for “next year in Jerusalem”.

What do we owe the Egyptians who play a much more obvious part of the story? Were they just tyrants and oppressors, the evil ones always present in the world? Remember that it was an Egyptian princess who saved Moses. Tomorrow I will explore Moses as a divided self to try to bring back what the Hebrews inherited from their Egyptian overseers and that is an integral part of the Passover narrative.


Putin’s Version of Post-Cold War history

Putin’s Version of Post-Cold War History


Howard Adelman


Putin’s current version of post-Cold War history consists of the following trajectory, one fully immersed in a culture of conspiracy, :


1. The end of the Cold War in 1991 was the result of internal initiatives within Russia to dissolve the Soviet Union and not the result of the Soviet Union dissolving in response to Western economic and political pressures; when the West takes the credit and claims to have won the Cold War, it is an insult to Russians because it defines Russia as a loser.


2. NATO as a security alliance has ignored the detente arrived at through negotiations and has continued to treat Russia as an enemy by moving NATO assets increasingly closer to Russia, first into former states associated with the USSR and then into the three Baltic republics that were part of the Soviet Union, namely Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.


3. The effort to forge a political association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, with its own security as well as economic clauses, was the last straw in ignoring Russia’s legitimate and traditional sphere of interest and in pushing Russia into a corner.


4. The ouster of Ukraine’s legitimately elected pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych because he was unprepared to accept the EU’s association agreement and turned to Russia for financial aid, was a move fostered by Western political manoeuvres and financing of dissidents and even the rebellion and was the final straw, especially when an entirely Western-oriented government drawn largely from the protest leadership took control of the Ukraine. This step crossed the red line that Russia had signalled to the West, and did so in a manner that was both insensitive and irresponsible indicating that the West no longer wanted an international partnership with Russia.


5. Russia moved swiftly to annex the Crimea which it effectively controlled militarily, which had a majority Russian population, and with which Russia had deep historic, strategic and emotional ties, an annexation which reversed a historic mistake when the Ukrainian, Nikita Khrushchev, transferred the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 without consulting its population, and an annexation which will never be reversed no matter what actions are taken by the West.


6. The period of Russian passivity in the face of over two decades of Western aggressive political, economic and military moves to hem Russia in is now over; although Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine, annexing it or dismembering it, significant numbers of Russian troops and military assets have been deployed near, but deliberately not next to, eastern Ukraine’s eastern, the country’s industrial heartland with large Russian speaking minorities, in the clear and unequivocal message that if the interests of the Russian population is under threat, Russia reserves the right to come to their protection.


7. The west can expect other initiatives in eastern Europe – such as in Moldova, in Georgia and in the Balkans – now that Russia is determined to act strictly from its own strategic interests where it has the clout to change the situation; the partnership with the West has been dissolved by the West.


8. The initial sanctions and contemplated stronger and broader sanctions that will be forthcoming not only will not deter Russia – which in its history has endured far worse – but, on the contrary, will be met with countermoves that will seriously undermine the efforts of the West to be the world’s hegemon.


9. The West can no longer count on a Russian partnership in Iran, Syria or North Korea, though Russia will continue to work in the interests of peace, but no longer as a junior partner and fellow traveller to Western interests.


10. The West can expect a very serious response not only in eastern Ukraine but in other areas of the world, particularly in other areas of eastern Europe, if NATO takes initiatives to embrace Ukraine within the NATO fold.

The dilemma for the West is that in order to defend the eastern Ukraine from a Russian annexation under the pretext of “fraternal assistance” to ethnic Russians under assault, many see economic sanctions as insufficient. Ukrainian troops with foreign observers would have to be deployed along the eastern border, a deployment which would be seen as a provocative action and could expect an aggressive response. On the other hand, if Ukraine does not become a member of NATO and if troops, primarily Ukrainian, are not deployed along the eastern border, then Ukraine would be unable to defend itself against another annexation which would become a fait accompli.  The West does not believe Putin when he says he will not invade because it is a pledge that is conditional on how he regards the treatment of the Russian minority, especially if thugs are used to stir up the mob. Putin no longer believes that NATO is a defence organization but now reads any move as the dynamic initiatives of NATO’s expansion. If Putin is at base a bitter autocrat with dreams of restored Russian glory, if he truly harbours deep resentments about Russia’s alleged humiliations by the West, then there is a real risk he will move into Ukraine in full knowledge that Obama has taken a military response off the table and that the EU never put it on the table to begin with.

Obama knows all this. So he insists that he will restrict Western actions to the sanctions expressway while keeping the gates open for diplomacy. He knows that Russian forces are now massing near though not yet along Ukraine’s eastern borders, so he expanded the sanctions regime the third time in succession to twenty more top Russian officials, including Putin’s right hand man, Sergei Ivanov, and Bank Rossiya, a St. Petersburg-based bank used to launder the billions of roubles for the super-rich oligarchs of Russia who strongly support Putin, including Yuri Kovalchuck, Vladimir Yakunin and the Rotenberg brothers. It is not clear why Obama has left Roman Abromovich off the list. Obama has also threatened to take a fourth step and impose sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy – defence, energy, mining and financial services — if Russia, but only if Russia takes any further aggressive steps with respect to the Ukraine in full knowledge  that such sanctions will disrupt the global economy.

Will carrying the big economic stick be sufficient to get Putin to re-engage with the diplomatic route and savour his victory over Crimea given his reconstruction of post-Cold War history, or will the escalation continue unimpeded as we are thrust back to July of 1914? Will the West have to prepare to ship arms and equipment and trainers to the Ukraine and even Delta forces to support a long term underground war by Ukraine against Russia that must of necessity spread to Russia itself if the autocrat is to be stopped? The reduced number of provocateurs in Donetsk might be a dodge or, alternatively, a signal that Russia prefers to take the diplomatic road.

Fiction and Fact: The Culture of the Con

Fiction and Fact: The Culture of the Con


Howard Adelman

Foster, Peter (2014) “Goodbrokers: Wolf of Wall Street an inferior Scorcese remake,” National Post, 8 January, FP11.

Fulford, Robert (2014) “The American Scheme: How the con man managed to turn himself into a folk hero,” National Post, 7 January, B1.

Rakoff, Jed S. (2014) “”The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?” NYRB, LXI:1, 9 January.

Surowiecki, James (2014) “Do the Hustle,” The New Yorker, 13 January, 21.

Following my reviews of the two films, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, I will be using the above four essays or articles as well as the widespread very recent reports on the huge fines levelled against JP Morgan Chase Bank. This comment was instigated by a response to my blog with an attachment, an “Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself” by Christina McDowell ( Christina is the daughter of Tom Prousalis, a partner of Jordan Belfort whom Leonardo DiCaprio played in the film. Belfort pleaded guilty to money laundering and securities fraud and was a prosecution witness against his former colleague, Tom Prousalis.

Christina wrote that the testimony was blocked lest it reveal a spate of other corrupt stock offerings: “that would have been a disaster. It would have just been too many liars, and too many schemes for the jurors, attorneys or the judge to follow.” Further, Christina wrote that Belfort and her father conspired together not just in one scheme, as the film portrayed, but in a series of fraudulent stock offerings such as MVSI Inc. of Vienna, e-Net Inc. of Germantown, Md., Octagon Corp. of Arlington, Va., and Czech Industries Inc. of Washington, D.C., and so on. Christina confronted the makers of the film for glorifying Belfort and receiving kudos and awards while both the victims of these fraudsters suffered enormously. Her mother, her two sisters and she herself also suffered and continue to suffer. The suffering began immediately after the fact by learning that they themselves were burdened with enormous credit card and other debts rooted in identity theft. Prousalis’ wife and his three daughters’ lives were just wrecked. Remember how Bernie Madoff’s son committed suicide!

Why? Because these con artists trick the members of their own families. But in the films they are turned into folk heroes. Christina wrote: “You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.” At the end of the film, the story suggests that Jordan Belfort went along to a second career as a motivational speaker to become once again wealthy while many of his victims largely remain destitute and received little if any restitution.

Christina concludes that after she was sucked into the con, and the drug behaviour and pleasure seeking that went along with it, “then I unravelled the truth. The truth about my father and his behavior: that behind all of it was really just insidious soul-sucking shame masked by addiction, which we love to call ambition, which is really just greed. Greed and the desire for fame (exactly what you’ve successfully given self-appointed motivational speaker/financial guru Jordan Belfort, whose business opportunities will surely multiply thanks to this film).”

Peter Foster complemented that criticism by claiming the film exploited the same values as the con artist – lies and exaggerated behaviour. As Foster wrote, Belfort graduated from a meat salesman to a stock salesman and was named by himself as the Wolf, not by Forbes Magazine. Further, the critics are complicit in cheering the film claiming it was as good or even superior to Goodfellas when it is, as both I and Foster claimed, tedious and totally self-indulgent however great the acting and production values. The biggest lie is that the makers and promoters of the film, including Leonardo DiCaprio, call it a cautionary tale, when in artistic intent and consequences, it is precisely the opposite. As my son, Gabriel, who loves the film, says, Scorcese’s great skill is to portray villain’s from a very neutral perspective and not take a stand. Screenwriter Terence Winter claimed the lesson from the film is that, “We don’t learn anything. Nothing changes.” Further, Gabriel himself is anguished between his love for the brilliance in film making and the consequences among young people of his age who take the very opposite message from the film and glory in the excessive wealth and self-indulgence of the crooked stockbrokers.

Robert Fulford, while acknowledging that The Wolf of Wall Street is florid and hysterical and that the acting is sensationally good, claims that the message of the film is not only that, “We don’t learn anything. Nothing changes,” but that eternal recurrence of the con theme is a reverberating theme of American culture. The lesson is not that crooks get it and their lives are ruined, but that they are reborn again in new versions of the same thing as Christina declares about her father. “He recreates himself every time he imagines a new scheme for enriching himself at the hands of the innocent.” George Parker (1870-1930) who sold the Brooklyn Bridge many times over was “an outrageous model for all fictional con men.” Con men tell lies and make claims that are too good to be true.  Fulford opines that, “Characters like him are a gift to storytellers and moviemakers …moral cripples…riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” The best con movie of all time, The Sting, memorializes the type, but in a movie where the marks are the real crooks. The movie works by conning the audience, but traditionally making the con clear by a twist at the ending. The Wolf of Wall Street is a fraud that cons but never owns up to it.

The question arises: why do these con artists get away with it? James Surowiecki asks why Americans have a soft spot for these greedy hucksters who sell dreams that never come true and why do audiences get conned by movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle? Surowiecki’s answer is the same as that of the screenwriter of The Wolf of Wall Street, “It has ever been thus.” As the University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall wrote, “far from despising flimflam artists as parasites or worse, American popular culture habitually celebrates rascals as comedic figures.” Surowiecki continues: “It seems that con artists, for all their vices, represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made…They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.”

As Surowiecki wrote, the line between crooks and businessmen is fuzzy. (As we will see, thus may still be true in the twenty-first century.) In the nineteenth century, Jay Gould who promoted railway stock was one of the biggest con artists the country had ever seen. Wall Street Entrepreneurs and con men have similar skills. “Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you.” They peddle optimism. The philosophy of the sting is to sell hope. Steve Jobs was the greatest con man, entrepreneur and director of the twenty-first century, scripting and rehearsing his presentations to the greatest detail. He believed that you both had to have but also sell absolute conviction. As Weinberg said, “Before you sell a deal you have to live the deal. You have to believe in it, because, if you don’t believe in it, you can’t sell it.”  The one and only difference between the con artist and the entrepreneur is not the set of qualities, but that the entrepreneur can deliver and make the fantasies come true. Con men cannot.

Jed Rakoff in his article asks why there have been no prosecutions of high level executives from the latest financial scandal of the huge mortgage scams. Everything may not be the same. There were high level prosecutions in the past – Michael Milken in the 1970s junk bond bubble, Charles Keating and others in the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis, Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Ebbers in the 1990s Enron scam. But there have been no prosecutions of executives from the 2008 sub-prime mortgage collapse. The 2 billion dollar fine of JP Morgan, the biggest US bank with $2.3 trillion in assets and revenues of over a $100 billion, was levied for failing to inform US authorities of the Madoff Ponzi fraud. The announcement was made five years after Madoff was arrested. The bank ignored its own information that Madoff was up to something very questionable. To avoid indictment, the bank had to admit criminal wrongdoings and pay the fine. This recent $2 billion was in addition to a previous series of fines $13 billion, $4.5 billion, $920 million, $470 million, $410 million and an anticipated another $2.3 or so billion more European fines, fines which in total only amounted to 12% of its net income over four years.

Why have the executives not been prosecuted for the collusion of these huge businesses with fraudsters like Madoff or Weinberg or Belfort, for the latter could not succeed in their theft, whether selling worthless stocks in the seventies and eighties or selling toxic mortgage-backed securities in the twenty-first century without the collusion of large banks? There are several possibilities. First, perhaps the banks were themselves conned. But they did not lose money; they made money – huge amounts. Further, the real question is why they shut their eyes to both what they knew and what they did not want to know. But why did SEC not catch on? Why did the rating agencies mislead everyone? There are reasons offered – the difficulty of proving intent, even though intent need not be proven, only wilful blindness, not nearly as difficult to prove. Further, since these firms also participated in the purchase of these weekly-backed mortgage securities and were sophisticated investors, how could they be declared as either victims or as complicit? Given the speed of electronic trading and the reliance on algorithms, how could responsibility ever be traced to individuals?

Another reason is offered. Unlike previous financial crises, in this crisis the whole western economy was at risk. There were more important priorities. Another reason Rakoff offers is the built-in incentives of prosecuting attorneys to make names for themselves, but to do so in a timely fashion as distinct from the large number of years it would take to prosecute banks for complicity. In the films, manic FBI agents take their place because they are mirrors of the con artists in the two films I discussed. Further, Rakoff suggested that the government itself was complicit since it proposed the shotgun marriages of the Bank of America with Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan with Bear Stearns with mistakes made and liabilities unrevealed. Prosecuting attorneys can make a name much easier than prosecuting individual executives by making deferred or non-prosecution agreements as was done with JP Morgan and settle for huge fines. They can then envision themselves as the modern Robin Hoods.

I want to suggest another reason not included in Rakoff’s long list of potential explanations. We have gone from making con artists folk heroes to making them superheroes just when films increasingly portray the dark side of traditional superheroes – Batman, Superman, Spiderman. Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde from the dark side, and Daniel Boone and David Crocket from the light side, Joe Hill and Che Guevera from the left side, and Rob Roy and Joseph Trumeldor from the right side, have all been folk heroes. Canada has its own Two Gun Moshe Cohen. The biography of any one of them will show that they were themselves shape-shifters who helped in the effort to imprint their names, personalities and ostensible deeds into popular memory usually exaggerated to mythic proportions. The folk hero is an individual who performs acts that allows a sympathetic group to project onto them heroic status for that heroic status confers status and position on the group who identifies with the supposed hero. This is true of the Ford Nation in relationship to a serial liar and serial apologist like Rob Ford selling the fraud that he is the taxpayer’s best friend. Typically, trickster heroes in all cultures (Brer Rabbit, the coyote in aboriginal stories) have both good and bad sides, usually breaking taboos but upholding everyman values.

The con men tricksters of The Wolf of Wall Street and of American Hustle are the new contemporary folk heroes being mythologized by Hollywood now as superheroes. Though fictions about con artist folk heroes – whether Huckleberry Finn  or Tom Sawyer – used to serve as a counter-balance to restore social order, in the contemporary mould they are used to uphold the virtues of greed for its own sake. The difference now is that the films through mindblindness, not deliberate intention, but wilful mindblindness nevertheless, serves the same roles as the banks in their complicity with the original crimes in the sub-prime mortgage scandal in raising the status of the crooks in an afterlife of iconic status by developing stories as myths favouring con artists using megalomaniacal hype themselves with no relationship to social needs or social purposes and only incidental relatiobs to the facts. The films are as guilty of promoting vicarious hedonistic thrills as the con artist fraudster entrepreneurs were. The new blended superhero/folk heroes are not Robin Hood figures but icons of the age of greed and the new dreams of hedonistic glory and the pursuit of sensual pleasure in our society. When aesthetics trumps both truth and ethics in the glorification of appetite with the enormous investment that a first class con requires, Hollywood becomes the vehicle for creating the new myths without any fear they will be prosecuted for their “artistic license” as the film-makers both profit from the hype and the dreams they spin and as they propagate new imitators.


Cleaning House

On Cleaning House                                                                               11 June, 2013.


Howard Adelman

Why is the expression “cleaning house” so equivocal? On the one hand it means tidying up or, more extensively, scrubbing down your home to get rid of dirt and dust. At the extreme, a premise is made that space pure and free of adulterated matter or pollutants is highly desirable. But cleaning house can have an aesthetic dimension – getting rid of all the chachkas and paraphenalia that clutters your home. More radically, it suggests a goal of streamlining your furniture and belongings in obeisance to the aesthetic dictates of modernism. Cleaning house can be an economic or, at the very least, accounting expression – make sure all your bills are paid or all your receipts are properly filed. It certainly has an ethical dimension when one declares one’s intention of getting rid of all the “bad apples” in the Senate and restoring principles of integrity and frugality in the dispensation of government funds. “Cleaning house” also has a military dimension; a newspaper depicted Assad’s counter strikes against the rebel forces as “cleaning house”, meaning that the Assad forces are currently purging the route to Lebanon of all rebel militias (as well as many innocent civilians) as he takes back one stronghold after another. The expression can have a religious dimension as when Jesus cleaned the Temple of Jerusalem and drove the merchants out. “Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12-14)

In all of the above uses, the emphasis is on three things: what is yours; what of yours you want to dispose of; and the final remaining purified state. But if one is a gambler and cleans house, the expression means the very opposite – taking what is theirs – the money of the other players. It means adding not detracting from what is yours. Finally, and possibly most importantly, it means, not working like hell to make your home spick and span or becoming obsessively focussed on getting rid of all crime and corruption, but, rather, to take everyone else’s money as fast as one can, including the casino’s, without any seeming effort. Contrary to the normal use of the phrase that esteems the Protestant work ethic, this use of the phrase idealizes ease and leisure and deprecates hard work. The expression is used derivatively to combine both senses when a cop in a movie observes a den of thieves leaving their abode and running off with their loot. “The rats are cleaning house.” It means they are taking only the proceeds of their crime and abandoning everything else.

I have been cleaning house for the last two weeks, but especially during the past four days. In part, I have been cleaning house in one of the various meanings of the first sense and eliminating and discarding what we no longer want to own. I put those items in the garage sale as part of our Casa Loma community this past weekend. But calling the 25 of my 40 file drawers that I put in the blue recycling bins what was undesirable does not seem quite correct except in comparison to what was kept. I just wanted to make space and get rid of things in spite of my desire to hold onto them. Some of those items included undergraduate essays that I wrote almost sixty years ago.

But I also got rid of 2000 books, perhaps 15-20% of my library. Eight large boxes went as donations to the libraries of three research centre at York University. Some were sold in the garage sale. Others went for resale in a used bookstore on Bloor Street. I gave away many. The largest by far – two dozen boxes – went to the University of Toronto library, the vast bulk of them for the UofT book sale that helps the library buy more books. Getting rid of old files may be a humanitarian act to save some poor shlob when I am even older the problem of going through my files and selecting anything worthwhile. Or perhaps that is too arrogant. What I am really doing is simply saving the files I still can or may reference as well as trying to reduce the risk that I will not be dispensed to a recycler altogether.

In any case, cleaning house when you are disposing of your intellectual property and production seems so much harder a task than simply disposing of goods you no longer value. You both hold them in high value, but no longer enough to keep around in your old age. The greatest pain does not come from the physical exertion expended. In my case, it was far harder to dispose of the books than the files.

I have several other observations. One can get donation receipts for giving away books and these can be even more financially valuable than actually selling them directly or through a used book store. Secondly, and I noticed this most acutely at the garage sale, whereas when I sold off a lot of books at a garage sale ten years ago, I was swarmed. The numbers who came were very large. There were very few relatively who came this time and, surprisingly, not that many who appeared when the books were widely advertised as being free. In the electronic age, having a print library seems no longer a valuable; given the costs of real estate, space is valued more highly.

All this is to say that I have been very busy and have neglected my comments on Jeremy’s biography of Albert Hirschman. I have neglected them for a second reason – the little feedback that I have been getting. I wanted the reading of the book to be a conversation. However, very few have participated. In talking to two of you, it has been suggested that my long winded comments, however interesting they are, are intimidating. Those who want to offer a few brief impressions feel out of place.

So I will try a few chapters using a different response – by asking a few questions rather than writing a small essay.

What do you think?

Obama15.Zero Dark Thirty.Deciding to Kill bin Laden

WARNING: If you have not seen Zero Dark Thirty and do not like the plot revealed, do not read past the first six to eight paragraphs. The essay is also attached.

Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13


Howard Adelman

There has been an enormous amount of paper spent on the ethical question of torture as portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal’s (the screenwriter) movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Some questions were raised about whether the torture scenes should have been portrayed with such realism, whether the claims to journalistic or historical accuracy should have been made in a fictional film that was a slender selection from historical events (the movie opens with the undeniable assertion that the film is based on firsthand accounts of actual events), about how the filmmakers obtained access to all the information and whether the release of the film was initially scheduled to boost Obama’s chances of re-election, especially since both John McCain and Mitt Romney had opposed the hunt for bin Laden.

I am lucky that the distributor decided to postpone the release until after the November election or there would have been a lot more material for me to read. In any case, none of the above questions yielded the quantity of copy, even when put all together, as the question of whether the film said that torture revealed crucial information that enabled the Americans to hunt down Usama bin Laden (UBL in CIA tradecraft). Did the movie take a neutral stand on torture or did the movie condemn torture or promote it?

Those are not my questions. I was fascinated by a very different question. In all my reading I did not see one reference to the issue of my concern – and I really looked, so if you have seen any, please send them to me. But before I discuss that issue, I offer an overview of the torture debate if only to prove I did my homework as well as offering an opportunity to summarize the first quarter of the film, thereby providing necessary background for my question. If you, dear reader, have not seen the film, if, further, you detest commentators who reveal the plot, I offer a fair WARNING; this is an essay using the film as fodder for the issues discussed. It is not a review written with the clear norm in mind that a reviewer should not spoil a movie by giving away the plot. On the other hand, if you are a lover of films, in particular, if you are a lover of gangster movies and know that you can watch The Godfather over and over because the plot itself in a gangster movie is as irrelevant as the details of that plot, then enjoy. The plot is standard with enough novel innovations to make it fascinating. That is why the events could be borrowed so easily from actuality to make the movie. In any case, virtually everyone knows in general what happened. The pleasure is in the details of how what happened is executed. I will, of course, ignore all the copy on how the movie’s chance of winning Oscars dropped precipitously as a result of the controversy and political backlash over the torture topic. And I will not prophesy how the film will do at the Oscar ceremonies this Sunday.

Some of the comments on the torture issue were outlandish – like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) calling Bigelow America’s Leni Riefenstahl and suggesting she too would go down in history as being a handmaiden to torture. Naomi Wolf published an open letter in The Guardian on 4 January 2013 asserting that the film was an apology for torture. "By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden’s killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist… now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden."

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in ‘the global war on terror’, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent. Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the ‘information’ it ‘secured’, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls ‘the detainee program’.


Naomi Wolf went on to speculate and suggest that, in order to get the cooperation of the military – necessary Naomi believed to get the shots of the high tech secretive stealth helicopter program – in turn necessary to get financing, Bigelow had to offer a pro-military message. Then Bigelow compounded her crime, according to Wolf, by claiming the film, though not a documentary because it interspersed fiction with reality, was akin to one. But it was not, according to Naomi Wolf. There are no sources to be corroborated. There is no evidence that the regime of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib got the information that led to bin Laden as the film claimed. And then Wolf went into a long screed about what she witnessed in visiting these torture sites. It is a wonder she did not see a plot against herself since Wolf is the name of the Head of the Counter-terrorism unit in the CIA in the movie.

Admittedly, Wolf’s take on the torture issue was one of the more extreme interpretations, but it led me to my own speculations. Was this the equivalent of watching women’s mud wrestling among the chattering classes? Does it enchant because of the pleasure of seeing the beautiful Naomi Wolf throwing mud balls at the equally beautiful tall and willowy Kathryn Bigelow? On a deeper level of suspicion, was Naomi’s screed an attempt at revenge against Kathryn Bigelow for undermining the founder of third-wave feminism’s thesis that images of female beauty have become crueller and even heavier weights as women crash through barriers erected by the male dominated establishment? After all, when Maya breaks through the ramparts of the last and strongest holdout of male superiority in Langley, Virginia, and feels great rather than lousy about herself (though, in the last shot, clearly very lonely) and, even more importantly, gets the viewer to feel terrific about what she has done, even if it is only to become the de facto kingpin of one mafia group knocking off the leader of the rival syndicate, was this just Naomi Wolf’s way of showing she could direct a drone missile at Kathryn Bigelow whereas Kathryn’s hero in the movie never achieved the top prize?

There were many others who attacked the film for its portrait of torture and declared the film to, at the very least, misrepresent the contribution of torture to capturing terrorists and, at worst, prescriptively suggest that the use of torture was both useful and ok. Some even suggested a boycott. Martin Sheen and Ed Asner were reported as backing David Clennon’s appeal along those lines, but Martin Sheen later backed off his endorsement of Clennon’s stand and Clennon himself subsequently also insisted he did not mean that people should not see the film, only that Bigelow should have been more forthright in condemning torture. Michael Moore then praised the film as fantastically well made, defended Bigleow and said the film will make you hate torture. And so it went on from a myriad of commentators.

Get serious, fellas! This is a gangster movie. It is a movie, not historiography. It uses historical events, but part of the hysteria and mania in America is about the misuse of history and the narrative that 9/11 was so searing that it radically changed America forever. 3000 were killed, not all of them Americans. 1 in 100,000 died! I do not want to diminish the importance and pain of any who died in the World Trade Centre or in the Pentagon, but how can we view this event as equivalent in historical importance to 1 in 10 Yankees dying and 1 in 4 Confederate males dying in the American Civil War. More than 600,000 Americans died in that conflict, not 3000. Six million did not die! That is the equivalent number that would have had to have died if 9/11 is to be compared in historical importance. And recall that in the American Civil War, many, many more were maimed. Admittedly, the Civil War was different. Americans were killing one another. In 9/11 a small group of bearded religious fanatics who were not Americans had killed Americans, and perpetrated the crime on American soil. Some symbols are far more powerful than actual number counts reveal.

Kathryn Bigelow’s film recognizes that fact. The film opens with a black screen as we listen to a collage of actual telephone calls after the World Trade Centre was attacked by two hijacked planes. We do not have to see those iconic pictures of the hits and the collapse of one tower after another. The voice of the panicked woman screaming and asking for help as the she feels the increasing heat sends chills down one’s spine. This is going to be a very personal story of the hunt for bin Laden and not the suggested quasi-documentary that might have been expected by the opening credits. And we are emotionally held in detention before we even see the first visual.

Ammar (played brilliantly by the French actor, Reda Kateb), an alleged al-Qaeda is in an interrogation room at a Black Site where he initially is just beat up, though for some initially unexplained reason, one of the smaller hooded CIA men does not join in on the beating. Though there are subsidiary scenes, in the main protracted scene of torture Daniel Stanton is the chief CIA operative in Islamabad played by the Australian actor Jason Clarke (he was the cop in Rabbit-Proof Fence) as a mixture of a PhD psychological expert and hip American dude with an impeccable accent and tattoos; he switches from mean physical and psychological abuse to humour and empathy in an instant.

His hooded partner, the smaller one who did not participate in the beating, leaves the interrogation room with him. After the ski mask is removed, we see that the presumed ‘he’ is a somewhat squeamish she, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent who carries the film and takes some time to adjust to the use of torture under Daniel’s tutelage, but adjust she does as she turns into a taut, determined and singularly focused agent on her first assignment that will unexpectedly last years. The mask or towel is put on Ahmed to "waterboard" him as if paying homage to Oscar Wilde’s quip: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” ("The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellman, 389. I have borrowed this quote from a new book that my daughter Rachel is writing.)

We are introduced to torture as a matter of using a variety of techniques in addition to waterboarding, but all geared to humiliating the other. Initially Ammar verbally fights back and calls Daniel "a garbage man in a corporation" and Daniel calls him just "a money man, a paperboy". In Pakistan, Daniel pulls Ammar’s pants down as he is strung up and exposes what he calls Ammar’s "junk" and then guffahs as he observes that Ammar has shit in his pants. Daniel puts Ammar in a dog collar and walks him around as his dog. The symmetry has very quickly become asymmetrical and, subsequently, Ammar is hung up, put into a small wooden box, sleep deprived but when repeatedly questioned about the sate and place of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia by Daniel Stanton as the CIA’s man in Islamabad, Ammar says nothing. And then the attack in Saudi Arabia takes place. A bearded man enters an apartment tower and shoots two westerners (it is not clear whether they were targeted), then in the pattern of a serial killer, walks down the hall killing others. Endorsing torture because it yields results!!!

Contrast that story line with the one in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden, the much lower budget rival to Zero Dark Thirty released about the same time but completely obscured by the fog over Beigelow’s film. In Seal Team Six, the same female agent goes directly for a torture session to the chase for the Usama bin Laden’s courier. The message in that film is unequivocal. The clue to the big break came from enhanced interrogation techniques.

In Zero Dark Thirty, the torture scenes shift into the background as we are given a ten minute college 101 introduction to intelligence gathering from various sources – other countries such as Jordan, satellite feeds, human informers, intercepts — and still the bombings take place, in London in the tube and on the buses, the Marriott Hotel where Maya is almost killed. Against this background we watch how intelligence is gathered and collated and interpreted at enormous effort, brain-power and expense. Still the bombs get through. In praise of the value of intelligence let alone torture – hardly!!! Naomi Wolf must have seen a different film than the one I watched. But she never described the film so we will not know. She focused only on denunciation.

Then the key little bit of information comes out, the only intelligence retrieved from someone tortured, and it comes out not by using torture, though the past torture ambiguously may have played a part. The information is obtained by using empathy, playing on the fallibility of memory and Ammar’s inability to know what he had said and what he did not. Through these psychological methods helped by trickery and a lie, Maya and Daniel learn something – the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who is bin Laden’s courier.

The scenes shifts to military interrogations through questioning, Turkish interrogators with a hint but only a hint that they are even more ruthless torturers, then Maya in a black wig visiting a black site on a rusty old ship in a Baltic port where she meets Hakim, a very valuable asset who adds to the corroboration that Abu Ahmed is indeed a high level courier. So perhaps torture was critical to putting the story together. We are not told that, but it allows the viewer to easily draw that conclusion.

Should torture have been used? I believe it is not justified even if it is proven to be effective and there are a plethora of studies about its ineffectiveness. Does the film have anything to add to that debate? No. It does help portray what we are debating but not how the debate could or should resolve itself or even how it affects those who participate in its use or as its victims. But this film is not about torture. And the question about the utility and ethics of using torture belong in another context.

What matters in the story is that torture was used and then was prohibited. It’s Obama’s prohibition that is important. In a brief scene Obama is being interviewed on 60 Minutes on 16 November 2008, and he asserts unequivocally, "I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture." We are told very clearly that many CIA operatives believe that they now have to work with one hand tied behind their back. Worse yet, they may be exposed for whatever they do before a political inquiry. The shut down has made them all über cautious. That is the point other than that torture was used and the ambiguity about the degree that torture contributed to that result. When an almost broken Daniel has decided to go back to Washington to take a desk job and is grieving over his pet monkeys because his superiors believed that they could possibly escape – "Can you believe that?" – Daniel warns Maya, "you gotta be really careful with detainees now. The politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar with the oversight committee."

This is why that background is so important, for the key part of the film is the third section after using CIA assets to track and find the courier in the second section. The core of the film is the decision to attack the compound where Maya alleges Usama bin Laden is holed up, though the only evidence she has is all indirect – a high level courier for bin Laden lives there, it had no TV, cable, satellite or telephone access. One inhabitant never appears and is assumed to be there because there are three wives and only two husbands. The third man is never even seen by satellite imagery. The evidence is all circumstantial.

How can I perversely claim, against all other accounts of the movie that I have read, that the key is the decision to attack the compound not the torture issue. First, because how technically some key information was obtained is interesting, but it is not the core of the drama unless the characters themselves wrestled with the question of whether torture was or was not effective or ethical. They do not. It is just a given. The ‘how’ – in this case, how information is obtained and used – is very critical to a chase movie or a heist movie, but is not the centre of focus of a high drama. And the real drama comes with the question of whether to attack or not.

The second argument is a structural one. If torture was the central issue – though it clearly has been interpreted to be so by the media coverage – why does it take place in the first half hour and why is the issue then dropped? Third, look at the structure of the drama. The film follows a conventional plot line leading from the background on the initial cause, presumably known by everyone so that it needed only 15 seconds, then the effort to get to the starting gate, then the crisis – to go or not to go – and then the implementation.

I would also cite as an authority, Acting Director Michael Morrell of the CIA who, in an unprecedented gesture, issued a press release on the film on 21 December 2013 to insist the film was a work of art and not a documentary as suggested and certainly not historically accurate. Maya did not do it; a huge team worked on the issue and it was a big team effort. Secondly, he too believed that the film suggested that "the former detention and interrogation program were the keys to finding bin Laden". "That impression is false," he insisted.

Morrell did not recognize the ambiguity of that assertion. We know he was referring to the issue of whether torture yielded the results, but he seemed totally unaware that the assertion that the impression is false could have referred to his impression and interpretation of the film. His interpretation that the film gave the message that enhanced interrogation techniques yielded the key evidence could have been false. Ironically, he admitted to using "enhanced interrogation techniques", asserted that they contributed key evidence, but insisted that that multiple streams of intelligence were used.

I keep thinking I have seen a different film than anyone else. For the film I saw, even though it spent an inordinate amount of time on torture for what I suggested were very different reasons – did attribute the conclusion to multiple intelligence sources and did not unambiguously suggest that the key information was obtained as a result of torture. Morrell also wanted to defend the memories of his colleagues – one thinks primarily of character of Jessica in the movie – against the fictional portrayal, though I suspect, given the influence of film, those memories will be deformed and reformed as a result of the movie.

I wanted to read his objections because I expected him to take issue with the way the decision process in the CIA was portrayed. He did not. So I presume that it was a reasonably accurate portrayal. Silence says so much.

However, my main argument — that the core of the film is the CIA decision process and not the first quarter torture scenes — is the artistic, political and theoretical concerns and priorities of Kathryn Bigelow as the film director. I have only viewed two of her other movies even though she has been making movies since the late seventies. Everyone knows about Hurt Locker because Bigelow won two Oscars for the film and was the first female director ever to win and Oscar. I also saw one of her films about twenty years ago called Point Break. I still remember it though I never knew she had directed it until I recently read her bio.

Point Break is a film that merges the genre of a serf movie with that of a crime movie when an FBI agent, played by Keanu Reeves, goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers led by Patrick Swayze in Los Angeles who rob banks to finance their life style wearing the masks of presidents – Nixon, etc. In the process, the FBI begins to identify with them and, as we watch, we are left in suspended animation curious whether he will join with his new "friends" and subscribe to their code or maintain his code as a police officer. On one level, the plot is sustained by the events. But at a deeper level it is sustained by the self transformation in consciousness of the FBI agent and the titillating prospect of its disastrous consequences. The muscular beauty and luscious sheer physicality of the movie married to a gang film was both a comment on a life style as well as upon the presidents whose masks they wore both to disguise and reveal themselves was brilliant, as was the pacing and the suspense.

Bigelow has made at least a dozen other movies and I was determined to watch at least a few of them before writing this piece – but I did not. In any case, in Zero Dark Thirty the sense of tension is not maintained by whether Maya will or will not sell out and adopt the male code, but whether, in doing so, she will succeed in her mission to kill bin Laden. On that message the film is unequivocally clear: she converted and became more testerone- driven than any of the other honchos in the CIA. Further, that was the only reason she, and therefore the CIA and America, managed to kill Usama bin Laden.

Review again how Zero Dark Thirty starts; the initial collage of 9/11 that revs up shock and fear and anger, even rage; then the code of a muscular gangster film of men beating up someone in accordance with the fixed rules of a Hollywood scene of pausing and giving the victim a chance before dealing another vicious blow. It is literally gut wrenching and Nancy and I both cringed for we respond viscerally to physical violence in films, especially when so realistically portrayed. (Nancy whispered at the time, "So this is where you take me on Valentine’s Day!)

The film no sooner captures our attention at the gut level than it touches our hearts again already wide open by the cri de coeur of the woman in the burning and collapsing Trade Center Tower. Maya is as squeamish about violence as we are. So we are with her throughout her Odyssey as she is made over and shaped and inducted into the code of a torturer at one level and the CIA masculine code of what makes a successful case officer. She learns to torture – without wearing a ski mask. She learns to push her way among a crop of vacillating and week-kneed frightened CIA senior heads. So we learn as she learns the codes, the language, the slang, the acronyms. We in the audience hear the following lines, but I bet there was not one person in the theatre who could decipher them. George at one point says, "I run the Af-Pak division of CTC, and I’m primary on this for the agency. This is a title fifty operation."

What is the Af-Pak division? What is CTC? What status is a primary? That one we can guess. What’s a title fifty operation? In one line of text we are wallowing in CIA bafflegab for a lay audience. But that is unimportant. It’s the use of code language that counts. Our ignorance tells us it is a code language. We have been introduced to the private language that the CIA used as part of their bonding.

There is one other key female CIA agent to whom we are introduced in the film. Jessica is sure she has a lead on an informer, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who she insists is really motivated. He supposedly has been turned by the Jordanians and is also motivated by money ($25 m is on the table). When Maya turns off the 60 Minutes program with Obama insisting that America doesn’t torture, Jessica informs Maya that the doctor will not come to Islamabad to meet them because he fears for his own security. The irony is distinctly there. We know what is coming even if that knowledge is not allowed to creep into consciousness. Jessica should fear for her security. They agree to meet in Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to which the next scene shifts.

After a long wait and way after the meeting time, just as the CIA team, which includes another young female CIA officer, Lauren, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and the base’s CIA security head, John, after last minute instructions on how the interrogation will be handled, the team is now on the verge of giving up. We feel the tension, the expectation, the disappointment, the anxiety, the renewed eagerness when a car is seen approaching from the distance. It stops outside the barriers by gate guards. Jessica panics and fears that her informant will be spooked. Jessica urges John to wave the gate guards off. But security only works, he says ominously, if we stick to the rules and the game plan, if we are constant. Make an exception, she urges. I can’t he replies. I’m responsible for everyone’s safety, not just yours. Then, in the one totally unconvincing scene in the film, he surrenders to her will and determination. He orders the guards to stand down We in the audience sit pinned to our seat waiting for the car bomb that will massacre them all. Only it is not a car bomb. The Islamist is wearing a body bomb which the doctor (?) blows up when he gets out of the car and they order him to take his hand out of his pocket.

There are no surprises in the general plot of a heist movie, a gangster movie, a spy movie, an action movie, except in the manner of implementation of the next step. In the best of such films, it is not the external drama of events that propel the film but the personal psychological transformation of the central protagonist.

See what can happen when we bend the male security codes for women driven by their feelings and their instincts! That is the message! It is the backdrop to Maya’s pressure on her CIA superiors to give the ok to attack the compound. But before that Maya will have her own setbacks. Just after she has witnessed via satellite feed the death of her closest friend and her team, she is handed a disc that shows that the Abu Ahmed, who she has been chasing now for years, is dead. She watches the video and refuses to believe it. When asked what she will do she replies that she will smoke everybody in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden. Not capture him! Not interrogate him! Kill him! Maya has become an unstoppable force, ruthless and dedicated, willing to suppress emotion and wreck revenge on bin Laden personally. He’s mine, all mine, she lets us know, echoing Daniel’s statements as he tortures Amman in the opening scenes. She is the vengeful force of wrath. And unlike the typical gangster, she is a superwoman and cannot be killed riding shotgun or at the wheel of the car in the reverse attempted revenge by al Quaeda against her personally.

Further, as in a typical gangster movie, your real enemies are not the other gang, but your colleagues. As the line goes in Goodfellas, "Your murderers always come with smiles on their faces." Will her desk jockeys in Washington manage to kill her project before she gets to kill bin Laden? On her side, the central issue is betrayal. The dispatch of the other side automatically follows, even if it requires great technical ingenuity, managing to survive and prevent being betrayed. The murder of bin Laden is straight forward. The subtle efforts to undermine Maya when she is least suspecting and most vulnerable are at the core of the film. Recall Maya’s dirty look at Daniel when he votes for a soft 60% that the compound hold bin Laden.

But this is a gangster film of the twenty-first century when the real gangsters have gone international, but it mirrors the old gangster movies of the sixties and seventies when all gangsters got their just desserts rather than the gangster films of the eighties and nineties when the good guys and the gangsters each betray their own side and kill one another. In Zero Black Thirty we are back to an age of innocence in gangster movies but now on an international stage. The bad guys get their come-uppance. The good guys cheer even if they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the murder scene.

Maya toils for years with no results until Debbie, a new recruit who is as perky as Maya was when she first arrived, walks up to her desk and tells Maya that she came to Pakistan inspired by tales she heard about Maya. Debbie hands Maya a file that seems to indicate that it was not Abu Ahmed who died but his brother. Why had Maya not been told before? "Things got lost in the shuffle. Human error." Caprice! History takes a turn because of chance and chance was needed to offset human error. Habeeb, Abu Ahmed’s older brother, who looked just like him, was the one who died. How does she know? By inference. If someone as important as Abu Ahmed had died, the chat rooms all over would be flashing

Daniel in Washington goes to bat for her. In an interchange with Wolf, the Muslim head of the counter-terrorism unit in CIA headquarters, Daniel offers to be the fall guy, the body, the scapegoat, that the Inquisitors for the government will be looking for to punish for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. He does so as a noble knight in service to Maya’s obsession and in return for a couple of hundred thousand dollars needed to find the phone number of Abu Ahmed’s family. Daniel goes out into the field again and offers a prince in Kuwait a V10 Lamborghini in exchange for the phone number. No torture now. Just payola.

One after another Maya bends other male reluctant officers to her will in spite of their initial reluctance. She convinces Larry to help on the slim evidence that the guy who phones home from many different places and lied to his mother shows clear signs of tradecraft. Until she runs into Bradley at the American Embassy! Bradley tells her that he can’t understand her obsession with getting surveillance on some guy who a facilitator once said might have been bin Laden’s courier. In any case, Bradley doesn’t give a fuck abut bin Laden. What matters is preventing attacks in America. He threatened to send her home to work on American al Quaeda cells.

Maya doesn’t budge an inch. If you want to stop attacks on the homeland, get bin Laden; he keeps ordering them she yells back. Bradley barks back, "no one has talked to bin Laden in four years. He’s out of the game. He’s dead. You’re chasing a ghost." Maya responds even more strongly, but with a very personal attack on Bradley for being a no-nothing and just wanting to tick a box that you got another low-level operative. Then she raises the stakes beyond the weapons of verbal humiliation used in sparring and blackmails him. "Either give me the team I need to follow the lead, or the other thing you’re gonna have on your resume is the first Station Chief to be called before a congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden. Bradley responds, "You’re fucking out of your mind." We cheer Maya for winning what to date seems her most important cock fight for we have been well socialized in the code of gangster movies. As worshippers of the image on the cave wall, we understand the laws of revenge. We have all caught scopophilia, the predominant male gaze of Hollywood cinema. Only instead of women portrayed as simply objects, we watch them mutate into male protagonists. We go to the movies desiring "to watch and identify with what you’re watching" so women, half the audience for movies, can now be mesmerized by gangster films.

The code is simple. If someone tries to subvert you, you have to retaliate with a harder blow than the one he threw. Otherwise you’re a wimp. Maya proved she was no wimp and had learned the rules of the war of all against all that prevails in the Hobbesian state of nature. No compassion. No backing down. No saying you are sorry No bowing down before superior formal authority. It is the law of gangs. It is the law of prisons. It is the law of the jungle. It is the laws that Daniel articulated at the beginning of the film. Formal authority be damned! The issue is always who the lord and master is and who the bondsman.

So it goes. As you sit in the audience you cheer her on and despair at the number of wishy-washy bosses she has to beat up. Then we get on what seems a side track. Bradley is being pulled out of Pakistan because he has been named publicly in a lawsuit by the family of the victim of a U.S. drone attack. The issue isn’t Bradley’s departure. That’s the feint. The issue is that drone attacks create their own media relations nightmares and a different kind of security problem. Maya wanted to nuke the compound but indirectly we are told that she had to draw back; accept killing bin Laden and give up on the fast and certain but with indeterminate political consequences. Maya has been socialized to become a sociopath standing out and challenging the system in terms of its own real rules and using any means she can to get her way. And we in the audience love every bit of it. The law of the jungle is bulldoze your way through and use whatever norms there are against the system itself to get your way. Compassion for the kids in the compound! Does Maya express one bit of concern about the kids who would be killed? Not a whit! A bleeding heart she ain’t. Up with rugged individualism!

We now have the answer why Maya did not completely get her way. She wanted to blow bin Laden’s compound with a drone rather than using Navy Seals. Pakistan gets a new CIA head. Maya says she needs people to track Abu Ahmed. The new head folds rather than argue with her. Her reputation has preceded his taking the job. He knows who really runs the show. But the hunter has become the hunted. An assassination gang tries to get her, shooting up her car. But she gets away. She has become one tough and resourceful broad.

Now the peak to which everything has been building — getting an affirmative decision to attack the compound. Days pass. Weeks. Months. Maya takes to writing in lipstick on the glass wall her boss’s office how many days they have waited for a go-ahead.

What are the considerations? The scenes are fast paced and tumble one on top of the other even though they take place over four months and obviously take much more time than we see. We view a hall at the White House outside the office of the President’s National Security Adviser (NSA). George approaches as the team files out and says to the NSA, "I just don’t get the rhythms of politics." The NSA replies, "You think this is political? If this was political we’d be having this conversation in October when there’s an election bump. This is pure risk. Based on deductive reasoning, inference, supposition and the only human reporting you have is six years old, from detainees who are questioned under duress. The political move is to tell you to go fuck yourself, and remind you that I was in the room when your old boss pitched WMD in Iraq…at least there you guys brought photographs." The memory of Iraq haunts the whole bureaucracy just as the Mogadishu syndrome haunted the Clinton presidency when the Rwanda genocide broke out. But Maya is so determined and wilful that she can not only resurrect zombies but can even dissolve the ghost of the Iraq War.

We learn that the issue is a calculation of risk and not politics. Given the evidence, it’s a no-brainer – go fuck yourself. George pops back: But how do you weigh the risk of bin Laden getting way? He is far more subtle that Maya in his use of blackmail. The NSA now suggests that the problem is no longer whether to attack but how. "Give us options."

But we are not given the options. We are not explicitly told why they chose to use Navy Seals rather than drones. Was it because of the women and children in the compound? Was it because they wanted concrete proof that they had bin Laden? Was it because they wanted to capture documents? Was it because they feared bad public relations?

We never know. Had the film already gone on too long? Was it over budget? We are not given any information on the options and why one was chosen over the other. The climax focuses on the decision on whether to implement one option or not. We move to Nevada and an Air Force base and we meet the Navy Seal team and view two high tech stealth Blackhawks that have never been tested with people or in an actual operation. There will be all kinds of risks in employing them. But we never see any real calculation of that risk. We are never introduced to any sense that the decision is really about rational deduction and inference. It is about will and only about will with a supporting cast of reasons playing minor roles.

And we are back to the decision? A Navy Seal asks Maya in an incredulous tone, ‘You mean you have no intel on the ground?" But even these tough soldiers, Maya wins over. She is truly an unstoppable force. She is truly a superwoman. But on route to their conversion from sceptics to followers if not believers, she tells them her preference: "Quite Frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb but people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb, so they’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser… But bin Laden is there – you’re going to kill him for me." Vivian who plays the same agent in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden insists on the same: "We should bomb the fuck out of it." Since the two different filmmakers did not share notes, it seems that the character of Maya/Vivian was based on a real person.

The tough and best way was to use a drone. But the politicos are too worried about the hell that would break lose if they had the wrong target or for killing women and children. We do not know if this was part of the reasoning. It is part of showing Maya as tougher than any of the men she has dealt with and certainly tougher than the politicians. America has found its Margaret Thatcher.

But then she comes up against the CIA Director played by James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame with Wolf, the Deputy Director, Daniel and others in attendance. Yes or no the CIA Director asks. 60% two of them answer, including Wolf. 80% says George. Daniel suggests a soft 60% for bin Laden but high probability for a high level target. Then the CIA Director turns to Maya, but is interrupted by his deputy who insists they have taken her opinion into account in their assessments of the probability. But Maya says her piece anyway. "100%, he’s there – okay, fine, ninety-five percent because I know certainty freaks you guys out – but it’s a hundred!"

She beat them all at their own game. She did not get her drones but she got the next best thing. Bigelow has directed a brilliant film in which she surrendered her belief as youth drawn from conceptual art that the aesthetic should always be in service to the idea and instead made a movie in which the idea and the aesthetic work in a remarkable tension as she continues her explorations of the coded language of the masculine herd, in this case, one in which a female has become the winning prize fighter. Her movie is a remarkable visceral journey involving gut, heart and eventually head. The rest of the movie is the climatic action film of the implementation of the decision and strictly about the code of masculinity in a state of nature that is all about power and violence. That ending, however, that muscular he-man stuff is, however, anti-climactic to the psychological thriller that just ended.

In the end Maya flies alone to where we do not know.

Tomorrow: Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

[Tags Obama, Zero Dark Thirty, revenge, rational decisions,


Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

The copy is attached as well.

Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending


Howard Adelman

Part II History and Redemption

Last night, Nancy, I and our friend, Lynn, went to see David Russell’s comic romance, Silver Linings Playbook. Pat Solatano played by Bradley Cooper had just finished a term of eighth months in a mental institution for beating the bejeezus out of a history teacher (who better?) employed at the school where his wife taught after he found the two together in a shower. He lost his own job as a teacher, lost his wife and his own home and returned to live with his parents. His mother, played by Jacki Weaver, delivers her dry humour with impeccable timing. His father, played by Robert DeNiro, as our friend Lynn quipped, has recently carved a brilliant career playing criminal nutcases living on the precipitous edge of normalcy.

One of the very hilarious scenes is the occasion when DeNiro parleys his bet on the outcome of a football game and ties it to the outcome of a dance competition that his son has entered with Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) as the most clear-edge portrait of a woman I have ever seen on screen, clear-edged to the point of madness. The movie is effectively about parleying bets until they tumble over and under one another like a sex scene to the accompaniment of a washing machine and the accumulations that Adrian in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, speculates to be the essential calculus for understanding human relationships. Like the best of romantic comedies, it is a story of unrequited love and arrested development, of sex postponed but culminating in marriage in the highest tradition paid to the secular religion of our age, romantic love.

The movie, Silver Linings Playbook, is a reflection of a dominant contemporary myth dressed up in a jester’s costume. In contrast, The Sense of an Ending has a great deal to teach us about reality. While Adrian behaved as if life was a parley, Tony had behaved as if it was just a matter of addition and subtraction and had maintained his sanity and equilibrium thereby. Unfortunately, Adrian lost his bet and ended with nothing. Why did the best and the brightest in this case lose?

Since the four boys had not yet been granted status as adults and allowed to become full participants in the religion of our time, romantic love, they could only engage in idle speculation about why Robson committed suicide. The consensus seemed to be that it was just an intellectual balancing act and a scientific commitment to the principle of population stability. Since he was bringing one new life into the world, Robson would have to leave it. After all, Guitar in Song of Solomon played according to the same principle by killing the same number of Whites as Blacks killed by Whites who escaped being held responsible for their actions. Even if the motives and the outcomes were different, the principle of balance was the same.

Except there is a suggestion, a hint (a feint?), that Adrian demurred. Was it an adumbration of the end? Perhaps Adrian’s final act was an exercise in absolute freedom and determining control over life and death consistent with Camus’ view of the ultimate in freedom. That is what we are led for much of the novel by Tony’s ruminations to believe. The real question in life for the boys was whether they would make a real choice in their lives instead of remaining on the sidelines as bystanders and become the protagonists portrayed in fiction who loved and lost, who suffered and were ecstatic, who were betrayed and even killed, who saw power and justice and engaged in revolution and wars. Real literature, in the end was about "character developed over time," virtues and vices and not the follies and foibles of romantic comedy.

If so, then wallowing in fleeting memory was not where it’s at, as the four boys seem to see. They would have to wrestle with history. But what if history was just the historiography as relayed by the victors as Tony believed, or an onion sandwich as Colin cynically joked with the same old oscillations between war and peace, tyranny and rebellion, always stuffed with the same delicious delicacies that left you with a foul breath? Adrian, however, offered another option: "History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." As Frank Kermode wrote – of which more later – a crisis is not about what is out there but about how we have framed the narrative to wrap our minds about what is out there — "crisis is a way of thinking about one’s moment, and not inherent in the moment itself."

This was the lesson that Barack Obama had learned in grappling with his own memoirs and trying to get a grasp on how power is acquired and exercised. History is the crossing point between individual virtues and collective actions. History was not trying to subsume events and actions under laws of probability or certainty as Carl Hempel had argued. Nor was it the empathetic re-enactment of the decisions individuals made in accordance with the ethical and other norms they upheld so that we could understand the reasons why they decided to do what they did as Bill Dray had argued. History was a conundrum that had to be puzzled through like a detective story or like a piece of fiction that was about history as a detective story by ploughing through vaporous messages from the past and constructing a quasi-coherent narrative to frame it.

The vapours rarely explored concerning historical figures of action are the fictions they read and not just the fictions they write or the serious books they read. Julian Barnes makes my case. To himself, Tony Webster, the narrator, ends up as a bystander, an individual of no consequence except as a reporter and interpreter of Adrian. And his girlfriend of college days ends up with Adrian, in part, because the books Veronica owned were both ones she read and, more importantly, ones that "seemed to be an organic continuation of her mind," whereas the books that Tony had on his shelf, if he honestly read them, were "functionally separate straining to define character." If you are or are to become a person of history, then the books you own, read and love are extensions and revelations of your character. On the other hand, it is not clear to me whether you have to choose to be clear-edged while in practice being anything but, or choose mystery and manipulation over clarity as many politicians and manipulative men and women are wont to do.

In Barnes’ novel, the first iteration of strong feelings, instead of ambiguous expressions of longing and self-doubt, comes from Adrian after Tony had inquired about Jack, Veronica’s brother, who is ahead of Adrian at Cambridge but also studying moral sciences. After several initial non-committal comments about Jack, that he has heard and read about him, Adrian becomes vehement and barks, "I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious." Obama, even through he wears his semi-permanent pearly smile with aplomb, is always serious about being serious. In contrast, Tony had stagnated and his girlfriend Veronica began to introduce more space between herself and Tony.

That was because Tony had chosen survival rather than life. The irony is that the Tee of Life in the Garden of Evil is about choosing survival and not entering into life and history. What most people do not recognize is that the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden is not the option of immortality. That was never an option for either Adam or Eve. They were humans. If they ate of the Tree of Knowledge they became self-conscious of death, self-conscious of the tension between eros and thanatos. But then what was the Tree of life? It was Tony’s choice – choosing the safe path, the peaceable path the path of self-preservation rather than risk. His marriage to the clear-edged Margaret, his second wife – and their split – would follow the path of least resistance as his life became more and more empty and more and more non-committal. Obama chose the path less travelled by. Adrian in the end chose not to walk the path, but at least he evidently chose. In contrast, Tony "began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was."

But what about Adrian? In the end Tony’s mother appeared to have it right. Adrian was just too clever. He thought things out and had the disciplined character of a man of courage to act on what he believed. He acted on those conclusions and left common sense behind, unlike Tony who had a surfeit of common sense. To his enormous chagrin, in the end his common sense made no sense at all.

Adrian appeared to have suffered the hubris of rationalism. Rationalism is the soul mate of romanticism and the two are wedded together in married agony in our contemporary secular faith. The former go out into the world under the illusion that man is a possessive individualist driven by greed with the tools of a utilitarian calculating brain. The latter stay at home or go to the movies and watch chick flicks and dream of a prince charming, even if that prince charming has just been released from a mental hospital even though he still has not gained mastery of his anger and rage, even if the black horse of rage yoked to the white horse is really in charge of setting the direction. And what happens if a man of principle possessed of pure practical reason and the powers of deduction and not the instrumental powers of calculating reason, is about to enter the world at large and meets a member of the opposite sex who is a possessive individualist, who is an instrumental calculator? It appears that he does not have a chance. He is doomed, especially since he, as well as Tony, had even been blind to the identity of the super manipulator.

Tony would, with his friends, turn what they believed to be definite in memory into anecdote. The rest they relegated to uncertainty and, with overlapping and backtracking that uncertainty in turn was relegated to the storehouse of shreds and patches of false memories put away in storage boxes we seal and do not revisit even though we continue to pay the storage charges. Decades would go by before chance intervened once again and the story could resume with time running backwards as frozen anecdotes were cast aside in favour of critical inquiry. Until that time, Tony had survived, had eaten of the Tree of Life, and history was still being written by survivors rather than victors.

As time moves on there is less rather than more certainty and less rather than more corroboration of what your life has been. Further, though history that happens underneath our nose ought to be the clearest, it is the most deliquescent dissolving and melting into the anecdotes that freeze the past into current memory dollops.

But what if that which is deliquescent entails not only evaporation, as when the hot frying pan is plunged into the cold water in the sink, but liquefaction takes place and absorption from the air brings a dehydrated life back to a vital presence? A mere little document can do it – return memories frozen in anecdote back into the lively process of historical discovery and revelation. For the turning point in the novel comes when, four decades later, Tony himself re-reads the mean-spirited letter of vituperation he had sent both Adrian and Veronica after Adrian and Veronica had gotten together. For aside from the clear edged but not peaceable piece of correspondence, we get a glimpse of what Tony could have been and had not become, the counterfactuals of history so revealing of what perceived in juxtaposition could have been. If only Tony could have married the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes with the sentiment and empathy of David Hume and Adam Smith. It is for the absence of the latter not the clarity of the former that Tony begins to feel remorse and regret.

What might have happened if Barrack Obama had a Tony as a best friend when he was young? Not very likely! Tony wasn’t a Boswell. In any case, Adrian checked out and decided not to become a Johnson. 70% through the novel, Tony asks a key question: "What if by some means remorse can be made to flow backwards, can be transmuted into simple guilt, then apologised for, and then forgiven? What if you can prove you weren’t the bad guy she took you for, and she is willing to accept your proof?" Tony remained deluded. He just never got it.

But what about Adrian, why did he opt out, not just mentally, but altogether? He had so much promise when he went up to Cambridge. Was it the outcome of what follows from a pure principle of practical reasoning? Was it really the grand refusal of "an existential gift"? Or did he act for more mundane reasons? As the novel progresses towards the end and new affective states reopen blocked-off neural pathways, we are taken by surprise at what we learn and are forced to rewrite our memories though not our histories.

Cambridge enters the novel through another route. Frank Kermode was a professor of English at Cambridge before he left for Columbia University and then Harvard. The title of the novel is borrowed from his volume of English criticism published in a turning point in history for many Jews, the Six Day War in 1967 – The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction – when Kermode was teaching at University College at the University of London. I was introduced to Frank Kermode as a literary critic through my first wife, Margaret, but I also remember the scandal the same year his volume of criticism came out when he resigned as editor of Encounter when it was revealed that the CIA had been funding the journal.

I last looked at an essay of his a few years ago when I was talking to my youngest son about apocalyptic themes in movies. The subject came up again – not Kermode but his thesis in his book – that fictions are the instruments we use to make sense of the world by constructing what I have called meta-narratives, ways to grasp and make sense of reality by giving it shape and form. The issue arose in the context of the environmental crisis when my two youngest sons were home for Christmas, my youngest with his focus on film and horror, apocalyptic themes and continuity of life through sacrifice of the other. Daniel, his slightly older brother, is a passionate environmentalist and the possible collapse – I believe he thinks likely since we are not doing enough to reverse the process – of the environment hangs over his life like a heavy cloud.

It is not that he is morose or does not get on with his life. He has not been immobilized at all and speaks against pipelines. But the sense of an immanent end to the world permeates his consciousness and colours his activities – he made what was to me a very impressive presentation to the hearing on the contentious pipeline in the west. He feels like Sisyphus rolling a heavy boulder up a hill, made much more perilous and far more difficult because it is actively being pushed down by the decadent cynics who mock the whole process and by the American imperial adventurism which displaces the main crisis facing the world onto adventurous campaigns against Islamist terrorism and a determination to begin a new era with the conquest of Iraq to rid it of the fictional weapons of mass destruction it was claimed the country had.

I owe those categories of framing the issue to Kermode. I owe the sense that the consciousness of the young generation has been shaped by the environmental crisis to Daniel just as the consciousness in my youth had been shaped by the nuclear arms race. There is a mood to an age that cannot be separated from the conditions in which we live and fiction is a means to make sense of it. The mood is far heavier than when the nuclear arms race hung over my generation and when the Cuban missile crisis occurred.

But this is not, I believe, why Barnes borrowed the title. There is no sense of environmentalism. The characters are members of the baby boom generation. They do not even seem to be very conscious of the nuclear arms race or the other crises stirring up Britain at the time. In that sense they seem to be living outside history.

I take that possibly to be Barnes’ point. The title is somewhat ironic. For though the ending is needed to reconstruct the story, the whole story is set by the beginning – hence my frequent references to the options available when you are in the Garden of Eden. The characters are not located between world history and their own personal lives for the story about the dialectic between history and memory is told as if world history did not exist and the thesis is about historiography rather than history itself. The main character imposes his fictions on his experience, not to make sense of the world, but to reinforce his own common sense which tells him not to engage the world. If we live in an age of kairotic time where each moment is charged with enormous significance, you would never know it from reading this novel by Barnes.

But the reference to Kermode has another point – linking Kermode’s idea of the apocalypse back to Barack Obama. As Mark Lilla (2012) wrote in his review essay of "The Great Disconnect: ‘I Am the Change’," by Charles Kesler in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 27 September, "The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago, is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation." As Lilla wrote elsewhere in the essay, "the conservative apocalypse has always been a movable one." But the conservative mind has always been informed by an apocalyptic mindset.

Unlike most critics from the left, and bracketing Kesler’s criticism, I think that Charles Kesler’s 2012 analysis of the political thought of Obama in his volume, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism is on the right track. I have tried to document Obama’s commitment and understanding of liberalism. Further, unlike Lilla, I agree with Kesler’s assertion that Obama is intent on becoming a great transformational president and not just being president. And in another essay I will go further and argue that Obama not only has very large ambitions for the American polity, he has large ambitions concerning the two rival parties for power within that polity.

But there is a prior point. Kesler, like most conservatives, insist that Obama’s conservatism is a ruse, a public relations trick, something not to be taken seriously. Because Kesler is himself a conservative in the Leo Strauss tradition, he has not attended to Obama’s conservatism because he not only believes that liberalism has inherent contradictions, but because he mistakenly sees liberalism and social conservatism as unalterably opposed. I have added the thesis that Obama’s position has been informed by virtue ethics and a version of social conservatism. He is not just a liberal or a social democrat.

Obama may loves fiction that sets up worldviews to which he is opposed – and there are many – and we have discussed four of them, but I doubt if he appreciates fictions that purport to represent reality or construct history in terms of a grand idea as Kesler has created. That’s our job.

Kesler starts his grand narrative with George E. Hegel and put forth the old idea discarded by most contemporary Hegel scholars that Hegel viewed history as one grand sweep of human nature moving towards the absolute of perfect freedom and that the modern instrument for forwarding the idea was the state and its bureaucracy. Though Hegel certainly depicted the state – and civil society – as keys to understanding modernity, Hegel was not writing teleological history. Otherwise, why would the Owl of Minerva flap its wings at dusk? History looks backwards. Marx may have inverted Hegel in many ways to make it serve a materialist forward revolutionary thrust, but this was not Hegel’s agenda. Ironically, Kesler reads Hegel through Marxist eyes.

Secondly, the absolute is not just at the end. It is at the beginning and at every key point along the way. For the irony is that at any point we look backwards we presume we have an absolute standpoint when where we are standing will only prove to be a way station. Third, you have to understand how humans enter into a state of critical self-consciousness, a condition of living in history, but probably also of writing history. In Hegel, that begins not with a fight over power and recognition, a fight between ways of life as Cain and Abel were engaged, or between economic conservatives and liberals in our contemporary period over who deserves recognition as a defender of the highest values, as a defender of freedom, and but with the internal struggle of life and desire, with the struggle between the two trees in the Garden of Eden, between eros or desire and survival – the Tree of Life – the deadly stultifying and stagnant governing thrust of Tony’s life rooted ironically as it is in thanatos. Barnes understands this. Kesler does not. Understanding the beginning is far more crucial that even the trajectories we construct.

Kesler’s beginning starts with the American religion, its faith in the constitution. And for Kesler that constitution enshrines the ideas of John Locke not those of Hegel. According to John Locke, humans were naturally possessive individualists. However, in the state of nature, they could not exercise their passion to work on the world with their labour and convert it into artifacts that they could possess and thereby extend themselves and their identity though holding property. But that inherent will to possess combined with their inherent ingenuity allowed them to create money. Money allowed humans to accumulate. Storing bananas up was useless for they would only rot. Money abstracted from natural decay. But that led to scarcity. That led to war. That led to the social contract and men agreeing to set up government just for their collective security and to set the rules of the game for competitive possessive individualism. Hence the idea of limited government.

Except for the last deduction, it is one story of the beginning. It is one story of the role of government, not, as I suggested, a necessary logical consequence of the beginning story even for John Locke or the other members of the Scottish enlightenment. Nor does it determine the trajectory of everything going downhill to betray the constitution one the academics like Woodrow Wilson and the state builders like FDR and then Johnson had their way. It is a story that also has created an historical fraud by excising Republican presidents from this history or painting the ones that are included as traitors. In the building of the debt, the elaboration of regulations and the additions to the welfare state, Republican presidents are either blanked out like pictures in the Kremlin’s story book or painted with the same brush but with a lighter hue of red.

As was seen in Barack Obams’s inaugural and in his State of the Union Address, his set of policies are indeed ambitious, but they are based on a different foundational story and grand narrative that includes virtues ethics as well as a program of social democracy and that moves forward by articulating an original myth of caring and sharing.

I will bring the various elements together but I first want to move into foreign policy and discuss first Obama’s attitude to rights in terms of the movie, Zero Dark Thirty and then his attitude to the use of drones.

Tomorrow: Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13


Humiliation.Judt (2010) The Memory Chalet


Tony Judt (2010) The Memory Chalet, London: Penguin Books.

Discussed by

Howard Adelman

Tony Judt was one of the eminent public intellectuals and historians in the latter quarter of the twentieth century, but he reached the pinnacle of his achievements in an outpouring of writings in the first decade of this century. In 2010 he died from a neurodegerative disorder, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. While losing his ability to write, then move, then talk, and when he was “condemned to long hours of silent immobility”, heroically and with steadfast determination and imaginative innovation, he wrote The Memory Chalet. In that decade he had published Ill Fares the Land (2010), a polemic on behalf of social democracy, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008) and Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), perhaps his best and most important book after his famous book on French intellectuals in WWII. In 2012, Thinking the Twentieth Century was published posthumously.

I have previously written of the differences between Memory and History so it is compelling to discuss a famous historian who discusses memory and the “nostalgic recollection of happier days” using mnemonic devises even to store what he has recalled since he could no longer write or record what he thought without assistance. The mimetic, for Judt, entailed mutuality and symmetry rather than mimicry. Recollection was construction. For Judt not only recovered old memories, but had to remember and organize them for easier recovery and composition. So he created a “Memory palace as a storehouse of infinitely reorganized and regrouped recollections.”

Though he claimed to interweave the private and the public, there is actually very little of the truly private in the book; Judt was clearly still a reticent Englishman. We see his intellectual passion, his keen sense of observation and his lively and combative intellect at work, but we only get a glimpse of his gut desires and no insight into his heart. He claimed to interweave the reasoned and the intuited, the recalled and the felt; but, again, there is far more reason and far less of sensibility, far more recollection and a surprisingly small amount of feelings, except about his condition as he lay in a cockroach position immobilized on his back “trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy alone in my corporeal prison”. In response to this state of suspended despair, The Memory Chalet became his escape. But it was also his challenge and the new foe he was obliged to engage in heroic battle.

Judt never once discussed having the option of Dying with Dignity at the time of his choosing. This was raised as a question in Michael’s talk at Massey College, and he answered that he had asked himself the same question. So it obviously was a question not only for me but for very many others. Michael answered that he did not know, but he speculated that Judt may have pulled the plug. Knowing Judt’s personality, the actual suddenness of his death, and the fact that he had just finished delivering the final version of his manuscript to his publisher, this was a real possibility. The Memory Chalet was not simply an escape, nut may have also been a farewell message. In it, Judt provided us with a window into his life. It is an act of sharing and a reaching out for community.

If memory is the effort of reasoning to reach back and comprehend personal experience, if it is a phenomenology of oneself, it is the very opposite of history, for historiography is the effort to record and understand collective events and actions as time sweeps forward. It is not Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu nor Tony Judt’s recollection of his personal journey through time and space. Though running on different train tracks that often criss-cross one another, what memory and history both have in common is not only reaching back into the past, but an effort to understand both change and differences. Both memory and history recognize the role of chance without reducing either one’s personal life or the collective one to caprice. Judt certainly recognized that if he had not by luck or a fluke been born in England and then been admitted into King’s College in Cambridge, everything might have been different. Falling into the career he did as an historian was the most precarious experience of his life. Living the final two years of his life as he did showed the degree to which a human can take command of time and even battle caprice.

In reflecting on a life lived, in fact, through reflection on another’s life and recollection of it, we gain a more acute understanding of our own. Further, by comparing the two experiences, you also obtain a more acute understanding of the other’s, particularly when the key categories and concerns of each life overlap – a concern with education, with the zeitgeist, with globalization, modernity and national character, and with lies and the difference between appearance and reality. But the recognition of fundamental differences is also important. And the unique focus of Judt’s memoir for me is its scattered expressions concerning contempt and humiliation, a point which Michaeldid not take up yesterday evening but which intrigued me.

But first the more mundane differences and similarities! Tony Judt was 10 years younger than myself; he was born after WWII in 1948 while I was born just before it. He also had an academic career but one far more illustrious than my own. He was and remained to the very end a wonderful writer. He went to an English direct grant independent self-governing school subsidized by the local authorities in London open to any boy who did well at the examinations for eleven-year olds. Though Emanuel did not have the snob appeal of Eton, Winchester or Westminster, it nevertheless offered an excellent education. Unlike the high school that I went to in Toronto, Harbord Collegiate, where the Jewish population exceeded 95%, in Emanuel there were only 10 Jews amongst the 1000 students. There Tony Judt encountered endemic anti-Semitism which I only experienced when I crossed the turf of enemy gentile gangs in the exogenous world outside my parochial Jewish world.

We also shared another similarity in the language we both chose to study – German. We both had superb German teachers. Joe, who taught Judt, had a sardonic sense of the absurd, and though he praised first-rate work, he scathingly characterized those who fell below his high standards of perfection as “absolute rubbish” and the “scum of the earth”. He reminded me of one of my own excellent teacher of algebra who would bark at fumblers and dissemblers and tell them to grow drive a truck. We both had the delight of experiencing politically incorrect but brilliant teachers.

But our experiences in learning a language were very different. While Judt in just two years of intensive German study achieved a high level of linguistic competence to enable him to read quite sophisticated books in German, I struggled and struggled with the study of another language. Though I was not as exposed to Yiddish as he was, and that probably was an assist for him, it was clear that he was very adept at languages. I am surprised upon reflection that my gentle and very supportive German teacher did not imitate my algebra teacher’s advice to others and tell me to go drive a truck. For in my select form of high achievers where everyone in the class received over 90 marks on the first German exam, I received a 62 in stark contrast to the series of perfect or near-perfect marks I received in science and my mathematical subjects throughout high school. And those subjects I barely had to study outside class. I studied German 3 hours a day — every moment I could spare from my paper routes and other means of earning money. I finally became proficient enough to read detective stories in German and earn a 92, but the sweat and tears! Judt got the second to top grade with ease. Our recollections both left us with the belief that, “being well taught is the only thing worth remembering from school”.

Judt was admitted to King’s College, Cambridge and it made his life. He went to university in the dying days of in loco parentis whereas I was an undergraduate a decade earlier when enforcement was more deliberate and effective but when we too found many means to get around the strictures. He eventually became a fellow and was even briefly associate dean. I briefly taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto and swore after that experience that I would never teach at a university again; the students I happened to get were just not serious. Several years later I returned to university because of the opportunity to teach mature students at Atkinson College at York University and ended up staying there thirty-seven years before retiring and taking up research professorships at Princeton and at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. I also had a brief stint as an associate dean very near the beginning of my academic career.

Though living as a resident student in the Oxbridge system was radically different than being a commuting student and then living outside the colleges in student cooperative housing, we both attended university when “liberalism and tolerance, indifference to external opinion, a prideful sense of distinction accompanying progressive political allegiances” were among the manageable contradictions that pervaded both Cambridge and the University of Toronto. We were both on the social democratic left. We also went to university well before political correctness, identity and other forms of gender and identity politics permeated the curriculum and before hypersensitivity to wounded sentiments became a dominant norm concerning conduct. Judt begrudged what has happened to the university and blamed his generation for leaving that residue as its legacy. In a very early book, The Holiversity, I was, surprising to myself, reasonably prophetic in anticipating both the emergence of the social service university into pre-eminence and its successor that is currently on the rise, the supermarket consumer dominated version of higher education.

Unlike Judt, I took no personal responsibility for that outcome but attributed it to the contradictions within the university and the forces of history. Judt emerged as much more of an elitist than I and he totally disparaged the effort to give everyone a chance when hypocritically the talented were privileged anyway. Judt and I both, nevertheless, bemoaned the emergence of post-modernism and we both had “little tolerance for self-expression as a substitute for clarity”. Effort was no substitute for achievement. Judt’s teachers at King’s College at Oxford expunged his nascent Marxism and imbued him with the conviction that history as a discipline was “dependent in the first instance upon facts, not theory”. They taught empiricism “by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.” The teachers at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford did the same for my son and cured him of his nascent Gramscian propensities and turned him into a committed empiricist. I was never cured of my affair with abstract dialectical forces, but also never subscribed to the simplistic and reductionist Marxist version.

Though I am ten years older than Judt, he comes across as much more of an old fogey when dealing with contemporary culture. He writes in The Memory Chalet that, “The wealth of resources we apply to entertainment serves only to shield us from the poverty of the product; likewise in politics, where ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhetoric mask a yawning emptiness.” I love contemporary entertainment and especially movies. I also think that politics has not been reduced to meaningless talk even though politics is also awash with ideologues, now on the right rather than the left. Though I am very critical of some politicians (and ever more critical of some members of the chattering class) I celebrate and admire the way many others practice the art of politics.

There are other curious and coincidental though perhaps not very revealing similarities. My father, like his, in keeping with their generation, was obsessed with motor cars – the relatively expensive and ostentatious Citroën in his father Joe’s case. My father loved Chevrolets, though in 1948, the year Judt was born, my father slipped up and bought an Austin. That purchase demonstrated why the British automobile industry would virtually vanish in the next few years. However, my generation was perhaps not obsessed but was certainly preoccupied with cars. I stood out in my deliberate indifference. Perhaps it was because, although both our fathers were most at home in their cars that symbolized new found freedom and prosperity and stood for “individualism, liberty, privacy, separation, and selfishness in their most socially dysfunctional forms”, his father took the family on road trips and only left his unhappy marriage later. My father used his car to escape his family and his obligations.

We both used the public transportation system in our respective cities before we reached our teens to explore its various dimensions and pathways. Though both Judt and I found walking pleasurable and enjoyed our bikes, we both love trains, especially Swiss trains. As Judt wrote, “To travel in Switzerland is to understand the ways in which efficiency and tradition can seamlessly blend to social advantage.” Trains can be heavenly bliss. Though I loved taking the commuter train back and forth to Princeton every week for a year, Judt was much more critical of American and the changes in the British train service over the last two decades. “In later years, as Britain’s rail system fell into decline, train travel lost some of its appeal. The privatization of the companies, the commercial exploitation of the stations, and the diminished commitment of the staff all contributed to my disenchantment—and the experience of travel by train in the US was hardly calculated to restore one’s memories or enthusiasms.”

Though both of us despise ideologues of the left or right and are both versions of social democrats, where we differ is very basic. Judt had “lots of homes and I don’t consider my heart to be attached very firmly to any of them.” As he wrote, “I suppose I’ve always been homeless.” In contrast, I was born and educated in Toronto and lived in one home virtually for 42 years – for most of my academic career. And when we downsized recently, we only moved next door. Judt was a baby-boomer; I preceded the baby-boomer generation and enjoyed even more fully what Judt described as the benefits of growing up “in an age of prosperity, comfort and security” and knowing that I could do whatever I wanted in life.

Secondly, we experienced our mid life crises at slightly different ages travelling along different trajectories. I was a hard working kid living with two brothers and supported by a single mother. By the time we were fifteen, my older brother and I had saved enough money to buy my mother a house. Judt, at the same age was busy being indoctrinated with what I presume were his father’s Zionist beliefs rooted in Labour Zionism and Judt in 1963, 1965 and 1967 went to live in Israel and work on an Israeli kibbutz. He was at the time an ideologically committed conformist true believer and an articulate proselytizer. I was at that time a rebel against my orthodox Jewish beginnings, a universalist and an anti-Zionist, though a quiet rather than a noisy one. He then believed in what was widely known as muscular Judaism, in “health, exercise, productivity, collective purpose, self-sufficiency and proud separatism.” I was a cosmopolitan who had broken away from what I regarded as my parochial upbringing. “Is Jewish Survival Necessary?”, my first publication in 1960 in Reflections (24-31), focused on a number of assimilated “Jewish” intellectuals – Simone Weil and Henri Bergson among them.

We are both born again intellectuals. Judt’s immersion in East-Central Europe, specifically Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, brought him back to life. Judt wrote about the double near death experience of Jews – the Holocaust and the feared elimination through assimilation. The events leading up to the Six Day War took me through a third near death experience. Judt does not write about how the Six Day War affected him, but when it arrived he had already become disabused with Zionism as well as Israel. I at the time in the period leading up to the war noticed the huge chasm between my fears that Israel would be wiped off the map and my supposed indifference to the fate of any expression of Jewish particularism, whether in the form of a state or through the Jewish religion.

Though I was not exalted by Israel’s enormous victory in 1967 and participated in none of the euphoric celebrations, I was very relieved and quietly determined to resolve the contradictions between my professed intellectual positions and my deep emotional concern with the fate of Israel. For the first time, in 1973 I finally took my whole family there for three weeks. I was reborn as a Zionist and thence celebrated the recovery of Jewish self-determination. I am extremely proud that two of my grandchildren grew up in Israel and served with distinction in the Israeli armed forces in stark contrast to my strident pacifism as an undergraduate.

Judt was correct when he wrote that, “Many American [and Canadian] Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz.” Except I actually even knew very little about the Shoah. Judt mastered the Czech language and I studied a great deal about not only Zionism and the Middle East but even subsequently revived an interest in Judaism that had been systematically expunged from my soul when I attended Jewish school six days a week. So it is surprising that in spite of these very basic differences, we are both entranced by identity politics in its traditional form focused on the nation state and, in particular, the nation in that state. It seemed paradoxical to me that Judt as a professed cosmopolitan would be mesmerized by traditional identity politics focused on the nation rather than gender or ethnicity and, further, that he would so vividly and succinctly depict key characteristics of each nation and very near come to reifying those characteristics.

In The Memory Chalet, Judt characterizes seven national cultures; American, English, French, German, Czech, Swiss and Jewish, though he clearly revoked his earlier belief that Jews had a “national” culture and deserved to have the responsibility of self-determination to have their own state. (See his infamous 2003 controversial essay on a one state solution in the New York Review of Books.)

For Judt, “America herself is a mistress, rebuffing and seducing by turns”. Judt loved living in New York because, like many Americans themselves, he bought into the myth that New York was on the edge and not really part of America. He observed, loved and depicted the inter-cultural multicultural street life of New York city. Judt was appalled and repelled by the contemporary ostentatious patriotism of contemporary America, and its bellicosity and nostalgic triumphalism, its creation of community through consumerism and its hyperventilated moralism. He was appalled as more and more Americans became hyphenated in their identities and envisioned further decline, not only for America, but for European states as well when, “Intolerant demagogues will demand ‘tests’ – of knowledge, of language, of attitude – to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch of French ‘identity’. They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals, the edge people. My people.”

In his first but relatively late contact with the United Sates, he was overwhelmed by America’s obsession with size, with cleanliness and, especially in the heartland, for him its sole reliance on church and religion for creating community. Judt obviously knew nothing about the role of sport in America, especially American football. He was also amazed by the huge libraries found in the land grant colleges of the midwest with their multi-million book collections. One gets the impression that his discovery as a reticent Englishman startled him even more, that “Americans are shamelessly confessional”. He implied that the style emerged from the power of the Christian religion. I myself believe it has more to do with American mobility, the open frontier and American desire to be efficient even in getting acquainted with another. More generally, it also has to do with more current attempts to end the apartheid between thought and feelings, between the mind and the heart and between the expressed and the repressed. But certainly Judt is right that, America is “an old-new land engaged in perennial self-discovery”.

Contrast the abundance of America with the austere Britain of Clement Atlee in which he grew up in an attitude of grin and bear it after WWII. Austerity was also personal. His mother was a Jewish Cockney who lived in East London at the edge of both the Jewish-English world in Bethnal Green and the core of Dickensian London. She was so assimilated that she had almost no knowledge of Jewish cuisine and cooked like most English mothers with the absence of any flavour in food whatsoever even though his grandmother was a magician in preparing chicken, beef, fish and vegetables. And Judt declared, “We are what we ate. And I am very English.” Does that explain his rejection of Judaism even though he declared “whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise”. We will have to return at the end to Judt’s sense of shame.

Judt was so English (and so culturally conservative) that he rejected the next generation’s “ersatz classlessness” as epitomized by the bar that the subsequent cohort of students to his own had installed at Cambridge. He criticized the next generation because they were “most readily mobilized against injustice committed many thousands of miles away.” “The difference between us (the two generations), elective cultural affinities aside, lay in our future prospects, not our contemporary condition.” Judt was an open elitist and meritocrat, loved King’s College, celebrated its record of embracing change and disruption by accepting with bemused nostalgia the governance through archaic rules while breaking them in practice. Though he said he understood why subsequent generations of graduates went into commerce and private banking and the more remunerative reaches of the law rather than public service and the unprofitable end of the liberal professions, he really bemoaned their choice.

Judt’s harshest words were saved for the French of which he knew a great deal. My own research and publications on the head scarf issue confirmed Judt’s allegations (2011 “Contrasting Commissions on Interculturalism: The Hijȃb and the Workings of Interculturalism in Quebec and France,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 32:3, June 2011, 245-259), but they were also informed as a result of reading Judt, though I question his interpretation that “in French films: indecision rather than plot drives the action.” As Judt described French intellectuals, “The radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of their own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles introduced me to a cardinal axiom of French intellectual life.” In my study of the introduction of the ban on head scarves in French public schools, the commission included several famous French philosophers and sociologists. They recommended the ban even though they had never undertaken any empirical research on the subject It took an American sociologist to reveal that, out of over a million Muslim girls in the French educational system, only fewer than a thousand wore the head scarf and only two, daughters of a Jewish man married to a Muslim woman, wore the headscarf for the reason the commission recommended a ban, that is, because they were wearing the scarf to make a political statement.

Judt tells the story of being encountered in the very prestigious École Normale Supérieure by another student who asked how he did on the strenuous tests for admissions. Having heard that Judt had been admitted as an Englishman without writing the exams, the student remarked, “C’est impossible.” As Judt summed it up, “The radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of their own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles introduced me to a cardinal axiom of French intellectual life.” Thus France had made Paris marginal to the international conversation. (Cf. Howard Adelman (2011) “Religion, Culture and the State,” in Howard Adelman and Pierre Anctil (eds.) Reasonable Accommodation and Minority Cultures: Reflections on the Bouchard-Taylor Report. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,100-116)

Germans still had a large residue of anti-Semitism. “If French politics were intensely – even absurdly – theoretical and dry,” German politics was about sex. Though a nice throwaway line, I suspected that Judt’s view of Germanic repressed sexuality was as much a product of inherited British prejudices as of any direct experience. Judt clearly preferred “the distinctively Czech qualities of doubt, cultural insecurity, and sceptical self-mockery” and Zeslaw Milosz’s 1953 The Captive Mind was and remains “by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.” For Judt, it was much more incisive than Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon that had such a great impact on the formation of my own views. Though Judt loved the Czechs, he admired the Swiss even though they were obsessed with cleanliness and with an uncluttered regularity for everything. For a historian interested in change, the irony was that, for Judt, in Switzerland, and Mürren in particular, “Nothing happens: it is the happiest place in the world.” It is no surprise that at the end of the book and contemplating his immanent death, he envisioned traveling up and up a train to the highest reaches of Switzerland “for ever and ever”.

Judt’s most complex and contentious as well as most extensive remarks were on Israel and Judaism, surprising for someone who claimed to have left all of that behind over forty years earlier. When he served in the Israeli army on the Golan Heights, he “encountered young, prejudiced, urban Jews.” In the kibbutz before he was even twenty he had discovered “how limited the kibbutz and its members really were; collective self-government or egalitarian distribution of consumer durables does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others but contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard and reinforces the worst kind of solipsism and insularity.” One cannot tell how the oppressiveness of the experience had been exaggerated over the years so that the kibbutz came to be a doppelganger for his state at the time of his writing. “Israel felt like a prison in those days, and the kibbutz like an overcrowded cell.” Whatever the experience, he came to identify Israel wit the dogmatism of his youthful Zionist indoctrination which he grew to not only actively dislike but to hate.

His criticism extended to the Jewish community in America, Israel’s strongest supporter. Judt queried, “Jews in America are more successful, integrated, respected, and influential than at any place or time in the history of the community. Why then is Jewish identity in the US so obsessively attached to the recollection – and anticipation – of its own disappearance?” And if Emil Fackenheim suggested a 614th commandment be recognized that a Jew is commanded not to give Hitler a posthumous victory by disappearing as a nation or through assimilation, Judt asked, “Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents?” Judt declared that, Holocaust memory is a “vicious abuse of memory used to justify uncompromising Israelphobia and to service lachrymose self-regard.” Judt considered the question and the assertion taken together as capable themselves of dealing a knock out blow, but, of course, the answer is that this is far from the whole story. For there are assuredly more than two compelling reasons! And Judt should b ashamed, though he clearly is not, for failing to acknowledge this fact. This is especially so because Judt believed that, “Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable self-questioning.”

Lies and delusions may arise from omission and distortion as well as deliberately telling a falsehood. And Judt, though a truth-teller, also “had the talents of a silver-tongued orator”. Judt loved not only the many languages he had mastered, but talking, for “talking was the point of adult existence” and he believed it was not merely evidence of intelligence, but intelligence itself, a conclusion he himself belied in writing the book. But he also admitted that, “words may deceive” and be mischievous and untrustworthy. Further, articulacy was a way of conveying proximity while maintaining distance so that language could be used to fend off intimacy, a characteristic he attributed to Barack Obama. Nevertheless, despite these weaknesses he was a champion and master of the use of the English language but not glib talk, which he hated, as well as the kind of theory and methodology that favoured obscurantism where language is used to mystify rather than inform. He always remained contemptuous of garbled language.

When the misuse of language becomes a part of deliberate state policy to exercise and retain power, then we have an Orwellian world. So why get caught up in a a wholesale conveyer of lies if you did not live in a totalitarian society? That is the lesson men who dissected what it was to live in such a society taught. That is what Zeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind revealed more generally, “the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.” How could they say one thing and do another?

When I led the Combined University Campaign Against Nuclear Arms as a student at the University of Toronto, how could one member of the executive who was also Communist Party member campaign against nuclear arms and then defend the USSR resuming testing? How could he live with the contradiction of saying one thing and believing another? I had to resign as Chair and demand his resignation. The committed deluded idealist, the fellow traveler and the cynical time server who adhered to this secular faith participated in an ideological self-delusion and a refusal to imagine or consider alternatives. If communists were the foremost self-deluded political group as we began our careers, the worshippers of the free market, in minimum or no regulation, in reduced government, have joined in voluntary servitude to the new right rather than left orthodoxy.

However, one theme is repeatedly mentioned but not highlighted and is perhaps the most revealing part of the book. Judt describes his father “as a frustrated man: trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing work which bored and perhaps even humiliated him.” Humiliation is that theme. His mother too suffered from shame. “Mother was discreet to the point of embarrassment about her Jewishness versus the overtly foreign and Yiddish quality of most of the rest of his extended family.” When his father drove their Citroën to visit relatives in a poor area of London, Tony Judt “wanted to disappear down the nearest manhole because of “the envious attention his new car was attracting”. When he lived on the kibbutz in Israel, he recognized that its functioning was based on the “successful deployment of physical intimidation and moral humiliation.”

When he became a fellow at King’s and had some authority, the student cohort who now came, not from the aristocracy and private schools, but from excellent state schools, were discovered by one of the “bedders” (women form town who served as surrogate mothers to the young boys and girls for King’s had become co-ed by that time), she witnessed a group of then cavorting on college grounds nude. Three factors explained her reaction: the presence of girls; when she came upon them, they made no effort to dissimulate or even cover up; worst of all, they laughed “at her discomfort. In short, they had broken the rules of engagement and she felt humiliated.”

As Judt explained the situation, previous cohorts of students brought up in privilege recognized her station and respected her class and its values. They knew better than to treat a servant as an equal sharing their values. Those gentlemen “would have apologized, expressed their regret in the form of a gift and offered an affectionate, remorseful embrace”. Treating the bedder as an equal had “as much as anything hurt her feelings”. She had lost a claim on their forbearance and respect: her role had been reduced to mere employment rather than surrogate mother. The new rich bourgeois class shared none of those sensibilities but shared the same ignorant principle amongst themselves: “all human relations are best reduced to rational calculations of self-interest”. This was the reduced and impoverished capitalist vision: “the ideal of monadic productive units maximizing private advantage and indifferent to community or convention”. They have no “understanding of social intercourse, the unwritten rules that sustain it, and the a priori interpersonal ethics on which it rests.” They spouted and said that they revered Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations probably not having read it but certainly not having read his volume, A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Why was Tony Judt so mesmerized by the Lordship/Bondsman relation? Why did he interpret it in terms of mindblindness and self-deluded voluntary or involuntary subjection to tyrannical authority? And why was humiliation and shame the most evident by-product of this difference in class? Since his tutor showed him respect in his criticism, he learned. If contempt was forthcoming, the student was ashamed. So respect and recognition are the proper antidotes to class and economic conditions. Why was humiliation so important to Judt and a window through which he experienced the world?

Tony Judt only hints at all the humiliations he suffered on growing up. When he was an established academic in London and went in to launch a complaint about mistreatment of a Czech acquaintance by the authorities and learned that he was totally ignorant of the circumstances and problematics of the case, he was offended and embarrassed “to be thought both unimportant and uniformed”. And, of course, his humiliation at needing help all the time to do almost everything must have been the pinnacle of humiliation for him at the end of his life. But then why was humiliation so central to Judt’s historical experience? At this time I can offer only the briefest possible answer.

In 2010, Maggie Smith published a book, Asylum, migration and community which probes the experience refugees fell when they exit a country and then the double humiliation they experience in their country of asylum. Their loss of status is more embarrassing than anything else they experience, especially if they come from middle class roots. Humiliation is almost always about failure of recognition.

Tony Judt was a famous scholar but before that government bureaucrat he appeared to be an ignorant dolt. Tony’s father was an informed and articulate reader, thinker and believer but he worked in a hairdressing parlour. Tony’s mother was a died-in-the-wool English woman ashamed of her Jewishness and the European accents of her social circle. After all, they were “greenies”. Tony was embarrassed and humiliated at the kibbutz because they saw him as jus a grunt when he really was a very successful student who had achieved entry into one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Britain but the kibbutzniks had no appreciation of that accomplishment. Judt just generalized on that ignorance and branded them provincial for not recognizing his achievements. And the “bedder” at Cambridge was embarrassed and humiliated, not because the students did not recognize the class to which she belonged and rules of discourse long established in dealing with class relations, but because they did not see her as an independent Other with sensibilities and responsibilities. The previous privileged classes at least had the decency to give her the semblance of respect and recognition.

The humiliator generally is indifferent or has contempt for the position or the person of the other. The one humiliated is not only embarrassed but can develop a repressed anger and urge to retaliate for that non-recognition, an attitude exemplified by Cain when God recognized Abel and not him. The humiliatee wants the injustice corrected and can become a demon in the pursuit of his or her version of social justice. At the extreme, humiliation, revenge and the desire for social justice can be found to be a pervasive theme in the actions of mass killers at schools and at places of work. (Cf. Charles B. Strozier, David M. Terman, James Jones and Katherine Boyd, The Fundamental Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History)

Now in none of the cases cited by Judt did the possibility of violence and revenge ever appear to come up. No one became an evangelist for justice. The failures of recognition were relatively mild. Further, when Tony Judt experiences the opposite of non-recognition when his King’s College tutor ignored his youthful theoretical pontification and, by respecting his opinions and examining him closely, allowed him to recognize his own need to undertake empirical work, Judt reciprocated with respect and appreciation.

Since Ruth Benedict in the year of Tony Judt’s birth characterized Japan as a shame culture and America as a guilt culture, and since then others have characterized Jewish culture as a guilt culture par excellence, and still others have built on and revised and improved on that distinction so that one broad consensus emerged. Shame cultures grant low cultural value to the individual and shame can then be used as an effective tool of social guidance. Guilt cultures grant low cultural value to the community and guilt must be instilled within each individual to ensure a degree of social conformity to social norms. Why then was shame so preeminent in Judt’s psyche?

No culture relies solely on shame or guilt. Cultures use an admixture of both, though the high degree of one versus the other allows one to characterize a culture as predominantly one rather than the other. But a culture can have high value placed on both individualism and community. This is true of the Jewish culture and contributes to its “schizophrenic” frenzy. It is both a shame and a guilt culture. Tony Judt was driven by a search for community in Zionism, in the kibbutz, in Cambridge University college life and in his intellectual devotion to social justice. In his behaviour and in his intellectual pursuits and writings, he was the consummate individual with an original voice. But in the value given to social order, a shared community was a prerequisite to enjoyment of public life. Guilt is expressed greatest if an individual like Tony Judt fails to grant adequate credit, recognition and acknowledgement to an Other. But shame becomes the main descriptor when social norms rather than individual achievements fail to be recognized. Tony Judt had very little sense of guilt but was enormously sensitive to humiliation.

The problem was not that the bureaucrat failed to recognize him as an esteemed intellectual but that Tony Judt had let down his intellectual community in revealing his ignorance and had let down his acquaintance in failing to achieve social justice. Tony experienced a life crisis and took up the study of Czech, an initiative that gave him a lead in uncovering the underbelly of the communist system that was the shame culture par excellence, a culture that undercut any individual’s capacities to be allowed to feel guilty or grant recognition to another individual. Tony Judt’s father was aware of the gap between his capacities and his economic role. His guilt was that he had not been personally able to surmount those limitations and realize his potential. His shame was that he let down the expectations off him by the community. In this case, the guilt and shame were reinforcing.

Tony Judt’s mother was an edger, the group to which Tony belonged. Her inability to cook well necessarily made her a subject of shame among the community of Jewish women at that time. At the same time, she was ashamed to associate with the inferior accented Greenies that formed her social circle. As the object of shame and as a subject feeling shame for the other, it was no surprise that she does not seem to have provided either Tony or his father with a happy home life.

So Tony Judt had to find another people to which he could belong. His desperate effort in his Zionist days failed miserably. His intellectual efforts freed him from any guilt, but the aggregate of intellectual eccentrics at King’s College could not provide the membership in the social community he craved and that he had experienced to some degree in the arguments around the kitchen table when he was a youngster. So he went to New York and joined the edge people. Israel as a divine icon had been a god that failed. Judaism had left him bereft but he was too proud to bury that identity. So he became the scourge of Zionism and of American Jews determined to turn the tables and humiliate both as he also expunged any guilt and became the brilliant writer, historian and critic so widely admired. As an equal opportunity provider he had time to distribute the product of his criticism to America, the English, the French and others. Only the Czechs get off and that is because they were the vehicle for his rebirth and rejuvenation. The despiser of identity politics becomes its exemplar when applied to nations

[tags judt, history, memory, national identity, humiliation]


Last night at Massey College, Michael Marrus gave a superb talk on Tony Judt’s book The Memory Chalet, the memoir he managed to finish just before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010. Michael not only placed the book in its social context and within the intellectual timeline of Tony Judt’s output, he very evocatively placed us into the experience Tony went through as a person suffering from a terrible debilitating condition. It was a brilliant talk, thematically summarizing Tony’s experiences and themes and bringing Tony Judt very much to life through the words he left behind.

In preparation for the talk, I, or at least my wife Nancy, bought the book on line on Sunday noon so I could avoid searching in the bitter cold of a Toronto winter for a bookstore that had the book. For the first time, I read a book on a kindle. (It was wonderful, but more of that at another time.) Michael came to dinner that night with his wife Randi, but we only had a chance for a glancing discussion of the book. I went to his talk yesterday evening with eager anticipation. His talk was truly brilliantly composed and delivered and was thoroughly empathetic with Tony Judt’s efforts. But it did not answer the two questions that were bothering me. Why was Tony Judt as a committed cosmopolitan adamantly opposed to nationalism or any other version of identity politics so consumed with the identity of the nation? Second, why was humiliation such a scattered but, to me, an important theme in the book?

Michael did not provide an answer. He had not had a chance to mull over the questions. Further, his approach, while contextualizing the book, was one of getting inside Tony Judt’s head. He did a wonderful and elegant job. But I had read the book with a different perspective, and, inspired by Michael, I spent the rest of the evening and early this morning composing my own response and trying to answer the two questions I posed. It is not as elegant as Michael’s take. It is dialogical rather than empathetic. And it came out as rather long. So if you are interested in Tony Judt, you may want to save it for a leisurely moment.

[tag history, memory, identity politics, humiliation]

Memory and History.03.02.13 03.02.13 03.02.13

George Jonas column in the Saturday National Post, “Awaiting Clio’s Caprice” (2.2.13, A23) had two themes. First, Obama is a pinko-socialist who, in his first term, did not display his true colours; American voters were distracted by the black issue and forgot the pink issue. Obama may be half black but the real issue for Jonas is that he is three-quarters pink. In his interpretation, in Obama’s second inaugural address, instead of being coy about his pink side, he threw away his disguise and revealed his left-liberal manifesto (Charles Krauthammer’s phrase). So for Jonas, as for me, there is a difference between appearance and reality, but both the appearance and the reality are radically different. So is the explanation. For Jonas, the explanation is a combination of Obama’s deceptive practices and the public’s distraction — though the colour of Obama’s politics was “unmistakable from the word go”.

Jonas’ second theme was about change. What happens in history is not determined by inaugural addresses or even by who occupies the White House, but by the caprice of History. As George Jonas interprets its role, “The muse of history has her own agenda. Governments don’t decide historic questions; Clio does.” “Until Clio wakes up in a different mood one morning, the Arab-Muslim world won’t accept a Jewish state within what it views as the House of Islam, and Israel won’t give up being a Jewish state.” Change comes by chance. There no rhyme or reason for Clio’s sleeping patterns. But the situation is as unmistakable as Obama’s political colours. “America lies so low in the water that a load of big government could sink it.”

Dow Marmur also wrote me this morning about the shift back in Israel to discussions about peace and three speculations that the discussion is simply necessary as a key ingredient in forming a coalition, that the shift is a result of pressure from the newly reinvigorated Obama administration, and, third, with Netanyahu’s pragmatism, his desire to have a legacy and he and his wife’s deeply felt animosity towards Naftali Bennett on his right whom both he and even more so, his wife, despise. Sow as qucick to add that these were speculations and not history.

Tomorrow when I return to the subject of Obama I will write about Jonas’ allegations about Obama and in a subsequent blog about Obama’s relationship to the peace process in Israel. Today I want to address the issue of Memory and History as almost a prolegomena to tomorrow’s blog. Clio was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, a titan who was the personification of memory. But although memory is a prerequisite of history, history is not the same as memory. Further, memory is a prerequisite to other fields of study – the arts, including music, poetry, dance, drama, and science. The marriage of Zeus and Memory produced nine children, not just Clio.

Even as memory is a prerequisite of historiography, the two are quite different. Memory is used by history. Memory helps shape history. But memory is not history. First, memory is often flawed. Second, it often remains only part of an oral tradition and is not transcribed to be checked and falsified while history is recorded and becomes historiography. So there is a question when memory is written down and whether memoirs are a transition stage to history. Scholars also asked how history shapes memory.

And historiography has also changed. As Jacques Le Goff noted in his book History and Memory (New York: Columbia University Press), historiography has recently mutated. There has been a return – of the event, of biography, of politics as central issues, and the use, role and nature of narrative itself. (Preface ix) But the former three have been aufgehobt. The event has become the catalyst for digging a deep mine to find out what is underneath. Biography is now written extensively by historians as a form of both intellectual history and a complement to history — and even part of history when academics become political actors. The question of power is no longer unquestioned as the central core of politics, but both power and politics themselves have become problematicized. Further, the fourth of this quartet, which many thought had been consigned to a nursing home for the aged and infirm, has itself become problematic as historians both use narrative and question how such a form affects the interpretation of events and politics.

Goff himself explored how different disciplines distinguish the relationship of the past to the present differently. And so do different people with different ideologies. Conservatives idolize and reify the past as a model for the present. For Palestinian refugees, depending on your perspective, the powerful nostalgia for the past becomes either an obstacle in the way of resolving the current conflict or the means by which the efforts in the present to recover that past are informed and given impetus. (See chapter 7 in my book with Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge.) Radicals want to discard the past into the dustbin of history. Others probe the dialectic between the past and the present and want to understand how innovation takes place while the past informs the present as the past and its interpretations are being transformed by innovation even as both are interpreted by historians.

My eldest son, Jeremy Adelman, an eminent Princeton historian who is the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilisation and Culture and former head of his department, has written a biography as an exemplar of the new historical biography (Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman) that combines the personal story of a very reserved, reticent and quiet activist with an intellectual history of Albert Hirschman (The Passions and the Interests) that Princeton University Press will bring out this Spring. If you cannot wait for Jeremy’s book, see an earlier piece written with Emanuelle Loyer, “Between Worlds: The Life and Work of Albert Hirschman,” that appeared in 2010 in The Toqueville Review 31:2. Better yet, Jeremy has a video on Albert Hirschman on YouTube (; it is the lecture he gave on 14 November 2012 on a return visit to Oxford.

Albert Hirschman is relevant to our discussions, not only because of how prescient Hirschman was and how his ideas inform our current discussions, but because Jeremy’s book began from his weekly lunch discussions with Albert and Albert’s recollections of his involvement in the Spanish civil war, with Jewish refugees (Operation Rescue) and with the Marshall Plan before he became the famous developmental economist or, as Jeremy depicts him, anthropological economist. The book is about fear of change that I am discussing in my Obama blogs and Hirschman’s reflections on the fear of capitalism. Hirschman was an economist, but not just an economist. He was truly a renaissance man. He was also a humanist. Further, unlike the vast majority of scholars who withdraw from commitment and action, Albert thrust himself into history. Most academics who do so fail; Albert did so with panache and success.

An influential essay of Hirschman’s, “Exit Voice and Loyalty”, explains the dialectical relationship between collective action and private action in contrast to the ideological musings of a classical nineteenth century liberal like George Jonas and his idolatrous ideological worship of individualism. Getting Ahead Collectively is Hirschman’s empirical and detailed research on grass roots development often targeted by neo-conservatives. Hirschman explores how upward mobility actually takes place on the ground. (It is also a book relevant to current debates over massive debt crises.) It asks the question, not about the caprice of history, but about how the poorest people take agency and responsibility and exercise collective action to improve their lives, how research on the ground can inform action and, to the extent possible, overcome caprice. Hirschman gave voice to their efforts and energies. While Hitler in the usual sociopathic Large Lie had the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Makes You Free – over the iron gates to enter a concentration and extermination camp, Hirschman wrote about how work actually frees you by finding solutions to problems rather than pontificating. Whether Hirschman dealt with black market currency exchanges and the intricate details of how fake travel documents are created for refugees, the empirical on the ground and the method of taking advantage of opportunities were critical to both human actions and intellectual examinations of those actions.

An additional underlying theme was the art of exiting, on which he also wrote as the other side of Michael Marrus’ history of Vichy France. Whereas loyalty, along with authority and tradition, are the holy trinity of neo-conservatism, Hirschman was the epitome of loyalty, but loyalty in practice not as an icon – loyalty to the cause of the fight against fascism in Spain in the 1930s, loyalty to the fight of the French against Nazi Germany in 1939, and loyalty to his country of refuge in 1941 America. He immediately enlisted in the military of the anti-Franco forces, the French army and the US army in turn. But his loyalty was not a dogma. He immediately left Germany in 1933; he did not stay and fight the Nazis. For he was also prophetic. He recognized when loyalty had its limits, when there was an opportune and necessary time to leave, and when you had to roll the dice and choose without knowing the outcome. For some places offer No Place of Return. He remained loyal to the end of his life to the land of the free and home of the brave even though his work was hounded by the paranoid and probably anti-semitic J. Edgar Hoover who remained ever suspicious of Hirschman’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War and with the illegal activities of and with refugees. Hirschman worked for the Federal Reserve Board and exemplified the creative and important role of mandarins that I wrote about in my parashat on Friday. His life was also an exemplification of the hidden and repressed, not in any denial of his Jewishness, but in the “Lie”, the foundational lie of his marriage and the split between his wife’s rich, aristocratic assimilated Jewish family and his own ostjüden bourgeois family across the border in Poland.

Stupid loyalties to the past could prevent seeking out opportunities. You should not get caught up in failures and losses. He saw nostalgia as a loser’s cover-up. Hirschman was not a theorist of economic development but a strategist of economic development based on empirical research and on what really works. He was suspicious of the overall big idea, such as the worship of balanced budgets and fear of enlarged government and suspicion of regulation. For in both intellectual and real life, middle range innovations; and not ideologies count. As he wrote in a report for the World Bank, the closed mind is a danger and one must be open to the unexpected. Similarly when reporting on the past, do not exaggerate what you can do as a doer or as a scholar lest you undermine what you have done or your study of what has been accomplished.

Jeremy had just finished pulling off a very large international conference that he had organized. He wrote me yesterday while he was in a Shanghai museum that “museumized” the past and which stood in sharp juxtaposition and opposition to China’s pell mell race towards the future through the construction of large and imposing monuments of glass and steel, raised highways and neon lights, paeons to post-modernity that were sinking the city into the silt of the Yagste delta and making it even vulnerable to the rising oceans if global warming and the melting of the icecaps continue apace. China seems willing to trash the past and allow thousands of years of a peasant world go up in carbon gases.

Jeremy had just visited his cousin, Keith, who had no “place” in the world as an authentic displaced cosmopolitan and carried the weight of three generations of Christian missionary work to the Chinese on his shoulders. Jeremy wrote about that visit, their joint efforts to piece together memories and biographies, and their discussions about their grandfather so associated in both their minds with his grandfather’s photography and the carvings and the calligraphy he brought back with him to give to his grandchildren as presents. This is how memory intertwines with history as one waxes homesick for wife and kids, gets to experience the awful emptiness of the homeless and yearns for roots. I remember the experience well when I lived in Dadaab refugee camp; personal experience has always informed my own work.

[tags history, memory, hirschman, economics]