The Irrationality of Humans

The Irrationality of Humans

by

Howard Adelman

In this series of blogs I began a week ago, I tried to sketch the deep philosophical assumptions underlying a variety of approaches to comprehending and managing the polis. How do we organize our political lives and to what end? The blog on last week’s Torah portion offered a moral approach, as set out in the Book of Leviticus, essentially setting up rules for redistributing wealth in the economy. The presumption was that religious laws could be imposed on the polity and used to counteract the built-in propensities encouraging economic inequality.

A variation of this approach is currently being applied in Iran which just witnessed the landslide re-election of an ostensible reformer, President Hassan Rouhani, against his challenger, the hardliner, Judge Ebrahim Raisi. I call Rouhani an ostensible reformer because his program differs markedly from the puritans who want to close off Iran to Western influences versus the Rouhani position of greater flexibility and interaction with the rest of the world. Rouhani has a more tolerant perspective on the role of domestic individual behaviour and external foreign interests in dealing with the policies of the polis. But both the reform and the conservative leadership remain committed to the precepts of Islam framing the polity. The conservatives want to control it as well.

The previous two blogs analyzed a book that won the Donner Prize last week (Alex Marland’s Brand Command) which documented the Stephen Harper government’s method of centralized control and the use of branding to manage the polity. My critique insisted that the book had inverted the roles of framing and branding, and that the key issue was framing. Branding was simply a method of covering up the contradictions within the Tory base between free enterprise conservatives, who oppose any moral frame for the polity, and community conservatives who believe the polity should conform to historically predominant Christian norms.

The analysis also implied that, as long as Liberals (or Democrats in the U.S.) covered up the divisions on their own side between economic liberals who believe, on the one hand, that a light touch of liberal tolerance and justice can be used to manage the polity, its inequalities and injustices, versus a more radical wing that sees the need for a greater role of the state in managing competing interests to ensure greater equality, then a well-disciplined opposition with a clear brand can disguise and, indeed, repress those fundamental differences, and then win. The brand can be the disciplined command and control that Stephen Harper employed or the anarchic populist appeal used by Donald Trump. Branding is a tool used to manage contradictions and manipulate constituents either by means of control and command or by populist appeal.

Framing, however, has priority, for if we fail to understand the warfare over principles, in despair a divided polis can easily turn democratic representative and responsible government into a populist system run by a demagogue. The warfare is not simply over principles, but over the role those principles are permitted to play in the polis. To understand the tension between various sets of moral principles wanting to provide the frame, and the behaviour of humans within the polis, it is necessary to acquire a better grasp on that behaviour and the nature of the tension and tribulations between the frame of the polity and the behaviour of its members. In this blog, I concentrate on the latter. In the next blog, I will analyze the civic religion in Canada that provides Canadians with a generally dominant overarching frame.

Conservatives are divided between free enterprise and community conservatives. For free enterprisers, humans are rational actors who make choices to maximize their own individual interests, but their interests are determined by a deeper human nature driven by a need to survive at a minimum, and by greed and acquisitive drives that build on and enhance the survival mode. Humans may be driven by greed, where the principles of survival play a commanding role, but they also may be driven by passions that have an inherent propensity to undermine interests. The predominant Christian ethos was based on the need to control passions that could wreak havoc in our individual and collective lives. Is life or desire fundamental? Neither is rational.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israelis who worked in the United States for years, won the 2002 Nobel prise in economics for documenting and explaining individual economic behaviour and demonstrating that it was fundamentally irrational. Their proofs also undermined the rational choice assumptions of the high priests of monetary policy whose behaviour Juliet Johnson described in Priests of Prosperity, a nominee for the Donner Prize. The sacred religion of rational choice was upended in the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Imprinting and unconscious embodiment explain to some degree why survival and desire dictate choices more than any rational deliberation over alternatives to determine which one will best satisfy our individual interests.

The work of both men in behavioural psychology and their articulation of prospect theory undermined totally the Kantian assumption that judgement was simply the process of rational reconciliation between our moral values and our understanding of the world in accordance with the laws of nature, between practical and pure reason, between morality and nature. In 2011, Kahneman published a volume with great popular appeal, Thinking Fast and Slow, which contrasted our predominant predisposition for fast thinking, for thinking that I have described in my writing as searches for congruencies between one’s own inscribed views of the world and priorities in dealing with it, and rational deliberative decision-making.

If you are a free enterprise conservative, you are steeped deeply in the frame set out by both John Hobbes and John Locke that humans are interest maximizers and possessive individualists determined to secure their futures by seeking to acquire and own goods ad infinitum. Humans were inherently possessive individualists driven by the natural laws of survival. Kahneman, using his original work on complex correlational structures and studies of how attention, more than the actual observed world, was correlated with actual behaviour. Influenced by Richard Thaler’s pioneering work on consumer choice and hedonic psychology, in 1982 Kahneman published with Amos Tversky Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

Both men were Israelis. Kahneman in particular had served in the intelligence service. The IDF, the politicians and Mossad in 1973 had all ruled out the possibility of a massive assault by the Arab forces. After all, Syria and Egypt had both suffered enormous psychological and physical defeats in the 1967 war. Any rational assessment would have indicated that initiating a war with Israel would be self-defeating. The failure of the intelligence operation to anticipate the possibility of an attack, the failure to look at worst possible scenarios, ignoring or misinterpreting data the IDF itself had collected of an imminent attack – that Russia advisors had withdrawn – failing to recognize that Egypt was currently driven by a sense of shame and a need to recover some honour, even at the risk of another great defeat, had, together with other forms of mindblindness, produced a situation in which the fate of Israel had been risked and almost sacrificed to this immersion in preconceptions that made both the state and much of society blind to the motives and actions of others. Even at its most fateful level of survival, irrationality had framed and limited rational deliberation. And Kahneman and Tversky went on to demonstrate how this mindblindness and irrational choice revealed itself in the most mundane of subjects, consumer choice.

Thus, began the tectonic shift undermining rational choice theory based on interests. Choice was seen to be rooted, not in survival and life, but desire and the assessment of whether an experience will be pleasurable rather than painful. While life emphasizes the needs necessary for the body to survive, desire is something else. It is the effort to see ourselves projected into the world and recognized by another, usually another seen as superior in some respect, for who we have become and what we have accomplished. The individual suffers discomforts and even pain when that recognition does not come. Desire is not material, even as it is manifested in material things. God is portrayed in the Torah as motivated to create the world in the first place to become manifest and to be recognized through projections into the world. Humans were created with the ability to provide that recognition. In contrast to God, humans had the benefit of being embodied.

Humans are not so much possessive individualists as troubled personalities making mistake after mistake about what satisfied their interests, mistakes made precisely because they are governed in their judgments and decisions by a commanding illusion that develops mindblindness, an incapacity to take into account a variety of other factors as they focus on a specific one perceived as crucial to realizing who they are. Humans are not so much possessive as obsessive individualists.

If not for obsessive individualism, how else can you explain why Israelis living in an environment in which neighbours threaten your very existence and when personal allies argue endlessly over every triviality, they nevertheless perceive themselves as extremely happy? They do so certainly in comparison to members of Nordic countries who have created polities that do far more than any other on earth to ensure both that needs are satisfied and that long-term security is achieved. Israelis were indoctrinated to believe in Jerusalem of Gold, that Israel was the Promised Land, even though the external evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. On the other hand, in one study by Kahneman and Gilbert, Midwesterners in the U.S. experienced themselves as deficient in comparison to Californians because they suffered from a much harsher climate; they became convinced that good weather would solve their discontent. Any study of the experience of Californians would show it would not.

Cain and Abel were not driven by possessive individualism. They clearly demonstrated this by their willingness to sacrifice the best products of their labour so that God would recognize them as the best. When one received the recognition and the other did not, the latter was driven, not just to distraction, but to murder the other, not because of the superiority of the other’s nomadic life, nor because of all the herds the other had collected that he as a farmer had not, but because this nostalgic way of life seemed to be recognized as superior by the same God of judgement. There would always be a bias to the status quo called nostalgia or, in modern economic and political theory, status quo bias.

Kahneman and Tversky pioneered in developing an understanding of base rate fallacies and cognitive, optimist and conjunction biases, in attribution substitution and the economic conception of loss aversion that undergraduates find so entrancing in undermining rational choice theory. Together they built the structure of prospect theory and established the primacy of framing, but have thus far had only a marginal impact on the economic religion of rational choice. Their own work could be used to predict how difficult it would be for the status quo of economic rational choice theory to absorb the lessons that emerged from their research.

They provided a solid empirical basis for undermining rational choice theory that has been reinforced by the research of neuroscientists on imprinting and on more contemporary versions of the theory of the unconscious than Freud offered. We are, to a great extent, our genes and the environmental imprinting in our lives.

 

In the contest between genetic determinants and environmental cues, we learn independently of the consequences, not only because of the genes we have inherited, but because we can only really learn some things when we reach different stages of life. Learning is phase-sensitive. It works through genomic imprinting: DNA methylation and post-translational modification of DNA-associated histone proteins. The 1,000+ transcripts in our brain – particularly in the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus – is where memory is imprinted and learning takes place in a process of neurogenesis. Thus, it is not only our organ development, the development of our muscular-skeletal system and organs as imprinted in the subventricular zones and lateral ventricle of the brain that stage our physical development, but our mental development is, to a large degree, also determined by imprinting.

Alongside these developments, in the actual field of politics, efforts were initiated to select politicians who could perform. Hillary supposedly lost because she was so stiff. It was only after she had lost and gave her first interview that she seemed to relax. The goal became to groom politicians to match biases in the populace and to appeal to those biases through controlling the brand or, more demonstrably in the U.S. in the last election, deal with the incongruence of the candidate and both the needs of the populace and the needs of the nation with a more fundamental emotional appeal, even if originating in the chaotic mind of a populist candidate versus the chaos in the beliefs of the populace.

Thus far, Canada has avoided that fate because it has a strong civic religion. But dangers are evident concerning the fragility of the faith.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Holiness Code

The Holiness Code – Parshah Kedoshim Leviticus 19 and 20

by

Howard Adelman

Tomorrow on shabat we read one of the most important sections of the Torah, Leviticus 19-20, or the core verses of the Holiness Code which includes verses and chapters from last week’s portion (17 and 18) as well as those from the following week. (For reference, I have included chapters 19&20 as a separate blog.) Many of the core commandments of the 613 commandments governing Jewish conduct are included in this week’s portion. Any one of them is worthy of an extended commentary. It is virtually impossible to discuss all the injunctions contained in this one reading in a single blog for they are articulated so succinctly and briefly that reading these verses is akin to unpacking a box literally stuffed to the gills with moral injunctions. I want to examine more than one, however, not to analyze a single commandment, but to offer the flavour of the Holiness Code with a view to obtaining a glimpse of what it means to be holy. I will discuss the portion under four headings as follows:

I. Sex and Speech
II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers
III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge
IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

I. Sex and Speech

Why start with sex when discussing holiness? Why probe all the injunctions against misuse of a servant girl by a male boss (19:20), ban adultery (20:10) especially with your brother’s wife (20:21) or incest (20:11, 12, 14, 17, 19 & 20), castigate homosexuality (20:13) and sodomy (20:15&16) almost in the same breath, and then forbid having sex with a woman while she is menstruating (20:18)? Many of these are reiterations of injunctions in chapter 18. Bans on homosexuality seem totally misplaced for most of us with a modern sensibility. Adultery is not so good, but putting someone to death for such an act seems quite disproportionate to say the least. Sodomy seems more distasteful than deserving of such a harsh reprimand and saying that a servant girl should not be put to death when abused by a superior seems to perpetuate putting the blame on the female, though easing the punishment. And why is there an injunction against sex when your female partner is menstruating?

In other words, if sexual prohibitions are at once so basic and at the same time so deformed and misplaced, how can one suggest that obeying such extreme puritanical injunctions provides a path to holiness? I do not think it does. Further, the various penalties – from death to ostracism – do not seem to comport with our contemporary views of such actions or misdeeds. One predominant interpretation is that these injunctions against certain sexual conduct, allegedly profuse among the Canaanites and Egyptians, were intended to define the Hebrews as a pure and holy people in imitation of God, what Roman Catholics designate as imatio Dei. After all, they all seem to be placed in a context of being “clean,” where cleanliness is next to Godliness. And one characteristic of God is that (s)he is disembodied, does not have sex and inherently cannot be dirty.

This is the basic paradox. Humans are embodied. They have sexual drives. God is disembodied and does not need or desire to have sex. But God gave Adam a companion, Eve, precisely because Adam was a nerd and did not even recognize he had a body and needed to love and be loved. So does God want us to have sex and propagate the species? Clearly, the answer is yes. But God also commands that boundaries be placed around sexual behaviour. The reasons to me seem obvious and they are not about imitating God where holiness in the highest realm is defined as asexual. Rather, it is very practical and down to earth.

Yesterday I heard two more stories about young couples with very young children who, contrary to everyone’s expectations, broke up and are headed towards the divorce court. The epidemic – and it is an epidemic – of divided couples and marriages has to be a major concern. Adultery was involved. One partner “fell in love” with someone else. Or in another tale from the day before, one partner felt deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled in the marriage. I am not suggesting that couples when they discover they are incompatible should remain married. On the other hand, the marriage commitment and bond should mean much more than simply abandoning a pledge because of an attraction to another or dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s path of self-realization.

That is why the sexual injunctions need not be considered as absolute puritanical injunctions, but as basic and profound guides about how a couple can realize holiness while engaging in sex and also bearing children. In other words, if we want to understand the sexual prohibitions, it will not be because we pay attention to the literalness of the commandments, but because we pay attention to their purpose related to the pursuit of holiness. And in my understanding of the Jewish religion, it is not because we envision holiness as equivalent to puritanical behaviour or asexuality, but, guides for embodied humans, thereby recognizing embodiment and how embodied sexual beings become holy.

So how is speech related to sexuality? Because it is through speech that men and women archetypically (men and men in cases of homosexual relations) initially have intercourse with one another. Recall that the use of speech was Adam’s hang up. He thought that words were all about naming and classifying and, in imitation of God, bringing something into existence by the speech act of naming and classifying. But a speech act is only asexual as a scientific enterprise. It is thoroughly sexual as a human enterprise.

Leviticus 19 verse 11 commands that you not “deny falsely” (Bill Clinton – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman) or lie. The two injunctions are different. Bill did not precisely lie, for he meant by sexual relations intercourse not fellatio. But he did deny falsely for his assertion was completely misleading. The same verse commands that humans should also not lie. Why is truth-telling the most basic injunction in human intercourse. Because truth-telling is a requisite of trust. And trust is basic to human relations.

Have I lied? More precisely, have I lied to my partner? I have. And each time that I did it was because I was a coward and did not trust my wife to respond in the way I wanted. But that is not trust. Trust entails respect and talking to another and addressing their highest natures. It is not based on fearing reprimands and scolding. Speech in intercourse must be honest, direct and based on trust. Every time I fail to follow this understanding, I betray myself, my partner or children or friend and, mostly, fail myself. Implicitly, I “swear falsely” and profane the name of God. So healthy sex and healthy honest talk are interdependent and foundational for holiness.

II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers

If guidelines and injunctions about physical and verbal intercourse, about how to cultivate a healthy sex life and an honest dialogue between those with whom we are intimately related, are the foundation stones for a holy life, the second level of commandments address those with whom we are least intimate – strangers, particularly strangers who do not belong to our own tribe. And we all know, or should know, that the most repeated commandment in the Torah addresses how to treat strangers and then how to treat acquaintances or neighbours.

With respect to strangers, you cannot tease or belittle them and certainly not characterize them as “rapists” and “thieves.” You shall not taunt the stranger (19:33). More than that, you are required to treat the stranger as if he were a member of your own tribe. “You shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (19:34) On the other hand, you must also reject and ostracize strangers who cavort with Moloch, Ov or Yid’oni and even put to death any who give their children to Molech.

Who is Molech? A god of the Canaanites, a god that required child sacrifice. A holy people, immigrants and refugees, sacrifice themselves for their children. Followers of Molech sacrifice their children for themselves. That is why when we are married, have children and run into trouble, as most marriages do, the primary consideration must be not to sacrifice one’s children for the pursuit of one’s own self-fulfillment or gratification of one’s own physical desires. Now it is a rarity these days to follow that injunction. God knows, I have personally failed. But that does not detract from the value of the principle. In fact, it raises the principle to a higher value.

There is an intimate connection between the dedication to raising your children and to respecting and loving strangers, for giving of yourself for your children and giving of yourself for refugees. But not all so-called refugees. Not “refugees” who victimize children, who engage in terrorism or who exploit others. But why the demonization of those who worship Ov and Yid’oni as well as Molech? (20:6) Ov is a medium who claims direct access to the divine or nether world. Yid’oni is an oracle who claims to be a spokesperson for the nether world or the divine voice. Followers of Ov and Yid’oni are as despicable as those who follow Molech, those who follow the path of using and abusing children, sacrificing children for one’s own purposes rather than sacrificing oneself for one’s children.

What connection is there between denouncing mediums and oracles and the respect and love for children? Mediums and oracles for a holy people spout vapid nonsense. One should not follow a demagogue who promises he can lead you to the Promised Land. Only the Holy One can do that. Oracles who say “trust me” and “I know how to make a deal better than anyone” are not to be trusted. And anyone who follows that oracle because that oracle has accumulated a following also becomes suspect. There is NO privileged access to the nether world or to the future. And there should be no surprise that such oracles and mediums so often scapegoat strangers. By displacing hatred onto others and using the oracular voice, they would bewitch you into trusting them instead of yourself and your inner voice, surrendering yourself for a leader who believes in strength rather than holiness, betting on charms and omens rather than evidence and behaviour over the long run that builds trust. The pursuit of holiness does not depend upon trickery, but upon a consistent effort at honesty and truthfulness and a respect for others especially if they are strangers. The devil may not be Molech, but the devil may be Ov or Yid’oni.

III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge

If trust is basic, enhanced through the use of honest language and intimate physical attachment to another, if loving the stranger and evading the enchantment of those who would use and abuse children for their own pleasure, those who pretend to be mediums or oracles, on the next level of building blocks for a healthy and holy home, we locate the concept of respect. It is the first window of the second story of that home. And the most basic form of respect is that accorded one’s parents. Parents are enjoined to sacrifice themselves for their children and not sacrifice their children for themselves. In turn, children are enjoined to render parents respect and honour.

But respect extends beyond the family. You must respect not oppress the other. (19:13), neither robbing no exploiting him or her. Nor shall you curse another who is physically deaf or is out of range of your voice and cannot hear you. (19:14) You shall not diss another, whether cursing another driver who cannot hear you; in so doing, you demean yourself. If you belittle and insult another, another propensity of those who scapegoat others and put themselves forward as oracles, you undercut respect both for others and for oneself. You shall not engage in favouritism (19:15) and give greater respect to the rich than the poor, for all humans must be respected (19:16), but you certainly must respect the venerable and the elderly. (19:32)

But respect is not enough. You must go deeper and evacuate your soul of hatred. Hatred eats like an acid at your soul and is a sure guarantee preventing one from becoming holy. (19:17) And if you do not express that hatred, but feel it deeply inside, it is even worse. Better to vent than stew, but venting as a relief valve can be almost as poisonous. This does not mean you do not confront and rebuke another for their failings, for their dishonesty, for their demagoguery, for their dogmatism and for their lack of respect for others. “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.” (19:17)

Failure to rebuke, failure to confront, failure to express when you feel hurt by the actions of another, means that the weight of their sins will be borne by you and you will be weighed down by the inability to express what you honestly think and feel. But expressing those feelings and thoughts must be done in a context of respect for the other. Finally, if you fail to rebuke, fail to confront, if you carry a grudge and build up a store of hatred within and then seek relief through revenge, that is the final straw in betraying the commandment to be honest and respect another.

IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

The culmination of these failures is idolatry. Making a molten figure into an idol is simply a metaphor for worshiping a material entity as if it were holy. The best sign of idolatry is when a leader ensures his picture appears everywhere or when a leader seeks to stamp everything with his own name. Whether one worships an idol or tries to become an idol oneself, perhaps the greatest failing of our age of celebrity worship, we indicate by such behaviour that we have betrayed the pursuit of holiness.

Let me give one perhaps trivial example, the current fad of tattooing one’s body, of making “cuts in your flesh”. For “you shall not etch a tattoo on yourself.” (19:28) Why not? What harm results? Enormous harm. For etching a tattoo into one’s flesh is an effort at make a fleeting feeling of the moment permanent and failing to recognize that things of the flesh can never be permanent. It is not because the body is God’s creation, for our bodies are made of the dust of the earth. It is not because we are enjoined not to mutilate God’s handiwork, for we are commanded as Jews to circumcise a male baby when only 8 days old. Rather, tattooing is related to idolatry, to deifying what should not be regarded as worthy in an effort to get in touch with the permanent, with the eternal.

It is clear in the Torah and it is a fear at a time of celebrating the day of Israeli independence, that Israel itself can be turned into an idol, worshiped in itself as the exceptional and the holy in total disregard of the behaviour of its politicians and its people. On the other hand, God has said to his people, “You shall possess their land, and I shall give it to you to possess it a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the Lord your God, Who has distinguished you from the peoples.” Jews are commanded to be a holy nation, a nation that gives witness to the highest values. This does not mean that other nations cannot express that role or aspire to holiness. Quite the contrary. But it is an overriding injunction for Jews as a people.

And that is what it means to be holy. It means being both intimate and honest with one’s partner, making one’s best effort at telling the truth, especially telling the truth to power, not sacrificing the lives of children for oneself but sacrificing oneself for your children, loving the stranger as oneself but never being so naïve as to fall into the bewitchment of a Molech, a medium or an oracle, not disrespecting or insulting the other, but being willing to rebuke that other when he or she offends, not building up resentments into a hateful cauldron or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, worshiping another as an idol or trying to embed in one’s own flesh a sense of permanence for the impermanent.

That is the core of the holiness code.

By the Skin of our Teeth

By the Skin of our Teeth rather than the Skin of our Flesh
Tazria-Metzora: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

by

Howard Adelman

2. When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.
3. And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.

The skin of our flesh refers to the horrors we suffer from natural disasters, like the disease of leprosy, or man-made disasters, such as the war in Syria where the Assad regime (or Russia) yesterday bombed a children’s hospital, Al Quds, supported by Doctors Without Borders in Aleppo. Dozens of children, their visiting relatives and the hospital medical staff, including the only pediatrician left in that tragic city, Dr. Muhammad Waseem Maaz, were killed. Yesterday evening on “As It Happens” on CBC, we listened to the most moving interview that I have ever heard Carol Off conduct on the program. Dr, Abdul Aziz, a surgeon who had just returned from abroad to help in the recovery program that the cease-fire was supposed to anticipate (he had helped found the hospital) bewailed the death of his close friend as well as other associates and medical staff in addition to the patients and family killed in the inhumane attack. ‘Where is the humanitarian intervention?” he seemed to cry out. “We lost one of the best hearts in this world. He always smiled. We asked him, ‘Please just take a rest.’ He said no. He’s now 36. He’s unmarried. He said, ‘How can I marry? I would be too busy for my family. I would not be able to work for those babies who are crying every day.” In the bombing, that brave and dedicated pediatrician was killed.

Where are we? Where indeed! Where is the Responsibility for Intervention? Donald Trump is not the first in the U.S. or the West to base foreign policy on America or One’s Own Country first. After George Bush made such a mess of the American intervention in Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and after too few souls spoke out against the war including both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. But whereas Donald Trump did so based on my country first, Obama did so out of realistic caution about the potential consequences of presuming to be the policeman of the world. Justin Trudeau too has retreated from a vigorous interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect.

But, in this partial or, as in Trump’s case, total retreat from our humanitarian responsibilities, in part because the Responsibility to Protect expressed both naïve idealism and a totally unrealistic appreciation of the difficulties of engaging in a humanitarian foreign policy, we allow tyrants to destroy innocent civilians at will.

It is a disgrace! What did Dr. Aziz’s pediatrician colleague do, what did the innocent children in that Aleppo hospital do, to deserve such a horrendous fate?
We have not retreated altogether. Some of us do our bit in helping the casualties, the refugees, who have escaped that horrid war. Last evening, we listened to a replay of an interview by Mary Hynes on CBC’s “Tapestry” with Rabbi Tina Greenberg who was herself a refugee from the USSR thirty years earlier. Her congregation, Darchei Noam in Toronto, led in good part by Naomi Alboim, was inspired by their own commitments and the significance of their rabbi’s own story to ‘pay it back.’ The congregation had just welcomed the Syrian family they had sponsored.

But many, indeed most, are not so lucky. On CBC’s “As It Happens,” we listened to an interview with another Aziz, not the Syrian surgeon, Dr. Abdul Aziz, but another Abdul Aziz, a Sudanese “refugee” who has been held for three years as a virtual prisoner inside a Manus Island detention camp financed (along with bribes to government officials) by the Australian government that has turned its back completely on the plight of refugees and transported Aziz and others like him from Christmas Island to Manus. Other refugee claimants had been sent to the tiny island country of Nauru. However, the Papua Supreme Court had ruled that detention in this case was illegal. Australia refused to take the refugees. The IMO offered to transport them back to the country from which they originally fled. Papua New Guinea will be left with most of them as they apply for refugee status. The detention camp will be closed, not so much because of the ruling of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court, but because Australia declared victory, for the arrival of more irregular arrivals had successfully been deterred by the harsh Australian policy.

But I do not want to write about the afflictions of the flesh produced by man-made disasters, and certainly not those brought about by nature, but rather about the escape from such disasters by the “skin of our teeth” rather than at the cost of our flesh. Job 19:20 reads: “My bone cleaves to my skin, and I escaped by the skin of my teeth.” (my italics) But our teeth do not have skin. What is the real meaning of the expression? It stands in such strong opposition to the horrific depictions of
“the skin of our flesh.”

Thornton Wilder wrote a play that used that expression as its title. Starring such names as Tallulah Bankhead, Montgomery Clift, Frederic March and Florence Eldridge, it won a Pulitzer Prize. Directed by the famous Elia Kazan, it was produced on Broadway in the year America entered WWII, and reproduced on the stage by many an amateur group ever since (the way I first saw it). The play is a satire of human folly and the inability of humans to escape one catastrophe after another. We never seem to learn.

In the drama, Henry Antrobus (originally called Cain) is the son of George. The hilarious musical begins with George (Adam) sending his wife Maggie, whom he refers to as Eve, a singing telegram, “Happy w’dding ann’vers’ry dear Eva.” Maggie (Eve) responds, “The earth’s getting so silly no wonder the sun turns cold.” And when the earth grows cold, when the human heart freezes up, we escape to the silly side of it all. For the tragic repetitive course of the cycle of human agony is just too hard to take. So instead of writing about and thinking about the horrors suffered by the skin of our flesh, we can read and write about the series of escapes we make by “the skin of our teeth.”

An old friend from the Operation Lifeline days in the eighties (he was a leader in the Operation Lifeline efforts in Vancouver dedicated to helping the Indochinese refugees), wrote and just published a hilarious account of the scrapes and narrow escapes he and his wife Sally experienced. They had retreated from the hurly burly of life in Vancouver. In Off the Grid (just nominated for a Stephen Leacock Award for Humour with the full title, Our Life Off the Grid: An Urban Couple Goes Feral), David describes one hilarious (and harrowing) story after another about his and Sally’s efforts to build a homestead from scratch with their own labour on the remote (and largely inhospitable) Read Island. So comedy as well as suffering can also take place on islands, even when the experiences seem to be horrific and the “heroes” of the story escape “by the skin of their teeth.”

I am not a comic writer. Horror, “the skin of our flesh,” tends to mesmerize me. But this trip has not been without its tragic-comic moments. Assuming we encounter no new ones, like Thornton Wilder’s play, our near-catastrophes also had three acts. It began when we left Vancouver Island by ferry. We departed from Nanaimo rather than the ferry from Sydney on the Saanich peninsula just north of Victoria. Our primary reason was that Nanaimo was far more accessible from Cowichan Bay than the long u-shaped trip we would have to make to catch the ferry in Sydney.

There should have been a second reason we realized after we completed the crossing. When you leave from Sydney, you land at the ugly port of Tsawwassen and then have to travel through the even uglier Vancouver suburbs of Delta and Surrey to get to the Trans-Canada Highway. When you leave from Nanaimo, the trip is ten minutes shorter and you arrive in Horseshoe Bay with direct access to the Trans-Canada Highway which ends its mainland continental crossing there. Even more importantly, you travel without a single traffic light through the beautifully exquisite North Vancouver. You thus begin your trip across Canada back home to Toronto inspired and invigorated by the beauty of British Columbia.

But it almost did not start that way. When we drive – or when I rest and sleep while my wife drives – it is much safer that way; I am responsible for navigating and making all the logistic arrangements. We arrived in plenty of time to get on the ferry. I am a very good planner if I say so myself. We parked the car tightly behind the car in front and went up on the elevator to the passenger deck to enjoy the views and the trip across to the mainland. When the announcement came over the loudspeaker to go to our cars to prepare to disembark, I suddenly recalled that I did not take note of the deck on which we had parked as we prepared to leave the passenger deck. And I wondered if there was more than one deck. Suddenly in the aisle, headed towards the stairs down to the car decks, appeared the three boys who boarded (or were they already on?) the elevator when we came up to the passenger deck.

In a panic, I asked them what deck we parked the car on. One replied with a bit of hesitation – I thought because he had been taken by surprise by my interruption, but he may just have been embarrassed by the stupidity of an elder who was so foolish as to not take note of the deck on which he had parked. “Deck Two,” he said in a sure voice. Relieved, we gathered our things and headed down to Deck Two.

What did we find? RVs. trucks. Even a bus. No cars. We ran to the other of the deck, though we were sure we had parked on that side. No luck. We raced up to Deck Three. There were lots of cars as they began to drive off. We clicked our key uselessly. There were no lights flashing that we could see. We asked a worker on the ship whom we finally found and asked where our car could be. I remember striped poles that we parked next to on the deck where we stopped. The deckhand said with bemusement, “Deck Four.” We raced up another deck looking for our car. To our relief, there sat our car – alone, well not quite alone since there was a frustrated driver sitting in a car behind ours. With huge embarrassment as my nightmarish imaginings dissipated about cars boarding the ferry to go the other way trapped us, and with my “tail between my legs,” too ashamed to look the other driver in the eye, we drove off the ferry and escaped “by the skin of our teeth.”

If it had not been the only escape! When we arrived in Osoyoos and, after we had looked at the map outside the Information Centre (it was already past the time when they were open), we opted to drive the 12 or so km up to The Burrowing Owl Estate Winery where they had both accommodation and a very well-reviewed restaurant. When we arrived and finally found the clerk in the restaurant rather than at the desk. She apologized and said that they were all full. This was late April, the off-off season for wineries. And they were full! So we asked if she knew of another spot nearby. She kindly phoned over to another guest house of a winery nearby and, seemingly luckily, they had one room from a no-show. So we went back to the car to drive over.

My wife had been wearing sun glasses. She looked for her regular glasses as sun glasses were no longer appropriate as the sun was going down. I searched the floor of the passenger side. We could not find them. She searched her side of the car, through all her purses. No glasses. They were an expensive pair and her only non-sun long distance glasses. We thought she might have left them when we were looking over the menu. We went back to the restaurant. No glasses. We phoned the other winery to cancel our tentative booking. We hypothesized two possibilities. She had put them on her lap and the glasses had fallen to the ground when she got out to look at the map at the Information Centre. The other time was about 75 km back when we had stopped to fill the car with gas and she had left the car to take advantage of the washroom.

We drove back to Osoyoos. We returned to the Information Centre and drove up to the map. There was scruffy man there with a dog. We looked all around. No glasses. We asked the man. He had not seen anything. Resigned, we decided we would have to drive back the 75 km. But I have an intelligent wife. She asked for my gas receipt. We got the name of the place where we had stopped for gas and she looked up the telephone number on her phone and called the gas station. The clerk was asked to check the washroom under the suspicion that they had been set down and inadvertently forgotten. The clerk kindly agreed to check and even more kindly came back on the phone and, with even greater compassion, expressed her regret that the glasses had not been found.

She was thanked and we hung up in despair. But with N’s usual persistence, she phoned back. Would the clerk mind going out to look around the gas pumps and check if the glasses had fallen to the ground. She was very obliging. She went out to search. She returned after a few minutes and even more regretfully and with even more empathy in her voice expressed her deep sorrow that the glasses had not been found.

In despair, we began to search in the car again. There at my feet, behind my briefcase where I has presumably already looked several times and so thoroughly earlier, there were the glasses. They had slipped down from the centre console. N was too relieved to bother pointing out my repeated practice of often never being able to see something that was right in front of my eyes. My problem is that I spend my life with my eyes peering inward at my thoughts. And I often miss the world as it passes by. But this time we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

The third experience yesterday and the day before was far more harrowing. On this trip we had not made reservations in advance at hotels or motels because we were not sure how much time we would spend on byways and tasting wines and exploring the environment. On Tuesday, we had stayed over at Regina rather than Moose Jaw and were proud we had covered such a distance. Wednesday morning, we headed for Winnipeg with hopes of getting all the way to Kenora. Proud of ourselves, we got two hours past Winnipeg to Kenora. I had a list of hotels prioritized in accordance with our set order of concerns. We arrived at the first, only to be told that the motel was full. We tried a second on the list. At the third attempt, we were told every single space in Kenora was taken. There was not a single room available in the whole city. No one could explain why, at the end of April, all motel rooms would be full. We were advised to drive on to Dryden.

We arrived in Dryden and again went to the first hotel on our preference list. Full! Not only full, but the clerk told us in deep sorrow that she had to turn away drivers with little children. She offered to let us stay in the lounge where there was plenty of coffee and drinks. It was after ten in the evening. The clerk explained that 700 workers were booked into hotels and motels and B&Bs from Kenora to Ignace as the mill was being refitted within a two week shut down. There was no chance of finding a room. We would have to go on to Thunder Bay about 4-5 hours away.

Again, with my tail between my legs, I returned to the car with the terrible news and the explanation for why there were no rooms. N asked if we should fill up the gas tank. It was down one-eighth. I assured her that it would be unnecessary as in that long distance we would be sure to find at least one gas station open. With stoical reserve, my wife set out to drive through to half – more than half the night – to Thunder Bay. By Ignace, we began to really worry. We had not seen a single gas station open. We saw two police cars parked side by side at a gas station. We asked if there was any way could use our credit card to get gas from a closed gas station. They said no, but told us there was a gas station 1.5 kilometers further. It was the only gas station open until we reached Thunder Bay and we did not have enough gas to reach Thunder Bay.

To our enormous relief, the gas station was indeed open as promised. The French-Canadian proprietor even agreed to see if she could phone around and find a room. She was unsuccessful;. We filled up and drove on, following an excellent driver who minimized the trying experience of driving in the dark on a two-lane highway with trucks with very bright lights approaching the other way. She kept her eyes on the rear red lights and followed.

At one point, the driver in front turned into a rare but darkened motel parking lot. There was no flashing sign stating, “No Vacancy.” However, it was obvious that there was no one around and the number of cars parked indicated that that the motel was full. It was about 1:30 in the morning. It turned out that the driver was heading back to southern Ontario as well. He had picked his daughter up in Victoria and was driving her home to Hanover. He too had left Saskatchewan that very morning. We resumed driving and followed him all the way to Thunder Bay right into the lot of a Best Western.

He went through the door and I followed. It was 4:00 a.m. No vacancies. There was likely no vacancy in the whole of Thunder Bay. The miner’s meeting was in town. So was a sports event and a large First Nations meeting. And the Premier of our province was in town. This pessimistic information was reaffirmed at the second motel. At the third where we both stopped, the lady behind the desk said that she had one room left (a no-show), but our lead driver could not have it because he needed a room that would take the ten pound dog of his daughter. The room remaining was a no-pet room. I was offered the remaining room.

I said that he had priority and suggested that he leave the dog in the car. He replied that his daughter would rather sleep in the car than let her pet sleep there alone. He was resigned to just driving all the way to Sault Ste Marie, another seven hours. I asked the desk clerk whether an exception could be made. Kindly, she decided to make an exception. Not only that, but she had found a business room which she could offer to me at the lower rate where we could stay. There was no other choice in any case. At 4:30 in the morning we literally crawled into bed.
Sometimes departures can be tragic. At other times, tragically comic. In a second act, we are sometimes Eyeless in Gaza. At other times we just misplace glasses and cannot see what is in front of our eyes. In the third act, there can be no room in a motel, or, really tragically, no space where we can feel and be secure in the whole world.

By the skin of our teeth! But far better than by the skin of our flesh. We are leaving Sault Ste. Marie and will be home before shabat.