Populism

Yesterday was very busy. I attended the lunch hour talk at Massey College by Cliff Orwin on “Populism.” I then went to my dentist and heard the disappointing news that my implants were not yet fused solidly enough to my jaw bones to put on crowns; I would have to wait another two months. I then returned to the University of Toronto and attended the J.F. Priestley lecture delivered by Jill Lepore on “Facts.” Today and tomorrow I will attend the second and third of these lectures by Jill Lepore on “Numbers.” And “Data” respectively. The three-part series is called, “The End of Knowledge.” In the evening I returned to Massey College to listen to a panel discussion on “Religion and Conflict.” I will report on each in turn in this and subsequent blogs as a way of gaining an understanding of the university as a Social Service Station.

Cliff is a brilliant scholar who was educated at Cornell University under the aegis of Allan Bloom and at Harvard in the sixties and then, like many American academics, migrated north. He is a professor of political philosophy renowned for his work on Thucydides (The Humanity of Thucydides), but is also engaged with modern, contemporary and Jewish thought. In his own bio, he writes that his main current concerns are compassion and the emergence of justice or righteousness in the Torah. Coincidentally, at the panel on “Religion and Conflict,” Rabbi Yael Splansky, one of the panelists, handed out a drash (an interpretation of religious text) from the Talmud, Bereishit Rabbah 8:5, that dwelt on the interplay of kindness or compassion, truth, justice and peace. As is customary, it is written in the form of “on the one hand” and then “on the other hand” in an argument among the angels over whether God should create humans. Because humans will be bestowed with compassion and justice – Cliff’s two current topics – in the angel’s eyes, this argues for human creation. However, humans will also be characterized by the propensity to lie rather than seek the truth and with the propensity for conflict and dissension rather than peace, the arguments offered for not creating humans.

These will be the four themes that run through the next series of blogs – the expression of compassion and the quest for justice offset by the propensity to lie rather than seek the truth and the propensity for dissension or conflict rather than peace. What does God do after listening to the debate amongst his angels? He “took truth and flung him to the ground. Thus it is written: ‘You will cast truth to the ground.’ (Daniel 8:12)” “Why did you do that?” asked an angel. Why would you despise your seal of truth since truth must rise from the ground? “Truth will grow from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)

Two historians of the past and a rabbinic scholar on the same day are really all mesmerized by the issue of truth in juxtaposition with developments in the external world. The scholarship of the two professors is used to offer different reasons for the current passion to denigrate “truth” and to explain why this is so. They are not addressing abstract topics, but issues we now confront daily. They may be political philosophers or scholars in modern intellectual history or preoccupied with the Talmud, but the issue before them all is explaining the current widespread disdain for truth and assessing the significance of this turn of events. They are esteemed thinkers, two of them working in a university still characterized as a Social Service Station focused on and guided by the current problems of the day which they use their scholarship to address. In addition to their scholarship, Orwin, Lefore and Splansky are all prolific contributors of op-eds.

Populism is certainly on the rise. In the past ten days we witnessed Doug Ford, a local populist, being elected to lead the Conservative Party of Ontario, an event reported by Foreign Affairs in its coverage of the noteworthy issues around the world. In the Italian elections on 4 March, populist parties emerged triumphant, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League (Lega Nord), the far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), Luigi di Maio’s Five Star Movement (MoVimento 5 Stelle or M5S) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy (Forza Italia), the latter now portrayed more as a traditional centre-right party than a populist one. Together, they won a majority of the seats in Parliament with M5S winning a much greater proportion of the votes than expected. Then, of course, there was the latest flood of news from the strongest label in the populist arena, Donald Trump himself and his shenanigans.

Trump’s initiative to meet with North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, first unconditionally, then conditionally, then quasi-conditionally, that is, unconditionally with some conditions, his firing of Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State via a tweet, his protectionist trade policies and imposition of duties on imported steel and aluminum, at the same time as he was embroiled in the suit be Stormy Daniels, the porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair and to whom he indirectly paid $130,000 to shut her up just before the elections. Yesterday, Trump reviewed the design prototypes in San Diego of his long-promised wall along the Mexican border, one of the main planks of his populist program that won him the presidency. The cup of populism runneth over.

What did Thucydides have to say about populism? As Cliff noted, the pattern of lying is not unique to populism. Look at the big lie of the George Bush presidency about nuclear weapons in Iraq that justified the American invasion. As Thucydides wrote (Book VI of The Peloponnesian Wars), the Athenians based their invasion of Sicily, ignorant of the deep divisions within that population, on advancing their imperial and pecuniary interests, but based on misinformation and downright lies as revealed by Nicias who had been appointed general against his will. Nicias thought that the decision to go to war was based “upon slight and specious grounds.” Nicias warned of the many existing enemies that would arise from such an expedition and the new ones that would emerge from within Sicily.

One populist response to these lies and historic consequences was a rejection of global overreach and a propensity towards neo-isolationist policies. The imperial elites that populists subsequently rejected in the name of self-determination and the opposition to bringing more foreigners to Athens because the needs of Athens’s own population were being neglected, were the same problems pointed to by liberals. Neo-cons were the enemies of both liberals and populists as were the mandarins who supported those imperialist adventurers.

The populists simply marked all bureaucrats with the same brush. The populists were correct in at least one sense – liberals had lost touch with the people. And Cliff is driven by a need to reconnect intellectual elites with the people in the pattern of his hero, Thucydides, who he claims always displayed a sympathy for the victims of power. Trump went further along another path and insisted, “Let us have no more allies such as ours have often been to whom we are expected to render aid when they are in misfortune, but from whom we ourselves get no help when we need it.” (Thucydides, Book VI)

Further, as with Athens, America is an innovative state that has always been dedicated to imperial expansion and glory in pursuit of its own interests at the expense of others. Populists simply insist, contrary to fact, that it is the U.S. that has been suckered. Further, the populism of Athens, and any other city-state in the ancient Greek world, preferred safety even at the cost of justice. So wherein comes justice, wherein comes compassion, in a world torn between imperial passions and defensive self-concern? Even Sparta, rooted in conservatism, moderation and the old-fashioned virtue of justice, was motivated by fear, fear of the helots on whose labour the city-state depended. States are caught between imperial overreach (such as that of the neo-cons) that expresses a willingness to sacrifice for a larger cause, and an obsession with safety of self characterized by populism. Liberals must manage the two diverse and rival passions of glory versus safety, ambition versus self-determination, and must do so by a reverence for candor and truth.

Cliff made the same point that Thucydides did – the need to make liberalism more populist. In order to reinvigorate a democracy that had abandoned its roots, its foundations in self-determination and in democracy. The problem, of course, is that populism and liberalism, whatever their overlaps, are very different. Populism embraces a politics of resentment, of negativity rather than offering a positive program based on a canonical text outlining core beliefs. Further, populism is anti-elitist where the elites are NOT defined by their wealth, but by their failure to identify with the problems of ordinary people. The elites are journalists, academic intellectuals and mandarins who speak what to them is a foreign language and who substantively appear to be hypocrites in their ostensible concern for resolving social problems while neglecting the decline in jobs, the decline in hopes and the general distress of a working class displaced by globalism.

Localism, anti-mandarinism, neo-isolationism in both trade and foreign affairs, mark them off from liberals. In Europe, populist parties have tended to don a liberal dress to attract a wider appeal. In North America, they market themselves as anti-liberal. In both cases, populists regard the position of these academic elites as consisting entirely of lies and responsible for the dissension in society because they do not attend to “the core values” that once purportedly characterized the nation. To top it off, these liberals lacked compassion towards their own and a determination to deliver on the promise of justice. Barack Obama bailed out the banks but not the people who were underwater because of the history of the banks disregard of the impact of their policies on small homeowners.

But the central characteristic that I take to be typical of populism is a total disregard of the truth that they project onto elites. It is they who sell out their heads for what they feel. It is they who base policy on sentiment in response to a deep need for compassion and justice directed toward themselves. In The New Yorker (5 March 2018), there is an investigative report by Mike Spies on the famous or infamous gun lobbyist in Florida, Marion Hammer who earns US$316,000 a year for her efforts. Florida witnessed the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in the attack of a killer with assault weapons on a largely Latino gay nightclub in Orlando on 12 June 2016. 49 were killed and 58 others were injured, a fatality toll only surpassed by the attack in Las Vegas a year later. But the killer was Omar Mateen, a follower of radical Islam.

This was not the case in Las Vegas. This was not the case of the 17 killed most recently at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A majority of Americans may support increased gun control, but a populist-rooted NRA and its lobbyists have been behind a series of efforts to expand the access to weapons by Americans, including the unique privilege of carrying firearms by the ordinary public, bills that punish officials who even attempt to establish gun registries, the right to carry concealed weapons and, more fundamentally, for overturning 100 years of American judicial interpretations of the second amendment of the American constitution that protects the rights of states to arm militias and converting it to a policy that insists on the natural-born right of every individual in America to bear arms. Not only to bear them, but to use them if they have a reasonable belief that they are acting to defend themselves. “Subjective feelings of fear were grounds to shoot someone even if there were other options available.” (p. 28)

Law and order displaces the rule of law and a respect for due process. It is no surprise that subsequent to the passage of such legislation, “the number of homicides ruled legally justifiable had increased in Florida by seventy-five percent.” “Such killers need provide zero evidence of self-defence to avoid not only being convicted but being prosecuted at all.” (p. 31) On 26 February 2012, George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida killed an unarmed black man, Trayvon Martin, and was found innocent. Since the law took effect, seventy percent of those who invoked it (the belief in a justified fear of danger) as a defense had gone free.” (p. 28)

Behind it all is not a politics of informed debate, but a politics of lies and threats, of coercion and manipulation. The NRA has 300,000 members in Florida. It is Marion Hammer, a non-elected lobbyist, who writes bills and oversees their passage and who prevents ANY and ALL legislation that would limit access to and the use of guns to even come up for vote. She controls a politically very active voting bloc that she manipulates with provocative language, paints even her most loyal legislative supporters as traitors if they deviate one iota from the line she establishes. Their miniscule attempts at deviation are marked as “unforgiveable betrayals.”

The basic position is that she is not just defending the right to both bear and use weapons, but a way of life under attack defended by a large “number of fanatical supporters who will take her word for almost anything and can be deployed at will.” (p. 26) She sends out 2-3 million e-mails on an issue and there are 4.6 million registered Republicans in the state. Hammer refused to be interviewed for Mike Spies’s story and in response to queries insisted that, “facts are being misrepresented and false stuff is being presented as fact.” But she offers no proof. She offers no rebuttals. As a complete fabrication based on no offered or available data, Hammer contended that “before the law (the one allowing the use of a weapon if you had a reasonable belief that you were in danger) was enacted, innocent people were being arrested, prosecuted and punished for exercising self-defence that was lawful under the Constitution.“ (p. 28) Ask for even one example and the answer is, “Not relevant.”

Mandarins who supply objective and disinterested “facts” are called liars propelled by the political intent to kill the legislation she supports. Anyone who does not support the positions she advocates, no matter what their past activity and support had been, become enemies. “(I)f you cross me once, even if the issue doesn’t involve the Second Amendment, I will take you out.” In defence of a Hobbesian state of nature in opposition to responsible government, any lie is permissible, any libel justified.

Though truth is thrust on the ground and covered with dirt and filth, truth will still grow from that earth, but it will take courage, commitment and compassion to protect those tender shoots against the assaults of populism. The duty of academics in a Social Service Station is to launch a full-scale attack on behalf of truth against these purveyors of lies and manipulators of voters. The dilemma, as Cliff points out in his book on Thucydides, is that reason and truth are weak in dealing with fears; hypocrisy must be employed to win support. Both liberalism and democracy need to be reclaimed by ensuring that truth can grow and thrive and that compassion rather than coercion, justice rather than injustice, can prevail. But it won’t come without costs.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Jill Lepore on Facts

 

National Identity

National Identity

by

Howard Adelman

In a very recent blog sent by Rabbi Dow Marmur, he opened with the following joke: “When a rabbi who knew both countries [Israel and the U.S.] was asked to describe the difference between Israel and America, he said: ‘In Israel they give me advice and ask me for money; in America they give me money and ask for advice.’”

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of spending three hours with a very old friend who lives in Italy. He told me a different joke. It was a philosophical rather than rabbinical play on national distinctions, but one that emphasized character rather than attitudes related to different circumstances. Various representatives of different nationalities were offered a complex lesson in philosophy, more precisely, in maieutics, that is, the philosophic method Socrates used in Plato’s dialogues to demonstrate we already possessed the knowledge that needed to be elicited. In the joke, representatives of different nationalities responded in quite different ways:

Japanese: studied and learned the lesson
American: asked how much the lesson cost
French: pretended to learn the lesson and recast it in abstruse language
Irish: said the lesson reminded him of a story and proceeded to tell it
Greek: argued about what the lesson was
British: snubbed the lesson and insisted it was irrelevant
Canadian: apologized for not grasping the meaning
Israeli: insisted that he had a better way to phrase and teach the lesson

Both jokes are twists on creating caricatures of national differences, either because of circumstances or predominant cultural patterns. More importantly, the jokes suggest that, whatever the common purpose of the lesson, our national dispositions subvert those goals. We give that universal treatise a national twist, so much so that the twist distorts the lesson so much that it loses its universal meaning.

The iconic story of the Tower of Babel – common to the holy literature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – describes the universal wish of all mankind to reach towards the heavens, to surpass themselves. To do so, the builders adopted a global and inclusive approach to develop the skills and knowledge to accomplish that unprecedented feat. Instead of God applauding the effort, in the most popular interpretation of the story, He undermined those universal aspirations and the arrogance behind it by turning the builders into factious groups, each of which developed their own language, making them incapable of communicating with one another.

That is a reactionary interpretation of the fable which, like ISIS, insists it is literally the height of folly to have universal aspirations. If we reread the story, there is a quite opposite interpretation. For the most important condition of the inanity of building the tower was that each human group lost that most extraordinary and super-human quality, the capacity of empathy. If you do not understand and comprehend, if you do not know an Other, if one is denied this essential power of the heavens, it is not possible to surpass oneself, to evolve from self-loathing and resentment to a polity and community based on trust. Empathizing with another is not just a matter of promoting mutual understanding. It is the sine qua non for believing that you can be more than you are. This failure in recognition preceded the breakdown of the building of the tower and the scattering of peoples around the world into different self-enclosed language groups.

Socrates taught: “Know thyself.” The real lesson the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9) – and of the caricature jokes about national attitudes and dispositions – is “Know an Other.” For that is how we develop trust and faith. Faith then is not a creed, a condition for belonging to one group rather than another, but the highest aspiration that allows any creed to be transvalued to develop common goals. We worship God, not to become God, but to become something above ourselves. When the universal quest becomes a matter of turning ourselves into divine beings instead of turning towards one another to surpass ourselves, then our efforts at reconstruction and aspiration turn into megalomaniacal enterprises..

The scattering of peoples and the divisions among them were not the results of trying to aspire towards the heavens, but the failure to rise up with the tower, to grow beyond previous differences resulting in peoples being cast down to earth and swept by the winds on the plains into different territorial enclaves around which we tried to build walls rather than towers. God destroys the tower, not because we aspire to reach the heavens, but because we aspired to do so without mutual and reciprocal understanding. Towers built to trump others instead of being constructed to appreciate Others are doomed for destruction. God created nations so they could know and understand one another, not to be suspicious and distrustful.

The question then is why did they fail? Why did groups fail to understand one another? External misunderstandings begin with deep internal fissures. On the high beams of our efforts at globalization, we must learn to balance so that we can aspire to more without losing contact with those around and below us. We aspire for the highest, but can only achieve the higher by knowing what is lower and beneath, by constantly remembering where we came from. In such a context, faith is not a heirloom, a condition of being blessed, but a pinnacle of hope, a goal to be achieved. And it can only be erected on a foundation of compassion. That foundation starts with compassion for the condition of our own people.

We live in an era in which the quest for a global order wrestles with religions and nationalities seen as sources of division and misunderstanding rather than the means by which we truly develop our empathy and hone our ability to feel compassion. The issue is not overcoming perceived differences, but overcoming ourselves so we can understand and empathize with those differences. If we retire behind the fortifications of a newborn tribalism that, instead of enriching us and sending us forth into the world assured of our ability to become something more because we see what is more by understanding others, then we are doomed to look inward instead of outward, doomed to reify God as a fixed and limited entity instead of viewing God as capable of occupying all the heavens above.

No country, no religion, no ethnic group has escaped the scourge if an inward dwelling nationalism and the putrid stupefaction it breeds. The illness is pervasive. It is the same sickness which will once again render us incapable of reaching towards the heavens. The current wave of the divisive politics of resentment threatens the politics of hope and trust that Obama tried to create. Israel is another case in point. But if we sit on a high beam and revel in our moral superiority looking down and askance at those below, we lose our moral bearings. That is why parochial nationalism begins with internal condescension. That is why it is incumbent upon liberal cosmopolitans to see the links with those they might otherwise see as worthy only of contempt. The issue is our commonality rather than the differences between those who occupy lofty positions and those trying to preserve what are regarded as prejudices. The problem does not start with nationalism, but with equating nationalism and patriotism with parochialism.

Among Jews, one effluence is the division between diaspora Jews, particularly American diaspora Jews, and Israeli Jews that Rabbi Marmur discussed in his blog. As the peace process becomes ever more petrified, as Israel swings more and more to the right, more and more into an inward looking nationalism, at least as seen from the perspective of liberal Jews in both the North American diaspora and in Israel, the core of misunderstanding is reified. My friend Michael Barnett analyzed the effects of that rightward shift in Israel on diaspora Jews in America.in his recent book, The Star and the Stripes A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews.

As we approach fifty years of occupation, Michael finds a radical divide between the nationalism and tribalism predominant in Israel versus the liberal cosmopolitan outlook dominant perspective among American Jews. As a result, we have the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in which many young Jews and old style leftist Zionist like Bernie feel themselves forced to adopt a more pro-Palestinian outlook as they become more and more alienated from the predominant Israeli sensibility. The dilemma is that the American Jews are branded as cosmopolitans, aloof from the horrible cauldron of the Middle East, while Israelis are stamped as right wing ideologues increasingly racist and oriented inwardly.

There is plenty of evidence to support the latter charge. This spring, a Pew survey showed that almost half of Israeli Jews favoured expelling Arabs from the country. Among the ultra-orthodox, the figure went as high as 71%. Among secular Israelis, those numbers went down to 36%. The contrasts were even larger when the Jews were examined as political rather than religious tribes. 87% of the left opposed “transfer.” 72% of the right favoured such a program. The centrists split down the middle. Thus, complementing the external tribal splits, and, I would argue at the root of them, we find deep fissures within each tribe and between one tribe of Israelis and the predominantly liberal cosmopolitan views present among U.S. Jews.
Israeli cosmopolitan revisionist or new historians – Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Benny Morris (who disclaims any membership in that sub-tribe) – obligated us all to look at the history of Zionism from a much broader and higher lens, far less chauvinistic and defensive. But instead of greater understanding of all and by all, history began being read in radically different ways. Israeli liberals and human rights groups eschewed the chauvinism and adopted an intense sense of recrimination characterizing Israelis as oppressors. Other Israelis in defence of their history insisted that they were the victims, not only of others historically, but of their own university-educated liberals. The cosmopolitan liberals as they rose higher in the Tower of Babel detached themselves more and more from a passionate attachment to the land and the Jewish people per se. The right, on the other hand, clung to that attachment with greater strength and berated those who had risen to such lofty heights for their indifference to their own.

The political divide between Jews and Others, between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, became even more exaggerated by the internal divisions. Jews in America increasingly voted, not simply indifferent to the plight of Jewish Israelis, but contemptuous of that plight. Other Jews in America identified more solidly with that plight. And the split between American and Israeli Jews was mirrored in the deep fissures with both the Jewish community in Israel and the Jewish community in the U.S. Further, liberal American Jews have become more attached to the plight of those regarded by the right as intractable enemies of Israel than to the Jews of France and Belgium who face and deal with rising anti-Semitism.

So the American Jewish community (as well as the Canadian) grows, at one and the same time, both more distant from and closer to Israel, as its parts diverge more and more from one another. Solidarity is shattered and the squabbling leads to a cessation in creative construction. Each side increasingly does not hear the other. Those Jews whose connection to synagogues and Jewish communities has declined seem more correlated with those Jews whose connection to Israel has also declined. The reverse seems also to be the case. American Jews are both more attached and more detached from Israel as they become increasingly detached from one another. So the solitude increases. More effort is put into denouncing than in understanding the Other. As a consequence, there is less rather than greater understanding of the Other by both parties, one as a result of deep prejudices that either border on or are racist and the other on a condescension towards the Other regarded primarily as victims.

If forced to choose, the fissure will become a deep and unbridgeable valley. Issues like proportionality in fighting one’s enemies, the expansion of settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the troublemaking of Iran, bypassing any and all efforts to advance a two-state solution, became occasions for shouting matches rather than dialogue. So if Jews who ostensibly belong to the same tribe cannot speak and address one another with civility, how can either group communicate with other equally tribalized and fissured groups?

When we offer to teach the lesson of maieutics to others when we base that teaching, not on the dictum of “Know Thyself,” but on the dictum to “Know the Other.” We must also remember that knowing the Other who is oneself is a necessary prerequisite of knowing the Other who is other.