A Potpourri: On Jewish Aliens, Populism and Intellectuals

A Potpourri: On Jewish Aliens, Populism and Intellectuals

by

Howard Adelman

One of the joys of writing my blog is the responses of readers. Many are insightful and even brilliant. Others are informative. Some are more interesting than my originals. Of the many I receive, a small assorted selection, though incongruous, offers a mixture of very recent comments by readers of my blog that offer a very complementary blend suitable to bring forth a sweet new year.

Flowers (Spoiler Alert – best read after seeing The Shape of Water)

 “One way to look at a sci-fi or horror film is to try to identify who is the Jew. The mute girl, Elisa’s first name is a variant of Elisha who was a prophet who performed miracles of healing. Her last name, Esposito, is not from the Hebrew. It is from the Latin and means an outsider or, more interestingly, a foundling. In the film, we learn that Elisa was found beside a river and that she had neck wounds which rendered her mute. Is there is a gender reversal theme in the film? Elisa may be a faint echo of Moses. He was rescued from the river and grew up to have a speech impediment.

Usually, it is the monster in a sci-fi or horror film who represents the Jew – the misunderstood alien or other outsider who is to be feared. In this film, the monster or “Asset”, as he is called, is an amphibian who can live in two worlds. That is very Jewish. The Asset, however, is a problematic Jewish metaphor for me. First, he eats cats and cats are not kosher. More importantly, he has godlike attributes and there is only one G*d. I suppose that it is okay for the Asset to perform miracles, such as hair restoration, which are similar, in kind, to the healing miracles by Elisha the Prophet. It is not okay, for me, that the Asset seemingly performs an act of creation when he tranforms Elisa’s neck scars into gills in order that she could become his consort back home in the river.

The third possible Jewish figure in the film is the scientist at the OCCAM research institute: Dmitri Hofstedtler aka Robert. Hofstedtler could be the name of a Russian Jew. He has sensibilities for life and knowledge not possessed by either his thuggish Russian handlers or by his American boss Strickland, the bigot. The film alludes to a Russian/Jewish connection when Strickland examines the explosive Dmitri used to cause the power failure in the OCCAM complex. Strickland deems it to be of Israeli origin and evidence of a Russian operation. He says something similar to: “The Russians hate the Jews but love their toys.”

I thought that Hofstedtler was the Jew in the film until I read your review, Howard. In your first paragraph, you stated:

‘To my surprise, this movie that I saw last evening is also about recognition, about a mute but not deaf woman, a “princess without a voice” who is as alien to her fellow humans (except one of her fellow cleaning partner, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer) as the alien amphibian, neither centaur nor satyr, with whom she falls in love.’

I had not pushed the idea of Elisa’s being a Jew as alien far enough. She is the monster not the Asset. She is the one to be reclaimed to her people in the South American river. Why was she abandoned by the river side originally? We do not know. Maybe she was abandoned because she looked like a monster in appearance to her people by accident of birth. Maybe her people damaged her gills so that she could not return to the water world. Maybe her people were threatened as were Moses’ and their abandoning her, presumably on dry land, by the river, was a desperate attempt to let her survive.

Second, you pointed out about the research facility’s being named OCCAM. I had missed that clue which is also a Coenesque joke. The lab is a giant, sprawling, rule bound, and incompetent bureaucracy. Dmitri and Strickland bicker and joust about the proper protocol to be followed in the workplace. Dmitri is not to enter his boss’s office directly without permission, and Strickland is reminded to use the proper honourific “Doctor” when addressing Dmitri. As an aside, the man who is responsible for the facility, General Hoyt. is a reference to the historical General Hoyt Vandenburg who was an early CIA Director.

The clue that you provided is that the Asset is the real Occam of the film. He literally uses his teeth and, more importantly, his claws to make the razor cuts that both startle us and serve to advance the plot. At the end of the film, the combination of his claws and his healing hands appear to open up and restore Elisa’s gills. The Asset may not have been more godlike than a prophet after all. He does not create or transform but merely heals and restores to the original. He is a plot device. The movie is about Elisa.”

Herbs (On the Rise of Populism in Europe)

Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics,

2 November – 14 December 2017, University of Michigan

A Selection from the Program

Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics Populism is a type of politics that some would contend existed as long ago as Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In the modern democratic era, populism has become a political style that has emerged in many nations throughout the world. Political figures or mass movements labeled as populist generally claim to champion the ordinary citizen or common people against a powerful elite. The lectures in this series will explore varieties of populism historically and in contemporary politics. European, South American and U. S. populism will receive the most attention. In addition to describing specific features of populism in individual countries, the lectures will attempt to capture the essence of populism, because it is frequently viewed as a concept that is vague and elusive. The very recent outbreaks of populism in the United States (e.g., Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders), Europe (e.g., Le Pen in France), the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, and South America (e.g., Hugo Chavez) will be analyzed and placed within the very long tradition of populist politics.

November 2 DEMOCRACY DISMANTLED: HOW POPULISM IS A PATHWAY TO AUTOCRACY Erica Frantz

Erica Frantz is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Michigan State University. She studies authoritarian politics, with a focus on democratization, conflict, and development. She has written four books on dictatorships and development, and her work has appeared in multiple academic and policy-oriented journals.

Speaker’s Synopsis: Populism is spreading across the globe. Various causes lie behind the populist upsurge, ranging from increased economic hardship to frustrations with globalization. The consequences are worrisome. Today’s populist wave is paving the way for competitively elected leaders to subtly dismantle their countries’ democratic institutions. This form of transition to dictatorship in which incumbents slowly chip away at constraints on their leadership is also associated with the initiation of personalist rule, the most pernicious form of autocracy. November 9 WHAT POPULISM IS Elizabeth Anderson Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has taught at UM since 1987, specializing in moral and political philosophy, especially on democratic theory, egalitarianism and its history, and the roles of experts and citizens in democratic policy making. Speaker’s Synopsis: This talk will explain what populism is and trace its origins to tensions in democracy going back to Rousseau. The speaker will show how populism can be either left-wing or right-wing, highlight the characteristic messages of populist leaders, and argue that populism, although cast as a fulfillment of democracy, is a threat to it as well as to sound public policy formation.

November 16 POPULISM AND ONLINE POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: THE CASE OF NARENDRA MODI Joyojeet Pal

Joyojeet Pal is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research focuses on the use of technology in the Global South, including accessible technology for people with disabilities and social media use by politicians.

Speaker’s Synopsis: This talk outlines the role of social media in populist electoral campaigns, and highlights the case of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, whose 2014 general election victory was aided by a very effective social media presence. This talk examines strategies of political attack, innuendo, and personal insult in online political speech. Populism: The Common People in Modern Politics Populism is a type of politics that some would contend existed as long ago as Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In the modern democratic era, populism has become a political style that has emerged in many nations throughout the world. Political figures or mass movements labeled as populist generally claim to champion the ordinary citizen or common people against a powerful elite. The lectures in this series will explore varieties of populism historically and in contemporary politics. European, South American and U. S. populism will receive the most attention. In addition to describing specific features of populism in individual countries, the lectures will attempt to capture the essence of populism, because it is frequently viewed as a concept that is vague and elusive. The very recent outbreaks of populism in the United States (e.g., Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders), Europe (e.g., Le Pen in France), the Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, and South America (e.g., Hugo Chavez) will be analyzed and placed within the very long tradition of populist politics.

November 30 POPULIST POLITICS IN LATIN AMERICA Robert S. Jansen, Ph.D.

Robert Jansen is a comparative-historical sociologist of politics and culture. He is the author of Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru (University of Chicago Press) and has published various articles on Latin American politics in academic journals. After receiving his Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA, he spent three years as a junior fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

Speaker’s Synopsis: Recent political events in the U.S. and Europe have brought renewed attention to the problem of populism. But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about populism? And what do we know about its social and political causes and consequences? This lecture provides some provisional answers to these difficult questions by considering various moments in the political history of Latin America—a region that has long been susceptible to populist mobilization and claims-making.

December 7 THE FUTURE LIES EAST: POSTCOMMUNIST EUROPE’S NEW MODEL OF POPULISM Kevin Deegan-Krause, Ph.D.

Kevin Deegan-Krause, Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University, received his B. A. in Economics and History from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. in Government and International Relations from the University of Notre Dame. His research focus is on political and governmental systems in Central and Eastern Europe. He has authored or co-edited books and journal articles on a variety of political topics. His current research focuses on political party system transformation, populism, and the sources of electoral support for authoritarian leaders.

Speaker’s Synopsis: We have come to associate the word populism with the right in Western Europe and with the left in Latin America, but in Eastern Europe new political movements advance not from the left or the right but from the outside, as dissatisfied citizens rally around non-political celebrities to challenge what they see as a corrupt status quo. As the trend-setter in this new political style, Eastern Europe offers insights into an increasingly widespread variation on populism.

December 14 EUROPEAN POPULISM: SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES WITH THE PAST Andrei S. Markovits

Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. His many books, articles, and reviews on topics as varied as sports, dog rescue, and many aspects of European and comparative politics have been published in fifteen languages. Markovits has received many prestigious prizes and fellowships. He has also won multiple teaching awards, most notably the Golden Apple Award at the University of Michigan in 2007. In the same year, the University of Lueneburg in Germany awarded Markovits an honorary doctorate. In 2012, the Federal Republic of Germany bestowed on Markovits its Cross of the Order of Merit, First Class, one of the highest honors given by that country to its citizens or foreigners.

Speaker’s Synopsis: In Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, and a number of other European countries, populist movements have appeared in many guises altering these countries’ politics and policies. While sui generis, these constructs have displayed characteristics that are reminiscent of thought decidedly not identical with developments of the 1920s and 1930s. The lecture will highlight the current situation, analyze its causes and manifestations, and look at similarities and differences to events that contributed to a very turbulent history on that continent.

Spices (A warning about the dangers of intellectuals as politicians)

I discovered this author just recently: he was an English Studies professor in Germany, who also wished to found a theatre in Shakespeare’s style in a former pub.  He was found dead in this theatre room (apparently due to hypothermia – he was suffering from Huntington’s and may have not been able to leave the place in time).  He wrote a bestselling novel in 1996, about sexual harassment on campus (Der Campus. Goldmann Taschenbuch, München 1996) that is at the same time hilariously funny and tragic, showing the ugly side of university politics and how such situations are often much more complex than what today’s media hype makes them out to be; an excellent analysis on European anti-Semitism (Das Shylock-Syndrom oder die Dramaturgie der Barbarei. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 1997); several books on Shakespeare, and on culture in general; as well, a most interesting book on men (Männer: Eine Spezies wird besichtigt. Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 2001).  He is funny, but fair, and quite knowledgeable.  He unveils human weaknesses in a Wittgensteinian style, being an insider and at the same time an unbiased meta-observer, with much humour and understanding.  Sadly, not many of his books have been translated into English.  Here is a little sample I translated myself, from his book about men (warning: tongue in cheek, but he means it)

Dietrich Schwanitz: The Intellectual, in Männer: Eine Species wird besichtigt (pp. 169-175)
Translated from the original German
by Bea Sara Goll © 2017

First, we have to clear up an unfortunate misunderstanding:  Even if it seems natural, the concept “intellectual” has very little in common with a superior intellect, just like the Austrian “Genietruppe” [engineer corps] with geniality. Genius used to be an old-fashioned word for engineer. Likewise, “intellectual” does not mean that this person is more intelligent than another; rather it means that such a person makes it his life’s task to publicly ponder societal matters without thereby serving anybody’s interests.  Thus, among intellectuals we find free authors, journalists, commentators, artists, writers, editors, satirists and all those who focus on the state of the entire society. A geology professor who writes only for a small group of experts is not an intellectual, even if his IQ is over 160.  But a professor of the theory of culture whose writing could influence the public’s ability to understand itself is.  An intellectual must be free in order to comment critically on society.  That’s why we used to speak earlier of the liberal professions. Members of this group were the ones to participate in the public discourse.  Their close connection to politics was reflected in the French expression “république des lettres”.  Only a republic allows public discourse.

Society for an intellectual is like the husband for his disillusioned wife: subject to ongoing efforts to reform and to critique.  He cannot let the society go, but wishes it were a different one.  He has a love-hate type obsessive relationship to it.  He must change it, replace it, rebuild it or re-educate it. He must criticise it, reproach it and preach at it.  He disagrees with it, yet he feels like he is its guardian.  He protects the fire that society no longer possesses, in order to rekindle it after society’s rebirth. He is the type that depends on the horde albeit totally unhappy with the one he belongs to.  Thus, he spends his whole life looking for his own tribe.

This is nothing special actually. Most men do the same when they are unhappy with their reference group.  Or they try doing so at least.  If they don’t like their colleagues, they look for another job.  If they cannot stand their friends anymore, they move in another city.  If they want to change the type of group they hang with, they look for a different activity and switch from journalism to politics, and from politics into business.  So everybody is looking for his own horde that suits him.

But to the reformer, the entire society is his group. He cannot exchange it.  There is no alternative. Thus, the reformer wishes to reform society to suit him.  In his mind he changes it so that he can find his ideal place in it.  His societal dreams originate in his wish to find his proper place in the group. In order to accomplish this, however, the group must first learn to see things with his eyes.

Such a type may be an outsider or even a total misfit.  He has a conflict with common values.  He is a critic and an oppositionist.   He appears therefore quite independent.  Perhaps he really is that, in several aspects.  He serves his own grandiosity by regarding the entire society as his group.  Since he, in his phantasies constantly rebuilds the society, he imagines himself as its government.  When he speaks, he develops ideas that could function as a declaration of the government.  When he discusses an issue, you would think he is preparing for a cabinet meeting.  His world is the world itself.  Nothing escapes his attention, be it the issue of global warming or computer supported training.  He could become the president from one minute to the other and he would know what to do.

All else pales in comparison when he goes about his historic mission.  He is like the creator of a new world.  Unbeknownst to himself, he derives his own self-importance through the importance of the issues at hand.  His principles are supported by the weightiness of it all. He represents the interests of the entire humanity.  He feels like a parliamentary representative for the whole world.  That’s why he loves terms with “world” in them: worldwide, world politics, world peace, universal measure, world economics, world population, etc..

Whenever it is about politics, the situation among intellectuals is like in soccer: the clubs create competing teams as opinion clubs. Professional intellectuals only play in the top-level leagues. The ones below them are amateurs.  They all live in a society to which they wish there were an alternative.  Some of them actually call themselves “alternatives”.

To the man who is into a grand historic mission a woman can acquire only a low level and only a temporary importance – mainly when and as long as she strengthens him in his mission.   His focus is on his vision of the ideal group.  In that he is a typical male.  As a representative in the public discourse he represents the sphere of men itself.  He is the living opposition to intimacy.  Every woman who attempts to drag him off the stage of public discourse will be unsuccessful.  This would be akin to cutting him off from the source of his self-love.  She only has two options: give up or play along.

Should he be required to take care of the family or household, he views the individual situation as a universal problem: therefore he cannot do it in small measures.  Is he to find a flat, he will found a whole real estate agency.  Is he to find a placement in a kindergarten, he writes an article about the mistakes in family politics.  Whatever he encounters, he uses as an example in support of the necessity for reform.  If he gets into trouble with his wife or girlfriend, first thing he does is to lecture her about her objective interests vs. her subjective errors.  His actual medium is the debate.  Here he finds himself on familiar territory.  He has led at least eighty-thousand debates in his life so far.  He is well trained and unbeatable.  Not one person has ever encountered the situation in which he would have let himself be convinced or persuaded by another.  The more amazing is his imperturbable belief that he in turn could convince another.  Then again, it has been often observed that his opponents became exhausted, frustrated, and flew.  But for him to change his opinion – no, nobody has ever witnessed that.

Before a woman wishes to share her life with an intellectual she should know: the debate will continue lifelong.   If she has problems with taking it for 45 minutes, let alone for three days, she should give up right away.  Otherwise, in three weeks she will be exhausted, after three months she will tune out, and after three years, she will flee.  Or, she will learn to hate his never-ending debate.  When he announces his theses in company, she will smile contemptuously to let everybody know that she has already heard these ideas four hundred times.  Or she will deliver a direct put-down:   She will say: “Let him talk” meaning: “totally worthless”.  And she will indicate that she views all that talk as a form of impotence and that she secretly lusts for a man with action.  She will see through all his phantasies of grandeur, and even more despise him for them.  And since he is too busy dealing with the election reform to notice this, she will increase the dosage until all their friends notice it, except for him.

But if someone wants to sign up for lifelong debates, she should know a few things about the debating style.  The intellectual claims, based on his own social theory, that the opinions of an opponent are not valid, they are just a cover-up for his dark intentions.  So, he refutes an argument never in the context in which it was developed, instead, he considers it as a totally different idea. And then shoots it down.  If someone does not know this and does not know the rules of the game, she will soon become extremely frustrated.  While the opponent has made a lot of effort to work out the argument that lead to the conclusion – the intellectual does not listen to her at all.  It is like the Maginot-Line of the French.  All engineering effort had been fully in vain when the enemy found a way around it.  If however one understands the strategies, the debate might be quite enjoyable which improves the relationship as well; though she will never convince him.  But it is not at all about convincing anyway.  It is more likely that she will impress him. She will be respected by him.  He will even become aware of her existence. Since the art of the debate functions like a sensory organ, he will see her much better.

She will succeed in achieving this more often, the more she beats him in the debate.  But such will rarely happen through a simple confrontation.  He will have set up his arguments already from the start in such a way that whoever holds the opposite opinion will encounter defeat.   Much better she deploys the famous three-step method: sidestep-analogy-moral discrediting.  The whole thing is like a swift fight move to shove the opponent into the morass of becoming morally discredited.   Such morasses are clearly marked on the maps of morality.  The intellectual also knows where these are and will try to avoid them.  The art of warfare is in the surprise of suddenly driving him into the morass when he least expects it.

For example, the intellectual says: “This pompous academic style is abominable. Nobody gets it: it is like Chinese.  Why do they have to use so many foreign terms? Why cannot they write in proper English?”

This statement is a multi-tasker.  In a talk-show it would get applause.  It is safely removed from the moral morass.   But watch: here come the side-step and the analogy: “He who is against foreign terms, is also against foreigners!”  You should see how fast the intellectual will disintegrate here.  Nobody would want to be in the company of the enemy of foreigners.  And then you move in for the kill: “Foreign terms are the Muslims of language!”  One more side-step and you can portray him as a neo-Nazi, a hater of foreigners, wishing to perform a veritable ethnic cleansing in exterminating all foreign terms from the language – while he was merely arguing for a more comprehensible style.  So is the art of debate among intellectuals.

One recognizes a couple where he is the intellectual based on the way how he distributes the responsibility for decision making.  He makes the really important decisions, for example the proper attitude about nuclear energy or about the Third World.   She decides about the unimportant details such as school, home or money.  This is the way the couple shares what is close by and what is afar.

While she is wondering why he cares so much about the overpopulation in India instead of taking care of the broken tap in the bathroom, he does not understand why she does not get this.  The broken tap is not something about which one can make himself look great.  He needs a grand stage for that.  One ought to get the UNESCO involved! In his mind he is already giving a lecture in front of the United Nations.  He is rehearsing in front of his wife.  She does not want to listen? So, then he will go over to Brigitte next door.  Though she is only a sales clerk, she is interested in such things.  The bathroom tap?  What am I, a plumber? She should call the trades.  I have more important things to care about.  Like the population explosion on the Indian subcontinent.  If we are not careful… Brigitte, I worry about the population explosion on the Indian subcontinent.  Have you read the article?  No? Come, I’ll explain it to you…

The media feeds the intellectual with a daily provision of news, about which one can opine.   The media connects him with his imaginary stage, the world.  The media maintains his phantasy room daily where he appears in the parliament, reads the Levites to the government, impeaches the president and reduces the taxes.  Here he receives foreign diplomats, finds the right words to greet them and governs for the good of the country and the entire planetary circle.  The media enable him to turn his back to the narrow domesticity of his home, and reach for the skies in his mind.

Then his girlfriend notices his strangely vacant gaze.  She has no idea that just this moment he is participating in the cabinet meeting advising the minister.
 

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Donald Johnston and Donald Trump: Europe and Russia

Donald Johnston and Donald Trump: Europe and Russia

by

Howard Adelman

Russia and Europe are both in the headlines these days, Russia because of the probe into the connections with the Trump White House, and Europe because of the fallout from Donald Trump’s visit last week. “The American-German relationship has been the core of the transatlantic alliance for more than 70 years. It was in Berlin in 1963 that President John Kennedy uttered the phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner” signalling the unbreakable link between the U.S. and Germany.

Following last week, that close relationship is now dead. At its centre were trade and a military alliance. With respect to the latter, Donald Trump refrained from endorsing Clause 5 of the NATO pact. Trump even lectured his European colleagues for their failure to pay their fair share of NATO costs. Yesterday we learned that most are expecting Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Accords.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel rebuked the American leader. “Anyone who accelerates climate change by weakening environmental protection, who sells more weapons in conflict zones and who does not want to politically resolve religious conflicts is putting peace in Europe at risk.” Angela Merkel said that it was time for Europeans, “to take our fates in our own hands.” Given “what I’ve experienced in recent days,” the days when “we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent.” “We have to fight for our own future, as Europeans, for our destiny.”

These statements, as much as one might deplore this extraordinary breach in the trans-Atlantic alliance, seemed to prove Donald Johnston’s conviction that Europe had to have strong, visionary leadership. Though he had not seen it yet when he wrote Chapter 3 of his book, “Europe Listing, but Afloat,” the statements of German leaders, the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France, the prior rejection in Austria of a right-wing populist government, the rebirth of Greece and its rejection of a Greek Grexit, the solidification of the Spanish and Irish economic recoveries, all spoke to a revived Europe, and one without the UK which had voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit upset referendum.

The UK seems to be on a downward slide. London’s place as a world financial centre will begin a slow spiral driven by the gravity of less access to markets. Further, the UK faces the possibility of disintegrating into even smaller nation-states as Scotland looks forward to another vote for separation and rejoining Europe. While most Germans, Dutch and French identify as Europeans, the English still overwhelmingly identify their nationality with their little British Isle. Nevertheless, Johnston believes that the English will soon come to their senses, especially as the unravelling gets closer and more difficult. He believes that Brits will reverse course before it is too late.

One reason Donald Johnston offers is not only the difficulties in unravelling membership, not only the increasingly apparent high costs, but his belief that the Brexit referendum “was a vote of passion, not reason.” Rational self-interest would win out over identity politics currently manifest in the U.K.’s resistance to the influx of outsiders, even though two-thirds of migrants to the UK were not Europeans. Further, like populists on the right in the U.S., those supporting exit from the EU hated the Brussels bureaucracy and called for “independence.”

Nevertheless, Johnston believes that Brits will change their minds before the break is finalized. “What government would have the courage to sign off on Brexit if the polls show a large majority of electors opposed, which is likely to be the case when the consequences are well understood?” If they don’t, separation will take place “against the will of the majority of people in the United Kingdom.” How does he arrive at that assessment? He adds together those who voted against exit with those who did not vote at all on the assumption that 100% would oppose Brexit. Further, even if the divorce is concluded, he expresses the belief that Britain would remain in the European economic zone or, at the very least, forge a free-trade agreement.

Ignoring the statistical sleight of hand above, which Johnston rails against in his chapter on stats, for someone who supports democratic institutions, it reveals a strong distaste for populism and referenda, a dislike he repeatedly expresses in the book. The problem, of course, is that a united Europe is primarily a mandarin’s dream while people throughout Europe and not only in the UK resent the usurping of tradition, of national parliaments and national pride. Johnston believes in a federated state model for Europe. He is an unabashed supporter of multilateralism and globalization as he envisions an even stronger Europe with increasingly open markets, a diminution of trade subsidies, a supporter of structural reforms in the provision of labour and manufacturing. But without completing the mission of creating a united federal state of Europe, the prospect of it becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world while ensuring social cohesion is, for DJ, iffy.

It is not that Johnston has not considered the reasons for populism – the suspicion of remote bureaucracies or the desire for greater parochialism. He has, but only to dismiss such approaches and to double down in defence of globalization. Nowhere in the book could I find an analysis of the effects of restructuring and globalization on workers. Further, and this is most surprising, though he applauds the goals of the Lisbon Declaration in support of education, research and innovation, research and innovation are not included in his graphic summary of his moral economics. Nor is his support for representative democracy and his fears, even hatred, of referenda and populism. The latter just provide grounds for demagogues and irrational passions displacing the task of rational decision-making. DJ quotes Edmund Burke with enthusiasm for parliamentarians who offer unbiased opinions, mature judgement and an enlightened conscience applied to political decision-making. Even those who have a deep faith in rational decision-making can be romantic visionaries.

What remains wrong in Europe? No equivalent to a European-wide securities and exchange commission, no EU-wide drug or food agency, no effective common immigration and refugee position, if only to counter-balance population decline, no formula for redistribution and strengthening weak regions. These unachieved goals, not identity politics, are responsible for the reassertion of populist, irrational, ill-informed and volatile popular will.

Donald Johnston presents himself as the antithesis to Donald Trump. Except he thinks Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an effective leader in Turkey and only became a radical pro-Islamic politician because Europe procrastinated and dithered on Turkey’s application to join the EU. Turkey’s flaws are largely the product of that rejection, even though he concedes that many who suspected his demagoguery and counter-democratic tendencies may have been correct. What he writes abut Russia offers a test of whether he can reconcile his support of parliamentary representative democracy and admiration for strong, effective leaders, for the latter is the trait he unabashedly shares with Donald Trump.

That, however, does not seem to be the case when he begins his chapter on Russia. “Putin’s personal agenda is totally incompatible with democratic ideals, free markets, freedom of expression, and even human rights.” Sounds pretty much like Erdoğan. Both men came to power with a very specific goal – to make their respective countries great again. Both used democracy to advance their own popularity and agenda. Both are economic mercantilists. And both are enemies of freedom and human rights. So why is Johnston so favourable to Erdoğan but critical of Putin? The sentence that follows partially answers the question. “His popularity is founded on hostility and aggressive policies towards the west.” (p. 41)

But what is the difference between the two leaders of Turkey and Russia respectively? Both disappeared adversaries, Erdoğan blatantly, openly and extensively. Putin was more surreptitious, but only Putin is accused. The difference seems to be that people eliminated in Russia included technocrats who Johnston knew – Boris Nemstov, for example.  Erdoğan only wiped out Kurds, jailed journalists and rounded up tens of thousands of members of his own party, civil servants and members of the judiciary, or anyone he thought might be opposed to his increasingly autocratic rule. The only substantive difference: Turkey had a much longer period as a democratic state.

But the causes are the same. Western failures. “Putin [like Erdoğan] is a product of Western blindness.” The stimulus may be different – the closure of the EU to Turkey versus the resurrection of the Cold War in a new form against Russia. The EU dithered on admitting Turkey. OECD procrastinated with Russia’s application to join.

Look at DJ’s answer to Putin’s query to him for an example of bad practices that OECD could help eliminate. Johnston replied, with only the slightest hesitation: “In Canada, which is a vast and diversified country and has similarities with Russia, we committed many mistakes. We pushed local development policies that were more tailored to positive political outcomes than to economic ones.” His reaction to Putin’s impassive response is even more interesting, explaining that passivity because Putin recognized that, “in democracies, placating local constituencies with public funds is an odious, yet obvious (my italics), by-product of the election process.” (p. 45) That says very little about Putin, but a great deal about Johnston’s cynicism and very guarded qualified defence of democracy, which seemed to boil down to the less you consulted your constituents, the less you tried to placate and cater to them, the better leader you were.

Putin could ignore proposals to liberalization of trade, effective taxation, privatization and methods for attracting foreign capital investments. Why? Because the West had made him justifiably wary because of the advance of Western missile defence systems eastward and NATO expansion to the borders of Russia. Those missile defence systems and the move of NATO eastward were not because former satellites had learned to distrust Russia throughout their history and needed reassurances if they were going to embrace the West.

Whether the problem was Crimea, the Ukraine or Syria, the answer is always the same: the mindblindness of the West. The West had failed to provide, in a timely way, healthy market-oriented and properly regulated economic nostrums in the nineties so that Russia could have avoided the depredations of corruption and kleptocratic oligarchs. Why? Because “the Harvard boys” with their unboundaried faith in self-correcting free markets got to Moscow before the OECD boys and their ethical economic doctrines. Russia could and should have been made part of the EU community earlier and history would have run a different course. The IMF got it wrong. OECD had it right.There are vast differences between DJ and DT: DJ’s high regard for civil servants and DT’s contempt for them; their joint appreciation of free markets, but Trump for unregulated ones and DJ’s belief in moral boundaries to them; DJ’s and DT’s contempt for the populace, but with Trump gleefully manipulating the public while DJ did so with his head down and with no sense of self-satisfaction. However, look at the similarities. Both support military withdrawal from spheres of Russian interest. Both share a belief in the power of personal diplomacy. Both respect strong leadership. Trump crusaded against corruption while openly admitting he was part of the corrupt system. DJ, though critical, was more accepting of corruption in its institutionalized democratic forms.

With respect to the latter, there is a major difference. DJ believes in consulting, placating and catering to constituents as little as possible. Trump does not exactly consult them, but psychologically he needs their approval and applause – look at how he is handling the abrogation of America’s signature to the Paris Accords.

DJ and DT are not the same. They are in many ways opposites. However, they are twins, though DT is the hairy one prone to mistakes, governed by instinct and unabashedly frank and even trusting. DJ is cautious, reads his briefing papers diligently and, even more importantly, appreciates others who do the same. Both have strong opinions and both offer very weak defenses of them. Trump’s are almost non-existent or simply products of his imagination.  But DJ respects mandarins. DT despises them. DJ is a globalist and cosmopolitan. DT is a nationalist. DJ is the epitome of civility. DT disses his opponents.

But both believe that history can be commanded and controlled – DJ through thoughtful and careful deliberation, DT through instinct and unabashed self-trust.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Malignant Narcissism: Mental Disorder or Metaphor

Malignant Narcissism: Mental Disorder or Metaphor

by

Howard Adelman

 

I want to use this morning’s blog both to demonstrate the role of argument in persuasion, but the veritable impossibility of employing that tool of argument to change the mind of a narcissist of the extraordinary dimensions of Donald Trump. On 15 February 2017 in the New York Times (A26), Dr. Allen Frances, an extremely eminent and highly regarded psychiatrist who is the epitome of scholarly care and judicious reasoning, wrote a letter (An Eminent Psychiatrist Demurs on Trump) criticising using the term “narcissism” to characterize Donald Trump as suffering from that mental disorder.

To the Editor:

Fevered media speculation about Donald Trump’s psychological motivations and psychiatric diagnosis has recently encouraged mental health professionals to disregard the usual ethical constraints against diagnosing public figures at a distance. They have sponsored several petitions and a Feb. 14 letter to The New York Times suggesting that Mr. Trump is incapable, on psychiatric grounds, of serving as president.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.

His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.

ALLEN FRANCES

Coronado, Calif.

This was not your run-of-the-mill criticism. Frances chaired the task force that compiled the definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental; Disorders IV. (D.S.M. – IV). Frances was the member of the committee who also evidently composed the descriptive characteristics of “narcissistic personality disorder.” In his words, Trump “does not meet the criteria that define the disorder.” Frances insisted that Trump was not mentally ill.

I could try to get around his authoritative judgement by insisting that I am not using “malignant narcissism” as a professional psychiatrist – which I clearly am not – but using a term that was adopted by psychiatry from a far broader literature. And I will certainly defend my use of the term on that basis. But I also want to deal with Frances’ criticisms of the psychiatrists who also called Trump a narcissist with a mental disorder.

It is not as if Frances was defending Trump. He chastised Trump for his “grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy.” He characterized the denunciation of Trump as appropriate for his “ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.” However, bad behaviour, he argued, is “rarely a sign of mental illness.” It is an insult to the mentally ill (mostly well-behaved and well meaning) who suffer “the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.” Further, and most importantly, Frances himself called Trump “a world-class narcissist.” Frances was not arguing that Trump was not a narcissist, but that his narcissism did not fall under the category of mental disorder because it did not produce the “distress and impairment” in the subject characteristic of a mental disorder.

Further, Frances denounced, in the same manner as my son had, name-calling. It is not clear in the letter whether the name-calling was the characterizing of Trump as narcissistic or the characterizing of his suffering from a mental disorder, but, from the context, and in order not to accuse Frances of contradicting himself, I believe it was evidently the latter. Labeling Trump as a narcissist may be alright, but naming him as a narcissist with a mental disorder is erroneous, not only because Trump does not suffer distress from his condition, but is, in fact, richly rewarded for it. Further, it suggests that psychiatry is an inappropriate response when the “antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.”

Rule 1 of rational argument: state the argument of the individual you wish to contend with accurately and fully.

Rule 2: consider alternate positions put forth by others.

One was put forth by W.J.T. Mitchell in the Los Angeles Review of Books that was published a day after Frances’ letter appeared. An earlier version had been presented in a lecture at the Université de Genève, 18 January 2017. The essay was called, “American Psychosis: Trumpism and the Nightmare of History.” It began with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: “Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

We are all, both the Trumpists and the anti-Trumpists, going through the long and dark nightmare of our collective soul. With Donald Trump’s election, we crossed the Rubicon into a new epoch. It is an epoch adumbrated in the film, Being There, though in a very different version. The epoch was predicted even earlier by H.L. Menken. “As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Mencken was a cynic and had great contempt for the “common man.” I share his prophetic view but not his reasoning. The fault is more institutional. When democracies reduce themselves to populist polities, as in Brexit, disaster will likely follow. America is even more prone to such a disaster. That is because America is a democratic monarchy and one day, a fool was almost certain to make the monarchical role primary and the presidential role and responsibility of governing second. As Mitchell wrote, when the combination of an oligarchy of the super rich joins forces with increasing inequality and the brew is fed by a new and innovative media, the conditions were created for the perfect storm.

Populism is not responsible government. Populism is not democracy, just its meanest expression. It reared its ugly head in the Brexit vote. We wait on pins and needles for the shoe to drop in the Netherlands, in Germany, but, most of all, in France. And we hope and pray that the example of the U.S. will dissuade enough voters in Europe to avoid the fatal edge of a cliff. For though the economic forces now favouring renewable energy may guarantee the eventual replacement of fossil fuels, will the victory come too late? Will Donald Trump as a climate change denier who appoints a fossil fuel lobbyist to head an agency responsible for monitoring the destructive effects of fossil fuels on our lonely and lovely green planet, do irreparable damage? Will the triumph of renewable energy sources have arrived too late?

However, the issue is not just whether Donald Trump’s condition as a malignant narcissist can be characterized as a mental illness, but also whether collective behaviour can be characterized as mass psychosis. Describing a condition as “madness” by Mitchell is not just a rhetorical tool. He put it forth, not to describe a mental illness, not to get shafted on the end of an épée, but to analyze a way of thinking, a mental state, a collective psychology rather than an individual mental illness.

I will return to our collective mental state in a subsequent blog, but I want to focus in this blog on Donald Trump’s mental state. Is that state an illness? Mitchell quotes Freud to assert than an individual’s mental state invariably involves others – models, helpers, opponents. We cannot separate the two. But, unlike Mitchell, I think it is best to start with the individual, with Trump rather than Trumpism. Subsequently, I will delve more deeply into the paradox of men and women, who are otherwise decent, hard-working, moral and, most of all, reasonable, becoming victims of “amnesia, ignorance and delusion.” Whereas Mitchell seems to see Trump as simply the purveyor of an image that mirrors a collective madness, I see him as a magnet and stimulant of that madness. And that is not saying the same thing in different words.

Let me go back to the issue of whether the primary error in depicting Trump’s characteristics is not whether he possesses those traits, but whether they add up to a mental illness. The collective Michael Brenner (MB) – https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?hl=en&shva=1#inbox/15a57040fcb2acc7[1] – argues that the man in the oval office is unhinged. MB makes that argument in all deference to Allen Frances, but in sharp disagreement with him. He does so on the basis of the following five arguments:

  1. Trump’s personality is almost a perfect fit for the profile of a narcissistic personality disorder;
  2. One does not have to suffer distress or impairment to be diagnosed with that disorder, and that criterion is not mentioned in DSMIV;
  3. Though pain and discomfort may accompany such a disorder on the individual “suffering” that disorder, those conditions are also not necessary conditions for such a diagnosis;
  4. Though many and perhaps most mentally ill individuals do no harm and cause no distress to others, this is not the case with psychotics or with narcissism of the gargantuan proportions of Donald Trump; they impose pain and discomfort on others;
  5. Narcissism is the one condition that most clearly causes acute distress for others because the strategies devised protect the self at the expense of others.

I think these arguments are persuasive. Donald Trump’s condition is a mental disorder. On the other hand, it is also, as I will argue, not a treatable condition. It a condition unworthy of attention to the “sufferer” as distinct from most mental conditions. Donald Trump neither demands of us nor is he deserving of sympathetic care. His narcissism alone is more than sufficient to protect him from abuse directed at him by others.

So why call it a mental disorder if we not only cannot but will not even attempt to treat it? Further, disorder conveys chaos, disarray, confusion and a question arises whether Donald Trump creates that disarray and disorder, simply mirrors it or more radically acts out the collective psychosis of our age?

As with many things, the devil is in the details. In the next blog, I will offer the characteristics of this state, which I also contend is a disorder. For that narcissism is not only an expression of a disordered mind, but is also a stimulant, adding to the disorder at large. One sign of that disorder is that Trump would not listen to, could not follow if he did listen, and would reject out of hand all four positions set forth in this blog, which includes my own. In the next blog, I will try not only to specify that Donald Trump’s disorder does not allow him to listen to arguments and contrary views, but why he characterizes all such arguments as personal attacks.

Neither Frances, nor Mitchell, nor MB nor I would regard our differences as personal attacks, but instead treat them as arguments and expressions to be debated and resolved in a rational universe. Donald Trump does not belong to that universe and is incapable of being persuaded of anything. Deviation from his path, sometimes, but never persuaded. That is why the real issue is not Trump, but those caught up in the mass psychosis and how they can be persuaded to abandon Trump.

With the help of Alex Zisman

[1] Michael Brenner does not exist in actuality. It is, rather, the nom de plume for a loose association of persons who share a perspective on the world of politics and a sensibility about cultural matters. They are of diverse background and profession. The consortium’s members came together by happenstance. There is no organization nor is there a physical location for an electronic hub… The associates’ insistence on absolute anonymity is due to more than their innate modesty. They hold the firm belief that what counts are the thoughts and ideas rather than persons. In addition, there is some consideration being given a run for the White House in 2020 by the “legend” of “Michael Brenner” – if an appealing individual can be found to assume the persona. High name recognition would be crucial to offset Ivanka’s immense popularity and her lock on the primate vote. (From a communication received 12 February 2017)

Barack Obama’s Farewell

Barack Obama’s Farewell

by

Howard Adelman

Nine days ago, Barack Obama delivered his farewell speech as President of the United States, not just to Americans, but to the world. But he began local. “Hello Chicago.” And then shifted to, “My Fellow Americans” after cracking a joke about how the unruly audience was proof that he was a lame duck. He then immediately pivoted to a populist beginning. Conversations [in contrast to public rallies or even town hall meetings] kept him honest, kept him inspired and kept him going. A conversation is an exchange of thoughts, not by writing essays and critiquing other ones. It is an oral exercise. And conversations only really work if you try to listen even more than you speak. The American people in the diners and farms, in the factories and fortresses abroad were, he claimed, his teachers. They gave him his energy to wake up every morning. They were also the instruments of change – “when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.”

This is a specific kind of populism. It is not the populism driven by economic insecurity and resentment of the rich à la Bernie Sanders that played its way in one town hall meeting after another across America last year. For that type of populism depended on a shared ideology and a shared and identified and identifiable enemy – the richest 1%. The latter populism participated in a common worldview, in ideas and ideals that were the foundation stones of their activity. It thrives when economic insecurity is pervasive in a fast-changing world in which the jobs and positions people held for years are under threat as they seem to be in our emerging post-industrial communications economy. Obama’s populism was of the more intimate kind, one in which differences were discussed rather than common passions and hatreds articulated. It is bottom-up as distinct from lateral populism, and it depends on a set of shared rules for discourse – a logic for exchanging ideas.

Nor was Obama’s logical populism of the top-down variety dependent on mass rallies and sloganeering rather than conversations or shared ideas and ideals. In this latter idiological rather than ideological populism, shared thoughts are not the basis for political action and certainly not conversations that require listening and coherence. The forces driving the idiological populist upsurge are NOT primarily economic, though that may be present, but cultural. That populism is driven by people who once saw themselves as the heart and paradigm of the polity, but now see themselves as looked down upon by a condescending elite – intellectual, professional, wealthy – reinforced when that same elite ignores rather than openly disdains them.

Idiological populism rests on the politics of resentment rather than articulating a political direction. It is the politics of anger driven by radical shifts in value far more than even economic challenges. It should be no surprise to learn that the average family income of a Trump supporter was evidently $70,000. It is this latter populism that was primarily the force behind the Arab Spring. It is the driving force of the populism sweeping across Europe. And it is this populism, not that of Bernie or Barack, that captured the White House when the opposing candidate lacked any instinct for any variety of populism whatsoever. Cultural much more than economic insecurity is its driving force.

Where Bernie saw pain, suffering and deprivation, where Donald saw unfulfilled dreams and fantasies, Barack saw, “the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.” As Michelle put it so succinctly, “When others go low, we go high,” and Hillary could only mimic those words without any deep faith behind them. Obama claimed that his view represented “the beating heart of our American idea.” If that is the beating heart, then it is suffering from both atrial fibrillation and, even more dangerously, ventricular premature contractions. The heart of America is in a profound state of double arrhythmia.

Of the three populists, Barack Obama was clearly and by far the most conservative. For he articulated the liberal idea of self-government in which all citizens are created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Bernie was far more concerned with economic inequalities and the failure to live up to that ideal in economic terms than with primordial and abstract ideals of egalitarianism. Trump despised egalitarianism of any kind as he fed off the energy of the people at his rallies to insult Mexicans and women, the handicapped and everyone of his competitors. No political correctness for him in the face of what he called a rigged system that allowed each individual in a mass rally to fill in the balloon above the cartoon caricature with whatever bothered that man or woman.

What did Obama have to offer in contrast but the most “radical idea”? A great gift that our Founders gave to us: the freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, “to achieve a common good, a greater good.” Did Trump ever once cite the fundamental principles behind American democratic ideals? He never appealed to ideals at all, just fantasies to “make America great again,” whereas Barack insisted that America had been founded on the greatest and most radical premise ever. Greatness did not depend on abandoning that belief, but holding it even closer to one’s heart and mind. There was no common good, only an uncommon and ghostly bad that haunted the land.

If Barack saw his fellow Americans as citizens and Bernie saw them as subjects exploited by the economic power of the wealthy, Donald saw them as idolaters intensely enthralled by an entity that would be otherwise considered unworthy of worship. In fact, it was the unworthiness that was the attraction. And the fact that the unworthy displayed his wealth with garish and ostentatious enthusiasm, the fact that the calf was all glitter and gold, only added to its attraction. Trump offered the populace the fantasy of a new gold rush. Not hard work, not blood, sweat and tears, but a new beginning sui generis based on getting rid of the elites who traded American jobs for foreign deals, who created a porous border that allowed others to flow through the sieve and that lacked a defensive wall and a moat around the American castle. Mexicans, migrants, movers and shakers were all grist for his mill of grinding resentment.

Obama believed in the great God of progress, in two steps forward and one step back. Bernie believed in peaceful revolution, in up-ending the economic order and using politics to redistribute the enormous wealth accumulated by the few. If Obama believed in a zig-zag line than nevertheless always tended to move forward and up, and Bernie saw the line moving downwards and needing to be reversed, for The Donald, there was no line at all, only a direction of moving into the future by restoring an idealized pristine past created by the Hollywood films he saw in the late fifties when he was moving towards becoming his father’s son.

Obama offered evidence to back up his belief in progress. Under his watch, had not America reversed the great recession? Had it not rebooted the auto industry that was on its knees? Had it not unleashed the longest and largest job creation record in American history? Had it not reconciled America with Cuba with which the U.S. had been alienated for almost sixty tears with its music, with its rhythms, with its lust for happiness and joy? Reconciling America and Cuba was the icing on the cake of the American dream, more important for America’s dream life that the U.S. was for Cuba’s drab and deprived ordinary life. Had not the shadow of nuclear weapons now been dissipated once again in the nuclear deal with Iran as the proper follow-up to Ronald Reagan’s Reykjavik concord with Mikhail Gorbachev, and, once again, “without firing a shot”? Had Obama not taken out Bin Laden, the embodiment of evil in the modern world until displaced by the even greater evil of ISIL? Had not Obama allowed America to begin to catch up with the rest of the Western world by providing health insurance to twenty million more Americans?

We can. We should. And we did. This was Obama’s claimed record. We. Not I. In fact, not even we. But you. That is what you did. Obama never claimed that he made America great again, but that we together accomplished that task. Donald Trump boasted that he and he alone could make America great again. And Bernie promised not greatness but greater equality. Barack only held the tiller steady of the ship of state. The power driving the ship through the high seas belonged to the people.

And then the arrow that shattered that beam of shining light – the beauty of American democracy had been proven by the election and peaceful transition of power to a man like Donald Trump. Was it any surprise that his audience booed, that these citizens of Chicago whined “Noooo?” Barack Obama promised to be true to the highest and strongest premise of American democracy – the peaceful transfer of power to an incumbent who won in the Electoral College, though he lost by the greatest margin ever in the popular vote. Who could have ever imagined that the Electoral College, that had been designed in good part to protect America from the whims of the populace, would be the institution that put the gold seal of the republic on that whim! Had states surrendered to populism by surrendering to a popular vote the power state governments had to choose the electors of the Electoral College? That question was now moot. The very institution designed to prevent that outcome had become the vehicle to ensure it.

Trump had campaigned on the slogan of, “Make America Great Again.” Obama insisted that America remained “the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth,” even as its wealth was more maldistributed than almost anytime in its history, even as its power in the world was shrinking and even as respect for America had been on the decline ever since the Vietnam War. Sweden, Norway and Canada were each far more respected around the world than America even as everyone stood in awe of the power and creativity and accomplishments of the U.S. But a society that spent almost double its much higher Gross National Product to deliver health care that for a large minority rivalled Third World health systems did not earn or deserve respect in those areas. A country with the best and greatest universities, in most of them still reserved more spaces for the children of the 1% than the children of the bottom 20%. This was not a country to be respected, unless the obeisance given to an imperium is considered respect.

Barack Obama could say loudly and clearly that “for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one,” but the reining economic orthodoxy belied that claim for it celebrated an ethos of each man and woman for himself. When Obama helped pull the country in the great recession back from the brink of disaster, the economic power houses and banks and huge companies were restored to their place in the sun while millions lost their homes and little if anything was done to help them.

Barack recognized that growing inequality, but he was not a Bernie Sanders. His approach would be gradual and by the end of his term middle class incomes were finally showing real gains. He recognized the specter of terrorism and became the ghoulish controller who directed the drones that decapitated the leadership of ISIL, one or a few at a time. Only Donald Trump would promise their immediate incineration. Whereas Bernie preached greater economic equality, Barack preached greater economic opportunity. Whereas Barack saw all ships rising even as the luxury yachts rose even higher and faster than any of the other ships at sea, Bernie only saw those yachts becoming longer and more luxurious and more concerned with ostentatious display. Whereas Barack celebrated a stock market that was breaking all records, Bernie scowled at the billions more pouring into the pockets of the already super-rich. Whereas Barack pointed to unemployment at an all-time post WWII low, Bernie pointed out the low minimal wages, that were, in effect, half of what they were in 1970, the insecurity of jobs and the increased use of part time and independent members of the work force lacking both security and benefits.

Barack could promise that, “if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.” But, of course, a single payer universal health insurance plan would certainly do that. However, in the U.S. this was a non-starter so in that sense, Barack Obama was telling the absolute truth, though it would have been clearer if he inserted the phrase “politically feasible” alternative plan.

All three populists agreed that stark inequality is a bad thing, but they located the source of that distortion in very different locations and attributed the responsibility to very different agents. All three agreed that too many families in inner cities in the rust belt and in rural areas have been left behind. But Donald Trump, while glancing at this reality, really focused on how the values of the once great white middle class had been left in the dust as Barack Obama and his ilk pursued the god of progress. All three populists railed against government only serving the interests of the powerful and who would know that better than someone who had spent his life gaming the system and accumulating wealth while paying little if any taxes?

While Barack preached the need for a new social compact and Bernie preached the need for a radically improved contract between the middle class and those who held the levers of economic power, Donald did not even offer a glance towards either a compact or a contract, but only insisted that he and he alone could make a better deal. Deals were made piecemeal. Compacts and contracts undergird deals. But in the Trump world, they only get in the way; nothing could or should stand in the way of a deal, including the basic principles of American democracy.

Was Barack willing to put a bell on the cat? Was Barack at that point willing to confront the ideological heresy confronting Americans? No. In the name of respect for American democracy and the peaceful transition of power, his remarks could only offer subtle reminders of what was at stake. Though he celebrated the vision of a post-racial America, he pointed to the reality of an America that remained deeply racist without stating boldly that this was one of the lost values to which Trump was appealing, a time when the American white middle class lived in security in their suburbs. Barack might insist on upholding laws against discrimination, but given his marriage to civil discourse, he would not point out that the Donald had been a serial abuser of these laws when he managed his father’s apartment complexes in the Borough of Queens.

Barack could preach that we begin with the premise, “that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do,” he would not point out that different Americans have very different conceptions of the country they love. The myth of a basic true faith for America was as much a chimera as Trump’s whimsical fantasies and Sander’s dreams of a better world in the face of a neo-liberal America. Blunt confrontation and dissing were political sport for Donald Trump that broke the laws of civility that Barack Obama insisted Americans must live by. Barack Obama could complain about citizens creeping into their own bubbles, but he lived in an intellectual bubble common to many if not most educated North Americans, for our beliefs about secular society go as deep as any religious belief and are as immune to falsification as any of them. One must always remember that Barack Obama was a community organizer and not a street brawler.

Is Obama’s secular faith based on evidence as he contends or is it replete with beliefs immune to falsification? Is his belief that politics is “a battle of ideas” rather that of competing forces, as in Bernie’s world or of irresistible force, rather than Trump’s world which eschews ideas in favour of opinions and prejudices? While Barack favours “healthy debate,” his successor disregards the rules of debate altogether as he lurked and shadowed and interrupted and insulted Hillary when he was on a debating platform with her. The fact that Trump lost all three debates, but went on to win, could possibly throw some doubt on Obama’s contention that debate is the rock-solid foundation of American democracy. Is not Barack Obama guilty of the very self-selection he accuses others of, and in a more self-damning way precisely because Obama believes in evidence-based conclusions?

For Trump, selective sorting of facts is the least of his intellectual crimes. He could not care less about facts in the first place. What is real is what he believes in his own mind and he does not even trust that reality, a distrust that allows him to engage in intellectual shape-shifting all the time. Obama is not guilty of that sin, but he has his own mindblindness – ignoring, for example, the role of private capital fostering renewable energy even in the context of a polity like Texas led by two successive climate change deniers. Perhaps Trump in ignoring reality with respect to climate change might also avoid the constraints and heavy bureaucratic burden that states, so sensitive to climate change as California, have burdened those struggling to innovate.

Obama may cite his faith in the spirit of innovation displayed with Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral, American faith in reason and the primacy of right over might, but the winner of the last presidential election is a bully with no respect for reason at all but with an uncanny ability to innovate in what was considered a settled political order. When Trump brought the tools of entrepreneurship to the political process and first upended the Republican Party and ran a hostile takeover, and then the political process in America altogether, that is the spirit of innovation, that is the spirit of entrepreneurship, and that is what should make anyone wary about turning the polity over to the get-rich-quick boys.

You may not think, after these comments, that I do not hold Obama’s farewell speech in high esteem. In my mind, it was the greatest and best crafted political speech that I have ever heard. And it makes abundantly clear, in spite of the brilliant oratory and the rhetorical skills, how thoughtful Obama is. But he is far from perfect. And his political position has many shortcomings about which I have only hinted. In the next political blog, I will turn to the strengths and weakness of his past practices and claimed successes.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Decline of the Republican Party

The Decline of the Republican Party

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening I attended a wedding. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing young people, handsome young men and beautiful young women, marry and set off to turn a cohort into a new generation. However, these days one cannot go out into the public without encountering the effects of the shock waves that have been sent through the body politic, not only in America but around the world. It is as if Italy’s massive new earthquake had encircled the globe. Whether in the hospital attending my wife and listening to the visitors talking with the patient in the next bed, or engaging in conversation last evening with two well-off businessmen – one had traveled all the way from Oregon to attend the wedding – the spectre of Donald Trump filled the air.

Preoccupation with Donald Trump pours out into the conversation unbidden. What does it mean? What does it portend for America and for the world, even if Donald Trump loses after his last spurt to close the gap? It seems that few expect Donald Trump to fade from the scene quietly even if he loses. The only consolation – I am not the only one obsessed.

Donald Trump has often been portrayed as an outlier to the Republican Party, at odds with its essential nature, principles and many, if not most, of its policies. Donald Trump from Queens has painted a self-portrait of the self-made billionaire taking on the billionaire governing class from Wall Street, the ordinary self-made man from the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens coming forth as a cast off from the ruling hierarchy to lead his dispossessed followers like Moses towards the promised land. In fact, Donald Trump is the logical extension of the way those principles have evolved and have been expressed in most of the recent policies proposed by the GOP as the essence of what used to be its nature has been hollowed out to contribute to a darker, meaner, stressed out and grumpier America.

Begin with immigration, the initial headline issue with which Donald Trump launched his pursuit of the presidency – build a wall, deport all the illegals, Mexicans are rapists, refugees are security threats, the intake of Muslim refugees should be stopped “until we know what we are doing.” No queue jumping. No amnesties. Immigration law has to be enforced to ensure that anyone who wants to come to America waits in line until he or she is adequately vetted and selected. Fear of the invader – Mexicans and Central Americans, terrorists from the Middle East (even though the vast majority have been home-grown radicalized youth) – is married to the sense that neither the legal system nor borders have been up to the task of securing Americans (or Hungarians or Poles or Frenchmen or Brits). Ignore the reality that 25% of America’s core rite of baseball now has 25% of its players with Hispanic backgrounds. Instead, attend to the important shift in the body politic as the proportion of whites in the population is steadily reduced.

But have the Republican Party principles and policies been any different, at least in the basics? The first principle of the Republican Party platform has been that the RP “believes in immigration laws.” The fundamental criterion for any policy is not American economic self-interest but national security, though the immigration program should fundamentally be a skills-based program for selection and a temporary visa program for the unskilled. The RP advocated putting more resources into keeping people out who have not been granted legal admission to the U.S. Otherwise, they contended, the law is a farce. Amnesties only encourage a future wave of new illegals. And large numbers of illegals on American soil (estimated at 11,000,000), they insisted, place unfair demands on the American social security system. All this is stated as a given truth in spite of the data showing that illegals contribute far more to the system than they extract from it. Nevertheless, the focus is on the need to expand enforcement, the use of a Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement (SAVE) program and the creation of a biometric data tracking system akin to the one already in place at airports.

Recall that House Leader John Boehner lost his position largely because, in his immigration reforms, he was considered too soft, including even those of his proposals that emphasized border security as the prime criterion. His plan denied any path to citizenship for anyone who had arrived on American soil illegally.

Donald Trump differed in only details – the wall should be higher and stronger. The Mexicans will pay for it. At heart, it was the same hardline Republican Party doctrine on immigration, but blasted out at many decibels higher as a boast rather than an obvious backhanded trick. Further, while the Boehner platform offered no path to citizenship for illegals, he threw them a bone – which drove his more puritanical Republicans in the House crazy, let alone The Donald himself. No legal path to citizenship, except if “they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).” On the other hand, Boehner’s plan was even more radical in some ways than ones proposed by other more radical Republican members of the House. For he would repeal the opportunity allowed for an immigrant to sponsor his wife and children.

The evidential irrationality, the huge barriers to implementation, the enormous costs undercutting any self-interest and the inhumanity of the policy proposals that would send the parents of American citizens back to their country of origin, suggests a far deeper motive that had nothing to do with the importance of upholding the rule of law. This was nativism writ large, the flip side of the undercurrent of racism and of birtherism that has haunted the Republican Party and made every day seem like Halloween.

In economic policy, the Republicans have been the clearest and most puritanical supporters of lower taxes, reduced guarantees for social security (citizens should be incentivized to provide for their own social security, social and medical benefits), minimal government, and offering the most unregulated environment for the expression of capitalism, including increased regulation for and restrictions on labour unions. Who better to choose to represent the party than a billionaire who has evidently paid no personal income taxes for eighteen years? Republicans support fewer taxes on even the rich who are esteemed as the engines of economic growth. Republicans oppose the Democratic Party proposals to institute a $15 minimum wage. Republicans certainly oppose the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. Many in the past opposed Medicaid and Social Security. On all these economic policies, Donald agrees with the economic policies of his party.

There is one exception. The Republican Party has consistently promoted free trade agreements. The Donald has pointed to free trade as the cause of the decimation in the rust belt and characterized NAFTA as “a disaster.” “It’s the worst agreement ever signed” – though that is also how he described the Iranian nuclear deal, but, of course, for Donald Trump, there is no contradiction in declaring a large variety of arrangements as “the worst” Speaking of NAFTA, Trump promised, “We will either renegotiate it, or we will break it. Because, you know, every agreement has an end. … Every agreement has to be fair. Every agreement has a defraud clause. We’re being defrauded by all these countries.” With one stroke, Trump upended a Republican long-standing trade policy and wedded his proposal to conspiracy theorists.

More importantly, Trump had followed a long historical precedent going back to Napoleon III of appealing to those tossed aside or whose security has been reduced by the latest revolution in capitalism, what Karl Marx called the lumpen proletariat. Instead of the Hispanics, Blacks, women and gays that National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had proposed to appeal to in his March 2013 reform recommendations for the Republican Party that recommended immigration reform and policies directed at the inclusion of minorities, Trump went in the opposite direction and appealed to white males who felt their roles had been undermined by a combination of benefits offered to minorities and opportunities transferred to foreign workers. The hollowing out of America’s industrial core, the thinning out of the middle class and the huge increase in the fat cats versus the working poor, the emergence of the new dot com economy and the financializing of corporate America, the resulting dislocation and insecurities reinforced by a weak social security system, produced an earthquake in which the optimism of the American creed came tumbling down in the face of the new Joshua and his populist trumpet blasts.

In doing so, Trump had collected a base that could offer the Republicans a majority foundation just as they had discovered fifty years earlier in the turn to take the old South away from the Democrats. Count the numbers of social conservatives concerned, for example, with abortion and embryonic stem cell research (12%), but who are disproportionately politically engaged (19%), almost offsetting an equal-sized committed liberal population (15% who would never support the Republican Party and are even more politically engaged (21%). Add to that core economic conservatives (10%), also disproportionately very engaged politically (17%). Add the two groups together and this is where you find Trump’s core support of 36% with some disaffection from economic conservatives upset by Trump’s crass populism and his rejection of free trade.

These losses, however, were more than offset by an appeal to the previously politically disaffected financially stressed members of the population who had been left behind by the economic changes underway. If this 13% of the population could be motivated to participate in politics at much higher rates than their traditional reluctance, Trump will have provided the GOP with a third strong leg and built a new and powerful foundation for its future. To retain the religious right, he opportunistically stressed conservative social values, though he was unable to sweep up large numbers of young voters sceptical of big government but liberal on social issues – Sanders supporters. Nevertheless, he had identified a potentially winning combination. For the latter group of Democratic dissenters forced Hillary initially to equivocate and subsequently support the TPP and TIP treaties only if specific modifications are made. These compromises and blandishments are unlikely to mollify the critics on her left while reinforcing the stature of Donald Trump’s unequivocal renunciation of free trade.

The Democrats, in contrast to Trump, relied on a mixture of die-hard liberals (the 21% mentioned above), minorities (12% of voting activists even though they were 14% of the population), and the new millennial left (11% of activists even though 12% of the population) giving the Democrats a 44% base of support, but one which was vulnerable if enthusiasm to vote for “crooked Hillary” were to be suppressed. This became a major goal of the Trump political campaign. Sweep the lumpen proletariat into the party and reduce the turnout for the Democrats by undermining the enthusiasm of the body politic for his opponent. If Trump has a ceiling above which he cannot rise, then lower Hillary’s floor. Get a higher percentage of the population who actually vote to support the Republican candidate. As Nathan Silver has warned, polls that fail to take this enthusiasm factor into account could well be incorrect. The “crooked Hillary” campaign targets the turnout factor for the Democrats while raising the enthusiasm of his own base which does not need any further convincing. His supporters recite the mantra like automatons while Trump runs a do-not-vote campaign targeting voters leaning towards voting for Hillary. You may hate and distrust me, but Hillary is worse.

Then there are the undecided or those who rarely vote. It becomes clear that the goal of each side is threefold: 1) peal away some supporters from the other side; 2) suppress the enthusiasm factor in the opposing camp to decrease the turnout rate of those inclined to support that side’s candidate, and 3) prevent too much slippage to minor party candidates. (For a breakdown in the factions of the American population supporting different candidates with the enthusiasm factor taken into account, but not the slippage element, see “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology, 26 June 2014 published by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press – http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/26/the-political-typology-beyond-red-vs-blue/)

The anti- or pro-immigration bias and the scepticism for or stress on minority rights had already been built-in on each side. “Extremism” on any of these positions might suppress enthusiasm on one side or the other, but the offset would be a boost in one’s own side’s enthusiasm factor. Clearly, we were dealing with a high-risk candidate on one side and a cautious, calculating candidate on the other side. The objective factors mattered far less than how they were perceived. Is it any wonder that substantive issues played such a small part in the debates and the election? Is it any surprise that not one question in the debates addressed the most important issue of our time – human induced climate change?

Take NAFTA. It may not have worked out nearly as well as its architects planned, creating fewer net new jobs than envisioned. But the techies and the skilled who saw their job options increase would not feel as emotional about the new economy as those distressed poorer less educated voters among the 350,000 and 750,000 directly impacted, along with the sales and service personnel that supported them. They fell by the wayside and lost jobs or moved to lower-paying ones. If the latter were combined with resentful whites and religious minorities (as long as one pandered to the social values of the latter), it can be seen that Trump had forged a potentially winning coalition, even though it would be one coming with a handicap. Thus, although the actual impact of the trade agreements and the openness to free trade had been relatively positive, though also considerably smaller than anticipated, the new targeted population became the victims of the relatively modest positive impacts of free trade. Thus, the real potential of an anti-free trade and anti-immigrant posture, whether in the U.S. or in the advanced democracies in Europe that have also experienced the rise of the alt-Right, was apparent to any opportunist.

The contradictions were not so apparent. Increase the number of high value jobs on one side and the number of low-valued jobs on the other side of a border, then not only does each side benefit from the rising tide, but the pressure on immigration is significantly reduced as increased job opportunities open up on the poorer side. Closing off the spigot through coercion rather than through foreign domestic incentives can only come about at enormous direct costs and a multitude of indirect ones so that you end up having a negative sum game for both sides.

To recognize this requires ignoring the lost political opportunity costs. And Donald Trump, with an attention span of twenty minutes, was certainly not interested in that. The same is true of the negative impacts of Donald Trump’s tax policies on the very people he is winning and getting to turn out to his large rallies. This is also true of a decrease in the social safety net for these very populations who will suffer much more than they are suffering now. But if the blame can be displaced and built into the equation from the start, that failure will only result because there is an effort by international bankers, crony capitalists, led by the get-rich-quick through government largesse of the Clinton clan and that of their corporate partners, then the possibility of political victory is enhanced by more economic suffering.

Donald Trump offered an additional new enhancing formula – an anti-imperial and anti-activist American leadership in foreign affairs, but now enhanced by the spectre of an opponent launching World War III. The irony was that Trump preached making America great again as a cover for becoming a mouth piece for the fears that the Putin mafia have been promulgating since 2014 – that of America as the initiators of a new world war. As Russia tests its new ambitions for expansion in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, make America great again became a formula for shrinking America from its global responsibilities. This switchback required extending Barack Obama’s lead in making America small again, retreating from an active interventionist role and paying far more attention to the well-being of one’s own population.

This was a tour de force for it undercut the appeal of the Hillary Democrats to their own left base. But it came at a cost, but one Donald Trump bet would work to his advantage. As Colin Powell, a former Republican Secretary of State, noted in reference to the birther movement, when nativism is combined with “a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party,” the party has to engage in some intense naval gazing. But conspiracy theories obviate the compulsion to do so.

Not one of Donald Trump’s competitors for the leadership of the Republican Party recognized this route to the White House. But they had already built into the party an attraction to demagoguery, an absolute insistence on no compromise, even if the cost was a burning political system crashing down upon their heads, a propensity for constructing conspiratorial groupings aimed to deprive Americans of their second amendment rights joined by a scientific conspiracy of leading intellectual figures to foster on a naïve domestic population a myth about climate change. When fostering ignorance at the expense of knowledge, when blaming others at the cost of assuming responsibility, when creating a narrative of a besieged American betrayed by the ruling establishment, the pathway to a potential victory had been forged by the previous leadership of the Republican Party. Trump had simply upped the ante, driving his rivals out of the game. The Tea Party’s fight with the traditional establishment in the party was not intended to but did serve to prepare the ground for Donald Trump by bringing into the party the power of negative thinking, the enhancement of suspicion, the huge increase in mindblindness and the anxiety and insecurity that now undergirds the party.

So when the enthusiasm factor is introduced into polling so that different voters get different weights depending on that enthusiasm, the result of outlying scientific polls show either a victory for Donald Trump or, on the other hand, a narrow victory for Hillary Clinton when she needs an overwhelming win with the consequent win in the Senate and even potentially in the House of Representatives to actually govern.

Racism, the general distrust of government, the insecurities of white males, particularly those who are less educated, as well as evangelicals primed to expect the immanent end of days, have been linked together to create a toxic brew of fear and insecurity, an emotional maelstrom that bubbles like a volcano about to explode and pour its hot lava through the cracks and fissures of the Republican Party. Hence the focus on the after-effects of the Trump earthquake and the shock waves that have reverberated around the world. Hence the sacrifice of reasoning and evidence-based policies for ones that reinforced passion and unbridled vehemence, that emphasize entertainment more than dialogue, that confers authority on celebrity itself. Hence atavistic nationalism rather than just patriotism, xenophobia married to racism and sexism. Hence a political campaign built on grievances and whining. Hence the politics of resentment. Hence the scare-mongering and the rise once again of the Know Nothings. Hence, the discontent with democracy and the faith in a rational voting population.

For those who believe in attachment, who either esteem or long for a strong community, but encounter one increasingly atomized by technology, Facebook and Twitter, the use of coarser language and a reduction in empathy are used to prove that “community” itself is weak and evanescent. The results of economic, social and technological forces have been devastating and prepared the ground for the takeover of the Republican Party, the rise of Trumpism and a divided and meaner polity with civility driven to the margins. Is it any wonder that this Halloween the main ghost is that of Donald Trump?

With the help of Alec Zisman

Korah Number 16

by

Howard Adelman

The section is most often labelled Korah’s Rebellion and not just Korah. I initially avoid such a heading lest we beg the question in labeling Korah’s protest as a rebellion. Instead, one of the questions I ask is whether this is fair question.

The text says that Korah and his fellow “rebels,” each a chief of a congregation, each chosen by that congregation, each a well-recognized leader among them. The text does say that they “rose up.” But that could simply mean that they stood up at a general meeting of the Israelites. They certainly stood up in opposition to whatever Moses and Aaron were planning to do. But according to the text, Korah began with a personal attack. Korah accused both Moses and Aaron of elitism, of giving themselves a special holy status denied to the rest of the Israelites.

“You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (16:3)

How did Moses respond? Like a Muslim today, he “fell on his face,” he lowered himself in a beseeching way to Korah. At the same time, his words were anything but beseeching. They were defiant. Wait until morning, Moses told Korah. Then God will determine who is holy and who is not, that is, whom God favours and whom he does not. The determination of holiness and favouritism seem to have been equated. Favouritism means that they have been chosen. How is this determined? By the one God chooses to draw near to Him? So holiness, favouritism, proximity to God and the determination of holiness are all equated.

It is self-evident that Korah has made a serious tactical error in challenging both Moses and Aaron. He had allowed his words to be twisted so that the protest was made in Moses’ terms. Korah had asked why Moses and Aaron were acting “holier than thou” and Moses twisted that to mean a question, not about arrogance and self-inflation, but about proximity to God and His holy word. Moses then raised the stakes even further. He accused Korah of going too far in charging Moses and Aaron with arrogance and self-importance. For it was NOT they that has assumed their roles. God had cast them to perform those tasks. The challenge was really against God’s choice, not the actions of Moses and Aaron.

Then Moses made a third charge. He accused Korah and his co-protestors of ingratitude, not to Moses but to God. “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the LORD and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you?” (Numbers 16:8-10) God chose you to be rabbis. Now you challenge God’s choice of me to be your political leader and Aaron to be the High Priest. In other words, the charge of arrogance was just a cover and a superficial attack. They were challenging whether or not Moses and Aaron had been chosen by God. “I’ll show you,” Moses seemed to be saying, “who God has chosen. Who is the holier one!”

Then the fourth charge comes like a hammer blow. Not only are they accused of demeaning Aaron and Moses, challenging the holiness of each and challenging God’s choice, but of seeking the priesthood. Not political power. Not of trying to take his position. But of trying to displace Aaron. That is not just a question about God’s choice, but defiance against it. “And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

Moses then summoned Dathan and Abiram before him in an effort to divide the opposition. But both disobey his summons. They are sticking with Korah and the protest. And now we first learn of the substantive issue behind the protest while trying to reverse the path of the verbal sparring back to the home ground of the protest, accusations that Moses and Aaron are being arrogant and self-important. “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:14) Moses and Aaron were leading them back to the wilderness for forty years ostensibly because 10 out of 12 scouts reported back about how strong their enemies were and challenged the attack plans.

Now on top of challenges of arrogance, efforts to push themselves as occupying the holy ground, naming their protest an exercise in ingratitude to God given their own chosen status as religious leaders among the people, and even efforts to usurp the position of High Priest, Moses turned to God and pleaded innocence of any effort to act against them. They feared being tortured and their eyes burned out and refused to come before Moses. “And Moses was very angry and said to the LORD, ‘Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them.’” (Numbers 16:15) Moses claims innocence of any power trip because he neither threatened them nor took anything from them. But he did ask God to reject their sacrifices. He did ask God to take away their religious roles. Is that not an act of revenge simply for launching a verbal protest and alleging that Moses and Aaron had been arrogant?

So Moses went back to his original position. He gave up on trying to divide the protesters but, instead, summoned them to come beside him and Aaron before the Lord. “We will now see who is right.” Each one of the 250 rabbis was to bring his censer (see Numbers 4:14; also Leviticus 16:12), the brass bowl in which they put coal and burned incense, What happens? It is unbelievable! God appears before the whole congregation of the protesters and asks Moses and Aaron to step aside so He can “consume” the others. Then Moses reverts to divide and rule again, this time not asking Dathan and Abiram to back away from Korah, but asking the other 247 local religious leaders to back away from the rebellious triumvirate.

They presumably refuse and stay loyal to Korah and the other two leaders. The protesting priests, as well as their families and children, are summoned to watch whether Korah, Dathan and Abiram will be consumed by the Lord, giving an ironic twist to the report of the ten scouts that the land would consume them. The earth literally opens up and swallows them, not just the three leaders, but all 250 of the protesters – and before their wives and children. Then they seemed to have been destroyed a second time and in a second wave, God consumed them in fire.

The two versions are not incompatible. Imagine earth torn with a big rift and hundreds being swallowed up and falling into the hot lava. But the issue is really not how two sources are merged in a single story, but the politics of escalating a verbal protest into a rebellion and sentencing the rebels to death for simply criticizing the leadership. Further, the Israelites themselves and not just their leaders lose 14,700 people to a plague before Aaron manages to stay the wrath of God.

Today we might compare the actions of Moses and Aaron to that of Kim Jong-un of North Korea, but without displacing the initiative onto God, for Kim Jong-un is revered as if he were a god. Today we watch Kim Jong-un subjected to American sanctions for the first time while Moses (and Aaron) are treated as the heroes of the story. I am not suggesting that the initial protest against the high-handedness of Moses was correct and certainly not that it was carried out in the best way given that Moses and Aaron held all the reins on the use of coercive power. But Moses’ response has to be read objectively as extremely unfair in both the interpretation of the challenge and certainly grossly unfair and even wicked in the response.
But that is not the interpretation handed down. Moses’ assertion that they were not just accusing him of usurping authority but accusing them of undermining God’s authority is presumed to be valid by religious fundamentalists.

“Korah and his rebellious group had no idea who God is and they ultimately had no fear of God. The bible said they gathered against God and his anoited and the Lord destroyed them. You would believe that the rest of the people would have learnt a lesson, but they continued to rise against the anointed of the Lord and paid again with their lives. People have to learn obedience.”

Reform Judaism does not dissent either. Here is the official summary.
“Korach and his followers, Dathan and Abiram, lead a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God punishes the rebels by burying them and their families alive. Once again, God brings a plague on the people. (16:1-17:15)”

Korah is relegated to the status of one of the great villains of the Torah and Moses is not only totally exonerated, he is virtually beatified for his behaviour. Incivility is attributed to Korah and not to Moses simply because Korah accused his leader of arrogance against the background of Moses and Aaron leading the people back to the wilderness simply because 10 of the 12 scouts thought success in conquest would be too costly and that there was a high risk of failure. Instead, the narrative is treated as a tale of obedience and disobedience, and the punishment, deemed appropriate, for the latter. Simply challenging authority and suggesting it is arrogant and insensitive is enough to deserve being condemned to death. It is outrageous!

With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Populism and Leadership: VAYAK’HEIL, EXODUS 35:1–38:20

by

Howard Adelman

How many times has it been pointed out to you in a discussion criticizing Orthodox Judaism or how many times have you yourself stated how absurd it is that you can put on your shoes and socks and tie your laces on shabat, but you cannot light a match or flick a switch that will turn on the lights? Yet it is the primary example of how shabat must be observed. Exodus 35:3 reads: “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.” Why is not the first instruction about keeping shabat not about picking up an axe and hewing wood or pulling a plough? The verse immediately prior to the instruction not to kindle a fire, is the commandment to keep shabat.

35:2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.

Flick a switch and you’re dead. Pretty heavy! Then the next three chapters, verse after verse, are all about work, sacred work, the work of two great craftsmen in making everything that goes into the mishkan. Does it not seem odd that a parsha that begins about the sacredness of shabat and how lighting a fire is the worst desecration of the shabat should then be followed by sixty or so verses about crafting all the items in the mishkan?

But the parsha does not begin with the commandment about keeping shabat. It begins with the following:

And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: “These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.”

There had just been a populist rebellion led by Moses’ older brother, Aaron, a High Priest. Three thousand are killed. The rebellion is repressed. And then what happens? A reign of terror? Tyranny and repression? Not at all. All the congregation of Israel is called together, the 597,000 survivors of the rebellion, in an assembly and they are commanded to keep shabat and not light a fire. They are then asked to contribute materials and help the lead craftsmen to make all the accoutrements for the mishkan. They are commanded to keep shabat. They are commanded not to light a match or flick on a switch, but they are asked to contribute the precious materials and linen and jewels to enrich the mishkan.

Does not this echo what took place in the previous portion when Aaron solicited gold and precious metals to make the golden calf? What is the difference?

  1. And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the LORD’S offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all the service thereof, and for the holy garment.
  1. And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold unto the LORD.
  1. The children of Israel brought a freewill-offering unto the LORD; every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the LORD had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made.

Your heart had to be stirred. You had to be “willing-hearted.” The gifts were “freewill-offerings.” Moses did not stir the passions of the people. Moses did not appeal to their resentments and discontent. The instruction not to light a fire is an instruction not to stir the passions of the people, not to bring the fire of anger to the temple, not to construct a community based on fear and anger. Bezalel was filled with the spirit of God, “in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 35:31) The model for the polity was not the demagogue as leader, but the craftsmen, dedicated to applying his skill and knowledge to making the world a better place, not to “making a deal.”

Wisdom of the heart not the passions of the gut. Making the polity requires wisdom, requires understanding, requires knowledge, requires skill. This is the lesson of shabat. Bracket your passions and your furies. Make the final day of the week a beacon for the week so that the light of that day can illuminate and inspire the work for the week that follows. Be wise-hearted not dumb-heated.

“[P]ut wisdom and understanding to know how to work all the work for the service of the sanctuary,” for the service of the whole community. (Exodus 36:1)

A populist leader – whether a Mussolini, a Hitler, a Franco or a Perón – says I am “il Duce.” I am your leader. Moses is learning to be a leader, not by saying I will it and therefore it shall be, for it is obvious that he was ill-equipped to be a leader in oratorical skills that can be used to arouse the passions. “They’ll waterboard them because I tell them to do it.” That’s what a demagogic leader says. That’s not how a wise leader leads. That is how a demagogue performs. A dictator is not bound by the law. A dictator is contemptuous of the law and only reveres authority and obedience. A demagogue is not respectful of knowledge and the wisdom that comes through understanding and empathy with others. A demagogue appeals to insecurities and fears. A demagogue does not respect the detailed workmanship of a dedicated craftsman and artist but instead loves the flash of the golden calf. A demagogue is careless, even disrespectful of truth, for verity does not interest him or her. A demagogue stirs up violence and uses it to exercise control for his own purposes. A demagogue feeds on abuse not on reverence.

Moses was a very handicapped leader who had to grow into his job. He himself was full of wrath which he let out in his youthful resentment by killing one of the Egyptian overlords. In his maturity, and in the face of demagoguery, he failed again. He broke the tablets of the law. He ordered the death of three thousand of his own countrymen. But he was never a narcissist who worshipped himself. Beware, not so much the worshipper of the golden calf but the leader who sees himself as a golden calf, the leader who says, my way or the highway. Moses was modest. He lacked any sense of his own importance let alone an exaggerated sense. Nothing proper was done in his name, all for the sake of a disembodied spirit who served and saved the people.

Moses was dedicated to having as many people as possible contribute to a sanctuary that was not grandiose but was grandiloquent, that spoke and reflected a respect for detail and craftsmanship, a respect for skill and work. Moses recognized his limits and lack of skills and never tried to represent himself as having a record of spectacular achievements when any examination of his historical record would show the incongruity between any grandiose claims and his own personal results. A demagogue covers up such discrepancies or dismisses them as irrelevant. A true leader knows himself or herself, recognizes shortcomings and asks others, not to do his bidding, but to participate in an enterprise of communal creativity.

Was Moses preoccupied with an obsession to be known as a strong leader or was he preoccupied with his own inadequacies and those of his people who so easily surrendered to one who skilled in self-advertisement and his own fantasies about his own supposed brilliance and the beauty of his own hands that have never been used to make an artefact or a piece of art. Moses welcomed the criticism of his father-in-law. A demagogue rejects any criticism and evades comments on his shortcomings by insult and bullying and belittling any challengers. A demagogue projects onto others worship of himself and a willingness to get on their knees and ask his favour. A demagogue is arrogant and haughty. Moses, though raised in a royal household, went forth and became a shepherd. His compassion for others was his strength. His easily stirred ire was his great weakness. Moses was never patronizing but always appreciative of skills and talents he himself did not possess.

There is no self-content in Moses, but a discontent with his own shortcomings and those of others. He loses control when under pressure and is decidedly not cool. He was not ambitious for himself and became resigned to never getting himself personally to the promised land instead of being determined to do so no matter what the cost. His centre of attention is the mishkan, not himself. Most of all, he lacked colour. He is the very opposite of Joseph with his multi-coloured coat.

So the next time you flick on a switch or light a match on shabat, think about what it is really about. Observing shabat entails reverence for a peaceable kingdom, respect for skill and craft, for knowledge and wisdom, for the warm-hearted and not the hard-hearted, for an absolute rejection of the politics of rage. Don’t light the match that can set the world on fire.

With the help of Alex Zisman