A Framework for Comprehending Sovereignty

A Framework for Comprehending Sovereignty


Howard Adelman

As in a recipe for baking a layered cake, I begin with the ingredients. In a cake, the two main elements are usually, but not necessarily, flour and water. The two main elements in the case of sovereignty are state and nation. That does not mean that both are always present. When Louis XIV of France said, “L’État c’est moi,” France still consisted of a number of ethnic and linguistic groups, the Basques in the south, the descendants of the Ligures in the south-east, the Normans in the north descended from the Vikings, and the major group of Gauls and Belgae that were dominant in the territory that became France. There was no singular French nation at the time. But there was a state, and Louis XIV was the quintessential absolute monarch of that state.

While the nation was multiple, the state and the sovereign were one. That meant that the ability to raise taxes, to require the citizens of the French state to pay monies to the state, belonged to Louis XIV as the embodiment of the French state. This was the material dimension of sovereignty. At the same time, Louis insisted on a monopoly on coercive power within the territory of the state. As absolute ruler, any lords of the realm had to pledge their control and use of military power to Louis XIV’s purposes. This was the coercive dimension of sovereignty and the move towards the state having a monopoly on the use of coercive power. Finally, Louis XIV had absolute jurisdiction in making the laws of the land. Combining all three, Louis XIV controlled the exercise of three key elements of the state – material wealth, coercive power and legal authority.

Sometimes the state precedes the constitution of a nation. This was true in France. This was true in the United States. This was true in Canada. Some countries, such as Canada, never did forge a singular strong nationality, but a layered one in which all citizens could belong to the Canadian nation, but many could be Québécois, Ojibway, Cree or Inuit as well. Further, that sense of common identity developed and shifted over time. The bond formed was not primarily external and expressed through the formal and legal mechanism of citizenship, as in a state, but could be said to be intuitive characterized by informal bonds that tie together the members of a nation.

A nation has a national consciousness – a shared sense of group identity. That is its heart. A nation has a governing idea. In contemporary Canada, it may be the concept of a mosaic and a collective concern for the well-being of each of its members as manifested in one realm, a single payer system for guaranteeing health care. In the U.S., it may be a very different conception – a melting pot and a realm independent and separate from the power of the state, such as the idea of a frontier that is more about the personality of the nation than an actual territorial boundary. That is its heart.

In a nation, there are rules as well as ruling ideas, but those rooted not so much in formal authority as in a sense of authentic authority. In Canada, it may be the reputed civility, the politeness of Canadians. In America, it may be bluntness and the wide scope given to the expression of free speech so that Alan Dershowitz could insist that the American Civil Liberties Union intervene on behalf of Donald Trump against the charge of inciting violence at his rallies because, unless a direct connection between his words and the actions of the individuals committing the assault against a peaceful protester in the midst of the rally, can be established, the command to, “Get her out,” does not constitute incitement to violence unless the individuals committing the assault were paid agents of the Donald Trump campaign. In America, even though its extent is debated, the right of freedom of speech is much more broadly defined than in other political jurisdictions. Behind the constitution, this inchoate sense of the nation is often cited to justify legislation and interpretations of the formal legal system.

In addition to its heart and head, a nation is a source of empowerment through the exercise of its sense as a nation and its members’ identification with and service to that nation. These are the guts of a nation.

If a state consolidates its material foundation, its legal system and its ability to use coercive power over time, the process is directed towards making the unit more effective, more coherent and more unified. In the case of the nation, its dynamic, its changing qualities and characteristics, are much more on display and in play. The formation of a nation can almost always be said to be an activity in motion. When sufficient numbers share a singular identification to become a source of collective energy working for a common goal, a nation is formed that can be characterized by a unique energy source rooted in creative rather than coercive power.

State                                        Nation

Power                   Coercive                                     Creative

Authority               Formal or Legal                        Authentic

Influence               Material                                     Intellectual

While most states consolidate, their formation is independent of and usually precedes the formation of the nation that dominates within a state. This was not true of the ancient Hebrew nation-state or of the modern Dutch nation-state where the group developed a sense of itself as a nation before it constituted itself as a state. The Torah provides the narrative of the formation of the Israelite nation before there ever was a state. A nation is constituted by a set of reigning ideas that provide a profound intellectual influence on the spirit of a nation. The will of that nation becomes the source of authority for defining a nation, its historical purpose and the use of the spirit of a nation or its collective creative energy.

Opening Friday’s roundtable on sovereignty, Tom Axworthy cited Jean Bodin as his primary historical authority for defining sovereignty. Jean Bodin, a sixteenth century French jurist, philosopher and professor of law at Toulouse, was best known for his theory of sovereignty which defined sovereignty in terms of formal legal rule backed up by a monopoly on coercive power for governing a defined territory. What is less well known is that Bodin also wrote on the economy in a 1568 treatise, Réponse de J. Bodin aux paradoxes de M. de Malestroit in which he clarified that a state not only depended upon a legislated regime backed by coercive force, but a material foundation in which monetary policy (the amount of money in circulation) and the productivity of the regime were to be kept in some form of reasonable balance. Material wealth was not simply about the quantity of money – the increasing importation of silver and gold from South America at that time – but about the ability of the state to organize the production of goods and services consonant with the money supply.

However, in Bodin, the stress on these three dimensions of state sovereignty ignored the role of the sovereignty of the nation. Bodin provided a rationale for the consolidation of power, legislative authority and material wealth in a singular and dominant authority. Though Axworthy, in his presentation of a realist view of sovereignty, ignored the material dimension, his most significant omission was his obliviousness to the sovereignty of the nation and blindness to other ways in which the sovereignty of the state could be grasped.

Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon’s account stood in sharp contrast because she stressed the importance neither of military power nor the direction of material acquisition nor even of state legislated laws. International law set the foundation for recognizing the boundaries of a state in the north of Canada – in this case, the international law of the sea – backed up by scientific research that provided the intellectual substance for applying those norms. All this was part of the expression of the spirit of a nation even in a realm where there were no members requiring protection.

This is also why an international legal regime needs to be developed governing climate change based on extensive scientific research. Not for expanding our wealth, but for making the need to resort to coercive force obsolete and for ensuring human survival. Sara French-Rooke in her discussions of sovereignty when applied to northern peoples stressed the central place of personal security rather than state security, the emphasis again on survival rather than the accumulation of wealth ad infinitum.

This involved a very different conception of sovereignty, one rooted in a universal sovereign in which nations and states are simply trustees for a segment of territory on behalf of an eternal sovereign. The state and the nation may both come into existence in history, but behind and before that emergence there needed to be a magisterium universalis.

When there is an effort to make the universal sovereign the actual ruler, you then move towards an idealistic conception of sovereignty. For the ultimate authority, which would determine whether a state treated its citizens adequately, would be a source of universal governance. This was the intent of R2P. It was neither the intent nor the mechanism of the law of the sea, for the latter always depends on states opting into the process and, in the end, making the consent of the relevant states critical to the implementation of the universal norms.

There are clear implications of pushing one doctrine rather than another. In the realist or Bodin construction, policy would suggest that Canada needs a robust sea presence in terms of updated or new icebreakers reinforced by navy patrols and air surveillance to exercise its sovereignty. But Riddell-Nixon argued that neither coercion, the quest for material accumulation nor formal domestic legislation have been critical in determining the boundaries of sovereignty of Canada in the arctic region.

This framework also allows us to understand both shared and shattered sovereignty. In shared sovereignty, agents share formal authority and usually defend that shared authority by joint action of military forces. Revenues from resources may also be shared as between Sudan and South Sudan. Shared sovereignty may be between a domestic jurisdiction below the state level – such as a province – or there may be shared authority between a state and an external agent. Thus, Canada in matters of defence has largely surrendered its autonomous control of coercive power, at least where it concerns the defence of the North American continent, to the overwhelming might of America. When Canadians were debating over whether to have or get rid of nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles in Sudbury in the Diefenbaker-Pearson era, this was a decoy. Americans had already deployed nuclear-armed missiles across the north of Canada, something few Canadians knew anything about at the time.

Sovereignty also shatters. It may be among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq or repressed as in the case of Turkey dealing with its Kurdish minority or a source of rivalry as between the Dinka and Neuer in South Sudan. Kenya has yet to forge a fully unified nation from its dominant tribes. In the UK, the Scots are seeking independence and, in Northern Ireland, there is some degree of shared sovereignty between Ireland and Great Britain. Shared sovereignty over control of the old city of Jerusalem has been proposed to resolve a major impasse in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Shared sovereignty is sometimes a positive response to the problem of a shattered state that stresses divisions rather than unity among the nations that make up a state.

Failed states usually result from the shattering of national identity, not simply because of its multiplicity. The tensions in America are deeply embedded in the mistreatment of America’s black population. I finally watched the marvellous documentary, 13th. The film is based on the thesis that the 13th amendment to the constitution passed to end slavery in the U.S., contained a loophole which allowed discrimination against blacks to be reinstated in new forms of legal coercion when the old forms became intolerable. The 13th amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The loophole is in italics.

When slavery ended, the legal system in the south was used to arrest blacks in large numbers for spurious or minor offences. Southern states used this new form of slavery to build public works through the labour of chain gangs. When that practice was disallowed, the South switched to the use of Jim Crow laws legislating separation of the races and raising the hurdle for exercising voting rights. When Jim Crow was ended with the civil rights movement, the coercive system of black subjugation, though far weaker, persisted and switched to using the law and coercive powers of the state to raise the prison population in the U.S. Even though a task force constituted by Nixon recommended addressing the root causes of drug abuse through therapy rather than incarceration, Nixon introduced a war on drugs knowing it was irrelevant to reducing the drug issue, but as a mechanism for winning the south vote by identifying blacks with drugs and winning support for his unpopular Vietnam War by libelling hippies as stoned potheads.

The war on drugs continued and was enhanced by each presidential regime, including Clinton’s, so that by the year 2014 the prison population had exploded from numbers in the range of 300,000 to numbers in excess of 2.4 million. 40% were blacks. Law and coercion were used to disenfranchise blacks by alleging a spurious massive voter fraud and raising barriers to access voting to both demonize blacks as cheaters as well as retain support among white voters indoctrinated to fear blacks as rapists. The point is that the coercive might of the state, its legislative powers and its material interests can combine to repress a part of the nation and define that part as Other. That effort may turn to Mexican illegal and legal migrants as well, including Hispanic children born in the U.S., who, like blacks of old, were demonized by Donald Trump as rapists and criminals even though the rate of convictions of Hispanics was lower than the rate for native-born white Americans.

There is a material motive to undertaking such efforts since, in the partnerships of government and private business, large numbers of private corporations now have a vested interest in the economics of incarceration and the profits that flow from production facilities in prisons.  Thus, material interest can be united with a state’s control over coercive power and its legislative authority to repress part of a nation to enhance the identity of another part and unite that part through inculcation of the fear of the Other.

A healthy nation-state tries to ensure that all its citizens can identify with a nation that will be treated equally by the state, whatever the sub-national grouping. However, the coercive powers of the state, its legislative powers and its objective of facilitating the acquisition of material wealth can be combined to throw stones at and eventually crack and even shatter the windshield of the state.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Canada, thankfully, is travelling a path in the opposite direction.


Twelve Years a Slave: Purgatory and Paradise

Twelve Years a Slave: Purgatory and Paradise


Howard Adelman

Steve McQueen stated that issues of race are not a priority in his work; the horror of hell and the damnation beyond is. In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon first travelled from the north through the various stages of hell as he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He now enters purgatory when he is resold to Edwin Epps on a plantation from, but no longer even in, hell. Satan`s fall created hell. But the earth displaced by that fall became purgatory that existed on the other side of the mountain far away from northern eyes. But the main difference between hell and the purgatorial life of field slaves on a cotton plantation is not so much the prevalence of cruel actions as the malicious motives for those actions.

As Steve McQueen said of his film, Shame, “The film is more about what people don’t say rather than what they say. It’s about undercurrents, internalization. People generally say things out loud that are designed to make other people feel comfortable. So it becomes like poker — you have to look for the tell. And you’re relying on the audience to pick up on things that are recognizable but at the same time unfamiliar. “McQueen`s themes have been about the imprisonment and abuse of the body that is being imprisoned, whether in the story of Bobby Sands` hunger strike in Hunger, or the tale of the sexaholic in Shame. To quote McQueen, “man`s body is both his escape hatch and his prison.” The individual body and the body politic as an American gulag become the new setting to explore what happens to a man`s soul, to his spirit or ruah.

I read one review that described Solomon Northup in terms of his humanity, which, in spite of his searing experiences, grows larger as the film progresses. Another film reviewer wrote that Solomon`s saving grace was the dignity with which he endured and observed his own and a nation’s shame. Nonsense! Solomon Northup’s humanity and his dignity are initially sacrificed on a very slight commercial whim and then both are lost gradually and inexorably stage by stage in every scene of the film. This is the film’s real horror that goes much beyond sadistic physical abuse. Slavery demeans not only the white slaveholders but those enslaved as well. Only Solomon’s will to survive and see his wife and children once again sustain him – not his humanity, not his dignity. In fact, at each stage of the drop, another slice of his humanity and his dignity have to be sacrificed in order for him to survive.

Although Solomon Northup continues to balance between fragility and a determination to survive (see McQueen’s 1996 short, Just Above My Head), Solomon had to first surrender his material well-being, his pride in his skills and education, his sense of entitlement because of his northern origins and birth as a free man. Much more is asked of Solomon now that his freedom, pride, dignity and sense of self have seemingly been totally stripped from him. His spirit now has to be crushed. In 1831 in the aftermath of the Nat Turner slave rebellion, southern states passed legislation forbidding the teaching of literacy to Blacks and even forbad them from holding religious services without the presence of a white minister. Ford, the mild-mannered but morally corrupted slave owner in hell, preached to his Black slaves. Epps does so as well. But Epps offers a very different lesson.

Edwin Epps preaches to his slaves from the New Testament, Luke 12:47 in particular: “And the slave who knew his master`s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes.” It helps to know the context. The previous verse, 46, reads: “The master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.” The verse that follows is also helpful: “The one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” Solomon is flogged 16 times with a plank early in the movie then he receives another flogging with a rope. But the greatest horror is yet to come when he is not flogged but is forced to flog another slave.

Thus, while Epps is using the Gospel of Luke to justify whipping his slaves – 40, 50, perhaps 150 lashes – the original text stresses how the naïve and innocent, who did not even recognize slavery, is led to commit deeds worthy of a flogging – telling outright lies. The passage refers to the ultimate humiliation, taking up the whip against a fellow slave while receiving relatively few lashes. To repeat, from one who has been given much, much will be required.

However, first purgatory must be established as an integral part of ordinary life. McQueen recreates the work rhythms and routines of a cotton plantation as described so precisely in Northup`s autobiography. Instead of the field slaves located some distance from the manor house, as in Tara, in this movie the intimacy between slaves and master is well established. Slaves and slave owners live cheek by jowl next to one another. However, the slaves remain committed to freedom and sing their songs of desire even as they go about the work pretending not to notice the degradations being meted out against them in beatings, whippings and even lynchings. Solomon eventually joins in to sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (the balance to “Run, Nigger, Run” sung by the cruel foreman in Hell) and symbolically accepts that he is a slave in equal status to the others. This is the very title of Eugene Genovese`s great book on slavery with the subtitle of The World the Slaves Made.

Roll Jordan 
Roll, roll Jordan, roll 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
To hear Jordan roll (roll, roll, roll) 

Now brother, you ought to been there 
Yes, my Lord 
A sitting in the kingdom 
To hear Jordan 

Well, roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan) 
Roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my mother, you ought to been there 
Mother, you ought to been there 
My mother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Oh you can see it roll, better roll, better roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
Roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my mother, you ought to been there (oh yes) 
Mother, you ought to been there 
My mother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Oh you can see it roll, better roll, better roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
Rollover Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my sister, you ought to been there now 
Sister, you ought to been there 
My sister, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Well my brother, you ought to been there now 
Brother, you ought to been there 
My brother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Further, the character of the Great Satan, Epps, must be established. He is a fire eater and a man filled with lust and wrath, cunning and conniving, and insistent on doing what he wants with what he considers his property. He is also a drunken sot who slips on pig slop and tumbles over his own fences. Like Dante`s Satan, the once most splendid of God`s creatures has fallen so far that he has become a man without an ounce of grace, slobbering and tongue-tied. He is a bully, a rapist but also a very conflicted sadistic soul.

Then there are the seven deadly sins of Purgatory characterized by excessive passion (lust, gluttony and greed), by deficient passion (sloth) and by deformed passion (wrath of a very different order than the simple resentment of Tibault, a wrath that is infused with malice as are envy and pride. Lust is not just the indulgence in sexual intercourse between Solomon and the slave woman lying next to him who seduces him, but it includes Solomon`s lust for freedom. That lust is so strong that Solomon lets his guard down to finally steal paper, make ink and a pen and entrust the letter he writes to Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), an itinerant carpenter working on the plantation.

Unbeknownst to Solomon, Armsby was not motivated by good will towards Solomon but by greed himself, greed to win Epps` favour and gain the opportunity to become an overseer on his plantation. Armsby discloses Solomon`s plan to Epps. Epps threatens to cut Soloman`s throat. Solomon escapes by telling a blatant lie, insisting that Armsby`s tale was a tissue of lies. The treachery is reversed – not by truthfulness or honesty, but by an inverted betrayal that is so bold to be convincing. This is a turning point. Solomon turns on his betrayer and fabricates a story out of whole cloth to show how the one who betrayed him was really out to betray Epps – and Epps believes him. Solomon has given up all claims to justice and truth, to self pride and human decency as, in order to survive, he sacrifices any threads of clinging to his social humanity.

We also have the gluttony of the slave owners with their great displays of food – from which Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) offers crumbs to her slaves. The close-ups of the meager food offering on Solomon`s plate at the beginning of the film, repeated in purgatory, tell a good part of the story. Leonardo Di Caprio’s Calvin Candie, in Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained was also a very depraved villain but one with polish and wit, with cruel humour and an aristocratic sense of self. Epps as played so brilliantly by Michael Fassbender is no Candie for he disdains any veneer of civilization and rather makes a mockery of the social graces of high society. With Epps, we are beyond the malicious violence of Tibault and into the twisted malevolent pleasure that the totally unpredictable Epps takes in tormenting his slaves, sometimes indulging them while at other times he wallows in their humiliation, making them dance to southern aristocratic reels in their nighties as if to prove that Negroes in the south lacked any sense of rhythm. Epps is a manic depressive and obsessive madman who can switch in seconds from degrading his slaves to picking up, twirling around and dancing with a young daughter of a slave who is only clothed in a nightdress. Epps is not a real and present danger but an ominous, often silent and unpredictable menace as we in the audience suffer in agony in anticipation of his next atrocity. Surely, he cannot become worse! But we are as deluded as Solomon.

God`s wrath is meted out to Epps in the destruction of the cotton crop from cotton worm, but Epps only blames the plague on the shortcomings of his slaves when it is Epps` mistreatment that allows a slave to die while picking the crop. The dead slave`s real sin is one of insufficient passion for life; he simply gives up. But the worst sins of purgatory arise from passions that are now infused with malice, primarily Epps` wrath focused on the obsession of his life, the slave, the beautiful but hapless Patsey who is also the best of his pickers who can collect 500 pounds of cotton a day compared to Solomon`s 138 pounds. When Patsey returns after a short disappearance, Epps` wife completely loses her cool at her husbands obsession; in an earlier scene she three a wine decanter at Patsey. Epps himself, furious at his own need for Patsey, ties her down and even forces Solomon to whip her. As Patsey’s flesh is shredded into raw strips, so is Solomon’s soul. Patsey, like the woman walking the tightrope in McQueen’s short film, Five Easy Pieces, combines extreme vulnerability and impossible strength of character. Patsey is Dante`s Beatrice who allows Solomon to survive in purgatory.

Eventually, Epps has to complete the whipping task himself when Solomon fails to sustain sufficient wrath and self-loathing. Solomon has no more stomach for whipping than he had for picking cotton. The flogging is totally inhumane and we wince as the flesh is torn open and even more when the other slave women try to treat her open wounds. It is by far the most horrific scene in the movie, made much more horrible by the degradation to which Solomon has been reduced in participating in such an evil act just to survive.

Finally, paradise appears on the horizon in the form of Brad Pitt playing Bass, a very different kind of carpenter, a Jesus figure from Canada who is outspokenly anti-slavery. Solomon tells him his story. The film could have frivolously been called “Saved by a Canuck” as Brad Pitt plays the Canadian itinerant anti-slavery carpenter who finally carries Solomon’s message north to report on the whereabouts of Solomon and his illegal capture and confinement. Shortly after, John Waddill arrives with the sheriff and the required legal papers and whisks Solomon away over Epps` futile protests. Solomon is then very quickly redeemed and returns to paradise and his family. But what a paradise!

The trip through purgatory was horrific but richly sensuous, remorseless in the depths of the degradations reached. But paradise turns out to be cold. The family members gather round and, as expected, hug the returned captive. But the members of the family, including his new son-in-law and grandson, are all strangers. Like a returning veteran from the Iraq War, they cannot possibly recognize what Solomon has been through. What a contrast with James Foxx` reunion with his wife at the end of Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained.

John Ridley has certainly superbly selected from Solomon Northup’s unbridled and sweeping autobiography, managing to combine a highly structured organization of a descent into hell, a passage through purgatory and a re-entry into paradise while remaining absolutely true to the realism of Solomon`s tale. The film has a brilliant cast beginning with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. Lupita Nyongò plays Patsey with passionate desperation and Michael Fassbender is suitably vicious as Edwin Epps – all deserving of Oscars as respectively best actor and best supporting actress and actor.  But every single minor character is also perfectly cast and superbly preformed, in the cases of Paul Giamatti portrayal of Freeman and Paul Dano`s performance of Tibault.

Sean Bobbitt`s cinematography is superb, whether photographing ominous cloudy skies or the ripple of the water behind a paddle wheeler, but culminating in the single unbroken shot of Patsey`s beating as the camera circles both Solomon and Patsey, a technique that forces the viewer to share the suffering of both as one whip stroke follows another. Photographing the action from the positional perspective of the characters, particularly Solomon, allows us to share his experience with much greater intensity. It is a camera that refuses to look away.

The music of Hans Zimmer is often very simple but always infused with great emotion; it is sometimes humble, at other times, majestic, but always infused with nobility. The myriad of slave songs reinforce the realism: Alicia Key sings “Queen of the Field. Patsey endures her suffering rto “Driva Man”, ”a sparse, brooding, slow-swinging jazz number” ”about an enslaved person reaching `quittin’ time` while also trying to please the overseer to avoid getting beaten.” Gary Clark Jr. sings “Freight Train”.  

Do NOT miss this movie!

The evening before last, my son, Gabriel, and I went to see Survival, oops!, Gravity in 3D starring Susan Bulloch and George Clooney. If you like high-tech amazing amusement rides that keep you very tense, go see the movie. Enough said! Except, any comparison between Gravity and Twelve Years a Slave as competitors for the Oscar for best picture is ludicrous. 

Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave                                                                                 


Howard Adelman


Last evening, Nancy and I went to the movies and saw Twelve Years a Slave. I have no intention of giving the story away and depriving you of your enjoyment, even though there is little to “enjoy” in this brilliant, compelling, mesmerizing movie. You will have to take it on trust that there is relatively little plot in any case – just a series of events cascading unremittingly downwards. Appropriately, given the film’s structure, I will use analogy to depict the film, but you may prefer to see the movie first before you read the blog.

Twelve Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is to the American institution of slavery what Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg (that other Steven) is to the Holocaust. Only Twelve Years a Slave is a better film as terrific as Schindler’s List was as a movie. It is better because it is even more gritty and horrific than Spielberg’s authentic account of the clearing of the Krakow ghetto while also much more profound. The surrounding story of Oscar Schindler was a Hollywood fictional character even if based on a historical one, one so successful that it has largely been adopted by official accounts, including that of Yad Vashem. Oscar Schindler was, in reality, a spy against the Nazis for the Abswehr, a money runner for the Zionists and a philo-semite from youth when his two best friends who lived next door to him were sons of a rabbi. Though in real life also a philanderer and gambler, in the movie he is also portrayed as an opportunistic Nazi who undergoes an epiphany when he sees the girl in the red coat during the clearing of the Krakow ghetto – the only colour scene in the movie before the ending. Oscar Schindler henceforth dedicates himself to saving a small remnant of about 1100 Jews. This Christian overlay of simplistic personal sin and redemption is so typical of Hollywood films on the Holocaust; the film ends not only with Christian redemption but with the redemption of the Jews in the promised land of Israel continuing the link in the imaginary eye of the triumphal creation of Israel with the horror of the Holocaust as its precondition. This contrasts markedly with the role of Christianity in Twelve Years a Slave – but more on this later.

Both movies are about a very tiny minority, Schindler’s List about one relatively small group among an absolute relatively small total who were actually saved from the Holocaust, while Twelve Years a Slave is about an even smaller group of relatively free Blacks captured and sold into slavery and an even much tinier group of Blacks who were restored to their free status. But Schindler’s List focused on seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of a redeemed Christian through whom the redemption of the Jews in general is made possible. Twelve Years a Slave shows slavery as it was perceived, experienced and felt, slavery as it was beaten into the flesh and the mindset of one man, a former free man from Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon Northup, born free, well educated and relatively prosperous with his own home and thriving musical career as a violinist, is tricked and sold into slavery at a slave sale in New Orleans in Louisiana.

Steve McQueen and Steve Spielberg share another element in common. Spielberg cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in his 1997 critically acclaimed film Amistad. In Twelve Years a Slave, Ejiofor plays the main character (Pratt, née Solomon Northrup) utilizing very few words but a myriad of facial expressions and bodily movements to reveal his character and thoughts. Both films are about non-gratuitous, almost banal, violence and racism. But the differences far outweigh the similarities between the two films, especially the main subject matter of each. Though Schindler’s List is unequivocally a Holocaust film, Twelve Years a Slave is about much more than slavery. It is about the inferno, purgatory and heaven that one man goes through depicted with the poetic imagery of a modern-day Dante.

The film is based on Solomon Northup’s best-selling memoir of his life when he was captured as a free man and sold into slavery in 1841. We know from the title of the film that he will be rescued and redeemed after twelve years of unremitting torture. Solomon, presumably the wise, but actually naïve northern prosperous Black, is, like Dante, in his mid-thirties when he begins his descent. Solomon is like one of those ancient soothsayers with his head screwed on backwards as he wallows in his success and glories in his prosperity just as Job once did. But his face is really “twisted toward his haunches
and (he) found it necessary to walk backward because he could not see ahead.”  The film is a backward path and a downward descent beyond hell into purgatory before Solomon is rescued and restored to paradise.

The first part of the film quickly traduced begins with a prosperous Solomon seen with his wife and two children in Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon tucks his two children into bed insisting they go to sleep quietly and make no noise, an ironic adumbration of his own future where his own voice had to be shut down lest he give offence to whites after he is sold into slavery. The family owns their own home and Solomon travels extensively on concert tours. He has white friends. He, his wife and children are all well dressed. In one incident at a general store, a black man, who has presumably slipped away from his master, approaches Solomon to speak to him, but Solomon is distracted by his wife’s demand to purchase a new handbag of the latest design and the approaching black man is found by his master before he has a chance to speak. The descent into Hell begins with this most casual sin of indulgence and the “poetic justice” meted out against Solomon. So passes the first sin and the beginning of the descent into hell disguised by the peace and generally non-racist tenor of this superficially idyllic scene.

The animal in Dante’s Commedia first encountered is the black and white leopard, which, for Dante, represented the radical political split between the Black Guelphs (the political papists), in this film, actual Blacks who were to be saved by what the state rights advocates argued was the new imperial president in Washington, and the White Guelphs, in this film, the white southerners who opposed the imperialist or strong federalist claims of Washington. Dante was then the Chief Magistrate of Florence and saw himself as a keeper of the peace by serving as a bridge between two radically divided worlds. What begins in mild material indulgence quickly descends into the other sins of indulgence on the first level of the inferno, before descending further into the hell of violence and malice.

At the upper level of Hell we encounter four other types of self-indulgent sins before we descend lower into the middle reaches of hell where two types of violent sin await Solomon and then, at the base, the two types of malicious sin. In 1841, Northup met Merrill Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Abram Hamilton (Taran Killam) who claim to be entertainers. They offer Solomon a position with a very high pay – one dollar for each day on the road and an extra three dollars for every show he plays – for playing the violin as part of a travelling Circus Company. They meet Solomon in Washington, where the deeds they practiced were not then illegal, and they ply Solomon with both drink and flattery. As a result of his naiveré and lack of sufficient wariness, Solomon ends up drunk and wakes up only to find himself bound in chains in a slave cell in Washington cast into the second circle of the first level of hell and insensibility.

Solomon refuses to believe he has been tricked and betrayed by Brown and Hamilton and insists that his new-found friends were artists, not kidnappers. Solomon is in denial. He threatens his jailers, John Birch (Christopher Berry) and his turnkey, Ebenezer Radburn (Bill Camp), with justice and has no true recognition of the perilous state in which he finds himself. This appeal to and belief justice in the face of blatant evil is the third circle of indulgence expressed by Solomon.

Radburn beats Northup to silence his claim that he is a free man and insists he is a Georgian runaway slave whose name is Pratt. On top of the material indulgence, Solomon’s sense of pride, his belief and faith in justice, he now has to surrender his faith in truth and even his own identity. In the upper level of hell, Solomon is stripped of all he believes in – prosperity, success, self pride, a belief in justice and in truth, and even his own sense of self. Solomon is ready to be transported to middle-Hell.

With other slaves he purchased, Birch ships Solomon by sea to New Orleans to his partner, Theophilus Freeman, played magnificently by Paul Giamatti. En route, it is clear we are in hell as coal is shoveled into the furnaces of the steamer and as we watch the ripples of water left behind and viewed through the repetitive slats of the paddlewheel of the steamer. The circle goes round and round and down and down. In New Orleans, we encounter gratuitous violence, violence rooted in ideology rather than utility, and we are now beyond the level of indulgence. Upon his arrival in the middle level of hell, Solomon watches helplessly as his Virgil, who taught him the ways of survival, how to stay hidden and betray yourself to save yourself, is set free, if not from slavery, at least from the horrors that Solomon will continue to face. Solomon has been cast into his hell by what are otherwise ordinary or even noble beliefs, conceived as indulgences in a country strongly rooted in institutionalized slavery. Solomon now must truly encounter the sins of others.

The first circle of violence is the treatment of the captives as less than human. Freeman tells his buyers that the young boy, whom he ruthlessly separates form his mother, will grow into a fine and strong beast. It is as if he is displaying cattle for sale as he lauds the bodies of the slaves and haggles over the monetary value of each. He will not compromise on a sale in consideration of the feeling of the inconsolable mother, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who is separated from her two children by the garrulous Freeman who wallows in his own logorrhea.

We experience a twofold violence, violation of the individuals treated as mere meat and violation of any human relationships. But that violence will bear little resemblance to the third and bottom circle of hell when Solomon is confronted, not with simple greed and inhumanity, but with actual malice. The malice stands in stark contrast with William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the “good slave owner” who purchases Solomon and Eliza. Ford ineffectually tried to convince Freeman to at least keep the girl with her mother, but to no avail. Though a good and sincere man, he is still a slave owner, but also a moral coward as Eliza points out to Solomon. Ford’s wife is less sensitive; she tells the grieving and inconsolable Eliza who will not be comforted that she will soon forget her children.

Solomon’s intelligence and creativity flourish under Ford and he successfully suggests tying the cleared logs to together to ship them down river to the saw mill or market. John M. Tibault, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dano, oversees the work of Ford’s slaves picking cotton to the tune of Tibault singing “Run Nigger Run”, ironically, originally a Negro folk song cheering slave flight and warning that time is running out, but sung as a demeaning song about Blacks who steal crops and run from the “pattarolls”.

Oh run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run nigger flew

Nigger tore his shirt in two

Run run the patty roller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run through the field

Black slick coal and barley heel

Run nigger run the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Some folks say a nigger won’t steal

I caught three in my corn field

One has a bushel

And one has a peck

One had a rope and it was hung around his neck

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Oh nigger run and nigger flew

Why in the devil can’t a white man chew

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Hey Mr. Patty roller don’t catch me

Catch that nigger behind that tree

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away 

Nigger run, run so fast

Nigger, he got away at last

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

However, for an unexplained reason, Ford gets into financial difficulties and has to sell some slaves to settle his debts to Tibaut. But Ford continues to hold a chattel mortgage on Solomon for the unpaid part of the sale. Tibault is the exemplification of malice driving violence. He resents Solomon’s smarts. Tibault challenges Solomon’s uses of nails provided by Ford’s overseer, Chapin. Chapin intervenes and Solomon speaks up, asserting that Tibault wanted to beat him for using the nails that Chapin provided. When Chapin challenges Tibault, asking what’s wrong with the nails, Tibault does not reply but stares malevolently at Solomon. Chapin walks away with Tibault evidently trying to quiet Tibault’s furious resentment at being upstaged and put in his place by a black slave.

In a subsequent confrontation, Tibault attacks Solomon for a second time when he arrives with two others (Cook and Ramsey) on horseback with whips and a rope. Thibault attempts to hang Solomon, but Ford’s overseer, Chapin, intervenes, and reminds Tibault that he has a debt to Ford, secured by a chattel mortgage on Solomon, so hurting or killing Solomon would in law be an attack on Ford’s property. Chapin also threatens Thibault’s two companions and they ride off. Tibault sneaks off in shame. However, Chapin does not cut Solomon down even though Solomon’s toes barely touch the ground. After a number of hours, Ford comes to the rescue and releases Solomon from his noose.

Why did Chapin allow Solomon to continue to hang just after having rescued him? The implied answer is that Chapin’s malice is even worse and a different order of sin than Thibault’s overt hatred and resentment even as he appears as a rescuer. For at least Tibault’s malice was worn on his sleeve, whereas Chapin’s resentment goes much deeper and his violence is more indirect and cloaked in protectionism and the rule of law. 

When we reach the bottom of hell, the movie’s real horrors are just about to really begin. For we now transition from hell to purgatory when Solomon transits through a short period clearing land of cane, trees and undergrowth to prepare the land for planting cotton before title to himself as a chattel is sold to the venomous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender who starred in McQuuen’s two previous feature films – Hunger about the 1981 northern Irish hunger strike and Shame about a sexaholic) on a cotton plantation where slavery is pure torture but where repression is finally linked to desire and not just survival, to eros, admittedly a perverted eros in the various forms of lust, gluttony and greed, sloth and malicious love mixing wrath, envy and pride as Patsey, played in an Oscar winning performance by Lupita Nyong’o, becomes the object of Epp’s passion and wrath, his pride and disdain, as he whips Patsey in the most horrendous scene of the movie as black skin is torn open by the lashes to reveal the pink and blood soaked  bloody flesh beneath.


Tomorrow; Purgatory and Paradise

Survival and Slavery: Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1-27:

Survival and Slavery: Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1-27:34 05.05.13


Howard Adelman

It is Sunday, May 5th. This parsha should have been sent out on Friday, May 3rd. However, Friday was a gorgeous day in Toronto with the sky clear and temperatures in the twenties centigrade. When I failed to complete the blog in the early morning, I was doomed. For after a long winter, there was so much clean up work to do outside. The day was so beautiful, that it was six o’clock and I had not even noticed the time fly. Such are the seductions of sun and sky and warmth, especially after the deprivations of a long and harsh winter. Maybe the experience is relevant to today’s subject matter – giving in to the seductions of slavery to the Ba’al Hadad, the lord or master in heaven who rules over the assembly of all the other natural deities or spirits. Today, Sunday, has been as beautiful a day as Friday and Ba’al no less enticing.

This section of Leviticus that was read yesterday in synagogue is largely about the jubilee year, the second sabbatical year after seven, that is, every 50 years. A number of principles of business ethics are set forth, largely a tribal rather than a universal ethic as when 24:14 advises: “when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong one another.” It even has a strange formula on the price you should pay for a crop depending on the length of time between jubilee years. “The more [the remaining] years, you shall increase its purchase [price], and the fewer the [remaining] years, you shall decrease its purchase [price], because he is selling you a number of crops.” (24:16) Moral norms and not the invisible hand of the market were major factors in determining prices.

Beyond these admonitions to be fair, never wrong a fellow Jew and consideration for the destitute, what I find most interesting are the commandments concerning slavery in chapter 25. There are four kinds of slaves:
a) Jewish slaves of Jews;
b) Jewish slaves of non-Jews;
c) non-Jewish slaves of Jews;
d) non-Jewish slaves of non-Jews.
There are no prescriptions for the fourth category, reinforcing the principle that these ethical norms are tribal or national rather than universal.

Further, how you handle each of the first three categories reinforces this perspective. Jewish slaves of Jews have to be freed by the Jubilee year – or, according to Deuteronomy, in a sabbatical year. During the period of ownership, Jewish slaves cannot be worked with rigour. (25:46) Thirdly, there is no provision for making the children of Jewish slaves your slaves or bequeathing Jewish slaves as part of your inheritance to your children. In contrast, chapter 25 reads:
44. Your male slave or female slave whom you may have from the nations that are around you, from them you may acquire a male slave or a female slave.
45. And also from the children of the residents that live among you, from them you may acquire [slaves] and from their family that is with you whom they begot in your land, and they shall become your inheritance.
46. You shall hold onto them as an inheritance for your children after you, as acquired property, and may thus have them serve you forever. But as for your brethren, the children of Israel, a man shall not work his brother with rigor.

Jews have a duty to redeem other Jews from slavery to non-Jews. They have no such obligations to non-Jewish slaves of non-Jews. Further, their own non-Jewish slaves are an inheritance for their children. Jewish slaves have to be freed. The children of non-Jewish slaves become your indentured servants. These strictures vary between Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and are quite different than the provisions of the Talmud which offers universal norms governing the treatment of any slave. But this is not a Talmudic but a Torah commentary, and only very incidentally a comparative Torah study.

How do slaves become slaves? They are captured in war. Or they are indigent and enter into slavery so they will not die. Or they enter into slavery to satisfy a debt. Slavery is a product of economic or physical coercion. Bondage to another is slavery. On the other hand, bondage to the Lord and God of the Israelites is chosen by a free person, by someone who stands upright and was freed by the Lord their God from slavery to a human master in Egypt. But is the contrast between the two forms of bondage so clear?

Certainly, if the Israelites obey God, keep shabat, follow His commandments, do not worship idols and make God a centre of their lives, they will be rewarded with prosperous, secure and healthy lives with productive farms and freed from the scourge of their enemies. But, as chapter 26 makes abundantly clear, if the Israelites fail to let God live in their midst and if they break His commandments, then they will suffer from all manner of physical and psychological diseases, from tuberculosis to depression. Their enemies will smite them, wild animals will attack them, their livestock will die and their land will yield no crops. Buildings will collapse around them, the cities laid waste and the Israelites will be scattered among the nations. They will live in paranoid fear frightened even by the shaking of a leaf. If that were not enough, they will become cannibals and devour their own children.

It is a choice without an option. Israelites can either live as free men with secure and prosperous lives in bondage to their Lord or be destroyed as a nation and as healthy individuals. Slavery to another offers no positive inducements except survival. Bondage to the Lord freely undertaken offers enormous benefits. Not making that choice offers consequences far more dire than simply being enslaved by another human being.

It is important to link the bondage to the Lord in contrast to the bondage to other human beings to make clear that they are both forms of bondage, but with radically different outcomes. Further, the connection is important to discard all the Torah apologetics that, in the desire to portray Judaism as enlightened, want to rationalize slavery either as a concession to surrounding society until the ideal of emancipation could be realized while trying to be humane and limiting its injustices, or as a form of witnessing to a higher standard of ethical practice while engaged in slavery. The rationalizations are just so much hogwash. Jewish provisions for slavery may have been doctrinally much more moderate, but in behavioural terms, the treatment offered was just one variation among a wide spectrum of practices without any evidence that they offered the most enlightened form of servitude. Certainly Jews treated non-Jewish slaves somewhat differently for they were partially converted and, if freed by various routes, they could join the Jewish community as full citizens. Further, slaves could marry their masters. Ancient slavery, whether of Jews or non-Jews, was not based on a somatic racist presumption.

There were, nevertheless, other principles and conceptions that undermined the possibility of manumission than a somatic racist conception. Though Plato also did not have a racist view, and though slavery was a side consideration in his concerns, nevertheless, Plato depicted slavery as an intellectual deficiency. Slaves, in Gregory Vlastos’ depiction of Plato’s views, suffered from a deficiency of logos. A slave could comprehend and understand but only had doxa. Therefore, it was useless to reason with a slave. You merely issued orders and did not “spoil” them by admonitions or explanations. They were to be motivated by rewards and punishments, fair ones in each case, but through external pressures rather the any internal intellectual cultivation or intercourse.

This is not the view in Leviticus. Slaves from the surrounding tribes of Canaanites, even though treated differently than Jewish slaves, were regarded as fully human. They were not defined as inferior forms of being. Their situations, not their character as humans, differed. Aristotle, however he differed with Plato, and however more articulate his view of slaves, had a similar doctrine. In Book I, chapters ii-vii of his Politics and in Book VII of Nichomachean Ethics, slaves are depicted as slaves by nature fit only to be ruled and not rule. As men are to animals, so Greeks are towards Barbarians, those fit to rule and those fit to be ruled. Aristotle offered a more encompassing doctrine of slavery than simply a rule of treatment for those found to be slaves. The natural character of slaves determines their condition and not just their treatment. So obtaining a slave through war or economic destitution of the slave is not what provides any entitlement to own a slave. Rather, the relationship of the master to the slave is blamed on the nature of the slave.

In the second century BC, Cato the Elder offered a manual for how Romans should treat their slaves who probably constituted 30% of the population, a ratio akin to that of the upper south, such as the Virginias and the Carolinas, at the time of the American Civil War. They were to be given adequate provisions and clothing and drink to sustain life but not enough to support a family or to facilitate their reproduction, a situation very different from that described in Leviticus. On the other hand, Seneca, the Stoic, offered a perspective more akin to that of the ancient Israelites but even more “enlightened”. He not only considered slaves and free Romans to be equally human, but entitled to equal treatment. For all men, including Romans, were slaves. In Letter 47 to Lucilius, he wrote: “I am glad to learn…that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. This befits a sensible and well-educated man like yourself. ‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. ‘Slaves!’ No, comrades. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are unpretentious friends. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike. (my italics) That is why I smile at those who think it degrading for a man to dine with his slave.”
If we compare the position of Jews as slaves in Egypt to the position of Canaanite slaves in the Jewish community to the treatment by Jews of slaves in different parts of the modern world, we will perhaps understand the laws and ethical norms governing the ancient Israelites in a somewhat clearer light. For example, whereas slavery was very marginal to the economic life of American northerners in the nineteenth century who lived in a very racist society, it was not marginal to the Israelites but an integral part of their society.

In the Torah, 600,000 male heads of households purportedly conquered Canaan. For many, that figure seems implausible given that so many died of the plague before reaching the promised land and also contradicts other data, such as the actual census of first born and the number of men fit to do battle – about 40,000 according to Joshua (4:13). According to some commentators, the figure was only 600,000 if you count souls and not living men and include all the ancestors counting back to Abraham. The number of living returnees, including women and children, was likely about 120,000 rather than several million. On the other hand, if 600,000 represents all the living Israelites at the time of Exodus and, approximately the same number when they enter Canaan, then there were about 75,000 who could fight in battle but still not 600,000.

Whatever the absolute number, the Israelites outnumbered each of the Canaanite tribes including the Amorites, Hittites, Girgashites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites who, only when allied together, were larger than the numbers of Israelites. (Deuteronomy 7:1) The Israelites were in the same position as the Egyptians at the time of Exodus. Just as the tribes of Israel demographically threatened the Egyptians, the population indigenous to Canaan at the time the Israelites returned to the land threatened the population of Israelites, a situation not too dissimilar to the situation in Israel/Palestine/Jordan today.

If we compare the situation of the ratio of whites to black slaves in the early nineteenth century, the only equivalent to the situation of the Israelites, who can barely hold their own in numbers to the surrounding population, is the situation in the deep southern United States on the eve of the Civil War where the ratio of whites to blacks was about 56% to 44%. In the upper south, Blacks made up about 24% of the population while in the rest of the United States, Blacks were a relatively small minority. In contrast, in most of the Caribbean, Blacks constituted a vast majority. In Brazil, Blacks were a minority and did not threaten the white domination of the country.

Though there was a demographic battle for supremacy after the return of the Israelites to Canaan, akin to the demographic battle in the southern United States, the battle was exacerbated by the strict requirements of what was needed to keep the Israelites versus the southern whites united. In the latter case, it was race and the one drop rule. If you were part Black genetically, you were fully Black socially. The Whites only managed to keep their superior standing by huge efforts of oppression to keep family formation among Blacks very limited. In ancient Israel, the Israelites also cohabited with the local Canaanites and often took Canaanite wives. But the differences were not racial and Canaanites could become Israelites and Israelites intermarried and became Canaanites. Benjamites seemed to be the exception for they were not only the most formidable fighting force among the twelve tribes, but also the most inhospitable and insular tribe wary of intermarriage not only with Canaanites but even with members of the other Hebrew tribes until they were decimated in the civil war against the rest of the Israelites and forced to take non-Israelite wives.

Recall that Judges 3.5-3.7 reads:
5 The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. 6 They took the Canaanites’ daughters as wives and gave their daughters to the Canaanites; they worshiped their gods as well. 7 The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight. They forgot the Lord their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs.

Integration and assimilation are not values held to be worthy. Quite the reverse, they are the dangers. In modern Israel, the danger of intermarriage with the competing population of Palestinians is minimized by ideological politics and religious affiliation rather than by race. Further, the only demographic group that exceeds the rate of reproduction of the Palestinians is that group which is most inhospitable to integration and intermarriage – the ultra-orthodox.

So if you do not decimate the surrounding population and do not engage in ethnic cleansing, and if you do not choose to oppress them in other ways by limiting their ability to procreate, then that surrounding population will pose a demographic danger, especially if your group is the superior and more powerful group but allows extensive intermarriage, then your inherited group faces an existential danger. The standard laws of sociological behaviour will come into play as outward intermarriage by the downwardly mobile will exceed in-migration by the upwardly mobile. More and more members of your group will either adhere to the cultural practices of the competing group or, at the very least, lose the strength of the adherence to their own precepts which provided unity and strength for the dominant group. It is the law of revenge of the bondsmen against their masters. The more you succeed in mastering the norms of the dominant culture, the more you endanger the particularist norms of your sub-culture.

What are the choices? You can try to remain insular and ill-disposed to even co-habiting with those less rigid in their methods of group survival. You can focus on both reproduction and physical strength, which is what the orthodox in Israel have done and what the Haredim are about to do now that they will be forced to serve in both the army and the economic work force. They will surrender to the force of numbers but through numbers and strict enforcement of group norms, will seek to turn the tables on their in-group masters.

Why will the secular and modern lose out? After all, with their military prowess and with the amazing reputation as the start-up nation par excellence, Israel is now an economic and technological as well as military powerhouse, even further ahead in the new knowledge economy because of the high proportion of investment in human capital. As a result of the Israeli success combined with the success of those in the diaspora, even Greek socialists now regard Israel as a model according to Anna Diamentopolou, the Greek Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Religious Affairs.

Nevertheless, these successful secular Israelis and the majority of Jews in the diaspora will lose out, not as individuals, but as a culture and society. Their minority sub-culture will become a minor variation is a spectrum of the modern world. Jews and Israelis will have become a nation like every other nation. When Israel finally makes peace with all their neighbours and are freed of any crushing physical danger, the threat from without will become even stronger because of the attractions of the enlightenment values of the dominant imperial culture and the gradual surrender of the norms that provide their insularity as a group. If they choose to treat those with whom they intermarry in an “enlightened” way, by inviting them in to join the group instead of strict prohibitions against, then, simply statistically, the norms ensuring group coherence and, thereby, survival will grow weaker.

The diaspora has already lost the linguistic mode of group survival with the loss of Yiddish or Ladino and without replacing it with Hebrew as the group’s subculture’s language. Israelis in the next generation will continue to keep Hebrew as the language of their sub-culture and as an in-group language as they increasingly use English as the language of the dominant culture and of the global economy, especially as they pursue success in that dominant culture. Of course, Israel will be led by the educated elites, but also by the street through the message of music which can even penetrate the Satmar sect as the Israeli movie, God’s Neighbours illustrates. Just as the dominant economic market place has an invisible hand, the cunning of reason will operate as a pincer movement from both above and below to threaten group survival and instil a bifurcation of values in both the educated elites and in the street culture of even those who take pride in their survival skills as a tribe.

What are the real choices? If the majority of the elite, first in the diaspora and then in Israel, choose success as the cost of spiritual self-exile and gradual absorption into the dominant imperial high culture, then the sub-culture dies even if it retains a patina of difference. If those groups with the highest rate of reproduction are forced into a world that esteems physical prowess as its culture is subverted through the music of the streets, then the sub-culture will survive but will eventually go to war with the dominant indigenous imperial culture and that civil war will make the war with the Palestinians seem like a piece of cake. For Civil Wars are the most cruel and ruthless.

This jeremiad as humankind is in the process of making its next greatest advance that inherently must entail the rejection of tradition and particularism, and that especially threatens the Jews as a sub-culture who sustained their identity by becoming a community of memory while also mastering the dominant culture, need not take place. But until the Jews in the diaspora and Israelis learn to become one at the same time as they develop a new form of dualism, a schizophrenia that allows them to be both moderns and a community of memory at one and the same time, neither Jews not Israelis will survive as a sub-culture. But whatever the fearsome prognostications facing Israelis, they will survive longer as a substantive sub-culture than the enlightened Jews of the diaspora.

Review: The Whipping Man

The Whipping Man


Howard Adelman

For a while, particularly at the end of the eighties, one of the scourges of anti-Semitism was the big lie that Jews were prominent in America and the Caribbean as slave traders and sellers or, at the very least as financiers of that trade and exchange. (Cf. The Nation of Islam (1991) The Secret relationship between Blacks and Jews) During the nineties, research and a series of academic books and articles demolished this canard. (For one of the earliest, cf. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1992) "Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars," The New York Times, 20 July, A15) Jews were involved in all aspects of the slave trade, but their role was relatively miniscule.

The same is true of slave ownership. Only 15,000 Jews, though some estimates go as high as 25,000 (Robert N. Rosen (2000) The Jewish Confederates), lived in the confederate states when the American Civil War erupted. Of those, Jews who owned slaves were overwhelmingly urban; they held slaves as domestic servants. However, 90% of the American slave population worked on plantations. Among plantation owners, of 11,000 significant slave holders, only four or less than 0.04% were recorded as Jews. Thus, of almost 4,000,000 slaves, 3,600,000 of whom lived on plantations, Jews may have owned relatively few slaves, but those numbers on the four plantations numbered possibly as high as fifteen hundred altogether. The Whipping Man, a play by Matthew Lopez directed by Philip Akin and a joint venture of two theatre companies, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Obsidian, a Black theatre company, is set on a fictional version of one of these four Jewish plantations. The play is currently on stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Further, in the play, the slaves, though not converted to Judaism, were raised as Jews, a practice totally consistent with Jewish teaching. Deuteronomy 16:14 reads: "And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates." Servants or slaves (ebed) were expected to participate in all festivals and especially expected to honour shabat, an instruction many Jews in Toronto with nannies might find surprising. Further, there were specific rules laid down about their treatment. Slaves could not be overworked. On the other hand, they could be legally held as property and sold and bought. That in itself presents a conundrum for Jews celebrating Passover and their own escape from slavery.

Lopez` play is not the first work of fiction to take up this setting. Alan Cheuse used it in his novel, Songs of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild dealing with a slave girl growing up on a rice plantation and her involvement with a slave-owning Jewish family. Cheuse in interviews said that he got his idea from a period when he went to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, joined a Jewish fraternity and met the President who was Black, Len Jeffries, who afterwards went onto a distinguished academic career. Cheuse set his novel in pre-Civil War South; Lopez set his play in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. There are no notes in the theatre program to indicate where Lopez got his very clever idea to juxtapose a Passover seder held by observant slaves on a Jewish plantation after the end of the Civil War.

The first day of Passover in 1865 was 11 April. It was a Tuesday. The Civil War had started four years earlier on 12 April 1861. After the decisive victory of Union forces at the Battle of Five Forks on 1 April, after desertions and casualties from the Confederate Army became massive after being attacked by Major General Philip Sutherland leading a Union army of 50,000, five times the size of his decimated and demoralized force, General Robert E. Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Lee surrendered in Northern Virginia on Sunday, 9 April at McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court to General Ulysses S. Grant, 36 hours before the first seder was scheduled to be held. Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed on Good Friday, 14 April of that week. In the play, the Passover seder is held on the Friday evening when the shabat meal is also scheduled to accommodate the news that Father Abraham, as Simon calls him in the play, was shot.

One of those deserters from Richmond is fictionalized as Captain Caleb DeLeon, the son of a Jewish plantation owner who arrives at the destroyed plantation house at the opening of the play. 10,000 Jews served on both sides of the Civil War and they suffered casualties in the same enormous ratios as the rest of the population. Caleb has arrived home over a week after he was wounded. The bullet is still in his leg which has become gangrenous. In the opening of the second act, Caleb stands unwounded, an apparition of his previous existence as a soldier, to read one of his love letters sent home to his lover describing the horrors of the war in general and of Petersburg in particular probably drawn either from J. Tracy Power’s 1998 collection of Confederate soldiers` letters and diaries, Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox or Robert Alexander`s more recent 2003 collection, Five Forks: Waterloo of the Confederacy which intersperses diary and letter entries with the author`s own impressions.The Petersburg National Battlefield Memorial site which has diary entries and letters on display is well worth a visit to get a sense of the enormous horrors of that battle.

The opening battle scene of Stephen Spielberg`s movie is set at the Battle of Jenkin`s Ferry, one year earlier, to fit the timeline of the movie. Instead of the realism of Spielberg`s Saving Private Ryan depicting Omaha Beach on D-Day, this famous director offered a far more surrealistic and evocative portrayal of close-quarter fighting in the deep mud of battle, a vision that could only be hinted at in the play when Caleb read from the letter he sent. But it was the same vision and would helped us in the audience identify with Caleb`s suffering if the scene had come earlier in the play.

After all, the play is a juxtaposition of two sides of the Civil War, Black slaves who identified with the Union versus their former masters, in this case, the Jewish son of a Jewish plantation owner. The slaves are celebrating Passover and this year in Jerusalem for they have been emancipated by Father Abraham who was assassinated two weeks after the end of the Civil War near the end of the play. Caleb, on the other hand, has lost his faith after the horrors of the war as well as his status as the owner and commander of the behaviour of his former slaves.

The play is totally plot driven so one cannot review the production adequately without giving away that plot. From the audience reaction at the end – they gave the performers a standing ovation – and the personal comments of friends whom we met coincidentally after the play, the audience loved the play and its production. I found Sterling Jarvis who plays Simon, the older Black Plantation quasi-manager, who saves Caleb`s life and initiates the seder, to have offered a stellar performance, though one individual after the play complained that it was difficult for her to follow all his dialogue because he tended to mumble into his chest rather than project. I myself had no such difficulty.

Robert Crew in his Toronto Star review of 20 March, after noting the oft-repeated notes of the publicity that Lopez`play has been one of the most frequently produced plays since it was first staged in 2006, comments that Lopez skillfully unveils "revelation after revelation. And director Philip Akin keeps the audience engaged to the very end, when a final skeleton exits the closet." That is indeed how the play works, not by character development or thematic exploration, but by plot revelation of hidden secrets around the central theme of remembering as a way of rediscovering and recovering freedom. Crew concludes, "It’s a solid piece of theatre, fast-moving and entertaining yet offering some knotty little questions to ponder." Though I did agree with his criticisms of the credibility of Brett Donahue`s performance of Caleb, I came away as a tiny dissenting minority about both the general quality of the play with a few criticisms of the production itself.

However, mine is clearly a very minority view. Gregory Bunker in his review, "Spinning Slavery" thought the play explored "the notion that a religion with the history and pride of escaping slavery could be kosher with imposing such chains on others," whereas I saw this as merely the clever occasion of the play while it tried to probe deeper into a notion of bondage tied to memory that both frees and ties one down. In Bunker`s view, the three players, "With the help of innumerable bottles of whisky…begin to open up and clean the festering wound of slavery." Instead, I saw the author as celebrating Judaism as a questioning religion and using that to probe deeper and raise even more questions about the after effects of slavery on the psyche as well as the body politic. Bunker concluded, "The Whipping Man is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking play about overlapping identities, their complexities, paradoxes, incompatibilities, and their resolutions. For its polish and novel, well-written story, The Whipping Man is a drama to be seen." I would agree that the play is worth seeing, but not for the same reasons.

The director, Philip Atkin, from his remarks on line clearly understood that the play was not about resolutions. "I love plays that focus us inexorably on those crucial moments in time. That dive deep and open up big questions. I love that both of our plays this season do not dwell in the cult of the answer but reside firmly in the cult of the question. And it is with those questions that we bring who we are into the theatre and are forced to engage one on one with what is being asked." (The Charlebois Post, http://www.charpo-canada.com/2013/03/first-person-director-philip-akin-on.html) Atkin was clearly surprised by the reaction of a Jewish audience – which last night seemed to be overwhelmingly Jewish – that was so discomfited by part of their history that they did not seem to know when Blacks were enslaved by Jews. So how did they reconcile their discomfort with their enthusiasm for the play? Was that enthusiasm in part a liberal reaction to that discomfort?

In my own view, the play, as I said above, was plot-driven. The need to uncover revelation after revelation to drive the plot prevented the deeper exploration of the questions and themes raised – whether of lords and bondsmen, mastery and slavery, memory used to recall slavery and celebrate freedom and memory used to reinforce bondage and inhibit freedom, Judaism as a religion of questioning and Jews as a group who have the opposite propensity of denial and not coming face to face with their own past and even the injustices written into the Haggadah read at Passover.

Lynn Slotkin in her review on the radio on CIUT`s morning show on 23 March described the joint effort of two production companies "as a very fine production directed with tremendous style, energy and intelligence by Philip Akin…that echoes the plight of two peoples—Jews and blacks—and shows how they are so similar. The play is gripping in its story-telling; full-bodied in its characters; and compelling in what it has to say about freedom, choice, moral fibre and responsibility. Simon often asks John is he a slave or a Jew? I love that distinction and it reverberates in this play." I myself found the story telling to be predictable, the plot devices contrived, arbitrary and generally unnecessary, the characters left undeveloped and unaltered, and the themes pronounced but unexplored.

Sonia Borkar in her review may have grasped the source of enchantment of the play. As she wrote, "The show is so intense and sucks you in from the moment the lights go down.

I found this show interesting on so many levels because I don’t know much about American History or the Jewish culture and to watch something where they both intersect was fascinating to me." Gentile and non-Jewish audiences are evidently most fascinated by the makeshift seder in the second act. As Borkar wrote, "For me it was ironic to see an enslaved Jewish black man singing about the struggles of freedom the Jews had endured when they fled Egypt and the parallels to his own life. Simon’s faith now made complete sense to me. All these centuries later he was still a Jewish man fighting for his freedom. It’s also an interesting commentary on human nature to see a culture that survives slavery then enslaves another."


Borkar encouraged everyone to see the show. "The script is great, the acting and direction are fantastic, the set couldn’t be more fitting and the trek is more than worth it. And if you don’t know much about the subject matter you will still be moved to tears and definitely learn a little bit about an important slice of history." I found the script contrived and the set a representation of the interior of a Toronto home, except for one small Doric column, rather than of an impressive huge plantation home. However, the direction is indeed excellent. The acting of Sterling Jarvis is outstanding. Thomas Olajide tried mightily and with great skill to reconcile the scholarly and studious side of John with his scallywag character and huge repressed rage, but here I found the inadequacy lay in the play for, given the material, I could not imagine how to make these tensions into a coherent character – the studious John is sacrificed to the scoundrel with the memory of Caleb`s betrayal and John`s whipping as the explanation for an unstoppable rage serving as a cover to bottle up and then explode the perilous contradictions.

Finally, I do not expect plays or movies to teach us history, but they can induce one to look into history. The play certainly succeeds on that level. The program notes could have helped if a full page had been devoted to providing some historical background or even if a simple timeline of the two weeks covered by the play could have been included.