02/22/21

Deal No Deal

Tessa Morris-Suzuki writing in the Asia-Pacific Journal has drawn most of the possible educational value from J. Mark Ramseyer’s article on contracts signed by wartime “comfort women.” As Ramseyer’s article contends that the women entered into these contracts of their own free will, the implication is that there is nothing to get excited about, no harm done and nothing for successive Japanese governments to apologize for. Most of the response to Ramseyer’s article, now withdrawn, has dwelt on the obvious causes of outrage: the insult to the women’s memory, the minimizing of the harm done to vulnerable people, the reiteration, by the analysis, of an imperial bureaucracy’s devaluing of the lives of women deemed inferior (by class or nationality) to those to be “comforted.” It’s the kind of thing that attracts immediate emotional investment. And Ramseyer has gone this way before, so he obviously could have anticipated, maybe welcomed, the reaction. (A working paper on the same subject dwells on the cabal of “activist historians” and “leftists” whom he sees as having precipitated a “pile-on” and “censorship” of contrary views.) Some have suspected him of doing the bidding of nefarious and shadowy nationalists who resent Koreans, feminists, historians, and the like. Rather than raging at the scholar on moral grounds, Morris-Suzuki examines the scholarship and finds it flawed. This sets up Ramseyer to be critiqued, not for having the wrong opinion about comfort women (he’s entitled to his opinion however dismal it may be), but for ignoring, cherry-picking, and cooking the evidence in order to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Why, I wonder, is that conclusion so valuable to him that he would undermine his own good name for it?

I suspect it’s an error to assume that Ramseyer’s aim is to curry favor with irredentist or revanchist elements of the Japanese political spectrum. Maybe it was; but that’s small potatoes and impugns only himself. More consequentially, I think, we can seek a motive in the desire to demonstrate, through this unpromising example, “basic game theoretic principles of credible commitments” (“Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” p. 7). For rational-choice theorists, every person is a free agent making bargains based on the best available information. Thus, if you’re a country girl from a family deep in debt, and someone comes along offering you a vaguely-worded contract for three years’ service as a “hostess” with payment up front, it’s your own problem if you find yourself a few weeks later in Rangoon or Shanghai receiving “visits” from twenty-five or thirty soldiers every day with no option of calling it quits. For rational-choice theorists, “whatever is, is right.” I wonder if Ramseyer has similar views on deceptive contracts in our own time and place — is the mere fact of a signature on a piece of paper adequate proof of legality? There are a lot of historical injustices out there that could be papered over in this way, sir; when you’re done squeezing all human history through the sieve of rational choice, there won’t be anything to get mad at.

Mindful of the gallery, Ramseyer even throws in a nod to “the intelligence and resourcefulness of the women involved” (p. 2). Oh yes, agency! We love that stuff. Especially when it puts the victims on the hook for their own troubles.

02/15/21

Peter Esty, Xavier Franque, obierunt 2021

The pandemic continues gnawing at the flesh of our society. In recent weeks it’s claimed a number of people who had little in common apart from being (for me, First-Person Narrator of this piece) adults and guides, people I was close to in the generation above mine. Just as when you lose your parents (Oscar Wilde reference please, to lighten the tone!*), the disappearance of these people makes it seem that part of the fence holding you back from the cliff’s edge has collapsed. I mentioned Hillis Miller the other day; now for two more I knew much better.

Peter Esty was my English teacher in my first year at Deerfield. I must have been a cranky subject. Mouth full of provincial accent, obsessive with a few literary references bigger than my britches (Dante, Milton, Yeats, Faulkner), ready to argue with, or rather monologue at, all and sundry, I needed taking down a peg. And Peter did that with such humor and grace that I didn’t notice it happening. My papers (typed; teachers had complained about my handwriting and I liked taking on the air of a pro) on Macbeth, Portrait of a Lady, and Ambrose Bierce stories came back with marginal notes that were masterpieces of the art of deflection–of deflecting a kid who was taking himself too seriously. A joke here, a ?! there, a “did you notice…” in another place, were Peter’s way of reminding me to take the time to listen to what the author and the characters had to say, as we should all listen to what other people have to say and, if we can, give them back something they weren’t expecting and possibly didn’t deserve. Unlike many in the teaching profession, Peter had spent ten years outside in the fresh air, working for Proctor & Gamble, and came back to the classroom with the certainty that that is where he wanted to be. He liked kids and he liked books. When I showed him my poems and stories, he pretended to appreciate them as a book-liker but I think he mainly saw them as a piece of the development of a kid he was determined to like. This was charitable of him in a way I couldn’t have seen rightly then.

I was determined not to get along with people (already something of a habit with me) and Peter’s diplomacy was essential to my having a successful second year, when I and a dozen other boys occupied the dorm part of a house with the Esty family on the ground floor. And when I had the lucky break of getting accepted to School Year Abroad (thus avoiding the third year of Deerfield), a further piece of luck was that the Estys were going too, Peter having been chosen as that year’s English teacher for the thirty or so American kids on the voyage. I remember hanging out in Normandy, poking around the Paris flea markets, and walking over the Cathar strongholds in the south, with Peter and various of his brood. Being in France was good for me. I had a chance to start over again. The things that made me hard to get along with didn’t matter so much there, or could be put down to general cultural difference. And French kids didn’t mind arguing about poetry and ethics and culture, however bizarre my starting assumptions must have seemed to them. I decided to petition to skip senior year, and I suspect Peter had a role in my petition being granted. It probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to try to fit me back in the old bottle for a year anyway, after being in France. Forty years of subsequent experience have given me some insight into the subtle, behind-the-scenes ways capable adults can influence a kid’s path.

Xavier was one of the people I got to know that year in France (it was 1976-77, for the paleontologists in the audience). The Desgrées du Loû family had an admirable tradition of hospitality, shown for example by hiding an American parachutist who’d landed on somebody’s potato field a few months before D-Day. Or there was the Polish teenager, Stachek, whose arm had been shot off in a battle, and who somehow found himself in rural Brittany and stayed with them for the duration of the war. As their numerous children grew up and moved away (most often to Paris, as Bretons must do) François and Anne Desgrées du Loû invited students into the empty bedrooms, which is how I, a fumbling, easily embarrassed stranger who understood three words out of ten of what was being said, came to be part of their family dinners. My first night there, a long and passionate discussion took place about who was greater, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. I couldn’t really join in but I knew these were the people for me.

Tynane (Anne-Françoise), the eldest daughter, lived around the corner with her husband, Xavier, and their three small children. Xavier had been working for Citroën and was just about to strike out on his own as a designer of electricity-generating windmills. His Aéroturbine was about the size and shape of a well-fed dolphin with a propeller on its nose and swiveled at the top of a steel stanchion about as long as a telephone pole. It could be swung down for repairs and was meant to be self-contained. It was ahead of its time and, I believe, rubbed the French electricity-generating monopoly the wrong way. The drawings for it were elegant, a mode of persuasion in their own right. Xavier traveled in France and abroad trying to get his invention installed. I thought I had found an ideal location, a hilltop medical center in Haiti without, at the time, a connection to the national grid. For various insurmountable reasons that installation never came to pass, but I think Xavier would have loved the Haitians, with their matter-of-fact piety, their creative exuberance, their love of rhetorical precision.

For Xavier was an engineer with an artist’s eye. He loved Italy for the way industrial objects there were never allowed to be ugly, as if ugliness would proclaim their adherence to mere function: it cost nothing more to make a Ducati Mach 1 or an Olivetti typewriter elegant, so why not do it? Design should never punish people for buying at the bottom of the scale, if they had to. His shed was full of machines in various stages of assembly and disassembly, including a couple of Citroën “spacecraft” cars, the DS and ID models that Roland Barthes commented on disparagingly for their exquisitely organic-seeming smoothness. For Xavier they represented a bygone era of French design, when designers weren’t afraid to defy the consensus and test out new solutions (like the DS’s central hydraulic system that replaced springs and shocks). He felt himself, I think, increasingly locked out of the mainstream of engineering and industrial production as economies of scale came to dominate all design choices. The Aéroturbine was his struggle to prove schlocky averageness wrong.

With Bob Lange, Bryan Simmons and other friends, I experienced a hospitality like no other among these people. Tynane, her parents, and many members of the family have been the readers I think about when I write, in whatever language (even Chinese), and the friends I seek out on the slightest pretext. They are good to be with, to talk with, to think with. Xavier’s hospitality extended to loaning me his beautiful red Olivetti manual typewriter in the summer of 1981 when I was banging out the first drafts of what became The Ethnography of Rhythm. I stupidly tried to clean it with “white spirit” (i.e., turpentine; if it had been labelled in English I would have known better than to use it) and marred the paint. This did not deter Xavier, a few months later, from contributing his welding talents to the fashioning of a long-distance touring bike out of a second-hand maybe-Peugeot. I needed a baggage rack and couldn’t find a solid enough one in the stores. Xavier, the champion bricoleur, liberated some steel tubing from a harvester, I think, and spot-welded it onto the seat stays. It lasted me all the way to Athens.

Courtly, inflexible on certain things, he saw himself in the role of Cyrano, that nostalgic swashbuckler. Tynane (on whom more pages must and shall be written) saved him from Engineer’s Disease as well as from the Antimodernism so well described by Antoine Compagnon. Tynane’s sense of faith and morals was more accommodating, less black-and-white, and her trust in the people she loved preserved their circle of international friends from sectarianism. For example, it was impossible for many years for Xavier to accept the existence of Bryan and Ralph as a couple, and I praise Bryan for never giving up. Tynane and Xavier enlarged the world of us foreigners with their unquestioning welcome, and I’d like to think that we made their world a little bigger too, kept them from sliding into Vieille-France nostalgia and pre-Vatican-II rigor.

At any rate, these are some of the people who educated me, or made me the sort of person who can be educated. Praise to them. And deep curses on Covid, the taker-away of good things.

  • Lady Bracknell: “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The Importance of Being Earnest, act I.
02/8/21

Hillis Miller

I just learned that Hillis Miller has died from Covid-19, at upwards of 90 years of age. He taught practically everybody in one way or another. And among his many life-changing deeds (life-changing for me anyway), he kept me in graduate school.

I was one of a too-big litter of young deconstructors in the Comparative Literature department at Yale in 1982. I had done all right, I think, in my first year, though I never heard much from faculty one way or the other. In winter of that first year I learned I had a fellowship to study in Taiwan. I told the dean, who promptly urged the department to terminate me on the grounds that “Chinese is not a Comp Lit language.” Hillis was Director of Graduate Studies and walked with me over to the dean’s office. I remember the red and blue oriental rug and Hillis’s folksy, joshing way with the dean: “It’s true, we don’t know what will come of this, but let’s give him a chance; he may never come back, but at least he’ll have tried something other people aren’t doing.” He succeeded, at least conditionally. That dean stepped down while I was away and no one ever contested my right to come back and finish my degree.

Hillis plucked me out of the discard pile. I will always be grateful. He was also one of the most graceful, attentive, constructive people who ever attended an academic conference. He wielded power, in the sense that scholars have power to make decisions about others’ careers, but wisely and gently.

02/6/21

Evasive Passive: Grand Prize

Here at the Nitpicker Grammarians and Style Sheet Hardliners (Amalgamated) Union, we had been thinking of “Mistakes were made” as the classic expression of the type, but that traditional favorite now has to move over for the cognitive-epistemic variety enunciated recently by Marjorie Taylor Greene: “I was allowed to believe lies.” Allowed by whom? — not by yourself, surely, for that would be admitting agency and responsibility… But hold on: aren’t you the gatekeeper of your own brain? (In whatever sense a “you” exists.) Or did the Rothschild lasers get in there and start fooling with your neurons? The progress of human discourse toward its final state of grayish slush has taken a great step. Or should I say, a great step has been taken?

02/6/21

School of the Ages

Dreamt last night that I received a package from my erstwhile neighbor Jeannie Bloom. In it were hundreds of sheets of foolscap covered with intricate sketches in fine-point black ink: characters from Shakespeare, the Bible, Dostoevsky, and so forth, linked in an unending procession of conversation. They were beautifully free and loose in their execution, characters individuated by gesture though not by face. I somehow understood that these were to have been a fresco painted on miles of wall, Harold’s unfinished life work. Rest well, Harold.

01/28/21

Cognitive racism

The other day I was asked to review a manuscript that cited (as an authority) Hajime Nakamura’s Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples–a book I hadn’t thought about for forty years or so. From it you learn that Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Tibetans, etc., can’t think logically or metaphysically the way Europeans can. Already as a curious twenty-year-old, I recoiled from it as from a bad smell.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been called Ways of Speaking of Eastern Peoples.

“You’re not a fish, so how do you know how the fish feel?”

“You’re not me, so how do you know I’m not a fish?”

01/20/21

Die Strahlen der Sonne

… vertreiben die Nacht. Everyone who’s read Freud knows how precarious “Vertreibung” is. But here we are, at last.

You’ll have to supply the green helicopter and Javanka from your imagination. The potbellied liar and the Ice Queen are provided, though.

01/17/21

Horseshoe

My favorite hangout in Paris and an observation about politics that Jean-Pierre Faye made long ago have the same name: “horseshoe.”

I haven’t taken surveys but I’m not convinced the seating of clients in this hemicycle reflects any particular ideological landscape.

But I would add in supplement to Faye’s observation that an appetite for violent overthrow may be the main thing that unites the supposedly opposite ends of the horseshoe.

01/11/21

For everything there is a season

The failed lynching (that’s what we should call it, by the way, not a “protest,” a “riot” or even a “coup”) at the Capitol the other day brought out a lot of soul-searching among my media-posting friends. One friend’s hot take began:

This country was founded on violence. It rules through violence. It projects its influence abroad through violence. How can we be shocked when a faction of the country turns violent if it doesn’t get its way? 

The main difference between this violence and the violence of the past months is who’s carrying it out and who it’s pointed at. 

I can’t in good conscience say this is wholly wrong, but it is certainly unseasonable. I happen to know this person well enough to be able to frame his remarks as a general expression of despair about the state of things in this country, an intended reckoning for our many collective crimes, starting with chattel slavery and its endless echoes. But let’s hold back from slapping an intentional frame around the words, and imagine them spoken by someone else– say the cosplayer in the buffalo suit, or a PR flack on Fox News. “This country was founded on violence” — so what are you complaining about? Wasn’t the Boston Tea Party a case of breaking and entering and property destruction carried out by costumed thugs? If this country is founded on violence, and its fundamentally vicious system can’t be repaired, then why make these “fine people” carry the blame for a momentary expression of these structural conditions? — And so on. The overarching claim nullifies the particular scandal that is this event.

Rhetorically, this is a big misstep. If you want the failed lynching to serve as an occasion for sermonizing the public, you need to frame it as a specific instance of horror, unprecedented since the institution of universal suffrage and civil-rights guarantees, that must not be repeated. You can’t say it’s business as usual. Otherwise we are stuck with the writer’s halfway conclusion, that the only noteworthy thing about this chaos is “who’s carrying it out and who it’s pointed at.”

No. Once you begin to personalize the event, we’re stuck with a bad set of alternatives. So breaking into a public building with the intent to kill people and take hostages is okay if it’s done by people of whom I generally approve, against people of whom I generally disapprove? If there is to be a law, it has to be articulated impersonally. Whoever does X, commits a crime. Did they do X? Okay then, they committed a crime, and from that point of view it doesn’t matter in the name of what they did it. There may be extenuating circumstances, but let’s have them, too, articulated in an objective and impersonal fashion, rather than as a personal exemption for supporters of favored causes.

“Violence” is such a broad term that it is useless for thinking with. Broken windows on Michigan Avenue, a fistfight in a hallway, a cop beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, an improvised gallows set up on the National Mall, these are all arguably instances of violence, but they ought each to be investigated, deplored, punished and thought about in specific ways. And don’t get me started on the structural violence of deprivation, fear, ignorance, disease, inequality and shortened lives, which is violence too but is too often accepted as the way of the world.

So we need to separate out the particular factors that make this the scandal that it is, and not endorse any narrative that makes it business as usual (or, worse, a pattern for future events). And push hard, with the law, on the people who did it and the ones who egged them on.

About law, by the way, I see the “main difference” between the January 6 lynch mob and the BLM protesters across the country as bearing on the law. The BLM folks were demanding that law be obeyed. It should be uncontroversial to any observer that the laws of the land carry more authority than the momentary impulse of any scared policeman with a gun. Whereas the January 6 thugs were rebelling against the law, against a huge body of settled law that preserves us from, precisely, the state of lawlessness. If you want a contrast, that’s where to find it.

My friend’s reflection continued.

My sympathies were with the BLM protesters and are against today’s yahoos, but both have to be considered illegitimate (non-state-sanctioned) violence. 

Oh, wait, today’s violence was incited by our current president! The duly elected leader of our cult of violence.

How are we supposed to process this?

Friend, let’s pause and repair this helicopter in mid-air. You really shouldn’t follow the previous point and make the difference between the two gangs a matter of your “sympathies,” as if it rested on taste or preference, Coke or Pepsi, Pat Boone or Sid Vicious. That just makes any attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice a hollow farce, because, as you’re admitting, it’s all the same and it’s just a Humpty-Dumpty matter of who’s sitting in the judgment seat. Don’t give up so fast, I say.

Then the closing remarks, which may be meant ironically (poor choice of rhetorical figure in a time of crisis; irony is meant to create doubt, whereas what’s required here is a shot of good old unanimous certainty), shore up the legitimacy of Trump’s summons to violence, first by calling him “duly elected” and then by dissolving his particularity in the everlasting national wave of violence. A reminder: he may have been elected by a majority of Electoral College votes in 2016 (we’ll take complaints about the College another time), and his predecessor quite honorably accepted the outcome (though he, and I, and millions of other Americans weren’t happy about it), but in early 2021 he was the outgoing, defeated president, legally required to honor the will of the people and nonetheless attempting to overwhelm Congress with chaos, suspend the law, and reinstall himself as president-for-life. Nothing about that is qualifiable with the adverb “duly.”

“How are we supposed to process this?” I’ve given some hints above. The world is full of wicked people, friend. Most people will do whatever you let them get away with. Thomas Hobbes thought tyranny was better than chaos. But there are better alternatives. Imperfect though it is, a clearly stated system of laws, provision for trials based on evidence and judged by people held to a standard of impartiality, a democratic right to peaceable expression through balloting and other means, and a reasonable expectation that criminals will be brought to justice, all this is what we have, for the moment, in this country, and it’s really not something you want to throw away, even for the space of an emotional utterance to your social-media circle. We came close to having all that taken away on January 6. Who knows what would have happened if the most determined and expert members of the mob had succeeded in, say, hanging Mike Pence, shooting Nancy Pelosi, taking other Congresspeople hostage, and doing further things they declared their intent to do? Let me tell you how we are supposed to process this: as an invasion of our democracy by enemy powers who must be captured (technically: arrested) and put away (observing their right to a fair and speedy trial, etc.). Not so hard after all when you put aside the crude alternatives of “America good / America bad.”

The above-mentioned liberties are, I know, more theoretical than practical at present. But the only way forward is to defend them rigorously and make them practical for everybody. Don’t give up on a good principle just because it was poorly executed. If you had only my piano playing to go on, you would think J. S. Bach was the worst composer who ever lived. But he wasn’t.

12/30/20

Figure You’re in the Mood?

All animals having the rational faculty are encouraged to get russelling and shine their fregean shoes, no contradictories to the contrary, and peano attention to the ~sayers. Loosen your gödel, break out the Leibniz-Keks for World Logic Day! Special appearances by Barbara Felapton and the Holy Modal Predicators! It’s two weeks into the future, like certain sea battles I could name, and iff you are not petrified by the thought (n.b. nullus homo est lapis, id est, omnis homo est non-lapis), come celebrate on January 14.

12/26/20

Blog Lag

I haven’t been writing much on this blog for quite some time. I’m sorry about that. Here are some of the reasons.

Printculture began as a kind of conversation among five or six people. Some knew each other, some didn’t. Eric, I think, was the one friend common to us all. Our postings, in the form of little essays and reflections, were offered the way people contribute to a conversation: sharing a piece of knowledge, riffing on something someone had said, making a joke. At the back of it all was a feeling that conversation was intrinsically rewarding and that this conversation in particular was rewarding enough to hang it up for the public to see.

I still live for conversation but I’m increasingly disappointed in it. The people I know often seem deaf to one another. Their curiosity about the world has yielded to confirmation bias. They deliver identity monologues, infotainment, talking points, questions with an already known answer. Even the people I like and agree with are melting into their mission statements. All this is perfectly adapted to social media, where we are perpetually curating our personal brands. If those are the terms, I lack the desire to participate.

Reading the news, as I’ve been doing forty times a day for the last few years (the nervous pulling of phone from pocket having replaced the newspaper at the breakfast table), doesn’t make it seem that rational persuasion has much of a future, or that such persuasion as I have to offer has much of an audience.

I like solving intellectual puzzles. How to better understand history and nature? How to confront the unexpected? How to make it possible for more people to live long, free, and perhaps happy lives? I don’t like comic books, beauty pageants, name-calling, blame, or trolling. The interests that make those things vital to the cultural life of this moment in my country leave me cold. Thus there is less and less to say to people in general. (I am always up for a chat about Tangut script or the authenticity of poems ascribed to Su Dongpo.)

But I continue to renew hosting agreements and SSL certificates in the hope that something will bring me back.


(The above was written after an eight-month break from social media. Try it yourself: when you log on again the quality of communication, in contrast with the most banal words exchanged on the street or at the cash register, will jar you.)

11/18/20

Hathor

Elections: the dog who wouldn’t go! Coda: what do we do with millions on millions of brainwashed people who are likely going to be told to subvert the government? Biden says they’re “good people who want answers.” That’s like saying that the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf were good people who only wanted theological certainty. God had plans for them.

10/2/20

Mightier than the smallest child

For months, I’ve been seeing ads for the Mightier unpleasant-parental-experience-killer. And that’s just how it’s marketed: it allegedly reduces children’s symptoms of negative and angry emotions that would disturb parents. (1) What if these emotions and outbursts are completely justified, and the kids are being trained to suppress themselves? (2) What happens when kids compare notes and figure all this out — that it’s an attempt to control them using biofeedback technology?

I should add that there is something completely stupid about parents buying magic boxes that are going to enable them to control their children. Those kids are going to figure out how the boxes work and route around them. The last such brilliant idea was called Circle, which paid startup cash for an endorsement from Disney. Circle was supposed to monitor and parcel out children’s Internet use no matter what device they connected from. It even had a battery in case kids tried to pull the cord out of the wall. Fortunately for kids, the website told exactly how it worked — a hacker trick where the box-in-the-middle pretends to be the way out to the Internet. This hacker trick (ARP cache poisoning) was such a scourge years ago that there are thousands of web pages telling exactly how to defeat it. Now the kids can monitor their parents’ Internet use through the admin app, which will lead to some interesting conversations around the dinner table. “Mommy, how can you say we don’t have enough money to get me a new iPad when you spent $2,600 this month on a purse from 1stdibs.com?” “Dad, I hope you’re enjoying those educational videos of Balinese dancers on XXXoticdancrs.com. Is ‘Wendy Whoppers’ a Balinese name?” That white Circle box will be out with the e-waste in the morning.

09/2/20

Retrospect

I have been reading a surprisingly good book by Sam Rosenfeld, The Polarizers. A phrase from it explains precisely how Biden won the nomination: “non-ideological patronage organizations.” In short, these are organizations that can deliver bloc votes, originally ethnic, now religious, or civil society. The DNC cultivated churches and neighborhood organizations for decades, gracing them with $1,000 there, $5,000 here. Then it was time to call in the chips, and these areas all miraculously turned out for Biden. There was no air left in the room for Sanders, Warren, or anyone else. It was retail politics at its rock-bottom — no adroit trickery — and it worked. Now we’ve got someone two answers away from Trump on the cognitive function test, and we’re going to have to work that much harder to dig ourselves out.

09/1/20

So call me hysterical

I’m one of those so-called “real Americans” (family here since the late 1600s, etc.). (I take strong objection to the term “real” in this context, but let that alone for now.) But by marriage, friendship, and profession I am tightly linked to a lot of survivors of authoritarianism, and I’m inclined to believe this open letter over the “oh come on, it will blow over” school of clueless optimists to which I, by habit and inclination, would otherwise belong.

08/29/20

D’var Torah

For the past couple of months, I have been praying with a minyan. A minyan is a quorum of at least ten Jewish men and women who get together every weekday to pray one or more of the day’s three services. Having at least ten means that certain prayers can be recited, most notably the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. In a way, we’re all doing this for the mourners, who need the minyan to fulfill the commandment; they now have help. But the minyan helps me, too. I have family and friends who are sick, and there are prayers I can recite to their benefit. I have seven on my list, from my brother, who is working hard to recover from a serious stroke, to a little, smiling, energetic girl — think Shirley Temple — who has a line sticking out of her dress that will accept 15 months of chemo.

The weekday afternoon and evening services are all business; the first one starts at 6 and ends at 6:15; the second one goes from then until 6:30. Only the basics, recited at a speed that would cause the Federal Express Guy to break a sweat. In between, someone will give a D’var Torah, a little observation on the weekly Torah portion, this one known by its first words as Ki Tetzei. I tried for the first time on Thursday night, and here is what I came up with:

Hi, Minyan!

Today I read the late Rabbi Steinsaltz’s essay on Ki Tetzei. As usual, it was far more erudite and eloquent than I could ever hope to be. But it raised an interesting point. Rabbi Steinsaltz notes Ki Tetzei consists of a bunch of mitzvot that are in no particular order, from scaring off a mother bird so you can take its chicks, to stoning your disobedient son. The first shows tenderness; the latter shows mercilessness. Rabbi Steinsaltz describes how he tried several hermeneutic strategies, all of which are found in the Talmud, to figure out the order of the mitzvot in Ki Tetzei. None of them worked, including examining the context of individual words next to other and the context of individual mitzvot alongside another. These methods ordinarily are very productive, but not here. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s conclusion is that “the Torah that can be understood is not the real Torah.”

But then the question is, “What happens if you inject this kind of doubt into the system?” How do we know what is the real Torah, what is an allegory, and what is simply incomprehensible? If we can understand it, how can it be the real Torah? “Lo tirtzach” [Thou shalt not kill], comprehensible or incomprehensible? That’s pretty heady. Let’s go back to the literal level. Ki Tetzei, to me, is as about as comprehensible as Torah can get. It is an instruction manual for a hyper-patriarchal desert society, and as all of us know, instruction manuals are not always in the best order. Moshe, in addition to being our teacher, also had to be a technical writer. He had to get information from his Subject Matter Expert, HaShem, and turn it into something that the Israelites could use. He had a serious deadline – the day of his death. And so he did the best he could, completing the chapters that he could, as clearly as he could. What Rabbi Steinsaltz sees as a serious epistemological gap might be just a production problem, and you never blame the Subject Matter Expert for a production problem.

The product shipped, and by now, there are now 100,000 minutely inscribed copies in the world, all of them containing the original version of Ki Tetzei. Hashem says in Devarim [Deuteronomy] 4:2, “You shall not add to that which I command you and you shall not subtract from it, to keep the commandments of the Lord your God…” No revision is possible, and Moshe knew it. But by the time of the Olam Ha’Ba [the post-messianic age], we will in no sense be the society Devarim assumed, and its literal instructions will be as useful to us as the manual for an Atari 2600. All its literality will pass into allegory and its allegory into anagogy. What is “Thou shalt not kill” when there is no longer the idea of killing? So, Rabbi Steinsaltz is right after all. Allegory as a starting place and anagogy as a stopping place are not today accessible to even our most profound mystics.  Yet they will be the context in which Ki Tetzei will be understood.

08/13/20

Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.

A month ago, with the additional deaths from coronavirus well over 100,000, our resident narcissist had to talk about national priorities.

“So showerheads — you take a shower, the water doesn’t come out. You want to wash your hands, the water doesn’t come out. So what do you do? You just stand there longer or you take a shower longer? Because my hair — I don’t know about you, but it has to be perfect. Perfect,” Trump said from the White House grounds in July.

Never forget it.

08/7/20

Dominating the Dominators

A recent article in the New Yorker talks about a book comparing the caste system of India (thought dead, surprisingly resilient) with the color line in America (idem). The reviewer at one point mentions some suggestions for the future that unexpectedly brought out my latent inner cynic.

Although Wilkerson considers herself more a diagnostician than a clinician, she advances, toward the end of the book, two ideas for toppling the American caste system. She’d like to see a public accounting of the American past modelled on postwar Germany, which paid restitution to Holocaust survivors, made displaying the swastika a crime, and erected memorials to victims. But her greater faith lies in what she calls “radical empathy.” She has described her work as a moral “mission”: “to change the country, the world, one heart at a time.” And she concludes her book by celebrating individuals like Albert Einstein, who came to the U.S. shortly before the Nazis took power, empathized with Blacks facing discrimination, and began advocating for their rights. 

Good. We could all use more Einsteins (not just geniuses, but people hungering for justice). But what were the conditions of Germany’s astonishing change of heart? A mass movement of reflection, perhaps, carried out by the Germans in autonomous fashion (maybe after reading the collected works of the Frankfurt School)? No. The citizens of both Germanys were forced to turn their backs on a newly shameful past, make amends, tear down monuments, rewrite their schoolbooks, and rehabilitate victims, only because they had been defeated in a war and were occupied by the former enemy powers. And Einstein was able to play the role he did because he had a mighty foreign country to flee to. (We should all be so lucky.)

That’s a pretty important difference for those seeking lessons from history for our present condition. No nation, I would venture, gives up on its homicidal BS out of the goodness of its own heart. The United States is still a superpower, and will be so for the foreseeable future. Nobody can boss it around, though anybody can bribe it. At most, our present antagonists (the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, North Koreans, and Nadiristanians) will keep us in place, debilitated by our inner conflicts, but not waste their time defeating and occupying us; and even if they did, it wouldn’t be in order to proclaim a new moral order, because our being perpetually on the brink of civil war serves them quite well.

So the only hope of dominating the dominators comes from the majority that I hope exists and can be maintained. I wouldn’t be an American if I weren’t unrealistically optimistic. Let us achieve the conversion on our own. The implications are two: one is that the means are going to have to be a bit heavier this time (we can’t afford a repetition of Obama’s mistake of not prosecuting the authors of the Iraq war) and the other is that the people of good will can’t let the wicked divide them.

Time to go back to 1945, create the United Nations anew, and this time not let the Cold War and its provincial power struggles distract us from the task of ensuring the common good of all inhabitants of this earth.

Okay, I’ve said my piece. Now go ahead and whack me for being insufficiently radical by the standards of whatever book you like to wave in processions.