Wednesday, December 28, 2016

As a New Year Dawns

I suppose rabbis are supposed to nod at the arrival of a new secular year without endorsing the concept overly.  And partially I do feel that way. Rosh Hashanah is in the fall. Some years, like this one, the Jewish year actually begins after the autumnal equinox. For us—and for me too—the whole concept of a new year’s holiday is evocative of Indian summer, of leaves not yet quite ready to begin changing colors, of still walking to shul without a coat. And yet…the secular New Year does mean something to me. I may have been born in 5713—I actually was born in 5713—but that is not the year that springs to mind when someone asks me for the year of my birth. Nor do I think of 5726 as the year of my bar-mitzvah or 5740 as the year of my marriage. Those numbers are correct. But, for all I feel myself steeped in Jewish culture in most ways, I still find it far more amazing to think that we’re about to cross the line to 2017 than it seemed remarkable to me last September to think that the world had made it to 5777 without blowing itself up or ruining its climate irreversibly (if it has, that is).And so, as we prepare to cross the line yet again, this time into 2017, I’d like to offer my readers a reverie on the passage of time…but in a specific key.

In 1995, Moonstone Press (then located in Goderich, Ontario) published my first book of essays, Travels on the Private Zodiac.  The idea of the lead essay was that the ancients were right and wrong in their astrological thinking. Wrong, because the specific lay-out of the planets and stars in the sky at the moment any of us is born does not really have any effect on the courses our lives subsequently take. But, albeit in an intimate, person-specific way that they themselves would have found unfamiliar, they were also right.

In my understanding of the private zodiac, we are influenced throughout our lives by the people into contact with whom we come. Some of these people are in close-by orbit—our parents and our siblings, then eventually (at least ideally) our spouses and children. In slightly more distant orbit is a different cast of characters—not the true intimates, but those others whose presence in our lives affects who we become and what we do a bit less irresistibly as do the people in the first group. These are our grandparents and our elementary school teachers, our neighbors and our parents’ best friends, our clergypeople and our camp counselors, our housekeepers and our coaches. And then there is a third group as well, this one populated by people who affect our courses through life not as meaningfully as our teachers or our neighbors, but whose influence is still discernible and real. These are our elected officials and our high school principals, the professors who lecture to us in college and the authors whose books we find the most moving and influential, the performers whom we only know through their artistry and yet whose work feels as though it affects us profoundly and, at least in some cases, mightily as we decide how to live our lives. Taken all together, these nearer planets and distant stars constitute our private zodiacs.

And then there are the comets.

At the end of August in 1998, I flew from New York to Vancouver via Montreal. I had come to New york to see  my ailing father and expected to find things truly grim, but the situation had improved in the day or two before I arrived and my visit ended up being far more  upbeat than I had thought it would or could be. By the time I flew home, I was in a relatively good mood. It was late in the evening. The flight from Montreal to Vancouver was only half-full. I had an aisle seat, so there was the window seat to my left and the aisle itself to my right. For a while, I thought I would have both seats to myself, but then, just before they closed the doors, a young man appeared and sat down next to me.

He looked hale and physically well enough, but also beaten down and sad. In my usual way, I smiled affably at him and then began to read. The stewardess demonstrated, presumably for travelers who had never been in a car, how to fasten a seatbelt. There was that helpful video outlining all the safety features of our aircraft (but which to me personally just serves as a kind of a catalogue of all the terrible things that can happen on airplane flights).  Eventually, we were in the air. The fasten-your-seatbelt sign blinked off. Beverages were served. I tried to read for a while, then gave in and, turning slightly to my left (and already sensing I was making a huge mistake), I said, “Heading to Vancouver?”

And so it began. He wasn’t going to Vancouver at all, it turned out, just going to change planes there for a JAL flight to Tokyo. He was, he said, planning to spend a year teaching English in Osaka, which experience he was hoping would help him get over the events of the previous few months. I asked if he wanted to talk about it. And talk about it he did. The story began with a young woman who had unexpectedly become pregnant. My seatmate, the future father, proposed marriage. She gratefully accepted. A date was set. And then, unexpectedly, she lost the baby. He stayed with her, not only accompanying her to the hospital but spending the night sleeping in a chair in her room and only returning home to wash up and put on clean clothes the next morning.  A day or two later, she was discharged from the hospital. And the day after that she broke off their engagement, making it clear that she had only agreed to marry him because she felt trapped by circumstance…but now that her “circumstance” had changed—apparently, in her estimation, for the better—she saw no reason to carry on with their engagement. Or, for that matter, with their relationship. The next week, the young man, a graduate of McGill with a degree in education, signed on for a year in Osaka.

This had all happened the previous March, two-thirds of the way through his first year of high school teaching. The young woman began dating someone new almost immediately. My row-mate carried on with his life as best he could, but slipped into a bad state nevertheless. He was, he said, drinking almost daily and smoking way too much pot. He had actually gone to school—he taught English in some suburban high school near Montreal, he said—he had gone to school stoned a few times, but hadn’t been caught. He stopped going to the gym, stopped sleeping well at night, began to put on weight. He stopped doing the laundry, just stopping off at the local K-Mart to buy more underwear and socks when he ran out. He was, he admitted, a mess.

I listened, prompting him every so often to continue by asking a pertinent question. It took him hours to tell the whole story. (Trust me, I’ve left out a lot of the details.) I wasn’t bored. I had no place to go. I listened and then, when he was finally done, I told him what I thought. I made some suggestions, pointed out that changes of scenery generally only solve problems related to scenery. I suggested “real” counseling (as opposed to the kind you get on airplanes from strangers), but I also tried to encourage him. He was, after all, only twenty-six years old and his entire adult life was still in front of him. I tried to be kind and encouraging. 
By the time we landed in Vancouver, he was my best friend.

I never saw him again. We didn’t exchange e-mail addresses. I didn’t give him my telephone number or encourage him to stop by for a visit the next time he flew home through Vancouver. When the stewardess said we could unbuckle our seatbelts and retrieve our baggage from the overhead bins, he shook my hand and thanked me for listening. I wished him well, offered him a final few words of avuncular advice. And then I turned and got my bag and that was that.

On the private zodiac, we were comets streaking past each other, each burning semi-brightly for a moment before vanishing forever into the darkness.  We didn’t need more. I thought I had behaved kindly. He seemed stronger and better for having unburdened himself. It was what it was, no more but also no less. I don’t need to know what happened. I hope he had a good year in Osaka, then went home, forgot how bad things had once been, found someone to love, settled down, built a life. I can’t remember his name. (Other than Halley’s, how many comets actually have names?) But he remains, even after all these years, part of my story. Just a tiny part, to be sure. If I were a book, he would be a footnote. Or part of a footnote. .But he is a presence, or a kind of a presence, in my life nonetheless. 

I wish the forty-five-year-old version of himself well as 2017 dawns, whoever he was and wherever he ended up. I always end up feeling a bit global, even cosmic, as new years begin. I think about the planets and the stars that I can see in the sky, those still there and those whose light is still there even though they themselves are long gone. I'm thinking about the distant stars too, the ones that are just pinpoints of light in the nighttime sky. And I'm thinking about the comets as well...and finding myself able to wish them all well even without knowing what trajectories they took after brushing up against me for a moment before continuing on into the night.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Chanukah 5777

In a very clever analysis of the electoral college vote in the Times the other day (click here), Nate Cohn made passing reference to an obscure, long-since forgotten bit of American history called the Toledo War, an almost bloodless conflict in 1835 between, of all unlikely combatants, Ohio and Michigan over a strip of land that included (obviously) the city of Toledo. There were no deaths. Ohio won. Sort of. Not even really. It was more of a draw. Unless you’ve actually lived in Toledo, you’ve probably never even heard it mentioned. (Having said that, Cohn’s use of it is very clever.) But it got me to thinking about other wars, American and otherwise, that no one seems ever to remember even taking place. King Philip’s War. The Sheepeater War. The Jaybird-Woodpecker War. The Quasi-War. The War of Jenkin’s Ear. The Sonderbund War. The Anglo-Zanzibar War, known at least to historians as the world’s shortest war. The Syro-Palestinian War.

Come again? Syria and Palestine went to war? Well, not exactly. But forgotten though they may be, and more or less by all, the five Syro-Palestinian Wars still constitute the background to the events of the so-called Chanukah story to the extent that not knowing about these wars almost definitely means understanding the story of the Maccabean Revolt at least slightly incorrectly.  So, as Chanukah approaches and our thoughts turn towards the first third of the second century BCE (or am I projecting?), I thought I’d write about those specific wars and then point to their latter-day echo in the world today.  It was, to say the least, a long time ago.

When Alexander III of Macedon, known forever more as Alexander the Great, died at the ridiculous age of 32 in 323 BCE, he had managed to conquer more or less all of the civilized world that was known to him to exist, something no historical personality before or since has ever managed. And he was motivated, other than by the wish to be king of everything, by the specific philosophy of life today called Hellenism. In somewhat of the same way the British (and the French and the Belgians, etc.) felt they were doing something positive and reasonable by unilaterally establishing their empire by force and then forcing European values and practices on the lands over which they ruled, Alexander felt that Greek civilization—then at its highpoint in terms of the richness of its cultural output—was not merely the culture of a specific country (and, for that matter, not even his country), but rather the greatest expression of human creativity and industry the world had ever seen. And so he set himself to bringing that culture to the world…by conquering the empires and nations that got in his way or wished to resist his onslaught. His boyhood tutor, Aristotle, would have been proud!

And then he died, leaving behind no obvious heir. (He did eventually have a son, but the lad was born after Alexander died and both the boy and his uncle, Alexander’s half-brother—who was the only other possible heir to the throne—were murdered in the years following Alexander’s death.) And so the stage was set for violence. Whether it is true or not that Alexander, lying on his deathbed, answered merely “the strongest” when asked who should succeed him, the contest to see who exactly that was going to be began as Alexander breathed his last. The generals, called by historians the Diadochi (from the Greek word for “heir”), basically went to war with each other, each determined to assassinate the maximum number of Alexander’s other generals and thus, if possible, to become the emperor of is vast domain. The wars went on for years. When the dust settled—and we’re talking about a lot of dust—four of Alexander’s generals had acquired almost all of his kingdom as their personal fiefdoms: Ptolemy became king of Egypt, Seleucus became king of Syria (which included more or less all of what we would call the Middle East), Antigonus became king of Macedonia, and Lysimachus became king of Asia Minor, where Turkey is today.

The story of these wars is incredibly complicated. I remember trying to master all the details when I was preparing for my oral examination in ancient history back in graduate school and finding the sheer number of battles and personalities almost impossible to keep straight. Some details stay with me still. Others, I’m sure I’ve forgotten. But one particular figure, almost universally forgotten today, is a pivotal personality in the story I want to tell.

Seleucus, the first ruler in the dynasty that eventually led to King Antiochus IV ruling over the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, was an interesting personality: devoted fully to the Hellenism that had so potently motivated Alexander in his quest to rule the world, but famous for the tolerance and liberality he displayed with respect to the various cults and religions of the peoples over whom he ruled. And it wasn’t just a matter of tolerance either: Seleucus himself appears to have embarked on a policy of integrating himself and his people into the citizenry of the lands he ruled. He himself married a Bactrian princess (Bactria was roughly where Afghanistan is today) in 324 BCE and he encouraged his officers and officials to marry locals as well.  And he adopted and adapted local customs as well, making them part of Seleucid culture.

How the Jews fared under Seleucus is not known exactly, but we can assume that he pursued the same liberal policy in their regard that characterized the way he governed the rest of his empire. He himself was assassinated in 281 BCE, but he was replaced by his son, Antiochus, known to history as Antiochus I, who adopted and followed most of his father’s policies, even going so far as personally to sponsor the reconstruction of the famous Esagila Temple in Borsippa, about twelve miles south of Babylon.

Things went less well with the neighbors to the southwest. At first, Seleucus and Ptolemy, the newly crowned “pharaoh” of Egypt, got along. But that didn’t last and, by the time of Antiochus I, the neighboring kingdoms had undertaken a long series of border wars known to historians today as the Syrian-Palestinian Wars. It was basically a football game that lasted for well over a century…and Israel was the football.  And so began a period of great turmoil in which the Jews of Israel ended up living in a different empire every few years. Indeed, control over Israel changed hands five times in the course of the third century BCE, the decisive event finally being the Battle of Panium (fought at the foot of Mount Hermon, north of the Golan Heights), which marked the permanent end of Ptolemaic Egyptian rule and the formal inclusion, yet again, of Israel into the Seleucid Empire.  And there was a sixth war between the Seleucids and Egypt as well in 170 BCE when Ptolemy VI declared war on Antiochus IV, the villain of the Chanukah story.

Given the degree to which ancient history in general is either undertaught or ignored entirely in American high schools, it’s hardly surprising that these personalities and even the names of their empires are basically unknown to most today.  But just from my brief summary, it should be clear just how wrong it would be to tell the story of Chanukah in a vacuum, as though the only newsworthy events of the day had to do with the Temple in Jerusalem.

Antiochus IV, the bad king in the Chanukah story, was a megalomaniac and probably a bit unbalanced. On the one hand, he acclaimed himself as a god, shamelessly referencing himself as a divine being on the coins he had struck in his own honor. But he was also in the habit of showing up unannounced and unprotected in public bath houses to prove just how much of a common man he truly was. He also occasionally put his own name in when municipal offices were vacant and seeking applicants, something like the president of the United States applying for an open position in the Washington D.C. city hall.

I mentioned that there was a sixth war with Egypt, but not that it didn’t go well at all. And that really is to say the least: it ended up with the king’s public humiliation when he was met on his way to conquer Egypt (again!) by a single Roman statesman, one Gaius Popillius Laenas, who ordered him in the name of the Roman Senate to turn around and go home…or consider himself also to be at war with the Roman Republic. Antiochus, shaken, said he’d think about it. Laenas, unimpressed, unsheathed his sword, used it to draw a circle in the sand around Antiochus, and told him to make his decision before leaving the circle, whereupon Antiochus agreed to withdraw. That was in 168, a scant four years before Chanukah. And so, desperate for support at home in the wake of that kind of public mortification, Antiochus decided to curry favor with the peoples over whom he ruled, starting in Israel with those most likely to be supportive of him and his policies, those eager to embrace Hellenism and to transform the ancient religion of the Jews into something modern, something consonant with Greek values, something that would encourage Jews to feel part of the larger world and not apart from it.

And now starts the part of the story we all know. The Jews whom Antiochus chose to support had their followers. But the “regular” Jews weren’t with them. And when the Maccabees left Modin and embarked on a rebellion against the Seleucids that could conceivably lead to Jewish autonomy within the empire, they themselves were probably more successful than they anticipated being. And the rest, as we all know, is history.

So everything changes and nothing changes. Here we are, thousands of years later. The players back then other than Judah the Maccabee himself are all long forgotten, as are the names of most of their gods and their national states.  And yet…the world is still a huge football match and the Middle East is still the football. This is surely true of Israel. But it’s even more true of Syria. Indeed, when we look at the misery of Syria, what do we see if not millions of “regular” people on the ground paying with their lives (or, at least, with their sense of security and wellbeing) for the right to be the ball in someone else’s game? The key players in Syria, after all, are hardly the Syrians—whose leaders, including President Assad, are only stand-ins for the real players on the field: Iran, Russia, Turkey, and ISIS.  But no matter how many times the pendulum swings back and forth between potential victors and losers… it’s only the people on the ground who pay the price.

I wish you and all your families all a very happy, satisfying Chanukah.  We’ll be splitting our times between our family here and our family in Toronto, but we too are looking forward to lots of crispy latkes and lots of fun. I wish that for you all too!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gazing at the Moon in the Age of Trump

We instituted a new practice at Shelter Rock the other Saturday night, one I’ve toyed with introducing for a long time without actually taking any too decisive steps towards actually implementing. And then, suddenly, the ducks were all lined up—the right time of the month, the right time of evening, the right number of people, and the right shul president urging me forward—and so forward we went…in a new direction for, I think, all involved including myself. The ritual, called Kiddush Levanah (literally, “The Sanctification of the Moon”), can only be recited when the moon is visible in the nighttime sky and when it is still waxing (i.e., in the first half of any lunar month). There are other rules that pertain too, but the basic principle is that the congregation steps outside, takes note of the moon, then recites an ancient blessing preserved in the Talmud. The assembled then bless each other with peace, recite a few verses heralding the future redemption of the world and a famous psalm…and then, if ten are present, they finish with Kaddish. That’s it!

It is possibly the least popular of all communal Jewish rituals. I grew up without even hearing of it, let alone participating in it. I don’t believe it’s part of the prayer life of many congregations, and certainly not many non-Orthodox ones. There was every reason to find this whole idea burdensome—it meant Shabbat was over and we still weren’t going home, plus it was dinnertime and many of us had post-Shabbat plans for the evening to embark upon. So it was an unlikely venture at best…but there turned out to be something remarkable about the experience, something that more than made up for the time spent and the effort undertaken, something intensely alluring about the juxtaposition of the disparate elements involved: the cold evening air, the luminescent crescent moon clearly visible through the bare branches of the trees just outside the chapel door, the mysterious blessing with its clear/unclear references to the interpenetration of time and space in the context of history and destiny, the unmistakable messianism underlying the biblical verses pressed into liturgical service, and the strange feelings engendered by the psalmist’s ancient promise that “the sun shall not smite you by day nor the moon by night.” I really was unsure how the whole thing was going to feel. But, in the end, it felt magical. I’d like to do it again and we will. But why the whole experience was so arresting is not the easiest question to answer.

Perhaps it had to do with the historical moment. For me personally, things have been feeling just a bit unmoored in the last little while. The sudden coming-into-prominence of the so-called alt-right has left me feeling, not quite afraid, but nonetheless ill at ease and anxious. The aftermath of the presidential election, which left our country basically riven into two giant camps that can barely see each other, let alone respect each other in the way that could possible lead to learning to live and work peaceably and productively together, has left me feeling apprehensive and fretful about our nation’s path into the future. And then, of course, there is the future itself—an unnerving exercise in iffiness in its own right—with its unresolved issues related to climate change, health care, globalization, race relations, reproductive rights, public education, trade and foreign affairs, LGBT issues, and dozens of other issues facing our nation that just a year ago felt more or less resolved and the rancor they once engendered behind us—the future itself is filled with uncertainty that only makes me feel even more nervous and more apprehensive. Regardless of where any of readers might find themselves on the political spectrum, surely we can all agree that we are about to enter almost wholly uncharted waters. And that the man who will be at the helm, whether history ultimately judges his election a stroke of national genius or an act of national insanity, has never held public office before and is facing a gigantic learning curve if he is to govern wisely and well…or effectively at all.

And then, in the midst of all that existential and political angst…there we were, letting it all fall away as we stood there looking up at the moon, thinking (or at least I was) that the same moon, looking exactly as it did the other night, has been hanging in the night sky since before recorded history even began, since before the first pharaohs ruled Egypt, since before any nation that now exists was born, since before God called Abraham forth from his father’s house and told him that kings would come forth from his loins.

The gorgeous painting by Polish artist Wacław Koniuszko (1843-1900) reproduced just above captures some of the otherworldly feeling I’m trying to describe.  The moon waxes and wanes, month after month. The liturgy pronounces it beyond our reach, something we can admire from afar without ever actually being able ever to attain, something just beyond our grasp but somehow not beyond our gaze. Participants in Kiddush Levanah actually say those words aloud too, addressing the moon as an object of intense but unattainable longing, but also as a heavenly friend and guide. The whole thing is both mysterious and romantic, just as the moon itself is somehow far off and close by at the same time. It strikes me that it is precisely in that paradox—the conjunction of opposites—that lies the key to the ritual.

The ancients looked to the heavens and found in the fixed permanence they saw on high a kind of symbol of God’s enduring presence on earth. But instead of making them feel insignificant and meaningless in comparison to the unchanging cosmos, it ennobled them and made them feel part of something vast and unchartable, something they could barely fathom. The nighttime sky filled them with wonder and made them awestruck at the thought that they too were part of a universe that appeared to exist as the conjunction of opposites: dynamic yet static, changing yet permanent, unfathomable yet familiar, material yet immaterial, temporal yet eternal, understandable yet incomprehensible, anchored in time yet somehow outside the endless parade of moments that characterizes life as we all know it and live it.  That sense of awe is something we moderns have jettisoned entirely too casually, I think, because in the ability truly to be awestruck by the inconceivable vastness of creation— and to do so while remaining fully anchored in reality, fully in the world and not merely part of it—lies the ability to transcend the moment, to ignore the bullies, to turn away from the cruelties and petty injustices of daily life, and to step into an existential framework possessed in equal parts of nobility, majesty, destiny, and eternity.  It was that specific idea that Kiddush Levanah awakened in me.

They say that the Romans forbade the Jews from fixing the new month in the traditional way in the times of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch. The latter, not one to abandon his ways merely because some surly foreigner ordered him to, merely undertook to act discreetly rather than overtly and sent the rabbinic court to a tiny village called Ein Tov to declare the new month in an out-of-the-way place the Romans rarely, if ever, visited. But even clandestine messages ran the risk of being intercepted, so Rabbi Judah sent one of his pupils, the man later known to talmudists as Rabbi Ḥiyya, to follow along and then to send back the mysterious words, “David, king of Israel, yet lives” as a private signal that the new month had been duly declared.

Those words—david melekh yisrael ḥai v’kayyam—are known to us all, but their original context has long since been forgotten. But that the permanence of the moon in all its silvery splendor in the nighttime sky was deemed evocative of the permanent link between the line of King David and the House of Israel is not something any of us should step past too quickly.  And, indeed, those words suggest the basic theme of Kiddush Levanah by suggesting—subtly, but also clearly—that Jewishness is a road that leads through history to destiny…and that road is as little affected by the incidents that take place along its route as the moon itself is by the various theories people have evolved and continue to evolve to explain its place in the heaven and its role in the drama of the cosmos.

And what’s true for the House of Israel is also true for our nation. One way or the other, the republic will move through the next months and years and manage to navigate whatever straits through which we find ourselves obliged to pass. We will remain who we are even as we evolve into what our subsequent national iteration will be…and find the strength to persevere precisely by holding fast to our national values as we morph forward into the future. As our contribution to that future, we at Shelter Rock will continue to say Kiddush Levanah. And, as we take monthly note of the way the moon both wanes and waxes—always on its way somewhere but never quite getting there—and of its luminescent intensity in the nighttime sky, we will pray for a bright future. When viewed in this light—or rather, in its own silvery light—the moon stands both for tradition and for change, for permanence and dynamism, for evolution and for durability. That it is possible to embrace both and to be the stronger for having done so is the underlying message of Kiddush Levanah to the House of Israel. And it could and should be the message our community offers our nation as we move forward into whatever the future brings. The moon shines on, month after month after month, no matter what…and so do the virtues and profound principles upon which our republic rests. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Electoral Politics

It is amazing to me just how little everybody seems to know about the Electoral College. And included in that thought are a wide variety of derivative issues regarding which the public appears to be equally clueless: why the founders invented the College in the first place, what role it was expected to play, whether that role has evolved into something essentially positive or negative in terms of the democratic nature of our American republic, and  whether the electors are supposed to be marionettes who cannot and may not act other than in accordance with the instructions received on Election Day from the citizens they represent or if the whole concept of elector-as-unfree-automaton obviates the whole point of the Electoral College existing in the first place.

Those are a lot of questions! To prove me wrong, feel entirely free to answer them without looking anything up first. I thought so! And yet…I can’t remember ever reading more about the Electoral College, much of it expressing diametrically opposing opinions, than in the course of the last few weeks since the presidential election. Just the other day, for example, an elector from Texas, one Christopher Suprun, took to the op-ed page of the New York Times to announce his intention specifically not to cast his vote for Donald Trump despite the fact that the latter won in Texas by well over 800,000 votes. The response—at least by readers who took the time to post their responses on the Times’ website—was remarkable: over 6300 people posted responses on the day the article appeared and on the following day. And they were remarkable too in terms of the degree to which they showed just how unsure the populace seems to be about the role of the College and the electors who constitute its ranks. One reader addressed the author directly and wrote, “You are a faithless elector and a traitor to the republic.” Another, also speaking directly to the author, wrote, “Thank you for serving your country faithfully and bravely.” Both comments had, not hundreds, but thousands of comments supporting their positions. But which was essentially correct? And is the answer to that question different if we are discussing the best path forward for our nation or if we are discussing the essential nature of the Electoral College itself and the appropriate limits of its power?  Those are the questions I’d like to write about this week.

The first detail most American seem not to realize is that the whole concept of an electoral college is not a home-grown notion, but something with roots deep in extra-American history. Originally a kind of check against the inherent capriciousness of a hereditary monarchy (i.e., one in which the head of state comes to power merely by inheriting the office from the person who occupied it previously), the notion was essentially a way to guarantee that completely inept heirs-apparent could be kept from power. There were even examples in which the electors were free to choose anyone at all to reign without respect to that individual’s relationship to the former regent. But the principle behind the concept of an electoral college in both versions was the same: to guarantee that the national leader would be someone of merit and worth and not merely someone born into the right family at the right moment in history.

In our American context, the Electoral College was instituted for two basic reasons, one of which was to speak to that specific issue of worthiness to govern. Here, of course, the founders’ fear was not that the presidency would somehow become a heritable office that would pass from parent to child and that the presidency therefore needed to be protected in advance from an incompetent heir—even Alexander Hamilton, who argued before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that the presidency should be a kind of elective monarchy in which the monarch would rule for life unless impeached, did not favor a hereditary system in which the office would remain within a specific family—but rather an analogous fear related to the gullibility of the public. 

The great flaw in the democratic system, as any student of history knows, is that it presumes the people capable of making thoughtful, mature decisions with respect to the choice of a national leader.  For the most part, this is a rational assumption that accords reasonably well with reality. But history is filled with examples of nations perversely, yet fully democratically, electing leaders whose policies were clearly inimical to the nation’s best interests. The Nazis, for example, won the German federal election of November 1932 with a comfortable plurality—winning more than 37% of the vote, to the Socialists’ less than 22% and the Communists’ less than 15%—which victory led directly to totalitarianism, followed by war, followed by total defeat. There are many other examples as well of nations making horrific errors by putting their confidence in leaders whom the electorate ought to have shunned. And it was to speak directly to the possibility of national error on that scale that Article II of the Constitution, later modified by the Twelfth and Twenty-Third Amendments, called for the creation of an Electoral College. So that is the first of the two reasons that the founders instituted the Electoral College: to serve as a check against the poor judgment of the majority.

The second reason for an Electoral College was to create an electoral system that would encourage smaller states to join the union by lessening the possibility of elections being decided solely by the citizens of the largest states. Since the number of electors equals the number of representatives and senators who represent a state in the Congress, but only the number of representatives is tied to population (because every state has two senators), the result is that the electors from smaller states represent far fewer people than the ones from larger states. (To give an example of how this works, each elector from Wyoming represents about 70,000 citizens, whereas each elector from California represents about 179,000 citizens.)  On the one hand, this feels contrary to the foundational “one vote per citizen” rule upon which all democratic systems rest. On the other, it guarantees smaller states a voice in national decisions that would not otherwise be theirs. Whether that is a good enough reason to override the inherent unfairness of different citizens’ votes being weighted differently is an excellent question that goes directly to the heart of the matter.

The rest of the system is better known, at least to most. In forty-eight of the fifty states, the winning party appoints all the electors. (Maine and Nebraska allocate electors by congressional district, plus two at-large electors awarded to the party that wins the popular vote in that state.)  There is, however, no Constitutional provision or federal law requiring electors to vote for the candidate who won in their state. In 1952, the Supreme Court ruled that states may require electors to take a pledge to vote for whomever won the popular vote in that state and twenty-nine states have instituted such a pledge. There are even fines in some states for so-called “faithless electors,” but the reality is that no elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged.

It is, at any rate, not a huge problem. In our nation’s entire history, there have been a total of 157 such “faithless electors.” But seventy-one of them, almost half, voted for someone other than the victor in their state because the person who won the popular vote in that state died in the interim. So only the other eighty-six voted for someone other than the person who won in their state because they didn’t wish to see that person become president. None of these decisions has ever changed the outcome of a presidential election or even come close.

Asking whether the Electoral College is worth retaining is hardly worth the breath that the ensuing debate would require, since getting rid of it could only be by constitutional amendment and that is more or less universally considered a political impossibility in today’s America. What could happen, on the other hand, is that states could abandon the “winner take all” rule and allow the electors of any given state to mirror more precisely the vote in that state. That would go a long way to eliminating the possibility of one candidate winning the popular vote and another becoming president, which has now happened five times in our nation’s history, in 1824 (when Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but John Quincy Adams became president), in 1876 (when Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, but Rutherford B. Hayes became president), in 1888 (when Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but Benjamin Harrison became president), in 2000 (when Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush became president), and now a fifth time in 2016 with the election of Donald J. Trump.

But, of course, if the rules were to be altered to guarantee that whoever wins the popular vote becomes president, then there really would be no rational reason to retain the Electoral College. On the other hand, if the whole point is to preserve the voice of the people while, at the same time, guaranteeing—and here I quote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers—that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” then “fixing” the system to guarantee that the College can never resist the popular results and elect someone who didn’t win the popular vote would work at complete cross-purposes with the point the College exists in the first place. And, of course, it would also eliminate the advantage the current system offers to the residents of smaller states.

To me personally, the whole “smaller states’ advantage” thing is hard to justify. (Isn’t the whole point of a democracy that no citizen is given a louder voice than any other, and particularly when it comes to voting on Election Day?) But the former point, the one about the College serving as a check against the gullibility of the masses, is something worth taking seriously. We don’t have a British House of Lords or a Canadian Senate here filled with learned, worthy statesmen charged with guiding the nation morally and intellectually forward while the lower house, the one actually elected by the people, makes the decisions that actually count. Our version of those august bodies of senior advisors and wise counselors is the Electoral College, a body specifically not populated by wise patriots far above the fray of partisan politics but by party loyalists chosen precisely because of the unlikelihood of any of them going rogue and voting for someone other than their party’s candidate.

Unless we, as a nation, are prepared to fill the ranks of the Electoral College with our nation’s brightest and most responsible thinkers and to charge them with endorsing or rejecting the people’s choice of a national leader, we should abandon the winner-take-all rule and require that electors be chosen in a way that mirrors that state’s vote.  I would favor the former approach, but could live with the latter. What seems ridiculous to me is for every three Californians to have the same voice in the choice of our national leaders as one single Wyomingite.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Preparing for Charleston

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been watching with some combination of fascination and trepidation the preliminaries related to the forthcoming trial of Dylann Roof, the twenty-two-year-old white man accused of massacring worshipers, all African-Americans, on June 17, 2015 at a Bible study session held at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, has been charged with nine counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder, and the possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He also faces federal hate crime charges and, if convicted, could be sentenced to death. Earlier this week, Federal District Court Judge Richard Gergel found Roof competent to stand trial. The defendant offered to plead guilty to all charges in exchange for a verdict of life imprisonment, but the government declined. Then, in an unexpected development just a day or two ago, a federal judge granted the defendant’s request that he be permitted to defend himself in court, a right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. Jury selection will now commence, the immediate challenge being to whittle the 512 people in the jury pool down to a mere dozen plus another six alternate jurors. This will take weeks, at least.  And then the trial itself will commence.

It would be easy to wave the whole incident away as the act of a crazy person with a gun. After all, how many similar stories have we managed to wave away over these last years on precisely those grounds? To argue that only someone truly irrational could behave with such depraved indifference to the value of human life sounds right enough—and, in this case, the word “depraved” hardly captures the feel of someone gunning down people studying Holy Scripture in the sanctity of their own house of worship. It’s certainly a calming approach, and a soothing one: crazy people by definition do crazy things…so why should this be more than yet another example of that specific brand of lunacy? In a nation that guarantees the right of citizens to self-arm, the ability of such crazy souls to do grievous harm to others is intensified far beyond what it would otherwise be. But how does that affect the reasonableness of dismissing the killer as someone acting on his insane own. And yet…that isn’t how it feels to me and the specific reason this feels different is what I’d like to write to you all about this week.

I’ve just finished reading two books: Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines, published earlier this year by Mulholland Books, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, also published earlier this year by Doubleday and the winner of this year’s National Book Award.  The books are not of equal literary merit—Whitehead is by far the more adroit author and his prose is rich and truly gorgeous in places, which Winters’, compelling in its own way, is not. Still, both books are very worth reading and I recommend them both to you all.

Both books are founded on a proposition that will strike many readers—or at least many white readers—as unexpected: that the experience of black slavery in our nation is not only a live issue for the many who consciously ponder its history and the social intricacies of its enduring legacy, but also for many who do not: it is simply there, serving as the acknowledged or unacknowledged foundation stone upon which the self-conception of black America rests even today…more than two centuries after Congress ended the slave trade by passing the “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves” in 1808, and more than a century and a half after slavery itself was made illegal in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Jewish readers will find the concept eerily familiar. The world nods to a horror, clucks over it briefly, then determines that it’s time to move on, to get over it, to let the dead rest in peace. But the survivors and their descendants of the horror in question do not move on so quickly (or even at all), because the sheer magnitude of the events under consideration—and the depth of moral depravity and almost unimaginable violence that characterized them—have been woven so tightly into the group’s DNA as to make them ineradicably and permanently embedded in that group’s sense of itself and its place in the world.  And, in the end, it is the chasm between the worldviews of the people who do and who do not belong to the group as focused through this specific issue that makes all the difference in terms of how the group in question fits into the larger mosaic of its host society.

When Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, one of his truly great novels, that “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past,” he was making exactly this point. Jews cannot be “over” the Shoah, because it has become too deeply part of who and what we are; to remove it from our worldview would be akin to removing gravity or centripetal force from the world in which we live, and this includes people who themselves are not survivors or the descendants of survivors in just the same way that gravity affects people with no knowledge of physics. The point of both these novels I’ve been reading is that American slavery plays an analogous role in the self-conception of black people today—including those born long after the last surviving actual slaves passed from the scene in the mid-twentieth century. There are aspects of culture that people acquire almost by osmosis, simply by belonging to a particular subgroup within society. And that is so regardless of how any specific member of the group understands the specific terms of his or her membership.

Whitehead’s book is brutal and presents the life of slaves in the South before the Civil War in a way that most readers—and particularly ones like myself raised to think that the worst part of slavery was that the slaves weren’t paid for their labor—will find beyond appalling. The story centers on a young woman named Cora who, after being repeatedly brutalized on her plantation in Georgia, becomes a runaway.  The surprise in the book is that the author imagines the famous “underground railroad” as an actual railway buried deep beneath the landscape of the south complete with stations, engineers, conductors, and, of course, trains. This allows him to show us Cora settling into a variety of different settings, some marginally more benign than others, but all sharing a level of emotional degradation and social depravity that will shock even relatively sophisticated readers. There are traces of humor throughout, but the overall sense you get is of a level of societal catastrophe so violent, so horrific, and so ultimately corrupt and shameful as to be “fixable” only by escaping from it. And that leads to the unstated paradox lying just beneath the narrative surface: that Cora managed somehow to run away from her masters on the plantation, but her people all these years later cannot flee the legacy of slavery because it is simply too much a part of what it means to be a black person in America today.

The book presents a nuanced image of society—the black people are not all saints and the white people are not all villains—but, overall, the experience of reading the novel opens a vista in to the black consciousness that will unsettle most non-black readers, including the relatively historically astute. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Whitehead is a marvelous writer whose language on more than one occasion truly soars. But it is precisely the contrast between the richness of the prose and the scenes the author’s literary talent is being pressed into service to describe that will be the most compelling for most readers. I’ve read many books about racism in America and specifically about the experiences of slaves in our country before the Civil War, and I found the book not only eye-opening and surprising, but also profoundly unsettling. If great books are those that leave you personally altered by the reading of them, Colson Whitehead’s book has earned its place on my list.

In Underground Airlines, the author imagines a world in which the Civil War was averted when Lincoln was assassinated before the fighting began and a grand compromise in Congress led to slavery being made permanently legal in four states: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the combined Carolinas. The book centers on the exploits of a runaway slave who enters into a devil’s bargain with the U.S. Marshals Service and agrees to assist the authorities in catching other runaways in exchange for his own freedom.  Underground Airlines is essentially a mystery novel, and a complex one at that, but the part that was the most resonant with me personally was the strangely bureaucratic feel to the whole operation as described in the book. The slaves, three million strong in the four remaining slave states, are held in bondage not by sadists and brutal, insensate taskmasters, but primarily by bureaucrats, by civil servants who simply accept that the law of the land is the law and that there cannot therefore be any moral problem in upholding it. These are the novel’s equivalents of the most mysterious—to me personally, at any rate—figures in any Shoah memoir: not the emotionless brutes who did the killing, but the indifferent bystanders who watched the horror unfold around them and responded only by feeling fortunate that it wasn’t happening to them.

For me, it is the behavior of the indifferent bystander that is at the heart of the story of the Shoah. And it is clearly at the heart of the black experience of slavery too, at least in its recollective phase as people today contemplate the peculiar institution and ask themselves how otherwise normal, decent people can have abided its presence in the warp and woof of our American society for as long as they did.

As I contemplate the forthcoming trial in Charleston, I feel these thoughts coming to the fore and informing the way I understand the issues in play. Yes, of course, on one level his trial will be about determining the guilt of one man who stands accused of having done one specific series of things on one particular day. But in the larger picture, it will be about our society itself…about the pernicious staying power of racism all these many years after so many of us imagined the issue of racial prejudice to have been laid to rest in the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement; about the sense that black Americans cannot feel totally safe even in church, even in a land that pays endless lip service to the notion of racial equality, even in their own company at Bible study; about the willingness of the world to wave away any sense of shared responsibility for the enduring legacy of prejudice in our country with muttered reference to the craziness of any specific perpetrator. And beneath it all lies the legacy of slavery, the centuries-long story of powerlessness and inhumanity that churns and roils at the heart of any story involving white people murdering black people against a background of racial hatred.

Until I read these two books, and particularly Colson Whitehead’s, I don’t think I fully understood how Faulkner’s comment about the past relates to the black experience in our American republic…and why it would be wrong to wave away an incident like the Emanuel Church massacre as “just” another example of senseless violence in our land. But I’m getting there…and I think my readers will find both books equally illuminating and helpful in coming closer to understanding the invisible issues in play in Charleston.