Obama, Joshua, Immigration, Barrios and Favelas, São Paulo, and The Genius of America


The Parrot Speaks Out on the State of the U.S.


OK, so it’s a peculiar combination; but bear with me.


I had been terrified that the American electorate was not going to be capable of doing it, but when, on 4 November 2008, the voters were actually able to elect an extremely intelligent, thoughtful, Black man—from a northern city, no less—as our 44th President, my sense of belief in the American people was profoundly strengthened, and my hope for the democratic process in our country was enormously restored.


It is not hard to understand why I was worried that Americans would be unable to elect an African-American to be their President:  racism in America has run deep, and it continues to be an extremely powerful pernicious force in our society.


Why it seemed so unlikely that intelligence and thoughtfulness would be qualities of an electable candidate is best summed up by Paul Krugman’s description of the very heretofore successful Republican anti-intellectual, anti-thoughtfulness strategy in his excellent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on 7 August 2008:


know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.” (www.nytimes.com/2008/08/08/opinion/08krugman.html?_r=1&scp=21&sq=paul+krugman+column&st=nyt&oref=slogin)


And this strategy has, over the past decades, become a frighteningly successful one—culminating in the presidency of George W. Bush.


It has become dangerous for any politician to appear to be too thoughtful about issues, no less to talk about them in any depth or with any level of sophistication.  To succeed with the American public, ideas have needed to be reduced to the most simplistic of sound bites—the shorter and more sloganistic the better.  I had trouble even watching the debates, since—aside from what the Republican side was putting forth—even Barack Obama had to be careful not to appear too intellectual or answer questions in too sophisticated or deep a way.  Meaningful political discourse about real issues has all but disappeared from American politics   But the fact that any party would have the shamelessly cynical audacity to put a Sarah Palin forward to be their candidate for Vice President of the United States was staggering:  three decades ago no one would have dreamt of doing such a thing, even if it seemed to be clearly advantageous to winning—and, three decades ago, there was no way that it would have been.  Americans had always wanted to look up to their leaders, to be in awe of the intellect, experience, and power of their leaders—not to want their leaders to be people they would be “comfortable having a beer with.”  It is also reasonable to think that part of this dreadful state of affairs is related to a frighteningly profound decline in education in America.


But the American people did succeed in electing just such a person.  I was so moved by it, I sent around a quote from Ethan Bronner’s piece from The New York Times (q.v., www.RLRubens.com/bronner.htm):


From far away, this is how it looks: There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth — call it America — where such a thing happens.


And I was so moved by that, I rather uncharacteristically added,


Hazak hazak v’nithazek”:  Be strong, be strong. And let us strengthen one another” (or, sometimes translated idiomatically as, “Be strong and of good courage”) [Joshua 1:6]  It is God’s charge to Joshua, and it is what Jews say at the end of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah, as they return to Genesis for the beginning of the reading of the next cycle.  There is something that has ended, and there is a hopeful new beginning.  Let us hope we have the strength and courage to realize its possibilities.


More than one of my recipients responded that they were shocked to hear me quoting anything religious, because they knew how troubled I have been over the past decades by the stupidity that has been applied to religion, and the stupidity that has been reflected in so much of religious thought.  Three decades ago, no political party in the U.S. would have dared to pander to the lowest forms of fundamentalist religious thought as even the Democrats have been doing—forget the Republicans!


Nevertheless, this Hebrew saying was what had sprung to my  mind.  As I said in that email, it had very much to do with its having been something that was traditionally said at the end of a cycle and the affirmation of returning to a new beginning (and, I suppose it contributes for me that the end in question was the book of Deuteronomy and the parts of the Pentateuch of which I had always been least fond, and the new cycle takes us to Genesis—the book that generations of my students [from a former life of mine] could tell you was always my favorite Jewish subject to teach).  It also must have something to do with the exhortation to be strong—something very much called for in our moving forward into this particular future—and with the idea of communally strengthening each other.  But it also cannot be accidental that it is from the book of Joshua.  (Well, it is not exactly or completely from the book of Joshua, although it certainly is a reference thereto and is at least partially therefrom.  For those who may be interested in such details, I include in the NOTES at the end of this email a list of corrections about what I had written about this idea and its origins, q.v., infra.)


When I sent around that email, I received an email back from a  friend at The New Yorker, who said it was interesting that I had quoted Joshua, and that I should be on the lookout for the article David Remnick had coming out in their next issue.  My curiosity thus peaked, I gave some more thought to Joshua.  Joshua was the leader who, after the death of Moses (who had led the Jews out of Egypt, but then wandered with them for 40 years in the wilderness), actually led the Jews into the Promised Land; but this eponymous leader’s book in the Bible is actually a rather fanciful account of that bit of history:  it portrays their entry into Canaan as that of a mighty army conquering quickly and systematically the territory before it (best know from the story of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho), while everything that is known about the actual historical reality was radically different from that.  The far more historical account of that very same process is to be found in the book of Judges, in which the Jews actually enter Canaan in a rather piecemeal, rag-tag way—more as powerless immigrants moving into a region than as a army conquering it.  They drifted into the region and occupied the unwanted high, hilly places, leaving the fertile and more hospitable valleys to the already established inhabitants.  Martin Noth, in his classic scholarly work, The History of Israel, described the Canaanites as living “most frequently in the plains favored by nature,” while the Israelites “gained a footing in the parts of the country which were inhabited only sparsely or not at all, areas that were still very largely wooded and still in need of clearing to be suitable for human settlement…[and] established new settlements, which they also called “cities,”…not easily accessible, with densely packed dwellings in a confined space.” [p. 141f]     It is only much later that they eventually began to become a force to be reckoned within the region.  (David Remick’s wonderful article turned out to be “The Joshua Generation:  Race and the campaign of Barack Obama.”  I have sent it around, but you can access it here: http://www.RLRubens.com/Remnick.htm .)


This thought thoroughly took me aback.  As a participant in of the Urban Age (a program is centered at the London School of Economics and funded by the Alfred Herrhausen Society [the international forum of Deutsche Bank] and which sponsors a series of world-wide conferences, dedicated to studying the problems and issues facing cities in the 21st century and creating dialogues designed to find solutions  q.v., my write-up of the 2007 UA Mumbai conference and other Urban Age events), we have been looking this year specifically at South America—and I am about to travel to São Paulo, Brazil, for the UA conference there at the beginning of December.  What is so typical of the development of informal cities in South America—the slums or barrios or favelas there (like the barrio of  Petare, in Caracas, pictured at the left in a photograph by my friend and UA participant, Alfredo Brillembourg [click here for higher resolution image] or the favela of Paraisópolis in São Paulo [click here for an image of the poverty of this favela encroaching right up against the incredible wealth of the established part of the city])—is that the poor, often the immigrants to the city, build their dwellings up the sides of the undesirable, steep hills, occupying the high land not wanted by the rich, more established inhabitants who live on the more desirable, safer, flat lands below.  It is a process known in Spanish as “La cuidad informal se come a la colina,” “The informal city eats the hill.”  Like the Jews entering Canaan three millennia before, the poor occupy these high, difficult places unwanted by the more established residents.  It is only as they settle in, become a functioning community, and begin to develop an organizational fabric that they start to become a force of some consequence.


Immigration, it turns out, has been on my mind for many reasons.  Anyone who studies cities and the dynamisms of their growth patterns is well aware the crucial importance and power of immigration.  Essentially, major cosmopolitan cities do not exist without immigration—it is the engine that drives their growth and prosperity, whether it is immigration from foreign countries or immigration into the cities from the rural outlands.  It is extremely striking that over the past decades America—the country of immigrants—has become so anti-immigration; or, at least, the Republican party and much of the America it represents has become anti-immigration.  It is only in America’s cities that immigrants and immigration are valued, welcomed, and respected for their positive contribution to the society.


The voting divide in the U.S. has been amazingly along rural-urban lines.  If one looks at maps of the recent election by county, it becomes rather clear what is going on (this map is from the incredibly wonderful work done by Mark Newman at the University of Michigan; q.v., http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2008/):

The majority of the counties voting Democratic (in blue) are the urban counties, and the vast areas of red are mostly rural.  It is why that even in an election in which the Democrats won by an extremely comfortable margin, it looks like the country was largely Republican.  Mark Newman’s clever use of cartograms (maps in which the sizes of states—or, in this case, counties—are rescaled according to their population, i.e., they are drawn with size proportional not to their acreage but to the number of their inhabitants) gives a much more accurate view of what the election returns were like.  In the one below, one can readily see how the blue counties, when drawn by population size rather than geographic area, were as decisive as they turned out to be:


For months I had been on a rant about the decline of the United States.  I have always believed that democracy was not an easy form of government to have be effective—and that it was rather wonderfully astounding how well it had worked in the United States.  In general, simple “majority-rule” governance does not to seem to work all that well:  even the ancient Athenians, second to the U.S. in the longevity of their democracy (and having the much easier task of using it to govern a polity only a tiny fraction of the scale of ours), were not all that successful—particularly when it came to the protection of its minorities; and, rather than a universal panacea, effective democracy has been a rather difficult thing to achieve in most places (although, under the influence and example of the U.S., it has become a much-tried form around the world).  I had been attributing the success of American representative democracy to two factors:  1) to the brilliance of the framers in including the Bill of Rights (a set of principles that no nation would have arrived at from a simple majority rule process), and to certain other structural protections, limitations, and guarantees cleverly built in to our Constitution; and, 2) to a certain character of the American spirit, a centuries-long striving for betterment—not only for the individuals themselves, but for their families, communities, and world, and involving the desire for a better life (i.e., education, social welfare, peace, prosperity, etc.) for the society as a whole, and not just for individual gain—and certainly not just for material gain.  Something similar applies to the extraordinary success of free market capitalism in the U.S.:  without the balance of certain regulatory principles and structures, free markets in fact are not so self-correcting and successful (as it has become fashionable to insist in the U.S. since Ronald Reagan); but rather free markets tend to go in some seemingly unavoidably self-destructive directions—of which monopoly is the most widely and generally acknowledged.  (Apropos of the current financial crisis, it might be well to note that Ponzi schemes fall into a similar category.)  There are crucial balances to the dynamic engines of democracy and free markets that are necessary for them to work well; and, up until relatively recently, those balances have existed in the U.S.  Somewhere in the past three decades, these balances have begun to weaken, and, in the past decade, they have all but begun to crumble:  the Bill of Rights has been substantially eroded (it is horrifying to realize that we have been living in a country that has not only been using torture but has defended the correctness of its use of it, engaged in wholesale invasions of privacy, abrogated most all of the assurances of our system of legal protections,  etc. etc.—trashing the Amendments IV, V, VI, and VIII, and taking a pretty good swipe at I), the right of habeas corpus has been denied, and the balances and regulations of both governance and of business have broken down (in the former, the intense polarization and antipathy has led to the decline of rational discourse and meaningful compromise, and in the latter, unregulated markets and institutions have moved in irrationally venal directions that have avoided transparency, substituted leverage for growth, entrapped people in their greed and irresponsibility, and, in so doing, have brought the world to the brink of financial collapse),


Some weeks into this rant, I began to realize that this “American spirit” so peculiarly to our history is actually an immigrant spirit!  Immigrants have traditionally tended to place great emphasis on self-sacrifice, hard work, education, community, and a willingness to strive for the general future betterment of their families and communities—all things that have been in serious decline in recent decades in America as a whole.  We are, as I noted a few paragraphs earlier, a nation of immigrants—and immigration has played an ongoing and crucial part in the growth and strength of our country.  But in recent decades, the country—particularly in certain segments of our population—has become increasingly hostile towards immigrations and even towards immigrants, themselves.  Granted, this hostility is far less true in urban areas, where people tend to be more aware of the positive impact of immigration and appreciative of its benefits; but that fact just underscores the power and depth of the anti-urbanism that has been running parallel to it in our society.  Along with our self-centeredness and our greed, we have become increasingly inward looking, xenophobic, and protectionist—and always looking to find scapegoats onto which to project our fears and ager, and upon whom to place blame for our dissatisfactions and shortcomings.


Somewhere late in this process, I read a wonderful new book by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes, The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country and How It Can Again (Bloomsbury, New York, 2007).  The “genius” it attributes to America is its Constitution, and the radically different form of government created by it.  It begins with a historical presentation of the situation between the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the creation of the Constitution in 1787; and, in doing so it explicates the profound philosophical shift from the original belief in a unique “public virtue” the Colonists felt they could rely on in themselves that would require only the most simple, direct, and minimal of governmental structures to make their new society work, to a realization that the framers of the Constitution had that they needed to create a structure that would provide for a government that could work in the face of the absence of any such special virtues:


In 1776, on the eve of independence and war, Americans viewed themselves as capable of suppressing their individual self-interest for the public good, in the conduct of their public affairs.  They called this ability public virtue.  America was a blank slate, Tom Paine declared in 1776, and Americans would write with virtue on it.  All they needed to do was declare liberty from the corrupt and aging empire that subjugated them. [p. 23]


The reality set in.  Not only was the War of Independence a time that “tried men’s souls,” in Paine’s memorable phrase; it also tested the faith that sound government could rest on public virtue,  And faith in virtue failed.  To be sure, the war had shown the extraordinary qualities of some Americans.  But it had also demonstrated that Americans could be extraordinarily selfish. [p. 36]


The wartime deprivations had dramatized the weakness of a national government that rested on the belief that individual citizens and their states would be adequately motivated by public virtue to rally around national goals.  [p. 38]


“We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation… We must take human nature as we find it.  Perfections falls not to the share of mortals,” Washington wrote to John Jay in 1786… It fell to one of Washington’s most trusted military aides, Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the Caribbean, to lay out the new vision of human nature…  Back in 1777, Hamilton, echoing Tom Paine had favored a simple New York legislature, with one house, where the voice of the people could be represented without encumbrances.  But the ensuing years sharpened his views of people and the kind of government needed to channel their drives… …his foundational observations about human nature would crystallize the intellectual transformation that had taken America from a faith in public virtue in 1776 to something radically different, as Hamilton summarized it, in 1787: “Men love power… Give all the power to the many, they will oppress the few.  Give all  power to the few, they will oppress the many.” [p. 43f]


The authors concluded:


[the framers] had established an entirely new form of government based on new theories of government.  They had, they thought, saved their country from chaos or tyranny.


They had developed  a far more mature notion of public virtue, one which denied the possibility of—and, more important, eliminated the need for—perfection in human political behavior.  In its place through representation and separation of powers, the framers substituted struggle among competing ideas, interests and egos.  They no longer pretended they could fix human nature, so they harnessed it.  Under this scheme the process would replace the product as the test of lawmaking legitimacy.  “The founding fathers…saw conflict as the guarantee of freedom…The constitution thus institutionalized conflict in the very heart of the American polity. [p. 45]


After a beautiful presentation of the history of the framing and adopting of the Constitution, the authors go on to describe how this system and the “Constitutional conscience” that created and embraces it have functioned throughout the sweep of American history—requiring compromises and balances that imposed important correctives to the simple drift of majority rule.  It describes the great historical challenges to these balances like the Sedition Act of 1798 and the Civil War—both, interestingly, moments when our Constitutional system was preserved by the efforts of the Republican party.  The next great challenge came with the Great Depression; but, in the book’s view, FDR’s response to that, while it toyed with weakening the judiciary and succeeded in radically expanding the role of government in the life of the country beyond anything envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, continued powerfully to embrace and embody the Constitutional conscience in a way that continued to be true throughout the next three decades.  The books sees the current breakdown of that Constitutional compromise having its precursors—but not its real dissolution-- in the presidency of Richard Nixon, and really starting to deteriorate thereafter, beginning with Jimmy Carter, but really gathering impetus under Ronald Reagan.


So, ultimately, the book is talking about a decline in the way America has functioned over the same three decades as those about which I had been ranting, albeit that the authors have what is a more sophisticated—but not unrelated—notion of what has been going on in this decline.  One way or the other, the balances that had made democracy (and, according to me, free markets) so successful in America had begun to break down. 


The authors of The Genius of America are calling for a return to those principles of the Constitutional conscience---most importantly including real discourse, meaningful interactions between the various factions of the polity and branches of the government, and respect for the Constitution itself.


Our new president-elect has monumental problems he will need to provide leadership in solving.  We can only hope that this election and the shift in the spirit in the country will turn us back to a system that has functioned so well in the past.  We are at an important potential moment of change:  the youth of America have been engaged and active in a way our country has not seen in decades, the country has elected a thoughtful, intelligent leader—one with principles, but with an apparent desire for real discourse and meaningful compromise—and there seems to be a sea change in the air.


Let us hope that he and we have the strength and courage to pull it off.  So much is hanging in the balance.


There’s far more I’d like to add, but if I don’t stop here, I won’t get this off before leaving for the Urban Age conference in São Paulo.


Just a parting visual of the pedimental sculpture over east entrance to the U.S. Capitol—called “The Genius of America”—before I run off to catch my flight:



Genius of America - Central PedimentThe sculptural pediment (by Italian sculptor Luigi Persico ) over the east central entrance of the U.S. Capitol is called Genius of America. The central figure represents America, who rests her right arm on a shield inscribed "USA"; the shield is supported by an altar bearing the inscription "July 4, 1776." America points to Justice, who lifts scales in her left hand and in her right hand holds a scroll inscribed "Constitution, 17 September 1787." To America's left are an Eagle and the figure of Hope, who rests her arm on an anchor.



 -The Architect of the Capitol (responsible to the United States Congress for the maintenance, operation, development, and preservation of the United States Capitol Complex, which includes the Capitol, the congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress buildings, the Supreme Court building, the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Capitol Power Plant, and other facilities) www.aoc.gov/cc/art/pediments/gen_ctr.cfm?displaylargeimages=1





Some corrections about the Hebrew quotation, “Hazak hazak v’nithazek:


1.      The source of this phrase is Rabbinic; it is not actually found in the Bible in this form

2.      Nevertheless, the repetition of the word “hazak” most assuredly is a an allusion to the first chapter of Joshua, in which it is repeated twice—at the beginning of  verse 6, “hazah v’ematz” (חזק ואמץ), and again at the beginning of verse 7, “rak hazah v’ematz  (רק חזק ואמץ); it is actually reprised a third time in the middle of verse 9

3.      The translation “be strong and of good courage” (or, simply, “be strong and courageous”) is of “hazah v’ematz” (חזק ואמץ)—and it is not, as I had suggested, an idiomatic rendering of “hazak v’nithazek” (חזק ונתחזק); and the “rak hazah v’ematz m’od” (מאד רק חזק ואמץ) of verse 7 is translated “only be strong and of very good courage”

4.      The only time the phrase “hazak v’nithazek” (חזק ונתחזק) occurs in the Bible (and, actually, the only occurrence at all of the verbal form “nithazek” [hitpael first person plural imperfect of חזק—the hitpael usually being the reflexive form of that sort of verb, or a form that implies “making ourselves strong,” in this case) is in II Samuel 10:12

5.      The translation I quoted, “Be strong, be strong. And let us strengthen one another,” is of  hazak v’nithazek” (חזק ונתחזק)

6.      The phrase is said by some congregations at the completion of each of the five books of the Torah, by some only after the completion of all five…and in some after the completion of any book


Return to Dead Parrot homepage.