A Logician’s Tale

The Association for Symbolic Logic (ASL) is a professional organization of researchers in Mathematical Logic, a field that also includes people from Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy as well as Mathematics itself. When it is not a plague year, the ASL holds an annual meeting in North America and another one in Europe.  This April, the North American meeting was held at Cornell University in Ithaca NY and this writer was invited to give a talk – not on his latest theorems this time but on certain historical aspects of an area in Mathematical Logic he last worked on forty years ago. But it was wonderful to take a break from Covid induced solitude, to re-find old friends and to meet new people in the field.
A gathering like this is basically a religious event for a priesthood of scholars who believe in the magic and majesty of their subject. It is a pilgrimage drawing people from all over – English is the official language but one would hear Hebrew, Polish, Spanish etc. in conversations and black-board sessions throughout the meeting. The comparison can be made to the School of Pythagoras, where Philosophy and Mathematics were blended with a religious theory based on the harmony of the spheres.
The field has its mythic figures – ancients like Aristotle, medieval scholars like William of Ockham and more recent ones like George Boole, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, … . It has a hierarchy based on talent – and some grand old men and women. Apropos, the group at Cornell was about 25% women, 75% men; the current president of the ASL is Julia Knight, a professor at Notre-Dame.
As the meeting unfolds, a first impression one forms is just how far removed from ordinary earthly considerations this subject can be. Like mathematics in general, the subject is driven above all by its own internal momentum – which does make its practitioners seem to inhabit an Ivory Tower constructed by their own imaginations. Many there were talking about monstrously large infinite cardinal numbers – a mystical pursuit justified in part by the knowledge that more one knows about the infinite, the more one can know about the ordinary integers. There was a series of talks on the frontier field of Quantum Computing, calibrating it with classical mathematical models of computability such as Turing machines. Among other topics, there were talks on Model Theory, a subject which extracts rich mathematical information from the simple fact that a subject’s axioms, theorems and open problems can be expressed in a particular formal language.
But these researchers are on the faculties of elite colleges and universities; their work is funded by grants from government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the European Science Foundation. (Some young people from Europe even said that they were especially glad of the opportunity to come to a live meeting at Cornell because the travel money in their grants had to be spent this academic year!) But why all this financial support for such a seemingly marginal enterprise?
The simple answer is that research in pure mathematics has again and again proved vital to progress in the physical sciences. Historically, much mathematics developed in tandem with physics – Archimedes, Newton – but even so their work was based in turn on the geometries of Euclid and Descartes.
In a more modern context, work on the Riemannian Geometry of dimensions higher than 3 provided Einstein the tools he needed for the 4-dimensional geometry of the Theory of Relativity. Drolly put, mathematicians were traveling in space-time even before Einstein!
Yet more recently, it was work in pure math by Yves Meyer and others on Harmonic Analysis (the mathematics of sound) that had a new tool ready for engineers for the development of high-definition digital television –  the wavelet. The wavelet plays the role the classical Fourier transform does for analog radio and TV.
Apropos, Meyer was a colleague of this writer at the University of Paris (Jussieu campus) back in the 1970s – very much the Parisian intellectual: good looking, brilliant, witty and, what’s more, a very nice guy.
And this kind of anticipation of the needs of science and engineering is also true of Mathematical Logic. To start, Boolean Algebra is key to the design of computer chips. And there was Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the extraordinary discovery that the axiomatizations of strong mathematical systems like Set Theory and Number Theory would necessarily fall short as oracles for discovering the truth – human intuition can not be done away with; to accomplish this, Gödel applied mathematical methods to mathematics itself (aka meta-mathematics), to analyze algorithms and proofs, an analysis that led to computer programming as we know it today. Indeed, at a high enough level of abstraction, proofs and programs are pretty much the same thing.
Gödel’s work was in response to Hilbert’s Program, a project which was launched by German mega-mathematician David Hilbert in the late 1920s to apply Proof Theory and its meta-mathematics to establish that the axioms of standard mathematical systems could not yield inconsistent results. Gödel, practically speaking, put an end to Hilbert’s Program although its spirit continued to motivate outstanding work in Proof Theory.
Apropos, at an ASL meeting many years ago, this writer was walking with Stephen Cole Kleene, a giant in the field and one who contributed important work on mathematical models of computability in the 1930s; when asked what motivated them back then, Kleene, an American, responded “Well, the Germans had this Proof Theory and we were just trying to catch up.”
In 1933, John Von Neumann came to the recently created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; Von Neumann, a true polymath, worked in many areas of mathematics including Logic: Set Theory and Proof Theory, in particular. It was he who arranged for Kurt Gödel to visit the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton on three occasions in the 1930s and then arranged a permanent position for Gödel there after the latter’s dramatic escape from Vienna in 1940 – train from Vienna to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, boat to Japan, ship to the US – in 1940 before the German invasion of Russia and before Pearl Harbor. Gödel himself wasn’t Jewish but he was being accused of doing “Jewish mathematics” and his life was being threatened.
In 1936, the young British mathematician Alan Turing published a paper “On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” Here Turing presented a new mathematical model for computation – the “automatic machine” in the paper, the “Turing Machine” today. Turing proved that this much simpler model is equivalent to the other schemes of Gödel, Herbrand, Church and Kleene; the Turing Machine is couched in terms of a very primitive device manipulating 0s and 1s; furthermore, Turing demonstrated the existence of a Universal Turing Machine which can emulate the operation of any Turing machine M given the description of M in 0s and 1s along with the intended input; this will turn out to prove very important barely 10 years later. Turing presented his paper at Princeton and then stayed on to do a PhD under Alonzo Church, author of another important model of computation, the λ-calculus – a model far less intuitive than Turing’s but one important today in work on automated proof checking and other areas of Computer Science. Von Neumann tried to get Turing to stay at Princeton as a post-Doc after the latter’s PhD dissertation there in 1938 but Turing went back to England where he was soon working on breaking the codes of the German Enigma machine.
BTW Applying the Universal Turing Machine to itself opens the door to a treasure trove of paradoxical insights and results. In a similar way, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem relies on self-reference. Very roughly speaking Gödel’s proof employs a stratagem reminiscent of the Liar’s Paradox of Antiquity: Gödel constructed a self-referential formula asserting “This statement is not provable” – if provable, it’s false; if not provable, it’s true. So if the axioms do not yield false results, Gödel’s statement is true but unprovable. (For an example of an incompleteness in mathematics that does not employ mathematical self-reference, see the Kanamori-McAloon Theorem.)
Scientists have long been involved in the design of new weapons systems: Archimedes used parabolic mirrors to create a laser like beam of light that set the sails of Roman ships on fire in Syracuse harbor; Leonardo supplemented his income by sketching visionary weapons for Ludovico II, the Duke of Milan. But WW II was a watershed when the military and governments realized that for new modern weapons systems, scientists and mathematicians were needed in addition to military engineers.
The most spectacular wartime weapons effort was the Manhattan Project for constructing atomic weapons. John von Neumann worked on the Manhattan Project as did Logician Stanislas Ulam. Ulam started his academic career in Lviv working in Set Theory on very large infinite cardinal numbers – yes, at that same city in western Ukraine today that is subject to constant bombardment and yes those same monstrous infinities that were the subject of several exciting talks at Cornell.
Apropos, Ulam wrote a breezy autobiography Adventures of a Mathematician (1976). At one point he came to Paris and joined a couple of us logicians for dinner at a Basque restaurant near the Panthéon. We tried to get him to tell us whether the Monte Carlo algorithms he had invented were done in connection with his work on the hydrogen bomb – he was charming but evasive. However, he did write down our names most carefully; presumably, were we to become famous, we would get a mention in his next book!
BTW The Soviet Union followed suit in its post-War support for Mathematics and the Soviet School (already strong before the War) became second to none. Mathematics and Theoretical Physics were very attractive areas for young researchers in the USSR since these were the only areas where spying government apparatchiks would never be able to understand what you were actually doing and therefore would leave you alone.
In the early days of modern computing machinery one had to rewire the machine, replace external tapes, swap plugboards or reset switches for the next application. This would change. After the War, Von Neumann joined the team at the University of Pennsylvania under John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, the team that built the pioneering ENIAC (1945). For this next government funded project, Von Neumann wrote up a report on the design of the next digital computer, “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”; inspired by the Universal Turing Machine, in this report, von Neumann introduced “stored programming” where you just input the algorithm along with the data into the memory of the machine – the algorithm and the data live in the same universe after all. This was a crucial step forward. Today, the role of the Universal Turing Machine is played by the operating system of the computer or phone; MS-DOS, Windows, macOS, Unix, Linux, Android, iOS.
BTW In the post-War period, US courts were revealed to have a Platonistic philosophy of mathematics – who knew ? It was ruled that an algorithm could not be patented because the mathematical theorems underlying the algorithm were already true before their proofs came to light – mathematicians were thus discoverers and not inventors. Later the courts patched things up with industry by declaring that one could patent the implementation of an algorithm!
After the war, US government and military financing of university research continued to pay off in spectacular fashion: e.g. the Internet and Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI itself had its roots in Mathematical Logic and the first to warn the world that machine intelligence was destined to outstrip human intelligence was Alan Turing. In his 1951 talk at the University of Manchester entitled Intelligent Machinery: A Heretical Theory, Turing spoke of machines that will eventually surpass human intelligence: “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control.” This eerie event is now called the Singularity and “experts” predict it will come soon after 2030.
Set Theory, Model Theory, Proof Theory and other areas of Logic also prospered in the post-War era; interest in the field spread and new centers of Logic emerged in the US and as far abroad as Novosibirsk in Siberia. In 1966, Paul Cohen received the Fields Medal (the mathematicians’ “Nobel Prize”) for his elegant work on the Continuum Hypothesis  – this was the subject of the very first in a list of 23 important open problems drawn up by that same David Hilbert in 1900, problems whose solutions would determine the directions Mathematics would take.
Apropos, this writer used Cohen’s techniques to settle a form of the Continuum Hypothesis problem that had been raised by work of Gödel. This earned him an audience with Gödel where they discussed set-theoretic axioms to extend the power of mathematics; when one of this writer’s suggestions was proving too convoluted, Gödel simply said “That won’t work; it has to be beautiful to be true.”
Today, AI and other fields that originated in Mathematical Logic have merged with Computer Science and new fields have been created – such as Complexity Theory which analyzes the run-time of algorithms; and this links in turn to modern cryptography such as that behind the omnipresent  https://  . Also in this intersection of Logic and Computer Science there is ongoing work on automated proof checking: this involves new logics and new constraints on the structure of proofs and the conversion of proofs into programs – right back where this all started in Proof Theory.
But can one say that the kind of work presented at the Cornell ASL meeting will have such pervasive consequences as that from years past? We do not know, of course, but mathematics is the best tool humans have for understanding the physical universe both in the large and in the small. Indeed, people always marvel at how the Mathematics fits the Physics so perfectly. Some skeptics claim that human intelligence is limited to the point that mathematical models used for Physics are simply the only ones that we ourselves can understand. Others, more traditional in their philosophy, hold that Mathematics is just the best way for us to touch the mind of God.

1052 And All That

It was in the Lord’s Year MLII that the Great Schism took place that separated Western Christianity from Orthodox Christianity and created a fault line in Europe that is dangerous to this day, particularly for the Slavic peoples of Europe.
There had been conflicts both theological and political before between the Pope in Rome and the Archbishop of Constantinople but the rift had always been smoothed over. The Great Schism was caused by a number of basic disagreements: there was the Western practice of using unleavened bread for the Eucharist for example, but the main theological disagreement was over the relative positions of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in the Trinity – known as the filioque controversy that resulted from the Latin Church’s tinkering with the Nicene Creed. For some details, click HERE .
The actual events on the ground that immediately triggered this dramatic split are the stuff of silent comedy with the Papal Legate and the Archbishop of Constantinople hurling excommunications around like Jovian thunderbolts. But, this time there would be no turning back. The result has been a painful fissure in the structure of European society that continues to this day and that even underlies the current crisis in Ukraine.
For the most part, Slavic peoples are in the Orthodox zone with some exceptions at the very Western end of the Slavic lands. Thus the Westernmost Slavs – Slovenians, Croats, Czechs, many Slovaks – were absorbed into Western Christianity. Western Christianity reached Poland by means of the dynastic marriage of Doubravka of Bohemia, a Catholic, with Mieszko I of Poland, a pagan; the result was that Mieszko himself converted and ordered his subjects to do the same – all circa 966. (The legend is that Doubravka used her charm to engineer the conversion, but scholars today think it was built into the pre-nuptial agreement with Bohemia.)  The Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia – close politically to Poland for a long time adopted Western Christianity too.
Serbia was part of the Byzantine world and Orthodox Christianity was established there by the middle of the 9th Century. Further East the Christianization of Slavic peoples also began in the 9th Century with the Byzantine missionaries, the sainted  brothers Cyrille and Methodius (“Apostles to the Slavs”) who brought a new Faith and alphabetism to (roughly) what is now Bulgaria.
But the big prize was the Kievan Rus, the great land of the Eastern Slavs; from its capital at Kiev, it spread from the Black Sea in the South to the White Sea in the North encompassing important cities like Rostov-on-Don and historic Novgorod  – the city defended from the Teutonic Knights in 1242 by Prince Alexander Nevsky, the eponymous hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s film .
For a map of historical Kievan Rus, click HERE .
Indeed, the modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus as their cultural ancestor and Belarus and Russia even derive their names from it. The conversion of Kievan Rus to Orthodox Christianity was not the work of missionaries or of foreign conquest. Rather, it followed the Polish model: the Duke of Kiev, Vladimir the Great (980–1015), entered into an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Basil II aiding him in suppressing a revolt with the help of Kievan troops . The alliance included marriage with the Emperor’s sister and a conversion to Orthodox Christianity. With the non-chalance worthy of a great autocrat, Vladimir ordered the townspeople of Kiev to make their way down to the Dnieper River for a mass baptism, an event which has become iconic in the lore of the Christianization of the Eastern Slavs. In Kievan Rus and in Poland, however, there was resistance to this forced break with traditional Slavic paganism and its Indo-European gods, cousins to the Greco-Roman Olympians.
Nothing involving religion ever being simple, there are also the Ruthenians (aka Greek Catholics) who range from Slovakia deep into Ukraine – their rite is in Church Slavonic (a language which preceded the emergence of modern Slavic languages) but they recognize the authority of the Pope in Rome. Perhaps the best known American Ruthenian is Andy Warhol whose work shows the influence of Eastern rite mosaics and icons on his artistic imagination. BTW the village of his parents in Slovakia is now a tourist attraction – something he would doubtlessly find amusing.
Romania is a special case: the region became part of the Roman Empire with the Emperor Trajan’s conquest of historical Dacia in the 2nd Century A.D.  The time-honored legend is that Christianity itself was introduced in Dacia by the apostle St. Andrew in the 1st Century. Because of the conquest, Romanian is a Romance language; nevertheless, the people turned to Orthodox Christianity with rituals celebrated in Church Slavonic, a practice that lasted into the 17th Century.
From the time of the Great Schism till today, the boundary lines separating duchies, countries, socialist republics, kingdoms and principalities in Orthodox Europe have been drawn, erased and drawn again over and over; the map of Slavic Europe is so confusing, always shifting and changing. By way of example, in 1914 the city of Lviv (which is much in the news today) was part of the Hapsburg edition of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) with the German language name of Lemberg; then between the wars, it was in the newly created country of Poland with the name Lwow; then following WW II, it was assigned to the Ukrainian SSR with the name Lviv – so polyonymous is this town that it even has two different names in Yiddish.
For a remarkable evolving map illustrating boundary changes in Europe over time, click HERE .
On the map, one can see the city Mykolaiv built by Count Potemkin (but not a Potemkin Village this time) during the reign of Catherine the Great along the Black Sea coast of modern Ukraine. Mykolaiv and other cities which date from that era – Odessa, Dnipro, Kherson, Sebastopol – are also very much in the news today. On this map, Ukraine only appears as a demarcated political entity for a brief spell in the early 20th Century before it is swallowed up by the USSR following the October Revolution of 1917 and the peace treaties ending WW I. And the map does not show that Crimea only became part of the Ukranian SSR in 1954 (when Ukranian Nikita Kruschev was Premier of the Soviet Union).
Present day Moldova (aka Bessarabia) is part of the Romanian story from the point of view of organized religion; but in 1940, as part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the area was ceded by the Kingdom of Romania to the Soviet Union to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic forming a buffer between the Ukrainian SSR and Romania.
At the end of WW II in 1945, all of the Orthodox Slavic lands were in the Communist sphere of influence – either as part of the USSR, part of the Warsaw Pact or part of Yugoslavia. All this would come crashing down with the partition of Yugoslavia and the fall of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th Century. The partition of the Kingdom of the Slavs saw Western Europe at its worst as Germany and others raced to disassemble the country and then failed miserably at containing the violence and slaughter that followed – violence and slaughter only accelerated by ancient unforgotten enmities which ineluctably resurfaced.
Historically, the Russians have had reason to fear Western Europe – the Teutonic Knights of the 13th century, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons that humiliated Mother Russia in the Crimean War in the 19th Century (alas giving rise to that poem about that brigade), the Hapsburg Empire’s ultimatums against Orthodox Serbia which led Tsarist Russia to start WW I as “Big Brother to the Slavs,” the murderous German armies (with their “Eastern front mentality”) of WWII. The European Union (EU) is often called the new Holy Roman Empire (HRE) – a revival of the historic imperial structure of Western Christianity. Today the EU and NATO can look to Russians like an expanded Western Christian force of Franks and Germans augmented with Anglo-Saxon auxiliaries.  Since the 1990s, this new Holy Roman Empire has been pushing relentlessly East both militarily with NATO expansion (despite assurances to the contrary once given) and culturally with the EU. Russian geo-political paranoia is not totally unfounded.
Orthodox Christianity is part of the Russian soul, even today despite 70 plus years of Communist rule. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that Orthodox Christianity provided Russia and the Slavic world a buffer against the individual liberalism of the West, something that earned him the reputation of being a “reactionary” in the West.
For someone like Putin who presumably takes the long view, the penetration of Western mores into Orthodox Eastern Europe is a threat to civilization itself. Organized religion provides a framework for social organization and for an individual’s path in life. Orthodox Christianity is entrenched in Russia, a symbol of Russian nationalism and a useful help in legitimating the regime.  On the contrary, in Western Europe, Christianity is in disarray. Not incidentally, Italy, Spain and Malta– bastions of tradional Roman Catholicism – have the lowest birth-rates in the EU, well below the level required to maintain the population, despite Church prohibitions of birth-control. It is not so funny that Anglicans quip that they go to Church only for “hatch, match, and dispatch”. (N.B. Anglicans both use the Oxford comma and put the quotation sign inside the period – one must respect that when writing about them.) For a deep look into the religious crisis in Western Europe, there is Chantal Delsol’s mordant analysis La Fin de la Chrétienté, 2021. (For a NYTimes piece on the book, click HERE .)
Not to say that Putin is especially religious (though he does attend church regularly and maintains excellent relations with the Russian Church) but he would not be alone in thinking that the godless, neo-liberal capitalist model of Western Europe is much more threat than benefaction for the Eastern Slavs; indeed, the social and human price of “progress” is admittedly very high.
From the Russian point of view, the situation in Ukraine deteriorated greatly with the Maidan protests of 2014-15: the pro-Russian president Yanukovych who had stepped back from an accord with the EU and favored economic integration with Russia and Belarus was deposed and the new regime quickly signed an association agreement with the EU. The takeover of Crimea, the incursion into Donbas soon followed. The refusal/failure of current Ukrainian president Zelensky’s government to declare publicly that Ukraine would not join NATO made it easy for Putin to ignite the slow fuse that set off the present conflict. One European nation that did not immediately join in the condemnation of the insane Russian invasion was Serbia, the Orthodox state that Russia had gone to war to defend in 1914; however, Serbia is in the process of applying for membership in the EU and so, under pressure from that new HRE, their delegation recently voted to condemn the invasion in the General Assembly of the UN – one can hear Putin cry “Et tu Illyricum.”
A special sort of madness, called até by Homer and Aeschylus, seems to take over the minds of leaders and makes them blind to reality and the consequences of their acts. Recent cases include Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Boris Johnson. Putin is but the latest in this list of victims of até , a list that goes back to Agamemnon. Nothing in any long-term view of Russian paranoia justifies the horrors of this invasion of Ukraine. But it does speak to the blindness of world leaders and the rest of us to deep structures that embody conflicts which linger on beneath the surface, so hard to see.

Legitimate Political Discourse

The mob who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was composed of a menagerie of anti-government groups with names like QAnon, The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, spurred on by a Donald Trump pep talk. Reaction by law enforcement has been slow. TIME Magazine reported on the situation as of Jan 6, 2022: “Only around one-tenth of those arrested—71 individuals—have received criminal sentences, while the rest are waiting for their trials or haven’t yet reached plea agreements. … So far, the median prison sentence for the Jan. 6 rioters is 45 days. An additional 18 rioters have been sentenced to periods of home detention, while most sentences have included fines, community service and probation for low-level offenses like illegally parading or demonstrating in the Capitol, which is a misdemeanor.”
But seven people died as a result of this assault! And these are the sentences! Mishandling of white supremacist and militia groups has been the rule, alas, in the Federal Government’s history for a long time now starting with Confederate officials and generals.
At the end of the Civil War, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis was confined for two years and then released on bail awaiting trial. However, on Christmas Day 1868, President Andrew Johnson pardoned just about everyone involved in the insurrection – an example that Trump has announced he plans to follow once he becomes President again. For his part, Robert E. Lee was never arrested or charged; he did lose the land which now is the site of Arlington National Cemetery – but his family was compensated later.
However, neither Davis nor Lee could accede to political office because of Section 3 of the 14th amendment which excludes former officials who have abetted or participated in an insurrection from serving again. This clause is of obvious interest today in so far as it can be applied to Donald Trump; for the text, click HERE .
The post-Civil War period gave rise to the longest lived white supremacist movement in the country, namely, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) – a group that has functioned with near impunity into the current era. Indeed, in Nov 1979, there was the Greensboro Massacre where Klan members killed five Communist Worker Party members who were participating in a pro-labor demonstration; there was a state criminal trial and a federal civil rights trial – in both all the assailants were acquitted. Similar result for the attempted murders of black women in 1980 in Chattanooga Tennessee. On the other hand, a most effective force against the KKK has been the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) which has succeeded in impoverishing clan groups by means of successful civil suits.
Among the first of the new violent white supremacist groups to form was the Aryan Nations in the 1970s. Inconsistency being a kind of virtue for these cult-like groups, the Aryan Nations both were virulently anti-Semitic and staked the claim that people from the British Isles are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel – a position known as British Israelism ! Under tight surveillance by the FBI, the group declined – also due to its own infighting and mismanagement. But it was not the FBI that brought the organization down in the end; rather it was that same Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that won a $6.3M lawsuit against the Aryan Nations for their sadistic mistreatment of a Native American woman and her son.
A more violent white supremacist offshoot known as The Order emerged in the 1980s and this group descended into bank robbery and more – such as the despicable murder of Jewish radio host Alan Berg; in this case at least, the government was able to bring the murderers to justice thanks to informants etc. As The Order connected up with other violent groups (among them the KKK), the Federal Government did bring seditious conspiracy charges against 14 conspirators formally indicting them in 1988 at Fort Smith Arkansas; however, 13 of them were acquitted and the charges against the 14th were dropped.
The 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho has become deeply symbolic for anti- government movements. People died but the two protagonists Randy Weaver (a Vietnam vet) and Kevin Harris were acquitted of all charges associated with the siege.
In 2006, a new militia group formed in Michigan with the name Hutaree, which was claimed to mean “Christian Warriors.” In 2010 in response to their activities, the government brought charges of seditious conspiracy against 9 members of the group: in 2012 the judge in the case dismissed all these charges.
And these malignant para-military groups have continued to multiply: in 2008, the Three Percenters, in 2009 the Oath Keepers, in 2016 The Proud Boys, and on and on.
In 2014, Cliven Bundy, white-supemacist and anti-government hardliner, had an armed standoff with federal government agents when he insisted that the government should not control federal lands. In support of Bundy, the Oath Keepers showed up. However, Bundy was not arrested and continued to graze his cattle on federal land without obtaining permits or paying fees.
In 2016, members of the Three Percenters joined the insurgents under Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven, at the Malheur Refuge Center in Oregon. This seizure of federal property lasted for months and one of the protesters was killed while resisting arrest. There were some convictions but even more acquittals. Cliven Bundy himself was arrested on his way to Malheur in 2016 but then all charges against him were dismissed in 2017 because of government bungling.
The rise of the right-wing conspiracy group QAnon is a new kind of phenomenon – born of the internet and social media like Reddit. Since 2017, people from all over have been galvanized by QAnon to contest the government based on crazy stuff like the Hilary Clinton led pedophilia ring in that pizza parlor in Philadelphia. Nutty as it is, when a lie passes its tell-by date, they simply come up with a new one.
The Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville VA in 2017 involved a congeries of anti-government, white-supremacist and anti-Semitic organizations among them neo-Nazis and the KKK. A counter-protestor Heather Heyer, was killed by a car driven into a crowd by a white supremacist demonstrator; this time the murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment. But all this criminal behavior was played down by then President Donald Trump who spoke about “very fine people on both sides.”
The state of Michigan has been a breeding ground for these anti-government cabals. In 2020, a movement calling themselves the Wolverine Militia plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The group was infiltrated and the plot forestalled, leading to charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping against 13 defendants – all of this is still working its way through the courts. The scheme was hatched following a series of protests (including an incursion by armed men into the State Capitol) in reaction to Whitmer’s strict COVID mitigation measures – measures which were derided by Donald Trump who called Whitmer “that woman from Michigan” and who tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” an all caps fascist dog-whistle.
These groups, Oath Keepers et al., are eerily like the Blackshirts and Brownshirts of the fascist movements of Europe in the 1920s. They were an integral part of the Jan 6 Insurrection where an organized, equipped and violent mob stormed the US Capitol terrorizing members of Congress and others. The goal of this action was to interfere with the count of the Electoral College votes; and then either (1) to have the vote for president assigned to the House of Representatives or (2) to have Vice-President Mike Pence accept the bogus alternate slates the Republicans had prepared for Arizona, Michigan etc; but Pence let them down. In the first case, in an election for president  in the House of Representatives, each state has one vote and the Republicans have a majority in more states than the Democrats do (even though the Democrats have more seats in the House over all) – result: victory for Trump as it was for John Quincy Adams in 1824 over Andrew Jackson who actually had won more of the popular vote and of the electoral vote. In the second case, numerous swing state electors would have been switched – result: victory for Trump as it was for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 when alternate pro-Hayes electors from Southern states were seated in return for the end of Reconstruction, thus defeating the Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden who had won the popular vote.
The Jan 6, 2021 attack is not an isolated event; it has its place in the history of white-supemacist violence; and the reaction to Jan 6 is so far eerily ineffective and reminiscent of the handling of past militia violence. And now in an “in your face” moment, the Trumpist Republicans have declared that this murderous insurrection was just an example of “legitimate political discourse.” This trick of blatantly rewriting history is a classic fascist tactic.
The material damage to the Capitol has been estimated at $30M and will rise further, much further. Four attackers died during the stampede (one, an Air Force veteran, from police fire as rioters tried to breach the House chamber, the others for medical reasons), a police officer was killed during the attack and two other officers committed suicide in the following days. Up till now, the punishments meted out have been almost all “slaps on the wrist.”
Only recently has the Department of Justice begun to move up the insurrectionist chain of command and arrest ring-leaders who were not necessarily physically present in the Capitol Building that day; the government has brought seditious conspiracy charges against 11 such defendants, among them the leader of the Oath Keepers, army veteran Stewart Rhodes. This charge of seditious conspiracy was used successfully against the Puerto Rican nationalists of the 1954 assault on the Capitol and on various Marxist groups, but it has failed when used against white supremacists and militias as in the 1988 Fort Smith sedition case and as in the 2010 case against the Hutaree militia in Michigan.
One must remember that the Nazi movement in Germany first tried its notorious Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923; the Putsch failed but the lame reaction to it only emboldened the Nazi party and its para-military apparatus, which placed that country on the fast lane to fascism. The Jan 6 Commission, the Department of Justice, the courts and public opinion had better all move quickly: with a lame response to Jan 6, we will be reduced to telling ourselves “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Post Scriptum For more on the disputed elections of 1824 and 1876 and their implications for our time, click HERE .
Post Post Scriptum For more on the fascist threat underlying Trumpism, click HERE .


Femmes Fatales of Yesteryear, Part II

For his classic poem The Ballad of Women of Times Gone By, François Villon rhapsodizes over the snows of yesteryear and the femmes fatales of yesteryear; naturally, he selects his heroines most carefully.
In the first stanza, he singles out two renowned courtesans of the ancient world.
There is Thais who followed her lover, one of Alexander’s generals, on the Macedonian march of conquest; after Alexander’s death, her paramour became Ptolemy I of Egypt – launching the dynasty of the Ptolemies that only ended with Cleopatra.
And there is Flora the Roman beauty – so prosperous in her chosen profession and so magnanimous of spirit that, according to legend, she financed the first Floralia ceremonies in Rome: springtime flower festivals and lusty happenings, annual six day events that lasted long into the Christian era. With the growth of Roman power, these exuberant ceremonies quickly spread throughout the empire – quite understandably since the Floralia “were much appreciated by conquered peoples for their licentious nature,” to translate from a prudish French source.
Things get a bit comic though in this first stanza when Villon references Alcibiades (Archipiades in the text) who was, in fact, a man. Alcibiades was known in his day as the most beautiful youth in Periclean Athens – apparently Villon and his contemporaries took him to be a woman so universal were the paeans to his beauty in classical writings. The less easily befuddled among us today hold Alcibiades more to account for his role in the disastrous siege of Syracuse in the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.
But then Villon leaps forward to the late Middle Ages invoking Héloïse and Marguerite de Bourgogne – both most worthy of the poet’s attention. The actual story of Marguerite and the scandal of The Tower of Nesle involves other dazzling women – among them are the two other daughters-in-law of King Philippe Le Bel, Jeanne de Bourgogne and Blanche d’Artois both of whom figured in the actual historical events but who were mostly left at peace by the legends and literature that followed. However, the story of The Tower of Nesle also involves Isabelle de France, King Philippe’s daughter who was the one who aroused the suspicions of her father about the future queen Marguerite’s extra-regal activities. And this is the Isabelle known to history as the She-Wolf of France (la Louve de France)! Should she not be there among the femmes fatales of Villon’s poem?
Well here is her story: daughter that she was of the King of France, at the tender age of 12, she was married off to Edward II, the King of England; this was a dynastic marriage arranged to keep the peace between England and France – as the Duke of Aquitaine and Gascogne, the Plantagenet Edward II controlled a large part of France but was in feudal terms a vassal of the King of France. It is also interesting that although the English Court at the time of these scandals was very much French, the French Salic Law never became part of English law: this law was inspired by Marguerite’s story and prevented a queen from being the reigning monarch; on the contrary, in England there were the impressive reigns of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. But the plot thickens: the same Isabelle, who had denounced Marguerite, herself led a successful rebellion against her own husband Edward II aided by her lover Roger Mortimer, baron of Wigmore and descendant of Normans who came with William the Conqueror. Edward II was thus forced to abdicate in favor of the 14 year old Edward III, his son with Isabelle; the deposed king died imprisoned at Berkeley Castle not long after, either by natural causes or on the orders of Mortimer – historians differ. Edward III only being 14 years of age when made king, Isabelle served as Queen Regent and ruled the country – she did well, making peace with Robert the Bruce and the unruly Scots, for one thing. When Edward III did take control at age 18, he promptly saw to it that Mortimer was executed – but Isabelle, though kept away from Court, lived out her days playing the model grandmother in a style befitting the daughter, wife and mother of a king.
As with Marguerite de Bourgogne and The Tower of Nesle, the story of Isabelle de France is too good to have been passed up by the world of letters, Villon notwithstanding. And this time it was Christopher Marlowe himself who seized the occasion.
    BTW, Marlowe’s star continues to rise; the New Oxford Shakespeare now lists him as co-author of all three of the Henry VI  plays – this attribution was made using a sophisticated Artificial Intelligence program which determines authorship by matching phrasings against other works by the writer in question etc – thus pretty well settling at least one question involving Marlowe’s contributions to Shakespeare’s work.
Marlowe, it seems, had a predilection for plots involving close ties between men and, true to form, in his 1592 play Edward II, he develops the story around the close and controversial relationship Edward had with his favorite Piers Gaveston. Like Dumas’ play The Tower of Nesle, Marlowe’s play too has been made into films – most recently there is the 1991 film Edward II by British filmmaker Derek Jarman: here it is Edward’s relationship with Gaveston that triggers Isabelle’s alienation – although historians tend to think that it was Edward’s dalliance with his next favorite Hugh Dispenser the Younger that drove Isabelle to open rebellion – and, indeed, in the end Isabelle did have Hugh Dispenser dispatched in a most ghastly way.
Books too continue to be written on this dramatic chapter of British history; already in this century we have Paul Doherty’s Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (2003).
And the world of art has been there since the beginning. For a medieval image of Isabelle de France, taken from the original Froissart’s Chronicles, the late 14th Century history of the 100 Years War, click HERE . Admittedly, Isabelle would have been better served by a master painter of the Renaissance but that would only have been possible some 100 or more years later. For a print from Froissart’s Chronicles of the first steps in the execution of Hugh Dispenser, click HERE .
Given all this, Isabelle de France clearly deserves her place in the pantheon of femmes fatales of yesteryear. Did François Villon only overlook her because she was Queen of England and not Queen of France? We will never know, hélas. But a simple way to give her her due is to recreate the lines that are manifestly missing from Villon’s poem, inserting them into the middle of the stanza devoted to Heloise and Marguerite; after all the poem is dedicated to dangerous women of the past, she certainly qualifies and fits in so well with the other two.
There must be a circle in Hell reserved for those who tamper with great poetry (the crime of lèse-poésie or is it lèse-poète), but for Isabelle’s sake a poetic sacrilege is justified here and so we propose that lines be added both to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Victorian translation and to Villon’s original poem.
We note with pride that the quatrains below follow Rossetti’s and Villon’s rhyme. Also like these poets, we have recourse to the language of yesteryear: in this case the arcane word mariticide which denotes the murder of a husband.
Following Rossetti:
And where is the Isabelle so intelligent
That she drove her lover to regicide
Thus becoming the Queen Regent
Thanks to her little mariticide
Following Villon:
Où est cette Isabelle si brilliante
Qui poussa son amant au régicide
Ce qui fit d’elle la reine régente
Grace a son petit mariticide
For the full Rossetti text, click HERE ; for that of Villon, click HERE .
One more treat: for Villon’s ballad sung with classical syllabication by the great French chanteur Georges Brassens, click HERE .

Femmes Fatales of Yesteryear

François Villon is the 15th Century French poet who is most famous in the English speaking world today for the plaintive line
    Where are the snows of yesteryear?   (Où sont les neiges d’antan?)
which serves as a refrain in his poem Ballade des Femmes du Temps Jadis. The translation of “antan” as “yesteryear” is due to the Victorian poet and pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who did much to popularize Villon’s poetry in 19th Century England. The title of the poem itself also presents a challenge to a translator. Most Victorians preferred The Ballad of Women of Yore which sounds too folksy today, but which still is decidedly better than Rossetti’s own The Ballad of Dead Ladies. Today, to keep it simple, it is commonly rendered in English as The Ballad of Women of Time Gone By.
The poem tells of dynamic women of history, starting with Flora and Thais, grand courtesans of antiquity. The second stanza leaps forward from the ancient world to the Middle Ages and the stories of two pairs of star crossed lovers: Heloïse and Abelard; Marguerite de Bourgogne and Jean Buridan.
Here is the second stanza as written by Villon in what is now archaic French:
Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!
Here is Rossetti’s version which does stay true to the rhyme, meter and feel of Villon’s poetry with archaisms of its own: ween = think, dule = agony, teen = misery:
Where’s Héloise, the learned nun,.
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?.
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen.
Who willed that Buridan should steer.
Sewed in a sack’s mouth down the Seine?
But where are the snows of yester-year?.
But “Lost manhood” is so lame compared to Villon’s vivid “chastré” (castrated) and the important visual reference to the Benedictine abbey at St. Denis (Sainct-Denys) is just dropped – hmm, High School English teachers used to insist that poetry should always strive to be concrete and that it is prose that delights in the abstract, a point apparently missed by poet Rossetti.
Finally here is a contemporary literal English translation – from a website named the Bureau of Public Secrets:
Where is Héloïse, so wise, for whom
Pierre Abelard was first unmanned
then cloistered up at Saint Denis?
For her love he bore these trials.
And where now can one find that queen
by whose command was Buridan
thrown in a sack into the Seine?
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
In depicting them the way he does as women of intrigue, Villon casts Héloïse and Marguerite as femmes fatales much in the style of a 1940s film noir, say Gloria Grahame and Jane Greer. In fact, although we tend to think of Héloïse as a sweet young thing who was seduced by her tutor, hers is the complex story of an accomplished and ambitious woman; in Villon’s poem, she is “sage Heloïs,” but Villon’s word “sage,” which in today’s French means “obedient,” is translated into modern French by words like “savante” and into English as “learned” (Rossetti’s choice) or “wise” (the Bureau of Public Secrets’ choice). Indeed, Héloïse went on to have a brilliant career in the Church reaching the rank of abbess and being named a territorial prelate (prelate nullius), a “bishop without a diocese” who reports directly to the Pope – the highest clerical position a nun can attain. Abelard, once her tutor and lover, suffered castration at the hands of members of Héloïse’ family but he did manage to carry on with his theological and philosophical work which has earned him a place among the deep thinkers of the Middle Ages.
And then there are the queen and the Buridan who finish out this stanza. Jean Buridan, like Abelard, was also one of the great intellectuals of the late Middle Ages – logician, philosopher, theologian, physicist, professor at the University in Paris. (There is more on him in the post on the pre-history of AI – click HERE – including the most clever proof of the existence of God of the age of Scholasticism, pace Anselm and Thomas.)
But who was the Queen who is purported to have had Buridan placed in a sack and drowned in the Seine like a cat? Historians tell us that she was Marguerite de Bourgogne, Queen of Navarre, wife to the dauphin Louis Le Hutin (the Quarrelsome) and daughter-in-law to one of the most powerful of French kings, Philippe Le Bel (the Handsome) – the king who destroyed the Knights Templar of DaVinci code fame, the king who successfully contested the power of the papacy which resulted in moving the popes from Rome to Avignon for 100 years. Next in line to be Queen of France and renowned for her beauty, Marguerite brought youth and gaiety to the Court. However, in today’s idiom, a tabloid headline of springtime 1314 would have read: “Marguerite de Bourgogne caught in flagrante delicto” and the text would go on to recount how Marguerite was having trysts with young knights in a tower across the Seine from the Palace of the Louvre – La Tour de Nesle (The Tower of Nesle).
Marguerite was outed by her sister-in-law, Isabelle de France, the daughter of Philippe Le Bel, wife of the English King Edward II and Queen of England – herself renowned for her wit and her beauty but also known as the She-Wolf of France (la Louve de France). Isabelle’s suspicions about her vivacious sister-in-law were aroused when she observed that two handsome young Normand knights who were visiting the English Court were sporting especially stylish aumônières (alms purses) that she herself had given as gifts to Marguerite – regifters beware! For a picture of an elegant aumônière of that era, click HERE .
Marguerite was then found out by the agents of her father-in-law, Philippe Le Bel. The knights, in fact two brothers, were tortured, forced to name Marguerite and then sadistically executed. Marguerite herself was imprisoned; while she was in prison, Philippe Le Bel died and she became Queen of France when her quarrelsome husband assumed the throne as Louis X. She died not long after, either from tuberculosis or by the hand of an assassin delegated by Louis X – the latter theory bolstered by the fact that there was no reigning pope at the time to dissolve the royal marriage (the cardinals were busy in a conclave in Lyon trying to elect a French pope to be installed at Avignon, eventually John XXII): so Marguerite’s timely demise left the king free to remarry, which he promptly did, this time to Clémence de Hongrie. Not surprisingly, there is no crypt for Marguerite at the royal necropolis in the Basilica of St. Denis, just outside Paris; however, the Benedictine abbey to which Abelard was confined still stands there despite being omitted in Rossetti’s too unfaithful translation.
History and legend quickly merged and the polymath Jean Buridan, an ordained priest but a Parisian man-about-town, was soon “implicated” in the affair. The version of the story that Villon employs adds the twist that Marguerite would have her lovers, Buridan among them, tied up in sacks and thrown into the Seine as the parties fines (discreet French phrase for orgies) would wind down. In the tale, there is also a shift from young knights to university students of the Latin Quarter: Buridan gets involved when he realizes that his students are disappearing without explanation but Buridan thwarts his fate by having friends waiting in a boat to fish him out when he is thrown into the River Seine.
Villon is known as le poète maudit (the cursed poet) and much of his own turbulent life story is known only through police records: he was banished from Paris three times, the first time for killing a priest in a brawl – amazing how being banished from Paris was punishment enough, an attitude Parisians still share! So it is not all that surprising that he would show interest in a sinner like the Marguerite of these legends. But a baroque tale like this calls for the pen of an Alexandre Dumas and, indeed, with Frédéric Gaillardet, he did co-author the hit play La Tour de Nesle (1832) where the lovers’ trysts are cast as mysterious, murderous bacchanals and where infinitely more intrigue (including parricide and incest) is added to the connection between Marguerite and Buridan – the character of Marguerite is so strong that it is considered the model for the dazzling Milady de Winter of The Three Musketeers. Apropos, Dumas actually fought a duel (though with pistols) with Gaillardet over a dispute about authorship – both men survived unnerved but unscathed and the two reconciled some years later in Paris.
The play has been made into several movies going back to the early silent era: the pioneering French director of full-length films Albert Capellani made his La Tour de Nesle in 1909 – two full years before his Les Misérables! But then over 200 movies have been made based on Dumas’ work over the years, certainly a record for authors – and the most glamourous Hollywood stars have been cast as Milady: Lana Turner, Faye Dunaway, Milla Jovovich. And then there have been radio shows, TV versions etc; today movie trailers and full showings are available on youTube. The story of Marguerite and Buridan has also inspired artists; for a painting of them together by the eminent 19th Century salon painter Frédéric Peyson, click HERE .
Medieval carryings on aside, the 14th Century scandal of La Tour de Nesle had serious political consequences: the affair lent support to the thesis that women lacked the moral qualities to serve as reigning monarchs on their own. The issue came up right away with the sudden death in 1316 of Louis X whose child with Clémence de Hongrie, Jean 1er Le Posthume, died in infancy – which made Marguerite and Louis X’s daughter Jeanne the logical heir to the throne; instead after a proper bout of intrigue (and it didn’t help that the affair of La Tour de Nesle cast doubt on the legitimacy of Jeanne), the throne was accorded to Louis’ scheming brother who became Philippe V le Long (The Tall). All these machinations became codified in the Salic Law of Succession (La Loi Salique) which postulated that not only could a woman not become monarch of France but that, per the Encyclopedia Britannica, “persons descended from a previous sovereign only through a woman were excluded from succession to the throne.” This issue continued to lead to constant conflicts over the succession to the throne of France – a longer one of these conflicts being the 100 Years War (1337–1453). BTW, the last woman “of time gone by” that Villon alludes to  in his poem is Joan of Arc herself, without whom that war would have lasted 200 years! Interestingly, the mischievous poet does not refer to her victories in battle but rather to how the perfidious English burned her at the stake:
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslèrent à Rouen
Or in the Bureau of Public Secrets’ literal translation:
and Joan, the good maiden of Lorraine
who was burned by the English at Rouen
One can see the not-so-subtle condescension shown by Villon toward Joan of Arc – rather like calling Golda Meir the “sweet girl from Milwaukee” rather than the “Iron Lady of Israeli politics.”
But getting back to the tale of La Tour de Nesle, Marguerite de Bourgogne is not the only femme fatale in the story. There is also Isabelle, the She-Wolf of France, who outed poor Marguerite; clearly the sobriquet “She-Wolf” implies that she was someone to reckon with and someone worthy of Villon’s attention. More to come. Affaire à suivre.

Post Scriptum

For Villon’s text of the complete poem, click HERE .
For Rossetti’s, click HERE .
For the Bureau’s, click HERE .

An American Back in Paris

Jet lagged beyond belief, we arrived at our daughter’s new place in the 16th arrondissement at 7 am where we exchanged hugs, then listened to instructions on how things work in the apartment until she ran off to the Ivory Coast for a week to work on an industrial insurance claim at a sugar plantation – something involving gas turbines! Because of Covid, it was our first visit there – a penthouse on the 10th floor of a modern building with two long balconies, one for the sunrise and one for the sunset (perfect for l’apéritif with a view of the Eiffel Tower as well). All this makes for simple but elegant dinner parties with friends.
Paris never disappoints. We settled in with ease and life quickly took shape: we had our caviste (wine merchant), our boucher (butcher), our poissonier (fishmonger – with a discrete oyster bar where  a Chardonnay from Burgundy was served), our fromager (cheese merchant), our boulanger (baker), our epicerie bio (organic food shop), a news stand (NY Times in the morning, Le Monde in the afternoon) and an all purpose supermarket for everything else. Life was good. Missing, compared to the Paris we once knew, were the droguerie (the “penny store” of old with soaps, detergents, mops, brooms), the mercerie (notions store), the charcuterie (pork store), the crèmerie (milk, crème fraîche, beurre en motte aka tub butter), the horse butcher and the tripe butcher – times had changed. Another change – bicycles and electric scooters (known as trottinettes) everywhere, zipping down the new bike lanes with no regard for pedestrians or traffic lights for that matter. Yet another change – the Scandanavian au pair girls have given way to Philippina nannies.
As far as Covid was concerned, one felt reassured. People all wear masks in the streets, shops, metros and busses; to enter a restaurant, café, department store, museum or theater, the “passe sanitaire” (a proof of vaccination) is required which is a QR Code that a very pleasant, attractive person reads with a smartPhone as you are welcomed into the establishment – Gallic charm at work. (We were able to get ours on-line from a French government web site before leaving!)
Paris life requires endless walking – up and down metro stairs, mile long treks to change trains at stops like Montparnasse-Bienvenue or Stalingrad, strolls along the Seine, hunts down narrow streets for specialty boutiques, museums, … .
Paris life is expensive but c’est la vie – €100 for apéritifs and servings of steak Tartare for lunch for two at Aux Deux Magots, the café where Jean-Paul Sartre (“Hell is other people”) and Simone de Beauvoir (“One isn’t born a woman, one becomes a woman”) wrote their existentialist novels, plays and essays during the après-guerre. To boot, the café is across from the magnificent church of St Germain des Prés, the 11th century augury of the age of Gothic cathedrals.
Paris life follows protocol. Thus Parisians are true to their fine dining code – good restaurants are empty at 7:55 pm and packed at 8:05. Oysters as hors-d’oeuvres, still de rigeur. And as an honest citizen of Cape Cod, it behooves me to admit that the French oysters are marvelous – meatier, tastier, more briny than those of chez nous.
We made a day-trip pilgrimage to Giverny in the company of charming friends to visit the Lily Ponds and the new Musée des Impressionismes with works by Monet, Caillebotte, Bonnard, … .
We made a weekend trip to Rheims, the heart of the Champagne country. (This has been an important town since pre-Roman times; Rheims is the old spelling which has been kept in English, as in the Douay-Rheims Bible, but which has morphed into Reims in French). In town, there is the magnificent cathedral where the kings of France were crowned and the caves where champagne is created through a laborious but rewarding process. The original plan was also to visit the nearby town of Troyes, a great center of commerce in the late Middle Ages – whence come avoirdupois weight and troy weight. Ironically, though, we had to reschedule that visit for our next trip because an important attraction, La Maison Rachi, the Jewish museum named for the great Troyen Talmudic scholar of the 11th Century, was not open for visits that weekend! In the following century, Chrétien de Troyes wrote early novels based on Arthurian legends such as Perceval ou le Conte du Graal, the tale of the quest for the Holy Grail – the source for Wagner’s Parsifal. For more on Troyes, Rheims and the Fairs of the Champagne Region in the late Middle Ages, there is Fernand Braudel’s magistral History of Capitalism; for this investigator’s (short) post on bubbly itself – Dom Perignon and all that – click HERE
On the way back from Rheims, we stopped at the site outside the city of Compiègne where the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. The tone was religious; the simple exhibits somehow captured the depth of the tragedy of that war and the visitors shared it.
Back in Paris, your intrepid voyager was able to fill a gap in his travel portfolio – a visit to the area named for St Dennis, or more Gallically, St Denis – an inner suburb of Paris, a metro stop even. Right there on the center square is the magnificent Basilica of St Dennis and a Benedictine abbey. In the Seventh Century, the good King Dagobert founded the abbey; the basilica itself, an early Gothic marvel, goes back to the 12th Century. For a delightful children’s song about Le Bon Roi Dagobert featuring the wonderful French comic actor Bourvil, click HERE .
Today the basilica is best known for its crypts where nearly all the French kings and queens were buried from the 10th century through to the 19th – previously St Germain des Prés had been the royal necropolis. So here were the crypts of legendary kings such as Charles the Hammer, Pepin the Short, Louis the Fat, Robert the Pius, John the Good, Charles the Handsome, Philippe the Handsome, Louis the Quarrelsome and legendary queens such as Anne of Brittany, Blanche of France, Clementia of Hungary, Isabella of Aragon, Constance of Castile, Blanche of Navarre, …
Your intrepid voyager also had a secret agenda as the unappointed ambassador of the Cape Cod town of Dennis MA. Should the municipality ever seek to have a “sister city” in France, there is a perfect candidate, St Denis naturally. Now, based on the hagiographic literature, St Dennis himself was posted by Pope Fabian to the northern outpost of Lutetia in Trans-Alpine Gaul (the present day Paris) in the 3rd Century to serve as the city’s first bishop. Unfortunately, this was a time of persecutions under the emperors Decius and Valerian; St Dennis’ proselytizing angered the Roman authorities there and they marched him up the Street of the Martyrs (Rue des Martyrs) to the Mountain of the Martyrs (Montmartre) where he was unceremoniously beheaded. But then St Dennis joined the ranks of the cephalophoric saints and martyrs (who in all number fifty) as he picked up his head and carried it some three miles to the site of his eponymous basilica where he indicated he was to be buried. This established the location as a holy place and burial ground, soon popular with pilgrims. The abbey and the basilica followed in due course.
For a statue of St Dennis in his classic pose, click HERE .
For a more elaborate statue – from of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, no less – click HERE .
The plot thickens. In Latin, the good saint’s name is Sanctus Dionysius and people from the town of St Denis are known as “Dionysiens” in French or “Dionysians”in English. Now serious towns on Cape Cod have euphonious names for their citizens (“Fleetians” in the case of Wellfleet, for example). So logically the town of Dennis should follow the good example of the French and its citizens should be known to one and all as “Dionysians.” Moreover, being associated with Bacchic revelry would surely raise the town’s profile and likely increase tourism – a consummation devoutly to be wished for beach towns. On the other hand, it might not be well advised to change the names of churches and businesses to chimeras like the Dionysian Union Church or the Dionysian Public Market.
To bolster the chances of this campaign to rechristen Dennis’ citizens, this investigator searched high and low for a small statue of the cephalophoric saint starting with the Basilica itself and then prowling the religious articles stores in the Saint Sulpice area – all without success. The villain in the piece seems to be the hierarchy of the Catholic Church who were busy last century downplaying folk favorites like St Christopher and St Dennis as too “pagan” – Vatican II and all that. St Christopher has apparently clawed his way back into favor so there is hope for a restoration of homage to other such beloved saints whose legends have inspired such awe in the faithful over the centuries. As for St Dennis, a severed head might not be as attractive a symbol as a silver medal but after all he has been a patron saint of France far longer than Joan of Arc and certainly deserves our respect. Kickstarter anyone?

Christian Anti-Semitism III

Fast forward to 19th Century in Europe where pseudo-scientific theories of race emerged. The term “Aryan” comes from a Sanskrit word for “noble” and it was originally used to denote the early speakers of Indo-European languages. The word was co-opted most notoriously by a French aristocrat, diplomat and writer: in his Essay on the Inequalities of the Human Races (1855) Arthur de Gobineau employed the names of Noah’s sons (Japheth, Shem, Ham) to divide the “Caucasians” into three groups: the Japhetites (aka Aryans) were the master race, destined to rule and, in Gobineau’s scheme, they were centered in Germany; the Jews were the Semites, busily contributing to the decay of Aryan Europe; the Moors of North Africa comprised the Hamites. Gobineau self-servingly declared himself to be Aryan, claiming that as a French nobleman his roots went back to the Hamite-bashing Germanic Franks: “732 and All That.” BTW, a more honest borrowing of “Aryan” is the modern name of Persia, namely Iran.

Gobineau thus added racism to xenophobic and religious anti-Judaism; the term anti-Semitism itself was only popularized around 1879 by the German race-agitator Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904), notoriously in his Zwanglose Antisemitische Hefte (Informal Anti-Semitic Notes). Marr himself started out as a left wing activist but the failure of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe pushed him opportunistically to the right. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica and others rightfully point out this term “anti-Semitism” is a misnomer since Arabs and other non-Jewish populations are ethnically Semites. (In fact, Arabs and Jews share tribal religious practices such as dietary laws and male circumcision, rituals which likely predate Judaism itself.) But the term anti-Semitism stuck and added a murderous racial animus to anti-Judaism as anti-Semitism became a dangerous political force in Europe.

Anti-Semitism also spawned a new industry: forged documents supporting the worst conspiracy theories directed against Jews. One notorious example is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903); though long known to be fraudulent, it was assigned reading for many German school children after the Nazis came to power; the forgery is still circulating widely today and has found a new life on the internet.

In the annals of suicide on a continental scale, nothing compares with what happened to Europe with the two world wars. The Holocaust, an incommensurable part of Europe’s self-destruction, led to the death of millions of its Jews and turned countless others into refugees – all the more insane in that the Jews were an integral part of the creation of modern Europe and its continuing dynamism – scientific, cultural and economic. In the après-guerre of the 1940s, the once haughty nations of Europe became client states of the US or the USSR and their once great colonial empires were in the process of dismantelement; leadership in technology had passed to new centers; German was no longer the language of Science.

Often a society will contain an energetic minority like the Jews in Europe, a minority that can play a significant role in the dynamics of the group as a whole – the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Chaldean Christians in Iraq, the Jains in India, … . Sociologists argue that the presence of such alternative groups is actually critical to the functioning of a complex society. On the other hand, xenophobic animosity toward these groups can linger quietly for centuries only to erupt suddenly – and now we are seeing anti-Christian violence in Egypt; religious minorities are at the brink of extinction in war-torn Iraq and Syria. But still even after the humiliating defeat of Germany and Austria in the nightmare of the First World War, how the power of anti-Semitism could be so readily exploited so as to lead to the horrors of the Holocaust leaves one silent – nothing can be said that makes sense really and silence is at least a sign of respect for the victims.

Indeed the history of the animus against Jews in Christian Europe has a long arc, a complex and painful story. The magistral 1959 novel Le Dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just) of André Schwarz-Bart actually takes on the story of hostility toward European Jewry from the massacres at the time of the Crusades through to the Holocaust. The book’s theme comes from the Talmudic legend of the Lamed-Vav, the thirty-six just men without whom the world cannot survive. It was one of the two books that most influenced the young Noam Chomsky as related in a recent NY Times interview: “Astonishing book, had a tremendous impact … that kind of book you read, and you walk around in a daze for a couple of days.” (The other book was All God’s Dangers, the biography of African-American sharecropper Nate Cobb.)

Today, while “anti-Semite” is still one of the most biting accusations one can think of, it frankly risks being diluted by politicians and lobbyists who declare all and any criticism of the policies of the state of Israel to be anti-Semitism – this kind of thing muddies already turgid waters and makes dialogue all the more difficult. On the other hand, it is true that criticism of Israeli policies is often motivated by naked anti-Semitism or anti-Semitism parading as something else, exacerbating things all the more.

But Christian-Jewish relations in Europe would not be the same after the Holocaust. Already during WW II, while hiding from the Gestapo in occupied France, history professor Jules Isaac managed to write a detailed guide to rethinking Christian teachings and Christian readings of scripture – published as Jésus et Israël in 1948, an English translation was published in 1971. In 1947 the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) organized a meeting at Seelisberg in Switzerland to formulate a program for combating anti-Semitsm. There the pre-publication manuscript of Jésus et Israël was circulated and it had a real influence on the “Ten Points of Seelisberg” published by the conference. For this text, click HERE . Isaac also went on to be one of the founders of l’Amitié judéo-chrétienne de France and continued to campaign for Christian-Jewish understanding.

But Isaac was not new to the fight against anti-Semitism and not new to working with Christians. As a young man, he made the friendship of Charles Péguy, the Catholic writer and poet, and with Péguy, he joined the ranks of the dreyfusards, the supporters of the cause of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a victim of brutal anti-Semitism – the struggle to exonerate Dreyfus lasted from 1886 to 1906, a long campaign that included Emile Zola’s legendary pamphlet J’Accuse (1898). Isaac worked with Péguy to launch the periodical Cahiers de la Quinzaine (1900-1914) – a political (e.g. it was strongly dreyfusard) and literary revue (e.g. it launched the career of future nobelist Romain Rolland). During the Great War, Dreyfus served at Verdun and Chemin des Dames and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel at the end of the war; Péguy was killed at the front on the eve of the Battle of the Marne; Isaac was wounded at the Battle of Verdun. For a video interview with Isaac on the topic of their friendship and Péguy’s “passion pour la verité,” click HERE .

After the conference at Seelisberg, Isaac worked assiduously with the Catholic Church on Christian-Jewish relations – even securing audiences with Pope Pius XII (1949) and with Pope John XXIII (1960). This latter meeting proved most fruitful and, spurred on in large part by Isaac’s tireless efforts, the Second Vatican Council issued a historic document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time, 1965) which recognized that all major faith traditions had validity and shared values – including Judaism and Islam.

But still, it was only very recently in 2011 that Pope Benedict XVI exonerated the Jews from the responsibility for Jesus’ death – in his book Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week Benedict argues that the real villains were the Temple authorities and not all Jews, finally saying what, frankly, is obvious from the point of view of Christian Theology: Jesus’ death “does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all.”

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are known as the Abrahamic Religions as all trace their roots back to Abraham of Ur. In a kind of Oedipal/Freudian fit, the two “sons” of Judaism have turned on the “father.” Thus Islam too has baked anti-Judaism into its scripture with numerous Koranic verses such as “Allah has prepared for them [the Jews] a grevious scourge. Evil indeed is what they have done.” However, historically, the Islamic world was much more accepting of Jews than the Christian world; in the Middle Ages Judaism thrived in the Caliphate: thus the Rabbinic Tradition was continued with the Babylonian Talmud; the definitive Masoretic text of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) was compiled; the philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed, … . However, in the last century, driven largely by the Arab-Israeli conflict, once great centers of Jewish life like Teheran, Baghdad, Alexandria and Cairo lost their Jewish populations. In this century, Egyptian and Syrian television have put on shows based on the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now virulent Islamic anti-Semitism in the basest sense of the term is the order of the day and it spreads via Islam from the Middle East throughout the world, a tragic replay of the Christian Middle Ages.

In Western Europe, classical Christian anti-Semitism is, let us say, largely quiet – even the Passion Play people at Oberammergau have sanitized their centuries old texts and now organize bridge-building group-travel to Israel. However, in France, Muslim anti-Semitism has taken on deadly proportions; again it is complicated – aggravated by the Palestinian situation, by inveterate Muslim anger that in colonial North Africa Jews were made French citizens but Muslims were not, etc. In Germany it is smoldering to the point that the Berlin government’s admission of one million refugees from the Middle East has people worried about the resulting increase in the Muslim population there. The US overall has been a good place for Jews – per Occam’s Razor, no established religion is the simplest explanation. That is not to say that anti-Semitism hasn’t played an ugly role in American life. Ominously, the present danger comes most from the white-supremacy movement where anti-Semitism has taken root – e.g. the neo-Nazi chant of “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville in 2017, the murderous attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Daniel Goldhagen was indeed right to title his book on the current threat of global anti-Semitism The Devil That Never Dies.

Christian Anti-Semitism II

In the Roman Empire there were two strains of anti-Jewish writings, those of the Christians and those of the secular Greco-Roman intellectuals. If one considers that the Jews made up 5-10% of the population of the Empire, mostly concentrated in cities (Alexandria, Cyrene, Antioch, Rome, …), the secular literature is not directed against a tiny fringe group but rather against a visible subset of the Empire’s population. And, numerous non-Christian Greco-Roman texts with anti-Jewish references have been preserved. To drop a name, one can start with Cicero who, in his legal defense Pro Flacco (59 BC) blames the Jews for resisting the Roman takeover:

“… that nation has shown by arms what were its feelings towards our supremacy. How dear it was to the immortal gods is proved by its having been defeated, by its revenues having been farmed out to our contractors, by its being reduced to a state of subjection.”

Cicero’s hostility is not based on race or religion but on politics – for him, the problem is that the Jews have not proved grateful for having been dragged into the Empire.

In the Augustan era, the poet Horace mentions Jews three times in poems which are called Sermones in Latin and Satires in English. These allusions are playful but mischievous, poking fun at male circumcision, for example. In one place, Horace implies that the Jews were ardent proselytizers [Satires, 1.4]

When I have spare time I scribble.
That is one of those venial faults
Of mine; and if you refuse to indulge it
A great band of poets would come to my aid,
For we’re in the clear majority, and, like the Jews, we’ll force you to join our gang.

This can strike today’s reader as odd in that Judaism is not associated with missionary work in the modern world; however, there is debate among scholars as to what the situation was in the ancient world – in any case, it seems logical that strict and universalist monotheism would impel believers to try to convert others out of simple human solidarity.

Judaism, as a religion, had the respect of the Roman state which was very tolerant of the traditional religious systems of the subject peoples of the Empire. Indeed, under Julius Caesar, Judaism became an officially recognized religion and was protected as such. Jews thus were not required to participate in Roman religious ceremonies and their behavior, though thought strange, was officially accepted.

However, in the first century AD, the political situation in the Holy Land became explosive – to what extent the movements of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth are implicated in these developments is a topic for historians. The First Jewish War (67-74) led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Moreover, after that the Jews had to pay a tax, the “Fiscus Judaicus,” to practice their religion; however, this tax did not apply to Christians meaning that there was a perceived break between them and the Jews well before the end of the First Century.

However, once Christianity frankly broke with Judaism it was no longer part of a traditional religion but rather what the Romans called a “superstitio” and, to cite the Roman historian Tacitus, a catastrophic one: “exitiabilis superstitio”! (Some other religious movements were also categorized as superstitions by the Romans such as the Druidism of the Celts.) Ironically, this break with Judaism made Christianity eligible to be the target of persecutions – which lasted into the 4th Century; mostly these were local in nature, organized by regional governors but some were organized from the very top down under Roman emperors such as Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Diocletian, … .

After the First Jewish War, there was the Kitos War (115-117) which was launched by Jewish uprisings in Cyrenaica (present day Libya), Egypt and Cyprus; this was followed by the Second Jewish War (132-135, also known as the Bar- Kokbah Revolt).

In 135 AD with the end of the Second Jewish War, the emperor Hadrian changed the name of Judea to Syria Palaestina and that of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina; in addition after 135 AD,  the Jews were henceforth barred from Aelia Capitolina except for the Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Hebrew calendar, the day when disasters that have befallen the Jewish people are commemorated. Judaism carried on in the Diaspora; in Palestine outside of Jerusalem the Palestinian Targum emerged and the texts of the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud were developed

BTW Hadrian himself was not a war-monger; on the contrary, his reign was peaceful except for the Second Jewish War; Machiavelli, the Father of Political Science, lists him among the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome – a ruler very different from Tiberius and Caligula, earlier emperors who exhibited hostility toward the Jews.

The Jews’ falling out of favor politically was mirrored in the Roman literature. In the satires of Juvenal (early 2nd Century AD), the Jewish way of life is ridiculed in rougher terms. To start, Juvenal especially finds it bizarre that the Jews’ deity is immaterial and is not represented by idols [Satire XIV]:

… [The Jews] worship nothing save clouds and the divinity of heaven

He then mocks Moses, makes fun of male circumcision and criticizes the Sabbath

… [The Jews] treat every seventh day
As a day of idleness, separate from the rest of daily life.

In his Histories (written 100-110 AD), Tacitus devotes multiple chapters to the Jews, the longest such discussion of any Greek or Roman author. He even traces their origins to Crete – a theory shared by other ancient writers and bolstered some by references to the Hebrew name for Cretans, Cherethites, in the Hebrew Bible; he even posits that the name Iudaeus [“I” not “J” since classical Latin did not have the letter “J”] is derived from Mt. Ida in Crete – in Greek mythology the site of The Judgment of Paris. For Botticelli’s surprisingly modest version of the event which launched the Trojan War, click HERE . In his treatment of the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Tacitus defends his fellow Romans by slandering the enemy, for example

“The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor.”

Cicero, Juvenal and Tacitus are nastier than Horace but their anti-Judaism is not embedded in their pagan religion. Moreover, though they are treated as a group apart, the Jews are not treated as a race apart. Instead hostility toward Jews is fueled by military conflict with Rome.

The situation in the Christian writings is different. Already in the Gospels, the charge that “the Jews killed Jesus” is enshrined as doctrine. But it doesn’t stop with the accusation of deicide; in his 2013 book on global anti-Semitism The Devil That Never Dies, Daniel Goldhagen relates that in all there are 450 anti-Jewish verses in the New Testament. To cite the formulation used by French inter-faith activist Jules Isaac in his Has Anti-Semitism Roots in Christianity? (Genèse de l’Anti-Sémitisme, 1956): Christianity “added theology to historical xenophobia.”

In the period leading up to the time when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire towards the end of the 4th Century, there was another source of Christian-Jewish controversy. The Christians strove to calibrate the story of Christ with the prophecies of the coming Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. For that they took the position that Christian authority over these scriptures had superseded that of the Jews, a doctrine known as supersessionism. Even the learned Tertullian, “the Father of Western Theology,” got involved and wrote an influential tract Adversus Judaeos at the end of the second century; Tertullian argued that the Jews had rejected God’s grace and that now the Christians were the people of God; he analyzed the Jewish scriptures to align prophecies with the life of Christ and even proved that Jesus was the Messiah from dates and predictions in the Book of Daniel. (Isaac Newton did something similar to prove that the Second Coming would be in 2060 AD! Get ready!)

But as Christianity became a legal religion and then the official religion in the Empire, the tone mounted with such texts as St John Chrysostom’s sermons: in Greek Κατα Ἰουδαίων, again Adversus Judaeos in Latin (386-387 AD). St John was a formidable and influential force; the epithet “Chrysostomos” means “golden-mouthed” in Greek, and he was renowned as a speaker and writer; a Father of the Church, he rose to become Archbishop of Constantinople. His writings helped to make Christian anti-Judaism even more virulent, something especially dangerous given that Christianity had just become the official religion of the Empire (380 AD). In these texts, in addition to the usual accusations about the death of Jesus there is a lot of inflammatory trash such as

“the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts”

Chrysostom’s legacy itself has proved most grim: his writings stoked anti-Judaism throughout the Middle Ages and they were invoked by the Nazi machine to justify the Holocaust to Austrian and German Christians.

St. Augustine was the last great Christian writer of the Roman Empire. He coined the term “original sin” (peccatum originale, in Latin) and codified Catholic guilt forever – in all fairness the concept traces back to St Paul and, certainly in the popular imagination, to the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Augustine’s influence endured through the Middle Ages and onto the Reformation when reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin drew inspiration from him. Though he says harsh things about Jews in some of his writings, his view of the role of the Jews in history was original: the Jews must survive as witnesses to fact that they were behind the Crucifixion of Jesus; he compared the Christians to Abel and the Jews to Cain, saying how the Jews bore “the mark of Cain.” Technically, “the mark of Cain” meant that the Jews were to be protected from violence (as it protected Cain as he journeyed East of Eden), but it was not always interpreted correctly, alas. Augustine predicted that Jews would be there for the End of Time when they would at last be converted – which would fulfill a prophecy of St. Paul (Romans 11:25-27).

With anti-Judaism thus packed into the theology and lore of Christianity, it would survive the fall of Rome and be exported throughout Europe with the spread of Christendom in the Middle Ages. “The Jews Killed Jesus” remained a mantra of Christianity and the calumny survived the Middle Ages and the Reformation; with the voyages of discovery, it spread to European colonies throughout the world.

Affaire à suivre. More to come.

Christian Anti-Semitism I

In his 2013 book on anti-Semitism, The Devil that Never Dies, Daniel Goldhagen starts the list of calumnies against Jews with: “Jews have killed God’s son. All Jews, and their descendants for all time, . . . are guilty.”
Indeed, this accusation has been a deadly trigger for anti-Semitism in the Western world for nearly 2000 years. In the Christian narrative, the crucifixion of Jesus is carried out by Roman soldiers who flog him, nail him to a cross with the mocking label I.N.R.I., who cast lots for his garments – all under the authority of a Roman governor in a Roman province. But it is the Jews and not the Romans who are held responsible.
Bethlehem and Jerusalem are in historical Judea. At the time of the birth of Jesus, Judea was part of the realm of King Herod the Great who had been appointed by the Roman Senate. After his death, his son Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea with the title of tetrarch; his son Archelaus was named ethnarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. When faced with Archelaus’ misrule, the Romans took direct control of these areas and named a procurator (governor) for the new Roman Province of Judea. The fifth procurator was Pontius Pilate who took office around 26 AD, assigned to the position by the Emperor Tiberius’ right-hand-man Lucius Aelius Sejanus.
The Crucifixion is dated around 30-33 AD, after which the first Christians huddled in Jerusalem around St James (called the Brother of Jesus by Protestants and St James the Lesser by Catholics). At this point in time there was a large Jewish population in Palestine and a significant Jewish Diaspora; according to A Concise History of the Jewish People (2005) by Naomi E. Pasachoff and Robert J. Littman: “By the 1st century CE perhaps 10 percent of the Roman Empire, or about 7 million people, were Jews, with about 2.5 million in Palestine.”
At the time of Christ, the Jewish population of the Empire consisted of the Hellenized Greek speaking Jews of the Diaspora, the Aramaic speaking provincial Jews of Palestine and the Hebrew speaking rabbis and priests in Jerusalem. These groups also had their own literatures. The Hellenized Jews had their own somewhat bowdlerized version (click HERE) of the Hebrew Bible in Greek, The Septuagint, to which they added new books such as the The Wisdom of Solomon (non-canonical for Jews, apocryphal for Lutherans and Anglicans, deuterocanonical for Catholics). In the countryside of the Holy Land, the Targums (Aramaic commentaries on biblical passages, doubtless an important part of the education of John the Baptist and Jesus himself) were recited in the synagogues. And in Jerusalem, there was the learned oral and written rabbinical literature in Hebrew.
Starting with the synagogues of the Diaspora, St Paul and other missionaries spread the Good News throughout the Greco-Roman world; Christianity grew quickly. The Roman historian Tacitus, is the first in the pagan literature to reference the Crucifixion; in his Annals (circa 116 AD) he recounts how Nero placed the blame on the Christians for the great fire that ravaged Rome in 64 AD; Tacitus approvingly assigns the responsibility for Jesus’ Crucifixion to the Roman administration in Judea: “Christus, from whom the name [Christian] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” Tacitus lauds Pilate further saying this execution checked “the evil” that is Christianity, even if only for a time.
But in Christian texts, responsibility was systematically shifted from the Romans to the Jews. Already in his first epistle, chronologically the first book of the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 (circa 50 AD), St Paul attributes the death of Jesus to the Jews (NIV – New International Version):
    “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”
Some critics argue that this passage was not written by St Paul himself but is a later interpolation: for one thing the passage is not consistent with 1 Corinthians 2:8 where he puts the blame on people of authority (NIV): “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
It is also thought that the phrase “The wrath of God has come upon them at last” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in 70 AD. And why does Paul single out the Jews as persecutors of the Christians when the Romans would have been the ones persecuting Christians in Judea at that time – in fact that had been Paul’s own job according to the Acts of the Apostles! On the other hand, Acts 6 (written 50 years after the event) also recounts the story of the Deacon Stephen who was stoned to death by a Jewish mob in Jerusalem, making him the first Christian martyr, a horror witnessed by St Paul.
The historical Jesus was at the head of a movement that was begun by John the Baptist. The connection between Jesus and John is a key part of the Christian story. The Gospel of Luke takes care to say that they were even cousins – charmingly relating The Visitation, the trip of the pregnant Mary to visit her cousin Elizabeth who, though beyond child-bearing age, too was miraculously pregnant, herself with John. For a painting of Jesus and John together as infants by the Spanish baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murrillo, click HERE .
Jesus is described as becoming part of John’s mission with his baptism in the River Jordan in Mark, Matthew and Luke. That John’s movement had a political dimension is attested to by his arrest and beheading at the hands of the Roman vassal Herod Antipas – a tale so rich in symbolism as to inspire paintings by artists from Titian to Redon, a play by Oscar Wilde and an opera by Richard Strauss. For Redon’s painting of the result of Salome’s Terpsichorean efforts, click  HERE .
Jesus too meets a political fate in that, in the Roman world, crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state or perpetrators of heinous crimes. Certainly, driving the money-lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem had political implications. Some argue that Jesus was an outright political activist – as in the PBS documentary The Last Days of Jesus and the recent book Zealot by Reza Aslan. But this theme is not new: by way of example, in Senior Year Theology at Fordham University in 1962, this writer presented a most modest analysis of this kind in a term paper which received the grade of B with the comment that applying “class warfare” to Jesus’ mission was both nothing new and nothing of interest.
The Gospels present the Passion as a one-week set piece constructed to put the blame for Christ’s death on Jews. Interestingly, in that PBS documentary, the strong suggestion is made that the Gospels are indeed telescoping a longer period and myriad political intrigues into one hyper-charged week, intrigues involving powerful figures such as Sejanus and Herod Antipas – Sejanus’ involvement in Jesus’ story has also been the stuff of novels since the 19th century.
In the first century, relations were not always good between Jews and Gentiles. In fact, Tiberius himself banished Jews from Rome in 19 AD; the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria reports on Jewish-Gentile violence there in 40 AD, an event followed closely by the emperor Caligula’s failed blasphemous attempt to have a statue of himself erected in the Temple in Jerusalem; soon after, in his account of a legation to the emperor (In Legatio ad Gaium, XVI.115), Philo wrote that Caligula “regarded the Jews with most especial suspicion.” It is important to note that these conflicts are not rooted in Roman religion. In fact, the Romans were very tolerant of the traditional religious systems of the subject peoples of the Empire (better for keeping the “pax” in the Pax Romana).
Things political and military came to a head in the Holy Land with The First Jewish War (67-74). The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus took place in 70 AD and the conflict itself continued on until the Masada campaign of 73/74 AD. Certainly this was a point in time when the Gentile Christians and the Hellenized Jewish Christians of the Diaspora would have wanted to distance themselves from the Jews and ingratiate themselves with the Romans and Greeks.
The first Gospel written is that of St Mark, himself a Jew, and it is dated in the decade following the destruction of the Temple – an event to which it refers with Jesus’ ominous prediction that the Temple would be left with “not a stone upon a stone” (Mark 13:2). Mark’s version of the week of the Passion contains all the basic elements of the story laying the blame for the Crucifixion not on the Romans but on the Jews – more precisely, on the chief priests and the mob in Jerusalem.
Mark artfully places responsibility not on the Roman procurator Pilate but on the Jews, one dramatic incident being the story of Barabbas. It just happened that the Friday of the Crucifixion was the one day of the year when the Roman governor would offer the multitude in Jerusalem the privilege of pardoning a prisoner who was about to be executed. (No historical evidence outside the Gospels for any practice of this kind has been found.) The prisoner Barabbas, who was also awaiting execution, was guilty of the worst sorts of crimes, but when Pilate proposed to the crowd that he pardon Jesus and not Barabbas, the animosity of the Jews toward Jesus showed itself (Mark 15:11-14, NIV):
    But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
John 18:40 makes it even more dramatic, having the Jews cry “Give us Barabbas” – haunting and chilling, making for a powerful moment in Passion Plays.
Matthew 27:25 adds the most damning cry of all
    “His blood be on us and on our children!”
Matthew also inserts the “thirty pieces of silver” into the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, further damning the Jews.
John 19:5 adds that dramatic sadistic moment where Pilate says “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”) as he displays the humiliated Jesus, badly scarred and beaten, wearing the crown of thorns – a riveting scene portrayed on canvas by Bosch, Titian and many others. Pilate says “I find no basis for a charge against him” but the Jews cry out “Crucify him, crucify him.” John also has Jesus and Pilate engage in a philosophical exchange about the nature of “truth,” further distancing Pilate from responsibility for the Crucifixion.
Luke adds yet another sidebar to the effect that from the outset Pilate didn’t want to condemn Jesus: Pilate tried to hand the prisoner Jesus over to Herod Antipas since it was in Galilee and not Judea that Jesus had been most active; but Herod Antipas already had the blood of John the Baptist on his hands and so decided to pass.
All of these maneuvers to portray Pilate as reluctant to execute Jesus were effective to the point that, in the Ethiopian Church, the teaching is that Pilate later became a Christian, a martyr and a saint!
In 1 Corinthians, Paul lays blame for the Crucifixion on the “the rulers of this age.” Perhaps, Mark thought that his text would be understood too as laying blame for Jesus’ death on the Temple leadership in Jerusalem and not on the rest of his fellow Jews. However, his account of a “mob” of Jews in Jerusalem spurred on by the “chief priests” crying out for blood, in the end, implicated all the Jews of the Roman Empire. No distinction was made by the Christians between that mob and the Jews of Galilee who rallied to Jesus’ mission, of the Jews of Jerusalem who hailed Jesus as he entered the city on Palm Sunday or of the Jews of the Diaspora, many of whom were among the first to embrace Paul’s teachings.
It is unlikely that Mark authored his version of the Passion which focuses on Jewish guilt all by himself – it must already have been circulating in the growing Christian world. “The Jews killed Jesus” accusation must have taken shape in that forty year period between the Crucifixion and the destruction of the Temple by Titus; given that passage above from 1 Thessalonians, the accusation would even appear in the very earliest extant Christian text. One can speculate that early on this calumny might have even been a recruitment tool that played off existing anti-Jewish feelings in the Empire. Anti-Jewish feelings, yes – but not part of the Roman religious system. In fact, Judaism, as a religion, had the respect of the Roman state having been declared an official religion already under Julius Caesar, shortly after the Roman takeover of Palestine (circa 45 BC). But the doctrine “The Jews killed Jesus” embeds hostility toward Jewish people as a race into Christian theology itself; it is this basis in religion that has made anti-Semitism so exportable – and it would soon be exported to lands in Northern and Central Europe that were never even part of the Roman Empire and then later across the world.
More to come. Affaire à suivre.

Capitalism to the Rescue

The New York Times podcaster Ezra Klein recently interviewed Noam Chomsky discussing a range of topics including the climate crisis. It has been capitalism with its industrial revolutions and lust for economic growth that are at the root of the problem and Chomsky addressed the question of whether the climate crisis could be handled successfully if the capitalist system stayed in place. Chomsky insisted that there wasn’t time to make fundamental political and social changes in the US or elsewhere. By default then capitalism will have to be part of the solution to muster the power and resources needed in the time available. For the full text, click  HERE .
This wasn’t the first time that someone on the Left turned to capitalism to move society in the right direction. Marx himself wrote that capitalism and its power to innovate were still going to be necessary for a period of time to push technological, industrial and organizational progress to provide the tools necessary for the transition to communism and the new centralized economy. Even Lenin employed this logic as the basis of his New Economic Policy (NEP); indeed, in his 1918 text Left Wing Childishness, he declared “Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science.” Lenin wrote this upon getting back to Russia from his exile in Switzerland: after the fine cigars from Davidoff ‘s and other perquisites that he enjoyed in bourgeois Zurich; Russia was just proving too primitive for him, it would it seem.
A more recent example of this phenomenon where people on the left call upon capitalism to work on the world’s problems is Accelerationism, a movement that emerged from the work of late 20th century disillusioned Marxist-oriented French philosophers – disillusioned by the realization (post May ’68) that capitalism cannot be controlled by current political institutions nor supplanted by the long awaited revolution. The paradoxical response in the 1970s by Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard and others, then, was to call for the development of technologies and other forces of capitalist progress to bring society as rapidly as possible to a new place – they quote Nietzsche: “accelerate the process.”
Caveat Lector: The term “accelerationist” was co-opted recently by some white supremacist groups in the US in an attempt to give an intellectual veneer to their plot to hasten the collapse of society.
The bad news is that it is exactly capitalist growth that has brought us to the current climate crisis. But then there is that old proverb “It takes a thief to catch a thief”: the good news is that capitalism historically has excelled at using technology to change the world, albeit no matter the environmental or human cost.
In fact, linking science and engineering to industry and the economy has been the driving force of capitalism for 300 years. The Industrial Revolution began in England in the early 18th century launched by steel, coal and steam power. Historians of capitalism like Fernand Braudel point out that steam power and other sophisticated technologies were already in place earlier in history, in ancient Alexandria for example; but that the link was never made between these technologies and commerce and industry. In fact, up until the Industrial Revolution, technologies were typically applied to things military: even Archimedes and Leonardo worked on weapons systems and the term “engineering” meant “military engineering” until the 19th century when “civil engineering” was introduced. It was only in the second half of the 19th Century in Bismark’s Germany, however, that research science itself became a driver of capitalist progress; in particular, the transfer of knowledge from universities to commerce began there with the chemical industry and other fields followed. To boot, companies actually began hiring scientists minted by the modernized German university system and began establishing their own labs. The result was that by 1914, Germany had become both the world’s leading industrial country and leading scientific country – the internal combustion engine and the diesel engine, quantum mechanics and relativity, etc. (For scholarship, see H. Braverman: Labor and Monopoly Capitalism.)
Aside: Interestingly, in the interview, Chomsky remarks that the power of this model of transfer of open university research to industry is threatened by recent changes. Traditionally, to cite Chomsky, “[in university labs] people are working 80 hours a week. But it’s not to make money. They can make a lot more money elsewhere. It’s because of the excitement of the work. The challenge of solving problems. That’s what drives people. … [But] in the early ’80s, government laws were changed so that universities could get patents and researchers could get patents on the work that they were doing. OK. That had a cheapening effect. It meant that you really were imposing a structure in which people were working in order to make money, not to solve problems. And I think I don’t know how to measure exactly, but my impression is it had a cheapening effect on the nature of the university system.” This rings true especially given that the hallmark of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century was open publication and distribution of new found knowledge – in constrast to the esoteric, guarded knowledge of the alchemists.
So given the special power of capitalism to drive progress, as Marx, Lenin and the Accelerationists had to concede, it is natural for governments to turn to capitalism itself to save us from planetary catastrophe. After all, we are in a period where science, technology and capitalism are in almost perfect synch.
However, we are also in a period in the US where the federal government is weak and ineffective. Which poses a real dilemma since government leadership will almost certainly be required going forward and we are so far from the times of FDR, alas.
The military aside, since the Reagan presidency, “starve the beast” has been the conservative battle cry to shrink government. In the process, the government has become a wimp and has sold the American people short. Deregulation has led to the Savings and Load crisis of the 1980s and the Wall Street crash of 2008 – along with government bailouts, of course. Lax even non-existent anti-trust enforcement has led to concentration in industry; reduced taxation has led to infra-structure collapse to the point that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a grade of C minus in 2021 – admittedly up from a D, the rating four years before. The biased Supreme Court is an “accessory to the crime” constantly sapping the government’s ability to run the country: in the last 15 years alone, it has stymied attempts at gun control with its lethal decision on “gun rights” (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008); it has made big money the only player in town when it comes to political funding (Citizens United); it has ended the federal oversight of state election procedures required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013); and the list goes on.
That one sector of government favored by conservatives is the military; and it is the only area of government with much credibility left which means that more and more problems get turned into military problems as the military budget itself grows. Rather than serving the nation’s interests first, in foreign policy the military has continued to be used in the service of Big Industry – the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney comes to mind and how the war was going to pay for itself with Iraqi oil. Industry also exercises undue influence through the Military Industrial Complex which has become so powerful that members of Congress won’t criticize the military budget because their states are home to defense contractors. But to their credit commanders are aware of climate change and are taking steps to deal with its potential impact on military operations; this could prove important.
If G.W. Bush’s presidency was tragedy, the Trump presidency was farce. Starting with massive tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, this regime did everything it could to weaken the government further, one of the more bizarre and calamitous being the cancelation in 2018 of the National Security Council Directorate that was charged with preparing for the next pandemic.
All of this represents a tremendous shift of power and authority from the government to the private sector and the military. Today the Supreme Court is the only branch of government that can wield its power effectively; congress can do nothing except threaten not to vote for the budget; the last two presidents have been reduced to endless executive orders to get anything done.
It is possible, though, that Big Capital and Big Industry will come to see that in the long run they can make even more money and have even more control if they help solve the climate crisis. But given Big Energy’s long campaign of climate change denial and the example of the tobacco companies denying the risks of smoking, it is hard to be optimistic. On the other hand, there is the success of Tesla which is now worth more than the next six car companies together and the commitment of automobile companies to go electric in the coming decade. Then too there has been the surprising growth of solar and wind in the last couple of years – trends in clean energy that have surprised people lately! Still the question is whether it will be possible for the federal government in its current weakened state ever to launch an effective “Green New Deal” with programs, incentives and legislation. That being said, adding some less scholastic justices to the Supreme Court, and ending the filibuster would be steps in the right direction.
In China, the government is firmly in charge and could redirect its capitalist economy should it choose to and already a program to be the world’s largest producer of electric vehicles is in place – but at the same time, China is on a “coal spree” according to the Yale School of the Environment. So they are not likely to set a good example in the short run. It looks like the plan is to run environmentally friendly vehicles on electricity from coal fired plants!
Another source of pessimism is Paddy Power, the legendary Irish betting parlor where they will make book on almost anything including climate change. Simply put, you have to give heavy odds to bet that things will continue to worsen and any bet on improvement is a real long shot.
But the US government has surprised before and capitalists themselves might just wake up and realize that the only way to save capitalism is first to save the planet. Chomsky himself holds out hope: “We know how to do it. The methods are there. They’re feasible.”

Biden and the Court

On April 9th, 2021, President Joseph Biden ordered that a commission be established to study the need for structural reform of the United States Supreme Court, in particular with respect to the actual number of justices on the Court, with respect to term limits and with respect to the Court’s unchecked ability to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional.
There have long been reasons to be unhappy with the Supreme Court. It has consistently ruled in favor of the powerful with its history of decisions designed to trample on the rights of minority populations and working people: all very consistent with the view of the lawyer Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: “everywhere there is one principle of justice, that is the interest of the stronger.”
By way of overview, there is John Marshall’s decision in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823) where he declared that Native Americans had no real rights and were simply wards of the state. For this, the Marshall Court resorted to a papal bull (yes, a pronouncement by the Pope in Rome) to justify its decision: in Romanus Pontifex (1452), Pope Nicholas V ordered the Portuguese King Alfonso V to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” This is the basis of the Discovery Doctrine which the US inherited from England and which the Marshall Court made part of American law; it was even invoked recently in an opinion, written by RBG no less, in a 2005 ruling against the Iroquois, City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.
A most catastrophic Supreme Court ruling was the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. This decision dictated that slavery had to be legal in all states and territories (the right to private property and all that). Impressed with the Court’s authority, James Buchanan (considered the worst president ever until recently) naively thought that this decision settled the burning issue of slavery once and for all – instead it led quickly to the Civil War.
Reconstruction and the 14th Amendment were quickly gutted by post bellum decisions in the Slaughter House Cases (1873) and the Civil Rights Cases (1883) by, among other things, weakening the power of the Equal Protection Clause to protect the civil rights of African Americans. Workers’ rights were gravely impaired with In Re Debs (1894) which authorized using Federal Troops to break strikes. And then in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson upheld segregation in schools and other public places with the tag “separate but equal.” In 1905, the 5-4 Court ruled against the state of New York in one of its more controversial decisions, Lochner v. New York; appealing to laissez-faire economics this time, the majority ruled that the state did not have the authority to limit bakery workers hours to 10 hours a day, 60 hours a week even if the goal was to protect the workers’ health and that of the public.
The story of the case Federal Baseball Club v. National League (1922) would be ludicrous were it not so serious. In the decision written by celebrity jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., it was declared, against all logic, that Major League Baseball was not a business and so not subject to anti-trust laws – thus validating the Reserve Clause which made professional ballplayers serfs and the Lords of Baseball feudal barons. The situation continued until the courageous St Louis centerfielder Curt Flood’s case reached the Supreme Court in 1972; naturally the Court, true to its code, ruled against Flood and for Major League Baseball (again serving the interests of the powerful as per Thrasymachus), but the case did force open the door for player-owner negotiations and the end of the Reserve Clause. BTW, it was Justice Holmes who famously said that freedom of speech did not give one the right to cry “fire” in a crowded theater.
The 6-3 decision in Korematsu v. United States (1944) upheld the government’s internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during WW II. From the beginning it was roundly denounced as racist – nothing of the sort was directed against white Americans who supported the vocal pro-Nazi German American Bund. Indeed Columbia University Law Professor Jamal Greene ranked Korematsu among the four “worst-case” Supreme Court rulings in a 2011 Harvard Law Review article (along with Dred Scott, Plessy and the Lochner labor-law case).
Only the Warren Court in the 1950s and 1960s had a consistent constructive philosophy on issues like Civil Rights; this Court both made landmark decisions like the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and it also made follow-up decisions to uphold legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On the negative side, this Court set the stage for overt judicial activism on the part of a conservative Court majority and a spate of dangerous 5-4 decisions followed as the Court shifted right.
Fast forwarding to the 21st Century and the Roberts Court, in 2008, there was the disastrous 5-4 District of Columbia v. Heller decision which has fueled mass shootings and galvanized the paranoid “militia movement.” Here Justice Scalia resorted to Jesuitical trickery in overturning the long-standing interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. In the name of “originalism,” claiming to know what James Madison really meant, Scalia rewrote the centuries old reading of the Amendment and stipulated that the phrase “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” was meaningless – thus paradoxically making “originalism” a cover for a radical interpretation of the text and creating new “2nd Amendment rights” out of thin air. The decision has made the US and its gun violence a disgrace among nations.
The Roberts Court has continued this tradition of decisions that short-circuit American life and assault the citizenry. For example, the Court has dramatically increased the role and power of Big Money in American elections while limiting voting rights of citizens. The decision in the Citizens United case (2010) abrogated the McCain-Feingold election reform legislation of 2002 and made Big Money supreme in matters electoral – in the process it overturned two rulings of the preceding Rehnquist Court. (More recently, the Court again overturned its own precedent in yet another 5-4 decision and dealt labor unions a severe financial blow in Janus v. AFSCME (2018).) In Shelby County v. Holder (2013) the Roberts Court, showing no respect for Congress, vitiated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thus unleashing a wave of measures in state legislatures to restrict voting, a process which has taken on even greater momentum in the wake of 2020 Democratic victories in Georgia and other Red states. The net effect of these decisions has been a disaster for American Democracy. To make matters worse, from the oral arguments, it looks as though this Court will maintain its indefensible record on voting rights in the case currently before it concerning ballot collection in Arizona.
Indeed today the Court presents a structural problem for American democracy as nine unelected political, ideological officials with life-time appointments reign over the legislative and executive branches of government – not only are they not elected to the Court, none of today’s nine sitting justices has even ever held elective public office! The power that has devolved on the Supreme Court was not anticipated by the framers of the Constitution. For example, in his essay Federalist 78, Alexander Hamilton dismissed worry that the Court could ever become even nearly as powerful as the two other branches of government: as this master of metonymy put it, the Court would have “no influence over either the sword or the purse.” In fact, this position is much that of Montesquieu, the Enlightenment philosopher who formulated the theory of balance of power among three branches of government.
The blatantly partisan stunt of then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell which denied Barack Obama a supreme court nomination has made the Court more political than ever. All has been made worse with the theatrical, rushed nomination and ratification of Amy Coney Barrett hours before the 2020 election. It is this overtly political tampering with the make-up of the Court that has made the composition of the Court a legitimate issue for Biden.
Ironically, the person most discomfited by the new 6-3 conservative majority is Chief Justice Roberts who can no longer serve as a swing vote to mitigate the conservative majority’s overreaching – Exhibit A: Roberts voted with the minority in the recent (Apr. 9, 2021) 5-4 opinion which overruled the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow religious gatherings in California to violate state pandemic social distancing restrictions. This is not the first time this Court, on an ever more slippery slope, has showed especial consideration for religious institutions – that was the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision (2014). The Court has indeed changed with time; justices once proclaimed that freedom of speech did not give one the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater lest you endanger your fellow citizens; however, the right to endanger your fellow citizens with potential super spreader events is now guaranteed by freedom of religion!
Mathematically speaking, the fact that so many of these controversial Court decisions for years now have been 5-4 implies that it is ideology and not jurisprudence that is the driving force behind them: if the justices were truly looking at the letter and spirit of existing law and precedent, the majorities would be much more random and some of them would be unanimous.
Getting back to Biden’s commission, it does have some history on its side and there is the fact that Thrasymachus’ simplistic view of justice was rebutted by Socrates himself.
The number of justices is not given in the Constitution, rather it is a matter for Congress. Four times the Congress has enlarged the number of justices on the Court to keep an alignment with the number of Circuit Courts – in 1789 setting it a 6 at the outset, in 1807 making the number 7, in 1837 making it 9 and in 1863 making it 10; it was reduced to 7 in 1866 in order to prevent Andrew Johnson from making appointments to the Court but put back to 9 in 1869 when U.S. Grant became President. Today there are 13 circuits which makes for a nice target number for the commission. But this would be “packing the court” and will probably prove a non-starter, alas.
Membership on the Supreme Court has always been a life-time appointment which is not inconsistent with Article III of the Constitution which proclaims that federal judges shall “hold their office during good behavior.” Term limits of some kind (18 years per the newly proposed Supreme Court Term Limits Act) would introduce a random element that could rejuvenate the Court with more frequent turnover. It would also counter the Republican strategy of appointing unusually young right-wing jurists to the Court. “Term Limits” has a nice ring to it and could conceivably attract support; the Supreme Court Term Limits bill tries to finesse Article III by having justices whose tenure expires on the Supreme Court be reassigned to a Federal Circuit court; but any change of this kind could well require an Amendment to the Constitution itself, no easy task.
Today the Congress can pass no law without starting a lengthy process of judicial review. This is not the case in the UK where a law means what the parliament says it means nor in France where the Conseil Constitutionel is kept weak lest the country become like the US and fall hopelessly into a dreaded “gouvernement des juges.” Judicial review of acts of Congress is not spelled out in the Constitution, but it is mentioned in Hamilton’s Federalist 78 as something needed for a balance of power in government. In any case, the Court ascribed to itself the right to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional in the landmark decision Marbury v. Madison (1803). In logic worthy of the sophists of Plato’s time, John Marshall affirmed that the plaintiff Marbury was right but ruled against him by declaring Section 13 of the Judicial Act of 1789 unconstitutional because it would (according to Marshall) enlarge the authority of the Court beyond that permitted by the Constitution. But the Constitution does not authorize the Court to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional either!
Limiting the Court’s authority to declare legislation unconstitutional would serve at least one important purpose – revivifying the Legislative branch of the government. Today with the Imperial Presidency and activist Courts, Congress has been relegated to an inferior status. Formulating such a restriction would require clever legal argument worthy of Marshall and Scalia; getting it through Congress would need all the skill of Henry Clay and LBJ – and it might even require an amendment to the Constitution which would need someone as persuasive as James Madison, the magician who managed to get ten amendments ratified.