Eli Birnbaum
Rabbi, writer, educator, dreamer, millennial, closet anthropologist

Thunderstruck

(Pixabay.com)

Like many children, I was scared of thunder storms. Fortunately, I live in England and the weather here is generally as bland as the cuisine; but every now and then those humid, muggy summer’s afternoons would turn into an evening of high drama, and I would lie awake in bed, silently pleading for it all to stop.

One night, my mother came upstairs to calm me down. As lightning flashed outside, she counted slowly under her breath. Then came the boom of thunder. She stopped counting. “Why are you counting?”, I asked. After all, curiosity kills cats, not scared little boys. Only thunder does that. And baths. “Well”, she replied, “if you count the seconds between the lightning and thunder, it tells you how far away the thunder is. Every 5 seconds is roughly a mile.” Lightning flashed again. “Go ahead, count.”

“One milk-in-tea, two milk-in-tea, three milk-in-tea…fifteen milk-in-tea” (just kidding, we also say ‘Mississippi’). Three miles. To a six-year-old, three whole miles is practically the edge of the world. You know, the place where Davy Jones keeps the Kraken and the washing-machine sends socks. I was calm.

The world, however, is not.

What we may be witnessing is…the end of history as such … That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

(Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, P.330)

Events unfolding across the United States sent shock-waves throughout a world barely on the road to recovery from Coronavirus, taking root in every State, spreading to engulf cities across the Western world. The pain is immeasurable and real. As President Trump threatens to invoke the Insurrection Act for the first time in close to three decades, it is high time we notice an emerging pattern:

The peals of thunder are rumbling louder and closer together than ever. The time and distance between each one shrinks as the West’s belief in itself does the same.

Ferguson, Oakland, Bloomington, Baltimore, Charleston, Chicago, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Minneapolis. The storm rages.

Embed from Getty Images

But that’s not all. As the world emerges from the shadow of Coronavirus, blinking in the sunlight of a new chapter in our shared story, Western democracies are frozen at a crossroads of self-doubt. If Fukuyama was right and we stand at the ‘end of history’, I pray to God this isn’t what it looks like. If this really is the ‘final form of human government’, Locke must be turning in his grave.

Rewind the clock to the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities. The day the world entered – numb and confused – the 21st century. Journalists, politicians, and pundits up and down the country were discussing how radical Islam presented the greatest existential threat to Western civilisation as we know it. Religious figures jumped on the bandwagon in their dozens. I lost track of the shiurim I listened to as an impressionable youngster which boldly declared the coming of ‘The End’in a clash of cultures destined to conclude humanity’s eternal struggle with itself as East met West in a fire-and-fury showdown of ideologies. The Messiah, so went the word on the street, would arrive when Iran got the bomb in 2007, if not earlier.

I know, it’s easy to sit here with the gift of costly hindsight and a cheap keyboard and pompously dismiss those false prophets. 2007 came and went. Not peacefully, not quietly. Not in the slightest. Untold suffering unleashed by the wanton, unchecked greed of deregulated free markets. Billions vanished overnight, Lehman Brothers fell, and for the first time in a long time; so did the West’s confidence in itself…from itself.

So began a new era; and we have lurched from one identity crisis to the next as the world’s democracies teeter on the brink of self-destruction.

The rise of far-right parties across Europe marches upward at an alarming pace while the ‘Yellow Vests’ swarm the streets of Paris. Those protests are already on ‘Act 70’, by the way. We need a new script, urgently. Israel has finally managed to cobble together a functioning parliament at third time of asking. The respective premiers of France, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Spain and – until recently – the United Kingdom, rely on wafer-thin, barely functioning minority or coalition governments.

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Speaking of wafer-thin, here’s a piece of trivia for your next Zoom quiz night: Only five Presidents in history won the Oval Office despite losing the popular vote. Three of them happened in the 19th century.  The fourth wouldn’t happen until the infamous Bush v Gore contest in 2000. We had 112 years to figure out how to preempt and navigate one of democracy’s inherent quirks: What do you say to a losing majority? Or even to a minority so close to the magic 50.1% that it can never and will never see itself as ‘wrong’? How do you handle, gently and pragmatically, lots and lots of extremely disappointed people? Too late. It happened again. Twice. Both in 2016. Trump and Brexit. Two of the most divisive words in the human lexicon.

And what of Israel, that sole beacon of hope in a despotic region? It is a harsh but necessary truth to point out that Netanyahu’s final verdict matters less than the inevitability that either the judicial system or highest office of a proud democracy is about to take an absolute PR battering. In the long run, whoever wins, the country loses.

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Speaking of PR batterings, a painful yet entirely predictable by-product of the George Floyd protests has been China’s reaction. What is happening in Hong Kong is alarming. But the anger raging in Washington, London and Sydney against the highly controversial National Security Bill that brings the region one giant leap closer to permanently losing its status as a semi-democracy, was rendered invalid by the anger raging outside in the streets. In one cloud of tear gas, the West’s righteous indignation lost all legitimacy. Xi Jinping must have danced a jig of joy as he watched the chaos unfold. There exists no more devastating an example of this smug satisfaction than a single Tweet sent by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in response to the US Department of State’s statement on China’s decision:

 

Checkmate.

Discussing the nature of a failing state in The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky argues – powerfully – that the hallmark of a society decaying into the early stages of insecure, paranoid and self-destructive tyranny is an unrelenting tendency to blame internal problems on external enemies, rather than confronting those problems honestly and openly. In most cases, this pattern is easy to spot as there tends to only be one external enemy, and that enemy tends to be blamed for most problems. Such was the case in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and continues to be the case in countries such as North Korea and Iran. Countries do this, Sharansky explains, as the ultimate act of political sleight of hand; the moment where the master conjurer diverts the crowd’s attention as he slips the ace of spades up his sleeve. Now you see it. Oh look! What’s that over there?! Now you don’t.

Back in 2001, the West only saw one enemy. Fast-forward two decades; the enemies are everywhere, real or imagined. Sometimes they are real, but their true threat is imagined. Sometimes they are imagined, but their threat is still real. Immigrants, China, Russia, refugees, Iran, radical Islam, George Soros, North Korea, the European Commission, Trump, Hillary, Corbyn, Johnson, the far-right, the far-left. And pretty much everything in between. This isn’t to undermine the fact that all of the above issues are genuine concerns. But it is to point out that focusing all of the discussion on all of them all the time is to risk peering through the pepper spray and missing the moment the Ace disappears with a flourish. Move along, nothing to see here. Except there is. Plenty. External rabbits-from-hats have for far too long disguised the fact that major democracies around the world are tearing themselves apart from within.

The peals of thunder rumble louder and closer together than ever. The time between each one shrinks as the West’s belief in itself does the same.

Credit crunch, Crimea, London Riots, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Yellow Vests, Brexit, Trump, Extinction Rebellion. The storm rages.

(Pexels.com)

I know, it is ironic that this week I’m doom & gloom when last week it was all about never giving up hope. I’m just millennial like that. We’re a fickle generation, still trying to figure out how our forebears, despite unprecedented wealth and freedom, managed to make the world such a complicated place. I speak for many of my peers when I say that we are fed up with going to the ballot box to cast a vote with no motive other than to prevent someone even worse from coming to power. If the choice of candidates is so pitiful that practically every vote is a protest vote, democracy becomes a political pantomime.

What we lack more than anything else is leadership. Not the draconian, Teflon-skin, law-and-order type leadership that can and will only ever paper over societal cracks with emergency decrees, curfews and mobilisations until the next storm erupts. That mode of leadership presents itself as strong. We need stronger. We need leaders who are not embroiled in personal scandals, affairs and gamesmanship. Leaders who can inspire and empower, remind us why we hold “self-evident” values so dear, why we can still dare to dream of a brighter future, why liberal democracy deserves the accolade of the ‘final form of human government’ and should be celebrated and treasured as such. It is time to restore our dignity, positivity and self-belief.

Dignity like that shown by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Aryeh Stern, who demonstrated remarkable compassion in paying a condolence call to the family of Iyad Halak. Self-belief like that shown by Michigan Sheriff Chris Swanson, who put down his baton and marched hand in hand with protesters, diffusing a potentially tense situation. Positivity like that shown by Terrence Floyd, who passionately and with enormous inner strength pleaded with protesters not to taint his brother’s memory by resorting to violence.

It is what we pray for in the 11th blessing of the daily Amidah…

Restore our leaders as in days of old, and those who guide us as in antiquity, and (thereby) remove from us despair and confusion…

I recently saw a beautiful anecdote that summarizes the attitude in leadership I think we so desperately need:

Following the 1991 Crown Heights riots, in an encounter New York City’s first African-American mayor David Dinkins, the Lubavitcher Rebbe expressed his hope that “the mayor would be able to bring peace to the city.” The Mayor added, “to both sides.” Which the Rebbe then corrected, explaining:

We are not two sides; we are one side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one God.

(Pixabay.com)
About the Author
Born and raised in London, England. I spent six years in Talmudic College before studying for Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. I hold a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. I am fascinated by pretty much everything, but nothing more so than exploring current affairs through the kaleidoscope of Jewish continuity in the 21st century. I currently oversee Aish UK's educational and published content. (All views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of Aish UK).
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