History is littered with single-minded ideologies and movements for which the end has been seen to justify the means— that is, for which human lives were and are dispensable. Societies driven by such ideas, whether political or religious or a mixture of the two, are teleological: Greek telos means “end” and logos means “an articulated unit of rational thought.” People have visualized the more ruthless of such teleological systems as juggernauts— Indian religious processions with giant floats and crazed mobs trampling unwary passersby underfoot.
I am going to use the image of road kill on a highway instead, because it’s American and un-exotic. The United States was founded on the idea that ends don’t justify means and the measure of society’s success is the freedom and well-being, right now, of people like you and me. We don’t just matter, it’s about us to begin with. We’re not to be sacrificed. We’re not dispensable. That’s what I think made America different, till recently, and because of that difference much the world relied on us or looked up to us, even if they resented admitting it. We stand fair today to lose that America irretrievably, and if that happens the effect worldwide will be dire.
Let’s start as close to the beginning as we can get, with the Book of Genesis.
God called Abraham, who said, “Here I am.” God: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love— Isaac— and sacrifice him in a place I’ll show you.”
Notice how He does it: My son? I have two, Isaac and Ishmael. Your only son! Okay, legally that means Sarah’s boy, Isaac, since Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, is a servant. The one whom I love? I love them both, can’t I get out of this somehow? No. Isaac. It’s Isaac, no way out. And doesn’t the Lord just rub it in on every level, physical, legal, emotional. Father and son set out on history’s first road trip. They don’t know yet where they’re going and Isaac doesn’t know why, but somehow they get to Mount Moriah (what was to be the Temple Mount, in what was to be Jerusalem) and the boy submits without a struggle. The particular kind of sacrifice he’s about to undergo is called in the technical language of Biblical ritual a holocaust (Greek, “wholly-burnt”)— a complete burnt offering, everything reduced to ash, with no cooked flesh left over for the priests to eat afterwards. (Eat human flesh, who would do that anyway? We’ll get to that.)
Abraham ties Isaac on the altar over the wood for the fire and raises the knife to stab him dead. At that instant an angel calls him by name, not once but twice. The angels are nervous. Will the Boss really go through with this? That’s why they cry out to the Patriarch twice, to still his hand, to make sure he doesn’t strike. God approves of Abraham’s readiness to kill Isaac. You really trusted Me. My angels, maybe not so much. There’s a ram conveniently trapped in a thicket, and Abraham kills it, instead. Then he goes off to Be’ersheva. Genesis doesn’t tell us where Isaac went. The German Jewish literary scholar Erich Auerbach in his book Mimesis contrasts the spare, telegraphic prose of all this, taut with unspoken emotion and hanging in a kind of descriptionless void, to the abundance of solid imagery in the recognition scene of Homer’s Odyssey— in its way, an equally tense cultural watershed.
What happened to Isaac? Some commentators suggest that after the Moriah episode he ascended to the Garden of Eden for rest and relaxation after the trauma of nearly being a human sacrifice. (A friend of mine once suggested he might have gone to hang out with Ishmael, since both had ample reason to be pissed off at their father.) Nobody seems to have cared about Isaac’s mother, Sarah, and what all this would do to her. Right after the Binding of Isaac: (Hebrew ‘Aqedah, the entire text of which is recited at the start of every day of the year, in the Shacharit, or Dawn service) she drops dead. The Rabbis agree she died of grief: Isaac hadn’t come home, Abraham was off on business, she feared the worst, she didn’t hear the full story of Isaac’s deliverance at the last second, just a description of the mission, and she couldn’t take it. I was about to say that it isn’t the first time somebody gets the bad news but not the good news, and dies. But it is the first time, isn’t it.
That bit of the Bible, about a mother’s broken heart, isn’t read every morning. It’s read just once a year, as a weekly reading, and the title of that Torah portion blunts the grief: it’s called Chayye Sarah, the Life of Sarah, as though to look back and euphemistically stress the life rather that the dreadful death. To accentuate the positive, like in some hackneyed eulogy: The deceased lived a full life, blah, blah blah. As though Norman Vincent Peale had bowdlerized the text for use by the whole family: Mom, Pop, Junior, Sis, and their woof-woof dog, all freckled and smiling and driving west in their late-model sedan. Watch out for the armadillo on the road, Dad! Crunch. But it’s forgotten after a few minutes.
At thirteen a Jewish boy goes up to the bimah, the synagogue podium, to chant some lines of the Torah portion straight from the unvowelled parchment of the scroll and prove thereby that he’s fit to join the grownup community of literate Hebrews. My portion was Chayye Sarah, and I had absolutely no clue of what it was about or what came before. We Jews have a happy song, Torah orah, Torah tsivalanu Mosheh, morashah qehillat Ya‘aqov “The Torah is light! Moses commanded the Torah to us, as an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” Yaakov, Jacob, is my Hebrew name all right, but I was totally in the dark. Nobody told me that the Life of Sarah is a euphemism for her death or explained why she died.
There was a nice meal after the service in a rooftop restaurant near the Columbia campus after my Bar Mitzvah. Friends and relatives came. The adults stood around nursing drinks. The kids quarreled. Most of my clan are gone: I cherish the pictures taken in that cold late afternoon light. Aunt Esther, may her memory be a blessing, gave me a silver bracelet with my name, and her love, and the date, engraved on it: November 1966. It’s by my bedside. It was, by American standards, a tastefully understated Bar Mitzvah. No performances by rock stars or live rodeo events. But it still missed the point: I did not understand any of the Torah portion and have had to piece its enigmatic meaning together over the years.
By age sixty or thereabouts I thought I appreciated the overtones of the story more or less. But more and worse was yet to come. Stick with me for a necessary digression here. In the spring of the year 30 the Roman occupiers of the Land of Israel, possibly in collusion with some of the hierarchy of the Jerusalem Temple (which was built on the spot where Isaac had almost been made a holocaust), nailed a peaceable but obstinate Jewish teacher to a cross. It was a very much more lingering, miserable, painful death than mere sacrifice on a makeshift altar. Isaac’s words are not recorded, if indeed he said anything; but Jesus as he was dying asked His Father (God) why He had forsaken Him (it’s a line of Psalm 22). He screamed in agony. He also said, “It is completed!” He gave up the ghost. Christians believe He arose from the dead three days later. The Mass is a meal at which the faithful drink His blood and eat His body— His ultimate self-sacrifice of love. It is and isn’t symbolic depending on whom you ask. To an outsider it may sound a strange overtone of cannibalism but of course it’s anything but that.
I won’t go into the history of how Christianity separated from Rabbinic Judaism and became a new religion, a branch on a common trunk. But I bring the Crucifixion in because Judaism and its younger sibling developed not just in proximity but in a kind of fractious symbiosis. The Rabbis could not let the ‘Aqedah alone and they flavored it with the tale of Christ’s death and resurrection. Thus a tradition developed, well attested in the Hebrew liturgical poetry of Late Antiquity, piyyut (from the same Greek word that English “poet” comes from), that the angels did not stay Abraham’s hand at all. Never mind that the Torah says the knife didn’t come down. The piyyutim tell the story this way: Abraham slashed his son’s throat, killing him. Then he set fire to the corpse. It burned to ashes. But then God sent down dew and brought Isaac back to life.
This revised version of the narrative of Genesis, then, had Abraham kill his “only” son, whom God then resurrects. It furnished Judaism with a powerful parallel to the central Christian drama, but at cost. The original text, in which Abraham is sorely tested, can be read as a polemic against human sacrifice, which was common among the Hebrews’ cousins, the Phoenicians. The tragic tale of Jephthah and his daughter, and maybe even the story of Jesus, suggest that the idea of human sacrifice— to be fair, of self-sacrifice in the case of Christ— periodically resurfaced, but was rejected by the mainstream of evolving Rabbinic Judaism. Here, human sacrifice returns.
To be sure, the strange alteration of the story has remained on the fringe of Jewish consciousness. I would never have read it, but for Shalom Spiegel’s massive article on these liturgical poems, “The Last Sacrifice”. But now I know and cannot un-know that the tradition can make Abraham a killer, slashing his son’s throat, or plunging the knife into his heart, out of that unconditional obedience and service to a greater good that we associate not with the Patriarchs but with the police.
The long and glorious journey, the great human endeavor, covenantal faith in all its profundity, Western civilization—whether it’s synagogues, menorahs, latkes, fountain pens and books upon books or Gothic cathedrals, Bach, Christmas trees, and being born again— begins with murder. The ends justify the means. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Chop down a tree and the chips fly. It’s a road, the Divine Chariot’s doing sixty-five, and Isaac and Jesus happen to be on the asphalt. Road kill.
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai was uncomfortable even with the original story, and wrote these verses on the Binding of Isaac” “the young man tanned and manicured in his jazzy suit/ and beside him the angel dressed for a party/ in a long silk gown,/ both of them empty-eyed, looking/ at two empty places… The angel went home./ Isaac went home./ Abraham and God had gone long before.” Amichai wants to remember the ram, whom Abraham killed as a substitute, a ransom, for Isaac. Someone has to die so Heilsgeschichte, the history of salvation, can get going. Road kill.
A latter-day American Jewish Psalmist and Prophet puts it this way: “Oh, God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe say, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’/God say, ‘No’, Abe say, ‘What?’/God say, “You can do what you want Abe/But the next time you see me comin’, you better run’/Well, Abe said, ‘Where you want this killin’ done?’/God said, ‘Out on Highway 61.’”
Imagine history as a speeding automobile; and time, an arrow-straight highway, two-lane blacktop in the parched American West. History has a direction and purpose, and an end: the coming of the Messiah (Judaism); the return of the Same (Christianity); from all according to their ability and to all according to their needs (Communism); Santa Monica, palm trees, and the laughing waves of the sunny Pacific (Route 66).
But we are in the Mojave Desert still, water is scarce, and small animals who are unaware of historical teleology just wander around here and there, finding shrubs to eat, maybe some berries to take back to the wife and kids in the burrow. That’s you and me—squirrels and kangaroo rats and tortoises— who wander out onto a dark and smooth bit of desert and…hold on, there’s a strange roaring noise. It’s over so fast we barely know what’s hit us as we gasp out our last breath on the baking asphalt. That’s us. Road kill.
My Dad’s family come from a part of Europe that the historian Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands: the Poland and Ukraine of maps of the present. But these belong to a cloud atlas: when my Grandma Bertha (née Bronya), who was my best friend, was born, her shtetl was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To the east was just the Russian Empire, that “prison of peoples”: the Polish and Ukrainian inmates were getting ready for a prison break. Grandma’s native language, Yiddish, the tongue of an entire civilization, was to become nearly a dead language in her lifetime. The world’s greatest Jewish city, Warsaw, was to become entirely empty of Jews while she was still a young mother. In her teenage years, most of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire were to vanish, along with a life that had endured for millennia— the towns and monasteries, books and musical instruments, the sweet everyday rhythms of field and mountain. In 1917, a social experiment the likes of which the world had never seen before, began. In 1933, the world’s culturally most sophisticated country was to embrace a form of race hatred never seen before and employ all the advances of science and industrial production solely for mass killing. Two years before Bertha’s death, religious fanatics took charge of a modern country in the Middle East and their radical perversion of a great and noble faith ignited half the world.
My beloved Grandma was, like me, an American Communist. She believed in equal rights for black people, education and good will, health care and decent housing for all, and thought it could be achieved through reason and the tools of reason— the ballot box, town meetings, intelligent discourse— but also through the inspired words of the English and American poets, the folk music of her generation and the rock music of mine. She was the age of the century and had come to America as a wide-eyed little girl in 1906, and it was for her an adventure. I see her learning funny songs from the Second Avenue Yiddish theater, playing hide and seek amidst the pushcarts of the Lower East Side, looking up at the Brooklyn Bridge (maybe at the very same time when my brothers Hart Crane, Sergei Yesenin, and Vladimir Mayakovsky were writing their paeans to it), singing old Galitsianer melodies at the Passover Seder, studying New Testament Greek at Hunter College, teaching generations at Lafayette High School.
Grandma would not recognize what calls itself the left today. The big tech monopolies like Amazon would have reminded her of robber barons and company towns. She would have dismissed identity and gender politics as divisive false consciousness. Censorship and “canceling” people would have appalled her: she looked down on Stalinism and thought we Americans could do better. As for the whole idea of race and theories about it, that went against everything we believed humanity was about. The idea was to bring people together, not to fragment and isolate them and set them at each other’s throats. Again, Stalin’s nationalities policy was bad for the Soviets and would have been insane for America.
The day of the 9/11 attacks— she had already ascended twenty years before to the Garden of Eden— a friend telephoned from England and sighed, “You Americans are now part of world history.” I guess it figures: men have been road kill for ages, but in the New World it’s a plane that destroys our lives in a skyscraper, rather than a car on the road. “You don’t get it,” I replied to my friend. “We all came here because we already experienced world history to the fullest and had enough.”
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s an American History all right— Grandma taught it at Lafayette, where her union protected her through the worst days of Joseph McCarthy’s crusade— and it has plenty of the same dark twistings and deceitful turnings as that of the Old World. We know the list: the enslavement of the Africans, the murder of the Indians, the sweatshops, the dust bowl and the agony of the Okies, the hard times of the Great Depression, the union-busters and finks. But anything but the whole truth is the untruth, and there are also Concord Bridge, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, the Normandy landing, Iwo Jima, and the March on Washington. (The Psalmist-Prophet I cited above played his guitar in front of the Lincoln Memorial on that day, and his girlfriend Joan Baez sang with him. He has the gravelly, cranky, whiny voice of an angry old Yid, an Elijah. She’s an angel.)
If America has a point, and nobody is obliged to think it does, since that would be kind of teleological, it seems to me to be a suggestion to Clio to slip off those wet things and have a dry martini. That is, to cut out the vectors of Weltgeschichte and live a little. There is another way of doing things than declaring an official dogma we have to follow in lock step. There is a way uniting people voluntarily, for all their disagreements and differences. It is a loose but articulate set of shared civic morals, ethics, and values. It is not an appeal to language, religion, skin color, locality, and the other forms of “identity”— of what the Nazis called Blut und Boden. (Kurt Vonnegut called those spurious identities Granfaloons. It is American not to take theory seriously.) It was identity politics, critical race theory, cancel culture, and political correctness— the nomenclature was different but same shit, different day— that made perfectly livable, pleasant, often prosperous places like Kiev, Lvov, Warsaw, and Krakow into a living hell, into Bloodlands. Make a list, if you wish, of the ethnic origins, colors, and faiths of the people who were working in the Twin Towers; then make a chart of the people of different origins, etc., that they were married to. They can’t be made to fit a neat pattern. The staff artists of the Gestapo who designed the neat racial charts explaining the Nuremberg Laws: full Jude, Mischling, etc.— would have thrown up their hands in horrified bewilderment. The office workers, the cooks at Windows on the World, the NYC cops and firemen, weren’t laboring towards an eschatological horizon— an imaginary, hypothetical line that vanishes as you approach it. Still less would any of them imagine wading through rivers of blood to a throne. All those people in my home town whom we lost were making a living and enjoying their present-day lives, in a place where we elect people to represent us, for a fixed term, and they are not above the law. That’s how we decide our behavior and solve our problems. We discuss them as equals. We have freedom of speech, of assembly, of conscience. We have the right to bear arms. It was the messianic, God-drunk, theory-driven fanatics who were ready to turn us all into, what, into air kill, wreckage on the flight to Paradise.
Some of my friends like to talk about how great it would be to have prayer in schools, and know “In God We Trust” but not “E Pluribus Unum.” I’d like to keep God out of the classroom, the boardroom, the courtroom, and the bedroom. If God isn’t at home in your heart, He has no place on this round earth to live; and anyway, some of the most spiritually enlightened people I’ve met on life’s road (well, let’s avoid that particular metaphor right now) have been militant atheists. (Being a consistent atheist is certainly one way of having a serious relationship with God.) America is neither religious nor the opposite. We have freedom of religion. Freedom. Liberty. As Isaiah Berlin observed, it’s a kind of negative concept. Not the freedom to do something, but the freedom to be left alone. I think that only out of that profound isolation, the sense of our loneliness, sorrow, mortality, smallness, wonder, and dignity can a man emerge to interact with others in a fruitful and sincere way.
The American way was not given by God. It was worked out over a series of endless discussions, arguments, publications, legal projects, love letters, and poems, mainly by heterosexual men, most of those white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, many of them avid readers of the Hebrew Bible. As the project grew, as freedom widened, it embraced more and more people: Emily Dickinson, a woman; Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, homosexuals; Allen Ginsberg, Alfred Kazin, Aaron Copeland, Philip Roth, Bob Dylan- Jews; a local writer here in Fresno named William Saroyan, an Armenian; and our country’s addition to the community of the saints, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. I began this essay on the King’s birthday. Happy birthday, my friend. This is how the civic human good flowers: in participatory democracy, and generally in conditions of peace. It’s not about uni-dimensional asphalt ribbons and road kill, but about three-dimensional consciousness where everybody matters.
America was invented by inspired, dedicated, self-sacrificing human beings. Human beings can also destroy it. If we Americans let our society continue down this narrowing road in ever faster vehicles there will be more of us mangled and scattered in the sun, with the carrion feeders’ eerie shrieks echoing through the hollow, empty blue sky. How’s that for the closing shot of a movie?
What would a world without a free America be like? It would be like China, where a million Muslim Uighurs languish in re-education camps, where it is illegal to mention the name, or possess the picture, of the only other spiritual leader alive today on a par with Dr. King, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Ask a lawyer, journalist, or student from Hong Kong about human rights, human dignity, and the rule of law. If the aggressiveness of Xi and his coterie scares you now, imagine what it would be like if their military-corporate authoritarianism held sway across the Pacific as well. Nowhere left for anybody to run. I’ve toured alternative history dystopias in The Man in the High Castle, 1984, Never Let Me Go, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and so on: you can close the book with a pleasant shiver and be extra thankful for a while that it didn’t turn out that way.
I was not prepared for the grayness of life under this new American left-fascism, the lack of fun. It’s not titillating, like Susan Sontag’s young crypto-gay stormtroopers in leather. The opposite of liberty, we find out, has a negative capability, too, but it’s different from Isaiah Berlin’s just-let-me-alone idea. Now it is the subtraction of books: the town high school of Lawrence, Massachusetts banned Homer the other day. Lecturers you can’t hear because they were disinvited. Professors you can’t study with because an inappropriate remark or opinion has made them unpersons. There’s no good new music. Movie directors vanish from public life because they enjoyed sex. Imagine that, sex in Hollywood. Books can’t be published.
In the summer of 1978 I met Manfred, a young engineer in East Berlin. We exchanged records: I’d send him LPs of the Stones, Dylan, and Led Zep in staid classical record jackets. He’d send me multi-disc sets of Bach. Manfred fiddled a phone in a booth and rang me in London: “Ja, here is Manfred. Thank you for the ‘Prokofiev’, ha ha ha. Oh, I must go now, the Stasi are coming.” A world without that Anglo-American bacchanal: no Stones, no blue jeans, no Mauer either because all Berlin is the Hauptstadt of the DDR. Unfree is dull, animated by flickers of terror when your friend or your relative becomes road kill, but even that settles down to a low twilight of endless background fear, the fear bleeding into indifference. The Holodomor, Chernobyl, the poisoning and incarceration of Alexei Navalny, the police torture and farcical trial of Azat Miftakhov— no longer causes around which people hungry for freedom may rally, just the larger obscenities of a senseless, brute existence.
That is what teleological dogmas and tyranny do to us. Without America it will be without limit of space or time. The Russian Revolution began almost at once a machinery of repression worse than the Tsarist Okhrana. “There is no air,” complained the Alexander Blok in his last public appearance, shortly before his death. “I can’t breathe!” cried George Floyd. Their lives mattered, your life matters, so does mine, we’re not road kill. We need air to breathe. That air is Liberty!
I invoke the spirit of Allen Ginsberg!
“Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,
—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.”
I invoke the spirit of Walt Whitman!
“The question, O me! so sad, recurring- What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here- that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Sometimes I wish I could rewrite certain events, that people might experience themselves as sunflowers, that they might contribute their verses, get to know each other, and lead long and creative lives of fruitful relationships and honest labor, rather than becoming the road kill of somebody else’s trip.
A Voice from Heaven commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Sarah tells It to shut the fuck up. Isaac slips out of the house and comes back with Ishmael and Hagar. The four make a go of it and start a kibbutz: date palms, ponds, goats and chickens. Their kids and grandkids play songs on the harp, go to school, and live together. There is no war in the Middle East.
It’s a hot and dusty afternoon in the month of Nisan, Jerusalem is jammed with Passover pilgrims, and a detachment of Roman legionaries surrounds Jesus as He staggers up the hill of Golgotha. Suddenly a number of men armed with daggers dart out of the noisy throng lining the Via Dolorosa and each goes for the neck of a Roman. It’s over very fast. The Cross clatters to the ground. “But it has to be…” says their weary, sweating, blood-spattered friend. “Sorry, Boss, not this time!” says a Zealot, as they push Him away and all melt into the crowd. He appears here and there, teaching. More and more Romans defect, and some recall what they’ve heard of Spartacus from decades ago. People get together and slavery ends.
That didn’t happen. But this did.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security… We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
And I pledge mine.
Categories: Chronicle of Current Events