Happy Independence Day!
Today, there was also a magnitude 6.4 earthquake in southern California, just in time for this week’s Torah portion, Korach, in which (spoiler alert) the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his co-conspirators. The confluence of July 4th and Parashat Korach prompts serious pondering: When is a rebellion legitimate? When does a strong leader become a demagogue? Is democracy always the best philosophy of government; and when it is, does its fragility doom it?
Where we left off: The Israelites of the slave generation have been sentenced to wander 40 years in the wilderness (38+ to go) and die there, never to enter the Promised Land. This sparks rebellion against Moses and Aaron by a coalition of Levites, Reubenites led by Dathan and Abiram, and 250 other acknowledged Israelite leaders. Korach, a Levite, is their leader. All are jealous of the political and priestly authority wielded by Moses and Aaron, but they cloak these feelings in what appear to be calls, on behalf of the people, for democracy: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” (16:3).
Moses proposes a test. The rebels will (try to) offer incense. If the Lord accepts it, then they are the holy ones. The Lord again offers to destroy the whole people and Moses and Aaron again talk the Lord out of it. At the test, Moses tells the people, “if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not the LORD who sent me. But if the Lord brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord” (16:29-30). Immediately, the earth opens up, swallowing Korach and his people, except for the 250 offering incense, who are consumed by divine fire.
The people, of course, blame Moses and Aaron for the deaths. Again, the Lord seems intent on destroying the people. 14,700 die of a plague before Aaron stops it. His authority is re-established with the help of his staff, which sprouts, blossoms, and produces almonds. The rest of the portion concerns tithes and perks for the Kohanim and Levites.
And now, back to our serious pondering on rebellion legitimacy, demagogues, and the fragility of democracy.
Korach et al.’s rebellion is illegitimate, no matter how much it is cloaked in pseudo-populist cant. Why? The proclamation of the people’s holiness is twisted into a rejection of the authority of Moses and Aaron. But the people had been told they could become holy, not that they already were. Since the authority of Moses and Aaron came from the Lord, it was legitimate by definition, and rejecting it meant rejecting the Lord’s authority. Our own 1776 Declaration of Independence included an explicit rejection of the English King’s authority and sound reasons for that rejection. Our rebellion’s legitimacy may have been questioned then, but we won.
Is Korach just a charismatic leader or a demagogue? He leads the rebellion and wants to take the place of Aaron or Moses or both. Let’s look at James Fenimore Cooper’s “rules of a true demagogue” (presented before, but they bear repeating. Cited by Michael Signer in Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (Macmillan. 2009. pp. 32–41)):
- They present themselves as being of the common people, not the elites.
- They depend on a powerful, visceral connection with the people.
- They manipulate this connection for their own benefit and ambition.
- They threaten or even break established rules of conduct, institutions, even law. They do that either internally (threatening tyranny, subverting an inherently corrupt system of law) or externally by attacking other nations or groups. In either case, they are intrinsically violent.
So Korach hasn’t yet developed into a full-blown demagogue, but he is certainly a demagogue wannabe.
The Israelites can’t jump from slavery to democracy. But the colonists in 1776 had experience with local self-government, and the English were far away and largely uninterested. Our experiment with democracy was thus not unreasonable. But we often forget how fragile democracy is. It requires much effort, education, and participation. In stressful times, it is tempting to let someone else take over, especially one who claims to be the only one who can fix it. Then we’re in trouble. “The cycle begins with a demagogue, ambition, and charisma. …Soon enough, the people give him the government itself. The democracy rapidly becomes a tyranny.” In time, the tyrant is overthrown, and democracy is re-established and lasts until the next demagogue emerges. (Signer, op cit.) At least, that’s how it’s been. But it doesn’t have to be.
Oh no you didn’t! 30 acts of rebellion that will make your day (selections)
THEY’RE life’s little rebellions – like jaywalking or taking the lift during a fire drill. Here are 30 small acts of defiance that will make your day. Kate Midena [I am not necessarily endorsing any of these. IGP]
3. Not paying for parking when you know you’ll only be ten minutes
4. Not wearing your seat belt to drive to the corner store
13. Gunning it through an orange traffic light
14. Strategically forgetting to bring your wallet to work drinks
17. Eating a grape or two before you pay for them at the checkout
20. Sneaking alcohol into the cinema/football/races
22. Jaywalking in front of police cars to see if they would ever bother to stop and fine you
26. Hiding the only item of clothing left in your size at a store on the off chance you’ll want to come back and buy it
30. Hiding books written by people you hate on low shelves in bookstores
Quotes about Authority
Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, treating people with respect. Stephen Covey
Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases. John Adams
In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual. Galileo Galilei
Since when have we Americans been expected to bow submissively to authority and speak with awe and reverence to those who represent us? William O. Douglas
He makes a great mistake… who supposes that authority is firmer or better established when it is founded by force than that which is welded by affection. Terence
Leave no authority existing not responsible to the people. Thomas Jefferson
A college professor was very worried about his recent study on earthquakes.
It turns out his findings were on shaky ground.
The safest place to be during an earthquake would be in a stationary store.
I blame Mother Earth for all earthquakes.
It’s always her fault.
What do you call an earthquake during a production of Hamlet?
More 4th of July Humor
Nicholas took his four-year-old son, Bryan, to several baseball games where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung before the start of each game. Later, Nicholas and Bryan attended St Bartholomew’s church on the Sunday before Independence Day. The congregation sang The Star-Spangled Banner, and after everyone sat down, Bryan suddenly yelled out at the top of his voice, ‘Play ball.’
English Humour – Message from Her Majesty The Queen (excerpt)
To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: In light of your failure in recent years to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately. Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (except Kansas, which she does not fancy). Your new Prime Minister will appoint a Governor for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.