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When Purim and St. Patrick's Day coincide, everyone's corned beef is pickled
Angelina Ball and Stephen Rea in a scene from Bloom, a film adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses—because what is Nighttown anyhow but a truly wild purimspiel?
This past Thursday, St. Patrick’s Day and Purim coincided on the calendar. It’s a happy coincidence, I think. St. Patrick’s Day, in America at least, is a holiday of enthusiasm for Irish heritage, for honoring the labor movement, and for public drunkenness. Although it is a holiday in Ireland, it has become a far more important holiday in the Irish diaspora, and a kind of template for other celebrations of diasporic peoplehood. Simultaneously, though, it has also become a weirdly universal holiday, on which everyone is allowed, even encouraged, to be Irish. Its connections with Catholicism or any variety of Christianity have been largely obscured to the point of meaninglessness. It’s a kind of carnival without Lent—indeed, the feast of St. Patrick was a break from Lent, which is likely a key reason why it has become associated with excess, alcoholic and otherwise.
Purim, like St. Patrick’s Day, is also a quintessentially diaspora holiday. It commemorates the events of the Book of Esther which purportedly took place in Shushan, the capital of the Persian empire, at a time when a Jewish state did not exist. The book’s Jews have the names of Babylonian gods (Mordechai = Marduk; Esther = Ishtar), and God’s own name does not appear in it; the miraculous deliverance from genocide celebrated comes about through the combination of chance and pluck. Properly read, it’s a very funny book, and I rather suspect its humor would play more clearly if read in an Irish accent.
And while Purim has not evolved in an ecumenical direction (at least not yet), it’s interesting that the holiday was explicitly ordained by human rather than divine decree, which gives it a weird relationship to the grand corpus of Jewish law that self-consciously operates to enforce separation in the service of holiness. Purim is a kind of Jewish carnival, in which the traditional religious prohibition on cross-dressing is in abeyance, and one is supposed to drink until one cannot tell Mordechai (a hero of the Purim story) from Haman (the story’s villain). Most suggestive is the midrash that asserts that when the messiah comes, all the other holiday observances will be abrogated, and only Purim will remain.
So I’m glad the two holidays came together this year, because it means this year I can celebrate an Irish-Jewish conjunction twice, the other occasion of course being on June 16th. For the occasion, here are three links of relevance.
First, a piece explaining that corned beef and cabbage—the traditional St. Patrick’s Day food—isn’t really Irish at all, but Jewish. Before the English colonization, the Irish didn’t generally eat beef, but kept cows primarily for their dairy products. The English began raising them in Ireland for beef, but that beef was intended for export, and hence salted to preserve it for travel (it was called “corned” beef because the salt crystals used to preserve it were the size of corns). It was in America that Irish immigrant incomes rose to the point that they could afford more meat, but the corned beef they bought came from the butchers owned by their Jewish neighbors, who brined their brisket both for religious reasons (you need to salt meat to remove the blood) and to tenderize this otherwise tough cut. So there’s another Irish-Jewish conjunction for you.
Second, a piece of mine from The Jewish Review of Books reading the Book of Esther through the lens of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and therefore reading both as parodies of the idea of providence, as well as examples of the human interpretive capacity to read out parody and read in providence notwithstanding. You can call this yet another Irish-Jewish conjunction if you follow James Tyrone in declaring Williams Shakespeare to have been an Irishman.
Third, and finally, a piece of mine from here, on holding paper—holding a grudge—and the dangers thereof to your own psyche. Such a grudge is at the very heart of the Purim celebration, when we are commanded to repeat the story of attempted genocide, redemption and revenge, listening to its every word, but also to drown out the sound of Haman’s name (the villain of the story), so as to blot out his memory forever. The paradox of having to remember someone so that their memory will be wiped out perfectly encapsulates what I think is dangerous about this kind of commandment to remember suffering and wrong. I suspect there’s a lesson there for Irish people as well as for my fellow Jews.
Standing Tall on an Empty Platform
This is not typical. In 1994, when the Republicans aimed to take Congress for the first time in over 40 years, they provided voters with a detailed platform that they called their Contract With America, a mix of procedural and substantive proposals. Most of the proposals were not implemented, but some were — notably welfare reform — and the mere fact that Congress had run on an agenda meant that Republicans set the terms of policymaking for the next two years.
The Republican agenda in 2010 was far more reactive, with few substantive proposals to address the most important issue of the time, boosting the recovery from the Great Recession. But it was clear what Republicans were against. Powered by the Tea Party, Republicans ran explicitly on repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and more generally on an agenda of fiscal austerity.
Going into this year's elections, though, Republicans have largely refused to articulate an agenda of any kind. The one major attempt to do so, by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, has been widely derided with terms like "bat-s--t crazy" for proposing massive tax hikes on working Americans and the automatic sunsetting of the entire Federal government every five years. Neither the Republican base nor likely Scott himself actually supports anything remotely like that agenda, which suggests that its purpose always had more to do with emotional affect than political effect.
Nor is it clear what a purely negative Republican agenda might be. Most of the Biden administration's major accomplishments were either bipartisan legislative initiatives like the infrastructure bill, of which there have been more than people likely realize, or are faits accompli like the Covid relief bill, withdrawal from Afghanistan and his judicial appointments. There's no equivalent to Obamacare for Republicans to promise to repeal, and the most prominent foreign policy challenge — Russia's war on Ukraine — is one on which there is broad bipartisan unity.
Republicans, then, will likely win a majority without any positive agenda to accomplish, and without even having a clear unpopular Biden initiative to overturn. All they'll have promised is to stop the Democrats from continuing to destroy America. How will that fact shape the behavior of the GOP in power?
If you want to know my speculations as to the answer, read the whole thing.
Can Reaction Be the Pole of a New GOP Big Tent?
As a kind of philosophical companion to that nuts-and-bolts political analysis, my piece On Here from this past Tuesday was a response to my colleague Damon Linker’s column about how Ronald Reagan was really a liberal. Explaining why I didn’t really agree required me to do reiterate an entire political taxonomy that I put together years ago and still cherish more than the scheme probably deserves; my bottom line, though, is that Reagan was decidedly right-wing, but was in some ways a liberal right-winger and in other ways a conservative right-winger; similarly, there were ways in which he was nostalgically reactionary as well as ways in which he was progressively future-oriented.
That capaciousness, I argue, is what enabled him to be as successful as he was, and to build not only a large electoral majority but an enduring political tendency that dominated well after he left office and his party lost the presidency. And that, I argue, is what has been missing in the GOP so far in the Trump era.
The point of Linker’s essay is to argue that Trump is fundamentally different from Reagan, and that Republicans today who are trying to chart a post-Trump course have to distort their own history badly to find continuity between them that points a way forward. Trump is obviously very different from Reagan in a host of ways—but I think the truth is that you can plausibly understand Trump as a thorough repudiation of Reagan and as his lineal descendant; both perspectives have real merit. People are still arguing about Reagan’s legacy, and trying to claim it for whatever their distinctive brand of politics might be, because of his capacity to embrace contradictory impulses and ideas under that big right-wing tent. Some of those impulses and ideas have clear continuity with the Trump era. Others have been explicitly repudiated by Trump and the changes he effected in the GOP.
On the question of capaciousness, though, I think the evidence is clear that as an individual Trump represented anything but. What his intellectual defenders imagine when they look at him and the shift he inaugurated, though, is indeed something new, a kind of big-tent for reaction. It would have room within it for people who would likely describe themselves as left-wing conservatives—people like Michael Lind, say. It would also have room for the kinds of right-wing liberals particularly exercised by the threat from the illiberal left. The big tent that would contain the bundle of contradictory impulses is fierce opposition to the future as progressives understand it.
I suspect that might be enough to win an election—maybe even many elections. What I doubt is whether it can provide a governing agenda and a legacy. The thing about the future is that it is coming whether you organize your politics around it or not. I don’t consider myself much of a progressive because I don’t like pretensions to prophecy. I don’t presume to know what the future will look like, and I certainly don’t presume I will like it. But reaction has always struck me as a politics of fantasy, and an unappealing fantasy at that. In a democracy, anyway, you have to offer people a future. The alternative to a disturbing future can’t be the past; it has to be a better future, differently conceived.
Anyway, once again I encourage you to read the whole thing.