The Worst President: Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

He’s known as one of the most hard-working visionary presidents in American history. He was also the very worst. Here’s the run-down of Wilson’s sins. They fall under his catastrophic military interventions, his domestic snafu, and his utter contempt for African Americans, free speech, and liberty in general.

1. Ruined the 20th century and beyond. If Wilson had kept America out of World War I, the war would have ended sooner for the better of all involved… and history would have turned out very differently.

As early as December 1916, the Germans wanted peace talks, and Britain and France would have been forced to take the settlements if the U.S. had stayed out. They rejected the settlements because they expected the U.S. to enter on their side, and that’s what happened in April 1917. The war was an unnecessary mess, and the worst act of political malpractice in history. It wasn’t the inevitable result of rival empires; it was caused directly by the Sarajevo assassination in 1914, which led to arbitrary and hot-headed decisions. America, in any case, had little strategic stake in the war’s outcome. U.S. territory wasn’t threatened by an attack from Germany or its allies. Wilson claimed a concern about Germany challenging Britain’s “benevolent” command of the seas, but Britain didn’t have a history of being benevolent to the U.S. to begin with, and had sometimes posed security threats to America. But because Wilson fawned on Britain (saying famously that the U.S. president should be more like a legislative Prime Minister), he played favorites in violation of U.S. neutrality. Prior to entering the war he complained about illegal German U-boat attacks, but never objected to the British naval blockade of Germany which caused starvation, against international law, and was certainly a war crime.

Wilson entered the war as part of his wider agenda to “sell” American values abroad, enlarge markets overseas, and leave a mark on global affairs. He succeeded in that aim with a vengeance. Not only did he lead America into a pointless slaughter and perpetuate it, the way he did so later caused the largest war in world history (World War II) and the longest war in American history (the Cold War):

  • National Socialism (World War II). After the war, Wilson allowed France and Britain to impose the harsh peace on Germany and the unfair war-guilt clause (Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles), when in fact both sides were equally to blame in starting the war (just as both sides violated U.S. neutrality prior to America’s entry in 1917). The British hunger blockade continued starving the Germans long after the fighting stopped, and on top of other reparations over-punished the Germans. Germany had to inflate their currency to pay their debts in devalued marks, causing a hyperinflation worse than in other nations. German resentment over these injustice and humiliations led directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler. As if Wilson hadn’t done enough on this trajectory, he also pushed for the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was a major obstacle in Hitler’s rise to power.
  • Communism (The Cold War). During the war, Wilson helped the communists take power in Russia and then made them hate the U.S., thus paving the way for the Cold War that lasted over 40 years. Right after entering the war, he bribed the Provisional government (with $325 million) to remain in the war, which caused the Russian army to sympathize with the Bolsheviks — the only ones who wanted Russia to pull out of the war that most of the army and citizens didn’t want. The Provisional government fell in the summer of 1917, and the Bolsheviks came to power on the waves of a radicalized population. If not for Wilson’s bribe, the Provisionals may well have survived, and Lenin would have been forgotten.

Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler — monsters all born of the president’s policies. “Wilson,” says Ivan Eland, “screwed up the entire twentieth century and beyond.” That’s not an unfair hindsight perspective, and it’s a lot to answer for.

Even aside from World War I and its calamitous aftermath, Wilson aggressively intervened elsewhere. He was in fact the most interventionist president in U.S. history. He invaded Mexico, because, incredibly, a Mexican general refused to give a U.S. naval officer a twenty-one gun salute; the general had apologized to the naval officer for a minor infringement, but Wilson would settle for nothing less than the most formal of military honors; people ended up dying for his vanity. He invaded Nicaragua in 1914, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, Cuba in 1917, Panama in 1918 — and on top of all that Mexico again, nine other times. These invasions were justified on the propaganda of “spreading democracy”, but really served neo-colonial interests like oil (in Mexico), collecting bank revenue (in Haiti and Cuba), and other greedy drives. The occupation of Haiti not only killed many Haitians but made the country far less democratic, while the occupation the Dominican Republic created a centralized military that future dictators would use to suppress the people. Wilson’s military offensives caused outrage among Americans, but over the years they have transformed into marks of merit, especially since World War II, when “nation building” abroad became increasingly (and astonishingly) hailed as progressive.

2. The Federal Reserve (the Fed). Wilson signed it into law to provide the country with a safer and more stable financial and monetary system. It often does the opposite. The Federal Reserve pinches the working class with perpetual inflation and cheap credit, excessively expands the money supply, devalues the nation’s currency, is responsible for routine bailouts, is unable to generate long-lasting economic recovery, and encourages deficit spending. It’s a century-long debate that still goes on.

I’m not an economist and can’t weigh in with a heavy hand, but I can observe the obvious trends. In the past century America’s GDP (output) and economic performance have been no more stable, on whole, than in the 18th-19th centuries. We’ve had the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and other bad times that make the pre-Fed recessions look mild. There was a period of strong prosperity in the twenties, because the Fed was constrained by the gold standard and the hawkish budget policies of Harding and Coolidge. There was stability in the fifties under Eisenhower, thanks to his aversion to deficit spending. Carter’s appointment of budget-hawk Paul Volcker to the Fed led to the prosperity of the ’80s (not Reagan himself, who spent up the wazoo and caused the recession of 90-91) and to the renewed prosperity in the Clinton years. It’s not hard to see that when the Federal Reserve is under fiscally conservative administrations (Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Carter, Clinton), America’s economy does sustainably better. When the Fed is used liberally (Hoover, FDR, Bush, and Obama), it produces artificial short-term recovery at best. Bailouts, stimuli, federal deficits, and massive money-printing only put off the day by creating another bubble. It’s well known that Obama had the weakest economic recovery of any post-World War II president, and the weakest recovery from any recession in history. His fans always say that his stimulus package “did good”, and it obviously did. But like Hoover’s jump-starts and FDR’s New Deal, it didn’t bring about a strong sustainable recovery.

The reason Wilson created the Federal Reserve was because he wanted the government to rule the money system with an easy money supply. He got what he wanted, and America got the massive depression in 1929 which the Fed helped cause. This doesn’t mean that right-wing libertarians like Ron Paul are right in demanding that the Federal Reserve be abolished. My own opinion is that the Fed should be reformed, not abolished, as it’s become too enmeshed in our infrastructure to cut off entirely. But it shouldn’t have been created in the first place. Congress had approved a national bank in 1791 (in Philadelphia), disapproved it in 1811, reapproved it in 1816, and then finally abolished it forever in 1836. By controlling the nation’s money supply, the federal banks had inevitably acquired too much power and gave wealthy or favored owners large return for little risk, along with other problems. It’s a heavy strike against Wilson for reintroducing the idea.

3. Liberty. Try asking African Americans what they think of Wilson. He was a virulent white supremacist who tried (unsuccessfully) to get Congress to pass legislation to restrict the civil liberties of blacks. He put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks, and he encouraged some of his cabinet members to re-institute racial segregation in federal agencies. He vocally opposed a statement on racial equality in the document that governed the League of Nations. Racial violence escalated during his administration, along with lynchings, anti-black race riots, and of course the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan.

Wilson’s presidency was the worst time in U.S. history for anyone’s civil liberties. Conscription was resurrected from the Civil War: the Selective Service Act of 1917 authorized Wilson to draft men against their will. The Constitution doesn’t authorize a military draft, and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits involuntary service. This act has never been repealed, and to this day American men are required to register for the draft. The Espionage Act of 1917 made protests against the draft illegal, as well as criticism of American allies. The Sedition Act of 1918 clarified vague language in the Espionage Act, and made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the war effort or the aims of the government. Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic. He fined and imprisoned thousands for criticizing the war. Filmmaker Robert Goldstein got a ten-year sentence for producing a movie on the American Revolution which portrayed the now-allied British in a naturally bad light. Even two years after the war, in 1920, Wilson vetoed Congress’ repeal of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. He was the worst presidential threat to liberty. John Adams (during the Quasi-War with France) and Abraham Lincoln (during the Civil War) were atrocious too, but Wilson outdid even them.

There’s irony here, in light of America’s war enemy. Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm was more democratic than the United States under President Wilson. Germany provided the freedom to criticize the kaiser, the rule of law, and due process if arrested. The German kaiser had less power than the American president, and the Germans had far more leeway to criticize World War I than Americans had. The German empire didn’t use the repressive measures of the French and Belgian empires — nor for that matter, the repressive measures of Woodrow Wilson.

Defenders of Wilson point to the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, which passed in 1920. But Wilson had arrested women suffragists and thrown them in jail, where they went on hunger strikes and were force-fed by their captors. He only eventually, reluctantly, supported suffrage, worried about his image.

There were only two good things Wilson did as president. The first was lowering tariffs. The second is signing the Adamson Act, which honored the working man’s efforts to create an eight-hour workday, with mandatory overtime pay when workers went over eight hours. But again, it was only after the Railroad Brotherhood threatened a strike (which would would affect the nation being prepared for entry into World War I) that Wilson finally requested Congress to pass legislation, which it did in 1916. These two things, important as they are, don’t come close to atoning for Wilson’s sins which make him the worst president of all time.

Strange love for Wilson

So why, then, is Woodrow Wilson ranked #11 in the most recent C-SPAN Survey compiled by historians? Here is their criteria:

Public Persuasion — 77.8
Crisis Leadership — 73.4
Economic Management — 69.5
Moral Authority — 75.7
International Relations — 71.3
Administrative Skills — 70.0
Relations with Congress — 55.2
Vision/Setting an Agenda — 83.0
Pursued Equal Justice for All — 36.2
Performance Within Context of his Times — 71.1

Overall score — 683/1000 = Rank #11

It’s hard to believe these are typical criteria by which historians judge our presidents, but they are. Most of the categories have to do with the president’s charisma and management style, which are irrelevant. Some of the worst leaders in world history have been great public persuaders with superb administration skills. Demagogues and megalomaniacs have put forth clear visions and agendas. Crisis leadership? Wilson should have avoided the crisis of World War I altogether. That would have made him a good leader. Instead he got many Americans killed for no good reason, and because of his specific actions, he paved the way for colossal future disasters. Moral authority? What does that even mean? By my moral standards, Wilson would get no more than 5 out of 100 points. Having good relations with Congress means nothing if you pursue bad policies with Congress. Conversely, a good president might have bad relations with Congress for vetoing unconstitutional bills out of integrity, as his office demands. Ditto with international relations. Wilson may have been diplomatically smooth, but he pursued atrocious policies with his allies, both during and after the war. The only two criteria that have any substance are economic management and equal justice for all. For economic management, Wilson’s war efforts and establishment of the Federal Reserve should earn him an abysmally low rating. As a blatant white supremacist he rates poorly in the justice category, even by these historians, but I’d award him even less points.

Contrast the superficial criteria used by the C-SPAN historians with that used by Ivan Eland in Recarving Rushmore. He uses three criteria — peace, prosperity, and liberty — at 20 points each. Wilson’s putrid results are as follows:

Peace — 0
Prosperity — 1
Liberty — 1

Overall score — 2/60 = Rank #41

Unlike most of the C-SPAN criteria, these categories reflect the actual presidential record. In broad terms most Americans agree that peace, prosperity, and freedom should be the goal of any U.S. government. We should judge our presidents not by who they were, or how they led, but by what they did. Not by how inspiring or charismatic they were, but by the policies they pursued, and the impact of those policies. For his catastrophic wars and non-stop interventionism, Wilson rightly earns a rotten goose egg in the peace category. Eland throws him a prosperity point for lowering tariffs, and I’d throw him another one for the Adamson Act. He throws him a point for the Nineteenth Amendment, but I give him zero point for liberty. Reluctantly advocating for women’s voting rights out of concern for his image after mercilessly punishing those women isn’t a mark of merit; and the Amendment would have passed anyway. So my total also comes to 2/60. Wilson was an atrocious president — the very worst America has ever had.

God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers

Philip Esler’s recent top-notch project falls into the category of “elegant arguments demolishing empty theories”. Other examples of this “genre” would include The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, by Edward Adams, which annihilates Tom Wright’s dogma that ancient Jews did not believe the world would come to a literal end; and The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, by Dario Fernandez-Morera, which easily disproves the politically correct myth that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic rule in medieval Spain. Esler takes on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple. He finds no basis for this at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36. Yet scholars see them anyway.

God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that as follows.

Angelic duties. The duties assigned to the angels in I Enoch 20 have nothing to do with a cult or temple. Uriel is in charge of the world and Tarterus; Raphael is in charge of the spirits of men; Reuel is tasked with taking vengeance on the world of the luminaries; Michael is chrage of the good ones among the people; Sariel deals with spirits who sin; Gabriel is responsible for Paradise, the serpents, and the cherubim; and Remiel is in charge of those who rise. All of these duties are reminiscent of the military or administrative duties assigned to the courtiers of earthy monarchies. (pp 61-62)

Angelic access rights. By the traditional view, the angels are a priesthood who have access rights to God as the Jerusalem priesthood did. This isn’t true. The God of I Enoch 1-36 is a monarch like Louis XIV and Persian kings like Deioces, and the angels have access rights to him in the way that royal courtiers did in the French and Near Eastern courts. Angels like Michael, Sariel, Raphael, and Gabriel are behaving like courtiers when they address God to complain about what the Watchers are doing on earth, and asking God what should be done. “This is very different from the temple of Jerusalem, the inner sanctuary of which was only entered once a year, and then only by the high priest on the Day of Atonement.” (p 70)

Angelic mediation. Received wisdom tells us that the angels are a priesthood whose function is to hear the prayers of victims of the devastation on earth being wreaked by the Giants, and to ask God to intercede for these victims; likewise, Enoch the scribe serves a priestly role, as he writes out the appeal of the Watchers, who want forgiveness from God. The problem with this view is that it assumes the Israelites directed their prayers to God through priests, rather than praying to God directly. This isn’t true. Private prayer and the temple cult happily co-existed with one another, without any involvement by priests in the peoples’ prayers. When priests did engage in intercessory acts, it was primarily through offering sacrifice, which is entirely absent in I Enoch 1-36. On the other hand, courtiers always played an intercessory role between the king and his subjects, and this is how the mediating role of the angels should be understood: they are courtiers to the divine monarch. (pp 73-74)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their “Defilement”. By the traditional view, the marriage of the Watchers to human women reflects a concern with illegitimate priestly marriages going on in the Judaism during the time I Enoch 1-36 was written. Priests were to marry only the virgins of other priests, or at least women from priestly families, and many of them were not doing so. But the problem with the Watchers’ marriages is not their choice of wives, but the fact that they are marrying at all. Human beings need marriage for procreation, but the Watchers are angels (spirits) for whom marriage is inappropriate, period. The Watchers’ “defilement” (impurity) is the result of the boundary transgression involved in spirits having sex with flesh and blood. There is no need, or textual warrant, to import the more limited notion of priestly holiness into the issue. (pp 80-88)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their “Great Sin”. By the traditional view, the “great sin” (I Enoch 6:3) of the Watchers was sex between forbidden degrees (between species), which is intended as an indictment on the Jerusalem priesthood for their sexual relations with non-priestly families. But the proper understanding of the Watchers’ great sin is not priestly impurity, but courtly rebellion. Esler describes various courtly rebellions in the Achaemenid kingdom under Darius the Great and in the Hellenistic kingdoms of the late third century BC, and notes the two kinds of rebellion, one being armed insurrection, the second being open defiance or resistance to an authority or controlling power. The Watchers were engaged in the second kind of rebellion. They were not attempting to bring down God’s rule and supplant it with a new one, but rather to go against his rules and defy the accepted ways of behaving. Their “great sin”, namely, was that: (1) They abandoned their station in heaven where they belong (I Enoch 15:3). This is the most important point. They deserted their post, which in a royal court is a fundamental dereliction of duty and in most cases treason. (2) Then they defiled themselves on earth, by fucking human women, when they have no business fucking at all (as explained in the above point). The image evoked is not of non-priestly women of another caste; the image is more like women who inhabit towns and cities that are captured by a rebelling army, and who are then raped as a matter of course. As a result of these spirit-human unions, the Giants were born (I Enoch 7:2), who grew to slaughter and devour humankind, as well as animal-kind. It’s worth citing the graphic details:

The Giants devoured the labor of all the sons of human being, so that the human beings were not able to supply them. And the Giants assailed the human beings and devoured them. And they began to sin against birds and beasts and creeping things and the fish, and to devour one another’s flesh. And they drank the blood. (I Enoch 7:3-5)

This again evokes the rampage of an invading army (led by a courtier rebelling against his king, for example) to lay waste to those subjugated and take over and eat their food supply. Finally, the Watchers also (3) taught the women sorcery, and charms, and knowledge skills (I Enoch 7:1, 8:1-3), which means they brought knowledge to earth that should have stayed in heaven (I Enoch 9:6), which (again) blurs the divinely established boundary between heaven and earth, and (again) evokes the boundary between royal courts and the masses; what courtiers knew as members of the king’s circle was privileged and not to be disseminated to the people. Taking all these three points, the “great sin” of the Watchers was that they rebelled against their divine monarch and led destructive actions which carried disastrous consequences. It was not that they merely had sexual relations with those of a different kind or caste. (pp 96-104)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their Justice. The way God punishes the Watchers is how Near Eastern kings punished rebelling courtiers. Kings typically dispatched a senior courtier or courtiers to deal with the rebellion. Violent punishment was inflicted on the defeated rebels, to such gruesome lengths that they even saw their children die before their eyes. The punishment was meted out over a period of time, with initial seizure and binding, physical punishment and torture, followed by death. There was no forgiveness against courtly treason; the king’s justice was cruel and merciless. Case in point: Darius ordered Takhmaspada to put down the rebellion of Tritantaechmes, and when the rebellion was squashed, Darius cut off Tritantaechmes’ nose and ears, then put out one of his eyes, imprisoned him, and then later crucified him. What God orders Raphael and Michael to do against the Watcher leaders Asael and Shemihazah is equivalent. Here are the graphic details:

The Lord said to Raphael, “Bind Asael by his hands and his feet and cast him into the darkness. Split open the desert that is in Dudael, and throw him there. Put sharp and jagged rocks under him and cover him with darkness. Let him stay there for an aeon. Cover his face so that he may not see the light. On the day of judgment he will be hurled into fire.” (I Enoch 10:4-6)

And the Lord said to Michael, “Bind Shemihazah and the others with him who mated with the daughters of human beings, so that they were defiled by them through their uncleanness. When their are perishing, and they see the destruction of those they love, bind them for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, until the day of their judgment and until the final consummation, when judgment will be completed forever. They will be borne away into the abyss of fire, and into the torture, and into the prison for all eternity.” (I Enoch 10:11-13)

These passages are patterned on the completely merciless justice of monarchs (like Darius) in dealing with court rebels. Such justice would be off the scales if the standard view were correct: priestly infringements don’t require unrelenting torture followed by everlasting torment. (pp 104-107)

God’s Abode: Heavenly Temple? We’ve been told that the divine home in I Enoch is a heavenly temple, even though the text doesn’t come close to supporting this view. The first structure Enoch encounters (supposedly the vestibule), is not physically contiguous with the two structures that he comes to next (supposedly the nave and the sanctuary). Enoch goes into the first structure, which is a “wall of hailstones” encircled by “tongues of fire” (I Enoch 14:8-9), and then moves through a distance of space before he gets to the second structure (14:10). The first structure is simply a wall — further evidenced by the fact that there are gates on it (I Enoch 9:2, 9:10, 34:2, 35:1, 36:1) — not an enclosed structure like a vestibule. As for the second and third structures, the “houses”, they cannot be modeled on the temple’s nave and the sanctuary, because in the Jerusalem temple the sanctuary is smaller than the nave. In I Enoch the second house entered (the supposed sanctuary) is larger (I Enoch 14:15) than the first. Not only that, there is no veil mentioned between the two “houses”. And there is no altar anywhere. (pp 115-117, 128-130, 139-140)

God’s Abode: Heavenly Palace. Enoch, therefore, is not looking into the holiest of holies, but into the throne room of a royal palace where the king is seated on his throne (I Enoch 14:18-23). This heavenly palace is modeled on Near Eastern palaces like the one at Pasaragade, built by the Persian king Cyrus (which the exiled Jews in Babylon would have been aware of, and perhaps even made to construct). In both cases, one must first pass through a wall to again access to the building where the king resides. That building in question contains two (not three) stages. At Pasaragade, the first stage consists of four small porticoes (north, south, east, and west) that surround and join the second stage of the large central throne room. In I Enoch, the first stage is an antechamber joining the second stage of God’s throne room. Just as someone in any of the four porticoes at Pasaragade could look into the audience hall and see the enthroned Cyrus, so too Enoch, from the antechamber, looks into the larger hall and sees God on his throne. (pp 131, 142-143, 150-151)

A Community of Scribes against the Temple

Esler argues that the Enochic authors were a scribal community who opposed the temple. Most of his book focuses on the Book of the Watchers, but the last chapter has the entire corpus in view. That corpus was written over three centuries:

3rd century BC Book of Luminaries (1 Enoch 72–82) (Astronomical Book)
3rd century BC Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36)
175-170 BC Apocalypse of Weeks (I Enoch 93:1-10, 91:11-17)
~160s BC First Dream Vision (I Enoch 83-84)
~150s BC Bridging Exhortation (I Enoch 91:1-10,18-19)
~130s BC Birth of Noah (I Enoch 106-107)
~100 BC Epistle of Enoch (I Enoch 92-105)
~40 BC – 40 AD Book of Parables (I Enoch 37-71)
Late 1st century Eschatological Exhortation (I Enoch 108)

The unifying aspect in the corpus is the hero Enoch, who proudly identifies himself as a scribe. The biblical Enoch was never understood this way, and so the authors of these works are plausibly understood as a community of scribes who reinterpreted a hero from the past in terms of their own profession. (pp 176-182) This group of scribes took the revolutionary step of integrating Babylonian astronomy with Enoch (for which there was biblical warrant: Gen 5:23 says that Enoch lived to be 365 years old — easily construed as a connection to the solar calendar), but going even further, according to Esler. Because Enoch “walked with God” (Gen 5:24), and thus must have been a suitable person to interact with God in heaven, he could pass on heavenly revelations that addressed the bigger questions of human experience. Specifically, the existence of evil and how God would deal with it. The Book of the Watchers is all about that: how evil came into the world under control of a good God.

But these scribes were not connected to the temple, despite what scholars tell us. Just the opposite. Esler notes that Sirach was a pro-temple author who attacked what are probably Enochic works, and that the conflict seems to be an inter-group one, not intra-group — that is, between a group of scribes associated with the temple (Sirach) and another that is not (Enoch). (pp 172-174, 185) Also, in the Apocalypse of Weeks (I Enoch 93:1–10, 91:11–17), the Enochic author blatantly omits the true events of the seventh week: the return of Judeans and the rebuilding of the temple. (pp 185-186) Instead he characterizes the seventh week as a period of dire perversity (I Enoch 93:9-10); the Judeans are cast as a wicked out-group who will be supplanted by “witnesses of righteousness” (i.e. the members of the Enochic community, naturally). No temple-loving Judean would do that.

Interesting corollaries emerge from Esler’s findings. It’s not just the temple metaphor that has to go. Some scholars also tell us that I Enoch 1-36 is a subversive text that is anti-imperial. I don’t see how they get this, and the royal court metaphor renders it nonsense. The Book of the Watchers endorses, without reservation, the legitimacy of God punishing rebellious courtiers with the most extreme and unforgiving violence — just like the violence used by Persian and Hellenistic kings. It valorizes the existence of tyrannical monarchies. (p 108) Another post-script is that with the temple metaphor gone, I Enoch is less representative of the religion “Judaism”, and better understood within a broader ethnic context of “Judeanism”. (pp 12-19) As an ethnic group the Judeans were similar in many ways to other groups in their world, like the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Parthians, etc. This  probably explains why scholars have insisted on seeing a non-existent “Jewish” temple cult in the background of I Enoch 1-36, when the courts of the Near Eastern kings are staring them right in the face!

Yet another brilliant book by Esler, and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand The Book of the Watchers.

The Best Scenes of Stranger Things 2

After my fifth viewing of season 2, it’s about time for a best scenes list. I won’t even try to rank them, because I think that would be impossible. I simply list them chronologically. There are thirty. I should note that episodes 2 and 9 have an embarrassment of riches, with six scenes from each. All the other episodes have three or less.

Episode One (3 scenes)

Lab exam

1. Lab exam. Halfway through the first episode is when season 2 really takes wing. Character intros are out of the way, and Will comes into focus as he’s taken to the “bad men’s” den of season 1. We learn that those men are no longer in charge, but it’s still far from a comfort zone a kid like this needs. His medical exam foreshadows he heavy Exorcist vibe that will return in Episode 6, and while he isn’t actually possessed yet, he’s clearly infected by the Upside Down. But he’s told no one about the slug he coughed up at the end of season 1, and Dr. Owens insists that his episodes are psychological flashbacks. We know better, which makes our reaction rather different from that of Owens, Joyce, and Hopper when Will says the shadow creature wants to kill… not himself but everyone else.

Dinner with Barb’s parents

2. Dinner with Barb’s parents. When I first watched this scene and the next one, I remember breathing a sigh of relief. They run back to back at about two-thirds of the way through the episode, and they were the definite tipping point in assuring me that season 2 was in good hands. The consequences of season 1 would be felt everywhere, and not just on a surface level. Nancy doesn’t just move on because Barbara Holland happened to be a minor character in the scheme of the TV series. She’s appropriately distressed over the fact that Barb’s parents still think she’s alive. On top of that, they are selling the house to pay for a private investigator. Her scene in the bathroom with Barb’s photo is genuinely heartbreaking.

Emo Mike

3. Emo Mike. Nancy’s brother isn’t doing any better. Most directors would not have scripted an Emo Mike; they would have facsimiled the season-1 Mike in a pointless sequel. Here again I literally sighed in relief. In order for Eleven’s sacrifice to be felt, it had to hurt Mike deeply and cause him to stagnate. He’s no longer the spirited leader of last year; he steals from his sister, swears at his teachers, cheats on exams, plagiarizes essays, and graffitis the bathroom stalls. For this he is made to throw out most of his toys (for which I despise his mother), and all that keeps him going is the ridiculously dim hope that Eleven is still alive somewhere. He calls her every night on the walkie talkie (day 352 now), and shits on Dustin and Lucas when they interrupt these empty moments with their own calls. Bravo.

Episode Two (6 scenes)

“Halfway Happy”

4. “Halfway Happy”. This is a perfect first scene for El and Hopper after their stage debut in episode 1. It shows their relationship to be a typical “father and daughter”, which is certainly how Hopper sees it, as he has taken in Eleven to fill the void left by Sarah’s death. After almost a year’s worth of cabin fever, El wants to get out and go trick-or-treating like any kid, to which an appalled Hopper says no, but offers instead to bring home candy that night and watch a horror movie with her. Millie Bobbie Brown’s acting is terrific and subtle as always, as she sulks and struggles to understand the meaning of the world “compromise”, which she finally grasps as “halfway happy”.

Peeing

5. Peeing. Deja-vu goes from scary to hilarious in a carbon-copy replay of Joyce and Jonathan’s first scene in season 1. Jonathan is cooking breakfast, and Joyce finds an empty bedroom, prompting a “Where’s Will?” tirade. Suddenly she and Jonathan hear a booming noise coming from the bathroom, and Joyce crashes in like a Mohawk warrior on poor Will, who is standing by the toilet unable to get any privacy from his crazy mom. She tries covering her stupidity with a feeble “What are you doing?”, to which Will deadpans the obvious: “Peeing?” (Translation: “What the fuck else?”) Of the many helicopter-mom scenes in Stranger Things 2, this one wins hands down.

Ghostbusters

6. Ghostbusters. The montage of the four boys getting photos taken by their mothers is a terrific homage. The Ghostbusters theme plays over it, and the costumes are awesome. Will is excited, Dustin ecstatic, and Lucas somehow attains the same level of joy in the face of jeers from his nine-year old sister. But it’s Mike’s reaction that is priceless — Emo Mike, of course, who has forgotten how to smile, is sour through the whole proceeding, and just wants to get the hell out of Dodge.

Halloween

7. Halloween. In the Beyond Stranger Things round-table discussions, Sadie Sink told the Duffer Brothers that she never saw Halloween and has no intention of doing so. Her Michael Myers jump scare is so effective that we can excuse her blasphemy, and her character Max is absolutely right: Lucas does sound like a wailing little girl. The trick-or-treat scenes on top of the shadow monster’s appearance add up to a wonderful night out; the Duffer Brothers made Halloween for me what it should be, according to Mike, “the best night of the year”. It turns out to be a shitty night for Mike, unfortunately, thanks to Max, which takes us to the next scene…

“Crazy together”

8. “Crazy together”. This tender moment foreshadows the Mike-Will pairing in episodes 4-6, and follows on the heels of Mike basically telling Dustin and Lucas to fuck off. He refuses to trick-or-treat with them anymore since they invited Max along without his permission, and since he also finds their abundant cheer to be unacceptable. If he is suffering in misery, then so by God should everyone else, and Will seems to be the only one who can satisfy Mike on this level. One would think Mike almost applauds the shadow monster for terrorizing Will. It gives him someone to save and protect, like he did for El last season. The boys’ conversation here is very moving, as they take comfort in each others damage, and resign themselves to going “crazy together”.

Stalking Mike

9. Stalking Mike. I continue to be impressed by the way scenes are shot in the ethereal plane where Eleven projects her spirit to spy on people over long distances. In season 1 she did this at the behest of Papa (which resulted in the disaster of opening a gate to the Upside Down), and then also to locate Will to find out if he was still alive. Now she uses this power to stalk Mike, who calls her in vain on the walkie talkie, while she spectates in frustration. The final shot, which flits from our world (where we see only Mike, who thinks he hears something) to the ethereal (where we see El caressing the face of the ethereal Mike), is some fine cinematography.

Episode Three (3 scenes)

Handling Dart

10. Handling Dart. Of all the episodes this season, it’s the third that channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Emo Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role. This is my favorite scene of the episode, where they pass Dart around in the AV Room, most of them (Max, Lucas, Will) thoroughly grossed out — “He feels like a living booger” from Lucas is the best line — until it ends in the hands of Mike, who studiously ponders the creature.

To kill or not kill Dart

11. To kill or not kill Dart. When the boys return to the AV Room at the end of the school day, Mike excludes Max, rudely leaving her outside the door as he proceeds to tell Lucas and Dustin what Will has told him since their last huddle: that Dart resembles critters from the Upside Down. He urges taking Dart to Hopper, to which Lucas agrees but Dustin strenuously objects, thinking that Hopper would likely kill Dart — which Mike says would be most welcome. Sensing hostility, Dart thunders in his cage. The Stand-By-Me bickering is what we loved so much about these kids in season 1, and it’s on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his dangerous pet no matter what.

Will stands his ground — in vain

12. Will stands his ground — in vain. The shadow monster’s invasion of Will is one of the most unpleasant scenes of the series, let alone this season. It smothers him, rapes its way down his throat, and fills his body, settling in for a long and hideous possession. This is the last we will see of the externalized tentacled creature (until the end of the finale). After this point, the shadow monster manifests internally through Will. Which takes us to…

Episode Four (3 scenes)

Possession trauma

13. Possession trauma. With the fourth episode comes a shift in tone. Will, having taken Bob’s well-meaning but stupid advice, is no longer just infected by the Upside Down. He’s possessed by the shadow monster (later called the mind flayer). Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Thankfully the Duffer Brothers know what they’re doing, and Noah Schnapp nails this performance. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will becomes shaken and terrified over feeling helpless and out of control. Noah has said in interviews that he’s quite proud of this scene, and he should be. It’s the scene that could have killed the story if he missed.

Telekinetic tantrum

14. Telekinetic tantrum. One of the Duffer Brothers — Ross, I think, but I’m not sure — calls this his favorite scene of the season. It is certainly Eleven’s best scene, as she and Hopper get into the worst shouting match they’ve ever had. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, and he also clearly doesn’t like that she’s interested in a boy. El accuses him of being no better than Papa — she feels just as caged in the cabin as she was in the lab — resulting in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. In the round-table discussions we learn that none of this was CGI, and that David Harbour was really in the room when all the glass exploded. Millie’s hysterical acting is top-notch; like Noah’s scene above, this one stands or falls on her performance, though Harbour does an amazing job as well, shouting her down and calling her a brat.

“He likes it cold”

15. “He likes it cold.” It’s a chilling moment when Joyce takes Will’s temperature and it’s not even 96; and Will says he feels like he’s walking around hardly awake. Schnapp had to run the gamut in this episode, from feeling shaken and terrified (in the scene above), to stalking about the house confused, to finally making resolute demands of his mother: that she dump the hot bath she ran him, and run him a freezing one instead, because his possessor “likes it cold”.  Not only is this a scary and well-acted scene, it’s creatively juxtaposed with the school scene of Mr. Clarke explaining the biological origins of fear. His lecture voices over Will’s slow approach to the bathtub that finally revolts him. It’s brilliant editing.

Episode Five (2 scenes)

Hockey-puck Dart

16. Hockey-puck Dart. I have only two scenes from the fifth episode, but this one is admittedly a gem. Dustin shoos his mother out of the house on the pretext of their cat being spotted in another neighborhood, and then proceeds to deal with Dart who actually ate the damn cat. It’s clear by this point that Dustin takes care of his mother more than she takes care of him, and the devious way he spares her the knowledge of Mews’ death — by pretending to speak on the phone with someone who “found” Mews — speaks volumes for his empathy. After his mother leaves, Dustin throws on his hockey gear and engages in more devious strategies to lure Dart outside and lock him in the cellar. My heart always skips a beat when he charges out the tool shed and smashes the pissed-off Dart like a hockey puck down into the cellar. Even now he feels bad about it: “I’m sorry,” he says, locking the doors, “but you ate my cat.”

Bob solves Will’s map

17. Bob solves Will’s map. It wouldn’t be a season of Stranger Things without the Byers’ house getting trashed in some way, and this year it’s Will’s map that does the damage — a maze of tunnels that plasters the walls and floors. It takes Bob to make sense of it, and it’s his best scene of the season (aside from his death, on which see below), as he lives up to his moniker “Bob the Brain”. The scene exploits his nerdy compulsion to solve things, even when he can see that Will needs a doctor and that Joyce is insane for playing up to this “game”. Sean Astin was perfectly cast here.

Episode Six (3 scenes)

Burning inside out

18. Burning inside out. I was recently wheeled into the Emergency Room, and so I have a hard time watching these scenes — the prologue shown in the right picture, and the later scene where Dr. Owens runs tests on Will by torching (and torturing) a creature from the Upside Down, which simultaneously burns (and tortures) Will. No, my torments in the hospital weren’t as painful as Will’s, but I did feel like I was dying, and the doctors and nurses sounded very worried about me behind their professional facades. In any case, these are scenes once again brilliantly acted by Noah Schnapp. The scene to the right, in particular, was evidently of concern to the actors, who were so frightened by Noah’s acting they thought he was really in agony. Five minutes later, he was cracking fart jokes on the set.

Big Brother Steve

19. Big Brother Steve. Steve’s evolving character continues to surprise. Having been commandeered by Dustin in the last episode, he now directs Dustin in an attempt to bait Dart into the open and kill it. Along the way they form a rather unexpected bond on the basis of their girl troubles. Steve has just lost Nancy, and Dustin’s crush on Max hasn’t been going well at all. So Steve proceeds to counsel Dustin in all the right ways of hitting on girls, which calls forth amusing remarks about sexual electricity (which Dustin misconstrues as pertaining to electromagnetic fields), but by far my favorite line is when Steve projects his anger over Nancy through some advice meant to “protect” Dustin: “You’re not falling for this girl, are you?” he asks. When Dustin says no (lying obviously), Steve retorts, “Good. Because all she’ll do is break your heart, and you’re way too young for that shit.”

Demo-dog attack

20. Demo-dog attack. Steve and Dustin are eventually joined by Lucas and Max, and when Dart finally shows up, it’s with another demo-dog in tow. Suddenly it’s Steve and the kids who become the bait, trapped inside a bus as the beasts assault them. The claustrophobic suspense is right out of Jaws and Jurassic Park, but the best part is Dustin’s hilarious line, when he screams for help into his walkie talkie: “Is anyone there? Mike! Will! God! Anyone! We’re at the old junkyard, and WE ARE GOING TO DIE!” That purposely enunciated “We are going to die” is cribbed from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, from the scene where Harrison Ford’s character screams that to the blond dingbat whose only concern is the fact that her precious fingernails are getting ruined. What an homage.

Episode Seven (1 scene)

“I can save them”

21. “I can save them.” Most people hate the seventh episode, but it does have supporters, and I have to admit it’s grown on me. What the episode does well is make Eleven experience the lure of vigilantism. Ultimately she rejects using her powers for homicidal revenge, but she certainly flirts with the idea, furious over the way her mother was abused under Papa’s regime. That arc ends in a superb scene, starting with her vision of Mike and Hopper (who are just realizing that Will has unleashed an army of demo-dogs on the lab), to Kali’s use of an invisibility cloak to escape the cops, to El insisting that she return home — not because her Hawkins friends can save her, but because she can save them. It’s genuinely moving, and pays off the episode rather well.

Episode Eight (3 scenes)

Bob’s death

22. Bob’s death. Tropes from Aliens and Jurassic Park are used effectively for the season’s crowning action sequence, which results in the death of poor Bob. The sight of him being torn apart by the demo-dogs is nasty, and I’m surprised Joyce wasn’t reduced to a gibbering lunatic for the rest of the season. On the one hand, Bob’s death is telegraphed too obviously; at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”. On the other hand, I became sure those telegraphs were part of a grand bait-and-switch, once Bob makes it into the foyer. We’re supposed to think he’s going to die, until he barely makes it to Joyce and bolts the doors. Then — just as we start breathing again — the doors crash open and Bob goes under. Very well played; very traumatic.

Mike recalls meeting Will

23. Mike recalls meeting Will. The Duffer brothers have a sadistic streak, no question. In the Beyond Stranger Things round-table discussions, Matt Duffer is jokingly accused by one of the actors of having laughed and reveled in all the scenes where Noah Schnapp has to scream and thrash under torment. In the case of this scene, Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories in hopes of breaking through to him, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is a tearjerker. Will continues to speak like the damned, but these stories do break through and allow him to tap a Morse code message, “Close the gate”, which will apparently kill the mind flayer. Score for mom, big bro, and — especially — Emo Mike.

Stand-off

24. Stand-off. The tension here is insane. Even after my fifth viewing — knowing that Eleven is right outside ready to save everyone — the scene still makes my heart race. And the way it’s shot is a throwback to last year’s scene, where Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve were in the Byers’ house under a strobe light effect, armed with a gun, lighter, and baseball bat trying desperately to sight the Demogorgon. This time it’s an army of demogorgons, but again the terror is caused by what everyone can’t see, but can hear and sense too well. I should note that the right characters are armed with the appropriate weapons — Hopper and Nancy with guns, Steve with the studded baseball bat, Lucas with his slingshot, and Emo Mike (wait for it) with a goddamn candlestick holder.

Episode Nine (6 scenes)

Mike and El’s reunion

25. Mike and El’s reunion. The reunion is powerful because Mike has been an empty shell for a year. To see him come alive again is sublime. And to think it almost didn’t happen this way. The original script had the reunion occurring at the Snow Ball epilogue. While I appreciate the idea — those who say the reunion should have occurred much earlier, like halfway through the season, are crazy — that would have been a little too late. We need at least a full episode of these two working in knowledge of each other. And it is the perfect first scene to follow on El’s glorious re-entry at the end of the last episode.

Mike goes ape-shit on Hopper

26. Mike goes ape-shit on Hopper. This one is just as good as the reunion. All of Emo Mike’s frustrations from the past year boil over, as he goes ape-shit on Hopper, screaming and physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. In the round-table discussions we learn that David Gilmour told Finn Wolfhard not to hold back, and Finn is really clobbering him without pulling his punches. Chokes me up every time. Emo Mike had a bad year.

Hopper and El’s reconciliation

27. Hopper and El’s reconciliation. Mike and El’s reunion is short lived (of course), since she leaves right away with Hopper. On their drive to the lab they make amends over their hellish fight back in episode 4. Even though I like the two scenes above better, this one is probably, objectively, the most moving scene of the season. It’s a long scene, as it deserves to be, and shows Hopper acknowledging his past demons that cause him to be overprotective, while El, for her part, owns up to her own stupidities. It plays authentically because we’ve seen the dark road she’s been on in episode 7; for all the problems of that episode, it did allow her to grow in a way that pays off an important scene like this.

Steve and Billy

28. Steve and Billy. As if the finale couldn’t get any better, we cut to Steve who has assumed the role of a babysitter and refuses to allow the boys to assist the other two groups (Hopper/El, and Joyce/Jonathan/Nancy/Will) in any way. He’s responsible for these “little shits”, as he puts it, and orders them to “stay on the bench” until the others do their jobs. The sudden intrusion of Billy makes it a moot point, and Steve proceeds to take an even worse pounding than he got from Jonathan last year. Billy is a more disturbing bully than Troy and his sidekick ever were — genuinely psychotic, and laughing, laughing, laughing through all the hits he takes.

The gate

29. The gate. The climax is last year’s times ten. A single Demogorgon has nothing on the mind flayer, which is sentient and all-powerful, and clearly too much for El to go against. She must shut the gate on the thing, sever its ties to our world, and isolate it in the Upside Down. In so doing, she’ll kill everything connected to it, including the army of demo-dogs, but also Will. So Will needs an exorcism, while Steve and the kids decide to launch an attack on the underground hub to draw the demo-dogs away from El and Hopper. When those two missions succeed, El is ready, and the momentum has piled like a juggernaut. Millie does a fantastic job conveying stress and exhaustion and fury all at once, and the flashback to Papa in episode 7  — “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound, and eventually it will kill you” — goes a long way in compounding her rage against the mind flayer.

Snow Ball

30. Snow Ball. If El closing the gate is a spectacular moment, the Snow Ball epilogue is the crowning scene of the entire two seasons. All the boys end up paired with the right girl in the right ways: Lucas gets Max after a clumsy proposal, Will gets a bashful admirer (his “Zombie Boy” status working for him, for a change), and Dustin is rejected by every girl he asks until the elder Nancy comes to his rescue. Finally, Eleven arrives, and she and Mike dance to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”. Some critics have decried the use of this creepy stalker song, but it’s hard to believe they can be that clueless. The song is a perfect fit, not only because Mike and El’s relationship has always been rather weird, but because El has been stalking Mike for a whole year. Not to mention the stalker theme between Lucas and Max. On top of that, the final shot “underneath” the school in the Upside Down shows the mind flayer looming over the school, which aligns with the song’s theme: “I’ll be watching you, every breath you take, every move you make…” The Snow Ball epilogue is so affecting, so right, and more than I dared pray for this season. The kids earned this closure, and by God so did we.