Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey


Howard Adelman

This is NOT a review of the series. NO SPOILERS HERE! I have only watched two of its very many episodes in their entirety, the first one of the first series and the third of the second series. My wife, Nancy, has been smitten. She has finished two seasons in just three days. A number of our close friends have watched the series and recommended it enormously. So why do I dislike it? My initial sense was my rejection of emotional repression parading as reserve, shrapnels of sophistication buried in the body politic of the family, death in the Midlands rather than in Venice, servility served up with a dash of snobbery on stunning dinnerware, permeated, I suspect, with autobiographical insider intimacies from which the viewer is excluded and senses that exclusion.

How can I make such a judgment when I have only seen these two episodes, the first introducing the abbey, the family and the servants as well as the villainous maid and footman, and the third episode of Series II in which the estate is converted into a convalescent hospital during the Great War in which the aristocracy have to suffer the shrinking of their physical space and the intrusions of the real world into their protected enclave, in which the shifts in hierarchies, both in the upstairs and the downstairs, disturb the standing order, romantic intrigues upset both the servants quarters and the daughters of milord, and everyone is faced with the horror of women waiting on the family in the drawing room instead of footmen?

Who really cares about the fortitude of a piece of flotsam from history? Who really cares about the physical and emotional legacy of this deluxe family period melodrama? Obviously a great number of people seduced by the diverting dilemmas and the high production values of the series. Nancy has taken to doling out two white chocolate bob bons in fancy cellophane as periodic treats that are not real chocolate and have soft rather than the hard centres I love.

Downton Abbey is a magnificent gorgeous costume drama. The sets, the dresses, even the chauffeur’s uniform, are absolutely exquisite. The setting is glorious, better than any tour of the great estates of Britain. Further, nothing beats British acting skills. The script is somewhat uneven, sometimes sparkling with sharp wit – especially when delivered with pointed barbs and a knowing look by Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, but at other times with clichéd homilies, and in between, a great deal of asides and whispering to advance the conniving and scheming of both the villainous and the mixed characters. The fuller characters, whether in the minor roles of a scullery maid and a cook, or the major roles of all the members of the Crawley family, are intriguing. They engage in shape shifting sufficiently to maintain our interest and convince us of the fictional reality of their personalities. But the most important character in the plot is Downton Abbey itself, to whom everyone, the nobility and the servants, the pretenders, the envious and the rebellious, are all in thrall. Sometimes the abbey looks exquisite and classical but at other times dowdy and forlorn when seen from a distance. I was never able to reconcile these two very different visuals of the estate and ascertain whether it was intentional.

The worst is the plot with conniving, scheming, plotting, terrible and accidental coincidences drawn from nineteenth century novels as the series transitions from the Edwardian era into the modern world. Plot elements are held back and in reserve like regiments in a battlefield. What happened to the homosexuality to which we are introduced in the first episode? You have to stick with the series to await its re-appearance I assume. Or is it dropped? I suspect not. From a postmodern period, it is a matter of great curiousity to encounter an upstairs/downstairs world as electricity, the motor car, the telephone and, most and worst of all, the Great War intervene to corrode and destroy the illusionary stability of the nineteenth century class system and Downton Abbey as its architectural symbol.

Perhaps tales of treacheries untold and secrets unfolded like the fine sheets the maids use to make the beds, narratives of reverses of fortune and fortunate inversions of those reversals so critical to the success of any soap opera, scandalous scheming and scurrilous actions all topped off with mounds of rich cream to make the medicine go down, have far greater appeal to most than a great smoked beef sandwich. Emotions are announced and pronounced or allowed to seep out under the closed doors and reserve, especially of the servants. It is not how I like to treat my imagination or taste buds.

However, what is most apparent are the absences. There is no glimpse of religion in the two episodes I saw, either of High Anglicanism or even rebellious noble Catholicism, though I overheard a minister say prayers and offer condolences at a funeral in another episode. How could Robert, the Earl of Grantham, the most enslaved milord I have ever witnessed, played brilliantly by Hugh Bonneville, the most devoted servant to the well-being and continuity of Downton Abbey, a man of great tolerance even if ridden with deep Tory values, a man kind and generous with a deep understanding of the foibles of others in spite of his marriage to tradition, a Tevye in formal wear, how could this man who supposedly attended both Eton and Oxford and possesses a supposed great love of reading, though we see him mostly reading the newspaper in the library, demonstrate so little self-consciousness and such a vast ignorance of literature and philosophy even as references to the classics are strewn at random through the two episodes as the petals that fall off dying indoor plants that I saw? How can a man of such ostensible reason and reasonableness be so lacking in knowledge and insight, learning and true understanding of the working of money and power? But I had no sense that this was the question driving Julian Fellowes.

Cora, the Countess of Grantham, is sometimes terribly naive, especially when dealing with her conniving maid, and at others very cunning and a formidable American opponent and sometime ally of the Dowager Duchess. In the third episode of the second series, the maid and Cora plot together to bring back the villainous footman into a position of power in Downton Abbey at the same time as the Dowager Duchess and her daughter-in-law conspire to undermine Lavinia, the fiancé of Crawley who is the true legal heir of the estate.

Events conspire and transpire, and they happen with great rapidity to suit a postmodern sensibility, but it is not their causes or their circumstances that intrigue, but their effects, not historically, but on the personal lives of the characters whether they reside upstairs or downstairs. All humans are born equal because, whether man or woman, whether servant or master, we are all buffeted and tossed about by the unexpected, by the icebergs that drift across the north Atlantic and can even sink the unsinkable Titanic, the symbol for Britain introduced in the very first episode.

There is another value I noted in passing – a worship of evidence, of proof, a commitment to empiricism and confirmation  that presumably will ultimately save the Brits as they muddle through these radical changes. Perhaps empiricism did but it is so little in real evidence itself that allusions to such values seem to be a folly in itself.

But the greatest absence is any political depth. There is, of course, the socialist and anti-war chauffeur who is so obviously in love with and protective of one of milord’s and his only modern and worldly daughter, but the references are absolutely superficial lest the politics of the day undermine the centrality of the politics of the family and the central issue of inheritance – inheritance of property and wealth, inheritance of manners and a sense of civility, and inheritance of a propensity to make errors of judgment. What a surprise to read in yesterday’s paper that the rule of primogeniture of aristocratic inheritance restricted to male heirs is now about to have legislation introduced in the British Parliament. So there is a reality behind this obsolete system of privileges and positions, of misplaced rights and rites, of a world that once ruled Brittania but is now left to being ruled by its rules.

There is an absence of the antisemitism that permeated the upper classes of Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, but of this we get not even a whiff. Perhaps it is being saved for a later episode when the effects will be shown to dramatic effect in the thirties. And where and when will racism be introduced, racism that was integral to the Boer War and was so central to the exploitation of India that made all that wealth and pomposity possible. Perhaps the producers are waiting until the more contemporary anti-Black racism takes the center stage in world history.

However, the absence that bothered me most was when General Stutts, a stand-in for General Haig, the so-called hero of the Battle of the Somme (???), visits Downton Abbey in the episode that I watched when Downton Abbey was being used as a convalescent hospital for the unwalking wounded and the walking unwound as casualties of the Great War convalesce. Nothing is said. There are allusions to the large number of casualties, but no comment is offered on the 60,000 casualties General Haig sacrificed to “break through”, fight a modern tank war and gain six miles of territory. How can one cry and empathize with a world of class and privilege that brought about its own destruction in its blind drift into the follies of massive deaths with the barest glimpse of what the role of blind loyalty – the highest and noblest value upheld by the whole system and epitomized by Mr. Bates, a British Jean Valjean, milord’s batman from the Boer campaign, his personal valet and “man” in the series?   

So what bothers me? I love westerns, even crappy ones, so why does such a brilliant melodrama upset me? Because, like the aristocracy it portrays, the series not only has pretensions but, next to loyalty, reveals pretence and appearance as the central virtue of the class system. And I despise pretence except when it is espoused as the highest virtue by Maggie Smith. Then it is both an expression of true belief and a marvellous send up. As I overheard in another episode in a line of Maggie Smith’s that is ironic rather than full of pithy wit but perhaps summarizes the interpretation of history: “The war may be at an end but the upheaval is only beginning.”

What seemed to permeate the episodes I saw was not description and insight but depiction and painful if fatalistic regret. What is the perspective of Julian Fellowes who created the series? I did not have the sitzfleisch to discover. How could Fellowes write such brilliant lines for an actress playing an acerbic and condescending presence who can deliver them with dripping perfection? Though torn a bit, I had the impression that Fellowe’s overwhelming nostalgia for this period and those values that penetrate the two episodes I saw. were and remain the deep values he upholds. Next to pretence, nostalgia is its repugnant kissing cousin for me. But not, I had the impression, for the series.

I regret I have so little use for both.



Postscript on Israeli-Palestinian Talks: Future Scenarios

Postscript on the Israeli-Palestinian Talks: Future Scenarios


Howard Adelman


Akiva Eldar, co-author of the best seller Lords of the Land on the Jewish settlements, is now a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For years he was the senior political columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz. He also served as its US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. We spoke on the phone yesterday in a communal telephone call courtesy of Americans for Peace Now. (

Akiva opened the conversation with a comment on Bibi Netanyahu’s statement at  the Saban Forum in Washington this past Saturday linking the Israeli-Palestinian talks with what happens on the Iranian front. This linkage could be interpreted in at least two opposite ways. First, it could mean that if progress could be made on the Iran front, then it would encourage progress on the Israeli-Palestinian talks. However, Netanyahu posed the opposite linkage and threatened that the I-P talks will come to nothing if the Geneva agreement stays in place and proves itself the great historical mistake he prophesied and Iran is given a license to build a bomb.

Netanyahu often cites the Islamic republic’s repeated talk of Israel’s destruction as a reason to be more cautious in peacemaking with the Palestinians. “Our aspiration for peace is liable to be severely affected if Iran succeeds” in winning a relaxation of penalties that have devastated its economy, he said in an Oct. 23 Twitter message. The linkage is then negative, not positive. (See the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News –…/palestinian-peace-talksiranian-accord.html, 2013-11-25 and…· Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may suffer collateral damage from the accord world powers reached with Iran. With the weekend agreement in Geneva, “Netanyahu probably won’t feel a strong commitment anymore to negotiating with the Palestinians under American supervision,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of the ChaimHerzogCenter for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-GurionUniversity in Beersheba, Israel. “He’s not going to announce this publicly, but he’s never shown much enthusiasm for the talks.”

As an aside, Akiva was asked about the denial by Dan Shapiro, the US  Ambassador to Israel, whether he insisted that there was no linkage. (Cf. “US ambassador rejects talk of Iran-Palestinian ‘linkage’: “While some Israeli officials endorse the connection, Dan Shapiro says peace process has no bearing on efforts to deny Iran the bomb.”, Akiva remonstrated Dan Shapiro for not being in closer touch with the State Department and the White House where he insisted that both Kerry and Obama made such a linkage, even though an unnamed State Department official insisted that Kerry saw no linkage between the two sets of talks. Further, the Israeli papers insisted that Obama made a linkage (, but, in fact, Obama was simply stating that there was a commonality in both talks since both were concerned with reducing the level of violence in the middle east. He was NOT linking the two causally in any way. (…linkage-of-iran-andisraelipalestinian-peace)

Why is the issue of a linkage important? Because if the linkage is negative, it means that Netanyahu is more determined than ever to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian talks. In other words, the linkage is not between the talks per se but in the reactions of various parties to the success or failure of each set of talks. However, this is not the linkage that Akiva suggested.

While applauding the fact that Netanyahu now acceded to a linkage that he had previously denied, Akiva interpreted Netanyahu’s actions as an attempt to throw a wrench into the peace talks but in a different way than suggested above. Bibi’s red line on the Iranian talks was too demanding and could never produce an agreement through diplomatic means acceptable to his Israeli government since it would mean Iran giving up both its nuclear and enrichment program altogether. Netanyahu wants Iran to surrender and to be humiliated to boot. The linkage was an intention to sabotage and undercut BOTH sets of talks.

Akiva suggested that the dependency between the two sets of talks went the other way, that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian talks would facilitate a rapprochement with Iran. Further, as Akiva interpreted Bibi’s position on the peace talks, Bibi was still determined that the talks go nowhere and remained wedded to a stalling and obstructionist participation. The Iran talks are dependent on the Israeli-Palestinian talks because the latter are not just about security for the Jewish state but are intended to alter the relations between Israel and the Palestinians and put an end to Iranian support of terrorism in the Middle East. The nuclear talks with Iran are the entry point to a wider campaign for peace in the whole Middle East.

Akiva and I agree on the following:

1. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are at a new stage as they approach the final trimester of the nine month schedule (to end by the end of April), and that John Kerry and Barack Obama will not be content with saying they gave it their best efforts and walk away; they are determined to succeed.

2. These talks are intended to end the conflict, end the occupation, the expansion of the settlements, settle the division of Jerusalem, the return of refugees and define the borders; there is to be a final agreement even if the agreement is intended to be implemented in stages; As David Markovsky, who recently joined Kerry’s negotiating team on the Israeli-Palestinian talks has written, “The only way to deal with the settlement issue is to render it moot by widening it to peacemaking and heading straight into the final negotiations on territory.”

3. The new security proposals that the Americans put on the table (but only after previous discussions with both Abbas and Netanyahu) accepted the Jordan River as the border of Palestine, therefore eliminating the possibility of an Israeli presence if Palestinian sovereignty was to be respected.

4. In the third phase of the talks, 26 more Palestinians of the original 4,446 held in detention are due to be released; Kerry and Obama do not want blood on their hands if those released resume their previous militancy; therefore, with the prisoner releases, the stakes in a successful outcome have been raised enormously.  

For Akiva, Netanyahu has been in such a big and noisy row with the United States over the Iran talks because his red line means that the talks would be doomed to failure for no Iranian regime would accept total destruction of its nuclear enrichment program and loss of all its centrifuges. Bibi was counting on the divisions between the White House and Congress to allow him to exploit those differences and sabotage the Iranian talks. It has not worked. this time.

On the Palestinian peace front, to succeed a deal needs to be struck soon with the last few months used to tweak the details. Further, this is a last chance since Abbas is 76 years old. If Netanyahu refuses to go along with the deal and surrenders to or agrees with the pressures from his right wing partners in the government. Livni and Lapid will leave the government and a new government will have to be formed. Since the Israeli partnership with the USA is not simply a foundation for Israeli foreign policy but an existential condition of Israel’s continued existence, a political war between the Israeli government and Israel would be a disaster for Israel and might propel Israel to move away and reject the right drift. 

Here is where I disagree with Akiva while granting that Akiva knows much more about Netanyahu’s personality and motives than I will ever know. He sees Netanyahu as a staunch and determined old Likudnik unwilling to surrender control of the West Bank. Any optimism about Netanyahu ignores the main goal of this enterprise as Akiva has written — “to entrench Israeli control over the territory while damaging the collective and individual rights of Palestinians.” For Akiva, “The time has come for Makovsky and his colleagues on the American peace team to understand that the settlement policy is not ‘foolishness.’ It is an intentional, clear and winning policy.”

In contrast, I see Netanyahu more as a pragmatist coming from the right but unwilling to sacrifice his political future and his legacy for dated and no longer realizable right wing expansionist ideals. Further, Kerry and Obama can both count. They need a number on the right to support the deal if it is not to blow up in their faces. So if Lapid and Livni leave the government and the government falls, Netanyahu will lose both his political future and his legacy. I agree that Lapid and Livni will not stay in the government if Netanyahu sabotages the peace talks. That is why I suggest that Netanyahu will support the results of the talks.

The Forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement

The Forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian Agreement


Howard Adelman

When Riyad al-Maliki, the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Minister, was in Ottawa at the end of September, he said that, although there are peace talks, he had little confidence that they would lead to a breakthrough. In saying that, he probably expressed the vast majority of both Israeli and world public opinion. And guess what? Look who agreed with the Palestinian Foreign Minister. On Saturday, Israeli Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are unlikely to bear fruit. But he added two telling phrases: “within the envisioned nine-month timeframe” and, further, that, “dialogue should continue”. Lieberman now supports the talks and expects them to go beyond the nine-month framework. He went onto say, “I don’t believe it is possible in the next year… to achieve a comprehensive solution to achieve some breakthrough, but I think it is crucial to keep our dialogue…because, even if you are not able to resolve the conflict, it’s very important to manage this conflict.” Lieberman did not explicitly state it, but he has clearly and unequivocally backed away from his oft-repeated axiomatic belief that there was NO chance for ANY agreement EVER.

What has changed?

The day before, John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, said, “I believe we are closer than we have been in years to bringing about the peace and the prosperity and the security that all of the people of this region deserve.” Further, look at what Obama said to Haim Saban at the same Saban Forum in Washington on Saturday. (The interview is well worth hearing; half of it and all the questions from Israelis afterwards dealt with the Iranian talks – indicating what is foremost in Israeli minds.)

After Saban thanked Obama for his efforts and discussed the Geneva Agreement with Iran, he asked Obama about the possibility of an American-imposed agreement. Obama repeated his old refrain that the Palestinians and Israelis had to make the peace and the USA could only be a facilitator. He congratulated Abbas and Netanyahu for engaging in very serious talks on the substantive issues. He also said that everyone knows about the outline of the deal. Will each side be able to meet and make a deal that respects each party’s bottom line? Then he made this declaration: “I believe that in the next few months that we will be in a position that will provide a framework agreement for a two-state solution. The Americans had spent a lot of time to understand Israel’s security requirements and that the US could understand it and make provision for those security concerns.”

At the end of November, Tzipi Livni, the Justice Minister who heads the talks, was interviewed by the Turkish Press. She said that substantial progress is being made and, in reiterating this view to Esti Perez on Israel Radio’s program “Midday”, she said that successful completion of the negotiations will require “experience and expertise” while ensuring Israel’s best interests. While the Palestinians sought to dampen expectations, the conditions were clearly signalled: the central question was sovereignty for the Palestinians and, that, in resolving the security question for Israel, dignity of Palestinians had to be respected.

An important shift had been signaled. The return of the refugees and the jurisdiction over Jerusalem were no longer the breaking issues. In the Saban Forum, President Obama said that he had assigned General Johm Allen, a retired United States Marine Corps four-star general whose final assignment had been commander of the International Security Assistance and U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) (Afghanistan) to determine whether it was possible to square the circle and create a two-state solution that can also provide for Israel’s security. It was crucial that Israel not be faced with a replica of Gaza. Allen reported back in the affirmative.

There was one clearly pronounced negative note at the Saban Forum. Israeli Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, on Sunday took issue with the critical comments of Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni made at the Saban Forum about the government’s recent decision to approve 3,000 new units in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but that was it. No fireworks! When Netanyahu addressed the Forum via a pre-recorded address but in a mannner that was firm and unsmiling, both the content and the mode were experienced as at odds with the informality and open exchanges encouraged among all participants at the Forum, even among most Likudniks.

The deal is being written as I write. It will consist of the following:

1. It will be another interim deal but it will not be called interim but will be characterized as a Framework Agreement (FA) which will entail mutual recognition of both a Jewish and a Palestinian homeland;

2) Thus, the FA will entail recognition of Palestinian sovereignty;

3) It will make provision for Israeli security involving a US military presence along the Jordanian border and a clear and unequivocal guarantee of Israel’s security as a Jewish state will be ensured by the USA;

4) It will involve an exchange of territory which will see the Palestinian side getting the equivalent of 100% of the territory Israel captured in 1967;  

5) the issue of sovereignty over Gaza will be settled in principle but postponed in practice in the recognition that Abbas will not make a deal that does not include Gaza but that Abbas does not control Gaza, so, although the deal will be restricted to the West Bank, the settlement of the West Bank will offer a model for Gazans;

6) Although the final status questions will be settled in the Framework Agreement, the deal will proceed in stages with fixed deadlines;

7) The framework agreement will not address every single detai, on the premise that it is  better to move forward than to move backward, but the arrangements on refugees, Jerusalem and the settlements will be dealt with in principle and left for future negotiations to spell out in detail;

8) On settlements, the Agreement will provide for a freeze on Israeli settlement building in areas under discussion for possible trade with Palestine;

9) The agreement on water has long ago been settled and will simply be reinstated and updated;

10) The Agreement on refugees will be settled in principle with the rate of return to a Palestinian state settled in further negotiations and the mode of settling compensation claims also determined in those negotiations;

11) The Palestinian parts of Jerusalem will fall under the jurisdiction of a sovereign Palestine;

12) The religious sites of the OldCity will involve an international authority in partnership with both Israel and Palestine.

The messiah always is coming but never manages to come. Peace Agreements, as much as we have come to believe that they belong in the same category, are, however, like Santa Clause; they do come. A year ago who would have believed that we would have a working agreement on chemical weapons in Syria or an interim agreement with Iran. It is a horrible experience when all the beliefs we hold dear are being shattered. Further, I must be mad to crawl out in such a limb, engage in prophecy, not because I will fall off, the limb, but because my prognosticating on outcomes of talks may jinx them. It is a sign that I have given up my belief in my magical powers to undermine peace negotiations by predicting their outcome. 


Frank Sinatra and Walt Disney


Howard Adelman


To Esme — With Love and Squalor!

[No Spoiler Alert Needed]

Did Frank Sinatra and Walt Disney have anything more in common than smoking, a love of model trains and owning homes in Palm Springs? Their personalities were in stark contrast – Walt Disney was the epitome of the family man, of American optimism and hope and the admirer of suburbia with its green grass and neat homes even before suburbia was invented. Frank Sinatra, in contrast, was a moody manic-depressive, a lover of the limelight rather than shedding brightness and colour over everything, a hard drinker and a womanizer, and the star singer of the forties and fifties who transformed himself and won the Oscar as best supporting actor in From Here To Eternity as the moody and bitter Private Angelo Maggio.

The two certainly did not have politics in common for Walt Disney was a right-wing Republican. I was only 15 years old at the time, but I remember the scandal when Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and named cartoonists and directors who were allegedly associated with the Communist Party. From my far better informed classmates, I would learn that Walt Disney hosted Hitler’s great documentalist, Leni Riefenstahl, when she came to America in the year I was born. And Walt seemed to have a low regard for the many studio bosses who were Jewish. He also never managed to mix Blacks and Whites in his film, and that heritage has been preserved in his current hit, Frozen.

Frank Sinatra, on the other hand, had a mother who was a local Democratic ward heeler in Hoboken, New Jersey; she was an inside member of the Democratic Jersey political machine. In contrast to Walt, Frank never was called before HUAC though he, in fact, was a major contributor and USA would go on to raise money for Democrats, especially Jack Kennedy, and for Martin Luther King. However, by the time King was assassinated, Sinatra became a Republican, was a close friend of Spiro Agnew and a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan. But he remained a socially liberal party member.

So what do the two have in common beyond the list of three items I presented in my opening sentence? Something they never knew about or recognized. They had me in common, in spite of Walt Disney’s politics and even though I despised my father for being a womanizer who finally left the family for good when I was 12. However, my father had introduced me to the movies and took myself and my older bother very often from the time when we were very young. I still cry when I just think of Bambi’s mother being shot. I loved Pinocchio and Dumbo and even the dumb but terrifying horror films we saw. I can still remember some scenes, one in particular from a horror film I saw when I was four. My father was not very interested in protecting my young mind. He just wanted me to love Charlie Chaplin and I did.

When Walt Disney was testifying before HUAC, I was watching Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Unlike Walt Disney who lied about his age to become a soldier in WWI, Frank Sinatra got a deferment, either legitimately or illegitimately depending on which story you believe, but Sinatra was absolutely wonderful as the troubled young private in the American army in Hawaii just before PearlHarbour. His acting made me forgive him for having to listen over and over again to his singing because my aunt Jennie, who lived with us in the late forties, absolutely swooned over him. Finally, but not very graciously, I mitted that I loved his singing and his songs.

Well yesterday was nostalgia day. Yesterday evening we went to Koerner Hall to hear John Pizzarelli play his seven-string guitar with his wonderful quintet and sing a selection of songs in tribute to Frank Sinatra. He sang such oldies as How You Look Tonight, How About You, In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning and One For My Baby and One More for the Road. I even heard one I never recognized – Its Sunday. Actually, I am not so sure about what John Pizzarelli sang because his singing flooded my head with old Sinatra tunes such as Frank Sinatra playing Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and singing The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York, Adelaide and Sue Me — though none of these were included in John Pizzarelli’s selections. Pizzarelli is a great guitar player, a delightful raconteur with many stories about Frank Sinatra – whether true or apocryphal – but one personal one when he was the opening act for a Frank Sinatra tour in Europe in the eighties – I had no idea Frank Sinatra was still touring and singing then. He told of his one and only and very brief meeting of a nervous performer with a great star. After a not-too-long shaggy narrative beginning to indicate his nervousness before the great Blue Eyes, he repeated Frank’s only words and advice to him – “You look terrible; you oughtta eat something.” John Pizzarelli’s scat singing was phenomenal, and he did it with even more delight and grace than the stories he told.

However, the best bit of nostalgia was yesterday afternoon. I took my granddaughter, Esme, to see the Walt Disney new hit, “Frozen”, a musical cartoon adaptation of Christian Andersen’s dark tale of Snow Queen, made into a very happy but unusual romance in the Disney style. We saw the 3-D version. I gather the critics have raved about it. They are correct to rave. It is vintage Disney for the twenty-first century in both style and substance. The plot twists into a female buddy movie and the heroine is full of spunk, courage, passion, determination and loyalty. The virtues are all traditional but the character who wears them is not. Even the snowman as the humorous side-kick is a phenomenal joy.  Most of all, the frozen landscapes provide a type of glitzie beauty that Disney always strived for but the frozen landscape suddenly made this fictional world seem almost naturally supernatural.

However, the greatest delight of the day was not the marvellous feature-length animation but the five or six minute madcap chaos and frenetic short that preceded it – Get a Horse, also in 3-D, a film that manages to marry old hand-drawn black and white cartoon technique with contemporary computer generated 3D.  I won’t give away the plot by saying it opens as if the cartoon was made in the late twenties at the time of Steamboat Willie. It has many of the classic Disney characters – Pluto, Minnie and Mickey Mouse, and Pete as Rob Ford, playing the villain. Oh, it wasn’t Rob Ford, but it could have been. In the traditional style, Pete gets dropped on his head, has his vehicle dropped on his head, gets a pitchfork up his ass, and many more physical punishments for being such a bully.

But the short is not just a nostalgic throwback, authentically vintage in  capturing all but the rubbery quality of the cartoon characters. The cloudy and flickering light of those old movies is not only married to the precision and inventiveness of the present, but the technique used becomes part of the movie. The short is self-referential not only in historical and character terms but to the contemporary technology as well. It has to be seen to be believed – which should have been Walt Disney’s motto for creating magic on the screen. The greatest innovation is the way the technology achieves the marriage of the two in the very film as the characters jump through the screen from the black and white past to the brilliant colour of the present to break through the fourth wall.   

Disney and Sinatra did have one more thing in common in spite of their differences in politics and character. They were both marvellous magicians and the child in me has always loved real magic.

Nelson Mandela

There will be much praise and many accolades for one of the greatest, if not the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. I have only two stories to add. Steve Lewis, in the wonderful CBC broadcast this evening dedicated to Mandela, praised Brian Mulroney for his leadership at the Commonwealth in taking on Margaret Thatcher and leading the charge against apartheid. Canada held a special place in Mandela’s heart because of Brian Mulroney’s leadership. 

I saw another aspect of Brian Mulroney’s commitment to human rights, the opposition to apartheid and the Canadian support for Nelson Mandela. The first time was at a dinner in Toronto only a few months after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison in 1990. I cannot remember why I had been invited, but it was an honour to attend. I was at the round table immediately to the right of Nelson Mandela sitting at the raised head table so I had the perfect profile view of our honored guest. Brian Mulroney introduced Nelson Mandela and announced that Canada was offering a gift to the ANC via Nelson Mandela of five million dollars to help the organization transform from a resistance organization to a full-fledged political party. Nelson stood to speak and thank Canada for its gift. But he began with what seemed like a dragged out shaggy dog story and it was not clear where he was going with his discussion of the state of the modern economic world until he said, “Given all that, I presume the gift is in American dollars.” The Canadian dollar was then worth, if I recall, about 85 cents to the $US. The wit, the sly way his joke was introduced, the perfect timing, brought the house down. I had never seen a stand-up comic do as well. Brian Mulroney, who could hardly contain his laughter, stood up and said: “OK, five million in American dollars.” The applause was deafening and very prolonged. With wit, warmth and a smile, but also with genuine gratitude, Mandela garnered an extra $750,000 to a million for his cause. 
In the second instance, in my research on Rwanda when we studied the international failures to stop the genocide, we learned that Brian Mulroney was the only international leader of a government to twice, not just once, write President Habyarimana of Rwanda before the massive murders ever began in 1994 – after all, Mulroney left office in 1993. In his letters, he asked Habyarimana to look into the human rights violations and targeting of Tutsis in Rwanda. 
We also learned that just before Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, just after the genocide broke out in full force on 6 April 1994, there were no international journalists in Rwanda. There were 3500 in South Africa, many if not most expecting civil war and a blood bath when Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency. When South Africa appeared not to be heading towards civil war, the international journalists started heading home. Two of the 3500 decided to stop in Rwanda to check out the rumours of a blood bath taking place in Rwanda. Thus, by chance, the world began to hear about the genocide underway. 
We could see one path that South Africa could have traveled. To a very large extent, Mandela made sure that South Africa took the path of reconciliation. Indirectly, he also brought the genocide to world attention even before he assumed the mantle of the presidency, but to little avail since the world community largely stood by as the massacres took place. There was not one leader anywhere close to his stature who stood up and said “Never Again!”
Like most tourists to South Africa, I visited Robbins Island, the prison where Mandela spent most of the 27 years he was incarcerated. I think of that prison and still find it hard to imagine how a man of his stature and accomplishments emerged from such an ordeal.
As everyone says, and they truly mean it, he will be sorely missed. 

Academic Boycotts and Israel

Academic Boycotts and Israel


Howard Adelman



There is no rest for the wicked, so the saying goes. If had not studied and taught logic, I might conclude that I must be wicked since I cannot get my planned rest. I had decided to take yesterday off after publishing a fairly heavy blog the day before – more philosophical than my usual fare. The temperature was 13 degrees and I went out to clean up the last of the leaves. That really exhausted me even though there were not many leaves and not much work and I only took on a very small area. I took a long nap after lunch.

When I got up and went to my computer, there was a note that informed me that the day before the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) had voted to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The note also interpreted this resolution as endorsing boycotting individual Israeli academics. From my peripheral knowledge and a quick check, I was sure the latter interpretation was incorrect. But I wanted to double-check and probe the reasoning, mechanics and intent of the resolution. I was going to the theatre last night and had considered possibly writing a review on the play, The Valley (Tarragon Theatre) this morning. However, I knew then and there that my blog this morning would be on the boycott resolution.

Then the announcement came through on the six o’clock news that Nelson Mandela had died. So after the theatre, I wrote a short reflection on the great man to add to the tens of thousands of accolades he will receive. This morning I turned to the boycott issue.

Background to the Boycott

The resolution itself was simple. It honoured and endorsed the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions that is an integral part of the Boycott and Divestment (BDS) campaign. Unlike an original proposed resolution, it explicitly did not endorse the boycott of individual Israeli academics, but included in the boycott representatives of Israeli academic institutions – Deans, Presidents, etc. “The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication except if they are viewed as part of the propaganda machinery of Israel.” Further, the resolution was not binding on any individual member of the ASA. Finally, the resolution was subject to the confirmation by an electronic vote of at least 50% of its 3884 members. Voting was to be completed by 15 December.

In its official statement, the Council also said that it “voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” The ethical argument was not elaborated. Nor were the material implications made clear. There was an added rationale: “A boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.”

The BDS movement to which the resolution paid homage has a website that begins with a quote from Desmond Tutu who addressed the University of Johannesburg which subsequently joined the boycott by severing its ties with BenGurionUniversity.

“It can never be business as usual. Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. [Ben Gurion University] is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defence forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation.”

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is a part of the overall Palestinian Civil Society BDS Campaign established in 2005, though it began separately by Palestinian academics in Ramallah in April of 2004. and remains a key part of the Palestinian-led, global BDS movement. The campaign is explicitly part of a much larger campaign for a comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.

The resolution passed by the ASA applies only to Israeli academic institutions. The boycott does not apply to institutions which retain official links with Israeli institutions, including many of the academic schools to which many of the members of the ASA belong. It does not apply to Palestinian institutions either even though, for example, in May 2005, in response to the BDS campaign, Hebrew University of Jerusalem President Prof. Menachem Magidor and Al-Quds University President Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, signed a formal agreement of cooperation affirming the continuing academic cooperation between the two universities.

Cognizant of the moral leadership universities should provide, especially in already turbulent political contexts, we, the President of Al-Quds University and the President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have agreed to insist on continuing to work together in the pursuit of knowledge, for the benefit of our peoples and the promotion of peace and justice in the Middle East.

Cooperation based on mutual respect, rather than boycotts or discrimination, bridging political gulfs rather than widening them further, requiring exchange and dialogue rather than confrontation and antagonism, were their watchwords. The action was explicitly “predicated on the principles of academic freedom, human rights, and equality between nations and among individuals”. In spite of such arrangements, the boycott movement advertises itself as an expression of Palestinian civil society.

Background to the Resolution at the ASA

For the last four years, dozens of American studies scholars in the ASA have been actively recruited and joined in a campaign to support the academic dimensions of the worldwide boycott campaign. They were self-confessed “activist” scholars. Last year, the Academic and Community Activism Caucus of the ASA asked the Executive Committee (EC) to consider a resolution supporting the academic boycott of Israel.

One year later, from 21-24 November, the ASA held its annual meeting in WashingtonDC. It was attended by 1970 members.

Learned society meetings are strange rituals for any outsider to comprehend. They are massive, with a conference this size running about twenty parallel sessions, most for the presentation of academic papers on the topics advertised, but others for business, caucus and organizational meetings. I attend the International Studies Association which is about twice the size of the ASA, but the concurrent sessions are almost all academic sessions and there is nothing close to the number of caucus sessions held at the ASA.

In the whole academic program of perhaps 1000 academic papers at about 250 topical sessions, I was only able to spot one purely academic session that dealt with Palestine, and it seemed to be a stretch. Keep in mind that the overall theme of the conference was, “Beyond the Logic of Debt, Towards an Ethics of Collective Dissent,” a topic which in itself suggests the ideological orientation of the ASA. The one academic session was called: “Debt and ‘The Palestine Question’ in Latin America: Colonization, Zionism, Imperialism and Dissent” scheduled for the morning of the Saturday on which the caucus was scheduled to meet for an open discussion at 5:00 p.m. on the topic: “The Israeli Occupation of Palestine,” not exactly the most objective and neutral title. However, after all, this was a caucus about activism, not a scholarly discussion.

There was a prime time session on Friday entitled, “The Crisis of Palestine” with an open forum with a panel that addressed the plight of Palestinian universities and academics, and, as advertised, discussed “the profound pressures on teaching and research contexts in the U.S. and Palestine where education and intellectual freedom [allegedly] were under attack.” The Saturday session before the debate was entitled “Academic Freedom and the Right to Education: The Question of Palestine.” The panel focused on the boycott consisted of the president of ASA, Curtis Munez, Angela Davis, Ahmad Saadi (an anti-Zionist sociologist teaching at Ben Gurion University), Jasbir Puar (Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rutgers University currently finishing her third book, Inhumanist Occupation: Sex, Affect, and Palestine/Israel), J. Kehaulani Kauanui (a longtime activist promoting the boycott) and Alex Lubin (co-founder of the ASA’s caucus on academic and community activism), all advocates of an anti-Israel and pro-Palestine ideological line. One would not be surprised to learn that no one on the panel was critical of the boycott.   

It helps also to understand the ASA. It is called the American Studies Association, but many of the best known scholars of American studies do not belong. Many who still belong feel a nostalgic loyalty to the Association. Thus, of the small minority who signed the petition opposing the boycott, seven were former presidents of the ASA. The list of papers at the conference might suggest why. I ran through the program and stopped arbitrarily at one set of sessions set for noon on the last day. The titles of the nineteen concurrent sessions were as follows:

Indebtedness To and For the Nation of Immigrants … 316

The Urban Turn?: A Roundtable on the City (at the) Center of American Studies … 317

File Under “Labor” … 318

Ethical Confrontations with Antiblackness: To Whom is the Human Indebted? … 319

ASA Site Resources Committee: Activist Responses to the Policing of Sex in DC … 320

Confronting Carceral America: Activist Responses to the Punitive Logics of Debt … 321

White Supremacist Cultures … 322

Movement Debts in the Age of Neoliberalism … 323

Mobilizing Against Settler Colonialism: Idle No More and Allied Dissent … 324

Producing Play: Labor and Leisure in Early Video Game Culture … 325

Slavery, Trafficking, and Criminalization: Using Historical Metaphors to Assess Interlocking Systems of Oppression … 326

American Modern Design: A Question of Cultural Indebtedness … 327

Specters of Du Bois: Dissent as Decolonization … 328

Muckraking, Dissent, and Social Change: Writing in the Public Interest … 329

Genealogies of Neoliberalism … 330

Queer Reorientations of the Good Life … 331

Neo/Colonial Pedagogies and the Creation of Indebted Knowledges in the American Century … 332

Refugee Archival Memory: Disrupting the U.S. Logics of Freedom and Debt in Hmong/Laotian History … 333

The orientation of the ASA currently has a fundamental commitment to the study and critique of racism. US imperialism and settler colonialism. The primary mode of discourse is rooted in a post-colonial orientation to scholarship, an approach not used by the vast majority of scholars in America. These scholars approach the world of learning through a fixed lens with an emphasis on what they call settler-colonial studies that provides the intellectual scaffolding connecting liberal nation-states with exploitation and the role of universities in perpetuating inequality.

The traditional presidential address of this learned society was delivered by Curtis Marez, who has a PhD in English and is an Associate Professor in the Ethnic Studies Department of UC San Diego and who lists his main academic interests as Latino, migration and technology studies, more particularly, race and political economy in popular culture and media. He published Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics in 2004 which compared the official media representations of the drug culture with that of and by the media of immigrants and minorities.

Marez’ address began with a reference to Michael Rogin’s excellent 1996 book, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot that largely dealt with the story of Al Jolson, and, more particularly, the first movie talkie, The Jazz Singer, later remade as The Jolson Story, my personal favourite since Al Jolson was my favourite singer when I was a kid. Merez shows little interest in the book and the general thesis of one culture using another minority culture as a form of mediating and disguising a process of assimilation. He certainly ignored the critics of Rogin who argued that the process was not simply one way but itself was critical to transforming the culture of America,

Marez instead concentrates on the other side of that thesis, the white supremicist culture and the exploitation of the labour of blacks and the theft of “red” Indian lands on which the white supremicist culture was built. So the use of blackface is reduced simply to racism. Current revivals of blackface he sees as perhaps the result of a student need to distance themselves from poor people of colour in order to ignore and transcend the regime of educational debt into which they have been thrust. More positively, “students have been central to creative, collective actions against higher tuition and regimes of debt…[and] have also struggled to take some control over what student debt in effect finances by, for example, demanding that universities disinvest from companies complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.”

There, in a nutshell, like a shell game played with three thimbles and a pea, the pea of exploitation/racism is moved from the racism of white America to the role of universities as perpetrators of that racism and colonialism through putting debt for education on the backs of students, and then, to everyone’s surprise except the fraudster and the shills that surround him, to the third thimble the American economic and cultural oppression by Israel of Palestine. Of course, in an expert hand, you cannot follow the pea or see how it has disappeared up the arm of the player. Only a critical close examination reveals the whole game as an absolute fraud.

The Vote on the Resolution

The result of the vote of the forum was virtually inevitable, as likely will be the result of the electronic vote. Though concurrent with the forum there were two competing receptions, one by the University of Southern California and the other by Harvard American Studies, receptions which, according to the rituals of learned societies, informally grade the sponsor on the quality and quantity of free food available, the caucus meeting on Saturday at 5:00 p.m. was unusually very well attended by 745 members – a very impressive figure representing about 35% of the attendees at the conference. To provide the appearance of fairness, 44 speakers were chosen at random from those who expressed an interest in speaking and were given two minutes each to either express their approval or disapproval of the motion. Of the 44 chosen, 37 supported the resolution, each to immense applause, and 7 opposed who received only scattered clapping. For anyone who opposes mob pressure, the meeting was a travesty and an exercise in intellectually bullying, though conducted in a respectful manner all the more painful given the underlying structure and dynamic. There was no attempt to ensure dissident voices had a fair and adequate time to present a case – not that I believe it would have mattered in the end. The pro-resolution speakers echoed a common theme – Israel was a settler colonial state, the US was complicit in fostering this state and in its own history of settler colonialism, and the ASA commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship required support of the boycott.

The Arguments

The proponents of the resolution argue that the resolution supports academic freedom by NOT targeting individual scholars but only institutions that are covert partners of a repressive state and by fostering academic freedom of Palestinians. There was no discussion about how the alleged repression by Israel of Palestinian scholars was congruent with the fact that a vocal anti-Zionist such as Ahmad Saadi could be hired by Ben Gurion University and permitted to travel to the United States to appear on a panel advocating a boycott of Israeli universities or how they could brand America as a racist colonial imperial state yet boast of its academic freedom. The contradictions were just too plentiful to point out, but in the dialectics of post colonial studies could always be dismissed or explained away. For faculty of this persuasion who express solidarity with the oppressed and constantly complain of intimidation and retaliation by “liberal” institutions,  there was little self-critical consciousness that the process in which they were involved was profoundly intimidating. To be a post-colonial scholar logically meant joining the boycott campaign, at the every least in its truncated anti-institutional sanitized version. 

The ASA has demonstrated that it is indeed an academic body of shared intellectual values and commitments but not the traditional shared intellectual values of the liberal university. They accuse Zionists of refusing to debate but from my own experience, the atmosphere of these halls do not welcome debate but ideological posturing including by those who oppose their perspective. Being dispassionate is not seen as a virtue. Being objective, comprehensive, logically consistent and using evidence to support one’s position are not put forth as virtues but ideological commitment is. They insist their arguments are both moral and reasoned. I do not find them to be so. They see themselves as victims of the powerful and wealthy Zionist lobby using its power and material resources to attack and intimidate them. But one finds little evidence of any of that, and in the few cases where academics have not achieved tenure who hold positions like these, other factors are often at work, though I do not deny that in some cases, and I myself have documented some, that donor interference and threats have affected a judicious consideration of issues.

These proponents construct the world into a manichaean cosmos of anti-colonialists and anti-racists versus the neo-con oppressive and inegalitarian state. Small “l” liberals are squeezed out of the debate for they do not fit into their cosmology except as patsies of the oppressive colonial settler state.

Make no mistake. Any reading of the movement and the thinking behind these resolutions is based on an anti-Israel and anti-Zionist ideology that fundamentally opposes even the existence of Israel. When the proponents of the boycott say such charges are ludicrous and , for example, Cary Nelson’s claim that the academic boycott movement aims at the “abolition of the Israeli state” is an outright lie, what else can one conclude if one opposes Israel as an imperial colonial state and claim Zionism is rooted in racism. Though they say they oppose the boycott of individual scholars, they make the argument for selective boycott of those scholars because they are cultural ambassadors for Israel and, in effect, support Palestinian dispossession and occupation. Liberal arguments for academic freedom are just excuses for inaction.

I recall years ago when I gave a guest lecture at Bir Zeit University and suggested to Sari Nusseibeh that he invite me to teach their for a term. He replied that he could not envision the possibility of a Jew teaching at a Palestinian university for a century. Times have changed,. Now anti-Zionist scholars, including Israeli scholars, are welcomed to lecture at Palestinian universities, but what about middle-roaders and even right-wingers? After all, anti-Zionist Palestinians teach at Israeli universities. But these contradictions are side-stepped rather than considered and debated. Certainly Palestinian scholars and researchers have struggled – given the governments under which they work and the shortage of funds, but any objective analysis would show that these institutions were born under Israeli occupation and grew up under it with all its horrible characteristics and restrictions from both sides and more usually from their own side.

The fact is that the underlying thesis that the academic freedom of Israeli academics depends on the moral eviction of the Palestinians is a distortion. Palestinian (and Jewish) anti-Zionists teaching at Israeli institutions do not depend on the moral eviction of Palestinians. Nor do other scholars. Nor do critics of the United States as an imperial colonialist state depend on the eviction of native Americans from their land or the racist suppression of blacks.

In the 2012 report entitled a “Crisis of Competence: the Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California,” the authors on behalf of the California Association of Scholars document how the infusion of political ideology into all discourse and debate negatively impacts on the quality of both teaching and research, politicizing the curricula and promoting a culture of hostility and disruption on campus hostile to the free expression of ideas. As a young student activist, I never envisioned activism challenging the liberal presumptions of the university, or the effects of such a challenge on research, scholarship and teaching. Part of the reason is the asymmetry of the debate in which one side openly supports open exchanges from many points of view while the other side believes that any scholarship that is not wedded to the anti-colonial struggle against racism and inequality is just scholarship in the service of oppression. The terms of the debate ensure liberals lose simply if there are enough anti-colonial scholars present. 

Defenders of the boycott rebut the charge that they are hypocritical because they focus on Israel and ignore the denial of academic freedoms in Arab states, Turkey, Russia and China, not by denying that Israel is less repressive. Rather, they argue that Israel’s infringement of Palestinian academic freedoms is more objectionable because Israel claims to be democratic while oppressing the freedoms among Palestinians by denying the free movement, free communication and free circulation of ideas to Palestinians, asserted as if these were givens rather than conclusions needing empirical support. Further, unlike repressive states like China, the proponents of a boycott argue that, only Israel is a large receiver of US military and other aid. So the asymmetry on criticism matches the asymmetry of American support. So why not target Egypt? and why repeatedly state that historically, it has been very difficult to criticize Israel in the USA?

The Implications

If you support the boycott, the contrasting and conflicting rationales can be ignored and the first positive vote by a large American learned society after the Asian Scholars voted to support a boycott resolution will be cheered and applauded. The opponents will cry foul and argue that the stance conflicts with the principles of academic freedom. They will argue that the resolutions are hypocritical in their application and based on complete distortions of the state of academic freedom in Palestinian academic institutions and greatly exaggerates the role of the Israeli state in the inhibitions that do take place. I myself agree with the advocates of the boycott, that the position is indeed a logical outcome of post-colonial premises.

That is the real problem!

Image and Reality



Howard Adelman


Images and Words

Images recorded on tape have destroyed the career of Rob Ford. Others contend that the words he utters have done that job. Though the Toronto Star assiduously tried to get a copy of the notorious crack cocaine video, the same newspaper wrote an editorial yesterday depicting Rob Ford as a boastful serial liar. Rob Ford claimed that he, HE, had transformedToronto into an economic powerhouse, presuming that it was anything but before he took office. The audience of businessmen understandably laughed. Rob Ford claimed, “in a break from the past,” that he had succeeded in building a subway. Setting aside the fact that the Scarborough subway has not yet been built, or whether or not it is something to boast about, the reality is that the Spadina subway is moving slowly north to York University and beyond. Mel Lastman, for good or ill, built the Sheppard line. So why does anyone listen to a mayor who differentiates himself from his predecessors because he built a subway when he really differentiated himself from them by his inability to distinguish truth from outright lies.

This mayor who cavorts with drug users in his office and can barely follow an agenda or an economic analysis, claims to have run Toronto like a business. If the business was a mad circus, perhaps; he always showed only that he was excellent at getting potholes filled when constituents phoned to complain. Rob Ford says he was elected with the largest mandate in history. He did get a substantial plurality (47%), but Lastman won 80% support in his last run and even Miller got 57%. On the basis of these sheer fictions, Rob Ford claimed to be “by far the best mayor the city has ever had”.

This is the thinking and rhetoric of a psychopath, someone so detached from reality and wedded to his own self-created imagery that he cannot tell the difference between his beliefs and reality. I wrote in the past on Lance Armstrong and suggested that, though a very accomplished athlete, his psychopathological exercise in self-creation raced ahead of that ability until he became a prisoner of his own lies. Being a prisoner of your own lies is what this blog is about.

I have written about commentators on the Iran nuclear deal who distort and invent and contort the clear provisions of the agreement. The deal does not mean opposition is unwarranted. It does mean and require – in my world – that one be accurate in representing it. There is an epidemic of pundits and politicians who seem to believe the only thing that is important is the fictions they create and communicate and clearly seem to believe in phantoms and mirages, in dreams and illusions in the wish to blind us to the truth and isolate us in our imaginary worlds. I have just been introduced to another phenomenon, far worse, but related, and it horrifies me.

Internet Suicide

After downing pills and vodka, a student at GuelphUniversity evidently immolated himself in his dorm room, or tried to, while recording the event for the internet and while his electronic community on his chatroom site egged him on.  Not one of the 200 viewers over the forty minutes thought to call the police or fire department. Evidently this incident was far from a first. There have been a series of such events. Two weeks ago a thirteen year old succeeded.

Why do people watch? Why would they encourage such an act? I went online to see for myself. I actually watched in absolute horror one of those videos where a young man hung himself in his own bedroom and you literally watched him wriggle and his face turn blue. I had never seen anything like it before.

The explanations for the person who commits the act and the observers who watch and encourage vary. Evidently, students record such acts because they have both shock value and have the potential to go viral giving the person who commits the act a type of immortality. Further, in breaking social taboos in such an outrageous way, they become insiders with a select few, those few who subscribe and watch electronically tied to one another. The suggestion is that those who watch treat the performance as no different than all the other shootings and killings they watch on TV and movies. There is a diminished sense that what is occurring is actually happening. The sense of unreality is linked with the rejection of any sense of responsibility reinforced by the way watching a screen turns one into a spectator and not a participant. The horror is then escalated when, following the act and the widespread viewing, “trolls” call the person who attempted suicide a “retard”, not for trying, but for failing to accomplish the task at hand. The devastated family has to endure a plethora of vile abuse in the aftermath.

Is there any connection between these actions and the political performance of liars? Certainly in the most extreme cases, they share a common characteristic of self-destruction. But is there something more that can throw light on the phenomenon?

Plato’s Cave

One of my philosophy professors when I was a student at the University of Toronto was David Gallop, an expert on the Greek thinkers. His lectures on Plato’s Republic elaborated on the latter’s allegory of the Cave, in particular, the relationship between imagery and reality. In the perfect Republic, imagery and the imagination have no role in the perfect state, but, paradoxically, Plato makes that point with many very creative images, of which the Cave allegory is a prime example. This allegory, and the illustration of the divided line that follows in the Republic, more specifically, the bottom two sections of the divided line and what happens within the cave before anyone escapes into the sunlight, bears an eerie resemblance to these situations, particularly since they deal with the relationship between images, fantasy and fabulism versus realism. I will ignore the realms of science and pure mathematics, of understanding and reason. My concern is the imagination and common sense.

What is the relationship between the shadows and images we watch on our TV, movie and computer screens to the solid world of “real” chairs and table, acts and dogs? This question is impelled by politicians seemingly wedded to hyperbole and outright lies, whether commenting on the Iran -P5+1 nuclear agreement or acting out like Rob Ford. Philosophers have dealt with the relationship of imagery and reality – Plato is a prime example. So does the Tanach. After all, in the Garden of Eden, Adam is a scientist charged with naming objects found in the natural world. But he knows nothing about his own body or his passions. He does not even know he is alone and, in his sleep, has come to imagine that woman has been created simply as an extension of himself. He does not even know his own body. He imagines his penis is a separate being, an erect snake that has independent agency and talks. So he takes no responsibility for his (or its) actions.

Plato in the allegory of the cave envisioned people tied to a log and unable to turn their heads in any direction. They are in the bowels of a cave watching shadows projected on the wall; they take those shadows to be reality. They cannot turn their heads to look around. They are totally absorbed with the shadows they observe on the cave wall. In the unevenly divided line illustration of four sections where the upper and lower sections of the line are divided in the same unequal proportions as the whole line, using an unequal division of 2:1, the upper section of the line is an 8, the next section a 4 and, in the lower section, the upper section is a 4 and the lower section is a 2. Plato insists that each different segment signifies a different measure  or degree of clarity and obscurity. Thus, the bottom section, dealing with images and fantasies on the cave wall and identified with the world of imagination, contains the least clarity. Above it, what we now call common sense, can have double that value. This corresponds to the experience in the cave when individuals are freed from their bonds and fixed positions and are able to look around at others in the cave. Thus, the visible realm of knowledge (distinguished from the intelligible segments in the two upper segments of the line) is made up of common sense and the imagination. In the latter, we are mesmerized by the products of the imagination, by the shadow dancing across the cave wall. In the Jowett translation, it is: .

a line divided into two unequal sections and cut each section again in the same ratio—the section, that is, of the visible and that of the intelligible order—and then as an expression of the ratio of their comparative clearness and obscurity you will have, as one of the sections of the visible world, images. By images I mean, first, shadows, and then reflections in water and on surfaces of dense, smooth, and bright texture, and everything of that kind…As the second section assume that of which this is a likeness or an image, that is, the animals about us and all plants and the whole class of objects made by man.

Knowledge at the highest level is noêsis, at the next highest is understanding or dianoia making up the two intelligible sections of the line that you experience when you are outside the cave. The next segment down is belief or pistis where your knowledge is obtained, not my rational proof, but from experience and the opinion of others and empirically looking around. It is, therefore, only called belief. The last and lowest segment of the line is the observation of images, eikasia, the realm of the imagination where what is known is only projected shadows of reality as two-dimensional images.

Pay attention to the claim, not that the lowest section of the line possesses the least clarity when it comes to knowledge, but that it is a realm of knowledge. Further, without that realm, the upper sections of the line make no sense – we need to climb up to the higher realms through images. Further, as is clear in the tale of the Garden of Eden, the lowest section of the line is a realm of knowledge, the realm of knowledge where Adam came to know Eve. If we waited for common sense to get its ducks in a row, we would not be here. There would be no sex.

Part of the imagery of being tied to the log and watching images on a cave wall means that we are obsessed and possessed when we are totally within the realm of imagery, possession and obsession that leads to bodily knowledge that cannot be conveyed at the higher levels. It is the realm where blue is the warmest colour. It is the realm where we become possessed and do not take responsibility for our own actions. It is the realm where we are not in possession of clear and self-evident truths but see only through a cloud darkly, where we do not know what we do and where we do not take responsibility for our actions for we see ourselves imprisoned in the world of images. Hence the dangers two passionate lovers pose for one another for they live in the realm of conjectures able only to draw inferences from small and inadequate signs. As Plato wrote;

Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. They see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?  The truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. Fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Suicide in an Imaginary World

Why then is projecting your own suicide through a videotape onto the worldwide web seen as the ultimate expression of being caught up in this world of fleeting images and immediate bodily experience? ALL juveniles dream of being at their own funerals. Here they achieve this degree of agency, they are the producers and directors of the imagery that is the precondition for there being a funeral in the first place. It is the closest feeling to omnipotence and being at one with the gods,  While totally enraptured by one’s own state, one does not and cannot empathize with others. So why do we attend movies to experience the pain of others? Because it is not what we experience. We experience a simulation of pain and know we are in a movie theatre. That is why we are able to watch. I challenge you to watch those videos of young kids killing themselves on the internet and not feel corrupted and polluted rather than gaining cathartic relief.

The characteristics of being caught up in the self-destructive world of being totally obsessed and possessed by images is that we lose any ability to correct ourselves. We lose the ability to take responsibility for our own actions. We lose the ability, most of all, to distinguish the world of images from reality, for the world of images has become our reality. It is more real and more powerful and more convincing than anything we experience in the world of cats and dogs, tables and chairs, in the world where we get to look another in the eye.

Plato turns to Glaucon and says: “When our eyes are no longer turned upon objects upon whose colors the light of day falls but that of the dim luminaries of night, their edge is blunted and they appear almost blind, as if pure vision does not dwell in them.” Those young kids live in their own caves but now linked by the internet with other young people living in their caves. And they challenge one another to see who can best live on the edge.  

There is no longer a dichotomy of the hidden and the revealed, the suggestion that there are other surfaces to be seen from another perspective, for there is absolutely no sense of perspective. It is a 1-dimesnional world in which the observer envisions himself on the same plane as that which is watched. Thus, there is no occlusion and no binocular disparity. Part of this is achieved because head motion or motion parallax is reduced to zero. There is, however, convergence, for the eyes can and do focus and are absorbed by the spectacle witnessed. and the eyes accommodate to the shadowy light and the grey images but always in the sense that what is seen is not seen with clarity but in fog and what is in front of us is a dance of light and shadows.

Believing solely in the image is belief in a phantom, in a magic world not of causes and effects, of agency and acts. As Northrop Frye wrote in The Educated Imagination, “The world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination.” How much truer that is of the world of movies and even much more so the world of UTube and the internet. Instead of being absorbed into that other world, the dreams and illusions insinuate themselves into the psyche mesmerized by the images. In the real world, eternal life is impossible. The imaginary world creates exactly such a possibility. The world of advertising had conditioned us to believe in the miraculous possibility of images, for products ARE their images. What higher magic than to be frozen for eternity on the internet, a poor fellow’s cyronics. 

Further, you have become the artist of your own being. “The genuine artist, Harris is saying, finds reality in a point of identity between subject and object, a point at which the created world and the world that is really there become the same thing.” (Northrop Frye, 211) As Frye writes, “Like all forms of fiction, these simulations depict, not the world as it is, but a vision of the world transformed by the imagination.”

Photographs and Action Videotapes

Why aren’t we happy with photographs of ourselves? It is not the same. Photographs are but frozen reminders, flimsy means of stimulating memory, not re-enacting life, and, most of all, not re-enacting the decision to end the life of the body so that desire can finally win its battle with the will to survive. Photographs capture and preserve experience. They do not reproduce it. Photography is the terminus for a possessive individualist and part of the modern age, not the age of post-modernity. Photographs package and preserve; the dancing  shadows on the cave wall mesmerize and seduce.

I can analyze this world but I cannot really understand it. I belong to print culture, to a world that is lineal and causal, where a correspondence theory of truth presides. It is a world that celebrates interpretation and not exhibition. It is a world of objects and subjects and not the merger of the two. In the world of objects and subjects engaged in describing and interpreting, a third world of meaning is created. The world of the shadows on the cave wall has no meaning, no third dimension and no second dimension.

On the other hand, there was a propensity in the modern world – as there was in the ancient – to ban the imaginary and the realm of interpretation. In the golden age of modernity in the twentieth century, when the printed word became king, and before advertising, television, movies and the realm of imagery usurped the throne, the objectivity of the world was expected to be accompanied by an objectivity to meaning. However, as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard already recognized in the nineteenth century, the infinite passionate interest in one’s eternal happiness was thrown overboard as superfluous. The great quest of desire had to be bracketed, limited, boundaried and even, for extremists and fundamentalists, discarded.

In the realm of the electronic, all that is solid vanishes into the cloud. Even the visual based on the eye loses its crown through the new visual universe for there, instead of isolating and privileging sight, all the senses become involved. Your whole body, not just your eyes, watch Blue Is The Warmest Colour.  Even more profoundly, the basic dichotomies of our structured understanding of the world are subverted. Those children committing suicide on the internet belong to a very different world in which images, signs and codes have no meaning in my world but ARE meaning in the world of the chatgroup that he joined. Unlike Plato’s depiction, the images on the wall are not representations of reality that mirror and reflect that reality. They become the reality, a super-reality that permeates the world in which we live. The relationship between image and reality is inverted.

So the suicide does not have meaning. It cannot be interpreted. And the hi-jinx of men – they are mostly men – become the new order of celebrity culture. Rather than a wall which miirrors and displays the dancing shadows, we have instead a Black Hole that aborbs and swallows up energy and gives nothing back. The content – any content – is dissolved by the very media itself. There is nothing there to interpret – the final revenge of this post-modern world on my world. The suicidal child offers an entry point to the entropy of the universe, its dissolution rather than its ordering where the spectacle of an exploding star just before a new black hole is created becomes the entertainment for the day. Instead of aspiring to reach daylight and see the sun, we have the vision of a cold and lifeless universe turned in and imploded on itself. The individual person becomes just a terminal in a process of self-destruction. and the last we see before Alice enters into this Black Hole is not the delightful stories of absurdity and inverted logic with which she returns but an explosive display of fireworks that seduce and fascinate, an ecstasy of obscenity, a simulacra to beat all simulacra where all is visibility and transparency before dying forever.