The Family – a movie review

The Family: A Movie Review

by

Howard Adelman

I will discuss this week’s Torah portion tomorrow if everything goes according to plan, though this has not been the usual pattern lately. The Torah portion is about tzaraat, an affliction and condition about which we should feel most ashamed and demanding the most extreme measure in response, shaming and exclusion from society. I have written about the problematic nature of shaming before, trying people in the court of public opinion, and the disastrous consequences of such practices. Exclusion is the ultimate form of shaming. The Inuit do it and send those afflicted out into the ice cold winter of the Arctic to survive on their own. The ancient Israelites practiced shaming, even as the religion of the Hebrews transformed shaming and suborned it to a guilt culture under the rule of law.

The Family is a film about a family, a whole family, a husband, a wife, a fourteen-year-old son and a beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter, each and every one afflicted with tzaraat in the ultimate cinematic representation of the condition. But not as a tragedy; as a comedy. And an absolutely hilarious one at that. To be fair, after glimpsing some reviews after I saw the movie on Netflix last evening, I belong to a small minority who clearly love and appreciate the film. I did not choose to watch the movie, but I assented to do so, knowing only that it was a gangster or mafia movie. I did not even know it was a comedy.

The film has top actors, Robert De Niro as Giovanni Manzini (Fred Blake), a relatively minor crime boss sent into exile in Normandy, France, under a witness protection program of the FBI because he ratted out his larger mafia family, Michelle Pfeiffer as Maggie Blake, the wife of Manzini with the new last name assigned to the family by the FBI, but who, unlike her husband, is not forced to take on a new first name, Diana Agron as the beautiful seventeen-year old daughter, Belle, John D’Leo as Warren, the fourteen-year-old precocious son, though a progeny in the perverse way of the mob, and, to round up the all-star cast, Tommy Lee Jones plays the straight and long-suffering FBI agent charged with administering the protection of the family. The acting is faultlessly brilliant, especially by Michele Pfeiffer as most critics who did not really care for the film agreed.

The film was somehow billed as a thriller/action movie when there are virtually no thrills and the action, including all the cold-blooded killing – and the movie overflows with blood – is inverted into comedy much as in the treatment of the corpse in My Weekend With Bernie. This is how the film is depicted in the promotional copy as about a family which “can’t help but resort to doing things the ‘family’ way. However, their dependence on such old habits places everyone in danger from vengeful mobsters.” But the stars in the movie are never in danger. We never fear for their safety. It is a comedy after all and all of them will survive the murder and mayhem. You have to be totally out-of-it to have any fears that the “heroes” of the movie will come to wrack and ruin.

Further, to describe the family as “afflicted with old habits” is simply a totally inadequate understatement when each of the members, charming as each one is in his or her own way, carries the ultimate flaw of being total psycho- and socio-paths, carrying the curse of tzaraat and totally deserving of exclusion from normal society. That depiction is simply gross distortion or an inside joke in itself that the following reviewers took seriously in repeating that motif. Below are some examples of “reviews”:

Nick De Semlyen in Empire

The Family is a comedy. This is made evident by the gratingly jolly music that plays over every scene, if not by the film’s clunky contrivances and desperate search for a good punchline. Luc Besson’s big idea is to plonk a violent, sweary Mafia family into the rarified environs of the French countryside, but there’s a serious lack of imagination, from the first-base casting (Robert De Niro as the don, Michelle Pfeiffer as the woman married to the Mob, Tommy Lee Jones as the dogged FBI agent, a bloke from The Wire as a bloke monitoring a wire) to a meta scene involving GoodFellas that gives meta a bad name.

Sandy Schaefer in Screen Rant

The Family revolves around the Manzonis, a notorious Mafia family that’s been hiding out in and around France ever since the patriarch Giovanni (Robert De Niro) ratted out his fellow mobsters to the Feds. Giovanni and his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) have been a constant thorn in the side of Witness Protection Program agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) for the past ten years, since their habitual psychotic behavior is constantly blowing the U.S. government’s covert operation. Giovanni, now passing himself off as American Fred Blake, relocates with his family to the sleepy town of Normandy, where at first it seems as though the (former?) criminals will be able to settle down quietly and keep a low profile. However, as the saying goes, old habits die hard and soon enough all of the Manzonis start getting themselves into trouble – the kind that, sooner or later, is bound to earn unwanted attention from the hitmen looking to collect the bounty on Giovanni’s head.

Paul Asay in Plugged In

Everyone’s got a story. We’re all central characters in our own narratives filled with drama, action, passion and comedy. Some folks even write their stories down, believing that they might be of interest to others. That’s great. Nothing wrong with that at all—unless you’re in the Witness Protection Program. Then it’s probably not such a hot idea. Giovanni Manzoni and his family have been in the program for years now. Ever since Giovanni ratted on his other family (that’d be the Mafia), this ex-wiseguy’s been running and hiding from his former associates with the help of FBI agent Robert Stansfield, who does his best to keep Giovanni and his family alive. It’s not easy. The family business is in the Manzoni blood, and they’re never in a place very long before some (ahem) unfortunate tendencies resurface. When suspicions and neighborhood body counts start to rise, Robert and his operatives swoop in and move the Manzonis somewhere safer.

Just as Fred tried to be a good dad, The Family may have tried, at one point, to be a good movie. Maybe this was supposed to be a story about a family coming closer together in the midst of struggle. Maybe we were supposed to see the children grow a little more mature. Maybe we were supposed to notice Fred change deep down, to see him realize that his real family is so much more valuable than the Mafia he used to call his family. Maybe one of these characters, somehow, somewhere, was supposed to have changed and grown, even just a little.

And every once in a while, we do glimpse hints that some of these themes might’ve been in the movie … once. But if they were ever there, somewhere along the line they were dropped like a pair of concrete galoshes, leaving the movie to flounder and sink, both in terms of its story and its morality. In the end, there’s no purpose to much of anything here, really. No reason for the bodies or blood or brutality or 40 f-words. It’s true that everyone has a story—but this isn’t much of a story at all. And what there is of it doesn’t deserve to be told.

Even Sheila O’Malley, who, under the Roger Ebert label, offers a modestly favourable review, though far from a rave, falls into the habit of accepting the publicity, as handed to reviewers, that the central theme is about the deeply held habits of a family that just happen to be a crime family.

The Family is a pretty uneven film, lurching from comedy to violence to sentiment, but it’s best when it sticks in the realm of flat-out farce. The pleasure comes in watching the actors (Michelle Pfeiffer in particular) submitting wholeheartedly to ridiculous situations. The film has a mix of influences and genres, obviously, and Besson plays with these and references them openly, but the farcical elements rest uneasily beside the violence, leaving the unmistakeable (sic!) feeling that this is a film slightly at war with itself.

I really do not get it. How do such obtuse film commentators, whose reviews mostly consist of giving away the details of the narrative, get to be elevated to the status of critics when they have no idea of what a simple, straight-forward comedy is really all about. The Family is a hilarious first class and almost perfect comedy. Let’s start with the family.

The commentators are correct in at least this much. The mafia is “a family.” The core of this film is about a typical modern family, two parents with two teenaged children, a boy and a girl. While the larger social family remains true to form in exercising revenge on anyone who betrays the “mafia” family, the core typical family is totally atypical for it exercises revenge, not just for betrayal, but for the more fundamental failure of giving the members of the family due recognition and respect. The film is about respect and recognition in the context of a family banished from one society – both America and, more importantly, the mafia society to which the family belongs – as it attempts to “integrate” into French society when the members of the family do not speak French (though Maggie, we are led to believe from the scene in the supermarket, at least understands the language).

The film is comedy as grossed-out farce. It has all the essential elements of the comic – depiction of society and social groups – you name it, not simply the nuclear family, but French society, the FBI, adolescent youth – as immune to change. Precisely because of that resistance, we have the implied criticism of local incompetent municipal politics, of corrupt industries polluting the water supply, of plumbers who have left their professionalism in the past to become poor imitations of mafia shakedown artists, to the initial victim of Fred’s revenge, a seller of lobsters in the south of France who tried to pass off rotting lobsters as fresh. Society, not just American society, but the archetypal French society of small, trusted shop owners, and proud artisans with integrity, has become as rotten as the mafia. That society is left in ruins with all its institutions of order ravaged, while the core family so deeply afflicted with tzaraat is forced into exclusion once again, but it is the social unit that emerges unscathed as the exemplification of the happy family, “closer together than ever before.” Of course they resist change. That is their function in a comedy, but in doing so in such an extreme fashion, the family is used to reveal how the traditions of small town social system suffer deeply from the same rot. So, rather than the ideal being held up as a standard to reflect the fault lines in society, its worst exemplification is used for that purpose, namely a mafia family from Brooklyn. So the “family” persists, but the hypocritical society in which they enjoyed temporary refuge is left physically and institutionally as a ruin.

This is not a romantic comedy. The children, instead of being the repositories of complete innocence in contrast to the parents, instead of being the exemplifications of inexperience, are as deeply afflicted with tzaraat as their parents. The family emerges as more united, not by family values, but by their absolute intolerance of any form of disrespect. Each member of the family is a case of the search for recognition and respect gone awry.

And it is all carried out against a background of supposedly shocking killings and mutilations but where the shock effect of each incident has been totally emptied of any horror. We laugh at the most obscene cruelties. After all, this is a comedy, not a tragedy, and a comedy about tragedy. And Fred, or Giovanni, just wants to write his memoirs, his story of the unvarnished truth so that he can be recognized for who he truly is. Yet this is not a comedy of ideas. But each of the main characters in the family is an exemplification of initiative and imagination from the particular perspective of the small sub-world in which each lives. Each member of the family is hurt deeply in their own way. And each calculates a way to exact revenge in total disproportion to the incident that instigated their individual pain. Thus, will, feeling and thought are all central to each of the main characters’ make-up.  And each character acts as an archetypal Italian mafia Brooklynite, even satirizing that portrayal in the response of Fred to the replaying of Goodfellas in which he himself starred, and in the audience’s reaction to Fred’s sentimental, nostalgic and painful retelling of his tale of revenge with cheers and standing applause giving him finally the respect and recognition he has long sought. But it is too late, even though the tap water has lost its shitty brown colour and finally flows out with all its clarity restored in this perverse product of the hero refusing to take obscurantism as a cover for institutionalized violence against the social fabric and, instead, acts, translates false speech into corrective, even if comically violent, action. That is, of course, why the music that accompanies the film is so playful, something noted by very few of the critics, and even when De Semlyen comments on it, it as if the music is simply a foreign attachment to allow the film to pretend it is a comedy.

Something also overlooked is the way grammar is insistently abused in Mafia dramas, as is any logic, for logic is always about proportion, but there is absolutely no proportion between the instigation and the response. Michelle Pfeiffer blows up a supermarket simply because the local French grocer and a few of his customers diss Americans and her family as specific exemplifications of vulgar Americana, the same Americans who came ashore in 1944 to free Normandy from the Nazis. There is no effort by any of the members of this mafia family to persuade the French of the error of their ways. Speech is expressive and is not used to convince the other. Hence Warren’s comments about his father’s use of the word “fuck” to mean almost anything imaginable. We have, in reality, the antithesis to poetry. Without grammar, without logic, without the lyricism of poetry, we can observe humans behave in their purest uncivilized state and we understand why this family can never be given a refuge anywhere.

This comedy ends perfectly, with the integration of the social unit most fundamental to the stability and continuity of society, the family. Further, that family is fully adjusted to society as a whole. But since that society itself is so hypocritically dysfunctional, because that society has lost any sense of its integrity, the family cannot integrate into that society which is left in ruin and the family forced, because it is the exemplification of tzaraat, to move on, seek refuge elsewhere, though we are left totally convinced that this will be their constant state.

So instead of social reform, we get absurdity. Fred’s society, recalled with so much sentiment and nostalgia throughout the film, is the society of society-at large that does not give him what he believes he needs, but because it is a need based on totally false values, it comes both too late to save that society and certainly too late for any reform. Michelle Pfeiffer always wanted to act opposite Robert De Niro and she both gets her wish and manages to keep her man in the movie. She succeeds not only doubly, but triply because she shows that she can be one of the greatest comediennes of our time. She is just outstanding.

Watch the movie. Appreciate its deep structural meaning. And ignore the reviewers who describe every scene and give away the plot but never really understand the movie.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Commands to Inoculate Against Dowsers and Firebrands

Tzav. Leviticus 6:1−8:36 – Commands to Inoculate Against Dowsers and Firebrands

by

Howard Adelman

[This blog written on 24 March but left incomplete and not sent out.]

God called.  God says to Moses. But Moses is to command Aaron. This portion begins with God telling Moses what he should do and Moses, not only carrying out “the request,” but issuing it as a command to Aaron. Moses was the Political Commander and he was instructed to “command” (tzav) Aaron and his sons. Even to the High Priest, God delivered His commands indirectly through a prophet rather than directly through a religious authority. On the other hand, the prophet had to deliver through an established institution. However, though indirect, there is the sense that there can be no dilly-dallying and no omissions. Commands must be carried out, both strictly and promptly.

Terrorists have once again released explosives in an airport and in a subway train, this time in Brussels. [This was initially written two days after the terrorist attack on Brussels on 22 March.] It is urgent that the authorities get their act together in sharing intelligence and improving coordination to arrest, but, more insistently, prevent future terror attacks. Repetitive routines are not just about preserving past rituals, but about protection and prevention. We are not just dealing with routines empty of meaning. These are institutions to be inculcated with repetition and precision. Why “command”? Just include an instruction booklet with the various parts and contents of the mishkan. But the instructions are not merely technical; they are holy. The five priestly sacrifices (burnt, meal, sin, guilt and free offerings), defining how meat is to be consumed, as well as the procedures and rituals for the ordination of priests, have deep implications, but I will only take time to unpack the first, the ritual of the burnt offering.

In the burnt offering, what must be done is not to take care of yourself and your loved ones. For the offering left only ashes. The importance of action could not be related to the self-interest of the priests. In the current reigning economic and, by extension, political orthodoxy, the core issue is always, “What’s in it for me?” But there is nothing in it for Aaron and his sons. For among Jews, the highest commandments were reserved for what you do for others when there is no gain for yourself. The dictum is not, “Behave, and certainly not believe, so that you too may be saved.” Further, this is not about their or our calling, what we are chosen and destined to do, but about what we must do in imitation of the duties that the priests were commanded to perform. It is about sacrifice, about Vayikra, “drawing closer to the Lord.”

The first command:

This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. 3 The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. 4 He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. 5 The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. 6 A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. (Leviticus 2-6)

These are the bare facts without interpretation:

  • A living creature is killed, burnt and turned into ashes
  • The cremation takes place overnight even though the slaughtered animal is placed on the altar in the morning
  • The fire which consumes the flesh is an eternal, perpetual flame (versus the immortality of flesh), kept burning, not simply by wood, but by the fat of the sacrifice
  • The priest wears linen
  • The priest removes the ashes from the altar and places them beside the altar
  • The priest changes clothes
  • The ashes are then removed from beside the altar, taken out of the tabernacle and put in a clean place

What are we to make of this?  Some of the elements are obvious – the eternal flame of God versus the mortality of the flesh – but also that the eternal flame only keeps burning if it is fed by wood gathered by humans and supplemented by the fat of a mammal. You cannot outsource the feeding of your personal and embodied self. That is our highest and most sacred duty – not just for pleasure (the apple of desire is just so sweet), not just for self-preservation (the potato, symbolic of power and control), not just so that we can appear attractive to others (flowers and aesthetics), and not even for ensuring our health and freedom from

pain (plants as treatments and for relief from pain). The priests (and, by extension, ourselves) perform the burnt offering when there is nothing in it for ourselves, but what we do is entirely for the Other. And the symbol of the Eternal Other is the flame, for man, as the food journalist, Michael Pollan, has written, eats not primarily for his/her health and well-being, but for pleasure, for sociability, for establishing identity and power relationships. (See his 2006 volume, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which my son, the farmer, contends has transformed his life and his beliefs. Too bad Michael Pollan is so rabidly anti-scientific.)

But why wear linen for a very dirty part of the job, collecting and moving ashes from the altar to beside the altar? And why change when moving the ashes away from the altar? The clothing consists of a linen coat, breeches, belt and mitre, usually interpreted as white and symbolic of purity, for the angel of God is clothed in linen. Because the extraction and weaving of linen is such an expensive and labour-intensive process, we now associate the material with refinement and high style, with quality and expensive attire. But linen is strong and durable. In the Middle Ages, linen was used to make shields (the Etruscans wore armour made of flax and the sails of the Roman fleet were made of flax) and, until very recently, the paper used to make our paper money consisted of 25% linen. By volume and weight, linen is not only much stronger than the core wood of the flax plant from which the linen fibres are separated by retting and scutching, but the longest and finest linen fibres are stronger than steel.

What characterizes linen most of all is its archival integrity, particularly when the slubs, the random small knots in the linen fabric, are not removed. Although in the finest linen fabrics, the slubs are removed, in the authentic and strongest linen, the irregular and discordant slubs that take away from perfectly smooth and refined linen remain. The beauty of linen is not in a wrinkle-free ironed look, but in a material that looks and feels and appears to be part of everyday life. Unlike wool or even cotton, moths cannot attack and weaken the fibre. Neither can water. In fact, unlike other textiles, linen is even stronger when wet and wet linen is not clammy like wet cotton; linen sluffs off water easily. But, most of all, linen resists dirt and stains. There is no better fabric, other than perhaps a rubber apron, to wear in a religious slaughter house or when collecting and setting aside the ashes of a burnt offering, especially since linen is such a cool fabric.

So it is better to think of linen in terms of integrity rather than purity. Though the Hebrew priests wore linen in imitation of the Egyptian priests, it is the combination of functionality with authenticity that is crucial to the wearing that material. But what has all of this to do with the burnt offering? What has all of this to do with the meaning and mores of our contemporary society? Think of God as fire by night (when the burnt offering was consumed by the flames) and cloud by day (water suspended in air), all in pursuit of land by nomads, by hunters and gatherers, for a civilization of settlement.

What are the respective roles of the divine and the human? Let us think of humans that try to make themselves into gods, that presume to take on the role of leadership as firebrands appealing to the rhetoric of strength through sacrifice or, a very different type, anarchists who advocate puffy and cloudy revolution against solidity and routine, against institutions and rituals. We have had illustrations of both types of populists in human history, including the history of the last century. Let me eschew initially the firebrands, especially the better known ones like Hitler and Mussolini, and begin with the amorphous varieties of clouds that throw such a damper on order and good government such as the hippies of the sixties and the preachers of Marxist liberation theology.

I begin by asking why Jews are forbidden to interweave wool and linen. “Thou shalt not wear a mingled garment of wool and linen together.” (Deuteronomy 22:11) Certain mixtures, shaatnez, are forbidden. Josephus, a critic of these priestly rituals, argued that the dictum was to preserve the distinction between the separation of the priestly and the ordinary classes, but that ancient Marxist class explanation never made sense to me since it would have been easier just to forbid ordinary humans from wearing linen. It is the mixture that is forbidden. Further, even in ancient times, the wife of a noble was clothed in fine linen and dressed her bed with the finest linens. (Proverbs 31:22) The point of an establishment is not exclusion but inclusion, not separation from but service for, not to presume superiority but to stand as a bulwark against the inferior. When we mix wool and linen, muddled thinking and disorganization with an elevated institution, we not only get aesthetic shlock, but a dangerous source for undermining the institutions and practices necessary to maintain society.

Rebels against standing institutions can succeed when a country’s institutions reveal extreme fatigue and failure in many of its areas and functions. When inherited practices and customs break down, a vacuum is created to be filled by arsonists and/or mystifiers and mystics – the latter lovers of ambiguity and disorganization. The former arsonists are firebrands; the latter are false prophets who claim to be rainmakers. These dowsers or water-witches promise to imitate Moses and allow water to spring out of rocks and sandy soil using political “divining” rods backed up by pseudoscience. In addition to being dysfunctional, existing political institutions demonstrate an inability to resist the attacks of firebrands and mismanaging mischief makers. The former set out deliberately to destroy existing institutions; the latter do so inadvertently by letting mold and rot seep further into the structures of continuity.

Let me illustrate by first discussing the anti-politics of the cloudy types, the dowsers, and then that of the firebrands, both of which would usurp God’s exclusive role, both of which are determined to tear down inherited traditions and institutions. Dowsers are far less dangerous than firebrands. The dowsers claim to get their power by being in sync with the vibes of the earth. They believe in physical bodies and its instruments, divining rods of all kinds that enable humans to talk with the Earth. When you begin accepting that your physical body can, and is now, absorbing energies from the Earth, then you begin to speak the language of dowsers. At your basic dowsing level, you have “felt”– or been signaled by – the flowing water inside the Earth.

Let me begin with a former Salesian Catholic priest who was a dowser. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was initially held in such high esteem because he stood out as a purist in opposition to the corrupt and powerful in Haiti under the Duvalier regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”. He was first democratically elected President of Haiti in 1990 with 67% of the votes in an honest election and served until 1991 when he was ousted by a coup d’état, reversed in 1994 by US pressure, the threat of force in Operation Uphold Democracy and reinforced by UNSC Res. 940 on 31 July. Aristide took office for a second time in 1994 when he formally left the church and served until 1996 as President of Haiti, and then was re-elected and served from 2001 to 2004 when he was once again ousted in a second coup.

Aristide first earned fame in Haiti as a crusading parish priest for liberation theology when in 1985 he gave a rabble-rousing Easter Week sermon delivered at the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince urging Haitians to reject the regime in the name of righteousness and love, the signature words of a dowser engaged in promoting revolution on behalf of the people so “they would not go hungry.” As if we can feed ourselves on justice and love! Serving the other entails first ensuring that each human is entitled to survive and, against the priestly order, self-survival ranks higher than service to the Other. In 1988, Aristide was forced into hiding for defending the dispossessed and preaching participatory democracy when “vigilantes” attacked his church, burning it to the ground and killing 13 and wounding 77 parishioners with machine guns and machetes as the military and police stood by and refused to intervene.

When Aristide was first elected as President, he was the leader of the Front National pour le Changement et la Démocratie (National Front for Change and Democracy, FNCD). In his second election, he had broken with the FCND, finding its earth-based emphasis on survival alone as inadequate. He founded the Organisation Politique Lavalas, the Struggling People’s Organization (OPL) which demanded a much more radical flood torrent (lavalas in Creole). A revolution cannot be founded on a reference to needs alone but requires that the existing powers be swept away by the turbulent waters underneath that hunger for survival. Revolution, though not resorting to fire, required water as well as earth.

When elected for the second time, the Aristide regime made enormous advances is education (increasing schools, school attendance and access), health (training of doctors with the help of Cuba, reductions in communicable diseases, access), social welfare (public housing, doubling the minimum wage) and counteracting private sources of military power, such as the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes. However, whatever social and economic advances were made, Aristide never managed to bring institutional stability to Haiti even as he advanced democracy and the protection of human rights. This is the failure of dowsers – they are unable to ensure stability and continuity, including their own.

There are many other cases of dowsers achieving political power – in Latin America alone, Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay – but I have to move on to discuss the threats from firebrands as well.

Instead of finally working to wash away the structures of corruption and the control of the instruments of coercion, firebrands and revolutionary strongmen come to power initially by literally setting fire to opponents and their institutions. Instead of promoting both populism and the constitution, populism means deconstructing and sweeping away any elements of constitutional protection. Essentially, any institutions that stand in the way of their absolute power must be eliminated or mangled beyond recognition, and set aside just as the High Priests of the ancient Hebrews set aside the ashes from the burnt offering. Firebrands usurp the role of the priests to emphasize humans in service to the Other in favour of power for themselves.

Lenin was a firebrand as were Mussolini and Hitler. Sticking to our own hemisphere, Fidel Castro stands out. More recently, so do Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Like the dowsers, they bring about important and valuable reforms, but at far greater cost to human liberty than the dowsers. Further, and more importantly, they have considerably more staying power. All are anti-constitutionalists who end up resting power in the hands of individuals rather than institutions and adding more and more power to the individual leader. They gain power by systematically weakening and attacking any opposition instead of recognizing the crucial role that an opposition plays in a democracy. They attack the rule of law, in particular the judiciary and its independence, as well as institutionalized democracy through an electoral process which they systematically subvert. Finally, they turn their guns on a free press to enable their continuation in office to be secured. They work to suborn the media to their own powers, thereby securing their continuation in office.

I do not believe I need to go on. Firebrands are too familiar. We need institutions in place to protect us from firebrands, but from dowsers as well, for dictatorial democracy in the name of the people and participatory power in their name as well, are inimical to lasting stability combined with fairness and justice. Currently, that role is served by constitutional representative democracy in opposition to populism. In the ancient world, high priests and oracles performed that function. By referencing and ritualizing the repetitive reading of the “burnt offering,” we provide one source of immunity against dowsers and firebrands.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Syrian Refugees

To readers of my blog:

A few of you have inquired what I am up to since I have not sent out a blog for ten days. Basically, I am serving as an indentured unpaid but voluntary bondsman on Vancouver Island helping my son Daniel establish his aquaponics business on the farm he purchased near Duncan, BC. I am also helping another son in providing feedback on his film script. I am also catching up on long delays to answering my correspondence. (I receive an average of fifty emails per day, about 5-20 requiring answers and 1 or more needing extensive replies. I have written parts of three different blogs but had to get on the road again to get here, and since then have been so busy that they were never completed. I will try to get back to them this week. However, in the interim, you may be interested in one reply to an inquiry that I sent out this morning on Syrian refugees. The reply follows a copy of the inquiry.

 

Dear Mr. Adelman,

Hi! I would like to thank you for being willing to do this interview with me. As a reminder, I am inquiring about why there are so many Syrian refugees in the world, and what can be done to improve their situation. I am really passionate about this because through the news, I have acquired a better understanding about Syrian refugees, and where they are coming from. I believe that these refugees deserve a better future after all of the violence that they have experienced. Unfortunately, Through this interview, I am really hoping that you will be able to answer a few of my questions. I have not been able to find answers to my questions over the internet, since much of the information I came across does not present a clear, solid answer.

I have a few questions about you. I found your biography on the York University website, under “Centre for Refugee Studies”. I noticed that some of your interests included refugees and several other fields surrounding it, including refugee policy and resettlement. How did you become interested in this topic, and for how long have you engaged in these studies?

Below, I have included four questions about the Syrian refugees and their situation that I have been trying to seek answers to.

  1. Canada has pledged to accept more than 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. Many of the Syrian refugees want to embark on a new journey; however, I’m wondering whether Canada is even prepared to host the refugees. I understand that there will definitely be additional costs in order for the Syrian refugees to resettle, such as food and a place to live. With these costs, how long will Canada be able to sustain their population with the allotted budget? Moreover, if Syrian refugees resettle in Canada, how will this impact the current population or people who are already living here? Will things such as job competition, a new identity, or other factors soon become an issue?
  1. Some economists believe that if Syrian refugees come to Canada, they will make a great contribution to the society and help to stimulate the economy, through an increase in workforce and productivity. However, what proof is out there that the Syrian refugees will not be a burden on Canada’s shoulders? Could the refugees actually drain or potentially weaken the economy instead? Some other facts to consider is that the Syrian refugees are indefinitely going to experience initial hurdles when they first settle in Canada. Issues that could arise include specific job qualifications or experience, language barriers, or even exclusion from the existing population. Is there a definite answer to this question, or is it too early to tell the effects?
  1. I am wondering how the media is able to influence how people view Syrian refugees, perhaps in a negative way. They seem to have the power to sway the minds of people across the entire nation. Is it because of our existing uncertainty towards Syrian refugees, or another reason altogether? After Germany was so generous and accepted so many refugees, ISIS rose up and there were accounts of attacks that had happened. This was also the case in Paris; one of the terrorists was found with a Syrian passport. Could situations such as these potentially jeopardize the futures of Syrian refugees?
  1. My fourth question is a matter of your opinion. Do you feel that accepting Syrian refugees should be considered as a “global responsibility”? Many of the European Union (E.U) countries have had past experiences with these types of refugee crises; however, I question whether they are applying this knowledge to today’s Syrian refugee crisis. Have their views shifted over time? If so, why?

Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Adelman. I appreciate your time to participate in my interview and to answer my questions. I hope you respond soon!

Sincerely,

Martin

 

MY RESPONSE

Martin;

  1. About myself and my interest in refugee studies:

I first became involved with refugees sixty years ago when I was in charge of the student co-operative residences at the University of Toronto and helped organize the use of those residences for the initial housing of Hungarian refugees when they came to Toronto, Canada. But my intellectual interest only took off twenty-three years later when, in 1979, I began Operation Lifeline, the organization to encourage the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees. After the initial flurry or organization, in 1980 I helped found the journal, Refuge, and set up at York University the Refugee Studies Project to collect literature and encourage research and scholarship initially on the Indochinese refugees and subsequently on all refugee populations.

On Syrian Refugees:

  1. What policies and practices are in place in Canada to host Syrian refugees?

The answer is threefold:

  1. We have a Department of Immigration which has had a long policy and years of practice in the resettlement of refugees, but which had grown rusty with relative disuse in resettling large numbers over very recent years. But the institutional memory remained and Canada had a sixty-year history of gearing up rapidly to ensure the resettlement of large numbers of refugees.
  2. For years, churches and organizations, like the Jewish Immigration Service (JIS), have been involved in partnering with the government in helping resettle refugees. In the Immigration Act that came into effect in 1978, provision was made to allow those private organizations and religious institutions, as well as any group of five or more Canadians who could prove they could support the refugees for one year, to initiate the private sponsorship of refugees. Hence Operation Lifeline and the huge outpouring of efforts to privately sponsor refugees led initially by the Liberal government and then, after June 1979, by the Tory government of Joe Clark.
  3. Since, and in good part as a result of the resettlement of large numbers of Indochinese refugees beginning in 1979, Canada has set up a system of privately-organized and publicly funded resettlement agencies in major centres across the country to help facilitate the resettlement of refugees.

So the main issue is institutional, not funding. Within the overall Canadian budget, the cost of resettling refugees is relatively small. Further, though in the Syrian refugee resettlement program it may end up costing $400 million, those funds could be considered as a long-term capital investment in human resources rather than simply an expenditure allocated to the budget in a single year since those refugees, once resettled, more than pay back the costs of resettlement in increased tax revenues for the government years after the refugees are resettled. Canada has a population base 50% larger than in 1979 and can easily afford to take in 50,000 Syrian refugees per year.

As for the impact on Canadians already here, any addition to the work force, whether from Canadians born here and entering the work force, from immigrants and refugees who arrive here as children and teenagers or from mature adult refugees and immigrants entering the labour market, increases the competition for jobs, but, at the same time, increases the demand for jobs, and, for immigrants and refugees who are compelled to spend a much higher percentage of their income on resettlement and immigration, a higher percentage of their income is spent on locally-produced goods and services.

As for identity and cultural and social conflicts, these always exist in all societies, but the major source of problems by far always come mainly from the existing population and, thankfully in Canada, the percentage of the population resisting the intake of foreigners has become a minority. Enlightened political and social policies are important in reducing that minority further. The issue of cultural and racial clashes has been enormously reduced in Canada since 1979.

  1. Costs versus Benefits of Resettling Refugees

As Canada has developed a more sophisticated economy far more dependent on the development of high skill levels as the economy became more diverse and more globalized, the payback in initial investment has taken longer, but there is still a significant payback, and certainly from the next generation born from and raised by those immigrants and refugees, who, in general, are raised with a built-in pressure for success. As for proof, you will have to do your research on the studies by economists in Canada. The overwhelming evidence is that over the long term, refugees, as well as immigrants, are a net benefit to the Canadian economy in spite of initial hurdles when they first settle in Canada over specific job qualifications or experience, language barriers, or even exclusion by the existing population, the latter, as I stated above, having become greatly diminished over the years.

  1. The Role of the Media

There is a definite correlation between the support by the media and the response of Canadians. The Canadian media in general have demonstrated a long history of support for the intake and resettlement of refugees that has been crucial to the outstanding Canadian success story in resettling refugees. Further, in every refugee movement, or almost everyone – the Bahá’is may be one exception – there have always been some “bad apples”. The Syrian refugee movement has been branded as a potential terrorist threat from a very small minority who infiltrate the refugee movement. That danger is infinitely small in Canada given our process of selection. The real danger comes from homegrown terrorists who emerge generally but no exclusively from among second generation refugees who are marginalized. Canada has overwhelmingly escaped that problem because of our history, our practices and our institutionalization of successful integration, not to be confused with assimilation.

By the way, there is absolutely no evidence of a causal connection between Germany’s generosity towards Syrian refugees and the rise of ISIS. But certainly when those who carry Syrian passports commit atrocities, this brings about bad public relations for the intake and resettlement of refugees. Hopefully, enlightened minds and deep institutional practices will surmount that perceived threat as they did when a group arose objecting to the intake of Indochinese refugees, not only on racist grounds, but over alleged fears that foreign governments and bodies would use the Indochinese refugee resettlement to infiltrate Canada with Communist spies. That proved to be wholly false in the case of the Indochinese, but in the case of my own community of Jewish immigrants and refugees years earlier, a very few, usually second generation, turned out to develop as communist spies, but the numbers were so tiny and the proportion making such a huge contribution to Canada so extremely large, that the risk proved to be very heavily weighted towards taking the very small risk.

  1. The Global Responsibility to Refugees

Yes, accepting refugees is a global responsibility, but just because most countries do not take on that responsibility does not mean that the countries that do should not. When I was much younger, only a small minority of states defended democracy and the cause of universal human rights, but those numbers have increased since. This too has happened with the acceptance of helping refugees as a global responsibility. In 1979 at the time of the Indochinese refugee movement, there were only ten countries that accepted a responsibility to help the proximate countries deal with the huge burden of refugees. That number has increased enormously since, but still constitutes only a minority of even developed nations and there remain in Europe and elsewhere states, or, more accurately, governments that refuse to accept he principle of burden sharing. Further, it must be remembered that it is the adjoining states – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey in the case of Syrian refugees – that have the overwhelming and primary burden of the Syrian refugees. For example, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan constitute 15-18% of its population. That is equivalent to Canada, a very much richer country, taking in over 5 million refugees instead of 500,000 or 10% of that number or the 50,000 we will likely take in by the end of this year, that is 1% of that number Jordan has taken in.

Hope this helps.

Howard

 

With the help of Alex Zisman