The Promise – a movie review

The Promise – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I am not breaking my summer silence, merely taking a recess. The cause is a movie I saw on television last night called The Promise. It is about the Armenian genocide. If I was a true film aficionado, I would know about the film, whether I had seen it or not. But I not only did not see it when it was released, but I had not heard of it. I initially thought I had an excuse because the release date that I read was 27 May 2017. However, the actual release date in Canada was 21 April 2017. Further, it was at TIFF in 2016. In any case, my lame excuse had been that I went north to my island for the rainy and cold month of June and did not return fully until July.

Before I begin the review, a few, and perhaps too many, words about the Armenian genocide. As is well known, successive and very different Turkish regimes have denied the existence of any intentional slaughter of the up to 1.5 million Armenians killed in that slaughter. The Armenians were killed, the Turks claim, because they allegedly started a civil war. Civilians were killed in the crossfire. They were casualties of war, not deliberately murdered. In any case, the Turks insist, the numbers that died is grossly exaggerated.

They are not. The genocide took place as depicted.

I became a secondary scholar of the Armenian genocide when I was asked by the Toronto School Board to sit with two other academics, experts on the Holocaust, to adjudicate whether the story of the genocide should be included on the curriculum for high school students in Toronto. Deliberately, not one of asked to serve on this voluntary judicial advisory committee because we had published on the Armenian genocide. The Board of Education wanted expertise without offering grounds for the formal Turkish government complaint to subsequently declare a prior bias.

This was, of course, not entirely possible. All three of us were familiar with Holocaust deniers. I certainly knew of Rwandan genocide deniers, or those who try to mitigate that tragedy, though the latter position was virtually impossible to sustain. Instead, in the case of Rwanda, deflection is used – a practice with which every reader is likely to be extremely familiar since the election of President Donald Trump. The claim is that President Kagame of Rwanda has been systematically slaughtering Hutu since the Tutsi-led rebels invaded Rwanda and initiated the civil war in 1990. The numbers killed on each side, these genocide distractors imply, are about equal. This past month, I was asked to review a research paper that edged in this way towards apologetics. However ruthless President Kagame may be as an elected dictator in Rwanda, any fair examination of his record, positive and negative, would not declare him to be a genocidaire.

However, the Turks, and their successive governments of very different stripes, have been united perhaps on only one topic for over one hundred years  – the persistent and insistent denial of the Armenian genocide.  A Turkish graduate student of mine – not an Armenian – wanted to write a thesis on the Armenian refugees in WWI. Somehow the Turkish government heard of it. A representative of the Turkish embassy in Ottawa paid me a visit when I was the founding director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. He asked generally whther any student was writing about refugees, particularly from Turkey, during I disclosed nothing but informed my student. That student, fearing punishment on any return to Turkey, switched topics.

On the committee, I read much of the scholarly literature on the Armenian genocide as well as the Turkish propaganda denying its occurrence. What was distinctive from the Jewish and the Armenian genocides is that, in this case, there were two reputable scholars who denied that a systematic government-led effort to slaughter and forcefully relocate the Armenians had taken place. The vast majority of scholarly conclusions – as the committee claimed in its report to the Board of Education – supported the claims of genocide. Though the committee did not find that the evidence for the Armenian genocide taking place was incontrovertible or unassailable – there are very few historical events in which this is the case – the committee concluded that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, and the logical flaws of the deniers, made it unquestionable that the Armenian genocide should be taught as a segment of actual history on a high school curriculum and without providing any necessity to make room for the literature of deniers. The evidence was as indisputable and indubitable as one can find in historiography. Yet two films appeared relatively recently that bordered on genocide denial – The Ottoman Lieutenant and Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner.

All this is to say that when I watched the film, I had no distraction or concern that the genocide had taken place. However, I was bothered somewhat by the implication that Turkey during the dying days of the Ottoman empire and even the beginnings of the Young Turk takeover in the aftermath of the disastrous Turko-Russian War largely waged in the Balkans in 1912, was simply a prosperous multicultural society. It certainly had that appearance. But just as there had been early warnings of a genocide in Rwanda with some trial efforts at mass slaughter, the warnings in Turkey were far clearer with the slaughter of 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians in the massacres of 1894-95 by the paramilitary Hamidye (the Interahamwe militias were used in Rwanda) and the 10,000–30,000 murdered by units of the armed forces in the Adana massacre of March-April 1909. However, as most scholars point out, a pogrom does not constitute a genocide. But pogroms can be precursors.

Thus, the film is correct in dating the formal start of the genocide to 24 April 1915 when several hundred Armenian professionals and intellectuals were rounded up and interned, with the vast majority eventually being killed. Second, the film depicts the second stage of the genocide when young Armenian (as well as Assyrian and Greek Christian) males from their teens to their forties were arrested, subjected to forced labour and murdered en masse in the process. The third phase of the slaughter portrays whole Armenian villages and towns put to the torch and Armenian older men, women and children set out on a forced march to Syria, where, on route, the vast majority perished in the desert which they attempted to cross with inadequate supplies of food and water. In the finale, the film portrays the brave and victorious Armenian 53-day self-defence by the Armenians from the villages of Kabusia (Kaboussieh), Yoghunoluk, Bitias, Vakef, Kheter Bey (Khodr Bey) and Haji Habibli  at the mountain, Musa Daği (ironically, Moses’ Mountain) recorded in Franz Werfel’s  novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, until over 4,000 Armenians were rescued by the French navy.

The genocidal scenes are handled with mastery by the director, Terry George, and constitute a complement to the beauty and variety and richness of Constantinople before the war. Terry George entered this project with a stellar reputation from directing Hotel Rwanda and, before that, Some Mother’s Son (1991) about the 1981 IRA prisoner hunger strike, In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997), the latter two both starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unlike these depictions of the troubles in Northern Ireland, The Promise is directed on an epic scale with wonderful crowd scenes varying from the throngs in the markets of Istanbul to the forced labourers to the mass deportations in cattle cars and the forced march of the Armenian inhabitants of towns and villages. The leads portrayed by Oscar Isaac as Mikael Poghosian, an apothecary with a determination to become a doctor, Charlotte Le Bon as the vivacious and vibrant Ana, and Christian Bale as the famous American journalist, Chris Meyers.

So what is wrong with the film? Why is it not the Armenian equivalent to Schindler’s List? It is certainly not the cinematography which is gorgeous – perhaps all-too-gorgeous, even in the scenes about the flight. Unlike Atom Egoyan’s 2003 imperfect movie Ararat, also on the Armenian genocide, the flaw in The Promise is in the script co-written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. The weakness is not because they used a romantic triangle among the three to anchor the film in the personal, but because the triangle remains too central when the belated portrayal of the genocide begins. Further, it turns into a contrived and cloying series of segments through the latter half of the movie. Finally, and I could not figure why, there is almost no sexual chemistry between Ana and Mikael.

Some reviewers that I read this morning found this simply to be a distraction. For other reviewers, it spoiled the film. While I agree with the consensus on the sentimental and manipulated personal narrative at the core of the film, the power of the portrayal of the genocide, the brilliant directing and cinematography, and the wonderful acting, even though the character of Mikael Poghosian is too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, the events and their portrayal more than make up for this lapse so that I was mesmerized by the film and would have rated it much higher than the negative and barely positive reviews that I read.

However, do not read the reviews before you watch the movie. I did not, and very rarely do, for, in this case, review after review egregiously offer an account of the plot in great detail. A script which allowed reviewers to be distracted from the main and very important subject matter can be blamed on the screenwriters, but reviewers are as much to blame for allowing their narrative sensibilities to detract from the power of the movie.

It is a must see. And it does not cost nearly as much to watch on TV as in a movie theatre, though I desperately wish I had viewed the panoramic scenes on a large movie screen.

 

with the help of Alex Zisman

Clouds Over the Land: Sunset Song – Numbers 10:9

Clouds Over the Land: Sunset Song – Numbers 10:9

by

Howard Adelman

If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your God, and thus be saved from your enemies.   טוְכִי תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם עַל הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם:

וְכִֽי־תָבֹ֨אוּ מִלְחָמָ֜ה בְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם עַל־הַצַּר֙ הַצֹּרֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֔ם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶ֖ם בַּחֲצֹצְר֑וֹת וֲנִזְכַּרְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּ֖ם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶֽם׃

When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God and be delivered from your enemies.

The Israelites are in the wilderness. Why are they getting commandments about blowing a trumpet in a certain way when they are defending their land against an aggressor? The Israelites had no land to defend. This is the only mention of the land in this section. There are verses on the cloud settling in over the Tabernacle and remaining there. There are verses on the cloud lifting from the Tabernacle and once again permitting the Israelites to go forward. There is the fire on the altar; when the cloud rests over the Tabernacle, and then the latter had the likeness of fire. (9:15) However long the cloud settled in over the Tabernacle, the Israelites remained encamped, unmoving and unable to move.

There may be fire, there may be water in the form of a mist, and there is always the harsh land, but what is noticeable is the absence of any mention of ruah, the divine spirit that animates things. Sometimes ruah is identified with the breath of life and with the soul, the only thing that remains when the physical body melts away with death. Earth, water – sometimes in torrents rather than as simply a mist – and fire, but no ruah.

The setting is described at the beginning of Numbers in the opening of verse 9:1-2. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying (2) Let the people offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time.” Some take this as a message to hold a second Passover when you were unable to celebrate the first, when the family was unclean because someone had just died. But it is a description of a second Passover, as horrid a period as when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt when God was killing the first-born in every Egyptian family.

On the first anniversary of the exodus, when the nostalgia for what has been lost sets in, when the Israelites are in the desert, when the casualties of the trek through the desert can be counted, they are told that they are suffering a very different misery. This misery too shall pass. The cloud of despondency will lift and they will be able to move on with their lives. But when death lies in their midst, they are unclean. And once again they must eat bitter herbs and consume unleavened bread, the bread of affliction.

On the anniversary of the exodus, on the New Year, on Rosh Hashanah, otherwise known as Yom Teruah (Numbers 29:1), Tekiah is sounded, a long blast, when the people are assembled. Then, when they are attacked, when they are at war with themselves and, thus, with others, the Israelites sound the Teruah, the series of nine very short staccato notes, and the Shevarim, three medium length blasts following each Teruah section of three notes. The community is called to leave behind its misery, leave behind self-pity and get on the move to fight the enemies that assault them.

If you want to comprehend this section of the Torah, I suggest you watch Terence Davies’ movie, Sunset Song. It is a long film. (two hours and fifteen minutes) It is also a slow film. But it deserves your patience, if only to view the gorgeous but harsh Scottish countryside and the main character, Chris Guthrie played by Agyness Deyn. Chris is a bonnie lass and one of the greatest, if not the greatest character, in Scottish fiction. The film is an adaptation by the director of the first 1932 volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, set in the north-east in the Scottish village or estate of Kinraddie and largely located in the farm, Blawearie, the meaning of which is found in its very sound – blah and weary.

The farm stands in stark contrast to the name of the larger community, Kinraddie, which means whistling away to oneself when the day shines bright before one and the sun is shining. The film oscillates between these two opposite moods. As Gibbon wrote, “there were more than nine bit places [like the very short blasts of Teruah] left in the Kinraddie estate.” Blawearie is one of those bit places. The film ends with the Sunset Song, the Flower Song, in an elegiac reference to the passing of loved ones and the passing of an old order, the passing of an age of innocence, but also of horror that receives its ultimate global expression in the muddy trenches of World War I.

The film begins in Kinraddie, in the local school, where a tall and thin and precocious red-headed lass, Chris Guthrie, is singled out for her excellent pronunciation of French, her ability to whistle as the instructor says, without making the whistling sound. The film ends by repeating the refrain, “The Land endures.” “Only the land endures.” And Chris discovers that she is the land. Otherwise, “there were lovely things in the world, lovely that didn’t endure, and the lovelier for that… Nothing endures.” But the land! The land endures even as the song, “Flowers of thee Forest” is sung.

I’ve hear them liltin’, at the ewe milkin,’
Lasses a-liltin’ before dawn of day.
Now there’s a moanin’, on ilka green loanin’.
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
As boughs in the mornin’, nae blithe lads are scornin’,
Lasses are lonely and dowie and wae.
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighin’ and sobbin’,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.
At e’en in the gloamin’, nae swankies are roamin’,
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin’ her dearie,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
In har’st at the shearin’ nae youths now are jeerin’
Bandsters are runkled, and lyart, or grey.
At fair or at preachin’, nae wooin’, nae fleecin’,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
the English for ance by guile wan the day.
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.
We’ll hae nae mair liltin’, at the ewe milkin’,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae.
Sighin’ and moanin’ on ilka green loanin’,
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.

How does that harsh land endure? How does it survive the harsh winds and pouring rain, the heavy snows of winter? Through fire. The constant flame throughout the film is the family altar, the big stove in the kitchen ever burning. And life is renewed when Chris falls in love with Ewan Tavendale (James Grant) and they blow out the candle to have sex in the dark, not only when they are first married when Chris is still seventeen and approaching her eighteenth birthday, but on each occasion afterwards. Except when Ewen returns from WWI on leave.

Ewen went to war to fight for king and country, urged to do so by his Presbyterian pastor to fight Kaiser as the anti-Christ and lest he be regarded as a coward. War transformed him from a loving and sensitive man into a brute who rapes his wife without turning out the candle. The scene is even more horrific than it reads. However, his ostensible cowardice was truly an act of bravery, for the spark of love within him, the ruah in the film, made him seek out the “white feather” treatment by the military; he was shot as a deserter in the three short blasts of the shofar, the Teruah, in the final act of the film.

The flowers of the forest are all wede away. They go mad. They rage. They rave. As Chris does when Ewen, her dear and loving lad turned into a monster by a war he did not want to fight, by the English who “by guile wan the day” “for the order sent our lads to the Border,” is shot as a deserter, his self-sacrifice lest he condemn Chris to a life of abuse as her mother, Jean, had been before she took her own life and that of her baby twins.

However, that is not where the film begins. We will soon learn about the harsh unforgiving reality of the hardscrabble land of these Scottish farmers, but Chris leaves the class with which the film opens with her best friend. They skip playfully through the forest in one of the many moments of pure bliss in a scene of sheer pastoral beauty, like the many scenes of golden fields of grain and green pastures.

Sunset Song, in the end, is not a lament for a past that will be no more, though it is that, with all its vices and virtues, but it is about the renewal of spirit, the renewal of life, just when you begin to think that life cannot get any worse. We know from the narrator of the film, Chris herself, who will go to renew her love of books, her love of life, her love of what I would call Torah rather than the harsh prescriptions in the biblical text that become the sole focus of tyrannical men and fathers who will mistreat their sons and even long for incest with their daughters. Peter Mullan plays John Guthrie with the same mastery that he lights his pipe in the few moments when he sits content with himself and with the world. At other times, he straps Chris’ brother Will (Jack Greenlees) across the back. One suspects that Chris became a writer as well as a teacher, for poetry suffuses a movie of tragic loss and despair.

In the opening, Chis intones about herself: “So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrises there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.” The schizophrenia was only resolved when, after many tests akin to those Job suffered, she discovered that she was the land.

The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They had yet to learn that they were the land, that they were at one with the land, and that they would repeatedly betray that land as they betrayed their harsh and unforgiving God.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

by

Howard Adelman

This blog continues the discussion of the core values of the Canadian civil religion in contrast to the Stone- Trump ethos now governing the polis in the U.S.  In the previous two blogs, I dealt with the first five values: civility versus incivility; compassion versus passion; dignity versus indignation; diversity versus unity; and empathy versus insecurity. In this blog, I want to take up the last five antonyms:

Canada                                        U.S.A. (current ruling ethos)

  1. Impartial                           Partisan
  2. Egalitarian                        Inegalitarian
  3. Fairness                             Ruthless & even Unfair
  4. Freedom as a Goal          Freedom as Given
  5. False-consciousness        Humans as Falsifiers

Yesterday, at the final public session of a conference held at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto on Religion and Ethno-Nationalism in the Era of the Two World Wars, Victoria Barnett from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Professor Susannah Heschel from The Mandel Center at Dartmouth College were on the final panel moderated by Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto.

A number of observations:

  1. The conference in Ottawa was held by people engaged in interfaith dialogue; the conference in Toronto was, in part, about people engaged in interfaith dialogue 75-100 years ago.
  2. The Ottawa conference, like the Toronto one, was about religion, but the former presumed a peaceable kingdom and did not focus on either ethno-nationalism or violence but rather the victims of both.
  3. While the Ottawa conference was about interfaith cooperation to do good, the Toronto conference primarily explored the role of religion in causing, contributing to or exacerbating violence.
  4. The Ottawa and Toronto conferences are both signs of an increasing interest developed over the last couple of decades in the role religion plays in politics in general and in either peace or conflict more specifically, filling in a correlational gap in scholarship that heretofore focused only on power, economics, ideology, nationalism, etc.
  5. While the Ottawa conference approached the issue of the relation of religion to the polity from the perspective of participant observers, the Toronto conference strived for detachment, but both did so within an ideal of impartiality that, in itself, seemed to belie an essential part of traditional religion, its commitment to the truth of partiality as expressed in any specific religion.
  6. Lurking in the background of the Toronto conference was the heavily quantitative use of the Minorities at Risk (MAR) data base at the University of Maryland initiated by Ted Gurr in the mid-eighties and used in Jonathan Fox’s Religion, Civilization, and Civil War or his edited volume, Religion, Politics, Society, & the State, and, most importantly, his own conclusion that religion was not a salient factor in violent conflicts. The figure cited at the conference was only 13%.
  7. The latter complemented my own studies referred to in the Ottawa conference that historical memory rather than faith was a main determinant of assisting refugees, suggesting that faith had a very limited role in fostering good works as well as violence.
  8. Victoria Barnett suggested two main streams for approaching the relationship of religion and power, that of interfaith dialogue so evident in the Ottawa meeting, and a more critical approach, one which has barely broken through into deep discussions of theological differences and the role of those differences in fomenting violence or the role of overlapping beliefs fostering good works.
  9. Susannah Heschel was very suspicious, no, dismissive, of any attempt in using religion to apply to secular systems of values. Though she restricted her asides to caricatures – football as a religion – she was clear that she wanted to limit the use of the term to social systems based on rules and practices that made reference to a superior being, though religions exist which do not.
  10. However, in listening to the discussion, I concluded that the distinction was not between religions confined to a connection with a superior being and the extension into realms of civil society, but between faith systems that were rooted in absolute certainty and the truth for which one was willing, not only to die but to kill, versus religions that brought to consciousness that which had been taken for granted and, therefore, left unexamined, the connection between absolutist beliefs and violence.

The core characteristic of traditional religion may be that it is rooted in an inherent bias. Therefore, how can I dub a set of values articulated as the best for a polis as a civil religion if one of those values is impartiality? Is interfaith dialogue only possible because of a willingness to set aside or bracket theological differences in the search for commonality, thereby surrendering the core of that which may give religion its sense of passionate commitment? What if violence is defined as the commitment and effort to achieve a higher good? If so, how can interfaith dialogue be peaceful if it tries to go beyond making space for the other and, instead, uses the space in between and among to engage with others over commitment, over truth, and over what is most important in offering one’s life as a sacrifice? Or is that simply the orientation of the dominant Western religions?

One might even go further. Is not the development of a civil religion the sign of that effort to reach for a beyond that has been a hallmark of all religions, but doing so by setting aside the inherent connection to violence? In fact, is not the post-enlightenment effort over the last one hundred and fifty years been to discover and articulate a set of values and norms which defend a common humanity as primary? Has that effort not developed rules about the employment of violence, as in just war theory and practice, that allow lions to lie down beside lambs? In other words, the very effort to strive for impartiality, the very effort to esteem the core values of science, may be the core civic value in overcoming the traditional partisanship, not only of religion, but of ethno-nationalism?

Which brings me to the issue of equality. In Jeffrey Omar Usman’s very long scholarly article, “Defining Religion: The Struggle to Define Religion under the First Amendment and the Contributions and Insights of Other Disciplines of Study Including Theology, Psychology, Sociology, the Arts and Anthropology” [note the explicit omission of politics and economics] published in The North Dakota Law Review (83:123, 123-223, 2007), he concluded as follows:

“whatever definition of religion is applied, it should be applied in a consistent manner, and though courts should act with caution in defining religion, they should do so without fear. It is readily apparent that religion is incredibly difficult to define; scholars and courts have stumbled and will continue to do so in approaching this extraordinarily complicated subject. In endeavoring to formulate the best possible definition, the most important elements of the continuing effort by judges and academics to define religion are: (1) adherence to equality (my bold and italics) as a guiding interpretative principle; (2) employing the definition in a consistent manner; and (3) being cautious but not so frightened that the courts retreat to so vague a definition that the term religion loses its meaning.”

Why equality? Why consistency? How do these two overarching values help prevent slipping into the mire of meaningless equivocation? Look at how Usman’s key elements of a religion, that must be expressed, articulated and be unequivocal, are mapped onto those articulated by Susannah Heschel.

  1. “A religious belief or practice under the First Amendment…should be an approach toward or duty imposed by an authority that is part of some reality or understanding that is beyond the ordinary and beyond the state.” (This is a wider frame than Heschel’s definition in terms of a superior being, but it entails the retention of the distinction between a sacred authority and the profane in relation to fundamental questions of existence, and the exclusion of beliefs that are just personal and not broadly communal. The rituals of football or the collection of memorabilia about a celebrity or even the pursuit of wealth ad infinitum, do not deal with the meaning of suffering and death and the existence of spiritual reality, what Hegel called the Geist.
  2. On the other hand, that authority beyond the ordinary, whether it be called divine or not, “can encompass both the divine and demonic, the creative and the destructive.” (Paul Tillich) [I will return to this at the end.]
  3. There is a distinction between the right of free speech, a much broader right independent of religion, and a guarantee of the free exercise of and the prohibition against an established
  4. To go further, and in an extract by the Supreme Court of the U.S, “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” The First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, freedom from practicing religion is as important as freedom to practice one’s religion.
  5. When William James, one of the key founders of Pragmatism, in the nineteenth century wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience [note, experience is singular but religion is written as a plural noun], it is clear that, although there may be a singular ultimate concern, people experience life with a variety of competing and conflicting concerns through various experiences and, therefore, there should be no effort of the polity to give one set of concerns priority over another.

That is why the core sentiment expressed in the American First Amendment is so crucial in the construction of the values of the modern world. Impartiality, equality and fairness are at the centre of post-enlightenment religion rather than partisanship, inegalitarianism as well as ruthless and unfair practices characteristic of the profane realm and built into historic religions. The Stone-Trump doctrine raises the profane values of extreme partisanship, inegalitarianism and ruthless and unfair methods to advance a cause once seen to be core values of religion and ones removed from that core by the First Amendment and modern efforts to articulate a Civil Religion. It is a civil religion as demonic.

And the reason is simple. Whereas Hobbes and Locke made the fundamental mistake of presuming that freedom rather than equality was the fundamental given, and, therefore, allowed those who developed their ideas on this platform to conceive of the state as an instrument for squelching or confining that freedom, a modern civil religion views freedom as the holy grail, as a state that we should be dedicated to establishing for all humanity.

This brings me to my final set of antonyms, false-consciousness versus humans as falsifiers. The latter is easy to understand. Those who would raise the core of the profane to the level of the sacred are slaves to dishonesty, to using whatever is necessary to win, in business or in politics, as long as those efforts fall within the law, or, at least, fall within the law that can be used to send you to prison and deprive you of freedom – hence the effort to control the making of laws to expand the realm in which dishonesty can be used with impunity. Some would claim that sacred is even a non-issue for such people, but the passion of belief of a man like Roger Stone suggests otherwise.

Freedom, instead of providing a platform in which different groups can pursue the questions of the ultimate meaning of existence without interference by the state, is conceived as already pre-determined, as rooted in a law of nature: each individual exists simply to pursue his or her own well-being. Freedom equals the doctrine of possessive individualism. That is why all other belief systems can be used and abused, trampled upon and cast aside, in the pursuit of self interest.

In Friedrich Engels and other theorists, false consciousness was the use of people pursuing survival within an ideological and institutional framework that perpetuated rather than undermined inequality. It was the disease at the ideological base of capitalism. It is the base that forms the core of the Stone-Trump ideology in an effort to monopolize the conception of capitalism under the virtue of greed in the guise of free competition. However, it should be apparent to everyone that competition for recognition is not equivalent to competition over the acquisition of material goods ad infinitum, that competition in capitalism can be a virtue without raising greed to a high altar in the holy of holies.

No one who turns mendacity into a supreme virtue can even explore the conception of false consciousness. For the purveyors of this supreme lie allow for no other competing belief in their civic demonic religion. All humans are greedy. Period! The core of a civil religion is to unpack this false consciousness, not only in others, but in our own ideological conceptions and institutional preferences. Critical self-consciousness to uproot false consciousness has to be at the centre of a civilized civil religion.

It is these values of this demonic religion set in Catfish Row on the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina, where a Black mammie takes care of the child of a good-lookin momma and rich and powerful father, that were satirized in George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that I heard a chorus sing at a concert last evening.

Summertime,

And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high

Oh, Your daddy’s rich
And your mamma’s good lookin’
So hush little baby
Don’t you cry

One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky

But until that morning
There’s a’nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mammy standing by.

Then, among the Hebrew, Yiddish and other great songs, the choir sang “Blackbird” that expressed the ultimate goal of the new civic religion.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life,
You were only waiting for the moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life,
You were only waiting for the moment to be free.

Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and Darkness

by

Howard Adelman

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day in Israel, begins at 8:00 p.m. on Monday evening. At dusk this Sunday evening until 8:00 p.m. tomorrow, Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, Israel’s national Remembrance Day is observed to commemorate those who fell since 1860 in the cause of establishing and preserving the State of Israel. More formally, the day is called: l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah…”We Will Fulfill the Last Will of the Fallen – to Defend Our Home in Israel.” 1860 is chosen as the beginning date for counting, for that year marks the first time that Jews were permitted to live outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem since the Second Temple fell. Those fallen include not only those who died in battle, but those who were victims of terrorist attacks. The number 24,000 has been accepted as the approximate total of those who have died for the sake of Israel, but 60 service personnel and 11 civilians were added to that total since Memorial Day in 2016. Many more died in that effort as you will read. This blog is dedicated to them as well.

 

It should be no surprise that many events preceded these two holidays. I chaired a discussion about the state of contemporary Zionism and Israel in mid-week in which Emanuel Adler depicted the drift in Israel towards illiberalism which, in retrospect, could be interpreted as a nostalgic tribute to Amos Oz, the co-founder of Peace Now. On Saturday morning, our Torah study group focused on the parts of the text that justified Jews living in and possessing the land and the reasons why ancient Israelite leaders who lived and/or died in the diaspora wished to be buried in Israel. Reasons offered were legal, political, security, psychological pushes and sociological pulls. The Saturday morning sermon in synagogue was given by Galit Baram, the Israeli Consul General in Toronto; she was born in Jerusalem in 1969 and studied archeology and English – which she speaks perfectly – at Tel Aviv University. She did her MA in American studies and after graduation became a political assistant in the Foreign Ministry of Israel. Before coming to Canada, she was Director of the Department for Palestinian Affairs and Regional Cooperation.

I may write about one or more of the above topics over the next few days. However, today, to commemorate the beginning of Yom HaZikaron this evening, I will review the film Natalie Portman directed and in which she starred as the mother of Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which we saw, almost coincidentally on Netflix last evening. I gather the film received mixed reviews when it showed at Cannes and at TIFF, where I missed it, and then when it had a general release. I thank God for Netflix. Though the reviews of the film were positive generally, most were tepidly positive. In contrast, I loved the film and think Natalie Portman was very courageous as well as creative in directing a film with as much of a literary ear as a cinematic eye in full respect to the writings of Amos Oz.

In one very positive review that I did read following its TIFF showing, published on 14 September 2016 in Esquire, Stephen Marche called the movie “urgently relevant and unlike anything else.” Though I agree that the film is unlike most other movies, Marche argued that what made it relevant was the debate over the Iran nuclear deal that developed a schism between Americans – at least Democrats – and Israel and between American Jews and the remainder of the American public. Though I belong to the Jewish minority who favoured the deal, A Tale of Love and Darkness was not suddenly relevant because of the deal. Otherwise, it would be irrelevant today. And it is not.

Although Marche’s review expressed an extraordinary admiration for the film, Marche was wrong, not only about the relevance issue, but in his take on the film. The movie remains highly relevant even when the Iran nuclear deal has slipped into the background in both Israel and the U.S. as most have accepted that, whatever other dangers the deal may have helped facilitate in the tensions between Iran and both Israel and the U.S., the situation in North Korea reminds us how beneficial the Iran nuclear deal was and remains. Marche argued that, “The film is a study of the moment when Jews changed from being a people in the diaspora to a people with a country. The birth of Israel is so much more than a setting here—it is the existential reality that shapes the characters.”

That is not true. The film offers no such study. Further, people shaped Israel in turn. History is not simply in the background scattered through the film as incidental events to mark time and determine character. Nor is it an issue of either a politically relevant film in the background or Marche’s contention that, “ultimately life is about your fucked-up family. That’s the insight at the heart of A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The emphasis on the personal and the intimate is not the insight. And the choice is the very reverse of either/or, of background and foreground, of cause and effect. For Amos Oz, and for Natalie Portman in the way she directed the film, it is a matter of both/and. The political and the personal are dialectically intertwined and ultimately inseparable, each throwing light upon the other.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is not simply remarkable because it veers away from the sentimentality of the shtetl, as in Fiddler on the Roof, or the redemptive theme of films like Schindler’s List. It is extraordinary as a movie that tries to give a cinematic expression to a literary vision. Certainly, the movie is neither sentimental nor heroic. It is both and so much more.  But the heroism is of a dear friend of Amos Oz’s mother hanging up a sheet on a clothesline and then shot and killed as a sniper bullet cuts through the laundry. It is the heroism of a small boy playing in the dirt who was also shot and killed by a sniper. The film is true to Oz’s 2002 memoir. The emotions are raw. The wounds are gaping. No bandage can fix them like the bloody finger Amos Oz’s father suffered after another of his clumsy mishaps. And no lecture or intellectual argument can fill the gap of our incomprehension. There are no sermons in the movie.

I write this because I was sure that I had read Oz’s book – after all it was the largest selling literary work in the history of Israel – but when I watched the film, I could not remember anything. Perhaps that is because I read enough about it to come to the imaginary conclusion that I read Amos Oz’s memoir. Perhaps there were other Freudian reasons for my belief or my forgetfulness. About three decades ago, Oz and I were having a shabat breakfast at the home of a mutual friend in Jerusalem. We got into an hour long silly debate about fashion and his contention that the fashion industry controlled what we wear. I was attending the fashion show in Israel the following week and he thought it preposterous that I, as a philosopher, loved fashion shows. I contended that fashion then – it continues today – is more a reflection of popular culture than a determinant of it. There was no resolution to that debate because we were not listening acutely to one another.

And Oz is an acute observer who listens to his heart. The best scene in the movie based on the memoir is one of the few without Natalie Portman who plays his mother (Fania) and is the central figure in the memoir and the movie other than Amos himself. Oz (Amir Tessler) is a young boy prior to the War of Independence in post WWII Palestine who is sent to play in the garden of an Arab official when his caregivers, friends of his parents, attended a party there. In the garden was a beautiful Arab girl on a swing who spoke Hebrew fluently and had the ambition of becoming a poet. Oz was entranced and clearly infatuated. As we watch her young baby brother playing in the dirt and then Oz climb a tree and act out playing Tarzan, whose solitary life with animals and personal strength and daring mesmerized him, in the audience we wait with “bated breath” as the cliché goes to see whether Oz will fall and even fall on the small boy as he has already fallen for the beautiful Arab girl.

A weak link in the chain breaks and a small but significant disaster follows. For Oz, disasters are the results of an accumulation of minutiae and usually unforeseen events rather than a cataclysmic sudden shift in history which is a product rather than a cause. This is true in the history of a nation and in one’s personal history. The result was, as Oz wrote, that “everything was silent all around you in an instant as though you had been shut up inside an iceberg.” For violence is as much about a failure of communication as it is about intractable differences. Between and among Jews as well as between Israel and her enemies.

Early in the film, we see Amos Oz’s father being connected by phone. The timing of the call must be arranged. The technical details have to be put in place. Communication is obviously very difficult. Who is Arieh calling in America or Europe? It turned out he was calling Tel Aviv and the call is quickly aborted to be arranged at another day and time to be confirmed by post. The film is as much about the failure in communication, the failure to connect and the gaps, the abysses, that result.

The film, based on the memoir, is a juxtaposition of opposites and their interplay, love (mother) and darkness (father), romantic Zionism and realpolitik, Jewish idealism and the harsh reality of Jabotinsky’s vision imprinted in his father but largely omitted from the film, the romance of Rovno in Poland/Ukraine where Amos Oz’s mother lived with servants and chandeliers and then the darkness of exile and the Holocaust, fantasy and reality in our minds, Jewish Polish (sweet) versus Jewish Russian (somewhat sour) borscht in the minutiae of Jewish cooking culture, generosity versus truth – Oz’s mother advises that it is better to be generous and have a sensitive heart than to be honest, between idyllic scenery and a barren landscape of narrow and claustrophobic alleys in the so-called City of Peace that is Jerusalem destroyed over and over again by successive invaders, movie versus memoir, word play (Adam, Adom, Adon and Dom) which non-Hebrew speakers mostly miss in a film which has many such moments of insight, metaphors such as gates which open and the abyss which we face, a world in which a cauliflower can hold up the sky and a world portrayed where the sky was literally falling in post-WW II Palestine and newly independent Israel, between paradise and hell, between compassion and prudence, between intellectuals and bullies, between the pale faces of poets and the deep tans of a sabra on a kibbutz, between intellectuals and heroic soldiers, but also between hapless dreamers and bullies, some of whom could be seduced with words and stories, between the rebirth of an Israel based on a two millennial dream and the loss of passion and idealism with the emergence of the state according to Oz and when Oz’s mother stopped telling stories, between the eternal innocence Oz’s mother saw in her son’s soul and the deep guilt ever present in the writing of Amos Oz, between an open and a closed world, between blinding whiteness and equally blinding blackness when blackbirds or crows cover the sun and the sky, between children whom you love more than anything and children who outlive you, outgrow you and who in some parts of their being must reject you. “Every mother ends up crying alone.”

His mother and he are caught between fire and the water from which Oz as a boy in a dreamlike story traversing the landscape dressed as a monk alongside his mother, also dressed as a monk. Both were pledged to silence, but his mother succumbed and he survived. On the journey, the young Oz dreams of rescuing a drowning maiden versus the reality of fire, the reality of the fantastical story, told to him by his mother, of a gentile woman in Rovno who burned herself alive when rejected by her child and called a whore after she fled her abusive husband into the arms of a lover,

In spite of it all, the love of Jerusalem versus the ironic darkness of Tel Aviv where Oz’s mother eventually takes an overdose of her anti-depression medication in January 1952 and dies in the home of a sister, either Sonya or Chaya, I was not clear which. The two sisters had chosen the new life of Tel Aviv versus the dark passages of the history of Jerusalem. The suicide takes place against the background of a debate over whether to reject German reparations – the position of the idealists, primarily from the right – and the pragmatic view that the money was needed to resettle refugees.

The film does have a historical line. Though the movie begins in post WWII Palestine, there are flashbacks and references to Rovno, now Rivne in Ukraine, where 25,000 Jews once lived in pre-war Poland. The film refers to 23,000 Jews who were marched into the Sosenski Forest and murdered, though the number represents the total killed since 2-3,000 were killed prior to that fateful two-day march and another 2-3,000 were killed afterwards when the ghetto was destroyed. But the flashbacks and references precede that period of darkness when Fania Mussman enjoyed the comforts of an upper middle class life that was such a contrast with the hardships she endured in a small cold apartment in Jerusalem.

Someday I will catch the short documentary made prior to Natalie Portman’s movie by the daughter of Amos Oz, Fania Oz-Salzberger, named after his mother, Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli scholar and historian who wrote one book with her father, jews and words (not capitalized), in which the two declared that “ours is not a bloodline, but a text line.” Amos inherited the word play and love of words from his father. The documentary traced Fania Mussman’s travels with her mother to Palestine with her two sisters, Amos Oz’s aunts, Sonya and Chaya, for the three sisters were ardent Zionists educated at the famous Tarbut School in Poland.

It was Zionism that saved the family from the Holocaust and saved Amos Oz for the world. However, the mother of Fania, Sonya and Chaya, instead of offering blessings for her salvation because of her daughters’ Zionist idealism, never forgot or let anyone else forget the wonderful life they had left behind in what was once Poland in a region in which Jews once consisted of 25% of the population. Amos Oz’s memoir is full of Rovno, but it exists only as very shaded background in Natalie Portman’s film.

The movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, really begins with curfews and attacks from Arabs and then all-out warfare after the UN Resolution on partition was passed in November 1947 and Arab countries invaded the nascent Jewish state when independence was declared on 15 May 1948. The siege of Jerusalem and famine followed. Oz’s father, Yehuda Klausner (Gilad Kahana) called Arieh, a pedant about words, a librarian and an author who resisted writing books with any popular appeal, incompetently planted greens in their small garden as Oz collected empty bottles to make Molotov cocktails and sand for sandbags. Short sighted, with two left feet, Arieh had used words to win the hand of beautiful Fania, only to gradually lose her to her dreams and eventual depression.

Finally, the 1949 Armistice Agreement arrived and the determination of the line, called, without any sense of the irony, the Green Line that would prove to be anything but temporary in the world mental landscape or a source of new growth. But the semi-final act of the film occurs several years later with the Tel Aviv floods of 1951-2, of which we were reminded in 2013 and 2016, and Amos could not save his mother from drowning in her depression. According to Oz, dreams should never be fulfilled, the messiah should never come, because that will only bring the onset of disaster, the very opposite message of Independence Day that will begin to be celebrated tomorrow. Amos Oz tried to act out the romantic vision of his mother and, as depicted in the movie, left his father to live as a farmer on a kibbutz. But when his father came to visit him on the kibbutz in the film, and Amos sits upon a tractor, Amos Oz could not hide from either others or himself that he had the pale soul of a writer rather than the dark tan of a sabra, bronzed Jews who could swim as Amos Oz dubbed them. His mother chose deep sadness in place of ordinary pretense and the grandiloquent fantasies of the stories she told her son but could not sustain. Amos Oz chose to write – and live.

Taken to its logical conclusion, or, at least, back to its fundamental premise articulated in the depressive state of Amos Oz’s mother, romantic utopianism leads to the reverse, deep depression. “I know nothing about anybody; we all know nothing; better to die not knowing.” Truth be told, we only live in a balancing act, balancing on a tight rope between messianic perfection and cosmological ignorance. But that is not a truth with which the romantics who sacrificed their lives for the dream of Israel could accept. Oz never gave up his dream but has always accepted reality sufficient to survive. He wrote brilliant books with wry humour, the one element of his writing largely sidelined in Natalie Portman’s magnificent movie; she does capture some of his incisive irony. But Amos never forgot to cry for his dead mother.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jack Charles v the Crown: a theatre review

Jack Charles v the Crown: a theatre review

by

Howard Adelman

Currently, a series of Australian plays is being performed at the Berkeley Theatre by Canadian Stage called, “Spotlight Australia.” We saw the first in that series entitled “Jack Charles v the Crown.” It is rare, for it is an autobiographical play with Jack Charles as the sole performer and co-writer (the other co-writer is John Romeril). The play is directed by Rachael Maza who, in real life, is Jack’s niece. She grew up in the shadow of this talented Australian actor and performer. [Jack along with Rachael’s father established Australia’s first Aboriginal Theatre Company in Melbourne in 1972.] Rachael was the director of that marvellous Australian film, Rabbit Proof Fence. Jack Charles is an older aboriginal Australian who hails from Boon Wurrung, the territory in East Victoria stretching from the Werribee River to Wilson Promontory. The Boon Wurrung people make up one of the five Kulin nations.

“Nation,” not tribe, as I shall elaborate in a future blog, is the proper term for that people. As the governments and civil society entities of Western settler states came to realize and finally acknowledge, those states have been constructed on land once owned and governed by aboriginal peoples. At Massey College, where I am currently a Senior Fellow, events open with a tribute paid to the aboriginal people on whose lands Massey College was built. This ritual is becoming widespread. For example, after students stand for “O Canada” in Etobicoke schools in Toronto, a statement is read as follows:

“In keeping with Indigenous protocol, I would like to acknowledge this school is situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation.”

“The treaty was signed for the particular parcel of land that is collectively referred to as The First Purchase and applies to lands west of Brown’s Line to Burlington Bay and north to Eglinton Avenue.

“I also recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal Peoples on this land.”

I first encountered this ritual in New Zealand. There, for example, at Massey University (35,000 students) in Palmerston in North New Zealand, the university is even given a Māori name, Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa. For years, all events have been introduced with a tribute to the Māori people, the previous owners of the land on which the university was built. The ritual is now becoming more widespread in Canada. I will have more to say about this ritual in tomorrow’s blog, but suffice it for now to state simply that ritual is not about any action that changes the world, but about acknowledging and recognizing the world we live in and offering a path to negotiate our existence in the world through a process of creating community. Rituals establish a shared community.

The play at the Berkeley Theatre also opened with such a tribute, the same one that is read at the opening of events at Massey College in Toronto.  In this case, the relevance cannot be missed. For the drama is a story told by an older victim of state-sponsored political abuse of aboriginal peoples. In this case, Jack Charles was snatched from his parents at the age of only three months to be “civilized” as an Australian in a residential school.

The results were otherwise. Jack was sexually and physically abused and the results of his isolation from his family and the abuse to which he was subjected wreaked havoc on his life. This part of his life is told as backdrop drawn from his documentary, Bastardy, in which pictures of his heroin habit and self-injection as an addict (toy-yon – it) and voiceovers of his criminal record of thieving (nyeelam-but pinbullally – bul) taken from court records are read as the court documents are projected onto the screen. Jack spent years in prison, (Baambuth – al), one time serving a five year stretch. Though that is the backstory, it is not what the play is primarily about.

Jack is a talented actor (djilak-djirri – dha Jack) and singer (yinga-dha koolin Jack) and the performance is accompanied by a three-piece trio as backup to Jack when he sings and plays his guitar. There is also a potter’s wheel on stage. For a good part of the drama, Jack is sitting at the potter’s wheel molding clay bowls (marnang-bul Jack) as he tells his story to the audience. Clay and its molding are openly symbolic as well as true to his life, for Jack taught pottery when he was in prison. And the play is about clay and how we are molded like clay by social institutions and our own will to survive and thrive. The play is primarily about Jack as a proud Kulin man (dullally koolin) ready not only to tell his story, but to confront the criminals who abused and jailed him.

This is done with such humour and irony that the juxtaposition of the entertainment and the horrific nature of the tale make the autobiographical account all the more powerful as Jack sings and tells his life story (dhumba – dha ba yinga-dha weegan-dha Jack). The play, if it is a play, for it is as much performance as a drama put on stage, reaches what I would characterize as its climax when Jack stands confronting his judges and asks, not for his redemption from his crimes and misdemeanours, but for the redemption of the people who did what they did to a young aboriginal child. This is all done in a speech that is without bitterness, a speech that in fact has all the formality and politeness of the culture of English courts, but said with both irony and playfulness, “warm of heart” and “sharp of wit” as Rachael notes in her catalogue notes.

Jack owns up to the fact that he was a heroin addict and a thief to service his addiction and is willing to take responsibility for the crimes he committed. He stole jewels and money. He is fully aware that, through his acts, he created a sense of intrusion among his victims. But the white system of laws and government stole much more people and lives. Our state trafficked in cultural genocide. Jack asks the judges whether they are willing to acknowledge and account for their sins. In the process, he compares black and white systems of justice.

When an aboriginal in his own community commits an offence, he is either banished from his people for a specific time or metaphorically wounded in the heel by a spear. But then, after being punished, he returns to the community with his dignity intact as a full-fledged member of the nation. In contrast, in white justice, the person is given a record that follows him for the rest of his life and affects whether he can be employed. In America, as documented in 13th, a person convicted is deprived of his right to vote as a citizen. Further, as Jack wryly notes, when he was about to travel to Britain to receive an award, the British immigration department, five days before he was scheduled to depart, turned his request for a visa down because he had a criminal record.

As Jack “tickles” the consciences and consciousness of the members of the audience, and avoids self-righteous ranting and berating, the very performance becomes an act of redemption so appropriate for the Passover/Easter period. The result is not only the strengthening of the aboriginal community, but through empathy, strengthening the community of aboriginal and non-aboriginal community members as well as “the ties that bind” all of humanity as the play is given a world audience.

It is hard to convey how powerful the play is with a total absence of self-pity. Self-pity is the dark side of sincerity and this drama avoids that pitfall totally. Instead of self-righteousness, the drama offers a source for us to reflect upon and determine how we ought to act as Jack asks the judges, not so much to pardon and set aside his sentences, but to acknowledge their own part in a criminal activity and to themselves seek redemption.

The play is more than a dramatization of a personal life, for it is a parable about the backs upon which modernity was developed and the absences from cognition, from acknowledgement, from recognition, to the presence of ever larger senses of community which at the apex recognize that we are all part of the same humanity. This is not simply a story about extreme abuse and suffering, but it tells a story about the costs of modernity that both stresses and facilitates redemption.

How appropriate to stress the performative, not as a sound bite or a thoughtless tweet, but as a repetitive act each evening to allow us all to become batter and part of a much-improved world more conscious of our common humanity. For our aboriginal peoples may have been among the groups most negatively affected by the process of modernity, but to a lesser degree victimization goes much further. We have transformed our world into a hyper-technical system without any grounding in redemption. Entertainment and performance have, in good part, become part of a system for abusing respect for sincerity, for truth and for others. Sea levels may be rising but see-levels have been declining precipitously. The liberal imagination may have delivered us a powerful foundation for individual freedom, but it has also come at a great cost that has left individuals increasingly isolated without sovereignty over themselves and the ability to determine their own destinies. Humans around the world, increasingly left to fend for themselves, provide a terrific opportunity for slippery soap salesmen to sell a fraudulent bill of political goods.

Thus, although Jack committed crimes, he was the greatest victim by far of his felonies, even as he openly acknowledged the discomfort, the sense of personal invasion, that robbery and theft of personal belongings instill. Though Jack’s survival never seemed to be in danger, his sanity was. Nothing came easy. He suffered from PTSD in the worst way. One song he performed was “No Son of Mine” that begins:

Well the key to my survival
was never in much doubt
the question was how I could keep sane
trying to find a way out.

Things were never easy for me
peace of mind was hard to find
and I needed a place where I could hide
somewhere I could call mine

I didn’t think much about it
til it started happening all the time
soon I was living with the fear everyday
of what might happen that night.

Though he once hid in booze and heroin, the play ends with a degree of recognition about society. Jack Charles sings, “Love Letters in the Sand.”

On a day like today
We passed the time away
Writing love letters in the sand

How you laughed when I cried
Each time I saw the tide
Take our love letters from the sand

Chorus
You made a vow that you would ever be true
But somehow that vow meant nothing to you

Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand

Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand.

Jack Charles lived a life of promises that had as much sincerity, depth and permanence as letters written in the sand. He grew up with a broken heart and a shattered soul. Yet he redeemed himself through performance and theatre making it possible for us to be redeemed as well.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

by

Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on antisemitism soon enough, but I must take two detours, one into jazz and a second into the theory and practice of sovereignty based on a conference I attended Friday.

I am not a jazz aficionado. I have no record or disc collection. And though I listen to Jazz FM91 on the radio, I would not say I do it regularly. But I do ensure I get my fix by attending the jazz series at Koerner Hall that Mervon Mehta puts together each year.

It was not always like that. I used to teach in the evenings. In the seventies, after my graduate seminar, I would drop into one of the clubs for one set as a way of unwinding before heading home. I was not a fan of rock and missed many famous concerts – such as the one in 1977 before I moved to Israel for a year when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performed and then was busted for heroin possession on an occasion made even more famous because he was consorting with Margaret Trudeau, the mother of our current Prime Minister, who had just split with Justin’s father when the latter was Prime Minister. I missed Richard’s concert at the El Mocambo, even though I often went there when a blues band was playing.

I was not a purist, for I often went to the Horseshoe Tavern on the north side of Queen Street to listen to country, though I stopped when the venue switched to emphasizing punk. I loved listening to the Downchild Blues Band at Grossman’s Tavern in my childhood district on Spadina Avenue between Dundas and College Streets. However, my favourite place was the Chick’N’Deli on Mt. Pleasant just south of Eglington, partly because the scene was so intimate, partly because the venue was en route from Glendon College to my home, but mostly because some of the greatest jazz greats played there.

What takes me down this nostalgic lane was listening last night to one of the most terrific jazz concerts I have ever heard. Jason Moran and The Bandwagon were featured at Koerner Hall last night. The trio, which included Tarus Mateen on the bass guitar and Nasheet Waits on drums, played one tune by Fats Waller, “The Sheik of Araby.” Sometime in the seventies, I had heard Fats Waller play that very tune at the Chick’N’Deli.

However, Jason said that was the tune he was playing. If he had not told me, I would never have known, perhaps the absolute proof that I am not a jazz aficionado. When Fats Waller played at the Chick’N’Deli, it was wild and the place was literally jumping. Jumpin and jivin! But last evening, Jason made the music soar instead. It cascaded up and up. Just when my heartbeat said it could not swirl faster and higher any longer, the music would go up again, faster at even greater heights and with more twists and turns, not once again, not twice again, but four or five times. I thought I would burst.

Jason Mason’s music whooshes and reaches crescendo after crescendo. Evidently, when he was in high school in Texas, he was an avid skateboarder. Jazz music clearly usurped skateboarding because it allowed him to almost escape the pull of gravity and to take us with him. This is not just a metaphor. While Waller would interweave Dixieland and blues, stride and swing, Jason was more of a classical artisan weaver who cut each strip from the trunk of a swamp tree and interwove those strips in new ways by infusing the music with both classical and post-modern atonal elements to create a synchronized whole.

In his porkpie hat and fashionably stubble beard, Jason Mason is a creator not a curator. He gives homage to traditional flare, but with complex rhythms that take you on a roller coaster that is no longer anchored to the ground. Yet he allows you to savour each and every note.

It is hard to choose which was the best number. His piece, Thelonious, that he played last evening was one of Monk’s own compositions. The playing was both a tribute and one personified by Moran. Jason Moran regards Thelonious Monk as the greatest jazz pianist in history. You can listen to a full tribute at http://www.npr.org/event/music/446866440/jason-moran-plays-thelonious-monks-town-hall-concert. By intersecting modernist elements, the composition is refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated in an absolutely new way. It should not be surprising that the first album that Jason released in 2002 was called Modernistic.

Last night, Jason Moran played Body and Soul in a way that took out the conjunction and turned the body into soul. It was like having a religious experience. But his music is also political. He has written compositions to convey the feeling of both slavery in America, apartheid in South Africa and, in the movie, Selma, the struggle against institutionalized discrimination against blacks that continued into the sixties in the United States and has taken new forms since. Moran fuses intellectual analysis with empathetic re-enactment. He will infuse pop genres unfamiliar to me, but also combining African beats and stride. He played a portion of Wind taken from the soundtrack that he wrote for the famous 2016 documentary 13th on race, and incarceration rates in the U.S. injustice system that I have yet to see, but I have read enough about it to know I must watch it. The music he played last night made me move it to top place on my bucket list.

I Ain’t Misbehavin and I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, but when I do, Sweet Honey Bee in the hands of Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits takes me upward into the clouds to suck sweet nectar from extra-terrestrial flowers. At the same time, like Fats Waller’s most famous tune, the music takes me home, takes me on a nostalgic trip when my first brood were just entering their teens, and when I was totally immersed in my teaching and research career. That is more than a metaphor. Moran and his trio opened with a tune called Gangsters or something – I did not catch the title – or perhaps I heard it totally incorrectly because I was thinking about an Australian mobster and drug dealer by the same name as Jason Moran who had become infamous when I was visiting Australia fifteen years ago before I even became a research professor there from 2005-2008. Until I heard that number, it never occurred to me that jazz could really be about murder and mayhem.

Moran is no gangster. Instead of killing, he is truly a genius well deserving of all the awards he has accumulated, including a Genius Award and MacArthur Fellowship (2010). He has had many nominations and several times won as best jazz pianist of the year. For, in addition to his own original works, he allows artists to be born again in a new way for a contemporary audience. He himself is an artist pure and simple, so it is no surprise that he composes works that accompany art installations and creates video artworks collected by MOMA.

 

If he comes your way, do not miss him.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Learning the Techniques of Persuasion

Learning the Techniques of Persuasion

by

Howard Adelman

Against a background of coal miners in hard hats, Donald Trump signed a measure a week ago that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation restricting coal mines from dumping debris into nearby streams. Patricia Nana, a Cameroonian-American, insisted that, “If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work. I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything – you could see how happy they were.” Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say. The reality: the regulation would have cost very few jobs that would more than be compensated by new jobs created through the clean-up of the streams.

The Washington Post on 21 February 2017 reported this as “an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.” These supporters at a Trump rally in Florida received their news regularly from Fox News and right-wing radio. Those interviewed were aware of what they read and what they saw, but knew virtually nothing about topics embarrassing to the president, such as the recent resignation of Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, because he lied to the Vice-President. If they knew that, they knew nothing of the broader charge, that he spoke inappropriately, frequently and possibly illegally about lifting the sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, before Trump was even president. Some did not even know that Flynn had resigned and had been replaced by Lt. General H.R. McMaster.

One cannot win an effort at persuasion unless one has access to the other side. Even then, what is said will be filtered through a set of beliefs largely resistant to the information and arguments being put forth. And we are not speaking of Donald Trump himself or his immediate acolytes. We are talking about the Trumpists, the true believers in his entourage who voted for him and would vote for him again even after a month of chaos and mismanagement.

Do not attempt to practice the arts of persuasion on Donald Trump, on his acolytes or on the true believers that are his followers. There are plenty of others who cast ballots for Donald Trump who do not approach issues with a pre-formed mindblindness. The first rule: select your targets who may possibly be open to listening to the case you wish to bring. But such a rule creates its own problems. Do we end up only talking to those who share our bubble? Do we retreat to our “safe spaces”? Does that reinforce intolerance and even deeper misunderstandings, especially with the almost total breakdown in the consensus, led by the president, in respecting the media and in engaging in civil discourse? There is no longer even a consensus on the civility expected of a president.

Even when dealing with those more malleable than the ardent Trump supporter, there is a problem in conducting discourse within the larger climate of fear and suspicion. In his Florida rally, Donald Trump may have stoked that fear by referring to a non-existent event in Sweden the night before, but what he did see and hear was an author, Ami Horowitz, who claimed that statistics on rape and violent crime in Sweden had increased since the large influx of foreigners in 2015. Don Lemon on his CNN show interviewed the author and challenged both his misuse of statistics and his conclusions, but without another expert present, the interview disintegrated into the interviewee insisting that what he claimed was true while Lemon kept offering evidence and arguments for its false representation of the situation in Sweden.

A quick subsequent review of some authoritative evidence from Sweden indicated that Don Lemon was much more accurate than his guest and supposed expert in representing rape and violent crime rates in Sweden. What had been offered was hyperbole and distortion by pointing to a one year spike and ignoring the overall pattern of declining rates of violence and sexual assault. Even when there were outstanding examples of violence, as there was two evenings ago, the riots looked tame compared to those that have occurred frequently in American cities. And they are much rarer, one about every second year. In these cases, Middle Eastern refugees were involved.

But there was no rape. There was no violence – though one police officer was slightly injured. When there is violence, the perpetrators were much more likely to be right-wing extremists than immigrants. Swedes seem to know this and a majority continue to support the intake of refugees and migrants. Nevertheless, Trumpists insist that there is a media conspiracy to cover up the incidents of rape and violence in Sweden.

However, even if we have some glimpse of what we face in the world of persuasion, how can we use our rational and communicative skills to best effect? When we try to persuade another, do we first attempt to establish the facts or, as the ancient Sophists did, focus on arête or virtue, on values of the highest order – excellence in other words? If the latter, what rhetorical and philosophic techniques are required? Or do we set aside argument and discourse altogether and instead opt for authenticity, opt for giving witness to what you believe to be true as opposed to the claims of the Other.

Mel Gibson’s totally unsubtle and sometimes saccharine Hacksaw Ridge, with the most gruesome and graphic scenes of the maelstrom of war I have ever seen, tells the “true” story of a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), as the true believer and saint-like figure who served as a U.S. medic in the war against the Japanese in Okinawa. He won the highest award for bravery, the U.S. Medal of Honor. Doss volunteered to serve, but given his faith (he was a Seventh Day Adventist) and promise to God, he would not bear arms. In Gibson’s interpretation, this superhero combined an open-hearted approach to life with steely determination to defend his beliefs.

Some of his fellow soldiers viewed that as cowardice and bullied and beat him. His commanding officers treated his behaviour as disobedience and undertook an effort to have him court martialled. But through witnessing to his faith, through his unqualified brave actions in battle, he proved them all wrong. He did not use argument to defend his case, but he did need an order from a superior officer in Washington that conscientious objectors serving as medics need not bear arms. But most of all, he needed to prove they were wrong and more than did so in repeated acts of outstanding bravery in rescuing his fellow soldiers.

There are other ways to win arguments than with words and arguments. There are also other ways to lose arguments regardless of one’s skill with words and reason. Does the payment of money in exchange for such teaching these skills corrupt the process as Socrates proclaimed as he sought to establish the pursuit of Truth, Wisdom and Courage as the superior values for a warrior and aristocratic class? After all, Trumpists and anti-Trumpists often insist that supporters or opponents respectively are being paid to be there.  And senior executives of companies may indirectly be paid for touting the Trump presidency when they attend his “job” rallies because the company benefits from the positive publicity and the president promoting their products and their commitment to America. It is not they who have to pay off the president but the president who may be paying them off for being touts for himself.

Modern universities, though periodically invaded by corruption, have overwhelmingly proved the falsity of Socrates’ claims and shown that guaranteed wages and the principle of academic freedom have overwhelmingly protected the independence of scholars and scientists in both their teaching and research functions. By and large, responsible media outlets, and even irresponsible ones, have largely succeeded in drawing a line between the sources of their ad revenues and their news and editorial content. It should not be presumed in advance that material influences trump intellectual ones.

We have also learned that, contrary to Socrates, knowledge is not a single craft, but a multiplicity of tasks each with its own specialized vocabulary, techniques, objects of study and standards for assessing results. There is no singular path to knowledge. There is not even a singular Truth with a capital “T.” There is a difference between being a sage and being a scholar or research scientist. Most of the latter are not sages, as much as they may contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

In the ancient Greek world of Socrates, rhetorical skills were valued more than parsing arguments and evidence in a written work or stringing together depictions in a coherent way in a story or a novel. The latter was exemplified in the movie, Genius, the biopic of renowned Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins (Colin Firth), and his exuberant unboundaried novelist, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River were, arguably, both made into coherent, readable and popular novels because of the concise effort of editing the logorrheic outpouring of the poetic prose of the American Walt Whitman of the twentieth century. In a book culture, arguments and evidence in science and scholarship, or narrative plots, themes and characterization in fiction, must be coherent to facilitate communication.

This is not the case where alternatives to persuasion are used. Incoherence, boring and meaningless repetition of phrases, body language and snorts or their equivalents in tweets, may be used to confound coherence and disparage criteria such as truth and consistency. When the message requires audience fragmentation, traditional and legacy media with standards of correspondence to facts and coherence in presentation must be regarded as the enemy to be undermined and debilitated. Following Donald Trump’s rant as an excuse for a news conference last week (16 February 2017), in a tweet the next day, he dubbed the news media “the enemy of the American people.” In the original version, he wrote: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!” Given the grammar and style, he should have written sic! The illogic was best exemplified when he dubbed the leaks about his election campaign’s links to Russians authentic, but the reporting of those leaks, “fake news.”

We have four different groups in contention, however, not two. There are the modern scholars and scientists, journalists and writers who, like the ancient Sophists, adhere to standards of reasoning and establishing evidence, to techniques of differentiating truth from falsehood. In the other corner are the modern cynics, the dogged or dog-like (κυνικός – kynikos) celebrators of fame and fortune, of strength and power. Modern cynics are the very opposite of their Athenian predecessors – Antisthenes and Diogenes made famous in Plato’s dialogues. The latter became ideologues who insisted in turning the rigour and discipline of argument into an ascetic life style. Trump and his followers have replaced rigour and discipline with incoherence and rants.

The modern version of ancient cynicism are evangelicals with their narrow adherence to ideology. Paradoxically, they unite with modern cynics because both disparage rigour in thought and use of language. The two groups are united in a single camp because of their opposition to the use of reason and reflection, attention to facts and follies, as a method for establishing truth. For contemporary cynics as ideologues as well as cynical inversions of those ancient practitioners, Truth is either revealed or it is whatever I believe. It is not something to be pursued.

In addition to the Sophists, there is a fourth group. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. From very different perspectives, they were philosophers. Like the ancient cynics and their modern evangelical ideologues, they believed in Truth with a capital “T”. Like the sophists, they believed Truth, along with the virtue of Justice, could be established by adherence to the principles of reason, of consistency in argument, of correspondence with facts and of coherence in weaving it altogether. Unlike the sophists who revered the techniques of rationality and made no claims about an ultimate revelation, these philosophers believed that they could reveal that Truth and uncover the principles of Justice through reason alone.

The partnership of sceptical sophists and rational philosophers, Camp A, opposed the members of Camp B, the union of believers in sincerity and goodness of human motives and actions (evangelical ideologues) with the contemporary cynics of disbelief and insincerity who regard human motives and actions to be fundamentally base. Linking the evangelical ideologues and the contemporary cynics are the economic ideologues who believe human motives are strictly self-interested, but, like the evangelical ideologues, have constructed an ideology, materialistic rather than value-based, indifferent to facts and arguments that predetermine how the economic order is to be constructed.

The question then is when there are no rules of discourse, when frameworks trump dialogue, how do the members of Camp A persuade those who belong to Camp B? The members of both camps speak the same language with the same grammatical rules, but the rules of logic and the rules of falsification differ dramatically. They are not shared. At least by the core members of one camp versus those of another. That is where one finds an opening in the gaps between the core and the periphery and in the divisions among the sub-groups in Camp B. Before one can take advantage of those openings, it is necessary to establish common grounds for Camp A.

In the next blog, I inquire into what we can learn from ancient Greeks caught up with the question of persuasion.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman