Salvation versus Resurrection

 

ישעיה כו:יט יִחְיוּ מֵתֶיךָ נְבֵלָתִי יְקוּמוּן הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר כִּי טַל אוֹרֹת טַלֶּךָ וָאָרֶץ רְפָאִים תַּפִּיל. Isaiah 26:19 Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust! For Your dew is like the radiant dew; You make the land of the shades come to life.

Resurrection is very infrequently cited in the Torah. In its rare expressions, it is most often interpreted as a vision of glory at the end of days. But try reading it as a nightmare of the end of days when ignorant nostalgia governs, when dead zombies take power, when the shades enter daily life and hide the rays of sun behind a dark cloud, when those who sleep in the dust of the earth on gold-plated beds awake to reproach all others and spread abhorrence and hatred. (Daniel 12:2).

The vision of resurrection is not something to be celebrated, as the rabbis and Jesus did, but to be feared and eschewed. The monster in the black lagoon may now be coloured green as in The Shape of Water and in our imaginations and apparitions, but the real danger lies in the monstrosity of breath entering the dry bones of a dead past, dry bones covered with sinews and flesh, dry bones made to breathe and live again, when those should have been left in the slow decaying heap where they belonged and left to return to dust. (Ezekiel vv:1-2) The goal should be to deliver the Promised Land to our children and our children’s children and not to those lifted out of their graves.

“Dry bones, ’dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.”

In an age in which a consumer machine with the reach of Amazon, a surveillance machine with the reach of Facebook and a search machine with the power of Google, command the high reaches of our culture, filled in with hordes of more minor players, in an age in which it is so easy to brainwash all in the name of delivering freedom, choice and judgement, in an age when E.M. Forster’s spiritual command to “only connect” has been perverted in the extreme in a connect but totally uncommitted culture, I pray for salvation.

We live in an age of crony capitalism in which real competitive capitalists are exiled as those at the centre of power seek to reduce the independence of the judiciary and laud law and order instead of the rule of law as they create disorder and the rule of whim, in an age in which the political centre can ally with a powerful media network committed to perpetuating and elaborating the same lies instead of holding up truth to power, in an age of political gerrymandering that echoes the corrupt political days of old and power politics is based on a unity of white male elites who cry foul when not permitted to have their cake and eat it too, when simple and arbitrary connects replace commitment and commitment is gutted and converted to sloganeering, when NGOs that are transparent and dedicated are blasted as part of a hidden international conspiracy, when projection onto externals replaces taking responsibility for one’s own actions, when abuse of others replaces critical self-examination of oneself, I pray for salvation.

When those in power wallow in self-pity and victimhood, when the tactics of the powerful weaponize culture to instigate emotionally dominated culture wars, when a nostalgia for the greatness of a nation displaces a historical and critical examination of the past, when anyone committed to the universal oneness of humanity is blasted as a traitor and enemy, when the efforts to improve are turned into a piñata for abuse and calumny, when revenge rather than forgiveness has become the dominating immoral passion, when politicians with a noble conservative heritage turn into impotent patsies of populism, when illiberalism displaces liberalism and when crude nationalism shunts aside true national pride, when the graves for the death of democracies are being excavated, I pray for salvation.

When in the face of feuding sectarianism, shape-shifting allies and local government corruption one turns on one’s heel and retreats, abandoning long-suffering allies, taking with you your military toys, the path is open for corrupt coercion instead of coercion used in the defense of values, I pray for salvation.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Eritrean and Sudanese Refugee Claimants in Israel

There are about 36,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugee claimants currently in Israel. Israel claims that the vast majority are illegal migrants or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu (Bibi) calls them, “infiltrators.” T’ruah, an Israeli human rights NGO, claims the reverse, that they have mostly fled oppression and forced military service (Eritrea) for a safe haven in Israel. Israel was one of the first countries to ratify the Refugee Convention in 1954 and, therefore, had agreed not to refoule refugees if they had a legitimate fear of persecution. To assess the application of this criterion, some background might be helpful.

In the early 2000s, Sudanese fled to Egypt as refugees. By 2005, 30,000 had registered for asylum status there, but there were tens of thousands more in the country who had not been registered. In November 2005, a Sudanese asylum sit-in crisis took place in which the majority of the 4,000 protesters were women and children. Over six weeks in a park near the Mohandessin mosque in Cairo, the participants in the sit-in grew to 4,000 just when Egypt had taken steps to deport 640 Sudanese “illegal migrants.” UNHCR offered to organize a voluntary repatriation to Sudan, given that the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Army had signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement on 9 January 2005.

However, UNHCR, which had suspended its asylum hearings after the peace agreement had been signed, was unsuccessful in mediating the dispute in which Sudanese refugee claimants were protesting the dire social and economic problems they faced in Egypt and the insecurity of their status. Overwhelmingly, the Sudanese were unwilling to return to Sudan given that they faced a worse and more dangerous situation there. Further, the agreement the year before (the so-called four freedoms agreement), guaranteeing Sudanese in Egypt freedom of movement, residence, work and property ownership, had never been implemented. The Sudanese were still treated as foreigners with no rights to stay.

The government turned on the refugees using water cannons and batons. On 30 December 2005, thousands of riot police attacked the refugees to end the protest in the camp and killed at least 20, though Boutros Deng claimed that 26 Sudanese were killed, including two women and seven children. Egyptian human rights and refugee organizations claimed the total was much higher and that over 100 were killed. Though no survey is available, most of the public seemed to support the police and called the Sudanese dirty, rowdy criminals and stealers of jobs.

The Eritreans had a slightly different history. They were not fleeing ethnic cleansing and possible genocide, as the Sudanese did from Darfur, but an extremely oppressive regime that made military service compulsory and indefinite following the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. Deserters were treated harshly and subjected to indefinite prison terms. Those who fled initially made their way to Sudan and then to Libya. In Libya, they were mistreated and enslaved. By 2006, they had shifted to Egypt, but given that they were subjected to the same conditions as the Sudanese, they and the Sudanese headed for Israel in the belief that this nearby democratic country would treat them better, especially since Jews had suffered so deeply and so many had been refugees.

Between 2008 and 2010, traffickers had taken control of the flow and enslaved or ransomed the “refugees.” In 2009, Israel created its own refugee determination system. Israel also closed its border. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel interviewed survivors among those enslaved by the traffickers and estimated that as many as 4,000 died between 2008 and 2012. However, getting past the traffickers did not end their quest to reach the Promised Land. For example, in October 2012 a group of Eritrean refugees with little food or water had been stranded at the border between Egypt and Israel for over a week.

However, 36,000 Eritreans and Sudanese managed to reach Israel. Contrary to some claims, there was no necessity that Egypt as the first country in which they arrived had the obligation to process them as refugee claimants or that Israel had the right to send them back to the country of first asylum to have the claims processed in Egypt. The first country rule is an EU edict and not part of international law.

Israel responded to the influx by building an impenetrable border fence and detention facilities. In processing the claims, only 4 Sudanese and 10 Eritreans were granted refugee status, or .01% of Eritrean claimants compared to a success rate in Canada of 85-90%. The Israeli government also initiated efforts to deport those that had arrived in Israel as “economic migrants” and “infiltrators.” In spite of the Israeli effort, more kept coming, but in significantly reduced numbers. Some moved on from Israel to other destinations. Nevertheless, by the end of 2017, Israel hosted a population of 40,000 Sudanese and Eritreans without access to health benefits or a legal right to work, though most were employed in the underground economy, mostly in hotels and restaurants. In 2016, the Israeli government introduced a 20% withholding tax on their wages.

This past November, Israel announced that it had arranged to relocate these “illegals” to an African nation widely rumoured to be Rwanda and perhaps Uganda. The internment camp at Holon would be closed. The government gave the “illegals” 90 days to leave voluntarily with a grant of $3,500 or face forceful deportation. A minority of Israelis reacted by initiating a sanctuary movement as well as one of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with Israeli expulsion efforts; a group of pilots announced that they would not fly the refugees back to Africa.

At the end of January 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame met in Davos. Purportedly, they finalized their agreement to secretly transfer thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers from Israel to Rwanda. Though some claimants took up the offer of a $3500 grant to help in relocation, most refused. When the Israeli-Rwandan deal became public this past week, Rwanda was embarrassed by the alleged agreement to receive the expelled refugee claimants in return for a reimbursement of resettlement costs. The country (and Uganda) denied that they had signed any such agreement.

In the midst of the past three months, Israeli courts entered the fray. In response to a case filed by the Tel Aviv University Clinic for Refugee Rights, a special Jerusalem appeals court for refugee issues ruled that flight from service in the Eritrean army was a justified ground for claiming refugee status even though British and Danish courts had ruled that it was not. Further, any argument that insisted that granting refugee status to so many Eritreans would threaten the Jewish character of Israel could not be used to make a refugee determination. A stop order was placed on the deportations. In response, the Israeli government requested, and was granted, an extension in the case of asylum seekers from Darfur and Nuba. The High Court of Justice endorsed granting male migrants of working age a “choice” of either deportation with a $3,500 grant or internment in Israel.

In the diaspora, many liberal Jews mobilized to help the refugee claimants working on two tracks – lobbying the Israeli government to drop the policy and negotiating with their own governments to at least take some of the refugees. The effort was successful in Canada when the private sector stood up to the plate to sponsor the refugees and the Canadian government, strongly influenced by a brief of a former Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, agreed to allow 2,000 to be resettled in Canada in 2018. As a follow-up, in a totally surprising move, this past Monday a separate agreement was announced between the Israeli government and the UN wherein the UN would arrange for the resettlement of 16,250 refugee claimants to other countries over five years while Israel agreed to allow an equivalent number to remain with resident permits. Netanyahu said that he would now scrap the controversial plan to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers given the unprecedented understanding with the UN.

Within a few hours, in the face of a backlash from his base, Netanyahu reversed course, first suspending the agreement and then cancelling it. Even more oddly, seemingly out of nowhere, Netanyahu blamed the NGO, New Israel Fund (NIF), for sabotaging the deal, but no explanation accompanied the charge. The following day, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an absolutely unprecedented action in Israel, claimed that NIF had put pressure on Rwanda to withdraw from the deal, but offered no evidence. NIF insists that it has been totally transparent and never did what Bibi claimed. Netanyahu, however, promised that parliament would set up a committee to investigate the NIF and its involvement in sabotaging the deal.

The puzzlement is that this leaves Israel in a far worse position. First, Bibi’s attack on the NIF resulted in an enormous swelling of support for NIF and for the refugees. The support came both from Israel and abroad. It even came from south Tel Aviv that had been undergoing a process of gentrification over the last decade and from which area a delegation met Netanyahu on Tuesday. South Tel Aviv is the area where most of the “infiltrators” live because they have access to the bus station, social services set up by Israeli volunteers and companies seeking casual day labourers. With permanent status, the Eritreans and Sudanese would more likely disperse through the country.

The government’s black eye is even much darker. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments, embarrassed by the whole affair, announced that they had no signed deal with Israel. Further, in openly acknowledging that Israel could not sent the “infiltrators” back to their home countries, the government implicitly conceded that the Eritreans and Sudanese were refugees in some deep sense.

In the meanwhile, the debate continues in Israel with those opposed to the refugee claimants accusing them of being illegal migrant workers and infiltrators who, in Israel, undermine Israeli social life. The defenders of the claimants insist that the vast majority are fleeing oppression and, in Eritrea, endless forced military service. Quite aside from the debate over the refugee claims process, Israel introduced another dimension, its long continuing war with Arab states and the antipathy towards Israel of those states and members of the population. Israel claims the need both to preserve its Jewish character as well as preventing Muslims from entering Israel and undermining the ethnic balance. Tough measures towards asylum seekers (or infiltrators) are necessary, the government declared ignoring a long Jewish tradition, for many, the essence of the Jewish character, to helping those in need.

Netanyahu’s reputation has suffered even more than Israel’s. Yossi Verter wrote:

“In the face of all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s past capitulations, it was the most disgraceful, the most transparent. In comparison to all his reversals, it was the quickest, the most humiliating. The man had already taught us a chapter on zigzags and back-and-forths – in the story of the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space and the metal detectors at the Temple Mount, for example – but this time he outdid himself, in both speed and flexibility. A contortionist could only dream of having such a liquid backbone.”

However, the result, though embarrassing to the government and especially Netanyahu that finds himself boxed in, still leaves the so-called illegals without security or a clear road to the future. One advance: Israel released the asylum seekers who were interned for refusing deportation to Rwanda.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Rohingya

On Wednesday, Bob Rae released his final report on the Myanmar and the Rohingya entitled, “‘Tell them we’re human:’ What Canada and the world can do about the Rohingya crisis.” The report can be read in full on the internet.

http://international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/response_conflict-reponse_conflits/crisis-crises/rep_sem-rap_esm.aspx?lang=eng

Though Bob is a good friend, a great ambassador of good will for Canada, a man of both wisdom and great integrity with a fine moral compass, I recommend reading the report both because the plight of the Rohingya refugees and internally displaced is so terrible and the situation forces any Canadian to focus on what principles they hold and how they ought to be put into practice.

As you read or even skim the report, I suggest a number of questions. But first a number of basic facts, most included in the report.

  1. The Rohingya lived for years overwhelmingly in Rakhine State in Western Myanmar.
  2. Rakhine is the poorest state in Myanmar.
  3. The population of Rakhine State in 2014 was 3,188,807 and included many minorities, but in small numbers.
  4. About two-thirds of the population of Rakhine, about 2,100,000, at the time of the above census, was Buddhist, overwhelmingly Rakhine who speak a Sittwe dialect.
  5. Rohingya then made up just over one-third of the population or about 1,050,000 and speak a Rang-bre dialect; that census is somewhat disputed since Rohingya were denied the right to register in the census unless they did so as Bengali and many refused.
  6. The Rohingya are Sufi Muslims.
  7. Thus, the majority population of Rakhine and the minority population of Rohingya differ in ethnicity, religion and language.
  8. The two groups have been at odds for decades and have a history of violent conflict dating back to at least WWII when the Rohingya sided with the West and the Rakhine sided with Japan.
  9. Many Rohingya fled to Bangladesh before the 2014 census and most were hosted in refugee camps.
  10. In 1982, the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship and dubbed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though their roots in Myanmar go back centuries; for a while, they were issued white identity cards giving them limited rights, but explicitly stating that they were not citizens.
  11. Many Rohingya fled because of employment, education and access to health were limited, a limit of two was placed on the number of children a couple could have, and rights to religious practice, marriage and even freedom of movement were also limited.
  12. Thousands fled in 2012.
  13. In February 2015, the temporary white identity cards were cancelled.
  14. In October 2016, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled as militant Rohingya attacked military and police posts and the latter responded with violence burning villages and raping Rohingya women.
  15. In August 2017, again in response to a raid by militant Rohingya, riots broke out and, facilitated by border police and the military, in a widespread ethnic cleansing involving the burning of hundreds of villages over the following month, an estimated additional 670,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar.
  16. There are now an estimated 950,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and another 50,000 or so distributed among Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
  17. Of the remaining 450,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, 120,000 live in abject poverty in internally displaced camps.
  18. Most of the remaining 330,000 are little better off and are subject to curfews, severe restrictions on movement and frequent violent attacks.

Bob’s report includes references to the political situation in Myanmar, the political initiatives in the United Nations and a long analysis of the situation followed by 17 recommendations. In his report, Bob states, “I was permitted access to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, the week of February 4, 2018. What became immediately apparent was the deep resentment of the very presence of the Rohingya population in Rakhine by some (my italics) ethnic Rakhine and the extent to which international and other efforts to establish a humanitarian dialogue are, in fact, deeply resented. It is this hatred that in my view poses the greatest threat to any possibility of a safe and dignified return for the Rohingya who are currently living in Bangladesh and indeed threatens the lives of those Rohingya who are still in central and northern Rakhine.”

Question 1: Why does Bob in his first recommendation insist on listening to the voices of the Rohingya but does not include the voices of the majority of Bamar in Rakhine, Myanmar, or of the Bengali population in Bangladesh, particularly those living in the region of Cox’s Bazaar where the largest number of refugee camps are located?

Question 2: Why does Bob recommend that Canada take a leading role in dealing with the crisis when we are such a small donor and would remain so even if we tripled our annual contribution as recommended, when our foreign capital investment in Myanmar is .01 of China’s and Singapore’s, .02 of Thailand’s and .03 of Hong Kong’s, when as an exporter to and an importer from Myanmar, we do not even make it on the comparative charts, and when no basis is provided in the report for choosing among many competing crises in areas where we have much greater interests and a significant degree of political and academic expertise? When we do not count on virtually any scale of economic involvement, when we lack in-depth political capacity or academic expertise, when we advise Canadians to travel to Myanmar with caution because of “the unsettled political situation and the possibility of civic unrest,” when our ambassador, Karen MacArthur, on her trip with other diplomats to Rakhine state, was “protected” by a phalanx of border guards and police who have been accused of perpetrating the atrocities on the Rohingya, why would the Rohingya population, let alone that of Myanmar, be open to Canadian leadership?

Question 3: Why the great stress on humanitarian assistance to camps when the report itself suggests that camps usually lead to the long-term warehousing of refugees as recently documented in the recent book by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World; that book trashes camps as a solution to refugees and emphasizing them appears to undermine economic development in dealing with the problem, a direction which Bob seems to favour?

Question 4: Why not be really radical and take the almost US$1B planned to be spent annually on the crisis and give those funds – say $1,000 to each refugee family with a line of credit of an additional $4,000 spread over 4 years (total approximately 200,000 families = $200M annually) – not only the refugees, but an equivalent amount to the polity hosting the displaced and double that amount as an investment in the local population so that it is in everyone’s economic interest to allow the refugees to settle?

Question 5: Why propose a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) among the various stakeholders when even in states with a much smaller degree of ethnic and religious conflict, such MoUs in Kenya and Nigeria where the historical, structural, institutional, legal, and cultural dimensions of the conflict have very much smaller depth, and when MoUs have had limited success in other regions only because the local insurgency was overwhelmed by force by the state as in Aceh, Sri Lanka or the Myanmar Keren in Thailand (the minority uprising was effectively defeated)? Only in a polity like Northern Ireland has there been significant success, but the conflict was between two groups divided by religion only, without nearly the extent of violence and in a context of strong social and political institutions. The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh over the years have signed many agreements, three recent ones concerning the repatriation of the refugees, but the situation simply gets worse and the words have little substantive meaning.

Question 6: Why does recommendation 5 require, “reassuring both the Rohingya population and the international community of the sincerity and credibility of the commitment of both the civilian and military wings of the Government of Myanmar to an effective plan for the return of the Rohingya population,” when the desire for return may be sincere, but has never been shown to be credible where ethnic and religious groups have been involved in violent conflict, unless the ethnic groups returns after its army has inflicted defeat as in Rwanda in 1994? Otherwise, refugees never return in a context of groups with deep ethnic and religious divides and a long history of violence. (See Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge – Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.) Further, Bob himself writes that although, “The government has also said it will allow for the return of the Rohingya to their home villages…evidence suggests that many of these villages have been destroyed, and there is a prevailing sentiment within the local ethnic Rakhine population against the Rohingya’s return.” In addition, “United Nations (UN) agencies have stated that they do not believe conditions are present for the ‘safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable’ return of the Rohingya to their homes in Rakhine State.” Saying that return has to be conditional in this way just means that there will be no return.

Question 7: Why support Track II initiatives – I have been involved in several – when in such contexts, like refugee return, they have such an unlikely payoff and sometimes lead to extending a violent conflict and the suffering of refugees in the belief that peace (and refugee return) are right around the corner?

Question 8: Why make reference to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) when it has not been operative and if it is, it is because the responsibilities of the international community to protect the oppressed within a polity have been suborned to sovereign rights; even the report recognizes that implementation is subject to the government of Myanmar’s consent?

Question 9: Why was the proposal for Canadian resettlement places for the Rohingya not included in the final list of recommendations?

Question 10: Is there a possibility that the 450,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar might be better off and their situation more likely to improve if the emphasis on the issue of repatriation of the refugees was removed?

Those are enough questions. I leave aside the proposed conditions suggested for the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, the recommendations for dealing with accountability and preventing impunity for those guilty of ethnic cleansing and even possibly genocide, or the recommendations on inter-state cooperation in handling the crisis and the formation of a multi-ministry task force in Canada to deal with policy and its implementation.

Anyone is invited to answer these questions.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Isle of Dogs and Dogs of War (Layla M)

 

Almost two years ago, fake news reported that leaflets had been distributed by Muslim fundamentalists in Manchester, Britain, calling for a public ban on dogs to keep the area pure for Muslims. I am technically unable to reproduce the poster in this version of the blog, but after a sign showing a dog crossed out in a circle, and presumably the same reference in Arabic, the poster reads:

FOR PUBLIC PURITY

This area is home to a large Muslim community. Please have respect for us and for our children and limit the presence of dogs in the public sphere.

About Us

Keeping the purity of the public space enables the (sic!) Muslims remain untainted and without blemish.

As part of this effort, we have chosen to address one of the aspects that can have a detrimental effect on the purity of public space, with the aspect being the presence of dogs who are considered impure in Islam.

PublicPurity                                          4PublicPurity

This might have been the impetus for Wes Anderson to write Isle of Dogs since he devised the script for the movie before the 2016 U.S. election, the rise of anti-immigration populism and Christian nationalism as well as the election of Spanky as a proto-fascist president. Or perhaps Wes Anderson was simply prescient in tackling themes like refugees, xenophobia and intolerance.

The dogs, whose barks are dubbed into English while the Japanese characters speech is incomprehensible to better capture the emotional punch, are sent into exile to Trash Island and eventually an intended genocide. The heroes include a Japanese 11-year-old “little pilot,” Atari (Koyu Rankin) and representatives of four different dog species (Rex – Edward Norton, Boss – Bill Murray, King – Bob Balaban, and Duke – Jeff Goldblum) and one outlier to the outliers, a stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston). There is also a love story (Scarlett Johansson is the voice of Nutmeg). In this superb parable of our time, instead of hatred even for the Machiavellian dictator who hates dogs, we are taught trust, love, empathy and the benefits of democratic procedures.

The core of the story is a corrupt politician who spreads false news, assassinates scientists, spreads fear and persecutes minorities. The taiko drums are merely the introduction and finale to a brilliant score that provides the propulsion more than the simplistic plot of this stop-motion phenomenal innovative animation film rooted deeply in contemporary Japanese pop culture and iconography. Archetypal comic fight scenes of swirling clouds with only “Xs” and exclamation marks emerging from the mist and imported Lauren Bacall – Humphrey Bogart dialogue bring into the movie Hollywood nostalgia.

The second of the excellent films that I saw yesterday, the just released Dutch film Layla M on Netflix, is rooted in realism rather than fantasy. Like possibly Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, this movie was, I believe, based on a series of 2014 news reports in the Dutch press of European and Muslim teens recruited and radicalized by ISIS who were lured to become jihadi brides. The marriages very often failed as the husbands turned out to be domineering, patriarchal wife beaters. Yusra Hussein was a 15-year-old Somali girl in such a situation. In the film, Layla is a 17 or 18-year-old Dutch-born very intelligent and spirited girl from a Moroccan immigrant family who turns to religion and is gradually radicalized. Unlike the typical explanations for the susceptibility of teenage girls to such lures, Layla is not motivated by a search for excitement or adventure or to give meaning to her life, but as a reaction against Dutch stereotyping and a sincere search for meaning from her religion.

In Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony shouts, “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” This is what the corrupt mayor does in Isle of Dogs; he exhorts the Japanese citizens of his city to reject and throw out of the city the dogs. Mark Antony wanted to use Julius Caesar’s assassination to urge revenge. In the havoc stirred up, the mayor and his criminal cohorts can seize the wealth of the nation. The dogs, though pets, but originally trained for war, are to be released from their leashes and their master’s love and control to create mayhem. Only in confining them to an island, they organize themselves, revolt and come back to conquer the hatred and fear stirred up. In Layla M, in spite of the irony that religious Muslims regard dogs as unclean, it is radical Islam that cries havoc and releases its young men to become dogs of war totally subservient to the dogmas of their new masters.

If Anderson’s film is full of slapstick, Mijke de Jong’s Dutch film is chock full of deadly slaps. If Anderson manages to craft an allegory about genocide by the use of huge mounds of garbage that have a strange ethereal beauty, de Jong’s relatively squalid Dutch suburbs offer only a hint of all the hidden ugliness. If Anderson’s film is surreal, de Jong’s is real. If Anderson employs humour and levity, the rare moments of levity in de Jong’s film quickly sink into the bog of radicalism.

I did not intentionally watch the two films back-to-back, but they told the same story from opposite perspectives and using opposite techniques. Layla M is a very good film, good in its ethos and good in its execution. Anderson’s film, however, belongs to a very different order of brilliance.

Police and Data: Responsa

I would never have expected to receive responses to a dry-as-dust piece on police and data. The blog must have touched a sensitive button. Not so much on the big issue of data, data crime and surveillance, but on issues with which the reader could easily identify – such as controlling vehicle speeds on residential streets.

Some responses were matters of additional information. With respect to traffic calming methods rather than enforcement, I believed that I had provided an extensive list. The techniques I listed were just a drop in the bucket. I could have added the following measures to the list: speed humps (wider than bumps) and tables (wider still) as well as speed trays (bumps arranged like an inverted ice cube tray); mid-block barriers; raised crosswalks and intersections; cobblestone streets; circles, roundabouts, centre islands, chicanes (I had never heard the word before; they narrow a road at strategic places to slow traffic), chokers and neckdowns – chicanes at intersections; and, most interesting of all to me, illusory markings. It is worth writing a blog just to learn about the creativity of traffic engineers.

I was informed that in Norway and Britain, automated digital photo radar is used extensively. In Alberta, photo radar is used. However, without driver identification, unless an officer manning the radar can stop and identify the driver, only the owner of the vehicle can be held responsible for the fine. But without driver identification, no demerit points can be issued.  So why man the camera? I was also informed by another reader that reduction in speeds (say from 30 to 25 mph or 40 to 35 kph) actually reduces speeds to only 29 mph or 39 kph. Signs which show your speed do not work in decreasing that speed, but when accompanied by memes, that frown if you are speeding and smile if you go under the speed limit, do work. Another reader informed me of the opposite – that signs showing speeds without memes do indeed work. I did not do my research to ascertain which claim was correct. Does any reader know?

However, the greater the number of signs, evidently the less effective any of them are. Warning signs are evidently ineffective and, surprising to me, stop signs are counter-productive – drivers speed up to make up for lost time at the intersection. Four way stops also contribute to increased car pollution with every additional stop and go.

Of course, we could simply build the technology into a vehicle to prevent it from going over a posted speed limit. But in our world prioritizing individual rights, such a simple and inexpensive device belongs to a sci-fi world.

In the responses on a whole different level, I was chastised for being too lost in the clouds of philosophy and principles with little practical experience of the way cops behaved on the street. Cases of cops readily killing civilians were cited, most recently the case of the Sacramento police shooting and killing a young Black American in his grandmother’s backyard because they believed his cell phone was a gun pointed at them. Twenty shots were fired by the two police officers. One writer cited this as another case of American racism without noting that the police chief in Sacramento is Black. So was one of the two police officers doing the shooting.

Interestingly, the evidence for the shooting came from the body cameras on the police used for surveillance of police activity. Unfortunately, and questionably, the police afterwards turned off the audio and video recording by pressing mute when other officers arrived. This incident may have more to do with the readiness to use guns in the gun culture so central to America than with the deep-seated racism of America. Further, instead of police having as their priority protecting the safety and security of members of civil society and their property, the police adopt the values of a military culture where fear for their own safety and protecting their own security sets the priority for their responses.

I want to defend myself against the charge of innocence about life in the streets as I get lost in the clouds of abstract principles and philosophy. When I was a teenager, we lived a block away from a police station. We often heard the shrieks of those arrested as they were supposedly beaten by police. “Supposed” is a euphemism for lack of direct evidence through witnessing. However, when some of the police joined the crowd next door to peer at the small television screen, they would often boast about how they dealt out “justice’ to “criminals.” However, when I was indicted for a criminal offence as a young teenager (for scalping tickets) and was convicted, when I was arrested, I was treated fairly and with respect.

This was not true of two of my sons much later. One was arrested and handcuffed in his own home for evidently going through a stop sign three blocks from his home and failing to stop when signalled to do so by a police car following him which he had failed to notice. Another was arrested at the age of 13 or 14, cuffed and taken upstairs for hours of interrogation when we brought him into the police station because another youth had named him as the perpetrator of an assault and robbery of Halloween candies. The fact that my son was six inches taller than the description provided to the police by the accuser, the fact that he had five witnesses to testify that he was elsewhere on Halloween night nowhere near the alleged offence, seemed of no consequence as the detectives seemed committed to getting him to confess and undertook no investigation. After eight months, three appearances in court and huge legal bills, the charges were withdrawn.

Most recently, when I was assaulted physically in my own home, the police were very considerate and patient and went out of their way to be helpful, but they did advise that I not press charges, for the assailant claimed that I had attacked him. They would have to charge us both if I insisted on pressing charges. Better, they suggested, to let it drop, especially since my alleged assailant would likely just get off with his wrist slapped.

I am well aware that police are not paragons of virtue or the best expressions of the principles they are purportedly committed to uphold. But my issue was the theory of policing and its functioning in a society of large data, data crime on a large scale, and taking place in an increasingly surveillance culture. Nor am I unaware of the use of surveillance in the days pre-dating the collection of large scale data.

When I was a student at the University of Toronto and a leader in the nuclear disarmament movement, one of my philosophy professors asked me to come to his office. In that meeting he told me that he had been asked to come to speak to the RCMP. As it turned out, they wanted to question him about me.

On the desk of the detective was a file about 4” thick with material on my activities. He told them nothing because he knew nothing. But he was kindly and wanted to warn me.

I was not surprised. At our demonstrations, there was always a plain-clothed police officer – so evident, he might as well have worn a uniform – who, while participating in or observing the demonstration, took notes and pictures. I always made a point of welcoming him and asking him if I could do anything to help or involve him. After all, no one else was interested in recording my life for posterity. Later on, when the RCMP was running amuck to stop the Quebec separatists, they also torched our research institute on Huron Street, but only after collecting the files and sending them to the then editor of the Sun newspaper.

I could go on with other stories. I merely want to indicate that I am far from innocent of what takes place on the ground. I do not know the extent of the failure of police to uphold the principle of protecting and serving civil society, but I do recognize the discrepancy between practice and principles. The fact that practices fail to live up to principles is not a reason for cynicism or for failing to attempt to articulate what the role and principles of policing should be in the new large data world of algorithms and wide-scale electronic surveillance. Personal untoward experiences should not shade one’s eyes to the fact that the police, and other civil service policing establishments, are extremely underfunded and undertrained to combat the rapidly increasing criminality in this sphere, a criminality that even threatens the fundamentals of our democratic institutions.

Corruption of police on both the local level and on a national level in the U.S. is pervasive. Readers of my blog know that I winter in San Pancho in Mexico. It is an area that is very safe and up until two years ago did not even have a police force. However, many areas of Mexico are unsafe; the numbers of killings recorded are more similar to war zones like Iraq and Syria. Recently, two police officers received 25-year prison sentences for killing newspaper owner Moisés Sánchez in Veracruz, Mexico, in 2015. The local mayor – who allegedly ordered the murder – is a fugitive. Six police officers, believed widely to be part of a drug gang under the control of the mayor, have not been prosecuted even though the entire police force (36 officers) of Medellín de Bravo were questioned. Perhaps, the six were not charged because of the common conspiracy of silence practiced among members of the police.

However, I believe the situation is 25% as dangerous in the U.S., yet we rarely consider not travelling to the U.S. because of violence. In Mexico in 2017, almost 30,000 people were murdered by guns and other means in a population of 130 million at a rate of about 23 for each 100,000 in population. The U.S. total of homicides by guns alone was about 35,000 of a population of 326 million or just over 10 per 100,000 population. However, over half were self inflicted suicides. On the other hand, if non-gun violence is included, the total of violent deaths rises to almost 41,000, and the rate of killings is about 5 per 100,000. Compare that to Canada with just over 600 violent murders for a population of 37 million. Given the American experience, we could expect over 4,000. If Mexico has a violent death rate of almost 5 times that of the U.S., the U.S. has a violent death rate of over 7 times that of the peaceable kingdom to the north.

Mexico has its violent gangs and drug cartels concentrated in specific areas; the actual rate of violence in those high-risk areas is much higher. On the other hand, gun violence in the U.S. is far less unevenly distributed. More significantly, the rate of violence in the U.S. is directly correlated with its gun culture far more than the degree of criminality. Take the example of the billionaire, Robert Mercer, the backer of Breitbart News, heavy contributor to the Trump presidential campaign and the financier behind Cambridge Analytica. He is not only the owner of gun companies (Center Firearms and PTR Industries in South Carolina), but is himself a voluntary police officer for at least six days a year in the Town of Lake Arthur with a population of only 433. Such a position allows him to carry a concealed weapon virtually anywhere in the U.S. because a Congressional law passed in the Bush junior administration in 2004, the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, allows police to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the U.S without any need to acquire a local license. In the U.S., as discussed in previous blogs, any civilian can shoot another person if they have a reasonable belief that his or her life was at risk.

Neither the police in America nor American civil society endorse the principle that police enforcement is directed at serving and protecting civil society. Quite the reverse; in many areas the doctrine is that police and civilian self-protection are the priorities. Given this focus, it is unlikely that police agencies will be funded or encouraged to combat data crimes. The privacy of individuals and the right to self-protection takes precedence. The public is also jaundiced against the police in many western and eastern seaboard states just when the internet, once associated with anonymity, is now associated with surveillance, and distrust of that surveillance. Putting the police in charge of supervising that surveillance appears to many a risk that they are not willing to take to fund police to protect and to serve.

The principles governing police activity are actually very simple. Police enforcement, though administered by governments, exists to serve and protect civil society. To the extent that police are turned into government enforcers, or to the extent they are viewed as militant members of an individualist Wild West, in neither case can they serve their primary function. That primary function requires educating police in this ethos, and funding and equipping and training them to fight the most extensive and threatening criminality now extant, that of large scale data crimes.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Next: Data and Health

Police and Large Data

The first item on the CBC radio news last evening concerned criminality, the criminal use of data in elections. Not the issue of Russian interference to facilitate the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Instead, CBC reported on the four hours of testimony that Canadian whistleblower, Chris Wylie (a data scientist who helped found Cambridge Analytica and an advocate for Britain leaving the EU), gave before a committee of the British parliament on the role of data aggregating firms hired by Vote Leave with respect to Brexit and led by Cambridge Analytica funneling money illegally to the Canadian company, AggregateIQ (AIQ), to collect Facebook data and, in the last days of the Brexit vote, influence “persuadables.” Further, he opined that it was reasonable to conclude that the effort altered the outcome of the Brexit vote.

Two criminal acts were allegedly involved. First, aggregate data was illegally collected. Second, money, significantly in excess of that permitted to be used by Vote Leave, was funneled through several data collection companies in order to appear to fall within the limits permitted. On this charge, Wylie backed up the testimony of another whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, who provided concrete evidence of the breach of spending limits to Parliament. Of course, the companies continued to insist that they had complied with all legal and regulatory requirements.

Wylie testified that the British vote was but one instance of such efforts. The activities ranged around the world, from the Trump election to the Kenyan presidential race, clearly implying that Cambridge Analytica and its parent and related companies were systematically involved in manipulating voters illegally and undermining the democratic electoral process. This past Friday, the Walter Gordon Symposium dealing with “Making Policy Count: The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision Making” in its first panel took up the issue of Contemporary Policing and Surveillance.

One message came through loud and clear. Police departments are barely into the computer age and are ill-equipped, to say the least, to deal with law enforcement related to abuses in the use of data analytics. Electoral Commissions do not have people on staff that even comprehend let alone are trained to counter such efforts, whether used by Russian hackers or domestic cheats.

Rosemary Gartner, the chair of the panel and a Professor Emeritus from the University of Toronto program on Criminology & Sociolegal Studies zeroed in on how the issue of large scale counting can be unfair when it comes to individual cases of blood alcohol levels, meting out punishments, or even deciding on what is considered a crime worthy of police attention. In light of the big news items, these concerns, however significant, seemed picayune when our whole faith in democratic institutions has been under attack.

Paul Sloly, former Deputy Chief of the Toronto Police Force, who now works for Deloitte, did zero in on mass surveillance and digital crime at its broadest, from cyberfraud to cyberbullying. However, police lacked the most basic servers to do their work let alone counter such criminality. At the same time, there has been an exponential increase in surveillance. The ethical issue of most concern seems to be privacy. In the name of privacy, cameras cannot be used to record and charge speeders who race down our residential streets endangering the lives of children. Automatic Speed Cameras (photo radar) were phased out in the mid-90s. When the Conservatives regained power in Ontario in the mid-1990s under the leadership of Mike Harris, the experimental use of such cameras was phased out.

A report by Drive Safely Michigan stressed improving safety on residential streets by proposing alternatives to surveillance, that would decrease speed or reduce through traffic on local residential streets and in general developing a “traffic calming program” (stop signs, speed limit signs, turn prohibitions, one-way streets, warning and portable signs, speed bumps, rumble strips, street closures, traffic diverters and even road narrowing) to control speeds, but, at the same time, warning or “advising” drivers with permanent markings or signs about the cautions introduced. We have all seen the huge multiplication of these techniques, but I personally – and this is clearly anecdotal – have only observed increased speed on my residential street.

Why not assign officers to monitor traffic? How many? When? Use warnings or tickets? Two problems – the large cost and the effectiveness is restricted to only those periods and places where officers are deployed. What about Automated Speed Enforcement Devices, that is, speed radar and a 35 mm camera interfaced with a computer that could or could not be equipped with issuing automatic tickets? If a vehicle travels down a residential street over a preset threshold speed, the camera photographs the vehicle and its license plate. Tickets could be automatically sent out indicating the date, time location, posted speed and travel speed of the vehicle. Instead, in most jurisdictions, only warning letters are issued. Enforcing speed limits by general surveillance is viewed most frequently as an unwarranted expansion of surveillance. The fact that such surveillance might be significant in analyzing traffic problems that induce speeding and suggest intervention measures, gets slipped to one side in the debate.

There seems to be a misfit between the ethical principles at stake and the nature of contemporary crime. When I interview people on the issue, their concern is not privacy per se, but theft and fraudulent use of private information. They are not so much concerned with keeping their personal information private as preventing its misuse and criminal use. Perhaps, instruments to build in “Privacy by Design” might be helpful, but detection and intervention with actual criminality might be a greater issue.

Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah from the Department of Sociology raised the issue of race and the criminal justice system with the old issue of carding, collecting information on “suspicious” individuals, a process that disproportionately, and significantly so, focused on visible minorities, a practice evidently detrimental to policing itself and the integrity of the criminal justice system. Surveillance of what police do in their interactions with the public has undermined almost completely the practice of carding. I thought I had received a double message. On the one hand, traditional values, such as fairness and privacy were critical. On the other hand, in order to protect those values, the police themselves had to be continually subjected to surveillance.

Dr. Valerie Steeves, Associate Professor in the University of Ottawa Department of Criminology, directly addressed the issue of big data and the search for patterns using algorithms to both prevent crime and apprehend criminals. For one, big data can and has been used to undermine the thesis that harsh measures of incarceration cut down criminal activity and to establish that the decline in traditional crimes has taken place independently of such efforts. As far as prevention is concerned, using large data sets and algorithms have not proven to be useful in identifying potential criminality. The feeding frenzy accompanying the mastery of large data and analytics seems to her to be misguided and one must be humble in presenting proposals, implementing them and evaluating the results. Relying on efforts to create smart cities with monitoring sensors everywhere may also be misguided. Steeves was very wary about the process of privatizing the public sphere.

My sense was that the panelists were more concerned with traditional ethical concerns of privacy, transparency and fairness – valuable as those concerns may be – but totally out of touch with the need to understand and be equipped to counter the pervasive kinds of criminality in the use of big data now given almost free reign by the absence of both tools and training to even detect let alone interfere with this raging epidemic. Just because individuals generally are not being killed does not mean that enormous harm is not being carried out – from the pervasive fears that someone will steal my identity and hack into my financial accounts to the undermining of the very political structure on which the health of our society depends.

Hegel in his writing on police in the Philosophy of Right noted that the police were part of civil society and not the state, that they were given exceptional powers of coercion, but only to serve and protect the members of civil society, including, and most importantly, their right to vote in fair elections. The administration of justice is first and foremost needed to ensure that offences against property and persons are negated and the safety of persons and property sustained.

Police and the system of justice more generally were created in a modern nation-state first and foremost to deal with a subjective willing of evil – whether that evil be predatory sexual behaviour, racist victimization or criminal mischief-making. The latter activities, quite aside from a myriad of other pressures and influences, undermine the ability of individuals to make rational choices. Private actions outside of our individual or collective control that either do or could injure others and wrong them must be prevented and offset or compensated for when offences are committed. This is why traffic cameras to monitor speeding and automatically issue tickets should be instituted – not because they are perfect instruments, but because the benefits to personal safety and well-being far outweigh risks to privacy or error.

For the issue is not merely countering injury, but reducing the possibility of injury to as close to zero as is feasible given the need and desire to protect other norms. If police lack the training, if police lack the tools – and I use police in the broadest sense to include institutions such as an electoral commission – if police lack the budgets to counter both actual and possible offences of this order, instead of preventing and limiting harm, the system of justice will be abetting such harm.

This does not mean that surveillance need become ubiquitous. Rather, careful judgement and weighing of ethical norms as well as effectiveness are required to mediate between suspicion and commission of criminality, between suspicion and surveillance, between suspicion and inquiry, between suspicion and what is actually injurious as distinct for what is believed to be injurious, and between what is supposedly suspect and what is claimed to be injurious but is really innocent.

Let me give an example of a failure of policing and the justice system having nothing to do with large scale data and analytics. It was the second item on the CBC 6:00 p.m. radio news last evening. The issue had to do with the case of sexual predatory behaviour at Michigan State University. Yesterday, a former dean of the university, William Strampel, was charged for not preventing a sports doctor, Larry Nassar, from sexually harassing students. It had already been proven that Larry Nassar had for years violated girls and young women, particularly gymnasts, with his finger examinations. This once world-renowned sports physician was sentenced to 175 years in prison.

William Strampel was the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine and was responsible for oversight of the clinic where Nassar worked. Strampel failed to enforce orders by, at a minimum, not allowing Nassar to examine students unchaperoned. Nassar was eventually fired in 2016, but between 2014 and 2016, when Strampel had been fully apprised of the risk Nassar posed to students, he failed to set up procedural safeguards thereby allowing Nassar to commit a series of additional sexual offences.

However, in the process of the investigation, evidence turned up that Strampel’s computer had 50 photos of female genitalia, nude and semi-nude women, sex toys and pornography. Further, Strampel himself had solicited nude photos from at least one student and had harassed and demeaned, propositioned and even sexually assaulted students. Strampel insisted in his defence that he was not guilty of any of the charges, but that the problem of enforcing Nassar’s practices rested with the university’s Title IX investigators and not himself. Whether true or not, why was the university itself not charged with negligence with respect to its duty to serve and protect its students?

This is an old-fashioned case of an injustice, though one involving the accumulation of data as evidence. But it is not a case of analytics and large data. The question it raises is that if existing institutions are so grossly negligent in ensuring protection and safety for those for whom they are directly responsible, how can they be tasked with the much larger goal of preventing and inhibiting the epidemic of crimes committed through the use of analytics and large-scale data?

The root of the problem, in my estimation, is the widespread belief in untrammelled individualism. It is why Mike Harris pushed the policy cancelling the use of automatic speed cameras in Ontario. The belief is widespread that personal conscience is the supreme judge of morality precisely at a time when the consciences of individuals are being subjected to widespread manipulation. It is why sexual predators complain that their rights to privacy are being abrogated. It is why they argue that laws should only be introduced to which the individual consents explicitly to bind his or her will. The source of justice, in this misguided view, is seen to be each individual’s unrestricted and unguided conception of virtue and the common good. The result – the diminution of inherited practices of order and good governance that not only respect the individual’s rights to consent and freedom, but reinforce them precisely by also respecting community values and norms already developed to defend our institutions against new assaults. That now entails relatively minor investments in items like automatic ticketing speed cameras, which save money (and lives). Such initiatives also entail massive investments in the technology and skills necessary to counter cyber-criminality.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

DO NOT READ THIS BLOG UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM. The film is brilliant, but even more brilliant than most critics perceived.

How would you feel if you, a mother, had an argument with your teenage daughter, Angela – not exactly an archetypal angel – about whether to let her use your car to go out on a date on a Saturday evening? What if your daughter stormed out of the house saying she would walk and if she got raped it was your fault? What if you, as she fled out the door, called after her in anger that she should get raped for the foul language and insults hurled at you? What if you said this really to get back at her because you had just learned that she was exploring moving out and moving in with her father, Charlie, who used to beat you and whom you divorced when he ran off with a 19-year-old bimbo?

And then she was raped that evening. Not only raped, but murdered. Not only murdered, but raped while she lay dying. Not only murdered and raped, but her corpse burned. As much as you might live in a modern world and knew that, in this case, what happened was not a consequence of your words, the guilt you bore would go so deep and be so mutilating that you wanted, that you needed, to displace any responsibility onto another. What do you do with the ugly and agonizing pain, with the weight of that ton of guilt, with the deep burning embers of a searing grief? What better place to displace that responsibility but onto a club of cracker cops unable to find the murderer and rapist?

This is NOT a film about an enraged, unrelenting, uncompromising woman of steel, determined to ensure justice for the murder and rape of her child. It is not even a film about righteous vengeful fury. There is no righteousness whatsoever. And there certainly is no desire for justice. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) insists that she wants the government to set up a database with the DNA of every male so that it can be matched with the DNA on her daughter’s burnt corpse, it is not to obtain and exact justice, but to obtain and exact vengeance.

“Be sure and kill ‘em.” She is a hard-hearted woman so deeply frozen and dead on the inside and so full of fire and brimstone and steely edges on the outside, that we as the audience are sucked into applauding her devil take all attitude if only because the language of both sympathy and bureaucracy is so cold that we welcome, indeed applaud, someone who talks without thinking and fires away with little if no concern for or empathy with her targets. What magic when a writer/director can make such a detestable woman so tremendously likeable that we offer her our deepest sympathies. The chief target of her rage is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of affection and sensitive attachment, like his predecesor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is intelligent, sensitive and conscientious rather than an indifferent oaf.

The film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, begins with a distraught but very determined mother bent on displacing that guilt in the ostensible pursuit of justice, with which we as viewers easily identify. Especially since her method of embarrassing the police is so public. She pays for putting up signs on three obsolete titular billboards to express her rage and frustration. The motive is unbeknownst to everyone, except her son who witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter. The billboards are used to displace that deep and very painful guilt. Critics who look at Mildred as “morally unimpeachable” are truly blind and deaf.  She is a harridan, immensely likeable and sympathetic, but still a vicious harridan.

Gradually as the film unfolds, we learn of the source and depth of that guilt. But we learn much more. For Ebbing is a town where the use of foul language is the norm, where the mistreatment of Blacks is the norm, especially by one police officer, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has never been held responsible for his violent and outrageous behaviour. It just so happens that this violent cop is a mama’s boy, his mother is a virulent bitch and he is probably a repressed homosexual. He gradually wins our sympathy.

It is a town in which a happy family of a couple, a police chief (Willoughby), his wife and two children, play a game by a stream whereby the two young girls are required to fish for stuffed animals around the blanket on which they are sitting without leaving the blanket, while the parents go off for some nookie. But the instructions to the girls are delivered in the foulest language imaginable. As Mildred says at the beginning of the film when discussing the wording with her son on the proposed billboards, you may address your children in the foulest language, but on public billboards you “can’t say nothin’ defamatory.” It is a world of deep hypocrisy.

The sin permeating this town goes much deeper. When a priest, Father Montgomery, comes to the home of the distraught mother to try to persuade her to take down the billboards that are causing such stress to the popular police chief, the mother kicks him out, but not before reducing him to quivering silence by accusing him of complicity for doing nothing, just as he did nothing when his altar boy was seduced or raped by another priest. And in guilt, we sit silent in the theatre oblivious to the fact that this is a tale of raw vengeance and shame rather than of justice and guilt. The male secretive self-protective clubs of the town are now under attack by one enraged woman and her wild jeremiad. And the moral universe is inverted in McDonagh’s view when priests become priests and cops become cops because they want to do good, but are perceived now as sinister simply because of the costumes they wear, whether a clerical collar or a police uniform.

Unequivocally, Ebbing is a town in which sin has raged like a wildfire so that it permeates the language and behaviour of ordinary citizens and officers of the law alike. It is a town where the rule of impulse outweighs the rule of law. It is a town in which any efforts to purify the town had fallen by the wayside and became as obsolete as those billboards did when the new highway was built to bypass the old road. Bad behaviour had become the norm in this town in the heartland of America and sin is everywhere. The town is morally polluted. Not even the torching of the billboards and then the police station, and the scorching of the dumb and distasteful racist Constable Dixon, can even expurgate the sin. Dixon is, of course, the antithesis of Dixon of Dock Green (Jack Warner), the archetypal London bobby of the twenty-year long-running BBC series about a police officer full of common sense and empathy,

But that is just the background, the setting, very important but not the central theme of the movie. The town ceremonies and rituals and rites provide no opportunity any longer to expiate that sin, to cleanse the society of its moral pollution. Moral pollution has become the norm. There is no ritual whereby the town, its leaders and its ordinary citizens can acknowledge their responsibility for the sins. Everyone is complicit. Everyone “stands by.” For the movie is about guilt transmuted into shame, and sin transformed into vengeance.

Guilt goes deeper than sin. It is at the root of sin. It is the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. At the end of the film, the most vicious police officer becomes a burnt offering and seems to repent (following the guiding note of his now deceased chief of police to learn about guilt, confession and love), owning up to one’s responsibilities and learning to love oneself and others as a good Christian should. It is clear that the members of the town, especially this police officer and his ardent accuser, the mother of the raped girl, go off to possibly murder a suspect who they now know could not have killed the daughter. The town and the people of the town have no rite, no ritual, no religious practice through which they can expiate their guilt and accept responsibility for what they did and what they do. For the fundamental moral code of the town has become displacement of responsibility. The town is awash not only in sin but in guilt. There is no act of reparation available to them. Instead, they get a rifle and ostensibly set out possibly to murder an innocent man. They will decide en route whether they will do it.

There is no redemption. There is no means of redemption. Guns and violence as the answer to problems have so permeated the value structure, have so displaced any real moral code, that the only answer to any action is revenge, not understanding and certainly not any acceptance of responsibility for what has taken place. There is no mechanism to sharpen any individual’s conscience. Paganism has returned to occupy central stage in the heartland of America. It is a Manichean world in which demonic forces seem to continually defeat any divine force. It is a world which has lost most of its humanity where each human, every male and every female, assumes responsibility for him or herself to ensure a divine presence on earth and the expulsion of the demonic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is about the demonic taking control of a town in the heartland of America just as it has taken over the White House. Any rituals to contain and dispose of moral impurities have largely been sacrificed to cowardice, to ambition and to complicity. We have returned to an age in which a young teenage girl is raped, is murdered, is raped while dying, is offered as a burnt offering, but not to a divine order of a healthy, responsible life, but to a demonic order of guns and irresponsibility, of anarchy rather than the rule of law, of impulse rather than thoughtful consideration. It is a world in which the police station as the central symbol of the rule of law has been burnt to the ground. It is a world in which we who watch cheer this act of revenge and pseudo expiation, thrilled at the violence rather than discomfited by the phenomenal moral deterioration in our human moral code.

God is death. Humans must be wedded to life. The rituals of death, of sin and guilt need a place, a temple, where they can be disposed of. If a rabbi reminds me of the sensuousness, the incense and the smoke, the vibrancy and the flavours of a place of temple sacrifice, then that rabbi is totally out of touch with the function of the temple and the meaning of its absence. For without a temple, all responsibility rests on each and every one of us to be accountable for the commissions of sinful acts that thrust shards of guilt deep into our souls. The destroyed temple does not simply belong to a more primitive past in the sense of appealing to our basic sensuality as if it is simply an outdoor food market.

Why do we need to significantly reduce and limit a gun culture? When do we need blood prohibitions – when the police chief vomits up blood from his cancer, we must recognize the symbolic significance. After all, as McDormand says, “When you croak, the billboards won’t be as effective.” When the sadistic dentist is forced to drill into his own fingernail rather than into the not quite frozen tooth that needs removal, we get a glimpse of a place where inflicting pain has become a way of life and not a place where we try to make pain as painless as possible. So even the police chief’s self-sacrifice to minimize the pain to be inflicted on his family comes across as a positive but largely meaningless gesture, for the core meaning of what this hero did for the town is lost in a miasma of meaningless vengeance totally detached from justice.

Death is now totally intertwined with life instead of hived off and restricted so that life can thrive and blossom. The billboards ask a question intended to embarrass the police. But they are a sign of a society reduced to a shame rather than a guilt culture, a society in which out of helplessness and hopelessness conflicts are resolved by either coercion or shaming rather than by acknowledging guilt and assuming responsibility.

When a movie can put such a profound theological and social commentary before our eyes, and do so with humour and wit, when it so deliberately and cleverly misleads us into a failure to recognize who the hero and who the villain is, when a movie takes us into the bypassed rural routes of the heartland of America to unveil the miasma of sin and the absence of guilt and the rule of law that pervades the town, and when the acting by Frances McDormand , Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all so brilliant, the writing and direction of Martin McDonagh so nuanced, the movie deserves every reward it received even though it appears that most commentators missed its religious and social profundity.

The land needs to be cleansed, especially the heartland Only then can positive mitzvot and proper ethics once again rule in the land of milk and honey.

Data

 

Everywhere I turn, articles, seminars, news reports and scheduled seminars focus on the issue of data. The article Sunday morning in The Washington Post by Craig Timberg entitled, “Trump campaign consultant took data about millions of users without their knowledge,” begins with Facebook’s recent suspension of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that evidently played a key role in President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Cambridge Analytica had claimed that it was at the pinnacle of marrying the art of political persuasion to the science of big data by tailoring advertising to the psychological traits of voters, in this case, political messages and fundraising requests married to political dispositions through psychographic targeting. The company boasted of possessing 5,000 data points on every American.

I am not here concerned with the ethics of privacy (improperly sharing data and failing to destroy private information), the ethics of spying given the covert character of data, the tactics, the accuracy of using five selected basic traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, to develop correlations, the lack of regulation of this Wild West frontier of human knowledge or the effectiveness of these correlations, however valid any one of those questions may be. Quite aside from the immoral and probably illegal use of data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission or knowledge, and using that data for nefarious political purposes, the specifics are even more frightening with tales of Alexander Nix, the recently suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and his cohorts caught openly claiming to have used shadow companies as fronts, using bribes, sex workers as traps and a host of other unethical practices to advance the position of the company.

My focus is the significance of the effort in gaining access to the psychological profiles of an estimated 50 million Americans and equivalent numbers in other countries. For example, on the issue of effectiveness, Cambridge Analytica claimed that its data modeling and polling showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest and shaped a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The actual as well as potential for undermining Western democracies is important and leaders of populist parties, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, which won 33% of the Italian vote in the 4 March elections and has been the first major digital political organization in the world, boasted that the dawn of electronic populism has come ending the era of liberal representative democracy. Luigi Di Maio: “You can’t stop the wind with your hands.” Digital means and digital data are combined to revolutionize politics and supposedly return power to the people.

This morning, I also received an email inviting me to attend the Walter Clarkson Symposium.  The keynote address by Deborah Stone addresses the “The Ethics of Counting” and the day-long symposium itself will focus on: “The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The issue: how data is collected to result in policies based on evidence-based decisions to produce statistical methods and models relied upon for policy decisions. The advocates promote such data for the ability to reduce complex realities to objective and comparable metrics. Critics suspect the evaluations.

The effects on humans clearly extends into the economic sphere. Last evening, I attended a symposium of top Canadian applied economists focused on prognostication or prophecy, the core purpose of the data age according to Jill Lepore. The economists looked at the tea leaves of fiscal and monetary policy, housing and taxation as well as trends and forces affecting the value of the Canadian dollar to paint a relatively bleak picture of the Canadian economy based on each of the economist’s efforts at large data crunching.

The reliance on data as a primary form of knowledge and determinant of policy has a definite history which Jill Lepore argued began with photography in the nineteenth century. Initially, I found this ironically to be counter-intuitive, but her point was that the era of facts correlated with the Sanctuary of Truth, of numbers correlated with the Sanctuary of Method, was succeeded by the primacy of large data that, in my argument can be correlated with the university as a Social Service Station. The reason Jill pointed to film was because photography in the late nineteenth century was used as evidence. This was coterminous with the decline in faith of eye-witnesses in identifying individuals involved in crimes. As our senses were undermined, though data had not yet filled the vacuum, the first steps had been taken to displace our senses and prepare the ground for the empire of data.

Ironically, according to Jill, these first efforts were used for utopian reasons – to undermine the case for the ill-treatment of the Negro in the U.S. At the same time, the effort established the pathway to indirect evidence and that a “picture was worth a thousand words.” James Frye developed the lie detector in the 1920s to show that a compilation of data in one’s body, of which we were not consciously aware, could be a more reliable detector of lying than that of any so-called expert at “spotting” lies. Orson Wells radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” seemed to prove that in the age of radio one could no longer rely on one’s ears any more than one’s eyes.

The negative efforts to disenfranchise the senses had prepared the ground for the age of data which began in 1948 with the invention of the computer following the secret work at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes in Britain during WWII. Bletchley Park has been commemorated in a number of films, especially Enigma in 2001 with Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows and Dougray Scott, but even more effectively in The Imitation Game (2014) staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. The government code and cypher codebreakers learned to penetrate the German and Enigma ciphers, an impossible task without the use of a proto-computer. The “Ultra” intelligence produced undoubtedly shortened the war.

UNIVAC was put on display in 1951. It was used in a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film, Desk Set (originally a William Marchant 1955 play), in 1957 to show how facts could be established using such a device far faster than relying on human observations and analyses. Spencer Tracy plays the “electronic brains” engineer who manages EMERAC (the Electromagnetic MEmory  and Research Arithmetical Calculator). Katherine Hepburn plays what will become an obsolete “fact checker.”

JFK would become the first television-age politician when “The Simulation Project” was launched in 1958 to determine what policy positions would turn on voters and which would turn them off. Data had entered the age of political manipulation. But numbers still reigned even as data sciences rose in academe to claim not only that data knew faster, but that it knew better and, even more importantly, that only data could tell us some things – such as the key elements of sociology – demographical distributions – and economics – such as the material I heard last night correlating falling single house prices in the GTA with rising condo prices with speculative investing with numbers of overseas investors to create a graph of demand and supply correlated with market prices. This was not just a matter of adding and correlating numbers, but of employing algorithms to knit the data together and produce a formula for predicting shifts in market pricing.

It was no surprise, in line with Gauchet’s analysis, that these economists all seemed at heart to be committed to neo-liberalism. When you marry a Trump regime that seems to have no respect for a balanced budget and engages in redistribution of wealth to the rich – quite aside from is impulsive, unpredictable and shape-shifting character – with the Trudeau regime in Canada also based on deficit financing and a redistributive rather than growth budget, but one dedicated to serving the middle class rather than plutocrats, then the outlook has to be pessimistic and even more pessimistic for Canada that is in such a vulnerable position, exacerbated when it does not cut corporate and individual tax rates to compete with the Americans.

However, economic suicide is not the same as political enslavement. In 1989, a London think tank gathered vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables,” and targeted them with tailored messages. In the 1990s, the technique was tested on health and development campaigns in Britain and then extended to international political consulting and defence. Those were efforts at control at the same time as data was being collected and spliced and diced to careen everything out of control.

An algorithm invented in 1999 by a graduate student at the University of Waterloo was used to bundle mortgages together and sell them as tranches, a system which began to reel out of control in 2003 as salesmen and bankers promoted the products without an iota of understanding or even any ability to develop such an understanding, of precisely what they were selling. For it was based on a computer projection and different taxonomic tools to create a new species of monetary instruments. The economic bust of 2007-08 that followed almost brought down the whole international economic order. As indicated above with the story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, privacy, so critical to the age of the Sanctuary of Truth and the age of facts but also to the world’s public in general, became a major casualty. The world of data seemed to produce greater calamities than benefits, especially for the ordinary man or woman.

As also indicated above, we are entering a new age in which evidence-based medicine in numerous fields can be handled better by the computer than by highly trained individuals. But, at the same time, as data is crunched and analyzed in ways no ordinary human can do, falsification becomes barely detectable until the economic house comes crashing down. As also indicated above, the data predators have emerged out of the woodwork who, like termites, are currently eating through the foundations of our homes. It should be no surprise that paranoia increases, which in turn can be exacerbated by the complexity, inaccessibility and control over parts of our lives and its overall trend towards decontextualizing. History itself gets thrown into the waste bin of history. As the speakers said at last evening’s symposium, Canada has the highest proportion of its population with tertiary degrees but also the highest level of unemployed educated individuals. In a day of data, who needs historians or philosophers.

What is the link to data as a new foundation stone of evidence for a university. Some believe the issue is not evidence, but the wearing of blinkers to ward off unwanted information. As Heather MacDonald noted, we not only educate large numbers who cannot get jobs comparable with their degree of education, but we also bring up our children without the appropriate values of character and resilience (characteristic of the teaching in the Sanctuary of Truth) needed in such circumstances. “Instead, we merely validate them. From their earliest days of school, we teach them that they are weak individuals in need of constant therapeutic support. In England, the ‘safe space’ pedagogy was introduced in elementary schools long before students began to demand safe spaces at universities. High school students were told that they didn’t have to listen to lectures about suicide or other difficult subjects because they were likely to be traumatized. So by the time they enter university, students have become entitled to this kind of protection and validation. They actually feel that they have a right not to hear words that jar or challenge them, and that speaking these words is a cultural crime.”

It is the world of the data-based university as a Social Service Station that I will explore tomorrow.

Tomorrow: The Primacy of Data and the end of the Social Service Station

A Historical Intellectual Frame

In September, Jill Lepore’s book, These Truths: A History of the United States, will come out as a Norton publication. Yesterday, I heard the last of her three Priestley lectures at the University of Toronto respectively on Facts, Numbers and Data, the core material that went into that book. The lecture yesterday was on data. The volume offers an account of the history of the United States in terms of shifts in what counts as the key evidence for establishing what we can believe in successive eras – the Era of Truth, the Era of Numbers and the Era of Data. It is a bold neo-Hegelian thesis, and, in that very mode, runs counter to what is accepted as history by most historians.

The book, and the lectures, argue that societies change as the technologies change as the concepts embedded in those technologies change and offer new ways through which to view the world. Thomas Jefferson called “these truths” upon which the U.S. republic was founded political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. I will map onto her lectures the development of these truths, each as the primary core of the three eras she discusses and to which she only alluded in the lectures. I will not offer the political, economic and social dimensions of society arbitrarily. Instead, I will superimpose on her intellectual framework the core thesis of a French philosopher and intellectual historian, Marcel Gauchet, another rare neo-Hegelian. His ideas were put forth in his four volume, Avènement de la démocratie (The Advent of Democracy) published between 2007 and 2017, the same ten years in which Lepore developed her thesis.

If that is not complicated enough, I will superimpose my own institutional history of the university on that intellectual framework and use the Lepore and Gauchet frames to elaborate on the emergence of successive ideas of the university over the same period. As any Hegelian will do, Lepore writes of a nation that begins in contradiction and the fight over the meaning of history informed by the central preoccupation of the United States with race that brings about the special anxieties and anguish that trouble America. Given Gauchet’s work and my own, my thesis will be broader in one sense but narrower in another since my prime reference will be the emergence and development of the university worldwide but primarily by reference to that institution as it develops in Canada.

To make matters more difficult, I will first work backwards by initially discussing the third of her Priestley lectures on data that she gave yesterday and then move backwards to discuss numbers and facts. In that context, I will put forth the core idea of the university as a Social Service Station (SSS) first and then go back to discuss the idea of the University as a Sanctuary of Method and, previous to that, as a Sanctuary of Truth. Before I offer that intellectual guide map, I will present a triptych of Lepore’s, Gauchet’s and my framework in a static mode of simple succession. Only then will I go back and move forward to depict the dynamic progression of contradictions that plague each era and help yield the next stage. I will include the final stage of the university as a supermarket of ideas and a post-truth world in a separate discussion at the end of the series.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American history at Harvard. She is also a staff writer for The New Yorker and I may have referred to those writings on such varied subjects as barbie dolls and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in previous blogs. Relatively speaking, Lepore is a rising bright star in the intellectual heavens having received her BA in English in 1987 from Tufts, her MA in American culture in 1990 at the University of Michigan in 1990 and her PhD at Yale in 1995. In just over two decades, this sprightly and down to earth historian of popular culture has cut a swath through academe. The triptych presented below, without the additions of Gauchet and my own conceptions, is what she presented in her Priestley lectures as the character of three very different ages of determining what we know, how we know it and why we know to explain the character of these shifts.

Stages (what?) Facts Numbers Data
Themes
Modes (how?) Discernment Measurement Patterns
Goals (why?) Truth Power Prediction
Rough dates 1800’s 1900-1960 1960-2020
Primacy People Science Progress
Realms Civil Society Economics Neo-liberalism
University Sanctuary of Truth Sanctuary of Method Social Service Station

In one sense, the above depicts the stages of the birth and development of historical consciousness in modernity. For modernity itself since the development of the nation-state in the sixteenth and seventeenth century has prioritized change over stasis, a vision of dynamic transformation over pre-existing truths. In the mediaeval period, the dominant idea of the polity was of the King’s Two Bodies that provided the essential characterization of the politics of a society built on the divine right of kings, the very conception that gave rise to the notion of a ‘body politic.’ (Cf. Ernst H. Kantorowicz The King’s Two Bodies: A Study of Mediaeval Political Theology; the book was first published in 1957 and was one of the seminal works that informed my own thinking – a revised edition, which I have not read, was published recently by Princeton University Press) The core thesis, which I quote, is the following:

The king’s natural body has physical attributes, suffers, and dies, naturally, as do all humans; but the king’s other body, the spiritual body, transcends the earthly and serves as a symbol of his office as majesty with the divine right to rule. The notion of the two bodies allowed for the continuity of monarchy even when the monarch died, as summed up in the formulation “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

As in the contemporary era, the university went through four stages in the mediaeval period with its own version of a Sanctuary of Truth, A Sanctuary of Method, a Social Service Station and a Supermarket of Knowledge. (See Howard Adelman, The Holiversity) In that period, there were two radically different realms, the eternal one above that ruled over the changing one below, the realm of eternal and the realm of transience.

Gauchet dubs it the state of heteronomy in contrast to modernity governed by the concept of autonomy, the capacity for self-determination and the ability to make one’s own laws and self-legislate. According to Gauchet, in the period of modernity, democracy emerged as the prime political system and the nation-state the prime political unit to express this idea. In my view, not elaborated in this series, what we find is the rediscovery of the ancient Israelite conception of the nation-state via the Dutch thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries now wedded to a revised version of the Greek concept of democracy.

In Gauchet’s version, modernity begins the process of leaving religion behind in the dustbin of history. Gauchet is an avowed French secularist. In my own view, in modernity the divine re-enters history as a process of self-revelation rather than the view of an unchanging deity ruling from a transcendent perch on its wayward and contentious empire below. On the surface, and on the surface only, modernity gives the appearance of leaving religion behind but really re-incorporates religious notions in a sense of spiritual revelation over time. The religion left behind is that of the totem of hunter-gatherer societies in which fate lies in the hands of the supernatural Other, either embedded in a world of natural spirits or disembodied from the natural world first by nomads who are not hunter-gatherers but move their domesticated flocks alongside them.

To jump to the present, we have entered a period in which democracy is in crisis, in which the university is in crisis and in which a sense of powerlessness has become the defining notion in radical contrast to the original vision of autonomy and self-determination. The symptoms include an obsession with an apocalyptic outcome and destruction of the natural world that lies at the core of environmentalism and the predominant mode of the new fiction and sci-fi movies. Instead of individual self-determination, politics has become for us liberals identity politics. Instead of politics as a collective enterprise of communal self-realization, it has become the realm in which personal fulfillment is the dominant mode. As a consequence, the core of a democracy, has been sucked from the plum to leave behind a dried and wrinkled prune. As privacy disappears, so ironically does the sense of the public.

One final note on Hegel and neo-Hegelian thought. Hegel has been radically misinterpreted through a Marxist lens and my own scholarship on Hegel focused on a reinterpretation to unpack the central religious themes of Hegel. While the dominant populist intellectual belief was that Hegel was convinced that history led to a terminus, to a final point of unity. I, and the rest of the Toronto Hegelian school, contended that history was not about the absolute as the end of history, for the absolute was always with us from the start. At each stage of historical self-revelation, the absolute takes on a new chimera and projects a new illusion of unity that will soon be fractured by its internal contradictions. Rather than coming to the end of history, rather than Hegel pronouncing on the character of that end, he wrote that, “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Contrary of the current character of the world of data preoccupied with its positivist emphasis on prediction, in history, we can only understand it backwards. That is the perpetual tragedy of history. As soon as we recognize the contradictions of an era we have moved on to a different age with its own internal contradiction. Hence, not a new unity but new forms of fragmentation and forces of dissolution.

I will begin next week with describing the age of data, the process of its emergence and the forces within it of dissolution with a focus on the dissolution of the Social Service Station that is in the process of being transformed into a supermarket of knowledge. Let me try to be clear. Each stage is not a discrete unit separate from the previous stage. It emerges out of the contradictions of that early stage out of elements of technology, of communication and of a mind-set emerging in that earlier stage. In this alliance of convenience of two successive stages, the defined enemy is always, not the previous stage, but the stage prior to that. It is a way of covering up current contradictions while displacing blame on that which has already been cast into the dustbin of history.

I will go back to trace the series of crisis that develop out of the contradictions in each stage to try to provide the background of why, when we have accumulated not only more knowledge than at any previous time, but the means to access even much more while, at the same time, we perhaps have never felt so impotent accompanied by the feeling that society has careened out of control. What happened to the idea of autonomy and self-determination. In the film Annihilation that I wrote about in the last blog, the central conceit hidden behind the martial mission film genre and the horror film genre was a conception of alien forces, not only taking possession of our selves and our brains in the world of big data, but of the very DNA of life in the whole of the living natural realm by becoming the ultimate body snatcher and controlling the central messaging system of our DNA to create new monsters, hybrids and mutations.

It is the roots of this dystopia of impending doom and its emergence that we need to come to understand. Just when we seem to have become the masters of our destiny, society is more than ever pervaded by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in spite of the bursts of volcanic energy from high school students in America and women in America. Is it possible and how can we recover the original bold claim that we are masters of our destiny?

One last caveat. After Lepore’s lecture, which one of my grandsons attended with me, we went out to dinner together. He expressed an unbridled confidence in the wonders and indeed miracles that reside in the new realm of data. In my account, I will have to explain this overwhelmingly utopian vision in juxtaposition to the dystopic one that I sketched above.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Sunday: Facts, Numbers, Data: The Social Service Station

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Annihilation and Darkest Hour

Yesterday, I saw two movies as well as attending Jill Lepore’s J.F. Priestley lecture on “Numbers.” The first was Annihilation starring Natalie Portman and directed by Alex Garland (who previously directed Ex Machina) that I saw with my youngest son at a movie theatre (it has to be seen on a full wide or even IMAX screen to be really appreciated) before I went to the lecture. The second was the Winston Churchill movie, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour with Gary Oldham offering a simply outstanding portrayal of Winston Churchill. I saw that movie in the evening on TV. Since I slept in until 6:00 a.m. this morning, I might not finish this blog today. For I need to take a driver’s test given that I have turned 80. And I want to hear Jill Lepore’s third lecture on data which I am going to hear this afternoon with one of my grandsons.

My son loved Annihilation. I hated it. There is no question that it was an extraordinary visual experience; the imagery throughout blows your mind. But it is also a horror film in which at every turn there is another horrible creature or spectacle about to attack the five brave women who have entered the “Shimmer” to find out why no one comes out who has gone in to the spreading alien presence on earth. One explanation for our radically different reactions to the film is that he loves horror movies and I cannot abide them.

But that is an insufficient explanation. For I could have enjoyed the visual and visionary spectacle and tried to ignore the cliché of the five-person team of individuals with different characters and motives going on such a suicidal mission, with one important and significant exception – the team in the current era of #Me Too was all female. The plot, instead of lauding the women for their courage, played up the “fact” that each was driven by a different self-destructive motive. Except Natalie Portman as Lena, who was the only one of the five that survived and returned to tell the tale.

The film in both its aesthetic and plot line is based on the scientific phenomenon of refraction with which all film directors, cinematographers and photographers are familiar and which either plagues them or delight them as they use the phenomena to evince an alien presence. However, in this film, refraction becomes a more elementary principle, not simply of bending light, but of interacting with our DNA and mixing it up to form new hybrids. As the suicide-prone physicist in the movie, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) discovers, radio signals cannot escape the Shimmer, not because they are blocked, but because they are refracted like light in a prism to prevent them from escaping. The extraordinary visuals of the film, however, not only come from the beauty of light being refracted, but from the horror of DNA being refracted to form mutants that not only cross the species divide, but ignore the radical division between animal and plant life.  The visual story line is one of the juxtaposition of terribly ugly (and dangerous) forms of life with extraordinary beauty.

My scientific critique has nothing to do with mutation, including mutations through refracted light, but with such an extraordinary and unbelievable recombination that, in my understanding of science, would make it impossible for any living being to emerge. And when something does not make sense, I turn off. The clichés of horror movies, including the initial appearance of Kane (Oscar Isaac) as a dead-eyed zombie returning from the dead at the beginning of the film just before he turns into a blood-vomiting dying man whose organs are all collapsing, were not the only elements that repelled me. I could not buy into the science and, if I watch a sci-fi movie, I want to see an extension of science and not the abuse and mutation of it.

I admit that the biological aberrations were brilliantly constructed and offered haunting images that were discomfiting, disorienting and genuinely frightening, all enhanced by the sound track, but when I wanted to go sleep to escape the misuse of science and the horror film assaults on both my sensibility and my intellectual critique, the noise – and, for me, it was just noise – kept me awake. Instead of loving the way Garland used plot and flashbacks to tantalize and tease by allowing us to both fall behind and sometimes even get ahead, I simply felt manipulated. And to what end? After all, the vaginal hole in the bottom of the lighthouse that had been the destiny of the five women may have been a visual wonder, but for me was a Freudian bore.

However, there was also something deeper going on to propel such a strong negative reaction in me and such a powerful positive response in my son. One reader of my blog just sent me a reference to another blog: (https://medium.com/personal-growth/seeing-vs-reading-29365d4540e2). That blog argued that seeing versus reading, intuition versus rational logic, looking at patterns versus parsing into elements, watching the interplay of solids, light and shadows rather than simply applying a taxonomy of categories using language, explained the difference between aesthetic appreciation and analytic skills, between creativity and, presumably, non-creativity.

Though I think the general argument is bogus, there is a difference between those who love pattern recognition, love the interplay of images and those who do not primarily see through such eyes. But for me, it is worse. For in medical school, I could never recognize anything through a microscope and had to use reductionist reasoning to determine what I was looking at. I have serious problems with face recognition. So, at root, whatever the large areas of overlapping interests between myself and my youngest son, in the end we see the world somewhat differently, especially when it comes to aesthetics and, in particular, certain kinds of film.

Obviously, this difference has grave consequences with respect to dealing with facts, numbers and data, which my son has no difficulty handling even though his prime interest is elsewhere.

In contrast, both my son and I loved Darkest Hour. If Annihilation used light to brilliant effect, darkness pervades the Winston Churchill film from an opening scene in which a secretary walks into a dark room and Churchill is nowhere to be seen until he lights his phallic cigar and adumbrates that he will be the guiding light for a nation under siege. The interplay of light and shadow operate in radically different ways than in Annihilation. The film takes us through the claustrophobic underground corridors of Whitehall and Westminster and even has Churchill riding for the first time on the underground (Did that really happen?). Further, we are into a realm of courage of a radically different and higher order. Churchill wavers between the pressure to sue for peace and the need to resist a tyrant to the death.

Citing Cliff Orwin, in yesterday’s blog I wrote that, “Liberals must manage the two diverse and rival passions of glory versus safety, ambition versus self-determination, and must do so by a reverence for candor and truth.” All these themes are in the film. Is Churchill after glory or is he the embodiment of courage resisting the retreat into the argument for safety at the cost of selling one’s soul, the position of Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane). In this film, Churchill is not so much driven by imperial ambitions as by a need to protect Great Britain, but without allowing the concern with safety to sacrifice the principle of self-determination. And into that balancing act, a normally forthright Churchill of candor retreats into equivocation to hide from the British people what a desperate position they are in before he returns to trusting them and once again demonstrating a reverence for truth and candor.

It is not as though Churchill does not feel. Instead of being portrayed as simply a brilliant orator with his finest speech at the climax of the film – “We shall fight them on….” He does not sell out his head, but knows what he must do. He does not act on impulse or simply based on his feelings and the need for safety most of all, but, instead, musters all that he knows and understands and the courage to do so against all odds and the sceptics that surround him. Instead of sentiment, he feels genuine compassion for the 4,000 troops at Calais but nevertheless decides to sacrifice them in a stalling maneuver to buy time for the rescue of 300,000 British troops from the shores of Dunkirk by an armada of small fishing boats and yachts under the serendipitous clouds that provide the needed air cover. To succeed, compassion and justice need to be supported by a willingness to face and share facts, with truth, and the quest for a real peace rather than to an ersatz peace of a nation that has surrendered to the rule of a tyrant, the core danger of populism.

Unlike Annihilation, this is a real thriller even though you know the outcome in advance, for both films are about the process of reaching the end, not the end itself.  At least in Darkest Hour, as we move between eloquence and meditative and even mumbling silences, we have the reference of a real linear timeline, the 26 days of May and June 1940 when Britain must face the results of the Nazi conquest and victory in Europe. In Darkest Hour, words are key, not visuals. They are enhanced by a lyrical score rather than what I heard as jarring noise in Annihilation.

Of course, the response to the film reflects a deep need for real leadership when one’s values and way of life are under siege.  Look at today. Russia kills those who flee abroad with nerve and atomic chemicals with virtual imPUTINy on British soil and the British government simply expels a 23 Russian “diplomats.” It is akin to responding to murder with a pinprick.

It is not as if we are absent of any examples of courage to speak out at the present time to confront both tyranny and the pusillanimous response of populists and sentimentalists. Though far from the grand scale of Churchill’s achievements, when Jeff Sessions totally misrepresented the position of California and the record of alleged felons that had “escaped” because California did not support the roundup of illegal immigrants, James Schwab, a spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Agency (IEA) – clearly no softie – was asked to deflect journalists’ questions about the basis for the “numbers” of alleged “criminal aliens” and 800 wanted criminals cited by the Justice Department as having “escaped” because of the Californian government intervention. Schwab resigned rather than lie about the facts and the numbers and echo the claims that, because of Californian federal government action, “864 criminal aliens and public safety threats remain at large” because of warnings provided by the mayor. The lie concerned the number of people planned to be picked up – far fewer than the 800 or so – or the numbers of criminals among them.

Of course, Donald Trump’s lies are much worse, come far more frequently and have greater consequences. Every Canadian knows how interdependent the Canadian economy is with the American one. Every Canadian knows how important NAFTA is for Canadian prosperity. But Trump lied, lied right to Justin Trudeau, and said that America has a trade deficit with Canada when the reverse is true, a truth even in an economic report issued by the White House and signed off by Trump.  “You’re wrong Justin,” Trump said in response to Justin’s claims that Canada had a trade deficit with the U.S. When Trump was forced to admit that, “we have no trade deficit,” he added. “Well, in that case I feel (my italics) differently, but I don’t believe it.” In fact, (we are delaying dealing with facts and numbers until tomorrow) the U.S. enjoys a $US12.5 billion surplus with Canada.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Tomorrow: Facts and Numbers with Jill Lepore.