Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

A number of observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summertime,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and Darkness

by

Howard Adelman

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

If he comes your way, do not miss him.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

A Life of Quiet Desperation – Certain Women

A Life of Quiet Desperation

by

Howard Adelman

Certain Women stars Laura Dern, Michele Williams and Kristen Stewart with Lily Gladstone the only non-star in a starring role. The film is scripted and directed by Kelly Reichardt from an adaptation of two of the eleven stories in Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It and one story from her collection, Half in Love.

Set in Montana with its broad high plains and mountains in the background, other than the absence of any significant traffic, this was not the extraordinarily beautiful Montana we drove through twice in the previous two years. This is a state viewed up close through a triptych of vignettes of the lives of four women living in a state in which Billings with its 100,000 plus souls is a huge metropolis.

Here is the way the film is described in the publicity: “The lives of three women intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail.” There are at least four misleading assertions in this one short sentence. The film is about four not three women, though it has three big stars and three stories strung together. Secondly, the lives of the women do not intersect, or barely and tangentially. It happens to be that Laura Dern’s lover in the first vignette is the husband of Michele Williams in the second one. And Laura works in a law office which Lily Gladstone comes across when searching for Kristen Stewart.

Other than these accidental and incidental crossings, there is virtually no intersection and inter-action in the movie. Each woman is akin to the very long train with which the film begins, each with its own engine and each acquiring more and more boxcars or experiences as the engine traverses across the plain. A prominent theme in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India was “only connect.” The theme of this film is “barely connect.” It is indeed a portrait of lonely lives in a lonely landscape in which people live side-by-side, interact functionally, but are imprisoned emotionally. The real depth of interaction is with the landscape which seems to diminish each of them as they experience the impossibility of rising like mountains over what seems like an endless plain.

Third, this is not a film about small-town America, but about small-town Montana where even Wyoming is viewed as foreign territory. Fourth, not one person blazes a trail. It is a film about women “at the end of the trail,” and it is a trail of desperation to escape in a territory which promised escape from the turmoil and troubles of the megalopolis cities of America. But it is a tale of certain women, very specific women, who share one common feature, determination and resilience, able to adjust to changing circumstances by resuming being themselves. They are not shape-shifters, but human beings who spring back to shape as they meet their share of disappointments in life. They are strong, tough, hardy and durable, but also vital and supple, but they are anything but change agents and more like lonely trees growing out of the semi-arid soil of Montana.

The men are another order of being. They seem incapable of hearing, taking advice or instructions from the women or negotiating with them. Laura’s hapless client who has been betrayed by life and an insurance company finally and suddenly accepts in a very short time the advice of a male lawyer offering a second opinion. The conclusion that his legal case was hopeless was the same advice that Laura had been drilling into him for eight months. The old lonely man in the second story agrees to give the pile of hand-hewn stones piled up on his property as the remnants of an old schoolhouse that he inherited when he bought the property to Michele Williams who had been determined to acquire them to build her fantasy house, but only does so when Michele’s husband reassures the old man that he does not have to sell the stones or give them away and, even then, can change his mind at anytime.

Finally, the male students in the small town’s extension class on educational law seem to learn nothing from Kristen Stewart. She is like the talking cereal box in the TV ad representing an insurance company teaching a class of young children about the benefits and security that the insurance company provides. But the children can only ask how the box eats and why he does not have a belly button. The educators cannot deal with the rights of students, but only with issue about their own legal benefits.

The film blazes its message in huge Honest Ed neon lights, but makes a tremendous but very quiet impact because of the subtlety of the details and its minimalist approach. The movie masters the challenge of making the interior lives of these women cinematic. It is a very intimate movie without any intimacy. There is virtually no action, for this is a film about inaction, about stalemates, about people whose lives have been frozen in the winter of Montana. It is a movie that makes boredom interesting by drawing our attention, not to the large picture screen, but to very small revealing moments. There are no technical innovations that I could spot, though plenty of shots of shuffling feet. This is a movie that makes understatement seem like an overstatement.

This is not simply a movie in a low key opposing modesty and restraint to that which is showy, but one that offers three stories of four independent women who live lives of quiet desperation. Subdued is too strong a word for the characters. The tone of each of the three stories is not simply muted, but the sounds slip across the field speckled with light snow and a few piles of hay to feed the horses. We hear the roar of the tractor and the dog barking as it chases it, but like the film, the dog’s bark bounces off the silence and the dog has no destination but to run after the moving tractor. That is about the level of action in the movie. Silence rather than words suffuse the film.

Other than the publicity blurb, I read that this was a film about the pioneering spirit of women when it is anything but. A pioneer explores a new territory, innovates in technology or initiates a new way of thinking. This is a film that makes Montana look old, weary and worn-out.  Every single one of the main characters is at a dead end in their lives. Rather than standing on a frontier, the whole sense of the movie is that they are in a backwater but, relative to the male characters, they come across as having a degree of spirit. Their loneliness is experienced more acutely because the men act out their meaningless lives while the women convey a sense of at least wanting some intimacy.

In the first vignette, Laura Dern is a lawyer observed over a period of interacting with one client, once an artisan carpenter, who has been injured at work but cannot legally pursue an insurance claim because he accepted a small payment from the insurance company. In the second vignette, Michele Williams plays a frustrated wife alienated from her sulky and resentful teenage daughter and living with but estranged from her husband even as the family camps in the Montana wilderness. In the third vignette, Kristen Stewart, the only member of her family who went beyond living off unskilled labour at the bottom of the employment pool, who has crawled up and achieved a law degree, finds that the only job she has been able to land is teaching educational law – of which she knows virtually nothing – to a motley tiny collection of adult students who presumably are educators but with no desire to become educated. Out of loneliness and with nothing to do, Lily Gladstone, who works caring for horses, wanders into her class and becomes enchanted by another female whose disenchantment with life is on full display.

I should not have written that this is a film absent of intimacy. Because there are indeed two dimensions of real intimacy on display. One is of Lily Gladstone with the horses she cares for and her dog. The other is with the landscape. In fact, the landscape is probably the most powerful presence in the movie. There are probably more shots of the spaces than of any of the characters.

There is also a sense that the film is also about the art of filmmaking, a very lonely profession that starts with the filmmaker falling in love with and/or writing a script and spending what seems like an eternity by oneself envisioning and blocking out the film cinematically. Then the director moves onto a different level and shares the activity of making the movie with a very large group of collaborators, only, in the end, to be thrust back onto your own resources and your own loneliness when the editor enters the editing room and returns to communing with himself or herself.

Whereas, Reichardt emerges with a highly successful result, her characters on screen end up facing a future even more bleak and miserable than the one they had when the stories began.

Malignant Narcissism and Epochal Change

Malignant Narcissism and Epochal Change

by

Howard Adelman

We are in the process of an epochal change. Narcissism, as indicated throughout the world, is on the march and in many places – Turkey, Russia, and now the U.S. Malignant narcissists (MNs) occupy the highest political positions in the land and threaten to do so in many other places, facilitated by minor non-malignant narcissists who already dominate the corridors of power. The new media somehow have helped dismantle the institutional intellectual checks that worked and were designed to keep such personalities away from the apex of power. When the personality who occupies the top political office in the land and the centre of political authority, when the self-centredness that was supposed to be the essential character of the economic order – though it was really not – becomes the predominant trait envisaged as dominating all orders, then the seeds of rot and disorder have invaded the central hub to allow destructiveness rather than constructivism to become the order of the day.

Narcissists love themselves more than anything, and malignant narcissists love only themselves or those considered to be reflections of themselves. All energy is expended in self-confirmation rather than in efforts to understand and comprehend the mysteries of the universe. Immune to falsifiability, MNs disparage science, the essence of which is a willingness to be open to self-criticism and critical self-reflection. The MN is very capable of pivoting and tactically adjusting to setbacks, but will never admit that the initiative of the Executive Order on migration was just a terrible and inept expression of governance. An MN not only dislikes restraints and government rules to protect the citizenry in the economic sphere, but he expands this dictum into a transcendental principle of understanding altogether. A new executive order on migration will be written and issued to get around the obstacles, but these are not regarded as constitutional limits on actions, but as barriers to be crushed in due time.

If the empath is inherently shy and is embarrassed by praise, the MN cannot live without it. The thirst for accolades is insatiable in proportion to the distance of any personality traits or accomplishments from deserving such praise. While empaths seek solitude to restore their equanimity, MNs need to surround themselves with courtiers, supplicants and sycophants who are loyal, not to any idea or ideal, but to The Donald.

But what about friends. Brian Mulroney, once Prime Minister of Canada, is a friend of Donald Trump. Whatever his failings as a blowhard, Mulroney was not a self-serving malignant narcissist. Self-serving perhaps, so when I first met him, within 30 seconds he had sized me up and, having determined I was of no use to him, abruptly terminated our contact. The Donald would not have needed that initial handshake to even make such a determination.

Further, an ordinary egocentric character like Mulroney could still bestow US$5 million on Nelson Mandela of the ANC after he was freed from years in prison. An extraordinary person like Brian Mulroney was also one of the rare statesmen who, without fanfare, was the only world leader we knew who wrote two, not just one, letter to President Habyarimana of Rwanda urging him to retreat from the persecution of Tutsis. So why and how could Mulroney be friends with Trump?

Bob Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, is another personal friend of Donald Trump. By virtually all accounts, Kraft is a fair and generous man, highly successful and well loved and respected. During Super Bowl week, he explained his friendship with Donald Trump. “When [Kraft’s wife] Myra died [in 2011], Melania [Trump] and Donald came up to the funeral in our synagogue, then they came for memorial week to visit with me. Then he called me once a week for the whole year, the most depressing year of my life when I was down and out. He called me every week to see how I was doing, invited me to things, tried to lift my spirits. He was one of five or six people that were like that. I remember that.”

This is not a false memory. This is true. And there are many other such testimonies of individuals who have remained loyal to Donald Trump in spite of what they regard as his eccentricities, his bad taste and his often oafish and insensitive behaviour. Further, Trump offers these loyalists, these Red Tories, reasons to identify with his political platform. Kraft said of DT’s planned remake of America’s inner cities: “Working class people and lower income people, we have to help more. They’ve gotten hurt over the last decade a lot. We have to create jobs and a vibrant economy that helps those communities throughout America. I really believe and hope that the new administration is going to do that.”

Kraft is not an empath. He is just a very successful good-hearted citizen who cannot recognize a practiced manipulator for what he is. Kraft can evidently not pick up false empathy, empathy which is practiced as a craft rather than as an expression of the inner soul. The reality is that Trump populates his universe with worshippers, courtiers and billionaires, the later as the necessary icing on the cake to ensure that he can bathe in the shadow of another’s celebrity at the same time as he demands, as he needs, their acceptance and applause. When he interviewed billionaires for important positions in his cabinet, the ultimate selection criterion was not whether their policies were in accord with his or, when different, could be well-defended, but whether they would truly and fully acknowledge DT as leader of the pack.

That is why money matters. That is why glitter matters. That is why gold matters. They are, for a malignant narcissist, the ultimate symbol of success – not academy awards or honorary doctorates, but money. DT has the Midas touch, the golden touch precisely because he cannot really touch or be touched as I noted in an earlier blog discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XI. What I did not write is that Midas had been very generous and kind to the drunken poet, Silenus. Midas entertained him, wined and dined him and extended to him an unprecedented 10 days of hospitality to an otherwise fall-down-dead-drunk. When Dionysus offered to reward Midas for his generosity and granted him one wish, that wish was that everything he touched should turn to gold, including the presidency of the United States of America. The roses in his huge garden lost their suppleness, their colour and their velvet feel as they turned to gold upon his touch.

And when his daughter came to weep about what had happened to the roses, as in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories, when Midas went to touch his daughter, she too turned to gold. Donald Trump has five children. Some evidently keep their distance or, as much as possible, are kept at a distance. But the three oldest have been converted to the belief that the pursuit of gold is the highest achievement, even though there is no evidence, however accomplished Ivanka Trump may be, that they possess the Midas touch. Trump’s children are props for him, to be cited and used as testaments, for one, to his lack of anti-Semitism. They are the only courtiers he can trust.

But they dare not disabuse him of his deep conviction that he got the most electoral votes ever, that larger crowds attended his inauguration compared to that of any other president-elect. He could not stand, he could not tolerate a blatant visual image that Barack Obama in 2009 had attracted much larger crowds than he had. He had a fit, a temper tantrum, and berated The National Park Commission for issuing false images and pictures. Most of all, he took to task the media with their fact-checking and continual replay of the pictures that told more than a thousand words. The replays only made Trump more furious and he declared open warfare on the false, on the lying, media – with the exception of the small number of TV stations that continued to pour accolades on Donald Trump without reserve.

Most of all, in the central focus on themselves as the reference point for not simply assessing value, but for establishing himself as the ultimate value, Donald Trump offers no praise of past history or even acknowledges it or the institutions developed by that history to protect against the exercise of power by a narcissist. In that sense, he is akin to the empath, but with this major difference. The empath can see and foresee. The Donald can and must play and replay. The more nostalgic, the more comforting, the less challenging, the more often it is replayed. On 20 January 2017 began the first day of the New Common Era and the beginning of draining the swamp into which DT had thrown all of history.

In both the film The Arrival and in the world of Trump, history is problematized. However, whereas in the movie time can run backwards as well as forwards, in the Trump world, linear time is deconstructed into recurring existential moments to create a repeated existential presence, an image of action more akin to the hell Sisyphus suffers in rolling the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down the next day, making it necessary to repeat the action. Only in this ultimate inversion, this state of hell is depicted by Trumpists as the other side of the Pearly Gates.

Frenetic in motion and in speech, Trump cannot and will not sit still. Most of all, he has to restore his energy as he feeds on the applause of the crowd. But what happens as the applause begins to die out. Desperately, he will search for more rallies in an attempt to still the discontent within. We now live in this inverted world and have passed irredeemably into a new epoch. How can we cope?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda – A Distinct Form of Documentary Film

by

Howard Adelman

In part I, I insisted that a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message pushing an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Today I will try to show how 10% of the Vietnamerica documentary that was ideological undermined the narrative of the suffering of the refugees who fled Vietnam.

Yesterday, I focused largely on the central core of the film and to some extend on one bookend, the success stories. Both happened to be military successes, one about the son of a refugee family who became the first Vietnamese-American general, and the other about the Vietnamese-American scientist who led the team that created the bunker buster bomb. This emphasis on militarism and a revisionist version of the Vietnam War opened the film. The film was transformed in good part from a view and record of the horrific experiences the Vietnamese had under the communists and in their efforts to escape, into an explicit propaganda film in defence of the theory that America betrayed its ally, South Vietnam. For it argues that the war had been effectively won when Kissinger was responsible for the stab-in-the-back, not only in abandoning Vietnam, but in refusing to re-equip the South Vietnamese army when China and the USSR were re-equipping the North Vietnamese. This thesis is dubious to say the least.

The film does not try to defend its extreme revisionist view, but simply to propagate the tale as a given. Quite aside from the questionable historical account, the effort to combine a historical propaganda film with a film of the experiences of the Vietnamese boat people allows the former to both undermine and detract from the latter.

There are the obvious readily challenged factual claims. A narrator says that half who fled Vietnam died in trying. If the numbers who fled were about two million, that would mean one million died in the effort to find freedom. But the film itself provides the generally accepted figure of 200,000 to 400,000 deaths. My studies indicate that the number was close to the higher estimate and North Vietnamese repression can be held responsible for at least half of those deaths. But not one million. Further, in the movie, there is no effort to resolve the contradiction in the figures cited. Similarly, assertions that 7 million died in the war are dubious. There is scant evidence to support such claims and virtually all authoritative sources cite a total of about 4 million dead and wounded on both sides, including 40,000 troops and civilians in The Convoy of Tears as civilians and military personnel fled the aggression of North Vietnamese armies as they moved against Saigon during March and April of 1975.

As far as atrocities and summary executions go, these were committed by both sides. The most famous was that of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the National Police, whose shooting of a handcuffed prisoner in the head with his 38 Smith & Wesson revolver became an iconic picture for the anti-war movement. The victim was Nguyễn Văn Lém, a member of the Việt Cộng captured in the Tet Offensive. Given the status of the photo, few knew that Lém was responsible for cutting the throat, not only of South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Tuan, but his wife, six children and 80-year old mother. I do not know which side was guilty of the greater number of atrocities, but I suspect it was the Hanoi regime. Lém was captured beside a mass grave that held 34 civilian bodies.

It is easy to hold the Hanoi regime responsible for large numbers of deaths. After their victory over the French in the north and their breaking up the large estates and targeting large landowners, the Hanoi communist regime introduced land “reform.” that is, transferring all ownership of property to the state. Pacification followed. It is estimated that the Hanoi regime over four years killed almost 300,000 North Vietnamese citizens. In the period preceding the attack on Saigon, as suggested above, “Of the 200,000 refugees that fled the Highlands offensive by the North in March 1975, only 45,000 made it to Tuy-Hoa. Many of the 155,000 missing were killed by North Vietnamese troops; others were captured. Rebel highlanders also fired on the refugees, some were mistakenly bombed by government planes, and still others may have been run over by fleeing government vehicles. Some died by drowning and sheer exhaustion.” Of the death toll from one military advance over two months, Hanoi was probably responsible for almost half those deaths.

Thus, an estimate of those killed after the fall of Saigon of 100,000 does not seem so outlandish, especially if one includes in the total not only those executed, but those who were worked or starved to death in the so-called “re-education” camps. Some estimates go even higher. For a breakdown of civilians indiscriminately killed as a result of or consistent with orders from higher command, that is, democide, I use Bob Rummel’s publications in chapter 6 of Statistics of Democide focused on democide in Vietnam over 35 years.

The central issue of the propaganda element in the film is, however, not about numbers, but about the stab-in-the-back explanation of why Hanoi conquered South Vietnam. The propagandistic aspect of the film begins with two so-called authorities featured near the beginning of the film. One is Robert Turner, a Vietnam veteran and Associate Director of National Security Law at the University of Virginia, the university from which he earned his academic and professional degrees. Turner has been a national security adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and testified before numerous congressional committees. Studying his works offers some hint of the weaknesses of his academic input into foreign policy in the United States. His CV is very skimpy to say the least, largely consisting of op-eds, power-point presentations and submissions to government committees.

Turner is most famous for his defense of presidential prerogatives in military matters without the checks of Congress. In contrast to the vast majority of scholars, Turner has argued against the doctrine that “unchecked” presidential power is incompatible with democratic governance. He defends “unfettered” presidential power to be at the heart of the constitution, namely, that the power of the democratically elected “monarch” is unboundaried. This thesis is not accepted as a very serious perspective by the vast majority of established constitutional experts. Here is how he expressed his view. “Congress exceeded its proper authority in several instances related to war powers and intelligence.” Turner especially stressed the issue of intelligence and often cited John Locke’s doctrine (Two Treatises of Government) that success in war, described by him as a state of enmity and destruction, required unity of plan, speed, dispatch and secrecy

Turner is fond of quoting Chief Justice John Marshall on this issue. “By the Constitution of the United States, the President is invested with certain important political powers, in the exercise of which he is to use his own discretion, and is accountable only to his country in his political character, and to his own conscience…whatever opinion may be entertained of the manner in which executive discretion may be used, still there exists, and can exist, no power to control that discretion. The subjects are political. They respect the nation, not individual rights, and being entrusted to the executive, the decision of the executive is conclusive.”

The problem is that secrecy in John Locke applied to implementation not to strategy and direction. The latter required a shared long term and even permanent conviction and shared by the executive, the legislature and the people of a realm. This required articulation and consent, not deceit and surreptitious behaviour. Strategy applies to long term existential threats. Tactics apply to the management and execution of opposing that threat. A State of peace among citizens requires consent. Conduct of a war against an enemy requires secrecy. The issue is always how you combine secrecy with consent and not have secrecy supplant consent. Interpreting the power of the purse and the approval of appointments very narrowly just does not cut how the dialectical dance works.

However, Turner’s interpretation of the last years of the Vietnam War, while influenced by that non-conventional doctrine, is, if that is possible, even more questionable and, I believe, outlandish. Those interpretations can be read in many of his presentations that presumably informed Nancy when she began making the film: “Reflections on the Vietnam War,” given to the Air Force Military Academy in 2010; “The Consequences of U.S. Abandonment of Indochina” given at the Fall of Saigon conference in April of 2010. For more recent references, see Turner’s power point presentations on the net entitled, “Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Indochina (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution)” given to the National Press Club in August 2014; “The Vietnam War and Constitutional War Powers” (October 2014), “Myths of the Vietnam War,” (2015) and “Views on Vietnam: The Irony of the LBJ Library Vietnam War Summit” (April 2016).

All are part of a revisionist history narrative that is akin to the one Hitler offered to Germans explaining why Germany lost WWI. “I continue to believe,” said Turner, “that a misguided and horribly misinformed Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Indochina, leading directly to the slaughter of millions of innocent lives and the consignment to Communist tyranny of tens of millions more.” Why would you include the testimony of such a questionable authority in a film about the horrible experiences of Vietnamese refugees even if it was somewhat credible? The thesis on the fall of Saigon is a crucial debate and a conflicted issue requiring one form of documentary treatment. The portrayal of the suffering of those who fled is based on a very wide consensus. The cost to credibility of including a thesis about the reasons for the loss of a war in a film about human suffering is enormous.

This is also true of the narrative offered by Lewis Sorley, author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. His thesis is bought hook, line and sinker by Nancy Bui and, in the film, is offered in an abbreviated account. She expanded upon this thesis in my discussions with her after watching the film. The Americans and South Vietnam had defeated the Viet Cong, had allowed the South Vietnamese government to once again exercise its authority in the towns and villages, and the South Vietnamese army had by then been so well trained that it could carry the war forward without the use of American troops on the ground. However, Nixon and Kissinger sold out South Vietnam in the Paris Peace Accord of January 1973 and then double crossed the South Vietnamese by not resupplying them with arms and ammunition. This position has some justification, particularly the first of these two propositions. But the argument that in 1972, the Americans had won the war when General Abrams replaced General Westmoreland and shifted the strategy from the pursuit of the Viet Cong and body counts to a war to secure villages is highly questionable. Essentially, the thesis argues that the war had been virtually won by the American and South Vietnamese military and then the victory was squandered by the politicians and diplomats engaged in the Paris Peace Accords and its aftermath.

Colloquially put, the U. S. bugged out. Having gotten the North back to the bargaining table, Nixon and Kissinger cut a deal – the 27 January 1973 Paris Peace Accord – which allowed the North to keep its forces in South Vietnam. 80,000 North Vietnamese troops were permitted to remain in South Vietnam and this number was surreptitiously expanded to over 100,000 troops as Hanoi prepared for its 1975 offensive. The breach in the Accords was never really challenged by the U.S. or the world. At the time, of the 160,000 American troops once in Vietnam, down to 27,000 when the Accords were signed, under pressure from the anti-Vietnam War movement and a cowardly Congress, America cut and ran.

Further, Nixon refused to resume bombing to enforce the Accords. This enabled the North to use the cover of a cease fire to move more men and materiel into the South. Meanwhile, Congress, with bills like the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, and extensive cuts to the military budget, pulled the logistical rug out from under the South. At the very time that the North was stockpiling arms, supplied by China and Russia, the South was having its supply of arms seriously curtailed. It was South Vietnam’s bad luck, at its hour of greatest peril, to be saddled with a feckless ally. Imagine having to depend on the U.S. for the logistical support which is your life’s blood at a time when it was being run by Nixon and Kissinger at the executive level and by folks like Ted Kennedy in the congressional realm. Sorley, and Nancy Bui in turn, lays much of the blame at the doorstep of the American political leadership.
Who else were the real villains responsible, in this revisionist version, for the fall of Saigon? The media focused on the protesters and the casualties (57,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War). A fickle public led by students and liberals opposed the war. There is no discussion in the film about the bombing of Hanoi, the efforts to destroy the supply lines, the refusal of the Saigon government to recognize the reality of the Viet Cong and the civil war (the Viet Cong are, to the best of my memory) never mentioned in the film.) and the widespread destruction in Laos, the failure to sustain a representative government instead of corrupt dictators or even a disciplined core of army officers – failures that would be repeated again and again for decades after the Korean conflict when America entered a foreign theatre to fight a war.

South Vietnam surrendered on 30 April 1975. America rescued 10,000 Vietnamese linked to the military effort and subsequently took in tens of thousands of others in the next three years, many or most of whom were linked with the American war effort. But in 1978, the Vietnamese government began a much wider and more oppressive regime that first targeted the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and then spread to all other middle class Vietnamese. The suppression was horrendous and it was in this period that Canada entered into scene to help resettle refugees fleeing communist repression and not just those who lost the war.

Did a film about oppression and flight of refugees have to be combined with an alt-right interpretation of failure in the war? Obviously not. Interpreting the reasons for the fall of Saigon deserves a separate film in its own right. The effort to marry the two related but separate topics gives the impression that the plight of the refugees is merely being used to advance an ideological viewpoint. An excellent and emotionally powerful film about the Vietnamese refugee exodus is, ironically, almost drowned in a propaganda film about the reasons the South Vietnam government fell. I personally was torn between the tears I shed at the horrors suffered by the refugees and the tears I metaphorically shed at this lost opportunity to create an award-winning feature-length documentary. Though a lost artistic opportunity to make a great documentary of the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people does not compare with the real tears I have shed over the years at the suffering of the Vietnamese refugees fleeing a communist regime, nevertheless I was torn between my sadness at the lost opportunity and the revival of my compassion for the suffering and the dead. The film is valuable for attending to the latter. But it is flawed and distorted by advancing a far out historical thesis. And that is a pity.

An Afterword

One final and minor but relevant academic point arose, not in the film, but in my subsequent discussions with Nancy Bui. Nancy contended that the Paris Peace Accord obligated the U.S. to resupply South Vietnam with military weapons. I argued that the Peace Accords only permitted the U.S. to make up for depletions. As I recalled, the Accords stipulated that the U.S. would stay out of Vietnam after the U.S. army withdrew in terms of supplying military troops or equipment, except to replace losses on a one-to-one basis. Nancy insisted that there was no provision forbidding America from resupplying the South Vietnamese Army. I was not sure if my memory was correct and I promised to re-read the Accords to check whether Nancy’s interpretation was more accurate. The point is obviously relevant to a thesis that faults the U.S. for the fall of Saigon in general and for the refusal to re-supply South Vietnam with military arms.

There is some truth in this. Nixon did evidently secretly promise President Thiệu both that America would be able to maintain its logistical advantage and that if North Vietnam breached the agreement, the U.S. would resume bombing the North. However, chapter V, article 15(d) of the Paris Peace Accords provided that North and South Viet-Nam shall not join any military alliance or military bloc and shall not allow foreign powers to maintain military bases, troops; military advisers, and military personnel on their respective territories, as stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam. Article 2 of Chapter II specifically stated that, “the United States will stop all its military activities against the territory of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam by ground, air and naval forces.” This was interpreted as excluding the Americans from acting militarily in any way on behalf of South Vietnam.

Further, the Case-Church Amendment approved by the U.S. Congress in June of 1973 endorsed this interpretation and explicitly prohibited further U.S. military activity in Indochina and at a time preparations were underway to impeach Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. When North Vietnam resumed the war and launched the 1975 offensive, the U.S. refused to offer further military assistance and certainly refused to bomb the North. The North Vietnamese succeeded in defeating the South Vietnamese army, not primarily because North Vietnam was being supplied by Russia and China but America was not re-supplying South Vietnam, but because morale in the South Vietnam army had disintegrated, because corruption had eaten away at its soul and because most officers fled the field and abandoned their troops as the North Vietnamese advanced. The North Vietnamese did not have to fight very much to win the war. Replacing equipment was irrelevant when the South Vietnamese army was collapsing and the North Vietnamese were seizing more and more American arms and equipment.

Whether South Vietnam lost the war or the war was lost because the American people and the Congress betrayed and let down their partners is at best a matter of controversy. Dogmatic assertion on one side produced a propaganda film that undermines the documentary on the suffering of those who fled the new totalitarian order.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Vietnamerica Part I

Vietnamerica Part I – a film review

by

Howard Adelman

When I was in high school at Harbord Collegiate, I lived around the corner from my three secular synagogues. I had stopped following the Friday evening and Saturday practices of my Jewish Orthodox upbringing. Going to films, sometimes on both Friday evenings and Saturdays, became my new secular religion. And there were three film synagogues to practice that religion, the Bloor Theatre on the south side of Bloor east of Bathurst (now Lee’s Palace), the Alhambra on the north side of Bloor just west of Bathurst and immediately around the corner from my home, and the Midtown on the north side east of Bathurst, always my movie theatre of choice.

The Midtown was originally built way back in 1913 when my mother was born. It was then called the Madison. During WWII, when I was still a very young boy, it was rebuilt as the Midtown. In the late sixties during the period of the Vietnam War and the start of my academic career, the Midtown began its parallel descent with that war, first renamed the Capri and then the Eden, a showcase for “adult films.” The theatre was rescued by Carm Bordanaro and his family just at the beginning of 1980 when the Boatpeople campaign to resettle Indochinese refugees in Canada came into full swing. Canada, under the Clark government in July of the previous year, had set a target of an intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees, 21,000 to be sponsored by the private sector matched by the same number by the government plus the 8,000 to which the government had previously been committed. By the end of 1979, the private sponsorship movement had already exceeded its target.

So it was entirely appropriate and historically compelling for the life of that theatre that a new documentary, Vietnamerica, had two screenings at the Hot Docs yesterday. I attended the second in the Ted Rogers Cinema. The Rogers family had donated $5 million enabling the Hot Docs Festival to purchase the building. It is now one of the most comfortable theaters in Toronto and allows Torontonians to see a wide array of documentaries. The movie, Vietamerica, should not be confused with G.B. (Jimmy) Tran’s graphic memoir about his and his family’s fifty-year journey and its experiences in coming to and settling in America called Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey.

Vietnamerica is a feature-length documentary (1.5 hours) on the Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the United States, focusing mainly on the ordeal they went through, but bookended by the reasons for their flight at one end and, at the other end, their success in the United States. The problem comes in the bookends, though the core of the film could be helped to a degree by cutting some irrelevant segments and providing more clarity on the different phases of the exodus and the very different causes and consequences of each phase.

Instead, there is a compression of the Vietnamese allied with the South Vietnam government who first fled, then the Vietnamese who were ethnic Chinese fleeing ethnic cleansing, then the Vietnamese refugees of property owners and the middle class who fled in an overlapping wave of repression, then the “lingerers” who fled between 1982 to 1988, then those who fled but were repatriated unless they could establish that they were targeted for persecution, then the rescue of the prisoners from Vietnamese jails. All are lumped together. The compressing of different conditions in leaving, in camps, in readiness to resettle, in the availability of relatives to help in sponsorship and, generally, to changes over time in both push and pull factors, led to a somewhat confusing portrait of the exodus.

There were also omissions, but the film was already long enough and I am sure a great deal had been cut. I would have substituted the bookend material with more expansion on the lives of those portrayed so that one could more fully identify with them, on the corrupt role of the Vietnamese military and government officials in accepting gold to facilitate escape, and in the perils to those caught who did not have government protection and their subsequent suffering. But it was not my film.

Scott Edwards is the director with a very minimal filmography. Robert Andrew Bennett and Megan Williams are given credit for the script. These two screenwriters also have a very thin filmography. For the clear and acknowledged force behind the creation of the film has been Nancy Bui, Executive Producer and founder of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation (VAHF). Nancy is responsible for a collection of more than 700 oral histories of Vietnamese who were resettled in America. Some of that collection and 200,000 pages of documents and pictures are housed at the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.

Her driving force brought the film to its realization. I had the pleasure of spending much of the evening after watching the film talking to Nancy and her assistant, discussing the film and, more specifically, my claim that propaganda films are documentaries, but a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message. That is, I believe that documentaries should not be a means to push an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, then the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Many renowned documentalists would disagree. So there are two different questions. To what extend was this film a propaganda film? And to the degree it was, does that make the film faulty?

Nancy, a journalist, fled Vietnam with her two children in 1979. In 1988, she wrote a novel about her experience called Bot Bien, sea foam. But the real impetus for making the film came from an experience with her daughter who came home from school crying because she had received an F on an essay. Nancy had helped her daughter write the history paper on the experience of her own family as Vietnamese refugees coming to America. When Nancy went to remonstrate the teacher, the teacher explained that her daughter received an F because it contained no references. If Vietnamerica is any indication, the essay not only lacked references, but ran contrary to widely accepted interpretations about the war, quite aside from the personal experiences of Nancy and her family. More specifically, the film was made to reflect her viewpoint and to counter the views of many other films, such as, if I recall correctly, one at the extreme other end, Vietnam: American Holocaust, that portrays the Vietnam War as a sustained mass slaughter planned and perpetrated by presidents Johnson and Nixon.

Nancy became determined to provide the documentary background of her record of her and others’ experiences in coming to America and the reasons they came. The oral history project was one result. An award-winning short film, that is at the core of Vietnamerica, was produced, Master Nguyen Tien Hoa. The latter told the story of a Vietnamese martial arts master, Nguyen Tien Hoa, who returns to Southeast Asia in quest of the graves of his wife and children. That film, won a number of commendations, including the Dallas International Film Festival, the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival and the Asian Film Festival as the best short documentary film in 2015. I am sure it deserved those prizes. But in stretching the film to a feature length and marrying it to a propagandist film on revisionist history with respect to the Vietnam War, the moving story of Hoa becomes diluted and sometimes lost.

The Hoa story forms the heart of the feature-length film and contains its most moving scenes. Hoa describes being tied up when the boat on which he and 75 members of his family and friends who escaped with him was captured by Thai pirates. He sat helpless as the pirates wrenched away his young daughter from her mother’s arms and threw the baby into the sea. Subsequently, helplessly, he was forced to watch the rape of his wife in front of his eyes. That portion of the film is simply excruciating to watch. A climactic moment in the film takes place when Hoa finds the grave of his cousin with whom he spent 18 hours in the sea after he managed to capture a second Thai pirate boat to be used by his family and friends. However, he was swept out to sea along with his cousin when he tried to transfer his cousin with his broken leg to the captured pirate boat. Hoa never saw his family or friends again; they presumably died, numbered among the 200,000 to 400,000 who lost their lives in the exodus.

The showing began with a number of introductory speeches, but one could anticipate the perspective that would predominate in the film when the American anthem alongside the old South Vietnamese national anthem were played and the American flag and the old South Vietnamese flag were much in evidence. There was also a moving one minute of silence in memory of those 200,000-400,000 Vietnamese who perished in their effort to reach safety and freedom from communist rule even though the film at one point claimed that half of those who tried to escape died in the effort – which would mean that a million and a half died instead of 200,000 to 400,000. Other very questionable numbers are cited – 100,000 executed by the Hanoi government, 7 million who died in the war. The movie is “ambitious” in a much more general way. Made at a cost of $350,000, it not only covers the horrendous experiences of selected refugees who came to America, but the selection of those portrayed is interesting in itself.

Hoa is a martial arts instructor who, according to his own testimony, was mentally ill for eight years following his trauma until he reconnected with his martial arts background. According to Hoa, it provided the therapy to get over his trauma. That is a metaphor for the whole film. Hoa now provides instruction in martial arts to young and old as both physical and psychological therapy to help people cope with the struggles in life. The need to resort to martial methods in also the overriding theme of the movie.

For example, the bookend of success stories includes two out of a myriad that could have been selected. One is Nguyet Anh Duong who led the scientific effort to develop the so-called bunker buster bomb that enables the bomb to penetrate deeply into structures before it explodes. Developed for America’s war in Afghanistan, Duong won the Dr. Arthur E. Bisson Prize for Achievement in Naval Technology and the National Security Medal for a significant contribution to America’s national security. Duong is currently the Director for the Borders and Maritime Security Division within the United States Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate.

The other significant achiever represented in the film is General Viet Luong, the first Vietnamese-American general in U.S. history and a child of Vietnamese refugees. Vietnamese have been successful in a myriad of fields, science, the arts, business, medicine and academia. But the film ended up keeping the two samples of military success stories. There are several other stories briefly and even more sketchily told. One was of Thanh Tu Tran, a Captain in the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces and son of a former Prime Minister of South Vietnam who spent fifteen years in a communist prison. Another was a writer who escaped North Vietnam.

In the film, there is a chance encounter between Tran and Vietnamese exchange students at the memorial in Washington to those who died at the hands of the communists. But instead of getting into an interesting discussion of different perspectives and understandings, the encounter dissolves before it ever gets started. That is also true of the historical as distinct from humanitarian aspects of the film.

Last evening, I had a discussion with a resettled North Vietnamese young lady who also saw the film. She came to Canada in 2006, attended York University and now works as a real estate agent. She told me that when she came, she had to learn how distorted her education had been since she had never been exposed to anything but the communist version of what was called the American War. On the other hand, in contrast to my response – I had wanted the intimate moments of individual lives to have been more developed to facilitate greater identification – she was bothered by the intimate individualistic details and thought the film should have attended more to the larger political and military questions. Only half smiling, I suggested that her early collectivist indoctrination was still part of her mental framework.

I attended the film with three other Canadians, all eminent Canadians. We all had the same reaction to one scene in the film in which a Hungarian anti-communist verbally assaults protesters against the Vietnam War who bear his rant in stoical silence as he yells and screams that they all should be hung. We all were repelled by the scene, thought it had nothing to do with the story of the experience of Vietnamese refugees resettling in the West. However, in the interviews afterwards, Nancy told me that among Vietnamese, this was one of their favourite moments in the film. Two interviews I conducted with other Vietnamese who had watched the film confirmed that. Both felt elated when they watched the Hungarian berate the peaceniks. When I pointed out that the Hungarian’s calling for the protesters to be hung was appalling and contrary to principles of freedom, and, in any case, detracted from the film enormously, one Vietnamese viewer conceded my point, but not the thrill he and other Vietnamese had about the scene.

With the help of Alex Zisman