A Proud Father and a Proud and Appreciative Canadian

What a weekend! On Friday evening I went to a concert rather than to synagogue. After about a twenty-year absence, Eric (my fourth child) returned to playing the trumpet in a newly formed orchestra, the Summerhill Community Orchestra. The opening number, Telemann’s “Trumpet Concerto,” was played by my son. He also conducted. I was bursting with pride. He was terrific. Another wonderful performance followed with Victoria Yeh on the violin playing “Romance for Violin.” Then Sarah John conducted Rossini’s rousing classic “Overture to the Barber of Seville.” The second half featured Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.

What a great evening!

Saturday morning was spent initially in Torah study discussing slavery and freedom, about which I will write a separate blog, and Saturday afternoon visiting a close friend.  On Saturday evening, we went to another concert at Koerner Hall, primarily to hear David Buchbinder’s Odessa/Havana band, a fusion of Jewish and Cuban music. They were excellent as always. Buchbinder’s trumpet playing of this unique Afro-Cuban/Jewish/Jazz fusion gets better and better as do the original compositions. Hilario Durán, a Cuban-trained pianist, is absolutely brilliant. The accompanying players are all great: John Johnson on Reeds and Flute, Aleksander Gajic on the Violin, Justin Gray on Bass, Mark Kelso on Drums, Joaquín Núñez-Hidalgo on Congas and Percussion, and the vocalist Maryem Tollar.

But the hit of the evening for me, surprisingly, came in the first half when we heard Kuné (meaning “together”), Canada’s global orchestra formerly known as the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra celebrating the release of their debut album on Universal Music Canada. A year ago, Mervon Mehta, who runs the performance side of The Royal Conservatory of Music, initiated and created a new ensemble of musicians to celebrate Canada’s cultural diversity and pluralism. Howard Buchbinder was the artistic director. I expected an orchestra with outstanding musicians from around the world. I did not expect such fascinating and original music performed with such great artistry. I cannot recall when I have seen a pre-act get a standing ovation that forced the performers to come back on stage and play another number. I saw and listened to 13 virtuoso musicians, each brilliant in his or her own right.

Let me suggest a taste – though you should listen to the music; the CD, simply entitled Kuné, can be ordered online. The evening began with Canadian First Nation drumming, but quickly merged from that start into the violin and subsequent singing by Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, a Canadian Métis. The Gypsy music evolved into jazz, and then, in a subsequent number, into Irish and Scottish reels from the Maritimes. The fusion was seamless, original and entrancing.

Demetrios Petsalakis, originally from Greece, played the Oud (he also played guitar) that, with the other instruments, emerged as an original jazz composition. One of the most lyrical as well as haunting pieces was performed by Padideh Ahrarnejad who arrived in Canada just over a year ago from Iran. She played the Tar and sang. And if you want to hear rhythm, you had to listen to the percussion and singing of Aline Morales of Brazil as well as the final number, after the standing ovation, led by a flautist, Lasso (Salif Sanou) from Burkina Faso, who played the talking drum in a thrilling unique composition. These were not soloists, though solos were played within each piece, but true fusion music which blended instruments, styles, musical history and motifs from all across the world.

Every single one of the musicians deserves their own accolades, including:
Sasha Boychouk (Ukraine): Woodwinds & Ethnic Ukrainian Flutes
Luis Deniz (Cuba): Saxophone
Anwar Khurshid (Pakistan): Sitar & vocals
Paco Luviano (Mexico): Acoustic & Electric Bass
Matías Recharte (Peru): Cajón, Drums & Percussion
Selcuk Suna (Turkey): Clarinet
Dorjee Tsering (Tibet): Dranyen, Flute, Piwang & Vocals.

I had been missing my movies. In the wee hours on Sunday, instead of writing a blog, I watched Denzel Washington on TV in the dystopian film, The Book of Eli by the Hughes Brothers. It was a classical Denzel performance with its hesitations, mannerisms, morose disposition and inward reflection, but this time with a very troubled but very dedicated and committed soul. This combined Christian revivalist and Wild West movie set in a destroyed wasteland of the future is at times fascinating and at other times simply boring and leaden with scenes too stretched out and infused with too much preaching and insufficient witnessing. Denzel is a mad preacher on route to save mankind by transporting the last remaining copy of the Bible to the West, but with his own indifference to the suffering of others. In the process of his walk across the continent, he comes face to face, not so much with his inner demons, as with himself as a sinner even though dedicated to his mission. A very interesting and disturbing film, but not a must see.

I then watched a ten-year-old film, Untraceable, more about the female FBI agent, Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), set on capturing a serial killer, than the killer himself, the archetype of a sadistic psychopath, a callous loner with no or blunted emotions, exploiting, playing with and eventually destroying the life of another rooted in an impulse for revenge for a perceived injustice and with no ability to feel guilt or express remorse. The film has a unique and, for its time, prescient twist. The slow agonizing deaths are broadcast on social media to millions of viewers. It is an archetypal cop/thriller/horror film which is fast-paced and horrifying, if you like and appreciate the genre, but totally implausible if you examine the timetable of events with any close attention. I do not and did not understand why I watched it.

The third film I saw was both much more interesting and very understandable why I watched. One of my major interests is the ethics of bystanders, whether the Rwandan genocide or individual malfeasance and silence when witnessing an injustice or atrocity. That was the core focus of Barry Levinson’s HBO film Paterno in which Al Pacino, another great actor with an even broader reach than Denzel Washington, plays the celebrated coach, Joe Paterno, who, for over four decades, was a very celebrated and winning head football coach of the Nittany Lions at Penn State, but who is suddenly and unceremoniously fired by the trustees of the university, ostensibly for not adequately and appropriately dealing with the pedophilia, sexual molesting and perhaps male rape committed by one of his veteran assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky.

What did “JoePa” hear, when did he first hear it, what did he do, and how much attention and effort did he pay to the rumours and complaints about his assistant coach? The question of why is more muted in total disproportion to the noise and demonstrations by Penn State idolatrous fans, whose unexamined enthusiasm for Joe is also portrayed, perhaps at too great length. What started as a supposed report in 1999 turned into a media explosion twelve years later. Al Pacino is as mute as the 84-year-old ex-hero he plays, conveying his dealing with the scandal with a glance, a shrug, a sigh, a thrust forward of one stooped shoulder.

The question of Sandusky’s guilt, though there is some, but not much, doubt, is accepted as a premise. Sandusky is now serving a minimum of 30 years in prison. He will die there. He is a peripheral presence in the film. The reasons for Joe not reporting him slips out in installments over the course of the movie – distraction, presumption of innocence, friendship, disbelief, preoccupation with other matters, structural deficiencies in the university, inattention to a matter seen as of peripheral importance, the focus on winning rather than the well-being of the players – these and other reasons and excuses are put forth over the course of the movie. The current zeal for reporting predators just did not seem to exist. It was another era. Joe is a heroic remnant from an earlier age who could still insist, without any in-depth self-examination, that the events had “nothing to do with me.”

Joe is played with a sense of humanity before and in spite of the tragedy he faced. His extraordinary composure in dealing with the scandal even as it ate into his very sense of himself (he died just months after being fired), and his own fleeting doubts and questions as he urged the students to suppress their idolatry and get on with being excellent students, makes him both deserving of being admired but also makes the viewer more upset with his lack of insight. The film is a very empathetic portrayal of a bystander who had been an enormous success but ultimately failed the ethical test in the last twelve years of his life. In some sense, the failure is as gruesome as that of the prophet Eli played by Denzel Washington.

From yesterday’s morose morning, in the evening we went to the Hot Docs theatre to see the documentary on Itzhak Perlman, simply called Itzhak. He is both approachable and loveable, an honest but diplomatic commentator and a great and funny raconteur. The film is absolutely marvellous, a fly-on-the wall documentary of this extraordinary talent and his wife, Toby, full of life, humour and her own centre of will. The editing of Helen Yum is simply superb and deserving of an Oscar nomination. The film takes you on a roller coaster ride of a man so grounded yet so ambitious to reach and teach how to aspire for the heavens.

The film begins with Itzhak playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of one of his beloved baseball games and near the end there is a moving performance of the theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams. (Perlman played first violin in the orchestral score of the movie.) The film could not possibly include everything in this great man’s wonderful life, but I was secretly hoping, given my Canadian nationalism and pride, that the film would include a segment from his performance in Ottawa at the National Art Centre’s 150th year celebration of Canada’s birth when last September he played “a musical love letter to the movies,” a sort of reprieve and update of his 2006 Academic Awards performance.

If you want to hear great music, if you want to watch a courageous, extraordinarily talented but funny, down to earth and very humane individual, do not miss the film. The fact that the film is perforated with his extraordinary classical violin playing, and a few scenes in various genres other than classical music, is both inspiring and an aesthetic delight. Rarely do we find ethics and beauty so intricately intertwined. What an uplifting way to end the weekend!

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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

Foxtrot and Contingency

Let me be perfectly clear. Samuel Maoz’ film Foxtrot, that won eight Ophirs in Israel, the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize in Venice and was a runner-up to the shortlisted nominations for the Academy Award for the best foreign film, is superb. I, however, do not recommend that you see it. The film is just too heart wrenching, just too painful to watch. When physical self-harm is used to inflict pain on oneself in order to distract from the far more ominous and inescapable emotional pain, then you get some idea of the depth and breadth of the pain aimed at the audience. We cannot feel the self-inflicted physical pain. Extraordinarily, that is a relief. For we cannot escape feeling the emotional pain.

And there were so many times I wanted to escape, to just get up and leave the theatre. Admittedly, the pain for me might have been doubled because I watched the film yesterday with my youngest son and the film is about the loss of a son. Admittedly, that pain might have been doubled again because of a trauma of death that my son went through that was not that dissimilar to the one in the movie. Nevertheless, when I awoke this morning after going to bed early because I had been so emotionally rung out, I still felt like a dishrag that had been wrung dry. I slept seven hours in total instead of my usual 4-5 hours.

I will tell you the opening of the first 60 seconds of the film, but no more. After a seemingly unrelated frame of a truck driving down a lonely and dusty road, an Israeli soldier appears at the door of an upper middle-class family in Tel Aviv. Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler), the mother of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), faints. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) is stunned into silence. This is all in the first minute. Little is said. Little needs to be said. And the emotional impact simply grows from there. Reflecting and thinking about the film, rather than reliving it, is itself an escape.

What started as a dance to the syncopated ragtime music of composers and performers like Scott Joplin, the foxtrot was translated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into a dance with elegance and fluidity in a 4/4 time signature rhythm. The foxtrot dance alternates between two rhythms – slow-slow-quick-quick and slow-quick-quick. The quick-quicks are reduced to punctuation marks in the movie.

Instead of a free-flowing rhythm, the foxtrot in the film is reduced to a stilted and rigid exercise of squares in which the dancer returns to the original point. According to Maoz, “We thus enter the Foxtrot dance of traumatic circle: no matter what you do, you always end up where you began.” However, instead of going around in circles, the movie actually travels in rigid and repetitive squares. And when illustrated in the film, instead of a close dance, the individual performer moves in isolation. Right, back, left, return. Yamina, sig, smola, shub. The movie moves in a straight line, yashar, yashar, only between the corner points of the square, each time after a radical ninety degree turn.

The term “foxtrot,” reduced to very selective essentials, is ironic. There is never a trot. And the movement is so sluggish as to be paralyzing. As we watch each parent separately from a bird’s eye view in the claustrophobic intimacy of a washroom in the beginning act, we suffer from vertigo, but not from movement, but from lives that literally have come to a dead stop even as their bodies painfully curl up in foetal positions.

The film has four acts, though the director insists that there are three. “The three-act structure enabled me to offer an emotional journey for my viewers: the first act should shock them, the second should hypnotize, and the third should be moving. Each sequence reflects, by using various cinematic tools, the character that stands in its center. The first act, featuring Michael, is sharp and concise—just like him. It consists of detached compositions. The third act is loose and warm, just like Dafna. It floats a few inches above the ground. The second act takes place in a surrealist outpost, occupied by four soldiers and an occasional wandering camel…This act is uniquely non-verbal (in) its wry sense of humor and surrealism.”

It is not as if there is no relief from the emotional pain of Act One. There is. The relief even includes some gentle humour in the second act as Maoz describes it. But the main relief in the film in that second act is boredom, the alternative enemy of human happiness to pain. We choose to be bored, even in the most boring context, precisely because we blame the boredom on externalities. We do not choose emotional pain. Further, boredom is painful in a very different way than emotional pain. For boredom messes with our heads, not our hearts. Boredom results from being disengaged from another (in a Freudian slip, I first typed “from amother”); emotional pain is a product of intimate engagement. We become bored when we are cut off from both internal and external stimuli. We experience the greatest emotional pain when internal and external stimuli combine to whack us in the solar plexus. With emotional pain, there is no one to blame. When people are bored, they always blame their surroundings rather than taking responsibility for their own circular obsession with being bored.

For the German 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, “the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.” Life is an oscillation between pain and boredom, between torment and repetitive actions without meaning, such as Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill daily only to see it roll down again just before he reaches the summit. Which is the worst hell? In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, to the degree we escape one, to that degree we are thrust into the arms of another.

However, Schopenhauer inverted the experience of each. Boredom is largely a product of external and objective conditions, but that eminent philosopher believed that boredom comes from the inside. Emotional pain is a product of the internal and subjective, but Schopenhauer attended only to physical pain and attributed it to be a product of poverty and the absence of external conditions that would have allowed us to thrive and prosper instead of feeling pain. The movie tells an opposite story to that of Schopenhauer, of inner emotional pain and external boredom.

But the main philosophical concept underlying the powerful impact of the film is contingency. Contingency has two very opposite meanings. It refers to what may happen. The movie is an exercise in imaginative possibility rather than a depiction of reality. The controversial scene which aroused the ire of Israeli politicians is not a depiction of how the IDF behaves, even though this is what some viewers and commentators thought, but an extension of circumstances to make what is possible plausible. As Maoz said in an interview, “This is not a film about the occupation or the Palestinians. It is a film about Israeli society. Second, a work of art should not aspire to imitate and recreate reality; it should interpret, illuminate, or unravel its hidden aspects. And this is exactly what Foxtrot is trying to achieve.”

The second very different meaning of contingency refers to something liable to happen rather than simply a mere logical possibility. If we take the film to be about contingency as a likely existential liability rather than a remote logical possibility, then from my knowledge of the ethics governing the Israeli army, what is depicted may be a logical possibility, but is also a calumny in portraying the IDF. As Maoz himself said, “I was doing something that seemed right and logical. I wanted to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond them.” He was not depicting an existential reality.

The second act is a stylized surreal portrayal, a depiction that attracted the wrath of some leftist Israeli politicians for that stylistic quality and the wrath of right wingers because of the content. In spite of the detailed and heightened reality of the first and third acts, the power of the film comes, not from its existential portrayal of reality in the first and third acts, but from the logical sense of inevitability.

For Immanuel Kant, teleology, the end purpose and meaning of everything, is regulative; it is not a depiction of actuality. It serves as a guide, not as a depiction. Hegel argued that teleology served as such a guide only because of an instinct built into reason itself to bring everything together into an actual whole that appeared to constitute reality. That propensity would end up leading people to believe that they understood the absolute truth of the present when a belief in the absolute was precisely what had to be disaggregated in each age. The great philosophic irony is that most commentators took Hegel to be an advocate for the absolute and not someone who described its all-embracing and claustrophobic but inevitable propensity to characterize life that way.

Is the film about self-knowledge, the whole humanistic effort since the Enlightenment and even the Socratic foundations of philosophy? Or is the film a critique of the militarism that infects Israeli society? Is it a fearless autopsy on human emotions in general and Israelis in particular much more than a social critique? Certainly, Maoz’s first film, Lebanon, belonged to the latter category. “Lebanon, was based on my experience as a 20-year-old gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. That film helped me to try and understand what it means to kill other human beings, as I did during my military service at the IDF. I had no other choice, and yet the notion of taking lives is an excruciating burden I am forced to live with. Foxtrot was born from a different place. After Lebanon was released in 2009, I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realized I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates.”

Maoz actually offers the same answer in the film. The son of the parents, Jonathan, is a sketch artist. The last drawing he made hangs on their wall. Each parent offers an opposite Freudian interpretation of the drawing. Neither takes it to be about reality. Is the irony that they presume a deep psychological meaning – however opposite for each – when there is none, or is the irony that most members of the audience will believe the parents missed the point – that this was an actual portrayal of a horrific reality?  The audience is then invited to laugh at the parents rather than examine why they do this instead and what such an interpretation says about themselves. Why do commentators and members of the audience tend to interpret the sketch to be about the son’s effort to externalize his trauma rather than a surrealist element in the movie intended to provoke self-examination? Is the weakness of the film, and its limited box office appeal, a result of this ambiguity, when there is one intended outcome but the opposite actual one?

I do not take the film to be primarily a critique of the IDF and the extent to which it does or even could engage in literal corrupt cover-ups that infects and makes complicit the lives of individual soldiers in the IDF. I do not interpret the film, as the Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, did, as offering a “searing, for her, unjustified, critique of Israeli militarized culture.” As Maoz declared, “If you choose to see this narrow picture (that of Regev), it will be your choice. But I will do anything to force you to see the bigger picture.” Does the film attempt to provide an understanding of military reality or is it primarily an exposure of inner psychological reality? The overwhelming focus of the film on the parents and their internal emotional pain suggests that the latter is the case, that the film is primarily about self-understanding and is not a critique of society, however depressing the external narrative concerning the perpetual nature of the external conflict.

Maoz said, “I needed to find a dance that you can do in many versions, but you will always end at the same starting point. This is the dance of our society. The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.” However, he also said that, given the Holocaust, “we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, and we became a second generation of traumatized victims.” Sometimes he seems to describe the film as a social critique, at other times as a socio-psychological inquiry into the Israeli and human soul. Is the terrible scene in the film’s second act and depicted in the drawing an ewar, death,ffort to describe political reality or is it a metaphor, as Maoz said, “a microcosm of our apathetic and anxious society”? “For me (Maoz), this was the climax of an unhealthy situation that gets more and more crooked. We prefer to bury the victims rather than asking ourselves penetrating questions.”

 

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.

The overcoat: a musical tailoring – a review

Just over 57 years ago on a cold winter evening in 1961, I sat with Herb Whittaker, the theatre critic for the Globe and Mail, in a basement theatre on 47 Fraser Avenue created and developed by George Luscombe’s new theatre company, Workshop Productions. Herb Whitaker was a genteel, positive reviewer, an enthusiastic supporter of theatre even as he appeared so conventional. I even wondered as I watched the overcoat: a musical tailoring last evening whether the main character, Akakiv, performed by Geoffrey Sirett, had been modelled on Herb since Herb’s first job had been an office clerk with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal’s Windsor Station. Herb’s review of Hey Rube which we saw that evening over half a century ago, in contrast to my own unboundaried enthusiasm, was gentle and uplifting, full of plaudits and supports, but without my emotional excess.

Workshop Productions in 1961 was not the Bluma Appel Theatre. Nor was it the Royal Alex on King Street or even the Crest Theatre, that had been the only professional theatre in Toronto on Mt. Pleasant north of the tony area of Rosedale; that theatre had just gone broke. This was a theatre put together out of industrial leftovers, not with a curtain or proscenium, but a thrust stage. It was the precursor to the flowering of theatre in Toronto led by Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Lab Theatre and the Tarragon.

Workshop Productions was set in the heart of Toronto’s old industrial district made up of factories and spillovers from Toronto’s garment district just east on Spadina Avenue. I had worked for several years in the early fifties as an apprentice cutter in Hollywood Children’s Wear just north of that theatre. When I reviewed Hey Rube, I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Toronto and the junior drama critic then writing for the Toronto Daily Star under the supervision of the entertainment editor, Nathan Cohen. There were two other patrons in the bleacher seating, both friends of the cast who had been given free tickets. As tiny as the theatre was, it felt totally empty.

Both Herb and I wrote rave reviews. Hey Rube ran for months with full houses every evening. The play blew my mind, even though the only actors on stage that I recognized were George Sperdakos and Joan Ferry. At the University of Toronto as a young pre-med student, Sperdakos had recruited me as part of a small band of students in the fall of 1956 to volunteer to re-fight the Spanish Civil War in Hungary, this time against the Soviet empire rather than a fascist one. Fortunately for us, the Russians had been very efficient in crushing the uprising and our romantic gesture went up in a whiff from one of George’s then ever-present cigarettes.

Hey Rube was a very different type of revolutionary experience, one inspired by the left, but in the realm of art and theatre. Strongly influenced by Joan Littlewood’s experimental theatre in London in Britain, George had returned to Toronto to introduce a form of theatre that avoided the drawing room dramas of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen or even the kitchen sink theatre of the new upstart playwrights in London such as John Osborne. This was theatre more focused on movement than on words, on feelings more than ideas, on acrobatics more than Shakespearian enunciation, and on visual creativity more than auditory stimulation. It seemed to have more to do with the circus and vaudeville than the plays I had learned to read. Hey Rube was heavily influenced by the commedia dell’arte Italian tradition of theatre.

The theatre notes in the Canadian Stage co-production with Tapestry Opera of the overcoat: a musical tailoring which I saw it the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening made no mention of that tradition or any influences from it. Yet in its movements, in its use of mime and the traditions of the world of clowns and circuses, in its swift and sudden changes of perspective, it is strongly linked to these roots. Most of all, the overcoat avoids subtlety in favour of word play and tricksters. It is minimalist theatre in its design, but very intricate yet overflowing with exuberance and gusto in its staging.

Unlike Hey Rube, which was a rough work, ragged on the edges though full of vitality at the core, the overcoat is a bespoke production, an intricately detailed piece of material artistry, an operatic play. Instead of being based on the premise that, “I think therefore I am,” cogito ergo sum, the clear and distinct idea at the core is emotional rather than cognitive. It is based on physical theatre of movement more in tune with Cirque du Soleil. The production insists that since I sing and move, therefore I am.

But it asks a basic question. What am I when I sing and move? A zero, a nothing, someone who does not count at all, who cannot count and put numbers in order and does not count because he is not recognized as a person by anyone else? Am I a zero suited only to live in a loony bin? Or am I a one? Can I even be a two or even a three and rise, not just above the ordinary worker, but to the raised walkways of the upper middle class? To answer that question, we in the audience have to see and hear and get beneath the tailor-made outerwear that both disguises the self and transforms it into an artistic artifice.

This is an example of physical theatre as the lining of an opera, but it is still primarily a well-crafted opera. Usually I hate opera, though this is a judgement based only on attending three, a judgement made though two of my best friends were ardent opera buffs and one was an opera critic. But I have too much of a tin ear. Even last evening, as enthusiastic and entranced as I was by what I saw and heard, in my ignorance I am sure I missed the playfulness, the patchwork of the tapestry, that borrowed and layered from a history of music. For the first time in my life, I deeply regretted that I was a musical ignoramus, though I could at least pick up the repeated melodies associated with and allowing identification of the different characters.

Jill Lepore’s first lecture in her Priestley series that I wrote about recently was called, “Numbers.” The keynote speaker at the Walter Gordon symposium addressed the issue of counting. But the topic Deborah Stone addressed and analyzed was the ethics of counting. The opera on stage last evening dramatized a time in the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century when the foundation stones of modernity were established in the dual supports of numeracy and being counted, being recognized. If I just count, do I count? Do I matter?

The opera opens with a mime playing off Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker as he offers a brief plaintive tune on an accordion that ignites the stage with its perkiness. Immediately, I snapped to attention and remained mesmerized for the whole production. I was reminded of Joan Littlewood’s dictum that if you have to choose between god and the clowns, choose clowns. At first, I thought the setting would be an asylum, but that simply framed the opera. The centrepiece was the office of bookkeepers working in the industries of the nineteenth century.

In the simplicity, there was never a moment of confusion where you had to think about what anything meant. In a whirlwind of athleticism counterpoised against rigid men working as accounting clerks in the nineteenth century of Nikolai Gogol, the predecessors to men in grey flannel suits, we encounter both loneliness and alienation of the central figure in the production evoked by what my untrained ears heard as a pitch-perfect score. (Nathan Cohen had taught me to write theatre criticism with full conviction even if I was ignorant, but I have been too steeped in the Socratic philosophic tradition to follow suit.)

It was as if I were watching an adult and musical version of a Dr. Seuss book written where the rhymes are fantasy-filled and full of kinetic energy. The clerks may ride to work hanging onto the straps and bars of their tram or subway cars, but they are forced to move together to reflect and express the rhythm of the era, operatic music brought onto the stage of a music hall. In part agit prop and Charlie Chaplin, in the scene where the main character, Geoffrey Sirett, a baritone singing the part of Akakiv, gets totally drunk and wasted, probably for the first time in his life, I was taken back to the days of Brendan Behan and his plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage written under the inspiration of Joan Littlewood’s ideas. The Irish poetry of these plays of everyday speech were undercut by Behan’s alcoholism. A year before he died in the mid 1960’s from his drinking, I remember when he stayed with us – or really did not stay for he was always about town carousing – and I went looking for him. His pessimistic vision of the world, unlike the false optimism of the hero of the overcoat, turned him into a zero instead of the great artist that I believed he had been destined to become.

Thank goodness that Morris Panych, as the director and writer of the libretto, and James Rolfe, as the composer, have been more disciplined and have been able to turn out such a bespoke overcoat to make any member of the cloth trade on Spadina Avenue proud. The work is simply brilliant, enhanced by a wonderful set by Leslie Dala that evokes the steel rigidity of the iron gating of those old nineteenth-century original “skyscrapers” with the mobility and flexibility of a three-ring circus. Together with the lighting director and other talented musicians and actors, instead of witnessing the destruction of well-ordered and considered complacent middle-class theatre, we experience traditional middle-class theatre raised to a whole new level. And the audience with its standing ovation expressed their absolute delight with such a wonderful work of art. The pathos and wit were clever without being ribald. Grandiosity and down-to-earth story-telling, gentility and a satire of that gentility, exuberant energy and repressed and mechanical motion, poetic verse and music, had been combined without any need to dip into vulgarity.

In an era of celebrity politics where the main concern of the president of the United States is his ratings even as his personal character is revealed to be more deplorable even that anyone expected, where counting becomes more important than being counted for what you do and achieve, where selfies become more significant than recognition by others, the overcoat is a rendition which goes back to the roots and foundations of our current disorder, in counting in order to be counted. When presented with such poetry and music, with clever versifying and impressionistic costuming, vitality and intelligence, the nuttiness of the contemporary world is given depth, beauty and resonance. Wit and zaniness are grounded in a critique of reality and we see and hear magic.

As Jill Lepore opined in her lecture, the essence of the world of numbers and counting is discernment.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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.

Numbers: From the Sanctuary of Method to the Social Service Station

Yesterday was a numbers day. When I first went out, I went to the bank with an installer to whom I had given a cheque that bounced. I had deposited a money order – that alone shows that I belong to an older obsolete age – from another account in another bank to cover the amount of the cheque to the service company. I did not know that banks could or would hold off certifying a deposited money order because I thought that a bank money order was the equivalent of cash. I learned that I should have just taken cash out of one account in one bank and deposited it in the other; after all, the banks were directly across the street from one another. For I was wrong. Banks can hold back crediting money orders to your account. Instead of cash, I could also have obtained a cashier’s cheque or implemented a direct electronic transfer.

That chore resolved, I then went to the dentist to have a crown put on one tooth. Talk about numbers and dollars!

I had a time gap where it did not pay to go home because I was going on to hear the keynote speaker for the Walter Gordon Symposium that I planned to attend the next day (today) on: “Making Policy Count: The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The subject of the keynote address was, “The Ethics of Counting.” The presenter was Professor Deborah Stone. In the interval between the dentist appointment and the lecture, I was reading the 26 March 2018 issue of The New Yorker and, as I sat in the auditorium waiting for the lecture to begin, totally coincidentally, I was nearing the end of the magazine and was reading the section on “The Critics.” It was an essay called, “The Shorebird: Rachel Carson and the rising of the seas.” The writer was Jill Lepore whom I had gone to hear deliver the three Priestley lectures the week before on, respectively, “Facts,” “Numbers,” and “Data” and about whom I have already written extensively.

As we all know, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), first published as a three-part series in The New Yorker, alone is credited with launching the environmental movement. Jill Lepore took a different tack. Though mentioning the revolution in science and policy of correlating data on the use of DDT and the disappearance of birds, the focus of Lepore’s essay began with Carson’s personal biography and her lyrical writing about birds, fish, shad and the sea. Why? Because Sandra Steingraber, editor of a collection of essays called, Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment, had omitted any reference to that lyrical oeuvre because, though sometimes alluding to environmental threats, those essays failed to call for any specific social action. Lepore was determined to balance the books in her review essay for, as she claimed, Carson could not have written Silent Spring unless she had clambered down rocks and waded in tidal pools and written about what she saw and studied. For her earlier books were not just about molluscs or turtles or, a major concern, shad, or about kingfishers and redstarts, but about placing those creatures within an environmental context. Those earlier books, The Sea Around Us and Under the Sea-Wind became national best-sellers.

Those studies and writings led Rachel Carson to question government policy and the practice of eliminating “career men of long experience and high professional competence and their replacement by political appointees.” There seemed to be some correlation, not only between DDT and aerial spraying and the death of species, but between the emerging practice of dealing with social problems through the lens of power politics rather than the microscopic analyses of the skilled work of the products of The Sanctuary of Method. The mistreatment of the natural environment and of the research environment had similar roots, a concern with exploitation rather than exploration and understanding as we find ourselves located “in an instant of time that is mine…determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea.” Very soon after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died of cancer before she could write a new envisioned book on the rising and warming of the oceans.

Deborah Stone’s most famous book is her classic study, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Her lecture on counting was intended to introduce those attending to the question of how to build policy in a data-driven, more than simply a numbers-driven, world, a world of proprietary and indecipherable algorithms and not just numerical correlations. For an earlier stage in the stream of intellectual time, a key issue, which Stone played a significant part in unpacking, was the hidden assumptions and built-in norms behind the statistical evidence and correlations used to produce policy. In a previous blog, I had offered a simple narrative example of the time I got on the university pension committee to question the use of the gender category to doll out different pensions to women than men. Based on such false categorization, Blacks and handicapped professors should get higher pensions.

Other works have driven home similar points: Michael Wheeler’s (1976) Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in the United States. The clever phrasing allegedly went back to Mark Twain who viewed statistics as the greatest source of lies for he had lived in the nineteenth century rather than at the end of the twentieth when data-driven analyses prevailed and superseded statistics in that accusation. In history, however, the reference was initially made in the context of allocating pensions in 1891 in Britain. A more recent work, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016), carries the argument forward into a data rather than simply statistical-driven age. Mathematical algorithms can be tweaked and formulated to serve interests and power as she illustrated the effects on the financial crisis of 2007-08.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, I read an article on how polling itself – who is ahead and who is behind – influences voting patterns. Reporting that Hillary Clinton was highly favoured to win, rather than data of the percentage of the vote she would likely get, tended to decrease the incentive for supporters to go out and vote. However, Deborah Stone was dealing with an earlier version of such distortions, with numbers and statistics rather than data and algorithms, for the latter are ethically charged models built into the sophisticated mathematics.

Deborah Stone focused on a more fundamental problem characteristic of the transition from the Sanctuary of Method to the Social Service Station in which symbol and numbers were tied to causes and interests depending on the categories used. The latter led to interpretations and decisions dependent often on the negative or positive connotation of the category. Stone in her lecture went back to basics. We can learn to count by focusing only on identicals or by focusing on differences united by a single category, such as counting different kinds of cookies and not just identical glasses of milk. Counting is, thus, not just about identicals, but about categorizing what is different as an identical. In the case of the pension issue that I discussed, instead of treating all professors as equals, they were divided by gender to allocate pensions. In the name of distributive justice, namely that women retirees needed the same money each year as male retirees, such a principle of distribution was unethical.

Deborah offered a ream of illustrations of such a misuse of statistics that led to and supported unjust policies. In collecting numbers on violence against women, the collection depended upon what was classified as violence, who did the counting and for what purpose. For example, did relegating a second wife and child to a small room in the back of the house, expulsion from the house as a form of punishment, rebukes for giving birth to female babies, count as violence as Bangladeshi women contended? Or were European and North American models of violence predominant in the counting. Think before counting was one mantra. Take into consideration the language and concern of those counted was another. Always take into consideration what people wanted to accomplish by collecting such statistics. For numbers carry clout.

Interestingly, Stone referred, but in greater detail, to the same illustration that Lepore used in her lecture, the three-fifths rule for counting slaves built into the American constitution by James Madison in an early attempt to reconcile the paradox that slaves were, on the one hand, property that could be bought and sold, and were, on the other hand, sentient human beings who were held accountable and punishable for their actions. Tax policies and the distribution of votes depended on how slaves were counted.

Numbers count, whether referring to the numbers attending President Trump’s inauguration or to back whether you should take Lipitor to deal with your cholesterol level. Do we ask questions whether you believe immigrants take your jobs in undertaking a survey, or do you ask whether they contribute to create jobs by starting businesses?

Let me take up both issues of the application of statistics and their creation. On the recommendation of my heart specialist, I use Lipitor, the brand name of Pfizer Pharmaceutical that has earned the company $130 billion in sales since the drug was approved for human use in 1996, to lower my cholesterol level and, therefore, to introduce a preventive measure against blood clots. (I once developed a 2.5 inch-long blood clot in a leg vein that went just above my knee.) This in turn would reduce the risk of a heart attack and stroke by lowering plaque build-up in my veins. I have never investigated the categories or methods used in the research behind the drug. I take the drug based on the authority of my physician.

However, when you disaggregate the issue of cholesterol, you find there are different types, some “good” cholesterol and some “bad” – low density lipoproteins (LDL). Further, based on research paid for by the drug companies, what counts as a high cholesterol level has been gradually lowered over the years to the great benefit of the bottom line of Pfizer. Given associated risks – to kidneys and liver, to diabetes and muscle diseases, as Lipitor, a statin, reduces the amount of cholesterol made by and stored in the liver – the lecture implied that research funded by Pfizer based on its economic interests should be questioned.

It was clear that Deborah Stone did not favour collecting stats based on supply and demand and she was sceptical about stats collected by economic interests or those interested in perpetuating their political power. Good stats should be based on building a community and social well-being, on fostering empathy and minimizing exploitation. As the lecture progressed on the ethics of numbers, it became clear that Stone was not just interested in issues, where injustice was perpetuated by the use of statistics, but was positively selling an alternative ethic as the basis for statistical analysis. She was a bleeding heart rather than a possessive individualist. She wanted statistics that fostered empathy and undermined the use and abuse of some people by others. Categories used in statistics can and are used to change hearts and minds – though other stats that she collected indicated that prior prejudices meant that information did not work in changing hearts and minds since biases are almost immune to change by numbers. This was readily apparent in a CBC radio show yesterday on the introduction of a cap-and-trade tax on carbon to combat environmental degradation; a Progressive party defender of the tax dealt with calls, mostly by conservatives, who opposed the tax. Statistics were central to the argument but seemed useless in getting anyone to change their mind.

What Stone did not do was disaggregate areas in which numbers were collected ostensibly to foster care and concern for the displaced resulting in a very different origin of distortion. I had an occasion to audit statistics on those made homeless by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Originally, I went to undertake an actual count, but upon arrival in Lebanon during the war, I had found that there had been twelve different counts of those made homeless, so I simply performed an audit rather than a count. The whole project was stimulated by competing numbers. The Israeli government had issued a report that 27,000 Palestinians had been made homeless by the invasion. OXFAM Britain had published full page ads that 600,000 had been made homeless. The discrepancy was too huge to ignore for a research unit determined to establish objective and accurate figures in dealing with refugees.

As it turned out, the original figure of 600,000 was produced by the International Red Cross, but it was not of those made homeless, but of “those affected” by the invasion. OXFAM Britain had switched the stat to refer to a very different category. Further, of the twelve counts on the ground, all were carried out very objectively with an intention of producing accurate figures. The Israeli figures were too low (40,000 Palestinians had been made homeless in southern Lebanon.) The corrected figure of 40,000 rather than the original Israeli figure of 27,000 was more accurate because the Israeli figure was a product of an arithmetical error combined with missing some enclaves where the displaced had taken shelter.

The most thorough count was undertaken by the Palestinian school teachers who wrote down every name of every person who had lost their homes in typical elementary school ledgers. The figure arrived at was considered too high by about 10% because Palestinians whose homes had been destroyed had been counted even when they had not lived in those homes for years and instead rented them out to others, mostly Bangladeshi itinerant workers. None of the other counts had considered that these Bangladeshis had been made homeless by the war, a bias not only of both sides, but of the humanitarian international community.

Using measures to arrive at a common definition, the city engineers’ counts and all the others could all be reconciled to result in a common figure. The interesting irony was that the tool based on the “worst” systematic method, that of the International Red Cross, which arrived at its figure by counting kitchenware packages that had been distributed and multiplying by three, turned out to be the most accurate even though the IRC was clearly ashamed of using such a rough tool to determine the result.

I want to illustrate two points by this story. First, not only can private economic interests or political power interests produce distorted statistics, but so can the collection of statistics motivated by empathy and bleeding hearts. Second, statistics can and do provide objective information based on agreed categories and even different methods of collection and analyses. When the ethics of counting closely correlated with the Sanctuary of Method as a fundamental methodological tool is distorted for social purposes, either for profit, for power or even for humanitarian purposes, that is, for solving a specific set of social problems, the determination of the problem and the bias of a belief in correcting the problem can produce distortions by the use and abuse of categories and the resultant numbers.

I do not have the time and space to illustrate other more serious cases – the count of the alleged numbers killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996 based on a distortion of the base reference figure that fed a narrative of a second genocide, this time against Hutu rather than Tutsi from Rwanda. For years, until corrected by scholars from both sides, the original figure of the numbers of Palestinians uprooted from their homes in 1948 varied from 520,000 (the standard Israeli figure) and 940,000, the UNRWA figure. Later systematic analysis resulted in a figure of 720,000-740,000 which became an objective reference number for both sides. Objective stats can be collected even in war zones when conflict provided agendas are bracketed and systematic means are used to critique categories and correct for errors.

Stats in themselves are not corrupting, but when we begin to suggest that they be collected to solve a social problem in one direction, say for profit or power, rather than another – enhance aid for refugees or enhance compassion for them – then subjectivity begins to displace objectivity as the critical category and the Sanctuary of Method is undermined as an institutional norm in favour of the Social Service Station. Should the latter be used to enhance wealth accumulation in society or for fostering social justice? For stats are not just correlated with power, as Lepore contended, or with economic interests and power, as Stone contended, but to enhance humanitarian causes. The presumption of subjective bias is partly responsible for the expansion of the idea of post-truth.

To be continued