Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Hibernating For The Winter (2019)


An Early January Morning in Maple: I have decided to take a long break from this blog, and will hibernate so to speak, for the rest of the winter. I hope to recharge and gain some needed energy as well as a renewed sense of things. If all goes to plan, I will return in the spring, which in Toronto can be anytime from mid- to late April. I wish you a good and pleasant start to the new year of 2019. May it bring only good news, good health and good prosperity.
Photo Credit: ©2019. Perry J. Greenbaum

Monday, January 7, 2019

A Little Freedom is No Easy Matter


“Experience is the teacher of all things,”
Julius Caesar, De Bello Civili (c. 40 BCE) 

An article (“The Philosopher Redefining Equality;” January 7, 2009) by Nathan Heller in The New Yorkers writes about the ethics of freedom in America, and how one philosopher—Elizabeth Anderson, chair of the University of Michigan’s department of philosophy—approaches it as thus:

To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest). Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down. Being homeless was an unfree condition by all counts; thus, it was incumbent on a free society to remedy that problem. A quadriplegic adult was blocked from civil society if buildings weren’t required to have ramps. Anderson’s democratic model shifted the remit of egalitarianism from the idea of equalizing wealth to the idea that people should be equally free, regardless of their differences. A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence. “People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies,” Anderson wrote.
Such is the case today with oppressive hierarchies the norm everywhere. Few people are truly free, a result of human ingenuity that has made less people free so that a few can be on top of the pyramid. Freedom and equality are interdependent. It is to a large degree about removing barriers, obstacles if you will, to personal freedom and fulfillment. In the language of everyday life, it is about treating people with dignity and respect. It is to say that someone with a low-paying profession or no profession or is disabled is still valued as a human being. It is to use the language of humaneness.

Applying such an approach, especially in language, will take some rethinking in America, in a nation where money is (almost) everything, most notably in the areas of influence and power, and how people are viewed and valued. Yet we are far away from such an achievement. For even on the most basic level of financial and economic measurement , I doubt that this will ever change much, though there will be some poor attempts, no doubt to improve the lot of those at the bottom with expected loud resistance from those at the top, believing that too much has already been done (sharing is a foreign concept), and that those on the bottom “ought to pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” a truly nonsensical expression.

There might be minimal success, which I think is better than none, but America can never become such a nation—under current conditions—chiefly because “the order has broken down.” This includes the soul of the nation. There is no will or desire or actual belief to really fix it (e.g., increase taxes on the rich, build housing for the homeless, ensure free education, ensure universal healthcare, etc.)—all areas which I have written about over the years. None of it is remotely happening in America. In America, it is chiefly about ensuring that money keeps rising to the top for the few. Period. This is not a cynical expression but one of human observation.

This is why I think, after reading this article, that Prof. Anderson might mean well,and might be on to something good and fruitful to the benefit of humanity, but I doubt that she (and her husband), who probably make a nice middle-to upper-class living, would know through experience how those on the bottom live and suffer their humanly appointed fates. More often than not such fates are undeserved, unwelcomed and unmerited. This is also an important point that is too often easily ignored or smoothed over for fear of inviting feelings of uneasiness.

If freedom is hard to obtain, then how much importance it is given by the individual is how important it becomes in their lived lives. In the end, is that not how all people take stock of their lives? Is it not through the lens of their collective real-life experiences? A life lived. Even if you can agree that freedom begins in the mind, it is hard to deny the cumulative effects of a long life of struggle, notably if one considers and eventually views the struggle (for freedom) as futile or inconsequential. The opposite, however, can also be true, namely, that the struggle was necessary and noble.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Exile’s Return: Then and Now

Good Books

Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (1934) by Malcolm Cowley. “They had silently abandoned the creed that had guided and sustained them on their long pilgrimage abroad. The religion of art was dead, not only in spirit and inner logic, but this time in practice also. Its saints were either being neglected, or else, like Joyce and Gertrude Stein, they were becoming popular authors, best-sellers in New York, no longer venerated by an esoteric cult. The new young men  weren’t planning to follow in their footsteps” (286).
Photo Credit: ©2019. Perry J. Greenbaum

I have been rereading a book that was part of an American literature course I took some twenty-five years ago. It is Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (1934) by Malcolm Cowley [1898–1989], who was part of that generation of writers who escaped America for Europe, particularly Paris, in search of something genuine and artistic, before returning (as many did) to New York’s Greenwich Village; and while there finding the air thick with a new way of thinking and being.
Worst of all, many writers said, was the hypocrisy that had come to pervade the whole system, with businessmen talking about service when they meant profits, with statements proclaiming their love for the common man while taking orders from Wall Street (and sometimes money from oil operators in little black bags)…(216)
Cowley wrote this in the early 1930s, looking back at the 1920s, and, yet, it rings true today. There are many such similar passages on the failure of the “religion of art” and its attendant beliefs in beauty, truth, etc. to take hold in America, and yet it did have some influence on art and literature, before it itself become compromised by economic interests. To be sure, America (and now most of the world) is defined a great deal by its economic engine, by its monied classes, by its worship of wealth. It is hard to deny this reality, which is what matters most to the powers that be, who view art, literature, beauty and truth as something that can be purchased. Small wonder that America is bedeviled by the same old problems, like poverty, societal alienation and rising inequality. Will the situation be the same in 100 years?

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Impressions of The Bund

Humanism & Humaneness

The Jewish Labor Bund poster in Yiddish says: “There, where we live, there is our country! A democratic republic! Full political and national rights for Jews. Ensure that the voice of the Jewish working class is heard at the Constituent Assembly,” Kiev, circa 1918.
Via: NYRB & Bund Archives of the Jewish Labor Movement, New York

In an article (“My Great-Grandfather the Bundist;” October 6, 2018), in The New York Review of Books, Molly Crabapple writes and reminisces about her family’s historical ties to the Bund—via way of her maternal grandfather (the post-Impressionist artist Sam Rothbort)—giving detailed and general impressions of a political party and organization whose humane and humanistic values echo those of my upbringing, ones that still ring true many decades later:
Founded in 1897 in Vilna (Vilnius in modern-day Lithuania), and reaching its height in interwar Poland, the Bund was a sometimes-clandestine political party whose tenets were humane, socialist, secular, and defiantly Jewish. Bundists fought the Tsar, battled pogroms, educated shtetls, and ultimately helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Though the Bund was largely obliterated by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the group’s opposition to Zionism better explains their absence from current consciousness. Though the Bund celebrated Jews as a nation, they irreconcilably opposed the establishment of Israel as a separate Jewish homeland in Palestine. The diaspora was home, the Bund argued. Jews could never escape their problems by the dispossession of others. Instead, Bundists adhered to the doctrine of do’ikayt or “Hereness.” Jews had the right to live in freedom and dignity wherever it was they stood.
As a Jew, I can applaud this statement; and as a human being with wider humanist sentiments I can say that such ideas ought to apply to all peoples of the world, no matter where they live. The Bund as an organization promoting universalist ideas in Yiddish, a language that has fewer speakers than it once did, now lives on chiefly in archives and in articles like this one. Its relevance snuffed out by the Holocaust, the Stalinist Gulags and entho and religious nationalism, whose primal sources—fear and hatred of the Other— are as old as humanity itself.
We also witness its effects today as the rise of the reactionary right, of illiberal movements and of authoritarian populism. Such movements cannot be ignored, but seen for what they are and understood for why they exist—they draw their purpose and their power from the discontent of everyday people who feel they have long been ignored and marginalized by “liberal” democracies. Yet, despite all this, despite feeling the suffocating power of its presence, we are mindful and are aware that it is imperative to act, with renewed vigour, to ensure that the modern high-minded values of freedom, tolerance, justice and dignity remain a vital part of our everyday lives.

Such are as important now as they were in 1897. Perhaps even more so. As a reminder, the history of the 20th century is instructive of what can happen when such values are ignored or pushed to the margins. Hope is the wellspring of liberal democracies; hope is the antithesis of hate. Hope opens doors and builds bridges.

Final thought: We reside with hope that the new year of 2019 will be one where we can all live with dignity as free men and women. For now, given what is taking place in many parts of the world, this seems a far-away dream. But dream we must, and moreover act with good conscience on such  dreams.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge: Christmas Carols

Winter Festival

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, England, with Stephen Cleobury as music director, perform the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. As is tradition on Christmas Eve, a lone boy is selected by the choirmaster to sing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City.”
Via: Youtube

It is that time of year again, to commemorate and celebrate a musical winter tradition that is this year marking its centenary. In an article (“Every Christmas Eve, a Lone Choir Boy Sings to More Than 370 Million;” December 23, 2018), in The New York Times, Michael White writes:
A serene liturgical parade of music, words and wonder that expounds the Christmas story, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is the high point of the year for King’s, a University of Cambridge college with a celebrated choir that sings in its chapel almost every day while classes are in session.
And this year will be special: Partly because it’s the 100th Lessons and Carols, but also because it’s the last time Mr. Cleobury — who has held one of the most coveted jobs in church music for longer than most people can remember — will be in charge.
Something about the Lessons and Carols’ serene liturgy of music, words and wonder touches a nerve. It seems embedded in the DNA of Christmas, a tradition from the ancient past. Except it isn’t.  
It was started in 1918 by a young Anglican priest who had returned to Cambridge after serving in the trenches of World War I. He called it a “festival,” but it was also a commemoration for the war dead, with a so-called Bidding Prayer for “those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light.”
It established a precedent, and churches and cathedrals copied the new liturgy for themselves — to the point that the format of Nine Lessons and Carols became a standard at Anglican churches around the world.
And a beautiful one, too, that all peoples of the world can enjoy.