Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Romney In Israel

U.S.-Israeli Relations

Romney at the Western Wall: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney places a prayer note as he visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Sunday. 
Photo Credit: Charles Dharapak, AP
SourceWashington Post

Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrived in Israel on Saturday evening, spending almost two days in the Jewish State before flying off to Poland on Monday—the last part of his three-nation trip. In Poland, he received the endorsement of Lech Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of Poland.

In Israel, one of the first issues he discussed was Iran developing nuclear weapons and his unequivocal support for the Jewish State if it decides to take action on its own. Accusing Iran of having a "bloody and brutal record," Romney said: "We have a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions."

Romney's position is more clearly defined in support of Israel than that of President Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent in the November 6th presidential elections. As Mathew Kalman of the Globe & Mail writes;
Mr. Romney spent the day demonstrating his long friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, implicitly contrasting his warm reception with President Barack Obama’s often frosty relations with Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Romney also promised as president not to join critics of Israel, as Mr. Obama has on some issues. And he directly challenged White House policy by declaring Jerusalem “the capital of Israel.”
Mr. Romney’s message, delivered against the symbolic backdrop of the Old City of Jerusalem, ruled by Israel since 1967 and still disputed, was directed not at his Israeli hosts but at voters back home, designed to attract the tiny Jewish vote in swing states like Florida and Ohio. Mr. Obama made a similar trip to Israel as a candidate almost exactly four years ago, but has not returned as president.
The race for the White House is essentially a tie, according to recent polls. You would think that with the differences between the two candidates being clear and apparent, the choice would be easy. Yet, Jewish voters in the U.S, according to the latest polls, are committed to voting for Obama (68-25), in keeping with their long-standing ties to the Democratic Party.

It's unlikely that Romney will see significant gains nationally from the Jewish cohort, given its slavish devotion to the Democrats, but he might get enough votes in the key state of Florida to win it. While relationships are always important, elections ought to be decided on the merits of a candidate and his platform. Some Jews might be put off by Romney's Mormon or "Christian convictions"; they shouldn't be. In this case and in this election, voting Democrat would seem to go against the interests of the Jewish People.

You can read the rest of the article at [Globe & Mail].

Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday Humour: Logic & Deduction

Monday Humor

Much of the Jewish humour on this site can be found in this wonderful book: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, compiled and edited by Henry D. Spalding.

This week's humour is focused on Logic & Deduction:

A young man applies to study with a Talmudic scholar. The scholar rejects him, saying, "Before you can study Talmud, you must know Jewish logic."
"But I already know logic," protests the student,
"Aristotelian syllogisms, truth-functional logic, predi­cate logic, set theory everything."
"That's not Jewish logic," replies the scholar, but the student persists, and so the scholar offers to give him a test to determine whether he is prepared.
"Here is the question," says the scholar. "Two men go down a chimney. One has a dirty face, one has a clean face. Which one washes?"
"That's easy," says the student, "the one with the dirty face."
"Wrong," says the scholar. "The one with the clean face looks at the other one, sees a dirty face, and thinks his must also be dirty, and so the one with the clean face washes."
"I see," says the student. "It is a little more compli­cated than I thought, but I can do this. Please test me again."
"All right," sighs the scholar. "Here is the question. Two men go down a chimney. One has a dirty face, one has a clean face. Which one washes?"
In surprise the student answers, "Just as you said, the one with the clean face washes."
"Wrong," says the scholar. "The one with the dirty face observes his companion looking at him and mak­ing ready to wash his face. 'Ah ha,' he thinks. 'He must see a dirty face, and it's mine.' And so the one with the dirty face washes."
"It is even more complicated than I yet realized," says the student, "but now I do understand. Please test me once more."
"Just once more," says the scholar. "Here is the question. Two men go down a chimney. One has a dirty face, one has a clean face. Which one washes?"
"Now I know the answer," says the student. "The one with the dirty face washes, just as I thought in the beginning, but for a different reason."
"Wrong," says the scholar. "If two men go down a chimney, how can only one have a dirty face? Go and study. When you know Jewish logic, come back."
********************************************************
Digging to a depth of 1,000 meters last year, French scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 1,000 years. The French came to the conclusion that their ancestors had a telephone network centuries ago. 
Not to be outdone by the French, English scientists dug to a depth of 2,000 meters. Shortly thereafter headlines in the UK newspapers read: "English archaeologists have found traces of a 2,000-year-old fiber-optic cable and have concluded that their ancestors had an advanced high-tech digital communications network a thousand years earlier than the French.

One week later, Israeli newspapers reported the following: "After digging as deep as 5,000 meters in a Jerusalem marketplace, they found absolutely nothing. They thus concluded that 5,000 years ago Jews were using wireless.


********************************************************
A Jewish guy comes to Rebbe: 
Rebbe, in my appartment besides me and my wife, there are also my children
and my mother-in-law and I don't have enough room! What should I do?

Rebbe: Bring a goat into the house. Let him live with you.

The guy: But Rebbe, there is no place for me!

Rebbe: Bring a goat in the house, I tell you!

In a month the guy comes again: "Rebbe, it became much worse, there is no place.  With the goat in the appartment there is no place to move."

Rebbe: Now get rid of the goat!

The next day, the guy returns to the Rebbe full of happiness: "Thank you, thank you Rebbe. It is so good now, so much space!"







No Autism Epidemic, Just Better Diagnostic Tools

Annals of Science


In an article in Discover, Emily Willingham writes rather persuasively using data and facts that autism is not on the rise in the industrialized world, but, rather, has been better diagnosed the last few years. To its credit, psychiatric medicine has developed more sophisticated tools to diagnose autism, including recently adopted categories—like Asperger's syndrome— that were non-existent in the past:
Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism sometimes known as “little professor syndrome,” is in the same we-didn’t-see-it-before-and-now-we-do situation. In 1981, noted autism researcher Lorna Wing translated and revivified Hans Asperger’s 1944 paper describing this syndrome as separate from Kanner’s autistic disorder, although Wing herself argued that the two were part of a borderless continuum. Thus, prior to 1981, Asperger’s wasn’t a diagnosis, in spite of having been identified almost 40 years earlier. Again, the official prevalence was zero before its adoption by the medical community.
And so, here we are today, with two diagnoses that didn’t exist 70 years ago (plus a third, even newer one: PDD-NOS) even though the people with the conditions did. The CDC’s new data say that in the United States, 1 in 88 eight-year-olds fits the criteria for one of these three, up from 1 in 110 for its 2006 estimate. Is that change the result of an increase in some dastardly environmental “toxin,” as some argue? Or is it because of diagnostic changes and reassignments, as happened when autism left the schizophrenia umbrella?
Scientific studies show that the societal level of autism is around one percent, a figure that many studies show is stable and similar from country to country and between generations. What might seem like a rampant increase to non-scientists—and notably the purveyors of fear—is essentially the success of campaigns to increase awareness of a disorder in accordance to DSM-IV, the accepted diagnostic manual of psychiatry. "Because of greater awareness of autism and the flexibility of the diagnostic tools used, we've recently been diagnosing people with autism who previously would have received other diagnoses or gone unidentified," Willingham writes.

Autism rates might actually go down after the release of DSM-V (scheduled for May 2013); the proposed revisions will reduce four current categories to one—autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. [see here.]

You can read the rest of the article at [Discover]

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Menuhin & Oistrakh: Bach Double Violin Concerto



Yehudi Menuhin & David Oistrakh play from the first movement of J.S. Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043, "Vivace." Theirs was a friendship born of music, despite the politics of the Cold War. As one site, Medici.tv puts it:
A friendship that withstood the iron curtain was born in 1945 between the American from New York and the Russian from Odessa. That year, Menuhin was invited by the Soviet government and flew to Moscow. Upon his arrival, Oistrakh was there to greet him. “From that day on", recalls Menuhin, "and until his death in 1974, we never stopped playing together”
 You can find more information on the performance here.


***********************************

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Totalitarian Message of Environmentalism

Saving Ourselves

When persons who hold fundamentalist views are not part of a religious tradition, they have to find another secular ideology in which to have faith and persuade followers of the urgency of their message. Nowhere is this more observed than in the Green Movementand environmentalism, which easily prey on Western white guilt


In an article in the Australian Financial Review, "Scorning the propaganda of fear," Emma-Kate Symons writes about French philosopher, Pascal Bruckner's scathing attack on the politics of fear. 
It is a feistier-than-usual polemic for Bruckner, a leading member of France’s “new philosophers” who emerged from the 1970s left with searing critiques of Marxism. Later this year, it will be published in English as Fanaticism of the Apocalypse by Polity, Cambridge, translated by Steven Rendall.
As the Jesuit-educated philosopher sees it, extreme climate change alarmism, with its warning bells chiming “The end of the world is nigh, repent ye”, represents a worrying new doctrine of ideological purity that even has totalitarian overtones.
Worst of all, Bruckner argues, these “political commissars of carbon” have “betrayed the best of causes” and turned the discourse of ecological terror into the “dominant ideology of Western society”.
Dividing his argument into three sections, provocatively titled “The Seduction of Disaster”; “The Anti-progress Progressives”; and “The Great Ascetic Regression”, Bruckner scorns the peddlers of the “propaganda of fear”.
Its followers, like religious adherents of four or five hundred years ago, use fear of retribution (source: Ancient Greek philosophy:  “Mother Earth Will Strike Back” or “Mother Gaia Will Judge” ) and a simple reductive message to persuade the greatest number of persons to follow the party line. So, it comes as no surprise that environmentalists use the simple language of medieval Christian peasants, fearful of living on this planet, where unexplained environmental phenomena take place, where Nature is capricious and malevolent, and where every simple and normal pleasurable act is dangerous, if not sinful.

For the political ecologists, the solution is to not progress—they are in effect anti-progress progressives against everything— but to turn back the clock and live as primitives.

That idea is as absurd as it sounds, and Bruckner's writing ensure that rational and practical arguments about conservation are being aired. Environmentalism is a religion, yet a poor one, superficial in its beliefs and tenets of faith. Here's a final thought: “I do not attack ecology per se,” Bruckner says of his book. “I attack that degraded religion which emerges from it and turns into a culture of fear, hatred of progress and well-being. “Why must we renounce all the joys of life under the pretext of global warming?” Yes, indeed.

You can read the rest of the article at [Financial Review].

Thursday, July 26, 2012

President Obama No Lover Of Israel

American-Israeli Relations


In an article in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller writes that Barack Obama has no real affection or attachment to Israel. This is not surprising to many conservatives who have been tracking President Obama's actions and policy decisions the last few years. It might come as a surprise, however, to some Jewish voters, steadfastly Democrat in their political choices.

Aaron David Miller writes:
I've watched a few presidents come and go on this issue, and Obama really is different. Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn't in love with the idea of Israel. As a result, he has a harder time making allowances for Israeli behavior he doesn't like. Obama relates to the Jewish state not on a values continuum but through a national security and interest filter.
It's true that the president doesn't emote on many policy issues, with the possible exception of health care. But on Israel, he just doesn't buy the "tiny state living on the knife's edge with the dark past" argument—or at least it doesn't come through in emotionally resonant terms. As the Washington Post's Scott Wilson reported, Obama doesn't believe the "no daylight" argument— that is, to get Israel to move, you need to make the Israelis feel that America will stand by it no matter what. Quite the opposite: Obama appears to believe that Israel needs to understand that if it doesn't move, the United States will be hard pressed to continue to give it complete support.
That the Obama Administration responds like this, considering Israel a lesser important nation than others— such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt—in the region, speaks not only of its poor understanding of Israel's role in the Middle East, but also of its strategic importance as a key defender of western liberal democratic values and ideals. To ignore this is to undermine the centrality of western values. Ignorance of both history and geopolitical realities, coupled with hubris, often lead to such political mistakes.

You can read the full article at [Foreign Policy]

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Goldene Medina

The Immigrant Life
September 1, 1903, 
New York, Ellis Island
I am sitting here on the wood wicker suitcase, the one with the metal straps. Mama says I am too heavy to rest on the wicker one. It seems as if we have been in this baggage room forever, although it has only been two hours since we got off the boat. My oldest sister, Tovah, says to get used to it. It takes a long time to get "processed." I am not sure what this word means. I know when you enter life you are born, but when you enter America you are processed here, at Ellis Island. 
Dreams  in the Golden Country: 
The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, by Kathryn Lasky, p. 3.

Arriving at Ellis Island in New YorkPhysicians examine a group of Jewish immigrants who are gathered in a small room, two with their shirts off. Note the eye chart with Hebrew letters that hangs on the wall.  
Photo Credit: Underwood & Underwood; 1907
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

For many Jews who made the perilous trip by ship across the Atlantic Ocean in the last century, the United States—America—was Die Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, where all dreams could and would come into fruition. A Promised Land like no other. And America has kept that promise; it has been a beacon of not only hopes and dreams, but of opportunity. The list of American Jews who have "made it in America" is long. I have written about many of them, including Irving Berlin, Vladimir Horowitz, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Arthur Rubinstein.

More than any other nation over the last hundred years, and most notably between 1880 and 1924, America was the place where most Jews wanted to settle and start their life anew. For such persons, a two-week trip by steam ship in third class, and then a long wait to be "processed" at Ellis Island in New York City, was worth the travails, for it would lead to a better life than the one they left behind. It was at Ellis Island that most immigrants got their first taste of America:
The great steamship companies like White Star, Red Star, Cunard and Hamburg-America played a significant role in the history of Ellis Island and immigration in general. First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship; the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. The Federal government felt that these more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions, hospitals or become a burden to the state. However, first and second class passengers were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection if they were sick or had legal problems.

This scenario was far different for "steerage" or third class passengers. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships with few amenities, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs at the piers and were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection.
As the Ellis Island site notes: "The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these 'six second physicals.' " If all the papers were in order and the immigrant was in good health, the complete inspection process would last no more than five hours—a small inconvenience for freedom. Many came, precisely for that reason. During this period, for example, more than two million Russian Jews made their way to the United States, the great majority settling in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One can criticize America—and many feel free to do so, often without valid reason—and yet it is a nation unlike any other.

To put it mildly, America has been exceptionally good for the Jews. (The question on whether America has been good for Judaism is another one that we'll put aside for now.) So, yes, America is not perfect and has made a number of mistakes, some major. But so have all large and powerful nations; all small and weak nations, as well. But what of America's long list of accomplishments in all areas of humanity: arts, science, medicine, culture, economics, politics, sports? These cannot be denied.

Its success is undoubtedly due to its Constitution, to its work ethic, to its freedoms and to its immigrants who have brought with their meagre possessions a hunger to succeed in their adopted land. There is also its history as a place of refuge and hope. The U.S. has had a long history where it has viewed itself as a place favoured by God; some call this American exceptionalism, as an article by Jodi Kantor in The New York Times on Mitt Romney noted.
Or take Mr. Romney’s frequent tributes to American exceptionalism. “I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag,” he said in announcing his bid for the presidency last June. Every presidential candidate highlights patriotism, but Mr. Romney’s is backed by the Mormon belief that the United States was chosen by God to play a special role in history, its Constitution divinely inspired.

“He is an unabashed, unapologetic believer that America is the Promised Land,” said Douglas D. Anderson, dean of the business school at Utah State University and a friend, and that leading it is “an obligation and responsibility to God.”
For many immigrants, America was and has been an exceptional place like no other. It has been good to them and their families. Should they be taught otherwise? Many secular members of the press are uncomfortable with such religious ideas informing a candidate's politics, yet that is very much part of the American tradition and cannot be ignored. It might be that the media, for the most part, is out of touch with America and its prevailing values than the other way around.

So, today is the Fourth of July, the American Day of Independence. Faith in the nation and its founding principles play an important role in the lives of many of its citizens, including the many immigrants who are proud to become American citizens. To my American friends, I wish you a day of celebration and fun and while you are firing up the barbecues and viewing the fireworks, remember to acknowledge that the United States is still a nation of immigrants and a nation where individual liberty can always be found. That is a good thing.

Happy Holidays to all.

*******************************
N.B.: Today marks my last post for July; I am taking a much-needed summer break and will return on August 1. Happy holidays.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Brain Scan Detects Chronic Back Pain Sufferers

Medical Research

An article  by Sarah C. P. Williams in Science says that having a brain scan might show which individuals among back-pain sufferers have a higher probability of having chronic back pain, and thus advance new treatments to alleviate such pain.
Now, researchers have discovered a difference in brain scans between the two groups of patients that appears early in the course of the pain. The finding could lead to not only ways of identifying patients who are the most at risk for long-term pain but to new treatments or preventions for chronic pain.
"This is the very first time we can say that if we have two subjects who have the same type of injury for the same amount of time, we can predict who will become a chronic pain patient versus who will not," says neuroscientist Vania Apkarian of Northwestern University, Chicago, who led the new work.
Over the past 2 decades, Apkarian's lab has run many studies comparing the brains of patients with chronic back pain with those of healthy people, finding differences in brain anatomy or the function of certain regions. But the study designs made it hard to sort out which brain changes were consequences of the chronic pain—or the patients' painkillers or altered lifestyles—versus those that drove the pain's chronic nature.
It seems that persons with chronic back pain exhibited more intense communication in two areas of the brain than those whose pain eventually subsided. If this is indeed the case, or a causal link can be established between such brain activity and chronic pain, then neuroscientists could quickly predict early on which persons are more prone to chronic back pain. That would be the first step in early detection, which might provide eventual relief.

You can read the rest of the article at [Science]





András Schiff: Bach's Italian Concerto



András Schiff performs Bach's Italian Concerto, BWV 971, which J.S. Bach published in 1735. That year, Bach published Part 2 of his Clavier-übung or Exercises for the Keyboard, which comprised two pieces: a Concerto in the Italian Style – the Italian Concerto, and the Keyboard Partita in B Minor, also known as The Overture in The French styleThe original title of this piece is Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto (Concerto in the Italian style). [As a comparison, you can listen to Wanda Landowska here play the piece on harpsichord in a 1936 recording.]

*****************************

Monday, July 2, 2012

Jewish Humour: A Rabbi & A Priest


Monday Humor

Much of the Jewish humour on this site can be found in this wonderful book: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, compiled and edited by Henry D. Spalding.

This week's humour is focused on A Rabbi & A Priest:

A rabbi once asked his old friend, a priest, "Could you ever be promoted within your Church?"
The priest says, thoughtfully, "Well, I could become a bishop."
The rabbi persists, "And after that?"
With a pause for consideration, the priest replies, "Maybe I could be a cardinal, even."
"And then?"
After thinking for some time, the priest responds, "Someday I may even rise to be the Pope."
But the rabbi is still not satisfied. "And then?"
With an air of incredulity, the priest cries, "What more could I become? God Himself?"
The rabbi says quietly, "One of our boys made it."

*********************************
A Catholic priest is called away by a family emergency one day, while on duty attending confession. Not wanting to leave the confessional unattended, he asks his friend, a rabbi from the synagogue across the street, if he can fill in for him.
The rabbi says he wouldn't know what to do, so the priest agrees to stay with him for a few minutes and show him the ropes.
They enter their half of the confessional together and soon enough, a woman enters and says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do?" asks the priest.
"I have committed adultery," she replies.
"How many times?" continues the priest.
"Three times."
"Do three Hail Marys, put $5 in the poor-box, and sin no more," finishes the priest.
The woman leaves and not long after a man enters and says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do?"
"I have committed adultery."
"How many times?"
"Three times."
"Do three Hail Marys, put $5 in the poor-box, and sin no more." The man leaves.
The rabbi tells the priest he thinks he's got it figured out now, so the priest leaves, and the rabbi waits until another woman enters the confessional, who says, "Father forgive me, for I have sinned."
"What did you do," asks the rabbi.
"I have committed adultery," she replies.
"How many times?"
"Twice."
"I tell you what," says the rabbi. "Go do it one more time and come back. We got a special this week, three for $5!"

*********************************
A Priest and a Rabbi are riding in a plane. After a while, the Priest turns to the Rabbi and asks, "Is it still a requirement of your faith that you not eat pork?"
The Rabbi responds, "Yes, that is still one of our beliefs."
The Priest then asks, "Have you ever eaten pork?"
To which the Rabbi replies, "Yes, on one occasion I did succumb to temptation and tasted pork."
The Priest nodded in understanding and went on with his reading. A while later, the Rabbi spoke up and asked the Priest, "Father, is it still a requirement of your church that you remain celibate?"
The Priest replied, "Yes, that is still very much a part of our faith."
The Rabbi then asked him, "Father, have you ever fallen to the temptations of the flesh?"
The Priest replied, "Yes Rabbi, on one occasion I was weak and broke with my faith."
The Rabbi nodded understandingly for a moment and then said, "A lot better than pork isn't it?"

The Outsiders: Anglos In Quebec

A View From Quebec

I was an outsider... but I was also sympathetic with people that were struggling to get up, because I struggled to get up.
Elia Kazan

Lionel-Adolphe Groux [1878-1967 ]: A Roman Catholic priest, historian and nationalist, Groux is considered the "Father of Quebec Nationalism." Although he and his writings are largely ignored, his spirit hovers over the province. A metro station and a college bear his name.

I have resisted writing about Quebec, the province in which I was raised, chiefly because so many others have written about its peculiarities in the past in a far better way. One of my favourite pieces is by Mordecai Richler [1931-2001] in his famous 25-page New Yorker article ("Inside/Outside," September 23, 1991), which drew the ire of Quebec nationalists, who found nothing funny or amusing in the piece. They found less amusing his 277-page book, Oh! Canada Oh! Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Countrywhich he published a year later, in 1992. That's a shame, since laughter is always good therapy.

Now, every geographical region and major religion has some particularities or a sense of the peculiar, and it doesn't have to have a pejorative sense, unless you feel threatened and without hope. After all, haven't the Jewish People been feeling threats and yet been laughing at themselves for thousands of years? Have they not survived? Have they not thrived?.

Here in Quebec, a working democracy with a $300-billion economy, French language and culture becomes the barrier to acceptance. Such distinctions show that 30 years later not much has changed, except much of the distrust between the French-speaking majority and the English-speaking minority is bubbling below the surface. Articles, chiefly in the French-language media, attest to the perception that Quebec and its largest city, Montreal, is just not French enough [see herehere & here]. 

If you are reading this piece from outside Quebec and Canada, which is likely given that is where most of my readers reside, you might be perplexed. For many outsiders, it seems foolish to argue about language, notably to such extremes and notably in Europe, where many persons speak two, three, four languages. Unless you are born here, as I have been, or at least have gone to school here during one's formative years, it is hard to really understand the sense of things. To understand why things are the way they are, and what are its hot-button issues. First of all, language is always an important issue for reasons that will soon be clear, if you have the patience to read further. It might hide in the background, it might take second place to the economy or work, but it eventually surfaces and often in a nasty way as a divisive issue that separates people.

Language in Quebec is politicized like no other place I know. Persons are immediately separated into distinct groups by what language they speak at home. The French majority are called Francophones; the English minority Anglophones; and the immigrants whose mother tongue is neither, Allophones. The designation is given by the person's mother tongue, the predominant if not first language spoken at home. Once a person fits within that particular linguistic designation, he or she forever remains in it, no matter the ability in the other official language of Canada. It is very difficult to switch designations, and although there has been many attempts to reduce linguistic tensions, they exist, both overtly and in more subtle forms. They exist because here in Quebec, they have forever been politicized. Is it possible that some groups benefit from the continuing tension? To distract from more-important matters? I wonder. 

Fete Nationale for Everyone?

Take for example a public holiday in Quebec. On June 24th, Francophones (or les Québécois) celebrate a holiday called Fete Nationale (National Holiday) replete with symbols of French-Canadian history. Absent from the holiday are any symbols of English Canada, despite their historical contribution to building the province (i.e., Scottish, Irish and English)—attesting to its unimportance in the minds of the festival organizers. It's noteworthy that Quebec is not a nation, but a large percentage of the French majority, the francophones and some allophones, want it to be, having a desire to secede from Canada. The sad thing is that many Canadians would be happy to see it go alone—tired of its constant demands for special privilege.

Before its new secular name, June 24th was called Saint Jean Baptiste Day, in honour of the biblical figure, John the Baptist, who was a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth—both being Jews. I have always wondered if the francophones celebrating this day—often with parties, and all such activities that mark such occasions, including music, drinking and fireworks—were in any way aware their patron saint was a Jew. Probably not, and if they did, they would claim that he later became a Christian, befitting a symbol of Quebec. But this religious name for a holiday was at a time when the Catholic Church held sway and moral authority in Quebec.

Now, that is no longer the case, and hasn't been the 1960s and the "revolution" that transformed Quebec into a non-Christian society with its "Quiet Revolution"— a rejection of its past rural and religious values. But that doesn't mean people here don't have faith. They do, but of a particular secular kind that has everything to do with French language, French culture and Les Canadiens, the professional hockey team.

What has resulted in the last 40 years—since Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa made French the only official language in Quebec with Bill 22 (in 1974) and three years later the Parti Québécois with Bill 101 (in 1977) legislated more stringent language laws— has not only been an aggrandizement of the French language and culture, which many can sympathize with, but an equal if not disastrous reduction of the once-thriving English language and culture. (It is important to note that English and French form the two founding peoples of Canada.) So, the calculation has been made in the political corridors of Quebec City that the French culture can only survive and thrive if the English one is diminished and eventually extinguished. Such thinking is predominant here and hard to change, and is similar to what happens to a person under a siege mentality.

Some noteworthy facts from Statistics Canada (2006):
  • Since 1971/1972, 528,100 more people left the province of Quebec than entered it, the largest net loss of any province or territory resulting from inter-provincial migration.
  • The change over time in the age structure of the Anglophone population of Quebec reflects the ageing of the population, and it results from the combined effect of a fertility rate below the replacement level and of a sizable negative net migration, particularly during the 1970s, benefiting other provinces, especially Ontario.
  • A brief analysis of 2006 Census data reveals that Anglophones in Quebec are proportionally more likely than Francophones to work in certain sectors, such as professional, scientific and technical services, administrative and management services, or wholesale trade.
Along with the loss of hundreds of thousands of persons—the English Exodus—has been a loss of brain-power, sometimes called human capital, entrepreneurial spirit and money. The language laws, in their restrictions of English education of children, of English usage in the workplace and of English communication of signs, to name three predominant areas, has translated to an economic loss of incalculable proportions for the province—contributing to its ballooning debt of $183.8 billion, or 55% of GDP. To put it simply, restrictive laws never act as an encouraging sign to attract business investment.

The Myth of Origins

How did we end up here? Again, we need some clarification; we need to know history. To see better, to gain some understanding we have to go to the period in the 1930s when nationalism was predominant in European and North American intellectual circles. Chief among such thinkers in French-Canadian circles was Lionel Groux [1878-1967], a priest who taught history at the University of Montreal from 1915 to 1949, and whom many call Quebec's spiritual leader.

Groux's writings were both racist, nationalist and inflammatory, focusing on the necessity to maintain a purity of the French people (pure laine, or pure wool), an imprecise term designating French-speaking Catholics who can trace their lineage to many generations in Quebec, in marked contrast to the newly arrived immigrants and other ethnic minorities—the Jew being the most undesirable "Other" in their traits and beliefs. Hence the birth of the myth of origin. In The Traitor and The Jew: Anti-Semitism and Extremist Right-Wing Nationalism in Quebec From 1929 to 1939 (published in French in 1992; English trans, 1993), Esther Deslisle, a political scientist, clarifies what such myth means:
Interwoven with the myth of origin, the ideological definition of the French Canadian / Québécois has not yet lost its appeal. For some, everything must be judged by the benchmark of ethnicity. There are those who believe that some subjects of research are more "Jewish" than "Québécois." To a journalist who informed me that the writer Mordecai Richler was hardly representative of his community, I asked if I was representative of mine or if she herself could have that pretension. Others, more pernicious, thought that Richler was, on the contrary, so able a spokesman for the anglophones and/or the Jews of the province that they demanded the leaders of the two groups publicly dissociate themselves from his 1992 book Oh! Canada Oh! Quebec: requiem for a divided country. (31)
Not surprisingly, Dr. Deslisle was attacked for her work, for revealing Quebec's shameful intellectual past and its history of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism common to its intellectual leaders. Deslisle was branded a traitor, if not worse, by the forces that were desperately trying to protect Quebec from outside influences. And language becomes the barrier against the outside invasion of barbarians, notably from America. It's part of an Utopian vision. [see here a fine review of Denys Arcand's  2003 film, "The Barbarian Invasions."]

Leading the charge to protect Quebec from outside influences is the Parti Québécois, whose name is not accidental; if names mean anything, then the Parti Québécois is a party who has defined itself as representing and defending the interests of Québécois, laden with all its nationalistic and tribal meanings. This need "to protect the French language" as part of an Utopian vision, extends to all areas of life here, including the language of signs, whether outdoor or indoor, which must be predominantly and always superiorly in the French language. There are government employees—"the language police" who ensure that these strict language requirements are met; and they can always rely on like-minded citizens to file complaints against businesses that contravene the law. (Yes, I know that Stalinist Russia relied on snitches, creating a climate of fear; it works.) Highways signs are not exempt, even if it reduces public safety. In such matters, it really does matter.

Quebec & Israel

Now, contrast two places with similar populations of about 7.8 million: Quebec and the State of Israel. The latter has highways signs in three languages [see here]: Hebrew, English and Arabic. Although Israel is in a sea of Arabic, and has hostile neighbours, too, it still has signs in Arabic, because it know that a percentage of the population speak only Arabic. In fact, Israel has two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic.

My name, ethnicity, choice of language and education marks me as an outsider in many respects. My English education coupled with my Jewish ethnicity in the eyes of the French-Catholic majority (in name only) has always made me  an outsider, whether or not I wanted it to be. I had little choice in the matter. It is not enough to speak French, which I do well enough, but it is more important here on what your last name (or nom famille ) is, and whether it sounds French or other (les autres).

No, I am not making this up. here is an article by Marion Scott in Global Montreal, a TV news station:
If you think your ethnic-sounding last name is preventing you from finding a job in Quebec, you may be right.
Candidates called Tremblay or Morin are 64 per cent more likely to get an interview than someone with the same qualifications whose name is Ben Amin or Traoré, according to a study released Tuesday by the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission.
A research assistant applied for 581 jobs from December 2010 to May 2011 under false names, half of them foreign-sounding and the other half typically francophone Québécois. Both types of fictional job-seekers had equivalent qualifications and had been educated in Quebec.
In due time, I am sure, the political leaders, ensemble, will eventually condemn such findings, even display (mock) shock and outrage, saying such does not reflect the values of Québécois society. Really? Are they ignorant of their actions? When the English history of Quebec's largest city — Montreal — has been eradicated in defense of a Utopian vision, one has a right to question motives and actions; even long-standing English street names (e.g., Craig, Dorchester, St. James) have been changed to French ones—history has to be rewritten to conform to the founding myth. The myth of French superiority. Shades of authoritarian thinking? Inferiority thinking? Whatever the case, many of us living here are not surprised by such findings, since they reflect the reality on the ground. The reality of workplaces. The reality of cafés. The reality of restaurants. The reality of street festivals. The reality of government offices. The reality of streets and street signs. C'est la vie, ici. Gallic shrug.

The result of state-sanctioned discrimination is a loss on both sides of the French-English divide: for employers a loss of educated employees; and for English-speaking persons a loss of a good job. For the English an opportunity to fit in and contribute to Quebec society; and for the French an opportunity to both teach and learn from their English counterparts. The need to protect the French language has been both a drain and a drag on the economy, an expected outcome when you have such restrictive laws. Imagine what Montreal could be if language were not a political issue? If persons could comfortably speak any language they wanted? If anyone could transact and conduct business in any language, allowing the marketplace to determine such things, and not government intervention and legislation?

The French Face of Quebec

For now, that seems out of the question. Yet, few win under such discriminatory practices, legalized in Quebec under its various laws "to keep the face of Quebec French." Now, not all French-speaking persons agree with this sentiment—i.e., the necessity to legislate English out of existence in order to keep Quebec French—but so few speak out against its discriminatory practices; one of the few remaining taboos in Quebec.

As a background, consider some important figures, which have essentially remained the same for years from Statistics Canada:
  • 13.4%: percentage of Anglophones in Quebec;
  • 2.8%: percentage of Anglophones in the Quebec Civil service;
  • 13: number of Anglophones who have been mayor of Montreal since 1833;
  • 0: number of Anglophones who have been mayor of Montreal since 1912;
  • 0: number of Anglophones who head any political party (municipal or provincial) in Quebec.
Such numbers give a broad view of life here, but they don't explain everything as clearly as personal experience. There's more to the everyday reality on how language plays itself here. In Montreal, a city in which almost 50% of its inhabitants speak English, you would be hard-pressed to find a bus driver, a police officer, a municipal employee who is not primarily French speaking (i.e, old-stock Québécois) and who does not show ill will, irritability, unpleasantness when addressed in English. Then there are significant others who are French nationalists and speaking English is akin to consorting with the enemy. Back to Lionel Groulx, the Father of French nationalism. The Traitor. You get the picture. Discrimination is acceptable and encouraged if it furthers the cause. Push English to the margins. Make them (Les autres) outsiders.

In Quebec, as is common with those with nationalistic tendencies, history has been filtered and rewritten to accommodate The Myth of Lionel Groulx, even if most people haven't read him or know who he is. His spirit hovers over the province. Now, the English minority, or at least its self-proclaimed leaders warn about stirring up the language wars, saying it's better left alone. 

The Outsider Looking In

Persons who (rightly) complain about the unfairness, the racism, the nationalism in Quebec are called "angryphones" by many in the English-language media and its institutions, who fear loss of position and status, having already lost too many other things. Perhaps their fears are well founded. After all, things could get hot; things could get worse. It's like the saying about "death of a thousand cuts" and the creeping normalcy of accepting objectionable practices. It's also true that such "language wars," or skirmishes are tiring, since (partial and artificial) resolution often translates to loss of dignity. And not to understanding. 

Such reminds me of what Kenneth Trachtenberg, a specialist in Russian studies in search of meaning, said in Saul Bellow's 1987 novel, More Die of Heartbreak:
The Jews, insofar as they had lived in isolation within their ancestral code, had done that for millennia, back into the fossil ages. But then they began to come voluntarily into the present epoch, and later they were forcibly dragged into modern history, riding later into it by the millions in cattle cars, thus becoming aware (those who had the time to be aware) that for them there was no genteel option to declare that they stood clear of contemporary civilization. (182)
Standing Clear. Seeing in: Such are one of the few benefits of being an outsider. This reminds me of a Jewish joke, which Mordecai Richler, another gifted writer and observer of the human condition, told in front of a packed house at McGill University, that old bastion of Anglo power and elitism, a few years before his death. I was in the audience, so I remember it well:
Don't Cause Trouble
Three Jews were about to be executed, and they were lined up in front of a firing squad. The sergeant in charge asks each Jew whether or not he wants a blindfold. "Yes," says the first Jew, in a resigned tone. "OK," says the second Jew, bracing himself to his grim fate. "And what about you?" he enquires of the third Jew. "No," says the third Jew. At this, the second Jew leans over to the third one and says: "Listen, Moshe, take a blindfold. Don't make trouble."
For many, that is the right response. This, despite being dragged into it, often against our better instincts.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Glenn Gould: Well-Tempered Clavier—Prelude & Fugue No. 22




Glenn Gould performs from Johann Sebastian Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2: Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat minor, BWV 891 in a 1963 performance.

**********************************************
Glenn Gould [1932-1982] was Canada's greatest pianist. His playing was not only technically brilliant but also marked by a courageous and free interpretation of famous musical scores. Instead of striking the keys from above, as is commonly done, Gould pulled down on the keys while sitting low to the keyboard on a chair his father built for him. It likely gave him more control. His father built the adjustable chair after Gould injured his back at age ten when he fell from a boat ramp on Lake Simcoe.

Gould, a native of Toronto, was a child prodigy. At age three, Gould showed that he had perfect pitch. He learned to read sheet music before he learned to read words, showing his musical aptitude. By age five, Gould was already working on his own compositions.

His first teacher, until the age of ten, was his mother, whose ancestry included the famous composer, Edvard Grieg. (Gould's great grandfather was Grieg's first cousin.) Gould stopped performing at live concerts at age 31 to focus on recordings and other projects. Gould performed fewer than 200 concerts, and no more than 40 overseas, in his short lifetime.

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about Gould's outward peculiarities, such as humming when he played, the need to sit fourteen inches above the floor and only perform in a chair built by his father. (You can see Gould performing here.)

Then there was the matter of Gould's awkward social behavior, which was discussed too much. Gould was considered an eccentric for wearing gloves, a beret and an overcoat, even in warm weather. He also was adverse to being touched and later in life avoided most personal intercourse, communicating chiefly by phone and letters.

Yet, he was a man of deep habits, says a CBC documentary on Gould: "Sometime between two and three every morning Gould would go to Fran's, a 24-hour diner a block away from his Toronto apartment, sit in the same booth and order the same meal of scrambled eggs."

The Canadian Century

Canada's Place

Canada has been modest in its history, although its history is heroic in many ways. But its history, in my estimation, is only commencing. It is commencing in this century. The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier [1841-1919], 
7th prime minister of Canada, 
in a speech made on January 18, 1904 



The Fathers of Confederation: Conference at Québec in 1864, to settle the basics of a union of the British North American Provinces. 
Credit: Photo by James Ashfield of Canadian artist Robert Harris' 1884 painting,
When Prime Minister Laurier made that proclamation of imminent greatness in January 1904 before an audience of the city's elite, he was laying a claim for Canada that it was not ready to act upon; the country was young, having been in existence for only 36 years, having been formed on July 1, 1867 into a nation of four provinces, Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. An optimistic Prime Minister Laurier was off by a century, at least that is the sentiment today among a few historians and those who study history. Canada, it has been said, have been modest in its claims and in its taking a leadership among the nations of  the world.

Living next to the United States has made Canada seem small in comparison. But that does not mean that Canada has not and cannot be a moral force in the world. It has shown itself capable in the last few years. Canada has shown itself taking a leadership position in a number of places, not with a loud voice but with a quiet persuasion.

Canada has many advantages, not the least being its geography and history of peaceful democracy. It has been blessed with a large land mass, bounded by three oceans, abundant natural resources, and an educated and productive workforce. It has the political and economic fundamentals to become a world powerhouse, and it can achieve such distinction with the right kind of attitude and leadership—both from the political side and the business side.


The Canadian Story of Conrad Black

Consider the case of Conrad Black, a former media baron born in Montreal, who saw his fortunes reduced and his misfortunes increased after being prosecuted and convicted in the United States on an obscure law. After serving 42 months in a federal prison in Florida, he was released in May. A month later, Black made a speech to 1,000 persons at the Empire Club of Canada, in which he said:
"Canadians are notoriously not messianic or self-important, and have no illusions about being a light onto the world. It has been difficult to translate Canada’s talent at dogged but effective problem solving as heroic, dramatic or sometimes even interesting.” ... It is Canada’s turn to speak, and it will not have to shout to be heard. These were my thoughts in my recent sojourn with the Americans, that have been confirmed by my grateful return to this country.”
The Beaver (Castor canadensis), one of Canada national symbols, having received official status on  March 24, 1975. It  not only symbolizes Canada's historical links to the fur trade but industriousness and perseverance.
Photo Credit:  Laslo Lyles; May 2006
Source: Wikipedia
Black, now residing with his wife (Barbara Amiel) in Toronto is an excellent historian, having written a number of books on political historical figures, including on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard M. Nixon, and Maurice Duplessis. Some will say why should we consider he words of a convicted felon, of a man who was originally convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice. Many, including this writer, think he was unfairly prosecuted and convicted by over-zealous U.S. prosecutors. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, during one of Black's many appeals, that one of the laws ("honest services fraud; 1988") used for two of the four convictions were too broadly applied and overturned two of the three mail fraud convictions. 

In effect, Black served 42 months in federal prison for mail fraud ($600,000, of which his share was $285,000) and obstruction of justice (for removing boxes and personal effects from his office).

Many Canadians, judging by comments on news sites, are happy to see Black, born from a wealthy family, get his "just desserts."; a very (un)Canadian sentiment. I am not among them, chiefly because his case begs to be examined further; it shows that not even the wealthy are immune from unfair and over-zealous prosecution in the U.S. Black, like him or not, is an intelligent man who has something important and original to say, which is refreshing in a world where too many don't. Although he gave up his Canadian citizenship in 2001, in a dispute with former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien over his accepting a British peerage, Black remains very much a Canadian.

And Canada, in accepting his return, has shown its maturity as a nation. Like all great nations, it is finding its own way while making alliances with other nations in the international community. It's necessary for Canada to get out from under the shadow of the U.S. and to deepen its own traditions and ways, while maintaining a deep friendship with our American neighbour. Nations, like people, have to eventually mature and create a mark in the international community. Now is no better time to do so.

On that note, Happy birthday Canada; Happy Canada Day; 145 years since Confederation. I wish all my fellow Canadians much happiness and prosperity and to enjoy being Canadian. We might be better than we think. The next few decades ought to be exceptional years for Canada.