Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Flight of the Monarchs (2012)

Beauty in Flight

Flight of the Butterfly (2012)
Via: Youtube

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippu) are one of my favourite animals to see during summer, and these winged creatures correspond with summer, at least this is the case in my mind, as I have come to view the world since childhood. They start their journey from central Mexico, a distance of 4,800 km, making this annual flight the world’s longest insect migration. What is all the more wonderful to behold is that this annual migration (both in the spring and the fall) involves multi-generations, Wikipedia explains:
Starting in September and October, eastern and northeastern populations migrate from southern Canada and the United States to overwintering sites in central Mexico where they arrive around November. They start the return trip in March, arriving around July. No individual butterfly completes the entire round trip; female monarchs lay eggs for the next generation during the northward migration[2] and at least four generations are involved in the annual cycle.
While scientists in the last decade have been reporting a declining population of monarchs, the good news is that I have seen more monarchs this year than the combined sightings of the last few years. I have not been able to take any photos of monarchs, but my youngest son did manage to take a picture of another orange- or pumpkin-coloured butterfly, what seems like an eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) during one of our recent nature walks at the park near our place of residence.

Eastern Comma Butterfly (Toronto): This was taken by our nine-year-old son, Eli, during one of our nature walks.
Photo Credit: Eli G. Greenbaum; July 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reading Now (August 2017): The Puttermesser Papers

Heavenly Comedy

“Yeder mentsh hot zikh zayn pekl.”

The Puttermesser Papers, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York City, is Cynthia Ozick’s fourth novel; she is known for her short stories and essays, including The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), All the World Wants the Jews Dead (1974) and The Shawl (1989). This is another recent find at a second-hand bookstore, where I paid 50 cents. I am enjoying the book from one of America’s finest writers.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

The Puttermesser Papers (1997), by Cynthia Ozick [born April 17, 1928, in New York City], is a collection of five stories centered on the life of Ruth Puttermesser. There are many Puttermessers spun out of the imagination of Ozick, including a feminist and a creator of a golem who helps her become mayor of New York. The novel, although comic in tone, is a search for meaning and a place to fit in, but not necessarily through the usual social channels.

The book begins with her at age 34, a New Yorker living alone in her parents’ apartment in the Bronx. She is an intelligent but restless New York Jew who decides to quit her job at a “blue-blood” Wall Street law firm, mainly because she sees no future. The scene describing the New England-schooled partners taking out Puttermesser for a farewell meal is priceless, only because I have had similar experiences in my professional working life:
An anthropological meal. They explored the rites of her tribe. She had not known she was strange to them. Their beautiful manners were the cautiousness you adopt when you visit the interior: Dr. Livingstone, I presume? They shook hands and wished her luck, and at that moment, so close to their faces with those moist smile-ruts flowing from the sides of their waferlike noses punctuated by narrow, even nostrils. (8)
Puttermesser, it should be noted, is Yiddish for “butter knife,“ which suggests how easily a knife like this can cut through butter. At least a good well-made butter knife can do such a trick. As names go, it is not a pretty one, something her uncle Zindel points out:
And such a name. A nice young fellow meets such a name, he laughs. You should change it to something different, lovely, nice. Shapiro. Levine. Cohen. Goldweiss. Blumenthal. I don’t say make it different, who needs Adams, who needs McKee, I say make it a name not a joke. Your father gave you a bad present with it. (15)
With a name like this, was her fate sealed, “as it is written.” Perhaps all the good names were already taken when names were handed out many generations ago in the old country. Does the book suggest that the gods are laughing? I think so; and we humans are not only not amused, we are also oblivious to it, so much are we consumed by our own thoughts of self-importance. Such concerns touch no one and are of little consequence other than to ourselves. Such is the way it is; such is the way it has been written. What can one do?

Most just play along, but I can’t resist remarking on the absurdity of our actions and our many moral failings, the decisions that we make and don’t make, and how our laws don’t necessarily line up with progressive human morality that invokes not blind justice but thoughtful mercy. (Biblical morality is long on obedience and justice and short on love and mercy; this forms the basis of western law, or so it seems to me on what I have read and observed.)

Humans have an ability to make many wrong decisions, including wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. I can understand a morally wrong decision made for the right reason, but not one for the wrong reason. Stealing a loaf of bread because you are hungry is far different than you embezzling millions to feed a jet-set life-style. I have sympathy for the former but none for the latter. Under the eyes of the law, however, both are equally guilty.

Yet, this is where literature can help us understand the difference between the two, A good review of Ozick is found in The New York Times Magazine article (“Cynthia Ozicks’s Long Crusade;” June 23, 2016) by Gilles Harvey:
According to Ozick, literature is different from all other human activities, and its singularity consists in its recognizing and honoring human difference. Its purpose, she has said, is “to light up the least grain of being, to show how it is concretely individual, particularized from any other.”
This is not a new argument, but it is one that bears repeating. This is important to understand, and once you do you will forever be changed in thoughts and actions. A few earnest individuals will take this to heart, but not many by my reckoning. Sad to report that I have in the last decade or two met only a handful of such people in my life. This is not surprising, since most decent folks focus on survival (economically, financially) and do not spend too much time considering such existential questions.

But then again so were the many Yiddish speakers—self-taught, self-educated—who formed a good part of my father’s generation, part of my father’s landsmen. They viewed survival as not enough, that they had to do more than survive, that their mission in life was helping not only themselves but also others achieve their potential, chiefly by improving conditions for all. They did not sit there and wait for the messiah to come; they acted on their convictions. Hope is acting on the belief that it will not always remain hopeless.

Given the meshugas around her, Ruth Puttermesser didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, understand this simple truth, but then again Cynthia Ozick didn’t allow her to even consider this in this crazy dark comedy she wrote—where all roads are paved with fabrications, prevarications and stories that have the basis of truth but are fare from it—much like the politics of today, and like much of the world that we inhabit. It is, after all, only fiction. Yet, others who live in the same world as Puttermesser might say in Yiddish: Trevst mayn folk; eyn tog es vet ale zeyn beser.

—Perry J. Greenbaum; August 14, 2017

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hannah Roth: Shtil di Nakht iz Oysgeshternt (1942)

“We will not allow them to take us like sheep to the slaughter.”
Motto of the FPO

Via: Youtube

As promised in yesterday’s post, here is another Jewish partisan song by Hirsch Glick: Shtil di Nakht iz Oysgeshternt (“The Silent Night is Full of Stars”), composed in the summer of 1942 while in the Vilna Ghetto. The song’s hero is the Jewish female partisan, Vitka Kempner-Kovner [1920; Poland–2012; Israel], a founding member, along with her husband Abba Kovner, of the Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye, or FPO (United Partisan Organization), dedicated to Jewish armed resistance of the Nazis. The song is set to a Russian melody.

I believe the singer is Hannah Roth, and that she sung this in the 1960s, but I post this without confirmation or certainty of the singer. If this is incorrect, please let me know, and I will make the necessary correction, giving credit where it is due. Even so, I like this version the best of all that I found online. If you know of a better version, please let me know.

Shtil di Nakht iz Oysgeshternt 
by Hirsch Glick
[Yiddish transliteration]

Shtil di nakht iz oysgeshternt
un der frozt hat shtark gebrent,
Tsi gedenkstu vi ikh hob dikh gelernt,
haltn a shpayer in di hent.

A moyd, a peltsl un a beret,
un halt in hant fezt a nagan,
a moyd mit a zametenem ponim,
hit op dem soynes karavan.

Getsilt, geshozn un getrofn,
hot ir kleyninker piztoyl,
an oyto a fulinkn mit vofn,
farhaltn hot zi mit eyn koyl.

Fartog fun vald aroysgekrokhn,
mit shney girlandn oyf di hor,
gemutikt fun kleyninkn nitsokhn,
far undzer nayem frayen dor.

The Quiet Night is Full of Stars

The quiet night is full of stars
and the frost has strongly burned
Do you remember how I have taught you
how to hold a revolver in your hand?

A girl, a little fur coat and a beret
and she holds tight a Nagant pistol in her hand.
A girl with a face of velvet
watches for the enemy’s caravan.

Aimed, shot and met the traget
her little pistol did.
A car, nice and full with weapons
she stopped it with a bullet.

Before daybreak, she crawled out of the woods
with snow-garlands in her hair,
cheered on by the small, dear victory
for our new, free generation.

Hirsch Glick never that saw reality, but the heroine in the song, Vitka Kempner, did. She arrived in Palestine in July 1946, settling in Kibbutz Ein ha-Horesh, in central Israel, north of Netanya. Vitka Kempner and Abba Kovner married and had two children, Michael and Shlomit.

In 1965, almost 20 years after the State of Israel was established, Kempner-Kovner went to Bar Ilan University, studying psychology at the age of 45, completing two degrees in three years. Determination and perseverance. Afterward, she worked as a psychologist on the kibbutz, using her training and experience to educate and counsel children.

As the article in Jewish Women's Archive says, “she describes herself not as a survivor but only as strong. ‘I lived life fully, actively, without dragging grievances and offenses behind me.’ ”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Chava Alberstein: Zog Nit Keyn Mol (1943)

Via: Youtube:

Chava Albertstein [born in 1947 in Szczecin, Poland], an Israeli singer and champion of Yiddish, sings the famous Zog Nit Keyn Mol (“Never Say”), also called “Hymn of the Partisans.”

This song has long been considered the anthem of Holocaust survivors. You can hear one such person sing [here] and another, Annie Lederhendler [here], during a reception for Abraham Sutzkever [1913–2010], former partisan and Yiddish poet, at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal on April 17, 1959.

You can also listen to a version [here] by American singer Paul Robeson during a visit he made to the USSR in June 1949. While there, Robeson met briefly with Itzik Feffer, one of the Yiddish poets that Stalin ordered to be executed in what is called “The Night of the Murdered Poets” (see below). Robeson decided to keep the meeting secret, not revealing what Feffer told him in “so many words.” Or rather, so little words.

Hirsch Glick (1922, Wilno, Poland–1944, Estonia), a Jewish poet and partisan, wrote the lyrics to the song while he was being held in the Vilna Ghetto during the Nazi occupation; he was 21. A fine history of the song is provided by the site, Songs of My People, by Josephine Yalovitser:
The news from the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising inspired Hirsch to write the lyrics. In 1937, Dmitry and Daniel Pokrass wrote the song “Terek Cossacks.” Hirsh uses the melody for his lyrics. “Zog nit keynmol” became a symbol of defiance against Nazi murderers of the Jews, the Holocaust and The Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Jewish partisan fighters from The Warsaw Ghetto, Naliboki forest, Minsk Ghetto, Lodz Ghetto... sang this song to fortify their courage, and to celebrate “their victories” against the Nazis.
Glick attempted to escape from the Vilno Ghetto, however, he got re-captured and put near Riga (Estonia) in a concentration camp where he got executed.
In Yiddish, Vilna is Vilne. It is now called Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Hirsch lived a short time, yet this song, and another that he wrote, Shtil di nakht iz oysgeshternt (“The silent night is full of stars”), in the summer of 1942, inspired many. This song is about the heroic action of a female partisan, Vitka Kempner-Kovner [1920; Poland–2012; Israel], a founding member, along with her husband Abba Kovner, of the Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye, or FPO (United Partisan Organization). I plan to post this song shortly.

Zog Nit Keyn Mol
by Hirsh Glick
[YIVO Institute for Jewish Research]

The Night of the Murdered Poets

Here is a public service announcement regarding “The Night of the Murdered Poets,” from Talia Zax of the Forward, who writes in an article (“65 Years Ago, The USSR Murdered its Greatest Jewish Poets. What’s Left of Their Legacy?” August 11, 2017):
No one seems to know exactly how many Soviet Jews were secretly executed by the Soviet Union in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison on August 12, 1952.
A 1970 New York Times report on the fate of Yiddish in the USSR claimed the victims numbered around 30. A 1972 volume commemorating the event, released by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, had the number at 24. The Jewish Virtual Library lists the names of 13 victims, a number corroborated by the The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, but the Jewish World Review has their number at 15, as, with a caveat, does a chronicle of the Stalinist Soviet Union’s anti-Semitic turn, “Stalin’s Secret Pogrom,” published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Yet it’s largely agreed that five of those figures were poets and writers, some of them high-profile figures both at home and abroad.
The poet Perets Markish was the only Soviet Yiddish writer to receive the Order of Lenin, one of the U.S.S.R.’s most high-profile honors. (He was awarded it in 1939.) Dovid Bergelson, who published articles and fiction in the Forverts from Berlin in the 1920s, was thought by some to be the fourth great pillar of Yiddish literature, after Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz. In 1922, Dovid Hofshteyn published a collection of poems about Ukrainian pogroms called “Troyer” — in English, “Mourning” — that was illustrated by Marc Chagall.
Yet the full cultural cost of the massacre now known as the Night of the Murdered Poets remains, as evidenced by the confusion over who, exactly, was killed, unclear.
In a 2015 video for the Forverts, Boris Sandler described the Night of the Murdered Poets as marking the end of Jewish hopes for a future in the Soviet Union.
By this time, the writing was on the wall for Soviet Jews: it was time to get out, to a safe haven. Once they were permitted to leave, no easy task by any means, Israel provided such a welcoming place for the majority of Soviet Jews. Israel’s establishment decades earlier, in 1948, ensured this reality.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Arriving Early

Respecting Time: 1:23

Effective this week, I am changing the name of my weekly column to “The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon,” in keeping with its changing focus. The addition of the adjective says that I am going from the general to the particular, but such is no surprise when you consider that the particular often gives us a view of the general, or leads us to it. In this case, it is found in the particulars of Yiddishkeit, Jewish culture and values. My hope is that you will keep on reading my column.


Punctuality is the virtue of the bored.”
Evelyn Waugh [1903–1966],
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (1976)

“Afile der raykhster zeyger hot nit mer vi zekhtsik minut.”
[Even the most expensive clock has no more than sixty minutes.]

I don’t like arriving late, so, accounting for the possibilities of delay, I tend to leave early enough. The result of such a habit is that I often arrive early; I rarely am late and rarely arrive just on time. My wife finds it annoying to arrive early and, thinking that she has more time than she does, wants to leave later; she wants to arrive right on time, since she finds waiting a waste of time.

I don’t mind, particularly if it means not arriving late. I can always read, which is why I carry a book with me; or I can write, which is why I carry a notebook. I can also listen to the radio, if I go somewhere by car, which is often enough.

Being late, when you can arrive early, is surely a sign of disrespect, of rudeness. I don’t want to intentionally be rude. I don’t understand what it means to be “fashionably late.” Is this 15 minutes? 30 minutes? an hour? Speaking of fashion, I do like to dress for the occasion and this at times means being well dressed. Perhaps some people take longer to get dressed, but don’t they know how long they usually take? So, if this is the case I don’t see how this also means being late.

It is true that I (and my wife) more often than not arrive early at dinner invitations, community events and concerts of all sorts; although it does not always happen, we are the first to arrive. I always view this as wonderful. All the better, since this means we can find a good parking spot, or we can get to know the hosts, or we can have the opportunity to help out, or we can get the best seats or we can just have sufficient time to catch our breath and adjust to the surroundings. There is really no down side to arriving early.

It makes perfect sense to arrive early; it makes perfect sense to leave early enough so not to arrive late. I don’t understand why so many people are late, and why some people make a habit out of it. Are we back to the fashionably late excuse? I would think that it is best for human relationships to always try not to arrive late, if at all possible.

Invariably, there are people you can “count on” for showing up late. I have known a few such persons who were routinely late. One such couple, many decades ago, ensured me that under no circumstances would they be late for my wedding; they were, and missed the complete ceremony. They had an excuse; they left late and had gotten lost on the way to the khupe, in a beautiful Orthodox shul in Montreal’s Hampstead neighbourhood.  (Yes, it’s as beautiful and wealthy as the name sounds.)

As for the couple, they always seemed sincere about it, so I chalked it up to their habits. At least they showed up to the reception on time. How they managed this I am not sure.

Perhaps such persons are worried that punctuality is equated with boredom, which is what Evelyn Waugh is quoted as saying. I don’t agree with Mr. Waugh, however, and I know his death many decades ago prevents him from defending himself, but I arrive early not because I am bored; quite the contrary. I am excited to get somewhere.

It can equally be argued that some make a virtue out of lateness, so in the spirit of Waugh, but without the wit of Waugh, here is a quick quip: “Lateness is the virtue of the careless.” It also invites and evokes thoughts and feelings of chaos. Are these desirable feelings? I don’t think so, but who am I to say?

There have been times when I have arrived late, but this was not the result of leaving late, but of encountering excessive traffic, getting the wrong directions or other factors beyond my control. I have never missed a flight or a train, and I have never arrived late for important life-cycle events. This is because I am careful about time and give it the respect that it is due. Some would say that I am too time-conscious, and so I am. I can understand being late some of the time, but not all of the time.

There is no such thing as arriving on time. People usually arrive early or arrive late. I would rather be early for everything except the time of my death. In that case, death can wait.
 Toyt ken kumen shpeter; toyt ken nemen a lange vakatsye.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, August 11, 2017

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Healing the Sores

Angel Wings: 1:22
“Happy is the man…”

“The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won’t appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.”
Philip Levine [1928–2015],
Rain in Winter” (2016)

In pairs,
as if to illustrate their sisterhood,
the sisters pace the hospital garden walks.
In their robes black and white immaculate hoods
they are like birds,
the safe domestic fowl of the House of God.

O biblic birds, who fluttered to me in my childhood illnesses
—me little, afraid, ill, not of your race, —
the cool wing for my fever, the hovering solace,
the sense of angels—
be thanked, O plumage of paradise, be praised.
—A.M. Klein [1909–1972], 

There is much to be said and found in the poetry of A.M. Klein, a Canadian poet but more of a Montrealer as I am one (since the city is so instrumental in forming the man), whose use of religious imagery make us acutely aware of earthly concerns, including those of place and identity. Much of the politics of identity that we are witnessing today comes from a place of hurt, and more often than not is a result of many unhealed sores that inflict people’s souls, taking away their sense of  self, their very dignity.

Much of the anger evident today comes from this place of humiliation; anger is a response to loss of belief, a sense of betrayal, to thoughts that “no one cares.” Belief leads to hope. And real hope as it implies can never be an abstract idea; it must be taken as real and robust. Someone should care; even if most don’t; someone with a sense of righteousness and the ability to do something should care. I recommend also the reading of Philip Levine, an American poet born during the Great Depression, and who never forgot the past and the importance of giving voice to the voiceless. Building life.

Toronto is an expensive city in which to live, and our money does not purchase much in the way of comfort. It is more American than Canadian (“Toronto is a kind of New York operated by the Swiss,” actor Peter Ustinov said of the city’s efficiency in a Globe & Mail interview (August 1, 1987)). Even if the actor meant it as a compliment, it sounds as if he was damning with faint praise the city. After all, Toronto has neither the charm nor the beauty of Montreal, yet for now I remain here, looking for signs of renewal and redemption, for a softening of the ground.

As an outsider, as one living in exile, I have witnessed many incidents of humiliation and this is one of those things that having lived it, you wish with deepest desire to escape. Writing provides an intellectual and an emotional space, a place to work out the sacred vision, but it does not contribute in my case to any significant secular means of provision. Upward mobility is a chimera, a winged creature that falls to the grounds, never taking flight, never cooling the wrinkled brows of failed dreams and broken crowns.

Lack of success (in many cases) has nothing to do with lack of trying or lack of willpower. That’s only in Hollywood movies, where the pep talk leads to success. I wish this were true, but it’s not. Neither is getting a good education, or having years of work experience, or knowledge or intelligence or being a decent guy; the facts are all there to see. One or two losses (job, house, health, etc.) can set you back indefinitely; three or four will set you back even longer. The problems are much deeper and much wider than even the media know or report, although admittedly the media manage to do a good job in telling such stories.

No, I don’t fault the government, since Canada provides a generous and comprehensive social safety net and this safety net remains in place no matter the political party in power. (There is no guarantee, however, that this can’t change.) No, the fault lies elsewhere, deriving from a certain ethos that predominates south of the Canadian border, one that has infiltrated and infused our thinking with malevolent intentions.

An ethos that takes delight in violence and hostility; an ethos that thrives on disorder and chaos, an ethos that operates on lies and deceptions. An ethos that gives license for the rich to exploit the poor, thus uplifting higher only the few that require no uplifting. All for the love of money–a love of so deep a devotion that it causes a multitude of others so much pain and suffering, so much humiliation and anger. So many places venerate the dumb gods of materialism and consumerism, in keeping with their spiritual denudation.

There is no other word to describe this ethos of selfishness and greed than “cruel.” This is a gross failure of understanding, hiding behind policy and political trickery so as to not appear cruel. But cruelty is cruelty, no matter how you slice it or pretend otherwise. The solution to pain and suffering is not more pain and suffering; yet, this is what some think and do. They are cruel men and women, unlike the “Sisters of the Hotel Dieu.” If you have walked in such shoes for only a while, you will understand. The sores are painful; the scabs are formed on top of the old ones.

This is what I have been writing about the last seven years; and now I am screaming. My voice is raw and now it hurts. I can't continue to scream. Others must now keep on writing, so as to protect the values that we care about, protecting society’s most vulnerable, including the land under our feet, and holding on to a religious belief that values social good and common good—a religion that doesn’t benefit or bank on the accumulation of cruelty. A religion that improves the human condition, that uplifts people and gives them dignity and hope is the only faith that anyone should consider. Religion needs to remember what its ultimate purpose is for us.

A devotion to goodness, love and truth; a devotion to healing the sores.

—Perry J. Greenbaum,  July 28, 2017

I am taking some time off for a change in scenery, and perhaps try on a few new hats, adding to my small collection; I hope to return sometime in August.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mordecai Richler: Last of the Wild Jews (2011)

Mordecai Richler: Last of the Wild Jews (2011): The scriptwriter is Charlie Foran; the director Francine Pelletier. Here is a short clip. As for the title, it is a nod to Isaac Babel [1894–1940], the writer from Odessa and the first modern “wild Jew.” In comparison to Babel, it appears that Richler was less wild and better able to direct his prodigious talents. If only Babel had been born in Montreal, his future would have been better, more secure.

In Last of the Wild Jews (2011), made a decade after the Montreal writer’s death, the implicit question raised are the chief influences on Mordecai Richler [1931–2001], those that formed the man and writer that he famously became. The answer, like so many such questions, can be found in his early childhood, in the streets in which he grew up, the streets of St. Urbain, in the period before and after the Second World War. As an English-speaking Jew, Richler straddled the two solitudes of English and French Montreal (an expression made famous by Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel, which we read in high school). These experiences formed many of his views of the world, as they did for me growing up on Park Avenue, a few blocks from St. Urbain in the same Mile End neighbourhood. (Yes, to be sure, the back streets and alleyways, also called lane-ways played a role.) It also made him an honest witness, which made him unpopular with the rich and dominant classes and popular with the outsiders, those who identified as true what he wrote and said. It is equally true that Richler’s satire was biting and humorous; and in its writing and publishing he articulated, both in his novels and in his essays, what many who were from the third solitude keenly felt. He was a true Montrealer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Leonard Cohen: It Seemed the Better Way (2016)

Via: Youtube

Leonard Cohen sings “It Seemed the Better Way,” which is the seventh track on the 2016 album You Want It Darker, released on October 26th. The album was released 19 days before Cohen’s death; he was 82. There is much to recommend in these four lines; the wisdom of the world sees this as full of literal truth; the poet and dreamer as full of irony: It sounded like the truth/ It seemed the better way/ You’d have to be a fool /To choose the meek today. There are few such fools evident today, and even less who admit such in a public fashion. Romance died when the better way was denied.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reading Now (July 2017): Like One That Dreamed

Montreal Poet

Like One That Dreamed: a portrait of A.M. Klein (1982), by Usher Caplan
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Like One That Dreamed: a portrait of A.M. Klein (1982), by Usher Caplan, is published a decade after Abraham Moses Klein’s death at the age of 63. When you make attempts to write about such a multi-dimensional man, you find that you are not writing about someone who can be easily described, easily delineated. Such is the case of A.M. Klein [1909–1972], the Montreal writer and poet, a lawyer, a dreamer, a worker for Jewish causes, an admirer of James Joyce [1882–1941] and in particular his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses (1922).

This is about a man who believed in the virtues of intelligence and decency, as part of his noble and moral vision of the world. When you carry the names of two of Judaism’s leading visionaries, your path is set out for you at an early age. Even so, when he viewed his fight for justice as not achievable, as his poetic voice no longer heard, in his forties he not only stopped writing, but, equally important, stopped communicating with the outside world, which is what this biographer says filled Klein’s last 20 years.

In the book’s Foreword, Leon Edel [1907–1997], a contemporary of Klein and part of the Montreal Group or McGill Group, writes: “And so bit by bit the will to achieve was eroded” (11). True, one can achieve only when the will to do so is present and active, when the Self believes that this will lead to an artistic achievement. In view of the sparsity of facts of this period of silence on the part of Klein, the biographer fills the lacunae with mostly fact and some speculation, doing so with a determined detachment that has become the de rigueur for biographies.

No doubt, he does a commendable and worthy job in presenting Klein’s words, both public and private, and we have a better understanding of Klein the man. Yet, I am left with a gnawing feeling that there must be more to know, especially what took place the last decade of his life. What were his thoughts? That what this biography presents cannot be all of the facts? Perhaps it is, and there is no more to know; the story has been written.

So, we read about Klein’s descent into “irrational suspicions and unprovoked bouts of anger” (205), his subsequent electroshock treatments at both the Douglas Hospital and the Jewish General Hospital, and then a deepening withdrawal from public life and a continuing silence. Today, he would likely be diagnosed as having some form of depression, and treated by some anti-depressant and cognitive-based therapy. The outcome might have been better or worse. We can’t really say.

Yet, allow me to add an addendum, a postscript, another thought based on my personal observations. After all, what else can a man of dignity, a man of depth, a man of decency, who was humiliated by defeats of the soul, do? What happens when your work is not understood or sufficiently appreciated? Klein wanted to be known as a poet, and in keeping with his knowledge of the Bible, as a poet of righteousness; everything else that he did was secondary to his primary desire. Poets, like prophets, are rarely acknowledged in their lifetimes.

Not everyone can easily shrug off such indignities. It is true that all dreamers suffer, because dreamers are made of finer feelings, which the world tends to ignore. Klein’s behaviour, including his increasing insularity and his “vow of silence” makes perfect sense to me; and I don’t think I have yet descended the “stairs of madness.” There is no denying, given my sensibilities, that one day I might.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 25, 2017

Monday, July 24, 2017

A.M. Klein: The Mountain (1948)


Many of us have memories of the mountain, Mont-Royal, especially those of us who grew within close proximity to it during our youth, as the poet A.M. Klein [1909–1972] did during his and I during mine. The mountain was a place to explore, and find out history and plan futures to match the fantastic dreams of our imaginings, made more real when and while looking at the skies, blue and white. It was where magic was made and where the mysteries of the universe were viewed, with awe and understanding.

If you lived near the mountain, you couldn’t help but notice its cross, which some consider an intrusion, but many a welcome intrusion. There has been a cross atop Mont Royal since the days of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance and the founding of the city (officially celebrated as May 17, 1642; the City of Montreal is 375 years old); the current cross dates to 1924.

The second terrace recalls Dante’s Purgatorio (Cantos XIII, XIV), the place where envy is purged, only to be replaced by love. It is a place where covetousness, which includes the love of money, is expunged. Truly, “the love of money” and a devotion to it has contributed to and resulted in much human suffering.

As noted in the poem, one was always aware of the mountain’s illuminated cross, bathed in a white luminescence; its steel-metal structure visible from a distance. Its presence familiar and comforting, clothed in dignified strength, always calling you to come closer. Many heeded its invocation; many undoubtedly did, making declarations of love and obedience.

The Mountain
by A.M. Klein

Who knows it only by the famous cross which bleeds
into the fifty miles of night its light
knows a night—scene;
and who upon a postcard knows its shape —
the buffalo straggled of the laurentian herd, —
holds in his hand a postcard.

In layers of mountains the history of mankind,
and in Mount Royal
which daily in a streetcar I surround
my youth, my childhood —
the pissabed dandelion, the coolie acorn,
green prickly husk of chestnut beneath mat of grass—
O all the amber afternoons
are still to be found.

There is a meadow, near the pebbly brook,
where buttercups, like once on the under of my chin
upon my heart still throw their rounds of yellow.

And Cartier's monument, based with nude figures
still stands where playing hookey
Lefty and I tested our gravel aim
(with occupation flinging away our guilt)
against the bronze tits of Justice.

And all my Aprils there are marked and spotted
upon the adder's tongue, darting in light,
upon the easy threes of trilliums, dark green, green, and white,
threaded with earth, and rooted
beside the bloodroots near the leaning fence—
corms and corollas of childhood,
a teacher's presents.

And chokecherry summer clowning black on my teeth!

The birchtree stripped by the golden zigzag still
stands at the mouth of the dry cave where I
one suppertime in August watched the sky
grow dark, the wood quiet, and then suddenly spill
from barrels of thunder and broken staves of lightning —
terror and holiday!

One of these days I shall go up to the second terrace
to see if it still is there—
the uncomfortable sentimental bench
where, — as we listened to the brass of the band concerts
made soft and to our mood by dark and distance—
I told the girl I loved
I loved her.

The Mountain is part of a collection of poems in A.M. Klein's The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, published in 1948 by The Ryerson Press; it won the Governor General’s Award for poetry.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 24, 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Show Me the Place (2012)

Via: Youtube

Leonard Cohen sings “Show Me the Place,” which is the third track on his album Old Ideas, released on January 31, 2012. Show me the place where the suffering began.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Dreams of Peace

Moral Good 1:21
“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

“Of all our dreams today there is none more important—or so hard to realise—than that of peace in the world. May we never lose our faith in it or our resolve to do everything that can be done to convert it one day into reality.”
Lester Bowles Pearson Acceptance Speech
Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1957

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer,
to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Abraham Harold Maslow,
Toward a Psychology of Being (1962)

We are far away from peace today, since we read everywhere and all the time that conflict is all around us, the same conflicts for the same reasons that have started conflicts for thousands of years (i.e., land, resources, power, greed, etc.). Truth be told, politicians from the same countries have a knack for starting conflicts they cannot end, for making messes they cannot clean up. There are no stories of peace breaking out, but many of war and conflict and the threat that each pose for humanity.

We seem to be at a phase where we cannot find a way to get people together to end it; well, we are always stuck at this phase for one reason or another. So, peace cannot come until there is a serious effort to end the many conflicts around us. This will only take place when humans have exhausted their will to continue conflicts, to act violently, to feed their “impure,” albeit normal and common, impulses.

On one hand violence is abhorred; on another it is applauded. For many, “the hammer” seems the only tool to use, since everything under the sun—every human problem, every human himself—can be reduced to “a nail.” Some might call this a natural state of being, a part of practical politics. I call it madness. Most would agree if they would consider this statement, but most do not, since they are indifferent, asleep, fearful. Some, however, believe that war and violence are necessary; that the earth needs to be cleansed of all that is evil.

Religions, notably the three Abrahamic faiths, would suggest that peace is achievable by giving oneself over to the norms of the religious life, adhering and following its traditions and its restrictions. In other words, peace is found only by leading a life devoted to the religious ways first told and taught thousands of years ago by a founding religious and spiritual leader. Some, perhaps many, find comfort and truth in such teachings and attempt such a way.

Others do not, including many who have tried and left the religious way of life; and view the idea of peace as living a moral life devoted to good that is not necessarily bound up in ideas primarily found in religious teachings and instructions. It might be better and far more beneficial to read Maslow’s book, notably his astute observations on the “higher human motives.” There is also a video interview from 1968 here.

Human ideas on the place of man in the universe have evolved over the centuries and decades. One example of such changing moral views is on slavery; another is on our views on animals; while another is on extending individual freedom. All three hold views that confer humans the right to think and act independently, with dignity, but also to treat animals fairly and justly, without violence.

It is a modern idea that both humans and animals have the inalienable right to live without fear, to live without repression, to live with dignity, to live in freedom in accordance to their essential being. In many places and during many times, regimes have, as Vaclav Havel says, “reduced man to a means of production and nature to a tool of production.” That they have done and much worse; and this continues unabated today and in the foreseeable future, until we decide that we’ve had enough.

Nature will survive man’s indifference and cruelty, since it is itself indifferent and is often harsh, if not seemingly cruel and violent. Nature lacks a morality, a moral center, but despite this can offer beauty.  Americans talk about conquering nature, likely as a way to achieve order. (Canadians, on the other hand, would rather accommodate themselves to nature.) Our own human natures are another matter; the most ambitious among us have taken on the role of political leaders.

As for these modern humans who rule over us, they have often failed to see the necessity of goodness, truth and justice clothed in humility and have made legit hatred, lies and deception bound in the large cloth of expediency and personal gain. The acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake is the clarion call today; it sounds absurd, no doubt, but such is the way it is today and for the foreseeable future. Pile it higher and higher and make a cathedral of money.

Greed in all of its forms and faces is at the center of it all; this is better left unsaid. It might make the greedy uncomfortable. After all, they are not a outwardly violent lot. Their tools are pen and paper or digital versions of it. Can one call it violence if no one is physically hurt? if no one lays hands on your person? if it only leaves permanent marks on your psyche? on your ability to work? There is that kind and there is the everyday greed called normal business practices that does lead to great loss of life.

Whom does it profit? Financially and economically, it profits many, it seems, with very little consequence (whether legal, social or moral) to their perfidious and unethical ways (“all things are lawful” when you are the ones who make the laws). After the public outrage subsides, there is often a public inquiry, a few are fined, even less are indicted and even less go to jail, but no real or significant changes are ever made. Things return to “normal.”

A good part of normal in the world of economic transactions is to follow the Objectivist principles of Ayn Rand (a proponent of laissez faire capitalism, or pure capitalism, and an opponent of altruism), and apply these to business, at least superficially. Never really a good idea, since there is much more to business than reason, including human relations, which often defy cold, calculating reason. Yet, this fact alone is sufficient to make her the hero of extreme libertarians, who view reason and self-interest as solely sufficient to conduct their lives.

But the majority of humanity is pro-social and wants to be helpful and get along; altruism is not only normal, it is normative. That some don’t view the world and human relations in this way is not only exceptional, it is an exception to the way that most people view the world, an exception to most people's ideals. The sad fact is that the opposite appears true today; that one must think only of one’s self and no one else.

When this seems the norm, which it is in many cases, you have unthinking, thoughtless man “scratching and fighting” his way to the top of the pyramid, which is what it takes to be at the top of a system built solely for financial gain. Such a model is unsustainable, yet it continues along the same fault lines of human greed and human self-interest (without any enlightenment to moderate it). Most, however, will fail in their climb to the top, despite putting in great and many years of effort, but some will no doubt “succeed.”

It’s truly nasty brutish stuff. I hardly think that it’s worth the effort, even in my younger years it was a turnoff. I found it far better to work on other things that can elevate or at least better the human condition. An example is becoming a self-actualized individual, which is a lifetime devotion, a way of thinking and of being.

This used to be religion’s calling and strength, its universal appeal, while also providing both answers and comfort to all of humanity. Yet, how can it be so when religion gets into bed with politics, despite dire prophetic warnings of long ago of what would occur in such a relationship. And politics with big business. “What a tangled web we weave…;” religion has not only welcomed big business, it itself has become big business, thus making a mockery of all that it ought to be. The rich are admired much more than the poor, no matter their personal ethics or morality.

Is it any wonder that the union of religion and politics can provide no real answers for any of the problems it has created, even if such were their chief desire, which today seems more doubtful than ever. The “business as usual” approach offers little consolation. I guess that it is never too late to return to what it should be saying and doing, but this will take great effort in apprehending and understanding, with the risk of offending the rich and powerful. Toward this effort. I recommend an excellent opinion piece, by Prof. George Yancy, in The New York Times entitled “Is Your God Dead;” June 19, 2017.

As much as this is important, there are deeper concerns that need airing; it is about another side of Christianity, notably as practiced in America, one that does not speak about peace and love. It is true that in a large and established religion like Christianity, one can find many sets of beliefs; one that I find particularly problematic is Armageddon, a violent showdown, in Israel, to end the world, which takes literally the prophetic passages in the New Testament’s book of Revelation and the Old Testament’s books of Daniel and Ezekiel. Such a worldview informs the everyday thinking of many Christians (notably dispensationalists, a group who make up about one-third of America’s 40–50 million evangelical Christians) in so many ways—this is hardly a recipe to end conflict and bring peace to the world.

But it might explain America’s preoccupation with Israel (e.g., Christian Zionism), and how it views its relationship, one that is based in the end on a final battle of good versus evil—one in which one-third of the earth is destroyed and two-thirds of Israel. It is important to say that there is no mention of America in the Bible, since America did not exist and was not known to exist when the Bible was written and codified. Yet, Americans view their nation (as well as Russia) playing a prominent role in what is referred to as “end times prophecy.” This might explain, on some level, why the U.S. (and perhaps also Russia) cannot acknowledge the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

In such a way of thinking, part of God’s plan to redeem mankind is to destroy a large part of it and rebuild a new kind of people, one that would be more obedient and faithful. After all of the death and destruction, there would be a thousand-year messianic reign of peace; the third temple will be rebuilt and animal sacrifices will begin again for reasons that are not entirely clear. There are many problems with such a scenario, not least of which is “the need” for billions of people to die, including children and babies—all necessary to satisfy and placate a vengeful and angry God. Is there no other way?

This sounds as it were right out out of the annals of modern sci-fi, part of what is called dystopian fiction, but it is in the Bible, a story that is thousands of years old. After all, what such describes is a nuclear holocaust of unprecedented proportions. There is nothing good about it. The future will show that holding on to nuclear weapons is the wrong decision, the wrong choice. If the fear of annihilation doesn’t work to convince world leaders, what will? The world is in a very nervous state, full of anxiety. Some would say despair, given the direction that we are going.

Here’s a thought. It is time for nations like Canada, which has no nuclear weapons, to take a greater leadership role in world affairs, taking to heart the words of Lester B. Pearson almost 60 years ago. This is the model that the world can now apply. It is about dreams of peace. I know that it is an impossible dream, but it is a dream about a future the now does not exist or seem possible. But it might, if only …

Lester B. Pearson was prime minister of Canada between 1963 and 1968. He was a member of the Liberal Party.

Abraham H. Maslow was an American psychologist, best known for his hierarchy of needs, which culminates in an individual who has reached self-actualization. 

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 21, 2017

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Maria Callas: Puccini’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ (1965)

Maria Callas [1923–1977], soprano, performs the aria, “O mio babbino caro” (Oh, my dear father), from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi (1918); the libretto was written by Giovacchino Forzano, based on an incident from Dante’s Divine Comedy (“Inferno;” Canto XXX). This one-act comic opera, Puccini’s last, writes Sameer Rahim in The Guardian, “is only an hour long. It is the concluding part of a trilogy (Il Trittico) that also comprises Il Tabarro, a melodrama set on a Paris dockside, and Suor Angelica, set in a 17th-century convent.” It premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918. This performance, conducted by Georges Prêtre, is with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF, in Paris, in May 1965. As for an explanation of the aria, it is a simple youthful declaration of love (Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi, for Rinuccio), its purity in contrast to the general atmosphere of deception and double-dealing. For those interested, there is a review (December 14, 1975), by Harold C. Schonberg, in The New York Times [here]. For your pleasure, you can enjoy more of Maria Callas at London’s Royal Festival Hall on November 26, 1973 [here]; this formed part of her farewell concert tour (1973–1974). Callas gave her last public performance in Sapporo, Japan, on November 11, 1974.
Via: Youtube.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Not For, Not Against

False Dilemmas

“He that is not with me is against me;
and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.”
Jesus of Nazareth,
Mathew 12:30, The New Testament, circa 30 CE

"It is with absolute frankness that we speak of this struggle of the proletariat;
each man must choose between joining our side or the other side.
Any attempt to avoid taking sides in this issue must end in fiasco.”
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks,
speech made on November 3, 1920

“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make.
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
President George W. Bush,
speech before the U.S. Congress, September 20, 2001

Is it possible to have a view that is not for an idea, a person or a thing and yet, also, not be against it? In other words, neither for nor against. There might be other choices or options besides these binary choices. There might be a host of options.

For example, I am neither for religion and religious belief nor am I against it or the practice of it. I participate in many of the traditions and rituals of Judaism, the religion of my youth. Yet, while doing so does not greatly or generally inform my worldview, it does have an important place in my life and in my thinking. While I can and do understand and appreciate the importance of religion, I myself am not overly religious. At the same time, I am not a committed atheist.

You see, it is complicated, as are many such difficult questions of life. Going from the particular to the general, my example of the complexities of religious belief can also describe many things that others might find important. That I do not actively support an issue, an idea, a cause does not mean that I am against it. This might mean that I have no interest in it, or that I have some interest, or that I have not sufficiently examined the evidence, or that I have changed my views (in the face of new evidence, often overwhelming), or that I remain unsure, unconvinced of the argument’s veracity or validity. 

One of the most famous examples of “for/against” reasoning in history is when Jesus of Nazareth made this argument in the New Testament, the chief historical account of the seeds and beginnings of Christianity. He uses emotional language as a means to to compel/encourage the Judeans, his coreligionists and fellow Pharisees, to join him in his messianic mission “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (see Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

The record shows a few did; most did not, at least not openly (see John 12: 42). We do not know all of the reasons why most did not. It might have been as simple as they did not view him, the Galilean from Nazareth, a man raised outside the power centre of Jerusalem, as the messiah, as the man who would eventually bring peace to the world, starting with their world of Judea. That he did not then and there fulfill his messianic mission must have been disappointing to the large crowds who head him speak.

Modern Christian teaching taken from this parable, however, is that those who did not join the side of Jesus thus rejected his message, his teaching, and thus hindered his earthly mission for heavenly justice. This kind of thinking has inculcated modern Christianity (sometimes taking on the form of Manichaeism); it is thus no surprise that this phrase is invoked during times of crisis as a rallying cry for action and the meting out of justice or vengeance. This suggests that they hold a view of Jesus as a zealot.

Often, this means violence and violent action will be justified as a solution.

It is no surprise, then, that Vladimir Lenin (who was aware of Christian teachings) used such a code phrase in a a speech in the middle of the Russian Civil War (November 1917–October 1922), and in the crucial days leading to the formation of the Soviet Union, which eventually became an autocratic one-party communist state. To use a more recent example, President George W. Bush employed such polarized language shortly after the terror attacks of 9/11 in the U.S. He did so with a purpose in mind: to prepare the nation and the American people for invasion and war.

In doing so, political leaders are appealing to a socio-religious history known by their citizens, as a basis to support their actions, which they naturally view as “imbued with righteousness.” The results have all been disastrous, or to use Lenin's words, taking sides has had the opposite intended effect: “end[ing] in fiasco.” So, the next time someone uses this rhetorical device, you can know that it is being used to bring about emotional dualistic thinking, which is also called binary thinking: either/or; for/against, good/evil, etc.

This does not mean that you have to think this way or that you have to be drawn into an argument that is polarized, politicized, or militarized. There are times when you have to take sides—such as defending liberal democracy, particularly in regimes that deny it—but far less than political and religious leaders say or would like you to think or believe. One must also be aware of false dilemmas, which present a solution to a problem with only two choices.

Often this is not the case; often there are many choices, many possible solutions.

Some view this as wishy-washy or weak or indecisive. I view this as being thoughtful, as being a critical thinker, as being careful, gathering all the relevant facts, and not being swayed by emotions. You will not be compelled to do so by fiery speeches, or by appeals to nationalism, or by talk of vengeance from the bully pulpit; you will know that this is the right thing to do. It will be “your own mind” that you make up.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 17, 2017

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Defense of Liberal Democracy, Again (2017)

Politics of Freedom

A handful of times, I repost articles that I wrote; this is one of those times. I originally posted this article, “A Defense of Liberal Democracy,” on Monday September 17, 2012—almost five years ago. I read it again and agree with the general sentiment, thus there is little reason to change anything, other than to add that China lost a courageous voice of conscience and a principled champion of truth and human rights in the death Thursday of Liu Xiaobo [1955–2017], the Nobel Peace Prize winner (2010), who was not allowed by the Chinese government to appear in Oslo, Norway, to collect his prize and make a speech. Xiaobo died from liver cancer while in custody (he was not allowed to travel outside China to get treatment); he was 61.

There is a good opinion piece, by Xiaorong Li, in The New York Times (“Liu Xiaobo’s Unflappable Optimism;” July 13, 2017) on Liu Xiaobo’s decades-long fight to open the doors of liberal democracy for the Chinese people, which includes working on and signing Charter 08, a document calling for human rights, “a blueprint for fundamental political change in China in the years to come.” Dr. Liu (he earned a doctorate in literature) fought the good fight and he planted the seeds; now it is up to others to continue to do the necessary good, including working to free his widow, Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since 2010.  I highly recommend that you read an excellent piece, by Perry Link (“The Passion of Liu Xiaobo; July 13, 2017) in The New York Review of Books.  

—by Perry J. Greenbaum, July 13, 2017

John Locke [1632–1704]: Locke, considered the Father of Classical Liberalism, writes in Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1689): “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”
Photo Credit: Painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723); Painted in 1697. Currently at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Source: Wikipedia

It is a sad commentary of the state of political awareness that liberal democracy, whose ideas of government emanate from the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, need a defense, let alone an explanation, here in the West. Yet, it does. For one, liberal democracy is not the same as the Liberal Party, although the latter assuredly uses ideas drawn from the former. The words liberal, liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) and liberty all come from the Latin root liber; to be free. To be liberal means to be an individual free from restraint, chiefly from the state in its imposition of laws and religious edicts that restrict the individual from free expression, free association and free movement; for some regimes that is a bad thing, leading to chaos, civil disorder and public immorality. Such are some of the arguments put forth by opponents to liberal democracy and they need be examined. 

While various groups within the western tradition tend to argue about how much freedom is necessary— when does free speech cross the line and become hate speech?— no one would argue against the idea of liberty. The idea of liberty and liberalism is a fundamental belief of all western democracies. An important clarification is in order. There is a mistaken belief in the mass culture that individualism belongs solely to conservative or libertarian thinkers, and that calling someone “liberal” is an invective in that such individuals subscribe to statism; such is not necessarily true. For example, in many areas I am a liberal, in others conservative, and yet I agree wholeheartedly to the ideas and ideals of liberal democracy in the classical sense, which holds views contrary to the Divine Right of Kings, to the establishment of state religion and to economic protectionism.

The centrality of the individual informs much of the writings of liberalism; in fact, a great part of the European Enlightenment was centred on the need to free humans and grant them with individual rights and responsibilities, which until then was granted by "divine decree" only to monarchs. It took hundreds of years to arrive at the point we are at today where civil rights and human rights take centre stage; there is a lot of discussion on human rights and civil rights, but little real desire lately by western states to encourage its adoption by the many non-western nations. That point is worth noting; it and the reasons why this is so will be taken up in another essay.

Generally speaking, governments subscribe to either universalism or individualism. A great part of the European Enlightenment was based on the idea that free individuals who would think on their own, by using reason and their intellectual powers, would become active participants in civil society and in the political process, having distinct rights and responsibilities. Society would greatly benefit by harnessing the collective powers of individuals acting thoughtfully and morally as mature individuals, unshackled from superstition, myth and unmerited authority. (In Maslow's level of  psychological development, such an individual has reached a level of self-actualization.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent explanation, beginning with the fundamental thinking of Immanuel Kant:
Kant defines “enlightenment” as humankind's release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.” Enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one's own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity's intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of reason. Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one's intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence.
Thinking for oneself and awakening the intellectual powers can and does lead to a more fulfilled human existence. So, for the last hundred years, the centrality of the individual has defined modern society, which has led to the great and wide-ranging innovation and discovery evident in western societies. All that we now take for granted is due to a large degree to the influences of western liberal democracy. That point cannot be overemphasized; and freedom is the hallmark of the modern age. The modern man is free from any collective responsibility, apart from the associations that he willingly chooses to form. The modern man has a right to reject associations, including religious ones. Likewise, the individual has a right to join ones voluntarily and without compulsion in any way, whether explicit or implicit.

In this reasoning, the needs of the individual are placed above those of the collective, and such explains the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In short, the centrality of the individual is sacred in modern thought. It also explains why so many modern novels have as their central thesis “the search for meaning.”

In nations which have not undergone the European Enlightenment, which are the majority of the world's nation-states, the individual is not considered as central as the state, or collective, to the needs of civil society. In simple terms, the individual serves the needs of the state. Such describes Second Temple Judaism, feudal Christianity and the many Islamic states operating today; it also describes Marxism and Socialism. All of these systems of thought, although differing in their approaches to governing, share a common and overarching belief in the need for a central authority to govern the people.

Thus, in such societies, the role of the individual is in service of the state and to benefit its overarching ideology or religion; there is no decision on the part of the individual on whether or not he "believes" in the tenets of the faith. He has no choice about it, at least outwardly and publicly. And in return the state promises to take care of all his needs—both material and spiritual—in a "cradle to grave" way of life. For those of us born, raised and educated in the West, with its traditions of individual rights and responsibilities, with its use of reason and intellect, with its rational approaches to problem solving, such pre-modern thinking seems reactionary, if not circumscribed, restricted and authoritarian.

Yet, for many of  the persons raised in a collectivist society, the centrality of the individual is a foreign, unknown and unwanted idea; it seems  “selfish” and “heretical.” Yet, the need for liberty is strong and some individuals in collectivist societies, notably intellectuals with access to other ideas, want to live the liberal life; once they get a taste of individual liberty, they enjoy it. If they can, they leave the restrictions imposed by their societies, never to return. Individual liberty is that intoxicating, that freeing.

Now, I am a firm “believer” that the ideas and ideals of western liberal democracy are the best for humanity, that these represent an evolution of ideas over thousands of years. Again, what we see in nations like Canada, the United States, England, France, Israel and Germany is the incorporation of European Enlightenment thinking into the political, social and economic norms of their societies. States that have not undergone the transition to modern nation-states will find these ideas suspect and troubling. Such explains why in economic-rich nations like Russia and China, which have successfully incorporated capitalism as their economic system, there is resistance to grant more political autonomy to its citizens; it will take some time for such nations to consider the necessary reforms to their political systems to make them more open, more transparent.

In other nations like North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, foreign ideas are considered “foreign”and likely dangerous to the rights and well-being of the ruling class; these regimes are considered authoritarian. This is not to say that such nations like Iran cannot ever become liberal democracies; they can—eventually. For example, there is a tradition of liberalism in Iran, but its citizens will need help from NGOs to draw attention to the human-rights abuses in Iran. As Shirin Ebadi, Nobel laureate (2003) and human-rights lawyer, says:
All defenders of human rights are members of a single family. When we help one another we’re stronger. It is important to give aid to democratic institutions inside despotic countries.
Although I disagree with her on many other political matters, I agree with Ebadi on the above. Nothing more can be said other than such measures often strengthen liberal democracy everywhere. That is a good thing.