Friday, June 30, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Welcoming Immigration

Civil Societies: 1:18
“Happy is the man…”

I write this short piece in advance of the national birthdays of Canada on July 1st (150th) and of the United States of America on July 4th (241st). 

“All the lessons of psychiatry, psychology, social work, indeed culture, have taught us over the last hundred years that it is the acceptance of differences, not the search for similarities which enables people to relate to each other in their personal or family lives.”

John Ralston Saul, Canadian philosopher,
Reflections of a Siamese Twin: 
Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century (1997)

During certain periods of economic uncertainty, there is a tendency to turn inward while pointing fingers outward. Someone has to take the blame. This is typically immigrants, foreigners, aliens, who are collectively guilty for a host of problems, including the taking of good jobs, higher crime rates and terrorism. Yet, data in the United States shows that, for example, immigrants commit less crimes than do citizens; they aren’t taking all the jobs or even lowering wages; and they, immigrants, are not a major source of terrorist acts in the nation. (This requires further rational discussion, since much depends on how one defines terrorism, widely or narrowly.)

Rarely discussed in such ideologies, including the current emphasis on “national identity” in places like France, Britain and recently, to a certain degree, in some communities of Canada and the United States of America, is the recognition and acknowledgement that we, humanity, have been down this road before, and with disastrous, inhumane, results. In the 1930s, for example, there was a fear of Jews coming to America, Britain and France. Closed borders had disastrous results for the Jewish people, including my father’s family.

Thus, I am heartened to read that many Jews today, in America, across the religious and political spectrum, are united in their condemnation of  President Trump’s proposed travel ban. Speaking to this point, the ban has no basis in facts, but emanates from old fears of persons who look and act differently and follow a different religion. It also makes persons guilty by association, and in this case guilty by association and adherence to the religion of Islam. It also goes against the fundamental principle inherent in the U.S. Constitution that governments cannot favor or disfavor one religion. The U.S. Supreme Court might rule otherwise, or there are indications this might be the case.

All in all, I am skeptical of grand sweeping narratives that simplify and view history in a certain way, which focus the lens on a particular people, a particular religion, that of the majority culture, often at the expense of others who share the same space, the same geography. The heroic exploits are magnified; the consequences of such “heroics“ minimized so as to make the grandeur greater, washing away the guilt, if it is present at all. This is the view of a single mythology.

Such is the tendency of right-wing ideologies in particular, which promise that things will be better, if only we control our borders and limit immigration. The left scores no points either, since they have “progressed” to the cold embrace of censorship and totalitarianism, surrounded by a culture of perpetual victim-hood and blame. There is very little to cheer about politically. So much for the illiberal left. Old-school liberals who defend democracy and democratic values are rare today, which explains much of our polarization and divisiveness. These are not easy times by any measure of the imagination.

Even so, I can’t see how restricting immigration or placing quotas or effectively closing the borders will make anything better for anyone. When nations turn inward toward a sort of collective identity based on a national narrative, or an ethnocentric or religious identity, they tend to become not only less welcoming, but also less prosperous. In the end, they also make their nations unfriendly and its citizens suspicious of others.

It’s more than the fact, although it’s an important and essential one to make, that at one time, somewhere in one’s family tree can be found an individual who who crossed over the ocean to make a better life in his adopted country. This person was initially an immigrant and eventually became a citizen of his new nation. Many take on the responsibilities of citizenship seriously.

Many immigrants are entrepreneurs in ways big and small. For example, think about all the new restaurants and the different types of food dishes that are now available, chiefly a result of immigrants who brought their culture and cuisine here and opened new restaurants. Many of my favorite restaurants were opened by those born in another country. Many of my entrees into different cultures were done through the palate. This is the kind of diversity that makes everyone happy; and it is good for us that immigrants choose us among all the nations of the world.

This is true of the United States as it is of other nations, including my own, Canada. Both are nations that attract immigrants. In Canada, 20.6 percent of the population is foreign-born, including my wife, by far the highest of the G7 nations and at the top end of all 35 OECD nations. In the U.S., 13.5 percent of the population is foreign-born. For France, Britain and Germany, the percentage of persons foreign-born range between 12.0 percent and 12.8 percent. The percentage for other OECD nations can be found here. This hardly sounds like a tsunami of immigrants flooding our shores; but then again, for some, “none is too many.”

It is far better to be welcoming. The vast majority of immigrants want to succeed in their adopted countries, and they bring knowledge, energy and, yes, diversity, which combined do make nations better and more prosperous. Nations that have long welcomed immigrants, which includes America, Canada, France, Britain and Germany, have prospered as a result. Study after study confirms this as true, but there’s more to the story of success than taking a strictly utilitarian approach. My father was an immigrant (from Poland), as were both my mother’s parents (from Romania). They worked hard, as did all the other parents of my class-mates at school, who like me, were the children of immigrants.

They came from Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Russia, Greece, Italy, Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti, Morocco, Tunisia, China, Taiwan, India, Pakistan and Hong Kong, among many others. My first friend was Chinese, a first-generation Canadian, as were a majority of my class-mates in elementary school. Some achieved great success; others more modest. All were likely happy to live in a country like Canada, even if this was not often openly expressed.

I can say that my father often said how lucky he was to live in Canada, a nation with so much opportunity and freedom. My father, who spoke six languages, although not equally well, always found a way to communicate with others, many of whom came from different parts of the world. He learned about many Canadian customs and learned quite a few Canadian idioms, although not always used correctly, which made for some humor in our house.

Immigrants who learn a nation’s culture and language fare better in their adopted homeland. It is also true that they do better when they understand the nation’s political system and embrace the values of democracy. It is also true that some are better at learning languages than others, and as one ages such abilities tend to decline. This includes learning a new language and understanding a new culture.

I suspect that the effort made is in proportion to how welcome newcomers feel, or, perhaps more important, if they deem it necessary (for economic and social reasons) to learn a new language. The more help immigrants get in these areas, the better the chance of success. Those that are successful ought to be commended, not only for their efforts but also for their achievements. Children, understandably, tend to fare better than adults in the areas of culture and second (or in some cases third) language acquisition.

My mother, who compared Canada to a League of Nations, spoke English and French proficiently (as well as Yiddish). The fear of the other diminishes when the other is not “an alien,” but becomes a human being. This is what my mother taught me. She was not highly educated, but she was kind and tolerant. I don’t think that she was wrong.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Peter, Paul and Mary: Blowin’ in the Wind (1965)


Peter, Paul and Mary: Blowin’ in the Wind (1965)
Via: Youtube

Peter, Paul and Mary (Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers) perform the haunting folk song, “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a performance broadcast on the BBC in November 1965. The song is another of Bob Dylan’s masterpieces; he wrote it in 1962 and recorded it as the title track for his album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released on May 27, 1963. [Dylan’s original version is here.] Dylan later said it was an adaptation of an old Negro spiritual, “No More Auction Block” (1873). Dylan also said this was not a protest song, yet it became one soon after. The kind of protest that reveals man’s inhumanity.

As is common to many Dylan songs, it has biblical allusions, raising the kind of questions that always need to be heard, until they don’t—when the message in the wind is heard and apprehended. Dylan wrote the words, but it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s version, recorded three weeks after Dylan's version, that made the song well-known and commercially successful. The song still resonates today, since music is universal and songs like this speak to our conscience, our being—to the parts of us that can’t be seen on a medical screen or scan but appears in plain full view to the sensitive souls of humanity.

It is music like this that can engender positive and heartfelt change to bring humanity to a place of not forgetting the important parts of being human. Reaching towards this goal is this great American folk song.

Blowin’ in the Wind
by Bob Dylan

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Monday, June 26, 2017

Bob Dylan’s Noble Nobel Lecture on Literature (2017)

The Good Books

Dylan Nobel Lecture on Literature;
June 4, 2017; Los Angeles, California
Via: Youtube

In his Nobel Lecture on Literature, Bob Dylan, who is 76, says that books that he read in school (grammar school) during his formative years influenced not only his song-writing but also his being:
But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.
He goes on in the lecture to recount the effect of three books in particular: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey. Themes of redemption and of good and evil are evident in Dylan’s lyrics; it is also evident that Dylan has devoured the Bible and put it to good use in his music, speaking about the moral adventures of modern man, the same adventures that the novels above delve into with great detail.

Dylan is masterful in that he is able to distill to its essence what these writers took pages and pages to depict, to define, to describe. This is why Dylan is the man that he is and has gained the recognition that he has. He has earned it, including this prize. This takes having “principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world.”

Friday, June 23, 2017

Expo 67: 50 Years Later

Memories of Montreal

“We are witnesses today to the fulfilment of one of the most daring acts of faith in Canadian enterprise and ability ever undertaken. That faith was not misplaced. But Expo is much more than a great Canadian achievement of design and planning and construction. It is also a monument to Man. It tells the exciting and inspiring story of a world that belongs not to any one nation but to every nation.”

Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson
Part of the Remarks at the opening of Expo ’67, 
Montreal, April 27, 1967

Expo 67: I was nine years old when Expo 67 took place (April 27 to October 29) in Montreal, the city where I was born and where I lived most of my life. It was Canada’s centennial and I remember receiving, along with the end of year report card, a silver dollar on the last day of school (Friday, June 23, 1967) from my Grade 3 teacher. My family went to the world’s fair a number of times that summer, where admission was $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for children. What I remember most was riding on the blue-and-white monorail, seeing the cool pavilions (there were 90 in total) from around the world (“Man and His World“ was the theme), and enjoying the many other attractions (including La Ronde, the amusement park), that moved the imagination of a young mind. It was all so wonderful and hopeful, which explains why so many Montrealers still can recall the days of the summer of 67 when 50-million visitors took part in some fashion in Expo 67, “the monument to Man.” For another old-time memory, you can listen to the theme song, “Ca-na-da” [here] in both English and French, which I and my class-mates learned in school that year. This catchy tune was written by Bobby Gimby [1918–1998].
Via: Youtube:

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

George Harrison: Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)

Via: Youtube

George Harrison [1943–2001] and his band perform “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” which is found on his 1973 album Living in the Material WorldHarrison’s personal confession of faith and love. You can hear an earlier version of the song [here], and a later version at a November 29, 2002 tribute evening, “Concert for George,” [here] at Royal Albert Hall in London, one year after his death.

Do such words as love and peace carry the same meaning as when this song was written and sung? I say this for a reason, because I would think that they do, but so much I see and read argues against this romantic sentiment of mine. Forty years is now a long time, with so much changing so quickly; during this period, but notably in the last 15 to 20 years, there have been so many changes in language and in meaning of words and in how we tend to view words such as love and peace today.

A whole generation has grown up under a dark cloud; a whole generation has grown up with the normalization of hate, fear and violence. A whole generation has grown up without any belief in hope. Think not? Look at what the culture today values and enjoys in TV, film, music and artistic expression. It is not that the past is necessarily better in all respects, but at least it had some comprehensive and deep abiding ideas on how to live as a human being. People were also both more serious and more humorous and unafraid to be this way.

Now, we have become ignorant and blithely ignore real concerns, including helping the very people who need the most help. Now, the politics of division, which finds clarity offensive, also finds peace and love less desirable than hate and conflict, serving the interests of the few. This is carried on the wave of self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement and self-entitlement. Self. Self. Self. Turning inward. Whose Self is it anyway? Where does it end? Self-fulfillment. Self-entitlement. Self-destruction.

It is easier to manipulate people when fear fills the air as a kind of toxic pollution that makes it hard to breathe. The bad air is heavy with anxiety and will weigh you down in depressive defeat. Down. Down. Down. Yet, for me these universal words of light have the same meaning. The music tells me so. Listen to the music of love, hope and peace, my friends. It will help you breathe; the mind requires oxygen to think clearly, to look beyond selfish interests, which has become another barrier. It will lift you up. Up. Up. Up.

Give Me Love
by George Harrison

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
Heart and soul

Om m m m m m m m m m m m m m
M m m my lord . . .

Please take hold of my hand, that
I might understand you

Won't you please
Oh won't you

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
Heart and soul

Om m m m m m m m m m m m m m

M m m my lord . . .

Summer begins with the summer solstice (in North America) today at 12:24 A.M. EDT.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Reading Now (June 2017): A Jew Grows in Brooklyn

Being American

First Generation American: I picked up this book at a second-hand shop; I paid 50 cents, a wonderful bargain. A Jew Grows in Brooklyn (2010), by Jake Ehrenreich, the son of immigrant parents from Poland, was born sometime during the 1950s in Brooklyn during post-war America. Both his parents survived the Holocaust, and both his parents came to America after spending time in a displaced-persons camp. They did the best that they could, considering the circumstances; perhaps better than most. These salient facts are important, since these facts intruded into the lives of their children, unintentionally of course but they most certainly did. This book gives some insight on how these facts, birthed in trauma and tragedy, shaped the lives of Jake and his two sisters. The stories within the book’s pages are as much as his parents as they are about Jake and his sisters. He tells the stories with a mix of seriousness and humor. Life is serious, but it is also funny with moments of absurdity, that become evident after taking some distance from the subject. I marvel at persons who can laugh at, or make light of, their personal losses and misfortunes. Very uplifting.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Finding ‘The Comforters’

Pain: 1:17
“Happy is the man…”

“It is not in our power to understand either the suffering of the righteous 
or the prosperity of the wicked.” 
Pirkei Avot 4:15

This is a serious post. I hate to see people suffer; I hate to see animals suffer. I can never work in healthcare; I can never work with animals. I have had pets and I have seen them die. Heart-breaking. I am too sensitive for it. Sure, I can brace myself, as I have done with seeing both my parents suffer before succumbing to death. I have also been to a good number of funerals. I can’t say that these were happy events, no matter how eulogies often make it a “celebration of life.” Many of these persons suffered before the illness took their lives from them.

This is the way that I view it; life is precious and suffering is a scourge on us, an evil visited on humanity. I do not see any reason for it, although I understand why people throughout history have attempted to find reasons for pain and suffering, including C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (1940) and in a more personal confessional, A Grief Observed (1961), first published under a pseudonym. Both books are well written and argued, but along with others on the subject, they fall short in providing closure to a difficult question. I am not surprised, since there is no satisfactory answer to the question of suffering.

For example, Christianity views suffering as a problem of original sin and, also, of personal sin. Such was the view of Job’s “friends” and “comforters, who despite Job being “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1), concluded that he must have committed some horrible sin to suffer the way that he did. Job maintains his innocence in the face of tragedy and the accusations of wrong-doing from his comforters. They could not have known of the cosmic wager between God and Satan (1:8–12), the true and only reason for Job’s change of fortune and suffering.

Later on, we read that God spoke out of the whirlwind in anger (Job 38:1–42:6), but made no apologies for his capricious actions. He also offered no explanation. We are left with the idea, however uncomfortable, that God’s ways are mysterious—and thus are not completely known to man. Such is the general view of Judaism today, yet Maimonides [1138–1204] (also called Rambam), the great Jewish medieval thinker takes the position in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190) that suffering can be attributed to human failings, in line with contemporaneous Christian thinking.

There is no sense in this medieval argument that Job, who was a pious man, might have learned more about God without causing him to suffer unjustly, especially since God’s speeches do little or nothing to explain himself, his intentions or his cosmic wager with with Satan, the adversary. Rationally, it would follow that there was no need for the suffering, except for God to win the bet. This does nothing to place God in a majestic position.

Such thinking, however, is still prevalent today among both evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews, usually among the more fundamentalist sects who view the bible (or Torah) as a literal unchanging document that is timeless. Such people, who tend to cling to past traditions, including those of dress and mannerisms. have no problem making judgments on the failings of others, but not their own. Such is a weakness of mind, a failure of the heart.

Yet, modern man views pain and suffering as cruel, chiefly because it is; it is for this reason that modern man, in his decency and dignity, tries to find ways to alleviate suffering. I am, of course, applying human standards and I make no apologies for it. I expect better of God, notably since it says in the Bible, “God created man in His own image”(Genesis 1:27). I also make no apologies for condemning as cruel and barbaric the suffering that humans too often inflict on each other and for the suffering that humans often inflict on animals. One such act is too much, but we know that such acts are multiplied by numbers far higher than this. Very large numbers that numb the senses.

This is tragic; and the real tragedy is that those of us who are sensitive are incapable of preventing suffering and pain. We can’t understand the purpose of suffering, but we can act as true comforters, which is what I view as the chief theme of a movie I recently viewed on Netflix. You’re Not You (2014). It is about a young woman, a classical pianist dying from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which ravages her body and takes away who she was/is. In the end, she receives human comfort from another. Predictably, it received mostly negative reviews for being overly sentimental.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

George Harrison: What Is Life (2016)

What is Life by George Harrison
©2002. G.H. Estate Ltd.
Via: Youtube

In this music video, Emma Rubinowitz, a member of the San Francisco Ballet, dances simply beautifully to an equally beautiful simple love song by George Harrison [1943–2001], “What is Life,” recorded for his triple album, All Things Must Pass, which Apple Records released in November 1970. George Harrison, “a spiritual man” died from cancer on November 29, 2001; he was 58. It is more than appropriate that a good part of this video, artistic in nature, is shot outdoors showing the beauty of human love against the permanence of nature in the free and unrestricted expression of movement and dance. Nature endures; it is undeterred by what man does, by what man throws at it. It was around then and will be around later. Humans, however, are different; humans need things, humans need emotion and feelings. If you have lived a life in the presence of love, both in the giving and in the receiving, then you have succeeded in living a life well-lived. This is a rare achievement no doubt, making it all the more precious. Before I forget to mention it, and I must get back to the dancing, the male dancer is Esteban Hernandez, who is also marvelous. The video was shot by Brandon Moore; the dancing was done in and around the streets of San Francisco and in the woods of the Presidio of San Francisco, a U.S. national park. Well done, all around.

What is Life
by George Harrison

What I feel, I can’t say
But my love is there for you, any time of day
But if it’s not love that you need
Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

What I know, I can do
If I give my love now to everyone like you
But if it’s not love that you need
Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side
Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

What I feel, I can’t say
But my love is there for you any time of day
But if it’s not love that you need
Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side
Oh tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

What is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

Oh tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me who am I without you by my side?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Baseball as Art

America’s National Pastime

This is a continuation of a blog series on baseball, first starting with Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994), posted in April, Baseball by the Numbers posted in early May and Baseball is Beautiful to Watch posted in late May. In this last post on baseball, I combine two of my interests: baseball and art.

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. 
And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”

 —George F. Will, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (1990)

Babe Ruth Farewell at Yankee Stadium on June 13,  1948, might be the most famous baseball photo ever taken, artistically valuable. Ruth died of cancer on August 16, 1948; he was only 53. Not at all surprising, this photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. Michael Palmer does a wonderful job—the best I have read thus far—in describing the power and poignancy of this photo; he does so by applying the theory of Aesthetic Realism, a way of seeing: “Nat Fein, a staff photographer for New York Herald Tribune, was looking for a picture that would convey the meaning of that day. He left the other photographers and went to the back of where Ruth was standing, where he saw the elements of the story in one composition—Ruth in relation to his former teammates, to the Stadium, to the fans. He saw Babe Ruth in a moment of great triumph and in a tremendously sad moment as well.”
Photo Credit: © Nat Fein

When you are a longtime fan of anything, you know all the iconic images. Baseball is no exception. There is one of Babe Ruth Farewell (1948) shown above, and another of Lou Gehrig Day (July 4, 1939). Then there is one of Mickey Mantle and The Helmet Toss (June 1965) and yet another of Joe DiMaggio and His Swing (June 29, 1941). Yes, it is true that all played for the New York Yankees, the greatest franchise in major league baseball, which dominated the sport (along with the Brooklyn Dodgers) in the 1940s and ’50s.

Even so, there are so many more iconic photos, such as the fierce Ty Cobb Stealing Third (July 23, 1910), the Bobby Thompson Home Run (“shot heard round the world;” October 3, 1951), Wille Mays and “The Catch” (September 29, 1954 in the 1954 World Series); Jackie Robinson and his Third Base Dance (Game 3 of the 1955 World Series) and Sandy Koufax and his Perfect Game (September 10, 1965). Such are only a small select sample of photos that tell the story of baseball in an artistic way, depicting the players who made the game what it is, depicting in its simplicity both its victories and its defeats.

One of the aims of “the artistic” impression is to show the humanity in the human, and these photos do so in a way that captures the imagination, the spirit that ruled the age. The times change, and even if we were around during these times, our memories aren’t as reliable as we would like or think. Memories fade like the photos themselves. Yet, we return to these photos to provide a physical record of not only the history, but also to sense (and recapture) the feelings that then permeated the air.

To see how the two intersect—fine art and baseball— go to [FineArtAmerica] and [Christie’s].

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Second-Guessing Experts

Certainty: 1:16

“Happy is the man…”

Don’t trust all experts; don’t trust everyone who calls himself an expert; experts, notably TV pundits, are often wrong, particularly when it comes to predicting financial and economic news (e.g., the stock market, the housing market, etc.). Such is the chief take-away from a documentary that I recently viewed on CBC’s show, “Hot Docs” with Anne-Marie MacDonald, The Trouble With Experts, written and directed by Montrealer Josh Freed, which was first broadcast on March 26, 2015.

Research following the predictions of so-called experts showed that many fared no better than a person guessing randomly or a chimpanzee throwing darts. In another case, non-experts were better than experts in predicting certain economic outcomes. One way of deciding whether to trust an expert is the level of certainty that he outwardly shows. The greater his certainty the greater the possibility of him being wrong; so much of his blunder is replete with bluster.

The Trouble With Experts (2015),
a CBC documentary produced by Josh Freed.
Via: Youtube

Such is considered confidence, equated with certainty. But it is hardly so, which is instructive. As much as weather forecasters or meteorologists are often publicly maligned, they do give forecasts with a level of certainty, such as 30% chance of showers. It might be good for those who make financial and economic predictions to follow suit and do the same, but somehow I have my doubts that they could do this, since so much of their predictions are no more than hot air coming from an over-sized ego.

As for political pundits, most of us know that this is (bad) entertainment, not to be taken seriously—no more than one would take seriously the words of a king’s jester. There are serious experts, no doubt, found in all fields of human endeavor, but something happens to their ability to think clearly and rationally when they decide to go on TV or on other forms of visual social media. They perform, not unlike actors, because this is what is “expected of them.”

They, that is, the TV experts, might not be aware of this process, or they likely might. This requires a level of self-awareness and a high degree of doubt, which is not easy to obtain. This generally takes work and deep introspection and access to understanding and knowledge that is often only found in books, some of them old and dusty. Ideas of goodness, truth and beauty. Might it not be time to blow off the dust?

Perhaps this “belief in experts” is an outcome of the persuasive power of mass media, and also in our inability to easily understand/perceive the world for ourselves. By trusting experts, particularly those in the mass media, we hand over to others an ability to think, notably on what is good and beautiful and true; this is a fool’s game. Marshall McLuhan [1911–1980], a Canadian philosopher and communication theorist, says as much in Understanding Media (1964):“All media exists to invest our lives with artificial perception and arbitrary values” (199).

If such is indeed the case, then it is up to us to find the (moral and ethical) values that we wish to live by. By no means is this an easy task, but it is a necessary one.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Early June Day in Toronto (2017)

The Seasons

G. Ross Lord Park on June 2nd: After parks’ employees completed some rock landscaping on a section
of embankment of the Don River that winds its way through this urban park near where we reside.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

We don’t typically associate the month of June with the season of Spring, but most of the month is before the summer solstice (in North America), which this year is Wednesday, June 21, at 12:24 A.M. EDT—two weeks away. Is warmer dry weather on its way? There is good reason to ask, since a majority of the spring here in Toronto and in many parts of Canada has been cool and rainy, with above-average rainfall and below-average temperatures. So far, June has been cool; the silver lining is that this year air conditioners might not be necessary (not that we use one, anyway), thus saving people from high electricity costs. Another silver lining: I do not know if there is a correlation or it is pure chance, but I have already seen five monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) this year. The temperature when this photo was taken was 20°C (68°F) and sunny clear blue skies, which was slightly cooler than the normal daytime high of 23°C (73°F). Such days might be rare this summer, so it’s good to go out when they do occur.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Favorite Books (6): Daniel Deronda

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“Deronda’s heart was pierced. He turned his eyes on her poor beseeching face, and said, “I believe that you may become worthier than you have ever yet been—worthy to lead a life that may be a blessing. No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.  You have made efforts—and you will go on making them.”

― Daniel Deronda to Gwendolen Harleth 
in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (Book VII; “The Mother and the Son”)

Daniel Deronda: First published by W. Blackwood and Sons in 1876, this Penguin Classics edition was published in 1995; it has a fine introduction by Terence Cave, who writes that Eliot’s final novel, her most ambitious, reveals the prejudices of British society by bringing these into the light of day: “By shuttling between the different settings of the plot, the title-character weaves together the principal threads in what Eliot called the ‘web’ of her story. The notion that the Jewish strands can somehow be cut out is untenable as soon as one perceives that Deronda is deeply attracted both to Mirah and to Gwendolen. Or that. just as Gwendolen needs the shock of Deronda’s Jewish identity in order finally to break out of her social and psychic prison, so too their painful conversations, his encounter with her moral predicament. are necessary to his spiritual odyssey” (xxxi).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Daniel Deronda (1876), by George Eliot [1818–1880] is the final and seventh novel of the British writer, known outside writing circles as Mary Anne Evans; she employed the male pen name to be taken seriously as a writer, which says much about the times in which she lived, or at least how she viewed them. Having read all of Eliot’s novels, I don’t doubt her knowledge of, or her insights into, the human condition, most notably about the redeeming qualities of love and goodness. That she is an exceptional writer is not in doubt by critic and public alike.

A writer of the Victorian era, she is viewed by many one of the finest novelists of the 19th century. I agree. Eliot is exceptionally good at speaking to the reader, both directly and indirectly. Once you get used to her voice, you quite enjoy it, finding it not only charming but necessary. This provides not only information, but also knowledge and wisdom, contributing to the writing’s moral clarity and force. You will find her humane certainty in these matters a breath of fresh air in our cynical and nihilistic age, where the air is heavy with grayness and despair.

Although her previous novel, Middlemarch (1871–2), is considered a far superior novel by most critics today, I view “Daniel Deronda” as at least equal to the task, if not more so in some respects, in matching Eliot’s artistic and moral vision. The story resonates strongly with me in that it is not only an old-fashioned love story, it is not only about reconciliation and redemption, but it is about justice and finding one’s true and right path, despite the difficulties this presents. The esoteric parts, such as the book’s delving into Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, are intelligent and always important in that they delve into the recurring problem of evil and what options humans have in the face of it.

Yet, one should be careful in viewing evil as only a rational item on a discussion list. Paramount are human relationships, such as is found between Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda, a Moses-like figure who helps bring about a change of heart in her. This stands out because it took a combination of self-recognition and courage to do so. She plays a prominent part in the story as does Mirah Lapidoth, who becomes Daniel's wife and comapnion; Ezra Mordecai Cohen, her visionary bother; and Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, Gwendolen’s cruel husband, whose death leads to Gwendolen’s self-awareness.

What also stands out is that the novel is sympathetic to the Jewish people, without being overly sympathetic, and to the cause of their national and cultural aspirations, which today fall under the heading of Zionism, at a time when both were rare in Britain. Not surprising, this novel was published when Benjamin Disraeli [1804–1881] was prime minister of Britain (1874–1880). Although Disraeli was born into a middle-class Jewish family, he was baptized at age 12 into the Anglican Church. He was also a novelist, publishing among others Tancred in 1847, which Eliot read.

Disraeli’s baptism into the Christian faith increased opportunities for him, since non-Christians, by virtue of having to take an oath of allegiance to Christianity, were effectively excluded from Parliament, that is, until 1858. His father could not have anticipated this progressive change at the time that he made such an important decision on how to raise his children. Hindsight is a power that few have.

Even so, some like Eliot are highly sensitive to the times and the social norms that ruled the lives of persons. This makes her novel unique in many ways, in that she advocates for a minority people not her own. This also makes Eliot a prescient and courageous writer. But, then again, she showed courage by openly living with a married man, George Henry Lewes, for more than 20 years (Eliot also used the name of Mrs. Lewes socially). Although affairs and extra-marital relations were common in Victorian England, displaying a lack of discretion was uncommon. Therefore, their relationship was met with moral disapproval.

This might explain the sympathetic reading that Eliot gives the Jewish people in this novel; they too were met with suspicion and disapproval, so what better way to counter this than by writing a novel that shows Daniel Deronda, raised as a member of the British upper class who discovers that he’s Jewish, as the hero and the novel’s moral force. This too speaks about the great debt of gratitude that Christians owe Jews, one that was hardly acknowledged then. Yet, while this is sometimes shown today, it is done in a pretentious and insincere way. One wonders if this is better.

This novel must have caused a stir in England at the time, and it still causes a stir today in some circles. As would any novel that uses literary characters to try to make right a historical wrong. Some historical wrongs have never been properly and seriously acknowledged and in today’s political climate will not receive the fair and proper treatment they deserve. Ignorance and ignoring or twisting the facts seem to work in short measure, as does silencing the moral voices of good. But the problems do not go away.

Old prejudices don’t die an easy death, if at all; sometimes they get resurrected a century later in a new body, a new grotesque form. This novel spends a lot of time revealing how societal prejudices easily turn into lazy habits, but also how a few courageous people can change their “love of evil ways”—such is the basis of a moral life. Some, perhaps more than a few, will appreciate this sentiment, yet, when morality can be cast aside in the name of expediency, we can see what happens. A morality missing love and kindness is hardly good, hardly worth pursuing.

But then again the chief problem today is not so much a lack of morality but a lack of deep and abiding interest in the subject, including on the problem of evil. When social media becomes the source and arbiter of morality, our society is in serious trouble. Opportunistic morality is no morality at all, but a cheap veneer that demeans human beings and human relations; it also makes light of human victims. This is already evident today; reading this exceptional novel in its entirety will bring some clarity on this subject and to the beginnings of a change of heart.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Appreciating Beauty

Aesthetics: 1:15
“Happy is the man…

Beauty — be not caused — It Is —
Chase it, and it ceases —
Chase it not, and it abides —
Overtake the Creases

In the Meadow — when the Wind
Runs his fingers thro’ it —
Deity will see to it
That You never do it —

Emily Dickinson [1830–1886],
“Beauty — be not caused — It Is,” 1929

Iis said that “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” that beauty is subjective, that it is particular rather than universal. This might be true for our soul-mates, our spouses, our loved ones, but I disagree to this claim when it comes to generalized beauty. There are some natural scenes that everyone finds beautiful: a well-tended flower garden, a bubbling brook, a clear mountain view and a large orange sunset. A bouquet of flowers.

I add to the list a beautiful smile from a beautiful face. Seeing this can improve anyone’s bad day, better anyone’s disposition, lift anyone’s spirits. This works for me. Much of what we find beautiful has to do with symmetry, the right proportions, the ideal order. While some argue that this is unfair, that this is a learned “social construct,” this is a wasted effort. One can hardly argue with mathematics. A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman according to everyone’s understanding and tastes.

This has been proven countless times. See what happens when a beautiful woman enters a room, or walks down the street.

There are valid and well-understood reasons that designers put their expensive creations on equally beautiful models; there is a relationship between the clothes and the model. The eye looks at both the model, more often then not female, and the clothes that she is wearing. There is a connection, creating a visual sense and flow of beauty. This works; if it didn’t, we would see high-fashion models that are not beautiful. I doubt that this will ever happen on a big scale.

Beauty works without much effort, giving pleasure to the brain through the windows of the eye, which take it all in: a beautiful face, a beautiful painting, a beautiful photo, a beautiful scene in general. There is a different effect when we hear a beautiful piece of music; it causes us to tear up, to cry—an emotional release to what troubles us, the beautiful acting as a counterpoint to it. It is as if our ears are telling our brains to “have hope,” that goodness still exists.

Birthday Flowers: I gave these bouquet of cut flowers to my wife for her birthday. Are they not beautiful?
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

This explains one reason why humans remain attracted to beauty, even during the direst of circumstances, even during the bleakest of times? The simple (and beautiful) answer is because it is necessary, even if we don’t completely know or immediately appreciate its virtue. It makes us feel (however briefly) right about the world, that all is in order, or could be, if only.... This is important, and becomes more so when so much is (or appears) in disorder.

While some artists, particularly in the last 40 years, resist this assertion, and purposely make ugly art, I doubt that the majority of people appreciate it or find it appealing, since this goes against the aesthetics of beauty that have been with us forever. While nihilism and anti-beauty ideas have an audience, and there are patrons willing to pay for their representation, its time is limited, because it offers no hope, only a continuation of the same bleakness and despair.

While it is true that ugly gets noticed (e.g., a dilapidated building, a trash-filled park, a yard overrun with weeds, trash talk), these are noticed for revealing what is lacking; and in contrast beauty gets attention for the right reasons, chiefly for what its presence adds to its surroundings, such as a public garden in a urban square. This might explain why a colorful flower growing through the cracked asphalt of otherwise grey city streets gets noticed, its symbolism palpable.

Besides, beauty is the easiest and quickest aesthetic to judge; it is before us. Functional cities devoid of beauty are to a large degree despairing cities; sadly, there are too many cities in Canada and the United States that fit this description. If the will is present, it is never too late to change the way a city looks. But, for this to be considered, beauty has to be seen as more than an add-on, but as necessary for public good. This is a hard sell today, particularly the idea of “public good,” which now sounds out of place, foreign, and overly virtuous.

Yet, virtue is precisely what is missing in today’s public discourse; virtue ethics is foundational to moral philosophy and it contains an important argument on beauty. For reasons that are both societal and biological, beauty and goodness in the mind of the beholder correlate well. Beauty. no doubt, confers an advantage to an individual. Even as this is true, if we go beyond the superficial level, we know that not all beautiful-looking individuals are necessarily good, but that they are initially perceived as “good.”

Greater moral lesson: Goodness is always beautiful, and nothing increases an unattractive (or plain) person’s beauty than the quality of goodness.

The opposite is also true, in that badness (in all its variations, including vulgarity) decreases beauty in an otherwise beautiful-looking individual blessed with fine physical attributes or form. A beautiful person who acts with goodness and grace is in a special category; such are rare individuals and noticed for a reason, a good reason. I think of women like Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn. There are others lesser known, no doubt, but we like to raise a few to the heavens in our “perfect offering.”

I suggest that this has to do with our ideas and ideals of perfection, which are transcendent ideas, likely hard-wired into our brains. So, yes, beauty is linked with goodness which itself is linked to perfection. While we know that the ideal of perfection is unobtainable, it does not follow that we don’t find appealing the idea of perfection. It is in our language for a reason; we can say that beauty has a purpose, which is not the same as saying beauty exists solely for a practical reason.

It might be unfair that ugly is not appealing, but such is the way our brains work. It might also be unfair that some are intelligent, while many are not; that a few are blessed with athletic abilities while most are not. People are born this way, with certain abilities and physical traits. There is another idea related to physical beauty, however, that needs mentioning, that requires emphasis: beauty reminds us of what is above us; beauty reminds us of higher thoughts. Monuments to beauty have a purpose, even if we have forgotten them.

Emily Dickinson alludes to this connection in the poem above: the transcendent thought implicit to beauty and its outward expression. In the Jewish Bible, the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim in Hebrew; שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים), in particular Chapter 4 where the man describes his lover’s beauty, there is a long descriptive passage on female physical beauty. It is a homage to romantic love
, which, in the best poetic tradition, always lifts us upward.