Saturday, August 30, 2014

Revisiting an American Melodrama

"Therefore is judgement far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness.
We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men." 

Isaiah, 59:9-10

More than two weeks ago, a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri shot an unarmed black teenager six times, leaving him lying in the middle of the street in a puddle of blood. Since then there have been largely peaceful demonstrations, some riots, and looting - all because of a common perception of a racially-motivated police action and a justice system blind to police misconduct. And we're right back, it seemed for a while, where we were throughout the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

Journalists can offer us comparisons with other times in American history when black people took part in violent riots. The rioting was usually sparked by some incident and they were usually divided along racial lines. There was a time in American history that is still so painful that few people even know what happened. It was the time, on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. Three British journalists, who had been assigned to cover the election for the London Times, were there when the news broke across America like an enormous storm. In the book that was published the following year, (1) they wrote:

"By the end of the week, thirty-seven people had been killed and there had been riots in  more than a hundred cities. For the first time in history, the situation room in the basement of the west wing of the White House was plotting the course of a domestic crisis. Into that Nerve center of America as a great power there flowed reports of fighting - not in Khe Sanh or on the Jordan, but on Sixty-third Street in Chicago, One hundred twenty-fifth Street in New York, Fourteenth Street in Washington: the White House is on Sixteenth Street. . . .

And there was Robert Kennedy. When he heard that King was dead, he went out onto a street corner in Indianapolis and told the small crowd of Negroes [sic] who gathered what had happened. Standing under a street lamp, he waited until the shouts of the men and the wails of the women had died away. Then he quoted Aeschylus . . ."

The speech that Kennedy delivered that night was lost in the crush of media coverage of the aftermath of King's death. It took his deeply-felt and profound words to capture the lesson that Americans failed to learn then.

"Ladies and Gentleman - I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well toask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black - considering the evidence that there were white people who were responsible - you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feelin my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'

So I ask you tonight to retyurn home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficulties. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It's not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much."

Robert Kennedy had quoted poetry before. In his speech before the Democratic National Convention in 1964, he made a crowd of rowdy party delegates weep when he said: "When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet:

"If he shall die takehim and cut him out into the stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun."

I won't dwell on the unlikelihood of a politician today telling a crowd that his favorite poet is Aeschylus, but what Robert Kennedy spoke about on that awful night so many years ago was making an effort, of doing something difficult, of trying to understand instead of simply giving in to hatred and reacting to an apparently inexplicable act of violence with more violence. We have to choose, while we still have the power to choose, in which direction we as a people want to go.

(1) An American Melodrama, by Lewis Chester, Geofrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Changing Seasons

“Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un invincible été.” ("In the depths of winter, I discovered that within me there was an invincible summer.")
- Camus

When I was sixteen, my father retired from his last job because of a heart attack (he was sixty-one) and my folks were finally at liberty to move anywhere and live wherever they wanted. We had been living in South Carolina for several years and my mother, who always hated the South, wanted to move somewhere with a pleasanter climate and a pleasanter people.

Around that time, I found a book at the library made up entirely of photographs of Vermont. Among the resplendent pictures of rustic houses, church spires, and old covered bridges were four full-page photographs of a country lane bordered by low stone walls and hardwood trees. Each photo had been taken from the same position but in four seasons. The differences between them were dramatic: from the tentative green of budding flowers and trees in April to the heavy effulgence of leaves and grass in July to the golds, ambers and reds of October to a frozen and snowbound January. I found it so enthrallingly beautiful that I made up my mind then and there to live in Vermont.

My mother, who had spent her happiest years with my father in West Germany after the war, wanted Switzerland. And we were on the verge of making travel plans when she realized that the real estate prices published in a brochure she got in the mail were in Swiss - not in French - francs. Since my mother had her heart set on an alpine setting, we eventually decided on Colorado. We moved to Denver, lock, stock and barrel in September 1975.

Since then I have lived in different states, including Nevada, Iowa, and Alaska. In Alaska there are only two seasons, winter and a protracted thaw that encompasses spring, summer, and autumn squeezed into the six months when it isn't freezing and abysmally dark. Nevada, in the high alkali desert east of Reno, had a splendid climate, but its stark, rain-starved landscapes grew depressing after a year or two. I sometimes miss it, mostly the highways that lead one into pristine but lonely vistas, but I seriously doubt that I shall ever go back there. I found that Des Moines, Iowa lived up to its image as an American Nowhere, home to all those who were left behind when everyone else took off after high school to Chicago or Omaha.

Now I'm living, against my better judgement, in the Tropics - the Philippines to be needlessly exact. Like Alaska, it, too, has but two season, but they are wet and dry in a perpetual simmering heat. Some people actually regard it as an "ideal" climate. It's certainly cheap to live here. But very quickly one realizes it's because the only people who live here are the natives, who never had much of a choice. Seedy, overweight, mostly old foreign men are the only non-natives who live here, for mostly unmentionable reasons.

But after forty years I haven't forgotten that beautiful book of photographs of Vermont, nor have I given up the dream of some day living there. I've mentioned before how an expat American I met shortly after I arrived here on my island in the sun told me that I would never miss the cold winter weather in the States. He couldn't possibly have been more wrong. I have missed the seasonal changes in the weather every hot, sweat-soaked day that I've been here. Standing the quote from Camus on its head, In the depths of summer, I've realized that within me there lay an invincible winter.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Amateurs and Professionals

A few weeks ago I posted "Destinations," about immigration in America, and someone calling himself "rick reddy" bothered to comment on it. After a few unsolicited insults, he wrote:

"You are just another manifestation of blogger pollution--yet one more curse the Internet has brought upon us.

Will people like you ever stop? There is a reason writers used to have to go through a vetting process: editors, readers, copy editors, etc. YOU and bloggers like you are the reason."

Allowing for a difference of political allegiances, which is what probably provoked his pointed comment, it seems to me that Mr. reddy doesn't understand the function of either blogs or bloggers. A blog is not a place for journalism, fiction-writing, or even for scholarship - although it can contain these and a great deal more. I've found it to be a personal, semi-diaristic (and interactive) platform for sharing written material, photographs, music, videos, and anything else a blogger chooses to share. A blog's content isn't something to be "vetted" (a new and noxious piece of jargon). I've discovered, however, that it does require some proofreading, since I often don't have time to correct little spelling or grammatical errors.

I've submitted material to editors in the past, and been lucky enough to have most of it accepted for publication. I've published here most of the material I've published elsewhere, and I've even taken pieces I wrote here and submitted them for publication on other (film) websites. I wouldn't dream of submitting most of what I post here to an editor, simply because it's unsolicited by someone else and I haven't tailored it to someone else's design.

In one of his Notebooks (which weren't intended for publication) Samuel Butler outlined, at least a century before the appearance of the word "blog," what I have found to be the most sound advice for anyone starting a blog:

"Amateurs and Professionals

There is no excuse for amateur work being bad. Amateurs often excuse their shortcomings on the ground that they are not professionals, the professional could plead with greater justice that he is not an amateur. The professional has not, he might well say, the leisure and freedom from money anxieties which will let him devote himself to his art in singleness of heart, telling of things as he sees them without fear of what man shall say unto him; he must think not of what appears to him right and loveable but of what his patrons will think and of what the critics will tell his patrons to say they think; he has got to square everyone all round and will assuredly fail to make his way unless he does this; if, then, he betrays his trust he does so under temptation. Whereas the amateur who works with no higher aim than that of immediate recognition betrays it from the vanity and wantonness of his spirit. The one is naughty because he is needy, the other from natural depravity. Besides, the amateur can keep his work to himself, whereas the professional man must exhibit or starve.

The question is what is the amateur an amateur of? What is he really in love with? Is he in love with other people, thinking he sees something which he would like to show them, which he feels sure they would enjoy if they could only see it as he does, which he is therefore trying as best he can to put before the few nice people whom he knows? If this is his position he can do no wrong, the spirit in which he works will ensure that his defects will be only as bad spelling or bad grammar in some pretty saying of a child. If, on the other hand, he is playing for social success and to get a reputation for being clever, then no matter how dexterous his work may be, it is but another mode of the speaking with the tongues of men and angels without charity; it is as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal, full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

I won't pretend to be immune to vanity or "wantonness," but the history of this blog has taught me that the people who visit here do so either incidentally, following links from other sites or from a search engine, or because they're friends of mine. And it's for them that I write. Some old friends have actually found me through this blog, so I'm satisfied that it's been good for something. I didn't find much use for my blog until late in 2008, after I realized that I'd got myself stuck in the Philippines. I began to publish things every so many days instead of weeks or even months. One thing I've discovered when keeping a diary is that when my life is full, when I find myself living as on the crest of the wave, I have very little time to stop, reflect, and put down my thoughts and feelings in words. When I was in the Navy and living in Okinawa, which I look back on now as the time of my life, the journal I kept was riddled with great ellipses, huge gaps of days and weeks in which I was too caught up with living to bother annotating it.

Since late 2008, I published a hundred or more posts per year for four years. Spending most of my time alone on a poor island has caused me to fall back on myself, on my own resources, my conscious reactions to my strange and often hostile surroundings. My blog became a way of engaging with my life and my environment. And it has become a means of making peace with it, making sense of it, and, in a way that will be finalized when I leave this island, saying goodbye to it. After 2012, there has been a rupture, a pulling back from engagement with the world, because of a sense of alarm that overtook me when I began to realize that I may never get out of here, if I shall ever go back home to my family and friends and my life. So the number of my posts fell off dramatically.

For the past seven years, this blog has told my life story. Calling someone a "fool" merely for telling his story is proof of being a genuine buffoon, not to mention a schmuck.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Solitary Pursuit

When filmgoing required dressing up, a bit of travel, and punctuality, there was also an expectation that, even if one was going alone, there would be other people attending the screening. Such an expectation was greater in the years before the arrival of multiplex cinemas and home video. For a cinephile devoted to out of the way films, fetched mostly from overseas, there was at least the knowledge that, no matter how great a distance any particular film had to travel to reach one's hometown, it would not have come all that way for nothing. Even the most obscure films in the world got some mention at a festival, a line or even a paragraph in a film guide. But the days when an intelligent and challenging film like Seven Beauties or Cousin, Cousine could pack a cinema in America are long gone.

And yet the number of times I found myself alone or nearly alone in a movie house in the 70s or 80s would surprise even the most cynical culture critic. Mixed up with my memories of a particular film by Tavernier or Troell that I saw at some long-defunct art house was the dearth of fellow celebrants at the altar of film art. Having my pick of seats wasn't always a happy affair, especially when the lights went down and looking around revealed an empty theater. So what if another customer, two rows back, laughed ridiculously at even the unfunny lines or had a chronic cough? At least his or her presence made the experience a shared one.

In 2001, seated at the screening of a new Czech film (Divided We Fall) with a friend in a twin theater on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines (the pretentiousness of college students can always be relied on, thank god), between reels the projectionist got the Czech film mixed up with a Chinese film showing next door. And so my friend and I were transported momentarily from a grim wartime Prague to a resplendent Chinese countryside. With no one in the theater but us, it took the projectionist several minutes to notice his mistake and stopped the Chinese reel. I was in no hurry to alert anyone, since, by the time the Czech film was restarted, I'd realized that I should've been watching the Chinese film instead.(1)

I never thanked the the proprietors of those theaters for having the guts to schedule and screen (and advertise) films that were sometimes guaranteed to lose them money. Consider this my very belated thanks.

I remember with pleasure watching The Earrnings of Madame De..., Grand Illusion, and Kagemusha with my older sister, and watching Seven Samurai with my brother, and Seven Beauties with my mom. When a Navy buddy was off the Gulf War in '91, together we watched Dr. Strangelove the night before, and we stood up at the end of the film and sang along "We'll Meet Again." I've been lucky to have found so many people with whom to share such wonderful films. I look forward to doing it again, someday soon.

But I never really regarded filmgoing as a communal or a group activity. Rock or pop concerts and sporting events, in which singing along or cheering for one's team are where the ethics of the crowd come in. Watching a film in a cinema should, ideally, be no different from watching a play in a theater or listening to a symphony in a concert hall. Even if every seat is taken, when the lights go down and the show begins, one should be able to hear a pin drop. Of course, this is dreamland. After reading John Simon complain, in an interview with Bert Cardullo,(2) about the bad behavior of theater-going audiences, filmgoing audiences must be incalculably worse:

"People don't know the difference between an extreme sports event and a piece of theater, which potentially can be a work of art.The difference between an extremely violent wrestling match and a play on Broadway has become eroded. The audiences go in the same spirit to both events."

Home video has made it possible to watch a film in one's home, among family and friends, which are much more agreeable conditions. When I recently contacted someone on Facebook whom I hadn't heard from in twenty-six years, I asked him if he remembered who I was. "Of course I remember you," he said. "You introduced me to Seven Samurai." I felt thankful that he remembered it, as well as somewhat vindicated.

(1) A few months later I purchased the Chinese film (Zhang Yimou's The Road Home) on DVD.
(2) According to an anonymous comment on this blog (which I believe was from Stanley Kauffmann), "Cardullo is not a scholar, but, rather, a charlatan and thief who has ransacked the work of critics he professes to respect and admire.”

Saturday, August 9, 2014

And Then There Was One

"When people tell me that they're the only ones ever to defend me in various discussions, I always say, Look, if I had a dollar for everyone who has said this to me, I would be, perhaps not rich, but certainly comfortably off."
-John Simon, Paris Interview

As film seems to be drifting further off the radar of art, it's becoming harder than to find a reliably intelligent and disciscriminating film critic. I've written before about some of my favorite film critics, like Vernon Young and Stanley Kauffmann. They, along with Dwight Macdonald, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael, were contributors, often very much at odds with one another, to what is now looked on as the Golden - or Heroic (1) - Age of American film criticism in the 1960s. America has always been far luckier with its critics than it has with its films: in the 30s and 40s we had Otis Ferguson and James Agee, brilliant writers as well as astute observers of a film scene that was starved for quality. Robert Warshow contributed a more scholarly approach to film, attributing high seriousness to Hollywood genre products. These critics had the great disadvantage of having the barest minimum of contact with films from abroad. It was only until the 50s that films from Europe and Asia began to be exported routinely in the U.S.,(2) and at the end of the decade and spilling over into the early 60s there was a flood of films from abroad that changed the medium itself and that attracted a much larger audience to films in a foreign language - films by Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, and Bergman.

A few critics responded to the challenge that these extraordinary films and filmmakers presented with some of the finest critical essays available. And though they were writing about films that weren't showing in very many theaters around the country, some of them were writing for higher-circulation periodicals like Esquire and The New Yorker. Even mainstream critics, like Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, were forced to pay attention to films that were clearly beyond their job description. 

I came of age just as this Golden Age was petering out. With a few notable exceptions, it was only thanks to foreign films that I became aware that a film could be a work of art, as deeply moving and edifying as any great novel or symphony. The first book of film criticism by a contemporary critic that I picked up, somewhat fatefully, when I was in my teens was Private Screenings by John Simon.(3) Like the critics mentioned above, Simon paid far more attention to foreign films than to American fare. But, like most of them, he wasn't just a critic of film. He writes about theater and reviews books, and uses his considerable knowledge (he has a Harvard PhD in Comparative Literature) to hold everything he sees, hears or reads up to the highest standards. This has led some less erudite film critics to question his agenda when it comes to film, since he refuses to accept their approach to film as if it were created in a vacuum.

When Andrew Sarris introduced the "auteur theory" to American readers, Simon saw through it right away. It isn't so much a critical approach as it is an evasion of criticism. It's an elaborate system of classification that tries to prove that people like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman (or practically any other prolific film director) were "auteurs" - authors of the films they were contracted by the Hollywood factories to direct. What it doesn't try to do is establish hierarchies among these directors, distinguishing good ones from bad ones. Stephen King and Leo Tolstoy are both authors, but nobody would seriously attempt to equate them. The ultimate response to the auteur theory is, so what if someone can prove that Howard Hawks put his personal stamp on every film he made? It doesn't mean that Only Angels Have Wings or Red River are any more than above-average Hollywood genre films or that Hawks belongs alongside Fellini or Bergman.

He happens to have the most refined - or severe - standards of any other critic. Compared to Simon, Stanley Kauffmann, who always managed to find at least a dozen or so films every year to celebrate, is hopelessly indiscriminate. I followed his film columns through the 1970s, '80s, and into the '90s. When he became the film critic for his friend William F. Buckley's National Review in 1978, I became a subscriber, despite my own left-leaning politics. I even subscribed to New York magazine in the '70s, largely because Simon was its theater critic - despite never finding an opportunity to see any of the productions or performances he wrote about. (New York also employed Tobi Tobias and Peter G. Davis, two more excellent critics who provided me with plenty to think about - and dream about. The New York film critic at the time was the execrable David Denby, who has since moved up to The New Yorker)

Simon has often provoked controversy, both because of the severity of his opinions and the manner with which he expresses them. For instance, he believes that an actor's appearance, his (or, more often, her) physical attributes, are as much targets for a critic as their voices and their talent. This is regarded as grossly unfair by Simon's enemies. He wasn't the originator of the practice. James Agate, the British theater critic, occasionally mentioned an actor's looks. Of an actress who had a particularly large nose he wrote: "Like all good captains, she commands from the bridge." But when Simon feels impelled to inform his readers that the emperor has no clothes on, which is one of the most important duties of every critic, he is indifferent to how much the news might hurt those who might disagree. 

I must admit that he sometimes does go too far. When he wrote in New York that a play (written by a gay man) was "faggot nonsense," and was overheard hoping that gays in the theater "all get AIDS," petitions were submitted to the editors of New York demanding Simon's dismissal. Simon wrote a sort-of apology, but no one believed in his contrition. The dismissal finally took place about thirty years later.

Severe or not, I found myself agreeing with Simon's judgements more often than any other critic's. Even when I disagreed, it wasn't over anything major, and I learned things from him even on those rare occasions. Simon gave up film criticism in 2002. His last essay was a moving tribute to the Heroic Age of which he was a part. He lost his post at New York abruptly in 2005, but has moved on to write about the theater for Bloomberg News. In 2009 he created his own blog, called Uncensored John Simon, in which he writes about everything he pleases. (In his Paris Interview, from the late 1990s, it states: "He has not learned how to use a computer, nor does he want to." Unless he has an amanuensis, Simon figured computers out neatly) He is now 89, the last of that wave of critics that brought the world of film ashore to America.(4) He and his admirers can at the very least take satisfaction from his having the last word.

(1) Michael Powell called it "heroic."
(2) It wasn't until 1954 that AMPAS, that hands out the Oscars, created a category for a Best Film in a Foreign Language.
(3) John Ivan Simon, born in Subotica, Serbia (Yugoslavia) in 1925. Fluent in several languages. When someone complained that he wrote English "as a second language," Simon corrected him. It was his fifth. Something never mentioned in the biographies of him is that he was inducted into the U.S. Air Force in 1944, undergoing basic training in Wichita Falls, Texas.  
(4) Dwight Macdonald died in 1982, Vernon Young in '86, Pauline Kael in 2001, Andrew Sarris in 2012, Stanley Kauffmann died last October. Except for Young, who was 73, they all lived into their eighties or nineties - a break with the tradition of dying before their time begun by Ferguson (dead at 36), Agee (dead at 45), and Warshow (dead at 38). 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Never Such Innocence Again

A hundred years ago. The start of the Great War is overshadowed by its end. In between,
the modern era was born. From the perspective of that era - our era - it's very hard for us to understand the world that saw their young men off to war, nine and a half million of whom didn't come back.

Listen to Rupert Brooke, one of the first of the "War Poets" to die:



Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there's no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

The enthusiasm with which the war was greeted by Brooke's generation is what is most hard for us to understand. They went off to slaughter like it was what they always wanted what they'd been waiting for all their lives. And in battle after battle, they seemed to hurl themselves at death.

In Philip Larkin's poem "MCMXIV," he wonders about the moment, captured in old photographs that seem to come from another world:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day--

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Larkin expressed a kind of regret for the loss of the innocence of the men of 1914, while recognizing that it was precisely such innocence that resulted in such catastrophic carnage.

What a gulf separates Brooke's poem, written ooon after mobilization, from Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," begun in late 1917:


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

What an overwhelming torrent of experience separates these two poems. And yet how many of my friends military veterans would today disagree strongly with Owen's powerful renunciation. Innocence, apparently, isn't quite like a severed limb. It grows back. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Pitched in Judah*

Watching the latest conflict in Israel reminds me that not only have I been watching it play out, if that is the word, for my entire adult life with nary an outcome in sight, but that, because neither side is in the right, no one on the outside really wants either of them to win. An Israeli victory would mean more Islamist terrorism. A Palestinian win, as impossible as it sounds, would mean the end of the only liberal democratic power in the Middle East. Referring to it at the close of a recent discussion on CNN, Bob Baer remarked that "Northern Ireland was so much easier." He was only joking, but he made a good point. What was it exactly about the conflict in Northern Ireland, the so-called "Troubles," that was "easier" than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The Northern Ireland conflict, which is carefully being resolved as I write this, can be traced back centuries, to the time when the English King Henry VIII decided, as Luther's Protestant Reformation was spreading across Europe, to break with the Church of Rome and create a Church of England, with himself as head of the church. As Catholics who refused to convert were being persecuted in England, the Irish, who had always resisted English control, fought against King Henry's efforts to extend the C of E to their shores. Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, waged a brutal war against the Irish, who were getting help from Catholic Spain. Some of the greatest names in English letters, including Walter Raleigh and Thomas Campion, fought with distinction in Ireland. I won't bother with the rest of the story, which extended into the 20th century, when the Irish Republic was founded, with six counties in the northern region of Ulster, having a majority of Protestant Royalists in the population, being retained in the British Commonwealth. The Irish Republican Army - or IRA - then shifted its efforts to drive what they called a "British" occupation out of Ulster.

I went through a "Republican phase" of my own when I was a teenager. I tacked the 1916 Easter Uprising poster, written in Gaelic, on my bedroom door, and I listened to Irish Rebel songs. Paul McCartney's song "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" overtly spelled out the feelings of the Republican movement. Unfortunately, as I was soon to discover, the movement was based on a Great Big Lie. When riots broke out in Northern Ireland in the 1970s that threatened to escalate into armed conflict between Protestant and Catholic, the British Army was brought in to restore order and keep both sides apart. The Catholic minority in Ulster had good reason to be upset. They were mostly poor, were discriminated against by the Protestant majority, and had no representation in the Ulster Parliament. The IRA exploited Catholic grievances and made them believe that the IRA was fighting against the British in their name. They were, in fact, an exceptionally ruthless and exceedingly deluded terrorist organization that would stop at nothing, not even bombing Catholics, to achieve victory.

I think that what Bob Baer meant when he said that Northern Ireland was "easier" than present day Israel was that the IRA were the obvious bad guys, and the British Army the good guys. But that leaves out everyone who got in the way, Catholic and Protestant. The similarities between the Northern Ireland conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are many. Firstly, both conflicts weren't directly over territory, but were about power. Also, one ethnic group was dominant in Northern Ireland, the Royalist Protestants, and they used and protected that power jealously. The two sides in Ulster are Irish. In Israel, both Jews and Palestinians are Semitic. The Palestinians are mentioned numerous times in the Bible, but they were called Philistines then.

One difference between the two conflicts is that a two-state solution is unnecessary in Ulster, because of the existence of the Irish Republic, For Palestinians, their homeland is under their feet - it is Israel. But the biggest difference between Ulster and Israel is, where is the British Army? Israel looks like what Ulster would've looked like if the British Army had never intervened and if the Protestant majority had wielded its power with impunity against the Catholics, with periodic uprisings and violent crackdowns. Without the intervention of the British Army, the conflict in Ulster would probably never have been resolved, the two sides would never have agreed, finally, that coexistence was the only answer to thirty years of strife and centuries of hatred. The people of Northern Ireland - Protestant and Catholic - had, together, rejected violence and chosen peace.

The Israelis and Palestinians decided some time ago that coexistence was simply impossible. But anyone who expects the Israelis, who are in a position of power, to relinquish that power even partially to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, are living in dreamland. The Israelis can end the conflict any time they want. What is needed is a Third Power. Not a "brokered" peace deal by Egypt or Turkey or whomever, but an armed force, probably a U.N. force. But what force, whose job will be to stand between the adversaries, would want to be shot at by both sides? 

Being in the right is often a dubious advantage, as Israel has learned the hard way. Every time they conduct their attacks on Gaza, they lose the argument. It's usually impossible to look at any conflict and conclude that neither side is in the right. One side is usually closer to it than the other. But the only acceptable end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is peaceful coexistence - something the Irish have managed in a conflict of their own that seemed just as intractable a decade or more ago. If the Catholics and Protestants of Ulster can set aside their differences and live together in peace, anybody can. What's lacking in Israel is the will to live in peace.

*Judges 15:9

Friday, August 1, 2014

Runaway Train

It was announced matter-of-factly in the Philippine media last week that, according to the Philippine Census Bureau, the population of the Philippines reached, on Sunday, July 27, one hundred million. I'm unaware of how they came about this statistic. Just last September the population amounted to ninety-eight million. Does that mean it added two million more Filipinos in just ten months? They even identified a woman (chosen entirely at random, of course) in Manila who had given birth to the child that brought this relatively small country, with a total land area,(1) spread among its 7,107 islands, smaller than the U.S. state of New Mexico, to such a significant milestone. News agencies went along with the charade, interviewing and congratulating the bewildered young woman, who was obviously overwhelmed by all the attention usually reserved for women giving birth to quadruplets or quintuplets.

The news should've come as no surprise to the Roman Catholic church, which continues to wield political power here, and which is holding fast to its prohibition of birth control, maintaining that only God decides how many children a woman gives birth to.(2) The international press, however, paid no notice of it, despite their large presence a few weeks ago when the Philippines was host country to the ASEAN summit. Foreign reporters all zeroed in on the same story: how economic growth in the Philippines is one of the highest in Asia and how President Benigno Aquino III is fulfilling his two major campaign promises of ending corruption and poverty in his country.

Not a single reporter noticed the only growth that actually mattered - the population growth, which is now increasing by 2% per year. That means that in just twenty-five years (2039), according to the current rate of growth, the country will reach one hundred and fifty million.(3) While other Asian nations, like Japan and China, are worrying about the aging of their populations because of very low birthrates, thirty-four per cent of the population of the Philippines is under the age of fifteen.

President Aquino, who delivered his annual State of the Nation Address the day after the birth, doesn't seem to understand that the key to ending poverty isn't growing the economy but liberating women from the drudgery of being little more than baby-making machines. A robust program of family planning would create choices for Filipino women - something that this former Spaniosh colony that is still afllicted with a macho culture evidently doesn't want. Filipino women would have the option of having five children instead of ten, or two children, or even none. At last, it would give them the freedom to live their own lives, considering only themselves, pursue higher education, have careers, and make their own money. In every country of the world where women have been given such options, they have invariably chosen to have fewer children. Faced with a birth rate that is approaching zero, the government of Japan has even had to resort to incentives to persuade women to have more children. Despite Feminist propaganda, however, most women in the world simply cannot "have it all" - they must choose between children and family or a life of their own.

But stemming the current explosion of the Philippine population would mean defying the Catholic church, which no politician is prepared to do here, and actually doing the hard work of administering the Reproductive Rights program that was finally passed by the Philippine Senate, after decades of delays. That would mean not only supplying free contraceptives but educating people about the enormous advantages that using them can bring. That would bring about changes that this country's ruling elite simply cannot countenance. The poor will continue to look on the number of their children as an insane indication of bounty, in a country that will not give them anything else.

(1) 300,000 square kilometers, or 115,831 square miles.
(2) Doesn't the church's policy underestimate the power of God? If only He decides when a child is conceived and a man chooses to use a condom, wouldn't He cause the condom to break?
(3) The official forecast, which looks optimistic, predicts 142 million Filipinos by the year 2045.