Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Satire Is A Serious Matter

Mass Humour

Satire Matters:  Prof. Justin E.H. Smith writes that in repressive regimes, as during Stalinist Russia, humour thrives as a necessary counterweight to political absurdity:
“Outside of the meeting halls, of course, humor thrived, as samizdat, as oral culture, as the irrepressible truth beyond the pretense. The transmission of anekdoty—jokes, but literally anecdotes—remained a crucial form of resistance. Not surprisingly, many of these jokes focused on the sort of humor beloved by Jews, typically embodied in the figure of a certain Rabinovich. It is existential humor: tragic and hilarious. One joke in particular tells the whole story of the idiocy of regimes of seriousness, and of the redemptive power of humor as a response. An Odessa census taker knocks at Rabinovich’s door. "Does Rabinovich live here?" he asks. Rabin­ovich replies: "You call this living?" (Razve eto zhizn’?)”
Photo Credit
: Brian Taylor
Source: Chronicle Review

An article, by Justin E.H. Smith, in The Chronicle of Higher Education gives a compelling and reasonable argument on why democracies ought to ensure that satire has a safe position to freely express itself. Satire has a long history in western civilization, notably, to make persons think about the absurdity of life and of how death—the great equalizer—eventually will snatch us all. Satire in the best sense unites persons and points their minds toward such an idea; it frees the individual mind of narrowing partisan thinking.

Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris Diderot, writes the following in “Why Satire Matters”:
This dimension of satire may be hard for some readers to appreciate, in view of the fact that there are rather few outlets for true satire in the United States, and most supposed satire in fact follows the misguided principle that a satirist’s true purpose is to play the underdog or to stick up for the little guy. I say "play" here intentionally. Jon Stewart, for example, is putting on an act, the purpose of which is to whip the audience into a frenzy of proud identification with the smart and quick-witted host. The message of Stewart to his viewers is: Those guys in charge are awful, but you and me, we’re all right.
Perhaps the mainstream outlet closest to the true mission of satire is The Onion, with the slogan Tu stultus es (“You’re an idiot”). The newspaper does not say, as Stewart does, that those guys out there are stupid. It says that you are stupid. Satire tells us we are all yokels, we are all suckers, we are all doomed. We’ve all got arrowheads lodged in our necks, whichever side of history we are on, whether exploiters or exploited. Death is the great equalizer, and one way of thinking about humor is that it is the mode of experience in which this equality, true equality, becomes clear.
This is what makes satire funny; we can all relate, whatever our position in life. The best expression of satire has universal appeal. As does self-deprecating humour, which serves to make the comic the universal man with whom we can all identify. Satire says that life is serious, but it is necessary as a means of survival to not take ourselves too seriously. This is an important distinction to make.

For more, go to [ChronHigherEd]

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Saving Literature

A Novel Approach
The Light of Knowledge: “My luggage consisted of two wooden crates containing my father’s collection of Chinese classics, which I’d rescued after my house was ransacked. I couldn’t read them, though — not because they were forbidden, but because the form of Chinese in which they were written was too antiquated for me to understand.”
Image Credit
: Melinda Josie; NYT; 2015
Source: NYT Magazine

An article, in The New York Times Magazine—a first-person account by Su Wei, a Chinese novelist, and translated by Austin Woerner—recounts the time in China when reading classical literature, in any language, was forbidden. This was a dark period, during the Cultural Revolution, in China’s recent history.

In “Privy to the Plot,” Su Wei, who teaches Chinese language and literature at Yale says:
The first novel I really fell in love with I rescued from being used as toilet paper.

When I was a teenager, growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, our reading list was extremely limited. We weren’t allowed to read anything that was “feudalist,” “capitalist” or “revisionist.” That meant all classical Chinese poetry and fiction; all Western literature; all writing from our treacherous rival, the Soviet Union. Nobody told us specifically what we could read. But the ingenious thing about Chairman Mao’s commandments was that when you subtracted all the books that were objectionable — backward, bourgeois, tainted by religious thought, adulterated by wrongheaded Soviet ideas — that cut out pretty much the entire literary legacy of the human race.

I was 15 and had just started to read in earnest when I arrived on Xipei Rubber Plantation in southern China, on the island of Hainan. Like most well-off city kids, I was coming to the countryside to be “re-educated” through agricultural labor. I came voluntarily; with my entire family either scattered or behind bars for political reasons, there wasn’t much left for me in my hometown, Guangzhou. My luggage consisted of two wooden crates containing my father’s collection of Chinese classics, which I’d rescued after my house was ransacked. I couldn’t read them, though — not because they were forbidden, but because the form of Chinese in which they were written was too antiquated for me to understand.

I was a bookish kid with almost no books to read. When my work squad took breaks from watering rubber saplings, I hid in the shade of the rubber trees, out of the pounding tropical heat, and leafed through my dad’s old books. Shrimpy, bespectacled, the youngest kid in the unit — and worst of all, the child of counterrevolutionaries — I was immediately singled out for punishment by the older city boys, those who would have been in high school if the schools hadn’t been closed down. They pried open my boxes, stole my stuff, put water in my kerosene lamp so the oil would explode when I tried to light it, keeping me from reading at night.
Yet the desire for reading and for knowledge is often greater than the means and mechanisms of state censorship and repression, even if the sanctions are harsh; if there is a will, a way will be found to defeat the will of the censors, and some individuals will read what the authorities deem as “objectionable” no matter the reasons the state authorities give for the ban. The human spirit is marked by a high degree of individual freedom to decide for one’s self what is fit and what is worthy to read. This will always be the case, no matter the times or place. 

For more, go to [NYT Magazine]

Monday, March 2, 2015

Meeting The Prime Minister Of Canada

Personal Moments

Prime Minister Trudeau and Barbra Streisand at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 1970.
Photo Credit: Chuck Mitchell, G&M
Source: Globe & Mail

My friends and I met Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in either 1973 or 1974; I now don’t remember precisely the date or the year, but it had to be during the hockey season, that is, between October and April.

But first some background information is necessary. We were teenage autograph seekers, fanatics I would say in the collection of autographs, notably of athletes and other sportsmen, but also of anyone famous, including movie stars and politicians. We were at he Sheraton Mont-Royal Hotel in downtown Montreal, and we were there then for only one purpose: to meet hockey players from the visiting team who stayed at this hotel, and to get their autographs and briefly chat with them as they milled around the lobby before heading by taxi to the Montreal Forum. (Both the hotel and the sports venue no longer exist.)

Our cohort consisted, at various times, of myself, Jack, Sheldon, Gady, Issie, and Benny. I do not recall who was with me when we met the prime minister of Canada, but we were all pretty excited. With good reason. The head of hotel security, with whom we had an uneasy relationship, since we considered the hotel our playground and we ran around it with impunity, took us aside and shared a secret with us: the prime minister of Canada was finishing a speech he was making at the hotel to some distinguished and important group, and was heading downstairs to the main lobby. We would have the chance to meet the prime minister personally, Canada’s most charismatic and intellectual political leader.

And true to his word, in a few minutes, the red carpet was rolled out, and in the middle strolled Prime Minister Trudeau, in between two RCMP officers in their red serge uniforms; the head of hotel security brought us forward to meet the prime minister of Canada. I chatted with him briefly and, of course, asked for his autograph. As did my friends. And then he left. We then returned to our “official” business of collecting autographs from hockey players.

I am still not sure why the head of hotel security had picked us to meet the prime minister of Canada, but it was a memorable moment in the lives of teenage sports fanatics.

In this video clip (CBC Television News; Date: Dec. 21, 1967) of a news conference in Ottawa, then Justice Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau [1919-2000] of the reigning Liberal Party of Canada, announced sweeping changes to Canadian society in an omnibus bill that liberalized many of the normal human desires that we now take for granted including sex, procreation and divorce.

The CBC writes:
"There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." Those unforgettable words made famous by Pierre Trudeau in 1967 caused a tidal wave of controversy that rippled across the entire nation. Trudeau's Omnibus Bill brought issues like abortion, homosexuality and divorce law to the forefront for the first time, changing the political and social landscape in Canada forever.
Conservatives to this day view Prime Minister Trudeau with contempt for these measures and others, such as multiculturalism, patriating the Constitution (1982), bilingualism and other liberal values that made Canada more tolerant and more inclusive. Even so, it was precisely such measures that brought Canada into the modern age and made it a better, more open and more secular democratic society. It has moved Canada closer to the idea of “a just society.”

I have always admired Trudeau for having the courage of his convictions, even though I might not have always agreed with everything he said or did. I certainly admired his powerful intellect (his motto was “reason over passion”), his sense of humour and his sense of style. Another interesting note: I resided in the Mont-Royal riding in which Trudeau was my M.P.; when I turned 18, he always had my vote. Prime Minister Trudeau influenced my thinking (and that of my generation) in a very positive and profound way that no politician other than President John F. Kennedy had (reading his speeches post-facto). I am a better person for it.

Too many of today’s politicians take themselves too seriously, lacking both a true sense of self and a sense of destiny. Of history in the making. In my estimation, Trudeau was the best prime minister of the twentieth century. Academics in history, political science and international relations, in 2011, ranked Trudeau as the fifth-best prime minister in Canadian history. Canada was indeed fortunate to have such a man lead the nation.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Fitting Tribute To Leonard Nimoy [1931-2015]

Science Fiction & Fact

Leonard Nimoy as Spock: Although considered Vulcan, Spock was Vulcan on his father’s side
and Human on his mother’s side. He represented, to a large degree, what is best in all of us.
Photo Credit: AF Archive; Alamy

Source: New Yorker

Although Leonard Nimoy, who died two days ago at age 83, will always be defined by Spock the Vulcan, he was greater than one any one role, Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker writes in “Postscript: Leonard Nimoy”:
Spock always played against type. He was supposed to be cold and logical, but he ended up being funny, angry, passionate, loyal, dangerous—even, from time to time, seductive. The same was true of Nimoy. It was a great pleasure to see an actor you’d loved for so long branch out in such surprising ways, writing poetry, recording (terrible) albums, publishing (beautiful) photographs, directing “Three Men and a Baby.” He was always recognizable, with his rich voice, craggy face, and gentle manner, even as he explored new enthusiasms. Some people seem to transform through life, throwing off older, outdated versions of themselves. Nimoy set a different example: he grew, in a slow, natural, and unpretentious way, more capacious.
We have comedy; we have satire, but we do not have much irony in evidence today. Irony takes confidence in one's abilities without taking one's self overly serious. It takes acting without fear and without the extreme bravado displayed by many today who are likely full of fears, hence the anger and the mock outrage in “The Age of Fear.” 

Most of all, it takes a belief in humanity and a hope for humanity that defined Star Trek and many of the actors who were a part of this franchise. As Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, said in 1986: “Perhaps one of the primary features of Star Trek that made it different from other shows was, it believed that humans are improving — they will vastly improve in the 23rd century.” (Entertainment Tonight, 20th Anniversary)

If we mourn the loss of Leonard Nimoy—as many have done and continue to do— we mourn not only the loss of a man who taught us something, but also the loss of something that he was part of, which does not seem evident today. I was a fan of the Star Trek franchise, and I wrote about its importance and its lasting positive influence on society in a 2011 post, which you can read here (“Star Trek: The Prime Directive”; January 7, 2011).

Thank you Leonard Nimoy for giving me (us) this hope through your fine acting and your understanding of human nature. For those interested, here is an interview, part of the Wexler Oral History Project (of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA), with Leonard Nimoy where he explains Judaism’s influence on the Vulcan greeting and “Live Long and Prosper.”

Born: March 26, 1931, West End, Boston, Massachusetts
February 27, 2015, Bel-Air, Los Angeles, California

For more, go to [New Yorker]