Thursday, November 15, 2007

Albert Memmi: The Immobile Nomad - A Review

How often do you go see documentaries about living persons, and then sit and listen to an hour of talking heads and come out charged? Noam Chomsky did that for me. Susan Sontag. The Dalai Lama. This time it was Albert Memmi.

Albert Memmi?

French intellectual. Tunisian writer. Jew, all in one.

I knew his name. Had it up there in the brain in a little box with Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire (Fanon’s mentor), people who gave a passionate voice to the experience of colonization. But since I have spent my adult life in a postcolonial age, and came to believe early on that as an American the colonial experience was purely historical and not immediately relevant (except when you read British and French history), there is a huge gap in my knowledge of this body of literature.

Now I want to know this man. I just placed an order with Amazon for Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, for his first novel, Pillar of Salt, and his essay entitled Portrait of a Jew. Let me tell you why I find him so interesting.

I started life with a German-Scottish identity mix, lived out years as a New Englander in California, had an early American-in-Germany consciousness and followed it up with an American-in-Japan consciousness. Only now, in my 60s, am I seeing with my experience in Argentina that I have at long last succeeded in being comfortable as an outsider. I’m just passing through here. I don’t have to become Argentine to enjoy the place.

Most of my life I didn’t know that you didn’t have to blend with your environment. Didn’t have to become what everybody else was. I was taught there was something rude about being different, and even when I couldn’t help it – being gay in a straight world, for example – I chafed at the challenge. Identity dilemmas have been with me since I can remember.

Imagine you are a Tunisian living as a Jew among Muslims. You discover France and find it appealing because it enables you to escape the provincial outpost from which you came. You then discover that Tunisia has a hold over you that won’t let go. You join with your buddies in a protest against empty Jewish ritual and eat ham sandwiches outside the synagogue on shabbas. You then discover how deep your Jewish roots go.

Some people take this kind of thing as nothing more than the lay of the land. Others are torn apart psychologically. And still others, like Memmi, make a lifetime of explaining their way through it and out.

I remember once sitting at a table with a large family of Vietnamese in San José, California. I got into a conversation with a five-year-old about a “choo-choo train.” The adults didn’t understand what the kid was talking about. When I explained, there was an instant spontaneous smile on some twenty faces. They saw in this five-year-old the better future he would bring to them all.

Contrast that with a study done by John Ogbu in the inner city of Chicago. He wanted to learn why poor black kids were doing so poorly in school. As he went into the homes he found example after example of single mothers who would say things like, “I don’t like that white school. My kid thinks his teacher is prettier than I am.” Or “they’re teaching him to be white.”

Two different approaches to crossing cultures, one in which the original culture does not experience the other culture as the oppressor culture, and one in which it does. Americans discovered the limitations of assimilation some years ago when cultural distance became reconceived as political distance, “cultural other” (white) became “oppressor other,” and assimilation became redefined as cultural death.

Italians take two or three generations to become American, (or Canadian or Australian). Dutch or Swedes do it in one. Chinese historically have taken five or six. With Hispanics the situation is complex because of diversity of class and race. Blacks – well blacks have forced those who speak of assimilation to start from scratch.

The American immigrant experience gains perspective when located in a larger context. There are Japanese kids who grow up abroad who sometimes run into cultural nationalists when they get back to Japan who believe their foreign experience has polluted them. Kurds live an experience where state is one thing, but nation is another. Swedes in Finland, Armenians in Turkey, Russians in Latvia – there is no shortage of tales of ethnic struggle on both sides of the power lines.

And then there is always the special case of the Jews.

I am an American leftie. That means when Alistair Pennycook writes of English and the Discourses of Colonialism, I jump on the bandwagon and show my credentials as a liberal by talking the anti-orientalism talk – (orientalism is Edward Saïd’s theory that, in a nutshell, Westerners have created the concept of the “oriental” in order to have an “other” to feel superior to.) I dismiss theories like Robert Kaplan’s, big in the 60s, which suggest “those Chinese (Japanese, whatever)… they don’t think rationally, they plagiarize because they can’t understand (or value) originality, they sit silent in classrooms because they lack the ability to do anything but copy others and are waiting for instruction, etc. etc.) I’m in there with the current wisdom in the field of Applied Linguistics, in other words, that this is all cultural imperalist baggage that has to be tossed out. Politically correct as hell, I am.

The problem with political correctness (or ideological blindness, to give it a name that doesn’t make you sound like a neocon) is the absence of nuance. Polarization in American politics has made it hard as hell for lefties to go along with anything the Republicans come up with, so urgent is the need to disassociate from the Bush war and government by corporate power. If you are white, and you hear Bill Cosby tell blacks their biggest enemy is themselves and their ongoing desire to portray themselves as victims, you sit silent, hoping nobody sees you nod your head in assent.

Imagine what it feels like, then, to sit in a theater and hear a man with sterling leftist credentials tell you that after fifty years it’s time for the colonized to stop blaming the colonizers for the mess they are in. Get your act together, Arabo-Muslims, he says. Get up off your asses.

The documentary was made to stress Memmi’s independence of mind. My lockstep liberalism, my academic training as a sceptical analyst of discourse makes me say, “Whoa! This guy must be a conservative. A sellout.”

When you realize it is a Jew talking the thought crosses your mind that we are possibly working here with a man with survivalist blinders that make him think the only salient consideration is “What is good for the Jews?”

But is this indeed a ‘Jewish’ perspective? This begs the question of who it is making the documentary and why they are insistent that Albert Memmi is a man who has “transcended” religion, ethnicity and ideology.

This is where it gets interesting.

What speaks to me directly and personally is Memmi’s claim that culture is destructive. Or, more accurately (to stick with Memmi’s ideas and not project mine prematurely), that one needs to understand that culture, like religion or ethnic identity, despite its grounding force, can be (often is) dangerous to free thought.

Memmi found a home in France and in the French language. They gave him passage from the local to what he perceives as the universal. He found not only a personal freedom of movement and intellectual challenge in France he could not have found in Tunisia, but an opportunity to be Jewish and Tunisian in a way he could not be in a Jewish ghetto in Tunisia, ironic as that sounds.

I remember a conversation with a Haitian friend some years ago. He was struggling mightily with the sense that he had betrayed his home because he hated the idea of living there after living in Paris. He was a philosopher and Port-au-Prince was a prison. I suggested to him that maybe he could be a better Haitian in Paris than he could be in Haiti and he burst into tears. I had got it right.

I believe that is what Memmi is getting at. I have, remember, only just run across him. There is a place where the universal is possible and the universal, rather than standing in contrast to the particular, can actually enhance the particular. Memmi became a strong exponent of francophonie, the political-cultural union of French-speaking people, as the mechanism for meeting this universal goal of liberation from the constraints of culture. Somewhere in the documentary an Arab (I didn't catch his name) is credited with saying something like, “The French came and took us over. But we won our independence. And we escaped with booty. That booty was the French language.”

In Japan I spent many hours arguing with people (ironically, most of them Japanese teachers of French) who dismissed me as a purveyor of English cultural imperialism. My cynicism told me they were squawking about limited resources. I could never prove their true motivations. For every university position that goes to a teacher of English, one fewer goes to a teacher of French (or some other foreign language). They couldn’t make such a self-interest claim without sounding petty, of course, so they phrased it in terms of “linguistic imperialism.”

In one faculty meeting the head of the German language department suggested we split English into two departments, one to be taught by native speakers of English who would teach “the language and culture of the English-speaking peoples” and one to be taught by Japanese, who could relate to the learning experience of the Japanese student learners of English.

I protested that the field of applied linguistics taught native and non-native speakers of English alike how to teach the English language, and such an arbitrary division served no good purpose. It could only lead to the conclusion the two groups had little to say to each other. “Of course you feel that way,” he said to me, “you are a native speaker!” (Translation: You are a cultural imperialist!)

The discussion had to be halted. It was clear we were talking on one level but understanding each other on another and hostility was not much below the surface. I was faced with somebody who lived by the conviction that English was the language of imperialism. I never got to say how much of my life had been spent with non-native speakers of English who used the language to articulate anti-American thoughts, to express Muslim faith, Chinese philosophy, Greek resentment of Turks and Turkish resentment of Greeks. That English was a liberating force, not an imperial force. Those who confuse language with those who use language make a serious category error, and the destruction to the potential for liberation is a tragic squandering of resources.

Such discussions of language and culture and imperialism should have taken place in my workplace. The lines of power never permitted it, alas, so it only got touched upon in occasional brief moments, and never to my satisfaction. I wish I had been in possession of Memmi’s arguments of francophonie – that he, as a Tunisian, as a Jew, as a colonized man, had the gift of the French language with which to fight prejudice and the French analogue of orientalism and the reduction of third world peoples into row upon row of “others.”

But we are not done with the question of whether Memmi has succeeded in what he set out to do – escape the limitations of culture (religion, ethnicity, ideology). What if, as some (call them vulgar postmodernists) argue, Memmi is the classical product of a French enlightenment tradition and a French education. That is, what if he is simply putting on, in his claim to have found a universal good, the arrogance that comes with all universalist claims. Christians claim their religion is universal – and everybody needs to accept it. Ditto the Muslims. Ditto the Communists.

The French Enlightenment claim to universality, say its postmodernist critics, is just another of these phony tricks by adults playing king-of-the-mountain. My way is the universal way; you guys are stuck in a primitive yesteryear.

To advocates of enlightenment values, of course, this is a mistaken notion, since the difference is not between equal systems but between an attitude of openness to possibility on the one hand and closed systems of blind adherence to arbitrary authority, such as scripture, on the other. An open system is eternally self-correcting. Like the definition of truth in science (the sum total of all knowledge so far), enlightenment truth can be – is – modified constantly. Particularist systems depending on “eternal authority” are like the oak tree. They suggest permanence and strength, but in a tempest they crack faster than the more flexible willow.

I had an argument with a rabbi once who took issue with my claim that his orthodox religion was just another of many absolutist ideologies. What I was failing to understand, he told me, was that Jewish orthodoxy, by its very nature a program of endless reinterpretation, was in fact an open system. Who won that argument is not the point here; my point is that the (vulgar version of ) postmodernist thought suggests we are all limited by our positions, all blind men feeling the elephant and making unfounded claims to universal knowledge.

To make this assumption (and the reason I take issue with it) is to accept that one is doomed to work with blinders. Memmi is a Jew. When he tells Muslims that they need to get their act together, it’s the Jew in him speaking. Nonsense, I say. It’s the universalist in him speaking, the advocate of openness critiquing a false consciousness, a false ideology. Nonsense, say the postmodernists. I am simply taking sides with Memmi because I have bought into the same ideology (what is enlightenment but an ideology, they claim). There is no escape from the vicious circle.

Now what of the claim by so-called liberal progressives that any hesitancy in blaming the traditional power structures of Europe for the misery of the third world (today, as well as fifty years ago) is tantamount to toying with fascism. What of Jews, both in France and in the United States, who have expressed fears of Iran which often come out as a wish the U.S. had taken them out, rather than Saddam Hussein. They – Lieberman is only one of many – are quicker to see the Iraq war as a good idea badly managed. Memmi, despite his embrace of his Tunisian home and his Arabic language home, has not hesitated to criticize the Arab world for religious excess. Is this the Jew Memmi? The French Memmi? Or the independent Memmi? Are there no progressive Tunisian Arabs?

What is implied in Memmi’s philosophy is that the universalism he learned in France has made it easier for us to recognize that there is no reason to take any particular Jewish position too seriously, even if one exists, and even if it stems from a rationally arrived at survivalist mentality. We need to note, of course, that positions are arrived at that suit the majority of survivalist Jews by no small number of non-Jews as well. There are reasons outside of group survival for advocating positions. Memmi’s views do not necessarily need to strike fear among Jews, in other words, when he takes a position above and beyond any allegedly Jewish position.

It is reasonable to question the common practice of slapping a cultural category adjective (like Jewish) onto an ideological position. Memmi’s gift (or so say his fans) is the ability to turn on the categories when perhaps least expected. Memmi’s point is that the categories themselves are woefully inadequate and that they should serve us, and not the other way around.

Still, there is an irony in a Jew taking this allegedly independent position of defense against the charge of Jewish groupthink. I had been moved a few days before (See my November 9 review of Out of Faith on this website) by the story of a Slovakian survivor of Auschwitz who understood that the annhiliation of the Jews that Hitler started was being finished in places like the United States and France, where Jews were marrying out of the “faith” at a rate of 50%. For the first time I understood emotionally what I had only understood intellectually (and rejected totally) before – that Jews must go all out to assure their children marry in if they are to continue as a people.

Then along comes Albert Memmi who celebrates the fact that his children have married out. “These children of mixed identities,” he says, “are the hope of the future.”

Yes, that’s what he would he say as a Franco-Arab-Jew whose encounter with the ‘universalism’ of the first of these three identities has led him to argue embrace of all three should not allow any of the three to prevent independence of mind?

The words civilization and culture have an interesting history. Today they stand side by side, but they used to represent differing world views. Civilization is associated with the French, the statist folk who believe themselves to have inherited the Roman Empire with its universalizing impulses. Culture was the German Romantic analogue, a notion stemming from Herder and others who argued that each Volk has its own genius, and expressed that genius in its distinctive language. Surrender the language (and the cultural space in which it lives) and you surrender the culture with all its attending virtue and contribution to humankind.

The Germans saw the French as arrogant and decadent and themselves as living treasures. (Herder saw other language groups as parallel living treasures; Hitler took the notion into a hierarchy never intended by Herder.) The French, in contrast, saw the Germans as tribal and primitive people held in thrall to premodern religion, and themselves as the avant-garde of universalist philosophy. The words and the people who engendered them have evolved considerably since those days, but the division between the goals of universalists and particularists has not gone away.

Where does Memmi fit in? Is he just another francophonie advocating Frenchman? An advocate of the notion that civilization should be defined in contrast to barbarism, rather than an advocate of the notion that all cultures have their own justification for being and their own inherent values? Or is he truly one of a small number of thinkers who have moved beyond the no-longer productive dichotomy?

And is he right that mixed race, mixed religion, mixed ethnicity children are the hope of the future? I want to think so. What more exciting solution to the problem of endless prejudice and tribalism can there be but for us all to marry each other, love each other and have each other’s children together?

Should the 50% of Jews who marry out be faulted for their disloyalty to culture or praised for their participation in a universalizing civilization? Can one be a Frenchman and a Jew or is the “universalizing” principle and the “survivalist” principle in complete and perfect opposition?

I suppose anyone who knows Memmi well will find my questions foolish and premature. Read him! Then we’ll talk!

Fair enough. I will be reading Portrait of a Jew with great interest. And his novel, Pillar of Salt, on the dilemma of Tunisian identity. And his work on the colonial experience.

Now where do I find the name of the people who organized the Jewish film festival in Buenos Aires? Must tell them how impressed I am to have seen first Out of Faith and then Albert Memmi only a couple days apart.

That’s what I call a thinking person’s film festival!

ALBERT MEMMI, El Nómada Inmóvil

(Albert Memmi, Le Nomade Inmobile)
Francia, 2005
Dirigida por Soraya Elyes Ferchichi
Duración: 45 min.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Out of Faith - a Review

Out of Faith is a documentary, produced by L. Mark DeAngelis and directed by Lisa Leeman ( It is about the lives of Leah and Eliezer Welbel, two Auschwitz/Birkenau survivors who find their way to each other after the war. After a failed attempt to make a life in Israel, where their children are born, Leah and Eliezer end up in Skokie, Illinois. Once in America, they become, to their great sorrow, part of the statistics that reveal 50% of Jewish families have children who marry outside the faith and 30% of the next generation stop defining themselves as Jews. The filmmakers started out telling the story of a concentration camp survivor but soon realized they had to tell the compelling outmarriage story as well. The film has been around for a while and is making the rounds at Jewish film festivals: .

If there is a better subject for a case study of the dilemma of outmarriage, I can’t imagine where you would find it. Eliezer is a man so tortured by his memories that as he ages his nightmares, awake and sleeping, suggest he is approaching insanity. Leah is a woman driven by the conviction she was spared for a purpose. She was in Birkenau when Mengele came to close down the camp in November 1944. For reasons of efficiency, he determined it was best to kill most of the inhabitants. He lined everybody up to decide, quite arbitrarily, who had the strength to be useful, and stopped the woman in front of Leah. While he was engaged with her, Leah sneaked ahead in the line and escaped the examination. She then learned the woman behind her was shot on the spot as well. Even tougher on Leah's memory was the death of a cousin by a beating which took place in front of her eyes. She returns to Birkenau decades later to beg forgiveness.

It's brutal stuff to watch. I’ve seen and heard countless narratives of concentration camp experiences, since 1960 when I first went to live in Munich, but I’ve never been brought so close emotionally to the experience before. I went because of the theme of outmarriage. I’m not sure I would have gone if I had known so much of the film would be on the concentration camp experience and the torment that nags for a lifetime. (How many people run down a list, see “Holocaust movie” and say “Let’s have a pizza and then go to see that?”)

Leah is a classic Jewish mother. Lives, and believes her entire family lives, for her latkes. Hounds her son for not calling her. Grabs her granddaughter and hugs her like a long-lost soul she thought was dead, each time she comes to visit. Fiercely matriarchal.

Survivor guilt, which elsewhere gets bandied about in terms academic and sociological is painstakingly portrayed as a central driving life force. They tried to kill us, Leah says. Did kill us, Leah says. Not me, Leah says. I’m here for a purpose and that purpose is to keep Judaism alive. It's not the religion – I don’t go to synagogue – it's the family, being Jewish is. And in my heart.

Leah illustrates, for those who have not reflected on this before, that the American practice of labelling Judaism a faith is a cognitive error. An error which is not corrected because it is useful to go on speaking of ourselves as having a tradition of "three faiths" (and we are now adding Islam as a fourth). It provides a national justification for extending the space we allow for religious identity to ethnicity (and never mind this is not a perfect match, either -- we need another word, something like "peoplehood"). But while academics and politicians struggle with categories, the efforts for a people to survive are played out in all their apparent contradictions, in the narratives of people like Leah and Eliezer.

One of their sons marries a Christian who converts to Judaism. The boys are raised as Jews. Jewish Family is preserved. But the son of one of these boys has relatives who are catholic and grows up with a tolerance of difference, and an affection for his cousins, that enables him to see catholics as "us" and not "them." This, we suppose, opens the path for him to marry a Christian who, unlike his mother, does not convert. Leah does not recognize the marriage. Cannot. The family agonizes. Understands, sympathizes and agonizes. Then another daughter marries out. She keeps the relationship with the Jewish granddaughter but never speaks to the non-Jewish daughter-in-law.

The story makes plain the reasons for Leah’s obsession. You cannot help, no matter where you position yourself in the spectrum of thought on outmarriage, but see the world through Leah's eyes. The filmmakers' have captured something on screen that would not readily persuade otherwise just in the telling.

At one point in the story, a rabbi comes to counsel Leah. He tells her this story (I have added names to make the telling easier):

Moshe and his wife Sarah are having a marital problem. They seek advice, one at a time, of their rabbi. “I see your point,” says the rabbi to Sarah. “You’re right.” Then he meets with the husband. “I see your point, Moshe” he says, “And you’re right.” David is listening to the rabbi tell the story. “But rabbi,” David says, “They can’t both be right!” “You’re right!” says the rabbi.

Keep an open mind and an open heart, the rabbi tells her. It’s not like back in the old country where you didn’t know non-Jews and if by some awful chance somebody married out, you sat shivah and never spoke of him again. Here, where the attractions of outmarriage are strong, you have to work harder to keep the family together. Keep your arms open. Keep your house open.

It doesn’t work. Leah is a realist. She understands the statistics (whether or not she knows the statistics). The 50/30 numbers mean that, if the pattern continues, there will fewer than a million American Jews by 2075.

The gruesome nature of the concentration camp details – and the even more gruesome look at its aftermath in the souls of its victims decades later is not gratuitous. It forces respect for Leah’s obstinacy. There is considerable discussion of the phenomenon that for many years after the war the topic of the Holocaust was taboo. Leah wore a bandaid over her tattoo. Now she and her husband are committed to a life of telling the story, working against the tide they know will come when there are no longer eye-witnesses to call the lie to the Holocaust deniers. All of this gives weight (and no small amount of pathos) to the otherwise seemingly irrational argument that Jews must subordinate individual desire and happiness for Jewish community survival. It provides the framework to counter the enlightenment value which stresses the rights of all individuals over the tyranny of groupthink. To this individualism, it provides a parallel universe. If Jews choose voluntarily to marry "in," the enlightenment value kicks in and the individual is supported in his or her choices. But, just as it has become fashionable of late to raise the question of the universal value of democracy, here’s another question – to what degree should one support the right of a community to survive at the cost of individual choice? How far can one go with social pressure?

The film will not likely find much of an audience outside of Jewish film festivals. It ought to have one. The battle over the survival of a world community of Jews is a question non-Jews may have a right to ignore – or dismiss as a distraction in the quest for universal human rights. Serious exploration of the possibility of a “parallel universe” should not be. Societies have formed to avoid “language death.” Instinctively we understand the tragedy in the story of Ishii – the “last of his tribe.” We know what it can mean when species die out and we celebrate the fact the whooping crane has returned from the brink at 19 creatures and is now up to 300 and rising. Should we not deal with respect with the alarms being called by the Leahs of the world?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Caucasian Terrorists Step This Way Please

Japan has decided it will henceforth stop all non-Japanese people except for Koreans born in Japan (who are not Japanese citizens by birth, remember) each time they enter the country. And fingerprint them. (See link below.)

It is not news that Japanese bureaucrats frequently act for the sake of appearances, rather than on a carefully reasoned basis. This bit of nonsense is small potatoes in comparison with some of the things governments do to their people. It amounts to inconvenience for travellers, and not much more.

Still, it gets under the skin of longterm residents of Japan, because they are singled out on the basis of their race, rather than because they provide evidence they are a threat to Japanese national security. No doubt the robotic Japanese bureaucracy is trying to impress the Bush Administration by copying their anti-terrorism tactics. Evidently they have not figured out the Bush people have other motives for generating fear; in the U.S., it's not about catching bad guys so much as it is making sure Americans feel the need for aggressive leadership, as opposed to what the wussy democrats have to offer.

Fingerprinting everybody has a purpose for criminal detection. It will not stop a terrorist attack, but it may speed up tracking someone down, if the terrorist is stupid enough not to wear gloves when committing a crime. Seen in that light, keeping millions of travellers getting off ten or twelve hour flights a couple extra hours at the airport, before they board their trains for a three hour ride home, makes sense.

But only if none of these terrorist acts are committed by Japanese. Or South Koreans. Or North Koreans. But by French people. Luxemburgers. Next Finn who comes in with evil intent, man we're on your ass!

Anyway, one lights a candle or one curses the darkness. Here’s my substitute for the day for “Goddam son of a bitchin’ stupid world!”



General Affairs Division, Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice
1-1-1 Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku,
Tokyo, JAPAN

November 3, 2007
Dear Immigration Bureau Officers:

I am writing you to protest the implementation of new airport security laws on November 20, 2007, which will discriminate against residents of Japan while doing nothing to enhance security on any rational basis.

I am a permanent resident of Japan. I travel frequently in and out of the country, and your new airport security laws concern me directly and personally. I think you are making a terrible mistake, and here are my reasons:

1. Permanent and other long-term residents of Japan have been through a careful vetting in the visa application process – far more careful than can be done at even the most thorough of airport checks, and repeat this process at regular intervals. If I am not mistaken, every terrorist incident in Japan since 1945 has been caused by a Japanese citizen, not a foreigner. They are, in other words, as a class of people, safer than the Japanese people as a whole. You are targeting the wrong people. To apply new security measures against all foreigners, regardless of their similarity, in civic terms, to Japanese, shows you to be thinking in racist categories as opposed to effective ones.

2. If, nonetheless, you insist on creating a suspicious class of people on the basis of national origin, one would assume you would target people of North Korean heritage and provenance. Yet you specifically exclude these people. This suggests you are responding to political pressure rather than making a sincere effort to be effective.

3. You are following in the path of the United States in substituting the spread of fear, rather than implementing careful and effective policy, and stretching, possibly even breaking, your own laws to do so. I refer to the 2003 Personal Information Law, in effect since April 1, 2005.

To impose such conspicuously ineffective measures only makes you look like someone who would argue, “To keep the house safe from burglars, we cannot lock all the doors and windows. So let’s do what we can. Let’s lock the ones in the kitchen. And make the maid come in the front door.”

Government measures to enhance security must be effective. Please, I urge you, do more than simply look busy. Keep Japan safe!

Thank you for your attention.

Alan J. McCornick
Professor Emeritus
Keio University

Friday, November 2, 2007

Rendition: A bleedin' heart liberal review

A British court decided today to fine London’s police force over a million dollars for shooting a twenty-seven year old Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, 27 in a subway train, because they had erroneously identified him as a terrorist.

He wasn’t. They killed an innocent man and endangered countless others.

There are what can be called extenuating circumstances. If the police had itchy trigger fingers, it was because, only two weeks earlier, four suicide bombers killed themselves and fifty-two others on the subway. Tension was about as high as it could be.

Interesting to me is the fact that the court called the system the problem, rather than the individual cops. I think they got that right.

Now why can’t the United States get it right? I just saw Hollywood’s latest frontal attack on the Bush Administration – the film Rendition. Came home upset. No surprise there. Are there people who don’t get upset after watching lengthy scenes of torture?

I went to to see the range of takes on the movie, knowing that with something this controversial it would be impossible to untangle the political from the artistic. But I still found myself getting steamed over the number of critical reviews. Turns out lots of people thought it wasn’t hard at all to discuss the artistic and ignore the political. Or did that just mean they couldn’t see their own blinders?

Here’s the story: Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally, who played Ali in Munich) who immigrated at age 14 to the U.S. from Egypt, now lives in Chicago with his wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), young son and mother. He goes to a conference in South Africa, and on his way home is pulled off a plane in Washington and “disappeared.”

His name is removed from the plane’s manifest, and all efforts on the part of his wife to locate him are in vain. He is flown to Morocco, but no charges are ever made and all traces of him are wiped clean. Isabella turns to an old boyfriend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) now working for a Senator (Alan Arkin), who refuses to touch the case. Smith tracks responsibility for the disappearance to Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) but ultimately surrenders to demands by his superiors to drop his efforts to help locate the missing man he knows to be innocent.

The other major character is Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is pressed into service in Morocco as American liaison to the torturers, despite his lack of experience (“This is my first torture,” he explains to Whitman when she presses him for quicker results) when the guy who was supposed to do the job gets killed.

A subplot involving Al-Qaeda operatives serves to provide motivation for the tortures.

I found the performances compelling. In this I am out of step with the majority of rottentomatoes reviewers. I found the story believable, many did not. I experienced the story politically, in other words, and because I felt the rage I knew the film would tap into, I assumed the artistic values were there. Else how would it have this power over me?

Clearly I was out of step with most reviewers. One reviewer, Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun, charged director Gavin Hood with “grab(bing) hold of a super-charged subject and squeez(ing) all the life out of it.” There’s worse, and in some cases, I have to assume their views were not being dictated by their politics. “Allegedly topical” Stephanie Zacharek of calls it. Allegedly? Man, what a cut from a friendly face. “A bust as persuasive drama” says Peter Travers of Rolling Stone.

Pity, methinks. Unlike some of the harshest critics, I found Meryl Streep’s cold-hearted bitch up to her usual standards; not as much fun by any means as The Devil Wears Prada, of course, but nonetheless powerful in her icy resistance to appeals. I disagree totally that there was something wrong with Jake Gyllenhaal playing his emotions entirely in his eyes; and I think anyone who suggests Metwally’s agony was “dull” needs their head examined. Heart too.

But OK, so I can’t build a strong case that this was the best of artistic attempts to handle a hot topic. I have to remain satisfied it was good enough to recommend anyway, even if you share the view that the topic carried the day more than the production as a whole. I hate to take this line, having made the anti-message movie pitch so often. I know there is no way to satisfy a viewer who hates any and all message movies. But yes, Rendition, is more like a Michael Moore documentary than most political movies – Munich, for example, or the George Clooney repertoire – Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, or Michael Clayton.

So I'll cave on the art for now (and possibly come back to defend it another day). On to the politics. Rendition takes up the debate between those who argue the utilitarian ethical stance that the ends justify the means and those who argue that without practicing what we preach, the United States can only continue its nosedive from its once secure self-image as a morally superior Zion on a hill.

Whitman (the Meryl Streep character) is the voice of the neocons. Our methods, she informs, saved 7000 people in London. If we went a bit over the top in a couple cases to save 7000 people, are you going to tell me it wasn’t worth it? (One negative reviewer called all the lines soundbites. Watch this scene and decide for yourself.)

Freeman (Gyllenhaal) makes the case for the other side. Torture not only doesn’t work (never mind that in this case the man being tortured had no information to give); it is counterproductive because for every man tortured, thousands spring up to fight the system that imposes the torture.

What comes through the debate is an image of an America out of touch with its own humanity. A human approach would have involved getting to know the man turned over to the Moroccan torturers. Would have gone into the town and poked around among his family and friends. Would have formed a picture of his character. Instead, we have a bureaucrat making policy decisions on the basis of a theory – lifted out of the every day life of warm-blooded people – that rendition will work more effectively as an information gathering mechanism than a legal method would. And without taking the time to question the possibility that the evidence for his guilt (that phone calls were made from known terrorists to his cell phone) had an explanation other than their assumption of the worst. To say nothing of the possibility this kind of thing is just plain wrong.

As this film shows around the world, America’s friends will only shake their heads. America’s enemies (Latin Americans who laugh out loud when America talks about self-determination, for example) have no illusions. But here, with films like Rendition, the scales are falling from the eyes of America’s friends, including a whole lot of Americans. The film paints a picture of the world’s most powerful government at work. The people who make the world go round are cowardly, self-serving, arrogant and immoral.

Paul Tibbets died today. He was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He got all the way to 92 without ever doubting publicly that we did the right thing in dropping that bomb.

In today’s Buenos Aires daily, Página 12, is a report by one of its journalists, Santiago O’Donnell, of an interview he had a few years ago with Tibbets. According to O’Donnell, Tibbets told him, “I don’t like minorities, because there are more and more of them and they come and take work away from the gentiles. They are people who don’t defend this country in war. We have lost our balance, and today the balance is in favor of the blacks, the Mexicans and the Ethiopes… (Our enemies fear us because…) they envy us… I am afraid they will come if we let down our defences. Khadafi could attack us, even the Swiss could attack us… Everybody wants to attack us because we have more natural resources than any other country besides South Africa, which has uranium…There will never be true peace. Only the peace of fear. For that reason we have to carry a big stick.”


The ravings of a lunatic, right?

Well, no. Except for the ridiculousness (Ethiopes?) and racism of the rant what you have is the mainline view of the neocons running the ship of state – you know, those guys the democrats have not been able to knock of their perch.

What are Americans to do who take exception to torture and fearmongering? Who are pushing for international law. Who have not given up on the idea of a United Nations? Look at the alternatives, for Christ’s sake. We are still in thrawl to the neocons. People who, after all the astonishing failures of policy, speak openly of the possibility of war with Iran.

Where do we go to make the appeal against torture? We did what you’re supposed to; we went to the polls and voted for democrats. So?

So Hollywood gets in the act and makes movies about the way the U.S. has taken to practices we once saw only in Stalin’s gulags and SS interrogation rooms. And movie reviewers call the movie “over the top” and “dull” and “pandering to the left,” as if it is just another movie to review before moving on to the next.

I can take refuge in the thought that perhaps keener critics than I have the movie right. Not the best cinematic take on the issue of torture. Perhaps it is merely a third-rate movie. And shame on me for imagining it was good only because it catered to my leftie slant on the world.

A better one will come out, maybe. With better actors than Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon and Alan Arkin and then we’ll get the message.

That’s it.

Let’s wait for a better treatment of this theme.

Let’s wait. What else is playing?

Pagina 12 article by Santiago O'Donnell:

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Clooney and Ibsen

Michael Clayton, with George Clooney. Great movie. Hollywood at its best. Great acting, great casting, great story. Happy Hollywood ending. Little guy against the system. You can watch it and think Kant and the vicissitudes of the Age of Enlightenment. Or you can watch it and think George Clooney is a cool guy. Something for everybody.

Then there is Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Bizarre play. Very old Europe. Anything but a Hollywood ending. Little guy against the system. You can watch it and ponder Kant and the limitations to the human capacity for morality, but you can never watch it and think the main character is cool. Definitely not for everybody.

Perhaps because I saw the two on consecutive nights, these differences seemed minor to me in light of the similarity. Both are morality plays – one American, set in 2007, one Norwegian, set in the 1860s. Both tell the same story of a man, one a bit of an egotist (Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann) and one (George Clooney’s character, Michael Clayton) a kind of a loser caught up in making ends meet and dealing with a gambling habit. Both ride their destiny when the gods lay a moral choice on them.

Michael Clayton is the greater hero (a comparison such as the one between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) because he has the farthest to climb out of degradation. But both are the moral heros we understand the world cannot do without, if we are not to surrender entirely to despair and cynicism.

Ibsen, I understand, wrote An Enemy of the People in response to the bad reaction from the public he got to Ghosts, the play in which he takes on the subject of syphilis. The public wasn’t ready to have this tabu broken. Ibsen wasn’t ready to have the public turn on him, so he writes a story about a character who loses faith in the democratic masses and takes refuge in the thought that a moral minority of one is the only hope against man’s weakness.

In Michael Clayton we see modern-day America where money is king and it is no secret that anybody who is anybody is both rich and ruthless. There are still lines we won’t cross – murder – but when others cross them, we understand why and stand idly by. This is an America run by and for corporations aided by lawyers and supported by the American taxpayer, an America where the rich not only get away with murder, they get impatient with their lawyers who don’t help them get away with murder fast enough. A completely cynical view of the human race. Only the hero, at the end, and a small bunch of small people come out clean. The parallel with Ibsen’s play is almost perfect.

I have to take note of the vehicles in which these two stories came to me. I watched Michael Clayton in a comfortable theater in Buenos Aires, was annoyed at the habit people have in Buenos Aires of talking through movies in loud voices, played with the Spanish subtitles, and nonetheless remarked when I came out that I found the two hours had flown by. The story is tight, and despite the kind of convolutions you find in a Grisham novel and other tension-filled thrillers involving high technology, the writers have you in the palm of their hand the whole time. It’s the kind of entertainment people go to the movies for.

An Enemy of the People, or Un Enemigo del Pueblo, as I saw it at the Teatro San Martín (Argentina’s National Theater), was anything but easy theater. I had to work for it. I have seen enough Spanish-language theater now to realize if I don’t work at it, too much escapes me. So I got an early English translation and read it before going. Whether I would have found it as rewarding if it had come packaged as a modern-day movie, it is difficult to say. I suspect going in with lowered expectations from the limitations of the script meant I came out ahead in the end. Experiencing this possiblity of live theater added to my pleasure immeasurably.

The story, briefly, is this. Dr. Thomas Stockmann lives in a small town that is investing all its resources in building a spa. Trouble is, there is a tannery leaking pollutants into the water, and visitors to the spa will be at risk of serious illness, possibly death. He gets proof of this from the lab and decides to tell the story to the press. However, Thomas Stockmann’s brother, Peter, the mayor, persuades everyone that if they listen to Thomas, they will all lose their fortune. The mob goes with the mayor, and Thomas is reviled. The play ends with stones coming through his window and Thomas huddled with his family, insisting that he cannot deny the truth. Highpoint of the drama is Thomas’ speech to the mob in which he tells them he has lost faith that people are ever anything but ignorant mobs.

The English play version I got hold of was written in 1906 in a style that was hard to take. A British English upper class mentality takes the story from the comical to the absurd and, as a result, the characters lack any warmth, their actions feel ridiculous, and Thomas Stockmann has almost no appeal. The Spanish stage version was done in modern Buenos Aires vernacular. All of the characters, Thomas especially, come easily to life and in the end the audience was on its feet. It was hard to determine whether they were applauding the actors (most of the cheering went, naturally, to the very sympathetic Thomas Stockmann character), or the morality play speaking to a nation which has known so much political corruption, and seen such evidence of how willing people are to go along with power. One need not doubt why the play was selected in the first place. Nobody in the audience could miss the message.

The gap, in other words, between a script in black and white and a play brought to life on stage, couldn’t have been greater. You understand what Ibsen was after, and you can see both the craft of those who put the play on and the potential that was there (and which I missed in the reading) in the first place.

That I should have seen these two productions so close together was coincidence. Stockmann is an innocent and the enemy is the ignorant mob; Clayton is anything but innocent and the enemy is the greedy manipulative mob, but at heart, both are old fashioned morality plays of Everyman confronted with a moment of truth. Stockmann’s character is an abstracted moral hero; Clayton’s character is vastly more complex. There is much in the comparison that would provide evidence for anyone arguing modern-day cinema is a richer medium than 19th Century drama – but I’ll leave that for others to take on.

After all is said and done, each in its own way makes great theater, because the themes are classic ones. If you are ever faced with the protagonists’ moral dilemmas and you manage to do the right thing, you will know the satisfaction of having lived a great life. You also know, sitting in the cinema and in the theater, that chances are, if this happens to you, you might very well not be up for it.