Monday, May 23, 2016

Morley Safer, Remembered...

Permit a few words of tribute to pay my respects to Morley Safer, who died last week aged 84. 

At a time when the public's trust in news organization has reached record lows in Gallup Polls--some six out of ten respondents declaring that they have "not very much" or no confidence in mass media, Morley Safer's life and work is a reminder that once upon a time there were honest reporters who worked in television news, who told it like it is, who covered stories--instead of presenting "narratives."


I never had the pleasure of meeting Safer, but favorably crossed paths with the legendary 60 Minutes anchor in relation to two of his 919 stories.

In 1993, while I was writing about the National Endowment for the Arts, Safer hosted a segment of 60 Minutes titled "But Is It Art?" This brief glance at the art biz was so devastating to the art establishment that both The Washington Post and New York Times reminded readers upon his death that disapproval of Safer's "Emperor has no clothes" report had followed him to his grave. 

Obituary writer Robert D. McFadden took a swipe at the dead in a significantly non-front page Times obituary:

Still, Mr. Safer sometimes raised hackles, as when he questioned the basic premise of abstract art in a 1993 report, calling much of it “worthless junk” destined for “the trash heap of art history” and saying it was overvalued by the “hype” of critics, art dealers and auction houses. The art world recoiled, but Mr. Safer, who described himself as a “Sunday painter,” stood his ground. 

In 2012, he aired another blast at modern art, visiting a Miami Beach show that he called “an upscale flea market” and complaining that “the art trade” was a “booming cutthroat commodities market.” In a commentary, the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called Mr. Safer’s performance “a relatively toothless, if still quite clueless, exercise,” adding: 

“Basically, he and his camera crew spent a few hours last December swanning around Art Basel Miami Beach, the hip art fair, and venturing nowhere else, letting the spectacle of this event, passed through quickly and superficially, stand for the whole art world.”

Likewise, in the Washington Post, Matt Schudel reminded readers that Safer had never been forgiven for his transgression of art world dogma:

Mr. Safer incurred the wrath of the art establishment with his cheeky 1993 segment “Yes . . . But Is It Art?” He quoted the baffling commentary of art “experts” and showed auctions at which prices soared into the millions. He openly questioned whether the creations of such celebrated artists as Jeff Koons, Julian Schabel, Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat were anything more than “worthless junk.”
The art world was incensed and bore a grudge for years. When Mr. Safer later tried to enter New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a “60 Minutes” segment, he was barred at the door.
That Safer was an art lover and amateur painter, his wife and daughter arts administrators, seems not to have helped him in the least. Safer impressively "stood by his story," regardless. It was encouraging to this critic of the art world to have a respected newsman come to the same conclusions, independently, and not back down under pressure.
My second encounter was while writing a section of PBS: Behind the Screen in relation to Safer's experience with Bill Moyers during the Johnson administration. 
I had heard that Safer and Moyers feuded over LBJ's attempts to get him fired by CBS for his reporting on problems with the Vietnam War, while Moyers served as Johnson's press secretary. 
Safer had written critically of Moyers in his own memoir, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam. He blamed Moyers, whom he characterized as "the sometimes overly pious public defender of liberal virtue, the First Amendment and rights of minorities," for Johnson's picking on him:  "Johnson threatened that, unless CBS got rid of me and 'cleaned up its act,' the White House would 'go public' with information about Safer's 'Communist ties.'" Mike Wallace later leaked a memo from Moyers "on steps we can take to improve coverage of the Vietnam War. . . . We will never eliminate altogether the irresponsible and prejudiced coverage of men like Peter Arnett and (Morley) Safer, men who are not American and who do not have the basic American interest at heart."
Safer's revenge was to characterize Moyers as a sleaze bag:
[Moyers'] part in Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover's bugging of Martin Luther King's private life, the leaks to the press and diplomatic corps, the surveillance of civil rights groups at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and his request for damaging information from Hoover on members of the Goldwater campaign suggest he was not only a good soldier but a gleeful retainer feeding the appetites of Lyndon Johnson.
In addition, at a time when a number of working journalists (including Moyers himself) refused to talk to me, Safer gave me a telephone interview which helped me to write my book, although I am sure he disagreed with much that I had to say.
From that time onwards, I especially looked forward to watching Safer on 60 Minutes, with deep respect for his integrity.  Morley Safer was an honorable, decent, and authentic person. In other words, a real mensch.
I miss him already.

Monday, May 09, 2016

America's Post-9/11 Foreign Policy Evolution: Appeasement-Collaboration-Confrontation

It has become a cliche to cite Winston Churchill's famous wisecrack about Americans, yet one is hard put to find a better explanation of the evolution of US foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11 than this one-liner often attributed to him: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing--after exhausting all the alternatives."

This election seems to be proving that statement prophetic, specifically in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The rise of Donald Trump as well as Bernie Sanders shows that America's response is evolving in a new direction. Basically, each administration has tried a different approach to the problem of Islamic Fundamentalism.

As prior strategy has failed,  America has embraced an alternative, in a series of stages: 1. Appeasement under George Bush; 2. Collaboration under Barack Obama; 3. Confrontation under either Donald Trump, via restriction on Muslim immigration, or Bernie Sanders, with the election of an openly Jewish President (perhaps even more objectionable to Islamic fundamentalists).


For whatever reason, while he did topple the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring Bin Laden (temporarily, without eliminating them, and while permitting Pakistan to keep Bin Laden as prisoner) President George W. Bush also responded to 9/11 by  appeasing the Saudis, whose citizens had attacked the World Trade Center with demonstrable help of their diplomatic removing their greatest foe, Saddam Hussein, covering up evidence of Saudi participation, whisking members of the Bin Laden family out of the United States (who might have been held as hostages in exchange), preventing families from seeking financial compensation, and instituting Islamic law in US-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as establishing Islamic-friendly policies in US government agencies which led to the elimination of official "Merry Christmas!" greetings and the promotion of US Army Major Nidal Hasan. As a result the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in the United States is a Bush Administration legacy.

Perhaps the President's thinking had been this could buy time for fracking to kick in and free America from Saudi influence, much as Stalinists subsequently justified the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (or as some apologists may have done for the Munich Pact) as a way to buy time to build up armed forces before World War II.

Or, perhaps Bush wanted to demonstrate to "the Arab Street" that America was not anti-Islamic. Bush openly prioritized winning "Hearts and Minds," although this very strategy failed dramatically in Vietnam, rather than unconditional surrender (Saddam Hussein was caught, and executed, but he never actually surrendered or pledged loyalty to the occupation government).

Promoting democracy is usually an easy sell to the American public, and since the Arab masses wanted an Islamic state, the move could  have been undertaken as straddle to the obvious conflict between the principles of the Islamic world and those the West. By rejecting a clear provocation to engage in a "Clash of Civilizations," perhaps the Bush administration thought it had "ducked a bullet" in the way Bush himself ducked the shoe thrown at him by an Arab protester during a press conference.  Nevertheless, despite eight years of war and trillions of dollars in expenditures, Bush administration policies clearly failed to defeat Al Quaeda, and the "Global War on Terrorism" ended with a victory for well as the election of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States.


However friendly President Bush's policies were to Islamic fundamentalism--including the institution of Islamic Law in American-designed constitutions for Afghanistan and Iraq, and support of Muslim Brotherhood allied organizations around the world as part of "democracy-building," the Bush Administration shrank from overthrowing long-time American allies for the sake of the Muslim Brotherhood. President Obama's "Cairo Speech" of June 4, 2009 signaled a new direction--collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood and the embrace Islamic Fundamentalism so long as it remained "non-violent." The speech was titled "A New Beginning," and it marked the beginning of American-supported overthrow of secularist governments by Islamists that culminated in the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. America had moved from appeasing Islamists, to collaborating in their seizure of power. In his second term, Obama reached out to Shia as well as Sunni fundamentalists, by giving them de facto (although not de jure) permission to develop an atomic weapon.

Perhaps the Obama administration felt that Bush simply had not gone far enough, that lingering resentment of the United States and the West in the Islamic world was caused by the "disproportionate" power imbalances, and that "leveling the playing field" between Islam and the West would result in friendlier relations--and an end to Terror. After all, if the Islamic world could see that not only was America not anti-Islamic, but rather pro-Islamic, there would be no reason for terror attacks. Maybe this is one reason for increasing Muslim immigration to Europe and the United States, despite obvious risks. Unfortunately, despite active American support for Muslim Brotherhood groups around the world, terror attacks continued against the West--in Boston, in San Bernadino, in Paris, and in Brussels.

Whatever benefits collaboration with Islamic Fundamentalism may have seemed to offer the Obama Administration, as a strategy it was no more successful (arguably even less so) than the Bush administration's appeasement of Islamists.  Unfortunately for her campaign, Hillary Clinton cannot credibly distance herself from an administration in which she served as Secretary of State.


Many have noted similarities between the appeal of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Despite ideological differences--Sanders is a socialist, Trump a capitalist--both candidates appeal to outsiders and deliver passionately "anti-Establishment" and nationalistic stump speeches. And, when it comes to Islamic Fundamentalism, both candidates offer a stark contrast to either the Bush or Obama administration foreign policy.

Obviously, both candidates are native New Yorkers. Both have New York accents, both have New York mannerisms, and both publicly express anger in ways common to their birthplace (Russell Shorto has made a persuasive case that New York culture is a legacy of Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam).

Although Sanders is a Vermont resident, parts of that state nowadays seem to resemble the North Bronx of the pre-Robert Moses era, with headquarters for successful companies such as Ben and Jerry's or Green Mountain Coffee, not to mention numerous second homes and hobby farms of affluent New Yorkers, instead of flinty farmers tilling rocky soil.

Sanders has stated that he would "move away from a policy of regime change." That means, by implication, an end to US support for the Muslim Brotherhood. While Sanders does not emphasize his Jewish roots, he does not deny them. Given that Osama Bin Laden targeted New York in part because of its large Jewish population, election of a Jewish President of the United States from New York City would inevitably send a message of defiance to the Islamic world, independent of any particular policy choices made by the candidate.
It goes without saying that Donald Trump's foreign policy views are better known than Sanders'. The outspoken New Yorker has called for a temporary moratorium on Muslim immigration to the United States; he has stated "frankly, we are having problems with Muslims," and he has declared that George Bush failed to keep America safe.

To a successful construction magnate who probably suffers from an "edifice complex," destruction of the World Trade Center in front of his own eyes must have left an indelible mark. There can be no doubt that one of his motivations is to avenge the attacks of 9/11. There can be no question that he would confront ISIS, just as he has promised--it's clearly personal.

There are precedents for dramatic policy swings: The United States dramatically changed policy from collaboration with slavery under President Buchanan in 1860 to confrontation under President Lincoln in 1861--going from fighting, trying, and executing John Brown for attempting to free slaves at Harper's Ferry to invading the South with the Union Army singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the tune of "John Brown's Body" in order to end slavery in the United States of America.

On a smaller scale, President Reagan's election ended the "malaise" of the Carter years, vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.

Likewise, election of either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump promises to bring dramatic change of direction to American foreign and domestic policy.

Thus, 2016 has already proven to be a watershed election year.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Isadora Duncan Goes To Washington

Idealism met reality in Washington on April 16th, when Harvard University's Center for Hellenic Studies hosted "Maenads and Muses: A Celebration of the Dances of Isadora Duncan and the Greek Ideal." It was a historic clash of civilizations--the beauty, transcendence and inspiration of imaginary Athenian festivals amidst the horse-trading, log-rolling, and lobbying activity in Our Nation's Capital in the midst of an election cycle. Director Gregory Nagy deserves kudos for organizing such a memorable "outreach" performance.

Costumed in flowing gowns inspired by Greek vases, sculptures, and bas reliefs, the Duncan Dance Project company brought to life the beauty, grace and transcendence pioneered by the heroic dancer from San Francisco; one who tragically ended her life as a Soviet citizen living in exile in Paris in a freak  automobile accident due to the type of flowing scarf used in her idiosyncratic recreations of archaic dance (a scarf given to her by movie director Preston Sturges' mother). 

The Center's terpsichorean celebration lasted all afternoon and on into the evening hours, and as befits a research institution, the program featured an academic panel, reception, and "talkback."  Thus the spectacle of dance performed in nature combined with scholarly and academic discussions of the influence of Greek ideals on aesthetics and philosophy. 

Although the festivities lasted until 9 pm; I attended only the first act in the day's offerings, from 3-5 pm: "Dances of Nature, Love and Friendship by Isadora Duncan," an afternoon gambol in which the Duncan Dance Project and local guest dancers skipped, leapt, and frolicked amidst grasses, trees, and shrubbery to recorded music by Chopin, Schubert and others in a delightful reincarnation of the art spirit. 

Seeing the dances much as Duncan must have performed them sparked interest in her legacy, leading to compulsive web-surfing of Isadora sites on YouTube and Google, screening Karel Reisz's 1968 "Isadora" starring the radical (and sometimes naked) starlet  Vanessa Redgrave, with Jason Robards and James Fox (screenplay by redoubtable BBC radio host Melvyn Bragg); then pursuing the "Delsart v Stanislavsky" debate over theatrical styles, a cursory study of which made it clear Isadora's poses owed more than a little to gestures used in silent film melodramas.

Of course, Washington being Washington, one could not escape political implications of a salute to Greek civilization by a daughter of the American frontier. Isadora was a Communist who became a Soviet citizen, marrying Sergei Yesenin in 1921 (they separated in 1923), because she held it represented the future. Her progressive bona-fides are beyond question--she believed in revolution, free love, and practised polyamory with women as well as men. Yet underlying her progressive vision was a today unfashionable commitment to Greek ideals of beauty and democracy, as well as an American "do-it-yourself" approach to natural dance that owed much to New England Transcendentalism, as is apparent in her choreography. Isadora was not a classically trained dancer, and her "barefoot" style rejected the restraints of toe-shoes or dancing on point familiar in classical ballet. Her nature-worship, combined with her liberation from restraints, may have been Dionysian...but in another way she was an American original, whose improvisatory approach and lack of technical expertise contributed further to her charms as a performer--Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley come to mind as similar phenomena closer to our day.

In this individualism, this exceptional quality, she was not only a romantic, she embodied the almost libertarian sense of self championed by writers such as Ayn Rand, who as an anti-Communist likewise developed a cult of artistic personality reminiscent of Isadora Duncan's circle of admirers and "Isadorables." There is a clear commitment to personal liberation, to an aesthetic of freedom, in both women's work. Perhaps the Athenian ideal, the Greek Hero, may equally lead to Libertarianism as Socialist Revolution...if not to Objectivism.

Naturally (if not conventionally), the legacy of Ancient Athens in America dates from the founding of the Republic, on Greek and Roman models, by founders steeped in Enlightenment ideals, who themselves attempted to perfect Classical models. The toga worn by Isadora is not so different from the toga worn by George Washington in his statue by Horatio Greenough, now on display at the Smithsonian Museum. And the Greek columns of Isadora's sets are of a piece with the columns, statues and bas reliefs found on the Capitol, White House, Memorials, Museums and government offices of Washington today. 

This perhaps is the greatest gift Isadora Duncan and the Center for Hellenic Studies had to offer a contemporary audience: a reminder that American institutions are the fruit of Classical Civilization; that ideals such as democracy, republicanism, liberty and freedom spring from a shared heritage of what  Edith Hamilton called "The Greek Way."

In reminding us of our inherited Western Civilization, Isadora Duncan stands in memory as an almost-Greek tragic heroine, who sacrificed herself for Art. And, in the tradition of New York Harbor's Statue of Liberty--likewise clad in neo-classical robes, likewise linked to France, an inspiration to the nation. In fact, Duncan paid homage to the French civilizational ideal in her dance to the "Marseillaise," which she composed and performed during the First World War. As she wrote in her autobiography, My Life:

Coming from bleeding heroic France, I was indignant at the apparent indifference of America to the war, and one night, after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, I folded my red shawl around me and improvised the "Marseillaise." It was a call to the boys of America to rise and protect the highest civilization of our epoch--that culture which has come to the world through France. The next morning the newspapers were enthusiastic. One of them said:

"Miss Isadora Duncan earned a remarkable ovation at the close of her program with an impassioned rendition of the "marseillaise," when the audience stood and cheered her for several minutes...Her exalted poses were imitative of the classic figures on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Her shoulders were bare, and also one side, to the waist-line, in one post, as she thrilled the spectators with the representation of the beautiful figures (of Rude) on the famous arch. The audience burst into cheers and braves as the living representation of noble art."

Professor Nagy and the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies deserve our gratitude for a heroic effort to promote the values of Western Civilization in our National Capital, in the presentation of "Maenads and Muses: A Celebration of the Dances of Isadora Duncan and the Greek Ideal." 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Russian Lessons for the Next President

"Russia Policy for the Next Administration" panel at CGI
(l-r) Michael Purcell, Andrew Kuchins, Thomas Graham, Nikolai Zlobin

Washington, DC is getting ready for the election of a new President, and so think-tanks are jockeying for position to influence the incoming administration, whether Democrat or Republican. 

In that context, yesterday's Center on Global Interests panel at the City Club of Washington headlined "Russia Policy for the Next Administration" was indeed "of interest." 

An all-star troika of Russia-watchers opined on the past, present, and future of relations between the two nuclear superpowers, and it was a sobering discussion. Basically, the panel argued that American policy towards Russia--whether in the Ukraine, Syria, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, or in relation to China--has failed. Relations are worse than at any time since the end of the Cold War. While Russia was helpful in negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons, and Syria on chemical weapons, it has otherwise gone from strategic partner to strategic adversary, complicating American relations with the rest of the world. American "meddling" in Russian internal politics has turned the average Russian citizen, as well as the Russian government, anti-American. Russia is getting stronger, not weaker; sanctions are not stopping military re-armament; and Putin remains both popular and potent, despite American opposition. The next President, therefore, will need to re-think Russia policy in order to avoid establishment of a New World Order in which resurgent Russia and booming China are able to outperform the military and economic power of the United States. NATO expansion, which had been intended to reassure, pacify and economically strengthen Europe, has instead resulted in fear, war, and economic uncertainty. 

The experts who shared these gloomy conclusions spoke from personal experience in the corridors of power.  Harvard Ph.D. Thomas Graham was the National Security Council Russian guru from 2002-2007, and currently works for Kissinger Associates. His outlook was bleak, and offered little cause for optimism to listeners in the room. Russia may be only a regional power, but the regions involved are those which affect American national interests...and our attempted strategic partnership with Russia had failed.

Likewise, Johns Hopkins Ph.D. Andrew Kuchins, who ran the Carnegie Center in Moscow, had little sunshine to offer, other than suggestions that the US President stop insulting Vladimir Putin, and reduce attempts at interference in Russian domestic politics. Russia is no longer weak, is not badly run, and needs to be dealt with on its own terms, rather than on terms of American wishful-thinking, Kuchins seemed to say. Negotiations would have to be conducted on a basis of mutual respect, rather than domination. Russia was just not going to accept American hegemony over the former Soviet space.

The most interesting moments came during the Question and Answer session, when the audience of Washington insiders peppered the experts with tough problems. One retired intelligence analyst shouted that Russia would become a Sunni nation by 2050, that he had seen the demographic projections--both classified and unclassified. Russians were not having children, while Muslims were having large families. Therefore, Islam was the future of Russia, he maintained.

Both Graham and Kuchins seemed skeptical of these claims. Yet to me, this outburst helped to explain what otherwise has seemed a perplexing American policy toward Russia--one which appears to support Chechen terrorists, as well as other Muslim-Brotherhood affiliated groups in the former USSR. Some influential American experts obviously believe that "demography is destiny," and since Muslims have higher birthrates, pursuing a form of identity politics similar to American "diversity" program would lead to an increase in American influence. Thus, American indulgence towards those whom the Russians see as  bloodthirsty terrorists resulted in horrible public blowback when the US-supported Tsarnaev Brothers, a family brought to the United States by the CIA, blew up the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. 

Moderator Nikolai Zlobin, himself a historian, responded quickly to the analyst, that the former Soviet Union had a larger Muslim population than post-Soviet Russia. That fact, which some in the audience did not seem to understand, spoke volumes. Russia has been dealing with Islam for hundreds of years, it is nothing new, it is an essential element of Russian history. Islam is one of the four official national religions recognized by the Russian state (the others are Judaism, Buddhism, and Russian Orthodoxy). The attempt to use Islam against Russia had been tried by the Ottoman Empire, the Germans in World War I and World War II, and the United States in the Cold War. It has failed every time, because, in the words of the famous cliche, when you scratch a Russian, you find a Tatar. Russian ideology--whether today's nationalism or yesterday's Soviet approach--was historically concerned with what Stalin called "the nationalities issue." Russification of Sunni Muslims in the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, or "near abroad" has been a consistent pattern. The Hammer and Sickle resembled an Islamic Crescent and Orthodox Cross. That American experts continue to believe in the "weaponization" of Islam against Russia--at a time when the United States and Western Europe are subjected to increasingly violent attacks in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2015, struck this listener as dangerous and suicidal.

Demography is not destiny; and the trajectory of history is unknown. It may very well be that the intelligence expert is on the wrong side of history; that his demographic data will not track with ideological or national self-identification; and that Vladimir Putin has a better sense of Russia's national interest than the Islamist apologists in America's Intelligence Community--who have lost Russia, may lose Europe, and could possibly lose America if they are permitted to remain in power much longer.

Another questioner, from TANAM, a company affiliated with RUSATOM, pointed out that sanctions on Russia were hurting the American nuclear power industry, which depends on cheap, high-quality Russian nuclear fuel to run American reactors and provide cheap electricity. Panelists offered him little hope of a speedy resolution. But the point was clear: American sanctions on Russia are hurting Americans, too.

After listening to the panel presentation and audience discussion, it became clear that a Hillary Clinton Presidency could only offer more failed policies, such as the so-called "Reset," that led to the current stalemate with Russia. 

On the other hand, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would seem to have a good chance at developing truly new approaches to Russia. Trump, as the author of "The Art of the Deal," would be in a good position to negotiate a "new Yalta" that many Russians had asked for, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sanders, as a socialist who spent his honeymoon in Russia and youth on a communist Kibbutz in Israel, would understand the deep-seated motivations and history affecting the former Soviet space, and deal with Russians as equal partners--which is all they are asking, if the panelists are to believed.

The take-away: Big changes could be in store for Russian-American relations if Bernie or Donald are elected in November.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A Canadian Clash of Civilizations

L-R: Louise Arbour, Simon Schama, Nigel Farage, Mark Steyn
April Fools Day 2016  was an appropriate date for the Munk Debate over: "Be it resolved, give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." The timing was perfect, a week following co-ordinated Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attacks on Brussels' airport and metro system which killed 32 and wounded 300, for which Syrian-based ISIS claimed credit. In the event, the topic turned out not to be a "Global Refugee Crisis," rather continued admission of so-called Syrian refugees to Western nations. The relevance made for a mesmerizing debate, perhaps because the debaters have been personally involved in these sorts of issues for years. Two of the debaters were Canadian, two were British--one of each spoke on either side.

Yet despite apparent similarities among the debaters's demographics, there was at least one stark distinction between the two teams that highlighted underlying premises of two different civilizations. The Pro team came from the ranks of progressive trans-national globalists who believed in EU and UN hegemony over nation-states. The Con side were nationalists who support Brexit and the sovereignty of nations. Thus, the Munk debate over refugees may be seen as part of a larger conflict between Globalists and Nationalists-- a true Clash of Civilizations.

Canada could not have been a more appropriate location, since that nation has been home to its own Clash of Civilizations since hastily cobbled together in 1867 by the British to forestall an American invasion. In turn, Canada has struggled against Quebec secession ever since--a civilizational clash between French-speaking Catholics in one province versus English-speaking Protestants in 11 others that has resulted in a crazy-quilt political system that nearly collapsed in an orgy of violence, murder and terrorism in the October Crisis 1970, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current Prime Minister) imposed martial law under the War Measures Act to crush the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ). Thus Canada's own recent battles in its Clash of Civilizations resonated strongly with contemporary terror in Paris and Brussels.

Arguing the Pro side were Louise Arbour, C.C., G.O.Q., a French-Canadian former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and President of International Crisis Group, renowned for her prosecution of sexual assault as a crime against humanity. Simon Schama, C.B.E. is currently University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, previously taught at Oxford and Cambridge, works as a BBC broadcaster and is author of notable books including The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, A History of Britain, The Power of Art, and The Story of the Jews

On the Con side were Nigel Farage, founder of UKIP and Member of the European Parliament and Mark Steyn, English-Canadian and part-Belgian Flemish author of America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It and Climate Change: The Facts, defendant in a 2007 Canadian Islamic Congress complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission against his article "The Future Belongs to Islam" in Maclean's Magazine, as well as an current defendant in the Mann v. Steyn defamation lawsuit for his allegations of "Hockey Stick" climate-change data fraud. 

The Francophone-Canadian argued the Globalist position in favor of Syrian refugees; the Anglophone-Canadian took a Nationalist stand against it. In the end, Steyn crushed Arbour just as Trudeau crushed the FLQ, with overwhelming moral and intellectual force, as you can see in this clip:

Although other commentators have credited Steyn and Farage's citation of European rape statistics as determinative--especially in the face of a feminist prosecutor who sent people to jail for rape as a war crime--in my opinion the decisive argument in Toronto was Mark Steyn's appeal to the Canadian experience with Quebec separatism, a Clash of Civilizations the existence of which (unlike Islamic Fundamentalism) no one in Canada denies. By extending the analogy to Northern Ireland, and to European fragmentation overall, Steyn exposed the root causes of irreconcilable cultural religious conflict that underlie the refugee debate, in a way that any Canadian could instantly comprehend. Canadians clearly do not want, "One, two, three, many Quebecs," as Ho Chi Minh used to say about the Vietnam War. One such conflict is quite enough for Canada, thank you very much. Steyn did not think it a good idea to import any more. And the audience in Toronto clearly agreed with him.

Which you can see from the polling results, in which Steyn and Farage won over 22 percent of the studio audience by their presentation (or uncharitably, where Arbour and Schama lost 22 percent of their supporters by theirs):

Debate Results


77% PRO23% CON


55% PRO45% CON
Con wins with 22% vote gain.
- See more at:

Friday, March 25, 2016

Shakespeare's Hit Parade

The Complaint of a Lover Forsaken of His Love, 1611-1656

A Poore Soule sate sighing, by a Sicamore Tree.
     O Willow, willow, willow:
His hand on his bosome, his head on his knee,
     O Willow, willow, willow,
     O Willow, willow, willow,
Sing O the greene Willow shall be my Garland.

(mp3 recording:

This old English ballad above is perhaps best known to contemporary audiences from its inclusion in Othello, Act 4, Scene 3, as sung by Desdemona:

DESDEMONA [Singing.]
The poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree.
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones;
Lay by these:
[Singing.] Sing willow, willow, willow;
Prithee, hie thee; he'll come anon: --
[Singing.] Sing all a green willow must be my garland.

In her Folger Shakespeare Library 400th Birthday Lecture on March 17th, 2016, "From Script to Stage to Script," Oxford Professor Tiffany Stern, author of Documents of Performance in Early Modern England,  sourced Desdemona's song to the ballad sheets from the wonderful EBBA website hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara; a treasure trove of the type of songs most famously published by Bishop Thomas Percy in 1765 as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.  

Professor Stern did a thorough and scholarly job of tracing origins and uses of these sorts of popular ballads in Shakespeare's plays, and argued that these sorts of songs, both in performance and in print, promoted Shakespeare while Shakespeare’s plays, on stage and in print,  in turn promoted ballads.

In her talk, Professor Stern made it clear that whether the song had been written by Shakespeare, or whether Shakespeare inserted a hit song from a ballad sheet, it was notable that Shakespearean drama had parallels to contemporary product placement and franchising in hits like Star Wars. Songs in Shakespeare's plays were in a sense the "Top 40" of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages; theatrical performances concluded with wild dancing as the cast performed a jigg by the likes of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Samuel Scheidt, and others Europeans. Hence, "the jig is up" for The End. 

As Professor Stern pointed out, ballad-sellers likewise hawked their wares at the theatre door, in markets, and along the highways and byways of rural England, just like local bands performing cover versions of Rock & Roll Hits. 

My guess is that while sometimes Shakespeare paid the ballad-seller for a song, there may also have been time when payola and plugola at work (though Professor Stern did not go into that) as ballad-sellers 'paid to play,'  to plug their songs on the stage of the Globe or Blackfriar's theatre, or into Hamlet or Othello or The Tempest

However, although Professor Stern is active in the British theatre, as well as a consultant to Shakespearean companies, at her Folger talk appeared to miss the ordinary quality of Shakespeare's musical relationship between song and stage, thus underestimated the extent to which songs have been integral to the stage and screen from Shakespeare's time to the present day. 

What Professor Stern described as an apparently unusual phenomenon struck this listener as merely the way playwrights and scriptwriters have been tied to popular music, whether live or on screen, from Aristophanes to Spielberg.

In her concluding remarks, Professor Stern suggested a need to further investigate whether songs began in plays, or plays utilized pre-existing songs, or something else. That may be a suitable academic project for individual cases. But rather than there being an overarching rule governing this pattern in all the theatre, my educated guess would be that in Elizabethan England, as today, inspiration could go either way: Songs could be written for a play, plays could be based upon a song, or a song and play could be composed simultaneously. 

While there are many possible approaches, I doubt there could be a firm rule, because of the nature of show business itself, where as screenwriter William Goldman famously said, "no one knows anything." The only formula is that there is no formula.

For example, the American Society of Composers and Performers (ASCAP) has an interesting website entitle: Music, Money, Success & the Movies, which states:

Whether the score is dramatic, soothing, romantic, comedic or foreboding, it is an integral part of the fabric of any motion picture.

Music in the movies is an essential element of the filmmaking process and is one of the main factors that helps to determine box office success or failure. Think of a motion picture without music - whether it's an orchestral or synthesizer score, a brand new hit song or a long time standard - and you'll begin to realize the value and contribution of music and lyrics to film. And whether you're a producer, a director, an agent, a composer, a songwriter, a studio executive, a music supervisor, a business affairs executive, or anyone involved in film, or who wants to get involved.
What ASCAP says shows that not much has changed. A song could be a "brand new hit song" or "a long time standard" or something composed just for the film--ditto for a play. Understanding the way music is used today goes a long way to explaining what Shakespeare was up to, as a showman, businessman, writer, producer, actor, and impressario. He included songs of his day because of their value and contribution of lyrics and music to the production.
As ASCAP explains:


Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor, establish a mood...
Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor, establish a mood, give an actor a chance to sing, make people laugh, make people cry, elicit emotions, and create interest in the movie through successful soundtrack albums and hit singles. A film producer who wants to use an existing song in a motion picture must secure the permission of the music publisher to use the composition in the film. Once an agreement is reached as to a fee, the producer will sign what is known as a synchronization or broad rights license, which will give the studio the right to distribute the film theatrically, sell it to television, use the song in motion picture theater trailers or television and radio promos, and sell videos. The synchronization fee received by the music publisher is shared by contract with the songwriter.
As Part One of this website concludes, the ballad-sellers of Shakespeare's day had much in common with Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, and ASCAP of today:
Part Two reveals what you need to know about getting your songs into movies and making the right deal. There is nothing worse than to see a film open to rave reviews with a hit soundtrack and an Oscar nomination and know that your song could have been in it... but wasn't...
Likewise, Part Two notes that music composed for a motion picture soundtrack could also be quite lucrative:
The world of the feature film background music composer is not only one of the most creatively stimulating and financially rewarding areas of music, it is also one of the most demanding in terms of musical expertise and training, conducting experience, and discipline in the meeting of rigorous timetables and deadlines...Having a song in a motion picture or composing a score to a film can open up an unlimited number of opportunities and prove to be a lifetime annuity for writers and music publishers.
Bottom Line: Shakespeare's ballad-sellers would probably have been quite familiar with ASCAP's world-view. To understand the relationship between song and stage in Shakespearean  Theatre, it might be a good idea to start with a description of the relationship between composers and producers today, which may not be as different or as hard to understand as one might fear. Shakespeare used music then the way Hollywood uses music now:

For as Lorenzo concludes in The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1):

Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

America's Museum of the Politically Incorrect...

Viktor Pivovarov
(Russian, born 1937)
Plan for the Everyday Objects of a Lonely Man, 1975
Enamel on fiberboard
67¼ x 51¼ in (171 x 130 cm) x 4
Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers
Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union

Across the street from the world headquarters of Johnson and Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey sits the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University, home to the largest and perhaps best collection of "Forbidden Art" in the world, and certainly in the United States: The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, assembled by Norton Townshend Dodge, a millionaire (his father was one of Warren Buffet's original investors) Maryland economics professor who spent the 1950s and 1960s buying art in Russia during economic research trips. 

The collection, originally housed on an 800-acre farm in rural Maryland, is comparable only to that of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Karakalpakstan, known to the French as 'Le Louvre des steppes,' and to Americans as subject of Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev's documentary film: The Desert of Forbidden Art, (as well as a recent controversy involving its director, Maranika Babanazarova, and the government of Uzbekistan).

Thanks to the Dodge Collection, one does not need to caravan  thousands of leagues to the fabled Khorezm Khanate in the oasis between Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum deserts, in order to see Art that Stalin denounced, and that the Communist Party banned. 

One need only drive to New Jersey.

There are some 20,000 works by a thousand artists from the former Soviet Union given by the Dodges to the Zimmerli museum in 1991, forming a collection originally curated by Professor Alla Rosenfeld, author of Moscow Conceptualism in Context and From Gulag to Glasnost: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union.

Dodge's life and work are also subject of a 1994 nonfiction book by novelist John McPhee, The Ransom of Russian Art.   There is even a documentary film about the collection, on YouTube, The Russian Concept: Reflections on Russian Non-Conformist Art.

In 2012, the Zimmerli renovated what was now known as its Dodge Wing, highlighting 126 artworks by Grisha Bruskin, Eric Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, Irina Nakhova, and Oleg Vassiliev, well-known in the New York and International Art World. Others, such as Victor Pivovarov, Boris Shesnikov, and a currently featured artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan may be better understood by Russian (and former Soviet) art mavens who visited the retrospective entitled "Accidental Absurdity" that closed on March 6th.

Sadly, Bakhchanyan committed suicide in 2009.  Although he had been an eminent illustrator in Russia, drawing for the "12 Chairs" section of Literaturnaya Gazeta, as well as making his own avant-garde works "off the books," his American art career never fully flowered, perhaps because anti-Soviet art was as politically incorrect in New York as in Soviet Moscow. There is a moving documentary about him on YouTube, entitled Vagrich and the Black Square, that speaks to his doubly marginalized fate. 

Bakhchanyan's audience in America therefore tended to be among Russian emigres who understood, in the words of Zimmerli associate curator Julia Tulovsky, "Bakhchanyan was an artist who recontextualized the absurdity of everyday life in the USSR to evoke a larger truth about humanity with profound clarity and wit... This is especially true of the slogans he created by subverting official propaganda." 

For example, he turned "We are here to turn life into a fairytale," into, "We are here to turn life into Kafka."  According to Tulovsky, the joke "remains an established colloquialism in former Soviet communities to reference the past (the words fairytale and Kafka sound very similar in Russian). 

The Kafka-esque nature of the Communist system is nowhere more dramatically portrayed than in Boris Sheshnikov's room-size installation, based upon paintings, drawings and prison notebooks depicting his imprisonment in a Siberian prison camp called Vetlosian from 1946-1954. Although he claimed his art to be apolitical, there can be no doubt that the mere documentation of camp life makes Kafka much more striking than just something to be read in a college literature class.

Which brings us to what Tulovsky told me is the masterwork of the collection, Victor Pivovarov's 1974 "Plan for the everyday objects of a lonely man," seen at the top of this blog post. In it, the artist, a children's book illustrator by profession, depicts the limits of the world in which he has autonomy--his apartment, desk, chair, apple, glass of tea, window, weather, and the time he has to enjoy them. Little things, but important things, which any individual deeply appreciates as escapes from the Kafka-esque environment which otherwise surrounds him.  

The sad beauty of that universe says all that needs to be said about the power and limits of Political Correctness. In providing a home to The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University has done great service to the arts, to freedom, to the Russian soul, and to America.

It's worth a detour to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to see it.