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.
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