BHL  Who Are You?: “You Tell Me” mais oui

Bernard Henri Lévy  For years a rock star in France, whose intellectuals may secretly lssveysay that he is really not French nor does he understand France, he is the brightest voice in describing what the country is and where it should go. He was born in Algeria and is nominally Jewish, and these are critical in understanding who he is. He is either a Dybbuk or a National Sage, but he does not float by and drop pedals. His confrontations seem more like a hand around one’s throat. He opens the door, makes direct eye contact, and makes you, or the nation, think…and react. What’s not to like.

The real purpose of this blog is at the very bottom, based on his most recent posting in the NYTimes concerning his thoughts on what it is to be human. But, there is much to him besides that is intriguing, maddening and provoking. This is his value, in my opinion.

For the past twenty years of so, I have been intrigued by the writer/philosopher/filmmaker/Dybbuk. I first heard him in the good ol’ days when Charlie Rose was someone whom we all looked up to. That interview was about his just completed film on Bosnia and what happened and needed to happen there. His causes range from this area, to the Magreb, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, to perhaps being the one most responsible for changes in Libya, to his beloved Kurds, to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and any other area of difficulty that needs a wise viewpoint for understanding. Note the many times he spoke to Rose. There are 62 search results.



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His is a prolific and widely read author, working and reading in many languages. His most recent book (he has written nearly thirty) is The Genius of Judaism, which I’ve linked here to a review by the Jewish Review of Books. It is also reviewed in the NYTimes and its title is a deliberate conceit bouncing off the title of Chateaubriand’s “The Genius of Christianity.”  The Jewish Review used this to finish up their review,  ‘he recalls the lesson an old, rich, and cultivated Jew of his acquaintance once gave him about how to combat anti-Semitism: “have nicer teeth than they do; get their women to love you . . . Live in castles as big as theirs.” A promise kept.’ 

It is perhaps in this area, as an atheist Jew, that I find him most perplexing. He writes this book to celebrate the Jewish culture, for which I am grateful and in agreement. But, he is a professed Zionist, which gives me pause. His views in support of the present Jewish state are, to me, untenable. I truly feel that the apartheid occurring there is also untenable, though there are scant forces in the world attempting to alter the apartheid state that is there. President Carter was attacked for his comments to that status, and the present president is making matters far worse. The moderates in the Arab world, of which I believe is the majority view, are left outside the conversation of moving towards a peaceful, two-state solution in Israel (I, too, feel there is a significant number os Israeli citizens of Jewish heritage within the country who also support a more reasoned, two-state solution). In this matter, I feel BHL is doing a disservice to history and this solution by confusing Zionism. Zionism is a continuance of the exclusive Jewish needs and obviating the reality of the zero sum solution that has occurred from 1948 onwards, with  only the 1967 lines as a real possibility for the final solution. I do not use the phrase “final solution” lightly here. Everyone should note the profundity of what is happening in Israel. But, back to BHL and his thoughts on humanity….

If you want to know about him as a writer, and a reader, and a lover of literature, you must look at this article from the NYTimes delving into these factors, describing him in these perspectives. You will also get a fabulous reading list from the effort. If you want to know about him and the writing process, then, also from the NYTimes, there is this wonderful article on the process of writing.

Philosopher, publisher, novelist, journalist, filmmaker, defender of causes, libertine, and provocateur, he is somewhere between gadfly and tribal sage, Superman and prophet; we have no equivalent in the United States.” Joan Juliet Buck

He has been vilified by many and today’s #MeToo would have a field day with his take on the opposite sex on many levels. I love the article in the Observer from Jacques Hyzagi from 2015 that describes his new book….”But a better analogy for Mr. Levy’s destiny might very well be François-René de Chateaubriand, the author of the unforgettable Memoirs from Beyond the Grave who had a tumultuous relationship with the diminutive Napoleon and was instrumental in the 1823 French invasion of Spain that led to the restoration of Ferdinand VII. Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity even inspired Mr. Levy to write a fascinating text The Genius of Judaism, treating Judaism not as a religion but as a philosophical system, a guide for living.” Also from Hyzagi’s article, referring to Levy’s third wedding and the difficulty in getting to it, as he was trapped by shelling in the former Yugoslavia as it was breaking up in civil war….”Mr. Lévy was in Sarajevo dodging snipers’ bullets and having tea with Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. When he got stuck in Bosnia under Serbian shells, unable to fly to Saint-Paul-de-Vence to marry Eric Rohmer’s égérie Arielle Dombasle, he had President Mitterand send an air force jet to bring him to Provence on time. “Don’t you think that’s why people hate you?” I asked him. “What was I supposed to do? Not get married?” he answered. “Mitterand owed me, I helped him save face in Bosnia. I did so much for the French government, in the name of the French government, that it was really the least they could do to help me fly there.”

He has spent a great deal of time in the company of the Kurds seeking to help them and find his own soul’s roots. Consider this quote from him,  I will enter Nineveh if and when the Peshmerga does. That is another oath.”

On a visit to Jerusalem on the part of the French government in the early 2000s, while meetng with Netanyahu, Sharon and Peres, he told Sharon, “You might win the battle against terrorism, but unless you open up to the Palestinians very quickly, you’ll lose the fundamental war, which is for the security of Israel and justice.

Again, a quote, “I prefer confrontation to ecumenism!

When questioned by an interviewer as a follow-up question, ‘How does one — or you — “leave the path of arrogant men”?   Lévy, “By moving still further into study. By that I mean the study of Jewish texts and the wisdom they contain. That moment will come. And when it does I will leave the path of arrogant men forever.”

What, though, brings us to this blog is that he recently surfaced within The Stone philosophy columns of the NYTimes where the paper has been exploring the nature of being human. Lévy opened his selection with the title, We Are Not Born Human. It is difficult to avoid such a provocation. Of course, there is much to us as a species: whether nature or nurture is more important, are we separate from all other living beings, are we the unique beings who possess self-reflection and understand the concept of a god, and our questions about how all of THIS was created, or the arrogance of believing that a Supreme Being created this all only for our benefit.

But, Lévy’s statement, “We are not born human.” To explain this, you need to insert his next statement where he claims that we uniquely become human through negation. He is also one that, therefore, claims that nurture and therefore place and time affect one’s humanness. He is from France, or more specifically from parents who left French Algeria because of the war of independence carried out by the Algerians against the French when he was a young man and settled in Paris. He still lives there and also calls Morocco home. Vanity Fair, in deference to such a perspective and philosophical force opened one of its columns about him by claiming “Only France could produce a phenomenon like Bernard-Henri Lévy.”

By negation, the examples Lévy offers are the Atheists denial of God, the Christians’ who accept that there is no purpose without God, and the Jews who appreciate him as a good co-worker. We must be part of society, but must negate its ultimate power over us. He states that we must submit to three births to become part of nature and to be human: the first our birth from our mother (time and science may obviate this), the second the transcendence of our physical beings by escaping the natural, physical world, and the third the joining of society. Man does not live alone, none is an island. Yet, Poe, he points out, describes the dangers of the “we” and the possibilities of distress from a nameless hordes. The trolls of the Internet are today’s demons in society. The self needs to appreciate his aloneness.

For Lévy, the being must engage in life, accept her challenges and seek growth. This is the same as what happens when our brain connects a thought: a dendrite stretches out and completes a link that will allow us to recall and use the link in the future. To quote the article in Lévy’s words, “To be human is to preserve, inside oneself, against all forms of social pressure, a place of intimacy and secrecy into which the greater whole cannot set foot. When this sanctuary collapses, machines, zombies and sleepwalkers are sure to follow.  This private power may not be accessible to us at first. We aren’t born human; we become it. Humanity is not a form of being; it is a destiny. It is not a steady state, delivered once and for all, but a process.

Of course, this does not delve into mental illnesses, nor savants, nor genius, nor any nods towards intelligences that are not developed but apparently come hardwired in some humans more so than in others. Consider those who a more spatially aware, can compute better, understand mapping and contours, comprehend movement as an individual or within larger groups, etc. Lévy’s discussion is on a philosophical level for humans in general. Many experts in neurology and psychology could and have called him out for his omissions.

He ends with a recommendation, one that negates the power of society in trapping you and also after admitting that he truly cannot say with certainty that he knows the real meaning of truth: “When we instead commit ourselves to moving forward, to diving into the unknown and embracing our humanity in all its uncertainty, then we embark on a truly beautiful and noble adventure — the very road to freedom. 


“Nobody cries in a Dior hat, Dick”: The Man Behind “Funny Face” and so much more….



Harper’s Bazaar editor. Carmen Snow, rejected this photocarmel to donen about leigh photo in dior

One of three blogs that speak to art, film, actors, photographers, directors, Hollywood and the Fifties….what’s not to like

As this is part of my trilogy for the releasing of a large blog that is intertwined with the director of the film, it is also a critical link to the photographer Richard Avedon, which is the focus of this blog. The film is based on his life and work, Funny Face, and the blog on Stanley Donen comprise the other two blogs’ content (click on the other two links just above~ Funny Face and Donen).

Richard Avedon was born in New York to a family steeped in fashion. He found an early love of photography and  moved in that direction throughout his school years. At first photographed for the Merchant Marines, but eventually he turned to photographing fashion and took the genre in a whole new direction. His method was to demand emotions and action from his models, often taking them on location and establishing unusual settings for his narratives. Every portrait photographer who came after him was influenced by his ideas.

While at school in Manhattan one of his school mates and good friends was James Baldwin. They kept in touch throughout their lives and brought their ideas into projects involving the two of their expertise. In 1964, in the middle of the Civil Rights issues that were boiling up in America, the two of them put out a book, balavedon.jpgNothing Personal, which did not pull punches with the issues of race. It has recently been reprinted and is discussed in an article in the New Yorker.

The photo at the head of this article, of Dorian Leigh, was taken on a shoot when he worked for Harper’s Bazaar, whose editor was Carmen Snow. She was unimpressed with the emotional tear and did not use the photo. But, he continued to push boundaries and changed photography through his efforts. His photographs were often surreal, provocative and often controversial pictures in which nudity, violence and death featured prominently. Photography emerging as an art form in its own right is largely due to his work and professionalism. His photographs can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars today and retrospectives of his work in major museums are mounted frequently. His opinions about the art of photography are well-respected. He has said, “The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion,” and “There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”


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Not only did his art border on journalism rather than commercialism, his own private life leaned towards politics. He quit Harper’s Bazaar after facing a storm of criticism over his collaboration with models of color. He left Harpers for Vogue, with whom he signed an unprecedented $1 million contract. By this time, the Avedon “look” was fully established and he remained at Vogue for the next twenty years. In 1969, Avedon’s engagement with contemporary politics, particularly the anti-war movement, inspired him to produce a series of portraits of the anti-war activist group, the Chicago Seven, who had been charged by the federal government with conspiracy and other alleged crimes relating to anti-Vietnam War protests. On the opening night of the exhibition of the photos, students gathered in the room where the work was on display to demonstrate their support for the anti-war movement. In 1971, he traveled to Vietnam as a U.S. war correspondent, participated in an anti-war demonstration at the U.S. Capitol building, and was arrested and jailed for civil disobedience.avedon

Charlie Rose, if you can stand to view his program now, interviewed him and the director of a documentary about his life, Darkness and Light, which came out on American Masters in the 90s.


Doe Avedon Siegel | 1925-2011His life was loosely told in the film Funny Face, with the lead character Dick Avery and Jo the bookish sales girl he discovers in Greenwich Village. His first wife was Dorcus, whose name he shorted to Doe after he found her in a bank and brought her into the fashion world. She shifted to film and, after her divorce from Avedon, worked off and on in Hollywood.

In 1981, Avedon produced another one of his most memorable and controversial portraits. The heralded actress, Nastassja Kinski, at the time best known for her starring role in Roman Polanski’s Academy Award-winning film Tess (1979), posed nude for Avedon. Evidently, the pregnant Nastassja lay on the cold concrete floor of the studio for nearly two hours while an enormous Burmese Python crawled over her body, eventually slithering close enough to stick out its tongue near her ear, providing Avedon with what he felt was the ideal shot. The portrait was printed both in black-and-white (in a limited series) and also in full color as a poster of which over two million copies sold.natashakinskibmp1f6647be4


Avedon’s brash, youthful, and iconoclastic entry into the genre of fashion photography signaled a point of no return: no longer were fashion models frozen in time, statue-like, and imperturbable. Rather, they were living, moving, imperfect beings however beautiful. He imposed simple narratives so that the viewers and consumers could invest as much in a story about a garment (and its model) as the garment itself. His spare portraits, most often in black-and-white, large format, and often blurred in portions, explored a diverse range of themes such as sexuality, violence, and death. The images, whether of celebrities or world leaders or eccentrics were as much about his sitters’ interior lives as hinted at by their external appearances.


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Avedon’s almost ruthless approach to portraiture paved the way for the often disturbing black-and-white, “pseudo-documentary photography” featuring the marginalized and the misfits by his friend, Diane Arbus, the gritty explorations of late 1970s punk culture personalities of Nan Goldin, or the photographs of Herb Ritts, which straddle the boundaries between fashion and fine art.

Funny Face? Naw:  “God kissed her on the cheek and there she was”

A2iii  One of three blogs that speak to art, film, actors, photographers, directors, Hollywood and the Fifties….what’s not to like

titles funny faceIn 1956, the movie industry was tottering between the past, present and future, as the world after the war was changing fast and it was not sure where to look or who was in charge. The film, Funny Face, was looking at all three and is one of those grand incidents when art mimics life on many levels.

leonard gershe

Gershe with Hepburn arriving in Paris


The original story’s songs were crafted by George and Ira Gershwin for a stage piece three decades earlier, in which Astaire was the leading man. Six of the songs are brought forward, but the story is completely changed to suit the biographical story of Richard Avedon, written by his friend, Leonard Gershe.

As this is part of my trilogy for the releasing of a large blog that is intertwined with the director of the film, it is also a critical link to the photographer Richard Avedon, you’ll need to follow the three links to get the full story. The film is based on his life and work, he was a good friend of Stanley Donen, the director, and Avedon photographed Hepburn in her role as a fashion figure in the real world (click on the other two links just above~ Avedon and Donen). hepburn avedonAvedon did many photo sessions with Hepburn for many different magazines and maintained that she was difficult to photograph, “I couldn’t lift her to greater heights. She was already there. I could only record. I could not interpret her. There was no going further than who she was. She paralyzed me. She had achieved in herself the ultimate portrait 

avedon credits for funny faceAvedon was an important cog in creating the film’s homage to fashion. He took the photos for the film, set up the credits to have them look as though you are thumbing through a fashion magazine, and assisted with the set ups of the film’s fashion shoots to make them realistic and to mirror how he would have actually done them.

He was famous for taking to the streets and adding emotion to the models’ portrayals of their threads. Also, several famous models with whom he worked are featured as models in the film, one taking a speaking role at the beginning of the film with her nasal voice from the Queens, which is really her provenance, and reading a comic book, which is also true of Dovima. Others were Suzy Parker and Sunny Harnett.

The film was the first time Hepburn had worked with Astaire. Both were excited for the opportunity and set aside other projects to be able to work with each other. Hepburn was extremely nervous about meeting Astaire, and had been training with a dance coach before she met him to refresh her dormant ballet skills. “I remember he was wearing a yellow shirt, gray flannels, a red scarf knotted around his waist instead of a belt, and the famous feet were clad in soft moccasins and pink socks. He was also wearing that irresistible smile. One look at this most debonair, elegant and distinguished of legends and I could feel myself turn to solid lead, while my heart sank into my two left feet. The suddenly I felt a hand around my waist, and, with his inimitable grace and lightness, Fred literally swept me off my feet. He said, ‘Come on, let’s have a little go together’ and we just danced around together. He just took me and turned me around, or whatever. It was such fun, it was so divine. We were laughing and having fun…”(Harris 138)

Of course, they danced often in the film, but Hepburn, who had trained as a ballerina earlier in life and was not new to dance, had a chance to dance solo in the film, expressing herself in free dance symbolizing the freedoms that were appearing in the world of psychology, philosophy and cultural norms then and that connects to roots in yoga today.  The dance moves were copied by others, even in GAP ads. There’s even a fun story behind the white socks Audrey wore.

funnyface3If you take the time to view the whole film, take in the viewing with the knowledge that there are real life models playing models, that it is an homage to Avedon, as well as based on the careers and mannerisms of Diana Vreeland and Carmen Snow. Snow was Avedon’s editor at Harper’s  Bazaar and several years earlier had not accepted Avedon’s shots of Dorian Leigh in a Dior hat looking wistful. According to accounts, telling him that “Nobody cries in a Dior hat, Dick.” In Funny Face this very scene is restaged and in the film Avery photographs Jo at a train station in long-line grey suit and a velvet hat, with tears in her eyes, and is approved without question. It took him eight years to get his revenge, but Avedon did this one in style.

Diana Vreeland was favorite of Avedon and the film’s character, Prescott, captures her in all her grandeur and mannerisms. Vreeland, the woman Avedon called his “brilliant, crazy aunt”, is shown with her passion for Paris, her boundless energy, her inventiveness with language, including the generous use of the word “pizzazz”, and of course, her eye for talent. Just as Prescott looks at Jo in her boxy tunic and supposedly “funny face” and sees a cover girl, Vreeland favored quirky looks and “personality” in her models. Vreeland was the fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar when Avedon worked for them some years before. At the time of the filming of Funny Face, Snow was the editor and is thanked in Funny Face’s credits. It is a shame, then, that Vreeland was not pleased by the movie, snipping “Never to be discussed” at an assistant as she exited a screening. Merrill Streep could have delivered that line, too.

avedon funny faceAnother interesting bit of settling a score involved Hepburn. She loved Givenchy and had him design for her all her life. In Sabrina, Hepburn wanted to have him design for her personally for her clothes in the film, but he did not have the time in his schedule at that point to allow her anything other than free choice of the rails of Pret a Porter dresses. The clip that explains their meeting is wonderful. Hepburn felt about Givenchy’s fashion….“His are the only clothes in which I am myself.” She chose a few for Sabrina and wore them in the film, but Edith Head, the film’s costumer, won the Academy Award for Costume Design and did not credit Hubert in any way. In Funny Face this was not the case, even though Edith Head was again chosen as Costume Designer. Hepburn this time had every dress (of style) designed by Givenchy and he got credited in the titles. Isn’t it an interesting thought that the film was nominated for costumes , with both Head and Givenchy on the nomination, but, it lost out to Les Girls. It seems that the fashion industry was on Hollywood’s mind that year and Gene Kelly was still playing against Astaire and using Europe as the backdrop. Other great facts associated with the film were pointed out in an earlier article/homage by the Huffington Post that is fun to peruse. More from Sabrina, too.

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The film has become an art piece that is valued for more than its simple story. It now is a bit of history unto itself, capturing a slice of the fifties that had so many superlatives from the world of film, fashion and fiction dealing with the fast changing nature of the world and offering bolder stories and more troubling social issues for the public to chew on. Funny Face does not ask for a difficult swallow. It gives pink, Givenchy and the Eiffel Tower to the palette. It’s fun to look back at the time and to get into the back lot and stories for a little more fun. When Donen was interviewed in the past decade about his life and was asked about Hepburn, he told the story of his relationship with Billy Wilder and his thoughts on Hepburn…. “Absolutely and I certainly adored her: she was a fabulous and glorious actress. She was really unique. After she had passed away [January 20, 1993, at age 63], Billy Wilder, who has always been one of my best friends, said, ‘What Audrey Hepburn had, you couldn’t teach, you couldn’t even learn it. God kissed her on the cheek and there she was.’ 

Note the photo of the letter written by Wilder after seeing Hepburn for the first time in a screen test for her possible role in the film, Roman Holiday.william-wyler-letter-1951-re-audrey-hepburn

There are other links below to add to this enjoyment.

From a blog

Dancing On The Ceiling: What a Wonderful Collection of Films Stanley Donen Gave Us


One of three blogs that speak to art, film, actors, photographers, directors, Hollywood and the Fifties….what’s not to like

As this is part of my trilogy for the releasing of a large blog that is intertwined with Richard Avedon, the photographer, Funny Face and the director, Stanley Donen, which is the focus of this blog. Done worked with Hepburn several times, was a dancer, co-directed with Gene Kelly, was master of musicals as well as other genres of film. (click on the other two links just above~ Funny Face and Avedon).

Stanley Donen is still alive and is still very interested in cinema. He is none too happy at its present state, but then, this is a man who was innovative in his day and was always looking for a new idea. The repetitiveness of today’s themes and approaches makes him angry. To quote him about film…

When asked about the state of the movie industry during an interview in 2012:

Life is different. The times are different, the problems are different, the economy is different, the way we live is different. What do I think of them? It depends on which one. I can’t think of them in general terms. I don’t see them as an expression of 2012.

How he feels inside of the cinema:

I’m always angry. Unless I’m not angry when I’m overwhelmed by the wonder of the movie. But there’s no one I’ve seen lately that’s transported me out of the moment. Nothing has taken me away like Fred Astaire did. I can’t point to one lately that I thought was wonderful.

It’s changing every second and what’s changing is the way we see films, the way we make films and the way we photograph films. There’s no more film. Film is gone. We photograph digitally and electronically. We don’t really use film the same way anymore – it’s disappearing little by little. Things change. We have to change with them. There’s no point in liking or not liking it. It is what it is.

From being one of the best in Hollywood, respected by all ( Jean-Luc Godard called him “the master of the musical”), he was turned out to pasture by the city fairly early. A few of his later movies were not kindly reviewed, the audiences were not as excited and the numbers dropped, and his spigot was turned off. If you look at the list of his work, this was unfair. But, economics is the bottom line and became more so into the 1970s. Look at the films he produced at the peak of his career, with him being right in the middle of the pack or at the top, and then look at what was offered as Hollywood was moving into the 70s and 80s. Our culture was not in the best state at that time, in my opinion, or it can be measured as moving towards the more extreme, that which hopes to shock or take one to an edge, and this is only one barometer. Donen’s films involved stories between only a few people and these were approached in musicals with great humanity, and in his serious films taking on issues that allowed us to discuss who we are as individuals and how we might best interact with our communities.

Donen showed his talents early. Born in Columbia, South Carolina, he saw a film with dancing at an early age and began his quest. As a teenager he left the South and went to New York to audition. He was dancing in the chorus of Pal Joey on Broadway at age 16. From then, with the money he put aside from chorus work, he bought a ticket and went to Hollywood and got hired by MGM. Keep in mind that he met Gene Kelly, the rising new star in Pal Joey. He explains in a more recent interview….

I was in three shows, ‘Pal Joey,’ ‘Best Foot Forward’ and ‘Beat the Band,’ all George Abbott shows. I saved up a little money, and I bought a train ticket and went to Hollywood. I was 17 years old. Again, I auditioned at MGM and got hired. Later, Gene (Kelly) got loaned to Columbia to make ‘Cover Girl.’ Harry Cohn started shooting that picture with no leading man. After Gene got the job, he said, ‘You want to come help me with my numbers?’ I had this idea to do a double-exposure dance number with Gene dancing with himself, an idea that appealed to him on several levels. Cohn said to Gene, ‘Do you think the kid knows what he’s talking about?’ And Gene said, ‘Yeah, he does.’ So Cohn let me direct it. It was all luck, serendipity upon serendipity.

singinAt 20, he was a renowned Hollywood choreographer, pepping up musical numbers in dozens of films with his innovative dances and imaginative camera technique. By 28, he had already directed (with his friend, Gene Kelly) his fourth film, Singin’ in the Rain. Along with this frequent collaborator, he is credited by many critics with having made movie musicals more realistic and integrated. In films like On the Town, he essentially invented the idea of the location musical, doing away as much as possible with stagy sets and painted backdrops and then literally taking the action into the streets. In this, he shares this concept with his friend, Richard Avedon, who also preferred the realism of life on the streets to a studio.

Early in collaboration, with Kelly, Donen phoned his colleague at 3 a.m. to tell him he had a great idea for a sequence in “Anchors Aweigh” (1945), which Kelly was shooting with director George Sidney. “How’d you like to dance with Mickey Mouse?” asked Donen. “Can it be done?” Kelly responded. It actually became Jerry Mouse, as Disney would not let Mickey work for MGM. The process is explained here. Frank Sinatra was his acting and dancing partner in the film. Eventually the two argued, whether it was artistic in nature or personal is still being debated. Here is some classic film trivia gossip: Stanley and Gene were friends and collaborators up until circa 1955, when they directed It’s Always Fair Weather. They fought and parted ways, and, alledgedly, the reason was this love quadrangle: Stanley was married for a brief period of time to Gene’s choreographic assistant, Jeanne Coynne, who had always been in love with Gene. Stanley, on the other hand, was in love with actress Betsy Blair, Gene’s wife. Gene and Betsy divorced in 1957 (after 17 years of marriage and b/c Betsy cheated on him), then Jeanne and Gene got married in 1960 (and stayed so until 1973, when she died).Stanley and Betsy never got it on, I guess. Betsy said about all this: “We were all very close and Gene once said that it was probably rather incestuous because Jeanne was in love with Gene, and I have to admit that I was aware of Stanley being in love with me, but I somehow thought that he was actually in love with both of us. I mean, he was in love with Gene’s talent, it was Gene that was on screen, it’s Gene that everybody sees.”. She also said in a 2003 interview:“How could I have left Gene, this wonderful man, after 16 years of marriage? To this day, I can’t explain it. It had nothing to do with sex. It was freedom.”

Seven-Brides-610x380.a8ea2849f91de4a3007c3eb5160bcd97In 1953, they worked on separate films that were in competition for the musical audiences. Kelly was filming Brigadoon, which had all the advance excitement and expectations. Cinematography had just been invented and it was used in the filming of Donen’s musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. MGM had a tight budget, but had to give in to extra time for the filming of two versions to accommodate the new and old filming and projecting options. Seven Brides turned out to be a great hit, surprising all of Hollywood and is still considered a great classic. The Barn Raising Scene is the most revered. The cast rehearsed for three weeks in order to get the intricate choreography down. It was during one of these rehearsals that Russ Tamblyn, one of the non-dancers hired to play Gideon Pontipee, wandered over to the set along with co-star Jeff Richards to see how the scene was coming along. “Michael Kidd called me over and said, ‘Rusty, somebody told me that you’re a good tumbler, that you can do some flips’,” said Tamblyn in a 2004 interview. “So I did a back flip for him. ‘Fantastic!’ he said. ‘We’ll put it in a number.’ I told him I really wasn’t a dancer, except for some tap dancing. But he said, ‘Listen, this is just like square dancing. All you have to do is lift your legs high. You can do a lot of acrobatic stuff. It’s perfect.’ That’s how I became a dancer in Seven Brides.” 

While Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a career peak for musical veterans Howard Keel and Jane Powell, the film marked the real beginning for young Russ Tamblyn’s career. Tamblyn’s charm along with his show-stopping acrobatics in the barn raising sequence made people everywhere sit up and take notice. Tamblyn, who had not been expected to dance one step in the film, was now known the world over as a hoofer as well as an actor. “After Seven Brides was released,” said Tamblyn, “my career really took off. Dance magazine photographed me for their cover and, suddenly, I was known as a dancer.” Star Howard Keel saw it coming. “Russ Tamblyn as Gideon was undeniably the most effective Pontipee,” he says in his autobiography. “Wherever he was, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.”

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers went on to become a musical classic. It was a joyous experience for all to make. Howard Keel called the film, “one of my happiest filmmaking experiences at Metro Goldwyn Mayer.” “The cast was magnificent, and the chemistry irresistible,” he says in his autobiography. “Jack Cummings had his stamp on the whole picture. Jane Powell, as Milly, was perfect, and I loved working with her. She was cute and persnickety and a multi-talented pro…It truly was one big happy family.” Stanley Donen always saw this film as one of his fondest memories as well as was quick to always point out the enormous contribution by choreographer Michael Kidd to the overall success of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. “I enjoyed Kidd enormously,” said Donen. “His contribution to the film was gigantic.”

To return to the theme of filming on location, when filming Funny Face, for one shot in the Louvre, he chose one of the museum’s most famous pieces to play against Audrey Hepburn. “If you’re going to shoot in the Louvre, the great image is ‘Winged Victory,’ ” said Donen. “I have a strong aversion to the word ‘creative.’ “Only women who give birth are creative. What we are is interpretive. Einstein didn’t invent E=MC squared. ()He realized it. That’s what art is, I think, realizing what’s there.” Hepburn upstaged the statue.funny-face-c

Donen was innovative on all levels of choreography and film making. Prior to CGI, he developed a rotating box to allow Fred Astaire to literally dance on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, made in 1951. This is one of the most wonderful and well-loved choreographed pieces in film and is explained in this link and shown in this link. It was paid homage by Lionel Richie when technology favored Richie much more than Denon. When Stanley Kubrick, a good friend of Donen’s, wanted to borrow the rotating sequence for 2001, he called to get permission, which was gladly granted. A few years later Kubrick called again, ‘I never do this,’ Kubrick said, ‘but I’d like you to see a rough cut of “A Clockwork Orange.”  Quoting Donen….“So we watched it in Elstree (studios) I think it was, and afterward he said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I think it’s a great movie, Stanley, unlike anything before.’ Then he said, ‘No, I mean what about the thing?’ I said, ‘What thing?’ and he said, “Singin’ in the Rain.” I thought you were going to think I had (besmirched) it,’ Kubrick said in reference to the song, which is used in one of the film’s most notoriously violent scenes. I said I thought it was great.”

As musicals were losing out in Hollywood, Donen and his friend and star, Cary Grant, who each loved working with other, sought out a new project. In 1958 they settled on a film that would end up being called Indiscreet. Ingrid Bergman was chosen as the costar, for which she was most appreciative as she was trying to end an eight year exile after her hooking up with Roberto Rossellini, marriage, and now impending divorce. Their relationship was about to end and she arrived at Heathrow to be picked up by Grant facing a barrage of questions. Grant was waiting and quickly deflected their questions about her impending divorce by shouting, “Why don’t you talk to me? My problems are far more interesting.” They loved working with each other and the film established Donen as a romantic comedy director. One interesting fact from the film is the censors objection to filming the two actors in the same bed. Donen cleverly got around this through a split screen. This review analyses the film well.

He was great friends with Bob Fosse, who choreographed Donen’s The Pajama Game, commenting, “What a talent! We were best friends. I shot his MGM screen test.Fosse and Verdon danced in Damn Yankees. on which Donen assisted in directing. This was a central problem when the film came out in 1958, making a typical rerelease in film version after a successful run on Broadway. Most of the stage actors were retained and this proved a problem in that few had experience in front of the camera and the director, George Abbott, would have made a better film if he had turned the reins over to Donen completely to allow for cohesion and vision to be utilized on screen. This review analyzes the film well.

Charade_1963_2048x.progressiveWe are 55 years past the opening of Charade, which came out in the midst of national recovery (if that has ever completely been consummated) from the Kennedy assassination. It was re-released on its 50 anniversary and was reanalyzed as to its place in Hollywood history. It also made apparent that city’s fading use in story making in the classic sense, though directors like Woody Allen continue to use Paris as part of his filming narrative. A disassembling of the time period by the Guardian newspaper portrays Charade as a classic that gained little traction in the wake of the events of 1963. Yet, the article tries to point out how relevant and true it was to America and Hollywood. The film serves as a place holder for the pinnacle of Donen’s career. He continued making films for a couple more decades, but with limited acclaim and success.

At the Academy Awards in 1998, Donen was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, presented to him by Martin Scorcese. Look at the audience, reacquaint yourself with the films through the clips from his most important movies, hear some interesting facts about his life and relish his wonderful acceptance speech.

From Wikipedia……David Thomson dismisses most of his later comedy films, but praises him for leading “the musical in a triumphant and personal direction: out of doors … Not even Vincent Minnelli can rival the fresh-air excitement of such sequences. And few can equal his integration of song, dance and story.”[22] Andrew Sarris dismisses Donen as being without a personal style of his own and as being dependent upon his collaborators on his better films.[3]:311–312 Debbie Reynolds downplayed his contributions to Singin’ in the Rain, stating that “Stanley just operated the camera, because Stanley didn’t dance.”[3]:182–183  After reading this far, what do you think of the above claims by these three individuals?

Among Donen’s admirers are film directors Pedro Almodóvar,[23] Lindsay Anderson,[3]:317 Charlie Chaplin,[3]:169 Damien Chazelle,[24] Jules Dassin,[3]:165 William Friedkin,[25] Jean-Luc Godard,[3]:259 Stanley Kubrick,[3]:316 Karel Reisz,[3]:55 Martin Scorsese, François Truffaut,[3]:317 and Edgar Wright.[26] Donen’s skill as a director has been praised by such actors as Cyd Charisse[3]:209 and Audrey Hepburn.[3]:xi – xv Donen’s work influenced later directors of film musicals Bill Condon, Rob Marshall[27] and Baz Luhrmann[28] The 2011 film The Artist pays tribute to Singin’ in the Rain (among other films),[29] and Donen praised the film after attending its Los Angeles premiere.[30]

Singin’ in the Rain is Donen’s most revered film and it was included in the first group of films to be inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1989 and has been included on Sight and Sound‘s prestigious list of “Top Ten Films” twice, in 1982 and in 2002. Chaplin and Truffaut were among its earliest fans,[3]:169 and Billy Wilder called the film “one of the five greatest pictures ever made.”[3]:146

His place in film history by now, though, is most secure…..

(Updated Aug 19) Libertarianism-Does it Only Produce Huckleberries and Beans? “I love Henry, but I cannot like him”: All-American or the Death of Community and more?

These Notes are for Post-Millennials, Millennials and Baby Boomers…The Greatest Generation, you are off the hook… To complement the previous article, the recent August 19th article in the Huffington Post by Zack Carter on Liberalism as viewed historically and in revisionism by the Right as far as economics is involved as related to Libertarian claims, I have just that day included it in the previous blog below…

For years this country has been heading here. I believe it is the fault of our structured but fragmented system, the advances in technology and the poor curricula and disparate educational institutions in addressing all the foibles and opportunities available to any decent human being. Also, the incidents of cherry picking information about an incident or individual by an author leads his audience to no good knowledge. Humanism is under threat everywhere in this time in this place. For this blog, then….what is the nature of libertarianism, its complicity in this threat, and how is it relevant in American culture?

The piece is addressed to those individuals presently rising into the work force, those settling into midlife and hoping to control their and their family’s futures from their own steering wheels, and those baby boomers sorting through aching bones, seeing their golf scores rise, determining if a cruise is the best option because the luggage is not an issue, or whether the family is more important than living where it is best for the two of you (a perennial question, neh)….and for those sleuths in the future who may find this on an Internet search at some distant point when the world looks very different… perhaps, hopefully, because of the next generation’s attempt to address the concept of libertarianism in true truth, to elaborate on this misused term?

Colin Woodard, in his recent book, divides the US into eleven region “nations” that share specific perspectives and actions associated with the ideas of liberty, community and values. He traces these back to the early settlers and their origins in Europe and how persistent he believes their values are when measured against the ancestors’ approaches to life, government and community. As a student of the breakup of Yugoslavia and its millennia-old regional differences that finally fractured, he feels there may be even more extremes in the States. He recently spoke on MPR’s Maine Calling and spoke of the idea of Libertarianism from his perspective and is worried that we are at a critical tipping point for addressing these differences that have persisted, though we have managed to address the differences in earlier crises. The notion of liberty and how it is approached and supported within the eleven regions is, Woodard feels, why the divisions are often insoluble. He, too, feels we have different kinds of libertarians in the country.

Libertarianism, especially the American kind, has roots that began as the Industrial Revolution was entering the social fabric and some individuals, especially Henry David Thoreau, expressed displeasure with the attack on individual initiative, self-reliance and the shift in authority from the individual and community to the larger government and industry leaders. He also abhorred what he felt was the move away from nature and agriculture. He supported the simple life with few needs and no excess. The later 19th century excesses and the post-Civil War era that was opening the Western Territories allowed for a different kind of individualism (mythologized by Hollywood to the point of incomprehension) continuing the ideological support for limited federal intervention, even though the government’s support in quelling Native American resistance to expansion and the subsidizing of railroad construction and right of way across the newly claimed country were critical to the concept of Manifest Destiny. In the 20th century, we have individuals like lobster fishermen who are a strange kind of libertarian, as are the Harley Davidson crowd…or the whiz kids in Silicon Valley and their counterparts on 4Chan are also of the ilk, but for different reasons. Paul Ryan claims to follow Ayn Rand, the Queen of the Libertarians, but there are many detractors and disclaimers deriding this claim. 

 Rand Paul and his father are the others in Congress who support(ed) Libertarian policies. Their beliefs in self-reliance….and taking responsibility leave many to fend for themselves. Indeed, each of them have been caught in their explanations of policy with saying basically we, and the government, need to walk over the body. If you note how Paul approach health care solutions for America, you can see they think each person should be heId accountable to provide his own, with states’ rights favored over federal solutions, prioritizing economic costs and incentivizing purchasing insurance only by forgiving costs through tax benefits. Mandating is anathema to them. While accepting only as a political expediency of covering those who cannot afford it through Medicaid. What is most preferable to them is that each person should purchase what he able to, encourage an insurance savings plan to self insure and forgive him, through tax relief up to $5000 per year that can be set aside by the citizen, as the preferable path- as if the bottom 1/3 of this country could/would be able to set aside $5000 for a future health emergency (let alone as the question about a real emergency costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for those with pre-existing conditions). Again, it is my belief that those who claim to be libertarian are really only cherrypicking that which suits them and omitting the full acceptance of the true libertarian. Or, when pressed, they truly admit that they would walk over the body in the street. A positive libertarian is an optimist and wants to be left alone, and will leave others alone completely as long as they do not intrude in his lifestyle. He is an anarchist in the truest, most optimist sense. Anything goes and no government should object. Basic protections against theft and fraud, and assistance in security from abroad are what are needed from the government according to libertarian beliefs.

What is true is that one must understand libertarian principles based on cultural context, but, more importantly, its historical roots for that context. The original libertarian was a cave man. There were scant expectations of individuals whose only moral compass was survival and they slowly understood the benefits of the group only after centuries and millennia. Later, tribal affiliation took over with customs developing and lessons taught to protect those customs. Even then the Alpha male, the prime libertarian, often held sway over group decisions. Push forward millennia and we enter into the Greek era, when man was thinking about the power of individual thought and giving it greater credence than just about any other time until recently. Here, as in India and China about this time, the intellectual competition these cultures allowed brought them to the discussion of free will. We are still laboring with this question as humans. Libertarians are the biggest proponents of the concept and a logical extension of supporting its tenets takes one to atheism, which is where many thinkers in the 19th century ended up when they dug their furrows in this field of thinking at that time. It was Darwin’s thinking, no libertarian, whose survival premise upset the linear control of society by religion in the 1860s, and Nietzsche, followed by Ayn Rand, took their thinking towards an expanded libertarian vent and rant.

Image result for henry david thoreauFor Americans, who were trying to figure out who they were at this time, individuals like Henry David Thoreau surfaced in the early 19th century to begin our individual free will philosophy of Transcendentalism. Here is a complex and controversial man who is studied in literature and history in this country, but is cherry picked for whatever specific quote those writing or teaching feel is useful. We know he was in favor of a naturalist approach, simplicity and sparsity of choice his creed, and strong opinions about how much control society, and especially the government, should have over one’s actions. But, those who knew him, like his friend Emerson, found him also most complex. In one incident where Thoreau visited a recent shipwreck and saw all the bodies, he literally did walk over the bodies. At Thoreau’s funeral, where one celebrates a life, Emerson, his good friend, could not avoid saying…

Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans! 

Others have called him out for being a beacon of libertarian establishment, a fraud, an adolescent thinker, a hypocrite, an anarchist, a narcissist, the supreme naturalist, a misogynist, and someone who should be hated rather than revered. While at Walden Pond, feigning self-reliance, Thoreau sometimes took his laundry to his mother. This was enough to prompt Kathryn Schulz in 2015 to write her article about Walden and Thoreau called Pond Scum. The links below will take you to additional articles to support all these thoughts.

I found the article written in 1865 about the Transcendentalists a few decades after their apogee by James Russell Lowell the most entertaining and fruitful. His thoughts, were written in the context and manner of the time and for an audience who would find today’s American citizens ruefully wanton in intellectual prowess for the most part. The essay is most articulate and comprehending, as well as comprehensive. Here’s a teaser from the article to introduce Thoreau and his essay:

“Among the pistillate plants kindled to fruitage by the Emersonian pollen, Thoreau is thus far the most remarkable…

and about the Transcendentalists….

It was simply a struggle for fresh air, in which, if the windows could not be opened, there was the danger that the panes would be broken, though painted with images of saints and martyrs. Light, colored by these reverend effigies, was none the more respirable for being picturesque. There is only one thing better than tradition, and that is the original and eternal life out of which all tradition takes its rise. It was this life which the reformers demanded, with more or less clearness of consciousness and expression, life in politics, life in literature, life in religion.

This article from 2015 in the Compass by Emily Young, which gives the most thorough context of Thoreau’s life and works, I think, is best in its usefulness for understanding Thoreau in his own time.

What all of this divergence by me on libertarianism is to point out that context is critical. When Lowell wrote in 1865, he was aware of his own time and audience and opined from that perch. He was writing this six years after the publishing of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. What would Thoreau have acquired in his moral philosophy from Darwin’s work had he lived long enough to be aware? How would his naturalist society have fared? Since then, we have had many options thrown at humanity and I fear many of today’s libertarians have not read them or understand the context in which they arose, and most certainly not the outcome society must suffer for following the tenets of anarchy or pure libertarianism espoused by the advocates who penned books and essays purporting to make life better for the individual man who followed them. I ask, what about society…community? Woodard does too in his book and essays. Today’s globalism and the intertwined world we cannot escape are conundrum’s for the Republican Party, even though they are hugely responsible for its making. True, many in their ranks, part of the Libertarian roots in our country, were isolationists throughout the 20th century, and that wing of the party is now ascendent again.

In the early 19th century, again triggered by the fledging industrial revolution and its impact on cities, labor and individuals, many chose alternate versions of what mechanization could do for communities. Some founded Utopian societies where government was completely libertarian. They were strangely Utopian/Positivist/Anarchists believing man was best when left to his own devices. The most important proponent of this philosophy was Josiah Warren, who ended up printing the Bible of American Libertarianism called, The Peaceful RevolutionistIt was printed at home using an invented machine and ink made on the family stove. I believe Rand Paul is perhaps the closest elected representative of this type of “Liberal” thinking, though the term and Paul’s execution of Libertarianism needs to be taken in context, just like all other forms of the ideology. Here are three views, one by Paul himself, on the take we have to his Libertarian credentials….One  Two  Three    That he sits in caucus with the Republicans tells you how confusing the term is and how confused he must be, as well as compromised.

This article in The Hill gives you a clear background on the Utopian nature of Libertarianism in the States and its attempt to encompass socialist economics, individual free will and the concept of community governance in the early 19th century. There are still individuals who attempt this lifestyle today. The film Captain Fantastic, with Vigo Mortensen as the lead, deals with this in the contemporary world, putting into context the issues of relating this to children, family, health care, the wider community and how anyone can survive in today’s world as an anarchist who believes humans are inherently good. The film is honest about dealing with libertarianism in the modern world and worth a viewing.

Most of what we seem to be finding from America’s social experiment with promoting individual rights is the assertion by many individuals, over 20% by many polls claiming “Libertarianism” of what I feel is the cherrypicked kind, rail against the governmental intrusion into their lives and seek out disruptive, or even destructive and antagonist methods to get their ideological views heard, supported and implemented. The technology and social media of today allows for all of them in the various iterations to give voice to their approach and desires for freedom. Not all are useful to the overall community in my opinion.

Image result for alex jonesFor example, Alex Jones’, of Infowars, support for First Amendment Rights and suspicion of all things government has a scant few defendable qualities, but it is most difficult to defend so many of his statements that do nothing to further the discourse of civil disobedience as espoused by Thoreau…and completely occlude and obliterate the intentions of Warren. Yet there is a lot of Thoreau, the bad stuff, in Jones. And, his followers are the preeminent examples of those who purport libertarian principles mined from incomplete and half-trothed sources, demonstrating a Willful Wall of Ignorance in their demeanors. Paul Ryan, whose juvenile mind first found Ayn Rand, today makes us wonder if he has matured since then. He is now a joke, as history will surely judge him. His own kind has.  So has the NYTimes.

In the end, in order for any society that has developed out of that cave man’s tribe to survive and who has morphed through the mechanized society, the Marxist revolutions, the Utopian Socialist phases, the World Wars, Fascism/Nazism, Reaganism/Thatcherism to whatever sits in the White House today, gives us US citizens pause. We need to figure out how to sit that Alpha male down, hit him with the two-by-four to get his attention (note to Charlie Rose), and talk about the long road of humanism and science in their arc and trajectory of history and thought, and discuss what we still don’t know. Absolutism and ideological arrogance are dangerous. Science is incomplete and scientists are fully aware that its target, truth, is a receding target. The more we know, the more we know what we don’t know. Let’s agree to move towards that goal and be tolerant of all our little foibles and simple explanations, while exposing them to what they are when we can…and must do. That is what the individual and collective Homo Sapien celebrates. And vote.

Sgt. Nathan Cox of Viper Company, we hardly knew you: Thank you for your service and your story deserves the widest audience

CJ-ChiversThis morning, while perusing the NYTimes Magazine, I ran across an article in long journalism by C.J. Shivers. Shivers’ exposition is a stunning and riveting story that follows a few men, one in particular, from their decision to join the Armed Forces after 9/11 and how that decision unfolded for them and for the country. This alone is enough of a recommendation and the tyler hicksphotos accompanying the article by Tyler Hicks are also worth the visit. But, after nearly an hour going through the moments, individuals and incidents outlined in the article, I was driven to comment and to ask a few questions.

The article is called War Without End, the Seventeen Year War in reference to the post-9/11 effort to beat back the forces that attacked the US on that day. Of course, we now know that involves Afghanistan and Iraq, and has now embroiled every country bordering them and many more as a result of the US efforts to address the attack’s perpetrators. Those were a band of a few hundred men, abetted by some critical individuals in power in Afghanistan to protect their bases and the execution of any efforts to hold the Al Qaeda responsible. 

My questions will be specific in relating to the actions the United States has taken in addressing the attack and its perpetrators, as well as querying the whole nature of the foreign policy decisions in the past three or four generations in America. As you read the article, appreciate that it is written from the perspectives of those who are literally in the trenches. It does not get very deeply into the weeds of politics, or even the issues facing the higher level officers who decided the direction of the war. It has little input from the locals in any country, or the other countries’ involvement since 9/11 in following, assisting or resisting American efforts in the region. I also only briefly diverts its message to the home front of America and those who know the war is happening, but know very little of what it means, who is involved, how it is impacting us overall, and how it is impacting the region and the future. These are where my questions lead:


Sgt. Nathan Cox (left) making notes on a mission

As I read the Shivers piece, I wondered if more needs to be done in our Middle School and High School curriculum to address the issues brought up in the piece. These would be the heroism of the soldiers, the status of the mission and whether it was pertinent to an overall goal of victory, what the leaders- in Congress, the White House and the military- are doing to articulate goals, policies to achieve them and what is best for the overall political/economic health of the States, the region and the world. Have we done a good job as shepherds of the world’s international health?

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Do we understand the issues as a typical Afghani or Iraqi sees them? Are these views biased from a gender or religious viewpoint? Do we have a viable option in altering these biases? If we do not take into account these local viewpoints, is that a major mistake in fighting a war of attrition with the local population? Did we learn anything from Korea, Bosnia and Vietnam?

What do we do for our veterans from the Longest War? Returning to a culture that is either ignorant, immune or impassive to the needs of men who have put their lives on the line for a cause that is unclear to them requires so much retooling that is not apparent in much of our culture at present.

How can this story, or the story of Restrepo, the book The Matterhorn about Vietnam, and other culturally relevant texts about the culture of the Middle East and our prior involvement in shaping the politics of other countries in a way that have caused present animosities needs to be addressed and we need to own up to our responsibilities…and mistakes.

After seventeen years there is no end in sight, no coherent policy for success, no definition of success, no exit policy and no system to address the malaise inherent in the long suffering soldiers who are sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. What stands out as you assess who these soldiers are and what they are fighting for, it becomes clear there is no clear goal for them other than they are vehemently loyal to the buddy next to them. This is not enough. And, Nathan Cox deserves more and others like him in the services need to be able to finish their books in peace.


NERVOUS STATES: In 2018, the double entendre in this phrase is useful; are “states” literally NATIONS or the MENTAL STATUS of each individual? Are we at a critical tipping point?

The continuing evolution of the political climate in the world is one that political scientists and historians are eagerly attempting to grapple with in their essays, speeches and books. Recently, I read a very good article by William Davies, who is the author of the forthcoming book, “Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World. He is a sociologist and political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London. He grapples with my question posted in the subtitle of this blog.

cover.jpg.rendition.400.615His overarching theme in the article, and I assume in his book that has yet to reach the shelves, is that populism is a signal that the common man has been alienated by globalization and denounces any power, institution or individual who champions its benefits. Of course, this has happened before in history and comparisons abound in the news; even Donald Trump Jr., with his obviously limited grasp of history, is trying to pile on in this vein. Davies’ basic premise is that we are lazy and looking for feelings to give us the desired outcome, when facts are what are needed to gain understanding and a clear path forward. This intrigued me to read the article and to continue with its thoughts in this blog.

Of course, we have many examples in our citizenry of individuals following emotionally down a slippery slope to populism. Instead, these individuals, many who have witnessed and/or were harmed by loss of jobs, weakened earning power, infrastructure decay and a hollowing out of the traditional culture they had enjoyed up until recently, are now looking for protection, including isolation from and exclusion of those they feel don’t belong. They have been choosing politicians who speak simply and who claim they can take a short cut to getting the desired results.

This excerpt from the article by Davies, in which he said a “…backlash after decades of globalization, but against the form of political power that facilitated it, which is technocratic, multilateral and increasingly divorced from local identities.”, refers to the populist movement in Britain, but he is also speaking to the nature of politics in many countries that has resulted from the past three or so decades of governance on the world stage.    

I believe it is critical that the conversation should focus on the issues illuminated in these words. His article, which is discussing the rise of “simplicity politics”, because he feels that those who support limiting government and who believe their political power will lead to a simpler local life controlled by local communities, is misguided in today’s world. Instead, we should all engage in finding the right outcome from any discussion centered on “community”. Where the saying “all politics is local” has relevance, so, too, is the understanding that community, while local, always extends, especially now, far, far beyond what you know within your small, local region. The article lays out its premises with clear logic and begs for more information and evidence to assert some useful conclusions. I am interested in his book. He has some interesting things to say on his website, too.

Davies is a traditional humanist, a product of the Enlightenment. Yet, his optimism that we are better off following the technocratic, interconnected world and having diplomatic ties and competent individuals overseeing the complex exchanges that are occurring is not a sentiment shared by all and not even by a majority in many countries. I hope we can correct our choice of 2016 this year and have enough individuals who speak well, offer clear arguments with sound factual evidence and welcome the input of all factors to assist in making the best choice to move us forward with sustainable and fair outcomes for those who most need assistance from the government. 

Rick Sherman, neighbor and good friend in Camden, offered another book that is related to this topic, Tailspin, by Steven Brill. It offers a clear analysis of this problem in the States, a background to how it has transpired, but also who and what is mostly responsible, and therefore a roadmap for understanding and a way forward. The medicine he provides would call for great engagement on everyone’s part, but an clear acknowledgement from much of our leadership, in finance, industry, politics, education and all the critical institutions of creation and maintenance of anything that impacts societal health, to be aware of some simple truths, that stress and alienation have historically led to bad outcomes. He feels a correction by those in command of money, politics and power is advisable before it is taken away by some other means. It is possible to self-correct in pliant and open societies. He wonders about our own society.

If you add to these two books the recent article in the Atlantic, that puts the seamier side of the last thirty years into clearer perspective related to world politics during that time, it brings us back to the Trump administration and the president’s own dealings in this game long before he stepped into the political spotlight and grab for power. It is an astounding story that Ludlum, le Carre or any other writer of contemporary spy fiction and global dealings could hardly sell to a publisher because it seems too farfetched. Will the world, let alone the American electorate, listen to the story as it unfolds in the coming months and grasp the gravity of where we are at this juncture in history? All three of these large thoughts, Davies with his claim that we have fallen prey to propagandists and lack of diligence in thinking, Brill’s indictment of the institutions and individuals who have benefited from the shift towards what the Atlantic article identifies as kleptocracy, and then the Atlantic article’s review of what has happened in the past several decades in the furtherance of kleptocracy in the world and how it may now (through the uncovering of information via the Mueller investigation) become known to the millions who need to understand what has happened is vital to our well-being on all levels. There is troubling evidence many don’t care.

Again, through better education, stressing openness in our understanding, and moving the discussion to the wider community, all these are imperative in gaining traction towards solutions that will allow all of us to engage in our own welfares related to the issues of economics, employment, environment, infrastructure, quality of life, tolerance, inclusion and moving us all forward in a way that allows each to reach for her greatest potential while always aware of those around themselves.

From what I have seen of the Congress these past couple of days, weeks, months, this may be wishful thinking. It seems the Congressmen on television in those days are pandering to the camera and their emotions, and that pandering to feelings is what they see as the best path to keep power, damn the costs, literally and figuratively. I bet they would fit neatly into one of the chapters Mr. Davies devoted to emotions in his upcoming book. We need competent professionals, desperately, to lift the weight of the current arguments and offer us clear choices. Each party needs to clarify what its platform stands for and prioritize which is most important in implementation. Some issues have mutually exclusive factors that require a pragmatic and bipartisan political will that must also be addressed by this nation.

Are we going to morph into a country that recognizes that there are enough issues to support five, six or more parties? How do we address the fact that gaining knowledge is not something that simply looking for information on a subject will lead one to a clear understanding. In a plural society, finding a consensus is often impossible (how true lately) due to the many issues. But, allowing for differences of opinions and providing wide latitudes for individuals and groups to pursue their lifestyles, hopes and goals in an atmosphere of openness and the awareness that there are myriad paths to follow in those endeavors is critical. The majority in this country, I hope, agree with that assessment….soon.