Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Letting Go Of Philip Roth
Special to the Jewish Times
He is the last of the triumvirate standing. Bernard Malamud departed first back in 1986. Then, Saul Bellow passed in 2005. Along with Philip Roth, they were, as Bellow mockingly referred to all three of them, “The Hart, Shaffner & Marx of literature,” as if because they were all Jewish, they’d been clumped together in a haberdashery.
Since the birth of the new millennia, while Mr. Roth has vigorously written at a textual tear and his most prolific, penning a series of short, powerfully compact books, the stories stored in them have all been obsessed with death.
This month, and with his 31st book “Nemesis,” about a terrifying polio outbreak that threatens wartime Newark, N.J., Mr. Roth takes that grave subject beyond anything he’s done up until this point.
In 2001, he had David Kepesh (once the man who became a breast), a 70-year-old professor and critic, panicked about death and growing old.
By mid-decade in 2006, his short novel “Everyman” begins at the funeral of its protagonist, an old advertising executive. In “Exit Ghost” (2007), Mr. Roth writes his last book about his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (“The Ghost Writer”) — in a sense finishing him off. Soon after, in “Indignation” (2008) he travels back in time to 1951, where we find out the narrator is dead and relaying his story from the beyond. Then, in 2009, he writes “The Humbling” about a leading stage actor who kills himself with a shotgun.
Now, at the age of 77, is Mr. Roth trying to tell us something?
It cannot be ignored that Mr. Roth, who has always been an author obsessed with identity, is a post-modern writer and one whose fiction mirrors and explores the relationship between the work and the writer.
While his Zuckerman books are about the travails of an author, he internalizes even further in others, such as “Operation Shylock” (1993), where he has, as a doppelganger, the novelist Philip Roth travel to Israel to attend the trial of accused Nazi war criminal, John Demjanjuk, while an impersonator, going by the name Philip Roth, hijacks his identity.
Commenting on his narrative style in “Deception” (1990), he observes, “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction. … Let them decide what it is or isn’t.” Critics who’ve observed this Rothian hall of mirrors have called his technique metafiction.
If we are to follow his post-modern pathway of prose, where Mr. Roth’s message is typed within the pages of his medium, then we need to also ask … Will the eventual passing of Mr. Roth (that he seems to be foreshadowing, if not bellowing) signify a broader marker separating a generation? Are we at a seam in generations, where old media is dying along with old writers and new forms of media are the way by which contemporary writers will write?
Commenting in 2009, during an interview with Tina Brown of The Daily Beast, Mr. Roth considered the future of literature by stating his belief that within 25 years, the reading of novels will be regarded as a “cultic” activity:
“I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them, but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range. ...”
Likewise, his take on digital books as replacing printed copy, Mr. Roth opines:
“The book can’t compete with the screen. It couldn’t compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen, and it can’t compete with the computer screen. … Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn’t measure up.”
If we follow his Jeremiad, by sounding the death knell of both the medium of books and the messenger himself, Mr. Roth’s latest and perhaps most devastating piece of work since 1997’s “American Pastoral” not only gives us a metaphor about the death of his protagonist — he pens us a plague.
Not since the heroic rise and fall of Seymour “Swede” Levov, whom Mr. Roth built up into one of his most beloved characters, a star athlete and gallant All-American in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” (1997), do our hearts get torn asunder by Mr. Roth’s tender account.
“Nemesis” revolves around a young playground director named Bucky Cantor during the war year of 1944 on the streets of the Jewish Weequahic section in Newark during a polio outbreak. Mr. Roth endears us to young Bucky by portraying his caring manner with children and the amazing sway he has over them, only to steal it all away with a ravaging scourge.
After Mr. Roth’s recent decade of self-destructive story lines presaging his own eventual demise, he has now gone beyond self-annihilation to a broader, wider obliteration of a whole population with “Nemesis.” Death doesn’t just seek out the elderly individual, but an entire landscape of the future — children.
Beyond his individual characters’ struggles and travails, Mr. Roth is known to confront the zeitgeist. As the last of the triumvirate standing, he is like Lear, railing against more than just old age. Is this same terrain also the literary landscape that’s becoming ever more incomprehensible due to an explosion of media options, with an unfathomable number of garbled, incoherent messages thundering their tweets and text but in the end do not signify literature?
What is the future of Jewish literature, after Mr. Roth?
Derek Rubin, whose book “Who We Are On Being (And Not Being) a Jewish American Writer,” has examined, through a number of famous authors’ essays, the future of their genre. He believes, “Having achieved ‘everything,’ Roth perhaps now finds himself longing for something else.”
Mr. Rubin will come out with a new book in October by Brandeis University Press that will contain new, unpublished short stories by a number of Jewish writers. It is titled “Promised Lands — New Jewish American Fiction On Longing And Belonging.”
For Mr. Rubin, the idea of longing “has often shaped Jewish understanding of the ideal of the Promised Land.” He writes, “There have been periods in history when the Jews of the Diaspora have found themselves in such hopeless circumstances that they have felt that they would never be able to reach the Promised Land, whether real or metaphorical.”
This is what Mr. Roth has done with “Nemesis” and has been doing with much of his historical fiction; he goes back to a seemingly idyllic time, and uncovers a deeper, wrenching underbelly within it.
Mr. Rubin writes, “Roth inhabits this critical no-man’s land from which he has a clear view of the Jewish post-immigrant world of his parents and of contemporary American society. Owing to the strange overlapping of generational experience, he was there to witness up close all the dilemmas, the insecurities, the confusion, indeed the hypocrisy, but also the comedy attendant on the post-immigrant experience without actually being a part of it.”
As an example of this, he recounts Mr. Roth’s essay “My Life As A Boy,” in which he talks about growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. It wasn’t Judaism but baseball that was his “religion.” As it turns out, the boys in “Nemesis” and on Bucky’s playground in 1944 play baseball.
Examining this duality between the historically real and the imagined, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, in a review of “American Pastoral,” recalls …
“Back in 1960, Philip Roth gave a speech in which he argued that American life was becoming so surreal, so stupefying, so maddening, that it had ceased to be a manageable subject for novelists. He argued that real life, the life out of newspaper headlines, was outdoing the imagination of novelists, and that fiction writers were in fact abandoning the effort to grapple with ‘the grander social and political phenomena of our times’ and were turning instead ‘to the construction of wholly imaginary worlds, and to a celebration of the self.’ ”
Fifty years later, just as he had here, Mr. Roth’s declaration to Tina Brown is as germane as ever, though magnified with the lens of time, as newspaper headlines have grown into an exponential number of media outlets blaring the death of the newspaper.
As Mr. Roth has concerned himself with death and dying and we await a Jewish writer of his stature to appear on the scene, there’s also been an amazing surge on the Internet of Jewish websites focused on Jewish literature and culture, many with hip names like Jewcy, Zeek, Heeb and Nextbook’s Tablet. They each have a strong literary sensibility, but with an edgy take on contemporary Judaism.
The editorial director of Nextbook/Shocken is Jonathan Rosen, who created the Jewish Encounter series and is the author of “The Talmud and the Internet.” As it turns out, he also has the distinction of writing the very last story in Mr. Rubin’s “Promised Lands” called “The True World,” which has an unnamed protagonist travel by boat to the beyond in order to interview a deceased Saul Bellow.
Contemplating the world beyond and the viability of getting there, by an author who has written about the Internet and its relationship to Talmud, I asked Mr. Rosen what he was aiming for in that story. He replied in talmudic fashion not with answers, but with questions, “What is the promised land in that story? The afterlife? Is it literature itself? The promised land of America … all these ideas coalesced in my head.”
Indeed, this vast unknown, uncharted world that we are able to tap into, that is the Internet, opens up whole new worlds to us. Is Mr. Rosen suggesting there’s a way to do that today? “I don’t think the Internet leads you into a metaphysical world, but in the Talmud, the living talk to the dead and all these texts are mingled together and what is an actual story is hard to separate.”
As it relates to fiction, Mr. Rosen, who is also a published novelist (“Eve’s Apple,” “Joy Comes in the Morning”), says, “The dialogic nature of the novel, the multiplicity of voices you can employ, allows one a more honest open relationship to all the fragments.” For Mr. Roth, according to Mr. Rosen, “is in some sense a posthumous writer already, and has drawn inspiration from that intuition. He has a novel narrated by a dead man, and ‘The Ghost Writer’ plays with the question of how in order to write about life you must absent yourself from it. All writers, in that sense, are posthumous. In ‘Zuckerman Unbound,’ the hero has written a scandalously carnal novel [‘Carnovsky’] like ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ but is himself a lost soul and, increasingly, a lost body.”
When Philip Roth burst on the scene in the late ’50s, websites like Tablet and Zeek certainly weren’t around, but there were literary critics that sang his praises and as Mr. Rosen points out, “There was a generation of writers as concerned as critics, with the writers, with themes and subjects that these novelists were concerned with. Saul Bellow was born in 1915 and so was Alfred Kazin. Irving Howe reviewed Roth’s collection of stories at the time and on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.”
There was also a generation of writers, artists and musicians who were creating a renaissance in American letters and popular culture. From Allen Ginsberg, who had completed his poem “Kaddish” in 1959 (the same year “Goodbye Columbus” was published), and Nabokov’s controversial “Lolita,” to jazz musician Miles Davis who had recorded “Kind of Blue,” one of the best-selling jazz records of all time. Mr. Roth arrived on the doorstep of the 1960s, an era of artistic exuberance.
By the end of that decade and with “Portnoy’s Complaint” in 1969, Mr. Roth outraged many of those same critics, who called his book vulgar and Mr. Roth a self-hating Jew.
Unfortunately, for some, that label still sticks, though if you ask them what of Mr. Roth’s they’ve read lately, they may reply, “Goodbye Columbus.”
By turning a critical eye on his tribe and blending fact and fiction, “Portnoy’s Complaint” did not endear him to critics or to Jews.
In a 1972 essay in Commentary titled “Philip Roth Reconsidered,” Howe famously tore into Roth, “What the book speaks for is a yearning to undo the fate of birth; there is no wish to do the Jews any harm. … Portnoy is simply crying out to be left alone, to be released from the claims of distinctiveness and the burdens of the past, so that, out of his own nothingness, he may create himself as a ‘human being.’ ”
Roth did re-create himself with that book and even told The Paris Review in 1984, “Portnoy wasn’t a character for me, he was an explosion.” Ironically, the self, which Howe talked about, was to be the focus of Roth’s next several novels, after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and spanning two decades.
For Howe, Mr. Roth closed an era of Jewish literature based on what he called the “post-immigrant Jewish experience” and a world he wrote about with sensitivity in “World Of Our Fathers.” His pessimism toward any new, revitalized Jewish literary re-awakening is even referred to as the Howe Doctrine. “Will there remain a thick enough sediment of felt life to enable a new outburst of writing about American Jews?” Howe asked. Howe, who died in 1993, wasn’t able to see and experience the amazing output from Jewish writers of many varieties and how young people today are experiencing them.
For professor Evelyn Avery, who teaches courses in Jewish literature at Towson University, the question of where Jewish literature is headed and who is leading the way is met with optimism.
“I am very affirmative and very pleased with the direction it’s going,” she says. “I see a movement toward Judaism and in particular religious writing and themes and particularly women writers such as Allegra Goodman and Dara Horn who have been affected by their heritage and weave it into their art.
“There’s a vibrancy and a lot of variations of Jewish writers.” For example, Pearl Abraham, who in her first book turns her back on her traditional Chasidic life. But by the end of her second, it ends with the protagonist going to Israel. Then in her third book, ‘The Seventh Beggar,’ there was a respect for that Chasidic world and she was much more positive about being a religious Jew.”
Dr. Avery also includes in her course the works she considers classics and that hold up — novels by Malamud and Bellow and the short stories in Mr. Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus,” which she says the students respond to very well.
According to Dr. Avery, while the direction literature is taking pleases her, in our constantly plugged in and always on world, “many students can misuse technology as a tool to learn about these writers.” She says, “There’s a consensus among the faculty that the advances in technology can impose problems when students are scrolling, texting and on their cell phones.”
Ironically, Dr. Avery’s observations are not lost on one of today’s most celebrated and clever Jewish writers, who has recently come out with a dystopian satire “Super Sad True Love Story,” where books are extinct and people use their apparats (an iPhone on steroids) to point at anyone and obtain their credit score or perform an instant background check and perceive their desirability for sex.
While Gary Shteyngart places his story in a future setting, he smartly embeds so many believable aspects into it, one can’t help but recognize their ubiquity in our constantly turned on world.
Another celebrated Jewish writer, who is also known to rankle the establishment and is an advocate for returning fiction to a focus on story by way of genre fiction, is Michael Chabon.
Mr. Chabon, who grew up in Columbia, won the Pulitzer Prize at the beginning of the millennia for “The Amazing Adventures Of Cavalier & Clay.” His wish is to return entertainment back into novels, and he takes issue with those who seek to belittle it.
“The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it [entertainment] is not to disparage or repudiate,” he said, “but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences. …”
Like Michael Chabon, Laura Lippman spent part of her youth growing up in the planned city of Columbia. Along with Mr. Chabon, she, too, is a champion of genre fiction and her mysteries featuring Tess Monaghan have won the Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, Nero, Gumshoe and Shamus awards.
A few years ago, when Ms. Lippman spoke at Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore along with her husband, David Simon, I asked her who her hero was, and she replied (unaided) Philip Roth.
Ms. Lippman said of Mr. Roth: “I learned a lot from Roth about POV, not so much in the technical sense, but in watching him place his imagination behind people quite unlike himself.”
As for Mr. Chabon’s efforts to bring fiction back in the direction of entertainment, she says, “Fiction needs to go where readers want to follow. I’m not saying it has to be excessively popular, or cater to the lowest common denominator. But fiction centers on stories.”
Mr. Chabon’s arrival and his desire for content to possess the attributes of entertainment also comes during a decade when the means by which we read have aligned with how we read. After all, Nooks, Kindles and especially iPads are clearly entertainment devices that merge reading and multi-media; learning and fun; work and play.
In July, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, announced that his customers now buy more digital books made for the Kindle than they do hardcovers. Equally, Barnes and Noble is up for sale as bricks and mortar bookstores are being outdone by e-books.
Even college students like Dr. Avery’s will soon be accessing those once expensive, clunky textbooks through Inkling, which claims to be “the world’s first end-to-end platform for mobile learning content.” It will make textbooks available on Apple’s iPad for $2.99 per chapter and it will also make full use of iPad’s color, video and touch screen.
However, like youth, iPads are not to be wasted on the young. Bloomberg’s Businessweek reported that the iPad’s intuitive interface makes it appealing to senior citizens as their source for news and entertainment.
Consequently as the medium of technology shows no signs of pausing, even for an older demographic, one of the most august message providers of Jewish news, The Forward, which began publishing in 1897, is also adapting.
In a Sept. 2 letter from the publisher, it became a “membership organization”: “… just as the immigrant community sustained the Yiddish Forward since after its founding, in 1897, we’re inviting our friends and readers to support us today. … Today, the cutting edge has moved away from websites to the broader universe of digital media: mobile apps, iTunes, podcasts, YouTube channels, Tweets and whatever will follow. … but the most important transition is not technological. It’s generational.”
Speaking about the shifting media landscape with Dan Friedman, arts and culture editor at The Forward and a founding member at Zeek, he says, “While different publishers are at different places in the curve, all publishing enterprises have to keep abreast of the latest. They’ll have to have an iPhone app, iPad app, and you want to make sure there’s multimedia on your website.”
As for the changes taking place, Mr. Friedman says it’s a reflection of the demographics. “The Jewish community doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago — a predominantly suburban, Conservative, JTS-led movement of Jews doesn’t exist anymore. The children of those suburbs are not interested in being those types of Jews.”
According to Mr. Friedman, unlike the era that Bellow and early Roth were writing in, “There’s a form of pluralism that did not exist in the few decades post-war. The Conservative movement has broken down, as has the suburbs, as the location has broken down. You see it in the culture. There are a lot of people that are engaged culturally with the project of Judaism in all sorts of different parts of our history in ways that are much more forward looking.”
The era when Bellow, Malamud and Mr. Roth were clumped together was reflective of a closer-knit Jewish culture.
Literature today, like the medium of the Internet with its vast diversity that allows us the ability to go divide into our own cultural and political cocoons, is a balkanized Diaspora — but, nevertheless, a very productive one.
Asked to give his take on the future of Jewish writers, Mr. Friedman, as an editor who gets a large quantity of books across his desk to be reviewed, says, “Our rate of cultural production is not slowing.”
While The Forward is morphing, and has created alliances with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz and with Zeek Media, the irreverent Jewish periodical Heeb magazine announced, just a few days prior, that it was suspending the print edition and going online only.
According to Arye Dworken, creative director at Heeb, “It’s not a surrender. It’s more like a pause.”
He also laments, “Our media industry is a self-perpetuating death. We keep talking about the death of media and eventually it’s going to happen because we keep on talking about it.”
It is a strangely McLuhan-esque paradigm that we’ve converged upon. Mr. Roth, a post-modern writer, who has used as his subject matter an author like himself, and has killed him several times over the past decade and right when technology seems to be closing the book on physical books, now creates one that encompasses not just a single death, but a deadly pestilence.
One could say he’s been writing this same book all his life, for even in his short story “Epstein,” contained in his first book “Goodbye Columbus,” Herbie, a young son, died of polio at age 11.
In “The Ghost Writer,” at one point Amy Bellette says to Nathan Zuckerman that Lonoff (whom she imagines talking to from beyond the grave) told her, “Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of a literary era.”
Mr. Roth’s books may take on a different form in the future. One day they may become ephemeral bytes, transmitted from a cloud beyond. It will always be his stories that will breathe life onto the page.
They’ll keel us over with laughter and tear us apart with grief and, somehow, he and writers like him will be immortalized by living in all of us … forever.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Sunday Nov 07, 2010
Israel, the Jew
By Abe Novick
After a successful run in NYC’s Central Park this past summer and a film version released earlier in the decade, Al Pacino will again revive his
role as the notorious money-lending Jew on Broadway in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” (opens Nov. 7th)
Apart from having a major movie star provide a scenery eating performance, it’s a play that speaks to our time. For just as the world condemns Israel by assigning blame every time it responds in self-defense, so Shylock is mischaracterized in the eyes of Venetians. Just as the UN brands itself an objective forum for debate, so Portia disguises herself, masking her true identity in the courtroom.
Shakespeare’s Shylock is perhaps one of The Bard’s most complex characters, having been interpreted as both an evil villain on the one had
and a more sympathetic (though not without teeth), victim on the other.
In the midst of Venetian society, Shylock stubbornly wants/demands his pound of flesh. He wants what was agreed to. This obsessive need for Old Testament justice in the midst of a forgiving Christian culture is what undoes him in the end. Yet, Shakespeare also infuses him with humanity, by having him sympathetically reason with us in this now immortal speech.
"I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; … If you prick us, do we not bleed?…And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."
The resemblance in that speech to Israel is uncanny.
Indeed in today’s world, Israel could be an understudy for Shylock. The theatrical medium of 1596 (where citizens got their news as entertainment) still plays in the 24/7, infotainment, slanted-stage, media age of 2010.
But beyond the warped news lens and on the actual physical ground, Israel is isolated by its neighbors as if it were in a ghetto, literally walled off as Shylock is, unwelcome by the surrounding community and yet successful.
In his book, The Case For Israel, Alan Dershowitz concludes, “In order to assess the status of Israel in the international community, it may be useful to look at the Middle East’s only democracy as “the Jew” among nations.
Having been banned from other professions, Jews during the middle ages were limited to money lending or “usury” as a means of income. Yet in this castigated profession, they provided their Christian neighbors with needed capital to grow and prosper. Likewise, as Dershowitz points out, while Israel is a small country with an eye on defending itself, it has done more to benefit its Arab citizens working within its borders by providing economic opportunities.
Israel has continuously extended a hand in peace to its Arab neighbors and is doing so once again. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently said he would not even recognize Israel as a Jewish State.
In an early moment in the film version, a spiteful Antonio, played by Jeremy Irons, spits on Shylock as if he were subhuman, only to enter into
a bargain with him later on.
Without recognition as a Jewish state, without being seen for what you are, without the sense of shared humanity with the same eyes, hands and blood, how can Israel enter into a bargain?
During Shakespeare’s time, there were no Jews in England. They had been expelled in 1290. Rather, Jews were identified mainly by folklore passed down from sermons, dramas and ignorance. The Jew was depicted as the devil in countless Passion Plays and guilty of crucifying Jesus.
Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League consistently reports throughout the Arab world, where there are only a few Jews, canards such as the blood libel and denial of the Holocaust. Following the flotilla incident, Jews and Israelis were depicted as "blood-thirsty monsters, or as sharks".
With all its drawbacks, Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” is a complex, multi-dimensional story. While Israel also has shortcomings, in order for it to be dealt with, it should not be made in Shylock’s words, “a soft and dull-eyed fool, To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield…”
For peace to become a reality, the false perceptions of Jews and Israel as an enemy state, as vermin to be eradicated and as a nefarious villain only out for its pound of flesh, needs to end once and for all and before a realistic, long-term peace agreement can be staged.
Abe Novick is a writer in Baltimore. His work can be found at: www.abenovick.com
Thursday, October 21, 2010
This month, media reporting on media reached an all-time crescendo, with a scherzo interjecting the old canard about Jews running the show.
We had comedian Stephen Colbert, who plays a fake newscaster who is genuinely liberal but pretends to be staunchly conservative,on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” He seeks to ridicule Fox News (which claims to be “Fair and Balanced,” but alas, that’s why his irony works).
Before a congressional hearing and in character but under the guise of being legit (it sounds like an oxymoron … but it’s what we’re dealing with), Mr. Colbert, in jaw-dropping testimony, promoted some pretty horrendous shtick.
Not since Groucho Marx stood before and insulted the leaders of Freedonia in “Duck Soup” has a comedian revealed the underlying, absurd elements of a government.
The Congress sat there and naively, politely listened (while cameras rolled) as if they’re supposed to take this demonstration seriously.
The entire mockery then got tossed into the blender of banter occupying several days of otherwise worthy news and commentary. When fake news reports on real news, it makes for satire. But when real news reports on fake news, it dilutes the seriousness of the real thing.
Lending further distortion, I learned about this stunt on Facebook, which showed a clip from YouTube that lifted it off C-Span. This is a McLuhan-esque realm, where media and message collide.
While such lenses make for a hall of warped mirrors, somewhere inside them are real issues and real people in pain being affected socially, economically and politically.
Oddly, a lot of Mr. Colbert’s viewers will be lured to witness his live Oct. 30 event in Washington, when he will lead a march titled “Keep Fear Alive.” While real, it’s a faux cause in response to his counterpart Jon Stewart’s “Rally To Restore Sanity,” which is in reaction to Glenn Beck’s August rally to “Restore Honor To America.”
Mr. Beck’s rally was held on the same date and place where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his immortal “I Have A Dream” speech. Because of that and his close identification with the Tea Party, his construct smacked of appropriating hallowed ground.
Surely, in a never-ending cycle, these dueling real-time rallies will garner the same kind of media exposure and frenzy (only exponentially) because of the hyper-real hype.
Not enough? This comedic spectacle coincides with the Jon Stewart/ Rick Sanchez mano-a-mano.
Mr. Sanchez, fired for making comments on Pete Dominick’s satellite radio show, called Mr. Stewart a “bigot.” When told Mr. Stewart was Jewish and a minority “as much as you are,” Mr. Sanchez said, “… to imply that somehow they — the people in this country who are Jewish — are an oppressed minority? Yeah.”
As a country with real problems, we tumble downward into a Carollian wonderland, all because a CNN show host, mad because he was ribbed by a comedian, ended up revealing his true, ugly nature on tape.
Comedy has a way of unmasking it without us realizing it. Mr. Colbert stripped down Congress by making a mockery of it. Mr. Stewart tweaked Mr. Sanchez just enough for him to blurt out what he really thought.
Yet there is no comic relief from this ongoing agitation, only a frustrating, furious intensification.
Abe Novick writes monthly for the Jewish Times on the intersection of American and Jewish culture. His work is at abebuzz.com.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
August 27, 2010
Special to the Jewish Times
Perched at the front entrance of the Owings Mills JCC on security duty during the Maccabi Experience, I waved in car after car of parents dropping off their children, host families picking up their children and busloads shuttling them back and forth between events.
What struck me was how all of it, all of it, was done for the children. It was all done for the future. What an amazing sight. Anyone who wandered through the JCC was witness to wall-to-wall teens teeming with exuberance and a glow of energy. In turn, their youthful presence provided a reciprocal warm feeling inside anyone over the age of 18 and gave of themselves in any small way.
But then my flight hit some turbulence as the next day’s newspaper landed on my driveway and I wondered about their future and what, ultimately, we’re actually leaving them.
In three bold front page photos, The New York Times ran a story describing the devastation from the floods drowning Pakistan, wildfires consuming Russia and excessive rain in the Midwest moving many in the scientific community closer to a consensus — (as if Baltimore couldn’t tell ’em) — it’s getting warmer.
As Bobby Dylan once sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Still it’s not just the times that are a changin’. “The climate is changing,” concurs Jay Lawrimore of the National Climatic Data Center.
Turning the news page to another part of the blazing forest, there lives a modern day Haman who is ever closer to gaining the capacity to set off and ignite a fire and “wipe Israel off the map.”
I watched as a shaken and distraught Caroline Glick, senior Middle East fellow with The Center for Security Policy, recently spoke about Iran at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emuhah Synagogue. She opened with, “In a very real sense, the Jewish people are in peril today in a way they haven’t been in a very long time.” You can find her hour-long talk on Youtube.
From a global rise in anti-Semitism to the inordinate amount of anti-Israel propaganda aimed at the tiny democracy, they’re sticks and stones when compared to the very real threat of Iran with the bomb.
As John Bolton pointed out, Iran is not the atheistic Soviet Union and this is not the Cold War. Iran is a theocracy that believes their reward will come in the next life. Therefore, life is not what’s sacred, but death is. Iran won’t be contained the same way we’ve done it in the past.
Then there’s the ultimate ponzi scheme - the debt that’s mounting for our children and grandchildren. Without an expanding economy, our debt gets worse and worse. But rather than investing in smart growth, we borrow from China to pay for the oil that we import from the same dictators that hate us and seek to destroy us.
At the opening ceremonies, there was a slide show with the faces of Jewish athletes and artists from years gone by. I wonder now about the world they were born into — a 20th Century filled with war and destruction and yet they persevered.
Somehow, through strength and promise along with the wisdom we manage to pass onto them, our youth will live to celebrate and give back to their children the same kind of bright torch that was lit that first night.
Abe Novick, whose work is at abenovick.com, writes monthly on the intersection of popular and Jewish culture.
Monday, August 2, 2010
If you haven’t dropped off Facebook, Twitter or the Internet yet, due to privacy concerns, then you’ve probably also noticed a profound change in the way they’ve morphed.
What’s taken place is a transition from what I call YouTube to WeTube.
On Facebook for instance, huge groups have formed that, because they have so many “friends,” they’ve had to alter the nomenclature from “friend” to “fan.”
In a matter of only a few days after the flotilla incident, a group on Facebook formed, “The Truth About Israel’s Defensive Actions Against the Flotilla.”
In no time, the group limit overflowed with individuals and other groups piling on and joining the cause.
Rallies and marches were set up all over the world in support of Israel. The “we” came together. In a matter of a couple of days, I was at the Baltimore Zionist district rally in the Inner Harbor.
Photos were taken of the event. Media came and covered it. The photos were then posted back up on Facebook and shared with other larger groups like CAMERA and Stand With Us International.
Clips from YouTube were also linked from rallies all over the world.
No longer was it about just you or me. It became of force for uniting a force of we.
FOR MANY Jewish groups today the idea of tikkun olam plays a significant role. Literally, meaning “world repair,” it connotes social action.
According to My Jewish Learning, it derives from Lurianic Kabbala, a branch of mysticism born out of the work of 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria and the Lurianic account of creation.
The story goes, divine light became contained in vessels, some of which were shattered, scattered and some of the light attached to broken shards possessing evil. The repair that’s needed is gathering the light.
Today, the light speed at which information is carried can be a powerful weapon in the fight against tyranny.
Social media and social action converge to be a force for good. In a matter of moments a wrong can be exposed and a forthright campaign mounted to right it.
But while the speed of light can be a fierce weapon in any fight, what are the obstacles? While technology is racing forward, it conflicts with a slow deliberative governing process. As the world speeds up, the political process doesn’t.
That blockage directly clashes with the profound feeling that when we see something wrong, we want it fixed immediately.
When Iranian protesters took to the streets of Teheran last year, it was broadcast for the entire world to see on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Yet the US government, and President Barack Obama in particular, seemed passive and indecisive at a point when a moral stand was necessary and the right thing to do.
When thousands of rockets poured down on the Negev from Gaza, groups came together on Facebook in support of Baltimore’s sister city of Ashkelon.
But the governing bodies of the US and the UN were restrained in voicing their condemnation. It wasn’t until after withstanding bombardment for years, when Operation Cast Lead was initiated, that they reprimanded Israel.
Obama certainly embodies and personifies the deliberative mind. And it’s important for government to weigh issues, especially given the deadly stakes in today’s heavily armed world.
But as the BP oil spill demonstrates, government can’t operate in constant crisis communications mode or appear at a standstill. It has to get out in front of issues before they turn into disasters broadcast for the entire world to see.
With the Internet and the speed at which information flows, every issue appears like a disaster. If not dealt with swiftly, it can undo an administration.
Look at the past several US presidents.
They each share a similar pattern.
They all led during the escalating age of the Internet and each hit speed bumps (some crashing) soon after winning the presidency.
George Bush I: Once the dust cleared after Desert Storm, we clearly saw how out of touch he was, perhaps best personified by his lack of check-out-counter skills. He seemed a man from the past, as we were moving forward.
Bill Clinton: Got the economy rolling, but we’d grown tired and drained by the constant scandals exacerbated daily on Web sites like The Drudge Report.
George Bush II: After 9/11 he had the highest approval ratings of any president. Yet with no WMDs, Katrina and an economic meltdown as a finale, he left office with the lowest approval ratings of any president.
Obama: Has moved too slowly on every issue from health care and the economy to the oil spill.
The haste with which we call for action, grinds in the gears of a slowmotion government personified by its leaders. Media and technology race ahead at light speed and magnify the sharp, glaring disparity with government, making it harder to contain the broken vessels.
The writer is based in Baltimore and works in communications.
What’s taken place is a convergence from what I call YouTube to WeTube.
On Facebook for instance, huge groups have formed that, because they have so many “friends,” they’ve had to alter the fan nomenclature from “friend” to “fan.”
Only days after the Gaza-bound flotilla incident, a Facebook group formed — “The Truth About Israel’s Defensive Actions Against The Flotilla.” In no time, the group limit overflowed with individuals and other groups joining the cause. Rallies and marches were set up worldwide in support of Israel. The “we” came together.
Within days, the Baltimore Zionist District had rallied in the Inner Harbor. Photos were taken. Media covered it. Shots were posted on Facebook and shared with larger groups. Clips from YouTube were linked from rallies all over the world.
No longer was it about just you or me. It became a force for uniting — a force of we.
For many Jewish groups today the idea of tikkun olam plays a significant role. Literally meaning “world repair,” it connotes social action. But according to myjewishlearning.com, it derives from Lurianic Kabbalah, a branch of mysticism born out of the work of kabbalist Isaac Luria and his Lurianic account of creation.
As the story goes, Divine Light became contained in vessels, some of which were shattered, scattered and some of the light attached to broken shards possessing evil. The repair that’s needed is gathering the light.
Today, the light speed at which information is carried can be a powerful weapon in the fight against tyranny. Social media and social action converge to be a force for good. In a matter of moments a wrong can be exposed and a forthright campaign mounted to right it.
But while the speed of light can be a fierce weapon in any fight, what are the obstacles? While technology races forward, it conflicts with slow deliberative, governing. As the world speeds up, the political process doesn’t.
That blockage directly clashes with the profound feeling that when we see something wrong, we want it fixed — immediately.
When Iranian protesters took to the streets last year, it was broadcast for the entire world on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Yet our government, and President Obama in particular, seemed passive and indecisive when a moral stand was necessary and the right thing to do.
When thousands of rockets poured down on Southern Israel from Gaza, local groups came together on Facebook in support of our sister city of Ashkelon. But the governing bodies of the United States and the United Nations were restrained in voicing their condemnation. It wasn’t until after withstanding bombardment for years, when Operation Cast Lead was initiated, that they reprimanded Israel.
President Obama certainly embodies and personifies the deliberative mind. And it’s important for government to weigh issues, especially given the deadly stakes in today’s heavily armed world. But as the BP oil spill demonstrates, government can’t operate in constant crisis communications mode or appear at a standstill. It has to get out in front of issues before they turn into disasters broadcast for the entire world to see.
The haste with which we call for action grinds in the gears of a slow-motion government personified by its leaders. Media and technology race ahead at light speed and magnify the sharp disparity with government, making it ever more glaring.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Spin all you want; Tech-savvy folks no longer buy old advertising tricks Read more: Spin all you want; Tech-savvy folks no longer buy old advertising
We’ve entered the age of action. No longer will ads, PR and spin be the sole savior to swoop down and rescue a fallen hero, sports figure, CEO or brand.
In a bygone era, advertising could clean up most any mess. But today, all the PR kings and all the ad hucksters couldn’t put BP together again.
The camera doesn’t lie. But what’s changed today is everyone has a camera. Everyone is a potential reporter and photojournalist.
In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the media’s downshift due to advertising’s Balkanized, post-apocalyptic diaspora, transformed by a new millennia, with millions of motivated mavens ready to post their perspicacious point of views.
Ten years ago, not long after the dot-com bubble burst and names like Pets.com vaporized into the ethereal pet cemetery netherworld of bygone brands, the efficacy of advertising was deemed as doomed to go with them.
Even the great Al Ries, marketing guru and author of several brilliant books and the man who coined the term “positioning,” eulogized advertising in his 2002, “The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR.” In it, he wrote, “Publicity provides the credentials that create the credibility in the advertising.”
In other words, until a brand has some cred, simply advertising it doesn’t do the trick. For example, if you get a sales call from a business without a reputation, no matter how good its product or service, are you going to buy it? Most likely you’ll hang up, turn the page, hit delete.
Fast-forward to today, when news and publicity are no longer generated down a one-way street, when citizens are armed with camera phones and text is a verb, where their scoop on your dirt is posted in a nano-second on YouTube, we’re seeing a further erosion — the decline of PR and the rise of real action.
Most typically, one of the first tools of crisis communications is to combat negative press with a counter punch by leveraging the stature of a CEO in ads and in front of news media. BP spent millions to lift its image, with full-page ads in major newspapers and TV commercials.
But the public wasn’t buying it. They didn’t want ads. They wanted action and BP’s Tony Hayward’s words were KO’d by the perpetual, live-action footage emanating from deep under the sea. Bottom line: Slick ads and spokespeople are no match for an oil slick.
In a constantly on world, with ever-present cameras, reality will win where manufactured moments won’t. People have little time and no patience for spin, can spot it and sense its presence in an instant. They want and clamor for what’s real, authentic and true.
It’s no coincidence that a sober desire for so-called Reality TV arose during the same tumultuous, tide-altering and highly caffeinated decade when traditional forms of media were swept away.
Advertisements, spin and salespeople are like a big monster to be avoided with TiVo. People don’t want talk. They want actions from politicians, corporations and media.
It’s not enough to say you’re going to be open and transparent, as BP has done. Because if you’re not doing everything in your power to be truthful, even before you say a word, you’ll be dead in the water.
In a bygone era, advertising could clean up almost any mess.
But today, all the PR kings and all the advertising hucksters couldn’t put BP together again.
Today (like every other day) the camera doesn’t lie. But what’s changed today is — everyone has a camera. Everyone is a potential reporter, ad exec and PR pro.
In the last decade, we’ve seen the downshift from advertising’s Balkanized, post-apocalyptic Diaspora, transformed in a new millennia by thousands of media mavens ready to post their perspicacious POVs.
Ten years ago, not long after the dot-com bubble burst and names like Pets.com vaporized into the ethereal pet cemetery netherworld of bygone brands, the efficacy of advertising was deemed as doomed to go with them.
Even the great Al Ries, marketing guru, author of several brilliant books and the man who coined the term “positioning,” eulogized advertising in his 2002 “The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR.” He wrote, “Publicity provides the credentials that create the credibility in the advertising.”
In other words, until a brand has some cred, no one’s going to pay it any mind. If you get a phone call from a Jewish organization you never heard of, no matter how worthy their cause, are you going to write them a check? Buy their product? Most likely, you’ll hang up, turn the page, hit delete.
Fast-forward to today, when news is no longer generated down a one-way street, when citizens are armed with camera phones and text is a verb, where their scoop is posted in a nanosecond; we’re seeing a further erosion — the fall of PR and the rise of real action (docu-action).
Three recent examples demonstrate the point:
• Zionism 2.0 — Israel’s boarding on the flotilla was shot and posted all over the Internet for the world to see, moments after the raid took place. Had it not been for the lightning speed of streaming video, the gruesome images of beatings, stabbings and a soldier tossed over a railing, no one would have believed it. Even with the video, Israel had its skeptics (as it always does). But without it, our side would have been helpless. The lesson: Being armed with a camera is more powerful than any weapon.
• The Face That Launched A Thousand Hits — Had it not been for Rabbi David Nesenoff’s penetrating lens, Helen Thomas would still be planted in the front row of the White House press room. His stark video clip was able to see into her heart of darkness, piercing the hardened 89-year-old exterior, and expose her for what she truly was — an ugly anti-Semite.
• Slick Ads Are No Match For An Oil Slick — Most typically, one of the first tools of crisis communications is to combat negative press with a counter-punch by leveraging the stature of a CEO in ads and in front of news media. BP spent millions to lift its image, with full-page ads in major newspapers and TV commercials. But the public wasn’t buying it. They didn’t want ads. They wanted action and BP CEO Tony Hayward’s words were KO’d by the perpetual, live-action footage emanating from under the sea.
It’s not enough to say you’re going to be open and transparent, as BP has done. Because if you’re not doing everything in your power to be truthful, even before you say a word, you’ll be dead in the water.
Abe Novick writes monthly for the Baltimore Jewish Times.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
In his loaf of lechem-sized novel of the CIA, “Harlot’s Ghost”, Norman Mailer traces the undercover upbringing of his young cold warrior and recruit Harry Hubbard through the spy vs. spy world of espionage. In one memorable section, while learning the ways of subterfuge and duplicity, Harry must associate colors with numbers. When he sees a red wall, behind a gray table with an orange lamp, it represents 586.
For anyone else, the colors and furniture arrangement would mean nothing. But to a spy, it could be the code to any number of potentially ominous outcomes.
What appears as nothing particularly significant to an ordinary person, actually has incredible stakes to code-breakers, CIA and Mossad.
Fast forward sixty-years and the same Cold War concept applies to today as the very essence of modern terrorism is to cloak evil behind a mask, whether Islam, Palestine or some warped version of a universal ideal like freedom. In reality, those notions are only ephemeral shrouds to cravenly hide the deeper-seeded hatred toward Jews and the west.
Striking at its cultural heart, known for its populous Jewish citizenry, where the lights of western commercial marquees emblazon the sightlines of Broadway, the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad came within a hair’s breadth of a show stopper, stabbing right through it.
Young Faisal is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan. But his bomb-making training reveals his affiliation with Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The latter is the same group that attacked a Jewish Center in Mumbai. Meanwhile, the former plotted to attack the Danish Newspaper in Copenhagen for running the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad
While running around the cross-streets of 45th and Broadway in an Islamic Jihad get-up would’ve surely tipped off the street vendors, Shahzad’s disquise was an Americanized persona - the perfect veil. How cunning.
The modus operendi of this cowardly ilk is “hiding”. Now train your camera telescopically. When and if Iran actually attempts a nuclear attack on Israel, it won’t be from a missile launched from within their borders. They are far too spineless. They’ll hide behind one of their proxies such as Hezbollah. It won’t be a rocket for all of the world to see and trace its vapor cloud, but via a tunnel underground.
Iran is the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism. Why would their successful precedent change? Were Iran to acquire a nuclear device, their means of delivery targeted upon Israel would remain the same.
Why would Iran claim responsibility and risk immense retaliation and utter obliteration, instead of igniting their lethal device through some third or fourth party?
When the US Marine barracks in Lebanon were bombed in 1983 and 241 US servicemen were killed Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. It’s suspected that actually Hezbollah, who in turn received help from the Islamic Republic of Iran, were responsible.
But I ask you, whom did we attack in response?
Likewise since then, Iran has transferred sophisticated short-range rockets to both Hezbollah and Hamas. Both terrorist groups have used them to kill Israeli civilians in past wars.
Due to the very nature of these and other craven acts, the enemy hides cowering behind a cloak of anonymity knowing that Israel and the United States won’t risk an all out international war to exact revenge. Their modus operendi is too ephemeral and more often than not, ghostlike, they slip away.
Mailer captured the Cold War not with an epic about massive warheads pointed across oceans, but revealed it through the hidden world of the CIA.
Finding Faisal’s Pathfinder was fortunate. Capturing him was shrewd. But taken on a larger scale, today’s counter-terrorism efforts should look for what’s concealed right in front of them. Appearance and reality are by definition, paradoxically in conflict.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Adolf Eichmann was captured fifty-years ago, on May 11th 1960 outside of Buenos Aires. Eleven days later he was on Israel’s soil and on May 23rd Prime Minister David Ben Gurion stood at the podium of the Knesset and announced to a hushed crowd his news.
Eichmann’s capture reignited the world’s outrage over the Holocaust. Up until that time, many desired to move on. After all, Israel had plenty of new and more immediate problems.
As Yom HaShoah folds into Yom HaAtzmaut and we turn from commemoration to celebration, I’m struck by the transition in outlook that took place from Israel’s statehood to the young country’s heroic marvel.
Notably, there’s a similar transition in cultural attitude that’s taking place today.
In the past twenty years, we’ve evolved from films like Schindler’s List to movies like Defiance and Inglorious Basterds. Jewish characterizations have morphed from victims to strong rugged combatants in the face of threats from Nazisnow they face evil head on with brawny bravura.
Arguably too, many American’s reference point for Jewish identification is Israel. And today it stands as a source of strength - economically, militarily and according to Gallup, American’s support of Israel ranks 63% - higher than after ‘67 and just one point below its high after the Gulf War.
Still, one can’t miss the skewed news reports and factually misleading editorials blaming Israel for the ills that plague that region.
President Obama’s misdirected pressure on Israel, especially given Iran’s nuclear ambitions that each day comes closer to actuality, is of utmost concern. It presents an existential threat to Israel through either itself or one of its terrorist proxies and destabilizes the entire region.
But what if, in this postmodern world, where the line between fiction and fact splice together seamlessly (Tarantino literally has film burn Hitler and his cronies to death), the story of Eichmann’s capture and a true wish-fulfillment fantasy made real, were to be revived?
Put yourself in the director’s chair and wonder if you will, what if Mossad captured Osama bin Laden? Imagine what that would do. Who in this country could claim to be anti-Zionist then? In one fell swoop it would be an end-run around placating the Obama administration, by directly appealing to the American people and a world constituency demonstrating a vigilant determination to seek justice.
Osama is a mass murderer who on countless occasions has vowed to destroy Israel. He and his group are not only responsible for 9/11 and the murder of Danny Pearl, but al Qaida carried out a suicide attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya killing 12 people, including three Israelis and wounding 80. Israel would be justified.
In this revenge fantasy (“Inglorious Zionests”), Israel’s Herculean labor would gain so much good will, an attack on Iranian nuclear installations would not only be cleared for take-off, they’d be escorted. It would change everything.
The stunned silence that greeted Ben Gurion, would be replicated upon Netanyahu by onlookers, many not knowing if it’s live or Memorex.
If it sounds too much like a cinematic whimsy, revisit the Eichmann capture and then tell me I’m dreaming. Read Neal Bascomb’s 2009 nail-biting, historical account of the operation in Hunting Eichmann. What stands out is the resolve, the fortitude and the grit. When Israel captured Eichmann, it broke the rules. When Mossad entered Argentina, it didn’t ask permission. It went in undercover. When El Al’s Britannia secretly whisked the war criminal away, it was through an illusory cloud of mystery.
What’s amazing about the story, is how so many things could have gone wrong jeopardizing the entire operation, but because of the determination of a handful of leaders, including Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, Mossad Chief, Isser Harel and others they persevered.
In 2010, we still hunt them. John Demjanjuk on trial in Munich is 89 years-old and stands accused of aiding the murder of 27,900 Dutch Jews in Sobibor. Last month, 88 year-old, Heinrich Boere was given the maximum sentence by a German court for murdering three Dutch civilians as part of a Nazi hit squad.
But what happens when they are gone? There will still be evil in the world and our focus should be aimed at the new Eichmanns. Our lens should not be lost, but readjusted.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
While the name Jihad Jane may sound like some warped Hannah Barbara cartoon character, she’s quite real and has been accused of plotting to murder an actual cartoonist, Swedish artist Lars Vilks.
You may recall his name from 2007 when he produced a drawing of Muhammad with a dog’s body. His case also follows the same controversial pattern that erupted back in 2005, when a Danish newspaper printed 12 cartoons of Muhammad. One in particular garnered a firestorm in which the Prophet is wrapped in a bomb-shaped turban. That sketch was the match which actually ignited the burning of Western embassies in a number of Muslim countries.
But the latent combustion was never quite doused out, as the heat from blond bomber, Jihad Jane (Colleen LaRose) who was arrested last year and lived outside Philly, PA now seems to have caught onto a second all-American looking femme fatale - Jamie Paulin-Ramirez from Colorado.
Ramirez was one of seven suspects arrested in Ireland just this month.
Neither quite fit the stereotypical bill, looking more like they fell out of a Dick & Jane story, than an Al Jezeera newsreel. According to her mom, Ramirez was a straight-A nursing student before abruptly hightailing it off on an assassination outing and ditching the Rockies.
Just as these same cartoonists alter depictions of Muhammad, is there not irony in the fact that Jihad Jane and her cohort shatter our image of what a terrorist looks like? Depending on who is doing the viewing both of these alterations are a shock to the familiar senses.
But as the ladies were out for blood, according to an Associated Press interview, Vilks was not interested in offending Muslims with his art, but aimed to show he could make provocative art about any topic he wanted, “There is nothing so holy you can’t offend it,” he claimed.
Commenting on their apple pie looks, a US Justice Department official said the case “shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance.”
Unhappy and discontent with their looks and adding more distortion to the story, the blond gals went in for a makeover, donning Islamic garb including headscarves and a hijab.
Undeniably, appearances can deceive and in both cases, it’s what’s underneath that counts. Their motive reveals their mask.
In 1930’s Nazi Germany, the newspaper, Der Sturmer (The Attacker) depicted Jews as sub-human with cartoons and caricatures. The intent was to create a fear and loathing of Jews. Some may wonder, where does the expressive artist’s line end and the creepy one begin?
After all, both utilize aesthetic techniques to illustrate a point. But one has to penetrate the page to get at the culprit. It becomes less about the art and more about the artisan. Just as advertising can show beautiful imagery, is it art or is it commerce?
"Propaganda tries to force a doctrine on the whole people... Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea." Adolf Hitler wrote these words in his book Mein Kampf (1926), in which he first advocated the use of propaganda to spread the ideals of National Socialism
Currently, those words are on display at the US Holocaust Museum where they are showing Nazi propaganda to shed light on this subject. And in our own blurred world of “reality tv” it comes at the perfect time as we can’t always tell what’s a real threat and what’s not.
For example, is depicting Jews as mice in Nazi Germany offensive? In 1992 Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel, “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale which recounted his father’s ordeal as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust.
Or what about R. Crumb (he’s not Jewish) who last year came out with “The Book of Genesis” published as a graphic novel. In the NY Times review in reference to Crumb’s G-d, it stated, “He is a profoundly — almost grotesquely — human-looking deity, very much the sort of being in whose image vulgar humankind could realistically come forth.”
I am not reading about any death threats aimed at him. Perhaps it’s because Jews have a sense of humor and are used to it? From Philip Roth to Mel Brooks, Jews have taken it on the chin and laughed about it louder than anyone else.
Or maybe it’s because we just understand and can see through the page and we get that their intent is not ugly – though unfortunately, some people’s reactions are.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
All Fall DownFebruary 26, 2010
Special to the Jewish Times
“A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.”
— Thomas Mann, “The Magic Mountain”
In 1924, between the wars, Thomas Mann published one of that century’s three great novels, “The Magic Mountain.” Along with James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance Of Things Past,” it stands alongside those other peaks of literary enormity and beauty.
Mann’s mountain, high up in the Alps, was a metaphor for Europe where at the top and in Davos was the sanatorium, presciently representing the illness that was to soon befall the continent.
One can’t help but think of that — Sontagian illness as metaphor — as the World Economic Forum recently met in Davos. As The New York Times, reported, “If there was one takeaway from the annual gathering of business and political leaders … it was this: trust in governments, corporations and above all banks has become as elusive as sure footing on the icy streets of this Alpine resort.”
Indeed while faith is a matter of the heart, one can muddle through life without it (see: atheism). But trust seems essential to this world. We trust the driver on the other side of the freeway is not suicidal. We trust Iran won’t carry through with its insane promises because it will be obliterated in return. And we trust our currency will not become cheap wallpaper.
When that trust disappears, we devolve. Like a contagion that infects us, we become an ailing society.
But no sooner after the Swiss confab ended, it was revealed that Greece, the very epicenter of Western civilization and rational thought, was on the brink and threatening a domino effect, taking with it other euro currency-based economies.
Then the threatening tremors trailed back to Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs, the same banking institution that personifies the problem with trust discussed in Davos.
Last week it was reported that Goldman helped Greece obscure billions in debt. “In dozens of deals across the continent, banks provided cash upfront in return for government payments in the future, with those liabilities then left off the books,” according to The New York Times.
It remains to be seen once again: Will what happens in Europe, stay in Europe? Or will this new contagion spread, now that we are all linked and all a part of that craggy, mountainous range.
At the time of Mann’s writing, Europe was still the king of the mountain. When all of that centrality came crashing down avalanche style with the next war, only wreckage was in its wake. Having rebuilt, Germany is again the powerhouse at its peak, all eyes looking to it to rescue Greece and lift the continent out of its slide.
How ironic that the cause of that first calamity, which closed the age of reason and enlightenment, is now positioned to make a decision and contemplate the notion, in a talmudic sense (predicating it upon a country), “Whoever saves a life, it’s considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Does it work in reverse, as we enter a new era of being LinkedIn, Tweeted and “friended” on Facebook by those once oceans apart? Is it also just self-preservation and when one hurts, we all are endangered? The answer, somewhere in between, was sung and dedicated to Haiti at the opening of the 2010 Olympics with the revived “We Are The World.”
But if we choose to be tied together, whether by commerce, energy dependence or something higher, we can rise together or else when one falls off a cliff, as Europe is finding out again, we can all fall.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
ABE NOVICK , THE JERUSALEM POST
The block letters are like colorful playthings on Google's home page. They look like candy. They're shaped like toys.
But as Google grows ever more ubiquitous and as it enters into additional areas beyond search with its acquisition of YouTube, and now mobile communications with its new Nexus One, those playful letters stand as a larger cultural marker - the fusion between work and play.
Similar to the eroding divisions between church and state, editorial and advertising, technology has melded work and play together. And, just as there are ethical concerns to consider in the first two long-standing categorical divisions, there are also ones to consider in this latest union. Is this meta-merger a good or a bad thing?
Consider first, work was usually something that was deemed real, while play was often thought of as something imagined. Work was once done mainly with the hands, play done with the mind.
But technology has morphed away from industries where we make real stuff to manufacturing information. And when we do make hardware (stuff we can hold in our hands), it's geared to carry chimerical bytes of that ephemeral information.
Nowadays and compounded with this phenomenon is the explosion of mobile technology, the imagined and the real world of work and play that have converged, are constantly within reach.
Wired recently called the last decade "The Mobile Decade": "People got increasingly plugged into an always-on, totally portable, always-connected existence." Gadgetry ranged from 2001's original iPod to 2009's Kindle 2.
For most of the previous century, it was left to Hollywood to create and export movies and entertainment around the world starting as far back as 1895 eventually culminating to become one of the US's largest export businesses. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, between 1986 and 2005, foreign sales of US motion picture and video products rose from $1.91 billion to $10.4 billion (in 2005 dollars) - an increase of 444 percent.
BUT TODAY, because it's no longer a one-way boulevard and YouTube and social media and mobile communications allow anyone and everyone to freely upload and export entertainment, that number is off the charts and is next to impossible to quantify.
The same technology that is used to transmit and watch movies and entertainment are the exact same devices that carry the images of protest from Iran and more recently the devastation and destruction in Haiti via Twitter and YouTube.
Even the side-armed stalwart to the business traveler, the Blackberry, attached at the hip like a road warrior's armament, is advertised on television with a version of The Beatles, "All You Need Is Love," a song once sung signifying countercultural values - the very antithesis of money and commerce. Now the playfulness of flower power has become intimately linked to the transactions of a global economy.
Moreover, the lead business stories in the last month have been about NBC's bouncing comedian/entertainer Jay Leno's show back to 11:35 p.m. and whether celebrity golfer Tiger Woods should still be a spokesman for corporations.
What was once a purely entertainment story has been subsumed by the business of entertainment. All the while in the consumer's mind, work and play collide, creating a new reality while supplanting distinctions that once existed.
Ethereal celebrities become equated with the businesses they represent and then suffer a messy divorce, while once and future politicians become celebrity journalists delivering the news and spin that was previously aimed directly at them.
What are the existential ramifications of life lived on this new stratum? Is it purely a matter for the individual to make the distinction? Or has work and play become ever more indistinguishable?
The philosopher Jean Baudrillard used the allegory of a map so large and detailed and laid over the territory it represents that it becomes the real and precedes the territory. It is what he calls the hyperreal.
But while there's a truth woven into the allegory, his metaphor ignores the harsh facts on the ground. Critical of his take, Susan Sontag in one of her later books, Regarding the Pain of Others, pointed out, "It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world." Sontag's criticism is more apt than ever, given the non-stop news footage coming out of Haiti these days.
But what neither of them has lived to see is the enormous proliferation of lenses to view what fast become historical events and that create a global hall of mirrors. Likewise, as seen and heard through the same devices that are bringing songs and movies, the world of work and play converge closer together and the newest medium's message will impact the way truth and lie are distinguished.
In the end, while Google's childlike colors evoke play, the world they open us up to can often be more like the one seen through a glass darkly.
The writer is based in Baltimore and works in communications. www.abenovick.com