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26. The English question: a Burkean response?

The prospective award of substantial new powers to the Scottish Parliament, which is currently being debated by the Smith Commission, has engendered a growing unease about the constitutional position of many different parts of the UK. This issue is causing concern in Wales, still reeling at the rushed and unfortunate decision to rule the Barnett formula out of the current constitutional debate, and Northern Ireland, where there is a gathering sense of uncertainty about questions ranging from income tax to the prospect of a hung Parliament, following the 2015 election, and the political leverage this might offer to the Democratic Unionist Party.

And there are concerns, too, for those English regions that feel squeezed between an ever more powerful London and a more autonomous Scotland primed to use the new levers it may acquire to divert investment in its direction.

The aftermath of the Scottish referendum has also unleashed a much wider debate about how England as a whole fares in the post-devolved Union, and specifically about some of the anomalies and asymmetries which Labour’s devolution reforms have accentuated — not least the question of how legislation that affects England only or mainly is handled in the Commons. The Conservatives have sought to claim this issue for itself, identifying with one particular answer to the West Lothian conundrum — English-votes-for-English-laws (EVEL).

Experts and campaigners have been quick to proclaim the pros and cons of this particular idea (which in fact can signal a spectrum of different changes, ranging from denying non-English MPs the right to vote on final readings of Bills to finding different ways of giving English representatives a greater role during the passage of legislation), and the main parties have for the most part responded to it in a dismally partisan fashion.

But these anxieties and worries need to be framed in relation to each other, so that this becomes a moment for wider reflection and democratic debate about some of the principles, conventions, and structures of governance within the UK. With the notable exception of the debate which the Lords staged a few weeks ago, these questions have been given too little consideration. Foundational issues such as how all the different pieces of the devolution puzzle might be knitted together, and what kind of democratic process is now required to ensure such an overview, are worryingly absent from much political discourse.

PM and Deputy PM outside Number 10 by The Prime Minister’s Office. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

There is a growing imperative for the parties to consider what kind of territorial constitution they now wish the UK to become, and to indicate the direction of travel in which they wish constitutional reform to move. Instead Labour says little, a stance that reflects its steady transformation into the conservative party in this area — grimly determined to defend a constitutional settlement which it introduced during the first Blair government.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been more sure-footed politically on this issue. Yet they would do well to ponder the curious evolution of their own unionism — for so long an essential ingredient within the party’s DNA. As it has become ever more Anglicized in terms of its parliamentary representation and grassroots strength, and as it has lost its foothold in Scotland and fallen back in Wales, the Unionist party has increasingly turned into the party of Southern and Eastern England. (Indeed one of the most striking features of UKIP’s current ascendancy is its current success in reaching across the chasm of electoral geography which neither of the two main parties at Westminster seems able to bridge). And while it makes considerable political sense for the Conservatives to try to harness a growing set of English grievances and sensitivities, this needs to be squared with the party’s attempt to pose as the champion of the Unionist tradition when dealing with Scottish separatism, on the one hand, and the strongly devolutionist drift of its policy thinking on Scotland and England, on the other.

These discordant notes need somehow to be brought into a new melodious arrangement. This, after all, is the Conservative party, which has always developed its thinking around the values of constitutional preservation, a respect for established institutions and governing structures, and a Burkean understanding of change as best undertaken in organic and evolutionary ways, rather than at the behest of abstract principle or rationalistic design. And accordingly, when the party has on occasions argued for big reforms — for instance the Corn Laws or the great Reform Act of 1867 — it has done so on the grounds that these changes would ensure the integrity and continuity of the system as a whole.

Houses of Parliament at twilight by Davide Simonetti CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

This ethic has formed the heart of a distinctively Conservative statecraft, an approach to governance reflecting the embedded values of prudent territorial management, sensitivity to the dispositions of the English shires, and a willingness to craft and oversee distinctive institutional settlements for the different territorial parts of the UK. Tory statecraft has for the most part sought to take the political sting out of differences over nationality and territory within the UK, rather than to accentuate and make political capital out of them.

But one of the most striking features of the current situation is the relative paucity of voices considering constitutional change in this kind of way. Instead, the party’s leadership seems to have been spooked by the rise of UKIP into jettisoning its remaining Burkean instincts. Forcing a vote on a proposal for the reform of the House of Commons, which it knows will create a major political division may well make some electoral sense — though whether English anomie will be impressed or satiated by EVEL remains to be seen — but also carries the risk of opening up territorial tensions without the prospect of a viable solution to them within a unionist framework.

Above all, the Conservative party needs to connect the case for the greater recognition and protection of English interests to its commitment to putting the Union on a more durable and fairer footing. Such a position is fundamentally different to the kinds of populist and resentful nationalism which UKIP, and some of its fellow travellers, currently favour. Interestingly, there are signs in recent polling that the English have responded to the Referendum, and the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK, by becoming somewhat less resentful and aggrieved about England’s position in the Union. Such a stance is not compatible, however, with the fantasy of symmetrical devolution all round which underlies the suggestions of those Conservative Cromwellians, who wish to introduce the kind of territorial reform to the House of Commons that would almost certainly amount to the creation of an English parliament and the potential dissolution of the Union.

The Conservatives would do well therefore to rediscover their own tradition of statecraft. This means re-engaging with the diversity of England and the English, and considering the changes that need to be made to the governance and economy of different parts of England — to its counties and rural towns, as well as city-regions and metropolitan authorities — as well as to the Westminster parliament. The boldness and ambition of the offer that George Osborne recently made to Manchester suggest an appreciation of the growing desire for devolution among the English. The challenge now is to shape a more extensive conversation that encompasses all the different pieces of the devolution jigsaw.

Headline image credit: Flag by treehouse1977. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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27. Parenting during the holidays

The holiday season can be an insanely stressful time. Looking for presents, wrapping them, cooking, getting the house ready for visitors, cleaning before and after. Nothing like a normal Saturday night on the couch in front of the TV or with a couple of close friends. The holidays demand perfection. You see it all around you, friends are talking about how stressed out they are, how much they still have to do in just a couple of days. Hyper-decorated stores are talking in their own way. As you approach the 25th of December you still haven’t bought half the gifts you need to rack up for family members, the house looks like a bomb crater and you occasionally wish yourself back in the office with piles of work on your desk waiting to be completed. There are even times when you would exchange a chilly Monday morning and an 8 o’clock meeting for this nerve-racking time that’s supposed to be happy, fun and merry.

What many rattled folks forget in the midst of buying last-minute bequests for loved ones or checking on the unhappy-looking beast in the oven minutes before guests arrive, wishing themselves far away, is that as many as half of the population face a holiday season without their dearest family members. There are people who have lost their loved ones in gruesome ways. I can’t even begin to imagine how they must feel, as they approach every new upcoming holiday season. There are people who have lost their parents to old age, people who have gone through heartbreaking divorces, separations and breakups and people who are overseas defending their country because they have no other choice. The holidays will not be what they once were for any of them. And then there are the single parents, parents many of which have decent custody agreements that are “in the best interest of the children.” According to the US Census Bureau, there are more than 10 million single parents in the United States today. Each year millions among them can look forward to days of loneliness because the little ones they really want to spend time with are with the other parent.

When sane parents separate, many judges, thankfully, divide custody equally. Each parent gets his or her fair share of custody, if at all possible. Even when it’s not possible to share the time with the children equally, judges will usually attempt to divide up the holidays evenly. The kids spend every other holiday with mom and every other holiday with dad. It certainly is in the children’s best interest to get to spend some time with each parent. Most kids, with decent moms and dads, would prefer to spend every holiday with both parents. The precious little ones secretly hope for the impossible: That their divorced or separated parents will get back together. But despite their wishes, they adjust to the situation. They have no other choice.

The array of Christmas presents, by SheepGuardingLlama. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

Nor do the parents. As we face the holidays many single parents face a very lonely time. They may be with dear family members: parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Yet they may nonetheless feel a profound pain in their hearts, even as they watch close relatives savor the pecan pie or scream in delight when they rip open their Christmas presents. Their own children are far away. In most cases the youngsters are in a safe place elsewhere, stuffing their faces with goodies or breaking out laughing when the other grandpa makes a funny face. In most cases single parents know that their children are enjoying themselves in the company of the other caregiver and his or her extended family.

Yet the children are missing from the scenery. Their absence is felt. “It hurts. It hurts every other Christmas when my kids are with their dad during the holidays,” says Wendy Thomas, a St. Louis, Missouri single mother of two girls ages 8 and 5. Thomas shares custody with the girls’ father, who lives in Illinois. “The first year was the hardest but I don’t think I will ever get used to it. Shopping malls and Silent Night make me shiver,” says the 38-year-old entrepreneur. This is her third Christmas and New Year’s without her children.

Each holiday a single parent truly misses his or her children on that one day that is supposed to bring delight to everyone. “It’s going to be a lonely, lonely Christmas without you” may just be tedious background music for the families that didn’t break apart. Each year, however, the oldie is causing a tiny tear to run quietly down the cheek of some single caregiver.

But could some of the reported agony over absent children during the holidays be the result of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, a psychological mechanism we use to justify our choices and conflicting belief sets? For example, you choose to volunteer three hours a week at the local children’s hospital. It’s killing you. You can barely fit in everything else you have to do. But you tell everyone, including yourself, that volunteer work is truly rewarding and every (wo)man’s duty. Making irrational decisions seem rational is a way to preserve your sense of self worth.

Studies show that the hardship involved in raising children makes us idealize parenthood and consider it an enormously rewarding enterprise. In a study published in the January 2011 issue of the journal Psychological Science researchers primed 80 parents with at least one child in two different ways. One group was asked to read a document reporting the costs of raising a child. The other parents read the same document as well as a script reporting on the benefits of having raised children when you reach old age. The participants were then given a psychological test assessing their beliefs about parenting. The team found what they expected. Parents who had only read about the financial costs of parenthood initially felt more discomfort than the other group. But they went onto idealize parenthood much more than the other participants and when interviewed later their negative feelings were gone.

“How do single parents get through Christmas as painlessly as possible?”

Could cognitive dissonance explain why single parents feel empty-handed and depressed during holiday seasons without their children? St. Charles, MO, family counselor Deborah Miller doesn’t think that’s what’s going on. “This year it’s my turn to be one of those parents. I’ll be the first to admit that raising a child is not always a blessing. There are countless times when I feel more like a chauffeur or a waitress or a slave than a free agent with some real me-time.” She thinks the lonely-parent phenomenon evidently is not a manifestation of cognitive dissonance, as we don’t idealize away the pain of being without our children on Christmas or New Year’s. The heartache often doesn’t go away until we see our kids again in January and abruptly remember just how draining it is to raise a child. “I’ll finally get some time to myself, and I know my son will have a blast. But I’ll miss him immensely,” says Miller.

How do single parents get through Christmas as painlessly as possible? The solution is not necessarily to have a huge family gathering with your side of the family to ease the sorrow. A gala dinner on Christmas Day may have its advantages. You can hug your little nieces and nephews and maybe feel a bit of comfort as they open their presents in a way only children can approach surprises. You may feel a teensy bit of wonder (or is it jealousy) as you view your siblings and their spouses exchange loving smiles and their young ones take delight in the simplest of things. “It may work for some but there is a sense in which you will only be a spectator,” says Miller. She recalls her Christmas two years ago. “I felt gratified to be part of a functional family, and it was good to see my siblings interact with their children. I also remember being thankful that my parents were still alive and healthy and that they got one more holiday season with some of their grandchildren. But I also felt great sadness, because the dearest thing in my life wasn’t with me. I really missed my son that day.” This Christmas, Miller is getting together with a few friends. “Sure, we will still have Christmas dinner but there won’t be any children or presents or sacred family traditions. So hopefully I won’t be reminded of what I’m missing out on.”

Featured image credit: Christmas Decorations, by Ian Wilson. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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28. Building a Home Library for Friends and Family

Do you often field gift book questions from patrons around the holiday season? I’ve had my share of parents ask me for the best new picture book of the year for their daughter or a grandparent who wants to gift their tween a book but has no clue where to start. If you have also had these experiences, check out ALSC’s updated booklists! These are a great resource to help parents, grandparents and caregivers of all sorts purchase great books for the children in their lives during the winter holiday season- or any time of year.

Image from http://www.ala.org/alsc/building-home-library-2014-update.

Image from http://www.ala.org/alsc/building-home-library-2014-update.

The ALA-Children’s Book Council (CBC) Joint Committee, with cooperation from ALSC’s Quicklists Consulting Committee, have updated the four Building a Home Library booklists to provide advice to caregivers and others interested in constructing an excellent, star quality library for children at home. The committee looked to include less mainstream gems, wonderful multicultural books, beloved classics and new, notable titles.

The CBC Committee has included two printer-friendly versions of the bibliographies for four specific age groups. You will find suggested titles of exemplary content and quality for children from birth to age 3, children ages 4-7, children ages 8-11 and even for tween-aged children 12-14. The brochures are great for putting out at your desk for interested patrons. Does your library receive donation gifts for area shelters, churches or other organizations? You can place these brochures next to your donation bin for easy suggestions the busy patron can bring to their local bookseller when shopping.

Some of my favorite choices from the lists that would be perfect gifts are:

Carle, Eric. La oruga muy hambrienta/ The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Philomel/ Penguin, 2011.

This classic story from beloved author and illustrator Carle is indeed a great gift for babies birth to age 3.  This publication is particularly great because it will introduce both English and Spanish words to your little one.

Snicket, Lemony. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. The Dark. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2013.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket. Image from www.hachettebookgroup.com.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket. Image from www.hachettebookgroup.com.

Children ages 4-7 are sure to enjoy this wonderful picture book that gives a voice to the dark. This is an especially fun read-aloud with two readers and a perfect opportunity for caregivers to participate in their preschooler’s reading time!

Palacio, R.J. Wonder. Knopf/ Random House, 2012.

8-11 year olds of all reading levels will appreciate this heart-warming story of a 5th grade boy with facial abnormalities. It’s realistic tone and kind message make it a lovely holiday gift choice.

Telgemeier, Raina. Drama. Graphix/ Scholastic Inc., 2012.

Encourage caregivers to snag this title if they have a reluctant tween reader to please. This graphic novel about middle-school drama club and making new friends will become a well-read book at home.

What books do you love to recommend for holiday gifts? If you have any favorites, please share them with us in the comments!

From everyone on the Public Awareness Committee, happy holidays!


Nicole Lee Martin is a  Librarian at the Grafton-Midview Public Library in Grafton, OH and is writing this post for the Public Awareness Committee. You can reach her at nicolemartin@oplin.org.

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29. Moses the liberator: Exodus politics from Eusebius to Martin Luther King Jr.

Moses and Pharaoh are returning to the big screen in Ridley Scott’s seasonal blockbuster, Exodus: Gods and Kings. With a $200m budget and Christian Bale in the leading role, the British director will hope to replicate the success of Gladiator (where he resurrected the sword and sandals genre) and surpass the shock and awe of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Even before its release, the movie sparked controversy. The casting of white actors as Egyptians provoked charges of racial discrimination; describing Moses as ‘barbaric’ and ‘schizophrenic’ did not endear the leading actor to traditional believers; and casting a truculent young boy as the voice of Yahweh was bound to raise eyebrows. In other respects, the storyline remains traditional. Indeed, the film follows a long tradition of interpretation by presenting the Exodus as a political saga of slavery and liberation. 600,000 slaves are delivered as an oppressive empire is overwhelmed by divine power.

This political reading of the biblical epic will be familiar to anyone who has studied its remarkable reception history. In Christian preaching, liturgy and hymnology, Exodus has been read as spiritual typology — Israel points forward to the Church, Pharaoh’s Egypt to enslavement by Satan, Moses to the Messiah, the Red Sea to salvation, the Wilderness Wanderings to earthly pilgrimage, the Promised Land to heavenly rest.

Yet there has been an almost equally potent tradition of reading Exodus politically. It originated with Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century, who hailed the Emperor Constantine as a Mosaic deliverer of the persecuted Church. It took on new intensity when the Protestant Reformation was promoted as liberation from ‘popish bondage’. As a vulnerable minority, European Calvinists identified with the oppressed children of Israel in Egypt and then celebrated national reformations in Britain and the Netherlands as a new exodus. The title page of the Geneva Bible (1560) pictured the Israelites pinned against the Red Sea by the chariots and horsemen of Pharaoh, the moment before their deliverance. Deliverance became a keyword in Anglophone political rhetoric, a term that fused Providence and Liberation.

Over the coming centuries, this Protestant reading of Exodus would go through some surprising twists. The Reformers had sought deliverance from the Papacy, but radical Puritans condemned intolerant Protestant clergy as ‘Egyptian taskmasters’. Rhetoric that had once been trained on ecclesiastical oppression was turned against ‘political slavery’, as revolutionaries in 1649, 1688 and 1776 co-opted biblical narrative. For Oliver Cromwell, Israel’s journey from Egypt through the Wilderness towards Canaan was ‘the only parallel’ to the course of English Revolution. For John Milton, tolerationist and republican, England’s Exodus led to ‘civil and religious liberty’, a phrase coined in Cromwellian England. The most startling development occurred during the American Revolution, when Patriots unleashed the language of slavery and deliverance against ‘the British Pharaoh’, George III. The contradiction between their libertarian rhetoric and American slaveholding galvanized the nascent anti-slavery movement on both sides of the Atlantic. Black Protestants now seized upon Exodus and the language of deliverance. ‘For the first time in history’, writes historian John Saillant, ‘slaves had a book on their side’.

African Americans inhabited the story like no other people before them. When they fled from slavery and segregation and migrated to the North, they consciously re-enacted the Exodus. In slave revolts and in the American Civil War they called on God for deliverance from Egyptian taskmasters. In the spiritual ‘Go Down Moses’, they re-imagined the United States as ‘Egyptland’, throwing into question the biblical construction of the nation as an ‘American Zion’. They sang of a deliverer who would tell old Pharaoh, ‘Let my People go’. They celebrated the abolition of the slave trade, West Indian emancipation, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by recalling the song of Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea.

The black use of Exodus was not without its ironies. It owed more than has been recognized to the long tradition of Protestant Exodus politics, albeit reworked and subverted. African Americans took pride in the fact that Moses married an Ethiopian (Numbers 12:1), but they were embarrassed by the sanction given to slavery in the Mosaic Law, and by the Hebrews’ oppression at the hands of African Pharaohs. Yet Exodus spoke to African American experience like no other text. Like the Children of Israel, their Red Sea moment was followed by a long and bitter Wilderness experience. On the night before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr assured his black audience that he had ‘seen the Promised Land’. Barack Obama talked of ‘the Joshua Generation’ completing the work of King’s ‘Moses Generation’, but the land of milk and honey can still seem like a distant prospect.

Heading image: Dura Europos Synagogue wall painting showing the Hebrews leaving Egypt. Adaptation by Gill/Gillerman slides collection, Yale. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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30. Population ecologists scale up

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience, 1844.

The concept of looking at nature through multiple lenses to see different things is not new and has been long recognized. As always, the devil is in the details. Recent developments in analytical tools and the embracement of an integrative metapopulation concept and the newly emergent field of functional biogeography, are allowing exciting new insights to be made by population ecologists that have direct bearing on our understanding of the effects of environmental change on biodiversity patterns.

The metapopulation concept posits that isolated populations of organisms are connected through dynamics of dispersal and extinction. Across a landscape, areas of suitable habitat occur, which at one point in time may or may not host a viable population of a particular species.  I study this concept with terrestrial plants, and have asked what environmental conditions determine suitable habitat for metapopulations.

Much of the foundational work in this topic was conducted on butterfly populations in meadows across otherwise forested habitat. Regardless of study organism, embracement of this concept has been enough to make population ecologists realize that studying single populations may give only a limited view on generalities of ecology and evolution. Indeed, taking this concept on board, has led population ecologists to want to predict in which areas of suitable habitat across the landscape a new population may establish.

“There’s no getting away from field work!”

There are obvious conservation and management implications that result from being able to predict the geographical distribution of a species, whether an invasive exotic spreading across the globe, or an endangered organism. Unfortunately, just knowing where a species or a group of species may occur across the landscape is not enough. Individuals in some populations may have low fitness and their populations may be barely hanging on. For some species such as potential island colonizers, it has been proposed that limited ability to colonize vacant habitat patches may be due to the occurrence of closely related species occupying a similar niche.

Important ‘missing pieces’ from a full understanding of the metapopulation puzzle have been through inclusion of population growth rate estimates and incorporation of species evolutionary relationships (i.e., their phylogenic ancestry). Population ecologists have been toiling away making fitness estimates of their species of interest in the field. Systematists, on the other hand, have been grinding it out in the lab to generate the molecular data necessary to construct phylogenetic trees to help classify their species.

Larch Forest in Autumn Skarbin Laerchen Mischwald 03CC BY-SA 3.0, Johann Jaritz (own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Larch Forest in Autumn. Skarbin Laerchen Mischwald. By Johann Jaritz. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Community ecologists studying multispecies assemblages, as a third-dimensional angle to this question, have been working with geographers to develop species distribution models.  It is only recently that the analytical tools have emerged that allow these groups of scientists to collaborate and address questions of common interest about metapopulations.For example, Cory Merow and colleagues have recently shown how Bayesian models can be used to propagate uncertainty estimates in the application of integral projection models (IPMs) to forecast growth rates as part of predictive demographic distribution models (transition matrix models could also be used). In other words, species geographic distribution predictions can be improved by accounting for population-level fitness estimates.

In another study, Oluwatobi Oke and colleagues have shown how phylogenetic relationships among 66 co-occurring species in populations across a metapopulation structured landscape of Canadian barrens can improve understanding of species distribution patterns. The basis for Oke et al.’s phylogenetic patterns among their species was the large angiosperm supertree based upon nucleotide sequence data of three genes from over 500 species.

The basis for all of the work described above are precise and accurate estimates of individual fitness and population growth rates. There’s no getting away from field work! Methods for carrying out the field work component of these studies, to allow the use of modern statistical methods including Bayesian analysis, IPMs, and transition matrix models, have to be planned and carried out with care. We have come a long way in the last decade in enabling population studies to scale up to address fundamental questions at higher levels of the ecological hierarchy.

The field of population demography is moving fast. For example, the recent launch of the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database, with accurate demographic information for over 500 plant species in their natural settings worldwide, will make addressing these scale-related types of comparative evolutionary and ecological questions even more tractable in the future.

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31. Top five Robert Altman films by sound

Director Robert Altman made more than thirty feature films and dozens of television episodes over the course of his career. The Altman retrospective currently showing at MoMA is a treasure trove for rediscovering Altman’s best known films (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park) as well as introducing unreleased shorts and his little-known early work as a writer.

Every Altman fan has her or his own list of favorite films. For me, Altman’s use of music is always so innovative, original, and unprecedented that a few key films stand out from the crowd based on their soundtracks. Here are my top five Altman films based on their soundtracks:

1.   Gosford Park (2001): The English heritage film meets an Agatha Christie murder mystery, combining an all-star ensemble cast and gorgeous location shooting with a tribute to Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (1939). Jeremy Northam plays the real-life British film star and composer Ivor Novello. Watch for the integration of Northam/Novello’s live performances of period songs with the central murder scene, in which the songs’ lyrics explain (in hindsight) who really committed the murder, and why.

2.   Nashville (1975): Altman’s brilliant critique of American society in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. Nashville stands as an excellent example of “Altmanesque” filmmaking, in which several separate story strands merge in the climactic final scene. Many, although not all, of the songs were provided by the cast, which includes Henry Gibson as pompous country music star Haven Hamilton, and the Oscar-nominated Lily Tomlin as the mother of two deaf children drawn into a relationship with sleazy rock star Tom Frank (Keith Carradine, whose song “I’m Easy” won the film’s sole Academy Award).

3.   M*A*S*H (1970): Ok, I will admit it. It took me a long, long time to appreciate M*A*S*H. Growing up in 1970s Toronto, I couldn’t accept Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John — familiar characters from the weekly CBS TV series (but played by different actors). Looking back, I realize that M*A*S*H really did break all the rules of filmmaking in 1970, not least of which because it appealed to the anti-Vietnam generation. Like so many later Altman films, what appears to be a sloppy, improvised, slap-dash film is in fact sutured together through the brilliant, carefully edited use of Japanese-language jazz standards blared over the disembodied voice of the base’s loudspeaker.


4.   McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971): Filmed outside of Vancouver, Altman’s reinvention of the Western genre stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. The film uses several of Leonard Cohen’s songs from his 1967 album The Songs of Leonard Cohen, allowing the songs to speak for often inarticulate characters. Watch for how the opening sequence, showing Beatty/McCabe riding into town, is closely choreographed to “The Stranger Song” as is Christie/Miller’s wordless monologue to “Winter Lady” later in the film — all to the breathtaking cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who worked with Altman on Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973) as well.

5.   Aria (segment: “Les Boréades”) (1987): Made during Altman’s “exile” from Hollywood in the 1980s, this film combines short vignettes set to opera excerpts by veteran directors including Derek Jarman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Julien Temple. Altman’s contribution employs the music of 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The sequence was a revelation to me personally, since it contains the only feature film documentation of Altman’s significant contributions to the world of opera. One of the first film directors to work on the opera stage, Altman directed a revolutionary production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s: the work was restaged in France and used for the Aria Later, Altman collaborated with Pulitzer-Prize winning composer William Bolcom and librettist Arnold Weinstein to create new operas (McTeague, A Wedding) for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Rounding out the top ten would be Short Cuts (1993), Kansas City (1996), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Popeye (1980) — Robin Williams’ first film, and definitely an off-beat but entertaining musical.

Headline Image: Film. CC0 via Pixabay

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32. Please, No More Lists

Tis the season of booklists. I make it a general rule to avoid looking at the best of the year lists. My book piles are already too high to begin with and the lists tend to be so very same-y with books I have heard of already so there is no reason to even bother. This belief and bad attitude has served me well for years. While all of you have been frantically adding books to your piles and lists, I’ve been sitting back all smug-like and superior — suckers!

But if literature teaches us nothing else, it reveals time and again that even the mighty fall.

And I fell.


It all began with NPR’s Best Books of 2014. I’ve read so many good books this year and am still waiting patiently in the library hold queue for a number of others that my curiosity got the best of me. Are my favorite books of the year on the list? Why yes, yes they are. Hooray! Oh, but what’s this book? How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson looks interesting. Oh, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Euphoria by Lily King, haven’t heard much about that but Margaret Mead is a character. Have to check that out. Oh my gosh! Octavia Butler! A collection of previously unpublished stories, Unexpected Stories. Squee! And. And. And.

You get the picture.

Then I made the mistake of thinking it was only a minor slip even though I suddenly found about ten more books on my TBR list than were there previously. I was back in control with nothing to worry about so why not look at the New York Times 100 Notable Books? The list will be so conventional and uninteresting I won’t be tempted at all.

Yes, I am that daft and delusional.

I don’t even know how many more books I added to my TBR list. I lost track after five. This all happened over the weekend and I have since regained my balance and have resisted the lure of any further “best” lists I’ve come across.

But now, now just when I am recovered, fellow bloggers have gotten me messed up once again and I was completely unsuspecting. I don’t usually get overly excited about upcoming book releases but in one day I managed to fall swooning over a shelf-load of books that will be published in 2015. I don’t want to point any fingers (Ana! Jenny!) but you all need to cease and desist. Immediately. Just stop it.

In case anyone else is planning on doing an upcoming list, let me beg you to please, please, please change your mind. Keep it to yourself. Really. I don’t need any more of this nonsense. I am contrite. I have learned my lesson. Show some compassion to this fallen previously smug reader.

Don’t make me plot revenge. Cuz I will. Mean and ugly. I much prefer being kind and friendly. So I am pleading, please, don’t make me go there or we will all regret it.

Therefore, allow me to thank you in advance for your benevolence.

Filed under: Book Lists, Books, TBR

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33. Christmas Stories: A Captured Santa Claus

When I was doing my annual selection of Christmas stories the other day, I couldn’t remember why I vaguely disliked Thomas Nelson Page, just that I did. And that’s how I ended up reading a Christmas story about a Confederate soldier and his family. And I guess I’m glad I did.

It’s called A Captured Santa Claus, and it takes place between a Christmas and a Christmas during the Civil War. Major Stafford’s children are disappointed with the homemade presents that are all their mother can afford, but their father, home on a flying visit, promises the younger children that they’ll get what they want next year. For five year old Charlie, that’s a uniform and a toy sword. For his younger sister, Evelyn, it’s a doll with eyes that open and close.

Will Major Stafford be able to buy the gifts? Will he get home to Holly Hill to deliver them? Well, of course he will. But there are complications. By Christmas, Holly Hill is behind the Union lines, and going home without his uniform on could get Major Stafford executed as a spy.

This is basically the story you expect, but there are just enough twists to stop it from being completely predictable. And while Christmas is front and center, the Christmas spirit that goes with it is allowed to function without fanfare.

I did spent most of the story resenting a bunch of children for being Confederates, but, you know, that happens.

Tagged: 1900s, christmas, the south, thomasnelsonpage

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34. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and the country house

A ‘slobbering valentine to a member of the upper classes’, ‘an orgy of snobbery’, and ‘the apotheosis of brown-nosing’: Angela Carter’s excoriating dismissal of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), delivered in Tom Paulin’s notorious televisual polemic, J’accuse Virginia Woolf (1991), serves as a reminder that this work has as much potential as any of her novels to provoke heated disagreements. That it should be so might seem surprising, as it is one of the most easy-going of her novels, one in which she consciously simplified her prose style in the interests of drawing in the reader effortlessly; it is also the most comic of her novels, mocking the conventions of history and biography. That Carter in particular should be so violently opposed to the novel is particularly surprising, as its willingness to rewrite conventional fictional forms anticipates her novels, and its employment of fantastic elements anticipates the ‘magic realist’ mode that she was to employ. Like Orlando, Carter’s own The Passion of New Eve (1977) also centres on a change of sex, albeit more violently wrought. Mostly intriguingly of all, in 1979 Glyndebourne Opera House commissioned Carter to write a libretto for an opera, never completed, of Woolf’s novel. Carter’s dismissal of Woolf might appear to stem from unease about working in her shadow.

To leave it there would neglect the prominence of social class in Carter’s opinion. Though the fragments of her libretto were published under the title Orlando: or, The Enigma of the Sexes, another working title was Orlando: An English Country House Opera; the country house and the aristocracy are significant factors in Orlando. Woolf’s novel was inspired by her passionate relationship with Vita Sackville-West in 1925 and 1926. Vita had been brought up at Knole in Kent, her family’s ancestral seat since the early seventeenth century; she loved the house and its history, but as a woman, she did not stand to inherit it. Vita’s family history made a strong impression on Woolf: ‘All these ancestors & centuries, & silver & gold, have bred a perfect body’, she wrote in 1924, with a hint of critical awareness of Vita’s privilege; in the same diary entry she noted how Knole could house all the poor of Judd Street, then one of the slum areas of Bloomsbury. In 1927 she was more overawed, more deeply in love, and less critical: walking round Knole with Vita, ‘All the centuries seemed lit up, the past expressive, articulate; not dumb & forgotten; but a crowd of people stood behind, not dead at all; not remarkable; fair faced, long limbed; affable; & so we reach the days of Elizabeth quite easily.’ Politically Woolf was liberal, progressive, and above all anti-authoritarian; by the 1930s she was actively involved in her local Labour Party. Visiting Knole in 1927, however, she seems to have been enchanted by a conservative ideology in which the country house serves as symbol of continuity between generations, of the centrality of monarchy to the British constitution, and of a benign relation between the aristocracy and the people. It is ‘ideological’ in the sense of masking and normalizing exploitative economic relations.

From left to right: Harold Nickolson, Vita Sackville-West, Rosamund Grosvenor, Lionel Sackville-West (1913)
From left to right: Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Rosamund Grosvenor, Lionel Sackville-West (1913). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The strength of Carter’s hostility in 1991 may well have something to do with the revival of the country house ideology in British mass culture in the 1980s. ITV’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in the depths of the economic recession of the early 1980s, was a particularly pointed example. Critical works such as Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country (1985) and Robert Hewison’s The Heritage Industry (1987) highlighted the ways in which ‘heritage’ serves political ends. However, Carter’s remarks don’t tell the whole truth, no matter how much they resonated in their moment. Important though the country house is to Orlando, it is less important than poetry and the hero/heroine’s dogged pursuit of the muse, and poetry in turn is less important than the question of personal identity. House-building and poetry-writing stand in direct contrast to each other. In Chapter II, it is the scorn of the poet Nick Greene that makes Orlando turn to the refurbishment of his house; though when the work is complete he holds banquets there, when the banquets are at their height he retreats to his private room to enjoy the pleasures of poetry. When Orlando travels to Turkey, his/her English values are put into perspective. To the Turkish gipsies, a family lineage four or five hundred years is of negligible duration, and the desire to own a house with hundreds of bedrooms is vulgar. Viewed from a certain angle, the established aristocrat becomes a vulgar upstart. Although the house still matters to Orlando when she returns to it triumphantly in the final chapter, and although the house still holds vivid memories of the people she has known, the cause of the triumph is the recognition of Orlando’s writing; and she recalls the sceptical perspective of the gipsies.

Focusing on the relationship between Vita and Virginia, Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson described Orlando as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’, a phrase that was Carter’s starting point. If Carter’s estimate is distorted by the demands of her time, Nicolson’s isn’t quite right either: Orlando is more than a purely personal document. It raises questions about personal identity and national identity, about history and its transmission, and about the value of writing, and it does so in a way that persistently mocks established values.

Headline image: Knole House, owned by the National Trust (2009). In the early 17th century the Sackville family re-modelled the old archbishops’ palace into a stately home. Photo by John Wilder. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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35. Frozen and the Disney Princess Song

There are plenty of operas about teenage girls—love-sick, obsessed, hysterical teenage girls who dance, scheme, and murder in a frenzy of musical passion. Disney Princess films are also about teenage girls—lonely, skinny, logical teenage girls who follow their hearts because the plot gives them no other option. The music Disney Princesses sing can be divided into three periods that correspond to distinct animation styles:

Fleeger OUP Blog Image 2
Image used with permission

Onto these three periods we can map the themes of the princess anthems, the single song for which each princess is remembered:

Fleeger OUP Blog Image 1
Image used with permission

The relative lack of variance in these songs tells us something important—while animation styles have changed, the aspirations of girlhood have not been radically altered.

But then there’s Frozen.

Elsa’s anthem, “Let It Go,” combines aspects from all three periods: Frozen is a computer animated film, Idina Menzel is a Tony Award-winning singer, and, most importantly, the song and the Snow Queen who sings it have an operatic legacy rooted in representations of madness and infirmity. “Let It Go” is a tribute to passion, spontaneity, and instinct—elements celebrated by both the opera (which nevertheless punishes the bearer severely) and the Disney film (which channels them into heterosexual romance). Frozen does neither.

Unlike the songs of longing for belonging that came before it, “Let It Go” insists that being like everyone else is bound to fail. It’s a coming out song often read as a queer anthem and easily interpreted to account for a number of stigmatized identities. As such, Elsa is a screen onto which may be projected our fantasies and fears. While her transformation into a shapely princess swaying in a sparkly gown with wispy blond hair may be familiar, the scene where this takes place, the way she looks back at the viewer, and the music she sings define Elsa as more ambiguous than she appears. Is Elsa sick, is she mentally ill, is she asexual, is she gay? What is Elsa and why does she resonate so strongly with young girls?

Elsa is like the women of 19th-century opera in her exclusion from the world the other characters comfortably occupy. Marred by magical ability, Elsa must isolate herself if she does not want to scar those she loves—or so the dialogue tells us. The imagery suggests an illness; Elsa behaves as if she were contagious. Indeed, she is consumptive like Mimi, but she is also betrayed like Tosca and scandalous like The Queen of the Night. As Catherine Clément says of women in the opera: “they suffer, they cry, they die…Glowing with tears, their decolletés cut to the heart, they expose themselves to the gaze of those who come to take pleasure in their pretend agonies.” Operatic women express their hysteria skillfully. At the pinnacle of her agony, Elsa builds a magnificent castle while singing her most beautiful song, a song that has itself become infectious. In its final moments, she exposes herself, only to slam the door on viewers who would like nothing more than to gawk at the excess.

Most princess anthems end satisfactorily on the tonic chord, their musical conclusions coinciding with lyrical expectations that assure the story will fulfill the princesses’ desires. For example, when Ariel wishes she could be “part of that world”, she sings a high F, which a trombone echoes an octave lower, reinforcing the song’s key and suggesting the narrative’s interest in giving Ariel what she wants. In “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Snow White’s final line repeats the home pitch no less than six times as if to insist the screenwriters pay attention. “Let It Go,” on the other hand, ends unresolved. The score establishes a sharp distinction between the assertive melodic phrase sung by Elsa, “The cold never bothered me anyway,” and the harmonic manifestation of the accompaniment. Elsa turns her back to the camera after singing the downward moving line, which ends rather abruptly on the tonic, while the chord that ought to have shifted with Elsa’s exit lingers in the icy upper register of the strings, as if refusing to acknowledge the message. Is the music condemning the singer’s difference by suggesting that her immunity to the elements is indicative of a physical or psychic malady?

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DVD screen shot.

Unlike Donizetti’s operatic heroine, Lucia, whose infamous “mad scene” prompts the chorus to weep for her, Elsa stares into the camera, eyebrow raised, as if daring the spectators to pity her. This is the look of a woman who refuses to capitulate to patriarchy. And with our endless covers and video parodies of “Let It Go” we have rallied to her defense. Rather than constrain her by Frozen’s story, “Let It Go” lets Elsa escape again into possibility. The new princess message, “Leave Me Alone,” is echoed by little girls everywhere.

Peter Conrad says of opera, “It is the song of our irrationality, of the instinctual savagery which our jobs and routines and our nonsinging voices belie, or the music our bodies make. It is an art devoted to love and death (and especially to the cryptic alliance between them); to the definition and the interchangeability of the sexes; to madness and devilment…” Such is also a fair description of Frozen, for what are its final moments than an act of love to stave off death, what is Elsa but a mad and devilish woman who revels in the impermanence of sexuality, what is a fairytale but a story full of savage beasts that prey on our emotions. “Let It Go” releases an archetype from the hollows of diva history into the digital world of children’s animation.

Headline Image: Disney’s Frozen. DVD screenshot via Jennfier Fleeger.

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36. A perfume for loneliness

As Christmas draws near, and the dark cold evenings become longer, a number of people will have a foreboding about being alone, creating a sense of loneliness. Is loneliness something to anticipate with anxiety? Or even fear? Should we avoid being on our own, and seek out companionship? On the contrary, I will argue that approaching loneliness and giving it focal time can enhance your wellbeing.

Loneliness has many faces. Sociologists distinguish two types: social loneliness, missing relationships with friends and family; and emotional loneliness, the missing of an intimate relationship, like a partner. Anthropologists have also observed other types of loneliness, such as existential loneliness, the feeling of being lost in the world. In practice, social workers and health care professionals tend to view loneliness as a condition, to be countered or cured. Although there are therapies for loneliness as a condition, they seldom are sustaining in the long term. They view loneliness as an aberration that needs to be treated, and not as a transient part of life.

Being alone has its advantages, offering time for reflection on your life, including the people within it, and most poignantly, those people whom you miss. It offers time to take distance and renew oneself, to step aside from the hectic, running pace of daily life and pause, to have time to yourself, time to muse, digest and cherish more deeply the thoughts and memories that surface, and to view your life with a different perspective.

The French novelist Patrick Modiano, the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, has sketched out the beauty of being alone in many of his books. Loneliness is a recurring theme in his oeuvre, where protagonists spend more time in their thoughts and memories than in physical action. His characters wander often alone, approaching their loneliness and longing for other people they have met and with whom they have shared meaningful experiences as balanced parts of life, reflecting and offering positive and negative feelings, not as a condition to be avoided, or feared.

Modiano is often called the heir of the French novelist Marcel Proust, who wrote his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time a century ago. Although the books of Modiano and Proust are very different, they share similarities of theme and attitudes about the appreciation of involuntary memories, which offer their protagonists new insights and perspectives on the situations they are experiencing. These memories are often evoked by the passing impressions of a sound, a visual image, taste, and most of all by scents.

Of all the senses, the sense of smell is the most capable of evoking intense emotional memories. Psychological and neurological studies have shown that memories triggered by scents are more emotional and evocative than those elicited by images or sounds, although there are little differences in the level of detail or vividness of the memories.

The involuntary nature of these scent memories means that they become difficult to control; a scent may pass by you and suddenly intense childhood memories are evoked. In this situation, the best response is to be open, to be aware of your environment and not to close yourself off to the scents that are spinning about the air amid your daily wanderings. The protagonists in the books by Modiano and Proust are often alone or absentminded in a crowd or society when, by chance opportunity, they encounter their best memories.

Besides being involuntary, the scents that evoke special memories are personal and situational, and as they layer and fuse become ‘autobiographical perfumes’, as I have coined them. Everybody can have several autobiographical perfumes that evoke these memories, and for each person, they are different. For one, an autobiographical perfume may be the scent of a special variety of fresh baked cookies, while for another it may be the scents of a church interior. People share common scents as well, especially when they are of the same generation or region and they have encountered the same kind of typical smells in their childhood. Think of the smell of local food, pastry, herbs, and spices; scents attached to familiar landscape and spaces, such as farmland and forest, bars and churches; and each of these experiences enhanced, amplified, and extended by new scents indicative of the holiday season.

And so I present to you the idea of a ‘perfume for loneliness’. This is not a perfume, comprised of chemical or natural extracts, or a medicine as one might expect, against loneliness. It is not a formula that works for all, and is not available to purchase in a shop. It is a perfume for you, personally to discover and create for yourself.

Begin by exploring what kind of scents trigger childhood memories for you. Gather these scents physically, and compose your own personal autobiographical perfume. When you are alone, in a time of reflection, consciously inhale these scents. They will create space to facilitate you to approach and understand your personal feelings of loneliness better. They will evoke special memories that, just like opening a gate, can lead you to deeper reflection on your life, and a richer understanding of the people who are absent and missed. As you inhale, be comforted by this sensory experience, and be at peace with the knowledge that loneliness is not a feeling to avoid or fear.

Headline image credit: Ocean view. CC0 via Pixabay.

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37. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

I did not expect to be cry at the end of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Nor did I expect to be so devastated by the ending. I was left with tears running down my face murmuring no, no, no. I wanted to have read the ending wrong so badly I turned back and read the final few pages again which only served to make me cry even more. Even now just thinking about it I am getting a bit teary.

I’m not sure how to write about this book it is so good. You have probably heard it is not an easy read. The style is challenging but it is beautiful. It has its own rhythms. And even though the sentences are often short and incomplete, it does not feel choppy at all and even is lyrical:

What’s. See it spin. Look around. What if. I could. I could make. A whole other world a whole civilization in this city that is not home? The heresy of it. But I can. And I can choose this. Shafts of sun. Life that is this. And I can. Laugh at it because the world goes on. And no one cares. And no one’s falling into hell. I can do. Puke the whole lot up.

The narrator of the story is the unnamed girl of the title. We begin when she hasn’t even been born yet. The language of the book here is marvelous and difficult and confusing and exactly conveys a sense of being in utero (at least as we can imagine it).

Most of the time the girl is addressing the you who is her brother, two years older than she is. Her brother, before she was born, had a brain tumor. The doctors removed it but his brain was damaged and they can’t promise that the tumor won’t someday return. She loves her brother dearly but the damage is such that he is never able to live on his own and work at anything besides stocking shelves. In spite of how much the narrator loves her brother he is equally as frustrating, especially when they reach their teens and go to a new school. The teenage world is a savage place and she struggles between wanting to protect her brother and throw him to the sharks.

Their father left when they were small and they are raised by a devoutly Catholic mother. Mammy is very protective of her son and has a tendency to take out her frustrations over his disability on her daughter. She frequently tells her daughter she is no good and nothing but trouble. Combine this with the girl’s uncle raping her in the kitchen when she was thirteen and it seems nearly inevitable that the girl tries hard to really be no good. While she does well in school she starts having sex with any boy who asks. Sex becomes a way to punish herself but it also serves as a substitute for the emotional pain she does not know how to deal with. Eventually she escapes home and goes off to college where she and her roommate regularly go out, drink too much and pick up men.

Just when it seems she might be starting to figure things out, her uncle shows up again and sends her spiraling out of control. When her brother’s tumor returns it is almost more than she can bear.

I have managed to make this book sound really depressing, haven’t I? It’s not depressing. It is raw and disturbing and uncomfortable. It is beautiful and heartbreaking. Now and then it is joyful. By turns I wanted to yell at the narrator, laugh, or wrap her in my arms and hold her tight. I cheered for her to find a way through her pain and dreaded that she never be able to.

You may have heard McBride wrote this book ten years ago when she was twenty-seven. It took nine years for her to find a publisher. I am glad a publisher finally decided to take a chance on Girl. It is an extraordinary book.

Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Eimear McBride

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38. 2014 Book Favorites

I didn’t get a chance to read everything on my leaning tower of TBR books this year, but here’s a list of some the books that I did enjoy. I would love to hear about your favorite books that you read on 2014.

Young Adult Fiction

Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Tyalor
Cress by Marissa Meyer
Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Adult Fiction

The Martian by Andy Weir
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Girls With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

Memoir & Essays


Life in Motion by Misty Copeland
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

Writer Inspiration


Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer
Writing is My Drink by Theo Pauline Nestor
Imagine This by Maxine Clair

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39. Kenneth Roth on human rights

Today, 10 December, is Human Rights Day, commemorating The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. In celebration, we’re sharing an edited extract from International Human Rights Law, Second Edition by Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

The modern state can be a source of both good and evil. It can do much good – protecting our security, ensuring our basic necessities, nurturing an environment in which people can flourish to the best of their abilities. But when it represses its people, shirks its duties, or misapplies its resources, it can be the source of much suffering.

International human rights law sets forth the core obligations of governments toward their people, prescribing the basic freedoms that governments must respect and the steps they must take to uphold public welfare. But the application of that law often differs from the enforcement of statutes typically found in a nation’s law books.

In countries that enjoy the rule of law, the courts can usually be relied on to enforce legislation. The rule of law means that courts have the independence to apply the law free of interference, and powerful actors, including senior government officials, are expected to comply with court orders.

In practice, there is no such presumption in most of the countries where my organization, Human Rights Watch, works, and where international human rights law is most needed. The judges are often corrupt, intimidated, or compromised. They may not dare hold the government to account, or they may have been co-opted to the point that they do not even try, or the government may succeed in ignoring whatever efforts they make.

International human rights law should be seen as a law of last resort when domestic rights legislation fails. Judicial enforcement is always welcome, but when it falls short, human rights law provides a basis that is distinct from domestic legislation for putting pressure on governments to uphold their obligations.

Human rights groups investigate and report on situations in which governments fall short of their obligations. The resulting publicity, through the media and other outlets, can undermine a government’s standing and credibility, embarrassing it before its people and peers and generating pressure for reform.

Beyond documenting and reporting violations of human rights law, human rights groups must shape public opinion to ensure that the exposure of government misconduct is met with opprobrium rather than approval. In part this is done by citing international law to convince the public of a global consensus about what is right or wrong in a given context. By presenting an issue in terms of rights, human rights groups help the public to develop a moral framework for assessing governmental conduct beyond public sentiment in any particular case or incident.

For the law to play this role of moral instruction, it is not enough simply to recite it. When people’s security or traditions are at stake, it takes more than a mere reference to the law to change the public’s sense of moral propriety. Human rights groups must be creative in moving the public to embrace what the law demands.

Sometimes it is difficult to convince a local public to disapprove of its government’s conduct. Thus, the great challenge facing human rights groups is often less concerned with arguing the law’s fine points or applying them to the facts of a case than with convincing the public that violations are wrong. That requires the hard work of helping the public to identify with the victim’s plight, making the law come alive, and generating outrage at its violation with some public of relevance. When human rights law can be made to correspond with the public’s sense of right and wrong, governments face intense pressure to respect that law. Shame can be a powerful motivator.

Headline image credit: Hands raised. CC0 via Pixabay.

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40. Across the spectrum of human rights

What are the ties that bind us together? How can we as a global community share the same ideals and values? In celebration of Human Rights Day, we have asked some key thinkers in human rights law to share stories about their experiences of working in this field, and the ways in which they determined their specific focuses.

*   *   *   *   *

“My area of research is complementary forms of international protection, which is where international refugee law and international human rights law merge. Since the beginning of time, there has been an element of compassion in customary and religious norms justifying the acceptance of and assistance to persons banned from their communities or forced to leave their homes for reasons of poverty, natural disasters, or other reasons outside their control. Based on a general conviction that the alleviation of suffering is a moral imperative, many industralized countries included in their domestic migration practice the possibility to grant residence permits to certain categories of persons, who seemingly fall outside their international obligations, but who they considered to deserve protection and assistance because of a sense that this is what humanity dictates. In the past twenty years, many of these categories have become regulated and categorized as beneficiaries of protection, either through a broad interpretation of the refugee concept or through the adoption of new legislation confirming the domestic practice of States, such as the EC Qualification Directive. I find this to be a fascinating area of international law because, it shows how human rights and the notion of ‘humanitarianism’ (i.e. reasons of compassion, charity or need) have generated legal obligations to protect and assist aliens outside their country of origin.”

Liv Feijen, Doctoral Candidate in international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, and author of ‘Filling the Gaps? Subsidiary Protection and Non-EU Harmonized Protection Status(es) in the Nordic Countries’ in the International Journal of Refugee Law

*   *   *   *   *

“My work focuses on the forms and functions of the law when faced with contemporary mass crimes and their traces (testimony, archives, and the (dead) body). It questions the relationship between law, memory, history, science, and truth. To do so, I call into question the various legal mechanisms (traditional/alternative, judicial/extrajudicial) used in the treatment of mass crimes committed by the State and their heritage, especially at the heart of criminal justice (national and international), transitional justice, international human rights law, and constitutional law. In this context I have explored the close relationship between international criminal law and international human rights law. These two branches of law, that have distinct objects and goals, are linked by what they have in common: the protection of the individual. Their interaction culminated in the 90s when international criminal law, and in a larger sense transitional justice, boomed: an actual human rights turn took place with the strong mobilization of human rights in favour of the ‘fight against impunity’ of the gravest international crimes. At the heart of this human rights turn lays the consecration of a new human right, namely, the ‘right to the truth’, which is the object of my current research.”

Sévane Garibian, Assistant Professor, University of Geneva, and lecturer, University of Neuchâtel, and author of ‘Ghosts Also Die: Resisting Disappearance through the ‘Right to the Truth’ and the Juicios por la Verdad in Argentina’ in the Journal of International Criminal Justice

*   *   *   *   *

“I decided early on to focus in my work on how rights perform when they are put under some kind of strain. That could be panic and fear emerging from a terrorist attack, or resource limitations at national or international level, or political structures that make effective enforcement of rights (un)feasible, for example. It seemed to me to be important to think about the resilience of the language and structures, as well as the law, of human rights because in the end of the day we rely on states to deliver rights in a meaningful way and this raises all sorts of challenges around legitimacy, will, embeddedness, international relations, domestic politics, legal systems, constitutional frameworks, and so on. These are factors that have to be accounted for when we think about what makes human rights law work as a means of ensuring human rights in practice; as a means of limiting the power of states to do as it wishes, regardless of the impact on individual and group welfare, dignity, and liberty. Thus, rather than specialise in any particular right per se, my interest is in frameworks of effective rights protection and understanding what makes them work, or makes them vulnerable, especially in times of strain or crisis.”

Fiona de Londras, Professor of Law, Durham Law School, and author of ‘Declarations of Incompatibility Under the ECHR Act 2003: A Workable Transplant?’ in the Statute Law Review

*   *   *   *   *

“I have always been interested in the protection of individual rights from undue interference by executive authority. So, my scholarly roots arguably originate in classic social contractarianism. In my work, I have been mostly focusing on civil and political rights, whether in the context of constitutional law, criminal justice, or international (human rights) law. An important part of my research examines the (alleged) tension between ‘liberty’ and ‘security’ and explores how this tension plays out in both domestic and international contexts, often addressing the interface between the two dimensions. National security issues, such as terrorism, have featured prominently in my scholarship, but my human rights-related work also extends to the field of preventive justice, including questions relating to the post-sentence detention of ‘dangerous’ individuals for public safety purposes. A fascinating development that has captured my attention recently concerns the expansion of executive power of international organisations. International bodies such as the UN Security Council have become increasingly active in the administration and regulation of matters that once used to be the exclusive domain of States. This shift in governance functions, however, has not been accompanied by the creation of mechanisms to restrain or review the exercise of executive power. I suspect that it is in this area that much of my research will be carried out in the years ahead.”

Christopher Michaelsen, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, UNSW Australia, member of Australian Human Rights Centre, and author of ‘Human Rights as Limits for the Security Council: A Matter of Substantive Law or Defining the Application of Proportionality?’ in the Journal of Conflict and Security Law

*   *   *   *   *

“I specialize in the interaction between international financial markets and human rights, both in relation to (a) understanding international legal obligations relating to socio-economic rights in the context of financial processes and dynamics; and (b) the business and human rights debate as it applies to financial institutions. My focus on these areas resulted from an awareness that as the world economy globalised over the last twenty years, the financial markets changed beyond all recognition to become a predominant force shaping economic processes. Therefore, although they are generally seen as remote from immediate human rights impacts, they set the context of socio-economic rights enjoyment. The practical challenges involved in realising these rights can only be fully understood by accepting the way financial markets shape economic and policy making options, and outcomes for individuals. As this is a huge field of enquiry and many of the connections have not so far been extensively explored from a human rights point of view, my focus tends to be determined by (a) a desire to bring new areas of the financial markets into a human rights framework, and (b) a desire to respond to issues of importance as they arise, such as financial crisis and austerity.”

Mary Dowell-Jones, Fellow, Human Rights Law Centre, University of Nottingham, and author of ‘Financial Institutions and Human Rights’ in the Human Rights Law Review

*   *   *   *   *

“My research covers a variety of human rights issues, however I have a particular interest in the analysis of domestic violence as a human rights issue. Domestic violence affects vast numbers of people in every state around the globe. The practice of domestic violence constitutes a breach of internationally recognised rights such as the right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment; the right to private and family life; and, in some circumstances, the right to life itself. However it is only relatively recently that domestic violence has been analysed through the lens of human rights law. For example, it is only since 2007 that judgments of the European Court of Human Rights have been issued which directly focus on domestic violence. Nevertheless, there is now an ever-increasing awareness of domestic violence as a human rights issue, and there have been a number of important recent developments, such as the adoption of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which entered into force on 1 August 2014.”

Ronagh McQuigg, lecturer in School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, and author of ‘The Human Rights Act 1998—Future Prospects’ in the Statute Law Review

*   *   *   *   *

“Human rights discourse has been proliferating. Yet I feel that the proliferation of the discourse of human rights does not contribute to the success of implementing human rights on the ground. Perhaps one reason is that human rights scholarship and activism has great appeal to idealists and while idealists whom I admire are good in articulating ideals, they are less capable of carrying out these ideals. I believe that a major difficulty in implementing human rights is the costs of implementation. Human rights organizations may be justifiably appalled by police brutality and urge states to restructure their police forces, but such a restructuring is not costless and it may be detrimental to other urgent concerns including human rights concerns. The good intentions of activists and the scholarly work of theorists (to which I have been committed in the past) may ultimately turn out to be detrimental to the protection of human rights. What I think is urgently needed in order to carry out the lofty ideals is not more human rights scholarship but scholarship which will focus its attention on the best ways to implement the most urgent and basic humanitarian concerns. This is not what I have been doing in my own work but I am convinced it is what needs at this stage to be done. In doing so one ought to constrain idealism in favor of modest pragmatism. Ironically those who can most effectively pursue modest pragmatism are not human rights activists or theorists.”

Alon Harel, Professor in Law, Hebrew University Law Faculty and Center for Rationality, and author of ‘Human Rights and the Common Good: A Critique’ in the Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies

*   *   *   *   *

“It had long been assumed that the best protection of human rights was a strong, Western-style democracy – if it came to the test, the people would always decide in favour of human rights. Recent developments, however, have challenged this assumption: human rights restrictions introduced after 9/11 in the United States and other Western democracies had strong popular support; the current British government’s plans to weaken (or even withdraw from) the ECHR system seem primarily designed to gain votes; Swiss voters have approved several popular initiatives that conflict with international human rights guarantees. Is the relationship between democracy and human rights not as symbiotic as it is often thought? Do direct democratic systems lend themselves more to tyranny of the majority than representative democracies? What is needed so that the human rights of those in the minority can be effectively protected? These, I believe, are among the most pressing questions that human rights lawyers must confront today.”

Daniel Moeckli, Assistant Professor of Public International Law and Constitutional Law, University of Zurich, co-editor of International Human Rights Law, Second Edition

*   *   *   *   *

Headline image credit: Canvas Orange by Raul Varela via the Pattern Library.

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41. Why are structural reforms so difficult?

In times of economic crisis, politicians and analysts alike are typically quick to call for structural reforms to stimulate economic growth. Job security regulations are often identified as a policy area in need of such reforms. These regulations restrict the managerial capacity to dismiss employees to allow for downsizing or to replace workers and use new forms of employment such as fixed-term contracts when hiring new workers. Mainstream economics typically blames such regulations for the sclerosis of European labour markets, in particular in southern Europe. But so far, European countries have mostly failed to reform dismissal protection – despite the economic crisis and pressure from international organizations. Why are these regulations so difficult to reform (i.e. dismantle)?

The easy answer is, of course, that some powerful groups, in particular trade unions, oppose these reforms. However, opposition to reform is costly, and unions have been under massive political pressure in recent years to assent to such structural reforms. Why are unions so adamantly opposed to structural reforms and in particular the reduction of dismissal protection in case of open-ended contracts? What is so special about these regulations?

Job security regulations are more important to trade unions than one might think at first sight. In fact, trade unions have at least three reasons to fight the reform of dismissal protection in case of open-ended contracts. The first reason is rather straightforward: unions need to represent their members’ interest in statutory dismissal protection. The two other reasons, however, are often overlooked: unions have an organizational interest in retaining dismissal protection because these regulations prevent employers hostile to trade unions from singling out union members in workforce reductions. Put differently, protection against arbitrary dismissal also involves the protection of the local union organization against anti-union employers. In addition, unions have an interest in protecting their involvement in the administration of dismissals because this involvement allows them to influence management decisions at the company level. In many countries, job security regulations give trade unions important co-decision rights in case of dismissals (e.g. Swedish regulations award unions the right to co-decide the selection of workers in case of dismissals for economic reasons). Put simply, job security regulations often make unions relevant actors in the workplace.

The Apprentice: you’re fired? by Adam Foster. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via flickr

Of course, these three reasons don’t have the same weight in all European countries. For instance, the fear of employers hostile to unions is probably more important in southern European countries characterized by conflictual industrial relations (in most of these countries, employers were not required to recognize local union representations before the 1970s), while the involvement in the administration of dismissals is particularly important in countries characterized by long traditions of cooperative industrial relations (e.g. Germany and Sweden). Everywhere though, unions have sufficient reason to fight any reform of dismissal protection.

Facing such union resistance, governments have typically resorted to the deregulation of temporary employment. Unions have been more accepting of such two-tier reforms because temporarily employed workers are underrepresented among the union rank-and-file and because in the case of temporary employment unions have no organizational interests to defend. The deregulation of temporary employment (while the protection awarded to workers on open-ended contracts has remained more or less constant) has become a prominent example of so-called dualization processes, which are characterized by a differential treatment of workers in standard employment relationships (‘insiders’) and workers in more precarious employment relationships (‘outsiders’). Arguably, in some countries like Italy, the share of workers benefitting from (overly?) strict dismissal protection is now lower than the share of workers benefitting from hardly any dismissal protection at all.

So where are we standing after about three decades of calls for structural reforms such as the deregulation of job security? The three aforementioned reasons for unions to oppose the reform of dismissal protection in case of open-ended contracts are still there. The average union member still benefits from these regulations, unions continue to be worried about employers taking advantage of collective dismissals to rid themselves of unionized workers, and the institutional involvement in the administration of dismissals continues to be an important source of union power – in particular in times of dwindling membership.

Today, however, unions have a fourth reason to oppose structural reforms. For three decades they have reluctantly assented to two-tier reforms only to be confronted with further calls for numerical flexibility. By now there are as many workers on precarious contracts as there are workers on regular open-ended contracts – in particular in the countries that are said to be in greatest need of structural reforms. Nevertheless, calls for reform focus almost exclusively on dismissal protection of workers on open-ended contracts rather than on measures to improve the lot of the disadvantaged young, women, or elderly on precarious contracts. You don’t have to be a radical Italian trade unionist to find this one-sidedness a little bit odd.

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42. All My Stripes

It was a fun mail day for me.  I just got my illustrator copies of "All My Stripes", my newest picture book to be released by Magination Press in spring 2014.  "All My Stripes" is a story about a zebra named Zane who feels out of place due to his autistic stripe.  Zane's mother gives him space to express his feelings of being different, and helps Zane to see and appreciate his many other "stripes".  While "All My Stripes" is foremost a book that reaches out to children on the autism spectrum, it is also a great story for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider....which is something that I think everyone can relate to.  Since one of Zane's interests is math, I have hidden visual "Easter eggs" throughout the book that pertain to math and math history.  It was such a challenging, enriching and ultimately fun project to be a part of!  I can't wait for the release in the spring!

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43. Dover to publish a new edition of Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master: The Art of Alfredo Alcala

51UomjJdOvL. SL500  Dover to publish a new edition of Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master: The Art of Alfredo Alcala


The other day I mentioned how Dover Books is bringing back a bunch of out of print graphic novels including Puma Blues and A Sailor’s Story.

Well, you can add one more book to that list.

I’m thrilled to be able to announce that Dover is reprinting a new edition of Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master: The Art of Alfredo Alcala by myself and Philip Yeh. The original edition, published in 1994 by IHAC, including Phil’s tales of his friendship with Alfredo and learning about the tradition of Filipino comics from him. My part of the book was a lengthy interview with Alfredo in which he analyzed pages from his incredible Voltar project, talking about storytelling, art history, philosophy and much more. Doing the interviews for the book was an amazing experience, and one that I think of often. Alfredo was a truly memorable person with an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of art and music, and he lived a life that could have been a comic book all in itself from his boyhood during World War II (he did some spying for the US thanks to his photographic memory), to his part in the “Filipino Invasion” in comics of the 70s.

This new edition is being done with the full cooperation of the Alcala family, Phil Yeh and myself. We’re discussing  the possibility of updating it with some new material, and I’ll keep everyone posted on that.

This is actually the only book I’ve ever written, and I’m excited to see it back in print  for that reason, But even more so, it’s so gratifying to know that the story of Alfredo Alcala and his art will be available to the new generation of comics artists and enthusiasts. The Pinoy Komiks tradition isn’t as well known as it should be, and hopefully this book will help change that a little. And also remind people of Alfredo’s mind boggling talent. alfredoalcala zps14df7dc9.jpgoriginal Dover to publish a new edition of Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master: The Art of Alfredo Alcala

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44. Wilderness and redemption in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

Walking It Off was the title Doug Peacock gave to his 2005 book about returning home from the trauma of the Vietnam War. The only solace the broken Army medic could find was hiking the Montana wilderness in the company of grizzly bears. Wild places proved strangely healing — echoing a wounded wilderness within.

Cheryl Strayed sought a similar remedy in her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone in 1995. Her mother had just died of cancer. Her marriage had collapsed. She’d been seeking escape (and self-punishment?) in heroin and random sex. Nothing worked for her. A thousand-mile trek on the desert and mountain trails of California and Oregon suddenly seemed like a good idea.

Her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012), has now been made into a film by director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in the movie. Laura Dern is her mother. The film version of a book is seldom as good as the original, but in this case both are effective in reminding us that “mistakes are the portals of discovery,” as James Joyce once said. Wilderness wandering — with its blisters, missed trails, and soggy sleeping bags — teaches this truth with supreme artistry. With its endless opportunities for fucking up (as Cheryl would say), it mirrors a lifetime of failure for one’s regretful review. It forces us to find resources we never knew we had.

As she impulsively hits the trail, Strayed commits all the sins that backpackers try to avoid: Packing far more than she needs, wearing boots that are too small and not broken in, sleeping in bear country with food in her tent, forgetting that a gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds (when you need considerably more than a gallon a day on desert trails). All these are necessary mistakes, as are all the mistakes in our lives. We won’t get to where we finally need to go without making mistakes.

Ritter Range Pacific Crest Trail by Steve Dunleavy. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s why wilderness backpacking can serve, in so many ways, as a spiritual practice. It teaches the importance of paying attention, traveling light, savoring beauty, and not wasting your time blaming yourself over what can’t be fixed. “We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right,” says Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr. The mistakes that Cheryl Strayed makes on the trail — and her ability to survive them, with the help of others — suggest the possibility of her finding healing for the larger mistakes she’s made in her life.

The wilderness is her teacher. Its combination of astonishing beauty and uncaring indifference prove as healing as they are unnerving. She’s been wholly absorbed in the intensity of her own pain and anger. But the desert doesn’t give a shit. Its habit of ignoring all that bothers her is curiously freeing, inviting her outside of herself. She’s able to imagine new possibilities by the time she reaches the end of the trail at the Bridge of the Gods. As Andrew Harvey says, “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.” All Cheryl Strayed has to do is walk for miles, “with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.”

“You can quit any time,” she keeps telling herself. But she’s already been quitting too many things in her life. Something in the wild feeds her soul, enabling her to go on. She had started with a desire to “walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.” Walking back into her family roots was important. But even more important, and a gift she finally receives in the end, is walking her way back beyond all the mistakes she has made. “What if I were to forgive myself?” she asks at one point on the trail. And, on even deeper reflection, “What if all those things I did were what got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?” In the end she’s able to review the agonizing memories of her life and regret nothing, letting it all pour out into widening canyons beyond the trail.

That’s the ability of wilderness to absorb and heal pain. It’s been attested to by wilderness saints throughout the centuries. From the Desert Fathers and Mothers to Hildegard of Bingen to John Muir, they discovered a wild glory, a disarming indifference, and an uncommon grace that brought them to life in a new way. “Empty yourself of everything,” wrote Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching. “Let the mind rest at peace. The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.” Wilderness, as Cheryl Strayed learned, is one of the best places for doing this.

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45. Music from Scotland: a playlist

When one thinks of traditional Scottish music, one instrument usually comes to mind: the bagpipe. Although bagpipes are prominent in traditional music from Scotland, Scottish music branches far out beyond that. In light of Scotland receiving the title of Place of the Year for 2014, we’ve put together a brief playlist of music from Scotland, from chamber music to modern classical.

To learn more about Scotland and why it was voted Place of the Year for 2014, read our Place of the Year archive.

Headline image credit: Photo by PublicDomainArchive. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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46. Writing with Style

I finished two books this weekend and began reading two new books. Reviews of the two I finished forthcoming this week. Today, one of the books I started reading, The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century by Steven Pinker. Yet another style manual you say? I know, I know, I said the same. But it is Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist, linguist and author of The Language Instinct and other books. So I thought, let’s see what he has to say.

I’ve only read the introduction and even if the rest of the book ends up being a big stinkeroo (and it might because flipping through I see the dreaded sentence diagramming), I will like him for the intro. Why? Because he is a descriptivist. He praises the ever changingness of language, pooh-poohs the old straightjacket grammarians who tried to force English into nonsensical constructions based on Latin grammar, and he pokes gentle fun at the monumnet that is Strunk and White. What’s not to like about that?

He says wonderful things like:

Style manuals that are innocent of linguistics also are crippled in dealing with the aspect of writing that evokes the most emotions: correct and incorrect usage. Many style manuals treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as damnation. But skeptics and freethinkers who probe the history of these rules have found that they belong to an oral tradition of folklore and myth.

The reason a good writer wants to know about grammar rules is so she knows when and how to break them to best effect.

To those who complain that the internet and Twitter and texting is ruining language, he thumbs his nose. Pinker quotes people going back as far as 1478 complaining about how the English language is going to the dogs; these young people today who can’t spell or use punctuation, blah, blah , blah. Century after century it is a recurring refrain. He even notes that according to the scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, “some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.” Oh that made me laugh!

Pinker on writing might just turn out to be fun. He’s off to a good start at any rate. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Filed under: Books, In Progress, Nonfiction Tagged: Steven Pinker

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47. Citizen

Earlier this year I read and very much enjoyed Claudia Rankine’s book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine is a poet whose poetry is written in prose. It has taken me a while to figure this out and I am not certain why. I am used to seeing a prose poem now and then in a poetry collection but an entire book of prose poetry? It puts me off balance. I think it probably does many people because I remember back in college a favorite professor scoffing at the idea that there could even be such a thing as a prose poem.

In the case of Rankine’s newest book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, one is thrown off balance just looking at the cover: stark white with a black fabric thing of some kind. Looking closely the black fabric thing is the hood part of a hoodie. The hoodie became a national conversation piece when Trayvon Martin was shot and murdered by George Zimmerman in 2012. Once past the unsettling cover, comes the prose poetry illustrated with the occasional photograph or illustration.

The poems are about being black in a racist country. They are all written in second person which I can imagine inspires a community feeling for a black reader. For this white reader the “you” pulled me in and forced me to see the world from a different perspective. Sometimes it was uncomfortable. Most of the time I was sad, heartbroken even, and angry over the injustice:

The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something — both as witness and as friend. She is not you; her silence says so.

The racism in the poems is most often of the every day sort, the small things that happen all the time whether on purpose or through ignorance, the kinds of things that a person privileged with white skin never has to think about.

On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.

The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it.

The man doesn’t acknowledge you as you sit down because the man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do.

While most of the poems deal with the every day, there are others that take on more publicized racism. I very much liked the series of poems about Serena and Venus Williams, beautiful women (I love their muscles!) and amazing tennis players who have been the victims on racism both on and off the court. There is also a series of poems described as situation scripts for video in collaboration with Rankine’s husband John Lucas. You can see one of these videos, “Stop and Frisk” as well as a video or Rankine reading one of her other poems from Citizen in a PBS article about Rankine and her poetry. Several of the scripts are about the violent deaths of black men, but also about other things like Hurricane Katrina and last summer’s World Cup.

The poems are short and powerful. The writing lyrical and beautiful. This is a timely book. An important book. It is a book I think people of all colors should read, but especially those of us who are white. As a woman I know what it is like to be part of an oppressed group. As a white woman I have privilege that black women do not have. I vaguely know this but haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I haven’t had to, that’s what privilege gets me. But ever since reading Citizen I have been thinking about it. It’s an eye opening book that will be sticking with me for a long time to come.

Every day your mouth opens and receives the kiss the world offers, which seals you shut though you are feeling sick to your stomach about the beginning of the feeling that was born from understanding and now stumbles around in you — the go-along-to-get-along tongue pushing your tongue aside. Yes, and your mouth is full up and the feeling is still tottering —

Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews Tagged: Claudia Rankine

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48. The Lerner Letters: Part 1 – The Stars

This is the first of a three-part series from Dominic McHugh on the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner. The next installment will appear on Tuesday, 16 December 2014.

One of the joys of editing the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner has been discovering his letters to and from the major stars with whom he worked. As the lyricist, librettist, and screenwriter of Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and many more, he worked with the finest performers of his time. In this post, I’ll explore focus on his relationship with two of his stars: Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.

Rex Harrison’s iconic performance as Henry Higgins was one of the keys to making My Fair Lady the most successful musical of the 1950s. He played the role for over a year in New York, opened the show in London, and went on to appear in the 1964 movie version (currently celebrating its 50th anniversary). But Fair Lady was Harrison’s first foray into musical theatre, and he found the process terrifying. The following letter was the first I found for my book, and it’s a wonderful insight into the writer-performer relationship. This excerpt shows how Lerner tried to lay Harrison’s fears about some of the initial songs they had written for him to rest:

[…] I was very interested in your comments about “Why Can’t The English,” and want you to know that I feel your reservations, as far as you are concerned, are completely justifiable. As I said in my cable, don’t let it tinge one hair with gray—we are rewriting it completely in a way that will be not only simpatico with you, but with the character of Higgins. I can do no other but agree with you when you are right, but I would fight you like a wounded tiger if I thought you were wrong.

Photo of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl, meets Professor Henry Higgins.
Photo of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl, meets Professor Henry Higgins. NYC Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I might add, before closing the matter, that there are certain lyric liberties one can take when they are framed by certain kinds of melodies. There are “song songs” and “character songs.” A “character song,” which is basically free and is accompanied by an emotion or emotions, as is the case in “I’m An Ordinary Man,” must pretty much stay within the bounds of reason. In a “song song,” certain extravagances are not only permissible, but desirable. “Why Can’t The English,” written as it was, was definitely a “song song” and therefore contained a certain amount of satiric extravagance. The minute the same idea is written in a freer way, so that it almost seems like normal conversation set to music, those extravagances would seem definitely out of place. When one reads the lyric of a “song song” over and compares it to the character who is singing it, very often there will seem to be a discrepancy. For example, what business does a young Navy lieutenant have singing a poetic song like “Younger Than Springtime”?

The second paragraph is a particularly wonderful insight into the lyric writer’s mind, explaining how he viewed different kinds of songs. Another wonderful letter related to My Fair Lady shows how Lerner tried to persuade Julie Andrews – future star of the movies Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music – to arrive a little early for rehearsals. She had decided to spend New Year at home with her family in London because she knew she was about to start a long run away from them, but Lerner wanted her to come to New York early in order to rest and take part in publicity opportunities:

[…] I don’t know whether or not you have been aware of the explosive conversations that have been going on lately between Herman Levin and Lou Wilson. I might add that Herman has been doing the conversing and Lou the exploding. What it’s all been about is the matter of your being here on December 27th. I, of course, realize how much you would want to be with your family over New Year’s, but there are a few things involved that I beg you to consider. I am sure you know in advance that our desire to have you here on that date is no capricious whim on our part.

Both Rex and Stanley Holloway are arriving at that time. It is not at all uncommon for the stars of a play to make it their business to be in town a week before rehearsals for the express purpose of using that time for the good of themselves and the play. You are a star now, Julie, and I do think that as a well-meaning observer, as well as an active participant in these proceedings, it would be most impolitic to have them, who are two great and established artists, follow the usual pattern and you not do so. Even though we will not, of course, be working around the clock during that time, much can be accomplished in those few days. We can go over your new songs with you and get the keys set. If you feel it is necessary, you could freshen up your Cockney with Dixon. We could go over a couple of the scenes, which we would all like to hear, mainly for length, before the first reading on stage January 3rd. Besides that, there is that old devil Publicity, which, annoying as it is, is more annoying when it isn’t. It will also give you a chance to make yourself comfortable in your flat, and you will be rested and ready for the official first day of rehearsals January 3rd.

In spite of Lerner’s power of persuasion, Andrews chose to stay in England: as she explained more recently in her memoir Home, she found it a huge wrench to spend time away from her family, and her family life had been difficult. It’s well-known that she then struggled with early rehearsals for Fair Lady, which the director (Moss Hart) had to close down for a weekend while he spent time training for her the role of Eliza, line by line. But she quickly went on to be a star when the show opened in March 1956, and the rest is history.

These two excerpts show how the use of primary sources shed new light on the study of Broadway musicals. They provide a snapshot of the collaborations that are so important to the genre’s success. And in the case of Lerner, they show both his witty and charming personality and his incredible prose facility, something I feel is often overlooked.

In the next blog post, I’ll look at the letters from Lerner to Frederick Loewe, his most beloved composer collaborator, focusing on two letters from the 1950s and two from the 1980s.

Headline Image: Old Letters. CC0 via Pixabay 

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49. John Boyd and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Renowned US military strategist John Boyd is famous for his signature OODA (Observe-Orientation-Decision-Action) loop, which significantly affected the way that the West approached combat operations and has since been appropriated for use in the business world and even in sports. Boyd wrote to convince people that the Western military doctrine and practice of his day was fundamentally flawed. With this goal in mind, he naturally turned to the East to seek an alternative.

Sun Tzu: The Art of War happened to be the only theoretical book on war that Boyd did not find imperfect; it became his Rosetta stone. Boyd eventually owned seven translations of The Art of War, each with long passages underlined and with copious marginalia. He was at the same time familiar with Taoism (Lao Tzu mainly) and Miyamoto Musashi (a famous Japanese swordsman who practiced Samurai Zen). With this extensive knowledge of Eastern thought, Boyd aimed for an almost full adoption of Sun Tzu’s theory into the Western strategic framework. The theory of Sun Tzu was foreign to his audience’s way of thinking, so in order to convince them of its value he repackaged, rationalized, and modernized Eastern theories using various scientific theories from the West.

Why couldn’t such an adoption take place using existing translations of The Art of War? Boyd understood that he could get nowhere close to the heart of Chinese strategy without first understanding the cognitive and philosophical foundations behind Chinese strategic thought. These foundations are usually lost in translation, causing an impasse in understanding the Chinese strategy that remains today. Hence Boyd made use of new sciences to illuminate what the West had been unable to illuminate before.

For instance, Boyd recreated the naturalistic worldview of Chinese strategy in the Western framework. From this perspective, the OODA loop encompasses much more than a four-phase decision-making model: its real significance is that it reconstructs mental operations based on intuitive thinking and judgment. This kind of intuition is pivotal to strategy and strategic thinking, but was lost as the West embraced a more rational scientific mindset. It is an open secret that the speed and success of the OODA loop comes from a deep intuitive understanding of one’s relationship to the rapidly changing environment. This understanding of one’s environment comes directly from Chinese strategic thought.

Chinese warrior. CC0 via Pixabay.
Chinese warrior. CC0 via Pixabay.

Another aspect of Chinese strategic thought that Boyd insisted on capturing and incorporating into the Western strategic framework is yin-yang (yin and yang). Yin-yang has been commonly misunderstood as the Chinese equivalent of “contradictions” in the West. Yin-yang, however, is not considered contradictory or paradoxical by the Chinese, but is actively used to resolve real-life contradictions and paradoxes—the key is to see yin-yang (such as win-lose, enemy-friend, strong-weak) as one concept or continuum, not two opposites. It is this Chinese philosophical and logical concept that forms the strategic chain linking Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu, and Mao Zedong.

Once this “oneness” of things is realized, a strategist will then be able to tap into the valuable strategic information it carries, including the dynamics of situations and relationships between things, resulting in a more complete grasp of a situation, particularly in complex and multifaceted phenomena like war. In short, yin-yang provides an intuitive means for understanding the essence of reality, opening a new door to strategic insights and forecasts that were once inaccessible by using Western methods.

Boyd’s thesis is not a general theory of war but, as one of his biographers noted, a general theory of the strategic behavior of complex adaptive systems in adversarial conditions. It is ironic that the scientific terminology used illustrates the systemic thinking behind Chinese strategic thought applied by Sun Tzu 2,500 years ago, as the terminology of complex adaptive systems and non-linearity did not exist then.

Boyd opened a crucial window of opportunity for Western thought by repackaging and rationalizing Eastern thought. His attempt to adopt Sun Tzu into the Western strategic framework was far from being successful, and many of his proposals have gone unnoticed, but nonetheless Boyd made very significant progress in “synchronizing” Chinese and Western strategy. Once the West grasps the significance behind this unprecedented opportunity to directly absorb and adopt elements of Chinese strategy, it will open many new avenues for the development and self-rectification of Western strategic thought and practices.

The post John Boyd and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War appeared first on OUPblog.

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