Sunday, May 13, 2018

Euro myopia

The annual masochistic cultural event is now past us. Eurovision, in its gory and glory, has announced the winner and sent the pleasure of hosting the event to Israel, my home.  To what degree the songs represented popular culture is debatable but it is clear that they reflect the culture of the collective tastes of the 42 committees that decide what the Eurovision public might like.  What can be learned from that?

The more things change, the more they stay the same….

This year’s event had some wonderful tributes to the past, intentional or unintentional.  We got to see soundalikes of Bruce Springfield, Shakira, Marvin Gaye, Jennifer Lopez, Iron Maiden and Justin Bieber. Imigation is the greatest form of flattery. In terms of style, three movie themes popped up: the Titanic, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a James Bond movie.  On the vaudeville side, jazz and a Russian variety act pleased the old-timers.  A singer that is young and sufficiently good looking does not have to have a good voice but being handicapped and good looking is not sufficient. Opera is classic but not cool while Balkan singing is cool but not classic. It was nice to see that a few more countries dared to sing in their own language and express their pride that way.  I am looking forward an Irish song in Gaelic one day.  Still, English is the king, no matter how foreign that language is. Curiously enough, the opera singer sang in Italian, a natural language for her.  As for the lyrics, they tended to fit three categories: love, nonsense or politics. Alas, nothing new there.

The state of the art
As represented by the spectrum of songs, today’s music is far from homogeneous. Ballads, hip hop, rock and rolls, R&B and rap are all acceptable as long as the costumers and pyrotechnics are there to entertain the audience visually.  Computer effects are almost de rigueur in terms of expectations.  In terms of the physical appearance of the singers, especially female, looks do count to a certain point.  Modern singers generally need to be attractive and show some, but not too much flesh.  Interestingly, Netta flaunted and exploited her lack of lankiness while other female singers bravely wore dresses that exposed their less than sexy legs. As for the males, Vikings are not expected to be dress like metrosexuals nor are heavy metal guitar players.  Alas, the double standard continues.

The looking glass

Israel gets to host Eurovision next year, which is an artistic, cultural and political achievement. Toy managed to connect with a vast number of people, the hallmark of a successful work. Not only that, Israel keeps on winning by sending exceptional, not typical, personalities to the contest.  The last Israeli first place singer was Dona International, not exactly a representative Israeli woman. Politically, votes for the Israeli song are often affected by international feelings toward Israel. Austria even awarded the song points, to the great disappointment, I imagine, of the BDS movement. The reward is the opportunity to prove yet again to the world that life in Israel is actually quite safe and normal in most senses and Tel Aviv is a great place to party. Culture and politics, ultimately, go hand and hand.

The pleasure and pain should be more intense next year even if the song may not be any better.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Superior culture

Many nations, especially those with a strong economy and world position, feel that that their culture is superior.  A short list of countries that have viewed themselves as the beacon for others include ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, France, English, America, Japan and China.  This point of view can also be expressed by the use of its opposite, i.e., all other cultures are primitive by comparison and, consequently, need to evolve in the direction of the supreme leader, whichever country that may be.  The pejorative descriptions include primitive, simple, naïve, barbarian and undeveloped.  Thus, this world view is that our culture is the true path while the others were never or are no longer valid.

Alas, this perspective is highly inaccurate. First, national culture is not an equally distributed or identical set of values. While most societies have an elite with the education and financial means to enjoy the fine arts, below this niche is a mass of people with little time, energy and knowledge to enjoy those pleasures. Instead, they tend to relish the simple pleasures of life, often linked with alcohol and violence, verbal and physical.  Coliseums, stadiums, bars, brothels and Internet are their venues for release.  Given a choice between watching a concert or a local football (either American, British or Australian, as relevant), the latter is by far the more popular choice.  As part of the festivities, abusing the opponent in the most crude and primitive terms is an essential part of the fun. It is no fun to be a Yankee outfielder standing in the grass of Fenway field taking constant abuse from the fans without any limit of good taste or respectability. So, no matter how high the high culture, the lowest common denominator is ever present.

Moreover, until the age of the Internet, an extremely short period of 30 years, most people knew nothing about the vast majority of other cultures. What did the typical English or French citizen know about the complexity of Japanese ink drawing?  What did the average Chinese know about Leonardo de Vinci?  What did the American in the Midwest and even on the coasts know about Debussy?  As my mother would say, they knew gournicht, nada. So, how can a collective culture decide that it is superior to others?  The answer, to quote my mother again, is chutzpah, sheer gall. As in many matters, a feeling of superiority is often the result of ignorance, not merit.

Even if cultural merit could be discussed in an objective, civilized manner, superior and inferior are extremely difficult words to be defined.  In terms of visual art, complexity of process seems to be one criterium. A painting by Titian is more intricate than an African mask. Yet, a print by Andy Warhol is less. So, mere sophistication is not sufficient.  Possibly, time investment is a factor.  While the paintings on the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo may have involved thousands of hours of backbreaking work, so did the making of a totem by West Cost Indians. Multiplicity of instruments or media does not measure the level of music as the harmony of a Beethoven symphony is matched by the subtlety and beauty of a Chopin piano prelude or an Arabic oud performance. Objectively, better and worse are hard to define objectively.

Culture, like religion, should be approached with modesty and a sense of perspective.  Every person has preferences, which is quite legitimate. However, to reach the conclusion that ours is better ignores the ambiguity of ours, our lack of knowledge of others and the intrinsic problem of defining high culture. Instead, it is possible and desirable to be proud of your own culture while seeking the beauty in others, no matter how “primitive” they are.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Immemorial thoughts

Yesterday, in accordance with Israeli’s unique way of scheduling it right before Independence Day, Memorial Day for Fallen soldiers was marked in Israel. On this day, families visit cemeteries.  As in many countries, the media broadcast stories about fallen heroes and their families while a siren is sounded twice, once on the eve and once in the morning of the day. Stores close early on the eve with “heavy” music broadcast on radio all day long. The names of the fallen in chronical order of their death are read throughout the 24 hours.  Unfortunately, they are sufficient names to recite to fill the entire period.  All in all, it is a heavy, sad day broken at the end by the changing of the guard ceremony at the Knesset, which signals the beginning of Independence Day and time to light up the barbeques.

Yet, to a certain degree, I feel alien to this Memorial Day. I simply have no experience with death by fire in any form.  My father, still alive, survived World War II with no permanent injuries. My brother and I reached 18 after the Vietnam War and mandatory draft in the United States ended. I don’t know any one that was killed or wounded in military service, either in the United States or Israel. My daughter never served in the IDF.  The only deaths I have experienced at all were my grandmothers, who were quite aged, in their 80’s and 90’s.  I am still a virgin to bereavement. 

By contrast, most Israelis know what death is. They have had friends and family killed or wounded during military service or terrorist incidents.  My wife had a brother killed in service when she was a small child. Memorial Day carries significance to most Israelis, except for a few extra ultra-orthodox that do not consider themselves Israeli in any case.

I do not mean that I feel no emotion.  As I watch parents, children and siblings talk about their loss, I become very sad. Tear well up. I also sense the heavy atmosphere. Memorial Day is not like any other day. It has its own weight. Yet, to be honest, my sympathy is of the universal type, the feeling we can share for anybody that has lost a loved one, regardless of the circumstances.  Any decent human being can understand lost and empathize with an individual experiencing that loss.  Yet, I cannot imagine the pain of parents that must bury their own children.  It is clearly awful but beyond my comprehension.

Some would say that I should be grateful for being so fortunate as to have never experienced such pain. The fact is that my naivety results from pure luck. I was born after World War II and was too young for the Vietnam War and too old for IDF service. Neither I nor my family has ever been in the wrong place and time during my 28 years in Israel, including the rocket attacks on Karmiel during the Second Lebanese War.  As in all matters of luck, the past does not guarantee the future.  Still, at least for the present, all I can do is respect and empathize with those whose parents, children and siblings have paid the ultimate price for Israeli independence. For better or worse, I cannot identify with them. My hope is that in a generation or two, my experience will become the rule, not the exception, in Israel and the entire Middle East.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Usual sights

Israel is a unique country in many ways, including typical behavior.  The following is a short list of rather commonplace phenomena that visitors might see in Israel that would surprise them but attract no notice by the locals.

Looking around, it becomes obvious, especially in certain cities, that Israelis love children.  It is not extraordinary to people out and about with four or more children in tow and a baby in hand.  The religious and Arab populations in particular tend to have large families but, in general, the more the merrier applies to children here, including two rounds of them in order to avoid empty nest syndrome. Also, numerous people, not just soldiers, pack guns openly here.  My father was rather shocked at the amount of weaponry among the guests at my first wedding.  I stopped noticing this long ago.  In terms of shopping, security guards and bag checks are routine and standard at every store and mall. Women automatically direct their bags for a check. As for fashion, due to a noticeable religious presence, some level of “modest” clothing is the norm.  In other words, a woman walking with her breasts exposed tends to attract much attention, most of negative.

Israelis in public tend to be quite friendly.  They routinely say shalom to people they meet, including strangers. Curiously, even non-religious Jews use Shabbat shalom in Friday and Saturday communication.  If someone needs directions, Israelis are very helpful if not always so knowledgeable. It is not an accident that Ways was invited by an Israeli.  He was probably tired of receiving incorrect directions. If someone collapses in an Israeli street, people drop everything and try to help.  The odds are that at least one of them is/was a medic or medical staff member. It is well known that Israelis are so happy or relieved to land safely (or return) that they often clap after the plane lands. This is a perfectly normal thing to do, right?

Alas, not everything is rosy. Israelis, like most people in the Mediterranean basin, tend to be aggressive drivers. Woe to the sleepy driver at light that turns green.  A sharp honk is quick to come. Also, the parking shortage in many Israeli cities brings out the worst of its hypertense residents as expressed in countless shouting matches for precious parking spots.  Age and gender have no impact on the ferocity of these territorial battles. On a more dangerous note, certain groups for ideological reasons periodically express their opposition to others by throwing rocks at passing vehicles.  The most notable perpetrators are the ultra-orthodox on holidays on any car that dare disturbs their peace, including ambulances sometimes, and radicalized Muslim Arabs, generally youth, that want to emphasize their non-Israeli identity by punishing cars with Israeli license plates.  Fortunately, this is not common but still somewhat expected at certain times of the year.

I wish to add a few words on behavior.  In terms of food, Israelis find it perfectly normal to eat vegetables for breakfast and a large lunch, not dinner. In terms of main dishes, alongside the usual carnivores, Israel has the highest percentage of vegans in the world, which is good news for travelling vegetarians. In terms of travel, due to the limited size of the country, even those who own cars often choose to travel to another city by bus if not train.  Intercity flights are generally not practical. Israelis, even those try to ignore it, are addicted to the news.  No news is truly good news here but unfortunately all too rare. Hebrew being of limited value outside of Israel and a few spots in the United States, Thailand and Turkey, just about all Israelis know English, albeit not quite as well as they think they do. They happily apply this language skill in helping stranded tourists and ordering items from the Internet.

Granted, some countries share part of these behaviors but Israel is still a unique experience for a visitor.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The counter French revolution

In the eyes of many historians, the French Revolution of 1789 was the trigger for the most powerful ideological agent of change in recent centuries, nationalism.  It spread from Europe reaching Asia in the mid-20th century and created massive change throughout the world. Before it, people identified with their region, religion or social class.  After it, people gradually began to identify and be loyal to a nation, which included others of different regions, religions or social classes.  In other words, nationalism at its source was an inclusive force. Traditional nationalism aimed to welcome people to its large fold as much as local tensions and geography allowed.

In the last 20 years, nationalism has not disappeared but seemingly taken on an inverse direction: it defines nations by rejecting others, especially their culture and values. Whether as a reaction to countries becoming ethnically heterogenic or the need of politicians to attain and hold on to power, today’s nationalism is extremely xenophobic, rejecting anybody or any value considering alien. Trump openly espouses “America First” and wants to deport the largest immigrant group in the country, regardless of their contribution to the country.  Putin rejects any Western political values and oppresses and discriminates against minorities. Erdogan promotes a Turkish and religious agenda, openly crushing any laic or European-oriented opposition. These are only the most prominent of the new populist leaders. What is significant is not their existence but their popularity.  While for support these and similar leaders is far from 100%, they have all been elected with respectable majorities.  In other words, their restrictive world view reflects that of their voters.  It is an “us against them” world.

While traditional nationalism also divided the world into friends and enemies, these were geographical distinctions created by borders and history.  The enmity between France and Germany or Viet Nam and China are examples.  Still, any person willing to adopt the nationality and accept loyalty to the nation was welcome.  Today, in too many places, if you don’t fit the exclusive definition of the right citizen, whether in terms of race, philosophy or religion, you are a potential fifth column. That point of view, in my eyes, is an attempt to rewind the clock, generally a violent and ultimately ineffective act. 

I believe that the words of the Marseillaise are still relevant:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)

Or in English:
Arise, children of the Country,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny's
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Executive order

Words can sound good or bad not just in the sense of their auditory quality but also in their associational impact. By the latter I mean the emotional feeling created by that word, or at least one meaning of the word.  Of course, most words are neutral in themselves but life experiences shade the word. For example, a book is stack of papers bound together but a person’s experience may make render the association either positive, a wonderful tranquil experience, or negative, the objects that made my life at school miserable.  In some cases, even without first experience, the mere picturing of the word creates negative impressions. For instance, almost none of us have witnessed an amputation but the image of saw and lots of blood makes the process rather scary and unpleasant.

An interesting example of the associational complexity is the word execute.  For the average person, this word brings up the image of person standing against the wall or sitting in an electric chair, reinforced by repeated images in movies and TV documentaries (Woody Allen’s Love and Death and The Green Mile immediately come to mind). Even the most unsophisticated understand that execution is a once in a lifetime experience of a particularly bad type. Thus, execution has gotten itself a bad name.

Law has reinforced this attitude, at least for some people.  To execute a judgment means to carry it out, as in placing a lien on a bank account or repossessing a car or house.  For the recipient, it is clearly a traumatic experience even if not entirely unexpected at the time. Combined with the word’s first context, execution of a court order sounds like a death sentence.  For that reason, in England and the United States but not France, it is called enforcement. As Hannah Arendt explained in With Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was psychologically much easier to carry out the final settlement than murder.

Curiously, if the context is clear enough and other words are added, execution becomes much more palatable: Sports teams must execute the coach’s plan to succeed; it is the job of the President to execute the law; all persons are entitled to execute their right of attorney.  Most people do not grimace when hearing such phrases since death is far from their thoughts when hearing them.

So, alas, a rose is not always a rose; sometimes it is a thorn bush either due to a bee sting or possibly an allergy to roses. The why of our emotional associations to words is complex but nobody can deny their existence.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fear of flying

Having just returned from a family visit abroad, I had plenty of time, some 24 hours door to door, to reflect on the modern flying experience. While at one time, apparently, travel was exiting and almost magical, it has become unpleasant, even borderline insufferable.

The anxiety begins even before the trip.  Despite the plethora of options available to order airplane tickets, the sheer number of options in terms of airlines, types of connections, layover times and prices can be very daunting.  I have to admit that while for simple trips I use Expedia, for most trips I call the airline directly so I can compare the difference in price for specific days. It is far more time efficient. Unfortunately, the mere possession of the reservation guarantees no peace of mind. My flight paranoid has been justified on numerous occasions.  I have had flights delayed, cancelled and “disappeared” (never existed according to the airline, from Miami, of course). I have had to sit hours at the airport, been sent home from the airport and, just recently, even had to take a cab to another airport in order to make the connection.

The airport itself has become an obstacle course. Some airlines have self-checking in stands that easily confuse the easily confused. After checking in, US rules require a security process that is not far from a strip search and create long lines as each traveler gets his/her five minutes of unwanted attention. After that obstacle, in many airports, travelers of all ages can begin the long distance sprint.  Many airports, including San Francisco and Frankfurt, have kilometers of halls to pass to reach the golden gate of departure.  I have done it with an irregular heartbeat, a humbling experience.  I can imagine how older and less fit travelers feel.

The reward for having successfully reached the plane is sit in cramped seats like sardines in a can with generally efficient but not exactly friendly stewardesses and stewards, overworked themselves to be fair. Airplane food is rather infamous, justifiably. As for scheduling, officially, a half an hour late is on-time.  Try telling that to your boss. Some airports then play lottery with our luggage. Smart travelers try to avoid checking in luggage not just because of the cost.

Thus, traveling by plane involves stress to the third power.  Once upon a time, people were scared of flying because they were worried that the plane would crash.  The vast majority of Western flyers (not including Russian ones, I imagine) are now more concerned about what kind of physical and mental shape they will arrive at the destination.  That is the current meaning of the title of Erica Jong’s book.