Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review of Philosophy: A Path to Peace

Book cover and review of Path to Peace
Who does not want peace? I know this is a rhetorical question and I am also aware that there are a handful of people out there who as a rule do no like peace. But for the rest of us, peace is the ideal state we are striving for but why is it so incredibly hard to attain?

Part of this is because we live in a rapid world where we want everything and we want it now. I remember when Internet and computers were a new thing (yes, I am that old) and we had dial-up connections. That meant that websites loaded at a crawling speed; the top part of the image would appear and then the rest of the website came into full view after three to fifteen minutes of anxious and anticipated waiting. There it is, we would shout out with glee!

Today we see people cringe and roll their eyes when the infamous loading sign appears. Patience is one of the virtues we have lost mostly thanks to modern technology. Everything is faster, more immediate and in your face. So when we speak of peace, we want it right now, not days, months or, God forbid, years down the road!

Therein lies the problem because peace is something that needs to be fostered and must be given room to grow within ourselves. For a basic set-up of such a state and the steps you need to take, you can consult P. Jey’s book Philosophy: A Path to Peace, which shows you the ropes in a simple, clear and brief manner.

Jey’s book draws heavily on Buddhist thought and practice and in this I completely agree with him. It may seem to be (and in fact is) based on common sense but more often than not we eschew the simple answers for more complicated ones. Yet the simple is often more difficult to do.

The first half of the book consists of direct self-help advice and guidance with Buddhist precepts. One thing that Buddhism and many philosophers stress is to keep everything in moderation or as Jey puts it to have nothing in excess. He gives the example of a self-confident person; this person neither draws too much attention to themselves unlike an arrogant person or a braggart nor does she shy away or hide her own capabilities.

Then, Jey extends his nothing in excess stance to everything in life and that is where he will meet resistance among many people. Why make more money than is needed for our sustenance? Why chase things we do not (really) need? Why overindulge ourselves in work and making money by neglecting or hurting other vital parts of our lives, such as our own well-being or quality time with family and friends?

His ideas seem in conflict with the notion of ambition. We strive for success and that is something we are good at or at least we have been programmed to do most of our life. But in the whole process we devote significant amounts of time and energy to achieve this. It is our driving force but it is also both directly and indirectly a possible source of suffering.

If we are content with what we have, not too much, not too little, then we would be much more content. That would help us also to cease or at least diminish our expectations (another source of suffering, especially when they are not met). We would suddenly get rid of stress and take it easy and focus on the more important things on our life, such as establishing and fostering relationships with ourselves and others.

Ambition in itself is not bad, but when it becomes the overriding factor in our life or the sole measure of success, then it can be rather harmful. Success can be measured in other currencies than money and may take many different forms. Certainly, money can serve to increase our happiness and without it, we would have no peace and calm, but once we have a sufficient amount, we need to also focus on other aspects of our life and not neglect or dismiss them for the sake of a fatter bank account.

As Jey aptly puts it, overthinking is another problem that interferes with peace and calm. In other words, we worry too much. I find myself guilty of this. When somebody is late for an appointment, many thoughts float through my mind. I come up with scenarios what could have happened, what it could mean, why all and any of this was happening, when, in reality, none of it is the case. We are rarely satisfied with nor do we go for the simple answer, such as a traffic jam but we tend to exaggerate the events: a heart-attack, a car accident, a personal slight or even complete rejection of our friendship.

All this interferes with the enjoyment of the here and now and it also wastes my energy. Instead I could learn to silence my mind so I do not overthink but relax (of course easier said than done and involving a significant amount of mindful practice) and then I would not miss out on those precious moments of the present. Anyhow, my worrying will not make the person arrive on time.

And yes, the present is the only time that exists. We all know that. But so much time is spent either thinking about the past or worrying about the future that we do not even perceive these fleeting moments move away from our grasp. Rarely do we realize the full potential and beauty of the present moment.

The other significant piece of wisdom is that everything will happen in due time. Patience again is needed, and we should not force things. The universe, nature, fate or God follows its own course and has a purpose in mind. We need to be stoic and accept the results and know that in the end it is the best outcome. We may not see it at first or miss important blocks of the big picture, but there is a plan behind it all.

Many might object to that because they either think they are in complete control (they are not) or they may reject or question the benevolence of the universe in a violent and seemingly random and irrational world. But nothing happens in isolation. I like the example of the domino effect that Jey provides to illustrate this point. Everything has been set in motion by other dominoes and our actions and existence will add more pieces that will have repercussions and topple future dominoes. Where we are at any moment of time has been caused by other moments and have further influences down the road.

Hence, it is important that we fully embrace and clearly understand our present situation to be able to take mindful action that will resonate with our core being. In order to reach that state we should not be swayed by overthinking or by having unrealistic expectations. For example, if we want a job that pays extremely well and that is not possible, we may suffer and even blame ourselves for our lack of skills and abilities. This vicious cycle can be stopped by clearing one’s mind of too many desires and by appreciating and living in the present moment.

Jey uses the metaphor of water often mentioned in Taoism, which stresses the importance of adapting to the environment and situation. Water can adapt itself easily to any type of container and can flow freely. It is open and flexible. Yet a mind set in stone will not be able to shift views or change opinions and will only block itself in the process eventually leading to frustration and exhaustion.

But as Jey also points out water can also change its movement and be rough and violent when the occasion arises. Think of storms and floods and you will recognize the power that water can harness for its own purposes. In other words, adapting does not mean resigning oneself to the status quo; it means to seek appropriate action under the given circumstances.

Sometimes while we are busy trying to push through one door, another one opens unexpectedly. We should be aware of this and change directions when we deem it necessary and beneficial. But if we have a one-track mind we are not only knocking at closed doors, we do not notice anything else going on around us. We miss the moment and many important opportunities that way and spend our time in a constant state of tension.

Nonetheless, sometimes we do need to continuously knock or even break down that door. If it is something that is vital to our well-being and/or that of others, then we should not merely give in or accept consolations or compromises. All this, of course, depends on the circumstances, and they are best evaluated with open eyes and a clear and calm mind. They should not occur on the heated spur of the moment.

Finally, I want to focus on the advice that would make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. It can be summed up in the following words: This too shall pass. This is a source of sadness for those who are happy and one of comfort for those who are suffering. What this means basically is not to get (too) attached to the present conditions as life has its natural rhythm of ups and downs. We should not try to desperately grab onto shreds of happiness nor lose hope when we feel down because all things will pass.

So will our lives. This only emphasizes the importance of all those fleeting moments that make up a life. If we worry too much, chase what is not essential or even necessary for us at the expense of neglecting all that is important, we will lose out on important elements of our life. We need to know ourselves and let ourselves be and not be dictated by what others think or want from us. We cannot be at peace if we are not grounded firmly in our own identity yet we should remain open for change and growth and flow with time.

I enjoyed P. Jey’s book. It may not have given me any new insights but it has only stressed the importance of those concepts so that I keep them in mind and practice them. We often lose sight of what is important and rarely consider the implications of the big picture; we often worry about unnecessary things or end up climbing unnecessary hills.  This slim book with its sparse style shows us a possible path to find peace and how philosophy can guide us along the way, but in the end we ourselves have to take the first steps.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Lifelong Bilingualism and its Effects on the Brain: UBC Quinn Memorial 2016

Ellen Bialystok: Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain
It was that time of the year again for me to attend the next Quinn Memorial Lecture at UBC. This annual event is filled with distinguished key speakers and the 2016 version presented us with Dr. Ellen Bialystok, the Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University with a lecture entitled “Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain.” 

Considering that I myself speak five languages fluently and that my son is growing up immersed in two simultaneous languages, English and Spanish, I was personally most interested in learning about the consequences and the beneficial and / or possibly harmful effects of bilingualism.

In fact, I am so dedicated to this wonderful series that I tried my utmost to battle against my own fatigue and budding migraine to physically make it to this talk. It was a busy day as I rushed quickly home to have a quick early dinner and then headed out to UBC to make it there on time.

Arriving at UBC, I was slightly at a loss vis-à-vis the recent structural changes and ongoing, seemingly everlasting constructions, and I must admit I felt a little embarrassed of temporarily not knowing my way around despite having spent more than eight years at this great university. But its face and façade have become almost unrecognizable due to the demolitions of older buildings and creations of new modern architecture, and I sincerely miss the look and feeling of my beloved university.

But let us get back to the lecture. It seemed less attended than previous talks, and I was able to seat myself firmly and visibly in the second row, which was almost empty. I awaited with keen interest the arrival of the guest speaker, and the whole lecture started surprisingly on time and included fewer opening sessions and diversions but rather jumped right into linguistic matters.

The overall theme of the talk was neuroplasticity, which refers to changes in structure and connectivity of the mind and brain. Language learning is an experience that leaves footprints on the brain and changes the efficiency and automatic processes of the mind. In fact, language learning is intense and based on the whole brain; put differently, there is no specific language switch mechanism operating in the brain turning from one language to another since languages are jointly activated.

Hence, the brain needs to select the target language, and selective attention is required for this. It is not a language switch but rather a spotlight model where the brain must focus its attention and resources or shine its light on a specific domain. This, in turn, leads to changes in some regions of the brain and strengthens and increases efficiency on certain tasks.

However, Bialystok first let us know of the disadvantages of bilingualism; they are indeed few, but there are certain limitations. The main one is a reduced linguistic representation, meaning a lack of words and vocabulary in each language. It makes sense that a person who knows only one language, a monolingual may generally have more words at their disposal than someone who is storing words and information on two or more different languages.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a young Swiss woman years ago. Back then, I was gently bragging about my language skills when she countered to my multilingual mind that it may be so but that it also meant I could not speak any of them as well as a person who knew just one single language. To my shock and surprise, science and research is on her side, at least broadly speaking.

The second disadvantage is a lack of verbal fluency. If you are bilingual, it gets worse with multilinguals, you tend to speak more slowly as you need to focus on the given target language. This is true of myself, especially when I lack sleep AND have no coffee in the morning. It takes me slightly longer to find the appropriate expressions and sometimes words seem to elude me. In other situations, I may have the right word but in the wrong language. And occasionally I dream in all my languages and wake up rather confused and bewildered.

This is also true of my son, especially a few years back when he would speak more slowly than some of his classmates. This was due to the brain trying to locate and then process in the correct domain. However, contrary to the opinion of some monolinguals, my son very rarely confused the words and languages, and he managed that rather well without the aid of coffee.

Apart from difficulty generating words, for example on verbal fluency tests on which bilinguals tend to perform worse than monolinguals as the former do not have the same vocabulary depth, and apart from a slower retrieval of words in speaking, lifelong bilingualism is beneficial in various ways. 

For instance, bilinguals generally perform better on executive function tasks as it boosts their attention system. Especially on complex memory tasks, there is more facilitation and less interference among children and older adults. A curious finding is that generally younger adults show little group difference in terms of ability; they perform about the same. Yet overall bilinguals are better at memory tasks as their executive attention is always on, and they have stronger cognition in relation to memory and attention.

Finally, Bialystok looked at older age and dementia and the corresponding effects of bilingualism. On certain tests like the Stroop effect, older bilingual adults tend to perform better. They tend to have more intact and more robust frontal and medial temporal regions, which affect attention processing as well as memory. As a result, the age of diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease is usually later with bilinguals.

In fact, bilinguals may get Alzheimer’s Disease but show symptoms at a later date. This is because the brain compensates for general regions due to its neural plasticity; certain parts make up for affected regions. In fact, studies in societies that consist of largely bilinguals show lower incidence of dementia. On the downside, it seems that when bilinguals end up getting Alzheimer’s, the disease tends to be in a worse and more progressive state.

As we can see, bilingualism is beneficial for the brain in many ways. It strengthens certain regions and improves focus on attention as well as performance on memory tasks. But what about multilinguals? Does it follow the adage of the more the better? 

Bialystok claims that this is generally so. Learning an additional language is of definite benefit for the brain. Oddly enough, research shows that the advantages increase by language but then stop after the fourth language, after which it plateaus! So knowing a fifth language does not seem to give you any tangible benefit!

This was a very interesting lecture that focused more on statistical analysis and showed clear benefits of learning an additional language. Hopefully, it inspires people to pick up another language! Yet the talk did not address, for lack of time and scope, many other benefits that come with knowing other languages. I see languages as an important and essential tool and a powerful weapon for peace and unity.

Knowing a language gives you a glimpse into another culture and worldview and can increase your ability to understand others and empathize with them. Both these traits, understanding and empathy, are at great risk these days, and leaders around the world should not only fund and promote education but also encourage language learning and literature so that more open minds can be fostered across the world.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Existential Analysis on how to understand and deal with Aggression

head photograph of Alfried Längle
It was time for another enlightening talk by Alfried Längle held at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s hospital and this time around he was going to share with us his insights on aggression. The questions that were on my mind were what causes aggression and how can it be best dealt with. And Längle, whom I have affectionately nicknamed the Dalai Lama of psychotherapy, would naturally provide the answers to both of my questions.

He started off with the quotable phrase that we are happier than we think and that, contrary to many people’s opinions, the environment alone cannot give you happiness. You can be staying at a beautiful tropical island or living in a mansion but if your mind is not at ease, you will not enjoy it at all.

The most important key to happiness is an inner yes. That means that we are in tune or in agreement with what is happening around us. If you like the job you have and you give yourself to it whole-heartedly, then you are content and at peace. If you love the person you are with, you say yes to him or her, then you are happy and enjoy your relationship.

The problem is when there is no inner yes to either yourself or towards your outer situation, i.e. the world around you. In fact, suffering, an avoidable and generally unpleasant aspect of life, cannot and should not on its own destroy your inner fulfillment. People who accept themselves and are in tune with who they are and what they are doing will find ways to deal with upsetting events.

We know that we cannot escape them and must deal with suffering as we are subjects of time, both physically and psychologically. Life is a constant flow, which means that we cannot stop or block it but must go with it and the best we can do is to harmonize with the ebbs and flows of time.

We are living entities that travel through spacetime and must eat and work and deal with reality; at the same time, we can also see life as a challenge and an opportunity to discover ourselves, to find out what moves and touches us and what we like and dislike. It is a constant journey of self-discovery.

For my whole existence, I have to be me and cannot be anybody else. I cannot be divorced from myself but need to be aware of myself, of the person I am here and now. If you are outside of yourself or if you feel that you cannot develop or discover yourself, then you basically “lose” yourself.

This means that you will feel alienated, feel outside of yourself. If you are not the productive author of something special in your life, you may feel continuous suffering and get depressed. But if you have something valuable in your life, that could be your work, a child or any project that excites you, then you will experience a valuable context around you and most likely feel connected with others and the things that surround you.

For example, some people may see forms of activism as a meaning-filling activity. The fact that they are contributing to some positive change, for instance, helping to preserve the environment, will give them a necessary boost; they are doing what they care about most and they approve of their own actions.

To my knowledge, and for better or worse, money on its own cannot give us that type of self-satisfaction unless it is tied to a way of sharing it with others or helping those who are less fortunate. This may a reason why there are many (but still not enough!) philanthropists among the wealthy, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, to name a few.

All of this preamble leads to one of the main sources and causes of aggression, which is rejection. This means that for whatever reason I do not give consent to that which surrounds me; I may feel and perceive to be trapped in a hostile environment or in an unfulfilling job or relationship and that causes overwhelming stress. I may either reject parts of myself or feel rejected by others or by society in general; either way it is a frustrating experience.

This leads to psycho-dynamic reactions. In moments of stress, we may revert towards older, more primitive, manners of coping with difficult situations. In terms of evolution, our animal instincts dealing with survival of the species may kick in and take over the more refined and developed parts of our selves, the moral and ethical dimensions.

This old way of animalistic information processing has the function of preserving life and is less interested in ethics. It is a psychic dimension, a world of impulses, that at its forefront wants to reduce pain. Sometimes we believe that we need to avoid or confront the pain in order to preserve our species or our well-being.

Avoidance is a form of not being exposed to dangers, and we may find temporary relief in escaping a troublesome situation. In some cases, we may rationalize it and we may not even fully gauge or understand the consequences of this kind of behavior, but in either case, it cannot be a permanent or viable solution to a problem.

To give an example, let’s say we have not studied sufficiently or simply have difficulty understanding a subject and we choose not to go to the exam. This type of avoidance will, of course, come and haunt us in the form of a bad grade and possibly lead towards failing the whole course.

Another way of coping with stressors may be fighting against it and becoming hyperactive. In this case, we do more than we need to because we feel insecure about the situation. We may study nonstop, we may review our notes constantly and even “overlearn” for an exam. At least in this situation we are doing something, but the problem is that we are doing too much and that in itself can cause us stress; albeit the end effect, a possible good grade, might reward us, at least to some degree.

Now the problem is when the first types of coping do not resolve the issue. This can lead to aggression, which is the highest form of activation and it can bring the situation to a boiling point. Aggression is an automatic protective reaction that uses high levels of energy and gives us momentum, especially when we sense that the lower levels did not work.

Interestingly, and I must say to my own surprise, Längle believes that aggression is not a drive. A drive is like an itch that, when satisfied, produces good feeling. Both food and sex fall into this category as we generally derive pleasure from engaging in those activities, but aggression does not produce good feelings on its own.

In fact, aggression is not really part of our natural make-up; it is more a reaction, a response to a stimulus. And more often than not, that same stimulus stems from feelings of social rejection, of being rejected by others. This stimulus is similar to physical pain, and in fact, it triggers the same parts of the brain. Social rejection is akin to suffering physical pain!

Not belonging to a group or being excluded or perceived as an outcast makes us sick, especially when this cannot be communicated to others. This situation may trigger disgust in us and our body feels violated as if we had taken in some poison. As a result, our blood pressure rises and we feel not only depressed but it can be transformed to feeling hurt and wanting to lash out at others because of it.

The aggressive act is not because of pleasure but rather serves as a misguided means to protect oneself. Part of the rejected person feels threatened and they may resolve to an aggressive act in order to salvage that threatened part. We see these acts of violence, for example, in crimes of passion. The slighted person feels that he or she cannot exist in peace while the other is still there and they believe that killing that person, the perceived threat, could alleviate the pain.

The same can be applied to school shooters as the majority of them either have experienced significant loss or defeat, or they have been hurt, or they have suicidal thoughts. Suicide is aggression that is turned inward against the self, and paradoxically, we may think that killing oneself may solve the issue and save the threatened self. In either case, the threat is perceived as not letting us be.

Hence, the question is and remains to be or not to be, and in many situations it may boil down to either you or me! If your being does not allow my being to exist, I must destroy you. This sense of intense powerlessness may create the desire to run down the threat, to eliminate it once and for all.

If it does not turn to hate, then it will turn to anxiety. Hate is a cold-blooded lifeless thing, a pale face that is destructive and is very dangerous. However, anger or fury is alive; it is full of blood and movement, and it is not necessarily bad if it can be tamed and handled or re-channeled towards more productive measures.

In rage, one has a red head and one wants to shake the other. Rage is loud and trembling and it searches for relationship. It has reached a point where it cannot resolve itself through words or communication anymore. It can lead to marking one’s space while desperately trying to be who one is.

This can occur because one feels trapped or forced and is trying hard to do something about the stifling situation or circumstances. One has the aim of wanting to be seen and heard. All this stems from the perception of deeply felt injustice; at the same time one is defiant and will not accept being treated in such a way. It is when we want to show others that they are wrong or we want to find ways of redressing or punishing the injustice.

At this stage, we are vengeful and want others to learn a lesson, and in some cases, we may wish to hurt them. But if it is turned inward, it may lead to self accusations. You feel that you are not taken seriously or overlooked. This can make you either depressed or can motivate you to confront it.

As you want to be yourself and be respected and valued by others, you feel hurt. It is wounding us and when we cannot resolve it, we become aggressive. This may be manifested in “playful” aggression in the form of cynicism, sarcasm or even vandalism. 

One feels meaninglessness and emptiness and may want to destroy the context. For example, by doing acts of vandalism, by scratching people’s cars, by damaging or destroying things or property, one feels partly validated and believes that one has at least restored a little bit of justice in an utterly unjust world.

This sentiment can then be carried even further when people thrive on creating more confusion and chaos in the world and may even engage in bullying and torturing victims. All of this is an expression of the painful feeling of meaninglessness; it is a kind of crying out for help.

The cynic, for instance, says something but actually means the opposite and does so not only to get a point across but to draw attention to themselves. With sarcasm, the speaker uses cutting humor and biting derision because there are things they find not only hard to accept in and about the world but they also try to protect themselves from such perceived threats.  

As a rule, any type of violence, from the seemingly benign to the overtly aggressive kind is inherently selfish; one’s self interest is more important than others and one may be even inconsiderate of the damage that one causes with one’s behavior. Yet the driving force of it all is protection, a protection for survival and it is seen as a desperate coping mechanism to deal with anxieties and uncertainties.

As Längle pointed out, the problem is not the aggression itself, but rather giving into that feeling in a blind and unseeing manner. Yet using it in a seeing and understanding way, feelings of aggression can give us insights into our lives and being. Aggression can then give us the capacity to evaluate our inner self and come to a better life.

Yet we need to humanize aggression and not let it take control of us. It has a hidden message that can help us understand and see ourselves in a clearer light. But in order for this to happen, we must detoxify it from its harmful potential and see it as a lesson to be learned and realize its helping power. 

The worst is to let it fester and become hatred. Hatred has no saving grace or silver lining; it is inflexible, destructive, and damaging both towards ourselves as well as others.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Lalun: Music out of this World and the Quest for Peace

World music band Lalun playing live
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a concert entitled “Lalun – Dreams from Andalusia and the Silk Road” at the Vancouver Playhouse. I was intrigued by this musical ensemble as they advertised themselves as a globe-trotting world music group that was influenced by music from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The individual members and their instruments looked equally eclectic; there was Liron Man who is originally from Israel but living in Spain and he was playing hand pans (?) as well as Lan Tung from Taiwan / Canada playing the erhu, a type of Chinese violin, and, last but not least, Canadian Jonathan Bernard on (various types of) percussion.    

I had a certain amount of expectations as I generally enjoy and often listen to world music. Entering the concert room, my family and I were lucky to find front-row seats. After a bi-lingual introduction (English and Chinese) that included a seemingly endless list of sponsors, basically a long string of Vancouver restaurants, banks, businesses and what-have-you, the musicians took over the stage and wasted no words but jumped right into the music.

And I was immediately floored, meant in the best way possible! Their music was astonishing from the very beginning. The hand pans were basically strange-looking but beautiful sounding large bowls with apparent holes in them. The Chinese violin had a wailing sound to it evoking dreams and images of Asian landscapes. In fact, after hearing her play on the erhu I was reminded of the handful of Asian movies (Raise the Red Lantern (1991), In the Mood for Love (2000), to name a few) I had seen and felt inspired and compelled to watch more of them in the near future.

The percussion, which included hand drums and the occasional cymbals thrown in for good measure, added an interesting rhythm to the whole scene. Although I had initially thought that the band’s description was a little bit far-fetched and exaggerated, I must say that even with the first song, they covered more global terrain than I had expected.

This music in all its splendor also felt close to home. Being myself born in Iran, I felt there was a nod to Persian music, which was, in fact, the case. But it was even more than that because the tunes and instruments added different cultural hues to the whole undertaking. One of the odder choices, their final song of the day, ended up being a traditional Persian song, translated into Chinese, that the erhu player was singing and playing to, but again somehow and against the odds it actually worked.

The music was perfect fodder to my imagination and I could picture it as soundtrack to various scenes of movies that were playing in my mind. Yet, in addition to that, I felt a certain sense of peace and calm. I attributed this to two different phenomena.

First, the music did not only have deep-seated roots and foundations, but it was also played and presented with passion and love. It was during this performance where I felt that the musicians were in various ways baring their souls.

This feeling usually occurs when I am in the presence of what I consider genuine art. In movies, literature or music, this means that I am presented with something very special that deeply resonates within me. It strikes chords in me and I feel that the work of art is not meant to merely please and entertain, not meant to rake in profits and fame, but was rather a type of personal expression or even confession, a desire that is deeply felt and true to the heart.  

As I was listening, I was mentally going through my own art, my writing that I have created and longed that somebody somewhere would equally feel the love and passion I have poured into it. To me that is the very essence of art, to make others feel something profound, and I certainly felt that way with this outstanding concert.

The second phenomenon was more related to the content, the music and its colorful influences. Here we had a perfect blend of longstanding cultures and traditions and it invoked that feeling of peacefulness to be one in and with the world. 

The traditions were woven into each other rather flawlessly like a monumental mosaic and it showed us that despite conflicts, pain and suffering we witness around the world, there is also a binding force, a unity expressed through the soul of music that makes these worldly matters and issues insignificant, divisive, and unnecessarily destructive.

I could not help thinking about the constant and continuous conflicts in the Middle East, and I was aware of the fact that there was an Israeli musician and composer who had managed to create a bond between seemingly incompatible cultures of Jewish and Arab nations.

If only both sides could see their commonalities, the love and beauty that was expressed through each of their musical heritage and their tonal traditions and that together, they could indeed create something that surpassed either side on its own, a thing of absolute intercultural beauty. I was reminded of that dream while attending this concert.

In fact, about half way through, Liron Man, the hand pan musician and composer commented on that very same idea of mine! He talked about his song called “Tierra,” Spanish for land or home, and how it reflected a mixture of different cultures, including Arabic as well as traditional Jewish music.

To my shock and surprise, the song ended with the traditional folk song “Hava Nagila”, which is translated as “Let us rejoice”, a fitting and uplifting ending to his song. Now I say “shock and surprise” because before the concert had even begun I had what I deemed a rather silly and perhaps even stereotypical idea that I should ask him to play “Hava Nagila” at some point. And here it was embroidered into this cultural musical hotpot. It was as if they had read my mind or I had read theirs, which either way was rather eerie (but again in a good way).

This concert given by the multicultural band Lalun was indeed a mind-blowing experience. The music itself was out of this world, but to have it transport us like a magical carpet not only across thousands of miles but through thousands of years of history is indeed indescribable. 

These musicians have traveled extensively and play music independently as well, but what I saw and heard and felt in this one-hour-concert is rare and I very much encourage all to experience it for themselves if given a chance.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Civilizing the Land: The Australian Western The Proposition

End scene with two brothers from the movie Proposition
The Proposition (2005) is written by alternative rock musician and occasional novelist Nick Cave and is directed by John Hillcoat, perhaps better known for his later atmospheric yet quite depressing movie The Road (2009)

At first glance, the movie may appear like a typical revenge western flick albeit set in the Outback of Australia instead of the Wild West of the United States. It has the components of a generic western, a sheriff (in this case the British officer Captain Stanley) who is chasing a band of outlaws led by three brothers.

Yet from the get-go, the mood and situations become already more morally complex compared to any other traditional Western fare. The movie opens with the lines of apology that the following images of indigenous ancestors may be offensive to some and then sets the tone with the beautiful and heart-wrenching background hymn of “There is a Happy Land” sung by the innocent voices of a children’s choir.

Yet there is neither in this rugged sun-drenched terrain, no happiness and even less innocence. The theme of land and religion is interwoven into this movie yet do not combine to create the peace and harmony they apparently so desire; they only make matters worse.  

After the opening credits, we are immediately thrown in a shoot-out followed by an arrest of two outlaw brothers, Charlie and Mikey Burns. In its aftermath interrogation, Captain Stanley makes an indecent proposition to Charlie. The law enforcer decides to keep the younger brother Mikey, who seems the most innocent and naïve of the bunch, as leverage in custody and asks Charlie to find his older and much meaner brother Arthur and kill him.

In turn, Stanley gives his word to not hang the younger brother of the gang; he even promises to give them both pardons. Evil is supposed to be stopped by an even more evil and heinous act, the killing of a sibling, but in the eyes of the captain the means end up justifying the end.

One must add that Charlie does not like his older brother Arthur very much and he is a kind of caretaker of Mikey (a nickname purposely underscoring his young age) and the reason they were not hanging with each other was because of growing ideological and moral differences between them; in other words, Charlie and Mikey are in comparison much more decent guys than the mean-spirited Arthur. So Charlie goes out on his mission; he is given nine days and his deadline is fittingly Christmas Day.

The reason the British officer risks letting Charlie get away is that Arthur is the hardest to pin down. He is hiding in caves and seems literally untraceable. At the same time, the bandit seems to be protected and feared by the aboriginals around him and they somehow admire him for his lack of conventionality. This man is different from the “civilized” people who disperse the natives and look down on them and who are in the meantime slyly stealing their lands and livelihood.

Outlaws and the native people have something in common; they are both rejected by the colonizing white class and have to hide themselves. In fact, in the eyes of the aboriginals, Arthur becomes a kind of mythical beast; they do not think of him as human but call him the “Dog Man,” a rabid and smart being that is impossible to stop.

We are then slowly given clues of how cruel Arthur really is. Although Charlie and Mikey seem the “nicer” criminals with at least a scruple or two and something akin a conscience, Arthur and the other band member Samuel Stoat are pure undiluted evil. They are mostly responsible for the slaying of the Hopkins family, which included a pregnant woman who had been brutally raped.

This horrible and vicious crime is the main reason why the town and its captain would do anything to not only catch this band but to hang them. In fact, while Charlie is on his way, there is a strong desire to whip Mikey for his crimes; in fact, they want to flog him a hundred times. This would kill the boy, Captain Stanley counteracts, especially keeping in mind that his promise and proposition would immediately turn to dust.

Yet as gossip continues to spread far and wide that the captain had let one of the brothers get away scot-free, the town is angered both with him and his beautiful wife and they all turn their anger on Mikey who serves as a scapegoat for all the suffering they have gone through.

Even the captain’s wife insists that the boy should be whipped as the raped and murdered woman was a close friend of hers. Captain Stanley has a standoff basically with the whole town including his superior and his wife, as he stands in front of the prison and threatens to kill anybody who crosses the threshold and puts a hand on this incarcerated youth.

But his wife then implores him to give this criminal the whipping he deserves. She entices him by reminding him of the seriousness of the crime as well as tempting him with the statement, what if it was she who had been helplessly raped. Would he still protect this member of the gang?

Reluctantly, as he is also outnumbered and without any moral support whatsoever, Captain Stanley lets them punish Mikey and after 40 lashes (yes, this is a reference to the Lamb Jesus since Mikey similarly takes on the sins of others, namely those of his brothers) the youth is on the border between life and death and dies from his wounds around Christmas, which inversely is the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In the meantime, Charlie manages to find his evil brother but hesitates. Arthur sits like a meditating monk on a cliff overlooking the sunset and he seems to never sleep. At the same time, he is spouting random lines of poetry about the moons, the stars and the sun and how love holds everything together. There is a crazy glint in his eyes and a wild demeanor all around his behavior; yet at the same time, his intelligence and poise give him a certain air of dignity.

Arthur also keeps harboring on family ties, which, he claims, is the only thing that matters in the world; then he asks about Mikey. Charlie, in order not to raise any suspicion and so that he does not give away his own ethically dubious proposition, tells him that Mikey has remained in the town because he has met a red-headed Irish woman. This at first pleases Arthur especially since they are Irish themselves.

I will not give away much more about this movie, but it does end in violence and interestingly everyone who has a bloody hand in it gets punished one way or another. This is why the movie may seem like a traditional western, but penned by a musician-poet like Nick Cave it is also much more.

Apart from giving us a strange poetic psychopath, he also presents us the thoughts and motivations of the British about this rugged, for them God-forsaken land. They are racist as can also be seen in the way they mistreat these natives, but ironically the outlaws seem a little bit more accepting than the regular town folks.

When one of the aboriginals gets killed, Captain Stanley’s supervisor is worried, not because a life has been lost but because he thinks that the natives will take revenge, a life for a life, as he says. The law enforcement has hired an aboriginal guide who tracks and translates for them; the guide is later killed by Arthur who accuses him of being a traitor, which is partly true as the aboriginal guide was helping out the whites, perceived as the common enemy of the land.

Furthermore, Captain Stanley has an aboriginal servant working for him. He does not mistreat him in any visible or discernible manner, but his haughty outlook and his feeling of superiority are always visible. The British set themselves the mission of “civilizing the land” as Captain Stanley himself puts it succinctly; incidentally, the tagline of the movie is “This land will be civilized.”

In a poignantly symbolic scene, the servant who has finished his shift on Christmas Day and who is leaving the ranch of the Stanleys, takes off his boots and socks and leaves them by the gateway continuing his quest back home in bare feet according to his own customs and traditions. It is a manner of rejecting what the whites see as civilization; the aboriginals may accept it superficially because they have no other choice.

Another scene is when John Hurt, who plays a well-read and well-traveled drunkard / bounty hunter (yes, the characters are quite quirky in this film) talks about Darwin’s evolution theory. He is shocked that humans could have possibly originated from the monkeys because that would mean there is little difference between the blacks and the whites, in his own slurry words.

This is the blow that not only humanity had to endure, but mainly the whites who felt themselves superior or God-chosen. Since we all come from animals and are firmly embedded in this physical world and since our earth is just another planet and not the center of the universe as had been previously assumed, that made us all a little more insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

All in all, the whites are disturbing the peace of this land. They are the ones who are committing crimes and brutally punishing the culprits. They show absolutely no respect for human life, least of all the native aboriginals, the original inhabitants of these lands. It seems that their so-called civilization is only making matters worse and the violent and bloody ending bathed in red sunlight only shows us that little good has come from these supposedly civilized settlers.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The American Founding Fathers – Heroes or Swindlers?

Declaration of Independence United States
For some time now I have been quite fascinated with early American history, including the founding fathers of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the first presidents of the United States – in short, the global experiment that was to become the United States of America, a nation that has managed to propel itself to a global superpower in its relatively short existence.

I am also surprised at the admirable level of individual liberties in its heyday, which can be contrasted with its apparent lack or restrictions of freedoms throughout its own history. How can the land of plenty and of dreams and opportunity at the same time systematically conquer and oppress its own denizens as well as foreign lands? How can both freedom and lack thereof be a symbol and trademark of the same nation?

In search for such answers I decided to look for America’s founding moments and used, for the main part, Howard Zinn’s national bestseller People’s History of the United States as my reference point. Some may immediately dismiss this work as being rather biased or too focused on its own political motivations, but I shall disregard that since the same can be said about traditional history books and other documents on this era; they also tend to distort and omit information and facts for their own convenience in assistance of their own particular political motives.

So let us start with the American Revolution. Now it had been my impression that this was a case of budding national identity and conscious independence from the occupying British forces. This was presented in my mind as a somewhat romantic revolt of the oppressed against the oppressors similar to and predating the French storming of the Bastille with its glorious (at the time quite revolutionary) slogan of Fraternity, Liberty, and – most importantly – Equality.

But there were other unseen factors at work when it comes to the Boston Tea Party. The American revolution was, in fact, propagated and propelled by relatively wealthy residents (most of them English) who were adverse at being controlled, bossed about and taxed by the British Empire. At around 1770, the top one percent of the population consisting mainly of property owners controlled 44 percent of the wealth in the American colonies. (As we are acutely aware, current statistics have even worse showings.)

England at the time had its own shares of wars on the new continent mostly against the French, and although merchants were able to rack up fortunes in this situation, for most people it meant higher taxes, unemployment as well as poverty. With the Stamp Act in 1765 the British Empire taxed the colonists to pay for the French war, which elicited uprisings here and there and culminated in the Continental Congress, an illegal government, that favored separation.

This committee adopted the Declaration of Independence, written by Tomas Jefferson on July 4, 1776, declaring not only independence of England but also stating that all British law was to be null and void, which would, of course, include the hated Stamp Law or any future taxation imposed upon the wealthy elite of the colony.

Now I tended to see this declaration of independence as a revolt of the masses against the British occupying forces, but this was not necessarily so. First, many Americans were omitted from the get-go, including Indians, black slaves, and women. When the founding fathers proudly proclaim that all men are created equal, that linguistically not only excluded women in their point of view, but also all white men who did not have any property to their name.

As a result, all those who were property-less were not allowed to vote or participate in town meetings. Apart from the aforementioned blacks and slaves (freed or not, plus there was also a small proportion of white slaves among them), Indians (whose very land was occupied by the colonists to begin with) and women (who still used their little influence to shape a war against slavery as they intimately knew what oppression and lack of rights felt like, regardless of their status or wealth), this also included sailors, journeymen, apprentices, and servants.

To Jefferson’s defense, a man that despite it all I have strong admiration for, he was generally against slavery and he initially wanted to include black people in this declaration. Yet this did not sit well with most of the politicians of the time and would have created an evident dilemma for the slave owners in the South.

Furthermore, since Thomas Jefferson himself owned slaves, it would have been hypocritical for him to push for similar rights for that large part of the American populace. So the rights of black people had to be shelved until after the Civil War, pushed somewhat further with the Civil Rights Movement and even today they are broadly speaking still not on equal footing with the white population.

What is also striking in this exclusion of most American residents is the fact that a lot of them had actually fought in the war for independence and ended up in the same, if not worse, condition as before. In fact, patriotism was invoked in the general population to rebel against the British forces in order to obtain freedom and independence, but little did they know that they were merely fighting for the increased rights of the elite few.

Such situations are nothing new today since ideas of patriotism and civic duties have led to mindless acts and wars throughout American history. In addition, many of the poor were given the opportunity to make some money by enlisting in this cause, the same way, the military ensures that they can attract and motivate those who are desperate with hopes and promises of benefits, economic and otherwise.

Although military service was mandatory at the time, the rich could pay off their duty or provide a substitute. This is aside from government officials, ministers, and Yale students and faculty who were automatically excluded from military service.

On a different note, African-Americans, Indians, and mulattoes were immediately excluded, perhaps because the government did not want to teach them military skills that could be used against itself. For instance, Blacks had requested to fight in the Revolutionary War in exchange for their freedom, but George Washington flatly rejected them. The South continued to be reluctant about arming the Blacks in fear of a large-scale and violent slave uprising.

We can see that patriotism played a role in inciting masses to wage war even in America’s early days. But come to think of it, it is rather strange to speak of feelings of patriotism in a place that did not officially exist yet! There was no America or American culture or identity to speak of, so what was the root for this patriotism?

It might have been an indiscriminate ideal, but it cannot be equaled to the liberation of other cultures who had been oppressed by occupying forces yet had a clearly defined and demarcated culture and tradition, for instance, the East Indians against the British forces. Essentially, the British and the American settlers and colonists were not too far apart in culture and tradition.

Finally, as Howard Zinn claims, ruling elites are aware of the fact that war is a way to secure themselves from any kind of internal war. This would be the time to unite against the common enemy outside and often across the border, be it a threat from Nazis, Communists or, more recently, terrorists. As such, some of the domestic problems can be swept under the rug in the heat of the moment thereby ensuring the continuous existence of a status quo favoring the rich and wealthy.

Let us provide another example here. In Maryland, according to the constitution of 1776, if you wanted to run for governor you had to own 5000 pounds of property; for senators, it was 1000 pounds. In other words, a whopping 90 percent of the population had no chance of holding office, and this practice is in many ways continuing today and is somewhat extended through lobbying forces as well as media exposure; it may come as no surprise that there is a billionaire vying for the President’s office as we speak.

There are also two more observations I would like to add on here. First, although the American Revolution is said to have brought about the separation of church and state, this is not exactly so. After 1776 the northern states adopted taxes forcing everyone to support Christian teachings.

In fact, religion was embedded in almost every aspect and institution of the American way of life, not to mention, the language and expressions of the common people as well as politicians. It is strange to see common phrases like “In God we trust” or “God bless America” in what is deemed essentially a secular state and government.

Moreover, Zinn makes a valid point about the government and its parties. The two-party system in the United States gives its citizens a certain amount of choice, yet that choice is limited in many ways. One thing, however, that both parties, regardless of political motivations or ideology will have in common is to protect their own interests.

This may be in terms of influence or wealth, but it is also regarding their own status as a political entity. A government cannot and will not (and I would even argue should not) be against itself; put differently, a government cannot be anti-government or else it would shoot itself in the foot.

However, a wider array of choices would be a good idea as it could reflect and integrate other voices and provide a more balanced government; while independents are gaining ground, they are still far away from having significant influence in the political process, Bernie Sanders and his revolutionary movement excepted.

So what did the United States do once they had secured their free and independent nation? After the British had lost all control and say over the colonies, the Americans decided to expand their territory. They fought against the Indians or tricked them with false promises and revoked contracts and deals, including morally and even legally questionable Indian Removal acts and treaties; they took over parts that had belonged to Mexico and Spain, such as California and Florida, and they also fought the Mexicans in order to appropriate even more land.

To conclude, I am not quite sure whether the founding fathers were heroes or swindlers, but would perhaps settle somewhere in-between (although I do believe that Thomas Jefferson was indeed ahead of his time in many ways, followed by John Adams to some degree). Interestingly – and conspiracy theorists hold onto your hats - both of these founding fathers not only died on the same day but it happened to be also Independence Day, the celebration of the birth of the American nation, on July 4, 1826!

What we ought to keep in mind, however, is the fact that we should balance and measure our perception of historical events in their own given context. Case in point is the often-cited Second Amendment. This was at a time where there was still the danger of losing one’s independence as a budding nation as well as the danger of being attacked by Indians, or rather, it served to give Americans the means to fight against the Indians.

It was also generally a time of survival under harsh environmental conditions where the rule of law had not been fully established or enforced yet. The situation is quite different today and current day weapons have changed as well.

The old rifles could not even come close to the power of harm and destruction that modern weapons inflict and we see this embodied in horrible tragedies of current mass killings. Using modern weapons under the guise and pretext of the Second Amendment would be the same as allowing people to use tanks and grenades for their safety, which is a rather ludicrous idea.

Also, we must rethink the way language was used in the past. The freedom and liberties we have today, we often take for granted, but in its founding moment, this was very new and untested territory indeed. Freedom of speech and religion are things of utmost importance, and the founding fathers may have realized this, but they lacked the historical experience and hindsight we have today.

That makes it all the more important to not only safeguard those liberties but ensure that they are upheld and enforced by our follow citizens as well as politicians now and in the future. The American nation was built on great hopes and promises and has often fallen short on them in its own history, including the witch hunt of the McCarthy Era.

Sure, in its foundation, there was a lot of self-interest involved. The game was rigged in favor of the wealthy elite from the beginning and is embedded in its constitution. Yet at the same time, there is also so much potential in it if it is followed religiously; especially if its laws and clauses are fully enforced and expanded, such as the statement that all men (and women) regardless of religion, race, or sexual identity are created equal and are consequently given access to the same rights and opportunities as any other citizen. This is the American Dream indeed, and hopefully this great nation does not lose sight of these noble goals.