Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Brian Williams No-Brainer

It doesn't happen often, but once in a while I'm asked to provide a comment for a news story and at least some portion of what I've provided doesn't end up getting used at all. This happened back in February when Brian Williams came under fire in a genuine way for saying that the helicopter he was in while reporting in Iraq in 2003 came under actual gunfire, when that never happened. The question that was posed is whether his exaggerated, and essentially false accounts of his experiences as a journalist, made not during a newscast but during live public appearances, i.e., public speaking, would be a fatal blow to his career. Or would it just blow over? And why should we, as audience members, give a damn, one way or another.

So, here is the comment I provided:

As a television news anchor, Brian Williams is as much a television personality as he is a journalist. All newscasters are media personalities as well as reporters, so that the truthfulness and factual accuracy of their reporting matters less than their overall image. We refer to their credibility, and that is a quality we look for in actors, to fool us into believing they are the characters they portray.

By telling tall tales, Williams has irreparably damaged his ethos as a TV news anchor. If he were a print journalist, it wouldn't matter, because newspaper reporters are nothing more than a byline, but on television it's his look, the sound of his voice, his overall manner and presentation of self, and his celebrity persona that establish his credibility. In this sense, he is as much an entertainer as a journalist, which is reinforced by his many appearances on comedy talk shows.

The irony is that he was chosen as NBC's anchor in the first place in large part because he looks and sounds like a traditional TV news anchor, he plays the part well. So the moral of the story is that TV giveth, and TV taketh away. We need not feel too sorry for him though, as he can still serve as a pundit on cable news, perhaps even the host of his own show, the credibility standards of cable news punditry being so much lower that network news. 

 As you no doubt know, Williams soon afterwards went off the air, is currently serving a six month long suspension (or at they say in show biz, he's on haitus), and it remains to be seen whether he will ever return as an anchor. My prediction is, he won't.





And I hope you don't mind if I throw in another plug for my book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, which includes a discussion of Postman's original argument that television reduces journalism to just another form of entertainment, because this is just one more example of that sort of thing. You don't have to be an Einstein to understand what the Brian Williams story. Frankly, it's a no-brainer.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Je Suis Charlie?

My latest op-ed in the Jewish Standard appeared in the January 30th issue, and  is entitled Je Suis Charlie? And as you might pick up from the subtitle, "It depends on what 'is' is," the piece picks up on themes from general semantics. Moreover, media ecologists should also recognize a reference to Lynn White, Jr.'s important study, Medieval Technology and Social Change, and of course there's something to be said about the social media response to the terrorist attacks in Paris last month.  So, without further ado, here "it" "is":



It says much about the age that we live in that so many of us first learned of the terrorist attacks in Paris on January 7th through Twitter, and that the slogan that came to represent much of the international response to the massacre originated as an image tweeted by French artist and music journalist Joachim Roncin, and soon morphed into a hashtag that rose to the top of the day’s trending topics, and has become one of the most popular hashtags in the history of that social network.

I am referring, of course, to Je suis Charlie, or in hashtag form, #jesuischarlie, and its English version, #iamcharlie.

Some followed up on this formula with the variations Je suis Ahmed or Je suis Ahmed Rabet, to acknowledge the Muslim police officer who was so brutally murdered in the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and as a subtle reminder that the terrorists are not representative of Muslims in general. Others added Je suis Juif, meaning I am Jewish, to recall the fact that four hostages were murdered in a kosher supermarket, in addition to the 12 killed at the offices of the Parisian periodical. (Several of them also were Jewish.) Members of the Jewish community in France and abroad were encouraged by the appearance of Je suis Juif signs and hashtags, especially as the slogan was displayed by some French Muslims, although there has also been some criticism that it was not shared widely enough.

Another variation on Je suis Charlie, coming from the far right in France, was Je suis Charlie Martel. The reference is to Charles Martel, the leader of the Franks and the grandfather of Charlemagne, who introduced the stirrup and with it mounted shock combat (of the sort used by knights in armor on horseback wielding lances). That innovation allowed his outnumbered army to resist an invasion from the Islamic empire’s Umayyad caliphate back in the 8th century. Considered the savior of Christendom and a progenitor of the feudal system that brought order to Europe in the wake of the decline of the Rome’s imperial authority, he was given the cognomen Martel, the French word for hammer, after his victory, following the archetype of Judah Maccabee.

Outrage against the attacks has not been universally shared, however, and some have shown their support of the terrorists with the Twitter hashtag #IamKouachi, in reference to the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack, while a British member of Parliament tweeted Je suis Palestinian. A less extreme expression of disagreement has been the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie, meaning, I am not Charlie. This counterslogan has been used to express the view that Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons making fun of the Islamic prophet Muhammad was disrespectful to Muslims, without necessarily condoning the terrorists’ violent response to it. It has been used by news organizations to justify their decision not to republish or display those cartoons. And it also has been invoked as a protest against the fact that so many other acts of violence and bloodshed occurring outside the West have been ignored by journalists and social media participants.

In a New York Times op-ed called I am Not Charlie Hebdo, David Brooks argues that if anyone had tried to publish the content of the satirical newspaper on any U.S. campus today, it would have been accused of engaging in hate speech and shut down by the university’s administration. Moreover, Brooks points out that “it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.” While characterizing the magazine as sophomoric, indeed juvenile in its humor, and puerile and insulting, he maintains that ridicule and provocation play an important role in any community, and that healthy societies should be tolerant of all forms of speech. They should not adopt codes of political correctness, as many of our institutions have, he says.

As Brooks suggests, taken literally, Je suis Charlie seems a bit absurd, but of course the slogan is not meant to be taken literally. It is an expression of support and solidarity, no doubt fashioned after President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote, part of a speech delivered in West Berlin in 1963, in response to the building of the Berlin Wall by the Communist government of East Germany: “Ich bin ein Berliner,” meaning, “I am a Berliner.” The ambiguity about what exactly is meant by the verb “to be” is what gives this declaration its powerful effect, but it is that same ambiguity that Brooks calls into question. It is an ambiguity that brings to mind another famous quote from an American president, Bill Clinton: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” This was said in defense of his earlier statement about Monica Lewinsky: “There’s nothing going on between us.” (That is arguably true if “is” is limited to the present moment and not inclusive of what “was” going on in the past.) In the context of a grand jury investigation, the remark came across as invoking nothing more than a legal technicality, but in fact it reflects one of the most problematic elements of our language.

In the approach known as general semantics, the problems posed by the verb “to be” long have been acknowledged. Simply put, the word “is” tends to imply a relationship of identity, of interchangeability, projecting all of the characteristics of one thing onto another, which is why Brooks objects to the slogan Je suis Charlie. Holding the emotional impact aside, it would be more accurate to say that I sympathize with the staff of Charlie Hebdo and their families, I grieve for the victims of the terrorists attacks, and I unequivocally support freedom of speech and the press. Because we tend to respond to the word “is” as if it means “equals,” as if it means the same thing as “one plus one is two,” some general semanticists have suggested avoiding the verb “to be” altogether, with all tenses and traces of the verb eliminated. While this may seem like an extreme measure, substituting verbs like sympathize, grieve, and support for is, am, and are does result in more accurate statements. It also generally yields better writing, forcing us to use more active verbs. This is not to discount the simple power of the ich bin/je suis/I am quotes, but to understand that they are the exception rather than the rule.

To say that the Kouachi brothers are terrorists is to imply that that is all we need to know about them. We absolutely must condemn them as terrorists, and do whatever is in our power to prevent such acts from occurring again. But we do ourselves a disservice by reducing them down to a simple label and a simple equation, when we desperately need to understand the complexities of such violent activities. In the aftermath of the attacks, the statement that Islam is a religion of peace has been repeated countless times, and while we may applaud the sentiment behind it, it is as misleading as saying that Islam is a religion of violence, as misleading as making similar statements about Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism. Substituting other verbs, such as preaches and promotes, would be helpful, but general semantics also would recommend dealing with more concrete terms. Islam is an abstract concept (so is Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism), and it helps to use more concrete terms, to refer to specific individuals and groups, statements and texts, and especially, actions.

Modernity, and with it the establishment of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland, has led to much agonizing over the question of who is a Jew. And while there are issues we grapple with concerning Jewish identity, to a significant degree, the problem may be in our verbs, not ourselves. The answer to the questions of “Who is a Jew?” and “Who is Charlie?” would depend on what the meaning of “is” is.

It is significant to note that this is a problem that does not exist in the Hebrew language, at least not in the present tense. There are no words for is, am, and are, and the verb lihiyot, “to be,” is conjugated only in the past and future tenses. It is a quality that Hebrew shares with several other languages, including Arabic. While it is far from a cure for our many linguistic maladies, it should serve to point us in the right direction. And it is consistent with Jewish ethics to say that what really matters is not so much what someone is, but what someone does. And that includes standing up for the right of free expression and religious affiliation. And that includes defending the right to live in peace and free from terror.



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Narrative, Language, and Medium

So, last year I was asked if I'd write an article for a special issue of an Italian online journal called Between, which is the journal of the Italian Association of Comparative Theory and History of Literature. The theme of the special issue is Technology, Imagination, and Narrative Form, and they asked me to do something media ecological, not surprisingly.Well, more precisely, the exact theme is Tecnologia, Immaginazione, Forme del Narrare, and I've linked it to the journal issue page so you can go take a look, there are quite a few articles, and a good number of them are in English, including mine.

So, okay, the title of my article is Notes on Narrative as Medium and a Media Ecology Approach to the Study of Storytelling and if you click on that link it'll take you to a page where you can see the article online, but through a funny little window. Anyway, you can download the PDF from there, if you care to.

So, anyway, I know, so far this isn't much of a post, substance wise, but wait, there's more. You see, I let folks know about it on the Media Ecology Association's e-mail discussion list, and received a query from someone on the list who is not very knowledgeable about the field, and was skeptical about the idea of language as medium, which I discuss in the article. I provided some explanation, and thought it was worth sharing a modified version of it here on good old Blog Time Passing.

So here goes:


In regard to applying to language the idea that each medium has its own bias, that refers in particular to linguistic relativism, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which says that different languages give us different tools for thought, and different ways of viewing the world. Each language then has its own bias, which is why you cannot be fluent in another language if you are transposing word for word, instead you have to think in the other language. Linguistic relativism was not solely the idea of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, there was also Dorothy Lee, George Orwell (in 1984) and long before them, Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Related to linguistic relativism is the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski and others, who regard language in general as having a bias based on its abstracting of perception (itself an abstracting of reality), and in understanding language as a tool, and therefore take the position that modifying the tool can modify our ability to understand and relate to reality, hopefully for the better. Also related are various philosophies regarding symbolic form on the part of Whitehead, Russell, Wittgenstein, Cassirer, Langer, etc. And more recently, there is the metaphor theory of Lakoff and Johnson, which argues that all language is metaphorical, and the metaphors embedded in language influence the way we experience the world.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was broadened in several ways, notably by Edmund Carpenter working with McLuhan, to apply to media, also by Edward T. Hall to apply to culture (defining culture as communication), and by Postman to apply to the general idea of structures underlying all things. An earlier connection was made by Sergei Eisenstein in referring to the language of film. In the field of media ecology, the classic essay is Carpenter's "The New Languages" which appeared in the Explorations journal in the 50s, the Explorations in Communication collection in 1960, and has been reprinted many, many times in anthologies on media and communication. The idea also appears in Understanding Media of course, in the chapter on media as translators, and in the appendix to the critical edition. In Carpenter's essay, he says that all languages are media, and media are our new languages, with their own counterpart to vocabulary and grammar, and following Sapir-Whorf, their own inherent bias as to how the world is viewed.

While the idea of linguistic relativism was suppressed by Chomsky and his followers in linguistics, it's made a comeback in the post-Chomsky era.

As for the quote, "Language is the medium of literature as marble or bronze or clay are the materials of the sculptor," from Edward Sapir's classic work, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, the word medium had been in use at the time he was writing (circa 1921) to refer to the material artists use. It's similar to the way that Harold Innis later uses medium to refer to writing surfaces, categorizing them as heavy or light, each associated with cultural biases towards time or space, respectively.

So Sapir is saying that language is the basis of literature in the same way that paint and canvas are the basis of painting. It's what we call an analogy. And it's an early reference to language as a medium, at a time when the term medium was not widely used to refer to what was traditionally known as the press and speech, so that it shows the concurrent evolution of terminology and the media ecological insights that go with it.

But the idea that literature is a function of language is not at all limited to media ecology. That's the basis of the humanities tradition of modern languages, the study of language and literature together, also known as philology (which Tolkien was a professor of, and forms the foundation of his fiction, based on fictional languages; Humboldt was also a philologist), and which can be traced back to the medieval trivium, to rhetoric and especially grammar, the subject of McLuhan's doctoral thesis, and before that to Talmudic scholarship. The bias of a language means that different languages are associated with distinctively different literatures, that there are aspects of French literature that cannot be understood unless you understand what is distinctive about the French language, and that cannot be translated into another language.

So, all of this is foundational within the field of media ecology, and summed up by saying, the medium is the message. And as a wise man once said, all the rest is commentary, go and learn it.


And that's the story, miei amici, so ciao, for now!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New York Top 10 Googles

So, back on December 16, I was quoted in a brief article on top Google searches in New York City for 2014. The results had just been released that day, but I got to see them a day early (woohoo!) so that I could provide some comments on the results. 

I then had a brief telephone conversation with reporter Ivan Pereira, who wrote the article that appeared the next day in am New York (or is it amNew York? Hard to be sure of spacing and punctuation these days, it's ambiguous as it appears in print and both are used in the Wikipedia entry on the paper, and there also is the alternative of amNY as it's abbreviated and in its URL form, also as amny.com. Oh, and note the pun here, between AM as in ante meridiem, or morning, the paper being put out for the morning rush and often gone by the afternoon, and am as in the verb to be, as if to say that the paper is New York, or a representation of New York, the sort of Aristotelian statement that Alfred Korzybski was opposed to, although I am certain he would have appreciated the word play, and made room in his general semantics for the ways in which such double entendres can actually raise our consciousness of abstracting).

However you list the name of the paper, and it is actually a paper, you know, printed with ink on actual pulp, it bills itself on the cover, right under its name, as "Manhattan's Highest Daily Circulation Newspaper" (a fact I have not myself verified). The paper is distributed for free every weekday, and its distribution is numbered in the hundreds of thousands. According to the paper's Wikipedia entry,

The paper is primarily distributed in enclosed newspaper holders ("honor boxes") located on sidewalks and street corners with high pedestrian traffic. Workers ("hawkers," sporting a red amNewYork vest) are sometimes paid to station themselves near NYC transportation points and offer the free paper to passersby. As a result, the paper has had much success with morning and evening commuters.

The entry also mentions that the paper is owned by Cablevision, who bought it from the Tribune Company, along with the major newspaper, Newsday, in 2008.

So, here's the cover of the December 16th, 2014 issue:





Now, before continuing on with the article, let me share with you the Top-10 Trending Searches in New York City, New York in 2014, courtesy of Google:
  1. World Cup Schedule
  2. Avonte Oquendo
  3. Donald Sterling
  4. Flappy Bird
  5. 2048
  6. Missing Plane
  7. Oscars 2014
  8. True Detective
  9. Ebola Symptoms
  10. Frozen

and here are the Top-10 How To… Questions for New York City, New York in 2014:
  1. How to harmonize
  2. How to focus
  3. How to network
  4. How to photoshop
  5. How to reupholster
  6. How to listen
  7. How to samba
  8. How to cosplay
  9. How to declutter
  10. How to wow

and the Top-10 What is… Questions for New York City, New York in 2014:
  1. What is ebola?
  2. What is tryptophan?
  3. What is ISIS?
  4. What is Alibaba?
  5. What is bitcoin?
  6. What is POC?
  7. What is squally?
  8. What is edamame?
  9. What is gamification?
  10. What is quantum?

and finally, the Top-10 News and Events for New York City, New York in 2014:
  1. World Cup Schedule
  2. Missing Plane
  3. Oscars 2014
  4. Ebola Symptoms
  5. Ferguson Missouri
  6. Brazil vs. Germany
  7. Golden Globes 2014
  8. Mayweather vs. Maidana
  9. Wimbledon 2014
  10. Unemployment Extension

And now, here is Ivan Pereira's article:

Top Google searches in NYC in 2014

New Yorkers put their own unique spin on Google searches in 2014.


The search giant revealed today the top searches made within the five boroughs in 2014, and the World Cup came in first.

Although the tournament ranked second nationally, Google trends expert LaToya Drake said the energy around the event was different in New York, propelling it to the top.

“It became this collective viewing experience,” Drake said. “Even if you weren’t a soccer fan, you were being left out if you didn’t know the matches.”

Lance A. Strate, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, credited the city’s diversity for making the World Cup a top trender. At the same time, he said the No. 2 search topic of 2014, Avonte Oquendo, stressed New York’s camaraderie.

Although the 14-year-old autistic Queens boy ran away from his Long Island City school in the fall of 2013, New Yorkers’ concerns persisted through when his remains were found in January.

“In New York, people are tightly packed together, so there is a sense of involvement that you don’t see in other areas,” he said.

The Google data, which didn’t include New York search trends for December, found that the top “What is” query from in the city was “What is Ebola?” The city had its own case at the end of October when Dr. Craig Spencer was hospitalized with the disease following a humanitarian trip to Africa.

“Once it came to the states, there was a lot of fear,” Drake said. “People were looking for answers.”

As I said, a very brief article, especially when it's reduced to text as it is here, or even over on their site where the article is followed by the top ten lists, and also includes this image:


This is not a search box...









Ok, I added the caption myself, couldn't help but make the allusion to the famous painting by René Magritte, entitled La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images), but better known by the caption that is part of the painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe):




But speaking of images, I hope you don't consider it treacherous or a pipe dream if I also share how the article looked on page 4 of the issue, continuing on to page 5:




So, now, you can see that the article is not the article is not the article, which brings to mind Korzybski's general semantics principle of non-identity, and the related notion that the map is not the territory, which is what Magritte was trying to get across. And am New York is not amNew York or amNY, etc. Along the same lines, the top Google searches for New York do not necessarily represent what was most important, most valuable, or even most perplexing to New Yorkers. It only tells us what it tells us, that is, what New Yorkers used the search engine to search for most often. To give one example, love is very important to most people, and often very puzzling, but I doubt it was a search term that would ever come up in a top ten list.

Simply put, what remains unsaid is what exactly do these lists represent? What are they indicators of? What are they symptoms of? It's interesting that no one is every quite able to put their fingers on the answer, and perhaps somewhat sad to say that most people never even raise the question. So all it amounts to is a bit of trivia, a bit more of what Neil Postman called amusing ourselves to death, and what I punningly altered to amazing ourselves to death, and I think this applies because we are in many ways amazed by the searches and the fact that the results can be tabulated in this way (and we should also be a bit concerned, given the fact that big data of this sort can be used to influence and manipulate us in myriad ways).

The results are also an example of what Daniel Boorstin termed a pseudo-event, a news item that does not report on something that actually happened, or would have happened had there been no news medium to make the report. Sure the data exists, but the whole idea of doing a story on top ten lists of Google searches is a brilliant way to promote Google itself, and the idea of the Google search itself, great public relations, but what is the actual news value. As Boorstin noted more than half a century ago, pseudo-events are designed to fit the format of the news media, so they are easy to report on, and make for good news items, but they are ambiguous, and in fact part of their attraction is in the fact that they beg the question, what does it mean?

So, when we come down to it, the top Google searches represent exactly what they say they are, the top Google searches. They are nothing more than that, they are what they are. Like an image, like a photograph, like data, they may be used as evidence of something, but make no claim or argument of statement, in and of themselves. But in saying, they are what they are, we also have to say, Ce n'est pas ce que c'est, this is not what it is. Or as Korzybski liked to put it, whatever you say something is, it is not.

Non-identity is the first non-Aristotelian principle of general semantics, and non-allness is the second, and that certainly applies to my quote in the article. I spoke to Ivan Pereira for about fifteen minutes on the phone, and gave him way more commentary than he could possibly use. That's a given when reporters reach out in this way, so this is not a complaint, merely a point of reference. And it's good to have an outlet like Blog Time Passing where I can fill you in on some of what was not included in the article.

Now, if you follow my blog, you know I've done this before, and it is particularly easy to do when my comments are provided via email. In this case, though, they were delivered orally via a telephonic exchange, so I have no recorded record of them. So I'll just fill in what I can remember, which includes the point I already made about the meaning of these top Google search results. Raising that question was obviously more than could be dealt with in the article.

Beyond that, what particularly stands out for me is on the subject of Avonte Oquendo. Pereira used my general point about New Yorker camaraderie as a product of population density, and I can understand why, as it speaks to the distinctive character of New Yorkers and the New York lifestyle, and does so in a positive manner. What he didn't include were my comments about the New York Metropolitan Area also having a very high proportion of individuals with autism, which is what made the story resonate so much locally. Of course, in making this point, I noted that the metropolitan area includes the New Jersey suburbs, which has the highest incidence of childhood autism in the nation, and pointed out that a large number of individuals who reside in the North Jersey area commute to work in Manhattan, and would therefore be doing those Google searches from work. This would be in addition to the relatively high rate of incidence within New York City itself. Now, I think this is a much more relevant, important, and even insightful point. So why wasn't it included? It's possible that New Yorker prejudice against Jersey played a role, but I doubt it. I think the problem was more aong media ecological lines, in that the point was too complicated for a format that favored a short and simple comment.

I also noted that New York had a case of Ebola, a point included in the article, but without any comment that I made (I'm sure I wasn't the only one to bring it up). I also remarked that many of the items in these lists were probably high up in Google searches nationally, but what seems to speak specifically to New Yorker concerns, given the hectic, fast-paced lifestyle, the constant level of stimulation, so much so that when New Yorkers go out to the country, it is not unheard of for individuals to have trouble sleeping because it's too quiet for them, and again the density and tight spaces that New Yorkers occupy, are search items about how to harmonize, focus, listen, and declutter.

There are some interesting items relating to economics and careers, such as Unemployment Extension, what is bitcoin, and how to network, and I think that how to reupholster speaks to the thriftiness and old world sensibility of New Yorkers. Pereira used my comment on the diversity of New Yorkers, which includes the fact that so there are so many immigrants and expatriates in residence, that probably made the World Cup trend higher here that in most of the rest of the country.

All of this is an attempt to interpret the data, a kind of exercise in Talmudic hermeneutics, but again, following Postman, the problem is one of decontextualization, that like TV, these lists appear in the context of no context, to use Postman's phrase, so we really don't know what these results represent about us. What is the reason that people do a Google search for a particular term? Under what conditions do people search or don't search for any particular word, phrase, or topic? What makes particular search items more or less popular? Are we more likely to search for things we hear, see, or read about on the news? Are we more likely to search for things we watch on television? Are we more likely to search for things we encounter online? Have mobile devices changed the way that we search? These and many more questions are the kind of context analysis that's needed to really make sense out of these reports on top Google searches of the year. 

This also relates to the third non-Aristotelian principle of self-reflexiveness. Are the top Google search terms a map of a territory, and if so, what's the territory? Or are they a map of a map, or a map of a map of a map?

And of course, it follows that the terms we search for have much to do with the search results that are returned, which is after all a variation on what good old Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. And we don't need Google to tell us that!





Friday, December 19, 2014

Giving Thanks for Hanukkah

So, back on December 5th, I had another op-ed appearing in the Jewish Standard, this one entitled, From Thanksgiving to Chanukah. You might note the different spelling of the Jewish holiday between the title of this post and the title of the article, and that's because there is no one correct way to spell Hanukkah, since it's a transliteration of a Hebrew word written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Also, by way of contextualization, Thanksgiving was on November 27th this year, which means that this article was published just over a week afterwards. And the first night of Hanukkah was December 16th, about a week and a half after the article appeared. So now that we're in the midst of our Festival of Lights, it seems like the perfect time to share the piece here on Blog Time Passing. Note that a few minor corrections have been made from the published version, and the fourth poem, which was cut for reasons of space, is restored here, as well as some images added. So here goes:


With the celebration of Thanksgiving still fresh in our memories, and quite possibly our waistlines, and Chanukah a little more than a week away, we might recall last year’s rare, indeed almost impossible confluence of the two holidays.

Remember how the event was met with a bit of bemusement, resulting in the neologism Thanksgivukkah, in images of turkeys with tails that turned into Chanukah menorahs, and meals that combined stuffing and cranberry sauce with latkes and sufganiyot?




At first glance, it might be tempting to say that this year Chanukah has been restored to its rightful place in the secular calendar, ending as it does on Christmas Eve. But Christmas is one of the two most important holidays on the Christian calendar and, in all honesty, our minor holiday does not work all that well as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. As much as Chanukah is our Festival of Lights, it pales in comparison with the religious celebration of the birth of the Christian savior through divine incarnation. Neither can we offer an equivalent to the iconography of Christmas trees, sleighs, stockings, and jolly old Saint Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus.

And can we really take pride in the fact that Chanukah has been incorporated into the secular “Holiday Season,” which has become an enormous celebration of materialism and an orgy of consumption, beginning with Black Friday, now pushed back into Thanksgiving itself, followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday? Or that the one favorable comparison that we can make is that we get eight nights of presents instead of just one?

Don’t get me wrong. I love Chanukah, and I fully recognize and understand the challenges that we face in growing up Jewish and raising our children as Jews in America. I bring up the problematic nature of Chanukah’s association with Christmas simply to underline the fact that last year, more than a few people commented that Chanukah actually fits better with Thanksgiving. After all, Thanksgiving is a harvest holiday and Chanukah originated as a delayed celebration of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Thanksgiving incorporates a modest amount of nonsectarian spirituality and Chanukah is at best a minor religious holiday; both are occasions for families to gather at home, rather than in a house of worship.

Thanksgiving is a distinctly American holiday, a ritual of national unity, albeit muted in contrast to the Fourth of July. Chanukah is a celebration of a successful national revolt against the Seleucid Empire, a small celebration of freedom in contrast to the Passover commemoration of the Exodus. Indeed, insofar as it began as the celebration of a military victory, Chanukah might well be compared to the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo. Although many non-Mexicans mistake Cinco de Mayo for Mexico’s Independence Day, which actually falls on the September 15, the Fifth of May merely commemorates the Mexican victory over the invading French army of Napoleon III in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. (By 1864, however, the Mexicans had lost the war, and Emperor Maximilian I was installed as their monarch. He ruled until 1867, when the Mexicans, aided by the United States, ousted the French.)

Even more than Cinco de Mayo, Thanksgiving and Chanukah have been somewhat tainted by subsequent events. Thanksgiving presents us with the ideal of co-existence between the English colonists and the Native Americans they encountered, but that ideal has proved to be elusive in practice. Chanukah’s rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and independence in ancient Judea was associated with civil war among our people, and the theocratic rule of the Hasmonean dynasty.

What is most important, however, is that both Thanksgiving and Chanukah are celebrations of survival against overwhelming odds. Both represent a message of hope that is always welcome.

Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. That same Civil War inspired a 14-year-old Jewish girl to start writing poetry. That was Emma Lazarus, a native New Yorker and a true American. Her father was Sephardic, her mother Ashkenazic of German descent, with ancestry in New York on both sides of her family, dating back to the American Revolution. Lazarus grew up to become one of the great American poets of the 19th century, maintaining a literary friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. She died in 1887, at age 38.




She composed her best known work, “The New Colossus,” in 1883. It was not until well after her death that the poem was engraved in bronze and mounted on the State of Liberty’s pedestal. Most of us are familiar with the final fives lines of the poem, but the sonnet is worth repeating in its entirety:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”



Although she was particularly concerned with the treatment of Jewish immigrants flooding in from Russia and eastern Europe during the late 19th century, Lazarus was able to universalize that experience to cover immigration in general, and to emphasize the establishment of the United States as a refuge for freedom and a nation of immigrants, truly a cause for thanksgiving. We might note the subtle incorporation of Jewish motifs in this poem, notably the reference to immigrants as exiles, also the use of the torch and the lamp, perhaps the similarity between the “mighty woman” and the biblical judge, Deborah, and certainly the comparison with the Greek Colossus of Rhodes, an implied contrast between the Hellenic and the Hebraic (which also is a main source of conflict associated with Chanukah).

Around the same time that she wrote “The New Colossus,” Lazarus also wrote another poem, “1492,” that has a similar but more overtly Jewish theme. “1492” contrasts the tragedy of the expulsion from Spain with the hope spawned by the discovery of the New World as a home for the exiled:

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”
Without a doubt a major American poet, Lazarus dealt with many overtly Jewish subjects in her work. She translated works by the early 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine and the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, Moses ben Ezra, Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, and Judah ben Ha-Levi, into English. Although she did not live to see the formal birth of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, her writing expresses the longing for a Jewish homeland associated with Theodor Herzl. As much as the United States had opened its golden door to the Jewish people, Lazarus was well aware of the anti-Semitism that existed in American society, and the plight of the Jewish people elsewhere throughout the world.

In that context, her poem “The Feast of Lights” conveys to us a different, more militant meaning of Chanukah than we are accustomed to:

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,

The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.

Five branches grown from Mattathias’ stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o’er all his clan

Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: “He received the perishing.”

They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah’s heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie

Disfigured and polluted—who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,

Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o’ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.

Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!

Lazarus issued a similar call for renewal and rebirth inspired by the Chanukah commemoration in another poem, “The Banner of the Jew”:

Wake, Israel, wake! Recall to-day
  The glorious Maccabean rage,
The sire heroic, hoary-gray,
  His five-fold lion-lineage:
The Wise, the Elect, the Help-of-God,
  The Burst-of-Spring, the Avenging Rod.

From Mizpeh’s mountain-ridge they saw
  Jerusalem’s empty streets, her shrine
Laid waste where Greeks profaned the Law,
  With idol and with pagan sign.
Mourners in tattered black were there,
  With ashes sprinkled on their hair.

Then from the stony peak there rang
  A blast to ope the graves: down poured
The Maccabean clan, who sang
  Their battle-anthem to the Lord.
Five heroes lead, and, following, see
  Ten thousand rush to victory!

Oh for Jerusalem’s trumpet now,
  To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleepers high and low,
  And rouse them to the urgent hour!
No hand for vengeance—but to save,
  A million naked swords should wave.

Oh deem not dead that martial fire,
  Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses’ law and David’s lyre,
  Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
  To lift the Banner of the Jew!

A rag, a mock at first—erelong,
  When men have bled and women wept,
To guard its precious folds from wrong,
  Even they who shrunk, even they who slept,
Shall leap to bless it, and to save.
  Strike! for the brave revere the brave!



With the State of Israel now 66 years old, it is easy to forget the longing for a homeland that the Jewish people felt before Israel’s Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1948. Chanukah, then, might be an occasion to consider what Israel’s independence means to us, especially in this troubled moment in our history, and at the same time as we, as American Jews, give thanks for the safe harbor we have enjoyed here in the United States.





In doing so, we can recall the meaning of Chanukah as a Festival of Light, and a celebration of survival—and hope.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Moses Motif

Back on October 30th, the Jewish Standard published another one of my op-ed pieces (in case you're wondering, I write them on their request), and with the film that I use as my jumping off point now out in the theaters, it seems as good a time as any to share it here on Blog Time Passing. The title of the piece is The Moses Motif, the subtitle being, "The savior theme in modern TV series," and here's how it goes:



Ridley Scott’s latest film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, won’t be in theaters until December, but it already has generated a bit of controversy.





According to Christianity Today, the actor who portrays Moses in the film, Christian Bale, had this to say about the dominant figure in Jewish religious tradition: “I think the man was likely schizophrenic, and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life. He’s a very troubled and tumultuous man who fought greatly against God, against his calling.”

Living in a free and open society, Mr. Bale is free to express his opinion, and to do so safe from the fear of any punishment or persecution. The biggest fear that his remarks have generated is the potential effect they may have on the movie’s box office returns, especially among the large Christian market in the United States. Of course, we in turn are free to characterize his statements as ignorant and erroneous. We also are free to express our doubts about whether he has any chance of displacing Charlton Heston as the personification of Moses, especially since Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments” has been broadcast on ABC every year around Easter for the last four decades. And we are also free to say that Mr. Bale should go back to playing Batman, a character better suited to his temperament.



And speaking of comic book superheroes, we might recall that the first of this genre, Superman, was the creation of two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, back in 1938. As an answer to the idea of the Aryan “superman” trumpeted by Nazi ideology, their Superman was the ultimate immigrant, born on another planet but raised as an American. He was the ultimate orphan, too; his home world, Krypton, was destroyed, mirroring the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States to escape the destructive forces of discrimination and anti-Semitism, the arrests and expulsions, not to mention the pogroms, putsches, and purges. This was not an exclusively Jewish story, but one shared by many immigrant groups during the 19th and 20th centuries. This no doubt had much to do with the character’s popularity in the United States.



Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster


The immigrant experience is reflected in the depiction of the character’s double life, as well. Unlike Batman, whose real identity is Bruce Wayne, Superman doesn’t wear a mask, but instead puts on glasses to masquerade as Clark Kent, the Anglo-Saxon name he uses as he tries to blend in with humanity. And although he is never entirely outed, he often comes across as awkward, shy, and clumsy in his attempt to pass as an ordinary man. As Superman, however, his Kryptonian ethnicity is openly on display. He is in his own element, set apart from the mainstream, which is the way that immigrants and their children might feel in the privacy of their own homes, or at shul, or safely tucked away in their own community or ethnic enclave.

Ellis Island was notorious for changing immigrant’s names, and immigrants themselves commonly changed their names to Americanize them. They often gave their children Anglo-Saxon names like Clark Kent. And just as Jews often have Hebrew names that differ from their official given names, Superman has a Kryptonian name: he is Kal-El, son of Jor-El. The last name, El, is a common element of Hebrew names, translated as God, while Kal might be taken for the Hebrew word for all, or for voice. Perhaps there is also a connection to the name of the biblical hero Caleb, which also can be transliterated as Kaleb, one of the 12 spies sent by Moses, and the only one, aside from Joshua, to act with courage, loyalty, and integrity. The important point, however, is not the specific translation, but rather the way in which the idea of Superman’s Kryptonian name is drawn from Jewish experience.

But Superman’s origin also was clearly inspired by the story of how Moses was saved from the Egyptian edict that all male children born to the Israelites should be killed, how he was put into a basket to float on the Nile River, where he was found and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. The story of Superman begins when he is an infant. His parents place him in a small rocket, just the size of a cradle, and send him to the planet earth just before his planet is destroyed. Although Siegel and Shuster drew on science fiction themes rather than myth, fantasy, or allegory in telling this story, there is no denying the seemingly supernatural quality of the hero, or his role as a hero and a savior.

The same Moses motif is apparent in the ABC television series Once Upon a Time, created by two Jewish writers, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and now into its fourth season. The ABC network is owned by Disney, and Once Upon a Time draws on Disney’s long history of fantasy and fairy tale films, reworking and merging the characters and plots, and giving it all a twist. This is along the lines of the popular TV series Lost, for which both Kitsis and Horowitz wrote.


As the series opens, all the fairytale characters are under a spell cast by the Evil Queen (the one from Snow White), living ordinary, unchanging lives in the real world in a small town called Storybrooke. They have forgotten their true identities and earlier existence in another realm called the Enchanted Forest. Just before the curse took hold, however, Snow White and Prince Charming placed their infant daughter in a magic wardrobe, which transported her to our world, free of the Evil Queen’s curse. She grows up as an orphan, ignorant of her origins. The series opens with the daughter, now an adult named Emma Swan, arriving at Storybrooke, where she eventually is identified as the Savior. This makes it possible to reverse the spell and rouse the inhabitants from their fantasy of assimilation.


A darker version of the Moses motif appears in the HBO series Game of Thrones, adapted from George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels by two Jewish writers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Here too the motif is applied to a female character, Daenerys Targaryen. As the young daughter of a deposed king, she is saved from being slaughtered, exiled to a part of the world that resembles the middle east, and forced into an arranged marriage with the leader of a nomadic tribe. Rescued and adopted into royalty, she loses everything when her husband is wounded and dies. But, like Moses, she has a supernatural encounter with fire (becoming “mother” to three newly hatched dragons) that sets her on the path to becoming a leader in her own right, and a redeemer. During the series’ fourth season this spring, her liberation of slaves was shown to great dramatic effect. It is also clear, however, that she is a flawed savior, and her dragons are a dangerous weapon that can cause harm to the innocent.



Superman, Emma Swan, and Daenerys Targaryen all draw upon the powerful story of Moses in different ways. But they all convey the same profound theme of the Moses motif. That’s unconditional love, as parents sacrifice everything to save their children. (How many times has that story been enacted in real life?) As Neil Postman so eloquently put it, “children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” And what the Moses motif reminds us of is that children are the saviors who will liberate us from the tyranny of the past, and lead us into the freedom of the future.





And that's the end of the op-ed, but as a bit of an epilogue, I was in the audience for a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman last month (and it is sad to see that come to an end), and as part of the warm up before the show began, he told the following joke: What do you call a Batman who stops attending church? The answer was, Christian Bale...