Sunday, 17 September 2017

Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria, Part One: Partial Amnesia

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because it reveals how the Communist regimes in Romania and Bulgaria followed the blueprint established in the Soviet Union, a major subject of  That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions,2013).
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, centre, in his final address to the people on Dec. 21, 1989.

“The things they do to you (in the camps), the power they have over you. It throws off your sense of right and wrong.” – Olen Steinhauer, The Confession
One of the most remarkable exchanges I encountered this summer from my time in the lower Danube was the personal family story from one of the Romanian guides. His father, a doctor, originally supported the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu until his father was conscripted into the army and one of his odious duties was to accompany the feared security police on missions in which they executed individuals.(His father would subsequently turn against Ceaușescu by supporting his wife who, coming from a humble background, had suffered under the regime.) He also revealed how his mother and her fellow workers were bused in to cheer Ceaușescu as he appeared on his balcony for the last time. The guide’s uncle was a member of the Army ordered to shoot anyone in the crowd who did not appear to be cheering. Was he to shoot his sister? This was a pivotal point in alienating the Army. The despised dictator lost his support and as a result he was finished. Our guide pointed out that balcony where Ceausescu delivered a speech that was interrupted by taunts from the crowd. It was a breathtaking moment, but this guide was an almost solitary voice among the local citizens I heard over the last two years.

The most widespread impression acquired from my visits to Romania and Bulgaria, especially the latter, was the ambivalence from a number of local guides about living under Communism. They acknowledge the difficulties of living with food and electrical shortages, the restrictions on speech and travel and the omnipotent power of the security police. These sentiments came close to appearing pro forma that was likely designed to appeal to the mostly American tourists. To me the guides appeared more energized when they spoke about the security of full employment and good pensions; for a number of them it seemed that the benefits outweighed the costs although that view was rarely explicitly stated.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Later Life Learning Week Two: The Seduction and Horror of War

Siegfried Sassoon

President Woodrow Wilson

“You will see the effect upon people. They will acclaim it with enthusiasm; everybody is already looking forward to the first onslaught—so dull have their lives become.
—Herman Hesse, Damian

"One of the most troubling reasons men love war is the love of destruction, the thrill of killing...all you do is move the finger so imperceptibly, just a wish flashing across your mind like a shadow, not even a full brain synapse, and poof, in a blast of sound and energy and light a truck or a house or even people disappear, everything flying and settling back into dust."
William Broyles, "Why Men Love War, Esquire, November 1984, veteran of the Vietnam War

Oh! What a Lovely War is an every-man-for-himself adaptation of Charles Chilton's 1963 play, as staged in London by Joan Littlewood. The tragedy of World War I is redefined in bawdy music-hall terms, beginning with a verbal free-for-all involving the Crowned Heads of Europe. The war is presented as the "new attraction" at the Brighton Amusement Pier, complete with syrupy cheer-up songs, shooting galleries, free prizes and a scoreboard toting up the dead. Throughout the proceedings, the camera concentrates on a middle-class family, whose five sons end up as cannon fodder. The final image is a veddy proper British picnic on a graveyard. Of the many fleeting satiric images parading past the camera, one of the most indelible is the sight of several generals playing leapfrog as the world all around them goes to hell in a handbasket. The awesome all-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Susannah York, Dirk Bogarde and Phyllis Calvert. We haven't seen this many Englishmen in one place since the last Wimbledon match. The whole affair was supervised by Richard Attenborough, making his directorial debut.


The picture of the country 100 years ago is often unwholesome in ways that, again, resonate with current turmoil. Prejudice against immigrants ran high. Anti-German feelings were virulent, and Wilson issued orders requiring the registration of all German-born residents (a program administered by the 22-year-old J. Edgar Hoover).
Americans were encouraged to spy on and report one another for violations of voluntary rationing programs or failure to buy war bonds. The government engaged in a sophisticated large-scale propaganda campaign enforcing loyalty. A poster shown in the film asks, in menacing capital letters, “Are You 100% American?”
Watching “The Great War” can give you a sense of a full circle of events. If this was how America became the world’s pre-eminent power, is this also how it surrenders the role?
From a review in the New York Times : "‘The Great War,’ When America Took the World Stage"

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Based on Pat Barker's novel of the same name, Regeneration  (later renamed Behind the Lines when released in DVD) tells the story of soldiers of World War One sent to an asylum for emotional troubles. Two of the soldiers meeting there are Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, two of England's most important WW1 poets but the most interesting exchanges occur between Sassoon and his physician William Rivers at Craiglockart Hospital where British officers suffering from severe shell shock were sent.
Testament of  Youth

Anchored by an extraordinary performance from actress Alicia Vikander, James Kent’s Testament of Youth bears comparison to many other superbly mounted costume dramas backed by the BBC, but this one has a special distinction: it chronicles the horrors that World War I inflicted on a generation of young English people from a woman’s perspective.

Though the war was followed by a slew of books about it, Vera Brittain’s account of her own experiences has been regarded as unique. It did not appear in the war’s immediate aftermath, partly because the aspiring writer didn’t know how to deal with her memories. She first tried writing a novel, which she shelved as a failure, a judgment she also made against a subsequent attempt to make a book by fictionalizing journals and letters. It was only later, inspired by filmmaker John Grierson’s coining of the term “documentary,” that she decided to craft a nonfiction account of her experiences, which became an instant bestseller upon its publication in 1933. 

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Later Life Learning Week One Humanity Challenged: Overview

 For the next ten weeks I will highlighting on this site an overview of talks I will be presenting for Later Life Learning.

 “The most dramatic instances of directed behavior change and "mind control" are not      the consequence of exotic forms of influence, such as hypnosis, psychotropic drugs, or "brainwashing," but rather the systematic manipulation of the most mundane aspects of human nature over time in confining settings.” 

“Fear is the State's psychological weapon of choice to frighten citizens into sacrificing their  basic freedoms and rule-of-law protections in exchange for the security promised by their all-powerful government.” 

― Philip G. ZimbardoThe Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

  "Forgiveness allows us to actually let us go of the pain in the memory. And if we let go  of the pain in the memory we can have the memory but it doesn't control us. I think it's the fact that when memory controls us, we are then puppets of the past."

― Alexandra Asseily, psychotherapist in Lebanon

“If torture is permitted, it's hard to imagine what isn't.”
― Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

     George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Is Suddenly a Best-Seller

When asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” why Mr. Spicer had said something that was provably false, Ms. Conway replied airily, “Don’t be so dramatic.”
Mr. Spicer, she said, “gave alternative facts.”
In the novel, the term “newspeak” refers to language in which independent thought, or “unorthodox” political ideas, have been eliminated. “Doublethink” is defined as “reality control.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment

“This film is a fascinating, revealing, upsetting experience. A movie about the real-life 1971 Stanford prison experiment could have been sadistic and unwatchable, but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's clinical approach focuses on realism and psychological drama rather than on thrills. Alvarez doesn't try to professionally polish the prison setting; instead, it has a functional, homemade look that makes it feel more immediate. The way the characters wear their hair and clothes - and the way they carry themselves - contributes to what feels like an authentic period piece.

Heather Heyer killed in Charlottesville Virginia

The Visitor (2008) is a powerful, moving film about a lonely widower and college economics professor who undergoes an emotional rebirth when he befriends a pair of illegal immigrants, one of whom has recently been threatened with deportation by U.S. immigration authorities. One reviewer has said: “The best movies are those that understand the human condition and have a personal vision. The Visitor is one of those rare creations.”

Our humanity is challenged by the seductive drug of white supremacy  explored in an article in The Guardian