Wednesday 27 January 2016

Spaces of Blue: Moments of Humanity in a Troubled Century Week One

In addition to other postings, I will be using this site for eight weeks to provide weekly overviews for a course offered by the Ryerson Life Institute.

                                                 Week One: Thematic Overview

"In the eye of the hurricane the sky is blue...The eye of the hurricane is in the very middle of a destructive power, and that power is always near, surrounding blue healthy and threatening to invade it...

In a world of moral hurricanes, some people can and do carve out rather large ethical space. In the natural world and social world swirling in cruelty and love we can make room. We who are not pure ethical beings can push away the choking circle of brute force that is around and within us. We may not be able to push it far..., but when we have made us as much room as we can, we may know a blue space that  the storm does not know."
- Philip Hallie, 1986
Gate by Jim Hodges

"Man cannot do without beauty."

- Albert Camus

“This is earth. It will be never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction….We cannot eliminate devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its source and foundation; these are victories.”

Rebecca Solnit, “Hope in the Dark” in Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World
Edited by Karin Lofthus Carrington and Susan Griffin, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011.


Based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Philomena focuses on the efforts of Philomena Lee (Dench), mother to a boy conceived out of wedlock - something her Irish-Catholic community didn't have the highest opinion of - and given away for adoption in the United States. In following church doctrine, she was forced to sign a contract that wouldn't allow for any sort of inquiry into the son's whereabouts. After starting a family years later in England and, for the most part, moving on with her life, Lee meets Sixsmith (Coogan), a BBC reporter with whom she decides to discover her long-lost son.

The Hunt is a “contemporary horror story about a respected man’s descent into a Kafkaesque nightmare of denunciations, dread and danger. We are pulled into the dark realms of the human psyche and an excursion through small-town Hell. A gesture of affection from a little girl to her daycare teacher triggers a rejection that sparks ugly suspicions, leading questions, half-truths and outright lies. Neighbors he’s known for decades turn malicious and malevolent overnight, their moral collapse fueled by a misguided sense of righteous indignation. He’s excommunicated from society, vilified by his childhood friends and barred from the local stores. The film mounts excruciating tension as the witch hunt escalates from emotional to physical attacks. Then something human happens.
(This blurb has been adapted from a review by Colin Covert in the Star Tribune)


Sunday 24 January 2016

The German Occupation of France: Complexities

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because it reviews a book that illustrates the courage shown by a family in Occupied France a "space of blue" in a dark time.

German officers at a sidewalk café on the Champs-Élysées in July 1940, one month after the Nazi invasion of France.

“One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.” 
– Anthony Eden, former British Prime Minister, from The Sorrow and the Pity.

French television refused to air Marcel Ophuls’ landmark 4 1/2-hour documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity(1969); its 1971 cinematic release punctured a powerful myth promoted after the war by Charles De Gaulle: that the French nation by and large heroically resisted the Germans during the four-year occupation. Ophuls makes it clear that the majority of Frenchmen were neither supporters of the Germans nor members of the resistance. Rather, they went along quietly with the wartime collaborationist government of Marshal Pétain. Regardless of how they behaved, for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of French citizens opted for remaining silent, even those who acted heroically.

In his prologue to The Cost of Courage (Other Press, 2015), Charles Kaiser, a former reporter turned author, describes how he first encountered that strange silence when he met the French family that had lodged his uncle, a GI named Henry Kaiser, in Paris during the last year of the war. From his uncle, Charles heard stories of their heroism: “The most dramatic movie about the war,” the nephew writes, “was the one I learned by heart but had seen only in my head.” Yet when he finally met the surviving members of the Boulloche family as a child in the early 1960s, they were reticent about their war experiences: “It would take me five decades, including two and a half years living in France, to unravel the reasons for the heroes’ silence.” It is the author’s connection with this cultured, upper-middle-class Catholic family, particularly with the daughter, Christiane, that gives The Cost of Courage its distinctive resonance. Only after the death of her siblings is Christiane willing to share with Kaiser the family’s harrowing experiences during the Occupation. Assisted by declassified British documents, letters, diaries and conversations with the children of the next generation, the author narrates a powerful account of one family’s courage, guilt and pain. He supplements their story with the larger historical context of the war. Initially, this device appears jarring, juxtaposing a thriller-like narrative written in the present tense with a more conventional historical overview. But as we become accustomed to it, it begins to work, especially when he is able to weave the two threads together with the onset of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Sunday 10 January 2016

Maajid Nawaz’s Memoir: From Islamist to Liberal Democrat

This piece that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because of the recent attention I have been giving to humane moments in the last century, an antidote to crossing that line of darkness.

Author and politician Maajid Nawaz. (Photo by David Levene)
“Here I am back in Mecca. I am still travelling, trying to broaden my mind, for I have seen too much of the damage narrow-mindedness can make of things, and when I return home … I will devote what energies I have to repairing the damage.” 
– Malcolm X, Letter to James Farmer 

It is not surprising that in Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening (WH Allen, 2012), Maajid Nawaz cites Malcolm X, given the correlation in the arc of their lives. Whereas the African-American leader’s path gave way from being a petty criminal and long-term incarceration to becoming an influential minister and separatist political activist to evolving into a humanist in the final stages of his life, Nawaz’s journey led him from being a British-born angry teenager of Pakistani descent, who found his voice of rebellion through American hip-hop, to the upper echelons of the radical organization Hizb-al Tahrir, and his subsequent imprisonment in Egypt and disenchantment with Islamism. What both men shared in common was their ability to challenge their deepest convictions despite the personal costs they endured.

Before reading Radical, I initially became aware of Nawaz in 2010 when he was profiled on 60 Minutes and this year interviewed by Steve Paikin on TVO’s The Agenda, one of the more intelligent conversations with Nawaz, and I was impressed. On television he is articulate, telegenic and urbane, but it is his courage to question and upend his belief system and face the consequences that stand out in his memoir. Although Nawaz grew up in a middle-class anglophile household, he lived in a racist neighbourhood in Essex, England where at school he was taunted for his “blackness” and was perpetually at risk from the thuggery of neo-Nazi skinheads, violence that the police largely ignored. In one powerful vignette, he describes how one of his white friends was seriously stabbed trying to persuade a gang not to beat up Maajid. He acknowledges the shame he felt that someone else was nearly murdered trying to help him while he was unable to do anything. Much more important is that this altercation, the reports that he heard and the videos he viewed about the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war in the 1990s drew him into extremist Islamism. It was not the Muslim faith or early indoctrination by his parents that inspired him to take this path. On the contrary, Nawaz recounts a childhood memory that after Salman Rushdie in 1988 was demonized for publishing The Satanic Verses, his mother ignored Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah and bought the book in order to “make up her own mind whether it was blasphemous or not.” Her advice was if you do not like a book write another one to challenge it. It took several years before Nawaz was able to absorb her wisdom.