There is a federal holiday coming up that you may not be familiar with and probably have only heard about through advertisements. November 11 is Veterans Day, and it is almost 100 years old. The holiday is meant to honor all those who have served in any branch of the armed forces in this country. It is sometimes confused with Memorial Day, which is meant to specifically honor those who have died while serving. Many towns have a parade for the holiday. Federal employees have the day off, so there is no mail delivered and public schools are closed.
Veterans Day was first known as Armistice Day. It marked the ending of WWI, “the war to end all wars,” according to H. G. Wells. The armistice, or temporary hold on battles, went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, although some very minor skirmishes did continue after that time. The official peace treaty to end WWI was signed in Versailles, France on June 28 of the following year. Then, in November of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation declaring November 11 as Armistice Day, officially marking the end of WWI. In this document he noted, “We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral, of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert. The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men.”
It wasn’t until June 4, 1926 that the United States Congress officially recognized the end of WWI, through a resolution that called for celebrating the day through… “exercises designed to perpetuate peace through goodwill and mutual understanding between nations.” A congressional Act to make Armistice Day an annual legal federal holiday… “dedicated to the cause of world peace,” was passed in May of 1938. Then in 1945, WWII veteran started a campaign to expand the holiday to honor veterans of all American wars. The veteran, Raymond Weeks of Birmingham, Alabama, led a delegation to General Dwight Eisenhower. Over the next eight years, various veterans’ service organizations took up the cause. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed a bill changing the name to Veterans Day and designating it a day to honor all veterans.
Congress then passed the Uniform Holidays Bill in June of 1968. This Act rescheduled a number of federal holidays to a nearby Monday, so that workers would have three-day weekends to encourage citizens to celebrate them. Veterans Day was first recognized under this act on October 25, 1971. However, this caused a lot of confusion among people who remember the “eleventh day of the eleventh month” from their school days. In fact, some states still celebrated it on November 11. Starting in 1978, President Gerald Ford changed Veterans Day back to November 11, and it has been celebrated on that date ever since.
Other countries have holidays similar to Veterans Day. In the United Kingdom, they celebrate the second Sunday of November as Remembrance Sunday. In Canada, and other Commonwealth countries, the holiday is also called Remembrance Day, where it is common to observe a moment of silence at 11 a.m. on November 11. France and other allied nations celebrate Armistice Day by honoring their veterans with a national holiday that coincides with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day.
It has become traditional to have a ceremony at 11 a.m. that day to honor unknown soldiers who were killed in battle. For instance, there is the annual laying of the wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. Here in New York, a wreath is laid at the Eternal Light Monument in Madison Square Park at 11 a.m. before the parade.
The parade in New York City is the largest in the country. This year’s parade, on Saturday, November 11, will have over 300 contingents, including veterans from several wars, school and community groups, military units, marching bands, Medal of Honor recipients, and antique vehicles. This year’s Grand Marshal will be Buzz Aldrin, astronaut and Air Force veteran. The parade runs along 5th Avenue, from 26th Street to 52nd Street, starting at 11:15 a.m. There is some limited bleacher seating near the reviewing stand at 41st Street, by the New York Public Library.
adjective | in·dig·e·nous | \ in-ˈdi-jə-nəs \
Produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment.
According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the word indigenous was in 1646, nearly 150 years after a year embedded in the brains of most schoolchildren in the United States: 1492, a year that my peers and I in our New York City public elementary school learned was famed for being when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search for India, but instead made the great discovery of America, the New World. We were told how crucial it was to remember the most minute details. In elementary school, it was Columbus’s country of origin (Italy, though his famed voyages were from Spain) and the names of his ships (the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria). In middle and high school, we learned about the contribution of the spice trade to Columbus’s incentive to set sail and about its importance in the formation of a global economy. Though different layers of complexity were added as we got older, the two-fold takeaway was meant to be clear. First, Columbus discovered America. Second, Columbus discovered its native population. We were taught that Columbus thought himself to be in India when he landed, so I first learned to call the indigenous population Indians—by the time I reached high school, we were told to credit Columbus with the discovery of America and of Native Americans.
It was always around this time, at least in elementary school, where we would begin to jump forward a couple hundred years in our studies and learn about the Puritans in England. Again, we were given a simplified version of the story in which the Puritans were being persecuted for their religious beliefs, so they set sail and took up residence on the land Columbus had discovered. There, they were greeted with a slew of difficulties, the biggest of which was their inability to grow food on their new, inhospitable land. Of course, we were then taught about the kind Native Americans who taught the Puritans about hunting and gathering food, ensuring their survival and helping prepare a feast for the fall harvest. The first Thanksgiving, we were taught, was a celebration of harmony between the Native and Puritan populations.
The reality, I later learned, was very different. The ramifications of colonialism—both Columbus’s and the Puritan’s—were grave and far-reaching. Columbus didn’t discover mainland America, as we were taught, but instead landed on Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The Taino people were indigenous to the land, but their exploitation for slave labor, and the exploitation of their land for a trade route, ultimately led to their complete obliteration by 1535. The trade route that connected this land to mainland United States also brought with it diseases to which indigenous populations were not immune including, but not limited to, measles, mumps, chicken pox, smallpox, influenza, and pneumonia. European settlers did not offer indigenous people protection against these diseases. On the contrary, in 1763, to combat the Native Americans’ efforts to unify, British forces distributed blankets infected with smallpox to produce an epidemic.
A systematic effort to reduce native populations’ rights and power has consequences that extend to the present day. The American Indian Youth Organization reports statistics on poverty, unemployment, and lack of resources in education and infrastructure in Native American communities and reservations. Native American land today—much of which is sectioned off on governmentally-determined reservations—is being disrespected by the United States government. A prime example is that of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), an oil pipeline that the United States government intends to build through the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. It amassed news coverage this past year as protestors, many from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, were met with rampant police brutality, simply for fighting for their right to clean water. Despite the health and environmental risks, which will affect the Sioux tribe in particular, the pipeline will continue to remain operational.
In 1870, Thanksgiving became a federal holiday. In 1937, Columbus Day followed suit. As of October 9, 2017, there are a number of states, cities, and universities in the United States that now celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in lieu of Columbus Day. There have been recent protests throughout the country to remove statues of confederate generals—so too have people protested removing statues of Columbus. The United States has a long and shameful history of crimes against indigenous people, and many activists believe that to celebrate Columbus Day is to celebrate these crimes.
Both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s day have passed, but Thanksgiving is approaching—it is perceived as a positive holiday where we have the opportunity spend time with people we love, and to reflect on what we are thankful for. Given the recent eruption of the conversation regarding indigenous people, it may also be wise to reflect on our history, and on why Indigenous People’s day is being met with such skepticism; perhaps we can look to the language to tell us why. According to the definition above, indigenous refers to anything naturally-occurring in a place. When we apply such terminology to Native Americans in this country and call them indigenous people, there is a clearly implied juxtaposition: European colonialists were not natural, and therefore the presence of their descendants (many proud Americans) isn’t either. Though true, this fact is at odds with the inherent right that so many Americans feel they have to their land—a feeling that likely stems, at least in part, from the cultural erasure of a very real, albeit very difficult, part of United States history. The fact is that we have this land because we took it, and to keep this from children growing up in the United States (to teach them that Puritans and Native Americans were friends) does a disservice to all parties. Our cultural history must be a reflection of the full story.
Ones to Watch, Vol. 2 Edition
With the summer film festivals, namely Venice (August 30 – September 9), Telluride (September 1-4), and Toronto (September 7-17) behind us, it’s time for the second of a three-part series, which examines the roles that are likely to feature in the Best Actor race. In recent years, the eventual Best Picture winner has premiered at Telluride, and so begins the Oscar race. By this time last year, Venice had given us the performances of Ryan Gosling (La La Land) and Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), and those of Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) and Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) had hailed from the Sundance Film Festival. The only performance from an eventual nominee that we hadn’t seen was that of Denzel Washington (Fences).
Similar to last year, we have little to go on because most of the films that have been screened so far have centered on a female, not a male, lead. The last time the Academy awarded Best Picture to a film with a female lead was Million Dollar Baby back in 2006—not the greatest stat for Battle of the Sexes and Lady Bird to be up against following their praiseworthy Telluride premieres, but I digress. Unlike 2016, this year appears to already have a frontrunner who may prove unstoppable.
Before we delve into this year, let’s put a cap on the last one. Of the seven roles that were discussed here, two went on to secure Best Actor nominations: Washington and Affleck, and the race came down to those two men. We had Washington—a veteran looking for his third win, and Affleck—the scrappy guy from Boston hoping to net his first. Even though Washington delivered hands down the best performance of the year, Affleck was able to outrun his past (more on this shortly) to take the prize.
Nate Parker (The Birth of a Nation) topped the snub list, which included Joel Edgerton (Loving), when his issues with the law were exhumed as I described last year. At that time, I portended that if he didn’t get nominated, racism was to blame. It would appear that I was right because later on in the Oscar season it was revealed that Affleck too had some “past indiscretions,” to put lightly. However, Affleck was legally barred from speaking about his alleged reprehensible behavior and so, walked away from the ordeal squeaky clean, and likely as dirty as sin on the inside.
As for the others discussed here, Ang Lee’s big gamble, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was shot at 120 frames per second, flopped, leaving the film’s star Joe Alwyn out in the cold. Dev Patel (Lion) was recognized in the Best Supporting Actor category, and Hugh Grant (Florence Foster Jenkins) was campaigned in supporting, but failed to land a nomination.
THE PEACEMAKER: Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour (director: Joe Wright)
FYC: This British war drama follows new Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Oldman) during the early days of WWII when Hitler closed in on Britain, forcing Churchill to decide whether to negotiate or fight back. The film bowed at Telluride, earning rapturous reviews. Oldman was nominated for Best Actor in 2012 for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. His performance here has earned him frontrunner status, and given that it comes from a film that is in pole position for Best Picture, with director and actor accolades, he may be unstoppable.
THE DESIGNER: Daniel Day-Lewis – (Untitled) (director: Paul Thomas Anderson):
FYC: Not much is known about this American drama set in the fashion world of 1950s London, where a dressmaker (Day-Lewis) is commissioned to design for members of high society and the royal family. But what is known is that the dressmaker is Charles James, and the film is reportedly the last of Day-Lewis who will retire following a career that has spanned four decades. Day-Lewis won three Best Actor Oscars beginning with My Left Foot in 1990, followed by There Will Be Blood in 2008, and most recently Lincoln in 2012. He is widely considered one of the best actors of our time, and all eyes will be on Day-Lewis to see if he can snatch the Oscar away from Oldman.
THE FIGHTER: Jake Gyllenhaal – Stronger (director: David Gordon Green):
FYC: This biographical drama, based on the memoir of the same name by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter, depicts the inspiring true story of Bauman who lost his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The film, currently in theatres, screened at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where it won over critics who praised Gyllenhaal’s performance. The actor has one Best Supporting Actor nomination under his belt for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. But now that Leonardo DiCaprio has finally been awarded his first Best Actor Oscar, it seems that Gyllenhaal has taken up the mantel of the younger heartthrob destined to be overlooked for several years by the Academy. Recently, he delivered consistent performances that have earned him some awards heat such as last year’s Nocturnal Animals, and 2014’s Nightcrawler, but how many more of these will he have to deliver of equal caliber before the Academy rewards him?
THE RECORD HOLDER: Denzel Washington – Roman Israel, Esq. (director: Dan Gilroy):
FYC: In this legal drama, Washington stars as the titular character: a driven, idealistic, liberal defense attorney who discovers some unsettling things about his law firm and ends up in a crisis that leads to an extreme action. Because I discussed the actor’s history with the Academy in last year’s column, I will refrain from expanding on it here, except to say that last year Washington, the record holder for the most nominations for an African-American actor, should’ve won his third Best Actor trophy. Buzz on the film following its premiere at TIFF is lukewarm, if warm at all, but Washington could get in through an I.O.U. from the Academy.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Christian Bale – Hostiles (director: Scott Cooper):
FYC: This period war drama, based on an original story by Donald E. Stewart, follows an English army captain who escorts a dying Cheyenne war chief and his family back to his tribal lands in 1892. The film earned rave reviews at TIFF and was subsequently scooped up for distribution this year. Somehow, I have yet to discuss Bale’s award history in this column, though he has been mentioned regularly. Unlike most actors, Bale won the first time he was nominated for his supporting role in The Fighter in 2011. He has since been nominated for Best Actor in 2014 for American Hustle and Best Supporting Actor last year for The Big Short. Because much of the acclaim of Hostiles pinpoints Bale’s performance, he stands a good chance of being nominated.
THE PERFORMER: Hugh Jackman – The Greatest Showman (director: Michael Gracey):
FYC: In this biographical musical drama Jackman portrays P.T. Barnum, a man who rose from nothing and started the spectacle that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Jackman was nominated for Best Actor in 2013 for Les Misérables, but hasn’t been featured in an Oscar-baity film since. Musicals can be a hard sell, but if anyone can do it, it’s Jackman who won a Tony award for his performance in The Boy from Oz in 2004.
THE ADOLESCENT: Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name (director: Luca Guadagnino):
FYC: This coming-of-age drama, based on the novel of the same name by André Aciman and written by James Ivory (more on this below), depicts the passionate relationship that develops between a young man named Elio and an academic (Armie Hammer) who has come to stay at his parents’ Italian villa in the 1980s. Through one unforgettable summer the two bond over their sexuality, their Jewish heritage, and love for life and all it has to offer. The film premiered at Sundance where it received universal acclaim, particularly for Chalamet, Hammer, and Michael Stuhlbarg (who plays Elio’s father), as well as for direction and writing. It is important to note that Ivory directed and was nominated for A Room with a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day. Furthermore, each of those films earned a minimum of eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. For these reasons it is a formidable candidate for a Best Picture nomination and therefore should have a strong presence in the Oscar race. However, a nomination for the 21-year-old newcomer Chalamet, perhaps best known for his eight-episode stint on TV’s Homeland is not yet a slam-dunk (though, having seen the film, he should be)—the last time an actor was nominated for Best Actor while in their early twenties was in the 1920s.
There are several other actors with the pedigree to earn a nomination this year. We don’t know if Tom Hanks’ role in Steven Spielberg’s greatly anticipated The Papers will be a supporting or a leading role, or if the Academy will decide to bestow a heap of good will onto Andrew Garfield who stars in Breathe. Other performances from leading men this year that could ignite include Chadwick Boseman for Marshall, Bryan Cranston for Last Flag Flying, and James Franco for The Disaster Artist. What we do know is that the critic groups will weigh in, and then it’s all over but the shouting. Until soon, Oscar watchers!
Book Review: Compass by Mathias Énard (New Directions, 2015; translated into English, 2017)
There are novels that are categorized as literature and not merely as fiction, and then there are the geniuses of literature and the masterworks of the genre. Reading these masterpieces of literary creation, we enter a process of joyful sublimation to the voices and experiences of unique characters, and we become witnesses to the colorful imaginations of the authors. One surrenders to the writers’ individualized and distinctive tones of language and states of mind as they conjure up realities that arise from a void as an expression of the acrobatic mental instincts which the best authors can relay through the art of written prose. A master of literature can construct a great sentence, a stunning paragraph, an unforeseen set of plot circumstances, and create an entire sublime world for their tales and stories.
I have recently read an amazing book, a true masterpiece, by the French author, Mathias Énard (b. 1972). Compass was published in 2015 and translated into English this year. It is simply the most wonderfully powerful work of fiction I’ve read in recent memory. It was a winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt (a highly regarded prize in French literature). Compass clocks in at a lengthy 443 pages and is a difficult read. It is dense with nonstop ideas and an incredible number of facts on many topics, none of which are dropped easily into the text by the author. Énard’s book reflects his voluminous, deep knowledge of the many subjects he addresses, often expressed as anecdotes from the arts, literature, nonfiction tomes on many subjects, from obscure moments in history and most importantly, from the flavors and ideas of distant and mysterious lands.
The story in Compass is narrated by a brilliant musicologist who ruminates through the complexities of his lifetime that borders on, but never gives completely into, a total disaster. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is in the throes of horrific insomnia at home in an apartment in Vienna as he delves deep into the memories of his travels through the Middle East and his scholarly pursuit to expose and relate the interconnections throughout history between Eastern and Western (mostly) classical music. One might think this a dry subject, but the emotional passion of Franz and those who shared his quest of making the twain of East and West meet makes for a gripping story. Franz’s baseline tale always returns to his love over decades of the brilliant French academic, Sarah. The reader comes to realize that Franz is now most likely deathly ill, and as we hear the sad details of his strange, mostly unrequited love for her, Énard immerses us in Franz’s consuming melancholy, all the while understanding his odd, unexpected strength. Through thick and thin, he is able to remain above water and not drown in a flood of bitter regret.
Franz is as complete a character as one could ever meet in fiction; always consistent, always real in so many detailed ways in his actions, words and thinking. His many admitted shortcomings still never lead the reader to dislike him. In the stories of the scholars and adventurers that he has met in his life while visiting places such as Istanbul, Tehran, Damascus, and Aleppo, there are numerous acts of duplicity and cruelty, and in Franz’s own case, pettiness. And it is the same with the tales he tells at length about the actions of the eccentrics of the past. Yet within this odd brew, there are grand redeeming moments of love and heroism, from both Franz’s lifetime and from the examples of men and women unearthed from the historical records, those from the desert sands of time.
Sarah rises above these flaws of personality, suffering only from the more intellectual quirk of the occasional fascination with the macabre. As Franz describes his own research of the history of music and delves into Sarah’s complex studies, the reader learns details of their work, with dozens of references to Middle Eastern composers and writers, as well as histories of individuals from the past with like-minded obsessiveness. They were Westerners who went against the grain and saw the allure of these mysterious, disconnected lands.
Here is one random, wonderful passage: “The human heart is indeed a strange thing. Franz Liszt’s artichoke heart didn’t stop falling in love, even with God—in these reminiscences of opium, as I hear the virtuosities of Liszt that occupied me in Constantinople rumbling like death march drums, a singular girl also appears to me, over there in Sarawak, even if Sarah has nothing in common with la Duplessis or with Harriet Smithson (“Do you see that fat Englishwoman sitting in the proscenium,” Heinrich Heine has Berlioz saying in his account), the actress who inspired the Symphonie Fantastique. Poor Berlioz, lost in his passion for the interpreter of “poor Ophelia”: “Poor great geniuses, grappling with three-quarters of the impossible!” as Liszt writes in one of his letters. You’d need a Sarah to be interested in all of these tragic fates of forgotten women…”
Although he is brilliant, Franz is fully aware and accepting of his scholarly limitations, and, wandering his apartment in sleeplessness, he admits he never reached the top as an academic. Both Franz and Sarah are studies in complete devotion to the work itself and to the process of slow and steady, exciting, absorbing discovery. Compass is a brilliant tale of intellectual pursuit that is always in tandem with the underpinning emotion of love as a concurrent force. It is a love which goes naturally with a researcher’s ideas, and as a given that is always present during the events of their lives and in history itself.
The other melancholy, terrible theme of the book is how Franz sees his beloved Middle East devolve to its current situation of war, fundamentalist religion, and miserable violence. We read the awful tales of friends caught in Iran during the Revolution and the destruction of the people and places he’s long loved, and been in awe of, by the barbaric, ruthless armies of ISIS or as victims of Assad in the Syrian civil war. It’s a heartbreaking story of what has been lost, tinged with the sadness of what could have been.
Franz is not a showy intellectual. He never brags about his incredible knowledge and though his studies take him to the heart of the Middle East, to the dangerous cities and outskirts of Iran, Turkey, and Syria where he is clearly a Western outsider, his tunnel vision of discovering artistic and scholarly connections between East and West exposes his disconnect, which leads to a defeat. This all collapses into the mire of today’s horrific problems. Franz and his colleagues didn’t blind themselves to the coming storm by studying in America or Europe encased in an Ivory Tower at a university, mulling over The Arabian Nights, simply reading, lecturing, and attending conferences. But while they put their boots on the ground and ventured abroad, they roamed within the intellectual, fortified towers of their minds and did not stop to consider that there might be something possibly irreversibly horrific being conjured up before their very eyes, even though the region’s history gives them all the glaring warning signs.
As I read Compass, I was completely captivated by the intense musings of the inner states of Franz Ritter’s unique and fascinating mind. Mathias Énard writes beautifully, like a once in a decade master of literature, and I look forward to more novels by this brilliant man.
Pretty Seasonal Colors
“The falling leaves drift by the window, the autumn leaves of red and gold…” Here we go again, fall has arrived, with its bright and warm colors. Who does not love walking around in this season, amazed by the beauty of the trees? Enjoy it!
The Nobel Committee has awarded Professor Michael W. Young the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 2. Together with Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash, professor Young has made an outstanding contribution unravelling now the circadian clock anticipates and adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day. Michael W. Young is the 25th scientist associated with Rockefeller to receive the highest accolade in science.
Our biological clock helps to regulate sleep patterns, feeding behavior, hormone release, blood pressure, and body temperature.
Noun, plural kakistocracies
- Government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power
Late this past June, journalist and MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid tweeted the following: “Look up the definition of ‘kakistocracy’ today, my fellow Americans. Things will make much more sense.” The tweet, which was liked over 8,000 times and retweeted nearly 4,000 times, prompted such a significant spike in searches for the word that Merriam-Webster devoted an entire article to it. Briefly, the word is Greek in origin, combining the root kakistos (meaning “worst”) with the familiar English ending -cracy (meaning “form of government”), which itself is derived from the Greek kratos (meaning “strength” or “power”). Dictionary.com notes in its definition that the root may also be tied to the Greek word kakos, meaning “evil” or “unpleasant” (its derivatives are recognizable in English in such words as cacophony), and perhaps even connected to the Greek prefix kako-, a not-so-subtle origin of the English slang word for “defecation”. Taken together, kakistocracy quite literally translates to the worst government.
Reid’s tweet was published on June 29th, 2017, a date in which kakistocracy was indeed helpful in contextualizing the day’s news. Some highlights from the day—other than the sale of an original R2-D2 model used in the Star Wars films for a whopping $2.76 million—included the passage of the second watered-down iteration of the travel ban. This action barred people from Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Somalia from entering the country without proof of “a credible claim of a bona fide relationship” with a person, job, or educational institution in the United States as well as the passage of two bills aimed at targeting undocumented immigrants. One of these bills, titled “Kate’s Law,” increased criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants previously convicted of crimes in the United States; the second, titled the “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act,” allowed for the withdrawal of federal funding to sanctuary cities, those which do not actively comply with the federal government in their enforcement of immigration laws.
These controversial immigration laws and others that have since been passed by the administration, along with the overall erratic behavior of the man in charge, must call into question why, upon Reid’s tweeting, the Google searches spiked—and why this word resonated with so many. Perhaps it is the often flagrant dismissal of the conventions of our democracy (a meaningful or at least respectful relationship with the media, alleged collusions with foreign governments, the almost comical turnover of staff members, and the use of Twitter to disseminate thoughts, just to name a few); perhaps it is the type of legislation being advocated for and passed, much of which strips rights from those who already have little power (the work to further defund Planned Parenthood, public radio, and the arts, to revoke Obamacare and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), just to name a few); perhaps it is even what is not being said, or the latency to take what seems to be the obvious, just side (the lack of ability to disavow white supremacist groups and their support, for example). Perhaps this is a kakistocracy for most people because most of us believe that those in power are indeed “the worst persons.”
This month Natural Selections interviews Kipchirchir Bitok, Postdoctoral Associate.
How long have you been living in the New York area?
Five years now.
Where do you currently live? Which is your favorite neighborhood?
I first moved to Brooklyn before I came to the Rockefeller housing. I like the Upper East Side, because it’s convenient to go to work, I can go running to the Central Park and the East River esplanade, Randall’s Island, even Brooklyn. You also have access to several subway lines, so it’s very convenient.
What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated?
Overrated, I think is the subway. It’s always crowded and delayed. I like the Citi Bikes over the subways. Underrated, the diversity of the city, there’s people from all over the world, and a great variety of food. I really enjoy meeting people from far countries.
What do you miss most when you are out of town?
Even if I think the subway is overrated, I miss it when I’m out of town. When I go to a city without a subway I really miss it.
Has anything (negative or positive) changed about you since you became one of us New Yorkers?
Not really, I can’t think of anything negative or positive that has changed. I thought I wouldn’t like the city because it would be overwhelming. But, I really like it now, and I know how to navigate the jungle, so that’s positive.
If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?
Pay fewer taxes. I feel I pay too much in taxes and get little out of it.
What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?
I like finding hidden places with delicious food, I like to walk around different places, do my groceries. I like to run on bridges all around the city. I also enjoy getting out of the city and to go hiking.
What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?
When my parents came, I enjoyed showing them the city and watching their surprise was a great experience.
Bike, MTA or walk it?
If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?
I would live outside the city. I like the area of Mountain Lake, upstate. The city can be overwhelming.
Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?
Television review: The Defiant Ones (HBO documentary)
Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured in HBO’s documentary “The Defiant Ones” (promotional photo: HBO)
The HBO television network changed the landscape of TV programming for the better and for many years has offered innovative, well-written, and imaginative shows and documentaries that leave the cliché plagued series of the established networks in the dust. Its latest triumph is The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series, directed by Allen Hughes, covering the long careers of former music producer turned music mogul, Jimmy Iovine, and rapper, Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr. Dre.
In his book series, Parallel Lives written in the second century AD, the historian Plutarch gives a biography of a Roman politician, general, or famous, personality and offers a corresponding history of someone from ancient Greece in an effort to expose their moral and ethical similarities, and examine their triumphs and failures in tandem. In The Defiant Ones, we similarly get a rendering of two men from extremely different backgrounds, but unlike those written about by Plutarch, these two lives eventually come together and intersect in the most unexpected ways. What stands out to me as the defining parallel quality of both men, each of whom approach music and its industry from different vantage points, is their unflagging commitment to artistry, stripped away from any monetary or social gain. Both have unrelenting pure visions of what comprises great music and neither is willing to compromise their ideals, often risking ruin toe hold fast to their creative principles.
The series offers incredible footage and photographs from the early careers of both Iovine and Dr. Dre, and Allen Hughes was able to procure interviews with many of the main players throughout their lives, including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Pattie Smith, Stevie Nicks, and Trent Reznor for Iovine, and rappers such as Ice Cube, Sean Combs, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg for Dr. Dre. A host of behind-the-scenes music industry executives and business managers as well as friends and family also weigh in on the parts they played in this incredible musical odyssey. It is striking that all of the famous Rock ‘N’ Roll and pop personalities come across as genuine and emotional in describing how Iovine has one relentless, driving mission in his intersection with them: to find a way for them to best realize their artistic vision and get their work out to as many people as possible so that their audiences think about their work and enjoy it. The number of artists Iovine discovered and directed to success is astounding.
I am less familiar with the work of Dr. Dre and know much of his history from news stories here and there, from such films as Straight Outta Compton. Compton is a undeniably a great movie, but Dr. Dre’s story, as told in The Defiant Ones, actually inspired me as a composer and musician and in my modest efforts in music recording. Dr. Dre is a perfectionist in the recording studio, demanding and expecting excellence from himself and the artists he works with. I have to admit that I’ve never cared for rap or hip-hop, but on occasion I do see the art and beauty of it, especially in terms of its production values. There is an early film montage of Dr. Dre, pre-fame, masterfully DJing in his native Compton area, where he plays the classic girl group song “Mr. Postman.” I never liked or appreciated that sound before, but he does it not only to perfection, but with obvious respect for the original recording. It was that very show that launched Dr. Dre’s start in the business, since the club owner booked him for future gigs.
In Plutarch’s Lives, there are examples of famous Romans and Greeks who either fell as victims of their character flaws or triumphed over them. Straight Outta Compton glossed over Dr. Dre’s history of violence with women, but it is depicted in The Defiant Ones. It was interesting to see Dee Barnes, a hip-hop journalist, interviewed as an authority on the rap history timeline and then revealed to be one of the women who were assaulted by Dr. Dre in the past. Although Dr. Dre apologized at length for his past horrific actions, having realized it was something terrible that he had done and that he will always have to live with, viewers will certainly take note of his past pattern of inexcusable and downright awful, violent behavior. Iovine also struggled with how he handled the escalation of violence between East and West Coast rap recording artists, many of whom were tied to him and Dr. Dre. At its worst, the violence actually descended into murder. There are incredible interviews at this point in the series with Sean Combs and Snoop Dogg that are emotional and chilling, and the story of Tupac Shakur’s demise is recounted in depth.
One of the great anecdotes in the series describes the origin of the wildly popular Beats by Dre. After his divorce, Iovine felt lost and was floundering as he wandered on a beach one afternoon when Dr. Dre saw him from his balcony and waved for him to come up for a chat. Dr. Dre explained to Iovine that he was getting approached for endorsements but didn’t want to cheaply put his name on sneakers, etc. Iovine brilliantly suggests designing headphones with high-quality sound, an idea that would be right up Dr. Dre’s alley. They went on to found Beats Electronics in 2006, and after carefully crafting and tastefully marketing their product, which was sold to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion. In May 2013, they donated a $70 million endowment to the University of Southern California to create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.
Throughout their extensive interviews in the show, Dr. Dre and Iovine never come across in with them in the show as pretentious or egotistically struck by their own success or stardom; Iovine has great comedic timing. I’ve always found Dr. Dre to be a brooding, soulful presence and though he has a lot of screen time in this series, he retains an air of mystery, professionalism, and magic. There is a fantastic shot of him in part four of the series where he hovers like a Zen master over a huge recording studio console.
The Defiant Ones inspires one to stay true to oneself and to one’s vision of life, whether it be as an artist or just in retaining a set of uncompromising positive values and to remain steadfast when these values are challenged.
The Old City of Quebec
Quebec is an authentic city of rich history, vibrant art, and French culture. It was my first visit to this old city, and I was pleasantly impressed. Quebec means “the narrowing of the river” and in this case it refers to the Saint Lawrence River. Its geographic heritage endows the city with its strategic significance in wars and economy.
The entire old city is a UNESCO heritage listed site. The only fortified city wall in North America is preserved in Quebec.
Apart from French being spoken and written everywhere, the characteristic that struck me most is the rich art element infused in every detail of the city: from the landmark Le Chateau Frontenac to a vast painting on the side of a building, from restaurants to galleries, and from sculptures to street signs.
In late 2016, the streaming service Hulu produced a series of ten episodes based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. The first three episodes dropped on April 26, 2017 and scored the biggest debut in Hulu history. In May this year, the show was renewed for a second season to premiere in 2018. There have been numerous adaptations since the book was published: theater, opera, ballet, film, and radio. A graphic novel release is also scheduled by the end of the year. Given the recent interest in The Handmaid’s Tale, now is the perfect time to revisit the 1985 dystopian novel.
The story takes place in Gilead, a society organized by power-hungry leaders, according to a not-so-extremist interpretation of a biblical account. The story that was originally used as a reference was that of Jacob, who had two wives and two handmaids. In an era of declining births due to chemical pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, a new order is established where certain women are used as “handmaids”. Deprived of all of their rights, handmaids are considered objects destined to serve as child bearers for affluent families. The story is narrated in the first person by a handmaid named Offred. Interspersed within flashbacks, she provides an account of her previous life. Together with her husband and daughter, she had tried to flee to Canada, only to be abducted, brought back, and re-educated in the new values. An entire indoctrination system is revealed to the reader: the Republic of Gilead. This new society is stratified such that everybody has a well-defined position and function. As a patriarchal system, power is held by older men called commanders. They are married to wives but have the privilege of owning a handmaid for reproductive purposes. In this oppressive atmosphere, strict rules on language, daily activities, and ultimately thought are reinforced by a secret service known as The Eyes of God. One night, Offred defies the system and becomes involved in illicit activities that bring an element of risk to her life.
Offred’s story falls into the tradition of dystopian novels like Brave New World or 1984. As such, the author creates a unique language in which terms for the new social classes abound. The word “sterile” is banned, and women who fail to abide by the strict social rules are considered “unwomen” and sent to shovel toxic waste in the colonies. Throughout the story, the author also plays with the mock Latin aphorism nolite te bastardes carborundorum in a recurrent and intriguing fashion; readers have a chance to team up with Offred to try to unravel its meaning. The Handmaid’s Tale remains hard to classify. Deemed a futuristic fable, political satire, or even science fiction, Atwood prefers to consider her novel speculative fiction. In her own words, “science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” When crafting the story, Atwood purposely avoided including anything in the book that had not happened.
Like Offred and her family, Americans fleeing their own land for the neighbor to the north has become a common theme in history. During the Vietnam War, thousands of draft-age men fled to Canada. Before the Civil War, many slaves reached southern Ontario through the underground railway. Even earlier, New England Puritans left for a toilsome life in Nova Scotia. They wanted to create a theocratic utopia in America, and yearned for a city on a hill that would never be realized. The Gilead society seems remote to us, but oozes historical realism, and similarities in recent history are countless: American polygamy, slavery, baby stealing, group executions in the Argentinian dictatorship, and even book burnings, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the same way in which Bolsheviks expelled Mensheviks, the Gileadian Christians persecute Catholics and Baptists, or so are we told by the news. In Gilead, government-issued news are never reliable, just as was the case in Orwell’s 1984.
Atwood wrote the novel in 1984 in West Berlin and Alabama. At this time, the USSR governed with an iron fist, severely limiting personal freedoms not only at home, but also in their eastern European satellite states. During these years, in countries such as East Germany, Poland or Czechoslovakia, silence was imposed among the people who lived in fear of being spied on. Within the same region, under the Romanian dictatorship of President Ceausescu, who wanted to increase his country’s population, birth control and abortion were banned after 1966. Atwood had also travelled to Iran and Afghanistan, where theocratic governments were at play and women’s rights still had some room for improvement.
The Handmaid’s Tale also reveals the importance of environmental issues and their detrimental consequences for society. It is hard to read it without remembering recent nuclear plant incidents. The depiction of Gilead’s environmental situation might sound implausible, but it does not seem so far-fetched when compared with places like China, where pollution and toxic waste have reached levels that are incompatible with human health.
These striking parallels to our current society are disturbing, and have become more palpable since the last Presidential election in the U.S. The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes how little it took for Americans to change their minds about things. It is Offred, in her inner soliloquy, who reflects on the fact that “next generations of women will not complain because they will not know better.”
In Gilead, minorities are targeted by the new regime and there is no room for dissent. In the eyes of the Gileadian society, the traumatic events that led to this new order are blamed on Islamic extremists. Nowadays, hate for certain groups seems to be on the rise, as are far-right movements with overwhelming impunity. For many, freedoms, rights and long established orders are endangered. As simplified language and prohibition of books are a constant in The Handmaid’s Tale, comparisons with emerging trends of communication via Twitter become unavoidable.
The story is rich with irony and complacency. Atwood takes this opportunity to courageously remind us that when repression replaces order, people are ready to trade their personal freedom for what they perceive of as security. Offred is a victim, a tease, and a witness. In an act of hope, she keeps a diary that she hides for future generations. Its timeliness remains unambiguous and tantalizing, as we hear her voice speaking to us. Perhaps we are at a crucial moment in our history. Perhaps we need The Handmaid’s Tale now more than ever.
“Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?” It’s tough to argue with that sentiment, especially when it’s delivered by way of Billie Holiday’s epochal, melancholic timbre. If there’s ever a time when New York transcends its already esteemed, almost mythical status, it’s the fall. The leaves are turning and change is in the air. The haze of summer’s adventures slowly kindle into nostalgia, and exciting holidays are on the horizon. Perhaps most importantly, the weather is finally palatable—sandwiched in between summer’s oppressive sauna-like, trash pile-cooking heat; and winter’s face-stinging, filthy snow bank-accumulating cold—is about a month of near perfect temperatures. But, if like me you’ve delayed your summer travels to avoid the price gouging and hordes of school kids, your wanderlust (yes I said it) is probably imminently approaching critical levels, and you’re in need of a weekend getaway. Luckily for us there’s a whole host of options for a September sojourn. So here’s a quick run-down of some top picks I’ve amassed while dreaming my way through Google Maps.
Given its excellent proximity-to-beauty ratio, this should be a mainstay for every resident of the Big Apple. I’m planning to visit in October so hopefully this won’t inspire too many people, overrunning the trails with Tri-I scientists. At a mere two hours drive from the city, the Catskill Mountains boast some of New York State’s most magnificent scenery, which comes all the more alive during the fall foliage season. Hiking forms the bread and butter of any trip to the region, with trails like Slide Mountain and Indian Head providing jaw-dropping views to those willing to put in the miles. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, Hunter Mountain is home to North America’s longest, fastest zipline, which can even be traversed under cover of starlight, on the Night Zip Tour. As far as accommodation goes, the Catskills are home to several quaint Bed and Breakfasts that start as low as $105 a night—at the slightly eerily named Twilight Lodge—ranging to $225 at the more upscale, regal sounding Clark House (get it?). For those wanting to truly get back to nature, New York State has kindly provided several campsites, such as North-South Lake and Devil’s Tombstone, generally running in the region of $15-25 per night. For something in the middle, try an AirBnB such as this one, conveniently located above an upscale pizza joint.
Very slightly further afield (just under three hours drive, or five hours on the train) is the idyllic seaside village of Mystic. Yes that’s right, the Mystic of Mystic Pizza fame. The restaurant really exists, although the movie wasn’t actually shot there. Don’t be fooled by its diminutive stature (the village’s population sits at just over 4,000 people), there are plenty of adventures to be had here, primarily nautical in nature. Mystic is home to the largest maritime museum in New England—the famed Mystic Seaport—where landlubbers can try out their sea legs on historic colonial era vessels, the most notable of which is the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world. The Mystic Aquarium forms another unique attraction, home to the North East’s sole population of Beluga whales! Once you’ve got your Beluga selfie you can head to downtown Mystic, where you can soak up the atmosphere of a bygone era, gazing at colonial buildings while enjoying a bite of locally sourced seafood. Cap off a perfect trip with a sunset river cruise, and be sure to head back next summer for the outdoor concert series.
When I think of autumn, I think of New England, and nothing screams New England quite like the great state of Maine. With its quintessential lighthouses towering over jagged rocks, keeping watch over the expansive, deep blue Atlantic—the East Coast’s northern most state represents a picture-perfect paradise. Although it might seem a bridge too far for a weekend trip, Maine’s most populous city of Portland is only a five and a half hours drive from New York, and just over an hour’s flight (you can snatch a September round-trip for under 200 bucks). There’s a whole host of things to do in this vibrant, seaside town, including art galleries and museums; brewery tours exploring the thriving local beer scene; and of course sampling the local delicacies of lobster and chowder, which the state is famous for. Once you’ve soaked up the vibrant atmosphere of the city itself, you’d be remiss not to visit the scenic spots of the surrounding area, such as Crescent Beach State Park, and nearby Two Lights State Park—featuring that classic lighthouse/rocks combo that will get those precious Instagram likes rolling in. If that’s not enough to satiate you, consider extending your trip to visit the stunning Acadia National Park (three hours drive from Portland), where you’ll feel truly removed from the hustle and bustle of New York—waking up to the fragrance of pine trees and the salty sea air, at the rustic Acadia Cottages.
Last on the list is another classic New England destination, Massachusetts’s own Cape Cod. Again, although it seems pretty far away, at just under five hours drive, it’s easily doable for a long weekend. If driving isn’t your game, you can ride to Boston on the cheap with Megabus, then beat the traffic with a 90-minute ferry trip. Best known for its scenic grassy beaches, there’s a lot to explore on the Cape—ranging from the more highbrow glass-blowing museum in Sandwich, to the raucous debauchery of Provincetown. Whale watching is a must, with the local waters being home to a sizable population of Humpback, Finback, Minke and Pilot whales, as well as dolphins, seals, and course the Great White sharks made notorious in Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws (though your chances of seeing one are slim to none). As far as accommodation goes, the Cape has several charming bed and breakfasts to choose from, although their rates dramatically spike during the high season. Spots fill up quickly, but if you can brace the cooler nights I highly recommend camping at Nickerson State Park. My childhood bedroom is filled with photo album after photo album of all the snakes and turtles I used to catch on the park’s numerous lakes when visiting with my family as a young boy.
So there you have it. Though this land is vast, there’s much to see just a stone’s throw from New York City. If you find yourself wondering where the time goes and you’re running out of free weekends, or simply low on cash flow (the lowly scientist’s default state), then don’t worry, there’s still plenty of options for day trips closer to home. Bear Mountain is usually at the top of the list for New Yorkers in search of that elusive thing called nature, but just slightly further afield is the ever impressive Storm King Art Center, where abstract sculptures come to life amongst the painted hues of the surrounding fall foliage—viewers of the Netflix show Master of None will recognize the park from season 2, episode 9. Equidistant from New York, but this time heading east up the I-495, Long Island’s Caumsett State Park provides a scenic setting for hiking, cycling, and gazing upon the tranquil Long Island Sound—with several miles of bridle paths leading to secluded beaches, forests, and the historic Henry Lloyd Manor house, built in 1711. Wherever the season takes you, make sure to time it right, bring your camera, and above all, enjoy the autumn breeze.
Most of us here at Rockefeller and the Tri-Institutions community, who work in science in one form or another, do so because we love science. Sometimes we are curious about other aspects of science outside of the specific area in which we work. Sometimes we want to talk to friends about exciting areas of research, but it can be hard to explain it to them. Or we may have ideas for an experiment or project, but don’t necessarily have the means in our own labs to carry them out. All of these desires can be fulfilled in a community biolab.
What exactly is a community biolab? There doesn’t seem to be an official definition, but it is a growing trend. There are at least a dozen such organizations in the United States, and interest seems to be growing. In broad terms, community biolabs are non-profit organizations that provide lab space, equipment, supplies and training to anyone curious about any aspect of biology. They try to support citizen science and science literacy through this access, and have classes and other types of events geared toward the public. While they do take donations of all kinds, they survive through membership and class fees, so they are dependent on a critical mass of members to survive. As a way to obtain equipment, a community lab in California called LA Biohackers found some old thermal cyclers and a DNA sequencer in the dumpster of University of California, Santa Cruz.
There is a community biolab right in New York, in Brooklyn, called Genspace. It was founded by life scientists who wanted to improve the public’s science literacy and support citizen science. They do this through classes, talks and events for the public, and as incubator space for startups, or those who are just curious.
Ellen Jorgensen was a scientist working in the pharmaceutical industry when she came up with the idea for Genspace. She was working at a biotechnology company when she saw an article about DIY spaces. At that point, most of these types of organizations were geared toward the computer and electronics industry, but there was growing interest in biolabs. She started lurking on the Google Group mentioned in the article and saw that there was a lot of interest in such a lab in the city, but not much actually happening. In 2009, she sent a message to the group proposing to meet at a coffee shop near the Beacon Theater. Four other people showed up: reporter Daniel Grushkin, artist Nurit Bar Shar, and two Columbia college students. The students were there because they were interested in the iGem competition, but there was no support available from the school. iGem is a synthetic biology competition where participants are given components such as promoters, terminators, reporter elements, and plasmids, and challenged to create a new system within a cell. Bar Shar had learned how to grow cell cultures in fractal patterns and was interested in continuing that work. They started meeting in the Grushkin’s living room, where they would lay a plastic sheet on the kitchen table and Jorgensen would provide equipment, such as a gel apparatus from her job. In this makeshift lab, Jorgensen says she was impressed with the reactions of others and began to “appreciate the privilege to work with the tools of science.” However, working in the apartment, they realized that they couldn’t store any of their work or forge any long-term projects. Then they heard about the Metropolitan Exchange Building at 33 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The building’s owner was very passionate about using the space for promoting science. The building also housed an architecture firm, Terraform One, that was playing with the idea of constructing buildings from living materials. This concept failed to eventuate, so the architecture firm gave the space to Genspace in 2010, even building a biosafety level 1 lab enclosure for them. At this point Genspace became a non-profit, starting the lab with equipment donated from Jorgensen’s old company.
Genspace offers several different types of events. There was the art exhibit, Stranger Visions, where an artist took chewed gum, cigarette butts, and hairs found on the streets of the city, used them to sequence the DNA of these individuals, and from that created busts based on how these people might look. It was meant to be a statement on biological surveillance and how genetics determine how we look. The artist did all this work at Genspace. There are adult classes, such as how to make paper and textiles from bacteria, how to make paint from glowing microbes, and also the occasional book signing. In the past, they have offered classes in basic molecular biology techniques and one on the new gene editing method, CRISPR, which has recently received a lot of press. There will be a lecture by Chris Mason of Cornell University on designing genomes. The BioRocket Internship is an after school and summer program for New York City public high school students, giving them a chance to obtain lab experience.
Membership costs $100 a month to have access to the lab, and is open to anyone, following an initial safety class. It can be used as a space for scientists to do their own thing. For example, a company called Opentron actually started at Genspace, by a group from New York University that found pipetting repetitive—as bench scientists can attest to. They developed an automated pipettor with intricate software that costs less than $5,000, and formed a company that is now comprised of about twenty employees in the U.S. and China. Membership at Genspace is also “good for proof of concept work,” Jorgensen notes. Genspace has been hosting iGem teams over the years as well.
Recently, Genspace has given rise to an even more wonderful organization, Biotech Without Borders. While Genspace continues to focus on the intersection between science and art, Biotech Without Borders focuses more on opportunities for hands-on science. The mission of Biotech Without Borders is to help improve the public’s understanding of biology and DNA technology as a way to encourage democratizing science, provide space for a curious public, and maybe to eventually help bring biotechnology to developing countries. There are periodic lectures and classes on such topics as biotechnology, synthetic biology, and techniques, that are very reasonably priced. They have a recurring free event called PCR and Pizza, where one can bring some organic material that they were curious about, and have it sequenced, or you can sequence a piece of your own DNA, or just engage in conversation about science. There are plans to start a program called Hack the Helix. Intended for city public high school teachers, the program will provide an affordable opportunity to learn biotechniques to present to their classes. There will also be a program for high school students. Biotech Without Borders plans to collaborate with Know Science on some events.
For decades, Europe has been a dream destination for many immigrants in search of a better life. As a symbol of democracy, stability and opportunity, the old continent attracts more and more people every year. But an escalating migration crisis is testing the European Union’s (EU) commitment to human rights and open borders. The current geopolitical situation in several regions bordering Europe has been boosting the immigration stream, leading to new debates concerning immigration policy and regulations as well as to an intensification of nationalist and right-wing movements in many European countries. Before delving deeper into the consequences of this massive immigration, let’s analyze the roots and the reasons of this immigration wave that is afflicting the EU.
Europe’s history has been immensely shaped by migration. For centuries, merchants, craftsmen, and intellectuals crossed the continent to practice their trades or start new lives. Millions migrated from Europe, first to the colonies and later to the Americas. At the same time, Europe also has a long history of forced migration: from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to the population shifts in southeast Europe caused by the many wars between the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Large-scale immigration into western Europe has been more recent. From 1960 to 1973, the number of foreign workers in western Europe doubled from 3% to 6% of the workforce. It was the highest in places like the UK and France, with relatively open access for citizens of their former colonies. In Germany, too, the number of foreigners (nearly half of them Turks) rose by 4 million between 1960 and 1985, although they seldom became citizens. But primary immigration into Europe—driven by labor needs—all but ended with the oil crisis of 1973. Since the late 1980s, the number of people applying for asylum has increased sharply. In 1984, there were only 104,000 applications in western Europe. This figure grew to 692,000 in 1992 and then declined again during the 1990s.
Thus, asylum has become one of the principal means of immigration into the EU. The end of the Cold War caused a number of small wars and ethnic conflicts around the world. In this type of warfare, the combatants—regular troops complemented by paramilitaries—often target civilian populations. Many people that applied for asylum were from Bosnia in the early 1990s and Kosovo in the late 1990s. Also, with the end of communist rule, many eastern Europeans believed that their aspirations for a better life could only be served in the west.Therefore, it’s not surprising that many tried to emigrate westward. The problem is that tens of thousands have tried to use the asylum process to do so, which has led to backlash in some countries against all types of immigrants. Even Ireland, whose modern history is one of mass emigration, saw asylum applications leap from 39 in 1992 to more than 4,600 in 1998. Some countries have experienced much larger increases than others. Germany has consistently received more refugees than other EU countries—more than 60% of all those who applied for asylum in western Europe in 1992. During the last decade, Austria, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland have received high numbers of refugees per head of their populations, whereas some of the larger states, especially France, Italy and Spain, have received relatively fewer. Britain is in the middle of the field.
Today, Europe is experiencing one of the most significant influxes of immigrants and refugees in its history. To understand the situation the EU is facing today, it is essential to clarify the reality that Europeans had to endure during most of 2015. What made the situation in 2015 evolve differently from the past was the scale of the new immigration wave that appeared during the spring, added to the political motivation of immigrants who were mainly escaping civil conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Composed mostly of refugees moving out of Syria and Iraq under the pressure of endless fighting in these two countries, this influx of immigrants introduced numbers never seen in recent years, with 800,000 people stepping onto European territory in less than eight months, or 6,000 per day. By the end of 2015 a new route was paved through Turkey, Greece, and the Western Balkan countries toward EU nations, starting with Hungary, Austria, and Germany and then spreading to many more countries. The sudden surge of immigration in the EU took the European institutions by surprise. Close monitoring of the Syrian crisis from 2011 on revealed that the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) stemming from the Syrian conflict at the start of 2015 amounted to nearly half of the Syrian population (approximately 4 million refugees and almost 8 million IDPs).
For the first few months of 2015, this level of immigration pressure the EU had to confront was rather traditional. Europeans were profoundly confused about how to respond to these new challenges. In the age of imperialism, Europe justified settling foreign lands with the confident belief that they were bringing the benefits of civilization to more backward parts of the world. But post-imperial, post-Holocaust Europe is much more wary of asserting the superiority of its culture. The big question in the coming decades is how Europe
For the first time, the EU had to find a collective response to this crisis because of its scale, intensity, and the involvement of many countries along the route followed by the immigrants. Europe’s response was essentially shaped by a sense of urgency. It was a short-term fix that allowed the EU to regain control of its external borders. An agreement with Turkey set up practical arrangements that contributed to calming the situation on the ground and updating processes for asylum applications and returns. However, deep-seated political divisions in the Union on the immigration issue remain. In particular, not all member states are ready to accept a fair share of the immigration burden, thereby undermining the principle of unity, and risking fragmentation and freedom of movement.
Detailed decisions presented in the European Council conclusions of February 18, March 7, and March 18, 2016, focused on three main issues. First, the EU gave clear support, including financial resources and expertise, to the frontline states, in particular Greece, to help deliver humanitarian assistance to the refugees and facilitate the different stages of the administrative processes required by the EU for border control and asylum requests. This action consisted of first setting up reception centers (“hot spots”) for the purpose of rapidly examining newly arrived immigrants, and selecting between those whose asylum requests could be processed and those who could go no further, and then establishing transit centers for possible candidates for asylum, or other types of international protection. Second, the EU rapidly established a new body of EU border and coast guard forces through relevant legislation. Third, the EU reached an agreement with Turkey that provided both sides with a clear understanding of their mutual obligations and rights with regard to the influx of refugees and immigrants moving into Europe, out of Turkey. Provisions were adopted both on the current immigrants, with the return to Turkey of irregular immigrants who had already landed in Greece, and on future inflow, with the possible resettlement in Europe of regular immigrants on the condition that their asylum applications be processed through procedures in Turkey. These procedures assisted Turkish authorities in stemming smuggling and trafficking channels. Moreover, significant improvements to Syrian refugees’ daily lives could be seen in Turkey, where they had access to the labor market, and education for refugee children in local schools. Meanwhile, EU leaders agreed to substantial compensation for Turkey’s efforts by allocating a €6 billion ($6.6 billion) financial package for 2016 and 2017, accelerated visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to Schengen countries, and the relaunch of Turkey’s stalled EU accession negotiations. Last but not least, from the Turkish point of view, the EU formally reinvigorated its strategic partnership with Ankara with a commitment to convene a yearly summit between the leaders of the two sides. What the EU urgently needs now is a more long-term plan based on a combination of genuine solidarity and creative flexibility. Solidarity is needed, immigration is not fatalistic; it can be controlled and can open the door to benefits for all. For this to happen, Europeans need to change their current thinking and consider immigration as an opportunity. They must agree to discuss the issue among themselves, promote dialogue with their external partners, and leave aside the temptations of intolerance and isolation. Flexibility is necessary as any decision on immigration must take into consideration the specific problems of every member state and, more substantially, facilitate the need for a progressive rollout of any integration approach.
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.
—Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
Ah, yes, the famous malaise of the pseudo-mad Danish Prince, the speech of Hamlet to his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the depressive bent that has overtaken his disposition, even while recognizing that the magnificent wonders of the world cascade before his very eyes. I believe that many of us also communicate a similar despair through email, text, Facebook, or in conversation with our friends, of our inner conflicts about the depressing state of politics in our troubled nation. Personally, I lay no claim to the insights of a Hamlet, yet, as I’ve hit my 60th year of life on this planet, I find it hard at times to muster the strength to care and gather excitement for professional sports and for what currently passes as art and entertainment. And I’ve long given up hope for the salvaging of the higher ideals of America’s revolutionary concepts of democracy and government. Yet I know in my heart that there are many times when my dreary, lazy pessimism can be shoved aside and temporarily forgotten, such as when at an art exhibition I’ve dragged myself to exhilarate my soul, or the moment an orchestral or guitar passage at a concert rises to heavenly heights granting momentary freedom of mind. Unfortunately, like the feeling I get after consuming a bag of Doritos, I sink back into unsatisfied appetite, and the opiate high of stimulated intellect crashes down, mired in the dreary muck and Dickensian soot of the times in which we live. I always knew the world would change in my lifetime, but I could never have imagined or anticipated a place of constant stimulation mixed with the underlying hum of continual disappointment.
Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, pinpoints the source of so much of what bothers me now in the arts. Benjamin was the first to recognize a deadly and serious danger that the art world would confront going forward. He realized that the ease of reproducing great works of art would cast a shadow over the unique qualities of the actual images and first-hand experiences. If the Mona Lisa, for example becomes available as a cheap postcard churned out by the hundreds of thousands and in art history textbooks again and again, over and over, the mind of the beholder loses the ability to conceive of what made the actual physical painting a masterpiece in the first place. This uncomfortable understanding stretches out widely in the arts, rippling forever outwards like the waves set in motion by a sudden disturbance on the surface at the center of a placid lake.
Of course, art should be sustenance for all and available to everyone; that is something I’ve never doubted for a moment. But what art philosophers such as Walter Benjamin realized was that by cheapening the “primary” object of art, people who never visit the original work or take the time to experience true art amid this barrage of valueless clutter will never experience its “aura” or have what art historian Kenneth Clark terms as a “moment of vision.” The essence of the spiritual power and the feat of the technical creation is diluted, or worse, completely lost, replaced by a tawdry mechanized imitation.
In music, for example, it appears that we’ve created a world of the most casual of listeners. Songs are available at any time and in any place. You can halt a Beethoven symphony on a hand-held device in the middle of a violinist’s most passionate stroke of the bow. Few people take the time to ponder a classical piece as an entirety, to struggle with its complex structuring and discover its meaning as a totality, as a bold statement of a nuanced idea. Pop music is ubiquitous, piped in at shopping malls, in pharmacies, even in restaurant restrooms. Has anyone ever been in a Target store or a CVS pharmacy and paused to say, “Wow, I love this song, let me stop and listen?” Pop music has long been the loving cash cow of an aggressive music industry, and it is the songs that are thus devalued as mere commodities. We’ve now reached the point where the capitalist-generated brand of music as a “product” latches on like a deadly virus to the artistic expression of the song, and unbelievably, the artists themselves are transformed and morphed into becoming the physical “face” of a commodity such as soda, a bank, or snack food. In my mind this is a horrific dehumanizing concept that the ghosts of economic opposites Karl Marx and Adam Smith must both be choking on.
When I studied art history on my own, for many years I took in Raphael’s High Renaissance depictions of Saints and Madonnas, through photos in books. For years I viewed them with disdain, seeing them as sugary and overly sweet and not close in conception to the works or genius of his contemporaries, such as Michelangelo and Leonard da Vinci. But standing in front of the very same paintings at the National Gallery in London or the National Gallery of Art in Washington I experienced jaw-dropping, intense moments of revelation. No photo in a book, no postcard or computer image can capture the textures of skin and clothing in Raphael’s paintings. The artist’s depiction of ethereal time and space, religious realms juxtaposed with temporal dimensions, and the souls and complex emotions within the depicted individuals are best experienced in situ. There are mind-blowing, often indescribable details and nuances that can never be captured in widely dispersed and carelessly conceived reproductions.
There’s a funny story that when Dustin Hoffman was making the 1976 movie Marathon Man, there was a scene where he’s fleeing some would-be killers, and to prepare for the filming of that moment he was standing alone on the film’s set doing all kinds of physical and mental calisthenics to prepare for the action. As he was going through all of this, his older, legendary co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, walked up to him and said, “Why don’t you just try acting?” I felt quite the same last year when I went to see the overwhelming, powerful paintings by Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum. I couldn’t see much of them because people were blocking the masterpieces taking photos with cell phones and large iPads. What I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you just try looking?” The primary source itself had become for many visitors just a living postcard, a photo op with a piece of famous canvas. The power of Van Gogh was lost to them in their snapping haste, as if the vital paintings were nothing more than soda cans in the flesh bearing the face of their favorite stars. Yes, the soul of genius reduced to the muzak equivalent of a special effects Starry Night.
My creed is that public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, and that honor is to be earned but not bought.
(Margaret Chase Smith, U.S. Congress Representative and Republican Senator, 1897-1995)