Latest Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas

Is there an empathy deficit and values vacuum?

I find myself running out of words to react to all the tragedies which seem to be hitting us nonstop. The ongoing tragedy in Puerto Rico is not only one of physical devastation; it also highlights the deficit in empathy which I feared was coming when I wrote in early January:

A president, aside from his many practical duties, is also like a guardian angel for the nation. If he is kind and just, we feel protected. If he moves gracefully through the world, our nation feels at ease with the world. … At the same time that I feel tremendous gratitude to Barack Obama, I confess that I feel some fear for the future, as if a benign presence were being withdrawn.

When it is a question of character, intelligence, scholarship, humanity, and empathy, Barack Obama is a rare example of the best in American political leadership. We were lucky and blessed to get him for eight years, and I fear that we shall soon miss him more than we can ever imagine.

While empathy is no substitute for food, water, and medicine, empathy can heal the hearts of those who suffer, and a leader who shows empathy can also inspire a wider empathic response throughout the nation. So it’s part of the greater tragedy that President Trump shows so little true empathy at times of crisis, and instead uses disaster as a means to inflame differences.

When it comes to shootings and bombings, I always feel there are certain universal values which don’t belong exclusively to this religion or that, or this nation or that, or to a particular race or culture. Some truths have been universally arrived at. So I quoted President Obama as saying:

My mother was a deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good.

Somehow these universal values are being lost or eclipsed in our society, in the unbridled pursuit of money, sex, and power. Electing a leader whose reputation was built on money, sex, and power was a step backward for this nation, and I hope we will learn from it and seek out leaders who are richer in empathy, spiritual insight, and proximity to the Universal Good. As I wrote last February:

For American democracy to succeed, we need to elect leaders who are above average, even exemplary — those who have education, experience, and a profound vision of what we can achieve in concert with other actors on the world stage. It has become a rubric that Americans typically elect the guy they’d most like to have a beer with, the guy they perceive to be just like them. We should not be afraid to elect leaders who are super smart, compassionate, visionary, and extremely well-qualified to lead us. They may not always make good drinking buddies, but they do make better leaders.

So next time you’re in a voting booth, think of the guy or gal you’d most like to have a beer with, and remember to buy them a beer! Then vote for the better qualified candidate.

We need to improve education in civics so that the average American understands how to choose between candidates, and how not to be swayed by populist appeals. When we elect leaders with no vision and few qualifications, we ultimately pay the price.

How sad that we now have a boorish leader who conned millions of voters into thinking he would protect their interests, when his real world policies entail throwing millions of people off health care, and shoveling yet more money to the richest in society, including his own family.

Do you know the Sam Cooke song “Twistin’ The Night Away”?

Hearing it made me want to post a parody on YouTube contrasting a bunch of rich folks in tuxedos shaking their fannies on the dance floor, while elderly residents of Puerto Rico are dropping dead in rural areas because no planes were sent to drop food, water, and medicine. Maybe all the planes were busy shuttling cabinet members to vacation destinations where they could inspect the gold in Fort Knox, or stock up on designer brands.

Naked injustice sends its own perilous message to the rank and file of America: a message that there is no God and one might just as well take a gun and start shooting random strangers. The mentally ill fall victim to this blackest of visions of an America gone valueless; but even the nominally sane are affected. The era of Trump is an era of every man for himself; an era where compassion is seen as a weakness, and pressing maxumium personal advantage a strength; an era of metaphorically grabbing them by the whatever. This is an America not habitable by decent people. We need to recoil from it, and resist allowing it to spread ad infinitum.

Neither conservatives nor liberals have a lock on values, and somewhere between the extremes lie sensible policies, including revising educational curricula to deal more effectively with the values vacuum. In writing about the congressional baseball shooting last June, I elaborated on some of the problems, and discussed the utility of Peace Studies in forging solutions:

Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

There will always be economic injustices, natural disasters, and crazed shooters (at least for the forseeable future). But we will be better prepared to deal with these problems if we give future generations a grounding in Peace Studies, which can lead to insight, empathy, and self-control of violent impulses.

Even in times of strife, there are always voices of peace in our midst and in the world at large — but we need to listen to them. Their message is not commercial and is not geared to our greed, so it’s harder to hear over loudspeakers which, after 2,000 years, are still blaring the message of Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici.

John Donne wrote words to the effect:

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

No one else can solve the world’s problems. We need to play some role ourselves, however modest. Sri Chinmoy writes:

There will come a time when this world of ours will be flooded with peace. Who will bring about this radical change? It will be you – you and your sisters and brothers. You and your oneness-heart will spread peace throughout the length and breadth of the world.

The connection between greed and violence is stressed in this interview with the Dalai Lama of Tibet:

So, if we look carefully we can see that there are broad connections between a society which abandons itself to greed, politicians who are for sale to the gun lobby, and a record number of casualties in the latest shooting spree in Las Vegas.

The values we need to combat these problems are, again, universal. They’re found at the core of the world’s religions, and also in many humanistic philosophies. We need to find practical ways of imparting these values to the next generation, as a farmer plants a seed knowing that he may not live to see it fully germinate, but that it will one day be of great benefit. If we do not do it, it will not be done.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Of Further Interest

People Are Good Everywhere
Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics
Art and Hermeneutics Part 2
Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z”

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The Congressional Baseball Shooting, Big Murders, and Little Murders

There’s been no shortage of sad news lately. In “Terrorism Has No Religion,” I wrote about the tragic Manchester bombing. This was quickly followed by the London Bridge attack, and the (accidental) fire in a West London apartment tower yesterday — the same day as a shooting targeting members of Congress who were out for baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia. Late in the same day, yet another deadly shooting at a San Francisco UPS facility.

I have in mind to talk mostly about the baseball shooting, making two main point: first, that some facts aren’t being faced which need to be faced; second, that some solutions exist which aren’t being discussed. Finally, since I’m a film buff, in contrast to all these Big Murders I want to talk about Little Murders, a film written by Jules Feiffer capturing that peculiar American proclivity for taking lethal potshots at one’s neighbors.

Regarding the baseball shooting, the most commonly expressed sentiments are:

  • Thoughts and prayers for the victims
  • The shooter was a lone nut.
  • If anything’s to blame, it’s overheated rhetoric.

What’s pointedly omitted is any discussion that however utterly wrong and misguided, the shooter may have been responding to actual policies, not just overheated rhetoric. Of course, that doesn’t make it right.

Causation is not justification, so in investigating a phenomenon we shouldn’t be afraid to look for causation wherever it may lie. The difficulty is that immediately after the baseball shooting, the Washington beltway — including elected officials of both parties as well as the mainstream media — closed ranks and indulged in a collective Kumbaya moment. “Sure we argue about politics,” they said, “But who could possibly take politics so seriously that they would want to commit violence over it?”

Not I, to be sure. I’m an avowed peace-lover. But some people, yes. People who are subject to policies which can be like death sentences for them, and who lack the tools or insights which would help them diffuse their anger at such unjust policies.

Was the French Revolution nuts in its bloodthirstiness? Maybe so, but this was aggravated by wretched excess on the part of the French aristocracy, who evinced a shocking indifference to the travails of their subjects.

Now, to foreshadow my discussion of Little Murders: it’s a black comedy which includes quirky characters drawn from New York City life, like an ultra-liberal minister who claims that “Nothing can hurt, if you do not see it as being hurtful.” The reason this is comical to gritty New Yorkers is that a kick in the head is hurtful regardless of how you feel about it, even if there’s no social media or 24-hour cable news to orchestrate opinion (and there wasn’t in 1971 when the film was released). You feel a kick in the head — that’s how you know it’s hurtful.

Let’s look at two mostly Republican policies which might have felt like kicks in the head to James Hodgkinson, the unemployed, mentally ill senior who began taking potshots at members of Congress, lobbyists, staffers, and Capitol Police — or to people like him.

First, there’s the American Health Care Act, which (if eventually enacted) would result in about 24 million Americans losing their health care. The Republican House passed it, then attended a victory party in the White House Rose Garden, with plenty of back-slapping and guzzling of Bud Light. (A tad ostentatious, don’t you think?)

This policy would certainly be a death sentence (or a sentence to bankruptcy and homelessness) for many Americans who rely on government-assisted health care for their very survival. Some of these may be diabetics who require daily shots of insulin (as my father did). But the cry of Republican House members was (metaphorically speaking): Let them inject cake.

Second, there’s the overturning by Donald Trump of “an Obama administration gun regulation that prevented certain individuals with mental health conditions from buying firearms.” That regulation affected “individuals who are unable to work because of severe mental impairment and can’t manage their own Social Security financial benefits.” Overturning the regulation means putting more guns in the hands of mentally ill people — just what we need.

We’re talking policy, not politics here. Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

So, these are two examples of policies which strongly affect people’s lives, regardless of any accompanying rhetoric. Overheated rhetoric is, no doubt, an aggravating factor in senseless acts of violence, but what’s driving some Americans (literally) nuts is government policy on issues like health care and gun safety.

Why did mainstream media miss this in the wake of the baseball shooting? Because many mainstream media figures aren’t directly affected by the policies in question. They’re well-paid, have good quality health insurance through their employers, and tend to live in safe neighborhoods where gun violence is not an issue — often the same neighborhoods (e.g. Alexandria) as politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Media people may argue politics left and right, but they’re often above the fray because they’re economically shielded from bad government policies.

I repeat for emphasis that causation is not justification. Nothing justifies the baseball shooting or any of the other senseless shootings that have become a grim daily feature of American life. But when looking at causation, we need to honestly face the fact that some Americans are being driven over the edge of sanity by policies which are insane. Like the proverbial kick in the head, these policies are felt directly and not swathed in abstraction.

God bless USA Today‘s Heidi Przbyla (and may the Lord send her some vowels real soon), but one reason she can’t comprehend what pushes someone like James Hodgkinson over the edge is that she lives in safety amidst the politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Her salary and benefits effectively insulate her from cuts to Medicaid, and guns in the hands of the mentally ill.

I certainly don’t mean to pick on Ms. Przbyla. She’s a perfectly nice person who takes liberal positions which I generally support. She happens to be a good anecdotal example because she lives in Alexandria and evinces the typically “shocked” reaction of people who argue politics for a living, but don’t live or die according to what policies the government enacts.

Unlike Heidi Przbyla, the people with cancer who show up at town halls and are mad as hell about losing their health care are fighting for their lives — literally. In spite of that I encourage them to remain non-violent, because taking potshots at politicians solves nothing and is morally reprehensible.

The shock of some politicians and media figures in the wake of the baseball shooting is expressed in the form of incredulity that the shooter could no longer see the targets as fellow human beings. He so objectified and depersonalized them that their lives meant nothing to him. But compare this with the real world effects of Republican policies concerning health care and guns. Is there a similar objectification and depersonalization which permits lawmakers to act with no empathy for the chronically ill and impoverished, and no empathy for the victims of gun violence? Does the sound of lobbyist dollars rubbing together deafen them to the cries of those affected by their policies? I’m reminded of a quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The struggle to be a true human being is the struggle to overcome tendencies in our society toward objectification and depersonalization. This moral duty does not fall solely on individual citizens, but also government institutions. When such institutions fail to respect the humanity of citizens, we should not be shocked to find that some citizens lose the ability to see the humanity of government officials. This is the underlying psychological reality behind the social media response to the baseball shooting that “what goes around comes around.” When you take away people’s health care and put guns in the hands of the mentally ill as public policies, some people at the grassroots level are going to go apesh*t. This effect is wholly undesirable, but not wholly unexpected.

We need to work peacefully toward a more compassionate society where people are fully valued across the spectrum. We need to believe in human dignity, respect people’s basic needs for food and medicine, and shape our government institutions so that they no longer appear as impersonal bureaucracies run for the benefit of corporations, lobbyists, and an economic elite. We need to make them fully responsive to the needs of all the people.

My take on James Hodgkinson is that at some point he hit his head up against a phenomenon known as “repressive tolerance.” At its simplest, repressive tolerance means that you can protest, write letters, carry signs, and talk till you’re blue in the face — but there are times in history when the table is run by the big money boys, who’ll let you blow off steam but won’t let you make substantive changes. Now, in truth, change does happen, but so slowly that it often appears as if nothing is happening at all, or as if the clock is being turned back, not forward. In his farewell address, President Barack Obama said:

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

This might be augmented by a quote from Max Weber that:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms that man would not have achieved the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a man must be a leader, and more than a leader, he must be a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that resolve of heart which can brave even the failing of all hopes.

This begins to get at the weaknesses of our education in civics. We teach people to believe that they can make change happen, but we don’t equip them to deal with failure, or the ineffable slowness of change, or its herky-jerky motion.

From emerging accounts it appears that James Hodgkinson had many flaws (aside from being a homicidal maniac). One of them was the inability to accept failure with equanimity. This points to broader spiritual issues.

Often, political people believe only in politics; but politics is limited in what it can achieve. Peace of mind can only come from spiritual practice. If we have even an iota of peace of mind, then the problems of the world will not seem so heavy and unmanageable.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

If the NBC report is any indicator, it seems that meditation is a technique which fosters learning, or creates conditions which make learning possible in spite of stress factors in the broader environment.

Peace Studies teaches us the value of Peace Studies! It’s a resource or tool in our toolkit that we didn’t know we had. As we realize its value, some form of Peace Studies will ideally be incorporated into school curricula at every level, and used to help solve particular problems like school violence.

With each new generation we have the potential to increase knowledge and wisdom. Children who grow up in schools where meditation and Peace Studies are part of the learning experience may also turn out to be better at handling stress and conflict in adult life.

Would this have made a difference in the life of James Hodgkinson? Would he still have become a crazed shooter? No one knows. But with better anger management tools at his disposal, his anger might never have metastasized into full-blown psychosis. Had he possessed an iota of peace and insight, he might have been able to laugh at his own failure to produce any tangible change through his political activities. In silence or “quiet time,” he might have gotten the insight that we are all part of the same human family, even if we sometimes quarrel.

Such insights are rare and precious. If we know of methods to share them, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do so, within reason. (I am not advocating aggressive proselytizing.)

The average cable TV service provides nearly 200 channels; but perhaps none of them offer any insight into living peaceably with one’s fellow human beings. Cable news channels run 24 hours a day, but do they have even 5 minutes of quiet time? We think of silence as awkward, something to be filled; but silence can be rich and fulfilling, a vehicle for growth.

The objections to this line of thought are built right into the NBC story. When interviewed, athletic director Barry O’Driscoll confessed his initial reaction:

I thought it was a joke. I thought this is hippie stuff that didn’t work in the 70s, so how’s it gonna work now?

But when the kids started meditating and stopped fighting, O’Driscoll become an ardent supporter of the program. Sharing quiet time became the new normal.

This lets me segue into a discussion of Little Murders. Although it’s a black comedy, one of its underlying themes is the normalization of inexplicable acts of random violence. That’s a perennial theme in areas of modern urban sprawl where no one really knows anyone else, and everyone double or triple-locks their doors:

***SPOILERS*** The film starts out as an offbeat New York romantic comedy, but after the female lead is killed by random gun violence, it turns into more of an exploration of the bizarre coping strategies adopted by surviving family members.

Though a commercial flop, Little Murders enjoys a dedicated fan base. It marked Alan Arkin’s directorial debut, and Arkin also plays the mercurial Lieutenant Practice, a police detective having a nervous breakdown due to 345 unsolved homicides with no motive, no clues, and nothing in common. It’s a bravura performance by Arkin at his wackiest. Donald Sutherland famously plays a counterculture minister with ultra-liberal views who manages to enrage everyone at the outlandish wedding ceremony he performs. Lou Jacobi also delivers an outstanding monologue as an eccentric judge haunted by his impoverished upbringing on the Lower East Side.

At the end of the film (SPOILER CLIP BELOW), the family is sitting around, depressed as usual, when widower Alfred (Elliott Gould) returns home with a newly purchased rifle. Slowly, the male members of the family gather round, becoming enthused about the rifle as an icon of power, liberation, and emotional catharsis. They no longer fight against the popular tide of random violence, but for the first time revel in it, throwing open the steel shutters, poking holes in the glass of the living room window, and egging each other on to take potshots at random passersby:

In the wake of this bonding ritual they become cheerful, giddy, and garrulous around the dinner table. In the film’s closing moments, the matriarch of the family exclaims: “Oh, you don’t know how good it is to hear my family laughing again! You know, for a while there I was really worried.”

Conclusion

It seems we’re faced with two very different possible futures: one which normalizes random acts of violence, and another which normalizes peace and insight. I would rather live in a world filled with peace and insight, where anger has less of a chance to metastasize into full-blown violence.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Thought of the Day: People Are Good
World Harmony Curriculum


Sidebar: Jo Cox

As it happens, the day I’m posting this is the one-year anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox. She was a British MP who campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union. Before entering Parliament in 2015, she had previously worked for Oxfam.

She was shot and stabbed to death by Thomas Mair, a white supremacist with ties to far right organizations. Mair was pro-Brexit and apparently viewed Cox as a collaborator and a traitor to white people.

In the argot of social media, Mair (now sentenced to life in prison) is an RWNJ or right-wing nut job, just as James Hodgkinson (killed in the shootout) was an LWNJ or left-wing nut job.

On the day she was murdered, Jo’s husband Brendan issued this statement:

Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo. Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous. Jo would have no regrets about her life, she lived every day of it to the full.

According to The Independent, “More than 100,000 events will be held around the country to celebrate the life of Jo Cox on the one year anniversary of her death.” That huge number could almost be a typo, but I hope and pray it’s accurate.

Jo Cox

See also “Jo Cox, the Brexit Vote, and the Politics of Murder” in the New Yorker.

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Terrorism Has No Religion

I’ve been sadly and silently following developments in Manchester after the tragic suicide bombing. Today I saw an interview with Saima Alvi, Vice-Chair of the British Muslim Heritage Centre. She made the point — calmly and eloquently — that terrorism has no religion.

This reminded me of Barack Obama, who knew the power of words and steadfastly refused to connect the words “terrorism” and “Islam.” Terrorists have nothing to do with Islam; they merely appropriate words and symbols from that religion of peace in order to justify their heinous acts.

Mrs. Alvi was interviewed by Sky News in the bright sunshine of St. Ann’s Square on May 25. She went on to talk about her 16-year-old daughter. She said her daughter wears a hijab (head scarf), and when her daughter came home yesterday she said everyone had been staring at her. She asked, “Why were they staring at me, Mummy?” Mrs. Alvi explained that her daughter is naïve and didn’t understand how the suicide bombing had increased tensions. “But what’s that got to do with me?” her daughter asked, genuinely puzzled.

There’s a point of insight here. To me (a white, non-Muslim American), a person who would blow up dozens of innocent strangers, many of them children, is a different species — almost non-human. I find it incomprehensible. So do most British Muslims. Like the 16-year-old girl being stared at because she wears a head scarf, most British Muslims consider terrorists to be a different species having nothing to do with them. Terrorists disguise themselves as Muslims, but they are not, for they have no regard for human life.

I wish it were that simple. The concept of radicalisation complicates matters. Terrorist ideology tries to take the kernel of something noble in human nature and twist it to the bad.

As a student of world religion, I would say that at the core of Islam is strong faith and ecstatic love for Allah and his prophet Muhammad, plus a rich culture and set of ethical guidelines. Terrorist ideology corrupts these things by mixing in an element of violent fanaticism.

I understand the concept behind the British government’s Prevent programme. I can also see its flaws. Some people who implement Prevent don’t really understand the nature of religious experience in general, nor Islam in particular. They tend to view a burgeoning interest in religion as something dangerous, a symptom of radicalisation.

In truth, it’s quite natural that many young people (including Muslims) will have conversion experiences which make them more religious, deeply religious. That in itself is a good thing, not bad. What’s needed is a clearer understanding that genuine religious feeling can be corrupted by bad ideas.

I read the full debate on Prevent from 01 February 2017 in the House of Commons, which shows a surprising degree of accord among both Conservative and Labour MPs that the Prevent programme leads to alienation and mistrust. The hope is that some less draconian, less Big Brother-ish means can be found to address extremist influence, without imposing a statutory duty on teachers and other professionals to inform on children who show vague signs of what is subjectively perceived as radicalisation.

A programme like Prevent (or something better) will meet with greater acceptance if it can develop further insight into the nature of religious experience, and the type of conversion experiences which many young Muslims are bound to have. The goal should be to support the authentic practice of strong religious faith, but to separate out (through critical discussion) the bad ideas which terrorists bring in. This is a more subtle approach which does not suspect or denigrate Muslim religion, but which tries to counter the spread of bad ideas which are not at their core Muslim religious ideas, but merely terrorist political ideas.

Terrorism is constantly in the news — on loop both literally and figuratively — so it cannot help being discussed. By all means outlaw terrorism, but not discussion of it. In the aforementioned debate, Hon. Lucy Allan said:

The Government naturally have a duty to protect the public, and they are seeking to discharge that duty through the Prevent strategy. We all want to see extremism tackled, and the intention of Prevent is, in theory, to stop young people being drawn into terrorism and to protect them from extremist views that might render them more susceptible to radicalisation. We get into more difficult territory, however, when we start to tackle belief, ideas and the expression of political and religious views. The whole issue then becomes a great deal more complicated. We could find ourselves in a situation in which the Government decide which views are too extreme and debate can be shut down, so that issues that are better discussed and challenged openly are driven underground.

That is all before anyone has even done anything. Prevent is operating in a pre-crime space, which sounds positively Orwellian. That is at the heart of some of the concerns being expressed about the Prevent duty. Our schools need to be places where young people can discuss any issue at all and develop the ability to see extremist ideologies for what they are. We need to help young people develop the resilience to challenge those ideologies, and if we expose them to only the views that the Government find acceptable, we deny them the opportunity to challenge alternative views and fail to equip them with the ability to think critically and learn how to exercise judgment.

Of the many problems with Prevent, I would like to focus on one in particular: that strong religious faith may be mistaken for (or conflated with) “pre-radicalisation” or “pre-crime.”

As I will shortly discuss, it is not uncommon for a young person to have a conversion experience which takes the form of a personal encounter with a loving God. No matter what his or her religious background (and this also happens to those raised as atheists), such an experience is certainly to be valued and treasured. It is often an ecstatic experience.

I think that genuine spiritual ecstasy can have a radicalising effect on young minds, if it is not accompanied by wisdom in philosophy. Peace Studies should be part of Prevent or similar programmes. Peace Studies is a universal course of study which can help anyone — whether Muslim, Christian, agnostic, or what-have-you — to live in peace and harmony with his or her neighbours, and with the world at large. This is what God wants of us, for all of us to live in peace. Most secular thinkers also favour peace.

Wars are a dreadful abomination and corruption. They should be eliminated, and one day they will be eliminated. But if human nature has not yet been perfected to the extent that it can completely eliminate wars, then let the wars be confined to conflict between combatants in war zones. To intentionally target civilian non-combatants — whether this is done by terrorist groups or government forces — is utterly wrong.

My point to those fulfilling statutory duties under Prevent is this: Don’t look on strong religious faith as something bad or dangerous. Look on it as something which, for many young people, is a natural process of awakening which may manifest as conversion, or as intensification of a faith which had previously lain dormant. (See this article in the Guardian for more about religious conversion via psychologist William James.)

One possible scenario for a Muslim youth is that he or she will grow up wanting to be as much like other (non-Muslim) children as possible. So, he or she may not place much emphasis on faith. But at some point in young adulthood, he/she may undergo conversion to a more active form of faith, including regular prayer, religious garb, and more meticulous observance of dietary restrictions. These changes may be precipitated or intensified by a religious experience of the type catalogued by William James — the kind of religious experience which is a common thread among many different religions. At the core of this experience may be awareness of a personal, loving God, and a sense of ecstatic union.

Faith is not the problem, religion is not the problem, ecstatic love for Allah is not the problem; the problem comes when young people whose faith is not yet mature and tempered by wisdom in philosophy or Peace Studies are told by terrorist recruiters that their faith justifies the killing of people of a different faith, or no faith at all.

I’m not wild about the government telling people how to think about religion; but to the extent this is done, it should at least be based on a more subtle understanding. I realize there are bound to be problems when government tries to distinguish between “authentic” religious ideas and terrorist political ideas. But once government has gotten into that messy business, it needs all the help it can get to sort the tangle.

In the same debate in which Hon. Lucy Allan voiced incisive criticism of Prevent, Hon. Byron Davies stuck up for the programme:

The importance of the Prevent strategy was made clear in the other place in 2016. I draw attention to Channel, which is one part of the broader Prevent agenda. It is an intensive, one-to-one mentoring programme that challenges violent views through the de-programming and rewiring of an individual.

This view, in which the human being is seen as a kind of robot which — when it malfunctions by adopting ideas considered undesirable — is in need of de-programming or rewiring, reflects a certain secular, scientific, or technocratic mindset which is largely hostile to religion. Members of many minority sects have suffered at the hands of those who felt justified in trying to “de-program” them of religious beliefs which posed no danger, and which were sincerely arrived at by the practitioners themselves.

De-programming as a proposed solution to the problem of radicalisation evokes the Orwellian world of IngSoc, and is characteristic of what’s already problematic about Prevent in its present form. The same arguments used in the past to justify aggressive de-programming of non-violent religious minorities are now resurfacing to justify aspects of Prevent: namely, that the attacks on freedom of thought and freedom of belief are justified under the broad rubric of “safeguarding the vulnerable” — that is, a “duty of care” argument.

Duty of care is clear when a school teacher knows that a child is being beaten or sexually abused, or is becoming addicted to heroin; it is far less clear when a child is merely suspected of having become more deeply religious — which in some cases is all that’s happened.

If the teacher’s own beliefs are Christian or Secular Humanist, the teacher may read into a child’s newfound or intensified love for Islam something sinister and dangerous which is not actually present. While it’s true that some terrorists claim to be motivated by religion, most religious practitioners — even those of deep faith and orthodox belief — are not terrorists. It is therefore inappropriate (to say the least) to treat people whose only “crime” is deep religious faith as if they were terrorists-in-training.

Some may say that since I am not Muslim, it is the height of folly for me to weigh in on these matters. But as a student of peace and a person of faith, I feel it’s my duty to share what I’ve learned in life. I am not a government bureaucrat or any kind of authority figure; I’m simply sharing my personal view in a time of trouble. And my view is this: Love God, be passionate in your love of God, be ecstatic in your love of God, be certain in your faith; but don’t let anyone tell you that God wants you to kill or maim other human beings in the name of faith; for this is a terrible corruption and not at all what God wants of us. No one is more anti-Muslim than the terrorist.

There’s a famous novel by American writer J.D. Salinger called Catcher in the Rye. One passage goes: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

If your religious conversion or spiritual awakening is genuine, lasting, and true, then it should make you want to live humbly for a cause, not die blowing up your fellow human beings. You can have strong, ecstatic faith, yet also balance that with a mature understanding, so that you recognize the presence of God in all humanity and would never consider killing others of a different faith, nor would you try by force to convert them to your own beliefs. This principle applies not just to Muslims, but also to would be Crusaders.

The goal of programmes like Prevent should never be to discourage strong faith or religious study, but to help young people temper their faith with wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace. I feel that wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace are fully consistent with Islam. So there need be no conflict provided we view things in a proper perspective. We need to develop the insight that faith is not bad, religion is not bad, only the problem comes when people bring in bad ideas, mixing them with the good.

You can have the most delicious sweetmeats which are absolutely delightful and made from the purest ingredients — but if someone mixes in arsenic then what was good becomes completely bad and poisonous. Pure love of God is good, but if someone mixes in the idea that out of devotion to God we have to kill dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people, then this kind of philosophy is Satan’s philosophy, not God’s philosophy.

I don’t claim to have the answer. Solutions to society’s problems will come from many different quarters. As a sympathetic observer, I do think it’s possible for someone to be British to the core, Muslim to the core, deeply religious, yet 100% against terrorism. For some people, this is the ideal.

There are also geopolitical causes of terrorism, as well as problems with our definitions of terrorism. Some people look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and feel that Western nations are the terrorists, dropping bombs on innocent civilians. So we can say there is a vicious cycle: War leads to terrorism and terrorism leads to war.

There’s an important distinction between causation and justification. Terrorism is never justified. But in looking for the root causes of domestic terrorism, we are not wrong to see foreign wars as an aggravating factor. This fact should not become a political football or part of the emotional “blame game.” Nor does this fact automatically lead to the conclusion that Western nations should play no role whatsoever in overseas conflicts. But Western nations must tread carefully, lest they be drawn into a conflict which they cannot solve, and where their use of military force only adds to senseless loss of life, or leads to abuses such as torture.

The problems of war and terrorism are intractable; that’s why we need Peace Studies to help us find long-term solutions to the cycle of violence. So much effort goes into planning for war, budgeting for war, gearing up for war, studying for war. If we put even half as much effort into Peace Studies, gradually we could sow the seeds of peace, and eventually these seeds would germinate.

Peace is not easy to arrive at. This is exactly why the field of Peace Studies has arisen. In order to achieve something difficult, we need to study the problem and begin visualizing the means by which we can solve it. If we just look quickly and say “Peace is too difficult, let us return to war” then we can never solve the problem. So let us devote ample resources to the problem of achieving peace, just as we have already devoted massive resources to the continued waging of war. If we never develop the vision and imagination needed to achieve peace, then we will continue to suffer the twin tragedies of war and terrorism.

Returning to the topic of Prevent: Any insights into the Muslim religious experience will be fairly useless without a human connection based on honesty and trust. Where government programmes have had success, it’s probably due to individuals who made that human connection and were able to act as teachers, mentors, or positive role models. Where government bureaucrats and behavioural psychologists devise leaflets to be covertly directed at the Muslim population en masse, I doubt this has a good effect.

The spirit in which a thing is done makes all the difference. Broadly speaking, counter-terrorism comes under the heading of social control. The notion of fighting terrorism by practising behaviour modification on British Muslims, pressuring them to conform to mainstream views, seems ill-fated because it smacks of inauthenticity, fails to address individual concerns, and may lack an underlying sense of warmth and caring. At its worst, the subtle message of Prevent is “Tone it down or be singled out for counselling” — but such counselling may be culturally insensitive and lead to further alienation.

According to Frances Webber, Vice-Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, “The government’s counter-radicalisation policy is trying to channel thought, speech and ideas into a fairly narrow concept of what’s acceptable, and everything else is becoming potentially ‘pre-criminal’.”

Insight, compassion, and caring need to be practised on an individual level to effect positive change. There must be concern for the person, rather than the desired social control outcome, e.g. “I’m here to make sure you don’t become a terrorist.” I think approaching people with that thinly veiled social control agenda is an instant turn-off. But if you’re a good teacher, mentor, role model, or simply friend, you can help someone make good choices — not by manipulating them, but by just being there for them — showing them that Britain is a beautiful place to be a Muslim, and it doesn’t involve hating anyone or bombing anything.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Heritage Radio AM – Manchester

While researching this article, I checked out the BMHC website and learned that they also run a radio station. I was really curious what a Muslim radio station in Manchester would sound like. I only listened for about an hour, but found it quite interesting:

http://tunein.com/radio/Heritage-Radio-AM-s272597/

As a student of world religion and world music, I enjoyed the mix of music, prayers, and adverts. (“Remember, if it’s plumbing, it will be available at Cheetham Plumbing!”)

* * *

Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z” (1969)

Connecting the cultural and political dots, and revisiting a classic film by Costa-Gavras

There’s an old saying that a poem doesn’t mean, but simply is. The saying’s trotted out when folks in English class rambunctiously insist on extracting a prose meaning from a work of poetry — not unlike getting a furball out of a cat by using a brickbat. What’s implied is that poetry is a process, a way of seeing, and that it differs from prose. Try as one might, one may fail to transplant the life of a poem into some other medium.

Like this, really great films may have their subject matter, but what often makes them great is their way of seeing ordinary interactions between people and how the universe works. Yes, there’s a plot and dialogue, and there may be prosaic meanings; but there’s also a certain poetry to filmic images.

So if I tell you the 1969 film Z is a political thriller, don’t misunderstand or imagine it would bore you if you’re not much into politics. Like most great films, it transcends its subject matter by being about people and how the universe works. It remains as fresh and relevant today as it was when released nearly fifty years ago.


Still, I was drawn to revisit Z by a number of prosaic events: the election of Donald Trump, the investigation into political sabotage of U.S. elections, and the final run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the French race for president, which is being decided as I write.

Then too, I have friends who visited Greece on a spiritual retreat over the Christmas/New Year’s vacation. Z is a French language film based loosely on political events in Greece during the mid-1960s. A French-Algerian production, it was nonetheless directed (and partially written) by Greek émigré Costa-Gavras, with music by Mikis Theodorakis, and Irene Papas in a supporting role.

The film also concerns what we now call “peace studies.” According to Radford University,

Peace studies is a broad, interdisciplinary activity, which includes research, reflection, and dialogue concerning the causes of war, conflict, and violence and the orientation necessary to establish peace…

We are aware today of population explosion, on-going climate collapse, diminishing natural resources, worldwide pollution from both toxic and non-toxic wastes, and the threat of massive, globally devastating wars.

People have realized, in consequence of these planetary developments, that we need to begin thinking about peace in a sustained and substantial way.

Reflection on the causes of war inevitably raises the issue of structural violence (unjust social and economic structures linked with extreme poverty and deprivation) and the issue of imperialism (dominant nations acting aggressively within the world system to promote their perceived national interests). This in turn leads us to ask why soldiers are willing to fight or kill strangers at the command of their governments, and hence to questions of socialization, biology, psychology, etc.

Within the peace studies movement there tend to be two broad approaches to questions of violence, war, and peace. One emphasizes the human individual and his or her consciousness and the paradigms by which he or she might be operating. Change toward peaceful behavior is often emphasized through education, consciousness raising, dialogue, … meditation, or other ways of influencing individual behavior in the direction of more peaceful relationships.

Jump cut to a speech by the pacifist leader from Z:

They hit me. Why? Why do our ideas provoke such violence? Why do they find peace intolerable? Why don’t they attack other organizations? The answer is simple: The others are nationalists used by the government, and don’t upset our Judas allies who betray us.

We lack hospitals and doctors, but half the budget goes for military expenditures. A cannon is fired, and a teacher’s monthly salary goes up in smoke!

That’s why they can’t bear us or our meetings and use hired thugs to jeer and attack us. Around the world, too many soldiers are ready to fire on anything moving toward progress.

But our fight is theirs too. We live in a weak and corrupt society where it’s every man for himself. Even imagination is suspect, yet it’s needed to solve world problems. The stockpile of A-bombs is equal to one ton of dynamite per person on earth.

They want to prevent us from reaching the obvious political conclusions based on these simple truths. But we will speak out! We serve the people, and the people need the truth. The truth is the start of powerful, united action.

The logistics of setting up this speech by the pacifist leader were mind-boggling. His supporters couldn’t get a permit, and every time they hired a hall the owner would later cancel to due government pressure.

After giving his speech, the pacifist leader was seriously injured in a further attack. A doctor told his wife: “I knew your husband. We were at school together. I wanted to go on his Peace Marathon, but it was banned.”

Jump cut to the testimony of Assani and Paule, Marseilles, 29 March, 2000:

We organize a cultural event each year called the International Peace Run which is open to everyone. Hundreds of thousands of people in the world participate each year and France is the only country that has refused, several times, to grant passage to the runners. “Anti-cult” individuals follow the course of the race. This year they were in a car taking pictures. They intervene as late as possible on the eve of the event so it’s too late for us to do anything about it.

We organized a Sri Chinmoy concert in 1991 in the ‘Parc des Expositions,’ with approval from City Hall. When I requested approval to hold a concert in the same park in 1995, it was denied. The park managers told me: “We don’t have a problem with you. Last time you behaved decently and paid. But we can’t get approval from City Hall because you are part of this list.”

Last year we organized a concert in Paris. A friend told me, “The district City Hall called me. They tried to convince me you were awful people, but it didn’t work. Don’t worry.”

For other events, we did manage to obtain a stadium. The sports manager at City Hall is a real friend and he participates in our runs. He knows us so well he forgot we are portrayed as a dangerous cult and he gave us approval for regular races, once a month. So we started passing out flyers to invite people to a race. The next day a newspaper ran an article entitled: “The cult is running.”

http://www.coordiap.com/Gtemo04.htm

In Z, the opposition has to struggle against authoritarianism and mindless bureaucracy. But sadly, these things can thrive in both right and left-wing governments. That’s why I favour liberal democracies which genuinely guarantee (in both principle and practice) the rights of minorities, whether political or spiritual. France, in its idealized form, is such a bastion of freedom. But at times it has to struggle to live up to its ideals.

The past is dust, and perhaps the runners have made progress in recent years. I do not mean to single out France for criticism. It’s a beautiful country, and I greatly admire the French people for their intelligence, sophistication, language, and culture.

Yet, in recent decades France has seen the emergence of a type of forced secularism which tries to eliminate all forms of religion or spirituality from the public square, or from public expression. This stems from an extreme secular view which sees religion and spirituality only as a source of conflict, but fails to recognize in them a source of peace, compassion, and ideals of self-giving.

This problem is not unique to France, but is a tragedy of the modern world, in which the very real benefits of science and intellectual progress at times eclipse the spiritual aspect, which is also very real, essential to human happiness, and a natural part of life.

In France, this trend toward secularism has led to laws restricting religious garb. If you’re wearing a hijab, sari, or yarmulke, you might face (legalized) job discrimination, or be barred from using public facilities.

As an American, perhaps I’m naïve. While it’s true that religion can be a source of conflict, so can food. Trying to solve the problem of conflict over different religious beliefs by banning religion from the public square is like trying to solve the problem of people quarreling over food by starving them to death.

When it comes to the French presidential election now being decided, I believe religious and spiritual minorities will fare better under a President Macron than a President Le Pen. According to an article in The Guardian:

In her apartment in a northern suburb of Paris, Hanane Charrihi looked at a photograph of her mother Fatima. “Her death shows that we need tolerance more than ever,” she said. “Tolerance does exist in France, but sometimes it seems those who are against tolerance shout the loudest and get the most airtime.”

Fatima Charrihi, 59, a Muslim grandmother, was the first of 86 people to be killed in a terrorist attack in Nice last summer when a lorry driver ploughed into crowds watching Bastille Day fireworks. She had left her apartment and gone down to the seafront to have an ice-cream with her grandchildren. Wearing a hijab, she was the first person the driver hit in the gruesome attack claimed by Islamic State. A third of those killed in the Nice attack were Muslims. But Fatima Charrihi’s family, some wearing headscarves, were insulted by passersby who called them “terrorists” even as they crouched next to their mother’s body under a sheet at the site of the attack. “We don’t want people like you here any more,” a man outside a café told her family soon after the attack.

Hanane Charrihi, 27, a pharmacist, was so irked to find that, even after her mother’s death, the so-called “problem” of Islam in France was such a focus of political debate that she wrote a book, Ma mère patrie, a plea for living together harmoniously in diversity. The far-right Front National gained a slew of new members in Nice after the attack and now Marine Le Pen’s presence in the final presidential runoff this weekend – after taking a record 7.6 million votes in the first round – has pushed the issue of Islam and national identity to the top of the agenda.

“I’m French, I love my country, and it seemed like people were saying to me: ‘No, you can’t possibly love France,’” Hanane Charrihi said. “All this focus on debating national identity by politicians seems like wasting time that could be focused instead on unemployment, work or housing.”

The runoff between the far-right, anti-immigration Le Pen and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron has seen heated exchanges over Islam and national identity. In 2015, Le Pen was tried and cleared of inciting religious hatred after comparing Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation. Macron has insisted that Le Pen still represents “the party of hatred.” He told a Paris rally this week: “I won’t accept people being insulted just because they believe in Islam.”

This makes for a rather easy segue into Trump World and the Muslim ban. So easy, in fact, that I won’t waste much time on it except to say that right-wing populist movements, whether American or European, find it easy to paint targets on the heads of religious and spiritual minorities.

In reviewing Z for flickfeast.co.uk, Miguel Rosa writes:

Z is not an easy film to watch. For anyone who loves freedom, many scenes will feel like vicious punches to the stomach. Several times I shuddered at the injustices being committed with impunity. The film is not a celebration of freedom and truth, but rather an elegy for these important but fragile values. Costa-Gavras turned the tragedy of his country into a grim parable about something that can happen anywhere.

I’m afraid I only partially agree. I see tremendous idealism in Z. True, that idealism is dashed, but in such a way as to make the viewer long for truth and freedom even more strongly. Z is also filled with poignant observations about the human condition and the experience of grieving for a beloved person, plus rollicking satire on the officiousness and self-importance of military brass, who get their comeuppance in the end (or do they?).

Z is not by any stretch of the imagination a religious film, but it does portray the veritable crucifixion of a pacifist political leader (played so well by Yves Montand). That crucifixion does not mark the end of a movement, but the beginning of one — or at least its re-dedication. Indeed, the film’s unique one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “He lives” or “He is immortal” — was banned (as graffiti) by the right-wing dictatorship which took control of Greece in 1967.

With so much art and culture scrapped by the incoming junta, many left-leaning Greeks did in fact flee to France and other nations where the political and cultural climate was more hospitable. They told their story with passion, and became a force for positive change. In this sense they were like disciples of the crucified Greek parliamentarian Grigoris Lambrakis (on whom the film is based), spreading his message of peace to the Greek diaspora, not unlike the apostle Paul.

This photo of Grigoris Lambrakis marching alone in the banned Marathon–Athens Peace Rally one month before his death evokes the Christian symbol of the cross.

The re-enacted scene from Z

Fifty years after the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, anti-fascist Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by a member of Golden Dawn — a far right Greek political party. This brings to mind the saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but (like poetry) sometimes rhymes. The photo is striking, not least because it forms a pietà.

Another pietà, this one courtesy Doctor Who.

The best-known pietà, by Michelangelo.

I’ve seen a number of political thrillers, and none of them has the passion of Z combined with such brilliant directing, acting, cinematography, plus vibrant musical direction by Mikis Theodorakis, whose instructions were smuggled out of Greece (since he himself was under house arrest at the time).

Z IS is a celebration of freedom and truth. That the celebration is cut short in its final hours is but a bittersweet reminder that to establish anything resembling freedom and truth on earth is a constant struggle, and there will often be setbacks.

Despite being about politics, Z is one of the best art films of the sixties, an absolute must-see for a new generation which may not have heard of it. It’s a film belonging distinctly to the modern era, striking for its use of flashbacks and depictions of the same events from multiple viewpoints a la Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

For political junkies, the relevance of Z to today’s controversies lies foremost in the character of the inquest judge or magistrate (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). His role is similar to a special prosecutor or independent counsel. He’s a member of the ruling party, and is inclined to accept the explanation proffered by police that the injury to the pacifist leader was no more than a drunk driving incident.

As today with Trump and Russia, no proof of collusion, but plenty of coincidences! So will the magistrate have the determination and perspicacity to see the investigation through? Can he really be impartial, or will he bend to the ruling party? If he gets too close to the truth, will he be fired by the monarch like FBI director James Comey?

Another important character is the photojournalist (Jaques Perrin, who co-produced). At first he seems cynical and opportunistic (we hate him when he barges in on the widow, Nikon motor drive whirring all the while), but gradually he displays kindness and devotion to truth. His own investigation uncovers facts which he brings to the attention of the magistrate. In this sense, Z is like All The President’s Men and JFK rolled into one, but is better than either. It’s an extraordinarily decent film which only improves with repeated viewings. It has more passion than All The President’s Men, reveals a broader spectrum of humanity, has better character development, and unlike JFK never descends into needless vulgarity.

Another example of character development is the fig seller, Barone. We initially see him as a thug keen to participate in vigilante violence. Later we come to pity him when we find that he’s illiterate, powerless, loves his birds, and is desperately afraid of the police Colonel who manipulates him to do his dirty work.

The biggest question mark is always the figure of the magistrate, who seems impassive, unemotional, and skeptical of opposition claims. Yet, his legal training inclines him toward precision and objectivity. Had he been investigating Nixon, he would undoubtedly have fallen victim to the famed “Saturday Night Massacre.”

In the 1960s and 70s, as governments became subject to greater public scrutiny for corruption and malfeasance, an existing genre — the police procedural or detective story — was expanded to encompass the activities of journalists and prosecutors investigating government itself. Thus, Z is (among other things) a cracking good detective yarn with a plot twist at the end. Like most good detective yarns, it leads the viewer through different strata of society, from elite government officials, to a private vigilante group called CROC, to the daily lives of merchants and tradesmen struggling to survive, and (of course) left-leaning peace activists.

For modern day political junkies, another connection between Z World and Trump World is the bizarre speech given by General Missou (Pierre Dux) in the opening scene. He claims the nation is under attack from ideological mildew brought on by parasitic agents. With the arrival of beatniks, Dutch Provos, and pacifists, sunspots appear on the face of the golden orb. God refuses to enlighten the Reds. It’s a delightfully funny crackpot theory worthy of one of Trump’s political appointees to the Department of Redundancy Department (or the Veterans Tapdance Administration).

The passion and suasive power of Z is partly a function of the times it reflects: a point in the late 60s when there was still a strong streak of unalloyed idealism about the prospects for peace, and when it seemed much easier to tell the goodies from the baddies than it later became. The activists in Z aren’t perfect, but we like them because they’re courageous, idealistic, and genuinely committed to peace — even if they’re sometimes tempted to tear up the town out of sheer frustration. The demise of their leader leads them to deep soul-searching.

Then too, Z evokes archetypes from the 60s which no one who lived through that period (even as a pre-teen, as I did), can forget. As a twelve-year-old in June 1968, I stayed up all night watching reports from the hospital as doctors tried in vain to save the life of Robert Kennedy, who had been shot just after giving a victory speech in California, where he had won the presidential primary. I still remember the haggard face of Kennedy aide Frank Mankiewicz, who finally issued a brief statement:

So many of the figures who worked toward peace had great heart, and this theme is explored in Z through a heartbeat sound made by percussion instruments, and repeated reference to the strength and resilience of the pacifist leader’s heart, which continues to beat and refuses to quit.

Z had a super successful run in America, where it received Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing, and was also nominated for Best Picture. I’m sure that for many Americans it evoked all too recent memories of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of Z, using it as an excuse to branch out into other matters. But that’s what a good poem does, too. It narrows your focus to details about the human condition, and that narrow focus somehow possesses the ability to widen into a view which takes in the entire universe. Puzzling, is it not?

You can view the complete film in many places, including Amazon Prime and Netflix rental.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: More Z Apocrypha

Costa-Gavras on Z (brief WNYC interview)

“Lambrakis is gone, but his legacy lives on!” by Nicolas Mottas
https://www.opednews.com/Diary/Lambrakis-is-gone-but-his-by-Nicolas-Mottas-090518-795.html

Z, The Novel

The film is actually based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos (who is not the inventor of Vaseline):

Z, the novel, front cover

Z, the novel, back cover

(Definitely a bargain at 95 cents.)

CROC vs. KROC

In Z, the vigilante group used by the government to attack left-leaning pacifists is called CROC, or Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. Ironically, today there’s a KROC INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE STUDIES at the University of Notre Dame. (No, the picture on their home page is not a Cialis ad.) The pressing question per the film? Are they for football?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Film buffs have noticed that in the scene where pacifists hand out flyers announcing their new rally location, a large peace emblem covers a French signboard for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This was a 1966 “spaghetti western” starring Clint Eastwood and featuring senseless violence:

French poster for “Le Bon, la Brute et le Truand”

When the goons attack the pacifists, an injured man is seen lying on the signboard. A woman tries to help him up, but is kicked in the posterior. In retrospect, this almost seems like a metaphor for Trumpcare. 😉

This is not just movie trivia, but reveals the visual language used by the filmmaker to talk about peace vs. violence. Costa-Gavras is making a dark joke which we won’t get unless we identify the movie poster and know what critics said about the film.

* * *

Thought of the Day: People Are Good

The Doomsday Clock may be advancing, but there is still infinite good in the human heart, and peace remains a strong countervailing force.

In such a polarized period of our nation’s history (if not world history), it’s easy to lose sight of the basic goodness which resides deep within each human heart. That goodness often expresses itself in loving kindness, and in this sense there is no disagreement between those who explicitly believe in God, and those who are secular humanists. Both camps can agree that there is something noble at the core of human existence. Some will call it a human quality, others will say it is a divine quality. But loving kindness is one of the things we most urgently need right now. We need not agree on its ultimate source.

As I approach the evening of my life, I find that I remember many things which others have forgotten. I remember them not by accident, but because they were things which helped me build a sense of meaning in my life, and so I treasured those things and kept them in my heart.

With the turning of the generations, and the nature of a market-driven economy, many valuable things are seemingly thrown out, or at least no longer publicized, so that they become for all intent and purposes invisible. They still have tremendous inherent power, but that power is untapped by a later generation which either does not know of them, or does not identify with them.

So it was when it came to me write on the topic of “People Are Good.” I immediately thought of this song by The Roches which had moved me to tears 25 years ago and still does so to this day:

Now, some might think of The Roches as the epitome of Eastern liberal folk-singing types. But in this song they seem to channel the same feeling that one might find in churches across America. “Everyone Is Good” is like a universal folk mass gently proselytizing on behalf of the religion of loving kindness.

This invitation to practice loving kindness applies equally to people of all political persuasions. Yet, at a time when many gentle people of conscience are concerned about the direction in which our nation is headed, I can’t help thinking that these lines apply especially to Donald Trump: “Wouldn’t it be something to be loving and kind/ Forgive yourself for everything having once been blind.”

Activists on the left are not always known for their gentleness, so those lines apply to them too. About two years ago, I commented on how the name “Madonna” has come to mean different things to different people. To some it signifies the mother of Jesus, to others the folk stylings of Joan Baez, while the Googlebot is convinced that anyone who types in “Madonna” must be looking for the brassy pop idol, who recently dropped the f-bomb in her speech at the Women’s March on Washington.

I am reminded of Pete Seeger’s version of words from Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for righteous anger at injustice, and I am no stranger to that emotion — to feeling it and expressing it on my blog. But I also try to be informed by a healing spirit, and an awareness that the deepest truth about human nature is that people are good.

For me, that awareness has to struggle against the many sad things I’ve seen, beginning in childhood. For me, a powerful ally in the struggle to see the good in people has always been Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), who writes:

When we open our heart to the entire world, we are not safe. The evil and destructive qualities of the world can enter into us and utilise us for their own purposes. They can do so precisely because our love, which is our strength, is very limited; our joy, which is our strength, is very limited; our peace, which is our strength, is very limited. All that we have, we have in very limited measure. But at the same time we have to have confidence in ourselves. Although we are not now measureless and infinite, a day will dawn when we will be measureless, infinite and transcendental. How? By going to the Source, to God.

Even though the ignorant world can destroy the lotus in us, that does not mean that we shall have no faith in humanity in general. India’s greatest spiritual politician, Mahatma Gandhi, said something very striking. He said not to lose faith in humanity. We have to take humanity as an ocean. There are a few drops in the ocean that may be dirty, but the entire ocean is not dirty. According to him, we must not judge humanity by the limited experiences we usually get when we associate ourselves with limited persons around us. We have to be careful, but at the same time we have to have faith in humanity. If we lose faith in humanity, then we are doomed, for humanity is an actual limb of our body.

Since we are spiritual seekers, we have to have more faith than an ordinary human being has. We have to have faith even in unaspiring persons although we are not going to try right now to transform their nature. Why? Because we do not have the necessary capacity, or because it is not God’s Will. Even if we do not have the necessary capacity, God can give us the capacity. He can make us strong so that we can help humanity. But that is not God’s Will. God’s Will is for us to help those who are already awakened to some extent, those who are aspiring or who want to aspire, but not those who are fast asleep. God does not want to push them. To them God says, “Sleep, My child, sleep.” But to those who are already awakened and who want to run, God says, “Have faith in My creation which is humanity and have faith in yourself, for it is you who are ultimately going to represent Me on earth.” We have to have faith in ourselves in order to realise and fulfil God. We have to have faith in God because it is He who has inspired us and awakened us and who is going to fulfil us in His own Way.

If God wants you, open your eyes, close your ears and run. We have to be fully awakened and alert; we have to stop living in the world of sleep before we can find God. We must look all around, not to see the ugliness of the world, but to see the creation in its purest form with our purest eyes. Open your eyes. We must sleep no longer! We must look at the world with the purity that we have and see the purity in God’s creation.

Close your ears. Why have we to close our ears? Because there are things we may hear that will bother and disturb us, such as criticism, jealousy, flattery and praise. When somebody criticises us, how should we regard him? We should think of him as a dog barking right in front of us. If a dog barks right in front of us and we pay attention to it, the dog will not stop barking and annoying us. Then we will have difficulty in reaching our destined goal. We have to take criticism in the same way. People criticise us in every way. They say, “He is useless. He spends all his time meditating and he does not help society the way society needs help.” But what does society want? Society itself does not even know. Nobody can tell us what to do with our life. When we are ready for God, when we are awakened and have opened our eyes, God wants us. At that time we don’t have to pay attention to anybody’s criticism. We have to know that what we are doing is best. It is best even for those who are criticising us, because a day will come when they will give up their ignorance and be inspired to follow us.

— Sri Chinmoy, from A Hundred Years From Now, Agni Press, 1974

Pop culture is disposable culture, so if we view the world solely through the eyes of pop culture, it will be an ever-changing kaleidoscope with no clear vision. Spiritual wisdom is enduring, lasting. It gradually reveals a vast panorama of truth, the truth of how things really are and how everything fits together. This truth does not last for five minutes, or five hours, or five days, but is an eternal truth.

Let us meditate on these wise words: “What does society want? Society itself does not even know.” Society knows that it is dissatisfied, but it does not have a clear vision on how to proceed. Therefore, we need to go on the hero’s journey and bring back wisdom which will eventually help transform society.

The political struggle to build a more compassionate society will be far more successful if it is able to embody these deeper spiritual truths. To bring about a more peaceful world, we need to become students of peace. That is how Sri Chinmoy always described himself:

Interviewer: What is the purpose of your Peace Concert?

Sri Chinmoy: There is only one purpose: I try to be of service to mankind. When thousands of people gather together, I feel that we are working together. I am not the only one who serves. The people who come to listen to my music or to join me in praying are also doing something most significant. We are all trying to bring about world peace. It is teamwork.

Interviewer: So, everybody resonates peace together?

Sri Chinmoy: We are all working together. It is not that I am going to give peace to others — far from it! We shall work together. We are all in a boat sailing together towards the destination, which we call the Golden Shore.

Interviewer: What can somebody who comes to the concert expect to experience?

Sri Chinmoy: It is my prayer that they will get inspiration in abundant measure. Then, the following morning, they will be inspired to do something better in their life. My sole purpose in giving these Peace Concerts is to be of inspiration to others.

Interviewer: Why have you chosen in this lifetime to be a teacher and leader of peace?

Sri Chinmoy: I have not chosen to be a leader and I never declare myself a teacher of peace. I am a student of peace. I have been telling the whole world that I am a student of peace. I go everywhere to learn, and while I am learning, people feel that I am giving something. In the process of learning, we feel that the teacher and student give something to each other. While the student is learning, the teacher also learns something from the student.

Interviewer: What would you like everyone to know about himself or herself?

Sri Chinmoy: That they embody God, they embody Truth, they embody Light. Each individual should feel that he or she embodies God: God’s Divinity, God’s Eternity, God’s Immortality.

— from Edge Magazine, “The Joy of Inner Peace with Sri Chinmoy”

Some will say there is no bridge between the political and the spiritual, that they are at daggers drawn. But Sri Chinmoy clearly identifies that in the person of Mahatma Gandhi, the political and the spiritual were united by a deeper vision. Gandhian principles of non-violence came to inform many successful political movements which achieved lasting change. Therefore, let us not doubt that spiritual wisdom can be a powerful force for guiding and inspiring political change. Spiritual wisdom can bring a certain gentleness and loving kindness without which political movements fail to reach the hearts of those whose help is needed in order to achieve change.

Lasting political change is founded on peace, proceeds through peace, and eventually manifests peace as a flower coming into bloom. This coming to fruition of peace requires not only dedication, but patience. We can cultivate such patience if we are secure in the knowledge that the general trend over time is toward peace. As Sri Chinmoy says in one of his peace songs:

No matter what the world thinks,
Our world, soon, very soon,
Will be flooded with peace.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of far-reaching vision. In this promise of a world flooded with peace, perhaps “soon” means soon in cosmic time — maybe not next week or next month. Still, many people following diverse paths share a sense that peace is definitely dawning, even if gradually, in fits and starts. We may observe many conflicts flaring up, yet Sri Chinmoy finds much hope in the fact that we have avoided a Third World War. In the aforementioned interview, he says:

Interviewer: Do you feel that there is a growing peace on the planet?

Sri Chinmoy: Definitely, definitely! Over the years, I have observed that peace is growing. I have been here in the Western world for 36 years. Previously I saw dozens of times that peace was only talk. We were only talking and talking about peace. Now people are praying to have peace in the depths of their heart. Talking has now given way to experience. In many parts of the world, people are experiencing peace. So the world has made tremendous improvement! Of course, we cannot say that in today’s world there is no conflict, there is no fight, there is no confusion. There is conflict, but in comparison, it is less.

Previously we were afraid that there would be a Third World War. Now, we do not foresee that possibility. The First World War destroyed us and the Second World war destroyed us, but we do not see any possibility of a Third World War. There is mutual compromise, and this is a sign that people want peace. Otherwise there could have been a Third World War by this time.

Yet, even as I write word comes to me that the so-called “Doomsday Clock” has been advanced to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight:

The great scientists who administer the Doomsday Clock make serious points in their analysis which should not be discounted lightly. But I think their training does not incline them to factor in God’s Compassion. I do not believe God will allow this world to be utterly destroyed. I agree with Sri Chinmoy that the trend is toward peace, even if that fragile peace is often threatened by rambunctious leaders.

We can take comfort in his words at a time of fear and uncertainty, for he was truly a man of vision whose peace studies led him far beyond what most of us have seen or experienced. To learn from such a man of peace is well, good, and proper, for peace is not something we can always get from dry books, or from a crowd chanting noisy slogans. Peace is something which may be transmitted in silence from one who embodies peace to one who is crying for peace.

There are those who feel that change must always be extremely loud. According to them, silence has no power. Yet Sri Chinmoy writes:

Silence Speaks

Silence is not silent.

Silence speaks.

It speaks most eloquently.

Silence is not still.

Silence leads.

It leads most perfectly.

— Sri Chinmoy

* * *

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Silence Liberates!
Africa-Vision Songs

sri-chinmoy-a-hundred-years-from-now