25 November 2007

Band of Drivers

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks used popular music as a metaphor for the way that our society has fragmented. Hearkening back to some nostalgic era in which many people crowded together in large stadia with poor acoustics to suffer through performances by musicians who could, in many cases, only be seen with powerful binoculars, Brooks states that “the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.”

I don’t disagree with Brooks’ underlying point: our society does indeed have ever-greater distinctions between smaller clusters of people. Well beyond the old, basic economic levels – the poor, the varying degrees of bourgeois middle-class, and the wealthy – we now have five or six levels, ranging from the non-working poor to the working poor, from the debt-plagued to the debt-free, and from the merely rich to the phenomenally wealthy. Along ethnic lines, the scenario is also different: while many traditional distinctions hold, intermarriage and inter-ethnic child birth have (thankfully) helped blur what had been too-easily-drawn lines, used more often to separate us.

The problem with Brooks’ argument is: music has always been segmented, with different styles appealing to various audiences drawn around class or ethnicity. So-called “classical” music was largely written for elite audiences in the previous four centuries, and generally remains the taste of an elite now – even as opera, originally a medium for the masses, has also moved to the realm of the classical. Jazz, that all-American creation, pulled whites into a distinctly African-American musical style, but for much of its early years did so while those same white folk actively worked to sustain segregation of the races. Citing the Stones or Springsteen or U2 as examples is also somewhat absurd: they represent the exception, not the rule, in their creativity and their longevity. To the broader question of “segmentation,” my guess is that musicians like Snoop Dogg and Sean “Diddy” Combs (whose first albums appeared in 1993 and 1997, respectively) might disagree on the finer points of whether they are able to fill large stadia – and whether they attract audiences just as broad and diverse as those of the Stones or U2. And The Beatles, any fan of rock will recall, gave up touring and live performance completely in 1966, because stadium were such terrible venues for concerts.

If he wanted an issue around which to explore our social fragmentation, Brooks might have looked at cars and driving instead. Like music, cars are also about class: what you drive (or, in the early years, whether you drove at all) says a lot about who you are, what you can afford, and your values. The same is no less true today, but the common thread that once held all of us drivers together – respect for the rules of the road – has largely vanished. The nostalgic calm that once reigned on our Eisenhower-era highways, the natural beauty of millions of people whooshing smoothly from place to place, respecting the rights of those around them to reach their destination safely, is gone. Suffering through travel on a holiday weekend is a perfect reminder of the near lawlessness that reigns on our streets and highways.

At issue here is not speeding; nor is this about global warming and the pollution caused by cars, or about the big car versus little car debate, either in terms of fuel efficiency or danger-upon-impact. This is about the more basic question of whether people know how to drive, whether they understand why the rules are there, and whether they care about the consequences of breaking them. Here, our society is definitely fragmenting: small groups of law-abiders are surrounded by larger clusters of dangerous law-breakers, each with their own, special talents.

There are the tailgaters, of course, but often over-looked are the n’er-do-wells who play with them: the dawdlers, people who hang out in the passing lane at what they consider a comfortable speed, oblivious to those behind them. Worse than the tailgaters, however, are the BaSPs – the blind-spot passers – who insist, whenever things are not going their speed, on passing slower traffic on the right-hand side of the road. Up until a few years ago, I would have said that BaSPs are the most terrible of all, because these cretins forcibly change the normal flow of traffic, and zig-zag in ways that make driving more dangerous for others.

Still, a more terrible type of driver arrived with the cell phone and other digital devices, and while almost all of us who drive have, at one time or another, likely used such items while driving: we should not. In New York City and other urban centers, idiots merely walking down the street prove themselves farcically inept at paying attention to those around them; hurtling forward at 60 miles per hour, wrapped in 2 tons of metal, while entertaining such distractions should be significantly more illegal than it is. Thus, another two clusters are those who insist on using their phone while driving, and those who do not.

Worst of all are the deniers: those of us who act as though we never commit any of these misdeeds. Alas, this is the one area in which we are most definitely unified: we are a nation in denial. That one little concept actively helps us to overcome whatever other segmentation may be taking place in the society around us.

18 November 2007

The Meaning of Protest

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The contrarian’s perspective on the situation in Pakistan: what an amazing demonstration of the power of and passion for democracy we are witnessing!

Clearly, I am not referring to General Musharraf’s unwillingness to follow the Pakistani constitution by ceding one of his two (mutually exclusive) posts, or his declaration of emergency rule and sacking of the Pakistani Supreme Court to remove threats to his power. Nor am I referring to the habitual meddling of that country’s military in its politics, a shameful but long-standing tradition – and the means by which Musharraf came to power in the first place. The house arrest of opposition politician Benazir Bhutto is certainly a flexible one – she has access to the outside world, news cameras included – but is still wrongful detention. Yes, the fears that have been articulated hither-and-yon about the potential for misuse of the country’s nuclear weapons is terrifying. Moreover, as with most such foreign situations, we cannot truly know what is going on without being there ourselves; it may be worse than we know.

Nonetheless, the news about Pakistan show some things we have not seen in the United States in many years: an actively engaged (actively enraged) citizenry, taking part in vigorous public protests, despite the fear of arrest and bodily harm. Here in the United States, we are almost five years into an unsuccessful, unpopular war, led by a president who has used every tactic imaginable to increase the power of his position – notwithstanding the actual principles established in our own Constitution – including writing his own interpretation of laws passed by Congress. But while the citizens of Pakistan protest (in fact, they have been protesting strongly, on and off for the last six or seven years), Americans do nothing. Occasionally, we attend “protest” marches, but these are sporadic and ineffectual. Millions of us cannot be bothered to vote, an act of citizenship that does not risk police detention, and millions more of us are eligible to vote – all one has to be is a U.S. citizen over the age of 18 – and have not registered to do so. And while all of this non-action takes place around us, the majority of our politicians (supported by the two major political parties) compete to present themselves as most-alike-one-another-with-some-small-differences, lest Americans be tempted to vote for a candidate who actually represents potential change from the downward-spiraling status quo.

So: am I concerned about Pakistan? Absolutely, as we all should be. But I also find a kind of terrible irony – and locus of optimism – in the degree to which the people of this 60-year-old “start-up” democracy are, in their way, more engaged with their country’s political process, and the impact of the outcome, than we Americans are with our own.

04 November 2007

Fiction Then, Reality Now

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Jeffrey Hantover’s (forthcoming) The Jewel Trader of Pegu is a beautiful story engagingly written. This might be the first “JewBu” novel, a step beyond Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew In The Lotus, in which Kamenetz detailed his experience accompanying a group of American Jews who traveled to India to meet the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists. Here, Hantover’s fictional construct allows him to create fresh insights into the challenges of human growth and cross-cultural understanding, using an epistolary form that enhances the strength of the story and the clarity of the characters’ voices. Exploring simultaneously the values and world-views of Judaism and Buddhism, Hantover uses the historical lens of foreign trade and travel to express the wondrousness of spiritual and physical freedom.

The outline of the story is as follows: in 1598, a widowed Venetian Jewish trader named Abraham makes the long journey to the city of Pegu, in lower Burma, to sell cloth and other wares, and to buy gemstones to take back to his uncle in Venice. Orphaned at a young age, and generally confined to the Jewish Ghetto by Christian society, this trip is more than eye-opening for Abraham, as he enters a world that does not care about his religion or the limitations placed on him by the anti-Semitic traditions of Europe. Writing letters to his cousin Joseph back home, Abraham reveals new aspects of himself as he discovers them, as his experiences in Pegu shift from those of a trader-tourist to someone who starts to feel more like a native. One poignant early moment finds Abraham looking in his trunk and discovering that the yellow hat he is forced to wear in Venice has become moldy and decrepit in the humidity – and he throws it away, “...with the fish bones and coconut husks.” [P. 45] In Pegu, he does not need the hat; he is as foreign as every other trader from abroad, no more and no less.

Maung Win is the royal gems broker assigned by the king to assist Abraham, to facilitate his transactions, show him around the city, and safeguard his belongings. Win speaks a little Italian (much to Abraham’s surprise) and in turn teaches Abraham a bit of the local language. Together, they conduct Abraham’s business and, in their social time, discuss and explore their different perspectives in the world, as driven by religion and by their life experiences. As the result of a complicated local ritual, Win introduces Abraham to Mya, a young Burmese woman who is about to get married. Mya is the third protagonist and the second of the book’s two key voices, presented in the form of her inner monologues, fashioned much like diary entries.

“All I know is what the Buddha teaches – we live, we suffer, we die, and we are reborn. All of us. Not you or me alone. All of us.” [P. 104] So says Win in one of his discussions with Abraham, who struggles to understand the logic in such a straightforward and unsentimental religion, because it seems to deny the kind of higher purpose he has been raised, as a Jew, to believe central to life. Eventually – as he witnesses an execution, as he sees small slights and larger affronts in the world around him – Abraham begins to realize that Win’s Buddhism is not nihilistic but life-affirming, just as Win concedes (eventually) that suffering for suffering’s sake is not always noble or desirable. Life can be complicated, more complicated than the devotions of any religion can necessarily explain.

Ultimately, Abraham learns that freedom is “something real that exists in the world. Not just an ideal. Not just a prayer at Passover.” [P. 26] In discovering freedom of movement, he starts to allow himself to explore his soul, his beliefs and his passions, and thus finds freedom of thought – and a free life. He becomes liberated in a way that he had not previously acknowledged as a possibility, and with that liberation he seems to achieve the kind of enlightenment that Buddhists themselves strive for.

At times, Hantover’s story crosses over into the saccharine, and reminded me at a few points of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, a tale of self-discovery that also involves dreams, travel, cross-cultural religious understanding. What can be frustrating about Coelho (and surely what makes his books such big sellers) is his simplicity, that sense of an author wanting the reader to get the message, to make sure we don’t miss the point. But where Coelho traffics in the ethereal and mysterious, Hantover is grounded: what he writes about Judaism and Buddhism rings true, and his characters are not just archetypes, but people to whom the reader develops an emotional connection because of their complexity and idiosyncrasies. Moreover, where Coelho’s book is a parable addressed to the reader, Hantover’s is a literary expression of the beauty of life, even amid challenge and tragedy, and the many ways in which we humans can learn to understand ourselves and others. I highly recommend The Jewel Trader of Pegu.


Hantover set his story during a period of Burmese history we know a little bit about: an unpopular king, Nandabayin, fond of jewels and baubles, is eventually brought down by an invasion of neighboring tribal armies. In the process, the Burmese people themselves suffer more than they should, despite – or perhaps in part because of – their religion and its teachings. For more than 20 years now, the military junta that controls Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been strangling that nation’s people and testing their faith. Recent protests against the regime by the country’s monks have resulted in vicious responses from the government, which has killed many of the be-robed people that this nation of devout Buddhists consider quite holy.

Responding to a contemporary work of fiction based on its “timeliness” is generally not a good idea: a novel that is truly timely may not hold its value in the future. However, it is hard to overlook the current political nightmare of Myanmar, and the connections to the history about which Hantover writes. For example, an execution scene in the book is hard to disassociate from contemporary politics in its cruelty, and as a representation of the degree to which Burmese leaders – then and now – cannot tolerate any dissent. Like it or not, the news does make Hantover’s story rather timely. Fortunately, that only adds to its value and makes the book that much more powerful.

(Thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to review this book!)

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