Thursday, January 31, 2013

Did The Times Goof?

Maybe Washington isn’t sure which strings to pull today in Egypt: a propos the violent appearance of a Black Bloc (the current international anarchist label) in Egypt detailed yesterday, the New York Times today bent over backwards to play down that development.  Commenting on President Morsi’s trip toGermany to solicit financial help, the Times writes:

“At several public appearances, Mr. Morsi appeared defensive while describing the situation in Egypt. He attributed much of the violence to remnants of Egypt’s deposed government, or so-called infiltrators, including a little-known group that the Egyptian authorities have turned into a scapegoat and called a national security threat.  (In my book a scapegoat is usually a victim, certainly not a threat. Of course a second degree reading would imply that Morsi is trying to blame the anarchists for the desperate situation of his country, still...)

Oblivious to its deteriorating writing standards, the Times continues:

“On Tuesday, Egypt’s public prosecutor declared that the group, which calls itself the Black Bloc, was a terrorist organization and issued warrants for its members’ arrests. Five people were detained on Wednesday, state news media reported.”

So now a movement that is active worldwide, including the U.S., becomes a nickname for an obscure bunch of Egyptian agitators who however constitute a ‘national security threat’.

Yesterday I wrote that Washington is probably pulling many strings in Egypt - anything to keep the country under its influence and prevent it from denouncing its treaty with Israel.  It would now appears to have realized that the situation is so bad in Egypt, as it goes through the painful transition to a pluralistic society, that highlighting the existence of a worldwide anti-authoritarian movement only hurts America’s cause.

As Israel launches attacks in Syria, and dismisses the UN Human Rights quadrennial review that termed West Bank settlements a violation of international law, requiring the immediate withdrawal of all Israelis from the occupied territory, the threat from Egypt’s fledgling Black Bloc pales in comparison to the rising stakes in the neighborhood.

But as I wrote yesterday, it’s important to take the long view of the gist.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Egypt's Black Bloc Blacked Out!

What’s this?  The New York Times today ran an extensive story about the new group on the protest scene in Egypt called The Black Bloc, ( while RT and France 24 both ignore the anarchist group that claims to have 20,000 members and is causing the military to warn that the country risks disintegrating.

Digging into on-line news outlets, I found that the BBC did a lengthy story on the Black Bloc last Sunday January 28, (, but appears to have dropped the story since.

Cautious observers will claim that it is too soon to pronounce this an important development, but my sense of ‘the gist’ tells me that the appearance of a Muslim anarchist group marks a watershed. It is one more indication that we are witnessing a worldwide cultural conflict between vulgar consu-merism on one hand and aspirations for a better life that includes a higher moral plane. In Egypt that moral plane is embodied by Islam, but its foundation is the same as that espoused by Black Bloc movements worldwide, whose public face, by the way, is called Anonymous.

In a few days the reason for the news blackout that does not follow the usual international dichotomy should become clear.  My first guess is that the U.S. is probably pulling many strings in the largest Muslim country in the Middle East which is also Israel’s neighbor.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Stunned Silence on the Mall

I saw it twice, so I’m not imagining things: President Obama’s affirmation that international affairs do not have to be solved through war elicited no reaction from the public on the Washington Mall.

That same public reacted enthusiastically to Obama’s endorsements of solidarity, education, immigration reform, gay rights, and even global warming.  But the the faces in the crowd looked perplexed at the announcement from its president that the United States - which has a thousand foreign military bases - does not have to resort to war in its dealings with the wider world.

This would seem to indicate that the devoted work of peace groups around the country is not reaching those who braved the cold to watch the President take office for the second time amidst growing U.S. involvement in disputes around the globe.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

From My Memoir: Posing and Modelling

Posing at the famous art school, La Grande Chaumiere was no more embarrassing than being discovered unconscious while trying to take a bath. Soon I no longer felt a raised arm, and I liked having my two feet firmly planted on the ground, in contrast to the fatigue of a fashion fitting in high heels. As for models ‘getting into trouble’, when I undressed and stepped onto the dais, I left ‘Deena’ on the dressing room stool with her clothes and became ‘the model’. I liked the atmosphere of quiet concentration, the silence as everyone worked, the smell of paint, the people coming to look, quietly, with a handshake here and there, night falling, and finally, breaking the silence, the word “Rest". During the break I was myself again, covered and mixing with the others. The young men had no ulterior motives: they simply admired a good-looking girl.

Having realized I could do this, I sought out the well-known artist Segonzac. A tiny old woman with glasses opened the door on the top floor of an old building on rue Bonaparte: "You're a model? I don't know if he has time to see you. Come in."

14.Modeling, 1953

A dark, narrow, crowded hall, a large room covered with linoleum, paintings stacked against the walls, near the window a table with an enormous typewriter. The woman went toward a door at the back and called out in a grand-mother's voice:

"It's a model.”

Segonzac appeared, the grandmother's spouse. "Monsieur Jos sent you from the Grande Chaumiere? May I look at you?"

He disappeared. I undressed in an alcove in the hall. "Take off your glasses", the grandmother advised. She called him, he came and looked at me from afar. "Very beautiful, unusual - I'm going to work with you. Here, my child, for the subway," handing me 200 Francs, enough for half a dozen rides. I almost refused, but realized he would be offended. Alas, I never did pose for Segonzac, perhaps because I couldn’t be reached at the left bank hotel where I lived.

After several months working at the art school, I had saved enough to take a Christmas vacation. I wanted to ski, and chose the resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo, since I’d never been to Italy. (Killing two birds with one stone had become my standard modus operandi.) After half an hour on an easy slope I fell and twisted my ankle. A very sweet young man who had struck up a conversation on the way up helped me back to the boarding house. A doctor bandaged my ankle and ordered bed rest. The young man brought me fruit and flowers, stayed to keep me company, and learned to make love. He and his more sophisticated cousin took turns sacrificing sport to a different pleasure, and that’s when I discovered that casual lovemaking can be perfectly charming when carried out in a spirit of respectful complicity.

I managed to get into the School of Oriental Languages, notwithstanding my rudimentary Spanish, and my failure, at the oral, to know that Baku, in Azerbaijan, was where the Russians got their oil. At the annual ‘Langues O’ dance, I met Leo Boyer, an alumnus who had grown up in China. He was hardly taller than me, but an excellent partner, with the green eyes and blond hair that would be my damnation for years to come. We danced all evening, then made love all night.

Leo had not been as lucky as Ping, the Chinese duck of my childhood. His father had engineered railroads for Chang Kai Chek, then for Mao, and been killed by the Japanese during the war. Leo’s mother consoled herself by marrying a banker, but when the family returned to France in 1950, Leo was unable to transfer his law credits from Shanghai University to the Sorbonne. He got a degree from the School of Oriental Languages, hoping to become a diplomat; but just at that moment, relations with Communist China broke down, and the French Foreign Ministry stopped recruiting Sinologists. At twenty-seven, he was more or less estranged from his family and unemployed. The day after the ball, he moved into my hotel room on rue Mazarine, where I had installed a rented piano. The cabinet de toilette doubled as kitchen, Leo was an excellent cook, and a former student at the Paris Conservatory gave me piano lessons.

While taking Russian classes, I modeled at Lanvin's, but Leo and I didn’t mix with the fashion crowd: among our wannabe friends was a sculptor who admired my large peasant feet. Leo looked endlessly for a job, while I fell fatally behind in a Tolstoi text that consisted mainly of footnotes. The one thing I retained from those classes because I saw it demonstrated in the successive languages I did learn, was that spoken languages change according to the law of least effort. (Whenever I proffer this knowledge, I feel slightly superior.)

Leo was convinced that politics was a hopelessly dirty business. As for me, I had never been able to get past the messy appearance of French newspapers. The screaming headlines, like the bandwagon aspect of American politics, echoed the aggressive family atmosphere of my childhood. I wanted to understand rather than judge, and although we noted the incessant changes of government, it was not until I began reading The Economist, many years later, that I would make sense of French politics.


Sunday, January 13, 2013



On a gray day in 1947, I stood on the deck of the SS Westerdam, in the port of Hoboken, New Jersey, as my mother's face receded into the distance. There had been a long and tedious customs ceremony, a baggage ceremony, a ticket ceremony; the coming aboard of other passengers and their clutches of relatives, who like us were photographed and re-photographed in different combinations, and finally, the interminable raising of the gangplank. At last the ship set sail with a shudder, and I discovered the extraordinarily gentle but powerful throbbing of the motors. Thrilled for the first time in my life, I turned to tell my father that tea was being served right there, by a waiter all dressed in white, with impeccable white gloves, as the deck rocked gently on the expanse of gray water on this surprisingly mild December afternoon.

"And all you care about is tea?" my father retorted, emphasizing the last word. Turning to my stepmother Bette, who was already feeling seasick, and switching to the theatrical tone they used together, he decreed that I was without heart. Alas, I didn't know how to deal with irony; I knew only head-on battles, hysterics, screams. Mute with shock, I failed to point out that I was only exhibiting the inner strength I’d had to develop to endure the woman he had fled. For years I had wanted to live with my father because I thought we were alike. How could he expect me to cry when my wish was being fulfilled? Perhaps he was remembering the defiance with which May left him, seeing me in her image. On a second level, though he knew May had made me unhappy, perhaps he felt the need to unnerve me, precisely because I was her child, a fact he would confess with rage years later.

This was the first in a long series of misunderstandings between me and the world. But there is a deeper explanation for the nonchalance that many people would criticize; by liberating me from a mother who was as harmful as any illness, my departure for Europe threw a line to the belly-flopped girl on the sled, ensuring that from then on, curiosity would win out over anxiety and fear

t.11. On board SS Westerdam, 1947

[On the SS Westerdam]

Another picture in my first photo album shows me standing on the deck of the SS Westerdam looking at least eighteen, leaning backwards into the wind, eyes closed, hands trustingly in coat pockets. The dreamy smile suggests the way I would confront life, open to what it brought but often accused of living in a world of my own. Having been transformed from a happy child into a somber one rejected by both parents, I created my own space, blind to the pitfalls of certain realities because they represented an indispensable elsewhere.

After my parents separated, Howard’s visits had been too rare to make up for May’s lack of warmth. Then the war came, and he was drafted. His last visit before being sent overseas took place indoors on a cold and rainy afternoon. I sat on a straight-back chair near the front windows, Howard folded his 6'4" frame into my grandfather Jake’s armchair, and with that gentle patience that charmed all women, taught me to knit the way his mother did, with the wool intricately wrapped around the fingers of the left hand.

War accorded perfectly with the dramatic atmosphere that reigned in Jake and Rose’s home, insinuating itself into the space that already separated me from that Rinso-White world. Years later, during one of the few times May talked about herself, she told me that when she was about three, Rose had reacted to her misbehavior by screaming that she wished her child had never been born. Now, discovering her early pictures, I realize she must have been a mischievous child and a flirtatious teen-ager. It’s easy to imagine her being the apple of her father’s eye, and Rose being jealous. No wonder that, forced to endlessly affirm her existence in the face of a mother’s curse, May would maintain a lifelong determination that her needs come first. On her death-bed she confessed how, as a child she had firmly believed Jake should have married her.

As I remember Jake, he is almost bald, his nose scarred by pock marks acquired during his childhood in Odessa - or was it already Kishinev? In a family portrait taken shortly after they arrived on Ellis Island, he’s an earnest ten year old looking out at the world over big feet. Father and sons drove milk wagons, then set up small candy stores. In the family album, Jake is more slender than when I knew him, but shows the steadfast Ukrainian kindness that was so different from Rose’s somber Bela Russian ethos.

Jake provided generously for his family with a bar-restaurant in old Philadelphia. He watched over the roast beef, kosher sausages and sauerkraut, stuffing bagels with lox, or darting out from behind the cash register to help a waiter, without losing a beat or a smile. From time to time, he downed a small glass of Bourbon, and at all times, he put up with Rose. (Rose held sway over the communicating bar, and rare was the client who crossed her!) I was taken to this place of exotic delights for an ice cream after my tonsillectomy; but for the child who continued to see in her dreams the round face, white beanie and blinding headlight of the surgeon, it was its charms were overshadowed by the resigned gait of horses drawing the city’s last wagons.

Divorce was rare, and hence dramatic. But the strident sounds of my mother’s family were aggravated by political tensions. For Rose and Jake, who had escaped the Russian pogroms, America was everything, while May’s subscription to the left-wing New Masses caused the FBI to ransack her bookcase on behalf of the House un-American Activities Committee. This did not deter her from taking me to a rally for Roosevelt’s Vice-Presidential nominee Henry Wallace, during the 1940 election campaign. Distributing leaflets in the great hall, I was part of a reassuring wave whose vibrations would recur at other, similar moments.

The seeds of those emotions had been sown a few months earlier, on the summer evening that marked the end of my childhood. We were sitting on the cement stairs beside Jake’s house which, as in many Philadelphia neighborhoods, led to a wide back driveway that served as playground and access to the basement and garage. The sky had an eerie greenish hue as the day ended. With a heavy step, Jake came out of the house where he had been listening to the news. I can still hear the unfamiliar tone of his voice, low and grave, as he said: "There will be war.” I now realize that he was probably reacting to the French debacle of June, 1940, and wondered how there could be war when we had such a great president. Roosevelt's energetic, smiling portrait sat on the side table next to Jake’s chair, and Rose spoke of him with emphatic reverence.

Tensions with Rose eventually escalated to the point where May and I went to live with May’s sister Rachel and her husband Walter, who allowed us to occupy the two-rooms and bath on the third floor of their new house. Rachel taught me to wash dishes to perfection, ensuring that I never forgot - and creating a life-long conviction that there were more important things to do. One day I would have a husband who put dirty pot lids back in the closet, and couldn’t believe this was happening to me. Husbands would be a recurring theme in my life, as would less formal relationships, but my children and the wider world were ultimately what counted most.

Between first and sixth grade, May and I moved several times between Rose’s and Rachel’s. I went in and out of the same schools, left and found again the same friends according to the needs of the two high-strung women who alternated as my caretakers. I had inherited the Oxman family’s myopia, and by the time I was seven it was ‘galloping’. To limit reading outside of school and avoid electric light, I was ordered to bed as soon as I had finished the dishes, with only the radio to keep me company in the dark. Notwithstanding three years of this regime, I accumulated five degrees of myopia, a good astigmatism and a slight strabismus which some people later found attractive. But also, an ability to be alone, and hence to reflect.

For my seventh birthday, instead of the bicycle I wanted, I was given a piano; luckily, with hands unusually big for a girl, practicing was almost never a chore. On Sunday morning, after serving pancakes, Jake would settle in his armchair to listen. During the periods of my life with piano and those without, I would remember how he praised my light touch. Another solitary pursuit was a puzzle of South America: seeing how its eastern coast seemed to nestle into the western coast of Africa, it occurred to me that the two continents might once have been joined. But in a family where learning was revered, no particular attention was paid to my intelligence.

When May got a new job visiting soldiers' dependents all over the state, leaving me at the mercy of the Oxman women’s temper. I insisted on moving to the home of my paternal grand-parents Regina and Morris, where I had spent happy weekends and holidays. Rose’s door was always bolted; Regina’s I discovered, was always open, and a few blocks away, her sisters always seemed to be talking about, making, or serving pastries.

Life at Regina’s was also centered on the making and enjoying of food. The oven was located next to, rather than beneath the burners, a precursor of the wall oven whose advent was probably delayed by the war. It was often lit, especially on Fridays, when Regina made bread and pastry. The ivory-painted metal table in the middle of the kitchen was transformed into a work surface by folding back the ironed-thin tablecloth, and lunch was taken on the covered part during a suddenly decreed  halt. (Regina probably had a pre-diabetic sugar curve, as I do, since she died of diabetes.) I watched her freckled, wrinkled hands, sunburned from working in her small garden, knead bread, pour marble cake, shape apple strudel, and layer my favorite noodles with apricot jam - too many tasks for her to teach me these skills! I did however help my grandfather Morris fill out the arrears cards for his low-income insurance clients on the round mahogany dining-room table, and perhaps this suggested that numbers and letters counted more than flour and eggs.

3.Morris and Regina

[Morris and Regina]

Right after their wedding, in 1902, Morris had decided that his bride would make the 500 mile trip from Eastern Hungary to Trieste by train, while he hitchhiked to elude Emperor Franz-Joseph’s recruiters. The trip from the town with the almost unpronounceable name of Nyreghasza, to the Mediterranean port which is now in Italy, took Regina through the capital of what was still the Dual Monarchy, and this was the only time she saw Budapest. When I finally walked in her steps, I regretted that the only thing she remembered of that journey was being “oh so seasick”.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Foreign Language Difficulties

One of the most interesting things you will hear if you listen to foreign English-language newscasts is the description of efforts to ‘promote cooperation between nations’.

Just last night I heard it on NHK, the Japanese English language channel.  The policy is routinely expressed by Russia and China, and one can attribute it to a holdover from Communism in the former. (During the Cold War, such declarations were brushed off as ‘propaganda’. Now it turns out that with or without ‘communism’, most countries, whose leaders grew up under the ethos of the United Nations think it is a good idea.)

Tellingly, neither the BBC nor France 24 voice such aspirations, which, more importantly, are absent from American channels.

Perhaps I’m being persnickety, but I can’t help but draw attention to this significant difference in publicly-stated official outlook: there are the one-worldists - and thank goodness they are rising - who believe that nations should prefer cooperation to confrontation - or better said - who believe that cooperation deters confrontation; and what one could call ‘The Atlanticists’ who project an entirely different ethos: ‘The U.S. is the best, and all should live according to its diktats.’

Americans have traditionally lacked mastery in foreign languages, but it would be more important for Washington, following the example of Japan, to learn to speak the language of cooperation between nations of differing ideological or religious persuasions, than to acquire fluency in Spanish or Chinese.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Who's a Terrorist, What's a Terrorist?

In 2012, the most over-worked words in the American vocabulary were ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’.  But the meaning of the words has become distorted beyond recognition.

Legislation adopted by various government agencies since 9/11 shows that the ‘war on terror’ is not about territory or resources, but about ideology, More precisely it is about the fear that activists could turn a significant portion of the American population against the system of winner-take-all capitalism.

Section 802 of the Patriot Act signed into law by President Bush in 2006 was expanded on October 26, 2011 by President Obama to include domestic as opposed to international terrorism. A person engages in domestic terrorism if, within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, he/she commits an act "dangerous to human life", (...) that “appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping’.

The FBI definition also includes the words ‘to intimidate or coerce a government in furtherance of political or social objectives’. And the latest Homeland Security definition refers to any “act that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive to critical infrastructure or key resources ... intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

If the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack can rightly be called terrorists, groups and individuals whose aspirations and beliefs conflict with those of official America cannot. Yet in the most widely reported example, the deliberately non-violent Occupy movement has been infiltrated, pepper sprayed, clubbed and jailed. At the start of the new year we learned that an August 2011 memo from the F.B.I.’s New York field office describes how its personnel discussed “the planned Anarchist protest titled ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ scheduled for September 17, 2011” with New York Stock Exchange officials. In the United States, ‘terrorist’ is equated with ‘anarchist’.

Though Americans have relatively short historical recall, this coupling harks back to two early twentieth century events: the political assassination that led to the First World War, and the conviction for murder of two Italian immigrants in the 1920‘s widely believed to have been motivated by the men’s anarchist beliefs.

The 1920’s also saw a bloody Jewish campaign to free Mandate Palestine from British rule, carried out by the Haganah and the Irgun. The latter’s motto ‘only thus’ was inscribed beneath a hand holding a rifle against a map of mandatory Palestine, openly suggesting that force was the only way to "liberate the homeland".

This campaign was echoed by underground movements that thwarted German occupations during the Second World War. As in the case of the Jewish militias, the organizations involved were not called terrorists, but ‘paramilitary’ organizations.

Undeterred by logic, the current government of Israel, along with the United States, Canada, the European Union, Turkey and Japan, calls Hamas a terrorist organization, while the Arab nations, Iran, Russia, Norway, Switzerland, the United Nations and most Latin American countries  do not.

America’s fear of outsiders and foreign ideologies did not begin with the 9/11 attack, nor even with the Cold War against Communism. Declaration of Independence states that “...when a long train of abuses and usurpations, ....evinces a design to reduce (men) under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.’ Fear that citizens could attempt to change the United States’ form of government followed almost immediately upon its adoption.

Two decades later, in the 1790s , the United States was on the brink of war with France and the government feared that aliens living in the United States would aid the French side. Congress easily passed four laws, known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts, that raised the residency requirements for citizenship from 5 to 14 years, and permitted the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of aliens during wartime. The Seditions Act made it a crime for American citizens to "print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing" about the Government.

After the attack of 9/11, fear of subversion gave rise to legislation that not only makes a mockery of the Declaration of Independence, but, in the tradition of the Aliens and Seditions Act directly contradicts the judicial guarantees of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Constitution. Confronted with non-state actors with worldwide ambitions, the age-old American fear of foreigners metastasized: Both Bush and Obama cast aside the centuries’ old tradition of British common law known as Habeas Corpus, which protects citizens from unjust imprisonment.

Every American President takes an oath to defend the Constitution, yet the government is now free to read personal emails, listen to our phone conversations, train cameras on us in the street or eavesdrop on public transportation. The mere voicing of dissent qualifies as terrorism and can land any citizen in jail without charge or hearing for the rest of his life. In a typical slight of hand, the increasingly interchangeable use of the term “extremist” - which originally applies to political views - and “terrorist” fosters public acquiescence of these measures in the name of si-called ‘national security’.

In 2011 on New Year’s Eve, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the government to detain Americans without criminal charge or trial. This year, and again on the eve of the New Year, Obama renewed for five years the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the government to keep people locked up for as long as it wants without providing any evidence of wrong-doing, and to assassinate American citizens without trial.

Thus has the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ been transformed into the land of the fearful and the home of the meek.