Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Peretz by Ruth R. Wisse


I.L.Peretz (b 1852) dominated Jewish literary life in Warsaw almost from the moment he settled there until his death on the fifth day of Passover, April 3, 1915, his influence radiating outward from the Polish capital to growing centers of Jewish settlement worldwide. . . .

Once the premise of Jewish election was exposed to the beysmedresh, the study house of European culture, many disillusioned youngsters turned their intelligence against the way of life to which it had been consecrated, and tried to liberate themselves simultaneously from an onerous code of behavior and from a despised people. The political handicap of the Jews meant that intellectual realignment with Christian civilization –which was in  any case itself turning secular – also became the key to tangible social and economic temptation.


Peretz  understood the temptation. In his own native city  of Zamosc, along with genuine Jewish reformers, there were converts and highly assimilated Jews, like the well-to do father of Rosa Luxemburg. When Rosa, almost twenty years Peretz’s junior, helped to found the Social Democratic Party of Poland, she advertised her lack of interest in Jews through a Marxist program strenuously opposed to Jewish peoplehood, and to any notion of a Jewish national culture. Peretz was later to write about  ‘the paths that led away from Jewishness,” which attracted those who wanted to revolutionize society as well as those who aspired to rise in it.


Through out the 1890s  Peretz was involved with socialist politics. His stories and publications were credited with bringing many young Jews into the ranks of the emerging socialist movement . . .but, despite his wholehearted sympathy for the oppressed, Peretz was not satisfied by the ideological prescriptions for the reordering of society. No sooner did the Jewish political parties begin to crystallize and to turn their vague protests and aspirations into fixed party platforms than he rebelled against their materialist constraints, and in the dialectical pattern that characterized both his life and work, came to the rescue of the threatened spiritual values. Attracted as he was by some of the egalitarian and liberal aspirations of socialism, he feared that the systematic reapportionment of wealth would stifle individuality and encroach on the freedom of the creative spirit. The rule of the many could become even more oppressive than the rule of the few. He wrote to the movement after the abortive revolution of 1905 had shown the strength of the revolutionary cadres:

I worry that as victors you may become the bureaucracy, apportioning to each his morsel as to inmates in a poor house, allotting work like a sentence of hard labor. You will destroy that creator of new worlds- the human spirit. You will plug up the purest well of human happiness – initiative- the force that is able to pit a single human life against thousands. You will mechanize life .  .  . you will be occupied with regulations . . .no stomach will be empty, yet the mind will be famished.


These fears were sharpened by his concern for the creative vitality of the Jews, because if human needs could be satisfied through the redistribution of wealth alone, why shouldn’t  a  speed up the process by dissolving his particular identity? Peretz was far from persuaded by the necessity of class conflict, and unwilling to assist in the dissolution of the Jews towards any such higher end. In 1899 he was arrested and briefly imprisoned for anti-tsarist activity, but at the very moment when he was enshrined as a political martyr, he used some of his time in prison to write neoromantic tales extolling the glories of the Jewish spirit. And despite the swell of criticism that they aroused among some of the younger revolutionaries, these modern folktales and retold Hasidic stories became his most popular works.


Hasidic tales were nothing new. The inspirational religious leaders of what came to be known as the Hasidic movement had used the miracle tale and the exemplum to inspire faith and piety in their followers, who, in turn, traded stories about the virtues and miracles of their respective rebbes and zaddikim. Thus, as Hasidism swept Poland in the late eighteenth century, it generated a vast fund of legends and music. But a century later these same Hasidim and their charismatic leaders had come to represent for the modernizing Jews the embodiment of everything most corrupt and reactionary in Jewish life. Reformist writers, including  Peretz himself, had mocked the corruption that was known to infect the courts of the rabbis and the attribution to these faith healers of supernatural powers. In fact, in his political essays and news columns Peretz never ceased to criticize the Hasidim for their fundamentalist beliefs and their resistance to change.


Now, however, along with this critical view, Peretz was among the first to recognize in the ideals of the early Hasidic masters, and in the web of legends that had been spun about them, models of spiritual independence that the Jews of his time were otherwise lacking. All around him in Warsaw and in Poland he observed the pace of linguistic adaptation ton Russian and Polish at the expense of Yiddish and Hebrew, the flight of the young to America – or to Palestine or Argentina – and the recklessness with which a new generation was quitting what centuries of Jewish civilization had so painstakingly, and at such sacrifice accumulated. Like an engineer who has tried to stoke a recalcitrant engine, only to see it hurtling down an incline out of control, Peretz tried to retard it, then at least to warn against its runaway abandon.


Despite a superficial similarity to their Hasidic sources, Peretz’s stories present the familiar material from a modern perspective. “If Not Higher,” one of the earliest and perhaps the most famous of the neo-Hasidic stories, is told by a skeptical Jew from Lithuania who is so eager to disprove local legends about the rabbi Of Nemirov that he hides under his bed to check things out for himself. The rabbi’s Hasidic followers believe that when he disappears every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper, he ascends to heaven  to plead on their behalf with God. The skeptical sleuth discovers that the rabbi is assuming the disguise of a woodcutter in order to perform anonymous acts of charity. He becomes the rabbi’s disciple, and thereafter, if anyone speaks of the holy man’s ascent to heaven, he softly adds, “if not higher.”


If faith in the Jewish God was no longer possible, Peretz expected Jews to continue to honor the exalted moral tradition that derived from faith. Somewhat like the Lithuanian in the story, he tracked the faithful, persuaded that their human values were on the one hand superior to the religious impulse that had shaped them, yet on the other hand superior to values that could be arrived at through reason alone. The pointed conclusion to the story attributes a “higher value” to earthly goodness than to its heavenly inspiration, but without repudiating the power of that inspiration. Peretz had come to the paradoxical conclusion that in order to improve the material lot of the Jews he would have to continue to nurture their spiritual-religious heritage. 



The passion for folklore was already highly developed in Poland, where it also served as a kind of substitute for national autonomy. In addition to nostalgia for folk culture that was characteristic of every industrializing society, subject minorities like the Poles of the Jews could use their folk sources to express the will to national resurgence.  Inspired by the work of Polish ethnographers  (some of whom appreciated the Jewish component of Polish lore), Peretz determined to gather every kind of Jewish folk expression and to instill in his followers an appreciation of their native culture. When aspiring writers came to see him with the first samples of their work, he would question them about their background, ask them to sing the songs and tell the stories of their homes, encourage them to collect all they could. In this way he accumulated material for his own writing and directed them to where Jewish inspiration might be found. .  .  .





Monday, May 22, 2017

The Reach of Our Mercy by James Forman Jr.



Marijuana decriminalization is an important victory. Sandra Dozier, who lost her job at FedEx when she was arrested after a pretext (‘stop and frisk’) traffic stop with $20 worth of marijuana in her glove compartment, can attest to why it matters. So can thousands of others. But the victory is also a cautionary tale about the limits of recent criminal justice reform efforts.

First, as a percentage of our nation’s incarcerated population, those possessing small amounts of marijuana barely register. For every ten thousand people behind bars in America, only six are there because of marijuana possession. A greater concern is that criminal justice reformers increasingly separation “non-violent drug offenders”  including those convicted of marijuana possession- from “violent criminals.”* In this view, nonviolent drug offenders are worthy of compassion and a chance to redeem themselves; violent offenders, by contrast, deserve what they get.

During his second term President Barack Obama became the most prominent proponent of what we might call nonviolent-offenders. In 2015, Obama outlined his final criminal justice reform agenda in a widely anticipated speech to the NAACP’s annual convention. He divided the world of criminal defendants into two groups. First, there are the nonviolent drug offenders, whose incarceration, the president said, is the real reason our prison population is so high.” Obama argued that the current system punishes these offenders too severely: “If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. But you don’t owe twenty years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”

Obama contrasted the nonviolent offenders with another group: “violent criminals,” who, he said, “need to be in jail.” Who are these people? “Murders, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug kingpins – we need some of those folks behind bars.” In the press conference the next day, explaining why his efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentences was limited to “nonviolent drug offenses,” Obama remarked, “I tend not to have a lot of sympathy when it comes to violent crime.”


Obama’s choice to limit criminal justice reform to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders is a common one among elected officials – including African-American elected officials. At the federal level, black members of the House of Representatives rallied around the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, whose stated goal was to reduce mandatory minimums for certain low-level drug offenders while “ensuring that serious violent felons do not get out early.” At the state and local level, African American prosecutors such as California’s Kamala Harris, Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby, and Philadelphia’s Seth Williams all built reform around nonviolent criminals. Defenders of this approach to reform are sometimes silent about who is being left opt. Other times they enlist violent offenders as a bogeyman, suggesting that leniency for nonviolent offenders will create space to lock up the violent ones for longer. As Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio said, “Our current system severely punishes nonviolent offenders while granting violent criminals freedom and unfettered opportunities to menace our communities.” The nonviolent-offenders-only perspective is understandable, and broadly popular. But basing criminal justice reform on leniency for nonviolent drug offenders reinforces a deeply problematic narrative.

First, consider the numbers. America’s incarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenders are unprecedented and morally outrageous, but they are not “the real reason our prison population is so high.” Roughly 20 percent of America’s  prisoners are in prison on drug charges. As a result, even if we decided today to unlock the prison door of every single American behind bars on a drug offense, tomorrow morning we’d wake up to a country that still had the world’s largest prison population.

And to be clear, when advocates speak of “non-violent drug offenders” they are not talking about all, or even most, of the five hundred thousand incarcerated on drug offenses. As we saw in chapter 5, the drug trade –especially during the crack era- was extraordinarily violent. Some of the people involved had no connection to violence, but it wasn’t easy –pacifists didn’t survive for long. In arguing for mercy and compassion for nonviolent drug offenders, and only for them, advocates are pursuing an approach that excludes not just the majority of offenders, but even a majority of incarcerated drug offenders.


The narrow scope of this style of reform was confirmed b the Department of Justice’s 2014 clemency initiative. Attorney General Eric Holder** made headlines when he announced that the Justice Department would consider recommending that the president commute some of the extraordinary long sentences given to people convicted of drug crimes, mostly from the late 1980s and 1990s. Holder’s initiative was welcome news –the sentences it would target were indeed much too long, and because crack offenses were penalized more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, African Americans suffered the most. But the guidelines were quite restricted. Eligibility was limited to federal prisoners who had already served 10 years, had no significant criminal history, were ‘nonviolent low-level” offenders, and had “no history of violence prior to  or during their current term of imprisonment.” In excluding anybody with a history of violence, the Justice Department rendered most federal prisoners ineligible for clemency.

Defenders of the non-violent-offenders-only approach suggest that it is just a start. Reform must begin with nonviolent offenders, they say, but others might benefit later. President Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarret, suggested as much when, in 2016, she told NPR, “if we can begin with nonviolent  drug offenders, it’s an important first step. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t come back if research indicated that we should tailor other parts of our judicial system. But let’s start with where we have consensus and move forward and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”


I am sympathetic to this perspective – and not only because of the political realities Jarret cites. I have described mass incarceration as the result of a series of small decisions, made over time, by a disparate group of actors ( and driven by popular demand in white and African-American communities). If that is correct, mass incarceration will likely have to be undone in the same way. So it makes sense for advocates to start with the least culpable or threatening individuals.


But criminal justice reform’s first step could easily become its last. To see how, look no further than the president’s own language. When Obama declared that he has “no sympathy” or “no tolerance”: for those who have committed violent offenses, he effectively marked this larger group of violent offenders as permanently out-of-bounds. Such talk draws no distinction and admits no exceptions. It allows for no individual consideration of the violent offense. The context, the story, the mitigating factors- none of it matters. Any act of violence in your past casts you as undeserving forever.

Obama should have understood the flaw in this approach. He frequently cited The Wire, David Simon’s account of the crack years in Baltimore, as one of his favorite television shows, and in 2015 he invited Simon to the White House to discuss criminal justice issues. But The Wire would seem an odd choice for a president espousing the nonviolent-offenders-only approach to reform. Other than Bubbles the heroin addict, none of the show’s main characters would have been eligible for clemency under the Department of Justices guidelines. Yet despite the show’s rampant violence, most viewers, including apparently Obama himself, don’t think of the show as being primarily about a bunch of ruthless thugs. Why not? Because their violent acts are not the only thing we know about them. We know them fully, as people, not just by their charge sheets or criminal records. Obama said as much, telling Simon, “But part of the challenge of criminal justice reform is going to be making sure, number one, that we humanize what so often on the local news is just a bunch of shadowy characters, and tell their stories. And that’s where you’re the work you’ve done has been so important.”

Just so. And other defenders of the nonviolent-offenders- only approach would do well to remember the point.  People who have committed a violent offense make up 53 percent of the nation’s state prisoners and of those, more are incarcerated for robbery than any other. But the labeling “violent offender,” tossed out to describe a shadowy group for whom we are supposed to have no sympathy, encourages us to overlook their individual stories. It encourages us to separate those other people – the ones who did something violent, the ones who belong in cages – from the rest of us. It leads us, as Bryan Anderson has written , to define people by the worse thing they have ever done. *** And it ensures that we will never get close to resolving the human rights crisis that is 2.2 million Americans behind bars.







* this was a distinction rarely made  during the height of the anti-drug crusade in D.C.  City officials, Police and journalists had similar views, as Juan Williams wrote in the Washington Post, they saw the drug trade’s occupation of public space as a form of violence in itself. Dealers and users were seen as directly responsible for crimes like murder, rape, robbery and felonious assault. Jessie Jackson equated drug dealers with Klansman- “No one has the right to kill our children”- besides calling them traitors to their race. The distinction was practically unthinkable in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

**As  U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Holder initiated Operation Ceasefire which stopped cars, searched cars and seized guns- the motor equivalent of ‘Stop and Frisk.” Any pretext was sufficient to  stop and search cars. About  1 out of twenty to 1 out of 100 hundred stop and searches (not conducted in predominantly white neighborhoods and rarely in affluent black neighborhoods) found guns, but lots of people ended up getting bust for possession of drugs, and other offices.  Operation Ceasefire sent plenty of poor blacks to jail and ruined their chances for work but didn’t reduce gun violence in D.C.

***Byron Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Enlightenment Goes East by Ruth Von Bernuth


Introduction

Let me begin with a Chelm story I heard from the eminent scholar of Old Yiddish Chava Turniansky. She tells of visiting Communist Poland in 1984 with a number of other Israeli scholars. Their route took them through Chelm, a city of around sixty thousand today. Chelm lies in the far eastern part of the modern Polish State, near the Ukrainian border. The Israeli scholars, like so many other Jews intimately familiar with tales of the “wise men” of Chelm, were excited to find themselves in a place of such Jewish cultural renown. When they spotted a kiosk open for business and selling this and that, they all rushed over to it, hoping to find something identifiably local to bring home.

No sooner had the Israelis lined up in front of the little store than growing numbers of Chelmites began converging on the spot, lining up behind the visitors, certain that some rarely available commodity had become available. This was logical enough, because that is what a long line always means in the Eastern Bloc. The discovery that the visitors were queuing up for nothing more useful than random local objects was likely not just disappointing but bewildering, since in non-Jewish Polish culture, Chelm as a town of fools is unknown. The “wise men” have yet to be celebrated of exploited in postwar Chelm.


This incident symbolizes the vey different meaning that Chelm has for Poles and for Jews. Among Catholic Poles, Chelm is known as a Marian pilgrimage site, while among Jews, it has played the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence since the end of the nineteenth century. The tales of its so-called wise men, a sprawling repertoire of stories about the intellectual limitations of the perennially foolish residents of this venerable Jewish town, have come to constitute the best-known folktale tradition of eastern European Jewry.


What accounts for the singular Jewish association of Chelm with folly? The question has been asked before, and answered this way: When God created the world, he sent out an angel with a bag of foolish souls and orders to distribute them evenly all over the world – one fool per town. But the bag tore, and all the foolish souls spilled out on the same spot. These souls built a settlement where they landed, and that settlement became the town known as Chelm.

This version of events may have an age-old appearance, but it is not to be found before 1917. Moreover, there is no documented association between the Jews of Chelm, and foolishness before Ayzik Metyer Dik’s  1972 Yiddish novel  Di orkhim fun Duratshesok (‘The Visitors in Foolstown’). Nor is there any mention of the “Fools of Chelm” before 1873. When that phrase does make its debut it is not in a Jewish source but in Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander’s dictionary of German expressions. However, the culturally and linguistically convoluted roots of the Chelm Yiddish folktale repertoire stretch back far past the nineteenth century to, at least, the late Middle Ages.  Most importantly, the core stories of Chelm are not original to Chelm. They derive from an early modern German source, the famous Schildburgerbuch of 1598. . . .

This book analyzes the connections between the German and Yiddish traditions and, in doing so, challenges previous assumptions that the tales were simply transferred from the German via an Old Yiddish translation to Modern Yiddish. It demonstrates the long process of exchange between German and Yiddish literatures, from late medieval popular novels through Enlightenment texts down to ethnographic  writings of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century It shows  early modern literature exerting a lasting effect on later modern literary production.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

In 1789, the German man of letters Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813) published in his influential literary journal Der Tetsche Merker (The German Mercury) an article containing his contribution to the endlessly discussed question of the moment, “What is  Enlightenment?” According to him, the answer “is known to everyone who, having eyes to see, has learned to recognize the difference between light and dark, day and night.”

Wieland goes on to explain that light is a metaphor for the light of reason, which helps distinguish between “true and false, good and evil.” Thus, the author warns of “anyone who wants to give us black for white, or wants to pay with counterfeit money, or wants to conjure up ghosts, or (though this is very innocent in itself) whoever likes to follow whims, build castles in the air, or takes trips to the land of Cockaigne or the Happy Islands.” His parenthetical concession, that irrationality “is very innocent itself,” contradicts everything else he says here and offers a broad hint of subversive intent. That his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” is meant as a parody of the simplistic and hackneyed answers of the period becomes clear from one word that he uses in his title, or rather from one word that he does not use but decorously represents with an ellipsis ; Ein paar Goldkorner aus-Makulatur oder Sechs Antworten auf sechs Fragen” ( A couple of gold nuggets from the . . . paper, or six answers to six questions). .  . the contents of this article came to him when he spotted ‘six questions about the Enlightenment” on a piece of printer’s waste, a print shop’s discarded wastes or remainders, often repurposed as toilet paper- which his  faux scruples prevent him spelling out. It is as if he were saying, in the roundabout manner of the day, that the outhouse is where many of the far too many pamphlets on the nature of Enlightenment belong. It is also as if he were saying that the thoughts he is about to express on the subject might well belong there as well.

The fiction with which Wieland frames his book does not mean that he is entirely opposed to the Enlightenment. On the contrary, he is among the leading figures of the movement, to which he made a, substantial contributions as author, translator, and editor of a leading journal. But Wieland is a self-critical thinker who, by setting the action of “A couple of Gold Nuggets” in a restroom, transforms it into an ambiguous essay in which the Enlightenment is simultaneously celebrated and criticized. Given this sensibility, it is not surprising that Wieland, like many other writers of the Enlightenment, was interested in the German Schildburgerbuch, another book that is full of ambiguity vis-à-vis wisdom and folly, reason and unreason, seriousness and laughter.


[Folly can only exist in relation to its opposite, or, as Foucault concluded, folly and reason enter a “perpetually reversible relationship which implies that all madness- folie – has its own reason by which it is judged and mastered, and reason has its madness in which it finds its own derisory truth.”]

The German Enlightenment made considerable use of  the Schildburgerbuch. Wieland’s own History of the Abderites  can be understood as a reworked Schildburgerbuch. ‘Abderite’ is a synonym for fool. Abdera was a real place, a city in ancient Thrace, whose inhabitants are single out in some classical Greek and Latin sources for their folly. . .


The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites share a similar concept of folly. In both, foolishness is a matter of faulty reasoning leading to wrong conclusions as to how to solve problems. “The Abderites never lacked ideas.” Wieland says, “but rarely were their ideas suited to the situation to which they were applied, a fact that did not occur to them until the occasion was past.” The Schildburgers are the same: if they do finally see sense, it will be too late – although “too late” is a concept they have trouble grasping, as evident in the story of townsfolk who fell some trees on a hill and cart them down in wagons. Told that it would have been easier to roll the logs downhill, they cart them back up the hill so they can properly roll them down.


In addition, the Schildburgers and Wieland’s Abderites share the fallacy that performing well in one field predicts excellent performance in another. Thus, the Schildburgers elect the swineherd as mayor because he, or his wife, can keep a rhyme going longer than any of the other candidates. Almost identically, the Abderites elect the best singer in town as their Nomophylax (guardian of the laws).

The narrators of both the Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites are “unreliable narrators”, providing readers with conflicting information, deceiving them, and sometimes addressing them as if they had a long-standing acquaintance. All this is done with a disorientating effect, so the reader is frequently forced to wonder which parts of the text are meant as true and which as false, which are meant to make sense and which nonsense, who is wise and who foolish.

Both authors also use the narrator to create confusion about their sources. The narrator of the Schildburgerbuch first claims that he is transmitting an oral account, then complains about the wormholes in the manuscript source, while Wieland’s narrator apologizes for being unable to provide all the details of the controversy over Democritus’s disputed insanity “because the records of the entire case were long ago devoured by mice.”


The History of the Abderites not only parallels the account in the Schildburgerbuch of the decline and fall of the city. It also exactly parallels the consequence of the fall of the city  as described in the Schildburgerbuch, with the departure and dispersal of the town’s foolish inhabitants and the resulting spread of folly throughout the world. The Schildburgerbuch ends with the warning that folly can be transmitted by heredity or contagion. Wieland’s “Key to the History of the Abderites” concludes by asserting that “the History of the Abderites  can . . justly be regarded as one of the truest and most reliable mirrors, and, just for that reason, a faithful one, in which moderns can look at their countenance and, if they only wish to be honest with themselves, can discover in what respect they resemble their ancestors” ( i.e., the Abderites)


The mirror, which lets people see who they are, as a first step towards wisdom, is a metaphor that Sebastian Brant famously used in his Ship of Fools, a book that he referred o as a Narrenspiegel, a fool’s mirror. The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites both see folly as a part of human nature. And they see wisdom, therefore, as something “unnatural”,  something to be achieved and something requiring continuous attention to maintain. This sentiment is summed up in the quotation from Horace that concludes the “Key to the History of the Abderites: Sapienta prima est stultitia caruissee, the beginning of wisdom is to have eschewed folly.


The mirror is one of the principal symbols used in the texts and images of early modern foolish culture. It is found, for example, on the façade of the town hall in Nordlingen, held up to the observers in the sculpture of a fool, which bears the caption, “That makes two of us”. As Brant and the author of the Schildburgerbuch and Wieland believe, the boundaries between Schildburghers or Abderites and the inhabitants of “normal “ towns, and between the fools in the text and the reader of the books, is fuzzy.

The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites agree that wisdom is a treasure that needs careful preservation. Wieland modernizes the discourse on folly, and he also introduces a new type of person in his narrative: the exceptional individual who seems to possess just the right degree of self-awareness, for example, Democritus and Hippocrates. They are characterized as authentic ages, or “cosmopolitans” as Wieland calls them, creating with the History of the Abderites a new concept of cosmopolitanism in European discourse. The cosmopolitans belong to an ancient order to which Wieland devotes an entire chapter in the second book of the History of the Abderites. This invisible society is so secretive that hardly anything is known about it except that, though its members have neither a constitution, nor symbols, nor solemn rites, they maintain a stronger solidarity among themselves than any other order or fraternity in the world. Cosmopolitans are citizens of the world who recognize one another regardless of differing ethnic or religious backgrounds. Their main aim is to promote “the perfection of the whole.” This idea of the cosmopolitan surrounded by a foolish world proves so appealing to the aficionados of the Jewish Enlightenment that they identify with it strongly and adopt Abdera as their model foolish society that, as we shall see, finally evolves into Chelm.

Wieland’s book was read in Germany as a parody of the mentality of small-town Germany in general, but it was widely believed, too, to be a parody of one or another town in particular, despite the author’s denial. The maskilim, however, found it all too easy to identify with the persecuted philosopher Democritus and to identify  the persecuting Abderites  with the narrow-minded small-town Jewish communities of eastern Europe: the dogmatic community rabbis, irrational Hasidic rebbes and their credulous followers, and even differently enlightened maskilic rivals. This is the background against which the first tales of the wise men of Chelm emerge.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Is there anything to discuss? by Frank Ramsey



Science, history, and politics are not suited for discussion except by experts. Others are simply in the position of requiring more information, and, till they have acquired all available information, cannot do anything but accept on authority the opinions of those better qualified. Then there is philosophy; this, too, has become too technical for the layman. Besides this disadvantage, the conclusion of the greatest modern philosopher is that there is no such subject as philosophy; that it is an activity, not a doctrine; and that instead of answering questions, it aims merely at curing headaches. It might be thought that, apart from this technical philosophy whose center is logic, there was a sort of popular philosophy which dealt with such subjects as the relation of man to nature, and the meaning of morality. But any attempt to treat such subjects seriously reduces them to questions either of science or of technical philosophy, or results more immediately in perceiving them to be nonsensical . . .


I think we rarely, if ever discuss fundamental psychological questions, but far more often simply compare our several experiences, which is not a form of discussing. I think we realize too little how often our arguments are of the form: - A: “I went to Grantchester this afternoon.” B: Not I didn’t.” Another thing we often do is to discuss what sort of people or behavior we feel admiration for or are ashamed of. E.g. when we discuss constancy of affection it consists in A saying he would feel guilty if he weren’t constant, B saying he wouldn’t feel guilty in the least. But that, although a pleasant way of passing the time, is not discussing anything what ever, but simply comparing notes.


Genuine psychology, on the other hand, is a science of which most of us know far too little for it to become us to venture an opinion.


Lastly, there is aesthetics, including literature. This always excites us far more than anything else; but we really don’t discuss it much. Our arguments are so feeble; we are still at the stage of “What drives fat oxen must himself be fat”, and have very little to say about the psychological problems of which aesthetics really consists, e.g. why certain combinations of colors gives us such peculiar feelings. What we really like doing is again to compare our experience; a practice which in this case is peculiarly profitable because the critic can point out things to other people to which, if they attend, they will obtain feelings which they value which the failed to observe otherwise. We do not and cannot discuss whether one work of art is better than another; we merely compare the feeling it gives.


I conclude that there is really nothing to discuss; and this conclusion corresponds to a feeling  I have about ordinary conversation also. It is a relatively new phenomena which has arisen from two causes which have operated gradually through the nineteenth century. One is the advance of science, the other the decay of religion, which have resulted in all the old general questions as becoming either technical or ridiculous. This process in the development of civilization we have each of us have to repeat in ourselves. I, for instance, came up as a freshman enjoying conversation and argument more than anything else in the world; but I have gradually come to regard it as of less and less  importance, because there never seems to be anything to talk about except shop and people’s private lives, neither of which is suited for general conversation .  .  .

If I was to write a Weltanschauung I should call it not “What I believe” but “What I feel.” This is connected with Wittgenstein’s view that philosophy does not give us beliefs, but merely relieves feelings of intellectual discomfort. Also, if I were to quarrel with Russell’s lecture [ What I believe], it would not be with what he believed but the indications it gave us as to what he felt. Not that one can really quarrel with a man’s feelings; one can only have different feelings oneself, and perhaps also regard one’s  own as more admirable or more conducive to a happy life. From this point of view, that it is a matter not of fact but of feeling, I shall conclude by some remarks on things in general, or as I would rather say, not things but life in general.


Where I seem to differ from my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be larger, but they cannot think of love; and these are qualities which impress me more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone(238 lbs.).


My picture of the world is drawn in perspective and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as three-penny bits. I don’t believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; by that is still a long time off still and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn’t. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one’s activities.


Quoted from The Foundation of Mathematics in  Essays in Biography by John Maynard Keynes, Palgrave/ Macmillan, 2010. First published 28 February 1925

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Rhetoric and the Constitution of Social Relations by Michael Herzfeld



The core of social poetics [generally: ‘the creative presentation of the individual self’] is to treat essentialism as a social strategy. This deliberately reverses the goal of most essentializing, which is to turn happenstance into the permanent and the inevitable.  .  . [with respect to the analysis of social poetics] the concept of rhetoric, in particular, conjures up a hostof misunderstandings. Its use implies that there is a clear demarcation between the rhetorical and the real: figurative devices are in some ontological sense less real than literal language. Yet we can see that this is misleading, especially from the perspective of social context. The notion of literality is a truth claim; it is made in order to persuade. It is itself rhetorical. Literality is a claim to represent – indeed, to be – the unmediated truth.

The success of literalizing strategies is all around us, resulting in a devaluation of the very phenomena that makes it possible: rhetoric. Calling another’s performance rhetorical is a denial of its truthfulness. As such, it carries a strongly pejorative moral tone- further evidence of its strategic character (and its capacity to essentialize an implicit reality) if we still need to be convinced. In ordinary usage, the term implies pretension, bombast, even deliberate dishonesty. As a result, the social sciences have generally treated rhetoric as epiphenomenal to a real world to which it blocks access. Yet the the consequent refusal to take rhetoric seriously is symptomatic of precisely what rhetoric does best: it backgrounds its own rhetoricity. Thus, all claims that social science should be free of rhetoric, that it should make modesty its watchword, may be as rhetorical and immodest as anything they oppose. They suffer from the ultimate  epistemological self-deception, the illusion of pure, direct, unmediated knowledge.

A social poetics treats all social interaction, not only as employing rhetoric, but also as rhetorical in its own right. That verbal rhetoric plays an important part in channeling and shaping social relations has long been recognized. But I want to argue something more radical: that the entirety of social interaction – not just the linguistic and quasi-linguistic aspects – is rhetorical.

[Rhetoric is the agency of all social relations- termed by the author ‘ poetics’; as the ‘literal’ ‘unmediated truth’ is simply another rhetorical strategy)

The issue is not usefully approached through some new subfield of ‘the anthropology of rhetoric” First, that label still carries heavily  verbocentric assumptions. Second, rhetoric is not an inert, cultural phenomena, but the source of social continuity and change in all areas of social life. Third, and consequently, it is important not to separate rhetoric from the material world to which, as a causative agent, it belongs. A rhetorical perspective on social life can plausibly be claimed as more attentive to the traditional concerns of materialists with causation than approaches that insist on (literalistically) separating physical objects and economic relations from expressive forms.

Thus, I prefer the term “social poetics”. The very name poetics conjures up an automatic series of misunderstandings,. These, I suggest, can somewhat mischievously be turned to analytic advantages. A reviewer for the New York Times Review of Books, noting a sudden vogue for the term poetics in the titles of works in the social sciences (including my own The Poetics of Manhood), was moved to observe that, while this development was no doubt well and good in its own way, social life was full of nastiness as well, so that we should not insist on its ‘poetry to the exclusion of all else:

The passion for poetics sounds like a welcoming of feelings, especially irrational ones – something therapists have taught us to desire . . . We want analytic books about our lives to be romantic, sensitive, soulful. We should like to live with a poet’s license,. While there is no harm in this, we do have to be careful. As Roland Barthes said, it is not enough to misname things in order to poeticize them.                   [Broyard 1986:15]

Indeed not. But Broyard did just that, by confusing the technical category of poetics with a romantic version of poetry – the best-known realization of poetic principles, perhaps, but by no means the only one.

Such condescending reactions, moreover, cultivate and exploit popular positivism, which would assume that anything redolent of “poetry” must be ultimately trivial or at least epiphenomenal. But that is an ignorance stance. Poetics, a term derived from the Greek word for action (poieo), is an analytic approach to the uses of rhetorical form. It is not a romantic term at all, nor is its usefulness restricted to language (and even then it is not confined to verse). The ease with which a distinguished literary critic fell (or jumped) into the semantic trap of confusing poetics with poetry nevertheless serves an extremely useful purpose here: it suggests the evasiveness of the phenomena itself. What I am describing ass the poetics of social life has an extraordinary capacity to recede from our awareness. Skilled social performers are not necessarily dramatic or even particularly impressive; on the contrary, some of the most effective performances are among the least  palpable. The evocation of a grand model  works best when it is not considered too obvious, except, of course in cultures where dramatic self-presentation  is normatively inflected with an unambiguously high moral tone.

Poetics means action, and restoring that etymological awareness would also more effectively integrate the study of language into an understanding of the role of rhetoric in shaping and creating social relations.

Cultural Intimacy; Social Poetics and the Real Life of States, Societies, and Institutions by Michael Herzfeld, Routledge, Third Edition, 2016






Monday, May 1, 2017

Tolerance Discourse by Wendy Brown



In the modern West, a liberal discourse of tolerance distinguishes “free” societies from “fundamentalist” ones, the “civilized” from the “barbaric,” and the individualized from the organicist or collectivized. These pairs are not synonymous, are not governed precisely the same way by tolerance discourse, and do not call up precisely the same response from that discourse. Yet, they do assist in each other’s constitution and in the constitution of the West  and its Other. Whenever one pair of terms is present, it works metonymically to imply the others, in part because these pairs are popularly  considered to have an organic association with one another in the world. Thus the production and valorization of the sovereign individual are understood as critical in keeping barbarism at bay, just as fundamentalism is understood as a breeding ground of barbarism, and individuality is what fundamentalism is presumed to attenuate if not deny. But there is a consequential ruse in the association of liberal autonomy, tolerance, secularism, and civilization on the one hand, and the association of group identity, fundamentalism, and barbarism on the other. This chapter seeks to track the operations of that ruse.

Tolerance as a political practice is always conferred by the dominant, it is always a certain expression of domination even as it offers protection or incorporation to the less powerful, and tolerance as an individual virtue has an asymmetrical structure. The ethical bearing of tolerance is high-minded, while the object of such high-mindedness is inevitably figured as something more lowly. Even as the outlandish, wrong-headed, or literal outlaw is licensed or suffered through tolerance, the voice in which tolerance is proffered contrasts starkly with the qualities attributed to its object. The pronouncement  “I am a tolerant man” conjures seemliness, propriety, forbearance, magnanimity, cosmopolitanism, universality, and the large view, while those for whom tolerance is required take their shape as improper, indecorous, urgent, narrow, particular, and often ungenerous  or at least lacking in perspective. Liberals who philosophize about tolerance almost always write about coping with what they cannot imagine themselves to be; they identify with the aristocrat holding his nose in the agora, not with the stench.

Historically, and philosophically, tolerance is rarely argued for as an entitlement, a right, or a naturally egalitarian good in the ways that liberty generally is. Rather, one pleads for tolerance as an incorporative practice that promises to keep the peace through such incorporation. And so the subterranean yearning for tolerance –for a universally practiced moderation that does not exist, a humanity so civilized that it would not require the virtue of tolerance –sits uneasily with the normative aspect of tolerance that reaffirms the characterological superiority of the tolerant over the tolerated.

Attention to the rhetorical aspects of tolerance suggests that it is not simply asymmetrical across lines of power but carries caste, class, and civilizational airs with it in its work. The dual function of civilizational discourse, marking in general what counts as “civilized” and conferring superiority on the West, produces tolerance itself in two distinct, if intersecting, power functions: as part of what defines the superiority of Western civilization, and as that which marks certain non-Western practices or regimes as intolerable. Together, these operations of tolerance discourse in a civilizational frame legitimize liberal polities’ illiberal treatments of selected practices, peoples, and states. They sanction illiberal aggression towards what is marked as intolerable without tarring the ‘civilized’ status of the aggressor.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Nazi World Theory by Waldemar Gurian


One of the most amazing instances of human self-deception –which, unfortunately, are all too frequent – is that there are    hundreds of thousands of thousands of unsuspecting Christians who after reading his book, Mein Kampf, are somehow able to consider Adolf Hitler as a well-wisher or even, due allowance being made for error in matters  of detail, as a firm adherent, of the Christian faith. No one in Germany would dare to make a public and impartial inquiry into the religious content of his work, of which  millions of copies have been distributed throughout the country, accompanied by the most intensive official publicity – the work which Ministerprasident Goring, speaking at Breslau as recently as October 26th, 1935, designated as “the fundamental document” of National Socialism. Consequently, controversial religious literature in Germany, no matter whether it emanates from the Christian or the neo-pagan camp, invariably presents a distorted picture of the “Fuhrer’s” attitude towards Christianity. Since the key to the policy of the N.S.D.A.P. [National Socialist Labor Party] in cultural and ecclesiastical affairs, and that of the State which is in its power, is to be found only in his book, the official exposition of the Nationalist party program, we have no option but to investigate the fundamental religious views set forth in this Bible of the Third Reich.*


We shall begin by discussing passages which are relatively frank, for without them it is impossible  to grasp the true meaning of those which are cited as nauseam by the Christians as proof of the Fuhrer’s good will, but where, in fact, he is not sincere.

Our first quotation, Fromm Part II (Ch.5), which deals with the National Socialist  Weltanschauug (world theory) and the organization, seems to us to be more enlightening than any other.

A world theory is intolerant and is not content with being one Party amongst a number of other Parties; it insists on exclusive and persistent recognition of itself and on an absolutely new conception of the whole public life in accordance with its views. Thus it cannot tolerate continuance of a force representing former conditions.
It is the same with religions.
Christianity was not content with merely erecting its own altar; it was forced to proceed to destroy the alters of the heathen. Such fanatical intolerance alone made it possible to build up that adamantine creed; it is an absolutely essential condition of its existence.

The objection may well be made that most of these phenomena of world history are productions of a specifically Jewish mentality, that this kind of intolerance and fanaticism is the very embodiment of the Jewish character. This may well be so, and we may deeply deplore the fact and with an all too justifiable misgiving determine its appearance in the history of mankind as something that had been foreign to it hitherto – but this makes no difference to the fact that this is the condition of things today. The men who want to rescue our German people from its present condition have not to worry about how nice it would be if such and such a thing did not exist, but they must try to make up their minds how the actual state of affairs can be done away with. A world theory animated by devilish intolerance can be broken only by a new conception impelled by a similar spirit and fought for with an equally strong will, but a conception that is pure and sincere.

The individual may realize with pain that with the appearance of Christianity there came into the much freer world of the ancients the first instance of spiritual terrorism. He cannot, however, dispute the fact that thenceforth the world has been oppressed and dominated by this force, and that force is broken only by force, and terrorism by terrorism. Only by building up on thee methods can a new condition of affairs be brought about.

What is the difference between “world theory” and “religion” according  to Hitler?  He has been very careful not to give a direct answer to the question in his book, but were his hints to be formulated into a definition it would read as follows: A world theory claims to say everything essential that there is to be said about this life on earth and from a practical standpoint to totally govern it; a religious belief, on the other hand, is an aggregate of dogmas concerning the world to come, which  “helps to raise man above the level of animal existence” and thus “contributors to the solidification and the safe-guarding of his existence,” but it has nothing to say about earthly matters any more more than a political, “this-world” movement ought to interfere with its “other-world” theory, provided its keeps within its proper bounds. This is what is meant by: “Political parties ought to have nothing to do with religious problems, as long as they are not undermining the morals of the race; in the same way religion should not be mixed up with Party intrigues.”

Hitler considers that this duty of keeping religion and world theory separate is especially incumbent on a people that is religiously divided (i.e,. divided as to its creeds) as the German. Wherefore, by reason of its super-sensitiveness in matter of belief , every temptation to mix world theory with religion must be resisted

Even when it is inspired with the idea of promoting the higher interests of the national community. For religious feeling is still more deeply seated than any political or national expediency. And this condition will not be altered by driving the two creeds into bitter warfare against each other, but it could be altered if by mutual conciliation the nation were given a future whose greatness would gradually have a pacificatory effect in this sphere.


What is it then, that will bring about a state of affairs in which religious feeling will no longer be so deeply seated as the people’s welfare, as Hitler understands it? A great national future, the foundation for which , according to Hitler himself and the National Socialists who have played a part in public affairs, has already been laid.

The most overwhelming proof of this was afforded on the last occasion when our people was summoned before he judgment-seat of history to fight a life-and-death struggle for existence. As long as there was leadership the people did its duty in the most impressive manner. Both Protestant  pastor and Catholic priest helped enormously to sustain our powers of resistance which held out for so long, not only at the Front but also, even more, at home. During those years, and especially at the first blazer-up, for both camps there was only one Holy German Empire, for whose preservation and continued existence each man besought his own particular Heaven.

 To repeat the pithy formula uttered by Kerrl ( Reich Minister for Church Affairs) on October 16th, 1935  in Berlin: 
Religion has nothing to do with practical affairs in this life” and, since it threatens to split the Germans into various denominations, it must be thrust into the background by great national, unifying experiences. This is Hitler’s opinion expressed in his book, according to which he has no intention of declaring war on the Church, but, on the contrary, is doing his level best to whistle off those of his followers who favor over-drastic measures and want to emulate the escapades of a Dinter or a  General Ludendorff**, which do not good to his cause from a propagandists point of view.

“A political leader must never meddle with the religious doctrines and institutions . . .any other attitude would lead to catastrophe, especially in Germany.”

Hitler foresaw very clearly that nothing would be more dangerous for his movement for people to realize in good time that their faith was being taken away from them or was being gradually being transformed. Consequently he has no desire to take it away or transform it so long as it confines itself to the next world, to metaphysical speculation and pious other-worldliness and keep sits hands off the world. But should it follow in the steps of John the Baptist and refuse to connive at wrong as though it were right,. Should not be content to be an emotional religiosity of “pure inwardness” or a “dogmatic faith”, of some abstract pseudo –orthodoxy, then Hitler has nothing severe enough to say about the the abuser of religion for political purposes.

“At all periods of history there have been unscrupulous rogues who have used religion to further their political ends, and it was nearly always politics and politics only which was the motive.” But, continues the experience propagandist, no more ghastly error could be committed than to attack the creed itself (“which these cunning foxes know perfectly well has nothing to do with politics”) and thus enable scheming hypocrites to play the role of defenders of the faith.




*I.e. the National Socialist  State. The first Reich, or Empire, lasted from the ninth century till 1806, the second was established by Bismarck (1871-1918).

** a pagan worshiper of the Nordic god Wotan (Odin); he detested not only Judaism, but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.
 Dinter's goals were not so much political as overridingly religious. In 1927 he founded the Geistchristliche Religionsgemeinschaft ("Spiritual Christian Religion Community")


Hitler and the Christians by  Waldemar Gurian; Sheed &Ward, London, 1936

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Rap-e Farsi by Nahid Siamdoust




By the time this new generation of underground rappers came of age, a few years into the new millennium, the world was a whole different place from the one in which Iran’s first post-revolutionary generation of alternative and underground musicians (mostly rock and fusion artists) had grown up. The youth of Iran’s Third Generation ( nasl-e sevvom) came of age entirely during the Islamic Republic, with no memory of the revolution and little or no memory of the war. For most of them, the worst years of repression were over by the time they hit their later teens. Their consciousness was born with the election of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997, whose policies allowed for greater cultural and intellectual freedom and tolerance. Despite serious pushback by hard-liners – in the form of renegade groups within the Intelligence Ministry, carrying out the “Chain Murders” of intellectuals and journalists or basijis meting out violence to students in the 1999 Tehran University protests- Khatami’s policies continued to allow for greater openness in the public and cultural spheres. Concurrent with the Khatami government’s policies of greater freedoms, two important factors affected the lives and worldviews of this particular generation.


The first of these was the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing Manichaean proclamation by George W. Bush to the world, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” putting Iran into a vulnerable position. Over the following years, as  the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, anti-Islamic and anti-Iranian rhetoric was prevalent in Western politics and media, and no Iranian could be oblivious to it. With images of death and destruction pouring in from neighboring countries, and their own country under the threat of attack by the US, Iranian youth were forced to define their positions vis-a-vis this new world order. As reflected in their cultural productions, this younger generation was less reactionary against the state and patriotic themes pervaded its rap songs.


The other crucial development during the early years of the new millennium was an increase in access to the Internet and its transnational system.  Defiance against the international order combined with openness to global influences. Music, especially hip-hop and rap, became a “vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking local identities all over the world.” The Internet, not-with-standing the often vicious cat and mouse game of government control and censorship ( Iran has one of the world’s toughest), became a means by which Iranians were able to communicate political and social sentiments in a shared ‘semi-secret’ public sphere [to make a long story short!] Furthermore, no one can now accurately estimate  the number of satellite  dishes in Iran today. Underground workshops are kept busy replacing those that are confiscated by the government, and  new channels originating inside and outside Iran keep proliferating. Blue-tooth  technology also serves to circumvent government restrictions to spread live-events, music and audio clips.  Recognizing the limits of its abilities to control the situation, the government itself provides programming and on-line downloading  sites run in semi-official ways that satisfy consumer demands without too often raising the ire of the more conservative elements of society.

Hence, the Third Generation  has found itself under a magnifying glass, not only because it constitutes a large proportion of Iran’s population, but also because its  its cultural productions have entered into the households and families of at least half of all Iranians. Some call them “Satan-Worshippers” but even some conservatives take a more measured view. A report commissioned by the Islamic Revolution Document Center titled “ The Islamic Revolution and the Confrontation with the Third Generation” first quotes the most revered Shia Imam Ali on young people, saying: “Don’t constrict your children in your ways and customs; they have been created for a different time than yours.” The report expressed confidence that this generation would support the continuation of the Islamic revolution in their own way, mostly through aesthetics and art, that it has a critical soul and is committed to Iranian culture and  traditions, to religion and morality.

In an address to students at Amir Kabir University on 27 February, 2001 Supreme Leader Khamenei derided “ the enemy’s claims that the Third Generation is no longer committed to the ideas of the revolution. . . "Seeking justice will never become old; seeking freedom and independence will never become old; fighting foreign interference will never become old; these are values that will always appeal to the generations.”

But such positive remarks did not eliminate government censure of the rap genre, As it turned out,  however, Iranian culture, with its strong poetic heritage, has accommodated this new word-centric music well and has been embraced and Iranianized in a way that rock music still has not. ‘People understand its language and stories . . . since its base is among the common people  with common language.’( wrote musicologist Arvin Sedaqatkish).  Repressive measures by the government just helped make it more popular with young people.

There is a lot of writing on Rap-e Farsi, with a number of academics taking part in seminars and publishing papers on ‘underground’  music. Observers overlap in their view that rap’s most pertinent quality within the Iranian sphere is its capacity for divulging ‘the truth’ or criticism. One writes that “Persian rap is a form of social commentary and empowerment through self-expression . . .an act of retaliation against authority and prejudice,’ and others agree. Its popularity with youth is attributed to directness , openness and capacity to allow for biographical storytelling as a means of protest and critique.


Neither do rappers need formal training. Rap doesn’t cost much and is easy to produce and share its main feature. It’s more open to women than any other musical genre in Iran.


Soroush Lashkary’s artist name, Hichkas, means ‘no one’ in Persian. In earlier interviews he said he chose the name to ‘create a contrast between the name that I want to have with my words.” In later interviews, once he was well known, he said that he chose the name because it signifies the humility of the luti (neighborhood enforcer – javanmard in the old days) and the importance of remaining down to earth.


Prior to the population explosion of Tehran in the 1960s and 70s, there existed a sort of public sphere within each neighborhood and district, where people knew each other and the neighborhood lutis were prominent. In its best modern embodiment, the luti is an exemplary, chivalrous man of neighborhood or regional repute who agitates for justice, often in a gang with other such lutis, whose social ethic is centered on selflessness and who possesses the quality of a man, referring to his courage, honor, modesty, humility and rectitude. A lutis social capital and power is of course entirely dependent on his recognition by others, especially other lutis, as bearing those qualities and their subservience to him. In  the context of this structure , Lashkary portrays himself at the top luti within Rap-e Farsi, reaching back into Iranian tradition and drawing on an old ethic based on notions of honor for the construction of a public persona.


First, like the lutis of earlier times, Hichkas claims the streets for himself and his gang, whom he variously refers to as bachchehha or bax (an abbreviation  denoting ‘children’ or ‘guys’ in English) or ‘a bunch of soldiers.’ This claiming of the streets gains even more meaning within the context of the Islamic Republic, wherein the government claims to control the street.  Second, Hichkas follows the code’s great emphasis on the quest for justice. Hichkas presents this preoccupation both in his songs –often protesting unjust conditions- and in his barely veiled political comments in interviews and public appearances, where he says, “We are against oppression in general, wherever it appears; whether it comes from my mother or anywhere else, opposing oppression is a priority.” Third, as contained in the etymology of the word itself, the javanmardi value sytem is based on ideas of mardanegi (manliness), which in turn are ultimately built on notions of honor. This aspect of the old value system or ethic expresses itself in Hichkas’s work though an emphasis on the pride he feels in his Iranianness, i.e. modern-day nationalism. That same idea of honor (namus) or pride in one’s country also extends to other entities that are under a man’s protection, such as his wife, family and reputation. Hichkas  confirmed  this in the response he gave when I asked him why he cared so much about Iran’s honor. He responded, “I don’t know. It’s kind of like gheyrat.” ( a term that connotes a combination of zeal and honor-based jealousy). As gender studies scholar Afsaneh Najmabadi has explained, historically, in Iran, namus was closely linked to the maleness of nation and the femaleness of homeland and was constituted as subject to male possession and protection in both domains; gender honor and national honor intimately informed each other. Hence, Hichkas’s discourse of protecting the nation’s honor allows- heteronormatively- for the performance of masculinity among a wide segment of disenfranchised young men who this form an entity – a ‘bunch of soldiers’- to rival the might of the state.

Borrowing the recent form of rap diction yet integrating Persian instruments, Hichkas blends macho elements of the Iranian javanmardi ethic with those integral to American rap culture, creating a unique sound that resonates with his mainly young, male, Internet-savvy, and globally aware listeners from mostly traditional family backgrounds. With sabers on their belts, Hichkas’s gang is proud to live and die Iranian and is prepared to take up arms if there is war. Again, Hichkas offers an alternative gang to other organized groups within Iranian society: one based on religion, namely the tekkiyehs (spaces, often private, that are clubs for religious commemoration), and others based on the might of the state, namely the Revolutionary  Guard or its associates, the basij, from whom his ‘gang’ is to be distinguished not by lack of religious faith but by a relatively permissive lifestyle.

 Thus Hichkas’s  posture of fearlessness is compelling in an environment where Iranians are subject to the austere ethics of  an authoritarian government. They assert their subjectivity and defend their honor vis a vis a state that directly and indirectly humiliates them through its adverse economic  and socially restrictive policies.


An important aspect of the javanmardi ethic is the Robin-Hoodesque drive to seek justice and remedy inequalities; the luti acts as an arbiter within the public realm where other instances and institutions, such as the family or the state, fail. The real or perceived increase in inequality and disparity among people is a much discussed subject in daily conversation in Iran, and is often pointed to as the most potent sign of failure of the Islamic revolution. To decry disparity within the Islamic Republic is to be inherently critical of the state, which has claimed since its beginning as to be based on a revolution that ‘belonged to the disinherited’ and the barefooted’ and promised large-scale redistribution of income and wealth. Thus the themes in Hichkas’s music resonated across the broad base and he became widely known after the release of Inja Teghran-e (This here is Iran) in 2006.


In other songs, Hichkas takes the position of the  thug who is the victim of the lawlessness of the streets. A ‘harmless hoodlum’ whose words are nothing but posture, necessary for survival. He presents a world in which the police and the constitution mean nothing and the protagonist must fend for himself, giving agency to the individual lat, not unlike the traditional neighborhood javanmard who must take matters of justice into his own hands.


 Until his departure from Iran in earlty 2010, Hichkas’s work never contained direct criticism of the government, critiquing social ills and injustice instead. Then, following the post 2009 election unrest, the government cracked down on social and artistic spaces, detaining dozens of journalists, activists, artists, and prominent persons who expressed sympathy for the Green Uprising. Hichkas says that he was deeply affected by the events of that summer and fall, but waited with his artistic response until he had planned his departure. “A Good Day Will Come” was released after he  left the country. He still did not directly criticize the state’s handling of internal affairs but points to its failures by elaborating on the blood that was shed and the dire circumstances of the country.  He ends his images of bloodshed on a hopeful note and in traditional phrases familiar to Iranians, seeking God’s help and a mother’s prayers:

After all this rain of blood
Finally, a rainbow will emerge
The sky won’t appear cloudy from all the stones
The water in the aqueducts won’t turn red like tulips
Muezzin, call to prayer
God is great, harm be far
Mom, tonight, pray for us.

Even outside of Iran, Hichkas has refrained from making explicit political statements against the government. It is likely that this has more to do with his views about ‘keeping Iran’s flag raised’ than out of caution for his own safety in case her should return. I last met him in the summer of 2014 in London, and he was hard at work on his new album, Mojaz (Permitted), due out in 2016. He joked to me, “This title means that we give ourselves permission to produced whatever music we want.” By 2016, Lashkary had still not returned to Iran. Despite his original intentions, the tumultuous 2009 Green Uprising and its political consequences seems to have shattered his plans for now. Indeed, the political, social and cultural repression following 2009 ruptured the futures of not just Lashkary but many other young Iranians, including civil society activists, students, artists and musicians who emigrated from Iran. Although the unrest led to the scattering of many lives, the Green Uprising presented a unifying force of a kind that was unprecedented since 1979 and within which music played a crucial role.







Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Evolving Forms of Poetic Protest by Nahid Siamdoust



Poetry has long played an important role in the Persian language for expressing critique and discontent of a social or political nature. However, until the modern period, this kind of poetry was mostly confined to the unofficial or more informal spheres. The classical poet Omar Khayyam openly criticized the hypocrisy of the clerics and preachers a millennium ago, as did Hafez three hundred years later, but the recorded history of Persian poetry suggests that there was little by way of critical poetry between the giants of almost a thousand years ago and the “awakened” poets of the early twentieth century.

A revealing and much repeated anecdote says that the nineteenth- century Qajar chief minister Amir Kabir – often referred to as ‘Iran’s first reformer’- severely admonished the court’s poet laureate, Habib Allah Qa’ani, after the poet recited a panegyric qasida in the minister’s honor. Recent authors speculate that Amir Kabir  grew angry because he could not tolerate the hypocrisy of the court poet, who had previously written  a dozen qasidas  disparaging the Minister as cruel and unjust. This incident is taken  as heralding an early turning point in ‘the long and eventful project of poetic modernity in Iranian culture’ but it would be several more decades before the first generation of socially aware or politically critical and freedom-seeking poetry appeared in the works of writers like Ali Akbar Sheyda, Malek –Sho’ara Bahar, and Abollqasem  Aref Qazvin, some of the most enduring Iranian songs of all time were written by these poets or originated in their works.

We do have other, older anecdotes about socially or politically conscious or critical rhyme in informal communications, Edward Scott Wearing’s 1807 A Tour to Sheeraz recounts some ‘popular ‘ poems. Later in that century, in his Year Among the Persians, the famous orientalist E.G. Browne also remarks on the currency of ‘popular’ lyrics that Iranians recite or sing during their leisure and work, which reflect on their current social and political conditions, but states that “their authors are not known and prefer to remain anonymous.”* Abdollah Mostofi, a prominent man of politics whose memoirs are considered an indispensable guide to the social history of the end of the Qajar period and the first three decades of the Pahlavi era, records several such lyrics, among them a song of protest over Naser al-Din Shah’s pilgrimage to Karbala in Iran’s years of famine.

Still, these “popular/folk” (mardomi) lyrics were never recorded as part of Iran’s cultural heritage or body of literature, as happened with folk culture in much of the rest of the world, in part because they were usually short and short-lived, their authors unknown, and print and recording technology were either non-existent or much more limited than they are today. And more generally, historically, traditional popular music –mardomi, ruhowzi, or motrebi music – was disparaged and excoriated because of the perceived low class of its performers and its content, context, and consumers.

During the years of  Iran’ Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), the number of these spontaneous mardomi rhymes incorporating social and political critique multiplied. The Mashruteh, as the Constitutional Revolution is called in Persian, was the culmination of  the people’s movement to put an end to the Qajar dynasty’s tyrannical rule and reckless mismanagement of the country, as well as foreign  domination. Following widespread protests, the king was forced to sign Iran’s first constitution- and indeed, the first constitution in the Middle East – in 1906. In the absence of mass or broadcast media, which today facilitate the existence of a public sphere, these mardoni songs were used to relay news about events as well as people’s sentiments about those events.

Around this time, works of formal poetry also turned political. As calls for a constitution gained momentum, several prominent and often politically active poets lent their voices to this nascent movement. Their poetry is full of talk of freedom. In fact, that is when the enunciation of the word freedom (azadi) in a way synonymous with notions of Western democracy emerged for the first time. Also around the time –spurred on by several nineteenth-century intellectuals  ( e.g. the anti-imperialist  Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī), the modern notion of a nation-state was cultivated in the Islamic context.

At the turn of the twentieth century poetic protest  in Iran took on a musical form and became more widespread, thanks to the forums of salons, concerts and, later, gramophone technology. The poet and singer Aref Qazvini is often recognized as the one who lent form to the short, rhythmic tasnif:   turning ‘effective words combined with expert rhythms’ into  a publishing  and advertising medium for revolutionary beliefs and liberal opinions.

It was also during these years that the public concert, in the form in which we know it today, emerged [there is archeological evidence of concerts in Iran going back @5,000 years]. At first, concerts were held in private homes and gardens, but over the course of the nineteen twenties, musicians began performing in hotels and other halls open to the public via ticket sales. The public performance of music transformed it into a socially and politically significant medium through which people shared Ideas and showed political allegiance to certain attitudes. This was unprecedented, as Aref himself relates in his memoir: “at the time when I started composing tasnifs and made national a patriotic songs, people thought songs were meant to be made for the courtesans or “Babri Khan,’ (the cat of the long-reigning Qajar ruler Naser al-Din Shah).

It was not until several years after the 1921 coup d’etat against the last Qajar government by Reza Khan that relative stability allowed for trade and technology to begin flourishing again and the gramophone became more affordable and widespread, around 1925.  Indeed, the scarcities of 1906-1915 and the absence of any recording technology  or mass communications infrastructure seems to have contributed even further to the importance and popularity of concerts. Relative stability also allowed for the establishment of cultural institutions and schools and so the early nineteen twenties were a sort of golden era of the concert, with frequent performances in the salons of Tehran’s Grand Hotel and other newly established venues. In his memoirs, the music historian Khaleqi describes the impact of a concert:

It was enough for Aref to perform a song about social conditions of the time in one or two places, and it would travel from mouth to mouth and reach everyone, it would even travel from town to town.

Inspired by the example of Turkey, the new ruler initially planned to establish a Republic. Aref, the era’s most political musician, was elated over Reza Khan’s plans but as early as 1923, when an adolescent Khaleqi attended an Aref concert, the new ruler had already started to curtail free political talk, and Khaleqi’s father told him, “Don’t forget Aref’s tasnifs, you may never hear their like again… his tongue may be tied.”

Khaleqi later wrote about his concert experience:

At that time I still didn’t fully grasp the real reasons behind the power of the song-maker. But I understood this much: that the majority of audience had a hidden secret in their hearts, and without revealing it, when the would see others of the same mind, with one look alone, would share that secret. That same secret that wasn’t expressed in front of strangers, but in burning hearts lit a luminous fire.
 
As the political page turned, Aref chose silence; he spent the rest of his life in the Moradbek Valley of Hamedan in solitude and misery.

Following Reza Shah’s take-ober in 1925, the new modernizing state devised policies base on a utilitarian attitude towards music. The political  tasnif receded into the background as the state promoted the patriotic sorud – a combination of march, hymn, and anthem that was often taught in schools and expressed pride in one’s country, history and flag.. The state regarded Iran’s traditional music as backward and neglected it in its official institutions. Instead, it promoted the Western musical canon and provided means for teaching Western music and musical instruments in schools. When Iran launched radio in April  1940 the first programs offered a preponderance of European music, in combination with news , talk and Iranian music The folksier, popular motrebi and kichen-bazari music was still offered by bands that performed at weddings and other private occasions and later in cafes, restaurants, and eventually cabarets. But immense repression- especial y in the nineteen- thirties –suppressed all open and even lightly disguised social or political critique in songs.

After the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941 more attention was given to Iranian music by the Music Bureau and the Higher Academy of Music and on the radio. During the 40s a kind of performance art called pish-pardeh-khani (‘before-scene performance, short political pieces) became significant for airing critique. This genre consisted of skits between acts, and combined song and play to express social and political criticism- mostly directed at the misdoings of Allied occupying forces and the negative impact of foreign influence. Musically, these sentiments culminated in the era’s most lasting patriotic song Ey Iran, which to this day remains Iran’s de facto national anthem, though never the official one. It was inspired by its author’s witness of the maltreatment of Iranian civilians by English soldiers on the streets in 1944. In a country where history has long been told through a prism that pits people and the state against one another, this song is able to override this binary and express a patriotic love for the land independent of domestic politics.

IN the early 1950s foreign interventions and Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq’s attempted to nationalize Iranian oil created a highly politicized atmosphere; a period that continues to have a significant impact on Iranian’s understanding of their own history and current political predicament  and foreign relations. Surprisingly, the only widely popular song from this period is a heartfelt, passionate ballad titled Mara bebus (Kiss Me), which hardly sounds political at all though those who were privy to the political environment of that era could instantly de-code its meaning.

Although the new Shah’s government made effortys to re-introduce Persian poetry and music to a wider public, little of it was allowed to express political opposition. In the 1960s and 70s radio a television played a growing role in bringing Western cultural productions into Iranian homes. Then, as (ironically) now, an economic and cultural obsession with all things farangi ( foreign, Euro-American) had a tendency to place Western goods, customs, and values above Iranian ones, a trend that fueled growing discontent with the Shah’s regime. As Shajarian- Iran’s foremost traditional singer during the period- remarked: “ Radio and television cared more about taraneh (light rhythmic sons) and the cabaret-type singers, who would last just a couple of years and sing hit songs that were sometimes broadcast seven to eight times in one day! Radio was no longer a place for our music.” None-the-less, by the early 1970s the first ‘mainstream’  political songs expressing themes of grief, poverty and misery began to reappear, couched in metaphors to work around  state censorship. By the mid-seventies there was such a prevalence of sadness in the themes and melodies of popular songs that the Shah complained to his minister of culture and asked for countermeasures to be taken.

Although the soundscape of the time was filling up with songs of a political or oppositional bent, classical Persian music had yet to partake of the spirit. It was criticized for its conservative nature and condemned as being removed from contemporary circumstances, a state of affairs that critics blamed on its practitioners strict adherence to traditional forms. The performances of Ramin Sadighi, Sohrab Mahjdavi and Sharjarian at the 1977 Shiraz Arts Festival transformed the genre, bringing to the fore once again the potential of Persian classical music to express politically and socially critical messages- signaling a return to the spirit of the constitutional era. The resurgence of Persian classical music at that time, as well as its continued popularity to this day, is an expression of the nativism that was part and parcel of the dominant ideals of the revolution of 1979.

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Guided by their  benevolent leader, Iranians were promised a truly Islamic society that would be the exact opposite of the corrupt, Western Pahlavi puppet regime. This new Iran “would be free of want, hunger, unemployment, slums, inequality, illiteracy, crime, alcoholism, prostitution, drugs, nepotism, exploitation, foreign domination, and yes, even bureaucratic red tape. It would be a society based on equality, fraternity, and social justice.” The discrepancy between these lofty promises and the inevitable unfolding of reality has not ceased top offer substance for critique in cultural productions.


In July 1979, the all-powerful new leader Ayatollah Khomeini shared his views on music in a speech to state radio employees:

One of the things that intoxicate the brains of our youth is music. Music causes the human brain, after one listens to it for some time, top become inactive and superficial and one looses seriousness . . . Of course music is a matter that everyone naturally likes, but it takes the human being out of the realm of seriousness and draws him towards uselessness and futility . . . A youth that spends most of his time on music becomes negligent of life issues and serious matters, and becomes addicted –just like someone who becomes addicted to drugs, and a drug addict can no longer be a serious human being who can think about political issues .  .  . Now you must take these issues seriously, and turn away from jokes and light matters .  . . There is no difference between music and opium. Opium brings a sort of apathy and numbness and so does music. If you want your country to be independent, from now on you must transform radio and television into educational instruments – eliminate music.

In the new Islamic Republic, then, music was to be neglected, if not eliminated altogether. Most kinds of music were soon prohibited on radio and television, music schools shut down, and musicians, especially female singers, were badly treated. Soon the new state prohibited the importing of foreign cassette and video tapes and recorders. The state regularly deployed its forces, at the time known as the komiteh or just basij (‘committee’ or ‘volunteers’), to confiscate such equipment from cars and homes, punishing the owners with lashes or fines. In  the first decade of the Islamic Republic, when thousands of young people were falling in the Iran-Iraq war, the only tunes broadcast on state television were marches, patriotic hymns and songs, and religious lamentations (noheh-khani).

But, the permissibility of music in Islam has always been a matter of interpretation, and views have ranged from a total ban to permission for all music and instruments, including dance. Since the ultimate authority inn Islam, the Qur’an, does not mention music explicitly, and the Sunnah – traditions of the practices and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad as recorded through hadiths – offer little clarity on the subject, Muslim  scholars and authorities  have interpreted various verses in the Qur’an according to their own points of view. Most of the Islamic discussion has revolved around three verses where abstention from idle talk is advised, which conservative clerics have interpreted to mean music, espousing the view that music is ‘futile folly’.
However, some of the most important and influential Islamic theoreticians on  music, including Al-Ghazali, Al Frarabi, and Avicenna – all of whom happen to be of Persian origin – viewed music favorably. A major point in Ghazali’s argumentation, which has since been replicated by some authorities in the Islamic Republic, is that the impression that music leaves on the heart “follows the rule of what is in the heart,” meaning in effect that it is the intention of the listener that determines his or her reception of a piece of music.

Despite Khomeini’s harsh pronouncement at the beginning of his reign, his views on music actually turned out to be close to those expressed in Ghazali’s writings.  He followed the line of his close ally Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, as given in a Hamburg mosque almost a decade before the revolution:

“Not all singing is haram, not all instrument-playing is haram; those kinds of singing and instrumental music are haram which draw listeners or the audience in a gathering towards sin .  .  . That is considered law (idle entertainment/play), which makes the human being heedless of God’s remembrance.”


But how is it decided what type of effect a kind of music has? Khomeini’s position manifested itself best shortly after the end of the war when the conservative Ayattollah Mohammad Hassan Qadiri criticized a television series called Dawn’s Autumn for showcasing a female actress whose neck was exposed, and also took exception to the music used in the series. Khomeini responded that if someone feels excited by watching a certain image, he should prevent himself from watching that image , and that the same applied to music. Furthermore, in response to numerous estefta (religious questions) on music, most clerics – including  the current Supreme leader Ali Khamenei- have responded in line with Ghazali and Beheshti. Often clergy have further explained that it is orf – meaning custom or convention- that determines which music distances one from God and which does not.**


It is not practical, however, in an authoritarian political system, to act based on on statements that music’s effects can be judged by the listeners themselves, on the basis of custom or convention, id we are to take the term orf at face value. The state official controls music and does not leave judgment of that music up to the listener. Nor, in the absence of a free public sphere and solely democratically elected bodies, can truly popular customs, conventions, or laws be debated and established. For that matter, nor have the highest of clergy ever unanimously agreed on one custom or convention to apply to all. That is not the job of the ulama, who study a life long in order to lend their own interpretations to the original texts. As for the state and governmental bodies that regulate the production and distribution of music, they too have to make do with these ambiguous edicts, and so the field of music regulation remains a Kafkaesque labyrinth that cause a great deal of frustration and consternation for most artists. This interpretational ambivalence, as well as lack of resolve or action on the part of the country’s highest leaders, has created an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding music in post-revolutionary Iran. Not surprisingly, the most repeated plaintive expression in conversations about music is taklif-e musiqi roshan nist (music is in limbo).



*  Bibliography:

A Literary History of Persia
(1908)
The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909

** I won’t go into the theological/sociological question as to how Muslims could have come to the notion that they are anything but greatly distant from God in the first place, since “God the Father” as Christians and Jews might perceive it was NOT part of the original ‘Islamic hypothesis’.