Saturday, June 26, 2010

Israel's Flourishing Cinema

I have been intrigued by Israeli films at least since seeing Time of Favor, Joseph Cedar's debut film, five or ten years ago. A string of much-acclaimed Israeli films I have not yet seen make me think some sort of movie series may be in order this fall.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman's animated account of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, came out in 2008, garnering high praise for both its form and content.

Last year Samuel Moaz released Lebanon, another account of the 1982 conflict. In spite of critical acclaim, Lebanon has yet to receive widespread release, perhaps because of its controversial depiction of the war. However, it has received plaudits for a variety of reasons, including its powerful portrayal of the main character's (very limited) visual perspective.

Now Scandar Copti (a Palestinian) and Yaron Shani (a Jewish Israeli) bring us Ajami, a drama set in the rival Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

After reading Nigel Andrews' recent review of Ajami, I realized how much I have neglected this corpus of films. Israel is arguably the single most important nation in the modern Middle East, an important and war-torn region. These films address fundamental issues of war, religion and identity, some of the most important in life. That they do so with a high degree of insight and artfulness only heightens my desire for more Israeli cinema in my life.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Property & Leisure: Aristotle vs. Locke

There have been moments in my education when I realize that even though I spent a lot of time on a subject, I really only scratched the surface of the subject. I recently had that experience, while reading Aristotle's Politics, with the subject of property.

Like every other law student in America, I struggled through a pretty complicated course on real property in my first year. After spending a semester learning the basic concepts of property law, such as the different types of estates and co-ownership, as well as restrictions on land use (e.g., zoning and real covenants), I figured that I had a pretty good grasp on the subject. Moreover, most of these concepts are not just taught to first-year law students, but really are essential concepts for many practicing lawyers today. These concepts for the most part fit with certain theories about the nature of property which are shared by most people today and which were announced at the beginning of the course. The theory that guided discussion in my class was John Locke's labor theory of property: "Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property" (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 5, Section 27). Locke's basic idea is that property is something man creates through his labor; what each individual contributes to a thing is what makes it his property.

But, there were times during the course when more archaic, less "enlightened" views of property made an appearance. Those concepts also tended to be the hardest to understand. One such concept was a type of estate called the fee tail (now abolished in most jurisdictions), which placed severe restrictions on which heirs in future generations could inherit the property. The fee tail's purpose was to keep large estates intact and in the family, and was used mostly by the landed classes. (The fee tail was actually the cause of the Bennets' prospective penury in Pride and Prejudice.)

The second archaic doctrine was the rule against perpetuities, which was designed to counteract the dead hand controlling the fates of estates for generations into the future. Though these rules served opposite purposes--the fee tail preserved estates by restricting heirs' ability to sell the land or name his own heirs, while the rule against perpetuities prevented land owners from restricting their heirs' powers too much--they were both evidence of a very different understanding of property. According to this older understanding, property is much more stabile, it is something that pre-exists us, that needs to be preserved by the current generation and then passed onto the next generation--it is not something each man creates anew through his labor.

This older understanding of the nature of property is first attested to, in theoretical form, as far I know, by Aristotle. In a section of the Politics where he discusses the characteristics of a democracy made up mostly of yeoman farmers, Aristotle writes that "owing to [the farmers'] not having much property [οὐσία], they are without leisure [ἄσχολος]" (Bk. VI.2.1; 1318b11), and therefore do not have much time to engage in politics. What I find intriguing--and contrary to so much of what I learned in my course on property--is that Aristotle describes property here not in terms of its origin (as Locke does), but in terms of its purpose, its end [τέλος]. Property is what is capable of making a man self-sufficient thus giving him leisure to devote himself to more important pursuits, such as politics or philosophy.

Locke and Aristotle represent two very different views of property. The fundamental distinction between Locke and Aristotle can be summarized in the distinction between the words "creation" and "trust." In a Lockean world, where property depends on man's creative labor, if man is to have any property, man must be constantly striving to create property and value, which is usually done today through commerce. This encourages, I suspect, a certain restlessness in a man's relation to his property, and perhaps also a certain acquisitiveness. Even if a man is already rich from commerce, he needs to keep trading and manufacturing; he never has anything like a landed estate that he can fall back on. For Aristotle, on the other hand, acquisitiveness (πλεονεξία/pleonexia) is explicitly condemned as a vice. While it is certainly true that a man must cultivate his property in order to attain self-sufficiency, man's labor does not, strictly speaking, create the property's value. The property's value is more like that of a trust, which needs to be protected by a prudent steward. Once the steward (trustee) does this, he can then allow himself some ease and use his leisure to pursue other, more worthy objects.

Finally, just to complicate matters: While I certainly prefer leisure to acquisitiveness, and thus prefer Aristotle to Locke in this matter, that is not the only question to consider when examining different systems of land tenure. For instance, the older system, such as England had in the Middle Ages (with the fee tail and primogeniture), tended to create a class of sons who could not inherit property. In many cases, these sons either left their families to make a living for themselves, or else many chose to stay at home but remain unmarried. It must be acknowledged, then, that each system has its advantages and disadvantages.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mumford & Sons - The Cave

This song - and the accompanying video - by Mumford & Sons first came to my attention when one of my housemates had a kind of binge, playing it over and over. My first comments were of gentle mockery for his obsession, but I have come rather to enjoy it. Was that an allusion to Book XII of the Odyssey (and do I catch some Republic as well) that I heard? In any event, I am keen to see another folk-rock band - making use of banjo, mandolin, dobro and accordion - making a splash.

And if you liked "The Cave," give a listen to "Winter Winds" or "Little Lion Man". (Warning: the chorus of the later does contains language which may not be appropriate for children.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig is an author who is not very well known in America today. Indeed, he is rarely mentioned in discussions of 20th-century literature even in Germany or his native Austria. When his name does come up, it is usually only in connection with his more famous friends. Zweig had many literary friends, such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Yet, less than 100 years ago he was the most widely-translated author in the world. In his own day he was probably the most prominent writer to emerge from fin-de-siècle Vienna, though that honor now goes to another friend of his, Sigmund Freud.

Zweig wrote in a number of genres. As a youth, Zweig began publishing poetry in a Viennese paper with the encouragement of its editor, who became yet another famous friend of his: Theodor Herzl. He also published translations of French poetry, especially that of Baudelaire and Verhaeren. Later in his career, however, Zweig concentrated on prose. His prose style is still noteworthy for its clarity and its pleasant fluidity, though he is now dismissed by some critics (unjustly in my opinion) as a “pedestrian stylist.” His prose work consists mainly of plays, short stories, and novellas, as well as many biographies. Of these biographies, perhaps the best known, and certainly the one Zweig valued the most himself, was that of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Erasmus was something of a patron saint for Zweig. Zweig shared certain characteristics with Erasmus that made his intellectual adoption of Erasmus fitting. Both men were born into turbulent times, indeed into events that were truly epoch-changing in modern history: Erasmus was the famous humanist, author of The Praise of Folly and editor of the Greek New Testament, who died in the midst of the Reformation. Zweig was born into the “golden age of bourgeois security,” which ended with the slaughter of the First World War. Both men, however, refused to take sides in those conflicts. Though Erasmus was widely known for being critical of the Church’s hierarchy, he did not lend his skill to Luther’s cause—but neither did he come out strongly against Luther. Zweig did not join either Austria, his homeland, or France, where he had spent some of his most formative years. Instead, he fled to Switzerland, where he spent the war protesting the carnage and pleading for peace. Zweig’s pacifism led him to enter self-imposed exile once again, twenty years later, after the Anschluss; he fled first to England, and then to Brazil when England joined the war against Hitler. Zweig, following what he saw as Erasmus’ example, stood by his principles, even though that meant standing alone, forgotten by the polemicists and belligerents on both sides.

Unfortunately, Zweig was overly conscious of standing alone, and so—in his autobiography, naturally enough—he set himself upon a pedestal, all alone in his single-minded pursuit of peace. The tone of Zweig’s autobiography (The World of Yesterday) is marred by this self-pity. It should not come as too great a surprise to the reader to find out that in 1942 Zweig (and his second wife) committed suicide.

Despite these flaws, what makes The World of Yesterday an interesting read is that, besides the wealth of historical detail, it gives a glimpse inside the mind of a member of the 20th-century literati who, confronted with the spectacle of the world falling down around his ears, had to wrestle with his most deeply-held prejudices. The inner turmoil evident in the narrative is heightened by two factors. First, the introductory chapter, in which Zweig describes the “golden age of bourgeois security” that developed under the guidance of the Habsburg monarchy, presents an idealized childhood that makes clear to the reader what Zweig will lose later. Second, Zweig had enough historical and philosophical learning to maintain some critical distance from his life and his prejudices—though not enough. The most important prejudice, inculcated in Zweig from his earliest days, was his belief in society’s inevitable material and moral progress.

Ultimately, though, Zweig was not able to overcome this prejudice. At the heart of The World of Yesterday is Zweig's gradual realization that progress is not inevitable. Indeed, after the childhood idyll of the golden age of bourgeois security, this realization begins to dawn in adolescence (to which Zweig devotes a chapter called Eros Matutinus), when Zweig deals with his own psychological problems and those of his classmates. The bloodshed of World War I, of course, shows Zweig that there were obstacles to peace. But even World War I did not spell the end of Zweig’s belief in perpetual progress; after the war, he became a firm believer in the League of Nations. At the same time, though, that he was advocating for international peace in the 1920s, Zweig was immersing himself more deeply in Freud’s psychology, which reinforced his adolescent experience of the fragility of man’s mind. It was only the outbreak of World War II, however, that seems to have shattered his comfortable belief in progress. Zweig apparently committed suicide in order to spare himself any further disillusionment.

In the end, then, Stefan Zweig, despite his achievements and his evident skill as a writer, remains a sad figure in a sad period of history: a victim of progress, and of his own prejudice.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What Hindawi Teaches Us About Security

It is fairly common to hear recent travelers complaining about airport security. Perhaps the most righteous anger is reserved for those screeners who insist on hassling the elderly and pregnant mothers. Let the record show that I care about the elderly and pregnant mothers - I like 'em at least as much as the average American does, maybe even more. But I have had to explain the case of Nezar Hindawi (pictured left) so many times that I am now sharing it with you, dear readers of the blogosphere.

On 17 April 1986, Hindawi, a Jordanian national living in Britain, bid farewell to his pregnant Irish fiancée, Anne Mary Murphy, who was taking an El Al flight from Heathrow to Tel Aviv, with plans to meet his parents before the wedding. Unbeknownst to Miss Murphy, her luggage contained semtex explosives and a calculator functioning as a timer and detonator. Her fiancé was a terrorist working for Syria.

To the casual observer, the Israeli security guards working for El Al were giving this poor pregnant Irish woman rather unnecessary trouble. But Miss Murphy, her unborn child and the flight's other 375 passengers were spared an untimely death that day because of the vigilance of the Israeli security guards.

No doubt our friends at the Transportation Security Agency have their share of incompetent employees, unnecessary procedures and irksome policies. No doubt the airport screening process could be refined. But next time you see someone "who clearly was not a terrorist" being given extra screening, consider holding your tongue. Those annoying screeners just might be saving your life. The key to effective security is not creating politicized procedures that do or do not favor this group or that; effective security is found in consistent application of well thought out policies which take their cues from actual hard evidence, and not hunches or inferences.

And Hindawi, you ask? What happened to him? He was convicted and received 45 years in prison. When he later petitioned for parole, the Lord Chief Justice, who heard the application, explained to him: "Put briefly, this was about as foul and as horrible a crime as could possibly be imagined. It is no thanks to this applicant that his plot did not succeed in destroying 360 or 370 lives in the effort to promote one side of a political dispute by terrorism. In the judgment of this Court the sentence of 45 years' imprisonment was not a day too long. This application is refused."