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Who is America and the Ethics of Going Undercover

Sep14

by: Larry Atkins on September 14th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

Actor Sacha Baron Cohen (image courtesy of Joella Marano)

As a liberal, I’m glad to see Sacha Baron Cohen expose the corruption, hatred, craziness, and racism of many conservative NRA loving politicians and people. For example, Cohen enticed a Republican Georgia state representative, Jason Spencer, to yell the full N-word and pull down his pants to expose his naked butt to try to repel a hypothetical Muslim terrorist. Spencer eventually resigned due to the incident.

At first, I was really excited about the show and urged my fellow liberal friends to watch Cohen’s Showtime program “Who is America?” I thought it was really funny and it showed how dumb, gullible, and scary these conservatives were.

While Cohen’s exposing these true feelings are valuable, his undercover and deceptive techniques are disturbing. Basically, he is engaging in entrapping people to participate in idiotic made up situations and conversations that make them look bad. This is nothing new for Cohen, who has used his various characters, including Borat, Bruno, and Ali G to embarrass and expose people. In his current show, he has duped, among others, Dick Cheney, who gleefully signed a waterboarding kit, several Republican politicians who were duped into talking positively about a made up proposal to arm kindergartners with guns to defend against school shootings, Roy Moore, who tested positive to Cohen’s fake pedophile detector, and several dozen citizens at a town meeting in Kingman, Arizona, who responded to a fake proposed giant mosque in town with angry bigoted responses. While Cohen does target all types of people, his main focus has been on Republicans and conservatives.

There is a long history of using undercover techniques in entertainment, journalism, and advocacy. Past television shows using these techniques include Candid Camera, Undercover Boss, To Catch a Predator, Mystery Diners, Celebrity Undercover, Cheaters, Impractical Jokers, Punk’d, The Real Wedding Crashers, and What Would You Do?

Undercover journalism has a long history. Nellie Bly exposed the horrors of mental hospital institutions in the late 19th century by posing as an insane inmate in an asylum. Many local televisions stations use undercover reporters to expose corruption by government officials and others. This technique can be used as a tool to expose societal ills, but it should be used rarely and carefully. For instance, there was a chilling effect on this type of journalism after the Food Lion v. ABC case, which found ABC liable for trespass and breach of loyalty for having its producers lie on job applications to expose unhealthy practices.

Conservatives have used this technique as well. The most famous incident was when two conservative activists, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and a prostitute to entice ACORN employees to give them illegal tax advice for their made up business of smuggling young women into the United States to work as prostitutes. Their work was published by Breitbart and they became conservative icons to their supporters for exposing a liberal organization, but to their detractors, they brought down an important and valuable organization that engaged in community organizing and voter registration. In subsequent years, O’Keefe tried to engage in sting operations against the Washington Post, a George Soros backed group, CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau, and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.

A few years ago, two pro-life activists, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, released undercover videos accusing Planned Parenthood doctors of selling aborted fetal tissue. The heavily edited videos caused national outrage and led to threats against abortion providers. They filmed 14 people without their consent at meetings with women’s healthcare providers in four cities and published the videos on the website for the Center for Medical Progress. In 2017, they were charged with 15 felonies by California prosecutors.

These undercover sting videos are often cleverly edited in a deceptive manner and don’t show the entire context of what took place.

My own hunch is that people like to see undercover journalism, entertainment, and activism if it confirms their own beliefs and values and exposes others that they dislike or disagree with. They don’t like it and label it as “Gotcha” techniques if it exposes and embarrasses people and organizations that they like. One group’s muckraker or hero can be seen by others as a hack and a charlatan.

Liberals like me were critical of the ACORN sting and other similar deceptive incidents that attacked liberal institutions. While it’s tempting to revel in Sacha Baron Cohen’s exposure of the dark side of conservatives, we shouldn’t encourage the deceptive techniques that he used to get his information, results, and behavior. What goes around comes around. In the future, we’re likely to see more conservative citizen journalists/advocates/provocateurs like James O’Keefe who will set out to entrap and embarrass liberal democrats and organizations through deceptive measures. Will we embrace these undercover efforts as much as we do Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? Probably not.

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Larry Atkins is the author of Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias (Prometheus Books). He teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. Twitter: @larryatkins4

Two Takes on “To Dust”

Aug24

by: on August 24th, 2018 | No Comments »

To Dust

Gesa Rohrig and Matthew Broderick in Shawn Snyder

Two Tikkun summer interns, Hannah Arin and Madison Wilson, recently saw To Dust at the SF Jewish Film Festival and had two different responses.

Hannah Arin:

The Reb Simcha Benuem of Pershyscha carried two slips of paper with him everywhere he went– a slip for each pocket. One which read: “Bishbili nivra ha-olam” — “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “V’anokhi afar v’efer” — “I am but dust and ashes.” Just as the Reb would walk the roads of Poland, one foot after the other, each leg taking its fair stride, each slip taking its turn to step before the other, only to be outpaced by the other soon thereafter, we all, more or less, follow these same footsteps. Not that we all carry these slips in our pockets; not that we all walk through 19th century, Eastern European streets muttering prayers beneath our breath; not that we all are even aware of this paradoxical path upon which we find ourselves walking… But still, despite knowing or not knowing, we cannot escape the dynamics of the world within which come to live and die. Indeed, this world was made for us to live and to love in, and all the same, it will one day be taken from us; whether we go down fighting or in submission to what is beyond our earthly selves. Somehow, this world is entirely for us to experience, yet in some respects, “we” have never been.

To Dust, a black comedy about a Hasidic cantor navigating the grief after the loss of his young wife, gives us a glimpse into better understanding this line– balancing between polarity, making sense of disparity, finding peace in the casualties. And it does so, not by any of its characters marking themselves as exemplary figures upholding the framework of the human experience in their slip filled pockets or their humble steps, or even in its storyline alone. Rather it is the experience of To Dust as a comprehensive whole that gives rise to the precious experience of gaining even the slightest glimmer of insight into something that mostly seems ineffable. It is in the relation between the characters, the cinematography, the dialogue, the humor, the Hasidic prayer, that we find ourselves one step closer to understanding just what it means to be entirely in this world, fully belonging to it, and at the same time, to be visitors, who, in their heart of hearts, truly know that this never has been, nor ever will be our ultimate home.

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By Our Dreams Will You Know Us: Impeachment Edition

Aug23

by: on August 23rd, 2018 | No Comments »

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote the poet Delmore Schwartz. What do our dreams reveal about our responsibilities to the body politic?

Everyone I know is ecstatic that two individuals have been definitively revealed as guilty of serious criminal action in direct service to the Present Occupant of the White House. As Michael Cohen’s attorney said, “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

The New York Times editorial sums it up nicely and links to the relevant details. Many experts are weighing in to say the grounds for impeachment have been met. There is powerful organizing to impeach this shameful excuse for a president: By The People is well worth following and supporting. You can find a recording of their latest online orientation on Facebook Live.

Impeachment is my dream. Or better yet, the speedier option of a Nixon-style resignation to avoid a long impeachment process. Frank Bruni dreams of Melania Trump as an undercover heroine.

What’s your dream?

This question of our dreams against the depredations of the state has engaged me for decades, ever since I read Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, which braided personal and collective politics in an exciting way, new and complex and deep. The main character, Anna Wulf, works with the British Communist Party. In one of the four notebooks that make up the bulk of the novel, she records a dream she has heard recounted by fellow communists. Here’s how I summarized it in “Our Dreams and the President’s,” an essay published almost exactly 13 years ago (it’s short and I have an idea you may want to read the whole thing):

In The Golden Notebook, her masterpiece of disillusionment, Doris Lessing wrote about the dream of a fellow stalwart of the British Communist Party. The book was published half a dozen years after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations to the 20th party congress in 1956 of Stalin’s terrible crimes. In the party worker’s fantasy, he goes to Russia, and is called from his hotel to see Comrade Stalin at the Kremlin. The Stalin he meets is a modest and humble man who asks for news of the British labor movement. The visitor, flattered beyond bearing, does his best. Stalin responds with kindly and helpful advice, then returns to his ceaseless labors.

I thought of this yesterday when a friend called long-distance to share her dream, that George Bush had been awakened from his complacency by the events following Hurricane Katrina, and had declared his intention to make t’shuvah (to use the Hebrew term), to turn away from distortion toward healing, to make things right.

I have no love for George Bush, but evidently even he has some shred of conscience, having been moved by our national shame to speak out against this president’s policies.

The point is that even with respect to someone as clueless and corruptible as Bush, people were able to dream of awakening and redemption. Of course, these dreams—whether of Stalin or Bush—did not come true. But it says a great deal about how things have changed that I have not heard a single person share the fantasy that the Present Occupant of the White House will awaken to the harm of his actions and enter the process of t’shuvah—redemption, repentance, reorientation—to transform his presidency.

As he seems unredeemable, even in dreams the body politic has to expel him. Impeachment or resignation are the sweet dreams. All the rest are nightmares.

In Ulysses, James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The legacy of our collective history weighs heavily in this moment: an Electoral College put in place to prevent direct democracy and protect slavery states; a money-driven electoral system that supports victory by the highest bidder; a Republican Party that enriches the wealthiest and treats the planet as expendable as it actively campaigns to suppress voting by people of color; a Democratic Party that seeks funding from fossil-fuel corporations, reinforcing our shameful corpocracy…. I’ll stop there. This system doesn’t allow us to impeach a president for willful stupidity, nauseating cupidity, or the other crimes of character so evident in every day’s news coverage. Even if it did, the foundation of honor among thieves is fear of exposing oneself, and I don’t see too many of the elected officials benefiting from the current system willing to risk their own cozy turpitude by speaking out.

So it’s up to We The People. We still have absolute power to break the chain of causality, stepping off this undemocratic, mercenary, and venal path. For some reason, I stopped asking the three questions that for years were my watchword. I think it’s time to revive them:

Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?

As the people who finally drew the line and made the dream of impeachment real.

“Politician,” performed by Los Lobos.

Budapest Noir is fun, but uninspired at SF Jewish Film Festival

Aug13

by: Madison Wilson on August 13th, 2018 | No Comments »

Still from Éva Gárdos's BUDAPEST NOIR - Image courtesy of Pioneer Pictures

I walk up to the Castro Theatre around 5:40, friends in tow, silently congratulating myself for arriving a full twenty minutes early. As my friends and I confidently jaywalk across Castro Street to enter the theatre, I hear one let out a small moan – what’s wrong now, I wonder – then I see the line. It not only snakes around one corner, but continues past the next far into a residential neighborhood behind the historic movie palace. Clearly there was some buzz about one of the first American screenings of this Hungarian film. We trudged along as the line steadily moved forward, finally culminating in a mad frenzy at the entry to the theatre to give someone, anyone our ticket before walking inside. The theatre is packed, and those early twenty minutes I thought would at least result in a seat on the first floor only bought me one in the nosebleeds. I sit down listening to live organ music and sensing the anticipation floating above the crowd. After the organist finishes, there’s a brief introduction by someone from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the film’s sponsor, then director Eva Gardos steps onstage. She, like her main character, is a person of few words, and without much fanfare the show begins.

Budapest Noir is a movie rendition of the bestselling Hungarian novel of the same name by Vilmos Kondor. The film takes place in Budapest’s seedy underbelly, winter, 1936, just before Hungary aligns itself with Hitler. The mist and drudge are the perfect backdrop to this nostalgic murder mystery. Zsigmond Gordon, the hunky, ubermensch reporter, meets a mysterious dark-haired beauty in a cafe just before police find her dead body on the streets of the red-light district. Gordon becomes obsessed with uncovering the story of this seemingly forgotten young woman. On the side, ex-lover and photographer Krisztina reappears at Gordon’s apartment and serves as his investigative sidekick and girlfriend. They follow the woman’s tracks from the chief of police, to a brothel owner, a nude photographer, corrupt politicians, and underground fights, eventually discovering that Budapest’s best-known coffee importer is actually the girl’s father. He is secretly Jewish and would not allow the mystery woman, who we now know as his daughter Fanny, to marry her lover, the son of a rabbi, so she fled. The final scene is perhaps the most touching, where Krisztina leaves Gordon without warning for London and the two tearfully separate at the train station.

Maybe it was the fact that the entire film was in English subtitles, but I found the plot a bit difficult to follow, and when I did follow, quite predictable. Budapest Noir has the prostitutes, the seedy old politicians, the Communists, a hefty sprinkling of fascist and communist allusions, and maybe even a reference to Hungary’s current political situation, but Gardos did not incorporate these elements in a unique way. Even the climax felt, well, anticlimactic, as Fanny’s mother kills Fanny’s father out of revenge in a rather bizarre scene involving a gun and birthday cake. The series of events make sense at the end and tie up neatly but didn’t leave me at the edge of my seat.


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The Power of Privacy: A Review of The Oslo Diaries

Aug6

by: on August 6th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

The signing of the Oslo Accords was, to many, a sign that Israeli-Palestinian relations would improve. Photo by Ohayon Avi

After seeing The Oslo Diaries at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I felt inspired to start keeping a diary of my own. The Sundance-selected documentary, directed by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, tells the tense and moving story of the secret 1992 peace talks and their tragic failure, using interviews, reenactments, and primary sources to give us a holistic perspective on the historical moment. I recommend you see it too.

 

The film is named quite literally, as much of the film’s dialogue is taken directly from the diaries of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators of the Oslo Accords. And while their journal entries aren’t in literal conversation, they do provide the inner dialogue of some of the story’s most important characters — and frequently overlap in their subject matter, like two sides of the same coin. Without a doubt, the film holds great emotional power, and even, at one point, brought me to tears. Despite the diaries’ centrality to that power, however, the filmmakers fail to realize their practical and symbolic significance. Ultimately, the film paints a beautiful picture, but misses an opportunity to create something more meaningful, condemning itself to the same fate as the Oslo Accords.


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Feared Than Loved

Aug5

by: on August 5th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

I’ve been thinking about love and fear. Love is a strong force in my life, the thing that heals, the thing that opens my heart to give, the thing that greets me each morning as I open my eyes, grateful for another day. As the Song of Songs – the epic liturgical poem of awe and desire – puts it, “love is as strong as death.”

But love’s opposite – fear, the weapon of the unloved – is swirling all around me.

There’s the ambient fear of racism, violence, poverty, and exploitation, so deeply woven into the fabric of most U.S. cities that it becomes normalized. It takes artists to put a frame around the truth, revealing something of its actual dimensions, actual impact. For a clear-eyed glimpse of the daily fear machine in action and the toll it takes, go see the rich, nuanced, deeply affecting movie Blindspotting, just now in theaters.

There’s the fear that rises in relationship to other threats such as climate crisis. The New York Times Magazine’snew issue consists entirely of a controversial piece, already perceptively criticized by knowledgeable writers such as Naomi Klein and Robinson Meyer for downplaying the economic and power relations behind global scorching. Read all, and do your best not to be overcome by fear.

But my main topic today is another type of fear: the fear that arises in response to extreme state actions, the fear that acts as fuel for fascism.


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Review of Steve Herrmann’s Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times

Aug1

by: Reverend Dr. Matthew Fox on August 1st, 2018 | 1 Comment »

This exciting and important book is filled with verve and insight that only Dickinson can awaken. With the help of Carl Jung and the inspiration of his own deep work, including his penetrating insights on Walt Whitman’s launching of an American movement of Spiritual Democracy, Herrmann sheds brilliant light on the spiritual genius of Emily Dickinson. Rightly does the author call Dickinson a “medicine woman for our challenging times,” for even today – 130 years after her death – she still brings forth wisdom and insight to challenge patriarchy. The book is filled with insights triggered by James, Jung, Whitman, Emerson, Everson, Jeffers, Melville, Humboldt, and the author’s own well-traveled soul. Herrmann’s acute exegesis of many poems that sometimes seem opaque is sensible and eye-opening.

Herrmann argues that the crux of Dickinson’s struggle was her wrestling with the archetype of vocation. It was her vocation as a poet that charged her with awe and ecstasy as when she wrote: “Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,/ And I am richer than all my fellow Men–/ Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily/ When at my very Door are those possessing more,/ In abject poverty – ” (#1640) Yet she had to sacrifice her career as a public poet in her lifetime because she was excluded for the most part from the male-dominated world of publishing. Herrmann believes that Dickinson underwent a “crucifixion of her ego on the cross of her poetic vocation.” After suffering a breakdown she revealed how she rose not as a wounded bird but riding “the Ether into the air or sky as shamans do.”


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The Uses of Appropriation

Jul9

by: on July 9th, 2018 | Comments Off

Audre Lorde famously said it, “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She went on: “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The essay was based on a 1979 panel presentation responding to a feminist movement dominated by those who opposed sexism but benefited in other ways from the existing social order. She warns a liberationist movement against reproducing the racial, economic, and other privilege-based operating assumptions of the dominant society, lest it fall far short of its potential to catalyze a more loving, just, equitable, and vibrant society.

Sometimes I like to adopt an alien view, to pretend I’m watching from outer space as we humans scurry across the face of the earth, billions of intelligent two-legged ants. What is getting them so excited now? What tools are being wielded with what intentions? And are they shoring up the master’s house or dismantling it?

In our little corner of the planet, my alien self picks up a loud buzz about appropriation. What’s that? In ordinary English the verb can mean many things: to set aside or authorize funds, to seize or steal something. In art worlds, the word has a fairly flat meaning and a heightened one. The flatter version covers things like Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” in which ordinary objects are renamed, repositioned, and exhibited as art. His most famous example was the 1917 Fountain, a porcelain urinal set on a pedestal and signed R. Mutt. Ever since, a huge amount of modern and contemporary visual art has included appropriated elements.

Appropriation is so common in popular music that a new word was chosen to represent it: sampling. There’s a nicely detailed account of Biz Markie’s losing a suit over a sample of “Alone Again,” one of many such cases in the early 90s challenging musicians’ right to use snippets of others’ copyrighted songs without prior permission. Rick James sued MC Hammer for sampling “Superfreak” on his hit, “U Can’t Touch This,” to cite one example among hundreds. The most recent cases turn on uses of as little as two words. But mostly, these are financial transactions having less to do with moral rights and more with getting paid. Reaching a financial settlement is almost always the endgame.

The heightened meaning of “appropriation” is cultural theft. The accusation is frequently made against artists—but also entrepreneurs and corporations—adopting and profiting by something emblematic of a culture not their own. “Cultural appropriation” is the full moniker, but mostly it gets shortened by omitting the first word.


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A Review of Tommy Orange’s “There There”

Jul5

by: Frank Rubenfeld on July 5th, 2018 | Comments Off

This is a debut novel by Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.

The book’s prologue gives us the context for the pain Indians inflict on themselves (alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction) and each other (domestic abuse, turf wars). Orange goes into horrific detail (the content of which I had never heard of before) about the treachery, sadistic cruelty, and grind-’em-down racism Indians suffered at the hands of the white colonizers from the time of the Pilgrims until the genocidal “Indian Wars” waged in the late eighteen hundreds.

Tommy Orange reading from his debut novel "There There." Image courtesy of Bank Square Books.

Tommy Orange reading from his debut novel "There There." Image courtesy of Bank Square Books.

The venue is contemporary Oakland, not a “rez”. Many Indians have left the rez behind and become “Urban Indians”. We get to meet more than a dozen of them close-up: Orvil Red Feather; Edwin Black; Tommy Loneman; Dene Oxendene; and the one with coolest name of all: Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield. Each name heads a chapter (some more than one). Orange dexterously braids the lives of these Indians, and knots them all together in an ending that reflects their legacy. A legacy of both violence and spiritual depth.

As the narrative culminates, we witness a big Powow at the Oakland Coliseum. Hundreds of Indians from the Bay Area and beyond, dressed in Native Regalia, ready to dance to the sound of the big and little drums. Ready to dip, shuffle, and pound their feet against Mother Earth, while the singing counterpoints the beat of the drums; the beat of their feet.

This was the sound of pain forgetting itself in song, the author writes. In that sentence the beating heart of the story lies. And the author, Tommy Orange an Urban Indian for years, is part of that drumbeat. He has created this song of a book. A song of pain redeemed by his artistry.

We the witnesses, implicit in the oppression of his people; occupying what was their land; are given the opportunity to see more clearly and comprehensively the costs the Indian community has paid for our deeds. Tommy Orange has done his job. It is up to us to feel empathy, compassion, anger, guilt, whatever. And to see what we might do with our feelings and our new knowledge.

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Frank Rubenfeld is a Berkeley psychologist who co-founded Psychotherapists for Social Responsibility and authored The Peace Manual: A Guide To Personal-Political Integration. He is an active member of the Gestalt Associates of the Bay Area.

Baseball Infamy

Jun14

by: Victor Acquista on June 14th, 2018 | 4 Comments »

A Mound Over Hell

by Gary Morgenstein

BHC Press, 2018

A good place to start making our world a better place is to identify current problems and then strategize on how to solve those problems. What about when the problems themselves are hidden, or entangled in a complex web of truth and falsehood and conflicting ideologies? What we often categorize as “culture wars” has roots in the evolution of consciousness and how individuals and groups at different levels of consciousness coexist. Socially conscious fiction helps to shine light upon social ills. In this sense, it helps to raise awareness.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In his novel, A Mound Over Hell, Gary Morgenstein has given us much to think about regarding the current state of modern society. Although the story is set in the future, today’s social problems are on full display. Baseball seems an unlikely place to uncover and expose societal conflict. Yet, Morgenstein reveals it to be the perfect construct for digging deep into the underbelly of a future America where baseball is on the brink of extinction. The seeds of past conflict often blossom into future turmoil. His novel is a far cry from A Field of Dreams.

In these times when people exploit half-truths, fake news, and alternate facts, the book itself is timely. The narrative blends a combination of baseball truths and fabrications wedded together, takes readers through a somewhat unexpected trajectory, and reframes historical elements to uncover an uncomfortable present. Surprise! Not all is what citizens have been led to believe. Lies clearly have the upper hand in this marital union. Despite this foundation of falsehood, the citizens live in a zeitgeist of syrupy contentment.

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