Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Darkness and Light

Hanukkah is over (or is it Chanuka?) In any case, it's a good time to consider the issues of darkness and light, which are so much in the forefront of the news, with every party, religion and so on naturally considering themselves the Sons of Light and their adversaries - the Sons of Darkness. With so much light around, is it any wonder that everybody is going blind?

In any case, here is a little piece I wrote for the Darkness and Light students-organized event at TAU yesterday.
When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark. I slept with a night-light on because I believed there was a monster under my bed and it would come out the moment the light went out.
Now, older and wiser, I know there is a monster under the bed. I know that the shambling in the midnight street is the beginning of a zombie invasion. I know that the tapping on the window is a vampire trying to get in, and a moaning in the bathroom is not a faulty pipe but the ghost of a previous owner. And this is why I sleep soundly in the dark and no longer require even the dubious light of the Hanukkah candles.
We need our monsters. Perpetual light is boring and insipid, while the night is filled with magic and wonder. This is why descriptions of Paradise are so much less interesting than visions of hell, while literary utopias require a hefty dose of the apocalypse to make them even marginally attractive. The human imagination, confronted with mysteries of nature and with its own inevitable extinction, bravely challenges darkness by giving it a face. Monsters are our guides to where no man – oops, no human – has ever gone before. Monsters are our friends because they reflect back to us our own power of creation. Monsters provide us with the enemy to fight and in doing so, reinforce our belief that fighting is possible and that we may win. Light only shows nothing; darkness hides many different things.
And so count me among the forces of darkness. And if you hear a child crying because the light has gone out, tell her: “Yes, there is a monster under the bed – and here is the magic sword with which you can cut off its head!”
Happy New Year to all!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New politics of humanity

Yesterday voters in Mississipi defeated a proposed amendment to the constitution that would define personhood "to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof" (Amendment 26). Good for the voters of Mississipi (frankly, I didn't expect the Bible Belt to be so reasonable). But this is a sign of things to come. The proposed amendment was not about prohibiting abortion, even though it probably was the original goal of it. It was about redefining humanity. The reference to cloning (hardly the most pressing concern in Mississipi!) is right on spot. With the development of new bio-technologies and AIs, the old politics of race and gender give way to the politics of humanity. What is a human being? Who deserves human rights? What ARE human rights and why should we take them for granted? It seems insane to afford legal protection to unicellar organisms (which is what a zygote is) but why not? Religion, bio-ethics, science and political ideologies are now heading for a new battlefield where the cause is not what rights human beings deserve but rather who has the right to be called a human being. The defeat of this scary amendment is not the end of the fight but the beginning. We'd better be ready!

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Stitch in Time....a shroud for capitalism

Just saw the new movie "In Time" (dir. Andrew Nicoll) and my belief that a new era of revolutions and social upheavals is just around the corner has been strengthened. If Justin Timberlake is a revolutionary, then we all are!

The movie is based on a clever literalization of "Time is money". In the future society, time IS money. You stop aging after your 25th birthday (great!) but you die if you don't make enough time (not so great). Btw, what about overdraft?

The movie is peppered with statements like "Can you steal (time) from the rich if it's already stolen from the poor?", the time-owners are heartless and arrogant bloodsuckers, and the Robin Hood exploits of the protagonist Will Salas and his Patricia Hearst-like girlfriend are represented as heroid. There are some heart-tugging moments like the scene where Will's mother dies running to her son, desperate for just one more minute.

The movie is deliberately shot in a somber, black-and-white, 1930s style. The run-down industrial estates, the glittering skyscrapers, even the flapper-like fashion, all evoke the aesthetics - and mood - of the Depression

Pop culture is the dreams of society. Judging by this particular nightmare, OWS has way to go!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

World War 2 WILL happen!

In 1935 Jean Giradoux wrote the play "The Trojan War Will Not Happen" about the madness of the crowds and politicians running headlong into an obvious disaster. The disaster came 4 years later. And the Europe is still apparently fighting and re-fighting the same endless war. The picture is of a demonstration in Greece on 28/10/11. What war will Israel be fighting 70 years from now? The War of Independence? The Judean War?
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Sunday, October 9, 2011

In my mother's memory

Here is the English text of the essay I wrote in my mother's memory published in the Haaretz newspaper in Hebrew.

My mother is not dead.

I know, of course, that she is. I have been at her tomb, which overlooks the arid landscape of the Mount of Olives, whipped by the scorching desert wind and tended by a phlegmatic Arab caretaker. Nor do I believe in an afterlife. Like my mother, I am an atheist.

But it is impossible to accept that the presence so strong, so vital, so full of unspent words and quick ideas, is gone. There is a Maya-shaped hole in the world; not just for me and my sons but for everybody who has been touched by her. And with time, this hole is not shrinking but growing bigger and darker.

Is there anything on the other side of it? Like Alice in the Wonderland, I am pausing before this ominous darkness, hesitant to enter. But as any sci-fi fan knows (and my mother was one), a black hole may be a passage to other worlds and other dimensions. So she would understand why I am embarking on a voyage into the past through the gates of her absence.
The past, they say, is a foreign country. Like any foreign country, it demands from the visitor some knowledge of its language and some conformity with its mores. So I will have to brush up on the discarded language of my childhood, Russian, and reluctantly put on the half-forgotten identity of Lena, Maya’s little girl. And as I am doing this, I am discovering what countless others have discovered before me: when you lose a parent, you lose the certainty that your own past has even existed. There is nobody anymore to confirm that my recollections of my childhood are accurate. Nobody but memory and imagination, which are ultimately the same.

And so I dive through the black hole and find myself in the Wonderland of the past, where years are compressed into a single sunny afternoon. And I encounter the two of us in the garden of our dacha. My mother, young and beautiful in her tailored 60s dress, is reading to me. What? Lewis Carroll. Or maybe Dickens. The Wonderland suddenly grows remote, dissolving in the golden glow of nostalgia and regret. It is hard to see, hard to hear. But I am pretty sure it is not Pushkin. Her many Israeli readers identified her with their idealized image of “Russian culture”. She knew that culture better than most but her favorite writers were French. As a child I fell asleep with the lullabies of Pablo Neruda and grew up with the stories of Wizard of Oz and Hans-Christian Andersen.

The world knew two Mayas: a literary scholar and essayist who wrote beautiful and penetrating studies of Marina Tsvetayeva, Mikhail Bulgakov and Nikolai Leskov; and a fiery critic of the Israeli politics and culture, a nemesis of the post-Zionist left. Neither is the Maya I meet in the Wonderland. Instead I see a girl who says bitterly: “I could have been another Simone de Beauvoir had I not been born in this cursed country”. And she could have. She had the intelligence, the talent and the drive to have become a world-renown public intellectual, a shaper of opinions, a pundit in the mold of Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Jacques Derrida or Cornel West. But she was hemmed in, imprisoned behind the barriers of totalitarianism, cultural provincialism and linguistic inaccessibility. And as these barriers started crumbling one by one with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spread of globalism and the ascension of the Internet, it was too late for her.

But she never stopped pounding on the walls of her many prisons. When we were in the late unlamented Soviet Union, I was often angry at her dissident pursuits. I did not appreciate having to lie to my schoolmates about my mother’s occupation or coming home to find a KGB officer noisily slurping tea at our kitchen table. When she was hounded into aliyah by the KGB who was getting mightily tired of her ties to Zionists, Ukrainian nationalists and cranky “true” Communists, I was relieved. Now I could finish high school in peace and embark on a suitable academic career, unencumbered by a mother in the Gulag. And yet, no sooner did her train leave the station in Kiev that I knew with absolute certainty that I would follow. The call of freedom that she exemplified was too strong to resist.
This call was what she was. She was one of those people who cannot be pinned down to a single definition, a single identity, a single image. She kept changing, kept trying on and discarding opinions, ideas, and friends. Even in her last years, heavily weighed down by failing health, she escaped in her mind into the places she would never visit: England, China, America. She was curious about everything, from nuclear physics to Japanese comics. Just before that final, fatal hospitalization she told me she wanted to study economics because she had come to the conclusion that perhaps Marx was right, after all, and economy did influence history.

And this is why, meeting her in the Wonderland, I see her not as an old and venerable sage but as the teenager that she was when I was born. Like Alice, she keeps growing and shrinking, changing face and voice, age and opinion, always different and always herself. Freedom is always young.
And this is why I know that my mother is not dead. It is not simply that her words live on after her, speaking to new generations of readers. Despite the popular cliché, books do burn; opinions fade; wisdom of one age is rejected by another. But if thoughts die, freedom of thought is eternal, always seeking new forms, calling upon all of us “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson).

My mother liked to call herself an officer’s daughter. This seems rather surprising, considering that my grandfather, who died at the age of 26 in the hopeless battle against the Nazi occupation of Kiev, was a devout Communist. But in fact, they were very much alike. My mother repudiated her father’s beliefs but not his fighting spirit. And her weapons were more formidable than the pitiful hand-gun issued to my grandfather to hold back the invasion. My mother, a charismatic speaker and a superb writer, had the power of words at her disposal. And words can inflict deeper wounds and deliver more painful defeats than bullets. Words may not break your bones but they crush empires. The Soviet Union withstood the onslaught of the Wehrmacht and disintegrated like a bad dream when its lies were exposed. Israel will never be the same after the uniformity of Hebrew has been shattered by the many dissenting voices of the Russian aliyah. The world buffeted by the verbal flood of the Internet is undergoing the greatest revolution in human history. My mother knew the power she wielded and she never held back.

But I do not see her as some sort of Joan of Arc, inspired by an absolute belief that so easily slides into fanaticism. Her loyalty was not to ideologies but to ideas. She had a playful and clear mind that cut through the obfuscations of faith; mocked certainty; and deflated self-righteousness. Not a martyr for a cause but a free thinker, my mother saw through the doublespeak of pious orthodoxies of all kinds. When Alice in the Wonderland was confronted with the kangaroo court of the Red Queen, she said loud and clear: “Stuff and nonsense! You are just a pack of cards!” My mother had the same capacity to cut down to size prophets, politicians and peddlers of comforting lies. More than once, some petty tyrant would yell: “Off with her head!” But it was their heads that eventually rolled while my mother walked away, unscathed, shrugging away the burdens of the past. Her only allegiance was to the restless spirit of intellectual freedom that is always eager to topple the idols of yesterday and to explore the playthings of tomorrow.

…Here she is in the garden again, my mother, and as I am running toward her, I realize that we are now the same age.
“Hey,” she says, “I just discovered that Michel Foucault was completely wrong!”
“Mum,” I say, “I have trigonometry homework! I need help!”
“I’ll do it!”
“Do you know what cine and cosine are?” I ask dubiously.
“No,” she says. “But I can learn.”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Primates of the World, Unite!


just saw "Rise of Planet of the Apes": a prequel to the 2001 remake of the Hollywood 70s franchise based on the 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle. Considering the attitudes to France in the US (one Christian nutcase recently declared the Statue of Liberty to be an evil idol smuggled into the country by the French Freemasons), the authors (of the remake (Rupert Wyatt dir.) wisely decided not to acknowledge the initial inspiration. Too bad because the novel is hilarious and highly recommended. It has the most unusual love triangle you're likely to encounter in literature (hint: think of a Frenchman torn between a stunning beauty with the mind of a monkey and a wise and compassionate lady with the guess it!) No such risque situations in Hollywood, of course, where mindlessness is hardly exceptional. However, even though I went to the movie ready to curse, like Balaam I've been forced to bless. It is actually quite a good movie and moreover, I see it as an interesting cultural symptom.

The plot hinges on the discovery of a cure for Alzheimer's which has the unintended consequence of raising the intelligence of the primates on whom it is tested. It also eventually unleashes a wold-wide plague. So the movie handily taps into two great cultural anxieties: the aging baby boomers confronted with their own mortality and cuts to Medicare versus the young generation who feel unfairly saddled with caring for their elders and probably would not mind a plague or two in the old-age facilities. So far so good; but suddenly the movie abandons geriatric angst and moves on to depicting the mistreatment of the lab primates, which is quite heartbreaking. And when Caesar the genius ape rebels, teaches his fellow chimps, gorillas and orangs to speak, wield weapons and crash cars, and leads them to the promised land in the redwoods, I at least was ready to cheer.

Call it far-fetched but I could not stop thinking about the current worldwide unrest: the Arab spring, the disturbances in London, demonstrations in Israel...Perhaps the new age of revolution is upon us. So let it come. I can only hope that when the downtrodden rise up, they will be as restrained and humane as Caesar the ape.

And finally a personal note: all the movie catastrophes happen in NYC and LA, so I was very pleased to have this particular apocalypse strike my beloved city of San Francisco. The movie has some great shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The massacre in Norway and cultural theory

I have just skimmed through the 1500-pages-long manifesto of Anders Breivik, the murderer of 83 people in Norway. You can find it here

I deliberately post the link. Many people would say that by doing so I give the views of an unhinged mass murderer the importance they don't deserve. But I firmly believe that the only way to cope with violence is to understand the motivations of its perpetrators. Had German intellectuals in 1923 bothered to read the newly published "Mein Kampf", they would not have been rolling their eyes ten ears later, wondering what planet the brownshirts had come from.

Breivik is a mass murderer but he is not unhinged. His "manifesto" is overlong but coherent, properly documented and reasonably well-written (in English, which is not his mother tongue). It clearly shows that there is a new ideology being formed in the West, which will surely claim more victims in the years ahead. This ideology is not neo-Nazism (Breivik has some positive things to say about Jews and Israel) nor is it traditional racism (hating Islam is not the same thing as believing that Arabs are biologically inferior). Rather, it is radical Christian conservatism.

I don't know of many terrorist manifestoes that begin with a discussion of Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Breivik's does. And this clearly indicates who his enemy is: "cultural Marxism", the loose body of left-wing rhetoric, predicated on on the notions of multiculturalism, secularism, and human rights. Why did he strike at his own people instead of Muslim immigrants whom he ostensibly hates? It is because his hatred and distrust of Islam comes distant second to his hatred and distrust of the "enemy within": socialists, muticulturalists, and liberals. And this is the dynamics we are familiar with, not from Nazism, with which he is associated, but precisely from Soviet Communism with its hunt for traitors and enemies of the people. The more he denounces Marxism, the more does Breivik's own ideology mirror its structure. Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are.

So what are the political forces in the contemporary world that inspired Breivik? In the middle of his vituperations against radical Islam (for which radical Islam obligingly provides a wealth of material), Breivik approvingly quotes Thomas Jefferson's adage, beloved of the Tea Party, about the Tree of Liberty needing to be watered by blood. And then he adds: "Refreshing the tree is now long overdue as our countries are in a rapid state of disintegration". Elsewhere he lambasts the welfare state and calls President Obama a member of the "multicultural mafia" that rules the world. For anybody with access to Fox News this sounds numbingly familiar.

Breivik is not a Christian zealot. But he is fighting the same war against the Enlightenment that is being fought by the radical evangelicals in the US and by radical Islam everywhere. He does not hate the Muslims so much as he hates the academics, the freethinkers, and the "elites", which to his mind use the jihadis as their stormtroopers. He hates "Marxism", which he equates with liberal democracy. But perhaps the ultimate irony of this unintentionally ironic - and chilling - document is that real Marxism is precisely what his rhetoric resembles most. After all, was it not Adorno who criticized the "dialectic of the Enlightenment"?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Super 8 - a Tea Party kind of science fiction

We know we are in trouble when SF starts looking to the past rather than the future. This is a movie that shamelessly rips off all the 70s SF blockbusters: "Alien", "Aliens", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". It does so openly, as a pastiche and homage to the classics. But it ends up as a nostalgia sob-fest, with all the emotional depth of a wading pool, appropriate for its tween protagonists. Even its technically accomplished visuals look second-hand. And beyond all this trip down the memory lane lies a conspiracy-theory parable of the big, bad government herding small-town Americans into concentration camps. Tea Party, anybody?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Timothy Snyder published a new - and instantly controversial - history of the Holocaust, titled Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin .

What is controversial about it is the fact that it is not ONLY about the Holocaust, as is clear from the title. Snyder's main point is that the Nazi murder of the Jews should be seen in the context of the death of at least 14 million people in the hands of the two utopian regimes, Communism and Nazism, or if you prefer, their leaders Stalin and Hitler (who could not single-handedly kill even a single human being without the majority of their subjects aiding and abetting them). Snyder puts the Holocaust in the context of Stalin's deliberate starvation of perhaps as many as 3 million Ukrainian peasants (known today in Ukraine as Holodomor), the Great Terror, execution of the Polish intelligentsia by both regimes and so on.

I have read outraged responses to that, including Efraim Zuroof's indignant article in last week's Haaretz called, tellingly, "The Equivalency Canard"

Many such responses conflate morality and ideology. By what measure is death in Auschwitz more morally repugnant than the death of a Ukrainian child locked up in a barrack and left to starve (there were 20,000 of them in Kharkiv only)? Mass murder is mass murder.

But ideologically, the Holocaust IS different because all Jews, no matter their self-identification, were slated for extermination. Stalin did not plan to kill ALL Ukrainians. There was no place for ethnic genocide in Communist ideology, while class genocide by definition does not apply to national entities. It does not make Stalin and Mao better than Hitler. It just makes them different.

We have to move beyond the ethnocentric idea than only genocide directed against peoples count. Unless we develop ways of talking about auto-genocides of nation-states, we will never learn the true lesson of the Bloodlands or the blood century that produced them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

another interesting article discussing the differences between Western and Chinese cultures

Thursday, April 28, 2011

No time travel in China

China's censors apparently decided to outlaw SF, fantasy and in particular time travel. CNN treats this as a joke. But in fact, the fringes of an ideology are much more revealing of its inner logic than anything in the "rational" middle. The Holocaust and the Terror were inherent in the "cooky" discourse of Hitler and Stalin, dismissed by rational people as a poor joke until they became reality.

But what is the logic behind this particular prohibition? Why time travel? My guess - and I don't read Chinese, so it's just a guess - is that underlying it the fear of the contingency of history, of the "black swan" of a sudden revolution such as the ones that shake the Arab world right now. If so, it is the worst strategy imaginable. If China wants to survive as a great power, it should do just the opposite: encourage Chinese SF to write its own alternative narrative of the future. The students I met in China were definitely very interested in fantastic literature and cinema. Let's hope they can prevail.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

genocide sweepstakes

In Hong Kong airport, I bought a great new book by Frank Dikkoter, "Mao's Great Famine". 45 million people died in China between 1958 and 1962. This leaves Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler in the dust in the genocide sweepstakes.

When I lectured in Chongqing, mainland China, I got an honorarium in yuan (HK has its own currency, HK dollar). Each 100-yuan bill is decorated with a picture of Mao.

China today is neither the killing fields of the Great leap Forward nor the feckless disintegrating USSR of the perestroika. It is an amazingly dynamic, prosperous and interesting society. Chongqing, almost unknown in the West, has the population of 30 millions and better public architecture than NYC. Its people are kind, optimistic and vibrant.

I do not believe that China has to accept the Western model of "democracy" (meaning the tyranny of the majority) in order to prosper. I have no sympathy for the religious insurrectionism of Tibet, the Muslim Uigurs, or the sectarian Falun Gong. China has to stay unified; its disintegration would be a disaster for humanity.

But I believe that China has to come to terms with its past. Otherwise the unacknowledged trauma of auto-genocide will fester until it eats the culture from within. It has happened to Russia whose past greatness is gone - if not forever, for a long time.

But the airport in Hong Kong is a cause for optimism. Hong Kong is officially part of China - and yet it has free press, free civic culture, and as its airport book selection demonstrates, could not care less for the mainland's censorship. When I am able to buy Dikkoter's book in Chongqing airport, I will know that Mao has lost. And then I don't even care if they keep his chubby face on their currency. The genocide sweepstakes of the twentieth century will truly be over.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Maya Kaganskaya

As many of you know, my beloved mother Maya Kaganskaya passed away on Saturday, April 16. Her untimely death is a heavy loss to our family, to her many friends and admirers, and to the world of Israeli letters. In profound gratitude to all those who have helped her in the last difficult days of her illness, I want to say some words, inadequate as they may be.

My mother was a true intellectual who faced life and death with the indomitable courage of clear thought. She fought the evil empire of the USSR and she fought for her beliefs in her adopted country of Israel. Her words were her weapons and she proved daily that the pen is mightier than the sword and that lies, obfuscations and repression will not withstand the light of reason and truth. She loved words and they requited her love by giving her the power to move hearts and minds.

She was the best mother a daughter could wish for; the best mentor an intellectual could desire. She never succumbed to the false consolations of religion and ideology but stood up to powers-that-be and spoke the truth as she knew it. She was an example of integrity not only to her family and friends but also to her many readers. She is gone but her voice still speaks to us through her writing, urging us “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

We mourn her passing and remember her as she was: a writer, a charismatic speaker, an officer’s daughter, and a loving mother and grandmother. The world will never be the same without her.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hong Kong and Jerusalem

Hong Kong is an amazing city. What's most amazing about it is the fact that it seems immune to the political earthquakes that convulse America and the Middle East. No Tea Part here and no jihadists. When people ask me why I like China, my answer is: because it is the only truly secular civilization in the world. Europe's secularism is the result of exhaustion. China's is inborn. The Chinese have superstitions, gods, and demons. But it is a people living in this world, committed to its pleasures and pains, rather than seeking an otherworldly justification. If the future belongs to China, as they say, then it'll be a civilized future. Otherwise history will be once again the arena of religious wars between radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity (our own ultra-Orthodox fortunately have no power to inflict permanent damage on anybody except ourselves). Humanity has tried for two thousand years to build a Heavenly City and has built various kinds of hell instead. The time has come for earthly cities. and you could do much worse than Hong Kong.