Category Archives: Current Events

The Philosophers and the Virus

Friedrich Nietzsche

“What does not kill us makes us stronger.” That notion is attributed to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche thought we could turn misfortune to our advantage and seek to build up strength by overcoming adversity. This would help us in future battles. We could become invincible and who doesn’t want that?

This is a very alluring concept also sometimes called the school of hard knocks. Kids who grow up in tough neighborhoods learn how to defend themselves against present and future bullies.  People who recover from an infectious disease usually develop antibodies that circulate in the blood and kill the pathogen if it shows up in the future.

Of course, bacteria can get strong too. If they are not killed by antibiotics, they can mutate and become immune to them. Did they study Nietzsche?

 

Marcus Aurelius

All of this relates to the Stoic philosophy which says that we do not control events but we can control ourselves and our reaction to them. The Spartans of antiquity adopted that idea and taught themselves how to confront challenges head on, perform rigorous exercises, accept pain and learn from it. The idea was to practice misfortune to be ready when it came. Some Romans like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca were converts to this idea. So was George Washington.

 

You know who

But can we apply this philosophy to the corona virus epidemic?  Well, yes, but not yet. Do not go out and fight the virus yourself right now, because you will lose. Your body has none of the weapons it needs in the fight. You’ll get sick. You could die.

We are not going to be able to get “stronger” until a little later when our brilliant scientists develop treatments and a vaccine. I find it striking that we all feel confident this will happen. Apparently, faith in science is still alive.

But right now we must avoid it by isolating ourselves. Get in, stay in and if you are anywhere near my age, don’t take any risks that you can avoid.

 

Protect everyone

 

 

Buried With The Gods

Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Emile Zola and Jean-Paul Marat have their last home and resting place in The Pantheon in Paris.

The Pantheon

This magnificent building is modeled after the one in Rome, which is itself a recreation of ancient Greece’s “home of all the gods.”

The Pantheon currently hosts the remains of 100 Frenchmen highly regarded by their countryman. 95 of the 100 are men of course. The Pantheon bears the inscription: “To the great men, from a grateful nation.”

The newest arrival at the Pantheon, however, is a woman. Simone Veil was interred there in July 2018. (Her husband Antoine got in at the same time, because of her.) They were officially reburied with great pomp, symbolism and honor.

 

Simone Veil

She was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. She was deported to Auschwitz at age 16 with her parents who died there.  For reasons she never understood, a Polish guard took her part and assigned her to work where she would not be at risk. She survived and went on to become the first woman Minister of Health in the Valery Giscard d’Estaing administration.

As President of The European Parliament

Veil wrote France’s 1975 law legalizing abortion. This was a difficult task in a Catholic country, and Veil bravely faced attacks for her work. She continued to champion women’s rights including the treatment of women in prisons and adoption rights for women. She also served as President of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. She said: “Whenever one tries to suppress doubt, there is tyranny.”

In another modern honor, the French put her name on a Metro station.

 

Here are the other women who have (so far) been buried in the Pantheon….

Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz (1920- 2002)who fought in the Resistance in World War II, She combated poverty and was a member of
the French Economic and Social Council.

 

Germaine Tillion 1907-2008 Active in the Resistance Movement. She helped Jews and other prisoners escape.

 

Marie Curie 1867-1934 French physicist and chemist. Discovered radium, received 2 Nobel Prizes. (and waited 60 years after her death before finally being rewarded by burial in the Parthenon)

Finally Sophie Berthelot 1837-1907 wife of Marcelin Berthelot, a world famous chemist. She died on the same day as her husband and they were
buried together. So she was not really recognized for her own accomplishments.

Perhaps we could request a change to the inscription on the building. (I have a hammer and chisel in the garage.)

The House on Karl Netter Street

Simone’s daughter (along with an editor she knows) is planning a trip to Israel. She mentioned the trip to Simone who recalled a street address in Tel Aviv from 80 years ago. A google search found a picture of the house and this blog post was born…..

I lived at “#3 Karl Netter str” in Tel Aviv at the start of World War II. After 80 years of non-remembrance, any recollections of this house were buried in a deep inaccessible area of my mind. I vaguely remembered a balcony. I looked at the picture Dina had sent me and suddenly there it stood like an apparition vibrating with memories.

 

#3 Karl Netter Street, Tel Aviv, Israel

Many memories.

Karl Netter was a Frenchman who was a promoter and pioneer of Jewish colonization in Palestine. He founded the colony Mikveh Israel where asparagus, artichokes and other crops were grown. He also founded the Alliance Israelite Universelle

Karl Netter street is modest, but it runs close and parallel to the much more elegant Sderot Rothschild Boulevard, with its tall trees and paths on both sides of a planted divide with comfortable benches.

Sderot Rothschild

Looking at the house and the streets put me in mind of the balconies I remember from Tel Aviv. Israeli balconies are more than ornamental but rather wide and roomy living spaces where people eat and sometimes sleep in hot weather. When we lived there, we had no air conditioning and no central heating. Men in undershirts conversed with each other across the street. Privacy was not in particularly hot demand. It was all very informal.

Israeli Balconies

Our balcony was also a place to sit quietly with a book and listen to classical music.

Our house also had an outsize air raid shelter. Although the second world war never officially arrived in Tel Aviv, it was being fought very close by in what was then called the Western Desert. Generals Montgomery and Rommel were having it out in what is now Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

I also remember a promenade that was parallel to the seashore which became a favorite strolling and cycling place for inhabitants and visitors. The promenade went all the way to Jaffa which we knew as the place which exported oranges wrapped in white paper all over the world.

Tel-Aviv Promenade (these days)

Now though I can no longer travel I can still go back in memory and I can always think of a white sunny city as the ideal place to live.

Handy Hands

Simone Klugman turned 98 on January 14th.

I fell down. Don’t worry. I cracked my wrist, wore a cast for a month and now I am back to normal. Functioning without a left wrist was a challenge as I couldn’t work on the blog. As you see that has changed.

These events put me in mind of handedness and I have been wondering why ambidextrousness is not more prevalent. It seems to me that whatever we can do to improve our prehensility could result in a big advantage. (I certainly would have enjoyed it.)

Handedness (the tendency to use the right or the left hand more naturally than the other) is mostly a matter of genetics but can also be influenced by the environment.
Apparently, handedness is controlled by the two brain hemispheres and involves multiple genes. Even twins may have opposite hand preferences. Animals who use hands, like apes and raccoons, also have preferred hands.

The overall chances of being left handed are relatively low. In the Western world 80 t0 90% of people are right- handed. In this context, left handers are often looked at as “the other.” Left handedness has even been described as wrong handedness. If you look at the linguistic roots of “sinister,” it means “left.” Think also of the word “gauche,” which is the French word for left, but which also means awkward.

King George VI, in all his magnificence…originally a lefty.

Even fairly recently, some parents and teachers have pressured children to become right-handed. Originally left-handed, King George VI of England (that’s the one in The King’s Speech) was forcibly trained to favor his right hand. It is speculated, though not proven, that the king, who did not stutter as a young child, acquired his stutter as a consequence of having this hand change forced upon him.

Although there is no correlation between handedness and IQ, left hand users are said to be better at sports, music and art. Arabic and Hebrew are written from left to right and it would seem that this is impossible to do using the left hand. Cave paintings are said to have been drawn by right handed people.

Zippers, measuring cups, can-openers and phone booths (remember them) and quite a few other things, are designed to be easier to use for right handed people.

I’m glad to be back to blogging, with both hands.

 

Let’s get together

Guest Post: Unhappy Royals – Or What Happens When You try to Break the Rules

Editor’s Note: We’re happy to share a guest post from Simone’s daughter, Dina Cramer….

 

Charles and Dianna…we’ve seen happier marriages.

 

Much has been written about Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan’s recent announcement that they were stepping back from the British royal family, moving abroad part-time, and becoming financially independent. And all this without getting the Queen’s permission. It remains to be seen how things will develop, but it made me think about other royals, who have tried to rebel against the royal rules. While the Prince and his wife seem to be doing things their own way, other royals, who were forced to play by the rules, were not so lucky.

The British monarchy values duty over love. This is the institution which forbade Edward VIII to be crowned as king if he married “that woman,” Wallis Simpson, because she was twice divorced. He abdicated rather than live without “the woman I love,” causing a constitutional crisis. He lived out his life in France and was only rarely allowed to set foot on British soil and then only with the monarch’s permission.

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. What I did for love.

 

 

However, the monarchy drew the wrong lesson from it when it came to the next generation and Princess Margaret, sister to the present queen. Instead of relenting on their “no divorce” rule, they forbade her to marry the man she loved and who loved her, on the grounds that he too was divorced. They extended this cruelty by keeping them apart for two years, promising they could marry when the princess turned 25 and privately hoping they would forget each other.

Radiant Princess Margaret before all that happened to her.

 

 

It did not work. Two years later they still wanted to marry, and the Church of England, which governs these matters, still forbade it. Margaret spiraled down, marrying unhappily later, being eventually abandoned by her husband, and spending the rest of her life with young boyfriends. She died at 70 after a stroke ended her unhappy life. She would be jealous to her core if she saw that Harry, also a second-born, was allowed to marry a divorcee and is even considering leaving England while retaining his title. None of this was possible for her.

Having learned nothing from these attempts to keep people who loved each other apart, in the following generation the palace establishment forbade Charles from marrying Camilla Shand, whom he loved. They arranged to marry her off to some one else while sending him away on a trumped up sea voyage with the navy. The palace powers-that-be thought she wasn’t good enough for an heir, and his pleas did him no good.

Charles never forgot Camilla and dallied with her during most of his unhappy approved marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. This tortured Diana, who said that “there were three of us in this marriage.” Ironically the royal interference caused another divorce as Charles and Diana, who were both miserable with each other, divorced. He married Camilla, now divorced herself, soon after Diana was out of the picture. Apparently now it was all right for an heir to the throne to marry a divorcee. Edward VIII would have been stunned if he could have seen this.

Charles, happy, with Camilla

 

Things have changed in the modern era. The palace no longer enforces their old-fashioned ideas about who is a suitable spouse. Prince William, an heir to the throne, was allowed to marry a commoner whom he loved, and they seem very happy together. A new wrinkle appeared with his younger brother, Harry, who also married apparently happily. In fact he was allowed to marry an American, half-black, divorcee, something that would have been a scandal in earlier times. The couple is causing a royal crisis of their own with their recent announcement. We shall see how this bold display of independence plays out. In an earlier time, they would not have dared, and if they had, they would have been banished from “The Firm,” as the royal family is called.”

 

 

One might say that all of this is a tempest in a (Spode) teapot, and who really cares about these silly people, who wear too many jewels and lots of hats? But the fact is they entertain us commoners on both sides of the Atlantic and provide a kind of soap opera for us. We love to see them formally attired and attending fancy social events. They are like movie stars and add glamour to our lives. They also look good on magazine covers.

What do we think will happen next?

 

 

Happy New Year Everywhere!

The start of a new year answers an age-old yearning by humans for a fresh beginning, the equivalent of an animal’s shedding of an old skin to replace it with a new, shiny and unwrinkled one. (And don’t we wish that we could). Perhaps we even wish to abandon our chrysalis altogether and fly away like a butterfly.

It is a time for reviewing the actions of the past year and resolving to start anew. Every year we try valiantly to emerge as a new person only to fall back on old ingrained habits while most of life continues much as before. Tabula rasa (a blank slate) is not as easy to achieve as one might think, but it is a worthy effort nonetheless.

And of course, each major world religion has its own way of figuring out when the year begins.

In Christianity, Advent (December 1st to 24th) is the beginning of the Christian liturgical new year, a time to celebrate the nativity of Jesus and prepare for his rebirth.

Buddhists too celebrate the New Year. They take
images of the Buddha in procession through the streets; worshipers visit Buddhist sanctuaries; monks are given gifts; exorcism ceremonies are performed by families to remove evil forces. It is a cleansing of bad habits and a dedication to future good deeds.

Muslims celebrate the Islamic New Year (Muharram) on the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Dates differ from year to year as they are based on a lunar cycle beginning with sighting of the new moon. Muharram means forbidden and many observe it by fasting on the 9th and 10th day of the first month of the year. It also honors the emigration of Mohamed from Mecca to Medina known as the Hijrah and gives the first day of the moon its name. Many Shia Muslims also perform chest beating, flagellatio0n and forehead cutting in repentance At this time the Muslim year is 1440.

In Judaism Rosh Hashanah (Head of the year) and Yom Kippur (Day of atonement) occur on the 7th month of the Calendar and is a time for rejoicing but also for introspection, repentance and reviewing of the actions of the past year. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year and is celebrated as such. By comparison Chanukah is a minor holiday.

In Israel a Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1917 and the beginning of the secular new year was reset to
January 1, 1918. In pre-state Israel, under the British Mandate, Orthodox Christians celebrated the new year in
Mid-January, Muslims in summer and Jews in early Fall. We are now in the Hebrew Year 5778.

In Russia the Soviets officially adopted the Gregorian calendar which starts the New Year on January 1, but the Orthodox Church is still quite influential and its New Year only begins on January 14.

So here we are now in the United States on the 5th day of January 2020 and it is time to wish everybody a joyous, peaceful, productive, and Trumpless New Year!

Loss and Longing (originally published July, 2016)

Editors note: Simone has a broken wrist so is temporarily limited in her writing. She’s going to be back at it pretty soon, but in the meantime, we are happy to republish this post from 2016.

—————————————————————————————————-

Simone’s Preface….

“The way this one was born is sort of typical of how I start associating. I had watched a short documentary on Bela Bartok where he stood forlorn on a ship’s deck gazing mournfully at the sight of approaching New York. His distress was palpable. Then the song Knowest Thou the Land came into my head.”

 

Knowest thou the land where lemon flowers bloom
The land of golden fruit and crimson roses
Where the breeze is fresh and birds fly in the night
There, father let us fare.

Goethe’s poem:”Kennst du das Land” inspired many artists, most notably Amboise Thomas who in his opera “Mignon” gives it a haunting melody. When Mignon sings “Connais tu le pays” you cannot help but follow her to her Paradise Lost. Forcefully removed from an idealized land, she conjures it as if in a trance.
This yearning for a golden past is also present in Verdi’s opera Nabuco. The Jewish People forced into exile to Babylon sing “Va Pensiero,” a lament of nostalgia for the sights and smells and feel of their far away land.

Throughout history, in ancient Greece and Rome, exile was a form of punishment imposed on enemies, non- conformists and political opponents. Napoleon was sent to Elba and then to St Helena, Victor Hugo to Guernsey and Solzhenitzyn was exiled from the Soviet Union along with many other “enemies of the regime.”

There is a category of writers who flourished in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and then also in Vienna between the two world wars, who have experienced a sense of dislocation when their safe and happy past disappeared in the distance. Stefan Zweig describes this feeling very well…a feeling of missing the happiness you once had, a feeling associated with a place and with days gone forever, of the world of yesterday. He calls the period before World War I:the golden age of security.

Many Austrian Jews who thought they had assimilated, were bitterly disappointed in the 1930’s when they realized they had been living in a fool’s paradise. They felt themselves forcibly expelled into a hostile world. The composer Bela Bartok was intimately tied to the land where he lived, to its folklore and music. He had transcribed 6,000 folk songs of Slovak, Romanian and Transylvanian origin. He left his home for the United States during World War II and found himself a man without a country. He felt unappreciated and struggled with sickness and poverty. Caught in the storm, he never recovered.

We know many other exiles from that lost world:
Mahler, Freud, Klimt, Kafka, Koestler. Some survived better than others but all had lost an essential part of themselves.

Not every plant can successfully be transplanted. Some roots are too deep and some trees are too well adapted to their terrain to thrive elsewhere. Similarly, some people are too embedded in their milieu to uproot successfully. Zweig and Koestler both committed suicide, torn from their connections and unable to face the unknown.

Today many exiles flee from war-torn countries. Their fate is even worse because of the brutality of their forced exodus and the physical dangers they face. They cannot even allow themselves the luxury of giving voice to their distress. They are too preoccupied with day-to-day and moment-to-moment survival.

What If Women Ran The World

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

 

If you click on this link, you will be taken to Simone’s blog post that appeared on the site called Medium.com

It’s a terrific post and received thousands of appreciations on the site. At the end you find over 100 comments from readers.

It was a fun experience going out into the wider world.  And Medium.com is a terrifically interesting site.

 

Simone is working on new posts even as you read this and you will hear more from her soon.

 

The Editor

 

 

Oh! Those French “Premieres Dames”

Danielle Mitterand with President Francois Mitterand

 

Just like their American counterparts, French First Ladies have no real existence. They have no official function and no defined role. They just “come with” and “go with” the President they happen to have married. People mostly see them stepping out of a plane with their spouses looking decorative and smiling bravely. They are then whisked away into some kind of limbo and are not seen again until the next ceremonial moment.

 

Martha Washington

In the USA, the expression First Lady came into common use in the late 1800’s, but an early description of Martha Washington described her as “The first lady of the nation.”

Like their American counterparts, the French Premieres Dames are expected to find a worthy cause to sponsor, often of a charitable or humanitarian nature and without the slightest hint of controversy.

Sometimes First Ladies have modest roles in local politics but they always have to be careful not to outshine the charismatic men who are their spouses.

 

French President Georges Pompidou and his wife Claude sitting on an ornate couch together in the Elysee Palace, Paris, June 21st 1969. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

George Pompidou’s wife, Claude, presided over the Foundation to Protect Modern Art. Danielle Mitterand was president of France Liberte Foundation which advocates for clean water as a human right.

Bernadette and Jacques Chirac

 

Bernadette Chirac is also fighting for feminist issues, especially in underdeveloped countries. She is concerned with girls’ education, forced marriages, sexual harassment, and rape.

 

Yvonne and Charles de Gaulle 1941

Yvonne de Gaulle, wife of French President Charles de Gaulle, started the tradition of a self-effacing President’s wife. She had to. She barely existed, dwarfed by her husband’s gigantic personality and 6-1/2 foot height.

In an interesting twist, Francois Hollande has the distinction of coming to the Presidency with one female companion and leaving it with another.

Francois Hollande with Valérie Trierweiler. They were together until 2014.

 

At this year’s G-7 held in Biarritz in August Benadette Macron organized spouses’ activities and the usual photo opportunities.

Bernadette and Emmanuel Macron

 

At that event, Melania Trump, resplendent in her long white dress, paraded her lavish wardrobe and promoted Gucci, Calvin Klein and other apparel firms. It looks like a President’s wife (whether in France or in the USA) has to content herself with modest occupations and a small role in history.*

*One notable exception is Eleanor Roosevelt who I blogged about previously. Here is a link to that posting.

Simone’s Eleanor Roosevelt Blog Post

Death and Life of The Arab Spring..

It has now been nearly a decade since a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire in a protest against police brutality and corruption. Thus began, “The Arab Spring” protests driven by millions of people who wanted participation in the governance of their countries.

But when it was over the foundations and pillars on which freedom is built were not there.

Egypt is again a repressive police state. In Yemen, the President fell but instead of reforms, there came Civil War, cholera and famine. Here, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being played out causing much suffering and death.

Even more stable states such as Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco are grappling with the fallout of discontent and unrest.

Tunisia emerged as the only “success story.”  In 2013 it adopted a secular constitution. There were 26 candidates for President, and a runoff election narrowed it to 2. But before the runoff one of these candidates, Nabib Karaoui (who got the highest percentage of the votes in the general election) was jailed on charges of corruption and money laundering. Usually leaders have to be in office a while to achieve this distinction.

Voting In Tunisia

 

Democracy in Tunisia may be delivering what seems like a meager result, but the simple fact that ordinary citizens are participating and expressing their choices is rare enough in the Middle East to be worth mentioning.

The flame needs to be nourished and in time it may catch on and maybe even spread. President Obama had expressed interest in the outcome but of course our current President is viewing it with complete indifference.

Last week in Egypt, thousands of people in Cairo and Alexandria continued protests which began in September demanding that President Abdel Fatah al Sisi beremoved from power. They are being met by severe reprisals, imprisonments  and  other punitive measures prompting Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to label Egypt a repressive regime. But none of this is deterring the peoples’ determination to oppose the government.

The flame of the Tunisian Spring is still flickering feebly. It must  not be allowed to die out.