Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Is life getting better or worse?

I read recently a short story about a disgruntled retired teacher who complained that things are getting worse, the world, morality, education, everything is going downhill. I have also read a piece in the New Yorker in which Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist, argues that by every measurable standard, things are getting better, much better. People are healthier, wealthier and live longer all over the world, poor and rich. Education is better if we don't measure it exclusively by classical Eurocentric essentially British yardstick. Through the internet people have access to infinitely more information, with the ability to sort sound information from from misinformation, the down side of the wealth of information available. Yet there is a wide perception that the world is getting worse. Those of us who have been around for a very long time remember the World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear war, the divisive 60s when Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and other leading controversial public figures were murdered, the Vietnam war, the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Kosovo, Rwanda, and any number of murderous historical events. Compared with these Donald Trump's confused boastful war mongering words hardly rate. Yet people harbour nostalgic feelings for a better past. This is hard to understand. Some old people are excused for thinking that when they were young they were more vigorous, enjoyed life more, others like me appreciate that we live in better, more prosperous times, but why are the young despondent. Looking back on my life, I think that when my generation was young we looked forward to a better future, a fairer, more peaceful world. Now the only things to look forward to are gadgets with more unnecessary gizmos. Again In the New Yorker, the letter writer Randy Olson, quoting Studs Terkel and Victor Fankl asserts that 'quality of life and subjective well-being cannot be evaluated without discussing what is at the core of true happiness - that one's life has meaning'. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The system is broken

Last week I had the privilege of meeting Jenny Salesa, the Associate Minister of Education, who struck me as a very perceptive woman, a good listener who asked searching questions. What I found particularly interesting, however, is what she said about her electorate, Otara, largely Pacifica. She talked about poverty, people, whole families sleeping in their cars because they can't afford to rent in Auckland even in a low decile neighbourhood. These are not bludgers, not addicts, not people on welfare for whatever reason, but people whom National Party politicians would describe as hard-working New Zealanders, couples who work in two jobs for minimum wages. With the free market we imported not only cars, gadgets, cheap gizmos from third world countries, we also imported poverty. Whatever happened to the New Zealand dream of my father's generation, when everyone could get a job and buy a house for three to four times his annual salary? The greedies took over. The way to get ahead is to buy a piece of dirt, limit the land available, so that the piece of dirt would appreciate in value, then leverage the value of that piece of dirt to buy more land, more property, control the availability of land, encourage building monopolies, sit back and watch the value of the assets appreciate. People who prosper on the strength of their assets don't need to worry about the impoverished sleeping in their cars, they can afford to put labels on them, those are improvident, spend their money or drink or gamble their money away. They can be swept under the carpet, ignored. Today's newspaper writes about loan sharks who lend money to the needy at unimaginably usurious rates. There is nothing new about this, colonial New Zealand was built on land speculation. If you had a little capital you signed up for a tracts of land, knowing that the land to be developed was artificially restricted, and watch your money grow. But there was a time when some idealists took over the government and forged a fairer society, riding rough shod over ideas of free market and capitalism. It is time dreamers and idealists unite to forge a fairer society in which people can live in well built, well insulated homes, even if that means entertaining unfashionable economic ideas and taxing unearned wealth more rigorously.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Freedom of speech and related questions

All sorts of 'right minded' people, people whose opinions I thought I would usually respect get their knickers in knots over the question of 'Free speech'. Two speakers whose opinions were considered inflammatory, Stefan Molineux, described as a Canadian journalist, and Lauren Southern, a knock you dead, glamorous 23 year old young woman were refused the use of Auckland City Council owned premises for their address. Some high profile people were up in arms about this, claiming that they were denied their right to say what they wanted to say. Hang on a minute! Who are these speakers and what is their message. We know that they galavant around the world disseminating false and repugnant ideas. Why were they stopped from speaking in the UK, in Australia? Who funds their travel? Whose cause are they promoting? Would anyone argue that everyone has the right to disseminate lies, or would they argue that one person's truth is another's lie. I believe that there is such a thing as fact based truth, and disseminating lies and half-truths to destabilise society is unacceptable. Would the champions of free speech grant the right to people with dissenting opinions to question and comment? I would imagine that such questions and comments would be ruled out of order, or if the person asking the questions persists, he or she would be manhandled and thrown out. But then such rumpus would give the promoters of the event further publicity. For the promoters of extreme causes freedom of speech is a one way street, something they demand for themselves, but as history shows, they answer those who dissent with violence. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Music of conflict

A group of students taking the Music of Conflict course are visiting the Holocaust Centre on Friday. I will need to talk to them about the Holocaust, but what can I say that is relevant to budding musicians? What is there in my past, in my life that is meaningful. Perhaps I should talk about my mother-in-law listening the Hungarian national anthem with tears in her eyes, or my mother celebrating Horthy riding into Kassa (Kosice) on his beautiful white horse when that part of Slovakia was re-incorporated into Hungary, (white horse for an Admiral of the Fleet? but those were topsy-turvy times), or should I talk about Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, in which in the Intermezzo he introduces the theme of the Hungarian folk song, 'I set out from my beautiful country', after all these are music students. Or should I talk about patriotism? Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, said to Benyamin Netanyahu when he visited Israel, that the thing they have in common is that they are both patriots. Patriots, patriotism are dangerous, pernicious terms. No one can question Bartok's love of his country, his patriotism, but his patriotism was inclusive. It included the music, the dances of all the various ethnic minorities that lived on the land that Bartok called his homeland. The Hungary of the Austro-Hungarian Empire defined Hungarians as people who spoke Magyar, the language of the country. This is very different from Orban's patriotism, which sees Hungary as the outpost of European Christianity, that has to build fences, create separations, the patriotism of exclusion. It dwells on the differences, "us" and "them", and if you are not one of "us" you have no share in whatever defines your nationality. So my mother and us, and all Jews, though we spoke beautiful literary Hungarian, were excluded as Jews. We were the 'them'. Once you were excluded you had no claim on patriotism, no claim on your country, no claim on your society, and finally no claim as a human being that is part of the community of the nation. Such Nazi racist ideology lead to conundrums that would be laughable were they not tragic. Modern physics was deemed Jewish science, the art of Jewish artists, musicians was considered 'degenerate'.
The music of such decidedly not Jewish musicians as Stravinsky, Hindemith and many others had the honour of being lumped in with degenerate musicians such as Mendelssohn. The example of the absurdity of this is Vom Judische Schiksal, the work of Richard Fuchs, German Jewish composer, who lived the final years of his life in New Zealand. The four movements of this large symphonic choral work  includes one movement that is a true German marching songs, another that sounds like a Lutheran chorale. Not surprisingly, the German authorities stopped the performance of this work. How could you tell that this was Jewish, not German music. Even they must have seen the absurdity of the concept of 'Jewish' music. The Soviets put other limitations on music. Good music was the Alexandrov Army Ensemble with its faux rousing folk songs on cossack dances, the degenerate music was the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and a long list of the foremost Russian composers, all because Stalin went to the Opera, watched Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsenks and didn't like it. At least, the thing that can be said for Hitler and Stalin is that they cared. Art mattered to them. Donald Trump caring about John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, or even Aaron Copland, is beyond imagination. I can't see Winston Peters, or for that matter John Key getting very bothered about Ross Harris, John Psathas or Gareth Farr. So talking about the Holocaust and music, perhaps even the music of conflict, I should talk about music, patriotism, inclusion and exclusion.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

My father-in law's Yahr-Zeit (Anniversary of his death)

I have been busy working on my stories, revising them, putting them in a collection, so I have not written any blogs for a while, but now, that my last story is finished, there are a few things I will get off my chest.
My father-in-law, George Vamos (Vamos Gyuri) was a wonderful man, a dedicated engineer who pioneered some plumbing techniques in New 
Zealand and became one of the most successful heating and ventilating engineers, specializing in hospital buildings. He was also a devoted father to his three daughters, a devoted loving husband and a loving son and brother. He also had a son, Stephen, who died at a young age, whom he mourned deeply and silently, inwardly. When Gyuri was still a teenager, his father died. Gyuri, living in Budapest, Hungary, said Kaddish (memorial prayer) for his father every day for eleven months. When he emigrated to New Zealand in 1939, he didn't know what to expect, but the one thing he did expect is that Jews will face problems that they always faced wherever they lived and he gave up on his Judaism. From a largely non-practising Jew he turned into a militant atheist, deliberately flaunting every Jewish observance. Like many Jewish immigrants fleeing from European antisemitism, he wanted to blend into New Zealand society. Fat chance! He didn't drink, he didn't watch football, didn't enjoy raucus parties. His close friends were all self-denying Jews like himself. This is the reality of emigration, trying to pretend that you are someone you are not, trying to assimilate. Then when his son, Stephen died, a first, born, a terrible tragedy, he said something odd for an atheist. He said 'Who will say Kaddish for me?' Well, I, another Steven, Pista, Istvan, said Kaddish for him today, thought about him, thought about the terrible decisions he had to make in his life, and how he made the most of his life. He was a man respected by all, his professional associates, engineers, architects, and by his small circle of friends, who appreciated the life he had left behind and the new life he created for himself by dint of single-minded effort and hard work, in face of some humiliation and many obstacles. I also thought that it is not that easy to become a true atheist. When the chips are down you look for some comfort, a consolation that your life was not in vein, that you will be remembered.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What to write about?

I had the privilege of introducing Gigi Fenster's talk yesterday. Gigi is the author of the book Feverish, a book described as a memoir, because you have to know what shelf to put the book on in a library and bookshop, but it is not a memoir in the sense of it being an account of the author's life. It is a meditation on life, on family, friends, the medical history of understanding fever, the history of psychiatry and many other topics, but it is also a meditation on what a writer should write about when she faces writer's block. So Gigi's challenge was to explore what is fever, what people understood by the term over the centuries. She came across Julius Wagner- Jauregg, a now fortunately largely forgotten Austrian physician and psychiatrist who won the Noble Prize for what we know now as a totally misguided treatment of mental illness. In his time, however, Wagner-Jauregg was highly regarded, as were his ideas on euthanasia, National Socialism, and other beliefs that are now considered total rubbish. So the world changes, beliefs change, what is right and what is wrong changes, and as a writer, such changes make up wonderful fodder for subjects for a writer suffering from writer's block. The talk generated lots of questions and comments, and left people with lots of ideas. Perhaps the questions raised will spark more books, but at any rate it will prompt people to dwell into a book that is hard to describe, easy to read but challenging in it scope.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

"It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it"

Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Aboth, Sayings of the Fathers II, 21

This phrase appears in the funeral service, but it is also a useful guide for the living. When I sold my bookshop 18 years ago and retired, Judy, my wife, gave me a Parker pen and said 'go to it, write!'. Writing was always there in background, something I wanted to do, and have dabbled in. I had a short poem published in the NZ Listener way back in 1957, and a short story some years later, but with the pressure of work and the family, writing got left behind. Having retired I had the time, and did get a piece published on the composer and architect, Richard Fuchs, a short booklet about the Jewish philanthropists, Annie and Max Deckston, I wrote numerous book reviews and a chapter on New Zealand Jewish writers in the book, Jewish Lives in New Zealand, Ed. Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow, (Auckland, 2012), I also kept writing stories that languished on my computer, and indeed, some got lost from my computer and survived only as printed copies. Bearing the injunction of Rabbi Tarfon in mind I am revisiting these stories, and gathering them to make up a collection. They are stories of 2000 - 3000 words. This seems to be my appropriate span. I don't write long stories, novels, with complicated plots and many characters. They are all about encounters between people, native New Zealanders and immigrants, fathers and sons, growing old, values of an earlier generation and those of a younger generation. Music features in some of the stories, but by no means in all. Hardly any is autobiographical, but they all draw on my experiences, people I knew, situations I faced. I may never complete the work, but I do not want to desist from it. I don't know what I will do with these stories, but first of all I have to bring them together, revise them, and then I will see what will happen. I seem to have my own voice and the stories are uniquely mine. If I get a bit slack with my blogs, it is because I am working on completing the work I set for myself.