Thursday, December 26, 2013

December 26, 2013 Toward a Kinder, Gentler America? Schindler’s List and the False God

December 5 of 2013 marked the twentieth anniversary of the release of Schindler’s List, a movie that generated a feeling of hope for mankind. Unfortunately, what followed the movie’s premier was a series of disastrous events that resulted in the current state of affairs found in this country. In essence, the entire process reminded me of a malignancy:  a slow, tedious, and agonizingly downward spiral, with the end result being the demise of a nation.

How did this come about? How did we get from a feeling of hope to one of death?

To begin with, some background about the film is necessary. In a March 4, 2010 interview, the actor, Ralph Fiennes, spoke of the cadenced effect of evil [he played the Nazi officer, Amon Goeth, in the film], saying how hard it was “to order so many meters of barbed wire and so many fencing posts, and I had to get so many people from A to B.” Fiennes continued by saying Goeth was really letting off steam about the difficulties of the job, “and so I suppose you can step back and say that is where the evil is…you can step back and look at it.”

The movie, Schindler’s List [a production filmed in black and white], had a tragic melody played by violinist Itzhak Perlman. That music evoked sadness in me with its leitmotif of man’s inhumanity to man; and that was coupled with the idea of an unspeakable cruelty conjured up in the collective soul of one race of men toward another. Of note, the live YouTube recording in Chile with Perlman had scenes from the movie playing on a projection screen behind the orchestra, thus heightening this evil, giving it a very real presence. In one part, for example, there was the little Jewish girl in bright, vivid red [the only color used in the film] holding a Nazi officer’s hand as they walked along a street strewn with refugees, and then, later, her running alone up the street, her face a mask of child-like confusion amidst all the madness going on. Finally, in a desperate move, she retreated to her second floor bedroom, where she hid under her bed. Her angelic face peered out into the room. But we all know what came next, what fate had in store for her, because she was seen, later on, lying dead on a cart as it was pulled through the streets.

In a Guardian interview, the composer John Williams said he “was amazed by the film,” and felt it would be too challenging to write the score. He said to Spielberg, “You need a better composer than I am for this film.” Spielberg responded, “I know. But they’re all dead!’” Later, Williams said that “Steven is a very warm man. The success of his films is not so much the result of craft and artifice. Rather, it’s because of his basic humanity.”

One of the self-appointed critics on YouTube asked what did Spielberg or Perlman know about the holocaust, since they were both born well after the end of WWII. To me, this argument is akin to saying what did Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) know about the Reformation, which took place between the 14th and 17th centuries, or other such events when he wrote his ten-volume A Study of History? The same could apply to other famous historians. In essence, one makes judgments based on the evidence presented, not on ad hominem arguments.

An Audiophileparadise review stated that “the [Schindler’s List theme] song has a quite sober opening, but starts to rip open your heart from 00:14 when it starts that loop which made it so famous.” The reviewer goes on to speak of several more loops—high and low—“sometimes going off the loop but never off the track so that all throughout the song, you feel as if the loop is trying to convey the sorrow of 6 million unfortunate Jewish souls to you.”

The YouTube recording with Božo Paradžik on double bass gave the music a more somber effect, perhaps because it was played an octave lower. Nevertheless, the melody was equally as compelling as the Perlman recording, perhaps more so. The double bass [as well as Perlman’s violin] personified that feeling of the sorrow of “6 million unfortunate Jewish souls,” as mentioned in the Audiophileparadise review above.

I listened to perhaps a dozen other recordings, with piano and violin, a solo piano, and, lastly, a violin solo. The recordings ranged from mediocre to good, from professionally detached to emotionally involved, but none of them, with the exception of the Paradžik double bass, came close to the feeling engendered by the Perlman recording.

What profoundly struck me in the Perlman recording was the expression of deep sorrow on the artist’s face and in his eyes. When he played, it was as if he was making the violin cry, pulling the sorrow from the music in a tonal catharsis that was a purging of all mankind’s hate. In this sadness I felt a message being conveyed that somewhere in this mad, god-forsaken world there was hope for us. I likened the process to that of holding a shriveled, water-starved flower at arm’s length when it began to rain. And, slowly, as in the music, the flower lifted its head toward the heavens and asserted its right to grow once again.

But, alas, hope was supplanted by the rebirth of evil in new forms:  an-going war in Iraq with its thousands of casualties; pictures of Americans torturing and being tortured; wedding parties bombed on the celebrant’s day of happiness and rejoicing; and IED’s blowing to smithereens soldiers and civilians alike. Next, arose the war in Afghanistan which was like a spider’s web, drawing in all who dared trespass upon its peripheries. And it was a never-ending war, much as the Hundred Years War between England and France. Coupled to the above events was the construction of a North Africa command which expanded the scope of control over that continent. This was followed by a depression; and then the Drone Experiment, the latter in actuality a process much akin to Hemingway’s “mechanized doom” in the way it spread terror and destruction not only from the sky, but from thousands of miles away. It was a system designed to assassinate leaders not in agreement with Washington’s aims and ideals (sic).

The post Schindler’s List era can be viewed as analogous to two express trains roaring past each other in the night, their noises drifting away to nothingness, totally forgotten and never to be seen or heard from again. Or as Shakespeare put it, “life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”

And the common man, along with his political leaders, cared not a draught about any of this because he was preoccupied with sports and sport’s figures, political squabbling, petty television shows, and discussions about inane subjects.

These forms have become the new opiates of the masses, and it appears their proponents have no desire to reincarnate the images or feelings generated by the hope of Schindler’s List. Their cheering, echoing through the open-air stadium of life, is but a false god.
Raymond Gustavson is the author of A Thirst for War, several short stories, and numerous articles dealing with the VA claims process. He may be reached at raygfl@yahoo.com; or his website: raymondgustavson.com
Sources
Interview with film composer, John Williams – 3 February 2002:  The Guardian
SparkNotes:  Schindler’s List:  Analysis of Major Characters.
Audiophileparadise: Review Of John Williams – Schindler’s List (Theme Song) Aug 20, 2012.
YouTube recording:  Itzhak Perlman. Schindler’s List:  New York Philharmonic
Lincoln Center – September 2012
YouTube recording:  Božo Paradžik, double bass – Recorded live in Berlin (2010)
YouTube recording:  Itzhak Perlman. Schindler’s List, The City of Praga Philharmonic Orchestra at Santiago, Chile on 18th Nov, 2010.
Voices on Antisemitism Interview with Ralph Fiennes from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum – March 4, 2010

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

General Shinseki and Veterans

Here We Go Again

by RAYMOND F. GUSTAVSON, Jr.
On January 21, 2009 the US Senate confirmed Retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as the seventh Secretary of Veterans Affairs.  At stake is a 284,000-employee organization that delivers care and financial benefits to millions of veterans and survivors.  The estimated budget this year is $98 billion and covers a national network of regional offices and health care facilities.
What qualifications and experience does this man bring to this highly visible and important position?
General Shinseki is the product of a military, not veterans, environment.  He graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1965, and was commissioned a 2Lt.  Additional education included a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Duke University, and attendance at the Armor Officer Advanced Course, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, and the National War College.
His combat military experience consisted of two tours in Vietnam as a forward artillery observer; and then as commander of Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment.  During combat, he stepped on a land mine and suffered a severe foot injury.
His non-combat military experience consisted of a variety of command and staff assignments in progressive areas of responsibility in Europe, the Pacific and stateside.  He was also a parachutist and Army Ranger.  His last duty assignment was a four year appointment to Army Chief of Staff, and it was in that position in 2003 that he clashed with then Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld over the number of troops needed for a military victory and post-war stabilization in Iraq.  Following this quarrel he retired in June of 2003.
Since his retirement General Shinseki has served as director of Honeywell International and Ducommun; Grove Farm Corporation; First Hawaiian Bank; and Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.  He has also served on the advisory boards of the Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and the U.S. Comptroller General.  He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and the Association of the United States Army.
General Shinseki thus brings a diverse background that is, unfortunately, unrelated to veterans affairs.  His philosophy contains generalizations as to the course the VA should pursue.  He has stated, for example, that "the overriding challenge… is to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st century organization focused on the Nation’s Veterans as its clients."  He plans to develop a 2010 budget within his first 90 days that will “transform the VA into an organization that is people-centric, results-driven and forward-looking.” 
Other generalizations include enhancing the GI Bill, streamlining the disability claims system, leveraging information technology to accelerate and modernize services, and opening VA’s health care system to veterans previously unable to enroll in it, while facilitating access for returning Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans.
We have heard this talk before, in one form or another, by other incoming Secretaries of Veterans Affairs, and still the VA is bogged down in a myriad of problems.  Speaking in generalities is fine as a starting point, but in the end, the complex problems of the VA will remain basically unchanged unless the man chosen to lead the Agency is familiar with its intimate workings from the ground up.  How do you gain familiarity?  By working in such jobs as file clerk, claims processing clerk, Supervisory Coach, or rating specialist (RVSR) in the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration.  Other examples can be found in the Veterans Hospital Administration (VHA), Loan Guaranty, Office of Inspector General, or Vocational Rehabilitation divisions. 
It could be argued that advisors skilled in the technical aspects of VA claims processing, for example, could be used to assist the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in making correct decisions that impact the future course of the VA.  But such input from advisors lacks one thing:  the inability of the Secretary to test such decisions in a real life scenario by comparing them to his own VA work experience.
Good intentions are fine, but would you hire a plumber to perform an angioplasty?  I think not.
RAYMOND F. GUSTAVSON, Jr. spent 31years of service with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at the St. Petersburg Regional Office, the last five years of which were spent as a Rating Specialist on the Appeals Team. Since retirement he has published articles in Vietnow Magazine, the Marine Corps Gazette, and other magazines.