End of Summer Roundup

I had an incredibly busy summer with approximately a zillion editing projects. Working with other people’s voices unfortunately affects my own voice. You could say I had a kind of laryngitis of my own writing voice – along with a lack of time, inclination, inspiration, and energy.

Baby steps to find my way back to the blog…

Elections

Israel just had its second election in five months. Seriously, America, you gotta up your game! What is the deal with a nearly two-year campaign to elect one person?

To be fair, while we can have an election really quickly, the result does leave something to be desired. There’s not much use in analysis right now since we don’t have a coalition and if one can’t be formed, we’ll have yet another election. Yay?

Am I Disloyal

I really wanted to write when this hit the news cycle, but it took me a while to process this one because as a citizen of two countries, I’m the poster child for “dual loyalty.”

When I vote in Israel, I vote as an Israeli. I think about what is good for Israel. When I vote in US elections, I vote as an American. I think about what is good for the United States. It’s weird to me to vote for a US president who is “good for Israel.” It would also be weird to me to choose a party in Israel that is “good for the United States.” I expect the US president to think about the United States and its citizens before he or she thinks about what’s good for other countries. I expect the prime minister of Israel to think about what’s good for Israel and its citizens before he or she thinks about what’s good for other countries. It’s a pretty strict compartmentalization, but for me that’s the only way to think about how to use my voting power.

Does that make me disloyal? Not to my own principles and values.

Fiction Illuminates Reality

I did manage to take a few breaks (no spoilers).

Beforeigners

Along with my love of Korean drama, I really enjoy Nordic Noir (think Girl with Dragon Tattoo and the original The Bridge). This short series has a paranormal twist: people from the past appear in the bay in Oslo. A short time in the future, many more of these “beforeigners” have arrived and there are huge populations of, for lack of a better term, “Norwegians” from the Stone Age, the age of Vikings, and the 19th century. Many don’t understand modern ways and live in the streets. They cook on open fires in parks. Some don’t believe in a Christian god. Graffiti shows up: “Norway for Nowaday People!”

In short, this show is able to show any horror that a refugee or immigrant might face without any backlash from any group. All the “foreigners” are from the exact same area, only a different time. There are a few scenes showing that beforeigners are picked up out of the water and taken to tent camps. They are scared, confused, and some lost their memories. They have nothing but the clothes on their backs. They are quarantined, drugged, sent to classes to help them adjust. Workplaces are openly prejudiced against beforeigners.

Illumination: It is a default response to reject the Other – someone different from us. To elevate ourselves, we have to acknowledge it and not pretend that there is some rationalization for “us” vs “them.” Build connections and find commonality. And then we can create a better future with everyone in it.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

I have to be careful here to avoid spoilers. (By the way: 2 Thumbs up!)

Villain: “The truth is what I say it is!”

Whoa Nelly! He’s the villain because he’s forcing his worldview on everyone else. I think we see that a lot in our online culture. We also see it in the many truths of multiple narratives. There may be a truth there, but it is not the only truth.

Illumination: What we learn through the movie is that you have to retain a sense of self to see through the illusion that others project onto you and the world around you. The key, of course, is to remember that yours too is not the only truth. (P.S. This will make more sense if you stay through to the end of the credits!)

Commitment

From here, I want to get back to a regular writing practice. I’ve missed it.

TV Review – Timeless

Short review: A historian, a soldier, and an engineer fighting a worldwide conspiracy to change history by traveling through time? Yes, please! Bonus: Goran Višnjić!

This was one of those shows that had to fight to stay on the air, but we got two good seasons. Thankfully, they had a Christmas special to tie up the loose ends and keep the door open a crack for a new series in the future.

As a historian, I found myself curious about the time periods and characters that they met. I spent time afterward looking up names and dates and thought about moments in history that might have ripple effects in the future – personal moments or historic moments. Just for sparking curiosity, I think this series is worth watching and I can’t wait to see more from Eric Kripke and Shaun Ryan.

Long review: More detailed descriptions of elements I liked. Not exactly spoilers, but if you don’t want to know, you’ve been warned.

timeless

I’ve written before about narratives in history and versions of truths and ultimate truths. And this series takes those ideas and turns them into an interesting story that opens the door to hidden histories. Each episode goes to a different time period and while we might think that the Time Team, as they are called online, is there to stop or save a big event, sometimes it’s a small event that has repercussions generations later.

This can be personal or simply an unknown story. For instance, I had no idea that a little recording session in 1936 by a guy named Robert Johnson would spark blues music, which would lead to rock and roll, the 1960s movements, and eventually to questioning authority (what the bad guys don’t want).

When you deal with merging multiple voices and multiple narratives the right way, you learn about characters you didn’t know before, like Grace Humiston, the first female Special Assistant US Attorney. She was known as Mrs. Sherlock Holmes for helping to solve cold cases involving missing women.

One fun episode was running into Ian Fleming in Nazi Germany. Fleming is the author of all the James Bond novels and he was a real-life spy during World War II. Another is stopping by the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Having read Devil in the White City, I already knew that this was about one of the US’s most famous serial killers. Bonus for that episode: Harry Houdini. And what do you know about Hedy Lamarr? She wasn’t just a pretty face on the silver screen in the 1940s; if you use Bluetooth technology, then you are using something based on the principles she developed. If you haven’t seen the movie Hidden Figures, would you know anything about Katherine Johnson, a black woman working at NASA in the 1960s who made the lunar landing possible with her calculations?

A seemingly benign episode might have bigger repercussions if you think about it. The trio go back and meet the first black NASCAR driver, Wendell Scott. A number of auto executives were going to attend the race. So what happens if the execs get killed by the bad guys? Who would control the whole auto industry?

My favorite thing about the show is that it sparked my curiosity. We all know the basics of history, but to get the full truth, you have to hear all the voices. This was a great way to introduce untold stories to US audiences who suffered through white man’s history. (Or, in the vernacular of my liberal arts university: his-story.)

The great thing about this show is that we see people outside stereotypes. The historian is a young-ish woman. The engineer is a black Star Wars geek who graduated MIT. Another engineer is a Lebanese woman who likes Star Trek. The special agent in charge is Indian (from India) and is married to a black woman. The one character that is stereotypical is the Delta Force soldier; he’s a tasty morsel of all-American origin.

The show takes on the challenge of what a woman or a black man can do in history when neither one of those was respected in society. History is not seen through rose-colored glasses, but it’s not seen as the Dark Ages either. People survived and even thrived. The trio also has to make some tough choices. Would you try to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln?

If you watch a lot of TV and movies (who me?), then you’ll also get the inside jokes. Some of the most fun moments are when they make up names to hide their identities. Cagney and Lacey are investigators. Lando Calrissian is a record producer. John Maclane and Hans Gruber team up. Denzel Washington is a Civil War soldier. Every episode has fun Easter eggs if you’re quick enough to catch them.

Bottom line: If you like history, if you like turning what you know on its head, if you like to be challenged, and if you like laughing, then this show is for you.

Hunkering down

While I’m sure other stuff has been happening around the world, the last couple of weeks in Israel and the United States have been crazy.

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How we deal with it at my house

In the US, we had a blue wave in the House, more firings in the White House, CNN had a stand-off with the president, the president popped over to France, and major elections had recounts.

In Israel, the apathy of the citizens of Jerusalem was staggering – the new mayor won by about 6,500 votes in a city with a population of 865,000 with only 30% of eligible voters voting. Israel is defending its citizens against attacks by Gazan rockets (460 rockets over several days from Gaza into Israel), but now there is a cease-fire. However, the defense minister stepped down, which rocked the delicate coalition, and that may bring about national elections.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Yeah? I’ll have some of that fiction now, please.

The nice thing about fiction is that it’s clean and all the boring unimportant bits are taken out. You don’t have to waste your time on details that don’t push the story along. Real life has just too much stuff going on and you don’t know what’s really important or which way to look.

I’m a fan of thrillers, mysteries, police procedurals, and I’m not averse to vigilantes with strict internal moral codes. At the moment, my fictional world is making a lot more sense than real life. But I do need fiction that makes me think. I need a theory or a particular worldview to chew on.

A few weeks ago, a British show called Strangers caught my attention. A few of the main characters are British, but it was filmed in Hong Kong with Chinese actors speaking Chinese (scenes with subtitles!). My original thought about reviewing this series was to point out that Britain is now getting in on the Asian drama wave. But I’m going to take it in a different direction.

What I loved about this show was that it was filled with twists and turns I didn’t see coming. I know the usual tropes, so I really appreciate a show that keeps you guessing. For instance, here is a synopsis of the first fifteen minutes: A woman is driving while crying on the phone. She’s hit by a truck. A self-satisfied professor starts his lecture and is pulled out of the lecture hall to be told his wife has died in a car accident. He’s afraid of flying, but goes to Hong Kong to identify his wife’s body and bring her back to England. He sees a man holding a picture of his wife. Who is this man? None other than her Chinese husband who she’s been married to for the past 20 years.

Say what? I’m hooked. And it goes on like that for eight episodes: an unexpected twist every fifteen minutes or so.

I won’t spoil it for you. The unraveling of the mystery is very well done; I enjoyed the meandering pace.

What made me think, though, was a nearly throwaway line in the first minutes of the show. The smug professor wrote a book called Do Nations Exist? The brown-nosing student says “Nations are imagined; they only exist in our minds.” The professor answers, “Surely a group of people claiming to be a cohesive whole is, at best, a lie agreed upon.”

You can watch the whole show without ever thinking about this line ever again. However, given the events of real life, you might see that the story shows you the answer. Our professor leaves his ivory tower and arrives in a dirty, dark, smoggy Hong Kong. He finds that everything he thinks is true is not, everything he expects in the world is upside-down, and all of his British cultural touchstones have no meaning in Hong Kong. He expects the police to help, they don’t. He expects the British consular officers to help, they don’t. He thinks the Chinese husband is working against him, he isn’t. Then there’s the journalist, the university friend, the activist, the refugee, the Triad gangster, the conglomerate owner, the British consul, the hotel manager – no one is who they appear to be. And what about the elections in Hong Kong? There are protests and the usual rumors and power plays. But how does it fit in? (As I mentioned, nothing is introduced that isn’t important. It’s clean and we know where to look, even if it might be misdirection on the part of the writer.)

It’s possible that the important bit of the line is “a lie agreed upon.” When you hold up the mirror of fiction to real life, you might find that everything you think is true isn’t. All your expectations are baseless. Your interactions in the world go awry because you are a stranger in a strange land.

But then why throw in nations at all? Do they exist? Well, I suppose it depends on who you ask. If you are inside, then they don’t – or don’t have to. If you are outside, then they most assuredly do.

As for me, for the moment, I prefer to stay in my fictional world that makes some kind of sense. Real life is just too crazy right now.

Here’s the opening of Strangers

And a quick teaser

“Won’t you be my neighbor?”

“Mom, can I go visit with Mr. Rogers?”

Taking her 5-year-old’s request very seriously, she asked, “Well, how long will you be gone?”

“Oh, about a half an hour.”

“Ok. Have a good time.”

And I plunked myself down in front of the television and had an undisturbed visit with Mr. Rogers.

***

This Google Doodle is only in the United States and I know Mister Rogers is more or less an American phenomenon. I wish it was global.

There is only one person in the whole world like you, and people can like you just because you’re you.”

A great message to give to children.

You are special and so is everyone else in this world.”

A reminder that we should not only value ourselves, but that each person has value.

“Childhood lies at the very heart of who we are and who we become.”

Our childhoods don’t have to be perfect, but if we are allowed to use the tools to learn and grow from our experiences, then we can make ourselves and the world around us better.

***

All of Mr. Rogers’ messages fit in with the Jewish value of choosing life.

And where there is life, there is hope.

Perhaps this Google Doodle will remind people, especially people in power, of a few simple truths:

“I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants. It doesn’t matter what our particular job, we are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen – day and night!”

“I’d like to be remembered for being a compassionate human being who happened to be fortunate enough to be born at a time when there was a fabulous thing called television that could allow me to use all the talents that I had been given.”

So now, in the New Year, and a day before my birthday (my own new year), I wish you all a life of purpose and meaning, doing the things that you love that make you, your families, and the world around you better.

And if you need a little inspiration, go have a visit with Mr. Rogers. It is surely time well spent.

“True”

The news has taken a lot of my attention this week and I want to share a thought about the controversial book, Fire and Fury. There was this quote (image from the Kindle preview and full disclosure, I haven’t read the book)

fire and fury

It sounds like what he’s saying is that untruth is part of this book. So then what do you believe? This is something that has been touched on in different reports, but is not explored in depth.

It reminded me about biased journalism against Israel that reporters often deny. One well-known example of this is the battle in Jenin in 2002. Journalists faithfully and accurately quoted the residents of Jenin and Palestinian spokespeople who said that 400-500 Palestinians were massacred in Jenin and that the Israelis committed war crimes. These allegations spread throughout all the news outlets because they were indeed accurately reported. It’s just that what was said was not at all true. In fact, 52-54 Palestinians and 23 IDF soldiers were killed in the fighting. By the time that came out, no one was listening and so when people think of Jenin, the first thing they usually think is “massacre.” (It’s also true that Israel did not handle the media properly at the time and restricted their access.)

I’m not defending the Trump White House here, but Michael Wolff has basically done the same thing. He has faithfully and accurately reported things that were said to him, but he has no way of knowing which parts are true unless he was a witness. Does DT go to bed at 6:30pm with a cheeseburger? Who knows? Did all those people call him different variations of stupid? Only if Michael Wolff heard it with his own ears. Did he not want to win the presidency? Unknown.

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Some in the media think that it’s enough to say that what they are reporting is “true” simply because it is exactly what someone said. They need to also check that what is being said is objectively true. When Sean Spicer said that the crowd was the biggest that there had ever been for an inauguration, the media did their due diligence and showed that this was objectively untrue. They need to apply the same standards across the board to all their news stories. They need to remember that they are not just reporters of statements (or tweets), but investigative journalists who have a responsibility as the Fourth Estate to find out what is true, and not limit their investigations to what fits their own personal agendas and the story they want to tell. That means that whether a journalist is pro or anti Trump or pro or anti Israel, their first responsibility is to get as close to the objective truth as they can.

I saw an interesting piece about journalists in the Netherlands grilling US Ambassador to the Netherlands Pete Hoekstra about false statements he made about Dutch politicians being burned and “no-go zones” taken over by Muslim extremists. The Dutch journalists banded together and no one asked any other question except if he would give an example or retract his statements. They asked quietly and respectfully, but did not back down.

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If we can get the media to investigate something, what I’d like to know is: If the president is playing golf and cutting back on his schedule (starting his day at 11am and scheduling “executive time” for hours every day), then who is picking up the slack? I can imagine that the ship of government continues to sail without a strong rudder, but shouldn’t someone be at the helm? Is there an autopilot? Can the ship run aground? And if so, what happens then? Or, and I may be veering into conspiracy theory territory here, perhaps there is someone in the background (who did not run for president) who is actually steering the ship? Is the apparent chaos in the White House a distraction?

The 24-hour news cycle and ratings/clicks-driven stories don’t necessarily leave a lot of time for journalistic integrity and investigation. But maybe we as consumers need to demand more, demand better, and demand verifiable and objective truths.

“Alternative Facts”? Sure, I’ve heard of those!

alt-factsI just liked this headline from The Guardian

When Kellyanne Conway used this phrase this week, my first thought was that if she had any sense she would have said that it was a “different interpretation of facts.”  And then it occurred to me, “Hey, we have plenty of ‘alternative facts’ reported about us in Israel.”

A few weeks ago 4 soldiers were run over by a truck driver on purpose in a targeted attack.  Here’s what the BBC first reported.

bbcScreenshot from my computer

There is actually nothing untrue in this headline.  A truck driver was shot.  It happened in Jerusalem.  There were allegations that he hit people and injured them.  And the Israeli media reported it.

But do you see the problem here?  It’s the arrangement and presentation of the facts.

Does it feel different when you see the headline this way?  Here’s their later post.

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Screenshot from my computer

Still true, but now you understand who the victims are and who the perpetrator is and that it was an attack – not an alleged attack according to others.

I’m an editor.  I work with words for a living and it matters how facts are framed.  For instance:

Four young soldiers murdered in vicious truck ramming attack.

Four killed by truck.

Truck driver runs over four soldiers.

Terrorist shot in his truck after he killed four soldiers.

Truck driver shot after fatal accident kills four.

All of these sentences have the same facts, but you feel differently about each because of how those interpretations are framed.  And yet none of them is a lie.

The most shocking example of different interpretations of facts I’ve heard of was in 2007 when a master’s student won an award for a research thesis that looked into the question of why IDF soldiers don’t rape Palestinian women.  Her conclusion – hold on to your socks – it’s because IDF soldiers are racists and dehumanize Palestinian women so they wouldn’t even want to rape them.  Let me repeat.  She WON AN AWARD for this work and Hebrew University stood behind the decision.  (Here’s an analysis of the paper done by a professor at Haifa University. Here’s a shorter article about it.)

That’s an alternative fact if ever I’ve heard one.

I’m not defending Kellyanne Conway.  I’m not defending journalists who write news stories with their own biases and agendas.  And I’m not defending the academic world.

I’m appealing to you, dear reader, to be aware.  Read multiple news sources.  Read news you don’t agree with (in moderation if you have high blood pressure).  Watch out for fake news.  Analyze and deconstruct what you read and hear.  More than anything else, hold people accountable for the words they use and how they use them.

More on history and truth from my blog:

The truth about history.

How history will remember.

UNESCO rewrites history.