Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why Can't the West Acknowledge the Russian "Invasion" of Ukraine for What It Really Is?

To call Russia's invasion of Ukraine "an invasion" would call for a response that neither NATO nor Washington is ready to give. So the West equivocates, as it dithers and delays, incomprehensibly dismissing a mass movement of Russian troops into neighboring Ukraine as mere "interference."

Putin perpetuates this status quo by his repeated use of "lying" about his illegal military actions in an independent nation, making statements that both he and the West know to be untrue, in the process reviving the use of propaganda, a favorite tool of the former Soviet Union. 

Yet no one dares to challenge him, to call a spade a spade, to call invasion for what it is. Even President Obama himself refers to the invasion as an "incursion." 

This implausible denial of an invasion that has been occurring for the past few months is indeed a novelty I have not yet seen in Western politics. It is nothing but a form of cowardice. After all, to accurately name things, brings with it an ethical and moral responsibility to see them accurately, for what they are, and then for taking the necessary and appropriate actions -- a responsibility the West has repeatedly shown itself shamefully unwilling to accept.

So Putin plods on, plowing further into Ukraine, in large part only because we allow him to do so....

We all know what the truth is, yet the West not only keep hesitating, but also keeps searching for euphemisms, instead of simply stating and therefore acknowledging what is actually occurring.

And no, what has been going on in Ukraine has never been a "civil war," as it was formerly termed, so implying that the military actions there were arising spontaneously from within, rather than as a result of outside Russian provocation. (Also, with the use of the term "civil war," came the implication that what goes on within the nation was its own problem, making a similar shoddy case for Western inaction.)

I have even heard the Western media previously refer to the Ukraine situation as "The Ferdinand," implying that all the invasion is just an insignificant territorial dispute involving a major power and a largely unknown nation, and is therefore better left ignored, lest it become a powder keg that will set off a nuclear war. 

What does the use of all these misnomers and euphemisms and equivocations imply? Is the simple straightforward truth no longer relevant?  And what is all this use of newfangled milquetoast terms like "incursions" and "interferences" really all about? After all, we all know good communication requires clear and precise diction and avoids the use of vague, imprecise words that serve more to obfuscate than to communicate. Are we really no different from the former Soviet Union in that we no longer seem to be able to speak freely, clearly, and with conviction but express ourselves in some sort of distorted doublespeak. 

Have we all become puppets trying to appease Putin?

For how long will the West allow Putin to continue with his obvious lies in his war of aggression? For how long will we indulge him in his yearning for a return to Soviet times and in his quest for territorial expansion, as we dilly dally about sanctions and choose to not only ignore but remain oblivious to the larger implications of his actions and to the the humanitarian dictates of international law? For how long can the West deny its ethical and moral imperative to act decisively in the name of freedom, human dignity and justice?   

In the meantime, I am just getting more and more worried about Ukraine.... 

(c) Olya Thompson

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

I Am Ukrainian

I am Ukrainian. I want to tell you what that personally means for me. It means my family was targeted and killed by the Soviets, either shot, poisoned, tortured, exiled, simply "disappeared," or worse.... The stories I heard about the atrocities committed are unspeakable in the literal meaning of word.... Needless to say, I never knew my grandparents.... Indeed, my grandfather is now being honored abroad in Ukraine as a "martyr" for his good deeds during the war.  

I grew up in this welcoming nation with this very sad legacy....  I don't know if this is something the ordinary American can imagine... I also grew up speaking a language that was officially banned in the Soviet Union. I also grew up during a time when Ukraine, the country my parents came from, did not even "officially" exist, except in my parents' memories. So much for Soviet plans to eradicate Ukrainian history....

Now for a bit of real history: 

Western Ukraine was a part of the Austria-Hungary Empire, and only came under Soviet rule after WWII. It has always had traditional European democratic values and a culture very much  influenced by the music and culture of Vienna. In Eastern Ukraine, a mass genocide ordered by Stalin during forced collectivization went famously unreported at the time by New York Times writer Walter Duranty. The area was then repopulated by Russians, which explains why mostly Russian is spoken in the Eastern part of the nation. 

Yes, Stalin killed more people than Hitler, but we never hear much about that .... 

I've been observing all the developments in Ukraine from afar, ever since the first demonstrators assembled in the capital city of Kiev's central square or "Maidan" in November, to protest their corrupt leader's breaking an agreement over a trade pact with the European Union, only to side with Russia. I was saw the movement spontaneously morph into an outright rejection of Russian dominance, and I saw those statues of Lenin (those lingering symbols of the Soviet era) finally being toppled after years of Ukraine's "independence." And next came the ouster of a thuggish leader (who, by the way, did not even speak the nation's language and who actually fired upon his own people), and with this, the prospect of an independent European Ukraine.

Ukraine has been a long-suffering nation with European values and has long yearned for democracy, for self determination, and for basic human rights. Espousing those values, Ukrainians are clearly more than fed up with Russian corruption, autocracy, terror, and violation of those basic human rights. Finally, they have made bid to distance themselves from Russia.

Such a scenario most predictably gave rise to the threats, propaganda, censorship, and violence emanating from Russia. As Vlad has shown, Russia will not let go of Ukraine easily, but would much prefer a return to Soviet times.There has been much misinformation and even outright lies disseminated by Russia, misinformation that resembles that of the Soviet era

Ukraine's situation has long been crying out for support from other democratic nations. I cannot understand why we have waited so long. Americans have an ethical imperative to be informed about history, to pay attention, as others European nations have already done, to try to intervene and assist, to support basic human rights in Ukraine. It seems to me that we Americans are a much too complacent people here, as we are so used to personal freedoms that other nations do not have. Such freedoms are very precious and we can never afford to take them for granted. 

I am drawing on those very freedoms in my speaking out about this situation. I am dearly hoping and praying that Ukrainians will finally get to live in  the civil society for which they have long yearned and that they will finally be granted the rights that all human beings deserve.

(c) Olya Thompson

Friday, May 31, 2013

Unethical Labor Practices and the Bangladeshi Factory Collapse

American multinational companies, including Walmart and Sears, make their profits by outsourcing their work -- at the cost of exploiting poor laborers in developing nations who work in unsafe conditions and do not make a decent wage.   In that sense these companies not only have a role but were complicit in the horrific Bangladeshi factory collapse.

The Bangladeshi workers knew the factory was unsafe. Despite their articulated fears, nothing was done, and they were forced to continue work there. Other abuses abounded in Bangladesh, such as recurring factory fires, yet no one paid attention or took responsibility.  

Who are these people who run these corporations that outsource jobs that are performed in unsafe conditions, rather than provide a decent wage for unemployed American workers? How could they be permitted to opt out of providing the protections that developed nations require by law? How could they be allowed to bypass the regulations that govern worker safety here?  

Obviously, the leaders of these corporations do not care about decent working conditions or worker safety in poor nations, as long as there is a profit to be made. The fact the we now have a global economy may have enriched them, but at what cost to others?

Is this what we Americans call "free enterprise?" Is this what American capitalism has come to stand for?

It is unconscionable for American companies to sell such goods, considering the circumstances under which they are made. Their labor practices reveal the moral and ethical corruption that lies beneath this era of unprecedented accumulation of wealth.

And those who run these multinational companies are responsible for our nation's increasing financial divide. These corporate leaders who earn astronomical salaries now make up a large part of our nation's entitled 1 per cent. When it comes to greed and exploitation of others, they have no scruples.

How would our nation respond if a disaster, such as the predictable Bangladeshi factory collapse, occurred here? This tragedy calls to mind the fatal fire of 1911 at the Triangle factory that operated in New York City under sweatshop conditions, and other such abuses, that led to the formation of unions and protections for workers here. Ironically, these very protections now make employers claim that American workers are too expensive to hire as they opt to "outsource" or send jobs abroad.

Obviously, foreign workers that make goods for American companies are in need of such protections too.  The horrific death toll at the Bangladeshi factory, as of today, May 31, according to the Times, numbers 1,129.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Horror

I am absolutely sickened by the grisly photo that has by now become the iconic image of the Boston Marathon: a man who had his legs blown off to the point where one could only see jagged bones. Yet I am heartened by the story of the unidentified man in the cowboy hat who came to his aid and is credited with saving his life. I am also heartsick about the parents, who recognized their son in the grisly photo. I feel sick that an innocent 8-year-old child had reportedly died, and by the news of the latest developments, each new revelation serving to make this horror more horrific.

But what is going on in our nation? Angelic children killed in a school shooting? People gathered together enjoying a marathon event who get their legs blown off by bombs intended to main and hurt? Where is all this evil and hate and harming of innocent people coming from?

No place is safe anymore.

And we do not summon sufficient outrage to address the underlying causes -- at Sandy Hook Elementary School, for example, by responding with divisiveness and not by repealing the Second Amendment, banning guns,  and finally championing public safety. 

As for the Boston tragedy, we have yet to learn the underlying causes.... As more and more details unfold, I am overwhelmed with helplessness as I think about the trauma of the innocent victims. And whatever the cause is, we will finally need to join together as a society and address it...

I then begin think of the death of the innocent people who died at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre shooting. I think of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her long and brave rehabilitation. The list is endless...

I am just overwhelmed and heartsick. And then my thoughts go back to the trauma of 9/11 that still lingers here, and with each of these events, reverberates again in this City.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

On Libya: We Reap What We Sow

"What difference does it make!" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shouted down the investigators at the Congressional hearings in a fact-finding inquiry as to the circumstances of the tragic death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya.

"What mattered was that four Americans died," Hillary went on, evading the question.

The controversy centered on whether the attack in  Benghazi was a result of a spontaneous uprising triggered by a hate video as initially reported, or whether it was a planned attack one the United States should have anticipated, which clearly turned out to be  the case.

Hillary was cheered on by her supporters for her chutzpah in standing up to her questioners.

But the point was that it did matter. And her defensive reply, even to Republicans making this into a partisan issue, was neither an adequate nor appropriate response. Certainly she did not address the circumstances of this tragedy, which cast a dark cloud over her tenure as Secretary of State.

She then acknowledged she took the "responsibility" for it, but not the blame.

I myself was wondering why our nation even  had an ambassador in Libya, given the lawlessness there. In addition, it was reported that Stevens himself had expressed concerns about his safety that went unheeded by the State Department. One also wonders why he was protected not by American security personnel but by a hired Libyan militia that in the end, as any observer might have predicted, failed to cooperate with tracking down the perpetrators. 

I cannot help but think back to Clinton's reaction as Secretary of State after she viewed a video of the barbaric and gruesome death of Col. Muammer el-Qadaffi. "We came, we saw, he died," she said blithely, as though our nation were some sort of conquering Caesar.

Our nation ignored those humanitarian calls for an investigation into the dictator's shocking death, although killing a captive without trial is illegal according to the laws of the Geneva Convention. We did not press Libya for justice, although the graphic video captured the images of the perpetrators. Instead, we joked about how dictators deserve to die.

Such actions or non-actions had consequences. Our nation cannot condone behavior that appeals to man's basest emotions, and then naively expect others to abide by the dictates of international law.

In a sense, we initiated this mess by our involvement in the NATO air attack that downed the dictator, euphorically claiming we liberated Libya, only to see our delusions of bringing democracy there give way to the rise of its militant factions. We then ignored the subsequent ominous pronouncements of Sharia law and the abrogations of personal freedoms there.

Those militants who stormed the Benghazi compound on the anniversary of 9/11 and killed the ambassador and three American citizens turned out to be no different than those who barbarically killed Qadaffi. A most sickening video of the burning compound and the obviously brutalized ambassador who reportedly died of smoke inhibition clearly made this point. As before, the perpetrators were known and identifiable, and the Libyans, as before, predictably did nothing.

It is about time the we acknowledge that there is a dark and grim side of the Arab spring, the rise of jihad and internal chaos. Clearly now, as before, Libya has no interest in holding its militants to account. And our efforts to bring to justice those involved in the attack on Benghazi are in vain.

Violence begets violence. We reap what we sow.

As we initially ignored barbaric actions that violated the sensibilities of any human being, we now find ourselves helpless to do anything when our own citizens are subjected to the same shocking form of Sharia justice.

I myself feel extremely sad about this most predictable United States foreign policy disaster.

(c) Olya Thompson

Sunday, March 10, 2013

On Spring-- Another amusing child quote

It was one of the first warm days of February, when the weather seemed to hint at the coming of Spring. "The air was soft," my then-seven-year-old daughter observed,  "soft as my cat's fur."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday Nutcracker Guest Post

My Experience in The Nutcracker Ballet by Natalia, Age 8

School was finished and I was free, but I still had a performance. It was opening night at Lincoln Center. I was nervous. The bus finally came. I got on. After a while my stop came. I got off at 66th Street and went backstage. All the kids who were dancers at The School of American Ballet and had parts in the Nutcracker were there. I played jacks and tag while we waited to go onstage. The person who played Clara’s Uncle kept coming back to tell everyone to "shut up" or the audience will hear us. But it didn’t work because we were too excited. Finally the lady with the makeup came and she put big round red circles on our cheeks.

It was time. I went on stage and the curtain went up and I saw thousands of people in front of me. I was a soldier so I was running around saluting in a battle with the rats.  After that was finished they carried us away. They were bigger than me. They ran with their tails dragging behind them. They scared me, especially the e King Rat because he had so many heads. But the Nutcracker Prince killed him.

So then the kids who were soldiers went home but not me. I had another part. I had to run to the bathroom and wash off my cheeks because I was an angel and had to be very pale. I had this itchy halo on my head and tons of slips. I led the angels across the stage and I had to bend my knees and slide my feet and pretend I was floating. I felt strange. I had silver wings on my back and I was carrying a plastic bush. When all the angels were in two rows we had to walk across the stage to switch places. Patricia MacBride, a famous dancer, was the Sugar Plum Fairy and she danced around us. I saw one angel trip her and I heard the Fairy say, “Oh my gosh!” But she kept on dancing just like you are supposed to do in a performance.

Finally we had to bow with everybody on the stage and instead of our trees we got instruments to hold. As he walked by us, Fritz would say all these weird things like “This is boring” or “I saw you already.” Sometimes David Richardson who was in charge of us would watch from the side of the stage and would open his mouth and point his finger to the right or to the left telling us to move. Mr. B. was usually there.

After the end of the performance I got three bunches of flowers with notes on them like “Congratulations on Opening Night.” I felt happy and proud of myself.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

On Cheating at Stuyvesant High: Take 2

In the wake of a Stuyvesant High School cheating scandal in June, involving 70 students, comes a shocking recent New York Times report that reveals an astonishing underlying “pathology” of academic dishonesty at the school. Students unabashedly describe unflattering breeches of ethics and even exhibit an extravagant sense of entitlement to such behavior:

“It’s like, I keep my integrity and fail this test -– no,” a senior actually says, “No one wants to fail a test.” The latter remark is indeed true. But this very student seems unaware that there is an obvious alternative to cheating in order to pass a test -- one studies for it. Yet this very same student says studying for the test is “a waste of time.” So what does he expect? Well, he expects to cheat.

A recent alumnus blames his actions on a French teacher he says he “had lost all respect for.” The teacher taught him nothing, he claimed, taking a passive approach to learning (and so missing out on the benefits of acquiring another language). When other students were openly discussing the answers on a test, he says, “Should I not listen?”

Obviously, these students are not of the mind of Sophocles, who had said, “I would prefer to fail with honor than win by cheating.” More likely, they are apt to dismiss the great philosopher as a fool.

Instead, it looks like the tired “everyone does it” excuse has become the mantra at this most elite New York City public school: The school newspaper, The Spectator, revealed in March that 80 percent of students in a survey of 2045 students were not embarassed to admit that they cheat.

Students who spoke to the Times on the condition that their names not be used, detailed how take-home exams (that used to depend on trust and individual effort) have now become a collaborative group endeavor. They also spoke of copying homework, not to mention detailing other methods of cheating they used.

Students rationalized such behavior as a choice between keeping their integrity versus getting onto their dream college:“The only way you could have gotten there,” a recent graduate said, “is to kind of botch your ethics.”

The ringleader of the initial June cheating scandal, Nayeem Ahsan, had explained to New York Magazine that he used his cell phone to send answers to several classmates on one Regents exam, in order to get help on two others.

Such revelations are a pretty bad indictment of the values that predominate at the school. After all, it was our own Teddy Roosevelt who said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

And what do such values say they about student success in future life and work endeavors, not to mention their success in the competitive colleges they aspire to? (And indeed in the wake of this scandal, comes one at Harvard, where a take-home exam turned into a dishonest collaboration.)

Also damaging to the school’s reputation are its teachers who are described by students as being “understanding” and complicit in unethical student behavior by not following policies. A student caught cheating on a math test with a sheet for formulas, for example, was not reported because she had been accepted into an Ivy League school.

One wonders if it is the teachers or the students who are running this school. One would have thought that this top city school’s mission would have been to instill those very ethical values its students see as unnecessary. Amid such revelations as those detailed above and an investigation by the Department of Education that resulted in suspensions for up to 10 days for the students involved, it is no wonder that the school principal resigned.

The new school principal has announced some changes intended to restore the school’s tarnished reputation: The cell phone ban is being enforced. Students now have to review and sign an honor code. Teachers are directed to talk about academic dishonesty. (And interestingly, one of Harvard’s responses to its own mass cheating episode was also a possible plan to require classes on what constitutes cheating.)

Yes, one would like to think the grown-ups are in charge now.

But these “new” policies pose an obvious problem. These capable students already know that the behaviors they are engaging in are wrong. So will an honor code make any difference? How is one to to believe that these students will really care about integrity?

Much more likely, it seems, they will continue in their “do-anything-as-long-as-you-can-get-away- with-it” ethos.

Not surprisingly, there appears to be no surfeit of student scruples: Rather than accept responsibility for bad behavior, a student had sued the school about a suspension that will appear on her student record, claiming that the school is damaging her chances of getting into an elite college.

It is somewhat reassuring to hear that as of the latest update, the student lost her case.
     (c)Oya Thompson

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ukrainian Socialist Realism Art Exhibit

The turnout on the opening day of the“Ukrainian Socialist Realism” exhibit of paintings at The Ukrainian Institute hit an all-time high for its programs, said Olena Sidlovych, the Institute’s General Manager. More than 300 nattily-dressed, fashionable, and arty types -- including Ukrainians, Russians and Americans -- attended the exhibit on the evening of Sept 14. They spent their time convivially viewing and commenting on this unprecedented display of Soviet era paintings -- while  drinking wine and partaking of an array of dainty pastries -- at the Institute, which is housed in the historic Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion at 2 East 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.

The decision to sponsor this exhibit was not an easy one, reflected Terence Filewych, who serves as legal counsel for the Institute. It was the result of much heated debate among the Institute’s board members about how this Soviet-era art coincided with the Institute’s mission to promote Ukrainian culture -- a culture that was much damaged by the very government policy that produced the paintings on display here. After all, it was Stalin who declared “Socialist Realism” the official art form of Soviet-occupied Ukraine, and required artists to follow this mandate or risk death. A typical result of that policy was the clich├ęd uninspired soul-less “happy peasant” and “heroic factory worker” art, which existed solely to glorify the building of the Soviet state.

And indeed a lot of what viewers saw here was predictable propaganda. Yet, when taken out of their historic context and put on display in a gallery space abroad for the perusal of curious and detached observers as items of historic interest, these commissioned paintings seemed to lose their original impact as works of indoctrination. "In America, we can talk about it more objectively and more dispassionately,” commented General Manager Sidlovych, referring to the art form of Socialist Realism. And indeed, in this apolitical context, some paintings seemed almost to work against their obvious didactic intent. A painting of a formidable solidly built “heroine” of the revolution, much decorated with medals, became an almost laughable caricature. A grand-scale painting of Soviet leaders (a winner of the Stalin Prize) called to mind those outsized looming portraits of Lenin (that replaced religious icons) and those larger-than-life statues that were toppled over after the overthrow of the Soviet regime. A landscape of a factory that was peopled by industrial workers became inadvertently subversive, its gloomy colors hinting at naturalism and exploitation of labor rather than implying a march toward a bright Communist future.

Here and there, however, some paintings did command more than passing attention from the crowd for their traces of lyricism -- in an expressive look in a portrait of an artist; in the thoughtful gaze of a girl in a gallery, in a still life with a rustic ethic motif . A portrait of an elderly woman in profile, wearing a billowy skirt and framed in an art-deco like border of grapes, stood out and was much commented on as an example of modernism – while its background incongruously depicted female workers toiling in the fields in the approved Soviet style.

Such an obvious political overlay made many of these works seem jarringly uneven in composition when  simply viewed as works of  art. A portrait of a young school girl was marked by the requisite reminder of the regime: the symbolic Soviet red badge on her pinafore. A scene of an attractive woman waiting alone at a train station had an ominous foreground – pointed out to this viewer by one of the gallery-goers -- that included a tattered red ribbon and a dark shadow of what could  be interpreted as a symbol of protest -- a raised fist.

"This phenomenon explains precisely why contemporary art rather than realism is now so popular in Ukraine," commented another gallery-goer.

It was somewhat disconcerting for those of us who understood the obvious political context of these paintings to actually see them in a gallery that typically exhibited works of solely aesthetic merit, as they served as reminders of an amoral autocratic regime that visited inordinate pain upon our families. It was also troubling to realize that the artists whose works were displayed here worked within that regime, while so many of that generation who refused to sacrifice their principles perished.

Nonetheless, these Soviet-era paintings -- whose style was discredited after the collapse of the Soviet state -- are now clearly sought-after as examples of a once-dominant art form. Collected and assembled by Jurii Maniichuk for the purpose of study by future generations, they undoubtedly will remain of historic and aesthetic import and interest, serving to document the era when Ukraine was a Soviet state. A selection of these paintings – from The Jurii Meniichuk and Rose Brady Collection -- will remain on view on the fourth floor of the Ukrainian Institute until 2018.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Ukraine's Soviet-era Cinema

 Now that Ukraine has been an independent nation for a while, its culture -- which had long been suppressed, first by the czarist regime, then by the Soviets -- has been experiencing a resurgence. Ths revival was evidenced by an unprecedented showing of Soviet-era films from Ukraine by The Film Society of Lincoln Center last week, that ran from September 7 – 12, entitled, ”Capturing the Marvelous: Ukrainian Poetic Cinema.”

At first the term “poetic cinema” -- used to describe the series -- seemed perplexing and paradoxical to the uninitiated movie-goer, particularly when tied to the reigning "Socialist Realist" aesthetic of the Soviet era. It was Stalin, after all, who declared that “the production of souls is more important than that of tanks” and termed artists “engineers of the human soul.”A typical result of that mandate was what was often referred to as that uninspired “girl meets tractor” art, which existed in a soul-less vacuum to glorify the building of the Soviet state.

And all the more remarkable, then, was this retrospective, where one could see film-makers pushing the limits of what was allowed, at  the inevitable cost of invoking the wrath of the censors Its kaleidoscope of forbidden national folkloric and religious images on the movie screen served as an all-encompassing metaphor for the indomitable Ukrainian “spirit”: 
For example, the film that forms the cornerstone of the series,“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” is nothing less than a spiritual story of transcendence. ("Satan," is its subversive message says, "exists only in the deeds of man.") Produced by Sergei Parajanov in 1965, the movie focuses on the tragic love story of Ivanko and Marichka that takes place among the colorful Hutsul folk in the “god-forsaken” harsh terrain of the Carpathian Mountains. The film contrasts the sweet and tender spiritual love of Marichka (that is not meant to be in this misbegotten world) with the carnal and treacherous love of Palagna that ultimately betrays and kills Ivanko. .It floods the viewer with allegorical images: a star, a lamb, for Marichka; an apple, a kiss of betrayal, for Palagna. The movie can be seen as a meditation on the existence of evil in this world, and it ascribes to a medieval-type Christian world view that life is but an arduous journey. Toward the ending of the film, the camera spins and twirls out of control as indifferent villagers dance a folk dance in a drunken frenzy at Ivanko’s wake. Yet it is he who triumphs in the end as he experiences a mystical reunion with his true love Marichka

A simple jewel of a film, Leonid Osyka’s “The Stone Cross,” made in 1968 – also strikingly illustrates this spirituality. It is a story of sin and redemption. As the film begins, a hardened peasant curses God for the parched soil that yields so little that he must leave his native land to survive. When a thief breaks into his larder, the enraged old man summons the village elders to exact their crude justice. The old man has a change of heart and experiences a transformation not unlike that of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Nonetheless, the unyielding elders kill the thief. Next, we see the old man struggling to drag a stone cross up a hill, a scene rife with allegory. The meaning of the cross is complex, multi-layered, and endless. It serves as a memorial of the thief and others who have died; as a sign of the old man’s renewed faith; as a memorial to himself as he prepares to embark to Canada. The film ends in a joyous celebration of good will, and it speaks, in particular, to the nation’s uprooted diaspora.

As their film-makers moved on beyond the confines of a narrow proscriptive art, the films featured in this series speak to and about the Ukrainian  “dusha” (or “eternal soul”),  to address the larger questions of the human condition.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand, and Charles Dickens

I've been reading so much about Ayn Rand lately. Her work has suddenly come into vogue, being used to justify this era of greed -- in a nation so rife with huge economic divisions that it has come to resemble Medieval Europe -- a land of overlords and serfs.

I could not believe any mature person would take the works of Ayn Rand and her "philosophy of selfishness" seriously. Yet Paul Ryan and others of his ilk have cited her as a major influence. Of course, Ryan did this, only to repudiate her later, in view of the public ridicule he received. Then he incongruously cited Thomas Aquinas as his mentor -- as he proposed to cut social programs. 

Ryan was so impressed with Ayn Rand's views that he was known to hand out copies of her most successful book, "Atlas Shrugged," as gifts to his staff.  The book, a fantasy dystopian novel  -- a once-popular genre that also produced George Orwell's 1984 -- uncannily reflects the niggardly mentality of our era: The productive leaders of her society go "on strike" and abandon the rest of mankind, creating a society of  their own. This scenario is ironically not unlike what is effectively occurring in our era of globalization, where joblessness has hit an all-time high. Rand's leaders are driven by what she calls "ethical egoism" in her philosophy. Quite understandably, Rand and her views were never the subject of mainstream scholarship, but her ideas did develop a cultlike following. Now, her work has become as a sorry symbol for what is happening in our times.

I read Ayn Rand in high school, before I  went on to read more serious socially responsible literature. It was not long before I saw her main characters to be of merely cursory interest. "Shallow" would be the more apt word. Man's highest purpose is his own happiness? How selfish! Also, this self-centered point of view is frightening, as it provides an underpinning for ruthlessness. Not surprisingly, her philosophy has come to justify capitalism in its most extreme form -- the goal of making money at all costs, no matter what the cost --  including the exploitation of others.

Rand's view of the man who is born a superior human being and succeeds by virtue of his own exceptionalism is almost a version of the Aryan superman, who came to dominate Hitler's thinking. I suppose that's how Ryan sees himself, as one of the elect, as opposed to others, who are not as deserving nor as talented. Now that's a pretty scary and not a very egalitarian philosophy in this nation that espouses democratic values. As Ryan's own career shows, the idea of the lone individualist is a myth, as one suceeds only with the help of others.

It is indeed sad that Ryan never moved on in his reading to enjoy the old-fashioned novel, say, like that of Dickens who does not write about the acquisition of money but about its corrupting influence. His edifying caricatures of misers, such as Scrooge and Fagin, provide a lesson in greed: Those who hide away their profits benefit no one, not even themselves. Unlike Rand and her "moral relativism," Dickens is a consistently moral writer, whose purpose is the betterment of society. His destitute and exploited heroes can serve as foils for those of Rand, whose grandiose heroes lack a moral compass in a godless world. A reading list that overlooks the greatest works of literature and philosophy, and primarily relies on Ayn Rand is sophomoric and sorely limited and does not say much about a party that considers Ryan one of its great "thinkers."

Rand's version of exploitative capitalism is indeed an embarrassing philosophy  in a land where capitalism has gone awry. Particularly at a time when never have profits from business been higher, and never has the number of those taking advantage of them been lower. Dickens' more earnest and universal message of social responsibility would have provided a good humanitarian and unifying counterpoint that speaks to all of society, not just the 1 or 5 percent, and would have served Ryan better. But that is certainly not what Paul Ryan or his message of elitism and disenfranchisement are all about.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Jonah Lehrer: I Could Never Have Imagined That

I looked at the Amazon web site and found that Jonah Lehrer's best seller, "Imagine: How Creativity Works," is no longer available. I was shocked to then discover that the book had been withdrawn from the market because the author fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan. At least, that seemed to be the initial problem. 

How sad and perplexing. How can a young wunderkind who becomes a sensation almost overnight just as quickly meet his downfall? This scenario and Lehrer's fate seemed to reflect the myth of Daedalus and Icarus: Daedalus had warned his son not to soar too high, only to have Icarus disobey and have his wax wings melt and fall from the sky.

Lehrer first caught my attention when I heard him interviewed about "Imagine" on NPR. The author sounded so confident and well-spoken;  his insights on the link between neuroscience and creativity, so relevant.  Yet as I look back, his comments seem overly simplistic or even glib. I am always interested in creativity, particularly in conjunction with the writing process. I even got a review copy of the book. His take on a complex scientific topic was broken down for the layman to sound like basic common sense: for example, when one is "stuck," one takes a break. Many a writer will tell you that it is exactly when he or she is not obsessing about the problem at hand that the solution or the flash of insight comes. So I was thinking about writing a review of the book for a literary web site, and suddenly… my little project fell apart over the disturbing news.

It soon began to look like there were other problems in Lehrer's work, as more issues started coming to light. He had copied from previous articles -- or plagiarized himself -- for his articles as a new writer for The New Yorker. I also hear that there are now more matters of "fact" in his book that are being scrutinized. The truth is that it rarely happens that one is found to be dishonest on only one occasion. Such carelessness tends to be a pervasive pattern that runs through other parts of one's work, as it does in Lehrer's.

Lehrer had all the advantages. A degree from Columbia. Another degree from Oxford. He was a Rhodes scholar. He published his first book at 26. He had talent and credentials and connections. There was just one major and key ingredient that he lacked in his work -- integrity.

But why such sloppiness? Perhaps to give his work more drama....  Why his use of a made-up example? Perhaps to give his writing more literary flair.... Yes, in the process of such self-aggrandizement, even the facts themselves become irrelevant.

One can ascribe his actions to a amazing sense of hubris. Or to an arrogance that one need not play by the rules but do whatever is convenient in the interest of success.  There is also that sense of entitlement. It seems to me that the literary world all too readily gives the laurels to writers who tend to be young and male and come from similar privileged backgrounds. Perhaps such young men are raised to think of literary jobs as their due, and an audience, as their fealty. The truth is that the rarefied  Manhattan world of publishing does not as easily grant internships and access to writers of more varied backgrounds. Or to gifted writers of more modest means. As a result, we do not hear a a panoply of literary voices. And those neglected voices are also the ones that we need to hear.

So, it seems to me, in Lehrer’s case, we all too easily fell for his playing fast and loose with the facts. Certainly, we over-rated him. His easy breezy self-confidence no longer comes across not as precocious but as immature. To presume that he could get away with what he did was very naive. 

In the end, what he overlooked was what should have been a writer’s first prerogative – to carefully state the truth.

copyright by Olya Thompson

Monday, July 30, 2012

Day Care Center

Just recently, I came across some photos. Black and white, 8 by 10, they were taken years ago by an art student who had spent his day working on a project at the college day-care center my daughter attended when I was a student.

One of the photos shows my then-toddler digging in the dirt beneath the monkey bars on a playground. It’s one of those first warm days in February, when the children are let out to play after a long winter of cabin fever. She’s wearing an unzipped hooded coat, its white acrylic fur trim noticeably grey. She is bent over her task; her coat is dragging on the ground.


In another photo, she is one of a group of toddlers, assembled in a circle for a story hour.

I didn’t think much about the photos back then. “That’s what kids do in day care centers,” I figured.“Playing in the dirt, listening to stories.” “Hmmm…” I thought then. “I can see how that white trim on her coat gets so grey.”

But looking at the photos now, I am struck by her singular absorption. I look more closely. She’s etching a design with a twig in the now-flattened sand that is often put down in playgrounds to break a child’s fall. It occurs to me that she must have noticed the ground was newly thawed. No longer frozen solid, it was just right for digging. Oblivious to the camera, she has taken some time out to examine her new find.

In the blurred background of the other photo, I recognize one of the toddlers and Hank, the teacher in charge, who is reading the story. The camera focuses in on my daughter, seeming to highlight the thoughtful far-away look on her face. Her attention is rapt; she is lost in the story.

It was in the mid-70s that my daughter and I came to that day care center. I was 22 at the time. She was 2. It was a very idealistic era in our nation’s history, a time of boundless optimism and many new social initiatives. I had learned there were day-care programs for children whose parents were students, a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s“Great Society Programs” that extended federal subsidies to the middle class. But the slots were all full everywhere I inquired, and the term was about to begin. Then the director of one program, sensing my urgency, agreed to take in an extra child. I was amazed at how simple it was. I  was asked to document my student status, my income and my child’s birth date. Fees were on a sliding scale. I was a work-study student and had several scholarships.
I don’t remember much about the college I attended back then. For me, it was an impersonal place, with much the grey, graffiti-covered look of public institutions. I didn’t get to know the faculty or take many courses in my major, my time being taken up with transfer-student paperwork, and meeting the graduation requirements of yet another school. A lot of my classes were in huge lecture halls, where there was little interaction between teacher and student. Since the student body consisted of commuters, I rarely saw my classmates outside of school. When I had a few hours free I worked.
But I remember just about everything about that day care center. For me, that day care center was an oasis, an island of colorful crayon crafts and ear-splitting joy, smack in the middle of the college campus. It was nothing like those indifferent places that were mere parking spaces for children. Rather, it was a miniature Sesame Street. The pupils and teachers came from a range of social and economic backgrounds. Here, a spirit of multiculturalism, camaraderie and learning reigned. The child-teacher ratio was remarkable, about 3 to 1. In addition to the salaried teachers who were there all day, early childhood majors would drop by. The parents, mostly students like me or college staff, also got involved. The friendships I established here extended well beyond the program.
Every morning, the lively young teachers greeted my toddler by name. Throughout the day, they were there, ready to pick up a child who had fallen down, offer a colorful band-aid, or to coax a smile. At the end of the day, one always took a few moments to chat with me. I still remember some of the teachers’ names: Sally, Anna, Hank, Jim. Several were parents themselves whose children attended the center.
On those cold mornings when my daughter was groggy with sleep and I was rushing to class, I knew she could eat there. In the midmorning, the aromas of spaghetti sauce and brownies would waft across my path as I passed by on my way to class or work. On birthdays, which were celebrated with a clockwork precision, the kitchen prepared a special cake, and I could hear the entire school of about 60 pupils chime in in an exuberant off-key chorus honoring the child of the day.
There were no lectures here, but lessons were taught. They were about sharing, mutual respect, responsibility. The kids took turns dishing out the meals, setting tables, handing out coloring or craft supplies. There were rules too, rules that were the same for everyone: The pupils were expected to wait their turn, and to pick up after themselves. They were taught how to settle differences: No fighting was allowed. And no biting. In this small microcosm, an ordered world prevailed.
Here, kids learned that their efforts were worthwhile. Their work was proudly displayed on the center’s walls. “I made this,” my daughter would say at the end of the say, pointing out a crooked oval shape she had drawn or perhaps a backwards “N” and a few unwieldy letters.
That’s “Natalia,” she’d say, echoing her name.
But I wasn’t always aware of the learning taking place there. Those days, I was always running with a toddler in tow – running to meet the bus, running to the center, running to work, running to class. I didn’t have much time to think about what she did there. At the end of the day, I still had studying to do, a task that often ended up hastily done or unfinished when balanced with the more urgent matters of getting through the day. Those days I never had time, and much that demanded my attention went unattended.

I will always remember one rainy afternoon, though. Carrying an umbrella, a rain-soaked bag of groceries, and a backpack full of books, I was intent on getting home. My daughter, in an over sized slicker and floppy galoshes, was lagging a few steps behind, criss-crossing the sidewalk, making sure to splash in each puddle.

“Mommy! Wait! Wait!” she suddenly called out. “Look! Look! Circles!”

We stood in the downpour together and watched as the heavy rain droplets created circular concentric ripples as they hit the puddles. She had learned about shapes in school that day.

Those are the images I am left with from those day-care center years, images of me running, of her lagging behind, of me walking straight ahead, of her looking at everything -- thinking, discovering, learning, dreaming....

Interestingly, when I was in school, I thought it was I who benefited from that day care program. Without it, I could not have received my degree. Also, the centered countered the isolation I felt, being alone with a child in the city. But only much later did I begin to realize what that experience meant for my child. All through those harried years, there was a place where there was always time for her. Here she had time to relax, to be herself, to be someone special.

My daughter spent two years in that day care program. Then I was off to grad school and she was old enough for nursery school. We were lucky. By that time, daycare for students like me was no longer a mandate. I’ve often wondered since then about parents and children just like me and my daughter who weren’t as lucky. Unlike me and my daughter, they have had no place to go and no one to count on.

Particularly now, as our nation grows increasingly stratified financially, and so many resources are available for those children who are privileged and so few for the rest, it seems to me that programs like this one from years ago need to be reconsidered to level the playing field. Perhaps we also need to have a look at the progressive European model, such as the one in France, that offers quality government-subsidized programs. regardless of income, to help out all mothers.

I still have an unlikely reminder from those days in those school text books that I tried to so hard to keep out of my daughter's reach. As I now look at the crooked oval shapes and unwieldy letters in my books, I realize these were not mere scribbles. She had been mimicking my taking notes in the margins of my books -- by practicing drawing a face and writing her name, something she had learned at the center. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Very Dark Night

The influence of Batman in American popular culture is pervasive. Small children wear Batman and Robin costumes  and engage in make-believe role-playing.  They carry lunch boxes and wear tee shirts embossed with the Batman logo. They play with action figures….

And adults take part too, wearing those tees and even masks and costume gear, as they pack movie theatres to see Batman action movies, such as “A Dark Knight Rises,'” the third in a popular series, where the hero battles with evil villains, known for the mass murder and mayhem they cause.

So, it is perhaps not surprising that the audience in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, did not initially consider it alarming when a shadowy figure, James Eagan Holmes, walked in, his hair dyed red and wearing combat gear, dressed up as a Batman nemesis – The Joker. Many audience members at first saw him as some sort of special effect -- a part of the suspense and entertainment of the movie.

That is, until he released a fog-like cloud .… and started shooting, becoming a real-life incarnation of the movie series' maniacal fiend, who plunged the streets of Gotham City (or in this case, the movie theatre) into complete chaos. The fantasy violence in the highly touted film that was supposed to entertain became horrific reality. A “fictional character” in the series disturbingly came “to life,” armed with 4 guns, killing 12 people, and leaving about 60 wounded.

Public reaction to the mass killing was the expected shock at its senselessness. How often, one must ask, does this type of mass killing, yes murder, have to keep happening in our “civilized” nation, before we finally pay attention?  We have yet to get over the tragic killing of six and wounding of others, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, in Tucson Arizona. And what about the shooting spree at Columbine High School, which is just 20 miles away from Aurora? Since 1982, we have had 27 events resulting in mass killings by crazed gunmen.  Sadly, unlike democracies, such as Britain, Canada, France, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan, Americans continue to be the exception, insisting on their right to carry guns above other considerations like public safety.

Yet it seems to me that there is an even larger problem. It is in our values. We are a culture that glorifies guns and violence. We see it in the movies, on television, in video games. This particular movie was only rated PG-13, yet viewers were cautioned about “intense sequences of violence and some menace.” The movie was banned in Sweden. Clearly, unlike other countries, our nation views violence as entertainment. The same goes for the very toys American children play with that are mostly license-driven, that is, based on characters from action films or television series. Unlike European toys, they favor even violent entertainment, over education.  It follows that our innocent kids grow up infatuated with Batman gear and get-up.

As for the obviously deluded Holmes, it was just one step for him from fictional role-playing to killing in real life. Having guns readily available made all the difference. I do not believe it is possible for a "civilized" world to see him as anything other than a very deranged product of  a particularly American brand of popular culture that celebrates guns and violence.

Friday, July 20, 2012

On Cheating at Stuyvesant High School

I should have been shocked by that cheating scandal that involved 70 students at Stuyvesant High School, New York City's most prestigious public school. But it didn't surprise me at all. Rather, it was just one more example of what unfortunately has become all too endemic in our schools.

Student cheating in this most recent incident was explained away as due to pressure. The pressure was blamed on competitive parents who expect their children to get into the best schools. And then, there was that prevalent attitude among students that "everybody does it." The students who participated in behavior that was clearly ethically wrong experienced no real consequences, other than retaking the test.

What does this say about our schools' responsibility to instill values of honesty and integrity?

Not much.

It seems to me that ethical standards have eroded over the years. I remember when cheating used to be considered an abominable breach of trust, a social stigma, a reason for expulsion. Besides, if students cheat in school, then what does this say about their integrity in future endeavors? Do these things no longer matter, because we live in a you-can-do-anything-unless-you-get-caught

 Worse still, many of these parents of "high-achievers" do not model honorable and ethical behavior in their own lives. So what can one expect from their kids?

As though it were trying to explain this phenomenon away, an article I came across said that everyone will cheat, given the opportunity.


Well, I object to myself being included in that category. And no, I do not believe that we all are selfish and self-serving and will do anything if our behavior is unchecked. I personally tend to side with Sophocles who once said, "I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating."

Besides, school should be about so much more than test scores. There is the innate satisfaction of learning for the sake of learning that students who are only concerned about grades miss out on. There is the experience of  broadening one's horizons and developing an intellectual curiosity that an education should be all about. There is also that standard of individual responsibility and code of honor that students should hold themselves up to and follow thoughout their lives.

It is indeed sad that our culture is no longer shocked by cheating. I don't even know if  most people today would even call this latest episode a "scandal." I doubt that it will even have a lasting effect on the reputation of the school. Unfortunately, cheating these days is so prevalent that it no longer seems unusual.

Indeed, what is most telling about our culture is that people are no longer surprised or shocked by dishonesty, but by true honesty.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

On Independence Day

On this special day of 4th of July, celebrating freedom and liberty, it saddens me to see that there does not seem to be much indication of national pride. Rather it is the divisions here that are most apparent, as questions are being raised in editorials and commentary about how liberty ever came to mean a selfish individualist society that advocates an "every man for himself" mentality.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Growing Up Bilingual

WHEN I ENTERED St. George's School in the East Village in New York City, I couldn't speak English. I was born into an expatiate family; Ukrainian was the language spoken at my home.

My parents wanted to preserve their culture until they could return to their homeland - until the Communist regime changed -something that never happened in their lifetimes.
It was not long before a dichotomy arose in my young life: I had a language for home and discovered another at school. Quickly, I became bilingual.

Total immersion" is what today's bilingual educators would have called my experience. "Limited proficiency," I suppose they would have classified me now.

I don't remember my learning English being a struggle. For me it was a matter of simply going to school. I picked up the language by a type of osmosis - by being placed in an English-speaking environment -while I continued to speak Ukrainian at home and study it as a required second language in school. In addition to the very American Tom Sawyer, I had the very Ukrainian poems of Taras Shevchencko.

But, in the current jargon of education, the term "bilingual" has taken on a negative tinge. Being from another culture and speaking a different language are viewed as "disabilities," needing to be corrected. Overall, among educators, there seems to be a general agreement that courses taught in a different language tend to be less rigorous than those taught in English. Even New York and New Jersey, which have a history of providing generously for immigrants, agree with critics who say students in bilingual programs learn English far too slowly.

I, however, did not think my double life unusual. Many of my classmates came from homes where they, too, spoke a second language. Like our European parents, we simply took speaking another language - or two or three or even four - for granted.

Interestingly, sentence diagramming was to be come my favorite grade school topic. So I always thought that it was an asset, and even fun, to speak two languages.
There is a lot to be said about acquiring one's language skills from a regular classroom. In my case, English supplied a common forum that provided a basis for future learning. When I later taught English as a Second Language, it was English, too, that allowed for a delightful exchange among many students from backgrounds ranging from German to Arabic.

Isn't it time for all American students to start talking to each other?
Besides, knowing only one language and culture can be confining for English-only speakers as well.
Whatever happened to the second language requirement that used to be mandatory in many high schools? In addition to French, I had to take four years of Latin. In college, I went on to acquire yet another language, German, and another, Russian.
In addition to "Le Petit Prince," which I read in high school, I went on to read "Madame Bovary" in French, "The Aeneid" in Latin, the plays of Brecht in German and "War and Peace" in Russian.

So why do our educators so limit our students? Chym bilshe, tym krasche. The more (languages and cultures they experience), the better.

It's time our educators get back to the true meaning of "bilingual" - time they give all our students the opportunity to reach for the keys to the world.

As I look back on my multicultural experience, I can see the seeds of the writer I am today.

So, as I now move in American circles with my precise English, my colleagues often ask me what state I'm from, curious about my lack of a regional accent.
When I travel to Montreal, the natives assume I am French. And, in a few days, as an American journalist, fluent in Ukrainian, I will be going abroad to my parents' now independent but still troubled land.