Friday, February 20, 2015

"The Moral Arc" by Michael Shermer. Book Review in Front Page Magazine

I reviewed "The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom" for Front Page Magazine. You can read the view at Front Page Magazine here

You can also read the full text of the review, below. 

Michael Shermer's Unmoral Arc
A new book's messianic vision of a God-free future.

Michael Shermer's 2015 book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, announces a messianic vision: humanity is naturally evolving into a superior version, one that will be more moral and less religious. He writes,

As a species, we are becoming increasingly moral…we are living in the most moral period in our species' history…we evolved the capacity to actually be moral animals (3-4; 361).

One of Shermer’s main themes is that formal education and literacy may make people more moral (28-9).

In this review, the phrase "human progress" will refer to this idea: that humanity is evolving in linear time from the past to the future into a more moral, less religious, more atheistic form; that religion is a negative force and a relic of the ignorant past; and that a combination of natural forces and formal education are effecting this improvement in the human species.

Friday, February 13, 2015

"With Blood and Scars" by B. E. Andre. Book Review by Michal Karski

"With Blood and Scars" by B.E. Andre

Book Review by Michal Karski

"What did you do in the war, Daddy?" was a question which became a bit of a cliché back in the fifties and sixties. The answers came in many and various forms at the time. Those of us living in English-speaking countries might suppose that individual stories from the various campaigns of the Allies during World War Two have all been told and that the subject is quite familiar territory by now. Even so each new decade provides new viewpoints. The ever-changing focus of history ensures that each succeeding generation will feel compelled to continue asking the same question and to reassess the conduct of their fathers and mothers, or, indeed, their grandfathers and grandmothers. As we have seen recently, the Germans continue to examine the conduct of their forefathers to this day. But a frequently overlooked aspect of the entire subject is, of course, that there are Allied war stories which are hardly known in the West. The world of the Polish Allies who found themselves in Britain after the war is the background against which B.E. Andre sets her story.

For ten-year old Ania Walewska, a girl growing up in "Polska Land", the Polish community in Manchester of the mid-sixties, and who is at the heart of this engaging first novel, the question of what anyone did during World War Two is profoundly uninteresting. In fact, anything to do with those times, particularly as recounted by Ania's redoubtable grandmother, who is full of ghastly tales of Siberia, is virtually incomprehensible to the girl and makes her mentally switch off. As for whatever her father may or may not have done in the war years, all she knows is that talking about those times makes him angry and upset.

Ania just wants to be out with her friends. She is a natural rebel, oppressed by the influence and the rigid rules of Polish expat life, whether she finds herself stuck at home decorating Easter eggs in the Polish style or bored during the interminable church services or sitting through extra Polish lessons which are also as boring as they are irritating and unnecessary. The term 'expat' in this context might be substituted by 'political refugee' to describe those Manchester Poles among whom this story is set. It's difficult to call these people simply immigrants because they are from that generation of Poles who found themselves in the UK and other Western countries as a direct result of the war and through no choice of their own. They are mostly ex-combatants from either the Allied army abroad or from the resistance at home who ended up in German prison camps, and have chosen to stay abroad rather than to return to communist Poland.

As the novel unfolds, we see that many of this older generation, have adapted themselves to their new home with reasonable success. Witek, Ania's father, is a keen Manchester United supporter, for instance, and enjoys Hollywood musicals and the Marx Brothers on TV while Wanda, her mother, loses herself in romantic fiction. But parents and grandparents feel duty bound to pass on their Polish heritage to the youngsters. However British they may be outwardly, they are in their hearts first and foremost Polish patriots and they expect their children to feel the same. Ania mostly tries to please because she is very much bound up with her family. Her father, in particular, is the dominating and sometimes tyrannical presence whose varying and unpredictable moods shape her days. When he has had a drink or two with his ex-combatant friends, he can be positively frightening. Ania goes along with his requests, when, for example, she is asked to learn to recite a patriotic Polish poem in order to impress relatives from Poland. But she can't wait to get out of the house and play with her friends – who are also from immigrant and foreign backgrounds – and be a relatively normal Mancunian child. The central part of the story is what the group of young friends get up to out of sight of the grown-ups and which has consequences resonating down the years.

An older Ania also narrates from a viewpoint in the present. The paterfamilias who used to dominate Ania and her siblings' lives is now a terminally ill old man and Ania, by now a mother of two grown-up children and having had to deal with some serious health problems of her own, has to put her life on hold while she faces up to the inevitable. But there is also something very important she needs to do. She needs to find out something which has been troubling her ever since her childhood. She has never understood properly what her father went through in the war. There have only been vague hints and over the years she has wondered exactly what sort of a man her father was in those dark days in Warsaw. Old Witek may have been just a teenager in the Polish resistance when the Germans stormed the city during the uprising in 1944, but Ania knows he feels remorse at something that happened then. What did he do in the war? Ania needs to confront her father and solve this mystery before it is too late.

B.E. Andre has crafted a very readable debut novel and the deceptively straightforward style displays a narrative flair and a particularly keen sense of dialogue. I could easily imagine this book adapted for television, for instance, particularly as the group of childhood friends reflects the various nationalities which were as much in evidence in sixties Britain as they are today. The device of the dual plotline is never obtrusive and the pace is brisk with frequent touches of humour in what is essentially a study of some quite weighty and thought-provoking themes. Indeed it would be difficult not to be reminded of Wajda's "Kanał" or Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness" in one particular sequence.

The voice of the child narrator is convincing: she is not exactly a much younger, female version of Holden Caulfield – since there is not quite the same overwhelming sense of alienation – but she is given a similar kind of critical and amused detachment from the events she describes, even though she is deeply involved. And although the Manchester setting provides a rather unexpected background for a story dealing with Polish themes, nevertheless anyone with any Polish connections will probably find something they recognize in this book – and no doubt Mancunians will do the same. Those readers new to "Polska Land", who only know the Poles because of one popular pope, or because of a moustachioed trade union leader, or through their local Polish delicatessen or perhaps because they have employed an efficient builder or plumber, may be surprised to learn about the post-war origins of the Polish presence in the UK. This novel is a good introduction to a community which is not so much separate or enclosed or somehow exists in parallel to the mainstream English one but continues - in spite all the shared values and the interaction with ordinary British life – to have many of its own traditions and definitely has its fair share of idiosyncratic customs.

The author even provides a short glossary for anyone who wants to check up on the occasional Polish word thrown into the mix. This is a well-constructed first book and an altogether gripping read. Hopefully it will also be the prelude to many more from this talented writer.

"With Blood and Scars" is available at Amazon here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision: Updates

A group calling itself the Polish Anti-Defamation League is now demanding that the feature film "Ida" be accompanied by explanatory text that they demand. The text will offer their view of World War II in Poland. 

You can read more about this misguided effort here.

This effort is pathetic and chances are it will produce no positive outcome. It makes the Poles involved look unsophisticated.

Feature films are feature films. They are a different experience than polemical pamphlets. 

Few people will ever see "Ida," and those who do see it probably already have their own view of World War II. 

The film itself is not pro-Polish or anti-Polish. It makes no pretense of offering a comprehensive, non-fiction summation of World War II in Poland.  

Too, if the Poles involved want different stories to be told, they should tell them, and they should support those who are telling them. 

I am a Polish-American writer and many of the people I know through Facebook are Polish-American or Polish-British or Polish-Australian writers and artists. 

We struggle to find funding, book-buyers, and venues. 

I receive almost no invitations from Polish groups to talk about "Bieganski." I'm scheduled to talk about "Bieganski" next in April; the host is not Polish. 

I'm part of a Facebook page devoted to Polish-American writers; we are a resource for anyone who wants to get the Polish story told. Why are those who want the Polish story told not contacting us, hosting us, buying our books, reviewing our books, getting our books on their school curricula and library shelves? 

Polonia, you don't get your story told by complaining to those who are producing art. You get your story told by supporting the art, authors, filmmakers, poets, books, movies, documentaries, museum exhibits, and school curricula you like. 

In other news ... 

This article reports that Witold Pilecki's daughter was left out of the 70th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. 

I found this incomprehensible. I asked about it online and Sebastian Bartos responded, 

"Pilecki is very well known in Poland and the absence of his daughter was deliberate for political reasons. It is due in a large part to the ideological conflict within the Polish political elite over Auschwitz's identity and specific historical figures as role models. There has been a serious attempt to discredit or redefine Polish patriotism, brand it as an instrument of the imagined raging nationalists and prove it as irrelevant or simply foolish. Pilecki has unfortunately been a victim of this movement."

While John Guzlowski pointed out that the USHMM honored Pilecki in 2013. Read more about that here.

If you'd like to read more about what Polonia can and should do to get its story told, read this.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

For Holocaust Remembrance Day: Pat Condell

Pat Condell is a confrontational youtube atheist. His Holocaust Remembrance Day video, below, is confrontational and unforgiving. I don't endorse everything he says or his style, but I think he is demanding that Western Civilization confront a real issue that we are otherwise sidestepping. 

"With Blood and Scars" by B. E. Andre

With Blood and Scars: Z Krwią I Blizną

by B. E. Andre

Toni Morrison said, "If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

This was the conclusion I came to when I began researching the story that eventually became With Blood and Scars. I’d read the works of several second and third generation Poles, and while I enjoyed the novels, at that point I couldn’t find myself or my UK friends in any of them. Yes, we had similar traditions, religious ceremonies and food, but since when had gołąbki become golumpki? And who in the UK danced the polka? Nobody. It meant nothing to us. Where was World War Two?

When I later saw a quote from Thomas Gladsky, I understood why I couldn’t relate. Addressing the Polish American Historical Association, he said authors "seem frozen by stereotypical and reductive portrayals of ethnicity as polkas, pierogis and pisanki. Too frequently we turn to the quaint and charming, the noble and self-sacrificing, the self-indulgent and protective such as our persistent references to the wholesome family and selfless neighbourhood, to babcias, to wigilia and pisanki, to gentle nuns and inspirational parish priests."

It had seemed to me that while American Poles were careering round cheerfully to a bouncing 1-2-3 beat, we in the UK were being herded first into Saturday school where we learned the history of Poland pre World War Two, and then into the Scouting Movement, where WW2 was unavoidable thanks to the partisan and army songs we sang round the campfires. But, of course, few of the UK Poles had emigrated za chlebem.

Could it also be that those who went to the US, Canada, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand knew they were leaving Poland never to return, whereas UK Poles still hoped things would change in communist Poland? Would the Yalta Three do an about-turn perhaps? In the late 1940s my father received a beautiful letter from a Polish woman in Chicago who offered to sponsor and adopt him. He declined; he needed to stay in Europe, just in case.

In the last few years I’ve come to realise that although Polish communities across the world may differ depending on when they came into being, the children of refugees have at least one experience they share: our parents were scarred. And, if current research in the field of post-traumatic DNA mutation is to be believed, so are we.

The narrative of the Polish war experience and subsequent journeys is fascinating, but it’s also grim. Our families died or suffered in Siberia, the Nazi slave labour and death camps, the Warsaw Uprising, the DP camps; the list seems endless. I have shed thousands of tears while reading memoirs and poems. Knowing how much they affected me, how depressed they made me feel about man’s endless inhumanity to man, I wondered how I could bring that story to a non-Polish audience without overwhelming them with its pain and horror. How could I get them interested so that they might pick up a biography or memoir themselves? How could I include the Holocaust and the relationship between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews? I had to try.

In his book The Art of Fiction, J. Gardner said, "Novelty comes chiefly from ingenious genre-crossing or elevation of familiar materials." That’s the fancy way of putting it. As for me, I’ve made a literary equivalent of bigos. Into the existing 1939-1945 mix, I added a child narrator, stirred in two mysteries, sliced in great chunks of the 1960s, threw in several handfuls of humour, a dollop of Manchester UK, and finally a spoonful of Manchester United. Oh, I nearly forgot - and a Babcia. If you don’t have a Calpurnia - no matter what Dr Gladsky said - you simply must include a Babcia.


Buy "With Blood and Scars" at Amazon here

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Come Hear Me Speak on April 9 12:45 at WPUNJ's Cheng Library

Come hear me speak about my work on Polish-Jewish relations on April 9, 12:45 in the Cheng Library on the WPUNJ university campus. Talk Title: "Why Can't We All Just Get Along? Sometimes We Don't Want To." 

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Selma" 2014 Accused of Erasing Jews and Rewriting LBJ

By the way, the Catholic sister at the left is "identified" as "unidentified nun"
"Bieganski" describes how official history is revised to serve political and ideological ends. 

Thus I am fascinated by the current brouhaha around the 2014 Academy-Award-nominated film "Selma." 

"Selma," an Oprah Winfrey production, purports to tell the true story of Martin Luther King's historic 1965 Selma, Alabama, march for voting rights for African Americans in the South. 

I am a huge fan of the Civil Rights movement and can't recommend highly enough a PBS documentary entitled "Eyes on the Prize." 

I have not seen "Selma" and I think I will wait for the video. I've been troubled by reviews I've read that indicate that it is a historical revisionist film. 

If what I've read is accurate, "Selma" downplays white contributions, depicts LBJ, an ally of Civil Rights, as a foe of Civil Rights, secularizes what was a very religious movement, and erases the contributions of Jews.

Again, I have not seen the film so I cannot state whether these accusations are accurate or not. 

Some theorize that "Selma" commits these alleged historical revisions in order to claim the glory of the Civil Rights movement for blacks alone. 

Any such claim is just not accurate. African Americans make up c. 13% of the population. They were disempowered. They could not have achieved all they did, in as short a period of time, without significant and committed whtie allies, including many white martyrs who gave their very lives for Civil Rights, including William Lewis Moore, Rev Bruce Klunder, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwermer, Rev James Reeb, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Many more whites risked their lives in Freedom Rides, like Jim Zwerg, who was badly beaten and almost died. 

Why readers of "Bieganski" might care about "Selma"'s alleged revisionism: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was, of course, born in Warsaw and was visually immediately recognizable as a Jew, has been, it is alleged, erased from the march. This is especially striking given the above photograph that makes it abundantly clear that Rabbi Heschel was right there, front row center, along with a Catholic sister whom the Huffington Post, which ran this photo, identifies only as an "unidentified nun."

Why erase Jews? Jews, who made such an historic and significant contribution to Civil Rights?

I would really like the answer to that question.

There is a Huffington Post article that covers the pertinent facts, Selma's Missing Rabbi by Peter Dreier at the link here

Here's a quote:

"In January 1963, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored a conference in Chicago entitled "Religion and Race." It was there that Heschel (who was asked to deliver the opening address) first met King (who gave the closing speech) .

Heschel began his speech by linking biblical history to contemporary struggles:
'At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses's words were, 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.' While Pharaoh retorted: 'Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.' The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.'"