Putin Frolics in the Sea of Azov – The World Yawns

 

Last month, Russian forces seized and shot at three Ukrainian vessels attempting to cross through the Kerch Strait, a narrow passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Six sailors were injured.
The Russians then boarded two warships and a tugboat, detaining more sailors and completely blocking the Strait. Some of the seized Ukrainian sailors have now been flown to Moscow.

Now two Ukrainian Azov Sea ports, Berdyansk and Mariupol are under complete control by Russia and others are forbidden to enter the area.

 

Vladimir Putin very recently inaugurated a new twelve-mile bridge over the Strait connecting Crimea to mainland Russia. Russia’s aim is to completely control the land and water around Crimea, a highly populated area.

President Poroshenko of Ukraine, accused of corruption and running for reelection, has reacted by threatening total war on Russia and declaring martial law. So now we have two snarling dogs glaring at each other across the Azov Sea.

President Poroshenko

Ukraine would like NATO to intervene which it does not seem eager to do even though Ukraine had previously given up its nuclear arms in exchange for a promise of Western protection.

So why is Putin flexing his muscles now? For one thing the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has never been as dormant as the West would like to believe. Russia is backing a separatist revolt in southeastern Ukraine where more than 10,000 people have already been killed. The region of Donbass is controlled by pro-Russian secessionists and is in a constant state of conflict. The Western World has been focused on other important matters.

Why is the conflict now escalating? One explanation is that Putin’s popularity at home is low. He has just instituted a retirement reform which would raise the age at which people are eligible for pensions. At the same time, the Orthodox Ukrainian Church wants autonomy from the Russian Church. There is discontent in Georgia and in Armenia.

According to President Poroshenko, Putin’s nostalgia for the Greater Russia which existed both in the Czarist Empire and in the Soviet Union has never abated. This greater Russia cannot exist without Ukraine .”He sees us as his Colony” says Poroshenko. And now Ukraine would like to turn its back on Russia. This is intolerable to Putin.

Vladimir Putin

 

It could also be that the Russian President is testing the resolve of the new American President who does not seem to be particularly interested in Ukraine or in intervention. The European Union needs Russian gas so it will not want to intercede.

I believe the carefully plotting Vladimir Putin has decided to seize this opportunity and to engage in a little adventure while putting all the blame on Ukraine.



Using Blasphemy To Maintain Power

 

 

Assia Bibi, a Christian woman living in Pakistan, was sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy for having participated in a protest march.

Even though she was exonerated by the Supreme Court, she must now flee if she wants to avoid being attacked by an angry mob of people who fully intend to murder her. I believe their intent is to hang her.

 

 

Did this happen centuries ago? No. This is going on right now and the state of Pakistan will not protect her.

In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi is in prison for the blasphemy of being an atheist.

In Indonesia, Jakarta’s Governor faces a two-year prison sentence for saying that the Quran does not mandate that voters support any Muslim over any non-Muslim.

In the US the activist Desiree Farooq was tried for “disrupting Congress” and faced a term of up to a year in jail. Her principal crime was that she laughed at something said by a Senator during the confirmation hearing for now former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions. The charges were subsequently dropped by the Department of Justice, which had brought them.

So what exactly is blasphemy? According to Wikipedia, it is: “The act of insulting or showing contempt for or lack of reverence toward a deity or something sacred or inviolable.”
The Bible does not explicitly mention blasphemy.
In fact there is no Hebrew word for it. In Exodus it only says: “You shall not revile God or curse a ruler of your people.” But the Bible does warn against taking the Lord’s name in vain. Moses asks God “what is your name?” and God replies :”I am who I am” (a nice cryptic answer).

The Bible does not say that one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit is guilty of an unpardonable sin.

Who is this “Holy Spirit” (in Hebrew “Ruah Hakodesh”) It appears to be one manifestation of God in the Holy Trinity. Who invented the Holy Trinity and why is it needed?

Let us just say that people like to group things in threes: The three little pigs, the three Stooges, three blind mice, three men in a tub…..

I suspect that at the root of all these injunctions is the fierce determination of the religious authorities to establish rules that will keep them firmly in control and not let anything undermine their authority. Dissent must be prevented.

Blasphemy came late to Islam and was imported there by the British Empire. In the Islamic religion, blasphemy is an impious utterance against God or the Prophet.
The Quran admonishes against blasphemy but does not specify a worldly punishment for the offense.
Closely related to blasphemy are the concepts of heresy or idolatry which centuries ago were punishable by torture and death.

As the Western world is becoming more secular such ideas are slowly fading. In the United States the First Amendment prevents Government from making laws about religion and speech and gives citizens freedom to exercise and express their religious beliefs.

In places where religion still pervades everyday life the concept of blasphemy is alive and well.



Jackie and Daniel

 

 

Hillary and Jackie is a 1998 film about the two British sisters Jacqueline and Hilary du Pre, one a cellist, the other a flutist. The film pretty much mirrors their actual lives.

Jackie became a virtuoso at an early age and rose to international prominence. Hilary struggled and eventually gave up performing to become a wife and mother.

Jackie was sent to Zermat, Switzerland as a teenager to attend a master class with Pablo Casals who called her a genius. She traveled extensively and in the sixties after returning from a Moscow concert she met Daniel Barenboim. (see previous blog) They recorded and made documentaries together.

Jackie and Daniel complemented each other very well. Both had been child prodigies and virtuoso performers. Their greatest joy was to play together. In 1967 they were married. She converted to Judaism and went to Israel with Barenboim where she met Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta and Pinkhas Zuckermann.

Barenboim said of her: ” Music was not a profession for her. It was a way of life”. The couple has been compared to another famous classical music duo, Robert and Clara Schumann.

 

Robert and Clara Schumann

 

Here’s an excellent quality video of Jackie playing the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Barenboim conducting the London Philharmonic in 1967. Well worth a listen.

Jackie Plays Elgar

Then two years after their marriage, Jackie was beset with physical symptoms and in 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

She tried to go on playing, but her body turned against her. Jackie lived for fourteen years after she stopped playing and died in 1987 at age 42.

Jackie said of herself: “In a sense I was lucky. Because the cello repertoire is small I had done most of what I loved and I can look back on a full musical life”.

During the last two years of Jackie’s life Barenboim moved to Paris to become director of the Orchestre de Paris and started an affair with Elena Bashkirova who eventually became his second wife.

 

Jackie du Pre



Who is he really?

 

He lists his nationality in this way: Palestinian, Argentine, Spanish, Israeli.

He was born in Argentina in 1942.

His Russian-Jewish parents emigrated to Israel when he was 9. He had already performed his first piano recital.

Like so many musicians, he was precocious. He started playing the piano at age five, but his greatest achievements were to be as a conductor.

In 1954, Daniel Barenboim took conducting lessons. His teacher, Wilhelm Furtwanger said, “this eleven-year-old is a phenomenon.”

Barenboim traveled all over Europe and America giving piano concerts and making recordings. As his career matured, he started to spend more and more time as a conductor.

 

Music is a universal language and its practitioners can live and be creative anywhere in the world. They can also choose their allegiances and the ones he chose are interesting in their priorities.

Barenboim is now director of the Berlin State Opera and the Staatskepelle Orchestra of Berlin. In addition, he is musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1999 he and Edward Said (a Palestinian-American Professor of Literature at Cornell) founded the West- Eastern Divan Orchestra. Headquartered in Seville, Spain, it is made up of young musicians from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Israel and Spain. It is meant to be a model of cooperation across political and religious divides. The intent is to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

 

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

 

The Orchestra is named after a collection of poems by Goethe inspired by Persian prophet Hafez.

Barenboim says, “Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance and to create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.” Barenboim is a critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

In 2012 the West-Eastern Divan orchestra performed for Pope Benedict XVI in the courtyard of his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in Italy.

This year, Barenboim’s book, The Sound of “Utopia was published. It traces the history of the orchestra from its beginning.

In the next blog, I will further explore Barenboim’s life and career including his association with the cellist Jacqueline du Pre.

 

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Editor’s note: Here is a link to an interesting YouTube about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Very compelling personalities in this group.

Intro to West-Eastern Divan Orchestra



The Man Who Repairs Women

Denis Mukwege

His name is Denis Mukwege. He is a doctor at Panzi Hospital which he created in Bukavu in the Eastern Congo (formerly Zaire) near the border with Burundi. This beautiful region, (parts look like Switzerland and parts like the Caribbean), is being ravaged by more than 20 years of ethnic conflict, tribal wars between rival groups of thugs’ intent on plundering Congo’s vast riches.

View of Bukavu

Mukwege’s father was a pastor and, as a child, he used to accompany him on his visits to the sick and wounded. He was struck by his father’s inability to help them except by praying with them and, encouraged by his mother, he decided to study medicine. In the first hospital where he practiced he came to work one morning and found that all the patients he worked so hard to treat had been murdered. He could not understand it. Why kill helpless people in their beds?

After his first experience of treating a woman who had been raped and savagely mutilated, he traveled to France to study gynecology and obstetrics. He soon realized the full extent of the ongoing violence. The destruction of women’s genitals was systematically used as a weapon of war. After he performed reconstructive surgery on the same woman for the third time he understood that more than surgery was needed to deal with such extreme cruelty and systematic violence.

The uncontrollable military groups were operating with impunity because the State did not intervene. In fact, there was no State It had been taken over . It was complicit. When there is no rule of law the law of the jungle prevails.

Those brave women got up again and again despite being raped by their own husbands, despite being rejected by their families for having dishonored them. Mukwege mobilized them, encouraged them to speak out, to support each other, to educate their sons and their husbands, and raised their spirits. “Be outraged! Say NO to violence,” he taught them,

Still because there was no support from any lawful authority, Mukwege himself was discouraged in a menacing way from speaking at the UN General Assembly, His life was in danger as well of that of his wife and children. Mukwege and his family went into exile in Europe.

Meanwhile, the women he was helping organized themselves, raised enough money by selling their crafts and sent him a ticket back to Africa. Thousands of women greeted him on his return. They called him The Messiah. He could have stayed in Europe, but he came back to continue his work. He now sleeps at the hospital, has a permanent guard that protects his every step and travels in a convoy of several vans. “The Man Who Repairs Women” (The Wrath of Hippocrates) is the title of the film he made of his experience. It was at first censored but has since been released. Denis Mukwege has received the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.
Panzi Hospital now treats more than 3500 women a year and Denis Mukwege performs more than ten operations a day.

We are often discouraged from judging people by their appearance but when I look at a picture of Denis Mukwege, I see the face of a man who cares.

(Editors note. Here is a link that will allow you to learn more about Mukwege’s work)

https://www.mukwegefoundation.org/about-us/



Music, Emotions and the Brain

In a video clip, a round-faced baby -no older than 2- is shown staring fixedly ahead, big tears slowly forming in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. He seems to be in a trance. He is listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It is as if he had known sorrow in a previous life and is being reminded of it. For where else would he have encountered sadness and been touched by it at such an early age?

On a city street an adolescent, violin tucked under his chin, is performing a lively tune, some passing teenagers have stopped to listen. Suddenly and spontaneously they start performing the most intricate steps, stomping, swirling and creating their own dance in tune with the music. It is as if the sounds were flying straight to their feet, and directing them to bend, turn and clap. Where did those joyful sounds find a home?

In all popular songs the heart is supposed the repository of all emotions especially romantic love. It is your heart that feels joy desire, distress, sorrow and fulfillment. At the risk of greatly disappointing young lovers, one must recognize that the heart is nothing but a tireless blood pumping machine, it is all happening in our head. or more exactly, in the brain. Listening to music creates emotions that increase the amount of dopamine in the brain.Dopamine controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

When a mother sings a lullaby to a newborn child the hormone oxytocin is released and results in a soothing effect and an uplifting mood. Autistic children can react to music beause it goes directly
to the brain and the subconscious.It helps in dealing with grief and sadness.Even joyful music can make us cry because it nostalgically reminds us of gone happy times. And we like melancholic music
and sometimes take pleasure at being sad.

Mozart wrote his first sympnony when he was 8 and already had a distinct voice. Chopin started composing at age 7. How emotionally mature were they? Could they have been merely mimicking feelings of sadness or longing?

And where did the voices in their heads come from? The pianist Lang Lang tells us that at age 2 he was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon on television when he heard Franz Liszt Rhapsody No,2 and ran to the TV, entranced by the music.

What about background music?It is supposed to create a mood even though we mostly half listen to it and at tims forget that it is there. What if restaurants stopped playing it? Would we suddenly be startled by the sound of our own voices ? And why do we get tired to the point of boredom by some music (I no longer enjoy Grieg and even Dvorak) but can listen endlessly to some other? (For me it is all 18th century and especially baroque music)

It looks like I have more questions than answers but I know there will always be music in my life. But at times there will be complete silence too.



Are the Three Bearded Men Still on Their Pedestals?

Three men dominated the intellectual world of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. They were not scientists. Not one of them spent any time in a research lab or conducted any scientific experiments; yet each in his own way altered the existing cultural landscape.

I also think that each one of them was noticeably wrong about some of the things he believed.

 

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed in the existence of a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and thought this struggle was intrinsic to the capitalist industrial world. One group controlled the means of economic production and profit, the other provided the labor. The conflict between them was that of oppressor against oppressed and revolution was the only means by which this situation could be reversed.

This was to be a communist revolution on the model of the French Commune uprising of 1871 in which the Paris commune rose against the French Government after the French defeat by the Germans in the Franco Prussian War.

The Revolution did occur, but it happened not in the capitalist industrial world but in an agrarian Russia in 1917. It quickly lost its focus and created a new set of oppressors. The labor theory of value has since been discredited. The idea of an inevitable overthrow of the dominant class turned out to be too rigid and somewhat naïve.

 

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1039) was the inventor of psychoanalysis and the interpretation of dreams and delved into the unconscious for an explanation of human behavior. Freud said: “Human beings can keep no secrets. They reveal their innermost selves with their unconscious mannerisms. Whatever we do we are expressing things about ourselves to people who have ears and eyes to see.”

Freud coined the concepts of the id, ego and superego and explained their working within the human being. His concepts are still hotly discussed though they have fallen out of favor in the scientific community. But popular culture appropriated many of his insights. “Freudian slips”, “the subconscious”, “cathartic release”, and “defense mechanisms” are now part of our vocabulary.

Freud, like Marx, stimulated others to think about new topics even though both men were often not entirely correct in how they viewed these topics.

 

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin (1809-1882).
In “On the Origin of Species” in 1851 Darwin outlined his theory of natural selection, which states that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small variations that increase their ability to compete, survive and reproduce. He believed that species changed and mutated over time and gave rise to new species that shared a common ancestor. Each mutation created a more complex and efficient organism.
Here are some of the arguments that critics advance to question some of his thinking:

Darwin does not explain how life originated in the first place.

There is a lack of fossil evidence to support the ideas of a “tree of life”

Natural selection is too slow to spread traits.

Some also question whether evolution is directional and has a specific aim or is blind and random.

Earth is much older than Darwin states.

Some new traits do not increase survival chances.

These interesting criticisms do not delve into religion and “creationism” which is a separate controversy.
It is interesting how some thinkers can be so wrong in important ways and yet stimulate so much change, influence so many thinkers, and propel us towards new ideas.



Gee…Mail

We often think of ourselves as unique and different from other living beings and mostly for the wrong reasons. We are not the only animal capable of compassion and empathy. We are not the only animal capable of living in organized societies. We are not the only animal capable of trickery, deceit or betrayal.

But we do have one remarkable trait which I think is unique to humans. Other animals use sounds and gestures. to communicate, but no other living being has ever invented symbols representing sounds, no other animal has organized those sounds into words and phrases to express thoughts and describe events.No other animal has invented writing and created a literature.

We should not give up this capability out of mental laziness and rely on primitive catch phrases to express ourselves.

But Google has a new idea about all that.

I recently noticed that my Gmail has taken it upon itself to offer me “one click” answers to my email. Has Big Brother arrived, and is he looking over my shoulder? Not quite. No human being is reading my mail. It is only an Artificial Intelligence Device, a sort of Mr. Robot who has been programmed to (timidly ) propose a choice of three bland replies like

1.How interesting!
2.Thanks for letting me know.
3.I did not know that.

Robot Man does not presume to reply himself but is giving me a chance to pick the reply I like best. I can see the usefulness of such features in business situations. Pre-built phrases or types of responses for often asked questions are a useful shortcut. When people are away from their desks or on vacation they can leave prepared set responses to routine queries.

But today I am more interested in personal email interchanges between friends and regular correspondents. In such situations, if the question is a simple one (How are you feeling? or Are you back at work?) you don’t need the help of Mr. Robot to respond. Even if he suggests what I would have said, it feels rather creepy.

And if it is a complicated response, you definitely want to do your own answering. Devices like “Smart Reply” have been made human-sounding and on-topic, but how will they deal with “What is your opinion of this film?” “What do you think of the latest book? ” There are just no pre- set answers to such questions.

I do love the way Mr. Robot takes all the spam out of my inbox, but for replying to personal emails, I think I’ll handle that myself.



Is Access to Abortion A Human Right?

 

 
Over the last 30 years more than 25 countries have changed their laws to provide greater access to abortion.  Unrestricted abortion is now available in he United Sates, Canada  most European nations, China, South Africa , and Tunisia among others.

But in Latin America and the Caribbean 97% of women live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. The exceptions are Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay and Mexico City.

At the moment the great battleground and test  case for abortion rights is in Argentina. After the Chamber of Deputies recently approved an abortion rights bill, the Senate on August 8 voted it down 38 to 31.

The battle that preceded this vote centered on two opposing groups. “Ni una menos” (not one less) was formed in 2015 to raise awareness about violence against women. Green handkerchiefs are the symbol of their efforts.

Opposing them are the pro-life activists, whose support comes mostly from rural areas.  They succeeded in defeating the bill. They wear blue handkerchiefs and their slogan is

“Si a la vida” (yes to life).  This group has the support of the Church, which calls abortion the murder of a child.  Also in their favor is the fact that the Constitution bans abortion except for rape victims. In Argentina, abortion is considered both immoral and illegal.

In  Chile restrictive measures on abortion were also introduced this year, and a protest march by women  took place on July 25.

Pope Francis, who is Argentinian, was in Chile at the time and he compared having an abortion to avoid birth defects to the Nazi idea of trying to create a “pure” race.

Our Great Leader, not to be outdone, also plunged into action. He promptly decided to deny funds to family planning clinics that provided abortions.

Banning abortions does not make them go away and  an average of 200 women die each year because of botched illegal ones. The victims of unsafe abortions are the poorest and most marginalized women. They fall victim to unscrupulous and dangerous quacks.

I believe that abortion should be allowed but used as a solution of last resort. Every living organism has a built-in urge to continue living and we are deluding ourselves when we affirm that killing a “pest” or slaughtering a cow or a pig is OK and that the “sanctity of life” applies only to humans. It is also true that aborting a fetus can have emotional consequences such as feelings of guilt and depression.

And so I agree with those who say that abortions should be legal, safe, and rare. Having the possibility of abortion available in case of need should be like having a fire escape in your building. You hope not to use it, but your life is more secure because it is there.



The Death Penalty: A Cruel and Unusual Punishment