About Me

About Me

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Ronald M. Green is the Eunice and Julian Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values Emeritus in the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College. From 1992 to 2011 he served as Director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute. In 1998, he was elected president of the Society of Christian Ethics. Professor Green is the author of nine books and over one hundred and sixty articles on philosophical and applied ethics, including business ethics and bioethics. Two of his books, Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt (1992) and Kant and Kierkegaard on Time and Eternity (2011), have played a major role in uncovering the depth and extent of Kierkegaard’s relationship to Kant’s philosophy. In 2005, Professor Green was named a Guggenheim Fellow.

For my full CV and selected publications, see: http://religion.dartmouth.edu/people/ronald-michael-green

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Travel

The Forty-Second Telluride Film Festival, September 4-7, 2015

Colorado Avenue 2015

PREFACE

Before attending this year’s Telluride Film Festival, I was able to catch two films in New York: PHOENIX, directed by Christian Petzold and starring Nina Hoss and GRANDMA directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. Both films are of Festival quality so I want to mention them here.

PHOENIX continues the examination of post-war German life that Petzold has previously explored in JERICHOW and BARBARA, a 2012 Telluride pick. Set immediately after the war, “Phoenix” traces the effort of camp survivor Nelly—whose face has been horribly disfigured and restored to only a partial likeness—to find her non-Jewish husband, Johnny, who remained behind when as a Jew she was deported to the camps. The film builds to an astonishing climax as both Nelly and Johnny learn more about their pasts than either wanted to know.

In GRANDMA, Lily Tomlin as Elle faces a challenging situation. A poet and part-time academic of waning hireability or publishability, she is grieving the loss of her lifetime female partner and about to break up a months long relationship with a younger woman. Elle is also nearly penniless, having cut up her credit cards in a gesture of independence, Now, her lovely teenage granddaughter arrives to ask Elle’s help in paying for an abortion costing hundreds more than either woman has. Thus begins an improbable road trip and journey of intergenerational bonding. GRANDMA is a celebration of the changing but still relevant face of feminism and a gentle but firm defense of the importance of women’s reproductive freedom.

A word about my grades for the following Festival films I saw. Since most of the films were excellent, my grades are high. My descriptions often don’t explain a minus or slightly lower grade, but I use the grading opportunity to register blemishes such as my sense that a film is slower than I would like, or in some way emotionally unconvincing or less than completely honest.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

The 42nd Telluride Festival (and by my count our 19th year of attendance) began early for me on a drizzly afternoon with a pre-program showing of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent masterpiece, DIE NIBELUNGEN. Based on the German saga, the film recounts Kriemhild’s joyous marriage to the hero Siegfried, who has been rendered immune to injury after bathing in the blood of a ferocious dragon he has slain. Unfortunately for Siegfried and Kriemhild, a linden leaf covered a small patch of Siegfried’s back, rendering him vulnerable to death at the hands of his foes.

This beautiful five hour long, gold-toned restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, with lush and nuanced orchestral accompaniment by Gottfried Huppertz, is divided into two halves of seven cantos each. Unfortunately, in order to keep my promised rendezvous for our next film with Mary Jean and our accompanying friend Kate Conley, I had to leave at the intermission. But not before watching the beautiful Kriemhild rise from beside her husband’s body, face the henchman/murderer Hagen von Tronje, and utter a vow of unrelenting vengeance. In a moment of silent filmmaking at its best the camera moves in on the up-to-now gentle Kriemhild’s face and reveals her eyes flaming with hatred and resolve.

I make a vow of my own to, in one way or another, see the second (and apparently apocalyptic) half of this film.

As difficult as it was to leave NIBELUNGEN, the decision to get on line early for our next film, TAXI, by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, was wise, since the line was already long when I arrived. Iranian authorities have forbidden this award-winning director from making further films, and he has reportedly been under house arrest. Despite—and because of—this, he made TAXI, by filming himself with small dash mounted cameras as the incognito driver of a taxi in the streets of Teheran. TAXI, thus gives us a moving stage of characters picked up in the course of a single day.

And a varied and colorful cast it is, beginning with two separate fares who share the cab. One is a beefy young man sporting a heavy gold chain who sits beside the driver. He vehemently defends the recent hangings of a series of petty thieves. But his views are contested by an older woman in the back who identifies herself as a teacher and who points to bitter economic conditions as a cause of the thieves’ behavior. As this sometimes hilarious argument proceeds, Mr. Gold Chain will have none of it (you suspect he was an Ahmadinejad supporter), and he finally exits the cab leaving us wondering whether he isn’t himself a thief.

As other fares come and go, the humor and controversy mounts. A key role is played by Panahi’s charming and precocious niece whom he picks up after school. She reads the notes she has taken for an assigned film project in which her teacher parrots the government’s current views on what makes a film “unscreenable.” We soon realize that this remarkable film fails the government’s test on all counts.

TAXI shows us what I learned during my visit to Iran in January: that Iran’s people are not a monolithic block but a lively collection of politically, religiously, and culturally diverse individuals.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my personal nomination for “Best Foreign Film” at the Oscars)

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5

Today opened with a tribute to Rooney Mara. Although a neighbor on the line wondered why this honor was given to a young (30-year old) actress, the sequence of clips from films like “The Social Network,” “Side Effects,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (among others) indicated how rich and varied Mara’s talents are. The interview following the clips revealed interesting facets of her career. For example, asked whether she had read the novels and seen the prior Swedish version of the film before making the American one, she replied that she had done so, and that viewing the Swedish film led her to approach her character very differently.

A screening of Mara’s latest film, CAROL, followed the interview. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith and directed by master filmmaker Todd Haynes, CAROL offers a deeply moving performance by Cate Blanchett as a mature woman who falls in love with an elfin, almost Audrey Hepburnesque, Rooney Mara. Set in the mid-ninety fifties and beautifully filmed with period costumes and autos, the film evokes the deep romanticism of that era (echoed in the popular music of the soundtrack) and applies it to a lesbian relationship—to which that same culture is both oblivious and persecutory. CAROL will be appearing in Cineplexes soon, but during our era of turmoil over gay relationships, it can change hearts and minds by showing in universally understandable ways how gay people share the human emotion of love.

RON’S GRADE: A (Don’t miss it at the Cineplex)

The string of excellent films continued in the afternoon with 45 YEARS directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as Kate and Geoff. An intelligent and progressive couple living in rural England, Kate and Geoff are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a large party (their 40th anniversary celebration was put off because Geoff needed surgery). But the childless couple’s tranquil existence is suddenly disturbed when Geoff receives a letter that reveals a largely hidden aspect of his life before the two met. 45 YEARS opens with Kate walking their well-loved dog and whistling “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” This was also the couple’s wedding day dance song. As the film ends, with the Platters’ version of the song repeated for the celebratory dance by the pair at their anniversary party, we realize that smoke can mislead people in love and also conceal deep fractures beneath the surface of what seems to be a happy marriage. Courtney and Rampling are terrific, with Rampling, one of the great beauties of modern cinema, courageously showing every line and wrinkle of her 69 years.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

Saturday concluded for me as I descended along with five anonymous Festivalgoers in a darkened gondola, all of us returning from the young Hungarian director Lázló Nemes’s unsettling Holocaust film SON OF SAUL With the town of Telluride glittering far below, we engaged for twenty minutes in an impassioned seminar on the film. “Son of Saul,” we agreed, is a different Holocaust film. As Nemes observed in the brief Q&A following the film, it seeks to avoid reassurance of any sort, such as that offered by films like “Schindler’s List” or “Life is Beautiful.”

Saul is a member of one of the briefly surviving Sonderkommando teams that conducted the gassing and burning of Jewish victims until that team, too, was gassed and burned in the Nazis’ effort to erase the crime. As the film begins, Saul, chillingly played by the Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig, moves like a dead man, helping to lead the unwitting victims into the “showers,” standing by the steel doors hearing the screams as they’re gassed, and scrubbing away the blood and filth. We see a new terror of the Holocaust in the merciless forced pace of the crematorium death factory, as inmates move from difficult task to difficult task under the constant threat of joining the piles of “pieces” they process. Saul is shaken out of his indifference when he encounters the body of a young boy, who he claims to be his own son (though it’s never clear that this is so). Thus begins Saul’s obsessive effort to provide a traditional Jewish burial for the boy. This leads us through every chamber of the crematorium complex and through the turmoil of a failed Sonderkommando uprising. Shot with 35-millimeter film, shallow depth of focus, and a screen size deliberately reduced to the older 4:3 ratio, the camera always keeps the worst images—full views of the victims and the treatment of their bodies—at the edge of our vision. But the hand-held shots and the cacophony of languages—Hungarian, Yiddish, German—convey the chaos and terror of this hell within a hell.

As I and my fellow filmgoers descend in our gondola, we debate whether Saul’s behavior is an insane mental break—an additional assault on his humanity caused by the insane conditions—or a profound spiritual affirmation that takes him beyond the instinct for survival that drives the other men. Or is it both? SON OF SAUL provides no easy answers, but in the bleakest of ways, it forces us to deepen our comprehension of the Holocaust.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 6

Sunday started for us on a bad note. After waiting for an hour and a half, we were denied admission to the Danny Boyle tribute and viewing of his latest film, STEVE JOBS. Our W2 line passes to the Mountain Village Chuck Jones cinema normally guarantee admission, but a surge of “filmmakers of tomorrow” shut us out five places short of admission. In compensation, we were given one-time priority passes that put us among the $3900 patron pass holders for any upcoming film. This was emotionally assuaging but not total recompense.

After a three-hour wait we were admitted to the Chuck Jones for the French director Xavier Giannoli’s MARGUERITE. It was worth the wait.

The year is 1920 and the context, brilliantly portrayed with period settings and costumes, is the catastrophe of the war and the emerging cultural turmoil and excesses of the twenties. Baroness Marguerite Dumont, still living in the protected bubble of the pre-war aristocracy, is passionately devoted to musical performance, and believes herself to be a diva of importance. She stages a private recital at her magnificent chateau “for the benefit of orphans of the war.” But when she starts to sing it is chalk on a blackboard. Her devoted audience of private music club attendees, family servants and war orphans applauds warmly, but they must also suppress their laughter (our film audience viewers did not).

What makes this film move beyond comedy into deep human insight and emotion is the performance of Catherine Frot as Marguerite. Her sweet face and gentle disposition stir us to affection for her just as they do her colorful retinue of followers. Like them, we fear the encounter with reality that could shatter her illusions. But we also feel admiration for Marguerite. Her passion suggests to us that life itself is nothing more than the illusion we weave for ourselves, and we admire her courage and tenacity in pursuit of her artistic dream.

In the Q&A that followed the film, Annette Insdorf revealed that a film based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the American diva whose story inspired MARGUERITE, is now in production starring Meryl Streep. We’ll see how that film compares with “Marguerite,” and whether Streep can match Frot’s performance to make us pity, admire, and love this beautifully deluded person.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my second personal nomination along with “Taxi” for this year’s “Best Foreign Film”)

Very positive line buzz led us to privilege ROOM for our late afternoon viewing. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson with a screenplay adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name, ROOM is a factionalized account of the experience of the Cleveland teenager who was abducted, imprisoned for years, and raped and impregnated by her psychopath abductor. Joy (Brie Nelson) protectively raises her five-year old son Jack (brilliantly played by Jacob Tremblay) to believe that their tiny room is the whole universe. Only when it becomes necessary to make him realize otherwise in order to make their escape, does five-year-old Jack begin to understand that there is a larger, real world beyond the TV screen.

I confess to being uncomfortable throughout this film. Using a thriller format to move events forward creates a constant feeling of menace even after Joy and Jack are freed. More than seems to be needed in order to explore the psychological challenges facing mother and son, we’re constantly led to worry that Jack or Ma will suffer some terrible new harm. To its credit, ROOM offers an uplifting vision of the intensity of maternal love. But some viewers may worry that Joy’s response to a forced pregnancy is depicted in too redemptive terms.

RON’S GRADE: B plus

ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR closed my day. (Mary Jean and Kate chose not to attend a film with a 10:30 start). Co-directed by Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag, this documentary chronicles Ware’s seven years as a Time correspondent in Iraq from before the invasion to the fighting to recover Fallujah and Ramadi from Iraqi insurgents. Videos shot by Ware’s reporting team with Ware’s taut Australian-accented voiceover and captured insurgent footage document the war from the brief, heady days when U.S. troops entering Baghdad were welcomed with flowers, through the emergence of the deadly Iraqi “resistance” to the U.S. occupation, to the retaking of Fallujah and Ramadi from insurgents led by the vicious Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Ware doesn’t say anything about the larger issues of the conflict (although one’s stomach turns at brief TV screen clips of George W. Bush stupidly boasting of the initial successes and then blaming the insurgents for the resulting mayhem). But the film powerfully documents the increasing cruelty on both sides, from the barbarous bombings and beheadings by Zarqawi’s followers to the increasing anger and callousness of the young American soldiers dropped into this hell (often without sufficient support). A dramatic closing video shows the GIs dragging a badly wounded insurgent off the street into a courtyard where they’ve sought shelter. The Iraqi’s brain oozes out of his head, but his chest continues to heave as the soldiers search his pockets, pulling out two ammunition clips and an identity photo bearing a fresh young face. In violation of military law, no one makes an effort—not even Ware—to secure medical help, and we watch for minutes until the chest stops heaving. The film closes as Ware regrets the toll the war has taken on his own humanity.

ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR has been sold to and will be shown on HBO. For a view we never quite got to see on TV of this terrible and misguided conflict, Don’t miss it.

RON’S GRADE: A

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 7

Our final day at this year’s festival began at the limited seating Opera House where our consolation-prize priority passes earned us quick entry to what soon became a packed house for the Irish-Cuban film, VIVA. Directed by Paddy Breathnach and beautifully filmed in Havana, VIVA stars Hector Medina as Jesus, a young gay man who supports himself as a part-time hairdresser. Jesus’s work for the divas at a transvestite cabaret draws him into their performance world. But his life is abruptly changed by the return of his long-lost father, Angel, a failed prizefighter who has just been released from prison. Angel has no room for “maricons” (“fags”) and after slugging his son during Jesus’s first performance at the cabaret, forbids him to perform. We watch how in order to support them both Jesus begins to descend into prostitution, while longing to return to the intense world of song and performance to which he’s so drawn

In the Q&A following the film, Luis Alberto Garcia, who plays Mama, the cabaret owner (and in some ways Jesus’s foster-father), observed that this film is not only about gays or transvestites but also—and even more directly—about love and family. That’s exactly right.

I was bothered a bit by VIVA’S use of narrative clichés—for example, the bitchy friend whose boyfriend knocks her up and leaves her (and Jesus) to pick up the pieces. But even these clichés may convey aspects of Cuban life, such as the intra-familial and neighbor-bonding shaped by the needs of an impoverished community.

RON’S GRADE: A minus (but my third personal “Best Foreign Film” nomination)

I have often said that the Telluride Film Festival involves going to a small mountain village in Colorado and then, in three days, traveling the world. IXCANUL (Volcano), directed by the young Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamente, is an example of Telluride’s best world cinema. As the film opens, we see Maria (beautifully played by María Mercedes Coroy), a 17-year old Mayan girl, as she is being prepared to meet her future husband and his family. Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo) is foreman at the local coffee plantation whose spouse has died and left him with three young children. Unfortunately, Maria upsets these plans by becoming pregnant in a one-night stand with a local ne’er-do-well who soon takes off to the north, breaking what she believes was his promise to take her with him. As IXCANUL follows Maria and her family through the turmoil that her condition causes for them, we feel like privileged anthropologists who have been invited into the intimate life of an indigenous community. Events hint at the depth of rural poverty and exclusion: census takers who don’t speak Mayan and few locals who speak Spanish. Deprived of resources, people resort to ineffective folk remedies or to beliefs and rituals with a thin Catholic veneer and deeper Mayan roots. Over them looms the protective power and support of the volcano.

But what raises IXCANUL above even this fascinating series of cultural insights, is the relationship between Maria and her mother, Juana (María Telón). Juana’s non-judgmental, unsparing love for her beautiful daughter shows us that poverty and backwardness do not eclipse what is best in the human spirit.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my fourth personal Oscar nomination, though, sadly, an unlikely winner)

For my final film of the Festival I chose not to follow my companions’ choice of a first draft of Danny Boyle’s STEVE JOBS which has received the best line-buzz of the Festival. This is because I think it’s unwise to see films here that I can soon catch at a local movie theater (such as this year’s selections “Spotlight” and “Black Mass”) and in the process miss the full screen viewing of a film that will never appear again outside of Netflix (if there). My choice this evening was RAMS, written and directed by Iceland’s Grímur Hákonarson, RAMS follows two septuagenarian bachelor brothers, the shy Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjónsson) and the frequently drunk and truculent Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) who herd sheep in a remote and treeless Icelandic mountain valley. Although they live only a few hundred yards apart in different houses on their inherited family land, the two brothers haven’t spoken with each other in forty years. The only thing they share is a passionate love for their sheep, evidenced in the gentle caresses and kisses Gummi bestows upon them. But this harsh status quo is broken when one of Kiddi’s sheep (and some on other farms) are found to be infected with Scrapie, a fatal and incurable disease. All sheep on farms throughout the valley must be destroyed. We watch as the crisis and a bitter winter intensify and transform the brothers’ relationship.

The fraternal drama of RAMS may appeal more to those in similarly intense and difficult sibling relationships than it did to me, but I enjoyed my brief visit to this austere and forbidding landscape and my glimpse into the life of a community of dedicated and modern farmers who base their livelihood on one of humankind’s most ancient relationships with animals.

RON’s GRADE: A minus (I needn’t nominate this for “Best Foreign Film” because I hear that RAMS will likely be the Icelandic entry in the Oscars).

CONCLUSION

Midway through this year’s Festival, I found myself thinking that since Bill Pence retired several years ago, there has been a subtle change in programming emphasis. Where world cinema once predominated, with smaller and fascinating films, more recent Festivals have moved in the direction of trying to identify upcoming Oscar contenders. To an extent this is true. Witness films this year like CAROL,  “Black Mass,” “Spotlight,” “Suffragettes,” or “Steve Jobs” that will probably all be in this year’s award contention as well as in local theaters. But I formed that judgment before seeing VIVA, IXCANUL and RAMS, films that can stand besides the best world-cinema offerings of Telluride in the past. So I’m pleased to say that in its forty-second year, Telluride remains as vibrant and exciting as ever. On to forty-three!

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Ethics

Obama as Theologian of Grace: Comment on Obama’s Eulogy for Reverend Clamenta Pinckney

FOLLOWING IS AN OP ED THAT I SUBMITTED TO THE NYT, WASHINGTON POST, AND LA TIMES, NONE HAD ROOM FOR IT, BUT THANKS TO THE FREEDOM OF THE INTERNET, I AM PUBLISHING IT MYSELF:

Obama as a Theologian of Grace

President Obama’s eulogy to Reverend Clementa Pinckney may rank as one of the great addresses of American history, alongside Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, his Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

As an oratorical work, the speech is sublime. With those other great American addresses it will probably enter into the liturgy of what sociologist Robert Bellah has called “America’s civil religion.” But it is profound, as well, in its ethical, theological, and political insight, drawing on some of the deepest themes of biblical religion.

The first section of the speech is eulogy, remembering and honoring the Reverend Pinckney and those who died with him. Here Mr. Obama paints a vivid portrait of the fallen pastor and state senator, ranging from mention of his graciousness to his “deceptive sense of humor.” This section concludes with praise that says more in its simplicity and universality than any list of accomplishments: “What a good man.” The ethical point is clear. Persons and nations are measured not by their possessions or accomplishments but by their moral righteousness.

In the second section of the speech, we are in an African American church. Although the large turnout caused the event to be placed in a municipal arena, the President is speaking to and from an AME congregation. He reminds us of the importance of the black churches from the times of slavery to the Civil Rights movement, when they served as “as hush harbors, where slaves could worship in safety, praise houses, where their free descendants could gather and shout ‘Hallelujah,’ rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad, bunkers for the foot soldiers of the civil-rights movement.” They continue today, he adds, “As places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harms way and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter.” It is, he says, “our beating heart, the place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.

Then, amazingly, the President turns theologian and pastor, delivering the body of his text as a meditation or sermon on the meaning of grace. “This whole week,” he says, “I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.”

This turn is initially surprising, even inappropriate. How can a terrible tragedy like the cold-blooded murder of nine people be seen as an act of grace? Why is grace even mentioned here? True, the families of the victims have expressed their forgiveness of the killer. That forgiveness is an act of grace, as the President observes. But for most of us, the killing evokes anger—anger at the murderer, and anger at a God who can allow such things. Why, then, the theme of grace?

Explaining that “God works in mysterious ways,” using even a killer to his ends, the President then returns to the hymn, “Amazing grace,” reciting its opening words:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found,

Was blind, but now I see.

Here’s the crucial turn. God’s grace, Obama tells us, is not found only, as we think, in blessings, or even in the lifting of merited punishments. Grace, he says, is “the free and benevolent favor of God.” But that favor can also be bestowed through the infliction of tragedy and suffering. Drawing implicitly on the work of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others, the President observes that grace arrives when our self-esteem and self-will are broken, when we are forced by suffering to see what we were unable or unwilling to see.

In the deep scrutiny of American society that follows, the President itemizes our many points of blindness and selfishness. Our blindness to the offensive meaning of the Confederate Flag, our blindness to the pervasive poverty and inequality that mar the lives of so many children, our blindness to the gun violence that takes 30 American lives each day, our blindness to the systematic unfairness of the criminal-justice system that dooms so many black youngsters to wasted lives. And our blindness even to the lingering but subtle racial bias that infects the best intentioned of us, and that leads an employer  “to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”

Here, the President’s eulogy echoes the conclusion of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, where the devastating bloodshed of the Civil War itself is described as a “true and righteous” judgment of God, and as invitation and opportunity  “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Tragedy and bloodshed as divine grace. Drawing from the deepest resources of Christian faith, with the crucifixion at its center, both Lincoln and Obama present suffering as God’s blessing. Divine Grace is not only the enjoyment of goods, but also the breaking of our self-will and the opening of our eyes. Amazing grace.

And, then, the President sings the hymn—performs the hymn—moving his body as a worshipper. We are again in the black church, and the President is pastor and leader. He has told us what the black church means, and now he shows it.

The address resumes the character of a eulogy with the President stating the names of the victims. Returning appropriately to the expected meaning of grace as blessing and favor, the President says of each of the fallen, “May grace lead them home,” adding, “May God continue to shed His Grace on the United States of America.”

The address thus ends with words from another civil religion hymn, “America the Beautiful.” This suggests that the nation will only experience the grace of the song’s many promised blessings of abundance and plenitude if, through the grace of this tragedy, we open our eyes and overcome our “original sin” of racial injustice.

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Travel

Iran Conference and Lectures (January 4-7, 2015)

In early November 2014 I received an email invitation to deliver the keynote address at the Third Annual Conference of the International Association for the Philosophy of Religion in January 2015 in Tehran, Iran. The Iranian Association for the Philosophy of Religion (IAPR) hosts the conference in cooperation with Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University. I was informed that my former Dartmouth colleague Steven Katz had delivered this address at the 2014 conference. Checking with Steve, I was assured that the invitation was serious and that I would be warmly welcomed and respectfully treated in Tehran.

There were good reasons for turning down the invitation. I had a speaking obligation right after the conference’s closing date, Mary Jean for several reasons could not accompany me, and after a rash of scary movies like “Argo” and “Rosewater,” Iran raised fears. But I accepted the invitation. Checking schedules, I saw that could make it back just in time for my American commitment, and this could be a first exploratory visit, with Mary Jean accompanying me if I returned there in the future.

A major factor in my thinking was the signs of change taking place in U.S.-Iranian relations. With serious talks underway on ending economic sanctions in return for a halting of Iran’s nuclear program, and with ISIS becoming a common threat to both the nations (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”), I thought that this might be a good moment to serve, however modestly, as an ambassador of good will. I also thought it was less likely right now that I would find myself in an international incident.

The conference was scheduled for January 6 and 7. I was slated to depart late on Friday, January 2, arriving in Tehran early on Sunday, January 4. My U.S. speaking commitment required me to return by January 10, so this would be a short trip: four days on the ground in Tehran, departing Tehran on January 8. Steve Katz had had an extended stay that allowed him to visit Isfahan and Persepolis, but unfortunately my schedule wouldn’t permit that. The conference organizers said that they would plan several additional talks for me in the vicinity of Tehran before the start of the conference to fill out my stay.

Travel to Iran requires a visa. Because we have no diplomatic relations with Iran, I had to go through the Iranian “interest section” in the Pakistani embassy in Washington. Apparently Steve had some trouble with this, receiving his visa at the last moment after much delay and after needed interventions by the conference hosts, but Steve is a noted Holocaust scholar, a matter that could cause the Iranian authorities to give him a close look. Though I have written on Jewish ethics, it was unlikely that I was a person of interest. In the event, my application was accepted and my passport returned within 48 hours with an attractive visa inserted. A sign of Iranian good will?

JANUARY 2-4:

My itinerary had me traveling on Lufthansa via Frankfurt. The transatlantic leg went smoothly. In the transit lounge at Frankfurt, I noticed something odd. Of the more than one hundred women present, young and old, only one wore a headscarf. I thought that maybe these were all foreigners traveling to Iran, but when we landed in Tehran and had to go through passport control, most of the group went through the Iranian lines. So they were Iranian women outside Iran and almost none chose to wear a headscarf. Shortly before the plane landed, the purser made an announcement saying that head coverings are required of all women by law in Iran, and as we readied to exit the plane, the scarves appeared. What to make of this? Was I traveling with a largely secularized expatriate group? Or do Iranian women themselves, at least those affluent enough to travel abroad, dislike the clothing regulations? (Two days later in Tehran I put this question to an Iranian woman at the conference. She replied that what I saw was understandable because “Ninety percent of Iranian women don’t like the veiling requirement.”)

Speaking of passport control, my arrival in Tehran was momentarily nerve-wracking. While the whole group of foreigners was quickly ushered through passport control, I was held back, my passport was taken, and I was shunted through several offices. I quickly learned that this was in order to take my fingerprints (as the U.S. now also does for most foreign visitors). The delay took only about fifteen minutes, but my apprehensions throughout it reminded me of how many fears and stereotypes we have about Iran, generated by films like “Argo.” The reality (obligatory fingerprinting) may sometimes be more innocent.

Despite my delay, my welcoming party, Javad Teheri, Executive Director of the Iranian Association for Philosophy of Religion, and his wife, Mahshid Alvandi, were waiting at the exit from baggage claim, bearing a sign with my name on it. Here are Javad and Mahshid in the next day’s sunlight:

Mahshid and Javad

 

We climbed into a cab and in short order began a small seminar on rational religious theory. Javad aspires to add a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion to his M.A. He is an intense and enthusiastic young man. Mahshid was a conference assistant, and in the days ahead, with good cheer she helped keep things on track. The long day ended at the upscale Parsian Engheleb (“Persian Revolution”) Hotel. I checked in against a backdrop of Beetles Muzak. The only Iranian presence was this drawer in my room, where the Gideon Bible was replaced by a Quran and prayer rug.

01 HOLY KORAN IN HOTEL

SUNDAY, JANUARY 4:

The bright morning view from my hotel window revealed the towering (12,000 foot high) mountains that border the northern side of the city.

Skyline

This was my first day on the ground and I was pretty much on my own. Having gone to bed around 4:00 AM Iran time, I slept until eight and rose to catch the hotel breakfast (mostly familiar breakfast foods but also some Iranian specialties, such as a yellow bean porridge). I then set out on the street in front of the hotel to change some money. Because of sanctions, our credit cards don’t work here. I had in mind the report of an academic colleague who attended a conference here last year and who, on missing his plane because of Tehran traffic had to spend an extra day in Tehran without money and without eating. In view of this, I thought it would be wise to have some cash in my wallet. This proved more challenging than I suspected. The hotel reception wouldn’t change money and directed me to a bank directly across the street, but that bank required a passport for exchange and the night before I had to surrender my passport to the hotel reception for the duration of my stay there (“Catch 22”). At the incomprehensible Farsi-accompanied pointing of a kindly woman bank employ, I set off doubtfully in the direction of a large building some distance away. This turned out to be a massive galleria shopping center, with many banks . . .

Galleria

. . . several of which turned me down until I was directed to a specialized “Exchange” operation. There, a friendly older man and a young woman for whom I was the only customer in evidence exchanged $40 for me at a rate of about 30,000 rials to the dollar (yes that’s thousands, and climbing fast daily as a result of the sanctions). Wandering through the galleria, I noticed that there were few shops open and the space seemed desolate and forlorn. This confirmed what Javad and Mahshid told me in the cab the night before, that U.S.-led sanctions have had a profound effect on the Iranian economy.

I continued walking further along the hotel avenue trying to get close to a huge mural on the side of a building. It seems to honor hero martyrs (of the Iran-Iraq war?)

Mural 1

On returning to the hotel, I noticed another large mural on the wall of an adjacent building.

Mural 2

What you see here are two empty army boots, and a seemingly mystical dis-apparition of the soldier whose boots they were. This was another memorial to a martyr of Iran’s eight-year long (1980-88) war with Iraq.

In the early afternoon, two of my hosts, Professor Mohsen Javadi of Qom University and his colleague Mohammad Saeedimehr of Tarbiat Modares University stopped by and we went over the week’s plans. One of my preconference talks was to have been at Qom, and I was eager to see the beautiful holy city, but to my disappointment this did not work out. In place of that visit, Prof. Javadi had scheduled two talks for me before leading medical ethics organizations in Tehran.

About 8:30 that evening, Prof. Saeedimehr returned to pick me up for a tour of the city. The evening was chosen because Tehran’s daytime traffic is awful (so bad that alternate day restrictions are imposed on car entry into the center city) but things ease up by nightfall. We headed westward to Freedom (Azadi) Square, a monument built under the Shah but now reframed as a tribute to Iraq’s liberation under the Islamic Revolution.

03 AZADI SQUARE

Here is a selfie of Mohammad and me in front of it:

04 Muhammad and Me Azadi Sq

This drive to Azadi Square was a bit of an emotional turning point for me. Like almost all Americans who can remember the events of the Islamic Revolution, including the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the seizure of its staff as hostages, I have a largely negative view of those days and of the regime that followed. As we drove the long thirteen-kilometer avenue from the hotel to the monument, Professor Saeedimehr told me that he had been among the tens of thousands of young people who marched down that avenue amidst the excitement of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return and the overthrow of the hated Shah. He said that he and the others were filled with hope for Iran’s new beginning and the vision of a more just society. In the 1980s, he expressed his enthusiasm by volunteering for military service in the Iraq-Iran war, eventually losing many friends in the conflict. Saddam Hussein, he said, started the war predicting that the Arabic-speaking ethnic groups in the southwest of Iran would rise up on his side and that the conflict would only last three days. Neither prediction proved correct. The Arab-speaking Iranians remained loyal to their country, and the war dragged on for eight years, with at least 300,000 dead on the Iranian side. The U.S. backed Saddam in that war. “For Saddam and America,” my host said bitterly. “it was all about oil.” Suddenly, I was jolted into a very different view of all those events. Here was a colleague, the kind of intelligent and liberal professor I might find anywhere in the U.S. or Europe, defending the Islamic revolution in the name of social justice, and offering a picture of his country as the innocent victim of ill-considered U.S. interventions.

After the square, we headed north to the Darband district. On the way, we transited a Vali Asr Street, which is bordered by trees that are illuminated by lines of roadside lights changing colors every few seconds:

05 LIGHTED STREET 06 LIGHTED STREET 07 LIGHTED STREET

Darband Square. . .

08 Darband Squate

. . . forms the base of one of several narrow river valleys in the mountains that rise to the north of the city. A stone walkway climbs up the valley along the river (really just a small rivulet), and food stalls and restaurants line the route. You can ascend for kilometers, tempted by street food and glittering restaurants. The stalls and restaurants stay open until the early hours of the morning, and on hot summer nights (it was now cool, at about fifty degrees Fahrenheit) thousands of people come out each evening for a walk and dinner. Mohammad and I ascended for about two kilometers. Here are some views of our walk.

One of the food stalls offering sweets and candied fruits:

10 Food shop

This is a dish of steamed fava beans. We bought a bowl, slid a bean out of its covering with our fingers and popped it into our mouths.

11 Fava Beans

And here’s a display of everyone’s favorite snack food, cooked beets:

12 BEETS

Brightly lit restaurants line the walk up:

09 Restaurant

Here is a clever little business. Pay its owner, and one of the little birds picks a card that tells you your fortune:

 

12 Bird reader

A selection of skewers and raw meats prepared for roasting;

13 Meats

With a roaring fire ready to do the cooking nearby:

14 Fire

On the way back to the hotel, we passed two beautiful, brightly lit mosques. These are in true Persian style and much more ornate than the simpler ones I’m used to in Morocco:

15 Mosque

16 Mosque

Back at the hotel, I was lulled to sleep by the call to prayer. Because Shi’a Muslims (and Iran is overwhelmingly Shi’a) condense two of the five daily prayers into its adjacent one, the call occurs only three times a day, and it is much quieter and more musical than those I’ve heard in Sunni countries.

MONDAY, JANUARY 5:

Tuesday began when I was picked up at 9:30 am by Dr. Ehsan Shamsi Gooshki, director of the Medical Ethics Department of the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He would take me to the Medical Ethic and History of Research Center, another site of medical ethics studies in the city. This was located at some distance, and I confess a hair-raising drive across the city from my hotel. I’ve mentioned Tehran’s traffic. At full bore in the daytime it is a mixture of thousands of cars, pedestrians and motorcycles in an intricate choreography in which racing vehicles and darting people miss one another by centimeters. Lane markers might as well not exist or, better, sometimes serve only as guides which drivers use to point their vehicles. Long ago, I resolved never to drive in India. I’ve added Tehran to the list.

The Medical Ethics Center is located in one of Tehran’s larger hospitals. I walked with Dr. Shamsi down the busy corridors and was ushered into the endocrinology and metabolism research unit and the office of that unit and the Center’s director, Dr. Bagher Larijani. Over beverages, he offered a PowerPoint presentation of the Center’s many activities, ranging from its active Ph.D. program in bioethics to its development of ethics materials for the nation’s health care system, including a widely distributed “Patient’s Bill of Rights” that I am told is displayed in hospitals everywhere. I learned from Dr. Shamsi, that Dr. Larijani is one of five brothers who play significant roles in Iranian society. One is the chairman of the Parliament of Iran, another heads Iran’s judicial system, and the two others also have important governmental positions. Smiling, Dr. Shamsi added, “They’re the Kennedy’s of Iran.”

At 10:30 we went to a well-appointed seminar room for my presentation “Is ‘Dignity’ a Useful Concept in Bioethics?” About thirty people were present, including about 20 Ph.D. students, all of whom were also M.D.s. More than half the members of the audience were women. My presentation, with some of my organizational points and longer quotations projected in a PowerPoint, went very well. I spoke slowly, and the students seemed to understand what I was saying. Although their spoken English was not as strong as their comprehension, they were filled with questions based on their individual thesis projects. With a break for lunch, the Q&A continued, and the questions that followed were amazing. All were in areas of great interest to me: access to assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), abortion, human enhancement, physician-assisted suicide, the physician’s duty when confronted with abusive or negligent parents, and the commercialization of kidney transplantation. Iran is unique among almost all nations in having a government-regulated and partly government-financed system that permits transplant recipients to pay donors for a kidney. The system appears to be imperfect (under-the-table payments apparently persist despite government regulation), but on the positive side it has eliminated the long waiting lists for kidneys that predominate in the U.S. and elsewhere. I hope to learn much more about this in the future.

One thing I’m seeing and learning about in the course of this visit is the Shi’a community’s commitment to rationality at all levels, as distinct from the Sunni prioritizing of revelation. Centuries ago, this issue was joined in the conflict between the Ash’ari (revelation) and Mutazilite (rationalist) parties, and the Ash’ari position won out in most of the Sunni world. Not so among the Shi’a, whose opposition to the Sunni caliphate (for whom Ash’ari authoritarianism was convenient) led them to favor the Mutazilite position. This commitment to reason explains my presence here at the invitation of an almost unique Islamic program in the Philosophy of Religion. Scholars (and physicians) here are also proud of the perspective in which reason works hand in hand with revelation, and sacred teachings can be accommodated to changing realities. One small biomedical illustration of this that I learned about during the course of the Q&A is Iran’s permission for egg and sperm donation in ARTs. This is forbidden in the Sunni lands because of traditionalist concerns with strict lineage preservation. Shi’a jurists, in contrast, seem willing to go beyond traditional constraints when medical realities and rational policy recommend doing so.

Still jet-lagged, and after an intense day of speaking to and learning from my Iranian bioethics colleagues, I had dinner at the hotel, and went to bed early.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 6:

The conference began today. Up at 5:00 am after only 5 hours sleep and still way off my sleep cycle, it was going to be a challenge to give my keynote address in the morning and follow a busy roster of others’ talks throughout the day. Taxis waited for the transfer to Tarbiat Modares University. The hair-raising drive across Tehran did more to wake me up than the breakfast coffee. The conference began in a large assembly hall with what seemed to be equivalent to a pledge of allegiance ritual to projected images of Imam Khomeini, the revolution’s founding father, a brief taped recitation of a passage from the Noble Quran and short welcoming speeches from university officials. Here are several pictures of the conference poster, the large hall, and me, as requested, delivering my greetings as the conference keynoter and sole American participant:

Conference Poster

Me Welcoming

Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremony Women

We then broke up into two sections, one English speaking, the other Farsi. In addition to a substantial complement of Iranian speakers and attendees, conference participants were quite international, with speakers coming from England, Italy, Germany, Northern Ireland, Tunisia, Kuwait and Mexico.

My keynote, “Kant’s Philosophy of Religion and the Challenges of Moral Commitment,” went very well, and the Q&A was lively. Here are some snapshots of the morning’s activity. Note the large number of women scholars present.

Session from front

Me and my paper

(That’s me)

At the coffee break, I was able to chat briefly with one of the women scholars attending (I learned her name is Zohreh), who raised a particularly good question during discussion. She’s here in the middle:

Zohreh

Just before lunch, we were given a walking tour of Tarbiat Modares University. The university was established after the revolution and is dedicated to graduate programs only, most in medicine and STEM fields but with a solid humanities division in which the philosophy of religion program is based. Here’s the library outside and in:

Library

Library Interior

And here’s a helpful librarian:

Librarian

A beautiful mosaic-covered campus mosque

University Mosque

And in front of it, a monument to three unknown martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.

Monument to Martyrs

The plaques below specify their ages (all were in their twenties based on information gleaned perhaps from medical analysis), but their identities are unknown.

Gravestones

The day ended back at the hotel with a boisterous dinner for speakers and hosts that began after eight and went on for several hours.

A word here about Iranian food—in Iran. Persian restaurants in the states are among my favorites. (There is a terrific one in Naples, Florida, named “Bha! Bha!,” a Farsi expression used for good food or good odors meaning “Wow! Wow!”) All of the meals I had in Iran had the same format: a substantial array of starters in the form of fresh salad preparations, olives, pickles, salty feta-like cheeses and so on, followed by a main course featuring a pile of saffroned rice over or beside a grilled lamb kebab, or grilled chicken or fish. The whole dish would be enlivened with a grilled whole and sliced fresh tomato and lemon or orange wedges.

Drinks included sodas or a bottled yoghurt drink that was popular but that I found too sour. The food was always very good, but the same.

Food

I saw no sign of the many tagine-like dishes featured at “Bha! Bha!” In fairness, this was all university, medical center, or hotel food. On the way back to the airport on Wednesday night, Javad and Mahshid shared some of the take-away dinner they brought from a good local restaurant, a delicious layered confection of cornbread and spiced ground meat.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 7, my final day in Iran.

This morning’s conference meeting had several very good papers. One, however, by a Polish Catholic scholar, Janusz Balicki, raised sharp questions.

Pole

The title of Balicki’s paper was “Immigrants from Muslim Countries in a Secular Europe: A Challenge or an Opportunity for Christianity?” It began by describing the “decline” in “family values” in Europe which he believed to be signaled by marital cohabitation, declining birth rates, and legally-recognized gay marriage. Balicki saw this as an opportunity for family-valuing and “pro-life” European Christians to build a new social and political coalition with equally traditionalist Muslim immigrants. During the Q&A, Lutz Alexander Keferstein of Mexico pointed out that it is often the most conservative Christians throughout Europe who are among the most vehement opponents of Muslim immigration.

After attending the conference this morning and lunch, I was driven by Dr. Shamsi, to the Headquarters of the Iranian Medical Council (the equivalent of our A.M.A.) and ushered into the office of Dr. Alireza Zali, a neurologist and President of the Council. Our chat was followed by an hour and a half session on medical professionalism with 20 of the staff in their Council’s Medical Ethics Department, which Dr. Shamsi heads. Of my three talks, this was the least prepared and most controversial, dealing near its end with physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, but once again, the Q&A was stimulating. At one point, in response to my mention of physicians’ professional obligation to report instances of child abuse, the question was raised about whether there can be exceptions to this. In the intensely patriarchal environment of some rural Iranian families, my questioner observed, reporting abuse can sometimes endanger the child.

At the close, Dr. Shamsi (who arranged the Monday talk but was not present for it) mentioned the possibility of an invitation to me to return this summer for a one or two week course on biomedical ethics for their Ph.D. students. I will have to look at my schedule. This may be a chance to visit with Mary Jean and see more of the country. I’m also very interested in learning more about their regulated kidney-exchange program.

My visit ended at 10:30 that evening, when I was picked up again by Javad and Mahshid and transported to the airport for my 2:50 AM flight to Frankfurt. The lead-time was needed because the airport lines at each point (ticketing, security and boarding) were daunting and I got to my seat only minutes before the scheduled departure time. As the Lufthansa plane lifted off, I felt some of the relief depicted at the same moment in the film “Argo.” In my case, it was not so much relief from fear, but from a travel environment shaped by sanctions (no credit cards or phone service), strict documentary requirements, and unfamiliar mores. For example, early on I was advised never to shake a woman’s hand, and at the conference I had to repeatedly still my impulse to do so.

Some final impressions. I believe Iran is far different from the Iran of our media-shaped American imaginations. For one thing, it is a highly developed if temporarily economically handicapped nation. Tehran can rank besides any European city, and its “feel” and people are far closer to a European sensibility than anything I’ve experienced in Sunni Islamic nations (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt). There is also a sharpness and precision to people’s discourse and behaviors that makes one feel one is in a slightly down-at-the heels France rather than in a more southern Arab country. Is this a reflection of Shi’a rationalism (some of my hosts thought so), the cooler weather, or Persia’s great imperial legacy and culture?

Second, there is genuine pride about the Islamic revolution, and a strong feeling, even among some young people who identify with the recent progressive “green” protest movement, that the West in general, and America in particular, don’t understand Iran. During breaks in the conference or during transport, I had the chance to speak with several students and young people about political issues, and while some expressed unhappiness with the regime, there was a tendency to think that the indigenous problems have been worsened by Western interventions. The traditionalism of the Islamic revolution makes it easy to miss the fact that, like Cuba, this is a country whose revolution commands substantial support and pride from its people.

There is a dark side. While religious traditionalists—and they include some of the able university and medical professionals I met—view the revolution and government in very positive terms, more secularized individuals don’t like imposed and omnipresent religiosity and control. Women vary in terms of dress, with the more religious wearing the dark full body and head cover, and more secular women wearing only a scarf or headpiece. Several of the more secularized women that I spoke to told me that they deeply dislike gender-based restrictions that have been imposed. One said that she dreams of leaving Iran and feeling the wind blow through her hair. On the positive side, these restrictions have apparently facilitated a massive movement of women from more traditional sectors into education and other public functions. Women now make up sixty percent of medical graduates.

Some of my interlocutors also quietly expressed to me their discomfort with what they saw as a generally repressive intellectual environment. One said, “If you speak openly about what you believe, you can land in prison.”

Of course, I was only four days in Iran, and that is hardly enough to found or authenticate any of these views. But there is a conclusion about which I feel confident. For Western travelers, Iran is not the terror state depicted by Hollywood. Tehran is a safe city—much safer than Paris I was told, a remark too soon confirmed—and the people themselves are overwhelmingly friendly to Americans. On my first day’s walkabout, I was asked several times where I came from, and when I said “America,” I received warm smiles and greetings. Once you get your visa, you can travel to Iran, travel freely within the country, see its marvelous historic sites, speak easily with people many of whom manage in English, and you can leave whenever you are ready to do so. (Just bring cash and get to the airport early on your return!) Perhaps if more Americans visited, and, above all, if political leaders on both sides move toward more accommodation, we can renew our appreciation of this amazing people and culture.

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Ethics

Talk to First Year Students at Moosilauke Lodge

SEPTEMBER 7, 2014—First of all tonight, I want to welcome you all back to the Lodge, and congratulate you on successfully completing your trips. This is the start of your Dartmouth experience. I’ve taught at Dartmouth a long time (some people think I knew Eleazar Wheelock), and I know that you are about to begin one of the most important and enriching periods of your life.

I have only a few minutes to speak to you tonight, so I want to focus on what I think is most important for you as you begin your education here.

Just a few months ago, I published a book. (This is something Dartmouth professors do when we’re not teaching.) It was co-authored with a friend of mine, Professor Al Gini of the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University of Chicago, and it’s entitled 10 Virtues of Outstanding Leaders.

In that book, Prof. Gini and I identify and discuss 10 virtues that we feel are among the most important ones for today’s leaders in business, politics, education or almost any field of endeavor. For each virtue, we discuss at least one leader who epitomizes it. Here’s our list of the ten virtues and the figures we chose to illustrate each of them:

  • Deep Honesty—James Burke, CEO of Johnson & Johnson
  • Moral Courage—Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks
  • Moral Vision—Winston Churchill
  • Compassion—Oprah Winfrey
  • Fairness—Dwight David Eisenhower
  • Intellectual Excellence—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  • Creative Thinking—Herb Kelleher and the People of Southwest Airlines
  • Aesthetic Sensitivity—Steve Jobs
  • Good Timing—Charles de Gaulle
  • Deep Selflessness—Martin Luther King

My point here tonight is very simple. The purpose of a liberal arts education, is to learn about these virtues in all of your courses and to begin to put them into practice here in the classroom or laboratory, in your dorm or sorority or fraternity, on the athletic field, on the Daily D, or in your theater or singing group. You are studying liberal arts because to learn these virtues and put them in practice you have to encounter every domain of human experience.

Now, I wish I could lead you through a whole course on this theme, because I’d love to discuss each of these virtues. But I only have a few minutes, so I want to focus on one virtue and the person who epitomizes it. That virtue is aesthetic sensitivity and its embodiment is Steve Jobs, co-founder, Chairman, and CEO of the Apple Computer Company. We are all in debt to Jobs for the amazing creativity he brought to the world of personal computers.

Some of you may know that Jobs was adopted by working class parents. As a condition of his adoption, Jobs’ parents agreed to send him to college. So over the years, they saved up money, and when Jobs was ready, he applied to and was accepted at Reed College in Portland Oregon.

But Jobs found his first year at Reed difficult. He did poorly in his courses because he couldn’t see the point of them. Most of all, he was worried that he was wasting his parents’ hard-earned money.

So Jobs decided to drop out. Or rather, to drop out in order to drop in. He quit taking courses for credit, thanks to a friendly dean got a free room in a dorm attic, and kept himself alive by collecting and redeeming Coke bottles.

During those months, Jobs went back to take courses that interested him. One of them was a course on calligraphy, the history, art, and technology of type faces. In 2005 Jobs delivered a graduation address at Stanford University. In it he reminisced about that experience. In that course, he said,

I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.

Now I hope that none of you follow Steve Jobs in dropping out because he missed a lot, and you would, too. But I do hope that you follow him in reaching out beyond your present interests to explore all the avenues that a liberal arts education at Dartmouth opens to you. Take those courses in visual arts, in film studies, anthropology, in history, government, in physics, chemistry and biology, in religion and in philosophy. These and others are the courses that will vastly widen your horizon. They’ll introduce you to the importance of the ten virtues in human life, and they’ll help you develop your interests and your values.

I’m not asking each of you to become a Steve Jobs. But I am asking that you each become a liberally educated and ethical human being, able to make a positive contribution at some level to your communities. That’s what it means to become a leader.

I know you can do it and I wish you all the very best. Have a great year!

 

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Travel

TELLURIDE 2014

dogs of Telluride 2

The Dogs of Telluride

The Telluride Film Festival’s nabobs may have gotten the word. After recent years of bad scheduling (wildly popular films in small venues) and general overcrowding, they have done better: improved (but still far from satisfactory) scheduling; a good iPhone app; morning email notifications of sneak previews and TBAs (repeats of crowd pleasers); and a redone opening feast, with better seating and multiple serving points.

This year’s opening feast on Colorado Avenue brought crystalline Telluride weather together with an outstanding Russian-Ukrainian themed meal: roast salmon and lamb, tiny cups of borscht, nutty tea cakes for dessert. Russia and Ukraine may be at one another’s throats but not on Telluride’s high street.

feed

If the feast was an auspicious beginning, our opening film at the beautiful new Werner Herzog Theater (650 seats) was overwhelming. The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly, and under the direction of the veteran Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, chronicles the life of Alan Turing, the semi-autistic, homosexual mathematician and computer pioneer who led the team of British geniuses at Bletchley Park that cracked the German Enigma codes and arguably saved millions of allied lives during WWII.

A constant refrain in the film, uttered by friends and colleagues at each moment in Turing’s life when he faced terrible obstacles is: “The people you can’t imagine anything of are the very people who create what you can’t imagine.”

Benjamin Cumberbatch, in what will certainly be an Oscar-nominated performance, shows us the many sides of Turing, who was drawn to code breaking because for him the simplest human communication—”Want a sandwich?”—was a code to be cracked.

What is astonishing about The Imitation Game and Turing’s story are its lessons for today. We see the toll taken on Turing’s life—and at times the British war effort—by homophobia, bullying, and sex discrimination. At one point the brilliant mathematician played by Keira Knightly is almost consigned to the secretarial pool.

Tyldum’s direction (and an excellent screenplay by Graham Moore) bring everything together: a moving personal narrative, a touching love story as Knightly’s character and Turing reach out to one another; and an exciting WWII period peace, with a top ensemble of British actors.

Above all The Imitation Game shows how important it is to nurture the abilities of every human being, including those of whom “you can’t imagine anything.”

I hope The Imitation Game makes it to the Cineplex and the Oscars. Don’t miss it.

RON’S GRADE: A

Saturday morning began for me (as my wife and sister went elsewhere) with The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa’s documentary account of the life of Heinrich Himmler. Introducing the film and Lapa, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the theater’s host remarked, “If you’re here to see this film you’re either a World War II cinephile or Jewish.” I guess I qualify on both counts, and for me this was the fascination of the film. Having recently read Peter Longerich’s Heinrich Himmler: A Life I was amazed by the collection of still photos and films that director Lapa was able to gather. Here is Himmler dandling his infant daughter Gudrun on his lap. Here he is bringing Gudrun and his wife, Marga, Christmas presents during the war; and here, just days before, he is walking through an inspection tour of Auschwitz at the height of the killings.

By juxtaposing readings of warm and intimate family correspondence with the photographic record of Nazi brutality, The Decent One reinvigorates Hannah Arendt’s point about “the banality of evil.” On a slightly critical note, while I understand that the film is an Israeli-Austrian-German co-production, and though I understood much of the German, I wish the filmmaker had chosen to prepare an English language version of all the readings and voice over material. The visual images are so new and so interesting that it was painful to have to take my eyes off them to read the English subtitles.

One troubling and sad note. Throughout the film we watch Gudrun’s growth from infancy to adolescence. Of course, one can understand how a child can love her father, even if in his professional life he’s a monster like Himmler. But it was disturbing to learn at the close that Gudrun is alive and a major figure in an organization that supports surviving Nazi war criminals and other neo-Nazi activities. How fortunate she is that the victorious allies did not believe in her father’s practice of Sippenhaft, the execution of the families of his opponents.

RON’S GRADE: B+

After being turned away from our chosen afternoon film, Rosewater (yes, scheduling problems persist), we changed course and headed to Madame Bovary. An early arrival gave us the opportunity of talking at length with a fascinating pair of physicians from the Bay area (she Canadian; he a Canadian immigrant from India) for whom this was their first Telluride. They were enchanted with the Festival, and we enjoyed learning about their medical-business doings in that effervescent part of the country. Line time at Telluride is never wasted!

Have you ever traveled somewhere and found, strangely, that your best memories are from that unexpected and not immediately important moment: the quick picnic lunch on a hillside; the crowded train compartment with engaging fellow travelers?

Madame Bovary is like that. Despite being a bit slow and not in every respect emotionally convincing, the film by the young French director Sophie Barthe sticks with you. You find your thoughts going back to the village of Yonville in mid-nineteenth Normandy, where Emma Bovary, beautifully played by Mia Wasikowska, is a newly married young woman at once intoxicated by her readings in romantic literature and suffocated by provincial life and her dull physician husband, Charles. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh brings you into the life of this gray/green village, where well watered fields and forests lie under a sun that almost never seems to break through. We watch Emma as she pushes the unwitting Charles into insurmountable debt and as she careens from one brief love affair to another in the effort to fill the void at the center of her heart. The exquisite dresses on which Emma spends Charles still unearned earnings vividly illustrate her dreams of beauty, wealth, and status. Emma’s tormented suicide, with which the film both begins and ends, is inevitable.

On a critical note Henry Lloyd-Hughes may be miscast as Charles Bovary. Whereas Charles in the novel is an unattractive boor, Lloyd-Hughes is both handsome and devoted, making it emotionally hard to understand Emma’s discontent. We wonder why she undertakes her destructive trajectory.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

Saturday began early for us, with a 7:00 AM gondola ride up the mountain for what we expected would be a wildly popular tribute to Hilary Swank and viewing of her latest film, The Homesman. Our prudence was well rewarded. Although hundreds turned out for this event, we secured seats near the stage. Despite her frequent playing of roles as an unattractive woman, Swank is vivacious and she offered fresh answers to the interviewer’s questions about her ascent from trailer park childhood to Oscar-winning stardom. Never professionally trained, she learned acting by obsessively watching other people (as a child her mother repeatedly told her, “Stop staring!”). Even today, she eschews the separate world of Hollywood superstars and rides the L.A. metro in order to watch and learn from her fellow passengers.

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Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Jones and Hilary Swank, the Homesman celebrates the classical Western genre, but in a new mode. Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is a thirty-one year old spinster efficiently managing her own small farm in the far Western territories. Three local woman, faced with the terrible stresses of frontier existence, including one’s loss by disease of all her children in a single day, have gone mad. At least one of them is violent and needs restraint. The women must be taken back east to civilization, but none of the handful of local men can leave their families, so Mary Bee volunteers. As her solitary journey riding a wagon with the women locked inside is about to begin, Mary Bee encounters George Briggs (Jones) in dire straits and persuades/coerces him to accompany her. What follows is a journey of spiritual redemption, but one not without its reverses and non-Hollywood turns. Never have the landscapes of the plains West been more beautifully filmed than they are here by Oscar-nominated Rodrigo Prieto. Jones as Griggs and Swank as Mary Bee (“as plain as tin pail”) offer outstanding performances. The Homesman is somewhat marred in its plot and direction by a measure of Jones’ self-promotion. These blemishes may prevent The Homesman from being a Hollywood smash, but, nevertheless, it is a Western that at times reaches the heights of both versions of True Grit, and The Unforgiven.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

I’m beginning to think that this year’s Festival has a theme. It’s “redemption and perdition.” Clearly, Madame Bovary and the Himmler documentary fit into the second category. The Homesman is profoundly about the first, as was our afternoon film, Two Days, One Night, the latest gritty realist film about lower-middle class life in today’s Belgium from the amazing Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. The background is growing unemployment in a small Belgium city. Sandra, courageously played in this small film by Marion Cotillard after her triumphs in La Vie an Rose and Rust and Bone, has been laid off at a small solar panel manufacturing firm as a result of Asian competition. Management has agreed that she can keep her job if the majority of her sixteen fellow workers each forego their pending one thousand euro annual bonuses. Sandra and her husband Manu (sensitively played by Fabrizio Rongione) have a weekend to convince nine of her colleagues to vote for her. Each encounter is a lesson in either human selfishness or human compassion. Running beneath this effort is Sandra’s depression from which she is only recently recovered and which contributed to her being laid off. The threat that unemployment and social dependency represent to Sandra’s sense of self worth and the judgments of her peers reveal themselves as even more important than her loss of salary. The film gives new social meaning to the themes of perdition and redemption. Two Days, One Night will predictably not make it into a single Cineplex. But is the kind of film for which one comes to Telluride.

RON’S GRADE: A

Can a mother’s love save a developmentally scarred child? This is the question that rings through the final film of our day, Quebec director Xavier Dolan’s, Mommy. We first meet Diane (Anne Dorval) in a juvenile detention facility where she is picking up her teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Steve is responsible for a fire that badly injured another boy at the center, but Diane, a sexy, middle-aged working class woman who seems to be propositioned by every man she meets, is not yet ready to invoke a new Canadian law that will allow her to commit Steve to prolonged incarceration. What follows is a roller coaster ride as Steve careens between charming youthful exuberance and deadly violence against Diane, himself, and others. Neighbor Kyla, a high school teacher who is unable to keep her job because of a nervous speech impediment (whose cause is only cryptically suggested) enters their lives, bringing friendship and fun to Diane and Steve, as well as assistance with home schooling that may help fulfill the mother’s and son’s dream of high school graduation and a Juilliard admission for Steve.

I’ll say no more about Mommy’s plot, since anything further would be a spoiler. Mommy shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year with the renowned director Jean-Luc Godard. As a film, however, Mommy disappointed me. Steve is so wildly extreme in his behaviors and moods that we never quite learn to love or hate him, and we remain emotionally perplexed by Diane’s (and to an extent Kyla’s) devotion to him. Mommy is a glimpse into the tormented world of a parent with a disabled child, but it is one we are glad to leave.

RON’S GRADE: B

Labor day, the final day of the Festival, began for us with Dancing Arabs, a film adaptation directed by the Israeli director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree) of two largely autobiographical novels by Sayed Kashua, a popular Arab-Israeli Haaretz columnist and writer of an award-winning Israeli television comedy series. We meet Eyad (very well played in his teenage years by Tawfeek Barhom) as a child growing up in a close Arab-Israeli family and neighborhood. Intellectually gifted—Eyad alone is able to crack a TV puzzler—he dwells in a milieu boiling with Palestinian nationalist sentiments (later we see his family on their roof cheering Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks on Tel Aviv). But then Eyad is accepted as the sole Arab at a prestigious Israeli boarding school in Jerusalem. What follows is a coming-of-age saga. Eyad, excels at school, begins a sweet love affair with Naomi, a beautiful Israeli girl, and as part of the school’s community service outreach, befriends Jonathan, a wheelchair-bound and homeschooled classmate suffering from muscular dystrophy. We watch Eyad practicing his pronunciation in an effort to eliminate his Arab accent. As he gains confidence and a measure of recognition from classmates, Eyad offers his literature class a penetrating critique of the stereotypical and sexualized depiction of Arab males in many esteemed Israeli novels. But Eyad’s effort to dwell simultaneously in the opposing Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli worlds founders, and in the end, Eyad is forced to find his own difficult way out of the conflict.

Dancing Arabs is neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. It holds out the hope that if these two peoples could get to know one another better, they might see themselves as the siblings that they are. The film’s premier in Israel on the eve of the recent Gaza conflict was postponed, but it was finally shown in a limited venue to strong audience approval. Dancing Arabs will almost certainly not be shown in any commercial movie theaters in the U.S., outside of a screen or two in New York, but it is one of the reasons we come to Telluride.

RON’S GRADE: A

Our Festival ended—and culminated—with Rosewater, the first feature film written and directed by Jon Stewart, comedian host of The Daily Show.

But I must note first that Rosewater was preceded by a vivid eight-minute French short subject, Aïssa (directed by Clément Tréhin-Lalanne). A pretty Congolese teen’s physical exam will determine her destiny. Is she older than eighteen, in which case she’ll be deported from France, or is she younger and able to stay and pursue her intended career as a cosmetologist? As Aïssa undergoes a rigorous and invasive physical exam, we hear her unseen medical examiner record his notes. Conclusion? The bone structure in Aïssa’s hands indicates an age of perhaps twenty, “although all our ossification graphs derive from Caucasians and we have none for Africans.” Probed and measured against possibly irrelevant standards, Aïssa will certainly be deported.

Rosewater is adapted from a memoire by Maziar Bahari that records his months of imprisonment at the hands of Iranian state authorities. During a journalistic visit to Teheran, Bahari, a young reporter for Newsweek (and well played by the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal), happens to film the murderous repression of a street demonstration against Iran’s deeply flawed 2009 presidential election. He is soon arrested and subject to months of solitary confinement, only interrupted by intimidating interrogations and occasional violence at the hands of a “specialist.” During his incarceration, Bahari is sustained by frequent “conversations” in his cell with his deceased father, who, as a Communist had been imprisoned and tortured under the hated previous regime of Shah Palavi. In various ways, Bahari eventually learns to outwit his captors. The film ends on a happier note but not without revealing the generations of lawless authoritarianism and terror to which the citizens of Iran have been subject.

RON’s GRADE: A minus

This was not our quantitatively most intense Telluride. Over three days, we managed to see only eight films (as opposed to my all-time record of sixteen). But if low on quantity, this year’s festival was high on quality. We saw several films that will not likely be screened elsewhere, and even the worst of the films (Mommy?) stimulates continued thought. Strolling late in the day in the light of a Telluride sunset, we look forward to next year.

Telluride at Sunset

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