Coming to Grips with the Holocaust in “The Reader” ~ M. Blaha

Coming to Grips with the Holocaust in The Reader
By M. BlahaI recently read Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and watched the film adaptation directed by Stephen Daldry, and I found myself as conflicted as the main character and narrator, Michael Berg. The book offers more insight than the film because, since the story is told in first person narrative, it allows direct access to Michael’s thoughts. The movie certainly provokes the viewer to sympathize with Hanna when she is on trial and throughout the duration of her prison sentence. It does an excellent job of convincing the viewer that Hanna is the victim of uncontrollable circumstances that forced her into her position as an SS guard of a satellite camp of Auschwitz, but, unlike the novel, I think the film fails to properly convey the struggle Michael has in trying to understand her crime, while simultaneously having to condemn it. Hanna and a group of women stand trial for allowing three-hundred Jewish women to burn to death in a locked church that was bombed during the camp’s evacuation, even though these Jewish women were placed under their care and protection. In the novel, Michael clearly states that in trying to understand Hanna’s crime he is humanizing her actions, and making it impossible to condemn her crime. Perhaps Hanna does not deserve Michael’s understanding. Maybe condemning a crime leaves no room for understanding.

The courtroom scene has the most emphasis in both the novel and film, as it spotlights the question Hanna asks the judge during the trial, “What would you have done?” Hanna wants to know what she could have done differently. This question is very important when discussing the Holocaust and convicting those guilty of Nazi War Crimes. “What would you have done?” It’s easy to blame Hanna without considering the context of her situation, “Hanna had not decided in favor of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and fell into a job as a guard.” Hanna does not wake up one morning and decide to work in a Nazi concentration camp, containing women like animals as they await transport to their deaths. She only decides against a promotion and finds another job to support herself. Hanna’s decisions are all made for her own sake.

Most of our decisions are made for us, our families, and for the good of the people we know and love without thinking about how they affect other people. Humans are not capable of looking beyond their immediate relationships, unless they have a position that requires them to make decisions to benefit more people than themselves and the people they know directly. I recently watched a repeat episode of Law and Order: SVU that is an interesting example of how a decision a single member of a community makes, takes a heavy toll on the lives of other people in the area.

A little girl dies from contracting the measles because she is too young to receive the vaccination to protect her from the disease, which forces the SVU to search for the source of a possible measles epidemic. The source of the measles chain is a little boy old enough to receive the vaccination, but does not because his mother believes his natural immune system is strong enough to fight off the infection, which it does. The boy’s mother does not think her decision concerns anyone outside of her own family. Her research on vaccinations and the power the body has against fighting disease are the only things that inform her decision. Since her son’s immune system is able to fight the disease, she does not consider herself responsible for the death of the little girl; she is just trying to be a “good” mother to her son. The woman is arrested for the murder of the little girl. The episode shows that while the woman’s decision was best for her family, it was detrimental to society at large. We have privacy and freedom of choice, but there are certain rules that help society function, and if these rules are disobeyed, society will crumble. Her decision would be applicable in a small, sprawling area where the lives of people are more private, but not a densely populated area like New York City.

The Reader is concerned with whether one person knows what is best for another person. Is the law or the community at large able to define what is good for its individuals? Michael has information that can serve to give Hanna a lesser sentence, and disprove accusations the other women on trial blame her for. Michael knows Hanna is illiterate, and that to reveal this would be exposing a life-long secret she goes to great lengths to hide. Hanna simply accepts the accusations the other women make, because defending herself would force her to face the humiliation of her secret. Hanna’s illiteracy affects her entire life. She refuses the offer of a promotion at Siemens because she cannot read, and accepts a position as a guard where she chose prisoners to read to her “because she wanted to make their last month bearable before their inevitable dispatch to Auschwitz.” At the trial, Hanna is too concerned with keeping her illiteracy secret that she does not consider what it means to be exposed as a criminal.

Since Michael knows Hanna’s secret, he wonders if he has a responsibility to share this information with the judge.  Hanna does not try to defend herself, and she says things that constantly infuriate the judge, which compels Michael to want to help her; he wants to help the judge understand Hanna’s behavior, and, also, justify her behavior for himself.

In the novel, Michael’s father, who is a philosopher and lawyer, tells him that Hanna’s freedom and dignity must be considered in the situation, and he poses this question, “don’t you remember how furious you would get as a little boy when mamma knew better what was good for you? Even how far one can act like this with children is a real problem.” The movie does not emphasize this point as much as the book, but this question is important to keep in mind when considering Michael’s inner conflict. A person cannot place what other people say is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves because, as the father puts it, “it was no comfort to you [Michael] that your mother was always right.” In order for Michael to help Hanna, he has to address her about the matter and allow her to decide what she believes is best. Hanna needs to have “the last word;” doing it any other way would deprive her of her freedom and dignity, without giving her some promise of a future.

The movie focuses on Michael’s need to understand Hanna’s actions, and his struggle to come to terms with her crime because he loves her. The novel weaves Michael’s inner conflict into the struggle of subsequent generations trying to make peace with Germany’s Nazi past and the Holocaust.  Michael’s generation is exposed to films and literature about the concentration camps to the point that it is no longer a subject beyond imagination. Michael and other young people cannot rely on past generations to provide them with answers about Nazi atrocities, because their parents either committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen.

Coming to grips with a Nazi past was not just a generational conflict, because the children of the second generation, portrayed in The Reade,r did not know whether condemning their parents was enough. They would punish the guilty, but would continue to be “silenced by revulsion, shame and guilt.”

This generation needed to know how man could practice such cruelty toward other men, and, most importantly, how any group of people could choose to become victims without fighting back. In the novel, Michael ventures to the site of a concentration camp to experience it firsthand. He meets a man while hitchhiking, who explains that executioners do not hate the people they execute; execution just happens to be their line of work. The people that hated the Jews never directly killed them, but devised a plan that distanced them from the mass execution of the people they despised. The people who carried out the physical part of the extermination were indifferent toward the Jews, which made murdering them easier; it’s easy to discard something you have no emotional attachment to. The Jews, to the executioners, were a matter of such indifference that they could “kill them as easily as not.” It is numbness. Literature I have read about the perpetrators of Nazi crimes describes how difficult killing was at first, but after doing it over and over again, mass execution was all in a day’s work. This “numbness” is somewhat akin to the numbness that pervades the literature and other accounts of concentration camp survivors. A prisoner in Auschwitz who manages to survive for several months becomes accustomed to seeing death, and to doing whatever it takes to survive. Prisoners of the concentration camps began to exhibit selfish and indifferent behavior to the other inmates. However, prisoners of Nazi concentration camps were stripped of their humanity, and so their actions and behaviors became animalistic; morals cannot be applied to the victims of Nazi atrocities.

Perhaps we cannot judge people’s actions without considering their circumstances, but should a person’s circumstances make a difference in how we judge her behavior? It does not make a person’s actions any better or worse. Behavior is an independent faculty. It is influenced by circumstance and other social factors, but in the end, it needs to be judged separately. The law is designed to punish actions. The novel states that behavior has its own sources and is a person’s own, just as a person’s thoughts and decisions are her own.

The novel and film adaptation of The Reader, both question whether “law” is something that is actually written and obeyed, or whether it is something that “must be” obeyed – written or not – in order for society to function. So, what is law?


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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The Popular Capitalist View, No. 16: Where Once Was Capitalism by Carl Peter Klapper

Time was when your family could make something or buy the somethings your neighbors made, hang a sign on the front of your house and enough neighbors and visitors would walk by and step into your mom-and-pop store that you could make a decent living being a “merchant”. You and the other merchants in your town and nearby towns, the ones you could walk to if you didn’t have a horse, would provide enough of a market for can openers or canned goods, that some folks in the area would see an opportunity for a new canned food or can opener. These folks and others could all pitch in their spare cash as a company to buy the metal presses and what not (capital) and pay to employ some of their number or others to use the machinery to make the product which the mom-and-pops would then buy and stock on their shelves. As the mom-and-pop stores sold their product, they would order more to re-stock their shelves and, once this process hit a groove, the company would be paying dividends to the people who pitched in money to buy the company stock. These stockholders would be happy to get a little extra money later which they might otherwise had wasted sooner and, more importantly, to have played a role in starting an enterprise which benefited their communities with productive employment, better products and not a little local pride. Years later, they would be electing the Localsville Canned Beans Queen and holding parades down Main Street celebrating the success story of their local genius.

Time was before planning for the automobile. With the automobile-based development, or sprawl, came the demise of the mom-and-pop stores upon which the entire structure of capitalism was based. Hardly anybody walks from their house to the store anymore and, if you tried to sell anything from your house today, you would be cited for a zoning violation. Your neighbors deserted the local stores when the national stores started opening up branches “convenient” to the highway. Some of the national chains moved into the vacated storefronts, got the town to knock down some other houses with storefronts, and to seize the backyards by eminent domain so they could put up a parking lot to “serve” Main Street. The local manufacturing companies got fewer orders, none from the national retail chains, of course. As those companies failed, the remaining local stores started stocking fewer local items, until you couldn’t tell the difference between the mom-and-pops and the chains. The only real difference was the mom-and-pops were less convenient to the automobile driver. The mom-and-pops become denigrated even as they try to conform to sprawl. People actually talk about a new chain store opening up as if that was something to be proud of. At that point, capitalism is dead in their town. To be certain, there are, here and there, some vestiges of capitalism left, though they may strike us as unremarkable. It was always misleading to characterize capitalism as a road to unfathomable riches. People confuse it with debt and global mercantilism, with the creditor sultans oppressing their people, which is very much in evidence.

The Localsville Canned Beans company was bought up by investors from out-of-town using borrowed money — it was purchased in a leveraged buyout by General Foods — and General Foods now grows and cans the Localsville Canned Beans in South America. The plant is closed and the people in Localsville, those who are left, now work and shop in the Walmart down Highway 666. They had to cancel the parade this year. They didn’t choose a Localsville Canned Beans Queen, either.

Copyright © 2011 by C. P. Klapper

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Alfa Art Gallery’s New Brunswick Salon ~ Call for Artists

New Brunswick Art Salon, Fall 2011 – Call for Artists

About the Exhibition

In the 18th and 19th century, Art Salons were the greatest annual or biannual art events in the Western world, celebrating the farthest advances in academia and the arts. The Alfa Art Gallery, in order to bridge talented and highly esteemed artists with the New Brunswick public, holds its own Art Salon exhibition biannually in the spring and fall.

Call for Entries

The Alfa Art Gallery would like to invite artists to submit work for the New Brunswick Art Salon, Fall ’11. There are two artist categories: newly emerging artists and professional artists. All submissions must be in by September 25. Artists will be notified if their work is accepted by September 30. The exhibition opening will be held on Friday, October 21.


For this exhibition, artists must submit works celebrating diversity or unity in a community.

Submission Requirements

All applicants must be associated with New Brunswick as a resident or as an artist who exhibits in New Jersey. Students and faculty members of Rutgers University and neighboring schools may enter. You must at least be pursuing an undergraduate career to participate. Degree does not need to be related to art.  There is no limit to the number of works entered.

To enter for consideration, please email the following to

  • Images with title/dimensions
  • Resume/CV
  • Statement about your work
Or contact:
Jewel Lim, Event coordinator,

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Alfa Art Gallery ~ 2011 Spring Art Salon

New Brunswick Art Salon, Spring 2011: Part I

Exhibition duration: April 22 – May 12, 2011
Opening Reception: Friday, April 22  @ 6:30-10:30pm
Jewel Lim
Multiciplinary Event: The New World Order

The Alfa Art Gallery is proud to present “The Double-Edged Search for the Truth & the Ideal,” the first of two spring exhibitions of the New Brunswick Art Salon 2011.

About  Alfa’s New Brunswick Art Salon

In the 18th and 19th century, Art Salons were the greatest annual or biannual art events in the Western world, celebrating the farthest advances in academia and the arts. The Alfa Art Gallery, in order to bridge talented and highly esteemed artists with the New Brunswick public, holds its own Art Salon exhibitions biannually in the Spring and Fall.

About this Exhibition

This exhibition “The Double-Edged Search for the Truth & the Ideal” features Carlos Frias, Dara Alter, Peter Arakawa and Rita Herzfeld, four talented painters from different backgrounds.  True to its title, this first part of the spring exhibitions for the New Brunswick Art Salon 2011 explores the individual’s search for the truth and the ideal in a larger community. The colors of the paintings in this collection are optimistic and vibrant; however, each piece contains an underlying narrative of the struggle to attain knowledge or to illustrate a desire in the bigger scheme of Life. Dara Alter creates multi-perspective, aerial landscapes without a fixed viewpoint as a response to her yearning for an ideal Israel. Peter Arakawa paints his works in only clusters of twos or threes in an attempt to avoid repetition: his works, created from observations of daily life, serve as voyages, combining patterns and shapes that are unlikely together, in search for an order that fits. In his paintings, Carlos Frias, with his intriguing Kandinsky-like palette, attempts to analyze and capture the essence of human beings as organic and spiritual forms with their ability to grow and self-destruct. Rita Herzfeld, acting and reacting in a cycle to each step in her creative process, attacks her canvases with ardent, moving paint strokes to actively demonstrate the gap and interactions between instinct, ideas, self-exploration and, ultimately, truth in a stilled image.

About the Artists

Carlos Frias received his BFA in Painting from the Parsons School of Design. His recent works aims to highlight our humanity , creativity, relationships and  urges to grow and self-destruct while, at the same time, strip us of our spirituality and culture, representing humans as organic forms bound to decompose and regenerate. Additionally, his work visually demonstrates the parallel between what art is able to represent of the evolution of humankind and how much we want to preserve and manipulate art to represent the history of our species. He has exhibited in Japan, the Dominican Republic, Spain, and the United States.

Dara Alter obtained her degree in Studio Art from the University of Guelph.  Heavily influenced by her cultural ties, she paints her memories of Israel in order to examine the North American Jewish nostalgia for an idealized nation.  In the last five years, she travelled to South America, North America, Asia, and the Middle East, which additionally influenced her works. Alter is most interested exploring location and place as it relates to her personal experiences and uses a specific palette that corresponds to the scenery in a particular region. She has exhibited in Minnesota, New York and New Jersey in the United States as well as in Toronto, Ontario in Canada.

Peter Arakawa obtained his MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He became an artist through the influences of creative family members.  Arakawa has been a professional artist for over twenty-five years. His works are held in many institutions and museums, including the Zimmerli Art Museum, Newark Public Library, Jersey City Museum, the State Museum, Hunterdon Art Museum and Johnson & Johnson Corporation.

Rita Herzfeld attended the School of Visual Arts and City College of N.Y. and obtained her BA from Rutgers University.  Inspired by her artistic mother, Herzfeld became an artist who grew up believing in the power that comes with creation and its processes from simple tools such as pencil and paper. Her works are held in the Hurterdon Museum of Art, the Zimmerli Art Museum and various private collections.

Best Artists of New Brunswick Art Salon’ 2010

First Place: Wes Sherman
Second Place: Marsha Goldberg
Third Place: Larry McKim

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Drop Everything and Read This: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud ~ Raj Venkata

There are people out there who know more about the Marvel and DC Universes than I ever will. People who can name every single Lantern Corps and at least three prominent members of each. People who know that Booster Gold has done more for the multiverse than Batman ever will, and can tell you in excruciating detail why and how.

I can hold my own, of course: I can name all five Robins and give respectable arguments for my favorites. If you name a Marvel hero I could probably name which side of the Registration Act issue he or she fell on. Maybe the most convincing proof I can offer that I’m a True Believer is the fact that I actually envy the people who know more than me.

One might wonder why anyone would envy such a dubious accomplishment. The answer is simple: because Marvel and DC are comic books and comic books are Marvel and DC. No matter what my relationship is with the medium, no matter how long it’s been a part of my life, no matter how much I can tell you about indie authors like Craig Thompson or Marjane Satrapi, there is a certain and very odd kind of street cred carried by the people who know the chemical difference between adamantium and vibranium.

It’s telling that the spandex-clad cliches of the old guard still define the medium of the graphic novel to the extent they do. Mention the term ‘comic books’ and what comes to peoples’ minds are tights-wearing superheroes, campy dialogue and the casual use of that questionable term, ‘multiverse’. Assumptions like these are certainly less true than ever these days; more and more, titles that were avant-garde obscurities twenty years ago are being recognized as works of popular literature now, perhaps even as classics.

Still, it’s hard to see what made these works so avant-garde in the first place. Read Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and its sequels (together composing an autobiographical epic history of a fictional row of tenement buildings in Depression era New York) and it’s hard to tell what made this story so revolutionary. For all its brilliance, it doesn’t drift that far away from the conventions of traditional artwork or storytelling.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen seems a little closer to revolutionary, but even two decades has been enough to dull its edge substantially. Movies like “The Dark Knight” have made it easy for us to believe that a superhero story can be real art. Twenty years ago, this wasn’t a fact to be taken for granted.

We can, of course, ask ourselves the mostly-rhetorical question of what exactly made these books so unconventional and world-shaking back in their own day. But we know, don’t we? What made them so remarkable was their suggestion that a comic book can tell a story for grown ups. That the medium might produce storytellers who could, a hundred years from now, be mentioned in the same breath as Woolf and Ibsen and Dickens and Dumas.

But I digress. All of this is just a really roundabout way of segueing into my main point:

Scott McCloud is a motherfracking genius who can destroy you with his mind. Bow before him, for you live only because he continues to permit it.


I’ve had a relationship with comic books as long as I can remember. I’ve read plenty of prose adaptations of theRamayana and the Mahabharata- the great Indian epics- but as odd as it is to admit, most of what I know about the oldest stories of my culture (and the world) originally comes from the Amar Chitra Katha line of comic books: a series that retells Indian myths, folk tales, scriptural stories and historical anecdotes. Then, after coming to the States, I was constantly reading the Big Two as well as a wide variety of indie titles. But I always read them as a distraction- as a break from the all-important work of stuffing my brain with prose fiction. As much as I would defend to the death, even in my early teens, such masterpieces as Craig Thompson’s Blankets or Neil Gaiman’sSandman series, I always thought of comic books as a sort of poor man’s cinema, a way of combining narrative storytelling with visual art and doing so without a multimillion dollar budget.

Scott McCloud completely changed my mind.

Understanding Comics, somewhat self-referentially, is itself a comic book- an incredible literary feat in its own right. Imagine taking the most complicated paper you wrote as an undergrad on literary theory or any other appropriately abstract subject, then expanding it to a couple hundred pages. Now try taking half of the text you wrote, and drawing it. The man wrote a book-length essay about literary theory in comic book form. And he made it fun to read. That’s all I need to know to be convinced I don’t want to run into him in a dark alley. The being that can communicate a complex literary theory using pictures is not one whom I want to look upon lightly, lest his pandimensional Lovecraftian visage drive me mad.

McCloud divides the book into history, technique and theory. While the sections on history and technique are a fascinating read (not to mention mandatory for anyone with aspirations in the medium) it’s the ideas that really make this book shine. If Understanding Comics is standard material in nearly every college class about sequential graphic narrative, it’s because of McCloud’s dazzling exposition of the fundamental building blocks of comic books. These are the sort of ideas, like Copernicus’ heliocentric solar system or Whitman’s use of unrhymed verse, that are brilliant mainly because they seem obvious when you look back. I don’t want to give too much away, especially since you can’t do the ideas justice without the art, but here is a broad sweep of two of the most important ideas in the book:

1) One of McCloud’s most interesting arguments is that there’s no sharp division between words and pictures, since it’s impossible to pinpoint when pictures turn into symbols and iconography, and where symbols in turn become written language. The book illustrates the point with an impressive diagram containing sample illustrations from great comic books of the past century, with one end of the continuum containing the relatively realistic illustrations of Jack Kirby or Bob Kane, and the other end containing… well, words, but also the more representational and non-realistic artwork of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts or Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.

2) Another argument McCloud makes is that comic books have about as much in common with the prose novel as they do with film and television, since audience participation is an essential part of the experience. Unlike film, where the events of the story are conveyed to the viewer almost entirely through external stimuli (since the viewer is given a window into the story as it unfolds on the movie screen) and the prose novel, where the portrayal of the events happen in the reader’s mind and depend entirely on his or her imagination, the graphic novel gives us a type of work that falls between the two. With comic books, the reader sees the events happen a panel at a time, but it’s entirely up to him to connect the dots and form a cohesive image of the fictional world being presented. McCloud refers to the process of filling the gap between panels as ‘closure’, and provides a list of different kinds of panel transitions, such as the moment-to-moment transition (where two adjacent panels are connected by a progression in time) or the aspect-to-aspect transition (where panels show the reader different parts of the same scene). More than any of the other chapters, this one convinced me that comic books are a unique medium with a more than incidental place in the culture.

Understanding Comics is almost twenty years old and quite a classic in its own right by now. Scott McCloud’s ideas have made me drastically re-evaluate the way I perceive comic books as a narrative form. I have a deeper respect now, both for the so-called commercial schlock of Lee, Kirby, Siegel, Shuster and the like- who had more of true art in their work than conventional wisdom gives them credit for- as well as the creators who dared to explore the limits and boundaries of an ostracized medium back when so few would, people like Will Eisner, Osamu Tezuka and Alan Moore. Understanding Comics has taken me from thinking of comics as a niche medium to leaving me with the suspicion that they may well be for the 21st century what the prose novel was for the 19th.

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Reflections of a Philosophy Major ~ Ben Kharakh

I’m a philosophy major, which means that I like having things spelled out for me. Case in point: my first day of philosophy class, wherein it was explained to me why thinking is important. “Thinkin’? Important?” Whodathunkit?! Simon Blackburn thunks so because how you think about something affects how you do it or if you do it at all. Could I have provided you with a list of reasons why thinking was important prior to that moment? Maybe, but I’m not a fan of arguing over guesses. “Was Mona a character on Who’s The Boss? Or Charles in Charge?” So, instead, I quote Blackburn a lot because I find his comment to be profound.

“You mean obvious!” If it’s so obvious, why aren’t you teaching a philosophy class? “I don’t want to!” Really? All you’d have to do is say a bunch of obvious shit for eighty minutes to a bunch of idiots. “Why idiots?” Who if not idiots is gonna pay to listen to some stranger spew obvious shit for an hour plus? “Good point!” It’s obvious though, isn’t it?

That a knife in the face might kill you may be obvious, but if you didn’t know that you’d be dead by now or have half a face.  ”I wouldn’t pay someone to tell me obvious stuff!” Obvious stuff isn’t necessarily worthless though. If philosophy’s worthless, then my degree isn’t worth squat. And by that logic, raising kids is worth less than squat because that’s what we pay our mothers. “But mothers are priceless!” And that’s what I’d call my degree: priceless. Well, two-fifths of it. One fifth I’d call timeless since I minored in history, and the other two-fifths I wouldn’t know what to call if you wanted to debate the merits of English.

For the sake of argument, though, I’ll grant that philosophy is obvious. In fact, I’d say that the philosophy that resonates with me most is the most obvious, indisputable (yet controversial!), and blandest stuff anyone could tell me about myself or the world. “I coulda told you that!” Huh? “I coulda told you that you learn about yourself from others.” Holy crap; keep going! “You often see ourselves as others do!”  This guy’s a genius! PUT THIS IN A BOOK! There’s not going to be anything to put in a book if you keep spoiling it like this. That took me six pages to say! (I had to put that in italics so that you’d know I was doing a third voice. And I had to put all this between parentheses so that you’d know it was me, Ben. Hope you can keep up!)

One of my issues with philosophy is how long it takes many philosophers to say what they say.  Example: Thomas Nagel’s What is it Like to be a Bat? In this essay, Nagel talks about how we can study a bat and imagine ourselves as a bat, but we still wouldn’t know what it’s like for a bat to be a bat because the objective study of a thing does not reveal the subjective experience of being that thing. A very accurate description! Unfortunately, in the amount of time it takes Nagel to say all this I could have actually dressed up as a bat, flapped my arms around, eaten some bugs, and then thought, “Something’s gotta be missing because these bugs are gross, my arms are tired, and I haven’t flown an inch!”

I think there’s a good reason for writing philosophy the way that it’s often written, though. This is because I often think of philosophy as horribly, unfunny satire. See, a lot of philosophers try to give as accurate a description of everyday stuff as possible, but they do it in such a way that the everyday appears alien. That’s why so many philosophers write circuitously, use unfamiliar language, make up their own words, or just use traditional words and phrases in untraditional ways. They’re trying to wake you up to the world around you! Luke Wilson wakes up in the future in Idiocracy, but he really wakes up IN THE PRESENT! Philosophy’s a trip! So, if you love rollin’ dubbs, you’ll love Wittgenstein! Just don’t smoke Schopenhauer; he’s a bit of a downer!

“Long words? Telling me stuff I probably already know? These people sound elitist!” I’d say there’s more to elitism than using long words. You’d have to, for example, think you were better than other people because you used long words, sorta like how you think you’re better than elitists for thinking they’re better than you. “OH SHIT!”

Not all philosophers are elitists, of course, but a number of people I’ve come across seem to think that they’re engaged in privileged thinkin’. “I’m wonderin’ bout stuff common folks couldn’t even imagine!” I think of philosophy as just another type of thinkin’, which means that I think philosophers and non-philosophers think about the same stuff. “Like what it would be like if Arnold Schwartzegger was shrunk down to teeny-tiny size and injected into someone’s body like in Inner Space?”  The 1987 action-comedy-adventure, staring Martin Short, Dennis Quaid, and Meg Ryan?! “The Joe Dante picture?” Who? “ME! Directing’s been slow, so I’m taking on roles in third rate puppet shows to supplement my income.” Third rate?!” “Listen: I get paid by the hour, so unless this is going somewhere you better wrap it up!” Right, so, yes, I think about Arnold Schwartzegger being shrunk down to teeny-tiny size. I also think that a philosopher’s no more likely to find the truth or think rigorously than a non-philosopher.

I’m also of the opinion that there’s no necessarily inaccessible knowledge, although some disagree. I’ve had people (more than one!) tell me that there might be biological reasons why I couldn’t know or understand something. “I think they called you retarded,” my friend said. (I had to cite my friend on that one not so you’d know I have friends but because I’m writing a joke research paper. Thanks B.C.!) So if anyone knows something, I think they can explain it to you. And claiming otherwise is just a lie the man made up to keep you down!

When philosophers do explain things they often use analogies, which is fine if you recognize that thought experiments only highlight what’s similar between things rather than what’s the same about them. And when people fail to recognize this, they end up taking seriously something that’s absurd, like wondering if we’re always dreaming. Don’t worry, we’re not, because that’s not what it means to dream! Unfortunately, too often philosophers forget or aren’t aware of obvious stuff like what it means to dream or how we use words. Plenty of people make the same mistakes, but they don’t know they’re making them. As a result, people find ludicrous things to be genius. And that’s why hundreds of years later I end up having to write essays explaining how we use words and why we can’t always be dreaming; or why I find myself in a classroom being told that it’s a strike against a theory if it disallows time travel.

That’s right: in philosophy class, it’s minus points if your plans mean you can’t Quantum Leap into Genghis Khan. I’m pretty sure “no time travel” isn’t a problem anywhere else. “Hey, you wanna hang out?” With dinosaurs and Richelieu?! “No, with me.” Nah, I’m good. “Hey, I’m gonna order a pizza. Want some?” Is it one of those time traveling pizzas? “Is that like a pizza that’s already eaten by the time you get it? Because I’m not paying for an empty box.” Then, no, I don’t want any.

And that brings me to my final (for now) gripe with philosophers: they spend too much time mulling over stuff that cannot be practically applied to everyday living, like whether the world is made out of stuff or ideas. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to be told you didn’t understand someone’s long, convoluted, and circuitous paper—or book!— on why ideas are more real than stuff could ever be? Euch! And then, to cap it off, the author says that she’s figured out philosophy forevers. So we can rest our heads because the debate over whether stuff or ideas are the real deal is over. We can finally go on living our lives because she’s done all the important thinkin’ for us! No dice says this guy!

That’s right, lady I made up. I saw through your purported shangri-la of heuristics for what it really is–a dreamed up world of rules and regulations that shields you from an indisputable matter of fact:  that you, like me, are the same– just a couple of animals. And, like all animals, you and I will one day die. The real tragedy is not that your behavior alienates the people most likely to help you, but that you’ve been living in a dream for so long that you’ve come to mistake it for waking life. But, you know what? You can put up all the walls you want and stick porcelain or tile wherever you please, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all squatting when we shit, that we all shit outside, and that everybody dies. Yeah, where’d you think the houses were? They’re outside! And maybe if Gargamel knew this stuff, he’d stop trying to kill the Smurfs (they’re just fun-sized humans!).

That’s what I think of when I think of philosophy: trying to understand the world and what about it makes me laugh. Along the way, I hope to break down walls, bring us all closer together, and be a good person.

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Humorless Budget Report ~ Ben Kharakh

RUSA had a good grabber for their budget meeting: “Where does your money go?” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out the answer to that question. Instead, I left after becoming both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the first hour of the event—overwhelmed by the amount of information thrown at me; and underwhelmed by the absence of tools to make sense of it all.

The meeting began with the presentation of a survey regarding what some number of students thought about the current fiscal situation. I say “some number” because the audience was never informed of how many people RUSA spoke to for its survey. I’m not interested, though, in what random students think about who’s responsible for the current state of affairs. I’d care if random students knew how to fix the problem, but then they wouldn’t even be random students; I’m pretty sure we’d all know the names of the people who figured out how to balance the budget and save us all money. But rather than get something resembling a way out, I was given what struck me as a deeply unsatisfying narrative.

I was told that the cost of tuition was going up, that the amount of financial aid was going down, and that banks were profiting from it all. Meanwhile, the Obama administration had passed a bill barring private lending institutions from making a buck off the whole shebang, with the government handling the distribution of funds instead.  So: there was a massive problem and the closest thing to a solution came from the government. My gripe with all this is that there’s no room for me in the narrative besides as being the victim. The whole thing struck me as very disempowering.

Unfortunately, most of the information I get, whether it be print, online, on TV, etc.,  is oriented around problems rather than solutions thereto. I can see the appeal of framing particular parties as “bad guys,”; and it certainly seemed like the audience was none too pleased with banks or the government. But none of that tells me how the banking and lending system works in the first place or what I or anyone else can do about it.

I never found out where my money actually goes— unless RUSA meant the bank (ha ha joke’s on me!)— because I left the meeting early. I was simply too dissatisfied to stick around for the whole thing. So, I went to an open mic at the Red Lion Café instead. I watched the show rather than performed in it, but I felt very excited nonetheless. As a philosophy major, I like having things spelled out for me; as a comedy nerd, I like jokes; as someone that likes a challenge, I’d like to synthesize the two; and as someone who enjoys his sanity, I see no other option.

Philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein is rumored to have said that, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes. ” I can see that for sure. Something makes you laugh, you explain what it was to someone else, and that explanation is the joke. If something strikes you as funny about something serious and you can explain what it was to someone else, then you’ve got some serious comedy on your hands— you’ve entered Bill Hicks/Maria Bamford/Louis CK territory.  And there’s more utility to that sort of comedy beyond the good PR it’ll bring.

The first hour of the RUSA meeting was full of charts and bad news. A few jokes would have made the whole thing not only more palatable but easier to cope with too.  The latter becomes even more apparent when the budget meeting is taken as only a part of all the problems facing America and the world today. If I read nothing but bad news on the web followed by hateful, angry comments and combine that with a sense of impending catastrophe, impotence, and general absurdity, I’d feel awful. But absurdity can be a source of laughter as much as it can be a source of despair. And I’d much rather be full of laughs than dread. Besides, people are a lot more eager to listen to you and share your message if it’s as funny as it is insightful.

I figure that if I’m going to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, I’m going to need my sense of humor to lighten the load. But this sentiment, I would argue, is founded upon a misunderstanding of what it means to be a person. I alone don’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders; all people carry that burden if a person is to carry it at all. And, by the looks of things, we could all use a few more laughs, which is good, because I got me a hankering to tell some jokes.

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JVP Speaks: Wikileaks & Transparency

In the wake of the latest Wikileaks disclosure, how much should we, as people, know? Is there such a thing as knowing too much? Or are some things best left unsaid?

Rebecca Zandstein: I cannot answer what we should “as people” know, but I strongly believe that as American citizens we should be extensively educated on matters that can allow us to become better political activists and voters. The government should not be hiding relevant information on wars, for example, since it relates to those that are representing us and whom we vote for. Information should be disclosed as long as it is not secret information relating to positions, strategies, and informants’ names. Otherwise, just like The Pentagon Papers allowed us to see the corruption within our government [officials]. WikiLeaks allows us to have more accurate body counts in Iraq and shows the public that Iraq is indeed a “bloodbath on every corner”.

Everyone chooses to live and see their own version of reality but in the end there is only one. The reality that the American government sets out for the public should not be masked in an attempt to make the public “safe” and “secure” in knowing untruths. As long as our national security is not at risk, there should not be such extreme restrictions on publications released for the public to become more educated.

Mike Stuzynsk: The problem with the stuff released by wikileaks is that it is shockingly bland.  Australia doesn’t think Iran is the devil–holy shit, no way!  It seems so me like these leaks are really a non-issue and the government is making a bigger deal about it than needs to be made.

Jhoany Benitez: There IS such a thing as knowing too much. Some things are irrelevant pieces of information. Curiosity is not always a good thing; it can lead to paranoia and losing trust. While it is good to know things, it is also a bad thing to know everything. Part of the beauty of life is its mystery.

Ben Kharakh: I endorse the idea of Wikileaks with the hope that the fact that we now know what’s going on will make people change for the better (as opposed to staying the same and just getting better at hiding information). Will this actually happen? On this issue I remain agnostic.

I also think, though, that power should not be focalized in such a manner that individuals are able to affect the lives of so many people so quickly. And in those instances when it’s unavoidable that people become this powerful, I’d prefer that their activity be as transparent as possible so that I know just exactly what’s going on with that power.

Some of the leaked info seemed private and some may argue that, as a result, the information is not inappropriate to know (and in this case I don’t mean people’s names, etc). I don’t buy the whole private/public dichotomy, nor the offline/online distinction. Private stuff is just public stuff we don’t want other people to know about (and I don’t mean your email passwords). And how one behaves in private, methinks, is indicative of how one behaves in public. Unfortunately, too often a lot of the behavior showcased in the cables is treated as gossip rather than a justification for improvement. Although, given that all the starlets the media harangues have yet to better themselves, maybe I’m naïve to expect the same of diplomats and leaders.

Lastly, I’m gonna paraphrase my friend Maximum Barkley (Barkley to the max!) and say that the success of Wikileaks is indicative of a failure on the part of contemporary journalism. The fourth estate, I would say, has dropped a ball in terms of being the party to get this sort of information. Sure, the press is writing article about this stuff, but it’s not the press that’s getting the stuff in the first place. They need to hit the pavement harder!

Brendan Kaplan: I think that as individuals that make up a larger body politic, complete with its own behavior, rationalization process, and mechanisms of action, it is important to understand what that body is doing.

In other words, we need to understand the processes being carried out by society through its aggregation and direction of our behavioral outputs. What is not necessary, however, is to release content beyond that which is not necessary to fully describe the process to which the content claims to be relevant.

In the case of the Wikileaks, it is important for the public to understand the types of practices that the United States carries out. If this could be done without releasing the names of specific dates, then it should be.

Additionally, Wikileaks would be able to take the moral high ground in any argument claiming, “We were vague… claiming that this foreign power is worried about that foreign power. Then the 1st power started arguing and claiming that we were only making it up. We were thus forced to release the details to back up what we are saying. If they had just accepted the truth in the first place instead of trying to lie about it, we would have spared that nasty details”

Basically, process is necessary to understand, and some content is required for individuals to understand process. If content is released that is not necessary to understand process, than that release is done so for publicity or political purposes.

Personally, I think Wikileaks walks a fine line between the two and has engaged in both. One thing is for certain right now though: Julian Assange is in way over his head and is part of something he can no longer control.

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Inside JVP: An Interview with Brendan McInerney by Ben Kharakh

I joined the JVP too late to get to spend much time with Brendan McInerney. But the few days that I did get to see him, he was nothing but delightful and fascinating. So, getting the chance to speak with the person behind such wonderful photographs was a great opportunity.

From talking to Brendan for just a little bit, I was able to tell how much of him is in his work. Brendan captures emotion with his lens in the same way a poet wrangles up feelings with words. He doesn’t take photos; he snaps haikus. And that’s only scratching the surface of Brendan McInerney.

What brought you to Rutgers? Originally I wanted to go to RIT in Rochester, NY because they have a great photography program. However, due to budgetary constraints, I decided to head to Rutgers instead. I had decided before I went off to college that photojournalism would be the best way to pursue an interesting career in photography while not starving to death. Since Rutgers didn’t have a photojournalism major, I decided to study plain journalism (unfortunately), though I never took their photojournalism class. Since the journalism ‘major’ only consists of 30 credits, I was done with it in a couple of semesters. I was also taking Spanish classes at the time. I had intended on it being my minor but I did the math and realized that I could double major. So, I did.

What sort of aspirations did you have growing up and which of these, if any, are you putting the most effort into making a reality? I’ve had a million aspirations growing up, I’ve wanted to be every type of scientist, a politician, a historian, I even considered majoring in African studies at one point. The closer I got to graduation, the poorer my idea about my future was. I have since graduated and I am now a ‘committed lost soul,’ as my dear friend Alejandra so deftly put it.

I started to look into photography at the end of high school although I had always enjoyed taking photographs. After I finished the journalism major, I realized that journalism was a big joke. To me, my professors made it seem that journalism amounted to nothing more than trying to keep people’s attention for as long as possible. Once you lost that attention, you move on to a different subject.

I heard few successful photographers speak and taking a class called ‘Engaged Anthropology’ with Prof. Daniel Goldstein, I realized that the work I want to do involves becoming a part of a community so that I can understand it and share that understanding with the rest of the world. Hence, I am going into the Peace Corps where I can, hopefully, engage and improve a community while creating a significant photographic work.

Did your professors say the same thing about investigative journalism? Not in so many words. Apparently, some students were taught about OPRA, but I was never taught about it. The classes I took consisted of the history of news media, how to strictly abide by AP style, how to put the most relevant information (and only information) at the top of the article and how journalism is a dying field so we’ll never get the same opportunities they did. The journalism department is waiting for some successful alum to give them money so that they can change the name of the school from SCI. But that will never happen as long as they are preparing their students so poorly for the field.

I feel that I am very self-centered when it comes to the things that I want to do with my life. The fact that I have left out music in this interview is a good example of my egocentrism. During high school, I was heavily involved in music. I went to Sparta High School and the people who taught me there are, hands down, the best teachers I have ever had. They really pushed me as a musician and helped me to achieve a great deal of success as a high school musician. During my senior year I applied to a number of schools as a music major but at the last minute I decided that I couldn’t do it. I regret that decision. It’s funny how even though the majority of my education from 5th grade to the end of high school focused on music, I often forget about it completely.

What was and what is your relationship with music like? At the moment, music is purely a hobby for me. I still pick up my clarinet occasionally (though I should do it more often) and I’m getting into blues harmonica. I like the harmonica because I can take it wherever I go and practice while I’m driving or waiting for someone.

What inspired you to not study music? Is the regret something that bothers you? I chose not to study music because I don’t think I have the right personality. All the successful music majors have an obsessive interest in music and nothing else, I just couldn’t dedicate myself to one field at such an early age. The regret doesn’t really bother me, I like to think that I would have done well in music but it can enrich my life as a hobby just as well as it would a career.

What sort of scientist would you have been? I wanted to be an astronomer, it was my ambition to gaze longingly into the night sky and to think up new and creative ways to measure the velocity of different sized rocks. It seems to me that most scientific fields consist of mind-blowing, universe altering discoveries in between months or years of mind-numbing, universe contingent math equations. I think I would be good at that; I may yet make a good astronomer. As Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

What happened to being a politician or historian? I wanted to be a politician, but I stopped acting like a 5-year-old when I turned 6. Politicians are people who work for their own interests under the guise of helping others. Except for Barack Obama, that man can do no wrong. I actually want to help others. There’s nothing wrong with being a historian. I often consider pursuing a life in academia, but if I do, I want it to be in a field that will help others in a direct way. I’m not saying historians don’t help others; they do, just not in as direct a manner as I would like. If photography doesn’t work out, I want to study linguistics and preserve the world’s dying languages.

How would you describe your relationship with photography? Photography is the easiest way of sharing with others the beauty that I find in the world. I’ve also tried poetry, but I generally I find the poems I write to be pretty corny. Alex Webb is one of the photographers that I’ve seen speaking about their work. He said, “if I was any good at writing, I wouldn’t have to trouble with photography.” I’m most proficient at sending a message visually, so I use this proficiency to help people in any way that I can.

How did you develop an interest in helping others? I have no idea why I have an interest in helping others, I’m also pretty good with children, though I couldn’t tell you why. I think its just part of being human, we are inherently social creatures and the drive to help one another is an evolutionary feature that has helped us survive.

What about people who seemingly hurt others? I don’t know really; there are always things like greed and mental illness that overcome the desire not to hurt others. But I think that those who hurt others lack an understanding of the world or an open mind about people. They don’t realize what it is like to be in someone else’s situation, or else they would know the damage they are doing. Really though, I’m not sure.

What was your first encounter with photography like? I’ve attached the first picture I ever took (which I’m quite proud of). I remember when I went to Ireland for a few months the summer after 6th grade to visit my relatives and explore the country. My mom had given me a bunch of disposable cameras to take pictures of my trip. When I got back she was pissed, “where are the people? How come you didn’t take any pictures of people?!” There isn’t one specific moment that I was hit by some divine inspiration to take photographs, it has been a gradual progression. I got into photography in high school and then I got into it more in college. Soon I hope to get into it in a way that will help me support myself.

Who are some photographers whose work you enjoy or appreciate? I don’t enjoy any other photographer’s work. I’m inspired by others, but its always tempered by jealousy.

I heard a great joke once:

Q:How many photographers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Five. One to screw it in and four others to stand around and say ‘I could have done that.’

That being said, there are many many photographers that I admire. Of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern ‘photojournalism’ and James Nachtwey, the current grand master of photography, if you will. Emilio Morenatti is another, he has really striking and unique images, I’ll never forget seeing this image on the front of the New York Times. Julio Mitchell has captured the essence of an entire continent although he has lived in relative obscurity until recently. Peter van Agtmael is my real life inspiration whom I saw speak with Alex Webb recently (Alex Webb was caught by the border police a couple of times because he was following illegal immigrants over the border to shoot photographs of them). If you look at the list of photographers on the Magnum website, you can pick any one of them and I can tell you why they are incredible and I want to be like them. I could go on for days.

How did you change over the course of your time at Rutgers? Over the course of my time at Rutgers, I recognized the value of a good education and the need for one to pursue wisdom and knowledge, not just have it given to him. I had this idea as soon as I got to college, but I didn’t really act on it until my second or third year. As I went through college and learned more about the world, I realized that the more you know, the less you know. Which is a pretty tacky phrase, but still one that holds some truth. I hope that I can continue to know less and less every day.

How has your education helped you seek knowledge and wisdom? If four years of education has taught me anything it is that I truly know very little about anything. This makes me want to know more, as futile an effort as that may be. Think about every single book you have ever checked out, every song you have ever listened to, every movie you have ever seen and every person you have ever listened to. I feel like a silverfish chomping away at the corner of a page of a book and my goal is to eat everything in the library. But it’s not just school, I think that listening to people has helped a lot too. Living in New Brunswick, there are few moments that someone is not trying to speak to you. It makes you realize that, although you may not agree with something someone is saying, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. People are much too quick to discredit one another these days.

So, how’d you find out about the JVP? I remember working with Mike Stuzynski at the Daily Targum and always having him talk about creating a publication in opposition to the Targum. I think he used to use the phrase doppelgänger, though I’m sure he’ll correct me if he reads this. I slinked in and out of the organization until Alex G took over, he really pushed me to produce content for the site.

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Iron & Wine’s Walking Far From Home ~ A Review by Megan Rusciano

 fell in love with Sam Beam (the voice behind Iron & Wine), his guitar, his ginger locks, and his trademark beard in high school. But 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog’s shifted away from acoustics towards a more country/ folk-rock feel. This left me wondering where Sam Beam’s poignant guitar rifts had gone. I wanted to go back to the drifting melodies that rocked ever so slightly by Beam’s hushed voice. So, I had my doubts when it came to Iron & Wine’s new EP: Walking Far From Home.

Walking Far From Home gives us a taste of where Iron & Wine will head in their upcoming album, Kiss Each Other Clean, set to be released in January ‘11. From the glimpse provided by the EP, it appears that the album will not be a return to the older Iron and Wine that I believe many of us, myself included, initially fell in love with. But for those who were dissatisfied with ‘07’s The Shepherd’s Dog, this EP represents a divergence from Beam’s earlier work. The EP moves away from a country and acoustic sound to confront an interesting musical juxtaposition: Beam’s rustic voice situated within an electronic and jazz setting. By doing so, the album stands upon a musical threshold, straddling a number of genres–each song acting to illuminate Beam’s versatility.

The opening track “Walking Far From Home” (the only track that will actually appear on the new LP) gives the initial impression that Iron & Wine has gone electronic. The song, however, is driven by a composite of piano, the consistent beat of a snare, and Sam Beam’s slightly distorted voice. It invokes a repetition both in lyric, tempo, and melody that is reminiscent of Iron & Wine’s well-known track “The Trapeze Swinger”. The subtle use of piano acts to reinforce the profundity of Beam’s lyrics. This accentuates the track’s transcendent quality that displaces me, the listener, if I let myself wander with it. The ending almost seems to mirror the conclusion of a Sigur Ros song: subtle, whispered voices that are slightly indistinct.

But it’s a quick transition into the next track: “Summer in Savannah”, a song that blares jazz from the start. Filled with amazing syncopation and a fantastic horn solo about 2 minutes in, the song ends in a wonderful climax of utter jazz. Sam Beam’s voice seems somewhat misplaced in a sea of horns, but here emerges his versatility. The contrast between his voice and the jazz disrupts the distinctions of typical musical genres illustrating that Beam can move beyond folk and folk-rock labels.

The final track “Biting Your Tail” initially sounds like something out of the new Sufjan Stevens album or perhaps The Postal Service’s Give Up. It gives off an electronic feel with a synthesizer and a cyclical rhythm. However, it is supplemented with profound lyrics: an Iron & Wine staple. Indeed, “Walking Far From Home” and “Biting Your Tail” stand out with verses that I find myself repeating under my breath in an attempt to further encapsulate their warmth and insight.

If avid fans are expecting a return to the older Iron & Wine, they may be unimpressed with this EP and perhaps the upcoming album. But if they set their expectations aside, they will realize like myself that Sam Beam does not disappoint. Instead, he proves that he can move beyond acoustics and find innovative ways to make music. People should give this EP another listen if they don’t enjoy it at first: it is well worth the second chance.

At the end of “Biting Your Tail”, Beam advises “May your words be well worth stealing/ Put your hands on your heart when singing”. I believe that he follows this advice quite well in this new EP. Evocative of the Iron & Wine I fell in love with, Walking Far From Home sets me adrift within Beam’s passion. But instead of using a guitar, Beam has found new avenues through which to express his reverent melodies.

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