Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Theodore Roosevelt Island; Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Theodore Roosevelt Island; Washington, District of Columbia, United States
“The first year I can remember in my lifetime where expectations are dashed, lives are thrown off course, and uncertainty is the norm rather than the exception is 2020.”
When you begin a new year, you expect the most out of it in terms of happiness, health, and opportunities. You hope for the best and pray to avoid the worst. However, there are going to be years that don’t live up to expectations and if anything, topple over any kind of expectations you had to begin on January 1st. The first year I can remember in my lifetime where expectations are dashed, lives are thrown off course, and uncertainty is the norm rather than the exception is 2020.
For the vast majority of people, 2020 has been a year to forget and to put behind us. Still though, there is a lot that we can and should learn from this year to make the next one a more forgiving and hopeful year. 2020 was a most difficult year and one long, seemingly almost never-ending ‘Black Mirror’ episode but I take solace in the fact that those of us who made it through this year are more resilient, better able to deal with uncertainty, and able to be happy with less instead of more.
We will always remember 2020 and while I am looking forward to putting it behind me, there are certain lessons to be drawn from a year like this one to ensure we never have a year as uniquely horrible as this one if only we start to change our behaviors and our actions collectively as a society. Beyond climate change, racial injustice, rampant inequalities, and a raging pandemic, there is also the sense that we are failing each other not just in terms of our institutions but also in terms of our commitment towards one another. Revitalizing faith, trust, and kindness as fundamental tenets of our society will be an important benchmark in seeing how much we have learned from the ills of 2020 and how not to repeat these failures in a future crisis of our own making.
In a time where our institutions are increasingly unable to meet the challenges placed upon them, I hope we will recommit to them additional resources rather than letting them atrophy and decay after the pandemic is over. I think most of us have learned how necessary it is to have functioning and responsive institutions in a crisis and how much we can be hurt by not having them be available to us especially when time is of the essence. Institutions will only work as much as we allow them to so it’s up to us collectively to believe in them, to fund them properly, and to have leaders who will tell us the truth, understand our needs, and be able to respond effectively. When our institutions fail us, we are all put in the precarious position of relying heavily on our friends and our families, which is sometimes a luxury that not everyone has available to them.
Our personal connections cannot help us though when it comes to securing masks, getting us tests, or giving us financial relief when we have no other option. A pandemic shows us how vital it is to have both local and national institutions in place who can help and are there to help rather than leaving every man or woman for him or herself causing us to act more selfish or more distrustful of others. Pandemics can bring the best out of people and they can bring the worst out of people. It is my belief that this pandemic has shown us how much our institutions have become dysfunctional, how our leaders have been corrupted, and how our society has become way too individualistic especially in a time where cooperation and unity are so desperately needed.
Individuals have been heroic for all of us whether its health care workers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, teachers, first responders, etc. who have shown more care and urgency than many larger institutions who have taken months to actually do anything substantive to help people. They are doing their job well under extremely difficult circumstances and hopefully after this year, we will reward them more not just with our thanks but also with better treatment in terms of financial payment, respect, and providing them with more resources when they need them.
Those people on the frontlines like the rest of us have had to become much more resilient in the face of such difficult circumstances. As I have mentioned before in previous articles, Resiliency is one of the most important traits you can have in a year that has been so difficult. The ability to overcome challenges, break down barriers, and surpass obstacles has been so important in 2020 where our resiliency has been tested each and every day practically. Some have had to be more resilient than others, but we have all had to play our part in keeping each other healthy and safe.
Resiliency is also about keeping your spirits up, not letting yourself get too down, and reminding yourself that tough times don’t last forever but tough people do. If you thought you were going to make it through your entire life without facing a challenging or historic year, you would be mistaken. Whether it’s the Great Depression, World War II, or the tumultuous upheavals brought on by the 1960s or the end of the Cold War, each generation is inevitably going to face moments where their resiliency is tested, where comfort is hard to find, and where good days may be hard to come by.
However, if we can get through the hard years in our life like 2020, there’s not much you cannot overcome if you are able to maintain your resiliency. 2020 teaches us that life can go sideways, and that uncertainty is more part of the human conditions than we would like to admit. While we strive for some sense of predictability or comfort in our lives, we inherently know that is just not possible and that we are never guaranteed tomorrow. I hope 2020 also teaches us not to take anything for granted especially our health or our financial security.
Inevitably, we must always plan for uncertainty because it may be coming to us when we least expect it as it did in the early months of 2020. Whether it’s trying to save more money, keeping ourselves that much more physically fit, or keeping some extra food around the house in case of an emergency, I hope that we will plan for uncertainty to come our way again because you never know when it can rear its ugly head again.
Learning how to be more resilient and also knowing how to face uncertainty have been keys to overcoming 2020 but it’s also been about how to be more kind to others. You never know what someone else is going through, how they have been affected by the pandemic, and what they are risking by coming in to work every day when they can’t stay home. If you can’t be kind, then you shouldn’t say anything to anyone. Now, more than ever, it’s important to be kind to one another, to look out for your fellow man, to donate money if you are able to, and even if you’re feeling particularly generous, donate your time and effort to a food bank or a homeless shelter to help those most in need right now.
Also, be sure to check in on those people most close to you whether it’s a close friend, a family member, or someone who you are close to at your workplace or school. Now is the time to make sure everyone is doing as well as can be, that they are not isolated without hearing your voice or seeing your face virtually indefinitely. It is very hard to spend the holidays alone so now is the best time before a new year begins to check in on those people who matter to you the most. Lastly, do not forget to support your local businesses during these hard times whether it’s the mom-and-pop store down the street or your favorite restaurant since they could all use the business right now and it’s the right thing to do to support the economy.
Kindness is going to be even more important in the coming year than ever. Between economic troubles, a continuing pandemic, and political strife, it’s best to be kind always and to empathize with what other people are going through even if they are complete strangers. Give help to those you need and fight for those with less. Make sure you continue to hold people accountable for their actions whether it’s your neighbor next door or the mayor of your town or city. Only by strengthening the bonds of trust through kindness, honesty, and transparency can we begin to heal the divisions and disparities within our society.
The pandemic and other events in 2020 have shown us how important it is to work together, to look for one another, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to deal with uncertainty and stay resilient as much as possible. I hope things get better for all of us in 2021 and I want to encourage everyone to follow the public health guidelines throughout next year.
Keep wearing a mask, stay socially distant, wash your hands frequently, take care of yourself physically with enough exercise and healthy eating. Make your New Year’s resolutions too if you believe in them so as to strive for new goals and opportunities in 2021. Be kind to others again, stay positive, and don’t let adversity throw you into despair.
I wish all of my readers a very Happy New Year and for a healthy, prosperous, and safe 2021 to come to each and every one of us.
“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”
There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.
William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.
Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.
This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.
2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux
Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.
From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.
Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.
Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’
He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.
Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.
3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand
This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.
Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?
These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.
Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.
Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?
Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS
Location: Brussels, Belgium
As always, the summer season is an excellent time to be catching up on personal reading. One of my favorite activities during the summer is to lie out in the park or at the beach and dive into some books that have piqued my interest. Whether you are a fiction fan or a non-fiction fan, there are a lot of excellent books out there to keep you occupied. My three choices for reading this summer deal with non-fiction topics yet I hope they peak your interest as well even if you are a fiction fan.
1.) “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari
The follow-up to Harari’s first book, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ dives into the promise, the challenges, and the problems facing humanity as we go through the 21st century and beyond. ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ looks at how human beings got to this point in our collective history and how we will need to come up with new solutions whether political, economic, or social to adapt to this current age of rapid technological and climatic change. Clearly, this book deals with more speculation on the part of Harari as he lays out a number of possibilities that could come about in this century and beyond, rather than solely focusing on past human history as ‘Sapiens’ did.
Harari devotes a large part of the book to the fact at how much progress has been made across humankind in terms of eradicating disease, famine, and also how war has been limited in a time of relative peace and prosperity. The question that Harari poses is what will humanity focus its efforts on now that we have been able to get past in large part major sources of human suffering in the form of disease, famine, and war. Mr. Harari makes the argument that humanity will focus a lot of its collective effort on artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, machine learning, etc.
The goal particularly of the rich and wealthy will be to conquer death and achieve immortality through various means that the author goes more into detail about. However, how will social harmony be insured as artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning wipe out a large percentage of human jobs over the next few decades? Will the rights of the individual be maintained when a large part of the population no longer are able to find work or where they can receive adequate educational training for the jobs of tomorrow?
Harari is a sociologist so the details of the actual engineering and technology that would need to occur to make this shift happen is lacking in the book. However, he poses urgent questions for policymakers, economists, and other leaders as to what will happen when ‘big data’ algorithms know us and our desires better than they ever have. How will the meaning of ‘work, leisure, and relationships’ change as artificial intelligence continues to advance? Increasingly, Mr. Harari concludes that humans and machines will complement each other in various ways whether its in education, technology, the workplace, etc. and there can be nothing done to avoid this shift from happening in our lifetimes. What remains to be seen is how human societies react to a future where people must adapt to these technological changes to survive, prosper and how man and machine will act as they merge together beyond what was considered possible just a century ago.
2.) “Us v. Them: The Failure of Globalism” by Ian Bremmer
Ian Bremmer, a notable political scientist has written a new book on the populist resurgence in the United States and around the world. He tackles the failure of ‘globalism’ as an ideology and how unfortunately it doesn’t look like we will all be able to live and thrive in a truly borderless world without political, economic, and social differences getting in the way. The fear of the ‘other’ and the tendency for human beings to organize themselves in separate tribes whether it’s the form of nations, races, and religions takes precedence even today as the reaction to globalism.
Mr. Bremmer makes the argument that ‘globalism’ and ‘globalization’ are separate in their meanings as ‘globalism’ as a term is primarily political in nature while ‘globalization’ is primarily economic. Globalization will continue to expand and thrive because its’ practical for nations to engage in trade and finance at the international level to boost and grow their national economies. As long as it is economically advantageous for nations to trade and do business with each other, globalization will continue to be a mainstay in economic relations.
‘Globalism’ however has received a backlash from the rise of political populism primarily in the Western world (the U.S., the U.K.) but also in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland), and also in developing nations like India, Mexico, Turkey, etc. Issues of mass migration, cultural shifts in nations, growing income inequality have led populations to look towards protectionism and ‘strongmen-lite’ politicians to address these systemic issues. In my opinion, Bremmer correctly argues that while the world is collectively doing well in terms of economic growth and the subsequent rise in living standards, there is still a serious political recession going on with far left and far right politicians gaining stream in terms of popularity.
‘Us v. Them’ reflect the growing unease and anxiety that a lot of people have regarding ‘globalism.’ Besides the cosmopolitan populations that live in the major cities of the world and who have benefited from the cross-cultural exchange of peoples, trade, finance, etc., there are many others who feel threatened by the ‘other’ and how their country and culture may be changing as a result. Mr. Bremmer sees the happening of Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rise of strongmen around the world as a reaction to ‘globalism’, and how there are drawbacks in that many people feel left behind by their political and economic elites who enacted these policies without their support. ‘Us v. Them’ is something that has occurred throughout human history and to myself, it goes back to our fundamental nature of our willingness to divide ourselves into separate tribes and to look upon the ‘other’ with suspicion and fear.
According to Mr. Bremmer, political populism is not likely to go away anytime soon and the rise of automation, an increase in artificial intelligence, the weakening of the middle class in both the developed and developing world are likely to put continued pressure on weakening political institutions who may or may not be agile and forward-thinking enough to come up with satisfactory solutions to these 21st century issues.
3.) “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” by Suzy Hansen
‘Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World’ by Suzy Hansen is a refreshing take on the way American foreign policy decisions have affected the U.S.’s relationships with certain countries such as Iran, Greece, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, and specifically the people who feel that they have been negatively affected by those decisions. The average American is likely to be unaware of how large of a role the country has played beyond its borders and how some of those decisions have left deep, festering wounds in the people of those countries who were directly affected and still haven’t forgotten.
Ms. Hansen who came from a personal background similar to mine has lived in Turkey for over ten years and has traveled to the Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Egypt looking for the perspectives of those citizens in regards to how America changed their countries, mainly for the worse. Her personal background growing up was very insular and she went to travel and live overseas in order to see her country differently.
From reading this book, it was refreshing to see Ms. Hansen do her research about the countries she was living in and visiting as well as interviewing many people in those countries to hear their stories and their perspectives. I believe that her book does a great job of enlightening Americans about negative foreign policy decisions made in the past that our country may not like to remember but is still forefront in many other countries’ perspective of the United States.
As Hansen left home and lived overseas, her innocence and that of America is stripped away because it’s a harsh truth to face yet it is one that we must all face is that America has not always done good in the world and there have been negative effects of past U.S. foreign policy decisions that heavily resonate with those peoples to this day. The key aspect of this mix of journalism and personal memoir makes this book stand out as a referendum on America’s role in the world, and how its likely to decline in the future. While our impact may lessen on our nations in the future, Hansen sees that as a possible good occurrence do the damage that has already been done.
My main critiques of this book is that while Ms. Hansen diagnoses that issues with U.S. foreign policy, I do wish there was an addition to the book where the author discusses how America can better its foreign relations in the future and to move forward positively with the countries she has become familiar with. However, to be fair, that would take a whole another book to diagnose how U.S. foreign policy should move forward. Also, I believe that this book was a bit too negative in its perspective on America and it could have been more balanced in its overall viewpoint. Ms. Hansen’s book pulls no punches and is a clear-eyed look on the blindspots of American exceptionalism and how our values have not always been well received beyond our borders.
Camera: iPhone 8
Location: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (NYCB Live) – Uniondale, New York, United States
As we go into the month of December, the winds start to blow, the snow starts to fall, and the cold begins to set in, it’s no better a time during the year to crack open a book to catch up on some reading. The three books I’ve read at this time and am highlighting in this ‘Book Recommendations’ post focus on current events. I tend to stay away from politics but these books do a good job of reflecting upon the political moment we are living in here in the United States.
All three of these books come from authors who have a wealth of life experiences and are considered to be experts in what they do. If you’re not into non-fiction books, you may want to skip these ones but if you want to understand more about the United States in 2017, you should give each of these books a honest read.
1. The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward G. Luce is an excellent take on the current state of liberal democracy in Western countries. Due to growing income inequality, the failure of institutions to handle complex issues involving immigration, health care, infrastructure, etc. causes more and more citizens to doubt the benefits of the current democratic system. Luce pulls no punches and does a good job summarizing the pressing problems that ail the United States and Western Europe.
While not the cause of these problems that have been building up for decades, Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties throughout Europe are symptoms of a virus that is weakening the fundamentals of liberalism. For every action, there is a reaction and the negligence shown by political and economic elites in the Western world has caused there to be a backlash against our system of governance. Luce believes that there has been a lot of doing away with the principles that made democracy work for the past couple of centuries. In the 21st century, the current political system has not adapted to technological, economic, and social changes that have occurred at a quickening pace. Unless more attention is paid to those men and women not succeeding in today’s globalized economy, there will continue to be political dysfunction within the democratic system.
Unless the Western countries can guarantee that political liberties and freedoms can go hand in hand with an economic system that works for the many and not the few, the status quo will not last. Mr. Luce is not hesitant in using the rise of authoritarianism in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines to draw a distinct parallel as to an alternative form of government that is becoming more prominent. The Western system used to be an example of good governance to the rest of the world but is that still the case today?
2. Tribe by Sebastian Junger deals more with modern psychology than modern politics but you can gain a lot of insight into what drives us as human beings from reading this book. Mr. Junger is a war correspondent that has covered the front lines for over a decade in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From his experiences, he was able to form the hypothesis that there are certain living conditions that bring out the best of us. When a person is surrounded by the members of the same ‘tribe’, usually about 20-30 people, who he or she has something in common with and for whom survival is not guaranteed but fought for every day, that goes back to our early days on the planet as hunter-gatherers.
Mr. Junger makes excellent points throughout the book that we started out thousands of years ago as a communal society moving from place to place and relying on each other to survive against the elements and against other creatures. He argues consistently that we may do best when we work with each other instead of against each other for a common goal or purpose. The alienation, individualism, and me-first culture in modern Western societies is out of line with our evolutionary history and may be the cause of the mental illnesses and anxieties that have been shown to be on the rise. Combat veterans who come home from war often miss the bonds of brotherhood that were formed from fighting for the guy or girl on the left or the right of you. They often miss the bonds created during battle that are impossible to recreate after re-entry into modern society.
The author uses an example from early American history when some English settlers would leave the colonial towns to join the Indian society, which was exactly like the tribal lifestyle, and the reverse would never be the same. There were no Indians who would leave their tribe to join the English settlers in their more modern colony set-up. In tribal communities where everybody has a say and where everybody has a role to play, it’s easy to make the argument that there would be less stress, less anxiety, and more purpose for those apart of it. Mr. Junger also brings up the example of Great Britain’s citizens during World War II and how only adversity would bring that modern society together.
A lot of Britons felt more patriotic and more cooperative each other during the war than compared to before and after the war. Adversity, struggle, and the fight for survival can be more meaningful to people than the safe and sanitized existences that make up the modern West. The time spent living through natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes can stir up people’s memories more than the average vacation or wedding. Tribe is an excellent, must-read book that pulls different elements of history, anthropology, and sociology to make a compelling argument that the average person should think deeply about.
3. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen is not your average American history book. Mr. Andersen spends about 500 pages summing up 500 years of American history through the lens of what’s fantasy and what’s real. Fantastical thinking, Andersen argues, has been apart of American culture since the first pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In order to understand what’s going on in the America of 2017, he does a good job of bringing out examples from past centuries to explain how we got to this unique point in our history.
The ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and other fantastical phrases that have become part of the national dialect are not outlandish in the sense that they have always been apart of the national character. Citing examples such as the extremes of Puritan beliefs, the Salem witch trials, P.T. Barnum and show business, the anything-goes ‘cultural revolution’ of the 1960’s, the spread of Hollywood and celebrity culture, etc., each century in America has brought about new fantasies to become part of the national fabric.
The individualistic nature of American culture has led to dreamers, believers, and magical thinkers being indulged rather than the other way around as done in other countries. The idea that you can be whom you want and believe what you want in America has become a national rallying cry, especially in recent decades. Our belief in the stuff of fantasy (ghosts, extraterrestrials, is the Earth flat?) has made America an international outlier among the industrialized nations.
Mr. Andersen argues that with the rise of Donald Trump and the excessive polarization along cultural and political fault lines that we may have hit a point of no return. The lines of fantasy and reality are becoming increasingly blurred whereas in our past, fantasy and reality were competing ideas in American society but never overtook each other to reign supreme. An amazing and timely non-fiction book that is an easy page-turner, Fantasyland is a must-read in 2017 and will help you understand how we Americans ended up here over the span of centuries.
Camera: iPhone 6
Location: Massachusetts State House; Boston, Massachusetts
‘Traffic’ (2000) is one of those films that was way ahead of its’ time when it was first released over a decade and a half ago. It is a film that makes you think deeply hours or even days after you first watch it. ‘Traffic’ should be viewed more than once to really understand all of the nuances and subtleties embedded in its’ individual stories underneath its’ overarching central themes.
When compared to most other movies of the crime drama genre, ‘Traffic’ gained a lot of particular praise for the way its’ director and screenwriter were able to successfully weave multiple plotlines, characters, and settings together that slightly overlap with each other but are seamless enough as to not overburden the viewer with unrealistic connections.
‘Traffic’ is a movie that respects the intelligence of its’ audience and isn’t afraid to tackle the controversial topic of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s quite surprising when you think about how this movie was released back in 2000, but is still just as relevant and timely of an issue today as it was back when it was first released to the public. When ‘Traffic’ came out, it gained universal recognition and critical acclaim, and after viewing it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it was so noteworthy.
Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Traffic’, and Stephen Gaghan wrote its screenplay. Mr. Gaghan, who was responsible for another multi-layered film with multiple plotlines in ‘Syriana’ (2005), which also starred an ensemble cast of actors dealing with a different timely issue of oil and geopolitics in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most people, ‘Traffic’ won numerous awards including for Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. This ensemble cast of actors for ‘Traffic’ is very impressive and includes star names such as Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta Jones.
At its’ core, ‘Traffic’ focuses on the illegal drug trade going on in both the United States and Mexico. One of the brilliant things about this film is the fact that each character in the movie represents a different perspective on the drug war whether they are a user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s unlikely that a film like ‘Traffic’ would be made today but it’s distinctive editing, multi-use of colors depending on which of the three stories are being highlighted, and the political relevance of its’ themes could keep a lot of viewers away these days.
Its’ importance and timeliness today can’t be overstated as this film doesn’t try to impose a point of view on the audience. ‘Traffic’ would rather cause the individual viewer to ask questions, seek out more knowledge about the issue, and weigh the different opinions expressed by the characters throughout the movie. The three-color grades that are used for the three different stories are probably one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever seen when it comes to film editing. Each story in ‘Traffic’ could be its’ own movie in its’ own right, and the film is lengthier than most in terms of run time at two hours and twenty minutes total.
To briefly highlight the substance of the three stories without spoiling the whole movie, let’s go over each one to introduce the arch of the overall plot to prospective viewers out there. The first story is mainly set in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which highlights the efforts of two Mexican police officers that are trying to do their job as enforcers of the law under difficult circumstances. While trying to bring down local cartels in the easiest way possible, the two officers, one of them, Javier Rodriquez (played by Benicio del Toro) come up against corruption, and crime within their own ranks, which makes their ability as officers to keep their areas safe difficult with money and influence blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys.
Officer Rodriguez (del Toro) wants to do his best to keep his job, but to also hold his fellow policemen and elements of the Mexican army accountable for their actions without compromising his safety. He knows that ending the drug war is futile but he wants to keep his immediate community safe and that of its’ inhabitants. This is especially true if it means that the local kids in his neighborhood can play baseball at night with new stadium lights and not be at risk of joining gangs instead in their free time.
The second storyline in ‘Traffic’ takes place between the nexus of small town Ohio and the capital city of Washington, DC in the United States. A conservative judge, Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he becomes an unofficial ‘drug czar.’ Mr. Wakefield doesn’t seem to be enthused with the new position he’s been given due to the long hours, lack of support, and political skepticism from the official circles within Washington. He tries to make the most of fighting the ‘war on drugs’ even if he knows deep down that it is truly unwinnable. Because he is away from his family for long periods of time, he is unaware that his daughter in high school has developed a drug problem over the past six months and is struggling with a heroin addiction now.
On top of dealing with being a father and the leader of a national drug control policy effort, he struggles to be a open and forthcoming husband to his wife. Compared to other characters in the film, Wakefield changes the most in his views on the ‘war on drugs’ as the audience can see that his mindset changes when this issue becomes personal and not just professional. With his daughter’s future and life at stake, the ‘war on drugs’ becomes less of an abstract war and more of a battle to save his family from falling apart.
The third and last storyline takes place mostly in southern California in the San Diego area where two DEA agents are conducting an underground investigation. The investigation, led by Agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle), eventually leads to the successful capture and arrest of a top drug dealer, Eduardo Ruiz, who pretends to be a fisherman as his cover.
This arrest is instrumental in helping along the trial of suspected drug lord, Carl Ayala, who is thought to be the leading distributor of illegal drugs for one of the biggest cartels in the world. Ruiz is important to be kept alive and in good shape so that he can testify to the illegal activities of Ayala and his empire, but that is harder for the DEA than they ever imagined. With Ayala’s possible imprisonment and/or cooperation, the DEA agents are hoping to bring down this cartel, once and for all.
However, since Ayala and his wife, Helen (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), have a lot of wealth and influence still, they are able to put a damper on the DEA’s plans with the help of the shady family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (played by Dennis Quaid). DEA Agent Gordon and his partner are unable throughout the film to cope with the long tentacles of the drug cartels, and the amount of money and hit men the Ayala’s are able to use to threaten the safety of the DEA’s witness and the potential success of the prosecution against Ayala. You could imagine that this particular story in the film does not come with a happy ending.
Any of the three unique yet intertwined storylines of ‘Traffic’ could be ripped from newspaper headlines from over the past forty years. Ever since the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ back in the 1970’s, there has been endless debate about whether there have been any successes or mainly just the upholding of the status quo. ‘Traffic’ doesn’t try to impose a simple yes or no answer to the ‘war on drugs’ question.
Rather, this film intelligently asks its’ audience to weigh the outcomes of these different stories that are affected by the drug trade, and the viewer is supposed to make that decision for themselves. When it comes to special movies like ‘Traffic’, there are no simple black and white solutions. There are many shades of grey in all of these human stories, and it takes deep insight, critical thinking, and analysis in order for slow changes of the status quo to actually occur.
While this is a fictional movie, it is made clear by the film itself that a lot of these characters are based off of actual people who make up all sides of the ‘war on drugs.’ Overall, the one key thing that the ending of this film makes clear to the audience is that there are no winners in the drug war, only losers, and it takes an impactful movie like ‘Traffic’ to make that fact absolutely clear.
Arguably one of the best movies of the 2000’s and Nicholas Cage’s best performance as a lead actor, The film ‘Lord of War’, released in 2005, is a realistic and unfiltered take in the role of illegal arms dealers, who facilitate the sale and transfer of arms trafficking throughout the international arms industry, which continues to be one of the world’s most profitable endeavors. ‘Lord of War’, while nonfictional in its’ story is actually based off of the lives and exploits of different real-life arms smugglers. ‘Lord of War’ is directed by Andrew Niccol, and stars a cast of Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, and Bridget Moynahan.
Nicholas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, the son of Ukrainian refugees from the Soviet Union, where he and his brother, Vitaly, help their parents out in their Ukrainian restaurant as cooks and helpers. While Vitaly is somewhat satisfied with this simple life of cooking borscht and washing dishes, Yuri wants to achieve the ‘American Dream’ and get out of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he grew up after leaving Ukraine. He struggles to grasp at any real business opportunity in order to get out of the shadow of his ordinary life in Brooklyn.
However, one day when he is dining at a restaurant in Brighton Beach, the business idea he needs comes to life for Yuri in the form of a Russian mobster killing two would-be assassins and fending off their attack with AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles. Yuri believes that there is a lot of money to made in international arms sales and decides to go into business despite the protests of his brother, Vitaly, and the fact that his parents don’t know what he’s up to.
One scene in particular that stands out in Yuri’s beginning as an illegal arms dealer is when he tells his brother that since there are so many McDonald’s and gun stores in America already, he needs his business to be international in its’ focus. At first, Yuri feels that dealing arms is comparable to serving food at a restaurant. He justifies his nefarious business by narrating to the audience that its’ providing for a part of human nature in his opinion, the instinct to kill and harm others, as documented by the “earliest human skeletons who had spears in their heads and ribcages.”
While Vitaly, Yuri’s brother has moral reservations about what Yuri is doing, he decides to join him later on as they crisscross the globe during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s dealing with corrupt governments, genocidal dictators, and other more ruthless arms dealers as their competition. As Yuri becomes more popular and wealthy with the illegal arms business, he runs up against a by-the-book, incorruptible, and idealistic Interpol agent, Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who tries unsuccessfully to track Yuri’s business dealings down by air and by sea.
Despite the fact that his brother, Vitaly, becomes a drug addict, and is an unreliable business partner, Yuri continues to run his illegal arms business as a one-man show. While a fictional story, ‘Lord of War’ is based off of real life conflicts and real life people who were involved in the illegal arms trade. These conflicts include the 1982 Lebanon War, the Soviet Union’s War in Afghanistan against the Mujahedeen, the civil war in Liberia during the 1990’s, etc. The movie does not gloss over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the impact that the end of this cold war conflict had on the rest of the world in terms of arms sales. Yuri is able to become a very wealthy and powerful arms dealer in the film due to his family connections in Ukraine and the sheer weaponry, and arsenal that the Soviet military left unused.
Like his arms business, which is run under false pretenses, he does the same with his love life as he falls for a fashion model and childhood crush, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), who he sets himself up with under the guise of a false photo shoot. Despite the fact that his parents don’t know about his illegal dealings, he lies to his new wife regularly, and his brother ends up in a drug rehabilitation center, Yuri does not give up on the arms business because he likes it, is good at it and is unable to go straight in legal business endeavors. Howver, in the wake of all of his ‘success’, innocent men, women, and children get killed by the guns, bombs, ammunition, tanks, planes, etc. that he sells and profits off of. As the film progresses, the director makes clear that Yuri has sold his soul in this dirty trade and it may cost him his life or the lives of others close to him if he doesn’t stop.
In a way, the audience who watches ‘Lord of War’ could be most closely aligned with the perspective of the Interpol agent, Jack Valentine. He knows that Yuri is a bad person and he wants to bring him down, but will it make any difference to bring one sole arms dealer down when billions of dollars are exchanged around the world each year through both legal and illegal arms sales. Like Jack, the audience may question the nobility of bringing down one arms sales dealer like Yuri when there are dozens of them out there, and Presidents / Prime Ministers of the major countries are the biggest arms dealers of them all.
Yuri never takes full responsibility for his business dealings during the film even if the sale of his arms causes bloodshed and death. He remarks bluntly to his brother, Vitaly during one scene: We don’t talk about it. How many car salesmen talk about their work? How many cigarette salesmen talk about their work? Both their products kill more people every year than mine, at least mine comes with a safety switch. Those guys can leave their work at the office, so can I.”
In Yuri’s opinion, he may be evil, but he’s ‘necessary evil’ because there are other people or governments out there like him involved in the business, but sometimes they ‘can’t have their fingerprints on the gun.’ Despite the pressures placed on him by family, friends, and the law, Yuri is committed to doing what he does best without having the moral imperative to stop. As I don’t want to reveal the ending, the first time you see it, you may be shocked but this film doesn’t deal in black and white, and that’s what I love about it.
There are numerous shades of grey that go along with the black and white, and the ending of ‘Lord of War’ falls within those shades of gray. ‘Lord of War’ doesn’t have your typical Hollywood ending, and that’s partly what it makes it such an alluring film. On top of the exquisite directing, acting by Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, etc. and the deep political and philosophical themes behind this film, I highly recommend it.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the film that is very poignant and is still true twelve years after ‘Lord of War’ was released in movie theaters. “While private gunrunners continue to thrive, the world’s biggest arms suppliers are the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, and China…they are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.”