Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Liberals, Layton and Hypocrisy.

There is a lot of talk around political circles, and I stress that it is mostly rumor and innuendo at the moment, that the Bloc and the NDP are both ready to work with the Conservative Minority Government for the foreseeable future in order to avoid an election. The recent polls which suggest that Harper is in trouble and may have run his political course confirms something that is clear to anyone with an ounce of political analysis. As I have said before, an unusual confluence of historical event brought Harper to power and the conditions have changed. These historical event, coupled with some fairly outrageous political mistakes have, I believe, irreparably doomed Harper’s political fortunes. Furthermore, his ultra-partisan, frighteningly controlling political style always has limited political lifespan in modern Western democracies. It can work for a while during relatively comfortable and trouble-free times, but when the economic and social conditions get stormy, such a centralizing, Machiavellian style tends to turn people off because it seems mean and self-serving. Anyway, back to my original point which is the degree of cooperation that Harper can expect to enjoy from the Bloc and the NDP now that his fortunes seem to have changed. In the Blogosphere many Liberals are beginning to rant and rave, centering most of their attacks on Jack Layton, at the prospect that these parties might attempt to cooperate with Harper with the intention of avoiding an election themselves and gaining some political concessions. Yesterday, such speculation went into overdrive with the release of polling numbers in Quebec that suggest that the Liberals have actually overtaken the Bloc in popularity. Now I find this Liberal indignation ironic for two reasons. The first is that the Liberal party was the only one that voted with this government on a confidence issue since it returned to power. Both the other opposition parties voted against the budget which means thus far it has only been the Liberals propping up Harper’s Government. The second is that no one has actually said or done anything in either of the other opposition parties which is proof positive of the cooperation on which so many are speculating. The fact is that even though the NDP has been the main target of the Liberal attacks in recent days, the Bloc is a much more likely candidate for keeping this Government alive. The NDP may be mourning the loss of their dreamed of coalition but they have less to lose than the Bloc from an election. Furthermore, there is very little, if anything, that the Conservatives can offer the NDP that would justify the political risk of being seen to cooperate with the Harper. The much vaunted referendum on proportional representation is a non-starter and even if such a thing did happen, it would have no chance of passing with the opposition from the other three parties. Thus, if it does turn out that there is nothing to this Blog-rumor that Layton has sold the soul of the NDP, the most startling thing about all this recent discourse is the incredibly ironic accusations of ‘hypocrisy’ that have been so quickly thrown at the NDP by the Liberals. Not to say that it would not be hypocritical for Jack Layton to now support the Harper Government after the vitriolic attacks he made on the Liberals in the last election and the continual acts on his part to paint Harper as a democratic antichrist. It would be hypocritical indeed if Layton were now to somehow prop up the minority government in complete contradiction to his political discourse for the past two years or so. However, for the accusations of hypocrisy to come from the Liberals is itself profoundly hypocritical. Dion and Liberals voted with Harper time and again from pure political expediency, they knew they couldn’t win an election and that there was a real chance of Harper gaining a majority. Now one might argue that keeping Harper from a majority is of such political importance that the Liberals were right to avoid an election at any cost. I for one believe that a Harper majority would be a serious threat to the fundamental democracy of our system; not because of any single policy that he pursues but because his political style is centralist and Machiavellian that the present Conservative Party would actually chip away at democracy itself. (This is not, by the way, a generalized attack on Conservatives or Conservative Ideology but rather aimed largely at Harper and his inner-core. There are many Conservatives with whom I disagree about policy but who I think are committed to democracy and fair-play) However, since the Liberals have certainly never publicly made this argument, I don’t believe that can retroactively use it for their two-year support of the Conservative Government. The simple fact is that when it was in their political interest to do so, the Liberals had no qualms about keeping Harper in power. It is disingenuous, therefore, for Liberals now or in the future to turn their vitriolic attacks on Layton for doing the exact same thing.

Layton is, I believe, of dubious character and has taken the NDP away from what should be its principled stance on many issues. I also believe he was profoundly wrong to bring down the Martin Government just because he saw an opportunity to gain a few more seats. If Martin had remained Prime Minister for another year or so Universal Childcare would have become a political fact like universal education and Harper would probably been unable to stop it. Furthermore, Harper’s abandonment of the Kyoto and the Kelowna accords would have been much more difficult. I therefore have no serious words of defense for Jack Layton. However, the Liberals have always been the master of political gamesmanship and for them to accuse anyone of hypocrisy at this point is ridiculous. If Liberal’s really want to step onto the high ground of political discourse they should stand for real and serious political reforms to this country including some form of proportional representation, genuine accountability, a decentralization of political power away from the PMO, real campaign reform including an abandonment of the market-driven advertising approach to politics, campaign finance reform, genuine freedom of information, and some serious public investment in alternative energy programs. When the Liberals are ready to make these kinds of reforms then perhaps they can accuse others of hypocrisy. Until that time, it is clear to any honest political observer that the Liberal party continues to be just another self-interested political party who will play almost any political game to gain power and keep it. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Letter to Mr. Poilievre, (unfortunately) my MP

Dear Mr. Poilievre


As a constituent in Nepean-Carleton I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in the conduct of my Member of Parliament. It seems that you spend most of your time, and our money, campaigning against the opposition in a callous, disrespectful, and ultra-partisan manner. While your constituents are facing serious issues such as pollution, job-losses, radically rising food prices, unplanned urban sprawl, etc., you are continually presenting yourself to the public as nothing more than a disrespectful bully who conducts himself as little more than a child in public. As a parent who believes in living a responsible civic life, I encourage my teenage children to learn about politics and keep a close eye on how our government works. And they have asked me on more than one occasion why their MP is allowed to act in so discourteous and ill-mannered a way in and out of the House of Commons. And I have no answer for them. Instead, thanks to conduct like yours I have to watch my kids become disillusioned with politics and cynical about life! Please desist from tell your constituents that you support family values. Cynicism, belligerence, and blind political ambition are not family values! We cannot even depend upon you to stand by the rules, as yesterday you again violated them by indicating, in one of your ultra-partisan diatribes, that one of the Members was absent  from the house.


And the biggest tragedy for my kids and the future of this country is that when they ask me why you act that way, and they suggest that even for the sake of his own reelection shouldn’t  Mr. Poilievre act with more respect and greater decorum. I have to tell them “Well, he just doesn’t care. Even if he loses he will get a pension and enjoy a lucrative career based upon his time in the House.” And then my kids just shake their heads and ask me why they should bother with politics. But I have no answer Mr. Poilievre!  You spend our taxpayer’s money forging your own political career by continually campaigning instead of actually acting like a responsible representative and in the process you are destroying the political culture of this country, which is all tragically amusing considering that the Conservatives were first elected because of a commitment to change the political culture to a more humane and responsible discourse. Instead of laughing when one of your peers takes a jab at another, you should solemnly bow your head at this sign of disrespect and immaturity.


This is not a game Mr. Poilievre, it is real life and people out here have real problems! As a constituent and taxpayer, I demand that you start acting like an adult. This means forging compromise and cooperation while showing respect and decorum. Your present actions are doing nothing but undermining democracy itself.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Beyone the Law

Chantal Hebert is one of my favorite political writers because she is willing to take a swipe at anyone. Her recent article is another great example of how she is cuts to the heart of the matter. She shows how Harper is consistently derisive of the the law whenever courts or Parliament or the Governor General somehow violate his effort to impose his ideology. (Here is the translated version: ) Similarly Garth Turner, once a member of Harper's caucus, has emerged with a book entitled Sheeples which compares Conservative MPs to sheep who must blindly follow Harper's will or face immediate expulsion. I think people in the country are finally waking up to the fact that Stephan Harper is a serious threat to democracy in Canada. He has no interest in the rule of law, or the will of the people as translated through the will of Parliament. He is only interested in gaining power however he can. He is undermining accountability, freedom of information and every other mechanism that protects the fragile democracy we are supposed to enjoy. (And don't forget he has been working hard to gerrymander the electoral line in Ontario) When he was elected he made a strong attempt to portray the legal system and the public service as one monolithic mechanism of the Liberal Party, and since then he has proven that he will do anything he can to bypass the law. When Harper is finally torn from his desperate grip on power many in this country will breath a huge sigh of relief when we realize that we barely escaped the total destruction of or democratic system.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shelley and the Beliefs of politics

“Belief and disbelief are utterly distinct from and unconnected with volition. They are the apprehension of the agreement or disagreement of the ideas which compose any proposition. Belief is an involuntary operation of the mind, and like other passions, its intensity is precisely proportionate to the degrees of excitement.”  So wrote Percy Shelley in his early prose piece entitled A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, a remarkably eloquent statement from the pen of an eighteen year old boy. And while this passage is a very small part of a fairly long text that deals with the persecution of deists in England, I quote it here because I find it at once interesting and a little scary. I find it daunting because it seems true but its truth has problematic implications for politics. This is because belief doesn’t just form the foundation of religion but people’s politics also seem to be founded on some basic beliefs about what can or should be, what the goals of society should entail etc, etc. We have all experienced this firsthand. Someone has a particularly noxious political belief which they attempt to justify with an elaborate rational discourse which is really just a sophistic defense of some core beliefs. I have argued so many times with people about politics only to find, after a long process, that they have some outrageous belief about people that is not based on any rational discourse but is just a frightening bigotry. (I recently saw this in action when someone was speaking with utter derision of the Tamil protestors that were on Parliament Hill here in Ottawa for nearly a week – disrupting traffic and trying to gain attention for their cause. Instead of addressing the important issues that the Tamil’s were attempting to raise about the bigotry and brutality that the Tamil people have suffered, this person just waved them off as ‘stupid trouble makers.’ ) This is, for me, particularly disturbing in right-wing ideology which is so often rooted in an underlying belief that certain people are simply more worthy of prosperity and power than others. In action we can see this in their continual and nauseating attack on the most vulnerable people in society. This is not to imply that the political positions of left-winger’s are not rooted in certain beliefs; they are indeed. However, I simply find the beliefs of the left, for the most part, more attractive and beneficial than others. They are, I think, rooted in compassion, equity, and a society that not only the strong or connected enjoy prosperity.

Yet, all of this still leaves us with a difficult quandary; how do we engage in political struggle when at the heart of these struggles are beliefs which are not necessarily subject to rational discourse? 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Utopianism and Art

For those one or two of you who regularly read my blog you will know that I have been speaking lately about the role of art in politics, with a particular emphasis on the Romantic authors in the revolutionary period. The French historian Jules Michelet wrote that “every age dreams its successor.” I am convinced that art in all its guises is a central part in this dreaming. Utopianism is an essential element in all social and political change and art is an essential part of Utopianism.
Ernst Bloch was a German philosopher who made utopianism a central part of his writing and thought. He went to great lengths to connect art with the utopian function of human consciousness, particularly in his book The Utopian Function of Art and Literature. I quote a relevant passage from the book which speaks, I think, to the issues which I have recently discussing.

“….the question about the truth of art becomes philosophically the questions concerning the given reproductive potentiality of the beautiful illusion, concerning its degree of reality in a reality of the world that is not one-dimensional, concerning the place of its object correlate. Utopia as the determination of the object, with the degree of being (Seinsgrad) of the really possible (Realmöglichen) presents a particularly rich problem for corroboration in the light of the iridescent phenomenon of art. And the answer to the aesthetic question about truth is that artistic illusion is generally not only mere illusion but one wrapped in images, a meaning that only portrays in images what can be carried on, where the exaggeration and telling of stories (Ausfabelung) represent an anticipatory illumination of reality circulating and signifying in the active present (Bewegt-Vorhandenen), in an anticipatory illumination, which portrays things in a specifically aesthetic immanent way. Here, individual, social, and also elemental events are illuminated that the usual or sharp senses can barely detect yet It is due to the fact that the anticipatory illumination is attainable in this way, that art propels its subjects, figures, situations, actions, landscapes to the end, that it expresses these things in sorrow, in fortune as well as in meaning. Anticipatory illumination itself is attainable by virtue of the fact that the craft (Metier) of propelling something to the end takes place in a dialectically open space, where all objects can be aesthetically portrayed."

The concept of ‘anticipatory illumination’ is particularly exciting because it puts into words what is a very complex notion. Art creates a picture of a future that is nascent in the human soul.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Coleridge on Politics

“That general Illumination should precede Revolution, is a truth as obvious, as that the Vessel should be cleansed before we fill it with a pure Liquor. But the mode of diffusing it is not discoverable with equal facility. We certainly should never attempt to make Proselytes by appeals to the selfish feelings – and consequently, should plead for the Oppressed, not to them. The Author of an essay on political justice considers private Societies as the sphere of real utility – that (each one illuminating those immediately beneath him,) Truth by a gradual descent may at last reach the lowest order. But this is rather plausible than just or practicable. Society as at present constituted does no resemble a chain that ascends in a continuity of Links. – There are three ranks possessing intercourse with each other: these are well comprised in the superscription of a Perfumer’s advertisement which I lately saw – “the Nobility, Gentry, and People of the Dress.” But alas! between the Parlour and the Kitchen, the Tap and the Coffee-room – there is a gulph [sic] that may not be passed. He would appear to me to have adopted the best as well as the most benevolent mode of diffusing Truth, who uniting the zeal of the Methodist with the views of the Philosopher, should be personally among the Poor, and teach them their Duties in order that he may render them susceptible of their Rights.”

Coleridge: Introductory Address to his 1795 Lecture series.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Problems of Literature (Part 3)

When one follows this line of reasoning, even to a minimal degree, you are soon overcome with a queasy feeling that is rooted in the nagging sense that one is inevitably going to be faced with the problem of quality; the very problem that drove the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to the edge of madness. While the individual aspect of aesthetic experience drives one away from universal or objective notions of quality, such an idea is deeply unsettling as well as counter intuitive. On the other hand, the idea of fixed meanings and interpretations which tie us to a possible universal, albeit subtextual , experiences which are represented in literature. However, a felling of nausea grips you either way. Perhaps it is simply rooted in the vagaries of the ego, but the question nags one’s mind because how are we comprehend the idea that there is no qualitative distinction to be made between Coleridge and Rod McKuen, or Velazquez and Leroy Neiman? Is this just too disturbing to contemplate? There is no doubt something profoundly disturbing about the idea that there is no conceptual hook on which to hang the idea of aesthetic quality. On the other hand it is very clear that much of art or literary theory has been little more than an elaborate practice of elitism, intentional obfuscated theoretical constructs designed to promote certain values and agendas. This opinion was famously taken up by George Orwell who suggested that works of art were really “judged on political ground which are then given an aesthetic disguise.” Such a notion was made blatant and more refined by Fredric Jameson in his remarkable book The Political Unconscious. Here Jameson suggests that lying behind all acts of artistic creation as well as interpretation are fundamental political assumptions that serve to make them meaningful to their producers. It is, perhaps, a particularly tricky way of introducing an erstwhile universalism but makes no issue out of the thorny problem of quality. There is no question of the liberatory aspects of a non-qualitative approach to literature which doesn’t look at a literary document as a fixed object with correct and incorrect possible interpretations, but rather an object of utility which can serve whatever function we chose. This reminds me of Michael Radford’s film Il Postino where the shy but lovable postman uses one of Pablo Neruda’s poems in a love letter to the woman who he has been wooing. Neruda is upset that the man has used his poem, but the Postman suggest that poems don’t belong anyone in particular but to anyone who needs them. Indeed! At a more prosaic level I think of comedian Mitch Hedberg’s funny observation in which he says he just bought a three-bedroom house, but then he thought “Wait a minute, isn’t it up to me how many bedrooms it has. The kitchen is a bedroom that happens to have a refrigerator in it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Problems of Literature (Part 2)

The question inevitably arises then, how is one to proceed in the face of these problems of interpretation? In light of the competing drives for individual experience and supposedly universal impulses, all implications of interpretation become suspect. We can assume two extremes; one which assumes not only the possibility but the necessity of absolute interpretations; and the other which assumes ‘interpretation’ itself is not possible per se but sees literature and the examinations of texts as ideological constructions to be used documents of possibility. At the first extreme, literary critics continue to write who contend that there exist ‘correct’ interpretations of literary texts for which one simply needs to supply the appropriate textual and contextual evidence and arguments in order to establish the truth of the matter. Such is the case with the ongoing debate over the issue of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. A number of Romantic era authors (William Blake, William Godwin, and Shelley primary among them) contended Milton, regardless of his intention, made Satan the hero of Paradise Lost. The Romantics suggested that this portrayal made Satan an example of a revolutionary character who was rebelling against arbitrary authority and asserting the possibility of individual identity against tyranny. Many critics, even contemporary ones, contend that such is an improper ‘interpretation’ of the work of Milton. Stanley Fish, a well known authority on Milton, wrote a book recently entitled How Milton Works, in which he goes to great length to say how Milton intended his poem to work and what interpretations are appropriate given Milton’s beliefs. Such authoritative notions are steeped not only in academic elitism but inevitably hide ideological intentions which, if they are to retain their authority, must remain under wraps. In recent years, of course, the winds have shifted a great deal – even if many people do not realize the gravity and significance of the change. The great shift toward political, feminist, and psycho-analytic criticism has naturally allowed people to recreate textual significance in light of non-formalistic issues that swirl around both the text and our own experience. But while these complex debates churn through academic and intellectual realms, the problem exists on a more prosaic level where general readers play with textual meanings in ways that relate to their experience but which magnify their sense of personal significance through their perceived connection to universalism. And so our culture generates continual chirping of discourse on literature which combines basic notions of literary criticism with personal self-importance. This discourse, which has become familiar in popular culture, assumes this dichotomy discussed above and never looks for reconciliation of the opposites which it simply does not recognize as existing.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Problems of Literature (Part 1)

There are, I am certain, countless reasons that one might amuse oneself engaging in the conceptual endeavor to make clear to oneself or even, if blessed with greater ambition, to a larger audience, the complex process by which we imbue documents which we commonly call literature with layers of meaning that are beyond the obvious ones that present themselves in the initial process of reading. We must assume, first of all, that such is the case with average readers in the course of everyday experience, rather than such an experience being the soul purview of specialists in the field of literature where scholars, armed with excessive and intentionally complex theoretical frameworks, create meanings in the interest of some buried agenda which may be constituted as important in the broadest sense but which bears little resemblance to a sensual experience of reading. We can make this assumption, I assume, based upon the fact that it appears to be a common habit of the majority of readers to recognize, at least at a minimal level, the existence of so-called ‘sub-texts’ which they can, if only in the simplest terms, present to others and discursively redeem if called upon to do so. This is not, of course, to suggest that every ‘average’ reader takes the part of some scholarly critic over what they perceive to be their own experience or the author herself, whose intent continues to be championed by readers and critic alike. But even if there persists a disturbing weakness of the imaginative power in the majority of readers and writers, there continues to persist a simple habit of textual obfuscation which relates to a perceived ‘meaning’ emanating from a fixed document. In simpler terms, people read literature as though it contains some fixed meanings which are inherent in the text and which they, through a ‘proper’ or ‘thorough’ understanding, can illuminate.

I consider the most obvious possible motivation for such a widespread habit of reading to be found in the general desire for sociability. Literature’s ability to effect or even ‘create’ states of heightened emotions which are essentially assumed to exist at a universal level (or to be actually the same at all time and in all places), feeds an apparent drive toward a comfort to be found in common experience. Thus we are at once inspired by some inherent need to assert our unique experience as individuals and readers, but simultaneously compelled to find an underlying, one might say structural, commonality inherent in our existential condition. One might assume that such competing sympathies would generate an intolerable degree of cognitive dissonance. Subligation on the one hand and individual assertion on the other, should create a state of irretrievable disturbance.

If this is so where does this disturbance lie?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Good and Bad

I must admit that I am almost entirely incapable of understanding what motivates a great number of the world’s population. I’d like to be one of those people blessed with an inexplicable and unflagging optimism in human nature. I don’t need to be stupidly happy or anything, but I would like to be able to wave off the myriad acts of evil in the world with an inner confidence that everything is going to be alright.
I know at an intellectual level that the majority of the world’s population must be basically good. If they weren’t, then human society would deteriorate into total chaos in less than the time it takes to have an Ultimate Fighting cage match. Which is to say, only a few short, agonizing and deeply confusing minutes. But knowing this and being able to live it in my everyday life, are two very different things. And every time I begin to feel that people are good, some bad apple comes along and spoils the entire barrel.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago when I moved to England for the forth time and I had a couple of experiences that made life fittingly confusing in this regard. I managed to find an apartment, never an easy task, but it wasn’t ready for moving in for a couple of weeks. But fortunately a friend offered to let me stay with him until I could move in. Now, this was a generous offer because I didn’t really know him all that well and he had two children to deal with and a relatively small place. But I stayed there an ‘mucked in’ as the British say, and felt an upsurge of optimism that someone had made the offer motivated only by an innate sense of generosity. However, a few days after I was scheduled to take my own place, an odd event occurred.
I was sitting in the main room on one the few fine days of that particular September, engaged in some frivolous activity like reading Plato, when the homeowner and his son came in from the backyard where they had been playing football. For some reason they were both absorbed a state of utter dejection and they threw themselves on the couch as though they had just heard some terrible news. Upon inquiry they confirmed that they had just lost their football in the neighbor’s yard, which was particularly bad news because this was the first day that it hadn’t rained in nearly three weeks.
Their dejection seemed rather odd to me because the wall was no more than four feet tall and even a child could hope over it with little or no effort. Now, you have to remember that these were English people, and their behavior was inexplicable at the best of times. And I was thus a little reticent to ask them why this four foot wall presented such a monumental problem. I mean this may be a nation of shopkeepers, but they had also beaten the Spanish Armada, so they must be capable of some basic efforts of fortitude. So after listening to the two of them sigh and mumble to themselves for several minutes I felt compelled to ask them what exactly what the problem was.
“Can’t you,” I asked as quietly and tactfully as I could, “simply jump the fence and retrieve the ball, and then go on about your business?” This elicited no response but a loud moan from both of my depressed housemates. So I pushed the issue.
“The wall is only four feet high,” I offered, “it can’t present that big a problem.”
Charles, the young boy and by far the braver of the two, sat up and looked me squarely in the face.
“The man who lives there is a horrible gangster and he won’t let us into his yard.” Then he pulled his hat down over his eyes and sank back into the cushions.
When I suggested that he surely couldn’t be so terrible that he wouldn’t let a boy have his football, my friend quickly set me right.
“Yes, he could be that horrible. We lost a ball in his yard about six months ago and I went around and knocked on his door to ask if we could have it back. But he went crazy. He screamed at us and told us that not only couldn’t we have the ball back but he was going to go straight back into the yard and pop the damn thing and throw it into the bin.”
So here it was, some bad apple who, for no imaginably appropriate reason, was destroying my optimism in people. Unwilling to let this gangster, or whatever he was, get away with a young boy’s football, I immediately walked out into the yard, jumped the fence and retrieved the ball. Though my friend and his son seemed amazed, nothing happened and I moved into my apartment a few days later and forgot the whole incident.
A few weeks later I was lounging happily in my new place, the bottom floor of a corner row-house that was remarkably nice for a reasonably priced house in Brighton. The neighborhood was fairly clean and the place had a sweet little backyard in which I could sit on the few nice days. On one particular Saturday a gentle knock came at the door and I opened it to find a young boy standing there sheepishly. He informed me that he and his friends had lost their football in my backyard and were wondering if he could have it back. I replied in the affirmative and the boy seemed shocked by my readiness to cooperate. I realized then, having so recently been retrieving my friend’s ball, that living in such close quarters as one is apt to do in crowded country like England, this must be a very common dilemma hereabouts.
Because the house backed onto a steep hill, the backyard was hemmed in by a fairly high retaining wall which some of the local boys were using as a football goal. The gate into the yard was tall and in order to open it you had to reach over to release the latch. So I took the boy outside and into the backyard where I received the ball and threw it into the street to where the boys were playing. Then I peered over the wall and told the boys that they were free to enter the yard any time and get their ball back.
For a few moments the boys seemed genuinely shocked by this information and looked at each other in a state of confusion and disbelief. At the time I had didn’t think much about this but soon I would come to understand.
Over the next few days I noticed these boys out there playing football often and I was even a little comforted to hear them holler with enthusiasm as I sat inside and did my work. Then, on a late afternoon, another knock came at my door and I went to answer it thinking that it might be one of the football players again. However, upon opening the door, I was surprised to find a tall, lanky woman of sixty years old or so standing in my doorway. And I was about to ask her what I could do for her when she broke in with a shrill voice and shattered the peace of the afternoon.
“Do you know,” she inquired with her sharp finger pointed in my face, “that these boys are out here nearly every day kicking that ball against your wall?” I told her with a great deal of surprise that the events had not escaped my notice and wondered why she asked.
“Well,” she continued with her offensive tone, “I have seen them going into your yard to retrieve their ball!” She said this as though she expected some particular response from me of which I was not aware. But I simply informed her, with as much grace as I could muster, that I was also aware of this point and inquired, since it was my yard, why she was so concerned.
This information and query seemed to take her by surprise and she was somewhat taken aback and took some time to regain her composure.
“Well,” she finally continued, “you need to put a stop to it! They are always playing out here and the ball has gone into my backyard and into my flower beds more than once.” I then realized, by her indication, that she lived on the opposite corner and that her retaining wall served as the other goal in the boys’ games. “Something must be done,” she finally said, her voice reaching to something of a loud screech.
I stood there for a few moments think about gangsters and bad apples and found my temper rising to an uncomfortable level. I was having trouble processing this situation. I understood that nothing was perfect and that flowers were a pleasant diversion, but I had no serious idea why someone might object to boys playing football in the street unless it was to preserve their own safety. I quickly ran through all the options of what I might say to this difficult and rather offensive woman. Finally I decided to go with the obvious and simply told her they were just boys playing a game. This did not please her at all and she told me that they should go elsewhere to engage in their sporting activities.
“Where do you want them to go?” I asked incredulously. “There is not a decent park within half a mile and this, my good woman, is all they have.” The part about her being a good woman was of course intended as irony but I don’t believe she understood this.
“I don’t care where they go,” she told me bringing herself to a state of frenzied anger. “They can go to the devil for all I care! As long as they are not playing on our street.” This is when I realized that I was dealing with a complete lunatic and that anything I said would be entirely ineffective and meaningless to her. So, upon careful consideration, I figured all that was left to me was complete honesty.
“You, my lady,” I informed her, “are either hopelessly mean spirited or irretrievably mad, and I suspect probably both. So will ask you politely to go home and leave the rest of us in peace.” Then I shut the door without waiting of a response. I never saw that woman for the entire year that I lived there and was quite pleased that our paths never crossed. But her presence and her overt selfishness disturbed me more than I was willing to admit. This event, coupled with the early football issue, had badly shaken my idea that people were basically good and I spent a number of months feeling depressed and frustrated. If people were capable of falling into such conflict over issues as small as footballs in the backyard, what chance was there of a generalized peace? And I ruminated over this for some time feeling sad and wondering where optimistic people found their motivation.
Some time in the early spring I went on bus ride of several miles to a neighboring village to sketch. I had a good day and enjoyed the picturesque church which, according to a friendly plaque on the outside wall, had once been the parish church of Rudyard Kipling. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and I hadn’t realized that the buses back to Brighton stopped running at three o’clock so I had become stranded. I didn’t have enough cash for a taxi ride and wasn’t sure where I might retain a taxi even if I did. But it was still a nice day and I thought, in an optimistic moment that I might walk over the hills back to town. This I proceeded to do, but the journey was considerably longer than I had estimated. About half way through I was quite exhausted and found myself wishing that I had some refreshment. I had taken what I thought might be a shortcut over a field on which there was a clear walking path and found myself under the shade of several large trees behind which there was quite a pretty thatched roof house. I sat on a large stone and tried to recovery my strength when a head popped suddenly over the hedge.
“What are you doing there?” the head asked. The head belonged to a hearty-looking grey haired woman. She was broad-shouldered and looked as though she had grown up working the land.
I mumbled a short reply that I was just resting my legs and would be shortly on my way. Her appearance and voice made me think that she was not happy to see me there and felt, perhaps that I was invading her privacy. I was surprised when she began suddenly to smile.
“You look absolutely exhausted,” she said sympathetically, “you must come in for a cup of tea and something sweet.” Given my recent frame of mind, I was understandably shocked by this sudden turn of events. But her invitation was entirely genuine and I soon found myself sitting in a pleasant little garden sipping tea with this woman and hearing stories about her children and cats. She was a genuinely ‘nice’ woman who had no ulterior motive in offering me her hospitality. This confused me greatly. Later in the afternoon her son arrived and gave me a ride back into town.
When I was walking into my house I looked briefly across the street and saw a large, offensive piece of graffiti scrawled across the wall of the woman across the street.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Colonialism, Afghanistan and human rights....

I have opposed Western involvement in Afghanistan from the beginning because like almost every Western military escapade, the motivation here is about money and power. In this case it is specifically about the control of oil resources in western Asia. Of course Western powers put an entirely expected spin on this military adventure, suggesting at first that it was because we needed to put an end to terrorist training camps. This appears to have been a simple straight-forward lie – there were only a handful of insurgents in Afghanistan and these were Kashmir separatists. Then the standard line was that we were saving the people (particularly the women) from the Taliban. Anyone who has been paying attention to this situation knows that this has never been true. Western governments said shamefully little about the condition of women in Afghanistan before the invasion. Furthermore, for the past six years or so we have been propping up a hopelessly corrupt government in Afghanistan which has shown time and again that it has no genuine interest in human rights. Homosexuality has been a criminal offence in Afghanistan punishable by death while we have been touting our defense of the poor Afghans. Now the situation has been made clear by the recent institution of sharia law for some citizens of Afghanistan. This legislation would essentially legalize marital rape and control women’s lives in horrible ways. The Harper and Obama governments have made a bunch of noise about this but really they are just hoping that it will fade away and they can continue with their neo-colonial agenda unfettered. The truth is that once again US and Canadian soldiers are dying for Wall St. and oil companies and their families appear on television and radio calling their fallen relatives “Heroes” because if they faced up to the reality it would just be too horrible to contemplate. The West continues on with the same agenda it has been pursuing for years: kill, control, and colonize and wrap it all up in a flag of altruism.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Shelley strikes again....

I was looking through Shelley's The Revolt of Islam yesterday and in the Preface, written by himself, Shelley was talking about the effect of the French Revolution in his own time. Not only are his words pertinent to what I have been posting lately concerning the Romantics and the events in France, but, if you just change the proper nouns, it is very reminiscent of what we are experiencing today. (Some of us more cynical people may wonder a little at the last little spot of optimism at the end but otherwise Shelley's words still inform today)

“But, on the first reverses of hope in the progress of French liberty, the sanguine eagerness for good overleaped the solution of these questions, and for a time extinguished itself in the unexpectedness of their result. Thus, many of the most ardent and tender-hearted of the worshippers of public good have been morally ruined by what a partial flimpse of the events they deplored  appeared to show as the melancholy desolation of all their cherished hopes. Hence gloom and misanthropy have become the characteristics of the age in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair. This influence has tainted the literature of the age with the hopelessness, of the minds from which it flows. Metaphysics, and inquires into moral and political science, have become little else than vain attempts to revive exploded superstitions, or sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus, calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind into a security everlasting triumph. Our works of fiction and poetry have been overshadowed by the same infectious gloom. But mankind appear to me to be emerging from their trance. I am aware, methinks, of a slow, gradual, silent change.” 

Very interesting would you agree?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Coleridge, Conservatives, and Meritocracy

Continuing on with the themes that I have been addressing lately, I was recently reading a very interesting book by Mario Praz,  a Italian scholar of English Romanticism, entitled The Hero In Eclipse In Victorian Literature. He has an interesting discourse concerning the move of the first generation of Romantic from a radical to a conservative paradigm. Much has been made out of this issue over the years. But while I agree that Wordsworth and Southey clearly turned into conservatives, I have always been reluctant to make the same judgment concerning Coleridge. (As indeed other writers have. Basil Wiley for example contended that Coleridge was the precursor to modern ‘socialism’ or the welfare state) 

I have thought a lot about why I think Coleridge is different from many of his contemporaries. Like many of his peers, Coleridge harbored a great deal of fear concerning the threat of the mob which was so evident in the years after the Revolution in France. But fear of violence does not a conservative make. But this begs the question, or course, ‘what constitutes a conservative?’ I have thought about this question in relation to a thinker and poet like Coleridge and it is a very interesting problem. In the end I have concluded that Coleridge may have believed that social change should be gradual and that the there is a certain amount to be feared from revolutionary upheavals, but this didn’t make him a conservative. What really constitutes a conservative in the modern era (and by this I mean the post-enlightenment), is a belief, often hidden or unspoken, that the world is essentially a meritocracy.

 There are various breeds of conservative ideology but I think the vast majority of conservatives share this basic outlook, even if they are reluctant to admit it in public. Some conservatives will pay lip-service to different programs of equalization but in the end they really think that people are where they are because of their merit. Coleridge wasn’t’ a conservative because he never embraced this notion. Coleridge, perhaps because of his own weaknesses, recognized that there are many reasons that one might achieve above or below their possible merit. This also explains why many people become more conservative as they get older; because as they reach a certain level of achievement they are easily convinced that it is precisely their merit that has taken them there. This is exactly why Southey and Wordsworth, Coleridge’s friends and contemporaries became conservatives, while Coleridge himself did not. This ideology is more easily embraced in a modern democracy because there is less in the way of traditional power and tradition that keeps people from achieving their goals. However, what non-conservatives realize is that in a milieu of democracy and capitalism, it is one’s ability to sell oneself, regardless of actual ability in one’s field, that brings you to ‘success’ in our society. One could be the greatest piano player in world, for example, but without the right sales and or connections, all this merit will be for naught. But conservatives want us to believe, particularly in today’s context, that even if some are born with more wealth than others, we all basically have the same opportunities and if we ‘make’ it or fail to ‘make’ it, it is our merit that counts. And conservatives have managed to sell this fabrication well enough that they can even begin to chip away at programs that help to eliminate barriers to success because so many are convinced that we are already operating in a meritocracy so we don’t need, unions, women’s rights organizations, legal defense funds to challenge potentially discriminatory laws, free universal education, etc, etc. Of course, one might argue that men like Stephen Harper, for example, don’t really believe that we live in a meritocracy but that they are using this falsehood to sell their capitalist agenda. Perhaps, but this is neither here nor there. The fact is that many people do buy this ideology and it has become the cornerstone of much of what constitutes conservative ideology. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Comparing the Ages

Following up on the subject of the Romanticism and the French Revolution which I touched upon yesterday - These are subject which are close to my heart and should, I believe, be more widely known and discussed because they are remarkably instructive as well as just plain fascinating. One of the interesting aspects of the events that followed the French Revolution is the strange similarity his has to our own times. The Revolution in France ushered in a terrific sense of optimism throughout Europe in people who  had grown extremely weary of the terrible injustice which so endemic to European society. Writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, and even Joseph Priestly had generated strong feelings toward a ‘natural’ sense of equality and justice which, in large part due to the strong resistance on the part of the ruling-class, eventually erupted into the uncontrollable anger of the events in France. In England the feelings of ‘leveling’ gave weight to a generation of writers and activists like Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, William Blake, and the members of the London Corresponding Society.  This radicalism was relatively short lived however as the events in France seemed to spin increasingly out of control. Anti-Jacobin groups emerged all over  Britain and the Government passed various laws to make suppression of dissent easier.

These events were very similar to the mood in the West in the decades after the ‘socialist’ revolutions  in the 20th century. A  genuine space was opened up in which reformers could call for more transparency, more democracy, and more socially responsible policy making. Governments reacted much the way William Pitt’s government had in the 1790s, with paranoia and suppression of dissent. J. Edgar Hoover was the Lord Castlereagh of the 20th century. With the apparent failure of the socialist projects real economic and social reform seemed impossible in the 1990s in the same way that reform was anathema in the decades after the French Revolution. Reform took ages. Universal Male suffrage which had emerged in 1792 in France took another 60 years to return. And the vote for women was still generations away. But the feelings of reform in Britain might be said to have turned inward into the literary struggles of the Romantics. Coleridge and Wordsworth may have abandoned reform but it was taken up again in the poetry of Shelley and Byron. Romanticism carried the mantle of reform until the Victorian writers began to make reform and the condition of the working-class  a fundamental part of their literary project.

So where are we today? The final failure of the neo-conservative project that began in the Reagan years seems to have once again opened up a space socialist types of reforms. At the very least, faith in the market has been badly shaken. However, we seem to live in a age of cynicism and there is very little of the Romantic idealism around in our time. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a Neo-Victorian sense of practical reform. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Passion, Romanticism, and the Imagination

The conservative ideology that came up against Romanticism, and the revolutions that accompanied it, was in part inspired by the fear that the ‘people’ were going to becomes slaves to their passions. Men like Edmund Burke were terrified that the “swinish multitude” (as he refered to the people)  were inherently less civilized and if given the opportunity to release their passions then society would regress into chaos. Conservative ideologists believed that the events of France confirmed their worst fears as the terror shattered the country and thousands fell victim to the dreaded guillotine.  As a result of a conservative backlash, radicalism largely died out in Britain during the course of the 1790s as even the Romantics began to fear an expansionist France. Some radicals, like John Thelwall and William Hazlitt went to great lengths to point out that the Revolution was pushed into its terrible excesses by the pressure put on it by other European powers, and there is certainly some merit in this position. And of course, the conservative forces overlooked the fact that the so-called ‘civilized’ classes had always been and continued to be brutal and blood-thirsty, and their power was not based on the fact that they were civilized and controlled their passions but was founded in their sadism and selfishness. A Romantic might argue that it was the repressed and perverted passions of the ruling class that had always been the problem, and at some level I think this is true. I believe that a central core of Romanticism is the idea that if we are properly in touch with our passions we will be enriched and empowered rather than turned into slaves. If we can embrace our positive passions in the context of genuinely ethical and loving behavior,  we will enrich ourselves beyond our sometimes prosaic imaginations. Meanwhile, the conservative ideology continues to operate in the realm of egoism in which the positive passions are repressed and their exuberant energy is given over to destructive partisanship and  self-aggrandizement.

To thirst and find no fill - to wail and wander

With short unsteady steps - to pause and ponder - 

To feel the blood run through the veins and tingle

Where busy thought and blind sensation mingle;

To nurse the image of unfelt caresses

Till dim imagination just possesses

The half-created shadow.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Childhood Innocence

I was looking through some photos yesterday and came across one of the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) which is supposed to be a monument to all those who died in the civil war in Spain but is actually more of a tribute to Franco who is buried there. It was constructed by the forced labor of Republicans who fought against fascism and now stands as a sort of de facto declaration that Spain has never really come to terms with its Fascist past. It is depressing that while a brutal murderer like Franco still lies in an honored place, those who really fought and died for freedom remain in such obscurity.

This reminded me of a funny anecdote that I once read concerning the illimitable Charles Lamb. It seems that when Charles was a young boy he was walking through the churchyard with his sister Mary who was some ten years his senior. Charles was reading the gravestones which praised and lauded each person who was buried there. He innocently asked his older sister ;“Mary, where are all the naughty people buried?” 

By the way, for those who want to see where Charles Lamb (who was not naughty at all) is buried, see this link

Monday, April 6, 2009

Poetry and Coincidence

I forgot to add something to my last posting. While taking a virtual tour along Bunhill Row outside of Bunhill Fields Cemetery, I recalled that Milton himself lived along Bunhill Row. And just around the coner, now in the midst of the Barbican Housing estate, is the the Church of St. Giles (without Cripplegate)where the great poet is buried. This, one of the oldest churches in London, was my grandfather's parish church and the place where my parents were married in 1963. Now the funny coincidence is that one of Milton's other favored homes was a cottage in the small town of Chalfont St. Giles where he spent time trying to escape the plague. And this is the town where I was born. Before I knew these facts I became interested in the remarkable poetry of Milton. 

Poetic Relief

By way of relief from my last posting and from the general state of things which has been less than ideal, I return to the world of poetry. And let's face it, we could all use a little (or a lot) more poetry in our lives. 

My dad was born in tenement buildings in Errol Street in central London. The buildings were sponsored by George Peabody, a philanthropist who had buildings constructed all over London for the working poor. The other day I was using Google street view and I could look at the actual building where my dad was born. And as I was virtually driving around my dad's neighbourhood in London, I went by Bunhill Fields grave yard which you can just see a small portion of on Google. Then it occurred to me that this is the site where William Blake is buried. It is not known for certain the location of his grave but there is a marker that was put in later to honor this great poet. And a perfect place to see it is one of my favorite web sites called Poet's Graves. This is a great site that I recommend
because you can find all sorts of interesting facts and photos. It seems morbid at first 
thought but it really is kind of comforting to see that there are others out there who
also honor the great voices of poetic language. Its nice to know one is not entirely alone
in a rather harsh world. Take a quick look at the grave of your favorite poet and
remember the great power of language and love.

Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert -
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art


Mr. Dziekanski and the Police state

I'd like to get back to the issue of poetry and art, and I promise that I will in my next posting. But I just need to say a few words about recent events at the Braidwood Inquiry. 

Anyone who has been watching the probe into Robert Dziekanski’s death must surely be disgusted and not a little bit afraid. The fear is rooted in the realization that we are living very close to the edge of a police state. The RCMP officers who murdered Mr. Dziekanski could have gotten away with anything if the video of the event had not existed. As it is the RCMP attempted to keep the video tape and had to be ordered by the court to give it back. Before the tape surfaced the officers responsible fabricated all sorts of lies about what Dziekanski was doing before his death; attacking them wildly waving a stapler over his head in a threatening manner etc. And they would have been believed. Now they have been forced to recant their stories but their superiors are still defending them and they will not be charged with wrong doing. Aparently any kind of corrupt is just rewarded by the RCMP. Even the former commissioner of the force, Giuliano  Zaccardelli was involved in a number of atrocious scandals but he is now an official with Interpol while he should probably be sitting in a cell somewhere. But the reason that there is no political will to deal with this crime and corruption from our national police force is that this is how police states work; the police do what they want and are not properly held to account. And remember in 2006 when Zaccerdelli and his cohorts released details about an investigation into Minister Goodale in the middle of an election? This was against their own rules and a direct attempt to influence a federal election (an attempt that worked by the way). IF the RCMP can kill innocent immigrants and influence Federal elections, how safe are we from the arbitrary power that is wielded at the whim of the State’s power? 

Friday, April 3, 2009

100th Posting ...

I cant believe that I have written one hundred blog postings. Looking past on the ninty-nine postings that I have put on my Blog in the past months, I realize that, though the thoughts seems scattered and sometimes arbitrary, there is some sense of theme, at least in my mind. We are very near, I believe, a genuine crisis in our culture. Our aesthetic lives seem uncentered and floating as the economy floats into a self-made oblivion. I object to the colonization of every part of our lives by a mindless technocracy and have been working on these blogs wondering how we are to add aethetic wonder back into our world.

What would Dickens make of London today? Could it be 'his' London or only a facsimile? I have walked the streets of London dozens of times - down past Buckingham Palace and into Trafalgar Square - and it could never maintain an aura through the relentless drive of capitalist uniformity and the veil of gray painted by the era of Thatcherism. If the aura of an object or a work of art is the external emanation of a channel into an ideal universe (a utopia), then a world without these auras is no more than an alien force that, with a daunting spirit, dominates us. In the absence of conduits to utopia, our environment appears increasingly and hopelessly out of control. And the search for these conduits is a driving force behind creative desires. Perhaps in the face of a world out of control, the creative drive compels many to construct a utopia of their own. In 1958 the Italian architect Tomaso Buzzi (1900-1981) began work on a Utopian center intended to be a retreat for artists and actors. In the absence of auras, people like Tomaso are driven to create environments of total auras. Simon Rodia, a poor laborer, spent 33 years building the extraordinary Watts Towers. As an immigrant and itinerant worker, Rodia must have felt like an alien in a world almost impossible to control. But with little money and using mostly discarded 'junk,' Rodia built a fantasy world, a city of his very own.
What a wonderful need, to add color to a world painted gray. If you can't make the world you own, create your own world. If reality hangs around your neck like chains, create your own utopia out of the raw material around you. Consider the buses of Central America and the Philippines - brightly decorated with personal paraphernalia and wonderful colors. The world may be painted grey but the buses can be rainbows.
Must our strength be the strength of stones?

Some days my hope is gone, other days I can just about grasp genuine optimism.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Our Amusing Selves...

In Book Two of The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes –

At times we need to have a rest from ourselves by looking at and down at ourselves and, from an artistic distance, laughing at ourselves or crying at ourselves, we have to discover the hero no less thn the fool in our passion for knowledge; we must now and then be pleased about our folly in order to be able to stay pleased about our wisdom! And precisely because we are at bottom grave and serious human beings and more weights than human beings, nothing does us as much good as the fool’s cap: we need it against ourselves – we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we lose that freedom over things that our ideal demands of us.

I very useful insight in this, an age of cynicism, wouldn’t you say? 

Hello to the Working-Class

People tend to think that class is no longer an issue in Western Capitalism. This is in part a result of the gradual disappearance of large-scale industrial jobs in which lots of people are gathered together on a factory floor where they naturally create a solidarity that leads to what they used to call ‘working-class consciousness.’ But ‘working-class’ should not be confused with ‘middle-class.’ This distinction comes from an old notion of the ‘Bourgeoisie’ being different class. But this ancient distinction is really no longer very meaningful. Arguably, there is as large a percentage of ‘working-class’ people as there ever was. The majority of people still have very little control over what kind of work they do, they age highly dependent upon a large corporation or a small business which they do not own and, though they are more comfortable in their daily lives, they are still just as much pawns in a economic system over which they have little or no influence. But more importantly government and business in the West is still just as actively undermining the power and influence of working people, trying to make sure that workers are not empowered to significantly influence the systems of power and production.


If you doubt this just look at the pattern of the bailout packages in the US. For many years the government and business has been attempting to reduce the influence of Unions and in particular the auto-workers union which has been one of the few realms of continuing union influence. Now look at the auto-industry bailout: it has been relatively small compared to the other US bailouts and has come with specific strings about reducing the wages and pensions of the auto-workers. And when they were perceived as not doing enough Barack Obama fired the CEO of GM. On the other hand the bailouts for Wall St, (Banks, Traders, and Insurers) has been HUGE in comparison and came with almost NO strings attached! With the exception of the AIG situation (which only become an issue because of a couple of news stories), big bonuses continue to be paid out (without public attention) to the wealthy and their lifestyle is being carefully guarded by the government of Obama. While auto-workers will end up with significantly reduced wages and a weakened bargaining position for the coming generation, with reduced pensions and compromised health and futures, the power of Wall Street will go merrily on and the wealthy who control it will use billions of tax dollars (mostly paid by working people) and they will enrich their lives and their futures.

Meanwhile there is a real irony going on in London at the G20. The supposed right-wing governments of Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, are actually trying to bring more regulation to the banking, trading, and insurance system, while Obama and Gordon Brown, (who are supposed to be more ‘Liberal’) are arguing for only modest regulation and lots more bailout money, much of which will end up in the hands of the rich. Anyone who thought Obama was going to represent real reform now must surely see that he represents Wall Street more than the Working people. And anyone who thinks Class is no longer meaningful is not paying attention.