Saturday, October 29, 2011

Whither the Arts?

Though I am closing in on fifty, by today's standards I know that I am not old. But of course, like many people in this age, the degree to which many aspects of society have changed, can make me feel rather older than my years. And it is not just the computer revolution and the end of so-called "communism" that make me feel a lot older than, say, a twenty-five year old who doesn't really remember the Soviet Union or a time before personal computers. But over and above the huge technological and political changes that have occurred over the past forty years, I believe I have seen a fundamental cultural shift relating to our aesthetic experience. Specifically the close of the 20th century witnessed the death (or dying process) of our traditional art forms, including painting, the novel, theatre, and to a certain degree much of what we know as music.

The explanation for this rather significant claim would, of course, take a great deal more space than what we have on a blog. But given enough space and time, I believe the claim is perfectly demonstrable and therefore justifiable. In the fifties Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a book that is seldom read today entitled Search for a Method. This book was intended as a conceptual introduction to his Critique of Dialectical Reason, a book that for most philosophers was never able to live up to the promise of its title. Anyway, Sartre's most interesting claim Search for a Method was the claim that there is basically only one living philosophy at any given time. Of course for Sartre the "living" philosophy (and keep in mind that this was written in the 1950s) was Marxism and that any anti-Marxist argument was, at best, a pre-Marxist argument. Though today Sartre's argument has a distinct subtext of Ethno-centrism, at the time (before the real linguistic turn in philosophy had taken effect) Sartre had a very good point. What interests me about Sartre's argument though is the degree to which it points to the "living" aspect of a philosophy. At the risk of paraphrasing a philosopher considerably more brilliant than I, Sartre was suggesting that a philosophy was only "living" during the period that other philosophies had not surpassed it and it still was central to the way that we define and understand our experience at the meta-social level. Now, obviously this is an extremely truncated argument that could fill an entire book. There are many potential points of argument but I think this sums it up enough that my handful of readers out there will get the point. For me Sartre's argument became important because I applied it to the life and death of art forms. Art forms are "living" while other art forms have not significantly surpassed them, while they still have new things to say, and while they continue to express and influence the ways we define ourselves as a society. It is by these standards that I believe the significant art forms of the past have. . . . well .. . . passed away. In the early twentieth century the Surrealists attempted to shift the way we look at visual and written art work. They tried to kill the novel because they essentially thought it was a dead art form. The story of the relationship between the Surrealists and the novel is a long and complex one, but I believe that men like Andre Breton and his various followers in the literary movement of Surrealism had a lot to say to us about literature. But people were not really listening because there continued to be a significant profit in the bourgeois novel and the "literary industry" was bound to keep it alive. I have said before, and received much abuse and derision for the claim, that the novel as an art form reaches its apex around the time of Proust. Proust took the psychological aspect of the bourgeois art form of the novel to it complete and somewhat ridiculous conclusion. After the era of the Surrealists and Proust, I think the novel is just in the period of denouement, if you will pardon the expression. (Though I think one can mount an argument that so-called Magic Realism and some science fiction such as the work of Samuel Delany,  are genuine steps in the development of the novel) But in general I think all the art forms that were still so important at the beginning of the 20th century were more or less deceased by the beginning of the 21st century. Not only have the models and markets changed, but technology has rendered the old art forms largely mute.

When I was silly enough to talk about these things in public, people usually reacted to these claims with a pretentious smirk as though to say that either I had no idea what I was talking about or that if I were an artist or a writer I would know better. Of course, I am now both a professional writer and painter and I am more convinced than ever that my opinion on this matter is correct. I have my own personal reasons for being an artist and a writer and it doesn't really trouble me that traditional arts form have largely died. I can live with the status of being an anachronism. But the university educated, cultural consumers of any age are loath to give up their traditional art forms because it is these that they believe separate them from the hoi polloi. These people would never, of course, admit that a major aspect of their attachment to certain art forms is actually a way to express their elitism. Many of them consider themselves enlightened and even leftwing and they sit in their well-decorated, intercity, red-brick houses reading novels that 90 percent of people couldn't care less about and they secretly love the status that they believe themselves to possess. But really they are just feeding on the corpse of a bygone era.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Looming Crisis. . . . .

Every instinct I have suggests to me that we are entering a time of a crisis of capital similar in form, if not content, to the crisis that gripped it in the nineteen thirties. Just as the depression in the thirties was brought on in part by the over-confidence and irresponsibility of the capitalist elite, this crisis is rooted in the same kind of problem. Globalization of capital and industry, the radical expansion of corporate profits, the growth of extreme and lopsided wealth of the top 10 or twenty percent, the stagnation of real wages for the vast majority, the manner in which large corporations act outside the law in many nations, put together these factors suggest a coming crisis. Of course, the necessary incendiary ingredient is dissatisfaction of the people at large. While the wealth of the corporation and the economic elite is skyrocketing, governments are pleading poverty and everywhere people are being asked to give up their pensions, decent wages, and any sense of security. People may be easy to con when they are feeling ok about things, but they will not be such obedient sheep when they are pushed into more poverty and insecurity.

Marx pointed out that a socio-economic system nurtures the system that will eventually come after it. At the present moment in history even a genuine capitalist must understand that international corporate capitalism is headed for a major problem if its leaders don't begin to ensure a greater distribution of wealth and system that makes people feel as though they are not simply the play-things of corporate power.

Unfortunately, a society's elite seldom sees a crisis coming and seldom gives up any of their power and wealth voluntarily. We shall see.

Letter to Rob F***king Ford. . . . .

Hello Mayor Rob F***King Ford,

Yesterday you released a statement  concerning the incident in which a great Canadian comedian attempted to have you take part in a time honoured tradition in Canadian Television. In your statement you said you called the police because you were "attacked" in your driveway.

Well Mr. Ford, since you don't seem to know what the word "attacked" actually means I thought I would assist you with a couple of visual aids.

Mr. Ford, this is what it looks like when you are being attacked.

This, on the other hand, is not what it looks like when you are being attacked - 

Of course, Mr. Ford, since there is clearly a smile on your face in this picture, I suspect you really know the difference between being attacked and not being attacked. 

And since you have so much experience in verbally attacking and abusing others, the whole matter is actually very clear to you. Suddenly the overbaring, glib, bully of a man desperately wants us to see him as a victim because when you are out of your comfort zone you are actually a petty, cowardly little man who fears, perhaps more than anything, being questioned about your public persona. 

And that, Mr. Ford is, as they say, that. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Abusive Behaviour and the Mayor of Toronto. . . . .

Can anyone out there seriously say that they are surprised by Robert Ford's abuse of the hardworking 911 operators? After all, we knew what kind of man Mr. Ford was before he was elected to be Mayor of Toronto. Ford is a self-absorbed, bully of a man who seeks for recognition by attempting to make people afraid of him, by belittling others in order to compensate for his own shortcomings as a man and a human-being. People who lack compassion and genuine human feeling find it difficult to comprehend why people do not conform to their wants and desires, somewhere deep inside them they are frustrated by their own lack of human connection and the only way that their truncated souls can react to their frustration is to lash out in an, often futile, attempt to force others to conform to their will. Lacking a basic level of humanity, these sad individuals are vaguely aware of their shortcomings and the only way that they can deal with it is by attempting to lower others through violence (verbal and physical), thus attempting to trick their psyche into believing that they are superior to those around them. This is central to Mr. Ford's behaviour at all times, as it is with so many rightwing politicians. This is why the natural consequence of a certain brand of rightwing politics is fascism. Stephen Harper is a similar man to Robert Ford, though with a considerably greater degree of self-control. Such men (and occasionally women) are not connected to other human beings at a basic emotional level and therefore the only thing that they can understand is control. And, of course, lacking empathy, such people are very seldom able to form meaningful alliances or create significant loyalty from others. If your modus operandi is power and abusive control, people only care about you to the degree that you can wield power or use your power to assist them in some way. In other words, to borrow from Kant, if you treat people as a means to an end, they will treat you the same way. This is why such autocratic leaders so often fall suddenly and inauspiciously - because once power is gone they have nothing, and no one to depend upon.

In Ottawa we had a mayor with a similar style to Mr. Ford, though not quite as bad or obtuse. Mayor O'Brian went down to ignominious defeat because he didn't how to deal with people at a basic human level. He was able to use his self-centred, abusive style to gain success in the business world so he assumed that it would translate directly into the job of mayor. Mr. Ford had a certain degree of success as a councilman because in this position he didn't depend on the goodwill of his coworkers - he could be the squeaky door of the council, gaining attention and bemusement as he went. But when you put such a man in a position of significant power, it is a disaster waiting to happen. I wouldn't be surprised if Ford fails to complete his time in office because at some point his abusive ego will carry him too far. Mr. Harper will go the same way at some point and history will judge him very badly. When I was young I said it about Nixon, in the 80s I said it about Thatcher and Mulroney, and I say the same about Ford and Harper. Unfortunately this abusive, philistine, angry personality sometimes carries people to power and maintains them there for a while. But it almost always ends badly. And it is not just an issue of right and left wing. Take John Tory in Ontario for example. I disagree with most, if not all, of Mr. Tory's ideological beliefs. But he treats people with a significant degree of respect, listens to the arguments of others, and doesn't depend upon abusive power-mongering to stake out his beliefs in the public realm. Of course, just as abuse can lead people to power, respectable behaviour can prevent you from gaining power. However, while John Tory still has the respect of his allies and his opponents, Mr. Ford is quickly losing the respect of everyone.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

NDP Blogging site goes Offline. . . .

I was very sorry to see the NDP Bloggers site go off line. It seems odd that at a time when the NDP has never been stronger, their primary online voice has been silenced. If I were a conspiracy minded person I would say that insiders at the NDP, such as those that might favor the victory of one of the two most high-profile candidates, have intentionally put a stop to it. The good thing about the NDP Bloggers site was that it was an independent voice of fellow travellers and in a leadership race many of the bloggers were looking at alternatives to Mulcair and Topp. Not that I think the bloggers were necessarily going to make a big difference in which leader got elected, but it is one more area of debate that has been closed down in the lead up to the vote.

It seems strange that the Liberals who have a fraction of the seats in the House of Commons  can maintain a very strong internet blogging site but the NDP, as soon as it gets close to power, suddenly cannot. Coincidence? I find it difficult to believe. It will definitely be harder to get a sense of what people who are sympathetic to the NDP are thinking.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Karzai's Rejection and Geo-Politics. . . . .

Well the chances of a war between the US and Pakistan are probably considerably less than zero percent. However, those ridiculously long odd do nothing to dampen the supreme irony and humor in the recent revelation of Afghanistan's President Karzai that if such a war were to erupt, Afghanistan would be squarely on the side of it's neighbouring Islamic nation against the world's only so-called 'super-power.'  One cannot help but wonder how this revelation must play in mainstream America among those poor ignorant souls who bought into the neo-colonial spin, so prevalent in the US and elsewhere, that the invasion of Afghanistan was an act of benevolence, or at the very least 'self-defence.' History will, of course, read it differently. All colonial efforts, whether traditional or economic, are accompanied by some grand narrative of benevolence and defence. The real motivations of such efforts are, of course, geo-political power and economic interest. But to the average American (or Canadian for that matter) who doesn't understand the complex economic and political issues behind the spin, Mr. Karzai's words must send their heads reeling. For most Americans, steeped as they are in the professional ignorance peddled by Fox News and friends, this must sound like Charles De Gualle telling the New York Times that he would support Hitler after D Day. Of course the comparison would be specious but this is the kind of thing that goes on inside the head of people that fail to take a realistic view of geo-politics.

The reason that Karzai would say that he would, in a conflict situation, come to the aid (however minimal it would be) of Pakistan against the US is that the United States never built up any so-called 'good-will' in Afghanistan, whether among the people in general or the brutal tribal lords who still govern the nation. For all its fancy, completely fictional, spin, the US's invasion of  Afghanistan was part of a multi-pronged effort at consolidating its waning power in West Asia and the Middle East and to entrench the dominance of weapons and security corporations within the United States, a symbiotic relationship that was coming under threat with the end of the Cold War. Year in and year out, the lion's share of US federal spending finds its way, through one door or another, into the pockets of Weapons producers or private security companies. The American establishment knew that this relationship had become tentative an increasingly difficult to justify during the 1990s but the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq  made this huge transfer of cash from average tax-payers to large corporations once again unquestionable. However, like most colonial or neo-colonial powers, the US forgot basic lessons of the past and failed to maintain good-will with those on whom their basic geo-political plan depended. In other words, as is their history, they didn't take care of 'the people,' but they also failed, as they once did so effectively, to establish an adequate strong-arm regime on who they could depend for blind obedience. In the long run this means real trouble for the US as their global power slowly dissipates and their ability to compel nations to do their bidding with their economic power disappears.

 For example, for several generations the US has had a vested interest in conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This is because while the Palestinians pose no real threat to the US or Israel, the conflict gives the US government a ready-made excuse for the billions and billions that it gives to Israel, thus further justifying their militarist economy. But Mr. Karzai's rather blatant rejection of the US in the recent interview, suggests that time is running out for the US and its Allies; they are gradually losing their grip on their once unquestioned global dominance, but they are also running out of the economic clout to enforce their control. Unless they fundamentally change their basic strategy the US will gradually lose its ability to maintain any serious control over any country and they will be forced either into an extreme fascist reaction or a new conciliatory policy that looks for peace and economic cooperation. If Mr. Karzai is any indication of their job so far, the US, and the West in general, is in serious trouble.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rowland Hill and the Modern Struggle. . . . .

I bet you have never heard of Rowland Hill. Like so many important reformers, Mr. Hill has faded into partial obscurity and only those interested in 19th century English history will have run into his name. But it is a prestigious name and one worth knowing. Hill was a teacher, inventor, and social reformer who was born in 1795 and died in 1879. Hill's father, Thomas Wright Hill, was an educator from Worcestershire and was a personal friend of Joseph Priestly, Thomas Paine, and Richard Price. As an educator Rowland Hill set up his own school in Birmingham which gained international fame. Hill was one of the first major educators to insist that encouragement and gentleness in education was not only more humane but also would, in the long run, be more efficacious.

Hill was obsessed by the shortcomings in the English postal system and he spent years attempting to create a model for reform of the system. Hill understood two central shortcomings of the post. Most importantly, he thought that it was far too expensive and inefficient both for the personal interests of British People and for the interests of the British economy. Before Hill's reforms many of the letters that were sent in England went by so-called 'franks' which was essentially a system of free postage used by MPs, Lords, and other government officials. Letters were so expensive to send that fraud was widespread and people would even resort to sending c.o.d. letters to loved ones with nothing in them, after which the loved one would refuse delivery, in a kind of system of secret message letting people know all was well. Hill understood that the difficulty that people experienced in contacting family members was not only a major emotional hardship but it made them reluctant to travel, lest they lose contact with loved ones. Hill also understood that not only were the franks costing the government money and resources, but exorbitant postal costs were standing in the way of business.

As they always are, the Tories were reactionary and shortsighted and under Prime Ministers Peel and Wellington, Hill's plans were resisted and attacked. But with the help of Melbourne (and eventually Lord John Russell) Hill's plans for an inexpensive, nationally organized postal system with one penny stamps was adopted. Russell made Hill the Secretary of the Post Office and he was knighted in turn. Perhaps most significantly, Hill is usually credited with the invention of the postage stamp. Though it took many years after Hill's plans were enacted for the Post Office to begin to make as much revenue as they had before, Hill's plans modernized the Postal System and not only helped individuals but actually helped modernize the British economy.

Like most reformers, Hill was attacked at every turn by myopic conservatives who cared nothing for people or for more generalized prosperity, but only cared for their own power and privilege. But Hill would not be turned aside and his determination should be celebrated and admired. Twenty years from now when our education system is defunct, our economy is entirely owned by foreign corporations, there are few or no family farms left, there is no public pensions system, remember the determination of Rowland Hill. We are going to need a dose of it ourselves.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chinese Toddlers and Keeping Hope Alive. . .

All my life people close to me have tried to buoy my spirits and convince me that human society isn't really that bad. And I have always tried, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Jackson, to keep hope alive. After all, I recognize that I have been very lucky in life; I have been able to devote my life to art and writing, I have had people in my life that I loved and that have loved me back. And I have always maintained a firm belief in socialist politics because I think that society should exist for the benefit of all and that the only hope for our race is that we take care of each other.

All that said, it is sometimes difficult to "keep hope alive," don't you think? Everyone knows the story now of the little girl in China who was run over by a car in a market and had to just lay there on the street while no one came to her aid. Another truck event ran over her again as she lay there, it slowed down as though it was going over a speed bump. I have seen the event on video and it is unbelievable, startling, and ultimately profoundly saddening. How does one come to grips with such an event? It happened thousands of miles away to a little girl that I don't know and will never know. However, somehow watching those people who casually walked around and stepped over a small, dying, little toddler has made it just a little more difficult for me to maintain the faith that we all require to go on.

(An important post-script to the story of the little dying toddler; after 19 people went by without even bothering to stop and help the dying girl, the person who did finally stop was a very poor old woman who ekes out a meager living collect junk form the city's trash. Why does it not surprise me that it was the poorest of the poor who stooped to help a child?)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm?

We know for certain that the Conservative crime bill will not reduce crime. We know for certain that it will cost billions of dollars. In every culturally similar context, efforts to reduce crime by putting more people in prison, even where that system of incarceration attempts to include rehabilitation programs, does nothing to reduce crime (in many cases it increases crime) and raises costs by so much that eventually it threatens the jurisdiction with bankruptcy. Prisons are a way for the state to spend billions in the creation of a criminal training programe.

And the evidence against Harper and his fascist cohorts is mounting everyday, and now even Texas has lined up against our Government's program. So we have to ask ourselves, 'why does this government want to spend billions of dollars on something that they know won't reduce crime, may actually increase criminal activity, and will eventually threaten the country with bankruptcy?' I believe that the answer is fairly clear; the Conservatives want to bankrupt the state, pure and simple. And the reason that they seek to bankrupt the nation is that it will eventually destroy social programs, the thing that Conservatives despise the most. For many years crime rates were going down, literacy rates were falling, social programs were keeping people from starvation and total desperation. But Conservatives hate government sponsored social programs so much that they would do anything to destroy them, even send the country into bankruptcy. The only kind of government program the conservatives want to maintain are those that take money from the people and put it in the hands of corporations and the rich.

Of course, all of this begs another question; why do conservative leaders want people to be poor and uneducated? Well, for the same reason that the rich and powerful have always wanted the people to be poor and uneducated - because they are easier to control. When great English reformers, such as Samuel Whitbread and Lord Erskine, actively advocated for nationally sponsored, primary education, Tories argued against them in the House of Commons by essentially maintaining that if you gave the working-class education they would only become dissatisfied with their place in society and would demand more from life. Most conservatives essentially believe that they will be part of the wealthy elite and the last thing they want is a society in which everyone has an education and a basic level of income because they want to be able to use their wealth to wield power over others, it is their way of feeling better about themselves and convincing themselves that their power is a result of their merit. This problem goes back centuries. The Catholic Church and the leaders of European feudalism actively kept people ignorant and hungry because they knew that such people were easier to control. In many countries during the age of the slave-trade, it was illegal to teach slaves to read because even slave-owners knew that knowledge is power.

The equation is simple; spend bilions on useless aspects of the police state, gradually bankrupt the state and have a ready made excuse to take money out of health, education, and other social programs, end up with an ignorant, hungry, desperate population that will do what they are told.

So next time you scratch your head in exasperation at the apparent stupidity of the Conservative effort to spend billions building more prisons, just remember it is not that they don't understand the facts, it is because they want an ignorant, desperate, hungry, population that understands that they should obey their economic masters. That is what it is all about.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Our Casino Economy. . .

Today, in response to a question, the interim leader of the NDP vaguely floated the idea of capping the salaries of CEOs in private corporations. Needless to say, rightwingers jumped on the idea and branded it some kind of crazy communist notion. It is, of course, not a particularly radical idea. In theory, we cap the minimum salary in our society to ensure that no one is too poor; it is not a wild idea that we could cap the upper end of salaries to ensure that no one is too rich. Now even though I don't agree with the rightwingers that this idea is radically leftwing, I agree that it is not a particularly substantive idea. Such a move would do little or nothing to actually address the real problems of poverty and inequality in society and would largely be a purely optical policy.

But the rightwing has bigger problems when we, as a society, begin to talk about issues of poverty, inequality, and a democratic deficit. The problems are that a) the rightwing, generally speaking, doesn't actually want to address these issues. Rightwingers are generally ignorant enough to believe that the inequalities in society are a result of a meritocracy and that these inequalities reflect what is basically a real inequality between people's value and abilities. Thus attempting to address these inequalities is perceive, by many on the right, to be morally objectionable. People's wealth, they figure, reflects their ability and therefore, that is the way it should be. b)the continuation of policies that ensure corporate wealth and maintain a system whereby the wealthy are the only ones that can get decent educations continues a system of inequality that the right basically believe should exist. c) The rightwing is entirely aware that any real moves toward genuine democracy would undermine the social and economic relations that they hope to maintain. and, perhaps most importantly, d) any solution that we offer in public discourse, no matter how modest, that attempts to deal with a society of radical inequality will be condemned by the right as a wacko, leftwing, nutbar idea.

The fact is that capping CEO salaries will do little to address our social problems. We live in a society where large corporations earn billions in profit while paying little or no tax. This is true of the US, Canada, and most of the Western world. And while they earn billions and billions in profit, more and more people are falling into poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and complete desperation. The only way to address this issue is to force corporations wherever they operate to pay proper taxes and reinvest in communities. Furthermore, we need to begin to put an end to currency speculation and market futures. We need to tax all financial transactions (the so-called Tobin Tax) and bring the casino economy to an end. Then we need to invest properly in education so that everyone has a good chance to enrich their life and create a guaranteed income program. Though this list is not exhaustive, it is only through such efforts that the inequality that has inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement will begin to be solved. But for all the rightwing condemnation of the NDP and its radical solutions, none of these things are even on the table. But just as the ignorance and arrogance of the French Aristocracy led to the Revolution in 1789, so the ignorance and arrogance of today's capitalist elite will lead to conflagration.

The reality is that our society has become like a person addicted to gambling with all the same negative effects on a grand scale. Its time to put a stop to the massive system of legalized gambling and create a society which serves all of our needs. Pure and Simple.

Feeling that Absence. . . . .

Though it seems as though my father died only yesterday, it has been over a year now. I guess it has taken me a while to really understand why his death has been so devastating for me. I understand the grieving process as explained by so-called experts, though I must admit that I am not particularly impressed with the idea of reducing human emotions to an external forumla. But regardless of the expectations of the 'normal' grieving process, the death of my father goes far beyond a simple process of grief. It has taken a bite out of me and I know I will never 'recover' from it.

My father and I were closer than any father and son I have ever met. Part of this was simply because my parents were divorced when I was seven and I lived with my father in a separate country from my mother and my sister. We became even closer when I started very young to pursue a career in art and I eventually attended the Alberta College of Art where my dad taught for twenty years. After I graduated from Art College, my father and I regularly worked together in a professional capacity as well as constantly supporting each other in the personal development of our art work. For most of my years as an adult I lived with my father, even when I was married and had a child.

All of these elements of our relationship suggest an unusual closeness. However, it was a different aspect of our relationship that made my father and I exceptionally close, and that is that we were misfits in the world together. I have been a misfit since I was a child. I have never fit in anywhere that I have been. I began to have what might be considered "mental problems" from a young age and I was never able to 'fit in' anywhere. I have had friends but very few close ones. Art and Literature were fitting pursuits for me because one can disappear into a separate reality and society's expectations of you are very different from people in the 'normal' working world. My political, ideological, and aesthetic beliefs are so alien from the vast majority of people that I feel out of place with my own species. But all my life, my father and I could relate to each other. He was, in his own way, a real misfit. He grew up in a very working-class environment, but was determined to live a very different life from his father. He dropped out of school when he was 14 and did dozens of different jobs, eventually ending up in art college. Even as an artist, my dad did many different jobs and the only place he came close to 'fitting in' was as a teacher. But together, my father and I understood each other's alienation from society and our friendship was one of the only places that I felt as though, even though I am a misfit, I was somewhat at ease. Even when he was very sick, my dad and I could laugh together and sometimes it felt as though it was worth living just for those moments in which I didn't feel so separated from the world.

I am sure that it sounds like self-pity, and perhaps there is a significant element of that in my recent experiences. But without my dad I feel a whole lot more separated from the world in which I live. He is sorely missed.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Just a Thought. . . .

A Sunday morning thought from my favorite writer.

"It is indeed time that a stand was made against the pedantic and prosaic tyranny of orthography." 
                                                               -E.V. Lucas

Saturday, October 15, 2011

For the Benefit of All . . . . .

I have spent years studying the complex, so-called neo-modern, continental philosophies which, in recent years, have blown away a great deal of traditional rational, teleological, analytical, meta-theoretical ideas. And I have a great deal of respect for many remarkable neo-modern thinkers like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Gayatri Spivak.

And yet, at another level, I think the questions of practical political philosophy is much simpler than many make it out to be. I think that there is one basic reason for society and that is mutual benefit. If society is not a structure that is intended to create mutual benefit, then I really see little justification for it. This, in simplest terms, is why I am, and have always been, a socialist. My grandfather was a founding member of the English Communist Party and spent 20 years as a shop stewart for the local of his engineer's union in London. He and his associates fought hard to ensure the rights that we all take for granted today. He worked as an activist because he believed that society should exist to ensure that everyone has a fair share in its benefits, not only a select few. Rightwingers and capitalist have told me since I was a child that the only reasonable motive for human ambition is personal financial gain. But the example that my grandfather set taught me that this simply wasn't true and all my life I have observed that the lion's share of people work continuously and tirelessly for the benefit of others.

Some people talk about the "occupy Wall Street" crowd as being a bunch of nut-bars with no direction and no purpose. But they possess the simplest of all purposes, to wit: a society that exists for the benefit of everyone, in which we are all stakeholders in a common future, in which the weak and vulnerable are given a voice, in which poetry matters as much as interest rates, in which we all belong and none are excluded, and in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than their gender, their color, or their sexual preference.

"Let us live for the beauty of our own reality."
                                 -Charles Lamb

Friday, October 14, 2011

The LPC discussion. . . . .

In recent days a lot of people in the media have been discussing the supposed immanent demise of the LPC. Some people are predicting the end of the Party while many Liberals, predictably, are telling the pundits that a great new Liberal future is ahead. Such political predictions are, of course, notoriously difficult even for the most experienced political observers. Political fortunes can, after all, change radically in no time at all, and what seemed imposible yesterday seems like conventional wisdom today.

I don't really want to weigh in on these predictions because I think the political landscape, despite what was actually a slim majority for the Tory government, is in a state of flux. Not only could economic conditions force change on many governments, but it really seems like people are waking to the fact that Western electorates have been sold a whole series of lies about how modern capitalism is working or is supposed to work.

However, I will say this about the recent discussion over the future of the Liberal Party. Everywhere I look, with few exceptions, Liberal themselves don't seem to recognize that their party has to change a great deal. Many Liberals continue to act as though they just have a 'natural' right to govern and they just have to wait and people will come flocking back to the Party eventually. But it seems to me that the Liberal Party of Canada has really lost its core support because its core support consisted largely of people who wanted to see a genuine social democracy in which all citizens were stakeholders and there was a real social safety net for all citizens. But though the Liberals continued to attempt to endorse traditionally Liberal ideas like universal childcare, for example, on the economic front they became a party that bought the neo-conservative ideas about corporate tax cuts and corporate power. Traditionally the LPC attracted great portions of each new generation because young people saw that social democracy and capitalism with a human face was what the party stood for. But we now live in an "occupy Wall Street" generation; a generation in which an increasing number of people not only feel that the power in society is lopsided but that it is time for a real change. The Liberal Party establishment just doesn't seem to understand this at all, they continue to be a party of corporate tax cuts and corporate power, and as such I just don't see how they come back. Luckily in Canada we have a party that stands, at least to some degree, against the out of control corporate ideology of the Liberal and Conservative Parties. In the US voters have no such advantage and so they are just giving up in droves, and that is a recipe for revolution.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Waiting for the Great Leap Forward. . . . .

I don't think that there can be any doubt that there is a mood change taking place in Western Democracies. It has taken a long time but I have no doubt now that it is happening. Just as the 'progressive movement,' which took place around a hundred year ago, reacted to the growing power of corporations, people are once again reacting to a system which is essentially broken. For a generation now, the rightwing has been spinning the tale that society cannot afford to give everyone a decent pension or keep the elderly out of poverty, they have been telling us that we have to tighten our belts and do the bidding of the multi-national corporations, all the while the corporations have been making ever greater profits and the richest group in society are just getting richer. But people are beginning to wake up. People who have to work two jobs just to get by, people with good educations who have little or no hope of ever reaching the level of prosperity that their parents enjoyed, the millions of unemployed and underemployed are waking up to the criminal activities of the banks, the financiers, and the industrialists. People are waking up to a very simple fact; we are not here to serve the economy, but the economy is here to serve us! And if it is not serving our needs, then we, the people, are going to change it. Marx used a very good word to describe the idea that somehow the economic system functions beyond the purview of human activities and social relations; the word is reification. But people are realizing that far from functioning like a ghost in the machine, the economy is being purposively run by a small group of people in their own interests and beyond the rule of law. Smart, traditional capitalists, of course, have always understood the dangers inherent in the ideology of neo-conservatism which ignores the basic principle of social responsibility. A smart capitalist like, say, Warren Buffett, knows that if you let money rule the system with no sense of cultural or human responsibility, you are headed for disaster. Just has Joseph Schumpeter reminded us that we must create an economic system 'as if people matter,' people everywhere have realized that the Kevin O'Leary's of the world are touting an inhuman ideology which will end in social, economic, environmental, and human disaster.

Many of us have been patiently waiting for the great leap forward, and though it might not happen tomorrow or even next year, I can feel the change pulsing through the viens of people everywhere.

Lyrics to Billy Bragg's Waiting for the Great Leap Forward. (These are the original lyrics from the album Worker's Playtime, but Bragg changes them each time he sings them.)

It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline
But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline
Fidel Castro's brother spies a rich lady who's crying
Over luxury's disappointment
So he walks over and he's trying
To sympathize with her, but he thinks that he should warn her
That the third world is just around the corner.
In the Soviet Union a scientist is blinded
By the resumption of nuclear testing and he is reminded
That Dr. Robert Oppenheimer's optimism fell
At the first hurdle.
In the Cheese pavilions and the only noise I hear
Is the sound of people stacking chairs and mopping up spilt beer
And someone asking questions and basking in the light
Of the fifteen fame-filled minutes of the fanzine writer.
Mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is,
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses,
While looking down the corridor to where the van is waiting
I'm looking for the great leap forward!
Jumble sales are organized and pamphlets have been posted,
Even after closing time there's still parties to be hosted,
You can be active with the activists or sleeping with the sleepers
While you're waiting for the Great Leap Forward.
One leap forward, two leaps back
Will politics give me the sack?
Here comes the future and you can't run from it
If you've got a black list I want to be on it.
It's a mighty long way down rock and roll
From the top of the pops to drawing the dole
If no one out there understands,
Start your own revolution and cut out the middleman.
In a perfect world we'd all sing in tune
But this is reality so give me some room!
So join the struggle while you may
The revolution is just a T-shirt way!
Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.

(Thanks Billy)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid. . . . .

Anyone who is concerned with their basic democratic and human rights should be deeply concerned about how the Canadian government is acting toward unions and labor disputes. Collective bargaining has long been recognized as a fundamental human right and is essential to the working of any free and democratic society. The power relations between workers and employers dramatically favors, in capitalist societies, employers, particularly in a context of globalization. This inequality of power becomes deeply problematic when, as presently prevails, large corporations (particularly financial institutions) are able to operate more and more outside of the law and governments (also often operating outside of the law) begin to favor employers.  The Harper government has demonstrated that it is willing to abuse the law in order to undermine the basic rights of collective bargaining. It did so earlier this year when it imposed a settlement on the Postal Workers that was a clear violation of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of HEU vs The Province of British Columbia. Now they are abusing the law by using the Canada Industrial Relations Board to actually prevent a strike at Air Canada. If an employer wants a service to be deemed essential and therefore out of the purview of possible strike action, they need to give 15 days notice and then an essential services contract is supposed to be negotiated between the parties. In basic violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the law, the Harper Government is attempting to use the CIRB to postpone a strike just long enough so that they can introduce back to work legislation before a strike even takes place.

Other than basic legal fairness, the reason that such tactics should concern everyone, and not just those who are presently facing contract negotiations, is that the power relations are slowly being tipped such that people's rights can slowly be eroded until you live in a third world economy of sweatshops and maquiladoras. Keep in mind that the flight attendants at Air Canada are NOT employees of the government, they are employees of a private corporation. The fact that the Government can take away their rights and legislate them back to work means de facto that none of us has any real rights to speak of.  If we let the government take away the basic rights of collective bargaining, legislate private workers back to work and impose settlements on employees of private corporations, this means it can happen to ANYONE. It means that the government, in the abstract "national interest," can come to your workplace and tell you how much you can be paid and what hours you have to work, etc, etc. These were some of the first basic steps taken by fascist governments in the 1930s.

Until we stand up for basic rights like collective bargaining, all of our rights are at risk. All of your basic human rights owe something to the Labor movement and our neglect of labor rights will see all of those rights eventually taken away. I would say "bank on it" if the banks weren't part of the problem!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My Book finally Published. . . . .

Well, it was a long wait, but my book is finally out. I wrote two complete books and and about halfway through a third since the publishing process began for this book. The editor of the publisher, Cape Breton University Press, quoted Stuart Mclean and said to me "while we may not be fast, we're slow." But it is finally done and it feels good to have it done. It was a bitter-sweet moment to see it in print because, though the whole project began with a bet with my father, he didn't live to see the published book. I suppose that evoke a fitting feeling of melancholy for someone who is writing about Charles Lamb - one of the great melancholics of English Literature.

For those who don't know, the book is entitled Humble Men in Company: The Unlikely Friendship between Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is published by Cape Breton University Press but it can also be ordered at Nimbus Publishing and at

It was a great experience writing a book about Charles Lamb, a man who Thackeray referred to as St. Charles for his charm, wit, humor, and sense of wonder.

Cairo with my book.

"Lawyers were, I suppose, children once." 
                                          - Charles Lamb

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Right-wing Economic Ignorance. . . . .

The issues surrounding the Vancouver 'safe injection site' are actually an excellent illustration of what is wrong with right-wing ideology here and abroad. I have heard right-winger continually criticize Insite because it is a "waste of taxpayer's money." This is, of course, a deeply disingenuous argument. For every dollar that a provincial government spends on a safe injection site they stand to save up to ten times that amount in other costs including basic health-care monies, long-term care costs, as well as costs relating to various criminal activities. And since safe injection site have demonstrated increases in people looking for help overcoming addiction, the longterm savings overall could be massive. There are, of course, many other reasons to support safe injection programs based on moral or compassionate grounds. But one would think that right-wingers would, for all their lack of morality and compassion, at least be able to understand the economic arguments.

But the truth is that, herein lies the rub. The right-wing seldom, in fact understands economic arguments despite the fact that they claim fiscal awareness as central to their political ideology. I have seen a number of studies, for example, that demonstrate that for every dollar governments take out of programs such as community centres or criminal rehabilitation programs, the government spends three or four dollars on that part of the justice system that deals with enforcement and incarceration. It is not complicated and yet right-wingers such as those in the Harper government pull money out of community programs and rehabilitation programs and pour billions into enforcement and prisons which overall actually increase crime and cost so much more.

At a larger scale many right-wingers don't seem to comprehend the issue of economies of scale. If you fund a school system properly, for example, from a central location it is much less costly than if you download those costs to smaller and smaller bodies, eventually into the hands of parents. When the Harris Government in Ontario, for example, took huge amounts of money out of education in Ontario, we spent twice as much just on school fees and supplies than any of the Conservative tax cuts ever gave us. The reason is pretty simple; it costs me a lot more to go buy a few supplies than it does a school board to buy them in bulk.

Now raise this problem with right-wing thinking to a much wider scale. The right-wing everywhere fails to understand that if you continue to encourage a society in which bankers make billions and billions and average people feel more and more squeezed you will eventually have a social deficit which will lead to one of two things; total social breakdown or genuine political revolution. Look at the present Wall Street protests. This is precisely the kind of social movement that will eventually lead to revolution in a country like the US. While corporations and the financial sector has never made more money, average people are suffering more and more. Seventy years ago, FDR understood this at a basic level. He knew that unless the average people had a meaningful stake in their society revolution would be the result. One needn't be a radical socialist to understand that stakeholders are what a society needs.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Politics of Hate and Anger. . . . .

I don't know if I am just getting old and being nostalgic about the past but it seems to me that politics is certainly gotten nasty over the years. Perhaps it is thanks to men like Karl Rove whose political style has gotten so popular with political parties everywhere. But I think part of it is that in the past thirty years or so we, as a culture, have made issues such as domestic violence and bullying very important, so the fact that our politicians are still making a culture of hate, anger, and bullying part of their political MO makes such behaviour in our political discourse seem particularly noticeable and nasty. What are we to tell our children about the proper modes of behaviour when the behaviour of our own political leaders is so rife with name-calling, dishonesty, lack of accountability, and bullying? And what is the point of running programs in our schools that suggest that violence is not the way to solve conflicts when our political leaders, (particularly right-wing ones) seem to still exist in a milieu of the 19th century old West?

Watching the Ontario elections which are just wrapping up now, I have been disappointed by the Tea Party style of the Progressive Conservative Party in particular which has run a nasty campaign which has revolved around almost pure negativity (with the exception of one rather corny ad about Hudak's "family values"). But I saw ad after ad, day in and day out in which the PCs relentlessly attacked the Liberal Party and its leader in a distinctly mean and misleading fashion. I don't think there is anything dishonest about highlighting a government's tax policies by drawing attention to so major taxation legislation that the government enacted. But there is something distinctly dishonest about making those pieces of legislation the cornerstone of your campaign when you have vowed to maintain those very policies. This dishonesty is compounded when the last time your party was in power it left a huge (unrevealed) deficit during times of prosperity with which the incoming government was forced to contend. Now, I am not a big fan of Mr. Mcguinty, in large part because he failed to change the terrible education funding formula that the last PC government had instituted and which has been terrible for the students of Ontario, and because he has not addressed the near crisis in Ontario universities and colleges. But the dishonest attacks on Mr. Mcguinty brings the entire political system into disrepute, lowers the discourse of politics, and serves to alienate more people from democracy.

This is not to say that the Ontario Liberals have been immune from negative politics during this campaign. Though the LPO ran a largely positive campaign, their attacks on the NDP have been distinctly dishonest. Their attempts to show some kind of kinship between the Ontario NDP leader and Tim Hudak, when they know that no such kinship exists, is just Karl Rove politics all over. They have made a big issue of telling people that the Ontario NDP have voted the same way as the Conservatives many times. But of course they know, as does anyone who understands parliamentary politics, that such voting does not reflect some implicit agreement between the two opposition parties on substantive matters of policy. Andrea Horwath has indeed voted against a number of progressive policies that one would assume that the NDP would support. But this happens in all parliaments with all parties because governments nowadays love to write large pieces of so-called omnibus legislation which contain many pieces of legislation that should, if one pursues politics honestly, be separated. In many cases governments do this precisely because they know that an opposition party will vote against the legislation and that this issue can be used against that party in a future election. If an opposition party likes some piece of, say, childcare funding that is in a bill that also includes huge pieces of legislation that that opposition party also opposes, then they are obviously bound to oppose it, and it is wrong to then use that vote to suggest that the opposition party opposes childcare funding. The Liberal Party of Ontario has done this throughout the campaign and it is a tactic that is straight out of the Conservative handbook.

There is a serious disconnect between our modern, and important, focus on civility and the terrible consequences of bully and violence on the one hand, and the tenor of political debate in this country on the other hand. I learned a long time ago when I was living in El Salvador that abstract political goals about making the world a better and more just place mean absolutely nothing unless they become an integral part of our personal behaviour. Until politicians are willing to act in an honest and upright manner then all their talk amounts to little more than hot air and empty promises. And the parents who refuse to tolerate, cheating in the classroom, bullying in the schools and violence on the playground should refuse to accept such behaviour from their politicians. The biggest problem is, of course, that many people have rejected modern politics by staying at home during elections and this speaks to a crisis in democracy itself. Until we begin to resolve these issues, then our "democracy" will not deserve that title of honour.