Friday, May 17, 2013

Thanks for the Support and please read my new Blog. . .

I would like to thank everyone for the remarkable and surprising support. It is heartening. Rather ironic to stop posting on the very week in which occurs what is arguably the biggest (as in most public) ethical scandal to clearly involve the Prime Minister.

Anyway, for a while I am going to turn my attentions away from politics and to one of my other interests, literature. I am going to start a new blog entitled Footnotes; Adventures in 19th Century Literature. You can see it here. Please visit me there if you have literary interests. (I hope to start posting at the end of the weekend) Well, Marx retreated into the British Museum after the disappointing events of 1848. I am no Marx and my personal library pales in comparison to the British Museum but it will be my own small retreat.

I have two books that I am just finishing on 19th century literature  one is about Mary and Charles Lamb and the other is a biography of Mary Mitford. But I hope to use my new blog to develop ideas for a longterm project on the large tapestry of interconnected friendship that existed between the authors of the English Romantic period. It is something I have been working on little by little over the past few years and I will continue to explore on my blog as the project slowly coalesces.

As for politics, I am sure I will explode back into this more political blog sometime in the not too distant future.

Thanks again for all the support.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Farewell to You All, I just Can't Do it Anymore. . . .

I have always been something of a reluctant warrior for the left. My reluctance was not motivated by lack of belief in principles because I really believe that corporatism and the rightwing ideology are spectacularly wrong and will lead to nothing but disaster. Furthermore, I believe that the only way forward for our race and our planet is a genuine pursuit of greater cooperation and equality. But my reluctance was motivated by the early realization that the majority of people not only tolerate their own exploitation and oppression, but they actually seem to revel in it. For reasons that I am sure I will never understand, the majority of people seem to actively court their own exploitation and want to cede power to those who will keep most people poor and powerless. And even when people work together to make things better, as when they form unions, they are surprisingly quick to create institutional frameworks that further solidify structural inequalities and  hierarchies.

Of course, on the other side of the argument, there has always been an indispensable group of tireless activists who have pushed back the tentacles of power and the only reason that we have any justice and generalized prosperity is because of these activists who have dragged the world forward despite the stupidity and reluctance of the majority.

But I feel like I have been fighting for a long time and on days like this I am looking into an abyss of depression and desperation. At least for now, I don't think I can fight any more. In my dark moments I just think that most people are stupid and probably deserve to be exploited and oppressed. If they can't act in their own interest (as the rich and powerful do all the time), I have to ask myself why I should bother.

With this in mind, I leave the rest of you to it, and wish you good luck. I am done.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Guatemalan Dictators, and Brutes of our Own. . . .

Yesterday the former dictator of Guatemala, Efrain Montt, was convicted of 80 years in prison for Genocide. The sentence is, in a sense symbolic considering that Mr. Montt is now 86 years old and very unlikely to survive any significant time in prison. But the sentence is interesting at least because it is one of the very few examples in which a nation is actually trying to come to grips with its fascist past. The sad fact is that Guatemala has seen a string of dictators and brutal militarists (the current president was an military officer under the Montt regime). Central America (and Latin America in general) is awash with former dictators and political murderers, almost none of which have been brought to justice. In 1954 the CIA orchestrated a coup in Guatemala and in 1973 they orchestrated another in Chili. But few (and certainly no one in the US) has ever been properly brought to account for these events. The sad truth is that Montt is a drop in the bucket.

As the years have past I have come to realize that, for the most part, nations really don't really want to come to terms with their past. Nations (and nationalists) want to wave flags and sing anthems and are very good at ignoring the negative aspects of their country's past. I was shocked with I visited Spain with my partner (who was born and raised there) and realized that not only was it a country that had not come to terms with the fascism of the Franco but the country is full of young people who think he was a pretty good guy. If good ol' George Santayana was right, then counties that fail to come to grips with their past are in real danger of slipping back into the fascism that their country once embraced.

I grew up amid the Watergate scandal and as I have gotten older I have been amazed at the way that people in the US have gradually rebuilt the public image of Richard Nixon. Now, as countries go, the US is surely one of the most rabidly nationalistic and as a result even the so-called left in the US is not eager to keep the memories of Nixon's crimes in the public mind because they feel that it hurts the nation in general. A couple of nations (including South Africa and El Salvador) have used national reconciliation commissions in an attempt to come to grips with their past while avoiding the logistical mess of bringing potentially tens of thousands of people to justice. But it seems almost that, as a general rule, countries want to ignore the anti-democratic, brutal, dictatorial elements in their past. And in many cases they are inclined to even vocal defend such misdeeds. (I think that there is little question that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney could, and should, have been brought up on charges of crime against humanity be we all knew that wouldn't happen.) It is not just that the victors write history but nationalists and so-called patriots simply don't want the "wrong" kind of history written.

And the saddest part of all is that Montt, his supporters (and his ilk elsewhere) actually believe that their crimes against humanity were not crimes in the first place, but that their deeds were harsh but necessary.

This brings us to our own dear leader. As far as I am concerned, Stephen Harper is a criminal. He has actively contravened the constitution, he has operated through electoral fraud, he has attempted to dismantle our democratic institutions, he is destroying the environment in ways that will be a terrible burden on future generations, and he has poisoned the political discourse in Canada to a degree from which it may never recover. But despite the fact that Harper makes the previous Liberal government (which he never tires of condemning) like a bunch of honest and honourable public servants, a good swath of Harper supporters believe that ANYTHING Harper does is justifiable and continue to hold to the untenable postion that he is an excellent Prime Minister.

I have no sympathy for a brute like Efrain Montt. But the truth is that this 86 year old man is little more than a scapegoat, a meaningless symbol for people to hold on to as though dictators and brutes really are held responsible for their murderous and anti-democratic past. As a general rule they aren't and perhaps never will be.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

E.V. Lucas and the Gradual decline of the Book. . . .

One of my very favorite writers is an obscure Englishman named Edward Verrall Lucas, usually known in print simply as E.V. Lucas. Lucas was the author of over a hundred and thirty books, a few of which are novels and biographies, many collections of essays, and quite a few excellent compilations of poetry and letters. Lucas was born in the Victorian Era but he lived well into the 20th century, making him one of those charming writers who bridged two very distinct eras, the first one the age of railways and second the age of World Wars. But to the end of his life Lucas retained the quiet charm of an older, quieter time and his work has an understated agreeableness and the occasional moment of real wisdom. I came to Lucas through my interest in Charles Lamb. Lucas wrote what is perhaps the quintessential biography of the great Lamb and it is worth reading for anyone who is interested in the literature of the Romantic era.

Near the very end of his life Lucas wrote a memoir of his literary interests entitled Reading, Writing, and Remembering. It is a remarkable work because even though Lucas was not a member of the upper-class and did not enjoy a classical Oxbridge education, the was not only amazingly well-read but he came to be personally acquainted with a surprising number of important writers of his time. One of the interesting aspects of this memoir is that even though it was written in the 1930s, Lucas was already mourning the decline of the book. Lucas writes "it is amazing how little the public desire to possess books. I am not referring to novels, which for the most part are designed to beguile only for a few hours and are thus fittingly enough obtained through circulating libraries; I mean the books to which one would like to return. As a case in point, I will take my own compilation of the flower of other minds, The Open Road, and I take it, I hope without offence, because it has been the most popular of my works. Since its publication in 1899, between eighty and ninety thousand copies have been sold. Glancing casually at a really successful book, the A B C Railway Guide, I note that the population of Wigan is 85, 357; so that the complete issue of The Open Road to date could be swallowed up in that one not very large town and not a single copy be left for the rest fo the world. The moral is, I fear, that if an author wants to be read, he must write for the Press." (p. 130) Now, in todays market (which has a much larger population than in Lucas' time) most writers would be thrilled to sell eighty or ninety thousand books in their whole career, let alone for one volume. But Lucas saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, and knew how things were unfolding. "Perhaps," he continues, "the habit of buying books will come back; but I wonder. The book has so many enemies, or at any rate, rivals, today. First and foremost, the newspapers and weekly papers, which do so much of the book's work; then the B.B.C., which saves one the trouble of reading. These are the competitors; the actual foes are the theatre, the cinema, bridge, dancing and the late William Willett." (Ibid., Willett was a man who became famous for the promotion of Daylight Saving Time in Britain) Though the competitors and foes to reading have changed considerably since Lucas' time, he was anticipating a serious change in culture. It is interesting to see a man who died when my own father was only six year old, complain about the slow death of the book.

On the other hand, some things don't seem to change. Lucas would eventually become the chief editor of the Methuen Publishing company, but in the last years of the 19th century he was still an aspiring writer. His first important commission came from George Smith (of Smith Elder) who invited him to compile a book about Bernard Barton, also known as the Quaker Poet, who had been a personal friend of Charles Lamb and whose daughter married the writer Edward Fitzgerald, a man who become known for being the first to translate Omar Khayyam into English. However, when Lucas was invited to write the book, George Smith asked him to write it for absolutely no money. Smith's actual phrase was "Silver and gold I have none." Needless to say, Lucas was bewildered by this invitation. He knew how much time and research was involved in such a task and he was also bemused that such a successful publisher would attempt to commission such a work gratis. "I was shocked," Lucas wrote, "to find such an attitude in an office which had done not so badly out of Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë, and whose head, George Smith, could from his own pocket finance that magnificent work, the Dictionary of National Biography, to which I am so devoted that I have had portable cases made fro the India-paper edition and never travel without them." It is, indeed, remarkable to think that one of England's most successful publisher would, at the beginning of the real golden age of books, attempt to convince a young writer to take up a major piece of research and writing with absolutely no renumeration.

All of this suggests to me that despite the many remarkable and best-selling books that we have seen over the past two-hundred and fifty years or so, books, as a cultural and economic phenomenon, have never really been on a sure footing. Remember this, books had long been the domain of the aristocracy and the leisure classes, and at the height of the Romantic period in Britain, only a handful of people made a decent living exclusively from writing books. The most successful writers of books at the time were Scott and Byron, both of whom were not forced to write by economic circumstances. For the most part the only writers who were making good livings were those who were writing for the ever increasing number of magazines and papers. Even Robert Southey, poet laureate and originator of the Three Bears fable, secured his living through continually writing for these periodical outlets. Of course, the number of books and writers increased as the middle-class grew and people looked for new forms of entertainment to fill their free time. But with the exception of a handful of very successful authors, writers have always been a bit like the early baseball players in the US; a group of people who did it for the love of the game, got paid nearly nothing while the team owners made fortunes. Meanwhile, the competitors and foes of books have only continued to multiply and have now reached ridiculous proportions.

Debate still rages as to whether a digital file that we read on a screen can ever really constitute a "book" in a meaningful sense. And the jury is still out on whether so-called 'print on demand' will breath new life into the ever beleaguered book. But the one thing that the memoir of E.V. Lucas has reminded me of is that in a world of many possible outlets and stimulations, the book has always been on the ropes, so to speak.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Shine is Coming off. . . .

The embarrassing attack by the HarperCons on any kind of thought and refection reached the height of folly this past couple of weeks and it seems to demonstrate a faltering government which seems to be incredulous at the thought that they will eventually lose power. First we have Harper's bizarre attack on reason in which he makes a clearly intentional linguistic association between sociology and criminal activity. Then came the embarrassing pontifications by Harper's pathetic lap-dog Poillivire in which he stood in the House and disparaged the very notion of intellectualism, and where he tried to replace argument with tautology by telling us over and over that the only cause of terrorism is terrorists.

Ok, so we have known for a while that this government hates facts. Facts can make certain kinds of policy seem necessary and prudent, and those policies might not reflect your ideological bent. The obvious solution? Close down all aspects of government which investigate facts in any vaguely objective sense, disparage all intellectualism and vaguely scientific ideas, promote a kind of old-fashioned (frighteningly crude) know-nothingism of the down-home rural kind, and then rule by constant appeals to fear. It is, if you will pardon the rather weary comparison, a classic fascist strategy. Fear sometimes works. But it usually has a fairly short shelf-life. People grow tired, and they eventually begin to want real answers. And the classic rural know-nothingism in which people eschew intellectuals has a limited scope of voters.

However, here is the dilemma facing the HarperCons. They have constructed their entire political identity around this fear and know-nothingism. They have lost sight of real old-fashioned policy-making in which people look at what is going on, look at possible solutions, and then sit down and get to work. When you function in a top-down dictatorial way for too long, the very notion of discourse, flexibility, solution-finding, and cooperation becomes foreign to you. In other words, you begin to believe your own BS until you can no longer function in any interactive way. This is precisely  what has happened to the HarperCons. They have promoted fear and ignorance so long, they have been so bellicose and hateful for so many years, they have spit bile at any and all opponents for long that they have lost sight of functioning as a normal political unit. In other words, the HarperCons have made a fatal political mistake - they have mistaken rule by fear and know-nothingism not as a political strategy but as real life. They have shouted for so long that they can't hear themselves (or anyone else) think. And so they continue to imagine that all they have to do is shout louder and more virulently and everyone will fall into line.

"Make some ads showing Trudeau dancing and takes some quotes out of context and we will be popular again," the war-room Tories say. And when it doesn't work they are incredulous. "Call our opponents some more names," they must be saying, "people will like us again."

But the shelf-life on their fear and hate is running out and they are familiar with no other strategy. They don't know how to intelligently engage potential voters with real policies or ideas because they have purged their party of anyone who ever had a real idea or any real integrity. Remember that fateful moment when Edward R. Murrow took down Senator Joseph McCarthy? The dreaded Senator McCarthy was a one-trick pony. He knew only fear and he depended on it for compliance. When the great Mr. Murrow metaphorically stripped McCarthy bare there was nothing there but a sad man yelling at a world that wouldn't listen. The only thing that made McCarthy anything was that he intimidated people and sewed fear into the hearts of a gullible nation. Once that was gone and people realized he was nothing but bluster, he became little more than a tragicomic figure.

And so it is quickly becoming with the HarperCons. They are yelling and poking fun at their new perceived opponent but people aren't listening. And because this is all they know, their only option is to yell louder and with more pathetic displays of school-yard obsession. And like all autocrats, Harper has now settled into power and even he cannot see that his constant barrage of scandals are piling up to rob him of all credibility, even from his core. "We lost three billion . . . . so what, we are still good money managers." Like all autocrats, Harper's ego has gotten so big that he simply cannot imagine a time when he is not absolute ruler of all he purveys. So he frets and fusses and when the emperor's clothes are finally gone, he won't have so much as a bath robe with which to cover up his long record of complete failure. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Smoke and Mirrors of Environmental Destruction. . .

It has always been obvious to anyone who pays attention to such matters that the Harper Party has, from its inceptions, orchestrated an all out attack on environmental regulations in an effort to create a third-world style petro-state. A central part of the HarperCon effort has been to remove the public profile of environmental issue so that as they eliminate regulations and become an international pariah and embarrassment on the environmental front, there is as little public discourse as possible on climate change and the other effects of an all-out corporate-oil economy. Muzzling scientists has been an important aspect of this strategy. The process is pretty simple; the less scientists talk about the negative environmental impacts of HarperCon policy, the less the media writes about the issue and the less people talk about such things in the public sphere. 

Of course, such a strategy is about message control and the real impacts of Harper's irresponsibility on the environmental file seethes and percolates beneath the surface. At some level Harper and his mutant dalek minions must surely know that there is no possibility of ultimate victory. In the end the environment will deteriorate, and the real impact of a carbon economy will be evident for all (even the blindly partisan) to see. The effects of Harper's environmental irresponsibility will cost our children many billions of dollars, generations of ill-health, and may in the end be irreversible. Even with a remarkable degree of media recalcitrance, the issues still burst out into the public sphere in dribs and drabs. But the destruction goes merrily on. 

But to the HarperCons all this is immaterial because they are not looking for 'ultimate' victory. They know that this is not possible because just as John Baird is a pompous  ignorant wind-bag, and Jim Flaherty is an incompetent buffoon, nature will catch up with the HarperCons and the effects of the carbon economy will be felt. You see, the goal of the Harper Party is essentially short term. While they know that they will be unable to keep the charade up forever, they also know that the longer they can hide the environmental destructiveness of the policies from the public the more money they can make for their friends in the oil corporations. They are not unlike a child who is pilfering cookies from the cookie jar while their parents are busy with something else. The kid knows that someone will eventually notice that the cookie supply is dwindling, but in the meantime the cookies are yummy and irresistible. Similarly, every time the HarperCons can muzzle a scientist, close a study facility, get rid of a regulation that protects our air, land, and water, the more time the corporations have to make a few bucks. So what if our kids die of cancer, our crops fail, our flora and fauna die off. By the time the citizens notice all of this the Conservatives who wreaked this havoc and destruction will either be dead or retired, and someone else will have to clean up the mess, literally.