03/21/13

Understanding the Municipal Act


Among the many pieces of legislation, bylaws and policies that guide and inform municipal councils in Ontario, the Municipal Act is the most important.* This 238-page, 140,000-word, 474-section document covers most of the things that govern municipal councils:

  • powers,
  • duties,
  • highways,
  • public utilities,
  • waste management,
  • fences and signs,
  • animals,
  • economic development,
  • environment, licensing,
  • municipal reorganization,
  • municipal service boards,
  • BIAs,
  • boards and committees,
  • integrity commissioners,
  • transparency,
  • open and in-camera meetings,
  • financial administration,
  • taxation,
  • fees,
  • bylaw enforcement,
  • bonusing.

…and many other topics. Clearly a document of this size and scope requires more than one reading to grasp. Some areas do not arise often during a term or may not be relevant to the particular municipality. However, every municipality needs a legal adviser and a clerk familiar with the Act.

Some sections refer to other Acts rather than providing direct guidance – conflict of interest, highways and libraries, for example.

It’s a pretty dry document, and dense enough that it’s good to have a guide to condense it, as well as a book or two or three to explain some of the more obscure or subtle points.

Before anyone serves on council, or comments on issues of municipal governance, he or she really needs to understand the Act, how it currently defines and establishes governance, as well as how it relates to other legislation. Disliking or disagreeing with a decision does not mean the process has done improperly or incorrectly.

For example, here are the roles of council as the Act stipulates:

Role of council
224. It is the role of council,
(a) to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality;
(b) to develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality;
(c) to determine which services the municipality provides;
(d) to ensure that administrative policies, practices and procedures and controllership policies, practices and procedures are in place to implement the decisions of council;
(d.1) to ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of the municipality, including the activities of the senior management of the municipality;
(e) to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality; and
(f) to carry out the duties of council under this or any other Act. 2001, c. 25, s. 224; 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 99.

The head of council, or mayor, has two sections that define his or her responsibilities:

Role of head of council
225. It is the role of the head of council,
(a) to act as chief executive officer of the municipality;
(b) to preside over council meetings so that its business can be carried out efficiently and effectively;
(c) to provide leadership to the council;
(c.1) without limiting clause (c), to provide information and recommendations to the council with respect to the role of council described in clauses 224 (d) and (d.1);
(d) to represent the municipality at official functions; and
(e) to carry out the duties of the head of council under this or any other Act. 2001, c. 25, s. 225; 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 100.

and this:

226.1 As chief executive officer of a municipality, the head of council shall,
(a) uphold and promote the purposes of the municipality;
(b) promote public involvement in the municipality’s activities;
(c) act as the representative of the municipality both within and outside the municipality, and promote the municipality locally, nationally and internationally; and
(d) participate in and foster activities that enhance the economic, social and environmental well-being of the municipality and its residents. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 101.

Subject to some limits on individual confidentiality, council records are available to the public:

Inspection of records
253. (1) Subject to the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, any person may, at all reasonable times, inspect any of the records under the control of the clerk, including,
(a) by-laws and resolutions of the municipality and of its local boards;
(b) minutes and proceedings of regular, special or committee meetings of the council or local board, whether the minutes and proceedings have been adopted or not;
(c) records considered at a meeting, except those records considered during that part of a meeting that was closed to the public;
(d) the records of the council;
(e) statements of remuneration and expenses prepared under section 284. 2001, c. 25, s. 253 (1).

A recent decision in the case of a Freedom of Information Act request files in Toronto may throw into question whether emails between councillors are open to an FOI request, but this is a topic for another post.

Municipalities can create a code of conduct for councillors and members of municipal boards:

Code of conduct
223.2 (1) Without limiting sections 9, 10 and 11, those sections authorize the municipality to establish codes of conduct for members of the council of the municipality and of local boards of the municipality. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 98.

However, the MA states clearly in the next paragraph that violation of that code is not an offence:

No offence
(2) A by-law cannot provide that a member who contravenes a code of conduct is guilty of an offence. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 98.

An integrity commissioner, if appointed, may recommend the municipality apply a civil penalty if someone proves guilty of a violation:

Inquiry by Commissioner
223.4 (1) This section applies if the Commissioner conducts an inquiry under this Part,
(a) in respect of a request made by council, a member of council or a member of the public about whether a member of council or of a local board has contravened the code of conduct applicable to the member; or
(b) in respect of a request made by a local board or a member of a local board about whether a member of the local board has contravened the code of conduct applicable to the member. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 98.
<snip>
Penalties
(5) The municipality may impose either of the following penalties on a member of council or of a local board if the Commissioner reports to the municipality that, in his or her opinion, the member has contravened the code of conduct:
1. A reprimand.
2. Suspension of the remuneration paid to the member in respect of his or her services as a member of council or of the local board, as the case may be, for a period of up to 90 days. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 98.

Similarly, a board may impose those penalties on a violator if the municipality chooses not to do so, and the commissioner has found fault:

Same
(6) The local board may impose either of the penalties described in subsection (5) on its member if the Commissioner reports to the board that, in his or her opinion, the member has contravened the code of conduct, and if the municipality has not imposed a penalty on the member under subsection (5) in respect of the same contravention. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 98.

A municipality can also appoint an ombudsman:

Ombudsman
223.13 (1) Without limiting sections 9, 10 and 11, those sections authorize the municipality to appoint an Ombudsman who reports to council and whose function is to investigate in an independent manner any decision or recommendation made or act done or omitted in the course of the administration of the municipality, its local boards and such municipally-controlled corporations as the municipality may specify and affecting any person or body of persons in his, her or its personal capacity. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 98.

However, these appointments come with a cost to the taxpayers (and there is a provincial ombudsman the public can call). Whether such appointments are effective for small municipalities is open to debate. However, regional appointments may be better and less expensive.

As raised at council, Monday, any member of council may ask for a recorded vote on any issue:

Recorded vote
246. (1) If a member present at a meeting at the time of a vote requests immediately before or after the taking of the vote that the vote be recorded, each member present, except a member who is disqualified from voting by any Act, shall announce his or her vote openly and the clerk shall record each vote. 2001, c. 25, s. 246 (1).

I believe it is the responsibility of an elected member of council to request a recorded vote when he or she believes it is important, and that responsibility should not be put on the shoulders of staff. Also, because we vote many times every meeting – often over minor procedural matters – it diminishes the importance of a recorded vote if every vote, no mater how inconsequential, is recorded.

No one at the table can abstain from voting, and to do so is counted as a negative vote. this means the mayor must vote as any member of council, or her/his vote is treated as a negative vote:

Failure to vote
(2) A failure to vote under subsection (1) by a member who is present at the meeting at the time of the vote and who is qualified to vote shall be deemed to be a negative vote. 2001, c. 25, s. 246 (2).

This applies to local boards and committees, as well: their chairs must vote when a vote is called or it is considered a negative vote.

Closed meetings are permitted under the following circumstances:

239. (1) Except as provided in this section, all meetings shall be open to the public. 2001, c. 25, s. 239 (1).

Exceptions
(2) A meeting or part of a meeting may be closed to the public if the subject matter being considered is,
(a) the security of the property of the municipality or local board;
(b) personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees;
(c) a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality or local board;
(d) labour relations or employee negotiations;
(e) litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality or local board;
(f) advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose;
(g) a matter in respect of which a council, board, committee or other body may hold a closed meeting under another Act. 2001, c. 25, s. 239 (2).

These reasons are commonly seen on council agendas, but the Act also allows other reasons for a closed door meeting:

Other criteria
(3) A meeting shall be closed to the public if the subject matter relates to the consideration of a request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act if the council, board, commission or other body is the head of an institution for the purposes of that Act. 2001, c. 25, s. 239 (3).
Educational or training sessions
(3.1) A meeting of a council or local board or of a committee of either of them may be closed to the public if the following conditions are both satisfied:
1. The meeting is held for the purpose of educating or training the members.
2. At the meeting, no member discusses or otherwise deals with any matter in a way that materially advances the business or decision-making of the council, local board or committee. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 103 (1).

In general, votes cannot be made in a closed meeting unless they are specifically to give direction to staff or on a procedural matter:

Open meeting
(5) Subject to subsection (6), a meeting shall not be closed to the public during the taking of a vote. 2001, c. 25, s. 239 (5).
Exception
(6) Despite section 244, a meeting may be closed to the public during a vote if,
(a) subsection (2) or (3) permits or requires the meeting to be closed to the public; and
(b) the vote is for a procedural matter or for giving directions or instructions to officers, employees or agents of the municipality, local board or committee of either of them or persons retained by or under a contract with the municipality or local board. 2001, c. 25, s. 239 (6).

Monday, the deputy-mayor requested a staff report to explain Section 270 of the Act. This section says:

Adoption of policies
270. (1) A municipality shall adopt and maintain policies with respect to the following matters:
1. Its sale and other disposition of land.
2. Its hiring of employees.
3. Its procurement of goods and services.
4. The circumstances in which the municipality shall provide notice to the public and, if notice is to be provided, the form, manner and times notice shall be given.
5. The manner in which the municipality will try to ensure that it is accountable to the public for its actions, and the manner in which the municipality will try to ensure that its actions are transparent to the public.
6. The delegation of its powers and duties. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 113.
Policies of local boards
(2) A local board shall adopt and maintain policies with respect to the following matters:
1. Its sale and other disposition of land.
2. Its hiring of employees.
3. Its procurement of goods and services. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 113.

The Act says council MUST have a clerk, but having a CAO is entirely optional:

Clerk
228. (1) A municipality shall appoint a clerk whose duty it is,
(a) to record, without note or comment, all resolutions, decisions and other proceedings of the council;
(b) if required by any member present at a vote, to record the name and vote of every member voting on any matter or question;
(c) to keep the originals or copies of all by-laws and of all minutes of the proceedings of the council;
(d) to perform the other duties required under this Act or under any other Act; and
(e) to perform such other duties as are assigned by the municipality. 2001, c. 25, s. 228 (1).

Chief administrative officer
229. A municipality may appoint a chief administrative officer who shall be responsible for,
(a) exercising general control and management of the affairs of the municipality for the purpose of ensuring the efficient and effective operation of the municipality; and
(b) performing such other duties as are assigned by the municipality. 2001, c. 25, s. 229.

Similarly, a treasurer is a requirement:

Treasurer

286. (1) A municipality shall appoint a treasurer who is responsible for handling all of the financial affairs of the municipality on behalf of and in the manner directed by the council of the municipality, including,
(a) collecting money payable to the municipality and issuing receipts for those payments;
(b) depositing all money received on behalf of the municipality in a financial institution designated by the municipality;
(c) paying all debts of the municipality and other expenditures authorized by the municipality;
(d) maintaining accurate records and accounts of the financial affairs of the municipality;
(e) providing the council with such information with respect to the financial affairs of the municipality as it requires or requests;
(f) ensuring investments of the municipality are made in compliance with the regulations made under section 418. 2001, c. 25, s. 286 (1).

Other municipal employees are hired at the discretion of the council.

The Act says “shall” 903 times, and “may” 1,036. “Shall not” appears 119 times in the Act. “Must” appears 97 times, “must not” only twice. “Shall” includes this:

Consultation
3. (1) The Province of Ontario endorses the principle of ongoing consultation between the Province and municipalities in relation to matters of mutual interest and, consistent with this principle, the Province shall consult with municipalities in accordance with a memorandum of understanding entered into between the Province and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. 2005, c. 8, s. 1.

Sometimes both shall and may appear in the same section:

Tree by-laws
135. (1) Subject to subsection (4) and without limiting sections 9, 10 and 11, a local municipality may prohibit or regulate the destruction or injuring of trees. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 71 (1).
Woodlands
(2) Without limiting sections 9, 10 and 11, an upper-tier municipality may prohibit or regulate the destruction or injuring of trees in woodlands designated in the by-law. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 71 (1).

Factor to be considered
(5) In passing a by-law regulating or prohibiting the injuring or destruction of trees in woodlands, a municipality shall have regard to good forestry practices as defined in the Forestry Act. 2001, c. 25, s. 135 (5); 2002, c. 17, Sched. A, s. 27 (1).

So it’s important to read the Act carefully to determine whether a section presents an obligation or an option.

As for bonusing, the Act clearly states a municipality cannot do it:

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT SERVICES
Assistance prohibited
106. (1) Despite any Act, a municipality shall not assist directly or indirectly any manufacturing business or other industrial or commercial enterprise through the granting of bonuses for that purpose. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (1).
Same
(2) Without limiting subsection (1), the municipality shall not grant assistance by,
(a) giving or lending any property of the municipality, including money;
(b) guaranteeing borrowing;
(c) leasing or selling any property of the municipality at below fair market value; or
(d) giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge or fee. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (2).
Exception
(3) Subsection (1) does not apply to a council exercising its authority under subsection 28 (6), (7) or (7.2) of the Planning Act or under section 365.1 of this Act. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (3); 2002, c. 17, Sched. A, s. 23; 2006, c. 23, s. 34.

On the other hand, sections 107 and 108 describe powers the municipality has to create small business initiatives, and, in some cases, provide loans. Section 110 discusses the limited conditions under which tax exemptions can be provided.

These are just some of the items in the Municipal Act that councils and administrators have to consider in its activities, its meetings and its planning. It’s far too large to provide more than just this brief sample here. Anyone who wants to be fully informed about the nature of municipal governance should also read the Act and the the other laws and policies that guide and direct us.

~~~~~

* Others includes the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, the Public Libraries Act, the Planning Act, the Public Inquiries Act, the Highway Traffic Act,the municipal procedural bylaw, code of conduct and more. I will deal with some of these in subsequent posts.

 

03/17/13

Shaolin: the film


ShaolinI like Chinese films, particularly the epic wuxia films. They are often a refreshing change from the effects-driven/CGI monstrosities pumped out by Hollywood. They remind me of the westerns of the 1950s, usually with good and bad sides in stark relief. Subtitles don’t bother me (better them than dubbed).

I’ve watched the Chinese film industry mature over the past three decades and the quality has become remarkable. Cinematography is sometimes breathtaking. One of the  most appealing aspects is that they tend to do more with people than with special effects, which gives crowd scenes a more human, less manufactured feel. Gotta love those cast-of-thousands moments.

I also like the mix of reality and the fantastic in wuxia films. Martial arts fight scenes have a dreamlike quality that contrasts with the inexorable, inhuman violence when guns and artillery are introduced. Contrast seems important in Chinese films, although it’s not often subtle.

Wuxia is only one part of Chinese film – like Hollywood westerns – and they have many good dramas about life and ordinary people, but wuxia films are by far more entertaining and captivating to me (with a few exceptions like Ang Lee’s 2007 Lust Caution).

Most westerners got introduced to modern Chinese films through Ang Lee’s great Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, launched in 2000. Other films like House of Flying Knives, Hidden Kingdom and Red Cliff followed. They are combinations of sprawling epics in the Gone With the Wind style, and retelling of Chinese history and mythology, with a bit of Shakespearean drama to enrich the characters. I’ve collected numerous of these post-2000 films. They’re a long way from the Bruce Lee style martial arts movies, and if you haven’t watched any, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Yesterday I found a DVD display at Wal-Mart with several recent titles, all priced at $10. For our Saturday night viewing, I chose Shaolin: Protect the Temple, a 2011 flick with Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan, directed by Benny Chan. It also stars the lovely Fan Bingbing, who, unfortunately, doesn’t get as much screen time as she deserves.

Like many wuxia films, Shaolin is essentially a martial arts movie, but following the current trend has complex plot lines, deep historical roots, and grand characters in the Shakespearean-King Lear, Henry V or Richard III mold.

The underlying theme is the clash between the modern and the traditional. The late colonial and post-colonial period from around 1880 to 1930s is ripe for stories of nascent nationalism and the often violent shift from the pre-industrial past to the modern era*. It’s a bit of nostalgia, too, for a time when people lived simpler lives.

Shaolin film cover 2Shaolin is set in the violent period of the Chinese Warlord era, before the even-more-violent Civil War that eventually put the Communists into power. Ruthless warlords fighting for territory, power and gold. Unscrupulous foreigners (Westerners who seem but are never quite identified as British) want to drive a railroad through their warring fiefdoms. These foreigners not only expect to profit from the rail, but are also snapping up every Chinese treasure and antiquity they can find. Okay, it’s a fairly blatant bit of nationalist propaganda.

The warlords fall out, and a double-cross becomes a triple-cross and the lead warlord, Hou Jie (Andy Lau) goes from ruler to fugitive after an ambush. He ends up a refugee in the very Buddhist monastery he had despoiled a few weeks earlier. That’s karma for you.

Like so many of these films, it’s also a tale of personal redemption in the Joseph Campbell-Hero’s Journey style. Hou Jie has to overcome his past, and discover inner peace among the Buddhists, and they have to learn to accept the former general. But the victor in the triple cross, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) is hunting for Hou Jie and inevitably they have to confront one another. Along the way we have a massive army-versus-unarmed-but-martial-arts-trained monks battle, with guns and cannon blazing. The monks also have to save China’s heritage from the evil foreigners while they battle the warlord’s army, and protect the refugees displaced by the conflict.

Jackie Chan’s role is a bit ambiguous; he’s the fool (in the trickster model), and his character is sometimes a bit out of place with the melodrama of the others, but it’s not overplayed.

Without giving away more, I’ll finish by saying it’s a very satisfying film, well worth watching, with great fight scenes, even if the climax is rather predictable, albeit spectacular.** I think today I’ll go back to the store and see what others are for sale.

~~~~~

* If you’ve read Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, you know a version of that that tale from an African perspective – more personal, without the fireworks though.

** Like most wuxia films, the end is both a moral and closure. Evil must be subdued and the world set right. Again, much like a Hollywood western or one of the Star Wars films.

03/14/13

The Consolation of Literature


For Boethius, it was the Consolation of Philosophy*. For me, it’s literature. Not to write about it so much as to read it. Consolation from the act of reading.

And read about literature. Sometimes literature is made more meaningful, brought into sharper focus by analysis and deconstruction. I started reading Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made (John C Meagher, Continuum, New York, 2000) last night. He opens by saying:

There are as many legitimate ways of reading Shakespeare’s plays as there are of having a conversation, making a meal, or rearing children.

I suppose we assign meaning to whatever we read – the Bard and everyone else – according to our circumstances and moods. I might read Othello now with a different eye than when I read it a few years ago. I might perceive Iago as a more real, more cunning and more malicious villain today than I did then. Iago – who at one point swears by Janus, the two-faced god – tells Roderigo:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Announcing himself to be a deceiver. Later in Act One, Iago contemptuously says of Othello:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Such villainy, such deception. But of course, without Iago, there would be no drama. We want drama in literature, if not always in life.

Similarly, in The Tempest, which I recently restarted, Caliban seems a darker, more monstrous figure than he did when I first opened the play. Prospero mutters quietly about,

…that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates…

Although there is some redemption to be had, towards the end of the play. There often is redemption in literature. It cleans things up, closes the circle, completes the cycle. But life isn’t like literature – more’s the pity. Redemption does not always pour oil on our troubled waters in life.

Meaning, of course, derives from context, and separate quotes cannot convey that properly. Everyone’s understanding is different, so we read into things what we want to see. Intent and meaning may not be parallel paths. The fullness of the play carries the real meaning, not simply lines drawn at random.

Over the weekend, I read these lines in Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust (part one). Faust himself speaks:

Ah, happy he who can still hope to rise,
Emerging from this sea of fear and doubt!
What no man knows, alone could make us wise;
And what we know, we could well do without.

They seem deeper, richer than I recall them from my first reading. A few pages further, Mephistopheles comments to the audience after the deal with Faust has been signed:

So, knowledge and fair reason you’ll despise,
The highest powers by which you mortals rise.
The Prince of Lies it is that edifies you,
With all the flash of magic he supplies you

Ah, that crafty Prince of Lies. The opposer who leads humankind astray. Satan, if you believe in that sort of thing. Me, I see it as a metaphor for more human manifestation, something archetypal: Coyote, Loki, and Trickster. Br’er Rabbit with evil intent. Or is it Br’er Fox? Either way, a deceiver also creates drama in literature.

Is what we read really what the author intended, or is what comes through the veil of our own circumstances the truer meaning? Literature as the psyche’s mirror? Is it more valid to read Shakespeare, indeed any playwright, novelist or poet, looking for your own intent rather than the author’s?

Meager seems to think so. He says we can never really see the author’s true intent, no matter how we strive to find it:

…a search for the author’s intention is not a proper way to read a text…

I think Harold Bloom might disagree somewhat with him. In his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverside, New York, 1998), Bloom wrote:

…no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare,the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe… They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us…

Which suggests to me that he means our own contextual understanding, the through-the-personal-lens view, is limited, and we must search for the greater, even universal, meaning in the author’s intent. Look for the intrinsic, not the extrinsic.

Of course, trying to understand Shakespeare at any reasonable level of comprehension depends on having some grasp of the author’s own background, his education, his cultural, political and social influences, and his language. What I read into, say, Julius Caesar’s comment,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Or Casca’s description to Brutus of Caesar being lauded by the crowd:

Why, there was a crown offered him: and being
offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand,
thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.

…is filtered through my own experience. My derived meaning may not be even close to Shakespeare’s intent. Shakespeare’s references might be not to historical (Roman) times, or even to the general human condition, but to characters or events at Elizabeth’s contemporary court. It could be a veiled comment on politics of his day.

Reading Shakespeare is always like that: layered. Yet four hundred years later we can still find resonance in his writing. Which is why I still pick him up and read him with awe.

Whether what I read in those words reflects the author’s intent or is merely a mirror to my own imagination I can’t say.

All I know for sure that, opening the pages of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer, Cervantes, Austen or any of a number of works by great writers, gives me respite from the daily turmoil. Consolation and reflection.

~~~~~

* From Wikipedia:

Consolation of Philosophy was written during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial … for the crime of treason … This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”

..

 

03/3/13

The Secret Teachings of All Ages


Secret TeachingsWhen confronted with a problem involving the use of the reasoning faculties, individuals of strong intellect keep their poise, and seek to reach a solution by obtaining facts bearing upon the question. Those of immature mentality, on the other hand, when similarly confronted, are overwhelmed.”

That’s one of the few quotable pieces I’ve found while reading through The Secret Teachings of All Ages, by Manly P. Hall. Originally published 1928, it has gone through several editions, most recently as an oversize, 750-page paperback in 2003. The full, ostentatious title includes this: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages.

Whew. Let’s just refer to it as TSTOAA for now. It’s a rambling, unfocused work that attempts to tie together mythology, pseudoscience, spiritualism, the occult arts, magic, secret societies, mysticism, alchemy, symbolism, music, Freemasonry, the tarot and more into some coherent Christian-influenced unified philosophy, and fails majestically in the attempt.

There are a lot of things to quote from it, mind you – just not things I’d want to share as tokens of wisdom or insight, mostly as examples of nonsense, claptrap, fuzzy logic, conspiracy theory and unverifiable claims. He makes a lot of claims like “According to the mystics…” or “There is a legend…” that are not backed up any source reference. Worse are the “It is probable that…” sentences that begin a wild guess without any historical or scientific proof.

Since copyright was never renewed, you can download a PDF of the tome many places online, including here, here and here. You can read it online here. As always, I recommend you get a printed copy if you really want to wade through it. If you want the larger format (legal-sized pages), it’s also available, but this one is easier to carry and read in bed.

I first came across this oddly curious and wacky but yet fascinating book in 1970. It was a time of credulity, when hippies were exploring alternate philosophies and spiritualities, without applying a lot of critical thought to the content (which is why so many spun off into cults and bad drugs). It was the start of the recent infection of New Age “philosophy,” which led otherwise bright and exploratory intellects into dead ends like homeopathy, reflexology, numerology, astrology, crystal therapy, UFOs, New World Order, the Illuminati and more recently chemtrail conspiracies and anti-vaccination cults.

My obdurate skepticism and need for empirical proof of any claim has kept me from falling for most of this claptrap, but nonetheless, I read a lot of it out of sheer fascination.* Every now and then I return to reading about it, if nothing more than to remind myself how outlandishly silly a lot of this stuff really is.

I really didn’t know much about the author of TSTOAA until this year. According to manlyphall.org,

Manly Palmer Hall (March 18, 1901 – August 29, 1990) was a Canadian-born author and mystic. He is perhaps most famous for his work The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, which is widely regarded as his magnum opus, and which he published at the age of 25 (or 27, 1928)

A Canadian “mystic”? I suppose among all our lumberjacks, hockey players and money-sucking secretive senators, we must have a few. Wikipedia tells us Hall’s mother was a member of the bizarre Rosicrucian order, and, as if that wasn’t enough to warp anyone, she took him to live in Los Angeles at an early age, where he became a preacher. Apparently very intelligent, he taught himself by being a voracious reader, but seems to have absorbed much without really analysing or assessing it.

He started writing pamphlets and later books on various arcane, occult and mystical topics. He was quite prolific, for which, as a writer myself, I tip my hat to him. The scope of his interests is breathtaking, but so was his credulity. For example:

“Through the Gypsies the Tarot cards may be traced back to the religious symbolism of the ancient Egyptians. In his remarkable work, The Gypsies, Samuel Roberts presents ample proof of their Egyptian origin. In one place he writes: “When Gypsies originally arrived in England is very uncertain. They are first noticed in our laws, by several statutes against them in the reign of Henry VIII.; in which they are described as ‘an outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians,–who do not profess any craft or trade, but go about in great numbers, * * *.’” A curious legend relates that after the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, the large body of attendant priests banded themselves together to preserve the secrets of the rites of Serapis. Their descendants (Gypsies) carrying with them the most precious of the volumes saved from the burning library–the Book of Enoch, or Thoth (the Tarot)–became wanderers upon the face of the earth, remaining a people apart with an ancient language and a birthright of magic and mystery.”

What malarkey! The Romani people emigrated from India in the Medieval era. Tarot and other playing cards appeared in Europe around the same time – Egyptians never had playing cards – all using distinctly European images and symbols, many with recognizably Christian reference (not universal archetypes). The cards were first used for games, although non-tarot decks were used for rudimentary divination as early as 1540. The use of Tarot cards in the modern style of fortune telling stems from the 18th century. Wikipedia notes:

The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survival in the modern world. De Gébelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name “tarot” came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning “royal”, and ro, meaning “road”, and that the Tarot therefore represented a “royal road” to wisdom. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, or indeed before the Rosetta Stone had been discovered, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin’s fanciful etymologies. Despite this, the identification of the tarot cards with the Egyptian Book of Thoth was already firmly established in occult practice and continues in to the present day.

de Gebelin was another of those occult hucksters who peddled their shoddy wares to the gullible in the 18th century. Pretty much everything he wrote is claptrap. But people bought it then, just as they buy the chemtrail conspiracies today.

As an editor, Hall’s work makes me wince. His writing is clumsy and amateurishly leaden, although sometimes imbued with a passion. John Colombo, reviewing a biography of Hall, writes of Hall’s early work:

“…the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts.”

Breezy? Hall clearly learned density as he matured. TSTOAA is to breezy what a Hummer is to fuel economy. Hall is like an unselective jackdaw, collecting every shiny bit of arcana or esoterica he finds and trying to cram it into his preconceived model of the supernatural world. It’s like trying to build a car with bits of Lego and Mechano pieces and anything else you find in the basement. The result is awkward and ungainly, but his believers seem willing to overlook the obvious flaws.

In his chapter on “American Indian Symbolism,” Hall wrote this embarrassingly condescending, colonialist comment:

THE North American Indian is by nature a symbolist, a mystic, and a philosopher. Like most: aboriginal peoples, his soul was en rapport with the cosmic agencies manifesting about him… The red man’s philosophy of elemental creatures is apparently the outcome of his intimate contact with Nature, whose inexplicable wonders become the generating cause of such metaphysical speculations.

In the 1920s when Hall wrote it, a cultural upheaval was taking place. It was the Jazz Age, a time of new politics, new arts, new dances, new music, new beliefs. The hard-headed, prosaic approach of the late Victorian era gave way to a joyous willingness to belief in almost anything anyone pitched.** Much of the West was undergoing a revival in spiritualism that attracted millions of avid followers to pursue some of the most egregious claptrap ever foisted on civilization by a large number of charlatans and hucksters (like Aleister Crowley and Edgar Cayce). But among them were those who sincerely believed in it. Hall seems to have been among them. A little more critical thinking might have avoided statements like this:

EACH of the four primary elements as taught by the early philosophers has its analogue in the quaternary terrestrial constitution of man. The rocks and earth correspond to the bones and flesh; the water to the various fluids; the air to the gases; and the fire to the bodily heat. Since the bones are the framework that sustains the corporeal structure, they may be regarded as a fitting emblem of the spirit–that divine foundation which supports the composite fabric of mind, soul, and body. To the initiate, the skeleton of death holding in bony fingers the reaper’s scythe denotes Saturn (Kronos), the father of the gods, carrying the sickle with which he mutilated Ouranos, his own sire.

Or this:

It was in recognition of Bacon’s intellectual accomplishments that King James turned over to him the translators’ manuscripts of what is now known as the King James Bible for the presumable purpose of checking, editing, and revising them. The documents remained in his hands for nearly a year, but no information is to be had concerning what occurred in that time. Regarding this work, William T. Smedley writes: ” It will eventually be proved that the whole scheme of the Authorised Version of the Bible was Francis Bacon’s.” (See The Mystery of Francis Bacon.) The first edition of the King James Bible contains a cryptic Baconian headpiece. Did Bacon cryptographically conceal in the Authorized Bible that which he dared not literally reveal in the text–the secret Rosicrucian key to mystic and Masonic Christianity?

Atlantis from TSTOAAHall has an almost childlike naivete or gullibility about his sources, although most have long since been exposed as cons or wingnuts – like Helena Blavatsky, Cagliostro and the Comte de St. Germaine.

Hall gives credence in his 45 chapters to far too many debunked beliefs, superstitions and outright fictions like the Gypsies came from Egypt, Atlantis existed, alchemy, astrology, Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works, and that the Freemasons and Rosicrucians are an ancient order.

Despite the occult content, Hall’s perspective is quite Christian and almost evangelical in places; Christianity has a suggestive superiority among the faiths he describes, with the suggestion that it has deep roots in ancient pagan mythologies (that, in Hall’s telling, are precursors to modern beliefs). Christianity is never seriously questioned in TSTOAA. He often cloaks comments about Chrisitianity thus:

“The existence of interpolated material in the fourth Gospel substantiates the belief that the work was originally written without any specific reference to the man Jesus, the statements therein accredited to Him being originally mystical discourses delivered by the personification of the Universal Mind. The remaining Johannine writings–the Epistles and the Apocalypse–are enshrouded by a similar veil of mystery.”

There are many glowing reviews and uncritically effusive comments about TSTOAA online, but remarkably few negative ones; I haven’t found a single site that comprehensively debunks the voluminous codswallop that packs Hall’s magnum opus. The positive ones don’t surprise me: there’s a remarkable dearth of critical thinking, compounded by a remarkable number of gullible, New Agers online***. But there are also a lot of skeptics, few of whom seem to have tackled this work. Boingboing‘s Gareth Branwyn is one of the rare exceptions, albeit no more than passingly critical:

Manly Palmer Hall has been called the America Madame Blavatsky, which probably isn’t far from the truth. Like the controversial Russian-born founder of Theosophy, Hall seemed dedicated to quantity over quality in his writing (authoring more than 50 books on esoterica and self-help), and like Helena, the troubling smell of snake oil swirled in his rotund wake. Manly P Hall is one of the people principally responsible for the birth of the New Age religious movement in the United States…

TSTOAA is a tough read, but it’s packed with enough ammunition to keep any skeptics and debunkers busy for many a long night and if it doesn’t make you throw it against the wall, it might make you chuckle. I wish someone would take a systematic and comprehensive approach and deconstructed it so that it might not continue to be a force for New Age idiocy today. It belongs in the same literary remainder bin as the Urantia Book in bookstores. Read, instead, the Golden Bough and the works of Joseph Campbell.

~~~~~

* Since the late 1960s, I tended to favour the spartan practice of Zen; stripped away from the mystical brouhaha, with a distinct deficiency of deities, angels, goblins, ghosts and other spirits. Don’t get me wrong: I have great respect for the mystical tradition, for the human drive for introspection and insight into unfathomable things. It has brought us magnificent works of prose and poetry, great stories, music and great art. I just separate the drive from the conclusions formed by believers. It’s the conclusions that cause me grief, not the search itself.

** James Frazer, in his scholarly masterpiece about magic and superstition, The Golden Bough, wrote  succinctly, “In short, magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”

*** “During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics. Indeed, popular anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are now synonymous.” Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason, Pantheon Books, 2008

03/2/13

To sleep, perchance to dream


Simon's CatAye, there’s the rub. To sleep in, one weekend morning, when there are no pressures for meetings, work, deadlines. To roll away from the soft light that filters through the blinds and enjoy that delicious moment of closing your eyes and drifting back into a dream. Covers pulled up, the street quiet outside the widow, the furnace gently wheezing its warm air into the room; nothing is better in the world.

But of course, there are others with different ideas. The real masters of the house brook no laziness, have no interest in our needs, in how much wine we drank the night before, how late we stayed up reading, how tough and demanding the week was. They have their schedule and we are slaves to it.

Sophie wants to be walked and fed. She nuzzles the covers, pushing at them with her nose, insistent. I reach out a hand, get a half-hearted pat, hoping it will appease her, then pull my arm back in. No, not sufficient. Her nose pokes under the covers, wet and cold on the flesh of my arm.

Abby, the little black cat, who spends the night curled into the crook of my knees, is on a dresser, standing on her back legs, frantically pawing at herself in the mirror. The irksome pat-pat-pat of her tiny pads like an annoying drum solo in the otherwise quiet room.

Diego, the orange tom, managed to walk into the bedroom with a thumping gait when at all other times he is as silent and lithe as a tiger on the hunt. He jumps onto the bed like a sack of cement, and begins howling. He walks on and over sleeping bodies, ignoring our ineffective shrugs to move him off.

Up onto the bedside cabinets he travels, flicking pens, glasses and bookmarks onto the floor with a callous swipe of his large paws. Clink and clatter on the floor as they fall. When that fails to get attention, he returns, hunches over the sleeper, and boldly taps my face with a paw – its claws not quite retracted.

Sensing a change, perhaps in that rhythmic shift in our breathing from sleep to awake, the other two cats come into the bedroom. Tippy chases a toy mouse around, sounding remarkably like a stampeding herd of wildebeest.

Cleo paws at a lower dresser drawer, one she can open if she works at it, and starts dragging socks onto the floor so she can create a nest space to rest in. This attracts the others and there’s a brief scuffle. She and Diego exchange slapping blows of irritation. They sound like prizefighters slapping a speed bag. A few hisses like a steam train starting its journey, then they part to return to their primary goal of getting us up.

Sophie paces restlessly, the click of her toenails as loud as a tapdancer’s cleats. She moves from my side to Susan’s, then back.

A toy finds its way to the top of the stairs, and is launched down them, crashing and banging until it hits the floor below, somehow transformed from a tiny plush mouse into a grandfather clock as it tumbles. A cat races loudly after, in pursuit.

Diego walks across the headboard, balancing on the wood, miaowing loudly like an army drill sergeant waking his troops. Sometimes a foot slips and stumps down heavily on a pillow, beside a weary head. Or on it. Back and forth, back and forth.

Whatever possessed us to invite so many animals into our home? Slaves to punishment, I suppose.

I open an eye. 6:44. I watch the clock until the little digital readout says 6:45, knowing that any more time in bed is impossible. “Tea?” murmurs a sleepy Susan.

“Yes,” I agree, and throw off the covers and sit up. Sophie dances happily. The cats skitter out of the room and are almost downstairs by the time I’ve got to my feet. Behind me, Susan slips on a bathrobe to joins me in the morning feeding ritual.

Perhaps I can grab a nap – a catnap? – later in the day and enjoy that sweet bliss of sleep for a few more minutes.