Leonard Cohen deserves the Nobel Prize, too

Bob DylanNews that songwriter Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature shook the literati worldwide. Here was a pop icon sitting in the august company of Alice Munro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, V.S. Naipaul, Gabriel García Márquez, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yasunari Kawabata, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling and many others. Novelists, essayists and poets. No songwriters, and especially no commercially successful, popular songwriters until the 75-year-old Dylan.

And, we hope, that surely opens the door for similarly talented and poetic songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen; writers of great power, subtlety, depth and passion (both Canadians, I should note). But not everyone agrees: the appointment has brought out the finest snobbery among the literati.

Social and traditional media erupted. Is he really a poet, some asked. Incredulously wondering, did Dylan meet the criteria? Does pop culture deserve such accolades?

The New York Times approved, and said his appointment redefines the “boundaries of literature.” I’m with them. Leave the old and fusty nattering nabobs of negativity to their grumbles and celebrate the choice.

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Where is Che now that we need him?

CheMaybe it’s simple nostalgia, but it seems to me the world was a lot better off when the Soviet Union was around. Really. Bear with me while I explain.

When the USSR was the main enemy of our loudly-proclaimed free and democratic society, we struggled to measure ourselves against its yardstick.

If the USSR claimed to have the best chess players, we had to beat them with Bobby Fischer. If they claimed to have the best students in math or science, well we had to show we had the whizzes. If they claimed their medical system was better, their workers were better treated, their social services and their agricultural output was better, we had to show ours could beat theirs. They put a man in orbit, we walked on the moon.

Anti-Communist propagandaOf course, the USSR – and indeed most Communist nations past and present – were not the workers’ paradise they alleged. We knew that, but we pretended not to. Most were bleak, dreary, economically destitute, brutal dictatorships. They weren’t run by lofty ideologues seeking to craft a society for the betterment of the working class. They were run by an oligarchy of squabbling, irritable competitive sycophants and bullies in a race to see who would be last to face the firing squad.

Communist propagandaContrary to the way the Communists portrayed the West, we weren’t all imperialists, capitalists without a conscience, greedy, warmongering expansionists. At least Canada wasn’t. Mostly. But they weren’t entirely wrong about the West, either. And if they could see us today, they’d be saying the same thing they said back then. To America in particular.

Both sides of this political divide ignored the full reality of the other because it made for better propaganda campaigns. And it was much easier to justify wars, coups, and interference in other nations’ business. The threat of the other side’s emergence was often sufficient. Propaganda was at its pinnacle.

Fischer-SpasskyBut at the same time, the competition between two opposing systems also brought out the best in both. It created the space race and some of the most important scientific and technical developments in a century. It spurred the Civil Rights movement. It created a half-century of exploration, achievement, education and science. It made chess international news: the Fischer-Spassky match briefly put an intellectual pursuit ahead of the corporate sports news. And into headline news at that!

Under pressure from the West, Soviets had to lighten up on dissidents and writers, allowing some to escape to the West. And both sides curbed their nuclear strategies for fear of mutual annihilation.

And because most wingnut terrorist groups were allied to one side or the other and dependent on that side for arms, money and direction, there was at least a modicum of control over what they were allowed to do. There was never an ISIS back then.
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Demagogues and dictators

Lenin, Stalin & HitlerI’m not sure why they fascinate me, but I’ve been reading about demagogues and dictators for many decades now and still can’t seem to get enough of them. Of course, it’s in part because I like to read about politics in all its forms and fashions, but there’s something more than just celebrity watching with these. There’s the psychology of propaganda and mass movements, the inoculation of widespread ideologies, the use of technology and mass culture.

The period between the two World Wars in particular intrigues me because it was an era of great social change. Upheaval, really. The rise of the automobile, the telephone, radio, film… technology changed the world in ways no one could have predicted before WWI. And it was the first time mass propaganda was used to propel politics. Effectively, too. The old pre-war social orders and empires crumbled and new ones emerged. Democracy blossomed, too, albeit not without conflict.

But while many of the issues may have changed since then, the methods and the styles of today’s demagogues, how they appeal to the masses and spread their message, are much the same as they ever were. Watching Donald Trump in action as he campaigns, I can see echoes of his predecessors back into the 1920s and ’30s.

There’s a certain fusty notion of political correctness not to play the Hitler card or the Stalin card in these comparisons, but they are there and people would be foolish not to see the parallels in methods and popular appeal. After all, those who forget the lessons of history…

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The Republican Conspiracy

CNBC GOP Debate: The Sh*tshow Version Last night’s debate was a total sh*tshow.

Posted by The Huffington Post on Thursday, October 29, 2015

I realized only after watching this edited video that the activity of the so-called Republican candidates’ debate was not simply the circus it seemed from the outset; it was actually a conspiracy. A cunning, well-laid conspiracy. And it is so Machiavellian that I actually smiled in appreciation of its deviousness.

My first reaction on watching the debate (online) was that no one in their right minds could ever select any of these clowns for president.

Come on – Donald Trump as front-runner? That’s a joke, right? Daffy Duck would make a better, smarter president.

It’s got to be a big circus; mere entertainment for Americans weary of reading about another gun-nut mass slaying in their home town that the Republican candidates will callously gloss over or say could have been prevented by everyone else being armed (often while quoting some obscure Biblical phrase).

And these clowns running for an office that requires intelligence, wisdom and critical thinking – that is immensely entertaining. It was like watching 10 comedians all playing Lou Costello in the famous “Who’s on First” skit simultaneously, with the moderators as Bud Abbott.

But maybe it’s a lot more devious that it appears. Maybe it’s far more cunning than any of us realized and we’re all the patsy in a con game.

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Apps are making us criminals

Uber protestAlmost every week you read in the news about another taxi driver protest against Uber and its drivers. Taxi drivers go on strike, some rage against Uber and attack the drivers or damage their cars.

Similar protests – albeit not yet as violent or large – have been made against Airbnb for its effects on local property values and changing social conditions like the loss of rental properties.

These are just two of the apps whose effect on our society and culture are challenging laws and policies. There are others now that attempt to clone the success of their competitors with similar service (like Lyft and Homeaway – but I’ll concentrate on these two as examples of what can and does happen).

And in the process making criminals of its users.

That’s right: using these apps, both as a service provider for the companies and a user of those services often breaks existing laws, such as zoning or licensing. Renting your home for short-term rentals through Airbnb, for example, is illegal in many Ontario municipalities – including Collingwood – because zoning bylaws prohibit short-term rentals in residential areas.

Municipalities worldwide are increasingly challenged by these and similar programs that function counter to municipal bylaws, policies and operations. And they eventually cost taxpayers money.

It’s not a small deal. These can hurt our economy, kill jobs, and put people and property at risk. The corporations that operate them don’t give a shit. They’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank every time you use them.

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Written by God?

American godI don’t pay as much attention to American politics as I suppose I should, in part because despite the entertaining craziness of some of their politicians, the internal politics seldom affect Canadians, and also in part because the craziness not only baffles me – it scares me. But this week I paid attention when I read year-old statements made by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is quoted on Rawstory as saying,

“I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.”

Whoa. Christian revisionism and theological ideologies packed into a single statement. And so wrong, I hardly know where to start.

The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side
Bob Dylan: With God on Our Side

The US government was formed as a secular government from its birth. Separation of church and state and all that (First Amendment) was put into the Constitution quite early (1791). That amendment, Wikipedia tells us,

…prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

The nation itself was created by a loose group of soldiers and politicians, many of whom were either secular or even atheist, after a bitter and bloody war with Britain (and later, other nations). The Constitution was written by a smaller group of similarly motivated men. And it’s very definitely NOT based on biblical principles (principles which include stoning people for minor offences, killing your children, taking slaves, not eating pork and having animals maul children to death…).

Not to mention that the nation we know of as America wasn’t actually born overnight with the stroke of a pen, but is the result of more than a century of expansion, war, politics and exploitation. At least that’s the history as I understand it.

I’m pretty sure the millions of indigenous people who were killed, disenfranchised, hunted, humiliated, raped and brutally reduced to second class citizens don’t think it was the work of any benevolent god. You see the digits of a deity anywhere in that? DeLay obviously does; which speaks volumes about his personal vision of a god. A nasty, xenophobic, mean-spirited, vindictive god.

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How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

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The Cold War

The Cold WarI was reminded by an article on Slate that the (to me) iconic film of the Cold War, Fail Safe, was released fifty years ago this week. And as the article records, more people remember the satirical film, Dr. Strangelove than the more chilling drama, Fail Safe. Perhaps they have forgotten it, as they have the Cold War itself.

Forgotten too are the tensions and the fears that pervaded that era; the threats of nuclear war. the suspicions and paranoia about Communism, the McCarthy hearings, the accusations and the innuendo. It seems as distance today as the era of Frederick the Great or Napoleon. For some people, anyway.

For a younger generation, the Cold War must seem as far from their world as my grandfather’s days in WWI seemed to me: a time of antiquated technology, of difference music, of style and fashion that seems so archaic. Watching the 1964 version of Fail Safe today must seem so dated, so antiquated. No tablets! No smart phones! No Facebook!

I came of age through the most tense, most confrontational years of the Cold War.

My first political memories are of the contentious “Kitchen debate” between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US Vice President, Richard Nixon. Nixon visited Moscow in July, 1959 and almost immediately got into a scrap with Khrushchev. There’s a photo of Nixon poking K in the chest, with K frowning. The two got into a heated argument at an exhibition of American kitchen appliances that was broadcast worldwide. It almost seemed the two would start WWIII right there.

Yet despite the apparent animosity generated during that visit, Khrushchev made his own tour of the US a few months later, in September. I recall the black-and-white images on TV of him and his wife, and President Eisenhower, riding around in the limo.

That visit is delightfully retold in Peter Carlson’s K Blows Top. As Carlson relates it, the event was a combination of surrealism, politics and Marx Brothers:

Illustrating the adventures of K in America were photos of the pudgy traveler, who mugged shamelessly for the cameras like a mischievous eight year old. Khrushchev may have been a dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, but he was also an incurable ham who couldn’t bear to disappoint a photographer. Consequently, the pictures in the clip folders were wonderfully wacky: Khrushchev grabs a live turkey! Khrushchev pats a fat guy’s belly! Khrushchev gawks at chorus girls! Khrushchev pretends to shoplift a napkin holder by stuffing it into his suit jacket while laughing uproariously!

Khrushchev’s trip was, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed it, “a surreal extravaganza.” Within an hour of reading the first clipping, I was hooked. For months, I spent my Thursdays and Fridays following the adventures of K as he traveled from Washington to New York to Hollywood to San Francisco to Iowa to Pittsburgh to Camp David, creating hilarious havoc all the way.

Fifty-five years ago, this past September 25, that tour. I still have a memory of it, a trifle hazy but still intact.*

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The Forgotten Gulag

The Ameerican Individualist reviewIn the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Gulag: A History, she ponders why the “crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction to the crimes of Hitler.” Yet Stalin’s actions and policies killed millions more than the Nazis. Maybe it’s because the USSR wrapped itself in as much secrecy as it could muster for so long. Maybe it’s because the Soviet camps were so far removed from sight and never received the pictorial and media coverage the Nazi camps received.*

Maybe it’s because during the Cold War, the West was disinclined to care about the welfare of Soviet citizens. Or maybe Applebaum is projecting her own right-wing American bias on history. She grumbles about Western tourists buying Soviet regalia when Communism fell, and Western youths wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts without any sense of the horror that symbol meant for millions.

Blogger Bhavya Ketan represents this clouded view when he wrote a review of Applebaum’s book:

What was the Gulag? I never heard of it. Though the famous Indian anti-communist writer Sita Ram Goel, in his biography ‘How I became a Hindu’, defined the erstwhile Soviet Union as a slave empire, I couldn’t fully understand what he exactly meant. There are many people who still don’t know about the slavery that was practiced in Russia between 1920s and 1980s. And what is more shocking? This gross ignorance, about the human rights in the world’s largest country, exists not only in the developing nations but also in the developed states.

Even today, with so many new books on the Soviet union on the market, with Soviet-era archives open to historians and authors, there’s still a mist that occludes our understanding of the time. We only get occasional glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain and most of that is focused on the major players – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and other leaders.

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