De Officiis: Cicero on Political Obligations

Cicero: On Obligations

No phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

Cicero wrote that in 44 BCE in his last work in his last year of life: De Officiis, or in English: On Obligations. The translation from Book 1.4 above comes from the Perseus Project (the 1913 Miller/Loeb translation). In the 2000 edition (Oxford University Press, reprinted 2008, and recently added to my library), translator P.G. Walsh renders that piece thus:

There is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligation, whether in our individual concerns or in our relations with our neighbour. Honourable behaviour lies entirely in the performance of such obligations, and likewise base conduct lies in neglecting them.

The main theme of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s book is stated here, at the beginning: we are all bound by obligations to one another, and if we are honourable people, then we must act on, and never forget, those obligations. Of course, he has a lot more to say, but that’s the gist of it.

The 62-year-old Cicero watched as Rome was taken over by the followers of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar (whom he criticized). He watched how the republic was subverted to the rule of the autocrats and tyrants (whom he also openly criticized). The result of his speaking out was his being named an enemy of the state. Marc Anthony ordered Cicero’s execution and had his severed head and hands displayed in the forum. Such is the way tyrants deal with dissent.

Cicero’s world and life have parallels in today’s politics: his words still have meaning and relevamce today. One need only look at today’s Republican candidates’ struggle for supremacy, or locally to see what has happened to our own council, to understand those parallels.*

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Reading Pablo Neruda

Pablo NerudaOne hardly expects poets to generate spirited debate in the media these days*, but they did, not that long ago, well within my own lifetime. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was one of those who sparked great, passionate emotions in people, for both his writing and his leftist politics. And in his own country, Chile, he was the equivalent of a rock star for many years.

Even his 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature was controversial: the award noted Neruda was a “contentious author” about whom the debate still raged. His death, shortly after the coup by the right-wing general, Augusto Pinochet, was long blamed on doctors under order by the former dictator, although a 2013 exhumation and autopsy failed to substantiate that claim (Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer at the time of his death).

My own experience of the prolific Neruda was, until quite recently, framed around a smattering of translations in anthologies. It broadened when I bought a comprehensive collection – more than 600 poems over 1,000 pages – that captures a fair cross section of the roughly 3,500 poems he published over his lifetime.

(To be honest, my appreciation of non-English poets comes mainly from such anthologies and translations; this is my first major collection of a non-English poet…).

Daniel Chouinard, writing in January Magazine, said,

No living poet is as famous today as Pablo Neruda was in his lifetime. He was a world figure, as famous as Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot, but with the added cachet in some circles of being a politically active man of the left. His poetry exerted an enormous influence throughout Latin America, and he remains beloved in his native Chile… In his willingness to experiment and change styles repeatedly, and in the way in which these changes released a flood of new work, Neruda resembled no one so much as Picasso. Contrary to what he believed, the more personal he wrote, the more people he reached.

Mark Strand, writing in The New Yorker, recognizes the problem with foreign-language writers published in English, but explains how editor Ilan Stavans deals with it:

Stavans has been careful to include almost all of Neruda’s major translators, and readers will encounter translation styles that range from the wooden and amusical to the fluid and finely tuned. Fortunately, Neruda’s best work has attracted his most gifted translators. Without them, his best might appear to be a good deal less. Examples of clear success are W. S. Merwin’s translation of “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,” Jack Schmitt’s translations of “Canto General” and “Art of Birds,” Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation of the three books of “Elemental Odes,” and Alastair Reid’s masterly translations of “Extravagaria” and “Isla Negra.” These works alone would easily be enough to provide many hours of happy reading.

Stavans himself wrote in the New York Times:

Neruda left thousands of poems, a handful of which are of such inspired beauty as to justify the very existence of the Spanish language. Adolescents routinely give his “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” to their sweethearts. His ideological verses have been read aloud, often from memory, in one revolution after another, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the embers of the Arab Spring. Some of Neruda’s poems — “I Ask for Silence,” “Walking Around,” “Ode to the Artichoke” — have been rendered into English repeatedly, each version another effort to make him current and vital to a new generation.

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More secrecy, more witch hunt, less accountability

Marie de France“Those who gain a good reputation should be commended.” So starts the Lay of Guigemar, by Marie de France.

It seems like mere commonsense, doesn’t it? We should laud those who achieve good things, who accomplish feats and goals, recognize with thanks those who work for our greater good.

But it ain’t necessarily so, Marie warns.  The 12th century French poet and fabulist known only as Marie de France wrote fables and poems with stories and morals – the earliest woman in France to do so. And what she wrote still has resonance in today’s world. She continued:

“But when there exists in a country a man or a woman of great renown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation. Thus they start acting like a vicious, cowardly, treacherous dog who will bite others out of malice.”*

Words to consider when you examine local politics and the continued leavening of spite and malice against some people and organizations in our community by a small group of malcontents and ideologues. Some of whom sit at the council table.

And consider those words, too, when you read the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting of council. Yet one more in-camera session continues the witch hunt meant to finally destroy the once-strong and mutually beneficial relationship between Collus/Powerstream and the town. This destruction has been the landmark activity this term.

Earlier, this term, this council destroyed the productive and mutually beneficial 150-relationship between our hydro and water utilities, throwing both utilities into turmoil, shattering staff morale and exacerbating the rift between the town and its utility partner, Powerstream. The provincially-respected COO of the water service quit and fled town. Others in the water service have resigned or retired early.

This move will cost more jobs, and could force our utility to move its offices and operations out of town. And, of course, it was all done without any public input at all.**

In return for the turmoil and plunging morale, Collingwood gets… nothing so far. The CAO and his consultant promised it would save more than $700,000 a year, but that figure wasn’t mentioned once in the preliminary budget meetings. It seems to have vanished. April fool! Wiser heads tell me they expect it will cost the town a lot of money. Smart move, eh?

Personal agendas should not be allowed to interfere with governance, should not set the terms for how a town behaves. These ideologies and personal agendas have already reduced the town’s once-sterling reputation to tatters, made us the laughingstock of the province, and despised by our neighbours and local developers.

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Collingwood’s Finances: Great Shape!

Doom and gloom consultants

There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom bandied about over Collingwood’s alleged dire financial picture this term. There have been the-sky-is-falling presentations and nightmare-inducing consultants’ reports that paint a bleak picture of the town’s debt and financial status. Hand-wringing and hair-pulling.

These jeremiads are enough to make a taxpayer wake up in the middle of the night and weep. If it were true.

Fortunately, it isn’t. I’d like to think that someone got his or her numbers wrong, read someone else’s information, added or subtracted when they should have been doing the opposite. Or maybe was just pulling our collective legs. A practical joke. Whatever the reason, it’s not true (and I sincerely hope someone didn’t do it deliberately!).

How do I know we’re in great shape? From reading an impeccable source for financial information: the province of Ontario’s own multi-year fiscal analysis, about which the province’s website explains….

The Multi-Year FIR Review (2009 On) – By Municipality provides selected FIR information by municipality for the years 2009 and greater.
In 2009, the Public Sector Accounting Board introduced new accounting and reporting standards which required municipalities to adopt full accrual accounting practices. As a result of these changes, municipalities must now account for and report their tangible capital assets in their Statement of Financial Position. The FIR also adopted these new reporting standards effective 2009…

The data runs from 2009 to 2014 for more than 500 municipalities, each one a separate file. It doesn’t encompass the previous year (2015), during which our council laboured under what seems to be false information about our debt and finances.

But you will be pleasantly surprised, I trust, to learn Collingwood is actually pretty well off in almost every category and performance indicator. Sure, we can always do better, but you won’t find any doom and gloom in this. So take heart and relax.

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The Swimmer

riverThe swimmer stood on the dock, contemplating the lazy current in the river. The warm spring, followed by the sunny days of early summer, had warmed the water enough to make the crossing less a challenge than a few weeks back, when he had first done it. It was still early enough in the day that the boaters weren’t on the water yet. The morning was calm and quiet, the sky clear and bright.

The perfect time for a swim.

He dropped his robe on the dock beside his towel, and prepared to dive.

“Just a moment!” a voice from the shore interrupted him. He turned to see a man in a dark grey suit striding purposefully along the dock towards him. He carried a briefcase in one hand and was holding a cellphone against his left ear with the other.

“Can I help you?” the swimmer asked, somewhat confused by the stranger’s interruption.

“Busby. George Busby. Municipal policies and planning department.” The stranger stuffed the phone into a pocket, and shoved his hand at the swimmer, who shook it automatically, but hesitantly. “You intending to swim today?”

“I am. Why?”

“Your plan, of course. We need to see your plan.”

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The Flat Earthers Respawn

Flat earthWhile flat-earther might be a metaphor for a certain kid of myopic, political stupidity (think of your local council…), I learned this week that it’s also a thriving online subculture of rabidly pseudo-science wingnuts.

A couple of entertaining articles about the flat-earthers appeared on the UK’s Guardian paper site (here and here) this week (and in the HuffPost, too). They surprised, but also disturbed me. I hadn’t actually believed in flat-earthers as a modern reality: while I knew of their former existence, I thought the concept was simply a trolling mechanism to expose the silliness of other pseudo-science like creationism or anti-vaccination fears.

But, no, I was wrong. There are, apparently, people who actually believe passionately in this nonsense; a very active community exists online and right now they’re having a hissy fit over one of their own’s comments. Comments which, to an outsider, sound a lot like the gostak distims the doshes.*

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised: the internet has allowed all sorts of madness and wackiness to gain an audience, from Donald Trump to the Food Babe, from local bloggers to chemtrail conspiracists and anti-vaccination idiots. But a flat earth? Really? That’s pretty sad. The Easter bunny is more believable.

What’s disturbing is that anyone could believe such nonsense in this day and age. This stuff is seriously loony.

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The Rational Gods of Iceland

CreationismWhile 61% of Icelanders say they believe in God, according to a recent poll, absolutely none  under the age of 25 believe that their personal hairy thunderer created the world:

Less than half of Icelanders claim they are religious and more than 40% of young Icelanders identify as atheist. Remarkably the poll failed to find young Icelanders who accept the creation story of the Bible. 93.9% of Icelanders younger than 25 believed the world was created in the big bang, 6.1% either had no opinion or thought it had come into existence through some other means and 0.0% believed it had been created by God.

None. Zero. That’s pretty astounding and progressive, especially when you compare it to the USA, where 42% of Americans still have superstitious, medieval creationist beliefs, according to a mid-2014 Gallup poll:

More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.

Well, a lot of Americans also believe in Donald Trump, so one can’t really be surprised at their lack of acuity, scientific education and common sense. There is some faint hope for a growth in secular (critical) thought, though, as Gallup notes:

There is little indication of a sustained downward trend in the proportion of the U.S. population who hold a creationist view of human origins. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who adhere to a strict secularist viewpoint — that humans evolved over time, with God having no part in this process — has doubled since 1999.

I’m not holding my breath for any sudden dawning of mass rationalism in the USA. Not while Trump, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter get any media attention. It’s the home of the truther, open-carry, anti-vaccination, climate-change-denial, Tea Party and the TVangelist movements, after all. The vast majority of wingnut, conspiracy and pseudoscience sites I have seen are American made, too (local blogs notwithstanding).
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What Would $101 Million Buy?

Ark under constructionThe answer to that question could be very long. I’ll bet among all the things you thought of buying with that much, you weren’t even once thinking it could buy a 510-foot replica of the mythological Noah’s ark.

But that’s what it is buying the folks who run the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. You can see video “encounters” of it being built. Sort of (they wouldn’t work for me, but I’m an evolutionist, so their god probably stopped me from seeing them…)

The park will open in July and, its creators promise, it will attract 1.4 million people annually. That seems a bit of a long shot, don’t you think? Are there that many people who would pay to see something made up, based on an allegory? But that will attract 16,000 guests a day, says Ken Ham.

Yes, that Ken Ham: the vocal young-earth creationist, president of the fringe group, Answers in Genesis (AiG). The guy behind the wacky creationist theme park. So now you understand. Yes, they’re at it again.

Stop laughing. Creationism isn’t just a flighty wingnut conspiracy theory: it’s a serious challenge to our educational system. Well, by “our” I really mean the Americans because Canadians don’t allow that sort of claptrap in public schools. We just look on in wonder at the stupidity. And a bit of horror. But I digress.

Ham and his wingnut friends have raised a lot of money to make a tourist attraction instead of doing something Christian with it. Feeding or housing the poor. Medical care for the homeless. You know, something unselfish and caring for the greater good.

$101 million is really a LOT of money (jumping up from $50 million in 2012 then to $73M million in 2014 and still climbing). It could do an enormous amount of good in the world.

Apparently Ham isn’t that kind of Christian. He’s the theme park fun-ride, promote your own agenda kinda Christian. But take heart: they’re making a “Ten Plagues” ride in the new park so you can have fun while not thinking about the real good $101 million could do in the world. Or about how you’re making Ham and his friends rich.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this wacky entertainment site is that apparently American taxpayers are going to shoulder a lot of its cost. As Newsweek also told us:

The money used to build Ark Encounter came from donations of almost $30 million, plus $62 million in high-risk, unrated municipal bonds backed by the project’s future revenues. If Ark Encounter never makes significant profits (and bond documents warn that it may not), neither the city nor AiG is on the hook for the bond money.

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Decoding Alice in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland DecodedIt is tempting to suggest author David Day’s lush new book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded is the final word on the mysteries and secrets behind Lewis Carroll’s iconic children’s fantasy, but alas, it would be an over-reach. Surely others will follow, perhaps even Day himself will extend his research to a sequel.

Aside from the difficulties of probing the motives of a man dead more than 125 years, there comes the question of interpretation, which is more like opinion than it is fact. Looking back 150 years at possible explanations for a reference or a character sometimes involves guesswork.

But even from its original publication, people knew there was more to Alice than a simple children’s tale replete with frivolous nonsense. As Day explains, Carroll himself acknowledged some of the references and metaphors. But there remain others for be dug out of the text like opals from the Australian bedrock. Day is a superb, if sometimes eccentric, prospector.

In an interview in the National Post, it notes,

Day also argues that the book was meant to give a classical education to someone like Alice, who, as a girl, wouldn’t be able to attend Oxford. Every character in Wonderland then becomes an allusion to a scholar or to a figure in Greek mythology; a reference to mathematical concept or to a famous work of art; or, quite frequently, a combination of all of the above.

It is fun, in a conspiracy-theory sort of way, to entertain hidden references to ancient gods, myths and mysteries, but as Sigmund Freud allegedly said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Those of you old enough to remember the Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods books know how quickly such egregious assumptions can be discredited and ridiculed.

Still, Day’s effort is not to be dismissed: his arguments and theories are well explained and generally compelling. It is, to date, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging peek behind the Alice curtain, and certainly most elegantly published version (the full-colour hardcover is gorgeous). It took the author almost two decades to research and write.

And it’s a good social biography of Carroll and his milieu, although it helps if you know something about the Victorian era, the British Empire, the impact of Darwin, and the social and political attitudes of the day.

But don’t lose track of the prime reason Carroll wrote the book: to entertain, delight and (possibly) educate children. Let’s not rub off all the innocence and the magic by too much analysis. As The Telegraph noted of the original book:

Future generations may see other hidden meanings. In a tale this rich, it seems highly likely they will. But for children the story itself, with its universal theme of an innocent youngster attempting to make sense of a strange adult world, is enough.

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Monday’s Limited Choices

choices, choicesHere are the choices Collingwood Council faces, Monday night, when dealing with the unethical, immoral and probably illegal actions of the two renegade members of council.

You’ll recall that these two sent out an unauthorized, and what I and others believe was a highly inappropriate media release late in December, without showing them to council first, bypassing the mayor, and pimping their own personal political agendas, while disingenuously presenting them as town positions. This also implicated staff in what looks like inappropriate, partisan actions on behalf of the two council members.

This violated the town’s code of conduct, council’s oath of office, and the expectations of the electorate for honest, ethical representation. And so far no one has explained anything in public, let alone apologized.

Selfish, anti-social behaviour cannot be ignored. Council must deal with their actions, and do so publicly, if it is to retain even shreds of credibility this term (not to mention discussing a media release in camera is illegal under the Municipal Act).

The public is waiting for something appropriate to be said, something appropriate to be done if there is to be any confidence left in this council and administration. Ignoring it is not a viable option. Monday will tell us everything.

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Kanile’a Islander GL6

GL6What a difference two strings make. Late last week, I traded my Jupiter Creek steel-stringed baritone, solid-body uke for one of these Kanile’a nylon-stringed GL6 “guitar-leles” which the company calls a “guilele.”

It’s really a short-scale guitar tuned like a ukulele: a fourth higher. More like a requinto than a uke.

Kanile’a says of the GL6 line:

Our GL6 is a hybrid instrument that we developed bringing the convenience of the ‘ukuleles’ size with the playability that guitar players love. This instrument has our unique Super Tenor body in combination with our 20 inch scale, joined at the body on the 16th fret with 22 frets total.

Now I’m trying to remember all the chords, the fingering, the techniques I used when I played guitar. Boy, what a difference those extra strings make! And BTW, the Islander model isn’t one of the  company’s high-end models: it’s a modestly-priced instrument.

I played guitar from around 1965 until 2008, when I took up ukulele. And that’s all I’ve played since. You get used to the size and scale pretty quickly.

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The Political Agnostic

party politicsWatching the American political debates, especially the increasingly vituperative and acerbic Republican debates, reminds me again why I am a political agnostic when it comes to party politics. I simply cannot believe that any single political entity, any party or person, has all the answers or can dig us out of whatever hole we’re currently in.

And America, with its rigid, two-party system, has seen its electoral options, choices and opportunities reduced to caricature status. On one side, a group of frighteningly racist, homophobic, xenophobic, gun-fanatic Christianists. On the other, a woman with no clear policies but a sense of entitlement.

And then there’s Bernie Saunders, who is the closest thing to an independent I’ve seen in years. He’s the best and brightest hope American politics has seen since JFK. And unlikely to be chosen as the Democratic candidate by a political system in which both parties are built on money, graft, corruption, corporate lobbying, and catering to the lowest common denominator.

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