The strange life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

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The dystopian present

Dystopia
If there is one good thing to come out of the election of Donald Trump, it has been the renewed interest in a certain genre of literature. Sales of dystopian novels have skyrocketed on Amazon, in particular what might be called “The Big Three” of dystopian tales: George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

From each of these novels, allegorical threads can be woven into some narrative aspect as a metaphor for the Trump administration: 1984’s newspeak, media manipulation and paranoid Big Brother; Brave New World’s elites-vs-savages mentality, exiled intellectuals and its psychological manipulation; Handmaid’s Tale misogyny and control of women’s reproductive rights.

But only in Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 dystopian novel, Limbo 90, did I find a metaphor for Trump’s followers (it was also published in the USA titled simply Limbo).

Wolfe’s novel is set in what was for him a dimly foreseeable future: 1990, after the atomic-bomb destruction of WWIII. An American, he was writing during the early years of the Cold War and blossoming Red Scare: the pinnacle of the McCarthy witch hunts. In his imagined future, Wolfe pictured the Soviet and Western Blocs still surviving, at least ideologically, but changed by the war.

What has changed most is society: after the latest conflict that devastated so much of the world, the populace grew so weary of war that pacifist politics came to be the norm. But pacifists became radicalized. Words alone didn’t count (although there are plenty of anti-war slogans around): you needed to prove your resistance to war. And the only way to do it was to have a limb voluntarily amputated. Or two, three, four… to become a Vol-amp.

For some, the lost limbs were replaced by prosthetics, worn with pride to show off their dedication to the pacifist principles. The more radical eschewed the pros entirely and simply lumped in baskets, limbless, passive, and immobile: the Immobs. Amputees of both sorts are now in the majority of males. (Women don’t follow suit because in Wolfe’s time, women were not allowed into active military service, and people of colour are pretty much reduced to servitude.).

Trump’s followers didn’t amputate their limbs, of course, but they did amputate a part of themselves. Or rather parts. They amputated their reason, their intellect, their empathy, their logic, their critical thinking and skepticism. They voluntarily stopped thinking and became intellectual Immobs, no less passive than those in Wolfe’s tale. You can see the metaphor here.

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Auden, Trump and poetry

W. H. AudenThere’s a poem by W. H. Auden (1907-73) going the internet rounds these days with suggestions of Auden’s prescience towards the latest American president and contemporary politics. It’s a powerful piece, but the bad news for conspiracy theorists is that Auden was a poet, not a prophet. A good poet, even a great poet, mind you, but not one to predict much of anything outside the local reaches of the human heart.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unusual, perhaps bordering on blasphemy, to put poetry in the same headline as the notorious philistine, but worlds do collide at times, even if awkwardly. Lipstick sometimes becomes conflated with the metaphorical pig, guilty by association.

The poem in question – Sept. 1, 1939 – opens like it could have been written by a somewhat later Charles Bukowski:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth… sure sounds like it might have been written with the vast protests that followed Trump’s inauguration: more three times as many people came out to protest in Washington alone than showed up at his inauguration, and that doesn’t include the numbers who marched worldwide. Waves of anger and fear, indeed. But it wasn’t an augury.

September 1, 1939 would have been for Auden’s era and generation a landmark date, like Nov. 22, 1963 was for my time. Maybe January 20, 2017 will be for the current generation. One of those where-were-you-when dates frozen in the neuronic amber of memory. The place, the sounds, the grubby details of that day forever etched in our brains. Auden’s 52nd Street dive. The panzers tearing across Polish farmlands. People running through the crowded streets of Dallas after the shot. The bleak day when Trump raised his hand to be sworn in. Where you you when…?

The date must have been doubly important for Auden, because earlier that year he had left England for America, where he remained the rest of his life. When war was declared, he offered to return home to serve, but was politely rebuffed. At age 32, he wasn’t needed. He stayed in America from then on – making it somewhat difficult to identify him as a strictly English or American poet in anthologies. So the poem is, in a way, a goodbye to a life he left behind.

Auden had increasingly deep political beliefs that sometimes peer through his writing and show their complexity growing with age and wisdom. He spent a year living in Berlin in 1928, and would return to the city several times before WWII broke out. He watched the rise of fascism, anti-semitism. He loved Berlin, but hated what it became under the Nazis.
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It’s Not a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life
I’m convinced many Americans – Donald Trump among them – think Frank Capra’s famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life, was a documentary, not entertainment. It has all the elements of Trumpist utopia: a white, Christian, unquestionably patriotic, male-dominated, patriarchal culture where the bad guy gets away with stealing from others, and making himself rich at everyone else’s expense. No one stops him and everyone still lives happily ever after.*

Married women in the film are mostly housewives; those women who work are secretaries and clerks while men are the bosses. There is little traffic: no hopped-up cars, no street racing, no motorcycles or biker gangs. Streets are broad and tree-lined; no apartments or highrises. The pretty downtown would be a heritage district today, frozen in time against modernization and change.

You don’t see teenagers loitering around coffee shops obsessed with their cell phones. Younger kids have jobs and even run businesses. There are no unions. Everyone dresses modestly, clothed from neck to ankle to wrist. Children appear in families without the messy, distracting business of sex (although there is a suggestive kiss in the film). There isn’t even a honeymoon for the newly married couple.

People of colour appear in it only as polite servants, employees or entertainers. From my count only five black people are in the film: the family servant, a couple in the high school dance scene (possibly the same couple who appear on the street in the background of a scene where George and Violet flirt), a delivery person who appears only in the final scene and a piano player in a honky tonk a la Fats Waller. Only Nora, the black servant, has any lines. The rest are mere background.

No Mexicans, Asians, Indians or other ethnicities. No Thai food restaurants or Chinese or Indian, no fast food drive-throughs. The downtown has no graffiti, no litter, no stray dogs or homeless people. You can drink and drive without consequences since the police are aw-shucks-just-folk torn from the set of Andy Griffiths’ Mayberry. There are no drugs, no drunks, no social housing. No strip clubs.

And of course it is watched over by a jovial, benevolent god who appoints a happy, somewhat feckless angel to make sure things go right.** George Bailey, secular at the start, learns to pray by the end. Every time you hear a bell, an angel gets its wings. No place in Bedford Falls for the unbeliever. Or the Jew. Or the Muslim. George prays, muttering his own version of Oh, Father, why hast Thou forsaken me? And he gets results. God is always on hand to absolve the faithful of their folly, just as long as they ask nicely. You don’t even need to believe, just make a show of doing so.

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I used to like him; not so much now…

John SewellBack in the ’70s when he ran for mayor and we both lived in Toronto, I voted for John Sewell. And when he won, I was a big supporter of his human-scale policies and planning, and enjoyed his youthful vigour and vision. Now, not so much. Sure, he’s a smart, well-spoken, erudite man with a long list of credentials. But he’s also wrong. At least about one issue: our hospital.

Sewell and Collingwood resident Karina Dahlin (former Editor, executive communications, the Hospital for Sick Children, according to LinkedIn) wrote an opinion piece for TVO’s online magazine titled, “Health care gaps: Ontario forcing sprawl by putting hospitals at the periphery.” Sorry, but that’s nonsense.

Both writers are members of the local committee formed to fight the proposed move of the hospital from its near-central location to a new site on the periphery of town. Why Sewell – whose bio states he lives in Toronto – is so involved in Collingwood politics mystifies me.

Sewell was a darling of some former VOTE (Voters Opposed To Everything) members; years ago he was brought in to speak about several issues like planning and growth, mostly in support of their own notions (VOTE, as you know, killed the Admiral Collingwood development which would now be a stunning, income-generating anchor to the downtown had they not interfered).

I’ve written about the hospital in the past (here, here and here for example) – mostly about The Block’s (and the administration’s) ongoing war against the hospital, its development committee and its board. It is a battle between The Block’s idée fixe and the greater good of the community, between personal and public agendas.

While the article makes some good points, it’s not exactly an unbiased and objective look. And in part their argument is based on a faulty association: a big city and a small town. They write:

It is occurring so frequently that it appears to be ministry policy: don’t build a new hospital in the centre of town, only on the periphery. That’s what has happened in Owen Sound, St. Catharines, North Bay, Oakville, Peterborough, Barrie, Cobourg, and other communities.
And there are plans to do the same thing in Windsor, where the two large downtown hospitals are slated to be torn down and a new $2-billion facility built out beyond the city’s airport; in Collingwood, where the downtown hospital would be demolished and a new $400-million facility built among farmers’ fields, beyond what town council calls its “built boundary;” and in Bracebridge and Huntsville, where two hospitals would be demolished and a new one built literally halfway between the communities, in the bush.

We are relatively similar in size to Owen Sound and Coburg, but not to any of the others. Certainly what happens in Windsor or Oakville cannot be reasonably compared. The differences in land values in the core versus those in the outskirts are so much greater in cities that you cannot compare the economics in such communities. Plus they are single-tier municipalities and we are second-tier.

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Kellie Leitch’s politics of division

Kellie LeitchThey’re not like us. They’re not our religion. They’re not our colour. They don’t speak our language. They don’t dress like us. They don’t eat like us. They don’t drive like us, shop like us, read like us, walk like us. We need to control them. Deport them. Jail them. Make them convert. Make them speak English. Make them dress like us. Screen them before we let them in.

Them versus us. The politics of division, of polarization and separation. Dog whistle politics that appeal to the most vulnerable: the poor, the poorly educated, the illiterate, the disenfranchised, the unemployed, the angry, the racists and bigots, the fundamentalists, and, at least in our culture, the young white male.

That tactic worked well for Donald Trump and propelled him into the presidency. Now Conservative leadership hopeful, Kellie Leitch, is trying to make it work in Canada. While most of us watched aghast at Trump’s victory, Leitch sent this exuberant email to her followers:

Tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president.

“Threw out the elites?” Since when was a self-aggrandizing, tax-avoiding billionaire businessman not one of the elites? Since when was he not the establishment? But apparently many thought he was just an ordinary guy. A vulgar, vagina-grabbing, lying guy. The Washington Post wrote:

The greatest trick Donald Trump pulled was convincing voters he’d be “anti-establishment.”
Well, maybe not the greatest trick. But in a campaign full of cons, it has to rank close to the top. This was near the heart of Trump’s appeal to the disaffected and disempowered: Send me to Washington, and that “establishment” you’ve been hearing so much about? We’ll blow it up, send it packing, punch it right in the face, and when it’s over the government will finally be working for you again. And the people who voted for Trump bought it.
…An organizational chart of Trump’s transition team shows it to be crawling with corporate lobbyists, representing such clients as Altria, Visa, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Verizon, HSBC, Pfizer, Dow Chemical, and Duke Energy.

Trump didn’t throw out any “elites” – he’s opened the door to power for them. Trump’s term in office will see cronyism, patronage and elitism rise to its fullest and fiercest. But there was Kellie at the recent leadership debate, proudly stating “I have common interests with Mr. Trump.”

I don’t know how that statement will play out among the Conservative elites who get to determine their new leader, but it sure flabbergasted and offended me.

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Dear USA: I’m sorry for your loss.

Weeping ParisianDear United States of America and my American friends:

While I am sorry for your loss on election night, I’m afraid, however, I cannot agree to open the border and let you flood in. Canada is a country, not a convenience for Americans trying escape a self-made disaster. You made your own bed, now you must sleep in it.

I don’t want to sound unsympathetic. It was devastating to see decency, integrity, honesty, fairness, equality and compassion all die in the same wreck. I cannot imagine the pain you are feeling. It must seem as if all the good has been drained out of your world and the apocalypse nears. You have my sincere condolences. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, as the poet Vergil wrote: There are tears for our adversities, and mortal affairs touch the heart. And we share your tears.

Sadly, your values are survived by their developmentally-challenged children: racism, misogyny, elitism, illiteracy, dishonesty,inequality, white supremacy, entitlement, selfishness, violence, vulgarity, ignorance, venality and hatred. It will not be pleasant watching them grow up in their parentless environment, especially not embodied in your leaders. I can only hope you survive this tragedy.

But you’ll have to do it in your own backyards.

Of course, like any other immigrant, you may apply for landed status and perhaps even citizenship if you fill in all the forms and wait you turn. We welcome immigrants in Canada, but your frantic scrabble to get out of the USA has caused our immigration website to crash. Please leave it alone for a few days and let it get back to normal. By then your hangover should have worn off somewhat and you can more calmly assess the damage.

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Politically correct pronoun madness

gender neutral pronounsZe, zim, zer, zher, zis, mer, hus, shkle, hum, herm, hann, ey, hu, je, xe, per, thon, yo, ghaH, co, e. Know what these words are? They are artificial constructs: neologisms cobbled together for abstruse political correctness to replace traditional pronouns that expose or define a gender in the subject or object of a sentence: the traditional he, him, she, her and so on.

They’re sometimes called Spivak pronouns after an American mathematician who coined some of them, but there are many more than he coined. Gender-neutral pronouns (GNP) are today’s newspeak. Wiktionary has a long list of them. A long list.

Gender-specific pronouns are, apparently, verboten in some circles particularly our educational system – where these strange, ugly new GNP words are de rigeur. Gawds forbid anyone’s assumed gender should not be recognized because it could lead to confusion and bruised egos.

You don’t hear these words much outside academia because, I suppose, in the real world these words just seem pretentious and silly.

Not to Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has been taken to task for not kowtowing to the speech police. His story has become an international one, spun along the polarized lines of debate that social media encourages. As the Sun noted:

Peterson has gone on to say that he will not address his students by the pronoun of their choice, sparking a backlash from social activists and the transgendered community.
His comments have sparked a rebuke from his employer, petitions in favour and against, two tense rallies, feverish online debate and media interest in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The university has said that while Peterson is free to express his views, students have complained they don’t feel safe, and faculty is expected to foster a learning environment free from discrimination and harassment.

A privileged few who can afford to attend university in Canada don’t feel safe in a classroom environment because a professor refuses to call them by a word not found in any English dictionary? Scary places, our universities. Forget guns, drugs, rape, or violence: here the knife-sharp edge of a misused pronoun can cut a student to the quick.

How far should this go? What if a student might feel offended and discriminated against if the professor refuses to call him/her/zhim/zong/(pick your word) a heffalump? And another wants to be called Lucky Ducky? What if one demands to be addressed using Klingon?* One wants ze, another pe, another xem – should the professor use them all, rhyming them off in a lengthy list in order to be fully inclusive and make sure no one is excluded? Can’t have anyone’s fragile self esteem tattered.

Every student should have to fill in a form at the start of every year to list the various words by which they must be addressed, and all the acceptable singular and plural pronouns by which they will permit others to be addressed or referred to. Good luck keeping them all straight (in the linear sense of the word). New York City, apparently, recognizes 31 genders. (list here). ** In The Sun, Antonella Artuso asks, “Are we supposed to have a pronoun for each of those genders? So, how the hell are we going to keep track of that? How is that going to work?”

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Tough Times for Print Media

NewspapersIt’s not like the halcyon days when I first started writing for newspapers, back in late 1969. Today, print media is struggling to survive in a world dominated by digital media and mega-corps owners (although not so hard it can’t pay its CEOs and executives several million dollars while they slash real jobs).*

Print media has long been losing its advertising share, a trend exacerbated by the internet. Newspapers now have about 11% share, compared to about 35% for the internet, according to a Globe and Mail story. A Pew Research study in 2015 showed newspaper advertising in the USA dropped 4% in 2014.

But for Postmedia the picture has been consistently bleaker: a drop of 17.6% in advertising in three months of 2015 alone – and advertising represents 57% of the company’s income. Plus it lost $3.2 million in circulation revenue (excluding the Sun papers). Even its digital revenue (excluding the Sun) dropped by $5.9 million in that quarter.

This year has been a particularly tough one for Canadian media: in January Postmedia announced 90 job cuts and the merger of several, previously competitive newsrooms. But no cuts were made to CEO Paul Godfrey’s $1.4 million salary plus bonus package, of course. No share-the-pain momentum in the upper echelons. As the CBC reported:

Postmedia’s finances have been sagging for several quarters under a large debt load, much of which was accrued when the company bought the entire Sun chain of newspapers from Quebecor in late 2014 for $316 million.
That move consolidated most of the English-language newspapers in Canada under the Postmedia banner, with the notable exception of the Toronto Star and the Globe And Mail.

And the pain wasn’t over yet. As the CBC story continued:

A big problem for the chain, Waddell noted, is that Postmedia paid for the Sun Media purchase with debt loaned by U.S. backers. Those debts must now be repaid at a time when the Canadian dollar is worth much less, which means it costs more money to repay at a time when the chain has less cash overall.
“This is an organization that is losing money and losing a lot of money,” Waddell said.

Even though I despise Postmedia’s misplaced affection for the uber-right and its kowtowing to its American hedge fund owners, it’s a sorry day for Canadian media when any paper closes, when any journalist gets laid off. And that’s been happening a lot of late.

In January, with as much fanfare as one can have at a funeral, the Guelph Mercury – a Metroland paper – closed its doors after 150 years. Or rather, had its doors closed by its parent company.

That same month, TorStar closed its printing plant in Vaughan where it had printed the paper for the past 25 years, cutting almost 300 jobs.

In June, Postmedia closed the printing presses at the London Free Press and outsourced the work to its competitor, Metroland, cutting 139 jobs in the process.

In August, TorStar announced it was cutting 50 jobs, mostly “…from its newsroom and tablet edition, amid increasing pressure from declining print advertising revenue” according to a CBC story. That was followed by an additional 26 employees. TorStar’s operating revenue has been falling for several years in a row, its annual report shows and its subsidiary, Metroland saw losses as well (revenues down $37.1 million, see p. 5 and 19, with an operating loss of more than $250 million in 2015, p. 20).

A popular Postmedia Vancouver paper, 24 Hours, laid off all its staff of eight, including its three reporters, in September. The paper was repurposed to merely regurgitate content from other Postmedia papers.

Also in September, the Globe & Mail asked that 40 of its 650 employees take voluntary severance packages, the third time in as many years that the newspaper has tried to slash its payroll. Sixty employees took the first offer in 2013, one site reported.

In September, Rogers Media stopped printing four of its magazines and moving them to digital-only platforms. The company also reduced the number of editions of others, noting that print advertising revenue had dropped 30 per cent in the past year. Number of jobs last was not reported.

And then earlier this month, PostMedia announced it was cutting its salaries by 20%, and layoffs loomed if enough employees didn’t voluntarily resign. Postmedia had 4,733 employees at the end of August, 2015, according to CTV News, but was down to around 4,000 about a year later.

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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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The News: A User’s Manual

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10635865/The-News-by-Alain-de-Botton-review.html

The NewsAlain de Botton attempts in his small book to give us a guide, to provide some larger, meaningful context, to the news we get 24/7 these days. I don’t think he succeeds very well. In part it’s because he sees news as something grandiose, world-moving, world-shaking. I’m more familiar with the local aspect; a much smaller scale. It may not appear to have the majestic sweep of international news, but it isn’t any less relevant.

We are focused, collectively, on the US presidential campaigns and the interpersonal battles between Trump and Clinton. It’s a great drama of Homeric or Shakespearean proportion (albeit comical). But are they really any more important to us than, say, the confrontation between members of our own council – Deputy Mayor Saunderson, Councillors Doherty and Jeffrey in particular – and the local hospital board?

A local issue may seem small in comparison, but it certainly has more impact on our daily lives here. And the personalities and their comments are no less colourful.

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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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Electing atheists

Anti-atheists billboard
trust meterA recent story on Religion News discusses the DNC’s concerns about former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ religion. Not that he was Jewish, but that he might be a closet atheist. And that send the DNC-crats over the roof. Scary, eh?

You can’t elect an atheist in America. You can elect liars, cheats, adulterers, misogynists and creationists (and sometimes all in the same person…). But not atheists.

Even Donald Trump, whose murky religious beliefs remain cause for much speculation, overshadowed by his overt worship of power and money, hasn’t strayed into atheism, at least publicly.

And it’s been that way since the late 1960s-early ’70s. American religion and politics somehow became entwined around then, and today they are inseparable, Constitution notwithstanding. The right paints anyone who isn’t Bible-thumping along with them as atheist, leftist, socialist or liberal (or all four…). The recent Republican presidential-candidate race often seemed more like a series of fundamentalist, revivalist prayer meetings than political debates.

Not that America is unique in this. Despite a growing percentage of the population claiming no religious affiliation running as an atheist in politics taints any candidate. As the article continues:

Raising a candidate’s religion or questioning his or her faith is beyond the pale. One reason the email is so damning (pun intended) is that atheists are among the least-liked groups in America. There is a wide gap between public opinion toward Jews and feelings for atheists.
How much are they disliked? The average American feels warmer toward Congress than toward atheists. That’s as low as you get in public opinion.

Statistics show that roughly 20% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they’re atheists. In fact, the large majority of them believe in a deity or have some spiritual belief. A Pew Research poll suggests only 3.1% of Americans are actually atheists and 4% are agnostics.

Although 23.9% of Canadians claim to be ‘irreligious’, the list of openly atheist politicians in Canada is pitifully small (and all of them are from Quebec…).

An Angus-Reid poll also indicates the troubling notion that a lot of Canadians who consider themselves non-religious or ambivalent about religion also believe in superstitious claptrap like astrology, reincarnation and psychic powers.

Overall, though we don’t much care for prayer in public meetings, regardless of what we believe. And that’s a good thing.

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More relevant words from Nixonland

Harper as NixonOnce again, as I continue to read through Anthony Summers’ biography of Richard Nixon, The Arrogance of Power (Penguin Books, 2000), I am struck by the uncanny resonance of many comments quoted within it to local politics. It’s like people living in the 1950s had a device through which they could view the politics of today, see the politicians on our own council and were reflecting on them, instead of their contemporaries. Some time viewing device right out of science fiction.

Of course, we know they are speaking and writing of Richard Nixon and his activities, but nonetheless… the word uncanny keeps springing to mind. Like I said in my last piece on this book, I am astounded at its local relevance.

Nixon was despised early in his career for his dirty tactics, lack of morals and ethics, his underhanded tricks and his incessant lying. He was unscrupulous in his bids for power and didn’t waste any sentiment on those whose reputations and careers he despoiled. Sound familiar? Like anyone you know on council or in town hall? Like the background for the previous municipal election campaign? Isn’t that resemblance scary?

Even though these words below were penned more than 60 years ago and on the other side of the border, I can’t get over how eerily they fit the local political scene. How well they can be snapped into any critical comment or editorial (should local media ever develop the spine or other parts of their flaccid anatomies to write one…) about Collingwood politicians and their blatant skullduggery.

So much so that, if I ever thought any of The Block actually read anything with more words than a stop sign, I would suspect they had read a biography of Nixon and chosen him as their role model.

Continue reading “More relevant words from Nixonland”

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…

Continue reading “Demagogues and dictators”