Monthly Archives: September 2014

Oh, Bother!

As I read, listen to, and very occasionally watch the News, I find much to bother me, and little to console. That is, of course, how its (or is it their?) purveyors wish me to feel, possibly because they think I will be more properly informed that way, or perhaps more entertained.

“The Sky is falling!” says Chicken Little. “I must go tell the King.”

“Chicken Little Incorporated, a national think tank, released a report today concluding that the Sky is falling,” says the News. “A copy of the report has been sent to the King.”

“The Sky is not falling,” says the King, “because I am holding it up, and will continue to do so as long as you let me keep my job. If you fire me, however, it will fall.”

The CBC this week published an “Analysis” under the title “Stephen Harper more open with Americans, UN than with Parliament” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/stephen-harper-more-open-with-americans-un-than-with-parliament-1.2777071). I waited some time before reading this article, because I found its banner less than compelling. After all, what do we expect? Neither the Americans nor the UN are trying to thrust regime change upon Stephen Harper, unlike a vociferous element in Parliament, all of it, in fact, that he does not personally control. He does not need to inform his own side of Parliament, because it will do what he says. He does not like informing the other sides, because they want him fired, and will turn his words against him to that end. The purveyors of News will report what he says wherever he says it, and thus the Public will be just as informed one way as the other. Elementary politics, my dear Watson, and not News at all, nor worthy of being called “Analysis”. That particular sky has already fallen.

Let us toy for a while with the not-quite-fiction that our parliamentarians (and legislators and councillors at other levels) are hired and delegated by us to ensure on our behalf that necessary work gets done, that some of them are delegated by our delegates to do the work, and that the rest are delegated to make sure that the first group is doing the work properly. They “supervise” on our behalf. The whole affair is vastly more complicated, of course, but not necessarily in its essence.

In what model of supervision, taught or not by our keen-edged schools of business, does it say that a sound method can be found in constant public bellowing of assertions that the persons supervised are incompetent, unworthy, and ought to be replaced at the earliest opportunity? How would you behave if you were routinely supervised in this fashion?

“Let them say I’m incompetent and unworthy, and let me say I’m not.” John Henry Bagshaw knew how the system works. It’s patently absurd, and evidently does not serve us very well. It serves, and is designed to serve, combat-minded politicians, because they designed it, and like to play it. And as long as combat remains the model it won’t change, unless it gets worse.

So let’s talk about change.

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And What About the Roads?

A well-loved member of my family posted this question as a comment on my last post. If we take “roads” as a metaphor embracing all the public structures and services that smooth and enrich the course of our daily lives and protect us from harm, what indeed about the roads?

The most recent Editor’s Note by John Macfarlane, editor of The Walrus (October 2014), essays a list of issues that might well preoccupy voters in the federal election soon to come: “health care, the economy, unemployment, et cetera”, to which he adds “the environment … the plight of Aboriginal peoples … the crisis in municipal affairs …” I’m a committed “et cetera” man myself, but I like the addition of this last item to the list of urgent public concerns. What about the roads?

Last winter we had some very bad weather here on Bruce Peninsula, and after one storm the arterial highway on which we all depend, and for which many of us have no alternative, was closed for a week or more. I am willing to concede that the initial closure of the highway was caused by the weather; such events are not uncommon here. But I harbour a deep suspicion that the reason it was closed for so long had more to do with budget cuts. The old Department of Highways of my youth, later elevated into the Ministry of Transportation, held in its heart, I believe, a fierce resolve to keep the roads open and safe, or to get them that way as fast as possible, no matter what. No doubt such resolve came at a cost to tax-payers. I do not believe that the present private contractor, worthy corporate citizen though he may be (I have no evidence to the contrary), is being paid enough to support the same resolve.

Thus do vociferous bands of people who define themselves as tax-payers rather than citizens, that is, who obsess on the negative aspects of the civic relationship and ignore the positive ones, by their strident resistance to paying the just cost of public structures and services, compel us and our neighbours to stay at home for several days when we might better have been out engaged in productive activities. The cost to us, in other circumstances and for other “roads”, could have been much higher.

This is merely one anecdote from one aspect of public structures and services, although a hugely important one for our way of life. And if we in our placid rural backwater are being hurt by this pusillanimous distortion of the civic relationship, then how much heavier the cost must be to the folk in our teeming and vital cities. What about their roads?

Who are these people who force our politicians to adopt their narrow-minded, negative and selfish perspective on our society? What are we and all whom they force to accept the cost: chopped liver?

Mr. Macfarlane says that if we want change in the way our politicians think, “All we have to do is speak up.” So let’s do it.

Funny Man

This morning we have election results from New Brunswick, and a new political party has emerged at least into public notice, if not public favour. It is the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick, and was supported by 2.1% of the voters, according to unofficial results on the CBC.

The party asserts its fundamental principles on its web site: Free votes in the Legislative Assembly; honesty in election campaigns; government that is accountable to the people who elected them. This is wonderful. I suppose one familiar with the works of Stephen Leacock might call it the Edward Drone Party, and if you don’t know him you could re-read Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

If you do that, however, I hope you will read it properly, and not take it as a satire on small town life or on any particular small town, even Orillia, Ontario. Stephen Leacock can be (unfortunately is not always) a funny man, but he is only occasionally a satirist, and he certainly, at the time he was writing that book, did not know much about small towns. Mariposa is not Orillia, or any other small town, but simply a creation of Leacock’s comic imagination. The satirist makes fun of people as he would have us believe they really are. Leacock simply imagines some funny people and invites us to enjoy their antics. Sunshine Sketches is a comic book, and should be read as such.

Unlike Stephen Leacock I grew up in a small town, located not far from Orillia, and while the people of my home town certainly had their distinctive character, and could in some respects be fairly satirized if one felt so inclined, they were not stupid. It is the stupidity of the Mariposans that makes them funny, and occasionally vicious. But these are imaginary people, not to be mistaken for real ones.

The election chapters, however, are certainly a satire on Canadian election habits, which persist to this day. The incumbent MP, John Henry Bagshaw, “the old war horse”, describes his formula for winning elections: “I said, fight the thing on graft… Let them claim that I am crooked, and let me claim that I’m not. Surely that was good enough without dragging in the tariff.” Keep it simple, in other words. Is our current approach to electoral politics really any more sophisticated? The media for projecting it may be so, but is the substance?

We live in a complicated world, and our government is a complicated creation, for which we the voters are ultimately responsible. Our economy is a complicated creation, for which we the purchasers are ultimately responsible. Our society is a complicated creation, for which we the citizens are ultimately responsible. Certainly there are forces at work who would like us to shape these creations in ways that suit them, forces most cunningly persuasive, but we have the means and the responsibility to shape them in ways that suit us and will be good for our children and grandchildren.

Brain Wars Ho!

I see brains and lips closed, tympans and temples unstruck, until that comes which has the quality to strike and unclose, until that comes which has the quality to bring forth what lies slumbering forever ready in all words. Walt Whitman.

I sallied forth last week onto this field of battle in the Brain Wars both quoting these words with approval and acknowledging that they are only partly true. Closed brains and unstruck tympans and temples we can indeed observe very commonly, unclosed and struck more rarely. As for unclosed lips, however, we see and hear no shortage of them. The problem persists not in the lips, but in the ears and the brains. Unfettered lips we enjoy in abundance.

I had two interesting encounters with brains this week. In fact I had several, but two are particularly notable. Both belonged to guests in my home. One was a relative on an overnight visit, and the other came for one of our Country Supper Storytelling Concerts. Both voiced political opinions on matters of urgent public concern. I liked their opinions, in both cases. One was a man in the property business, who by appearances would not have been out of place at the board table of any chamber of commerce in any small urban centre. The other also looked like what she is: a scientist and academic with respectable credentials and a tireless advocate for the causes of Nature. One conversed with an unclosed brain, the other with a closed brain. I leave it to your imagination to guess which was which, and also to judge which is likely to be more effective in the brain wars.

Beware of stereotypes. The dark forces in the brain wars rely on them.

As I look out over the field of battle, I see four armies, all strenuously vociferating their causes in single-minded preoccupation and with a huge diversity of rhetorical method and sophistication of argument. “Me-Me!”, screams one. “Us-Us!” roars another. “Them-Them! thunders the third. “Her-Her!” howls the fourth, referring to Nature. The noise is stupendous. To and fro the tide of battle rages, spreading alarm and devastation on all sides and solving nothing, in fact, simply creating more battlefields.

But what is this little band of earnest souls huddled ill-armed amidst the tumult, waving its pallid banner, the lettering worn by the ages but still clearly legible? “ALL OF THE ABOVE!” it says. How feeble, yet how magnificent!

The brain wars will be won when all four armies are victorious in the achievement of an unending negotiation, using methods that we know very well but are reluctant to trust. The battle to be fought first, therefore, is not against the armies that we don’t like, but against the reluctance.

Reluctance: the struggle against ourselves. The strategic front line in the Brain Wars: the struggle against the struggle against ourselves. Whoa! There’s a challenge, worthy of any mettle.

To arms, my friends!

Walking and Talking

To you greetings, and welcome to my blog. This is the first post; I will eventually fill in all the blanks to make it everything it can be.

I like to walk, and I like to talk. I like particularly the talk that can be stimulated by a good walk, the right kind of walk, a Henry David Thoreau kind of walk, a sauntering, convivial walk.

I am, in a restricted sense, a professional talker, striving to be, in the Walt Whitman sense, a vocalist:

Where is the practis’d and perfect organ? where is the develop’d soul? For I see every word utter’d thence has deeper, sweeter, new sounds, impossible on less terms. I see brains and lips closed, tympans and temples unstruck, until that comes which has the quality to strike and unclose, until that comes which has the quality to bring forth what lies slumbering forever ready in all words.” So says Uncle Walt.

If you want to see what my talking amounts to primarily, you can at your leisure peruse www.voyageurstorytelling.ca. This blog is secondary, liable to be set aside for days or even weeks at a time, whenever I hear the trumpet-call of the Muse (expression borrowed from Robertson Davies), batty old bawd though she be, all too often.

Unclosing the lips is a piece of cake these days, and here is WordPress, bless them, making it even easier. Unclosing the brain is more difficult, both the own brain and other brains. And yet, the cause is urgent, because those of us who value the unclosed brain and its conversation are bullied daily by voices that seek to enclose our brains in ways that serve their interests. This bullying has gone on so stridently and for so long, supported by such vast quantities of money and political influence, that we must fight back with everything we have.

As I write this a flock of migrating warblers is passing through, flitting through the cedar tree beyond my window and teetering on the clothesline. It’s a windy day. Keeping the brain unclosed can be assisted by peaceful animated surroundings.

Our weapons in the brain wars are humane ideas expressed in graceful words and images. In ungraceful form those are, of course, the weapons also of our opponents: the bullies, the propagandists, the hucksters, the exploiters, the profiteers, all those who gamble with our well-being and the well-being of our posterity for their own gain. They are ruthless and powerful, monied beyond estimation. But they are not as powerful as we are, if we decide to stand up to them. We have the votes, we make the purchases, we can make them dance to our tune. But that is worth doing only if ours is a good tune.

Many, I know, are resolved that way. We need a few more, enough to set the pendulum swinging back again. We have to unclose a few more brains, and for that we will need to find for ourselves the right voices, just as Uncle Walt said. “All waits for the right voices.

I know by experience that I have a right voice for the work I do now, which is a particular kind of entertainment. Whether I can add a right voice to the chorus engaged in this work remains to be discovered. I can’t see that there is any harm in trying.